Recently in conversation with one of my players I was led to ponder whether or not SpaceX is revolutionizing space travel, and whether it has driven costs down to new record levels. My initial response was skeptical, but upon reflection I thought there should be data on this, and it should be possible to make some judgements about whether SpaceX is really doing what people claim. This post is an attempt to understand whether SpaceX rockets, in particular the Falcon 9, really are as cheap as people say, whether SpaceX has revolutionized space travel, and what we can expect in the future from this country or from rocketry in general. The key objectives are to:

  • Determine the truth of the claims about the cost of SpaceX rockets
  • Compare these claims with historical trends in rocket prices
  • Examine the role of reusable rockets in these trends

I hope by the end of this post to penetrate some of the hype around this company’s work, and understand a little more about the economics of space travel generally. A warning: this post is likely to be long, involves lots of dry figures, and is predicated on the assumption that Musk is a dishonest businessman.

Why do this?

First of all, why do this at all? Partly because it’s a rainy public holiday here and I have nothing better to do, but mostly because I think Elon Musk is an utter and complete fraud, who lies about all his companies’ activity, over-hypes his products, delivers dangerous, over-priced or poor quality goods, and wrecks the companies he runs. This is obvious for Tesla, Solar City and (now) Twitter, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the same would be true of SpaceX. But unlike Tesla and Twitter, SpaceX does seem to be delivering an actual usable product to high performance standards, so maybe its achievements buck the general Musk trend towards hyperbole and failure? However, on the flip side, Musk has spent a lot of time hyping his plans to go to Mars with SpaceX and everything about that project is obvious vapourware, hype and bullshit. The Youtube Common Sense Skeptic channel goes through this in great detail, showing how every aspect of everything Musk says about his Mars plans is completely and insanely untrue. So why should we assume the rest of his SpaceX plans are anything different? Remember, the first rule about liars is that if you know someone has lied repeatedly and consistently in the past, you should not trust anything they tell you now.

So actually I think it is possible SpaceX is burning money hand over fist, lying about the price of its launches and losing money on them. It’s a “disruptive start up” and it’s not uncommon for this kind of business to over-hype its product while burning through huge amounts of venture capital money. They do this either because they’re built on a completely unrealistic business model and refuse to admit it (Uber, Wework, and Theranos are examples of this); or they hope to smash regulatory hurdles to reduce costs and become profitable (AirBNB, Uber, Lyft); they’re straight-out fraud and hoping to burn through the money and no-one will notice (Theranos); they’re hoping to drive down the price so far that their competitors go bust and then they can ramp up prices before the venture capital runs out (Uber); they’re a business idea that depends on hype and people not noticing how awful the actual product is (AirBNB); or they’re hoping for a breakthrough that will suddenly render their business model profitable, or is the secret reason they’re doing it all (Uber’s self-driving taxi idea). It’s possible that this is what SpaceX is doing – keeping prices low and burning through venture capital in hopes of pushing out its opposition so that it can start charging monopoly rates, and/or hoping for a breakthrough in tech that will lower prices so much it can actually compete.

The history of rocket prices

Launching stuff into space doesn’t come cheap, and getting stuff up there is a big technological challenge. Humans have been launching rockets into space since 1957, and the general trend has been to see lower costs over time, with a noticeable hiccup in costs during the Space Shuttle era when the price of re-using the vehicle itself considerably inflated costs. Figure 1 shows the long-term pattern of prices for major rockets, and is divided into approximately four stages of development, characterised as Vanguard (when the first rockets were developed), Saturn V (when non-reusable rocket technology matured), Shuttle (when prices rose for the use of this orbital vehicle) and Falcon, when SpaceX started dropping prices. I took Figure 1 from a paper by Harry Jones, entitled The Recent Large Reduction in Space Launch Cost. I will recreate figure 1 with some changes later in this post.

Figure 1: Historical trend in rocket launch prices

Rocket launch prices are typically given in dollars per kg; figure 1 shows them in current 2018 prices (so early prices have been adjusted for inflation) but not, as far as I know, in purchase-power-parity prices (a few of the data points in the picture are from non-US sources; we’ll come back to that). Most rockets last for long periods of time, and the prices given in the figure are for the first launch date, not for example the last date, or tracking price over time. A good rule of thumb for a rocket launch is to assume it might cost about $10,000 per kg, and a typical rocket will launch 4000 – 20000 kg into space at a cost of between 50-200 million dollars. It’s not cheap to get shit up there!

But note the extremely low price of Falcon 9: it is listed as $2,700 per kg in Figure 1, which is enormously cheaper than the nearest competitor. Figure 2, which I took from a reddit post, shows different prices alongside the price of other rocket companies currently in operation – there are now a lot of startups in the commercial space industry, since Obama deregulated it in 2010, and these have been pushing their own prices down. In Figure 2 you can see a different set of figures for Falcon 9, with the reusable having a price of $4,133 per kg, and Falcon 9 divided into two kinds of launch (reusable and expendable). Figure 2 puts Falcon 9 prices to low earth orbit in a similar range to the Russian Proton M, or the US Vulcan rocket.

Figure 2: Launch prices for various rockets from a Reddit SpaceX forum

But as I will show, the prices listed in these figures are dishonest, and we will discuss the true price of launching Falcon 9. We will also analyze the data from Figure 1 in a little more detail, and see what we can learn from it.

Claims about SpaceX

The common claims made about how SpaceX has “revolutionized” space travel are available at booster sites like Space.com, which lists 8 mostly bullshit ways in which SpaceX has completely transformed space travel. For an example of bullshit consider their claim that it has made the uniforms fashionable … also note the uncritical reference to “German-American” rocket pioneer Werner von Braun (spoiler: he was a Nazi). In amongst the various nonsense we can find two main claims:

  1. SpaceX has reduced the cost of space travel, typically people giving unsourced claims that it has driven prices down, or using phrases that Musk himself constantly uses but clearly doesn’t understand like “by an order of magnitude”.
  2. SpaceX has developed completely new technology like reusable rockets which have both helped to push down the price of star travel and opened up new fields

Neither of these claims, as we will see, has any basis in reality. Incidentally, during this search for claims about SpaceX, I learnt that Musk claims to have spent 350 million dollars developing Falcon 9 and 750 million developing Falcon Heavy. I will use these numbers even though I don’t believe anything Musk says.

Methods

For this post I have performed three main analyses:

  • Analysis of SpaceX funding sources and costs
  • Analysis of SpaceX launch activity and prices
  • Analysis of the history of rocket launch prices

Here I briefly describe the methods I used for each of these analyses.

SpaceX Funding and costs

SpaceX obtains funding from launching rockets, Starlink subscriptions, government contracts, and venture capital. For launch prices I used the stated prices on the SpaceX website and associated forums, generally given at 62 million for a new Falcon 9 rocket and 50 million for a recycled one. Data on Starlink subscriptions I obtained from a website called nextbigfuture, for what that’s worth. I obtained contract information from a search on the govconwire.com website, which lists contracts and funding. Venture capital information I obtained from crunchbase.com. I put this data in mostly for 2017 onward (government contracts), 2010 onward (launches), 2016 onward (Starlink) and 2002 onward (venture capital). Note that some contract data is for “potential” contracts, which may vary in detail on delivery, but I wasn’t able to work out exactly how and when the money was delivered. For some obvious future contracts I did not include them as a funding source, but my numbers on government contracts are definitely shaky because of this.

For costs I used information on the total number of Starlink satellites launched from Wikipedia, cost of a satellite from nextbigfuture, and vague reports on Falcon 9 launch costs sourced around the web – about 50 million dollars for a launch of a new rocket, and 15 million for a reused rocket (these figures are attributed to Musk in interviews but seem dodgy to me). I used google to get the total number of current employees and their average salary (11,000 or so, at an average salary of $90,000) and assumed on-costs of 30%.

Note that SpaceX is not a public company and it is difficult to identify exactly how much money it has or is using. I do not know if it pays dividends on the shares it sold, what its rental or real estate costs are, how much money it is burning in fines and compensation, and any interest repayments on loans. This is only a blog post, after all!

SpaceX launch activity and prices

I obtained Falcon 9 launch data from Kaggle, though I think it’s just a scrape from the Wikipedia website. This data contains the date of the launch, the booster used, the client, the payload and its weight, whether the booster was new or used, and the result of both the launch itself and the attempt to recycle the booster. A small number of launches were classified launches for US government defense contractors, with no information on the weight or type of payload.

I also visited the SpaceX website and put in data on small payloads for their Rideshare plan, which confirmed that for all payload weights up to 800kg SpaceX charges $6000/kg, much higher than the sticker price and generally consistent with the prices in Figure 2 for other mature competitors. Not quite revolutionary is it …

Once I downloaded this data and did some unpleasant work importing it to Stata I produced some basic summaries of the data, such as mean payload weights, maximum weights, proportion of flights that were government contracts, etc. I also calculated a price/kg for each flight based on the sticker price of 62 million for a new rocket or 50 million for a recycled one, and also attempted to identify rockets that were new on launch and were not recycled (these would be “expendable” rockets).

Analysis of the history of rocket prices

I imported data from the Jones paper (it is provided in the Appendix) and added some additional information: I categorized rockets as communist or non-communist, and added some additional data for Falcon 9 launches based on the analysis of launch prices to give some more reasonable numbers for these launch prices. I deleted Falcon Heavy (which I don’t have launch data on and which seems largely to be vapourware at the moment) and made a fake data point for Communist launches in 2018 (these are still happening – China has a whole communist space station now!).

I then fitted a regression model of natural log of launch price per kg by year, with a term for communist/non-communist, generated the predicted values of price per kg from this model, and plotted curves for communist and non-communist launches. I plotted these against the observed price data and added Falcon 9 data separately. I ran the models and plotted for launches after 1961, because the first 4 years of the rocket program were, obviously, slightly special.

This gives a reproduction of Figure 1 with a little more detailed statistical analysis, with very different implications.

Results

The first thing I want to say before we get into details is that the sticker price everyone reports for Falcon 9, of $2700 / kg to launch into low earth orbit, is a lie, or at least very dishonest. This is taken from the SpaceX website description of Falcon 9, which states that it has a payload of 22,800 kg, and the common price of 62 million dollars for a launch of a new rocket. This is dishonest because it gives the payload for a fully expendable Falcon 9 rocket, but this rocket does not exist. No Falcon 9 is intended to be fully expendable, and if such a rocket existed it would need a separate production line to the current Falcon 9s in use. Reusable rockets need to be more robust and stronger than expendable ones, which means they have a different frame and fairings. This discussion of reusability makes clear that up to 40% of the payload can be lost in a reusable rocket due to the need to have a stronger structure and to keep some fuel for re-entry. You can’t just build a reusable rocket and use it as if it were expendable! This is backed up by the data – in 165 flights on which I have data, no flight ever flew at full payload, but there are multiple flights at a maximum value of 16,250 kg. The true maximum payload of the Falcon 9 rocket is 16,250 kg, not 22,800kg, and it will never fly at this value. In case you doubt me, note that all the max payload flights were Starlink deliveries, and it is just inconceivable that SpaceX would never use the full payload of their rockets to deliver their own satellites to orbit. The hard limit on a Falcon 9 rocket is 16,250kg, and the website is lying.

As we will see, this sticker price is also dishonest because in reality the rockets only ever fly fully laden when they are delivering Starlink satellites, and often the price paid by commercial buyers is much higher than 62 million. We will explore this below.

SpaceX funding and costs

SpaceX has been burning through money at a staggering rate. Here are my estimates of its income streams:

  • Approximately $7.5 billion in venture capital since 2017
  • Approximately $15 billion in government contracts since 2016
  • Approximately $3 billion in commerical launch fees since 2016
  • Approximately $3.75 billion in Starlink subscriptions since 2016

This amounts to about $4.8 billion in income per year. Its annual costs over the same period appear to be about $3.7 billion if we assume a recycled rocket costs 15 million to launch, a new rocket 50 million, and a starlink satellite costs $250,000 to build.

From this we should assume that SpaceX is making $1 billion per year in profit, if it has no dividend payment, interest or other expenses. Obviously this isn’t true (someone probably has to buy some stationery!) and maybe its other operating costs overrun this spare billion. But I think the story is likely dire. Why is SpaceX raising venture capital worth a billion a year if it is also getting enormous amounts of money in government contracts? I would suggest it is because it is losing money hand over fist on launches, which actually cost a half billion more than Musk is letting on, and/or rocket development (particularly Falcon Heavy and the Starship project) are costing an enormous amount more than he has let on.

Let’s also note that more than half of SpaceX’s revenue is government contracts. Without those government contracts, it would be dead in the water. Note that some of these contracts cover specific launch tasks, and almost always pay much more per launch than the SpaceX sticker price. For example, the Heliosphere contract pays 109 million to launch a satellite for NASA in 2024, while the cargo resupply mission to the ISS covers 32 flights for $14 billion (about $400 million per flight). Nobody in NASA seems to believe that the cost of a single mission is a mere $50 million!

SpaceX launch costs

The data on SpaceX launches covers Falcon 9 launches from 2002 to mid-2022, for a total of 165 launches. Of these 45 (26.5%) are aerospace/military contracts, and 52 (30.6%) are SpaceX flights, mostly delivering starlink satellites to low earth orbit (LEO) were they can vandalize the night sky in service of a poor-quality internet supply. Most of the flights (80.6%) used recycled boosters, and only in 12 flights (7.1%) was a new rocket used with no attempt to recover the booster – these 12 flights are the only ones that potentially used an “expendable” rocket. Of these 12 flights, seven were to GTO, which has a sticker payload of 8,300 kg. The maximum payload in those 7 flights was only 5600 kg, well below the sticker payload.

In fact most flights of the Falcon 9 have been far below its maximum payload. Figure 3 shows the mean, median, minimum and maximum payload by orbital destination for the 153 launches on which this data is available. No GTO flight has reached the sticker payload of 8300 kg, and the largest payload for LEO is 16250kg (all these flights were starlink deliveries, when the incentive and opportunity to use the maximum payload was greatest). Note the LEO(ISS) weights – these are deliveries to the International Space Station. Under the contract linked above, these flights are being paid for at somewhere between 100 and 400 million dollars per flight, giving a ludicrously high cost of – on average – between $20,000 and $85,000 per kg. This is potentially more expensive than the space shuttle, depending on the content and nature of the contract.

Figure 3: Mean, median, minimum and maximum payload weights by orbital destination, Falcon 9 flights to mid-2022

Figure 4 converts the values in Figure 3 to price/kg, assuming a price of $62 million for a new rocket or $50 million for a reusable rocket and ignoring higher prices for NASA or NRO contracts. These are to the best of my ability to tell the minimum price charged by SpaceX – in reality it is probably charging a lot more. For example on 30th June 2021 a Falcon 9 was launched that carried 88 rideshare payloads – this probably cost $6000/kg, judging from the website, and so the whole flight could have cost as much as $98 million. Even then, this figure is low compared to some of the low earth orbit launches, which could have cost as much as $360,000 per kg.

Figure 4: Mean, median, minimum and maximum price per kg, in thousands of dollars, for Falcon 9 launches to 2022

Figure 4 makes very clear that the sticker or theoretical price of rocket launches has almost no relationship to the actual costs, which can be much larger depending on the type of cargo shipped and the nature of the orbit it is sent to. This should be borne in mind in the next section.

Analysis of the history of launch prices

Figure 5 shows the price/kg of rocket launches from 1962 to 2018, with launches coloured blue for non-communist and red for communist states. Corresponding lines of best fit from the regression model are shown in the same colour, and some indicative Falcon 9 launch prices are plotted at the end in green. For indicative Falcon 9 prices I chose a) the median LEO price of $3210/kg; b) the optimum true LEO price of $3030/kg; c) a likely ISS supply price of $7,880/kg based on a $134 million contract; and d) the dishonest website price everyone quotes of $2,700/kg. We could also include $6000/kg, which is cited on the website for rideshares, but I forgot to, and can’t be bothered making this figure again.

Figure 5: Historical launch prices and modeled trends for communist and non-communist states, 1962 – 2018

As can be seen, the Falcon 9 optimum and some of its median launch costs are on the curve for communist systems, while the optimum ISS launch contract price lies just above the historical trend for US rockets. In fact, the predicted price for 2022 for the US system would be about $6000/kg, which is exactly the rideshare price that SpaceX cites on their website.

So in fact, far from revolutionizing the cost of launching rockets, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is exactly consistent with the long-term historical decline in prices observed for launches from the US or its allies (mostly Japan). SpaceX have done nothing to advance the price of launches except to be there, commercializing a mature technology.

Conclusion

The final conclusion of all of this is that SpaceX are lying about the price to launch stuff into space on their rockets, and the media are uncritically repeating their fabricated price without checking its validity, comparing it with other prices available on the SpaceX website, comparing it with the prices that would be implied by SpaceX’s government contracts, or looking at the evidence from actual SpaceX flight data. The true price of launching stuff into space on a SpaceX rocket is likely more like $6,000/kg, more than twice the number they are citing.

Furthermore, this price is not a revolutionary drop in the cost of launching, and is in fact entirely consistent with the historical trend in US rocket launch prices. The best prices Falcon X manages to achieve are also not unusual, being simply normal prices for a Chinese or Russian rocket. The claim that SpaceX is doing anything special to drive down rocket prices is just more Muskrat hype, with no basis in reality at all.

It is also clear that reusability has not driven down the price of launches. Reusability incurs a payload penalty, since the rocket needs to be stronger and some fuel needs to be reserved for re-entry. Reusability is also not a radical new idea: the space shuttle’s booster rockets were reusable, and SpaceX’s sole advance on this 1980s technology has been to land them on a barge rather than beside one. This likely speeds up the time to return them to use, and slightly reduces the penalty incurred for robustness (since the rockets don’t need to resist the crash into the water) but it also significantly increases the amount of reserve fuel needed for re-entry. In fact United Launch Alliance (ULA), a SpaceX competitor, analysed reusability and found that it does not necessarily deliver much cost benefit for these reasons. There are formulae for the calculation of how many re-uses are needed for a recyclable rocket to be cheaper than an expendable one, available at the documents linked in this discussion board, and they suggest that in general it only reduces costs in the long-run by about 5%. So no, SpaceX has not revolutionized anything in this regard either.

So in conclusion, SpaceX is not revolutionizing space travel, it has not driven prices down at all relative to the long-term trend, launches with SpaceX cost considerably more than their PR suggests, and SpaceX is essentially a low-quality internet service provider with a side-hustle in military contracting, being heavily propped up by murky venture capital. Elon Musk is not, and never will be, anything except a scammer, and in future decades people will look back on how he was viewed in this period with confusion, scorn and disbelief.

The Wrathbreakers have been in Alpon, researching the history of humans and deepfolk and learning where to find the Spider God they made plans to kill when they first began adventuring together. With the help of Kyansei’s girlfriend Wei, Itzel brewed a poison that would weaken powerful fey creatures to make the battle easier. Bao Tap sought out the spider-slaves the Wrathbreakers had saved from a spider’s nest the previous year, and they eagerly agreed to join him in the battle against the Spider God. Xu made contact with the leader of a mercenary band called the Wild Meercats, and hired a small group of them to join the party as cannon-fodder. Once this was done they set off.

The Spider God was rumoured to have a nest inland from the remotest stretch of the bay north east of Alpon. It would take more than two weeks to travel there on foot, but only a few days to circle around the headland in the Wages of Sin and set down in the small inlet near the lair itself. From there they could hike inland for a day, and begin the slaughter. They took some time to load the ship and set off on the 9th of Harvest, ready to kill.

They made landfall at the inlet on the 12th of Harvest and early the next day set off inland, climbing first over a wasteland of dead and dying grasses and then walking into a sinister, shadowy mire of swamp and dying trees. They slogged through this all day, crawling through stinking dead mud, cold, clammy marshland and stalking through mist-wreathed stands of denuded trees until they reached a zone of death and fey magic. Here the trees were wrapped in spindles of web, the ground was covered in rotting leaves, and no bird sang. They were near.

They knew there would be many spiders in the region, and they wanted as few of them as possible to be interfering in the final battle, so they sent the team of Wild Meercats in a different direction, to approach from the flank. As they expected, some time after the Meercats had moved away from them they began to make noise, drawing attention to themselves. While the Meercats fought bitterly against the spiders and died one by one, the Wrathbreakers crept forward, ready to ambush the spider god.

They emerged from the mist and films of spider webs into a scene of rot and death. Before them lay the blasted, dead shore of a lake of stagnant, filthy water. Just a small distance into the stinking lake was a lone island, nothing more than a hummock emerging from the slime on which an ancient, lichen-crusted statue of some kind sunk beneath the weight of slime and dead leaves, menacing despite its crumbling, eroded anonymity. There amongst the dead trees surrounding the statue stood the Redcap King, as different from the Redcap they had previously killed as a lord is from a guttersweep. It was huge, wrapped in shadows, with fiery red eyes and a helm made of scarlet chitin that glowed in the gloom of the mist-shrouded clearing. It carried a halberd made of the fangs of giant spiders, dripping venom and menace. But it did not attack; instead it waved one mailed fist, the air around the Wrathbreakers shimmered, and spiders appeared from nowhere, teleporting around them to attack.

They fought them brutally, stabbing and hacking and pouring fire on them as the beasts teleported and blinked around them. As Xu and Bao Tap cut and hacked at the beasts Ella tried to hide and shoot at the Redcap itself, hoping to kill it before it could engage, but doing little damage. The Redcap was almost impossible to hide from, and was ready for her when she fired.

Soon enough the phase spiders were defeated, but now a wave of new spider beasts fell on them. Spiders the size of small dogs floated down from the cloud-shadowed sky on parachutes of silk, while waves of spiders the size of rats swarmed on them from the ground and larger, hound-sized spiders ran from the shadows of the denuded trees to spit acid at them. From behind this swarm shambled malnourished, envenomed human slaves, still shedding parasitic baby spiders that had been feeding inside their skin as the helpless enslaved humans rushed into battle. Only their eyes betrayed their lost humanity, showing first fear and then relief as they fell onto the Wrathbreakers’ weapons and were finally released from their misery.

Finally it was done, and the Wrathbreakers stood victorious on a shoreline covered in broken chitin, ichor and steaming pools of acid. Across from them on the small island the Redcap King screamed in rage – and the ancient statue began to move. With a cracking, creaking tremor the thing they had thought was an ancient icon of some time stirred from its slumber, extended its legs, and rose to tower above the Redcap King – the Spider God itself, a horrific arachnid monstrosity the size of a house, its legs splayed across the entire width of the island, huge fangs dripping venom beneath a battery of massive, inky black eyes, a thorax twitching with hairs the length and thickness of javelins.

It began the battle with those hairs, flinging a barrage of them at Itzel and Bao Tap where they stood on the shore. Itzel called forth her brick of missile warding, which projected a field of magical force that rendered those behind it completely immune to missile fire. It stopped the hail of javelin-sized hairs, but they destroyed it and the magical backlash injured both Itzel and Bao Tap. The Redcap King fired a bolt of fey energy across the clearing and Xu charged to engage it, as Ella fired her crossbow, tipped with Wei’s poison, at the Spider God.

The battle was ferocious. The Spider God summoned giant spiders to aid it, beasts the size of horses that scuttled out from the forest to attack Bao Tap but were engaged by the spider-slaves who had come with the Wrathbreakers. The Spider God captured Xu in a flung web and dragged him toward it to consume, but Bao Tap freed him and charged in to fight the Redcap King, which struck out viciously with its halberd. The Spider God fired salvoes of its javelin-sized hairs at Ella, knocking her unconscious, while Itzel tried to destroy it with acid, fire and light. Finally the Redcap King, injured, teleported from the island to a nearby stretch of web, where it conjured a strange white spider that began healing it. Itzel caught both of them in a vicious blast of fire that consumed them with such intensity that it almost destroyed the Redcap King’s magic items completely. The Spider God continued fighting, doing massive damage on Xu, who could not be healed because soon after Calim healed Ella from her near-fatal wound he miscast a spell and lost his powers. Finally, though, the damage piled up, the beast was weakened, and Ella shot it through one eye and straight into its brain, killing it. With a scream of rage and a final lash of fey energy the beast fell into the mud at the edge of the pond, vanquished.

They had killed a god.

They did not have much time to enjoy their victory, though. They paused briefly to rest, recover their breath, and drink healing potions, and were just beginning to relax when a group of four Orcs emerged from the shadows on the edge of the clearing. They were huge, heavily-muscled, scarred, their pale skin glimmering with threat in the half light, falchions drawn and ready. With them stood a thin, bald human man. Itzel took one look at them and fled in terror, her discipline finally broken.

“Tell us where the artifacts are,” the thin man hissed at them, “And you will have the relief of a fast death.”

They looked to one another, sighed, and prepared for another battle. Even god-slayers can win no rest in these darkling days …

The Wrathbreakers have explored a deserted deepfolk Observatory, and learnt disturbing things about the time when humans first emerged in the Archipelago from the diary of a deepfolk astronomer who died on the island. Now they must continue in their mission, first to Alpon and then to kill a spider god. They explored the remainder of the island a little, identified the collapsed tunnel leading from the observatory into the deepfolk caverns, and then set off for Alpon.

The city of scholars

Alpon is a city built in two stages around a pair of small rises. The first stage, called Dwarfhelm, was built 500 – 800 years ago when Alpon first formed, with much help from dwarves. It consists of wide, paved roads with sturdy apartment buildings set around inner courtyards, 3-4 stories high, made of bluestone and with wide, clear windows. The central two rises are topped by a fortress (called Dwarfhold) and Parliament House, which is actually built into the hill called Parliament Hill. Between these two rises is a small lake called Firstwell, which is fed by a stream from the south west that flows through Alpon to the river to its north, and also by an underground stream in the hill of Dwarfhold.

Dwarfhelm is surrounded by a low stone wall, suitable for defense, with four main gates leading out to the outer stage, called Newstead, which is a chaotic sprawl of wooden tenements, bluestone warehouses, parks and squares that forms the outer living quarters of most of the population.

Alpon is famous for its many large libraries and multiple small Academies, each connected to a library. It holds many historical texts dating back to the earliest times after the Harrowing, and scholars and scientists from all across the Archipelago come here in search of ancient secrets, genealogies and historical notes. The Wrathbreakers arrived in the City of Scholars after five days sailing along the eastern coast of Ariaka, and took a suite of rooms in a tavern near the scholarly section of Dwarfhelm called Stormsholm. Here they rested, arranged for an agent to introduce them to necessary libraries and academies, and prepared to explore the town. They were here on three separate purposes, which they hoped to explore over the following days:

  1. To investigate the ancient history of the Harrowing, in order to learn more about the connection between the ancient deepfolk, the Seven Children of Rage, the mysterious artifacts and why deepfolk and humans were at war
  2. Any information about the history of the deepfolk, that could help them to understand the secrets they were slowly trying to unravel, or any links to the deep cult
  3. The whereabouts of the Spider God, which they aimed to kill for no particularly good reason except that it was there, and horrid

The day after they arrived their agent took them to a library called the Academy Of Dust, a kind of college and reliquarium devoted to ancient history and archaeology. Here they learnt of a collection of works called the Dwarven Codex, a large collection of books and scrolls that had been gathered by the dwarves during the construction of Alpon. At that time there were many humans who still remembered clearly the days of wandering during the Harrowing, or who had heard stories from parents and grandparents of those days. Dwarven scholars, still learning to understand their newfound human charges, had attempted to record some of these oral histories in a long and detailed set of documents that came to be known as the Dwarven Codex. Unfortunately a deepfolk raid on Alpon in the early years of settlement had razed much of the town and the dwarven scholars had fled, taking much of the Codex with them. The ship carrying the Codex back to the Isles of Tesseran had been hit by a terrible storm and sank, taking some of the Codex with it and damaging other parts. The dwarves had attempted to reconstruct some parts from memory and the damaged text, but much of it had been lost, and only those parts that had been left behind in Alpon, and a few fragments later returned there by a rebellious dwarven scholar, remained of the collection. Nonetheless, it was one of the few documents that memorialized that time, and so the Wrathbreakers sought to meet the scholar who led this Academy of Dust, a man named Siu, and gain access to the documents.

An old friend

As they were moving around town they noticed they were being followed by someone, and set a trap for their pursuer. Ella, of course, was the one who sprung the trap, and she almost killed a scruffy boy who screamed in shock and scrabbled desperately to get away from her iron grip. The boy told them he had been sent by a “giant woman” to determine if they were truly “her old friends” and to confirm they weren’t “up to mischief”, and they realized he must have been hired to check on them by their old comrade Kyansei. Kyansei, the giant barbarian Wildling woman, had left them from Estona and traveled to Alpon to do research on the blight affecting her Wildling lands, and so of course they guessed she must still be here. Perhaps she had even learnt to read! So, they sent the boy back to Kyansei and organized a meeting.

The meeting took place at Alpon’s only Wildling restaurant, a collection of open tent pavilions in a park on the northern side of Dwarfhelm. They arrived as the sun set and were met by Kyansei herself, big and sleek but dressed for once in civilized, non-combatant clothes, accompanied by a small, thin and busty Ariakan girl wearing figure-hugging black clothes and spectacles. Kyansei greeted them all warmly with hugs and lifting-up and back-slapping and laughter, and then introduced them to “my girlfriend Wei” with a ribaldrous arse slap of the small girl. They greeted her in a more appropriate fashion and retired to the Wildling restaurant, which Wei excused herself from with vague excuses of an urgent task, and set about a repast of stone-grilled lamb, roasted bugs, horse’s blood and bear sashimi.

Over dinner Kyansei told them of the success of her research mission here. She had begun her research months ago and had proceeded through three different scholars:

  • Luo, who studied her reports of the blight affecting her land and concluded it was not natural; recommended an expert on dark magic
  • Jin, an expert on the history of dark magic, who said it did seem like it might be deep magic but was confused because the wildlands are not said to have deepfolk
  • Jing, an expert on ancient history, who contacted Kyansei on Jin’s recommendation and began studying records of first contact between humans and wildlings, and believes that there is evidence of an ancient and abandoned deepfolk complex in the area, based on some very dubious ancient poems

Kyansei told them that Wei had also helped her; Wei was a scholar “into books and all that”. When they asked her more about Wei’s interests, Kyansei was classically unforthcoming. She told them Wei studied something “about game theory and mathematics and the ancient history of Gon” in order to “find out how Gon ended up in such a mess”, but could not tell them more. She explained to them “She doesn’t talk much, her mouth is mostly full when she’s around me” and shared a few other ribaldries. When they told her they were investigating the location of the Spider god she offered them Wei’s help because “She’s really good at finding precious things in thick bush”. So, in the interest of everyone’s digestion they agreed to the offer of Wei’s help and moved on to other topics.

They told Kyansei a little of their mission but not all. They did not tell her about the deep cult of humans working with deepfolk, or their findings on the Observatory Isle, but did tell her that they were seeking seven artifacts that seemed of value to the deepfolk, and that they already had several. Kyansei told them that she was preparing a mission to her homeland to attack the ancient deepfolk caverns there, leaving in about two weeks, and suggested they join her – if they were busy killing a spider god they could catch up with her at Rokun, where she planned to stop (possibly for the whole winter).

The wrathbreakers, thinking that her finding of deepfolk caverns under blighted land hinted strongly at one of the lost 7 artifacts, said they might join her. They all got very drunk, and headed home.

Research

The next day they visited the Academy of Dust, and Siu gave them access to the archives. They secured help from Jing, the scholar who had helped Kyansei, and Kyansei’s shy girlfriend Wei, and began their research. After 10 days their research was complete and they emerged from the academy with the knowledge they needed: the location of the Spider God, and with Wei’s help a recipe for a substance that would be poison to its fey constitution. They also had learnt some of the secrets of human history, which they would organize and compare when their most pressing task was done: It was time to kill a god.

Day 11, 7128

Weather: Fine
Mood: Consternation

Today we made some progress replacing the beans that were uprooted by our night visitor, which Eldun maintains is a racoon of some kind. We harvested what beans the visitor had left untouched and the servants suggested using the fishing nets to set a barrier around the plants, but I refused. Our quarterly supply train is now a week overdue, and we may yet need the nets before the next train arrives.

Day 13, 7128

Weather: Cloudy
Mood: Excitement

Our junior astronomer Katya reports that she has found a new constellation! With today’s cloud cover she cannot show us her findings, but everyone is very intrigued. If it is a new constellation, our reputation in the home caverns will grow enormously! But if it is not Katya will need to be warned about another display of typical over-exuberance. Of course it is months of work to confirm such a finding, including exhaustive research through the celestial records to confirm it is not simply a rare sighting of an existing phenomenon. Katya insists it is too bright to be an overlooked existing system, but we will see when the work is done.

Day 31, 7128

Weather: Cloudy
Mood: Anticipation

With a week of clear skies behind us I can report wtih some fragile confidence that Katya’s discovery appears to be correct, and it certainly looks like a new constellation has appeared in the sky. We cannot say for sure, because we must check old records, but it burns so bright in the sky that it is very difficult to believe that such a brilliant set of stars could have been there before and not been noticed. Either a very strange atmospheric phenomenon is at play, or something new has appeared in the sky. We have all been very busy with this work, preparing experiments during clear days and scouring the old records during cloudy days, and today is the first day of rest we have taken since Katya’s announcement. I confess that in this sudden burst of research activity I completely missed the dwindling of our supplies, and had to be reminded that our quarterly supply train is now 27 days overdue. I have not had time to check records, but I belive this is not so unusual. Nonetheless, I should make contact with the home caverns if it does not arrive soon.

Day 33, 7128

Weather: Storm
Mood: Consternation

A strange day! A storm gathers over the ocean and threatens to cover our island for some days, forcing us to close the observatory covers and retire to our rooms for the next few days. We will no doubt have to then waste days of research time recalibrating the telescope, since closing the covers seems to always slightly move it (oh if only they had sent technicians to investigate this those years ago when I took over this outpost!) Everyone is eager to continue confirmatory observations of Katya’s new constellation, and the recalibrations will be a frustrating delay.

Katya herself now cannot participate, at least for a few days – with our supplies dwindling we have been on the lookout for our nocturnal visitor and last night she caught it, a racoon as we suspected, plundering our bean stores. She scared it away but somehow sustained a bite. Our Wizard Agrila healed the wound, but she is under orders to rest for a few days under observation in case it has given her the fever – we have treatments for it but they are limited in number and I prefer she be observed and administered some of our remaining supply only if need be, a policy I put in place until at least the next supply arrives, when I can send in a request for more. In fact our medicinal herbs and apothecary are disturbingly low, mismanagement on my part, and I should do a complete stocktake before the next supply train arrives.

More tedious distractions from the big project of confirming Katya’s constellation!

Day 40, 7128

Weather: Cloudy
Mood: Frustration

It is now 27 days since Katya made her potential huge discovery, but we have had barely one week of clear skies in which to ascertain the facts of it. We had a single break in the weather yesterday, and yet made no progress due to the need to recalibrate the telescope. Fortunately Katya’s consternation is still there, but we were unable to proceed with measurements and will need to wait until this abominable cloud bank is gone to continue. I have never cursed the open sky as much as I do in this season!

Katya suffered no further ill effects of the bite, and our medicinal supplies were not consumed tending to her healed wound. However, our supply shipment has still not arrived, and being now more than one month overdue I opted to communicate with our authorities using the Mirror. I oculd not though, because Agrila could not make it work! He tried all he could but it simply would not hold any vision, and was dark and lifeless as if it were a normal piece of metal. He did some investigation and research but no message or signal could pass through it, and he does not know why. So we are now 36 days past the due date for our supplies, and no message can pass in or out of the caverns.

Day 102, 7128

Weather: Clear
Mood: Concern

Katya’s constellation hangs over us still, and we have pored through records going back 1000 years and found no record of it. We can only conclude it is new. However, we have had to divert some effort from our continued study, because not only is our new year supply run now more than 3 months late, but the next supply was supposed to arrive a week ago and it, too, has not arrived. Further attempts to contact our superiors with the Mirror also failed, for reasons Agrila cannot understand. We are truly alone here and beginning to worry.

We have hastily drafted an initial report on the constellation, and this morning we sent it with one of our junior scholars, two servants and two guards to the caverns. Having no mounts, we believe the nearest outpost in the tunnels is two weeks’ walk from here; a return party will take some days to organize at least, assuming all is well in the caverns and this loss of supplies is just an oversight. We cannot therefore expect even a partial resupply for nearly a month. So while our little expedition heads underground to the caverns, the rest of us have set about a reduced research load and increased activities on the island. We have regular fishing shifts, and I have organized for some of the scholars and servants to put some work into preparing and repairing vegetable patches in the garden – these last few years we have become lazy about gardening, and use it primarily for tomatoes and a few fresh herbs, but now we have laid in other over-ground crops that might mature within the next six months. Potatoes, a little corn, that sort of thing.

Also we have begun rationing the wine.

Day 132, 7128

Weather: Sunshine
Mood: Hopeful

Today is now 30 days since we sent our expedition into the caverns, and we can begin to hope that from now we might see a response from our elders and connections underground. We opened the last of the wine today in anticipation.

Day 185, 7128

Weather: Sun
Mood: Worried

It is now more than two months since our expedition entered the caverns, and there has been no word from our homes. We have now missed the third supply run of the year, which was due today or yesterday, and I fear that no more will come within this year. We still have significant supplies of basics – our fungal stocks are high, as are beans and other staples – but we have now very little fruit, oil, only the worst of our preserved meats and vegetables, and very little sugar. We also run low on basic supplies for our research, and discovered to our horror yesterday that we cannot replace an important lens if it breaks – our supplies of highest grade glass are gone, and we cannot produce more here. Our supplies were sufficient to live comfortably through two missed deliveries, and I wisely instituted some measures after two, but it is still a concern. Our one blessing still is that we have been living well on fish and shellfish, and we have extended the garden to include a little barley and more corn. Also we daily forage the island picking berries and little sour apples that we would normally reject, and we have laid in some seeds in hope we can grow some more.

Still, it is a matter of concern to us all. What has happened down there?

Day 191, 7128

Weather: Ill-omened storms
Mood: Determined

Two days ago we completed the final draft of our dissertation on Katya’s constellation, which we have been working on in a more and more desultory fashion these last months. With the completion of the dissertation it is safe to say that we have a legitimate reason to return to the caverns, but we are torn, so yesterday I called a meeting of all here present – servants, guards and scholars – to discuss what we should do. Official policy from our elders is that we should wait for two full lost supply wagons before considering return, and weigh up our circumstances with the needs of the mission before deciding to abandon our post – recall all of us were to be here for a five year term, and those whose term was closest to ending were sent back with the ill-fated messenger expedition on day 102.

Discussion was heated but not acrimonious. The guards are happy to stay provided that food can be supplied. Some of the scholars believe that we have simply been overlooked for a while as part of some stupid inter-departmental conflict, and should wait a little longer before panicking, and I confess I share the concern of Katya that our biggest pressure is to ensure that our dissertation is published before one of the two other observatories reports the same findings. Normally we would send our thesis back with the supply wagon post, but since we cannot something must be done.

Finally we agreed to send Katya with a single guard and one servant to deliver the thesis, and to try and push for our resupply. This time we gave the guard, at least, strict instructions to return here within the month, or to send a message if unable. If we do not receive word from them before the next supply is due, we will all return to the caverns. I have also insisted two guards be posted on the tunnel entrance daily – some of my colleagues believe I am being alarmist but I am concerned about the delay in supplies and the loss of the Mirror.

Now we are down to five guards, five servants, three scholars, myself and Agrila. At least our food will last a little longer, but we must also do more shared work on smaller rations. We are now more fishers and farmers than scholars!

Day 233, 7128

Weather: Treacherously sunny
Mood: Terrified

Disaster! We have been attacked, and many of our number horribly slaughtered!

The attack was yesterday but I could not until today write about it. We were fortunately at our research stations in the afternoon when it happened, and all but three of our number inside the tower. They came up through the tunnel, and our guards, thinking the situation resolved, rang the bell to call us all to attention, and then went to meet them. But they were not met with hails of joy or even stern reproval from some unpleasant academic oversight board – rather, they were attacked by a gang of our fellow folk, accompanied by some form of hideous new soldier! They defended themselves but one was killed in the tunnel and the other had to retreat. Fortunately he was joined by our other guards who had come down after the bell was rung, as had we all. They fought valiantly but the three other guards were unarmoured, and two were killed before we could close the gate to the supply room and seal it from within.

They were so horrid! I watched myself! They were of our own kind, but like terrible crazed monsters! They had scarified their faces, and held aloft a banner that was an emblem of a snake coiled around a battered bleeding skull, crudely drawn. They screamed and yelled, and one of them used some horrific magic that fired bolts of actual shadow, which hurt our soldier horribly.

Worst of all though, was that amongst them they had a new ally, shambling, slow-moving humanoid figures with dark bronze coloured skin, who wore rags over their bodies and stared at us with sightless eyes. They did not seem to understand speech or to respond to pleas, and … and … they ate the guard they killed. They dragged him down before our eyes, clubbing him with terrible ferocity, and then began to eat his still struggling, half-conscious body. Such horror!

They stank, and one was riddled with worms. We spoke with Agrila and he believes that they were somehow the bodies of animated dead, made to move by some terrible marionette magic. He said he has never before sensed the magic they use, but that it is of ineffable evil.

Something terrible has happened in the caverns, and now it emerges to find us. I can only think that Katya and her retinue have been slaughtered by these horrors.

Day 237, 7128

Weather: Terrible
Mood: Terrible

They have lurked in the tunnel for days, and today they began battering the door with some terrible magic that sallied against it for hours. We thought the door would hold but by mid-morning it was beginning to splinter and crumble. The magic stopped but then those shambling bronze-skinned automatons were set upon it and began beating at it. We had no choice but to go out and do battle with them, our three remaining guards charging forth in full battle gear while Agrila supported them with flashes of light, and the rest of us fired bows as best we could. They pushed the beasts back as best they could, killed two and forced the other three back, but then theywere submerged in bodies – there were many more of the brown-skinned dead than before, and they were torn apart by the pack.

Agrila, who knows no combat magic, had little choice. He collapsed the tunnel, crushing all those of our kinsfolk who had been attacking us and driving the dead away. We won the battle but lost our last three valiant guards and another servant.

Now there are just four servants, the three scholars, Agrila and I. Our numbers dwindle.

Worse still, the dead are in the gardens. Our exit into the caverns of our homes is blocked, something terrible has happened down there that we perhaps cannot return to, and there are murderous dead wandering the lands around our castle.

Day 238, 7128

Today we realized that collapsing the tunnel without sealing in the dead has also cut us off from our garden. The tunnel ran under the rise on which our observatory and garden were built; collapsing it created a kind of trench between us and the garden. To reach the garden we must go outside, down the trench and up again. But the dead prowl around, and we would have to fight them to reach the garden.

Day 241, 7128

Today we tried to reach the garden. We set a distraction in the front while others of us ran to the garden to dig up potatoes and cut corn. One of the servants and a scholar died, and we gathered only a few sacks of potatoes. Now we are but 7.

Day 267, 7128

We ran out of arrows today. Our shooting has killed some of the dead, but a large number remain. They seem never to sleep or rest, wandering by night or day. We cannot evade them easily, though occasionally we try to slip away to set fish nets. It is a risky business that will not end well.

Day 268, 7128

Little Cornet, our youngest servant, fell from the tower today, trying to gather eggs from a seabird nest on the outside of the observatory. No one had authorized him to do this, but none of us have eaten an egg or anything fresh in so long. We ran to the window when we heard his cries, but it was a terrible scene. He had fallen through brush that broke some of his fall, and he did not die when he hit the ground. He lay there feebly moving as the dead ate him. It took hours for his cries to end. Now the crows feast on the parts of him the dead left – after he died they seemed to lose interest, and left him to the wilds.

We are now 6.

Day 297, 7128

A failed attack on the dead. Agrila has been working on some magical repellents, and we prepared spears from the armoury, trained a little with armour, and tried to round them up with a distraction. We killed two of them, but lost three of our own, including Agrila.

Now we have no healer. Any mistake now is fatal.

Day 331, 7128

We saw a ship on the horizon, one of the maritime folk, but only too late thought to flash it a message with a mirror from the observatory. We might as well have used the Mirror, for all the good it has done us. They did not see, or ignored the message. Perhaps we would only have lured them to their deaths on the beach, anyhow.

What terrible, evil magic can animate the bodies of the bronze-skinned dead for so many days, without relent? It is a sin against all of nature.

Day 352, 7128

Eldun took his life today, threw himself from the top of the observatory. We did not know until the afternoon, when I found his note in the observatory and, looking out, saw his body.

Every day now we are hungry. I am keeping rations low, so that we can stay alive as long as possible. We sit in the observatory every day, hoping to see another ship and to send a message.

Day 3, 7129

A bitter, cold new year. We have no firewood, and without Agrila we cannot heat the rooms. We sit cold and hungry in the wind-blasted observatory, hoping for some sign from the ocean.

It gives us nothing but the cold railing of winter storms.

The dead do not feel the cold. They prowl the dark of the winter, waiting for our next desperate error.

Day 27, 7129

Some winter fever took my last companion, Evret, the last servant. It is no surprise, we are wind-chapped and exhausted in the tower, staring with dry eyes at the empty, uncaring sea. Its callous indifference may have seeped into her bones and killed her as surely as any disease.

By some curse of the uncaring fates I have been spared her infection. I must die here cold, hungry and alone.

The days pass. It is just a question of when.

Day 39, 7129

There is no point in continuing. The food is exhausted, as am I, exhausted and alone. My fellow scientists and all the people who worked here are gone, something terrible has happened in the caverns of our homeland, and there is no hope now that I can return to them. We have done all we can to find a way to survive here, but without communication from below we have no food and no way to know what catastrophe has caused this terrible isolation. I have a last draught of a sleeping drug. I will take it, and see no more lonely frozen mornings on this outpost.

I fear no one will ever read this, the last entry of the southern Observatory, but I hope that if you do you will find the answers I could not, and save my people from whatever horrors have befallen them.

Farewell from Velor, chief scientist and last survivor of the Southern Observatory.

The Wrathbreakers have completed their work in the Outriders, killing the gangster Krotos and all his allies and recovering the Eye of the Dead God. Now that their business here was done, it was time for them to return to their investigations. First, they wanted to find the Observatory alluded to in The Gull’s notes, before they traveled to Alpon.

Searching the Wild Cape

They rested in the Bones for a week while minor repairs were done on their ship The Wages of Sin, and then set off for the Cape of Darepo, where the Observatory was rumoured to be built. They sailed across smooth, shining seas to the Cape, which separates the main island of Hadun from the jungle tracts of the Archipelago of Kadora, and also separates the Igano sea from the Sahakan Ocean. Although their journey to the cape was relatively calm, the line of small islands where Igano and Sahakan met was infamous for its storms and mercurial weather, so they decided to begin their exploration on the Sahakan side, hoping to find the Observatory without having to cross the line where the seas met.

The Cape of Darepo is at the very south-westernmost tip of the island of Hadun and although nominally part of the country of Ariaka, it has strong separatist and independent streak, and is renowned for both its poverty and its pirates. The Wrathbreakers decided that they needed to be careful investigating the small ports of the area, lest they draw criminal attention to themselves, and decided to conduct their search using a mixture of scouting – sailing the seas investigating small islands – and charm – visiting small towns and dispensing alcohol and coin liberally as they asked about lost towers. At first their strategy was successful, with the discovery of a hidden (or abandoned) pirate cache on a small deserted island. However the next three days were spent fruitlessly questioning ignorant villagers in small, poor towns on the barren, windswept coast. Eventually they hit on a rumour of islands on the inner curve of the bay, and crossed over the storm line into the shelter of its leeward side to continue searching.

Poor weather here hindered their search so they put into a small pirate town, and here they learnt from a local “fisherman” of an island in the middle of the bay which was said to be haunted. Strange lights shone from it on clear nights, and it was rumoured to be haunted by the bodies of dead sailors who had been stranded there. Since the Wrathbreakers associated the walking dead only with deepfolk, they decided to investigate, and soon found themselves floating offshore of a small, heavily-forested island with a crumbling tower in the centre.

The Deepfolk Observatory

As soon as they set foot on the gravel beach of the island they were attacked by zombies, animated corpses which shambled out of the forests and attempted to flail at them with crumbling, skeletal fists. These creatures were so old that they were barely recognizable as corpses, just parchment-thin skin stretched over crumbling bones. A single blow from any of the Wrathbreakers’ weapons put paid to a brace of the pallid, dusty creatures, but they continued to attack until the Wrathbreakers counted more than a dozen shattered bodies on the shore. Finally the wave of dessicated corpses ceased, and they could venture inland.

The tower was a narrow, round building of five stories, perhaps 30m in diameter, with small windows on all levels of the building and a domed roof. It was built on a small rise in the middle of the small island, and thick forest marched up to the walls of the tower, which were covered in ivy. They could see, however, that some of the windows on the higher levels had lights inside them.

While Xu and Bao Tap worked on freeing plant growth from around the ground floor entrance and Ella kept watch for more zombies, Itzel levitated to the second floor and began looking in through windows. She found a series of empty rooms, each with a single bed and a small desk, in many cases long-since decayed to almost nothing. In some rooms there was still a magical light, similar to the marshstone lights the Wrathbreakers had encountered in the Peninsula of Moran Kei.

Itzel entered through an open window of one of these rooms as the rest of the group broke through the door of the first floor. They explored the rooms simultaneously, determining that the first floor held long-since abandoned dining rooms, kitchens and a gallery that would once have held views over the bay, while the second floor held only sleeping chambers. They also discovered that the centre of the first floor was a hollow shaft that descended into a basement chamber. They opted to explore up rather than down and, after gathering in the 2nd floor, headed up to the third. Here they found an ancient library full f crumbling books, and a laboratory with many well-made glass objects. Between the two rooms was a round, windowless chamber which they could seal shut, and with some care and a little magic they were able to bring one of the crumbling tomes from the library into this room and open it long enough to identify that the books were written in deepfolk script.

They continued upward to the 4th floor, where they found a gallery with views over the bay and two residential suites. One was empty but the other was sealed shut. They slipped quickly into this room, trying to avoid introducing new air, and Bao Tap used his magic to establish a seal around the door. In this room they found a deepfolk body lying on a crumbling bed, its features dessicated with age in the dry air of the room. On the table near the bed they found a journal and a beautiful quill pen which radiated with its own light when picked up. Itzel and Bao Tap identified that the magic in the quill, the lights on the walls, and some objects in the laboratory was all fey magic, not deep magic.

The diary was open at a final entry, which they read where it sat open on the desk. It read as follows:

Day 39, 7129

There is no point in continuing. The food is exhausted, as am I, exhausted and alone. My fellow scientists and all the people who worked here are gone, something terrible has happened in the caverns of our homeland, and there is no hope now that I can return to them. We have done all we can to find a way to survive here, but without communication from below we have no food and no way to know what catastrophe has caused this terrible isolation. I have a last draught of a sleeping drug. I will take it, and see no more lonely frozen mornings on this outpost.

I fear no one will ever read this, the last entry of the southern Observatory, but I hope that if you do you will find the answers I could not, and save my people from whatever horrors have befallen them.

Farewell from Velor, chief scientist and last survivor of the Southern Observatory.

They could not read the rest of the journal until they had secured the building, so they climbed the last stairs to the fifth floor, where they found a decaying, long-abandoned observatory. In the centre of the observatory was a partially broken telescope, of unusual design and obviously of beautiful style and workmanship. The observatory also glowed with a dim red light from more of the strange fey stones set in the wall. The room was filled with delicate constructions of glass and small objects carefully crafted in testimony to minds committed to beauty and science.

Everything in this observatory, made by deepfolk, spoke of a culture with no connection to the deepfolk that the Wrathbreakers had ever met. They needed to know more. So, they picked up Velor’s journal, carried it to the windowless room in the third floor, established a sealed room safe for opening ancient books, and devoured its contents in a single sitting.

What had happened to the deepfolk – who were they, what had they become? And had humans been the cause?


Image credit: the first picture is from the DeviantArt page of Juhani Jokinen.

By strange coincidence, everyone in charge was white …

There has been a lot of racist backlash against the decision to cast some non-white characters in the new Lord of the Rings tv series. Tolkien fanboys and fascists (a not very distorted circle on a Venn diagram, it would appear) are very angry that a few new characters – some Harfoots, Durin’s wife, a random elf – have been cast as black or brown-skinned rather than the “fair” skinned characters that Tolkien originally envisaged them as. I’ve already written on here that I think this is a good thing, and a direct confrontation with the worst part of Tolkien’s legacy, his racist theories. But now, as the show starts to get, well, boring, I’ve had more time to think about the composition of the cast, and I think that the people making this show have taken an easy road to diversity and inclusion, which is going to have the unlikely consequence of reproducing the race and sex-based power relations of modern America. I think my disappointment in their decisions and their consequences is best summarized in a simple question: why isn’t Durin IV a woman?

Durin and Disa and the shackles of domestic life

First, let’s consider all the material that has been written about Durin IV (the particular King in the show), from Appendix A of the Lord of the Rings:

There [Durin 1] lived so long that he was known far and wide as Durin the Deathless. Yet in the end he died before the Elder Days had passed, and his tomb was in Khazad-dûm; but his line never failed, and five times an heir was born in his House so like to his Forefather that he received the name of Durin. He was indeed held by the Dwarves to be the Deathless that returned; for they have many strange tales and beliefs concerning themselves and their fate in the world.

This does not specify the sex of Durin, it only uses the generic “he” to refer to all the Durins, of whom there were six. Given that Tolkien refers to all humans as “men”, and it is quite common to refer to mixed collections of men and women by the male pronoun, there’s no particularly strong reason to believe that every Durin “so like to his forefather that he received the name of Durin” had to be a man – there could have been one or two Durins who were female, and Tolkien would probably have referred to them as “he” anyway. This is what Tolkien’s fan-boys and assorted fascist hangers-on would want, they would strongly object to to the use of the “woke” “their” to refer to a mixed group of male and female characters from (for example) the race of “men”. If you think I am being facetious with this, consider the responses by D&D players to this EN World thread about choice of pronouns in D&D, which makes clear (and I remember this!) that AD&D used the masculine pronoun generically, and people responding to the question at the top of the thread include some loser saying anything else is “woke nonsense”. What do you think Tolkien would have done?

Sometimes even elves have to negotiate with the help

Anyway, we are dealing with poetic license here. There is no reason, given how little is written about Durin IV, that he should have been made either male or white skinned in this show: the show-makers chose to go with this decision based on a disputable fragment of a sentence in an appendix, and on the general assumption that no women could be rulers anywhere in Middle Earth (except among the elves). So, Durin IV is a white man, and his wife is a black woman. And what is his wife’s job? She cooks and cleans for him. We know this because there is a quite elegant conversation in episode 4, where Elrond is sitting in Durin’s home while Disa does stuff, and he tries to fool her into revealing where her husband has gone, and it is made very clear that she is waiting at home, minding the kids and cooking his dinner.

So there we have it: white husband black wife, black wife is a housewife. Sure, we see her do some stone-singing later, but it’s clear that she doesn’t have an actual job otherwise – she’s a housewife (she also prepared Durin’s dinner in episode 1, in case it wasn’t clear) who can sing a little when everyone’s desperate. What’s the implication here? Probably it was her job before they got married and she settled down into her domestic role.

This isn’t the only time that we see the gender roles at work in Middle Earth (or Numenor for that matter). Women are cooks, housewives, mothers and cleaners, while men are leaders and fighters. In Numenor in Episode 4 when Elendil calls for warriors to go to Middle Earth we get a general scene of the crowd and only men raise their hands to join the battle. Perhaps we don’t see this division of labour amongst the Harfoots but the Harfoots are essentially comic relief at the moment, and it’s telling to me when the only time gender roles can be reversed is among the comic relief.

What are the consequences of these decisions going to be, in terms of representation? Let’s consider the case of Galadriel.

The consequences of Galadriel’s Whiteness

Galadriel is white in this show, so painfully white she has no lips and limited facial expression. Why is she white? Because in the books we know a lot about Galadriel, and she is definitely described as fair. So the show-makers have decided to stick to the text in this case, and make her a fair-skinned maiden with no lips[1]. Why didn’t they make her black? Is there any reason that any of these characters need to stick to the descriptions in the book, other than fidelity and making them easy to identify? Now that we have established through the presence of Disa and Arondir that canon can be broken as regards skin colour, why not extend this to established characters within the canon?

There’s no reason to do this of course – we could have all the established characters keep their descriptions from the book, and then only make the new characters black or female. That’s a completely defensible choice, really, isn’t it? But what does it mean? It means that Galadriel, Elrond, Gil-Galad, Celebrimbor, Durin, Elendil and Gandalf are going to be white and only subordinate characters are going to be black. All the leaders are going to be white men and their inferiors, servants, wives, maids and sub-alterns will be black.

What an amazing coincidence! In a magical world far away with no rules to bind it, except the long ago text written by a dead English Professor, all the people in charge are male and white, and all the black people are subordinates[2]. Who could have guessed such a circumstance would arise?

This could be solved by making at least one of the major characters black. Why not Gil-Galad or Celebrimbor? Nobody gives a fuck about them! Elrond had a human mother, we could easily run with that. But no, we can’t, we have to be at least that true to the text, but instead of being fully true to the text so that all the housewives and maids and foot soldiers and subordinates are white, now some of them are black. Even Middle-Earth has red-lining, glass ceilings and a black-white pay gap!

So, at this point we are beginning to see how race and sex relations will play out in this supposedly too progressive, overly “woke” show: the leadership will be white men, women will be in the kitchen, and somehow black people will remain servants and followers of white people. If this is how the show plays out it will be, if anything, worse than the books.

Why is it that so many modern American cultural works can conceive of playing around with racial roles but can’t upend the gender conventions underlying so much of US society? And why do all their decisions reproduce current class-, race- and sex-based power relations? Why couldn’t they just have made Durin a woman?


fn1: and apparently no magic and no radiance and not really any ears, since she can disguise herself as a human simply by pulling her hair over her ears…

fn2: Except one! Miriel, who is the queen regent of Numenor, who is an actual character in Tolkien’s world (the Silmarillion I think) and who should be Queen but <em>in the books</em> has her title usurped by a man. This man is not on the scene in the show, and Elendil is about to set sail to Middle Earth (where her usurper husband does it in the books) so it’s entirely possible it will be Miriel, not her usurper husband, who is deceived by Sauron and brings about the ruin of Numenor – so the only black leadership figure in this story is going to be one who is not officially a ruler, but has taken the place in someone’s stead, and who brings about the downfall of a great race. Good choice of character from the books to make black …

When you’re just that angry …

Everything Everywhere All at Once (EEAO) is a weird “absurdist” science-fiction in which a multiverse-hopping Michelle Yeoh attempts to deal with her family issues while saving the universe from destruction. It was released in 2022, gained plaudits at some random US film festival, and has been making a killing in its public release. It has received generally very good reviews: it got 95% at rotten tomatoes and 81% at metacritic, as well as winning a bunch of awards. It seems to have stirred a lot of passion, with most critics seeing its science fiction as clever and original, its acting as great, and the emotional component of its story as deep and genuine. Of 339 critics on Rotten Tomatoes, for example, only 18 rated it as rotten and many said it was “profound and moving” or “made you think and cry” (see below).

I swear these people are bribed

To me it was ordinary SF and trash pro-family propaganda. My review has a few light spoilers, but here instead of dwelling on its failed science fiction I want to talk a little about how much I hate pro-family propaganda in art, and how socially destructive it is.

The premise and the ordinary science fiction

The movie is about an Asian-American family, headed by migrants Evelyn Wang and Waymond Wang, who run a failing laundromat and have a college-age daughter, Joy, who is a lesbian. They have also recently had to bring Evelyn’s father over from their home country (it’s not clear if it’s Malaysia, or one of the provinces of China, but since Evelyn and Waymond speak a mixture of Cantonese and Mandarin it is probably either Guangdong/HK or Malaysia). Granddad is old and sick, and Evelyn is an incredibly stressed, hyper-active, and extremely unpleasant mother, who refuses to engage properly with either her daughter or her husband and is basically an abusive bully. She refuses to respect her daughter’s relationship, calls her girlfriend “he” and then blames this lapse on her bad English (Chinese speakers of English often mix up genders because in Chinese it’s all ta), refuses to tell her father the truth about Joy’s relationship, refuses to listen to any of either her daughter’s or her husband’s concerns, opinions or emotions, and when she appears to be about to be kind to her simply tells her “You’re fat”. She also reacts very badly to any attempts to change or improve the working of the shop, has an incredibly poor management style (for e.g. receipts) and gets angry whenever anyone tries to improve it, but is always stressed about it. She’s a classic manipulative and abusive parent.

When the show starts she is being audited by the tax office, and trying to organize a party for her father. We learn later that she was basically kicked out of home by her father for choosing to marry Waymond, and he has come back to her because his wife (her mother) died and she needs to look after him. Most reviews don’t mention that Waymond is spending the first half of the movie trying to get Evelyn to agree to divorce, but she is so dismissive of her husband that she refuses to make time to talk to him or look at the papers, and only finds out by accident. What a nice mother and wife!

So anyway it turns out that there are infinite multi-verses, and someone who looks exactly like Evelyn’s husband is racing through all of them, at the behest of a parallel-universe version of her father, looking for the specific Evelyn who is best able to fight off an evil being that is attempting to destroy all the multi-verses. This evil being, of course, is a parallel universe version of her daughter, Joy, who is building a singularity thing that will destroy all the universes. Joy’s reason for doing this is that nothing matters, a nihilistic destructive urge that ultimately looks a lot like suicidality, when we get to find out what makes her tick. Eventually the parallel-universe team realize that the Evelyn in our universe is the correct Evelyn to take on Joy, because she’s so hopelessly shit that she must be perfect for the task (this is logic). Because this is “absurdist” SF these alternative universes are full of dumb things like people with sausages for fingers (through which they have sex), a universe where Evelyn is a rock, a universe where she can fight with a pizza sign, etc. By imagining such a universe and pressing a button a special magic headset, Evelyn can go to that universe, grab the skills of the person in that universe, and then use them in this universe. Sometimes this leads to personality swapping and sometimes it doesn’t, because the movie has no rules, and the only useful person Evelyn gets is an alternative universe Evelyn who is basically actual Michelle Yeoh. So she can do some martial arts. Also to jump between universes you need to do something improbable or weird in this one, so chewing discarded gum, sticking a butt-plug up your arse, telling your enemy you love them (and meaning it).

It’s not absurdist, it’s shit. For about 30 minutes it’s funny and then it’s just boring and dumb, with escalating levels of weird as the directors try to milk this for all it’s worth (and it’s a very long movie!) Finally there’s a big, overly long showdown between Evelyn and Joy, during which we somehow learn that useless Waymond (who was trying to divorce his wife) is the hero of the movie, and if we all just be “kind” we can save the world, so Evelyn (who is a horrible person) starts trying to be kind like Waymond, who she now suddenly looks up to and admires, and fighting enemies with (martial arts based) kindness. Then there are long and supposedly moving interchanges between Evelyn and Joy about how Evelyn is a bad mother but Joy should just accept it, because Joy is Evelyn’s daughter. At this point reviewers will tell you that the movie is about how family are the people we really love, and they may not be perfect but we should stick by them and respect them because they’re there when everyone else isn’t, and this is very moving and the way Evelyn tries to draw Joy back is very deep and powerful. Actually Joy is suicidal, and this is because she was raised in a loveless and cruel family, and her belief that everything is pointless and empty is their fault, but the movie wants us to think she should accept them and forgive them anyway.

There is a brief period where Joy returns to her family and they live happily, with Joy and her girlfriend’s relationship being accepted, but Evelyn still telling Joy she is fat and lazy. Which is meant to validate all the battles or something. And Joy and her girl are overjoyed that her mother has accepted them, because this is all the validation they wanted all along.

Fuck that. This is pro-family propaganda, it’s dangerous, it’s wrong, and we should be ditching it from our culture. We can start by not over-hyping shoddy, ordinary SF movies that fail at a multiverse story in order to get us to believe that forgiving and going back to your family is the right thing to do, because it’s not, and anyone who tells you it is is a liar who means you ill.

The dangerous illusion of the “Asian Family” stereotype

Before we go on to discuss pro-family propaganda, let’s just briefly digress to discuss the stereotype of the unforgiving Asian family, the mother and father who never have any flattery or kindness for their kids but only unrelenting demands. American Born Chinese (ABC) commentators and comedians are full of stories about this idea, and would like you to believe that this is some unique trait of Asian families. But here’s the thing: it’s not. My father never had any flattery or kindness for his kids, but he also didn’t ever encourage or demand anything from us. Homer Simpson is based on a real type of Western father, who can’t stand his own kids, doesn’t care to understand them, and always encourages them not to bother being special or seeking to make themselves better. Isn’t that worse? I think some ABC wear the meanness of their family like a badge of honour (look how I suffered) and have turned normal abusive family dynamics into some kind of cultural iconography. It’s not! And to try and make it so at this time is a dangerous tactic. As anti-Asian hate has grown, a lot of ABC journalists and comedians have tried to use these narratives to get onside with white society, to try and weather the backlash. Don’t do it! And don’t laud the depiction of Evelyn in this movie as somehow an especially perfect depiction of a Chinese immigrant family or intergenerational trauma. Her behavior is just bog-standard Arsehole Parent.

For example, the story of Evelyn’s father not being able to accept his granddaughter’s lesbianism is presented by some reviewers and, I think, by Evelyn herself within the movie, as being reflective of his conservative Chinese upbringing. This serves a nice role for the audience, mostly white, to imagine that their own community hasn’t produced this kind of bullshit, but it’s misleading propaganda intended to allay white concerns about white problems. Western men the same age as the grandfather in this movie are just as fucked, don’t pretend it’s because this old dude is Chinese. This is like the classic “if you think it’s racist here, you should see how Japanese treat foreigners!” Actually, I live here, I know how they do, and the west is far worse. White people love telling themselves these little comfortable lies to enable them to pretend their own society isn’t a cesspit. Don’t do it! If there is anything in this world that is Everywhere All at Once, it’s the universal form of arseholery on display in Evelyn and her dad’s personality in this show.

What is pro-family propaganda and why is it bad?

Western movies play many propaganda roles, but two of their deepest and most powerful roles, which are related to each other, are:

  1. To show that sub-standard white men can be heroes and winners, that what goes wrong is never their fault, and that even if you are an ugly, boring, useless whining loser who is propped up by the women and foreigners around you, you are still the hero of your story. Jackson Oz in Zoo, Brandon Stark and John Snow in Game of Thrones, pretty much every male character in a Disney cartoon, and to a certain extent James Holden in The Expanse all play this role.
  2. to remind you that you have an obligation to uphold family loyalty and ties even when your family are cruel, negligent, neglectful and/or openly abusive. The absolute classic canonical example of this is Rick & Morty, in which there is an obvious, openly abusive relationship between the grandfather and the grandchild, the parents don’t care or interfere in the abuse, and the viewer is sucked in as an accomplice to an incredibly abusive relationship. Incidentally a lot of people compare R&M to EEAO, which should tell you all you need to know…

One day I will devote an entire blog post to 1), the “It’s not your fault white man” genre of social reinforcement for boring losers, but a more common theme and a much more destructive one is 2), the idea that you need to stick by your family and get their approval no matter what. Some movies cover both themes (e.g the first Guardian of the Galaxy movie with its obssessive focus on helping a callow dude find his lost mummy) and in American movies the pro-family propaganda saturates almost every production in the form of their ubiquitous daddy issues, but it’s more widespread than just this.

And let’s make no bones about it, this story is destructive. I’ve written before about how we have an obligation to hold our family to account for their misdeeds, but I’ll summarize it again here: The only reason that parents feel that they can treat their children like shit for years is that they know, without any doubt, that their children will stick around and won’t abandon them when they become adults. Most shit parents even have a pretty strong inkling that they can keep treating their adult children like shit, and their adult children will keep coming back and licking that shit up. In contrast, the reason we don’t get away with the same levels of abuse towards our friends (in general) is that we know our friends will cut us loose if we keep that shit up. Similarly, for a lot of us, with partners: people are much more likely to divorce than to cut off their parents.

And how do parents know this? Because they read books, read magazines, and watch TV shows and movies that constantly, over and over, tell us that sticking with our parents is an absolutely essential role for us as adults, that we should tolerate their crap, that it’s the kids who need to bend and adapt not the adults, and that we need to be understanding of our parents’ “shortcomings” (which are actually, generally, just abuse) and accept that they won’t change or adapt for us. Movies about kids shaking off their parents and fucking them off are much, much rarer than movies about the kids struggling to find common ground with their parents and eventually learning to deal with, tolerate, or adapt to their parents’ bullshit. Often in these movies the parents throw out a fig-leaf to the kid – accepting their choice of partner or job or moving to Paris or whatever – but they never, ever admit they were wrong and they don’t usually do anything to change the other suite of awful behaviors they have inflicted for decades on their kids.

This movie is just another example of that propaganda. Joy just has to accept, forgive, and stand by her stupid mother, she gives a wild speech about how her mother has ruined her life and then just … gives up. Evelyn changes nothing about herself and just wins.

If these movies weren’t made, or if they were properly balanced with stories about kids getting their vengeance, kids refusing to seek approval, or even – imagine this – parents seeking out and earning their children’s forgiveness through real changes and growth, then we might see people who become parents understanding that their children’s love for them is conditional on their behavior, rather than unconditional acceptance of their faults, cruelty and violence. Then they might modify their behavior accordingly. But they don’t see any reason to do this because all of society keeps telling them they don’t have to, and keeps telling their children that it’s their responsibility to do all the giving in the relationship.

This movie is just another cog in that machine, and not a very interesting one.

Conclusion

As someone who actually made the decision to cut off my parents and abandon them to wallow in their own bullshit, I get angry when I am forced to watch a movie about 親孝行, about having to respect your parents no matter what. This movie started off looking like an interesting insight into a difficult family, with Michelle Yeoh playing a very convincing unpleasant mother figure who I was waiting to be forced to adapt to her family and the outside world by the SF circumstances. Instead I was betrayed – again – by a movie that recited all the same old pro-family propaganda and gave me the same old nonsense about how parents are good no matter what, and we’ll never find anyone like them.

This propaganda is nonsense, and it’s dangerous. People need to stop making it, and reviewers need to stop pretending it’s “deep” or “profound” or “thoughtful”, and start recognizing it as valorization of abuse, cruelty and arrogance. Please stop making these movies! And if this thing bothers you, don’t waste your time on this movie.

I swear every movie should come with a sticker that tells you if it has daddy issues, pro-family propaganda, copaganda, or military-industrial complex war-porn. Fuck Tipper-stickers, I don’t care about “adult themes” and swearing, I want movies that don’t tell me cops are cool, the US is a force for good, and you should stick by your parents no matter what. We can’t build a better world if everyone believes that their wife-beating ex-marine dad is just a misunderstood guy who is traumatized by murdering foreign babies, and will get better if we just stand by him no matter what he did or what he does.

Don’t stand by that man, and don’t stand by this movie!

The Wrathbreakers have visited the Lambent Cays and met the Gull, from whom they received some further clues about the secret activities of the Deep Cult. They had considered traveling from Pearl Reach to Jasper at the Southernmost tip of the Lambent Cays, but something happened to change their plans. Itzel had placed a folded letter in the crate that contained the Eye of the Dead God, which they had left back at the Bones under Krotos’s care. This letter was written with the magical ink the party had obtained in Estona, intended to find the Rock Spider’s hidden base. This ink would immediately alert her to the opening of the letter, and tell her the location at which the letter had been opened. By sliding the letter into the gap between the crate and its lid Itzel had set it to open if anyone opened the crate itself, immediately alerting her that someone had interfered with their artifact. On the 26th of Raining, just as they were exploring the labyrinth beneath the Pearl Monastery, Itzel received an alert that the crate had been opened – someone on the Bones had interfered with their artifact. The next morning they set off for the Bones.

Raiding Krotos’s Lair

They arrived at the Bones three days later, Bao Tap exerting his maximum magical power to push the Stirge as fast as possible. With them came Leneus and his crew, with Leneus primed to help them infiltrate Krotos’s lair. Leneus, of course, did not know that they planned to kill him – and probably his crew – as soon as the deed was done, and happily helped them to develop a plan to infiltrate the lair.

They came by two methods, with Itzel and Ella creeping in through a smuggling tunnel while Xu and Bao Tap used Leneus’s help to come through the main door. Here Xu and Bao Tap were able to easily kill the guards, since they were not expecting trouble from Leneus, and secured the entrance while Itzel and Ella moved further into the building. They found some keys in a cabinet, and used them to lock doors to prevent guards from moving freely to the battle zone. Most of the guards died in the sleeping area, burnt alive in their beds by Itzel, but they locked the entrances to make sure any survivors could not stumble through to help Krotos. Then they moved to the command section of the lair, and ambushed Krotos and his lieutenant in a training room in the depths of the lair.

The outsider

The fight did not start well. Although they had the advantage of surprise, Krotos and his gang were quick-witted and resourceful. Krotos was able to fire a shot from his bow before the Wrathbreakers could close distance, and they were not able to properly contain the single squad of bandits in the room, who were able to fire off more shots before they could be engaged. Someone noticed that there was a woman lurking behind their crate, which was on the far side of the room with the lid off, but at first no one paid her any mind, busy as they were with Krotos. Krotos fought like a dervish, rushing straight to engage Xu and attacking him with a greatsword that sang of magic. Every blow from that sword was like a strike by Anyara’s golem, and Xu was immediately pressed. Krotos also shrugged off damage from missile weapons and melee strikes, so that Ella’s normally pinpoint strikes did little damage, and he was able to beat Xu back with destructive swings of that sword. Meanwhile his lieutenant engaged Bao Tap and his gang of thugs sniped from the back of the training room.

After a short time the woman behind the crate stood up and reached into the crate, touching the eye and whispering strange words. Itzel felt the sudden swell of the strange magic that imbued the scrolls they had found in Anyara’s room – magic none of them recognized – and the crate began to give off a sickly glow. Ella fired her crossbow at the woman, hitting her with a powerful and crushing blow to the hip, but the blow was so terrible that blood spurted into the crate and the woman sagged forward, immobilized, leaning over the Eye of the Dead God. Itzel tried to levitate her but for some reason her magic failed. Meanwhile Xu and Bao Tap were trapped in battle with the indomitable Krotos and his loyal deputy, and could not rush to separate the woman from whatever ritual she was performing. After another brief and intense attempt to stop her, the woman cut her wrist and raised her voice in song, dripping blood on the eye. The wall behind her – a wall made of the ancient Bones of the behemoth that the lair had been carved into – began to warp and twist, shimmering before their eyes and radiating intense waves of the strange, alien magic.

Then the wall split open, revealing a kind of window into another world. The window was misty and clouded, but in the distance they could see a wide landscape of cracked, parched desert, marked with the dark lines of canyons or dry creek beds, shadowed with dust storms and punctuated with columns of smoke rising from what looked like giant funeral pyres. A heavy sky of thick grey clouds loomed low over this landscape, flickering with the lurid light of blood-red lightning flashing and writhing in the clouds. They heard the distant sound of voices raised alternately in wails of agony and chorals of exaltation, and a horrible smell of rotting bodies, blood and smoke overwhelmed them.

Then a huge beast reached through the rent in the wall, tore it opened, and stepped through. The beast was over four metres tall, humanoid with dark leathery skin and huge, bat-like wings sprouting from a spined back. Its head was half-human and half-lizard, festooned with goats horns and open in a scream of rage. In one taloned hand it held a long, coiled whip of fire and in the other a massive sword. As it stepped through the gap behind it snapped shut, returning to the blank line of wall, and the woman died in ecstasy.

They quailed before it. It turned to Xu and in the human language roared, “Come back to me, slave!” He was overwhelmed with a numbing tide of exhaustion and nearly collapsed, but somehow resist the beast’s will to dominate. Bao Tap attempted to call forth a giant beast of nature to fight it, but failed. Itzel fired a bolt of pure brilliant light at it, and did some damage, which simply incensed it – it struck her with its whip. Xu had finally killed Krotos, but had to take a moment to drinking a healing potion and recover his breath. Bao Tap called forth an earthquake, which rendered the ground beneath the demon so unstable that it fell over, caught its sword in a crack in the earth and could not remove it. Then a wave of fear rolled out from it, and Bao Tap panicked and ran[2]. His earthquake had done its job, however – the rest of the Wrathbreakers stood back and poured missiles and spells into the body of the creature until, with a final scream of rage, it died. At the moment of its death it crumbled to dust and in a cacophony of screams and cries and a rolling cloud of stinking mist its body disappeared.

They stood victorious – but over what? What had been unleashed by the Eye of the Dead God, how had it taught Krotos’s Astrologer the power to do so, and what realm had they just seen? What was this Outsider? And what forces moved outside their world, clawing at the fabric of reality? Why did the Deep Cult want this magic? Dark forces were moving in the world, hurtling towards a confrontation as the stars moved peacefully in the sky towards some dark alignment. The Wrathbreakers needed to discover the secrets of the deepfolk’s past, the stars and the artifacts the Deep Cult sought, before the walls between the worlds were torn asunder and the Archipelago became the hunting ground of more of these beasts.

They needed to head to Dalepo, and find the ancient Deepfolk observatory. Perhaps there they would find answers…

Technical notes on the lair raid

Because my PCs are now extremely powerful, minor battles with minions and low-tier rivals have basically a pre-determined outcome, and are of little purpose except to deliver a minor critical and a few points of strain to one or two of the characters [1]. These parts of adventures have become a bit of a drag, actually, and mean we spend an hour rolling dice when we all know what is going to happen at the end. So instead I gave the players a choice of two rolls to determine how they got into the lair and disabled, distracted or enlisted the minions and lower level rivals of the lair. They could choose melee, deception, charm, stealth or coercion, and each option would have a (secret) hidden difficulty, with (secret) payoffs and risks, and the level of success determining how many minion squads they eliminated. Then we made a kind of shared story about how they got to the final battle, and only actually handled the final battle round by round. Because the PCs had enlisted Leneus’s help they guessed that the deception skill check would be easiest, so they went with deception and stealth. They actually didn’t roll so well, which meant that when they go to the final battle they got the chance at surprise (vigilance checks for initiative) but no free round of attacks (had they failed both rolls they would have been met with an absolutely withering hail of missile fire when they entered the location of the final battle).

For other GMs who are struggling to balance the nitty gritty of Genesys combat with time and fun for high-powered characters, I recommend playing around with this method (and/or mixing it with progress trackers) to build stories from these raids. I actually thought of trying to do it Blades in the Dark style (like a series of flashbacks) but I haven’t actually GM’d BitD yet, and don’t want to risk an entirely new system mixing in for even one session.

Also for this adventure I used a space station map for the lair, which is a network of tunnels in the docks section of the Bones, so mostly underwater. That was a little jarring for the players but they are used to my inability to do anything artistic and rolled with it nicely – one player annotated the map live on roll20, while everyone else chuckled amiably. I really wish I could do art.

A note on criticals, strain and monster abilities

There are some effects and criticals which prevent monsters from using their free manoeuvre, or immobilize them (meaning they can’t use manoeuvres), or prevent them from voluntarily incurring strain to activate abilities. These criticals absolutely wreck powerful adversaries, because they stop them using the full suite of abilities at their disposal. The beast, on the ground and unable to move (according to the rules) could not use manoeuvres, so could not summon allies or teleport. In the past I have had enemy wizards take criticals that prevent them taking strain to activate abilities – this kills wizards, basically[3]. So when designing powerful enemies I recommend you give them a free action that can do something, a powerful ability that does not require strain, and a powerful ability that does not require a manoeuvre. That way they only become completely useless if they are staggered, immobilized <em>and</em> unable to take strain, and should still at least have one free action they can use for something.

Also I backed myself into a corner here by giving the adversaries a type of magic which cannot heal, so they can’t cure any of these crits and neither can their friends. Sucks to be evil!


fn1: This would not be the case were we playing Coriolis, which has much simpler rules for minions, has fast and furious fights, and is always deadly. Were we playing Coriolis even players who had gained XP continuously for 48 sessions would still be cautious of minions.

fn2: I always forget to do the fear first. This battle would have been a disaster if I had remembered to do fear as soon as the thing arrived. But I try not to take back my mistakes.

fn3: This also happened to Itzel once but she’s an elf so she deserved it

#southlandssowhite

Having spent a lot of time writing about Tolkien and racism on here, and having watched fanboys consistently misread Tolkien’s novels in various ways to justify their racist and anti-semitic imagery, I was looking forward to the inevitable backlash at the new Amazon Prime show, the Rings of Power. Being a big Tolkien fan, I was also very interested in seeing the Second Age of Middle-Earth given a big budget cinematic treatment. I have watched the first two episodes, and here are my opinions so far.

The setting is confusing

I know it’s meant to be set in the Second Age, but I don’t think it tells us that, and I don’t think it has done a lot of work establishing a timeline or a sense of the sheer scale of the time over which these events happen. There is no indication (that I recall) that the Trees of Valinor were destroyed in a different Age, or how long it was between the destruction of the Trees and Galadriel’s efforts in Middle-Earth (it also breezes over the kinslaying and exactly what Gally was doing there, but that’s probably for the best). They don’t really even give any clear indication that elves live forever, or of how old Galadriel is. That’s cool, we don’t need tons of exposition, but I think overall it makes the whole setting a little confusing to the uninitiated. This isn’t helped by having three seemingly unconnected stories take place at once in three very different places. I don’t mind, and it’s nice to have a story told without an infodump at the beginning, but I wonder if this is going to come back to bite them later on.

There is pointless conflict

The bit where Galadriel goes almost back to Valinor and then jumps off the boat is dumb and pointless. Yes yes we need to know she is confused and uncertain about whether to stay in Middle-Earth and fight, but sending her all the way across the ocean – especially after we have panned over the map and now how vast that ocean is – is just pointless. Now she has to swim all the way back, which you and I (being among the elite of fandom) know it is possible for an elf to do, but which lots of viewers will just think is dumb. Anyway she is just going to end up on a floating shipwreck where she learns about an orc raid on a community. All of this could have been done on the road to the Grey Havens: she could have changed her mind halfway through, run away into the forest, met the dodgy dude, learnt about his orc issue. Why put it right over near Valinor? This kind of pointless conflict doesn’t advance anything, it just serves to distract us and present a main character with a set of circumstances (looking dumb, swimming across a whole ocean, panicking under worm-attack, having to be rescued) that undermine the character traits so far assembled for her (smart, resolute, brave). I hate it when writers put this kind of pointless conflict into stories. I think we’re going to see more of it too – the rock smashing contest between Durin and Elrond was another example of five minutes of my life I’ll never get back, and it just serves to undermine Durin as a resolute leader. Durin! Also it makes him seem petty and emotional. This kind of pointless conflict almost always makes the characters involved look shallow, petty, indecisive or stupid and usually undermines them to no great end. Drop it!

It’s slow but sumptuous

I like the settings and the scenery, I thought Khazad Dum (and especially Durin’s house) was a really nice vision of dwarven life, and there are lots of grand shots and sweeping beauty. I’m hoping for a grand, expansive view of Middle Earth that takes us to places we’ve never seen before, and I’m hoping for it to do so with some sensitivity to the peoples and lives we may not have seen at all or only peripherally in Tolkien’s story. We’re already seeing things in Rhovanion, which gets largely overlooked in the Lord of the Rings, and “the Southlands” (the bordern of Harad) which is just a nest of bad guys in the stories we all know and love. Seeing things from the perspective of Harfoots or the descendants of Sauron’s servants in Harad adds a bit of richness and depth to Tolkien’s world – a post-colonial interpretation, if you will – and takes us to places we haven’t seen before. I’m looking forward to seeing the creation of Mordor, and I expect that the Rohirrim are going to be really cool if we go there. I hope we see a bit of Harad! So I don’t mind if it’s a little slow, if it shows us some of those things.

But showing us these other sides of Middle Earth – the poor descendants of the humans who fought for Sauron, the survivors of Orc raids, the Harfoots – and attempting to reimagine Tolkien’s world a little has unfortunately opened up an opportunity for the Tolkien Fanboys to align with anti-“woke” culture and outright fascists, to start a seething wall of outrage over the use of non-white actors. So let’s look a little at the central issue that has come up so far – the decisions about race in the show.

The Tolkien and Race Debate Goes Mainstream

The producers have decided to cast non-white actors in all possible races in the show, so we have black actors playing elves, dwarves, and hobbits and the only Orc we have seen so far was white. There’s also apparently some scandal over the decision to show female orcs and dwarves.

First of all I want to say that it is absolutely true that having non-white elves, dwarves or humans is completely throwing out Tolkien’s idea. He wrote these books with a strong racial essentialist ideology, and it was an iron clad rule of his world that darker=more evil. The humans who fought for Sauron were called “dark men” and were created without a sense of good, orcs were dark-skinned and created evil, and Sauron’s primary allies in the human world were black-skinned humans from Harad, or yellow-skinned Easterlings. The Dunlendings were also dark skinned and their colour was even in their name. This isn’t something that’s up for debate as far as I’m concerned: Tolkien wrote this way intentionally, and having a black-skinned elf is a complete rejection of the aesthetic of his races, and the ideology underlying it.

I also think it’s a good thing. This part of Tolkien’s work is explicitly, clearly racist and he says so himself. By having non-white “good” races the producers have rejected the racist ideology underlying the world, and that’s good. For anyone who isn’t familiar with Tolkien’s work and watches it for the first time, it’s not even noticeable – having non-white characters in lead roles or as good guys is becoming increasingly common and in a modern cinematic context dominated by superheroes it’s completely normal. The only people it could possibly annoy are people who are deeply invested in Tolkien’s specific aesthetic linkage between skin colour and morality. These people have ganged together with the fascists and online nazis who see LoTR as a text book for their bullshit racist opinions and are review-bombing it on all the major sites, but they’re wrong and we should proudly tell them they’re wrong. They aren’t wrong about what a change this decision is, but they are wrong about why it matters.

The only problems I can see with this decision to cast non-white actors is that it weakens the distinction between races, in the sense that we can’t tell what makes elves different to humans visually. They don’t even appear to be a different height and they certainly aren’t more beautiful. This is going to mean that unless the writers <em>show</em> us somehow that elves are different to humans – through their super human feats, resistance to cold, etc – the viewer will find it hard to believe that they’re actually not just a weird type of human. This is already a problem with the Harfoots, who until the Stranger appears are not easily conceived of as super short. I don’t think this is going to be a big challenge, but other than this minor detail I think the decision to cast non-white actors in non-human/non-orc racial roles is good. Yes, it’s a break with Tolkien’s original intent and yes, that is a good thing, and we should say so. Middle-earth cleansed of its stupid racial essentialist ideology is better than Middle-earth with it.

Conclusion

I’m not convinced this show is going to be good, I think it could be a little slow and perhaps a bit weak, but it has a lot of potential and I’ll be watching with interest to see how they change the original world building. The decisions they have made so far have been positive interpretations of, or outright changes to, the original work. Let’s give them some time and see what kind of magic they can build up in this world – and ignore the racist losers who want us to slavishly worship a racist 1930s ideal.

A while ago I wrote about re-reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s famous Arthurian re-telling, The Mists of Avalon, in the light of the revelations about her paedophilia and abuse of her own (and others’) children. The Mists of Avalon was a big inspiration to me when I was very young (perhaps about the age of 14 or 15, I don’t recall) and introduced me to the entire canon of pagan/new age re-imagining of ancient British history, concepts of the conflict between christianity and earlier religions and how it affected our culture, as well as leading me to an entire world of eco-feminist and neo-pagan ideology. But it’s hard to believe that Marion Zimmer Bradely (MZB)’s paedophilia and general nastiness couldn’t have shown through in her book, so I decided to re-read it and find out what it is like when viewed as an adult. I’m also interested in how its feminism presents to adults, and how to interpret it given all the additional theory and philosophy that has been developed since she wrote. Obviously I’m not a feminist, but I think if something is obvious sexist, pro-paedophile or just generally immoral one should be able to say so, and nothing is sacred (certainly not on this blog!), so let’s see.

In the first installment I identified some pretty terrible themes and some pretty horrible elements to the story, and since then I have started Book 2, which is just … well, it’s phenomenally boring. So I got side-tracked reading The Atlan Saga by Jane Gaskell. It’s really incredibly to compare these two writers, who were roughly contemporaries and both made their names reimagining ancient stories from a female perspective. Quite apart from anything else, Gaskell is a much better and more interesting writer, with a much more engaging and entertaining writing style, but her stories also have much more happening in them. Book 2 of The Mists of Avalon is basically a bunch of women sitting in rooms talking about who is going to get pregnant, and long scenes of Gwenhwyfar and Lancelet not fucking. It’s deeply tedious. But there are a few things going on in it that are worth exploring.

Marion Zimmer Bradley Hates Women

The first thing that really stands out in Book 2, and that is repeated over and over until you can’t escape it, is that MZB really holds women in contempt. All the women in the story except Morgaine and Viviane are either boring, stupid, incurious broodmares, or nasty bullies. They are also inactive, sitting around waiting for things to happen to them, and have very shallow, poorly-developed characters. We learn a lot about Lancelet, Arthur and Merlin, and secondary characters like Cai, Balan or Kevin get a fair amount of attention and detail. They also get to do things – they go to war, they ride horses, they fall off horses, they help women to escape from swamps, they make jokes and lead soldiers and stuff. In contrast we learn almost nothing about any of the women of the court beyond Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar, and Gwenhwyfar in particular is portrayed as a weak and terrible character. She has agorophobia, she has longed for Lancelet for no reason since the moment she met him, she is a submissive wife full of worries and doubts and she is unable to have children. Thanks to MZB’s rather awful habit of giving us insight into the thoughts of all the major female characters we get to learn about Gwenhwyfar’s inner life and it’s all self-doubt, self-criticism and fear. She is an unpleasant character, weak and stupid and scared. The only woman in this book with any pride or capacity for action is Morgaine, who is also a highly judgmental and unpleasant person.

The rest of the women are just stupid lumps who sit around spinning and idly exchanging gossip. Morgaine’s contempt for them is shown most clearly in the spinning scene in chapter 7, where she asks herself “do these women think of nothing but marriage?” and the narrative voice (which alternates between a neutral voice and the viewpoint of the major characters without much clarity) describes how they gossip about morning sickness and marriage and scandal, and she ends up falling into a trance that ends in a vision of blood and the entire gathering scattering. It is also in this scene that Gwenhwyfar is reduced to tears by another woman simply mentioning the ability to have children, and now I’m 100 pages into book 2 and this is seriously the most interesting thing that has happened. It is 8 chapters devoted to the dull, humdrum boredom of women’s lives. Women are boring, sitting around doing nothing, while the men are interesting, and the men take action.

The anti-feminist tone

Now, this might be interesting and insightful if it were told from some kind of perspective which attempted to build an alternative world out of the women’s boredom, or to explore it as a prison or a source of stifled creativity, or some other perspective which enabled us to understand that this cloistered women’s life into which Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar have been entrapped is still important or a source of some secret value, or at least enabled us to understand that these women could and should aspire for more, that their secrets and hopes and goals are stifled and they have greater dreams and goals. But we never get shown this. Instead we get regular, dismissive descriptions of women and women’s lives, contempt for the women who are victimized by this world, the women attacking each other, and occasional statements reinforcing the status quo from the main female characters.

For example, at the beginning of Book 2 Morgaine is hiding in the household of King Lot, some Scottish arsehole, who is a famous lecher. While Morgaine is in labour Lot’s wife returns to the main hall, where Lot is sexually assaulting one of her maids. This is what we get:

Lot sat watching, one of Morgause’s younger waiting-women on his lap and his hand playing casually with her breasts; as Morgause came in, the woman looked up apprehensively and started to slide from his knees, but Morgause shrugged. “Stay where you are; we have no need of you among the midwives, and tonight at least I shall be with my kinswoman and have no leisure to argue with you over a place in his bed. Tomorrow it might be another matter.

This is a good example of MZB’s contempt for the female characters in her stories, and also for how she establishes the right of men to do what they want in this world. This girl has no choice in what her king does to her and everyone knows it, the fault is entirely Lot’s, but the queen blames her anyway and the narrative structure of the entire scene makes no effort to establish the helplessness of the girl or the power structures at play which set the women against each other. Basically if Lot victimizes a girl she’s a slut; she deserved it; if she gets caught by his wife well then woebetide her. This is very conservative writing about sex and power.

In case one doubts, there are other points in the story where major characters make clear that there is an order to the world, and that order has men active and on top and women at the bottom. For example in chapter 5 Igraine gives us this little speech about the order of things:

Among the Tribes, indeed, the stronger women fought at the side of the men – there had been, of old, a battle-college kept by women – but from the beginning of civilization it had been the work of men to hunt for food and to keep off invaders from the hearth-fire where their pregnant women and little children and old folk were sheltered; and the the work of women to keep that hearth safe for them.

There is no sense here of disapproval or of desire for change – just a statement of fact about the world that is, followed by a little religious theory (which I don’t quote here) about how the binding of King and Queen symbolized this natural order of things. This is the voice of one of the major characters giving form to the story, with no push-back against it at all. And in case this isn’t clear, a little later Morgaine herself outlines her view of the role of feminism in this world:

And why should it be for the King to give me, as if I were one of his horses or dogs? Morgaine wondered, but shrugged; she had lived long in Avalon, she forgot at times that the Romans had made this the common law, that women were the chattels of their menfolk. The world had changed and there was no point in rebelling against what could not be altered.

Remember, this is supposed to be a feminist re-telling of the Arthurian legend. There’s your feminism there: the central female character of the book saying that the world had changed to make women chattel, and there was no point fighting against it. Note too that this rumination of Morgaine’s is followed by a discussion of building the Round Table, and philosophizing about whether the war with the Saxons will ever end takes up more space in the text than Morgaine’s brief, single paragraph about not bothering to change the world and just accepting her role as chattel.

I really don’t understand how this book got its reputation as a feminist tale.

Extremely conservative views of sex

A final, super weird thing that has happened in my journey through Book 2 is the strange sex scene between Lancelet and Morgaine, in which Morgaine lays out an extremely regressive and old-fashioned view about sex. Remember that Morgaine is the closest we have to a main character or narrative voice in this story, and as far as I can tell we’re meant to sympathize with or at least engage with her character – she is an unpleasant, judgmental, selfish piece of work, but as far as I can tell she’s the person the story is meant to be about, so I think we’re supposed to at least understand her and take her voice as the authoritative tone of the story. So she creeps away from the room she shares with Elaine (one of the character-less waiting-women of this boring story) to find Lancelet. They sneak away to an orchard where they start to have sex. Morgaine knows Lancelet really loves Gwenhwyfar (we’ve had multiple chapters of Lancet and Gwenhwyfar making eyes at each other and only Morgaine noticing for some reason), but she wants to fuck him anyway. But Lancelet won’t fuck her! He won’t “hurt or dishonour” her, and so they proceed to have a long period of sexual play that she seems to really enjoy – she writes that “her body cried out for the pleasure he gave her” – but she gets really angry that they aren’t fucking. She says

What of the flow of life between their two bodies, male and female, the tides fo the Goddess risign and compelling them? Somehow it seemed to her that he was stemming that tide, that he was making her love for him a mockery and a game, a pretense. And he did not seem to mind, it seemed to him that this was the way it should be, so that they were both pleasured … as if nothing mattered but their bodies, that there was no greater joining with all of life. To the priestess, reared in Avalon and attuned to the greater tides of life and eternity, this careful, sensuous, deliberate lovemaking seemed almost blasphemy, a refusal to give themselves up to the will of the Goddess.

This is just a lot of words to say that sex should be for procreation only, and anything except fucking is bad. There’s no space in this conception of sex for lesbianism, for example, and if your religion tells you that “careful, sensuous, deliberate lovemaking” is “almost blasphemous” … well, your religion is nasty.

But this is the main character, whose religion is meant to be in contrast to christianity, and everyone presents this story about how the pagan worldview was better and freer and the sadness of losing it … I’m sure we’re meant to understand Morgaine as a tragic representative of a lost world that was better for women, presented as a reimagining of the old stories from a feminist perspective.

But to me it just seems like an incredibly cramped and narrow vision of sex, presented by an unpleasant and judgmental woman who hates all other women, in a story that presents women as weak and characterless, in a world where only men matter.

I don’t think that’s feminism.

Conclusion

I don’t know how I managed to finish Book 2 when I was young, it’s so boring and so relentlessly negative. But it was the 1980s, I was at school, there was nothing else to do, I guess I read a lot and reading countless pages of whinging women spinning was more interesting than hanging out with my family, so fair enough. But what about the adults who talked about MZB’s work as a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legends? It’s not constructing any kind of better world, and it certainly isn’t presenting to us a world where women are equal to men that was torn away by christianity. I don’t understand why the critics and writers of that time held it up in that way. Were they so desperate for women’s representation in fantasy and science fiction that they were willing to sell this as a feminist story rather than a nasty tale of boring women sniping at each other while men fight and build kingdoms? Was feminism so under-developed at that time that stories about women spinning while they wait for their men to come home from the war were considered to be somehow enlightening or revealing of some deep inner spirit of women? I don’t understand how the books got so much critical acclaim.

It could be that things change in Book 3, Morgaine turns vengeful against this world and tries to change it, but in truth I’m not sure if I can persevere with this project – I have 10 more chapters of Book 2 to wade through and there’s no sign of anything happening soon. I want to understand the books that contributed to modern fantasy, and this series was very influential, but I don’t know how much longer I can stomach the court of King Arthur in this supposed feminist re-envisioning of it. It’s not very nice, and everyone in this story is awful. If you have any alternative perspective on this, I hope to hear in comments. Otherwise, stay tuned, maybe after a few more months I’ll have managed to struggle onward to the point where something actually happens …