Horror


The New York Times reports on a sexual harassment scandal at New York University, with a bizarre twist: a lesbian feminist philosopher, Avitall Ronell, has been found guilty of sexual and physical harassment of a gay postgraduate student. As is typical of these cases, the graduate student waited until he got his PhD and a job, and then went stone cold vengeful on a Title IX case, getting Ronell bang for rights and seeing her receive some significant penalties. That’s all par for the course for such a case, but in an interesting and unpleasant diversion from the script, we find that a letter was written to NYU, asking it not to punish Ronell at all. This letter rested not on the facts of the case but on her contribution to scholarship and the belief that her actions were inconceivable. The letter was signed by a bunch of literary theorists and feminists, for whom it is apparently too much to imagine that one of their own could abuse the power that accrues at the giddy heights of academia. This letter appears to have potentially been instigated by Ronell herself, which is going to have serious repercussions for Ronell down the track (retaliation is a very serious offence after a Title IX case, whether the case was settled on behalf of the claimant or not). For those of us who are familiar with academia, this is a depressingly familiar story of professors pulling together to protect their own and the (considerable) power of their office – for many academics (mostly but not all men) the right to fuck and harass your students is a job perk, not a temptation to be avoided; and for a great many academics of all genders and races, the right to exploit and academically harass your students is completely valid. What struck me as interesting in this latest scandal, though, is the presence of Judith Butler, queer theorist and originator of the nasty idea that gender is a performance. She appears to have started and signed the letter, including using her status as president-elect of the Modern Language Association. Judith Butler signed a petition not to convict a rapist in 2004 at University of California Irvine, and she was also present in last year’s transracialism controversy, where she was one of the signatories on the hateful letter to Hypatia to have Rebecca Tuvel’s article In Defense of Transracialism retracted on spurious grounds.

Seeing Butler’s name on the latest scandal reminded me that I wrote a blogpost about transracialism and about this scandal a year ago when it aired. In brief, in March last year a non-tenured female assistant professor at an American University, Rebecca Tuvel, published an article in the feminist journal Hypatia which basically argued that a) the process of becoming transgender is a real thing; b) transracialism has many similarities with the process of becoming transgender; c) if you accept the validity of transgender people’s self-identity, you should probably accept the validity of a person’s choice to be transracial. The article was clear, concise and well argued, very much in the spirit of Peter Singer’s work on vegetarianism and animal rights, or Bertrand Russell’s work on religion and war (I think she is an analytic philosopher and so are they, so that makes sense, though I don’t know much about these categories). For a certain class of American activist academics the implications of this work were terrifying: either they rejected transracialism out of hand for obviously dubious reasons, and were scared that Tuvel’s conclusions would degrade the rights of transgender people; or they didn’t really respect transgender rights, and wanted to stop the extension of transgender rights to transracial rights at any cost. This unholy alliance of idiots conspired to write a letter – with 800 signatories! – demanding Hypatia retract the article. In the process they traduced Tuvel’s reputation, embarrassed the journal and their own field, disgraced themselves, and and signally failed to engage with the substance of Tuvel’s work in any way, shape or form. In addition to all of these stupid failings, they also did their very best to destroy Tuvel’s career, which obviously was the worst consequence of all this bullshit.

So today, seeing Butler and her colleagues at work on this stuff again, I found myself wondering what happened to Tuvel after “that little unpleasantness” in May last year? So I did a search, and I was surprised and pleased to discover that she still has her job at Rhodes (I don’t know if she has been approved for tenure or not, or if it is even possible for an Assistant Professor to get tenure), she is still teaching (including the Freedom and Oppression component of Philosophy 101, haha!) and she lists her work on transracialism as her major research interest, so whatever happened over the past year appears not to have destroyed her passion for this interesting topic [1]. So it appears that any consequences of the brouhaha didn’t affect her work, which is great. I checked the status of her paper on the Hypatia website, and it has been cited 4 times already, though google gives it up to 33 citations. In either case this is excellent – getting 4 citations in the first year of publication of a paper is very good, especially in Philosophy. I think the Hypatia metrics are bodgy though because she definitely has been cited more times than that. In particular, I was cheered to discover that the journal Philosophy Today had a whole special issue responding to her paper. This is frankly awesome – very few academics at any level, no matter how original, get to have a whole journal issue devoted to dissecting their work, and to have this opportunity arise from a controversial work that nearly sunk your career is really good. It’s worth noting that in the wash up of the original scandal the issue is generally positive, including an article on the lack of intellectual generosity shown in the response to her work, and some discussion of its implications for various aspects of theory. Tuvel gets to write a response (of course), which means that she gets an extra publication out of her own work, and a bunch of citations – jolly good!

Tuvel’s response is also well argued and thorough, and written in the same plain and accessible style as the original. She begins by noting that the scandal had a significant effect on her psychological wellbeing, and goes on to criticize the establishment for its terrible response to her paper. She then makes a few points in response to specific criticisms of the notion of transracialism. She makes the point first that many critics of her article wanted it rewritten from their own framework:

Critics of my article commented often on how my paper should have been written, which seemed far too often to collapse into saying how they would have written my paper. But different philosophers ask questions differently; and different methodologies shed light differently. We owe it to each other to respect these differences and to resist the conviction that only one method can properly answer difficult questions.
I thought this at the time – Tuvel had apparently presented this work at a conference and received critical feedback from many of the scholars who wrote the retraction letter, and in the retraction letter it was noted that she did not incorporate any of those criticisms in the final article. Nowhere did they consider the possibility that they were wrong. This aspect of the criticism of her work at the time read as an attempt at gatekeeping or policing the content of work, to ensure not just that the conclusions were politically acceptable but that the methods did not stray from those that the crusty elders of the field had always used. One got the impression that the the “Theory” scholars and continental philosophers were horrified at an analytical philosopher just marching in and stating plainly what was true. Quelle horreur! as the Romans would say.
In her response Tuvel also gets a chance to address the criticism that she did not incorporate more work from “African American” scholars. Here she writes (referencing another writer contributing to the symposium):
Botts suggests that typical of analytic methods, my paper fails to engage lived experience when relevant. She further states that “continental methods are better suited to addressing philosophical questions based in the lived realities of members of marginalized populations (in this case, African Americans and transgender persons)” (Botts 2018: 54). However, my paper is a philosophical examination of the metaphysical and ethical possibility of transracialism, not of the lived experience of African American and transgender persons (or African American transgender persons). Not to mention that Botts ignores the lived experience most relevant to an exploration of transracialism—namely that of self-identified transracial people. Insofar as it considers Rachel Dolezal’s story, my article is indeed attuned to relevant lived experience. As Chloë Taylor likewise notes, my article “reflects on whether Dolezal’s experience of growing up with adopted Black siblings, of having an older Black man in her life whom she calls ‘Dad,’ of estrangement from her white biological parents, of being married to a Black man, might be sufficient for understanding her experience of herself as Black” (Taylor 2018: 7). Botts remarks that the relevant populations for my analysis would have been African American and transgender persons, but she does not explain why engaging the lived experience of these populations would be methodologically sufficient. After all, by comparison, one does not rightly suggest that philosophical explorations of trans womanhood must necessarily consult the lived experience of cis women.

This addresses an important problem when we demand the inclusion of specific lived experiences in philosophy or theory (or public health, though it’s rarer): whose lived experience, and how do we choose these experiences? As I remarked in my original post on this issue, America has an incredibly prejudiced, parochial and exclusionary view of race and gender, which essentially ignores the lived experiences of most of the world, and in my view specifically excludes the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist views of black Africans in choosing to name black Americans “African”, as well as ignoring the experience of women in almost all of the developing world. More abstractly, there are millions of competing lived experiences, and we can’t even know what all these experiences are, let alone access them. Certainly we should all strive to incorporate the opinions and voices of the people our work will affect, or the people about whom we are writing, but that doesn’t mean we can ever be complete in our coverage of these voices, or even know who they all are – we will always miss some. But Tuvel’s critics wanted her specifically to avoid the most relevant lived experiences, in favour of other voices and lives that are much more congenial to her critics (and from whose ranks, primarily, her critics were drawn). That’s not an especially scholarly alternative to what Tuvel did. In fact Tuvel brought an important additional factor to this debate, choosing to address broad concepts and frameworks analytically, using a lived experience as an example, rather than trying to build a broad theory from a few select voices. This is a much more effective way of doing this kind of work[2].

Tuvel further backs this point up with this important warning to critics of abstract reasoning generally:

All too often such imperatives border on an injunction not merely to engage sensitively and carefully but to defer to the concerns of black people—all the while essentializing them into a homogeneous group. Like any massively diverse group of individuals, however, black people are of many different minds regarding qualifications for black racial membership. Consider, among others, Adolph Reed Jr (2015), Camille Gear Rich (2015), and Ann Morning (2017)—all black scholars who have expressed more sympathetic positions on transracialism.

This is important to remember – we don’t just choose specific voices within a group, but we can also defer to them rather than engage with them. This isn’t how we should do theory. I think Tuvel is a prominent advocate for transgender and transracial people, but here she makes clear that when we advocate for them we need to not only be careful about whose lived experience we choose to privilege, but how we engage with it.

Tuvel follows this with a dismissal of an argument that people could self-identify as centaurs (which gives the heading of this post), leading to the kind of excellent statement that can only be found in the best journals: “Centaurs, however, are not an actual ‘human kind’ (see Mallon 2016)”. The reference here is: Mallon, Ron. 2016. The Construction of Human Kinds. New York: Oxford. It appears that the academy has dealt extensively with the nature of centaurs, and concluded they aren’t human. What about the lived experience of Actual Centaurs?! How are we to incorporate this into our work?! And has Mallon considered the possibility that centaurs aren’t just not a “human kind”, but actually don’t exist? It’s good to know that philosophy is covering the important issues!

I would also commend to everyone the section of Tuvel’s response on “Inclusive identities” and the last paragraph of her section on “Analytical Methodology”.  Here she attacks the notion that race should be biologically determined, or based only on ancestry, and makes the important point that a person with no allegiance to black people or culture can be considered to have a more valid voice on blackness than a white person raised in a black community (like Dolezal was) if they have “one drop” of black blood. These kinds of ideas have been used simultaneously to define and destroy indigenous communities over many years, and they are very very dangerous. I would argue that just from a practical political, bloody-minded point of view, it is much much easier to maintain a political campaign for equal representation of Indigenous peoples if you allow self-identification than if you demand arbitrary biological definitions of race. The imperial powers that sought to destroy Indigenous peoples can’t destroy a people whose boundaries they can’t police! [Well, they can – but it’s harder, and at some point they’ll have to deal with the Indigenous people in their own institutions].

This dive back through Tuvel’s post-scandal career has been reassuring – I’m very happy to see that the original signatories not only failed to silence her or damage her career, but actually gave her a boost by instigating an appraisal of her work that bought her a whole special issue of a philosophy journal. This also means that rather than driving her theories away, her critics have forced the philosophy mainstream to engage with them and take them more seriously, which is good for her, good for philosophy and great for all those people who are living transracial lives (who doesn’t want philosophers debating their right to exist!?) I bet her students are happy to be being lectured by someone so radical, and if her lectures are as clear as her writing and theorizing I imagine they are getting an excellent education. She will of course be always known as “that transracialism woman”, and of course it’s still possible that the scandal will affect her career progression even if it doesn’t affect her current status, but I’m glad that the resistance those letter writers received was sufficient to protect her and to support her. It’s a strong reminder that the academy always needs to police itself against the arrogance of its own elite.

As a final aside, Wikipedia reports that the associate editors of Hypatia who signed the letter were forced to resign; the whole brouhaha was referred to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which found that the journal had acted improperly; and subsequently the journal completely revised its procedures and forced all editors and associate editors to sign on to COPE guidelines. The Andrew Mellon Foundation also gave a grant to a university to develop a code of ethics for publishing in philosophy. So even though Tuvel wasn’t directly involved in any of this, her work can be said to have led to significant reforms in the world of feminist philosophy and philosophy publishing. Very few assistant professors can lay claim to such a legacy.

Also, I’m happy to see philosophers have categorically denied centaurs their humanity. Abominations, the lot of them!


fn1: Her publication record has not been updated, however, so it’s possible that she hasn’t updated her research profile, in which case this information may not be up to date. Assistant Professors are very busy and don’t always get to keep their profiles up to date!

fn2: It’s also essential when discussing the rights of people and animals with no voice: the unborn, the very elderly, animals of all kinds, the environment, the illiterate, increasingly criminals … If the lived experience of real people is essential to ground your philosophy, you’re fucked when the people living the experience can’t speak or write.

Advertisements

Nail them to the wall

In September 2017 Philip Morris International (PMI) – one of the world’s largest cigarette companies – introduced a new foundation to the world: The Foundation for a Smoke Free World. This foundation will receive $80 million per year from PMI for the next 12 years and devote this money to researching “smoking cessation, smoking harm reduction and alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers”, with the aim to draw in more money from non-tobacco donors over that time. It is seeking advice on how to spend its research money, and it claims to be completely independent of the tobacco industry – it receives money from PMI to the tune of almost a billion dollars, but it claims to have a completely independent research agenda.

The website for the Foundation includes a bunch of compelling statistics on its front page: There is one death every six seconds from smoking, 7.2 million deaths annually, second-hand smoke kills 890,000 people annually, and smoking kills half of all its long-term users. It’s fascinating that a company that as late as the late 1990s was claiming there is no evidence its product kills has now set up a foundation with such powerful admission of the toxic nature of its product. It’s also wrong: the most recent research suggests that 2/3 of users will die from smoking. It’s revealing that even when PMI is being honest it understates the true level of destruction it has wrought on the human race.

That should serve as an object lesson in what this Foundation is really about. It’s not an exercise in genuine tobacco control, but a strategy to launder PMI’s reputation, and to escape the tobacco control deadlock. If PMI took these statistics seriously it could solve the problem it appears to have identified very simply, by ceasing the production of cigarettes and winding up its business. I’m sure everyone on earth would applaud a bunch of very rich tobacco company directors who awarded themselves a fat bonus and simply shut down their business, leaving their shareholders screwed. But that’s not what PMI wants to do. They want to launder their reputation and squirm out from under the pressure civil society is placing on them. They want to start a new business looking all shiny and responsible, and the Foundation is their tool.

PMI have another business model in mind. PMI are the mastermind behind iQos, the heat-not-burn product that they are trialling with huge success in Japan. This cigarette alternative still provides its user with a nicotine hit but it does it through heating a tobacco substance, rather than burning it, avoiding much of the carcinogenic products of cigarettes. PMI have been touting this as the future alternative to cigarettes, and are claiming huge market share gains in Japan based on the product. Heat not burn technologies offer clear harm reduction opportunities for tobacco use: although we don’t know what their toxicity is, it’s almost certainly much lower than tobacco, and every smoker who switches to iQos is likely significantly reducing their long term cancer risk. What PMI needs is for the world to adopt a harm reduction strategy for smoking, so that they can switch from cigarettes to iQos. But the tobacco control community is still divided on whether harm reduction is a better approach than prohibition and demand reduction, which between them have been very successful in reducing smoking.

So isn’t it convenient that there is a new Foundation with a billion dollars to spend on a research platform of “smoking cessation, harm reduction and alternative livelihoods.” It’s as if this Foundation’s work perfectly aligns with PMI’s business strategy. And is it even big money? Recently PMI lost a court case against plain packaging in Australia – because although their foundation admits that smoking kills, they weren’t willing to let the Australian government sell packages that say as much – and have to pay at least $50 million in costs. PMI’s sponsorship deal with Ferrari will cost them $160 million. They spent $24 million fighting plain packaging laws in Urugay (population: 4 million). $80 million is not a lot of money for them, and they will likely spend as much every year lobbying governments to postpone harsh measures, fighting the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and advertising their lethal product. This Foundation is not a genuine vehicle for research, it’s an advertising strategy.

It’s a particularly sleazy advertising strategy when you consider the company’s history and what the Foundation claims to do. This company fought any recognition that its products kill, but this Foundation admits that the products kill, while PMI itself continues to fight any responsibility for the damage it has done. This company worked as hard as it could for 50 years to get as many people as possible addicted to this fatal product, but this Foundation headlines its website with “a billion people are addicted and want to stop”. This Foundation will research smoking cessation while the company that funds it fights every attempt to prevent smoking initiation in every way it can. The company no doubt knows that cessation is extremely difficult, and that ten dollars spent on cessation are worth one dollar spent on initiation. It’s precious PR in a time when tobacco companies are really struggling to find anything good to say about themselves.

And as proof of the PR gains, witness the Lancet‘s craven editorial on the Foundation, which argues that public health researchers and tobacco control activists should engage with it rather than ostracizing it, in the hope of finding some common ground on this murderous product. The WHO is not so pathetic. In a press release soon after the PMI was established they point out that it directly contravenes Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which forbids signatories from allowing tobacco companies to have any involvement in setting public health policy. They state openly that they won’t engage with the organization, and request that others also do not. The WHO has been in the forefront of the battle against tobacco and the tobacco industry for many years, and they aren’t fooled by these kinds of shenanigans. This is an oily trick by Big Tobacco to launder their reputation and try to ingratiate themselves with a world that is sick of their tricks and lies. We shouldn’t stand for it.

I think it’s unlikely that researchers will take this Foundation’s money. Most reputable public health journals have a strict rule that they will not publish research funded by tobacco companies or organizations associated with them, and it is painfully obvious that this greasy foundation is a tobacco company front. This means that most researchers won’t be able to publish any research they do with money from this foundation, and I suspect this means they won’t waste their time applying for the money. It seems likely to me that they will struggle to disburse their research funds in a way that, for example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation do not. I certainly won’t be trying to get any of this group’s money.

The news of this Foundation’s establishment is not entirely bad, though. It’s existence is a big sign that the tobacco control movement is winning. PMI know that their market is collapsing and their days are numbered. Sure they can try and target emerging markets in countries like China but they know the tobacco control movement will take hold in those markets too, and they’re finding it increasingly difficult to make headway. Smoking rates are plummeting in the highest profit markets, and they’re forced to slimmer pickings in developing countries where tobacco control is growing in power rapidly. At the same time their market share is being stolen in developed countries by e-cigarettes, a market they have no control over, and as developing nations become wealthier and tobacco control strengthens e-cigarettes grow in popularity there too. They can see their days are numbered. Furthermore, the foundation is a sign that the tobacco companies’ previous united front on strategy is falling apart. After the UK high court rejected a tobacco company challenge to plain packaging laws, PMI alone decided not to join an appeal, and now PMI has established this foundation. This is a sign that the tobacco companies are starting to lose their previous powerful allegiance on strategy against the tobacco control movement. PMI admits they’ve lost, has developed iQos, and is looking to find an alternative path to the future while the other tobacco companies fight to defend their product.

But should PMI be allowed to take their path? From a public health perspective it’s a short term gain if PMI switch to being a provider of harm reducing products. But there are a bunch of Chinese technology companies offering e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking. If we allow PMI to join that harm reduction market they will be able to escape the long term consequences of their business decisions. And should they be allowed to? I think they shouldn’t. I think the tobacco companies should be nailed to the wall for what they did. For nearly 70 years these scumbags have denied their products caused any health problems, have spent huge amounts of money on fighting any efforts to control their behavior, and have targeted children and the most vulnerable. They have spent huge amounts of money establishing a network of organizations, intellectuals and front groups that defend their work but – worse still – pollute the entire discourse of scientific and evidence based policy. The growth of global warming denialism, DDT denialism, and anti-environmentalism is connected to Big Tobacco’s efforts to undermine scientific evidence for decent public health policy in the 1980s and 1990s. These companies have done everything they can to pollute public discourse over decades, in defense of a product that we have known is poison since the 1950s. They have had a completely pernicious effect on public debate and all the while their customers have been dying. These companies should not be allowed to escape the responsibility for what they did. Sure, PMI could develop and market a heat-not-burn product or some kind of e-cigarette: but should we let them, when some perfectly innocent Chinese company could steal their market share? No, we should not. Their murderous antics over 70 years should be an albatross around their neck, dragging these companies down into ruin. They should be shackled to their product, never able to escape from it, and their senior staff should never be allowed to escape responsibility for their role in promoting and marketing this death. The Foundation for a Smoke Free World is PMI’s attempt to escape the shackles of a murderous poison that it flogged off to young and poor people remorselessly for 70 years. They should not be allowed to get away with it – they should be nailed to the wall for what they did. Noone should cooperate with this corrupt and sleazy new initiative. PMI should die as if they had been afflicted with the cancer that is their stock in trade, and they should not be allowed to worm out from under the pressure they now face. Let them suffer for the damage they did to human bodies and civil society, and do not cooperate with this sick and cynical Foundation.

And she will come from India with a love in her eyes
That say oh how my dark star will rise
In rented gear two thousand years we waited for a man
But with a whispered plea she’d die for us all tonight.
And she will come from India with a gun at her side,
Or she will come from Argentina
With her cemetery eyes that say
Oh, how my dark star will rise,

And she will rise.

Final confessional: Gunfire in the distance, occasional strange sounds, a young woman talking to the video in English that the mutants can barely understand because it is so ancient and rich with the accents of a different world. She is dark skinned, wearing a shroud of tattered cloth covering her hair, her teeth and skin perfect in a way that the mutants viewing the video cannot imagine – she is beautiful in the way all the ancients seem to have been. She is talking about being driven out of her home south of the river, of running out of London and then being corralled back in again – the viewers gasp, was this ravaged city they live in once called London? –  telling the phone that the world is ending, her refugee camp is under attack, they have broken through. As she talks, urgently, low and fast, her voice a stream of lyrical, barely comprehensible English from the Time That Was, they watch in appalled fascination. This is the whole world they never knew, failing before them, and this wonderful mysterious dark-skinned beauty their only tether to it.

She goes on. No one knows what’s going on or how it started, the monsters are everywhere. She knows she cannot last much longer, the city is infested with them and they are so strong, they hunt at night and in the day and the great ones are invincible. She will run, but maybe one day someone will survive, and will want to know what happened. She’s going to leave her phone here with the charger so maybe some survivor in the future can find it and see what happened. She looks urgently over her shoulder one more time, then at the camera with a look of such yearning and loss that it reaches through the phone, across time and into their hearts in the Ark. Then it snaps to darkness.

Fearful flight: Video taken running over rooftops, with fire exploding in the background and screaming down below. Shaking camera as someone runs, a woman’s voice screaming close to the camera. It’s the same woman’s rich and mellifluous voice, but now it’s panicked and yelling in between gasps and heavy breathing. The video might have started with the intent to document what was happening but she has already forgotten that mission as she yells to her friends and screams and pants. Her friends are yelling back and to each other, an indefinite number of other voices further away as they all run across the sloping, red-ochre tiles of the old city. At one point the camera stops and everything lurches as the woman looks down into a gap between houses, where things move and hiss. She steps back and jumps, just covering the distance with a clattering of tiles, then jerks the camera around to show a small group of other running and leaping over the gap. She turns the camera back but jerks it as from behind there is a sudden, blood-curdling yell and someone screaming “They got Johnny!” She gasps but has no time for tears, suddenly jerking the camera left and down behind a stone outcropping on the roof. The rooftops and streets around darken suddenly as a huge shadow sweeps over, roaring, and fire explodes in the street across the road. The shadow slides past with a kind of sinuous, threatening elegance, and from further away they hear other men yelling, screams and weapons fire. She starts up and runs again and suddenly the gunfire is closer. From almost on top of her they hear the heavy chatter of machine gun fire, rough male voices yelling “Down, come down!” then the camera cuts out as they clatter into a dark stairwell.

Mushroom cloud: A shaky video starts with a howling wind and rattling, then steadies, it’s resting on some kind of railing on a high tower. Far away the sky is erupting into a mushroom of smoke rising high into the azure blue of a perfect clear day. Stretching from the horizon to halfway towards the camera is the grey mass of a city, and there are millions of fires sprouting from various places in the middle of the city, smoke haze blanketing the lower parts of the sky below the mushroom cloud. A woman is talking, describing how they had to nuke the city to stop them. It’s the last stand, they’re doing it up and down the country, she says, and then shifts the camera right after a brief flash, to show a more distant cloud beginning to sprout on the horizon. As it rises, after a still moment, there is a distant roar, and then the back of the cloud lights up with a flash from over the horizon. “That’s Southampton, maybe more beyond. We didn’t have a choice.” Then the sound of crying as the wind washes gently by, and the two mushroom clouds rise slowly higher.

Urban horror: The same woman’s desperate sobbing in darkness, then the camera shifts and we are looking from behind a rubbish bin at a long street full of trapped cars. It’s twilight and many of the street lights are broken but the car lights are on and it’s possible to see silhouettes and movement in the light of the cars. People are running from the cars, moving between them, and grey men are leaping across the roofs, jumping onto people and dragging them down and ripping and tearing. Somewhere out of sight there is a deep roar and a much larger figure – familiar now to the mutants – leaps onto a car, screaming in rage. Its scream paralyzes people, who turn and collapse in horror and allow the grey men to catch them. The woman sobs and the camera shakes, then behind her we hear someone saying urgently, “Kara, we have to go! Come, come! Run!” Then the camera jerks and they run into darkness.

Oh when there’s no future
How can there be sin
We’re the flowers
In the dustbin
We’re the poison
In your human machine
We’re the future
Your future

God save the queen
We mean it man
There’s no future

No future
No future
No future for you

 

The Ark’s heroes have returned from pacifying the Doom Cult that they found to the northwest. Now their attention was fully focused on the last remaining aboveground threat, the Dark Castle that lay just to the west of the Ark, menacing and grim broken towers looming over their near horizon. But first they wanted to find Shellah, and investigate the strange black tablet she had shown them before. It must be charged by now …

She found them, however, before they could look, in an urgent haste. They were waiting in their sky temple perhaps an hour before service started, chatting and relaxing, when she appeared from down below in an unusual hurry, not even wearing her outer layer of ragged stinking clothes and in such an urgent rush that her usual caution and reticence was all but forgotten. She produced the black tablet without suspicion or fanfare and swiped a strange, arcane pattern across its face. The thing came to life, a vibrant brilliant screen festooned with bright icons across a background of pure grass and sky. She showed them one particular icon, a white triangle on a grey background, and pressed it. The screen changed, revealing a mosaic of squares with different pictures on them. She pressed the top left one, and they all jumped back in shock as the sound of one of the other bosses, Pieces, jumped out at them. Moments later they realized they were watching a recorded image, and relaxed.

The video had been secretly filmed by Shellah at a waste site near the Ark, maybe 200m away, that the Ark’s members use to discard rubbish and search for old remnants of the ancients. It was taken at sunset, with a pink sky and pink light reflecting off the dome of the ark. There were two bosses – Pieces and Jared – standing alone in a small hollow of the waste dump, the shadows of a few guards visible in the far edge of the video, just visible on the far side of the hollow. They were talking about a plot, and Shellah must have been filming the whole thing from a hiding place within earshot, her camera undetected amongst the junk.

PIECES: It’s gone on long enough yo. The hawks and the church are too much.

JARED: Agreed. Any more of this and she’ll own all the whole rotten bleachers. I’ve got trouble enough with my supplicants, I don’t need her rabble-rousing with her stupid revolution.

PIECES: No helping it now, the stupid bitch is in heat now, and we just gotta deal with the noise. Her gang ain’t the only problem though – she’s got fucking friends.

JARED: We could deal with that. Snag ‘em on a mission, take ‘em down and make everyone think it’s the Zone. We could –

PIECES: Don’t be stupid! If it fucks up, or even one of them escapes, we’re in deep shit. No, mate, we gotta act smart, not brutal. Get the punters to take her down for her own ambition, leave us smelling like roses after she’s gone. Gotta get her smart, mate.

JARED: Smart ain’t your strong point Pieces. Remember when you –

PIECES: Shut the fuck up about that, it’s ancient fucking history. Now listen, I’ve got a plan. We can fix this real smooth if we can set her up. You wanna hear?

JARED: Sure, what’s your bright idea, Pieces? Right now I’m thinking a knife in the dark, but if you got something better …

PIECES: Everyone knows she’s sniffing around the Elder, got in sweet with a Chronicler, right? But right now they all think she’s so sweet she can’t do nothing wrong, but if we turn that on her, she’ll look like the conniving bitch she is, and a crim to boot. We just gotta plant a little something on her to make it obvious.

JARED: How you gonna do that, Pieces? She’s fucking stitched up tight!

PIECES: Not so tight. Her fixer Monja owes me a big line, some shit I sorted out a while ago, been feeding me juice from inside her gang for a while now. Nobody knows. Not even you, you little shit.

JARED: How the fuck, Pieces?! That’s some smooth operating. Looks like I’m gonna have to shake down my gang and flush out your fixes, you little fucker.

PIECES: You won’t find them, pigshit. Now listen. We got an inside in the Vault, right? With Shenagler, the silly old idealist. He tells me he can smuggle out a few pieces of prime goods, small but valuable. A jar of antibiotics, some painkillers and a tattoo kit, he’ll hand them over to Monja right here tomorrow night. Then Monja takes them back and slips them into Bloody Jack’s room while she’s at church. A few hours later Shenagler leads a mob of Chroniclers over to Bloody Jack’s and demands to search the stuff, makes a right fuss about stolen shit. Then bang! Finds them after a bit of faffing around pretending to search, Bloody Jack’s as good as dead. It’ll get the stupid Chronicler she’s hanging with too. The rest of them probably will get away, but if any of them move to help her we can cut them down legitimate. You and me, we have a word with L’il Kim and see if we can’t all three push to break up her gang and have her friends exiled. Problem solved.

JARED: Sounds great to me Pieces. But what do you want me to do?

PIECES: Everyone knows about Bloody Jack and me, but they think you’re mostly out of it. I want you to step in and make my case. I’m gonna be doing one of my boys, nowhere to be seen, innocent as the driven snow. You gotta provide the muscle to make sure it works out – have your gang get there in time to make sure the search ain’t interrupted, have your men rile up the crowd when the time comes, get the mob up and at ‘em. It needs to look like it’s the real deal, not a set up by the guy everyone knows is Bloody Jack’s enemy. You do it, and we split her gang and her stuff. But I get the stalker, Lonnie, that’s the deal. I wanna find out if it’s a man or a woman. Not that it matters, once I’m done with it it’ll wish it had never been born. Had my eye on Lonnie for a while, that’s my personal treat from this little mission.

JARED: Alright then, so tomorrow night, sometime after church? Get my gang ready for some rabble-rousing and a bit of security for the Chroniclers. Hang Bloody Jack and her pet Chronicler out to dry, hand Lonnie over to you, exile the rest. Split the stuff.

PIECES: That’s right. Remember the man who’ll be making the case is Shenagler. Don’t fuck it up, okay?

JARED: I won’t, Pieces. But hey, how many Chroniclers have you got in your pocket, anyway?

PIECES: More than enough, man. More than enough. I’ll get to the Elder eventually, don’t you worry.

JARED: That’s heresy, you fucker.

They slapped hands, and scramble out of the hollow in two different directions. The video ended, to the sound of gentle sighs from the assembled group.

They all looked at each other. This video was taken yesterday, and Shellah had only just brought it to them, so time would be tight. They had to get something organized by the end of the church service or they would all be exiled … or worse. And Lonnie … They needed to act.

Breaking the Bosses

Their plan was simple. They would grab Monja when she slipped into Bloody Jack’s room, and offer her the choice of death or turning double agent. Then Monja and Shellah would take the stolen artifacts and hide them in Pieces’ room, somewhere where it looked obviously like he had been keeping them to himself. When the crowds came to Bloody Jack’s room she would open it for inspection, and then some of Bloody Jack’s contacts and gang in the crowd would begin demanding that Pieces room be searched. While everyone prepared their trap, Preacher gave a resounding speech in the church of the sky god about how they were all a community now, and they must have rules and that anyone who went against the common good was betraying all of them, working the gathered mutants in the church into a fever pitch of righteous anger about theft and breaking the rules. As the speech came to an end Pieces seized the moment to declare that he had evidence right now that one of the mutants had stolen from the Ark, and they must show the righteousness of Preacher’s ideas by holding this person responsible.

While Preacher preached the party moved into action. They ambushed Monja as she was in the act of placing the goods, and caught her hiding behind a curtain. She agreed to help rather than face the inevitable bloody end that her betrayal warranted, and accompanied Shellah to Pieces’ headquarters to bury the stolen goods in a suitably incriminating place. By the time the agitated crowd arrived at Bloody Jack’s quarters, led by Pieces, Jared and Shenagler, everything was ready. Bloody Jack blustered and played her part, but welcomed them in to search the quarters, where they found nothing. As the search came to its conclusion Shellah and Chang Chang began to yell in the background, and Chang Chang revealed the video recording. The entire over-agitated crowd then went to Pieces’ quarters, where they found the stolen goods exactly where Monja had placed them. Monja claimed to have had a change of heart and returned them to their original place in Pieces possession, and the trap was sprung.

Pieces and Jared tried to fight, but they had been caught red-handed. By the time full night was upon the Ark they were hanging from ropes outside the upper halls of the Ark, and their gangs had been broken up, the leaders exiled and the rest returned to lives of toil and insignificance. The Ark had gone from four gangs to two, and L’il Kim’s gang was now on the outer, weakened by her tacit submission to Pieces’ heretical plans. Bloody Jack and the group were in the ascendant, and their thoughts turned now to the last remaining task – reckoning with the Elder and the neglect of the Dawn Vault.

But before they did that there was one final threat to the Ark they needed to extinguish – the Dark Castle. They began their preparations.

Visions of the Apocalypse

Before they headed to the Castle, though, there was something else they needed to do – Shellah’s tablet. They realized that if she had been able to film Pieces’ and Jared’s conspiracy then whoever had owned that tablet in ancient times must have been able to film the world before … the old world. They wanted to look through all the other videos they had seen on that screen, and see what they could learn. Had this tablet’s owner filmed the apocalypse itself? Could they see what had really happened when the ancients’ world fell? They sought out Shellah on the higher steps of the bleachers, and sat with her to watch the videos on the tablet.

They were right. The previous owner of the tablet had filmed the apocalypse. They watched in horror as the world fell under a wave of fiery monsters, and its people were consumed by an army of Grey Men – and their gigantic cousins.

The things that ended the world were swarming in the tunnels beneath them.

The Dark Castle

They decided to tackle first the last of the aboveground threats, and the next day, flush with their victory over the bosses, they gathered their forces and headed west to the Dark Castle. The Dark Castle was a brooding hulk of shattered stone surrounded by solid high walls and a moat of foetid, rot-filled water, that could be accessed by a small gate on the riverside, or a bridge crossing the rotten moat from the west. They did not like the look of the river at this point at all – it was dark and stinking, it’s torpid surface occasionally disturbed by the splashings of large, unseen beasts. At the western edge the bridge was largely intact, though only wide enough for them to cross two abreast. The thick dark waters of the moat reached almost up to the bridge, and a fine oily mist hung over the still mire, giving off a dreadful smell. They were halfway across the bridge when a huge eel-like creature surged out of the water and grabbed Bloody Jack. It was followed by a second one that hit Chang Chang. These things had huge muscly tubular bodies, mouths that hinged open in four directions, and four beady, malicious eyes. Once they hit their targets they writhed and splashed and tried to drag them into the water, but fortunately both Chang Chang and Bloody Jack were able to stand their ground as Grimshaw and Bloody Jack’s gang members hacked into them. The beasts let go and slithered back into the water, only to attack again a moment later. This time, though, the group was ready, and managed to hack the eel creatures to death. They twitched and spasmed on the bridge, flooding it with a vile slick of greasy black blood, before they slid off and floated away into the mist. As the mutants stood on the bridge panting and checking their numbers, something grabbed the corpse of one of the eels from below and it sank under the bilious surface of the moat, which began to churn with the movements of a swarm of scavengers. Disgusted, the mutants ran across the bridge to the far side and the shelter of the entrance gate.

Already damaged after just one battle, they retreated into the shadows of the gateway and sat down to rest, eating grub and drinking clear water and recovering. The gate formed a tunnel stretching through the wall to a narrow pathway between the outer wall and a thinner, smaller inner wall that was broken and crumbling in many places. Once they had rested they went through this inner wall and into the inner courtyard, which was ringed with buildings. In the middle of the courtyard was the main tower, a crumbling wreck of white and brown masonry thronging with trash crows, huge evil-eyed raven creatures perched all atop the wall and looking silently down at them as they entered. The ruined main tower was surrounded by thick grass, but the northern side of the courtyard was paved, and on that paving lay a horror show of scattered bones and corpse parts. Mostly they were animal bones, but in amongst them lay many human bodies. At the foot of the tower on its southern side an intact car lay untouched in the long grass of the courtyard.

First they ducked into a ruined building immediately to the left of the gate through which they had entered, uncovering a functional blowtorch that could be used as a weapon and a jar of antidepressants. Then they moved to the western side of the courtyard, where a skeleton clothed in tattered red cloth lay in wild grass. From that body they recovered a polearm that Grimshaw declared would make a fine weapon. Then their attention turned to the car. They approached it, but as their gearhead attempted to move into the long grass it began to swirl and curl around his legs, trying to drag him in as the blades began to sweat acid. They grabbed him and dragged him out just in time, but realized that the car was surrounded by acid grass, a deadly hazard of the Zone. Fortunately Grimshaw had brought his scythe, the Law, which was perfect for cutting grass. Sweeping the wicked weapon ahead of him, he cut a safe path to the car, and once there their gearhead was able to drive it out safely.

All the while the Trash Crows stared silently down at them.

They decided to drive the car around to the north of the tower, with most of the group inside it, Bloody Jack on top, and two of the group walking behind. However as soon as they approached the butcher’s arena to the north of the tower the Trash Crows leapt into the air and began to dive bomb the group, targeting Bloody Jack and the people behind the car. They turned the car around and fled to the house at the gate of the compound. As they drove they attacked the crows, but nothing worked – there were so many, swarming thick and fast around them that they could not do any damage with sword or hammer. Only fire could work! Fortunately Chang Chang had the blowtorch! He turned it on and set the gas canister to fully open, flooding the swarm with fire as Preacher chanted and sang and encouraged the gang. The fire of Preacher’s words inspired Chang Chang to reckless abandon with the blowtorch, and soon he had turned the entire swarm to cinders. Safe!

They explored the rest of the outer rooms in the tower, and the bones on the north of the tower, finding various treasures of the Ancients: a broadsword, a semi automatic pistol, a compound bow, a shotgun, and a suit that offered almost perfect protection against the rot. They also found an ID card of some kind. Then they opened the door to the northernmost building, which they guessed must hold the treasure they sought.

As soon as they opened the door they were attacked by a gang of wild dogs, who had made their lair inside the shattered remnants of the western half of the building. The dogs attacked fast but were no match for the group, who cut them down quickly, leaving one wounded one to run away yelping in fear through a gap in the far wall of the building. Here they found the building was split into two halves; they had entered the western, crumbling half but the eastern half was intact and the door to it locked, protected by a small box with a single blinking red light on it. They touched the ID card to the box and the door slid open, dim lights flickering on in a long corridor. This corridor ran between two walls of glass, behind which lay the treasures they sought: Many gaudy gold and silver sceptres, crowns and tiaras embedded with a furious assortment of tacky gems. And there in the middle, on a mouldering cushion, lay the huge chunk of diamond known as the Koh-i-Noor. They smashed the glass, grabbed the Koh-i-Noor and as many of the gems and over-shiny settings as they could, and fled the Dark Tower.

They had the gem they had sought. Now it was time to have two conversations with two very different old men. They would return the Koh-i-Noor to the old man north of the Ark, in exchange for whatever secrets he knew; and they would finally demand an audience with the Elder.

Since they had broken the bosses and the Dark Castle their view of the landscape had changed. As they trudged home across the gentle grass slopes north of the Dark Castle they looked across the ruins to the distant Ark, and they all agreed: This is ours, it is no country for old men. Let us take it from them!

I screamed aloud to the old man
I said don’t lie don’t say you don’t know
I say you’ll pay for your mischief
In this world or the next
Oh and then he fixed me with a freezing glance
And the hell fires raged in his eyes
He said do you want to know the truth son
I’ll tell you the truth
Your soul’s gonna burn in the lake of fire

 

When we last left our heroes they had returned from a successful overland mission, bearing a new gift for their Ark and wary of a new threat. Over the ensuing weeks and months their new gift came to fruition, and eventually the Ark had its Trash Hawk stables, and our heroes became the first to ride them from the Ark. This time their goal was to explore the areas north and northwest of the Ark, to see if there were any threats there and if possible to eliminate them. From the hill north of the Tower they had seen a damaged military base with only an old man living in it, and further to the west of there a stretch of ruins infested with nightmare flowers. They aimed to explore both of these places.

Nightmares bloom

First they flew their trash hawks to the northwestern area, circling over the area to look for threats. Their reconnaissance centred on a theatre at the centre of the sector, which stood at the junction of several wide roads and was surrounded by crumbling ruins. The entire area around the theatre was overgrown with stunted trees and rich fungal growths, the shattered and scattered brickwork of the old buildings slowly being submerged under the unstoppable tide of nature; but near the centre of the sector, around the front entrance of the theatre, the ruins were more clearly visible and the plant growth less abundant. Here the ruins were wrapped in vines as thick as a human leg, which crawled over old lamp posts and up the sides of remnant walls. At the top of these serpentine green cables hung huge scarlet flowers, each the size of a human, hanging pendulous and partly closed over all the area around the theatre. These flowers formed a kind of ring of blooms around an open clearing, which was overgrown with short, dusty fungi and small plants – and in the middle of that clearing lay a half-covered body, clinging in death to a hunting rifle that the PCs desperately wanted to take.

They landed their birds at a safe distance near an old stretch of grass studded at regular intervals with lozenges of concrete. Grimshaw saw a small shed at the edge of this park and decided to investigate, thinking there might be a scythe within – opening the door he was proven right, and was about to lay his hand on it when a massive Zone Spider ambushed him from the shadows of the shack. Fortunately his hammer justice was at the ready, and he dispatched the thing with a hail of vicious blows. Triumphant, he emerged bearing the scythe in one hand, and named it Truth. Better armed, and newly wary of their surroundings, they advanced carefully to near the edge of the clearing. A rope tied about him, Loony Lonnie crept carefully forward into the clearing, manifesting his plant-man mutation to try and appear part of the undergrowth, rather than as an intruder. The plants seemed not to notice him, so he crept in close to the body. The hunting rifle was still attached to it by a strap, so he had to carefully cut it loose, but then he noticed that it had other belongings, and began searching it carefully. First he found some magazines for the rifle, which he pocketed, and then he foolishly cut open the shirt over the skeleton’s shrunken chest, thinking to find something hidden within. But as he pulled open the old, dry cloth of the shirt he found himself staring at a huge human eye, embedded in the middle of the corpse’s chest and connected to all the nearby plants by a complex web of creepers and tendrils. Startled, he fell back in horror, and the plants reacted. At the top of every flower there was a shiver of movement and a ring of human eyes opened, followed almost immediately by the flowers themselves, which suddenly swelled as if taking in deep breaths of air. Then as one they jetted out bursts of brilliant scarlet powder, and Lonnie was lost to view in a cloud of pollen.

Grimshaw charged forward, scythe out, and began hacking at the plants. One of Bloody Jack’s gang rushed forward with him and unleashed a burst of fire into the plants, hoping to burn them into submission, and while the two of them laid into the supporting vines Bloody Jack herself sprung with her frog’s legs into the cloud, grabbed Lonnie, and leapt back out again before she could inhale any of the pollen. She landed back amongst the group carrying a semi-catatonic Lonnie, who lay twitching in her arms, eyes open, mouth wide in a silent scream.

They waited a few hours for Lonnie to recover from his nightmares, and decided to take the back entrance to the theatre.

The Phantom of the Opera

They passed carefully through the strange park of concrete lozenges to get to the back entrance to the theatre. Here they found a small door next to a rubbish dumpster, that seemed to have fresh meat in it. Only slightly perturbed, most of the team entered carefully through the downstairs door while Bloody Jack and one of her gang climbed to the 2nd floor window and crept in through that. Bloody Jack found herself in a make-up room, which opened into a narrow hallway that led to the upstairs entrance to the auditorium itself. Downstairs Lonnie, Chang Chang and Grimshaw picked their way through a different hallway into another entrance to the auditorium, and entered cautiously.

As soon as they were a few steps inside the auditorium they heard a hum and a brilliant column of light picked them out in the musty darkness. The room suddenly came to life, swelling to the tones of a rusty old pipe organ that, after a few bars of some ancient song, moaned and wailed away into silence. It was replaced by a huge booming voice demanding to know who they were. After that voice fell still a much smaller voice repeated its demand in a squeaky, scratchy whine, and they saw a tiny figure running into the darkness somewhere just ahead of them. From under the bleachers the same scratchy voice berated them.

As Chang Chang spoke carefully with the hidden figures, Bloody Jack moved carefully into the auditorium. She saw a kind of gantry on one side of the building near where she had come in, and spotted a tiny flickering light inside, so drawing her katana she advanced into the narrow space. It was empty but for some strange machinery sitting at the end, a single red light blinking on and off. Looking into the gloom of the room she could see the pillar of light striking down from a large lamp in the ceiling, and once her eyes adjusted to the dark and the dust she noticed that the ceiling and the gantry in which she stood were covered with many other similar lamps. Perhaps the machinery controlled the lamps? She considered advancing closer, but with no knowledge of machinery there was little she could hope to do, so she retreated and watched events below.

Under Chang Chang’s careful seductions the voice in the darkness revealed itself. Someone shuffled out from behind mouldy curtains on the theatre stage and drew himself up to his full height – a terrifying 3 metres! The creature they addressed was some kind of manbeast, a huge monstrosity of a mutant grown giant beyond normal dimensions. He argued and threatened Chang Chang, until finally Chang Chang realized what this thing wanted – an audience! So he offered the manbeast a deal, and of course when Chang Chang cuts a deal, he always comes out on top.

They emerged from the theatre a short time later with two new additions to the Ark: the mighty manbeast known as the Phantom, who would perform songs and plays from the old world for them; and his trusty sidekick piggy, a tiny wizened creature that barely seemed human, but seemed indispensable to the Phantom’s threadbare sanity. The Phantom revealed himself to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the plays and stories of the ancient world, and he promised to educate all in the Ark through theatre and pantomime. Another win for their slowly stabilizing society!

The Old Man

They returned slowly with the Phantom and Piggy to the Ark, and after a day’s rest set out again, this time flying to the disused military base northwest of their Ark. They circled slowly in the sky looking for signs of danger, but saw nothing moving in the camp. It was a small camp built out of tents and makeshift walls of sand and rubble, already partly overgrown with fungus and creepers and slowly merging back into the blight of the zone. It must have been established a long time ago and long since abandoned or overrun, and it seemed to hold nothing of value except a boat on a trailer in one corner of the camp – and the strange old man who shuffled out from under one ragged awning to watch them land. He appeared harmless, just a bunch of rags with no weapons, but they were cautious nonetheless. They alighted from their birds and sent them back up into the sky, and slowly approached the man on foot.

He greeted them and welcomed them to his camp, but from the nasty looks he cast at Chang Chang they guessed that maybe this old man could read minds. He refused to tell them where he had come from how he had stayed alive so long in the Zone, or why he seemed to be unconcerned about the rot pervading his camp. Sitting them down at old seats under the awning he served them a vile apple liqueur he called “Scrumpy”, and talked to them randomly about many things in the past, but gave them no clues as to who he was or what he was doing in their area. He simply assured them he had arrived there “some time ago” and would leave “when he was ready.” He also saw them eyeing the boat, and then his manner became sharp and clear-eyed, all pretense of muddle-headed senility gone. He would swap the boat with them for a diamond. The diamond he wanted was called the Koh-i-Noor, and it was lost in the halls of the Dark Tower. He wanted brave adventurers to go in there and get it for him – “oh aye! And one o’ them scepters too if ye don’t mind” – but he would not tell them why it mattered to him. He implied that two or three previous groups of mutants had gone in and failed, but shied away from talking about who they were or how they met. He told them he did not need them to rush – “I’ll be ‘ere ’till my time ‘ere be done” – but also implied at some point he would be gone. He also threw in a second offer – bring him the diamond and he would throw in some secrets about the Ancients.

With that they were hooked, and they agreed to his deal. Something about his manner made them sure he really did know things, though they could not say why or how they were so sure. Perhaps he was an oracle, like the distant Oracle of the Silver Egg that they had heard about? Or perhaps he had simply learnt many things in his travels – regardless of the reason, they felt he had knowledge they needed and could not take. They also wanted that boat – they had a plan to build a road to the Two Towers and establish an outpost on their side of the river, and having a boat to operate on the river would strengthen their outpost. Yet somehow it felt deeply wrong to just take the boat from the Old Man – they needed to offer him something. And in any case, everyone knew at some point they would have to penetrate the Dark Castle, and neutralize whatever horrors lay within. Their map of the tunnels under the zone told them that there was an opening north of the Castle through which maybe Grey Men could emerge to harass them; the Dark Castle itself remained an enigmatic and continuing menace to their west. Having secured themselves against a major threat south of the river, they would need at some point to turn their attentions to those closer, but perhaps more quiescent, dangers. They were not quite ready yet, but with a little more time, and a little more delving in the ruins of this world, they would be.

They returned to the Ark, solid in their purpose, to prepare themselves for their next task.

Save

Save

As good a place as any to die

Dunkirk is not a war movie. It’s a movie about staying alive in the places between the world, a kinder of Stranger Things set in the strange space between France and England. This is why there are a million reviews comparing it to Brexit (or saying it has nothing to do with Brexit). Of course it has nothing to do with Brexit, because it’s about an entirely different kind of catastrophe, the catastrophe of young men – themselves still embedded in a kind of in-between place, not yet adults but no longer children – being forced to survive in a space outside of human experience, created by humans and populated by humans but having nothing in common with everything we know as we grow up human. This movie attempts to depict war as a kind of empty, in-between place, where death and struggle are everything to the people trapped in that space, but the broader metaphysics of its structure are unknown and unknowable.

Aside from a few moments at the beginning, where we see the main character of the movie pushed out of the normal human world and onto the beach, and the last few minutes when he returns to a normal railway siding in England[1], this entire world happens in in-between spaces. There are long scenes on the beach, as soldiers wait helplessly for evacuation; scenes in the air, as fighter pilots completely cut off from home do battle with unknowable enemies in empty spaces between the countries; scenes in the water, as the small boat goes about its difficult work on the channel; and scenes at the surface of the sea, between deadly deep blue death and the open sky, as soldiers struggle to stay alive after their sole chance to escape this horrible purgatory is suddenly and horrifically sunk. Everything happens in the Upside Down, trapped between the world we know and hell, or fighting to get out of the gap between France and England. Occasionally we hear people yell names of places, like stone markers in the void – “out of Dartmouth!” – but mostly we are lost in this tiny slip of water and beach and deadly sky, trying to find our way back.

The scenes in the air, in particular, are like battles in the Astral Plane. Is Christopher Nolan a D&D player? We have these two adventurers, flying through a vast blue space, fighting faceless demons that come out of nowhere, going to a specific mission in a far place somewhere abstract inside that blue vault. They are tied to their origin by a thin silver cord, in this case the fuel in their tank, which gives them just 40 minutes of combat time over their destination. Any mistakes, any deviations, any conflict they aren’t expecting, and they risk snapping that thin silver cord and being lost in the blue. Crashing out here means a slow, awful death in nowhere, unless another Astral traveler – one of those small boats “out of Dartmouth” – happens upon you in that vast, empty limnal space between the worlds. We watch people fall slowly and gracefully out of that sky, their power in the Astral plane broken, and we know they are gone forever, slowly and horribly. One person disappears without any word as to how or why. We’re out of time and place, trapped between the worlds, and these things happen. No one comments on it, and the mission continues.

The sense of dislocation is heightened by the arbitrariness of death in this cruel space. No one here wins by being brave or decisive – death happens in a moment, out of nowhere, or comes screaming down out of the sky and there’s nothing you can do except crouch down and hope it misses you. This is not a war of brave men and heroes, but of ordinary men trapped in horrific circumstances, hoping that the terror will fall on someone else. Even their grift is meaningless – our hero and his French mate find a man on a stretcher and run him to a ship, hoping to get on board and escape with the ship, but as soon as their hapless charge is on the deck they are booted off because there is no room for worthless people. But then they watch as the ship is sunk by a random Stuka, and their lucky break and the cunning scheme that followed is revealed to be just another lottery, that this time they fortunately didn’t win. There is no working this scene, no winning, just the random luck of death or salvation. This limnal space has its own logic, and its own justice, and watching this movie we know we aren’t here to understand it or change it, just to witness it.

This emptiness and arbitrariness lends the movie what to me is its most powerful political message: a story about war as a destroyer of ordinary lives, and the importance of remembering that it is ordinary people who suffer in war. Most of the people in this movie don’t have names – they line up like ants on the beach, they die when the Stukas come, they flee on ships and die when the Heinkels come, they hide in abandoned boats and die randomly for no reason at all, and all the time we understand that they are just ordinary people with no special story or purpose. This sense of war as destroyer of ordinary people is reinforced with the few scenes that connect us to the world outside the channel. The boy in the rescue boat who dies was always a loser at school, and had no special future or dreams; the navy men watch as the rescue boat slides away, no navy men on board, almost dismissive of the efforts of the captain and his crew, strangely uncaring that he has left without his navy attachment; no one believes the small boats will survive in the war zone; when our hero returns to England he gets no fanfare and speeches, but a bottle of brown ale through the window of his train and a simple cheer from a few people on the platform[2]. Even Churchill’s speech is not read by Churchill, but by a boy returning from war, who strips it of all of its import and reads it as if it were a simple statement of narrative fact. There is no moment in this movie where we see the war or the policies that drive the war through the eyes and voice of anyone except a normal, ordinary British person, who of course had no control over the course of political events that led to this nightmare and has no control over the policy that will throw him back into it. There is only one officer in the whole film, and he does nothing to convey the views of the higher-ups except their desperation in the face of the catastrophe unfolding in France. This is a war movie about how ordinary people struggle and die, not a movie about glory, heroism or leadership. Of course there are other war movies that purport to do this, but Dunkirk doesn’t have the sensational gory violence of Saving Private Ryan, or the cruel authoritarianism of Letters from Iwo Jima, stripping the war of all that gore and higher purpose and reducing it to these people trapped in the in-between, looking for a way out.

This kind of work would be a boring two hours’ struggle if it weren’t for a few elements that keep the film going and make sure you the viewer stay on the edge of your seat. The plot is a carefully layered series of interlocking stories that only meet near the end and keep you guessing where you are and what is happening all the way along, without gotchas and without detracting from the overall purpose of the movie. The soundtrack is beautiful and nuanced and carefully balanced to keep you engaged with both the tension and the beauty of the setting, which is very well filmed. The sounds of the sudden violence are also visceral and gripping – the Stukas are especially alarming but the sounds of water and the particular noises of sinking ships, the ticking clock, the horrible sound of the Heinkel’s cannon and the strangely unreliable sputter of Spitfire engines are all designed to keep you on edge and completely engrossed in the experience of being trapped in this world between worlds. The only normal sounds here are men’s voices and our men don’t speak much – and when they do it’s often to tell someone to fuck off, to get off their boat, to get out of their way, to turn around, to stop. It’s one of those movies where the soundtrack, the sound effects, the acting and the setting all work together to produce a powerful and absorbing epic.

If you are into survival horror this is definitely a movie you should watch, and if you’re into classic stories of heroism in war it’s probably not going to appeal. It also won’t work for people who looking for trenchant critiques and political statement. But if you want to see a movie that grabs you at its start, drags you out of your world into a strange other dimension, keeps you tense and terrified until the end, and at least shares a little hope with you in its last breaths, then this is definitely worth seeing. And for its soundtrack and sound effects you need to see it in the unrestrained setting of a large and powerful cinema. It is a beautiful movie with a powerful message subtly delivered, and a unique addition to the war movie genre, and it stands alone in that genre for its unique artistic intensity. An epic achievement by Christopher Nolan, and I heartily recommend it.


Picture note: The photograph is by Morgan Maassen, who I follow on Instagram. If you’re looking for someone to add to your feed I definitely recommend him. Also Tomoka Fukuda and all the free diving instagram accounts related to either of these people.

fn1: Spoiler alert! Most of the soldiers get evacuated by a fleet of small ships.

fn2: This is a simple and yet very moving scene, which leads to him reading Churchill’s speech in the newspaper. It indicates a determination to separate the fates of the men depicted in the movie from any of the great political debates surrounding the key events of the war – very different to a Vietnam or Gulf war movie, which will always have some reference to its own unpopularity buried there.

Save

I wonder if my rope’s still hanging from the tree
By the standing pool where you drank me
And filled me full of thirsty love
And the memory of water?

I wonder if a king still fishes there
His back towards the burned-out air
His laughing catches singing loud
The memory of water

 

Our heroes have explored the area around the river near their Ark, and after raiding a radio station full of cannibals they feel stronger now, and their Ark is stronger too. But they are not yet ready to fight the Helldrivers they know live south of the river, and since they fortified the Ark and returned from their last mission carrying a katana, they have begun to wonder if they are safe from those dangerous men with their vehicles. They are separated from the Helldrivers by a river, but the river still has a few bridges that cross it. The nearest functional bridge is to the west of their Ark, inland from the two towers, and it seems likely that if the Helldrivers are to cross the river they must come over that bridge. So the PCs decided they should travel there and investigate the bridge, to see if it offers an easy way across the river and if so, whether they can block it.

Before they left the Ark they contributed to its ongoing project, to establish a system of hunting parties. This month they stumbled upon great success: Lonnie, stalking south east of the Ark, found an abandoned complex of cages and enclosures full of animals. The walls and barriers of the enclosures had long since broken apart and decayed, but many of the animals remained in the shelter of the enclosures, protected from the elements and the wilder predators of the Zone. Unfortunately they had not expected Lonnie to find his way through the outer barriers of the ancient zoo and begin picking them off for food, nor did they expect him to tell the Ark and bring a steady crew of hunters over the next few weeks. With this discovery the Ark’s food supplies grew, and a new guild of hunters established themselves. Around trashfires and in the meagre allotments at the centre of the Ark, people began to whisper hopefully of the possibility that tomorrow might be no worse than today.

Still, the People were not satisfied just to have more food. The Helldrivers had vehicles and gasoline, which the Ark lacked, but perhaps they could do something to improve their mobility and their power in war. They began a project to construct a stables, converting the remaining covered car park of the stadium into a dry area where they hoped to raise bitterbeasts that the hunting party would slowly catch in the wilds to the South. Not an easy project, but with the future promise of great things. The People set this in train, and then the PCs decided to head East to find the second bridge.

This expedition would be longer and more dangerous than anything they had previously tried. They would need to head west across uncharted lands in the sector north of the Dark Tower, then after some travel through the next sector they would need to turn south and pass another sector to the bridge. That would be a two day journey, two day’s back, and enough grub and water to survive the journey and any battles in the interim. Bloody Jack set about some racketeering to try and raise the necessary grub and water but his efforts were dismal, and in the process one of his gang turned on him, switching sides to join Li’l Kim. Vowing to make the filthy turncoat pay, Bloody Jack chose three of his best followers to go with them into the wilderness, and they set forth with all they had.

First they headed east, into a wide open area of low grasses and scrub north of the Dark Tower. Some distance into this sector was a small hill that they could use as a vantage point, and from this hill Lonnie could scan the surrounding areas. To the south he could get a glimpse into the Dark Tower, finding himself looking into an open courtyard inside the walls. Zone crows constantly circled, breaking his view, but he could make out a skeleton clothed in some gaudy outfit, lying in the middle of the courtyard with a long weapon of some kind discarded next to the body. Nothing else moved, and the whole area seemed to have several doors opening into walls and further buildings inside the outer walls. It was a large and forbidding complex.

Looking west, Lonnie could see a road that ran through the next sector before turning south and heading to the bridge. This road was relatively free of rubble and overgrowth, and though it would not be a perfect way to travel it was obvious that the Helldrivers could bring their vehicles to the Ark along that road. They definitely needed to get to that bridge…

They set off along the road into the next sector. This sector was a forest of dead trees standing sentinel in a misty expanse of ruined, collapsed buildings. Almost nothing stood more than a metre above the ground, and in between it all rose the trees, stunted and broken, grey and leafless. As they passed the trees Barathos touched one and the branch crumbled to dust in his grip, giving off a rank smell. Rank, stinking water ran sluggishly between the trees, trickling in streams and rivulets of rot down to the distant river. A single broken tower loomed over the expanse of decay, just the concrete and steel skeleton of the building remaining. Some giant force had blown across this area, destroying smaller buildings and reducing the largest tower to a burnt husk. In places the dead trees had collapsed, forming open spaces that the PCs had to struggle to cross, picking their way over entangled boughs and trying not to fall into the gurgling streams of rot. Here the branches and trunks of the trees sagged into the creeks, and slowly suffused with rot that had begun to turn them into blocks of toxic petrified wood. They hustled, moving as fast as they could to get through the rot.

The hustle was exhausting and distracting, so they missed the Trash Hawk until it fell screaming from the leaden grey sky. Fortunately they heard the wind whistling through its massive feathers, and though it struck them first they were not flat footed. It attacked them when they were halfway across one of the broken open spaces, so they were forced to scatter amongst the fallen trees. It struck at one of Bloody Jack’s gang but missed, landing amongst them with a beating of huge wings, a body the size of a large van that stank of dust and rot smashing down into one of the trees. Huge, vicious claws struck at the gang member, and the beating wings raised a storm of dust and rot. They all struck at it before it could take off, and with a lucky strike Grimshaw smashed its head in like a melon. The Trash Hawk grunted and sank dead to the ground.

“This beast must have a nest,” Lonnie observed, and their gaze turned to the single high point in the entire sector – the shattered hulk of the high rise building. With a sigh, they set out to climb it.

It was empty, the entire west face scoured by fire and the rest of the building reduced by fire and wind to just empty, wind-blown chambers. They dragged themselves up endless flights of spiraling stairs, eventually emerging onto a windswept rooftop covered in bones and guano. This was the home of the Trash Hawk. At one corner of the rooftop they found a huge edifice built of office furniture and chunks of dead tree, crowned with bedding of fresh grasses, torn up cushions and car seats – the Trash Hawk’s nest. They approached cautiously, but this time they checked the skies too, so they saw the second Trash Hawk coming.

Forewarned is forearmed, but that was not enough for Four Armed Marl, who was hit by the beast and lifted from the ground before they could attack it. Fortunately Four Armed Marl could hang on grimly as the bird rose, and Barathos blinded the bird before it could flee far, stopping it from taking Marl too high. The rest of them fired slingshots and arrows at the thing, and managed to knock it down before it could take Marl over the edge of the building. It fell screaming and Marl rolled free with only a little damage.

Inside the nest they found bodies, which carried bullets, and a couple of eggs, giant things that would obviously soon give birth to Trash Hawks. Everyone thought of the stables, and they agreed that this would be a project of the Ark. Why have bitterbeast stables, when you can have Trash Hawk stables? What would the Helldrivers do then? They agreed to take the eggs back to the Ark after their journey was complete.

They trudged down from the building, stopping halfway down to rest and eat, and returned to the road that had carried them through this sector. They followed it west a short distance to a point where the dead trees began to falter and fall, and the land rose slowly into a new area of crumbling ruins. The air cleared and the road descended in amongst the ruins, their previous smooth journey returning to the familiar jumble of rubble, broken buildings and dense undergrowth. They picked their way through the ruins, seeking paths where they could move more quickly, and after perhaps an hour or two of careful walking stumbled into an open space rich with menace. It must have once been a junction or a market area, because it was wider than a simple crossroads. On four sides it was surrounded by the shells of old buildings, broken now but still stretching three or four stories towards the low-hanging clouds, and plunging the entire area into partial shadow. The fifth side of the place was open, but standing in the middle of this area was a kind of obelisk on a plinth, reaching perhaps 30 metres up. A skull and crossbones had been painted onto the plinth, standing as a stark warning – but against what? Did it mean they should not proceed further west beyond this square? Or did it mean they had already come too far?

In the middle of the square a hole opened into the ground. Surrounded by twisted metal railings, a set of steps led down into darkness. Was the skull and crossbones a warning against this? They moved closer and sniffed, but there was no scent of rot, just musty old empty tunnels. They decided to go inside.

You are here

The stairs led down into a semi-circular room, dark and musty but not rotten. Their lantern revealed more tunnels leading down further into darkness, with a strange barrier of intermittent metal blocks standing between them and these further tunnels. On one wall of the room, hidden behind mould and fungus, they found a strange diagram, all coloured lines and dots, that seemed to have a huge place of prominence in the room. They carefully peeled it off the wall and rolled it up to take back with them to the Ark, though they were not sure what it was. Then they headed past the strange metal blocks and on to the next tunnels, which plunged down into darkness at a steep angle. Footsteps clanged on metal steps as they began to descend. One of Bloody Jack’s gang balked at the darkness and fled in terror for the light, but Nischata and four-armed Mort stayed with him, and down they went.

They were halfway down when they heard them coming. They barely had time to react before the ceiling above the stairwell collapsed on them and they were attacked. They caught a brief glimpse of grey, slippery skin and huge dark eyes, mouths with many teeth, before someone smashed the lantern out of Nischata’s hands. There was screaming and chaos, but after a moment Barathos engaged his mutant power and the stairwell burst into light. They found themselves facing off with eight hideous monsters, naked humanoid figures with slimy grey skin, huge eyes and wicked claws and teeth. The beasts shied back from the light, their advantage in the darkness suddenly reversed to weakness in the light, but they did not run. One was already dragging Nischata down the stairs, leaving a great bloody smear along the side of the narrow stairwell from a huge wound in her ankle, and she was too stunned to fight back. Down below chittering and hissing sounds suggested that her fate would be brutal and slow.

They fought back. The battle was vicious and the grey men gave no quarter, but in the harsh glow of Barathos’ radiance the beasts eventually relented. The last two fled down the stairs and Grimshaw and Bloody Jack followed, but they decided against chasing these beasts too far into their own world. At the bottom of the stairs they found a long, narrow tunnel with a walkway on one side, which appeared to end at gateways to other tunnels and more stairs. Deeming it too risky to explore just yet, they retreated upward.

In the room with the metal blocks they found Bloody Jack’s cowardly gang member, Bennie, dismembered and half eaten. They fled to the surface, emerging into the half light of the shadowed square at a sprint and only stopping to rest when they were far away in the direction of the river, standing in a patch of pale sunlight. Barathos unrolled the strange picture and pointed to a spot with a larger circle and special writing. “I think we’re here,” he said, and drew his finger east and north in the general direction of the Ark. “Are these tunnels? These grey men – they can come up anywhere!”

They shuddered in horror, but there was nothing to be done – yet. Once they had weapons, and rocket fuel, then they could go back into those tunnels. Until then, they would have to trust the Ark’s defenses to hold…

They headed south to the river, and soon found themselves facing the bridge. The road rose a little and then joined the bridge, a long, simple structure with low balustrades on both sides, now overgrown with grass and bushes and fungi but not heavily enough infested to stop the helldrivers if they came over in force. Hopeful of finding some blockage further across, they ventured out onto the windswept open sweep of steel, picking their way between bushes and huge fungi.

They were halfway across when Grimshaw triggered something, and a huge explosion threw fire, twigs, grass and burning toadstool all over them. They hurled themselves away from the blast, and Barathos found himself lying on the ground staring at an unexploded bomb. Backing away carefully, he warned everyone not to move and began searching the rest of the bridge. He found more of the bombs – many more. Sometime long ago a flight of bombs had hit the bridge and somehow all of them had failed to explode, and now here they lay, waiting for some foolish traveling mutant to trigger them. Grimshaw had set off a bomb near the edge, but Barathos calculated that if the one in the middle of the bridge went off the damage would be devastating.

It only took them a moment to grasp the implications before Barathos set to work, carefully jury-rigging the entire collection of bombs into a single linked explosive. If anyone tried to drive across the bridge, they would bring the whole thing down. The work took him several hours of tense, careful work, but when he was done the problem of the helldrivers was solved. They could not now cross the bridge, and the explosion would be so loud that they might even hear it at the Ark. A perfect trap!

With that they retreated carefully from the bridge and returned to the Ark, skirting the entrance to the grey men’s lair and making time to collect the Trash Hawk eggs as they went. They were forced to sleep in the tower beneath the Trash Hawk’s nest, and returned exhausted and hungry to the Ark the following afternoon. The People greeted them in triump, cheering their egg prize, and speaking eagerly of hope for a better future. At the end of another hard adventure, our heroes stood at the gates of the Ark, looking south towards the distant river, and for just the briefest of moments as the clouds parted and the sun shone through, they felt their was some hope for them yet.

Then a sound drifted to them on the fresh breeze. The subtle scratching of wood blown against brick – or the snicker of a watching enemy? They thought of the sinister enemy crouching below the ground, waiting to pounce and stock its hideous larder, and retreated behind the newly-build barricades of the stadium.

Out in the dark, large black eyes blinked shut, and the shadows moved with vicious intent. The darkness watched, and waited.

 

Save

Next Page »