Bring back the oldschool video game manuals

You are Mario! It’s up to you to save the Mushroom People from the black magic of the Koopa!

I used to be a huge gamer, and I’m not anymore, but I still read a lot of video game news and reviews for some reason. I don’t know if the games have got worse (probably not) or my ability to be enthralled has just waned. I used to get up at 5 am to try and beat my brother to the Nintendo > Super Nintendo > Playstation in order to get an hour or two of full, uninterrupted play. I can’t imagine being that excited, that compelled, now. Maybe twice a year, I come across a book that’s good enough to create that feeling, but not much else does. (The perpetual “Is that depression or is that just adulthood?” question, right?)

The best part was going into the city with my family, buying a game (well, my mum buying it), and reading the manual on the way home. Old-school manuals used to be really fat and have lists of all the towns you might visit, magical items you might acquire, stats you could level up in, character art, backstories… So much PROMISE. I think I felt genuinely high, like drug-high, reading those.

Manual for the NES game Faxanadu, pulled directly from my childhood and somehow on the internet:

faxanadu manual

And then they started dying off, and the manual, instead of being a whole booklet, became just a flimsy pamphlet with a warning about not sitting too close the screen. I’m not sure exactly why that happened – maybe the expense of printing, maybe the improvements in technology that meant designers could translate their vision into the game itself (compare the illustrations of items with the in-game versions in the image above).

When I play games now, I often lose interest and stop for no particular reason. But video game REVIEWS – especially of quirky, conceptual games – they still excite me. They give me back a little bit of that anticipation and sense of promise – this, THIS could be amazing. Even – probably because – I don’t actually play the games themselves.

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Archaeology dig in Spain yields prehistoric ‘crystal weapons’

“Archaeologists have uncovered crystal arrowheads, an exquisite dagger blade, and cores used for creating the artifacts, that date to the 3rd millennium BCE.” They seem to be grave goods. Honestly the full article is pretty dry, “structure 10.042-10.049 is another large two-chambered megalithic construction made from slate slabs” etc, just be happy there’s ancient crystal weapons and don’t ask for more.

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The 23 types of vagabond

Each one was a separate chapter in Thomas Harman’s A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, vulgarly called vagabonds(published 1566).

Adolf Hitler in 1899

This woodcut is of the vagabond Nicholas Jennings, and appeared in a pamphlet titled Gentleman and Beggar. Jennings was executed in 1566. He was caught with a bag of blood used to paint fake injuries on his head.

The several disorders and degrees amongst our idle vagabonds:

1. Rufflers (thieving beggars, former soldiers, apprentice uprightment)
2. Uprightmen (leaders of robber bands)
3. Hookers or anglers (thieves who steal through windows with hooks)
4. Rogues (rank-and-file vagabonds)
5. Wild rogues (those born of rogues)
6. Priggers of prancers (stealers of horses)
7. Palliards (male and female beggars, traveling in pairs)
8. Fraters (sham proctors, pretending to beg for hospitals, etc.)
9. Abraham-men (feigned lunatics)
10. Fresh-water mariners or whipjacks (beggars pretending to have been shipwrecked)
11. Dummerers (sham deaf-mutes)
12. Drunken tinkers (thieves using the trade as a cover)
13. Swadders or peddlers (thieves pretending to be peddlers)
14. Jarkmen (forgers of licenses) or patricoes (hedge priests)

Of Womenkind:

1. Demanders for glimmer or fire (female beggars pretending to have suffered loss by fire)
2. Bawdy baskets (female peddlars)
3. Morts (prostitutes and thieves)
4. Autem morts (married harlots)
5. Walking morts (unmarried harlots)
6. Doxies (prostitutes who begin with uprightmen)
7. Dells (young girls, incipient doxies)
8. Kinchin morts (female beggar children)
9. Kinchin coves (male beggar children)

More details on A Caveat and the types of vagabonds here.

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Moral Absolutism in Fantasy

“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,” said [Father] Oats.
“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” said Granny Weatherwax.
“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”
“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth.”

— Carpe Jugulum, Terry Pratchett

One of the accusations often levelled at the fantasy genre is that it deals in moral absolutes. I’d go further than that. I’d say fantasy is one of the few places left in contemporary fiction where we can talk explicitly about morality at all. Which is probably one of the major reasons it’s often considered childish and unsophisticated.

Moral Ambiguity

You only have to look at the prevalence of ‘morally ambiguous’ characters in the most critically acclaimed TV shows to see what I’m talking about – Breaking Bad, Dexter, Mad Men. I put that in ‘dubious quotes’ because often it’s just a character doing kind things and brutal things at arbitrary intervals. Moral ambiguity can be an easy cover for poor characterisation.

And for the most part, ‘morally ambiguous’ characters aren’t ambiguous at all. Walter White, the character most frequently tagged with the phrase, has murdered 21 people so far. The term seems to be critic-speak for ‘a bad guy that I don’t want to feel guilty about liking’. And for the most part these shows aren’t dealing with the moral complexities, they’re just showing a bunch of cool stuff, and the audience’s idea of ‘cool’ does not include ethical considerations. They’re not morally ambiguous, they’re amoral.

One of the few fantasy series to get mainstream (non-geek) success is Game of Thrones, which pretty much proves my point, although I’d say in that case they’re just throwing a bunch of sex and decapitations into the script in the desperate hope it’ll make them look grown up.

A counter-example

An example of a morally absolutist show is Doctor Who. The protagonists are very clearly designated ‘good guys’ and they spend a reasonable amount of time trying to figure out what the ethical thing is and how to do it. It’s speculative fiction, pretty far from mainstream popularity, often considered pretty naff, and in the UK is widely thought of as a children’s show.

In Defence of Moral Absolutism

People have shied away from moral absolutism partially because of its links to religion and Thou-Shalt-Nots. But believing that certain acts are always wrong doesn’t absolve you from having to make moral judgements for yourself. Quite the opposite: if killing is wrong, then moral absolutism says it’s wrong when God does it too.

This will probably seem simplistic. Isn’t killing sometimes justifiable? What about in self-defence? Yes, but necessary isn’t the same as right.

A good example is the justice system. [I believe] it’s always wrong to imprison another person against their will. [I believe] it’s also always wrong to do nothing to prevent murder and other crimes. So, we put people in prison. And that’s necessary, and the lesser wrong. But the second we start to believe it’s actually morally right to lock some people up, that’s when we become tyrants. A moral code that applies to some people and not to others is no moral code at all.

Accepting clear-eyed the fact that we often have to do something unethical to avoid a greater harm seems to me more mature than pretending that it’s all muddy and there’s no real right and wrong.

Morality vs Moralising

Granny Weatherwax, illustrated by Paul Kidby

The other major reason for associating moral fiction with childishness is that, especially in the Victorian era, stories for children were actively trying to entrench moral behaviour into children. Anyone would react against that! But preaching is optional. You can take a moral stance and write from a moral position without trying to force it on anyone else.

The fact is, just about everybody does have a moral standpoint.  They avoid certain behaviours and choose others based on what they think is right.  Like Granny Weatherwax, I think most people believe in a lot fewer shades of grey than they claim to. When critics uniformly call characters like Walter White ‘morally ambiguous’, they’re being dishonest with themselves and their readers. The decision of so many fantasy writers to expose their beliefs and values in front of their readers is one of honesty and bravery.

In Defence of Tolkien: a Rebuttal of China Miéville

Rockstar fantasy author and poster boy for the New Weird genre China Miéville attempts to slay the giant whose shoulders he stands on:

Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious – you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés – elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings – have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.”

Oh my, where to start

Tolkien is the foundation of the genre in which Miéville writes, its bones. Tolkien is a pioneer of ‘second-world fantasy’ – where the setting is not earth, but a world of the writer’s own making. It’s difficult to overstate how influential he was – “you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try.” Fantasy previous to Lord of the Rings involved interactions between the real world and fantastical elements – ghosts, witches, fairies, genies. There are now thousands of ‘second worlds’,  from the Discworld to Westeros to Miéville’s own Bas-Lag. Can you imagine your bookshelf, or your childhood, without them? If anything, Tolkien is the arse on which Miéville is the boil (or the adorable freckle, if you happen to like his writing).

elves ‘n’ dwarves ‘n’ magic rings

Miéville maybe does not know which direction time flows in? Does he blame the 1819 writer of The Vampyre  for Twilight fanfiction, or Shakespeare for the decline of theatre?

Penny Arcade on Miéville

These fantasy clichés were original when Tolkien wrote them. Orcs and halflings were entirely created by Tolkien, and elves mostly so (they used to be small, shy woodland creatures, nothing like the tall melancholy things we have now). And it’s a bit much to blame him for the proliferation of magic rings, since they show up in the myths of every ringwearing culture throughout history.

boys-own-adventure glorying in war

“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”

Tolkien in 1916

Translation: ‘war is rad’, apparently? Look, Tolkien fought in World War 1 – he had no illusions about glory. Unless words like “hideous” and “misery” and “oh god, so many lice” seem glorious to you. All but one of his friends were dead by 1918. War in Lord of the Rings had irreparable consequences. The plains west of Mordor, on which the battle of Dagorlad was fought, was the bleakest place the hobbits had seen. Nothing would grow on that desecrated ground ever again. And remember, it wasn’t warriors that saved Middle-Earth  – the last alliance has no hope of victory, they are only buying time for Frodo. Frodo who refused to slay Gollum, who won’t even wear a sword towards the end, and who is so damaged by his experiences that he can never really be part of a happy life again.

fantasy as ‘consolation’

Oh, now, Miéville knows better than that. ‘Consolation’ is a far more complex word than just ‘hugs and puppies’. It’s a word with centuries of thought and theology behind it. The 6th Century philosopher Boethius – and 21st Century philosopher Alain de Botton – have both written books titled “Consolation[s] of Philosophy” and neither of them were intending to mollycoddle.

absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity

‘How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’ ― ‘As he has ever judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men.’

It’s true that Tolkien is not a moral relativist. That’s easy for me to deal with because neither am I. I want to talk about ethics in fantasy in my next post, so I won’t go into it too much here, but I think it’s one of fantasy’s strengths that it’s one of the few places in literature where we can still talk about right and wrong in unambiguous terms. That said, every writer has a moral standpoint, even if that standpoint is relativism. It only becomes obnoxious when the good characters have no flaws, or their good actions never have bad consequences. That is not the case in Lord of the Rings:

  • Gollum is very close to redemption at some points in the book. Sam’s suspicion and unkindness are very likely what tip him over the edge to betrayal.
  • Frodo, of course, fails and succumbs to the ring’s power at the last.
  • Gandalf chooses not to slay Gollum out of mercy, and that turns out to be the saving of Middle-earth. Mercy compels him not to kill Saruman, and that causes enormous suffering in the Shire.
  • Aragorn told Éowyn not to go to battle. That decision was completely wrong. Luckily she disobeyed.
  • Both Boromir and Denethor commit terrible acts, but they are both considered good and noble people despite their failings.
  • “Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.”

In conclusion

The Miéville quote comes from a longer piece in which he tries to defend the fantasy genre by pointing out – rightly – that most of its detractors are referring solely to High or Epic Fantasy, while totally ignoring avant-garde subgenres such as New Weird, in which Miéville writes. But it’s one thing to distance himself from Tolkien’s fantasy – quite another to try and tear it down altogether. With apologies to Susanna Clarke:

It is the contention of Mr Miéville that everything belonging to Tolkien must be shaken out of modern fantasy, as one would shake moths and dust out of an old coat. What does he imagine he will have left? If you get rid of Tolkien you will be left holding the empty air.

Bonus Content: Boromir vs Faramir!

If you want to see where Tolkien’s values lay, compare the brothers Boromir and Faramir. Boromir tries to seize the Ring by force; he is killed and the hobbits are kidnapped as a result. Faramir is not tempted – he keeps his promise, “shows his quality” and aids Frodo and Sam on their journey.

So although Boromir is repeatedly referred to as the better warrior, the bolder, it is Faramir that Tolkien wants us to take for our moral example. Here’s what he has to say about war:

War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”

 Of course, I’m talking about the book. In the movie he nearly succumbs. Peter Jackson threw away the message and the character for a cheap moment of suspense, something that angered Stephen Colbert as much as it did me.

Extra Super-Bonus Content: Dwarfs vs Dwarves!

‘Dwarves’ is the correct plural term when referring to the non-human race in Tolkien or other fantasy works. For human people with dwarfism, ‘dwarfs’ is grammatically correct, but it makes some folks unhappy, so why not say ‘people with dwarfism’? It is only two more words.

So what is even the point of the word ‘dwarfs’? For when you want a verb meaning ‘to make something appear small’ – e.g. ‘the new hotel in Dubai dwarfs the buildings around it.’ The more you know.

Subversive Fantasy (done right)

In my last blog post I asked whether the fantasy genre is fundamentally conservative. My aim was to show that regardless of content, fantasy is inherently subversive. The idea that the content of many fantasy books is liberal seemed so obvious as to not be worth stating. I was surprised to learn from the responses I got that a lot of people are actually not aware of the range of really interesting fantasy available beyond the bestseller lists.

All of the books below are not just ethically sound but are also great stories with well-rounded characters and compelling settings. They are also complete stand-alone novels, even though they are part of ongoing series.

Swordspoint (Riverside #1)
Ellen Kushner
Half Regency-era romance, half Renaissance political scheming. Love and sex between men is treated as completely unremarkable. St Vier the duellist is dashing and glamourous, and yet the reality of a man who will kill for money is not downplayed. It’s hard to really like either St Vier or his lover – and yet somehow you want them to end up together. This book also avoids one of the common missteps of fantasy – that of assuming that aristocratic blood is of any value at all. I have trouble caring about whether the ‘rightful’ king reclaims his throne. Why should the biological royal make a better ruler than the usurper? I’m rarely convinced he will. Neither is Ellen Kushner.

Jhereg (The Vlad Taltos series)
Steven Brust
Two parts Raymond Chandler-esque noir, one part Hungarian folklore. Instead of trying to solve a murder, the assassin protagonist has to figure out how to get away with one. Reads like it was fun to write. Smart. Deals with the problem of gender differences by ignoring them (sort of like Starship Troopers the movie), and it works well. Women and men are equally likely to be wise, graceful, brutish, soft, cunning – scholars, prostitutes or thugs. Brust is a Trotskyist, and while you wouldn’t necessarily be able to guess it from his writing, issues of class are definitely there in the background.

Someplace To Be Flying (The Newford Books)
Charles de Lint
Set in a fictional city in modern day Canada, characters from Celtic and Native mythology begin to bleed into the everyday world, along with creatures of de Lint’s imagination – crow girls, tumbleweed men and other genius loci. Raven and Coyote are refighting their old arguments and singing their old songs. Anyone in Newford might be an old god, but the characters de Lint loves most are ordinary: slum dwellers, social workers, artists and musicians, and most of all people who have come from violent and abusive childhoods. These people have no roots they can trust, and they have grown themselves new roots in the city of Newford, tangled up with the spirits of the place. There are no grand battles or bombastic sacrifices, even when the world is at stake – most of the good done is in thankless interpersonal kindness and gentleness. Read the first chapter here.

Guards! Guards! (Discworld series)
Terry Pratchett
Most of the Discworld books offer social commentary on things like privatisation (Going Postal) and the use of racism to promote war (Jingo), but what stands out about Pratchett is his humanism. The title of Guards! Guards! comes from the trope of the palace guards who are called for and then immediately slaughtered by the dashing hero. Who are these people? Why are they so disposable? Their job must not be very highly regarded. And so the Night Watch of Ankh Morpork (an amalgam of Dickensian London and Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar) are drunk, underpaid wretches with gimpy knees and ill-fitting armour. But they are people. Pratchett starts with a fantasy cliche (in this case a marauding dragon) and thinks “How would real people respond?” Some would try to get on with their jobs and some would figure out how to make a buck out of it. Pratchett reminds me very much of Vonnegut, in his great cynicism and affection for humanity, and who said “It now seems morally important to me to do without minor characters in a story. Any character who appears, however briefly, deserves to have his or her life story fully respected and told.”

I suggest beginning with Guards! Guards! His writing has evolved from simple genre parody to complex social satire, and that’s about the earliest book that’s still very good. People will often tell you to start with one of his earlier books, because they are chronology purists. But these are stand-alone books and you really don’t lose anything by not reading them first.

Conspicuously Absent

Books which are not generally classified as fantasy, despite obviously being so.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Books in which the politics of the author appears to drive the story, rather than coming out naturally in the telling of it.

  • His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman

– subcategory: allegory (that dull brute)

      •  Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift (The Chronicles of Narnia are not, I think, allegorical. They were written by a Christian apologist, and his values show, but they’re also very sympathetic to paganism)

Books that are highly critical of, for example, inequality and racism, but are set in worlds in which it is rife. I tried to focus on books that show a really different sort of society.

  • the unutterably good Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke,  and the work of Ursula le Guin.

Is the Fantasy Genre Fundamentally Conservative?

Yes, according to many theorists, or at least Tolkien-derived fantasy is.

They point to the fixation with a medieval golden age, the essentialist labelling of races as either all good (elves) or all bad (orcs), the glorification of monarchy and purity of bloodlines, stories that revolve around protecting the status quo… all of which are valid points (although more accurately applied to Tolkien’s imitators than Tolkien himself).

But they ignore Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, “the medium is the message.”

He means that the medium by which any particular message is conveyed has more of an impact on how humans think and develop than the content of the message. He gives the example of a televised news report of a horrific murder. The details of the particular report matter far less than the effect of bringing crime reports into our living rooms every evening, and how that affects our fear, our communities and our attitudes to crime and punishment.

When you read fantasy, there is more going on than the content.

Deep reading, where you actually sink into another world, forms memories as vivid as your real experiences. Your brain is basically incapable of distinguishing between real and imagined memories (which is bizarre, and fascinating, and you can read more about it here). So reading about new worlds broadens your mind in just the same way travel does.

The simplistic version of this might be “if elves and dwarves can get along, why not Muslims and Jews?” but that’s really not what I’m talking about. Experiencing any other society, good or bad, forces you to realise that the world as-it-is is just one of hundreds of possible set-ups for society. 21st Century Western Capitalist Democracy is not How Things Are, it’s one of many ways it could be.

Any High Fantasy book, no matter how regressive the world it portrays (Hello, Game of Thrones), renders itself revolutionary by the act of creating another world.

And, because this is how reading works, by making the reader a collaborator in the creation of that world.

**For the record, I love Druss. But that cover is pretty bad.

For a thorough explanation of Marshall McLuhan’s theory, watch his lecture, “The Medium Is The Message.”