Take This Walk with Me

As of 1 October, I no longer live in the Forest of Dean. I’ve secured a job, and a room, and I’ve gone away. Before I went, on 29 September, I took the two dogs for a walk, along with my brother Jim. I wanted to go around the Forest as a sort of ‘goodbye’ to the place.[1] Thanks to his reminder, I took a few pictures. It was a lovely day, the kind of crisp end of September day that, but for the chill, wouldn’t be out of place in the heart of summer.

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As we walked, I reflected that it would be nearly a year to the day since I properly moved back in with my parents; I’d had to arrange collect my things about six weeks after leaving Salisbury. I never came to love living in the country-side but I did come to appreciate the forest itself. Each day I would take a short run through it as part of my exercise regimen. Slightly less frequently, we would take the two dogs for a long or short walk depending on the weather and our mood.

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In Sky’s death, I mentioned that I used to walk with her and it helped me by giving me time to myself, outside of the house, to think. It remained as that, a location removed from the dreariness of life where I could think freely. When walking the dogs with Jim, we’d discuss what we were writing, or thinking of writing or, most recently, my plans for a theoretical 13th Age game.

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One half of the help of the forest came from getting away, but the other half was undoubtedly these chats with Jim. I think, with all sincerity, I would be in a much worse state if he had not been around to talk to.[2] I’m genuinely grateful for his friendship in what has been a properly difficult time of life for me.

The struggle to be front dog

The struggle to be front dog

Most days, to properly exercise the dogs, we’d take hour-long walks. The Forest is well traversed, with paths marked out with stones. Around you, thick limbed trees give the false impression of the periphery of an untouched wilderness. You can see marks on the earth, there are stacks of uneven stone, and if you are lucky you might encounter a deer or a wild boar.[3]

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We went off of the usual paths, opting to take a detour on this last trip, to make it a last adventure. A muddy path, which he soon diverged from, took us across a shallow bit of marsh, past disturbed earth, and all the way to a tiny road running through the forest. It turned out to be a non-starter, and we went back around to where we had begun. Pointless but absolutely worthwhile.

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Otherwise, much of the forest looks like much else of the forest. That’s neither here nor there, good nor bad, it’s just something that is. Still, I’m glad I took the time for this last walk.

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[1] Also, to Freya and Daisy or Thuggle and Doozer as I think of them. It’s a contrast between cats and dogs that I hadn’t thought of before – I have never gotten to say goodbye to a cat.

[2] And, it should be noted, drive me around the country in pursuit of employment, lodging, and a more fulfilling scotch egg.

[3] I once ran in to a jet black deer with a white tale. I’ve seen a young stag, his antler’s bright in the summer air. One late evening, Jim and I were startled by a sow and her piglets. It was rather exciting.

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The Darkest Dungeon

Of late, I have been playing a game called the Darkest Dungeon. It is a side-scrolling Roguelike RPG, designed by a studio called Red Hook, and funded (in part) through Kick-starter[1]. It is one of the success stories of the current trend of crowd funding, in terms of both money raised and the product that is being delivered. I first became aware of the game’s existence through a video put together by Matt Lees, a videogame/web-media personality whose work I follow. I wasn’t part of the Kickstarter, I was given the game as a birthday present. It is currently available through Steam’s Early Access feature. I’d like to share my thoughts which are, overwhelmingly, positive.

First of all, and probably most importantly for me, the game is absolutely amazingly realised. I am of the opinion that there is a bit of a glut of Lovecraft-mythos inspired media currently out there, a kind of lazy embrace of Cthulhu and assorted monstrosities without any interrogation of the text. Similarly, the trend for ‘dark fantasy.’ To put it another way, given I did write ‘dark fantasy’ novella, I have developed in to a bit of a picky snob with regards to genre.

In The Darkest Dungeon I think these two themes have been stylishly represented and artfully deployed. The game is presented to the player in two modes: a washed-out township with a collection of decrepit buildings or, the meat of the game, 2-d side scrolling sprites arranged in order as they move from the left side of your screen to the right, tripping hazards and looting treasures along the way. A simple foundation, boldly realised. The art direction is amazing and evocative: the Ruins are gothic, there’s a slaughter-house vibe to the Warrens of the swine, and the Weald is the dark forest of traditional fairy-tale married to a Del Toro-esque fantasy vision. Everything looks grubby, worn, and a little close to breaking; the heroes look nearly as bestial as the monsters they face; and the simple colour shifts of the torch wash out the world in threatening reds and obscuring blues. This is accompanied by fragmentary narration by a nameless ‘Ancestor’ who warns and entreats in equal measure, a score that emphasizes the claustrophobia and creeping unease of the setting, and a sound effects palette that shifts from soft whispered squeals to reverberating echoes. An incredible amount of work has gone in to realising this setting.

Monsters hideous and peculiar

Monsters hideous and peculiar

I’ve never really played “Roguelikes.” I remember, vaguely, the original Rogue as something my older brothers probably played, but especially that my mum really liked.[2] That meant that, apart from a little bit of peripheral reading, I was not familiar with the mechanisms of Roguelike play – randomness, nonlinearity, the tendency for things to sometimes be just unfair. That is not to say I only play games with a preset structure – a current favourite is Crusader Kings 2 – but I’m more inclined to ‘save scum’[3] if I don’t get the outcome I want. That option isn’t available in DD, which means that I have to accept my losses as I progress. This has been emphasized by a particular conceit I have embraced while playing Darkest Dungeon: I have renamed each of my heroes to a family member or friend.

Or a nickname, on request

Or a nickname, on request

It is an odd little quirk to get you more invested in the characters, that tiny amount of customisation. You can do a similar thing in the 2012 X-Com game;[4] my actual first play-through of the game featured me renaming every recruit that of my friends and family, semi-prompted by the narrative of familial duty that the game presents.[5] This added investment, the tiniest of tweaks in customisation, added another layer to my engagement with the fictive universe: I wasn’t just some nameless inheritor sending strangers off to die, I was me, and the people fighting in the tombs were my friends. Yet the game itself exceeds the expectation of just naming your soldiers that the afore-mentioned X-Com offered. The heroes of Darkest Dungeon suffer for their travails, bend and break as they are exposed to danger and horror, and develop strange quirks of personality as a result of it. I think it is telling that, while the quirks that affect stats were the one’s that were most obviously detrimental, it was the traits that reflected personality that brought the characters to life and affected game play. One Graverobber was ‘Curious’, rifling through books and scrolls even as they further eroded her mind. Then there was the Crusader, a holy warrior, afflicted with Kleptomania; sometimes, against my wishes, he would open chests and pocket the treasure for himself

Meanwhile, in Hamlet...

Meanwhile, in Hamlet…

Even back in town, characters would refuse or require certain activities: the Highwayman who refused any comfort other than drink, or the Vestal who had been barred from the Brothel for her ‘Deviant Tastes.’ The band came alive with quirks beyond my direct governance. When, finally, the deathblows fell,[6] I had become attached to them through their habits as much as the names I had given them.

The center cannot hold

The center cannot hold

There are also, mechanically, so many little features of Darkest Dungeon, all geared to evoking the claustrophobic feel of the descent. Your characters are not just at risk of bodily harm; they have a Stress meter that endures between forays in to the dungeon. Gain too much stress, and your hero can break, becoming abusive or paranoid. Gain even more, and it could kill them.

All too much

All too much

Stress is gained in combat, but also from unexpected surprises such as finding a gruesome scene or reading a particularly troubling text. You have limited supply space when you go in to the Dungeon; your heroes need to eat, but how much will you bring? You need to plan for what you might encounter: tunnels to clear passages, or bandages to bind up cuts.

Come prepared, and you may reap the rewards

Come prepared, and you may reap the rewards

Yet this all costs gold, and takes up space, reducing how much you can bring home from the dungeon. The money so spent is lost. That’s the core of the gameplay, balancing the risk of pushing on and losing everything, with the potential to gain more treasure. A tough fight might be winnable, or you might prefer to retreat when things go south. Unlike, say, a modern MMO where the only thing lost is time, in Darkest Dungeon you could lose a treasured Hero (and the investment they represent) as well as everything they were carrying

.Darkest Dungeon is not without flaws. Despite your heroes deteriorating state, there is no sense of urgency in the over game. It is a perfectly viable strategy to rinse through several heroes just to get gold and heirlooms. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the Occultist being locked in as mystic and coded as non-white.[7] There are a lot of bugs, from graphical glitches where objects, events, and even characters will be locked out; there is a consistent problem with crashes and lock-ups, and the game is not at all well integrated with the Steam Overlay. I had to turn off alerts of any sort, and frequently had to restart when taking screen shots.

For example

For example

This would have been a bigger problem without the constant auto-saving. I also think that the game’s difficulty could use some attention; the balance between the risk of exploring in the dark doesn’t feel that great, while the rewards are staggering. There are some abilities that just come across as emphatically better; I can’t imagine using any of the Hellion’s self-bebuffing abilities when other classes can do more for less; the Arbalist and the Bountyhunter’s Marks are both vastly inferior to the Houndmasters and the Occultist’s. There’s some need for another balance pass there.

It is an excellent, atmospheric game though. It achieves the tense feeling of a classic dungeon crawl without reference to complex placement. The music, art, and tone of the game draw you in; what at first seems a plea for help is gradually revealed as more of a protracted confession of wrong-doing. The little touches on the Heroes makes you feel connected with your favourites, even as you throw them again and again in to the jaws of doom. Each classes offers something a little different, a different strength that, it turns out, has a niche in the Dungeons. Build a party around Marks, build a party around Blight, or build a party that is so tough you can just wear the enemies down. I love the kind of real, tactical choice Darkest Dungeon offers, and more that it wraps it in a game so evocative and ridiculously beautiful. It is already amazing, and there is more to come.

Gather strength before pushing onward.

Gather strength before pushing onward.

[1] Also involving the company Klei, who were behind the equally quirky “Don’t Starve.” There’s some commonality in the aesthetic of the two games.

[2] In fact, when I was chatting with her about The Darkest Dungeon, her face lit up as she said “So it’s like Rogue!”

[3] That is, quit and reload from an earlier point in the game.

[4] Which I also quite enjoyed.

[5] I made my exploits available to send friends through a private screenshot collection, some of which you see here.

[6] In some cases, multiple times.

[7] Though by and large the game is excellent when it comes to the diversity of the heroes. For most characters with visible faces, the tones vary dramatically. So good on Red Hook.

A Dog’s Life

Today, 28 August 2015, my mum and my brother took our Sky, our oldest dog, to the vet to have her put to sleep. It’s a recurrence of a tumorous growth, perhaps a cancer, that she had two years ago. Then, it required operation. Now that it is back, it’s worse, and there’s nothing that could be done: the tumour had become infected, and either one would have killed her. So today is a sad day.

When I first moved back in with my parents, following the disintegration of my life after an ill-timed moment of trust, I would take Sky for a walk in the forest. It was a way to get out of the house, and have space with my thoughts; there is nothing like the (mostly) silent constancy of a dog to provide space for your thoughts. After a while, those walks became runs. Though Sky is – was, it will be past tense from now on – was old, already eleven, she loved to run. To begin with, she ran faster than me, loping ahead in her particular, peculiar doggy stride. It encouraged me to push harder and go a little faster. It was good, but she deteriorated quickly. The last time we ran together, I was outpacing her and it was only after I turned a bend and stopped to see her loping so far behind that I realised she couldn’t keep up. Even then, once she had reached my heel, she tried to start running again, still filled with a doggy enthusiasm for life. The runs turned back to walks, but eventually she couldn’t manage that. I noticed a growth on her back leg.

I remember the first time I met Sky, both vividly and not. I was back home in Portsmouth, visiting and checking my post. I still had my key, and let myself in as no-one answered the door. As I opened my letters, I heard a little yip and looked down to see a fluffy grey pup poking her head nervously around the corner of the sofa.

That was Sky, an anxious puppy. She never overcame that shyness, always happier to let the more boisterous and inevitably smaller dogs take the lead or boss her about. But that grey pup is old now, and quite sick.It’s gotten to the point where Sky struggles to stand, her back legs shaking so much it is painful; where younger dogs playing causes her to be so upset she hides; where her eyes and her nose have failed her so that she has to get so close to something to see it that she frightens herself with its proximity. It’s my mum, whose love for Sky can’t be doubted, who has been the closest witness to Sky’s deterioration: mum feeds her, walks her, sits with her, washes her with water and, when that got too hard for Sky, with baby wipes. Last night, Sky’s last night, my mum turned off all the lights and locked all the doors as normal but, when it came time to leave Sky on her own, she couldn’t do it. My mum sat up all night so that Sky’s last night would not be lonely, and sat with her at the vet so she would not be frightened in the end.

Sky has had a good two years since her previous diagnosis. It might feel like when the tumour was first spotted, she should have been let go. But there have been runs and walks in the forest, sniffing this plant and looking at that wild animal in mild but not aggressive interest; new dogs came in to the family, which though at first they made her nervous, she befriended and until very near the end she would wrestle with Freya, or clean Daisy (the newest, and noisiest Spry dog); the Forest was a place of belly rubs and treats and away from frightening roads and cars. It helps somewhat to think of Sky as a grand old lady, enjoying her retirement out in the woods in the sunset of her life, but that’s really a human projection on to a different type of thing entirely.

Dogs are magnificent creatures. They are not human, though we humans project ourselves on to them in ways large and small. It’s a human foible that dogs haven’t picked up. Their love is not a human love; their loyalty, as immortalised as it is, is not human loyalty. But they are things that are real, and that exist, and perhaps most important of all that we can recognise. It’s a strangeness about us that we can’t reciprocate, not in them that they love us so fully and without limit, that we form bonds with them that require no language, transcends the limits of speech. Perhaps that is the greatest gift dogs have passed on to humans, the ability to breach a divide between species without words. It is the privilege of the dog owner to share some space in time with the dog, to share in kinship with a species that, at the last, though not our own, understands us perhaps more than we understand ourselves, and certainly more than we understand them.

Goodbye Sky. You’ll be missed.

“One Small Part of Myself” – Ancillary Justice

A few days ago I finished Ann Leckie’s multi-award winning debut novel Ancillary Justice, released in 2013. I had heard and read about it in the past, and picked it up for my e-reader as it was on sale earlier in the month. I am really pleased that I did; it doesn’t need me to say it, but Justice is a splendid example of science fiction, the fiction of ‘ideas.’ Spoilers of major plot points follow, so please be aware if you want to read the novel unspoiled, stop now.

The story, set at some indeterminately distant future, follows the experiences of Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, an Ancillary of the troop carrier Justice of Toren, who is on a mission to avenge the murder of one Lieutenant Awn. Of course, the story is straight-forward neither chronologically nor motivationally. One Esk Nineteen – by this point operating under the identity of ‘Breq of the Gerentate’ – is not just a subsidiary component of Justice of Toren. She became the totality – or as near as possible – of it after the ship Justice of Toren was destroyed. Even before that, One Esk Nineteen had quirks of behaviour that differentiated her segment from the other segments within Justice of Toren; she sang, she had her own favourites. Justice of Toren was Awn’s executioner, just not the segment of which One Esk Nineteen. It is the ruler of the space empire of which Justice of Toren is subservient to who ordered Awn’s execution: Anander Mianaai. Mianaai has multiple bodies who have started to struggle at cross purposes to themselves, segments of the ruler as One Esk Nineteen is a segment of Justice of Toren.

Science Fiction uses technology as a device to have readers ask about both the world we live in, and of our assumptions about it. Ancillary Justice continues this tradition by questioning our ideas of what is the self and what it means to be a person, asking questions of how we construct our identity. As Breq thinks “It seems very straightforward when I say “I”” yet is anything but. Breq is open about not understanding her subjectivity, the novel begins with her professing that “sometimes I don’t know why I do the things I do.”

We are told in the first chapter that she “is not what [she] once was” a statement that at face value is linked to her diminished capabilities but, underneath that, hints at the sprawling complexities of an identity: “it’s hard for me to know how much of myself I remember.” She was once part of a ship with many components, and is now one alone;

“I was all but dead, had been for twenty years, just a last, tiny fragment of myself that managed to exist a bit longer than the rest.”

Before that, the body of Breq was that of a human taken in an annexation – the conquest and subsumation of a planet in to the Radch. Whoever that person was is lost, unless they exist on in One Esk’s love of singing. Breq’s identity is questioned, not just by herself, but whether she is herself at all. On Nilt, with the doctor Strigan, Breq is advised to seek out a new life away from Radch, to which Breq’s response is, if she did as advised, should she let go of her vendetta, would Strigan require monthly updates on her exploits, so that she ‘approved’ of Breq’s identity. Does she at all have any say in what Breq makes of herself as a person?

“Is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by a convenient or useful narrative?”[1]

This is something that Breq struggles with, the way in which societal convention plays a part in how we construct ourselves. For example, among the Nilters, there are differentiated genders that she cannot identify:

“I had to take gender into account – Strigan’s language required it. The society she lived in professed at the same time to believe gender was insignificant… yet no one I’d met had ever hesitated, or guessed wrong. And they had invariably been offended when I did.”

I was really intrigued by the gender construction in Justice as I was reading the book, as it forced me to stop and think. Obviously, I live in a nominally two-gender society.[2] The Radch have only one gendered pronoun, ‘she’, and Breq continues throughout the book to refer to characters as ‘she’ and ‘her’ almost exclusively. Even Seivarden, a time-lost officer who Breq rescues, who is identified as biologically male, Breq thinks of as she and her. Leckie could have just used a neutral pronoun, or a made-up one, but by instead going with she, she pushes us in to a critical position. As Breq explains to Strigan, it is not that there is no gender, or sex, but that the priorities of Radch are different. In English, we possess two gendered pronouns and, as grammarians would have it, ‘he’ is the neutral pronoun. In Justice, ‘she’ is not just the default, but the exclusive pronoun. This inverts the linguistic culture in which the text is composed, forcing the reader to pay attention to the characters in the text, and communicating Breq’s discomfort. Being part of Patriarchal society, we are taught from an early age to look for gender signifiers, which Breq struggles with. In turn, we the reader peer in to the text trying to discover gender without the helpful shorthand of pronouns. It also places us in a position to approach the characters divorced from any hold-over linguistic assumptions: Breq, Seivarden, Mianaai, Awn, Saaiat are just there; old Sevin’s cognitive estrangement achieved with the simplest of flourishes.

Justice does not present self in a dichotomous fashion, with reason as you and your emotional life as some nefarious other desperate to drag the higher mind down – I mentioned in watching the film Lucy that I find this othering of emotional consideration a frustrating and lazy tendency that manifest in sf – but rather a vital part of the cognitive process. When we are introduced to Seivdarden, she is suffering withdrawal from a drug called Kef. This drug numbs the emotions of the users, in the belief that “emotions out of the way, supreme rationality would result.” Breq, (and the ship that she once was) dismisses this simply that “it doesn’t work that way.” Emotions are useful: Mianaai does not excise the emotional reasoning of the ships despite the risk of disloyalty because without it, they are simply unable to prioritise. It is because she, or One Esk, is able to have emotional attachments that she is able to oppose Mianaai. Seivarden, without emotions, was dying in a snow drift until Breq found her.

It might be easy to dismiss that as all that book does, explore the fragmentary psyche of a being questionably possessed of personhood, but Justice is far better, and far smarter, than that. Breq’s problems are reflected in the universe she travels in, and the conflict of the story, those contradictions that flourish in living. The culture that Justice of Toren originated within and served, the Radch, is structured around the idea of civilisation and being civilised. Breq illuminates a pun within Radchai is that to say one is not Radch is to say one is not civilised. Yet, much like the Roman culture which Leckie drew on for some inspiration, the Radch are barbarous, a culture built on ceaseless aggression and conquest, that dispenses atrocity in conquest, a police state; it is also a utopia that provides for its citizens, practices syncretic religion, and has (as evinced in the pronouns) massively more progressive values re gender than our own society. Yet “the noblest, most well-intentioned people in the world can’t make annexations a good thing.” This is absolutely clear to the reader, as it has already been described to us that the humans that are converted in to Ancillaries are neither dead nor insensate, but aware the whole time. The things in Radch that are considered good, that civilise the society, are inextricably intertwined with the brutal, bad things:

“The same drugs used for aptitude testing… could also be used for interrogation.”

Radch had an irreconcilable differences within it that manifest in the supreme leader, Anander Mianaai.

“Which me do you serve?” Mianaai asks Breq near the end of the novel, when the crippled, vengeful ship has come to kill Mianaai, as many of her as she can. Of course, what she is really asking Breq is what vision of the Radch she aligns to: the nominally progressive Radch that wants to change as circumstances change, or the Radch that seeks to retrench militarily and preserve, or reassert, the older values of the imperium. Breq rejects the idea that she serves either – “I didn’t kneel, or even bow” – or even the Radch; if she serves anything it is only the memory of the dead Lieutenant Awn. The point of allegiance to the Radch is, for Breq, a pointless one. The whole thing is morally compromised as, whatever end is met, it will be Anander Mianaai. This is familiar territory for science fiction[3] but it is Mianaai who observes that for all the fact that, while from a high-level view, small changes mean nothing, for many people those small changes could be the difference between life and death:

“If you’ve got power and money and connections, some differences won’t change anything… It’s the people without the money and the power, who desperately want to live, for those people small things aren’t small at all. What you call no difference is life and death to them.”

To return to the Roman inspiration for a moment, Breq and Mianaai both have their Rubicon moments that establishes discreet identities, the choices they make birthing their new and separate selves, connected to their prior identities but also forced to acknowledge they are somehow different. As we experience the story in Breq’s perspective, that sense of self is always tinctured with a feeling of loss, of diminishment. The synthesis (if you’ll forgive the butchered Hegelianism) is more a fall from the perfect knowledge of Justice of Toren to the limited perspective of just One Esk Nineteen. And yet as Breq she can achieve things, think things that the ship never could. Similarly, when Breq forces the Mianaais to recognise their fracturing in to more than one self, something is lost in the change, but something is gained, even if only in the possible. Justice is replete with the idea that identity is not a fixed thing, subject both to ourselves and others, and often unpredictable, whether it is One Esk shooting the Mianaai that ordered her to kill her beloved Lieutenant Awn, or the change in perspective that Seivarden undergoes that sees her embracing change in the face of reaction. Though, as she thinks she is dying, Breq thinks of herself only as “a machine meant for killing” we see that her internal contradictions make her much more, and create the possibility for us to consider others in the same light.

[1] The idea that identity is something that is subject to scrutiny resonated with a favourite exchange in China Mieville’s Embassytown, here BrenDun tries to explain to Avice: “If I’d thrown his away and kept mine, you’d think I was clinging to my dead identity or resenting his death. If I threw them both away, you’d see me in denial. If I kept his but not mine you’d say I was refusing to let him go. There’s nothing I can do you won’t do that to.”

[2] It should be noted here that the reality of life is very different from the way it is described – basically, two genders doesn’t even begin to describe what actually goes on, but it is used to do so.

[3] Any conversation about utopian cultures and intelligent spaceships gravitates around the late Ian M. Banks’s Culture novels, and if I still had access to those, a compare and contrast with, say, Use of Weapons, would be cracking.

Jump

This week was one of many ticks on many clocks: My mum celebrated her birthday, my youngest brother came to visit, and another had his final day in the Forest before heading off on adventures new. Alongside a tea-party for my mum, we went to an activity centre to throw ourselves off a cliff. It was rather fun.

Of the people who went over the edge, three of us suffer a terrible fear of heights: Liam, Jim, and me. I think I’m not being too bold when I say mine is the worst: as we were walking up to the jump point, I found myself concerned that my dad and Jim, the brother who is leaving (now left), were walking too close to the edge of the path. They were a good six feet from it! There’s no helping being a scaredy-cat.

As there were seven people jumping, and the set-up only allows for pairs or solo jumps, one of us had to go alone. I was that lucky fellow, having resolved the matter with Jim in a quick game of Rock Paper Scissors. Because, as I said, I have peculiar obsessions, I can remember my strategy for my second draw which went: ‘Because I have gone scissors, Jim will not be expecting scissors again. Because he will not be expecting scissors, and will expect that I expect scissors, he will expect for me to go rock, so he will use paper, so I will remain with scissors.’ We both know of the Monty Haul problem, even if neither of us is proficient enough at maths to truly grasp it. The point was, I was jumping alone, and that meant I was jumping first.

At the embarkation point, we handed over both our entrant rubber bands, and our waivers to confirm that we were willing to accept injury and death were our own responsibility. The attendants helped me in to my harness – though they were reluctant to loop ties through anyone’s legs, a moment of modesty that felt a little absurd in the circumstances – and then I got in to line. Ahead of me were two boys, children, who had that air that children always have when they are doing something that might be dangerous, and so that danger makes it feel illicit. The rest of the crew came through. Dad danced a little to the Bob Marley that was playing. He may have been nervous; he’d never say.

I was. Liam reflected later that it would be easy to mistake me for a tough guy. In my combats and vest top, I certainly looked like I was trying for that role. I stood at the point of no return as the attendant tied me in to the harness. I made weak jokes which, no doubt having both heard them all and grown tired of them being repeated, he paid no attention to. It was probably for the best. “Lift your knees up when I ask you to” was all he said, as absurd out of context as not wishing to risk improperly groping my legs was within it.

I stood. “You can hold on to the rope if it helps you,” the attendant, finished tying me in, said. I did so, but it didn’t help. Inside, I reached for something to help me relax, to not take me away from the height but allow me to embrace it. And I thought: There is no emotion, there is peace. You can’t help but smile at yourself as, when confronted by your terrors, you find comfort in the dorkiest thing. But my name is Luke Spry, and if you think I haven’t heard a thousand iterations on Sprywalker then I don’t know what to say. I was named not for an apostle or a god, but a space farm boy from a film with a magic sword. I’ve been bought lightsabres regularly for much of my life. I was baked a Death Star cake for my birthday once. My Dad, when not dancing to Bob Marley, does tell me he is my father. Perhaps it is that, because it is fictional, there is nothing guilty about reaching for the Jedi.

There is no death, there is only the Force, I thought as I went over the edge. The wind buoyed me like a new invisible organ, a sense that carried the rattling wire through the rope I held on to. Then, I let it go. I reached out my hands, first left, then right, then both. I soared over blue waters and under blue skies. It is only seconds, but I am primed for time losing all meaning so it became a perfect and eternal moment, all just mine. I drifted, alone and at peace, arms out. One and the same and no longer there.

A Tale of Two Kitties [1]

Look at this fine fellow of a cat. Behold that smile! Look upon those whiskers! Doesn’t he have the very firmest of paws and the cleanest of limbs! If there is a modelling agency for cats, surely this handsome chap deserves a top rate contract for an indefinite period of time. He lounges at ease, king of all he sees, rightful monarch reclining as he should. There is just one problem. That is not my cat. That is Socks.

I wrote a little last year about the two Spry family pets: Sky the Dog and Odin the Cat. They are quite fine, but the family had an addition early this year. Sky was lonely and, more importantly, so was dad, so a pet was adopted from the local sanctuary. Dad had wanted a King Charles but what they returned with was a Puggle.

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Enter the Puggle

Freya gets in to everything, chews on everything, and, unlike Sky, had the most tremendous problem with Odin. Attempts have been made to acclimatise the two to one another which is now starting to bear some fruit. She also terrorizes Odin.It become such an issue with her chasing Odin that we had to section off a part of the house to Odin (and to a lesser extent, Sky3) could get some peace.

However, because Freya is in the part of the house with the kitchen and the cat flat, and Odin still longed for the great outdoors4 we had to work on a solution until Freya settled down around the cat. At first we’d open and close the doors for him but also started to leave a window for Odin to hop in and out of just fine.

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Further complications arose, though, as Odin has a best friend. That is the cat initially pictured, a fine fellow by the name of Socks. He is more than happy to pop through the open window and hoover up Odin’s left overs. Socks is an affable cat, incredibly friendly and charming, who is no doubt loved by someone otherwise we’d just take him in. Unlike Odin who, though he’s our cat, or we are his, Socks is more than happy to have a hug and a tickle. He’s a difficult cat to dislike.

He also happens to be Odin’s best friend. Unlike what you may expect from a pair of male cats, Odin and Socks are thick as thieves. They go on hunting jaunts together, they do that cat rub faces thing, and Socks stick up for Odin in the face of the new menace Freya. In return, Odin doesn’t eat so much and Socks grows rather fat. Or at least that’s what we thought at first, that Odin was clearly the submissive cat and Socks in charge.

Then, I happened to catch them having a bit of roast pork. As a treat, after a roast dinner, Odin is sometimes given a bit of roast pork as it is his no joke favourite food. Socks had also introduced himself for tea and my Dad, being a softy, also got him some pork too. Odin was having none of it, and gobbled down the lion’s share. Later, in the garden, Odin bopped Socks on the nose to let him know who is boss.

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Socks does take the piss a bit, and we can’t really have him coming and going. Odin is a bit of a nervous fellow, and while Socks is his friend, we can’t have Odin thinking he is second cat in his own home. So, sad to say, whenever Socks come in now, he gets carried over the garden fence.

 

  1. Alternatively, the Two Moggie Problem (with apologise to Dickens and Cixin).
  2. Mum insists that Odin winds Freya up. The criteria for this appear to be: a) being a cat; b) being in Freya’s vicinity. My mum is, of course, hideously biased.
  3. Sky was initially not sure about this new dog but now they are top chums.
  4. Those mice aren’t going to eat themselves.
  5. An ongoing process.

Difficult Reading

In the past few weeks I have been taking the trains a lot, visiting different cities. While riding the rails I have allowed myself a bit of lighter, leisure reading. For the past few years I’ve drifted towards classical history, philosophy, and a bit of political theory in my reading, as well as critical & literary theory. I’ve moved in this direction not out of any distaste for fiction (that would be a bit rich) but rather out of a desire to educate myself a bit more. I went to University and learned how little I knew. However, a train ride, with all its attendant interruptions and discomforts, isn’t too great a place to concentrate on a theory reader, so I switched to my e-reader and downloaded a few e-books.

Of the ones that I started to read, I finished two. When I was a child I never abandoned a book, no matter how bad, because I considered there to be a virtue in finishing what I had started. As I’ve gotten older I’ve given up on that notion: there are many books, and I do not have the time to read them all. The two that prompted me to press on were Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and James Smythe’s The Explorer. Both well written, it was a moment of dissonance that prompted me to keep at them rather than put them aside for a crossword puzzle. Spoilers to follow, please proceed with that in mind.

Neil Gaiman is, obviously, the more famous writer of the two, and needs no introduction, least of all by me. Stardust is a novella originally published in 1999, telling the story of the slightly hapless Tristran and his star-crossed lover Yvaine. Normally, I’d say there’s more to it than that, but in the case of Stardust that really is the whole of the tale, barring some witchiness and Tristran being heir to the kingdom. It was also adapted to a film in 2007, which I mostly liked. I have read a few Gaiman stories (American Gods, Anansi Boys, Fragile Things collection) but I’m hardly an expert. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Stardust was something of an experiment by him. The prose read to me as quintessential Gaiman: the junction where fairy-tale poesy meets modern prose.1 Gaiman is very, very good at this style, I’d even go so far as to suggest that writing in a pre-modern fantastic idiom is his lived in home when it comes to words. He weaves in touches of the fantastic, invoking mythology to make a magic that feels everyday but not precisely commonplace. I particularly like the fieldmouse that “was a prince under an enchantment” eaten by an owl “herself under a curse”, the potential “Nut of Wisdom” then falling in to a river to be eaten by a salmon, evoking the bradán feasa eaten by Fionn mac Cumhaill. The commonplace binding chains are of Norse origin; even the reference to stars falling and never rising evokes Milton and Paradise Lost. Gaiman is a writer who knows much, is not afraid to show it, yet does so deftly and with a light yet commanding touch. His agility with language is reflected as he describes an opened body as with “vital organs like wet jewels” or a rakish character “a foppish assassin from a minor Elizabethan historical play.”

However, Stardust imports something a bit unpleasant, a bit of unthinking that it never really resolves, and which dogged my reading experience. To put it simply, Tristran is quite the creeper. He initially goes in search of the fallen star (Yvaine) because he is attempting to win the affections of Victoria Forester, described in this way:

Every boy in the village was in love with Victoria Forester. And many a sedate gentleman, quietly married and with grey in his beard, would stare at her as she walked down the street, becoming, for a few moments, a boy once more, in the spring of his years with a spring in his step.

When I read this, my heart went out to Victoria. I do not know, personally, what it is like to be scrutinised on the street, but I have spoken to enough people who have that Victoria immediately had my sympathy. She is a young woman who wants a job, is impeded in this by convention, and at every turn is ogled by men and boys. She comes across rather well in light of this.2 Tristran is, of course, in love with Victoria, though he is “painfully shy” for which he overcompensates. This is presumably a set up so that we don’t judge him too harshly but… there follows a scene where Tristran forces Victoria in to conversation, invites himself to walk her home, asks to kiss her and is rebuffed, asks to kiss her again and doesn’t understand why she won’t kiss him now when she did before, proposes to her while ignoring what she is saying, then finally gets her to agree to marry him3 and then struts off in to Faerie where he finds Yvaine, a star incarnated as a woman, ties her up in an unbreakable chain4 with the intention of taking her back through to Wall5, his cruelty to her justified by his desire for Victoria:

every time she winced or flinched Tristran felt guilty and awkward, but he calmed himself by thinking of Victoria Forester’s grey eyes.

We never see Tristran develop or question how he behaved to Victoria in the first place, nor how he treats Yvaine. It is particularly galling since the fictive world of the book supports a perspective of Victoria as the trouble-maker, and the appropriate response being to:

tell her to go shove her face in the pig pen, and go out and find another one who’ll kiss you without asking for the earth.

Where Stardust is a fairy-tale, and embraces fairy-tale mores. I don’t know whether it was in adherence to this, but it felt as if the latter part of the book was quite hurried. We get Tristran and Yvaine’s adventures reported to us in a brief, almost cursory paragraph. To some extent this is in adherence to the demands of the genre, to not stay overlong once the tension of Yvaine and Tristran (and the witches) is resolved. However, because so much rests on believing that not only could Yvaine forgive and even love Tristran, I find that being told rather than shown damages the conclusion of the story, as does having Victoria only free to marry who she wants by Tristran’s largesse. I was disappointed by the time I had finished Stardust, given the obvious care and thought that went in to the language and the mythological grounding that was not applied to the development of the characters. I don’t know, obviously, but I sense that the reluctance to interrogate this stems as much from love of the inspiration as anything else, and to question the assumptions underpinning a fairy-tale work is to scare away magic.6 It also might be said that it is simply ‘not that sort of story’ but it at least implicitly draws on the ideas of bildungsroman, but does not actually execute them. I think in a post Angela Carter/Bloody Chamber literary landscape, though, this just isn’t the case.

The Explorer is narrated by Cormac Easton, a journalist on a once in a lifetime journey in to space. He’s separated from his wife7 It is a science fiction narrative that at first one might be forgiven for thinking of as in the vein of Star Trek, boldly going where none have gone before. That is indeed part of the premise under which the characters operate. It even includes this about the pursuit of exploration:

And it inspired people; it made others do the same, and that led to countries being discovered, populated.

Reading this, I had to pause and consider the implication there. Exploration, in the tradition being discussed, is that of western sailors going to already populated places and declaring them ‘discovered’, usually resulting in colonisation and lots and lots of suffering. “This is about man, and what we’ll find out there” we are told. It put me on edge, but this was merely the set-up.

The Explorer sets up this expectation to explode it. It is not about discovering new places, but rather about discovering the self and, unlike with the tradition of explorer narratives such as She or Heart of Darkness, the blank canvas upon which this exploration is undertaken is not just of an existing space white-washed, but rather of absolute blank space. The events of The Explorer take place within a time-loop on board a sabotaged space exploration. Cormac is forced to watch himself over and over again, living through the same series of accidents and murders. Cormac realised about himself that he “can’t deal with knowing I’m here with no purpose.” It is an interesting comment on the idea of the neutral observer, how Cormac’s initial experience differs from how he observes things that the story returns to:

the faces of the dead as they tell us about themselves when they were alive – not who they really were, but who the public perception of them was.

Cormac, in being able to see himself, come to despise himself. It is most succinctly described by Emmy who, following Cormac Prime’s murder of another member of the crew, tells Cormac Other that he is “a man… who thinks that the world revolves around him. That what happened is because of your choices, not hers.” Cormac never considers himself not at fault, or not instrumental, even when he considers himself ‘just’ part of the circuit that makes up the timeline.

What The Explorer does with its time paradox is a reflection of the particular capability of science fiction in a meta-textual sense. As science fiction allows us to reflect on ourselves at a remove, so does Cormac do so. Yet it is quite bold in that, despite being aware of his failures, Cormac acknowledges that he

can berate him [the other Cormac] doing it [staring at pictures of his dead wife] as much as I like but, truth be told, given the opportunity, it’s what I would be doing as well.

And he does indeed go back to stare at her pictures when the other Cormac leaves the terminal open. The Explorer is about personal growth and change, the difficulty of it, that is requires “hindsight, and even then I’d be suspicious.” Like Stardust, The Explorer does miss out a long period of time in Cormac’s subjective timeline: we know he has repeated this experience many, many times, but not a particular figure. Yet it does this to illuminate how hard change and growth are. Yet it does offer Cormac the tantalising, painful opportunity to change, having lived this loop so many times he has lost count. Just at the end, he can either return to the loop or reach out to the potentially destructive unknown.

As I have written before, I believe stories are as much tool for empathy and self-reflection as they are entertainment. These two books proved to be difficult reading for similar reasons – concerns about the characters and where the narrative was going – with two quite different outcomes. Yet even though I was disappointed with Stardust and surprised by The Explorer, I think being able to identify and consider the good and bad, contrasting how they operate in their particularly niches, embracing them as they do, helps to a more full understanding of the text.

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  1. “it [the star, Yvaine] said ‘Fuck.’ And then is said ‘Ow,’ once more.”
  2. Unlike in the film which, because of reasons, she was rewritten as rather horrible.
  3. An agreement that, we learn at the end of the book, Victoria intends to honour, even though she does not want to!
  4. Of the same sort used to bind Fenris, naturally.
  5. This will kill her.
  6. “each land that has been forced off the map by explorers and the brave going out and proving it wasn’t there has taken refuge in Faerie.”
  7. We later learn that his wife had committed suicide just before he boarded the spaceship.