The collective confusions we’ve been exploring since I returned from January’s break form a tangled web, and no one loose end leads straight to the heart of it. It so happens that in recent months I’ve had the chance to explore it from yet another angle, by way of the research I’ve been doing for an unexpected project of mine.
Readers of my Dreamwidth journal will be aware of this, but those who simply follow this blog may not yet have heard that I’ve been asked by a game publisher to create a roleplaying game based on my fantasy series with tentacles, The Weird of Hali. I’m pleased to report that the game’s squamous and rugose bulk is slithering toward you—yes, you!—with uncanny speed, reaching out hungry pseudopods…well, you get the idea. The working draft is already in the hands of the publisher; editorial feedback, playtesting to destruction, and frantic editing will follow, and with any luck it’ll be unleashed on a world trembling with dread in early 2020.
One of the things I’ve been doing to try to make the game as good as possible is to read a bunch of current RPGs, in the hopes of getting a sense of where roleplaying games have gone in the years since I played regularly, admiring (and drawing inspiration from) the things that work, and wincing at (and being warned by) the things that don’t. I’ve had plenty of both experiences, though by and large the admiration has been the more common of the two—there are a lot of really good games out there these days.
I didn’t expect any of this research to cast light on the cultural politics of our era, much less to explain at long last why the Left can’t meme and why Hollywood has churned out so many politically correct flops since Donald Trump’s election. Still, that’s what happened, courtesy of one of the RPGs I picked up in the course of my research. I have no desire whatsoever to upset the designer or the publisher of the game in question, nor to do anything that might deprive it of so much as a single sale, so I’ll call it Airship Heroes (not its real name), pretend that it’s a steampunk-themed game (which it isn’t), and swap out other details as needed to provide everyone involved with as much plausible deniability as they could wish. The points I hope to make ought to be just as clear that way as any other.
What makes Airship Heroes an unintentional commentary on the cultural politics of our era isn’t the game itself – it uses a good workmanlike set of game mechanics and stats – but the setting, which is discussed at great length in the rulebook. Like a lot of RPGs these days, it takes place in an alternative history; in this case, it’s one where the great European and transatlantic wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries didn’t happen, because those sinister arachnids, the Spider Lords of Shambhala, burst out of their warrens deep under Central Asia’s mountains in 1751 and attempted to conquer the world. Fortunately, Colonel George Washington ambushed a Spider Lord detachment in the forests of western Pennsylvania, capturing their weapons and gear, and Benjamin Franklin was able to reverse-engineer the Spider Lords’ lightning guns. Once human warriors were equipped with high-tech weapons, the war turned in humanity’s favor, and by 1786 the Spider Lords had been driven back into their Central Asian refuges.
In the aftermath of the war, access to captured Spider Lord technology drove a rapid expansion of human scientific and technical knowledge, leading to your common or boiler-room variety steampunk setting: airships cruising the skies, Victorian technology going for baroque all over the place, and so on. That much is pretty straightforward. In the aftermath of the war, though, the rulebook has it that people in all the good countries—we’ll get to the others in a bit—up and discarded all their ethnic and gender prejudices, freed the slaves, gave women equal rights, and embraced liberal socially progressive democracy. Not only that, the good countries all stopped fighting each other and sent delegates to the League of Good Countries, based in Lisbon, which settled all disputes peacefully. Not only that, but nearly everyone in the good countries have adopted all the values of early 21st century upper middle class European liberal culture. So by 1845, the year in which the game is set, there are happy, peaceful, socially progressive industrial democracies in all the good countries of the world.
The bad countries? Well, the number one bad country is the Russian Empire, and the Russian Empire in 1845 is an evil capitalist plutocracy. And why has the deeply religious, agrarian, and still largely medieval Russia of 1845 up and morphed into a capitalist plutocracy? Because the rulebook says so, that’s why. (My guess is that what’s behind it is the sort of thinking that Alfred Korzybski used to critique so trenchantly: if capitalist plutocrats are all evil people, then all evil people must be capitalist plutocrats. QED!) The Russians fought alongside the good countries in the war against the Spider Lords, to be sure, but since they’re evil capitalist plutocrats we can assume that when Colonel Sodoff of the Imperial Russian Guard shows up in happy, peaceful, socially progressive industrial democracies like Ruritania and Paphlagonia and South Absurdistan, he’s Up To No Good.
So there are the Russians. There are the Spider Lords, who are still down there in their caverns under the mountains of central Asia, plotting Conquest of the World 2.0. There are dinosaurs—Baron Cuvier’s famous airship expedition to the Matto Grosso in 1832 discovered a whole ecosystem of big saurians there, and since then they’ve been exported to various other tropical regions because diplodocus steaks are just too good to pass up. And there are the captains and crews of classic steampunk-style airships, who go toddling around the planet looking for wrongs to right, nations that haven’t quite gotten around to joining the League of Good Countries yet, dinosaurs to lunch on, the sinister machinations of Colonel Sodoff to foil, or the even more sinister machinations of the Spider Lords of Shambhala to contend with. These captains and crews are the Airship Heroes of the game, and you get to play one of them.
And this is where the net draws tight. The Airship Heroes rulebook has some highly specific suggestions about how adventures ought to be handled. The game, it says, is based on the kind of lighthearted Victorian adventure novels in which the protagonists single-handedly liberate whole nations, defeat sinister conspiracies, solve insoluble problems while you wait, achieve the impossible and unscrew the inscrutable. That’s the way the game is designed to be played: the tone positive, the characters triumphant, complex moral issues and gritty realities banished from sight so that the good people can go their merry way saving the world from the bad people.
If that’s the kind of thing you want from a roleplaying game, dear reader, then Airship Heroes will probably be right up your alley. Even if that’s not the kind of thing you want, it’s a good solid game, and you won’t have to work too hard to tweak things to your liking. I suspect, in fact, that a lot of people who pick up Airship Heroes will either tinker with the setting or replace it with one that provides opportunities for more interesting play. The difficulty with the kind of upbeat, triumphant, morally-one-dimensional-to-the-point-of-cartoonishness setting that Airship Heroes provides, after all, can be summed up easily: it doesn’t take too many games before “Oh, look, there’s Colonel Sodoff again, how will we triumph heroically over him this time?” gives way to “Ho hum, there’s Colonel Sodoff again, I’m not sure I care how we will triumph heroically over him this time.”
That is to say, for most people, that sort of thing very soon becomes dull.
In an important sense, it’s not Victorian adventure fiction that Airship Heroes resembles most, but a different branch of the literature of that era: the vast profusion of improving stories of virtue rewarded and vice rebuked, which were churned out in such profusion while Victoria sat on Britain’s throne and fell into such richly deserved oblivion thereafter. By page five or so, you know which characters are good people and which are bad people, and from there on the story unfolds mechanically; the incidents may vary but the plot never does. The fine details of the moral preachments have changed from that time to this, but the basic tone—upbeat, triumphant, morally one-dimensional, and rather dreary—is the same as you’ll get when you climb aboard with Captain Goody Twoshoes and her stereotypically diverse crew to become an Airship Hero.
It’s also the same tone you’ll get from a flurry of recent Hollywood movies that were supposed to be blockbusters and turned into world-class flops. All of them have the same basic structure as Airship Heroes, or for that matter of any improving Victorian tale of virtue rewarded and vice rebuked. You’ve got the good people being good because they’re good people, you’ve got the bad people being bad because they’re bad people, the bad people try to do something bad to the good people, and the good people win because they’re the good people, that’s why.
Throw in lavish cinematography and way too many special effects, get the paid reviewers to cough up the usual fulsome praise, and (ahem) you’re good – well, except that you may just find out that you had everyone on board but the audience, who yawned and stayed home. This is why the phrase “get woke, go broke” has become so well known among moviegoers and the less politically correct critics. It’s also why I expect any day now to hear that a group of young, brash, politically conservative venture capitalists have funded a new moviemaking studio which will be located just outside Branson, Missouri, which will produce films that won’t be subject to the rigid social-justice dogmatism that rules Hollywood these days, and which in ten years or so will be where all the hot young talent is headed because the Hollywood studios just keep doubling down on a series of failed formulae.
This is basically what happened, after all, to the presidential ambitions of Hillary Clinton. For that matter, there’s something eerily appropriate in the image of Clinton as the captain of a dirigible in Airship Heroes, chugging through the skies high above one flyover state after another, in a state of serene and almost schizophrenic detachment from the gritty, morally complex realities down there on the ground, with her stereotypically diverse crew striking suitably triumphant poses around her and the clouds drifting lazily by. Her campaign was all about the good people being good because they’re good people, and the deplorables being deplorable because they’re deplorable—and there, too, the audience yawned and stayed home.
At this point, let’s fire up the engines on our own airship and head for the grim mountains of Central Asia where the Spider Lords lurk, because there’s a lesson to be learned from their really rather impressive dullness. Our pilot on this journey will be Arthur Koestler, a brilliant Hungarian writer who died in 1983. Among Koestler’s most influential books was The Act of Creation, which presented a theory of creativity that casts an important ray of light on the odd psychology we’ve been exploring for the last several months.
We can begin making sense of Koestler’s insights by considering jokes. The basic structure of humor is a collision between incompatible meanings; the setup prepares the listener to take what’s happening in one way, and then the punch line redefines it in a different way. The shock of the sudden change is what makes it funny. Puns show this in a particularly clear form, but it’s present in every kind of humor. Think of the confrontation between King Arthur and the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Arthur approaches the fight with one set of meanings in mind, the Black Knight does so with a completely different set, and the collision between them generates the high absurdity and hilarity of the scene.
The same thing on a more serious plane is the underlying structure of scientific discovery. At the heart of Isaac Newton’s magisterial work on gravity was a simple insight born of just such a collision. Throw a stone and it arcs downward until it hits the ground. What if the stone is the size of the Moon, and it’s high enough and moving fast enough that as it falls toward the ground, the ground falls away just as quickly due to the curvature of the Earth? That’s an orbit. The moon is a falling rock: that’s the insight, a dizzying realization that connected two worlds of meaning and made new sense of both of them.
The same thing, finally, is also what makes good literature. Let’s take Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as an example. You’ve got Elizabeth Bennett, the female lead, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, the male lead. They meet, he behaves rudely, she takes an understandable dislike to him; they keep on running into each other, he notices that she’s considerably more than the dull country girl he thought she was and he starts to fall for her, but by then her opinion of him is set and she won’t give him the time of day; around we go, until eventually his pride and her prejudice break down in the face of their mutual attraction, and they live happily ever after.
Notice what’s going on here: each of the main characters is contending with a collision between meanings. Is Mr. Darcy a conceited snob, or is he the man she’s been waiting for? That’s what Elizabeth has to figure out. Is Elizabeth just one more dull country girl, or is she the woman he’s been waiting for? That’s what Darcy has to figure out—and those aren’t the only meanings that collide, of course, or the only two characters who are caught up in their complexities, because Austen is far too good a writer to leave it at that. In her books, contending meanings dance and flirt and talk and snub one another like characters at the assembly ball in Meryton.
In order to have a collision between meanings, though, you’ve got to have more than one possible meaning. That’s where Airship Heroes, and those recent Hollywood flops, and the presidential ambitions of Hillary Clinton all land with an audible thud, because none of them permit more than a single meaning for anything in their world. In Airship Heroes, the good people are good people, full stop, end of sentence; they all share the same attitudes and values because those are the right attitudes and values, full stop, end of sentence; the member states of the League of Good Countries all get along, despite occasional misunderstandings and the sinister machinations of Russian capitalist plutocrats and the Spider Lords of Shambhala, because they’re good countries, full stop, end of sentence.
And the problem with Colonel Sodoff and the Spider Lords—well, besides the fact that they sound like a British acid rock band from the Seventies—is that they don’t even have their own meanings. They exist solely because the good people and the good countries and the good Airship Heroes need someone to triumph heroically over, again and again and again. The Russian Empire isn’t a capitalist plutocracy for any reason rooted in Russia’s long and rich history; no, it’s a capitalist plutocracy because that’s the horns and tail and red long johns in which this game tricks out some of its devils. For their part, the Spider Lords of Shambhala don’t even achieve the two-dimensionality of a cardboard cutout. They lurch mindlessly through their mechanical conquer-the-world routine because that’s the meaning they’ve been assigned.
And that, my children, is why the words “That’s not funny!” in an angry and censorious tone have been the punch line of any number of jokes at the expense of the far left since before I was born. It’s why, as the merry pranksters of the alt-Right like to say, the Left can’t meme, and why the alt-Right itself seems to be turning into the nucleus of the next radical youth counterculture just now. It’s why Hollywood keeps on throwing away tens of millions of dollars on dreary little morality plays, because the studios have lost track of the fact that effective storytelling depends on moral complexity and the collision of equally potent meanings, and they thought they could make up for it by larding the product with enough special effects and admiring themselves for parading their social-justice wokeness.
It’s also why Hillary Clinton isn’t President of the United States right now, and why her former supporters are gearing up to make all the same mistakes in 2020 that she and they made in 2016. One of the reasons I was able to predict in January of 2016 that Donald Trump would win the upcoming election was that the Clinton campaign, then just beginning to hit its stride, was very nearly a carbon copy of the campaign she’d run so unsuccessfully in 2008. Learning from your mistakes is perhaps the most basic form of the collision of meanings Arthur Koestler talked about: here’s the meaning you thought your actions had, here’s the meaning your failure has just revealed to you, and by comparing them you might be able to do better next time. That doesn’t seem to be something Hillary Clinton knows how to do, and a great many people on her side of the political landscape apparently don’t know how to do it either.
There’s good reason for that. If your worldview only allows things to have a single meaning, then the shock that comes from the collision between incompatible meanings isn’t something you will ever get to experience – and it’s out of that shock, as Koestler showed, that creativity and insight are born. Every time some member of the liberal establishment insists at the top of her well-exercised lungs that anyone who disagrees with [insert liberal establishment dogma here] is a [insert insult here], rather than listening to the people who disagree with it and finding out why, a chance for that collision of meanings goes away, and takes another electoral vote with it. We’ll see a little over a year and a half from now just how much that matters.