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A write-up for the current game I’m running. As it’s already out there online, so I thought I’d share it here as well. The setting sprang from my painting to the right.

I play using Risus: The Anything RPG. Write-up designed to hand out to players before character creation.

This setting is also available as a printable PDF on Risusiverse.

Background

Three hundred years ago came the Hammer’s Blow. An astral body came hurtling towards the earth with an impact so great the very continents were hurled into the sky. With it too came a large infusion of magical energies that permeated the shattered land.

Now, the world looks little like it once did. The habitable regions are floating islands of a myriad sizes, ruled by an amalgam of kingdoms, principalities, republics and city states. Few of these island nations have the resources to remain self-sufficient, and so many depend on the vital trade along the sky roads, traversed by airships run by powerful merchant families or the occasional daring adventurer.

A thick blanket of noxious mist called the Celestial Fog churns beneath the archipelagoes, but if one were to plunge beneath, they’d find the torn remnants of the world that was – a charred wasteland that never sees the sun, surrounded by deep ravines and bubbling seas of magma. However, even in these dangerous regions people have found a way to make a life for themselves, plundering the ruins of the ancients and learning the secrets of their advanced technology.

The player characters will be new members on the crew of am independent merchant airship called the Cloudfarer, under a certain Captain Sasha Waylend

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The first time I encountered George Orwell’s 1984 was in an essay collection by Isaac Asimov I read when I was 11. It was the first thing I’d read by Asimov, it was the first essay in the book, and it was devoted to criticizing 1984 as a bad example of science fiction. It’s laughable to recall that essay now. Asimov was fixated on the Orwell’s failure to imagine technological advancement and how well it measured as a predictive text; he pushed an idea that science fiction attempts to accurately extrapolate the future. If you measure Asimov’s own work against that criteria, then he failed to write good science fiction too. And from the viewpoint of 2020, the situations have reversed: Asimov wrote the essay in actual-year 1984, and many of the social changes 1984 warns us about sank into daily life much later. 1984 became much more of a predictive text than Asimov’s in the 21st century, but we’ve ceased to measure it by the criteria.

Not to criticize Asimov too harshly on this point – there are other things that he deserves much more criticism for. In 1984, there was a vogue to write those kinds of comparisons when the year and title of the novel are largely arbitrary. The worst I can say is that Asimov’s essay meant I didn’t pick up 1984 on my own through high school. It was assigned reading in other English classes but not in mine, and I didn’t actively seek it out.

Time passed. It’s 2020. I have finally read 1984 for the first time.

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While fantasy novels promise the ability to reach the limits of our imaginations, it’s still not often that authors choose to tell stories with no humans in them at all. Estrangement is a common way to describe fantasy, but crossing the gap to completely alien biologies and societies puts more distance between a reader than just throwing in unfamiliar words, behaviours and cultures. I know plenty of readers thrown off by the first chapter of Dune just from the terminology used in the first chapter. Unless you map creatures against a clear historical human antecedent like the Edwardian dragons of Tooth and Claw, you need to put in some real effort to make readers accept and care about characters who don’t look like people.

This barrier comes up immediately in Martha Wells’s Books of Raksura. The main characters are a species of shape-shifting, flying humanoids who structure their society unlike any human one, and the entire vastness of the Three Realms likewise is packed with varied intelligent species who call the land, the water, the air, or the islands that also float up in the sky their homes.

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In preparing for the post, I read over my previous “farewells”. I realized my reflection on the year is largely the same as in 2018. I’m still frustrated with my creative output. I wrote no fiction at all this year, and while I’ve devoted most of my free time to artwork, I’m still not happy with my finished pieces. The house I’ve been building since 2018 still isn’t finished. Lay on that trouble sleeping and it hasn’t felt like a great year.

But, on balance, I should be more positive about my art. I picked up watercolour painting this year and fell in love with it. I took another go at the Inktober drawing exercise and that’s where I could make a real comparison to my last attempt in 2017. The ink drawings this time were much, much stronger, from broad composition down to linework. Clearly, I’ve improved a great deal, even when it’s not immediately apparent to me that this is happening.

My inability to come up with story ideas has weighed heavily on me and I’m not sure how to deal with it. I think I tied too much of my identity to writing and to creative accomplishments when my spotty publication history should have warned me that was a bad idea. Only now has the tug towards stories started again, but actually getting all of that down on the page is another struggle.

That all being said, here is my usual rundown of things I personally thought were the best things from the year.

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The Scott Pilgrim series (2004 – 2010) is one of the most influential things to come out of Canadian comics. It captures the thrust of new artistic movements in the medium and storytelling modes in the first decade of the millennium. Bryan Lee O’Malley draws on video games and manga for its form – the six volumes are all made to imitate Japanese comic releases from the size to the panel formatting – while still retaining a unique look that distinguishes it from its inspirations.

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Charles De Lint is highly prolific and has explored a wide range of styles, but Moonheart (1984) set the dominant flavour for his work. When you think of the name Charles De Lint, you think of a very specific kind of urban fantasy.

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My experience with novels that have multiple authors is always coloured by wondering what part belongs to whom, and how things would have shaken out under just one pen or another. Often, the voices of the people involved dampen each other instead of sharpening their quirks and thematic obsessions, such that I come away feeling something is missing from the collaboration.

The Steel Seraglio (2012)has three authors, but I didn’t encounter any of those difficulties as I read it. Mike Carey, Linda Carey and Louise Carey seem to operate on the same wavelength, maybe helped since they’re a father-mother-daughter team. Despite its multi-narrative structure, it flows together seamlessly. Maybe this is helped by its imitative nature, trying to evoke the 1001 Nights and the 20th century fantasies that drew from that, particularly the short fiction of Borges and Lord Dunsany. A distant fairy tale voice gives the authors a stylistic goal.

The novel tracks an attempt to create a utopia in the desert, its too-brief golden age, and then its fall back into the sands. The sultan of Bessa keeps a large harem that’s exiled out of the city after he’s overthrown by an ascetic cult-leader. The members of the harem never reach their ordained destination, instead becoming an army that returns to take Bessa and make it “the city of women.”* Yet they carry with them their undoing, the last surviving heir of the sultan among their ranks who comes back to a new-forged civilization that sees no need for patriarchal structures, and certainly not for a new sultan to rule them.

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1.

It’s hard to imagine the kind of circumstances and types of people that spurred on the intellectual achievements of classical Greece. While we admire Greek philosophers, the issues they discussed don’t come up all that often outside university campuses and late-night conversations. In modern life, philosophy has taken on a much smaller role in steering society, and we don’t tie together a broad range of activities like art, literature, biology, technology and the like under the same umbrella anymore.

Jo Walton, however, has gone ahead and tried to imagine a place where we would do these things in the three books that make up Thessaly (2017): The Just City, The Philosopher Kings and Necessity. These are very specifically books about Greek philosophy and the making of philosophers, tackling some of the most basic existential questions such as what is goodness, what is excellence, what is our purpose – and while Walton doesn’t provide universal answers, she centres the constant asking of these questions as the root to living a satisfying life.

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Phantomland by Maaria Laurinen perfectly captures the experience of being tossed into a new job head-first and feeling completely out of their depth. Notwithstanding that in this case, the job is joining an elite law enforcement unit that appears to only employ people who have already died.

This is a webcomic that clearly takes inspiration from the “big coat” fashion of Fullmetal Alchemist – just look at these jackets!

Yet that influence isn’t just aesthetic; it manifests in the impeccable paneling, expressive characters and equally expressive inking. The drawing skill on display is remarkable, as well as Laurinen’s grasp of composition and pacing.

Technical proficiency comes paired with characters the creator loves dearly. Chie is relatable as an apprentice who, underappreciated and underutilized, can’t deal very well with her insecurities on top of the amnesia that’s fundamental to becoming part of the “ghosts.” Jon is a grizzled veteran who hides trauma beneath a veneer of indifference and has no desire to be a mentor. Both are typical archetypes for a buddy cop story like this one, but they’re realized well and play off each other into a broader team dynamic as we’re introduced to other ghosts.

It’s obvious I really like Phantomland. It’s aims, at this point, seem simple – give readers a fun romp – but it’s executed so delightfully well I think more people need to read it.

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I’ve noticed a growing swell of first- and second-generation immigrant writers of fantasy expressing anxiety over drawing on their family’s culture for their work, or the consequences they face when they don’t.

The fears are the same: getting criticism for lack of authenticity – not being a “real” member of that culture – or getting pigeonholed and then ostracized for not reflecting the dominant narrative of “the immigrant.” These fears reflect our own destabilized experiences as liminal cultural actors. We appear steeped in a culture but not in a geography, not quite of the place your family came from but not quite of the place you are, either, and with that lack of belonging comes an internalized sense of inevitable rejection from both places.

I wrote a long time ago about how having a liminal identity can go hand in hand with the desire to write fantasy and science fiction, but I didn’t touch on how carving that space carries its own implicit dangers. Immigrants become scared of casting an already contested identity out into the world; if you don’t conform to certain set boundaries set by others without your experience, you can face backlash.

On the one hand, you wrote your family’s culture and language wrong because you aren’t a true part of that culture and language. You didn’t grow up there. Or you left. 

On the other, you wrote someone else’s culture wrong because you didn’t base your stories on the culture that’s also “yours.” You are an outsider, stay with what you know. And let’s say you do that; well, those without any connection to your family’s culture will still find ways to point out how you did it wrong, because you didn’t stick to the story they’ve constructed about you.

Every choice is a mistake, every attempt to express and navigate your identity in writing isn’t the “right” way.

I have no easy response to any of these anxieties. They are just a part of being an immigrant, along with so many others. You can’t know how your writing will be reflected back on you, but where else to work out these contradictions, than in the imaginative space?

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