September 12th, 2018

you better shop around

In Tapestry, the fantasy campaign I run sessions of in Poway every month or two, the adventurers have returned from a long overseas voyage, bearing exotic cargo, and made huge amounts of money off it—their total sales came to just over 20 times the original investment. One of the players decided that her character was going to look for a wife, so that he'd have someone to look after his business while he was away on his next voyage.

This looked like an opportunity for some serious roleplaying, so I wrote up three women with different backgrounds and qualities, and had Hanno's mother take him to meet all three of them. And I invited three of the other players to take the roles of the three women, figuring this would be less dull than having Hanno's player and me monopolize the game time. Happily, all three players brought their characters to life.

Hanno himself is Wealthy (5x the average city dweller's assets) and Status 1 (usually associated with having 2x the average city dweller's assets; Hanno has spent so much time away on trade ventures that he hasn't gained any standing at home, other than "you can see he's well off"). Both are likely to increase as a result of the next session, when we figure the impact of the recent earnings.

His first meeting was with Iltani, a young woman, just old enough to be courted, who has the opposite pattern: Status 2 (a good family name) but only Comfortable Wealth. Her father inherited his business and has not been as successful at running it as his own father was, and Iltani is a bit desperate to find a suitable husband—even one of lower standing, like Hanno, so long as he can support her current Status properly. She's conservative and strongly focused on practical skills, from Housekeeping to Merchant and Finance. Hanno and his mother called formally on her and her mother and had a very polite conversation, in which Hanno made a good impression on her, enough so that she brought out her heirloom game board for the Game of Twenty Squares (a game about boat racing) and played a round against Hanno, narrowly beating him; her play was slow and thoughtful. She didn't talk about any of the more intellectual subjects that Hanno was also interested in.

Next he met Belessunu, also Status 2, but in her case it's a descent from her family's Status, as they're Filthy Rich and can support her at Very Wealthy (20x average); she's artistic and bohemian, associates with entertaining people of lower standing, and has travelled to a foreign country to buy silks and other exotic goods. She came to visit Hanno at his home, wanting to size him up before inviting him to be her guest, and found him very entertaining, as they had lots of common enthusiasms; in fact she ended up staying to dinner and meeting his apprentice, Onofrio, from a family in a different foreign country. It came out that what she really would like would be to go along on Hanno's next voyage and see new lands for herself, rather than staying behind and keeping his business going.

Finally, his mother took him to dinner at the house of the scribe, Tabnit, who helped manage her rental properties, where another guest was Tabnit's client, Ettu. She had originally been a servant in his house, but when she showed that she had learned to read, he started teaching her, and eventually helped her get into the Guild of Scribes. She's actually at the low end of her profession, having Average Wealth and Status 0, but she's making her way up, partly through being good at figuring out whether and how an employee was diverting a business's funds. She and Hanno talked enthusiastically about linguistics (his hobby) and cryptology (hers) and got along really well.

So now Hanno has three women to look at, each not quite what he wants: Iltani is a little young and he wouldn't have much to talk about with her; Belessunu is eager to travel; Ettu is ambitious for her own career and actually didn't realize that she was being looked at as a possible wife till Tabnit clued her in privately. And at this point it's up to Hanno's player. I offered her the option of having Hanno do his own search, and if he does, I have three candidates for him: one a really bad choice, one a little less suited than the other three but possibly acceptable, and one really good, if he gets a really good dice roll. I'll be interested to see where this goes. . . .

making sense

A week or so ago, I took a look at Charles Stross's blog, and found a guest post by Graydon Saunders that mentioned his new book, Under One Banner, the fourth volume of his Commonweal series. It took me a couple of days to track it down, but eventually I remembered that I bought the first three volumes through the Apple Store, and took a look—and there was volume four. Since then, I've been reading it, a chapter or two at a time, partly because of time pressure, and partly because I need time to think about what's happened in each chapter.

While this is classified as a fantasy series, it has one very science fictional feature, at least: The kind of indirect exposition that John W. Campbell pushed for in Astounding Science Fiction. The classic example of this is Robert Heinlein writing, "The door dilated," not given you a lecture on how his future society has irising doors, but just expected you to see it and envision what it implies. This has been a standard device for conveying setting for a long time, but it looks to me as if Saunders also uses it for the foreground story quite a lot; if what's happening doesn't spring right into your mind you will have to think about it for a while. I'm sure I didn't get everything on the first readings of these books.

In a different scheme of classification, the one proposed by Northrop Frye for prose narrative, what sort of "fiction" are these? I think I would say that while there is characterization and biography, the primary emphasis is on ideas and themes and intellectual problems (another way these books are science fictional), which in Frye's terms is characteristic of the anatomy and the confession, as opposed to the romance and the novel. And the ideas are projected out into the fictional world, more than inward into the characters, which I think makes this an anatomy, or Menippean satire (note that Frye's analysis of these categories isn't quite the same as mine). Theoretically this is the genre of Gulliver's Travels, Candide, and Alice in Wonderland, and of Stranger in a Strange Land, but none of these is that much like the Commonweal books, which makes me think that maybe "anatomy" isn't the right category after all.

As for Saunders's ideas, I'm pretty confident that he would not call himself a libertarian. However, I see several themes that are of interest to libertarians. First, he's portraying a society that is intensely concerned with consent and with preserving the possibility of consent, after emerging from a span far longer than human history in which the world was dominated by a succession of Saurons who did what they liked with the less powerful. Second, he establishes that this society's military policy is one of defense and excludes conquest as a goal, which is akin to the idea that "force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who have initiated its use"—even if the level of force is very high, close to the "nuke 'em from orbit" level. Third, this volume has one passage that very lucidly presents the Austrian economists' concept of "cost" as the most valuable thing you have to give up to get the thing you want, and that makes it clear that the characters are aware that everything has a cost. Finally, there's a running contrast between the industrial society (or aspect of society), which focuses on gaining wealth through producing it, and the military society (or aspect of society), which focuses on gaining wealth through fighting for it—an idea put forth by Herbert Spencer, one of the nineteenth century's main libertarian theorists—and the Commonweal clearly is an industrial society and regards force and battle as unproductive expenditures that need to be minimized, but can't be set to zero if the Commonweal is to survive. So these books have a lot of intellectual interest to me. (At a simpler level, they're in that comparatively rare category of fantasy with democracies, republics, or anarchies, rather than monarchies or aristocracies, and I find this interesting and would like to see more of it.)

These themes also resonate with an idea I've played with in past campaigns: The political implications of superbeings. One of my GURPS campaigns, Sovereignty, envisioned a world where the high-end supers, the analogs of Superman or Doctor Doom or the Hulk, were legally sovereign states, because they were powerful enough to fight with territorial sovereign states and win; so, for example, Superman might live in apartment that was legally the Kryptonian Embassy. Saunders's highest-level sorcerers, the twelve on the first page of the short list, might just as well be called superbeings; for one thing, they can only exist by transforming themselves from biological into metaphysical entities, which is a lot like a superheroic origin, though under more conscious control, and for another, they really are powerful enough so that only an army can meaningfully threaten them. Perhaps the most optimistic thing about the Commonweal is that it's a world where armies CAN threaten such being; the early days of the Commonweal involved its forces either killing the surrounding dark lords, or inducing them to make peace, becoming what are called Independents. A lot of the major characters are Independents, and their portrayal is interesting and complex.

I have less urge than I used to to read science fiction and fantasy. But the Commonweal books are doing interesting and different things, and I'm getting a lot out of them.