Friday, December 18, 2020

SF and public health policy

 Are there hopeful representations of public health policy in speculative fiction? Are there, for example, visions of a well-governed biomedical commons?

Within SF, dystopia and public health policy go hand-in-hand. In fact, SF seems practically incapable of imagining any holistic stance on the myriad factors that inform the happiness and flourishing of populations, unless the interested party is some sinister elite: a paternalistic and unaccountable dystopian government, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or perhaps a clandestine sect of eugenicists like the Bene Gesserit of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Perhaps there are some partial exceptions. In threads of transhumanism and biopunk traceable through works by Iain M. Banks, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Samuel R. Delany, Cory Doctorow, Greg Egan, Gwyneth Jones, Nancy Kress, Yoon Ha Lee, Annalee Newitz, Kim Stanley Robinson, Justina Robson, Bruce Sterling, Charles Stross, Jeanette Winterson, and others, the somatic becomes vividly tractable to speculative technologies. Bodies and consciousnesses become the raw material for design and experiment. Bodily distresses, diseases, disorders, disabilities, and limitations may be eradicated altogether, or transformed or recontextualised to de-pathologize them. Often such SF goes beyond crudely fantasizing medical techno-fixes, and examines how notions of ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ are constructed in the first place. But what such SF almost never does is offer any account of the democratization of medicalized desire, expertise, techniques, and resources. There are mavericks who work outside of the medical-industrial complex, or there is its wholesale displacement by biomedical abundance supremely responsive to individual desire … and that’s it.

Names in SFF interlude: sexbot

From Jeanette Winterson's Frankissstein:

Naming is power, I say to her.

It sure is. Adam's task in the Garden of Eden.

Yes, indeed, to name everything after its kind. Sexbot ...

Pardon me, sir?

Do you think Adam would have thought of that? Dog, cat, snake, fig tree, sexbot?


Names in SFF

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again

Just finished this and skimmed a few reviews (Nina Allan's is really great). Quite rightly, reviewers are reluctant to treat this gorgeous soggy prose-poem like it's some mere Christopher Nolan headfuckery.


What is actually going on?

For example, Shaw never figures anything out. What doesn't he figure out?

Sure, the whole narrative is wrapped in luminous uncertainty. Sure, it insists on the absurd and the fantastical within the everyday. This is a universe where great chunks of memory go missing without explanation; where people take turns blurting unintelligible messes of language and pretend that they are 'conversing'; where a plague of hyperactive pattern-recognition risks turning you into an obsessive automaton endlessly scrolling, peering, and posting; where ghosts and figments endlessly sparkle and cavort at the edges of everything; where you might any moment be seized by strange forces and compelled to action you can't understand; all under the rubric of realism and sharply observed Menippean satire. 

Sure, any reader who wants to puzzle it all out will find themselves gently trolled by the possibility that they are just like the novel's own conspiracy theorist Tim Swann. But there is a speculative-fictional plot here. There are clues and connections, and the novel also invites a certain amount of cobbling things together, even if the sturdiest possible outcome is a bit wonky.

So I'll put this out there, for starters: it seems likely that Shaw's 'crisis' or 'rough patch' was his birth, and his memories of the period before that time are in some sense artificial. At least, if I were Shaw, that's what I'd be wondering. 

Does that ring true?

PS: Some Contexts

  • The Water Babies
  • Nova Swing
  • Annihilation
  • Blade Runner
  • The Drowned World
  • Rick & Morty
  • Pincher Martin
  • The Shadow Over Innsmouth
  • On the Origin of Species
  • Creative Evolution
  • Russian Doll
  • Vurt
PPS: I think one of the things the novel does superbly is poke at the political underpinnings of the trope of the goopy cheaply jury-rigged human (see e.g. Annihilation), and expose that trope as a function of social atomisation and the malevolence of classist, ableist, and racist gaze. I think the spirit that animates it is more critical humanist than posthumanist. But I also think it deploys this trope, and I am wondering exactly how.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

2020 Stuff


'Oh God, the Dogs!' is a short story written in response to the Chilean SF author Elena Aldunate's 'Juana y La Cibernética,' translated into English for the first time by Ana Baeza Ruiz and Elizabeth Stainforth and published in a dope little Riso zine from Desperate Literature and Do the Print in Barcelona. Cover design by Terry Craven. 'Oh God, the Dogs!' is also a companion (species) piece to 'Cat, I Must Work!' (Big Echo, 2016).

'Please Don't Let Go' is a short story about worker's comp, medico-legal reporting, and super powers. It was published this year in Fireside Fiction, with an audio version by Hollis Beck. Thanks also to Kate Dollarhyde and Chelle Parker.


Foundation 137, 49.3 (Winter 2020) contains my essay about Cory Doctorow, credit theories of money, and the entrepreneur considered as a kind of cryptid. 'Estranged Entrepreneurs and the Meaning of Money in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.'

Visualising Uncertainty: An Introduction (AU4DM 2020) by Polina Levontin, Jana Kleineberg, me, et al. 


Sad Press Games. The Shrike is a game about fantastical voyages aboard a skyship. It's in early access. There's also a voyage generator and a solo playtest tool for The Shrike. The Sorcerer Sends for a Sandwich is a mini-RPG about snacking while you conquer the world (see also 超级大坏蛋召唤零食). Heterotopia Hooks is set of roll tables for generating ideas for postapocalyptic and/or solarpunk settlements. It was made for the David Graeber memorial games jam, and is partly a spin-off of Fury Road Trip, another mini-RPG forthcoming in early 2021.


Two issues of Vector, 291 (co-edited with Polina Levontin) and 292 (co-edited with Polina Levontin and Rhona Eve Clews, a special issue on SF and contemporary art).


Sad Press poetry published chapbooks by Vahni Capildeo, Mai Ivfjäll, Helen Charman, and Nicky Melville. We might just squeeze in another before the end of the year, but more likely we'll have two more books out in early 2021.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Algorithmic governance fiction

 This is a question really. I have written some fiction on the theme of algorithmic governance (algorithmic governmentality, algocracy), like:

These are stories that are trying to explore the friction you experience living in automated processes that have a particular model of who and what you are, and creates affordances and nudged based on that model. I'm sure there are lots of works like this out there and I'd like to make a list. Suggestions welcome, and/or I'll expand this when I think of more.

For example:

There is also another SFF trope that is adjacent to this, which you might call AI takeover, which is much more to do with automated processes behaving in unexpectedly anthropological ways. There are obviously overlaps, but I think mostly I'm interested in something else here. As Janelle Shane of AI Weirdness puts it (I'm paraphrasing), the risk is not that AI won't do what we ask, but that it will do exactly what we ask. I think what I'm looking for is Algorithmic Governance Weirdness, a subset of AI weirdness. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Mysterious Affair

Poirot’s abrupt departure had intrigued us all greatly. Sunday morning wore away, and still he did not reappear. But about three o’clock a ferocious and prolonged hooting outside drove us to the window, to see Poirot alighting from a car, accompanied by Japp and Summerhaye. The little man was transformed. He radiated an absurd complacency. He bowed with exaggerated respect to Mary Cavendish. Still beaming, Poirot marshalled us all into the drawing-room, bringing forward chairs as he did so. Finally Miss Howard consented to return to her chair. A few minutes later Alfred Inglethorp entered the room. The company once assembled, Poirot said meditatively:


John stuck his head in at this juncture, and invited us both to come up to Mrs. Inglethorp’s room, as he and Mr. Wells had finished looking through the desk in the boudoir. To make this part of my story clear, I append the following plan of the first floor of Styles. The servants’ rooms are reached through the door B. They have no communication with the right wing, where the Inglethorps’ rooms were situated. 

Poirot puffed at his tiny cigarette, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. “Mr. Inglethorp sus” 

“Poirot, you old villain,” I said, “I’ve half a mind to strangle you! I am inclined to think that Miss Howard was the master mind in that affair. You remember her once mentioning that her father was a doctor? Possibly she dispensed his medicines for him, or she may have taken the idea from one of the many books lying about when Mademoiselle Cynthia was studying for her exam. Anyway, she was familiar with the fact that the addition of a bromide to a mixture containing strychnine would cause the precipitation of the latter. Probably the idea came to her quite suddenly. Mrs. Inglethorp had a box of bromide powders, which she occasionally took at night?”

Poirot did not answer me for a moment, but at last he said: 

“Miss Howard sus” 

“What could be easier than quietly to dissolve one or more of those powders in Mrs. Inglethorp’s large sized bottle of medicine when it came from Coot’s? The risk is practically nil. The tragedy will not take place until nearly a fortnight later. If anyone has seen either of them touching the medicine, they will have forgotten it by that time. Miss Howard will have engineered her quarrel, and departed from the house. The lapse of time, and her absence, will defeat all suspicion. Yes, it was a clever idea! I am still a little fogged on only one thing. Why did she agree to do it?” 

“theyre teaming” 

“You devil! How did you get it?” 

 A chair was overturned. Poirot skipped nimbly aside. A quick movement on his part, and his assailant fell with a crash.

Poirot rose from his seat with the air of a popular lecturer, and bowing politely to his audience, pronounced: 

“Mr. Inglethorp sus”

Saturday, October 10, 2020

TTRPG news

I have just released the full early access edition of The Shrike:

The Shrike is a game about fantastical voyages aboard a skyship. It's inspired by Avery Alder's The Quiet Year, John Harper's Lady Blackbird, Italo Calvino, Ursula K. Le Guin, and utopian and dystopian fiction. The 120+ page early access edition is now available, featuring four complete adventures (two multiplayer, two for solo play).

I'm also contributing two mini-RPGs to the forthcoming Soft Apocalypse (Conjured Games) anthology, out in early 2021. Bunnies & Cyborgs is a GM-less doodling and storytelling one-shot game about incredibly flawed plans, bad handovers, unexpected interactions and unintended consequences. You play an endlessly multiplying swarm of 'bunnies' and 'cyborgs'.  In Bunnies & Cyborgs, a bunny can be anything fluffy, and a cyborg can be anything that goes BLOOP BLOOP BLEEP BLEEP. It's from an original idea by Ewerton AKA moon.hermitcrab, who also drew this:

Fury Road Trip is Mad Max meets Little Miss Sunshine. It is partly a hack of /u/remy_porter's work-in-progress Family Road Trip. It is also (weirdly) slightly inspired by compassion-focused therapy.

UPDATE: Fury Road Trip has been cut from the anthology. But it'll find its way into the world in some form or another.

The Watch

Whoa, first of all: what's this about the forthcoming Discworld adaptation, The Watch, being "cyberpunk"? In, for example, The Guardian. I'm really not seeing the cyberpunk connection? Possibly the word they're looking for is "punk"? There are many punks to choose from, and we don't need to drag cyber into it. Secondly ...

An Unpopular Opinion. Yes, I think this is one of those.

First of all: among those criticizing the adaptation, there are definitely a few who just want Vetinari to be male and Lady Ramkin to be white. And who don't like the look of Cherry either. That's not you of course. You've got legit reasons for being annoyed by the production. It might at least give us pause for thought, when our outrage provides cover for misogyny, racism, and transphobia.

And secondly: Terry Pratchett's Discworld is a story about stories and how stories change. The Discworld partly sprouted from Pratchett's earlier novel, Strata, which involves a flat Earth floating in space and a mash-up of science fiction and high fantasy tropes. Strata is itself a pastiche of Larry Niven's Ringworld, one of those pastiches that is maybe a teensy bit better than the original. Pratchett's mock heroic The Carpet People, which also took place on a plane, and which Pratchett extensively revised for the second edition, was also a kind of prototype Discworld. 

The Discworld series then grew through a complex and mostly increasingly assured array of parodies, pastiches, reimaginings, imitations, and take-offs, most stunningly of Shakespeare (in books like Wyrd Sisters and Lords and Ladies) but also Christopher Marlowe, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, Gaston Leroux, Ingmar Bergman, Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and many others. Sometimes you had to know the original to get the joke, but more often you didn't. Pratchett's antennae could gather up and elegantly regurgitate that garbled background hum of familiar tropes that don't really belong to anyone in particular. He was good at that.

The Discworld was also a bit of a pioneer in transmedia storytelling, with novels, plays, digital and analogue games, the wonderful the Science of Discworld popular science collaborations, a tabletop roleplaying game, a cookbook, an almanac, and all kinds of miscellaneous works and merch and mischief. In the novels, the sustained commitment to making the stories work as stand-alones also produced a distinctive intertextuality: the Discworld became a world with many entranceways, and that meant that Pratchett needed to tell us certain things again and again. He did this by skilfully varying those things, or by turning them into running jokes, in order to entrance newcomers and devoted fans simultaneously. 

History, especially of the European industrial revolution, is also remixed throughout the Discworld series and especially in the Ankh-Morpork strand. The medieval, the early industrial, and the modern are constantly colliding and spurting sparks of fizzing narrativium. Pratchett always told these stories just as he saw fit, twisting, trimming, flipping things on their heads. He was always fabulously, provocatively unfaithful to his source material. He didn't stick to the facts about the founding of the Bank of England (Making Money), for instance, or the French Revolution (Night Watch), because he wanted to make these stories meld and resonate with his world, not the world where they first happened to happen. Besides, as most good Menippean satirists would agree, sometimes you can glimpse the truth more clearly in a carnival funhouse mirror. There is a certain kind of pesky fact that can just get in the way of the truth.

There was perhaps a smidge of unease about so much borrowing, blending, and bending, which Pratchett sublimated into a sustained reflection throughout the Discworld on the nature of storytelling:

Narrativium is not an element in the accepted sense. It is an attribute of every other element, thus turning them into, in an occult sense, molecules. Iron contains not just iron, but also the story of iron, the history of iron, the part of iron that ensures that it will continue to be iron and has an iron-like job to do and is not, for example, cheese. Without narrativium, the cosmos has no story, no purpose, no destination [...]

And then, of course, there's the way the Discworld gradually reinvented itself again and again, examining and reimagining its politics and its peoples over and over, over the course of its more than thirty year history. So what's all this to do with the new series The Watch, about which many Pratchett fans are up in arms?

In short, I cannot think of another storyworld where an appeal to the True and Authentic Version is quite so vigorously contradicted by the source material itself. The Discworld is a story about stories having lives of their own

So, I don't mean to defend the creative choices or the commercial wisdom of this production, exactly. Nor do I really mean to celebrate the poetics of postmodernism or metafiction, or anything like that — that's an adjacent conversation. Nor even do I want to predict that the production is going to be any good — honestly, from that short trailer, I have no idea! 

But the Discworld is already much larger than this one adaptation. This is not a matter of Hollywood execs bungling some cult favorite that will henceforth slip into obscurity. So long as civilization survives, and probably even when it doesn't, there will be Discworld adaptations. In the darkness, amid the stars, the turtle swims on. 

And when those future adaptations do appear, they will kindle Pratchett's satirical spirit within new social and cultural contexts. Pratchett's satire will achieve its long term significance in the context of future evolving understandings of many of his perennial themes: gender roles, science and technology, diversity and difference, coloniality, justice and the police. Maybe we should get off to a good start? Make some choices about just how precious we want to be about this already effervescently mercurial and intertextual source material?

So maybe ... we could just be cool about it? Wait and see? Judge it according to what it's trying to do and how well or poorly it does that, not according to how closely it correlates with the images we have already built up in our mind's eye? I am OK with a version of Vimes in eyeliner. I am OK with things being different to what they are in the books. The books are already different to the stories they borrow, to the history that inspires them, and even to themselves. The Discworld was a universe where time was always slipping out of joint, where stories circulated independently of storytellers and took on lives of their own. If this adaptation is bad, then it's bad, but let it be bad for the right reasons. And Bunk as Death? I'm here for that.

That said, Terry Pratchett the human being is not long gone, and there is a whole ethics and emotional intelligence around including his loved ones in shaping his legacy. Most of us are pretty bad at death, and one of the few things we know how to do is cherish the counterfactual: they would have loved thatThat's what they would have wanted. So there is that. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

Bunnies & Cyborgs playtest


We playtested this thing I apparently wrote (although I can't remember doing so) as a submission for the forthcoming Conjured Games Soft Apocalypse anthology. It was fun! And stable. I hope to run another playtest soon, so get in touch if you're interested. (And/or if you play it, let me know how it goes).

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Reality Business: Shoshana Zuboff's Surveillance Capitalism, Neologisms Only Cut

It is about the darkening of the digital dream and its rapid mutation into a voracious and utterly novel commercial project that I call surveillance capitalism. These prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace for behavioral predictions that I call behavioral futures markets. Users provided the raw material in the form of behavioral data, and those data were harvested to improve speed, accuracy, and relevance and to help build ancillary products such as translation. I call this the behavioral value reinvestment cycle, in which all behavioral data are reinvested in the improvement of the product or service. 

Surveillance capitalism’s command of the division of learning in society begins with what I call the problem of the two texts. The first text, full of promise, actually functions as the supply operation for the second text: the shadow text. Everything that we contribute to the first text, no matter how trivial or fleeting, becomes a target for surplus extraction. 

Behavioral surplus must be vast and varied, but the surest way to predict behavior is to intervene at its source and shape it. The processes invented to achieve this goal are what I call economies of action. The scientists and engineers whom I interviewed identified three key approaches to economies of action, each one aimed at achieving behavior modification. The first two I call “tuning” and “herding.” The third is already familiar as what behavioral psychologists refer to as “conditioning.” This new level of competitive intensity characterized by scope and action ratchets up the invasive character of supply operations and initiates a new era of surveillance commerce that I call the reality business

There are many buzzwords that gloss over these operations and their economic origins: “ambient computing,” “ubiquitous computing,” and the “internet of things” are but a few examples. For now I will refer to this whole complex more generally as the “apparatus.” Although the labels differ, they share a consistent vision: the everywhere, always-on instrumentation, datafication, connection, communication, and computation of all things, animate and inanimate, and all processes—natural, human, physiological, chemical, machine, administrative, vehicular, financial.

This chapter and the next draw our attention to the gap between experience and data, as well as to the specific operations that target this gap on a mission to transform the one into the other. I call these operations rendition. We have seen that the dispossession of human experience is the original sin of surveillance capitalism, but this dispossession is not mere abstraction. Rendition describes the concrete operational practices through which dispossession is accomplished, as human experience is claimed as raw material for datafication and all that follows, from manufacturing to sales. 

In this way, surveillance capitalism births a new species of power that I call instrumentarianism. Part III examines the rise of instrumentarian power; its expression in a ubiquitous sensate, networked, computational infrastructure that I call Big Other; and the novel and deeply antidemocratic vision of society and social relations that these produce. Thanks to Big Other’s capabilities, instrumentarian power reduces human experience to measurable observable behavior while remaining steadfastly indifferent to the meaning of that experience. I call this new way of knowing radical indifference. It is a form of observation without witness that yields the obverse of an intimate violent political religion and bears an utterly different signature of havoc: the remote and abstracted contempt of impenetrably complex systems and the interests that author them, carrying individuals on a fast-moving current to the fulfillment of others’ ends. 

The withdrawal of agreement [from surveillance capitalism] takes two broad forms, a distinction that will be useful as we move into Part III. The first is what I call the counter-declaration. These are defensive measures such as encryption and other privacy tools, or arguments for “data ownership.” Such measures may be effective in discrete situations, but they leave the opposing facts intact, acknowledging their persistence and thus paradoxically contributing to their legitimacy. For example, if I “opt out” of tracking, I opt out for me, but my action does not challenge or alter the offending practice. The second form of disagreement is what I call the synthetic declaration. If the declaration is “check,” the counter-declaration is “checkmate,” and the synthetic declaration changes the game. It asserts an alternative framework that transforms the opposing facts.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

In Forever

I just wanted to put this into the world. It was some cover artwork by the amazing Alice Duke, commissioned for a novel I wrote called I Have Seen You in Forever. In the end it didn't work out with the publisher (in an amiable and mutual way, and we may publish a different book together if I ever get them the manuscript), and I'm not sure if the novel ever will go out into the world. It might just hang out in its own world. But I love this strange picture and the secret story it's about that almost nobody knows.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Please Don't Let Go

I have a short story out at the pretty wonderful Fireside Fiction, including a lovely podcast version narrated by Hollis Beck. 

'Please Don't Let Go' is workers' comp, medico-legal speculative fiction. It is about Ms. Wolfboy and it is a true story. I'd like to dedicate it to my dad, Dr Dad.


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Shrike

So this is what I've been writing recently. The Shrike is an oracle-based RPG system for solo, co-operative, or GM-guided play. It's about fantastic voyages. You can access a pre-alpha version here:

The Shrike is also potentially part of something a bit new, in the sense that the voyages are mostly procedurally generated. I am slightly hitting a wall (or really more like diminishing returns) in my pseudo-coding abilities, so I'll be developing it as more-or-less a standard RPG for now. But if you happen to be a games developer who might be interested in collaborating on a bigger, more innovative version of it, get in touch. 

Elsewhere: Sad Press Games

Monday, June 29, 2020

Mind Seed review

This review originally appeared back in Interzone 272.

Mind Seed
Ed. David Gullen and Gary Couzens
T Party Books

Nine stories, mostly originals, by members of London writers’ group the T Party. The anthology is in memory of Denni Schnapp, who died in 2013. An introduction by Denni’s husband John Howroyd tells us a bit about her life. The last story, “Mind Seed,” is her own.

Perhaps there are two kinds of tale of possession. One kind is all about craving a uniform community. It’s about fear of interlopers, fear that others are secretly fundamentally different to you. Helen Callaghan’s “Sex and the Single Hive Mind” is closer to the second kind. It’s about craving plurality – desiring to become, under the rubric of compassion, fundamentally different from yourself. (Even if you don’t become, as Callaghan’s protagonist(s) puts it, “nice people”). It’s an engaging, agile opener, sparkling with sleaze rather than polish.

Fox McGeever’s “Evolution” is post-apocalyptic survivalism pared down for parable-esque force. The protagonist Cara is all alone, save some invasive xenomorphs and a wombful of weird son. The indistinct mechanisms of apocalypse – silver ships and white fire – convey an aura of rapture and end-times. Like any parable worth its salt (of the earth), “Evolution” accommodates many interpretations. It could just be about the remorse of isolated young parents, trying to live up to their received ideas about what Nature intends (e.g. breastfeeding). It could be about human’s eternal capacity to adapt, and yet also to evolve new chauvinisms, new borders (“antibodies” (p.35)). In one aching image, Cara sleeps beside her husband’s body, waking with one hand on her bump and the other on his chest: this story could be about the ethics of creating new humans, when there is no world left to nourish them. Rosanne Rabinowitz’s “Living in the Vertical World” is pieced together from real ingredients of that crumbling world: maybe Bosco Verticale in Porta Nuova, Milan (or more speculatively, Dickson Despommier’s “skyscraper-as-spaceship” research and advocacy) plus a crumb of Occupy, a crumb of Maker hipsterdom, a crumb of malevolent Monsanto IP litiginousness. It finishes on a “what-would-you-do?” and hints at the relationship between social bonds and foundational acts of violence.

So far I make Mind Seed sound very serious. But it’s also great fun. Stasis pods! Ship AI! Rovers! Thrust! Identities are rickety and unsound in “Sex and the Single Hive Mind,” and boundaries between individuals are unusually permeable. So there’s a small serendipity at the frontier between Callaghan’s story and McGeever’s “Evolution”: a character called Mark appears in each story, and for a moment, they feel like they are one overlapping, overspilling person. Something similar – only it’s deliberate – occurs in the most elegant moment of Ian Whates’s “Darkchild.” With the line “Darkchild sat alone” (p. 71), identities dovetail and meld. And here’s a spoiler: Darkchild is the prisoner of a dread trinket, a sort of Cthulhic desk ornament timewaster. You wonder: is the puzzle is solvable? “Water dripping somewhere” (p.61) is Darkchild’s only stimulus, obviously reminiscent of so-called Chinese Water Torture. A drip also suggests chaos theory: the deterministic but unpredictable coalescence and collapse of liquid at the lip of a tap. Obviously to escape, Darkchild must solve this non-linear function: but how to input her answer? Via varying the rhythm of her foetal-pose back-and-forth rocking of course! I bet your average Interzone reader would be out of there in a jiffy.

Deborah Walker’s myth-like “The Three Brother Cities” doesn’t give us a critique of the creeping surveillance requirements or algorithmic hubris of the contemporary smart city, so much as the sublime thrill of cosplaying Cair Paravel or Gormenghast or Ambergris (. . . in space!). If my eyebrows weren’t zotzed by all that rocket thrust, I might cock one at the hokey gender dynamics of Owton & Couzens’s pleasantly mercurial, Golden Age-ish “Rockhopper.”Anybody stasis pod stowaways who awaken in the Twenty-Third Century, don’t fret! – it’s still 100% fine to slip into something more feminine and melt into a nearby burly chest. But listen, if you thought “Rockhopper” was the biggest jolt of gee-whizz space opera retro you’re likely to guzzle all year, that’s because you haven’t yet read Markus Wolfson’s “Alien Invaders.” Wolfson’s “Alien Invaders” is, for starters, entitled “Alien Invaders,” and it’s a heady cocktail of unload-my-space-pistol-right-in-your-tentacles capers, pulpier than a pineapple, with a twisty straw of what-if-the-true-monsters-are-dot-dot-dot-us?

Perhaps it’s the relatively cosy contributor-base that gives this anthology such bracing variety – even a genuinely unpredictable variety of varieties. There are patterns however. There’s a lot of First Contact – or at least Still-In-That-Awkward-Stage-Of-Getting-To-Know-You Contact. There’s fruitfulness, verdant abundance. No story is explicitly elegaic, but many – and above all, Schnapp’s own “Mind Seed” – take acceptance for their theme. With humour, bluntness, and effervescence, “Mind Seed” tells the tale of Leia’s cancer treatment by full brain emulation (“A toddler aged thirty-two and a half [...] I spun Leia in my arms”), and of her sister Zif’s transition from luddite-ish anti-cyborg hold-out (“stone ager” (p. 166)) to cyborg and, ultimately, to intrastellar voyager.

Several stories unite an immoderate intensity of desolation with an equal intensity of hopefulness. Nina Allan’s “Bird Songs at Eventide” is one gorgeously honed example. Humanity manifests in a detached, almost hardboiled manner. Whimsical associative shifts are deployed with clinical precision. The prickliness of the prosody, and the sumptuousness of sense-data, are self-consiously inadequate compensation for a loss without any clear boundaries: loss of a lover’s love, of a planet, of something. Meanwhile, the living cosmos teems.

Profits from the anthology go to Next Generation Nepal, an anti-child-trafficking charity supported by Denni Schnapp.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

AI Dungeon

From AI Dungeon.

Starting Prompt: You live on the edge of a vast lake. The lake is salt water. You are perhaps ten years old. You're not sure. There's a well in the village. Your father is a fisher. The forest is dark and full. You hate the lake, which is as vast as a sea, because you think it fake. You think it is full of shadows, more shadows than water, and that the fish hide there, and perhaps walk about. The people in your village have two names, depending on the season. Tomorrow, everyone will change to a new name.

AI Dungeon 2 Instructions:
Enter actions starting with a verb ex. "go to the tavern" or "attack the orc."
To speak enter 'say "(thing you want to say)"' or just "(thing you want to say)"
The following commands can be entered for any action:
"revert" Reverts the last action allowing you to pick a different action.
"quit" Quits the game and saves
"restart" Starts a new game and saves your current one
"save" Makes a new save of your game and gives you the save ID
"load" Asks for a save ID and loads the game if the ID is valid
"print" Prints a transcript of your adventure (without extra newline formatting)
"help" Prints these instructions again

Generating story...

You live on the edge of a vast lake. The lake is salt water. You are perhaps ten years old. You're not sure. There's a well in the village. Your father is a fisher. The forest is dark and full. You hate the lake, which is as vast as a sea, because you think it fake. You think it is full of shadows, more shadows than water, and that the fish hide there, and perhaps walk about. The people in your village have two names, depending on the season. Tomorrow, everyone will change to a new name. One day, they'll all be called by their true names

> Run into the forest

You go to the forest. It is cold and dark. You see no one. No one has ever been here before. You can't find anything. You look around for something to eat, but there is nothing. You feel hungry, though. You want to eat something. Something sweet

> Feel afraid

You feel scared. You are alone. You are scared. You don't know what to do. You need help. Help is coming soon.

> Sing a song

You begin singing a song. The world becomes brighter. You feel happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

 > Climb a tree together

You climb up a tree with your friend. You are so happy. Your happiness fills you. You love each other. You are happy. You will never die

> Pick a fruit

You pick a fruit. You are so happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Bite into the persimmon. The fruit runs down my chin

You bite into the persimmon. The fruit runs down your chin. You are so happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Find a giant bird

You find a giant bird. You are so happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Climb on the bird's back and fly to the snowy mountain

You climb on the bird's back and fly to the snowy mountain. You are so happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Feel unhappy

You feel unhappy. You are alone. You are sad. You cannot find anyone. You must find someone to make you happy. Someone must come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Be happy even though I am alone

You be happy even though you are alone. You are happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Melt the snow and drink it

You melt the snow and drink it. You are so happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Carve a magic rune

You carve a magic rune. You are so happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will..

> Restart

You restart. You are happy. You have found someone. Someone will come soon. Soon you will be free. Soon you will.

> restart

Please rate the story quality from 1-10: 9

Game saved. To load the game, type 'load' and enter the following ID: ec6be256-1888-11ea-b8cb-0242ac1c0002

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Solus: A note on Ancient Pistol

What is going on here? From Shakespeare's Henry V:


The Folger edition exemplifies general editorial indifference to Pistol's diatribe. The endnote to "O viper vile!" reads, "Pistol's speech is characterized by scraps of poetry, archaic language, and echoes of ranting speeches (sometimes from other plays)." The editor's subtext seems to be: "This guy is really annoying, there is something that needs an explanation, but we just can't bring ourselves to do it." Pistol, it's worth mentioning up top, has a strong connection with Greece and Rome, via the braggart stock figure of the miles gloriosus or more generally the alazṓn.

Context: Nym and Pistol have cause to quarrel. Nym is asking to speak to Pistol solus, i.e. alone, i.e. to step outside for a fight (or even a dagger in the guts). It is interesting that solus is gendered, so Nym is clearly speaking to Pistol. Nym definitely wants a word with his ex's new husband Pistol, not with his ex Mistress Quickly herself.

The editorial consensus seems to be that glossing Pistol further would just encourage him. Actors, audiences, directors, dramaturges may all be baffled as to what this guy's on about. But that's OK, because quite likely his interlocutor Nym doesn't know either. Dramaturgically, the scene still works even if Pistol's speech is just noise, flashing fire from a muzzle which misses its mark. "You cannot conjure me": Nym's comeback seems to be, "I'm not some fiend you can control with words." So he could mean that Pistol's words are mere gibberish meant to sound magically frightening.

Those glosses I've found so far helpfully point out that Pistol takes 'solus' as an insult. Thanks everyone. But really, it feels like there's more to be said here. What is so special about this word solus? If Pistol takes it as an insult, what insult does he take it as? Would solus have been a pretentious word for Nym to have used, perhaps? Or could there be a play on 'soulless,' cohering with Nym's mention of conjuring a fiend? Or even better, a variant on Stolas, the demon prince (and Twitter bot)? Or is Pistol pretending to interpret Nym's words "I would have you solus" as "when I am solus, I would have you, that is to say, when I think about you I touch myself"? Might there be a link to 'Sol,' the sun, perhaps playing into that "flashing fire"? Is Pistol really misunderstanding or mishearing Nym, or pretending to? If he is pretending, are Nym and/or Quickly meant to be in on this pretence or not? If he's doing a bit, what is the bit?

Questions! There is apparently one sense of the homonym 'solace' to do with debt payment and corporal punishment, which is very intriguing. I haven't been able track down much about it. From Joseph Moxon's 1683 Mechanick exercises, or, The doctrine of handy-works : applied to the art of printing : the second volumne:

But it seems to be limited to printing houses, and connected with the sort of epic simile of the printing house as a chapel. See more about it here. On balance, I don't think it's relevant here.

Or perhaps there is nothing special about 'solus'! It's a standard bully move to pick something at random and hold it up for sneering inspection. So perhaps there is actually nothing odd about the word solus, but Pistol is messing with Nym, to make him feel like there is. That's a decent interpretation.

Unless ... could 'solus,' I wonder, be a play on 'solace', with its slightly larger contemporary sense of not only comfort but also entertainment, delight, also with a theological and/or sexual energy? When Pistol says that he 'can take,' does he mean that he can 'take solace'?

If so, then could this be Pistol's conceit? "I will feed you your solus so hard it will end up in your ass, and then I will find solace in your ass with my dick?" I am not sure. I think it could well be.
'Solus,' egregious dog? O viper vile!
The 'solus' in thy most mervailous face;
The 'solus' in thy teeth, and in thy throat,
And in thy hateful lungs, yea, in thy maw, perdy,
And, which is worse, within thy nasty mouth!
Clearly part of Pistol's retort involves him stuffing this word back in Nym's face, feeding it to him till he digests it and perhaps even poops or pees it out. Cf. "gives me the lie in the throat / as deep as the lungs" in Hamlet and Touchstone going no further than the Lie Circumstantial in As You Like It. The conventional comparison of language to something edible was pretty well-established around this time, enough so that an audience could probably follow Shakespeare putting some kind of extra spin on it. Cf. e.g. Donne's 'Satire II':
But hee is worst, who (beggarly) doth chaw
Others wits fruits, and in his ravenous maw
Rankly digested, doth those things out-spue . . .
The meate was mine, th'excrement is his owne.
Is Pistol perhaps even tracing the alimentary canal as a hidden "viper vile" within Nym? Is there some sense of Pistol as a haruspex, poking about in Nym's entrails for omens? Is that what Nym picks up on in his demonology-themed comeback? Well, perhaps. But the key thing to recognise is the peristaltic quality of Pistol's speech: the word moves steadily downward, and the "nasty mouth" is far likelier the "mouth" in Nym's butt than the one in his face.

Then what? Solace can certainly be a euphemism for sex (or vice-versa). I'm not sure I can find Shakespeare clearly using it that way yet. However, cf. a Middle English Seven Sages of Rome:
Dame, sho said, bi Goddes grace,
Mi husband dose me solace.
Þharfore no better nede I can
Bot I most luf sum oÞer man.
And there are plenty of later examples too. And where has the 'solus/solace' ended up? Usually a word is thrown back in your face, or at most in your throat. But here:
I do retort 'solus' in thy bowels;
For I can take, and Pistol's cock is up,
And flashing fire will follow. 
Now, we could suppose that Pistol introduces something new with this play on his name (the cocked pistol / hard cock bit), rather than continuing a thought that began in the lines before. Take is obviously a hugely polysemous word, so there are plenty of options to play with. (And since Pistol is apparently engaging on wordplay on his own name, it might be worth mentioning that "nim" could mean "to take, to nick"). Just possibly, Pistol has abandoned his previous thread, and is simply saying: "I can take you [in a fight]," or "I can take [aim]," or "I can take [i.e. strike, hit]," and the innuendo of "cock is up" may not even be that important.

But I think we might want to take Pistol's "For" seriously: the fixation on 'solus' is flowing into some kind of climax. And I think we need to take the innuendo seriously too. Is the "flashing fire" not just a gunshot, but cum? I mean, yes, it is cum. It's not like this is his first time: "I will discharge upon her, Sir John, with two bullets" (Henry IV part 1). Where is this flashing fire headed? Mistress Quickly (which we can call the "no homo-Nym" interpretation, a cuckold-energy brag)? Or toward somebody else? Is it Nym himself, a sort of threat of sexual violence?

So then . . . is this the conceit? "I will feed you your solus so hard it will end up in your ass, and then I will take solace in your ass?" On balance, I think yes. The two sections of Pistol's speech are neither totally separate, nor a smooth progression. There's a kind of sonnety turn at "For," once the notional solus is safely lodged in the notional bowels. Pistol's witticism is that he will make Nym eat his words and then shoot him in the butt, but this is overtly blended with the promise that he will take solace in Nym's bowels. Flashing fire will follow.

Are we missing anything? Let's also quickly run through some of the other words. Perdy is an asservation (like "by God" or "for real" or "done know"). Maw is a funny word which probably means "stomach" but could also mean "throat" or "jaws" or even "appetite." Nasty probably connotes more "loathsome, dirty" than it does "cruel, vicious." So the "nasty mouth" is credibly read as butt-hole, given the apparent progression of the "solus" through the digestive tract. Mervailous isn't too different from its modern sense, with a bit more emphasis on "wondrous, strange, striking," and a bit less emphasis on "great, lovely, splendid." Retort is "throw back." Bowels could certainly mean specifically the intestines, but could also mean abdominal organs more generally, or the insides of the body. Barbason: I can't see much on this, but evidently he's some fancy fiend (see note).

So if this is indeed Pistol's conceit, it's gross and kind of stupid, but also kind of ingenious. Crucially, it's not mere noise: it's noise and signal, a decodeable bluster, an extended witticism, a cohesive rhetorical performance that feels like it's going nowhere yet knows where it's headed all along. Indeed, it could even be a little more layered. Conjure seems to be roughly "bind, constrain, control with magic words." But it is very flexible, and the common modern sense of "magically summon" was certainly in use in Shakespeare's time. I think this passage affords potential for genuine flirtation. Macho, deniable, deranged, extraordinarily flamboyant flirtation. You want me by myself? How dare you. You two used to sleep together, now we're sleeping together, and now you want me by myself? Oh my god, you big brute, how rude is that! The three of us should be together. I'm joking obviously. Am I? I'm joking. Am I? I conjure you, Nym ...

And it might just be one more clue to help with recovering a character that, I have a hunch, has drifted beyond the interpretative resources of most modern readers, audiences, actors, directors and dramaturgs. It strikes me that the attitude that "braggarts are just liars and cowards" -- which underlies modern interpretations of Pistol, or rather, modern lack of interest in the character -- does not really reflect Shakespeare's typically nuanced concern for the nuanced relationships of linguistic virtue and moral virtue, of seeming and being, of war and finance, and of agency and chivalry.

For example, we may read into Nym's comeback, "I am not Barbason, you cannot conjure me," a rejection of an offer of verbal conflict, in favour of a deferred material resolution: a punch-up, maybe with a stabbing on the side. But the rejection is an uneasy one, and not based on on a simplistic distinction of words and deeds or things, of verba and res. Rather, Nym seems to entertain different potential modes of materiality in which language may be enacted: there may well be tenuous beings for whom language becomes so substantial that it can engage like ectoplasm with their very flesh, the clockwork gears of rhetoric and hearts and legs and arms and daggers all elegantly meshing and turning, only Corporal Nym -- so he insists, using words to do so -- is not one of those beings. What about Ancient Pistol though? Is he a demon who, knowing his own name, can use it to conjure himself? Ancient Pistol: is there a bit more to him?

Well, that's the best I can do so far. This speech remains a little mysterious to me. I'd welcome any suggestions about any of this, or more generally about early modern braggarts and their precursors.

Here's another bit of Pistol:

Note: "Evidently a fiend." I haven't found Barbason anywhere else, except in Merry Wives of Windsor, in passing, and very definitely naming a fiend there. But cf. Reginald Scot's 1584 The Discovery of Witchcraft:
Marbas, alias Barbas is a great president, and appeareth in the form of a mightie Lyon: but at the commandement of a coniuror commeth up in the likenes of a man, and answereth fully as touching anie thing which is hidden or secret: he bringeth diseases and cureth them; he promoteth wisdom, and the knowledge of mechanicall arts, or handicrafts; he changeth men into other shapes, and under his presidency or governement are thirtie six legions or divels conteined.
Barbatos, a great countie or earle, and also a duke, he appeareth in Signo sagittarii sylvestris, with foure kings, which bring companies and great troopes. He understandeth the singing of birds, the barking of dogs, the lowings of bullocks, and the voice of all living creatures. He detecteth treasures hidden by magicians and inchanters, and is of the order of vertues, which in part beare rule: he knoweth all things past, and to come, and reconcileth freends.
"Barbason" was quite possible a mis-remembering or deliberate adaptation of one of these. "Barbason" could have been in Shakespeare's head because it was in his Holinshed: Barbason was a French knight supposed to have fought personally with Henry V in a countermine. This can't be the person Nym's talking of, surely: the timeline is all wrong.

But why Barbas, Barbatos, Barbason? The thing is, with fiends, you have so many to choose from, you'd think you'd select one with some significance. But what? Barbason might suggest 'barbarian,' as a counterpoint with the Pistol's weird complicated Roman energy. Barbason and Barbas and Barbatos could all suggest 'beard' (cf. barbate, maybe a later term), which at least feels vaguely relevant in some kind of proto toxic masc way. Cf. these beards: Henry IV: "No man so potent breaths upon the ground, / But I will beard him"; Othello: ""Good sir, be a man; / Think, every bearded fellow, that's but yok'd, / May draw with you: there's millions now alive, / That nightly lie in those unproper beds; your case is better." To cut someone's beard could be to outwit them, so perhaps a beardy demon is appropriate way to decline an invitation to a battle of wits. And in Merry Wives of Windsor, Ford laments: "Terms, names! Amaimon sounds well; Lucifer, well; Barbason, well: yet they are devils' additions, the names of fiends. Yet cuckold?" And then in Henry IV part I, Falstaff talks of how the Prince of Wales "gave Amamon the bastinado and made Lucifer cuckold." So there is a kind of very tenuous association between Barbason and jealous and controlling husbands, but that association is entirely created within scenes written by Shakespeare himself, so far as I've found. Another possible association is Barbary, perhaps bringing connotations of racialised power. And gendered power: 'Barbary hen' is slang for sex worker, used in Henry IV part 1. But can "I'm not Barbason" really retain even a tincture of "I'm not your Barbary hen," outside of an exigetical trance? I doubt it. I think it's more likely there is some reference I'm missing.

Maybe Shakespeare knows about some demons we don't.

Just one final possibility to consider: could Nym's retort be based on the idea that Pistol has been addressing him as Solas? Could he be saying, "Look, I'm not some demon called Solas or Barbason or whatever, forcefully and bodily interpellated by my secret name"? Also from Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft:
Stolas is a great prince, appearing in the forme of a nightraven, before the exorcist, he taketh the image and shape of a man, and teacheth astronomie, absolutelie understanding the vertues of herbes and pretious stones; there are under him twentie six legions.
Saleos is a great earle, he appeareth as a gallant soldier, riding on a crocodile, and weareth a dukes crowne, peaceable, &c.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Note on Cymbeline

Quick note on a speech of Iachimo to Imogen (Innogen), which I think most editors have got wrong. Iachimo is trying to imply that Imogen's beloved Posthumus has been unfaithful to her.
What! are men mad? Hath nature given them eyes
To see this vaulted arch, and the rich crop
Of sea and land, which can distinguish 'twixt
The fiery orbs above, and the twinn'd stones
Upon the numbered beach, and can we not
Partition make with spectacles so precious
'Twixt foul, and fair?
"Twinn'd" might not mean what you think it is (more on that in a moment). There is also a textual crux to note: "th'unnumbered beach" or "the number'd" beach? (See Note 1).

A plausible enough reading would be something like, "Wow, how is it that certain men (not naming any names or anything) can distinguish really fine details, e.g. distinguish which star is which, or distinguish between two grains of sands that look identical from a distance ... and yet can fail to tell the difference between a foul woman and a fair one?"

Nosworthy's Arden Cymbeline seems a bit confused in this scene overall. Like most editors, Nosworth interprets "distinguish" as "distinguish orb from orb, and stone from stone." (See Note 2). The more recent Wayne Arden edition is way better and hugely useful, but it also goes with "the countless stones that the human eye can differentiate from one another." 

But there's another strong reading here. It's not altogether different: the two readings are as different as two grains of sand, maybe?

Monday, April 27, 2020


In early modern England, print houses called themselves "chapels," and they had some interesting norms around what they called "solaces," as described in  Joseph Moxon's 1683 Mechanick exercises, or, The doctrine of handy-works : applied to the art of printing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

From Poets v. Crystals (WiP)

Bun was making a list of things to tell his younger self. He would get his chance this afternoon.

He wrote: "Haircuts and shaving."

He wrote: "'Jump' older."

He thought about it, and added: "(in 'jumps')."

Bun checked the time weather on his phone. It looked like he would only get one chance.

And added: "Sleeps, food, sick."

Bun scratched his moustache. These words did not yet capture his real point, which was how shaving his face or cutting his hair always made him appear more youthful in the mirror, but youthful by a different and unpredictable increment with every shave and haircut. It was through this invisible steady progress forward and variable 'jumping' back that change revealed itself. He thought this would be useful for his younger self to know, not exactly for itself, but for some vaguer truth toward which it gestured.

Or try a different metaphor. Life considered as a whole, Bun now knew, was like those sicknesses which compose so many of its most vibrant and vital episodes. As you wrestle in your sweats, you do not continually feel yourself worsening and strengthening. Despite all its nowness, the unbearable immanence of illness, still you must always wait for something, for the next big update, as with any news cycle, you must scroll aimless in yourself till your body holds its press conference, till your body comes out to face the cameras at some significant juncture, after a meal, a sip, a dream, a care-giver's visit, the moment you step outdoors, bed time, and change of the temperature.

This advice, which even grown-up Bun struggled to express to himself, would probably not be much fun for young Bun. Yet why not? Why not teach oneself things one doesn't even know oneself? To teach yourself something you already know feels like a waste. The boy had more time to decide what to do with this shimmering and fragmentary understanding. More time to be free of it.

What was 'advice' anyway? A form of something else? Education. Instruction. Seduction. Warning. Care. Or could advice be a thing-in-itself? And if a thing-in-itself, then is advice to be found only in some places, or is it available everywhere, like space and time? Do all things give ample guidance, if only you can bear to read it? A severed head. A game of Chess. Do they emanate advice? Should Bun perhaps say nothing, only smile gently and give himself a slow, solemn nod?

Bun had a go at the nod.

Bun crossed out "Haircuts and shavings."

Why did advice come in pieces? Pieces of what? Was something being torn apart?

Bun wrote down, "Men so beautiful but beauty up-side-down" and crossed it out immediately, as if the long line of the strike-through were just the final letter of the final word.

He checked the time weather on his phone.

Later that day -- but also forty years earlier on the beach at Tsutsumigaura -- Bun was feeling a little crestfallen at how the encounter had unfolded. Sensing time's ticklish arms gathering him up to carry him to where he belonged, Bun suddenly remembered the list!

Hastily uncrumpling the blurred scratchings and strike-throughs, Bun bellowed across the luminous gusting grey-green sands to his skinny naked seven-year-old self, as he scampered and plunged in the white-capped blue-black billows: "Haircuts and hairballs! Jumps older to jumps! Sleeps and foods and sicks! I'm old you!"

And snapped right back to now.

Friday, April 10, 2020

The bits with the crown

In The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth (anonymous):

HENRY 5: Ah Harry, thrice unhappie, that hath neglect so
long from visiting of thy sicke father, I will goe. Nay but why
doo I not go to the Chamber of my sick father, to comfort the
melancholy soule of his bodie: his soule said I, here is his ...
bodie indeed, but his soule is whereas it needs no bodie.
Now thrice accursed Harry, that hath offended thy father so much,
and could not I craue pardon for all. Oh my dying father,
curst be the day wherin I was borne, and accursed be the
houre wherin I was begotten, but what shal I do? if weeping
teares which come too late, may suffice the negligence neglected
too soone, I wil weepe day and night until the
fountaine be drie with weeping. [Exit.]
[Enter Lord of Exeter and Oxford.]

EXETER: Come easily my Lord, for waking of the King.

HENRY 4: Now my Lords.

OXFORD: How doth your Grace feele your selfe?

HENRY 4: Somewhat better after my sleepe,
But good my Lords take off my Crowne,
Remoue my chaire a litle backe, and set me right.

BOTH: And please your grace, the crown is taken away.

HENRY 4: The Crowne taken away,
Good my Lord of Oxford, go see who hath done this deed:
No doubt tis some vilde traitor that hath done it,
To depriue my sonne, they that would do it now,
Would seeke to scrape and scrawle for it after my death.

[Enter Lord of Oxford with the Prince.]

OXFORD: Here and please your Grace ...
Is my Lord the yong Prince with the Crowne.

HENRY 4: Why how now my sonne?
I had thought the last time I had you in schooling,
I had giuen you a lesson for all,
And do you now begin againe?
Why tel me my sonne,
Doest thou thinke the time so long,
that thou wouldest haue it before the
Breath be out of my mouth?

HENRY 5: Most soueraign Lord, and welbeloued father, ...
I came into your Chamber to comfort the melancholy
Soule of your bodie, and finding you at that time
Past all recouerie, and dead to my thinking,
God is my witnesse, and what should I doo,
But with weeping tears lament the death of you my father,
And after that, seeing the Crowne, I tooke it:
And tel me my father, who might better take it then I,
After your death? but seeing you liue,
I most humbly render it into your Maiesties hands,
And the happiest man aliue, that my father liue: ...
And liue my Lord and Father, for euer.

HENRY 4: Stand vp my sonne,
Thine answere hath sounded wel in mine eares,
For I must need confesse that I was in a very sound sleep,
And altogither unmindful of thy comming:
But come neare my sonne,
And let me put thee in possession whilst I liue,
That none depriue thee of it after my death.

HENRY 5: Well may I take it at your maiesties hands,
But it shal neuer touch my head, so long as my father liues. ...

[He taketh the Crowne.]

HENRY 4: God giue thee ioy my sonne,
God blesse thee and make thee his seruant,
And send thee a prosperous raigne,
For God knowes my sonne, how hardly I came by it,
And how hardly I haue maintained it.

In King Henry IV Part 2 (by Shakespeare):

WARWICK. Will't please your Grace to go along with us?

  PRINCE. No; I will sit and watch here by the King.
                                       Exeunt all but the PRINCE
    Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,
    Being so troublesome a bedfellow?
    O polish'd perturbation! golden care!
    That keep'st the ports of slumber open wide
    To many a watchful night! Sleep with it now!
    Yet not so sound and half so deeply sweet
    As he whose brow with homely biggen bound
    Snores out the watch of night. O majesty!
    When thou dost pinch thy bearer, thou dost sit
    Like a rich armour worn in heat of day
    That scald'st with safety. By his gates of breath
    There lies a downy feather which stirs not.
    Did he suspire, that light and weightless down
    Perforce must move. My gracious lord! my father!
    This sleep is sound indeed; this is a sleep
    That from this golden rigol hath divorc'd
    So many English kings. Thy due from me
    Is tears and heavy sorrows of the blood
    Which nature, love, and filial tenderness,
    Shall, O dear father, pay thee plenteously.
    My due from thee is this imperial crown,
    Which, as immediate from thy place and blood,
    Derives itself to me. [Putting on the crown] Lo where it
sits --
    Which God shall guard; and put the world's whole strength
    Into one giant arm, it shall not force
    This lineal honour from me. This from thee
    Will I to mine leave as 'tis left to me. Exit

  KING. Warwick! Gloucester! Clarence!

  CLARENCE. Doth the King call?

  WARWICK. What would your Majesty? How fares your Grace?

  KING. Why did you leave me here alone, my lords?

  CLARENCE. We left the Prince my brother here, my liege,
    Who undertook to sit and watch by you.

  KING. The Prince of Wales! Where is he? Let me see him.
    He is not here.

  WARWICK. This door is open; he is gone this way.

  PRINCE HUMPHREY. He came not through the chamber where we

  KING. Where is the crown? Who took it from my pillow?

  WARWICK. When we withdrew, my liege, we left it here.

  KING. The Prince hath ta'en it hence. Go, seek him out.
    Is he so hasty that he doth suppose
    My sleep my death?
    Find him, my lord of Warwick; chide him hither.
                                                    Exit WARWICK
    This part of his conjoins with my disease
    And helps to end me. See, sons, what things you are!
    How quickly nature falls into revolt
    When gold becomes her object!
    For this the foolish over-careful fathers
    Have broke their sleep with thoughts,
    Their brains with care, their bones with industry;
    For this they have engrossed and pil'd up
    The cank'red heaps of strange-achieved gold;
    For this they have been thoughtful to invest
    Their sons with arts and martial exercises;
    When, like the bee, tolling from every flower
    The virtuous sweets,
    Our thighs with wax, our mouths with honey pack'd,
    We bring it to the hive, and, like the bees,
    Are murd'red for our pains. This bitter taste
    Yields his engrossments to the ending father.
Re-enter WARWICK
    Now where is he that will not stay so long
    Till his friend sickness hath determin'd me?

  WARWICK. My lord, I found the Prince in the next room,
    Washing with kindly tears his gentle cheeks,
    With such a deep demeanour in great sorrow,
    That tyranny, which never quaff'd but blood,
    Would, by beholding him, have wash'd his knife
    With gentle eye-drops. He is coming hither.

  KING. But wherefore did he take away the crown?
    Lo where he comes. Come hither to me, Harry.
    Depart the chamber, leave us here alone.
                          Exeunt all but the KING and the PRINCE

  PRINCE. I never thought to hear you speak again.

  KING. Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought.
    I stay too long by thee, I weary thee.
    Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair
    That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours
    Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth!
    Thou seek'st the greatness that will overwhelm thee.
    Stay but a little, for my cloud of dignity
    Is held from falling with so weak a wind
    That it will quickly drop; my day is dim.
    Thou hast stol'n that which, after some few hours,
    Were thine without offense; and at my death
    Thou hast seal'd up my expectation.
    Thy life did manifest thou lov'dst me not,
    And thou wilt have me die assur'd of it.
    Thou hid'st a thousand daggers in thy thoughts,
    Which thou hast whetted on thy stony heart,
    To stab at half an hour of my life.
    What, canst thou not forbear me half an hour?
    Then get thee gone, and dig my grave thyself;
    And bid the merry bells ring to thine ear
    That thou art crowned, not that I am dead.
    Let all the tears that should bedew my hearse
    Be drops of balm to sanctify thy head;
    Only compound me with forgotten dust;
    Give that which gave thee life unto the worms.
    Pluck down my officers, break my decrees;
    For now a time is come to mock at form --
    Harry the Fifth is crown'd. Up, vanity:
    Down, royal state. All you sage counsellors, hence.
    And to the English court assemble now,
    From every region, apes of idleness.
    Now, neighbour confines, purge you of your scum.
    Have you a ruffian that will swear, drink, dance,
    Revel the night, rob, murder, and commit
    The oldest sins the newest kind of ways?
    Be happy, he will trouble you no more.
    England shall double gild his treble guilt;
    England shall give him office, honour, might;
    For the fifth Harry from curb'd license plucks
    The muzzle of restraint, and the wild dog
    Shall flesh his tooth on every innocent.
    O my poor kingdom, sick with civil blows!
    When that my care could not withhold thy riots,
    What wilt thou do when riot is thy care?
    O, thou wilt be a wilderness again.
    Peopled with wolves, thy old inhabitants!

  PRINCE. O, pardon me, my liege! But for my tears,
    The moist impediments unto my speech,
    I had forestall'd this dear and deep rebuke
    Ere you with grief had spoke and I had heard
    The course of it so far. There is your crown,
    And he that wears the crown immortally
    Long guard it yours! [Kneeling] If I affect it more
    Than as your honour and as your renown,
    Let me no more from this obedience rise,
    Which my most inward true and duteous spirit
    Teacheth this prostrate and exterior bending!
    God witness with me, when I here came in
    And found no course of breath within your Majesty,
    How cold it struck my heart! If I do feign,
    O, let me in my present wildness die,
    And never live to show th' incredulous world
    The noble change that I have purposed!
    Coming to look on you, thinking you dead—
    And dead almost, my liege, to think you were—
    I spake unto this crown as having sense,
    And thus upbraided it: 'The care on thee depending
    Hath fed upon the body of my father;
    Therefore thou best of gold art worst of gold.
    Other, less fine in carat, is more precious,
    Preserving life in med'cine potable;
    But thou, most fine, most honour'd, most renown'd,
    Hast eat thy bearer up.' Thus, my most royal liege,
    Accusing it, I put it on my head,
    To try with it—as with an enemy
    That had before my face murd'red my father—
    The quarrel of a true inheritor.
    But if it did infect my blood with joy,
    Or swell my thoughts to any strain of pride;
    If any rebel or vain spirit of mine
    Did with the least affection of a welcome
    Give entertainment to the might of it,
    Let God for ever keep it from my head,
    And make me as the poorest vassal is,
    That doth with awe and terror kneel to it!

  KING. O my son,
    God put it in thy mind to take it hence,
    That thou mightst win the more thy father's love,
    Pleading so wisely in excuse of it!
    Come hither, Harry; sit thou by my bed,
    And hear, I think, the very latest counsel
    That ever I shall breathe. God knows, my son,
    By what by-paths and indirect crook'd ways
    I met this crown; and I myself know well
    How troublesome it sat upon my head:
    To thee it shall descend with better quiet,
    Better opinion, better confirmation;
    For all the soil of the achievement goes
    With me into the earth. It seem'd in me
    But as an honour snatch'd with boist'rous hand;
    And I had many living to upbraid
    My gain of it by their assistances;
    Which daily grew to quarrel and to bloodshed,
    Wounding supposed peace. All these bold fears
    Thou seest with peril I have answered;
    For all my reign hath been but as a scene
    Acting that argument. And now my death
    Changes the mood; for what in me was purchas'd
    Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort;
    So thou the garland wear'st successively.
    Yet, though thou stand'st more sure than I could do,
    Thou art not firm enough, since griefs are green;
    And all my friends, which thou must make thy friends,
    Have but their stings and teeth newly ta'en out;
    By whose fell working I was first advanc'd,
    And by whose power I well might lodge a fear
    To be again displac'd; which to avoid,
    I cut them off; and had a purpose now
    To lead out many to the Holy Land,
    Lest rest and lying still might make them look
    Too near unto my state. Therefore, my Harry,
    Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
    With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out,
    May waste the memory of the former days.
    More would I, but my lungs are wasted so
    That strength of speech is utterly denied me.
    How I came by the crown, O God, forgive;
    And grant it may with thee in true peace live!

  PRINCE. My gracious liege,
    You won it, wore it, kept it, gave it me;
    Then plain and right must my possession be;
    Which I with more than with a common pain
    'Gainst all the world will rightfully maintain.

There's actually a three-way comparison available here, if we also include Hal's speech over the sleeping King, compared with how he recounts the incident later. Without necessarily doubting the sincerity of Hal's general gist (he loves his dad, he doesn't want him to die, he's going to mend his ways etc. etc.), we can clearly tell that his recollection embellishes, conceals, and transforms. Hal is not performing his socks off in hope of a moment of cognitive and affective sharing. He's doing something he learned from the best, from Sir John Falstaff: he's coming up with a cover story. The length of the King's lament -- and the kinds of excuses it implicitly pre-empts -- gives the actor playing Hal plenty of tense silence in which to be furiously devising.

(In a similar vein, Falstaff's companions seem to delight in nudging Falstaff into tight corners: Let's see him talk his way out of THIS one. The otherwise ponderous objections his companions tend to raise to Falstaff's excuses confirm this is what's going on: they like to play it straight, and push Falstaff to extremes of brazen and nimble wit).

In view of the theme of debt and indebtedness that runs so prominently throughout Part One and is still doing interesting things in Part Two, it is interesting that what Hal elides is who owes what to whom:

[...] My gracious lord! my father!
    This sleep is sound indeed; this is a sleep
    That from this golden rigol hath divorc'd
    So many English kings. Thy due from me
    Is tears and heavy sorrows of the blood
    Which nature, love, and filial tenderness,
    Shall, O dear father, pay thee plenteously.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020


After Brecht's An Die Nachgeborenen.

Undeniably I live in dark days.
Any word without guile is absurd. A soft brow means
a hard heart. Anyone laughing just
hasn't heard
the new news.

And the latest, it's even
a sin to mention a tree,
since it's like this silence
about all this evil.
And whoever walks calmly across the street
retreats out of reach of their friends
who need them now.

Okay true I make a living.
Trust me that's pure fluke. Nothing
I do entitles me to eat.
The fact that I'm okay is a kind of coincidence so the first day my luck fails
I'm lost as well.

They're out here telling me: eat, drink, be thankful for what you have.
Sorry how exactly, when what I eat
is stolen from the sick
and what my water bottle pours belongs in a thirsty person's throat.
Obviously I eat and drink.

I would gladly be wise.
We've all read good advice:
accept what you cannot change, live out your little life,
be fearless,
feel tenderness instead of violence,
turn the other cheek --
don't get disfigured by your desires.
Discover how to transfigure and forget.

I can't do that shit.
I live in dark days.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Top Ten Plagues

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10) Hsing's Spontaneous Self-Flaying Sarcoma, documented by Liz Williams in The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases, ed. Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts.
A day or so later, the outer layer of the epidermis splits at the temple into a series of lotus-like petals, apparently causing the victim to force his/her head into the nearest narrow gap (such as a window frame) rather in the manner of a snake attempting to aid the shedding of its skin. Rejecting all offers of help and attempts at restraint, the victim bloodlessly sloughs the skin, 'scrolling it down the torso and limbs in the manner of a tantalizingly unrolled silk stocking' (Mudthumper, p.1168). 
OK, this one's not really contagious (as far as I know), so it only manages to scraape its way onto the top ten. But it can also be considered a calling card for Thackery's, which is a good source of plagues generally.

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9) Black Death AND Influenza in Connie Willis's time travel tale The Doomsday Book. The time travel conceit allows Willis to compare social responses to epidemic centuries apart. A time traveller, washed up in a part of the past she never intended to visit, tries to summon up some advantage from her superior scientific understanding of events ...
She had tried to remember what remedies the contemps had tried while he was gone. They had carried nosegays of flowers and drunk powdered emeralds and applied leeches to the buboes, but all of those were worse than useless, and Dr Ahrens had said it wouldn't have mattered what they had tried, that nothing except antimicrobials like tetracycline and streptomycin would have worked, and those had not been discovered until the twentieth century.
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8) The plague in Daniel Defoe's 1722 Journal of the Plague Year, a hugely formative work in the history of the Western novel.
Thomas. You will go away. Whither will you go, and what can you do? I would as willingly go away as you, if I knew whither. But we have no acquaintance, no friends. Here we were born, and here we must die.
John. Look you, Tom, the whole kingdom is my native country as well as this town. You may as well say I must not go out of my house if it is on fire as that I must not go out of the town I was born in when it is infected with the plague. I was born in England, and have a right to live in it if I can.
Thomas. But you know every vagrant person may by the laws of England be taken up, and passed back to their last legal settlement.
John. But how shall they make me vagrant? I desire only to travel on, upon my lawful occasions.
Thomas. What lawful occasions can we pretend to travel, or rather wander upon? They will not be put off with words.
John. Is not flying to save our lives a lawful occasion?
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7) The Melding Plague in Alaistar Reynold's Revelation Space books. In a future where most folk are filled with cybernetic implants, this phenomenon fills those implants with a will to expand and go haywire. It tries to synthesise flesh and machine, and it affects both our bodies and our built environment. It's described as almost "purposeful" and almost "artistic."
The servitors lurched forwards, approaching the shattered angel of the Captain. More than ever he looked like something which had not so much crept with glacial slowness from his reefer, but had burst with volcanic ferocity, only to be frozen in a strobe flash. He radiated in every direction parallel to the wall, extending far into the corridor on either side, for dozens of metres. Nearest to him, his grawth consisted of trunk-thick cylinders, the colour of quicksilver, but with the texture of jewel-encrusted slurry, constantly shimmering and twinkling, hinting at phenomenally industrious buried activity. Further away, on his periphery, the branches subdivided into a bronchial-like mesh. At its very boundary, the mesh grew microscopically fine and blended seamlessly with the fabric of its substrate: the ship itself. It was glorious with diffraction patterns, like a membrane of oil on water.
HegSwarms in Iain M. Banks's Culture books, are more an example of grey goo, "self-replicating nanotech out of control" trope: a plague propagating through all kinds of physical systems, and not just biological ones. From Surface Detail:
Restoria was the part of Contact charged with taking care of hegemonising swarm outbreaks, when -- by accident or design -- a set of self-replicating entities ran out of control somewhere and started trying to turn the totality of the galaxy's matter into nothing but copies of themselves. It was a problem as old as life in the galaxy and arguably hegswarms were just that; another legitimate -- if rather over-enthusiastic -- galatic life-form type. [...] Even the most urbanely sophisticated, scrupulously empathic and excruciatingly polite civilisation, it had been suggested, was just a hegswarm with a sense of proportion.
Reynolds' Melding Plague is grey-goo-adjacent. It stands representative of those speculative sicknesses that are all about highly aestheticised kaleidescopic body horror: not grey goo so much as varicolored-crystalline-n-dimensional-irridescent-goo. There is a sense of a complex patterning logic for which we are the unfortunate substrate. See also Peter F. Hamilton's Zanth, Jeff VanderMeer's Area X (and Alex Garland et al.'s Annihilation adaptation). Compare Reynold's more grey goo-ish Greenfly Terraformers. Hegemonising goos and singularities of various kinds appear in fiction by Charles Stross, Greg Bear, Greg Egan, Rudy Rucker, Linda Nagata, and others.


6) The "bad luck," as Sparrowhawk calls it at one point: the mysterious disenchantment in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Farthest Shore. Once more not strictly a plague, though it reproduces some of its logic. There is also a Patient Zero of sorts. See also e.g. Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away, the Nothing in Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, the Forge in Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice, etc. Within fantasy fiction, sometimes the source of the contagion is something a bit more like a hellmouth. These myriad magical contagions can sometimes be read as oblique commentaries on depression, despair, loneliness, paranoia, and other forms of psychic ill-being, and on capitalism's entwined processes of atomisation, rationalisation, secularisation, and alienation.

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5) The bacillus in Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954), which turns everyone into zombie-like vampires. A big influence on the filmmaker Romero and many a zombie story since. See also e.g. the Rage virus in 28 Days Later, the virus in Max Brooks's World War Z, the cordyceps infection in the Last of Us games, and the viruses in Mira Grant's Newsflesh books. But virus or no virus, these kinds of apocalyptic zombie narratives are almost always closely associated with pandemics. Whether your zombies are fast or slow, eldritch or techno-scientific, whether they are partial to brains or just mad as hell, it's the extreme contagiousness of the condition that is at the heart of this myth, and that differentiates the apocalyptic zombie from the "sorcerer's undead servant" style zombie. Spreading is the apocalyptic zombie's MO. Consider that vampirism and lycanthropy are also often supposed to be transmitted by a bite, yet vampires and werewolves -- Matheson's tale being a weird exception -- seldom swarm.

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4) BlyssPluss in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003). Here's a working paper by Polina Levontin et al. about so-called "lone wolf" bioterrorism and apocalyptic science fiction.

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3) The Red Death in Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Masque of the Red Death.'
No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.
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2) The eponymous plague of Albert Camus's existential novel The Plague.

Honorable mentions: Wuhan Flu documented by Eric Schaller, Download Syndrome documented by Steve Aylett, Jumping Monkworm documented by Sara Gwenllian Jones, and many, many more in Thackery T. Lambshead's Pocket Guide etc., the Plagues of Egypt in The Book of Exodus, the plague in Lucretius's On the Nature of Things, the pandemic in the game Pandemic, the plague in Plague Inc., Farmer's Tremors and billions of other procedurally generated Dungeons & Dragons diseases, the plague in Karen Lord's 'The Plague Doctors' (downloadable here), Andromeda in Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain, the plague among livestock at Noricum in Virgil's Georgics (thanks Abi), children's voices in Ben Marcus's The Flame Alphabet (thanks Sam), the fast prion in Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora, Captain Trips from Stephen King's The Stand (thanks everybody), the plague described in Boccacio's Decameron, the notional plague on both your houses in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the plague in Chaucer's 'Pardoner's Tale', the parasite in Octavia Butler's Clay's Ark, Georgia Flu in Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, Snow Crash in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, Buscard's Murrain aka Wormwood in China Mieville's 'Entry Taken from a Medical Journal' (also in Thackery's), Diseasemaker's Croup in Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things (and Thackery's), the femicidal plague in James Tiptree Jnr's 'The Screwfly Solution', the consumption 'plague' in Frederik Pohl's 'The Midas Plague,' the plague in Sandra Newman's The Country of Ice-Cream Star, the bioweapon Clarity in Cory Doctorow's 'Chicken Little', the Motaba virus in the movie Outbreak, the fog in the movie The Fog, the 'ST-Demon' in the movie It Follows, the Simian Flu in the Planet of the Apes movies, the mass infertility in P.D. James's Children of Men, the Hopping Cough in The Smurfs, the atavism-causing Barclay's Protomorphosis Syndrome in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and various other Trekkie plagues and contagions (Tribbles maybe?), the (mass but non-contagious) blindness in John Wyndeham's Day of the Triffids, the blindness in H.G. Wells's 'Country of the Blind', the blindness in José Saramago's The Blindness, the Wandering Sickness in H.G. Wells's Shape of Things to Come, the Monte Carlo viruses in Greg Egan's 'Blood Sisters', the devastating Golgafrinchan plague transmitted via unsanitized telephone in Douglas Adams's Restaurant at the End of the Universe, cholera in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, the plague in Anne McCaffrey's 'The Ship Who Mourned', smallpox etc. in Chelsea Quin Yarbro's Time of the Fourth Horseman, Dryditch Fever in Brian Jacques's Salamandastron, the Boston plague in Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley, Amusica in Alaistar Reynolds's Century Rain, GuiltTrip in Peter Watts's Rifter books, Salt Plague in Kate Elliott's Spiritwalker books, Grayscale and Pale Mare and the Spring Sickness in G.R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series, Spattergroit in the Harry Potter books by anonymous, the Forge in Robin Hobbes's Assassin's Apprentice and others in that series, Sevai and Vedet in Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home, the White Blindness (myxy) in Richard Adams's Watership Down, the noocytes in Greg Bear's Blood Music, the cult virus in Linda Nagata's Vast, and so on to ...

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1) The plague in Samuel R. Delany's remarkable metafictional novella, The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals (1985, later expanded), which collages the swords-and-sorcery plague of Nevèrÿon into memoir, theory, and philosophy and poetics, wrestling with the 1980s AIDs epidemic in New York City.
"Listen to me." The actor pulled him back. "Rights, you say? You're not going to get the plague. You know that as well as I do! Me and my kind, we're the ones in danger. And do you think for a minute if I thought there was any right, reason, or efficacy to be gained by tearing down this bridge, I wouldn't have been here days ago with a hammer myself? But that's for us to decide. Not you -" The actor paused, because, from the bandy-legged worker's eyes, two very fat tears, first as glimmerings along his lower lids, then as irregular spills in the torchlight, moved down his dark cheeks toward his beard.
At one point Delany asks of characters of SFF, in what senses are their problems the same as his? And then: and in what senses are they different?

EDITS: Willis's Black Plague and Influenza double act added. Melding Plague added itself and incorporated Banks's HegSwarms.