Wargaming -Retirement and the Imperium

Wargaming -Retirement and the Imperium

Yes, it’s another semi-speculative article about the Warhammer 40,000 setting. Skip it if that makes your brain bleed.

A commonly-cited Imperial axiom is: ‘Only in death does duty end.’

This is often taken to mean that Imperial service is like the Mafia: once you’re in, you’re in for life. I feel it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Someone on the 40k For Grown Ups Facebook group asked if anyone retired in the Imperium and I started typing:

Commissar Yarrick retired once. It didn’t stick.

But yes, some parts of the Imperium almost certainly do allow retirement, if you live long enough to enter it.

After all, it’s a waste of valuable materiel to put a lasgun into the hands of a half-blind, arthritic, Dad’s Army soldier, when there are a new generation of Imperial Guardsmen just waiting to replace him. The Munitorum knows better than that. According to the Rogue Trader RPG, when discussing the immense level of redundancy amongst the crew of Imperial Navy ships, people are the biggest resource advantage that the Imperium has over pretty much every xenos species out there. As such, it is possible to discharge soldiers who are no longer combat-effective.

Also, the promise of retirement is a great incentive to do an awful job for awful pay. The Imperium’s had ten millennia to realise that faith in the Emperor might be fine and dandy for the fanatics, but the average Guardsman’s going to need something more tangible to look forward to.

Even when circumstances, casualty rates or poor resource management prevent the rank and file from ever retiring, officers almost certainly have that to look forward to. They’re often Imperial nobility, so they’ve got a place in society to go back to, as well as access to the funds to pay for their own passage there.

The same probably applies to officers in the Navy. The lower naval ranks probably informally retire into less strenuous roles than the labour-intensive duties most common on human voidships, or possibly even actual retirement within the bowels of the ship they call home, after training up their sons and daughters, and maybe later grandchildren, into the position in which they spent their life.

From a civilian angle, retirement almost certainly exists, although what sort of pension scheme awaits the unproductive elderly is more questionable. It should be noted though that workplace health and safety is horrifically poor in the Imperium: one of the Abnett novels makes mention of Administratum scribes having all sorts of face and neck tumours due to spending too long staring at unsafe cogitator screens. Life expectancy in the Imperium probably varies massively, and on some worlds or in some employment sectors, retirement might be nothing more than a dream.

There’s often mention in background (particularly in hive world societies) of semi-tribal work-crews where they’re as much family as they are colleagues. If that’s the case, they’d look after their elderly and infirm (unless the elderly go full-Eskimo Days and wander off into the ash wastes to avoid becoming a burden), and in return the elderly and infirm will look after the young and helpless, thus strengthening their society.

‘Only in death does duty end’ probably shouldn’t be taken too literally. A retired Guardsman can serve by growing crops to feed the next generation of Guardsmen, or by looking after the children of those who work in factories supporting the Imperium’s eternal war effort. A retired Inquisitor can serve by writing his or her memoirs, for the information and education of future Inquisitors and other Imperial servants (for example, Ravenor’s works are renowned by the characters in any stories written by Dan Abnett in the past decade).

That said, there are probably societies that execute those that can no longer serve, because the Imperium sucks as a society.

Finally, no, Space Marines don’t retire. Astartes don’t age at anything like the rate that humans do. Usually, Space Marines die in battle. Those that avoid dying are either still in tip-top working order and thus continue to serve on the front lines, or are so belaboured by old battle wounds that they become instructors for future generations of aspirants.

Wargaming – Why do all renegade Space Marines turn to Chaos?

Wargaming – Why do all renegade Space Marines turn to Chaos?

Here’s another bit of nerdiness for you. Skip it if the psychology of little plastic posthumans isn’t your thing. (Originally posted on my semi-defunct Tumblr some time ago.)

One of the assumptions that occurs in the Warhammer 40,000 Imperium is that everyone who turns away from the Emperor’s Light automatically falls to Chaos. This is at least partially because the wargame tends to divide human factions down the middle: Imperial and Chaos. If you want little human soldiers on your tabletop, they’re waving banners with the double-headed eagle or the eight-pointed star.

As ever, the setting’s deeper than that. There are many places that an Imperial citizen can go if they don’t want to be a part of Imperial society: Canonically, you’ve got mentions of your xenos-loving Tau sympathisers, you’ve got the various rebel enclaves that exist (even if just until the Imperium gets around to stamping on them) and you’ve got human empires that exist outside the Imperium’s borders, either due to a collapse of Imperial rule in a given area, or because the Imperium’s expansion since the Age of Strife has never actually reached them.

And then there’s Imperial society itself. You don’t have to be a loyal Imperial citizen to live in the Imperium. You don’t have to believe in the divinity of the God-Emperor of Mankind. You’ve just got to look like you do. So long as no one twigs that you don’t give a damn about a dead guy on Terra, and you go to chapel just enough that the preacher doesn’t get suspicious, you can exist as a quiet atheist for your entire life. (c.f. Christianity, heresy, and the casual nature of belief in many areas of medieval Europe, which is, of course, the analogue upon which the Imperium is built.)

Ever wondered where the mercenaries hired by the bad guys to kill an Inquisitor or an Abitrator or other representative of the Emperor come from in a theocratic setting? These are examples of Imperial citizens who don’t actually believe in the God-Emperor, or at least don’t associate it with the Imperial regime in the way that any ‘true’ Imperial citizen would do.

In short, humans are capable of not worshiping the Emperor without automatically embracing the Dark Gods.

Space Marines, though, they’re a different kettle of fish entirely. I think it’s supported in canon, although I can’t remember where it was written, if it is, but they have an inherent vulnerability to Chaos.

But the Adeptus Astartes are the paragons of humanity, the strongest in body and mind, right?

Not really.

Religious conversion tends to come along when everything in your life is falling apart. It’s a way of coping with trauma without going completely insane. This applies to Space Marines as well as it does you or I.

Humans can lose everything, but pick up the pieces and carry on. As already described, they can lose their faith in the Emperor quietly, without it ever affecting the rest of their lifestyle or sense of identity, and without feeling the need to turn to the Dark Gods. Astartes, though, are as inhuman in their minds as they are in their bodies.

They’re programmed from childhood through indoctrination and hypnosis to be obedient, to think of their Chapter, their primarch, their commanders and the Emperor above all other concerns. These are the anchors that hold Space Marines in loyalty to the Imperium.

When a Marine leaves his Chapter, for whatever reason, three of those four anchors are cut free. Only his love for the Emperor is left.

So long as that remains intact, I’d suggest that the renegade Space Marine will stay loyal to Imperial ideals, even if not to the Imperium itself. He will set himself up as a guardian for a remote colony, or set off on a combat-pilgrimage through a wartorn area, or hook up with the Inquisition or another Imperial body, or set himself a specific quest to fulfill his need to serve the Emperor without the usual chain of command to command him and support his emotional needs. (Yes, Marines have emotional needs, just like normal humans. They just tend to be a bit more combat-oriented than the average homo sapiens.) Potentially, entire Space Marine formations could go down this route without ever succumbing to the lure of Chaos. This is supported in canon in at least a couple of Black Library novels.

Most Space Marines don’t worship the Emperor as a god, possibly because their doctrines date back to the time of the atheistic Legions. If a Marine becomes disillusioned with the Imperium, he can blame the petty mortals that have corrupted it from the Emperor’s vision of the Great Crusade, and his loyalty to the Emperor remains intact and all is well and good.

Alternatively, he can blame the Emperor himself and decide that the Man In The Shiny Chair isn’t worthy of his loyalty. Similarly, if the Space Marine is from one of those Chapters that worships the Emperor with a religious devotion, there’s always the chance that, in the face of losing everything else in his life, he will also lose his faith.

Either way, that’s the fourth anchor gone. The Space Marine’s psychology drifts out of its safe harbour and into a storm.

However it happens, with that fourth anchor cut loose, the renegade Space Marine has nothing holding him to his old life within his Chapter. All of a sudden, there’s an emptiness within him that has never been there before. This is an emotional and psychological crisis that a Space Marine should never have to experience, and has no training or experience in how to cope; this is way beyond the scope of any doubts he may have expressed to his chaplains before his exile.

He needs a new anchor, something to keep his sanity in check. Something powerful, something that commands loyalty. Chaos is the most obvious one of those. He’s been trained from recruitment to hate Chaos, to revile the traitor and the heretic as being unworthy of life, and to fear the power that Chaos has over the weak-minded. However, the context of all this hatred is the binary opposition between the goodness of the Emperor and the evil of Chaos. The Emperor’s purity has already been violated in the renegade’s eyes, so how, in that case, can the renegade Marine continue to hate Chaos to quite the same degree as he once did?

It probably won’t happen overnight, it may take a hundred years or more, but that emptiness in the Space Marine’s soul needs filling somehow, and the Dark Gods are always out there, ready to accept his allegiance. His hatred fades to the point where Chaos simply doesn’t seem like the worst option.

And, the joy of this (from the point of view of a Chaos follower) is that it’s not the inherent weakness of humanity that turns Space Marines to Chaos. It’s the Imperium. The Imperium put this need for service and obedience into the Space Marine, and it’s that factor that leads to renegades falling to the dark side.

As is so often the case in Warhammer 40,000, the Imperium is a tragedy. It is its own obsessive need to keep the Astartes under control that spawns new enemies.

Twilight – a live-ish-sort-of blogging (part 2/2)

Twilight – a live-ish-sort-of blogging (part 2/2)

One of my earliest posts on this blog was a repost of a 2014 live-ish-blogging I put up on Facebook as I attempted to read Twilight at work. This was three months ago. Facebook Memories has just reminded me that, three months after the original live-ish-blogging, I finished it off.

Suffer.

———-

The other night, I finally remembered to recharge my Kindle. I had thought I’d finished Twilight and just forgotten the ending, but it turned out that that was just wishful thinking.

I recall now that I got so fed up with its stupidity that, at 60% complete, I went and read the Moomins instead.

However, I was feeling masochistic, so I thought I’d be a sadist as well and share the rest of the awful with you. Does not contain spoilers, because it’s not possible to spoil a turd:

(Sadly, because of Kindle’s inability to understand the centuries-old concept of pages, and it appears I forgot to divide it up by chapters, this might be even more stream-of-consciousness than it actually was.)

  • “It is partially your fault.” [Edward’s] voice was wry. “If you didn’t smell so appallingly luscious, he might not have bothered.” If you get eaten by a vampire, it’s your own fault for being delicious. Ladies, remember this lesson in life.
  • Bella hurls abuse at her dad, Charlie, deliberately picking the same phrasing that her mother used when she walked out on him, and when she suggests that it may have been a little below the belt, everyone says, “No, it’s fine, he’ll forgive you.” How about slapping her around the head and saying, “You awful, terrible, horrible person, Bella Swann. How could you be so cruel, so callous and such a Mary Sue?”
  • They’re racing down a freeway at double the speed limit and the car’s almost silent? Vampires are so awesome, even their cars are awesome. However, and yes, I checked this via Google, the freeway speed limit in Washington State is 70mph. Vampiremobiles are so awesome that they can travel at 140mph in near silence.
  • None of these vampires have personalities. They don’t even have one-note hooks, and even Dan Brown manages that. (Author’s Note: When I wrote this, I hadn’t attempted to read The Lost Symbol, so I was blind to the true depths of awfulness of which Brown was capable.)
  • James the evil vampire speaks to Bella on the phone, telling her what to say so that the McAwesome family assume it’s her mum on the other end of the line. Considering that Bella has spent the last two chapters going into pointless hysterics every time she’s become worried someone she loves it at risk, it’s somewhat inconsistent that now she’s capable of maintaining a perfect poker face. Also, not one of these vampires has good enough super-hearing to listen in on the conversation enough to realise that it’s a bloke talking to her, not a woman. And even if they’re not listening to the voice on the other end of the line, they’re ignoring the fact that Bella’s conversation consists of repeatedly saying ‘yes’, over and over again, in response to James’s evil questions. We’ve already established that they can hear her speaking in a different room; she left to avoid her body language giving her away. “Tell them that you talked your mother out of coming home for the time being.” What, by saying, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, like a monotonic Meg Ryan?
  • “I have your mother, come alone.” Teenage girl who, it has been established, is rubbish at everything physical, is going to essentially let herself be eaten by a three hundred year old vampire with absolutely no guarantee that her mother is going to be released. Why would she be? After all, blood-crazy vampire. It’s a shame she didn’t have any alternative plans like, you know, telling the entire family of vampires that are already trying to hunt down and kill said villain. Stupid Bella.
  • Oh, right, Bella failed to notice that her mother’s voice was actually on a video tape. Because any five-year-old home video ever has sounded similar to how the same person sounds in real life.
  • The villain is giving the most boring, least revelatory villainous gloat ever. “Ah, you see how I did it? I did all these obvious things that a reader with an IQ higher than 85 has already worked out. Oh no, wait, there is a revelation: “You’re simply a human, who unfortunately was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” Finally, a character for whom Bella isn’t the centre of creation! What’s his name again? *checks further up the page* Oh yeah, James-something. I can’t remember if he even has a surname. All I know about him is that he’s EVUL. Bad vampire, naughty vampire. Why can’t you be like Edward?
  • “His pleasant smile slowly widened, grew, till it wasn’t a smile at all but a contortion of teeth, exposed and glistening.” How do teeth contort? Lips can, but teeth are immobile aside from the hinge at the back. The jaw opens and shuts. That’s the full range of movement for teeth. I’m going to ignore the use of ‘till’ rather than ‘until’, as it’s possibly US dialect and is a pretty common usage in English anyway (although even there, it’s only got one ‘l’, and ideally an apostrophe at the start).
  • ‘His toe nudged my broken leg and I heard a piercing scream. With a shock, I realised it was mine.’ That was the shock: that it was you screaming after he nudges your broken leg?
  • Barely two chapters after we’ve had it explained to us that being bitten by a vampire is exceptionally painful due to their venom, Bella gets bitten by a vampire and Edward has to suck the venom out. Convenient foreshadowing. (For us. Not so much for Bella.)
  • Edward on his venom-sucking: “It was impossible… to stop. Impossible. But I did. I must love you.” After sucking out Bella’s venom, he immediately starts blowing his own trumpet.
  • Bella apologises for tasting so good and Edward rolls his eyes (yet again). “What should I apologise for?” she asks. “For nearly taking yourself away from me forever,” he replies. Oh, right. Yeah, that. He’s right, of course, that she’s an idiot, but framing it like that? Possessive, much?
  • “They love you, too, you know.” Does anyone else actually put a comma between ‘you’ and ‘too’?
  • In the epilogue, Bella spends an entire day being dressed up, having her hair done, and Edward turns up in a tuxedo. She has completely failed to notice that it’s prom night and it comes as a surprise to her to discover what the date Edward has set up for her this evening is. I… I don’t… words fail me as to how cataclysmically stupid this character is.

That’s how incredibly stupid this book is.

The entire thing reads like Twilight fan-fic, it’s that bad.

So… I was wondering about doing something similar to this with 50 Shades of Grey, but then I skimmed half a page of 50 Shades Darker that was very briefly on the ‘recycled free stuff’ table at work. No, no. No, definitely not. It’s worse. Somehow, it’s actually worse.

Wargaming – The End of the 41st Millennium?

Wargaming – The End of the 41st Millennium?

(Here’s another thing about me. I also play tabletop wargames and do some roleplaying. I am a nerd. Also, Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol sucks. It’s awful. It’s a truly dreadful book, and you will never, ever get to the end of my chapter-by-chapter critique of it, because I abandoned reading it – something I almost never do – and shoved it back in the recycling box at work for some other poor sap to endure. You may, if I feel cruel, get the notes I did make.)

Dave Kay at the Scent of a Gamer blog posted an article commenting on the current state of play in the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop miniature wargame. In summary, it’s becoming pretty clear that something big’s about to happen with the metaplot and, thusly, the shape of the game itself. Games Workshop, the publishers, did something very similar a few years ago with the Warhammer fantasy version of the game, after its sales kept falling. There’s no indication that that’s been happening with 40k, but there’s been a definite bounce in fantasy sales since it was re-released as Age of Sigmar.

Anyway, I posted an overlong comment on that article, so I figured I may as well post it here as well, for posterity. Here goes:

 

If they’re running a Warhammer-style End Times event (and it’s looking more and more likely, with such stalwarts as Fenris getting popped and the major strategic shift that is the fall of Cadia, plus the constant rumours of primarchs – Magnus never left, so he doesn’t count), I’m torn between what I’d like to see in the rebooted setting.

Both old Warhammer and 40k have beautifully detailed settings, that have been written about and fleshed out over decades. WFRP is my favourite roleplaying game, ahead of even Delta Green, Call of Cthulhu and Unknown Armies, and I’ve bought nearly every book from the 40k RPG ranges without actually running anything other than a few campaigns of Dark Heresy.

But what to expect from the new setting? Will it be an advance in the plotline, or a complete reimagining?

A few thoughts of my own:

1) Advancement in the plot – The Imperium has never been completely static. Even aside from the Horus Heresy, there have been ages of expansion and change: the Age of Apostasy and the crusades of Lord Solar Macharius, for example. If 40k is to emulate the ‘hope’ theme of Age of Sigmar, then it needs to start a new period of expansionism, rather than its current state of slow, but steady, crumbling under relentless assault from all sides and within. Both of the post-Heresy hope spots that I’ve mentioned featured some great hero, Sebastian Thor and Macharius, and I suspect if GW go down this route, that hero will arrive again, essentially as the Emperor reborn in the Sigmar-Valten kind of way (but hopefully without him allegedly being murdered by his own side, and the skaven possibly getting framed for it, as awesomely Warhammer-dark as that was).

2) Revert to the Horus Heresy – This is a massive, radical change, but GW have started taking Forgeworld’s niche idea for running Astartes-heavy games in a historical period for 40k and turned it into plastic. With the two Heresy-era board games, they’ve essentially released multiple plastic kits in their main game range, and even released the first ever models of the Sisters of Silence, and the first Adeptus Custodes since the 1980’s, for a spin-off written and produced by one of their subsidiary companies, which can’t even be used without buying Forgeworld products. We’ve already seen how the Deathwatch and Genestealers got a ‘trial run’ of sorts with Overkill, before the full weight of the GW machine was thrown behind them in full army releases. Yes, I know there’s a long, long lead-in time that overlapped, but sales would still have indicated how much promotional effort it would be worth putting behind the new armies, rather than publicising X other release instead. But it does seem that the Horus Heresy has captured imaginations. It’s the single-longest serialisation of novels that the Black Library have ever done, which then spawned several other ‘in-setting historical’ Black Library series, including the epic Beast series. Space Marines are, and always have been, the most popular single faction within the game, despite being a minuscule portion of the Imperium’s incredible military power. Meanwhile, the Horus Heresy is about a civil war executed largely by, and motivated by the egos, agendas and prejudices of, Space Marines. It’s not impossible to imagine that the next edition of Warhammer 40,000 embraces the power armour love and sets itself back to the 32nd Millennium, where the Imperium was a more optimistic place, and is struggling to maintain that optimism in the face of not only the increasingly-Chaos-tainted enemy, but also its own desperation-induced militarism. Existing Astartes models in Mk VII or VIII armour could be easily hand-waved by rewriting setting so that that style of armour did actually exist back then, but was rare, and not releasing new models in those style of armour. Imperial Guard models could be rolled into the Imperial Army without much difficulty. The Adeptus Mechanicus rolls even more easily into the Mechanicum. The difficulty with a Horus Heresy reset is that, without rewriting large swathes of the non-Imperial side of the setting (which isn’t impossible, of course), certain factions would either cease to exist or be difficult to include. The Eldar would be different, probably something that combines the Craftworld, Dark and other varieties into one faction – something touched upon in the article as being what happened during the Warhammer End Times – even if those different factions had varying ideologies about how to cope with the new horror of Slaanesh’s birth. The orks would continue as normal, and have the Beast to look forwards to as well. Necrons have always been there, and can be rewritten to be waking up then as well. The Tau? A harder sell, but there’s no reason why they can’t be shuffled back in time (metaphorically) and reaching their interstellar expansion era at the same time as the Great Crusade. Tyranids and Genestealers? Grey Knights and Deathwatch? Adepta Sororitas? (Sorry, ladies, but at least you got Celestine for the Time of Ending.) The setting could be rewritten. The Imperial Agents list could well become a proto-Inquisition, set up to deal with the newly-growing threat of Chaos. And Chaos? The Chaos Space Marines are simply late-Heresy rebels who’ve given themselves over to The Eightfold Path.

3) Reboot from scratch – The 40k setting has had its time. Let’s rewrite it from the start. Keep certain elements: the Imperium, possible the immortal God-Emperor (or make it hereditary if we don’t want to remain stagnant?), the threat of Chaos, orks being a thing, eldar as a hangover from a previous great civilisation, but start the rest with a blank slate. What is the Imperium? Fascism was a thing in the 80’s, both as living memory from the war and post-war era and as a satirical swipe at Thatcherism and the National Front. And then the fascism of the Imperium became cartoony, bowdlerised. Compare the Imperium of the Ian Watson Jaq Draco novels with the way it’s presented in today’s Black Library novels: it’s not nice, but it’s filled with great heroes who fight against evil, so it’ll turn out fine.Even the Inquisition are heroic, even if only because Chaos is so much worse. But fascism has gotten itself a bad name these days. (Did I seriously just write that sentence?) Not dipping too deeply into real-world politics, but it may be advisable for GW to edge away from glorifying fascism (even satirically) for a little while, just in case the world does turn into a complete dystopian nightmare over the next few years. My alternative theme for the Imperium? Embody it in the Imperial Guard, who arguably got their name from the era anyway, and model it on the Napoleonic Wars. Expansionism, large armies of lots and lots of infantry models backed by artillery and cavalry (tanks, but also those rough riders that everyone loves but no one fields). Basically, take the aesthetic stylings of the Imperial Navy officers, and put them onto the infantry; remove the 20th-century fascism and replace it with 18-19th-century imperialism. Maybe have the Astartes as Roman-inspired, what with being Legion-inspired anyway. Perhaps get rid of the small Chapters and borrow the Legion-style of Astartes from the Horus Heresy era. Beyond that, I’ve no real thoughts. It’s possible my entire thinking in this direction would be satiated by a single box of Napoleonic Astra Militarum infantry that I’d never actually get around to starting an army of.

Personally, I’d like to see 2) or 3), rather than just a straight continuation – without drastic changes to the setting, it would turn the Time of Ending into just another summer campaign.

But the big change (again, -if- anything changes) is going to have to be the rules. The Warhammer fantasy rules worked pretty well, probably mostly due to the constraints of a regimental game. But 40k’s rules are a shambolic, bloated mess. I’ve ranted about this many times elsewhere (I think including in a comment on Scent of a Gamer), so I’m not going to go into great depth, but every time I pick up an alternate set of modern or near-future, or sometimes even fantasy, wargaming rules, I’m struck by how much better, more simply and with fewer rules in the rulebook, these games manage to replicate the things that the 40k rules also allow. Many of these games even have concepts that 40k has either never tried, or never managed to successfully implement, such as storming buildings, suppressive fire or explosive attacks that don’t need large discs of card or plastic to work out which individual models are hit.

This quote gets posted every year.

This quote gets posted every year.

“The future is inherently a good thing, and we move into it one winter at a time. Things get better one winter at a time. So if you’re going to celebrate something, then have a drink on this: the world is, generally and on balance, a better place to live this year than it was last year.”
– Spider Jerusalem/Warren Ellis, Transmetropolitan

Despite the barely-semi-ironic ‘2016 is the worst year ever’ nonsense we’ve been spewing since Bowie died, and despite certain voting decisions that people have made that I personally disagree with, and despite the bloodshed and carnage of certain parts of our world, Spider Jerusalem hits the nail on the head.

Humans are incredible, and civilisation isn’t a state of existence but a journey.

Sometimes the journey’s unpleasant, but even if as individuals or groups we stumble occasionally, or meander from side to side like drunken idiots, or we falter because we don’t like the look of a particular landmark on the road ahead, or we just turn around and go back towards the places we really should be avoiding, humanity as a whole is still walking in the right direction.

Yes, the destination seems to be forever just over the horizon, a weird, golden glow of world peace and cultural enlightenment and technological harmony that we have a terrible feeling humanity will never reach, or at least that we’ll not live to see humanity reach. Why does it seem unachievable?

It’s because we keep redefining humanity’s end goal and barely even notice that we’ve just passed by where we said we were hoping to reach last year, last decade, last century.

There’s seven billion of us, and most of us are still walking towards that glow on the horizon.

Here’s to 2017.

American Horror Story: Hotel (2 of 2)

American Horror Story: Hotel (2 of 2)

A bit back, I wrote my initial thoughts on the first episode of American Horror Story: Hotel, after it appeared on Netflix. After not watching for a month, due to concentrating on NaNoWriMo, I finally got around to seeing the last four or five episodes over the past few nights.

I figured I’d follow up on those initial thoughts with how they panned out.

Beware, there are most likely SPOILERS ahead… but, you know, most fans have already seen this series.

Overall thoughts at the end of the season were that it was a good ensemble piece, probably more-so than Freak Show, although this season’s characters murdered people a lot more readily than any series before. Sure, the Hotel Cortez was built by James Patrick March as a more terrifying murder house than the Murder House and that generally corrupts people, but generally there was some form of motivation or (often tenuous) justification to the killings in previous seasons. In this, aside from the vampires and the actual serial killers, multiple murder is just something to do when you’re dead and bored.

Throat-slashing: an excellently done make-up effect, but it was so overused that it became boring to see. The one time it had any impact was the Countess’s final kill, although maybe that was the point: take the signature murder move of the series and make it meaningful.

The Sarah Paulson Game was pretty much all done by the second episode, but it was a hell of a revelation to realise that Eileen Wuornos was actually played by the gorgeous Lily Rabe. Angela Bassett turns up as well, although never quite materialises as a noteworthy antagonist, since she’s outmanoeuvred at every turn and eventually becomes just ‘one of the guys’ at the hotel. Sadly, no Jessica Lange or Frances Conroy, although there was a nice, if bloody, guest appearance by Gabourey Sidibe as Queenie from Coven, which revealed the big flaw in her witchy superpower. The winner of the Sarah Paulson Game has to be Finn Wittrock (Dandy from Freak Show), who plays not one but two characters in Hotel, one of whom apparently reminds the Countess of the other. That’s not to say that Sarah Paulson herself doesn’t have a good stab at the crown, reprising her minor role from Murder House in the final episode.

This is a good season for crossovers as well, reaffirming that AHS exists in one shared universe, rather than as unrelated parts of an anthology. The only previous crossover I can remember was when Pepper turned up in Freak Show, some years chronologically before her more plot-important appearance in Asylum. This one not only features Queenie, but also confirms that the events of Coven did actually make witchcraft a thing, although possibly only amongst supernatural nerds like the hotel residents. Several characters turn up from Murder House, and it turns out the Countess gave birth there way back in the 1920’s, when it was a backstreet abortion clinic.

What the hell happened to Bartholomew the hideous, unkillable, half-vampire, monster baby anyway?

I wasn’t sure about Liz Taylor to begin with and wondered if the transgender aspect of the character was intended to be just another bit of creepy weirdness for the Hotel Cortez. Thankfully, it turned into a remarkably sensitive portrayal of a transgender character (from this cisgender male’s perspective anyway), while also being a well-developed character in her own right. It probably helps that American Horror Story rarely portrays any but the most callous and sadistic murderers as being bad people; yes, like the rest of the cast, Liz was a cold-blooded murderer.

Denis O’Hare played the role excellently, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of Jeffrey Tambor’s comment during his Emmy acceptance speech for Transparent: “I would not be unhappy if I were the last cisgender man to play a transgender character.”

And I can’t mention Liz Taylor without her incredibly touching friendship with Iris, and the amazing performance in that role by Kathy Bates. They like casting Bates as mother figures that are lacking in confidence, don’t they? Even Coven‘s Madame LaLaurie had wobbly moments when she appeared close to renouncing her horribly racist ways after hanging around with Queenie.

The scenery porn may have calmed down as the audience settled into the hotel, but the sex didn’t. Yet still, besides a pair of buttocks or four, no nudity. It was as if the Countess was actually meant to be wearing black electrical tape during her scenes. As I mentioned last time, despite the liberal attitude towards showing characters having sex on screen, the prudishness about actual nudity feels incredibly at odds with the exceptionally graphic violence in this show, but at least that keeps it focused on being horror.

Oh yeah, the Addiction Demon, to give Sally’s strap-on-wearing stalker its proper name (I’d been referring to it in my head as ‘the rape goblin’, for reasons I can’t quite remember). Rather than being something that Sally has called up and is in hiding from, as seemed to be implied earlier on in the series, it actually turns out to be a manifestation of the evil of the hotel itself (the major theme of the series being addiction, whether to heroin, alcohol, murder, sex or whatever). Not sure if this is the result of an aborted story arc that they didn’t have time to expand on later in the series, but the Addiction Demon just felt unnecessary, particularly in light of its sole reason to appear on camera being to rape people, usually to death. I know that it was a creation under March’s control, and that March himself is shown to sometimes include rape in his killings, but he wasn’t primarily a sex killer. In fact, refreshingly for a TV serial killer, most of the murders we see him performing are both non-sexualised and of men. Yeah, the Addiction Demon felt wrong.

The vaccination storyline went a little haywire, and seemed to exist largely to give Alex Lowe something to do when she wasn’t arguing with John. That said, it was a nice little subplot and a welcome diversion from the vampire’s castle politicking of the Hotel Cortez. I get the feeling that the showrunners wanted to comment on the insane way that school shootings have become normalised in American culture, particularly after their horrifying portrayal of one in Murder House. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook and all those other tragedies, the lockdown scene was chilling, even when the audience knew what was actually killing people.

Oh yes, and vaccinate your children, or they’ll turn into vampires with measles!

I’m looking forward to the next series, Roanoke, appearing on Netflix…

 

 

(Oh cool, WordPress allows you to pick out previous posts when you insert a link! Nice touch.)

Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’ – A Live-ish Blogging (Chapters 1-5)

Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’ – A Live-ish Blogging (Chapters 1-5)

I found The Lost Symbol, the third Robert Langdon book, in the recycling box at work, so I figured I’d live-ish blog my thoughts while reading it.

Dan Brown’s books are a vital read for any aspiring novelist. Not only are they a great example of the kind of stuff that sells, they’re also great guides to how not to torture the English language.

It should of course be perfectly obvious that Brown is an infinitely more successful author than me and even if I ever do make a success of writing, it won’t be to his degree. For this reason, i.e. jealousy, I take the piss out of his work. I know I’m not the first to do this, but it’s cathartic.

FACT: Everything in this book is true, except for all the stuff Dan Brown made up or stole from pointless conspiracy theories that have been debunked years and years before he discovered them on the internet.

 

Prologue

Hey, look, a prologue. Let’s see if there’s any point to it.

‘Bloodred’ is not a word, but nice try at creating a neologism where a perfectly normal hyphen will do the job.

‘This colossal edifice, located at 1733 Sixteenth Street NW in Washington, D.C., was a replica of a pre-Christian temple – the temple of King Mausolus, the original mausoleum… a place to be taken after death.’ It’s a good job we got the address of the Freemasons’ temple, because otherwise we’d never have been able to picture it. It’s like Brown has taken a paragraph from another book, thought, “Wow, that’s fascinating,” and decided to include all these fascinating things in a single sentence. Oh, also, could you have guessed without a hack pointing it out to you that King Mausolus is where we get the word ‘mausoleum’ from? And did you know that a mausoleum is a place where you put dead things? Dan Brown novels are educational texts for people who’ve never read a book before and are incapable of working things out for themselves. There’s another page of description of the building after this, including measurements and weights for various statues and so on. The altar’s made out of black Belgian marble. I’m sure that detail will become relevant later on.

At least, I assume they’re the Freemasons, because Brown went through an overlong one-sentence description of how the initiate was dressed, including his trouser leg being pulled up, just like that of a medieval heretic.

‘The initiate let his gaze climb the distinguished white-robed figure standing before him. The Supreme Worshipful Master. The man, in his late fifties, was an American icon, well loved, robust, and incalculably wealthy. His once-dark hair was turning silver, and his famous visage reflected a lifetime of power and a vigorous intellect.’ What is this, gay porn for Bill Gates fans?

Oh, so the character known only as ‘the initiate’ doesn’t die horribly at the hands of the CEO of Microsoft? Instead, he reveals himself as an enemy of Freemasons and that he will bring them down, muahahaha! You know what? I don’t care. There’s nothing in this prologue that either a) reveals anything about the anonymous character other than that he’s the baddie (unless it turns out the Freemasons are even worse, what with their skulls and curses and bodies buried behind secret walls – but then Dan Brown conspiracies turn out to be when they’re exposed to the light of day), or b) sets up the plot in any way. One sentence: ‘The Freemasons are in this story,’ could have replaced this entire prologue.

Incidentally, my prediction as to who the initiate turns out to be is that it’ll be a character we’re meant to trust, but turns out has been playing Langdon all along, like Teabing in The Da Vinci Code, or Ewan McGregor in Angels and Demons. (Spoilers? When a turd is this polished, it’ll never spoil.)

There wasn’t any point to this prologue.

 

Chapter One

Robert Langdon wakes up from a ‘semi-conscious daydream’. Turns out he’s on a plane. Not just any plane. Thanks to Langdon’s apparent expert knowledge of aircraft (I guess that’s useful when researching medieval symbology), he knows that it’s a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet and has dual Pratt & Whitney engines. In a break from the usual Brownisms, the cabin is merely described as ‘enormous’. I guess he couldn’t find the measurements on Wikipedia.

Langdon has a long-time mentor who is 58 years old and filled the void left in his life after his dad died. Aside from the fact that Tom Hanks was about 55 at the time this book was published, that’s not really a mentor, more a childhood friend. You’d think after two books being turned into successful films starring America’s Dad, Dan Brown would have started morphing book-Langdon into screen-Langdon. Is this authorial integrity? My god, maybe it is.

Also, anyone else think it’s odd that this mentor, so important to Langdon, only gets introduced three books into the series? Still, I guess this is one of those tropes that always pops up in a series of standalone novels, so can’t be helped.

Another unnecessarily detailed description of a tourist attraction, in this case it’s the Washington Monument. ‘All around the spire, the meticulous geometry of streets and monuments radiated outward.’ Know your words, Mr Brown. Washington DC is built on a grid pattern, so nothing radiates out from it at all. (I checked this on Google Maps.)

‘Ten minutes from the Capitol Building, a lone figure was eagerly preparing for Robert Langdon’s arrival.’ This is, I presume, meant to be portentous. However, I just pictured a salivating, over-enthusiastic member of the Washington DC tourist board, eagerly setting out a series of stand-up display boards so that he could explain the plot to Tom Hanks.

 

Chapter Two

Oh, here we are, a villain who gets off on pain. Come on, Dan, you’ve used that with your flagellant Jesuits in The Da Vinci Code.

Uh… Dan… we know you struggle with phrasing, but… ‘The intoxicating feeling of control derived from physical transformation had addicted millions to flesh-altering practices… cosmetic surgery, body piercing, bodybuilding, and steroids… even bulimia and transgendering.’ I guess that this is meant to be from the point of view of Mal’akh, the masochistic self-tattooist, but associating gender realignment surgery with the mental illness bulimia, and associating either of those, even with an ‘even’, to recreational body modification is a little bit obscene. That said, let’s reserve judgement for now; this could always be meant as an indicator of a politically incorrect villain’s worldview.

Mal’akh appears to be the initiate from the prologue. Good job the author didn’t name him then, or we’d know exactly who he was.

I just googled ‘Mal’akh’ to see what it was a reference to. Of course, it’s Biblical. ‘Malakh’ is the Hebrew word for an angelic messenger. Also, the third result was for this character on one fan wiki, and the fourth was for this character’s actual identity, on another fan wiki. Seriously, Dan Brown, you’re having yet another of Robert Langdon’s closest allies turn out to be the villain of the story, hiding behind a secret identity, after using the exact same trope in Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code? Our poor symbologist is going to need a world-renowned therapist by the end of this story, although even then it’ll probably turn out that that therapist is secretly a member of an ancient order of ninjas.

 

Chapter Three

More DC monuments, hammering home the Greco-Roman stylings of the city, just in case no one had ever noticed before.

Ah, book-Langdon’s still in his 40’s. That makes more sense that Peter Solomon (who isn’t actually Mal’akh, as it turns out, rechecking the Google page; it’s someone with a very similar name – my bad) could take him under his wing when Langdon was 12 and yet only be 58 now.

When we first read a physical description of Peter Solomon, it is: ‘Langdon had found humility and warmth in Solomon’s soft gray eyes.’ That was page 24. On page 34, while again waxing lyrical about how awesomely great Solomon is as a historian, we get: ‘It was not Peter Solomon’s brilliance, however, but the humility in his  gentle gray eyes that had given Langdon the courage to write him a thank-you letter.’ If, when we meet this guy, he doesn’t consist of a pair of massive, disembodied, yet very friendly grey eyes, hovering in space, I’ll be disappointed.

Solomon’s PA rings Langdon by phone and says, as direct speech, that he wants Langdon to ring Solomon urgently on the telephone number 202-329-5746. On the very next page, Dan Brown went to town with Word’s font and paragraph settings to reproduce a fax that contains the exact same information, down to the phone number 202-329-5746. Did I need to repeat that number? No. Nor did he.

Solomon’s PA explains why Solomon’s been trying to contact Langdon, and just happens to mention that there’s a speech happening in the National Statuary Hall. There’s no indication at all that the conversation has paused. However, Robert Langdon launches into a paragraph-long reminiscence about having been in that room. Did you know, it has 500 folding chairs splayed in a perfect arc, surrounded by thirty-eight life-size statues, in a room that had once served as the nation’s original House of Representatives chamber? Me neither, but thanks, Robert, for providing us with all those facts. Aren’t you meant to be paying attention to Peter Solomon’s PA though?

 

Chapter Four

I hope that we run out of historic landmarks soon, because I don’t need an introduction to a chapter that consists of the opening paragraph to a Wikipedia article on the US Capitol Building. Did you know that it’s 750 feet in length and 350 feet deep, houses more than sixteen acres of floor space and has ‘an astonishing 541 rooms’? Oh, and it’s meant to look more than a bit Roman, for those of you who have managed to go through life without either seeing a Roman temple or the US Capitol Building.

Hey, now we’ve got the copy-paste factsheet out of the way, it turns out that this chapter is from the point of view of a nobody, solely to show how sneaky Mal’akh is. Dun-dun-durrrr!

 

Chapter Five

Really, that’s all that happens in Chapter Four? Bad guy sneaks something metal past a metal detector?

Oh look, another Washington landmark, maybe. Dan Brown’s given the address (4210 Silver Hill Road, just outside D.C.) and given a description of the building, including measurements. However, the name of the place is not mentioned anywhere in this chapter. I would say it was a secret, but typing ‘4210 sil’ into Google brings up that address. Of course, I’ve also been searching for other Lost Symbol- and DC-related stuff this evening, so that makes sense. Also, Google is smart.

It’s the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum Support Center. Not sure if Brown meant to keep that from the reader, which is daft because we know that Peter Solomon is the head of the damn Smithsonian. Maybe the author simply forgot and the editor either didn’t care (the book’s going to sell anyway) or assumed it was meant to be spooky-mysterious.

Katherine Solomon appears for the first time and, in classic Dan Brown fashion, she’s introduced as ‘scientist Katherine Solomon’. It should be noted that the previous mention of her was a memory of Langdon’s, in which she’s described as a scientist involved in the really complicated and cutting-edge discipline of Noetic Science.

However, in a scene from a Noetic scientist’s point of view, there’s not much to hint at what Noetic Science is, and the only hint we’ve had previously is that Langdon thought it sounded more like magic, and Katherine smiled and said he wasn’t far off.

Why is Noetic Science always capitalised, when Langdon’s symbology and other academic fields aren’t?

Ah, according to Google (which predicted what I was looking for as soon as I typed ‘n’ into the search bar – I’m clearly not the first to search for the terms I’ve been looking at tonight!), the reason that Noetic Science is capitalised is to make people think it’s actually a science. According to RationalWiki, it’s ‘an “exploration into the nature and potentials of consciousness using multiple ways of knowing—including intuition, feeling, reason, and the senses” according to its promoters. Aka, a form of bullshit, most famously promoted by Dan Brown in The Lost Symbol.’

Oh look, Katherine’s in communication with Mal’akh, and it turns out that Mal’akh speaks… ominously: ‘Mal’akh smiled to himself. “Sometimes a legend that endures for centuries… endures for a reason.”’ In reality, this telephone conversation would have gone as follows:

Mal’akh:    Sometimes a legend that endures for centuries…

Katherine:    Hello, hello, are you still there?

Mal’akh:    Yes, I was just saying that sometimes a legend that endures for centuries…

Katherine:    Sorry, no, you’re breaking up again.

Mal’akh:    Oh, for god’s sake, sometimes there’s a bloody reason for it, okay?

 

And we’ll leave it there for now. So far at least, The Lost Symbol is not as good as Angels and Demons or The Da Vinci Code, both of which I actually quite enjoyed, despite Dan Brown’s awful prose style and a couple of scenes in the latter that made me actually angry because of their incredible stupidity.

At least the book feels less intensely rubbish than Twilight, a novel that I had to put down and walk away from for a while before I could bring myself to finish it.

You’ll get more when I get around to reading more.

(As a side-note, I’m wondering whether to include blog posts in with my NaNoWriMo word count, or if it falls into the ‘Dude, you’re only cheating yourself’ territory.)