Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Books: Well, How Did We Get Here?

 The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity By David Graeber and David Wengrow, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021

Provenance: This was a Christmas gift from last year, and it has taken me until now (August) to finish it. It was the Big Book of that year, with a lot of properties of the Big Book - it is the size of a brick, it challenges conventional beliefs with a lot of evidence, and has had a lot of articles about it, which is good, because a lot of people are not going to finish the book (I cannot speak for the print copies, but the Kindle versions tell where the readers bailed, and that would be interesting). 

Review: Let's start with the question - how did we end up with so much inequality - states and rulers and classes and control? Conventional wisdom states with a shrug that this is just the way it is, just a a natural and inevitable progression. It is common to blame the discovery of agriculture as the tipping point, which allowed for large concentrations of people (cities) and created the need for people to be in charge to run things (rulers). Two schools of thought emerged from this basic assumption. One is that once we existed in an Eden-like state of nature (Rouseau) and fell from grace when we started running a surplus of basic supplies. The other (Hobbes) is that we've always been a-holes, red in tooth and claw, and farming (and cities that descended from that) just locked us into the process. Regardless of theory, humans themselves had no agency in all this - it is  like a big game of, well, Civilization.

However, what we've been digging up as far as archaeological evidence has undercut these assumptions, and does not support the idea of inevitable "progress". It shows a lot of going back and forth among various types of organization. Our hunter/gatherers were farming, our farmers only farmed part of the year, and a lot of our early cities were suspiciously lacking in palaces, monuments, and other indications of a ruling class. We apparently had large settled social groups in sort of continuous neighborhood, or celebratory locations akin to Burning Man, long before the first king showed up. Graeber and Wengrow flood the field with examples from both hemispheres and from the full span of human history. While they note that a lot of stuff remains to be discovered, I found myself dealing with parts of history that I had only tangential references before, like Harappa, Poverty Point, Chavin Culture, the Gobekli Tepe temple, or the Mammoth houses in Siberia.

The book keys in on three basic freedoms for early culture that are still applicable. One is the freedom to move (to vote with your feet if you don't like a situation) and to have someplace safe to move to, be it asylum or class ties. The second is the freedom to disobey, and early cultures seemed to have leaders only for so long as they are tolerated by the led. Bad leaders get ignored, and even beneficent chiefs and would-be royalty have extremely localized power. The third is to reorganize yourselves into a different social grouping. And the fluid nature of early civilizations is not so much of a rise and fall as an continual change of opportunities and customs. 

Similarly, they define the state (as it eventually becomes) by three levels of control - violence, knowledge, and charismatic politics. The first creates a permanent military, the second a bureaucracy, and the third a justification for supporting the previous two points. There are those early settlements that have one feature but not the other two, and those that have two, but only when you get all three together are we off to races with effective nation-states. 

As someone who builds fantasy worlds for a living, this approach is interesting. Does the Dalelands in the Forgotten Realms facilitate freedom of movement? Does the presence of adventuring party licenses in Cormyr show a State-control version of Violence? Does the presence of an "Adventuring Class" of people itself negate the perils of a permanent, modern state, or does it provide a basis for a temporary hero-culture that lasts the lifetime of the hero?

Further, fantasy world-building has the sense of "Eternal Kingdoms" which have been in place for centuries, while we know that Europe post-Rome and the New World pre-conquest were extremely fluid in their organizations and groups. 

It is a tough book to pick up - 700 pages with copious bibliography and footnotes. But, conversely, it is an easy book to put down. Its style is accessible, and is divided into major sections under sub-headers. This is good because you need some downtime to digest the onslaught of examples and theories in each section. I took to reading a section (or part of one) each night, and STILL walked away from it for a month at a time just to avoid breaking my brain too hard. 

And there are a huge section of footnotes. Some provide further details or alternate takes on the story (1), while others a just a mysterious reference to one of other tomes in the bibliography (2). The end result is that one is flipping back and forth to see if there is something more to tale.

Add to that the fact that, given all the types of civilization under discussion, it is best to keep the Wikipedia open for further research. The tendency to rabbit-hole here is great - finding one reference which takes me to a second, which leads to a third, and then something related, and suddenly I am looking at ABBA lyrics. All this makes for slow going.

What the book does not do is indicate how the State, with its control of violence, knowledge, and politics, became the dominant form in the post-Enlightenment (actually post-Roman Empire) world, and how we can walk away from it, shy of a major catastrophe (and yeah, we've had a handful of them even in this decade showing the inherent vulnerability of such system, but I don't see things changing). That may be for future volumes. The Dawn of Everything shows numerous examples, where we got to this point, then walked away from it (indeed, where the remains of the former nation (Chahokia is used as an example here) is considered anathema, and its lands similar to the Forbidden Zone from Planet of the Apes).

And yeah, there are places in reading this that I felt like an ape confronting a huge orange monolith. Ultimately, this is an excellent volume in that it inspires some deconstruction of the traditional approach to prehistory and early history, proposed in the late 1700s and reinforced with traditional thought today. It looks at potential for what we may discover in the future, and the realization that the arrow of "progress" flies neither straight nor true. 

It is a long road on this book, but worth the trip. More later, 

1) These longer footnote sections (over 90 pages) may provide anecdotal material, or may also offer counter-arguments and then counter-counter-arguments, resulting is more chunks of text, some of it longer than the original mention in the main text. I ended up using one flap of the dust-cover as a bookmark for the book itself, and the back-flap to keep my place among the footnotes. As originally used, dust-covers were only supposed to be used when selling the book, and then discarded. They soon became vectors for selling the book, and later still kept by consumers for ddisplay in their home libraries. Oh, was that anecdotal material?

2) See Hungadunga, Hungadunga, Hungadunga and McCormick, Towards a Maddening Use of Footnotes, op. cit., e.g., i.e., in media res, omg, lol, 1930

Saturday, August 06, 2022

This Just In: Kickstarter Fever

 Large packages have been arriving at Grubb Street, as Kickstarters that have been on the water for several months have finally arrived at the docks and deliveries have been made. Most are late to a minor or major degree, owing to the pandemic, the massive snarl in shipping, and the phases of the moon. For the most part, I'm OK with that - I funded stuff so long ago that I had frankly forgotten, so the arrival feels like a gift from the ghost of my former self. Thanks, past-me. 

Some of these are original games, and some are "line extensions" - modules, sourcebooks, and expansions. As always, these are not so much reviews as notifications - I haven't done enough digging to give a full review to them, so this is all initial responses. Even so, I've got a lot to say about them.

So, what do we have here?

Vaesen: Mythic Britain and Ireland (Graeme Davis, Lead Writer, Johan Egerkrans, Lead Artist, Free League, 156 page hardback) Vaesen: Seasons of Mystery (Gabrielle de Bourg, Tomas Harenstam, Andreas Marklund, Kiku Pukk Harenstam, Writers, Free League, 96 page hardback).  Free League makes great-looking books, often build around existing art - solid hard covers, thick pages, luscious illos. The downside of the original core book was that the text felt slighted in favor of the art and graphic design Both Mythic Britain and Ireland and Seasons of Mystery make up for that with a hefty textural density. Mythic Britain is by long-time game design veteran Graeme Davis, and expands the setting out into the British Isles. Seasons of Mystery are four smaller adventures, which have the investigative nature of a Call of Cthulhu game without the world-threatening and senses-shattering results. Mythic Britain came with a separate map pack which I hesitate to open and then immediately lose all the pages from.

Carbon Grey (Andrew E.C.Gaska, Creative Director/Lead Writer, Magnetic Press, 224 page hardbound). This was a bit of a disappointment. It came with a hardbound collection of the comics it was based on, and, upon review, I hated the comics. Billed as "Diesel Punk", it was WWI politics and intrigue with WWII weapons with a dash of magic, involving anime girls who sever heads and limbs with grand guignol style. I found the comic art jarring and murky, and the story impenetrable in places. The game, on the other hand, concentrates more on the world, using the West End d6 System as a base but concentrating on primarily combat in the game. Came with a bundle of tchotchkes (badges, decals, art prints), which will soon be scattered throughout the home office, to be found years later with the question "what was THIS for?"

Level Up Advanced 5th Edition Adventurer's Guide (30+ listed designers, EN World Publishing, 656 page hardback), Trials and Treasures (20+ designers, EN World Publishing), 370 page hardback), and Monstrous Menagerie (Paul Hughes, Lead Designer. EN World Publishing, 532 page hardback). This was the most massive of the shipments coming in. It is not D&D 5.5, but rather D&D 5E's Pathfinder, in that it takes the original mechanics (ability scores, combat, die conventions), strips away the additional material, and rebuilds the structure entirely. You don't get a new variant of Ranger to stand alongside the previous ones, but a completely new version. I play a Ranger in our 5E campaign, and have to admit that their version is a serious upgrade. The monsters are similarly redesigned, and are close but different - the numbers tweaked, and most information on encounters provided, as opposed to a direct reprint of OGL material. This one feels like the early variants of D&D, where someone pulls at a loose thread for their personal campaign and ends up with a completely different game. It is a massive undertaking, and is effectively like learning a full new edition. It arrived with Memories of Holdenshire, an intro adventure that looks solid and self-contained.

A Shadow in the Downs (Kate Baker, Green Ronin, 36 page softbound). Some projects, even from trusted and reliable professionals, are just snake-bit. Case in point - The Lost Citadel from Green Ronin. Kickstarted in 2017, it was delayed by personal issues, covid issues, shipping challenge issues, and all manner of sundry other issues, such that this introductory adventure is finally showing up five years later. Yet, the Ronins have delivered on their promises, which is greatly appreciated. The Lost Citadel was a "grimdark" setting where the world has fallen, the undead roam the land, and the last bit of civilization is confined to a single city, the Redoubt. The adventure takes place in the city itself and in the underground mazework beneath it. It looks pretty good, and hits all the points that set Lost Citadel apart from others of its subgenre.

Nightfall (Angelo Paluso, Mana Project Studio, 240 page hardback) and Nightfall Bestiary (Angelo Paluso and Andrea Lucca, Mana Project Studio, 168 page hardback). This is also "grimdark" (It says so on the cover), but is written to a larger scale. Darkness from the shadow plane has risen, the sun has gone out (its deity dead/converted), though the moon still provides what light is available. The moon still works without the sun, because, well, magic. It is literally a points of light campaign, with only a few places that not overrun with monsters. Nightfall is Italian, and comes out with a beautiful look for a dark setting. The monster book eschews redoing D&D monsters for more Italian Folklore, though it does list creatures in subcategories (Dragons, Horrors, Witches). This can make for a more cohesive read, make it harder to find what you are looking for as opposed the alphabetizing the entire list. I probably will not play it, but I will read it through. Came with a boatload of Kickstarter-Tchotchkes which are generally useful in play - a DM (Sorry, Nightmaster) screen, Standups, separate map, pregens, and a cute pin.

Cults of Cthulhu (Chris Lackey, Mike Mason, and Friends, Chaosium, 368 page hardback). This was NOT a kickstarter, but rather picked up at the Mox Boarding House where a group of friends were gathering. It's been a book I've been looking forward to, and contains a summary of all the Cthulhu Cult information from various sources, five different versions of the cults through the different play periods, information on creating your own Cthulhu Cult, and some adventures. I'm looking forward to reading it. It does raise the question in my mind of "What is cult, beyond being a religion or organization that the dominant society does not like?"). I had Remarkable Cults in the previous writeup, and there are other cult books out there. The book itself is up to current Chaosium standards, but the spine is making these disturbing creaking noises as I open it.

Lex Arcana: Italia, Land of Ancient Magic and Dark Intrigue, (Francesca Garello and Andrea Angiolino, Quality Games, 260 page hardback) and Dacia and Thracia, Storm at the Empire's Borders (Mauro Longo, Quality Games, 160 page hardback). Lex Arcana is a game set in the 5th Century where Rome, propped up by magic, is threatened but not collapsing. You are part of the special investigations branch of the Cohor Auxiliaria Arcana, the Empire's X-File department, tasked with dealing with the weird, supernatural, and deadly. The game uses original RPG rules (as opposed to 5E offshoots). These two supplements bore down into the Italian peninsula and the territories to the east, respectively. Looks good and involved, though I still have to engage with the the game itself. Only comment I can make is that if you are going to talk about features in the game, put them on your map. Tchotchkes include separate maps of the areas and some cities, and multiple decks of cards with magic items and opponents on them. Looks good.

That's it. I remain impressed by the stuff that comes in from overseas producers, and am delighted to see them appear in English, and yeah, I'm will to wait a bit longer as the entire shipping question clears itself out. Kickstarter has been a boon to overseas game manufacturers and players on this side of the pond. This is good stuff.

More later,

ADDENDUM: Nightfall Bestiary and Cults of Cthulhu both won ENNIE Awards at GENCON. Hard copies of both just arrived here, so I assume they are voting based on PDFs.

Friday, August 05, 2022

The Political Desk: Summarizing the Summer Primary

 So, how did things go?

Well, not bad at all. Big scores for Democrats, centrists, and incumbents. Kinda meh for those further left. Not so much to cheer about for the further right. The two Washington Congressional Representatives who voted to impeach Trump made it through, though primarily because so many pro-Trump candidates on the ballot split all the opposing votes. And there are a couple squeakers that are still hanging fire, but not for stuff on my ballot. The ballyhooed Red Wave sort of petered out before it got out here. For this election at least. 

US Senator: Patty Murphy got 53%, and the approved GOP candidate 33%. Senator Murphy is in a good position for the general election.

US Representative Congressional District No. 9 will be Adam Smith against perennial foe Doug Basler. Adam Smith got 56%, while Basler got 21% The progressive candidate on Smith's left pulled around 14%, which is good but not good enough

In the congressional district right next door, the 8th seemed less swingy than it did two weeks ago. Incumbent Kim Schrier got 48%, Matt Larkin emerged from a crowded field to be the Republican challenger with 17% (despite being unwilling to confirm to The Stranger that Biden won the last election). I expect the GOP loser's voters will just fall in line under the winner, with no hard feelings (despite some really nasty intra-party mailers in the campaign). Still, reading the tea leaves from the primary, Representative Schrier cannot take her foot off the gas for her re-election.

Washington State Secretary of State had a full slate of candidates, but incumbent Steve Hobbs (who plays RPGs) pulled in 40% of the vote. Julie Anderson, running as an independent, is slightly ahead of the Republicans at 13%. So after a long period of SoS being a GOP fief, there are no official Republicans on the ballot. And I think that's a good thing about our "top two" system - Independents are a viable choice, and we are not necessarily locked into a "chosen candidate" from either major party.

Locally, for State Legislative District No 11, Positions 1 and 2, we had two candidates going in and still have two candidates going to the big dance.  In Position 1, I go with David Hackney was over Stephanie Peters, and Steve Berquist was over Jeanette Burrage.

In the district next door (the 47th), the three-way race is still tight for the number two spot. Republican Bill "Not  a Trump Guy" Boyce has the plurality (45%), while the two Democratic Party candidates, Kaur and Kaufmann, are still jockeying for position around the 27% mark.

And that's about it. See you in the fall!

More later,


Monday, August 01, 2022

Theatre: Dragons of Positive Vibes

 Here There Be Dragons: Chasing My Voice by Felicia Loud, Directed by Mathew Wright, Arts West, through 14 August, 2022

Those who follow this space know that I go into plays fairly blind. That's one of the pluses of a season subscription - you  have a dinner date, but you don't exactly know what's on the menu. So what I had here is a name and the meta-knowledge that most of the season so far has been involving myths and monsters. So I am expecting some sort of "teenagers playing D&D kinda Stranger Things" performance.

Yeah. Didn't get that at all. Instead I got a memorable live rap show that pulled the audience out of their seats.

Felicia Loud is a local figure in Seattle music and theatre. She has been on the major stages in town. She has taught. She has performed for about 40 years. She's been on KEXP and KUOW. Most recently she is half of Black Stax, a longstanding local rap group. I knew none of this coming in. What I found out is that she's damned good, with a great voice. She blows onto the stage with a coat of many colors and silver boots and takes no prisoners during the performance. She's admirable backed up by musicians Cydney Johnson and Greg Fields, each with their own rig of drums and synths.

The show itself, a surprisingly quick 90 minutes, opens with part memoir, part lounge act, as she tracks her past, from Texas to Seattle to Lynnwood (where she was "the black kid" in a predominately white class) to the Central District. She talks, she jokes, and she is in an excellent position to judge the differences between black and white popular culture. And she does, bringing the audience in and talking about Garfield High.

(Now, as an aside, places like the Stranger refer to Seattle as being a whiter-than-white city. That's both true and false. Seattle is about 59.5% white, King County 54.2%. Those aren't overwhelming numbers. But it is a less-Black city than a lot of other places (6.8% and 6.5 %), And traditional practices such as redlining have kept the African-American population confined to certain areas. That is changing. The thing is, when the Stranger and others framing it in a binary terms, it erases a wide expanse of other PoC  - Asians, Native Americans, Latinos, and  Pacific Peoples. Anyway, thanks for coming to my TED talk.)

Anyway, the opening half is chatty, bouncy, and folksy. And then we start talking about rap and hiphop, and the potential difference between the two, and she brings in her parter in Black Stax, Jace Ejac, and the party gets really rolling, with the two of them wrap up the show with some killer rhymes and beats. 

This was good. This was great. It engaged me more than Free Style Love Supreme at the start of the Rep season, and had more authenticity that Fannie Mae Hammer. Part of it is the raw positivity of Ms. Loud. Part of it in the venue - Arts West is a small theater without a lot of places to hide (And yeah, she called out a patron that had to make an exit to the bathroom). She asks for engagement and energy from the audience, and she gets it.

And to honest, the audience was typical small theater in Seattle - greyer and paler than your standard rap venue. And that's a pity as well, because this is good stuff, and gives me a good feeling about the life in the Central District at the turn of the last century. Worth sharing, worth attending.

So how was the season in general at the Arts West? Here There Be Dragons was a highpoint, as was Justin Huertas' We've Battled Monsters Before. I thought Alma was solid. I liked the This Girl, though the Lovely Bride disagrees. Miku and the gods was all over the place for me, and Monsters of the American Cinema was sabotaged by its staging. So in general, good marks for the Arts West, and I appreciate them trying new things. I look forward tot he next season.

More later,