Monday, July 27, 2015

Jess and the Ancient Ones

I don't know when I started wanted to write up reviews of music that I was listening to, but I think this is the very first time such a review will appear on this blog.

I started listening to Jess and the Ancient Ones because of Ghost. Spotify somehow, through hook or by crook, led me to this Finnish band. They're a psychedlic rock band with a few EPs and an album out and, from what I can tell, very little recognition. They haven't written music that'll revolutionize the industry or anything, but they're very good at what they do. Their one complete album is worth listening to.

It's self-titled and begins with Prayer for Death and Fire. This is one of their strongest songs, and I can appreciate that they started off the album with it. The instrumentation isn't overly complex, but the lead singer, the eponymous Jess, has a voice reminiscent of Stevie Nix. Its her presence that elevates the music from being rather mundane psychedelic rock-verging-on-metal to something altogether better and different. When she wails the final chorus, the song is perfect.

Twilight Witchcraft is alright. Good driving beat, simple chord progression. I just want to hear Prayer for Death and Fire again, though, until the breakdown when Jess takes over. It's not as bright as Prayer and stays well within a certain range rather than branching up and down the scale. At that point, the song comes into its own. The vocal progression is more interesting than the guitar—intentionally, I'd wager. On repeated listen-throughs, I think this is a good cooldown song to come off of Prayer.

Sulfur Giants is next. It's got a little more going on, with a long instrumental intro that picks up at around two minutes and shifts back into your regular rock chord progression. Vocals start up around 2:45. The instrumental segment returns at seven minutes in for one more flip back. It's all very nicely balanced.

Ghost Riders starts out with a series of broken chords that pay homage to whatever country-western folk roots are going on in this song. I appreciate what they're doing here, with bells and running chords, and low smoky vocals... but I want to hear Prayer for Death and Fire again. I definitely heard "through the gates of the Silver Key," so there's some Lovecraft in here with all the rest of the general occult stuff.

Once the chorus starts up, the song really gets into gear. Jess and the others seem to excel at the choral sections. It's almost enough to get me to forget the aural dynamite of Prayer for Death and Fire's chorus. Almost.

13th Breath of the Zodiac opens strong with Jess high up in her register. Music is doing more interesting stuff now to support her. Once again, the chorus is the best part of the song. Eminently listenable. The breakdown is pretty good, also.

The Devil (in G minor) is a sudden tonal and modal shift from the other songs. It's great, it's nothing like anything else on the rest of the album, and I don't hear the echo of Prayer for Death and Fire while I'm listening to it. It's a dark, folksy, almost southern gothic number. Jess' range is obviously the best thing about it, and its at its best during the chorus. Obviously.

Come Crimson Death is the last song on the album and returns to the heartland of its psychedelic rock roots with some very King Crimson instrumentation as it opens. Mellow and contemplative, with good hooks, it's much more peaceful than the rest of the album as well. Yes, indeed, come crimson death—and then bring me back to death and fire.

The flow of the album is great. Prayer has a sustaining drive that's cooled down by Twilight Witchcraft and even further by the contemplative instrumental section of Sulfur Giants, which itself contains a number of speed-ups and slowdowns.

However good Prayer may be on its own (and it does stand out, markedly, as the best song on the album), the entire album is composed like a well-structured meal: better for the juxtaposition of its elements, more than the sum of its parts.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Facebook, the Facebook

Gentlefolk, I'm gearing up to release Haven's Children, my debut post-apocalyptic sci-fi masterpiece (well, pulp adventure, anyway) and I need your support. Head on over to my Facebook Author page to be appraised of the latest updates on the book's progress!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Fiction Friday: Cosmos

“Can’t you see what we’re building?” Lilith asked. She leaned black in the big faux-leather chair.

Harry frowned at the windowpanes. Construction?

“This, this, all of this,” she said. “I mean as a species.” She gestured dramatically indicating everything in the office—the chair, the desk, the plate glass windows, the steel beams hidden in the walls. “All of these buildings, everything we do. The entire world. Don’t you see it?”

He had to confess: he did not.

“It’s a necrocosm. A tomb-world. We’re making our own mortuary, our own moratorium. For as long as there’ve been people we thought we were the top. Nothing could be more spectacular than us! To us, thinking is the same as commanding—right?” She had a wry grin on her face. It made Harry uncomfortable. He wasn’t used to talking this openly, this bluntly, with superiors. There was something wrong about it. “Look, look outside. We’re really just parts in one giant organism. Lovelock had it right. The highways, look at them. Can you see? They’re veins and arteries.”

He looked. They were highways. He saw the people, saw the cars. So what?

“So what? Think about it.” Lilith sounded irritated, maybe even slightly disappointed with him. “We’re just one more step on the road of evolution. Everyone wants to think of themselves as the peak of the mountain, but the mountain keeps going up and up and up. In ten thousand years, archaeologists will come here and look through all our silent buildings and all our crumbling works and say ‘Look how industrious they were! Look how little they understood, yet how much they built!’ They’ll marvel that we could be so self-absorbed and yet seem to have such insight.”

Harry didn’t like where this was going at all.

“We’re not the top of the mountain, that’s the problem. We’re just another step on the way. Not even a very smart step, not even a very creative step. I mean, look; when you’re in the lab what do you study? Eukaryotes and prokaryotes, right? What makes us any different? Oh, sure, we have a culture. Eukaryotes with a culture. There’s a joke in there about petri dishes.” She smirked again, Harry’s uncomprehending stare forgotten.

“But really, nothing more than that. We sweat and we bleed, work, groan, grunt, fuck, and in the end we convince ourselves that it all really means something. We write books and plays and television shows and movies and on and on, for what? To keep our minds off of the truth.

“The truth is that we’re transient, Harry. Do you get it? Easy come, easy go.”

Harry shook his head. “No. I mean, maybe you’re right. Say we are... just building this necrocosm of yours. How are we transient?”

Lilith went back to her desk. She tapped the inbuilt senseboard. “Right here,” she said. Her fingers caressed the wood and brass. The senseboard sprang to life, projecting images of letters across its surface. The monitor hummed. “We’re just a step on the road. Life is information. Right?”

And suddenly he saw it. The highways pumping people through the cities, which were the great organs of a creature as large as the world.

“We have a global consciousness now,” Lilith said. “It took us a long time to develop it—well, actually, not all that long in relative terms. But we’re awake. Finally awake! Yes, it’s diffuse and can only think at the lowest grade. The global thought-patterns are glacially slow and stupider than any one of us, but all you have to do is go online to see that we’re thinking. So what if the thoughts seem fragmented? It’s like a Monet, take a step back. We’re all individual pieces playing our individual roles. Someone produces a germ: a post on a forum or a piece of art, or something. The rest ruminate on it. Before long there’s a whole exegesis about it. If that’s not thinking, I don’t know what is.”

Harry shivered and looked outside again. He didn’t like the glee playing over Lilith’s features. “Maybe,” he admitted. Life is information. But… “Information can’t make life. I mean, information alone.”

“That’s all genetic material is, Harry. A blueprint!” Lilith laughed.

He shook his head. “Yeah, but when I learn something new, I don’t give birth.”

“Maybe you do.” Another laugh, this one nasty. Lilith lording her reproductive might over him? Or lamenting twenty thousand years of repression? “But you’re right. Our biological makeup isn’t well suited to incorporating new information. We can learn things, and that changes us, but we can’t make radical changes to ourselves. There’s always a second-order process. We can learn how physically it is possible to fly, but we can’t make ourselves into birds.”

Then Harry understood. “But machines can.”

“They don’t need to stop, or die, or fade away to become something else. They can change themselves, Harry. They can do more than learn. They can embody new information completely.”

“You think we’re here to pave the way for a race of machines.”

It was Lilith’s turn to shake her head, tersely, in that sharp way she had. “Don’t be stupid, Harry. That’s teleological. We’re not here for anything. We’re just here.”

“I like being myself, Lilith. I don’t want to be a machine.”

She rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t be. You’re taking this all the wrong way. This is the long view I’m talking about.”

“So what’s the point then?”

“The point?” She cocked her head, like a confused bird. “What’s the point of anything?”

“To reproduce,” Harry said. He knew that would make her laugh. She was a lab rat at heart, even if the Company thought she was useful.

She didn’t, though. Laugh. She nodded at him. Her eyes were scary wide. “Right. To make copies of ourselves.” Harry looked at her. Was she propositioning him? That would be an HR nightmare. But no, she didn't look like she meant sex at all.

Her hands were on the senseboard. Her attention was turned more toward the machine in front of her than to him, regardless of where her eyes were. The whole rest of her body was twisting toward it, ready to leap. It took him a few minutes to understand. He kept looking at her. When he was sure he finally understood, she nodded slowly. Another shiver, this one deeper and more awful, spread from his very core.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Art of Rebellion

So let's talk about all the various types of rebellion that occurred in the medieval world.

We've already examined the types of popular revolution that happen when food prices are shaken, but there are other forms of rebellion and replacement of the political order than merely the overhauling revolution.

There are several things that lead to rebellion, a laundry list of factors as it were. These include but are not limited to:

(a) A sizable intelligentsia unable to access political efficacy.
(b) Insecurity in food supply or income.
(c) In the medieval context of polities that are reliant on personal charisma, personal disagreements or other forms of friction between individuals.
(d) Growing pains after an attempt (successful or not) at centralization.

Several of these can be consolidated into a single element, mainly: weakness of the central authority. The reason for this is, of course, that someone in the kingdom always has a better idea at how things should be run, or a more legitimate claim to the title, or just more ruthlessness. Rebellion and insurrection are in fact native forces that simply wait for the center to fail. They are the entropic principle of a kingdom (or, in modern terms, a state). As wood rots and the arrow of time flies ever forward, the death of the kingdom is already contained within it, waiting for release.

The most common types of rebellion in medieval polities are, of course, those that focus on one of the following issues:
(i) inheritance grievance
(ii) centralization grievance
(iii) religious grievance
(iv) interpersonal tension

All of these issues require an alternative pole to the king to coalesce and take form. This can be the king's paternal uncle, for example, or a brother or son. Paternal uncles were particularly dangerous in the very early middle ages, often killing their brothers' sons in order to take over. Brothers can be equally treacherous—take, for example, the unification of Frankia that relied upon Charles packing his son off to the monastery and fortuitously watching Carloman die.

We can take an archetypical rebellion as a pattern, namely the infamous Anarchy that occurred during the realm of King Stephen. Now, this analysis isn't quite as rigorous as, say, a historical book on the subject. I may miss some of the root causes of the rebellion, but I can at least give the outline.

King Henry, who succeeded William Rufus, who succeeded William the Conqueror, had a son named Henry and a daughter named Matilda (or Maude). Maude was married to the Holy Roman Emperor, who later died, and then remarried to Geoffrey of Anjou. When Henry Adelin, King Henry's son, died in the sinking of the White Ship, King Henry demanded oaths of all his barons that they would crown the so-called Empress Matilda queen after his death.

However, he died fighting in Normandy and his cousin, Stephen of Blois, announced that on his deathbed Henry had named him the heir, following in a long tradition of truths as told by his ancestors, like William the Bastard (that's sarcasm, kid).

Anyway, he rushed to London and got himself proclaimed king. However, Maude still had a number of followers among the barons who grudgingly accepted his kingship. Her half-brother, Robert Earl of Gloucester (also Henry's bastard), began sowing the seeds of rebellion early in Stephen's rule and drawing her loyal followers to him.

When the time was right, Robert went into open revolt, and David, King of Scotland (a perennial thorn in Stephen's side) aided him by invading. David had already invaded once, as he was Matilda's uncle (and was probably using that chance to make a political grab of land in the north of England). Notice this theme: Matilda, the pole of legitimizing succession, gives David a claim to invade. Whether or not he really wanted Matilda to succeed her father is open to debate; though, that would also be wise, as it would create a loyal ally to his south.

Stephen was having troubles with Wales and his coffers were emptied out when Robert rebelled. Whether it was the chance Robert needed or whether Stephen appeared weak and ineffectual, thus driving more lords into Robert's arms, is uncertain. Whatever the reason, as soon as the center was weak enough, the revolt began.

Matilda was its figurehead, but Robert was its heart. He could never be king—his illegitimacy prevented it. Matilda, however, was a convenient figure to rally around.

In the unfolding of the Anarchy, we can see at play the interpersonal relationships of powerful medieval figures leading the road to war. This is a problem of (i) and (iv), triggered by a general weakness in the central polity due to raiding and expenditure of silver.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Dreadful Security of Food

Bastille Day was last week. I have a soft spot for the French Revolution in my heart, being torn between the Jacobins and the Hebertists on different days myself. But re-reading all about the Revolution of 1789 has reminded me of a dark truth: rebellion, revolution, and insurrection are the children of want, not of political need.

While it's true that somebody always hates the king, they rarely have the power to upset the political order in the every day course of events. True, they may plan a long coup, build up power to launch a rebellion composed of their loyal vassalmen, but there is always a trigger. The weakness of the social order must be made manifest in some way before the trap can be sprung. The iron, as they say, must be hot.

Political insurrection of that type must gravitate toward a legitimate or semi-legitimate figure of power. This is why people like princes of the blood, uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers, or other such relationships are so dangerous in a monarchic semi-feudal land. They represent poles of power with at least the patina of legitimacy. If you're going to kill the king, you can't very well sit on his throne and say, "Well, now I'm the king," no matter what Game of Thrones tells you. You need to have some claim at legitimacy going for you, even if it's hilariously attenuated.

The kind of revolutions we're talking about today, however, don't occur in such a planned manner. The revolution, for example, depicted in The Hunger Games is one that's really organized and fed by a shadow society for decades. That doesn't happen. What happens is that ideologues exist and foment their malcontent, but the people fail to rise up. They write angry pamphlets and letters, they preach in the streets, they preach from the pulpits, whatever they do, but the people don't follow them.

Until food is hard to come by.

When food prices start to rise, the social order begins to crumble. People really care about being able to afford to eat. Famine and plague are great ways to mobilize an angry populous. Tax riots occur not when the taxes increase, but when the ability to feed families is reduced. The price of wheat in the Paris commune went from 50% of a worker's wage to 80% in the course of a month. That kind of inflation is what causes men to go mad. Women too.

If you want to mobilize some mass social chaos capable of not only toppling a monarch but utterly replacing him with an entirely new political system... just throw some vocal ideology in there with skyrocketing food prices. Or wipe out the harvests one year. These things invariably lead to the kind of suffering that people just can't endure in silence.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Layer Cake

I know layer cakes have been used for all manner of metaphors. Today, I'm going to use it to help describe fantastic societies in terms of culture. We all know the standard tropes of how different the people are who live on the other side of the mountains, or whatever other geological divide separates your main kingdom from your other kingdoms. You may even have gone through and developed deep and interesting cultures for every land, detailing histories, philosophies, and the architecture of culture that generally shapes thought.

The issue is one that I've confronted over and over again and had pointed out to me by other people. So, after consciously thinking about it for a while, I thought it might be a good idea to highlight it for others to consider. That is this: once you have a very well-defined and developed system of thought, you must also consider how that system is reflected by differences in the social strata.

It's easiest to do this with an example: in the novel I'm currently writing, there is a belief-system called the Kyrian Confession. One of their core beliefs is in a deity that is a Platonic ideal of the One. It has no consciousness, per se, and no personality. The Divinity is equivalent to the Active Intellect or the principle of unity from which all things emanate.

One of the corollaries of this is that the Divinity cannot hear prayers, or even "know" individuals. The Divinity has knowledge of genera, not specific things, because it is the agent intelligence or the principle of unity.

The common folk don't understand or choose to ignore this belief. They pray to the Divinity. Colloquialisms referring to it as an entity have developed. They refute, refuse, or reject the elements of the system that don't mesh with their needs. This rejection doesn't take the form of an active resistance; indeed, if a prelate or priest carefully explained the idea to them, they would probably agree after some convincing that it was true. But, most likely, it wouldn't affect their practice.

This difference, between the philosophical intelligentia and the every day use of cultural norms, is important. Societies aren't homogenous across all levels. Sometimes, as the wealthy in Roman society, one class is a single unified culture. Sometimes, classes differ in both specific regions AND amongst themselves, causing a great profusion of differences. The gap of wealth and prestige creates many cultural artifacts amongst all the strata it separates.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Medicine of Arunia: The Pneumatic Model

The pneumatic model of medicine is very well known throughout Arunia and probably represents the primary medical approach. It is certainly the one taught by the physicians and medici of the Avaunite order. Pneumatics is based upon the notion of a liquid or airy soul that inhabits the body. This soul or spirit is a physical fluid that permeates the body and particularly finds home in the veins by admixture with the blood. Pneuma is what gives blood its life-bearing property; living blood and tissue is suffused with pneuma, while dead tissue or spilled blood has lost its pneumatics.

Eyesight is essentially pneumatic: a pneuma of airy spirit is emitted from the eye in an invisible ray, stretching back to the brain, where the pneuma suffuses the imaginative portion. This is how evil things can enter the body through the gaze; spells, the power of medusae, cockatrice, etc.

Magic is also pneumatic. Those things that don't possess a pneuma must have a false pneuma. Indeed, the art of necromancy is believed primarily to be concerned with the manipulation of a true living pneuma or the creation of a false one.

Medicine, in dealing with the pneuma, seeks to balance the humoral makeup of this spirit fluid. This is primarily achieved through one of two methods: bleeding and feeding. Bleeding is intended to reduce the pneumatic composition of the body and thus allow fresh pneuma to replace it. Feeding is a way to introduce combinations of the four humors that will actually change the balance of the pneuma.

There are derangements purely of the mind that stem from imbalance of the pneuma. Illusions act upon the pneuma. Many things are believed to interact with it. It is the presence of pneuma in each troll's limb and finger that permits it to live on after it is detached from the body. Ghosts and other such spirits are all pneuma, insulated from dissolution by a powerful positive or negative plane connection.

The pneuma is what solves the problem of pieces and essentialism. If a man loses his hand, is he any less a man? No, because it is the pattern in his pneuma that suffuses every piece of him that makes him himself.

The pneumatic model is rarely challenged in the North. However, there is a place where pneumatics is in conflict with planar theory. A satisfying resolution has yet to be proposed. The conflict occurs where magicians examine the ethereal plane. It is clearly possible for a wizard to become ethereal, yet this state is also attributed to ghosts and spirits. Are they truly ethereal? If so, there would be no reason to resort to a pneumatic explanation for their presence. However, pneuma, being able to dissolve through all physical material, certainly is an attractive explanation for the power of ghosts and spirits to pass through walls and all other solid matter. The essential dichotomy is that planar theory suggests the possibility of the immaterial, while pneumatic theory is a materialist doctrine.