The official website of Brandon Black.

Symbolism

The Nature of Good and Evil in Dungeons and Dragons (and what to do about it)

This is from 5th Edition D&Ds Basic DM Rules: “Humanoids are the main peoples of the D&D world, both civilized and savage, including humans and a tremendous variety of other species. They have language and culture, few if any innate magical abilities (though most humanoids can learn spellcasting), and a bipedal form. The most common humanoid races are the ones most suitable as player characters: humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings. Almost as numerous but far more savage and brutal, and almost uniformly evil, are the races of goblinoids (goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears), orcs, gnolls, lizardfolk, and kobolds.”
I’ve been unhappy about racism in D&D for some time. It didn’t take me long to see the connections between how humans treat orcs in D&D and how the British treated the Scots, the Irish, pretty much everyone else on the planet. ‘They’re evil. They’re inferior. It’s okay for us to conquer them.’ In D&D, you can kick the door in on someone else’s home, kill them and take their stuff and it’s okay because ‘they’re evil.’ That’s just nuts.
So — what do I do about it? I had planned a D&D world that was much more cosmopolitan, where different races got along, at least in some locales and when they didn’t, it would be absolutely clear that it was because of simple racism. I never thought I’d like a racist character but I’ve got an elf mage I’m working on who’s totally racist and yet, works for me as a character. He’s got the whole snooty elf superiority complex thing going on and he’s a wandering mercenary. I like it because it explains what such a character is actually doing. I mean, after all, if elven society is so much better than any other society on the planet, why isn’t he back there instead of wandering the world? The answer is: he only considers his actions as a mercenary acceptable because he ISN’T visiting death and destruction upon fellow elves for money. Killing humans, or orcs, or dwarves, or trolls, well, that doesn’t count. As long as he isn’t killing elves, he’s free to wander the land, blasting people with magick and getting paid to do it.
Drow, in particular, or rather their depiction, pisses me off too. The only dark-skinned race in D&D to get any depth of culture or politics or religion and they’re evil. They’re a subterranean race but they are dark-skinned — because they’re evil. Logic would make them albinos as they are in Warhammer but evil trumps reason in D&D — they have to be marked with dark skin like black people in Mormonism.
5th edition FINALLY made playing Drow a standard PC option. I remember when 5th edition first came out and I was so excited to see that and I looked forward to playing a good Drow character and then when I got to +1 Gaming, Jeremy Henson (and I’m not picking on him) was trying to persuade people to play anything BUT drow because drow are traditionally evil — even though a few good individuals are known to exist. I didn’t listen and played a good drow anyway. I’ve spent too many years playing a black human in D&D from Fabled Offmapia because neither commercially created fantasy worlds nor DM homebrewed worlds had an African continent equivalent. Dark-skinned people have a right to play heroes that remind them of themselves too.
Anyway — my doubt. I was cool with just making a cosmopolitan world where different races can get along or not as they see fit and it isn’t because one side is automatically good and the other automatically evil, except I read this article where someone was complaining about the “Klingonization” of orcs. He was referring to orcs in World of Warcraft being treated as people and not monsters and they’re not being ‘evil’ just a barbarian culture that’s been in opposition with humans and dwarves and elves for so long that it’s become habitual. In other words, exactly the kind of thing I was planning on. Except it reminded me of how I feel about demons.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its sequel series, Angel, watered demons down into aliens. They weren’t manifestations of supernatural evil. They weren’t all inherently evil. Many, if not most of them, were just people who wanted to live their lives and not be noticed. Yes, there were some who had great power and abused that power for their own desires but there’s people like that too. I hated that view of demons, not because of it’s symbolic portrayal of diversity but because you took a fearsome category of monster and turned it into a homeless guy who just wanted to be left alone. And I can see how some people would feel the same way about orcs.
You could say the whole utility of orcs in a game like D&D is that they’re supposed to be irredeemable and they are a continual menace, like they are in Warhammer 40K and thus there can be no peace with them and thus “There can only be war.” And that’s entertaining and this is supposed to be entertainment so it’s okay. “They’re supposed to be monsters; let’s treat them like monsters.”
So I’m not really sure now. I like the cosmopolitan world but fantasy is ultimately about — well — fantasy — sex and violence — killing the bad guy, getting the girl, tossing gold coins and gems into the air and partying well into the night to celebrate your victory. What do we lose if we make fantasy mirror the real world and every enemy is only an enemy because they look different from us or because of their deep-seated psychological problems stemming from childhood?
* * *
New Orleans-based fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Black is the editor of the By Gaslight steampunk anthology series. He has a Bachelor’s in Military and Political Journalism and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. His short fiction has appeared in Dark Oak Press’ Dreams of Steam III and Seventh Star Press’ A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court. Brandon has just published a short anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fiction short stories entitled Mechanical Tales and is working on completing his first novel. His most recent story “The Night Mississippi Declared War on the Moon,” has been published in Capes and Clockwork 2.
All text copyright Brandon Black 2016.
Advertisements

Shakespeare and the New Steampunk Aesthetic

I posted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 127 to my facebook page and my friend, Eva Caye, thought it was one of mine. It’s great work to be sure, but it’s not my great work. When I said that to her, she said I needed to label it because “here I was thinking you took steampunk to this whole celestial literary level!!!”

So now I have a new goal — to take steampunk to a whole new celestial literary level.

Here’s the sonnet by the way:
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame.
For since each hand hath put on nature’s pow’r,
Fairing the foul with art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bow’r,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem.
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
— William Shakespeare (Sonnet 127)

I posted it to my facebook page because one of the ongoing themes of my work is to re-engineer Western imperialist colour symbolism and fight the idea that “Black = Bad/Evil.” Black means rich depth, beauty, and mystery to me and that’s something I try to convey in my work.

And in trying to promote that, I’ve gained a whole new goal for my work — to bring steampunk to a whole new celestial literary level.

How am I going to accomplish that?

I’ve no idea.

I’ll take suggestions. Really.


Strange Frame: Love and Sax

 

This is a lesbian animated science fiction film by G. B. Hajim and Shelley Doty, available on Netflix.

The voice actor cast is kinda awesome: Claudia Black, Tara Strong, Ron Glass, Tim Curry, Cree Summer, Claudia Christian, Michael Dorn, Lena Horne (taken from archives), Khary Payton and George Takei. I recommend it on that basis alone.

It’s got some great ideas and interesting animation and despite a couple of “flaws,” I do recommend you check it out. I don’t want to spell out those “flaws” above the SPOILER alert but they really are a matter of perspective, hence the quotes. Anyway, it’s on Netflix, so give a look-see when you get a chance.

SPOILERS

The film is set in the far future after Earth has suffered some disaster and had to be evacuated. Interestingly, this disaster takes place slowly enough for society and capitalism to remain intact. It isn’t the “we can only evacuate Earth’s best and brightest, whoever they are, to the New World.” It’s “We’ll get everyone off in time — but someone has to pay for this.”

So debt slavery and indentured servitude have returned as the price of evacuating Earth has to be paid by individuals and their descendants. People have been genetically modified to better survive in different environments — which is basically an explanation for the art style — people with blue skin, people with green skin, people who look like aliens, etc.

Cleverly — well, maybe not SO clever, since it’s becoming kinda standard — the disaster itself isn’t explained or even named. Whatever would cause Humanity to leave the Earth behind forever but cause them to relocate to Ganymede would have to be pretty strange and particular. I mean, if you can make Ganymede habitable, that far from the sun and with no native breathing air, etc., you’d think you could make underground habitats on Earth survivable for a lot less money.

Right — those “flaws.”

“Flaw” 1: The film is about two musicians who fall in love and the evil record company that separates them and exploits their lead singer, Naia. It’s a music movie. Lots of songs, musical performances, music is used as a metaphor for life and love throughout the film. The problem? If you’re not into the type of music used in the film, then you’re nonplussed about the film. I kept watching because I hadn’t seen an animated lesbian sex/love art science fiction film before but the music was a let down for me because I just didn’t like that kind of music.

“Flaw” 2: “Flaw” 2 is more interesting. The film makes use of a common dynamic — there’s the “ordinary/everyday” girl and the “cool” girl. This dynamic works in Scott Pilgrim — one of my favourite movies – because I’m a straight male and I automatically emphasize with Scott as the guy trying to get the beautiful cool girl, Ramona. But the dynamic fails for me here as both the main characters are women. Given an ordinary Caucasian Everywoman (Parker is I think the only unmodified able human visible in the film) and a cool blue skin WOC (despite her skin colouring, her hair and nose make it clear she isn’t of Caucasian ancestry), I’m going to want to follow the story of the cool blue chick every time. And so I did. My interest was entirely on Naia until she disappeared from the film and when she did and we were left with Parker (even her name is boring), I was tempted to stop watching. It was only because I was watching the story as a writer that I kept going.

There’s a political slant on everything in this film. The basic premise is a population under debt slavery. Riots are nearly universal and continuous. The guards/police are depicted as animalistic thugs but even they have a clueless “used as pawns” vibe to them. The captain of the space ship is disabled, he’s lost his legs and uses a hover-chair. Even the ship’s AI has a sad story to tell in that she used to be a “Val,” a type of android, but then there was a backlash against sentient machines called the mechocide pogrom and the Vals were hunted down and destroyed. She’s perhaps the last of her kind and her artificial brain has been wired into the ship to serve as the ship’s AI. She retains her spite and her loathing of organics however, and at one point even tries to kill one of the main characters so she can take control of the ship.

There’s a real “dark age” feel to this film which didn’t always work for me. The whole “building a ship from salvaged parts we can’t build any more” worked beautifully. I loved that. But the “they don’t make this type of booze any more — you’ll never taste this again” thing didn’t reach me at all. I was totally like “well let’s get on making some more of that cool booze.” When they tried to extend the “people use reclaimed things from Old Earth which have become precious” thing to a SAXOPHONE — I was like what the hell? I’ll buy we can’t make top of the line plasma coils or hyperspanners or AI cores — but we can’t make a brand new saxophone? That’s some bullshit. If we can maintain spaceships, we can build saxophones. It might be valuable because it’s old but unless it was of extremely high quality, which I doubt since no one ever tried to steal it, it’s just a saxophone and we can make more — easily.

What’s funny is that there’s no attempt at all to bring down the record company or bring their crimes to light publicly. Naia is rescued, her android duplicate is destroyed and the “death” made public so the company doesn’t go looking for Naia but that’s it. The producer who kidnapped Naia and kept her in a coma while an android copy of her was used to make songs and entertain millions for profit is barely inconvenienced at the end of the film. His car was used for the getaway and they hacked it using his ident codes so he’s brought in for questioning. But this is a rich, powerful man and he’s very well connected with both the record company and rich, powerful high society friends and well-wishers. When he says the words “my car was stolen,” the whole thing is going to go away. Hell, if when he figured out his car was taken, he had the sense to report it stolen, it’ll go away instantly — so the last scene of him being put into a police car to be taken for questioning isn’t very satisfying.

The only real flaw of the film is the ending. After having gone through hell and high water to get Naia back, the film ends with Naia opening her eyes from her drug-induced coma, the screen going black, and a few lines of dialogue. There’s no one, saying “You came for me!! You came for me!!” and “I love you — I’d always come for you, baby!” No crash of bodies running together to rising, swelling music. No real emotional payoff at all — from a film that purports to be about how important the need for love is and how great it is and what you’ll do to get it back once it’s been taken from you, etc. Although I am prepared to posit that “You came for me” and “rising, swelling” music might just be part of my masculine perspective…

The bad guy is left alive and probably completely unharmed at the end of this film. In comparison, take The Running Man, Death Race and Demolition Man. Is it a masculine perspective thing that the System/villain has to be taken down, violently, in some way for there to be an emotionally satisfying ending? Do we need that big orgasmic explosion at the end or it just isn’t worthwhile? This film ends with Parker and Naia together and no one’s looking for them, the end. There’s nothing showy at all. They’ve got their love, they’ve got each other. That’s it. They don’t even say “I love you” at the end. Is that a feminist thing? A feminine thing?

 


Behind the Spider’s Eye: Night Magick by Philip D. Williams

Behind the Spider’s Eye is the heading I’m going to use for practical occultism posts and essays — whenever I feel the need to talk about paganism and crafting pagan ritual, that’s the heading I’ll use. Okay? Let’s begin!

Night Magick by Philip D. Williams

http://www.nightmagick.com/mainpage.shtml

This book was an invaluable resource when the time came for me to write my first public ritual. I’ve always hated the Western colour symbolism that says “White = Good; Black = Evil” and have always opposed it. I thought my pastor cowardly and disappointing as a child when I asked him why we as Black people would go along with the whole Black is Evil thing and he refused to discuss the issue. He didn’t even have the sense to feign indignance at the thought of entering into a theological discussion with a child; the man just ran off apologetically as though he were terrified of even talking to me (I did have a bit of a reputation I imagine with the Sunday school teachers).

When I got a chance to perform my first public ritual with the CUUPS group in New Orleans, I wrote a ritual celebrating the wonder and the mystery of the Night. I used the four Persian Watcher stars as my watchtowers and celebrated the Dark Goddess. I “reversed the polarity” of the Four Elements and did meditations that connected us to their dark aspects.

Actually performing the ritual taught me two key things I would have to remember always when dealing with public ritual. One: there are always going to be people present at a public ritual who don’t take the occasion as seriously as you do. Two: there are always going to be hiccups — people not knowing where to stand, people having to hold the script and some other object at the same time, etc. That’s why it’s always nice to practice beforehand but some times you can’t prepare for what happens.

At the height of the ritual, a huge current of wind started blowing in the courtyard of the UU church we were holding ritual at. And a few pages of one of ritual scripts got caught up in the wind. Everything came to a screeching halt as we all watched these pages circle faster and faster around the courtyard and then get sucked higher and higher into the night sky and then straight up out of sight.

I sighed, exasperated, wondering what else could possibly go wrong. And my Wicca 101 instructor looked at me and said, “You wrote a ritual to the Night and it was literally accepted by it; some people go their whole lives waiting for a sign like that.”


Black

      \’blak\ adj.
           1. Of the color black
           2. Covert, clandestine, surreptitious <~ ops>
           3. Secret, unknown, fraught with import and intrigue <a ~ purpose>
           4. Free, unregulated, hidden <~ market>
           5. Possessed of richness and depth <~ chocolate>
           6. Weighty, important, heavy or serious <a ~ intrigue>
           7. Complex, obscure, dense, difficult to understand, impenetrable <a ~ tome>
           8. Of or relating to praeternatural powers, sorcery and/or magic <the ~ arts>

One of my objectives with my writing is to re-engineer Western Color Symbolism and to erode the symbolic connections between “dark” and “black” with “evil.” I admit I’ve had a tough time convincing some people of the importance of this, particularly, to my deep regret, the young, who just don’t see it as terribly relevant. It pains me to see Black people using the word black in that sense. I point out to them that part of the racism that drove Europeans to conquer half the planet and take everything that wasn’t nailed down was the sense they had that they were doing something good and proper by doing so — the White Man’s Burden can be expressed in no more clear fashion than the idea that it’s okay to bring the “light” of Western civilization to “darkest” Africa. It wasn’t that long ago that the Mormon Church taught that the dark skin of Africans and African-Americans was the “Mark of Cain,” the first murderer. And so, I’ve always tried in my work to show darkness as I see it — a wondrous thing, a miraculous thing. To me, the night sky is not a place that holds terrors but a place of mystery and delight, a source of aspiration and contemplation. And that’s what the color Black means to me.