Alternatives to Dungeons and Dragons for the Hasbro-Alienated

Annoyed by changes in Dungeons and Dragons corporate policy and the Open Gaming License? Need ideas for alternative systems? This is a post for you.

Inspired by Neckbeardia’s James going on an impassioned and dare I say moving plea (go to the 36 minute mark here) for the relevancy of the tabletop roleplaying hobby in an increasingly socially alienating and extremist era, plus the seemingly contradictory need to gatekeep hobbies to prevent them from going the same way as DnD currently is, I am going to continue my now three year annual trend of writing about roleplaying games in January. Specifically, I wish to lay out the opportunities for alternative (non-DnD) systems to soak up defecting players from the increasingly corporatized and monocultural direction of the largest and oldest of the hobbies. I have never liked DnD as much as some other games-especially since the rise of Wizards of the Coast and the modern 3, 4, and 5 editions- and the near monopoly that the game holds on the hobby is not a good thing. Especially when it seems media organizations are parroting the narrative of these companies that anyone who defects might be some kind of reactionary or racist for preferring a different mechanical system. This is an attempt to weaponize trendy (amongst the professional managerial class) politics in order to quash creative diversity. It will fail, but it is part of a trend where tabletop roleplaying is blamed on societal ills which it actually combats. In the 1980s the shoe was on the other cultural foot and it was a Satanic Panic. These days the language has changed but not the invasive and media driven hysteria. This type of culture is directly related to the corporatization of the most popular franchise in the hobby-and it is used to make itself look cutting edge and cast doubt on the legitimacy of its competitors while assimilating itself to the world view of a human resources department. Following in the footsteps of Marvel, Disney, etc, an awkward attempt is made by a franchise to look superficially diverse without changing any of the suburb-safe Anglo-Protestantism that fuels increasingly stale intellectual properties. The true purpose of this turn to progressive marketing for corporate is to be able to imply any criticism of their product is not about the product’s quality but rather the moral foibles of a misguided and pRoBlEmAtIc fanbase.

 You do not have to be stuck with DnD, Wizards of the Coast, or Hasbro, however. Especially when its best attribute, the open gaming license, might be about to be heavily curtailed or revoked. This may even include the company revoking the rights to already existing spin off properties made by third party creators and then seizing them and selling them themselves.

But now the alternative games can grow their numbers and the hobby can remain strong as it lets a thousand games go their own way from a stifling shared origin. Like the worlds of Jack Vance’s Gaian Reach, there are now enough of tabletop gaming alternatives with their own distinctive culture that they can diverge and hopefully avoid the gray sludge effect of post-TSR DnD’s trying to appeal to everyone and therefore not really appealing to any particular core group. The point is that there should be no hegemonic replacement because there shouldn’t be a catch all game in the first place. There should be different tones, systems, and playstyles. This encourages creative production and small business while also discouraging the missionary drive for mass assimilation and formulaic and predictable experiences or a company trying to please too many people at once and robbing its products of their original appeal.

With all that in mind I would now like to list some alternatives I either have experience running myself or have heard enough about from people I trust to at least talk about. It is my hope that at least a handful of people who might never have tried an RPG other than DnD (Or never tried one at all) might come across this via keyword search and find out about something new that could interest them and keep them away from getting sucked into the unfolding nightmare of OneDnD by default.

First, let us start with the biggest gap being left at one’s table if they are defecting from the worlds biggest roleplaying game. That of a modern system with a strong action emphasis and the potential to play in high fantasy settings with a large degree of customization. The clear winner on this front is my new favorite game which came out in 2015 but I only discovered about a year ago: Shadow of the Demon Lord. The world is ending due to supernatural cataclysm and the very fabric of reality tears itself apart, so what better thing to do than to try to survive long enough to be as terrifying as the world around you? SotDL is its own game, but in effect it basically operates as a Berserk-style of TTRPG. Nightmare monsters roam and societies become corrupted so your only real choice is to band together into the kind of people who can meet such monsters toe-to-toe. This translates mechanically a fast and brutal combat system with the deadly and simple sensibilities of an old school game and the slick modern mechanics of a new game. Of all games I have played, it has the best advantage/disadvantage mechanic (called boons and banes) which enables a degree of variation and nuance few others do. This game also comes with a post-apocalyptic expansion to add Road Warrior style themes (which I am currently using for my campaign) and a closely related but technically separate game called Punkapocalyptic to flesh out such themes even more. Since it is my personal view that post-apocalyptic settings are the best campaigns for open world and random generation, all of these materials are useful to harvest in my current game master phase of embracing the random, the hexgrid, and the dice generated dungeon. Additionally, the creator’s greater library of related systems will expand later this year with his more family friendly (most settings really like gore and body horror) and general audience Shadow of the Weird Wizard-something that should come out at just the right time to soak up some disaffected DnD players.

If, unlike me, you prefer crunchier more rules-intensive systems but with a similar flow to that described above, consider Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, which tries to model the pace of its gameplay off of the highs and lows of 1930s sword and sorcery pulps and has a strong dedication to its source material being accurately portrayed.

Now let us turn to a different type of game. The one that has dominated most of my life. That of the investigatory and skills-based game. First are foremost of these is Call of Cthulhu. While not my first game as a player, it was the first I ever ran as a game master-and to this day the one I run the most. My love for this game could be an entire blog entry in its own right, but if you know anything about Lovecraft and how learning about the eldritch cosmos takes a massive toll on human sanity you can probably guess how this game works. Players literally drive themselves mad trying to solve mysteries (or running away from things they couldn’t possibly handle). CoC is a game of percentile dice where the most useful skill could be Library Use and the least useful the combat related options. The best game masters run in the 1920s and 1930s over the modern day, of course. Having a party that wants to play normies in an un-normie world running away from things constantly lest they die and losing their minds is basically peak weird fiction good time.

I have heard good things about Mothership, which has a similar system but in space science fiction setting and is more open ended about what you do with it, but not having yet played it these are things I cannot vouch for myself. Same with Traveler which eschews horror themes for pure exploration. Another thing I have yet to run but have read is the post-apocalyptic Degenesis which you can download here for free.

The third and final game I am going to mention as being worth to get the full bolded font treatment in The Dying Earth RPG. This, and games like it, are a third type of option where the players are often pitted as much against each other as antagonists outside of the party. Additionally, the core dynamic is one of multiple countering forms of pettifoggery (yes, including pettifoggery itself as a skill) to emulate the style of Jack Vance’s pompous self-serving characters. DE rewards players for wit and cunning, be it against their own allies or mutual foes. It strives to play very rules light while also asking much from its participants in a collaborative farce. Mechanically this is the easiest game I have ever played, but in terms of quick wits and player input it remains unmatched.

While it is a mechanical system I am not a huge fan of, I would also like to shout out the first ttrpg I ever played back in middle school (that wasn’t Second Edition DnD anyway), Werewolf the Apocalypse. White Wolf as a company really seemed to be the big thing in the very goth-fused mid and late 90s before burning out rapidly and seeming to mostly live through (pc) gaming franchises since. Its World of Darkness setting, of which Werewolf is a (the best) part, is highly evocative to many and serves as a good modern-action setting for those who like urban supernaturalism.

Because I have banged on about the Old School Renaissance (OSR) scene before, and also because it might fall under this new Hasbro-inspired weirdness with the open gaming license, I won’t talk about it much here. I will simply state that if you want to check out the real old school but still very much DnD derived small press scene, Old School Essentials has the authentic Boomer experience down perfectly and Mork Borg shows how experimental the genre can become.

The options are out there and they are waiting. We as a society need collaborative imaginative games to help us escape from late-stage neoliberalism and think outside the confines of corporate fiat while practicing the cooperative skills that help us respond to random events. The decline of the DnD franchise should not be seen as the end, but rather a challenge to explore new options. I hope in my own small way I have helped you do just that here.

For additional reference I will now list just a few youtube channels and podcasts I believe may be of service to game masters and players alike as they look for alternatives and/or inspiration:

Seth Skorkowsky– Excellent GM advice, small press game reviews, and a strong focus on Call of Cthulhu. This is my favorite one.
Dave Thaumavore RPG Reviews-Small press and indie reviews, extremely thorough. His multi-episode run down of Degenesis is especially good.

Questing Beast– OSR reviews, covers a lot in a famously diverse and expansive subset.

Vintage RPG Podcast– Often hilarious coverage of forgotten about supplements, spin offs, and questionable decisions (Dallas, the RPG anyone?) by older game editions.

Dungeons and Discourse– Already linked to in the post text, I only discovered this channel today but it seems great at analyzing everything that’s going on with DnD at the moment.

Captcorajus– Strong 1E DnD history focus but with plenty of indie/OSR reviews and occasional other content.

Dm Nel– Shadow of the Demon Lord focused channel with some episodes explaining the rules and mechanics but most on lore.

Book Review: Claes Ryn’s ‘A Common Human Ground’

I thoroughly enjoyed Claes Ryn’s book ‘A Common Human Ground: Universality and Particularity in a Multicultural World.’ It is shocking to me he is not more famous as a thinker. Apparently he has a fan base in China but not as much of a following elsewhere.

Ryn comes to the real problem of both rejecting missionary assimilationism and absolute universalism as well as postmodern/clashing relativism by creating a synthesis point where universal self-betterment is assisted rather than sabotaged by cultural and intellectual diversity. Different groups of people can not only learn about their own blind spots by studying and interacting with others, but in so doing learn to interact with each other more proficiently. Though he does not use this analogy, its a bit like viewing politics and culture like the Olympics at their collaborative best. These themes also dovetail well into previous topics I have talked about such as ‘Cosmopolitan Chauvanism.’

Ryn is writing as a universalist (albeit a rare non-messianic one) and I am reading it as a relativist (albeit very much NOT a postmodern/idealist one but rather as a materialist-anthropology influenced one a la The Human Swarm) and its remarkable how much we come together despite our different origin points. Perhaps proving the thesis of the book, we couldn’t be more different in how we approach the issues of societal cultivation, but come to many of the same conclusions based on the utility of the deep historical perspective and our mutual scorn for Leo Strauss and his ahistorical and idealist acolytes.

Which is not to say that I endorse all of his views. In fact, since I reject abstract concepts of ‘the good’ or the desirability of ethical convergence on many things, I would say we still have some fairly significant differences. One instance would be my objection to conservative historiography’s rejection of accepting big dramatic political breaks as part of the holistic story of how societies evolve-I happen to think they are almost as important as the continuities in creating the whole.

However, while Ryn talks about a true cosmopolitanism being the acceptance of difference and the ability to learn from it, our purposes are the same. I see this book being vital for diplomats in particular in underlining how their profession relies on both the acceptance of divergence but for mutually constructive benefit. After all, even if I think societies learn from others not just for self-betterment but also to heighten difference and compete, all societies have a certain set of shared interests. Keeping local wars from becoming global, management of climate change, and maintaining a diplomatic standard everyone can negotiate from.

While there was more than one section I wanted to quote, there was one section in particular that stood out to me I will directly cite here:

It hardly needs saying that all traditional societies have notable weaknesses and that some are much less admirable or humane than others. Much time has already been spent in this book explaining that a properly traditional society is always trying to select and extend the best in its own traditions and to discard whatever blocks the development of its higher potentialities…

As we have seen, today many want to replace the diversity of historically evolved peoples and civilizations with a ‘universal’ global culture. They do not grieve any lost historical opportunities of the kind just mentioned, for their view of humanity is flat and prosaic. To these globalists, a good society or world is one in which all live in the same way, the way that the globalists themselves deem to be superior. They do not recognize the conceit of the presumption that the world should be transformed according to their own ideas, for they have little awareness of the depth, complexity, and richness of humanity, formed as it is by histories extending in complex ways back to the beginning of time. These globalists cannot see any need for human beings to cultivate their distinctive origins. After all, the model of society that they advocate is recognized by all enlightened persons as the one for which mankind has always been seeking. What is cultural distinctiveness but an obstacle to achieving the desirable social arrangements and ideological homogeneity? The efforts of the globalists to substitute a new world order of their own for historically rooted societies will efface not only what they may think of as the quaint and superficial ‘charm’ of various traditions, but will gut mankind’s deeper, shared, though highly diverse, humanity. These efforts will rob mankind of a rich source of value and self-understanding. They could benefit only people who have something to gain from each others losing their creativity, strength, and self-confidence.

It was because of this that I overlooked the author’s old man comments on contemporary vs classical genres of music when listing aspects of civilizational self-improvement.

Predictions for 2023

I’ve had a good run with predictions. Some of which you can find on older posts on this very site. 2022 also started with a big fail when the Russian invasion of Ukraine I thought was a front for being too quagmire-prone was actually be given the go-ahead. Whelp, got the second part of that right anyway. But I figured it might be good to lay out a list of ones I am feeling for 2023. I will start with my less-certain predictions and as we descend my feelings will be more certain. So I will feel less ridiculous getting the first few wrong than the later ones.

The Ukraine War will continue through most if not all of the year:

This seems a pretty easy call on base, but the specifics are almost impossible to suss out beyond it. Both countries have committed to the long haul officially, though Russia’s internal unity is harder to read than Ukraine’s. It seems like further escalation could occur but also possible that just the right equilibrium has been found to keep it simmering and localized as is.

The reason war is chosen upon, wisely or not, is to roll the dice. Its a declaration that present trends are not good enough and can only be rectified with the introduction of a chaos element. This conflict is still in a chaos element and so is hard to read outside of my assumption that it will last through most of the next year if not into the one after that. I would like to be wrong about this one, however. Even worse, this situation will likely lead to the worsening of economic warfare on Syria, because Beltway Lanyards see the issues as connected via Moscow. Incorrectly.

China will NOT invade Taiwan:

In 2023 China will still lack the logistical and military capability to pull off such an enormous conventional amphibious invasion as an attack on Taiwan. This does not mean there might not be further Taiwan strait crisis (or South China Sea naval actions elsewhere) or an economic blockade of the island. But Beijing quite simply won’t be able to launch a large scale conventional operation with its present force dispositions. Alternatively, if they try to do this soon it will go very, very poorly.

Republican internal meltdowns will be hilarious:

I neither know nor care what happens between DeSantis and Trump, but I do know Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Lauren Boebert are already threatening to have a hair pulling catfight on the floor of the House. Its funny because I usually refer to them as the same person- a totemic hot mess at the bachelorette party by the name of Bloberta Gogurt. But right now all the signs are in for a very funny internal political struggle between pro and anti-Trump factions. The fact that Kevin McCarthy is an exceptional doofus with zero charisma will only add to the fun.

2022 Was Peak GenderTrender for the U.S. and 2023 will be Peak GenderTrender for the U.K.:

Though many have yet to come around to it, I have long held that 2020 was Peak Woke overall. People being locked inside plus (quite justifiable) protests against extremely violent and often corrupt police departments peaked our present Postmodern Protestantism moment. But that also showed that trendy causes attract bizarre attention seekers, perpetual victims, and a media obsessed with fashion and not with substance. Since then there has clearly been a backlash to wokeness growing. One I am happy to have personally contributed to (see Woke Imperium, my so far best work in the think tank world and a product of 2022). Does this cascade of events remind you of anything else? Perhaps the star cause of wokeism today?

An unhinged activist culture took over gender identity issues (separate issues to sexual orientation and increasingly separate from its own past activism) which was over-represented in tech and culture commentary. This created an unsustainable bubble where the media narrative was out of step with the public. It has also led to hubris among a group of activists who live completely high on their own supply which in turn has led to big backlashes that would be impossible to imagine even two years ago. Additionally, many who once saw trans and nonbinary rights as indistinguishable from gay rights are seeing the differences, as the one was about legally achievable victory conditions and the other, it is increasingly apparent, has titled far into the realm of ideological declaration and trendy self-ID. In 2022 the overreach of censorship and discourse policing for the sake of the feelings of TQplus has clearly led to the pendulum to swing back in the US-though it has only just started to do so. With the recent adoption of Scotland’s new self-ID law, the UK will in turn peak next year. Cancelled journalists taking heretical views of the Judith Butlerian Jihad like Jesse Singal will probably be at least partially vindicated. The obvious drooling that for profit pharmaceutical companies and cosmetic surgery industries show at new prospects will only further increase this effect.

This was always a poor cart to pin the horse of Anglo-Leftism too, and so the lefts cultural power will likely decline along with the cause it made most central to its activism. Hopefully opening up space for unions rather than students to be the driving force of a future left.

After his inevitable removal from ”””’power””””’, Juan Guaido will go the way of Saakashvili:

No further need to really elaborate on this one. Post prime politicians with no power or reputation to speak of end up as itinerant hipsters in Brooklyn and/or gadflys in other countries. The only reason this does not apply to Liz Truss is because she still, somehow, has a seat in Parliament. (P.S. Truss is also the recipient for my Lolcow of the Year Award, congratulations on somehow even beating Bolsonaro). One thing that can be said about Guaido, he unintentionally made some great PR for Maduro.

OneDnD will Rival the Galactic Starcruiser in terms of corporate entertainment fiasco:

I don’t particularly care if OneDnD is 5.5 or 6 Edition. No table top role playing fan worth their salt is going to stick around for a company that seeks to add microtransactions and digital tracking to everything. TTRPGs are best played in person. And if they cannot be, at least made different from the video game experience.

OneDnD is not officially being released until 2024. Also, 5th Edition has attracted an enormously soy (sorry, there really is no better way to describe it) fan base. This means many people are there because of the game’s cultural popularity in twee podcasts and via Stranger Things. (Of course, the edition being played in that show is 1E, the one superior edition to 5E, but nevermind that). These are a captive audience and terrible role players, so they can be relied to stay as the bad PR and corporate vultures continue to devour this property. The real players, however, will abandon in droves. This will include a disproportionate amount of DMs who know systems. The company will then have to hire for pay dungeon masters with no direct connection to many of their players who inevitably will have to run the game via some kind of corportate check list to compensate for their lack of organic connection.

Much as the Galactic Failcruiser has become 2022’s albatross around Disney’s reputation with its fans, the unfolding drama will harm OneDnD even before its official release. The popularity of retro-clones (I am hoping many of the ones of 1E specifically here) and alternatives systems (I have recommendations should you need them) will explode. This is unambiguously good for the hobby as a whole, but will leave Dungeons and Dragons with a core fan base of people better left walled off from everyone else too. It will be a prison for redditors and pic crew avatars.

The funny thing is that Wizards of the Coast already tried this, if to a much lesser extent, with the roll out of Fourth Edition back in 2008. What they learned then was that no one wants TTRPGS to be video games. We already have video games for that. While any immediate descendant of 5E is easier to keep story-focused than the over-mechanical 4E, a homogenized corporate experience for the kitchen sink approach of 5 is likely to only please the kinds of people who are going to ditch it for a proper electronic game anyway and/or regular improv group. As they realize the long term costs of these types of services are actually a worse deal, this will exacerbate the problem

Alternatively, the mess might be so intense that WotC scraps or massively changes their plans last minute. The feedback already is so negative. This still counts as a corporate entertainment fiasco, however, and thus the prediction still holds.

My Favorite Game Soundtracks

I have had a good 2022 overall, though the final month seems adamant on sliding into a wet shart of a fizzle. Rather than dwell on that, however, I thought it would be fun to do another one of these off topic fun posts. The title says it all.

As a person obsessed with music and soundscape (I practically can’t write or draw without it) it should come as no surprise that I pay a lot of attention to the soundtracks on games. As early as the eerie primordial primitively rendered doom metal-ish riffs of the original Doom games I started compiling internally what games had the best soundtracks. There are quite a few I like. So that we aren’t here all night, however, I decided to keep the list narrowed down to five. This proved impossible so it is going to be six games and an honorable mention (game mod) for seven entries total. That is as short as I can keep it. Opposite of my DND edition rankings, however, the lower down the list you go the higher I rank the soundtrack. But being only seven of so many games I have played since the mid 90s, all of these are top. And Cultic isn’t on the list yet only because only half of it has yet to come out.

QUAKE II (1997)

People too young to remember when you had to walk to school through British musket fire while Joe Lieberman tried to ban kid’s access to violent video games are probably unaware how the pre-fast-internet days handled game soundtracks. You popped that CD out of your hard drive and into your (separate) CD player. You skipped the first track (game data) and then suddenly had CD access to the soundtrack music via the buttons on the player. This is what you had to do to listen to soundtracks outside the game back then. Anyway, there was one game who all us 90s preteens agreed was above and beyond the pack and that was Sonic Mayhem’s Quake II. For many, myself included, this would be our introduction to industrial metal. It was certainly the first game soundtrack I was aware of that stood out to me as super memorable in its own right. Well that and another game that came out the same year…

By the way, as of this week Quake II is 25 years old. Happy birthday old friend.

OUTLAWS (1997)

In addition to having the best reloading mechanic to ever exist in a shooter (which to my knowledge has never been copied) Outlaws had one hell of a soundtrack. Probably my favorite spaghetti western composition outside of an Ennio Morricone film. It was also my first exposure to that sound since I wouldn’t really get into westerns as a film genre until I was in college. Weird guitars, human grunts, and southwestern instruments combine to really knock this one out of the park. Do yourself a favor and look up the cutscenes of this game and how perfectly that Lucasarts pixel animation merges with this sound.

THE BARD’S TALE 4 (2018)

I’m currently playing this game for the first time now, and haven’t even beaten it yet. The series is older than I am but this is the most modern entry which I am exploring because of my obsession with returning the ‘Blobber‘ genre to modern gaming. But here it is on my list of top soundtracks already. Traditional music from Scotland in a game? With Gaelic lyrics? Yes please! Can a goofy high fantasy game make me nostalgic for the years I lived in Edinburgh and went on a weekly basis to hear live music at the historic White Hart Inn? Apparently, it can. For a game so intent on not taking itself very seriously it has a soundtrack of striking beauty.

SYSTEM SHOCK 2 (1999)

SHODAN is the greatest villain in gaming history. A schizophrenic AI with a god complex whose voice work was always an impeccably disturbing soundscape in its own right. So it is only natural that a soundtrack that fits matching wits with her sounds like you did a lot of mind altering substances and got lost in Cyberdog while it was hosting a rave like event (this is in fact something that happened to me one time). System Shock 2 was a horror immersive sim set on sabotaged space ship and many reviewers at the time of its release complained about its weirdly insane sounding techno soundtrack. But I think its just perfect for dystopic science fiction settings. Hence why I still listen to it when writing action scenes in science fiction stories to this day.

WASTELAND 3 (2020)

Tied with Humankind, Disco Elysium, and Prodeus for my favorite game so far of the 2020s, Wasteland 3, like Bards Tale 4, is another InExile resurrection of an old franchise with one hell of a lyrics-included soundtrack. The entire soundtrack is enormous and filled with great atmospheric tracks. But the stand outs are these remakes of actual preexisting gospel and 80s pop songs done in the style of a post-apocalyptic world that never heard them in their original form and is reinterpreting them anew. This is my new favorite version of Battle Hymn of the Republic and this is the definitive version of Down to the River to Pray. This is the literal soundtrack of post-America America. And what better soundscape to have while mowing down Reagan worshipping cultists (as you can do in this very game)?

DUSK (2018)

Every single soundtrack Andrew Hulshult touches is a wonderful rush to my blackened Boomer Shooter loving soul. And of all the ones he has worked on, this is his best. It manages to both sound like a late 90s Id shooter and a modern folk-horror infused atmospheric experiment at the same time. If there was one and only one game soundtrack I could claim reigned supreme, it would be this one.

Honorable Mention: ASHES 2063 (2018)

This game is a full release worth of content, but its technically a mod. Hence why I’m specifying it as an honorable mention. Ashes 2063 and its sequel Ashes Afterglow are tied with Brutal Doom for the best Doom mod out there. Truly amazing stuff that stands out in a very crowded field. The soundtrack is no exception. It sounds like an 80s B-apocalypse movie soundtrack just as it should. Many of the tracks have specific original Doom and Doom II cues in them that the observant will pick up on as well. The track ‘To Ashes’ and ‘Edge of Humanity’, my favorites on this album, remind me of some of the excellent work done for Final Doom like ‘Hells Bells‘ and ‘Metal‘ which I feel never got the recognition they deserved. Ashes 2063 is like that style come back and improved upon with synthwave.

Power Politics on the Indigenous Continent

Professor Pekka Hamalainen wrote the book I was going to write. The book I had started research on in 2019 and planned to write since 2015. However, taking on lots of research and writing projects outside of this field slowed my normal breakneck speed for such things to a crawl. With the release of Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, however, it looks like I lost the race. You might think I am going to whine about this, but I am not. Hamalainen is possibly my favorite currently active historian and I cannot think of a person I would have rather lost this race to. I constantly recommend his work to people, especially The Comanche Empire, which I still regard as his best book. Additionally, and this I realized the day after I learned this book was going to come out, having the general meta-historical narrative out there and completed actually frees me to focus in the future on the real core of my specialty: the geopolitical theory of large Native American confederacies. My opening still exists, and may even be better by being more focused. No longer having to include as large a historical section means it might even end up being a very large article or book chapter rather than a whole book. So my options for publication increase.

I believe this background means I am one of the most qualified people to review this book. I would first like to start with the positive aspects, which are the largest number of reactions I have.

Hamalainen gives us a very 5,000 feet above and looking down view on Native American history from precontact until the late 19th Century and the final round of ‘Indian Wars.’ Works like this are inevitably going to avoid too much hyper-specific detail and focus instead on broader strokes, but despite this the book manages to be almost as complete a narrative as it is possible for such a work to be. This big picture focus is on the political power, autonomy, and dynamism of Native American actors even deep into the period when colonists began seizing land and becoming powers in their own right. As a theme, this focus is kept consistently throughout the text. In providing this service, Hamalainen gives us a macro-history that restores Native Americans to their rightful place as part of the continents balance of power rather than simply being either ‘savages’ or ‘helpless victims’, which is what the two dominant strands of hyper-ideologues in North American history tend to reduce them to. This recognizes the importance of understanding these polities in ways separate both from progressive and reactionary Eurocentric scholarship.

The geographic space covered is from the desert border separating Mesoamerica from North America (a major cultural divide that predates colonization in many ways) up to the Canadian arctic. The focus naturally tends towards the bigger and more geopolitically significant nations and alliance networks, such as the Haudenosaunee, Cherokee, Anishinaabe, Comanche, Lakota, etc.

While it is apparent to anyone widely read in Native American history, particularly in niche specialist books about specific areas and time periods, that some of these confederations (especially the Haudenosaunee and Comanche) were most often the strongest powers in the region, general macro-historical narratives often ignore or downplay this despite their ability to outlast and defeat multiple European colonial projects. Hamalainen’s book’s primary contribution is showing how for the first century after colonization native powers were the strongest all over, and how even in the century after that both the Lakota and the Comanche still maintained dominance in particular regions. This is important and necessary work for the field. And long overdue in a generally accessible format like this work is.

I do, however, have some critiques.

The first and more minor one is that two major actors in this narrative still get a fairly short shrift. I do understand from personal experience one must always highlight some things and de-emphasize others. I did it quite a bit of this selection in my own book. But a person reading Indigenous Continent with little preexisting knowledge of the subject would definitely not quite get the power of the Blackfoot Confederacy at its height nor the uniqueness of the Tlingit experience. The second in particular would serve as a great example because of it mostly fighting the Russian attempt to colonize America to a stalemate, but more importantly because of its maritime and naval character. The Tlingit and Haida had canoes that were so large they were more like longships or small galleys and small cannon were often mounted on them. They wore body armor made of washed ashore Chinese and Japanese coins that was often bulletproof to musket fire. They lived what might have been the highest standard of living in the pre-Victorian world due to their ability to exploit the Pacific Northwest’s natural riches in such a way as to develop an extremely sophisticated material culture without having to engage in farming or urbanization.

A more substantial critique I have is that the (correct) fixation on Native power and autonomy in the book can sideline the very real existential dangers faced by native people from the start, and so once the tables turn against the native powers it can come across to the reader as extremely jarring and almost unexpected. A few paragraphs near the start really explaining why Natives were so disproportionately effected by Eurasian disease (it was because of there being far more domesticatable animals in Eurasia giving people who grew up around them for generations far greater disease resistance but also greater ability to spread them) would have helped the general reader. This would show clearly that these persistent and proportionally deadly outbreaks turned North America into a place of pure chaos and destruction from the 16th Century onwards. This was the single most post-apocalyptic setting human beings have ever found themselves on a hemispheric scale in recorded human history. Rather than diminish the narrative of Native power and autonomy it actually increases it by making the achievements of these countries that survived and for a time even thrived all the more impressive.

These events are of course talked about in Hamalainen’s book but not in a central way. This means that the constant background of irreplaceable losses among natives is sidelined along with the concurrent growth of the settler populations not only due to immigration but also a truly staggering and long lasting baby boom. This was something the more destabilized native powers could not replicate, and thus by the early 18th Century the tide really had turned against them and they were clearly headed towards perpetual underdog status through demographics. Yet in Hamalainen’s narrative settler advantage seems to only really appear about 50-100 years after this, which could throw a reader for a bit of a loop.

None of these critiques of mine sabotage the point of the book or its importance, however. I believe this is the correct book to introduce general audiences to the importance and awesomeness of Native American history and finally rewrite the focus of the narrative around North American history. The history of the peoples before the rise of what we now call modern North Atlantic society is every bit as important in understanding this continent and how to live on it as that which has come since.

Cancelled (A Special Halloween Grindhouse Trailer Script)

A Bit of a Halloween special for my regulars. I had the idea for a mock trailer in the style of 70s and 80s B-horror movies but since I lack the ability to quickly turn out a film in time for the holiday you get a short script instead. Anyway, enjoy ‘Cancelled‘ (released in the UK under the title ‘Polypans‘ and in Italy as ‘Zombi V: House of Deadness.’

A large van with an early 60s design but with futuristic accents such as hydrogen power plugs and slick almost hovering wheels pulls up to the end of an abandoned looking dirt road at the edge of the woods. Four teenagers dressed in a hybrid style between the 90s and the early 60s but with new and unprecedented fashion accents exit the car. They are all fit and attractive people. Two males, two females.

NARRATOR: This Halloween, get ready for a homecoming.

HANDSOME LEADER GUY: Here it is.

DUSHKU LOOKING GIRL: We’re going to stay HERE?

Cut to what they are looking at. An abandoned suburban neighborhood. Long neglected and being taken over by overgrowing woods. Autumn leaves are changing and multicolored leaves swirl through the air.

HANDSOME LEADER GUY: Where my parents grew up. Where they had to flee from due to the war. I’m taking it back.

FUNNY BLACK GUY: And you just brought us along to help fix up pretending it was a camping trip?

GOTH GIRL: I like it, it makes a STATEMENT.

Cut to puffy eyes behind cat’s eyes glasses looking through the bushes at the teens and heavy breathing.

The teens have made a ‘camp’ inside one of the overgrown suburban buildings, fire roaring in the fireplace being the only thing keeping the dark at bay.

DUSKU LOOKING GIRL: So what’s the story with this place?

HANDSOME LEADER GUY: Ever since my folks left in the Culture Wars, no one has been here. Only now that we are rebuilding did I find out I still have the deed.

GOTH GIRL: It was places like these that they originally came from you know. The Cancelers.

Sudden look of fear passes between all the teens.

GOTH GIRL: For years they reigned. Anyone could be fired, shunned, or disappeared for offending them.

Cut to the basement, POV of looking up through the floorboards at the teens. Sounds of multiple people breathing heavily.

GOTH GIRL: Living standards declined, the people suffered under the feudal reign of technology companies who used them to divide the populace. Society was given only identities in recompense for their trouble. But then, the uprising began-

FUNNY BLACK GUY: Yeah, this is primary school stuff. Why did no one come back out here though. Free land.

GOTH GIRL: The suburbs were tainted and left to rot. After the purges people thought the few surviving Cancelers would return there.

DUSKU LOOKING GIRL: Then why are we here?

Back to the POV of whatever is under the floorboards.

(O.S.) AGED VOICE: Take them.

GOTH GIRL: Nothing has been seen of the survivors since.

HANDSOME LEADER GUY: Its time to take back the heritage robbed from us-

The trapdoor bursts outward into the campers in a spray of wooden shards as multiple emaciated scuttling forms emerge and assault the teens. They are middle-aged and withered, looking like meth heads.  They wear weathered Mardi-Gras style anime girl heads that obscure their faces.

NARRATOR: But this home is no safe space.

Rapid flashing of dark scenes under ground as the anime-headed skinny men beat and carry the teens down earthen tunnels filled with pastel-colored children’s toys and broken electronic equipment.

The four are dumped in a kind of throne room akin to a hoarder’s nest. From a tunnel that recedes into blackness comes a mechanical whirring that grows ever closer.

NARRATOR: It the nest of things better left buried.

The four scream as a bloated woman with no legs emerges from the dark on a mobility scooter. Her hair is asymmetrical and blue, her eyes milky under cracked cat’s eye glasses.

BROODMOTHER: Xze, Xzi, Xzo, Xzum. I smell the blood of CISCUM.

The anime heads prostrate in front of her and then scuttle about. The Broodmother points to the Funny Black Guy. ‘He will do nicely to start.’

He screams as two anime-heads pick him up and carry him forward. Broodmother spreads her legs.

BROODMOTHER: Welcome to the polycule, you will know honor here, Pee Oh Cee.

FUNNY BLACK GUY: (desperately) Wait! I’m gay! I can’t! No women sorry!

Broodmother’s face become livid.

BROODMOTHER: DID YOU JUST ASSUME MY GENDER?

The anime-heads recoil in shock.

BROODMOTHER: POLYCULE! LEAVE NONE OF THESE FASCISTS ALIVE!

The anime-heads raise their ‘faces’ into the air and let out a keening wail in unison as the four teens struggle free and flee down the darkened corridors.

NARRATOR: They did not know the folly of coming. They did not heed the warnings of those who said stay out of the suburbs.

Montage of scenes of the characters struggling with anime-heads in the dark, sudden ambushes and rusted torture chambers flash before our eyes as horror synth reaches a manic crescendo. Handsome Leader Guy is clearly shown on a leash, scrambling about on all fours and forced to eat viscera from a dog bowl. Dushku Looking Girl knocks an anime-heads mask off, recoiling from the neckbeardish face beneath which we briefly see has an impossibly expanding mouth opening ever wider like a gateway into a portal of tongues.

NARRATOR: Now it is THEY who are…

Goth Girl clutches a hatchet in panic as she hides under a desk in what looks like an abandoned human resources office while the Broodmother looms in the doorway in silhouette.

BROODMOTHER: There’s no room for your problematic edginess in this wholesome home, sweaty.

NARRATOR: CANCELLED!

(Rated R. Coming to theaters near you this Halloween. Don’t See it alone.)

The Aughts Were Better for Gays Than the Woke Era (reprint)

I just became aware that an article I was quite proud of is no longer available due to the site it was hosted on going offline. RIP Twink Revolution. Your podcast and written content will be sorely missed. Thankfully, I still have the old file and so am going to repost at least my own contribution to the magazine here as it was when first uploaded in December of 2020.

I do think that in the time since this piece has aged well and remains relevant.


The Aughts were cringe. Dane Cook was one of the most popular comedians. Carlos Mencia had a television show. You couldn’t enter a movie theater without being forced into seeing the trailer for ‘Stealthat least once. The United States had invaded Iraq as part of a rage-induced post-9/11 pathos despite that country having literally nothing to do with those attacks. Heritage Foundation interns then attempted to reconstruct the Iraqi government from a hermetically sealed governing pod called ‘The Green Zone,’ no doubt while listening to the rapidly degenerating solo career of Gwenn Stefani as she told the world that her shit was bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S. 

Shit may have been bananas elsewhere, but one area where the culture was decidedly on point was on the immense strides made by the gay rights movement in that decade. Successes which, in retrospect, could not exist in today’s utterly homogenous and moralistic dominant culture. 

One of the advantages afforded by the period of chaos unleashed by 9/11, Iraq, The Great Recession, and the calamitous collapse of the Bush regime from top of the world to leaving office with around a twenty percent approval rating was that cultural norms were questioned. Not in some superficial issue-by-issue basis like we have now, but in a way that fundamentally interrogated the very foundation of our concepts of morality. Public opinion went from decidedly hostile to homosexuals and bisexuals (Jerry Fallwell even blaming them for 9/11 on live television) to overall societal ambivalence with young people moving firmly into a generally positive disposition towards such minorities over the course of roughly a decade. It is worth remembering that this change occurred in a time when both political parties were at least somewhat hostile, and no major politician willingly embraced the cause of gay rights. The rhetoric of gay rights had little to lose, so could be suitably mean. Politicians were bullied relentlessly. The endless numbers of homophobic closet cases in the GOP became a running gag. It was about asserting divergence from the norm as a point of pride rather than spreading a gospel of gay. It worked not in spite of lacking decorum but because it had no such performative scruples. No one wanted to be a “good person”, they wanted to be effective advocates. Sometimes, that meant being bad.

Compare this record to the recent dip in the growth of acceptance of sexual orientation minorities. Considering that religiosity among the young is not increasing right now, it is hard not to see this as a result of the woke culture war backfiring. Being for gay rights is no longer an anti-moral values alternative, but part and parcel of integrating into the moralistic politics of a country whose first settlers were Puritans and whose dominant culture has never broken out of their mold. The secularization of politics did not change the unchallenged assumptions of the missionary that still lurked within. The liberal adoption and promotion of a very specific and suburban subset of LGBT issues focused on marriage and personal expression rather than addressing critical disparities in homelessness and housing security shows how these issues have become just another liturgy.  

This enables social conservatives to pretend to be a brave counterculture when appealing to people neutral on social issues and thus to make gains using the same methods used by gays last decade. This is a ridiculous farce that shouldn’t even be possible as there is nothing rebellious against an ideology about the maintenance and defense of the status quo, but in the Woke Era, it is gaining traction under the auspices of the liberal establishment. The neoliberals are the dominant establishment of the discourse now and anyone too close to them will be painted in the same brush as their declining socio-economic system.

How did we get here? 

The final and drawn-out collapse of the decades-long power of the theocratic Moral Majority, which was one of the dominant trendsetters of cultural commentary in the 1980s, became a power vacuum where straight people could declare independence from a dying order by adopting causes such as equal legal rights for gays. But as more people raised within the confines of conventional American morality adopted these causes, these causes, in turn, became reflections of the morality with which the gay rights movement had made so much success opposing in the first place. 

The turning point for this resurgence of cultural reaction had to have been around 2012. While the world failed to end according to the then-popular misreading of the Mayan calendar, the Era of Edge gave way to the Era of Woke. The world may as well have ended, so far as oppositional subcultures were concerned. The reason for this was simple, the establishment realized that the new hip cause of gay rights had now become popular enough that it could be co-opted in support of maintaining their entrenched power, supplanting the role culture war had played for conservatives until this point. 2012 would go on to give us Upworthy and Kony2012 among many other imitators, the former being an example of the coming Breitbart-style degeneration of liberal media over the course of the 2010s and the latter the first go at weaponizing progressive caremongering for the facilitation of further military interventionism. Both of these would become mainstream trends as the new decade ticked on. Woke evangelism would expand part and parcel with these new trends. A social credit prosperity gospel that exists to assure its followers that they are protagonists of their own story, and all they had to do was have strong opinions on social issues. If you believe Burkean conservatism laundered through a progressive HR department is the best way to combat the forces of reaction and entrenched power, I suppose it is a success.

A movement propelled to success by being offensive, contrarian, and against the (then) cultural zeitgeist is now held up to be the very model of our intersectional empire with much of its history sanitized for mass consumption by being presented as an inevitable outgrowth of cautious patience and faith in progress. In fact, it has so much cache that it’s increasingly common for de facto heterosexuals to call themselves ‘queer’, usually for just having a bad haircut and gangrene-tinted dye job. But being an agoraphobic nerd is not a sexual orientation. The hijacking of the discourse around sexual orientation by what are effectively Habanero Heteros is precisely why the contrarian gains of the past have been watered down into nothing more than a public performance and recycled versions of old-timey moral panic. What better way to keep ideological competition from piercing the bubble of establishment media than a new and obscure litmus test? 

What is to be done about this? While no future will ever be identical to a past era, these types of moralistic fads do tend to come and go. But rather than just wait for the woke tide to recede out the way of its evangelical predecessors (who can even tell when that will be?)  we could learn from one of the few good things of the Aughts…its delightfully oppositional and contrarian rhetoric. Reject unity with the discourse and embrace divergence and rebellion, even if that makes you, gasp, an edgelord. Have the courage to have views based on knowledge and experience rather than the dogmatism of trendy and ephemeral alliances and established ideological camps. Minorities do not do well under forcefully homogenized societies and it is our task to create a new subversive counterculture to this bloodless liberal pantomime whose only purpose is to stroke its own ego as society decays around it. Woke techno-neofeudalism vs an empowered and invigorated far right as its only opposition is not an acceptable choice, but it is the only choice left if we do not break with the pieties of the present era for something else entirely. If we do not provide an alternative our enemies will do it for us.

The Mamluk Sultanate: A History (Book Review)

Mamluk Cavalry Riding Amongst the Pyramids of Egypt- art generated using Midjourney

It should not come as a surprise that my favorite (post-ancient) state in the history of North Africa and the Middle East is the Mamluk Sultanate. As a collector both of unique governing systems and ‘barbarian’ run states from the Liao Dynasty to the Haudenosaunee, it should not be surprising that this entity that ruled Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the late medieval period is the state from that place and time that most stands out to me. Perhaps more pertinently, it was the favorite state of the most influential intellectual on my own life, Ibn Khaldun. He would eventually relocate to this empire and serve as an educator and informal ambassador under its employ. Most famously in this capacity he would meet the conqueror Timur during the siege of Damascus.

Ibn Khaldun’s fascination with the Mamluk state is easy to discern. His own philosophy was about noticing the trends of barbarians to conquer the civilized, set up new vigorous states, and then gradually succumb to complacency and corruption as they became as overly civilized along the lines of the people they once replaced-opening them up to displacement by the next phase of barbarians as the cycle repeated itself. The Mamluks wanted to keep their Turkic and Circassian military character and so recruited new members of the elite by purchasing slaves from what is now the southern steppe regions of Russia. These slaves would then become the personal property of the Sultan (himself a former slave or descendent thereof) and be educated and trained to become the military and ruling class. Distinct from the general population, their internal culture was quite egalitarian and merit based (though frequently unstable when it came to determining succession). Though this model is incredibly distinct both to its time and place (what isn’t?), Ibn Khaldun thought it worth learning from as it addressed many of the problems in premodern governance he had diagnosed.

The question certainly could be asked of us today. What outsider-yet-amenable class can we draw an elite from to keep things going without sliding to poorly into entrenched decline. It is a question that is worth answering, even if it may never be solved.

Art by the late and great Angus McBride in Osprey Publishing.

‘The Mamluk Sultanate: A History’ by Carl F. Petry seeks to give us a thorough examination of this original form of statehood. Extremely comprehensive, Petry’s narrative begins with a summary of the reigns and events of Sultans in the new government, its shaping in the crisis of the Mongol invasions (the only successfully defended country from those assaults in the region), the seizure of power by the nomadic slave-class and their erection of a new form of oligarchy on the ruins of the Ayyubid order, and their initial expansion. This was a ruling class more based on lifestyle than on ethnicity, as even the great defeater of the Mongols, Baibars, aped Mongol court customs and actively tried to recruit defected Mongols into his army. We then see how restrained the Mamluks were once they had direct control over Egypt, Syria, and the Hejaz. For the remainder of their over 250 years, the large and powerful state would act mostly defensively in upholding this order. (The invasion and vassalization of Cyprus being a big exception to this, but that itself was provoked by constant pirate attacks). Considering the quality of its elite troops in its early years and the weakness of many of its rivals, this is impressive and most likely aided the longevity of its regime. Additionally, being a hub of trade, more of its money could go into works of public infrastructure and building than one might expect from a military government largely made up of foreigners who kept themselves apart from most of their subjects.

The coming of the Ottomans, however, would change the situation. Another rising power that gained traction in the post-Mongol world, the Ottoman commitment to technological innovation would be the one thing the Mamluk edifice was not prepared to handle. The fatal flaw of their system was not the occasional coup and counter coups (this never actually divided the realm when it happened), but the requirement of a military based off specialist cavalry warfare. The Ottomans had no such restrictions as their system was hereditary monarchy and they were forged in far more apocalyptic circumstances after the Timurid incursions lay waste to their core regions. Therefore, the Ottomans had become innovators in both technology and tactics in the use of firearms. Something the Mamluks had only just started experimenting with just a few years before in the attempt to recruit a Nubian infantry gunner corps. This experiment, however, was extremely controversial towards guardians of the social order and it was hard to move forward with it before Selim the Grim descended onto Egypt and Syria in what would be the Ottoman Empire’s largest scale and most efficient conquest in its history. As an independent state the Mamluks would be no more, but as a class they would retain their regional rule in Egypt until their decisive defeat by Napoleon and the subsequent modernization programs of 19th Century Egypt as it moved out of the Ottoman orbit.

The remainder of the book breaks down various internal and structural topics of the Mamluk state. Petry is extremely thorough and his work, especially in regards to the political economy, jurisprudence, and promotion of the arts is to be commended. What we are left with is a work that, while lacking general audience narrative flow, has a well organized structure and lends itself well to referencing and citation. This was, no doubt, the intent. And for those of us whose primary fascination is that of the stranger states in history, this book is well worth the time.

Worming Through the Ruins of the Dying Earth

‘He who has trod the shadows of Zothique
And looked upon the coal-red sun oblique,
Henceforth returns to no anterior land,
But haunts a later coast
Where cities crumble in the black sea-sand
And dead gods drink the brine.’

[I made the images used in this post in midjourney]

I have written before about my love for the horror, science fiction, and sword and sorcery genres. But my top fiction loyalty, which contains elements from all of the above, is a more niche subgenre of both pulp and literature known as the Dying Earth subgenre. 

The specific origins of this subgenre are debatable. End of humanity stories are as old as mythology itself. End of the universe stories also date back quite a bit. But stories specifically about the end of Earth (and/or the end of the Sun which presupposes the end of Earth) as an event of finality for the entire world but not the greater universe are a more recent fictional innovation. It is an apocalypse, yes, but one of a specific place. William Hope Hodgeson’s House on the Borderland and The Night Land are probably the first instances of this that everyone can agree fits the model to a tee. Though I would say most of the imagery we have of these settings come from Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique setting and Jack Vance’s collected works in his Dying Earth setting, which is where the name originates.

What is this dying earth and why is it so evocative? It may be more of a mood than a specific definition.

Imagine you awake after some kind of artificially imposed slumber from deep within a sealed tomb. You were preserved while the solar system drank in the aeons. You now find yourself in a world that is far past its prime. A fading and bloated reddish sun lingers in the sky, flickering like a lamp that at any moment could go out. The horizons of Earth below it are strewn with crumbling ruins and titanic monuments from empires long forgotten which had yet to exist when you last were among the realm of the living. Perhaps vague continental outlines remain that have some degree of familiarity-if you are lucky. But for the most part old Earth is now even more ancient and its cultural trappings are now utterly alien to you.

As you walk through a landscape stalked by alien creatures-some partially recognizable as evolutionary or genetically modified descendants of familiar beasts- some not (perhaps imported from the stars in a now forgotten era of human off-world expansion or alien invasion?) you realize you are in a world where the fragments of future-pasts exist as highly advanced technology which has now degenerated into sorcery and alchemy. Perhaps a few well connected people remember them as sciences and keep this knowledge under lock and key, or perhaps no one does and they are now magic in everyone’s mind no matter how learned. You know only that the ghosts whose tombs you rob to survive on the road are of people who were millennia away from being born when you last walked this planet.

Should you survive in this lower-light world of perils where the stars can often been seen in the daylight and the temperatures are on average lower to what you remember, you may be so…lucky…to come across something more than a ramshackle farming village or merchant town but rather a whole city. The city, no doubt, will have seen better days in its past. Its crumbling monuments are now used as places for washer-maids to affix clotheslines. There is no dearth of unused space, however, so rather than teeming hordes one finds a place where even the poor can live in a kind of graveyard opulence. Here, where the security towards beasts is greater, the insecurity towards humanity increases. The stately and floral language that is the final overripe fruit of humanity often conceals duplicitous and nefarious intent. Should you successfully navigate this minefield of strange and often divergent social norms, you may just find yourself recognized as a fascinating relic from a golden era and elevated into the inner circle of some decadent aristocrat or scholar…or perhaps as the plaything and slave of a mad wizard-scientist. 

Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique was focused on a Gothic yet romantic conception of bloated exhaustion itself. The last continent on a far future Earth possessing an immense beauty that occasionally shines through its decadent terror. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, which I confess is my favorite of all fiction collections anywhere, takes this inspiration and really cranks up the comedic and pompous elements of it, with primary characters as bombastic and tragicomic as the faded temples and gods that served as set pieces in Smith’s works. Vance takes great pleasure in presenting a kind of Epicurean end times, where laconic detachment and petty foibles reign over humanity’s twilight epoch. Even the cannibalistic monsters engage in witty repartee with their intended victims. The sun could go out at any minute, why not engage more heavily in the arts, petty squabble, and gourmandism? Reflecting this dynamic perfectly, the Dying Earth tabletop roleplaying game has endless amounts of pettifoggery-based social skills which players can not only employ against NPCs but also each other. Where Smith saw the bloated corpse-worms crawling over a stiffening Earth, Vance saw the immense amusement of the corpse-worms dressed like they were going to the Venetian masquerade ball to play games of wit and compete over social status.

Currently, I am reading through Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun for the third time. It is the most literary of the Dying Earth subgenre entries. The author’s intention was to create something that gains value the more it is re-read, and in this he succeeded admirably. Having far future technology described in the first person to you by someone who both thinks it is normal but is unaware of what it actually is is a fun puzzle to piece through as you read. When you realize that what sounds like a giant mediaeval castle (for it is used as such) is actually a long-parked spaceship whose utility is forgotten, or that archaic classically tinged terms for military units are in fact describing laser-gun armed cavalry mounted atop genetically modified monster-horses, it creates a fun dynamic between author and reader. The archaic nature of terminology from the South America-based protagonist stomping ground becomes even more interesting when you meet the Ascians, a North American people (who I would unseriously posit are descended from Zoomers despite the books publication in the early 80s) who can only speak in ultra-modernist political jargon-slogans. While Wolfe is always a pleasure to read and I recommend this work, I do have to add the caveat that I prefer Smith and Vance in this subgenre overall as the best part of the Dying Earth subgenre (to me) is the inevitability of the Sun/Earth extinction and the effects this knowledge has on the cultures subject to it. In Book of the New Sun (and also in Philip Jose Farmer’s Dark is the Sun) there is not just hope in revival, but real paths to take towards making it a reality. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but it is hardly peak Dying Earth. The emphasis, of course, is on the Dying

If you would like to get a strong dose of the overall atmosphere of this wonderful subgenre in under eight minutes, there is a stunning spoken version of a prose poem from Clark Ashton Smith himself that I believe does the job magnificently. Additionally, if you would like the overall Vancean attitude that I take from such heavy questions coupled with more AI generated art (albeit this time not my own) why not take in the generated visuals of a classic song?

And now we return to a variant of the original set.

Losers and…’Winners?’…of the Ukraine War

Building off of my past post about 6 months ago which was reacting to my first big geopolitical prediction fuck-up, I would now like to list how people are fairing in the ongoing war. I would have much rather done this at the end of the war, but an end is not in sight so now is as good a time as any.

The two losers of the war are Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine, obviously, because the war takes place in their country and is doing all kinds of untold long term destruction. Russia, because to make such small gains on an immediately adjacent and much smaller nation with a flat land border when one has so many military advantages is quite simply embarrassing. The Z-oid cope was that ‘well actually the advance on Kiev was a big feint.’ This is bullshit. It involved too many troops, special forces, and necessary goodwill from Belarus to be anything but an attempt at regime change decapitation. And it failed miserably in front of everyone. The vehicular losses were enormous and the damage to the morale and prestige of the Russian army immense. Now, the war swings back to advantage Russia because of its more narrow focus and one cannot underestimate their advantages at staging a comeback here, but Russia will be incapable of large scale conventional military offenses elsewhere for some time due to the need to replenish stocks of arms and army formations. Ukraine meanwhile, despite having lost so much and no doubt posed to lose much more, has also had gains. A previously fractious society has found a new civic nationalism and unity. An unexpectedly strong military performance implies that much like Finland in the Winter War, even a quantified loss could be a thing of pride going forward. Nevertheless, there is no way to classify being a country sized battlefield but as a loss.

This brings us to the more mixed bag. People who are not outright losing but who are not winning per se either. This is where I would lump in the United States, the United Nations, and many small developing nations. The United States because the immense cost of bankrolling Ukraine’s fight (something overwhelmingly borne of the US with its allies contributions barely noticeable, comparatively). This is a cost paid for the benefit of a non-allied nation and one that should never be an ally considering there is no sustainable solution but a neutral buffer Ukraine. While the U.S. is obviously sabotaging Russian efforts in the country, it risks being sucked into a perpetual involvement right on the border of Russia which badly stretches U.S. advantages and commitments for something that could only be a burden down the line. The United Nations, meanwhile, shows it could play a role in negotiating the end of the war but also at the same time shows off its immense impotence and irrelevancy when actual crisis occurs involving major powers. Finally, smaller nations-especially those who unwisely decided on crash course industrialization at the cost of their local agricultural sector have shown just how enslaved they have become to the global market and the vagaries of fate. If one’s food supply is suddenly a conflict zone everything can go wrong. That being said, the shock of this will almost certainly cause many of these countries to diversify their economy and open up more opportunities for agriculture to be internationally viable in the global market. Right now they suffer, but many of them will find new opportunities going forward if they are wise. Re-localization will not destroy globalization but it will return geography to the forefront of conceptualizing supply chains.

I also want to include myself in this mixed results faction. Because while I totally screwed the pooch on if the war would happen in the first place, the reason I thought it would not (outside of the Donbass anyway) turned out to be right. I thought, considering the increasingly battle hardened army and changing attitudes towards Russia in Ukraine since 2014, coupled with the influx of many heavy weapons meant that a major conventional war in Ukraine would become an enervating quagmire for Russia. Having come to this conclusion about a year before the war broke out, I thought if this looked apparent to me Moscow would also see it too. But the level to which Putin’s government apes Bush Era cult of positivity and stifling of dissent in the higher echelons is truly impressive. If anything, Russia has performed even worse than I expected-and I expected their performance to be far worse than most others did. So, I got the outbreak wrong, but the course of it I got more right than most people-with the majority opinion among analysts seeming to be “Russia will attack and will roll right over Ukraine.” Mine was “Russia will not attack because it would become a suppurating horrorshow right on their border.” Well, Moscow should have listened to me.

So out of all of this, who actually is winning? Who is gaining at a far more noticeable rate than they are losing? This list is the smallest of all. And I’m avoiding talking about defense contractors because no matter the war they always win. This would be the NATO alliance, for finally having a purpose and renewed relevance again after decades to merely exist as an arms buying network, China, for having inherited an even more compliant and subordinate Russia tied to its interests and providing alternatives for people to get around NATO aligned sanctions on that country, and above all Turkey. It pains me immensely to give Erdogan credit in anything but he really has played this crisis extremely well. His country is a rival with Russia yet he has personal rapport with Putin. He allows rich Russians to park their assets in Turkey while still supplying Ukraine with weapons and logistical support. Turkey’s ability to close the Straits into the Black Sea gives it the critical geographic leverage of the conflict and everyone knows it. Its above-average but significantly affordable and easy to maintain Bayraktar Tb2 drone is being ordered all around the world by countries that could not afford more shiny models, ushering in a new era of Turkish influence by exploiting the niche of practical-yet-technical that is going to be the major growth market in most countries. If current trends continue it will be in Ankara, not Moscow, Washington, or Kiev, that the biggest gains of the war are likely to be made.

As the world keeps moving away from unipolarity it is worth keeping in mind that this does not mean a return to US-China-Russia of the 1970s and everyone else waiting with bated breath. It actually means countries like Turkey, Iran, Japan, India, Germany, Indonesia, Brazil, and South Africa will increase their roles between the shatter zones of the great powers. You can read more about this here. This process is only accelerating because of the war and Turkey is the first country to make such overt gains. Policymakers in Beijing, DC, and Moscow best factor this in for their future calculations.