The Other Side of Fairness

April 14th, 2010

I must say, after reading her editorial in the Times, my opinion of J.K. Rowling has gone way up.

The fact remains that the first time I ever met my recently retired accountant, he put it to me point-blank: would I organise my money around my life, or my life around my money? If the latter, it was time to relocate to Ireland, Monaco, or possibly Belize.

I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism. On the available evidence, I suspect that it is Lord Ashcroft’s idea of being a mug.

Je vous salue.

Angels and Arquebuses

April 13th, 2010

Speaking of Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830, one of the fascinating bits I picked up that I had been utterly unaware of before is the Cuzco School artistic tradition, a melding of Baroque art with Catholic tradition. What particularly caught my eye was a gorgeous illustration of an archangel with an arquebus: check out these examples.

Here's Archangel Uriel. Here is one of Laeiel, in a different pose. Here's a glorious Letiel. Their wings are completely overshadowed by their spectacular coats.

In the Anglo-American tradition, of course, archangels have swords. If they are wearing armor it's of a decidedly medieval sort, although after the nineteenth century it might be more ancient Greco-Roman. They certainly are not dressed like a dandy from Queen Elizabeth's court. And I've not seen one with any sort of firearm.

But that's exactly how they are portrayed in the artworks of the Cuzco school - and why not? Archangels certainly were capable of keeping up with fashion and technology, and would without question use the best of both.

Anyhow, I had been completely unaware of this syncretisation, and I think it's excellent.

Double-Edged Microbe

April 12th, 2010

I'm reading Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, which is a rather good "gritty" fantasy novel, and in the course of thinking about the world he's created I put together two ideas which I think combine to make an interesting fantasy novel setting.

One of the compelling features of good fantasy (not always but in most cases) is an old world, full of ruins and lost empires and artifacts of various sorts. This has strong roots in Tolkien but runs all the way back through the Romantic period and the Grand Tour and back to the Renaissance. (I suspect the Romans felt the same about ancient Egypt; the pyramids were as far back in time to them, as they are to us. Note how many obelisks they swiped to decorate Rome.) A world where the protagonists are constantly encountering the past is an interesting world, whether they are camping in an ancient, ruined tower, or being gifted a sword from a distant age.

The trick, of course, is coming up with such a world. In order to have long-gone civilizations, something has to have happened to those civilizations. What brought about the dark ages?

As I was thinking about this, my mind somewhat randomly cross-referenced with the book I finished just prior, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830. In that book, of course, the defining background event is the collapse of native American populations after the introduction of European diseases, to the tune of seventy-five to ninety percent in some cases. Entire civilizations simply ceased to exist.

And then I thought - what if it went both ways?

Given Jared Diamond's hypothesis, namely that Europeans had the upper hand in diseases because of the shape of their landmass, what if in the fantasy world the landmasses were roughly equal in terms of disease generating potential? So that once they had come into contact, each collection of cultures found itself beset by the same staggering mortality level, equal in intensity to the demographic collapse of the New World. I.e. what if the French Pox - and others - had actually wiped out two-thirds of Europe? So that fifty years after the first cogs crossed the ocean, entire nations on both sides of the sea were simply disappearing.

Fast forward a few centuries and you have a world covered in ruins and dark forests, with an heroic yet tragic past. Buildings once commonplace were now beyond the capabilities of the shrunken population, crafts have been lost, wolves have returned to once settled fields. "Once upon a time" would hearken to days when Man was a much mightier race than at present, and yet the arc of history might have turned upwards again. Certainly a setting for heroes.

Sure, there are some issues with the epidemiology, particularly if you hit a level where intercourse between the two sides of the ocean completely ceases. Still, I find it a compelling scenario.


April 1st, 2010

Chinese automaker Geely has purchased the Volvo brand from Ford. Because if there are two things that Chinese products are known for, they're quality and safety.

Not with a Bang but a Crackle and some sort of 'Bamf'

March 30th, 2010

Forget all this claptrap about the world ending in 2012; the world is actually going to end in 2013. That 2012 date is stupid, anyway - so the Mayan calendar is coming to an end. Oh no! It's December! The calendar is ending! Midnight on December 31 is clearly the end of the world.

Note for pedants: I am aware that even the characterization "the Mayan calendar is coming to an end" is erroneous. Rule 9 applies all over the place here, so stitch a button in it.

I'm not talking about Christian Apocalyptic stuff, either - it's equally farcical. As a nine year-old I was transfixed by Orson Welles sonorously informing me that we lived in the end times, that a man in a blue turban would start the final battle in the valley of Armageddon, having somehow gained approval from Ronald Wilson Reagan. Well, that sure as hell didn't pan out.

Read a little history (okay, a lot of history, this stuff is pretty obscure by now) and you'll see that in early 19th century America you couldn't go ten feet without being harangued about how the End of Days was coming, next week or at the very latest at the end of the planting season. William Miller revealed that the Second Coming was scheduled to happen - no question, Biblically guaranteed - on or before March 21, 1844. When March 22 rolled around, the calculations were checked, an error was found, and the day of the second coming was found to actually - seriously this time - be April 18, 1844.

In May, they found that pesky additional miscalculation, and the date was revealed to be October 22, 1844. All around the country people peered in windows to reassure themselves that they were more worthy of salvation than their neighbors.

Yeah, October 23 clocked in as normal.

By the way, these people are still around. They're called Seventh-day Adventists. Yes, them. There are some 16 million of them. And if you ask them they are all quite certain that the Second Coming will arrive in their lifetimes, probably any day now.

Well... they're right, but not for any Biblical reason. No, the book that will usher in the End of Days will in fact be published in 2013, and it's called The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic.

All I really need to say about The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic is that it's by Alan Moore. Moore knows a thing or two, or nine, or two hundred and seventy, about magic. And he can write like kerosene burns in Hell. And he's crazier than any fifty bedbugs. (Have you read Dodgem Logic? Or the appendices to the Black Dossier? I have...) You pour those three things into a jar, mature them properly, and garnish with lavish illustration, and you get a book which will inspire pimply would-be Aleister Crowleys in the thousands and the tens of thousands.

And, provided with a Comprehensive and Illustrated Tome which Succinctly yet Accurately Presents All Known Efficacious and Puissant Conjurations, well... you will get eldritch Thiago Olsens on a scale that will make the stuff in 'Ghostbusters' seem like a pleasant daydream of normalcy.

Build those thaumaturgic shelters now, people.