December 22nd, 2010


Curia, Church & Castilia. (104)

The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse.

Students of The Game:
See you, here is the Black Stone,
Here is the Gold Stone.

The nearest comparison I can make to The Glass Bead Game is Neal Stephenson's Anathem, at least in the broad strokes of concepts. Both deal with secular monasteries, communities of intellectual ascetics living apart, in elite & idyllic worlds. While Anathem is perhaps more committed to the conceit, & then goes on to turn into a rollicking adventure novel staring outcast monks, The Glass Bead Game (also known as Magister Ludi) turns inward. It involves the Master of the Glass Bead Game, as his search for spiritual meaning takes him into the life of a Castilian, up in the ranks of the Order, & finally out. Castilian! What a perfect word for the secular monks, how apt & concise; Castalia & castillo. The eponymous Glass Bead Game is...well, rather like being a Dungeon Master, it turns out. It is meme control, it is a forerunner of what we might call an analog computer-- set in the future of 1943, what Hesse imagined to be the 25th Century, it misses the rise of the machine (25, 32). It is a synthesis of all culture, all art, all music, all math-- the Glass Bead Game is played by manipulating symbols, a language that encompasses the totality of the pure intellectual pursuits, often following a theme or attempting perfect elegance. It is worldbuilding, perfected. The Dungeons & Dragons comparison only becomes stronger when you note the younger Castilians perchant for creating "Lives," moments of history told through the fictional eyes of a person from that moment in history (113). In order to illuminate a subject they create a character, a back story, immerse themselves in language & mannerism. I frankly rather adored the book. I've said before that people should be aware that Fantasy novels actually do fairly well when it comes to the Nobel Prize-- Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude is an excellent example of a Fantasy novel that received wide acclaim. So it is with The Glass Bead Game & Science Fiction; the Nobel in 1946 went to Hesse for it, & that is a victory for the genre.

Women are absent, in the novel. Or all but. The Castilians are celibate, but not chaste-- that is, marriage is forbidden, but not sex (112). Despite that note, there is no discussion of romance, of liaisons, of...well, women at all. Even when the protagonist talks to his friend in the outside world, his wife is invisible-- he speaks about his father-in-law long before finally making note of his wife's existence-- & even then, she remains a spectre (322, 327). This is slightly remedied in the apocryphal "Lives," which may offer insight into the Castilian system as divided from the rest of the world-- one of the over arching themes of the book. The male characters, however, are deeply explored. Our protagonist, Joseph Knecht, is brilliant but not especially so for the ranks of the Order. His dominant traits are his brute charisma-- which he struggles not to abuse-- & his search for deeper spiritual meaning. Knecht strives for the center, not the periphery-- he is Hesse's secular saint (82). His friend Fritz Tegularius is brilliant, but damaged-- he will never truly move up in the Chinese bureaucracy of Castilia because of his moods. I mentioned beatification-- The Music Master in fact embodies it, wholesale. Plinio Designori is Joseph's friend in the outside world, a vibrant boy who grows into a troubled & divided man, embodying the struggle between the contemplative & life (237). Father Jacobus is unfair but willing to offer an olive branch & above all has a sense of humor-- his wry jokes about the Book of Revelation had me laughing as I read on the train (166).
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Suffer Not A Witch to Live.(105)

Witch Finders by White Wolf.

What is that there, at
the foot of the Watchtower?
A man with a gun?

Let me start off by going on a bit of a tangent. I've ranted about this before in other reviews of World of Darkness books but I want to re-iterate on it, since the reason I picked this book up is tied to it. I hate supernatural Merits. I might even say they are the single biggest flaw in the Storyteller system. I'm not talking about stuff like "Unseen Sense," or whatever. I don't mind a balanced Merit! No, I am talking about things like Hunter: the Vigil's Endowments, or Second Sight's various psychic Merits. It just blows the mechanics out of the water; it is the worst sort of ad hoc rule system, because it compromises what has gone before. It is sad, because the wise use of ad hoc rules in the Storyteller system is one of its strengths-- like how the weird rules for combat are attached to Fighting Style Merits, so not everyone needs to learn the mechanics for Trip or Grapple. Supernatural Merits are poison in the well, though. See-- I like a "low magic, high weird" setting. That is how I run Oubliette. That means that the experience costs of the World of Darkness work for me. New dots x 5 for Attributes, new dots x 3 for Skills, new dots x 2 for Merits & new dots x 6 for Powers, that is how I roll. If it makes sense, if it is cool & serves the story, I'll let anyone take a Power, & I don't mind if they go out of order. You want to save up all your experience points & meditate every night until you have the 30 xp you need to spring for Auspex OOOO: Twilight Projection? Fine with me, if it works. The math on it means that Players are more likely to spend their experience on Skills & Merits rather than Attributes or Powers, & I'm comfortable with that. Except, well-- stupid Supernatual Merits. They take the most expensive category-- Powers-- & make them cost the same as the cheapest category. Ugh. For instance-- & I'm not saying this to place blame, since duh, who wouldn't want to go for the cheapest & most direct route?-- in the recent campaign, there is a character played by toughlad who has a magic eye. Fair enough, that is neat. What does he want it to do? See auras? Fine by me-- get Auspex OO: Aura Perceptions for 12 xp. Except, wait! The Merit Thaumatechnology OO: Devil's Eyes will do the same thing for 4 xp! So yeah. I hate it. A lot.

I picked this book up because of the rules for "Gutter Magic." I don't like the rules for Mage: The Awakening, while we're talking about things I don't like. I think it went too far straight straitjacketing players; the Spheres of the old Mage: the Ascension were its strength, & the new edition should have leaned on them more, not less. That said, I've never liked mages in the World of Darkness-- they haven't fit the way vampires & werewolves did. Anyhow, I'm interested, & the "Gutter Magic" system is another interesting take. I like some of the groupings, but ultimately, I'm just not interested. Really, I'm starting to think that the rules for Influences for various Spirits is the best way to go. Just pick something-- Hate, Birds, Ghosts-- & then rate that O to OOOOO. I am more & more admiring of stripped to basics systems, you know? This isn't a criticism of Witch Hunters but rather the thoughts it inspired in me as I read it.
call of mordicai

The Year in Books.

My year end review of what I've read! I knocked out one hundred & five (105) books this year, which is a little bit lower than the number I usually finish, but this year had markedly less comics in it, so it probably balances out in the wash. I might knock out another one or two before the year is up, but I'm anxious to do my "Best of..." post, so fingers crossed that I don't read anything mindblowing. I started out this year with my New Year, New Sun project, trying to get people to read & discuss Gene Wolfe's magnum opus, which was conditionally successful. That is, I think a bunch of people read it, but only a few engaged in conversations with me about it. Still, I found re-reading it to be profitable. Of course, I also did NaNoWriMo this year, & wrote my novel The Wasteland, which ain't half bad if I do say so myself. So, before we get into the blood, the mud & the beer, let me give a few shout-outs. I don't want to include my friends on the list, since that seems a little unethical, but I really enjoyed kingtycoon's Solemnwell & also inktea's Army of Nursery Rhymes, & Marie's Celestial Globe. That being said: here they are:

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman.
Avatar: The Last Airbender (The Art of the Animated Series) by Bryan Konietzko & Michael Dante DiMartino.
Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher.
The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse.
Hawkmoon: The Jewel in the Skull by Michael Moorcock.
Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed by Harold Koda.
Human Anatomy: From the Renaissance to the Digital Age by Rifkin, Ackerman & Folkenberg.
Blindsight by Peter Watts.
Home Fires by Gene Wolfe.
The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner.

One last note! In 2008 & just made a Best of 2008 list, but last year I made a Best of 2009 with an "Honorable Mentions" section. I really think I profited from that, since looking back, many of the books in the Honorable Mentions have stuck with me, & in retrospect I think they deserve to be in the Best Of section, while others should be bumped down a notch. A curious phenomenon, & something to keep in mind. Without any further ado:

Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard: Volume One by David Petersen, et al.
Problem Sleuth, Book One: Compensation, Adequate by Andrew Hussie.
The Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Excession by Iain M. Banks.
The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi.
Alexander McQueen: Genius of a Generation by Kristin Knox.
World of Darkness: Mirrors by White Wolf.
Clementine by Cherie Priest.
Behemoth by Scott Westerfield.
Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke.
chomping pearls

Katniss Everdeen = Catsup Jimmy Dean.

Lets have a quick round up of some of the things that have slipped through the cracks. On Monday I had lunch at Republic with ankledeepruins. I had the catfish sandwich, which I'd never had-- it was pretty good. Basically a bánh mì with catfish instead of pâté. I joked to Alison that we are much better friends now that we don't live in the same city; she retorted with the fact that we've known each other like, five years, which is...pretty weird. After that, my day proceeded as related. Work party on Monday, which ended pretty early, then another work party on Tuesday-- I had a beer but then managed to escape! Some last minute holiday stocking stuffer shopping with Matt during lunch yesterday, then home. Went to the gym-- I had plans with Jenny to eat dinner at Kira & Nino's, so I kept it short. I just cut out the cardio & did fifty minutes of just free weights & machines. Then over to Kira & Nino's, where Jenny already was, along with baby Olivia who is increasingly a baby-- she can hold her head up! Also, Dennis & Ellen, Kira's dad & step-mom. I didn't know they were going to be there, but I should have-- I had all the puzzle pieces, I just didn't put them together. We had a beer tasting of seven or eight different beers-- the big winners were the Allagash White & the Harpoon Leviathan Barleywine. Dinner was a walnut & blue cheese salad & clam chowder with scallops, followed by an ice cream tasting of chocolate, dulce de leche, cinnamon & coffee. We stayed there till late & then came on home to bed.

Today I'm off of work-- I'm off till the third, actually. I've been sort of useful! I decided that the satirical misspelling "Amerika," used by protesters concerned with authoritarianism is to officially be replaced by my new neologism, "Ameri©a." I think it cuts unfortunately close to the heart of the matter. I also cleaned out the vegetable crisper-- did you know that we had food in there from back when the CSA was in season? Yikes. It was a bit scary. I also managed to complete the side-quest "Operation Tip the Building Superintendent," so that is another feather in my cap. Other than that, not much. I reviewed a couple of books this morning so I could finally sit down & do my Best of 2010 list, which is more work than it sounds like. I decided not to go to the gym-- I pushed myself fairly hard yesterday, trying to cram as much into fifty minutes as I could, so I am going to rest today & then go tomorrow. A reasonable plan, I think you'll agree. I suppose the big news is that Claudio is here-- we're dog sitting him over the holidays, & so Carla dropped him off at about two thirty. The only other news is that I finally found the song "Christmastime in Painesville" by Slackjaw, which I've been looking for for the past dozen years or so. Ever since WENZ 107.9 The End went off the airwaves. It is a melancholy holiday song by a Wasteland regional band, but I strongly associate it with the season, so finding it was a coup.