Nerd Culture


When I was a child Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon had a huge influence on me. I read it very young, perhaps at the age of 10 or 12, and I think it was the first fantasy I read after A Wizard of Earthsea. I think I already knew the Arthurian legends (most kids growing up in Britain did) but this novel introduced ancient “pagan” elements to them which profoundly changed my view of religion. I didn’t become a pagan of course, but growing up in deeply misogynist Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s, when everything was still steeped in traditional Christian ideology and Britain’s history was only taught to us as a story of greatness and righteousness, the idea that Christianity was wrong and that Arthur was really a pagan compromise, or that there was another, non-christian history to Britain, or that there was a woman’s side to a story, made a huge difference to the way I thought about the world around me. I’m not alone in this: generations of science fiction fans report MZB’s Mists of Avalon as a crucial and eye-opening book. MZB’s work is also heralded as an important milestone for feminism in science fiction and fantasy, and many people report its influence in this regard.

Since then of course we have discovered that Marion Zimmer Bradley sexually abused her own daughter, and appears to have been an ideologically committed sexual abuser, who sheltered and supported another sexual abuser and was active to some degree in furtherance of a political ideal of pederasty. All this should have been common knowledge by the time her books were published, but it seems to have remained strangely unreported even after her death, only becoming common knowledge when her daughter disclosed the information to the public in 2014. MZB was a hugely influential figure in modern cultural circles: she founded the Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) and was also involved in the early establishment of the modern western “pagan” religious movement through her Darkmoon Circle. She also had a huge influence on science fiction and fantasy. But what does it say when a known, ideologically committed child sexual abuser influences your cultural world? Does it have any echoes or influence on the ideals of that movement? I have written before about Jimmy Savile and growing up in a society steeped in child abuse, and how the things that were considered normal when I was young look deeply, deeply creepy in retrospect, so I thought: I’m going to re-read MZB’s work – which so influenced me as a child – and see what it looks like now, in retrospect, and what kind of feminist text it really is. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think it’s possible to be a feminist and be an ideologically committed sexual abuser of children, and I expect that this should show up somehow in her works. I found this (possibly anti-feminist) rant online about how the books always were creepy, and finding out MZB was a sexual abuser of children suddenly made the creepiness comprehensible, but I decided to do it for myself.

So, I’m going to reread these books, and see what they look like now, in retrospect, as a 48 year old knowing what I know now, revisiting books I haven’t read since (at the latest) my very early teens. Every novel requires the author to make choices, and in this case we are dealing with a novel based on an existing story, so decisions need to be made at every turn about how to present the story and how to change it. For example, MZB makes the decision to blend the characters of Galahad and Lancelot together, which isn’t accidental: for some reason she decided to do this. Her decisions about how to represent key parts of the story, key relationships, and the context of the story, should tell us something about the relationship between her politics of sexual abuse and her writing, just as it does about her supposed feminism and her writing. How does the sexual abuse affect the writing? How does a modern adult interpret the story and what do they feel? Is it creepy? Is there a particular stance or depiction of sexual abuse and of children that is depicted in the text that I did not notice (obviously) when I was 10? This post is just the first attempt to investigate and understand this – there may or may not be more. Also please be aware of the content warnings: These posts will involve extensive discussion of rape, child sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence, incest, and general arseholery, as well as some fairly serious levels of personality disorder, parental abuse and shittiness. So brace yourself.

Oh, also this post contains spoilers, because I assume the people reading this have read The Mists of Avalon in the past and are familiar with the story (though like me you may have forgotten details).

I will begin by describing the controversy surrounding MZB and her husband’s sexual abuse, to give a little more history to the tale. I will briefly describe what I understand of the politics of paedophilia in the 1970s (yes this was a thing!) as a background to understand how a paedophilia advocate might represent sex and children in their work. Then I will begin describing my key impressions from the first part of the story. I will use some quotes, which I am transcribing, so apologies in advance for any small errors. Brace yourselves, kids.

Outline of the controversy

The general public became aware of MZB’s sexual abuse history after the publication of her daughter’s revelations in 2014, but SF fandom should have been aware of them for much, much longer, because MZB’s husband Walter Breen was a known sexual abuser in the 1960s, and she was known to be facilitating his activities. The early history of Breen’s abuse is laid out in an awful document called The Breendoggle that can now be read online. This document outlines Walter Breen’s history of sexual abuse of children in the “fandom” circles of 1960s Berkeley, and the efforts to get him expelled from a convention. It’s absolutely shocking to read about how publicly and flagrantly he sexually assaulted children, and how sanguine the people around him were about it. At the end of the document we find out why: If they exclude Walter from fandom for openly abusing children, MZB will stay away too.

This is the first hint of MZB’s deep commitment to sexual abuse of children, but it isn’t just a hint. Her husband Walter Breen wrote a book about abusing children, called Greek Love, and also edited a journal devoted to pederasty called the International Journal of Greek Love. MZB wrote an article for this journal about pederasty among lesbians, so she was obviously aware of her husband’s political activities and supportive enough of them to write articles for his journal of child abuse. This journal and Breen’s book, by the way, were cited by the editors of the magazine Pan, which was connected to the North American Man Boy Love Association (a paedophile advocacy group in America) and the Paedophile Information Exchange (a similar and at one stage radically activist group in the UK). It’s hard to find Pan online but the index of the site holding MZB’s article includes links to some of its articles. Following links through the articles linked above will also lead to more information about MZB’s open support of child sexual abuse, such as helping Breen to adopt a boy he wanted to abuse, sexually abusing a friend’s daughter, and supporting Breen even after they divorced despite his repeated legal troubles over his paedophilia.

I hope from this that it’s clear that MZB was an ideologically committed child sexual abuser, who was definitely supporting at least one other committed sexual abuser and may have been part of an international network of sexual abusers that was active in the 1970s in the USA, Canada and the UK. So let’s see what the introduction of her first novel in the Mists of Avalon series is like. But before we do, let’s briefly look at the political paedophilia movement in the 1970s.

The politics of paedophilia in the 1970s

I can’t believe I had to write that line, but there it is. Believe it or not, in the 1970s and 1980s there was a movement to normalize sexual assault of children, which had its own political organizations, journals, magazines, meetings and rhetoric. Sadly the most famous part of it was connected to the gay rights movement, and the attempts by these people to insert themselves into the gay rights movement and turn it into a kind of pan-sexual liberation movement were seized upon by conservatives as ammunition against gay rights generally. The most famous organization is the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), which is well-described in the documentary Chickenhawk, but there was also a British organization and some groups on the continent.

These groups operated on a couple of basic principles, which are worth bearing in mind as we interrogate MZB’s work. They believed that children had sexual agency, that childhood is not a period of innocence, and that children actively solicited and enjoyed sex with adults. Breen in his journal of Greek Love, and other advocates in the magazine Pan argue that these sexual relationships help children grow and mature, and the exchange of sexual affection from the child for adult wisdom from the man is important for child development – they don’t just believe paedophilia is harmless, but actively beneficial to children. They also believe that these paedophiliac relationships were a normal part of most of human society and have only recently been cast into disrepute, usually due to Victorian prudishness, christian interference, or some form of communist or fascist political program (it seems it can be either). Some people writing in the journal Pan seem to hint that adult homosexuality is wrong but same sex relationships between a man and a boy are okay. They also adhere to strong principles of free speech, both for their political advocacy and for their kiddy porn, which they don’t believe harms anyone. Some of them seem to think assaulting infants is wrong but children above a certain age are fair game (or, as my father used to say with a straight face, “old enough to bleed, old enough to breed”). Most of the advocacy seems to have been focused around same sex male relationships, but there was no particular political preference in this regard – I think they just had a clearer voice because briefly in the 1980s and 1990s they were allowed some affiliation with the gay rights movement, to its detriment.

It’s worth remembering that the 1970s and 1980s were a time of sexual awakening in the west, with lots of new ideas beginning to circulate and important efforts being made to cast off the prudishness and sexual stifling of the last 30 years. This new awakening led to lots of mistakes, including things like manipulative and sexually abusive cult leaders, open marriages, political lesbianism, and a lot of abuse in plain sight. Music magazines, for example, did not ostracize or criticize people like Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zeppelin, who famously had a “relationship” with a 14 year old girl (and who remains famous and well respected despite his long history of sexual abuse of minors). Along with the sexual awakening that was happening at that time came an atmosphere of not judging people for doing things differently, and care about ostracizing or casting out fellow travelers who had some unsavoury ideas. This is why we see Alan Ginzberg defending NAMBLA in the Chickenhawk documentary, and it briefly allowed NAMBLA to have some political influence. But none of this explains the horrendous attitudes described in the Breendoggle document, or MZB’s continuing success when the people around her knew what she was doing. So bear this in mind, and the politics of paedophilia activism, as we delve into the story.

Igraine’s story: A terrible slog through sexual abuse and violence

Arthur’s story always starts with Uther getting Igraine pregnant. In the usual story Merlin puts a spell on Uther so that he looks like Igraine’s husband, so Uther basically rapes Igraine. In the Mists of Avalon we take about 8 chapters to get to this point, and to get there we have to slog through a long and brutal period of Igraine’s life. In this version she was married to her husband Gorlois, duke of Cornwall, at the age of 14 and by the time the book starts has been with him for five years, has a child of 3 years age, and is looking after her 13 year old sister Morgause. She never wanted to marry Gorlois and we are reminded repeatedly that she has just had to put up with five years of unwanted sex and has only just come around to appreciate him as a man and a husband – she has very mixed feelings. It should be mentioned that she was sent to Gorlois by her mother, Viviane, Lady of the Lake, the high priestess of all pagans in England, to seal a deal. Watching her deal with this circumstance is, frankly, a slog, and it is made worse when Viviane and the Merlin rock up and tell her that actually she needs to fuck Uther, because Uther needs to give her a son. It’s unclear if this ends up being done by magic or just bad luck, but Gorlois notices Uther’s interest in Igraine (which may have been manufactured by a magic necklace) and starts a war. At this point he is mad at Igraine, has become impotent in her presence, blames her and thinks it is some magic (which it may be, though not Igraine’s) and beats her savagely every time he tries to fuck her and fails. It’s hard going!

Igraine spends all this time – which seems to cover about a year, though it’s hard to tell – as a sex slave of Gorlois and a vassal to Viviane and the Merlin, who decide her fate. They tell her who she is to have sex with and who she is to have children with, and they have no care for her feelings or needs. In fact the only moment of this entire period when she has any agency and joy is the moment when Uther comes to her in Tintagel, under disguise: she sees that he is not Gorlois, but Uther, and finally gets to enjoy sex she wants. This is a radical turnaround on the traditional story, and ensures that the first 6 – 8 chapters of this book are basically a slog through domestic violence and rape, with one woman being fought over by two men who will do with her as they choose.

Once Gorlois is dead Uther takes Igraine as his wife and you might be thinking that the rape and domestic violence and use of women as vessels for political purposes is over – after all, this is meant to be a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legend in which the isle of Avalon offers women freedom and empowerment – but you would be wrong. Before we get to the rape of Igraine’s daughter by her son Arthur, effectively organized and implemented by Viviane, let’s talk about some other aspects of the gender relations and sexual ideology in this book.

Morgause and children as sluts

It is very clear in this book that MZB thinks children have sexual agency. Igraine repeatedly bemoans her marriage to Gorlois at the age of 14, not because she was 14 but because he wasn’t the man she wanted. But we also hear some damning insights into the sexual nature of children during the early stages of the book. For example, Gorlois says about Igraine’s 13 year old sister Morgause:

We must have that girl married as soon as can be arranged, Igraine. She is a puppy bitch with eyes hot for anything in the shape of a man; did you see how she cast her eyes not only on me but on my younger soldiers? I will not have such a one disgracing my family, nor influencing my daughter!

Igraine agrees with this assessment of Morgause’s behavior, and later cautions her against Gorlois’s attentions, which the book describes her seeking out, and later on Morgaine (Igraine’s daughter and the key narrator in this section of the books) also writes about Morgause that

I knew my mother was glad to have her married and away, for she fancied Morgause looked on Uther lustfully; she was probably not aware that Morgause looked lustfully on all men she came by. She was a bitch dog in heat, though indeed I suppose it was because she had no one to care what she did.

Morgaine is, I think, meant to be the feminist hero of this book. Is this how feminists describe other women, or in this case girls?

There is another scene later in the book, during a pagan ritual, where a young girl who was playing an auxiliary role in the ritual is drawn into the sexual activity that the ritual triggers. It is very clear that this girl is very young, and this is described as

The little blue-painted girl who had borne the fertilizing blood was drawn down into the arms of a sinewy old hunter, and Morgaine saw her briefly struggle and cry out, go down under his body, her legs opening to the irresistible force of nature in them.

So even very small children are sexual beings in this story, and their subjugation to older men an inevitability of their sexual nature. I’m 17 chapters (about 22% of the way) into this book and I have been repeatedly told by the main feminist icon of the story that girls (i.e. female children) are sexual predators who seek out men and need to be constrained for their own good. Which brings us to …

Virginity as a sacred duty

Feminists have spent a long time trying to demysticize virginity, to stop it being seen as a special and precious and sacred property of women that is “lost” or “given up”. In this supposedly feminist text the preservation of virginity is an essential goal, taught to young women by older women as a duty and a necessary form of self preservation. Morgause is warned by Igraine that if she fucks Uther and doesn’t get pregnant she will be worthless, and he will force one of his men to take her as a wife, and that man will always resent her for not having been a virgin. This restriction isn’t just a christian trait though: Viviane forces Morgaine (the main character of the story) to stay a virgin until she can participate in an important ritual, where her virginity will be sacrificed for the good of the land. Morgaine almost gives it up for Lancelot/Galahad, but he promises not to push her for sex, and so she preserves it (she of course being just a young woman of 16 or 17 is unable to control her lust and needs a man to control it for her).

17 chapters into this supposedly feminist book, I have not met a priestess from the matriarchal isles who has been able to decide for herself when and how she first has sex. This is an important part of this story: matriarchal society is extremely heirarchical and abusive.

The abusive society of Avalon

The original pagan survivors of England are all gathered in the Summer Country, on the misty isles, which float in a kind of separate world overlaid over christian England, separated from it by mists. This is very cool! On the central island of Avalon (which I guess is approximately Glastonbury in the real world), the priestesses of the old pagan religion reign supreme. Or rather, Viviane, High Priestess, Lady of the Lake, rules as an absolute tyrant over all the girls and women who live there. She dispenses them across the land to be used as sexual bargaining tools for the restoration of pagan culture in England (as Igraine was); she tells them when and how they can have sex and who with; and she subjects them to whatever torments she sees fit as part of her religious dictatorship. For example she makes a priestess called Raven take part in a ritual which leaves her vomiting and pissing blood for days, just in order to have some random vision that doesn’t make sense. No one is allowed to speak before she speaks, and junior priestesses in training have to wait on senior ones like slaves.

When she first brings Morgaine to the island to begin her training as a priestess, Viviane repeatedly considers exactly when to begin tormenting her, and we discover that she was initially considering beginning the torments the same night that they arrive, when Morgaine is tired and hungry. We are repeatedly reminded that Morgaine is used to going without sleep or food, and to being cold. It is very clear that Avalon’s matriarchal society is intensely heirarchical, and all the women on the island are Viviane’s to dispose of as she wishes – and we will see this is exactly what she does.

Competition between mothers and daughters

A particularly unsavoury element of the story so far is the competition between mothers and daughters, and between older and younger women. Igraine is jealous of Morgause (her younger sister) and in a very telling moment, Morgaine is deeply jealous of a very young girl, Guinevere, who is lost on Avalon. She had been having a nice moment stripping off for Lancelot (who ostensibly isn’t going to fuck her) when they hear Guinevere’s cries of distress and go to rescue her. Lancelot helps the girl out of some mud, and we read that

Morgaine felt a surge of hatred so great she thought that she would faint with its force. She felt it would be with her until she died, and in that molten instant she actually longed for death. All the color had gone from the day, into the mist and the mire and the dismal reeds, and all her happiness had gone with it

This is how our feminist icon reacts to Lancelot helping a female child escape some mud! This is interesting because we outsiders reading this just see a man being nice to a distressed girl, he really is just being a good samaritan. Yet Morgaine is dying inside at the sight of it! We will come back to this later, because a big issue with this book is that every character is a horrible person.

This jealousy is repeated often, with younger women seen as competitors and replacements for older women, who are always angry at them for their youth. This includes children, who remember are treated in this book as sexually active agents of temptation, and thus need to be guarded against. Every older woman needs to be on her guard against a younger woman taking her place! The ultimate expression of this comes after Uther Pendragon dies, and in his death moment appears to Viviane as a vision. In that moment she realizes that they have been tied together through many lives, and becomes jealous that her daughter Igraine got to have Uther rather than her:

She cried aloud, with a great mourning cry for all that she had never known in this life, and the agony of a bereavement unguessed till this moment

The only pleasure she gets from this vision is the knowledge that in his dying moment Uther thought of her, and not of the woman he loved (Viviane’s duaghter). That’s right, the feminist leader of the matriarchal island is jealous of her own daughter.

Men eat, women pick

Quite often this book reads like a Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) re-enactment, with a lot of focus on what people wear and eat in a mid-century American’s idea of “authentic” mediaeval British culture. Actually when I was reading the early parts of the book I thought to myself “this reads like an SCA document”, and only discovered later on reading her wiki entry that MZB started the SCA – it stands to reason I guess!

As part of this there are a lot of eating scenes, and it is noticeable that in every eating scene, women pick at small amounts of bread, honey and a little milk, while men eat fresh meat, bread, ale and other richnesses. I swear every time they eat, women are picky eaters who take as little as possible while men pig out. This is also seen in the sex: 17 chapters in and no women has had sex for fun with someone of her choosing, while multiple men have reputations for having fucked anyone they fancy. This might be excusable as a consequence of the christian world, but we are repeatedly told that “on the Isle” women are free to choose who they want to be with and men respect women as sexual equals. Except we never see it happen! Women in this story never get to have any fun, and the least enjoyable lifestyle is reserved for the “free” women of the supposedly sexually liberated isle, who are constantly fasting, going without sleep or warm clothes, and never having sex with anyone they want to.

Some utopia!

Everyone is horrible

I’m 17 chapters into this book and I haven’t yet met a nice character. I know it was written in the 70s when everyone wore brown, but these people are just awful. Igraine is a powerless wretch who is constantly crying; Morgaine is a jealous and angry woman who is also a complete sucker for Viviane’s power and is easily fooled by everything Viviane says; Morgause is a dirty slut who just needs to be rutted constantly and kept out of sight of men; Viviane is a manipulative, power-hungry and arrogant horror show who never accepts she is wrong and only ever sees people for their uses – she has no humanity at all. The men are all idiots, even the Merlin, who also have uncontrolled appetites and weak minds. Some, like Kevin the Bard, who is supposedly going to be the next Merlin, openly hate women. The most likable character so far has been Lancelot, who rescued Guinevere from the mud and promised not to despoil Morgaine even though she wanted him, but he also seemed to transfer his attentions from Morgaine the moment he saw a blonder, prettier girl, so who can say? Everyone is completely awful, and I have to read 600 more pages of this!

Ritual incest

The most shocking part of the story though is the ritual in which Morgaine is supposed to sleep with a future king of England in a ritual after he kills a stag with a flint knife. Viviane arranges this ritual, which is an ancient thing that is supposed to bind a king to the land. It’s also a kind of test (maybe the Stag would kill the king) and the only time you see a woman eat meat (Morgaine does, at the end of the ritual). Viviane set this whole thing up as a way to bind Arthur to the pagan parts of England, so that all the pagan cultures will follow him and he won’t be able to turn his back on the old ways even though he was raised a christian.

But the thing is, she doesn’t mention to Morgaine that Arthur is the king who is being tested – and Arthur is Morgaine’s half brother. So they go through the ritual, Arthur kills the stag, they fuck in the darkness of a cave covered in the stag’s blood, in the morning they wake up and fuck again, and then and only then does Arthur realize the girl he’s fucking is Morgaine (they haven’t seen each other for 10 years, and they’re both about 16 or 18, so it makes sense they don’t recognize each other immediately).

Morgaine of course is heart broken, because she has been tricked into incest with her half brother. What does Viviane say 10 days later when she finally allows Morgaine to speak to her about it?

“Well there’s nothing we can do about that now,” she said. “Done is done. And at this moment the hope of Britain is more important than your feelings.”

Did I mention that in this story everyone is horrible? There’s exhibit A. And also exhibit A of the idea that women’s sexuality is only there to be used for a purpose, women have no free agency over it, and it should be tamed and put to work for the greater good.

Conclusion

So far I am 17 chapters in and this is what I have seen so far: a bunch of horrible people who think children are all sluts who need to be controlled, virginity is a gift that should be preserved and given away only to the right man or for the right purpose, who see women’s sexuality as a tool to be deployed in the interests of family or nation, and who think incest is completely okay. The older women are all intensely competitive with and jealous of younger women, and no woman is free to be herself on a supposedly feminist island that is actually an authoritarian dystopia where everyone exists to serve a religious dictatorship led by a brooding, narcissistic, tyrannical old woman who is jealous of her own daughter for the marriage she arranged.

It’s hard going.

I don’t think of myself as a feminist, and I don’t think men should claim to be feminists or to have some great insight into feminist theory, but I really don’t think this is a story that is consistent with anything I know of feminism. It’s a hard slog in which women are abused regularly and viciously by all men, and by any women who is older than them and has power over them. This social circumstance isn’t presented in a context of overthrowing or critiquing it though – the goal is clearly (so far) to preserve the power of the matriarchal theocracy by brutally using its junior female members’ sexuality in any way necessary. If this is feminism, it’s a kind of lesbian separatist, almost fascist vision of feminism that was briefly in vogue in the 1970s but quickly died out. It’s the feminism of the anti-sex work activist Julie Bindel, who advocated political lesbianism (in which heterosexual feminists have lesbian relationships so as not to betray the movement), or of the anti-trans movement of the 2010s, which is spearheaded by older women insecure in their aging. It’s the kind of feminism we sometimes hear now from some second-wave feminists, bemoaning the fact that young women like to have sex with whoever they want and get Brazilian waxes, the feminism of women who distrust and don’t respect open expressions of female sexuality.

However, this ideology is tempered in this case by a foul attitude towards (female) children, in which they are seen as sexually permissive, sexually active predators who need to be constrained or married off early, and who are easy prey for older men – and who deserve it if they suffer bad consequences of their sexual activity. There is no mercy or pity for girls taken by older men, indeed no sense that it is wrong at all for girls to be given away to men to be used. It is unsurprising to read this attitude from a woman who actively supported the sexual predations of her husband, wrote articles in his paedophilia journal, and sexually abused her own daughter.

There’s a lot more of this book to go, so I will revisit this topic later. I am interested in how she influenced those who followed her in the genre, how she has misused paganism and pagan concepts for her own political purposes, and what her final conclusion will be about the Arthurian tragedy. I also don’t think the child abuse and incest will stop with Arthur’s unknowing rape of his half-sister (and I guess his being raped by her). My guess is there is worse to come. Let us see what horrors this paedophile activist is capable of conceiving of as acceptable, how she butchers the Arthurian story, and what influence she had on subsequent generations of fantasy writers and feminists. Stay tuned!

I recently posted some of my criticisms of the Genesys combat system to a forum for Genesys-related material, and received a surprising amount of resistance to the idea of making any changes to the rules. In amongst the resistance there were a large number of people telling me “you shouldn’t be doing that much combat anyway” and “if you like combat so much, just play D&D”. There was a strong theme of “people who play Genesys don’t like combat-heavy gaming” with the general assumption that combat-heavy gaming is somehow bad.

I have been GMing and playing RPGs for just over 30 years, and over that time I have repeatedly run into this idea that combat-heavy gaming is wrong, in various manifestations. You see adverts from gaming groups looking for members that say “we don’t focus on combat”, you meet GMs who tell you “yeah my campaigns tend to avoid combat”, and the ever-disdainful “yeah it’s not like D&D, it’s not all about combat.” Here is an example from the forum where I posted my suggested rules changes:

This entire post seems to me to be a misunderstanding of what Gensys is. If you want combat play 5e. If you want and narrative game that’s interactive between players and GM, then you’re on the right page.

This really pisses me off for a lot of reasons, and reflecting on it over the past week has triggered me to write this rant. To me, this “We don’t run games that are combat heavy” routine is like the idea that “you’re not like other girls“. Men pull this sometimes, and what they mean is they don’t respect basic aspects of modern femininity, which at the same time they really want their girl to have. It’s a shitty, self-deluding and mean-spirited approach, and most sensible girls list it as one of their basic red flags for exiting from a date. In the case of RPG talk, this “my games aren’t combat heavy” routine is bullshit for several reasons:

  • Every game group I’ve ever joined that has advertised itself this way has been just as combat-heavy as the ones that don’t
  • Combat is fun, and most people enjoy it, so when you set yourself apart from it like this you’re saying you’re a killjoy with a weird approach to gaming and probably a boring GM
  • It’s almost always based on separating yourself from D&D, just as “you’re not like other girls” is meant to separate the girl you’re talking to from a lumpen mass of boring, shallow selfie-taking girls who actually only exist as a stereotype in the speaker’s mind

In fact D&D isn’t any more combat-focused than any other system, and when people compare themselves with it they’re setting up a false equivalency which shows they either know nothing about the world of RPGs, or are an arsehole with too much brand loyalty to some other system. I want to attack each of these issues in turn.

Most groups have the same levels of combat

I’ve GMd and played in many groups in many systems over many years in several countries, in multiple cities, in two languages, and in my experience most gaming groups have about the same amount of combat. There is almost no such thing as a gaming group that doesn’t do much fighting. Regardless of the system and the setting, most campaigns involve a fair amount of good quality savagery. There will be sessions of investigation and negotiation, and sessions of shopping and planning, but these will inevitably lead up to combat or flow from combat, and players are always happy when the shit hits the fan and the dice come out.

I think there is a secondary reason for this besides that combat is fun, which is that the players often are working on limited information and don’t know the full story of the situations they’re dealing with, or what they need to do, and often they misunderstand or have forgotten key bits of information (which they invariably didn’t write down). But they can sail through these complexities because they know ultimately they can beat someone up and force the information out of them (or steal it) and if their primary pathway through the story gets lost the GM will save them by having their adversaries play their hand – usually with a weapon in it. Combat is very helpful for resolving story impasses, and GMs and players alike use it for that purpose.

It should also be noted that even though combat makes up a large chunk of time in a typical session, it isn’t actually that much of the story. Consider session 22 of my Genesys campaign, for example: The PCs visited a bar to get a job, sailed overnight on a ship where they did some planning and investigatory magic, walked for a day along a beach, checking carefully for signs of lurking dangers or evidence of wrecking, investigated a shipwreck by examining several bodies and finding and opening a chest, scouted a cliff face to find two men of dubious purpose, scouted a cave entrance looking for signs of fake signal lights, triggered a trap, and had a fight with some selkies. In actual game time the fight probably took as long as two or three of the other activities in the session, but it was only a tiny part of the total story. Combat takes up an out-sized part of the action and people’s perception of the balance of things in a game because rules are clunky and fights take a long time to resolve, not because they’re necessarily a large part of the activities of a typical adventure.

So frankly, I don’t believe people when they say they’re not really into combat in their games, because every time someone says that the empirical evidence shows the lie. Don’t get judgy with me about how you’re not that into it, and don’t pretend your level of combat in your games is special. It’s not, trust me. You’re not special.

Combat is fun

This is why every rule system has a section on fighting, and why popular gaming podcasts are called things like “I hit it with my axe” and not “I talk calmly with it to resolve the conflict.” There are several reasons for this, and they’re all perfectly good reasons:

  • It’s the time your PC faces the most risk and it’s also the time when things are least like the world you’re actually in
  • Most of the settings we play in are designed for conflict, because we want worlds where there are big evil and dangerous threats, and we especially like magic and demons and monsters, which inevitably bring violence
  • We spend most of our lives compromising with shitty people who have more power than us and negotiating and talking our way out of trouble, often with little success, and being able to smash your way out of problems – especially if the person you’re smashing is a bully or evil – is real escapism, and we don’t play these games to replicate the shitty interactions we have with shitty people in our shitty real world

If players didn’t enjoy fighting, and if people who wanted low-combat games were common, game designers would give combat the same amount of attention they currently give to social encounters or stronghold building: almost none. The reason it is a large part of gaming is that people enjoy it, which might also be the reason D&D 5e is so popular … except that D&D 5e isn’t an especially combat-heavy system.

D&D is not combat heavy

This idea that D&D is a combat-focused game is very old and very shitty. It wasn’t true 30 years ago and it’s not true now. First let’s consider some canonical examples of this idea, which I hear all the time. Consider for example this 9 year old post on stack overflow asking how to reduce combat in a D&D game, where respondents say things like this:

Well, for starters, I’d say don’t use D&D. It is a game tailored towards violent conflicts, which is exactly what you’re avoiding, it seems. Mind you, I said “violent conflicts”. No story, thus no game, can exist without any conflict whatsoever. I’m not also saying it’s completely undoable with D&D, just mainly… a waste of its design and practical goals.

I don’t know how to put this finely, so I’ll just say it: this is utter bullshit. D&D was never designed entirely towards violent conflicts, and this idea that it was is based on an unpleasant retrofitting of the nature of these games. Very early D&D lacked a skill system, so compared to games like Traveller and Warhammer that were around at the same time it looks like it was intended to be entirely combat focused, but it was never seen this way at the time. It was understood that the players and GM would resolve all non-combat stuff between themselves using negotiation and discussion and role-playing, and the rules were there to make fighting coherent – not that the game was only about fighting. You can see this in many of the classic early modules, which set out huge amounts of non-combat role playing in the social context of the game, without any particular mechanism for resolving those parts of the adventure. Later versions of the game introduced skills because of the popularity of skill systems and the recognition that without structured rules for non-combat encounters it became too much of a GM’s kimagure about how these matters would be resolved.

It should also be noted that compared to some other fantasy RPGs like Tunnels and Trolls, D&D led the way in finding ways to introduce non-combat themes. D&D invented the thief, a character class originally intended to be weak in combat but very useful outside of it, and also is responsible for the development (or at least popularization) of the much-maligned bard class, which is the Platonic ideal of non-combat role-playing. And what do we find in the 20 years since its inception? The bard is the routinely most-hated character class. Why would that be I wonder?

This idea about D&D being combat heavy is also empirically verifiably not true. Let us compare systems I have on hand! The D&D 5e rulebook has 200 pages of rules, excluding spells, of which 10 are devoted to combat, 2 are devoted to social interaction, 6 to skills, and 5 to weapons and armour. Among the spells 6/11 Bard cantrips are non-combat, 10/18 2nd level Druid spells are non-combat, and 7/15 7th level wizard spells are non-combat. (This is treating healing and restoration as combat-focused). So perhaps 10% of the rules and 50% of the spells are for combat. Compare with Genesys, our supposedly narrative/non-combat game, where in 136 pages of basic rules 7 are devoted to social encounters, 23 to combat and 3 to weapons and armour. Almost all of the spell section is devoted to combat spells, and no real guidance offered for non-combat spells, which are entirely up to the GM and players to figure out. Warhammer 2 has 140 pages of rules, of which 16 are devoted to combat, 6 to weapons and armour, and two of the PCs’ basic attributes are combat-only! (Weapon Skill and Ballistic Skill). In the spells, 5/8 of the lesser magic spells are non-combatant. The game Limnal, a modern fantasy based around things like Rivers of London and the Dresden Files, has 88 pages of rules among which 8 pages are for combat. So even definitively combat-light games like Limnal that are set in the modern mundane world where you can’t just shoot people still reserve nearly 10% of their rules for combat. D&D is far from special in this regard!

Not only do people enjoy combat, D&D isn’t especially combat heavy and it never was. I bet this pernicious lie was started by the Vampire the Masquerade poseurs, who needed an excuse for the fact that their much-loved and very popular game had shit combat rules and really boring magic. But games like Vampire, which explicitly tried to frame themselves as more social, had another problem that D&D and other “combat-heavy” games had less of: They were a target-rich environment for bullies and abusers.

Combat-free gaming and bullying GMs

I played a year-long World of Darkness game, followed up by a very short stint in the standard Vampire world, and I have never experienced so much bullying and abuse by a GM in my life. The setting is designed to make your GM a bully, and the lack of structured rules and the insane power differentials that make combat impossible also mean that almost everything becomes a case of begging your GM for a break. This old Reddit thread in response to someone asking whether to take up VTM is a good example of its kind, with comments like this:

VtM, in my opinion, tends to be bogged down by the lore, politics, and hierarchy of the system. Instead of doing cool vampire things, you mostly skulk around talking to other vampires who are all more powerful than you and will most likely execute you if you try to do anything interesting. Most of the time even having a character sheet was pointless because it seemed like using your powers in any way would get you on the Most Wanted list.

This was my experience exactly: having a character sheet was pointless because any conflict you entered (whether combat or social) was against people so powerful that your skills didn’t matter, or against mundane people who you could always beat. It was completely narrative, effectively, and the problem with narrative styles like this is that you end up entirely at the mercy of the GM, with no clear cues as to how to deal with his goals and desires, and no frame of reference to determine whether he is being unreasonable. In VTM, if a GM puts you into conflict with some god-awful ancient elder vampire, you won’t necessarily know what you’re up against and you won’t be able to resolve this situation unless you know what the GM wants to get out of the encounter; but you also won’t have any framework within which to argue your GM is being unreasonable, since the whole stupid game is designed this way. In contrast if your D&D GM throws your first level group against a lich you know there and then that you can just walk away because the GM is an arsehole and a bully.

VTM is basically high school cliques turned into an RPG, and it’s just as much fun: none. It’s also ripe ground for bullies precisely because systems without clear rules or guidelines for conflict, and without the option for you to hack and stab your way out of trouble, put too much power and privilege in the hands of the GM. It’s no surprise to me then that in amongst the last two years’ metoo reckoning within the gaming industry, a lot of the people being exposed turn out to have worked on VTM. It’s a game designed by bullies for bullies.

When you put a lot of power in the hands of one person, you need a strong and robust institutional structure to control that power. In the case of role-playing the institutional structure is the rules, and well designed rules not only provide the players with a good structure for how to handle any situation, but also provide a clear set of boundaries for the GM, so that everyone can tell when he or she is stepping out of line. This is another reason they’re combat heavy: because combat is naturally a time when everything is structured, and when everything is structured then everything is fair, and players want the game to be fair. There are a couple of clear red flags pointing to a bullying GM, and the clearest one is that he or she simply doesn’t bother to follow rules. If (as in my World of Darkness campaign), your GM doesn’t really care about character sheets and character development, ignores rules, arbitrarily forces you to change your PC, puts you into situations where using your powers or engaging in combat will inevitably be lethal, or repeatedly forces you to back down from your own plans by revealing highly powerful enemies, then you need to run. And chances are, if your GM prides themselves on not doing combat, they’re also doing one or all of those things.

Why any of this matters

I think a lot of people enter role-playing out of a genuine and deep interest in the idea, because role-playing is awesome, and I think a lot of them leave very quickly because of their experience of hard-core gaming nerds, who can be really unpleasant. If you want to grow the hobby it’s really important to recognize why people come to the game, what they really want from it, and what behavior and principles will destroy their fun and our hobby. It’s a cliche in this hobby that there’s no right way to do it, and that you should just have fun, but it’s also a truism that you never see people who enjoy combat-heavy games sneering at people who don’t, and you never hear people who enjoy D&D griping about how other games don’t have enough fighting. This sneering all goes one way, and I think there’s a reason for that: a small minority of people in our hobby want to set themselves up as special and rarified masters of the game, and in order to do that they need to disparage one of its most central, universal elements in favour of much vaguer, much less structured parts of the experience which people enjoy less and which make the game much more dependent on successfully negotiating real-world social interactions which are often, sadly, toxic. Don’t fall for it! And don’t become part of some weird system of cliques in which people who play a certain way are better than people who don’t. We’re not in high school anymore, and we don’t have to pretend to be cool. So kill as many orcs as you want, and steal their treasure from their still-warm bodies with joy in your heart and no guilt in your soul!

Yesterday I wrote a post about the ways in which online teaching and supervision can be superior to physical teaching and supervision, and today I want to follow up with a short post about what aspects of online gaming can be transferred to physical gaming. I finished my Coriolis campaign online, and we have started the Archipelago campaign online too. Gaming online at this time has been necessary to avoid a physical TPK[1], but it has had several advantages:

  • We were able to include a former Coriolis player who moved overseas in the final part of that campaign, which was a good way to end the campaign and reconnect with an old player
  • One of our players is managing a very young child and another is living a large part of their time outside of Tokyo, so we’ve been able to include them in sessions
  • We’ve been able to meet more regularly because we can set weekday evenings without having to worry about commuting or finding a convenient venue

In Tokyo there are lots of venues you can hire on weekday evenings for gaming, so we can find a mutually agreeable location, but the physical meetings are short and interrupted by eating, commuting and so on. When we game online during the week we can start later – 8pm to enable children to settle – and have already eaten and relaxed after the day. I also don’t have to lug my gaming material through the summer heat, and if we finish at 11 with a solid 3 hours’ gaming done, we can still be to bed early without worrying about commuting. We usually start an hour earlier for socialization, and people just join when they can.

For Coriolis we used roll20, and for the Archipelago campaign we are using a system called RPG Sessions for characters and dice, run partly through discord, and roll20 for mapping[2]. As the number of coronavirus cases stabilizes in Tokyo and maybe begins to curve down, we’re thinking about returning to physical gaming sometime in September, but I think we are going to continue with some online sessions permanently, because it’s difficult to gather the whole group regularly on weekends and easy to gather them on a weekday night. Also I think when we do game physically we will retain a few aspects of online gaming.

In particular I aim to keep using roll20 for mapping. There is this constant problem with maps and tabletop RPGs that they have to be put in the centre of the table, where there is usually a huge pile of snacks, and some people always have to stand to look at them, and then also the map is oriented towards half the group and upside down to the rest. I think we can get around this by having each person see the map on their own tablet, and also have it on a big screen at the end of the table (I have a tv in my kitchen that I can share with chromecast). Thus we will all be able to see the map but have a shared map at the same time. Players can move their own PCs on the map, and we can maintain the sense of physical space without having to invest in horrific things like miniatures and the like[3].

Using roll20 for mapping also avoids the annoying situation where players are supposed to navigate their way around a physical map based entirely on my descriptions, when I can just use the fog of war on a map software to immediately reveal the rooms they can see, and the monsters they can see, when they see them. This is a vast improvement over physical maps or – worst of all – the horrible 1980s tradition of having a “mapper” who mapped out the dungeon as you explored it and always got it wrong. Having virtual maps also enables us to flick between them quickly, to have pictures of enemies and so on. Why go back to printed stuff?!

I think we will also continue to use RPG sessions for character sheets. It is very nicely integrated with the Genesys system so that for example it even records criticals, which is great. Instead of having my PCs note down the name of the critical and its details they just hit a button and roll one up and it gets added directly to their character sheet. I am using onenote to track campaign sessions, so now we just put the date of the crit into the character sheet and we know exactly when to attempt crit recovery, etc. There is also no risk anyone will ever forget a character sheet, since there’s zero chance they’ll leave home without a phone.

I have recently subscribed to the new Twilight 2000 kickstarter (and I suggest you do too!) which funded in 7 minutes, and is now up to its 9 billionth stretch goal. One of those stretch goals was the development of virtual tabletop tools for all the major applications, so that when you receive the game it is ready out of the box to be played online. I hope all new RPGs will do this in future, so that we can have a fully integrated virtual mapping, gaming and dice rolling system all in one. Of course some players like to roll dice (even though they’re shit at it[5]), which they will still be able to do, but the availability of ubiquitous online gaming platforms also opens the possibility of arbitrarily complex dice systems, since there’s no reason to physically assemble them or calculate the results. Who needs ideal polygonal forms for your dice when you can just roll d73? We could have dice systems based entirely on prime numbers! Or just go straight to arbitrary probability distributions … why go back?

This pandemic has forced the world to deal with the fact that the internet is no longer an ersatz reality. It’s no longer the case that things done online are not relevant to or close to real life. We should accept this, and instead of seeing online experiences as inferior to physical experiences, things we were forced to compromise on for our health, we should see them as ways to improve our past physical experiences to make them better. Rather than going back to how things used to be, let’s use the improvisations we had to make during this time to improve our physical lives when we are able to reconnect. I am trying to do this with my teaching, and I aim to do it for my gaming too!


fn1: Touch wood none of our players have got coronavirus, though two have been through some health scares, but some of us are older and some of us overweight, so we’re in the risk group for getting it badly if it does happen, and a gaming group is a perfect scenario for a cluster

fn2: Roll20 supposedly has an api for genesys dice but it is completely broken so I had to give up on using it. This was frustrating!

fn3: I’ve never been a great fan of miniatures for gaming, because I can’t paint them and they’re an absolute bastard to lug around, and for the first 15 or so years of my gaming experience they were only available in lead[4], which was heavy and ugly

fn4: Yes in the 1980s parents willingly allowed their still-developing children to participate in a hobby that involved casting lead, and playing with things made of lead. WTF

fn5: Jesus christ people, have some dice discipline will you!

We are now eight months into the coronavirus pandemic with little sign that most countries will be able to get it under control without a vaccine, which means that many countries are now attempting to return to normal while managing the virus. For most countries I predict this is going to be disastrous, and even countries that have not yet fully reopened – like France and the UK – are seeing resurgence in cases with the potential for a return of a major epidemic. But some of these countries are planning to reopen schools and universities in the Autumn, despite the risks, on the assumption that personal protective measures can contain those risks. I have expressed before my discomfort with personal protective measures, which will never be as effective at containing an infectious disease as good policy and robust treatment access, but this seems to be the dangerous path most countries have chosen to take. Given this, many universities are now trying to figure out how to return to in-person classes in Autumn, and many professors seem to want to do this. However, after a full semester of teaching entirely online I am unsure why there is so much pressure to return to in-person teaching and supervision. If we are going to move to a new normal I think we should consider the possibility that for some (many?) classes online is better than in-person, and here I would like to outline some of the benefits of online teaching and supervision.

Brief background

I teach classes in basic statistics, basic statistical programming, and some advanced statistics courses, to graduate students who are primarily mature age students working in health and studying part time. Here in Japan the first semester starts in April and in February I pushed for us to go entirely online, because I was working with Chinese colleagues on the coronavirus response in China and I knew how bad it was going to get. Our university already had a partially online component of teaching, to enable working people to take classes – basically students can choose to take an online or physical class for all of our required and many of our elective classes, and those who take the online component get to view recordings of the lectures, along with pre-recorded slides, and a slide set translated into Japanese. We have an online forum for asking questions and students can also join the physical class if they are taking the online component but able to get free time (this doesn’t happen much). Given our university already had this experience with online teaching it was very easy to switch entirely online and the faculty agreed, so we had about 6 weeks to prepare. This was a very good decision: many of our students are clinicians and some work directly in covid-19 treatment and care, so having them gather physically in a room is extremely high risk.

I originally planned to just switch the physical classes to the online component, upload last year’s recordings and use the lectures as a Q&A, but students don’t always have time for this, so I started teaching the classes in zoom (using slide sharing and so on), and I have found many aspects of lecturing in zoom to be superior to physical lecturing. I also reconfigured the statistical programming class to be done in zoom using breakout rooms. The statistical programming class was traditionally taught entirely physically, with me and two teaching assistants (TAs) running around the class answering questions and then reproducing errors on the teacher’s computer to explain specific problems that are relevant to everyone’s education. I could not physically do this anyway this year because I dislocated my kneecap in mid-February and had surgery in mid-April, but even if I had been able to, I found ways to make this work better in zoom. My students this year are learning more and better than last year, using zoom.

Benefits of online teaching

In my experience of first semester there are many aspects of holding classes online that are superior to holding them physically. In no particular order, here they are.

Reduced commuting: Some of my students join the lecture from their workplace, or from locations that vary weekly depending on their schedule. They don’t have to commute, so physically it’s much easier for them. Commuting in Japan is obviously high-risk for coronavirus, but it also reduces pressure on students if they don’t have to bounce from work to school to home. I think surveys in Japan have shown an overwhelming desire for normal workers to continue working from home and commuting is a part of the reason for this.

Better quality lecture materials: Nobody has to squint from the back of the room, or worry about audibility, or any of that stuff. They can see the slides clearly when I share them and can hear my voice clearly, plus can control the audio when they need to. The lecture recordings are also better quality, because instead of recording me standing there against a white screen in a dark room with dubious audio the students can clearly see the high quality of the slides and hear my voice directly in the microphone. This is especially useful for the programming class because it was very hard for students to read the Stata code on the lecture screen but in the zoom lectures it’s very clear

Disability friendly: We have one student who has mobility issues and would find getting into class very exhausting and time consuming, but none of this is a problem for them with zoom. Students also don’t have to suffer a one-size-fits-all computer arrangement for the programming class, and can use whatever ergonomic keyboard or weird screen setup they want. They can also learn in their native operating system and now I can teach in both – I have a mac and one of my TAs has a PC, so we can share screens to show differences (plus we can share students’ screens so we can learn how to work in their setup).

Full computer access: In the past I taught on a shared work laptop in a lecture theatre, or on the bodgy old PC in the computer room, with no access to my own full suite of materials. But now I have my entire setup available, so I can dig back through old files to show code I wrote years ago, or data examples that respond directly to a question rather than being prepared ahead. Obviously I could do this if I brought my laptop to the class but it’s so much more convenient to do this in my own office with all my stuff already set up (and it also means I can access external hard drives connected to my office desktop, etc). Students, too, can share the data they’re working with for their projects if they need to.

Shy and quiet students win: Asian students are generally shy and retiring and don’t like to ask questions but it is much easier for them if their face is not shown or they can do it in a chat window. Questions asked in chat can also be shelved and returned to later (since they’re written down where they can’t be forgotten) or answered by TAs in chat or by other students – in the programming class if someone asks a question we aren’t sure about one of the TAs can google the solution (or dig around in help files) and post the answer in chat while I continue managing the class. I think this makes Q&A better, and also encourages more class involvement by shy or quiet students. In my main stats class this isn’t a huge problem (since it’s just straight lectures) but even there being able to hide your face and/or voice helps shy, insecure, uncertain or scared students, all of whom can be found in a stats class. Also note that in a more interactive class a lecturer could strictly control students’ speaking time using the mute button, and I think in some systems can monitor how much students have spoken so that they can see directly if they’re allowing one student to dominate the class.

Convenience: Students can eat while they watch the lecture, can drink things other than water, can use their own bathroom when they want to, and can even sleep if they need to, knowing they won’t be caught out, won’t be embarrassing themselves in front of peers or lecturers, and won’t miss the class, since it’s recorded. Students are in general more comfortable in their own home or study or in the environment they chose for study, than in a lecture theatre with students they don’t know.

Recorded classes: My older students in particular find the recording of the programming classes very helpful. They have told me they review the same sections over and over while they try to figure out what to do for certain problems and tasks. Also for mathematics they can simply rewind and play again, which is a huge benefit for the slower or less confident students. I think the security of knowing they can’t miss anything makes it easier for students to take in the class, especially since it’s in their second language

Overseas and traveling students can participate: Three of our students were unable to enter Japan because the borders slammed shut the week before they were scheduled to arrive, and one more just slipped through. Given that most of our students are basically self-quarantining to avoid infection, two of our students are eager to return to their home country early so they can take these protective measures in a better environment. Online classes enables these students to continue studying even though they’re overseas. It enables us to maintain a diverse class even though we have pandemic border closures, and potentially in future to extend our classes to students who cannot get a scholarship and cannot afford to study in Japan. This is good!

Given these benefits, I’m not sure why people are eager to return to in-person teaching.

Online supervision and anti-harassment countermeasures

For me, supervising students usually involves working through statistical problems, often on a computer in my office. Last year I investigated ways to set up a shared, easily-accessible screen in my office so that we didn’t have to hunker around a laptop and more than two people could see a person’s work at a time, but the administrative details made me give up. This year of course that’s not a problem – it’s easy for me to supervise groups of students and share screens between them if I want. Nonetheless I still find in-person supervision preferable to online – visual and body-language cues are helpful for understanding whether someone understands what you’re saying, and somehow I feel something missing in online supervision that I don’t feel in online teaching. Also, in-person supervision can mean having a student down the hall who drops in and pesters you with the next stage of a problem on the regular, and this can be a very convenient way to get through difficult parts of a project quickly, but you can’t do this so well online. (You could, of course, just set your zoom on at 9am with your students logged in and working quietly and just use it when you need to, like a shared office – but we haven’t got there yet). So I still somehow prefer in-person supervision. However, there is one way in which I think online supervision is going to radically change the way professor/student and professor/staff relationships work, and that is its use in preventing harassment.

There are many forms of harassment in universities but one of the commonest is power harassment (pawahara in Japanese), in which a senior figure uses their power and authority to ruin the lives of students and junior staff. This is done through straightforward bullying – yelling, threats, insults and the like – as well as through things like taking authorship, demanding excessive work, refusing to share connections, giving unfair assessments, and so on. Things like sharing connections are the sorts of subtle power relations that can never be fought effectively, but the bullying aspects of power harassment take on a very different tone when all meetings need to be conducted online. I was myself bullied by a boss for years, and when I made a formal complaint against him a big problem I had was that much of his behavior – the threats to sack me, the unreasonable demands, the unfair statements about my work and personality, the threats towards my students – was verbal and not recorded, so in the formal complaint this became a case of my word against his. I won that complaint but it was a long slog and the outcome was not as good as I had hoped because the entire part of my complaint about his manners and inter-personal behavior could not be confirmed. This isn’t a problem when your relationships are done through zoom, and it will completely change the balance of power, for the following reasons.

The bully cannot get the same pleasure online: Bullies do what they do for personal pleasure and to bolster their own fragile personalities, so they need a reaction. Sure they do a lot of stuff that has no visible response – threatening emails, yelling over the phone, bitching about you to others – but none of this means anything to them if they can’t also hurt you visibly and viscerally enjoy the pleasure of watching you collapse. This pleasure is obviously going to be reduced if it’s done through a camera but worse still, on zoom you can turn off your own camera and mute yourself and they simply cannot get any pleasure from their words at all. They can try and force you to turn your camera and mic on but you are the one who controls your computer’s settings, and they cannot enjoy bullying as much. If it doesn’t make them feel better they’ll still do it – bullies are bullies after all – but they will have less personal incentive to do it and maybe, just maybe, as a result they won’t do it as much. Also, obviously, the bully cannot do the physical things bullies love – throwing small office objects, throwing paper at you, pushing you or touching you.

Bullies hate to be recorded: This is the real killer for a bully. Bullies always know how power works and are very aware of the risks of power being used against them. This is why the threats and insults are much more commonly and forcefully delivered in person, away from witnesses and not in writing. If you can record your meetings with your boss then he or she is going to have to be super careful about what he or she says, and even if the bully can stop you from recording the zoom session itself they cannot stop you putting your phone next to the speaker and hitting record. The threats to sack me always happened in unplanned ad hoc meetings where I did not have time to surreptitiously bring in my phone and hit record, and in any case it is hard to surreptitiously record people when they can see what you’re doing. But online they cannot guarantee they aren’t being recorded, and this means they will have to be careful. Furthermore, one of the responses a university might consider to bullying is to have a witness present at meetings, but the university cannot do this for ad hoc meetings, hallway interactions and the like. But zoom eliminates those meetings – all meetings need to be scheduled and can be recorded. So you can simply request during mediation to have all meetings recorded, and you already have your bully on a leash. It’s worth noting too that universities are going to be much, much more careful about dismissing bullying claims if they are aware that the recordings of the situation they determined was “not bullying” could end up going viral on twitter. I am aware for example of one famous economist who has a terrible reputation, but no one has ever recorded his rants. Good luck to him supervising online!

Witnesses: One of the great things about zoom is that you don’t know what’s going on on the other side of the computer. Even if the video is on and mute is off, a quiet witness can sit on the other side of the computer listening to the behavior of your bully, and stand as a witness in a complaint. Bullies often gaslight their victims, making sure they say derogatory things in private and then either denying them or saying that they didn’t mean it that way or that you misinterpreted their tone. They can’t get away with that if someone you trust is listening in and can tell what they really meant, and give you feedback later. This is a protection for strict or unreasonable senior staff who are not bullies, because that witness will potentially tell their subordinate that the behavior is unpleasant or unreasonable but not bullying. But for bullies this is a disaster. They can’t break your confidence in your own judgment if there are witnesses to dispute their gaslighting, and they can’t even know the witnesses are there. Also it’s much easier for a victim to strike back verbally if they have a person there offering emotional support, even silently – especially if the conversation is muted and the camera off so that the victim can consult with the witness about what to say. And of course you can have that witness occasionally drift by in the background, so that the bully suddenly discovers that the last 30 minutes of bad behavior may have been heard by an outsider.

Bullies love chaos and unstructured interactions: One thing my boss was fond of doing was barging into my office and yelling at me, or calling me into an impromptu meeting and demanding answers to things I hadn’t prepared for, or catching me after group meetings with unreasonable and unrealistic requests plus insults. Bullies love to have everyone on edge, never sure when they’re going to make demands or suddenly turn foul. Of course they can be erratic and chaotic in zoom meetings but they cannot just barge into your work and yell at you over zoom – they need to schedule appointments by email, and that means telling you what it’s about so you can prepare, or at least leaving a paper trail of failed information. Also when meetings are organized like this you can try to rustle in co-supervisors, colleagues and collaborators to diffuse the aggression – and of course you can schedule a witness to hover behind your computer.

Given these reasons I think online supervision actually takes a lot of power away from senior staff and puts it in the hands of their victims. With tele-working and home-based teaching and research becoming the new normal, I think there is a strong chance that even after the pandemic people will be able to manipulate the new normal to allow for greater amounts of online meetings and supervision, with the ability to get greater control over the environment in which bullying happens. If you are being bullied by your supervisor now, I recommend finding ways to turn the zoom meetings and lack of physical meetings into a tool to collect evidence on your mistreatment, and to gather support from partners and friends to help weather it. A couple of recorded zoom sessions with a powerful bully could transform a workplace harassment case, and especially the implied threat of viral attention will really serve to focus the minds of campus administrators on what to do about bullying senior staff. It is my hope that online supervision and telework in the new normal will revolutionize the way academics work and in particular will enable students and junior staff to better manage the misbehavior of unruly and unpleasant senior faculty.

Online conferences and virtual meetings

One thing I really hate about academia is the conference world. I think it’s a scam that was developed by a previous era of academics to enable international travel for free, and for a while it was great – people could go to exotic locations and take a break on the government’s money. But now that administrators have become aware of the scam and the grant money is getting more competitive conferences are a drag. Even very senior staff now are not allowed to fly business, are required to turn up the day of or the day before a conference and are not allowed to take time off before they fly home, and often have to present certificates of attendance or reports. I find conference attendance exhausting and distracting, and I don’t think it enhances my academic life at all. Shlepping halfway across the world to present a 5 minute presentation at a conference where 90% of the material isn’t relevant to my work, then going straight from the final day to the airport to shlepp all the way back, arriving the day after I left and having to go back to work the next day – it’s just an exhausting and tedious waste of time. The fact that it is relevant to our careers – that junior staff have to take time out from all the other stuff they’re doing to faff on the other side of the world without any pleasurable side benefits in order to pad their CV – is incredibly infuriating. And on so many occasions it is completely unproductive – if you’re not the keynote speaker at an international conference you’re likely to be presenting a 5 minute speech in a windowless room to 5 or 10 other people (3 of whom are from your work anyway) who won’t have any questions and may not even care about your work (5 of them are the other presenters!) It’s very rare that there is any significant interaction or anything productive arises from it. What a waste of time!

Online conferences, on the other hand, are great! You only have to attend the presentations that are interesting, you can do it as part of your day job, and because nobody needs to blow half their grant money on a plane ticket many more people will attend. My Chinese colleague recently attended one where she presented her work to 300 people, rather than the 10 people she would expect at a physical conference – and she did it from her bedroom! This means that way more people see your work, there is much more interaction as a result, time limits can be strictly adhered to, people without grant money or from poorer universities can attend, students can attend … it’s a huge win. I hope that in the new normal conferences will become a thing of the past, and will be recognized as the wasteful scam that they were. Let’s make all our conferences online and save physical work travel for actually meaningful trips to do real work!

Conclusion: Online teaching is great

I have been raised to think of online learning as a scam, a way for unscrupulous universities to fleece low-quality students for second rate degrees. But in the modern world of high connectivity and good quality shared work apps, I think we can move past this and begin to see a way to improve our teaching using the online tools available to us. We can make our classes more inclusive, more interactive and more engaging, and we can find new ways to teach hard topics, using the online tools available to us. We can also change the nature of workplace meetings and hopefully even begin to make real progress on eliminating bullying. And we can finally do away with the ludicrous scam of physical conferences, which will enable us to use our grant money more effectively and get our work out to a wider range of people than we have in the past. Let’s embrace this new normal and use it to make our teaching genuinely inclusive and higher quality!

It’s that time of year again, where I hate -watch the latest Star Wars dump so that you, my dear reader(s), don’t have to. I’m a little late to the party because I was on holiday and had much better things to do with my time than watch a shit movie for this blog[1], so sorry for those of you who already wasted your money on this stinker. This review isn’t going to be quite as expletive-laden as my review of the pile of shit that was The Last Jedi, but that’s because this movie was mostly just disappointing, overblown rubbish, not earth-shatteringly bad.

This review will contain extensive spoilers, so if you really do want to subject yourself to this masochistic annual ritual, don’t read past this paragraph. In this paragraph I present a spoiler-free assessment of the movie, to encourage you to wait until it’s on free-to-air TV. Basically, this movie was boring, insipid and lacking in any real sense of direction. The whole thing was weighed down by all the woeful decisions made in the previous one, and by the ruinous changes to the Star Wars universe that one introduced. It was also weighed down by bad casting decisions made years ago, and by the fact that JJ Abrams is an utterly shit director. It has some nice set pieces but they can’t hold your attention as they should because it’s impossible to bring yourself to care about these people or this story. It’s a washout, and I’m glad the whole sorry travesty has finally come to its ridiculous end.

So now to the part of the review with spoilers.

Why do I care about these people?

The first and biggest problem with this movie – and with so much of modern American cinema, actually – is that I just can’t bring myself to care about any of these people (okay, maybe Chewie and BB8, but no one else). They are just the worst, most boring, most anodyne characters I have seen in an action movie in so long. Sure, Rey is significantly improved from the useless whining loser she was in The Last Jedi, but that just means she has ascended to the level of boring. All the spice in her character in The Force Awakens has been leached out and replaced with, well, with nothing. Finn is a complete waste of space, Rose seems to exist only to worry about Finn (why would she?), there is some old lady who is in a few scenes who kisses another girl who I guess I’m supposed to care about (was she Dorn in the previous one? I can’t tell because these people are so boring that they all look the same). Even the supposedly quirky aliens – like Babadook or whatever the stupid little rat thing was called – are just quirky aliens out of central casting, stereotypes done boringly. Compared to every alien in this movie Ja Ja Binks is a miracle of acting and character development. The cast also acted very poorly – the actors playing Poe Dameron and Rose were super wooden, but everyone was pretty bad – which is really bad when they’re also delivering a bad script in a plot that doesn’t work. Within seconds of coming onscreen for their first introduction every character is reduced to empty nothingness, by a lethal combination of poor script, poor acting and poor character vision. Look at Hux as an example: an Aryan icon giving vaguely meaningful fascist speeches in The Force Awakens gets shot for the most pathetically-acted attempt to lie I have ever seen on screen, an effort that would have made Weasley in the first Harry Potter movie look like the Arch Deceiver himself. And Hux was played by a decent actor! I guess it’s just impossible for them to even give a shit by now, and so why should I?

Poe Dameron needs to die

Poe Dameron was a central problem in The Last Jedi, and he’s absolutely awful in this. I can’t understand why I’m supposed to care about Poe Dameron, or indeed how I can support the Rebel Alliance at all when he’s hanging around it. I would absolutely unleash the Final Order ships on every planet in the universe if it would scrub the universe clean of that man. He’s awful, the worst stereotype of the American jock-hero, with the added crapitude of being absolutely shit at everything he does. In The Last Jedi he single-handedly brought the Rebellion to the edge of ruin, through refusing to behave like a soldier, but somehow in this movie instead of being spaced or fed to the Sarlak in the first scene he is a fucking general, and now everyone has to follow his stupid plans that invariably fail. He – and I guess the director – thinks he’s funny and rogueishly charming but he never does or says a single funny or charming thing, even with the masked chick he just comes across as a sleazy failure (of course we learn that he betrayed and failed his previous gang too). What a piece of shit that character is – and what a piece of shit the director is for assuming we are going to find any fellow-feeling with this worthless scumbag.

The sputtering plot turns

This movie was stupidly long, and a big part of the reason it was stupidly long was that the heroes would be halfway through executing a plan when a fundamental plank of the plan fell apart, so then they have to quickly make another plan to achieve the same objective, and then again, and so on. This meant that a bunch of things happened that just didn’t need to happen, for no apparent reason connected to the overall plot. Or, the heroes would do a thing to achieve a thing, and then something would turn up that meant the goal they achieved was no longer needed. A prime example is the wayfinder, which the heroes spent half the movie looking for just to have Emo Ren smash it, so then Rey just stole his ship. Seems to me like a big chunk of the movie could have been dropped and I could have gotten out of that shitshow about an hour earlier if they hadn’t done that useless quest. Sure I’d have missed the cool scenes on the ruins of the Death Star (just about the only good setting in this movie) and the Big-Haired Black Chick (who I think gave her name only at the end of the movie but I missed it because I was being utterly floored by the sleazy way Lando Calrissian basically made a move on her right there), who was the only cool character in this whole movie. But I’m willing to make the sacrifice if a) this movie can have a bearable length and b) this movie can have a functional plot.

This thing of wasted sacrifices is pretty common in American movies, and it really shits me. The characters spend an hour chasing down an important goal and then it is rendered useless, and I’m meant to somehow maintain a healthy attitude towards the director? The best example of this in history of course is Titanic, where the whole story turns out to have been a complete fucking waste of time. Why would any director think it’s cool to do this to the audience? Ask JJ Abrams I guess because it happened regularly in this movie.

The incredibly stupid plans

I don’t want to sound like a hero or anything, but if I am ever taken captive by a pack of shitstains and held in an impregnable fortress, and you my dear reader(s) are on a mission to save the galaxy, could you maybe consider not putting the entire mission on hold to save my worthless arse? Even if I have somehow managed to graduate to being as charming as Chewie? Just leave me to die and go save the galaxy. Yeah I’ll blame you later, but whatever, you’ll be up to your necks in whatever gender of eager supplicants you want after you become galaxy-saving heroes, and you’ll soon find a way to fuck away the guilt. Don’t do what the idiots in this movie did, and go running to rescue your friend for no reason! And if you do, try to come up with a plan better than “we’ll land in the space ship and start shooting.” That’s not a plan. Oh! Of course Poe Dameron thought of it, so I guess we have to pretend it was a stroke of genius. Just like his plan to take on the largest battle fleet the galaxy has ever seen: take a handful of ships into the middle of the fleet and hope some more will join you later.

Now, it’s perfectly possible to have a movie centred around stupid plans – when you think about it Aliens was a series of increasingly dumb and desperate plans – but it needs to have some other redeeming feature. The original Star Wars movies had fresh ideas and good characters with a tight script, and weren’t exhaustingly long. Here we have boring characters led by an utter shitstain[2], repeatedly fucking up the simplest tasks and taking reckless and irresponsible risks in the middle of a galaxy-threatening event. This is not the recipe to an enjoyable movie!

The power creep

It’s a kind of joke that in each movie the Death Star is bigger than the previous one, and still stupidly easy to blow up, but there is a bigger problem in these movies, that each iteration of the saga we find the ships are bigger, the powers more extensive, and the stakes exponentially higher. We see this power creep in many ways in this movie: the vast Final Order fleet, that just appeared out of nowhere; the sudden revelation that there is a whole planet of Sith; the way that force ghosts can now raise spaceships from the ocean; the use of the Force to, amongst other things, stop spaceships flying or use lightning bolts to wipe out a whole fleet; the deployment of a gun that can kill planets, as ubiquitous now as artillery; the ability of force users now not only to project their image across the galaxy but to interact physically with the location they send their ghost to. It all just keeps escalating, and we the audience get decreasingly emotionally invested in every victory and every defeat. It also seems that with every step in power things also become noticably more fragile: the star destroyers can be blown apart simply by shooting the big planet-killer guns; the bridge of the flagship can be completely destroyed with light artillery; the entire fleet is rendered useless if a single transmitter is knocked out; and so on. There’s no coherence to the power steps, and with each revelation of a new level of power there is a decreasing sense of threat for us the viewers, since we’re so used to everything becoming bigger and nastier, and simultaneously more vulnerable. It’s just puff, useless decoration to hide the fact that there’s nothing underneath the story, nothing to carry the movie.

The problem of hyperspace skipping

So the Final Order have somehow procured a fleet so vast it has enough spaceships to bring every planet in the galaxy to heel, every ship so big and nasty it can kill a planet if the planet doesn’t surrender completely. Very Genghis Khan, much fearsome! Except … there is a super simple way to end this entire strategy. You simply place an old and decrepit ship in orbit of each planet, and when the Final Order ship arrives you just point your ship at it and go into hyperspace. We saw in the Last Jedi that this previously unheard-of strategy enables a small ship to completely destroy a star destroyer. Worse still, these Final Order ships are vulnerable to having their planet-killer guns hit[3], so even a tiny ship capable of hyperspace travel will be sufficient to get the job done – it doesn’t have to be even the size of a Rebel cruiser. We also know that this power move hasn’t been retconned out of the movie, because Poe Dameron uses it in the Millenium Falcon in the first 10 minutes of the movie, to break through an ice wall[4].

So why do I give a fuck about the Final Order fleet, the entire dramatic tension at the centre of this movie? I just don’t care, because in the previous movie these chuckleheads came up with a 100% plot-killing idea that has retroactively fucked the story of every fucking movie in the entire series. What a pack of amateurs.

The stupid rewrites of past decisions

Although JJ Abrams was too stupid to retcon the Hyperspace skip out of his movie, he did make a few efforts to get rid of or explain some of the other dumb-arsed decisions Rian Johnson made, though it didn’t help. We have a training scene where Leia’s Jedi past is explained (spoiler: it isn’t explained, because nothing can explain the awful decision to ruin her character by making her a Jedi); Emo Ren remakes his stupid helmet so he looks even dumber than he did before, like he spilled redbull on his helmet or something; Palpatine is back, because the final confrontation of every trilogy needs a Sith Lord and Rian Johnson stupidly killed Snooky boy back in the last movie; and a few other minor concessions to fandom or to criticisms of some of Rian Johnson’s more bizarre decisions. These just make it seem like the whole trilogy was a dumb dick-swinging contest between directors, and serve to break us out through the fourth wall (though none as badly and awkwardly as the stupid fucking festival of ancestors – see below). They remind us that more than anything else, this is no longer a Saga but a franchise (how I fucking hate that word when it is applied to cultural products), a business whose managing directors have been at odds over the past few years, but which we are now assured has been settled down and is back to sensible business practice. Yuck.

The awful idea of Rey’s parents

I’ve been waiting for the bullshit reveal about who Rey’s parents were and why they matter. It turns out that she is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, because everything in this stupid series has to be some kind of petty family drama, and only rich people matter. So she wasn’t a nobody as told by Emo Ren in the second movie (shock!), so another decision had to be retconned, but whatever. The return of Palpatine was such a dumb idea, and a sign that these writers have no original ideas at all, though I guess it’s better than having a Sith Lord called Snooky Boy, which is the kind of name you give to your dog when it’s being cute, not to a giant force-wielding pscyhopath with very poor recruitment practices. It was also revealed very poorly, and a confusing story revealed quickly with no real sense of meaning or gravity to it. Who cares anyway? It’s been five hours of cinema since we last saw any spark in Rey’s character, so by the time we find out she’s descended from the last good character to die in any of these movies we don’t really care anyway. I think soon after we find this out she dies and gets resurrected by more magic force powers that never used to exist, so it doesn’t really matter. And then at the end of the movie she calls herself Skywalker, probably because the original idea was that she was Luke’s daughter but Rian Johnson fucked all that up. So now this movie also has a completely misleading name – Skywalker died in the last movie and there is no Skywalker to rise, just as the entire second movie was about two Jedi, not the last Jedi. Maybe these guys can’t count, as well as being unable to write.

If Rey’s parents had genuinely been nobodies at least she would have had at least one redeeming feature, but no.

The unseemly arrogance of the Festival of the Ancestors

The first Star Wars movie was released in 1977, and so the entire shabby saga comes to a close here with this shambling boring wreck of a movie in 2019, 42 years later. At one point in this movie our heroes arrive on a planet that is having a festival of ancestors, which only happens every 42 years and is super special and we are told by C3P0[5] is a very rare and important event that we are privileged to see. This is obviously a meta-reference to how this final movie in the trilogy is super important and special and is a festival of the original movie and carries on in its tradition.

Fuck off already, you fuckheads. What an awful, arrogant, stupid and shallow little reference. Everyone involved in making this movie – and the previous one – should hang their heads in shame. You are reprehensible, and you should never be allowed to make another movie.

Conclusion

There are lots of other things wrong with this movie – minor things like how did Lando Calrissian manage to muster up a fleet of thousands of ships from hundreds of star systems in just a couple of hours – but I can’t go exhaustively through all the myriad failings in this and the other recent movies. I think though that it’s enough to say that there are really very few redeeming features in this movie, nothing really to make it worth watching and certainly nothing to salvage the flaming wreckage of this series. The original three movies were fun, charming and exciting, with fresh ideas and a lot of really good acting and writing, but they have been well and truly betrayed by everything that came after them. It’s a shame: the Star Wars universe is rich and diverse and holds a lot of opportunities for good stories, as we saw in Rogue One; but the main story has been wrecked beyond recognition, and all the charm of the original vision has been buried under a mound of bullshit. There is nothing left in this series, and every additional movie is just going to further poison the already much-corrupted legacy of its original stories. Disney need to take this franchise (oh how I hate using that word to refer to cultural product) out the back of the studios and put a bullet in its head. The best option for this decrepit old series now is a quick and painless death, before any other creepy Hollywood Directors further abuse its corpus.

I won’t be watching any more of the main series, and I recommend you do the same. These directors have ruined a once great thing, and they will probably continue to do so. But we don’t have to help them do it.


fn1: For example, reading shitty economic “mathematics” on the plane, in preparation for a post on the disaster that is “analysis” in mathematical economics, oh I do have such a fun life!

fn2: How did Poe get to be leader, btw? Leia was in charge in the second movie, and now suddenly this idiot is running the show. If ever there was a model for a shitty white man failing up, Poe is it.

fn3: Somewhat tragically, these guns hang under the ship like a massive cock, so it’s exactly like kicking the ship in the balls.

fn4: Apparently this strategy destroys Rebel cruisers but barely scratches the Falcon, who knew?

fn5: Who, fair play, is mildly enjoyable in this movie, especially after he loses his memory

Fucking muppets!

 

I have spent the last 4 weeks on a series of fairly demanding business trips to two continents, and since I am bound by the tyranny of miles to a single airline I have been forced to watch movies on only one channel during the flights. This has been really challenging because aside from the enjoyable John Wick 3 the only action movies on offer have been super hero movies, and derivative schlock from other series (like Godzilla). Here I give my brief thoughts on the movies I watched, and ask some questions about the terrible decline of the modern action movie.

X-Men: Apocalypse

I can’t believe how ordinary this movie is. Does it even have a plot or a purpose? The acting is terrible and the entire cast of mutants is boring and shallow, with no possible reason for me to care about them. As a movie it only holds you because there are some other movies in the same series and you need to see what they do – but since I haven’t seen any other movies in the series I really can’t feel anything for these characters and can’t be led to even understand why they bother turning up. There are some good actors in this movie but you wouldn’t know it. This movie also has one of the most execrable scenes in modern cinematic history which is also one of the most execrable plot hooks in human history, and which is performed so poorly by Michael Fassbender that the depth of its depravity almost slips by you through the power of its banality. I am, of course, talking about the scene where a dude called Apocalypse tries to convince a Jewish concentration camp survivor to join in with his plan for genocide by having him destroy Auschwitz. There’s something really wrong about watching a fictitious character destroy the Auschwitz memorial – it’s just so horribly wrong – but to do so as part of a scheme to enlist a genocide survivor as a genocide perpetrator is really … well, it’s a chef’s kiss moment in modern cinema, isn’t it? But it’s all done so badly that you almost don’t realize how terrible it is until you wake up from the stupor this movie has sunk you into and realize what you’re being tricked into nodding along to. I gave the movie perhaps 20 minutes after that pearler but it didn’t offer anything remotely interesting, so I gave up and decided that staring at the ceiling of the plane was a better use of my time.

Deadpool 2

Deadpool 2 isn’t bad – at least I managed to finish it – but it’s a really lame and weak follow up to the freshness of the original. Standing on its own as a piss-take of super hero movies, Deadpool is entertaining and creative, but as a series in its own right it has nothing to hold it together. Deadpool’s smut and the particular conceit of his humour gets old fast, and watching Deadpool 2 I realized that the original movie was good primarily for its freshness in what is otherwise a stale, juvenile and worn out genre. Since Deadpool was made this genre has gone from needing a healthy dose of satire to needing a bullet, and is such a weak and overworked formula that satire no longer works. Indeed, when you look at the poor mixture of humour and pathos in Avengers: Infinity War you realize that the genre has been satirizing itself accidentally for quite some time now, and satire doesn’t work any more.

Avengers: Endgame

I hate-watched this after reviewing the awful sack of shit that was Infinity War, and had such low expectations after that wretched abomination that I was pleasantly surprised by the movie’s failure to be abysmally awful. It was, however, too long and way too boring, and it ended exactly as I expected: with the universe being saved by a rich white guy (what are the chances!) Plot spoiler folks: our world is not going to be saved by a rich white guy, and the fantasy of the rich white dude who does good has got old fast. The movie still had so many bad points that it was almost unwatchable, but I struggled through so I could see how this horrible shitshow ends (or, rather, restarts). I still didn’t know (or care) who most of these boring, caricatured white people were. Hulk was, if anything, worse than he was in Infinity War, transformed from a metaphor for erectile dysfunction into a sad mocking image of middle-aged ennui. Iron Man had lost his last redeeming feature (his sense of humour, which had already grown old and tired) and was now just annoying. Black Widow at least had a speaking part, though the rush between her and the other dude to kill themselves was just pathetic – neither of them are of any use to anyone, so why didn’t they just toss a coin? And why did they undo the extinction of half the universe anyway? Wiping out half of all life in the universe seems like a bargain if it will get rid of spiderman and space douche in the process. Why bring them back? I mean I know you love your mother and you’re sad she’s dead but five minutes in a room with either spiderman or space douche and you’d kill your own mother to escape. So why on earth would anyone bring them back, and are we meant to really believe that this cast of nobodies is sad about the deaths of their colleagues, who were the most forgettable characters in cinematic history? I’m surprised they could even remember who they used to work with, let alone want them back (I still don’t know the names of most of these incompetents, let alone work myself up into any kind of sweat as to whether they might die or not). This movie also went on a walk through about 8 other Marvel movies, as a reminder that by now these movies are so self-referential and self-involved that you have to do 20 hours of homework through the back catalogue just to understand what’s going on in multiple scenes. What was that shit between Thor and the blonde chicks? I get the impression one was his mother, who he used to live with and see daily, who didn’t notice that apparently overnight he had turned into a fat stoner. How’s that for a maternal bond! (Also Thor was one of the few redeeming features of Infinity War so of course they ruined him in this movie). I guess I should be happy that this entire tired story got a resolution but given that the final scene is just all these people getting back to more adventures it seems like more of a sigh of exhaustion than of relief.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Apparently this is a thing now, with multiple Godzilla movies, which are also somehow linked to King Kong because why not? Also it has this novel plot idea that the beasts are dangerous but some people think they’re part of the natural order and we should try to co-exist with them which is definitely not at all an idea that was old when Jaws was made, and we definitely need to sit through those debates again, especially when they’re done by people who could only be loosely described as “actors”. In this one there are bad guys who are actually environmentalists who want to wake up all these giant monsters to restore the balance of the earth (read: wipe out humans). Because absolutely, definitely, as the world slides into climate crisis and multiple environmental disasters that the environmental movement has been trying to warn us about for 60 years what we absolutely, definitely need are more movies where the end of the world is the environmentalists’ fault and the good people in the government have to fight them to stop them wiping out humanity. Definitely that’s a message we need right now! I would tell you what the moral of the story was but I stopped halfway through because the movie was so pathetic, the action scenes so contrived, and the plot so silly that I just gave up. This movie included Charles Dance and the chick who was Eleven in Stranger Things but even they couldn’t rescue this junk.

Men In Black: International

Boring daddy issues that can’t figure out if they’re serious or a joke, no appreciable plot and the worst acting since Liam Neeson apologized for his racism.

What’s going on with American action movies?

Looking at the menu of the plane’s entertainment system was depressing: just a long chain of superhero movies, with a couple of remakes and a few sequels. There was almost nothing original on the screen at all, and if you wanted to watch something original you would have to look outside the action movie genre. I’m now writing this in the same week that Martin Scorsese derided superhero movies as “theme park junk” and I have to agree with him[1]: action movies were once a great part of Hollywood, but in recent years they have degenerated to the point where they are reliably the worst. They’re just an endless series of rehashed super hero movies, which can be best characterized as second rate pro wrestling, with a scattering of other “franchises”[2] like Men In Black, Star Wars, Batman, or – god forbid – Rambo. There’s nothing original in this at all, it’s just microwaved kara age for the soul. There are even remakes of great movies (like Death Wish, the remake of which was abominable). I think the last original action movie I saw was Atomic Blonde, which was genuinely brilliant but what three years ago now? Since then it’s been spandex as far as the eye can see.

I don’t know why this is happening – why people pay to watch this junk, or what kind of business model the production companies are running that requires them to return to this artistically and culturally desolate fare rather than doing anything original. The best I can think is that it’s the cinematic equivalent of outsourcing risk. They’re guaranteed to be able to make these movies easily and on time, since the plots don’t matter and there are so many characters in your average super hero movie that plot is almost superfluous, and you pay for the movie before you see it so by the time you realize it’s shit it’s too late. I can’t think of any other reason for why people would make super hero movies at all: the original material by Stan Lee is just obviously low-rent, juvenile crap for teenage boys in the 1960s and it is laughably bad, so why would anyone think to draw on it for a movie? Recall that Stan Lee’s material – all the American comic legends – for years followed the Comic Code Alliance, which is a recipe for transparently nationalist and vapid material, and although Stan Lee is said to have broken with this[3] in 1971, this is just post hoc valorization. American comic books were drek for decades, and building a successful movie series on them is going to necessarily require dipping into some of the most juvenile trash that has ever been written down on paper.

Which is fine if these are occasional movies, but the cinematic landscape has been dominated by what is essentially adolescent drivel for the past 10 years. There are now something like 20 Marvel movies, almost all of them shit, and a similar number of DC Comics movies in probably just the past 10 years (apparently there are 71 in total). This is not including the awful TV shows that have now almost all been cancelled because they are so bad. Why has American cinema been overwhelmed by this flood of movies from the same universe about the same characters? And why this universe and these characters, which are specifically and particularly so stunningly low quality?

I don’t have an answer for this, although I suspect it lies somewhere in the toxic witch’s brew of American pop culture’s growing venality, the terrible education system in the US, concentration of American media in the hands of a very small number of companies, and the complete intellectual and artistic emptiness of the money men in those companies. But it’s a depressing turn for American culture to take, because for a long time America was a reliable producer of good quality, exciting and enjoyable action movies. But that industry – the industry that brought us movies like The Last of the Mohicans, Jaws, the original three Star Wars movies, Aliens, Blackhawk Down and Bladerunner – appears to have shriveled and died, and come back as a zombie monstrosity that just lurches from movie to movie, slowly eating our brains.

Someone needs to chop its head off, before the entirety of western cinema culture becomes an empty wasteland.


fn1: Overall Scorsese seems like a man of vulgar tastes, since he seems to think that the only real movies are movies where a young woman falls in love with an older man (or as he puts it, “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”), and he seems to think anything where things blow up or people die isn’t real film, so he’s obviously basically wrong. (I mean, if you want to experience “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” you could hang out with your family, or read a book – cinema is definitely not the best place to experience that!) But in this case he is just by pure good fortune correct: this is theme park junk.

fn2: I fucking hate this word when it’s applied to movies or games but when you’re talking about super hero movies or these other long-running bullshit series like Star Wars you’re basically using the right word. They’re the McDonalds of cinema.

fn3: Incidentally, check out the quote of Stan Lee in the linked article. My god, what a prat he must have been.

 

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.

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