Sunday, 25 September 2016

Doom and Gloom! (Nth edition)

First off let me say that I'm sorry to have been away for so long, I was busy writing (and have the first draft of a novel to start typing up tomorrow, as well as working on some new ideas), and have been neglecting my online presence quite a lot.

Part of that is that I'm finding it quite depressing to look online and see the debate, if you want to call it that, on sites like the Guardian, and even Facebook, around Brexit and other things. Often, it feels as if these are niggardly, mean arguments. It feels as if we are actively setting up the next crises right now. At the same time the new century feels as if it has actually got underway and is starting to establish its own identity, in a similar fashion to the way that the events of World War One provided the 'clear blue  water' between the Victorian age and the Twentieth Century. It feels as if the period of 1990 to 2016 has been a sort of 'downtime' for the human race, as we experienced the anxiety of the Millennium and then recovered and woke up to the fact that in fact the date of the year 2000 meant nothing - there's still no Age of Aquarius or enlightened moves towards a better, fairer society. There were, but we seem to have accepted a narrative wherein we, the people, can't have nice things and where other people are not to be trusted, but to held at arm's length.

I suspect Al Quaeda and IS/Da'esh will be the ghosts of our century, haunting our time. Yes, it will be traumatic and terrifying but in real terms we would do well to remember that so far the Islamic terror groups have caused less loss of life than the IRA, Red Brigades, ETA and all the other terror groups of the late 20th Century did; we notice it more because of the way the media has chosen to report it, the fact that it has been far more tied to the notion of 'otherness' in that Islam is being presented as an alien identity rather than just another expression of our humanity. The fact that the political class in the West has chosen to respond in a political rather than criminal fashion to the terror attacks has not helped. We perhaps should not be surprised by this reaction, in our era, the idea of a nuanced, measured response has become something that seems alien (witness the bewildered attitude of much of the press to Ed Milliband's refusal to back an invasion of Syria a few years ago). I remain firm in my belief that though Islamic terror is a horrible thing, it is not the main event of this century, even as it sits hand in glove with it.

So what is the real 'event' in my opinion?   At present, I would have to answer, 'nationalism'. The new century looks to be divided between the Nation State (which 20 years ago I was being taught was a spent force), everything was evolving away from the local, national level to higher bodies. Government and business alike were becoming globalised. The Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump in America is a direct reaction to that, as well as against the perceived 'waves' of immigrants who are fleeing pretty horrific situations in their own countries. I find it hard to fathom how anyone could resent the Syrians given the civil war, the rise of IS and the fact that Turkey stuck a great big dam across the Euphrates, effectively destroying their way of life and starving them (and let's face it, this is the real source of radicalisation and why climate change is making the world more dangerous on a human level - a hungry people with no hope is not in a position to resist the blandishments of well-armed extremists who can feed them).

The real issue is that nationalism and 'nationhood' have moved centre stage, thanks to the failure of neoliberalism, the rise of uncertainty and the rewriting of the past and present by the media to try and create a simple 'them and us' narrative that ignores the complexities of the world. Still, it's good to know that when the worst happens Britons will cling to this rock against all sanity because fleeing to somewhere else would only put a burden on another country's resources and we wouldn't want that. Would we?

Sarcasm aside, I can appreciate the concerns of the people who voted to leave the EU, even if I honestly think it was my nation committing suicide, commercially, culturally and in any other way you choose to mention. Also, horrible liberal that I am, I think immigration is hardly the biggest problem we face, it's just the one that's been pushed hardest by our right wing press. It masks a deeper malaise and a protectionist impulse that has been growing for at leat the last fifteen years. Back in 2001, the Guardian reported the EU states were starting to move towards a more protectionist stance, raising barriers to people outside the union. With Germany, France, and the UK at its heart, this area was starting to use Spain, Italy and the other states as buffer zones against immigration from outside Europe. For example, fruit picking jobs in Spain, which had traditionally been done by Moroccans, began to be done by Polish people, just as they have been in the UK. This barrier has now moved backwards, and for Britain, now sits on our south coast. It will be interesting to see if it moves any further inland as divisions creep deeper into society.

Socially we're seeing something similar, the rise of gated communities to keep out undesirables, the hollowing out of London to exile the poor while huge skyscrapers tear up communities and become homes, ridiculously expensive homes, for people who will scarcely ever live in them. The idea that the country is somehow becoming swamped speaks to a fear of difference, the idea that life is becoming too difficult and that somehow privilege is being threatened (of course that privilege is invisible - privilege always is). That, so far, has manifested itself in racist attacks, but unchecked we'll see a rise in homophobic and transphobic assaults, and I daresay misogynist and anti-alternative lifestyle assaults as well.

On the Left, we're seeing more focus on safe spaces, on trigger warnings and no platforming - this seems to be the other side of the coin, where there's a scramble towards intellectual protectionism. Both sides are doing this, of course, and the internet is helping with that by creating bubbles where we don't see the opposing side's arguments. The dearth of education about politics has been a death knell for thought, (one of my problems with the referendum campaign was that the lack of political education in the UK meant that the campaign was stupidly simple, without touching on a lot of the real issues that needed to be looking at).

On the other hand, while there's a focus on division, splitting us into ever smaller groups all seeking to be seen as the 'true' expression of something, there's also a kick back against the complications of human existence. I remember having a conversation about Conchita Wurst and how to categorise zir. The vast number of ways to look at transvestism seemed bewildering to them (and they weren't even dismissing Trans people as attention seeking, they just wanted it to be simple and binary). I've also seen similar comments about Feminism and other 'niche' beliefs. There does seem to be a real desire to get back to a more simple way of life (I've talked before about the idea that the zombie apocalypse narrative seems to want this too; it's not a new idea). The problem is that this just will not happen, any more than Brexit is going to bring back mass production manufacturing to the UK, in fact it's likely to hasten the end of manufacturing here unless we start to develop strong internal markets.

To return to ttechnology, it's facilitated the growth of  the curve of society, leading it to become too big, neither the people at the top nor the people at the bottom can see each others' lives or comprehend what it's like to be in each other's shoes, something that's not healthy. This may not be new, but the severity of it seems to be growing.  Say what you like about the Medieval period, or even the Ancient World, but the basics of nature created a levelling influence. It's hard to have airs when you only get a better form of rushes on the floor and when you're going to get the same crappy diet in winter because meat is rare. Today, thanks to technology the rich and poor live utterly different lives. Technology has also become a panacea, 'let them have iPads' has become our 'let them eat cake'. The sad thing is that we seem to have fallen, by and large, for the idea that new technology and other material goods will make us happy to the exclusion of everything else, even as loneliness and isolation become more prevalent and hurt more people. This is nothing to do with immigration, obviously, but we are barely addressing either the distribution of wealth or the 'loneliness bomb'.

Britain also seems to be neglecting a host of other issues, my concern post-Brexit is that our food and fuel security will be shot to bits, British agriculture doesn't come close to feeding the population and the old saw that we're a week away from starving is true. In addition, the Soil Association has produced a report recently stating that there are 100, yes 100, harvests left in British soil. Local Authorities are selling off green spaces, which perhaps should be turned into allotments (think of the benefits of us growing our own food, not just in knowing what we put on our plates but also physical and mental well-being). It won't happen of course and we'll just see more luxury postage stamp sized apartments going up, while the air quality gets worse and the NHS is sold off on the sly.

We're looking at a ticking time bomb in other words.

In addition, shortly after the Brexit vote, there were warnings about fuel security and rising prices. I would guess the white elephant at Hinkley Point is in part meant to solve that, but I can't help but think that a new century needs new eyes and new ideas particularly given the push towards simplicity and control over our own lives (why not push for increased microgeneration for example?). It does seem ironic, and sad, that at the same time as we see a huge push towards independence from the world we're seeing an increased tendency to get into bed with oppressive regimes and in particular China. 'Taking back control'? Hardly.

The reality is that we're sitting on a powder keg, waiting for the charges to go off. In some ways the first one has, with the rise of the Right and the reassertion of nationalism. The second, in the form of heightened relations with Russia, might be about to, but they're still small potatoes in comparison to feeding ourselves, heating our homes, and other issues that seem small but are actually more important than the moves within the Great Game.

Sadly, this is situation normal. I just wish it wasn't.


Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Tuesday Quote: HP Lovecraft

Image result for HP LovecraftOcean is more ancient than the mountains, and freighted with the memories and the dreams of Time. H. P. Lovecraft


Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/h/hplovecr278136.html

Friday, 22 July 2016

FFF: Songs for an Urban Fantasy

As I think I've said many times before, I love Urban Fantasy. So much so that I've actually started writing some (set in Birmingham)  - I won't say more but fingers are crossed that something cool will come out of it.

In that spirit, I thought I'd look for some songs to serve as inspiration.

Depeche Mode: World in My Eyes

Enticing us to step into the dark, to see the world differently, this song seems to sum up what all fiction is all about, but because we are an urban species now, this feels like a call to see past the hoardings and shop fronts to look at the cities we live in with fresh eyes and see the magic hiding there. Step off the path you know, wander into the dark a bit and see what's lurking out there.



Die Laughing: Safe Little World

As a complete counterbalance to that idea of stepping into the dark, this song serves as a warning in some ways, suggesting that going too far might not do you the world of good. Clinging to some sort of normality (whatever that is) will always be necessary. Who knows what you might lose if you stray too far. Like everything it's a question of balance.



Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Red Right Hand

Another word of caution, from Mr. Cave, as we saunter into twilight, this time, that here be dragons, and the darkness seethes with temptations. Traveller, beware.


The Ting Tings: Great DJ

Describing a particularly, peculiarly, modern form of magic, this song catches the 'street' elements of the Urban Fantasy genre, that idea that magic could be anywhere, just waiting to spring forth and spread out into the world. Dancing and music are traditional elements in a lot of forms of magic(k) and can be transformative acts. They make perfect tools for navigating the modern occult too, if only because they're so common. Want to commune with a deity, hit the dance floor and dance your way to nirvana.



The Wonderstuff: Caught in My Shadow

An actual song about Birmingham, this seems, to sum up, the 'return' to the normal, sunlit, world of safety.


And that's your five.

Which songs would you choose for this sort of thing? What's on your writing or reading song list?

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Tuesday Quote: Bram Stoker

Image result for bram stokerThere are such beings as vampires, some of us have evidence that they exist. Even had we not the proof of our own unhappy experience, the teachings and the records of the past give proof enough for sane peoples. Bram Stoker
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/b/bramstoker359617.html

Saturday, 16 July 2016

FOMO? F.O.

Image result for FOMOFOMO, or Fear of Missing Out, has become a pretty big feature of the lives we live today, one that seems to dominate a lot of Culture when it comes to things that are perceived as easy to consume, films, TV, perhaps music (I don't think I've seen it extended to books yet, but I imagine that it will when the next Harry Potter novel is published). As a committed Cultural Contrarian, as explained by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian, which is a position I've sort of stumbled onto over the years probably starting with an over enthusiastic friend telling me I'd love Rocky Horror back at university, I tend to look at these things with either bemusement or irritation. Partly that's because I quite dislike being told what I should like, especially by strangers on the internet, and partly because the more people go on about how I must like a thing, the more I resent it and dig my heels in (stubborn me, never!) I imagine that Mr Burkeman and I aren't the only ones out there, and I do view FOMO, as a concept, as the sort of thing that you can only really subscribe to if you have oodles of cash or time, the two main currencies that dominate our lives (the third, if you're interested, is power in the social sense and the people telling you you're missing out because you haven't seen Rat King or heard the new album Panther's Roar* are using it to influence debate, albeit in an unconscious manner).


There is so much to consume these days, that Missing Out is inevitable unless you have a TARDIS, and making choices about what we consume grows ever more important if only because of that. Time is limited and too precious to waste on something you don't enjoy. If something doesn't grab you in the space of an episode, should you actually persevere? Admittedly sometimes it's worth doing so, some of my favourite books are ones where I had to invest the time in reading them to enjoy them - though I am occasionally haunted by the idea that I only like them because I invested the time and my brain is pumping out feel good vibes to convince me all that time was well spent. I guess the same may be true of shows and films that start slowly and blossom, if you have to watch six episodes to get into a series then perhaps the same thing happens, if it was no good, you would not have spent so much time watching it already, right?

This, of course, suggests that in some cases the things we like, we actually do not, but that we trick ourselves into doing so because of the phenomenon above or because of social pressure. Finding out what we really like can be half the battle, and being told that you're missing out does not help, and may contribute to the growing levels of anxiety we're seeing in society. I feel, and I also feel as if I'm sticking my neck out here, that the impulse is at least in part rooted in humanity's natural need to be a member of tribes and clubs; fandom has replaced family and tribe in many respects and we cling to the identifiers that link to other people. In some ways this seems to suggest fandom has become just another subculture, one that's mutable to fit in and around the old music tribes of the 20th Century. The other thing is that the people who are pushing particular shows may be reflecting their own insecurities, pushing their likes and dislikes hard because they are looking for more of the tribe. I'm not sure how that connects to Cultural Contrarianism, but it does feel as if there should be a link, doesn't it?

One of the rules in Culture is Sturgeon's Law, AKA '90% of everything is crap'. With an ever expanding market for the Arts, it is inevitable that we will have to spend more time working out what our individual good 10% is, and what our 90% is. Remember, you are completely right to say you don't have time to watch or read something, and that no matter how much pressure anyone puts on you, it is fundamentally your choice how you spend your leisure time. It's just that our culture hates that, which is arguably a form of cultural hegemony, as well as monkey tribe stuff, kicking in. Linking back to the anxiety, when there are reports of people so paralysed by choice they struggle to buy washing liquid and breakfast cereal, it does make me wonder if the explosion in TV shows etc. is a healthy thing. It may be better for us to narrow down our perspectives and stick to the things in Culture we know bring us pleasure, dipping a toe outside for variety every so often.

In short, do what you want, like what you want to, and if you do feel the need to evangelise, then find good reasons why other people might enjoy the things you love rather than just parroting the party line.

*As far as I know these are completely fictional, I didn't want to use real names.

Friday, 15 July 2016

FFF: Anime Theme Tunes

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

I love this show and the track from the start and it's so strong and innovative, mixing Russian, Japanese and English lyrics. It's from the second season, and I may be odd in preferring it to the first season's.



Fullmetal Alchemist

A lovely piece of J-Rock, this has a beat is great and makes me want to dance.


Read or Die

This sounds like a Bond theme, and I think it's great. It really feels appropriate to the genre, and as if it could actually be attached to a big film.




Serial Experiments Lain

Beautifully melodic and well written, this song captures the isolation Lain feels as she learns the truth about herself.



XXXHolic

Reminding me of INXS in many ways, this is a great track.


Thursday, 14 July 2016

Cover to Cover: Mage the Awakening Supernal Lore (part one)

Starting with the latest part of fiction, this chapter deals with character generation and we finally encounter the door and the sense that things are lurking beyond it.

Moving on we start the chapter with a quote from one of my favourite films, Dark City, which is a nice touch. After that, we get into character creation, which happily starts with the reaffirming that Mages are human, not from the planet Zog. Starting with concept and Aspirations, things that you want to achieve in play for your character (not things that your character will want, necessarily, but that the player wants their character to experience).

After this, we move onto the Attributes and Abilities, which are all pretty much as I remember them. I'm still glad that Appearance vanished with the Classic World of Darkness, not because I dislike it as a concept but because I don't think character's looks should matter that much (and I always feel it was only ever included because VtM's Nosferatu had Appearance as a 0. We also get to select skill specialities that serve as focuses for the character, The blank character sheet is here.

For example, I fancy putting together a character who's an Antiquarian, someone who has a small shop in Birmingham's back streets, up in the Jewellery Quarter, and who specialises in silverware. He inherited the business from his Father, who had it from his Father and so on. Albert, the character, started off taking watches apart in the back of the shop in the 1970s, and he's pushing 50 before he gets within an inch of Awakening. I'm picturing Albert as a cautious man, one who is rather fussy and old fashioned, who has always been trapped, though he doesn't know it. He inherited the trap, and has maintained it.

I decide on the following Aspirations:

  • Positively, I want him to grow in power, gaining influence among the Mages in the city. 
  • Secondly, I want him to get a Familiar. 
  • Last I want to see him lose the things that he holds dear, being forced to change beyond all recognition as his world is taken from him.

With that in mind, let's consider the Attributes. There are 9 in total, divided two ways - first into Power, Finesse and Resistance, and also into Mental, Physical and Social. This leaves us with Intelligence Wits, and Resolve, Strength, Dexterity and Stamina, and finally Presence, Manipulation, and Composure. The game gives the player 5/4/3 points to spend however they want and there's a free point in each of the Attributes.

For Albert, I think he'll be fairly social and mental, with the physical side of things lagging, so I prioritise the three groups, putting mental first, he's had lots of experience with puzzles and appraising items, which seems to nod to that idea. Social comes second, Albert can be distant but he's been around people a lot and knows what makes them tick. Last, physical, with most of the points going into Dexterity.

In the end, I plump for Intelligence at 3, Wits at 2, Resolve at 3, Strength 1, Dexterity 3, Stamina 2  (Albert isn't a guy to have in a fist fight obviously), while his social stats shape up at Presence 2, Manipulation 2, and Composure 3 (this last has been hard won by facing down robbers).

Skills, here I have 11/7/4 points to spend with no free points. Prioritising Mental skills, I add the following skills: Crafts 3, Investigation 3, Science 2 (specialising in metallurgy, corrosion and restoration) for 8 points. I throw in a point in Academics, a point in Computer, and one in Occult to round him out a bit more.

With Physical skills, well I don't feel he should have that much going on here. I throw a point into Drive, and one into Brawl (a legacy of his youth though he hasn't fought for years), before putting two into Firearms, for the naughty gun he keeps under the counter, just in case.

Social skills, by default, get 7 points spent on them. I go ahead and put three into Persuasion (haggling mostly), I add 2 to Socialise and put one in Subterfuge and Empathy to round him out a bit. He's not a saint but he's not truly practised at lying or at being empathetic to his fellow man's problems.

Adding some skill specialities, I throw clockwork in for Crafts, research in for Investigation and leave it there, I don't feel he's that rounded to be honest.

Next, we apply the Mage template. Given what we've already established, Moros feels like a natural fit for the Path, and while I really like the idea of adding him to a Nameless Order (perhaps a Jewellers Guild based in the north of Birmingham), to stick with what exists in the corebook I plump for the Mysterium. So he's got a focus on Matter and Death, and is part of the Order that's basically a group of librarians and archivists - which seems to fit him quite well.

I decide that his Nimbus smells of dust and decay (but a dry decay, not the wet rawness of food rotting, but of paper and libraries in a state of bad repair).

I opt to take a lead coin for his magical tool

With his Arcana, I sink three points straight into Matter and two into Death, as that seems to fit his character concept and add a dot in Time, as again that seems to tie in with who he is. Again he'll need to invest in some allies to help out if he gets into a scrap. I can't put a point into Spirit because of him being Moros (despite the fact that Death governs ghosts so he has a foot in that world already). In addition, I can add three rote skills from my Order, the Mysterium, so these are Investigation, Occult and Survival.

I'm going to leave it there and come back to this - mostly because I'm finding navigating the PDF very difficult. This is a point against the game, I'm afraid.