Because there were an awful lot of paragraphs that didn’t end up making it into that last post.
The world is full of people who really, sincerely want to be heroes. This is important.
This is a discussion of Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders, which are the first two novels in a sci-fi series called Terra Ignota.
I’ve put “book review” in quotation marks because I cannot pretend that my essay is meant to provide useful information to people who are considering reading these books. It’s not even really meant to discuss the books’ artistic qualities at all, although in fact it does that thing, in the process of getting where it needs to go. It is a philosophical complaint that happens to have their text as its substrate.
I am writing this for an imagined audience that has already read Terra Ignota. Not even because of spoilers — although there are some spoilers, at least in a plot-structural sense — but just because I’m trying to grapple with the implications of a complicated thing, too complicated for me to be able to reproduce it in summary at the level of fidelity that would be needed.
If you’re interested in getting a more normal sort of book review from me, all I can provide is the following:
1. For various complicated reasons, there is no way in hell that I can be remotely objective about Terra Ignota as a piece of literature, and you should probably turn to someone else if you want sound analysis of its artistic merit.
2. That being said: the critics all seem to be describing it as a beautiful jewel of a series, and as far as I’m concerned, in this case the critics are completely right. The prose is clever, and intricate, and manages to remain fun despite its incredible density; the best of the characters are refreshingly individual, original, and bizarre; the author’s chops as an intellectual historian shine through, and she takes a contagious delight in treating serious ideas with the seriousness they deserve; and yet, in the end, all of these are garnishes beside the real feast. Given the values her own writing espouses, I can pay Dr. Palmer no higher compliment than to say that she channels the sensawunda of Golden Age sci-fi, in a pure way that we haven’t much seen since the Golden Age. She dreams up weirdness after weirdness that can be dropped upon the world, and asks “what if?,” and then takes the time to explore all the answers to that question. I want to call it “great worldbuilding,” but in so doing I would mislead. In this fallen age, “worldbuilding” is a term that has come to mean something less remarkable than the thing these novels are doing. This is not RPG-sourcebook material — this is not “check out the clever rules of my magic system!,” or “look at all the heraldry and politics I made up for my feuding noble houses!,” or anything so common — this is imagining substantively different ways that reality could be. It is good. You should read it.
Someone on Tumblr challenged me to provide a concise, usable definition of this “identity” term that I keep throwing around. Which is really a very reasonable sort of challenge.
Someone else pointed out that it might prove useful, later on, if my answer to that question were not buried in the trackless depths of Tumblr.
So. As best as I can define it, at the moment, identity is:
1. An abstracted mental image (or narrative) of the self, which is
2. Defined by a constellation of archetypical traits and tropes, and which
3. Allows its possessor to find both personal validation and aesthetic satisfaction in contemplating it, because
4. To some extent it simultaneously conforms to reality and to personal ideals.
It seems that people in my corner of the Great Internet Discourse have actually started talking about the Identity Thing. Some in response to my writing, some not. This is pretty excellent.
I should respond to their words.
…and perhaps clarify a few of my own thoughts while I’m at it.
This is a discussion of a fantasy novel, which ended up being weird enough in an experiential/literary way that I thought it worth some extended thought. Quite apart from anything else, it’s a pretty fun read, as fantasy novels go. Good prose, engaging characters, etc. If “magic assassins and court intrigue in fictionalized Qing-era China” sounds appealing, well, Portal of a Thousand Worlds will probably appeal. It will also be a bit disconcerting, for reasons that constitute the topic of this review. But overall I probably recommend it.
That said: I cannot talk about the things that make this book noteworthy without spoiling it in a very substantial way. I am not holding anything back. So, uh, don’t look below the cut unless you’re OK being spoiled. Go and read Portal of a Thousand Worlds first, if you think you might be interested.
I am, inter alia, a LARPer and an author of LARPs.
(This is not a metaphor. I mean it literally. I know that it’s become fashionable, in certain circles, to use “LARPing” as a slang term for “any intellectual or social activity involving an element of pretense” — e.g., neoreactionaries are urban liberals LARPing as traditionalist conservatives — but I am talking about real actual goddamn live-action roleplaying events, clearly acknowledged as such by all the participants.)
For those of you who aren’t familiar: LARPing is basically “make-believe games for adults, in which the action takes place in something-like-real-space and something-like-real-time, rather than being mediated solely through words or representational symbols.” People in costumes pretending to be other people.
The particular tradition in which I work, for those who believe in such distinctions, is usually called “theater LARP.” Theater LARPs are usually isolated one-off scenarios (suitable for being rerun many times with different groups of players), usually somewhere in the one-to-eight-hours range, and usually focused on elaborately prewritten characters and situations. The smallest theater LARPs may have as few as three or four roles, but twenty-player games are pretty standard, and some can get much larger.
Each player is assigned a character and provided with the associated “character sheet,” which may have stats or other game-mechanical information on it in the manner of a D&D character sheet, but which mostly contains narrative explaining the character’s background and psychology and goals; this story-text is supposed to help the player get into the character’s headspace and to guide roleplay choices. Unsurprisingly, the characters are usually written so as to have interesting things to say and do to each other, which is the core of the game experience. The medium has been described as “like a play without a script or an audience,” and thinking in those terms will give you at least a reasonable picture of what’s going on.
The general rule is that individual players don’t play in any given game more than once, and LARP stories are often written with this in mind. (The narrative may hinge on the revelation of secrets, etc.)
There may be game mechanics used to represent certain kinds of action — hand-to-hand combat, battlefield command, casting magic spells, conducting academic research, etc. These mechanics tend to be very abstract and bare-bones. Theater LARP rarely incorporates boffing (sport-fighting with fake weapons) or any other sort of athletic endeavor.
Here’s the thing about LARPs: they can hit really really really hard, and people tend to get really really really into them.
I don’t just mean this in the sense of “it’s a cool hobby and it draws people in, causing them to want to LARP more.” Individual LARP experiences can have profound personal effects on the players, and this happens a lot more often than you’d think. People obsess over roles that they once played, over little roleplay exchanges in which they once took part, years and years after the fact. Sometimes they’ll start to see certain facets of the real world through social or metaphysical lenses derived from the narratives of particular games. Sometimes a player will quietly shift his personality, or his outlook, to better match some particularly-resonant character. Fanfic, and other now-standard manifestations of sustained interest, crop up constantly. It’s not unknown for in-character romances or feuds to blossom into real-life romances or feuds, even when the dynamic is mostly or entirely rooted in the narrative of the game. It’s very common for LARP memories to be especially-treasured, and for people to be super-possessive of the best stories that they’ve gotten to play out.
Of course, to some extent, this sort of thing plays out with every kind of narrative experience. Anyone on the internet knows how much books and TV can grab people. But the extent to which it happens with LARPs is…surprising. In a number of ways.
Partly it’s just a matter of frequency and magnitude. With “normal media,” a lot of people will consume it and enjoy it and basically forget it, a small slice of the audience will end up caring about it enough to engage in anything that could be called fandom, and a tiny handful of folks will care so much that they go a little nuts. With LARP, those last two groups are much larger proportionally. I have no data with which to demonstrate this statistically, but…if you go hang out with LARPers, it won’t take you long to see what I mean.
This is true despite the fact that, in terms of cultivating audience obsession, LARPs have a number of obvious distinct disadvantages.
There is no massive fan-community in which the energy of interest can be cycled endlessly. There’s really not even the potential to build such a community, because there’s no easy or time-insensitive way for potential fans to consume a LARP. If you’re looking for people who would be interested in talking about a given game, you’re limited to the tiny number of people who have actually had the chance to play in that game. Organizing a LARP, like organizing any other sort of meatspace social event, takes time and effort and resources.
Also…to be totally honest…many theater LARPs kind of suck. Most of them, even. From an artistic perspective and from an experience-management game-design perspective. It’s a very young medium, and not all the kinks have yet been worked out. The LARPing world is a tiny world of fly-by-night amateurs; there simply aren’t many active authors, and there’s no real financial or editorial support available for anyone, and Sturgeon’s Law still applies. For logistical reasons, it’s often difficult for information to travel between individual LARPing communities, so there’s not the same kind of cross-pollination and ferment that you might get with some more-portable art form. Hell, only in the last decade or so have people started to believe that “making high-quality theater LARPs with serious literary merit” was even a plausible or worthwhile goal.
So yeah. There’s a lot of terrible out there. A lot of game experiences with half-baked mechanics and poorly-conceived structure. A lot of stories that are totally hackneyed, or barely coherent, or just plain badly told.
And even if a given LARP is really good, there are important ways in which it’s very unlikely to be as immersive or as compelling as your average book/movie/TV show/video game. Production values can be a killer — when you’re trying to play out your story in someone’s apartment or in a mostly-undecorated college classroom, surrounded by people wearing cheapjack not-very-convincing costumes, the experience can be a constant strain on your suspension-of-disbelief. That goes double if some of your fellow roleplayers are not the most stellar actors, as is often the case. The mechanics can often be an absolute mood-killer, if what you’re looking for is mood; watching a cool kung fu fight on film is awesome, even reading about it in text form can be pretty special if the writing is good, having it out in Tekken is fucking spectacular, but “doing kung fu” by playing rock-paper-scissors or comparing stat cards somehow lacks that same sense of elan.
And yet. As I said, this stuff grips people. More reliably than books, or movies, or TV, or video games. Even though those things are supported by unfathomable talent pools and unbelievable budgets.
It’s something about the medium itself.
The most common explanation you hear — from dedicated LARPers themselves, as well as from those trying to psychoanalyze them — is that it’s basically about escapist fantasy. “Everyone dreams of being a wizard, or an emperor, or a world-saving hero. Watching a movie or reading a book, you can watch someone else be those things, and fantasize. But by playing in a LARP, you can actually live the dream, and be one of those things yourself!”
This is true as far as it goes, but it definitely does not account for the entirety of the phenomenon.
For one thing, well, there are video games. And they also let you live the dream yourself. In some ways, as I said, they let you do so much more compellingly than LARPs do; the production values and the mechanics are generally a whole lot more compelling. But video games don’t have the power that LARPs have to engender overwhelming psychological resonance (At least, not relative to product quality, not relative to exposure time, and not on a per capita basis.)
More importantly…the parts of LARPing that stick with people, the really powerful parts, often aren’t the allegedly-escapist parts.
You don’t often hear someone, in the wake of a theater LARP, talking about how he totally crushed that other guy with a mighty blow in a swordfight — or about how he totally cast the awesome spell that did the really impressive thing — or about how everyone totally bowed to him and obeyed his orders because he was the emperor. (Such things often don’t really feel like properly memorable moments in a theater LARP, what with the assigned roles and the abstract bare-bones mechanics and all, and they certainly don’t often feel convincingly like achievements even in a fakey sort of way.) Sometimes you hear people talking about how they very cleverly wrangled all the recalcitrant people to accomplish the political thing, or about how they figured out how to assemble all the widgets and solve the plot, or some such. This is pride in successful-systems-mastery, and should be familiar to any gamer.
But mostly you hear people talking about emotions and relationships. About in-character friendships that were full of life, about in-character romantic triumphs and in-character romantic tragedies, about quiet moments of personal pathos. About touching the (fake) hearts of others, and having their own (equally fake) hearts touched in turn. About having the chance to display (fake) integrity, or to change your (fake) values and undergo (fake) personal growth.
…and, also, about slice-of-life plots and difficulties like “my character’s struggle to get (fake) tenure at her (imaginary) university job.”
Or, to put it another way: some of the stickiest parts of LARPing are the parts that are just slightly-awkward simulacra of regular life.
Which is not so surprising, when you realize that some of the stickiest and most resonant theater games are just LARP-formatted stories about regular people living regular life, with no escapist elements whatsoever.
(In before: yes, I realize that I’ve set up a very easy joke to be made here. “LARPers like games about having relationships and emotional growth, because that sure is escapist fantasy for them!” Haw haw. All I can say is no, this funny does not correspond to reality. The LARPers having these obsessions are also usually undergoing plenty of personal engagement — and personal drama — in their real lives.)
This does rather poke some holes in the escapist-fun theory. And it raises an obvious question: Why do you get so attached to fake versions of banal everyday stuff? The real thing is right there. Isn’t it richer, more substantive, more compelling?
Real life may be full of feelings and complexity and wonder and excitement, but it’s not a story, not from the inside. It’s just a mess of entities and events, and none of them are tagged as mattering. We try to convince ourselves, and others, that they matter. Sometimes we succeed, and then we feel like existence has some substance to it. But it’s always a struggle, and the exercise always feels a little hollow.
A LARP is a faked-up version of life that is a story. Your character, whoever he is and whatever he does, is ontologically important — God, in his guise as the authors and the game-masters, says so. (Were it not true, why would your character be present in the game at all?) Your crushes and flirtations and confessions and consummations, however cliche or awkward they may be, are romances. Your personal trials, and your attempts to achieve your goals, constitute a character arc. Whatever you do, be it grand or ordinary or pathetic, matters. The universe was created so that you might do it, so that others might see you do it, so that your tale could be told.
And, crucially, there is a social compact by which other actual human beings acknowledge this story that you are living. The rest of the players believe in the same narrative universe that you do, for they are embedding themselves within it just as much as you are. They will believe in your tale, they will care about it and honor it, if for no other reason than that they want you to believe in and care about and honor theirs. When you talk about the game with a fellow player, afterwards, you are speaking of things whose worth and salience is beyond dispute (as with any fandom!), except that you are also speaking of yourself. It gets even better than that, because the game provides you both with a mutual vocabulary with which to discuss this illusory story-of-self that you share — you’ve read the same documents, played by the same formal rules — so that the impossible isolation of personal experience becomes a bit easier to bridge in context. Both of you underwent the same sequence of events-that-matter, from different vantage points, and God provided you with the same set of tools by which you can process the experience!
This is distilled psychological validation. This is the thing that feeds narcissistic hunger, boiled down to a superstimulus. This is the answer to suffering, the redemption of the human condition. Of course people get really ridiculously into it.
(And, let me tell you, when by dint of bad design a LARP fails to provide that thing — when players are left feeling as though they didn’t really matter, as though their stories were not recognized and honored — there is often a sadness, and a fury, that is truly terrifying. I’ve seen it, and I’ve felt it, and there is a profundity to it that is way beyond what you’d expect from the fallout of a disappointing hobby-game. Weaponized narcissistic injury is nasty shit.)
Needless to say, there is a problem: it’s all totally fake. Psychologically speaking, the rewards provided by a LARP are pure “empty calories.” The personal identity that’s up there on the altar, being honored, isn’t your identity. You can try to appreciate the feeling, in the aftermath, but that happens at a distance. You can try to cling to the feeling, lose yourself in the story, but that’s delusion and it’s not sustainable. Ultimately, the dissonance between your real self and your character will overcome everything else.
But there’s something very precious here, something worth saving.
Maybe we could turn reality into a LARP.
…it’s hard for me to talk about this without getting kind of mystical. It’s all so vague, as of yet. There’s so much that needs to be figured out.
But maybe there’s some way to take this technology and apply it outside the context of an author-created universe with author-created characters. Maybe we can create a social God who can grant the seal of ontological importance to our ordinary lives. Maybe we can forge a covenant by which we can recognize, and honor, the hard-built identities of others. Maybe we can cultivate the discipline that is seeing the stories of our lives the way we naturally see the stories we are told.
That is my grandiose dream, my world-reshaping project, my Quixote quest.
Next time, on The Baliocene Doctrine —
— or maybe not next time, who the hell knows, but probably soon-ish —
- A discussion of defunct collectible card game Legend of the Five Rings, and the secrets it holds for the psychological salvation of the world!
- A discussion of the difficult balance between “acknowledging the reality of semi-unreal identities” and “staying grounded in a reality that is accessible to others!”
- Balioc answers questions and rebukes from people who are losing patience with his pretentious messianic windbaggery!