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.