I don’t have much time these days, so I’m going to keep the analysis short here. Tl:dr – you should go visit Neuschwanstein, even if you don’t run a classically pseudo-medieval game, even if the whole volkish Wagnero-Tolkieny fantasy thing brings you out in hives, and especially if you think you’ve been inoculated against sentimentalism by a surfeit of Disney princesses. Because it’s all those things but it’s also so very good.
All the following photos are stolen off the internet: feel free to send takedown orders.
So you know the basic story already: Mad king Ludwig II of Bavaria decides ruling is too hard/boring and his real passion is building fairytale castles. He’s best mates with Wagner and he does his best to turn those turgid operas into fluffy stone confections until his mysterious death at the bottom of a lake supplies the obvious final tragic chord. 50 years later Walt Disney gets excited about the pointy turrets, digs up the last surviving artists who worked on them, and makes the first feature-length cartoon all about Fairycastleland, eventually leading to Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland, CA, which sears Ludwig’s vision into the imagination of little girls for the rest of the 20th century and probably beyond.
So far so serviceable, if you want to mine the second most obvious source in all of fantasy. But this story spins off in several curious directions and the devil (and his salvation) is in the details. If you want to get conspiratorial, you could ask who murdered Ludwig and why, 16 years after Bavaria’s inclusion in Bismarck’s empire made his throne into a historical footnote. You could also wonder how it was that Ludwig’s brother and obvious successor Otto came to be “unfit for rule” after serving adequately in the Prussian army during the short and decisive Franco-Prussian War (or what he was doing in that army, for that matter). The official tour says Otto suffered from PTSD or something, and notes in passing that Ludwig, too, was mad. Except these days we think he probably wasn’t. Ludwig’s building fetish threatened to bankrupt the family, but when he died there was still enough money for his uncle Luitpold to keep up the residence at neighbouring Hohenschwangau and even to have novelties like a telephone and elevator put in.
Less famous, but cozier and handy for the shops.
Work stopped on the castle the day the king died, so only the 4th floor and above were finished. That was enough to make it into an attraction, however, and it was handed over to the new German state and opened to the public just 6 weeks after Ludwig
drowned was bludgeoned to death following his arrest. Which is pretty quick moving, from a building site riddled with rebellious, gossiping servants to a state museum.
Then there’s the curious relationship between Ludwig’s creations and the 2nd and 3rd Reichs. In 1866, Prussia had expanded (via military threat, trickery and horse-trading) through most of the vaguely German-speaking territories that weren’t already nailed down in the Austrian Empire. When Ludwig acceded in 1868 Bavaria’s days were clearly numbered, as the largest independent state waiting to be seized by Prussia’s new, aggressive Kaiser from the sphere of influence of Austria, the “sick man of Europe.” Whether Bavaria was forced to join Prussia or ingeniously navigated an impossible situation depends on who you ask: legend has it that Ludwig sold his crown in 1870 in return for the royal treasure of Hannover. So Bismarck’s “tide of history” that swept Ludwig himself aside also made his castle-confections possible. As physical expressions of Wagner’s operas (and flotsam from the Second Reich), the castles were later grabbed up into Hitler’s “Mythology of the German Spirit,” but their frothy, light-hearted brand of mordlust didn’t fit squarely into the Chancellor’s drill routines: in 1937 they slipped out again from under the Nazi curse dressed up as Germanic Lore for American Kids, and hooked into the already vibrant American Castle Craze, incidentally helping Disney to fund anti-Nazi propaganda films (while Walt himself… had a more troubled relationship with the politics of oppression).
Right now, though, I’m most tempted to consider Ludwig’s ghost as one of the great secret architects of the 20th century: a progenitor who used film before it was even invented to propagate his memes around the world.
Walking around Neuschwanstein you can play spot the Disney movie and get a sense for just how direct the castle’s influence was on Walt’s greatest hits. And once you do, you start to wonder why Disney never made a Lohengrin or Tristan and Isolde. Take this painting in the Hall of the Singers, for instance:
Looking at his actual home at Hohenschwangau, it’s remarkable how the colour palette, motifs and composition of a bunch of 1840s German painters would inform 1940s American background artists and children’s book illustrators:
It’s even tempting (though facile) to see unmarried fantasist Ludwig as the prototype for all Walt’s lonely girls in a hilltop castle, waiting for their princes to come. But Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were just the first moves in ghost-Ludwig’s grand strategy to build Fairytale America (in Calyferne, no less), which may be the sneakiest bit of Capitalist appropriation ever: demythologizing mythology. Roaring like a mouse from beyond the grave. Convincing people that he’s safely dead, then re-emerging as… well, a patron saint of kayfabe – of theatre-as-life.
Because theatricality is all over Ludwig’s plans. Consider, for instance, his “throne room” (above, finished apart from the throne), which is really much less like a throne room than it is like a chapel, in which Ludwig himself would play the role of saint statue – on a pedestal under Christ Pantocrator and – most of all – in a narrative sequence of kings who were also saints.
(Valencia Cathedral, Spain, for comparison)
Or his tomb-like bed, crowned with wooden copies of a dozen mausoleum towers (modern toilet hidden behind the paneling). Or the bed he actually slept in, in Hohenschwangau, under a painted night sky in which the stars and moon could be lit up, by means of lamps hidden in a crawlspace above. Or if that’s not clear enough, the fact that in order to get from his bedroom to his reading room, he would have had to walk through a stage-set grotto, built for a performance of Parsifal:
Dracula not included.
Neuschwanstein’s primary architect, Christian Jank, was a theatre designer. His painted designs for the castle look like theatrical backdrops – and that’s what the castles themselves were supposed to be: physical intrusions into our reality of the world that Wagner brought to brief (although still bum-numbing), flickering life on the stage.
Which is why they’re so perfectly suited to being realized, all over again, as fantasies. Because like movie music or a well-written novel, they guide you in your reception. There is one classic exterior photo of Neuschwanstein that every tourist takes:
They take it from the Marienburg bridge, because it offers the one vantage point from which you can see the whole castle. Because the bridge was placed just so, as a viewing platform for the masterpiece; the optimal point for reproducing the castle’s image the way Jank wanted you to remember it. In most of the rooms there’s an obvious place you’re supposed to stand, where all the sightlines converge – and it’s not the king’s seat, but the point where the visitor first enters. The point where you would, naturally, have your Kodak moment. The walks up to the castles are through carefully manicured “wild” forests, complete with Alan Lee tangled roots and craggy shettiya-type rocks, which ground the whole thing and also prepare you for entering the self-consciously otherworldly castle precincts. In short, the whole thing is a masterclass in presenting an experience to the visitor. It only looks, superficially, like a castle. In fact it’s a thesis, a story-book, covered in painted illustrations and punctuated by spiral staircases and high lookout windows.
…and in that spirit, it really doesn’t matter that it’s unfinished. Or that its younger brother, Castle Falkenstein, miscarried before it could get a foot onto the earth.
That just means Falkenstein’s ready to hold whatever story you want to pour into it.
A comment on G+ reminded me of a little bugbear I have with almost all RPG settings:
they tend to have in-built resistance to change. Whether it’s “points of light” or Battletech’s unending, entropic war or even Traveller’s Star Trek – like trawl through multiple tech levels, actual innovation that changes the world is avoided. In fact I strongly suspect that one of the reasons for the perennial popularity of more-or-less medieval settings is that the “medieval” state is (popularly) perceived to be one of stability and stagnation.
Why do we love that so much?
Maybe there’s an elective affinity here with adventure yarns – a static background helps the hero’s dynamism really stand out. The Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or square-jawed Earthling sportsman on Mongo gets to inject his specialness into the passive fantasy world and get validation from it in playtime. The active protagonist’s works can then be isolated and recognized. Or maybe it’s the value that a dynamic community of players gets out of reliably being in sync – we can play DnD or Firefly without much preparation because we’re all on the same page on all important issues right from the start. It’s pretty clear how that’s an advantage for commercial considerations – splatbooks and the like.
Maybe it’s that a static world requires the least metagame knowledge, of the course on which things might change if they were going to change. Lots of video games use some variant on the invention tree to model technological change through the course of play time (an idea which probably traces its origins back equally to Trav’s tech levels (with their logical progression of this before that) and some kind of evolutionary schema), but these things are lame in a tabletop RPG because they short-circuit tactical infinity. And maybe it’s part of the social contract of participating in a world that doesn’t have cellphones – that the players agree not to use their own knowledge to invent them because they accept that the world won’t accommodate them (but if the world might change, then…).
But. If we take history as our guide, then the eras that offer the greatest opportunities to Conan it up from zero to hero are the ones where old systems are being disrupted, where instead of just bobbing along in the tide of human events you can steer a little. Aren’t those potentially the most rewarding campaigns? Ones where you don’t have to stop at becoming king of a province, but might actually change the whole political process and be responsible for saving the serfs from serfdom (or for plunging them into damnation)? Hollywood superheroes tend to be devoted to rescuing the status quo from change but a game doesn’t have to follow suit, right?
So here’s a little metagame knowledge about Tartary (a dangerous thing, for sure), in response to +Stephan Hillenbrand’s critique of primitive post-apocalism in general, to act perhaps as a spur to players’ ambitions. First the critique:
“LosTech” is something I tend to find a rather boring excuse for a stagnating setting. I don’t think people would be in the dark about how a diesel engine works for more than a few months when they have a running example of one lying in front of them, waiting to be dissected.
Also, at least some of the people who understand how trains work should survive any apocalypse. It’s not rocket science, really.
In Tartary there are several obstacles to reforming the world, none of them insurmountable but all of them significant.
First, people are constantly at war. They don’t share information. The size/population of individual cities is limited, so there are limits to the technological work any one of them can do. So a unifier could abruptly change the situation, and something like early 20th century technology could be widely available in short order.
But there are a few other wrinkles to deal with, which actively mess with the effort to settle on a stable scientific paradigm on which disruptive technologies could be based:
1 the physical rules of the universe seem to be a moving target – sometimes visibly as the Weird blows through. Basic devices work reliably, but the more a technology becomes a “black box” the less reliable it becomes. The corollary to this is,
2 “magic” (that is, ways of manipulating the world that are not susceptible to ready explanation) offers a shortcut but one that’s unpredictable, dangerous and encourages secrecy. In practice nobody can resist it because the potential payoff in the short term is wonderful, but it always screws everything up long term, to the extent that
3 it sometimes seems like there’s somebody “up there” keeping things from developing too far, messing with experimental results, putting their thumb on the scale, adding gremlins to devices that get too successful. The really reliable magitech tends to be found rather than made or adapted. Periodically somebody will observe that technologies that render people passive (eg television receivers) tend to be more reliable than those that allow you to actively shape the world (eg recording cameras), but this contention has been made by so many paranoid, power-grubbing mountebanks (with or without funny accents) that nobody serious pays it any mind.
4 there are powerful vested interests who are known to be actively working against large infrastructure projects. There’s no visible Emperor Ming keeping all the princes at each other’s throats but there are nomad hordes and sorcerers and trade networks who profit from the status quo – essentially the buggy whip manufacturers guild has a very good school of assassins in the back.
Which is all to say that the right enterprising gang of revolutionaries could turn this setting on its head. If they could successfully identify and neutralize the players who are working to keep it… the way up it is now.
Somehow over the past 2 weeks I’ve missed a great series of posts by Telecanter about procedural/random trading games. Right at the beginning of that series he asked about lists of trade goods and what might make for a short memorable set of actually fun trade items (the first goal being to make trade an interesting part of the game, D&Trav style, and the second goal being to not have the players go “really? 3 weeks as pirates and all we have to show for it is millet?”). His list is a good length and evokes a fairly specific milieu, which is to say generic-DnD (or as I like to call it, 1630 Amsterdam).
But I thought: what makes trade goods fun? How would you rank and classify trade goods by their fun potential?
…how would you go about stealing them?
Small: requires a 2-man con, typically 5-30 minutes:
gold*; precious stones; ambergris, incense, exotic perfumes, nutmeg; foreign collectible ephemera; incriminating coins; letters; passports/permits for extraordinary behaviour; declarations of war, property, inheritance or price hikes; erotic statuary that embarrasses the local bishop-prince; homunculi or genie lamps; poisons, potions, medicines; keys; crystal balls, magic compasses, hypnotic pets; deep secrets of the universe; insignia of office.
Medium: 5-man con with a handcart or dray:
High-grade cognac, laudanum, rare concoctions; world–economy–changing seedlings; gunpowder; cinnamon; experimental small arms; enriched uranium; invasive species; quarantined pets; silver, amber, furnishings, mirrors, pearl-handled arquebuses, spice-boats, models of revolutionary fortifications/ships/catapults/oubliettes/hydraulics; experts, spies, witnesses; mermaids, circus freaks, incognito princelings; carpets, tapestries, silkworms, finely carved writing desks suspected of containing hidden drawers; clockwork automata, enigma machines; cultural signifiers of authority.
Large: you’ll need a crane:
Cannons; cacao trees; meteorites; rum, wine, champagne; coffee, tea; qat; experimental vehicles, engines, battlesuits; elephants, giraffes, prize bulls; cult statues; shrines containing the Truth of the World; silks; horses, pigs, alpacas, young dragons; devil-summoning pipe organs; durian; glue; masts, spars, anchors, vital ship parts, deck knees; roc eggs; fused-together crew members; Thark lances; disabled fliers, Montgolfier balloons, fighting kites, diving bells, MRI scanners; terracotta golems; sarcophagi.
XL. Just steal the goddamn ship:
Grain, pepper, coriander, sugar or anything else that’s just loaded loose in the hold; quicklime; coal, coke, anthracite, mercury, saltpetre, cinnabar; glazed temple bricks, carved marble capitals from the First Cathedral of Constantinople/Temple Mount/Parthenon, guardian statues; fishtanks, narwhals, hallucinatory groves for transplanting whole into imperial gardens; bitumen, lamp oil, kerosene, nitroglycerine, Greek Fire, Azoth, skrying pools; strategic relief maps; dimensional gates; ships.
* Gold may be “small” in historical settings but it’s probably at least “medium” in vanilla DnD and may be “large” in anime-inspired settings. Tartary, being tied to flailsnails, is much richer in gold than I’d like it to be. If anyone has any suggestions on what to do about that I’d love to hear them.
so +Stuart Robertson (of Strange Magic) piped up on the old “how to refigure demi-humans for a humanocentric game” concertina again, and I loves me a rollicking sea tune.
Here’s your basic 7 classes for a Treasure Island/Jamaica Inn/Smuggler’s Cove game. Adjust seasoning to taste for Pirates of the Caribbean, Hardy, Melville etc:
Dwarf = Miner: functionally the same as ever but no immunity to arsenic poisoning. Bluff exterior probably covers up an abused and abusive interior with moments of secret, solitary poetry.
Thief = Smuggler: actually a respected profession among the lower/adventuring orders, though with “fisherman” as inevitable legit cover.
MU = Engineer: for a Stevenson’s Rocket type steampunk feel. Real world examples include Humphry Davey and Isambard Brunel. My first thought was “parson” because of the bookish, useless-in-a-fight angle, but they have no magic in this setting.
Cleric = Fishwife: handy with a (blunt) rolling pin, a bandage and a hearty scolding.
Halfling = Preventive Man: These are the King’s Men who try to stop the smugglers. They’re not all hapless redcoats; some are sneaky spies and/or gamekeepers – Johnny Law in general, and they’re no shorter than anyone else.
Fighter = Haybaler: a big, burly farmhand with drinking capacity to match his fists. Alternatively Navvy, Gunner’s Mate, Dock Worker
Elf = Whippersnapper (whether ‘prentice boy or cabin boy or plucky orphan or maid is pure window dressing). The Jim lad class, knows more than he should, listens in while the parsons and engineers are jawing in the pub, but still yearns to grow up into a “proper” profession.
I like the purity of the basic 4 or 7, but if you wanted to expand this:
Bard = Parson of the fulminating fire’n’brimstone persuasion, or Agitator/rabble rouser, to borrow a leaf from the Hill Cantons. John Wesley was arguably both;
Assassin = Pirate and Ranger = Highwayman, or vice versa – maybe you never quite know what you’re up against there;
Paladin = Musketeer (I thought we were in Cornwall? Yup, all paladins are foreigners on a mission of some kind);
Druid = Moonshiner. Eh? What’s Dust doing over here? Well, I’m using it for “crazy old coot who lives off in the woods doing something the law wouldn’t like.” And although there’s plenty of those in Cornwall, there’s no professional archetype, so I’m reaching for a spiritual cousin. Actually in Cornwall this would probably be “gypsy,” but there’s the old racism card.
This would be better if the classes really mapped onto ways of dealing with problems in the world, but they don’t in DnD either, really, once you get into the demi-humans.
So Giant Evil Wizard and I stormed a brain and this is what fell out:
Carcosa [is about] riding a triceratops hell-for-leather into a field of soon-to-be-dead robots … using robot blood to warpaint your Triceratops like the side of a mid-70’s conversion van. Carcosa is the weird uncle transdimensional neighbour of Mad Max World. It’s like Wacky Races on PCP. Plus, all the best hot rods run on high octane sorcerer blood.
Then Jeff Rients said The prospect of racing a Mad Max style dune buggy across an electroradiant hellscape makes me giddy.
You can bring whatever lunacy you’ve invented because flailsnails, but at minimum the home setting will have Carcosan dinosaur riders, Mad Max desert buggies, Tharks on Thoats and carnival floats. Race, fight and dirty trick your way into the lead, try not to become food for the hemogoblins. The track will run across the radioactive Plain of Glass, through Mike D’s Desert of Dead Gods and up and down canyons that just might be monster gullets/cloacas.
– the race will be over in 6-8 turns and the prize will be Grand Yet Mystifying;
– your character may die, mutate, get incorporated in the landscape and or reified/deified along the way. Really, it’s gonna be potentially deadly regardless of your level. If you want to roll up a character just for this, may I suggest:
What else you will need:
Roll up a vehicle (below). All vehicles can take at least 3 people, big ones can carry up to 6.
You automatically get one henchman if you don’t bring your own – a grease monkey who builds your ride (chargen right at the end of this post).
You can also choose to take a local Sky Man guide** along with you to keep you from getting lost and warn you about what’s coming up on the track. The downside: he comes with a kerosene-powered backpack radio, which bypasses all armour if it blows up. The upside: he can use that radio to contact his buddies further up the track, if you ask nicely.
Roll on the following tables, or make up your own craziness* and I’ll assign you bonuses and penalties by return of email.
Where do you ride? D10
1: A sweet black Zil or Caddie chassis, or if you want everyone to know you’re the good guy, then a Ford Mustang. +1 AC, +1 speed on smooth track or -1 in the rough, 8 HP
2: classic Mad Max dune buggy, with pipework spaghetti all over. +1 speed on the smooth, -1 in the rough, 10 HP
3: an ekranoplan nose-cone or hammered-together rocket booster +1 AC, +1 mishap, 12 HP
4: a coracle. Or a wickerwork howdah or open-top Baba Yaga hut. +1 speed, -2 AC. Counts as “stripped down.” 4 HP
5: a throne mounted on a titanium pipe and bamboo gantry, held together by hope. +1 speed, -2 AC, +1 to hit, +1 mishap. Counts as “stripped down.” 2 HP
6: the bony carapace of some giant creature – zaratan skull? Upturned Anklyosaurus back? Turtle shell? You choose. +1 AC, -1 to hit, 12 HP
7: a Vincent Black Lightning. Or if that doesn’t stir your juice, one of these motorbikes right here. +2 speed on smooth, -2 on rough, 4HP
8: The Bone Wagon. Or hell train. You choose, either way it’s clearly possessed by some really angry spirit. +2 AC, +2 mishap 14 HP
9: big, black altar stone. Looks like a Styrofoam movie prop but really hurts if it hits you in the shin. You cling to it for dear life, ironically. 16 HP
10: giant robot controlled by jumper cables sticking out of its trepanation hole. +1 AC, +1 to hit, +2 mishap, save on crit mishaps or it gets control over its own limbs again and you’d better watch out. 10 HP
What makes it go? D10
1: wheels and gas-o-line. In a poorly-sealed container, so bad mishaps can yield pretty orange fireballs +1 speed on smooth, -1 on rough
2: thoat. You choose if you sit atop or behind, but be warned, they kick +4 HP
3: skids and a giant everglades propeller, powered by compressed gas. See 1 above: save vs blender on bad mishaps.
4: Cameltrain – a giant 10-legged mutated camel with no head. Creepy. +2 HP
5: Soulburner: safe, clean, eerily silent energy that requires one sacrifice every 1d4 turns or it stops. Sacrificial process is your call.
6: Dinosaur. Can bite at ramming distance, but can also go wild on a bad mishap. Good luck. +6 HP
7: Giant spider crab. Skittery. Prone to attacking other vehicles for food +5 HP
8: gas-powered hovercraft – inferior to the soulburner in almost every way. +1 mishap, -1 to hit and pretty orange fireballs – but -2 damage from ramming.
9: wheels and rocket juice! Once during the game you can jump! Leaving a big black smudge on the track. During that jump you get +8 speed, +6 mishap, -2 AC (exposed underbelly). At the end you have to save or leave a big red smudge.
10: old-fashioned Mongolian ponies that won’t mess up your home campaign. With razor-sharp teeth. +3 HP – or giant landshrimp/trilobites that do exactly the same job.
What keeps the sun off? D10
1: Buddha brolly. Delightfully cool and colourful.
2: nothing at all. If you think you should have a roof, it’s missing.
3: Viking shields. +2 HP
4: gull-wing doors torn off defunct 80s sportcars +2 HP
5: tailfins torn off MiG fighters. +1 AC, -1 to hit +2 HP
6: an upside down boat. Rusty but solid. And hard to see around. +1 AC, +1 mishap (cannot increase AC over +2) +4 HP
7: pintle mount: you can target multiple other vehicles in a turn, but -1 to hit and +1 mishap for every target after the first.
8: fluttering ribbons. They’re supposed to bring good luck.
9: war banners. Double as lances in a ram, for +2 damage
10: hang-glider. Can try to use it as a last-ditch save vs death for one character, but that’s about it.
How do you recognise it in the parking lot? D10
1: live opera singer hood ornament. Knows the Deus Irae from Verdi’s Requiem, sneers at you if you ask for Ride of the Valkyries. Bellows and bites when you ram.
2: stripped down like a hot rod: +1speed, -1 AC overall
3: Bulked up like a tank: -1 speed, +1 AC
4: hard to look at. Maybe it’s the blinding mirror finish, or the op-art spiral paintjob, or the giant sloth skulls or the hypnotically-swaying fuel leads. -1 to hit, +1 AC
5: wildly bouncy shocks. -1 to hit, -1 speed
6: stringpunk jury-rigged trash-heap. +2 mishap, but also +2 on critical saves.
7: loaded with extras – like Scrap Princess’ “useful devices:” can be used as your wild hallucinatory visions demand, or as weapons for +1 in a ram.
8: Bronze trireme ram. Because they’re badass. +3 when ramming.
9: Nasty spiky bits, like Roman chariot wheels, or circular saws or Alien mouths-in-mouths. +1 when ramming
10: varmints – could be anything from rats to grasshoppers to seed shoggoths. 1 in 6 chance of +2 mishap each round.
The following weapons can be found lying around the junkyard:
Radium guns and gatling guns
Then there’s the weapons pit. This is guarded by a ferocious, giant dino-dog, sneaky glassworms and a robot snake. You can try your luck up to 3 times, risking your grease monkey’s neck, and in full cognizance of the fact that you won’t always get what you want… Tell me how many times you’re trying and how much risk you’re taking, I’ll tell you what you bring back. Roll a D20 for the “I’m going in but I’m not losing sight of the exit” table, or D12 for “I am in so far over my head and I don’t even know what these metal abortions might have been back when they worked” table.
Everyone gets the old favourites – oil spray and smoke out the back, shooting while doing bootlegger turns, kicking up dirt, thumbtacks – but beyond that you should invent these yourself. Email me with your ideas of misleading roadsigns or explosive hitchhikers or collapsing bailey bridges. All tricks come at a cost, usually of raised mishap risk. No you don’t get to know what that is ahead of time.
And last of all: the Grease Monkey, a race-as-class special to Carcosa Wacky Races
Full rules for these denizens of the junkyard are over here. For chargen purposes what you need to know is: write “grease monkey” on your charsheet. And a name. 3D6 in order as usual. d4 HP, specify whatever fetid covering you want up to chainmail. You get a free spanner/wrench and screwdriver and can also roll on Jeff’s What Went Wrong for equipment, background and sexual orientation, should you so desire.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, aviator and author of, among other things, The Little Prince, was enchanted by how machines, after their first clunking, wheezing, inefficient entries into the world eventually always came to conceal themselves and their artificial natures. He was, of course, talking particularly about the first 40 years of flight but his comment seems more Platonic – he said that all machines would finally achieve the naturalness of outline “of a breast” (he was French, after all).(1)
Of course everyone already knows about ironclads and the weirdness of that moment, after centuries of confident polishing of the ideal form of the warship, when all bets were called off and man’s groping ignorance was laid bare. But somehow I was unprepared for it when I ran across the incredible model collection of the Musee National de la Marine, in Paris. Which shows metal abortions, directionless dead-ends and attempts to reinvent the whale (no, that’s not a sub). And it was finally borne in on me, what I think the fundamental impulse of Steampunk is: it’s a kind of anti-Exuperian urge, to reveal the machine in its first improvised, ludicrous moment. Perhaps to capture that spirit of invention that isn’t concerned with doing it well, but merely with being able to do it at all.
…and then I cracked up, confronted by this flanderized monstrosity,(3) armed with 4 big field guns in turrets, a metric buttload of old style ship guns, 18 “canons-revolvers” and 4 torpedo tubes. And, I don’t know, maybe a catapult or some horns.
Have you looked at a modern airplane? Have you followed from year to year the evolution of its lines? Have you ever thought, not only about the airplane but about whatever man builds, that all of man’s industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent over working draughts and blueprints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the principle of simplicity? It is as if there were a natural law which ordained that to achieve this end, to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship’s keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elemental purity of the curve of a human breast or shoulder, there must be the experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness. It results from this that perfection of invention touches hands with absence of invention, as if that line which the human eye will follow with effortless delight were a line that had not been invented but simply discovered, had in the beginning been hidden by nature and in the end been found by an engineer… startling as it is that all visible evidence of invention should have been refined out of this instrument and that there should be delivered to us an object as natural as a pebble polished by the waves, it is equally wonderful that he who uses this instrument should be able to forget that it is a machine… in the machine of today we forget that motors are whirring: the motor, finally, has come to fulfill its function, which is to whirr as a heart beats – and we give no thought to the beating of our heart. Thus, precisely because it is perfect the machine dissembles its own existence instead of forcing itself upon our notice. Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1939): Wind, Sand and Stars, trans. Lewis Galantiere, (Harcourt Brace, Orlando 1967), pp. 42-43
3: dammit, it turns out that the highly useful critical concept I understood by “flanderization” is exclusively the coinage of Zak Sabbath, since the tvtropes page on the topic claims it’s really the ridiculous exaggeration of a minor character in a work of fiction, generally to the effect of making them stupid. No: that will not do. I do mean making something worse – or more like its image – by adding other intensifying features to it. Perhaps the redundant piling up of signifiers all pointing in the same direction in order to reinforce a point.