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21 Jan 19:04

Snow Job

by Jack Graham
To me, the most striking thing about the racist Christmas card circulated by the British National Party (or the Keystone Stormtroopers, as I like to call them), is how utterly mainstream it looks.




There is clearly a racist message here because

a) it's being circulated by a racist party of fascist Nazi racist racists,

and

b) because of the oh-so-clever hidden subtext of the phrase 'white Christmas' that Cyclops/Fuhrer Dickibegyourpardonnick Griffin's reichschancellory full of political geniuses have cryptically woven into it.

But, as Metro have pointed out, it's an altered stock image, also used by thoroughly mainstream publications.

The Aryan child - pale and blonde and blue-eyed - is still the vanilla standard of beauty and innocence in the aesthetic system that capitalism calls Christmas.  Mainstream adverts and cards will engage in tokenism so as to simperingly hook in with sentimenal one-world platitudes, and sell to more than just white people, but non-white faces are still the variety sprinkled around the white standard.

It's not the young model's fault, of course.  She's just peddled her own image in a system of bodily commodification (as we all must peddle ourselves, one way or another, in order to get by) only to find her image purchased and used by a bunch of evil, twisted, shambolic fascist pisswizards.

(BTW, my derision may reflect the current state of the BNP, but I don't mean to dismiss them as an archaic or dormant threat.  They're still Nazi filth and they still hurt people.)
13 Jan 08:37

I found a script for Doctor Who.

by stavvers

Untitled document - Google Drive

 

I mean I know I’m not Moff’s biggest fan, but that was an unmitigated pile of shite, yes?


07 Jan 08:43

Derek's Weekly 45: Beverley - Happy New Year b/w Where The Good Times Are

by Dereksdaily45

Beverley happy new yearThere's not a whole lot of songs that focus on New Year's celebrations besides the perennial what-are-the-words-no-one-knows-the-words Auld Lang Syne.

Young Randy Newman penned this charming ode back before he began own solo career, and the song certainly lends a positive feeling for a new year or, simply, a new beginning.

While 'Happy New Year' is the side of honor considering the date, it's the flip side that REALLY cooks, and has a quite remarkable sotry as well.

The "Beverley" here in question at the time was Beverley Kutner. A few short years later, she married legendary (and superb) British folkie John Martyn where the two recorded some lovely music together.

HOWEVER, just a few short years earlier (1966), we find 19 year old Beverley backed in the studio by Jimmy Page (laying down some of his finest ever guitar workings, with a chunking riff that's virtually the blueprint for "Communication Breakdown") as well as John Paul Jones (making this one of the earliest sessions that these two played on which is heavily proto-Zeppelin-esque). This was also the debut release from Deram records, the highly influential London beat/psychedelic/ progressive label.

This record is hypnotic; the lulling piano (played by Nicky Hopkins) juxtaposed with the heavy guitar, Beverley's confident, swaggering vocal and the always fantastic British drumming.

Happy New Year

Where The Good Times Are

 

02 Jan 19:00

Irrelovence – the paradox of the stance of the SNP

by Iain Donaldson

I have, until now, remained neutral in the debate over whether Scotland should remain in the UK or become an insignificant independent country entirely dependent on UK trade links, UK technologies and UK financial systems but without any say in the policies that determine its place in the world or the future of its people.

I have maintained the view that the choice between or is entirely a matter for the Scottish people.

However, reports on a poll conducted by the SNP indicate support in the rest of the UK for an SNP led independent Scotland to remain in Sterling and hold common passports with unrestricted travel throughout the UK.

The problem with this poll though, is that the hypothesis on which it is based is entirely unfounded because in the event that Scotland votes for independence she will be voting herself out of the European Union, whilst the United Kingdom will remain a member of the European Union.

The moment Scotland leaves the EU she will lose her right to free movement in the rest of the UK by default, she will need to establish an independent Passport and there will need to be border controls both at the English/Scottish borders and at our airports and ports.  This isn’t a matter of choice for the rest of the UK, this is a matter of requirement under the UK’s membership of the EU.

Herein lies the paradox that the SNP have failed to address in their case for an independent Scotland remaining in the Sterling Zone.  Under European membership rules the Sterling Zone  can not extend beyond the European Union.  Scotland must be a member of the European Union if she is to remain in the Sterling Zone, and to become a member of the European Union an independent Scotland must first apply for membership and demonstrate that she meets the economic conditions for entry.

Whilst Scotland is achieving those economic conditions she can not remain in Sterling because she is not in the European Union.

Therefore the paradox of the position now being taken by the SNP is that in order for Scotland to remain in Sterling and retain free movement throughout the rest of the UK, Scotland must remain in the UK.

It is just a pity that the SNP have spent so many years campaigning clearly for electoral success only to demonstrate when they get it that their position has always been impossible to achieve.

With remaining in Sterling and free movement throughout the UK now the stated policies of the SNP they face the paradox of campaigning for Scottish Independence on a platform that can only be achieved if Scotland remains in the UK.


02 Jan 01:19

BIT PLAYERS now online at Subterranean Magazine

My new story "Bit Players" is now online, as part of Subterranean Magazine's Winter 2014 issue.
02 Jan 01:18

Why Procrastinators Procrastinate

by Passive Guy

From Wait But Why:

pro-cras-ti-na-tion |prəˌkrastəˈnāSHən, prō-|
noun
the action of delaying or postponing something: your first tip is to avoid procrastination.

Who would have thought that after decades of struggle with procrastination, the dictionary, of all places, would hold the solution.

Avoid procrastination. So elegant in its simplicity.

While we’re here, let’s make sure obese people avoid overeating, depressed people avoid apathy, and someone please tell beached whales that they should avoid being out of the ocean.

No, “avoid procrastination” is only good advice for fake procrastinators—those people that are like, “I totally go on Facebook a few times every day at work—I’m such a procrastinator!” The same people that will say to a real procrastinator something like, “Just don’t procrastinate and you’ll be fine.”

. . . .

It seems the Rational Decision-Maker in the procrastinator’s brain is coexisting with a pet—the Instant Gratification Monkey.

This would be fine—cute, even—if the Rational Decision-Maker knew the first thing about how to own a monkey. But unfortunately, it wasn’t a part of his training and he’s left completely helpless as the monkey makes it impossible for him to do his job.

. . . .

The fact is, the Instant Gratification Monkey is the last creature who should be in charge of decisions—he thinks only about the present, ignoring lessons from the past and disregarding the future altogether, and he concerns himself entirely with maximizing the ease and pleasure of the current moment. He doesn’t understand the Rational Decision-Maker any better than the Rational Decision-Maker understands him—why would we continue doing this jog, he thinks, when we could stop, which would feel better. Why would we practice that instrument when it’s not fun? Why would we ever use a computer for work when the internet is sitting right there waiting to be played with? He thinks humans are insane.

In the monkey world, he’s got it all figured out—if you eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, and don’t do anything difficult, you’re a pretty successful monkey. The problem for the procrastinator is that he happens to live in the human world, making the Instant Gratification Monkey a highly unqualified navigator. Meanwhile, the Rational Decision-Maker, who was trained to make rational decisions, not to deal with competition over the controls, doesn’t know how to put up an effective fight—he just feels worse and worse about himself the more he fails and the more the suffering procrastinator whose head he’s in berates him.

. . . .

The Dark Playground is a place every procrastinator knows well. It’s a place where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening. The fun you have in the Dark Playground isn’t actually fun because it’s completely unearned and the air is filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread. Sometimes the Rational Decision-Maker puts his foot down and refuses to let you waste time doing normal leisure things, and since the Instant Gratification Monkey sure as hell isn’t gonna let you work, you find yourself in a bizarre purgatory of weird activities where everyone loses.

Link to the rest at Wait But Why and thanks to C.R. for the tip.

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01 Jan 23:40

U.S. Pays $1 Billion for black farmer discrimination

by Tobias Buckell

Decades of this. Racism is still dogging things. And for everyone who says everyone should be able to self-bootstrap, how the fuck were the black farmers supposed to do that when the field was literally tilted against them?

“The U.S. makes loans and grants to small farms to help them buy the seeds and other items they need to get started with a new year’s crop, to expand their land, or to buy equipment. The program can be a life-line for family farms.

But that isn’t how it has worked for black farmers. While whites submit applications and receive decisions within the 30 days allowed by law, black farmers like Lloyd Shaffer get nothing but humiliation, as Yes! Magazine reports. A white loan officer left Shaffer, who farms in Mississippi, ignored in a waiting room for an entire business day — eight hours — while white farmers who arrived after him went in and out. Three other times, the loan officer took Shaffer’s application from him and dropped it right into the trash.”

(Via U.S. Pays $1 Billion for Years of Discriminating Against Black Farmers | Care2 Causes.)

01 Jan 15:26

A busy year: Lord Bonkers in 2013

by noreply@blogger.com (Jonathan Calder)
As they year draws to its close, it is time to look back in Lord Bonkers' adventures in 2013.

******

In the February issue of Liberator, his lordship reported his experience of taking part in Call Clegg on LBC:
PRESENTER: Our next call is, er, Lord from Rutland. 
ME: What this I hear about you supporting secret courts, man? Have you taken leave of your senses? What the devil is behind this ridiculous idea? 
CLEGG: I can’t tell you that. 
ME: Why not? 
CLEGG: It’s a secret.
******

By the time of the April issue, an archaeological dig was taking place in the car park of the Bonkers' Arms:
"Having seen how well Leicester is doing out of Richard III, I have decided that we need to find a body of a king here in Rutland too ... I am saddened by this lack of progress, and a complicating factor is that we have to have everything put back by Friday because that is the day the Smithson & Greaves lorry comes. If it cannot make its deliveries, we shall all be reduced to drinking the dreadful gassy Dahrendorf lager."
******

In May there was a Liberator's blog exclusive as Jo Swinson visited the Hall. As the boys had gone off to try the vaulting horse they had just made, she addressed the girls:
I have to report that I am somewhat surprised by Jo’s approach. “Blimey,” she says to one girl, “you’ve been stirred in the ugly wok, haven’t you?” before describing another as “a bit of a munter”. Others are dismissed as “mingers”, “butters” and “complete double-baggers”. 
One wonders whether this is quite the way to attract the fairer sex into politics. I suspect the first Lady Bonkers would have clocked Jo one if she had addressed her like that.
******

June saw Lord Bonkers taking a party of tourists around the East End haunts of Violent Bonham-Carter:
I tell them of Bonham-Carter’s early struggles and patronage of Barbara Windsor (the black sheep of the royal family and, when they first met, a promising bantamweight) and take them for a drink at the Lame Deliverer – the very pub where Violent is said to have done away with the biscuit magnate Jack “The Hat” McVitie. 
The landlord, who witnessed this notorious incident whilst enjoying a ginger beer in short trousers, is quick to point out that McVitie was widely thought to be “getting lairy” and to be “well out of order” – it was, after all, Violent’s manor. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the affair, a good time is had by all and I depart for St Pancras with enough in tips to keep me in Auld Johnston for another year.
******

A month later and Lord Bonkers was posting a video of the Dalai Lama's monk blessing the turf at Lord's:
I generally ask the Elves of Rockingham Forest to do this here at the Hall. I forgot to pay them one year and it turned square before lunch on the first day.
******

In August he gave someone asylum:
Meadowcroft finds a youth, dishevelled and wet through, sleeping in his potting shed and hales him before me for judgment. 
“Please don’t send me back,” sobs the accused, “I have escaped from the Liberal Youth Activate weekend. I thought it would be fun, but all we got was endless canvassing drill and lectures on the perils of self-abuse.” 
I give him a hot bath, square meal, suit of clothes and ten bob for the train, but am left troubled. “What has happened to the Spirit of Liberalism, which was first brought to these shores by Joseph of Arimathea?” I ask.
******

A month later I made an exciting discovery: Earl Russell really did have a big band.

Also in September, Lord Bonkers contributed his usual foreword to the new Liberator Songbook:
Risselty-rosselty, hey, pomposity
Nickety nackety noo, noo, noo. 
There is no denying it: the Scots have a way with a lyric.
******

In September Sir Alan Beith made an important discovery:
“Good heavens man! You’ve found the spirit of Liberalism. I shall have it cleaned and polished at once.” 
“I expect you will give it to Clegg when you have done that.”
I consider Beith for a moment and then reply: “No, old fellow. I think you had better look after it.”
******

Which book should ambitious young Liberal Democrats read? In November Lord Bonkers recommended  A Fortunate Life: The Autobiography of Paddy Ashdown - "which is by Paddy Ashdown, incidentally".
I know of no book that sets out half so clearly what is needed to win an election campaign. I don’t mean the chapter on "The Winning of Yeovil" that was made available free on the electric internet recently, excellent though it is In Its Way: no, I am thinking about the section on jungle warfare in Sarawak where Ashplant explains how to mount patrols, the best way to lay an ambush and how to treat an open wound using red ants. It was no surprise to me when, armed with this knowledge, we took control of South Somerset District Council.
******

Also late in the year, Lord Bonkers recounted his meetings with great philosophers, while I made an important archaeological discovery that casts light on his ancestry.


01 Jan 15:10

Mrs Wibbsey's Festive Diary - Part 7

by noreply@blogger.com (Paul Magrs)


MRS WIBBSEY'S FESTIVE DIARY

7



Christmas Day


Even with all the goings-on in the night I’m feeling unusually festive when I go downstairs on Christmas morning. I shall treat myself to hedgerow jam on my toast and cream in my coffee. Let’s push the boat out.


In a way, it would be nice if there was a knock at the door and someone was calling. It would be lovely to have a surprise.


Down in the dining room before the hearth that strange devil dog is waiting to greet me. Cheery tone as he wishes me a Merry Christmas. Taking me aback somewhat.


I make coffee on the stove and when I return he’s looking at those books again. I sit and watch him. He uses a fuzzy kind of torch beam that comes out of his nose to turn the page and memorize everything he sees.


They look like kids’ books to me. Lurid illustrations. Very peculiar stories. They remind me of the only book I had as a child – The Wonder Book. I haven’t thought of that in years. Its cover was black and gold and I used to polish it up, I was so proud of having a book of my own.


‘Shall I read to you?’ asks the metal dog.


‘Why not?’ I smile and sip my cooling coffee. The Doctor used to sit here and tell me outlandish tales, whenever the mood took him. Outrageous things he claimed had happened to him on the journeys he made into the Omniverse in the days before he knew me or the days when he slipped off and left me here to mind the cottage.


The dog tells me about a queer kind of place. A world the Doctor once visited with his friends Sarah and Harry. A world where the men went off to live in the jungle. They actually lived within the fleshy leaves of huge cabbages. They were hiding from the women, who had turned rebellious and noisy, having fallen under the influence of a terrible yellowish-green monster. It was a cloud of vapour that approached from the horizon under a sky the colour of tomato soup.


‘The Sinister Sponge!’ I interrupt excitedly. And then I roll my eyes. ‘Oh, I know all about that awful old thing. The Doctor brought one back in the Tardis and kept it in the downstairs bathroom for more than a month. He was supposed to be returning it to its own dimension, somewhere or other. Then he forgot all about it and the ghastly thing just hung there behind the shower curtain in a horrible mood. I had to clean up after the wretched monster. Even after it had tried to take over my mind…’


The fire crackles and the grandfather clock ticks. It must be telling the wrong time. Surely it’s later than six in the morning. Outside it’s light, but a very muzzy, unclear sort of light that sparkles the frost. There’s no one out and about. The windows around the village green are all dark still.


The dog is telling me a tale about a world of spiders. They were bigger than even the spiders of Metebelis Three. And what’s worse, these spiders of Pergross had large, staring eyes for bodies. They built webs inside intricate, slime-filled jungles and they lured their victims by mesmerizing them with their spiraling irises. Their victims walk straight down a dark, all-seeing tunnel into the mind of the spider itself and there they find a sofa and a television set. And on the television set plays films of their whole lives and everything they ever did wrong…


‘Yes,’ I murmur. ‘I think I’ve heard of them… I think we even went to see the Eye-Spiders of Pergross once, the Doctor and I…’


But the dog has moved on and he’s describing the shrieking Sto-Cat: a robot made of bricks that floated through space boasting on many frequencies. And the Doctor’s friend Swee, who’d gone to the bad. Like so many old friends who’ve gone to the bad. And wasn’t it me – Fenella Wibbsey - standing in that alien desert, looking up to see the face of a Sphinx and realizing the thing was alive? Then it woke and looked down at me with the oldest eyes imaginable and I felt so tiny, having these adventures in space.


Do I remember these things because I was there, or do I just remember the Doctor’s voice telling me all about them? We were sitting in front of this fire when he told me improbable stuff and I always scoffed, though I knew there was a germ of truth in everything he said. But maybe I actually was there in the psychic jungle with his friend who looked like a cheetah? And I was in the Neuronic Nightmare world ruled by the man whose face was on fire. And the blue baboons who flew about the place on ships that looked like spoons and I laughed at first when I saw them and the Doctor said: hush! We’re at the very edge of the universe and those are the Thousand and One Doors to Elsewhere, Mrs Wibbsey.


Or was I just here in Nest Cottage? Peeling spuds, carrying out the rubbish and feeding the rabbits?


All at once the dog jerks into life. He’s off. The books he’s spread out on the floor slam shut of their own accord and he reverses across the stone flags, back into the hall. He bumps into the elephant foot umbrella stand and opens the front door wide.


‘Mistress Wibbsey!’ the dog calls me, and I hurry to catch up as he sets off down the garden path into the crisp morning. I’m on his trail, into the lane, and my slippered feet hardly touch the ground.


‘Dog? Where are we going?’


Now he’s running across the Green and the frost crackles underfoot. He’s gliding and I’m accelerating too… Nothing aches. Nothing breaks. I’m running like I used to when I was a girl.





01 Jan 15:09

Mrs Wibbsey's Festive Diary - Part 6

by noreply@blogger.com (Paul Magrs)

MRS WIBBSEY'S FESTIVE DIARY

6


LATER


I’m sitting up in bed and at first it’s like the devil himself has come in my room. I let out a shriek before I realise it’s that blessed robot dog.


‘Forgive me, mistress,’ he says in that strange, polite voice, and then, all of a sudden it’s like he’s reading my mind.


No, more than that.


I can see my past floating out in front of me. Like ectoplasm.


Long time since I saw ectoplasm. All that floaty, nasty stuff, like candy floss but with a supernatural aspect.


Not since the days of Mr Wibbsey. Not since him. And his peripatetic spiritualist church.


And I can see him now. High up in the cab of that van, with me at his side, chugging through the winding roads of Norfolk, visiting each small village in turn. I was his unwilling helpmeet. I wanted nothing to do with all that dark stuff. Turning up in villages and calling up the dead. Scaring the locals out of their skins when all they wanted was a bit of peace and reassurance. He was a devil, Mr Wibbsey. I’ve tried for so long to forget him.


Why’s this robot dog reminding me?


He’s perching on the bedclothes. His little castors are resting on the candlewick bedspread. Somehow that impassive face of his looks regretful. He’s sorry for making me relive moments from my dreadful past.


I see the day I left Mr Wibbsey. That terrible day when the old man tried to stop me. When I smashed his crystal ball and he howled like all the demons in hell were after him. He went running into the sea and I never stopped him.


When they dragged him back up the shingle the next morning his eyes were gone. The Cromer police were horrified.


I knew already though, that Mr Wibbsey had never had no eyes.


Not in his head.


The robot dog shows me – pictures coming through that glimmering, pinkish cloud that hovers over my bed – how I found happiness of a sort. Living in that little town. Finding a job in that museum. How it became like a palace to me. I was so proud of being in charge of all the Curiosities.


This creature must be a spirit to know all of this. And to know about the eyes of Mr Wibbsey. Mechanical or not, he must be a hound from hell. Made of minerals and metals forged by the spirits down below.


‘Get out! Get out!’ I shriek at him and the dog stares at me sadly.


Then he turns and glides out of the attic room.


Dawn’s coming up. It’s Christmas morning out there but I find myself still stuck inside the faraway past.




01 Jan 15:08

Mrs Wibbsey's Festive Diary - Part 5

by noreply@blogger.com (Paul Magrs)



MRS WIBBSEY'S FESTIVE DIARY

5



Later.


It’s Christmas Eve and I am alone. I draw all the curtains and shut out the noise of the warbling, awful carol singers on the Green. I light the fire and microwave myself some scrambled eggs.


He won’t have a dish of water or any kind of food. He says he doesn’t need it.


I sit down in the chair by the hearth and stare at him. ‘Well, then. How is he?’


‘Do you mean in the time period relative to the Mistress or to this unit?’ says the dog-thing, and I don’t know what he means.


‘Is he well? Since he was last here, I mean…’


The dog looks helpless. ‘I don’t know,’ he says.


All night the dog roves about the house, sniffing in cupboards and hunting through drawers. When I lie in my bed up in the attic I can hear wooden doors crashing, and then the unearthly buzz as he floats up the staircases. He’s prying into every room. Before I went to bed he wouldn’t tell me what he was looking for.


He showed some interest in the old books the Doctor keeps in his study. Those lurid books he had delivered from Ebay. ‘Ah, not just ordinary Ebay, Wibbs,’ he beamed at me as the curious-looking postman came up the garden path. ‘Ebay in a different dimension, slightly tangential to this one.’


Those are the books the dog unit set about scanning with his red laser eye. Took him a good couple of hours. I left him to it and went to bed. Happy Christmas Fenella, I thought.



01 Jan 15:02

Go Gamecocks

by LP

“Coach Ryan, if you want to fight me on this, I’m absolutely prepared to go over your head.”

“Jennifer, I can assure you, it’s…”

“Remember, you’re just the athletic director. If you think I’m not willing to talk to the president of the university, you’re sadly mistaken.”

“I just don’t feel it’s an appropriate sport for a co-educational college.”

“Oh, so this is a boy’s club thing!”

“No, no! I just meant that…”

“That’s not why they call it cockfighting, you know, Coach.”

“I know. I know. I meant it’s not the sort of…”

“I assume you’ve heard of a little thing called Title IX.”

Title IX? We don’t even have a men’s cockfighting team!”

“And I suppose you’re going to blame that on the women’s cockfighting team draining your funding away. Look, it may not be a big-money sport like football or baseball, but it’s got a very proud and noble tradition.”

“But…well, look, I…”

“If it’s the money that worries you, I even have a sponsorship deal lined up.”

“Sponsorship? From who?”

“Quaker Oats Full-O-Pep Growing Mash. They’ve promised us five grand and little jerseys for the bantams. Plus, there’ll be the television money.”

“Television?”

“Cockfighting doesn’t really play on the radio, Coach.”

“No, I mean…who’s going to televise it?”

“ESPN2. They’re pretty desperate for programming. Apparently the Magic: The Gathering tourneys aren’t drawing a big viewership like they used to.”

“Look, Jennifer, you’ve obviously put a lot of work into this, and it’s something you clearly care about a great deal…”

“You’re damn right, Coach Ryan. My family has raised champion blood-bantams and fighting hens since before the American Civil War.”

“It’s just that, well, cockfighting is…isn’t it illegal?”

“Not in three states. Of which we just happen to be one.”

“But, I mean, there aren’t a lot of schools that have cockfighting programs, are there?”

“Sure there are! At least 23 Division III schools in those three states.”

“But we’re a Division I school.”

“What’s your point?”

“Even if I were to allow this, who would we play?”

“That’s the beauty of it, Coach Ryan. We’re guaranteed a championship at least the first two, three years. By the time the other DI schools catch up to us, we’ll already be in the history books.”

“I…”

“Yeah?”

“Show me the little jerseys.”

01 Jan 14:29

The New World of Publishing: How to Get Started Selling in 2014

by dwsmith

In the old days, meaning more than four years ago, the path to becoming a professional fiction writer was pretty simple to understand. You wrote stories and novels and mailed them to traditional publishers directly. When the story was rejected, you kept the story (or novel) in the mail until someone bought it. 

Well, not so much anymore. Fiction writers now have that dreaded word: Choice. And so, the path to being a successful fiction writer isn’t so clear anymore. In fact, I would call it downright muddy.

So I’m going to update this article that I did last year because there are so many people coming to this place now that weren’t coming last year, I figure it wouldn’t hurt. If you read this last year, you might want to read it again for updates. I will put two other articles here on this same topic over the next two days.

Warning: Some of you early-career fiction writers may not like my suggestions or observations. Just remember that there is no right way and there is no one way for all writers to take.

I’m just going to try to put some road markers up to keep a few of you out of the ditch. Follow or not follow. It’s your career. Your choice.

The Major Choices

Let me detail out what I see as the six major paths that a fiction writer can take in 2014 when starting out.

1… Follow the myths, write one novel, rewrite it to death, then spend all your time tracking down an agent.

This path seldom leads to a decent sale or decent writing, but most beginning writers still follow this path like blind sheep. I keep hoping I will see signs of this changing, but alas, I just don’t.

2… Write a novel and mail a submission package for your book directly to editors. Then while that book is in the mail, write more novels and mail them as well while working on becoming a better storyteller.

Keep learning from everywhere. This is the way it’s been done forever in publishing and is still valid. (Only difference now from ten years ago is that now you need an IP attorney to work on your contract instead of an agent. Contracts are much more difficult these days and if you get a small deal, chances are they will want all rights forever. But you can worry about that after you get the offer.)

3… Follow the myths that have developed over the last few years. Write a novel, rewrite it to death, pay a gad-zillion bucks to have someone put it up electronically for you and then take a percentage of your work, then you promote it to your 200 friends on Facebook until they start fleeing out of disgust.

This path seldom works, but it is part of the promotion myths.

4… Write a novel, learn how to do your own covers and formatting, put the novel up yourself electronically and in POD and then write the next novel and work on learning and becoming a better storyteller. Repeat. Do not promote other than telling your friends once each book is out.

This is more of a standard, traditional path that will work, but takes time as you learn how to tell better stories that people want to read. Plus there is a learning curve on learning how to do covers and layout interiors that many find very scary, even though not once in the process can anyone come to your house and threaten you with an ax.

5… Follow #4 and #2 at the same exact time, telling the editors in the submission package that the book is published by your press and send them a copy of the paperback in the package.

Very few beginning writers are trying this method because they are afraid traditional editors will come to their houses and break their fingers (or some other fear just as stupid.)

6… Forget novels completely and only write short stories, selling to traditional magazines as well as publishing indie.

This method has a lot quicker feedback loops and is a good way to learn how to tell great stories, but it takes a mind set most beginning writers do not have or will ever have. And you must learn how to do all the indie publishing work yourself. This method was never a path to making a living writing fiction, but now it is possible if you really, really, really love short fiction. Otherwise, just write a few stories here and there to help your novels. Remember, unless you are scary creative in marketing, short fiction does not sell well indie.

That’s the six major paths I see toward making a living selling fiction in 2014. (You won’t make a living starting in 2014, but they are all paths toward making a living in five to ten years time.)

Or you can come up with your own slight variation on those paths.

#1 and #3 don’t work unless you get fantastically lucky.

#2 and #4 lead to long careers, but take time to build.

#5 might get you to making coffee money a little faster, but it will still take years, as it should.

#6 only if you love short fiction with a passion that not even your friends understand..

In my opinion, all writers these days should be writing, selling, and publishing some short fiction along with writing novels. The short fiction market is booming and short fiction should just be a part of any business plan for a fiction writer. (Yeah, yeah, I know, you can’t write short fiction. So learn and stop whining.)

The Problems New Writers Face in 2014

Let me list a few of the big ones.

1) Myths.

These are everywhere, and are mostly flat stupid. But all beginning fiction writers (me included in my day) buy into myths because beginning writers look for the secret handshake, the shortcut, the way to sell books without learning how to tell good stories.

 

The truth is that the best way to sell books is write a lot, work on learning how to be a better storyteller constantly, get your work in front of editors or readers or both, and plan for the long haul. But new writers ignore that advice, especially the long haul advice.

I have an entire book coming out called Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing. I put them all up here for free, but here are some examples (not all by a long ways) of some major myths in 2014.

a) You need an agent to sell a book.

b) You need an agent to sell a book overseas.

c) You need an agent to sell to Hollywood.

d) Traditional publishing gives you better quality in production and editing.

e) If you lower your price on your only novel, you will make more money.

f) As an indie publisher, you can’t get your books into bookstores.

g) You can pay someone to help you sell a lot of books.

h) You need to promote your book.

Again, there are many more, but those are what I consider the top eight killer myths for writers starting off in 2014.

2) Reactions to information.

In this high-speed world of the information age, any person can offer an opinion. This blog is no exception. The problem early fiction writers face is what to believe, what to listen to, and what to ignore. Now granted, this was the problem when I came in as well back in the 1970s, but now the information is out for everyone to see no matter the source. In my day, we only had to sort out what the established professionals were saying. Now anyone who has a few short stories up can blog about how they did it and what everyone should do.

And there are scammers out there who have never written a word of fiction, but think they can teach you how to write fiction.

How to solve this problem of where to get good information? I have no easy solution.

One suggestion is set up a writing computer that is only for creation of new words. Have no games, no email, no internet connection on that computer. Make it only a writing computer. That way the creative side of things has a line between it and the information overload and opinions flooding at you from everywhere. It honestly will help and be worth the few hundred bucks for a new computer.

Second suggestion is to only listen to people who have more than twenty or thirty or more novels in print and who have been in the business for more than twenty years. Also, make sure this person is also versed in both sides of the business of publishing, both traditional and indie. Some of the old professionals still have their heads in the sand and can hurt you worse than listening to a person with a few titles out indie only. Find the balance between the two extremes.

Third suggestion is listen to your little voice. If it sounds wrong to you, it might be. But if the advice coming at you makes business sense for you, then explore it.

In other words, it’s your career and there are no right answers. Learn to think for yourself. And learn business as fast as you can.

3) Getting in a hurry.

This is the area that is also normal for early fiction writers. And I honestly don’t know the reason why, but I was no exception to this problem when I started out. Now, with the indie publishing, this problem is no longer hidden in each writer’s office, but is out on full display for the world to see.

When watched from the outside, and from a point of distance like I now have, this all seems laughingly funny to me. I watch new writers, who have managed to complete their first novel, promoting the life out of their “book” because they believe they should (myths), and then complaining when there are very few sales.

From a place of perspective, this is like watching a brand new violin player stride onto the stage at Carnage Hall with their very first recital piece and wondering why no one showed up to listen even though they advertised their concert to everyone they knew. Let me simply say, “Duh.”

So one of the worst problems new fiction writers have now is that inability to see that the fiction writing profession is an international profession and it takes years to learn, both on the craft side and the business side. Yes, I said YEARS!!!

And, oh yeah, it takes years of practice as well. (Lost all English majors right there.)

The solution to this is take a deep breath, focus on the writing and learning to write better stories and put the books out either indie or to editors or both and leave them alone. If you get a few buyers, great. If not, no big deal. Trust the audience and the editors to decide when you have graduated to professional-level storytelling.

Again, to be clear, mail or publish your first work and then keep learning. And publish the second and the third and so on. Follow Heinlein’s Rules right from the very first story.

They might not sell, but the problem comes is when you, the writer, EXPECT them to sell. Just put them out after you do the best job you can and move on. They can not hurt you. (It’s a myth that they can kill your career because you don’t have a career. Duh.)

 The Path in 2014

I’m going to give flat out advice right now. Please understand this is only my opinion and please take or leave what you want.

My advice to fiction writers starting out for 2014:

1) Spend 80% of your focus and time on producing new fiction. Not rewriting, not researching, but producing new words on the page. Period. (Follow Heinlein’s Rules to the letter.)

2) Spend 15% of your time on learning craft and business. Both a little at a time. In any way you can. We do a lot of business workshops here besides craft workshops. So do other major fiction writers.

3) Spend the remaining 5% of your time mailing finished work to editors or getting your work up indie published or both. (The #5 path above I believe in 2014 is the best if you have the courage, but most won’t try it.)

4) Think five and ten years out and set production goals. (Not selling goals, you are not in charge of those, but you are in charge of your own production and how much you learn.)

That’s it.

Simple.

The writers who follow my suggestions are following a path well-worn by generations of professional writers. All of us did it just slightly different in the details and time depending on our background, but we all walked that same basic road.

Even with the indie publishing side of things, which can help cash flow a little, this new world has not varied from the time it takes to learn how to tell a decent story.

Telling a good story is an art form. As with any art, the art takes time to learn.

Make writing new words your main focus.  Make learning business and craft your secondary focus. And get your work out for people to read right from word one.

Don’t get in a hurry.

It really, honestly, is that simple.

And that hard.

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Copyright © 2013 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime
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This chapter is now part of my inventory in my Magic Bakery.  I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling (licensing) any of the pie. 

I make my living with my writing. Sometimes I write these for fun, to entertain myself, sometimes I write these to help others.

Either way, if you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery. Or maybe subscribe to Smith’s Monthly

If you can’t afford to donate or subscribe, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. I don’t always get a chance to respond, but the donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Tip Jar: Go To Paypal

 

01 Jan 14:22

The New World of Publishing: How to Keep Your Writing Going for All of 2014

by dwsmith

This an almost complete update of a post I had here in late 2012.

I figured it was worth my time and energy to get this updated and out again, especially since so many of you have been watching me with my “Writing in Public” posts and some of you are even subscribing to Smith’s Monthly to read what I actually write.

Thank you, everyone, for that support over the last year. It’s made this all great fun.

Some basics to start:

Any business and production plan you decide to set up for yourself is made up of goals that can be attained with work.

The focus of the goals you set is to attain a dream.

A dream is what you work toward with a series of goals.

Setting Up For Failure: A Warning

I’m starting this post with a couple of warnings: Understand what is failure in a goal and what isn’t failure.

Every time I talk with writers at the end of the year, I hear goals being set that are seemingly impossible when you do the math. I’ve set a few of them myself, to be honest, over the decades.

I honestly have no problem at all with impossible goals. None, as long as the person setting the goal understands that the likely failure can also be deemed a success. But most writers I know don’t understand that simple detail.

For example: Three years ago here I set a goal to write from titles and publish here and online 100 short stories. And even though slightly behind, I felt I was pretty much on schedule to hit that goal when one of my best friends died and I took over his estate. I turned away from writing almost completely to do the estate and only did what deadline work I had.

So did I fail? Nope. I wrote and got out over thirty original short stories that year, plus a number of stories for original anthologies that didn’t count in the challenge. Not the year I hoped, or even my best year, but not a bad year considering all the factors. It would have been far, far worse without the challenge.

But most writers I know, when faced with actually missing their goal, just stop completely. The problem is that the goal sets them up for a failure, and then they use the failure or life issue as an excuse to stop writing.

So caution when setting goals so extreme you can’t make them in any fashion. And if you do set an extreme goal, have fall-back success levels.

The first steps needed…

— I assume you have done the math to know how many original words you can produce of fiction per hour.

— I assume you have figured out how many hours you have each week to write original fiction outside of your family and job requirements.

— I assume you have set up a writing space, and have told your family and friends how important your writing is to you.

— I assume you will protect your work, your time, your art in the new year.

Goals must be set from a position of knowledge, not from a position of wishful thinking.

A Sign of the Classic Want-To-Be-Writer: Another Warning

Every long-term professional fiction writer can spot a hopeless want-to-be fiction writer easily.

— They are the fiction writers who talk about writing, but never finish anything.

— They are the fiction writers who feel jealous of all your writing time because they can never find the time.

— They are the fiction writers who come up with one idea and spend years on it, talking about it, researching it, workshopping parts of it, but never finishing it and moving on.

— They are the fiction writers who believe they will never succeed because they don’t have a major fan base like a major writer, so why bother. Or worse, they finish one thing and spend all year “promoting it.”

— They are the fiction writers who decide they are going to write in the new year, but set no plans, no goals, no structure.

— They are the writers who just get to their fiction writing when they can, when the muse strikes, because ideas are hard and writing is hard.  They “just can’t find the time.” And then the following year they try the same thing that didn’t work every year before.

If you don’t want to be one of those “writers,” be a writer who makes your production of new words important.

 How to Set Fiction Writing Goals in 2014

I’m just tossing out suggestions here. There is no one way for every writer, or only one way for the same writer from year-to-year. Use what strikes you in these ideas, alter them to suit your needs, and set the goals for yourself.

And also I think it would be fine to combine some of these suggestions.

Idea #1

Set your plan to strictly follow Heinlein’s Rules.

The rules are:

 

1) Write

2) Finish what you write

3) Do not rewrite unless to editorial demand. (Meaning New York book editors who can buy your work, not someone who you hire. It is fine to fix mistakes first readers find and spelling mistakes.)

4) Put it on the market for someone to buy it. (Either a New York editor or readers indie published.)

5) Keep it on the market. (For indie publishers, this means leave it alone.)

If you are one of the very few who have the courage to even try this, let alone succeed with the attempt for an entire year, you will be stunned at how far you will move toward your writing dreams and how much fun you will have. If you don’t understand Heinlein’s Rules, I did an entire lecture explaining why they work. You can find it under the lecture tab above.

Warning on this one. Deceptively simple looking rules, fantastically difficult to actually follow because of all the myths that swirl around fiction writing. You will find yourself spending a ton of time coming up with excuses to not follow them. (Please, don’t comment on your excuses here. These rules are a Yoda situation. Either do. Or Don’t.)

As Robert Heinlein said about his own rules. “But they are amazingly hard to follow — which is why there are so few professional writers and so many aspirants…”

Idea #2

Set a new word count you would like to hit for the year.

“New words” means finished words that can be either indie published or sent to traditional editors. Rewriting, researching, and all the other excuses you have do not count. New words only.

(If you hear yourself say right there, “But…” you may have an issue to deal with.)

Here is how to do this:

Say you would like to finish a quarter of a million new words this year.  A very solid, but scary goal. A very large elephant.

1…. So divide the total word count desired into 50 weekly parts. (Two weeks off for vacation.) Example: 250,000 words divided by 50 weeks = 5,000 new words per week.

2… You have determined you can do about 1,000 words per hour.  So divide the 5,000 words by 1,000 = 5 hours of writing per week.

3… Look at the fiction writing time you have figured you have each week and find about eight hours total to get those five hours of writing done safely in your schedule. (The extra three will give you a cushion.)

4… Then protect those eight hours and write during that time every week to make sure you get the 5,000 minimum words per week done.

At the end of the year you will look back and have finished one quarter of a million words. And trust me, you will be a much better fiction writer at the end of the year with that much practice, and if you finished and mailed or indie published everything, you will be on your way.

A quarter of a million words a year sounds like a great big elephant. But 5 hours of writing per week does not. Yet one equals the other. Weird how that happens, isn’t it?

Idea #3

Set up a production goal.

A lot of people, me included, like production goals more than word-count goals.

When I started seriously writing, I set up a production goal to write and mail one short story per week. That sort of breaks down to the same word count as Idea #2 of 5,000 words per week. But the focus for me was on the finishing and mailing. (I was following Heinlein’s Rules religiously also during the challenge and still do, which is why I am still a professional writer.)

My ongoing challenge is also production based if you notice. I need to write enough to not only fill outside work, but fill Smith’s Monthly every month.

The reason production-based goals sometimes work better is because of the end date. If your goal is to finish one short story every week, that keeps your mind off of the larger goal. You only focus down on one project at a time.

If you are writing novels, I would highly suggest you break it down into smaller goals, such as finishing a scene per day or a chapter per week. And then only focus on that small bite.

Again the key with eating an elephant is to not think of the task, just chew up one bite at a time, only thinking of the bite.

Idea #4

Get one new book up indie published every two weeks. (Take two weeks off, so you are aiming for 25 by the end of the year.)

This is a great challenge a friend of mine is running and a lot of people are taking part on a private list. Set up your own group.

The idea is that the book can be a short story or a collection or a novel. And the key is to have the total at the end of the year.

So if writing a novel, a month or so will go by with nothing new up, then do some short fiction and then a collection before going back to the next novel.

Also, if you have some stories you have written and haven’t sold, or backlist of stories that were published and you now have the rights back, get those up as well. They would count.

There are lots of ways of doing this, and it really works. And having 25 new books in print by the end of the year is something you are going to be very happy about. Trust me.

Reporting In To Someone

Here is the key to success for every major method of goal-setting. You must have someone, or some method, or some way to keep you on track.

If you don’t make your weekly goal or word count, you must tell someone you didn’t make it. If you did make it, you must tell someone you did.

When I started writing fiction seriously with my short-story-per-week challenge, I actually had a bet going with Nina Kiriki Hoffman. If I missed my story for the week, I had to buy her a steak dinner. I couldn’t afford a steak dinner.

Sometimes you can put your progress on your web site as a weekly update. Even if not that many people show up to your web site, you know some will and your failure or success will be out there in the open. You can even use one of those word counters that you can get as a plugin for your site if you are doing a word-based goal.

(Interestingly enough, my posting of my Writing in Public blogs don’t really push me. It’s getting Smith’s Monthly content that pushes me. The Writing in Public daily blogs I can miss writing on some days and it’s no big deal. I don’t want to miss a Smith’s Monthly. Subscribers paid money for those. Remember, every writer is different. You would think that people coming to this blog would push me. Nope. I just hope the posts help other writers at times, and people tell me they do, so I’ll keep going for a while on them. But Smith’s Monthly will continue for a long time into the future.)

When I was writing media novels, I had very hard and fast deadlines. Sometimes I was trying to beat the movie out when I wrote novelizations. There could be no excuses. (I have done about twelve movie novelizations, including Rundown, The Core, 10th Kingdom, Final Fantasy, and so on.)

And with ghost novels, it was the same way.

Sometimes this person you report to is just another writer, sometimes it is a family member, sometimes a post on your blog. But with every small goal achieved or missed, report to someone or post it somewhere where people will see it. Set it up ahead so that person knows what you are doing. (No I will not be that person for anyone and you can’t use these post messages for the task either. Sorry.)

And if you don’t report to the person you have set up, make sure they know to ask you how it is going.

If you hate this idea of reporting in some fashion or another, check in with yourself to see where the fear is coming from. And then use that fear to drive you even more.

An important reminder right here. NEVER SHOW A WORK IN PROGRESS TO ANYONE. Protect your art. You can say you finished chapter 52, but don’t show it until you are ready to release the entire book to the world.

 What Happens When You Fail?

Everyone with a family and a day job and a life will fail on short-term goals set at the beginning of the year. There are almost no exceptions to that rule. And if you think you will be the exception in 2014, you are delusional, I’m afraid.

So what do you do when life derails you?

Climb back on the next week. Or as soon as you can.

Say you are doing a short story per week with the intent of getting to fifty by the end of the year. Suddenly life gets in your way and you miss three weeks in April.

DON’T TRY TO CATCH UP. Just get back on the focus of the weekly goal and keep going. Trust me, at the end of the year you will be very happy with 47 stories finished.

But if you let it stop you cold, you won’t be happy by the time the end of the year rolls around.

And these year-end check-in-points just keep happening every year.

So here are my suggestions when life derails you and you miss your short-term goal.

1… Don’t even once think about catching up. Can’t happen and will make things worse.

2… Climb back onto your production challenge or weekly page goal as soon as you are able.

3… If life alters so much as to make the original weekly pace impossible, stop and reset a new goal for the year and for each week and then stick to that.

4… Somehow, with help or with some mechanism, remember these suggestions.

Chances are you will not remember.  Sadly.

You will be buried in a life crisis and then when that clears you will be mad at yourself for not doing the impossible and protecting your writing time and meeting your weekly goals. And you will be swirling in the failure instead of just focusing on being successful the following week.

Wow, was that easy for me to type and so hard for any of us to do. (grin)

The real key to having a successful year (writing fiction) is that when you get stopped, and you will, to start back up as soon as you can.

In Summary

— Get your available writing hours figured.

— Get your writing speed per hour figured.

— Tell your family and friends around you how important what you are going to do is. Be prepared to remind them all the time.

— Get ready to protect your time. Set up an office without distractions and a computer without e-mail or games only used for fiction writing.

— Figure out a yearly goal for words or production, then back it down into weekly goals that will get to your yearly goal. Make sure your weekly goals have extra time in them for small life events.

— Plan in time to keep learning, to go to a conference or two, to take some classes, to read some writing books, to read other novels and stories for pleasure.

— Set up someone or some place to report your progress and failures to.

— Then decide to have fun.

That’s right, I said have fun.

If the act of fiction writing isn’t fun for you, get out of this chase now.

If you aren’t excited and scared about the coming year and the learning and writing, get out of this chase now.

Fiction writing isn’t brain surgery. It is entertainment.

You are trying to be an entertainer in 2014.

For heaven’s sake, have fun doing it.

2014 is a brand new year. The world didn’t end. Traditional publishing didn’t fail. More fiction writers than ever are making money with their fiction.

It’s a new golden age for fiction writers.

Have fun. Happy New Year.

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Copyright © 2014 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime
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01 Jan 13:31

Recommended Reading

by evanier

Politifact offers up The Top 10 most viewed fact checks of 2013 and also, with some overlap, The Top 16 myths about health care law.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Politifact, it's a fact-checking project offered by the Tampa Bay Times. When it tells you that your political allies are correct and that your opponents are lying, it's a valuable, unbiased service whose integrity is beyond question. And when it tells you the opposite, it's a dishonest smear machine working for the opposition.

01 Jan 05:13

Elite (or, The Universe on 32 K Per Day)

by Jimmy Maher

BBC Micro Elite

Sometimes great works go unappreciated during their time. Other times their time knows exactly what they’re on about. The latter was the good fortune of Elite, Ian Bell and David Braben’s epic game of space combat, trading, and exploration. Arriving at a confused and confusing time in the British games industry, Elite caused a rush of excitement the likes of which had never been seen before even in an industry that seemed to live and die on hype, becoming a bestseller several times over despite being initially released on a platform, the BBC Micro, that was not generally considered much of a gaming machine. Bell and Braben became recognizable stars, their names tripping off the tongues of a generation of British gamers the way that those of Lennon and McCartney had their parents’. It was about as close as the industry would ever get to Trip Hawkins’s dream of game designers as the rock stars of the 1980s. As for the game they created… well, that’s gone down into history as just possibly the most remembered and respected single computer game of the 1980s. But we’re beginning with the ending, which isn’t our usual way around here. Let’s go back to the beginning and see how it all began.

Bell and Braben first met one another during the autumn of 1982, when both arrived at Cambridge University as first-year undergraduates. Bell was to read math, Braben physics. More importantly, both were avid hackers. Bell brought a BBC Micro to university with him, Braben an example of that machine’s predecessor, the Atom, which he had expanded and soldered on and generally hacked at enough to make Dr. Frankenstein proud. Bell had real professional programming experience, at least of a sort: he’d gotten his version of Reversi published by a tiny company called Program Power, and would soon see an original action game, Freefall, published by Acornsoft, software arm of the company that made the computers on his and Braben’s desks. Braben had a passion for 3D graphics, and some code that could draw and rotate wireframe spaceships. The two bonded quickly.

Not that they became precisely bosom buddies. As their later story would demonstrate to anyone’s satisfaction, they were very different personalities. If I may strain an analogy just one more time, Bell was the John Lennon of the pair, pessimistic, introverted, and perhaps just a little bit tortured, while Braben was the Paul McCartney, an optimistic charmer with one eye on the market to go with one eye on his art. If not for their passion for Acorn computers, they would have likely had little to say to one another. Both, however, had programming talent to burn, along with a less obvious but at least as important instinct for visionary game design.

But then in the era of Elite even more so than today technological innovation and design innovation were often inextricably linked, with the latter most often flowing from the former. Thus the design that would become Elite really did stem directly from those 3D spaceships Braben had rotating on his Atom’s screen when he arrived at Cambridge. To understand what made those spaceships so different, and so fraught with potential, we should look to the state of game graphics in general circa 1982.

Defender Pac-Man

Almost all action games of 1982 show their world from either directly overhead or sideways (like Defender in the picture to the left) or some odd hybrid of the two that doesn’t quite make sense in the real world (like Pac-Man in the picture to the right). They employ a third-person perspective; you see and control an onscreen avatar from a distance, rather than viewing the world through her eyes. She, her enemies, and perhaps some other elements like laser fire move over a relatively static background image. This approach makes life much easier for programmers in at least a couple of ways. Updating big chunks of screen is very expensive in terms of the computing power available to early PCs and stand-up arcade games. Therefore many of them implemented hardware sprites, little movable chunks of graphics that exist separately from the rest of the screen inside the computer, to be overlaid onto it by the video hardware at no cost to the CPU only on the physical monitor screen. A game like Defender or Pac-Man is an ideal fit for such technology; I trust it won’t be difficult to figure out which parts of the screens above are implemented as sprites and which as background graphics. (In the early days all of the work could be left to sprites: a few early games, such as Boot Hill, consist of only sprites which are sometimes projected over a painted background image.)

There’s also another, more subtle advantage to the traditional arcade-game perspective. If you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize that the worlds shown on the screens above don’t correspond to any recognizable version of our reality even postulating that it could contain invading aliens or munching heads being pursued through a maze of food pellets by ghosts. These worlds are strictly 2D; they lack any notion of depth. Pac-Man and his friends are living in a computerized version of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland; if we were to see this world through his perspective, it would be a very strange one indeed. Similarly, your spaceship in Defender can go up and down and left and right, but not in and out. This is very convenient for the programmer because the computer screen also happens to be flat, possessed of an X- and a Y-dimension but no Z-dimension. Thus the coordinates of any object in this flat world being simulated correspond nicely to its coordinates on the physical screen.

But what if you aren’t satisfied with a Flatland-esque world shown from a locked vertical or horizontal perspective? What if you want to immerse your player in your world good and proper, and to make it one that corresponds to our own of three dimensions while you’re at it? Well, now your job just got a whole lot more difficult. As it happened, however, that was exactly what Bell and Braben were soon trying to do. The crux of the problem, the crux of a huge body of 3D graphics theory as well as lots and lots of specialized hardware that is probably a part of the computer you’re using to read this and for which if you’re a hardcore gamer you may have paid hundreds of dollars, is disarmingly simple: how to translate the X, Y, and Z of a world that lives inside the computer to the X and Y of the computer screen. The starting point must be the rules of visual perspective, well understood by artists since at least the Renaissance. But that well-trodden path opens into a thicket of complications when applied to the computer. Lacking as it does an artist’s intuitive understanding of the real world, a computer has to be laboriously instructed on how not to draw objects that are behind other objects on top of them, how to figure out which surfaces of an object are visible and which are not, etc. Just to make the challenges even greater, sprites aren’t of any real use for 3D graphics: the entire screen is necessarily changing all the time when moving a first-person perspective through a 3D world.

Bell and Braben were hardly the first to enter into this territory. Indeed, the field of 3D graphics isn’t all that much older than the field of computer graphics itself. Academic researchers during the 1960s and especially the 1970s laid down much of the work that still grounds the field today. One minor contributor to this growing body of work was a graphics researcher and aviation enthusiast named Bruce Artwick, who finished a Master’s degree at the University of Illinois (home of PLATO) in 1976. For his thesis project, he combined his two interests. “A Versatile Computer-Generated Dynamic Flight Display” described a flight simulator featuring a first-person, out-the-cockpit view of a 3D world. In 1980, Artwick with his new company SubLogic brought to market the aptly titled Flight Simulator for the Apple II and TRS-80. Running in as little as 16 K of memory, it marked microcomputer gamers’ first encounter with the format that now dominates the industry: interactive, animated 3D graphics. The Flight Simulator line, whether sold under the imprint of SubLogic or Microsoft, went on to become a computing institution spanning some three decades.

SubLogic Flight Simulator on the Apple II (1980)

Groundbreaking as they were, however, the early versions of Flight Simulator were also, as their name would imply, much more simulator than game. They provided no story, no goals, no sense of progression — just an empty world to fly through. Yes, they did include a mode called “British Ace 30 Aerial Battle,” which transformed your little Cessna into a World War I biplane and let you fly around trying to shoot other planes out of the sky, but, well, let’s just say that it was always clear when playing it that Artwick’s real priorities lay elsewhere. Mostly you were expected to make your own fun refining your piloting technique and, of course, marveling that this 3D world could exist at all on a 16 K 8-bit microcomputer.

Battlezone

A more traditionally gamelike application of 3D came to arcades that same year in the form of Atari’s Battlezone. In it you control a tank in battle against other tanks. You view the action from a first-person perspective, through a screen made to resemble the periscope of a real tank. Battlezone eventually made it to home computers and consoles as well, albeit not until 1983. While their awareness of Flight Simulator is questionable (it was an American product made for American platforms in a very bifurcated computing world), Bell and Braben were aware of and had played Battlezone in the arcades. It was the impetus for Braben’s rotating 3D spaceships and for the combat game Bell and Braben would soon be designing around them.

BBC Micro Elite

They were determined to bring 3D to a 2 MHz 8-bit computer with 32 K of memory, and to do it in the context of a real game with real things to do. At least they didn’t have to bemoan the uselessness of sprites to this new paradigm: having been created with educational and “practical” uses in mind rather than gaming, the BBC Micro didn’t have any anyway. Programming, like politics, being the art of the possible, compromises would be needed if they were to have a prayer. Braben had already made the wise choice to set his 3D demo in space. Space is full of, well, space. It’s almost entirely empty, thus dramatically reducing the amount of stuff their game would have to draw. One other obvious decision was to perform only the first part of the full two-part rendering process, drawing in the outlines of objects in their 3D world but not going back and filling in their surfaces, an even more complicated and expensive process. (As the screens above illustrate, Artwick and Atari had already made the same compromise in their own initial implementations of 3D.)

Elite ship chart

The pair ruthlessly simplified Braben’s original spaceship models to have as few lines as possible, just enough to make of each a recognizable shape. This turned out to be wise for another reason: complex designs shown in wireframe tend to turn into a confusing mishmash of lines. To simplify rendering, all objects were also made convex, meaning that any given line will only pass in and out of the object once; as Braben himself put it in a talk at a recent Game Designers Conference, a block of cheddar cheese is convex but a block of Swiss is not. They also favored symmetrical ships — ships for which one side was a mirror image of the other, and thus could be rendered by simply negating calculations for the side that had just been drawn. Braben estimates that this step alone sped up rendering by some 40%, while actually representing no large aesthetic sacrifice at all; most vehicles in our world are also symmetrical.

Another area of concern must be your control of your own spaceship, the one through whose cockpit you would be viewing this 3D universe. A spaceship, like an airplane, can change its orientation in six ways, being able to yaw, pitch, or roll in either direction. Yet a joystick can be moved in only four cardinal directions — perfect for a 2D world but problematic for their 3D world. Bell and Braben soon realized, however, that being in space saved them. With no ground, and thus no real notion of up and down with which to contend, turns could be accomplished by simply rolling to the desired orientation and pitching up or down; no need for a yaw control at all. While they took full advantage of the good parts of being in space, they also wisely decided not to try to make the game a remotely realistic simulation of spaceflight. Like Star Wars, their game would be one of dogfights in space, with ships inexplicably subject to a law of inertia that should have been left planetside. Anything else would just feel too disorienting, they judged. Most people would prefer to be Luke Skywalker rather than David Bowman anyway.

So, yes, this would be a game of space combat. That was always a given. But what should it be beyond that? How should that combat be structured, framed? With a workable 3D engine running at last after some months of concerted effort, it was time to ask these questions seriously. One alternative would be to make a traditional arcade-style game, complete with three lives, a score, and ever-escalating waves of enemy ships to gun down. To make, in other words, Battlezone with spaceships. Certainly what they already had was more than impressive enough to sell lots of copies.

Instead, Bell and Braben made their next visionary decision, to make their game something much more than just an arcade-style shooter. They would embed the shooting within a long-form experience that would give it a context, a purpose beyond high-score bragging rights. This was not, as effervescent popular histories of Elite‘s birth have often implied, completely unprecedented. Long-form experiences were not hard to find in computer games years before Bell and Braben — in adventures, in CRPGs, in strategy and war games. It was, however, rather more unusual to see this approach combined with action elements. Taken on their own, the action elements of Bell and Braben’s game were groundbreaking enough to go down as an important moment in gaming history. By refusing to stop there, they would ensure that their game would break ground in multiple directions, and go down as not just important but one of the most important ever.

The inspiration came from tabletop RPGs, a pastime both Bell and Braben indulged in from time to time, although, perhaps tellingly, usually not together. They liked the way an RPG campaign could span many, many sessions, could turn into an ongoing long-form narrative. And they liked the process of building up a character from a low-level nothing to a veritable god over weeks, months, or years. Of course, your “character” in their game was really your spaceship. Fair enough; your goal would be to upgrade that with ever better weapons and defenses that not coincidentally bore a strong resemblance to those in Bell’s favorite RPG: Traveller, the first popular tabletop RPG to replace swords and sorcery with rockets and rayguns. From here the rest of the design seemed to unspool almost of its own accord.

BBC Micro Elite BBC Micro Elite

They needed a mechanism for upgrading the ship, something more interesting than just adding the next piece to the ship automatically every time a certain score threshold was reached. The natural choice was money; every option would have a cost, letting players prioritize and truly make their spaceships their own.

Okay, but how to earn money? Drawing again from Traveller (a game whose imprint would be all over the finished Elite not just in mechanics but in its overall feel), you could be a trader plying the spaceways, buying low in one system in the hopes of selling high in another — a whole new strategic dimension.

But then how would that involve combat? Well, the ships attacking you could be pirates. This would also go a long way to explain why they were so chaotic and kind of random in their behavior, an inevitable result of limited memory and horsepower to devote to their artificial intelligence. Pirates, after all, were chaotic and kind of random by their very nature.

But actually landing on all those trading planets obviously wasn’t going to be workable; avoiding those complications was the reason for setting the game in space in the first place. No problem; you could just dock at space stations in orbit around them. Bell and Braben came up with a new challenge to make this more interesting: in a bit inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, you would have to carefully guide your spaceship into the rotating station’s docking bay at the end of every voyage. Of course, over time this could get tedious as well as frustrating (a botched approach generally means instant death). No problem; for a mere 1000 credits, you could buy a docking computer to do it for you. Other non-combat-oriented ship upgrades were also added to the catalog, like a fuel scoop to gather fuel by skimming the surface of a sun instead of buying it at a station.

If those spaceships attacking you really were pirates, thought Bell and Braben, the authorities would probably be quite pleased with you for shooting them down. Why not put bounties on them, so you could make your living as a bounty hunter if you got bored with trading? Now the possibilities really started rolling. If you could shoot pirates for money, you could also attack peaceful traders — become a pirate yourself, in other words, if you felt you could outduel the police Vipers that would attack you from time to time once your reputation became known. They came up with an alternative use for the fuel scoop: use it to scoop up the cargo of ships you’d destroyed to sell on the stations. The fuel scoop also became key to yet another way of making money: buy a special mining laser, break up asteroids with it, and scoop up the alloys they contained to sell stationside. If only they’d had more than 32 K of memory, they could have gone on like this forever.

But 32 K was all they had, and that was a constant challenge to their growing ambitions. For this grand game of trading to work, there had to be a big, varied galaxy to explore. There should be planets with a variety of economies and governments, from safe, established democracies for the conservative, peaceful trader to visit to anarchies home to hordes of pirates for the brave or foolhardy looking to make a big score. They came up with a scheme to let them pack all of the vital information about a star system with a single inhabited planet — its location, its economy, its type of government, its technology level, its population, its dominant species, its GDP, its size, even its name and a bit of flavor text — into just six bytes. Even so, a modest galaxy of 100 star systems would still require 600 bytes that they just couldn’t seem to find. Now came their most storied stroke of inspiration.

In 1202 an Italian mathematician named Fibonacci described a simple construct that became known as the Fibonacci sequence. In its classic form, you begin with two numbers, either 1 and 1 or 0 and 1. To get the third number in the sequence, you add the first two together. You then add the second and third number together to get the fourth. Etc., etc. A common and very useful variation is to drop all but the least significant digit of each number that is generated. It’s also common to begin the sequence not with 1 and 1 or 0 and 1 but some other, arbitrary pair. So, a sequence that begins with 2 and 7 would look like this:

2 7 9 6 5 1 6 7 3 0 3 3 6 9 5 4 9 3 …

The sequence appears random, but is actually entirely predictable for any given starting pair. This variation, however, is only a starting point. You can apply any rules you care to specify to a sequence of numbers with entirely predictable results, as long as you are consistent about it. Bell and Braben realized that they could seed their galaxy with any sequence they wished of six hexadecimal numbers to represent the starting system. Then they could manipulate those numbers in a predetermined way to generate the next; manipulate those to generate the next; etc. They decided that 256 systems was a good size for their galaxy. They needed just those initial six bytes to “store” all 256 planets. In addition to the memory savings, this method of generating their galaxy also saved Bell and Braben many hours spent designing it from scratch. Indeed, growing new galaxies from different starting seeds soon became a game of its own for them. They went through many iterations before finding the one that made it into the final game. Some they had to throw out right away for obvious reasons, such as the one with a system called “Arse” and the ones that had unreachable systems, outside of the player’s ship’s seven-light-year range from any other stars. Others just didn’t feel right.

By late 1983, after almost a year of steady work, the basics of what would become Elite were all in place in their heads if not entirely in their code. They decided it was time to see if anyone would be interested in publishing it. Braben believed they should try to find the biggest publisher possible, one with the reach to properly support and promote this game like no other. He accordingly secured them an appointment at the London offices of Thorn EMI, the recently instantiated software division of one of the largest media conglomerates in the world. Very much a sign of this heady period in British computing, Thorn EMI had been founded in the expectation that computer games were destined to be the next big thing in media. Like their colleagues over in EMI’s music division looking for the next big hit single, they weren’t looking for deathless art or niche audiences; they were looking for big, mainstream hits. They had developed a checklist of sorts, a list of what they thought would appeal to the general public that wasn’t all that far removed from Trip Hawkins’s guidelines for American “consumer software.” Their games should be simple, intuitive, colorful, and not too demanding. Bell and Braben’s complicated game — while it was a technical wonder; anyone could see that — was none of these things. They said it was nothing for them, although Bell and Braben were welcome to come back any time to show a reworked — i.e., simplified — version. (In the end, Thorn EMI would find that technology wasn’t ready for casual consumer software, and wouldn’t be for years. The hardcore was all they had to sell to. Unwilling or unable to adopt to this reality as Hawkins’s Electronic Arts eventually did, they faded away quietly without ever managing to find the breakout mainstream hit they sought.)

Bell suggested they try Acornsoft, who had already published his game Freefall. In many ways Acornsoft should have been the logical choice from the start. Bell already had connections there, they knew the BBC Micro better than anyone, and they were located right there in Cambridge practically next door to the university proper, an institution with which they had deep and abiding links. (Regular readers will remember that it was Acornsoft and Cambridge oceanography professor Peter Killworth who provided a commercial outlet for the adventure games created on Cambridge’s Phoenix mainframe.) Yet Braben was reluctant. Always the more commercially minded of the pair, he knew that Acornsoft was hardly at the forefront of the British games industry. Their modest lineup of adventure games, educational software, and utilities had some very worthy members, yet the operation as a whole, like most software adjuncts to hardware companies, always felt like a bit of an afterthought. With their limited advertising and doughtily minimalist packaging, no Acornsoft title had ever sold more than a few tens of thousands of copies, and most never cracked 5000 — a far cry from the numbers Braben fondly imagined for their game. Acornsoft’s association with Acorn also concerned him in that it would necessarily limit the game to only Acorn computers. He and Bell weren’t hugely fond of the Commodore 64 or especially the Sinclair Spectrum, but he knew that their game would have to be ported to those more prominent gaming platforms at some point if it was to realize its commercial potential. In short, Acornsoft was… provincial.

Still, he agreed to accompany Bell to Acornsoft’s offices. It was, to say the least, a place very different from Thorn EMI’s posh digs in central London. From Francis Spufford’s Backroom Boys:

[Acornsoft] operated from one room of a warren of offices above the marketplace. You got there by sidling around the dustbins next to the Eastern Electricity showroom. Past the window display of cookers and fridge-freezers, up a steep little staircase, and into a cramped maze that would remind one employee, looking back, of a level from Doom. “Very back bedroom,” remembered David Braben, approvingly. In Acornsoft’s office they found a rat’s nest of desks and cables, and four people not much older than themselves.

Two of those four people, managing directory David Johnson-Davies and chief editor Chris Jordan, would become the unsung heroes of Elite. Both got the game immediately, grasping not just its technical wizardry but also Bell and Braben’s larger vision for the whole experience. They both realized that this thing had the potential to be huge, bigger by an order of magnitude than anything Acornsoft had done before. Of course, it also represented a risk. Bell and Braben looked and acted like the couple of headstrong kids they still were. What if they flaked out? Nor was Acornsoft accustomed to issuing contracts and advances on unfinished software. Acornsoft had been conceived as an outlet for moonlighters and hobbyists, who sold them their homegrown software only once it was finished. Their normal policy was to not even look at programs that weren’t done; Bell and Braben were there at all only as a favor to Bell, a fellow with whom Acornsoft had a history and whom they liked personally. Still, Acorn as a whole was doing well; there was enough money to try something new, and this was too big a chance to pass up. They offered Bell and Braben a contract and an advance.

Now Braben made a move that would be as critical to Elite‘s success as anything in the game itself. Still concerned about Acornsoft’s provinciality, he negotiated a slightly lower royalty rate in exchange for he and Bell retaining all rights to their game beyond its implementation on Acorn computers. Not quite sure what he was on about, Johnson-Davies agreed. With his share of the advance, Braben bought his own BBC Micro, retiring his hacked and abused old Atom at last.

As Bell and Braben worked to finish their game, Acornsoft provided essential playtesting while Johnson-Davies and Jordan served as an invaluable source of guidance and a certain adult wisdom. Sometimes the latter was needed to keep their ambitions in check, as when Bell and Braben burst into the Acornsoft office one day having had an epiphany. They had realized that, if all they needed to grow a galaxy was a starting seed of six numbers, they could have an infinite number of them — well, okay, about 282 trillion of them — in the game. They could let the player buy a “galactic hyperdrive” to jump between them, whereupon they would just generate a new random seed and let it rip. Jordan now showed a sharp design instinct of his own in walking them back a bit. Having more galaxies sounds like a great idea, he said, but having so many will actually spoil the illusion of a real persistent universe you’ve worked so hard to create. It will all just start to feel like what it really is: random. Nor will many of these new galaxies be pleasing places to explore, since you won’t be able to look at them and reject the ones with unreachable systems and the like. Bell and Braben agreed to settle for just eight galaxies, with a total of 2048 star systems to visit. That should be more than enough for anyone. Perhaps too many for Bell and Braben and Acornsoft’s testers: a planet Arse sneaked into one of these later galaxies and made it into the released version of the game.

Even as they gently squashed some of Bell and Braben’s more outlandish ideas, Johnson-Davies and Jordon still felt like something was missing. For all its technical and formal innovations, for all its scope of possibility, the game lacked any sort of real goal. Now, to some extent that was just the nature of the beast Bell and Braben had created. They would have dearly loved to have a real story to give context, had even planned on it at some stage (Braben says that “trading was originally going to be a very minor aspect”), but they now had to accept the fact that they weren’t going to be able to wedge some elaborate plot along with everything else into 32 K. Still, suggested Johnson-Davies and Jordan, maybe they could add something simple, something to mark progress and give bragging rights. Thus was born the system of ranks, based on the number of kills you’ve achieved. You start Harmless. After notching eight kills you become Mostly Harmless (a nod to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Each rank thereafter is exponentially more difficult to achieve, until, after some 6400 kills, you become Elite. There was the goal, one that should keep players playing a good long time.

It was also in a backhanded sort of way a political statement. Cambridge University was awash with indignation over the policies of Margaret Thatcher; a major coal-miner’s strike which would become the battlefield for Thatcher’s final vanquishing of organized labor had the university’s liberal-arts wings all in a tumult from March of 1984. Bell and Braben bucked the university conventional wisdom to side with Thatcher. The player’s goal of becoming Elite was meant as a subtle nod toward the libertarian ideal of the self-made man, and a little poke in the eye of their leftist acquaintances. It also emphasized their view of their game as fundamentally about space combat, not trading. It gave players a compelling motivation to engage with what Bell and Braben still regarded as the most compelling part of the experience. You can make a lot of money as a peaceful, law-abiding trader who prudently runs from pirates when they show up, but you’ll never make Elite that way.

In finding an overarching goal they also found the title they’d been searching for for some time. They first planned to call the game The Elite, a name to celebrate the group that much of Cambridge was railing against. But the filenames used for the game just said “Elite.” In time, they dropped the article from the official title as well. Elite it became — shorter, punchier, and with fewer political ramifications for Acornsoft to deal with.

Similarly subtle swipes at Cambridge’s liberal-arts students, whom in the long tradition of hard-science students Bell and Braben regarded as mushy-minded prima donnas, made it into the text tables that Bell developed to describe the planets in the game. After the Fibonacci sequence had done its work, some were populated by “edible poets”; others by “carnivorous arts graduates.” Ah, youth.

Bell and Braben had disk drives on their BBC Micros. After compressing their code as much as they possibly could, they finally began to make use of their capabilities within the game. They split the game into two parts: the trading program, loaded in when you docked at a station, and the program handling travel and combat, loaded as soon as you left one. This concerned Acornsoft greatly because most BBC Micro owners still had only cassette drives, which didn’t allow such loading on the fly. What good was the game of the decade if most people couldn’t play it? So they convinced the two to fork the game three ways. One version, the definitive one with all the goodies, would indeed require a BBC Micro with a disk drive. Another, for a tape-equipped BBC Micro, would be similar but would offer a smaller variety of ships to encounter along with simplified trading and a bit less detail to planets you visited and to the overall experience. Finally, Acorn convinced them to create a third version, stripped down even more, for the BBC Micro’s little brother, the Acorn Electron, an attempt to compete with the cheap Sinclair Spectrum that Acorn had introduced the previous year.

Bell and Braben were naturally most excited about the disk-based version, particularly when they realized they had enough space still to add a little something extra. They made a couple of hand-crafted “missions” that pop up when you’ve been playing for a while: one to hunt down and destroy a stolen prototype of a new warship, another to courier some secret documents from one end of the galaxy to the other. These gave at least a taste of the more prominent story elements they wished they had space for.

Elite's packaging

While Bell and Braben finished up the coding, Johnson-Davies and Jordan worked to give the game the packaging and the launch it deserved. Acornsoft figured they needed to do all they could to justify the price they’d chosen to charge for the thing: from £12.95 to £17.65 depending on version, well over twice the typical going rate for a hot new game. They prepared a box of goodies the likes of which had never been seen before, not just from bland little Acornsoft but from anyone in the British games industry. Only some of the more lavish American packages, like those for the Ultimas and various Infocom games, could even begin to compare, and even by their standards Elite was grandiose. To a 63-page instruction manual Johnson-Davies and Jordan added The Dark Wheel, a separate scene-setting novella they commissioned from Robert Holdstock, an author just about to come into his own with the publication of his novel Mythago Wood. And they still weren’t done. They also added a ship-identification poster, a quick-reference guide, a keyboard overlay, some stickers, and a postcard to send to Acornsoft to tell them about it and get your certificate of achievement when you achieved the rank of Competent (an onscreen code revealed at that point would serve as proof). When the packaging began to come off the line they realized they had miscalculated slightly: the box, although far bigger than Acornsoft’s wont, still wasn’t quite big enough. It had a noticeable bulge, like it threatened to burst right out of its shrink wrap. This actually turned out to be a great way of advertising all the goodies inside, even if the boxes were just about impossible to repack and close again once opened.

Acornsoft stepped in and froze further development during the summer of 1984. The packaging was just about ready, and work on the game, while it would never be truly finished in the eyes of Bell and Braben, struck Acornsoft as about to reach a point of diminishing returns. And everyone was a little bit paranoid that something similar to Elite, even if it was nowhere near as good, might come out and steal their thunder. Bell and Braben grudgingly agreed that the time for release had come. But then, just as Acornsoft was about to send the master disk for duplication, Braben called Chris Jordan in a frenzy. They’d solved a niggling problem that had been bothering everyone for months, that of a “radar” scope to show where enemy ships are in relation to your own. The problem was, again, that of trying to map three dimensions onto two. Bell and Braben had done the best they could by providing two complimentary scanners that had to be read in conjunction to get the full picture, but it always felt, in contrast to just about everything else about the game, kind of clunky and un-ideal. Now they had come up with a way to pack everything onto a single screen. It was beautiful. Showing a commitment few publishers then or now could match, Acornsoft agreed to take the new version of the game, which brought with it the painful task of having the manual edited and re-typeset to describe the new radar scope. Now, two years after Braben had first started playing with 3D spaceship models, they were done.

Buzz about Acornsoft’s secret “Project Bell” had been high for months. Continuing to show a promotional instinct that no one had known they had in them, Acornsoft rented for launch day Thorpe Park, a small amusement park (nowadays a much bigger one) near London. In a darkened room, with suitably portentous music playing, the world got its first glimpse of Elite — and of its two creators, who for the next few years would be the face of the young British games industry. In their picture from the launch party they look much as the British public would come to know them: Braben in the foreground, glib and personable; Bell a bit more uncertain and stereotypically nerdy and, much to Acornsoft’s occasional chagrin, more liable to go off-script.

David Braben and Ian Bell

Elite itself, needless to say, became a hit. Acorn and Acornsoft were making a big play for the home-computer market that Christmas, trying to challenge Sinclair and Commodore on their own turf, and Elite became a big part of that push. Advertising was shockingly frequent and grandiose for anyone who remembered the Acornsoft of old. The £50,000 campaign even included some television spots. Actual sales figures for the Acornsoft Elite are hard to come by, but seem to have reached the vicinity of 100,000 units, a huge number for an absurdly expensive game on platforms not particularly popular with gamers. And most of those customers seemed to play Elite with an enthusiasm bordering on the obsessive. The first person known to become Elite was one Hal Bertram, on November 3, 1984, about five weeks after the game’s release. By the end of the year he had many companions in glory, while Acornsoft was positively flooded with postcards sent in by those attaining at least Competent status; they could barely make the badges they sent back to these folks fast enough. Undeterred, they sponsored a series of monthly contests culminating in a grand showdown at the Acorn Users Show.

Still, it was clear to Braben that the really big numbers would come only when Elite came to the Speccy and the Commodore 64. The game was the talk of the industry, with owners of those more popular platforms, who had not even been aware of Acornsoft’s existence a few months ago, clambering to play it after it — along with its creators — began appearing in places like Channel 4 News.

And now we see the significance of Braben’s determination to retain the rights to their game. He heard through the grapevine about a former literary agent named Jacquie Lyons, who had recently become the first agent representing game developers in Britain. Lyons:

A friend rang up and told me about Ian Bell and David Braben. Elite had just happened and Ian and David had retained all rights other than for the BBC, which was extremely bright of them. They wanted me to represent the rest of those rights.

With virtually every publisher in Britain dying for the rights to Elite, Lyons decided that there was one foolproof way to find out who really wanted them, and to make sure her new clients got served as well as possible in the process — i.e., paid as well as possible. At the beginning of December she held an auction, which, in her own words, “caused a lot of trouble in the industry — I was told this was an appalling way to go about it.” Lyons responded that such an approach was common in the publishing world from which she hailed. And what better way to ensure that your publisher would put everything they had into a game than to make them pay as dearly as possible for it? The deep pockets of British Telecom won the day amidst a flurry of media interest. Having just entered the software market with a new imprint called Firebird and eager to make a big splash with the highest-profile game in the industry, BT paid an undisclosed but “substantial” sum — Bell and Braben each got six figures up-front — for publishing rights to Elite on all platforms other than the Acorn machines. Suddenly Bell and Braben, who had yet to receive their first royalty checks from Acornsoft, were very wealthy young men.

For their part, Acornsoft allowed Bell and Braben to move on without fighting at all to retain Elite as a desperately needed platform exclusive. Indeed, they handled Bell and Braben’s departure with almost incomprehensibly good grace, even working out agreements to allow Firebird to reuse most of the wonderful supplemental materials they had stuffed into that bursting box. Perhaps they just had bigger fish to fry. Elite, you see, was the sole bright spot in a disastrous Christmas for Acorn as a whole, one rife with miscalculations which effectively wrecked the company. A desperate Acorn was purchased by the Italian firm Olivetti in 1985, and became thereafter a very different sort of place. The Acornsoft label was retired barely six months after its brief moment in the sun, with Johnson-Davies and Jordan and all of their colleagues going on to other things.

But the game they had introduced to the world was just getting started. Bell and Braben themselves ported it to the Commodore 64. That version is not quite as fast and smooth as the BBC version — the 64′s 6502 is clocked at just 1 MHz instead of the BBC’s 2 MHz — but took advantage of the 64′s better graphics and its positively cavernous 64 K of memory to add in compensation more color and a welcome touch of whimsy to undercut its otherwise uncompromisingly dog-eat-dog world. There’s a third special mission, this one a bit of silliness drawn from the beloved Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” When the tribble — excuse me, “trumble” — population aboard your ship has mushroomed to the point that the little buggers start crawling around the screen in front of you, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, even if it is just about impossible to figure out how to get rid of them absent spoilers. But best of all is the new music which plays during the automated docking sequence: Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube,” a tribute to everyone’s favorite part of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It comes as a complete surprise (if you haven’t read an article like this, that is…) when you first flip the switch to try out your hard-won docking computer and are greeted with this unexpected note of easy beauty. Soon your travels assume an addictive rhythm: the calculus of buying and selling, followed by the tension and occasional excitement of the voyage itself, followed by the grace notes of “The Blue Danube,” when you know you’ve survived another voyage and can sit back and enjoy a few minutes of peace before starting the process over again. Life in a microcosm?

The Commodore 64 Elite established a tradition of each port being largely hand-coded all over again; this gives each its own feel. Scottish developers Torus took on the challenging task of converting Elite to the Spectrum, which is built around a Z80 rather than the 6502 microprocessor at the heart of the BBC Micro and Commodore 64. Speccy Elite arrived several months after the Commodore 64 version and about a year after the original, touching off another huge wave of sales. Amidst the usual slate of added and lost features, it added yet more special missions, for a total of five. Missions became the most obvious way for the many individual developers who worked on Elite over the years to put their own creative stamp on the game, a trend actively encouraged by Bell and Braben; “just have your own fun” with the missions was always their response to requested advice. About the same time as the Spectrum Elite arrived in Britain, Firebird brought the Commodore 64 Elite to the United States, where it — stop me if you’ve heard this before — became a huge hit, one of relatively few games of the 1980s to make a major impact in both the European and North American markets. It served to establish Firebird as an important publisher in the U.S., the first such to be based in Britain and one which would give many other British games deserved exposure in that bigger market.

The ball was now well and truly rolling. For almost a decade the existing versions just kept on selling and the ports just kept on coming: to big players of the era like the IBM PC, the Apple II, the Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga, and the Amstrad CPC as well as occasional also-rans like the Tatung Einstein. Even the Nintendo Entertainment System got a surprisingly faithful and enjoyable version in 1991. In the end Elite made it to 17 separate platforms. Hard sales numbers for these many versions in many markets are, once again, beyond my abilities to dig up with any rigor. Ian Bell has guessed in one place that it sold about 600,000 copies. However, David Braben claims that Elite surpassed 1 million copies worldwide, a number which strikes me as perfectly reasonable. Elite was almost certainly the most commercially successful born-on-a-PC game of the 1980s, and if Braben’s figures are true very likely the first to pass that magic number of 1 million copies sold at some point during the very early 1990s.

Bell and Braben’s mainstream fame proved to be almost as enduring — in September of 1991 The One magazine could still write about the latter as “the most famous developer in Britain” — but their partnership less so. The two tried for some time to make Elite II for the BBC Micro and the Commodore 64, but never got close to completing it for reasons which vary with the teller. In Bell’s version, the game was just too ambitious for the hardware; in Braben’s, Bell was more interested in enjoying his new wealth and practicing his new hobby of martial arts than buckling down to work. Braben alone finally made and released Frontier: Elite II, a hugely polarizing sequel, in 1993. The erstwhile partners then spent the rest of the decade in ugly squabbles and petty lawsuits. To the best of my knowledge, the two still refuse to speak to one another. While both agreed to give talks upon the game’s 25th anniversary at the GameCity Festival in Nottingham in 2009, they agreed to do so only if they didn’t have to share a stage together. Like most people who have studied their history, I have my opinions about who is the more difficult partner and who is more at fault. In truth, though, neither one comes out looking very good.

Bell retired quietly to the country many years ago to tinker with mathematics, martial arts, and mysticism. He hasn’t released a game since the original Elite. Braben, in contrast, has built himself a prominent career as a designer and executive in the modern games industry. If he’s no longer quite the most famous developer in Britain, he’s certainly not all that far out of the running. He recently Kickstarted a new iteration of the Elite concept called Elite: Dangerous to the tune of more than £1.5 million, proof of the game’s enduring place in even the contemporary gaming zeitgeist and its enduring appeal as well as the cachet Braben’s name still carries.

And what is the source of that appeal? As with any great game for which it all just seemed to come together somehow, that can be a difficult question to fully answer. I could talk about how it was one of the first games to show the immersive potential of even the most primitive of 3D graphics, prefiguring the direction the entire industry would go a decade later. I could talk about how it was one of the first to graft a larger context to its core action-based gameplay, giving players a reason to care beyond wanting to run up a high score. I could talk about how perfectly realized its universe is, how it absolutely nails atmosphere; its cold beauty is just that, beautiful. Those minimalist wireframe spaceships are key here. I never quite felt that later iterations for more advanced platforms, which fill in the spaceships with color, felt quite like Elite. But then I suspect that for most folks the definitive version of Elite is the one they played first…

Maybe the most impressive thing that Elite evokes is a sense of possibility. You really do feel when you start playing, even today, even when you’ve read articles like this one and know most of its tricks, that you can go anywhere (as, given time and patience, you can), and that anything might happen there (okay, not so much). Yes, over time, especially over these jaded times, that sense fades, this Fibonacci universe starts to lose some of its verisimilitude, and it all starts to feel kind of samey. I must confess that when I played again recently for this article that point came for me long before I got anywhere close to becoming Elite. I think for the game to last longer for me I’d need some more of those story elements Bell and Braben originally hoped to include. But just the fact that that feeling is there, even for a little while, is amazing, the sort of amazing that makes Elite one of the most important computer games ever released. In addition to being a great play in its own right, it represents a fundamental building block of the virtual worlds of today and those still to come.

(In addition to being such a huge hit and such a seminal game historically, Elite comes equipped with a very compelling origin story. Together these factors have caused it to be written and talked about to a degree to which almost no other game of its era compares. Thus my challenge with this article was not so much finding information as sorting through it all and trying to decide which of various versions of events were most likely to be correct.

The lengthiest and most detailed print chronicle of all is that in the book Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford. More cursory histories have been published by Edge Online and IGN. Vintage sources used for this article include: Your Computer of December 1984; The One of January 1991 and September 1991; Micro Adventurer of January 1985; Home Computing Weekly of December 11, 1984; Personal Computing Weekly of August 23, 1984. David Braben’s talk at the 2011 Game Developers Conference was a goldmine, while Ian Bell’s home page has a lot of information in its archives. Other useful fan pages included FrontierAstro and The Acorn Elite Pages. And when you get bored with serious research, check out the Elite episode of Brits Who Made the Modern World, which in its first ten seconds credits the game with starting the British games industry and goes on to indulge in several other howlers before it’s a minute old. It makes a great example of the hilariously hyperbolic press coverage that always clings to Elite.

Finally, rather than provide a playable version of Elite here I’ll just point you once again to Ian Bell’s pages, where you’ll find versions for many, many platforms.)


Comments
01 Jan 04:52

#541 Cross Sites

by noreply@blogger.com (treelobsters)
01 Jan 03:43

How to Give Someone An Intangible Gift (rerun)

by Scott Meyer

As always, thanks for using my Amazon Affiliate links (USUKCanada).

01 Jan 03:28

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 74: Merlin

by noreply@blogger.com (Philip Sandifer)
Jack Graham, of Shabogan Grafitti, asked me a month or so ago if I'd seen Merlin. I said I hadn't, but it was on the list to cover before Season Two of Sarah Jane Adventures. He then proceeded to tell me how appalling it was, and I decided that I'd rather read him writing about Merlin than actually watch it. 

The Dragon, the Villain and the Closet

Whoah… where am I?  I was just rummaging around in the back of the wardrobe and suddenly here I am, surrounded by fractal paisley.  

Ah, I remember.  I was supposed to come to this land of hallucinogenic monochrome and talk about… get this… Merlin.  

Yes, Merlin, the extremely popular series – made by BBC Wales and Freemantle - which ran from 2008 to 2012.  I recently watched it all the way through, for reasons that defy rational explication.

Okay, first the background.  I’ll do this stuff in bullet points, so to speak, because it doesn’t really interest me.

BBC Wales.  Julie Gardner (among others).  Family show based on Arthurian legends.  Various attempts prior to this (one involving Chris Chibnall).  Tone based on Russell T. Davies’ mega-successful reinvention of Doctor Who, and on Smallville (i.e. the adventures of a famous hero when still a teenager).  Openly and obviously a post-Who-revival show… not least because the two leads (Colin Morgan as Merlin and Bradley James as Arthur) look like they’re agents of the Remote, remembered into existence by people thinking about David Tennant.  Morgan was created by someone who concentrated on Tennant’s lean and dark geekiness while James was constructed by someone more impressed by his cheekbones and pout.  

Basic set-up.  It’s the Middle Ages (sort of).  In Camelot (which, in this version, is a kingdom rather than just a castle), magic is banned - and by magic we also mean Druidism and anything falling under the rather vague category of ‘the old religion’.  Uther Pendragon, the king, has persecuted the sorcerers out of Camelot, and burns any he finds still within his borders.  This doesn’t stop him trusting various random strangers who turn up wearing long magician-robes and long magician-beards, carrying magicky-looking staffs covered in runes and zodiacal symbols… because he’s a doofus.  (He’s also played by Anthony Stewart Head, an actor whose immense popularity I find utterly baffling.  Honestly, he’s not even talented enough to do coffee commercials.)  Merlin is a young sorcerer.  Naturally, he goes to live in Camelot, right by the king’s castle.  Because that’s what I’d do if I was magic: head straight for the nearest genocidal tyrant who likes burning magic people alive.   It later transpires that his mother sent him to Camelot for his safety.  Let’s say that again: they lived outside Camelot, and when she discovered her son was magic, she sent him into Camelot… for his safety.  (This gives you some idea of the writing.)  Merlin promptly gets a job as the (only) personal servant to young, arrogant Prince Arthur.  They become best friends in about a day.  Merlin, however, must hide his true nature from his new best friend.  Merlin also befriends a badly animated CGI dragon, who periodically gives him cryptic instructions in John Hurt’s voice.  The dragon tells Merlin that it his destiny to shepherd Arthur to kingship (a tad puzzling, given that Arthur is already the sole heir), thus bringing Albion into existence.  Beyond that, I’m just going talk about it like you’ve all seen it.  So beware spoilers… if you’re the kind of person who thinks knowing about plot developments in advance ‘spoils’ things, as if drama is somehow about surprises.

One other thing to wave my hand at first: magic.  There’s any entire essay to be written about Merlin’s attitude to mythology, faeries, druidism, Samhainn, etc.  Jane needs to write that one, not me.  Not my bailiwick.  I’ll simply note that Merlin is blithely post-Potter about its magpie use of magical concepts, characters, legends and stories.  It takes what it likes from where it likes, generally recycling pre-existing mythological entities rather than creating its own out of whole cloth, regardless of context, adding its own twist - usually flatulence jokes or some kind of jaw-dropping racefail.  

Okay, on with the real stuff.  

As you’ll have gathered from my brief summary above, Merlin pays scant attention to Arthurian ‘canon’.  It basically just uses the names and then does what it likes with them.  Guinevere is Morgana’s personal maid before she gets promoted to Queen.  Stuff like that.  But that’s okay.  Just about every iteration of the Arthurian legend has done this to some extent.  Every version is a palimpsest.  It was always that way.  Geoffrey of Monmouth himself paid no attention to his own past works about Merlin every time he wrote a new one.  (Geoffrey of Monmouth is a character in Merlin, by the way, cheekily implying that his books were based on memories of things he witnessed… odd, given that the events of the show bear little or no relation to Geoffery’s tales of Merlin.)

It’s probably needless to remark that the series rarely makes any effort to refer to actual feudal social and economic relations.  At the best of times, TV tends to depict pre-capitalist epochs as capitalism in period costume (that relative newcomer capitalism is always claiming to be eternal and universal), and Merlin is very much at the extreme end of this, with the early Middle Ages as little more than a notional backdrop, evoked by putting the cast in vaguely old-fashioned clothes and taking away their mobiles.  Indeed, it’s hardly possible to say with certainty that this version of the legend is even supposed to be set in the Middle Ages, given the number of anachronisms.  The characters seem to know about the germ theory of disease, for example.  But then, our entire popular idea of ‘the Middle Ages’ is itself a massive post-facto construction, largely fabricated from anachronisms.  The castle where they filmed the Camelot scenes is itself an example of this.  The Château de Pierrefonds is another palimpsest, a rewritten temporal mish-mash, as are so many ‘old’ buildings.  (I live near a Cathedral that is basically a Victorian copy of itself.)  Begun in the 12th century, Pierrefonds was partly demolished in the 17th century, and was left as a ruin until the 19th century, when Napoleon III (he of Eighteenth Brumaire fame) ordered it restored.  They ran out of money, and the place was left partly rebuilt in the style of the 14th century.  So a good portion of the look of the building consists of hamfisted 19th century attempts to ‘do’ the late Middle Ages for their own modern sensibilities.   Which is precisely what the entire Merlin TV series resembles: a happily hamfisted attempt to ‘do’ the Middle Ages (i.e. to romantically and licentiously evoke the style) for modern consumption.  I’m striking a disapproving tone but, in fairness, this is just how the past is constructed by the present.  It is remembered into existence.  And memory is something we construct.  It carries the sense of construction within it.  ‘Remember’ means to put pieces back together, as though stitching arms and legs back onto a torso.  You remember what was dismembered.  The past is rebuilt.  And when you rebuild old things, you make them in the image of your own time.  (This is exacerbated by modernity, which is the age of capitalism – the ultimate assimilator.)  The task is to understand what the rewriting, the remembering and the reiteration tells us about the society doing it.  

In line with this, Merlin pays no attention to the actual mechanics of how social hierarchy worked in the early Middle Ages.  Arthur and his servant become friends, banter with each other, exchange sitcom put-downs, etc.  Arthur has a romance with Guinevere, who is a servant in this version of the legend.  There is much agonizing about this, with traditionalist Uther objecting to the match and progressive young Arthur promising Guinevere that one day, when he’s king, things will be different (i.e. medieval kings will no longer care about social class distinctions, or need marital alliances with other potentates).  Uther is the only character who ever, even occasionally, acts like he might be from the Middle Ages.  Mainly, his adherence to a nebulous old-fashionedness translates into him being wrong about everything all the time.  He vaguely resembles something faintly like a genuine medieval king; dramatically, this is represented as stubborn idiocy.  People in the past were stupid, in other words, because they failed to think like we think we do.

Another issue is the fact that Guinevere is played by Angel Coulby, a woman of colour.  (This is in line with the admirable convention of colour blind casting which sees black actors playing Shakespearean kings at the Globe theatre.)  Most black Britons arrived from the 16th century and after (i.e. from the Early Modern Period onwards), and especially after the rise of the slave trade.  But it isn’t infeasible that there might have been black Britons during the Middle Ages.  We know there were people of colour and ‘mixed-race’ people in Roman Britain.  In any case, the fact that Guinevere and her family are black, and nobody ever mentions it, is an issue only in so far as it demonstrates the project of depicting the past as the present with the electricity taken away… and thus, in this version, depicting the present as post-racial, or nearly so.  Indeed, sometimes you watch the ructions about Arthur’s romance with Guinevere and wonder if it isn’t all in code.  Is what’s really being depicted here an inter-racial romance facing objections from racists?  If so, the trajectory depicted by the series represents a panglossian liberal view of how racism can be (probably already has been) overcome.  Progress will work its magic.  The crusty, bigoted old traditionalists will fall away, leaving the way clear for a younger generation who just don’t care about such old prejudices.  Even if social status isn’t code for race, the picture remains the same.  The younger generation will do away with distinctions.  Arthur is best buds with Merlin, for example.  He makes Guinevere’s brother into a knight.  He actually populates the Round Table almost completely from the ranks of worthy commoners.  Uther is the old world, stubbornly clinging on; Arthur is the new, liberal, classless, post-racial, meritocratic utopia (i.e. now) waiting to be born.  Hooray for Arthur (i.e. us).

In Merlin, this imminent liberal utopia is called Albion.  This is what Merlin exists to bring about.  This is the future that the Dragon schemes to midwife into being.  This is simultaneously destined to happen all by itself and is dependant upon the actions of a few key enlightened men – most especially Merlin and Arthur.  This is the ‘great man’ theory of history, but it’s also the Whiggish march of ineluctable upward progress, temporally relocated to the (notional) Middle Ages.  And we know what came after the Middle Ages, don’t we?  After medievalism came modernity; after feudalism came capitalism.  This set of inbuilt assumptions, so implicit as to be utterly silent and unconscious, is hardly unique to Merlin.  On the contrary, such assumptions are endemic.  As mentioned, capitalism likes to pretend it has always existed, but it also likes to present itself as the summit of human social and moral development, the apex towards which history was always headed.  Nobody ever said ideology had to be consistent.  

But all of this is to ignore the dragon in the room.  Because there’s one thing that Merlin is about that eclipses anything about class or race.  Merlin is about gay people and homophobia.  It is openly about this.  It can barely even be called a subtext.  It’s just the text.  

Merlin himself never has a single heterosexual relationship throughout the whole five year run.  Okay, he has a rather sweet little dalliance with a persecuted girl (she turns into a winged panther every now and again… hey, nobody’s perfect) but it never gets anywhere near transcending friendship before she dies.  (Parenthetically, she later comes back from the dead to help Merlin out of a very sticky situation, simply because he was kind to her… which is lovely.  I just love it when the hero wins because he has help that he earned via an act of selfless kindness.  That sort of thing doesn’t happen often enough.  It never happens to Harry Potter, for instance, who is never selfless.  Ever.)  There’s no Vivien for Merlin in this version.  He is sometimes thought by Arthur to have crushes on various female characters but the assumption is always wrong.  The non-magic Arthur, by contrast, is matched with a series of eligible princesses before settling down with Guinevere.  Merlin himself never responds to Guinevere’s early interest in him.  I’m not going to pretend that no magic person in the show ever has a heterosexual relationship, but it always seems like an afterthought.  Merlin himself is clearly fixated upon Arthur to the exclusion of everyone else.  They are so obviously designed to be slashable that slashing them hardly seems worth bothering with (though I daresay it’s been done).  Merlin’s guardian and fellow sorcerer, Gaius, lives as a batchelor.  Magic Morgana has no heterosexual relationship either, and when she turns evil it is largely under the instigation and influence of Morgause, a beautiful sorceress to whom Morgana becomes devoted and whom she calls ‘Sister’ (they are notionally related).  Morgause, it should be noted, is first seen in male battle dress, and never has a heterosexual relationship, murdering her ally Cenred when he tries to claims sex with her as a reward.

But the most important marker in all this is secrecy.  Morgana is closeted, fearful that Uther will discover her secret: that she’s a seer.  Merlin is closeted.  There is repeated talk of how he has to ‘hide his true nature’ from his best friend.  He must hide it, of course, because he lives in a society that fears, persecutes and legislates against ‘his kind’.  Moreover, his best friend is the son of the ruler of that society, and he props up the regime that would burn Merlin alive!  This is an active threat: several times during the series, ‘goodie’ characters are threatened with execution on charges of sorcery.  Arthur is conflicted over the rights and wrongs of his father’s persecution of magic, flip-flopping back and forth so that Merlin can get his hopes up before the status quo is restored ready for next week’s episode.  But there’s no doubt that Arthur would react badly to the knowledge that Merlin has magic.  He is furious when he finally finds out (though, of course, they make it up).

This leads me to something else, which alters the whole picture.  Merlin’s project to bring about Arthur’s kingship, and thus Albion, is inherently a project to bring about a new society in which ‘magic’ is tolerated and ‘his kind’ no longer have to stay in the closet.  Yet Arthur is by no means unequivocally a supporter of what we might call ‘magic rights’.  On the contrary, whatever his periodic qualms, he’s an extremely effective enforcer for Uther’s regime.  At one point he holds a sword to a child’s throat in order to force information out of a peaceful band of druids.  Uther’s regime is, let’s not forget, openly genocidal.  He has ethnically cleansed sorcerers, druids and the religiously recalcitrant out of his kingdom, and literally exterminated the stragglers.  Arthur helps him.  Actively.  Repeatedly.  Continuously.  And Merlin is Arthur’s best friend.  He helps Arthur.  He helps Uther.  He protects their regime.  Actively.  Repeatedly.  Continuously.  Merlin helps them frustrate attempts by sorcerers, witches, faeries and druids to topple their state.  Merlin is a comprador.  A collaborator.  He’s a gay man who has allied himself with murderous persecutors of gay people.  He’s a Jew voluntarily working for Eichmann.  And he’s the hero.  Uther’s policies, and Arthur’s complicity, are not left unchallenged by the series, but ultimately Arthur is absolved and supported.  He’s a goodie, despite what he does, because he’s Arthur.  His goodness is declared by fiat.

This is not only silencing of gay people who actively fight homophobia on the grounds that society as it stands is inherently homophobic.  The ultimate message is that the oppressed should not try to liberate themselves, or fight their oppressors, or topple genocidal tyrants; rather they should wait for liberals from within (and at the top of) the system to eventually hand down reforms out of the goodness of their hearts.  Shut up, stay at home, keep quiet, don’t fight, just wait for things to change all by themselves.  At length, the system will right itself.  Any attempt - and according to Merlin it really is any attempt at all – to oppose the system instantly collapses into villainy.  All the magic opponents of Uther and Arthur are evil.  Every last one of them.  Only the magic allies of Uther and Arthur (Merlin and Gaius) are allowed to be good people.

Look where the utter detachment from real history leads.  It leads to pusillanimous guff like this.  It leads to the idea that justice comes from above, a gift from the same people who rule an unjust society.  It forgets that universal male suffrage in Britain could’ve waited forever if it’d depended upon Gladstone’s conscience, and that it was only when Chartists started taking over Hyde Park that the establishment caved in.  It forgets that it was the civil rights movement that brought civil rights, not benevolent Presidents acting from unpressured principle.  It forgets that it was the Suffragists who made female suffrage an unignorable issue.  It forgets that it was the Abolitionist movement, and the slaves who stole themselves from their masters and joined the Union armies, that brought Lincoln to the point where he started issuing proclamations.  It forgets that it was Watt Tyler and John Ball, and the thousands who backed them, who helped start the decline of feudalism in England, and that it was the Levellers and Diggers and the New Model Army who pushed it further.  It forgets that it was a Europe-wide surge of revolution that ended the First World War.  It forgets Tahrir Square.  It forgets Stonewall.  It forgets that every last scintilla of real progress and justice has had to be wrenched from the clenched teeth and grasping claws of the ruling classes since the dawn of civilisation, fought for and won by the oppressed themselves, by ordinary people fighting and shouting and refusing to obey – and yes, sometimes, killing kings.

Instead, in Merlin, as in so many other products of the capitalist culture industries, the oppressed in revolt become evil and more powerful than the oppressors.  The oppressors become the victims of the oppressed.  The oppressed become the aggressors.  They become machiavellian schemers.  They become simultaneously cynical demagogues, fanatical zealots and amoral nihilists.  The various villains that Arthur and Merlin face are all representatives of the groups that Uther has ruthlessly persecuted.  They are engaged in antagonism because Uther has persecuted them, but they are depicted as the evil victimisers of the poor tyrant who just wants to live in peace.  Their behaviour – disproportionately ruthless and destructive - justifies the structural violence of Uther’s regime.  It’s perhaps unfair to hold Merlin up as a whipping boy.  This is a very common and old strategy.  On screen, it’s as old as Stagecoach and Birth of a Nation.  And it goes back much further than moving pictures.  

It’s worth remembering the origin of the word ‘villain’.  It comes from villein.  The villeins were pretty much the lowest of the low in feudal Europe.  The scum of the earth.  The serfs.  Peasants, tied to the land.  Effectively, the property of the landowner.  And they were in the majority.  Our word for ‘evil person’ or ‘antagonist’ comes from the word that described the great masses of oppressed, bullied, exploited working people in feudal Europe, the people who created all the wealth that the kings ate and wore and traded and stored and administered and fought wars with and sat their fat arses on.  

As ever, in Merlin, the oppressed and persecuted are both depicted as baser and nastier than anyone else and held to a higher moral standard.  They must shut up and put up, and wait forebearingly in hope for reform, or they become malignant.  To resist is to become wicked, by definition.  Look what happens to Morgana.  She discovers that she has magical abilities; she comes to empathise with people victimised by Uther’s regime; she becomes disgusted by Uther’s cruelty; she is approached by people fighting back; she eventually goes over to their side.  But, of course, the druids and sorcerers she meets are cynical and machiavellian and cruel… because revolutionaries always are.  Morgause uses and manipulates Morgana.  She allies herself with a vicious warlord.  She slaughters the innocent.  Morgana’s ethical awakening, her rejection of the system from which she has previously benefitted, and her identification with the oppressed, is specifically shown to stem from empathy and moral outrage at injustice… and yet, somehow, without any rhyme or reason, when she finally departs Camelot and openly goes over to the other side, she becomes a sadistic psychopath with no regard for the suffering of the innocent, acting from motives of thwarted ambition, petty jealousy and irrational vindictiveness.  Her political awakening comes from compassion and simultaneously nullifies that compassion.  It couldn’t be clearer: political outrage, no matter how well intentioned, instantly becomes dangerous the moment it steps beyond the boundaries of the state, of the mainstream, of the legal, of reformism, of consensus political normality.  

In the conversation that led to this guest post, Phil told me that he thinks of the X-Men comics as a continual attempt to evade the issue that a population targeted for genocide because of super powers would be within their rights to use those powers to attack their oppressors.  He has an issue with the idea that Professor Xavier (the good mutant) is Martin Luther King and Magneto (the bad mutant) is Malcolm X.  I agree with him.  Firstly, MLK wasn’t the cuddly reformist that everyone makes him out to be nowadays as they all clamour to share in his reflected glory (same thing now happening with Mandela).  And Malcolm X wasn’t evil because he was radically antagonistic to white society.  To the extent that Magneto is meant to represent a rejection of Malcolm X, to hell with him.  But, Magneto also gives Malcolm X an avatar within the story.  He, and ‘villains’ like him, allow the radical point of view in through a crack in the ideology.

I’ve always cheered for the baddies.  I've always empathised and sympathised with them more than the heroes, the lovers, the plucky kids, the brave dogs, etc.  It’s quite startling how often the ‘baddies’ are considerably more sympathetic, how often they are declared bad by authorial fiat, how often they have a good point.

I was watching Clash of the Titans recently.  I don't give a flying toss about Perseus or Andromeda.  So far, so uncontroversial.  Perseus is just a way for the audience to meet monsters, and Andromeda is wetter than Ian Duncan Smith's pants when he secretly fantasises about setting up extermination centres for the poor.  But, I also sympathise with Calibos, Thetis and Medusa.  Calibos is made "abhorrent to human sight" (which, of course, entails dark skin and tightly curled hair) by Zeus for... what?  All we're told is that he all but wiped out Zeus' flying horses.  So... he was a hunter.  Okay, that's not to my taste, but it would hardly be unusual.  The problem is that he irritates Zeus.  Isn't his punishment a tad excessive?  Yes, he curses Joppa and starts ordering the burning of men who can't solve his riddles... but there's no indication that he was like that before he was punished with ugliness and loneliness.  And I’m pretty sure Joppa had capital punishment anyway; Calibos’ curse is probably just the first time they’ve ever burned any rich people.  Thetis, his mother (who instantly scores points with me by being Maggie Smith), is also supposed to be dodgy... yet, what does she do?  She resents the excessive punishment meted out to her son in contrast with the pampering Zeus gives his own son Perseus.  Medusa too.  Why is she evil?  Apparently, simply because she’s ugly.  Well, I’m ugly.  Why should I side with bronzed, muscle-bound, entitled, jock meat-head Perseus over Medusa?  Yeah, she kills loads of guys… who are invading her home, trying to kill her and steal her cranium.  This is evil?  (I guess so, by the standards of a world that – to choose an example at random from many possibilities - thinks the Cubans are evil for being Communists but the Americans are noble for invading, attacking and impoverishing Cuba relentlessly over decades.)  I realise, by the way, that the capriciousness of Zeus is recognised by the film, but even so the film sides with him and his boy.  Just as Merlin, while formally frowning on Uther, also implicitly champions his kingship.  I sympathise more with the unjustly tortured Calibos, who inflicts revenge on the ruling classes of Joppa, who attacks them with their own values.  I sympathise with Thetis who tries to frustrate Zeus’ plans.  I sympathise with Medusa, who defends herself against the headhunters.  They may be evil within the schema of the text, but they have a better objective moral position, as far as I can see.  The text may condemn them, but they allow radical antagonism to the established order in through a crack.

There’s funny way in which villains are often not nearly as bad as the narrative tells us they are.  They are often simply declared to be bad.  They are marked by baddie music and baddie lighting and baddie costumes, and by the opinions of the heroes, yet never do anything particularly evil… or, at least, no more evil than the heroes and their establishment.  The structural violence of the established order vanishes from view because it is naturalised by power, but it’s there to be seen if you look for it.  Is Joppa any better than Calibos?  Is Camelot really any better than Morgause and Cenred?  The goodies are often simply declared to be good, and we’re expected to take it for granted.

This goes right back.  What is Grendel but an outsider, driven mad by loneliness and exclusion?  If you’re not keen on the rule of King Hrothgar, Grendel’s rampages might not look so bad.  You might understand his motivation, get his grievance, and not be too upset by his attacks upon Heorot.  It is really so easy to see why the inside should be allowed to tyrannise the people on the outside?  It is really so hard to see why the excluded, chased-away and disavowed shouldn’t breach the barriers that have been erected to keep them out in the cold?  Is it really so automatic and axiomatic that the reactive crime should be deemed worse than the original crime?  Isn’t it, rather, that villainy is constructed from any attack upon established power?

There’s something else about villains that makes me sympathise with them.  They exist to be defeated.  Their challenge is only there so that it can be knocked down and then held up for ridicule.  Well, again, I know that feeling.  Aren’t villains just the eternal paupers of fiction, fiction’s homeless, fiction’s reserve army of labour, there to provide a buffer and foil, there to keep the other characters in line, there to be used to make stories work, and to be ritually defeated to make stories end with the restoration of order?  Villains are living embodiments of the social outcast.  Doomed to ugliness, loneliness, exclusion and defeat.  

Yet, when villains attack, they’re often a just punishment.  Like the capriciousness of the gods or the cruelty of Uther, this is something that fiction acknowledges for spice and then disavows.  Look at Richard III.  His play is often seen alone, heavily cut.  Seen in full however, and especially when seen as the culmination of the ‘Wars of the Roses’ tetralogy, Richard looks less like an aberrant monster and more like the wrath of god visited upon a rabble of scumsucking hypocrites who have richly deserved him.  If you haven’t seen the earlier plays in the series, and if loads of his reflective and guilt-ridden lines are cut, Clarence looks like an innocent victim of a pointlessly perfidious brother.  If you know the full story however, you know that Clarence is turncoat, a traitor, a perjurer, a power-hungry machiavel himself.  Same with Richard’s other brother, Edward.  Same with Margaret.  She goes on and on about how evil Richard is… and she had his father murdered after offering him a handkerchief smeared with the blood of his murdered youngest son! 

Like the villains in Merlin, Richard must be ritually defeated in order that a new, happy millennium can be ushered in.  For the British culture industries in the early-21st century, the happy millennium is that of liberal capitalism.  For Shakespeare, it was the rule of the Tudors.  As I said, the past is always reconstructed according to the priorities – the ruling ideology – of the present.
The terrible challenge that the villain represents is the challenge of the system knowing itself.  Richard plays the same game as the rest of the Yorkists and Lancastrians, but he plays it with an awareness of what a cynical, pitiless, specious game it is.  Clarence and Edward play self-flattering games of repentance and redemption.  Richard knows how false and vain that stuff is.  Consequently, he can’t see the social system that has brought him to power as anything other than what it truly is: an unjust sham.  This is where Morgana comes to… and, like Richard, it turns her into a psychopath, because to oppose the established order, to be outside like Grendel, is inherently to become a monster.  This is the story that power tells us.

This is the same challenge that villains keep being made to raise before they are smacked down and silenced for our collective thrill of relief.  The Nolan Batman films do this three times over, most openly in the third movie, in which the villain is a revolutionary who presents Gotham City with a challenge to its specious morality and openly acknowledges the class war that has made Bruce Wayne both beneficiary and vigilante.  Bane is a machiavel, a fanatic, a nihilist, a demagogue… all the usual stuff, because the challenge exists to be discredited.  But, as noted, like Grendel and Richard and Magneto and Morgause, he also lets the radical argument in through the cracks in the façade.
Voldemort does the same thing.  He exploits the injustices upon which the Wizarding World is based – the oppression of elves, goblins, giants, etc. – but which it never talks about or faces up to.  He acknowledges the existence of social class, aristocracy, biological racism and unaccountable, undemocratic politics within Wizarding society – something that beneficent wizards like Dumbledore are prepared to countenance in silence, with the occasional homily about how wizards have behaved badly.  Like Richard, his villainy stems from his awareness and his lack of hypocrisy.  Like the others, he exists to be silenced.  Like the others, he lets the radical howl be heard, even if in a distant and garbled form.

These characters exist to raise challenges that cannot be safely ignored forever, then to be ritually crushed and silenced so that the status quo can be resumed with an untroubled feeling of virtue triumphant.  The challenge is assimilated and digested, made into nutrition and the excreted, keeping the organism going.  The wizards keep their house elves; Gotham City gets the chance to build some new orphanages and stave off its reckoning indefinitely.  Sauron brings back the king.  Shinzon tries to lead his people to freedom and just ends up helping the Federation make peace with the Empire that enslaved him.  We should be allowed to sympathise with the leader of a slave rebellion against an empire, but Star Trek Nemesis makes Spartacus into a mass-murderer and a rapist.  But even so, it lets Spartacus in – just for a moment.  (This is very much what happens in ‘The Time Warrior’ by the way – the Saxon rebel is depicted as the Norman imperialist ruling class would have seen him, the way the Western media sees the Iraqi resistance.  This is unfortunate, since one of the things I love about Doctor Who is that its villains very often represent the powerful rather than the powerless, and thus can be properly hated.)

The life of the villain is a lonely one, a life of angrily confronting hypocrisy and injustice, and being despised for it, only to be squashed so that the hypocrisy and injustice can continue.  I can sympathise with that.  I can sympathise with the people who say to Merlin ‘hang on, Uther’s a bloody tyrant and supporting him doesn’t help anyone that he persecutes – you should fight him, like we’re doing!’.  Especially since those people always, inevitably, get beaten – but keep trying anyway.  They’re not just the poor of the Land of Fiction; they’re the demonstrators and activists and strikers and rebels, soldiering on the face of certain defeat, unaware that they’ve already lost.  Being such people, they are monstered and calumniated.  And they are never allowed to have any viable solutions to offer, just incoherent rage that can be shouted down.  But at least they’re there.
Wait, the goodies tell us.  Wait for Albion.  It’ll arrive.  Just be patient.  Well, Albion is a very old promise… and, whatever the panglossian liberal morality plays we call family entertainment may say, we’re still bloody waiting.  At least the villains, unlike Merlin, are trying to kick up a stink about the delay.
01 Jan 02:32

Over-Extended Metaphor for the day

by Charlie Stross

Yesterday, after writing my way past the notional halfway point (both of the current novel manuscript, and of the trilogy it's the middle volume of), I went and over-indulged in food and drink with friends.

Over the beer, the conversation turned—for no sane reason—to computer operating systems. There being some non-technical folks at the table, I then had to cough up a metaphor to contextualize the relationship between Mac OS X and UNIX, thuswise:

There is one true religion in operating systems, and it is UNIX. Or maybe it's not the one true faith: there's an earlier, older, more arcane religion with far fewer followers, MULTICS, from which UNIX sprang as a stripped-down rules-deficient heresy in the early days of the epoch. Either way, if MULTICS is Judaism (and the metaphor is questionable at this point, for unlike MULTICS, Judaism is still alive), then UNIX is Christianity.

In the early days, the UNIX faith spread underground among nests of true believers; but they evangelized their friends and neighbours and gradually it began to spread in strange communities. And with the spread came the great split. By the mid-1970s there were two main sects: AT&T UNIX, which we may liken unto the Roman Catholic Church, and BSD UNIX, which we may approximate to the Orthodox Churches. And then lo, there were many schisms.

In an attempt to control the schisms, the faithful formed learned congregations who at major conferences defined a common interoperating subset of the one true religion that all could agree on—the Nicene Creed of UNIX is probably POSIX, but let us not forget the congregation of the X/Open Portability Group and others. The bishops and cardinals of UNIX were fierce in the defense of their own particular schismatic sect, and formed alliances to develop credos that excluded their rivals while cunningly embracing their temporary peers: thus was the holy war prosecuted.

Today, the biggest church within the Orthodox community—possibly the biggest church in the whole of UNIX—is Mac OS X, which rests on the bedrock of Orthodox BSD but has added an incredible, towering superstructure of fiercely guarded APIs and proprietary user interface stuff that renders it all but unrecognizable to followers of the Catholic AT&T path.

But in the late 1980s, the Catholic Church succumbed to the sins of venality and simony, demanding too much money from the faithful. And so, in 1991 or thereabouts, Linus Torvalds nailed his famous source code release to the cathedral door and kicked off the Reformation. The Reformation took the shape of a new, freely copyable kernel that all the faithful could read with their own eyes. This Protestant heresy spread like wildfire among the people but was resisted with acts of vicious repression by the high priesthood of Corporate IT (arguably in connivance with the infidel invaders from the Caliphate of Microsoft). The Linux wars were brutal and unforgiving and Linux itself splintered into a myriad of fractious Protestant churches, from the Red Hat wearing Lutherans to the Ubuntu Baptists.

Reformation came at a price: another wave of religious conclaves that tried to hammer out a common ground between the various reformed churches. (See also the Linux Standard Base, and also the internecine war between packaging systems such as RPM or DPKG—the correct way to print and bind a Bible. This was, arguably, won by DPKG, which should therefore be considered the King James Version of the Linux holy scripture.)

More recently, a deviant faith has sprung from Linux, grafting an entirely new user interface revelation atop the same kernel: Android, which true adherents of the UNIX faith (even die-hard reformed Church Linuxers) mostly deny the UNIX-dom of. Android is the Church of Latter Day Saints of UNIX: hard-working, sober, evangelizing the public, and growing at a ferocious rate. There are some strange fundamentalist Mormon Android churches living in walled communities under the banners of Samsung and Amazon, but for the most part the prosperous worship at the Church of Google.

Note that, as with all religion, those sects with most in common are the ones who hold the most vicious grudges against one another.

Is that clear?

01 Jan 02:25

Viral sharing and truth in journalism.

Viral sharing and truth in journalism.
30 Dec 17:22

Nine lies about fat that ruined the western world's health.

Nine lies about fat that ruined the western world's health.
30 Dec 17:22

On geek culture.

On geek culture.
30 Dec 17:20

#476; In which Suffering was a Waste

by David Malki !

All that factory work has been real character-building for little Billy, you know?

This Classic Wondermark was originally published December 30, 2008!

27 Dec 16:34

Infinite Scrolling

Maybe we should give up on the whole idea of a 'back' button. 'Show me that thing I was looking at a moment ago' might just be too complicated an idea for the modern web.
27 Dec 16:34

useful skills for the new year, 65 million years ago

archive - contact - sexy exciting merchandise - cute - search - about
← previous December 26th, 2013 next

December 26th, 2013: This is a comic created for Cards Against Humanity, who put out their own comics section this year - check it out, there are tons of great comics yo! SERIOUSLY, YO.

One year ago today: i hope you like jokes.tmp~

– Ryan

26 Dec 14:28

26. It's a Wonderful Life (1946), dir. Frank Capra

I went to see this this morning amongst one of the fullest houses I have ever seen at the Cottage Road cinema. I've watched and reviewed it twice before in this journal: once in 2010, when I found James Stewart's profile pleasing, but just couldn't buy into the sentimentality or the idealisation of small-town America and its reactionary values, and again in 2011, when I had moved on to considering James Stewart 'fab' and noticing the meta-referentiality of the first half of the film, but also expounded further on the racism and sexism - especially the scene where we are supposed to find the spectacle of a young George Bailey pressing his advantage on Mary while she hides naked in a hydrangea bush romantic and funny.

This time... I don't know. Maybe now that I've articulated how I feel about both the sentimentality and the various -isms embedded into or even celebrated by the story, it's easier for me to separate those out, treat the film like the curate's egg it is and enjoy those parts of it that are excellent? Or maybe it was just the large audience in a festive mood, who laughed along appreciatively to what are actually a lot of very funny lines - not to mention the mince pie and mulled wine which I bought during the intermission. It being my third time round I also spotted various small things which I don't think I've noticed before, like the large bust of Napoleon on the windowsill in Mr. Potter's office, which nicely symbolises his aggressively imperialising approach to business. That kind of attention to detail always helps me to warm towards a film.

I also thought properly for the first time about why The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is so important to the story that the angel, Clarence Odbody, goes round clutching it throughout the entire film, and then gives it to George as a Christmas gift at the end. In part it must be because the book puts such emphasis on the friendship between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which fits nicely with Clarence's inscription on the front page at the end of the film: "no man is a failure who has friends." But (having just re-checked the plot on Wikipedia), I can see now that more important is probably the episode in which Tom, Huck and their friend Joe run away for a while to an island in the Mississippi, and have a wonderful time until they realise that their families back home think they have all drowned in the river. That resonates with two key notes in It's a Wonderful Life - not prioritising your own desire for adventure over other people's happiness, and (because Tom secretly observes how his family are responding to his absence) getting to see what the world would be like if you weren't in it. So, yes, I see how that's an important inter-text.

One more thing - it occurred to me this time that since the angel Clarence watches the first two-thirds of the film from heaven as though on a film-reel before he goes down to Earth and meets George Bailey, he should have seen exactly what happened to the $8000 dollars which Uncle Billy misplaced, and have been able to tell George where it was and who had it. Obviously, that would have scotched the sentimental ending in which everyone chips in to help George cover the loss, and as it has taken me three viewings to even notice it, I guess it isn't really a problem, plot-wise. Plus Clarence is characterised early on as a bit dim, so maybe he just didn't even realise himself that it might be helpful to explain to George what had happened. But still, it would have been nice at least to know whether Mr. Potter ever got his comeuppance for keeping it.

I probably wouldn't ever bother to watch this film again in my life if it weren't a regular fixture on the Cottage Road cinema's Christmas programme. Indeed, that was already true after only one viewing of it. But since it's there, and since after three viewings now it has effectively become a Christmas tradition for me, and since James Stewart... I guess I won't go out of my way to avoid future viewings in the same setting.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

26 Dec 14:23

Christmas Telephone Call from a Worker North of Reykjavik

by LP

“Hello?”

“Merry Christmas, mom!”

Robert! Oh, thank you, son! I didn’t think you’d have time to call me today.”

“No, it’s cool. I’m on my break. Even up here, we get OSHA.”

“So you’re still working for that man.”

Yes, mom.”

“You haven’t thought about going back to school.”

“To get my Asian Studies degree? Have you got any idea what the job market is like?”

“You’re such a smart boy, Robert. I know you can do better than manual labor.”

“Mom, this is a good job. It’s a union salary. I’m a craftsman, not a ditch digger. And besides, we only work, like, three days out of the year, and we get free housing. I’m saving a ton of money because there’s no place to spend it up here.”

“It’s not proper work. What am I supposed to tell my friends you do for a living?”

“There’s really not a lot of job opportunities for elves, mom.”

“You’re only half-elf.”

“Whatever. It’s this, cartoons, or posing for the covers of fantasy novels. And you don’t want to know what that’s usually a front for.”

“What about your freind Hermey? He went to dental school.”

“Yeah, I want to leave this sure thing to hope I can get a job doing denture scrubs for retirees in Boca. No thanks.”

“I think you’re just not applying yourself. You shouldn’t let the elf thing stand in your way. You could be like…like the Martin Luther King of elves.”

“Mom. I like this job. If you didn’t want a life like this for me, you should never have hooked up with an elf in the first place.”

“I was young! I think there was vodka in the hospitality room punch at that con, anyway.”

“We’ve been over this. Let’s just let it go, okay?”

“Has that man made a pass at you?”

“What?!?”

“Your boss. I don’t trust him. He’s one of those people. A gay.”

“Are you serious?”

“Well, just look at his outfits, Robert. Don’t be naive.”

“Mom, he’s married.”

“A beard, they call that. And I don’t mean the one on his face.”

“He’s been married longer than you’ve been alive.”

“Mmm hmm. But not children, I see. Not unlike certain other people I could mention.”

“Mom, I told you, it’s hard to meet girls up here. I live at the North Pole, you know. It’s not like there’s a lot of singles bars.”

“What happened to that one nice girl you were dating, that Rebecca?”

“Well, we’re still sort of seeing each other, but she’s only up here part of the year, for her work. It’s tough maintaining a long distance relationship.”

“Oh, that’s right. What was she again? A Greenpeace activist?”

“She’s an atmospheric scientist.”

“She doesn’t make more money than you, does she?”

“Mom.”

“Because…”

“Mom.”

“What?”

“I gotta go. Merry Christmas. I’ll see you over the summer break.”

“Let me just ask you one question.”

“Okay, what?”

“Does he make you wear those shoes? Because they’re not flattering, I can tell you that. And they can’t be giving you much arch support.”

“I love you, mom. Goodbye.”

26 Dec 14:17

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

by evanier

[This is a rerun of a piece I posted here four years ago...]

Christmas was never that big deal in our house, at least not after I hit age 10 or so. This was not because we were mostly Jewish. We observed every holiday we could find. If we'd known what it was, we would have celebrated Kwanzaa…but like all our holidays, with great restraint. We just never made that much fuss about any day.

My Uncle Aaron had been in the business of manufacturing store window displays and he gave us crates of leftover Christmas ornaments. So each year when I was a kid, we bought and decorated a tree, in part because we had twenty cases of decorations in the garage and it seemed like a shame to not put some of them to use. Eventually though, it began to feel more like an annual obligation than a pleasure…so we gave all the balls and snowflakes and garlands to a local charity and I'm sure the holiday baubles thereafter yielded more joy for more people than they'd ever given us. By the time I hit my teen years, we'd managed to whittle Christmas down to a family dinner and a brief exchange of presents.

I had friends who somehow managed to devote most of every December to Christmas…and often, it required a running start commencing shortly after Halloween. For them, the yuletide seemed to come with great excitement but also with all manner of stress factors relating to buying gifts, decorating homes, throwing parties and consorting with relatives who fell into the category of "People You'd Avoid At All Costs If They Weren't Family." So all the merriment was accompanied by a lot of angst and expense. A classmate once told me his father had found it necessary to arrange a bank loan that year just so he could afford a proper Christmas. That didn't sound like a holly jolly time to me.

We had none of that. No one felt pressure. No one went into debt. Everyone would somehow convey a few suggestions as to what they might like as a gift, and always an affordable one. That meant no one had to agonize too much to decide what to buy…and no one wasted their money on something the recipient didn't want or would never use or wear.

It all worked well but for a long time, I saw the huge productions that others made of Christmas and felt like I was missing out on something. Christmas was a special day but it wasn't as special to us as it seemed to be to others. I was well into my twenties when I figured out what was going on there. I was then going with a lady who dragged me into her family Christmas arrangements that year. Hours…days…whole weeks were spent planning the parties, the dinners, the gatherings. She spent cash she didn't have to buy gifts and purchase a new party-going outfit for herself…and the decorating took twice as long as Michelangelo spent painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

It seemed to me more like a chore than a celebration, and one night I asked her why she went to so much trouble. She said, "Christmas is important. When I was a kid, It was the one time of the year when we all got along…or came close to getting along."

There it was. She'd come from a large and dysfunctional family. Siblings were forever fighting. Parents drank and split up and got back together and screamed a lot and separated again. There was much yelling and occasional violence…

…but not as much at Christmas. Christmas was when they managed to put most of that aside. Christmas was when they generally managed to act the way they should have acted all year. That was why, when it came around, they made so much of it.

We never had to declare a holiday cease-fire in my family. We always got along. There was very little arguing between my parents or between them and me, and what little occurred never lasted long. I never had fights with brothers or sisters because I never had brothers or sisters. And my folks and I were known to give each other gifts for no special occasion and to occasionally get the whole (small) local family together for a big meal. So Christmas wasn't that much different from the way we lived all year.

A year or two ago, I told a friend all of the above and his reaction was on the order of, "Gee, too bad for you." Because in his household, Christmas was wondrous and festive and the source of most of his happy childhood memories. I never saw it that way. I have loads of happy childhood memories. They were just no more likely to occur around Christmas than at any other time…and I liked it that way. I mean, you can have Christmas once a year or you can have it 365 times a year. Peace on Earth, good will towards men doesn't have to stop later tonight.

26 Dec 14:12

How to Buy Someone a Technology Related Gift

by Scott Meyer

As always, thanks for using my Amazon Affiliate links (USUKCanada).