Nerd Culture


Big sister’s gonna get ya

Recently I went on a five day holiday to China, and while I was in Fuzhou I took part in an escape game with my partner Miss Jade and her Chinese friends (hereafter referred to as Team Princess). The escape game was played at Mr. X Fuzhou, one of the shops of a national chain called Mr. X. Mr X runs a variety of different escape rooms at any time, with some changing on a seasonal basis and some permanent fixtures. We played Yayoi, which is a horror/investigation type with a Japanese theme. Others available included an alien-themed Area 51 game, an Alice in Wonderland introductory adventure, and a couple of other mystery investigations. Team Princess chose Yayoi because they wanted a challenge and because it is one of the new genre games that features NPCs (i.e. human actors).

The other games

I’ve never done an escape room before and my image of them is as a kind of boring puzzle in a single room, so I really wasn’t expecting the Mr. X experience. Miss Jade and Team Princess do these games every time she returns to China (she lives in Japan at the moment), and I was kind of surprised when I heard this because given my image of the games I really didn’t think they would be so compelling. How wrong I was! Here I will explain briefly what happened in the game, and then give a review. If you’re planning on doing this Yayoi game, I recommend you skip the section describing the adventure itself and go to the review.

Approximate layout of the Supernatural Hostel

The events of the game

This game has a whole backstory and took us 90 minutes to complete, which involved a frantic series of investigations and pursuits, so I will explain briefly here what happened and how it worked, based on my memory and the explanations I received from Team Princess afterwards. We were a team of investigators who had been asked by the police to investigate a mysterious death in a hotel that is rumoured to have supernatural connections. We took an elevator to the hotel, and entered the first room we found, room 401. I have prepared an approximate map of the hotel as we experienced it, but when we arrived we only knew about the four rooms (401 – 404), not the strange supernatural section behind the closet. In room 401 there was a body on the bed, which we shall refer to as Dead Dude (DD), which body I had to touch (it was gross). He had apparently died of dehydration. At the back of the room was a closet (visible in the map) and near the door a small desk with a weird computer screen on it. The computer worked, and had its own email client with emails from various organizations and individuals in the inbox. In the drawer of the desk we found a cassette, which activated a video on the computer. This video showed DD’s boss (we shall refer to him as The Boss), sitting at a desk, face out of view, explaining to him that he needed to find a doll, of which he showed an example. There were rumoured to be 6 dolls in the hostel, each with a Japanese girl’s name, and all under the control of some spirit thing called Hasegawa san. He was to find a doll.

We guessed DD died trying to find the doll, so we sensibly set about finding the doll. We went to room 403 and found a way to open it, and in room 403 we found a second cassette. This cassette had new instructions on how to get the doll, involving the word kagome, so we went to room 404 to investigate. The door at 404 had a keypad with six buttons, each of which when pressed emitted the sound of a child reading a single Japanese syllable. We entered ka-go-me and then opened the door. This led us into a room with five of the dolls on the far wall and a strange arrangement of ropes with bells on them, in a circle in the room. One of the dolls was missing! A song then started playing, the kagome song from Japanese childhood (this is a kind of Hey Mr Wolf game). At the end of each repetition of the song the ghost voices singing it would say a Japanese girl’s name (corresponding with the doll’s names, which were on a diagram on the wall of room 401), and we had to ring the corresponding bell. This process took us two tries but when it was done Hasegawa appeared in an empty space in the middle of the far wall of the room, between the dolls. Hasegawa appeared in the form of a Japanese spirit from a picture, wearing a mask and yukata, and he carried the key to room 402 (Hasegawa was our first NPC!) He also told us that now we had sung the song correctly we would be able to see the ghost that killed DD. Yay! Apparently this ghost only comes out to kill when it is raining, but it wasn’t raining so yay.

In room 402 we found a series of crawlways that we had to search through. We found a third tape, which when we played it had a video from The Boss giving DD new instructions. It congratulated him on finding the doll but told him to hide it and explore the hostel some more, because it was rumoured to have some secret place where you could find an elixir of youth. Wow! So we guessed DD had hidden the doll in room 402 and went back to find it. Eventually we found it and took it back to room 404, where we placed it back in the place DD had stolen it from.

Which was when everything went dark and the rain started. We all panicked and ran screaming back to room 401 where we all jumped in the closet[1], the last one into the room being a member of Team Princess, Mr. J, who had lingered in the hallway to see the ghost that killed DD. This ghost was apparently some monstrous thing in a torn yukata that crawled down the hallway rapidly on all fours, and it freaked him out a lot. So we all dived into the closet, and then the closet began to shudder and twitch and move and after a few moments it came to rest again but there was this horrible, hideous laughter outside, that can be best likened to the creaking hacking laugh of the ghost in The Grudge. It was horrible.

After the laughter faded we opened the closet door and found ourselves in a strange redlit room like a study, with icons and buddhist type stuff on a desk at one end and the walls lined with candles. Apparently we were no longer in the normal world, because now the ghost that killed DD could speak to us. It revealed that it was the older sister of a girl called Yayoi who had died here, and whose soul was restless. Since we had escaped the ghost, she would give us the chance to escape if we could pass certain tests and restore the soul of her younger sister to rest.

Well, now we certainly knew how DD died! But we had more pressing concerns, like getting out alive. So we followed the tests. The first was relatively easy, we had to blow out the candles in the room as they flared up, in the right order. Then we went back into the closet and it again moved and shuddered, and when the door opened again we found ourselves facing a long, narrow cave-like room with taiko-style drums at regular points on the wall, and at the end. Between the drums were ropes stretching across the hall, hung with bells that we must not touch. We manoeuvred ourselves to the drums and beat them in the right order, which took some figuring out. This opened a secret door that in turn led to a small cave-like room with a chest in one corner and a locked door on the far wall. The walls were covered in ivy, in which a few skeletons and old bones were entangled. There was a strange clear orb over the locked door, and a locked chest on the floor. We could see through the locked door to a weird kind of temple with a figure of a cat god on the far wall and a big lantern in the middle. Obviously we needed to get through to there, but how? Also in the room were two hand mirrors. Weird. In one of the skeletons we found a note printed on leather, which gave clues to open the combination lock on the box. This we did after some faffing, and inside we found a key. Two of the team took this back to the drum room, and used it to open a compartment under the drum at the end of the hall. This triggered a laser that shone down the hallway, and we used the two hand mirrors to direct it into the clear orb over the locked door.

With that simple task out of the way the door opened and we entered the temple of the cat god. In front of the idol of the god were two empty pedestals for small icons, and the room was lined with miniature sake barrels, each adorned with a Chinese character. We had to choose the characters that would match the wishes of the cat god. Eventually we settled on the barrels with kanji for 9 and tails, because there is a legend that the cat god wants 9 tails. This was the right choice, and it activated something in the lantern, a kind of glowing orb. This, once pushed into position inside the lantern, restored Yayoi’s soul to rest, and we were free! The door opened and we stumbled out to freedom!

About the escape room

I have never done an escape room before so I can’t compare, but this was a genuinely excellent experience, as close as I think I have ever (or could ever) come to LARPing. It was atmospheric, carefully constructed to maintain a complete sense of immersion, challenging and scary. The lighting, decorations, music and sound effects were all designed to build up suspense and terror, and it took minimal effort to really feel like we were there. The addition of NPCs – including one crawling along the floor like a Japanese ghost – really brought the whole thing to life, so that we spent 90 minutes in a state of constant tension. It also sprawled over a wide area so it felt equal parts horror, investigation and exploration – very close to a dungeon crawl, in fact.

If you were to lay out the after action report above and add one or two combats, the escape game I played is essentially equivalent to a single full day session of an RPG. We could have done the whole thing in some Asian-themed Call of Cthulhu and it would have been just as great. This escape room experience really was as close to a real life role-playing session as I can imagine being able to do. It was a thoroughly excellent experience and I commend it to anyone who has a chance to try it.

There is of course a small problem with trying it though – you need to be able to speak and read Chinese very very well to get away with it. I can’t speak any Chinese (I have only learnt Japanese since coming to Japan), and although I can read some Chinese characters and understood the Japanese components of the game, I was essentially a chump for much of the game. I could help with searching and some basic tasks (like the bells and the drums and the candles) and I found some important clues (like the orb above the door and the glowing contents of the lantern in the final room) that were important, but I couldn’t answer any of the riddles, read the emails, or understand the necessary components of the story. So only try this if you have really excellent Chinese or you’re in a team who are patient and willing to go out of their way to coddle your chumpishness. If you can do that though, you will get to have a really good role-playing experience.

I also think that the game I played could form an excellent part of a campaign, with the second stage being to find the Boss who sent DD on his mission, and the third to kill or free Hasegawa san. Each game changes every six months or so apparently (it takes a long time to design and set up new settings) so this would mean a group of regular players like Team Princess would have 18 months of a story before they completed it. I hope Mr. X takes this on in future! They could probably also do a nice sideline in modules for actual RPGs, and if this escape room experience is any guide to how seriously Chinese otaku take their otaku world, it’s likely that China has a really amazing TRPG scene. If you know about that, I’d like to hear more!

About Mr. X

The Mr. X chain isn’t just an escape room company. They also provide rooms to rent for playing games of your own, and have tables in the main area where you can play card games supplied by the company. They provide drinks and food, and board games and card games that you can play while you’re there. The atmosphere is very comfortable and relaxed, and the staff are also very serious otaku – one of our staff was a young Uyghur woman who had moved to Fuzhou from Xinjiang so she could get a job in this company, because she loves the games. They are also able to explain the rules of the board and card games that they have available, and are friendly and warm and patient with our many demands.

The card game options …

Mr. X is an excellent otaku world, with a wide range of challenging escape room games and a nice environment for lazy days of board games and RPGs. It gave me a hint of a world of role-playing and nerdy games in China that I had never heard of before, and suggested to me that there may be a huge, vibrant and very advanced fantasy role-playing scene in China. I hope that more of this will become accessible in the west in future, and if any of my reader(s) visit China in the future and are in a position to do it, I strongly recommend you try it. For me it was a very impressive and new experience, and I hope you can all have a chance to share it in future.


fn1: Apparently we were given instructions before starting the game that we should a) run to the closet when we heard rain and b) not try to fight or interact with NPCs.

 

[Spoilers below obviously]

In 2016 a journalist reported that voting machines of a county in Florida had been hacked by the Russians, in support of electing to the highest office in the land an unqualified and useless white man who has never achieved anything. Other media outlets, right-wing agitators and partisans jumped on this and dismissed it, burying the story completely. In 2019 we discovered it was actually two counties, and the Florida governor has signed an NDA while the FBI investigate. In 2016 Barack Obama tried to organize a coordinated statement from political leaders on Russian interference in the election, but Mitch McConnell refused to support it and threatened to oppose it, in service of electing to the highest office in the land an unqualified and useless white man who has never achieved anything.

In 2018 the producers and writers of Game of Thrones had their Mary Sue, Tyrion Lannister, give a speech about the power of stories, and about how evil men cannot kill a story, in support of electing to the highest office in the land an unqualified and useless white man who has never achieved anything.

Do they think we’re fucking stupid? Or are they, in fact, fucking stupid?

Jon Snow Completes the show’s murderous and misogynist arc

Until this season, to the best of my recollection, Jon Snow had not murdered any women in cold blood, and hadn’t killed his own lover in a passionate embrace. I guess the show-runners wanted to make sure that he got to share in the fundamental misogynist spirit of the thing, so gave him the chance to murder his own lover in cold blood and made sure it was the crowning moment in the entire 8 seasons of this shitshow. Remember Jon Snow has been turned into this show’s liberal conscience over the past 8 seasons, so in doing this they made their modern, liberal audience complicit in this final act of spite.

They also had Tyrion complicit in it, because the misogyny of this show has always been a conscious conspiracy by the male characters (with people like Littlefinger and Varys explaining this with bored exasperation to the female characters who hadn’t figured it out). Tyrion egged Jon Snow on to do it, and what were his reasons? Listen to him lay them out: he reels off a long list of all the bad men Danaerys has killed and all the good people she has liberated, and suggests Jon and Tyrion and the bad men of Westeros might be next. Yes, Danaerys killed slavers and murderers and rich exploitative bastards and every man who harboured resentment towards her in his heart. Clearly she was going to have a field day in Westeros! So better that the show’s liberal conscience kill her off before she gets to work. #notallmen amirite?

The show betrays its own grimdark history

I have watched over 8 seasons as the people of this show go through a vicious and cruel exploration of the grimdark genre which, I have argued before, has nothing in common with the reality of mediaeval history and is really just the show-runners’ fantasy of how they would act if they had no legal restraints on the murderous power of their cocks. One element of this grimdark fantasy’s over-the-top bloodthirstiness is its heroes love of murdering prisoners, and the gleeful abandon with which they wander through the battlefield putting their vanquished foes to the sword. This has been standard practice of all the armies of Westeros since the beginning, including the good guys. Jon Snow certainly had no problem with it when he defeated the wildlings north of the wall, or after the battle of the bastards. He didn’t complain when Sansa had the captured leader of his enemies eaten alive by his own dogs.

But when Danaerys and her foreign horde do it, the men who have been running people through with impunity for 8 years develop a sudden case of the Geneva Conventions. Suddenly the show would have us believe that its gentlemen are really gentlemen, and if any one of these other leaders got astride a dragon in a time of war they wouldn’t burn a city to the ground. They’ve been more than happy to have their soldiers run rampage through vanquished cities for the last 8 years and suddenly they get the willies. It does seem like the show has softened this season, as they have attempted to make some of the characters more relatable to the liberal US audience watching it, but this is a problem. For 8 seasons we have understood that the spoils go to the victor. We accepted Danaerys’s Dothraki horde raping and looting their way through every town they conquered and we understood that powerful men get to choose who and what and how they fuck. There was nothing in all the abuse Sansa experienced that was incongruous in its time or place, and only its brutality was unusual. We appreciated that when the Hound killed those dudes talking about Arya as a chicken it wasn’t because their conversation was in any way wrong in the context of this world; it’s just that the Hound didn’t want them to do it to his friend. But if we carry this to its logical conclusion then whoever ascends the Iron Throne is going to murder their way there, and treat the city – and all the seven kingdoms – like their property. Given that the only people left standing are the liberal crowd pleasers, this is going to be a little on the nose for many of the fans. So the show had to take a liberal turn to not end up with one of the most repellent endings in cinematic history. But to me this is a massive disappointment. Don’t throw this gory shit at me for 7 seasons and genuinely revel in it then suddenly get squeamish at the last. Show the courage of your convictions and have the eventual ruler burn, stab, rape and murder their way to the top. Dispense the summary justice and vengeance we should expect! Even Cersei’s death was a cop out here: we all know that if this show were sticking true to its roots she and Jaime would have been captured and she would have been handed around to the people of King’s Landing to be used before her eventual bitter end.

I didn’t sit through the red wedding to see this piss-weak cop out of an ending. If you’re going to commit to this level of grimdark, see it through.

Does everyone in Westeros have their own weather?

I tried to focus on the stupid scene where Tyrione is allowed to choose the next king by a suddenly piss-weak Grey Worm, but I kept looking at the costumes and thinking what is wrong with these people? All the northerners were dressed like they were on a mission beyond the wall, while the southern dandies were in the mediaeval version of shorts and a t-shirt – on a sunny day in the south! What’s going on here? Does every noble in Westeros have the power to set up their own personal environmental zone? Shouldn’t the northerners be sweating like Brits? This whole scene was some of the worst story-telling I have seen in modern tv but still, couldn’t they at least have got the costumes right?

(Incidentally and relatedly – as time goes on in this show I have become more and more convinced that the Northerners are a bunch of insufferable prigs. Turning up to a meeting in the sunny south wearing your best arctic weather gear and sitting like you have a stick up your arse Sansa is the epitome of the kind of inflexible prudery that makes them Westeros’s eternal losers).

Pulling the teeth of all the most dangerous people

I think I’m not alone in wondering what the actual fuck was up Grey Worm’s arse in the second half of this episode. Or Drogon’s, for that matter. Or Arya’s. Or Sansa’s two episodes earlier. Over the past 3 episodes we have seen Sansa retreat to the basement at the first sign of trouble, we have seen Arya go from monster-slayer to pissy girl who forgot how to change her face, and finally in this episode we see Drogon just give up on the whole thing and piss off once his mother dies. WTF? Since when do dragons just chuck a bit of side-eye and run away after someone kills their mother? Worse still, Drogon shows enough intelligence to know that Danaerys’s quest for the throne was her undoing, but not enough to figure out that the dude holding her body killed her, even though the knife that smells like him is sticking out of her chest. Why didn’t Drogon burn Jon Snow, the tower, the city, and all the rest of humanity? Oh because he’s a dragon and they’re renowned pacifists? This is just pathetic.

Similarly with Grey Worm, who goes from being willing to kill all his allies in order to get vengeance on a couple of captives, to handing Tyrion over to what are effectively his enemies, making some weak mewling pleas for justice, then allowing his prisoner to speak, choose a king of all the 7 kingdoms, and then get himself pardoned. The Unsullied have gone from an unstoppable force with iron commitment to their queen, to a bunch of pussies who give up as soon as some white people ask them nicely. Similarly the Dothraki, who in the last scenes are depicted walking along the docks past Jon Snow – the man who murdered their queen – and ignoring him affably.

Basically every opponent of the entitled white men in this story – and in particular every rival to Jon Snow’s attentions as the Most Important Character – has been completely disempowered in this season, their motivations, powers and murderous ethics all melting in the southern sun so that Jon can come out as the reluctant hero. This is weak.

Tyrion fails up

Tyrion has been a failure for multiple seasons. Basically every piece of advice he has given Danaerys has been wrong. She could have captured King’s Landing first with three dragons, burnt Cersei alive, raised a huge army, waited for the army of the dead to come to the south, burnt them all to a crisp with her three dragons, presented herself to all of humanity as their savior, and then replaced all the kings of all seven kingdoms with her handpicked allies. But because of Tyrion’s advice she lost a dragon on a stupid mission to the north that just led to her fooling herself into thinking she had an ally she didn’t; she gave that treacherous ally time to build dragon-killing machines that took out her second dragon; and she lost her best friend in the process. Then Tyrion helped her enemy escape which ensured that she didn’t get to flamegrill Cersei, the woman in all of human history who most deserves a flame grilling, and almost allowed a claimant to the throne to escape alive and foment insurrection. And finally Tyrion managed to convince her lover to kill her (not a hard job since Jon Snow is such a piss-weak loser of a human, and in this show the boys will always prioritize their misogynist conspiracy over a worthy woman). Anyone looking at Tyrion’s history of bad advice would probably think that he’s not a good person to listen to.

So of course when he proposed Bran as king they all agreed. Bran, the most useless person in all the useless people in this show. Bran, who has no experience of leadership, no experience of battle, no significant education, no identifiable character traits, and no evidence of any ability to think or plan. Bran, whose sole contribution to the progress of the story – in fact the only way in which he has materially affected any human being in 8 seasons – was to break Hodor’s mind in a desperate defense that was revealed to have been completely futile within a couple of minutes of it happening. This man is the person who was recommended to the council of Entitled Fuckwits as the next leader. And what new system has Tyrion introduced them all to with his shitty speech? An elected monarchy? I’m sure that will last the test of time!

And after that, with all his evidence of dangerous and useless advice, Tyrion was appointed hand to this useless man. Has anyone ever failed their way to a loftier position than this pair of idiots? This show is like an object lesson in the value of being a rich white failson. Even Jon Snow, whose repeated failings led ultimately to the destruction of much of the northern population and the sacking of King’s Landing, manages to escape justice for murder and then once assigned to the Nights Watch is seen, at the end, just skipping out on those obligations to go and fuck wildlings beyond the wall without a care in the world.

This show should be renamed Rich White Kids Can’t Fail.

Winter’s waning as the final insult

At the end of the show, as we see Jon Snow skipping out on his punishment that Grey Worm meekly agreed to and heading north of the wall to find, fuck and fail another Ygrit (who had the clearest judgment of his character, though for some reason she still fucked him) we see the first budding shoots of spring. This really pissed me off. For 8 seasons we have watched this show on the fundamental understanding that winter in Westeros is unpredictable, long, and horrible. It has been made clear to us that winter doesn’t just come because the Night King brings it, but that it comes randomly for its own reasons, and the Night King has not had anything to do with its coming for so long that nobody believes in him anymore – Cersei had to see a wight with her own eyes to believe he was even real, remember. We were told repeatedly that this coming winter would be longer and harsher than those recorded in long memory, and led to believe that this is why the Night King has been raised up and why he is using it to his advantage. Yet here, barely a couple of months after the Night King dies and so only perhaps an actual earth season since winter reached Winterfell, we see it is already receding.

This is utter bullshit and it is the perfect, final example of how the writers of this show betrayed all its fundamental principles in order to tie it together into a nice, trite package that reassures us that the system must stay the same, nothing must ever change, and white men must win. It’s pathetic, weak writing and the end of this show was a catastrophe.

… and if it weren’t for her dragons Danaerys should probably swing with him.

[Spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 3 below]

He is incompetent, rash, and when it matters he always makes the wrong decisions. This time around, at the Battle of Winterfell, he also managed to stay well out of battle, hanging around on a dragon and using it to no good end while beneath him thousands of his men died horribly.

This isn’t the first time, either. At the Battle of the Bastards he completely broke with his own plan when he saw his brother murdered, and then led his troops on a reckless charge that sealed their destruction, and stood their helplessly while they fell all around him. That time only Sansa saved him (though she should probably swing for not telling him about the Knights of the Vale). This time it was Arya.

Let us recall as well that when his little team were fleeing from the army of the dead beyond the wall, their dragon still alive, it was Jon who delayed their retreat with a stupid reckless charge that put them in range of the Night King’s spear. Everything Jon does is driven first and foremost by stupid reckless rage and posturing. He’s a useless planner and a terrible leader.

Not that there isn’t blame to go around. In Episode 2 of this season we see the whole team – including Daenarys and Sansa – planning the battle as the Night King approaches, and it’s their clear plan to keep at least one of their dragons out of the battle because they think that the Night King is going to come for Bran. This means that their one reliable weapon against the countless dead is out of the battle, and all on the strange idea that the Night King is going to break out of the battle to kill Bran, a man whose sole effect on the world over 7 whole seasons has been to break Hodor’s mind. Why would they think that is going to happen?

A better plan

A far better plan for this battle would have been to use the unmatched power of their dragons to draw the Night King into range of their missile weapons, then shoot him down with dragonglass. They know that the army of the dead has no missile weapons, so once they get near the army of the living the dragons could simply hover over them, within missile range of the army, burning everything that approaches. The Night King then faces a choice: lose his whole army with no ability to replace it, or come forward to kill the dragons. Given the Night King doesn’t know that they know about dragonglass, and doesn’t know they have a huge supply of the stuff, he’s unlikely to think that all the human soldiers are armed with weapons that can kill him and his dragon; and although he will be hard to hit, his dragon will be super easy to kill with dragonglass – not to mention that it will be two dragons against one, and all they need to do is knock him off it so that the army can take him out with dragonglass weapons. They could further bolster this plan by putting Bran in the crypt, instead of in the garden, so that the Night King has to fight his way through the castle to get to him.

The many stupid decisions in this stupid battle

But no instead they put Bran in the garden, where the Night King can fly straight in and he can be attacked from all sides; left him with a very small number of defenders; sent the Dolthraki in to fight the Night King without any support; put the siege engines in front of their army and then didn’t bother to use them; dug a trench behind their army so they had to retreat over it; and hid all their non-combatants in a cellar full of dead people when they knew they were fighting an enemy that can raise the dead.

It’s also worth noting that until Melisandre turned up – completely unexpected – to light the Dolthraki weapons they were standing in the front line with weapons everyone knew could not harm the undead, and obviously intended to be a sacrifice to slow down the enemy. If you want to slow down the enemy why not build your trench a little further out? And have the Dolthraki charge in from the flanks to disrupt the forward motion of the enemy, while the dragons burn the front ranks as they arrive, and just wait for the Night King to get desperate? And why why why would you sacrifice even a single soldier when you know your enemy animates your dead and uses them against you? The moment the Dolthraki rode off into the dark the forces of good knew that they had gifted the Night King another couple of thousand soldiers. Well done!

This was the worst-planned battle ever. Why did they put their cavalry in front of their infantry, and why was everyone arrayed in front of the enemy even though in the previous episode we learn Brienne will command one of the flanks? You know you’re fighting a tireless enemy who can charge at you so why would you not use the cavalry from the side to disrupt movement? And why did they stop using the siege engines pretty much as soon as the Dolthraki died, instead of laying down a ceaseless rain of fire? And why did Jon spend so much time fart-arsing around up in the clouds on his dragon? If you don’t know where the Night King is, why not idle away some time by incinerating your enemies one field at a time? You’re sitting on the most powerful weapon the world has ever known, rubbing one out in the night sky because you don’t have the guts to fly down and set a bunch of dead people alight? You don’t just know nothing, Jon Snow; you are nothing.

What is the point of Bran?

Since the beginning of this show I have found every episode with Bran to be boring and pointless (except the Hodor one). He does nothing, learns nothing, tells no one anything, and contributes nothing. As far as I can remember his sole effect on the world of the living was to break Hodor’s mind, and his worging power is completely useless. Who cares if he can see through crows if he can’t move or speak while he does it, can’t communicate over long distances with anyone else, and can’t do anything through them? I was briefly hoping at some point he might worg into a dragon, which would be great, especially if it was the Night King’s, but nobody has bothered at any point to make his “power” useful or interesting. The people of the forest basically got exterminated helping him, the weird pointless dude in the tree gave him some riddles, Hodor died, and for what? He is supposed to carry the memory of humanity, but that’s already all written down in books and unlike Bran, books are actually capable of communicating, and will still be around long after Bran is dead. What’s the point of him and why would anyone think the Night King would come for him?

If you’re the Night King why would you break off of a battle where your enemies have two dragons that your forces cannot defend themselves against to hunt down a single useless dude, when you know that once the dragons are dead you can kill him at your leisure? If you were planning such a battle why would you assume he is going to do that? When Bran announced this silly idea in the meeting everyone should have just looked at him and said, “Dude, seriously? Get over yourself.”

The problem of failsons in Game of Thrones

Bran’s arrogance in assuming that the Night King would come to him first – because if you want to exterminate all human life you can guarantee the job is done by starting off with a rich dude who has a special insight, amirite? – is of a piece with the show writers’ weird attachment to Jon Snow. Way back when they killed Jon Snow, an act that is entirely consistent with their ruthless willingness to brutally slaughter popular characters and nice people, but then they went against all the show’s moral history by bringing him back from the dead. In doing that they basically singled him out as a super important character in this show with some kind of plot destiny, but since then he has led his people near to ruin repeatedly, and done nothing worthwhile. So why are they keeping him alive?

They have revealed to us now that he is the true heir to the Iron Throne, which raises the obvious possibility that they’re keeping him alive to fulfill his destiny and sit on the throne. If so then we can see how the show is going to play out: Through his poor temperament and bad judgment he is going to repeatedly create crises that the competent women will have to save him from, and then at the end he will simply walk up to the throne and take it from a more qualified woman. If that is their intention in keeping him alive then the ending of this show is going to be breathtakingly cynical. I’m still hoping Arya will assassinate them all and take it for herself now that my personal favourite the Night King is out of contention, but I’m thinking the chances are low. Jenny’s song [sung admirably by Florence and the Machine] implies that he might abdicate the role in favour of Danaerys getting it, but I doubt that will happen, so my guess is the show-runners are going to lead us to the final conclusion in which this incompetent failson gets everything he doesn’t deserve.

Please god no.

A final point about the Arya-Mary Sue thing

Apparently online a horde of manchildren are angry that Arya killed the Night King and are making out that she’s just a Mary Sue for the creators. This is hilariously bad analysis, and a strong reminder of why fan boys are the worst. Arya has spent 7 seasons training to become an assassin who can swap her face and moves so silently that even the dead can’t hear her, she was introduced in the very first scene of the very first episode as an excellent archer, and her every move in the final scenes of this episode was foreshadowed over the past three seasons, but a bunch of angry men online are angry that Jon Snow – who let me remind you should swing for being an incompetent fool – should have got the pleasure of killing him. Why on earth and wtf? Furthermore, since when did these showrunners reveal they have any kind of Mary Sue characters? They kill off all the cool kids, and the only character they’ve shown any loyalty to is Jon Snow. Before this episode aired there was general speculation about which of the famous people would get it, and who would come back as a wight, so it’s a surprise Arya even got to the end of the episode. And her final act had a great deal of surprise and tension to it – I think the viewer had been well deceived into forgetting her, and even when she leapt she got caught and everyone in that moment surely thought she was going to be the famous person who got done. That was genuinely the best moment of the episode, and way more plausible than the stupid battle plan they came up with. But for a bunch of angry neckbeards it was a step too far because a girl did something important.

If ever you have cause to doubt male resentment towards women in power, women in the workplace, #metoo or anything else – if ever you find yourself doubting that there will be many men who say they would love to vote for a woman but just not this woman – then just remember how this show unwinds, with an entire battle built around the idea that a useless rich kid who can’t do anything and has contributed nothing should be the focus of everything; a rich man who is so incompetent that every time he takes leadership thousands die, who will probably win the prize because he was just born to win; and a legion of men who are pissed off that this failson didn’t get to be the hero because an actually competent woman cleaned up his mess.

So much of what’s wrong with modern America is encapsulated in this episode of Game of Thrones, and the reaction of a bunch of angry men to a woman cleaning up an incompetent failson’s mess. I hope this man dies horribly, and I hope Arya does it wearing Danaerys’s face.

Watching the new Fantastic Beasts series, set in the Harry Potter world but outside of Hogwarts school, has made me aware of the horrible inequalities and vicious politics of the Harry Potter world. I have reported on how the first movie very starkly illustrated the lack of interest wizards have in the welfare of muggles, and the extreme inequality between wizard and muggle world that wizards actively work to maintain. In the second movie their disregard for the muggles bleeds into full exterminationism, and the central plot of the movie is revealed to be the battle between an evil guy who wants to exterminate all muggles and a plucky wizard who wants to preserve the status quo (although perhaps his main motivation is getting laid). In the second movie we also see how the politics of the wizard world is close to fascist, and definitely dystopian, and the wizards are subjected to a strict system of control and enforcement that seems to be largely built around ensuring they don’t reveal themselves to or do anything to help muggles.

In comments to the post in which I discuss this dystopian wizard world I attempted to discuss which kind of political dystopia the wizard world is, and after rejecting fascism and communism I settled on a colonialist model for the world. In this post I want to explain in detail how the politics of the Harry Potter world is explicitly colonialist, discuss the world’s repeated turns to exterminationism in light of this politics, and ask a few questions about how it is that a book in which we cheer for a bunch of colonialist bell-ends became an international sensation.

This post is going to be long, and will be structured something like this:

  • An introduction to colonial practice: Exploitative versus acquisitive colonialism
  • The proto-fascist structure of colonial states
  • The Muggle Protection Act and the politics of muggle exclusion
  • Why muggles are treated the same way as indigenous people in the Harry Potter world
  • The inevitability of extermination and the threat of muggle technology
  • Cheering on racists: How did we come to this?

In constructing this argument I will draw on background material from the Harry Potter books, some supporting material which I think JK Rowling published, and the events of the two Fantastic Beasts movies. I’m not a Harry Potter expert, so there may be mistakes. Anyway, here goes…

Two kinds of colonialism

When people think of colonialism they often think of the conquest and exploitation of India, which is seen as the canonical model of how a rich European state takes over and exploits a thriving non-European community. However, this is only one of two types of colonialism. For simplicity in this post I will define these two kinds as exploitative colonialism and acquisitive colonialism. In exploitative colonialism an aggressive and expansionist state invades and subjugates a weaker but technologically advanced state, destroys or co-opts its existing political structures, and runs its economy to its own exploitative benefit. Typically the state that the colonialist power invades is established, strong, with its own heirarchies, a thriving market, international trade and its own technological developments and progress. The model of such a state is India, but any of the South East Asian nations and also much of North Africa qualifies for this situation. In exploitative colonialism the cost of exterminating the locals, and the huge benefits of exploiting their existing markets and social structures, mean that exploitation is the best or possibly the only way for the colonial power to extract benefit from a people it considers its inferior. In contrast, acquisitive colonialism seeks no benefit from the people it overruns. In acquisitive colonialism the expansionist state finds a people who are technologically far inferior to itself, have a very small and dispersed population, limited or no international trade, and few markets it can intrude into. The only thing they have that is of value to the expansionist state is land and the resources locked in and under that land. Often their political systems are so alien to the conquering state that it cannot conceive of how to exploit them, and in any case the local economy is so small in comparison to the colonial state’s that there is no point in wasting energy trying to extract anything from them. Often these highly isolated societies are also vulnerable to diseases that the colonist brings, so exploitation will be highly destructive in any case. In acquisitive colonialism the costs of extermination are so low, and the benefits of exploitation so minimal, that the best outcome is to destroy the local community, drive it off of all profitable or beneficial lands, isolate it from the invaders and exclude it from all contact with or benefit from the invading society. This form of colonialism was practised in Australia, New Zealand and the Americas. The final goal of this form of colonialism may not have been the complete destruction of an entire race and culture, but it was most certainly the complete expulsion of these people from all profitable lands and their exclusion – generally on racist and eugenicist grounds – from all political and cultural interaction with the colonial state. This final stage is characterized in the USA by the reservation system, and in Australia by the mission system and the child abduction program. These acquisitive colonial states reached their nadir in the mid- to late 19th century and early 20th century, when they mixed their colonial ideology with scientific racism, but had a tail that trailed into the late 20th century, with the end of the explicitly exterminationist strategies probably marked by Wounded Knee in the USA and the end of the child abduction program in Australia in the early 1970s.

Of course neither of these kinds of colonialism perfectly enacted the goals they set out for themselves, partly due to conflicting political visions, partly due to changing circumstances, and partly because the goals cannot be pursued to their pure conclusion through the flawed and human agents of colonial repression. But that they did not, for example, completely exterminate the native American peoples should not be taken as a sign that American colonialism was not explicitly acquisitive and exterminationist.

The proto-fascist structure of colonial states

Colonialism extracts a heavy toll from its subject peoples, but it does not do so without also implementing an architecture of oppression and authoritarianism at home. Colonialist states explicitly structure their world view around heirarchies of human worth, defined in terms of race, class and gender, and the state and its supporters construct a network of social, political, economic and cultural forces to support and maintain these heirarchies. Within the home country of the colonialist state there is usually an extensive apparatus to control the poor, with institutions such as the workhouse and the prison, poor laws, debtor’s prison, and press gangs. Much of the British state’s early actions against sex workers were based on fear of the weakening influence of sexually transmitted infections on the colonial project, and the mistreatment of poor women and their children – including deceptively stealing their children and shipping them to the colonies to be used as cheap labour in the mission system and the homes of wealthy colonial families – is well documented, finally.

In the acquired colonial territories the state enacts vicious repression on its own lower classes, in the form of anti-union violence and the employment of terror organizations such as the Pinkertons to enforce its will. Where extractive industries in the acquired territories come into conflict with colonial labourers or encounter activism to preserve the environment or other public goods they react violently and with government support. Movement of non-indigenous people into indigenous areas is heavily restricted, and organizations that might represent the interests of indigenous people are suppressed. In the USA there was lynching of free Mexican workers throughout the south west, and in Australia in the 1960s the Freedom Riders were met with violence in their journey around Australia publicizing Aboriginal disadvantage. In the UK it was not uncommon to see “No dogs and Irishmen” signs on public accommodations, and at times in history it was not acceptable for white and indigenous people to marry or live together. In later years through programs like Cointelpro and the undercover police operations of the UK the state’s secret police worked assiduously against not only indigenous rights but also environmental and labour activism, animal rights progress, and any form of restrictions of the rights of the colonial state to extract full value from its stolen lands. In the USA this led to state and extra-judicial violence against indigenous people protecting their water rights, open suppression of land rights activism, and the use of prison and state power to restrict services to reservations to force acquiescence from indigenous activists and their non-indigenous supporters. The British state introduced transportation in the 19th century, dumping petty criminals and labour organizers from the UK into the badlands of its colonial properties and then pitting them against the indigenous residents, and punishing those who spoke out against these practices.

It is not possible to exterminate whole peoples, push them off their hereditary lands, and steal their resources without maintaining a violent state that represses all attempts at clemency or understanding. You cannot keep humans out of your polity without forcefully policing the boundaries of your polity, and requiring that your citizens stay strictly within it. Colonialist states are repressive, and build up structures of political and state control intended to ensure that their heirarchical and violent systems are maintained. There is a wide literature on the damaging political consequences of the exercise of state power in support of colonialism: George Orwell writes eloquently about its damaging effects in Burmese Days, and Katharine Susannah Pritchard describes the oppressive atmosphere of the frontier very well in Brumby Innes and Coonardoo. Henry Reynolds describes the violence of the frontier in The Forgotten War, and of course the Bringing them Home report details the racist underpinnings of the political order supporting colonialism in Australia. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds in New Zealand offer an unrelenting description of the colonial project in New Zealand, against an incredibly beautiful and peaceful backdrop. There is no reason for anyone in colonial societies not to know these things, but many of us do not.

Having established these outlines of what colonialist policy is and how colonial states enforce it on both their colonized victims and their citizens, let us move to the world of Harry Potter, and examine how the wizard world treats muggles.

The Muggle Protection Act and the politics of muggle exclusion

The Muggle Protection Act is a law passed in 1992 to protect muggles from magical accidents. It was part of a broader body of legislative and scholarly work on maintaining the veil of secrecy between the muggle and wizard worlds. It may be just a coincidence, but most colonial states have a law akin to this. For example in 1869 the Aboriginal Protection Act was passed in Victoria, which amongst other things restricted “where people could live and work, what they could do and who they could meet or marry”. Similar restrictions and guidelines were published in the wizarding world, for example the three volume Laws of Conduct When Dealing with Muggles, or the cultural (but not legal) stigma attached to marrying muggles. It appears, from Queenie’s behaviour in The Crimes of Grindelwald, that it is not possible for her to marry Jacob Kowalski or even to have a relationship with him, which is why she has abducted him and charmed him to come with her to France. That suggests that in 1920s America at least there was some kind of restriction on muggle-wizard relationships, or at least they were only considered acceptable in extreme circumstances. It is also apparently the case that the ministry of magic attempted to remove certain books from school libraries if they depicted relationships with muggles or were overly sensitive in their reporting on muggles.

The politics of muggle exclusion becomes much clearer when we investigate Dumbledore’s history of activism on this subject. In a letter to Grindelwald on the topic, this scion of liberal wizard politics writes

Your point about Wizard dominance being FOR THE MUGGLE’S OWN GOOD — this, I think, is the crucial point. Yes, we have been given power and yes, that power gives us the right to rule, but it also gives us responsibilities over the ruled. We must stress this point, it will be the foundation stone upon which we build. Where we are opposed, as we surely will be, this must be the basis of all our counterarguments. We seize control FOR THE GREATER GOOD. And from this it follows that where we meet resistance, we must use only the force that is necessary and no more.

This is a classic model of white man’s burden. Consider, for example, this minute from the colonial secretary of New South Wales to the Legislative Assembly, 1883:

HAVING carefully read the two reports by the Protector, the various letters and articles which have appeared in the newspapers on the La Perouse blacks, and the report of Messrs. King and Fosbery on the Warangesda and Maloga Mission Stations, the opinion which I formerly held is confirmed, viz., that much more must be done than has yet been done for the Aborigines before there can be any national feeling of satisfaction that the Colony has done its duty by the remnant of the aboriginal race.

Later in this note (which can be found as a reference here), we can find in the report of the NSW Aborigines Protection Association the following charming indication of how many people in 1881 felt about Aboriginal people:

As usual in inaugurating an effort of this nature, the Association had some obstacles to surmount through misrepresentation and apathy. It was said that any attempt to better the condition of the blacks was labour in vain; that they were such irreclaimable savages, and so devoid of ordinary human sympathies that no hold could be got over them ; and that they were dying out so fast that no good end could be served by trying to civilize and educate them.

This is very close to the way Grindelwald or Voldemort think about Muggles; indeed, without having access to it, one could assume that Dumbledore’s reply to Grindelwald is a reply to a sentiment such as this. Certainly there is a movement in the wizard world – epitomized by Grindelwald and Voldemort, but also expressed through pure-blood fascists like Malfoy – that the wizards have the right to rule over muggles, that no consideration should be given at all to muggles and that purity of blood is essential. Indeed, the entire language of blood status in the wizard world exactly mirrors the language of racial heirarchies in colonial societies, and policies championed by pure-blood fascists are very similar to those proposed by people like A.O. Neville in early 20th century Australia. The similarity of language and intent is striking. Effectively what we see here is one side of an ongoing debate between wizards about whether to completely ignore or even exterminate muggles, or to keep them excluded from wizard society but act where possible for the good of the muggles when doing so. In the Harry Potter books we see this debate manifest as a violent conflict between Voldemort on one side, and Dumbledore and the children on the other, in which we side with Dumbledore and his white man’s burden, rather than the exterminationist Voldemort.

The Muggle-Indigenous parallel

Of course, one might argue that this colonial vision cannot be shared between wizards and European colonialists, because wizards are not stealing anyone’s lands. They don’t need to interact with muggles at all and they’re simply maintaining a peaceful distance. But this is not the case at all. Muggles are a constant burden to wizards; muggles are in the way. Whenever wizards show themselves around muggles – whenever they attempt to be on muggle land or in muggle spaces as wizards – they risk violence, and the entire architecture of wizard secrecy was developed in 1683 in response to violent encounters between muggles and wizards. In the colonial project Indigenous people are also in the way, because they occupy land that the colonialists want, and attempts to use that land incur Indigenous anger and violence, so the simple solution is to push them off. Perhaps they could have come to some arrangement to share the land, but why would they bother with people so far beneath them? And why negotiate when essentially you do not believe that Indigenous people are using the land at all? This logic of terra nullius makes it an injustice to the colonialists to have to negotiate with their inferiors for access to land they don’t believe the indigenous people are using or need. A very similar situation applies to the wizard world: wizards cannot openly use muggle land or public space without incurring violence, and so the muggles to them are just a nuisance. They have nothing to gain from interacting with muggles, and consider themselves so far above muggles that negotiating with them is a waste of time, and so they try to separate their societies. To this end they establish a complex system of laws that they enforce with extreme violence (towards wizards who violate them) and obliteration (of memories) for muggles who stumble across their existence. It is also clear from the books that even liberal wizards don’t think twice about interfering in the wellbeing and livelihoods of muggles if the muggles’ presence causes them even a moment’s inconvenience. Consider this story from Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince[1]:

There was no doubt that Mrs Cole was an inconveniently sharp woman. Apparently Dumbledore thought so too, for Harry now saw him slip his wand out of the pocket of his velvet suit, at the same time picking up a piece of perfectly blank paper from Mrs Cole’s desktop.

‘Here,’ said Dumbledore, waving his wand once as he passed her the piece of paper, ‘I think this will make everything clear.’

Mrs Cole’s eyes slid out of focus and back again as she gazed intently at the blank paper for a moment.

‘That seems perfectly in order,’ she said placidly, handing it back.

Here Dumbledore, ostensibly a champion of muggle rights, simply screws with a woman’s mind and creates a future disciplinary issue for her, just because she is “inconveniently sharp.” Her situation or needs are of no importance to her at all – he simply dismisses her intentions and free will, and tricks her into not doing her job, with all the consequences that entails.

It is inevitable that at some point in this history an impatient or particularly arrogant wizard is going to advocate for the next step from this inconvenient co-existence: exterminate them and take their land. This is what Grindelwald wants to do, keeping alive perhaps a small number for some as-yet-unclear purpose. It is also part of Voldemort’s goal, although he also appears to want to reshape wizard society as well. Perhaps he realized that rebellion against the system of muggle protection boards and secrecy statutes was not enough, and to properly settle “the muggle question” one needs to also change wizard society so it is less squeamish about what needs to be done. This would make him no different to the people arguing against the Aborigines Protection Association in Australia in 1881.

The parallels are obvious: an inferior race interferes in the goals of wizards by being in their way on land they could be using for their own benefit. So the debate becomes: do we tolerate them and do our best to rule with good intentions, avoiding harming them as much as possible; or do we exterminate them for our own convenience? All of the Harry Potter plot – and especially the plot of the new Fantastic Beasts series – concerns the resolution of this debate. It’s the classic debate of the colonial era, with magic.

Extermination and the threat of muggle technology

The slide towards extermination is inevitable, and the imperative to do so becomes obvious in The Crimes of Grindelwald, where we begin to realize that there are too many muggles, wizards can’t control them forever, and because they haven’t already completely destroyed their society, the muggles are developing their own technology. Grindelwald shows a vision of the future in which muggles have nuclear weapons and it becomes painfully apparent to the gathered wizards that the game is up: if the muggles get that technology, they are the equals of wizards. That one vision by itself is enough to convince at least half of the wizards to switch sides. Queenie switches sides, with the promise of no moral constraints on how she will be able to deal with muggles. The implication for Queenie is that she can have Jacob – but what does that mean for the other wizards in the room? Murder? Slavery? It’s not clear but the implication is not good. The moral implication of this in the context of this colonialist model of wizard-muggle interactions is obvious: because they didn’t exterminate them and disrupt their culture sooner, the wizards have allowed the muggles to flourish and become independent, and now they are a threat. The wizards should have learnt from the human playbook, and done the job properly from the start. Grindelwald – and, perhaps, later Voldemort – will do the job properly!

The moral implications

What should we as readers take away from this collection of stories? I tried googling to find out what others have written about this topic, and although I found some interesting questions and debates on colonialism in the stories, I could not find anyone tackling the obvious racism of the wizard/muggle divide and the horrifying language of colonial racial hierarchies in Rowling’s lexicon of blood purity. I found an article from an academic, Magical Creatures and How to Exploit them, about the colonial politics of wizard’s attitudes towards non-human magical beings. I found a question on Metafilter (wtf!) about whether the wizards bothered to stop colonialism when muggles did it to each other, with the obvious implication (since it happened) that wizards from all the countries on earth sat back quietly while muggles of one country enslaved and exterminated muggles of other countries. This is an interesting question that makes the central interventionist debate in Black Panther look kind of pissy, but it doesn’t address the issue of how wizards view and treat muggles. The entire issue seems to have just slid under everyone’s notice.

I think this is a strong indictment of how western societies view our colonial past, and also a really depressing example of how much indigenous peoples’ voices and cultural history have been excluded from western culture. We didn’t even notice as a series of books in an obviously, openly racist and colonialist setting swept the world by storm. A huge amount of ink has been spilled on her description of native American wizards, but nothing has been said about the colonized nature of muggle life, and the fascist society that rules over them and is planning to exterminate them.

There is nowhere in the original series of novels or in the movies where the author makes a judgment on this, or leads us to believe that she even sees this issue (indeed, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them it is unclear whether we’re even meant to think the summary execution of Tina is bad). It is possible to make stories of this kind with a little more moral nuance than we see in Harry Potter. For example, in his Culture series, Iain M. Banks makes it very clear that there is something slightly wrong about the Culture, and especially about the behavior of the Contact section. In Consider Phlebas we are obviously meant to sympathize with the Culture’s enemies as they race to find the Mind, and in The Player of Games the planet that Gurgeh intervenes in is set up as almost comically evil with the specific intent of posing a moral question about interference. The decisions that the main characters make leave them scarred and cynical, and sometimes set them against their own society. In the movie Avatar the colonial conflict has a clear moral framework and we end up switching sides midway through. There is no point in any of the multitude of books, movies and associated stuff where any wizard character of any kind rebels in any meaningful way against the colonial system, or even questions it. The obvious implication of this is that we’re complicit with it, as readers – we are asked to go along with it, and we do!

This leads me to ask a few questions about the series, its conception and its reception, which I have not been able to answer:

  • Did J.K. Rowling intend this series to be a discourse on colonialism, or did she invent this entire apparatus out of whole cloth?
  • Has anyone noticed the racism of wizard society and its colonialist parallels, and has Rowling responded to that?
  • Is there any young adult literature where the good guys are embedded in and supporting a society as openly fascist as the one that Rowling writes about?

It is disturbing to me that this series is about a group of children defending an overtly authoritarian society from a fascist takeover, in which two separate storylines describe bad guys intending to exterminate most of the human race on racial grounds, and we are supposed to cheer on the “good” colonialists who are protecting a “good” society which controls the minds, bodies and souls of 6 billion people because of their infinite inferiority, and maintains a deeply violent and illiberal social order in order to protect that colonialist project. I cannot remember any book I have ever read in my entire life (except perhaps Starship Troopers, but for obvious reasons my memory of that is dim) in which the society the good guys come from is so deeply evil, and yet we are so blithely expected to cheer along the main characters as they defend and support that society. Looking back on it now, I feel as if I have been indoctrinated into a vicious and disturbed cultural order, raised in it just like the children in the books, and only when I was presented with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them did I finally realize that the society I had been cheering for needs to be torn down root and branch.

Conclusion

The society of the Harry Potter world is best modeled as a colonialist society in which an elite of extremely powerful people lord segregate themselves from a mass of muggles who they exclude from the riches and benefits of their own society, on explicitly racist grounds. This society has developed an intensely authoritarian and illiberal system of government to control the wizards and ensure that the colonial order is reproduced, and is happy to use violence and imprisonment in a soul-destroying prison to maintain that order. Exterminationist ideology bubbles up repeatedly in this world because it is inevitable that a society which views 6 billion people as worthless interferences in its daily activities will eventually decide that the convenient thing to do is murder all of them, and the need to do so becomes pressing when people realize these supposedly useless muggles will get nukes. We the readers are supposed to cheer on the agents of this authoritarian society as they defend it against a fascist, exterminationist incursion, without ever questioning the underlying principles of this social order, the author never shows any sign that she intends for us to question the moral framework of her series, and no character ever seems to question the fundamental evil of it all.

Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the series, and it’s certainly an interesting political project. But it says a lot about the state of our society that this became popular and that the political underpinnings of the work have never been questioned, or indeed that the explicitly racist framework of the stories has not been repeatedly attacked. Obviously it’s good that millions of children enjoyed a hugely popular book that is enjoyable to read and introduced a whole new generation to the joys of reading and the creative brilliance of literature, but I really hope that in future we as a society can do better than this.


fn1: Itself a deeply disturbing name, when you think about the history of phrases like “Half-blood” when applied to indigenous peoples.


Art note: This is a ledger drawing, art drawn on a school exercise book or some other workaday paper, which is a part of the historical record left behind by indigenous Americans after the end of their independent communities. This one is a drawing by an unknown Kiowa artist, which I took from the Wikipedia entry on ledger art.

Recently Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar announced that she will be running for president, only to be confronted with reports that she is a nasty boss. The media are avoiding calling it bullying, but the reports are bad and suggest that she is genuinely terrible: throwing things at staff, making them do personal chores, humiliating them publicly and terrorizing them personally. Until 2017 she had the highest staff turnover of any senator, and rumours suggest she was warned about her treatment of staff by a senior colleague. This is bullying, plain and simple, and these actions should be called bullying. Her defense has been that she’s a “tough boss”, and others have suggested that she is just “demanding”, but throwing things at staff and humiliating staff publicly is not “tough”, it’s abusive.

Besides the obvious moral failings of bullies, there are three important reasons why a bully should not be nominated for, or run for, and certainly not become, president.

  • Bullied staff are bad staff: When you’re bullied you avoid reporting mistakes, you bury issues you know will trigger your boss, you avoid communicating with your boss, and all communication and information is carefully managed and manipulated to ensure it doesn’t trigger the boss. This means that errors compound and grow, the boss only hears what they want to hear, and decisions get made on the basis of what the boss wants, not what is best for the organization or what is right. Many people will claim that they wouldn’t behave this way if faced with a bullying boss but I can assure you from experience: Everyone does. Bullies run dysfunctional organizations, and often ultimately destroy those organizations.
  • Bullied staff are vindictive staff: If Klobuchar is a bully and she wins the nomination, you can bet that all through the general election there will be a constant dribble of negative reports about her, as her staff try to stop her from becoming the world’s top bully. This will hamper her effectiveness and ultimately risks Trump winning.
  • Bullies do not play well with others: There is only one way to stop a bully’s bad behavior: smash the bully. The only way to restrain a bully is with power – it is the only language they understand. Bullies always punch down and suck up, they have a natural power to understand where power lies and who uses it, and they don’t collaborate or cooperate with peers or weaker people. This is bad at school but it’s monstrously dangerous in a nuclear-armed and powerful nation. This shouldn’t be a difficult thing to see – we can see how Trump doesn’t play well with others, and he’s obviously a bully.

Public responses to reports of Klobuchar’s bullying have largely ignored these points. This Washington Post article, for example, starts with the question “does it matter?” and finishes with this pearler:

If you think about it, the problem with [President] Trump is not that he’s a crappy boss, it’s that he doesn’t get along well with peers and with the people he needs to work with to get legislation passed … I’m not sure the job of being president is a job of management in the sense of being a CEO, but frankly as I see it, it’s about convincing people to do what needs to be done.

This is exactly why Trump being a bully is a problem: he can’t get along with his peers because he has a history of bullying and attacking them, and he can’t convince people to do what needs to be done because they refuse to cooperate with such an outrageous arsehole. These things are all linked!

On Twitter another response I have seen to these reports is that it’s a double standard, that no man has been subject to these complaints and that it’s just another way of bringing down a “tough” woman (with the addendum if she were a man she’d be called “tough” but because she’s a woman she’s “unreasonable”). I am sympathetic to these arguments and I can see that if Klobuchar were just tough she might well be derided as unreasonable, but that is not what is happening, and conflating the reports with “tough boss” is wrong. Furthermore, it’s not a double standard: reporters were reporting on Sanders’ mistreatment of his staff in 2015, Trump’s bullying was well known and well reported on, and Tim Kaine (Clinton’s VP pick) made Trump’s bullying a central part of his address at the Democratic National Convention. While it’s true Sanders didn’t get hauled over the coals for this, it’s true that in a lot of other ways coverage of Sanders was ludicrously biased (he’s not a Democrat, for example, but he was taken seriously by the Democrats wtf), and the broader issue of how poorly the media handled Clinton’s candidacy is about way more than this issue – and largely unrelated, I think. The fact is that Trump’s bullying was widely reported on, as was his sexual assault. It’s just that a lot of Americans didn’t care, only watch Fox News, or were too stupid to understand how to check the candidates before they voted.

Of course it’s possible all the reports about Klobuchar are lies, but I doubt it. I haven’t bothered investigating in detail because it’s not worth my time – Harris is going to win the nomination, so it doesn’t matter what Klobuchar did – and because if Klobuchar does win the nomination it doesn’t matter, since she’s obviously better than Trump. But the fact that this comes up now shows the importance of a simple principle: At all levels of society, at all times, we have to confront and beat down bullies, and we need to always be aware that a lot of people love and support bullies, and we need to confront and deal with them too. I will talk about the importance of this at a more prosaic and local level: the US role-playing scene known as the “Old School Renaissance”, or OSR, where a major figure in that scene has recently been uncovered as a rapist and a shocking bully and power abuser.

Zak S and the personal politics of bullying

Zak S is a major figure in the OSR, who runs the Playing D&D with Porn Stars blog and has been involved in a great many OSR projects, especially Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Zak S has been involved in the OSR since about 2009, when he started the blog, and in his early days was well enough behaved. He occasionally commented here in 2009/2010, before he discovered he had bigger fish to fry, and then I lost interest in the OSR and stopped paying attention to the recycled junk they produce for many years. But somehow in Twitter I stumbled upon a report that Zak S’s porn star players – who, it turns out, were all his lovers as well – have started posting reports on Facebook about how he raped them and abused them for many years. He was apparently a gaslighting, emotionally manipulative abuser, since probably about the time he started blogging. As it stands at the time of writing two women have reported similar behavior and abuse, and it seems pretty unlikely that this is some kind of political campaign. The truth is out and it’s not pretty.

I was not surprised, because Zak S is an obvious bully. He has been bullying people for years, with help from a coterie of vicious internet allies, and has been an incredibly disruptive presence in the OSR. Multiple producers of OSR content and various bloggers have had to bow out of the whole scene or disappear because of his behavior; in 2016(?) a group of women marched out of the Ennies in protest at him winning prizes (they walked out on political grounds; aesthetic grounds would have been sufficient!); he was banned from one of the big forums (RPG.net I think) with an epic post listing his behaviors that I can’t now find; and various people have taken sides over his behavior over the years. It’s no surprise that a man who showed the kind of public aggressiveness and rudeness he showed should turn out to be a manipulative rapist, because bullies only listen to power, not to moral claims, and rape is a crime of power. But by the time this came out he had managed to leverage his vicious public behavior into a role as a “consultant” on D&D 5th Edition and some kind of advisor to Vampire: The Masquerade[1]. He had also ingratiated himself with Lamentations of the Flame Princess to the extent that he is one of their main contributors, and was involved with various other OSR/DIY gaming[2] outfits. Somehow this thoroughly unpleasant man had managed to become popular with a lot of people despite his repeated public bullying of weaker figures. How did this happen?

It’s instructive to compare the response of some people to this news today with the way they defended him for years. People have known about the claims about Zak S and they defended him, over and over, for years. They repeatedly dismissed any criticisms of his behaviour as lies, slander, “social justice warrior” posturing, jealousy, conspiracies, or people being delicate snowflakes. But all the criticisms were true, and all the defenses were the usual bullshit that the enablers always give for bullies. The reality is that a lot of people in the OSR were willing to side with Zak S and supported or defended his behavior when they realized that he was going places. They didn’t dissociate quietly from him, they didn’t refuse to support him, they didn’t confront him – they actively defended and encouraged him. Now they’re all acting ooooh so surprised that he’s a rapist and that all the tactics he deployed online were deployed to devastating effect in his personal life, and a lot of them even now are trying to back out of responsibility by claiming it’s a social media storm, or blaming the women or pretending that they were blinded by political considerations. It’s all bullshit: these people were the sycophants to the bully. Just like every bully in school has a gaggle of hangers-on who applaud his every tawdry move, the leading lights of the OSR clung to Zak S. They hung on his every word. Even now Raggi at Lamentations of the Flame Princess is waiting to see how everyone reacts before he makes comment, because that’s the kind of coward he is. The rest of them are trying to pretend that they had no clue – no clue! – that this guy who had been banned from multiple forums for abuse, who was a known sock puppeter, who broke every social norm and paraded around like the Sun King on Meth, was completely unknowably bad. How could they have guessed? They could not have known!

Well they’re lying. Bullies are nothing without their enablers, and the enablers always crawl out from under their rocks when they see someone who might be going places, someone who they can suck up to for some benefit, even if it’s just the vicarious coolness of being around someone who is “popular” – and even if that popularity is just other morally backward people like themselves cheering the bully as he hurts others. That’s what happened with Zak S, and now we’re watching all these people come to terms with the fact that they spent years helping a rapist and a bully get popular and famous in their sordid little scene.

That’s what happens when you don’t confront bullies. That’s what happens when you stand by while they act like shitlords, and tear up the communities that welcomed them. Every single one of us has a personal responsibility to confront bullies and to drag them down, to shame them and humiliate them. If we all did this from the very beginning there would be no Zak S’s, no Klobuchars, no Trumps – they would all have learnt that it doesn’t work, and they would have stopped. But too many people make excuses, say that Zak S is just confrontational, that Klobuchar is tough, that Trump says what he means and means what he says, and ignore what is really happening. They let it pass, and then someone genuinely weak and helpless – someone like Mandy Morbid, Zak S’s girlfriend, who has serious disabilities and is a foreigner in America – has to finally break everything and make the stand that everyone else could easily have done years ago. The burden falls on the weakest, the victims, instead of on people like Raggi from Lamentations of the Flame Princess who could have sent Zak S a very strong message years ago by telling him “fuck off Zak, you’re a fuckwit.” Instead of years of humiliation for being a fuckwit, Zak S got years of support and ennoblement, and learnt repeatedly that there is no penalty for being evil.

Not everyone can stand up to bullies. Bullies know power, and often their victims have no power to say no. But bullies always seek the powerful for approval and support, and they know how to accrue power, social and financial resources, and the kinds of capital that protect them. If you control that power, those social resources, or that capital, then the responsibility is on you to attack those bullies. If you have money, a steady job, love, physical strength, tenure, stable and supportive networks – it is your responsibility to confront these people and tell them to fuck off. You may fail or they may try to hurt you but if you don’t it comes down to this – a disabled sex worker crying for help on facebook, anonymous staffers having their stories dismissed in the national press because they’re anonymous cowards, victims of Trump U taking him to court in a fevered national election environment – vulnerable and scared people, risking everything to tell the rest of us what we already knew. But if every day those of us with power and position used that power and that position to tell these people how they are wrong, and to take away their power to do wrong, then those vulnerable people would not have to risk everything to warn the rest of us about what is coming.

The responsibility to smash the bully lies with you, not with anyone else. And if we all use that responsibility, if we do what we should do, then the bullies will never thrive, and the world will be a better place. Or we could be like the cowards in the OSR, and achieve some measure of temporary fame by sucking up to a known bully.

The choice is yours.


fn1: I have always hated Vampire, which is a classic attempt to tell the story from the bully’s perspective, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that they would be attracted to a bully and a rapist.

fn2: “DIY gaming” appears to be some sort of euphemism for “we do D&D”

 

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.

The death of a great mage, who has many times in his life walked on the dry steep hillsides of death’s kingdom, is a strange matter: for the dying man goes not blindly, but surely, knowing the way.

On the 23rd January Ursula le Guin died at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy unrivaled in science fiction, and a body of work that has been hugely influential in and outside of the genre. Ursula le Guin was my gateway to fantasy, and a very important personal influence for me, not only on my reading habits but also on my game mastering, and on my own perspectives on politics, feminism, and race relations. She has received accolades from newspapers and writers across the world, and there’s little that I need to say to add to the obvious appreciation of her contribution on display in all the usual places, so I thought I might say a little about the various and important ways that she influenced me from a very young age. It’s not much, but ultimately this is what writing is all about – the impact it has on its readers.

A Wizard of Earthsea was my introduction to real fantasy, probably the first book I read after the Narnia series, and the one book more than any other that served to kick me into a lifetime of devotion to this genre. I was always an avid reader when I was a child so there was no risk that I would not be reading a lot of books, but it was A Wizard of Earthsea more than any other book that ensured I would commit a lot of that reading time to the fantasy and science fiction genres. It’s a great book to start with, because it is immediately accessible to children, but whatever age you read it you will gain something from it. Indeed, I think I have read the whole series perhaps three times, and the first in the series at least five times. The writing is very powerful and so very simple, every sentence carefully poised to carry as much weight as possible. The original three slim volumes require so little work to read, and have such a powerful impact. For me Ged is one of the most powerful and engaging characters in all of fiction, speaking to me not like a lone magician but like the voice of some eternal conscience, a moral and spiritual force far greater than its possible to believe one literary figure can possess. It surely helps that when I read this book I was beginning to give in to my position as an outsider, always moving around, always rejected by new schools and new communities, living on the edge of things just like Ged when he discovered his powers. This book, simultaneously so forceful and so gentle, was a huge influence on my personality when I was very young.

The Dispossessed came to me at the beginning of university, and is probably the single biggest reason I fell into left wing political views. I was a very naive, very inexperienced boy coming from a very poor background with a great deal of anger about the disadvantage that I, my family and my friends faced, but no sense of how anything could ever be different – or that it even could be. Then, because I had read A Wizard of Earthsea, I decided to read The Dispossessed – and I suddenly discovered an image of a world where everything was different, where there was no inequality and people worked and struggled for very different reasons. This story was about a scientist – a physicist no less! – embarking on a world of political discovery at just the time I was studying physics, and moving from my country town to the big city. Just like Shevek after he left Anarres, I felt again like an outsider, a country bumpkin in amongst all these sophisticated kids from the city who already knew each other and already knew the world they moved in, kids who had spent their whole lives knowing they would be at university, and knew that after they left university they would inherit the world – while I had only learnt what university was a year earlier and did not know where I would go after it finished. Caught in that in between world I read The Dispossessed and suddenly I knew that there had to be another way, that maybe things didn’t have to be the way everyone assumed they had to be. After I read this book I sat with a much older mature age student in the cafe, trying to explain how it had opened my mind to knew ways of social organization, and my anger at how things were, and he suggested that I should join Resistance, the youth arm of the communist party. “I think you’ll hate them,” he told me, “and you’ll leave after a year. But you’ll learn about the things you need to know.” So I did, and he was right in every detail – I did hate them, and I did learn a lot, and I did leave them after a year. Just like Shevek I ended up in between political ideas, but knowing a lot more about myself and what I believed.

The Left Hand of Darkness came after The Dispossessed, again while I was still a callow youth, and it opened my mind about gender the same way that The Dispossessed made me think about politics. It had never really occurred to me that the relations between the sexes were culturally constructed, and the complex relationship between biology and culture described in that wonderful little book was a completely new idea to me (like I said, I was a very naive youth). The Left Hand of Darkness is perfect science fiction, in that it gets you to think about how things are and how they could be and how they should be, but it doesn’t give you any neat answers – it just makes you wonder. After you read a book like that you just want to know more, you have suddenly a whole new dimension of thinking that you didn’t know about before, and suddenly you are open to all the new ideas that flow from it – feminism, post structuralism, whatever. I spoke to a friend after I read this book, an activist in the Australian Labor Party, and he recommended to me an excellent guidebook called Men, Sex, Power and Survival that provided a primer in feminism for men. At the same time the university where I studied was offering basic education in how to behave in a non-sexist way in tutorials and in general at university (a few tips on how not to sexually harass people, that sort of thing) and I think without this book I would have been less open to these things. I don’t credit myself with being “woke” in some dumb-arsed American way, but I think I have lived my life open to feminist ideas and alternative ways of thinking about sex and culture, and I think I can credit Ursula le Guin for this.

So in terms of my main hobby and interests, my main political direction, and a lot of my views about gender and sexuality, I have a lot to thank Ursula le Guin for. Of course nothing is all one person’s fault, and there were other things that influenced me in all these directions – Dragonlance probably cemented my interest in the fantasy genre, and I think Star Wars and a few other movies would have fixed me on science fiction (though I came to sci fi later than fantasy). I guess I probably would have discovered left wing politics anyway, given my class background and my anger, and the university was pushing a strong feminist line when I arrived that might have influenced me anyway, but I’m sure that without Ms. le Guin’s impact I might have been far less committed to or interested in any of these areas of life. She influenced me in other ways, too – I think Orsinian Tales is a heart-breakingly well written depiction of the lives of ordinary people, that really moved me when I first discovered it, and I read a lot of her other work and was duly influenced by that too, but these were the big three ways in which she changed my life.

Ursula le Guin didn’t get the credit she deserved in life, and although as she neared the end of her career she began to get the accolades which she should have got decades earlier, I think she still didn’t get all she deserves. I think she identified this as partly being because of her gender, at least within her field; but she also seemed to be very convinced that it was the genre itself that held back the esteem its authors deserved (not just her; she never seemed to be very proud). She was a staunch and prickly defender of her genre, refusing to apologize for it or to break out of it, and as punishment for that I believe she is not as well rewarded as, say, Margaret Atwood, who writes slightly science-fictiony stories in a mainstream genre and got a lot of respect much earlier in her career. Of course I can’t speak for Ursula le Guin but I think, from what I read of her essays and her writings, that she wouldn’t care about those awards and accolades nearly as much as she valued the impact that she has had on the lives of her readers, the ordinary people from whom she believed all important change arises, about whom she always told her stories, and to whom she so patiently and consistently directed her work. So I wanted to add my voice to all those others this week who spoke up to say how much she influenced them, and how much she mattered to them. Ursula le Guin’s work changed the direction of my life, for the better, and I will always be thankful to her for that, and for her huge contribution to the fields of science fiction and fantasy that have formed so much of the backdrop of my life. She may be gone, but she leaves a formidable legacy that will change science fiction and fantasy forever, just as it changed me.

 

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