Saturday, July 28, 2018

Winter




My lips are cracked and bleeding
My knuckles bruised and broken
This winter wind rips through me
My tears will spill for words unspoken

This frozen landscape reflecting a hollow self
This cold empty feeling inside

That is holding me down
Drowning in the drifting snow
There is a certain perfection in the coldness of winter
The quiet cold
Such a metaphor for death,
That it borders on the cliche

Still I look for the sun
Something to carry me on
Or make me blind
All of my chances have blown away like autumn leaves
While winter is coming
I'm wishing for spring
Blind to the death of seasons
I die here cold and alone

My eyes red from crying
My hands numb and shaking
My whole body trembles from mistakes I've been making
There's a certain beauty in winter
Distracting from the ugliness within
This peaceful white solitude
Giving way to isolatin
The ice gracing the landscape can match the coldness of your eyes

My breath clouding the air
The cold digging to my bones
An animal desperate for the warmth around my beating heart
I'm as empty as the winter winds
And perhaps twice as bitter
All my hopes are torn apart
I would have died for all of this


Friday, June 29, 2018

Wanderer, Reprised



It was cold, I think
A kind of formless, emptiness
Simply absent of heat
With blurred colors and soft edges
A dreamscape of spiraling greyscale
Tinged with blue and purple
Footsteps crunched on the hard gravel
Of a dark road
Stretching forward into formless darkness
Even the stars flared coldly in the clear sky
With no warmth or light of hope
Two figures stood as one
A statue beside a ghost, resting gently together
Hands clasped like a hope chest
Watching their breath curl into the air in a pale cloud
Forming a swirling dance that faded gently away
Shoulders hunched against the slow, seeping loss of heat

I found myself standing at a crossroads
Where ghosts danced
Not exactly a metaphor, for the drifting road
On a planar spread; flat and unwinding
I paused amidst the stones and dirt
Hands thrust into my pockets among the loose change
And small secrets
Watching the spirits writhe
In ecstasy, or pain, or some unknown feeling
I had been wandering this road
For longer than I know
Perhaps even forever
My weary legs carried me through blurred time
Accompanied by cold winds
And the sorrowful keening of my own lonely thoughts
Drowning out the whispering crickets or howling of wolves

Flicking pennies into the darkness
Like casting dreams into darker fires
I stood at the crossroads
Contemplating the near-familiar faces
Of the celebrant wraiths
One pale sprite paused to face me
A mirror of old memories etched upon a marble cloud
"Wanderer," he whispered
"I see you are lost again
On a long road
To a place you do not know
The desert did not break you
But why do you walk alone?"
I watched my breath curl, pondering
And sighed a reply
"I do not wander alone,"
My lips twisted to a sad smile
"I walk with your brothers and sisters
And memories that sustain me"

The ghosts parted as I chose my path
And I continued to walk, until the sun rose
As dawn broke in faint reds over the grey landscape
I felt the crunch of sand still in my shoe
Rough, and somehow still warm
A reminder of roads traveled before
Memories existing, then
Perhaps not entirely fondly
Any sign of my passing swept away by blowing winds
That kissed my skin with frozen fire
As I pulled my jacket tighter around my shoulders
Sunless grey skies gave way to pure, cold nights
Where a man may have learned
To miss the dessert sun
Pausing beside a small pond
I saw dragonflies dancing above the smooth surface
Broken by what looked to me
To be the bleached remains of broken bones
I knelt to sate my curiosity

Amongst the drifting cattails, a skull peered back
Upon which sat an immense frog, croaking with delight
"Wanderer," it began, shifting upon the bleached throne
"You have not come to drink, as they have
but is that because you fear
that they have found the answer you seek?
They struggled to find warmth
But all fell asleep in the snow"
I smiled, I think
"I have wandered deserts
Full of the failures of others
I have drunk from the springs
And clean waters of another dying world"
The frog croaked merrily
"Yet still you wander
As if you truly believe
The journey could reveal the answers you seek"



Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Down the Barrel of a Gun



There are times
When we must act
and times to err on the side of dignity
But there is never a time
When turning your back on what is good
Will ever put you in the right
So we choose
As you must
Whether we wish to be right
Do the right thing
Or be comfortable

The bloody fist of the oppressed
And the bloody knives of the oppressors
Both leave stains
But I would rather see a fight for life
And dignity
And hope
Than watch a thousand people marching towards their graves
Singing empty, patriotic songs
Deaf ears falling on empty words

We cannot force them to value life
Or sit by idly while we are told
That their voices of hate
Or greed
Are as deserving of being heard
As calls for equality
Chasing bloodstained halls
And streets
While they deflect blame to fit their ideologies
We learn to fight
With whatever means we need
Until the voices are loud enough
To be heard above the cacophony of hate
Otherwise we are simply screaming our indignation
Down the barrel of a gun


Friday, April 27, 2018

Narrow Sorrows



Weary scars and hard-earned wrinkles
Furrows of a life lived, living still
Deep canals for the blood, sweat
And sweet tears
While demons wrestle behind hollow eyes
For the honor of being the first to beat down
Upon brows hung hollow and dark 
From sleepless nights
We can dance among the maze of stone memorials
Shouldering burdens of grand grief
With the stoic look of stone gargoyles
Worn and watchful, perched atop walls
Weathering the storms and slings and arrows

It is not the crushing weight of mountains
But the tiny kisses of a thousand loving monsters
A curtain of small despairs and gentle regrets
Worrying at the base of your skull 
Like a dog with an old bone
Splintering the tough exterior 
Which has withstand the broken gods of old hopes
Feasting upon the sweet marrow of looking forward
Life running in rivulets
Through the canyons and valleys
Dug from young flesh by old wounds

How do we navigate such narrow sorrows?
With no roadmap to the sunlit meadows of the mind
Where we had once longed to dance
Or rest in the shade of towering promise
Branches spread above us to ward off the harsh lights
How do we separate yesterday from tomorrow
Without the dam breaking
Or forgetting the sweet ache of the black memories we carried?


Saturday, March 24, 2018

Dungeons & Dragons: The Alignment Problem


So, as you can guess from the title of this piece, I am a pretty avid player of dungeons and dragons, and have been since before I was able to read. I'm involved enough in the game to strong opinions about many things that I've seen as the game has evolved. I've had the luxury of playing from the box set (an older sibling's - I'm not THAT old) through to the current 5th edition. I fondly remember THAC0, and the hit tables before that. I remember 1e combat tables, and saves versus death, and have seen the game go from realistic magical fantasy to epic comic book style heroic fantasy. I have feelings on those issues too, and maybe I'll address them in a later blog, but for now I want to talk about a very divisive issue in the game of DnD: alignment.

So, for those of you who are new, DnD alignments are broken down by two factors: good v. evil, and law v. chaos. This gives us a block of 9 possible alignments which that game uses as a guide for morality, a sort of gross simplification of behavioral guidelines and personality. There are 9 because it is possible to be "neutral" in regards to one OR BOTH of those factors. Now, this system is in place, of course, for what I see are a few reasons. Firstly, it sort of tells you how heroic and what SORT of heroic your character is. It also helps flesh out a personality and has game play impacts which have lessened somewhat in later editions. The 9 alignments each have some base concepts attached, which I will touch in in brief (and likely you may disagree), and are as follows:

-Lawful Good(LG): The rule of law (or a personal code) are important, as well as the overall well-being of people. Typically remains within the confines of the law, or some code (religious, organizational, etc.) and adheres to what we would generally consider heroic principles of mercy, fairness, justice, etc. The rules exist for your own good, so follow them.

-Neutral Good(NG): Do good by people, but with little regard to law or chaos. Simply, whatever gives the greater good, and feel free to skirt the rules (or limit freedoms) if that is what would make people the most happy with the least harm. Most people would fall close to this alignment, I think. The rules exist, but can be limiting. 

-Chaotic Good(CG): Do good for people, but with the absolute most freedom available. The rules exist, but they are secondary to personal agency, and thus, so long as no undue harm is being done, the rules are merely shackles. 

-Lawful Neutral(LN): The rules exist to be followed. Good or bad, that's what rules are for. Adherence to the word of the rule/ law/ code is as important as the outcome. No allegiance to good or evil, these people are aligned entirely with order and structure.

-Neutral(N): No turning towards good, or evil; law or chaos. This alignment is often considered as two cases: either profound apathy, or a sense of balance. I disagree with this characterization, because this alignment is someone who perhaps has tempered responses to cases of good and evil, or order versus chaos. Neutrality may mean detachment. It may mean taking every situation at a case-by-case basis and aligning your decisions with either the best personal outcome, or an overall more appealing outcome, good or bad. The rules exist, but life isn't about rules.

-Chaotic Neutral(CN): Personal freedom, regardless of what it takes. Often portrayed as anarchists or wildcard characters, the treatment of this alignment in that way is a disservice to the idea that personal freedom is simply the most important, and these people will do what they will because they elevate their own freedoms (and the idea of freedom for all) to a level where they will actively work against anything that limits them. The rules exist, but they are a prison.

-Lawful Evil(LE): The rules exist to elevate the strong above the week. Red tape used to benefit some and oppress others, wrapped in nicely in structure. The rules are there to give the strong power. Structured, well-ordered evil designed to benefit the individual, or perhaps the organization. 

-Neutral Evil(NE): Evil with no regard for the rules. Often seen as a sort of selfish evil, where everything is entirely focused on the individual, I feel that idea is the easiest to portray, but the furthest from what the actual meaning would be. Where as Neutral Good is about creating the most good regardless of the law or chaos, Neutral Evil should be about the opposite: creating the most evil without regards for law or chaos. While the idea would seem vindictive, it is often treated by the games as simply self-serving. The rules or lack thereof only matter for which gives me the most benefit.

-Chaotic Evil(CE): Evil, in a wild way. No rules exist for this alignment. Only liberty and evil. These individuals are often characterized as criminally insane, or murderous lunatics. I think that this idea shows a sincere lack of creative power on the part of the player or DM who adheres to that stereotype. Chaotic evil may be self-serving. They may be murderous, or vindictive. Or they may just be extremely selfish and resent any attempts to control or hamper them and their decisions. The rules exist to be broken, and may the best person survive the break. 

Now, please, these are entirely basic primers, based on my perspective and understanding, and I'm not here to argue really about what each alignment means. No, really. That's not the alignment issue I want to talk about. It has been done to death. The issue here is: why do we have alignment, and do we need it? Neither of these questions have an easy answer, but we're going to tackle some of my thoughts.

So, why do we have alignment? Initially, it was a sort of easy moral compass. It helped control some powers of certain classes, and served as a limiting factor to others. (LG paladins, lawful monks, neutral druids, etc.) This has sort of fallen out of favor with the new ideas in alter editions of not adhering to tropes and also simplifying things. That is a tangent for another day, but essentially if your alignment changed drastically through magic or some circumstance or behavior, you could lose powers or abilities. It also creates certain roleplay elements for the game. I think it is a good way for a DM or player to really have a foundation for their character's behavior. even with its flaws and obsolescence in current editions. The aspect of DnD alignment existing that is most overlooked though, is literally contained within many of the worlds themselves.

See, we, as people, know that morality is highly variable and highly subjective. We adhere to a living, evolving view of morality that shifts as our society and culture shift. We have things that try to create sorts of moral order, and which may even claim to give rise to morality (you can see my views on religion in earlier posts) but overall it is very much clear that right and wrong are products of the time and place we find ourselves in. Let us look at some of the major DnD settings: Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, etc. Then let us look at the rules as written for divine casters (clerics, paladins, etc.). In these worlds, and often in these games, we have definitive proof of the existence of deities, to the point of interacting directly with the deity or an agent. This was even clearly outlined in early editions of DnD, that cleric spells were given directly by the deity at higher levels, and the cleric spell requests could be vetoed by their god. The existence of divine casters creates a sort of concrete idea of objective morality. If you look at how pantheons are described, you can very easily see that most worlds and games of DnD exist in a place where good and evil are very clearly delineated, and good and evil acts are legitimately black and white. 3e DnD tried to tackle this with the Book of Exalted Deeds, but you didn't need that to see that in a world where there are literally omnipotent representations of moral virtues which directly control things, that the little subjectivity in morality in these worlds makes no sense. These worlds exist with a perfect dichotomy of right and wrong, and an evil act for good reasons is still an evil act (and will shift your alignment), full stop.

That idea gets entirely overlooked every time alignment is brought up. It isn't enough that the system is sort of weird, but any grey areas or moral dilemmas that the game (via the GM( tries to bring up, are rendered entirely moot by the existence of this clear dichotomy. If you know which act is good, and which act is evil, your LG paladin better do the good one, or they risk becoming NG (or worse) and losing their paladin abilities. It is a glaring weakness in the entire system that there are no real ways to address it (though I can think of a few involving a lot of work unifying magic use as arcane or as a sort of universal law.) But that is the worst part of alignment: if you have gods that are that involved in the world, then you have completely objective morality, and therefore alignment is absolutely an important factor in your character. On the other hand, if you want to run a game where moral questions lurk in the gray areas that we're all used to in the real world, then it makes very little sense for divine casters to gain their magic directly from a god. In the second case, which is the most common case, gamers must simply suspend their disbelief and not look at that problem too long, or at all. In many cases, alignment s sort of used as a general guideline or personal inclination anyway and is hardly ever treated with any sort of seriousness. In older editions of the game, the warning that a certain action could move your alignment a step away from where it was was something that could be very sobering to a player, whereas now I feel that DMs don't even really care about alignment at all, because it has no practical mechanical purpose, outside of detecting good/evil. (You know, like with angels and demons which are living embodiments of these concrete moral ideals that literally don't exist in the real world.)

Do you see my gripe with alignment? Most arguments over it could be solved by understanding that good and evil, law and chaos, in these worlds, are concrete, objective ideals which exist. That isn't how people, or the world we know work... but that is how that world is set up, where good and evil are clearly black and white (and so are law and chaos.... yikes, what a nightmare) and have very real, very legitimate in world impacts. You can argue that alignment is obsolete, and I would agree, so long as you don't dig too deeply into why it would exist in the first place. I personally find it to be one of the more annoying parts of the game, and I survived THAC0. But two people with bad arguments, arguing over something, won't ever reach any conclusion because they're both missing the big picture. I have a lot of gripes with how players approach alignment. A lot. I hate players using evil alignments as an excuse to not participate in the game with the rest of the group. If the party is all evil, it is often hard to find a decent motivation for them. If only a few members of the party are evil, it tends to create the same problem, with the added bonus of the players being selfish enough to always ask "But why would my character do this?"

...the answer, is because you agreed to the social contract, and if you're not willing to put yourself into the game, you're not playing DnD, you're smugly trying to direct a game about others into a game entirely about you. This also ignores the edgelord players who want to play evil characters like it's a videogame and they just made a save after entering the town so that they can live out all of their twisted "2edgy4me" fantasies. It isn't good for the game that most people use alignment as an excuse rather than a tool or guideline. We get it, your CE character murders and tortures people. Your CN character is wacky and random. The LG paladin is a stick in the mud who won't let you torture prisoners (which makes perfect sense, so get off his back) and so on. Don't use alignment as an excuse to derail the game. Don't ruin the enjoyment of the game for everyone else because you can't be bothered to just go play a videogame. Not all DnD campaigns have to be about heroes, but I guarantee that absolutely none of them are about the individual player. 

Anyway, after that tangent, I guess I should wrap up by restating. Alignment is flawed because the concepts it hinges upon are absolutely alien compared to the reality in which we live. It has no mechanical purpose in the current game, and even though in the worlds the game presents it would make sense to have, it really has nothing to offer to the game anymore. It has no power. Arguing about the grey areas, or about what each separate alignment entails in futile work because it's hard for people to conceptualize that these questions are about a world so vastly different than ours. Alignment makes sense in the world, but not for the game, and the game is what is important.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Fantasy Genre and Technological Advancement



I am an avid reader of the science fiction and fantasy genres. I am heavily invested in fantasy worlds, both home grown and borrowed. I write a little bit of fantasy here and there, mostly because I enjoy it, and I read a lot of it. Always have. In turn, many years of playing tabletop RPGs have introduced me to my own world building. I know Greyhawk, Krynn, Westeros, Middle Earth, Eberron, Faerun. I know the worlds of the Sword of Truth and the magical post-apocalypse of the Shannara series. I've designed my fair share of unique kingdoms and worlds for games and writing and, more honestly, because I get bored and like to tell myself cool stories in my head.

So there is something that has always sort of bugged me about a lot of fantasy worlds: why is technological advancement so stagnant?

No, really. In some worlds the question is addressed, or at least within the context of the world we see that it isn't universally the case. The Shannara series, for example, is our world after a devastating event which fractions humanity and destroys most of civilization, leading to evolutionary divergence and mutation of humans, as well as the rediscovery of magic. We see that the druid order is basically a group of scientists rediscovering old knowledge and combining it with sorcery. We see technology exists still (despite how messed up the timeline is, but that's another talk) and in the books we see the references go from mere suggestion (describing ruined skyscrapers. The hilt of the Sword of Shannara being described as essentially the hand of the statue of liberty) to the mesh of robot and monster we see later. We also eventually see working airships and stuff. There are technological advancements. 

Let's compare this to a LOT of other fantasy setting where the technology has basically remained in stagnation for centuries or even millenia. Seriously, a lot of fantasy hinges on the idea that the world has barely changed for hundreds or thousands of years. Heroes wield the exact same technology for thousands of years with no real suggestion of modification. They hit a point around that of the middle ages, and then everything stops. We see perhaps the emergence of an era where artisans and specialists are developing their craft. But even with the breadth of cultures to choose from, they're never really more advanced than what life was like on earth a few hundred years ago. 

I know what you're thinking: it's absolutely silly to take a genre that is based on the principle of being fantastical and erasing suspension of disbelief. After all, decade long summers and magic which directly violates the laws of physics are staples of the genre. Worlds which contain literal gods as embodiments of certain paradigms and can alter the nature of reality are sort of exempt from common sense explanations of major phenomena. I mean, in a world where gods exist as paragons of certain traits and morality is quite literally objective means the world is already entirely different from ours, since right and wrong have no shades of grey in these proposed reality. The nuances of character in these worlds seem sort of... forced, when you realize that virtue is spelled out. The pontifications on moral gray areas by a character like Drizzt are sort of empty when you consider that there is a literal clear definition of right or wrong by all powerful beings. The rest tries to relate these concerns in a way that seems disconnected from the context of the world.

Anyway, back on track. Why does technology stagnate in fantasy worlds? I have a few theories, and we're gonna chat about those.

1: Magic.

To me, this is the biggest crutch and worst offender when it comes to why technology doesn't move forward. In fantasy, magic is used to replace technology as a crutch. That's it. It accomplishes everything technology does, but with a sense of whimsy and fantasy. Who needs planes when you can just make yourself fly? Or teleport? Who needs tanks and guns when you can conjure destructive elemental forces and bend reality itself to your will to crush your enemies?

Well, it maybe isn't that simple. You have to examine how much magic is in your world, I think that would be the biggest driver of a technological arms race. If magic is extremely prolific and common, it would replace technology and you'd see more stagnant technologies where what we'd expect is entirely replaced by people with magical training. The world of the Darksword is a prime example of this, and in this world we see that people born without magic are exiled, and so they develop metallurgy and science and engineering. In worlds where magic is common, but not universal, one would imagine a sort of arms race. After all, technology would have to develop enough to ease some of the burden of the common man who can't perform or afford to hire out magical effects. I think this middle ground is more common in fantasy, and so the technology should show some advancement. In low magic worlds (Westeros comes to mind) we see long stretches of stagnation in the absence of magic, or at least strong magic. So what leads to that stagnation? 

Essentially, this argument boils down to: if magic can do the same thing faster, ostensibly cheaper, and as reliably, but without the resource and logistics requirements, why would technology ever really need to advance beyond a reasonable point? Technology would be, in many ways, inferior to magic, at least until we begin to enter science fiction realms of advancement, so there is really no incentive to push forward. Of course, there may be an arms race in less magical worlds, where one would expect the advancement of technology to meet the ease of magic, because as we all know "progress isn't made by the early risers, it's made by lazy men looking for an easier way to do things." In the Sword of Truth series, we see that magic is slowly dying in the population, but it has real impact on the world itself, even technologically, despite this slow decline taking place over long centuries and the world clearly not suffering from a lack of resources.

2: Lack of resources.

So here we answer the question by looking at what items may be in shortage, limiting the ability to develop technology at a pace equitable to what our reality has. Human (or elven, or dwarven, etc.) curiosity isn't really limited or less than what we have in our world, and we see that a lot of ideas that lead to advancement in our world exist in those worlds. Most fantasy realms have magnifying spyglasses, so they have glass and grinding technology required for primitive microscopy. Many of them mention having fundamental understandings of the underpinnings of celestial movement. Steel smelting exists in many of these worlds, though some may see iron forging as more prevalent. So what is missing? Well, in some worlds, like Krynn, for example, their are shortages of important materials, hence why steel is used as a currency and likely iron weapons dominate. In other worlds, like the world of Athas in the Dark Sun, the world is essentially a desert where all conditions are made more difficult. Still, if we look at our own world as the basis, we see that having some basic curiosity and the simplest of elements we can deduce a lot of information. We can measure the diameter of the earth using shadows. We can create accurate calendars by watching the movement of celestial bodies. We can create lenses to observe the microscopic universe. We can even, in the simplest forms, use basic chemistry and a bit of luck to make very simple gunpowder with the right know-how. I think the resources argument is the least likely to take place outside of very special circumstances, because most fantasy strives to make a point of saying "this world is like ours, but more so" only our world didn't hover 100 years away from the Renaissance and all that came with it for 500 years. Still, one could say that certain elemental factors are missing from these worlds, maybe even literal elements that we have which prevent certain advancements. I take some exception to this because a lot of series seem to know when they should be advancing tech. Primitive gunpowder sometimes makes an appearance, and we have a whole plethora of creative material alternatives such as mithril. This seems like it would be a flimsy cover for the idea of technological stagnation in most cases, as we see rich worlds with everything that lead us to a certain point in our reality. 

3: Knowledge Hoarding

This is actually sort of a theme you see a lot, where knowledge and wisdom that could lead to technological advancement are hoarded and closely guarded secrets maintained by an elite intellectual group who consider their knowledge as literal power. Often, this power is guarded by the very wizards and spellcasters whom the development of technology could replace. Dragonlance takes a sort of cheeky jab at this with the tinker gnomes of Mt. nevermind, who make fantastical rube goldberg machines which rarely work, and if they do, hardly work for their intended purpose. It's a joke in the whole series that the only people actively seeking technological advancement are obsessive, incompetent, and hilariously annoying. It's just a sort of throwaway, but at least they try. However, the knowledge is guarded by endless red tape and bureaucracy, as well as jargon-heavy language and a mistrust of outsiders. Given this, and since, in most settings, becoming a wizard takes years of rigorous study, this resembles something I'm more familiar with: academic science. You study under an expert, learning the ins and outs and intricacies of your field. You gain general knowledge and often pursue an area of technical interest in which you become a specialist, while retaining your general skills. Only instead of becoming a neurophysiologist you're a necromancer, or whatever. Magic, as it exists in most settings, would be a fabulous tool to advance technology and science. It could only help when used in conjunction, unless you live in a world where the two are considered incompatible for some unexplained reason or another (Like the old computer RPG Arcanum). Imagine a world where your work could be double checked and controlled and calibrated not only by machines, but by magic which could guarantee exact replication of your work! In other settings, like that of the Dark Sword or A Song of Ice and Fire, we see that knowledge is either destroyed through fear, or is carefully guarded by the educated so that their education seems like a special power. The idea of the learned as gatekeepers to knowledge is by no means new, and by no means has it disappeared. Where wizards, maesters, and alchemists can devote their time to discovering secrets of history and magic and how their respective worlds function at a level which could be considered to be scientific, they also tend to keep that knowledge to themselves (without even so much as peer review, journal fees, or a paywall!) imparting it only to those with the desire and means to become full time apprentices. The secrecy of this trade would mean that your common man would see very little benefit from any discovery, and without such commercialization, very few people would be able to adopt or adapt any sort of technology Sure, someone else may work it out eventually, but by then it well have been known in these archaic, draconian academic circles for a long while. Technology isn't halted, but the hill to climb is made steeper by the hoarding of knowledge. I would also like to include the loss of hoarded knowledge as a risk factor. Destruction of libraries or institutions of learning, the death of miserly experts with few students, or no students. Any sort of brain drain at all, arising from failed experiments, disgruntled students, vicious competitors, or just old age would all set back advancement in a world where your knowledge would literally die with you. Also, regime-based brain drain, where the fear of intellectuals spearheading dissent is preemptively silenced with violence. If your thinkers and educated people are all killed in order to keep people ignorant, then of course there will be a setback to developing tech. 

Since, in most worlds, wizards are treated as a sort of elite class of people, often with good reason, we see that membership is carefully controlled and tightly regulated. A grand example are the wizards of the world of Krynn (at least while it still had magic) and their testing of potential wizards, most of whom studied at a school under the tutelage of a wizard who monitored them and culled the unfit. We see a bit of it in other worlds, too, where wizards are seen as a sort of aristocracy, often because they control powers which are useful or lucrative. This is only an incentive to keep the club exclusive, not to share anything, and since the people doing most of the research into the natural world are the same people who are willing to dedicate their lives to studying, you see that a lot of knowledge just isn't passed on. The paradox of this is that the more magic guards their magical secrets, the more non-magical solutions to problems will be developed. It is only in high and moderately high magic worlds where we should see long periods of technological stagnation without an ensuing arms race. For example, take the idea of warfare in these worlds. Generally, the army which could command or hire the most wizards would essentially win. In a world where magic is ubiquitous, it would seem that you could just have your wizards go at it and hope your foot soldiers can get lucky. The fewer wizards overall, the more power they hold on a battlefield, and the more that the regular soldier or army will want to develop counters or at the very least find equitable means of destruction. War is always a massive catalyst for technological advancement. Once we discovered that airplanes could be used in warfare, it took a decade for us to strap guns to them, and in the next three decades after that we went from wood and canvas prop planes to jet fighters. Or look at the rise of the tank, armored warship, or even just the firearm. These technologies advanced rapidly, and are still evolving rapidly. There is no reason the constant warfare there wouldn't be a similar catalyst for advancement, yet we hardly see that. We don't even see advancements in metallurgy over these large time frames. A sword from a thousand year old hero is essentially the same sword as the guy who goes looking for it had before, only it has magic or something. There is no reasonable modern equivalent to this, because in the last hundred years the advancements have leapfrogged and only grown. 

4: Civilization collapse.

I find this a weak angle as well, but it's a common theme. Heck, just look at our stories of Atlantis. Fantasy is rife with stories of ancient, advanced civilizations which collapse and their secrets are lost due to some grave disaster that seemed to befall them. This could be like the mountain dropped on Ishtar, the Doom of Valyria, the ruin of Myth Drannor, or even just plane old warfare. The end result is this, the place where technology existed no longer exists. Some few secrets may be there, waiting to be uncovered, but mostly nobody knows, and so all that progress is lost. We see this a bit in the Shannara series, again, because the ruins of the old world are still there. Some things survive, and the survivors, who have for so long been focused merely on not dying out, have lost track of how to do anything that isn't directly related to feeding themselves, defending themselves, and not getting eaten by bears. Slowly, technology is beginning to be rebuilt. I find this to be an exception rather than a rule, but we'll talk about it. I mean, it is the one that perhaps makes the most sense, despite being the least used: we had it, shit went south, we LOST it, and now we've got to get back to that point while using the suggestion of our former technological prowess as a guideline. In this way, magic and technology get treated much the same way, which is to say that ancient magic gets lost just as easily as ancient technology, and both get rediscovered. Westeros is pretty good about making this subtle, but it's enough of a staple that fantasy readers should be pretty familiar with it. Here, the stagnation isn't so much a result of lack of considering the problem, but more a problem of the timeline. I bet if you fast forward a thousand years in the Shanarra series, they'd be far more technologically equipped than they are now, and this is a world within laser robot spiders.

I know these reasons aren't great. And I know that there are a lot of historical and anthropological factors to technology development which I'm ignoring or glossing over entirely, because this isn't a scholarly work, it's just for fun. My real take away from all of this, though, is that there is hardly ever reason to believe that without some sort of global trauma, that technology hasn't advanced in the last few hundred or thousand years, depending on your fantasy world of choice. It sounds cool, to have your heroes looking for thousand year old artifacts. In a world where many of the non-human races live for long periods of time, one can also expect that their perception of the passing of time slows their need for rapid advancement, after all, we see how easy it is for humans to fall into the trap of thinking that the things they know are great and the next new thing is just a gimmick, even if it is here to stay. Now imagine if the lifespan of that person was five hundred or a thousand years. A world where they have steel smelting, glass making and grinding, primitive chemistry in the form of alchemy and herbology, there is really no reason for technology to not move forward. Even in fantasy worlds where the two do intersect, the blending never occurs, as it naturally would. Magic and technology are often separated as if they are somehow antithetical. Harry Potter does this, but we'll forgive a mediocre set of children's books from not focusing on the depth of its world building. In most cases, magic and technology would be best friends. Imagine enchanted concrete for building. Knives that never get dull, metal that never tarnishes, and a million other small technological advancements we can't dream of or consider physically possible which could be done with a few gibberish words and some hand (or wand) waving. 

In a fantasy world, technology would still have some level of advancement, a level that we don't see, and it is something that nobody ever addresses, because it sounds good and to think about it in as much detail as I have takes you out of the heart of the story and just makes you sound like a nitpicking jerkface. And sure, I'm totally guilty. I don't enjoy my favorites any less for it. It's just one of those things that's always sort of ruined immersion for me. Now, there could also be another reason that I'm not addressing: the timelines in the world are inaccurate because folks like to exaggerate for dramatic effect and let's be honest, it's a whole lot cooler if the hero needs to find  forgotten cave with a thousand year old magical sword rather than walk down the street to the wizard-blacksmith and have him make you one for a handful of gold and some of that excellent Shire pipe weed. 

The final takeaway is that this consideration is sort of just a fun mental exercise! Next time you read fantasy, look for the timeline mentions, and see how long it has been since there was a huge technological break. For example, in the books for A Song of Ice and Fire, the Stark sword Ice has been in the family for roughly the same time frame as our world has gone from flintlock rifle to modern automatic weapons. Yet, they still use the same exact sword. Heck, the fact that they're still using words of the same design (and inferior quality) should give you a sort of pause and make you ask questions.

Or not. It's just a fantasy, after all!




Sunday, January 28, 2018

Racing Thoughts



Rounded edges of space, curving in delicate spirals
Thoughts racing through
As children, joyously exulting in a water park
Where the chaotic tumult of twists and turns
Ends in a raucous cacophony of exuberant laughter
Trying to pin these thoughts in place
Like trying to pin live butterflies
Circling and dancing with colorful jeers above my head
Tangled like kites
Just beyond reach
As they circle in urgent cascades, beating faster than your rhythmic pulse
Timpanic pounding driving your brain to feral static
White noise ripping through concentration
Until my head hangs in exhausted tatters
The tantalizing promise of quiet moments
Glimpsed through the white-noise hurrricane

Clarity does not escape
It is obfuscated
Covered and cowed by the raging maelstrom of mercurial thoughts
While the pressure builds
A dormant supervolcano waiting to burst
Rumbling and steadily growing in pressure
Until even the backs of your eyes
Whimper and recoil
In the light of another's storm
We tame the raging vortex
Letting it hide behind our eyes and teeth
Where haunted looks and haunting words beg release
Into a world whose ignorance is our armor
For the unknown songs screaming through the mindscape
Are not meant to be loosed upon the world
Like so many slings and arrows