Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Gaming in the Aughts: A Retrospective Look at My Roleplaying in the Last Decade

November of 2004: White Wolf's Sword & Sorcery Studios put the nix on the Scarred Lands campaign setting. The reasons are, as quoted on White Wolf's website, "the highly competitive and highly fragmented d20 marketplace".
Since the Open Game License first gave third-party publishers the chance to create their own game material based on the d20 System, Sword & Sorcery has created numerous products. The Scarred Lands line was our opportunity for a gritty and diverse take on fantasy. Fans responded, and we like to think that the setting also influenced what other third-party publishers produced.

The d20/OGL market has always been competitive, though, and many product lines and publishers throughout the industry have felt the pinch of a fragmenting consumer base (to mix a metaphor) in the past year. Scarred Lands has taken some hits, too. It’s retained a core following, but sales in the current d20 market just aren’t at a feasible level. There are too many other books (many of ’em quite good) competing for the fans’ attention.
Unfortunately, the vast bulk of the D20 market production had been comprised of absolute crap, with rare gems such as Conan the Roleplaying Game (which I will get to in a minute), Iron Kingdoms (based on the previously extant War Machine miniature wargame), and Monte Cook's Ptolus: City by the Spire had helped in tipping the balance toward more quality merchandise.

Nevertheless, during my grad school days walking through the D20 section on the back wall of Days of Knights in Newark, DE, or picking through the new releases at The Gamers' Realm in East Windsor, NJ, I was struck by two things:

1) the exhorbitant prices, and
2) the general lack of quality in the products.

It's times like this when I go back and visit Pete Overton's abandoned but incredible
Quality in RIFTS website, and nostalgically scroll through what at then seemed like intelligent and well-thought demands, but now seem like naïve hopes and misguided idealism.

The tragedy about the Scarred Lands being canceled is that it actually was that good. It was the product of a number of fantastic ideas that made it a compelling setting to explore. In the four years that it was being published, Sword & Sorcery Studios managed to detail a unique setting that was put together much better than, say, Eberron, which seems slapdash and haphazard in comparison.

And that's the interesting thing. It wasn't long after Scarred Lands was retired that Eberron was released, an equally compelling but much less well-organized or logically constructed setting. What has catapulted it so far beyond Scarred Lands in sales? Name recognition: Wizards of the Coast and Dungeons & Dragons.

Equally as tragic was the slow death of the Ravenloft product line, also being produced by Sword & Sorcery Studios. Originally a campaign setting for 2nd Edition AD&D, it was canceled in the late 1990s with the buyout by Wizards of the Coast, and was sold to White Wolf to be produced under the Open-Gaming License. And White Wolf, being a company that is sometimes English major, sometimes goth-emo wannabe, decided to lean towards the English major for this setting, and produced a fantastic 3.0 core rulebook complete with a description of the evolution of Gothic Horror into the present era, with lists of authors to read for inspiration. They produced a number of brief, yet concise and detailed gazetteers that did a fantastic job of expanding the setting in detail from the corebook. They threw out any and all overt references to established 2nd Edition settings (such as Lord Soth and Vecna), which, in my opinion, is a Good Thing, although my brother's friend Luke would heartily disagree.

Nevertheless, Ravenloft's sales had been low, and their last product was released in 2005, a product I didn't even see on the shelves at Days of Knights.

Now, with Conan the Roleplaying Game we had a very different situation. In 2004, a $50 Conan the Roleplaying Game: Atlantean Edition core rulebook was released. And it was worth every penny. The corebook detailed a world that was drawn strictly from the mind of Robert E. Howard himself, and included no pastiche. In other words, the editing of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, and the many followup novels from the 70s, 80s, and 90s by the likes of Robert Jordan, Steve Perry, and John Maddox Roberts, was left out. Only Robert E. Howard's original descriptions were made into setting canon.

It was fantastic. The character classes, the combat system, the feats, the maneuvers, and the diabolical and dangerous sorceries all sprang directly from the pages of Howard's original Conan stories. Further supplements such as The Scrolls of Skelos (by Vincent Darlage and Ian Sturrock) and The Pirate Isles (by Shannon Kalvar) expanded possibilities and detailed what players and GMs could do with certain elements found in many of Howard's stories.

The heaviest producer of material for Conan the Roleplaying Game was Vincent Darlage, who had submitted material to Mongoose Publishing for such "gems" as the Shadizar--City of the Wicked boxed set, Aquilonia, and Stygia. Of the three mentioned, the worst was Shadizar, especially because it was a boxed set and lacked even the detail that Sharn: City of Towers had, and sported a god-awfully uninspired map that a 4th grader could have drawn. It was expensive, and ultimately, it was a waste of money. Indeed, the adventure that came with the set is utterly unplayable unless the GM does some major revision work on it, virtually re-writing the thing from the beginning.

The best thing Darlage had written was The Road of Kings which reads less like a world-guide and more like a compendium of all the pastiche ever written. Indeed, the three aforementioned books and boxed set all are derived from pastiche and contain very little original design. The good is that any and all gaps in society and religion are filled by Darlage, who does a brilliant job in describing societies, economies, and religions, but even this is derivative--he draws too much from actual history and not enough from his imagination. All of the characters in his books are taken from pastiche novels, comic books, and occasionally, Robert E. Howard's actual tales. Not a single character or faction or god is included that hasn't already been mentioned by someone else.

Sadly, the quality of Conan merchandise by Mongoose gradually declined, with a few gems sprinkled here-and-there throughout the text to make the books tempting, but little else once the price was taken into account. Production quality was fantastic, and the books were sturdier and better-printed during the aughts than they had been during the 1980s and 1990s. However, the quality of writing had declined. I'm under the impression that a lot of the Mongoose writers were, by-and-large, freelancers and fans cashing in on the fad. Freelance RPG writing is difficult work, and doesn't pay well. During the 1980s and 1990s, TSR had entire departments full of researchers and writers and an enormous library. But things had changed since then. The simplistic print-quality of the 1980s and 1990s had receded with the acquisition by Wizards of the Coast, and what had once been an $18 splatbook was replaced by the $25 splatbook. The $7 was just too much in the long run, especially when the writing degraded. And Mongoose was one of those companies that churned out mediocre setting material from starving freelance writers and charging $35 for slapping a hardcover on it.

Insult led to injury with the 3.5 rules for Conan: The Roleplaying Game. While a great deal of streamlining went into the rules, and sorcery (which had already been fantastic) was improved and made more sense, too much of it was simply a reprint of the original Atlantean Edition rulebook, but this time they were charging $50 for a hardback with poor print quality and none of the glossy, full-color pages. The paper was cheap, everything was black-and-white, and the binding was weak. Within a year of its release, I ended up selling back the vast bulk of my Conan paraphernalia.

I was raised on 2nd Edition AD&D. Through middle school and into college, I was spoiled by paging through sourcebooks and digging through boxed sets with dozens of maps, inventories, pictures, characters, factions, and societies. A brief glance at the 2nd Edition Forgotten Realms Boxed Set, and you'll find four giant poster-maps, and three world books, one containing almost a dozen city-maps, and a third detailing one small town and an enormous 1st-level adventure. When compared to the phenomenal City of Splendors boxed set, Darlage's Shadizar looks like a go-cart next to a Formula-1 racer. The detail just isn't there.

And it isn't there in the modules, either. They are brief, poorly written, and shoddily designed. Like the adventure in Shadizar they are completely unrunnable without massive amounts of ad-libbing on behalf of the GM, or a complete rewrite from the bottom up. Again, this is because I was raised on incredibly detailed adventures from 2nd Edition AD&D, like The Sword of the Dales or Marco Volo: The Departure.

I had noticed that the quality of writing and design throughout the current D20 line has diminished dramatically from the standards of a decade ago. Wizards of the Coast, by falling into Palladium's trap of focusing more on toys (feats, weapons, items, spells, prestige classes) and less on background and setting detail (people, places, things, description) had opened the floodgates for splatbooks that are full of nothing but more and bigger guns than the last splatbook.

I guess I should have expected this from the company that designed Magic: the Gathering, where every new release features cards that can beat the last one.

My final gripe here, though, isn't against the companies so much as it is against the fans. They are the reason that Shattered Lands collapsed, and why White Wolf hasn't produced a new Ravenloft product since 2005. The fans were, simply put, supporting crap. Most of what is produced under the Open-Gaming License isn't worth the ink and paper it was printed with. And much as it pains me to say it, much of the Conan the Roleplaying Game product line was just as unfit for print. But you wouldn't think that if you'd read the Mongoose forums, or the reviews on RPG Net.

The most critical statement I've read was, "Don't buy this unless you are going to run a game in this location" in regards to Aquilonia. A true, neutral, and balanced review would be seen as jaundiced and trolling to the forum-goers and fans. The sad thing is, most of the stuff in the Conan sourcebooks could be easily devised by GMs themselves with a little help from an encyclopedia, the corebook, and maybe The Road of Kings. The standards have been lowered in quality by Wizards of the Coast, and the fans have bought it. Maybe it's a generational thing, but coming out of the 1990s, and comparing the prices and quality of the 1990s to the products of today, I must say that I am not pleased by what I see.

This is not to suggest that everything produced in the late 1990s was great. Indeed, far from it. Much of it was dreck. But it seemed as though Sturgeon's Law wasn't really in full effect during the 1990s. Yeah, the plethora of railroad modules being produced was lamentable, but they were written well-enough to not feel quite like the players were on tracks. The sourcebooks were full of genuine setting-material that enhanced the roleplaying experience (in my opinion). And it wasn't just TSR that was pushing boundaries, but also White Wolf, Palladium, GURPS, and West End Games. The world of roleplaying seemed to be blossoming more under a multitude of systems and experimentation with different rule-sets than under the aegis of D20.

As time wore on, I felt as though 3.0 and 3.5 shifted tones from role-playing to power-gaming. I remember a game-store clerk extolling the virtues of the new books because they had more "crunchy bits." We were glutted on powers, skills, and feats. What used to be a flexible system for creating unique and specialized characters with different concepts turned into something else entirely. There were too many choices, many of them were not good, while others were simply so over-powered as to make them unreasonable. Each new D20 release contained new feats, items, weapons, spells, and skills for the players to use. Although a DM could refuse, the psychology of purchasing a book that you never use prompted most DMs to permit players to employ these different tomes. Customization transformed into munchkinization.

By the time 4th Edition was released, all pretense was gone. D&D was a game of power and combat. Gone were the exploration and interaction aspects.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Blogging de Tocqueville, Part Four

I should really start picking up the pace with these and posting more than once per month. This particular post covers my readings of Part One, Chapters XVI to XVIII, where de Tocqueville rounds out his discussion on the tyranny of the majority with factors that mitigate it, as well as preserve democratic tendencies within the early American cultural-political framework. The final chapter is a brief look at what the future might hold for the United States from his point-of-view.

Part Three
Part Two
Part One

In my last post on Democracy in America, I lamented the current cultural situation we find ourselves in, what I now consider to be similar to what the ancient Greeks called στάσις (stasis). The subjugation of the individual is alive and well in American society, but instead of a monolithic, unified majority of Anglo-American culture (as de Tocqueville observed across the Jacksonian socio-cultural landscape), the current American outlook is one divided between rival factions and coalitions of factions. Identification with a faction is often integral to the individual's identity. Nevertheless, acceptance into and alienation from one's faction generally follows the guidelines that de Tocqueville describes regarding the individual amidst the majority in Part One, Chapter XV.

It is in Chapter XVI where de Tocqueville begins to discuss the existence of lawyers as an independent and powerful social caste. And yes, I do purposely utilize the word caste, although some may feel class might be a more accurate term. Lawyers are a sort of aristocracy amidst the absence of an actual landed nobility, de Tocqueville feels, and there very existence is a check not only to majority rule but to the very existence of democracy itself. They are, by their very nature, anti-democratic.

During the Jacksonian era, de Tocqueville observed how the wealthy had no common tie to unite them into a social class. Sadly, this has changed, as the rich and wealthy are, ironically, perhaps the most class-conscious segment of American society today. The modern wealthy are an outgrowth of the American emulation of the British aristocracy during the Gilded Age. This emulation injected a sense of social separateness and created the identity of a class of wealthy citizens that are set apart--many of these people have become movers and shakers in the broader corporatocracy that has so much influence over politics through finance, banking, and control of the Federal Reserve.

But that's an aside. During de Tocqueville's lifetime, the lawyer was the only apparent aristocratic element in American society. My own personal take, however, is that the lawyer is a priest as opposed to a noble, and for the very reasons that de Tocqueville goes on to describe.
"The special information which lawyers derive from their studies insures them a separate rank in society, and they constitute a sort of privileged body in the scale of intellect. This notion of their superiority perpetually recurs to them in the practice of their profession: they are the masters of a science which is necessary, but which is not very generally known: they serve as arbiters between the citizens; and the habit of directing to their purpose the blind passions of parties in litigation, inspires them with a certain contempt for the judgment of the multitude. Add to this, that they naturally constitute a body; not by any previous understanding, or by an agreement which directs them to a common end; but the analogy of their studies and the uniformity of their methods connect their minds together, as a common interest might unite their endeavors."
If it weren't for their practice of an arcane, poorly understood form of knowledge (i.e. the science of law), I'd agree with de Tocqueville that the lawyers were simply a sort of American aristocracy. But it is the practice of this knowledge, and its possession, that makes the lawyer much more like a priest. His knowledge is something the common public is assumed to be incapable of grasping. Not only that, the layperson can never practice it without being properly ordained by the bar. Law school and the bar examination are a sort of progression from postulate to novice to vested and ordained practitioner. The procedures of the courtroom are a kind of liturgical ceremony intended to awe and instill a sense of wonder and fear before the power of justice and law itself. The very fact that the judge is often a lawyer is not lost to de Tocqueville, nor the fact that many public figures were as well. This latter de Tocqueville blames for the injection of legal procedure, method, and jargon into the bureaucratic workings of statecraft.

The primary safety-valve that de Tocqueville isolates that preserves the democratic spirit in the courtroom is the trial by a jury of one's peers. De Tocqueville heaps no small amount of praise upon this institution as a bastion of political freedom and an assurance of democratic ideals. The privilege of judgment is shared with the people. Each American citizen is given a stake in seeing the laws upheld, and service in a jury not only should instill an appreciation for the rule of law, but provide a means of enforcing public opinion and sentiment in the courtroom, in spite of the sentiments of the priestly lawyer caste.
The jury contributes powerfully to form the judgment and to increase the natural intelligence of a people; and this, in my opinion, is its greatest advantage. It may be regarded as a gratuitous public school, ever open, in which every juror learns his rights, enters into daily communication with the most learned and enlightened members of the upper classes, and becomes practically acquainted with the laws, which are brought within the reach of his capacity by the efforts of the bar, the advice of the judge, and even by the passions of the parties.
Woe to the American people that the duty of the juror has, in turn, been made subservient to the legal system instead of a complement and check to it. My comments on jury nullification in "Blogging de Tocqueville, Part Two" should remind the reader of the amount of cultural and political damage that has been wrought.
Following his discussion of lawyers and jurors, de Tocqueville examines the preservation of democracy in the United States from a variety of other angles--geographic, social, and cultural. While he does admit that the North American continent is blessed with resources and an abundance of land that makes both wanderlust and the American οἶκος (oikos, self-sufficient household-farm) possible are vital to the upkeep of American democracy, he doesn't attribute the status of primae causae. After briefly touching on immigration and westward migration, he contrasts the American continent with the Hispanic states in South America, and concludes that culture, and not geography, must be the inherent cause of democratic tendencies within a society.

In other words, for de Tocqueville, the whole of a society must genuinely value and love the concept of democracy and be willing to sacrifice for it in order for a democratic regime to take shape and perpetuate.
"It is true that the Anglo-Americans settled in the New World in a state of social equality; the low-born and the noble were not to be found amongst them; and professional prejudices were always as unknown as the prejudices of birth. Thus, as the condition of the society was democratic, the rule of democracy was established without difficulty.

"...The manners and laws of the Americans are not the only ones which may suit a democratic people; but the Americans have shown that it would be wrong to despair of regulating democracy by the aid of manners and laws."
What de Tocqueville terms as "manners" here would now be referred to as culture and values. It is the values of a culture (and by extension the laws they enact) that determine whether or not a democratic government can be maintained by a society, and those are aspects of Hispanic society to which de Tocqueville attributed the failure of democracy to take hold in South America.

De Tocqueville closes Part One of Democracy in America by discussing the future prospects for Europe and America alike. He focuses far more attention on Europe, especially in light of the possibility for there to arise a set of brutal tyrannies now that popular support for monarchism has dwindled throughout much of the continent. His fears prove prescient, especially when one views the dismal decades of the early-to-mid twentieth century.
"If absolute power were re-established amongst the democratic nations of Europe, I am persuaded that it would assume a new form, and appear under features unknown to our fathers.

"... Since religion has lost its empire over the souls of men, the most prominent boundary which divided good from evil is overthrown; everything seems doubtful and indeterminate in the moral world; kings and nations are guided by chance, and none can say where are the natural limits of despotism and the bounds of license.

"...When kings find that the hearts of their subjects are turned towards them, they are clement. ... But once the spell of royalty is broken in the tumult of revolution... the sovereign is no longer regarded by any as the father of the state, and he is feared by all as its master. If he is weak, he is despised; if he is strong, he is detested. He is himself full of animosity and alarm; he finds that he is a stranger in his own country, and he treats his subjects like conquered enemies."
The restrictions of old are gone. All of the social safety-valves which limited and contained the excesses of tyranny have been removed by modernity, leaving society far more vulnerable to the abuse of absolute power in the hands of an individual. Modernity has also stripped the thrones of the earth of their sacrosanctness, ensuring that social control by any would-be Caesar requires domination of politics through force. The age of military dictatorships, of fascism in Europe, and the tumultuous wars of the early half of the twentieth century, would likely have not surprised de Tocqueville, though I have no doubt they would have grieved him.

De Tocqueville's final predictions of American development are quite prescient, though not prophetic, and are proof of what an analytical mind can do when projecting possible future events. De Tocqueville anticipated the westward expansion to the Pacific Ocean with a certainty borne on having witnessed the dynamism of American settlement firsthand. His analysis of American infiltration into Mexican territory through the settlement of Texas prompted him to predict an eventual conflict between Mexico and the United States.

What is a bit surprising, however, is his foresight into conflicts between the United States and Russia.
"Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly placed themselves in the front rank among the nations, and the world learned of their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.

"All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but these are still in the act of growth. All the others have stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these alone are proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which no limit can be perceived. The American struggles against the obstacles which nature opposes to him; the adversaries of the Russian are men. The former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its arms. The conquests of the American are therefore gained by the ploughshare; those of the Russian by the sword. The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people; the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm. The principle instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude. Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe."
There's not much one can really add to this quote. The origins of American power are exactly opposite those of Russian. The Russians emerged from beneath servitude and subjugation to challenge the more civilized nations of Europe. Their rusticity is comparable to that of the Americans, yet the nature of their struggles are exactly the opposite. The Americans have tamed the wilderness while the Russians have battled off European civilization in order to achieve their strength. This, indeed, goes beyond the United States vs. the Soviet Union, as many other readers of de Tocqueville have assessed. Indeed, anyone who understands modern Russian culture and society will readily realize that a great deal has not changed since de Tocqueville penned the above passage. Indeed, although due to economic disaster, American power is waning, Russia is perpetually crouched above Central Asian wealth.

De Tocqueville seems to believe very firmly in democracy, and his deep and incisive analysis of American democracy is not a blueprint for Europeans, nor is it a critique. Rather, it is an idea-mine. De Tocqueville's Part One is an examination of what makes American democracy work, and asks what the Europeans can learn from the Americans. De Tocqueville admits that there's a lot that cannot (and should not) be applied to the European democratic society, because though these elements might function well in the United States, they are not suitable for Continental culture. De Tocqueville insists that democracy is possible in Europe, and indeed preferable for its inhabitants, and looks to America for proof of the cultural and societal bounty that can be reaped from having an active and healthy democracy.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book Response -- THE GRAND CHESSBOARD by Zbigniew Brzezinski

Zbigniew Brzezinski came to the United States from Communist Poland and served on the Carter Administration as National Security Advisor. He's well-known for his dislike of Russia, but has done a great deal of work for the United States foreign relations and diplomacy.

I was turned on to his book, The Grand Chessboard by a series of quotes from the book on The Truth & Lies of 9/11. While I like a lot of what that video says, and am impressed by the amount of research Mike Ruppert has done to connect the dots between the banking oligarchy and the U.S. government, I must admit that Truth & Lies takes Brzezinksi's book 100% out-of-context and presents it as if it were a blueprint for world conquest.

In reality, it is nothing of the sort.

The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives by Zbigniew Brzezinski

The opening chapters had me convinced that this entire book was going to be about power-plays. Brzezinski lays out the Eurasian continent as the geopolitical axis of the world--the most important piece of real-estate on the planet. Central Asia is one of the pivotal zones of control in the Eurasian super-continent. It possesses a great deal of material wealth beneath its surface, and control and exploitation of that wealth will shape the economic and political future of the entire planet.
"Two basic steps are thus required: first, to identify the geostrategically dynamic Eurasian states that have the power to cause a potentially important shift in the international distribution of power and to decipher the central external goals of their respective political elites and the likely consequences of their seeking to attain them;... second, to formulate specific U.S. policies to offset, co-opt, and/or control the above...

"...To put it in a terminology that harkens back to the more brutal age of ancient empires, the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together." --pp.40
This reminded me of that pivotal scene in W where Dick Cheney outlines his plans for American Empire.

As I continued to read Chessboard, however, I began to realize that the "Cheney Doctrine" was actually not what Brzezinski is advocating. Indeed, the war in Iraq (although not necessarily Afghanistan) are actually antithetical to what Brzezinski sets forth in his book.

Brzezinski describes America as the first, last, and only global superpower in human history. This does not mean, as some have implied, that America is destined to rule the globe for all time. Rather, he believes that America's empire is destined to recede, but his geostrategic outline is designed to replace the American hegemony with a framework for global international cooperation between nations.

This became apparent in the third chapter of the book, where Brzezinski describes the "democratic bridgehead" of the European Union into Eurasia. When Brzezinski talks of American power and bases for it, he's not necessarily talking about military power, but also political power. The EU is a bridgehead into Eurasia for American power, but Brzezinski doesn't want us to treat it as a vassal state. He sees it as imperative for the US to promote solidity and a sense of integration between the European states. The presence of the European Union is vital to our interests because we need a partner that is our equal in world affairs. Thus, he advises the United States promote unity in between EU member states and adjust its policies in order to foster feelings of cooperation and partnership.

This is all well-and-good, but Brzezinski's book begins to really open up when he discusses Russia and Central Asia. Here, there is far too much to lose. America's policies can encourage Russia to abandon its imperial past of dominance in Central Asia, or it can alienate Russia from the West and cause it to seek a Central Asian hegemony again. This is the key point--Brzezinski does indeed fear Russian imperial aspirations, and he backs those fears up with a lot of information. He wants Russia to follow the other European states and gradually integrate itself into a larger community, while simultaneously breaking itself into a more loose federation that is more flexible in dealing with its neighbors.

This is because Central Asian states, where all the wealth is to be found, are not too fond of Russia, and any advances that Russia makes to try to regain hegemony over them only alienate them and drive them to states that they perceive as Russia's rivals. This, in effect, creates rivalries where otherwise there'd be none. In other words, because many former Soviet Republics are gravitating toward the United States and other powers for protection, this generates friction between those countries and Russia. What Brzezinski advocates is a promotion of pluralism in Central Asia.

Similarly, Brzezinski believes that we should encourage Japan and Korea to reconcile their differences, Japan to become a more international player (as opposed to a regional one), and to try to settle our differences with China and foster strong ties of friendship and cooperation. It is imperative that China not become a rival, but instead an ally.

These ideas are incredibly important, but Brzezinski fails in one enormous aspect--he does not outline exactly how the United States should pursue any of these goals. Indeed, some of them, such as encouraging a Japan-Korea reconciliation, seem outright absurd to me after living for two years in Korea and seeing the grassroots hatred and resentment toward Japan. In addition, Brzezinski completely dodges the issue of Israel's role in Middle Eastern instability, forming an enormous gap in his advice regarding reconciliation with countries such as Iran.

Brzezinski is heavily informed by theories of geopolitics that are at least a century old, but still highly applicable today, such as Halford J. Mackinder's regard of Central Asia as the geopolitical "Heartland" and "Pivot Point" in his 1904 paper to the Royal Geographical Society. Samuel P. Huntington's theories pop up from time-to-time, but Brzezinski seems much more influenced by Mackinder and Alfred Thayer Mahan.

The book outlines a number of goals that are designed to foster a better, more peaceful, stable, and integrated world. Brzezinski doesn't want the United States to play states off of one-another. He wants the United States to foster stability and peace.

Part of me fears that Brzezinski's ideas might be well beyond our means. Indeed, he tackles our own internal divisions and our lack of motivation as a people, and blames it on our infatuation with escapism and entertainment. And I am inclined to agree with him--the American people have no more desire to greatness. Brzezinski rightly draws parallels between the American empire's culture of decadence and that of Rome. He also notes that the American empire cannot last forever, and as other states grow in economic vitality, technological prowess, and military capacity, our sphere of hegemony will gradually diminish. Brzezinski urges that the United States make the best use of what time is left to try to leave a legacy of peacemaking by fostering stability and creating ties between nations that will foster a sense of global community and cooperation. Unfortunately, he leaves us in the dark in regard to the specifics of just how we are to accomplish these tasks.

The truth is, we cannot really accomplish any of the goals that Brzezinski sets out for us. His work is sublimely idealistic. The reality of American economic terrorism in South America, support of malevolent dictatorships that permitted American big business to exploit local populaces in an almost neocolonial fashion, and our recent wars to secure strategic dependencies in oil- and resource-rich parts of the world, we've squandered our good name.

But this is all surface. Is there anything to the criticisms that this book is, as Johannes Koeppl once called it, a "blueprint for dictatorship" in the United States and Europe?
“It is also a fact that America is too democratic at home to be autocratic abroad. This limits the use of America's power, especially its capacity for military intimidation. Never before has a populist democracy attained international supremacy. But the pursuit of power is not a goal that commands popular passion, except in conditions of a sudden threat or challenge to the public's sense of domestic well-being. The economic self-denial (that is, defense spending) and the human sacrifice (casualties, even among professional soldiers) required in the effort are uncongenial to democratic instincts. Democracy is inimical to imperial mobilization." --pp. 35
Well, the book doesn't appear critical of the United States' inability to sustain an empire. Brzezinski's detractors could compare this quote to the opening paragraph to the speech of the Athenian demagogue Cleon regarding the fate of Mytilene: "I have often before now been convinced that a democracy is incapable of empire... ." (Thucydides 3.37.1) Here Cleon harangues the Athenians for their weakness and sentimentality. In contrast, Brzezinski recognizes the limitations of democracy, and therefore seeks to establish a geopolitical outlook for American leadership with the hopes that world stability can be achieved without straining the American psyche in needless imperial adventurism.

But there is a very constant Machiavellian streak throughout the entire book that still can't help but chill the reader.
"Moreover, as America becomes an increasingly multi-cultural society, it may find it more difficult to fashion a consensus on foreign policy issues, except in the circumstance of a truly massive and widely perceived direct external threat." --pp. 211
Is this passage advice? Is Brzezinski actually advocating the creation of a monolithic enemy against whom to stir the American populace and fuel the desire and willingness to imperial war? If you aren't at least wondering about 9/11, then you either have a faith in the current state of American democracy that I find childlike, or an ignorance of realpolitik that I find childish.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

10 Desert Island Fantasy Novels

This has been going around (recently at places like Huge Ruined Pile and Monsters & Manuals). The idea is to pick 10 books, no more than one per author, and all must be fantasy. These are the ones you'd want to have with you if you were marooned on a desert island.

Gardens of the Moon. Steven Erikson
The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien (omnibus edition)
A Darkness at Sethanon. Raymond E. Feist
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. Robert E. Howard
The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. H.P. Lovecraft
The Dying Earth. Jack Vance
The Judging Eye. R. Scott Bakker
The Elric Saga, Part One. Michael Moorcock (omnibus edition)
The Great Book of Amber. Roger Zelazny (omnibus edition)
The Iliad. Homer (Lattimore's translation)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Book Review -- MISS LONELYHEARTS by Nathaniel West

I read West's Miss Lonelyhearts in a few hours. I started it on a Wednesday night, stopped after about 20 pages, and finished it at a Dunkin Donuts in Hwamyeong, Busan, around 11:00 am the following morning.

West's novel traces a few weeks (or perhaps months) in the life of an advice-columnist for a New York City newspaper during the late 1920s/early 1930s. He remains unnamed, but the narration dubs him "Miss Lonelyhearts" after his column title, a term his sarcastic employer, Mr. Shrike, uses as his nickname.

"Miss Lonelyhearts" is deeply disturbed by the desperation he finds in the letters he receives, and is fully aware that the advice he dispenses is empty, feel-good drivel. His boss, in a sick and twisted manner, advises Miss Lonelyhearts, almost mockingly, to turn to Christ, who is "the Miss Lonelyhearts of Miss Lonelyhearts."

"Miss Lonelyhearts'" sex-life is a complete mess, and I can't help but wonder if the entire "sheep sacrifice" scene (about 1/3 into the novel) can't be taken as a metaphor for his romantic exploits (more on this later). They are all disastrous. "Miss Lonelyhearts" is, essentially, what Style/Neil Strauss would call an AFC ("Average Frustrated Chump") in The Game. His own relationships with women are abusive. Many of them seem to leech off of him. However, the one that doesn't inexplicably disgusts him. He begs a married woman for sex, and cannot refuse a disgusting woman's advances. He is incapable of dispensing meaningful advice simply from the fact that he cannot even run his own life effectively. He is deeply misogynist, but his misogyny is something that one can perversely understand and relate to--it is an extension of his general misanthropy.

West describes the origins of this misanthropy:
"His friends would go on telling these stories until they were too drunk to talk. They were aware of their childishness, but did not know how else to revenge themselves. At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything. Money and fame meant nothing to them. They were not worldly men."
Disillusionment and disappointment. "Miss Lonelyhearts'" subscribers, and "Miss Lonelyhearts" himself, have all put themselves in their disastrous positions and cannot see beyond themselves. They are ultimately selfish and incapable of real love. Their religion was art and in the ennui that defined the "Lost Generation" after World War I, they discovered that art and beauty were hollow concepts because they themselves had become corrupt. Their own needs trump the needs of others, but their corruption is so potent that not even wealth and notoriety hold value anymore. Existence has become an existential nightmare of pointlessness.

It is only when "Miss Lonelyhearts" begins to actually give himself up to Christ near the novel's climax and make a conscious decision to see beyond himself and truly help others does he drag himself out of the noxious funk that his life had become. Nevertheless, it is not enough--and it is too late for him to really save himself, or anybody. In the end, it was all for nothing.

West's novel isn't very happy. One of the primary themes is that disillusionment and disappointment that so permeated the Depression. "Miss Lonelyhearts'" subscribers are plagued by horrific situations, sometimes unbearable situations, but there are no easy answers, only difficult decisions that must be made. The entire atmosphere of the book is grim and unhappy. Indeed, there's little cause for celebration in the novel. Everyone's life is miserable for some reason or another. "Miss Lonelyhearts'" subscribers all bear some sort of cross, likening themselves to Christ in some strange, grotesque manner.

Christ is omnipresent throughout the novel--almost to the point of being a very character in the tale. Quite early on, "Miss Lonelyhearts" remembers a botched attempt to sacrifice a blameless lamb--obviously a metaphor for Christ. In the end he puts it out of its misery in an act of mercy, but the instrument being a rock, the imagery is far more brutal than a simple sacrificial throat-slitting. (Notice also how the "stone" is also used by West as a metaphor for "Miss Lonelyhearts'" advice column--there's a definite connection there.) This particular scene is quite revealing and describes "Miss Lonelyhearts'" religious experience, by-and-large. His own actions and deeds are always confounded.

"Miss Lonelyhearts" views the people who struggle to be rich and beautiful, who seek success, much like he considers his column-readers--as dupes. This act of duping weighs heavily on his soul, as he sees himself doing little more than writing feel-good message that have the moral equivalence of advertisements that inspire people to empty materialism. "Miss Lonelyhearts" is betraying his very faith by uttering cheap falsehoods in the newspaper.

West's book is short but not sweet. It's written in a mildly erratic style, but that is because "Miss Lonelyhearts" immediately becomes an erratic person. The narrative is fast-paced, each chapter only a handful of pages long, tightly focused on one episode. Each episode focuses on "Miss Lonelyhearts" and his interaction with a particular person, place, or idea. However, you do not feel quite jerked from one place to the next. The language of the characters should shock you, as they are only barely in touch with reality beyond their own sick, twisted viewpoint.
"I am a great saint," Shrike cried, "I can walk on my own water. Haven't you ever heard of Shrike's Passion in the Luncheonette, or the Agony in the Soda Fountain? Then I compared the wounds in Christ's body to the mouths of a miraculous purse in which we deposit the small change of our sins. It is indeed an excellent conceit. But now let us consider the holes in our own bodies and into what these congenital wounds open. Under the skin of man is a wondrous jungle where veins like lush tropical growths hang along overripe organs and weed-like entrails writhe in squirming tangles of red and yellow. In this jungle, flitting from rock-gray lungs to golden intestines, from liver to lights and back to liver again, lives a bird called the soul. The Catholic hunts this bird with bread and wine, the Hebrew with a golden ruler, the Protestant on leaden feet with leaden words, the Buddhist with gestures, the Negro with blood. I spit on them all. Phooh! And I call upon you to spit. Phooh! Do you stuff birds? No, my dears, taxidermy is not religion. No! A thousand times no. Better, I say unto you, better a live bird in the jungle of the body than two stuffed birds on the library table."
The words of his characters reveal their psyche very accurately, but it is the narration that reveals the psyche of "Miss Lonelyhearts," who rarely speaks, and when he does, it seems that only fallacious advice and saccharine verbiage emerge. Our protagonist struggles with his own faith (and lack thereof). At heart, he is an idealist. Yet his inability to perceive his ideals challenge his faith and his security. The great irony of the novel is that he is an advice columnist!

"Miss Lonelyhearts" is, in a way, the living embodiment of the struggle the faithful must experience when confronted with the Problem of Evil.

This isn't a happy tale with a happy ending, but the ending is the one that fits. It is very reflective of West's worldview. I haven't read A Cool Million, but I understand that it is a cynical lampoon of the "rags-to-riches" tale that was common in late 19th century industrial America. West seems to be of the opinion that life is generally unhappy, futile, and, perhaps blessedly, short. He also seems to be pretty clear in the idea that people are primarily the cause of their own unhappiness--they got themselves into their situations through folly, doing what "seemed like a good idea a the time." Self-sacrifice is taken advantage of, not rewarded, it seems. Miss Lonelyhearts carries many of the same themes of 1930s hard-boiled noir, although it is most certainly not written in the same style or deal with the same narrative issues. It is raises a definite question regarding the likes of all these advice columnists--"what good are they, really?" And maybe, just maybe, it also suggests that the solution to our problems might just be a bullet to the brain.

Not for the timid or the faint-of-heart.

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West
Overall A-