Monsters


My appetite’s unchanged
Sink into dream; these enchanted depths
The realm of muted wisdom
Slowly descend; trust ignites the darkness
And bliss is this drowning moment
Believe me I am sorry
To charm with bitter eyes; mesmerizing
Careless magic turns upon itself, washed down in ritual

Our heroes return, their souls blackened, from explorations of ancient ruins on the surface of Kua. Dissent has riven their group, as Siladan knows that Adam and Al Hamra found something important but will not share their information with the rest of the group. They sell the sugar globes they found, but money is becoming pressing; in three weeks their next payment on the Beast of Burden comes due, and although they have the funds to cover it they know that a single bad experience in space will force them into debt. They need to rest, and they need to make money.

Siladan wanted to return to Kua and examine the cadaver clock. He confronted Al Hamra about it, but Al Hamra made the reasonable point that the clock had lain undisturbed for 200 years and probably was not going to be discovered again any time soon; before they examined it in more detail they needed to know more about how these things work, and find out what risks they might be taking. In any case, they needed money; so Siladan returned to the libraries on Coriolis to research a book they had found, Philonimus Guide to the Reach, which puported to hold the secret to treasures in the Rimward Reach.

The Rimward Reach is a thin and widely dispersed asteroid belt in the outer reaches of the Kua system, which is distinguished as a graveyard for Firstcome ships. No one knows how they were destroyed or how they ended up there, but it is well understood that these ships are haunted by creatures from the Dark Between the Stars. Brave explorers occasionally attempt to loot these ships, but the effort is dangerous: many evil creatures hide in the wrecks of the ships, and the salvage work is grim and deadly. Philonimus’ Guide supposedly contained clues to the location of wrecks that could be looted, and to this end Siladan bent his research skills to attempting to find a safe site for exploration.

He soon discovered that Philonimus had compiled his guide by visiting asylums for the insane in various systems, and interviewing old pilots who had been committed after the pressures of the dark became too much. Mostly his stories were fever dreams, hallucinations or out-and-out lies by people who had never been pilots, and Siladan slowly lost patience with the book until he was on the verge of quitting, sure that it was just a collection of mad dreams. But in a chapter entitled the Tower he found reference to a dead ship, floating in space between the asteroid belt and the Reach, unhaunted, that could be found by careful explorers who were willing to “thread” an asteroid cluster whose particular description made it identifiable. The chapter referenced the Eye of Anuba, a collection of asteroids in a strange orbit just beyond the asteroid belt, which were constantly clashing and highly mobile, in some kind of weird gravitational distortion. This dead ship apparently lay somewhere beyond the Eye of Anuba, and if one flew a direct course from Kua to the Eye, threaded it carefully and returned to a direct line from Kua, with good sensor work one could find the ship.

The Eye of Anuba would take a week to reach on the Beast of Burden. They decided to try it.

Running Dark

They left as soon as Siladan had confirmed the details, heading on a straight line from Kua to the asteroid belt. They passed the asteroid belt uneventfully after 6 days and headed into the open space towards the Eye of Anuba, intending to cut as close as was safe to the small and deadly cluster, loop over it, and then return strictly to the line of their travel. Everyone knows that entering the Eye of Anuba is fatal, but it is relatively safe with modern ship’s computers to pass nearby, though no sane captain would ever have reason to – it was possible that a ship could float in the dark just beyond the Eye and be undetected for a thousand years. Thinking of the loot, they cut their course near the Eye, diverging slowly from a straight line through its meteoric heart and intending to bounce near it and over the other side.

It was then that Siladan detected the ship: a large vessel running dark, transponder off, heading straight towards the Eye of Anuba.

He alerted the captain. A full sensor scan revealed all the details of the ship: it was the Orun II, an ice-hauler out of Coriolis, owned by a legitimate company called Melem Gessura. The ship has a well-documented log of missions to and from the asteroid belt stretching back many years, no serious legal disputes, and all the evidence suggests it is a serious and well-respected old ice-hauler with no secrets. Yet here it was, running dark in the space beyond the asteroid belt, heading straight for the Eye of Anuba and certain destruction.

The captain hailed it, but received no response. He hailed it twice more and received no response. Strictly speaking – legally speaking – they had received no distress call and could proceed on their mission without being in the wrong. Who were they to judge if a ship’s crew had decided to ignore outsiders and head to certain death? But something about this was wrong. They decided to investigate. They changed course and headed for the ship.

As they neared the rear of the ship Al Hamra again attempted to hail it, and again received no response. However, for the briefest of moments they all saw a flash of light from the stern, a brief sequence of brilliant flashes that was obviously intended to be a distress signal. Someone without comms was trying to get their attention. They decided to dock.

Saqr took the Beast of Burden in to the stern, and they extended their docking bay to one of the stern airlocks. While they docked Reiko Ando took the fighter out of their aft hangar and ran a single circuit around the ship. She confirmed by visual inspection that the ship was undamaged, but the airlocks near the bow had been disabled and the bridge appeared to be powered down. Obviously something was going on inside, and they needed to investigate. They docked, and some of the team moved into the ship:

  • Gunner Adam (Soldier)
  • Captain Al Hamra (Mystic)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)
  • Doctor Bana Delecta (Medicurg)

Saqr and Oliver Greenstar stayed on board to monitor the situation and protect the ship, and the rest of the team entered the ship.

Ancient Warriors

They emerged into a large chamber, clearly an access hall, with large doors sealing it off from the engineering section. Adam set up an overwatch point at the airlock while Dr. Delecta tried to get her motion sensor working. It worked briefly, points of light indicating that there was movement in the room beyond the door and somewhere above them and to their right; and also movement to their left, heading rapidly towards them. Before she could give a proper warning a beast emerged from the shadows and attacked them, striking at Adam with a mercurium sword. It was fast, large and very very dangerous, and before they could act properly it had torn deep cuts in Adam’s chest and struck Al Hamra with its claws, a strange and otherworldly cold sinking through his chest and draining his will to live. Stunned, he fell back in terror and it was left to the rest of the group to bludgeon and shoot it to death. Finally the strange creature was dead, but not before it had nearly killed both Adam and Al Hamra. It was some kind of semi-human guardian, armed with a mercurium sword and wearing strange ritual body armour that Siladan dated to at least 300 years old. Its face had been expressionless all through the battle, like they were fighting an animated doll. But it was flesh and blood – so much blood! – and its armour obviously significant. What was it?

Adam stripped its armour as Reiko Ando struggled with the motion detector and got it working, revealing again that someone was moving around in bulkheads above them. Adam sprang up into the bulkhead and managed to grab a girl hiding in the shadows, dragging her down into the light to talk.

She was happy to talk, and begged them for help. Her name was Ayda Leon and she was the deckhand on this ship. They had been on a standard mission transporting ice from the asteroid belt to Kua, but one of their crew had noticed on routine inspection that one of the ice blocks held four stasis chambers inside it. They dug out the stasis chambers and put them in the forward observatory, but their captain had opened one, and been possessed by a djinn. After the possession it freed the creatures in the other chambers, possessed them, and started killing the crew. She had fled into the maintenance ducts, and the engineer Atallah Ard had fled to the engineering rooms. Before he fled, though, he took control of the ship, turned it to the Eye of Anubar, and set it to full power. Now he had locked himself in the machine halls, shut off power to the bridge, and was waiting to die. Another member of their crew, Kolb Zir, had locked himself in the workshop ‘midships, and had jammed the elevator to the bow. She could not convince Atallah to turn off the engines and without access to the bridge they could not turn the ship around or change its course, so they were doomed unless they could kill the djinn.

She rolled up her sleeves, revealing arms covered in tattoos made to look like henna patterns, and asked the characters, “Are you gonna help me? Or am I gonna die out here in the Dark?”

They had no choice but to help. They banged on the door of the machine hall and eventually convinced the engineer Atallah to let them in. As Aydah had said, there was no way for him to turn the ship around, and even if he turned off the engines they would still fly into the Eye of Anuba eventually. Atallah did not care: he was willing to die to take the djinn to hell with him. But they were not, and they were not willing to let Kolb Zir die either.

Adam stood up, blood smeared on his stolen ancient armour, and Al Hamra, shivering and cold and terrified by his near death, stepped forward, steadying himself on a piece of warm machinery as he faced his crew. They would rescue Kolb, and find a way to turn this ship around. Here they could do good deeds, and get good rewards. It was a good day.

All they had to do was kill a djinn and its ancient bodyguards.

Our heroes have dug deep into an ancient cave and recovered some artifacts, but the Teranganu Valley still holds secrets, in particular the mysterious towers that stood beyond the plateau where they found the Sentinel. Local rumour suggested that the tower was haunted with some hideous beasts from the Dark Between the Stars, but the party had two mystics, and a set of Spirit Lenses that enabled them to see the incorporeal and evil spirits they most feared. One of their number, Al Hamra, had the power to render darkmorphs solid, making them vulnerable to physical attack[1]. With such powers they believed they could hope to dig further into the secrets of the valley before their rival Dr. Wana used her unorthodox methods to uncover them; and so they decided to explore the towers.

The roster for today’s mission:

  • Gunner Adam (Soldier)
  • Captain Al Hamra (Mystic)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Pilot Saqr Geroushi (Pilot)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)
  • Doctor Bana Delecta (Medicurg)

They flew by grav bike to the towers and first circled them looking for signs of danger, but found none. There were three towers rising from a shared base, perhaps 40m high and 60m across, so not very large and barely tall enough to rise above the thick jungle. The towers were built of pale stone, covered in moss and creepers, mostly intact but with occasional breeches where parts of the walls had crumbled under the pressure of time. The tower rose just above the jungle crown, but near its base the trees appeared strangely stunted and twisted, as if some poison or foul influence corrupted the forest in the immediate vicinity of the towers. The PCs set their grav bikes down in the shadows of the towers and searched the base for an entrance.

There was none. There was no way into the towers at their base, nor was there any visible way in higher up. The towers appeared to have been designed with no entrance of any kind. They returned to the grav bikes and scouted higher up, until right at the top they found two small arches that would allow them admission to the tower. They parked their grav bikes on the roof and entered the main tower.

darkbound

They descended stairs to an empty room, lit by streaks of sunlight falling through breaks in the wall, finding nothing of any note. A set of stairs in one corner led them down into a larger room, in the centre of which they could see a body. They moved into the room to investigate the body, but before they could something pale and vicious came running out of the shadows and attacked Adam. It was a strange, shriveled wretch of a man but it moved incredibly fast and struck him with lightning speed, stabbing at him with vicious claws that were not human in any way. It grabbed him by the arm and tried to bite him with a sunken mouth lined with broken teeth, surrounding him with the stench of death and decay. The entire group felt a strange heavy feeling of dread fall over them, very much like the feeling they had experienced when they activated the cube of terror – but now there was no sunlight, and this strange non-human man trying to kill them. They attacked it, but before they could kill it it suddenly disappeared.

The room fell silent, and after a moment to collect their thoughts they returned to exploring the body. Adam, too callous to be shaken, retired to the stairs and took an overwatch position over the room as his colleagues approached the body. So it was that he was ready when three of the strange human creatures appeared from nowhere and attacked the group. They had almost complete surprise, but he was able to shoot one in the head, knocking it away from Al Hamra and sparing him from the first strike. The other two appeared behind Saqr and Dr. Delecta, tearing huge wounds in their limbs and striking them down to the ground. They lay on the ground dying as the rest of the group battled the three beasts, driving them away and then killing them after a few seconds of brutal battle. As the last one died Al Hamra used his mystic powers to dive into the strange beast’s mind, and after moments of horrific encounter with the Dark Between the Stars he was able to learn that these creatures were Darkbound: once humans, bound for two long to a djinn or some other Darkmorph, they had lost their souls and become a kind of ghoul devoted to destroying the living. He also learned that there were only three in the whole building – they had cleared the tower.

Adam rushed to Dr. Delecta and bound her wounds, and then helped Saqr to recover. The two of them lay in the slick of their own blood, stunned by the savagery of the attack. While they recovered the rest of the group searched the body, finding an ancient and beautiful thermal pistol, light armour, and a book called “Arvan’s Exomorphs”. It was a man, probably an explorer of some kind, and judging by the age of his weapons and armour he had died at least 200 years ago. He carried nothing that could tell them about the nature of the tower.

They found nothing else in the room, so proceeded down to the base of the tower, confident now that it had been cleared. The base was empty, and from inside they confirmed that there really were no entrances – it was not just that they had been blocked up from within, but there really were none. The only entrance was on the very top – why had this tower even been built?

In a small annex to the main tower they found a domed room in which the dead explorer had set up his camp. They found a tent, a computer with a library database, various weapons and tools, and some ruined food. It seemed obvious that he had camped here and explored the rest of the building from this base – but how had he entered the tower? And how had he known about it?

On the far side of the main tower they found another small secondary tower, that rose thin and empty to the same height as the main tower. They climbed it wearily, not expecting to find anything, but at the top level they found a narrow set of stairs leading into a large domed room. Adam and Al Hamra entered first, the others waiting downstairs to see if it was safe. In the room they found a horrendous structure of chains and cogs made of bone, with dessicated human bodies hanging in strange arrangements amongst the chains. There were perhaps 20 bodies, some pinned to the walls and others hanging in horrific corpse carousels in the middle of the room. Using the spirit lenses Al Hamra was able to see that there were flows of strange dark energy running through the chains of the structure, pooling in the bodies as if they were capacitors and flooding onward towards the centre. Something somehow had broken the structure, however, and the flow of energy built up near the centre and then dissipated, leaking out of the building instead of accumulating in the centre where it could form a source of evil power for some dark machine. They had discovered a Cadaver Clock, a strange source of dark energy that could fuel mystic powers. This Cadaver was long since broken, interfered with by some mortal power. Had the dead explorer broken it? And what had it powered? Perhaps its dark power had sustained the Darkbound creatures that had attacked them, starving and shriveled ancient servants of some greater power? Or perhaps whatever power had enslaved those beasts had fed on the energy from this machine, and had long since faded away after the Cadaver Clock broke?

They did not stay to investigate. Horrified by the strange silent machinery of death, they withdrew slowly down the stairs. Swallowing his disgust, Al Hamra told the rest of the party that the room was empty, and they slowly made their way back down the tower and up the main tower towards the grav bikes. No one else realized that there was a horror in the top chamber of the building, and no one noticed his pale, shaking terror. They retreated to the bikes, and if Al Hamra was a little too eager to put the planet behind them – perhaps a little too full of disgust at the shadows in the jungle – no one paid it any mind. They returned to the shuttle, none the richer for their incursion into the towers, and left Teranganu Valley behind them.

As the shuttle streaked away from the surface into orbit, Al Hamra pressed his face against the glass panes of the passenger bay, and wondered: had he left behind some great and secret route to power? Had he swung those bodies just so, could he have absorbed all that dark energy? What great secrets, what dark powers had he left behind?

What dark god could a Mystic become?


fn1: We have started to come up with new and interesting mystic powers to supplement those in the book.

One war took, led to his death.
One a bird lifted over the high sea.
One the hoary wolf broke with death.
One, bloody-cheeked, a warrior hid in a hole in the ground.
Likewise God destroyed this earthly dwelling
Until the strongholds of the giants stood empty,
Without the sounds of joy of the city-dwellers.

Our heroes have made camp on the beach of the Teranganu Lake, and fought off an insidious attack by Djanna from the marshes. The following morning they left Al Hamra, Dr. Delecta and Oliver Greenstar to recover from their wounds and protect the camp, and prepared for their first full day of exploring the Teranganu area.

The cast for this session:

  • Gunner Adam (Soldier)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Pilot Saqr Geroushi (Pilot)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)

Their initial plan had been to help the Sogoi people to repel the dig site near the river that was upsetting the ancient spirits of the valley, and to this end they had given the Sogoi leaders two vulcan pistols and suggested they would return the next day with a plan. But as the day dawned bright and suffocatingly hot they decided against this course. Although they very much wanted to disrupt their nemesis Dr. Wana’s work, they did not know how powerful she was or what the consequences of a direct attack on her work might be – if she learned it was they who did it, would she unleash violent reprisals on them in Coriolis or across systems? Their main goal in coming to the surface of Kua had been to investigate the dig site where the Statuette of Zhar Bagha had been found, and they knew where that site was, so they decided that they would avoid involving themselves in local disagreements, and avoid entanglements with their nemesis. They would go straight to the abandoned dig that their contact Lavin Tamm had led them to after they rescued him on Coriolis, and look for further artifacts.

The hollow rock

They had camped on the beach on the east side of the lake. Dr. Wana’s dig site was north of them, on the far side of the river, obscured by a thick bank of jungle, and the rock lay in more dense woodland on the opposite shore of the lake. From their camp they could see its moss-covered top looming above the trees, and just beyond it the tips of two crumbling stone towers that were rumoured to be infested with spirits from the Dark Between the Stars. From their camp to the rock was just a short trip on their grav bikes, and they set off early in the day to try and make the base of the rock before the sun was too high and the entire area became impossibly hot. They packed some archaeological equipment, weapons and armour, and flew across the lake on their grav bikes, landing at the southwestern tip of the rock within a few minutes. Here they found three cave mouths, perfectly cut and obviously not natural, which had been obscured by large trees that had now been burnt away. A short distance from the cave mouths was a large camp, obviously abandoned. They had found their site.

Investigation of the camp confirmed their suspicions. They found Lavin Tamm’s locker, and the lockers of another eight people who showed no signs of having returned to the camp after their ill-fated expedition. Foodstuffs were packed and eating utensils cleaned and stacked, a computer terminal in standby mode and beds made. They had clearly left their camp for a day’s work and simply never returned. There were no tabulae in the camp and no notes, so no way to find out what progress the archaeologists had made on the dig, or if they had any forewarning of whatever had overcome them. Siladan attempted to access their communications terminal to identify whether or not they had sent an emergency signal offsite, but unfortunately all he was able to do was trigger an emergency security warning that triggered an extra-orbital response squad. Checking the manual he identified that they had four hours until that orbital response arrived. He apologized profusely to his team but it was too late: now they had four hours to find out what had happened here and recover any artifacts left behind by the dead team.

They entered the rock. Here they found a network of perfectly smooth, perfectly formed tunnels that curved and wandered through the rock with no apparent purpose, intersecting and overlapping each other in spirals and whorls until finally one tunnel entered a large cavern, perhaps 50 m long and 20 m wide, that formed the single terminus of the entire strange system. Since there was no light in here and they had no night vision systems, the PCs did not bother sneaking in. They turned on their torches, and entered the cavern.

Found footage

They found the first body just near the entrance, collapsed against the cave wall with an accelerator pistol and a tabula lying on the ground nearby. The body was dessicated and pale, wearing the same uniform that they had seen Lavim Tamm trying to hide in his hotel room on Coriolis. The uniform was crusted with dried blood around its chest, from which a third arm had erupted, tearing the cloth of the overalls and rending flesh and bone apart in its eruption. They recoiled in horror at the sight of this strange monstrosity, everyone stepping back in disgust. After a moment to try and understand what they were seeing, Adam approached and carefully inspected the arm. It was not fully human, grey-skinned and vaguely scaly, with a contorted spine of some kind sticking out of its elbow and only three clawed fingers on the end of the limb. Although it had torn the victim’s chest apart when it emerged from the body, it was also clearly connected to and part of the body.

They looked at each other with growing unease. Something very bad had happened here, and it was something they could not understand. They turned their gaze – and their weapons – to face into the cavern, and continued their exploration.

The cavern had the same smooth, perfectly-made style as the hallways, but for six columns set in two parallel rows near each side of the cave. There were no other physical features. As they advanced they saw more bodies scattered around the room, and a collapsed tent of the kind used to cover archaeological digs set at the far end of the cavern. Although the far end of the chamber was dim in the light of their exo-suits it was clear that nothing else moved or lived in here. They inched forward.

The second body was lying against the first pillar they came to. It had dropped a vulcan carbine on the floor next to its right leg – or what was once its right leg. The overalls of this leg were torn and shredded, and the leg changed near the hip into a tight bundle of tentacles, now dead and dessicated. The dead worker had obviously been shooting his own leg, because they could see bullet wounds in the tentacles and his left, human leg. The tentacles had rough suckers lined with hooks, and it looked as if he had been strangled by at least one of them at some point, because his neck was marked with contusions and tears of the same shape. It was unclear if he had died from the self-inflicted gunshot wounds or the strangling. Again, it looked as if the tentacles had extruded from his leg as if naturally part of it, but had at the same time done massive damage to him. Adam checked the carbine, finding the magazine empty, Siladan labeled the man’s tabula, and they moved further into the room towards the tent.

The rest of the dig team had died around the tent. Two more appeared to have died of strange transformations: one, lying a little distance from the tent, had had her neck elongated like a rubber band so that her head flopped on the floor, and all the fingers on her hands stretched like they were made of rubber; the other had a hugely distended belly and neck, and appeared to have died of choking. One of the dead had been shot several times in the chest, and the remaining three had been slaughtered by some horrific beast. One near the tent appeared to have been stabbed from behind by a huge impaling weapon of some kind, leaving a huge hole in his chest and causing him to drop an accelerator pistol, a mysterious cube-shaped object, and a tabula. The other two lay a little distance from the tent towards the cavern entrance, where they had been torn into pieces by some huge force. Even a cursory check assured them that there were no survivors – the only person who had escaped the carnage was Lavim Tamm, and now they understood exactly why he had been so traumatized when they found him on Coriolis.

They searched the collapsed tent. It had covered the dig site, which was a Firstcome-era frieze on one part of the rear wall of the cavern. The dig team had obviously been picking this frieze away, destroying it as they did so, and although only partially complete they had found an alcove that looked like it might have held some object. On the floor near the alcove was an artifact case, a kind of suitcase that fills with a special gel-like material that protects fragile objects from damage regardless of their shape. Just outside the tent a camera drone lay on the ground, a small red light indicating it was in power save mode. They had filmed their dig.

They decided that discretion was the better part of valour. They collected the camera drone, all the tabulae, the artifact case and the strange cube, and headed out as quickly as they could. Once outside they rushed back to their camp, plugged in the drone, and watched the last few minutes of the archaeology team’s life.

The team had been digging as normal when suddenly the two men inside the tent had started arguing, and one of them had rushed out of the tent, yelling back at his colleague in the tent and then vomiting just outside the tent. His colleague came out and also began vomiting, while the men outside the tent began to look around uneasily and warn each other that they felt strange. One of them asked if something was coming, and they began to act terrified and confused. After perhaps a minute of this growing uneasiness one of the men drew a pistol, pointing it at another team member and yelling “You can’t stop me! I will not fail!” before he shot him three times. The other members of the team began to panic, one yelling “Sarcofagoi!” before they all began to run away from the camera. As they began to move a dark, unidentifiable shape emerged from nowhere and stabbed a massive spike through the chest of the shooter, making him jerk up into the air and throw his gun and tabula to the ground, along with a cube that fell out of his coat. Moments later a nearby woman, backing away in horror, suddenly shivered and twitched and then died as her neck stretched impossibly long and her fingers twisted and stretched. People screamed more and ran, the dark shape dropping its victim and chasing two of them. In the distance they could hear gunshots, and the dark shape disappeared from view as it pursued its victims. Moments later the team fell silent, and the scene became still, the only sound the slow gurgling chokes of someone just out of view of the camera, dying as his own neck swelled up and cut off his breathing. The dark shape did not return.

They replayed the video, but this time focusing on the man who had fired the gun. It appeared that before the horror began he was fiddling with something in his coat, probably the cube, and about 10 minutes before that he was sending and receiving messages on his tabula. He had obviously done something, summoned something or unleashed some monster from within the cube. They needed to know. With a heavy heart, they set about examining his blood-stained belongings.

Things of stone and wood

Siladan investigated the cube. It was not large, perhaps 5cm on each side, and was made of wood inlaid with strange symbols and sigils that were obviously of Portal Builder origin. Some parts of some of the faces could be depressed like switches, and it did not take Siladan long to decipher the order in which the switches needed to be touched in order to activate the device, though he could not say what it did. It was clear that the dead man had also known how to activate it, and this was what he had been doing moments before the attack began. Had he summoned the monster? And had he done so on someone’s behalf. They activated his tabula, and looked at his last messages…

Conversation: 3rd of the Merchant

Tablet owner: Islir Malhum, dig worker [IM]

Conversation partner: Someone called ZK

ZK: Has work begun?

IM: Yes, the dig is under way

ZK: How’s the timing?

IM: The frieze should be uncovered within a day. It is fragile in the dry air and crumbles easily

ZK: So you should have confirmation of the find by tomorrow night?

IM: Yes, the Icons willing. Work will be fast with this team.

ZK: You understand the pressures here?

IM: Yes, I will contact you as soon as I have confirmation.

 

Conversation: 4th of the Merchant

Tablet owner: Islir Malhum, dig worker [IM]

Conversation partner: Someone called ZK

IM: Sir, the frieze has been removed and the chamber uncovered as you expected.

ZK: Good! Is there a find?

IM: Yes sir, the dig leader is very excited!

ZK: Describe it!

IM: That I cannot, I am not allowed near the tent.

ZK: Typical! No matter. You know what to do?

IM: Activate the box. Wait for them to panic and leave.

ZK: Yes, that is right. Do it now!

IM: Sir, I am concerned. The guard at least is tough. I fear he will not leave just from the effect you promise.

ZK: No matter! I am paying you well. You know what to do if he does not leave?

IM: Yes sir, but there are many of them. I may not prevail.

ZK: Do not fear. If you fire on even one in the climate of the box they will fear Sarcofagoi. They will flee. Then you take the find and leave once the way is clear.

IM: You are sure this will work? I fear for my safety.

ZK: I am paying you to risk your safety. Do not cross me know or your uncertain economic future will be the least of your concerns.

IM: Understood.

ZK: Have you the talisman?

IM: By my heart! I place my trust in the Icons. I will message you when the job is done!

ZK: Good. May the Icons be with you!

 

So, it appeared that about a month ago – two weeks or so before they found Lavim Tamm – this man Islim had been at this dig, and had activated the box on the orders of someone called “ZK”. The box was supposed to create fear in everyone present, and if they did not leave then Islim was to attack one of them, giving the impression he had been possessed by a Sarcofagoi, and then loot the dig site before leaving himself. Unfortunately, when he activated the box he had also conjured, or drawn the attention of, something else, something horrible and very violent. The only person who had escaped the ensuing carnage was Lavim Tamm. It was also possible that Lavim had been stealing the statuette at the same time that the box was activated, and that this had triggered some kind of beast.

Siladan, reviewing the footage and doing some research, concluded that the beast that had been triggered was likely a Sentinel. Sentinels are strange pillar-like creatures from the Portal Builder era, which are triggered by unknown conditions and have the power to twist and warp human flesh, as well as being vicious and merciless combatants. Siladan’s guess was that one of the columns in that chamber had been a Sentinel, and the box had triggered it to activate, with catastrophic consequences for the whole team.

Saqr used his weak mystic powers to probe the box, and confirmed that it did exactly what Islim had been promised – it created fear and dread in everyone within a small radius. Saqr even tested it on himself, terrifying himself without summoning any beasts from the Dark Between the Stars. A useful device to be deployed in difficult situations!

They kept the box and the contents of the artifact case: a pair of Spirit Glasses and two Causality Stones. They had also looted some Sugar Globes from the chamber on their way out. Stowing these treasures away in their shuttle they sat on the beach to watch the camp, wondering what the emergency beacon would summon.

Nothing came. The desiccated corpses had been forgotten, or abandoned, betrayed and lost in the hollow hill.


Picture note: The top picture is by Matt Gaser (I think), whose work can be bought here. The other pictures are from Coriolis itself.

leaving old owl well

Leaving Old Owl Well towards Conyberry

When last we saw our characters they had pacified the lands east of the Triboar trail, and were ready to begin seeking their main goal, Cragmaw Castle. To do this though they needed to find the castle, which was lost somewhere in the Neverwinter Wood, and before they could do that they needed to rest and restock. So, they headed over the hills north of Old Owl Well for the town of Conyberry, where they had been asked to ask a question of a banshee, and where they thought to take some time to recuperate and perhaps have a hot bath. To their consternation, however, Conyberry was a partial ruin, a town long-ago laid waste by barbarians and now only beginning to recuperate. Aside from a mercenary brigade with grandiose titles, a merchant, an inn and a few trapper’s homes the town was a mess of ruined buildings and crumbling walls, not quite the respite they had hoped for and definitely no place to discharge their ill-gotten gains.

They settled in the inn, which to their surprise was a comfortable and welcoming place, and eventually made contact with a wizard who needed to be escorted to the tin town of Caernarvvn, in the mountains to the east of Conyberry. He offered to pay them a Find Familiar scroll in exchange for their support and they agreed, so the next day they set off east, traveling into the sword mountains for three days accompanied by the constant chatter of Raymond d’Cantrus and Verwell the Vertiginous in deep argument.

dawn caernarvvn

Dawn at Caernarrvn

Caernarvvn proved to be an excellent resting place. After three days of uneventful travel they reached the new gateway to the eastern planes, the tin city of Caernarrvn. A collection of narrow and crowded buildings clambering over the steep sides of one of the valleys of the sword mountains, the city looked out over a deep ravine that fell away to a spectacular view of the eastern planes and the distant High Forest. Caernarvvn was a mixed city of dwarves and humans, much of it built underground or in winding alleys and cramped tenements perched precariously on the side of crevasses splitting the ancient mountains, and it was a joy for the PCs to explore the small towns, craftman’s shops, and mixed dwarven/human establishments of this frontier town. Down the steep-sided ravine and along the rushing river lay the larger town of Triboar, fat and settled in its position on the lowlands and the High Road; but here was the first frontier town on a new road from the plains to Neverwinter, the only civilized pathway through the Sword Mountains, and it reveled in both its uniqueness and its newfound riches. For a week the PCs stayed here, while Raymond d’Cantrus learned the Find Familiar spell they had been gifted and taught the same to Mouse. While they dallied in meaningless scholarship Mostly Smithson prowled the alleys of the town, seeking out weaponsmiths and artists (Tyge stood on the hillsides, staring at the sun); eventually he found a Dwarven tattoo artist, a famous flesh-etcher by the name of Grim Gariful. He attempted to convince Gariful to fashion a tattoo with an ink made from the eye of the Nothic they had killed, and to carve it into Tyge’s skin. The dwarf baulked at fashioning an ink out of the vitreous fluids of a dead monster’s eye, but was willing to consider it for his art; but he refused point blank to sully his needles on the skin of “one of those stinking fascist upstarts”. So it was that Mostly returned to their quarters dejected; they would need to find a better, less bigoted tattoo artist in Neverwinter next time they visited.

They returned to Conyberry, now accompanied by an owl called Nimh and a spider called Fuck Where Is It Now!? But before they left the wizard granted them one more payment for their escort: he told them the location of Cragmaw Castle. At Conyberry they prepared their assault on the castle.

agatha

Before they did though they had one more task to perform. The morning after their return to the ruined town they ventured out northwest into the forest, until they came to a small hovel enfolded in branches, the location of the Banshee Agatha. They pushed aside the thick hides covering the door and into a small, dusty living space, obviously long since abandoned. After a moment a chill filled the air and on the far side of the room, over an old book, the air began to coalesce into the ghostly form of an old, haggard-looking woman.: Agatha the banshee. They had come here to ask her a favour and offer her a gift, and she had come to collect.

The gift they offered was a small silver comb, and in exchange Agatha told them the story of an ancient spellbook, which they had been asked to investigate by Sister Garaele in Phandalin. When Agatha reached out to the comb from Mouse he could feel a terrifying paralysis stretching down his spine and along the base of his skull, but somehow he emerged unscathed and with only a few more grey hairs. After she was done Agatha asked him to drop it in a chest, which contained a viper and a huge haul of silver that he was too scared to even try and steal; hundreds of years of offerings to the banshee lay there unclaimed. Mouse opted not to take any, and the rest of the party chose not to offer any other sacrifices to Agatha in exchange for answers to more questions; instead they withdrew, and as Tyge, last out of the door, withdrew into the sunlight, she saw a strangely wistful look on the ghost’s face as she faded away into her strange undead silence.

cragmaw

From now they were ready to approach Cragmaw castle. They headed south along the Triboar trail, and after a night on the trail headed west into the forest. Tyge and Mostly Smithson helped them find a base of operations, which they built as a treehouse in an old abandoned giant spider nest perhaps an hour’s walk northeast of the castle. As they did this Mouse and Raymond d’Cantrus approached the castle, staying in the cover of the forest and using their familiars to explore the outskirts of the castle. They confirmed it was infested with goblins and other goblinoids but could not establish numbers or power. The group gathered to the southwest of the castle and decided to wait and watch.

As they waited and watched they remembered Yeermik, the goblin chef they had spared at Cragmaw Hideout. He would be inside the castle, toiling away over the stove, and perhaps at some point would emerge from the castle to search for herbs. They settled down to wait.

Sure enough, after several hours as the sun began to set he emerged from the castle, accompanied by two goblin guards, on some kind of food gathering mission. They laid a trap, and after a short battle during which Mostly Smithson was attacked by bees they subdued the guards and reacquainted themselves with Yeermik. He was indeed now the assistant cook at Cragmaw Castle, and had been sent out to collect crickets for dinner by his abusive boss Yegg, even though everyone knows that at this time of year Mantises are best, since they’re fat and mature and you can extract the parasites and eat them fresh and wriggling! Yeermik was obviously very angry at his gang master, and happily offered to help the PCs to lure Yegg and his gangmates out of the castle and kill them. Then Yeermik would be head chef!

Without mentioning to Yeermik the delicate fact that they aimed to kill everyone in the castle, so that he would be the head chef of a gang of 1, they hatched a plan. Mouse would disguise himself as Yeermik and slip into the castle, presenting himself to Yegg and telling him that the two goblin guards who had accompanied him out of the castle had caught a delicious beast and were holding it down, but they needed the rest of the gang to come and help with the kill. Mouse would lead them back along the path to a pit trap, and after they fell into it the PCs would slaughter them with all the honour they deserved. Yeermik instructed Mouse that the most appetizing beast to hold down was a Veermek, and after they had prepared the trap Mouse ran off to the castle. Behind him Yeermik and the rest of the group slipped into the shadows – but nobody thought to tie Yeermik up, and he slipped away once they were hidden.

Mouse entered through a locked gate in the southern wall, using a key given to him by Yeermik. The kitchen was the first door on the left after the gate, and he soon entered into a scene of ruddy warmth, stinking goblin cooking smells, yelling and cowering. Putting on his best impression of Yeermik, Mouse spilled the story about the Veermek. Unfortunately Yegg had questions: was it a striped or spotted Veermek? And were the guards holding it by its wings or its horns or its antennae? Having not thought to ask what a Veermek was, Mouse was forced to guess the answer – and got it wrong! Yegg declared him an impostor, and he and his four guards charged. Mouse fled, but as he left the room running to that southern entrance he realized the entrance was closed, not ajar as he had left it! He managed to get the key in the lock and push himself out the door just in time, and opted to run slowly and tantalizingly close enough to lure Yegg and his guards to the trap.

Glass cannon

This worked beautifully, and Yegg and two of his guards fell into the trap while two more came to a teetering halt just on the edge of the pit. The slaughter that followed was quick and brutal, but the PCs had forgotten that Yeermik was gone, and by the time they had dispatched the last goblin they faced a new challenge: a huge wolf, a drow, an enormous Bugbear and a squad of Hobgoblins came charging down the path to attack them. Hopping along behind the bugbear was Yeermik, yelling “Kill!! Krush krush!! Grol smash!!” He had told King Grol about them, and King Grol had brought all his bodyguards out to kill them!

The battle would have been long and brutal but for the fast action of Tyge. She charged forward, Helmsmasher out, calling wrathful smite down on her sword, and struck King Grol a vicious blow to the heart, channeling the divine wrath of her god as she did so. With a single blow she struck Grol dead in his tracks, before he could even swing his morning star[1]. Moments later Mostly Smithson struck down Grol’s wolf in a fury of lightning and steel, and from hiding Mouse shot the Drow with a crossbow bolt. Shocked and dismayed, she turned and ran, but within moments was pulled down by a sleep spell cast by d’Cantrus – a sleep spell that somehow worked even though Drow are supposed to be immune to sleep! Energized by the extreme power of his magic, d’Cantrus declared himself superior to all that had come before, and stepped forward to cast another spell on the remaining Hobgoblin archers. Before they could flee they were all dead and Yeermik captured. The entire leadership of Cragmaw castle, slain in seconds.

They turned their gaze to Yeermik, who whimpered and cried as they dragged him and the sleeping Drow and tossed them into the pit with the dead goblins. It was time to have a forceful conversation with their treacherous little goblin …


fn1: A critical hit with wrathful smite and divine wrath, with a magic weapon, so 4d6+4 for the sword +2d6 for wrathful smite +4d8 for divine wrath, yielding 46 hp damage. Pretty good for a 3rd level character! And unfortunate for Grol, who had 45 hit points …

They’ve taken the throne
They’re under my skin
Patience won’t be the end of me
They’re thick as thieves

Beware little girl,
The world’s full of bad men
Beware little boy,
The world’s full of bad men

Bad Men, the Eden House

Trump’s latest disgusting faux-pas, in which he told a 7 year old girl that Santa isn’t real, is surely the final and definitive proof that he is a genuinely horrible human being. Not horrible in the sense that his policies are disgusting – we all knew that – but in the sense that he is just a really awful person. Telling a 7 year old girl that Santa isn’t real is something that General Bison would do – it’s comic book super villain stuff, real people don’t do it. But Trump did. This is the latest in a long and enlightening series of episodes which show that he is just a disgusting person. He is a philanderer who takes pride in it and openly admits that he is using power to get what he wants; he cheats on his wife and breaks laws he thinks don’t matter to cover it up; he hates dogs; he claims to love his country but can’t draw the flag or remember the words to the national anthem; he hates Christmas or funerals because they aren’t about him; he made his name on the illusion that he is a tough boss who fires people who fail him but cannot bring himself to actually fire anyone; he feels a natural affinity for autocrats and murderous dictators; he will change all his opinions on a dime if someone tells him they like him; he judges women entirely by their appearance and men purely by how much they posture; he has been bankrupt four times and thinks that is clever; he lies about how rich he is; he doesn’t care at all about the truth of anything except the one truth that he is important; he is 71 years old but cannot shake hands like an adult; he doesn’t understand time zones or know the names of many foreign countries; he dodged Vietnam on the basis of “bone spurs” that were diagnosed by one of his father’s tenants; he is racist, sexist, and vulgar; he eats his steak well done with ketchup. This man hates dogs. He is an awful human being. If you were to look for a way to teach a young man to be a good man, you could show him Trump’s life works and tell him “don’t be like this” and you would be guaranteed to be setting that young man on a good path. It’s so telling about Trump that the only time he has told the truth in the past year is when he is telling a 7 year old girl that Santa isn’t real.

Trump isn’t the only such horrible man in our lives at this time though – we are ruled by them. Brett Kavanaugh is a horrible man, a stinking alcoholic who obviously did what he was accused of doing, and covered it up with bluster and lies and aggrieved tears; Newt Gingrich and all the other men who pressed the impeachment on Bill Clinton have been pushed out of their positions because of sexual misconduct, and are awful men (one of them was Kavanaugh, who devised a slurry of intrusive sexual questions for Clinton but cried when much milder questions were directed at him); Ted Cruz endorsed Trump after Trump insulted his wife and father; Paul Ryan lied about his marathon times, and has made a career as a “serious political thinker” while serving up only flim-flam joke policies to the American public; Mike Pence refuses to be alone with a woman who is not his wife. But they aren’t just an American phenomenon: Boris Johnson once tried to have a journalist beaten up for publishing bad things about him, is a serial philanderer and a joke; Michael Gove is an idiot and a liar; Tony Abbot ran a vicious misogynist campaign of abuse against Julia Gillard and would have brought the entire edifice down around him if he thought it would help, and he told a politician once that he would give them anything “except his arse” if they would make him prime minister. Then there is the cavalcade of dodgy christian fundamentalist politicians in America who adopt a “broad stance” in men’s toilets, or traffic in women, or offer up the worst apologia for rape and sexual assault;  the Australian Nationals politicians who have been revealed to be grubby philanderers as they ponce about the country talking about “family values” and voted against gay marriage because it would “damage the sanctity” of an arrangement they were cheerfully traducing; and let’s not forget the conga line of sexual abusers and rapists in the media, the Les Moonves’s and Harvey Weinsteins and Roger Ailes’s who determine what we read and what we see. And can you look at Mark Zuckerberg and not think that beneath that jeans- and t-shirt exterior beats the heart of a determinedly evil man?

We live in a time when we are ruled by awful men.

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when our politicians either didn’t parade their failed virtue in front of us, demanding that we ban abortion or sex outside of marriage or child rape while they did it – they either didn’t do it, or left those policies vaguely undefined. There was a time when politicians had basic human decency, and would behave well around others even if their policies were unpleasant. John Howard’s policies were atrocious, he wasted 10 years of Australia’s best economic growth on buying votes from middle class Australians, and he instituted the modern policy of abuse of asylum seekers, but he would never tell a child that santa isn’t real and he never sexually assaulted anyone. Paul Keating was an arrogant prick but he genuinely cared about the rights of the poor, of working people, and of Aboriginal people. His policies might not always have helped the people he cared about but he tried – and he at least had a sense of humour. John Major may have squandered the chance to achieve a Tory follow-up to Thatcher’s economic policies, and he may have presided over growing inequality and ill health, but he was a bland and tired man who never raped anyone. It’s a low bar but let’s repeat it: John Major never raped anyone. His successor face-fucked a dead pig.

Where did these awful men come from? Slate attempts to offer something of an explanation for them, defining them as the Old Boys, but their explanation is too focused on America (of course). It doesn’t explain the horrors of Boris Johnson in Britain, Scott Morrison in Australia (or Barnaby fucking Joyce!), those eastern European wannabe despots who are despicable and awful nobodies; it doesn’t have much to say about Erdogan, though perhaps he isn’t actually awful (how old school to only be politically evil, and not also personally despicable!). How is that so many of the men who rule or want to rule the English speaking world are so awful? Not just that their policies are traditionally right wing but that they themselves eschew the basic principles of being a decent man? Is there something wrong with the protestant English-speaking world, that throws up these horrific men? Is there something unique to the democratic systems of the English-speaking world? I wonder if perhaps the winner-take-all nature of our political systems encourages these men, and that perhaps explains why democracies that require coalition-building don’t have them. So they don’t appear in France, Germany, New Zealand, or Japan, because in those systems you have to be able to be liked by people who disagree with you – perhaps then it’s telling that in the one time Australian politicians had to negotiate a coalition the awful man lost and the supposedly bland woman won.

I also wonder if it is something about the right wing of politics? After all, it’s usually the right that attracts the racists and sexists and secret hitlerophiles, so maybe that’s where the awful people go? But that doesn’t explain Kevin Rudd, who kept his awfulness under a bushel until he had power and then burnt so bright before Gillard extinguished his awful light. It doesn’t explain Blair, the hideous vampire. It doesn’t explain Mark Latham, who broke a taxi driver’s arm and spent his early dotage ranting in right-wing journals about all the labour party members who (thankfully for labor and the country) dumped him before he could apply his unique taxi-side negotiating skills to the country. The jury of course is out on Xi Jinping, about whom rumours of womanizing in his youth circulate but who finds it very easy to maintain a squeaky clean image, either because he is or because he controls the media with an iron fist.

So how did we get to be ruled by all these awful men?

I wonder if there is something buried in democracy, some awful bug, which makes it vulnerable to these shoddy personalities, these narcissistic vultures. Or at least if the kind of first past the post, winner-takes-all democracy of the English-speaking world is ultimately as vulnerable to takeover by narcissistic, personality-disordered thugs as any dictatorial system. Maybe it takes 20 years longer, but maybe it’s just as inevitable? Or maybe it’s not true that you should leave people’s personal properties out of your calculation of their political worth. Maybe the personal really is political, and if a politician is personally awful then they will be politically terrible. In my youth there was a strong principle that you don’t bring people’s personal life into politics. But perhaps Trump is the antithesis of that principle: we should absolutely judge politicians by their personal behavior, because they will never be better than they are personally when they are in power. Or maybe something has changed over the past 20 years in our culture, so that people are no longer capable of being better politically than they are personally. If so then you need to make sure that the people you vote for have sterling personal qualities, because if in the past the responsibility of leadership caused people to rise above themselves, it appears that these awful men take the opportunity of leadership to debase themselves. If power corrupts, what hope do we have if all of our leaders are already deeply, awfully corrupt?

I don’t know what the reason is but I do know this: we need to get rid of these awful men. Our civilization cannot survive if we allow these awful men to have any influence, anywhere in our society. We need to drive them out, retire them, get them away from anywhere where there is a lever of power. We don’t know what the systematic problems are that enable these awful men to seize the levers of power, so let’s settle on a simpler program: don’t work with them, don’t help them, don’t vote for them, don’t aid them or abet them. Get them out of power, everywhere.

Let’s build a world where we are not ruled by awful men.

When I was a teenager I remember my father as a difficult man with frustratingly retrograde opinions, which were typical of men of his nationality (British) and his generation (born just before WW2). He was a typesetter, a classic tradesman’s job from the post-war years, and he had the kind of views on race, gender, sexuality and social issues that you might expect of a man of this background and this age. He could say shocking things about non-white people, about women, or about any man who had not followed the same straight and narrow path from school to work that he had done. But his views were mellowed by his love of reading, and by a vague sense of groundedness about how the world actually worked. So for example he would say racist things about Aboriginal people, while also recognizing that they had been treated poorly by white colonizers; he could recognize the basic humanity of non-white people while believing basically that the races shouldn’t mix, and that his race (in particular the “English”) was superior. In my memory of my teenage years, he could say bad things but race issues were not always at the forefront of his mind. If welfare fraud or racial stereotypes or “young people today” came up in conversation he would be difficult, but somehow he still seemed to be navigating the world as it was, despite his limited education and because of his love of reading. My father introduced me to a lot of terrible ideas about Aborigines and women, but he also introduced me to National Geographic magazines, liberal views on sex work and drugs, Erich von Danniken[1] and archaeology more generally, and he always supported my interest in science, geography and reading.

When I was 17 my father lost his job and left me behind in rural Australia to return to the UK, where presumably he thought he might still be able to find work. Sadly a fifty-something typesetter in the late 1980s had no chance of finding new work, since his job had basically been automated away in the space of five years of rapid computer growth, so he ended up living on benefits in a trailer park in Devon. And over the years since he returned to the UK he went from being the infuriatingly backward but still-reachable uneducated man of my childhood to an out-and-out bigot, hating anyone and everyone who was different to him, full of bile and rage at the world and terrified of all the possibilities in it. He went from someone who worked alongside Indian and Caribbean men in industry to a scared old man who refused to visit London because it had “too many foreigners”; from a man who recommended Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to an ignorant climate change denialist; from a migrant in Australia to a man who hated all migrants and believed there were millions of “illegal asylum seekers” living in the UK; from a proud working man to a benefit fraudster who sat in the mobile home he was illegally buying with government rental support complaining about European benefit fraudsters coming to the UK to “abuse our generosity”; from a man who took pride in his nation’s role in resisting the Nazis, to a believer in every sinister lie he heard about Jews, gypsies, communists and gays. Over 30 sad years he became the Racist Uncle from central casting, terrified of the world and angry at everyone who was not an old, bitter man like him.

It was not just my father either: everyone else in my own and the older generations in my family became the same over those 30 years. Before I returned from a brief period working in the UK to Japan, I remember sitting in my grandmother’s living room while she told me that “them black people will get what’s coming to them when Cameron’s elected”, and my uncle warned me “don’t argue with me, sunshine” while he spat bile and invective over the EU – while he was resting in the UK in between work placements in the Europe. Of the four men in my generation or above who I still know alive and living in the UK, two of them had their best career opportunities in Europe, and one of those got his first wife there.  Yet there they sat, hurling hatred and scorn at everyone connected with the European project, at black people, foreigners, young women – anyone who wasn’t like them.

This kind of hateful bile was a constant of my visits to my family in south west England, Brexit country. But there was one other constant every time I went down there: on every tea table, or clipped and stuck to the wall, or in the recycling bin (that they hated), or left scattered around to finish the crosswords: The Daily Mail. And from every bitter, pinched and angry mouth: “The news tells me that the gypsies are now …” “Which news?” “The Daily Mail!” Every opinion, every vicious and vengeful bit of hate speech, every tenuous or blatantly untrue “fact” they used to justify every one of their horrible, scornful opinions was dragged straight from the lying, filthy pages of that lying, filthy rag. Every day it headlined with some story about gypsies or travelers stealing land; or about hordes of “unregistered asylum seekers” who were getting free homes and cars and money while good deserving white people lived in the streets; or about how homeless white people were filthy pigs who brought it on themselves. Every day they bought it and read it and consumed its unfiltered hatred, mainlining discrimination and scorn to the point that my father, disabled by polio at the age of 5, would place his free disability parking sticker on the window of his car while ranting about some article from the Daily Mail and sneering at all these stupid young people who demand their human rights be respected. This man, whose entire twilit years were coddled by disability pensions and free healthcare and physiotherapy and special support for his disability, would mouth that phrase “their human rights” with such bitter rage that you would think he was talking about satan’s ballbag itself. But he wasn’t, he was speaking about himself, spurting out self-hatred and bitterness that he had been mainlining for 30 years from that disgusting, stupid rag, the Daily Mail.

So it was with a sense of profound disappointment that I read this morning in the Guardian that Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail for 26 of those 30 years that it was slowly turning my father from a normal human being to a rage-infested muppet, has received a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Editors, presented to him by the Editor of that other esteemed vessel of white men’s hate, the Daily Telegraph.

Some achievement. The newspaper most famous for its support of Oswald Mosley and Hitler turned into the delivery device for weaponized hatred, straight into the minds of uneducated men like my father who didn’t know better. By the time Dacre’s tenure was over he had managed to get UKIP national support, and bring on the Brexit he longed for that will destroy the economic security the Mail‘s own readers crave. This newspaper turned a nation of mild-mannered, stoic shopkeepers into a nation of rabid xenophobes and bilious haters, intent on kicking out anyone who was different in any way, or just plain kicking them if they couldn’t kick them out. Even on the Iraq war, the one thing the newspaper ever got right, it only opposed the war because it wanted to pull up the drawbridge and leave the rest of the world to burn, confident in the idea that Britain doesn’t need anyone and that any kind of social connection or sharing is weak, wrong and bad for the English. This newspaper poisoned the minds of a generation, so that it could get Britain out of Europe and damn the working people of Britain to a generation of peonage in service to its rich owner and his rich friends.

The Daily Mail did this by combining a tight writing style that perfectly appealed to the poorly-educated men and women of the war generation and the baby boom, appealing to their worst instincts and their colonialist nostalgic, and boosting that nascent racism and nostalgia into inflamed hatred and terror of any change. There is no policy the Daily Mail has supported in the past 30 years that was intended to benefit the lives of ordinary working or middle-class Britons, and the editor and his rich buddies knew that, so they coated every dodgy policy they pushed in the sweet and intoxicating icing of racism, hatred, and self-aggrandizing scorn. They pushed and amplified that scorn and racism, and used it to wrap every new and discriminatory policy they could, as they pushed Britain towards plutocracy. The final poison pill they tricked the elderly population of Britain into swallowing was Brexit, the bitter medicine that will strangle their grandchildrens’ futures. And the visionary who conceived of this horrible 30 year con receives a medal for his efforts.

In the future our grandchildren will look back on these 30 years as the last chance humanity had to change its direction. They will see that even as the planet went onto the boil, and inequality consumed the social order we had been building, a small gang of thieving plutocrats seized the media and politics and used their power to make sure no meaningful action was taken to turn society onto a different, better course. They will see how the many possible future pathways we could have taken to a better world were blocked off one by by these rich gangsters, until at the end of that 30 years we were left with a very small number of possible pathways to follow that would not end in civilization collapse and ruin. And then they will note that the people who spent 30 years heading off every road to a better future were given a prize for their efforts. Paul Dacre may be able to take that prize to his gold-plated grave, but the children of the future won’t deem him worthy of anything except scorn and ridicule. The same will apply to all those other titans of industry and media masters who brought us to this ruinous pass: all the newspaper editors who supported the Iraq war and unleashed Isis on a middle east already struggling under inequality and climate change; Rupert Murdoch, who unleashed Fox news on America and turned it from hope to hatred; Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens and all the other idiot centrist both-siders who twiddled while their nation slouched into nihilistic fascism, and put nazis and climate change denialists on the precious space of their editorial pages because they felt that “ideological balance” was more important than basic decency or a future for their children. All these people will be remembered as enemies not just of the people they were supposed to serve, but of human civilization. Remember the day this man got this prize, and the people who gave it to him. Some day there will have to be an accounting for the great evil being done in this time by our parents’ generation, and it might as well start with this man, who poisoned my parents minds against their own childrens’ futures, and turned a generation of hard-working, decent people into terrified haters. He will get away with what he did, but history will reward him with infamy.


fn1: I am not a believer!

 

Our heroes have killed the changing of the guard, and now they descend into the Redbrand lair. From the ruined manor a flight of stairs leads down to a heavy wooden door, which they pushed aside to reveal a dim cellar. They descended the stairs into a large stone chamber dominated by a huge cistern, filled with cold pure water. The room was large, their lantern light barely reaching to the walls, which were lined with barrels. As Mouser dug around in the barrels looking for signs of traps or treasure a door in the northwest wall opened and a trio of redbrand thugs came charging out to attack them. They dealt with them in short order, beating them down into the flagstones in the doorway of their room. They searched the rooms further, finding a few trinkets and what looked like a package of emergency supplies hidden in the waters of the cistern. Whoever had secreted this escape package in the cistern was going to get an unpleasant surprise if they tried to flee and found their secret stash already looted; but the PCs doubted that anyone was going to escape from here.

They searched some more, and found a secret door in the southern wall of the room. From here they walked carefully through to a large, natural cave cold and smelling vaguely of rot. They immediately guessed that this must be where the strange eye-beast lived. A tunnel from the south they guessed connected the large cave to the secret entrance the halfling child had reported finding on the edge of the village – a useful escape, if that were their plan. A narrow chasm split the tunnel in two, and a bridge linked the two sides of the cave. Mouser crept into the room and headed north on the near side of the chasm, seeing nothing interesting. As he returned to the group he was struck by a strange series of visions, of falling into the chasm and rotting suddenly away, and an intense sense of hunger. Disgusted and confused, he crept back to the group. They moved to the edge of the cave and Mouser and Imoto chan headed back into the cave, Imoto chan tying a rope to the bridge and dropping it into the chasm as Mouser crept north to explore some more.

As Imoto chan finished tying the rope to the bridge she was suddenly struck by some strange magic that caused her body to rot and well up in stench and disgusting, noisome ruin. Somewhere over the chasm, the eye-beast was attacking them. Tyge rushed across the bridge, which collapsed under weight and dumped her into the chasm. Imoto chan leapt across the chasm to find the eye-beast, while Mouser took cover behind a pillar, firing arrows, and Mostly Smithson charged north to cross a bridge on the northern end of the cave, and Raymond deCantrus let loose spells across the chasm. The eye-beast was well hidden but they were able to drive it out of cover and cut it down without suffering too much damage.

In the chasm they found the body of Thel Dendrar, the woodcarver who had gone missing after he confronted the redbrands, and a chest containing some small trinkets and some potions. The chasm was haunted by a strange, weak magic that froze both space and time, rendering it chilly and making all movement in the chasm difficult and slow. As a result Thel’s corpse was still fresh, and strangely lifelike even though it had been ripped open by the Nothic and half eaten. Disgusted, Tyge climbed out and they resumed their quest.

From the cave a tunnel headed west and back into the more regular hallways of the cellar. A set of steps led down to a hallway, with a door at the base of the steps. Mouser opened the doorway, and was attacked by three bugbears who had been waiting quietly for them in the room. Pushed back mostly by disgust at the stench of their foul dog-like bodies, Mouser was shocked to see one hurl a spear straight into Mostly Smithson so hard that it went clean through his chest, knocking him down. The battle that followed was fast and brutal, and for pressed moments they thought they were all going to die before Tyge was able to cut a bloody, vicious path through the bugbear leader and start scattering bugbear hair and flesh like confetti in some horrid underdark wedding. Mouser took the chance to revive Mostly Smithson, and ultimately they prevailed through steel, lightning and hard, nasty work.

Standing in the stench of bloody dog-hair, shivering in rage and reaction, they looked around the dimly lit hallway, back at the room of half-eaten stored corpses and scattered vitreous nothic goo, and decided it might be best if they took a rest. Shuddering at the stench and iniquity, they pushed the door of the bugbear lair closed, and settled down to sleep.

Which was when they saw the goblin. With a sigh, and a shared sideways look of tired resignation, deCantrus asked it, “What is your name, little wretch?”

“Droop,” he replied, and so his fate was sealed …

News continues to trickle out concerning the latest bullying scandal in American academia, on which I reported briefly in a previous post. Through the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog I found a link to this excellent Twitter thread on the damage done to the humanities by celebrity academics like Ronell. These celebrity academics don’t just exist in the humanities, and not just in the “literary theory” cul-de-sac of humanities. They also exist in the physical sciences (think of people like Dawkins and Davies), and they are also a thing in public and global health. In public and global health they are typically characterised by the following traits:

  • They build large teams of staff, who are dependent upon the celebrity academic for their positions
  • They have a flagship project or area of research that they completely dominate, making it hard for junior academics outside of their institution to make progress on that topic
  • They attract very large amounts of grant money, a lot of it “soft” money accrued through relationships with NGOs and non-academic institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, AXA, the World Health Organization, and similar bodies
  • They have cozy relationships with editorial boards and chief editors, so that they get preferential treatment in journals like The Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, etc
  • They attract a lot of applications from students and post-doctoral fellows, who often bring in their own funding in the form of scholarships and prestigious fellowships
  • They often have a media presence, writing commentary articles or having semi-regular invitational positions on local and national newspapers, in medical journals and on certain websites
  • They are on all the boards

This means that these celebrity academics are able to drive large amounts of research work in their field of expertise, which they often parlay into articles in journals that have high impact through friendly relationships with their colleagues on those journals, and they also often get invited into non-academic activities such as reports, inquiries, special seminars and workshops, and so on. Even where these celebrity academics are not bullies, and are known to treat their staff well and with respect, and to be good teachers and supervisors, this kind of celebrity academia has many negative effects on public health. Some of these include:

  • Their preeminence and grip on grant funding means that they effectively stifle the establishment of new voices in their chosen topic, which risks preventing new methods of doing things from being established, or allows shoddy and poorly developed work to become the mainstream
  • Their preferential treatment in major journals pushes other, higher quality work from unknown authors out of those journals, which both reduces the impact of better or newer work, and also prevents those authors from establishing a strong academic presence
  • Their preferential treatment in major journals enables them to avoid thorough peer review, enabling them to publish flawed work that really should be substantially revised or not published at all
  • The scale and dominance of the institution they build around themselves means that young academics working in the same topic inevitably learn to do things the way the celebrity academic does them, and when they move on to other institutions they bring those methods to those other institutions, slowly establishing methods, work practices, and professional behaviors that are not necessarily the best throughout academia
  • Their media presence enables them to launder and protect the reputation of their own work, and their involvement in academic boards and networks gives them a gatekeeper role that is disproportionate to that of other academics
  • Their importance protects them from criticism and safeguards them against institutional intrusion in their behavior, which is particularly bad if they are abusive or bullying, since junior staff cannot protest or complain

This is exactly what we are now learning happened to Reitman from his lawsuit – he tried to transfer his supervision to Yale but discovered the admissions officer there was a friend of his supervisor, he tried to complain to a provost who also turned out to be a friend of his supervisor, and he could not complain while a PhD student because of fear that his supervisor would destroy his job opportunities through her networks. We also see that Ronell (and friends of hers like Butler) have a disproportionate academic influence, which ensures that they maintain a cozy protection against any intrusion into their little literary theory bubble. Ronell’s books are reviewed (positively) by Butler, who then writes a letter defending Ronell from institutional consequences of her own poor behavior, which no doubt Butler knew about. There’s a video going around of a lecture in which Ronell’s weird behavior is basically an open joke, and in signing the letter some of the signatories basically admit that they knew Ronell’s behavior crossed a line but they saw it as acceptable (it was just her “style”). We even have one shameful theorist complaining that if she is punished, academics in this area will be restricted to behaving as “technocratic pedagogues”, because it is simply impossible for them to teach effectively without this kind of transgressive and bullying behavior.

One of the best ways to prevent this kind of thing is to prevent or limit the ascendance of the celebrity academic. But to do so will require a concerted effort across the institutions of academia, not just within a single university like NYU. Some things that need to happen to prevent celebrity academics getting too big for their boots:

  • Large national funding programs need to be restricted so that single academics cannot grab multiple pools of money and seize funding disproportionate to their role. This already happens in Japan, where the national grants from the Ministry of Education are restricted so that an academic can only have one or two
  • Private and government funds such as Ministry funding, and funding from organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, needs to be more transparently accessible from outside the academy, and also more objective and transparent in assessment – you shouldn’t be able to work up a large amount of money for your research group just by being able to go to the write cocktail party / hostess bar / art gallery – basically at every level, as much as possible, grant funding should be competitive and not based on who you know or how much money you’ve already got
  • Journals – and particular senior journal editors – should stay at arms’ length from academics, and journal processes should remain transparent, competitive and anonymous. It simply should not be possible – as often happens in the Lancet, for example – to stitch up a publication by sending an email to a senior editor who you had a chat with at an event a few weeks ago. No matter how many times you have published in a journal before, your next submission to the journal should be treated in substance and spirit as if it were your first ever submission
  • Journals need to make more space for critical responses to articles, rather than making stupid and restrictive rules on who and what can be published in response to an article. I have certainly experienced having a critical response to an article rejected on flimsy grounds that I’m pretty sure were based on a kneejerk response to criticism of a celebrity, and it’s very hard to publish critical responses at all in some journals. A better approach is that pioneered by the BMJ, which treats critical responses as a kind of comment thread, and elevates the best ones to the status of published Letters to the Editor – this insures more voices get to criticize the work, and everyone can see whose critiques were ignored
  • Institutions need to make their complaint processes much more transparent and easy to work with. Often it is the case that serious harassment cases – physical or sexual – are easy for students to complain about the smaller and more common complaints, like academic misconduct and bullying, are much more difficult to complain about. I think it is generally true that if an academic is disciplined early in their career for small infractions of basic rules on misconduct and bullying, they will be much, much less likely to risk major misbehavior later
  • Student complaints need to be handled in a timely manner that ensures that they are able to see resolution before their thesis defense or graduation, so they can change supervisors if necessary
  • Academic advisors should never be able to sit on their own student’s dissertation committee, or on the committees of their close friend and co-author’s students, since this gives them undue influence over the student’s graduation prospects and kills dead any chance of a complaint (I can’t believe this happens in some universities!)
  • The academic advisor’s permission should never be a requirement for submission. At the very least, if your relationship with your advisor goes pear-shaped, you should always be able to just tell them to fuck off, go off and do the work by yourself, and submit it to an independent committee for assessment

I think if these kinds of rules are followed it’s much harder for academics to become celebrities, and much harder for their celebrity status to become overpowering or to enable them to stifle other students’ careers. But a lot of these changes require action by editorial boards, trustees of non-profits and NGOs, and government bodies connected to specific topics (such as ministries of health, or departments responsible for art and culture). Until we see wholesale changes in the way that academics interact with editorial boards, grant committees, private organizations and government agencies, will not see any reduction in the power and influence of celebrity academics. In the short term this influence can be fatal for students and junior academics, but in the long term – as we have seen in literary theory, it appears – it can also drag down the diversity and quality of work in the whole discipline, as a couple of bullies and pigs come to dominate the entire discipline, ensuring that no one deviates from their own line of work and no one ever criticizes their increasingly weak and low quality work. Academia as a whole benefits from genuine competition, diversity of funders and fund recipients, spreading grant money widely and fairly, and maintaining rigorous standards of independence and academic objectivity in assessing work for publication. Celebrity academics weaken all of those processes, and bring the entire academy down.

A final note: I cannot believe that academics invite students alone to their houses, or (as in this case) invite themselves to their student’s houses. There is no legit reason to do this. Every university should tell its academics, from day one: if you invite a student alone to your house and they lodge a sexual harassment complaint against you, you’re on your own – we will believe them every time. Just don’t do it, under any circumstances. And they should tell students from day one: if your supervisor (or any academic) invites you alone to their house, report it immediately. It’s simply terrible behavior, and no good will ever come of it. Reading the report that this student lodged against his supervisor, it’s simply impossible to believe that she wasn’t up to no good, and simply impossible to accept that the university did not uphold his complaint of sexual harassment. He has now launched a lawsuit, so we can now see all the details of what happened to him and how he dealt with it, and it looks like a complete disaster for NYU and for the professor in question. If the university had disciplined this woman much earlier in her career for much lighter infractions; if it had a clear rule forbidding these one-on-one home-based “supervision” arrangements, or at least making clear that they are a sexual harassment death zone for profs; and if the university gave its senior academics a clear sense that they are not protected from such complaints, then this situation would never have arisen. There is no excuse for this kind of unprofessional behavior except “I knew I could get away with it.” And the academic world needs to work to ensure no professor can ever know they can get away with it, no matter how famous and special they are or think they are.

Recently I had the opportunity to watch three movies in quick succession: Solo, Death Wish and Pacific Rim: Uprising. Solo was kind of fun but overall these three movies were pretty ordinary, and none of them is really worth its own separate review. I thought I’d put reviews of all three in one post, as exemplars of how America’s cultural industries are falling apart before our eyes. It’s worth noting that all three of these movies are either remakes, sequels or part of a “franchise”, so there’s nothing truly original in any of them. In many ways they’re also movies that are designed to appeal, well, not even to the worst elements of our nature, but to the most banal elements of our nature. Is this how western civilization ends: not with a bang or a whimper, but a long drawn-out sigh of boredom?

Pacific Rim: Uprising

I want to start this review by pointing out that just a few years ago, when the Lord of the Rings, was first made (or was it the Hobbit? I forget and don’t care) a bunch of LoTR fanboys were ruing the fact that Guillermo del Toro didn’t get the gig as Director. Surely he, more than Jackson, would have been able to make these movies soar? Well now, having watched him royally fuck up two movies about giant robots fighting giant monsters in giant cities, are you still sad that he didn’t get to make a movie with dragons and elves? A man who can fuck up a formula as invincibly, trivially easy as giant robots would surely have made an absolute dogs breakfast of something as subtle and culturally significant as LoTR. Thank God Jackson pipped him to that one, because this movie – even more than the shit sandwich that was the first one – was an absolute disaster. The worst thing about it obviously is the two people operating the one machine, in the bullshit “neural mesh” setup, who despite being neurally enmeshed have to operate their stupid giant robot by physically doing whatever it does. Watching the scenes of the soldiers in the brainpod (or whatever stupid name it has) I could only think of those ‘90s comedy skits in which terribly earnest acting school students pretend to be trees or ducks or something. What a fucking joke. Don’t get me wrong, if some idiot paid me a million bucks (or a fraction thereof!) to pretend to be running inside a giant robot I would be all in on that shit, but let’s not pretend it’s a contribution to western civilization. God no, burn that crap down. Also is it just me or is there some new phenomenon in action movies, let’s call it jockburn, where the lead characters are first introduced into the mess hall/ bunk room/ shower room where the other soldiers eat/ reside / fuck and your heart sinks when you realize that you are now going to have to sit through several minutes of macho posturing that is obviously meant to be in the vein of Aliens, but you know before it starts that it isn’t going to come close? And then there is the related experience where the leader is about to make a big speech, and suddenly you know the big speech is coming and you’re going to have to sit through about 20-30 seconds of “stirring” speech about how everyone has to fight and die for glory / the glistening tear on the cheek of a golden child / a sack of French porn and you know it’s going to be a disappointing and shamelessly unselfconscious pile of cliches that will just make you squirm? What do we call that feeling? I think it’s an identifiable and common experience in modern action movies. Occasionally you get a good one (the one at the Gates of Mordor, the speech about taking chances in Rogue One) but mostly they’re just shit. And they aren’ t improved when, as in this movie, they refer to the speech in the previous movie (because that’s how low we have sunk) and try to pretend that this one won’t even be trying. Look, Guillermo (or whoever else squatted out this pile of shit), if your work is so bad that you know ahead of time that it isn’t going to compare to even the last steaming turd you dumped on us, please don’t insult us further by pointing out that you aren’t even phoning it in. Just fuck off home and don’t make this waste of pixels. Oh, and while you’re listening to tips from me, can you please please please drop the daddy issues? They weren’t constant and overwhelming in this movie like they were in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (thank the gods of shit movies that that arsehole had some trouble buried in his twitter feed! Now if we could just kill off the cast we can all go home happy!) but right at the peak of the movie, when they’re about to save the world, someone manages to make the resoundingly important point that the lead character is going to make daddy proud. Really? He’s going to risk his life saving the world and all those billions of people are going to be looking up at him as the dude who saved the world but his real single only concern is that his dead daddy will finally love him? He’s an adult, right? What is wrong with Americans and their daddy issues? Also what is wrong with the Chinese people in this movie? I can’t figure out if they’re meant to be the bad guys or patsies, if there’s a message about copying technology in there, or something else, but why did they have to be such arseholes? Also, when you choose to portray America’s current Big Trade Enemy as arseholes in an action movie, can I suggest that you perhaps go and check on how the Japanese were portrayed in the 1980s and ask yourself if perhaps, just perhaps, you’re just repeating a massive flyblown cliche? Because at this point in the cultural cycle of the west, any opportunity to do something original would be appreciated kthxbai. This movie also suffers from another weird problem of action movies that needs a name, perhaps something like self-referential SNAFU, in which there is a central problem or barrier that they have to overcome through some special means, but at some other point in the movie they immediately do exactly the thing they said they can’t do. In this case we’re told that you can’t make the giant robots (I refuse to call them Jaegers, fuck off) fly because there is no fuel that powerful, but in the very first action scene the stupidly named giant robot with the enormously stupid flail (fuck off already I cannot believe how stupid that flail is) jets out of the ocean and onto land using just the rockets in its feet which is exactly what they said these things can’t do. Also we’re told that they had to build these giant robots to fight the giant monsters because the giant monsters are invincible, presumably cannot be beaten with say a rail gun from space or a missile, but then their solution to the final massive, extra super powerful monster, is to drop a disabled giant robot on it from space. Now I don’t know how much these giant robots weigh but right now the Falcon Heavy rocket can put 64 tons of material in space, so it seems pretty easy and cheap to me to hoist say 600 tons of material into space, stick it all together, and drop it on your annoying giant monster. Why build stupid giant robots that need two terribly earnest method actors to neurally mesh (impossible – method actors don’t have brains) when you could just use your reusable rocket to build a makeshift rail gun at a fraction of the cost? This is the self-referential SNAFU I mentioned earlier. To be clear I don’t care if the pretext of the movie is that we need to build giant robots that can only be driven by method actors but I want the movie to stick to the pretext throughout. Failure to do so bursts me out of the bubble and just leaves me disappointed and feeling ripped off. Which is probably the best description for how this movie leaves you feeling. In conclusion: this movie was a joke of a reheated disaster, and if you can fuck up two movies about giant robots fighting giant monsters in giant cities, you should fold up your director’s chair and go home.

Death Wish

This movie is a straight remake which has the single redeeming feature of having Bruce Willis in it. Bruce Willis is a legend, and anything he touches is made better (although I note that he was not in either Pacific Rim movie and I think we all know why). I haven’t seen the original but I remember when I was a kid it was hugely controversial because of its ultra violent story and the perhaps morally neutral approach towards vigilantism. Now, 40 years later, as militias roam the landscape and Sasha Baron Cohen can convince American politicians to advertise gun self defense schools for four year olds, we can look back to that time of controversy as a purer, more moral era. Now we can watch as the movie-maker postures through the issue by having talk radio hosts debate whether vigilantism is right or wrong without ever making a decision one way or the other, because heaven knows it would be terrible for someone’s career if they made an actual moral judgment on something as grey and uncertain as whether vigilantism is okay. So it is that Bruce (let’s not waste our time pretending his character has any other name) wanders this morally free and pure space murdering random criminals and getting his own back on the people who refrigerated his wife. Unfortunately for the pretext of this movie, the dudes who refrigerated his wife didn’t really even want to, and they’re just small time criminals, and two of them didn’t really even come across as especially bullying, and we didn’t see their faces, so it’s really really hard to get any strong feeling of revenge when he murders them. In fact it seems pretty clear that two of the criminals, at least, were strong candidates for rehabilitation – they were clearly intending just to rob him, they wanted as little trouble as possible, they didn’t want to hurt anyone, they clearly knew that rape and murder are wrong and should not be done, and they were just trying to make a buck. This isn’t to say they were nice people or anything but here’s the thing: this is a vengeance movie. I absolutely love watching bullies get murdered, beaten up, humiliated and destroyed, it’s pretty much the only reason I am still sitting through Game of Thrones. But for my bullies to deserve brutal murder instead of say 10 years to life, they need to actually appeal to my baser instincts. They need to be real arseholes. Not participants in an armed robbery that went wrong. This is why the only really truly satisfying murder is the death of the Ice Cream Man, who steals children’s money when they walk to school and shoots them in the foot if they don’t pay up. His death – and the subsequent looting, essentially, of his still warm corpse by the residents of the block – was the only satisfying death in this bland flick. The deaths might have been slightly more appealing but there was this additional subtext in this movie that made it really hard to fully get behind our hero Bruce – America’s ridiculous and unsustainable levels of inequality, and rich people’s fear of what will happen when America’s poor decide to do something about it. Bruce is a doctor, he’s obviously super rich, and he works in a hospital – a US hospital. We all know that hospitals in the US are key drivers of inequality, and the doctors who work in them get rich working in institutions that refuse healthcare to people who can’t pay, and bankrupt people who come to them for healthcare with bullshit emergency services like charging $500 for an aspirin. So some poor people break into Bruce the emergency doctor’s house to steal some of his ill-gotten gains, and their theft goes wrong because they’re idiots, so they kill his wife, and then this man goes on a spree, murdering poor people across the city. Additionally, at one point he goes into a gun shop and a smily second amendment girl called “Bethany” tries to sell him some guns and makes it really really fucking clear that she doesn’t care who he is and will sell guns to anyone (though she makes the weak sauce excuse that she doesn’t sell them to criminals haha). This entire fucking movie wouldn’t happen if the gun shop was closed down, “Bethany” was put out of a job (sorry Beth!) and everyone got access to universal health coverage. Bruce wouldn’t have got robbed, nobody would have been able to shoot Bruce’s wife and daughter, and Bruce would be able to go home from his job satisfied that he had spent all day saving lives rather than worried deep down inside that he actually spends all day saving only wealthy lives. And we wouldn’t have to feel guilty about the (only very partial) thrill of watching a rich man hunt down and murder poor people for doing whatever they can to make ends meet in a world with no universal health coverage, no minimum wage, no gun laws and no sense. Now I guess someone is going to come on here and make some stupid point that I’m making excuses for murderers but I hardly need point out that anyone who defends Bruce is also making excuses for murderers. You can’t watch this movie and not make excuses for murderers (well, I guess you could tut!tut! at everything but where’s the fun in that). And if you live in Japan (as I do) you can be confident that nobody’s going to murder you for your watch, certainly not with a gun, and everyone can afford healthcare at Bruce’s swanky hospital, so Bruce’s riches are genuinely morally deserved, and he can be confident that his valet isn’t going to take a screenshot of his navi (except perhaps to steal his daughter’s underwear from the washing line). Call me a sad-arsed SJW if you will, but a movie where Bruce hunts down some people who brutally murdered his family for shits and giggles is slightly more engaging than a movie where Bruce the rich doctor hunts down and murders a bunch of poor people because they tried to rob his wife and daughter in a society where they can afford guns but can’t afford healthcare. (And don’t even get me started on how the cops are underfunded and overworked!) It’s not like these movies can’t be made! Korea makes awesome gangster movies, and Korea has gun control and universal health coverage. When a rich doctor goes on a murder spree in a Korean gangster movie I’m all in. Not so much when it’s against a backdrop of a crumbling empire with a huge inequality and gun problem, the contradictions of its own oligopolic order now so apparent that you simply can’t squint past them anymore. It steals some of the thrill, and it also makes the whole thing just … boring. In crime movie genre terms, making a boring revenge flick is like making a bad giant robot/monster movie. It should be impossible, but somehow whatever loser made this reboot managed to do it. Thanks for your efforts Bruce, but this wasn’t your best showing.

Solo: A star wars movie

This movie was actually fun! The train heist was a gas, and although the Mad Max elements were a bit obvious and overdone it was enjoyable watching the marauders having their fun. Han Solo was kind of forgettable and the less said about Amelia Clark’s acting the better, plus the betrayals and double-crossings were predictable and the bad guys were not exciting. But otherwise the movie kind of hung together, and although the whole thing in the maelstrom was sort of tedious bullshit, at least there was a tenuous effort at explaining the Kessel run, and given they took a short cut it made sense to refer to doing the kessel run in 12 parsecs (also I like that Han rounds it down and it actually took 13 parsecs, nice touch). That fixed a minor issue in the original movie that had always bothered me. Apparently – my friend tells me, because I won’t go into any cesspit of star wars fanboys – lots of people are pissed off with the director for fucking up a few parts of the original canon, because (spoiler alert!) at the end Darth Maul makes an appearance. Apparently the same fan boys who were pissed off that he died 12 years ago are now pissed off that he’s not dead, which doesn’t bother me at all because about the only thing that was good about the three prequels was Darth Maul’s fighting style (which I guess we won’t see him repeat since the stunt actor who did it must have retired). Also Jar Jar Binks, whose contribution to star wars lore by setting up a plausible theory that he was a Sith Lord is probably the only good cultural contribution of the three prequels. But I digress! One aspect of this movie that pissed me off was the way it implies Han started the rebellion by giving the hyperfuel to the tween girl in the groovy mask. In a universe of trillions of people over billions of planets, why does every single thing that affects the history of the universe have to hang on the actions of just four people? Can things be maybe slightly less incestuous? (And on a related note, the idea that Rey’s parents are nobodies is a ridiculous joke. There’s no way an American franchise is going to let that happen). So overall this movie was light, bearable fun. But I think it says something about Disney and modern American entertainment culture that a movie written by Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Ron Howard, set in a classic science fiction setting like this, would be just “light, bearable fun,” and that we are satisfied with this because at least he didn’t massively fuck it up.

Which brings me to my conclusion about these three documentaries on America’s cultural decline. What has happened to the production of cultural stuff in America that three movies set in three basically failsafe genres can be so shit that “bearably not fucked up” is our new standard of excellence? And why is it that they can’t make anything original anymore? Almost every action sci-fi now is a super hero movie from the same dumb universe, with no original thought put into any of them. I think the only original movie I have seen in the past three years was Atomic Blonde, and almost everything else has been either a remake, a fixture in an existing franchise or setting, or a sequel. What has happened in the past 30 years that the industry that produced Star Wars, Rambo, Aliens, Robocop, Last of the Mohicans, and that insanely cool Charles Bronson movie about the dude whose dog dies, cannot now produce a single original or interesting movie, and can’t make even half-decent movies in the genres and franchises it already has at its disposal? What’s going on in America now that what was once its powerhouse of cultural production has become so incredibly lame? And what will replace it?

The journal Molecular Autism this week published an article about the links between Hans Asperger and the Nazis in world war 2 Vienna, Austria. Hans Asperger is the paediatric pscyhiatrist on whose work Asperger’s syndrome is based, and after whom the syndrome is known. Until recently Asperger was believed to have been an anti-Nazi, someone who resisted the Nazis and risked his own career to protect some of his developmentally delayed patients from the Nazi “euthanasia” program, which killed or sterilized people with certain developmental disabilities for eugenics reasons.

The article, entitled Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and “race hygiene” in Nazi-era Vienna, is a thorough, well-researched and extensively documented piece of work, which I think is based on several years of detailed examination of primary sources, often in their original German. It uses these sources – often previously untouched – to explore and rebut several claims Asperger made about himself, and also to examine the nature of his diagnostic work during the Nazi era to see whether he was resisting or aiding the Nazis in their racial hygiene goals. In this post I want to talk a little about the background of the paper, and ask a few questions about the implications of these findings for our understanding of autism, and also for our practice as public health workers in the modern era. I want to make clear that I do not know much if anything about Asperger’s syndrome or autism, so my questions are questions, not statements of opinion disguised as questions.

What was known about Asperger

Most of Asperger’s history under the Nazis was not known in the English language press, and when his name was attached to the condition of Asperger’s syndrome he was presented as a valiant defender of his patients against Nazi racial hygiene, and as a conscientious objector to Nazi ideology. This view of his life was based on some speeches and written articles translated into English during the post war years, in particular a 1974 interview in which he claims to have defended his patients and had to be saved from being arrested by the Gestapo twice by his boss, Dr. Hamburger. Although some German language publications were more critical, in general Asperger’s statements about his own life’s work were taken at face value, and seminal works in 1981 and 1991 that introduced him to the medical fraternity did not include any particular reference to his activities in the Nazi era.

What Asperger actually did

Investigation of the original documents shows a different picture, however. Before Anschluss (the German occupation of Austria in 1938), Asperger was a member of several far right Catholic political organizations that were known to be anti-semitic and anti-democratic. After Anschluss he joined several Nazi organizations affiliated with the Nazi party. His boss at the clinic where he worked was Dr. Hamburger, who he claimed saved him twice from the Gestapo. In fact Hamburger was an avowed neo-nazi, probably an entryist to these Catholic social movements during the period when Nazism was outlawed in Vienna, and a virulent anti-semite. He drove Jews out of the clinic even before Anschluss, and after 1938 all Jews were purged from the clinic, leaving openings that enabled Asperger to get promoted. It is almost impossible given the power structures at the time that Asperger could have been promoted if he disagreed strongly with Hamburger’s politics, but we have more than circumstantial evidence that they agreed: the author of the article, Herwig Czech, uncovered the annual political reports submitted concerning Asperger by the Gestapo, and they consistently agreed that he was either neutral or positive towards Nazism. Over time these reports became more positive and confident. Also during the war era Asperger gained new roles in organizations outside his clinic, taking on greater responsibility for public health in Vienna, which would have been impossible if he were politically suspect, and his 1944 PhD thesis was approved by the Nazis.

A review of Asperger’s notes also finds that he did send at least some of his patients to the “euthanasia” program, and in at least one case records a conversation with a parent in which the child’s fate is pretty much accepted by both of them. The head of the institution that did the “euthanasia” killings was a former colleague of Asperger’s, and the author presents pretty damning evidence that Asperger must have known what would happen to the children he referred to the clinic. It is clear from his speeches and writings in the Nazi era that Asperger was not a rabid killer of children with developmental disabilities: he believed in rehabilitating children and finding ways to make them productive members of society, only sending the most “ineducable” children to institutional care and not always to the institution that killed them. But it is also clear that he accepted the importance of “euthanasia” in some instances. In one particularly compelling situation, he was put in charge – along with a group of his peers – of deciding the fate of some 200 “ineducable” children in an institution for the severely mentally disabled, and 35 of those ended up being murdered. It seems unlikely that he did not participate in this process.

The author also notes that in some cases Asperger’s prognoses for some children were more severe than those of the doctors at the institute that ran the “euthanasia” program, suggesting that he wasn’t just a fairweather friend of these racial hygiene ideals, and the author also makes the point that because Asperger remained in charge of the clinic in the post-war years he was in a very good position to sanitize his case notes of any connection with Nazis and especially with the murder of Jews. Certainly, the author does not credit Asperger’s claims that he was saved from the Gestapo by Hamburger, and suggests that these are straight-up fabrications intended to sanitize Asperger’s role in the wartime public health field.

Was Asperger’s treatment and research ethical in any way?

Reading the article, one question that occurred to me immediately was whether any of his treatments could be ethical, given the context, and also whether his research could possibly have been unbiased. The “euthanasia” program was actually well known in Austria at the time – so well known in fact that at one point allied bombers dropped leaflets about it on the town, and there were demonstrations against it at public buildings. So put yourself in the shoes of a parent of a child with a developmental disability, bringing your child to the clinic for an assessment. You know that if your child gets an unfavourable assessment there is a good chance that he or she will be sterilized or taken away and murdered. Asperger offers you a treatment that may rehabilitate the child. Obviously, with the threat of “euthanasia” hanging over your child, you will say yes to this treatment. But in modern medicine there is no way that we could consider that to be willing consent. The parent might actually not care about “rehabilitating” their child, and is perfectly happy for the child to grow up and be loved within the bounds of what their developmental disability allows them; it may be that rehabilitation is difficult and challenging for the child, and not in the child’s best emotional interests. But faced with that threat of a racial hygiene-based intervention, as a parent you have to say yes. Which means that in a great many cases I suspect that Asperger’s treatments were not ethical from any post-war perspective.

In addition, I also suspect that the research he conducted for his 1944 PhD thesis, in addition to being unethical, was highly biased, because the parents of these children were lying through their teeth to him. Again, consider yourself as the parent of such a child, under threat of sterilization or murder. You “consent” to your child’s treatment regardless of what might be in the child’s best developmental and emotional interests, and also allow the child to be enrolled in Asperger’s study[1]. Then your child will be subjected to various rehabilitation strategies, what Asperger called pedagogical therapy. You will bring your child into the clinic every week or every day for assessments and tests. Presumably the doctor or his staff will ask you questions about the child’s progress: does he or she engage with strangers? How is his or her behavior in this or that situation? In every situation where you can, you will lie and tell them whatever you think is most likely to make them think that your child is progressing. Once you know what the tests at the clinic involve, you will coach your child to make sure he or she performs well in them. You will game every test, lie at every assessment, and scam your way into a rehabilitation even if your child is gaining nothing from the program. So all the results on rehabilitation and the nature of the condition that Asperger documents in his 1944 PhD thesis must be based on extremely dubious research data. You simply cannot believe that the research data you obtained from your subjects is accurate when some of them know that their responses decide whether their child lives or dies. Note that this problem with his research exists regardless of whether Asperger was an active Nazi – it’s a consequence of the times, not the doctor – but it is partially ameliorated if Asperger actually was an active resister to Nazi ideology, since it’s conceivable in that case that the first thing he did was give the parent an assurance that he wasn’t going to ship their kid off to die no matter what his diagnosis was. But since we now know he did ship kids off to die, that possibility is off the table. Asperger’s research subjects were consenting to a research study and providing subjective data on the assumption that the study investigator was a murderer with the power to kill their child. This means Asperger’s 1944 work probably needs to be ditched from the medical canon, simply on the basis of the poor quality of the data. It also has implications, I think, for some of his conclusions and their influence on how we view Asperger’s syndrome.

What does this mean for the concept of the autism spectrum?

Asperger introduced the idea of a spectrum of autism, with some of the children he called “autistic psychopaths” being high functioning, and some being low functioning, with a spectrum of disorder. This idea seems to be an important part of modern discussion of autism as well. But from my reading of the paper [again I stress I am not an expert] it seems that this definition was at least partly informed by the child’s response to therapy. That is, if a child responded to therapy and was able to be “rehabilitated”, they were deemed high functioning, while those who did not were considered low functioning. We have seen that it is likely that some of the parents of these children were lying about their children’s functional level, so probably his research results on this topic are unreliable, but there is a deeper problem with this definition, I think. The author implies that Asperger was quite an arrogant and overbearing character, and it seems possible to me that his assumption that he is deeply flawed in assuming his therapy would always work and that if it failed the problem was with the child’s level of function. What if his treatment only worked 50% of the time, randomly? Then the 50% of children who failed are not “low-functioning”, they’re just unlucky. If we compare with a pharmaceutical treatment, it simply is not the case that when your drugs fail your doctor deems this to be because you are “low functioning”, and ships you off to the “euthanasia” clinic. They assume the drugs didn’t work and give you better, stronger, or more experimental drugs. Only when all the possible treatments have failed do they finally deem your condition to be incurable. But there is no evidence that Asperger considered the possibility that his treatment was the problem, and because the treatment was entirely subjective – the parameters decided on a case-by-case basis – there is no way to know whether the problem was the children or the treatment. So to the extent that this concept of a spectrum is determined by Asperger’s judgment of how the child responded to his entirely subjective treatment, maybe the spectrum doesn’t exist?

This is particularly a problem because the concept of “functioning” was deeply important to the Nazis and had a large connection to who got selected for murder. In the Nazi era, to quote Negan, “people were a resource”, and everyone was expected to be functioning. Asperger’s interest in this spectrum and the diagnosis of children along it wasn’t just or even driven by a desire to understand the condition of “autistic psychopathy”, it was integral to his racial hygiene conception of what to do with these children. In determining where on the spectrum they lay he was providing a social and public health diagnosis, not a personal diagnosis. His concern here was not with the child’s health or wellbeing or even an accurate assessment of the depth and nature of their disability – he and his colleagues were interested in deciding whether to kill them or not. Given the likely biases in his research, the dubious link between the definition of the spectrum and his own highly subjective treatment strategy, and the real reasons for defining this spectrum, is it a good idea to keep it as a concept in the handling of autism in the modern medical world? Should we revisit this concept, if not to throw it away at least to reconsider how we define the spectrum and why we define it? Is it in the best interests of the child and/or their family to apply this concept?

How much did Asperger’s racial hygiene influence ideas about autism’s heritability?

Again, I want to stress that I know little about autism and it is not my goal here to dissect the details of this disease. However, from what I have seen of the autism advocacy movement, there does seem to be a strong desire to find some deep biological cause of the condition. I think parents want – rightly – to believe that it is not their fault that their child is autistic, and that the condition is not caused by environmental factors that might somehow be associated with their pre- or post-natal behaviors. Although the causes of autism are not clear, there seems to be a strong desire of some in the autism community to see it as biological or inherited. I think this is part of the reason that Andrew Wakefield’s scam linking autism to MMR vaccines remains successful despite his disbarment in the UK and exile to America. Parents want to think that they did not cause this condition, and blaming a pharmaceutical company is an easy alternative to this possibility. Heritability is another alternative explanation to behavioral or environmental causes. Asperger of course thought that autism was entirely inherited, blaming it – and its severity – on the child’s “constitution”, which was his phrase for their genetic inheritance. This is natural for a Nazi, of course – Nazis believe everything is inherited. Asperger also believed that sexual abuse was due to genetic causes (some children had a genetic property that led them to “seduce” adults!) Given Asperger’s influence on the definition of autism, I think it would be a good idea to assess how much his ideas also influence the idea that autism is inherited or biologically determined, and to question the extent to which this is just received knowledge from the original researcher. On a broader level, I wonder how many conditions identified during the war era and immediately afterwards were influenced by racial hygiene ideals, and how much the Nazi medical establishment left a taint on European medical research generally.

What lessons can we learn about public health practice from this case?

It seems pretty clear that some mistakes were made in the decision to assign Asperger’s name to this condition, given what we now know about his past. It also seems clear that Asperger was able to whitewash his reputation and bury his responsibilities for many years, including potentially avoiding being held accountable as an accessory to murder. How many other medical doctors, social scientists and public health workers from this time were also able to launder their history and reinvent themselves in the post-war era as good Germans who resisted the Nazis, rather than active accomplices of a murderous and cruel regime? What is the impact of their rehabilitation on the ethics and practice of medicine or public health in the post-war era? If someone was a Nazi, who believed that murdering the sick, disabled and certain races for the good of the race was a good thing, then when they launder their history there is no reason to think they actually laundered their beliefs as well. Instead they carried these beliefs into the post war era, and presumably quietly continued acting on them in the institutions they now occupied and corrupted. How much of European public health practice still bears the taint of these people? It’s worth bearing in mind that in the post war era many European countries continued to run a variety of programs that we now consider to have been rife with human rights abuse, in particular the way institutions for the mentally ill were run, the treatment of the Roma people (which often maintained racial-hygiene elements even decades after the war), treatment of “promiscuous” women and single mothers, and management of orphanages. How much of this is due to the ideas of people like Asperger, propagating slyly through the post-war public health institutional framework and carefully hidden from view by people like Asperger, who were assiduously purging past evidence of their criminal actions and building a public reputation for purity and good ethics? I hope that medical historians like Czech will in future investigate these questions.

This is not just a historical matter, either. I have colleagues and collaborators who work in countries experiencing various degrees of authoritarianism and/or racism – countries like China, Vietnam, Singapore, the USA – who are presumably vulnerable to the same kinds of institutional pressures at work in Nazi Germany. There have been cases, for example, of studies published from China that were likely done using organs harvested from prisoners. Presumably the authors of those studies thought this practice was okay? If China goes down a racial hygiene path, will public health workers who are currently doing good, solid work on improving the public health of the population start shifting their ideals towards murderous extermination? Again, this is not an academic question: After 9/11, the USA’s despicable regime of torture was developed by two psychologists, who presumably were well aware of the ethical standards their discipline is supposed to maintain, and just ignored them. The American Psychological Association had to amend its code in 2016 to include an explicit statement about avoiding harm, but I can’t find any evidence of any disciplinary proceedings by either the APA or the psychologists’ graduating universities to take action for the psychologists’ involvement in this shocking scheme. So it is not just in dictatorships that public policy pressure can lead to doctors taking on highly unethical standards. Medical, pscyhological and public health communities need to take much stronger action to make sure that our members aren’t allowed to give into their worst impulses when political and social pressure comes to bear on them.

These ideas are still with us

As a final point, I want to note that the ideas that motivated Asperger are not all dead, and the battle against the pernicious influence of racial hygiene was not won in 1945. Here is Asperger in 1952, talking about “feeblemindedness”:

Multiple studies, above all in Germany, have shown that these families procreate in numbers clearly above the average, especially in the cities. [They] live without inhibitions, and rely without scruples on public welfare to raise or help raise their children. It is clear that this fact presents a very serious eugenic problem, a solution to which is far off—all the more, since the eugenic policies of the recent past have turned out to be unacceptable from a human standpoint

And here is Charles Murray in 1994:

We are silent partly because we are as apprehensive as most other people about what might happen when a government decides to social-engineer who has babies and who doesn’t. We can imagine no recommendation for using the government to manipulate fertility that does not have dangers. But this highlights the problem: The United States already has policies that inadvertently social-engineer who has babies, and it is encouraging the wrong women. If the United States did as much to encourage high-IQ women to have babies as it now does to encourage low-IQ women, it would rightly be described as engaging in aggressive manipulation of fertility. The technically precise description of America’s fertility policy is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution. We urge generally that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended. [Emphasis in the Vox original]

There is an effort in Trump’s America to rehabilitate Murray’s reputation, long after his policy prescriptions were enacted during the 1990s. There isn’t any real difference between Murray in 1994, Murray’s defenders in 2018, or Asperger in 1952. We now know what the basis for Asperger’s beliefs were. Sixty years later they’re still there in polite society, almost getting to broadcast themselves through the opinion pages of a major centrist magazine. Racial hygiene didn’t die with the Nazis, and we need to redouble our efforts now to get this pernicious ideology out of public health, medicine, and public policy. I expect that in the next few months this will include some uncomfortable discussions about Asperger’s legacy, and I hope a reassessment of the entire definition of autism, Asperger’s syndrome and its management. But we should all be aware that in these troubled times, the ideals that motivated Asperger did not die with him, and our fields are still vulnerable to their evil influence.

 


fn1: Note that you consent to this study regardless of your actual views on its merits, whether it will cause harm to your child, etc. because this doctor is going to decide whether your child “rehabilitates” or slides out of view and into the T4 program where they will die of “pneumonia” within 6 months, and so you are going to do everything this doctor asks. This is not consent.

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