It came from Mars … to ROCK!

Saturday night saw me at Ikebukuro Chop, a tiny underground live venue, to see a couple of bands. My partner’s friend’s friend’s husband is the singer for the band pictured above, The Lechery From Mars, whose style clearly begs to be described as Cthulhupunk. The music is a kind of raucous light metal, not really gloomy enough to fit the standard goth rock pattern of bands like Sisters of Mercy, and definitely with an edge of punk to it. You can hear it at the band’s myspace site. It’s a bit like a collision between Jello Biafra, the Sisters of Mercy and Siouxsie and the Banshees. I don’t know what they’re singing about but I get the impression they take a light-hearted approach to horror and occult topics.

A servant of the elder gods?

In style, this band resembles a carnivalesque distortion of Garden of Delight or Fields of the Nephilim, and I suspect that the themes of their songs are similarly light-hearted reinterpretations of the original invokers. Garden of Delight act as if they really do believe in the ancient Sumerian gods and creeping abominations that they sing about, whereas The Lechery from Mars are probably just a bunch of guys having fun. Though I guess it’s possible that the bassist really is a creature from beyond space and time.

Invoker or Invokee?

Anyway, they were fun. Sadly – and this problem followed all the bands this evening – even though they were clearly playing with gusto and had a lot of skill, it was impossible to get a clear sense of what their music was all about, because the sound system was absolutely appalling. In a small room with low ceilings it’s a really bad idea to turn it up to 11, and on top of that the mixing didn’t seem to be very clear. There was a huge amount of that low-key electric humming sound when the bands weren’t playing, so I think something was wrong with the set up. In the tight confines of this space, the extreme volume simply meant that you couldn’t make out any sound beyond a roar. Taking these photos actually hurt when I crouched near the speakers (though maybe that was another manifestation of the dark will of the Elder Gods). Live Inn Rosa is vastly superior to Chop, and if you go there you would be well advised to wear earplugs. Though last time I went the sound was fine, so maybe it was just last night’s technicians…

After The Lechery From Mars we made a switch to the band Baal, a three piece that could probably best be described as operatic hardcore: a kind of high-tension mix of bands like Insurge with good old fashioned hardcore power, Ministry meets ebm. You can hear them at their myspace page, and their website gives a nice range of promotional pictures that pretty much capture their style. Their visual style is very reminiscent of post-apocalyptic, mad-max style survivalist, but when they played Chop they had added zombie-attack style injuries to their necks. It’s hard to see in the photos I took but it really gives them a zombie survivor look. Have we finally stumbled onto Zombiecore?

Post-apocalyptic Magua got bit!

It’s a nice mixture of post-apocalyptic zombie survivor, punk, and basic hardcore aggression. I frankly thought that hard core was long dead, smothered by its own genre restrictions,  but it’s nice to see new things being done with it in the city of lights … hardly surprising though, considering the amazing quality of Japanese live acts. Which makes the terrible sound mixing even more of a disappointment – these bands should have been raising the roof with their style, aggression and skills, but instead we were all being stifled like experimental subjects for some kind of new sonic death ray. Hopefully next time I see them the sound mixing will be better, and I’ll be able to experience the full joys of this new musical genre, Zombiecore!

 

Can it predict the superbowl too?

Tell me this is not a gatekeeper to the Elder Gods’ lair under the Mountains of Madness. And a hairy chested yeti crab? We are doomed once the ice melts … doomed …

Hideous dark secrets await...

I received the pdf version of James Raggi’s re-release of Geoffrey McKinney’s infamous Carcosa “supplement V” two days ago, and have been reading it voraciously since. I haven’t received the physical version yet, so can’t comment on that, but my main interest was the content so I’d like to give a review of it here. It’s my first reading of Carcosa – I missed the original version and the controversy surrounding it – so I’m going to review it as if nobody knew what it was. I have wanted this product since I read the controversy, since much of the material contained within it is relevant to my own campaign ideas, which can involve a certain amount of ritual sacrifice and happen in worlds with an underlying morality that I think has similarities to that of the “lawful” or “neutral” residents of Carcosa – that of sometimes making very unpleasant bargains with evil powers in order to further a greater good.

Background

Carcosa is a science-fantasy/swords and sorcery setting, a planet far from earth in which the ancient gods of the cthulhu mythos slumber (and sometimes wake), and humans live in small and scattered settlements, terrified of the evil powers that dominate the world. The appendix to this edition describes the state of Men[sic] nicely thus:

Man has not populated the world of Carcosa with the monsters of his imagination. Instead, the monsters of Carcosa infect the nightmares of man. Nor has man imagined mythological spirits and projected them upon his surroundings, later refining his mythologies with philosophy and theology. The world of Carcosa is fraught with the like of the Old Ones and their spawn, the legacy of the extinct Snake Men, and Sorcery.

Humans were created by the Snake Men and placed on Carcosa as slaves and chattel to be used in vile sorcerous rituals by which the extinct Snake Men summoned, controlled or banished the Old Ones and their related entities. The Snake Men are long gone, but their legacy remains in the world that is presented to us: Spawn of Shub-Niggurath, the Old Ones, strange mutations and sorcerous effects, and lesser and greater Old Ones who are either imprisoned within our outside the planet, or roaming the planet itself looking for prey. The planet also hosts some Space Aliens, whose artifacts and high-tech items adventurers may be able to find and use.

In this world there is no magic, though there are some psionics. The only magic available to humans is that of sorcery, which enables one to summon, bind, imprison or banish evil entities. However, aside from banishment these sorcerous invocations depend upon rituals which invariably involve the degradation, torture and murder of humans. The 13 races of humans come in distinct colours, and these colours are coded to different rituals; in order to gain power over the elder gods one must find a suitable number of the correct humans of the right colour, age and sex, and then do what is necessary to raise the entity, in a ritual whose contents are themselves difficult to learn, and require precise ingredients collected from rare locations across Carcosa. Being a sorcerer is neither easy nor sensible. Being a sorcerer’s chattel is far, far worse.

So, the world of Carcosa is a brutal and nasty place, where humans were invented to be used, and continue to use each other in the manner that their extinct progenitors planned for them. It is a world where moral decisions are made in a very, very different framework to that of many other fantasy worlds; but it is my contention (and I’ll outline this below) that the moral framework for decisions in Carcosa is simply reflective of a different period in our own history, and the decision to play in Carcosa will simply represent a preference for playing in a different historical milieu to the one we’re all used to. No big deal, really, right?

The Rules

Carcosa is presented as a supplement to Original D&D (OD&D), so it doesn’t present a system per se. Rather, it contains a new character class, the Sorcerer, and some kooky ideas for dice rolling and determining hit dice that I’m not sure I’ll comment on until I’ve played with them. It also presents a wide range of new technological items (of the Space Aliens), new monsters (connected to the Old Ones) and a set of rituals for the Sorcerer. The book also makes clear that on Carcosa there are no PC classes except the Fighter and the Sorcerer (and the Specialist, if you want). There is no magic but sorcery, and no clerical magic of any kind. If you want magic on Carcosa, you have one choice: summon an entity of purest evil, and bend it to your will.

The Sorcerer character seems little different to the Fighter, though I don’t have any OD&D rulebooks so can’t tell the details. Perhaps its XP progression is slower and its saves slightly better, but otherwise it seems broadly similar. In my opinion (and I think Grognardia agreed with me on this) this is a big weakness. The sorcerer is basically a slightly inferior fighter who gains levels more slowly, and can only differentiate him or herself from the Fighter through the long and arduous task of learning a ritual and then binding an entity to his or her will. At this point the sorcerer becomes almost invincible, or dead. I think it might be better if the Sorcerer started off with some differentiating power, such as e.g. a single banishment ritual, or psionic powers. The way the rules are structured, they open the very real possibility that you could start play as a sorcerer with no special abilities or powers of any sort, while your fellow player started off as a fighter with psionics! If, on the other hand, Sorcerers gained psionics from the start and advanced in them slowly, they might be more … enticing. The possibility that one day you can summon Cthulhu and maybe, if you’re lucky, he won’t eat you but will serve you for 72 hours, is not a great lure for the average player. Especially if summoning Cthulhu means you have to rape a couple of children and murder them in a pool of acid.

Also, learning rituals appears to be very difficult, so it’s possible you could play a sorcerer for a lot of levels and never get to use any special powers. So, I can’t see the point of distinguishing the sorcerer from the Fighter.

The Rituals

In truth, the rituals are one of the main reasons I got this book. There are six types of ritual, and only one of them can be conducted without doing something nasty.

  • Banish: these drive a specific entity away, for varying times, and are usually quick and easy to perform
  • Invoke: these put the sorcerer in contact with some horrific extra-dimensional being that will answer questions that the sorcerer puts to it
  • Bind: these grant complete control over the subject entity for a given period of time. At the end of this time, it’s wise to have your banish ritual ready
  • Imprison: these trap an entity in some extra-dimensional or subterranean prison, possibly forever, and are the surest way to ensure that it doesn’t come back without the intervention of another sorcerer. All imprisonment rituals seem to involve human sacrifice.
  • Conjure: these summon an entity, either from wherever it is now or from its prison. They don’t guarantee control over the conjured entity, however, so it’s a good idea to bind it first
  • Torment: these cause a chosen entity to suffer horribly, reducing its hit dice and/or forcing it to obey the sorcerer and/or answer questions

So, it’s possible to see that there are ways in which these rituals, even though they involve human sacrifice, can be for the good of all. In fact, one can imagine a “lawful” sorcerer traveling the earth, forcing every sorcerer he finds to teach him their rituals, then killing them and imprisoning any deities they had the power to conjure. This would involve a lot of pain and slaughter but at the end of such a successful campaign the world would be free of deities and no one but the PC would be able to conjure them again. Is this worth a bit of child murder? Don’t answer me unless you live on Carcosa.

The rituals themselves are very nicely written, in a portentous style that is very evocative of the Cthulhu ethos, and involves a lot of words like “blasphemous,” “ineffable” and “canticle.” The descriptions have an underlying sense of horror, but are themselves clinically written and detailed, capturing both the mechanical elements of the ritual, its arcane meaning and its horrific consequences in just one or two concise paragraphs. They’re also key to establishing the philosophical and theological background of the world of Carcosa, and in my opinion one can’t really properly describe the world without reference to these rituals. Once one has read this tome of rituals, the descriptions of the communities of the world – tiny enclaves of humans, largely the same colour, suspicious of outsiders and often treacherous and warlike – make a great deal of sense. It also sets the tone for a world steeped in horror.

My main criticism of the rituals would be that it’s not clear how they mesh together – does one bind a creature before or after conjuring it? Why would one torment an entity, and what are the key differences between banishment and imprisonment? Ideally, I would have liked a couple of examples of rituals in use: perhaps a description of a sorcerer’s attempts to conjure a particular entity – how he found the ritual, the order in which he enacts them, and the benefits. For a GM’s section this would be particularly useful, since it would enable a GM to work out how to mesh the quest for and consequences of a ritual into adventure planning. Without this we have to work out the details ourselves, which is fine, but I paid 35 euros for this book so I could read the ideas of the person who wrote it, so I’d have liked a few examples or ideas to support the use of rituals in the game. Also, I would like to know more about what one gains from summoning the entities. The entities all have their stat blocks given, but they are largely for combat, and this means that really the sorcerer seems to be just taking a great deal of risks to invoke a great big weapon. It would be nice if conjuring a given beast gave the sorcerer some benefits (like a kind of familiar), so that even without going into combat the sorcerer got some non-Fighter-oriented benefits. Otherwise, why not just go to hex XXXX and grab the Space Alien Tank there – a much safer way to do 4 dice of damage than summoning It of the Fallen Pylons, which, incidentally, requires casting eight Red Men through an extra-dimensional vault into outer space, and making a save vs. Magic at -4 to avoid joining them yourself.

Despite these limitations, the rituals lend the world of Carcosa a particular feeling of grim horror and foreboding that is both very Cthulhu-esque, and very atmospheric even if, like me, you haven’t read much Lovecraft.

Entities, Monsters and Maps

I really like the entities and monsters presented in Carcosa. The entities have evocative, sinister names and are very, very nasty, and the main monsters arise in almost infinite variety through the random generation tables. Robots and cyborgs follow a similar range and would make both interesting allies and formidable adversaries. The book comes with a hex map of a section of Carcosa with two possible encounters for every hex described. Some of these hexes offer opportunities for further adventuring in dungeons or castles or forests, and give simple adventure hooks; others present towns to explore and conquer, or simply monsters or the opportunity to learn rituals, find ancient technology, or uncover strange objects. It’s a really weird and compelling map that sets out a world completely different to the average D&D setting. This world is definitely not to everyone’s tastes – brilliant Yellow-colored men carrying laser pistols and riding mutant dinosaurs to war against Cthulhoid entities is maybe not everyone’s cup of tea – but if you like science fantasy then it has a lot of material to explore.

Presentation

I can’t comment on the physical book, since I haven’t received it, but I certainly can commend the presentation of the pdf format. I’ve been reading it on my iPad, and it’s a joy to use. The pdf is extensively hyperlinked, so if you’re reading a ritual and want to know what the creature it summons is, you can jump to the creature; then you can use the list of rituals related to that entity to jump to a different ritual, or to go back to where you were. Ingredients that can be found in certain hexes include a link to those hexes; if a particular hex in the map is related to other hexes, those hexes are listed next to the text, so you can jump to them. The hex map itself is hyperlinked, so you can click to the description of any hex – sadly, on my iPad the bit of the map I tap doesn’t work, and I get directed instead to the column left of where I wanted to tap, but this is not an insurmountable problem (I just tap slightly more to the right) and I don’t know if it’s a problem in the original text or in its translation to my iPad. It would be nice if the hex descriptions included a link back to the map (perhaps in their name?) so that one could explore the map more rapidly, but this too is not an insurmountable problem. The linking is an excellent idea and really makes the pdf useful.

Other elements of the presentation also really appeal to me. I like the font and the style on the edges of the pages – perhaps the patterns at the top of the page are a little overdone, but they suit the theme. I like the layout of things like rituals and monster descriptions, with the text next to the title and then all the hyperlinks below the title, next to the text; and the artwork suits the world very well. Unlike usual OSR artwork, it’s actually good, and the sketch-like style gives a sense of hurriedly glimpsing horrors, like seeing a massacre through grainy camera footage rather than being a direct eyewitness. This suits the content – especially the rituals and monsters – very well. It’s a very well-presented and laid out text.

The content is also very well written and maintains its Cthulhoid theme pretty much seamlessly across the whole book. This is a fine achievement and really makes the book stand out as a work of fiction as well as a gaming supplement. It’s rare I think to find a world setting that maintains a coherent theme across world content, presentation and writing style, and through the combination of the three builds up a distinct atmosphere. This book does that, in spades, and in that sense I think it’s a masterful work.

I do have some complaints about the content, though. In addition to wanting more detail on the mechanics of rituals, I would have liked more context to the world as a whole. After just a page or two of introduction the book jumps straight into the rules, and further exposition of the background to the world only comes in an appendix, which is very short. Even though the rationale for this – not wanting to bias the Referee, so that they can be free to interpret Carcosa as they like – is perfectly understandable, I’m not into it. I want Geoffrey McKinney’s bias in my interpretation of his world, and I’m adult enough to get rid of what I don’t like. I would like his bias at the beginning, because as it is I have waded through the whole book before I discover why certain rituals use certain colors of human, etc. This problem is even more pronounced in the sample adventure, Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer, which is not really an adventure at all but a more detailed exposition of a single hex in the map. Some context to this adventure, perhaps background details to the tensions and regions of the hex map, how PCs might be drawn into differing factions or adventures, and what the political circumstances in the region are, might help. The motivations and perspectives of the various denizens of the map are not clear, and the reasons for selecting it as an adventure are just not there. It’s usable, but it doesn’t add anything to the main hex map except more detail. I would say this is a general structural problem in the text: it isn’t set out in the flow of Introduction/Body/Conclusion, but just as a random scattering of information with a rough flow. Even the appendix setting out the basic circumstances of humans on Carcosa is missing a conclusion: it just ends with a description of the uses of Space Alien technology. Repeatedly missing this structure means that the work is sometimes contextless, which is a shame given the depth of its actual content.

The layout, though generally excellent, suffers some minor flaws and I think James Raggi may have been guilty of over-egging how much he has added to the original. The editing is sometimes a bit weak, with obvious errors in presentation (such as italicizing a book title, then putting other book titles inconsistently in quotes, in the same paragraph of the introduction). Indeed, there is even an error in the preview – e.g. page 129, Hex 0502, has inconsistent pronoun usage (it and he to describe the Mummy). Also I think the linking is incomplete – sometimes a description will say “cf. [ritual name]” where it would have been much better for it to have the link to [ritual name]. Of course I’m happy to forgive tiny errors, because overall the layout is excellent and the writing very concise and clear.

The Controversy

This review isn’t meant to be about the controversy, but I guess I should cover it. Two (?) of the rituals involve the rape and murder of children, and most of them involve the torture and murder of humans. This has led some to say that Carcosa goes too far, that it brings disrepute onto the gaming world, and that it is itself a morally repugnant work. Well, it’s certainly morally repugnant, but much of what happens in role-playing is morally repugnant. In standard D&D most adventuring parties happily torture and murder captured enemies, and exterminate without mercy those who are racially different to themselves, on the very dubious moral assumption that our enemies have no humanity of any kind. D&D explicitly states that elves have no soul. This is a moral framework that is taken pretty much straight from the playbook of 19th and early 20th century western Imperialism[1], and although we are supposed to believe that our D&D worlds make these ideals objectively true, rather than subjectively true, I don’t think this really exonerates the worldview contained therein.

So the world of D&D as most of us are used to playing it is pretty morally repugnant as well, and it explicitly allows for or describes the use of human and non-human lives as tools for the benefit of the PCs. What else is necromancy but the most horrific misuse of humans? What about the Imprisonment spell, or Dominate Monster? Sure, the Player’s Handbook doesn’t say “You can use this spell to rape anyone you want,” but it’s pretty obvious that this is what evil people will do. And most PC groups at some point have used enslaved/captured/charmed/dominated NPCs as meat in the grinder – for trap finding, for attracting the monster’s first, worst attack, etc. I think the old school blogosphere makes quite a point of doing this with henchmen and hirelings.

So what is the difference with Carcosa? It makes the moral framework of D&D explicit, and I think this offends a lot of people who would otherwise have enacted many of the components of the rituals in their ordinary play. But in presenting this moral framework explicitly, is Carcosa asking us to play in a world that is any different from 15th century Europe, which is the moral exemplar for much of our gaming worlds? What distinguishes a sorcerer in Carcosa from the leaders of the USSR in Afghanistan, any of the players of the Great Game, or the British in India? D&D’s implicit morality is, largely, that of 19th century colonial Europe; Carcosa’s implicit morality is that of crusader Europe or the vikings. If we can accept one, and play it at its most invidious, then we can surely play in the other without compromising ourselves overmuch.

Furthermore, I don’t think these rituals need necessarily be construed as irredeemably evil. In Hex 2013 of the Carcosa map is a village of 497 Jale Men ruled by “She of the Lake.” She is slowly building up an empire and “her hunger for slaves and captives to fuel her sorceries is bottomless.” So if my PC summons the Lurker Amidst the Obsidian Ruins through the murder of four Black Males, and binds it to me using the horrific Primal Formula of the Dweller (which requires my PC to kill 101 Dolm Children with an axe), then sends the Lurker to kill She of the Lake and her main minions, have I not done the world a great service? And what harm have I done to the world if instead of killing the two Yellow Men bandits who survived a bandit attack on my party, I inflict them with a fatal disease and sacrifice them in the ritual called The Encrusted Glyphs of the Deep, which imprisons the Leprous Dweller Below in a primordial city in the Radioactive Desert?

Carcosa presents us with a morally repugnant setting, but as mature adults we can negotiate it in a more sophisticated way than merely averting our eyes and declaring it wrong.

Conclusion

If you like your worlds to be dark, cruel, primitive and full of evil and hard choices, then Carcosa is for you. If you want to play in a Science/Fantasy Swords and Sorcery setting with or without bizarre and evil sorcerous rituals, this book is a great starting point and will give you endless hours of crazed sandbox adventuring. It’s a very nicely laid out, excellently written and well-crafted addition to the gaming world, and I think James Raggi should be encouraged in his efforts. He brings a huge amount of energy and creativity to the OSR, and should be justifiably proud of his achievement in presenting this setting in this format. But of course the ultimate credit should go to Geoffrey McKinney, who has crafted a genuinely disturbing, morally dubious, occasionally repugnant, but very well-written and ingenious world setting that, while not to everyone’s tastes and a little more controversial thank I think is warranted, is definitely a brilliant and amazingly creative work. I hope that he and Raggi will work together again in the future to produce more material of the same high quality and style, and I would definitely like to see more material for the Carcosa setting – whether or not I ever get a chance to play it.

fn1: please do not take this to mean that I think only Imperialists believed these things; this is the particular historical framework that western Europeans draw upon when they make these moral statements.

I just received an email from a friend living in the UK, and in the email was this brief review of a night out in London:

I went to something the other day which made me think of you – a steampunk night.  It was full of people with elaborate Victoriana/goth/cyber-type outfits.  Among other things there was a grindcore band who did a song about an otherwise delightful family trip to the seaside (Margate, to be precise) being ruined by the appearance of mythical being Cthulhu rising up from the sea and sexually abusing grandma.  The phrase “tentacle rape” featured a number of times.

Steampunk-burlesque-grindcore-lovecraft. Has civilization finally reached its nadir?

The Nameless One has spoken, this time through a team of oracles at the German sea-life aquarium, and the cephalopod cabal predicted a win by Japan in the Women’s Soccer World Cup. The closeness of the decision within the tentacled tribunal led some to question whether the final match might be a closely-fought event, and indeed it was; but in the end Nadeshico Japan won! Ganbare Nippon! I wanted to watch this final match but sadly it was only available on pay TV, so I missed it. But I’m happy that Japan won a well-deserved victory after beating some tough teams (Germany and Sweden!) to get there.

Incidentally, Nadeshico in Japanese is a name taken to refer to a classical Japanese vision of feminity. To say someone is “a Nadeshico” is to compliment their feminity as both beautiful and traditional. I think this is an excellent name for a women’s national soccer team. Well done Nadeshico!

My theory is no; but I’m sure Herge would beg to differ, as would the artist who conceived of the idea.

Young, but ferocious in his hatred of the Squid Gods

Even his tongue is a lethal weapon in the war against Infinite Evil

Kraken, by China Mieville, is another “city-within-a-city” novel, like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Mieville’s previous (rather lacklustre) effort, UnLunDun. In this case the city-wthin-the-city is a supernatural world of grafters, shonksters and magicians, all oriented around a plethora of cults who worship “cast-off” deities and apocalyptic visions, all residing within London. There are some parts of London that are hidden or secret but the majority of it happens in plain view, in the same London that you or I know.

Unlike Mieville’s previous effort, the elsewhere London in this novel is really apt to the real London. It’s a world of cockney arseholes, criminals, rip-off merchants and sleazebags, where people construct their magical lives from cast-off objects and ideas, working their magic in the interstices of objects and cultures. Even the magic itself is beautifully London, a type of make-do enchanting called “knacking” that depends on the resemblances between real objects and the spells constructed from them. The magic is often low-key, cobbled together, not-quite-right, and a bit dirty. Just like London. The elsewhere world perfectly reflects the realities of London’s fragmented, higgledy-piggledy reality, its dirt, the way everyone in the city has to make the best they can of what they’ve got. It also cleverly reflects that sense in London of ideas and cultures all packed together, confused, borrowing from each other and overcrowded in the same supposedly English space. London is a broken, nowhere town, full of transient people, transient plans and transient cultures. Mieville seems to have finally put all this together into a science-fantasy of quite stunning brilliance.

He’s also managed to merge the modern and the arcane in quite clever ways, just like Jim Butcher has in the Dresden Files. A few small examples:

  • a character uses the internet to search out her lover, and discovers a whole hidden world of “knackers” and cultists working online
  • a character is paid for his work in Star Trek memorabilia that has been “knacked” so that it works
  • cultists and believers steal ideas for their “knacks,” their style and manner from science fiction and fantasy, so that their work is self-referential, and sometimes their magic is intended to mimic the magic or tech of their favourite shows
  • a chameleon character uses his magic to infiltrate organizations by appearing to be one of their members; but the way he does it is perfectly and completely dependent upon mimicking and exploiting modern corporate culture

My absolute favourite so far has been the chapter devoted to describing the background of the guy who runs the Familiar’s Union. He used to be  a statue that served Egyptian souls in their afterlife, but he ran a strike there, then left the afterlife and swam back up through the netherworld to the world of the living, to become an organizer. This story is uniquely brilliant to me because it merges cultures rather than technologies from two different times. Instead of him being simply an Egyptian magician who wears an ankh necklace and hangs out in a club, he’s an Egyptian magical slave from a slave-owning time, who has transcended the netherworld to become that quintessential element of the modern Industrial age – a union organizer. But the things he’s organizing don’t always have souls, and work in an industrial landscape that is pre-modern (the cottage industries of wizards). This is Mieville at his best, blending politics, culture, and history through sci fi fantasy for the pure purpose of having fun.

The plot is also beautifully self-referential without being wanky. Essentially, it involves the theft of an embalmed giant squid from the London Natural History Museum. The squid is probably a dead god, and is worshiped by a cult of messianic krakenists, who believe that at the end of the world they will be drawn to a heaven in the Ocean’s deeps. The whole thing is full of cthulhu references (sometimes directly) even though there’s no admission that either the squid or the cult are directly cthulhu-worshipers. The theft coincides with some kind of magical change in London, and the chase is on to find the squid before something really bad happens. Of course the people doing the chasing are in conflict with a sinister, evil organization or organizations, who are really really evil and constructed from a really interesting pastiche of modern images, sub-cultures and cults. The book includes two bad guys, Goss and Subby, who are almost up to the standard of the bad guys in Neverwhere.

I thought that Mieville went off the rails a bit with Iron Council (pardon the pun) and UnLunDun, but he’s back on track with this gem. I haven’t finished yet but so far it’s brilliant, and I recommend it to anyone who needs a bit of science-fantasy entertainment. This book also cements my view of China Mieville as a great writer of, and possibly the main exponent/inventor of, some kind of new sub-genre of science-fantasy, Urban Chaos Science Fantasy, maybe, or CityPunk, or something. His three best novels that I’ve read – Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and now Kraken – are all based in a kind of city, and the vibrancy of the city itself is essential to the plot of the books. The city is almost a character on its own in his work, and his strength is in his representation of the extraordinary and ordinary lives of its denizens.

I also think that Mieville’s leftist politics is a complete furphy in analysis of his work, because although it clearly informs the creation of some of the characters, and his depiction of the different strata of the societies he creates, I think ultimately his works are surprisingly devoid of political messages (though rich in political conflict). For a man who is generally caricatured as a cardboard cutout lefty from the Politburo, his work is actually both suprisingly anarchist (not leninist at all!) and generally devoid of strong left-wing political messages. I don’t think I’ve met a single character outside of Iron Council who ever could be said to represent Mieville’s politics, nor have I read a plot that shows them clearly. Even The Scar, which is a bit of a Utopian quest, if it has any political interpretation at all, would be a guarded critique of the folly of trusting vanguardists – which would be a bit wierd coming from someone of Mieville’s supposedly Marxist-Leninist views. The key to understanding Mieville’s work is his representation of cities.

So, again: read this if you have the time and money, ’cause so far it’s great!

I’m going out for a drink now. I spent much of this afternoon and evening trying to install Linux on a PowerPC iBook G4. The only reason I’m doing this is that I thought it might be nimbler than mac os 10.4. We use this iBook purely for watching movies (it’s plugged into the tv) and playing music, but recently its been struggling with streamed stuff, and I thought a non-mac OS might work. Linux is supposed to be speedier. So I tried installing it.

I have previously managed to install windows 7 on two iMacs, one of which is depicted here. I got this done with the help of Apple’s bootcamp, which sorts out the boot sector of the mac so you don’t have any really painful problems. I found a couple of sites online – here and here – which claim to have installed ubuntu on an ibook, so I thought I’d try it.

Of course it was impossible. Just like the last two times I’ve tried to install linux on anything. What a useless piece of shit linux is. Here is why:

  1. For a start, the installation disc randomly crashes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Brilliant.
  2. Secondly, the installation disc runs into some kind of problem with the file system and, instead of throwing up an error saying “encountered a file system problem, you really should try using a decent computer” or some such, it produces an incomprehensible and meaningless “ubi-partman crashed with exit code 141.” Now, correct me if I’m wrong but “exit code” sounds suspiciously like a euphemism for “error code.” Could it be the linux community are so up themselves now that they don’t want to refer to errors as errors?[1]. Anyway, I looked up “exit code 141″ on the internet and it has multiple possible causes. This is singularly unhelpful. This is a microsoft or SPSS level of debugging power[3a]. I want to know what causes my error, so I can work around it[4], not just get pointed to a series of websites full of people with diverse OSs and hardware talking about a meaningless error code. So I had to go back online looking for oblique solutions to the problem. This is nothing compared to the last time I had to solve a Linux problem, but we’ll get to that
  3. Thirdly, the available information about how to proceed to a successful implementation has no relation to the way that the Ubuntu installer works. For example, one of those sites says “Choose all default options but when it comes to partitioning, dlete the Ubuntu partition you created earlier. go back and choose to use maximum free space”. None of these processes or options existed in my installer. So there’s no way for legacy information to be used to inform current installations. I’ve never seen a “use maximum free space” option in any partition software. But I get three completely different options I can choose from. I think it’s probably a mark of an amateur software project to have completely different installation processes at every release. The basic processes of installation are the same in every iteration, surely?
  4. WTF is it with the verbose way that Linux starts up and shuts down? I know that there are a couple of hundred people in the world who think it’s cool how the computer tells you that “random process A” is “doing incomprehensible shit B”, and there might be another 10 people in the world who actually know what it’s doing, but it really looks juvenile. It’s like the BSOD – nobody understands that crap, so why bother? The shutdown process in Ubuntu is particularly pratty. Why on God’s green earth should I have to hit return halfway through the process after the CD spits out? There’s no going back from here, why bother?

Anyway, so the basic problem seems to be this: Apple mangles the boot sector, and you need to somehow come up with a set of partitions that the linux installer can read in order to use it. The installer is supposed to be able to preserve the Apple bootsector, so it just becomes a straight dual boot, but in fact no matter how I contort the installation process I end up fucking the apple boot sector 8 ways to Sunday (take that, Steve!) and then it can’t reboot. Following the information in the few websites by people who’ve done it is just impossible, largely because I don’t understand the process of setting up Linux drives[5] but possibly also because Apple mangled the boot sector, and maybe also because I’m profoundly stupid when it comes to linux[8].

So I tried setting up an ext4 partition on top of the Mac OS one. My Hard Drive is 30g, so I had:

  • 32 kb boot sector[9]
  • 132 Mb of nothing
  • 6 Gb of MacOS
  • 132Mb of nothing
  • 21Gb of ext4, the standard linux file format (apparently)

Then I start the Ubuntu installer (after several tries, of course) and it offers me three partitioning choices: install side by side, use the whole disc, or custom format. The first choice doesn’t “install side by side at all” but instead splits my 21gb partition into two chunks of ext4. The second choice does what is expected, but that will probably shaft the bootsector so it was out; the third choice demanded to know “where is the root mount” and since this is my partner’s computer I’m not going to root mount it; I left this well alone. Choosing option a), I proceeded with an installation that just stopped 75% of the way through, and somehow managed to shaft the bootsector, because when I gave up on the process and restarted I had lost the mac os boot as well.

What kind of installation software is that? I just downloaded a “disc” that is designed to fuck my machine. And on top of that, when I repeated the process – same partition in mac os, same install disc – the following happened:

  • The first time I insert the install disc, it just fails, out of hand
  • second time, the install disc works but I get the stupid “ubipartman” error, i.e. the partition software can’t handle the ext4 file system (???!!!???)

So, I don’t really even know if this ubipartman error has anything to do with apple’s shenanigans with the boot sector, or if it’s just a bodgy piece of software. Someone else I spoke to said all knowingly “ah, yes, getting the partition software to work is always the trick.”

You know your software is shit when people are saying things like that about it. Let’s try similar phrases with some other software shall we?

  • Stats software: “ah yes, getting the mathematics engine to work is always the trick”
  • Graphics software: “ah yes, getting the colour palette to work can be a tad fiendish”
  • Nuclear powerplant software: “oh yes, we always take the radioactivity meters with a grain of salt, it’s the software don’t you know old chap?”

So, this is my third time attempting to install linux and my first time on a laptop. Let’s review our results:

  • First time: nothing, the installer just died in the arse
  • Second time: I installed it fine but X Window didn’t work. Who wants linux without x window? It’s a glorified telex machine. So I hunted around on the internet and it turned out that there’s no standard drivers for the i810 chipset, but someone had written one. I downloaded it and installed it but it didn’t work, and another day of hunting on the internet enabled me to discover that a couple of lines of code in the driver had typos in them. Fucking typos. So I hunted out other drivers with similar code and worked out how to correct the typos, and X Window worked. Oh my god! This is the computing equivalent of making fire. A fucking GUI, man! What next – object oriented programming?!! Anyway, so then when I invoke my beautiful X Window[10], there is no networking. I try invoking the control panel thingy to work out what the next driver problem is and… nothing. No functioning control panel. Two days of struggle to get X Window to work, and I still have to work out the control panel?!! Fuck that. I wiped it
  • Third time: Who knows what mysteries can be produced with the arcane combination of Steve Jobs ratfucking your boot sector and linux trying to clean it up?

So I think I just need to give up. But I just want to point out that EVERY TIME I have spoken to someone about installing Linux they have said to me “oh, it used to be really hard, but now it’s trivial, point and click, out of the box baby.”

Well, I beg to differ.

None of this would be an issue of course, except that there’s an army of linux nerds out there carefully watching the progress of linux, calculating every 10th of a percentage point increase in its market share, claiming it’s the best thing ever and wondering why it isn’t more popular. If any of you are reading this, perhaps there is a hint of why contained in my struggles[11].

And don’t even get me started on my attempts to get hold of a decent, working 64 bit windows package!!!!

fn1: Many years ago I had cause to call a Microsoft helpdesk[2] and the guy on the other end of the phone referred to a clear bug as an “oversight.” I challenged him about this and he told me that it was official policy that bugs were “oversights.” Windows NT was great at the time[3], but jesus christ…

fn2: Hey, don’t criticise me! I was at work, it was Windows NT, I was desperate!

fn3: This is where Apple screwed the pooch. Windows were floating around with the shittest software on the planet (windows 3.1), but it was tied to the best productivity software (MS Office). Apple had a chance here to come up with a killer OS that would take market share, provided that a) it worked and b) they used MS Office. Unfortunately, they gave us Mac OS 8, and they were too arrogant to respond to complaints of “my computer freezes” with “we’ll fix that” before Windows NT came out. I don’t know what happened to b), but jesus Mac OS 8 was shit.

fn3a: not as bad as SPSS. Until their most recent incarnation, when SPSS syntax ran into an error it told you the column number rather than the line number[3b]

fn3b: Possibly not as bad as R, either, another piece of open source joy. When I was working with R in Japan, I actually had a piece of code that worked on one computer but not another, until we removed the comments[3c].

fn3c: which is almost as bad as my friend’s experience of an electronics lab in our undergrad physics days, when his experiment worked using wires with blue insulation plastic but not red.

fn4: Witness here the soft bigotry of low expectations. I’m so used to Microsoft and Apple (and SPSS) that instead of saying “I want to know what the problem is so I can get someone to fix it” I say “If I know what it is I can find a way around it!”

fn5: why does it have to be so fucking difficult? Why can’t they just have one drive with a sensible name (i.e. not “root”, which is a well-known Australian euphemism for fucking and just sounds stupid, I don’t ever want to be a “root user” in any situation which involves a hairy nerdy guy who keeps his dog in his office[6]) and why do they have to have a separate swap space etc? This software has been around for 20 fucking years, can’t they find a solution to the omfg-so-hard problem of swap space?

fn6: I once worked in a place whose network support guy, the classic bearded neckbreather, actually kept his dog in the office – in a tiny cage – and fancied himself an ubernerd. Like most neck-breathers, he was incompetent. When you went into his office, if he wasn’t there the dog would bark and snarl at you from in its cage. Need I add that it was a chihuahua? Need I also add that he stuck to Novel Netware 5.1[7] long after Windows 2000 Server was out?

fn7: If anyone thinks that Windows 95 is a product of Cthulhu, they should try trouble-shooting a Novell Netware Server, as I once had to do. Truly there are heirarchies of evil.

fn8: and, you may have noticed, just a tiny bit antsy.

fn9: Actually I reckon this is just a 32kb file with “Steve Jobs is GOD” written in it over and over.

fn10: Did I mention that Linux/Unix is beautiful when it works? This is the real shit about all of this.

fn11: I know, I know, you’re going to say “It’s Apple’s fault.” But in my experience, the person who glibly states “it’s because it’s an apple” is always wrong. How come I can install windows on my unix-based apples, but I can’t install linux, even though linux is supposedly infinitely more amenable to hacking, and flexible, than windows or apple? Because it’s too fucking hard is why.

According to the Guardian today, at a recent convention Gary Kurtz, the writer of Return of the Jedi, revealed the original plot to the movie, which was that Han Solo would die halfway through in a raid, Princess Leia would have difficulty adapting to her new role as leader, and Luke Skywalker would walk off into the distance an embittered loner. That last part certainly fits with his presentation in the movie. I don’t know about Han Solo though – people like him are meant to survive anything, it’s part of their mystique. Someone who can say “I know” just before being frozen, possibly forever, is the kind of guy who doesn’t die in mid-level base raids.

So, would the movie have been better done this way? Note the alternative storyline doesn’t preclude ewoks.

I think Skywalker’s end, particularly, would suit him better, but I also think that Vader’s redemption was a really important part of the 3rd movie and there’s nothing in the alternative described in the Guardian to suggest what happened to him. I actually liked the existing end of the movie, with the rebel alliance successful, Vader redeemed, and Skywalker a bit of a grump. The only thing that spoils the movie in my view is the ewoks, and they don’t spoil it much.

But in the decision about how to end the film, there is a hint of the real tragedy to come: Lucas decided to give it a happy ending because toy sales were very high. It’s really hard to work out what happened to the mind of a man who allegedly wrote the first 3 movies as a film representation of the journey of the hero, as described by that academic (Campbell?) and how he slid so far in the making of the new movies. Proof of the existence of the Elder Gods, I suppose.

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