Tuesday 31 January 2023

Imagining Roteopia

As a consequence of reading 'Cats Paws' and Catapults' I became mildly obsessed with the idea of rotational limbs in living things. WHY can't we have Segway Elephants and HOW could they evolve????

Thus I developed Roteopia, which is like that series Dinotopia but imagining an earth where creatures with rotating limbs evolved but everything else stayed at least familiar enough for the reader to understand what’s going on.



"By wheels we mean proper wheel and axle devices that can rotate without limit with respect to the rest of a machine. If you roll down a hill, your whole body may be a wheel, but you're no wheel and axle. So we're not talking about tumbleweeds, or about the tiny turds that dung beetles roll homeward for grubs, or about a few crustaceans that get around by rolling as a whole. Nor are we worrying about how far we can rotate our fists around our rms or our heads on our shoulders. By "rotation" we also mean something fairly specific. When you draw a circle on a piece of paper, do you rotate your hand? You may move it in a circle, but you don't truly rotate it; after all, your hand at all times points in the same compass direction. Human dances make elaborate uses of such circular but nonrotational motion, most likely because it doesn't make us dizzy. Not all dances, of course; waltzes are rotational and, one suspects, intentionally vertiginous. The wheels of a bicycle rotate; your feet and the pedals just move around in circular paths. The Ferris wheel rotates as a whole, but the seats and people just go in circles. In this precise sense - excluding both rolling as a whole and merely going in circles - the only known instance of a wheel and axle in nature is the bacterial flagellum." - Steven Vogel, Cats' paws and Catapults

(From a post by u/ExplosiveVent here)


I have two general base animals in mind depend on whether we want bones or boneless. I will start with boned.

So imagine something like a a very early form of the Angler Fish in the Cambrian era. Not quite fishlike yet, maybe flat instead of tall, but it has a spine.

This creature is highly sexually dimorphic. The females are large and the males very small. Pattern of mating is that the male physically inserts its head into one of a range of orifices in the female. This proto-womb has a muscular lock to stop the male getting away. Once penetrated the area around the males head/internal wall, dissolves, large parts of the flesh of the males head dissolve as well, allowing genetic material to enter the female. Now they are joined.

So far, not hugely different to the modern Angler Fish, which can swim around with a number of males attached to it.

At some point the mating biology mutates so that the male can 'spin' inside the muscle lock. It has a particular head shape that keeps its head 'inside' the female, and if it did manage to get out it would die anyway as now it can only gain nutrients from the females body. But it can 'swim', flex its body and turn n its own axis, part inside the female but the rear part outside.

Now we imagine multiple matings, either simultaneously or over time but with the males from previous matings remaining in place.

Now we have a vertebrae fishlike being with these mini-fish sticking out of it, and the mini fish can still swim, and crucially, they can rotate in place.

Now rotational movement, a corkscrewing, is extremely efficient, so all we are waiting for is a fluke where the males are all capable of rotating and in the right position to provide thrust and are sensitive and responsive enough to female pressure to do so on command.

So now we have a fishlike being with what are in effect, corkscrew drives. 

That’s your evolutionary pressure. From this point on the species becomes better and better at developing and maintaining these rotating 'limbs'. More and more of the species existence is spent as an actually-multiple mating group, rotating improves, adaptions to secretions and the inner wall increasing strength and decreasing friction, energy transfer between female and male improves, male body shape shifts to become more and more an efficient corkscrew, the primal rotators develop a flexible body comportment so they can group their 'screws' behind them for maximum thrust but also spread these 'limbs' for manoeuvring. 

So effectively this early fish can 'strafe', and move rapidly three-dimensionally in water.

(The G'Kek from David Brins 'Uplift' series.
They were engineered and don't count.)


The other option for this was a sort of proto-squid with the rotating 'engines' at the end of the limbs. My main difficulty with these was that I want to get them on land at some point and its very rare (maybe impossible) for a non boned creature to evolve bones. Once they get to a certain size on land bones are going to be super-useful for sustaining that weight.

HOWEVER, the squid would have extra limbs, meaning it could 'push' itself along the sea floor, provide extra thrust, and have limbs left over for manipulation and hunting. I do like the idea of a huge hairy wheeled squid mammoth, or colour-shifting high speed steppe predator wheeled squid.


Moving from sea to land would happen pretty much as it did in our world, with colonisation of reefs, rotators using their screws to aquaplane the flat sea by beaches, rotator-lungfish types living in mud etc.

The evolution from screws to wheels should be _relatively_ simple. The males changing from corkscrews to full wheels and the alignment of the limbs shifting.


Once you have even a semi-wheeled animal which can leave the water and race up and down the beach, we are off baby!

This is another situation where it might be easier to start with Squid rather than a vertebrate as they could manoeuvre and 'lock' their wheels, turning their limbs into legs, allowing them to cross rough ground probably easier and sooner than the fish-rotators.

The great difference between evolution on Roteopia and here would be the incredible SPEED of land animals really right from the start.

(Phillip Pullmans seed wheelers


What does evolution on a fast rotation-based world look like? 

Probably the world of Speed will start at the beaches and the river mouths, but could it propagate itself inland? 

I imagine giant slow rotator-dinosaurs CRUSHING their way through primeval forests, eating all the trees and pooping out a steady stream of waste that hardens into a kind of poop-asphalt to aid the way of their baby-rotators.

Could Rotators conquer and in fact synergise with different forms of plant life to create a world not of dense forests but of mixed plain-forest pathways. Plants on flat land more spread out and distributed, wider apart, with high crowns and little midway growth, but with very flat smooth roots that don't disturb the ground (an evolutionary reward bought with the high dispersal of becoming a rotators favourite food).

Or plants and ecosystems which sustain themselves by foiling the rotators, producing crazed root systems, foiling toxic hanging vines and 'trap' branches which fall like caltrops. An environmental war between the rough and the smooth.

The key thing about Rotopia is that things tend to move FAST. Super-fast rotator velociraptors chasing high-speed Stegadons. Propellor driven birds screaming past. Rotator-Orca-Dinosaurs aquaplaning out of the ocean to grab prey.


Yet somehow (because I say so) Humanity arrives and the world ends up looking at least a bit like our own.

What is Rotator Earth like? 

The key difference that I can see is that the plains are now more like oceans rather than deserts. The existence of vast rotator-herds means the plains, tundra and wastes are criss-crossed by desire paths, some perhaps millions of years old, made. An earth of natural prehistoric highways. Prehistoric highways spread like river systems, visible from space, with their own linear ecosystems, resource conflicts over connections and junctions and huge animal traffic jams.

And with Rotator-beasts the crossing of these plains and highways by man becomes much more achievable. Movement across huge distances can be accomplished relatively easily, due to the wonderous efficiency of the hyper-evolved wheeled limb. 

Imagine the maps of early civilisation but now, instead of societies and populations and development being clustered around navigable sea-ports, like the Aegean, Mediterranean, South China Sea, now civilisation has two forms of 'ocean'. Ships travel the sea, linking cultures and resources together, but vast caravans of high speed rotator elephants also travel the plain. Crossing the Sahara, the American plains or much of Mesopotamia is not that big a deal. 

In this world, cultural power comes not just from where seas, rivers and farmable land intersect, but from where the hydraulic web of interconnections itself meshes with the Rotational Plains.

If you have sea-ports, river travel AND a vast plain meshing together, then the plain can be crossed almost as easily as the sea and possibly faster. Now on the far side of that plain, even if there is no oceanic or river access, a new margin of cities and cultures can develop, and at the meshwork between the two systems forms of civilisation can develop which draw wealth and power from a much wider area. Lords of the Land and Sea, Empire multiplied.

High-speed mass chariot warfare - the ancients fighting like a drag race at 50 miles per hour!

Saturday 28 January 2023

A Review of Cats' Paws and Catapults by Steven Vogel

A pretty great book! Scrap was trying to get me to read this for aaaages and I REFUSED! But I am glad I have read it now. 


Why do nature and mankind design things so differently?

This is a pop-sci book and it reminded me again that I am fucking stupid. Most of the difficult (for me) stuff is at the beginning, like; what’s the difference between Strength, Strain, Stiffness, Toughness, and Resilience, which in terms of building things are all quite distance properties of things.

I definitely knew this briefly at some point reading this and have forgotten since, much like most of my STEM education since birth.


One of my favourite things about this book is the way it highlights and discusses just what we *don't* know and the extent to which we don't know it.

Human knowledge like an ink blot expanding on plain paper, the area of the ink blot ever growing but if the line of the perimeter of the blot is measured, (made fractal and jagged by the grains and curls of the paper as it drinks in the ink) then this line, the zone between white and dark, between known and unknown, is growing and growing and growing all the time.

Yet we rarely feel this in our daily lives, that the abyss of unknowing is opening endlessly before us. Instead we feel the gradual advance of human knowledge, its absorbing and explaining of new domains.

Of course this is true; the ink blot is gradually spreading, so man may stand in its centre and say "I am the king of the ink blot and my empire is ever-growing". Yet, an invisible rider might dash along the rim of the ink blot and say "I am the lord of the wastes and as your Empire grows, so does mine, invisible to you".


- Mental 'distance' from the unknown; unknown things are more and more abstruse and difficult to describe to normal people. Previously you could say, "what is the sun?", but now you need an education in physics to understand what we don't know about physics.

- Recursive tendency of reason; it often 'curls back' upon itself explaining itself in terms of itself and so reason is often blind to gaps in itself.

- General logical positivist boosterism of society, (not that bad), and collapse of scientific enquiry into basically an ADHD marketing scam (quite bad).

- Fundamental difficulty of conceptualising 'the unknown' as most of the unknown is very unknown so we don't even know it is there to talk about it, and the bits we do know about are only somewhat unknown since we can actually conceive of them.

At the end of many of his chapters, Vogel takes us into some of the difficult questions about nature and humanity and what and why each does they way they do (?)

Why does nature have only one confirmed example of rotational movement, why does she not use metals, why no jet-powered birds?

Simple questions but coming at the end of complex and descriptive chapters about the structures of nature, types of levers and limbs and the development of human and bird flight, Vogel is allowed, or he provides himself with enough context and impetus to, shape the questions as something other than just a blank 'well we don't know'.

Reading this, one desired strongly to voyage to other planets with life to find out just how much of earth evolution is 'normal actually' and how much is just 'well it was random but it sort of works so we stuck with it'. These are unanswerable and, without the strong armature of detail and imagination Vogel casts around them, not unaskable, but mutely  irrelevant, self-consuming questions.


As well as being an educational textbook Vogel has a philosophy which I approve of and agree with.

Which is; that the engineering domains of humanity and nature are different houses, best regarded differently. That while we have learned a lot from nature, many examples of direct copying are overstated or illusory, that often we have done a lot better when we have stopped trying to copy nature, done what we can to learn and understand basic principals and, when creating, done things our own way (i.e. abandoning years and years and years of attempted 'birdlike' flight, which was never going to work for us).

It's a distancing from the 'nature is always beautiful and always first and always right' view, but it is not the opposing Melkorist view either, but a careful and rigorous separation of two domains, insisting that each be accounted for by its own rules and considered separately, without worshipping or degrading either.

Its... sensible? It takes an entire book and point layered on careful point, with histories, diagrams and descriptions to make and reinforce this by the end, very sensible and elegant concept which once received, seems like the simplest thing in the world.

Monday 16 January 2023

The Time of the Troll

 The age of Marketing is Over*, 

Not the internet Trolls, and not Elon when he is vibing, but the Mail Order Trolls

Remember them? Its these guys!

This idea sprang from a Goonhammer article about the development of the short-lived game Gorkamorka, which I would recommend you read first, its excellent and you can find it here.


The article describes an internal conflict at Games Workshop between the Design people and the Marketing/Executive faction. To the surprise of no-one, creative lost and the future of the company would be decided by marketing. 

This happened around the time of the development of Game Workshops Kitbash Space-Ork racing game Gorkamorka and the article is mainly about that.

However it does mention that a part of the company largely forgotten in this conflict was a big fan of Gorkamorka. The Mail Order Trolls loved it.

At that time it was possible to call up Games Workshop and order 'bitz' - individual bits and pieces of various models, which one could find in printed catalogues. These would be pulled from, one assumed, vast bins and drawers of various bits and pieces and send off to the lucky gamer, who would then glue them onto whatever the fuck their Gorkamorka Orks were building The people in charge of this, and in charge of all mail order stuff at GW were called 'The Mail order Trolls'.

As the article describes, the Mail order Trolls loved Gorkamkorka because it was a kitbash-based game. Several elements of the game and setting contributed to this;

The Orks live on a giant trash planet and build their vehicles out of whatever they can find, meaning almost any part can reasonably be included. Orks naturally adopt a rather 'bricolage' handmade aesthetic, so a piece of toy glued or drilled on by a 14 year old doesn't seem out of place and in fact adds to the immersion.

From a rules perspective models were based on strict WYSIWIG, meaning if you wanted a new gun or a ram or something else on your trukk, you had to actually glue or attach it to the model. Each trukk could also only carry as many Orks as that model could actually carry, and there were few restrictions on adding insane extensions or additions, since thats what Orks would actually do.

All of this lead to a LOT of hobbyists calling up the Mail Order Trolls asking for this or that particular piece.


I imagined if, instead of a conflict between marketing and creative, which, as in Tolkiens high catholic description of a fallen world, evil will often superficially win, yet only thereby hastening its own destruction, what if, instead, the Trolls had been in the room, and had won that argument?

What would a 1990's Games Workshop run by and for its Mail Order department look like?

Games, worlds, stories and systems created specifically to maximise the volume and range of bits (not kits) manifested and to maximise the demand for those bits. A world where Gorkamkorka was not the end of a failed evolutionary branch, but the beginning of one. Gorkamorka II, Necromorka, then Warhamorka, Warhammer Fantasy Bitsamorka.

These games wouldn't be based around kits, or at least only partially around a small number of very skeletal kits, but around bits and pieces, highly individualistic arrangements of parts in imagined works where increasingly sophisticated aesthetics of bricolage were embodied in the model range, the rules and the imaginary cultures described.

Such games would start with Orks and Orcs, since they by nature love bricolage, but probably move to Chaos, with its love of additions and mutations, and then perhaps the Renaissance Dwarfs and Humans, with Rube Goldberg-esque steampunk contraptions.

Only with difficulty would they involve Elves or other factions for whom an harmony and flow of aesthetic is primary. But it is not impossible that a sophisticated enough development of a 'bitz-and-frames' culture could gradually work up to an Elfamorka, a game where each major piece was still a bespoke assemblage but where the options and possible arrangements of pieces lead almost inevitably to harmony.


The dream of a Troll-Lead Workshop suggested to me a possible path forward for GW's very slow and multivarious adaptation to the growth of 3D printing.

(I am actually pretty ambivalent about 'helping' Games Workshop with new ideas but I like having ideas so whatever.)

Much and probably most of GW's profit margins come from its highly sophisticated skills with plastic injection moulding. Specifically, adapting the complex needs of three dimensional shapes to the liquid flow of a mould across a single dimension.

Many of Games Workshops sprues are themselves works of strange industrial art.

It is an art which is dying out and they know it.

Easily available 3D printing is not quite at the level where it can beat GW for quality of manufacture and especially for ease of manufacture. (Unless you are really into it, dicking around with a printer is a big investment of time and energy compared to going to a shop).

But the ease, power and ubiquity of the printers is only growing, and Games Workshop is a company that makes its money from controlling the production of shapes. GW's expansions into the general culture area with games and especially their desire to control all fan produced narratives and bring them all within their umbrella, is probably suggestive of a company that knows it has to diversify away from the magic money well of plastic injection moulding and is trying to transform into a brand which exists across many forms of manufacture.


A future for Games Workshop would be to become traders in forms and arrangements, and in systems of connection, rather than in plastic kits, and the games Systems, fictions and imaginary worlds made to work this culture of printing and individual selection, would be more like the Worldsamorka I described above rather than modern games.

Games Workshop already has a well developed internet ordering site, (after experiencing many of these from different companies I have a lot more respect for how well Games Workshops site works and how useful it is in listbuilding or arranging imaginary armies). This could form the basis of a new expansion where, instead of just being able to rotate images of painted miniatures, one could rotate living wireframes of printable shapes, and could select ones own "bitz", starting with armaments and decorations, but expanding into mounts, heads, limbs, and finally the basic arrangements of form themselves.

Given the power of a digital modelling system to control or shape choices and the forms which result, producing highly modular forms which still contain and express the most organic and sophisticated aesthetics, should be even more possible.

These arrangements could be printed bespoke for you either in Nottingham or at a local Games Workshop store (a fresh and unexpected adaptation of use for those locations), and either sent to you or picked up. Or the finished pattern could be sold to you (watermarked of course) and you could print it yourself.

In this case, Games Workshop would be selling not just the model itself, but selling (probably renting, god I hate myself), access to the bespoke software, but more importantly, the arrangements of possible forms and shapes, rather than the shapes themselves.

GW is already unusually good at creating highly specific yet adaptable arrangements of shape, volume and pattern which signify and express the various characters and factions of their imagined worlds. (Have written on this previously). Now that skill, developed for one set of purposes, would be remodulated into, not design advice or design bibles communicated to sculptors (or at least not only that), but into the very systems of digital arrangement which customers use to create their models. Transformed from a series of rules into a tool.

The ghost of that failed evolutionary tree may be resurrected in a new world.

Tuesday 10 January 2023

The Hive Mind on the Hidden Genre Canon

 My recent reading of Salammbo and a post about what other hidden genre gems might exist unregarded in the corpus of otherwise literary authors lead to quite a few interesting comments collected across this blog, Twitter and Facebook.

And here are those comments, roughly collected and arranged by commenter, with a few additions by me. The spirit of G+ lives on! Just not in one place.



“Doris Lessing's science fiction stuff (hard to find these days, unfortunately)” 

P - This seems like a prefect response. A Nobel Prize winning author that I knew literally nothing about up until this comment who wrote a sci-fi series across a gigantic scale based around concepts of Sufism.


Paperino Maltese 

“several novel by cormac mccarthy squarely fall into adventure genre. also chabon's gentlemen of the road is full on serialized adventure.” 

“cormac mccarthy's blood meridian (western), on the road (post-apocalyptic) and no country (pure pulp thriller) are obviously genre novels. i am not sure how out of the ordinary is that for cormac but he is certainly and somewhat arguably the greatest living american novelist. added bonus is that the blood meridian is the ultimate murder hobo novel ever.” 

P – Ok, so Chabon feels like he is on the border of the nearly bougie genre author, but his main works feel a bit late to me, or they came at the post-Gaimane inflection point where it was nearly alright to be a genre author and still win awards. 

McCarthy I regard as the premium pulp author and I have often thought that you could change his books from literature to pulp by just adding lots of punctuation and exclamation marks. 

McCarthy doesn’t quite fit perfectly the ‘hidden genre’ pattern, he is more hiding in plain sight. 

"Just thought of another one: Ernst Junger. He's almost entirely known for Storm of Steel, but he also wrote half a dozen genre novels. Check it out:"

P - Just got sucked into the Junger Wiki, another guy whose life would be a multi-series Anime with each arc in a completely different genre.



“Salammbo's a gem, while you're at it, check out Flaubert's 'The Temptation of Saint Anthony' which also  fits.” 

P- Ok, we got another Flaubert 


Richard August 

“I don’t think Salammbo can be considered a hidden classic? It’s one of the most republished of his works, especially in English. I dunno that it’s that rare, especially during the 19th century when genre divisions really didn’t mean anything, and the gap between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction didn’t really exist. Which I could go on about ad nauseum.” 

P – well it was hidden to me. Ok so everyone is going to have an entirely different perception on what counts as hidden or unknown, but you can buy Madame Bovary in Waterstones and have to search for Salammbo on Amazon and even then I think its Print on Demand. Plus this is my blog so my definition of ‘hidden’ will be the one we use. 


BUT that aside: 

“- Melville’s early work is pretty much swashbuckling, evocative sailor fiction.”  

Melville – maybe but Moby Dick is pretty much genre already and its his most well-known work. 


“- John Barth’s Giles Goat-boy is a weird, epic, fantastical journey through a vast university, and very different from the more mimetic stuff he’d done before.” 

P – I know nothing about this or about John Barth! If anyone has opinions drop them in the comments! 


“- Maupassant wrote some great supernatural horror stories - The Horla chief among them - which are a sharp contrast with his naturalistic fiction.” 

P – that’s one for the bank. 


“- Orwell’s 1984 would pretty much constitute this, I think. It’s a dystopian, science fictional work against his previous work of sociographical journalism.” 

P – but hardly unknown, and Animal Farm came first! 



Thor Hansen 

The Adventures of Haji Baba of Isfahan "

P – what the hell. Ok I know nothing about this. This one is interesting. Apparently Persians enjoyed this colonial era white guy satirising Persian ways because many of them also thought Persia was a regressive place...


Luka Jare 

"Flaubert's Temptation of St. Anthony is sais to be pretty much that also and Simplicius Simplicissimus, the german picaresque novel set in the 30 years war."

P - Simplicius Simplicissimus, unknown to me at least so that’s something, but not part of a largler body of work by a ‘literary author’. 


Christopher Richardson 

"I don't know if "Baudolino" by Umberto Eco would count, since his ouvre is usually fairly weird, but I think critics mostly focus on "Name of the Rose" and "Foucault's Pendulum" which are more prosaic. Baudolino is definitely high weird fantasy” 

P – I mean it probably doesn’t but if anyone wants to talk about Baudolino in the comments and argue over how genre it is, go for it. 


Barry Blatt 

“I don't know if it was really ignored, but Russell Hoban's 'Riddley Walker' is nothing like anything else he wrote, though It got awards from the Sc fi fans. It has an interesting post apocalyptic Kent and a culture based around Punch and Judy shows.” 

P – Riddley Walker is really good, not sure if it counts as an ‘unknown’, isn't it in one of the classic sci fi collections? Am open to arguments.


Zigurat Morningstar 

“Theophile Gautier's Captain Fracasse. A chivalry romance set in the 17th century. Good stuff and at time hilarious.” 

P – ok 10 points for being unknown to me, another for being from a 19thC author. Not sure how this plays out in comparison to the authors other works but interesting. There have been six films of this story! I feel like I am going to end up reading this one. 


Kelvin Green 

“Atwood keeps writing sci-fi but claiming she isn't.” 

P – Honestly Atwood can eat a dick. 


“Rushdie's Midnight's Children is basically Indian X-Men. Neither is ignored, but the fact that they are genre books is overlooked.” 

P – Ok this will likely surprise absolutely no-one reading this but on looking up Midnights Children my mind was fucking BLOWN. I had heard the name many many times but had literally no idea it has FUCKING SUPERPOWERS and was basically the fucking X-MEN. I feel like this one gets in simply because I was massively ignorant against it and it seems like a prime example of a bougie author in genre dress, or maybe visa versa. 



"Midnight's Children" is an odd one to single out for Rushdie IMO, "The Enchantress of Florence" and "Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights" are straight up fantasy novels, but Midnight's Children is despite the premise much more magical realist in it's plotting, if it counts then surely so do most of his other works.

Of course "Magic Realist stories with genre-worthy premises" could be it's own category: Terra Nostra, The House of the Spirits, Wizard of the Crow, Beloved....

Isabel Allende is a fun example as her version of Zorro is straightforwardly realist and feels all the more pulpy for it. It's like in her literary works she feels free to just give a character telekinesis and leave it at that, but in "Zorro" she feels bound by genre conventions to make sure all the spirit quests and magic potions have a mundane explanation. Possibly too recent and prominent to deserve a nomination although as said, I feel it has much more in common with sff than something like "Midnight's Children".

Iris Murdoch might deserve an anti-mention here for writing several extremely Gothic novels about evil occultists that are nevertheless firmly non-genre."

Shahar Halevy 

“The Adventures of Tintin” 

P - come on man.

Michael Weingrad 

“Blake's "The Four Zoas" is has its weird charms, and I think many of the "inverse classics" will be literally "in verse." Some of Disraeli's novels (e.g. Alroy) also occur to me, though it's not like his more successful novels are being championed by mainstream critics today.” 

P – Another mind-blown moment for me. A British Prime Minister was also a prolific, well not quite fantasy author by modern standards but a fantastic historical and mythic romance author. He wrote a shitload of these, what the hell! 


“For those who don't mind the slog, there is a lot of really good work by fantasy scholars and critics pushing back on the mainstream exclusion of the more fantasy-friendly work and showing how intertwined it all was and is. 

Brian Stableford had an enthusiastic entry on Flaubert back in the indispensable 1997 John Clute "Encyclopedia of Fantasy," and Stableford's many translations of French decadent, fantasy, sci-fi, and weird poetry and fiction have since expanded on that line of reading. (Paul Feval's "Vampire City" isn't canonical, but really worth a look, translated recently by Stableford.) 

Jamie Williamson offers lots of suggestions about the roots of modern fantasy in everything from the 18th century Spenser revival to 19th century Orientalist poems, in his excellent book "The Evolution of Modern Fantasy: From Antiquarianism to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series." 

James Machin's "Weird Fiction in Britain: 1880-1939" is more academic but roots the Weird in fin-de-siecle decadent literature with some fine leads in the decadent nexus of Wilde, Huysmans, etc.” 

P – This feels like a good mission for someone with way more time and energy than me. 


Dan Sumption 

“Taking things to the other extreme, I recently read a play by Lord Dunsany which read more like something by Feydeau.” 

P – I mean Dunsany is Dunsany. 


Solomon VK

(I combined a huge number of comments by Solomon) 

“Not as pure an example as Flaubert, however: 

Evelyn Waugh sometimes has a reputation as something like a crueller Wodehouse - but it is worth noting that he was always willing to employ the unfamiliar or to write in settings outside 1930s Britain: witness the nameless future war at the conclusion of Vile Bodies, the Gothic fate of Tony Last in A Handful of Dust or the fictional nation of Neutralia in Scott-King's Modern Europe - all this neglecting anomalies like the mysterious voices in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold or the centralised dystopia of Love Among the Ruins. His novel Helena, about the mother of Constantine and the Invention (discovery) of the True Cross is another such anomaly. 

This is the same for Kingsley Amis, if somewhat less so - his genre influence is pretty obvious. Everyone thinks of Lucky Jim and forget stuff like The Alteration or Russian Hide and Seek. He also wrote a James Bond continuation (Colonel Sun) under an assumed name. 

EM Forster's The Machine Stops definitely counts. 

The Glass Bead Game definitely counts. The short stories in Hesse's Strange News from Another Star are pretty obvious bits of world-building as well. It's only the final entry of the Space Trilogy that works as modern conspiracy, no? But then I suppose the first chapter framing device of Perelandra and all the set-up business from the first act of Out of the Silent Planet offer a sketch of what it would be like. 

In any case, my instincts took me to another aspect of gaming altogether when I turned to Lewis: https://worldbuildingandwoolgathering.blogspot.com/2017/12/malacandra-trio.html 

Alternate history does seem to get them in for this - you've got Robert Harris's Fatherland and Philip Roth's Plot against America. But neither are very extensive in their world-building. 

Atwood's kind of got known for her genre material, though that's not where she started. Her book of essays In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination indicates that what she had/has an odd definition of Science Fiction vs Speculative Fiction. 

See also Laurent Binet, who went from an experimental novel about Rheinhard Heydrich, to an Umberto Eco-esque thriller about semiotics to 'What if the Incas invaded Habsburg Spain?'” 

P – bro… So much to think on. But that Incan invasion of Spain seems like one to add to the wishlist. 


Jeff Russell 

“A few thoughts, though I look forward to seeing what others say: 

- Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse presents an extremely compelling slice of an otherwise fairly hazy future, and works as a sci-fi novel. I haven't read Narcissus and Goldmund, but the synopsis sounds like its got some elements of a good medieval picaresque 

- Possibly overly obvious: Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. That's some gothic horror right there. 

- Maybe not as neglected, but several of Dickens's stories are pretty genre, including his best-known and seasonally appropriate, "A Christmas Carol". I also found the orphanage and street-life bits of "Oliver Twist" work rather well as inspiration for grubby city D&D 

- Doesn't *really* count, since he was well known for his genre writing, but I think Lewis's Space Trilogy knocks the socks off Narnia, and with very minor tweaking, would serve for the sinister modern conspiracy game of your choice.” 

P – I will give you Hesse, but not the rest! 



“Edmund mentioned Kingsley Amis's The Alteration above. He also wrote The Green Man, which is kind of a fantasy/horror genre story. 

HG Wells is probably the standout for The Time Machine, Dr Moreau, etc. I think I'm right in saying that later in life he was embarrassed by these genre efforts? 

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" is probably an example of what you're talking about. I think there are also lots of Charles Dickens short stories that would fit the bill. 

Possibly Shakespeare plays, especially the lesser-known freaky weird ones like Titus Andronicus? 

A lot of Margaret Atwood's stuff would be in this category, I suppose, but she always insists she doesn't write SF and is just a bit of annoying, really. 

There's also Kazuo Ishiguro.” 

P – most of those are too well known and I am not letting Atwood in on principal but Rappaccini's Daughter does sound interesting. 



“Atwood was my first thought too. "Proper" novelist, doesn't write genre, pops out a couple of (definitely not) sci-fi books, and sneaks a pretty good Conan type pastiche into another. But definitely doesn't do genre.” 

P- No Atwood! Banned! 



“Stephen King's Eyes of the Dragon comes to mind, although he isn't the non-genre-type anyways. 

Hans-Christian Andersen's The Galoshes of Fortune may count: Not the usual dark fairytale but a story with time travel and an actual alien civilization on the moon. 

For me it is quite strange to see Wells mentioned in the comments so often - to me (as a German perhaps) he was always a scifi-auhor first (and the better compared to Verne, whose characters were always crap, and Lovecraft, who assumed that encountering a non-human-centred universe must surely drive anyone mad).” 

P – King, Andersen, Welles, all too well known as genre writers. 



“I recently read Infinite Jest and people don't talk enough about how much campy scifi is going on behind the scenes in the plot and worldbuilding of that book. We had a whole conversation about it a while back on my server.” 

P – I have not read it! 


Alec Semicognito 

“The works of French author Michel Houellebecq. It's not D&D, but it is mostly science fiction extrapolating from current society. His mind-bending cynicism and despair, plus his bizarre real-life personality, tend to overshadow the sci-fi elements on the public mind. 

P -  I don’t want to read Houellebecq, he seems like too much of a cunt even for me, plus in the words of Alan Partridge; “(S)hes boring and racist, I can tolerate one of those but not both at the same time." 


Also Atomic Aztex, by Sesshu Foster. It's a political novel, alternating (I think) chapters about Latin-Americans working in a shitty meat-packing plant with chapters where the Aztecs are destroying the Nazis in WWII.” 

P – what the hell is this another French Mesoamerican alternate history thing? Its odd that has come up twice. (My mistake, it is American not french HOWEVER, Roger left this comment below;)

Roger G-S

"You think two Romance-language alt-Aztec novels is too many? (there was only one but that was my error) In 1968 the Catalan author Avel.li Artis-Gener wrote Paraules d'Opoton el Vell (Words of the Elder Opoton) about a reverse expedition from the Aztec Empire to Iberia. There's a Mexican translation into Spanish but sadly none into English."

P - Thank you Roger! So now there are three alternate-mesoamerica novels, one in French by Laurent Binet, one in American by Sesshu Foster and now this Spanish one by Avel.li Artis-Gener.

"Also, I was late to the party but would nominate Jack London, best known for his gritty Yukon tales. As a socialist he penned the usual sort of futuristic-utopian novel of class struggle, The Iron Heel, but I'm not talking about that one. I'm talking about his post-apocalyptic SF novel The Scarlet Plague, from 1912. The scenario surely must have inspired Edward Abbey to write the thematically very similar Earth Abides (although Abbey is more on the side of the plague than London was), which in turn spawned a host of best-selling works in the genre."




“I'd add The Hopkins Manuscript by RC Sheriff. He's mainly known for his play Journey's End - pretty much the archetype of a Very Serious WW1 Story - but also produced this 1930s apocalyptic sci-fi novel about the moon slowly crashing into the Earth. I'm not sure if I can wholeheartedly recommend it; the first third is a bit dull (basically the protagonist endlessly changing his mind about whether or not to worry about the impending threat) and the last section is mostly strained political allegory (a bit like the early chapters of Last and First Men, before Stapledon really cranks the oracular weirdness into gear). Nonetheless, in the middle section there's a pretty fine description of early 20th Century rural England coming to terms with imminent planetary destruction: defiant midnight cricket matches played under a moon that blots out the sky, and that sort of thing. Might be worth a look.” 

P – That does sound worth a look. 


Alea iactanda est 

“Simone de Beauvoir's Tous les hommes sont mortels (All Men are Mortal). It's about a guy that stops aging in the 13th century and how he lives until the present day. It's the book that 1000 Year Old Vampire aspires to be, and White Wolf's Vampire could never possibly pull off.” 

P – There is a film of this one too! Also why are the French so fucking depressed? 

“I found Fouqué's Der Zauberring (The Magic Ring) endlessly inspiring for RPG stuff. It's vast and gloomy and epic. 

Also, wait until you've finished the Flaubert, then check out Philippe Druillet's comics adaptation.” 

P – Well I have it. 



“Pale Fire by Nabokov might fit the bill here.” 

P – pffft, not realllly. 



“First thing that comes to mind is John Steinbeck's retelling of Le Morte d'Arthur” 

P – I mean that’s just straight up genre, it has a wizard in it. It does win points for being by Steinbeck though. 



“You will probably already know of it but Simplicius Simpliccimus comes to mind, but fails on a technicality that it is the authors most popular work. Same goes for Xenophon's The Persian Expedition. 

Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead is terrific S&S and was made into the 13th Warrior, but this is not a literary author. 

No I think I shall recommend On to the Alamo by Richard Penn Smith for Appendix N status and slyly make my escape.” 

P – what the actual fuck. From the Wikipedia;  “In 1836, a sensation was created by a new book titled "Col. Crockett's Exploits and Adventures in Texas: wherein is contained a full account of his journey from Tennessee to the Red River and Natchitoches, and thence across Texas to San Antonio; including many hair-breadth escapes; together with a topographical, historical, and political view of Texas ... Written by Himself". It was published by "T.K. and P.G. Collins" (actually Carey and Hart, who had published some of Crockett's authentic, though heavily edited, writings). They falsely claimed that it was Crockett’s journal, which had been taken from the Alamo by Mexican General Manuel Fernández Castrillón and later recovered at the Battle of San Jacinto, where the General was killed. It became a huge best-seller. For over a century the book had a profound influence on the public's view of the Texas Revolution and Davy Crockett's career, despite the fact that the author's true identity had been revealed in 1884.”

So its a pseudohistory that many people thought was an actual history to the extent that it influenced real history. 

Matt Halton

"Victor Hugo deserves a mention here. The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is just a detailed look at medieval Paris with evil priests, deformed guys living in cathedrals, a secret kingdom of beggars, etc. The Man Who Laughs has a brotherhood of child kidnappers who make freaks, a travelling carnival with a tame wolf, shipwrecks, evil pervert duchesses, a girl who's blind because her eyes were frozen. Even Les Miserables has a massive amount about the sewer labyrinth under the city. I just started reading Toilers Of The Sea but there's already wizards and I think an octopus fight later"

I *suppose* we can let Hugo in.


"Jun'ichirō Tanizaki is mostly known (in the West at least) for writing well-respected literary novels exploring how modernisation affected traditional Japansese society, and for 'In Praise of Shadows', his collection of essays on classical Japanese aesthetics. He also wrote a story called 'Jinemenso' ('Tumor with a Human Face'), which I'm pretty sure kicked off the 'haunted/cursed film' subgenre."

P - I think we talked about his artistic pooping habits on here a while ago...


"I suppose I understand, but I'm still surprised that Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings, about people, magic, and gods in ancient Egypt, doesn't get a mention here.

While he is after all a genre writer, Louis L'Amour is mostly known for his westerns, and perhaps to a lesser extent for his two-fisted pulp adventures in the South Pacific. However, he has also dipped his toe into more fantastic waters with Haunted Mesa, about gateways in the modern American Southwest to an extra-planar world that is inhabited by magical Navajos, and The Walking Drum, a high medieval picaresque starring a hero whose family maintains an explicitly Druidic heritage, including the magical abilities that heritage might supply. Sadly, the latter book was not very successful, so L'Amour never followed it up with the promised, or at least implied, sequels."

Wednesday 4 January 2023

SALAMMBO! (spoilers)


It’s pretty good! Give it a read!

An historical novel set in the Mercenary War Carthage fought after the first Punic war. Essentially, Carthage refuses to pay its mercenary soldiers, things spiral out of control, then they get worse, then they get really worse. The main axis of the book is built around the love/hate relationship between Matho, the leader of the mercenaries and Salammbo, daughter of Hamlicar Barca, (who is the father of Hannibal of Elephant fame). Story has slaves, war, battles, schemes, pride, jealousy, strange gods, savagery, massive orientalism and many many elephants were very much harmed in the creation of this story not approved by the animal care people at all.

This is the only book by Flaubert I have read and seems to be very much not typical for his oeuvre. The rest are 19th Century French realism about relationships and stuff. I have done a series of social media posts about the relationship of literary and 'secret genre' writers and will try to pull those together in a later post.

Most images are from the amazing Sci Fi Adaptation
by Phillipe Druillet


It is a steaming pile of details! Researched, imagined, confabulated. A story of things! Very like some balladic structure stories,  lists of lists of lists, inflated and intensified by the density of the novel.

The book drips gems and oozes blood. Tip it over; the shining feather of a sacred hummingbird wound with old thread comes out clutched in the head of a skinned mouse which has been stuffed with mhyrr. The book is nearly smoking, its fuming, its hot in there and the bloodstench, burning cities, spices, perfumes, wafts of burning bezoars drawn from the gullets of a whale, is so heavy you feel drugged, which you probably actually are.

Vividness! Everything is so particular. No vague moments, general experiences or non-specific objects. Only immediate, vivid, burning slices of a highly imagined reality.

The Multiplication of Hieraticism! Flaubert is very into his characters being Hieratic, posing, performing, existing like statues or symbols, embodying roles, which they do both diegetically in the imagined world but also generally like that in the story, Matho IS the Noble Savage Barbarian Mercinary, Spendius IS the crafty, clever cowardly greek, Narr' Havas IS the mysterious Numidian Horse Lord, Slammbo IS the moon-worshipping Pirestess/Princes object of desire and feminine principal. Hanno, the preferred leader of Carthages corrupt old man class IS.. well look at this Druillet illustration from his si-fi adaptation;


Characters have strong singular emotions. The source of the strife, or its main organiser, is the existence between Matho and Salammbo of something like love, or at least an emotion or range of emotions neither of them can describe, understand or adapt to, and which express themselves in vast towers of gilded obsession.

They desire each other, exert power over each other, submit or gloat. Really almost no-one has what we would consider a normal conversation in this world. One either holds the edge of a bronze sword to another’s neck and LAUGHS while sweat and perfume is massaged into your scalp by slaves, or rolls and capers in the dust, naked and scarred, begging to kiss another’s feet. 

Its fucking nuts. When the elders of Carthage finally get Hamlicar, their best general, back to save them from their own dumb fucking screwups, in the weird masonic cult meeting that passes for their Central Command Conference, where no-one is meant to be armed, they lose their shit with him and pull out daggers to kill him, then he pulls out two(!) swords and leaps onto an altar to defy them. Then everyone realises that since everyone broke the sword rule they just agree not to speak about it. This is like if MacArthur came back from Korea and got into an armed mexican standoff with Truman in the White House, which McArthur would probably have done if he could but he was a bit like a Salammbo character anyway. 

Luckily(?) everyone in the story gets to occupy each of those positions at least once.

HATE! Nearly everyone in Salammbo seems to low-key hate nearly everyone else;  Carthaginians and Mercenaries, Matho and Salammbo, the Carthage elders and Hamlicar, Carthage and its surrounding territories, Punic Carthaginians and native Carthaginians, Moloch and Tanit, camels and elephants...

LOVE! There are only a few examples of what we would call love, or even affection; Matho and Salammbos strangulated mutual desire, Hamlicar loves Hannibal, his son but Flaubert is careful to say, he is an extension of himself into the future. The patricians of Carthage seem to love their children at least enough for some of them to be reluctant to sacrifice them to Moloch. The biggest scene of love is towards the end where many of the mercenaries have been trapped and Hamlicar pulls a Joker and tells them if they kill each other in hand to hand he will forgive and employ the survivors. Here we get this;

"The community of their lives had brought about profound friendship amongst these men. The camp, with most, took the place of their country; living without a family they transferred the needful tenderness to a companion, and they would fall asleep in the starlight side by side under the same cloak. And then in their perpetual wandering through all sorts of countries, murders and adventures, they had contracted affections, one for the other, in which the stronger protected the younger in the midst of battles, helped him to across precipices, sponges the sweat of fevers from his brow, and stole food for him, and the weaker, a child perhaps, who had been picked up on the roadside, and had then become a Mercenary, repaid this devotion by a thousand kindnesses.

They exchanged their necklaces and earrings, presents which they had made to one another in former days, after great peril, or in hours of intoxication. All asked to die, and none would strike,. A young fellow might be seen here and there saying to another whose beard was grey: "No! no! you are more robust! you will avenge us, kill me!" and the man would reply: "I have fewer years to live! Strike to the heart, and think no more about it!" Brothers gazed on one another with clasped hands, and friend bade friend eternal farewells, standing and weeping upon his shoulder."


Gigantic! Through reach, specificity and most of all through its teeming diversity of wildly different cultures all massed and thronging together. Though to us, we could fly across every land described in a few hours, and even drive across the main areas in a day or two, to those within it, Carthage is like a strange moon travelling strange stars; the entirety of the Mediterranean world, from the misty gloom forests of the Germans to the north, the Numidian horsemen, Greeks, Romans, the strange impossible peoples of Africa beyond the desert. First the Nomads;

"They were nor Libyans from the neighbourhood of Carthage, who had long composed the third army, but nomads from the tableland of Barca, bandits from Cape Phiscus and the promontory of Dernah, from Phazzana and Marmaricia. They had crossed the desert, drinking at the brackish wells walled with camels bone, the Zuaeces, with their covering of ostrich eathers, had come on quadringa, the Garamantians, masked with black veils, rode on their painted mares; others were mounted on asses, onagers, zebra, and buffaloes; while some dragged after them the roofs of their sloop-shaped huts together with their families and idols. There were Ammonians with limbs wrinkled by the hot water of the springs, Ataranians, who curse the sun; Troglodytes, who bury their dead with laughter beneath branches of trees, and the hideous Auseans, who eat grass-hoppers; the Achyrmmachidae who eat lice, and the vermillion-painted Gysantians, who eat apes."


"First were seen running up all the hunters from Malethut-Baal and Garaphos, clad in lions skins, and with the staves of their pikes driving small lean horses with long manes; then marched the Gaetulians in cuirasses of serpents skin; then the Pharusians, wearing lofty crowns made of wax and resin; and the Caunians, Macarians, and Tillabarians, each holding two javelins and a round shield of hippopotamus leather."

We can go further! (and get waaay more racially sketchy);

"But when the Libyans had moved away, the multitude of the Negroes appeared like a cloud on a level with the ground, in the place which the others had occupied. They were there from the White Harousch, the Black Harousch, the desert of Augila, and even from the great country of Agazymba, which is four months journey south of the Garamantians, and from regions further still! In spite of their red wooden jewels, the filth of their black skin made them look like mulberries that had been long rolling in the dust. They had bark-thread drawers, dried-grass tunics, fallow deer-muzzels on their heads; they shook rods furnished with rings, and brandished cows tails at the end of sticks, after the fashion of standards, howling the while like wolves."

Ok we have gone through 19thC orientalism, can we go into near-fantasy? Like a Conan story?

"Then behind the Numidians, Marusians, and Gaetulians pressed the yellowish men, who are spread through the cedar forests beyond Taggir. They had cat-ski quivers flapping against their shoulders, and they led in leashes enormous dogs, which were as high as asses and did not bark."

How about EVEN FURTHER into full Realms of Chaos Warhammer?

"Finally, as though Africa had not been sufficiently emptied, and it had been necessary to seek further fury in the very dregs of the races, men might be seen behind th rest, with beast-like profiles and grinning with idiotic laughter - wretches ravaged by hideous diseases, deformed pigmies, mulattoes of doubtful sex, albinos whose red eyes blinked in the sun; stammering out unintelligible sounds, they put a finger in their mouths to show that they were hungry."

A world in the lap of the gods - divine power everywhere! Layered secret-trap temples hiding incredible histories, sacred treasures. Huge Brazen Gods that fucking shovel children into their burning mouths with articulated fucking arms.

Were you wondering where shit like this first came from?

From here! From Salammbo!

TREASURE - does treasure only exist as a vector of our desire? It would seem so, Hamlicar has his multiply-hidden treasure vault (the extra grain isn’t there, its hidden under the flagstones of his house) with the fake pit, the secret entrance, and then the even more secret entrance with the super-secret built in code so complex it is secretly worked into the pattern tattooed on his arms!

"The walls were covered wtih scales of brass; and in the centre, on a granite pedestal, stood the statue of one of the Kabiri called Aletes, the discoverer of the mines in Celtiberia. On the ground, at its base, and arranged in the form of a cross, were large gold shields and monster close-necked  silver vases of extravagant shape and unfitted for use; it was customary to cast quantities of metal in this way, so that dilapidation and even removal should be almost impossible.

With his torch he lit a miner's lamp which was fastened to the idols cap, and green, yellow, blue, violet, wine-coloured and blood-coloured fires suddenly illuminated the hall. It was filled with gems which were either in gold calabashes fastened like sconces upon sheets of brass, or were ranged in native masses at the foot of the wall. There were callaides shot away from the mountains with slings, carbuncles formed by the urine of the lynx, glossopetrae which had fallen from the moon, tyanos, diamonds, sandastra, beryls, with the three kinds of rubies, the four kinds of sapphires, and the twelve kinds of emeralds. They gleamed like splashes of milk, blue icicles, and silver dust, and shed their light in sheets, rays, and stars. Ceraunia, engendered by the thunder, sparkles by the side of chalcedonies, which are a cure for poison. There were topazes from Mount Zabarca to evert terrors, opals from Bactria to prevent abortions, and horns of Ammon, which are placed under the bead to induce dreams.

The fires from the stones and the flames from the lamp were mirrored in the great golden shields. Hamlicar stood smiling with folded arms, and was less delighted by the sight of the riches than by the consciousness of their possession. They were inaccessible, exhaustless, infinite. His ancestors sleeping beneath his feet transmitted something of their eternity to his heart. He felt very near to the subterranean deities. It was as the joy to one of the Kabirir; and the great luminous rays striking upon his face looked like the extremity of an invisible net linking him across the abysses with the centre of the world.

A thought came which made him shudder, and placing himself behind the idol he walked straight up to the wall. Then among the tattooings on his arm he scrutinised a horizontal line with two other perpendicular ones which in Channatish figures expressed the number thirteen. Then he counted as far as the thirteenth of the brass plates and again raised his ample sleeve; and with his right hand stretched out he read other more complicated lines on his arm, at the same time moving his fingers daintily about like one playing on a lyre. At last he struck seven blows with his thumb, and an entire section of the wall turned about in a single block.

It served to conceal a sort of cellar containing mysterious things which had no name and were of incalculable value. Hamlicar went down the three steps, took up a llama's skin which was floating on a black liquid in a silver vat, and then re-ascended."


TREASURE, especially Hamlicars Vaults and Matho and Spendius' break in of the Temple of Tanith

MURDER-HOBOISM, unitary desires, consuming ambition, wild fluctuations in state power, huge diversity of peoples and the frontier of an undiscovered ungoverned (by the people in this story at least) world, mean law is power and power is law, and that means promises, schemes, negotiations, very occasional mercy and relentless betrayal of everyone by everyone.

GODS AND MAGIC!! - Is any of it real? Probably not! But everyone in the story believes it! Including you if you are there! Look out for those curses, inauspicious hours, sacred animals, angry priests, mass hysteria, dark hours, divine promises, informative dreams and so on. Also all the gods have treasure even if its just food, also the priests are stealing the food