Reviews


The age of degenesis has begun ...

The age of degenesis has begun …

My group’s regular member Grim D returned from his annual Christmas holiday in Germany bearing a sleek black rule book for a German RPG called Degenesis, revised and newly translated into English. We were astounded by this book, both for the beauty of its contents and the scale of the project it represents, and as soon as we opened it we became obssessed. We played the first session of a short campaign last weekend, and this is my review of the good and points of this incredible game.

Overview

Degenesis is described by the developers as “Primal Punk” role-playing, set in a post-apocalyptic future 500 years after Eschaton, a meteor fall that laid waste to the earth, unleashed radical climatic changes, and released strange spores that mutate human and non-human life. In this far future humanity has regained some form of functioning society but struggles in a world ravaged by both the aftermath of disaster and the emergence of new, dangerous forms of genetic mutation called “homo degenesis”. Europe suffered the worst of the meteoric damage, and in the aftermath of the disaster Africa became ascendant – but Africa too suffers from the strange ecological changes that fell from the sky. Africans raid Europe to take slaves back to their rich lands, and the people of Europe pick over the bones of their past trying to recover even the smallest semblance of their past glory.

The rules are divided into two books: Primal Punk, which describes the world, and Katharsys, which describes the rules. In Primal Punk you learn in great detail about the history of the apocalypse and the strange things that happened afterwards, as well as the main cultures – Balkhan, Borcan, Neolibyan, etc. – that dominate the post-apocalyptic landscape and the cults from which character classes are drawn. By the time you’ve read 300 pages of history and cultural background, you are ready to begin creating a character you hope might survive this brutal ecological hellzone.

Fascist in a wetsuit

Fascist in a wetsuit

Raw passion and beauty perfectly combined

The first thing to say about this game is that it is a creation of unrivaled beauty. I haven’t seen anything as well designed and perfectly conceived since Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay back in the 1980s. The mere books themselves are a robust and imposing presence, two solid black (or white) minimalist tomes packed in an apocalypse-proof cardboard sleeve. They are constructed of high quality glossy materials, easy to read and handle, and liberally strewn with art of eye-catching beauty. The pages carry subtle prints that change according to the section, giving an atmosphere to the book without overwhelming the reader, and there are a series of symbols and iconography that are carried throughout the text. Chapters and sections of chapters start with quotes from a small cast of famous writers, ensuring that a coherent feeling of post-apocalyptic foreboding envelops the reader. Everything has a punk/skinhead/goth artistic style, as if the whole project were banged out in a squat in East Berlin to the sound of dark sub-cultural music – for example, the symbol for the Clanners cult looks a lot like something from an Einsturzende Neubauten album, and a lot of the iconography and imagery is drawn straight from pagan-core or deep ecologist/punk imagery. There’s also a healthy strain of fascist imagery and iconography throughout the text, most especially in the ever-present influence of the Spitalians, flamethrower-wielding medical extremists who will happily burn a village to save it.

Furthermore, there are movies: two trailers have been produced for the game which really beautifully capture the loneliness and desolation of the post-apocalyptic world, as well as the culture of the Spitalians who play a central role in the iconography and history of the game.  This is one of those projects were nothing was left to chance, no image or artwork allowed to jar with the theme of the books or their aesthetic, and every available medium has been used to ensure that the world completely engages its players. But what of the game itself?

Throwback in Borca ...

Throwback in Borca …

Culture, cult and concept: a simple and flexible character creation system

Characters are created by combining a culture, a concept and a cult. Cultures are the broad national groups of the post-apocalyptic world. The world has been torn asunder and smashed together, so that for example Britain, Ireland and France are merged into one culture. Choice of culture affects the upper limit that can be attained for some skills and attributes, and also the choice of cults available to the character. The player can then choose one of 20 or so concepts such as The Adventurer or The Chosen which further affect upper limits on skills and attributes. Finally a player chooses a cult, which determines yet more upper limits. Cults are broadly speaking the same as character classes, but most cults have a couple of different paths one can take. For example, I’m playing an Apocalyptic who specializes in deception and stealth (called a Cuckoo) but there are others devoted to battle or assassination; the Spitalians may be medics or they may be fighters, or a little of both.

Once these are chosen the player assigns points to skills and attributes, to take them up to their limit. The player must also choose whether their character will be primal or focussed; this choice rules out one skill and rules in another, and determines how a character will interact with the world. You can test all of this yourself with an online character generator, or see the stats for my character here. After this one also chooses backgrounds, such as resources, renown or authority, that affect your PC’s relationship to the cult of which he or she is a member.

Finally, cults have ranks, with names, and rank attainment depends on skills and backgrounds. These ranks come with benefits and responsibilities, and sometimes choice of one rank rules out development trees in others. This whole system in combination is very flexible and detailed and really makes a big break from the standard race/character class approach to character development. It also loads your PC up with a whole bunch of background narrative that extends far beyond the limited background one normally finds in fantasy systems. You haven’t even started playing and already your character is a rich and deep person…

Time ... to sacrifice everything

Time … to sacrifice everything

The system: Elegant dice pools and sudden violence

The system uses a d6 dice pool mechanism with the pool constructed from the sum of attribute and skill with modifiers, including penalty dice. Successes occur on a 4-6, and any 6 is an extreme success called a “Trigger” that enhances the outcome (e.g. every trigger is +1 damage in combat). More 1s than successes indicates a botch, and the target number of successes is set by the difficulty of the action or by an opposed skill roll by the target. For example, my character Sylvan has a 6d6 dice pool with his blade bracelet, and against an active target this will usually need to hit a target of 2. Every trigger adds one to damage, and the base damage for his blade bracelet is 3, so there’s a good chance he will hit someone who is not actively dodging and do 4-5 points of damage. He has a special talent (called a “potential”) that enables him to subtract 1d6 from the opponents active defense dice pool for every trigger he rolls, and if he rolls 2 triggers he gets a second attack. So if for example he rolls a 1,3,3,4,6,6 on his dice roll then he has three successes and two triggers. If his opponent is defending actively the opponent reduces his defense pool by two dice (for the two triggers). If his opponent fails to roll at least three successes then Sylvan will do 3+2 damage (for the two triggers) and then get a second attack (because of the two triggers). It’s a simple dice pool system that enables a rich range of outcomes without having to delve into multiple types of dice or special rules on criticals, etc. There are also systems of extended actions which enable triggers from the first part of the action (e.g. riding a horse) to carry over to the second action (e.g. attacking).

Combat is also very violent. Characters have a small pool of flesh wounds and an even smaller pool of trauma wounds, and they die when the latter hit 0. Armour takes off damage, but every trauma wound applies a -1D penalty to all actions. For example, my character Sylvan has a leather coat (2 points of soak), about 10 flesh wounds and 5 trauma wounds. A single crossbow bolt does 10 points of damage, so he will survive one if it doesn’t have too many triggers but will definitely go down to a second. The edginess of combat is further enhanced by the use of Ego in initiative. Characters have a small pool of Ego points (about 8 in Sylvan’s case) that they can use to boost initiative rolls and to add dice to the first action of the round. Initiative is rolled every round, and ego points are spent secretly. So if you spend 3 points in round 1 you get an extra 3D on your initiative and your first action, raising the possibility of killing your target instantly.

However, once your Ego reaches 0 you are unable to fight – and some characters attack Ego, which is recovered only slowly. Combat in this system is more vicious than anything I have seen in other games, and definitely best avoided. Especially since the best healers are eugenicist maniacs who will burn you as soon as treat you …

This extreme violence leads to one of the first problems I see with this game.

The flaws of an ultra-violent system

The adversary we killed in the first adventure, the Blacksmith, was a legendary figure in Scrapper history, but we wasted him in a round. This happened because the extremely violent system means that big bosses are vulnerable to large groups of low-level people. Even though he acted first, the Blacksmith could only harm one of us, and we were then all able to deliver 5-10 points of damage to him each in that first round. Tesla, in fact, delivered 22. Wounds and armour don’t scale with levels, so a Scrapper Cave Bear won’t have five times as many wounds as a beginning Scrapper. This means that if a GM doesn’t deploy a big boss with minions to screen him or her, the boss will go down in seconds. It also means that in order to have a boss tough enough to put up a fight, it’s likely the party will have to lose members quickly. This is fine if you’re into campaigns where people die quickly and get replaced, but many players aren’t and it creates strange narrative twists to have new characters popping up in the post-apocalyptic wilderness. I suspect it will also mean that players soon learn to start characters with specific weapons to ensure that they get the first death in combat. This isn’t a flaw per se, but I think it means the system will encourage a certain style of play and GMing that won’t be to everyone’s taste (fortunately, this style is very much to my taste!)

The problem of loaded histories

Another, potentially bigger problem this game faces may arise as a consequence of its own richness. Moreso than any game I have played except perhaps World of Darkness, this game has a deep and complex history and cultural milieu that is deeply interwoven with every aspect of character development and play. This makes it a great game to read and an awesome product just to have in your RPG library, but also means that the typical avenues of creativity and expression open to players and GMs may be shut down. For players there is always the option to build your own clan, giving some flexibility to character creation, but I think this richness and density of background material may be felt as constricting by some GMs. If you’re the kind of GM who likes to have a set of tools to build your own worlds with, then this game won’t work for you – once you’ve read the background material – and especially if your players are really into the background material – you’ll find it very hard to insert your own creative impulses into the game. I’m not GMing this system so I don’t know, but from the outside it looks to me like a game where the GM has to deploy their creativity very much within the confines of the given history and background, rather than against it. I think for some GMs this will make the game superficially appealing (all that rich material is ready to use!) but ultimately frustrating, because every action available to them is restricted by the canon.

Go get 'em!

Go get ’em!

Conclusion: Degenesis is a really great game

But oh what a splendid canon it is! And what a luscious, awe-inspiring introduction to that canon. Degenesis redefines standards in modern gaming, not only in terms of the sheer physical commitment to the production of the game but also the intellectual and artistic energy devoted to the content. This is no shabby low-grade kickstarter delivered late on poor-quality paper, but a real tour de force of creative energy by a small team who really have pushed the boundaries of what modern game designers are capable of. It’s fun to play, in a coherent and well-imagined world brought to vivid, stunning life by a high quality and beautiful physical product. Even if you never play it, this game is a worthwhile addition to your gaming library, but if you get it then I recommend you do try and play it because it is a simple, elegant and enjoyable system in a rich gaming world that has been brought to life for you with such loving attention to detail that you cannot help but want to wade into that spore-infested, violent future.

Enjoy it, but remember: There will come a time when you have to sacrifice everything!

Art note: the pictures are all from Marko Dudjevic, the artist for the game, whose work can be found on DeviantArt.

Review note: I am going to write a post in future specifically about the twisted politics of the game, including some of the controversy about the fascist imagery. I don’t think it detracts from the game, but more on that later.

Be sure to return your books before the due date ...

Be sure to return your books before the due date …

I’m in grim London for a week, doing some work at Imperial College while the looming skies glower down on me. One great thing about flying ANA to London is you get to see Japanese-language movies with English subtitles, something that’s almost impossible if you live in Japan. Since my Japanese is not yet good enough to properly understand TV (except, strangely, Darwin ga kita), I like to take this opportunity to enjoy a movie I wouldn’t otherwise understand. This time around I stumbled on Library Wars: The Final Mission, a hilarious movie about librarians at war with the state that ultimately made no sense and was vaguely unsatisfactory.

The basic premise of Library Wars is that the government has set out to censor all published work through the Media Betterment Act, but after a violent battle in which 17 people died the Librarian association declared themselves implacably opposed to censorship and established a Library Defense Force that responds violently to attempts to censor books. Naturally in the ensuing years things have escalated, and now there is this kind of hyper-violent kabuki drama in which the Media Betterment Committee turn up to a library and declare that they will inspect it; then the Library Defense Force refuse on the grounds of the Libraries Freedom Act Clause 33; then the Media Betterment Committee tells them they will attack the library for a period of one hour; then they shoot each other for an hour; then everyone goes home[1].

How this makes any sense to anyone is a complete mystery to me, but that’s the background. The movie follows a junior member of the Library Defense Force (LDF), a girl called Kasahara san who is (secretly) in love with her instructor, Dojo san, and is also a klutz and a ditz in a very charming way. She is based in the main base of the LDF, at Musashino (which is near my home), along with Dojo and random other characters. They are charged with escorting the original copy of the librarian association’s statement of principles to an exhibition on freedom at Ibaraki prefectural museum, where they will guard the book at any cost. As they prepare for this mission we see that the older brother of one of the LDF members, Tezuka san, is involved in a cunning scheme in conjunction with the Ministries of Education and Justice to destroy the LDF and end librarians’ independence.

The first half of the movie sees this scheme played out, largely pointlessly, and involving Kasahara san in a random kind of weird plot. Then the second half is an extended battle between the LDF and the Media Betterment Committee soldiers at the Ibaraki Prefectural library. This extended battle is a bit boring since it largely involves lines of soldiers with shields shooting at each other but it’s also hilarious because it takes place in a massive library, so there’s lots of shooting of books and stuff. Also Dojo and Kasahara san end up behind enemy lines so there’s a bit of skullduggery and hand-to-hand violence. There is a surprising amount of brutal slaughter by the end of it, certainly sufficient to convince me that being a librarian is a tough job. To me the ending of the whole thing didn’t make any sense, but then I didn’t really expect it to because how can a story involving a war between librarians and the government have any resolution that makes any sense? It’s madness.

The movie has several good points: the acting is good, Kasahara’s character is really cool (though why she likes grim arsehole Dojo is a mystery to me) and the scheming older brother Tezuka is a good evil dude. Some of the battle scenes are entertaining for either their stupidity or their brutality. But overall the movie suffers from a completely incomprehensible justification, an increasing chain of implausibilities that inevitably get built on top of this background, and a few sections that are emotionally overwrought but probably make sense if you’re into the valour and self-sacrifice aspects of war movies (I’m not; I just keep thinking to myself “this shit is not worth dying for”). Also, the link between the plot to undermine the LDF in the first half and the big battle in the second half is tenuous and not really even attempted, so it’s like a movie with two unrelated stories squished together for no apparent reason.

Like almost every Japanese sci-fi I have ever seen that is set in Japan, the movie also suffers from the tired “Agency A is in conflict with Agency B and they’ll kill anyone to win” basic narrative hook. You see this all the time going as far back as Ghost in the Shell, and I think it’s really boring and often incomprehensible (later Ghost in the Shell instalments have so many mysterious and poorly-explained organizations competing with each other that I just can’t be bothered). I see this plotline, along with the inevitable sacrificial near-total destruction of the good guys that happens in so many Japanese sci-fi movies, as an unresolved trauma from World War 2, where the Japanese defeat was at least partly due to conflict between Army and Navy and the war probably wouldn’t even have started if the idiots in the army had been willing to work with their own government instead of trying to overtake it. I also find this plotline annoying, boring and often incomprehensible, so I’d like to see it just dumped and some other kind of idea take its place. Of course that’s not going to happen for a Library Wars movie, since the Librarians Militant need someone to fight against and it wouldn’t be cool if they were murdering people who return late books (although a spin-off assassin movie on this theme could be fun I suppose). I probably should have thought of this before I turned on the movie, but it was fun fluff for a 12 hour plane trip.

In summary, I don’t think it’s a great movie but some of the characters are nice, it’s smoothly done, and if you want a fun two hours that you don’t have to think about too much that involves a lot of killing and shooting, I can recommend it.

Also return your books on time, or Kasahara san will break your arms.

fn1: More background can be found in the description of the novels on which this movie is based.

But it don’t make no difference
‘cos I ain’t gonna be, easy, easy
the only time I’m gonna be easy’s when I’m
Killed by death

I first encountered Motorhead when I was 14, at school in Australia. I had just moved to a new school (again!) and was getting bullied in my home room, so I was spending a lot of my time alone. In my home room was a sullen, muscly kid with a dark character, called Matthew, who was friends with a guy called Glenn – even more muscly, and rumoured to have been held back a year. Glenn had a scary reputation, but it was one of those high school reputations that has absolutely no backing – no one, when asked, could say why or what about him was scary.

One day Glenn came up to me in lunch and asked me in his rough and ready way that he had heard I was good at computers? Back when I was 14 being good at computers was a kind of novelty, and I had in fact done a one week long intensive course in BASIC a year earlier, so even though my family were too poor for a computer I was, for my time, pretty good at computers. Not too sure where this was going I said yeah I guess I am and he told me that Matthew was going to be held back a year just like Glenn had been if he didn’t pass computer class, and he didn’t get it all, and we were in the same class, so would I help? I was aware that Glenn had a reputation as the kind of boy to whom you can’t say no, but I also had a tendency not to do what other kids told me to do – a key skill when you’re being bullied at school.  However, I had noticed Matthew in class and was kind of sorry for him. I was just a year away from the abandonment of my brother by my family, who had left him in a children’s prison in the UK and moved to Australia, and I was sensitive to kids who couldn’t get it together at school. So I agreed to help.

Matthew passed computers, though I can’t say if it was my help or just because he tried. During the term that I was helping him, though, something remarkable happened – Glenn invited me to hang out with him and Matthew at lunch. It turned out that Glenn and Matthew were as outcast from school life as me, with no friends except each other, and they spent their lunchtimes in the school weights room, which no one else even seemed to know existed but which they had managed to score for themselves. We would eat our lunch in that hungry mechanical way boys do in about three minutes, spend a couple of minutes chatting while we let it settle, and then set to work on the weights. And while we lifted, we played Motorhead on the stereo. Sure, sometimes there was a bit of Anthrax or Suicidals, but mostly it was Motorhead because Glenn and Matthew were old school like that.

I have only a vague memory of that six months – my parents moved after six months of course, so my budding friendship with Glenn and Matt disappeared into the sludge of my childhood moves. But I do remember that Motorhead was the first music I took seriously in my teenage years, and those two boys were the first two boys who took me seriously. There we were, clustered around the bench press, Glenn pushing my body weight and then taking off all the weights so I could struggle with the bar, no judgments passed or scornful jokes made, just a group of young men making the best we could of our lunch hour. Compared to me their school days were harsh – I had been streamed into the top maths class and was enjoying my studies but for them school was an ongoing series of trials, trying to understand shit they just didn’t get, or understand why they had to get. Sometimes we would take our lunch hour out at the back of the playing fields, and they would get stoned and hang around with a couple of similarly outcast girls, with me tagging along sober.

Once I started hanging out with Glenn, the bullying stopped. Once I tried volleyball club, and some dickhead at volleyball club got in a fight with me in the car park, and Glenn wanted to know who? Where? And I had to ask him not to waste his time. For that rare six months, in that school, Glenn was my lucky charm, the first man who ever made me feel like I could be respected just for being alive and there, the first man who ever  understood the concept of mutual aid and just being good to each other.

And he was a stoner and a Motorhead.

After that I moved to another school, in the country on the edge of the desert, and when I arrived as usual I had nothing in common with anyone – except heavy metal. Motorhead opened doors for me, again mostly with the boys who were repeating the year because they didn’t take the first one seriously. Now we had Metallica, Megadeth and a whole new world of thrash that I would never even have known about if it hadn’t been for those six months in the weights room, with Glenn in his Motorhead singlet, thrash booming, the smell of sweat and iron …

Without those metal boys my high school would have been slightly less alive, largely a life of skulking around waiting to be hissed at by the popular kids. Through metal and role-playing (which of course those kids were doing) I found a group of people who took me seriously and cared about me. I can’t say that metal inspired those kids to be nice – after all, I’ve even heard that people who don’t listen to metal can sometimes be nice human beings – but it was definitely the soundtrack to my discovery of human kindness. And it was somehow appropriate, because that first breath of human spirit came from a pair of boys who were in their own way as cast out as I was, and we were all listening to music that was fundamentally about not compromising yourself, about rejecting people who reject you. Motorhead, especially, is about being yourself and not letting anyone drag you down.

This morning I learnt that Lemmy, lead singer of Motorhead, died suddenly of cancer. It’s hardly surprising given his claim to have drunk a bottle of Jack Daniels a day, and his huge smoking habit. He was 70, and playing gigs right up until last year. His band released a statement on his death which includes this simple, beautiful admonition:

We will say more in the coming days, but for now, please…play Motörhead loud, play Hawkwind loud, play Lemmy’s music LOUD.
Have a drink or few.

Share stories.

Celebrate the LIFE this lovely, wonderful man celebrated so vibrantly himself.

HE WOULD WANT EXACTLY THAT.

Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister

1945 -2015

Born to lose, lived to win.

That statement took me back to those teenage months with Glenn, when I was fumbling around learning to be a person for the first time. It’s probably hard for modern kids to get, but back then we were still wrestling with whether it was okay for girls to swallow, whether you should wait till your wedding day to do it, whether a single toke would get you addicted to heroin for life … there was a lot of fear of just living back then, and now that AIDS was stalking the earth there were new fears of transgression and sexuality. But metal was about living, it was about life, and it rejected all that old fussy stuff about what we should and shouldn’t do. Obviously it wasn’t just Motorhead, but Lemmy was ferociously present, he was living large and telling us all to be who we wanted to be. And we did just that, and our lives are better for it.

Lemmy’s death is obviously a big blow for metal. But on a deeper level, it’s a reminder to all of us of our mortality. If ever any man on this earth could keep living just by sheer force of will, it was Lemmy, but he was killed by death. If Lemmy can’t escape that caped doom with which he was so familiar, what hope do we have? Only one: to live our lives large and as we like them, regardless of the consequences, as he did, and dare Death to come and get us. Let death be the least of our experiences, and deservedly the last.

THIS! IS! SPARTA!

THIS! IS! YOKOSUKA!

For our final session of 2015 my group and I tried a short run through the Fantasy Flight Games zombie apocalypse role-playing game The End of the World, a rules-lite system intended to simulate zombie survival in a collapsing world. I’m going to give a very brief summary of the game we played, and then a short review of some aspects of this game, which had some good ideas but I felt fell a bit flat at the end.

The session

Our group were a university academic, game designer and computer programmer, based roughly on our own careers (see below). The adventure started with us playing an RPG in our friend’s apartment in downtown Tokyo, only to be interrupted by his housemate showing us a news report of a disaster at a nearby infectious disease research institute. A huge fire had broken out, and in running away from the fire a scientist tripped and spilled some kind of virus over himself. He promptly exploded in a shower of bloody vomit, and very quickly the area around the research institute was shutdown, with everyone warned to stay inside. That included us, gaming inside the zone where everyone was required to stay inside.

After an uncomfortable night in the tiny apartment we gave up on staying inside and went to the convenience store for supplies, only to find it full of scary sick people. We returned home, and decided to get out. Our friend Jimmy and his flatmate’s girlfriend Saito san came with us, in a car we borrowed from the landlord (this is Japan, this kind of thing happens). Our plan was to head to the US base at Yokosuka, because our game designer was a base boy originally and had American citizenship, and we had heard that America was evacuating, and we hoped to scam a lift with them. By now things were getting scary – the news was on a loop, the convenience stores deserted, and normally mild-mannered citizens turning murderous, and we had seen more than one person dying in an orgy of bloody vomit.

By the time we got on the roads chaos was starting to break out, with people in cars being attacked by other people who wanted to get out, and dead people visible in many places. But there were no zombies, it just seemed like some kind of outbreak and every scared of getting caught up in it. Escaping from one such group of no-good people we damaged the car, and pulled over at an overpass to steal two empty cars (a Prius and a Mustang!) sitting near the shadows of the overpass. As we approached the cars we heard sounds of growling and hissing from the shadows of the overpass, and suddenly a bicycle came flying out of the shadows and hit our car with such force that it shattered the window. Jimmy panicked and ran away down a side street, where something came out of the shadows at lightning speed, hit him and carried him away. We didn’t need any more encouraging – we jumped into the cars and hightailed it out of there, though nothing followed us out of that overpass. We crossed the Tama river and drove on, through streets that were alternately deserted or combat zones.

At the Yokosuka army base we were separated. They allowed the designer, Ishiba san, in, but we two and Saito san had to stay outside. As we sat there in our car wondering what to do the sun started to sink, and suddenly from all across Tokyo rose a howl of primal rage, as if monsters in the shadows were preparing to come out. We’d seen a few of these things slinking around in the shadows, and we decided it was best to hole up somewhere fast. Fortunately the programmer’s house was nearby so we drove to that in about 20 minutes, and got inside just as the sun fell below the horizon.

After that the trouble really started. Two beasts tried to get into our apartment but we prepared and ambushed them separately. Our programmer was training in sword fighting so between us we had a real steel sword, a wooden sword, and Saito san with a frying pan – she was a member of her university tennis club, and a dab hand with a heavy iron skillet. We took out two, but the second one broke my shoulder[1]. Meanwhile Ishiba san found the base attacked from within, and had to flee in a humvee, driving over a couple of the zombie creatures as he went. These zombies were not shambling weaklings, but some kind of undead werewolf-like creature, that shucked off human flesh after its transformation and turned into a howling beast of rage and hunger.

The game finished with us waiting out the night and then driving away to the edge of Tokyo. I suggested heading off to the radiation-affected area to hide, and another player suggested we should hide at the outskirts of Tokyo, going in during the day to steal supplies. That is where the adventure ended.

The game

The game was fun, but in some ways it didn’t work. I think part of the reason it didn’t work was simply narrative – we all knew it was going to be a zombie story and so there was no surprise or tension when they finally came out to play. There are three books in the series and a fourth planned, I think, so it might be better to run the session without any idea of how the apocalypse is going to happen, or even if it will, and then build a campaign that floats around that idea. In fact I have long thought of running such a campaign, starting in the 1950s or 1960s and being uncertain from the outset whether it will be a horror, alien invasion, nuclear apocalypse or something else. This system seems like it would be ideal for that, though our GM told us the online community has been saying it won’t work for campaigns.

The system also suggests that you play yourself, i.e. make a character that is based on your own traits. The system is really simple – three traits divided into offense/defense and one good and one bad point for each trait – so it would be easy to do this, but who wants to play yourself? I role-play to not be a loser, not to watch myself get eaten by zombies. So I vetoed that flat-out, and as a compromise between my preference (play people who can do stuff) and the book, we agreed to make characters similar in career and situation to ours. So I played a deeply arrogant medical doctor who was under investigation for unethical research practices, and secretly welcomed the apocalypse because it was going to derail the investigation.

That was more fun.

The system is interesting and brutal. You assemble a dice pool of positive dice based on your attribute, and negative dice based on the challenge of the task; all dice are d6s. Positive and negative dice cancel if they get the same numbers, and any positive dice left over that rolled below your attribute are successes; any negative dice left over are stresses. For example if you have an attribute of 4 and a difficulty of 1 you roll 4 positive and 1 negative die; one positive die may cancel the negative die if they roll the same; any remaining positive dice that roll under 4 are successes, and if the negative die doesn’t cancel you also suffer 1 stress. Stress accrues on the same stress track as damage, and there is a separate track for physical, mental and social damage. This is why my character died; he could have survived a single blow from the zombie (just) but he had previously accrued stress from skill checks. We realized very quickly that stress was going to be serious, and avoided skill checks after that, but even a couple are a problem. Combat was also brutal – you don’t get any defense skill, so if your enemy is some kind of insane rage zombie it rolls 5 dice to hit you with no negatives to cancel them. That’s a serious amount of damage, so anything with any ferocity or skill is a death trap.

I think the game is intended to be played this way – survival is unlikely and you need to be ready to roll up new characters regularly. But the system is so rough and fast that I suspect it might chew up interest along with characters. It does somehow manage to give a feeling of ordinary people in an ordinary world gone crazy though, so it seems like it is well suited to a zombie survival epic. The book is also very nicely laid out and stylish, so it’s worth getting if you’re interested in such an epic. I think, though, that you shouldn’t start playing yourself, and you might find yourself rapidly house-ruling it to make it bearable.

I’m not sure if zombie survival role-playing is possible now that the genre has been so completely and thoroughly dealt with by popular culture, but if you are interested in trying a gritty, dangerous role-playing game with lots of resources for different types and styles of zombie apocalypse, that is quick to pick up and easy to run, I recommend it. But be prepared to make a lot of rapid changes to the rules as they’re laid out if you want to enjoy it – and start by playing someone a little more interesting than yourself!

fn1: in the mechanic of the game, it killed me, but I made a check to survive but come back severely mauled.

[This review contains SPOILERS so please don’t read it if you haven’t seen the film].

I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Sunday, and really enjoyed the spectacle and the homecoming feeling of it, but reflecting on some of the things that niggled at me during the movie, I have decided now that it wasn’t a very good or indeed necessary addition to the series. There were many things to like about it: the first battle of the TIE fighters with the millenium falcon, much of what Kylo Ren does and his velvety Sithlord style, the spectacle of the space battles and the pace were all great. I must confess to nearly shedding a tear when Han Solo and Chewbacca emerged, and I thought it nicely reproduced the riotous colour and fantastical nature of the original series without overdoing CGI or grotesqueness. I thought all the main characters were great, really enjoyed Han and Leia’s gentle brokenness, and appreciated BB-8. I also appreciated the modernization and diversification of the cast, with a lot more women in positions of power and influence and a wider range of non-human races in the Republican forces, and I thought a lot of the dialogue hewed closer to the original spirit, without the heavy doom-laden pretentiousness (and humourless weakness) of the prequels.

In short, on a superficial level it was a great Star Wars movie and it seems to have earned great reviews (and a metric crapton of money) from a wide range of sources on that basis. But on reflection, there were a couple of major flaws with the movie that left me disappointed. Here I will present my main three criticisms of the movie, summarize a few more minor complaints with the content, and give my final feelings about this new series of three movies.

There was no narrative purpose.

Why was I in the cinema watching this thing? The prequels had an obvious purpose, which was to tell the story of the rise of the Empire and overthrow of the Republic, track Vader’s fall from grace and the destruction of the Jedi, etc. In a narrative sense it was necessary, though obviously once we had watched these crawling abominations we all agreed that from an artistic perspective these movies were not only a disaster, but risked wrecking the legacy of the originals. So in this new set of movies, we need a reason to be watching. But what is that reason? At the end of Return of the Jedi we are led to believe the Empire is broken, peace has been won, and the order restored, but at the beginning of this movie there is some sinister new evil force afoot that isn’t just a remnant of the old Empire – it is much more powerful. Our escaping stormtrooper makes it out to be some kind of panopticon in its powers, and it seems to be able to build a death star that dwarfs even the supposedly unprecedented engineering feat of the last one. It appears that in a short space of time everything that happened in the original movies has been not just undone but seriously stomped all over, and yet still this time there is a Republic (not a Rebellion) and the war is ongoing. We are given no reason to understand how this happened, or why we should be throwing in our lot again with the same crew of people who somehow allowed this to happen. Implicit in this collapse of the Republican peace is a big question – will this galactic war ever end? When we joined the original crew in A New Hope we did so on the assumption that somehow they would prevail, as good always does in these kinds of movies, and there would be an ending. But now that victory is not just under threat, it has been comprehensively undone. So why should we suffer through all this stuff again – just to see it fail again? What are we doing here …?

It feels like a family story

I hate the way the prequels decided to keep everything in the family, and even though they preceded the original movies they still managed to find ways to include people connected to those original movies – C3PO, Boba Fett’s dad for Christ’s sake – rather than finding a new cast and drawing them together into the story of Vader’s downfall and the rise of the Empire. It’s even worse in this new movie – we get the entire original cast back, Kylo Ren is Han Solo and Leia’s son, and the entire movie is structured around the quest for Luke Skywalker (who I bet turns out to be Rey’s dad). Also, Kylo Ren is a Vader fanboy, even though he is not related to him, which undermines his character by making him into some kind of pimply evil boy wannabe rather than a serious threat, but also reminds us that nobody in this story can be independent of the originals. Couldn’t we have an evil guy who didn’t give a toss about Vader, and who was not related to the original cast, so that those cast members could just do a cameo to anchor us to the previous stories before we go off on our new journey? There are stars without number in this galaxy, and more humans than grains of sand on Dune, yet somehow the same four people really count for the entire future of the galaxy? This risks turning the whole thing into a sitcom or soap opera, rather than a galaxy-spanning epic.

It copied too much from the original

Sometimes it’s a good idea to copy the plot for a sequel from the previous movie. The best example of this is Terminator 2, which is an excellent movie that basically precisely follows the plot of the original movie, with The T-800 in the role of Kyle Rees. Even attacks on police stations and overturning trucks occur in the exact same sequence – you’re watching the same movie, but loving its freshness and brilliance anyway. But this doesn’t work in The Force Awakens, somehow. It has a lot of similar scenes and the key details are the same. For example: A droid lost on a desert planet brings a plea for help to a young dreamer desperate to escape; they escape from the desert world in the Millenium Falcon, chased past star destroyers by TIE fighters; everyone is looking for a lost, old Jedi who is hiding from responsibility in shame at his failed pupil; Han Solo and his young supplicants make their plans in a pan-galactic bar; there is an attack on a death star, including x-wings flying down a tunnel to put precision ordnance on a weak spot; a major planet is destroyed by that star destroyer simply to send a message; while the young idealist looks on, her elderly hero is killed in a sacrificial scene by an evil sith lord. The only thing JJ Abrams really did was change the faces, and move the elements around a bit. But while the power of the scenes copied for Terminator 2 was in their visual impact and style, the power of many of these scenes in A New Hope is in their emotional impact and freshness. We don’t get that same impact the second time round, because they aren’t fresh anymore. Sure Solo’s death is pretty shocking, and the lead up is visually cool, but the rest of these moments don’t hold the same power the second time.

How this is all going to go wrong…

None of these aspects of the movie would be a problem in isolation – they might even be good points – but in total they give the impression of a movie that has been made more so that we can wallow in the past glories of the original series, rather than that we can carry that series forward. It’s a homage to the joys of the original more than anything new, and worryingly it is in its newest elements that it is weakest. Of course I’m happy to see a well-constructed homage to the original series, but there were many aspects of this new movie that weren’t well done. For example, in the original Millenium Falcon traveling at light speed takes time – long enough for a game of chess and a bit of Jedi training – but in this movie people zip about the galaxy as if they were popping out to the shops; in the original Vader was an indestructible, intense and unstoppable force for evil who cut his own son’s hand off, but in this one Ren can be taken on by some random stormtrooper who picked up a sword. In the original the Empire can make a death star that is capable of destroying planets but is vulnerable to a carefully-placed proton torpedo; in this one the death star is the size of a planet and actually channels the raw power of suns, but is just as vulnerable as the original; in the original the Millenium Falcon is picked up by a Star Destroyer because it was on its way to Alderaan, but in this one it is nabbed by Han Solo’s freighter because even though it had been lost for 10 years he got an alarm as soon as the engine turned on and was able to instantly get to the right place at the right time to find it. We overlook these weak points because they’re being blasted at us at a million miles an hour by JJ Abrams’ tight-paced directing, but there are a whole series of major flaws in the story that bode ill for the future of this series. In combination with the nostalgic turn through memory lane and the dependence on scenes and tropes from the original, it makes me think that this movie is more a series of set-pieces tied together by a weak plot than a legendary adventure. If so, once Abrams’s homage shtick starts to wear thin, I fear things will unravel badly. Remember, this is the JJ Abrams who made the absolutely terrible Star Trek reboot with the flamingly bad time travel story; if you doubt that his directing is weak, you can check out the long list of problems with the new Star Wars movie here. This doesn’t bode well for the next two movies.

My hope is that for the next two movies we will follow a dark and bitter story in which Skywalker’s anger at Solo’s death leads him on a path of ruin into the dark side and out again, perhaps redeeming himself and uniting dark and light side at the end. I don’t think that’s going to happen, though: I think JJ Abrams is going to come unstuck once he runs out of nostalgia to back him up, and is going to make two increasingly woeful and hole-filled movies that betray the original three movies just as surely as the prequels did. Of course I’ll watch them anyway (or at least, the next one); but I wonder if perhaps it might have been better to take this series out the back and put it down long before now.

The New York Times has today published an editorial on the front page of the printed issue, demanding an end to the gun epidemic in America. This is apparently the first time since 1920 that the NY Times editorial has been on the front page, and this is apparently a sign that the editorial is Very Serious. The seriousness of the placement is slightly weakened by the fact that the last such decision – in 1920 – was to publish an editorial about the decision to select a presidential contender no one has ever heard of – a newspaper publisher who became a popular president but whose legacy has been undone by a scandal so puerile it is named the Teapot Dome scandal. On such stern foundations are NY Times front page editorial legacies built.

The editorial’s seriousness is much more seriously undermined, not by the history of liberal East coast blathering, but by the weakness of its content. This editorial purports to be a strong statement on gun crime, and is being sold as such by the NY Times itself and by various news agencies across the nation, but what it offers is nothing more than platitudes and grandstanding. Specifically, it doesn’t do any of the following things.

  • It doesn’t lay out a specific program: Although this editorial demands legislative action to end gun crime, it doesn’t specify anything. What should be done? It mentions the desire to end the sale of semi-automatic weapons but it doesn’t give any concrete plans about how to remove these weapons from circulation and use. A call for action on such an issue should either reference existing campaigns that have concrete plans, or lay out a set of plans of its own. At the very least the USA is going to need an assault weapons buyback scheme, but this isn’t mentioned.
  • It doesn’t attack the Republicans: In the third paragraph the editorial twice mentions how “America’s elected leaders” have rejected gun control legislation, but doesn’t single out the party primarily responsible for this problem and doesn’t make any effort shame them for their constant rejection of sanity. “Both sides do it” is a journalistic trope but it’s completely invalid in the US context where the majority of opponents of gun control are Republicans, and high profile Democrats have repeatedly and vociferously called for national lawmakers to grow up on this issue.
  • It doesn’t attack the NRA: Those three letters don’t appear anywhere in the editorial, even though everyone knows that the NRA’s power to hijack electoral processes is at the core of the legislative gridlock on this issue. How can an editorial on gun control in America be hard-hitting and serious if it doesn’t mention the pervasive and pernicious influence of this insurrectionist and racist movement? At the same time as this editorial was published Igor Volsky was running a high profile Twitter campaign to expose the influence of NRA money on Republican politicians, and the issue of “thoughts and prayers” was prominent in national media, but the NY Times couldn’t even look sideways at this aspect of the debate …
  • It doesn’t demand repeal of the second amendment: No one is going anywhere on gun control in the USA until the 2nd Amendment is repealed, but the only reference to the amendment in the editorial is the ridiculous claim that “It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment.” Quite the contrary: given the impossibility of debating the wording, the only choice is to abolish it. Given that this amendment suggests the existence of a “well-regulated” militia that in the modern American context is obviously incapable of even poor regulation, the only option is to abolish this amendment. Why is it hard for the NY Times to say this obvious fact? Because if they did so they wouldn’t be “serious”. “Serious” newspapers claim that both sides do it, and look for leadership to cross the partisan divide, and realistic solutions. But none of this applies to gun control: only one side is doing it, leadership won’t help, and realistic solutions are currently impossible. This means that media organizations who fancy themselves to be activists need to transcend the usual journalistic bullshit and say something serious about the real problems the country faces. Apparently the super-serious NY Times can’t rise to this simple journalistic challenge.
  • It doesn’t name and shame: The very first comment on the article is a demand for a list of legislators who have been bought off by the NRA, consistent with Igor Volsky’s Twitter campaign. The NY Times cannot name a single politician (even “machine gun bacon” Cruz) who should be singled out for opprobrium about the horrors that have been perpetrated in America in the past year. Why should politicians who stand opposed to simple, reasonable checks on mass murder get a pass from the newspaper of record? Because it is a weak rag that prefers grandstanding to solutions. Publish the names of those who oppose gun control measures, and publish the full details of their political donations and support from the NRA. Furthermore, suggest a legislative and activist agenda to solve this problem. The NY Times can’t do either.

Achieving gun control in America – or, alternatively and more realistically, reducing gun deaths significantly – is going to require detailed, serious work on legislation and public health initiatives. The NY Times has offered nothing in support of the actions that might change the situation in the USA. My personal opinion is that gun control alone is not going to be successful in the USA, because there are so many guns in circulation and so much opposition to giving them up. Solving this problem in the USA is going to require innovative solutions, which I think will include:

  • Gun buyback schemes that will be expensive and probably not very successful
  • Major changes to the way the criminal justice system and law enforcement personnel deal with criminals, especially black criminals, to reduce the risk of reoffending and improve reintegration
  • Special laws holding gun companies accountable for crimes committed with their weapons, even those sold years ago, so that they are held responsible for their recklessness
  • Campaign finance reform so that the NRA cannot dominate elections
  • Criminalization of the NRA as a hate group
  • Tax changes so that guns and ammunition become prohibitively expensive
  • Voluntary (or, if that fails, mandatory) guidelines for media organizations that stop them broadcasting any details of mass shootings, thus discouraging future mass shootings
  • Revocation of the Dickey Amendment that prevents federal funding of research into gun crime
  • In place of or in addition to that, private foundations such as the Clinton foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) need to commit serious funds to not just research into gun crime, but also supporting candidates who support gun control. BMGF should commit to funding election campaigns at a rate 10 times that of the NRA (this will probably require constitutional changes at the BMGF) and fund gun crime research to a level that precisely replaces what the government would have funded
  • Personal liability laws that make individuals responsible for the cost of injuries from their guns, including guns accidentally fired by children, and the requirement of all gun owners to have insurance
  • Strict laws holding insurance companies liable for failure to protect citizens injured by gun owners covered by insurance
  • Public information campaigns to shame gun owners and make them unmanly
  • Divestment campaigns forcing pension funds, investors and foundations to get rid of any investments they have in gun companies
  • If possible, stricter rules on investing that make it hard for gun companies to raise new funds

If you can’t ban guns, you can make them uncool, expensive and risky investments. You can embarrass individuals who like them, and make the cost of owning them financially and socially prohibitive, then offer financial remedies for people who want to turn in their guns. Even if you can’t ban them, you can make owning them difficult, expensive and embarrassing.

Or you can grandstand for effect, and achieve nothing. The New York Times obviously thinks the latter is easier and more rewarding than the former.

Evolution of a New Atheist

Evolution of a New Atheist

Recent events in global politics seem to have brought the spit-flecked anti-Islamic radicalism of the New Atheists out into the open. Dawkins has had a bit of a thing about Ahmed Mohamed that is perhaps a little strange, but his most recent tweet drawing some kind of weird parallel between Mohamed and some poor child in Syria who was forced/brainwashed into beheading a soldier is really kind of off. Meanwhile in a podcast Sam Harris announced that he would rather vote for Ben Carson than Noam Chomsky because Ben Carson understands more about the Middle East.

Vicious, slightly unhinged attacks on children, and voting for a religious madman because he would keep out religious madmen seem like prima facie evidence for some kind of fevered new level of anger, so is it the case that the New Atheists are finally letting the mask slip, and revealing their prejudices in their full, naked glory? Harris is apparently an atheist but he would vote for an avowed born again christian who is completely immune to facts and probably wants to force the end of separation of church and state: when you vote for someone who is anathema to all your fundamental beliefs because of one specific policy you are signalling your policy preferences very clearly. Meanwhile, Dawkins is just … whatever he was trying to say with that tweet, it wasn’t pretty. Have recent events finally caused them to lose it?

Just recently I wrote an angry post about the Church of England trying to invade my leisure time, so in the interests of balance I think it’s only fair that I have a go at the New Atheists, who I find just as annoying in their own special way, though ultimately I think they’ll be far less influential than the current Archbishop of Canterbury. By the New Atheists I mean that crew of sciency types who publish books about how terrible religion is and affect to be experts on all things religious: people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers. Although I don’t doubt their atheism, I think they aren’t really acting first and foremost as atheists. Rather, I think they’re establishment scientists reacting in a particularly atavistic way to two kinds of insurrection that really make them feel threatened: the American vulgarist insurrection against science, which is primarily (but not only) driven by fundamentalist Christianity; and the Middle Eastern reaction against colonialism and imperialism, which has sadly shifted from a politically nationalist framework to an avowedly religious framework. The former threatens them intellectually and the latter threatens their identity, so they react viscerally. But in their visceral reaction I don’t think they’re acting against religion generally, and I think their visceral reaction is not a good thing for atheism. Even if they weren’t straight up reactionaries, I think they make poor spokespeople for atheism (to the extent that atheism is a movement of any kind). Here I would like to give a few reasons why.

The New Atheists will never change anything

In attacking Islam so vociferously, the New Atheists have chosen an easy target, but they aren’t going to change anything in Islam, and in any case they can’t even change Christianity. They don’t live in majority Islamic countries, so they’re in no position to make any changes to Islam; and by aligning themselves so closely with the Islamophobia of the religious/militarist right in the USA they instantly render any serious critique they have of Islam inaudible. In any case, Islam is not a monolithic entity like the Catholic church, it has no central leaders or doctrines, so there is no single force they can bend to their prodigious will. But even within their own Christian countries they’ll never effect any change because they’re going about it completely the wrong way. Religions can be institutionally monolithic, like the Catholic church or the Church of England, but they’re also diffuse and incredibly culturally resilient. You can’t change a religion by standing outside it yelling at it, because a strong religion is composed of both a powerful religious institution and a plurality of supporters, who are in a constant cultural tension with that leadership but identify strongly with what that leadership represents. Religions don’t change because people yell at them because changing a religion requires simultaneously changing its intellectual leadership and its adherents.  The best way to change a religion is to slowly move all of society forward, through technological, scientific and cultural advances, and then watch the religion catch up. It’s slow, hard, dirty work, the kind of work you don’t get accolades for and can’t distill into self-aggrandizing tweets, but that’s how religions change. Perhaps the best secular example of this is the relationship between labour unions and labour parties in the early part of the last century in countries like Australia and the UK. To change policy in those environments you had to be active in the union, working at the grassroots, but also active in the elite system of the unions and its associated mass politics. People like Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam emerged from that environment and they were formidable intellectuals with a very practical understanding of both the levers and the limits of power. Of course, the New Atheists aren’t going to have much of a sense of class politics, so they probably don’t have a clue about the secular equivalents of what they’re dealing with, either.

Furthermore, it’s often the case that the leading agents of change are people within the religion – your Martin Luthers and Gandhis – not angry outsiders. One hundred years from now, when Islam has moved forward to wherever it’s going, people will look back and say “look at that Turkish dude who reformed education in the 21st century” and “how about that Sudanese chick who campaigned against genital mutilation”. No one will be thanking Richard Dawkins for tweeting a picture of an ISIS child soldier brutalizing and being brutalized[1]. These people will never change anything.

Scientists are not good Atheists

There’s a kind of intellectual arrogance in the “elite” branches of science – physics, biochemistry, some parts of evolutionary biology – in which they believe that they can enter any other field of human endeavour and just pwn it with their superb intellectual skills. This is visible at its most nakedly ugly in the behavior of those cosmologists who think they are going to disprove (or discover!) god, and those terrible nuclear bomb makers who turned the whole thing into a sick parody of childbirth. But in this case it means that scientists are entering a world that is very unscientific, that has a completely different language and culture, and trying to understand it in terms that make sense to scientists, and thinking they can. This is why they seem to think that religions are anti-science because their books are kooky, and they think they can effect change through logical debate built on attacking the principles of those books. In science you look at founding principles and build arguments on them; in religion you play fast and loose with founding principles in pursuit of a story (or something; I’m not really au fait with how this stuff works). Yelling at people and claiming to be able to understand the way their religion works because you’re used to logical thinking is not going to get you very far. Laughing at silly origin stories (7 days! ha!) doesn’t get you very far because – newflash – most people don’t give a fuck about how smart you are until they need you to fix their TV and then they’re all like “what do you mean you study geckos?” When you engage with people outside of your field of expertise you need to set aside your field of expertise, or find a way to bring it to the engagement that doesn’t appear arrogant and out of touch. Which brings us to …

The New Atheists are poor scholars

Every field of intellectual inquiry has its own rules, its own language and its own disciplines. You can’t just go into another field of inquiry and start talking about it with the language and discipline of your own field – you’ll misunderstand and get confused. If you talk statistics with a statistician, you need to understand what “consistency” means; if you discuss economics at some point you need to come to terms with their weird and stupid definition of “efficiency”. Believe it or not, religions have their own language and disciplines, and the study of religion is a long-standing and well-respected intellectual field, connected with cultural studies, social science and art theory/history. But the New Atheists don’t give a fuck about that, they just barge on in and start arguing. This is most obvious in Sam Harris’s embarrassing little spanking from Noam Chomsky, where he thought he could engage in debate with one of the preeminent scholars of American foreign policy on the basis of a single reading of just one of his books (“I thought I could read it as a self-contained whole,” what, do you think it’s a Little Golden Book?), without any of the disciplines or scholarly background of international relations. It’s also obvious in the response of scholars of theology to Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which panned it as, for example, work that would make a first year theology student wince[2]. This is what happens when otherwise intelligent, well-educated scientists decide that they can enter into other scholarly debates without the proper debate and, dare I say it, the proper respect. And this is the real problem here: they don’t understand or respect the religious impulse or its history, they don’t respect anyone who believes differently to them, and they base their scholarly approach to religion on this lack of respect for its intellectual origins. This is very, very stupid. For much of human history religion was the wellspring of science, and almost all of our modern intellectual tradition is built on Catholic, Muslim, Jewish[3] or Hindu science. When a scientist goes into their world that scientist is dealing not with weird, kooky idiots who think the world was made in 7 days, but people who understand science and theology, and are comfortable believing in one while working in the other. You can’t knock these people over with second rate arguments about whether god could make a stone so heavy even he couldn’t lift it, and when you try they’ll come back at you with sophisticated discussion of exactly where that question fits into a range of epistemological, ontological and cosmological debates.

These religions didn’t develop through 1000 or 5000 years of history because they had a complete disregard for scholarly endeavour. But the New Atheists approach the mysteries of religion as if they were a first year biology problem. That’s bad scholarship, derived from a lack of respect, which is why I can say that …

They give atheism a bad name

Being an atheist doesn’t mean you think everyone who believes in God is an idiot. Sure, there are some cute jokes about sky fairies and stuff, but they’re rhetorical fluff, not to be confused with the substance of how atheists should (and generally do) approach believers. To me, first and foremost, atheism is about inquiry. I’m fascinated by all this stuff that goes on in this amazing and beautiful world, and that doesn’t just mean I’m interested in what will happen to the polar bears when the ice melts; it also means I want to know what my Muslim colleague thinks about things he maybe didn’t have to think about before he moved to Japan, or what my lapsed Catholic friend thinks about Shinto. It doesn’t mean that I just dismiss all that stuff as dumb-arsed imaginary-friend psychological props. It also doesn’t mean that when I see a member of a certain religion (I’m looking at you Mr. Mohammedan) doing a terrible thing I should immediately decide that all people from that religion are insane arse-hats. But please forgive me if that’s how I interpret the recent behavior of the New Atheists, who seem to have got a real bee in their bonnets about Islam, and are really seriously concerned that it’s the end of civilization. By throwing away their critiques of other religions, siding with religious lunatics, and dropping all pretense at mild manners or rational debate, they make it pretty clear that they have a certain, specific animus against a certain, specific religion. They look, in fact, like racists. Some of them also look like unreconstructed sexists. But in the modern era, they are also the main voice of atheism that most people recognize. Which means that in the public mind they speak for me.

My Muslim colleague is very concerned about the image of Islam that ISIS project. He sometimes talks about it with me – raises the terrible things they have done, tries to talk about how they are perceived by people not like them – and I can see he is worried that I might get a bad idea of his religion from the antics of its worst children. He also makes jokes about his own religion, and is comfortable dealing with the social conflicts living in Japan presents. It’s as if he is just a normal guy trying to get by in this crazy world, who believes some different stuff to me. But to hear Sam Harris’s latest utterings, he’s a monster waiting to blow me up. Or he might be, or something. When people say shit like that about any other group you back away slowly, or you give them hell. But these guys think they’re cool with it, and as the tide of public opinion turns against Islam I guess, increasingly, they will be. But sometime in the future, once ISIS are a bad memory (and they will be!), people will remember that those dudes were atheists, and they will assume that atheism is about racism and hatred or, at best, that it is completely attuned with popular opinion about who the latest bad guys are. Which it isn’t. Atheism is much bigger than that. It is much bigger than this small group of arrogant rich white scientists, and the sooner they let it go and give it back to us the better.

Atheism is not a movement and never will be

At the heart of this is a simple fact that perhaps we didn’t have to think about back when our spokesperson was Bertrand Russell, a man who would never have supported the Iraq war: Atheism is not a movement. It is the antithesis of a movement. It’s a group of people who have quietly decided to go their own way on this spiritual shit. We just don’t do it, but there’s no movement we can form to make that fact public – how can we? We don’t agree on anything! Sure, the Satanists are doing a great job of trolling some Christians in a completely cute and fun way, but they don’t represent us and no one thinks they do. We aren’t A Thing. Sure, sometimes we’d like to be – those atheist bloggers in Bangladesh might not have been killed if they were part of a movement with its own stormtroopers – and being part of a movement has many benefits, but that’s not what Atheism is. In it’s own way it’s as intense and personal as religion, it’s a feeling you have that you can’t project onto anyone else although the best of us will put our case carefully and wait for those we love and care about to maybe feel it, or maybe not. But I think the New Atheists would like us to be a movement, and I think you know who they think should be in charge of that movement.

But I don’t to be part of any movement that turns my inner life into a caricature of itself so they can spit on Muslims and use child soldiers as a rhetorical tool in some kind of shitty twitter war over a fucking clock. I don’t want to be part of any movement whose leaders think they’re intellectually superior to a couple of billion people, and I don’t want to be part of any movement whose representatives would vote for a religious lunatic who’s probably a con artist just because he hates the same people they do.

Once this war on Islam is done – and it will be done, once ISIS are gone, and they will be gone – these New Atheists will discover how fickle their new bedfellows are. When their new anti-Muslim fundamentalist christian friends kick them out, don’t welcome them back. Tell them they sold themselves cheap, and they can be footsoldiers in someone else’s intellectual battle. Atheism doesn’t need them, and neither do the religious people they think they’re helping.

fn1: Seriously WTF were you thinking, dude? Have you been following the movement against child soldiers, are you aware of what a complex, cruel and brutal thing the recruiting and enslavement of child soldiers is? Do you understand that the media have conventions about showing child victims? When the BBC interviews child soldiers they pixelate their faces. What were you thinking, comparing an American kid to a child soldier in the act of beheading someone? Do you have any respect at all for human dignity?

fn2: Read that review. That is how reviews are done.

fn3: Noam Chomsky, for example, grew up in a Jewish tradition heavily steeped in Jewish intellectualism.

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