On Authorial Intent

     Years ago, when I first began my study of writing, I was both fortunate and cursed to land, right off the bat, a spectacularly good workshop teacher for fiction. My initiation into the craft of writing was through a teacher and mentor who knew precisely what he was doing, and by that I mean, he was conscious of everything he wrote. That was the fortunate part, as he awakened in me the same appreciation of the power of storytelling, and all that was possible provided you’d given serious thought to the effect your words would have, and could have, to a reader. But, alas, it was also a curse. I hesitate to say this, since it is bound to be misconstrued as arrogant (when the truth is, it’s more desperate and frustrated than arrogant). You see, what made it a curse was that, thanks to that first teacher, I proceeded on the assumption that all writers knew precisely what they were doing: with every word, every sentence, every paragraph and every story.

     Well, that was long ago, and a lot of muddy water has passed under the bridge since then. I have been privileged to find myself in the company of countless published authors: well-regarded, bestselling, highly popular authors. In each instance, it was indeed a privilege, and to this day I often feel something of an imposter in their midst. That said, I have also been witness, every now and then, to another side of that whole persona of ‘popular, highly-regarded’ authordom, which for lack of a better phrase, I will call the Blank Wall.

     Before I explain that, I should point out that I am well aware that some writers feel that there is a value in maintaining a certain mystique when it comes to the writing process, as if to explain too much will somehow degrade the wonder (and, perchance, tarnish that aura of genius we all like to maintain before our fans, hah hah). But that always struck me as a rather narrow perch, and a dubious one at that. There is very little that is worthy of mystery to telling a story, and very little of the day-in day-out grind of being a fiction writer invites elevation to superhuman status, and besides, one of the most extraordinary wonders of writing lies precisely in what is possible, and rather than hiding one’s cards (as if we published authors possess some secret code of success, jealously guarding our muse-given talent), I for one have always delighted in sharing the bones, meat and skin of narrative, particularly to aspiring writers and anyone else who might be interested.

     Back to the Blank Wall. I ran face-first into that wall rather early on, in the company of that highbrow institution of exclusivity known as CanLit (an amorphous Canadian entity of ‘serious’ literature as promulgated primarily by the Canada Council, writing departments at universities, the Globe and Mail, provincial granting agencies, and CBC Radio). In effect, that mystique and aura was a facade presented not only to the public, but also, strangely enough, quickly and almost instinctively raised up between writers, with some underlying notion of competition feeding it, one presumes. No one seemed open to discussions on the bones, muscle and skin of writing. Granted, I was perhaps hopelessly clumsy in seeking such conversations in the midst of public venues of mutual congratulation and the maintenance of personae, but even my tentative suggestions inviting such dialogue at some later date was met again and again with that Blank Wall.

     Granted, it may just be that I’m odious or something, and that each author intellectually ran for the hills at the mere suggestion of engaging me in a conversation. But, oddly enough, odious only to authors, as the rest of my social life seems healthy enough.

The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts

     Over the years I have taken to attending the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, a scholarly conference in which authors and writers of the genre are invited to sit in on papers presented on their work; and to, on occasion, be part of panels of authors/creators taking questions from the scholars. Being part of those panels can be both exhilarating and profoundly frustrating, as every now and then I sat beside fellow authors intent on maintaining that mystique, that high, blank, impenetrable wall. Some go so far as to respond to every question by holding up their latest book and pointing out that it’s available in the book-room. Now, this may come across as a bit cruel (and who knows how many enemies I’m making here among my compatriots), but it strikes me that, of all venues and of all potential audiences, isn’t the ICFA one inviting something more than a sales-pitch? We sit at our long table facing a room full of academics and scholars, and spend the hour obscuring the glass between us and them, presumably to maintain that aura of distinction. Of course, I may be even more uncharitable in this, knowing as I do that many authors are shy, often awkward, and besides, it is simpler to fall back on the cliches of ‘why we write’ (‘I write only for myself! But thanks for reading me!’), than it is to strip things back to expose the inner workings.

     But, for all that my comments here invite excoriation, another potentially more egregious thought occurs to me, and it goes back to the blessing and the curse of my first workshop teacher, and it’s this: maybe many authors don’t want to talk about the gristle of writing 1 not because they’re interested in maintaining a mystique, but because they don’t think about those things, or, at best, they can’t articulate their reasons behind writing what they write.

     Before I continue digging this hole of mine, allow me to say that I have been fortunate over the years to find fellow writers more than eager to engage in discussions of the kind I’m advocating here. In each circumstance, I am privileged to discover writers who know precisely what they’re up to, and even more wonderful, they’re prepared to talk about it!

     They may not know it, but they are my lifeline, and I’ll not embarrass them by naming names here — you know who you are and what you mean to me, since when it comes to that, I’m anything but coy. Also, not all of them are writers: some are scholars who take an interest in what lies behind a narrative or an invented world. Others would call themselves, quite simply and humbly, fans. My lifeline, everyone of you.

Good Reads

     But let’s get back to what’s driving me crazy, shall we? It’s probably time to explain what has inspired me to write this essay. Well, I’ve been reading certain blogs and exchanges, here in Goodreads and elsewhere, that raise issues directly relating to authorial intent; and some authors are facing and responding to a most cogent series of questions from critics/fans/readers. These questions highlight (not always in a complimentary fashion) some of the possible assumptions carried over from our world into an invented one.

     As questions, most worthwhile indeed. They need to be asked, and no work available to the public can make any claim to immunity against them, just as no author can contemptuously dismiss them (regardless of whether the questions arise from someone who has read their work or not — the nature of the question itself remains legitimate. It is its relevance that bears thinking about, not on specific grounds, but on general ones, as I will explain shortly).

     Often, the discussion that follows, whether involving the author or just fans and advocates and detractors of the argument in question, can quickly bog down into semantic disputes and personal attacks intended to undermine the authority behind any statement being made. This kind of divisiveness may be inevitable, as unfortunate as it is, as the original question gets left behind.

     Unlike times past, this modern age makes a commodity of both an artist’s works and the artist in question; whereas pre-internet authors could feel open to both advancing or rejecting the cult of the persona. These days, there is a pressure on writers to present to the world more than just their published works, but also their own personae. This has the effect of blurring the distinction between the two, particularly in the eyes of fans (and be assured, there is a profound distinction there, though sometimes neither as profound nor as distinct as one would hope: specifically, when an author writes fiction to advance his or her politics, agenda, world-view and a host of other prejudices, in a manner that reveals their contempt for contrary opinions).

     In short, we’re in an age where author and the work are both fair game, both open to direct challenge by critics and readers. This is the case of playing with fire and getting occasionally burned.

     I am no longer convinced that every published author has given full consideration to the host of assumptions they carry into their created world. Well. There. I said it. I will not get into specific examples here, though it wouldn’t take long to assemble a fair list of ‘you-had-no-idea-what-you-were-really-saying-here-did-you?’ films, novels, and the like. That is, I can only assume they didn’t know what they were saying, unless I choose to believe that certain creators of mass media out there have no compunction about encouraging terrorism, perpetuating bigotry, misogyny, rape and hate crimes; and are equally happy advocating revenge as the primary recourse to justice.

     So, what has all this to do with the Fantasy genre? Plenty, because it’s a genre that invites you (as a writer), even demands you, to invent something new, something other. But in that process of invention (of, say, an entire other world), there is the risk that certain assumptions or behaviors or attitudes from this world can slip in, unquestioned, unchallenged, unexplored. And when that happens, why, it’s fair game for anyone — anyone — to throw down the gauntlet in challenge. And when it becomes evident, in an author’s direct response, that certain elements were not thought-through, not thought-out, that author then faces the choice of mea culpa or launching into a full defense of their position, which in turn further blurs the distinction between author and the author’s work in question. This is messy, but I find myself lacking sympathy: we are, after all, in an age of communication that expects the creators be present, engaged, and prepared to stand behind their words. It’s not all fun and games and ego-massaging, after all. There’s a price to pay for notoriety.

     If, into this invented fantasy world, certain assumptions about gender roles, skin colour, sexual preference, etc, are carried ad hoc from our world, then it is incumbent that they be challenged. Why? Because it matters. Because, every time shit like that is carried over, an underlying assumption is made: that such assumptions adhere to some Natural Law, wherein arguments in defense of such choices devolve into falsehood (‘history shows it was always that way’ [no, it doesn’t], and ‘in a barbaric world a patriarchy is given’ [no, it isn’t], or, ‘in a post-apocalyptic world where remnants of hi-tech is akin to magic, men will still rule and dominate every social hierarchy’ [say what? That doesn’t even make sense!]). The Natural Law argument is a fallacy; more to the point, the Fantasy genre is the perfect venue in which to utterly dismantle those assumptions, to offer alternative realities and thereby challenge the so-called givens of the human condition.

Cheers

Steven Erikson

 

*   *   *

 
1
What do I mean by ‘gristle,’ ‘meat and bones,’ etc? Well, imagine you are a published author, and you are asked ‘Why did you craft that sentence the way you did? What effect were you looking for in that sequence of events? Why did you carry those particular assumptions from our world into the one you invented for your stories? Ah, but that last question … a hint to where I am headed with this lengthy discourse here, perhaps?

The Problem of Karsa Orlong

     To say that, among all the characters portrayed in The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Karsa Orlong has proved the most divisive among readers of the series is probably beyond refute. Discussions arise regarding this character again and again, and as the debate returns in this TOR re-read, the question of my purpose in creating this character could probably be addressed: so I will.

Conan of Cimmeria

Lancer (US)

     Consider this an essay, then. The problem posed by Karsa and how readers perceive him will, for me, find its answers from a range of angles; from the Fantasy genre itself, to anthropology, history, cultural identity and its features, to the structure of the series (and the novel in question) and, eventually, to the expectations that fantasy readers bring to a fantasy novel. You may note something of an ellipse in that list, but that’s how I think so bear with me.

     Historically within the genre the role of the ‘barbarians’ has roughly split into two morally laden strains. On the one hand they are the ‘dark horde’ threatening civilization; while on the other they are the savage made noble by the absence of civilization. In the matter of Karsa Orlong, we can for the moment disregard the former and concentrate instead on the noble savage trope—such barbarians are purer of spirit, unsullied and uncorrupt; while their justice may be rough, it is still just. One could call it the ‘play-ground wish-fulfillment’ motif, where prowess is bound to fairness and punishment is always righteous. The obvious, almost definitive example of this is R.E.Howard’s Conan, but we can take a more fundamental approach and consider this ‘barbarian’ trope as representing the ‘other,’ but a cleaned-up version intended to invite sympathy. In this invitation there must be a subtle compact between creator and reader, and to list its details can be rather enlightening, so here goes.

     We are not the ‘other,’ and this barbarian’s world is therefore exotic, even as it harkens back to a pre-civilized, Edenic proximity. The barbarian’s world is a harsh one, a true struggle for existence, but this struggle is what hones proper virtues (‘proper’ in the sense of readily agreeable virtues, such as loyalty, courage, integrity, and the value of honest labour). Against this we need an opposing force; in this case ‘civilization,’ characterized by deceit, decadence, conspiracy, and consort with evil forces including tyranny: civilization represents, therefore, the loss of freedom (with slavery the most direct manifestation of that, brutally represented in chains and other forms of imprisonment). In essence, then, we as readers are invited to the side of the ‘other,’ the one standing in opposition to civilization. Yet… we readers are ‘civilized.’ We are, in fact, the decadent products of a culture that has not only accepted the loss of freedom, but in fact codifies that loss to ease our discomfort (taxes, wage-slavery, etc). In this manner, we are offered the ‘escapist’ gift of Fantasy; but implicit in this is the notion that a) we need to escape; and b) that civilization is, at its core, evil.

     [So, is it not ironic that Leo Grin (a great fan of R.E. Howard) attacks modern fantasy as nihilistic? This man’s incomprehension of Howard’s own nihilism and anarchic rejection of civilization is, simply, jaw-dropping. Amusing digression ends.]

     This brings me (and I can almost hear the groans) to anthropology, although one could approach the notion of the ‘other’ from a whole host of theoretical stances, including mytho-Jungian, sociological, psychological, etc. The point is, the ‘other’ is universal to the human condition: it exists in every culture. I won’t go into too much detail here, since the singular point I want to make is that the notion of the ‘other’ is implicitly arrogant. Most cultures give themselves a collective identity (the ‘us’) and often attribute to themselves a name that means something like ‘the people,’ implying that the ‘others’ are not quite people. This has of course justified all manner of conflict and subjugation, from ancient times to the present. Accordingly, it is not unique to ‘civilization’ per se but to all cultures, regardless of their technological level and social organization. To be the (one and only) ‘people’ is an arrogant assertion: defined in terms of specific habits, behaviours, physical features, language, religion, and so on, but ultimately profoundly conceited in its essential world-view. By this means all manner of atrocity is possible when dealing with the ‘other’ (and all militaries impose psychological ritual to ensure that the soldier sees the enemy as an ‘other’ and therefore less than human and therefore permissible to kill).

     [It’s not all grim: the notion of ‘us’ has essential virtues in collective identity, through the sharing of values, community cohesion, and so on; but it’s probably fair to say that the pay-off is not quite a balanced one, given that the inherent weakness of ‘us’ hints at fundamental flaws in that kind of thinking, even if the notion of ‘us’ also happens to be necessary for a society to function]

     Barbarian societies can be as arrogant as civilized ones: the only difference is in the expression of that arrogance. At its core it’s all one, and seems to be a characteristic of the human condition (to this day, for all of our efforts at self-identifying ourselves as a global culture, we continue to impose borders, define select privileges, exercise extortion of weaker peoples, and in the rejection of one community (the neighbourhood) we raise countless others, defined by political afiliation, religion, skin colour or whatever).

     There are other implicit judgements to the ‘other.’ Among the Romans the ‘barbaric’ other was not viewed as less-than-human, but in terms of inherent weakness (of their culture). This justified subjugating them, occupying their lands, and enslaving as many of them as was economically possible. The notion of being ‘Roman’ was considered the height of civilized and cultural identity (though it came back to bite their Roman asses). [incidentally, and at the risk of offense, this is what made the teachings of Jesus so revolutionary, as they directly challenged the accepted definitions of self-identity and the institutions of authority in place to maintain them, only to be later co-opted and segmented into rival sects—more us’s and more them’s—in direct defiance of those very teachings. But one can also argue about the ‘us’ of believers and the ‘them’ of non-believers… I sense a vortex ahead so will end digression there]. This Roman stance was the notion of might-as-right and is of course yet another expression of arrogance. Later on, with the (re)-institution of slavery, drawing from Africa, the notion of less-than-human became the dominant ‘justification’ for brutalizing the ‘other.’ One can then turn to the treatment of Jews in Europe, and so on. The point is: history is the study of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and little else.

     So, how does all this relate to Karsa Orlong? Well, as has been noted, there was something of the need to prove that I could sustain a single narrative going on (or so I recall, the sense of being pissed off about something is always short-lived and usually ephemeral, although the answer to it can prove far-reaching, as is certainly the case with Karsa); but obviously more was going on. I wanted to address the fantasy trope of the ‘barbarian’ (from the north, no less, and isn’t it curious how so many heroic barbarians come down from the north?), but do so in recognition of demonstrable truths about warrior-based societies, as expressed in that intractable sense of superiority and its arrogant expression; and in recognizing the implicit ‘invitation’ to the reader (into a civilization-rejecting, civilization-hating barbarian ‘hero’), I wanted to, via a very close and therefore truncated point of view, make it damned uncomfortable in its ‘reality,’ and thereby comment on what I saw (and see) as a fundamentally nihilistic fantasy trope: the pure and noble barbarian. Because, whether recognized or not, that fantasy barbarian hero constitutes a rather backhanded attack on the very civilization that produces people with the leisure time to read (and read escapist literature at that).

     Within the scope of Karsa’s culture, he holds to his code of integrity and honour, even if they are initially friable in their assumptions (but then, so are all of our assumptions about ‘us’ and about the ‘other’). We observe the details of that culture, revealed bit by bit—with plenty of hints as to its flawed beliefs—and with each detail, we as readers are pushed further away from our own civilized sensibilities.

House of Chains (2002)

Bantam Press (UK)

     In one sense, consider Karsa’s tale at the opening of House of Chains as a walk back through time, to the world of, say, Beowulf. As much as we find Beowulf entertaining as a poem, and can even admire it, its ‘barbaric’ sensibilities are profoundly alien to us. Here we have a hero (Beowulf) who shows up as a stranger, only to spend an evening bragging about his superiority over all others, before ultimately usurping Hrothgar’s kingdom… if I may humbly ask this: if you saw Karsa Orlong sitting at Hrothgar’s table that night would you feel him out of place?

     The question is: how far from our own sensibilities can we be pushed before it’s too much? Is it his brazen arrogance? Is it the culturally-acceptable rapes? Is it the slaughter of townsfolk, the rejection of Karsa’s companions due to their failures—their weaknesses? Is it his unquenchable self-belief? His need for vengeance? His excessive vows pronounced seemingly without thought? His rejection of civilization? His rejection of enslavement? In other words, where in that Conanesque code of conduct do we reel back a step, shaking our heads?

     One of the areas of serious disturbance among readers is, quite understandably, the rape scenes. There is a counterpoint to these, found later in the novel, that includes Karsa’s very direct answer to it, which while on the surface may seem contradictory to his nature, is in fact anything but. Another area is the use of the word ‘children’ when voicing his exploits of slaughter (but then, if child-slaying is a universal taboo, what does that say about our culture, with its missing children; and what does it say about our foreign policies and/or our fanatic religious beliefs, that see children killed every day; or our notions of wealth, that see entire countries left to starve?).

     Having established this tight, myopic point of view of the ‘classic’ barbarian (reasonable for an isolated people of remote mountain regions)—and structuring the tale empty of overt authorial judgement yet relentless in its detail, one might then expect to see me take the ‘dark horde’ route and offer up civilization as the beacon of virtue and enlightenment. But then… maybe Howard had a point? For all that his nihilistic rejection of civilization, personified in the Hyborian Tales of Conan, is an invitation to despair (like a bullet to the head), it cannot be dismissed out of hand. Civilization has its problems, and even more distressing, there was indeed a kind of freedom in the pre-industrial age that we can only dream of (but how rose-tinted are those dreams, discounting as they do death-in-childbirth, intestinal parasites, disease, disfigurement, starvation, slavery and so on? Just how far into the ‘escapism’ from reality should the Fantasy genre offer up? Oh, and that is the sixty-four dollar question I’m slowly approaching: the expectations of the fantasy readership, but everything in its time…). Accordingly, Karsa’s introduction into civilization is one made in chains—in the stripping away of his ‘barbaric’ freedom. But arrogance is an unruly beast and he will not so easily be tamed, and so the struggle between barbarism and civilization becomes his own personal struggle (even Conan grumbled as much).

     This then is a journey of prejudices under assault.

     No wonder it makes so many people uncomfortable. We may not share Karsa’s prejudices, but we share prejudices. Because this is a fantasy novel and so incorporates adventure, this assault is personified with violence, and there is no need (for Karsa, anyway) to internalize it (Karsa is an outward character, not an inward character—and what you see is what you get and what you get is everything that he is, but that does not make him simple. In fact, he is probably the most complex character in the entire series, and in my recognition of that I saw that his tale could bear the weight of its own trilogy, and so it will).

Mention My Name in Atlantis

DAW (US)

     We come at last to the expectation of the fantasy readership, and if you thought I walked a fine line with Karsa, wait till you read what follows. I am not just a writer of fantasy; I am a reader of fantasy, and so I can comfortably stand on both sides of this issue (as can all fantasy writers, barring those who claim to have never read fantasy, and those ones are either dissembling or they truly don’t have a clue). I have already broached the subject of escapism, but that is a universal notion made up of numerous and at times contradictory desires, depending on who you talk to. So it needs elaborating.

     One of the traditional appeals to epic fantasy literature of the ‘dark horde’ variety was its simplification of morality. There was clearly defined good and clearly defined evil. Good was good and evil was reprehensible. We were invited into a world where we knew who the good guys were, we knew who the bad guys were, and we knew that by the end the good guys would win, standing triumphant on the corpses of the bad guys (restless corpses were better, since that invited sequels). This is the child-like, play-ground appeal, and in appealing to the child in us it comforts by virtue of its simplicity; while at the same time its codifies the ‘good’ virtues and the ‘bad’ vices, which could in one sense serve as life-lessons. Accordingly, this kind of fantasy’s engagement with reality was one of reduction, infused with exotic ‘otherness’ to stir the wonder of an imaginative mind. Comforting stuff, affirming stuff—in fact, the very stuff that Leo Grin applauds.

     But that’s ‘epic’ fantasy. It’s not sword and sorcery fantasy: it’s not R.E. Howard (arguably, it’s not JRR either, but I’ll skirt that particular can of worms here). Howard’s barbarian hero promised chaos and destruction—well, he promised to maintain his barbaric virtues even if it took the world down around him (lovingly spoofed in Jakes’ ‘Mention My Name in Atlantis’). And it if did, well, that was a civilized world, wasn’t it, so good riddance. The sword and sorcery form of fantasy literature twisted things, but something of that simplistic, reductionist sensibility still remained. Good was good (if a little hard) and evil was evil. Only the stigmata had changed. The ‘good’ was the purity of the Cimmerian ice fields; the evil was the steamy civilized southlands with their serpent gods and all the rest. It’s escapism of the nihilistic vengeance sort, the fascistic scouring away of corrupting forces (that part Leo liked, so doubt), with the Northern (white-skinned) Man standing triumphant, a freed and happily large-breasted ex-slave wrapped lovingly round one leg, on her knees of course).

     Escapism is seductive, and what it might reveal about us is not always pleasant on reflection: it comes down to the flavours we prefer, the paths we find most inviting to our more fundamental belief systems—whether self-articulated or not, and that alone is enough to make any thinking person shiver.

     Karsa is all of that stripped bare; and in turn he infuriates, shocks, and on occasion makes the jaw drop in disbelief. But he is also the reality of the ‘barbaric’ and so represents an overt rejection of the romanticized, fantasized barbarian trope. Some people don’t like that. Fair enough.

     I come at last to my consideration of audience expectations. Believe me, I did consider them. I always consider them—but consideration does not guarantee a change of mind regarding the course I choose: more often, that consideration demands from me a challenge in exercising subtlety, and this is the nature of subversion as I work it into my novels (and series). Karsa subverts the ‘fantasy’ of the barbarian hero in Fantasy, and he does so because I feel that there is something dangerous in that romanticism, and in that vengeful refutation of civilization. In turn, however, Karsa’s tale also subverts the notion of civilization as virtuous savior and deliverer of enlightenment, because history tells us otherwise.

House of Chains (2002)

Tor Books

     So I ended up punching both ways. It’s a damned wonder I didn’t lose everyone after ‘House of Chains’ (or, more accurately, during the reading of ‘House of Chains.’). Structurally, I could not have introduced Karsa any earlier than I did. After three novels (all subversive in their own, unique ways) I was ready for something more overt—I was ready to take on the barbarian fantasy. At the same time, an entire novel of that relentless point of view would have been one bridge too far. The struggle between barbarism and civilization is not just specific to Karsa or even his tale: it is the struggle within each of us, as we battle desires with propriety, and as we battle need with responsibility. In the remainder of the series, those battles are played out on grander scales. It could be argued that civilization’s greatest gift is compassion—the extension of empathy, even unto strangers, and as such acts in half-formed opposition to barbarism with its pragmatic viciousness, and if compassion must be our shield, it is against our own baser natures.

     Karsa’s journey in this novel and in this series stand as stepping stones across this raging river of (invented) history. Later, he appears as a chorus in the ancient Greek sense, to remind us that we’re all playing with bones, not sticks and stones. To skip him is to miss a fundamental argument of this series: but then, as mentioned before, there are many forms of escapism, and the Fantasy genre speaks to them all at one time or another.

     The Malazan Book does not offer readers the escapism into any romantic notions of barbarism, or into a world of pure, white knight Good, and pure, black tyrant Evil. In fact, probably the boldest claim to escapist fantasy my series makes, is in offering up a world where we all have power, no matter our station, no matter our flaws and weaknesses—we all have power.

     I don’t know about you, but I’ll escape into that world every chance I can.

     Now, as Karsa would say: “Too many words. Witness.”

Cheers

Steven Erikson

The World of the Malazan Empire and Role-Playing Games

     Through the years, at signings, book tours and in interviews, I am often asked about the RPG origins to the novels set in the Malazan world. Depending on the time and energy I’m prepared to commit to my answers, I have been both vague and specific; but generally such venues are not the place for an in-depth analysis of the relationship between the Malazan novels and RPG’s.

     Recently, while attending Eurocon and taking questions from a large audience, I was again reminded that, despite the plethora of computer and console gaming, the old paper-based system of gaming remains popular and without doubt (in my mind) to a large extent continues to shape the approach many readers take to fantasy fiction. While I have made a point in my writing (as has Ian [Cam] Esslemont, who shares both the fictional world of Malaz and the gaming experience that helped create it) to run counter to those well-established tropes, in effect consciously disengaging from them, by the very act I have at the same time inevitably referenced them, and as such readers only ‘get the jokes’ because we share a common understanding of those tropes. It might also be worth adding that those ‘jokes’ are only ‘jokes’ because I have engaged in setting up the clichés—inviting reader’s recognition—only to then unplug those clichés.

     In any case, let’s go back a ways for the purposes of this essay, and address some more basic aspects of the relationship between RPG’s and my writing the Malazan series (I will not add Cam to this, since I have no desire to put words into his mouth, nor can I simply assume that while we share gaming memories, our sense of them and their significance to our fiction is identical). Specifically, the central question I want to address is this: to what extent did RPG’s shape my fantasy fiction? That should be simple to answer but it isn’t. The synergy between two creative processes is a curious thing; beneath the obvious surface (where glancing linkages can be made with elan), there are a host of more complicated relationships at work.

Terry Gilliam -- Brazil (1985)

G.K. Chesterton -- The Man Who Was Thursday 1908)

Milos Forman -- Amadeus (1984)

     Young as we were at the time, we did not game in a bubble. Factors were at work on us all the while: the outer world—our studies (where we were learning the craft of fiction writing), the books we read, the films we watched, the ongoing analyses we engaged in on myriad subjects, from anthropology to war fiction and nonfiction, from the Latin American magic realists to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, from G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday to Franz Kafka’s The Castle, from The Lion in Winter to Milos Forman’s Amadeus to Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (now some eager student is bound to plunge into examining the dates of release for some of this stuff, or indeed all of it, and find … timeline issues).

     So one could ask, what were our outside influences to the gaming we did? But there is something about gaming itself that makes such factors less relevant than they might seem. You see, we were escaping. The only thing we brought into that magical world was a set of sensibilities shaped by what we liked and what we didn’t like—about fantasy fiction, and about some of the gaming worlds being offered us. If we then stole from seemingly disconnected sources to inspire our own gaming sessions, was simply a reflection of our imaginations using anything and everything at our disposal, since both of us were creating for an audience of one, and that ‘one’ had fucking high standards.

     Let’s go back to what most would consider the basic look and feel of traditional role-playing games. The first games we played were set in the AD&D world, and we almost immediately clashed with the class and alignment rules set in place by Gary Gygax. We recognized them, you see, because we’d read fantasy fiction; but now those particular gaming rules were in turn affecting most of the new fantasy fiction at the time (with notable exceptions). The tropes were bleeding back and forth, yet the literary foundation was fifty years old. We recoiled, I think, from what we perceived as an ossification of the genre (I could go off on a tangent now and talk about Glen Cook, but do recall, his Black Company novels were not widely-read the first time they came out; even more-so for his Dread Empire stuff—he seemed a lone voice in the crowd, but for a while there he was the only one we were prepared to listen to).

     Beyond even the class definitions and the alignment rules, there were other game-set elements finding form in contemporary fantasy fiction: the quest group (of course acknowledging the LOTR biofeedback thing going on here); the standardization of good and evil—the actual birth of the Dark Lord cliché was right there in front of us (and the only real interesting take on that one was from Donaldson, but how much of that was from the sheer power of his writing?); and of course the un-killable hero.

     It was as if the two forms of entertainment were doing little more than reinforcing each other, on virtually every level. Me and Cam, well, we railed at it, all of it. It drove us to distraction. Frustrated us, infuriated us. The closest I ever got to Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms was when I bought the box game set for the latter (I think this was before the novels came out). I well recall this—we were living in James Bay, in Victoria. We opened the box up and took out the maps while sitting in a Mexican restaurant. Ten minutes later I was as close as I have ever been to publicly burning someone else’s creation.

     No doubt I will take hits and get flamed a few million times for that comment. No matter. It’s not like I really care. On one level, if you ask what was the effect RPGs had on my fantasy novels, I could answer: they showed us the face of the enemy. But there’s more to this, and in fact that reply of mine is not entirely accurate. You see, we were already gaming by this point: we were old hands at it, in fact. And we’d moved on to a more flexible gaming system (GURPS), one which did away with classes and alignments and had an interesting magic system. What bothered us was the reworking of every fantasy cliché imaginable, all in one package now, and none of it made sense. Neither were we unmindful that what we were seeing in that pretty box was a kind of summary, an encapsulation: we knew the language it was speaking; we just didn’t want to speak it anymore.

     Intense gaming sears the tropes into the brain, even when you’re working against them. The patterns of recognition are set: one can either slide right in and do nothing new, or one can take the whole mess by the throat and give it a shake. Ambition, arrogance and youth all go together, don’t you know.

     So much for background: the stuff we shared, Cam and me; stuff we’ve since talked out. Time to move on. What did I carry over into my writing from those RPGs we played out? Note the distinction: there is role-playing gaming, and then there is the gaming we did. The first is AD&D and all its subsets, it’s the thing that’s out there, still thriving, still inviting fans of fantasy to define their characters by class, their goodness or their evilness, and still sending them off on quests for loot and adventure. How pervasive is this structure? It rules the show for most console and computer-based gaming—we ‘level up.’ Well, to ‘level up’ is an AD&Dism. We use points or whatever to generate our character, balancing attributes like intelligence, wisdom, agility, etc. This is all AD&D, right down to the clothes you put on that generated on-screen character. We do team-playing and assemble those teams on the basis of various talents to make the group well-rounded and capable of meeting any threat, a ‘balanced party’. In other words, in terms of entertainment, from film to on-screen gaming to novels, AD&D has been a pervasive defining force: and as much as I may have found its strictures frustrating, let me say it plain: Gygax was a genius. He systematized LOTR and that system has extended through numerous forms of entertainment (Counter Strike anyone?), and for all its initial strictures, it is malleable, adaptable beyond belief. It has, in fact, moved far beyond fantasy itself.

     In our own gaming, we took from AD&D the most basic tenets of gaming: we created characters, assigned values to their basic attributes, physical and mental; we selected from a list of talents and skills and put ‘points’ into them to shape our character’s abilities. We invented stories and plotlines involving contests and goals, and to gauge success we rolled the damned die. This sounds basic, but it is fundamental. Where we deviated was in the details, in creating a viable world with cultures and histories that made sense to us. We then spiced it with other stuff, be it inspired by war literature, tragedies, films, and so on.

     This all became the grounding of the fictional world we then created, and those who have gamed well see the basic gaming elements at work in our tales. To be specific: the Malazan Empire was founded in a tavern called Smiley’s in an island city: its core of players were a balanced party of sorcerers, fighters, assassins, thieves and priests. The events in the city of Darujhistan leading up to the night of fete were all gamed, and again we had balanced groups (Kruppe, Coll, Murillio and Rallick; Whiskeyjack, Mallet, Fiddler, Hedge, Quick Ben and Kalam; and so on). The squad finale of The Crippled God, the tenth and final novel of the series, was gamed.

     So, I can rail at the clichés established by AD&D, but man, they’re in my fucking blood, like it or not. I use them. All. The. Time. And lo, it’s not a problem. In fact, I depend on them: as my readers know, in the Malazan series there’s scant else for them to connect with at first glance. And even as readers get a handle on them, I mess them up.

     The role of AD&D is seminal to modern fantasy fiction. If anything, its influence is so vast it can be hard to get a handle on it. As for me, why, I miss gaming. But I found, during the writing of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, I could not quite both game and write. They drew from the same well, I think. The same narrative impulse, the same thirst for adventure, the same delight in characterization.

     For what it is worth: all you gamers out there, go to it. And if I dare offer advice, make a point of creating characters unlike you and unlike each other—stretch yourself. Step into unfamiliar shoes and see out from unfamiliar eyes. It’s good for the soul.

Cheers

Steven Erikson

Commentary — Endgame Vol. 1 and 2 by Derrick Jensen

     The ramble below initially began as a personal letter to the author of Endgame by Derrick Jensen, published in 2006 by Seven Stories Press,a multi-volume treatise on civilization and its non-sustaining nature.  It was basically written in two parts, the first being an ongoing commentary written while reading the books; and the second part a more direct ‘letter’ which I wrote after giving Jensen’s positions considerable thought, in particular his notions of how environmental destruction can end through the active destruction of civilization.

     Initially, I was responding to various assertions Jensen made regarding what he sees as the idyllic and only sustainable form of human culture: the hunter/gatherer society; and later to his avowed desire to return humanity to that state of existence.  With respect to his observations on the psychotic nature of civilization, I actually have no argument: his vision is a clear one.  Where I took exception was with his ‘solutions,’ namely, bringing down civilization.

     I finally managed to get this letter sent to Jensen, via email, but his responses were sufficiently terse to a) suggest he had not read through what I had written, or b) simply was not interested in engaging in any form of dialogue.  I did not pursue the matter and these two files sat unopened on my hard-drive … until now.

     I stumbled over them during a recent bout of archiving stuff I’d written (and saved), and since I am aware of a certain paucity of original material on the eponymous website, it occurred to me that I could store these letters in a kind of online archive, on my site.

     So, here it is.  I suspect it will be only of interest to readers out there who are familiar with Jensen’s work, and his cause.  For those who aren’t, well, perhaps there is enough in these passages to give you asense of his position, and of course, mine.

     Feel free to comment.

     Cheers
     Steven Erikson

     I write novels under the name of Steven Erikson.  I am nearing completion of a ten book Fantasy series entitled ‘The Malazan Book of the Fallen.’  These novels are set on a fictitious world that is Homeric in nature—magic and meddling gods—but at a technological level somewhere around late Roman Empire.  Progress has stalled, as magic has supplanted technological innovation.  Unfortunately, magic is also highly destructive. While these epic novels seek to portray a history in an entertaining style, the underlying themes concern the life cycles of cultures and civilizations(including those of nonhumans) against the backdrop of environmental degradation.

Endgame: Volume I The Problem of Civilization
Seven Stories Press (USA)

     Before becoming a full-time writer, I worked as anarchaeologist for eighteen years (and still find myself on digs when time andopportunity permits).  In that career I worked in central Canada (Northwestern Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan) and in Belize, Central America.  My specialties (pretty much by default) included stone technology, rock art, and surveying (in the latter I seem to have a knack for finding sites).  I make full use of this experience and the perspective it has given me when writing my fantasy novels.

     Two days ago while in my local bookstore the cover of your book, Endgame, caught my eye.  Two things sold me on the book—the subtitle and the fact that it was Volume One, which implied to me an author with a grand vision (something that, for obvious reasons, I find appealing).

     Taking it home and opening it up, I found the twenty premises.  I was floored.

     In the fourth novel in my series I introduced, rather brutally, a character emerging from an isolated tribal culture, who finds himself first a slave, then an escaped slave, within the far larger world of civilization of which he previously knew nothing.  He ultimately concludes, after numerous travails, that civilization is an abomination, and so he vows to destroy it.

     As this character is terse and rather inarticulate, he rarely expounds on the reasons for his conclusion.  As the author, however, I needed to give much thought to such matters.

     So, in seeing and now reading your book, I find myself shaking my head again and again, as I see you make the same observations I have made; yet where I work through the vehicle of fiction to express the fullest range of emotions I am feeling (sometimes my series feels like a ten thousand page requiem for our species, or a long, drawn-out howl verging on utter despair; as I search in desperation for moral gestures of humanity, no matter how small, no matter how momentary, in the midst of self-inflicted carnage), you have done away with the pretense of the ‘other world.’

     I am about two hundred pages into your book, and I would like to take the opportunity to comment as I go—without expectation of any engagement on your part—in the hopes that my observations will be of interest to you.

     1.  Northwest indigenous cultures were something of an aberration in the Americas, primarily because the subsistence base was extraordinarily fecund.  While it possessed functional mechanisms for maintaining that base, there is no possible certainty that such a system, barring absolute isolation, would have persisted unchanged.  Of this, more later.

     2.  It is perhaps comforting to view the Hunter/Gatherer culture as the ideal system for humanity’s survival in a balanced, self-sustaining environment.  Without doubt, it remains the longest-lasting system in human history, and clearly the post-city-state forms continuing to this day will not prove anywhere near as successful (for all the reasons discussed in your book); but that longevity did not come from some inherently unique virtue of the life style.  Hunter/Gatherer groups that persisted into modern times are universally peripheral groups.  In other words, they have been pushed into regions unsuitable for anything but the hunter/gatherer style of living (which is why, as technology advances, these regions continue to shrink).

     The loci where horticulture and animal husbandry first emerged all reveal evidence of similar periods of transition from a previously existing hunter/gatherer system.  Both horticulture and animal husbandry are products of necessity, survival mechanisms.  Neither constituted an ‘improvement’ in the quality of living among the people concerned.  They were more labour intensive; they wore out bodies, wore out teeth, created rich environments for contagion and parasites—basically, they killed people in ways not experienced by the hunter/gatherers.  They also created hierarchies that had not previously existed.  So, if the new lifestyle was in fact more miserable than the previous one, why choose it?

     The answer is found in the faunal remains excavated at such transition sites.  Basically, the hunter/gatherers had no choice.  They’d depleted the wild game and other resources they traditionally depended upon—they were, in fact, too efficient.  To put it another way: we as a species are too efficient.

     Necessity forced the capture and control of prey animals. Necessity established the notion of territorial possession—ground to break, seeds to plant, harvest to reap—and from this rose the imperative to protect and defend that territory.  At precisely the same time as the first sedentary villages appeared, so too did walls and fortifications.

Endgame: Volume II Resistance
Seven Stories Press (USA)

     3.  City-states and empires existed in the Americas long before European contact, revealing the cycle of rise and fall with all the endemic destruction of civilizations the world over.  I recall standing on a pyramid in the Guatemalan jungle (back in ’83), during the modern civil war (that had everything to do with land), and perversely feeling a strange optimism.  After all, when the Mayan Priest-King stood where I was standing, only a few centuries ago, he could see the vast expanse of his demesne—planted fields out to every horizon.  I’m sure he believed it would last forever (just as we believe our civilization will last forever, that we are somehow exempt from the rise and fall cycle that afflicted every previous civilization).  He didn’t realize that his culture was unsustainable.  That it was destined to collapse even before European contact.  He believed as did the pre-Inca civilizations in Peru and Chile.  Why did I feel optimistic?  Because I was surrounded in jungle.  The natural world had reclaimed everything.  It had healed, and in a very short time.

     Agriculture was already making inroads in North America by the time Europeans arrived.  If not for the return of the horse, nomadic hunting, warrior societies like the Teton Sioux and the Lakota and the Comanche, would all have converted to horticulture, as did many of their neighbours, for example the Mandan.  The horse opened the Great Plains to native hunters.  Prior to its arrival, bison hunts occurred on the peripheral regions of the Great Plains, taking advantage of the herds’ seasonal migrations.  With the horse, hunters could chase those herds into the very heart of the grasslands.  In addition to this cultural revolution centered on the bison hunt, the warrior cultures quickly comprehended that raiding farming communities was far more rewarding than actually adopting farming for themselves.  The Hopi, Navajo, Mandan and countless other nascent farming tribes in North America were under sustained assault from the horse-warrior tribes; and even here the situation was growing dire.  Genocide was forcing farmers to abandon their way of life.  Some simply took up the raiding habits of their belligerent neighbours (as did a number of the Apache sub-tribes). Others vanished.

     By the time of the first major inroads of Europeans into heartland America, the indigenous nations were in the midst of very tumultuous times.  The Lakota had been driven south by the Ojibwa and the Cree.  Until they acquired the horse, they were in fact on their way out; suddenly they were on the ascent.  By the time of the Sioux Wars, the Lakota were at the apogee of their culture, and had already exterminated a number of rivals.

     It’s risky to romanticize the pre-contact cultures of the Americas.  One thing that haunted me and haunts me to this day is the nature of the empires of Central and South America.  In their essence (as far as I can see), they were psychotic civilizations (amazingly, Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto’ film portrayed this descent into hell beautifully, if that word can be used to describe such brutal insanity).  And they were intrinsically formed to catastrophically self-destruct.

     4.  I am sure you are aware of the book, 1491, which describes the nature of the Americas prior to contact.  This book recounts the circumstances of the collapse of the cultures of the New World.  One section chimed chillingly with the evidence I have observed firsthand: at bison kill-sites.  In the period between initial European contact and subsequent explorations and settling, the indigenous human populations of the Americas dropped by as much as ninety percent, as those populations were genetically resistant to parasites rather than diseases (the opposite to Old World populations).  When explorers spoke of idyllic Edens on the east coast, they were describing depopulated wilderness.  They also made note of all the abandoned villages (not just the US east coast, but up the Amazon as well). When explorers wrote of bison herds stretching from horizon to horizon on the Great Plains, they were in fact witnessing the effect of the virtual elimination of the primary predator—humans.  Bison in their tens of millions were an anomaly.

     There is a bison jump site in Wyoming that was used extensively just before and then after European contact.  It’s a small one, a sinkhole, in fact, and so could not take down large percentages of the herd. Accordingly, the animals killed in the jump were thoroughly processed—nothing that could be used was left behind.  Contrast this with one of the longest used bison jumps in North America: Head-Smashed-In in Alberta, Canada (worth a visit, by the way).  There are gaps in the usage of this site, but in the broader sense it was continually used for about eight thousand years.

     In times of plenty, the killed bison were barely processed at all.  There was such a glut of dead animals that the butchery became highly selective (tongues, hoofs, etc).  The rest was left to rot.  Needless to say, such slaughter resulted in feast/famine cycles (thus explaining the gaps in usage).

     With the return of the horse the last subspecies of bison resident on the Great Plains was essentially fucked.  It had run out of places to hide.  If not for massive depopulation of humans, they would probably have joined bison antiquus and bison occidentalis.  Not to mention mammoths, giant sloths, etc (and the rival predator species dependent upon them).

     The tool-kit we find at sites reflects the transition: in the Paleo period the spear-points are big, to suit big game.  By the Archaic period, following the extinction of the big game, the spear-points get small, to suit the animals left.

     Archaeology and paleoanthropology are disciplines engaged in a rather awkward dance round more than one giant elephant (or mammoth, if you will) standing in the middle of the room.  It is not the cultural habits of a people that determine value judgements of virtue and vice.  Hunter/Gatherers are not implicitly more ethical than city-states (except perhaps in the context of human relations [and that has more to do with the imperative of maintaining the status quo in a self-limiting, communal society]—definitely not in the context of resource exploitation).  I have excavated scores of New World sites—we dig up their garbage.  It is of course mostly biodegradable (barring stone waste and fired clay), so not much survives.  I have also camped near a still-active Wild Rice harvesters’ campsite (a traditional activity still practiced by local native groups), and found that future archaeologists would have no trouble recovering artifacts—the place was a garbage dump of cans, tinfoil, bottles and plastic.  Is this the result of a destroyed indigenous culture? No, it is the continuation of a traditional practice, that of throwing your crap away and not giving a fuck.

     In paleoanthropology, there is presently a huge debate regarding the extinction of the Neanderthals.  It turns out that said extinctions of various populations of Neanderthals throughout their range occurred at different times within a certain window.

     In this respect, I see civilization as but a particularly efficient expression of what has always been with us (and may be implicit in all life—even the virus kills its host and then moves on).  The primary distinction between hunter/gatherers and the hierarchical systems that followed was one of efficacy.  Hunter/gatherers could alter and manage their environment to some extent (and we may look at large mammal extinctions in the New World around the period of the first specialized big-game hunters, the Clovis Culture, as an example of that); but never to the extent that horticulturalists, pastoralists and agriculturalists could.  The fundamental urge was/is one of control and stability, which together comprised safety.

     We desire stability and security above all else, even love. The tragedy lies in the very short-sightedness of such concepts as stability and security.  Stability requires stasis, the kind of gesture to achieve equilibrium that we see in a deer caught in the headlights.  Security measures safety in moments, not weeks, not months, not even years.

     Culture is the pursuit of these two things above all else, which is why it is universally incapable of collectively focusing on the long-term.  Individually, we are generally forced to such long-term considerations after the traumatic annihilation of all immediate stability and security, and even then we seek the first place of safety we can find—somewhere from which to take measure, to recover what we can of our equilibrium.  It seems likely that our species will, as you say, suffer a corresponding trauma, that of collapse.  There will be those who escape, who hunker down, and likely survive.  Most won’t.

     As I mentioned earlier, sometimes I just want to howl.

     I recall a ‘holy fuck’ moment from a few years back.  Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.  We were staying at a B&B and the owner, a transplanted businessman from Calgary, upon hearing that I was an archaeologist, excitedly told us of two sites just outside the park boundaries but on community pasture.  He drew us maps.  One site was a tipi ring site; the other an unexcavated bison jump.  The tipi ring site was closest so we headed there first.

     Tipi rings leave me crushed—for this reason:  they consist of a ring of boulders once used to hold down the sides of a tipi, and to stand beside one is to look down on evidence of the last natives who ever camped there. The very last.  Forever.  What had been part of a seasonal round, used year after year for countless generations, was over.  Such places are desolate, ineffably forlorn.  In such places, I often weep.

     The site was off a section road.  We arrived with two thunderheads massing in the sky, but by their trajectories both would miss us. A storm had passed earlier that left at least one cow lying legs in the air in the pasture on the other side of the road, lightning-struck.  On this trip, it was just my wife and me (our son was at camp).  As we walked over the unbroken prairie towards an old, abandoned radio tower on concrete feet, I scanned the ground, seeking out the telltale boulder rings.  Instead, I started making out someone else.  As did my wife, who drew close when she saw me light a cigarette—something I normally don’t do at prehistoric sites.  But the remnants I saw surrounding us, sharing the hill top with the defunct tower, belonged to a Medicine Wheel.  A big one, mostly destroyed.  Off to our left was a small cairn of boulders.  This was a holy site, and we were trespassing.

     We returned to the car and headed overland, off road, to the bison jump.  Seeing it for the first time, I could not believe my eyes.  A huge section of the cliff had collapsed into the valley, burying most of the kill zone but exposing masses of bones nonetheless.  Looters had dug a few holes here and there, looking for ‘arrow-heads’ but my attention was more on the bones themselves.  Because two animals haunt my dreams.  Bears and bison.  And their respective habitats haunt my dreams as well; boreal forest and the grasslands.

     I found plenty of bones, but very few butcher marks.  Most of the horns had been left behind as well, as had the hoofs (plenty of toe bones).  There were a lot of juveniles.  Generally, the animal remains found at the actual kill-site comprise those left unprocessed, as the area of processing meat, skin, marrow, etc are generally off to one side, up-wind of the kill-site.

     We found a few arrowheads (actually, spear-points), of a style known as Oxbow, which dates to around 4000 years ago.  The vista at the head of the jump was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.  Directly below, however, was a place of death, and wanton waste.  If the hunters spoke to the bison, they had nothing good to say.

     Despite this, the grasslands do indeed possess a kind of beauty even in the midst of their unnatural desolation.  You can still find pronghorn antelope, jack rabbits, red-tail hawks, prairie dogs, mule deer and coyotes.  Just no bison.  And no Plains Cree.

     That was a day of two ‘holy fucks’ and they have marked me for good.  And I came away feeling closer to the indigenous peoples of this land (I’ve worked and lived alongside many)—just as profligate as the rest of us, after all.  A sobering feeling.  And closeness here does not imply comfort of any sort.

     The East Coast of North America was crowded with confederations and nascent nation-states when the Europeans arrived—and those native groups were warring with each other over the usual things: territory and the resources in that territory.  The Moche and the Aztecs repressed countless peoples.  The Inca carried little children to mountain tops and smashed their skulls in.  The Maya drugged virgins and threw them into cenotes.  The Puebla and their pre-cursors ate each other—and lovely as the view from those cliff-face towns are, they were built there for self-defense.  Long before the Dutch arrived, the inhabitants of a chain of islands in a Pacific archipelago were locked in an endemic war that resulted in genocide and enslavement.  The first human colonists of Easter Island gave us all the perfect analogy for resource depletion and the collapse that followed.  The colonization by humans of Australia and New Zealand (and Madagascar) resulted in the extinctions of most large animals—by hunter/gatherers, no less.

     It is simply too easy to ascribe all vice upon a dominant civilization, and lather thick the virtues of less-dominant ones (indigenous or otherwise, especially since the notion of ‘indigenous’ is something of a misnomer: ultimately, we’re all indigenous to Africa).  The distinction depends upon efficacy and capacity—but even the smallest group capable of sustaining itself can exhibit the fullest range of human traits one might consider insensitive, reprehensible and ultimately suicidal.

     Whew.

     

     The second ‘letter’ was written after reading Volumes I and II of Endgame. The tone shifts from the personal to rather more academic, as I was more consciously engaged in formulating an argument, rather than simply observing; and my audience had shifted from Jensen himself to … someone else)…

     

     As much as it makes my skin crawl to say this, let us assume that Jensen’s vision of the idyllic future of hunter/gatherer subsistence for the chosen few, arriving as a consequence of the active destruction of civilisation, is somehow confirmed as viable, how do we get there?  Before I address that, let’s look at the initial assumption.  It is predicated on the notion that such cultures existed and thrived in the past (to which I would point out that yes, they existed, and might even be seen to have thrived, indeed for a very long time, but that life in that system was far from idyllic; one need only look at the paleo-forensic evidence to see the signs of stress, injury, periods of deprivation and malnutrition, and endemic diseases and parasitic invasion, to know that life was hard and plagued with suffering and misery. And as soon as strategies arrived that had the potential to mitigate that difficult existence, those who could jumped at them).  Whether such an idyllic existence existed in the past is, however, not really the point.  The point is, and this is what Jensen is precisely addressing, how do we return to it, given the planet’s present condition?

     The answer is, we can’t.  We have long since passed the point of no return.  Let us now look at the possible scenarios to reaching Jensen’s goal  (and this goal is born of the heartfelt desire to save the wild animals of the world).  In the broadest sense, there are two.  Both are dependent on a radical depopulation of the human species, down to perhaps one or two percent of the present population.  The distinction lies in how we get there, and it is in that distinction on which everything hinges.

     Hunter-Gatherers need something to hunt and something to gather.  Without them, the hunter-gatherer starves.  Accordingly, for that last one or two percent of humanity left after the fall of civilisation, there needs to be enough animals left to hunt and eat; and there needs to be abundant edible plants to harvest and maintain.  Having one and not the other is of course possible, as with the traditional Inuit or strictly vegetarian cultures (not that many of those ever truly existed), but these were very specific in their characteristics. And for the populations in question, biological adaptation was a crucial factor in survival.  Finally, the biome being exploited was in each instance fecund enough to sustain viable (if small) populations, all other things being equal (i.e. the presence of ice).

     What will those hardy survivors of civilization’s end eat? The answer to that depends on how the other ninety-eight percent died; more specifically, on how quickly they died.  If civilisation falls with minimal loss of life, or if it crumbles over a matter of a few years or even a decade or so, then we are looking at six billion very hungry people.  What will they eat when the last stockpiles of processed food are gone?  Why, they will eat everything (a present-day corollary can be found in the Congo, where civilization has already collapsed).  They’ll start with the best stuff first: every animal wild and domestic they can track down and slaughter.  Once those are all gone, they’ll turn to lesser creatures—those more difficult to capture or of little or no nutritional value.  And finally, when they too are all gone, when every forest is silent, when the skies are truly empty, they will turn to the last source of food available to them: each other.

     This scenario, of slow or gradual collapse, will in fact trigger an absolute extinction of every wild and domestic animal on Earth, concluding with us.

     Those people who did what they could to prepare for the end will find themselves under siege.  They will live (for a time) in heavily fortified enclaves, desperately defending their livestock, seed-store and harvest, and indeed, the delicious biomass that is their family and friends. Equally (or better) armed raiders—getting hungrier by the moment—will descend upon those enclaves in ever more desperate waves of need.  And attrition will tell in the end.  The bullets will run out; the defenses will be breached; defenders will die; and even if all that is survived, all the livestock will have been stolen, and malnutrition and disease will descend. Medicines will run out or expire, losing efficacy.  Eventually, should the enclave prevail and survive the year or two of absolute horror, they will be looking upon a lifeless world.  They will have eaten the last attacker shot or speared to death.  At which point, they had better pray to whatever hard-eyed gods they’ve rediscovered, that the climate’s deterioration doesn’t then hit them with drought, because they have no reserves.  If, for whatever reason, their crops fail, they will all die.

     Jensen advocates taking down civilisation piece by piece, hydroelectric dam by microwave tower, Wal-Mart by oil tanker.  He advocates a steady destruction, at some point reaching a threshold of zeal so that the point of no return is finally reached, and it all crashes into ruin.  That sounds like a slow process to me.  In fact, it sounds like the perfect recipe for the violent slow-death scenario I have just described.

     No, one needs to knock off ninety-eight percent of humanity through something faster, fast enough to leave populations of wild animals mostly intact.  Nuclear Armageddon won’t do it, since it’ll likely kill most of those animals.  So what are we left with?  Conventional wars take too long.  No, what we need is something biological.  Let’s call it the Ultimate Plague. Maybe it’s diabolically created and released to do its work; maybe it’s the inevitable consequence of overuse of antibiotics; maybe it just shows up.  But it needs to be virtually untreatable.  It needs to kill everyone, well, almost everyone.  Leave us a few to inherit the hunter-gatherer idyll.  Of course, the Ultimate Plague doesn’t skip the Chosen, the ones with well-stocked hidey-holes and an arsenal on their cellar wall; nor the ones in their happy communes busy learning the old ways of living.  Presumably, unless someone climbs inside a sealed bubble and stays there for as long as necessary, or takes to the hills (but then, there’s Bill the neighbour doing the same thing, damn him), the Ultimate Plague will disregard even those boundaries of righteousness and moral purity.  Since that is the case, then, there is no guarantee that the ones who survive the plague also happen to be people capable of surviving in a wild, uncivilized world.  At least there is one consolation to this scenario: the wild animals return.  Earth recovers from our manic depredations.  And maybe one percent of the one percent surviving the Ultimate Plague then manage to eke out a living for a while longer.

     This latter scenario, in fact, is the only one with the potential to achieve what Jensen wants.  But, as one can see, its outcome is neither controllable nor ideal, and most certainly it is not guaranteed to create a hunter-gathering utopia of harmony and perpetual sustainability.

     Well now.

     Let’s reiterate.  I run through these thoughts:  Jensen wants spasms of destruction, ultimately leading to the fall of civilization, and with that fall, the end of humanity’s ever expanding front of destruction upon the natural world.  I fully understand his sentiment, and I understand as well, his need for attacking those skeptics who hold to a darker view of human nature—a view so much darker that many of them have concluded we’re not worth saving.  That conclusion infuriates him and he heaps no end of scorn upon such believers, primarily because he views such a conclusion as a convenient excuse for inaction. 

     He has a vision.  It is born of a collection of beliefs in the world that once was, the world that preceded this present civilization.  It is a collection of beliefs imbued with denial, ignorance, wishful thinking and whole heaps of noble-savage romanticism.  But he needs it, for without it he can offer no viable alternative to our present mess.  Without it, there is no light at the end of the bone-walled tunnel.  Accordingly, he reserves his most vicious attacks for those who, in seeing what he sees with respect to the un-sustainability of modern civilisation, most egregiously arrive at a conclusion fundamentally different from his own; specifically, that a backward step to hunter/gathering is unworkable and doomed to fail; and secondly, that the destruction of modern civilization serves no purpose and will in no way achieve an earthly paradise for the chosen.

     But I need to make a slight correction on that last point. The destruction of modern civilization as advocated by Jensen does serve a purpose.  Alas, it has nothing to do with saving the wild world.  Rather, the sentiment being exercised is one of personal satisfaction.  It is, in fact, about vengeance.  Vengeance as a virtue; vengeance as the mobilized hand of Nature swinging down to destroy the destroyers, to slay the slayers.  It is, in essence, the hand of God’s wrath. 

     But look at this objectively.  He actually has righteousness on his side, because civilization is really making a mess of things.  He also has the biblical imperative of an eye for an eye, hard and cold justice against the sinners, and oceans of blood miraculously parting to guide his chosen few out of the ravaged, death-worshipping hell he has both helped to bring down (civilization) and thereafter helped to create (in the messy ashes of post-civilization).

     So, it is important to attack and denigrate those people (environmentalists, scientists, writers, etc.) who—seeing what he sees—then possess the audacity of seeking another way through the ongoing wreck that is civilisation.  Who, indeed, see no value in destruction per se (for it will not win a brave new world for anyone), and therefore endeavour to participate in civilization and therein seek to mitigate its destructive nature.

     There’s another way of looking at this: it is worthy and indeed imperative that we save the wildness of our world; and accordingly, we need to continue fighting the good fight.  At the same time, what little conscience civilization possesses is the only thing keeping wild animals and their habitats alive.  Jensen wants to end civilization to save the wild animals, when ending civilization will actually seal the annihilation of every wild animal walking, flying or swimming on this planet.  What irony.

     The present situation?  How fares the health of modern civilization?  There may be some blips of recovery, but in essence we’re going down.  We cannot sustain our present lifestyle but we’re not willing to surrender it, and so we proceed as we have always done, and it’s killing the planet and with it, us.  Blowing up dams and Wal-Marts will only make the fall that much uglier, and the wild creatures of the world will suffer as a consequence of this appalling virtue of vengeance.  Finding clean energy alternatives and boycotting the destructive, de-humanizing underpinnings of iniquitous manufacture and trade systems, might—just might—hold the wolves of expansion at bay for a little while longer.

     There is no question that things cannot continue unchanged: we are fast reaching our limits and more than one threshold has already been crossed.  Is there a solution?  Is there a way through to a new and viable way of living?  I wish I knew, but frankly—and I truly hate to say this—Jensen doesn’t have a workable answer.

     Wisdom doesn’t come cheap.  Sometimes it arrives too late. But even then, it will find its expression, forcing the changes that need forcing, finding ways through that simply didn’t exist before.  What can civilisation do to help?  It can house and protect wisdom; more importantly, it can make available the resources needed to put that wisdom into practice.  Without that cocoon, wisdom yields nothing.  Standing in the wreckage of a destroyed civilization, whatever satisfaction the scene yields soon fades.  What takes its place?  An empty stomach. Wisdom doesn’t come cheap, and sometimes it arrives too late.   Mister Jensen: take a step back and give this some more thought.  Surrender those most cherished hopes and beliefs about what was and what might be again.  You’re a smart man and if anyone can find a way through, it’s you.  But destroying civilization?  It may satisfy, but it wins nothing, and doing it will kill the very things you love and value above all else.

     Finally, let’s say you win.  You lead your crusade of destruction and manage to bring it all down.  Though I do possess survival skills, I don’t really expect to personally survive the terrible age that will follow.  No matter.  I’ll give you this word of advice.  In your army there will be many soldiers who care nothing about saving the world, people or wild animals.  They’re in it because they like destroying things.  They get off on it.  Best keep a loyal friend guarding your back, because those soldiers will turn on you.  Sooner or later, they will turn on you.  If you’ll forgive the corporate analogy, you can bank on it.  On the rarest of occasions, vengeance can be a virtue.  Mostly, it’s anything but.

     Good luck.