Thursday, 25 December 2014

Beyond Nietzsche: 1984, Law and Evil

From 1984:

'We are the priests of power,' he said. 'God is power. But at present power is only a word so far as you are concerned. It is time for you to gather some idea of what power means. The first thing you must realize is that power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. You know the Party slogan: "Freedom is Slavery". Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone -- free -- the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal.'
'The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?'
Here (particularly in my added italics) Orwell expresses the idea of the D&D Lawful character—that the group is immortal and the individual a cell in its body. Just as each cell in the human body is committed to the whole but is replaced many times over its life, the member of a group is committed to its collective goals and sees the continuance of the group's existence as a form of immortality, similar to the way some people view having children.

Separating the specifics of the character's intent, there's nothing in this which is inherently evil. The character could apply the same attitude to medical research, cleaning up polluted rivers, founding orphanages and so on, and many people have. This is the essence of D&D's Lawful alignments—working with others and subsuming personal goals into a bigger picture.

The book picks up on the other aspect of the Smith's interrogator's alignment a bit later on:

'How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?'
Winston thought. 'By making him suffer,' he said.
'Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery is torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always -- do not forget this, Winston -- always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- for ever.'
This matches up well with what the DMG defines as Evil. Evil in D&D is suffering without purpose; suffering without a balancing redemptive outcome; suffering, above all, as a demonstration of domination. The DMG text for all the evil alignments mentions strength and domination - something that Nietzsche talked about a lot too and Orwell's Party is the logical end point of his "philosophy".

In the real world, these two attitudes do exist, although they are rarely articulated so clearly (the most important exception being the testimonies at Nuremberg, especially Goering's). Nietzsche and Arendt were both wrong - not only is there evil which is the opposite of good, but in its true form it is never banal except to those who are mentally undeveloped enough to expect monsters to have fangs.

So what are the opposites of these things? What is Chaotic and what is Good? For one thing, they are not simply the absence of these attitudes, they consist in the efforts to undo them and to oppose them.

The chaotic says that subsuming one's desires into a group kills the soul. It is the individual who is uniquely creative and therefore uniquely able to achieve the heights of human potential; Lawfulness, they would say, is compromise. Compromise may achieve some things, and perhaps it avoids the worst depths but at the cost of never reaching the highest peaks either. Lawfulness is a form of slavery; groupthinking is the opponent of freethinking.

Goodness seeks to minimise suffering; to eliminate it if possible. To steal from a fat cleric's tithe barn to feed the starving peasants on his estate is not evil, it is good. But to steal from the starving peasants to fill the tithe barn is evil. The former alleviates more suffering than it creates, and the latter does the opposite. The neutral position is to not get involved.

When D&D was originally released, it was with a simple one-axis alignment system of Law and Chaos. This was an odd choice and it was instantly obvious that it was a bad one and by page 6 of Supplement I: Greyhawk Gygax is conflating Chaos and Evil, and by Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry, it was necessary to footnote the Mind Flayer's Lawful alignment with "highly evil but otherwise lawful". This was a bird that was not going to fly much further.

Perhaps if Gygax had introduced the game with just Good Vs Evil alignments we would never have seen the nine-pointed alignment system, as that is a much more commonly depicted system in stories, but the Law/Chaos axis is not unknown before D&D and it does express an idea which crops up in rhetoric, although there it is often conflated with Good/Evil. Interestingly, it's normally conflated in the opposite way to D&D: Chaos=freedom=good.

In any case, the original system was inadequate and was replaced in the fifth issue of Strategic Review by the two-axis system. Now intelligent creatures could fight "the system" and do so for the good of mankind (or thingkind as the case may be), or set up oppressive hierarchies of diabolical and sadistic faceless bureaucrats, as well as the simply cruel or charitable who did not care about such things and the plain officious or mule-headed. All was at if!

One place where confusion enters is the subtle distinction between an act which fits the stereotype of an alignment and being that alignment. This is rather like the distinction between weather and climate, although there's perhaps more of a ratchet in alignment than in climate.

Simply put, stealing an apple doesn't make a Neutral Good character Neutral, although killing the apple seller and throwing the apples in the canal probably will.

But even if the appleseller is murdered, the question of alignment is still about patterns of behaviour, not simply the last action taken, because the word "alignment" is not casually chosen or used. It expresses the fact that the game system is concerned with what philosophical view the character is aligned with, and that represents how useful to the real (in game) metaphysical forces the character is. A character who has a bad day and lashes out is not necessarily a reliable tool for the powers of Evil; a character who takes pity on a stray dog is not necessarily a reliable tool for the powers of Good etc. A single unprovoked killing may be a sure sign that the character is not reliably Good but it's not proof of the opposite.

Within the game's metaphysical laws of thermodynamics, the characters are able to do things that 99% of the population can not because they are being granted those abilities by the Alignments that find them useful. To keep things fair, the game assumes a post-rationalisation that each alignment contributes in more or less the same way, and that neutral characters receive "contributions" from multiple alignments so that it all balances out. But, ultimately this is why changing alignment causes the loss of level—the Powers lose confidence in the character and withdraw some of their sponsorship for a while, even the one(s) to which the character is now aligned. These powers (hit points, saving throws etc.) are investments and a return is expected; fickle characters are a risky proposition.

Similarly, detect evil doesn't function on characters below name level because they simply haven't enough of the good/bad stuff invested in them.

If the DM treats the four main alignments as NPCs who are not stupid but are not omniscient then it can be a lot easier to judge the effects of character actions. These Powers have goals, as discussed above in relation to 1984 and if they see creatures advancing those goals then they will pay attention to them. That attention is what changes the creature's alignment because it reflects their attunement to the Power. The lack of omniscience is why, in D&D, actions speak louder than words and a character who does good things for bad reasons will remain aligned with Good. It's of no benefit to Evil if a character feeds the starving millions just because they want to be adulated and be able to have sex with a different partner every night; the fact remains that the starving have been fed!

However, the Powers are not stupid and being forced to act against them is something that can be tolerated, but the character has to show that they regret the actions after the fact. Hence, there is an atonement spell and it is not available for voluntary actions.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Super-fast islands in Gimp

  1. New image, any size but 1024x768 works well
  2. Filters->render->clouds->solid noise. Randomize seed, set detail to 10; x-size to 4ish and the y-size set to make the same ratio as the size of the image.
  3. Set  the current gradient to Caribbean Blues
  4. Colours->map->gradient map.
  5. Done

You can extend this in various ways. For a start you could add a gradient which produces a slightly more topographic feel. If you make the width of the image 2 times wider than the height (and adjust the y-size accordingly) and turn on "tilable" you get a decent world texture.

In theory you should be able to map this onto a sphere using the Filter->Map->Map Object tool, but at the moment it seems as if that expects a square texture. In any case, you'll need to add ice caps by hand (hint: try using white to black gradients in another layer using the "Addition" or "Dodge" layer modes).

If you want to adjust the ruggedness of the map you can fiddle with the x- and y-heights before generation, or use the colour levels dialogue to modify the range and distribution of heights.

The above world map was created using the gradient file linked to here in about 10 minutes (most of which was fiddling with the poles). It's been squashed into a square so that it can be turned into a sphere

Here's the above map turned into a sphere using the Map Object function. As you can see, the polar area isn't completely satisfactory but the whole process is so quick that for a game like Traveller where the GM needs planets almost on demand, it's not bad.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The d8 Book Club Round-Up

Due to the wonders of commuting in cramped conditions, I was able to read a great deal over the last few months. Here's a bunch of capsule reviews, marked out of 8.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes, Rodger Zelazny
This one has been sitting on my shelf for about 20 years. It has a gushing introduction by Theodore Sturgeon which rather set the book up to fail given how high the praise was. In the end, of the four stories in the collection, only one really flopped.

The title story about an Earth linguist attempting to come to grips with the ruins of a Martian civilization and The Furies, about a group of unusual—Vance-line—assassins tracking down a rogue ex-special forces commander pretty well made it up to the mark and rattle alone pretty well, although Rose suffered slightly from the assumption that the Martians were identical to humans and that the reader would also assume that, and so it didn't need to be mentioned until context finally made it the only explanation. At that point I had to stop and reconsider everything in the story up to that point as my assumption had been that the aliens would be alien-looking. I blame Giger.

Of the other two stories, The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of his Mouth must come close to winning the least-appropriate-title-ever and I can only assume that Zelazny thought he had cancer or something and would never have a chance to use such a great name for any other story ever, so he just slapped it on this so-so story of salmon fishing on tropical pulp-age Venus.

The Graveyard Heart is a nice piece of social satire, and a better fit for its title and suffers slightly from having been redone by others in the time since, but the characters are interesting and the setting believable enough to frame the philosophical point being made. Using hibernation-sleep technology, The Set, circle the world in fast-forward, partying like it's 1999 and beyond, aging only 1 year for every 20 in the world outside their exclusive club. But some find that immortality drags after a while and that the lifestyle they lead can mess with people's minds.

d8 score: 6

The Great Book of Amber, Rodger Zelazny
Having enjoyed Rose, I decided to go back and have another go at Amber. I had read Nine Princes in Amber years ago after playing the computer game and had enjoyed it. As luck had it at the time, I wasn't able to locate the next book in the series and so I picked up Philip José Farmer's World of Tiers, which had been doing the rounds in an omnibus edition. I didn't get far into it before I realised that the setting was very, very similar to Nine Princes and when I checked the date I saw that Farmer's book was the original. This coloured my opinion of Zelazny for years afterwards and I didn't bother reading anything else apart from a comic adaptation of Demolition Alley (itself ripped of mercilessly by John Wagner for his Judge Dredd story The Cursed Earth).

Anyway, I eventually read an interview with Zelazny where he was asked about the similarity to the World of Tiers books and he said, basically, that he'd liked the idea but wanted to read about the characters' relationships which Farmer had not focused on, so he just wrote his own version. Well, fair enough, I guess. After reading Rose, I went to get a new copy of Nine Princes and discovered an omnibus edition of all ten Amber books (running to 1200 pages of fairly small text) which I gradually read on the Tube.

The Ten books are divided into two sets of five, the first five dealing with the struggles of Corwin, one of the nine princes in question, as he tries to deal with the fact that the king of Amber, Oberon, has vanished and his siblings are jockying for position either directly for the throne or to be on the good side of the eventual winner. Corwin is unsure that he wants the throne himself but most of his brothers, at least, assume that he does and his apparent doubts are clever manœuvring. On top of that, Amber is one end of a long sequence of parallel worlds which run from The Pattern to the Courts of Chaos. In between is every imaginable world, including ours, that of the magical Camelot, Wonderland, and presumably every world of fantasy or science fiction ever written about. Corwin and other "real" people can travel over these worlds but for the Amberites they are seen as essentially figments of their imaginations, "shadow" worlds and in those shadow worlds real people stand out as especially strong, intelligent, and/or plain magical. Corwin finds a lot of these pre-conceived notions challenged as he tries to take control of his destiny in preparation for a final confrontation between Law and Chaos where the only possibility for a third option looks to be a lethal one.

The second set of five books concerns Corwin's son Merlin's similar struggle with becoming his own man as the consequences of Corwin's actions reverberate around the multiverse. Zelazny never suggests that this Merlin is the Merlin of legend, which I found refreshing to be honest, but he is a magic user all right, unlike his Dad who was a fighting man. In fact, Merlin is, to my surprise, a Vancian caster!

The first five books do not deal much with magic so having a spellcasting central character was a bit of a change of pace in itself but it was really a bit out of left-field when Merlin started to prepare spells for later use, "hanging" them in his terminology. There is a bit later on where he talks (all ten books are first-person narratives) about using up all the prepared spells and then starting to battle another wizard with "raw power" which is a lot more tiring, so it's not completely AD&D, but it's interesting to speculate whether the game had influenced the books (possibly the influence came directly from Vance, of course).

The second set of books suffers only slightly from "been there, done that" but I felt that Zelazny had trouble making the characters of Merlin and Corwin really distinct beyond their "classes". On top of that, Corwin's main enemy has a epiphany late in the game and throws in with him, something which seems to have happened a lot in books I've read recently and as this was the third time I'd seen it in a year I was a bit tired of it, never mind that Zelazny had done it first—I hadn't read his first.

Very long but overall rewarding and fun read, even if the second set made magic seem a bit too easy which undermined the value of it and implied some unanswered questions about the plot of the earlier books.
d8 score: 7

1Q84, Haruki Murakami
Junk. A classic example of a writer who thinks fantasy must be easy because anything can happen, leading to lazy plotting, lazy characterization, and a setting that is almost see-through in its flimsiness.

Although it is presented as one book in three parts, the book was clearly not written that way. Book 1 is far better than the others and it's obvious that Haruki wrote it in a burst of ideas and then found that he didn't know what to do next. Book 2 is tolerable and Book 3 is a bad joke.

Briefly, the story concerns a woman who is working as a feminist assassin, killing (in an inventive way) men who have mistreated or even killed women but managed to remain above the law. One day in 1984, stuck in a traffic jam on the way to a hit, she gets out of a taxi and climbs down an emergency staircase from the freeway to the ground below. When she arrives there, she is in an alternative reality where the US and USSR have a joint moonbase on the larger of the two moons and there are subtle differences about police uniforms related to events at a mountain commune where several policemen were killed—the deaths being attributed to the old-fashioned nature of Japanese police equipment.

An alarm bell did ring for me even at this point, because as Aomame gets out of the taxi the driver says something portentous and mysterious about the nature of reality. It really couldn't have been clunkier or more clichéd if Arnold Schwarzenegger had said it. But I glossed over it, giving the author a bit of a fool's pardon on the grounds that it was a translation and maybe the original was a little more smoothly done.

Book One progresses well from there and it becomes clear that there is a love story here but as we fade into Book Two the love story starts to sound forced, a love-at-first-sight, haven't-seen-each-other-since-school routine that might fly in Mills and Boons but was creaking under the strain of passing itself off for an adult audience. Gradually it loses all coherence, as does the story itself which may or may not involve aliens or maybe elves or perhaps some sort of albino smurfs which travel magically via roadkill.

Nothing is really resolved except through deus-ex-machinae and the alternative reality setting is apparently completely pointless and holds the writer's interest not much longer than the various characters that drift in and then out again when they've done their bit for the plot regardless of whether their actions have any internal motivations at all.

Treated as a single book, it is the worst book I've ever bothered to finish.

d8 score: 1

1984, George Orwell
Now, here's a thing. A cornerstone of our culture which is rarely actually read any more; better known through stock phrases and iconography than in its original form. I don't know if this is currently on the national curriculum but I think it probably should be. As a study of evil and the dangers of party politics it's a gem.

Orwell dissects the political mind and the need for an unending war with an amazing level of penetration for someone writing no later than the year after the end of WWII; he has no illusions at all about the grand gestures and the mirror-image opponents of the oncoming Cold War (we are at war with the Soviet Union; we have always been at war with the Soviet Union; we are at war with Terror, we have always been at war with Terror). I don't know much about his life but I do know that he spent some time as a policeman in Burma where he had to participate in hangings, and the mistrust of motives and patriotism he learnt serves him well in the depiction of a political class which has harnessed behavioural science and linguistics to control the emotions of the people who supply it with luxury and pleasure.

The weak points are the physical setting (the effects of post-bombing radiation and fallout were not yet well known and so the portrayed after-effects of a nuclear war on Britain seem fairly ridiculous to the modern eye) and the central character of Winston Smith.

Smith is a fool, basically. Although it is easy to understand his desire to rebel, it's not so easy to understand why he's quire so bad at it. He's weak and fatalistic from the start and although the trap he is caught in is a surprise when it arrives, the fact that it arrives is not. When he is broken in Room 101, his reaction and manner of collapse is strange and not entirely convincing. It's also hard to have any sympathy for him or his lover, they are so obviously doomed by their own lack of either gumption or discretion.

These points make the book feel like a play at times, where the set is dressed to give enough of an impression of place but is not really important. Which is fair enough, really, but it still felt odd when Smith and Julia went for a day out in the countryside, regardless of the suggestion that they are worried about being watched; it still reminded me of the original ending to Blade Runner when they run away into the beautiful forest.

Orwell is strongest when he is presenting the logic of The Party's policies and the motives of its inner circle, devoted to the perpetuation of the system as their personal slice of immortality and their own triumph over the weak. That material is sadly all too realistic.

The book ends with an appendix which discusses Newspeak, the language that The Party is phasing in to replace Oldspeak—English and the other languages of its empire. This is another insightful piece of writing and could almost be a guide to modern political and economic language in places; it certainly catches the intent of a lot of this sort of writing and speaking. The goal, Orwell says, is to create a language where the brain is not needed, speech will come automatically from the larynx as an animal response to the correct stimulus. Dumbing down the language is a specific tactic to make it hard to express anything which could challenge established ideas and the use of contractions is encouraged in order to slip ideas past the brain quickly without any critical analysis.

I'll have a look at 1984 and Evil in a later post.

d8 score: 7

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
A classic story of a cursed magic item which seems on the surface to be a great gift. Gray, like 1984, is a study in evil, but a more insidious evil in the form of Lord Henry Wotton who first steals and then corrupts the young Dorian Gray from Basil Hallward, the painter of the picture in question.

Wilde was a great, possibly the greatest ever, writer of fairy tales and this is a fairy tale of wishes coming true, set in a very real and adult world and like all good fairy stories it is replete with hidden sexual tension and social commentary and ends with a moral.

The book has many layers, not least in its care never to state directly that the older two men are homosexuals, and somewhat predatory ones at that, although Basil seems not to be bold enough to really force himself on anyone at all. Henry/Harry is a different matter but his attention to Dorian is not out of love but of cold, detached, manipulation for the pleasure of it. The painting's role is to hold out the promise of not simply immortality but also of absolution to Dorian and thereby, perhaps, be the catalyst for Harry's influence on the young man. Or perhaps that is simply Dorian's excuse; perhaps without the painting he would have been just the same, as his shoddy treatment of a girl he professed to love seems to imply. The text is ambiguous in many, and artfully constructed, ways. Wilde diced with trouble even publishing this version and the text of it would in fact be used against him in his trials.

Wilde said that Basil was who he really was while Henry was his public image and it's interesting the degree to which the former chastises and even mocks the latter, and the number of times that the narrative voice undermines Harry or points out his deviousness. His clever quips and amusing attitudes are routinely framed in such a way as to highlight their shallowness.

Under the evil that is done by Harry and his puppet Dorian, and perhaps that of the magic in the picture, the story is about power and the dangers of irresponsibility - both Dorian's freedom from consequences gained from the painting, and Harry's immunity from blame as his machinations are carried out by his young proxy, leaving him blame-free in the eyes of the wider world, if not Basil's. And that is the only real difference between the evil of Dorian Gray and 1984: in Orwell's book the evil has won and no longer has to hide from the wider world. But both evils have the same nature and same ultimate fear—the past. Both Dorian Gray and The Party of 1984, consciously alter the memory of the past in an effort to avoid its rebuke; the chance that they can be shown to be wrong. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1984, and, Zelazny's The Graveyard Heart, immortality is the goal that drives the core of the story, and immortality stores up a great deal of past to be afraid of.

d8 score: 8

Monkey, Wu Ch'êng-ên, trans. Arthur Waley
Who doesn't like a bit of Monkey Magic?! Anyone that said so can leave now. Actually, those that do like Monkey, should probably also steer clear of this abridged translation of the original story and keep their memories intact.

The main problem is not the translation (although that is a little dated now, having been done in 1942), nor in the fact of the abridgement. Indeed, if it had not been abridged I doubt that I would have completed it.

I guess I was expecting a novel, albeit a very early novel and full of fantastic nonsense. But I got a selection of rather repetitive folk stories which have very little internal consistency, satire of things that don't exist any more, and a bunch of characters that have no purpose.

The book starts with stories of Monkey's youth wherein he demonstrates that he is, as advertised, the Equal of all Heaven and it is only though rather unconvincing trickery that the forces of Heaven are able to finally bind and imprison Monkey. This is the key problem, as it establishes Monkey as an almost unstoppable factotum capable of anything. Going to India and back is no more a challenge to him than scratching his big baboon bum would be. Yet we have to traipse through 350 pages of him accompanying Tripitaka on his expedition to get the scriptures from a bunch of moronic and bad tempered Buddhist spirits who don't even give them the right scrolls.

On the journey he has to contend with Tripitaka's gnat-like attention span while occasionally calling on Pigsy or Sandy to do some minor feat that we know Monkey could do in his sleep because we saw him doing much greater things in the early chapters.

So, if you're still interested, read it in the frame of mind that it is not a novel, or even a coherent story. It is a very run-of-the-mill collection of the sort of folk stories that might just about entertain folk with a mental age of 7. Compared to Norse or Celtic mythology and folklore this is very definitely third-class material.

d8 score: 2

Against All Things Ending, Stephen Donaldson
The final Thomas Covenant series has been a slow progress, each book being about 600 pages long and the series itself being four books instead of three. This third book sees the action pick up a bit as Covenant himself begins to make his mark on the story, having been turned into a god, then back again, killed, and resurrected over the course of events since the close of the original three books.

Donaldson has experimented with writing this series much more strongly from the point of view of Linden Avery, Covenant's love interest from the second series and for me it has not been a success. Avery is basically a dickhead and every minute of her company is like walking over glass to a viewing platform where one can see the most incredible vista; I put up with it because I love the vista, but I really would prefer an alternative. With Covenant returning to centre stage a bit, that's at least a help.

Meanwhile, Covenant's insane wife and his estranged son are out to kill him at the behest of good old Lord Foul. Covenant's experience as the Arch of Time has given him insights, but his reincarnation in mortal flesh makes accessing his omniscient memory hard and unreliable, but he knows that at last he understands Foul and that he can not kill him without breaking the universe in which The Land exists. Much hilarity ensues. Apart from the hilarity, that is.

Exciting, interesting, and often rousing when T.C. (Thomas Covenant, not Top Cat) gets angry and starts doing things, the plot still relies far too heavily on people not saying even the simplest things to each other. It's sometimes like a French Farce played for blood. But, ah! the giants! The wonderful giants.
d8 score: 6
The Last Dark, Stephen Donaldson
Ever see an author collapse from sheer exhaustion? Well, read The Last Dark and see what it looks like. For a 600 page book, it feels incredibly rushed. Plot lines start to collapse, in some cases because the protagonists are finally getting to grips with their situations and sorting things out, but in other cases because it feels like the author has himself collapsed and frankly doesn't care any more. A major antagonist switches sides and T.C. pulls everyone's fat out of the fire and everyone lives happily ever after. There's even a rainbow. I am not joking.

Not that I didn't want Covenant to have a happy ending, but this was too pat somehow. The struggles of the previous books deserved an ending where the costs were acknowledged without casting a shadow over the victory but it just didn't feel like that to me.

Overall, a partial success but badly marred by the obvious desire to stop writing this damned series. Which is a shame after 30 years, but maybe it was just too much to ask.
d8 score: 3

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, Michael Moorcock
It was a long time since I had read any Elric and I had a hankering, as they say. So when I saw this and Stormbringer in a second hand stall I picked them up. I was slightly wary because I knew that these were among Moorcock's earliest work and that I was pretty young when I last read them. With that slightly low expectation in mind, I wasn't let down.

Sailor is a set of three linked novellas which chart Elric's travelling adventures, starting on a mysterious ship who's captain is initially putting together a crew to find and kill a pair of alien beings before they can end the world (bloody aliens; set UKIP on them, I say). To this end, the captain has sailed the multiverse and found not just one but four incarnations of The Eternal Champion—Elric, Erekosë, Corum, and Hawkmoon who then select various henchmen from the other sailors on the ship. Elric is unaware of his connection with the other four until the final showdown wherein they combine into one super-being to slay the aliens (hoorah!)

Of this first story, the most memorable parts are the aliens who are initially mistaken for buildings, and the city they are found in which, although ruined by time and/or war, the shadows of the original intact architecture are still somehow cast across the empty streets.

The second briskly gets Elric off the ship, which sails off in search of legendary Tnemlorn, and into a rather dull sort of love story which is notable only for its introduction of Count Smiorgan Baldhead, who's an entertaining sidekick, although this being Elric we all know he's doomed from the moment he says 'hello' to our Albino jokester.

The final part of the book takes us to the original home of Elric's Melnibonéan race, revealing that long before they conquered Melnebone, they dwelt in a Howardesqe jungle on another island in the middle of a river. I was half expecting winged apes to swoop down on the party as they explored it and gazed up at the huge statue of Arioch, Elric's patron Lord of Chaos and all-round bad egg.

As it happens, this is the story that sets Elric on a collision course with Arioch and lights the fuse of the apocalypse which eventually overcomes the world in Stormbringer.

d8 score: 5

Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock

He's got nothin' you need,
He's going to make you bleed...
Deep  Purple, "Stormbringer"

Absolutely the epitome of adolescent angst and moodiness, Stormbringer is everything British fantasy used to be before the Tolkien juggernaut rolled over everything, followed by hordes of vampires and werewolves. Elric chooses his side, and decides that it will be no side; using the Lords of Law as a weapon against those of Chaos but ultimately playing both ends against eachother as he searches for a middle way.

In the process, Bruegel is unleashed on the world, and not the nice one that did the pictures of people having a booze-up at a wedding: the other one that painted skeletons chopping people's heads off.

Apocalypses are hard to pull off. I find that most attempts either don't capture the scale or overwhelm the characters with the presentation of the scale. Moorcock, it seems to me, pulls the trick off here because the world is not in fact destroyed but turned into a living incarnation of Chaos. When Elric brings the whole thing to an end replacing it with, it is implied, our real world, the feeling is indeed one of cleansing and even his final death at the blade of his own sword manages not to overplay the moment. So, all in all, I was pleasantly surprised. Or maybe I've not grown up very much in the last 30 years after all.

d8 score: 6

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, Isabel Greenberg
Boy meets girl, boy and girl are magnetically repulsed by an invisible force, boy tells his life story to pass the time, book ends very abruptly.

What there is of Encyclopedia is excellent. But because there is a substantial appendix of bits and pieces (including some stories), there's no feeling that you are coming close to the end of the book until you turn the page and find the word "Appendix" blaring out at you. It was a real shocker, as the storyline seemed to heavily imply that more was going to happen. But it didn't; the boy and the girl die without ever overcoming their magnetic resistance problem and that's dealt with in a single page.

I could have done with a book twice as long with a better ending. If I could only have one of those I'd pick the longer book as what there was, was great.
d8 score: 4

Economics: The User's Guide, Ha-Joon Chang
A good overview of the world's main economic religions theories and models and a welcome return of the Pelican imprint with its distinctive light blue covers.
d8 score: 7

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Mass Combat 3: Counter Punch

So, I said in the previous instalment that I prefer to use counters than figures, so here's how I make my counters - a bit of Perl and a bit of plainTeX. If you have a Mac or a Linux machine then you should be able to use these files without any real problem; it's possible that even Windows has managed to catch up with the 1980's enough to use them—I don't know. The end result should be a 2 page PDF (see here for example based on the defaults below) which you should be able to print to get double-sided counters with one side representing the unit at full strength and the other side half. My ancient Epson 1290 manages to produce accurate enough registration for this so I assume printers made this century (yes, it really is that old) will be able to cope.

Blogger can't handle this sort of thing very well, so you'll have to trust me that you can cut and paste from the following mess into a file editor to get usable results (this is also why there's no images in this post).

The first file is units.tex which sets up some macros for the later code:

\hsize 6.2677true in%
\vsize 9.69true in%

        \font\BODY=phvr at .222\csize
        \font\SMALL=phvr at .18\csize
        \setbox0=\hbox{\BODY ()1234567890}
        \global\setbox\strutbox=\hbox{\vrule height \ht0 depth \dp0 width 0pt}
\setsize{27pt} % default
\def\centre#1{\hfill\strut #1\hfill }
\def\inline#1{\setbox99=\hbox{\BODY #1}\ifdim\wd99<\twidth\hbox to
\tsize{\centre{\BODY #1}}\else\hbox to \tsize{\centre{\SMALL #1}}\fi}
\def\line#1{\hbox to \tsize{\thinspace\strut #1\thinspace }}
\def\slip{\hrule width 0pt height .4pt }
plus 1fil\rightskip=0pt}
\def\unit #1 #2,#3,#4,#5,#6 {\vbox{\hsize\csize\hrule height .8pt
\hbox to \csize{\vrule width.8pt\hfill\vbox to \csize{\hsize=\csize
\line{\BODY #3\hfill #4\strut}\vfill
\inline{#1}\slip\slip%%%% Max width<23.36pt
\line{\BODY #5\hfill #6}\slip
}\hfill\vrule width.8pt}%
\hrule height 0pt depth .8pt}\penalty0}%
\offinterlineskip\parindent=0pt\parfillskip=0pt plus 1fil\rightskip=\parfillskip\leftskip=0pt\noindent


Then we have the main counter defining file This contains the hard coded definitions of the counters you want to to produce. The default ones in the file should be enough to work out how to modify it for your own use. The only slightly unclear parameter is probably "count" which is simply the number of copies of that unit you want; they will be numbered so you can track damage and so on.

#!/usr/bin/perl -w

$width=shift || (27/72);



#Count, name, cl, ac, mv, number

print '\input units.tex';
print "\n";
print "\\setsize{$width pt}";
print '\newline';
print "\n";

print '\bye';

sub pageone
 push @lines,[@currentline];
    for $l(@lines)
 for $u(@currentline)
     print "$u";
 print "\\newline\n";

sub pagetwo
    print "\\newpage\n";
    for $l(@lines)
 for (1..@currentline)
     $u=~s/,\d+\s*$/,$s /;
     print "$u";
 print "\\newline\n";

sub units
    my ($dups,$name,$cl,$ac,$mv,$size)=@_;
    local $i;
    for $i(1..$dups)
 push @currentline,"\\unit {$name} $i,$ac,$mv,$cl,$size ";
     push @lines,[@currentline];

To use this, you pass the size of the counters you want as a fraction of an inch and redirect the output to some other file, for example

./ .626 >sheet.tex

Finally, you turn this TeX file into a pdf in whatever method you normally do, if nothing else then

pdftex sheet.tex

Should have a good chance of producing a file called sheet.pdf which you can print.

AC comes out at top-left; move rate top-right; combat ability (ie, the equivelant fighter ability) goes bottom-left; and the number of individuals represented by the unit goes in the bottom-right. The combat ability, as well as the tables in part 1, are intended for use with my combined combat tables but aren't hard to use with the standard tables.

Next post will probably be about something else, but in the post after that I plan to get down to some discussion of how to actually resolve some real combat with these rules (and one more table).