Art and Bitterness

December 15, 2022 5 comments

If I were making gallery art I would make a robot that goes around art galleries rating the paintings and an installation of an empty room with 2 monitors in it, one showing machine-generated art produced continuously as quickly as possible, the other looking at the first machine’s product and categorizing it by style, movement, and quality.

That’s all I’ve got to say about the AI art debate, really. There’s some theory behind it, which follows, but if you get it, you can move on to the next blog.


Still here?

  1. there’s some anthropological theory about communication. First, art is communication – that’s clear enough, right? And communication implies at least two communicants – a speaker and a listener. Both of these are active in any act of communication: an utterance (“speech act” in the disciplinary jargon) is not complete until it’s been received. In fact its meaning is not fixed except by the receiver – think of a gift (as Christmas looms). Is it a good gift? Appropriate to the person and occasion? You only know when the receiver smiles. Or a joke – does it serve its purpose? Only the audience can tell you. All speech acts are like this.

    Thus, also, art. Which brings me to a common misunderstanding about AI art: people fixate on the part the machine does, but we humans remain in a partnership with the machine because we select what we think is good out of its products. All the AI art produced so far gets subjected to this process of selection or reception. Without a receiver, it’s not even art, as such. Much like a bicycle is not a mode of transport without someone to ride it.
  2. the craftsmanship has already sailed. When Walter Benjamin philosophized about how industrial production kills the specialness inherent in individual objects, he was observing a process that had already been at work for a century. And he feared that art, as maybe the last bastion of the human trace in the stuff we interact with, was being rendered obsolete by photography (an art based almost entirely on reception, btw). The camera could make images instantly, without even requiring a human operator. And Art (as in gallery art) responded by shifting its value structure, in a way the general public still hasn’t caught up with… about a century ago. Gallery art has spent that century wrestling, more or less angrily or amusingly, with the obsolescence of craftsmanship, until now it’s old hat and there’s simply no agreement about what makes an artwork good. So (as people often state without fully articulating their question) we’re mostly left wondering why the gallery owner/curator chose to show us this rather than that. We’re focused on the receiver, that person being someone other than ourselves.

    Benjamin worried that machines outperform human craftspeople in producing most of the things we use. The one thing human artists had over machines (apart from a quasi-religious value in being human) was the quality of their thought. But AI art promises to replace that in short order – not because the machines are smart but because the receivers of their products either can’t tell the difference or will tend to prefer the machines’ production, while continuing to ignore/discount their own role as selectors. And the more they select, the more the machines will learn what pleases them.
  3. Benjamin’s fixation on the aura of the individual crafted object is hard even to imagine these days: art is already ubiquitous and easy to find, provided you’re happy with its translation into pixels. The internet offers us the world’s biggest library, at our fingertips. If you were thinking of making something, chances are it already exists. You’d just have to search to find it.

    Borges wrote a story – The Library of Babel – about this situation, and about how it might actually be easier to write your own book than to search an almost infinite library for the extant one – even with our modern search tools it’s most likely to be hidden way down in the cheap end of the search results. But AI art promises (perhaps) to short-cut that search. It will make something maybe close enough to what you wanted – close enough that the extra value in making exactly what you want (if, in fact, you are able to achieve that) is a frivolous luxury.

So my modest proposal is, if you’re going to replace the hand, why not also the eye? AI can throw out images at a rate no human viewer can keep up with – the logical next step is to replace the viewer.

But why would you do that? Why even go to the expense and effort of building this machine that does not need a human at any stage? The machine doesn’t need it, either.

That’s why this is a blog post, not a gallery installation. I don’t need to build it in order to question the continuing value of making more art (which has been actively in question for a century).

…so is art – or Art – dead? No, I don’t suppose so. Gallery Art continues to fulfill social and economic functions for those people rich enough to deal in it and it has been demonstrating that it doesn’t even need authors for decades now. As for popular art – the stuff you can retweet from google image search or DeviantArt, well…

I expect it to go through a process like vanillin. Back in the 17th century (when commissioning a portrait told everyone you were important) vanillin commanded a king’s ransom. You could only get it from orchids in Mexico. Louis XIV dazzled his mistresses with it. Then manual pollination allowed it to be transplanted around the world and the middle class could afford it as a treat. Then in the late 19th century someone figured out how to extract it from pine wood and it became a bi-product of the paper industry – one of the cheapest commodities known to man. And now people use the word “vanilla” as a vague insult denoting something with no special qualities, too ubiquitous to be valued. And more vanillin is consumed, in more contexts, than ever before.

Art, like vanilla, is already everywhere. Commercial art is already unwelcome noise in our urban landscape. And there are efforts afoot to make everything a projection surface or, better, an oled screen, capable of surrounding us with movies 24/7. It takes a lot for an image to break through that noise.

Maybe, eventually, we will have less of it. Maybe machines can finally get us there.


I needed to read a few things to write this minor rant. Those things contain much more interesting insights. So I recommend:

Signs of Recognition, by Webb Keane. An anthro study of how people tell their listeners when they really need to listen. Also contains a thorough examination of the speech act process.

Fictions, by Jorge Luis Borges, which includes the dazzling stories The Library of Babel and The Lottery of Babylon, both of which have implications in a thousand astonishing directions.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, by Walter Benjamin. Which seems foolish at first but then he keeps going and it’s… really good in the end after you’ve thought about it for a decade or so.

Learning from James Bond 4: Conclusions

October 6, 2022 2 comments

I promised to find something in this trawl of Bond plots that would be of use to roleplayers, and I guess the first and easiest one is, they provide two dozen worked examples of a recipe for constructing adventures, which we know works.

1. Find something in the real world that makes people angry or scared – there’s plenty to choose from right now: the war in Ukraine, inflation, food shortages, forest fires, hurricanes, oil and gas prices, water pollution, supply chain chokes, anti-abortion activism (or abortion, if you’re that way inclined). It’s best if the mechanism for this thing is a little obscure – if you can already point to a culprit (say, packing the Supreme Court) then there’s no mystery and the solutions become more real-world obvious. If your players are conspiratorially inclined, it’s easier – “the frogs are turning gay” is a grand mystery that demands an explanation.
(If you’re looking for headlines to rip, I should note that there are two absolutely superb Bond plots unfolding as I write – first, the mystery of the exploding Baltic pipelines reads just like a 60s Bond “set the fighting fish against each other” plot, and we don’t know its resolution yet! Second, the Wirecard internet payments scandal seems to trail off into Russian spy involvement and a German government that would rather be conned than shamed.)

2. Try to state the anxiety in the simplest, most immediate terms. “Inflation” is somewhat abstract, but “your money going away” or “scarcity and rising prices,” “not enough food” – that’s a clearer fear.

3. Create someone to blame for it, to serve as your villain. That might not be easy in the case of something obviously impersonal like a volcano or some really collective wrong, like global warming, but then you create someone who wants to make it worse. Financial crises are threats to the money in people’s bank accounts; Goldfinger and Trevelyan want to create another, worse financial crisis, when the viewers are still reeling from one. They work great as lightning rods.

4. Why are they doing this? How can they benefit? Crises can generally be exploited by someone – if you create scarcity, you can profit from higher prices. Destroy a thing and you weaken the people who depend on it. If you can’t think of anything else, just say “terrorists.” In fact if this whole business is making you queasy, just think of something that brings lots of people together (Olympics, royal funerals) and say “terrorists want to attack it.” Done.

5. How are they doing it? This can be completely fantastical – an earthquake machine or a space laser for frying crops or an engineered disease that only attacks the muscles of pro wrestlers. But it must be preventable/reversible, to give your players something to achieve. Who would want to turn the frogs gay? Maybe someone with an engineered frog that they want to spread across the world. A frog that… spreads a disease or soaks up soil nutrients or hypnotizes financiers into making weird decisions. How do you stop it? Blow up the frog factory.

6. Who have they pissed off, who will tell the PCs all about it? OR, what minor part of this operation will catch the PCs’ attention? The earthquake engine requires enormous amounts of powerful magnets, so suddenly there’s a shortage of rare-earth magnets and nobody knows why – go find out. Or a small leak of superfrogs shows up in your bathroom, and then villain mooks attack you to keep you from telling anyone. OR your mysterious cousin who got really into astrology is now making predictions about the future on the local news, and they’re all about Starbucks being poisonous. If your players are really disinclined to investigate things, bring the mystery to them. “A big guy in a black suit and shades is following you. Actually, looks like two. Oh and right up ahead a big black SUV has just stopped across your path.” Why? Turns out you picked up the wrong backpack at the cafe and this one has some weird little glass vials inside.

This is already the complexity of a Bond plot. Bond usually comes into a villain’s scheme sideways: he’s investigating a minor part of the plot, that looks like one thing, then he opens the door into the main plot and discovers it’s bigger and weirder. Then he finds the villain’s disaffected girlfriend or murdered partner’s daughter and she can fill in the blanks.

So how do we make it exciting?

1. Locations – just trawl the world for the craziest places you can find, then have scenes happen in them. You do not have to explain this. The Tokyo flood defenses, an aquarium with underwater tunnels and fighting fish, hotels suspended off mountainsides, the Hoover Dam, whatever.

2. Fights – every time the players penetrate a bit of the plot, goons show up to fight them. Sometimes the relation is obvious – players break into the base, the guards resist. Sometimes the villain acts first and the players are wondering what they did to provoke it. More generally, every 20 minutes of screentime (ie at least once a session), someone wants to fight the players. They can be:

  • the villain’s employees
  • rival investigators (CIA, KGB, Elon Musk’s iPad-wielding assassins)
  • vengeful villain’s enemies, afraid you’ll screw up their assassination plans
  • vengeful villain’s cast-offs, hoping to get back in the villain’s good books by dealing with you
  • law enforcement – either clueless or the villain has told them you’re dangerous.

3. Clear feedback for success. You know you’re getting close when the villain’s own weirdo boss monster bodyguard shows up to kill you. You’re near the base when the first guard turret shows up. Did you kill a courier, but now here he is again? He was really important, that’s why they made a clone factory out of him.

I’m gonna say 2 layers is enough for any normal Bond plot: minor boss leads to major boss. That’s one adventure. And you can make things look more mysterious by tying the adventures together – Sandy Petersen says a good Cthulhu campaign is like an onion, where you start in the center and every successive layer is bigger than the last… but every layer also starts with a small hint – a new minor boss that leads to a new major boss with bigger implications. All your enemies so far have been SPECTRE and you didn’t realise until now.

And this, of course, is why Bond makes such a natural partnership with Cthulhu – the plot structures are the same.

Addendum: Bond villain plots fit the format of Dungeon World’s Fronts so exactly that I can only assume the latter were modeled on the former (or on Bond’s children – Bourne or Marvel plots or similar). So, for instance, Skyfall could be rendered thus:

Adventure Front: Raoul Silva
Cast: Silva (ex 00 agent), Patrice (assassin), goons.
Impulse: to discredit M, then kill her
Impending Doom: M killed, MI6 loses independence, 00 division shut down
Grim Portents:
– Silva’s team steals hard drive with agents’ identities
– …hacks MI6 computers
– …destroys MI6 offices
– Silva captured… but he still has control of computers, so he can escape easily
Silva kills M at Whitehall (NB: Bond prevents this, leading to…)
– repeated attempts to kill M by commando raid (which Bond ensures happens at his old family home)
This whole adventure is a portent for Campaign Front: SPECTRE

Prefer something more… classical?
Adventure Front: Emilio Largo (part of Campaign Front: SPECTRE)
Cast: Largo, Count Lippe, Fiona Volpe
Impulse: blackmail, funding for SPECTRE
Impending Doom: $100 million to be paid to SPECTRE and/or the nuking of 1-2 major NATO cities
Grim Portents:
– French pilot Derval killed, Bond finds his body (Bond causes Lippe’s death by almost capturing him)
– bomber aircraft with 2 atomic bombs goes missing
– Bond meets Largo, is recognized by him
– Largo’s yacht has suspicious underwater hatches, sign of people entering underwater
– Largo captures Bond’s friendly CIA agent Paula Caplan, she dies
– Volpe tries to kill Bond (Volpe killed)
– the first bomb goes off (prevented by Bond raiding yacht)
– ransom increased greatly
– the second bomb goes off

The main thing these fronts don’t have is the stakes question, which is really just “will Bond stop the villains?” Honestly I’m not sure how a stakes question is supposed to differ from an impending doom. Maybe it’s “how will the heroes be changed by this experience, whether or not they win?” In which case, Bond provides slim pickings: as an iconic character his job is not to be changed, especially if he wins. And Bond never loses so the other possibility, of having to learn from failure, is foreclosed.

Learning from James Bond 3: Post-Soviet Chaos and the Age of Rage

October 5, 2022 2 comments

The end of the trilogy! Part 1, part 2.
Between 1989’s License to Kill and 1995’s GoldenEye, the whole edifice of the USSR came down, and with it the environment that made sense of Bond. Throughout the 90s, political scientists were talking about a “unipolar world,” perhaps even “the end of history.” Defense budgets stagnated. Serial killers and Tarantino hitmen became the new sexy bogeymen.

It was the biggest existential threat the Bond franchise ever faced, arguably one from which it has never recovered. Because, like superheroes in general, Bond’s job was to put things back just as they were before the latest upset. Not to win the Cold War but to maintain it. For the first time, the studio was in serious doubt about whether Bond could carry on. It stuck this self-absorbed anxiety right in the mouth of former 006 Sean Bean, who spits across a graveyard of Lenin and Stalin statues:

“Did you ever ask why? Why we toppled all those dictators, undermined all those regimes, only to come home: “Well done, good job, but sorry, old boy, everything you risked your life and limb for has changed.””

That could be Cubby Broccoli or Ian Fleming talking. Or even George H W Bush, who suddenly had nothing to distract people from his Middle East and Latin America machinations, which had always been justified by the “greater evil” of Communism.

Worse, a bunch of pseudo-Bonds had outperformed Bond itself at the box office. With new characters and no massive legacy to weigh them down, they could experiment with different tones and mouthfeels and hatreds, from Arnie’s sneer to Tom Cruise’s sneak to Matt Damon’s deeply uncomfortable biro brawls, the world was awash with action infiltrators fighting their own corporate bosses, less tied to a monolithic external menace that had just gone up in smoke.

For seven years and four films Bond soldiered bravely on, dabbling with disillusionment and “maybe we were the villains all along” plots, but neither Bond’s iconic swagger nor Pierce Brosnan’s smiling mug could carry off a proper Kurt Cobain gloom. NPCs started challenging Bond to demonstrate that he wasn’t a dinosaur (a bit of lampshading that only grew more rococo through the reboot films), but it’s not clear what anyone wanted him to evolve into – he was a dinosaur not because he was incapable of understanding this venal, complex new world but because he was adapted to gnawing on megafauna that had abruptly become extinct.

Luckily in 2001 the zeitgeist changed again – terrorism and reboots were all the rage. Terrorism is the perfect foil for Supermen – it’s right there in the name. Be scared! No, it’s all right, Bond will save you. And George W Bush handily played along: a world leader shouting “be afraid! Give up your liberty for some present security!” gave Bond some room to reassure the public, once again – to be a lesser evil, to show there were grown-ups in charge somewhere. So how did he do?

With the reboot, Bond discovered emotions. And, like a lot of middle-aged men who suddenly discover their emotions, the first one he found was rage. Through the reboot films it has become slowly apparent that he himself is the only grown-up available. Once content to be M’s soldier, a carefree instrument of institutional orders, Bond has slowly become Jeeves to M’s Wooster. MI6 is now the senile mother he has to look after. And, where disposable sex used to be a signifier of Bond’s aloof power, befitting his new single parent status, his new relationships are where his power cracks. So Craig plays Bond with an unrelenting scowl, head thrust forward – he is the lone adult who has to constantly remind the production crew that all this villain-killing is serious business. Where Brosnan baffles the enemy with his unshakeable, quipping cheeriness, Craig dares the enemy to approach the thicket of his abandonment issues.

All that said, he remains a fairly boring character: he’s still too busy saving the day to have any convincing inner life. His “final” film (most comic book characters would have died a dozen times by now, so I’m not holding my breath) gives us the spectacle of what this new Bond does, left to his own devices, and it’s not fanservice sexual conquests. Instead it’s endless conquests over fish and waves: a depressing indictment of the retirement pitch. It’s still up to the villains to drive the stories forward.

Goldeneye (1995) brings the first whiff of distrust against Bond’s old boys’ network, via rogue MI6 agent Alec Trevelyan (the aforementioned Sean Bean), whom Bond himself left for dead. Laundered through the USSR machine, he resurfaces as a ruggedly muscular crime boss. He steals some Very Clever military technology in order to steal… all the money from the Bank of England, then erase all its financial records, covering his theft and destroying the UK economy, like a less ambitious Goldfinger. Now I’m wondering about finger and eye symbolism.

Again, I’m not sure how this theft is supposed to work if the currency is also dead. I guess you sell the entire Bank of England quickly for, say, dollars, then destroy the pound as an act of spite? But wouldn’t that leave a paper trail at the point of buying the dollars? And if it doesn’t, how does anyone know you have the dollars? I expect this plot to be recycled with cryptocurrencies, even less coherently, at least 4 times.

Anxieties are, obviously, (a) does Bond still have an ecological niche? and (b) what value is there more broadly in British institutions – particularly British currency? Britain in 1995 was thoroughly disillusioned with the Tories, and John Major in particular, because over a decade of financial austerity talk since 1979 had resulted in the collapse of the pound and yet another recession. So….. rogue elements in British institutions that are bent on destroying the economy? That was the spectre that got Tony Blair elected in 1997 (I would laugh hollowly here but it’s a distraction from Bond so I won’t). Notably, also, Major and co. had projected a deeply grave air, as they lined their pockets, about the terrible sacrifices everyone would have to make to keep the country afloat. Blair, on the other hand, smiled almost as much as Brosnan. It invited the voters to have confidence that he actually had a plan that would justify his own confidence. The other anxiety here regards the thieves getting away with it, which I’m tempted to say is just long-restrained Thatcher blowback. The McGuffin is a satellite that kills computer records, which definitely suits the paranoia of the post-Thatcher era – that gnawing conviction that all kinds of crimes had been swept under the rug by such an obvious bunch of crooks, which made the accusations against Leon Britten so easy to believe.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) is another rehash of Thunderball, but this time it’s WW3 with China, not the USSR. Who says the Cold War has to be over? Elliot Carver, a “power-mad media mogul,” is the villain: he wants to threaten to start WW3 to support a military coup in China, which will give him sole broadcasting rights in the new regime. Carver is presumably an amalgam of CNN and Rupert Murdoch. The former had scared a lot of politicians during the First Gulf War with its ability to steer policy through ratings; the latter remains a well-known threat to democracy to this day. The writer claimed, however, that the main inspiration was the bête noire of British media, Robert Maxwell, who had fallen off his yacht 6 years before and couldn’t sue. His daughter may yet show up in another Bond plot. The David and Goliath choice of little Britain as the phantom antagonist to emergent mighty China rests entirely on the destabilizing potential of nuclear weapons, which casts Britain as something of an unwitting terrorist state at the mercy of technocrats – or maybe the point is to reassure people that Britain’s missiles still work. Fears about loose nukes in the ruins of the Soviet Union are made explicit in the film’s opening pitch, when Bond, attending a terrorists’ weapons auction, has to rescue some airplane carrying nuclear missiles from a passing bomb blast.

In terms of anxieties, Tomorrow has a lot going on. It starts by reminding the audience that 1960s-style hair-trigger holocausts grow more likely, not less, with less control over nuclear weapons. Then it adds the new ubiquity and unreliability of instant news sources – a point that finally punctured the US’s social consciousness in 2016, but which was made eloquently in the same year Tomorrow came out by Mamet’s Wag the Dog, in which CNN invents a war out of whole cloth to manipulate a US election. The prospect of obviously-criminal news empires starting wars to boost ratings should have scared people more, but I guess it just seemed too surreal and improbable to sink in, in 1997.

The World Is Not Enough (1999) involves booby-trapped money, a personal friend of M who turns out to have an ambiguously-terrorist daughter, Elektra King, and post-Soviet fallout in the person of “Renard, a KGB agent-turned-terrorist.” The plot is all about Central Asian oil and gas pipelines – which still cause anxiety today but were the most pressing of issues in the late 90s (The BTC pipeline, long thought to be politically impossible, was finally completed in 2005, resolving a period of massive political and economic uncertainty (which is back again today). The film was made during its construction, when a dozen other pipeline plans for connecting Kazakhstan’s gas fields to the sea were in development, including some that passed through Afghanistan, leading to meetings between the Taliban and US government in the 90s).

Renard and Elektra want to nuke the Bosphorus (incidentally sealing its enormously important waterway) in order to disrupt a fictional but credible Istanbul pipeline and promote the villain’s alternative pipe. Bond has to go to Kazakhstan to find this out… but in order to look at nuclear missiles, not gas mines. Still, the connection is made. There’s a lot of perplexity about who to trust and whether a sexy woman can really be the central villain (which is a sort of feminist point, I guess), but thank god there’s a simple economic explanation underneath it all: Elektra’s pipeline stock depends on stopping the competitors.

Bond decides Elektra really is the villain and kills her, after she threatens to behead him, which is pretty art-history literate, for a Bond film. Confusingly, the villain’s bomb does go off at the end of the film, but somehow not in the right place to interrupt the all-important gas flow? And not hard enough to stop Bond claiming his reward in the form of hot nuclear scientist Dr. Christmas Jones. Which I guess is mild by the standards of Bond girl pun names. Anyway, don’t eat fish in Istanbul, in Bond’s world.

It’s tempting to say energy security was the anxiety behind the film but the public really doesn’t feel anxious about that unless it’s interrupted (I say as we go into winter with no Russian gas for Europe). Instead, I think the driving fear is of the ubiquitous murky criminality of big business. Previously, Bond’s very rich criminals were all neatly labeled – there was the clean world of legitimate business and then there were vile, immoral gangsters, with their weirdo muscleman bodyguards. But here, nice men like M and his friend can be put in danger by money from unclear (post-Soviet) sources. Crime mafias are becoming, or taking over, states (particularly post-Soviet ones), and everyone, M included, has to shake hands with the devil because he has all the oil.

Die Another Day (2002) is the 40th anniversary movie. It made a lot of money, experimented with merch, including Barbies, and there was even brief talk of a spinoff movie for Halle Berry’s character. Nonetheless, the production company seems to have agreed with critics that it was “too unrealistic:” after this they switched from Brosnan to Craig, who sells the possibility of failure much more convincingly.

The plot involves North Korea and satellite weapons (again). Colonel Tan-Sun Moon, disguised as some British guy, wants to use a sun-focusing satellite as a “sun gun” to cut a path through the Korean Demilitarized Zone with concentrated light (but not a laser), allowing North Korean troops to invade South Korea and reunite the countries through force. Along the way we learn the satellite is meant for farming, to give crops more light, and that Moon (geddit!) trades African conflict diamonds for weapons (bad bad man). And he has Bond tortured for 14 months, then lets him go (mistake). The final action shot recalls Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus, which is the name of the satellite and continues a new tradition of quoting famous paintings. Then Bond and Berry have sex in a Buddhist temple, which is only their 3rd or 4th deadly insult to Koreans in the film.

It’s an oddity of long production schedules that Die Another Day, a film about traditional state actors, should come out after 9/11, shifting away from the terrorist focus established by World Is Not Enough. Nobody needs reminding these days that the Korean Civil War is still unfinished business, but it probably seemed an oblique move to viewers in 2002. But anyway I don’t think the very rational fear of Korean escalation is the main anxiety the film leans on. Instead it’s a mix of corruption and deception on one hand, and environmental worries on the other. M mistrusts Bond, after his months of torture in North Korea. Bond mistrusts MI6 because he’s sure there’s a mole (he’s right). Gene therapy can disguise Koreans as Englishmen, farming satellites can be misused as weapons, the UK hides bad NK men. And then there’s the whole thing with the villain’s ice palace. Nobody talks about global warming, but there’s a massive hot/cold theme going on – Bond’s betraying mole is called Frost, the villain’s secret identity name is Graves, and he hides out in Iceland, in a palace literally made of ice… which he melts when Bond confronts him. This could all be an elaborate metaphor for thawing relations between North and South Korea but the spectacle of disastrous flooding looks a lot more like beware the sun’s heat, preserve your water.

So much for Brosnan.

It is a mystery to me how Eon Productions thought Casino Royale (2006) would help it launch a “gritter, more realistic” movie series with a “less experienced, more vulnerable Bond.” There is a vein of silliness to the book, which made it perfect fodder for a parody film back in 1967. But thinking about it, I can see how the first Fleming novel might be appealing as the introduction to a new, less superhero-y Bond. And why it’s attractive to make Bond a little small and inadequate here – the reboot films are linked together in a continuous series for the first time, so the plot of this one feeds straight into the next and viewers are supposed to remember the characters and what they’ve done. In this serial context, it makes sense to have Bond grow through a dramatic arc that changes him – previously unthinkable for Bond, the very prototype of the Iconic Hero, to use Robin Laws’s term.

I wasn’t going to talk about the books, but… every version of Casino Royale I’ve seen has beggared belief, so I wanted to know what the novel says. And it’s actually kind of touching. Le Chiffre is a French Union treasurer, who is gambling the money entrusted to him – very naughty, but also understandable. He is flawed, irrational; perhaps he has a gambling addiction. He’s also a Russian agent, so losing all his cash is doubly disastrous. MI6 sends Bond to gamble with him and clean him out, presumably so that he can be blackmailed into serving as a British agent. That bit doesn’t happen: everyone sees Le Chiffre lose his shirt, he goes after Bond (and Vesper Lynd, the Treasury agent sent to safeguard Britain’s stake), and the Russians kill him. Why would MI6 spend money on this nonsense? Because they could potentially get a well-placed agent out of it, someone with poor judgment who might be vulnerable to double agent work… except for Le Chiffre’s high visibility. But these are spies, nobody knows how high visibility they are.

The whole story works as a tale of human faults and folly. Yes, Le Chiffre shouldn’t gamble with money that’s not his own… but he does. But that kind of human failing doesn’t work so well when Bond levels up to superheroism. Because a superhero needs supervillains to beat – otherwise he’s just a super-bully.  If Bond becomes super intelligent and resourceful, then Le Chiffre has to be, too… in which case why is he taking these stupid risks over card games?

Strangely, the David Niven/Woody Allen screwball comedy version has better answers to these questions than Craig’s supposedly serious outing. Comedy Chiffre tries various more secure schemes, which are sabotaged by Bond(s), until in desperation he turns to card games, at which he cheats, using sneaky technology. Craig’s Chiffre… just thinks cards is a good way to replace what he lost when his stock market cheat failed, raising the question “why didn’t he play card in the first place?”

So anyway, the film. Terrorism is back, front and centre. Le Chiffre is an evil stock market genius who finances terrorism in order to short stocks on the terrorists’ targets. He shorts, the stocks go down due to attacks, he collects. Clever, but short-selling schemes are always hard to explain to the audience, and one wonders how many times he can do this without getting a reputation. It also apparently leaves him exposed financially, since he’s always working with debts and beyond his means, so when Bond foils just one attack, Le Chiffre is thrown into desperate financial straits. Maybe he’s not so clever after all.

(I do like that one of the people whose money he lost is Steven Obanno, though. Even though Obanno is part of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, which is no laughing matter, I can’t help thinking of him as American con man, drunkard, and shit-stirrer Steve Bannon.)

So Bond is sent to beat Le Chiffre at poker (which is always the moment I fall off the plot train) and so Le Chiffre captures and tortures Bond but his handlers show up, as in the book, only this time it’s not the Russians, it’s deep conspiracy mystery man, Mr. White. And, as in the book, even though Vesper Lynd is working for White, she and Bond fall in love. Unlike the book, Bond feels bad, despite her betrayal, when she dies.

What are the anxieties? Terrorism, obviously, and its links to high finance – that seems like a direct continuation of The World Is Not Enough. I would argue that it also captures a chunk of the 2006 zeitgeist in worrying about short selling. Contrary to claims of surprise after the 2007-8 financial crisis and Great Recession, there were plenty of people in 2006 saying that debt consolidation and sub-prime lending were unsafe. The Big Short would finally explain it all to the movie-going public in 2015, making Bond look prescient, but there had been a mood of instability since 2001, which market deregulation and Bush’s endless top-end tax cuts did nothing to defuse. Notably, Casino Royale never gets to the actual terrorist threat posed by White – that’s explicitly a teaser for the sequel – and he thwarts efforts to turn an airplane into a bomb in Act 1, so the threat through Acts 2 and 3 is purely financial. Equally notably, we don’t get to know what White wants, just that he’s a Very Bad Man.

Quantum of Solace (2008) also manages to avoid talking about the financial system melting down. Instead it’s (somewhat presciently) about water wars. Fake environmentalist Dominic Greene and exiled General Medrano plot to make Medrano president of Bolivia and give the water rights to Mr. White’s organization, Quantum. But nobody believes that water could be the most valuable liquid, so all of this is disguised as a more familiar petrol plot. In a replay of Chinatown (1974), Quantum are artificially drying out Bolivia with dams, to increase the price of water. A desert hotel dramatizes the urgent need for water, and Bond inflicts a Biblical punishment on Greene by giving him nothing but gasoline to drink, tying up the oil? No, water! thread.

In terms of water anxieties, it’s fairly clever to set the thing in Bolivia and use underground aquifers as secret dams – the setup allows loss of water to be dramatized as reversible theft, so that Bond can save the day and have Hispanics show their gratitude by bathing. There are so many other real situations where water shortages has no ready, easy solutions. But the main anxiety on screen actually isn’t thirst or water pollution, it’s social pollution: the destruction of trust, which calls back to Die Another Day. White is captured at the start of the film but he escapes when he reveals that his organization has agents everywhere, and M’s bodyguard promptly attacks M (two years before Iron Man 2 would reveal its own ubiquitous conspiracy). Greene is supposed to be an environmentalist but turns out to be a cynical environment-destroyer, there’s a shadowplay meeting of faceless Masters that implicates the CIA in Greene’s plot (they are but they think it’s all about oil, stupid CIA), and M mistrusts Bond again over the death of a British policeman. The actor who plays Greene, by the way, said he was going for “the smile of Tony Blair [and] the craziness of Sarkozy,” which is as neat a summary of Blair’s career and reputation, 1997-2008, as I could ask for.

And we still don’t know what White’s really up to.

Skyfall (2012) is a straightforward revenge plot, and seems like it’s built entirely around Dame Judi Densch’s retirement from the role of M. Former 00 agent Raoul Silver was left for dead and tortured by China. So obviously he becomes the head of a massive criminal organization, like all tortured ex-00 agents (except Bond). He blames M and wants to ruin her reputation before killing her. He achieves this by demonstrating how bad MI6 security is – he pwns their computer systems, escapes from their custody, and blows up their offices. Pretty damning for M, I’d say. Bond comes back from the dead and is the only person M can trust. Despite being judged totally unfit for duty, a dinosaur, and sexually unattractive, Bond (with M) lures Silva into a trap using his stately home, which we didn’t know he’d grown up in. The home is blown up, M dies, and so does Sean Connery, who plays the groundskeeper and can’t resist a good swan song.

Anxieties? There is some play with paranoia, as in Solace, when M looks at all her colleagues and realizes the only one she ever trusted was Bond, but I think this film really wears its heart on its sleeve with all the unfit for duty/dinosaur stuff. Silva offers Bond a retirement plan of his own: “Do you see what comes of all this running around, Mr. Bond? All this jumping and fighting, it’s exhausting! Relax.” …How long will this reboot keep Bond going? Is Judi getting out before the crash? is Ralph Fiennes likeable enough? (He certainly can be). And there’s something about Silva having once been the favoured son – he still knows his way into the castle, he still knows how spider M thinks. There’s a deep Mordred betrayal in there, that Bardem revels in.

Spectre (2015) finally shows what White gets up to when he’s not lurking behind other villains – he works for SPECTRE, right up to the point when they decide to kill him (we don’t know why). It turns out SPECTRE’s the agency behind every other villain this Bond has ever met. And SPECTRE is just that minute being taken over by Blofeld. Incidentally, Blofeld has hated Bond ever since he played Gwion Bach to Blofeld’s Afagddu (““Utter darkness,” on account of his gloomy appearance” – Blofeld gets disfigured when he and Bond meet again), interloping and stealing what Blofeld considers his birthright. So the villain’s deep motivations are all comfortingly Freudian.

SPECTRE’s scheme is to control all intelligence agencies by getting them to use its coordination software, “Nine Eyes.” (smart! So smart, the US and Germany did it. Also the US and Denmark). Once Bond figures out the jig and escapes being tortured, again. Then all he has to do is persuade M and his new rival C not to buy into the deal. This is complicated by M being mad at Bond for Bond’s continuing to follow dead former M’s posthumous instructions.

Anxieties: the thing about thinking you were in control of your software but actually it was under someone else’s control all the time, seems pretty relevant to our online lives in general, especially to social media and google (and WordPress, no doubt). It’s a nice touch that this statement pertains not just to Nine Eyes but to Bond as well, since dead M is still controlling him under new M’s nose. I reckon fear and hatred of corporate acquisitions is another anxious element – C comes out of nowhere to acquire and reorganize MI6 and, as usual, he has no respect for the crown jewels, the 00 division. Meanwhile, he wants to procure Nine Eyes, which is designed to procure him by stealth. I feel like almost any office worker can identify with some part of that story.

Finally, Bond is very frequently assisted in his climactic villain-base raids by a sexy woman who is a surprisingly good fist-fighter. If there’s a villainess, usually it’s the female assistant’s job to kill her. White’s cute, helpful daughter, Swann, is that assistant in this movie. Uniquely, she reappears and is relevant in the next movie.

If Quentin Tarantino had directed No Time to Die (2021), it would have had a structure to make Pulp Fiction look straightforward, because there is so much background you need to catch up on, to make sense of the denouement, that I’m sitting here wondering what to say first. Cary Joji Fukunaga handles it with a long set of prologues, which works but did leave me wondering half an hour in where the film was going.

SPECTRE steals a very clever poison from M. It’s nanobots or something and it will only attack its intended target – everyone else is safe.* It can be airborne or spread from person to person by contact. Even though it’s safe to you, once you’ve been exposed to it, you will always be deadly to the target.

Lyutsifer Safin subverts SPECTRE’s plan to kill Bond and uses the poison to kill all the leaders of SPECTRE instead, which is to say, all of Bond’s enemies ever. Along the way, he also kills Felix Leiter, which has previously been enough to send Bond on a revenge rampage.

Now, you might think this would make MI6 jump up and down with joy, but they don’t even crack a smile. And that’s how you know it’s 2021: everyone is just “shit. A new threat. One we know less about than the last one.”

Then Safin goes after Bond. I don’t know why, I don’t know anything about his motives, except he wanted revenge against SPECTRE. Given everyone’s motives in this film, I’m guessing it’s personal. Bond probably killed someone he knew. So Bond and Swann raid his base, and everyone escapes except Bond, who gets infected with Swann-killer and learns he has a daughter just in time to sacrifice himself in the inevitable exploding villain base. the new 007 is a black woman who hated Bond.

OK, so there’s a bunch of tragic character theme stuff: Felix dies from retirony, Bond is almost killed by love when he visits Vesper’s grave, then almost kills his love for Swann, then is actually killed by love right after his reconciliation with Swann. It’s a lot.

But… what’s the plot, actually? And what are the anxieties? Well, obviously it’s a contagion passed from one person to another and it kills in a gruesome way, and that seems pretty current during Covid lockdown. Blofeld is sitting in his prison cell waiting to be infected and that probably feels pretty applicable to an audience that’s been told to shun movie theaters. But people are always scared of sickness, so what does Bond do with that?

  1. I guess the poison is too dangerous for anyone to be trusted with it. Safin is a rogue loner who might do anything. He knows that, which is why he pre-empts MI6’s efforts to kill him.
  2. The poison is Pandora’s Box, especially for MI6 and its 00 assassin division. Do you need assassins when you can just widely disseminate this undetectable, hyper-specific death sentence by putting it in breakfast cereal? What if you could infect Putin by infecting anyone he comes in contact with and there were no way for him to know? Now Putin has to live in a bubble with no physical communication to the outside.
  3. I guess the big anxiety is, you never really know everything you need to about anyone’s back story. SPECTRE steals a poison scientist, not knowing he’s already been Safinated. Blofeld meets Bond, not knowing he’s a poison carrier. Leiter works with Ash, not knowing he’s a Safin goon. Swann has weird ancient connections to Safin, Safin to Swann’s dad, Vesper to Swann’s dad, Bond to Blofeld. The one person who suspects betrayal wrongly – Bond – gets cheated of several years with Swann and their daughter as a result. The moral of the story is… carpe diem and worry about the nanopoisons later?

I wonder who the next female Bond’s nemesis will be.

BTW, this trawl through movie construction led to a couple of thoughts about writing adventures.

* this statement has not been approved by the FDA

Learning from James Bond 2: 70s, 80s, the War on Drugs

October 4, 2022 2 comments

I’ve been collecting together all the James Bond movie plots, to try to figure out if there’s anything interesting in them, starting with the 60s. If you want to know about 1995-2021, look here.

….so In 1973 Roger Moore took over, and the mood of the films swung away from anxiety toward comedy and self-parody. If I were writing about the Bond movies as literature, I would group 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever here, but I’m not – instead I’m all about the villain plots, and Diamonds is still very much in the 60s destabilizing the Cold War mould. So for my purposes Moore’s creaky performances and unconvincing distant stunt-double scenes are less relevant than the types of enemies he faces, who are mostly a bunch of pop-up, low-level criminal bosses. Nixon announced the War on Drugs in 1971 and Moore got right to it in 1973. The big anxieties throughout the 70s films involve loss of central control of societies, whether that’s through drugs, crime, or the rise of non-state actors. This is the era when President Ford dismissed New York City as a drug swamp and said it could “go to hell.” Meanwhile, the US promoted (mostly military) coups, frequently funded by drug money or in support of drug production, in Bolivia (71), Chile (73), Argentina (76), Nicaragua (78), Afghanistan (1980), Paraguay (89), and Panama (89). I’ve probably forgotten a few. So…

Live and Let Die (1973) is often called Bond’s most racist film – it’s a blaxploitation romp with honkies and hookers and pimps and Nawlins jazz funerals. Caribbean microstate dictator Dr. Kananga has a dastardly plot to get America addicted to free heroin, then jack up the price – a move familiar to any historian of the 19th century Opium Wars. The twists are (a) he’s black, (b) it’s being done to Americans. This is a big come-down for Bond, after saving the world from WW3, but it’s also a departure in other ways: a black villain means a black character of some importance. Among Drug War films, it’s both remarkably early and atypically thorough – Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) was praised for addressing both foreign supply and US demand as inseparable sides of “the drug problem.” Live and Let Die does the same thing, but destroys any larger social point by having both ends of the supply chain be the work of one man, who wears a foam latex mask when in Harlem. Exoticizing Tarot/Hoodoo stylings muddy the waters further, although maybe if you squint you can see a zombie critique of opioids.

The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) has freelance assassin Frank Scaramanga stealing a revolutionary solar power machine (the Solex Agitator) to… sell it to the highest bidder, again. Honestly, in 2022 this just sounds like great news: viable solar power! So viable you can make solar lasers from it to shoot down planes! It was a science-fantasy over-reach in 1974, but it points to the Oil Shocks and OPEC as major worries of the decade. The US was used to controlling world oil and Americans were deeply disturbed by the prospect of foreigners throttling their gas guzzlers the size of Lincoln Town. It’s hard to imagine now, but I think at the time a large part of the US reaction was just indignation that they had to pay any attention to some faraway desert like Saudi Arabia. So here we have Scaramanga, a nobody with no connections to any major world powers, holding the world to ransom just because he stole the next big widget. I suspect the big anxieties on display here are (a) the energy crisis, obviously, but maybe even more than that (b) a loss of faith in big institutions: the great world governments were shown to be helpless against industrial oil suppliers. Unlike Goldfinger, this gold-fetishist is a non-institutional, outsider hustler holding the world to ransom because apparently that’s a thing that can happen, now. I’m gonna say that’s a stepping stone in popular consciousness that paves the way for dot-com billionaires.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) looks superficially like a return to form, with Karl Stromberg studying the SPECTRE playbook and planning to engineer WW3 by stealing US and USSR nuclear missile submarines. But Stromberg doesn’t work for SPECTRE, he’s a Captain Nemo knock-off with unclear, fluidly changing motives – on one hand, he’s ransoming a submarine tracking device for money, on the other, he has visions of ruling a New World Order after the US and USSR have destroyed each other. His goals are incompatible – what money could he ransom the subs for, that would survive his post-nuclear brave new world? Especially since he hates humans and the land: with whom would he exchange money? He comes across as a nutter who watched Dr. Strangelove and liked the ending – and therefore as an existential threat to organized society – something even the Rooskies can agree is a bad thing. So Bond teams up with a (sexy) KGB agent, suggesting that Russia isn’t the enemy, it’s the nukes themselves that are the enemy, and KGB General Gogol makes his first appearance as a reluctant ally – he’ll be back 5 more times, twice as an enemy. Jaws also makes a first appearance, his name tipping us off that it’s not coincidental that Bond is back underwater. Spielberg’s shark anxiety movie came out in 1975 and… grabbed the movie-going public and shook. Bond responds with scary-comedy – his Jaws is a man with metal teeth – and then veers full comedy two years later in a Star Wars response film. I bet someone in the production was really cracking up at these intertextual jokes.

Regarding anxieties, missile subs really are the perfect engines for producing them. First, they’re genuinely the preferred vector for delivering nuclear holocaust because nobody knows where they are, not even the people who are supposed to tell them to kill us all. Sudden death, no appeals… what if that fell into the wrong hands? (Are there any right hands?) – that’s a newly non-partisan kind of despair for Bond. Perhaps that’s why it’s necessary to dress it up in so much ridicule, with a Jules Verne throwback villain.

While Bond was responding to Spielberg, Lucas dropped the next big craze: Samurai WW2 capers in spaaaace. Therefore Moonraker (1979) was rushed into production, bumping Fleming’s spy plots (or at least their titles) into the 80s.

So: evil industrialist Hugo Drax invents the space shuttle! And wants to use it to deliver a nerve gas, to kill all humans so he can repopulate Earth with his perfect master race from his space station. That last bit is pure postwar comic book… which, now I think about it, was probably also self-conscious competition with Lucas, who had updated Flash Gordon, and Spielberg, who was working on a reboot of Northwest Smith.

But the combo comes out weird. On one hand you have the US Space program’s latest innovation – the space shuttle – ripped straight from the headlines. Shuttles were the actual future of man’s greatest adventure, unveiling right then at Bond’s premiere! Moonraker offers a glimpse of the spaceplane two years before its first orbital test flight. The shuttle promised to build giant space stations over the next 20 years that would dwarf sad little Skylab: the whole thing was a huge US swagger item. On the other hand, you have all this space future promise packaged up as the bad guy’s plan – these Bond shuttles are not built by the US government, nor is the space program a basic good, being threatened by bad men. It’s actually a vehicle for Nazi-style eugenics bad. Which plugs into anxieties about space-based eugenicists… which had been around at least since the 60s, when Wernher von Braun and NASA published plans to colonize Mars and build giant, armed space stations “for freedom.”

So how does Bond square all this?

With comedy, of course. These space Nazi ideas were already pretty nostalgic and campy by 1979 and the film plays them as such. Former scary-man Jaws goes funny-cuddly, turning into a FrankenChewie gentle monster in the tender hands of a little girl. Any anxiety Moonraker could summon was played for Halloween laughs – which is not to say that anxieties were unimportant to it: claiming a fear is ridiculous is one of the great tools of propagandists. But the shuttle winds up goofily defeated, consigned to obscurity in Bond’s trademark villain-base escape.

I wonder if the true anxiety here was how lame real space exploration looked compared with Lucas’s seductive fantasies. And how lame Bond looked compared with a new generation of science fantasy action movies, which replaced Bond’s near-future gadgets with rayguns and Bond’s aging besuited karate chops with bodybuilders. Back in 1969, Kubrick’s Space Odyssey was the hard SF foil to Blofeld’s trashier, more free-wheeling, spacecraft-eating Bird One. Now Bond was playing the more-realistic position against unfettered spectacle… and his fetters were showing.

For Your Eyes Only (1981) gets the series back on a familiar track. Aris Kristatos is a mafioso and KGB asset. Another boat sinks, another military gadget is stolen (the Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator – I would laugh at the acronym ATAC but that’s exactly how the US names stuff, like EAGLESREVENGE and USA-PATRIOT ACT and FUCKUPDAROOSKIES). But this time it’s really the KGB! For the first time in Bond history! And this time the previously helpful General Gogol is a bad guy. If that seems like a whiplash reversal from 1977, just wait for 83.

I’m not exactly sure why the 80s saw such a ferocious return to anti-USSR propaganda movies, but it did. Reagan, obviously, was a giant red-baiter and belligerent, and I suppose there was a sense that it might be time to finally win this damn Cold War. Perhaps it was that Gorbachev signaled a thawing in relations and suddenly Americans felt that it might make a difference, to apply some persuasion? In any event, it was the easy move for Bond, to restore his relevance. So while the 60s maintained a superior aloofness to the whole fighting the Cold War thing, the 80s got determinedly stuck into it. And the 80s movies are really defined by just what sort of a threat the USSR poses.

Octopussy (1983) was a new low in titling but a classic offering in themes and content – including violent lesbians just waiting to be tamed by a Real Man. General Orlov, a rogue USSR army man, wants to start WW3 by nuking a USAF base in West Germany. His vector for this is Western Capitalist greed and also exiled Afghan greed: he is selling priceless Russian treasures (Faberge eggs) that explode! There’s some sort of critique there but it’s a little ambiguous who the butt of the joke is supposed to be – the wrongheaded fanaticism of the bomb-maker or the foolish cupidity of the bomb-buyer. The important thing is, it’s not that the empire is evil, but rather that it allows evil men to rise to the top. Perhaps it requires policing. Gogol reinforces this point by (this time) being the good KGB officer who, nonetheless, cannot stop the rogues. The whole lesbian assassin thing is, by this time, a Bond staple – I think it was supposed to be titillation rather than anxiety back in the 60s. Here it’s safe titillation, which is pretty much telegraphed by sticking -Pussy right up on the billboard.

Never Say Never Again (1983) is a double pun, because it brings back Sean Connery… to replay Thunderball. It’s an off-brand Bond film, by Taliafilm instead of the usual Eon Productions, and it has no ambitions to start a new franchise: it sets out to retire Bond at the ending credits.

As before, two nukes have been stolen in order to hold the world to ransom – from the US, this time. The villain, Largo, has changed his first name from Emilio to Maximilian. The big difference is that this time, SPECTRE actually gets one bomb into place, in Washington DC. the other… was maybe being kept in reserve? Bond finds it with Largo at an oasis in Ethiopia. Largo is weirdly into domination and electric shocks, and has a dominatrix assassin working for him. He’s prone to jealous rage and sells his girlfriend into slavery for kissing Bond. She eventually kills him.

Honestly, all the anxieties in this one seem to be about sexual deviancy. And, I guess, slave-trading Arabs. And maybe mistaken identity, since stealing the bombs requires spoofing a retinal scanner. But this Bond gets to retire with a sexy girl, so I guess it works out better for him than the rest.

A View to a Kill (1985) is an obscure hunting-song title for a movie that’s scared of the computerized future. Zorin is another rogue KGB guy, but this time he’s made a fortune in microchips. The last Roger Moore film, this highlights one of the main killers of the Cold War spy caper – inhuman enemies. The anime series Spy Family understands that the computer-as-magician simply makes newspaper codes and Q Branch obsolete, and consequently sets its capers in not-Berlin in the not-60s. Back in ’85 there was a uncomfy realization that the jig for traditional spy capers was probably up, but maybe a sufficiently creative scriptwriter could still make use of the genie. Maybe cyberpunk spies? Or maybe just declare war on the machine? It is telling that Zorin wants to destroy Silicon Valley, the hellmouth of computer hardware. It’s also telling that his method for doing so is to engineer the Big Earthquake – an old humanist anxiety that threatens granny and little Timmy as well as thinking engines.

….remember how I was going on about Flash Gordon? Well, Prince Barin replaces Roger Moore in 1987. Apparently Eon Pictures had been considering Dalton for Bond since 1970, but Dalton thought he was too young, or too busy, or not good enough to follow Connery, or too good to follow Moore. In 1987 he ran out of excuses.

The Living Daylights (1987) baits-and-switches KGB General Georgi Koskov’s defection from a victory over the Soviets to a con job. Because – surprise surprise – Koskov’s real scheme is to embezzle money from the KGB, together with (obviously American) arms dealer Brad “yes, Brad” Whitaker. Tim Dalton is the new Bond, General Pushkin is the new friendly General Gogol, Gogol is a new diplomat, and private greed plus drug dealing is the reassuring old enemy. The movie leans into the Bond series’s established “truth” that the USSR is a leaky vessel, with well-meaning but ineffective KGB policemen, and then combines that with its 70s Drug War mission: USSR disorder allows drug-dealing rats into the pristine US.

All of which makes the role of the Afghan mujahideen… complicated. Because the mujahideen supply the drugs and receive the money/diamonds from the villain… but then they also help catch the villain in a now-typical Bond-plus-locals base raid, and cheerfully destroy the drugs they’ve sold (after all, they’ve been paid). Bond helps the Soviets stop the embezzling operation but also helps their Afghan enemies. Is this some kind of commentary on the US’s contradictory drug war policies? Particularly the Iran-Contra Affair? If it’s good to fund the mujahideen in their fight against the USSR, then are the villains actually doing good CIA’s work? Given Bond’s role in arming the Afghans, what are we to think of his apparently personal urge to kill the villainous arms dealer, with CIA man Felix Leiter’s help?

License to Kill (1989) brings us to the end of the Cold War and the natural end of Bond’s over-extended career. He can feel it, which is why he goes “off the reservation” on a revenge rampage that strips him of his job and 00 license.

Villain Franz Sanchez’s name is a two-word biography: he’s a shifty sleazo drug lord with a streak of Nazi sadism. He’s from the hilariously-named Republic of Panama Isthmus, right at the not-so-hilarious moment when the US invaded Panama, to oust its quondam CIA tool, Manuel Noriega). Sanchez is a mixture of Noriega and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, who was then at the height of his power. Escobar had just shot to the top of the US’s public enemy list in 1989 by bombing a passenger plane that had 2 Americans aboard, in a failed attempt to kill anti-gangster Colombian politician Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, so he’s represented as wantonly cruel, vain, and destitute of principles. He wants to smuggle cocaine into Asia, dissolved in gasoline (which is just the sort of wild scheme Escobar would come up with). Bond, who is not typically concerned with Asian welfare, is suddenly made to care by Sanchez’s unnecessarily having Felix Leiter half eaten by a shark, and his wife raped and killed.

The theme for this whole plot is excess. Sanchez is excessive in maiming Leiter and killing his wife. M thinks Bond is excessive in wanting to take revenge on him, but Bond has discovered revenge is something he actually wants, making this the first time his principled rage gets him thrown out of MI6.
That seems significant to me – the only thing about this film that is significant. Up to now, Bond has been a playful professional. But now something has offended him so much that he cannot square it with his national duties – a motif that will grow ever stronger. Does this mean that national duty is no longer a vital attribute of the Hero? If he’s no longer institutional but individual, no longer obedient but self-motivating and motivated by passions, has he become Romantic? This is also around the time that we the viewers start to be asked to take his relations with women as something more than simple exploitation.

The Drug War lines are drawn more sharply in this film, mirroring the way Bond sank into the Cold War in the 80s, having surfed over it in the 60s. License isn’t concerned with the whole mechanism of the international drug trade, but with thwarting one evil man. It has good guy DEA agents and bad guy drug smugglers, and the action is the personal, bloody end of a war film.

Shooting drug dealers is obviously the main issue of social order in the film, but there are a couple of other interesting motifs, that suggest related ongoing anxieties. Gasoline plays a major role – its the vector for drugs, Sanchez travels with tankers full of it, and it burns him to death at the end. Relatedly, machines repeatedly fail or are sabotaged, leading to messy deaths. It’s tempting to rad all that as a metaphor for the failure of business as usual – the old habits betraying you. And televangelists are mixed up in the drug-smuggling gang, which is probably a reference to the sexual abuse and fraud scandal that toppled Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker teleministry in 1987 but could also be read as a critique of televangelism in general (not uncommon at the time) or even of the corruption of old faiths.

…all of which makes License to Kill the most topical of Bond films to date. Rather than background themes and riffs on the public’s ongoing preoccupations, License has a CNN Breaking News quality that suggests the instability of an era ending. Bond is too busy to do M’s bidding in Istanbul, he has urgent killing to do in central America. It’s a film where long perspective is (maybe rightly) trumped by immediate reaction. It’s a mood I remember well from the late 80s – the invasions of Panama and Grenada were sudden and suddenly over. Wars were endlessly opening on new fronts. Fracture was in the air.

Learning from James Bond, 1: the 60s

October 3, 2022 3 comments

Some time in the 1990s I concluded that James Bond, as presented in the movies, is quite boring. Like most superheroes, he’s a very simple character, who exists to provide simple solutions to hard problems. Mutually Assured Destruction? Water shortage? Lost your job to a computer? Superman fixes it with fisticuffs. Bond fixes it by shooting it, blowing up its house, and fucking its girlfriend. As such, Bond doesn’t want anything much, unless it can be shared vicariously by the audience – so his shooting gallery of problems is interleaved with harem- and luxury porn. Left to his own devices, he’s inclined to fade to a discreet veil, with faint naughty giggling from behind the curtain.

His opponents, though – the people with the madcap schemes to hold the world to ransom – they need to want things, and those things have to be explained to the viewers. And those things have to speak to the viewers, to reflect the preoccupations of their times. It occurred to me that the villains were really the heart of the films.

Right around the same time I had this realization, I slid off the franchise, so I was distantly aware that maybe something interesting was happening over there, without really looking at it.

This month, I plan to remedy that and find out if there actually is anything worth learning from the Bond movie series by looking at every villain plot and motivation – mostly to see what audience anxieties are being exploited and whether the plot architecture does anything to frame those anxieties interestingly. And, obviously, to see if there’s anything for GMs to learn about how the plots are constructed.

I’m going to deal with the movies as original productions, without reference to the books – partly because I don’t have any desire to psychoanalyze Ian Fleming (who was probably just envious of his sexier brother, Peter), partly because the movies must necessarily reflect the preoccupations of a larger number of people. They are corporate products, vetted and edited by whole teams, incrementally optimized to attract viewer money. No individual author could provide such inherently social documents.

This first post covers 1962-1971 – Bond’s birth at the height of the Cold War, when his character makes the most sense it ever will. Then the 70s and 80s, and finally the Post-Cold War era and Reboot, and some conclusions about adventure writing. I tell you now, I am actively dreading dealing with the post-Cold War era, even though its desperation was what first intrigued me.  

I hate dividing things into arbitrary category schemes and decades are both overused and frequently stupidly irrelevant… but in Bond’s case, taking it by the decade actually makes some sense. Connery neatly fits into the 60s, Moore a long 70s, Dalton the unstable end of the 80s. So…

The 60s, birth of a genre

By 1962 the Cold War was in full swing, with no end in sight. Mutually Assured Destruction was already well known, the concept of a missile gap already darkly laughable.

Bond’s main job in this hostile world, where you’re dead before you know it, is to reassure – to be a grown-up man, to be competent and reliable, to show that a lone hero can still overcome the Nuclear Machine (and to reassure Britain that it’s still relevant somehow, but that’s more a Fleming question than a Cubby Broccoli one, so I won’t pursue it).

But the villains do something else – something quite interesting. They ask the enfant terrible question: “what if the Cold War is stupid?”

Not like Dr. Strangelove (1964), which is just “MAD? Are you mad??” but rather “what if there’s some other conspiracy behind it? What if someone were clever enough to distract the US and USSR with the spectre of their imminent mutual destruction?”

The 60s films pose this question over and over again, most memorably with a speech about Exotic Fighting Fish, where one fish hangs back to let the other two maul each other, so it can finally maul the victor and then…. we don’t get that far. Bond is there to prevent the mauling. And of course this other conspiracy is called… SPECTRE (the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). It’s a club of ultra-rich, ultra-successful lunatics, all of whom have something terribly wrong with them, who do Bad Things out of motiveless malignity and/or for hire, and/or for some Mysterious, Unnamed Oriental Power (China).

The deviation from known Cold War combatants to anOther enemy does two kinds of work for the series. First, it allows for a radical simplification – nobody knows SPECTRE’s capabilities, so Bond can credibly overcome them. Second, since you and Bond learn of this conspiracy, that makes you and him smarter than everyone else. The idea that the intractable issues of the Cold War might be More Complex Than Anyone Thought? What could be better for a Great Simplifier Hero?

Dr. No (1962) wants to stop the US participating in the Space Race by blowing up the Mercury rocket with an “atomic-powered radio beam” (laser). Lasers are sexy, space is sexy, and Dr. No’s Caribbean island is obviously right next to Cuba. In the movie, Dr. No’s motive is simple revenge – he is annoyed at both the US and USSR for rejecting his services and has joined SPECTRE in a fit of pique, so he doesn’t get to say the fish speech. But he does have an atomic flamethrower dragon to scare the natives (5 years before Scooby Doo!), a technocratic answer to radiation poisoning, mutilated hands, and mixed Chinese-German ancestry, which allows him to be a yellow peril whose real villainy is latent Nazism.

Obviously, there’s a lot of Nuclear Fear in this plot – it’s 1962 and we’re in not-Cuba, worrying about space rockets (the friendly face of the missile program). But the film also suggests this nuclear fear is all overblown – you can scrub radiation off, and when Bond blows up No’s base by overloading its nuclear reactor, it’s fine: a rubber dinghy is all the shielding he needs.

In From Russia with Love (1963), Kronsteen (SPECTRE) wants to steal a Soviet code machine (Lektor) and ransom it back to the USSR, for money – a disappointingly venal motive that is strangely typical of early Bond villains. The big neurosis in the movie is probably not the theft plot but the SECRET CODES themselves – bread and butter stuff for 60s spy fiction and paranoia: quis custodiet, etc: who knows what the secret masters are doing? Cracking code machines appeals to British national pride, too, since ENIGMA during WW2. Most of the plot, though, involves personal vendettas of various Russian-adjacent assassins against Bond himself, cementing his reputation as the Top Assassin.

With its cramped sleeper-train fights and puny Q-Branch briefcase, the movie sells Bond as your Commando uncle who can kill a man in 115 ways using a rolled-up newspaper, the everyday superhero who might be watching over you right now – its message might be that Grand Plots don’t have to happen on exotic islands.

Goldfinger (1964) works semi-freelance for SMERSH (not quite the Soviet counter-intelligence agency SMERSH, but the movie doesn’t care about the distinction), but maybe mostly for himself. He wants to steal all the gold in Fort Knox, thereby destabilizing US currency and also becoming even richer than he already is (I think he’s the Richest Man in Britain?). Except it turns out he doesn’t really want to steal it, just make it radioactive. Which raises a super interesting question: is radioactive gold less useful for guaranteeing a country’s paper money than non-radioactive gold? Where exactly is the line of pretend that anyone’s going to sell those reserves, that makes them valuable? And isn’t the whole thing about gold reserves kind of silly anyway? Well… no, it was still taken seriously in 1964, and countries still hold gold reserves today and actively buy gold to control their finances. Anyway it’s not obvious how he would benefit, but he thinks he would. His mafia friends definitely want to steal the gold, but they’re so dumb, Goldfinger kills them before the plot even gets going.

So the film definitely preys on fear of radioactivity, but maybe it’s mostly about the new illegibility of financial markets, which were just then being computerized and turned into specialized technocratic institutions. The US recession of 1960-1 was hard to explain but its effects (unemployment, inflation) were clear enough. Maybe a threat to solid gold was… oddly comforting. Nostalgic. Regarding the role of the mafia – those dirty foreign Italians stealing good American money (while dirty foreign cars were out-competing solid American ones) – it seems suggestive to me that Fort Knox and Goldfinger’s racing stud operation are both in Louisville, Kentucky, a city that segregated dramatically in the 50s through white flight to the car-based suburbs, facilitated by the building of the interstate system. Is it reading too much into a basic film to say that the mafia represent a growing vague “urban crime fear?”

So on one hand, we have greedy Goldfinger’s gold fetish – legible, visceral, erotic, sinful. Bond eventually kills him by forcing him through the eye of a needle, which is a downright Biblical punishment. On the other, the US Army’s defense of the nation’s treasure against Mafia hoods is an excuse to get the old WW2 movie props out. Feel safe: men in helmets are working to protect the dollar in your pocket.

Thunderball (1965) has Emilio Largo (SPECTRE) stealing 2 nuclear bombs from the UK in order to ransom them back – the same idea as the code machine in ’63 but more boomy. As with the code machine, though, the real threat is just to the treasury – pay the ransom and everything will go back to normal. There’s maybe a second anxiety to do with nuclear proliferation: the UK’s nukes are a security threat, apart from the US’s: more nuclear nations means more chance of an accident or sabotage.

But the anxieties in general seem to play second fiddle to the action in this one: a quarter of the film is underwater, with a variety of underwater weapons and gadgets. There’s a major theme of disguise throughout the film – people change their faces, planes are hidden underwater, and a yacht with underwater access turns into a high-speed hydrofoil – but the disguises don’t really threaten anyone: they’re all briefly deployed, their implications contained within their action scenes. The yacht, BTW, is called the disco volante (flying saucer) suggesting some extra layer of hoaxmanship, but if there’s any payoff to it, I haven’t been able to figure it out.

You Only Live Twice (1967) shows Ernst Blofeld (at last!), head of SPECTRE, trying to start WW3 by stealing spacecraft (in space) from the US and USSR and getting them both to think the other is behind it all. Finally, the fish scene. He’s doing all this for “an unnamed Asian power”, which implies this unnamed power hasn’t heard of nuclear winter or the full effects of Mutually Assured Destruction.

This is movie Bond’s first actual Saving The World plot. Fear of Communist China was running high in 1967, what with the Cultural Revolution and Vietnam War. Kissinger was trying to convince people that the Cold War wasn’t just about Russia, so this is Bond actually being on top of the zeitgeist. The film also has a lot of fun with whose side the inscrutable Japanese might be on: there are friendly and unfriendly operatives in the Japanese government, along with trap doors and paper screens and a hollow volcano: is anything solid? It turns out ninjas are, in spite of their criminal reputation, making this a very early expression of the ninja craze that would sweep the 80s.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) pits George Lazenby against Blofeld, briefly making the latter the series’s stable point.

Blofeld’s brainwashing people to distribute bacteriological agents around the globe. He plans to hold the whole world to ransom by threatening to destroy all agriculture, presumably by infecting crops with his engineered bacteria. It’s not easy to see how he could profit by actually letting the agents loose, and it seems likely that any accidental leak would lead to an unstoppable disaster, so this is a suicide bomber threat.

The obvious anxieties are over-population and Malthusian Cycles and Anthrax bombs – the Green Revolution was in full swing at the time and there was lots of talk about coming crises, so this reads as a “hey, it’s not just nukes” pitch. But with its sinister Swiss clinic, it seems more like the film promotes fear of doctors, or maybe of biopower in general – experts taking away self-sufficiency in the name of better living through chemistry.  
Bond again teams up with some shady crime syndicate to undertake a pitched battle against a SPECTRE fortress, suggesting old-fashioned organized crime is reassuring, compared with the technocrimes to come.

…I wasn’t gonna talk abut Bond the character, but. Connery established Bond as a tireless seducer, flirting with Moneypenny, throwing out off-colour one-liners about his schlong, and philosophically shrugging off the inevitable deaths of all the swimsuit models he steals from his enemies. But in Lazenby’s single movie, Bond rescues a woman from suicide, falls in love with her, marries her, and apparently goes into mourning when she is inevitably shot. Bond would not get that involved again until the 21st century reboot.

Diamonds are Forever (1971) brings Connery back for one last job.* Blofeld (yet again), has a satellite that can blow up nukes after they’re launched! This was literally what Ronald Reagan claimed to be working on in the 80s – and it was as fantastical then as in 1971. Blofeld wants to sell it to the highest bidder, Reagan wanted to use the fear of it to bankrupt the USSR. Prescient!

The plot starts with diamond smuggling and counterfeiting, and a hunt for the real Blofeld through a factory of plastic surgery fake Blofelds, which seems pretty metaphorical. So when it veers over to Vegas and a reclusive casino-owner, you might be thinking ohoho, more fake money but actually no, the casino owner’s a fine upstanding citizen – whose place has been secretly taken by the dastardly Blofeld! Then things spool out in a series of increasingly absurd fights until an oil rig gets blown up.

There’s something going on all through this film with real and fake, valuable and worthless, but I’m hesitant to say exactly what it is. Diamonds are symbols of eternal value etc (and the film even has some surviving incineration), but M, early on, points out that the international price of diamonds is fixed by a cartel, and could be easily crashed by a sudden market flood. Meanwhile, diamond smugglers include Blofeld lookalikes, Vegas stand-up comedians, and a comedy pair of gay assassins who – atypically for 1971 – don’t seem to be physical cowards. In this context, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to make of Plenty o’Toole,** the short-lived femme fatale who picks Bond up at the Casino’s craps table but gets defenestrated before Bond can find out what’s under her dress. He winds up instead with Tiffany Case, who hates men, having been gang-raped as a teenager, until she is cured by Bond’s charms. I feel faintly sick after writing that. The movie script changed the novel by adding the gang rape but taking away Case’s abandonment by her father – in the movie she’s called Tiffany because she was born prematurely at the diamond store while her parents were shopping for wedding rings. Which is some kind of detailed play on legitimate and illegitimate but frankly I’m distracted by the whole rape cure thing.

If the series had ended here, we might be discussing how far it dipped into self-parody in the Blofeld trilogy, but the 70s would blow these early efforts out of the water on that score.

Looking at the films together, it’s obvious that the series’s cohesion does not stem from its plots or threats – nukes are a perennial, obviously, but in different ways each time – as ransomware, as dirty radioactivity, as cleansing demolitions charges… the series does not have a fixed nuke symbology. Overall there’s a strange oscillation between simple greedy crime and grandiose visions for a New World Order. As a world-girdling conspiracy, SPECTRE seems oddly improvisational and its leaders are all pulling in different directions. This only becomes obvious in a retrospective like this because each individual film goes through the same respectable Call of Cthulhu progression of starting with a small incident and then revealing its gigantic implications. Starting instead with what the antagonist wants is deliberately reading the films backwards.

* I can understand Connery hanging up his guns after this one. It’s harder to understand why he came back for it, having sworn never to play Bond again after You Only Live Twice. And yet he did play Bond yet again (although not for Broccoli) in Never Say Never Again (1983), a film actually titled after his refusal to keep Bonding, and he played a non-Bond character in Skyfall (2006). I don’t think any other Bond actor has had such a hard time staying away.

** Why? The actress seems thoroughly feminine; Peter o’Toole, on whom this name is an obvious pun, was according to rumour as big a womanizer as Bond is supposed to be, but was not famous for playing women (until Rebecca’s Daughters, in 1992)… is it just that the name’s supposed to be funny? Alan Moore’s scathing parody, Oodles o’Quim, actually makes more sense.

Next: Bond finally gets an actor with a name as punny as Pussy Galore.

thoughts toward a flat earth campaign

July 22, 2022 3 comments

Flat Earth theories are inherently conspiratorial: at root they’re not about geography but epistemology. The question on the flatearther’s mind is not so much “why would people believe the obvious lie that the Earth is a spheroid suspended in space?” as “what else could I get people to believe, and what else are They making me believe?” So I propose a new tack on the tired old Flat Earth setting:

1. since nothing can really be known, nothing is really unknown – simple ignorance does not exist. Anything that seems unknown is actually being hidden by a conspiracy. Estimating the size and power of conspiracies is the new scientific method. This ties flat earths to the other major strand in conspiracy theories, aside from the existence of a Big Secret: the reclamation of a Lost Glory. In this case, what’s being reclaimed is the excluded middle, which explains why this stuff is so popular away from the coasts.

2. All countries are rated on a Reality Scale. Australia scores 80% reality, America only 10%‡, due to its greater wealth and consequent conspiratorial clout. There is a schism over whether this means Americans only use 10% of their America. A low reality rating might seem like a problem, but it’s actually a disruptive opportunity – any unreality you have is up for exploitation, because if nobody’s sure if it exists, then anything could be there! Which attracts Venture Capitalists, the unreality miners par excellence. Celebrities declaring you a hoax or appearing on the Discovery Channel can drastically lower your reality rating, which is the secret reason why both things exist. Also, your reality rating is the same as your % in lair stat, ie how much of a shut-in you are.

3. the following Earths exist simultaneously, in mutual contra(mis)di(re)ction:

a. Flat America and its rivals, among which John George Abizaid’s version makes it clear why America and Europe, being in the Goldilocks zone for solar visitation, are naturally the most industrious of nations;

b. Flat China,± extending out to the ends of the universe in space and time:

c. Hollow Earth, which is all wuxia inside;

d. Diatomaceous Earth, which is full of glass;

e. Mathematically perfect(ly flat) Earth, which it turns out might’ve been a Hollow Earth in the past?!? According to the last link:

1) Atlantis is really a history of the pre-diluvian HOLE world.
2) In the beggining, all was made geometricaly perfect.
3) The world we have today is just a “reck” of that ancient world, after big cataclisms.”

…see? Flat Earth = lost continents = Lost Glorious Past. It’s mathematical.

f. Realpodean Earth, in which New Zealand occupies the map space that’s usually labeled North America. On this Earth, Guadalcanal has a mysterious gate complex that allows you to “tunnel through” to Europe or America, whichever is more politically influential at the time. Nobody has any idea what that means.

4. since map projections are no longer a problem, each projection is also a competing Earth. The big ones are:

f. Mercator Earth, with a gigantic Greenland, which is why we should stop worrying about global planar warming;

g. Polar Earth, mounted on a pole (see c);

h. Dymaxion Earth, which is constantly reworking its map projection and therefore has very unpredictable sea cargo delivery times.

All the map Earths have a big white border around the outside to hold the oceans in (maybe, say the philosophers, the same white border). The Illuminating Sages have sent expeditions to the corners, hoping to find the Page Number, which will give us some lower limit on how many other universes there are.

Chris Koeberle offers:

I imagine there must also be a panoply of Atlas Earths, with pageomancers who can instantly transport themselves to the facing page, or after much study to a page of the same number in a different volume. And sometimes you have to pay a license fee to visit a copyright trap.
Traveling to the equator or Equal Area (minimum) to transit to Mercator, then making the nigh-infinite trek almost to the poles, where you can make the dizzying leap to Equal Area (maximum)

So you see, the conspiracy really consists of refusing to turn the page. Although doing so would also test whether gravity is local to the page or fixed on some external coordinates.

Trying to cross the middle of any Atlasworld always involves traversing the Gutter, where things frequently get lost.

The wildest academic speculations involve the fabled Registration Marks, which appear off the edge of every page. In theory you could use them to travel to any other page in any other atlas, but only off the edge of that other page, as well. This is either wonderfully powerful or completely useless, depending on who you’re talking to/how much they’ve had to drink.

‡ there are no percentages below 10% and no numbers below 1: zero and negative numbers are a banking conspiracy.
± yeah I know the link says SEAsia, but the old Middle Kingdom idea of China is absolutely a Solar polity, which is to say, exactly like a Galactic polity except it’s unwilling to acknowledge other power centers.

Made it this far? Have some flatearther maps:

The new classic, populated with lost continents galore, a readymade kitchen sink setting – kitchen sink because those tend to have flat bottoms. Note the multiple suns and moons (doubled, so that the black moon can sometimes sneak in front of the white one, creating the monthly phases we see). Consider how gravity works, and what keeps the suns and moons up in the sky. Wonder about what happens really when they set and rise, and how long the nights must be in Gonoria. And wonder who would admit to coming from Gonoria.
Does this version seem less ambitious to you, tailing off into unknowns? But look at the obvious projection distortion of Odin! That takes some special kind of boldness, to just throw that in there.
A rather pedestrian Lost Continent of Mu, nonetheless handy for linking together all those intolerably isolated bits of Oceania. And in case you thought this Pacific Sunken Continent thing was just a Euro-American fetish, here – have an Indonesian Lost Glorious Past conspiracy.

The PCs are a faction

July 8, 2022 Leave a comment

How do you get the players to pay attention to the world? Learn its history, take an interest in its lore, care what happens to it?

This perennial question prompted some useful philosophy from Jacinto. It also made me realize that I have a basic assumption behind the games I run, which is apparently not common and which changes everything:

All my games are domain games from day one. The PCs are a faction in the world: if they have treasures, someone will come for them. If they build something, it will be used. They need to defend their stuff, they would do well to get a home base, and they are never invulnerable between adventures.

And that made me realize that the basic assumptions of a lot of campaigns are the opposite: you are drifters, crossing a world without friends. Of course you are not farmers or other regular workers! You have no families or dependents – you are free agents. You enter situations where the locals have a problem, and now it’s your adventure – but not exactly your problem, in that you can walk away both from the situation AND from the aftermath of your actions.

Adventure texts sometimes say these things explicitly. More frequently they just assume them. And as Jacinto points out, those assumptions frame the action of the game in a way that fundamentally affects its problem space. Without any practical, mechanical, formal constraint on the players’ tactical infinity, it nonetheless structures the constraints on what the players will think of doing.

Why do adventurers tend to be disconnected drifters? I don’t know. Maybe so they don’t need complicated back-stories, maybe so they can enact eucatastrophes without demanding a new social contract from the beneficiaries. Patrick Stuart recently pointed out that this “heroic” social disconnection goes all the way back to the mists of proto-Indo-European myth:

A key point for us is that killing the son, in Indo-European terms, is like ‘killing the parents’ in children’s fiction; it enables the adventure.

Sane parents stop their children going on adventures so for the story, or game, to happen, and for the Hero to happen, they need to be missing, powerless, incompetent or dead. (Like most Disney parents).

Likewise the D&D adventurer will ultimately ‘age out’, (though in practice they remain near-psychotic self-driven loners in otherwise communal societies), but if they were real they would probably gain families and embed themselves in a socio-political milieux, as people tend to do as they age.
How then may they adventure? You can do socio-political court dramas, but how can they meat-and-potatoes, risk-and-exploration adventure?

…by accidently killing their son and/or heir in tragic and fated circumstances, this then ending their ‘family line’ (assuming a patriarchal society) this disconnects them from the world of line-building, politics and embedded power structures

Mechanically, early/BX D&D both leans very heavily on these assumptions and reinforces them – the rules work hard to avoid characters having any necessary social position.
To review:
– a D&D PC has a solitary mechanical reward structure built in: success yields xps (exact mechanism debated), xps yield levels, levels yield bigger encounters (whether those are selected by the DM or players). Nothing in this loop depends on a wider world or society – it’s treated as a sort of natural growth;
– a dungeon is a placeless place: a sealed environment that usefully does not leak into the wider world, where normal society is suppressed in favour of the critical moving parts of protagonist, monster, treasure;
– dungeons often contain their own powerups and debuffs – magic items, potions, time-based healing, daily spell recharges, sometimes even shops and wandering henchmen, allowing players to remain at the coalface of risks and rewards. It is true that many published adventures work to tie the dungeon to a wider world – or at least a village/resupply depot – but the mechanical language supporting indefinite dungeon-clearing has been present in the D&D rulebooks at least since b/x. (Video games have leaned into these mechanisms, often jettisoning any world-building outside their core violence/acquisition loops. It is remarkable that they did not have to invent anything other than the pieces in the D&D books in order to do so.)

And there are genre justifications: D&D is often described as a Western exactly because it’s full of High Plains Drifters…. while at the same time facing perennial complaints about how Drifter PCs tend to believe like Clint-Eastwoodish murderhobos (instead of, presumably, John Waynish lawmen?). If you attack this as a moral problem rather than a structural one, by tying the lifeways of The Drifter to a separate value system of helpful heroism, you get the “A-Team” – outsider PCs who repeatedly meet the locals, catalyze change, and move on. Which raises the question: “if you’ve made this place a little better than the rest of the dirty world, why do you leave?” Murderhobos have their answer built in – their actions make them fugitives. To achieve the same result, the 80s A-Team had to import an unjust, implacable enemy in the form of the US government. Back in the 50s the White Hat Drifter just gazed off across the desert and declaimed that he had to keep moving, but that kind of genre emulation is a heavy lift when the players have already invested lots of play time in learning about the corrupt lord in the castle and the villainous duke across the valley and the finishing school for Distressing Damsels that was always being raided by goblins until the PCs neutralized them.

Oh, right. The point at the top of this post: why should the PCs care about the world’s lore? Well, if it’s implicit that the lore will only be relevant to the current fight, that next month the PCs will be off to some new troll-pit… yeah, that disincentivizes taking too much interest in local affairs. The problem is not just that the lore has to justify its importance to the selfish PCs’ deeper mechanical/structural quest for levels, it’s that the players’ idea of their characters is of people who are fundamentally disconnected, whose interests do not naturally engage the world, but instead have to be excited by some novel and limited opportunity (something that can be mapped).

So……… OK, but what if the PCs weren’t drifters? Are you not then locked into “socio-political court dramas” (like Vampire)?


First, let’s take Vikings. None more adventurey, right?
Vikings are farmers.
They vote in local councils over, like, building and fishing rights. And they also go viking – they choose to leave their farms behind and go cattle-raiding across the sea, probably a few times each year. Certainly often enough that some of them can do it full time. The treasure they bring back translates straight into political power, bargaining advantage and marriage prospects. And then they need more of it.

The Timawa of the southern Philippines are a lot like Vikings, but with more of a formal social role as the warrior/raiding arm of an otherwise more settled society. Treasure can get them promotions to noble rank, which would otherwise be cut off to them, since they’re (mostly) second sons who won’t inherit the family farm. They’re explicitly not farmers themselves but still, they adventure from a stable home (farm) base, with a respectable social position.

“But these are mere pirates! We want heroes!”
Well, they’re heroes to their own people. If you’re playing a fantasy game, one of the great affordances of fantasy (maybe its defining characteristic) is its ability to paint your rivals as universal threats and the protagonists as noble defenders.

If the people the PCs raid are actually strong enough to be an existential threat to the PCs’ way of life, how is that different from points of light D&D? For an example, check out the Mappillas of the Malabar Coast of India – denounced as pirates by the Portuguese in the 16th century (while the Portuguese were stealing the Mappillas’ established trade routes), celebrated as anti-colonial freedom fighters by post-independence Indian historians. (Sadly, for a gameable hoard of info on these guys you’d need to search academic references, because wikipedia doesn’t really cover the discourse that calls them “pirates” or talk about their military operations. Instead it just talks about how the Portuguese sailed up and started attacking them – perhaps a useful redress of colonial attitudes, but not so handy for writing RPGs.)

More familiar maybe to D&D heads, yer ancient Greek heroes – Odysseus or Jason and the Argonauts – was often heads of households who dropped their ploughs to pick up spears, going adventuring for years at a time. They’re classic Drifters (on the wine-dark sea), sure, but their call to adventure does not cancel their social integration: they’re still playing the domain game, expecting to return home and reap the benefits of their victories, their favours, divine and profane. While out adventuring, they represent their home peoples among the foreigners. They are engaged in socio-political courting right as they’re heisting Golden Fleeces. And they’re making a web of social contracts with the people they meet, help and frustrate, keeping maps and records of the challenges they face and of those they postpone until such time as they can get a good crew together, one that could e.g. steal a queen or end a long-running war.

Having a domain – resources, commitments, reputation – they have something to lose, which makes their defeats as interesting as their victories. If they hear there’s a magic sword in the area, they want it, not just to use it themselves, but also to stop the villainous neighbouring lord from getting it. They have an active self-interest in understanding the world around them and ferreting out its secrets, because those secrets may actively interfere with their plans. Oh yeah, and they have plans, maybe even long-term ones, which need to be informed by intel – “lore,” if you want to distinguish it from the more immediately instrumental knowledge of maps or weapon stores. How trustworthy is the nomad chief? Should they ally with the religious zealots or the greedy traders? What will happen if they break the dam and reveal the old, flooded temple? Are there factions they don’t know about, interested in the fortunes of the goblins? The costs of ignorance could be devastating.

If the GM is keeping a lively world going, then just securing and maintaining the domain (from outsiders, mutineers, or ancient land curses) is a challenge that requires planning. Expanding it, or moving to the greener grass across the valley, or making it an important hub among the kingdoms – those are challenges fit for a campaign – ones that require knowledge as well as muscle power.

Have you tried ANT? A response to Marcia’s “OSR is Dead” post

June 3, 2022 12 comments

I don’t usually indulge in talking about “the scene” or categories like OSR or Storygamers, but this article was so nicely and lucidly written that I couldn’t help worrying about its theoretical underpinnings.

I should explain my own stake: even though I don’t consider myself part of the OSR, I find it a useful category more than a constricting one: if a game or group describes itself as OSR then it gives me some loose ideas about what it’s interested in – what Tom McGrenery calls “fantasy non-fiction,” where you’re not here for “writer’s room” play or some pre-written fiction so much as the range of possibilities for how a situation could evolve exclusively through having PCs interact with it. Where problems will kill you unless you try to anticipate their particular challenges. Where things are probably more or less compatible with B/X DnD. As a writer, I think my constellation of interests is more likely to find an audience among OSR players than other well-known categories.

So reading that the OSR is “dead” (again) or should be dead is not really welcome news for me. Happily, I think reports of its death are again greatly exaggerated, partly for reasons of humanities theories, partly because of simple social mechanisms.

  1. Harman’s “object oriented epistemology” might not be the best fit for describing something as loose and debatable as “the OSR.” Marcia concludes that Harman is naive for putting faith in some discursive constructs that aren’t really real – but if those discursive constructs include identity formation – the identity of “being in the OSR,” for instance – then she’s implicitly using a false consciousness argument against anyone who identifies themselves with the OSR. If the OSR doesn’t really exist, then neither do is adherents – or at least they’re mistaken in thinking there’s a movement there.
    But there are other theories for describing loosely-knit communities of thought, which do not get so hung up on whether the group agrees within itself on its own definition. The OSR might be better described by one of these. EG:
    (a) Ben Anderson’s idea of the “imagined community” describes a social category (eg a nation or ethnic group or community of interest) that people identify with, that is understood to be separate from other categories (ie nation/ethnicity/sect/identity A is separate from nation/ethnicity/sect/identity B), but that does not have to be more coherent than that, in order to have self-identifying members. Anderson’s main focus is on how the idea of a nation or ethnicity gets propagated and used by political actors: individuals appoint themselves as spokespeople for the group in order to imagine it in detail for the rest, generally excluding some of the people who were previously imagining themselves as part of it. That seems relevant to the OSR.
    (b) Actor-Network Theory deals with how connected bit and pieces of technology and ideas and people can organize themselves into working groups, in order to achieve certain effects. In this theory, people and abstract ideas are on the same level in deciding who/what is part of the network, which is collectively imagined. Big networks must be simpler than small ones/individuals, because they rely on being imagined by their constituent members in mutually-compatible ways). Individuals who appoint themselves as representatives/leaders of the network must put forward simple ideas that the whole actor-network can follow.
    Neither of these ideas requires a common understanding of the community so imagined, both of them allow for something more like first language acquisition from community adherents, who are individuals who find a thing called OSR and decide whether it’s for them, without needing to be paid up members of a sort of club of agreements.
  2. The OSR can be understood as a resistance movement. Resistance is defined primarily by what it resists or, groups that define themselves in resistance/opposition to some existing entity don’t need/don’t tend to produce strong self-definitions – their bonds of cohesion depend first on their opposition. This is a classic issue for all resistance movements: “what is the Left?” or “who is a true revolutionary?” are the standard questions that bedevil movements the minute they’re not being shot at by the Right/reactionaries. The OSR started as a break-away from the direction of published DnD: “let’s do our own thing instead!” Constant arguing over what that other thing might be is, I would argue, a sign of a healthy resistance. And unlike, say, Maoism, the OSR can have a successful life as something other than a unified movement: so long as an individual table of players can form a temporary community of thought around an idea, they can generate a play culture.
    This last point goes in direct opposition to what Marcia says about “those first grognards.”
    “At first glance” she says “there is not much going on with these folks on a productive level; any materials being made were mostly adventure modules and maybe house rules, rather than any introspective work on what exactly they liked about these games or what they wanted to see more of.” – she regards the latter self-reflective work as “a proper play culture,” more than than “just playing the game” – but, notably, one of the big tenets I’ve seen in OSR discussions is that you should in the first place “just play the game.” Dissing that seems like dissing the OSR without addressing it.
  3. once you make a category like OSR, people will use it, outside your control. Marcia notes this, but doesn’t follow through with the corollary, that they’ll apply it to you whether you agree or not. Exactly this happened, btw, with postmodernism and a set of authors with which Marcia seems to be only partly familiar (Deleuze, for starters, and his fellow admirers of Lacan, but also Foucault and Derrida and so on – many of the people who have since been ascriptively labeled “Cultural Marxists” by various right-wing hacks).
    So, in spite of Marcia’s plea to stop using the term, it will continue to be used (for at least another 20 years, if it follows postmodernism’s trajectory). And if you feel like resisting the magnetic pull of D&D’s published output, then you might want to have some sort of term to identify other people who also feel like resisting. And if you don’t try to own the term, then it will only be owned by people unfriendly to it – like “Cultural Marxism,” which was invented by right-wingers, has no defenders, and is therefore an ideal whipping boy for right-wing writers – the fact that there’s no there there does not matter, a fact that should be familiar to anyone who trawled through Imagined Communities or ANT, above. Or anyone who lived through the past 10 years of US politics.

So overall, I think I’d prefer not to kill the OSR just yet.

The Ritual

February 5, 2022 1 comment

Talking about Victor Turner yesterday gave me an idea.

Once a year, at the summer solstice, those mages sufficiently trained in the Hidden and True Arts may ascend the Holy Mountain and conduct a ritual, which has the power to change the fundamental workings of the world. For each sufficiently trained mage that takes part, one word may be uttered in the Original Language. The sentence that these words make up becomes true at the end of the shortest night, so that the people of the world may marvel at its working through the longest day. Only one mage utters the sentence, and then that mage’s voice is lost, forever.

There are few sufficiently trained mages and they are all highly suspicious of one another, so it has been many years since a ritual took place that was both substantive and widely approved. Two mages were able to augur “Caesar drowns,” but they could not recruit a third who would trust them enough to add “today.” The three mages who decreed “monkeys can fly” were regarded as both imprudent and carelessly incomplete: they neglected to impart to monkeys the will or urge to fly, so they remain (mostly) bound to their trees.

Still, the ritual stirs powerful hopes and fears. The sufficiently trained mages of some lands are feted and treated with lavish courtesy. In other lands they are killed on sight. They are almost always held prisoner in one way or another. Except, it is said, for a secret order of mages who live somewhere on or in the mountain, who have sworn to counter any sufficiently dangerous sentence.

Melasti/Temple Procession. Ketut Parwita Bali, 52-72 cm. Paper, 2000. From

An addendum to the previous post on magic and technology

February 5, 2022 1 comment

In discussions following the previous post, I realized that I never really explained why I wasn’t happy with writing magic into my games. (this is pretty self-indulgent and all about me, me, me. Fair warning.)

Magic can absolutely offer a coherent system, separate from the regular systems of the game, just like another branch of technology. Why not? Paolo offers: “I’m not sure if wonder is required. Wise folk do not wonder at magic as much as mundanes, maybe at some point of experience and learning you become wise to all the ways of the world and stop wonder altogether.”

I’m happy to play games on that basis, but I’m not happy to design that way. If the magic in my games feels like that, I will wonder why I am not just using an easier-to-understand technological explanation. More, I will feel like I’m cheating the magical of its full potential. Adding magic tends to break the tension of simple tactical situations, which I love as a (sometimes) historical gamer. As Chris K put it, “If what you really want is a deep investigation of tactics, then it makes sense that you wouldn’t want something to disrupt the intuition of those tactics unless it gave you something more worthwhile than that intuition.”

So then Paolo got me to read a bit about Daniel Dennett and taking an intentional stance on the world, which is essentially what we do when we think we’re dealing with another thinking agent. And that held a side-note that encapsulates what I think the cost of including magic is…

“Eleanor Rosch [argued for] the “maximum information with the least cognitive effort”. Rosch argues that, implicit within any system of categorization, are the assumptions that: (a) the major purpose of any system of categorization is to reduce the randomness of the universe by providing “maximum information with the least cognitive effort”, and (b) the real world is structured and systematic, rather than being arbitrary or unpredictable. Thus, if a particular way of categorizing information does, indeed, “provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort”, it can only do so because the structure of that particular system of categories corresponds with the perceived structure of the real world”.

Up to now, I have considered magic and technology to be functionally identical in fiction – they have inputs and outputs. They may operate on separate systems inside the fiction, they may have different organizing principles, but from a stance outside the fiction, that’s just window dressing: you can reskin one as the other and proceed.*
1. “it’s magic” generally ends arguments, while “it’s science” starts them. “Magic” is a sufficient explanation or rather a signal that no further explanation will be given.
2. it is therefore generally impossible to see all the way around a magical explanation: the magicness leads out of view, which means there is some part of the situation which cannot be fully grasped/operationalized/made predictable. It is always narratively acceptable, because it is already anticipated, that magic may be turned against the user, because the user (and audience) never fully understands what they are doing.

So magical explanations never “provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.” Instead they add a cost of difficulty involved in imagining them and communicating them, with their full implications and use cases. This is essential to those “devil’s bargain” or “three wishes” stories: the bargainer never really understands what they’re agreeing to.

Rosch’s “maximum information with the least cognitive effort” strikes me as especially important in RPGs, where everyone is being asked to imagine hard and operationally all the time, and even more important in online games, with their limited duration, thin channels for communication, and uncertain levels of attention. A grenade has a great information/effort ratio: the player knows what it does and has a strong sense of the limits of their knowledge (“just how far do I have to throw this thing to be safe from it? I dunno. So it’s a risk”). A vaguely-worded spell at least costs more effort to parse out and probably also has unknown unknowns, even after the player thinks they understand it.

And that’s why I am so happy to find a payoff to declaring a game token to be magical, rather than technological.

* My son objects that I have now twisted the words magic and tech so far that nobody else uses them the way I do, but I think the way I used to use them was flabby and uninformative. In the Dennett link, above, the word “aboutness” is used. And I can see that it’s an annoying word – I had to look it up to understand it – but I can also see how a polyvalent and vague word like “meaning” would just cause confusion in the discussion they’re having.


Here: Alex offered a really neat method:

“So my version of surprising magic, which I used in a campaign a few years ago, was that mages could develop new spells out of words of the names of spells they already knew. When they created the spell, they would write down what they wanted it to do. I would not read their version, but would develop my own (usually slightly ironic) interpretation of the name, which I would write on an index card and put aside. There were a few basic guidelines about, eg., how damage or bonuses could scale, but beyond that they had carte blanche and spells were level-less. (There was an understanding that if anything seemed truly busted we would talk through it.) When the player first cast the spell, and not before, they would test their magic lore skill to see if they had designed it properly. If they succeeded, they would use their version; if they failed, they would use mine.”
…and that could be refined by having the loser of the dice contest add a twist/modification, so it’s always a hybrid.

An example from play:
Player: my spell is called “summon places”.
Me: ok, write down what it does.
We each spend about a minute jotting down our idea.
Some time later, she says: I cast summon places.
Me: Roll arcana.
She rolls arcana and fails.
We flip my card: Chunks of architecture fall from the sky.
In real life we stopped here, but for the sake of thinking it through let’s add a step where she’s able to work in an idea from her card.
Player: my card says it allows me to travel to a given place, it’s a teleport spell.
Me: ok, chunks of that place are falling from the sky. Which place did you target for this casting?
Player: oh. The vampire’s castle…
Me: welp

…this whole discussion would’ve been better handled as a comic in the series “philosophers play D&D.” Since it wasn’t, I can only offer by way of apology a scene where Basil Fawlty misuses the intentional stance: