Reviews


The Three Fairies

Recently after a week in London for work I took a trip back to the area of Britain where I grew up, in particular Wiltshire, where I spent a couple of years of my childhood. I think I lived there for about four years from the age of about 6 to about 11 (the details are hazy, as there were many moves in that time and also a period in New Zealand). In addition to some maudlin wandering along the rivers and fields of my youth, I also did a fairly intensive tour of some of Wiltshire’s prehistoric sites. I visited Avebury, Stonehenge, Old Sarum, Silbury Hill and by accident a bunch of ancient stones called the Rollright stones. I also spent the better part of a day at Salisbury Cathedral, which is a beautiful building.

The Rollright Stones

I visited these on the way to Salisbury from the Tolkien exhibition in Oxford. At the time I visited unfortunately English Heritage were holding some kind of local event where local schoolkids could fill in some of the missing parts of this stone circle, which was unfortunate because their efforts were woeful. There was also a sculpture by David Gosling, The Three Fairies, which is the picture at the top of this post. These stones were typical of the kind of things you find in this part of Britain, just random ancient structures sitting at the edge of someone’s field, carrying five millenia of wear and largely unknown except to the locals. Set in the sweeping hillside of golden harvest corn under a flint sky the stones are both mundane and majestic, an unprepossessing memory of a time before any religion or ideas that we know.

Holy spaces

Salisbury Cathedral and the spire

I had the pleasure of visiting Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday morning, which meant I had the opportunity to hear the choir and the morning service. The inside of Salisbury Cathedral is a stunning and majestic monument to the hubris of the ancient christian church, and also to its sense of awe and holiness, and it is easy to spend a long time lost in here, fussing over its tiny details and occasionally stepping back to enjoy the grandeur and stillness of the huge hall. It is not thronging with visitors as are some great Cathedrals, so it still maintains a sense of being a working church rather than a relic. In the afternoon, wandering around the main hall again, I was able to listen to the choir practising for the evening service, which simply added to the feeling of being in a working place of worship rather than a tourist trap.

The original spire supports

Despite it not being a tourist trap, I paid for the tour of the spire, and took a precarious and occasionally disturbing climb up to the top of the original tower, to look at the archaic machinery of the spire. The spire is the tallest in England, and was built about 800 years ago, so it is something of an architectural miracle for its time. Although it was strengthened and repair work was done by Christopher Wren, much of the internal structure remains the same as when it was built, even using the same wooden supports and the same material in the arches, which is a little disturbing when you’re standing 70 m above the ground being told that the whole thing is being held together by the work of some engineers 800 years ago. It’s also very impressive to think about the risks they took and the effort they expended to venerate their god. A god, it should be remembered, that is quite new in the world, and which supplanted much older gods whose own holy sites are scattered around the town where Salisbury Cathedral was built.

Approaching Avebury

Avebury

After Salisbury Cathedral I visited the first of these old holy sites, Avebury. This is a massive circle of stones that forms part of a religious complex about an hour north of Salisbury. The stone circle runs around a whole small village, and within that larger circle is a smaller circle. Along the road to Avebury serried ranks of stones point the way to the circle itself, forming a kind of avenue leading up to the town. All around the town are old burial mounds, one of which is open for visitors to enter, and at a little remove from the town is Silbury Hill, a 32m tall artificial hill built out of chalk by the neolithic fanatics who lived around here. The whole area has the feeling of a religious complex, like a Mecca or Rome for ancient pagan ideas. In the museum at the centre of the stones we learn all about what we know about these religious beliefs in the Old Gods – which is nothing. No one knows anything about why they were built or even, to a great extent, how, and the entire enterprise of archaeology is one of speculation and wonder. It is certainly easy to wonder at these stones – by modern standards dumping a big stone in a paddock is hardly an effort, but standing silent and inscrutable in their crumbling glory, ordered according to some religious codex that defies comprehension, they hold a sense of splendour and awe. It’s easy to imagine that there is something about this land that we don’t know, something these stones could tell us if we only knew how to ask. But we don’t, so they stand there grimly defying both our science and our philosophy, warning us that our own human heritage is a mystery to us.

Stonehenge in the summer

Stonehenge

Stonehenge is the apotheosis of these religious wonderings, of course, but when I was a child it was a pretty naff place, just a bunch of hard-to-reach stones that were kind of disappointing when you got up close, and you weren’t even allowed to touch them. Later, when I lived in Britain in 2008 I visited again, but this time there was a car park and a weird stupid tunnel that led you “back in time” to the stones, and they didn’t really impress at all. But now they are much better presented, and I was able to approach them by walking parallel to the old neolithic way, seeing them first on the horizon and then closer and closer as I marched up the hill. I had a map of the layout of the neolithic monuments that surround the stones, including the Avenue, which may have been part of some ancient ceremonial arrangement. By the time I reached the stones themselves they had taken on their full height and splendour, and even the hordes of visitors could not detract from the sense of being in the presence of something mystical and special. They’re huge, they’re impressive, they are a complete mystery to us, and they stand there slowly crumbling on a time scale humans cannot comprehend, reminding us that once we were so incredibly wild and primitive that we held strange worship of strange constellations on windswept hilltops. Under perfect summer weather it was possible to imagine myself back in time, looking at these stones as a visitor to a religious ritual, and to imagine that in their own way they were as awe inspiring as Salisbury Cathedral would have been to its congregants 5000 years later. The people changed immeasurably over that time, but their passion for worshipful displays of piety obviously did not.

Imagining ancient worlds

Spending two days wandering through all these stones and ancient sites inevitably focused my mind on role-playing worlds, and I began imagining the neolithic world as an adventure setting, perhaps using the Mutant system or some free-flowing variant of WFRP3. This would be a great world for adventuring, a small and narrow world to explore intimately, rich with forests and stocked with natural hazards, where any stranger is a threat and people as far away as what is now the next county would be considered threatening strangers. A landscape dotted with strange and powerful monuments to dark and ancient gods, where magic is in the hands of priests and witches who serve the spirits of the earth and the stars, and perhaps have no allegiance to humankind at all. Or perhaps the worship of these spirits really was connected to the cycles of the earth, and the priests of that ancient time, had they wished to, could have enacted some foul rite at Stonehenge and turned the world on its axis. In that world the best weapons would be clubs and stone arrows, and with such paltry gear to enhance themselves all adventurers would be stripped down to just raw talent and their urge to survive.

When I returned to Japan I prepared and ran a one-shot set in this world, which I will report soon. I think it’s an excellent world for adventuring, as well as for tourism, and if you do visit these ancient sites I think you, too, may find yourself inspired to imagine yourself as an adventurer or a priest in an ancient, mysterious world where nobody knows anything, and nothing is what it seems.

A few tips on travel

If you are going to go through a couple of these sites, I recommend buying a visitor’s pass at the first one – I think mine was about 33 pounds, which will almost cover the cost of the museum at Avebury, entrance to Old Sarum and Stonehenge, but more importantly gives you priority access at Stonehenge so you don’t need to book a tour time. I visited Stonehenge by car, although I assume there are buses from Salisbury and other nearby towns, but it’s worth noting that you don’t go straight to the site – you park perhaps 3 km away and then either walk or catch a bus to the site. The bus will drop you off halfway if you ask, and then you can walk over the fields to the stones themselves, which is what I did and which I think is better.

If you go to Avebury, plan to make a decent day of it. You can walk from the stone circle to nearby Silbury Hill in about 30 minutes, and then from Silbury Hill to a burial mound (I forget the name) that you can enter – when I visited there were two drunk hippies in the entrance who had put candles in every room and were singing plaintive songs, which quite suited the mood, but YMMV. It’s a bit of a walk from Avebury to here and it is possible to get lost – the road goes through some pretty tangled and run down areas that may leave you thinking you’re going the wrong way – so if the weather is bad you may want to drive somewhere nearby (but I don’t know where the parking is). Also there’s no point in thinking an umbrella will be any use – the wind is intense. So just don’t bother bring one, get wet or wear sensible clothes. I would not recommend visiting in winter!

If you visit Salisbury Cathedral I strongly recommend timing your visit to start or end with a service, but be aware that you can’t tour the cathedral during the Sunday morning service, so you’ll have to satisfy yourself with a visit to the magna carta and a circuit of the cloisters. I strongly recommend the tower climb but you should be aware that there are parts where the climbing is a little bit disturbing and their strategy for getting you out if you have an agoraphobic freak out is really disturbing, so if you have a strong fear of heights it’s not a good idea to go. If you’re unsure, check some pictures online of what you might expect to see. I am not good with heights, and this climb had me a little bit shakey at times. But if you are confident you aren’t too bad with heights, do it – it’s great. A good strategy for a Sunday at Salisbury Cathedral would thus be: visit for the beginning of the service to hear the choir; then get a coffee; then visit the magna carta room; then tour the cathedral a bit; get lunch; climb the tower; finish touring the Cathedral; take a break; listen to the choir practicing; stay for the evening service or bail. The lunch at the refectory is surprisingly pleasant given the circumstances, and it’s a nice environment, and on Sunday they do a solid British Roast, so you can make a good day of it.

Also be aware that English Heritage and the National Trust are different, and most of the ancient sites are managed by English Heritage, so if you want a membership to enable you to get into all these sites for free then that’s who you should join – National Trust mostly just manage those boring old country houses.

With that advice I hope you are prepared for a couple of days enjoying the Old Gods and the New!

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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.

Last week I visited the Boolean Library in Oxford to see the Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition. This exhibition combines work from Tolkien’s estate, material from various museums, and published material to produce a detailed description of his life and the process of producing his seminal work, The Lord of the Rings. It includes a lot of the original artwork he produced, and notes and scribblings from his entire career. Interspersed with these are letters, diary entries, photos and details of his daily life, including memorabilia and ephemera (?) such as the rocking chair from his office.

The central theme of the exhibition is the long drawn out process by which Tolkien developed Middle Earth, from its first sparks in his teen years and early university days to its final realization. To describe this process they use a lot of material from his study and workshops, and present a lot of maps, as well as some of the content of his interactions with colleagues, publishers and his friends The Inklings. The exhibition does not set out to give a background or introduction to Middle Earth, though it contains some fascinating exhibits that link his art and his voice to the contents of his world. There are several readings of Quenya by Tolkien himself, that were recorded at some point and which you can listen to, and there is an excellent interactive map of the journeys of the Fellowship, with locations that you can click on to see pictures that Tolkien drew or painted that describe the settings (his 3-D pencil sketch of Mordor is particularly good). There is a section devoted to various pictures he drew attempting to visualize the world of the First Age and the Silmarillion, which indicate that this period was not settled in his own mind. There are also stories about how others reacted to his illustrations. Of particular interest here is the reaction of publishers to his pictures, with (for example) the publisher of the Hobbit being very happy with his picture of Bilbo drifting through the forest on a barrel, but not so interested in other pictures. From all of this the visitor can gain a deeper insight into just how long it took him to produce the Lord of the Rings, how intensively it was worked and reworked, and how close it came to never being published.

I’m not a big fan of Tolkien’s illustrations, many of which are amateurish and in a style I don’t really like, but even many of the illustrations I don’t like are evocative of a particular vision and style that really helps to define how Tolkien saw his world (and, given his authorial authority, how we should too!) Some, like the Bilbo on a barrel picture, are quite beautiful in a kind of art nouveau style that I think really summarizes Tolkien’s romanticism and his anti-industrial sensibilities. Others give a sense of the scale and power of the world he wanted us to wander through, and help us to understand how he imagined the journeys at the core of the story. They also give an insight into another interesting thing about Tolkien’s imagination: just as he centered the story of Middle Earth in the world of the Third Age, and depicted the First Age as a lost realm of dreams and myth, so he himself had a very concrete vision of the Third Age, but a very vague and shifting view of the past of his world. His pictures and descriptions of the First and Second Age do not provide much clarity about what it looked like, as if he was drawing on memories and dreams, while from his pictures of the Middle Earth of Lord of the Rings one feels as if he was really there. This might help to give some sense to the conflicting myths and legends underlying the story, and suggests that Tolkien never intended anyone to draw any single clear and definitive strand of history from the First Age to the Third.

I cannot review an exhibition of Tolkien without touching on the recurring theme of my analysis of his work, the problem of scientific racism. The museum does not touch on this issue or discuss it in any way, and nor does it need to – this is an exhibition about Tolkien’s life and how he developed his stories, not about any single theme that underlies it, and it had no great interest in the impact of his work on subsequent writers (except to present some excellent examples of how enormously popular his work has been). However, the exhibition does present a single piece of extremely strong evidence in support of the claim that Middle Earth represents Europe, and the Haradrim are Africans. One of the central pieces of the exhibition is the map that Tolkien worked from in preparing the book. On this map he has written in blue ink the names of real world places that correspond with the places in Middle Earth. Hobbiton is Oxford, Minas Tirith is somewhere in Italy, and the southernmost city on the map – somewhere north of Haradwaith – is Jerusalem. It is abundantly clear from this map – prepared by Tolkien himself and a core part of his working materials for the book – that he envisaged Haradwaith as Africa. This should help to settle debate on how we should analogize the Haradrim in his stories.

Although the exhibition does not intend to – and obviously does not need to – describe Tolkien’s political views in detail, it does give a brief account of his role in the war and his reaction to it, which are generally agreed to be important to the development of some of the ideas behind his imaginary world. There is a tragic picture of his graduating class from Oxford (I think it’s Oxford) with all those who died in the Great War shaded out, showing how terribly that war affected his generation, even those like himself who were relatively cushioned from it by their comparatively elite status. There is a sad letter from a friend heading to the front, urging him to continue his writing even if the friend will never live to see it (that friend died at the front). This helps to give an insight into Tolkien’s personality. But the real insight into Tolkien’s personality comes from excerpts of his letters, and the description of some aspects of his personal life. Though he had been appointed professor of Old English at Oxford, Tolkien had no office, and worked from a study at home. In this study he supervised students, prepared lectures, and did all his philological work. The museum also tells us that he never closed this study to his children, and that it was a popular place for them. It has to be said that from these insights into his personal world the museum really gives the impression of a man who was kind, gentle and in no way an arsehole. This may not seem like much but I have worked in Academia for 10 years now and I have to say that not being an arsehole in Academia is a rare and special trait. Furthermore, in this age of #metoo where we are increasingly discovering that the people whose work we love are arseholes, losers and/or abusers, it is genuine pleasure to find that a man whose work was of such towering importance, who was in an elite position in a world where men of his position were protected from all forms of retribution for their behavior, and an academic to boot, really appears to have just been a decent chap. It’s a balm for the soul in these troubled times, and although I had no special impressions of Tolkien’s personality in any direction, it is nice to be given some evidence that he was not the arsehole so many other famous people have turned out to be. Well done Dr. Tolkien!

Because I have written many blogposts analyzing the racism in Tolkien’s work, and the negative influence of its racist and conservative content on the fantasy genre, I am often mistaken for someone who doesn’t like Tolkien’s work and doesn’t consider it especially influential. Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. I love his work and think it was hugely influential. As part of my trip to the UK I went on a tour of some famous sites in Wessex and the area I grew up in, and I realized through these journeys that I really was strongly influenced by the bucolic vision of a green and perfect England that Tolkien incorporated into his works, as well as the Christian and pre-Christian ideas that drive it. I think his work is an amazing and beautiful construction and undoubtedly one of the most important cultural products of the 20th Century (along, perhaps, with heavy metal, role playing, social networks, modern combat sports and computer games). He did something no one else had ever done, and unlike Gary Gygax he did it beautifully on his first try. This exhibition really does a great job of reinforcing that impression, and gives a detailed and careful description of the process by which he achieved his vision, from a clearly sympathetic but not sycophantic perspective. If you have a chance to see this exhibition, please do so. If you like Tolkien, or even if you don’t but are interested in how this important literary figure built and conceived his world, then I recommend you visit this exhibition and immerse yourself in his creative vision. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Recently I had the opportunity to watch three movies in quick succession: Solo, Death Wish and Pacific Rim: Uprising. Solo was kind of fun but overall these three movies were pretty ordinary, and none of them is really worth its own separate review. I thought I’d put reviews of all three in one post, as exemplars of how America’s cultural industries are falling apart before our eyes. It’s worth noting that all three of these movies are either remakes, sequels or part of a “franchise”, so there’s nothing truly original in any of them. In many ways they’re also movies that are designed to appeal, well, not even to the worst elements of our nature, but to the most banal elements of our nature. Is this how western civilization ends: not with a bang or a whimper, but a long drawn-out sigh of boredom?

Pacific Rim: Uprising

I want to start this review by pointing out that just a few years ago, when the Lord of the Rings, was first made (or was it the Hobbit? I forget and don’t care) a bunch of LoTR fanboys were ruing the fact that Guillermo del Toro didn’t get the gig as Director. Surely he, more than Jackson, would have been able to make these movies soar? Well now, having watched him royally fuck up two movies about giant robots fighting giant monsters in giant cities, are you still sad that he didn’t get to make a movie with dragons and elves? A man who can fuck up a formula as invincibly, trivially easy as giant robots would surely have made an absolute dogs breakfast of something as subtle and culturally significant as LoTR. Thank God Jackson pipped him to that one, because this movie – even more than the shit sandwich that was the first one – was an absolute disaster. The worst thing about it obviously is the two people operating the one machine, in the bullshit “neural mesh” setup, who despite being neurally enmeshed have to operate their stupid giant robot by physically doing whatever it does. Watching the scenes of the soldiers in the brainpod (or whatever stupid name it has) I could only think of those ‘90s comedy skits in which terribly earnest acting school students pretend to be trees or ducks or something. What a fucking joke. Don’t get me wrong, if some idiot paid me a million bucks (or a fraction thereof!) to pretend to be running inside a giant robot I would be all in on that shit, but let’s not pretend it’s a contribution to western civilization. God no, burn that crap down. Also is it just me or is there some new phenomenon in action movies, let’s call it jockburn, where the lead characters are first introduced into the mess hall/ bunk room/ shower room where the other soldiers eat/ reside / fuck and your heart sinks when you realize that you are now going to have to sit through several minutes of macho posturing that is obviously meant to be in the vein of Aliens, but you know before it starts that it isn’t going to come close? And then there is the related experience where the leader is about to make a big speech, and suddenly you know the big speech is coming and you’re going to have to sit through about 20-30 seconds of “stirring” speech about how everyone has to fight and die for glory / the glistening tear on the cheek of a golden child / a sack of French porn and you know it’s going to be a disappointing and shamelessly unselfconscious pile of cliches that will just make you squirm? What do we call that feeling? I think it’s an identifiable and common experience in modern action movies. Occasionally you get a good one (the one at the Gates of Mordor, the speech about taking chances in Rogue One) but mostly they’re just shit. And they aren’ t improved when, as in this movie, they refer to the speech in the previous movie (because that’s how low we have sunk) and try to pretend that this one won’t even be trying. Look, Guillermo (or whoever else squatted out this pile of shit), if your work is so bad that you know ahead of time that it isn’t going to compare to even the last steaming turd you dumped on us, please don’t insult us further by pointing out that you aren’t even phoning it in. Just fuck off home and don’t make this waste of pixels. Oh, and while you’re listening to tips from me, can you please please please drop the daddy issues? They weren’t constant and overwhelming in this movie like they were in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (thank the gods of shit movies that that arsehole had some trouble buried in his twitter feed! Now if we could just kill off the cast we can all go home happy!) but right at the peak of the movie, when they’re about to save the world, someone manages to make the resoundingly important point that the lead character is going to make daddy proud. Really? He’s going to risk his life saving the world and all those billions of people are going to be looking up at him as the dude who saved the world but his real single only concern is that his dead daddy will finally love him? He’s an adult, right? What is wrong with Americans and their daddy issues? Also what is wrong with the Chinese people in this movie? I can’t figure out if they’re meant to be the bad guys or patsies, if there’s a message about copying technology in there, or something else, but why did they have to be such arseholes? Also, when you choose to portray America’s current Big Trade Enemy as arseholes in an action movie, can I suggest that you perhaps go and check on how the Japanese were portrayed in the 1980s and ask yourself if perhaps, just perhaps, you’re just repeating a massive flyblown cliche? Because at this point in the cultural cycle of the west, any opportunity to do something original would be appreciated kthxbai. This movie also suffers from another weird problem of action movies that needs a name, perhaps something like self-referential SNAFU, in which there is a central problem or barrier that they have to overcome through some special means, but at some other point in the movie they immediately do exactly the thing they said they can’t do. In this case we’re told that you can’t make the giant robots (I refuse to call them Jaegers, fuck off) fly because there is no fuel that powerful, but in the very first action scene the stupidly named giant robot with the enormously stupid flail (fuck off already I cannot believe how stupid that flail is) jets out of the ocean and onto land using just the rockets in its feet which is exactly what they said these things can’t do. Also we’re told that they had to build these giant robots to fight the giant monsters because the giant monsters are invincible, presumably cannot be beaten with say a rail gun from space or a missile, but then their solution to the final massive, extra super powerful monster, is to drop a disabled giant robot on it from space. Now I don’t know how much these giant robots weigh but right now the Falcon Heavy rocket can put 64 tons of material in space, so it seems pretty easy and cheap to me to hoist say 600 tons of material into space, stick it all together, and drop it on your annoying giant monster. Why build stupid giant robots that need two terribly earnest method actors to neurally mesh (impossible – method actors don’t have brains) when you could just use your reusable rocket to build a makeshift rail gun at a fraction of the cost? This is the self-referential SNAFU I mentioned earlier. To be clear I don’t care if the pretext of the movie is that we need to build giant robots that can only be driven by method actors but I want the movie to stick to the pretext throughout. Failure to do so bursts me out of the bubble and just leaves me disappointed and feeling ripped off. Which is probably the best description for how this movie leaves you feeling. In conclusion: this movie was a joke of a reheated disaster, and if you can fuck up two movies about giant robots fighting giant monsters in giant cities, you should fold up your director’s chair and go home.

Death Wish

This movie is a straight remake which has the single redeeming feature of having Bruce Willis in it. Bruce Willis is a legend, and anything he touches is made better (although I note that he was not in either Pacific Rim movie and I think we all know why). I haven’t seen the original but I remember when I was a kid it was hugely controversial because of its ultra violent story and the perhaps morally neutral approach towards vigilantism. Now, 40 years later, as militias roam the landscape and Sasha Baron Cohen can convince American politicians to advertise gun self defense schools for four year olds, we can look back to that time of controversy as a purer, more moral era. Now we can watch as the movie-maker postures through the issue by having talk radio hosts debate whether vigilantism is right or wrong without ever making a decision one way or the other, because heaven knows it would be terrible for someone’s career if they made an actual moral judgment on something as grey and uncertain as whether vigilantism is okay. So it is that Bruce (let’s not waste our time pretending his character has any other name) wanders this morally free and pure space murdering random criminals and getting his own back on the people who refrigerated his wife. Unfortunately for the pretext of this movie, the dudes who refrigerated his wife didn’t really even want to, and they’re just small time criminals, and two of them didn’t really even come across as especially bullying, and we didn’t see their faces, so it’s really really hard to get any strong feeling of revenge when he murders them. In fact it seems pretty clear that two of the criminals, at least, were strong candidates for rehabilitation – they were clearly intending just to rob him, they wanted as little trouble as possible, they didn’t want to hurt anyone, they clearly knew that rape and murder are wrong and should not be done, and they were just trying to make a buck. This isn’t to say they were nice people or anything but here’s the thing: this is a vengeance movie. I absolutely love watching bullies get murdered, beaten up, humiliated and destroyed, it’s pretty much the only reason I am still sitting through Game of Thrones. But for my bullies to deserve brutal murder instead of say 10 years to life, they need to actually appeal to my baser instincts. They need to be real arseholes. Not participants in an armed robbery that went wrong. This is why the only really truly satisfying murder is the death of the Ice Cream Man, who steals children’s money when they walk to school and shoots them in the foot if they don’t pay up. His death – and the subsequent looting, essentially, of his still warm corpse by the residents of the block – was the only satisfying death in this bland flick. The deaths might have been slightly more appealing but there was this additional subtext in this movie that made it really hard to fully get behind our hero Bruce – America’s ridiculous and unsustainable levels of inequality, and rich people’s fear of what will happen when America’s poor decide to do something about it. Bruce is a doctor, he’s obviously super rich, and he works in a hospital – a US hospital. We all know that hospitals in the US are key drivers of inequality, and the doctors who work in them get rich working in institutions that refuse healthcare to people who can’t pay, and bankrupt people who come to them for healthcare with bullshit emergency services like charging $500 for an aspirin. So some poor people break into Bruce the emergency doctor’s house to steal some of his ill-gotten gains, and their theft goes wrong because they’re idiots, so they kill his wife, and then this man goes on a spree, murdering poor people across the city. Additionally, at one point he goes into a gun shop and a smily second amendment girl called “Bethany” tries to sell him some guns and makes it really really fucking clear that she doesn’t care who he is and will sell guns to anyone (though she makes the weak sauce excuse that she doesn’t sell them to criminals haha). This entire fucking movie wouldn’t happen if the gun shop was closed down, “Bethany” was put out of a job (sorry Beth!) and everyone got access to universal health coverage. Bruce wouldn’t have got robbed, nobody would have been able to shoot Bruce’s wife and daughter, and Bruce would be able to go home from his job satisfied that he had spent all day saving lives rather than worried deep down inside that he actually spends all day saving only wealthy lives. And we wouldn’t have to feel guilty about the (only very partial) thrill of watching a rich man hunt down and murder poor people for doing whatever they can to make ends meet in a world with no universal health coverage, no minimum wage, no gun laws and no sense. Now I guess someone is going to come on here and make some stupid point that I’m making excuses for murderers but I hardly need point out that anyone who defends Bruce is also making excuses for murderers. You can’t watch this movie and not make excuses for murderers (well, I guess you could tut!tut! at everything but where’s the fun in that). And if you live in Japan (as I do) you can be confident that nobody’s going to murder you for your watch, certainly not with a gun, and everyone can afford healthcare at Bruce’s swanky hospital, so Bruce’s riches are genuinely morally deserved, and he can be confident that his valet isn’t going to take a screenshot of his navi (except perhaps to steal his daughter’s underwear from the washing line). Call me a sad-arsed SJW if you will, but a movie where Bruce hunts down some people who brutally murdered his family for shits and giggles is slightly more engaging than a movie where Bruce the rich doctor hunts down and murders a bunch of poor people because they tried to rob his wife and daughter in a society where they can afford guns but can’t afford healthcare. (And don’t even get me started on how the cops are underfunded and overworked!) It’s not like these movies can’t be made! Korea makes awesome gangster movies, and Korea has gun control and universal health coverage. When a rich doctor goes on a murder spree in a Korean gangster movie I’m all in. Not so much when it’s against a backdrop of a crumbling empire with a huge inequality and gun problem, the contradictions of its own oligopolic order now so apparent that you simply can’t squint past them anymore. It steals some of the thrill, and it also makes the whole thing just … boring. In crime movie genre terms, making a boring revenge flick is like making a bad giant robot/monster movie. It should be impossible, but somehow whatever loser made this reboot managed to do it. Thanks for your efforts Bruce, but this wasn’t your best showing.

Solo: A star wars movie

This movie was actually fun! The train heist was a gas, and although the Mad Max elements were a bit obvious and overdone it was enjoyable watching the marauders having their fun. Han Solo was kind of forgettable and the less said about Amelia Clark’s acting the better, plus the betrayals and double-crossings were predictable and the bad guys were not exciting. But otherwise the movie kind of hung together, and although the whole thing in the maelstrom was sort of tedious bullshit, at least there was a tenuous effort at explaining the Kessel run, and given they took a short cut it made sense to refer to doing the kessel run in 12 parsecs (also I like that Han rounds it down and it actually took 13 parsecs, nice touch). That fixed a minor issue in the original movie that had always bothered me. Apparently – my friend tells me, because I won’t go into any cesspit of star wars fanboys – lots of people are pissed off with the director for fucking up a few parts of the original canon, because (spoiler alert!) at the end Darth Maul makes an appearance. Apparently the same fan boys who were pissed off that he died 12 years ago are now pissed off that he’s not dead, which doesn’t bother me at all because about the only thing that was good about the three prequels was Darth Maul’s fighting style (which I guess we won’t see him repeat since the stunt actor who did it must have retired). Also Jar Jar Binks, whose contribution to star wars lore by setting up a plausible theory that he was a Sith Lord is probably the only good cultural contribution of the three prequels. But I digress! One aspect of this movie that pissed me off was the way it implies Han started the rebellion by giving the hyperfuel to the tween girl in the groovy mask. In a universe of trillions of people over billions of planets, why does every single thing that affects the history of the universe have to hang on the actions of just four people? Can things be maybe slightly less incestuous? (And on a related note, the idea that Rey’s parents are nobodies is a ridiculous joke. There’s no way an American franchise is going to let that happen). So overall this movie was light, bearable fun. But I think it says something about Disney and modern American entertainment culture that a movie written by Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Ron Howard, set in a classic science fiction setting like this, would be just “light, bearable fun,” and that we are satisfied with this because at least he didn’t massively fuck it up.

Which brings me to my conclusion about these three documentaries on America’s cultural decline. What has happened to the production of cultural stuff in America that three movies set in three basically failsafe genres can be so shit that “bearably not fucked up” is our new standard of excellence? And why is it that they can’t make anything original anymore? Almost every action sci-fi now is a super hero movie from the same dumb universe, with no original thought put into any of them. I think the only original movie I have seen in the past three years was Atomic Blonde, and almost everything else has been either a remake, a fixture in an existing franchise or setting, or a sequel. What has happened in the past 30 years that the industry that produced Star Wars, Rambo, Aliens, Robocop, Last of the Mohicans, and that insanely cool Charles Bronson movie about the dude whose dog dies, cannot now produce a single original or interesting movie, and can’t make even half-decent movies in the genres and franchises it already has at its disposal? What’s going on in America now that what was once its powerhouse of cultural production has become so incredibly lame? And what will replace it?

Best not annoy the PLA!

Wolf Warrior 2 is an entertaining Chinese action movie set in Africa. It is the story of Leng Feng, a former special forces soldier in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army who lost his job after killing a corrupt gangster in China (in front of about 10,000 cops, natch), and ends up working in Africa, possibly as a mercenary and bodyguard. Things go wrong for him though when some random bunch of western mercenaries team up with local rebels to try and overthrow the government of the unnamed country where Feng is working. These guys are bad news, too – they don’t have any scruples at all, and are happy to do things like fire rocket propelled grenades into buses full of civilians, and destroy a Doctors Without Borders hospital after executing all its staff. As the rebellion grows in force all the international militaries leave the region, leaving just a couple of Chinese navy ships offshore – but they are unable to interfere because they are not allowed to intervene without UN authorization. China, good global citizens!

This is disaster for a small bunch of Chinese workers left inland, cut off and surrounded by bloodthirsty rebels and their nasty western backers. Fortunately Feng is there, so he grabs a truck and heads inland to save the day. He is accompanied by an American nurse who speaks perfect Chinese (and who knows the Americans will save her because she “tweeted at them on Twitter” haha), a retired Chinese soldier, and a spoiled Chinese boy who comes good at the end. Saving the Chinese workers means a long series of brutal battles with the African rebels and their western paymasters, which includes a pretty cool tank battle and a lot of slaughter of innocents (by the thoroughly reprehensible bad guys).

This is actually an excellent movie. It got a 70% critics review on rotten tomatoes, and an 80% audience review, and it deserves the 70%. The action scenes are well executed, the cinematography is good, the scenery and sets are great, and it has some big set pieces and novel ideas that take the action genre forward a step, to the extent that such a narrow and limited genre can progress at all. It also has a reasonably good sense of humour, decent dialogue and okay acting, which is actually more than one can expect from all but the best action movies. The plot makes sense, though some parts of it are thrown in without much explanation or build up so that they seem more like devices to make the violence hang together rather than a fully developed story. It doesn’t mess around with nuance – Feng isn’t an anti-hero or a conflicted reluctant hero – but in my opinion this is a good thing in action adventure movies. Those grim and conflicted action heroes are just embarrassing, generally – simple, straightforward heroes who do what they have to do and do it well are what we want, and Feng definitely does what he has to do very well. Like most modern action movies it’s too long, and could probably stand to lose a few scenes and be about 20% shorter, but I’m starting to accept that short movies are a thing of the past – 2 hour bloat is just normal in modern cinema.

So overall it’s a fun romp through Africa with a driven and determined Chinese dude on a kind of revenge kick (he has a refrigerated ex who is somehow connected to these mercenaries, presumably from the first movie that I never saw). It’s also interesting because it obviously shows a clear sense of how the Chinese government and leadership want their country’s position on Africa and overseas military intervention to be depicted, and overall it’s a fairly positive story. Unlike the Rambos of American cinema, the Chinese military strictly won’t interfere without UN authorization, and unlike a lot of western heroes Feng didn’t blow in with the latest military adventure to sort out some trouble – he lives in Africa and is doing a good job there minding his own business until African trouble sweeps over his home. When we visit the Chinese factory whose workers he is rescuing, we discover that many of the Chinese workers have African wives and family, and when the Chinese factory leader tries to make the Africans stay behind to be murdered while the Chinese flee, we are clearly meant to understand that this is a terrible thing to do – and Feng steps in to make sure everyone can be helped. The movie has more of a sense of Chinese people embedded in Africa, engaged with it and part of its troubles, rather than swinging in to do a bit of wetwork and swing out again. This is very much in keeping with China’s vision of itself as a neutral mercantile nation with a strict non-interference policy, and it certainly is nice to see a movie where the action hero has to go off alone to do his work because the military that backs him up refuses to do anything illegal – a very different kind of situation to Rambo. This isn’t to say that the movie is free of militaristic propaganda, because in fact it’s up to its neck in pro-PLA propaganda, but the slant of that propaganda is very different to American action movies. There are more action movies coming out of Mainland China, and this story of China as a responsible global citizen is also in the upcoming Operation Red Sea. Chinese militarist action movies are a new thing to me, and it’s interesting to watch them and see how they present China and Chinese strategic interests to the world, and what kind of vision of themselves the Chinese are projecting to the world. And it’s certainly different to the American vision!

So if you want to see a good action movie, I strongly recommend Wolf Warrior 2. You’ll find it doubly enjoyable if, like me, you’re interested in how these kinds of movies reflect and project the culture that made them, and like to try and see the national story that the action is trying to tell. You an also enjoy it as guilt free militarist action, since it’s not set in anything that resembles a real geo-political situation, and every bad guy who gets killed in this movie thoroughly deserves to die. Guilt-free, entertaining militarist action with a fresh worldview – what’s not to like? So if you’re into explosions and insane solo bad-arsed action hero madness, get out and see it!

I never thought that I would find myself
In bed amongst the stones
The columns are all men
Begging to crush me
No shapes sail on the dark deep lakes

And no flags wave me home
In the caves
All cats are gray
In the caves
The textures coat my skin
In the death cell
A single note
Rings on and on and on

The Ark’s heroes have secured the Dark Castle and looted its treasures, which they found to be tawdry gold- and silver-plated baubles covered in strange glittering stones. Having previously made a deal with an old man to give him a haul of these stones – and one in particular, the koh-i-noor – in exchange for knowledge, they decided that it was time to pay a visit to two old men: The old man who had promised them the knowledge, and their own Ark’s Elder, who they wanted to confront while their power in the Ark – and their confidence – was still high.

The Old Man’s Secrets

They rested for only as long as they needed to recover their strength, and set off for the old man’s abandoned army camp the following morning. They drove to his camp this time in the car they had liberated from the Dark Castle, its boot stuffed with sceptres and crowns and heaped jewellery and gems.  As they approached he emerged from under the attached lean-to, squinting at them in the gloomy zone light and scratching quizzically behind one ear. By the time the car trundled to a noisy halt he had hidden any sign of surprise, however, and had lined up a set of chairs for them. They dragged their loot out of the boot and sat on the chairs.

In exchange for the koh-i-noor and the diamonds the old man was true to his word, and offered them his boat. He even showed how to hitch the trailer to the car, so that they could drive it straight down to the water near the Ark without having to enlist the help of their fellow mutants back at the Ark. They pressed him then for more – the knowledge he had promised them – and discovered that he had lied to them slightly. He would not give them any knowledge, but he could tell them the location of a great library where they could learn everything they needed to about the ancient world. A library with millions of books, that could tell them everything they needed. It was not far, he assured them that it was completely safe, and he had soon explained its location to them. Feeling slightly cheated but hopeful that they would learn more than they had ever expected – and without having to endure his irascible manners – they thanked him and left with the boat.

The great grey librarian

Having learned of this strange new “library” full of books they could read, the mutants decided to delay their visit to the Elder, and to instead immediately fly to the Library. They could not hope to read all the books immediately, so they decided to do a strategic grab. They loaded their Trash Hawks with sacks and set off, hoping to scour the library for its most valuable and immediately important books and return with them to the Ark. As they soared westward they saw the old man, standing on top of his caravan, the koh-i-noor flashing in the sun atop a gaudy golden staff. He did not wave to them.

They soon found the building they had been told about, a huge L-shaped ruin of orange brick entangled with vines and creepers and the ever-present fungal rot of the zone. Its upper floors had been wrecked by some huge blast and lay open to the elements, their books and contents long since crumbled to nothing, but the lowest two levels were still mostly intact, though many windows had been smashed, and as they circled above it they shared high hopes of finding a large haul of books.

They landed in a large plaza in the crook of the L, leaving their birds to preen in the courtyard, and approached a huge shattered entrance. Through the entrance way they found a gloomy, mould-covered entry way, with stairs leading up to a higher level and abandoned counters overgrown with creeping vines and moss. To the left of the entry way was a door, with a grubby sign on which they could partially read the words Exhibition Room. They decided to start exploring there. When they approached the door, however, it exploded backward in a shower of shattered mouldy wood, and a huge grey beast emerged in a furious rush from the shadows of the room. It was three times the size of Grimshaw, covered in a thick scaly grey hide, walking upright like a man but with a nearly featureless face, a mouth distorted by huge fangs and deep set eyes that burnt with an unholy fire. Its hand were huge battering rams ending in three thick, clawed fingers, as did its feet, and its legs bent backwards like one of their Trash Hawks. As soon as they saw it they felt a wave of revulsion and terror, but they knew immediately what they faced – a giant grey man like the one they had found entombed beneath the Ark!

As the beast lunged forward Grimshaw unsheathed his shotgun, Reason, and fired point blank at the beast’s chest, yelling for the others to flee outside. He did not expect to have any success, having seen in the videos that these grey demons appeared to shrug off rifle fire, but was stunned to find that at this range he could harm it – for a brief moment it staggered and the others retreated. They hoped that it would have the same fear of light as its smaller brethren, but they were wrong, and so found themselves fighting it in the murky light of the front entranceway. It fought by slashing with huge claws and unleashing great gouts of concentrated rot from its mouth, which surged over all the mutants in the group and afflicted them terribly. Although it nearly killed two of them, and many of their weapons bounced off of its thick hide, they finally managed to slay it, felling it just inside the entrance. It twitched briefly but then to their horror began to rot and decay rapidly in front of them. Within minutes only bones remained – and it was then that Parsnip saw a necklace around its neck, of gold with a central diamond embedded. One of the Old Man’s … they had been tricked.

They discussed what to do. They were all sure that the old man had tricked them into coming here so that this beast of his could kill them, but they also wondered how could this old man control such a creature? Could it be coincidence? They were also injured and needed time to rest, so they decided that they would not rush back to confront the old man. Instead they would explore the room the demon had been found in, and grab some books from one other part of the library, rest, and then head straight to the old man’s lair to confront him.

In the Exhibition Room they found a collection of ancient books of great cultural value: one of four surviving copies of the Magna Carta of 1215, a manuscript of Handel’s Messiah in the composer’s own hand, the original handwritten copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and notes written by Leonardo da Vinci. They had been torn up and strewn around the room, covered in rot and filth, but the mutants managed to recover them. They then went to the science section to grab some important science books, and left the Library to kill the old man.

War for the Ark

They flew back towards the Ark, turning north at the last and dropping in on the old man’s base, but he was not there. His caravan was unattended, and he did not shuffle out from under the lean-to to meet them. He obviously had not fled though, and all his belongings lay where they should be, as if he had tidied up after himself in an orderly way and set out on some errand. Disappointed, they decided to head to the skies and see if they could find him. As they searched in wider and wider circles they finally saw it – smoke rising from the direction of the Ark. They turned their Trash Hawks and headed home.

They soon saw it – a massive attack on the Ark. Grey Men swarmed towards its entrances, whipped on by a pair of great grey demons. In the distance on a hillside stood the old man, holding his staff of gold aloft, the koh-i-noor flashing in the sun. Near him a third demon hulked, and a squad of grey men for his personal guardians. The People fought valiantly, and thanks to the projects the mutants had pioneered the Ark was holding its ground. The barricades on the door held, someone stood in the Sky Temple firing a pistol into the clamouring grey men, the Phantom of the Opera played the Organ in a mighty dirge to support the troops, and the Ark’s organized militia fought in a disciplined style against the beasts. Nonetheless, the situation was dire: they were outnumbered, and the grey men tore at the barricades and swarmed over the facade of the stadium. Fires burnt on the edges and as the great grey demons pressed forward the defenders fell back in terror and disarray.

Their task was clear. They dived their Trash Hawks towards the barricades, and attacked the first grey demon. With her first strike Bloody Jack cut it down at the knees, attempting to knock it over, but failed. As Preacher circled above, exhorting them to greater efforts to the glory of the sky god, they hacked and slashed and fired at the beast until it finally succumbed. Injured but not defeated, they downed their painkillers and soda pop, some of them knocked back hard quantities of booze, and they leapt into the air again, this time to attack the old man himself.

The old man had some special power, which caused them to divert from attacking him to attack his grey demon instead, and with its rot blast it felled Parsnip, but they persevered, fighting both the demon and the grey men. While they fought the old man assailed them with doubt and pain and fire, but eventually they prevailed and finally the demon was felled. With a cry of rage Grimshaw struck the old man in the face, and he fell to the ground with a sick thud. Their leader slain, the remaining grey men fled back to the tunnels from whence they came, leaving behind a small number of dead mutants, and a large amount of damage.

They had come only in the last moment, but through their efforts the Ark had survived. They had prevailed!

The Elder

Having won the day for the Ark, they had one more thing they wanted to do. The next morning, as the Ark was still being repaired, the wounded still tended, they marched up to the cupola lying in the middle of the Ark’s open stadium and demanded admittance to the Elder’s inner sanctum. One of the Chroniclers at the door tried to stop them, but Grimshaw tapped his hammer Justice and with a sigh he allowed them in. Another Chronicler led them down a short corridor to a small, stuffy room that stank of human excrement and decay. On a tiny bed in the corner, heaped high with grubby blankets, lay the Elder. In another corner sat a dour old chronicler, who roused resentfully when the mutants entered and even more angrily when they demanded he clear away the bucket of festering shit that sat in the corner. Chang Chang threw aside the thick curtains, letting in the weak zone light, and Lonnie and Parsnip began cleaning the room. Meanwhile Bloody Jack and Grimshaw approached the bed, pulling back the sheets and filthy blankets to find the Elder, their inspiration and guide over these years.

He was a shell of his former self, a thin, disease-ravaged wreck of a body. He had never been strong or overbearing, always a frail man, but now he had been reduced to a shred of a man, a sack of bones and bed sores. What had happened in this fetid room over the past months as they had been busy at their work and their missions, what had fallen on this man? He was obviously dying, but now they needed to know. There was so much they needed to know: Who were they? Why could they have no children? What did the future hold? What should they do? This man, the source of all their knowledge and inspiration, lay pale and shrinking on the bed, oblivious to their demands.

They cleaned him up and waited, but he lay their in weak disregard, looking away at the faint light from the newly-opened window with obvious desperate longing. Finally Grimshaw lost his temper and, standing up, looming over the old man, began to rage at him, threatening and yelling and demanding answers. The old man ignored him. Then Bloody Jack stepped forward and ordered him to speak, for the Ark, for the People, for the Seventh Revolution! She gave a stirring speech about leadership and command, the responsibility of the leader to the future, and to everyone’s shock he responded. Just briefly his eyes cleared and he turned to face her, spitting an oath of power up at her and reminding her that it was him who had saved them, to him that she and hers owed fealty.

She demanded answers. And he gave them! He told them a story of horror and desperation that they had never heard before:

  • A group of powerful wizards unleashed magic on the world, and with it came demons and dragons and the grey men. No one knows why they did it.
  • The world was overrun and destroyed but many of the creatures unleashed in it could not stay – they were chained to “somewhere else” and had to go back.
  • In their savage return, the demons and dragons and fairies took most of surviving humanity with them
  • This included the apprentices of the powerful wizards.
  • In hell, humans became slaves, food and fuel. But the wizard apprentices found each other and tried to help some humans escape
  • When they got to the gates of hell, a secret way out, they found a gate keeper, and had to cut a deal. He took their future and left them in stasis – destroyed the mutant’s ability to have children – but let them free
  • The wizards took groups of humans through the gate but they all emerged in different places and lost their magic when they emerged
  • But the mutants retained some of the impact of hell, and emerged into the world with powers
  • They set up arks, but never made contact with each other again

Then his head fell back onto the pillow and, spent, he waved them away with a weak twitch of one hand. Their audience was done.

So it was that the mutants emerged into the light of the Ark, newly educated, knowing their place in the world – and knowing they were lost. Their only hope was to find humans who had been left behind on the earth before the apocalypse, and find out if those humans could still make children, or their Ark was doomed, and all their dreams with it.

But that is a story for another time.

 

The death of a great mage, who has many times in his life walked on the dry steep hillsides of death’s kingdom, is a strange matter: for the dying man goes not blindly, but surely, knowing the way.

On the 23rd January Ursula le Guin died at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy unrivaled in science fiction, and a body of work that has been hugely influential in and outside of the genre. Ursula le Guin was my gateway to fantasy, and a very important personal influence for me, not only on my reading habits but also on my game mastering, and on my own perspectives on politics, feminism, and race relations. She has received accolades from newspapers and writers across the world, and there’s little that I need to say to add to the obvious appreciation of her contribution on display in all the usual places, so I thought I might say a little about the various and important ways that she influenced me from a very young age. It’s not much, but ultimately this is what writing is all about – the impact it has on its readers.

A Wizard of Earthsea was my introduction to real fantasy, probably the first book I read after the Narnia series, and the one book more than any other that served to kick me into a lifetime of devotion to this genre. I was always an avid reader when I was a child so there was no risk that I would not be reading a lot of books, but it was A Wizard of Earthsea more than any other book that ensured I would commit a lot of that reading time to the fantasy and science fiction genres. It’s a great book to start with, because it is immediately accessible to children, but whatever age you read it you will gain something from it. Indeed, I think I have read the whole series perhaps three times, and the first in the series at least five times. The writing is very powerful and so very simple, every sentence carefully poised to carry as much weight as possible. The original three slim volumes require so little work to read, and have such a powerful impact. For me Ged is one of the most powerful and engaging characters in all of fiction, speaking to me not like a lone magician but like the voice of some eternal conscience, a moral and spiritual force far greater than its possible to believe one literary figure can possess. It surely helps that when I read this book I was beginning to give in to my position as an outsider, always moving around, always rejected by new schools and new communities, living on the edge of things just like Ged when he discovered his powers. This book, simultaneously so forceful and so gentle, was a huge influence on my personality when I was very young.

The Dispossessed came to me at the beginning of university, and is probably the single biggest reason I fell into left wing political views. I was a very naive, very inexperienced boy coming from a very poor background with a great deal of anger about the disadvantage that I, my family and my friends faced, but no sense of how anything could ever be different – or that it even could be. Then, because I had read A Wizard of Earthsea, I decided to read The Dispossessed – and I suddenly discovered an image of a world where everything was different, where there was no inequality and people worked and struggled for very different reasons. This story was about a scientist – a physicist no less! – embarking on a world of political discovery at just the time I was studying physics, and moving from my country town to the big city. Just like Shevek after he left Anarres, I felt again like an outsider, a country bumpkin in amongst all these sophisticated kids from the city who already knew each other and already knew the world they moved in, kids who had spent their whole lives knowing they would be at university, and knew that after they left university they would inherit the world – while I had only learnt what university was a year earlier and did not know where I would go after it finished. Caught in that in between world I read The Dispossessed and suddenly I knew that there had to be another way, that maybe things didn’t have to be the way everyone assumed they had to be. After I read this book I sat with a much older mature age student in the cafe, trying to explain how it had opened my mind to knew ways of social organization, and my anger at how things were, and he suggested that I should join Resistance, the youth arm of the communist party. “I think you’ll hate them,” he told me, “and you’ll leave after a year. But you’ll learn about the things you need to know.” So I did, and he was right in every detail – I did hate them, and I did learn a lot, and I did leave them after a year. Just like Shevek I ended up in between political ideas, but knowing a lot more about myself and what I believed.

The Left Hand of Darkness came after The Dispossessed, again while I was still a callow youth, and it opened my mind about gender the same way that The Dispossessed made me think about politics. It had never really occurred to me that the relations between the sexes were culturally constructed, and the complex relationship between biology and culture described in that wonderful little book was a completely new idea to me (like I said, I was a very naive youth). The Left Hand of Darkness is perfect science fiction, in that it gets you to think about how things are and how they could be and how they should be, but it doesn’t give you any neat answers – it just makes you wonder. After you read a book like that you just want to know more, you have suddenly a whole new dimension of thinking that you didn’t know about before, and suddenly you are open to all the new ideas that flow from it – feminism, post structuralism, whatever. I spoke to a friend after I read this book, an activist in the Australian Labor Party, and he recommended to me an excellent guidebook called Men, Sex, Power and Survival that provided a primer in feminism for men. At the same time the university where I studied was offering basic education in how to behave in a non-sexist way in tutorials and in general at university (a few tips on how not to sexually harass people, that sort of thing) and I think without this book I would have been less open to these things. I don’t credit myself with being “woke” in some dumb-arsed American way, but I think I have lived my life open to feminist ideas and alternative ways of thinking about sex and culture, and I think I can credit Ursula le Guin for this.

So in terms of my main hobby and interests, my main political direction, and a lot of my views about gender and sexuality, I have a lot to thank Ursula le Guin for. Of course nothing is all one person’s fault, and there were other things that influenced me in all these directions – Dragonlance probably cemented my interest in the fantasy genre, and I think Star Wars and a few other movies would have fixed me on science fiction (though I came to sci fi later than fantasy). I guess I probably would have discovered left wing politics anyway, given my class background and my anger, and the university was pushing a strong feminist line when I arrived that might have influenced me anyway, but I’m sure that without Ms. le Guin’s impact I might have been far less committed to or interested in any of these areas of life. She influenced me in other ways, too – I think Orsinian Tales is a heart-breakingly well written depiction of the lives of ordinary people, that really moved me when I first discovered it, and I read a lot of her other work and was duly influenced by that too, but these were the big three ways in which she changed my life.

Ursula le Guin didn’t get the credit she deserved in life, and although as she neared the end of her career she began to get the accolades which she should have got decades earlier, I think she still didn’t get all she deserves. I think she identified this as partly being because of her gender, at least within her field; but she also seemed to be very convinced that it was the genre itself that held back the esteem its authors deserved (not just her; she never seemed to be very proud). She was a staunch and prickly defender of her genre, refusing to apologize for it or to break out of it, and as punishment for that I believe she is not as well rewarded as, say, Margaret Atwood, who writes slightly science-fictiony stories in a mainstream genre and got a lot of respect much earlier in her career. Of course I can’t speak for Ursula le Guin but I think, from what I read of her essays and her writings, that she wouldn’t care about those awards and accolades nearly as much as she valued the impact that she has had on the lives of her readers, the ordinary people from whom she believed all important change arises, about whom she always told her stories, and to whom she so patiently and consistently directed her work. So I wanted to add my voice to all those others this week who spoke up to say how much she influenced them, and how much she mattered to them. Ursula le Guin’s work changed the direction of my life, for the better, and I will always be thankful to her for that, and for her huge contribution to the fields of science fiction and fantasy that have formed so much of the backdrop of my life. She may be gone, but she leaves a formidable legacy that will change science fiction and fantasy forever, just as it changed me.

 

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