A Pius Man, Chapter 1: A Pious Cop

Yes, you’re reading this right. You’re about to get a look at the first, redone chapter of A Pius Man: A Holy Thriller (The Pius Trilogy) (Volume 1).

You might remember that I pulled this one from the shelves when I signed with Silver Empire Publishing.

And right now, it’s up for order from Amazon.And if you have no idea what A Pius Man is … wow, you have to be new here. It ate up ten years of my life, and the best use I have ever gotten out of my Masters in History…. okay, that, and writing the biographies of older vampires.

But here you go, here’s the first chapter. When you’re hooked, order it. Or preorder it. Or something.

Anyway, there will be more to come on A Pius Man in the coming days. You have been warned.

Chapter I:

A Pious Cop

Giovanni Figlia stood in the lobby of Leonardo da Vinci Fiumicino Airport in a solid black polo shirt and a black suit jacket. The color scheme made him seem shorter than his 5’9” height. His hand ached for his Beretta to reassure himself that he was still armed, but instead he ran his fingers through his thick dark hair.

It must be something about Americans that brings out the Clint Eastwood in people.

He scanned the crowd for his target, comparing each face with the photograph he had memorized down to the dots on the color printout: hazel eyes, brown hair, Germanic cheekbones, not bad-looking. Wilhelmina Goldberg, a former member of the Americans’ National Security Agency, with degrees in esoteric languages and mathematics, had transferred into her current profession some time ago, and was supposed to be good at it.

Now all I have to do is hunt her down.

Looking for me?”

Figlia looked down. Three feet away from him stood a woman just under five feet tall. He recognized her as Goldberg; she wore black jeans and a tight-fitting, long-sleeved turtleneck. Over one shoulder she carried a duffel bag as large as she was. She also dragged a wheeled suitcase as big as Figlia.

Io ho pensato che Lei ha…supposed to be in formal attire,” he said in his own combination of Italian and English. He glanced at her. “Not attracting attention.”

She replied in crisp, formal Italian. “On the former, you thought wrong. As for the latter…” she looked down at her chest and shot him a look. “If 28B passes for attention-getting in Italy, you people need to open a Playboy, pop a Viagra, and get a life.”

Giovanni Figlia stepped to one side. “This way?”

You lead. I don’t want you stepping on my equipment. You want this job done, we’ll need this intact.”

He led. Goldberg moved forward. “You’re Gianni, right?”

Mi chiamo Figlia, si.” I’m Figlia, yes.

I’m surprised,” she told him. “You’re the head of this outfit; why would you meet me?”

Figlia shrugged. “Because I like to get out of the office every once in a while. And we’ll be working together for a while. We might as well get used to each other, starting now.”

Done. Where’s our first stop?”

The Vatican.” Figlia stepped around more passengers just getting in and made his way to the automatic doors. It was still dark outside, despite the fact that it was 6:30 in the morning.

What are you packing?” she asked.

Figlia blinked. “This is Italy. What do you think?”

Wilhelmina Goldberg rolled her eyes. “Beretta, then.” She looked around before answering. “I just got on a plane from Spain with security that’s a joke. I’m carrying a Sig and they didn’t even notice. Forgive me for wondering about Europeans.” She pronounced it Euro-peons. “We’re not exactly in a safe business.”

When Giovanni Figlia stopped at a four-door silver Jetta, Goldberg shrugged. “Not a bad little toy. You own it?”

Depends on my wife.” He smiled. “Come on, I’ll load the bags.”

Goldberg laughed. “No way in hell, buddy. I’ll manage. You just start this thing up.”

Once she loaded herself into the passenger seat, he sped away.

You know, I’m halfway surprised that you carry outside of your target area.”

Figlia glanced at her briefly. “You expected me to live on a hundred-acre leash? Check my gun at the colonnade?”

Given your line of work, I’m surprised they allow you to have a gun.”

Don’t worry, we’re allowed to shoot back. There are some situations where force is required. Mind if I ask you something?”

She shrugged. “Whatever.”

What’s your religion?”

I’m Jewish…Orthodox,” she added as an afterthought. “My parents say an Orthodox Jew is a ‘real Jew’ … you don’t want to hear what they have to say about the others.” Goldberg shrugged. “So, tell me a little bit about what you do here.”

They continued to discuss their mutual professions, the conversation punctuated long enough for her to look out at the city and take an occasional photo with her iPhone. He began to decelerate as he followed the Tiber River and hung a right onto the Via della Conciliazione, making a right in front of the colonnade, onto Via Ottaviano.

It led right to their target, the Vatican.

At that moment, one of the buildings exploded in a massive fireball, dropping glass, brick and debris down upon their car in a shower of destruction. A moment later, another object smashed into the hood of Figlia’s car, smashing the windshield, and denting the hood in front of him.

Giovanni Figlia instinctively swerved away from the explosion, and braked hard. The object on his windshield stayed there.

After a few seconds, Goldberg and Figlia got out of the car and studied the scene, wondering if it was safe to go check the damage. She bounced up on her toes to check what had killed Figlia’s car. It was the body of a young-looking, olive-skinned male…without a face.

Between 25 and 35?” Figlia asked.

…Sounds like a serial-killer profile,” she answered.

Figlia grunted and again wanted to reach for his gun. He glanced at the short, pixie-like woman and muttered, “Damn Americans. Here for fifteen minutes and Dante’s Inferno rises to surface level.”

The only carabinieri in the area ran to the scene, leaving his motorcycle behind. He let out a small string of curses, ran back to his vehicle, and immediately radioed for help.

The police were the first responders, followed immediately by the fire department. The firemen quickly moved to douse the flames with the fire hose. Giovanni Figlia tackled the main man on the hose, grabbing him before he could attach the hose to its water supply.

What are you doing?” the fireman shouted. He tried to fight back, but Figlia had already locked one arm into place, totally immobilizing him.

You’re going to wash away all evidence of the bomb,” Figlia growled. “Use a fire extinguisher or buckets.”

The other firefighters didn’t know what to make of him. He was an utterly unremarkable fellow in basic black. With the addition of a white collar, he could have been wearing a priest’s uniform … if the material were better. He wasn’t even that big, but held the burliest member of their team immobile with minimal effort.

Figlia shoved the firefighter aside, and reached into his inner jacket pocket before someone shot up. He pulled out a wallet and flashed his identification, as well as his badge. “Commandatore Giovanni Figlia, Vatican’s Central Office of Vigilance. That body over there is dead, and not only is my car a secondary crime scene, do you see that line?” He pointed to a white painted line on the cobblestone street. “Sixty years ago, the Nazis put that line down to clearly mark the territory. This side, right now, is Rome.” He sidestepped to in front of his car and pointed toward the colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica. “Where I’m standing now is Vatican City.”

Wilhelmina Goldberg laughed. “Now you see why American cops call firemen the evidence destruction unit.”

The fireman scowled at her. She was short, so she wasn’t a member of Figlia’s security force. Her dye job was obvious and ugly, so she wasn’t working for the Vatican. Her accent sounded more like American actors trying too hard to sound like she was from New York City, and so became a self-parody. “And what are you? His puttana?”

She shook her head, unconcerned as she reached into her pocket. “First of all, you’re thinking more like a Calabrese.” She pulled out a leather wallet of her own and flipped it open. “Second, I’m a consultant: Wilhelmina Goldberg of the United States Secret Service.”

Giovanni Figlia looked around frantically, hoping no one else would try to wash away the evidence. A shiny silver object caught his attention, and he narrowed his eyes, focusing on…the cover for a hotel serving tray?

And,” he continued, “the explosion radius extends into my jurisdiction. I have a body and half a crime scene over here—you only have half a crime scene, I win. I’ll head up there myself, if you don’t mind…and if you do, too bad. Frankly, if you’d like to do something useful, secure the street!”

Figlia caught a familiar sight at the edge of his peripheral vision. The black cassock of a priest was more than enough to identify him as such from thirty yards away. It looked like the priest gave the crowd more attention than he had given the scene of the crime, which was odd—most of the time, far too many people wanted to look at the destruction. At that distance, the only other detail he could make out was the man’s silver hair.

Padre! Venga, per favore!”

The priest looked up, then left, then right, and finally, he shrugged and stepped forward cautiously, eyeing the building as though he wanted to make sure it wouldn’t collapse.

What’s with the priest?” she asked, sotto voce.

He might be able to provide a barricade between you and the polizia when they arrive. Have him standing by ready to give the corpse last rites, while you snap photos of the body. I suspect we won’t get another chance for pictures after this.”

Goldberg gave him a look as though he had sprouted three heads. “You want a murder case?”

He flashed a Casanova grin. “I’m going to check the room. Stay close to the priest.”

She raised an eyebrow. Before she could make a scathing remark, Figlia bolted into the damaged hotel and flew up the stairs.

*

Wilhelmina Goldberg looked over her shoulder at the body-covered car, absentmindedly tapping her iPhone for photos. “And I thought this would be a nice, quiet little trip—some consulting, audit security, but no, I get the one cop on the planet who makes Hoover look mildly sane,” she muttered in English.

Excuse me,” came a gentle voice from right next to her, also speaking in English.

She adjusted her line of sight to the priest, only a foot away from her, and tried not to jump. Do priests in Rome get ninja training?

The priest was … odd. He had a piercing set of violet eyes. And while his hair was solid silver, there were only a few lines on his face, so he couldn’t have been older than forty. If she were sending out an APB or a BOLO for him, she would have actually said he was only about 5’6” – maybe 5’8”, she was looking up at him, and his shoulders were slumped.

Goldberg bunched her lips, trying to figure out how to speak to a priest over a corpse. “Uh. Hello …Father … could you wait a moment while I take a few pictures of this poor schlub?”

He nodded. “Of course. Are you a friend of Gianni’s?”

She shrugged and turned to the corpse. Goldberg twisted her lip and stepped around the priest to get back into the car. She slid onto the seat and clicked at the corpse through the windshield, getting every possible angle with her phone.

Click. “I’m a consultant.”

From … New York, I presume by the accent.” Click. There was another flash from the phone flash. “I grew up there … briefly. It’s an odd story.”

Click. “I don’t doubt it.” You’ve decided to spend the rest of your life without sex, so you must be odd somehow.

So what kind of consultant work do you do?”

Click. She checked the quality of the photos, and then slid out of the car. “Security.”

I’d ask how you know Figlia, she thought. But he called you Father without using a name, so I’m guessing he only knows you because of the outfit, and you only know of him because he’s papal security.

*

Ah. Of course,” the priest answered.

Commander Figlia wouldn’t hire out some lone American gun-toting security hack, he thought. You’re Secret Service, aren’t you? Not very talkative, either.

They turned the body over once she had taken all of the photos she needed.

The priest knew exactly who this man was, and knew him well—his entire life story, in fact. He had been raised as a red-diaper baby in a family loyal to the brigate rosso, the Italian Red Army.

He performed the last rites over the body, blessing him as he went on into the next world. Rest in peace, you schmuck.

*

Giovanni Figlia walked into what was left of the hotel room, and he took it in with a sweep of his eyes. On the floor was another dead man, a hole clearly visible under his chin. This second corpse—Gerrity, according to the hotel people he passed on his way up here—was on its back, hands out like a crucified martyr. Furniture had been scattered across the room, thrown against the wall, much of it shattered.

Figlia rubbed the back of his neck. “Benone, a double cross.”

One of the hotel staff in the hall raised a brow. “Scusi, signore? Non capisco.”

Figlia waved at the room. “The spherical pattern of the bomb suggests a normal explosive, not plastique—plastique tends to be directional. Besides, you can smell the black powder, si? Maybe homemade.”

He looked into the ceiling, and saw silver forks embedded like shrapnel, surrounded by other pieces of metal. I wonder if it matches the tray lid that landed outside. Below the forks were wheels, separated by a flat metal sheet pressed into the carpet.

Serving cart,” Figlia muttered.

Che?” a bellboy asked. What?

He carefully stepped around the body and pointed at the sheet of metal. “The lower level of the serving tray, beneath the forks.” His eyes flickered across the room as though they were tracking a soccer ball. “Not to mention the silverware in the walls, the bed, the floor, as well as the plate fragments—either he had a grand celebration with an American fraternity, or they came from a full room-service cart that exploded.”

He pointed out the shattered window. “Our amico on the street wore a busboy’s white coat; assume the cart was his. The cart is in the center of the room; too far inside if he was lugging dirty place settings all over the hallway. He would have stayed outside in the hall and collected them. This person on the floor is dead from the nice neat bullet hole under his chin. Given the position of the cart, it had to have been pulled around this man’s body—the poor fool probably opened up for his killer.” He made brief eye contact with the men out in the hall. “That killer is, by the way, the one who ruined my car.” He waved at Gerrity’s corpse. “At least this man’s killer. Who killed the busboy is another quandary. He was killed with the explosion from his own cart, so it is either stupidity on the busboy’s part, or murder on someone else’s.”

Figlia walked over to the window, and shouted out, in English, “Signora Goldberg, look around for a pistol! I’ll check up here!”

He stepped back from the window, looking back as he did so. He opened up his cellular phone and hit autodial. “Veronica, bella, could you please bring the team down to the hotel?”

Veronica Fisher smiled; he could hear it in her voice. “Which hotel?”

Outside the colonnade,” Figlia told her. “Follow the smoke; we have a bomb, black powder composition.”

Some priest playing with leftover fireworks?”

A double homicide.”

Fisher paused a moment. “Gianni, isn’t the hotel outside our jurisdiction?”

The body isn’t. You’ll also have to process what’s left of our car.”

Fisher, who was Figlia’s forensics expert as well as his wife, paused a moment. “The bomb destroyed the Jetta?”

No, the corpse did it.” Figlia paused for a moment, wondering if that was a double entendre, as the corpse had done both the first murder and the destruction to the car. Perhaps in American English. “I’ll have the locals secure the crime scene.”

You sound like the FBI back home.”

Heaven forbid. A più tardi. I won’t be here when you arrive, I have a guest.”

You picked him up?” Fisher asked.

Figlia furrowed his brow. “Him?”

There was some light laughter. “You weren’t sent to pick up Hashim Abasi? Remember, the Egyptian coordinating with you about Josh’s visit … what am I, your secretary?”

Figlia felt like the dead man had it easy. “I’ll get him as soon as possible.”

*

The Secret Service agent, Goldberg, leaned against the door of the dead car, glancing at the priest. “When did he start thinking he was a homicide detective?”

The priest said, “You should ask him about it sometime.”

Commander Figlia dashed out of the hotel and waved at Goldberg to follow him. She offered the priest her hand. “It’s been nice talking with you, Father…?”

Francis Williams, of the Compania.”

Ah, a Jesuit.”

The priest smiled. “Just call me Frank.”

So, have enough fun yet? Just click here, and you can order it.

And, if you’ve done that….

The Dragon Awards are open and ready for nominations, and I have a list of suggestions you might want to take a look at. If you already  have a good idea of what you want, just click here to go and vote for them. The instructions are right there.

The Love at First Bite series. 

The Goal of the Superversive

For Throwback Thursday (a little late)–at the request of some of the other folks here–here, again, is our statement of exactly what it is that Superversiveness stands for and wishes to accomplish.

Subversive Literary Movement

Any new venture needs a mission statement. So, what are the goals of the Superversive Literary Movement?

Well…let me tell you a brief story.

As a child, I distained Cliffsnotes. I insisted on actually reading the book. I would like to instill the same virtue in my children. But recently, I made my first exception.

My daughter had to read Steinbeck’s The Pearl for class. We read it together. She read part. I read part. The writing was just gorgeous. The life of the people involved drawn so lovingly. The dreams the young man had for his baby son were so poignant, so touching.

Worried about what kind of book this  might be, I read the end first. It looked okay. So, we read the book together.

Turns out, I had missed something—the part where the baby got shot.

Not a happy story.

Next, she brought home Of Mice and Men. We started it together. What a gorgeous and beautifully writing—the descriptions of nature, the interaction between the two characters. A man named George, who could be off doing well on his own, is taking care of a big and simple man named Lennie, who accidentally kills the mice he loves because of his awkward big strength. In George, despite his gruff manner and his bad language, we see a glimpse of what is best in the human spirit, a glimpse of light in a benighted world.

The scene of the two camping out and discussing their hopes of someday owning their own little farm, where Lennie could tend rabbits, was so touching and hopeful, so filled with pathos and sorrow, and so beautifully written. Steinbeck is clearly one of the great masters of word use.

But I remembered The Pearl.  I glanced ahead, but this time, I looked more carefully.

On the next to last page, while discussing how their hoped-for little farm with rabbits is almost within their grasp, George presses a pistol against the back of Lennie’s head and shoots.

Now, in the story, he does it with a terribly heavy heart. He does it for “a good reason”—Lennie accidentally killed someone, but…

That doesn’t make it better.

I sat there holding the remains of my heart, which Steinbeck had just ripped out and stamped on. The devotion of this good man George had led to nothing. All their golden hopes turned to dross, sand.

And it wasn’t just the end. The book was full of examples of “the ends justify the means” type of thinking – such as a man killing four of nine puppies, so that the other five will have a chance.

Very realistic? Check. Very down to earth? Check. Very “the way of the world”? Check.

Why give a book like this to children to read? What are we trying to teach them? That life is difficult and meaningless? That sometimes its okay to kill something we love for a “good reason”? That life is pointless? That dreams and hopes are a sham? That no matter how you try, you cannot improve upon your circumstance, so it’s better not to even hope? (That was what The Pearl was about.)

What possible good is such a message doing our children?

Maybe if a child grew up in posh circumstances and had never seen hardship—maybe then, there would be a good reason for letting them know that “out there” it can get hard.

But this was my daughter—whose youth resembles that of Hansel and Gretel, and not the fun parts about candy houses and witches. There are many things she needs in life—but pathos-filled reminders of how harsh life can be is not one of them.

The book was also full of cursing. I’m not sure I would have noticed, but my daughter kept complaining.

I closed the book and refused to read any more of it. I told her we’d find the answers online. She ended up getting help with it from her brother (who had been forced to read the book at school the previous year) and from a friend.

I’ve seen some of the other books on the school curriculum. Many of them are like this. In the name of “realism,” these works preach hopelessness and darkness.

They are lies!

So, you might ask, why does it matter if our children are being fed lies? They’re just stories, right?

What do stories matter?

Stores teach us about how the world is. They teach us despair, or they teach us hope. In particular, they teach us about the nature of hope and when it is appropriate to have it.

So why is hope—that fragile, little flutter at the bottom of Pandora’s jar—so important?

Because hope needs to be hoped before miracles can be requested.

In life, some things will go badly. True. Some things will go well. But what about everything in between? What about those moments when hope, trust, dare I say, faith, is required to make the difference between a dark ending and a happy one?

If we have been taught that hope and dreams are a pointless fantasy, a waste of time, we might never take the step of faith necessary to turn a dark ending into a joyful one.

Think I am being unrealistic, and my head’s in the clouds? Let me give a few examples.

Example One:

I heard a story on the radio the other day. A woman named Trisha is dying of cancer. She has an eight year old son named Wesley and no one else. No close friends. No relatives. No hope for her son.

Trisha met another Trisha…the angel who ministered to her in the hospital in the form of her nurse. When the news came that her illness was terminal, Trisha worked up the courage to do something astonishing. She asked her nurse: “When I die, will you take my son?”

The nurse went home and spoke to her husband and her four children. They said yes. They not only agreed to take Wesley, they took both Wesley and Trisha into their home, caring for them both as Trisha’s illness grows worse.

What if Trisha, laying in her bed in pain, had not had the faith, the hope, to ask her nurse this question? What would have become of her little boy?

If Trish believed the “realism” preached by Steinbeck and other “realists”, she would never have had the courage to ask her nurse for help.

Example Two:

Don Ritchie is an Australian who lives across from a famous suicide spot, a cliff known as The Gap. At least once a week, someone comes to commit suicide there.

Don and his wife keep an eye out the window. If they see someone at the edge, Don strolls out there. He smiles and talks to them. He offers them a cup of tea.

Sometimes, they come in for tea. Sometimes, they just go home. On a few occasions, he’s had to hold someone, while his wife called the police. Sometimes, the person jumps anyway.

Don and his wife figure they’ve saved around a hundred and sixty lives.

What if Don had believed that hopes and dreams are dross, and he never walked out there? What if he had spent the years standing in his living room, shaking his head and cursing the fact that he bought a house in such an unlucky place?

There are people living lives, perhaps children born who would not have been, merely because Don did not give up on those caught by despair.

Example Three:

Andrea Pauline was a student at the University of Colorado. She traveled to Uganda to study microfinancing for a semester. While she was there, she discovered that some of the local orphan children were being abused.

Andrea refused to leave the country until the government did something. She received death threats. She would not back down.

The government of Uganda took the forty-some children away from their caretakers—and gave them to Andrea. She and her sister now run an orphanage in Uganda called Musana (Sunshine). They have over a hundred children. (Matthew West was inspired by her story to write the song Do Somethinghttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_RjndG0IX8 )

What if Andrea had believed the things preached by Of Mice and Men and The Pearl?

What if she had come home to America and cried into her pillow over the sad plight of those children back in Africa? What if she pent her time putting plaintive posts on Facebook about how the sad state of the world and how blue it made her feel?

Over a hundred children, living a better life, because one teenage girl refused to give up hope.

This is what the Superversive Literary Movement is for—to whisper to the future Trisha’s, Don’s, and Andrea’s that miracles are possible.

That hope is not a cheat.

The goal of the Superversive is to bring hope, where there is no hope; to bring courage, where without courage, hope would never be manifested.

The goal of the Superversive is to be light to a benighted world.

The goal of the Superversive is:

To tell the truth.

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The Iconic Hero and the Superversive

I make no bones about the fact that I prefer Sean Connery when I’m talking about James Bond movies. It’s not merely that his take on the character is consistently entertaining, but that it’s consistent period from film to film. This is a man who knows who and what he is, does not apologize for it, and has no issues with what he does; he lives for the mission, and believes in the mission. It’s nothing like Danial Craig’s Bond at all. Robin D.
Laws identifies this as “The Iconic Hero”, and explained in this 2012 post why this is a valid characterization choice:

While a dramatic hero follows a character arc in which he is changed by his experience of the world (examples: Orpheus, King Lear, Ben Braddock), an iconic hero undertakes tasks (often serially) and changes the world, restoring order to it, by remaining true to his essential self.

Prevailing creative writing wisdom favors the changeable dramatic character over his serially unchanging iconic counterpart, but examples of the latter remain enduring tentpoles of popular culture. It’s the clear, simple, elemental iconic heroes who keep getting reinvented every generation. Each such classic character spoke to the era of its invention, while also evoking an eternal quality granting it a continuing resonance. We are going to create a new set of heroes who speak to the contemporary world while evoking the inescapable power of the iconic model.

An iconic hero re-imposes order on the world by reasserting his essential selfhood. The nature of his radical individuality can be summed up with a statement of his iconic ethos. It is the ethos that grants higher meaning to the hero’s actions, and a clue to his creator’s intentions. An iconic hero’s ethos motivates and empowers him.

The first paragraph in particular is the mission of a Superversive hero: to restore order to the world. What he does is how he makes that happen, that assertion Laws speaks of, is where the variation lies. In the quoted post, Laws goes over several iconic characters and shows how you can summarize their stories in a sentence by identifying their ethos and how they assert it to restore order to their world time and again. What he doesn’t identify, but nonetheless shows, is that this summary also serves as the basis for every story outline you’ll need in writing stories about those characters that are true and faithful additions to their literary corpus that the readers will accept.

There’s something else that this post, and the concept in it, reveals: how the Enemy subverts the culture. They do resort to making Iconic Heroes into Dynamic Characters, putting them through “arcs” that denigrate their ethos and thereby degrade the characters into agents of subversion to further the Enemy’s agenda. (One need only look at what goes on at Marvel and D.C. Comics to see this in action.)

While stories that have characters changed by the experiences of the narrative are necessary and valuable, this is not a universal requirement. Just look at what’s been done with the Arthurian Mythos to see (a) that it’s not necessary and (b) it’s often done to subvert, degrade, and destroy a targeted culture- and therefore, not to be trusted anymore.

Consider an Iconic Hero when you’re next sitting down to create something, especially if you’re looking to do so as part of a series–writing, gaming, etc.–because you may find it better suited to your objectives than you might think.

Star Wars: When it sucks and when it doesn’t!

Happy birthday, Star Wars! The present I was hoping to get you is not quite ready yet. So instead, inspired by some debates on episode 7 (e7), I’ve recently read, I’ve decided to analyze why the original films of SW worked, and the new stuff less so.

Note that this does not need to affect your enjoyment of any of these movies. However, neither does your enjoyment wash away these stories’ flaws. I myself love to death the movie Pacific Rim but even I can admit that it has some flaws. Likewise even when they are great, we will be cracking these movies open and looking at how they work underneath which can spoil some people’s enjoyment.
Proceed with caution. Extreme nerdity ahead.

Continue reading

When New Is (Not) Best–The Degradation of Grand Master Anne McCaffrey

When I was fifteen, I wrote a fan letter to one of my favorite authors. She wrote back. I still have the postcard. The back was a drawing of a dragon standing before a podium preparing to give a lecture. The title of the lecture was:

Anne McCaffrey: Fact or Myth?

As a teen, I read every book of hers I could get my hands on. I remember walking into the local grocery story with a neighbor when the third Pern book, Dragonsong, came out. A copy was sitting in the spinning rack by the door. I hadn’t even know that there was going to be another Pern book. I was so ecstatic, that this neighbor—who hardly knew me ( I was a friend of her son but didn’t know her well)—bought me the book. That was a pretty extraordinary thing back then.

I was really grateful.

I loved her books. I loved her stories. I thought her science fiction, especially The Ship Who Sang. There were things that happened in that book, science fiction concepts, that I still think about. The thing I liked best of all, however, was Lessa of Pern.

People talk about strong female characters today. Sometimes they mean kickbutt fighters. But when the term first got started, it meant females who held their own, who acted and achieved and accomplished, female characters who were smart.

Lessa was all that. To me, she was the sole female character in SF who really had the qualities I wanted to have. I adored her.

Recently, I was in a store and I picked up a copy of Dragonflight, the original Pern book. I remember thinking, Huh, it probably wasn’t that good. I’ve just glamorized it. Let me see… After all, some of her later books were a bit fluffy. Maybe this early book was just fluff, too, and I had just not noticed. I started flipping through it.

I read an astonishing amount of it before I realized I was standing in a bookstore and embarrassedly put it down.

It was still that good.

Today, author Jon Del Arroz was chatting about his upcoming book on Twitter, and the fact that the title of his book Star Realms: Rescue Run is an homage to Anne McCaffrey came up. A writer at review site SF Bluestocking responded:

I’d recommend broadening your horizons.
Anything written in the last 15 years is
more relevant than McCaffrey’s entire oeuvre.

I don’t know what is more shocking to me:

That this person who supposedly reviews SF spoke so lightly of this Grand Master who changed the field and who still sells today.

That a person who is so old-fashioned as to use the Victorian term bluestocking shows not regard for the past.

That she apparently thinks that my books and Mr. Del Arroz’s books—both written in the last 15 years—are more relevant than Anne McCaffrey’s. (An astonishing compliment, but neither of us have earned such praise, at least as of yet.)

Relevant to…what?

Anne McCaffrey is still relevant, to storytelling, to our field, to life!

And she still sells!

Jon Del Arroz speaks about this incident in his post: The Cult of the New

 

The Superversive in Tabletop RPGs: Why Is It So Rare?

There aren’t many tabletop RPGs, or supplements thereof, that are clearly or explicitly Superversive. However, many such games (and the official settings sold so eagerly for them) contain that potential. The publishers explicitly sell their games, and those settings, with a slant of “Be the good guys against the bad guys!” Yet it is increasingly rare for actual Superversive play to occur, something that’s been a known issue in gaming forums and sites for over 20 years.

Well, there IS an explanation. Dragon Award winner Brian Niemeier made a post his blog today regarding this sort of discussion as it applies to the Big Two of the American comics world, D.C. and Marvel. As those two big giants routinely miss the point, so do their fellow travelers in the tabletop gaming world. As I know first-hand that SJWs in comics, gaming, film, television, and SF/F publishing all network via the convention scene it’s not hard at all to see how this moral malaise spread to all of these cultural subsectors.

(Brian’s post contains the over-arching conversational thread, and I encourage you to read it before you come back here, because I’m explicitly building upon that thread as it relates to Superversive RPGs.)

There are two key observations to be had here. The first is by Jeffro Johnson (said here):

If you want people to employ traditional virtues in service of civilization, they first have to be able to imagine them. Heroism and romance were suppressed specifically to make it easier to destroy a people. The poindexters hold loyalty in contempt and sneer at sacrifice. They think goodness is for chumps. And they have held the reigns of culture for decades.

By the time that Dungeons & Dragons exploded into the mainstream around 1980 (there’s that timestamp again), this degree of cultural subversion had already occurred. If not for the brief turnaround in the zeitgeist by films like the original Star Wars through to the mid-’80s (e.g. Flash Gordon, Krull, Raiders of the Lost Ark) the degeneracy would have concluded well before the turn of the century. Instead, one last generation had the opportunity to have the Superversive shown to them in their early years.

In short, without examples of the Superversive to fire our imaginations, many of us will never even think to play that out in our fantasy adventures when we play tabletop RPGs no matter how well either the rules or the settling allow for it– and that, right there, is a major factor for why explicitly Superversive tabletop RPGs such as Pendragon remain niche games in a niche hobby.

Following that aforementioned thread, this observer nailed why the very publishers that comprise the thought-leaders in tabletop RPGs constantly undermine the Superversive potential of their own creations:

But they can’t imagine that. Reason number two is because of their self-imposed lifting of hypocrisy as the “ultimate” sin. It is better to not have a code at all than to have one and fail to live up to it. This is reflected in the method by which they try and tear down icons – hell, they even said it in Spider-Man 1 (Toby MacGuire), “the thing people like best is to see a hero fall.” (Paraphrased). They cannot fathom that the (a) the purpose of a code, even an unreachable one, is to set a goal for all people to strive to achieve, and (b) that you can’t live up to it all the time is because we are flawed, fallen, and human. However, (c) that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying.

I’ve seen this first-hand. They can’t conceive of it at all. The non-stop mockery of virtue, of the pursuit of a moral or ethical standard, and the misunderstanding (often willfully so) of what “hypocrisy” means all contribute to this subversion of the ostensible claim to “heroic adventure” (which they also misunderstand).

You see this in the long-form when the rules for games in strongly moral settings, such as Star Wars, keep getting watered down to allow for that demoralization to feed upon itself at the table. You see this in the creep of their Pink Slime amorality into their rules and settings, and the pushing of clearly subversive messages (i.e. yet more virtue-signalling) into every part of their business output- product and service alike.

While there are some people left in tabletop gaming who haven’t been fully converged, most long ago bent the knee and drank the demon’s blood- they are part of the cult, and they hate you. This is why the Superversive is rare in tabletop RPGs: they hate it. Don’t give them your money, or your children.

Just as readers closed their wallets and walked away from The Big Two in comics, and do so to the Big 5 in SF/F, this is necessary in tabletop gaming. Close the wallets, and walk away from Omelas- it’s YOUR child they forsake.

(And yes, this is much the case for videogames as well.)

Signal To Noise

Ever wonder why you are having such a hard time getting along with that once-dear friend who is now on the far side of the political Great Divide? This post might help bridge that knowledge gap.

noise noise_signal-mlab1_png_pagespeed_ce_b_GTiE6tAg

These illustrations are from an article on cameras that can be found Cambridge In Colour

Many years ago, I was playing in a roleplaying game known as The Corruption Campaign, along with my friend Bill of Doom. (Not to be confused with Uncle Bill).

Bill and I were involved in tricky negotiations some arrogant aristocrats (Princes of Amber). Sometimes, these went well. Sometimes, they went badly. But, after a while, I began to notice something.

Bill’s character, Stormhawk, was not a bloodthirsty guy, but he talked like an American. If Stormhawk disagreed with something, he would announce with almost no provocation, in a booming voice, “Kill them all!” or “Nuke them from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

But he very seldom did attack anyone who was not an outright enemy.

On the other hand, if he liked something or offered someone help, he was very sincere, and he meant what he said.

The aristocrats we spoke with were exactly the opposite. They would make flowery comments that sounded kind or flattering, but they meant nothing by them.

But if they breathed a word of a threat, they were deadly serious, and they meant to carry through.

They thought we Americans were crazy, deadly people.

We thought they were insincere flatterers.

Why?

In radio, there is a phrase called signal to noise ratio. It refers to the difference between the desired information ( the signal) and the amount of background interference (the noise).

The problem Bill of Doom and I had when confronting the arch princes was: Incompatible definitions of what was signal and what was noise.

You see, to Stormhawk:

Kindness: signal

Threats: noise

But to the princes:

Kindness: noise

Threats: signal

The lessons learned playing this game (Don’t think D&D. Think “wandering around in your favorite novel with regular moral twists) have proven helpful in our modern world, because what I see when I watch my friends on different sides of the political spectrum is:

Incompatible definitions of what is signal and what is noise.

Let me give an example. Let’s say there are two young ladies, Hanna and Annah (Nice palindromes there, Annah and Hanna, but now that we’ve got across the point—that they are just the same thing in reverse—I’m going to write the first one Anna, for simplicity.)

Bear with me here. This is only an example.

Hannah is pro-life. To her, life is holy. She cannot understand how someone could murder a baby, at any age. Or how they cannot care for these helpless little ones who cannot speak up for themselves. She tries to make it clear to everyone she speaks to, but to her dismay, some folks out there seem to care a great deal about lesser life forms, but they don’t care about babies!

How could this be?

At first, Hannah just speaks to her cause, but people keep throwing the environment in her face, more and more. They care more about falcon eggs than they do about real living human beings—even if they are not breathing human beings yet.

Hannah gets so mad that she blogs: Look, I don’t care about the stupid falcons. They could all die for all I care! We’re talking about babies!!!

Next we turn to Anna.

So…Anna is an environmentalist. To her, nature is holy. She cannot understand how someone could mistreat this beautiful world—that we all have to live in! Or not be concerned for these poor creatures who cannot speak up for themselves. She tries to make it clear to everyone she speaks to, but to her dismay, some folks out there seem to care a great deal about producing more humans to mess up the environment, but they don’t care about falcons becoming extinct!

How could this be?

At first, Anna just speaks to her cause, but people keep throwing anti-abortion arguments in her face, more and more. They care more about unborn lumps of cells than they do about real living and breathing creatures.

Anna gets so mad that she blogs: Look, I don’t care about the stupid humans. They could all die for all I care! We’re talking about falcons!!!

Now, on that particular day, Hanna happens to read Anna’s blog, and Anna happens to read Hanna’s blog. Each had written a long piece supporting their side, but the end of the piece was the lines in bold above.

Two weeks, two months, two years later, what is the result? What has each young woman come away with?

Hanna doesn’t recall that she lost her temper and dissed falcons. She only remembers her impassioned plea for unborn life.

Anna doesn’t recall that she lost her temper and dissed human beings—after all, she is a human being. She only remembers her impassioned plea to save the helpless falcons.

But what do they remember about the other person’s blog? Only the last line.

Why?

Because to Hannah—babies are signal, and falcons are noise.

While to Anna—falcons are signal, and human beings are noise.

Ever wonder why the opposition—whatever side you are not on—only ever seems to attack and quote the outliners on your side? The most horrible folks? The most obnoxious comments? How they never seem to get the point? How the throwaway line you, or your favorite blogger, tossed off when you were pissed off is repeated everywhere, while the strongly-reasoned arguments are ignored?

This is why.

To them, that throw away line is signal—because its on the subject they care about. To you and your blogger friend, it’s noise.

So, next time you feel the urge to bridge the endless gap—and maybe talk to that crazy lunatic on the other side who used to be a bosom buddy—try this simple trick:

Pick the lines the other person says that upset you the most. Ignore them. Just pretend that they are not there. Pretend that they are static. Noise.

Because, chances are, that to him, it is just noise.

And you’ve been missing the signal, tuning it out, all along.

Then, listen closely to whatever he seems to think is the most important part–even if it sounds like mad nonsense to you. NOT, mind you, what he says at loudest volume—that is likely to be noise, too—the part he speaks about fervently or with reasoning.

From there, you can often find a bridge, a common point of agreement—because at the very least, you now know what the important issues actually are. To use my first example: you are speaking kindness to kindness or threat to threat.

Even if you can’t agree, at least you will be talking signal to signal, instead of noise to noise.

It’s difficult, but after a few tries, you’ll be a champion Great Divide bridger in no time.

Give it a try.

And if you run into trouble—you absolutely can’t find the other guy’s signal—don’t hesitate to swing by and ask for help.

If nothing else, it gives me a chance to prove that roleplaying games are good for something after all.