“Elderdown”, and a New Book Giveaway!

Two days ago, I finished the second draft of “Elderdown”, the fourth and final part of my Kickstarter-funded urban fantasy series. I sent it to the editor and designer. Want to be among the first to read it?

Of course you do. 🙂 Then simply write a review on Amazon for any of the previous books in the series, any time during the months of May or June.

Don’t have any of the other books in the series? No problem. If you promise to review it on Amazon, I’ll send you one. Paperback or eBook, your choice.

The complete series, as of today.

The complete series, as of today.

Please, if you can spare a few minutes to go to the books’ listings on Amazon or other online retailer, and write a comment, review, or kind word about your favourite book in the series, any time between now and the end of June 2015, I’ll send you a copy of book 4 when it is published this summer.

Book One: Fellwater. Book Two: Hallowstone. Book Three: Clan Fianna.

Reader reviews are essential for promoting anything in this very crowded indie publishing world. Promotion work doesn’t have to be aggressive: after all, no one who reads one book is prevented from reading another. But promotion work does have to be spirited and lively, and especially reader-driven. Many companies that offer promotion services to independent writers will not touch a book that has fewer than 20 reviews or an average rating of less than 4 out of 5 stars.

Alas, at this time, there are very few reviews of the previous books in the series up on Amazon. (For reasons I don’t understand, Amazon ported the reviews of the first edition of Hallowstone over to the second edition, but didn’t do the same to the other books in the series.)

You can also post this link to the books’ homepage to your Facebook and Twitter streams, and simply recommend them to anyone who you think might enjoy them. If you have constructively critical remarks about the books, I’d be grateful if you would email them to me– critical engagement with readers is one way writers become better, after all.

Thank you for your generosity and enthusiasm in supporting my work.

Paperback editions of the complete series, including the two spinoff novellas.

Paperback editions of the complete series, including the two spinoff novellas.

Postscript: What will I do now that Elderdown is soon to be published? I am beginning work on a nonfiction project that I’ve had on my mind for a few years. I am also going to continue the world of the Hidden Houses with short stories and novellas, featuring characters who were marginal in the main series, as well as new characters. I’m thinking of running a Kickstarter project to pay for an illustrated edition of these new stories. And I’m also thinking of a sci-fi project.

As long as I have a book to write, I have a reason to live. 🙂

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Fictive Metaphysics, The Neverending Story, and The Nothing

Science fiction and fantasy, two distinct genres of storytelling, have at least this in common: fictive metaphysics. That is: there’s some regular feature of reality described in such stories which clearly doesn’t exist in our world, or which could not possibly exist in our world. Star Trek’s warp drive. The monoliths, from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Phillip Pullman’s Dust. As a child and a teen, my favourite fictive metaphysic was The Force, from Star Wars.

This was me at that age: always sneaking away from everybody to a creepy attic, in order to read books.

This was me at that age: always sneaking away from everybody to a creepy attic, in order to read books.

But I think the most philosophically interesting fictive metaphysic is The Nothing, from Michael Ende’s novel The Neverending Story. (Here’s the trailer from 1984 film.) The Nothing is not a person, nor a political movement, nor a criminal enterprise, nor anything comparable. It wouldn’t be quite right to call it ‘evil’ or ‘the enemy’, even though it serves in the story as the primary antagonist, because it isn’t an object to which one could ascribe the attribute. It’s a not-thing; it’s literally nothing.

How, then, can The Nothing be a counter-factual ‘thing’ with an effect on the world? Maybe, as Heidegger would say, it ‘nothings’. (Using the noun as a verb– reading Heidegger requires you ram your head against the walls of language.) I think a better fit might be the existentialist concept of the absurd. This is the proposition is that life is inherently meaningless: there is no pre-defined reason why we exist, nor any pre-defined human nature; nor is history or the world designed for any special purpose or plan. In the existentialist view, the only true statement one can make about metaphysics is that “existence preceeds essence”. Here’s Sartre explaining what this statement means:

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.

This reminds me of The Nothing because The Nothing is precisely a literary representation of the experience people have when they encounter the absurd: it feels like a force (even though it’s a non-force) that deprives one’s life of its meaning, its substance, and its point. It is the oncoming wave of emptiness, the empty pit of despair. (Don’t even think about trying to escape.) I dare say that most people on earth simply cannot bear the thought that their accomplishments are without meaning, their plans without hope of permanent success, their lives ultimately “about”, well, Nothing.

Ende’s books say that The Nothing is in some way controlled by mysterious beings called The Manipulators (who have an agent in Fantasia: the werewolf G’mork). He also says that things which fall into the Nothing get transformed into “lies and delusions” in the world of ordinary mortals. And if that isn’t frightening enough, Ende also recognizes a political implication: those who have succumbed to the Nothing are easier to control. Here’s the dialogue from the film, which explains it:

G’mork: Don’t you know anything about Fantasia? It’s the world of human fantasies. Every part, every creature of it, is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has not boundaries.

Atreyu: But why is Fantasia dying, then?

G’mork: Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So The Nothing grows stronger!

Atreyu: What Is The Nothing?

G’mork: It’s the emptiness that’s left. It is like a despair, destroying this world … People who have no hopes are easy to control, and whoever has the control has the power.

Still, what I think makes The Nothing so effective and so terrifying is that it invites you to think of whatever is most important to you, especially your ability to imagine something that could be most important to you: and then to imagine that thing, and with it your capacity to imagine that thing, falling into a bottomless abyss, never to emerge again. And, more ultimately, The Nothing invites you to imagine yourself falling into that abyss– a loss of meaning so complete it culminates with the loss of existence itself.

Heavy stuff, for what is marketed as a children’s book.

Also, philosophical conversations with giant turtles. What's not to love about this film?

Also, philosophical conversations with giant turtles. What’s not to love about this film?

The counter-force in the story is AURYN, the medallion which allows the hero Atreyu to locate the Princess. In the novels, it is always spelled with capital letters, and never has a pronoun: it is written of as if it’s a person. On the front are two symmetrical serpents, consuming each other’s tails: a symbol that invokes the sense of eternity. On its back is inscribed the sentence “Do What You Wish”. This, too, reminds me of existentialism, especially its ethic of authenticity and radical freedom. You have to decide, for yourself, what the meaning and the point of your life shall be. Nobody, not even God, can decide this for you. I suppose AURYN could also be favorably compared to Nietzsche’s ethic of the Will to Power, or perhaps to Crowley’s Law. But the story makes it clear that the most important counter-force to The Nothing is unfettered childhood imagination and wonder. The fact that all the heroes are children and all the villains are adults is one sign of that. The final scene, where Bastian and the Childlike Princess, both of them children, recreate an entire universe from a single grain of sand, is another. The hero Atreyu is a “warrior”, but he is not, as Nietzeche or Crowley would have him, a patriarchal-heroic conquerer of the weak. His enemy, after all, is The Nothing, and, as an afterthought, it’s G’mork– although Atreyu does, in the end, die in battle against G’mork. It’s a very Nietzschean way to go.

This leads me to a critical question: is childhood imagination really the best counter-force to The Nothing? This is perhaps the great un-examined question of the story. One of the best moments in the film is Atreyu’s encounter with the Magic Mirror Gate, which Engywook says shows people who they really are. And, he adds, most people can’t handle what they see:

“kind people find out that they are cruel. Brave men discover that they are really cowards! Confronted by their true selves, most men run away screaming!”

Watching the film as a kid, I thought the mirror showed people from Fantasia a “real-world” person who was presently imagining Fantasia; hence why Atreyu sees Bastian, who was at that moment reading about Atreyu in the book. But it’s a very adult kind of insecurity that Engywook describes: Engywook is, after all, an adult and not a child. Watching the film again as an adult, it reminds me of the existential principle of “bad faith”– the condition of one who pretends to himself that he is other than who he really is. The story perhaps implies that children are not subject to bad faith: but are there no advantages to adulthood which could help here? Surely it is the truly “grown-up” person who could look at the mirror directly and not run away screaming. The very point of maturity is to have no illusions about yourself.

I hesitate to call that question a fault in the story. Actually I think it may be a counter-factual strength: it is a place where the story has something to offer adults. While children might struggle with bullies, math tests (oh no!), and the weird rules adults keep pushing on them, adults might struggle with The Nothing that gets inside their heads and turns them into a G’mork. A child might not worry about that: hence why Atreyu is puzzled by the mirror, but not afraid of it. Perhaps the message the story offers adults is something like this: The Nothing can get you too, just in a different way.

Regardless of that critical question’s answer, Atreyu’s quest to stop the Nothing ultimately engages all of us. It is the struggle to push back the frontier of loneliness, hopelessness, and despair. His quest is the work of creating, by act of imaginative wish, a life that means something, and a world worth living in. All of us need to do this, every day, sometimes every moment of each day. This struggle is– wait for it!– a never ending story.

Bet you didn’t see that last line coming.

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Bren’s Capitalism Game: Another occasion I used games as a teaching tool in a college philosophy class

Last year, I invented a game about capitalism which isn’t really about capitalism. It’s really about ethics: it’s about how to build trust with competitors, and how fragile that trust really is.

Here’s a brief summary of how my game works, when I use it as a teaching and evaluation tool in my philosophy class. Students form teams, each representing a generic manufacturing company, producing generic supply goods: metals, plastics, fasteners, and the like. The teams have to trade with each other to assemble a ‘widget’, which is then sold to the Market (that’s me) at auction. I tell the students that whichever team has the most money at the end of the two hours wins the game. There’s more to the game than this, but I plan to publish the game eventually, so I’ll save the complete rulebook for later.

Most of the time, students hit upon a strategy like this one: In the first few rounds, each team would try to barter its goods for the other goods it needed, usually at a rate of 1 for 1 or 2 for 2. After a few rounds, they would have one or two complete widgets, but they would not sell them right away. Instead, they would hold on to them, and also hoard their own supply goods, in order to drive up the prices and control the market. The idea was to make it impossible for other teams to assemble more widgets. And when all other teams sold the last of their widgets, the team that hoarded its widgets longest could sell them for the highest price.

I say that this strategy was the most popular: but I do not say that this was a winning strategy, because it always turned out to be a losing strategy. When everyone tried to follow it, they all quickly found themselves in a kind of prisoner’s dilemma. Eventually, no one was willing to trade, and therefore no one made any widgets. And therefore the game’s economy as a whole stagnated. Sometimes no widgets were assembled for five or six rounds in a row. Students also found that the team which produced the fewest units of its trade good became the most powerful team in the room. Therefore teams often rationed out how many of their goods they would agree to trade away. “Scarcity creates demand, even if it’s artificial scarcity, and that’s what drives prices up”, one student wrote in her report. Some students compared the situation to Ponzi schemes, and to the Marxist principle of fictitious capital. Some compared the situation to real-world artificial shortages, such as the near-total monopoly on diamonds that the DeBeers corporation held for most of the 20th century. But, again, when one team adopted the strategy, other teams followed, and then the game’s economy would freeze and nothing would get done. Students wrote in their reports about the need for flexibility, quick thinking, and co-operation.

On one occasion, one team categorically refused to sell their supply goods for the first several rounds, and then later demanded a price for their goods that was very, very high. They thought that their competitors would have no choice but to pay their high prices. But the other teams were annoyed, and they refused to pay it. The result was that no widgets were assembled by anyone, for almost two hours! When I made a theatrical show of the suffering of the consumer, who could not buy a widget for love nor money, a student pointed out that “in business, it’s the shareholders who matter, not the customers.” I recognized the proposition from the works of certain economists we had studied earlier in the semester. In terms of business strategy, the student was, in the main, correct. But something about it bothered me. The interests of the customer should matter, somehow. And something’s wrong with an economy in which a businessman can win by making the customer lose.

It was after this occasion that I introduced new rules to represent operating costs, and to give players the chance to buy goods at a (very high) flat rate directly from the market. These new rules made the simulation a bit more true to life: all businesses have expenses and liabilities, and in most cases no one has a complete monopoly on anything. With these new rules, players could still manipulate the market for personal gain, but it became harder to do so.

Teams which created artificial shortages also found themselves at the receiving end of some rather nasty revenge efforts. Several teams formed coalitions and bought each other out precisely in order to ensure that the team which created the artificial shortage would lose the game. A rough “balance of power” tended to evolve, and the most powerful team would often find itself paradoxically the most vulnerable team. Several students wrote something like this in their reports: “We realized we could not possibly win, so we simply stopped playing to win, and started playing to control who the winner would be.” They reasoned that if they couldn’t win, then they would ensure a win for a team that treated them fairly. And if the team they wanted to win did in fact win, they considered that a victory for themselves as well. There are some real-world examples of precisely this kind of behavior in the market. The best known example is that of Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer, who threatened to bankrupt his own multi-billion dollar company in order to destroy Google’s Android cellphone, which Jobs believed was copied from Apple.

Incidentally, this buy-out strategy was always enacted in the last round of play, and never in mid-game. Students knew that if they launched a buyout gambit to prevent a leading team from winning, they had to launch it in the final round, to prevent anyone from retaliating. In the real world of business, of course, there is no final round of play, except perhaps in the sense of economist John Maynard Keynes’ famous statement, “In the long run we are all dead.” I suspect this strategy would play out very differently if the players did not know which round of play would be the last round. But in my classroom, we were ultimately limited by the two hours of our lecture period.

The students also discovered the importance of certain intangible factors, especially to do with the minutia of negotiations. An offer that was both accessible and clear, and presented by someone with a confident and friendly posture, tended to score a deal more often. Even their clothing mattered: some women found that they gained better trades when they wore heels; some men made better trades when they took off their baseball cap, combed their hair, and put on a tie. An excessively expensive price, or a price that changed too much, or a negotiator with a shifty or reluctant demeanour, was usually rejected. Some players also engaged in minor acts of deception, such as by convincing another team that they had traded something to a third team or made a secret deal elsewhere, which in fact they had not done. This usually had the effect of motivating the other team to make a better offer. Of course, two negotiators doing that to each other usually ended up trading nothing. If any impasses were created that way, I do not know how they were resolved.

It was also surprisingly easy for misunderstandings to occur, and grudges to form because of them. Teams often set their prices or joined certain coalitions in order to punish rivals for rudeness, excessive selfishness, or general ‘unreasonableness’ (however perceived). And on one occasion, one team punished another with a trade embargo in order to perpetuate a pattern of bullying and online stalking that had been going on among the students outside the class. I must admit, I did regret using my game as a teaching tool on that day. But in their reports, some students researched real-world examples of business decisions made for very personal reasons. Not all entrepreneurs play to make the most money: some play to dominate a market and force their rivals into the poorhouse, and they might pursue that goal at great cost to themselves.

There was one occasion when the game ran very smoothly, with productive negotiations among all teams and a steady supply of widgets for the customer to buy. It began when a student stood on a chair and suggested a global strategy to the whole class: “let’s all trade our stuff one-to-one, and sell our widgets to the teacher one at a time for twenty dollars each, so that every widget will be sold, and no one will lose, and everyone will win.” In that student’s report, he explained that he was attempting to foster a spirit of Ubuntu in the room. Ubuntu is a humanist philosophy, originating in writers from southern Africa. It states that the best solution to any given problem is the one where everyone co-operates in trust and friendship, and in which no one wins unless everyone wins. This strategy worked for about five consecutive rounds. Then one team decided to sell three widgets at once for a lower price, thus profiting very handsomely, and at the same time cutting two other teams out of their sale in that turn. Trust in that team instantly vanished, never to return. The market became more cutthroat and aggressive as everyone else attempted the same thing in the next round. Several students wrote in their reports that the mood in the classroom had become “very dark”. A few commented about the fragility of trust, or the inherent selfishness of human nature. A few wrote their reports on the morality and immorality of greed. One line from a student report that stands out in my mind went like this: “The system isn’t broken, it’s deliberately designed to screw people.”

Many students wrote in their reports that they learned how important it is to be trusting and honest with one’s negotiating partners. Some students noted how co-operation tended to ‘pay’ better than competition. They learned that power flows from alliances and not simply from one’s own resources. Some wrote that they also learned how cheating, deception, and even backstabbing can actually lead to profit in the short run. Therefore, some concluded that it is better to be aggressive. Others concluded that since cheating leads to success, therefore something is wrong with the system itself: excessive aggressiveness, they argued, shouldn’t be rewarded. But at the same time most students saw that aggressiveness can turn all of one’s trading partners against you. Indeed the deceitful players were often punished by being unable to find trading partners later on. But most of all, nearly every student said they enjoyed the exercise. Certainly, they found it preferable to ordinary essay-writing. Students were laughing and relaxed. And they were thinking.

Laughter and happiness during an exam. That’s what success looks like in my profession.

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Republic Of Tamriel: Things I think computer games need to do differently.

When I’m taking a break from writing another book, I like to play console-based role play games. I do this for perhaps no more than two or three hours a week, but over several years that was enough time to finish Elder Scrolls Oblivion, and Skyrim, multiple times. I’ve also played all of Dragon Age (I just finished Inquisition last week!), Mass Effect 2 and 3 (twice), all of Fable (gorgeous scenery, but very short story!), Dragon’s Dogma (lovely scenery, completely stupid story), and Child of Light (which I count as the most beautiful game I’ve ever played.)

The game I play most often is still Skyrim. But even Skyrim has things which annoy me to the point of either not wanting to play the game ever again, or to the point of wanting to make a better game on my own. Here’s a short list of them. Most of my comments will be about Skyrim, but they’re applicable to other games, too.

– The politics.

In all the games mentioned above, the government is some kind of monarchy. Tamriel has an empire; Albion has a king; Dragons Dogma and even Child of Light has a duke. It’s as if we modern people have a secret love affair for aristocracy. But it’s also a fantasy about being at the top of that aristocracy. And I get that an RPG is fantasy– really I do. But I’d like to see a fantasy world that is not just simple escapism. Let’s remember that real-world aristocracies were brutally oppressive to the majority of their members: no freedom of speech, or of movement, or of religion, or of association, and the like. Most Western-world aristocracies were overthrown centuries ago for that reason. Or, is the message of the game that aristocracies are always benevolent and benign, and that working class people should accept their position, and grow to like it? Because that’s the message being sent by all the salt-of-the-earth working class NPCs in the game. Some NPCs complain about their lives, but not one of them utters anything like a statement of serious rebellion. Why is no one talking about a Republic of Tamriel? Or, if the game’s writers really want to commit to portraying an aristocratic society, why not show more of the turbulence in that kind of society? The faction infighting, the competition for prestige, the private armies, the oppression of the poor?

Related to that: in too many RPGs, the player takes down a criminal organization by killing its leader. Politics in the real world is never like that. When you kill the evil dictator, or the crime boss, or the cult prophet, or whatever, the organization does not disband. Rather, it immediately breaks up into factions, who immediately start fighting each other– or, if the organization is very well organized, a new leader is installed instantly and it’s back to business as usual. Politics in the real world is about who is loyal to whom, and why; it’s about who wields power and who is the target of that power; it’s about whether power is shared or whether it is seized; it’s about who gives the orders and who obeys them; and it’s about whose model of social organization is to be preferred. I’d like to see an RPG which reflects that reality.

What if there was:

– A way to investigate the leader of the world, or one of the world’s guilds and organizations. What if that leader could be blackmailed, or ousted, by some damaging piece of info which the investigation reveals?
– A way to become the leader of some faction through some means other than killing and replacing the previous leader? For instance, what if the organization is subject to periodic elections, which the PC could influence, or in which the PC could stand as a candidate herself.

– The economy.

Every game I listed above, even the ones with the most artistically satisfying UX such as Child of Light and the Fable series, has basically the same economy: “kill the monster, steal the treasure.” Of all the features of computer RPGs, that’s the one that pisses me off the most. Characters become more powerful, either in terms of treasure gained, or in terms of improving stats like hit-points, almost entirely by means of breaking things: things like the bodies of enemies. There simply isn’t a computer-based RPG about anything else. Why are there no 1st person RPGs primarily about building things? Why is it that PCs in games don’t have to consume anything? I suppose Minecraft could count as a game about building things, but I found myself still unsatisfied with it; the player only gathers and re-purposes resources; she doesn’t need to consume anything. There’s no through-put. And there’s still monsters to kill. Economics in the real world is about things (like money) flowing through a system; it’s not just things accumulated and stored for later, and it doesn’t always reward people for breaking things.

What if there was:
– A fast-travel system in which players have to go to a travel point, like an inn, to fast-travel; and then they have to pay to hire a carriage. Skyrim already has this; but it’s toothless since players can fast-travel to any point they’ve already visited, for free.
– A fatigue system in which the PC has to eat and sleep fairly regularly, and may suffer minor penalties for going without for too long. This suggestion, together with the one above, could add a dramatic “survival horror” element, without making it too horrible.
– A merchant’s guild quest line, which involves securing rare resources, or productive facilities, or trade routes? This could be no less exciting than the usual four guild quest plots (fighter’s guild, thieves’ guild, etc.) It could open for players the possibility of buying any house or business in the game, for use as a source of income, so that they’re not just killing monsters for a living.

– The relationships.

In Skyrim, your PC can get married. Once the relationship is established, however, it’s basically “over”. Your partner gives you gifts once in a while, but there’s nothing you need to do for the partner any more: you don’t need to bring gifts of your own, or even say “I love you”. Real world relationships require constant involvement. What if your Skyrim spouse was not just another achievement to unlock, but instead was a regular quest-giver? And what if your spouse left you if you turned down too many quests? Related to the point about economics above, what if your “household” had a regular daily or weekly maintenance cost, influenced by whether you are married, whether you adopted children, how big the house is, and so on? And if players want to think of the relationship as an investment, there might be additional benefits besides occasional gifts of money or homecooked meals.

– The religious culture.

Ever notice how the gods in the Elder Scrolls are a bit like ATM machines? You touch their shrine and “withdraw” a blessing that stays with you for a while. You don’t have to do anything else for the gods in return. But religious communities in the real world do make demands of their members. Suppose there was a game feature in which a player could commit to a certain deity, and thereby gain a certain benefit, but must act in certain ways in order to preserve the benefit, such as always killing certain kinds of monsters, or always leaving certain monsters alone, or always using a certain kind of weapon, or always visit shrines regularly, or vote a certain way, or the like.

What if there was:
– side quests which put those commitments to the test?
– Religious groups are also often political groups as well: they may require their members to live in certain ways, vote (or not vote) in certain ways, favour certain models of social order above others, and so on. This could intersect with the political dynamic described above.

– The intellectual culture.

The mage’s guild quest line in the Elder Scrolls games represents the only serious appearance of educated people. But they, too, are involved in the same ridiculous cycle of “kill the monster, steal the treasure”. The only difference between the Mage’s Guild and the Fighter’s Guild / The Companions, is the type of weapon that the PC uses. There must be a way to make scientific research and discovery into something exciting and game-worthy.

What if there was:
– a quest line involving mages and/or other intellectuals (scholars? scientists?) which involves progress on a technology-tree, a bit like what we find in games like Sid Meyer’s Civilization?
– What if information, or access to information, could be a source of someone’s power- thus intersecting with the political dynamics that I described above?

– To play the game I want, I might have to make it myself.

Well, there’s more things that bug me about Skyrim and the genre, but I’ll leave you on a more constructive note. (At any rate, it seems likely to me that no one in the management of any big game studio will read this blog.) Here’s a screenshot of my second attempt to create a heightmap for a 1st person RPG, using Unity. Yes, it is deliberately designed to look like Ontario and Quebec, although with some details re-arranged to fit the space.

2nd terrain map

At 8000 meters by 3000 meters, it’s slightly larger than Skyrim. But so far, the main thing I’ve discovered while creating it is just how big an undertaking top-shelf game design really is. I know about the logic of game design; I regularly use games in my classroom as teaching tools, and I teach the math and logic of game theory. I’ve also published a tabletop political strategy game. But I don’t know how to write computer code. Anybody got ten million dollars to spare, so I can hire a team of programmers and designers, and turn this map into a real game?

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Christians, Pagans, and Doctor Assisted Suicide

The argument about doctor-assisted suicide (and its kin) is really, really old. Like, it’s around 1,600 years old. Maybe older.

Today, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that doctor-assisted suicide should be legal in Canada. A report on the CBC website described the decision as follows:

The Supreme Court of Canada says a law that makes it illegal for anyone to help people end their own lives should be amended to allow doctors to help in specific situations.

The ruling only applies to competent adults with enduring, intolerable suffering who clearly consent to ending their lives.

The same link above includes the text of the court’s decision, where you can read it for yourself.

On reading some of the things said by people who disliked the court’s decision, I was struck by how often the discussion was framed in the terms defined by two very basic, and very ancient, worldviews of value.

One, the idea that human life is a thing of such special moral importance, that its existential moments of birth and death are not to be interfered with. To do so is to commit the moral wrong typically known as “playing God.” Let’s call this the “Sanctity of Life” worldview. Usually, although not always, it comes from religious arguments concerning how we are all “made in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27)

Two, the idea that the thing about human life which makes it so valuable is not the mere fact of membership in the human race, but rather the happiness, the joy, the flourishing, of each person’s experience of life; and whether that happiness outweighs whatever misery or suffering that person may also be experiencing. Let’s call this the “Quality of Life” worldview. It tends to appear in arguments grounded in the logic of utilitarianism, or humanism.

Today I just want to point out how old is the rivalry between these views. Here’s Augustine of Hippo, from the 4th century CE, author of The City of God, and Christianity’s most important early theologian, describing what annoys him the most about the Pagans of his time:

I am at a loss to understand how the Stoic philosophers can presume to say that there are no ills, though at the same time they allow the wise man to commit suicide and pass out of this life if they become so grievious that he cannot or ought not to endure them. But such is the stupid pride of these men who fancy that the supreme good can be found in this life, and that they can become happy by their own resources, that their wise man, or at least the man whom they fancifully depict as such, is always happy, even though he become blind, deaf, dumb, mutilated, racked with pains, or suffer any conceivable calamity such as may compel him to make away with himself; and they are not ashamed to call the life that is beset with these evils happy. O happy life, which seeks the aid of death to end it! If it is happy, let the wise man remain in it; but if these ills drive him out of it, in what sense is it happy?…

And therefore those who admit that these are evils, as the Peripatetics do, and the [philosophers of the] Old Academy, the sect which Varro advocates, express a more intelligible doctrine; but theirs also is a surprising mistake, for they contend that this is a happy life which is beset by these evils, even though they be so great that he who endures them should commit suicide to escape them. (book 5, part XIX, chapter 4.)

What you should see here is that Augustine thought that Christianity and Paganism (late Roman imperial Paganism, anyway) was separated by precisely those two aforementioned categories of moral value: Christians held to the Sanctity of Life worldview; the Quality of Life worldview was Pagan.

Augustine exaggerates for dramatic effect the idea, which he attributes to Stoic philosophers, that one could find happiness in the embodied world even while being tortured on the rack. The idea appears in Cicero’s Discussions at Tusculum, but other philosophers of the time criticized him for the obvious absurdity. It certainly wasn’t the universal opinion of the pagan philosophers, not even in Cicero’s own tradition.

Augustine’s bigger mistake is the way he attributes to the pagans a logical error that they do not commit. The meaning of the Pagan claim that “human life is happy” is certainly not the unqualified and childish thing Augustine says it is. Rather, the pagan claim is that we are all responsible for our own happiness; and that if happiness is to be found anywhere at all, it’s to be found in this life, in this world, here and now. Therefore if by some bad turn you are unable to find your happiness in this life, for instance if a disease were to make your life so unbearable that its continuation would only prolong your suffering, then it is right to end the prolongation of your suffering.

That long guiding theme, that human happiness is to be found in this world if it is to be found at all, appears in nearly all the early Pagan philosophy: from Socrates– it’s in the Apology he made when he stood on trial for his life, on charges of blasphemy– to Porphyry and Plotinus and the last Pagan philosophers before they were all put out of work by Emperor Justinian.

But that’s a red herring anyway. For suppose that Augustine admitted that he misrepresented the Pagan view. It wouldn’t alter his view that “the supreme good” isn’t to be found in the embodied world anyway. It’s up there in Heaven:

If, then, we be asked what the city of God has to say upon these points, and, in the first place, what its opinion regarding the supreme good and evil is, it will reply that life eternal is the supreme good, death eternal the supreme evil, and that to obtain the one and escape the other we must live rightly…

As for those who have supposed that the sovereign good and evil are to be found in this life, and have placed it either in the soul or the body, or in both, or to speak more explicitly, either in pleasure or in virtue, or in both… all these have, with a marvellous shallowness, sought to find their blessedness in this life and in themselves. Contempt has been poured upon such ideas by the Truth, saying by the prophet, “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of men” (or, as the Apostle Paul cites the passage, “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise”) “that they are vain.” (cite: ibid.)

So there you have it: the oldest documented account (that I could find) of the debate between these two points of view concerning the meaning and value of human life and death.

It’s interesting, I think, that the Supreme Court has sided with the Pagan view– interesting, because the decision was unanimous among the nine judges, six of whom, a clear majority, were appointed by Stephen Harper, our conservative Christian prime minister.

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Think Outside the Clickbox: Storytelling, Facebook, and HyperReality

A popular slogan of freedom and individualism goes: “Think Outside The Box”. But what is the box? Where are its edges? What does it really mean to think outside it– and does anyone really know how?

I’ve been thinking about this slogan for a long time. It is, after all, one of the things philosophers claim to be able to do better than anyone else. Facebook’s “real name” policy, and how it affected friends of mine, prompted me to think about it in a new way.

The policy requires people to use their legal names, that is, the names on their birth certificates, with their FB profiles. The company says that they want people to use their real name for safety reasons. There is some sense to this: I don’t want anyone using the shield of anonymity to stalk, harass, bully, or threaten me, nor to try to pull a scam on me with multiple sock-puppet accounts and an ongoing campaign of manipulation. (This actually happened to me.) FB’s intention may be to reduce bullying by removing that shield. Therein bigger the problem is the bullying, not the naming, of course, but I do acknowledge FB’s general point.

To which it may be objected: the intention might be sound, but the practical result is that Facebook has effectively claimed the right and the power to tell you who you are. There were people who people objected to the policy for that very reason. Some were artists who wanted to be known by their stage names, or writers who used a nom-de-plume. Some were transfolk who had already begun using their new gendered names although the legal process of changing their names was incomplete. Some wanted to be known by a chosen name for religious reasons, or personal reasons.

It may look as if I’m late to this party. Drag queens have already won the right to use their stage names on Facebook; they even gained an apology from the company. Similar concessions have been made for other groups.

Here I’d like to point out that even before the aforementioned controversy, Facebook has been telling you who you are from the moment you signed on to it: and even before the aforementioned “real name” policy, Facebook had been doing this to its users since its creation. So has every social network out there. All of them, without exception.

The nature of any computerized social network is that it requires users to describe themselves in ways that are mathematically quantifiable. A social network is not in the business of telling stories of people’s lives—however much they may make it appear otherwise, for instance with “year in review” features that create photo streams set to cheerful music and graphics. Rather, they are in the business of managing a database of information which they rent to advertisers—nothing more, nothing less, nothing else, for better or worse. This means the only kind of knowledge about you that interests them is mathematically quantifiable data. They want a fill-in-the-blank list with one’s age, hometown, employer, or school; they want a checklist of “interests” such as the movies, musicians, sports, and books one likes—literally, since there’s a button marked “like” attached to everything, with which you add data to the database. All of these things certainly are part of anyone’s identity: they are the elements with which we build the stories of our lives. Your social network, however, treats you as if this checklist of quantifiable facts is all that you are. You might be the one who decides what to check off the list, but they define the list. You are nothing more, and nothing else, than that which you fill into the blanks they provide. In other words, that checklist is your “box”: it’s what that aforementioned slogan invites you to “think outside of”.

Think being a geek makes you a healthy, nonconforming, unique individual? Think again– because you, too, have a checklist to fill.

Where once we used to say “You are not the car you drive“, we now need to say “You are not your Facebook profile.”

(Although, as an aside, I think it’s interesting that we use the word “profile” to describe this digitized identity. A profile, after all, is a two-dimensional image: it’s flat, and it doesn’t face you head-on. It’s a simulated person, not a “real” person. Tuck that away in your mind for later.)

I wonder if the trend among writers and artists and geeks to assert that human life is a story has emerged precisely as a rebellion against the mathematical quantification of identity by means of computer networks.

You find this proposition in pop culture. “The soul’s made of stories, not atoms,” says Doctor Smith to Clara in The Rings of Akhaten. Award-winning fantasy author Charles de Lint wrote, “We’re all made of stories. When they finally put us underground, the stories are what will go on. Not forever, perhaps, but for a time.” You find it in academia, too: the earliest instance of which that I have found appeared in phenomenologist Wilhelm Schapp’s In Geschichten Verstrickt (“Entangled in Stories”, 1953); then Barbara Hardy’s 1968 masterwork “Towards a Poetics of Fiction”, a chapter in Alistair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue”, and Paul Ricoeur’s 3-volume monstrosity “Time and Narrative”. Here’s Ricoeur on why stories matter:

Our own existence cannot be separated from the account we can give of ourselves. It is in telling our own stories that we give ourselves an identity. We recognize ourselves in the stories we tell about ourselves. It makes little difference whether these stories are true or false, fiction as well as verifiable history provides us with an identity.

“History as Narrative and Practice,” Philosophy Today 29 (1979).

Stories are what we ultimately care about, from the personal to the political. Stories are the foundation of that pagan form of immortality, apotheosis. They’re the foundation of justice and the proceedings of courtroom trials: it is why we demand victim’s impact statements for certain kinds of crimes. It is why we establish Truth and Reconciliation commissions, with senior court judges, to record the experiences of people under dictatorships or periods of state-sponsored injustice: South Africa’s Apartheid, Canada’s residential schools.

So when Facebook and other social networks turns your story into a mathematically quantifiable database entry, they decide what story to tell, and they decide how to tell it. Your story becomes nothing more than a mere variation of what is ultimately a banal and conformist consumer product: an arrangement of selections in a pre-defined checklist of pre-approved possibilities. In effect, again, they tell you who you are.

Let me “up the drama” in this argument– because for the problem as so far described is still only the easy version of the problem. There’s a harder version, which I think is far more serious, and it goes like this: people in general often prefer the mathematically quantified database-version of their stories, the profile, the simulation, the “avatar”. Further: the more we treat that database-avatar as the real person, the more we may become entirely unable to tell the difference between the profile, and the real person who stands somewhere behind it. Philosopher Eugene Beaudrillard’s idea of the HyperReal is appearing in our computer networks now. Beaudrillard saw the hyper-real in places like theme parks and shopping malls (especially Disneyland!)– places where we find the pre-packaged, available-on-demand, safely unthreatening simulation of things, instead of the messy, complicated, demanding, unpredictable, and labour-intensive reality. Think of the theme park safari ride, where the robot alligator jumps out of the swamp at just the right moment, every time: he scares the children, but never truly threatens them. Whereas a “real” alligator on a “real” safari ride might not jump out of the swamp at all– it’s asleep somewhere else– or it might overturn the boat and kill someone. Better to go to the theme park version. Then trick ourselves into thinking we’ve seen the real thing.

Now, with the social networks the hyperreal can simulate human persons with the consent and collaboration of the persons so simulated, and eventually take their places. You read someone’s “About” info, and peruse their checklist of “likes”, and then you think you know who he is. We no longer speak with people, but with the masks they wear. And people actually want this. They deliberately choose it. They become unable to distinguish their masks from their faces.

And we might still call them free, if only they design their own masks– but they don’t. The network does.

We now find ourselves in a society which celebrates itself as a “free”, yet is composed of people who lead profoundly conformist lives. We defend our freedom of expression with extraordinary gusto and desperation, but we have so little to actually express.

We tell our stories with pixels now. But pixels are sanitized, airbrushed, catalogued, unthreatening, unsurprising. Even someone whose FB profile is graphic design of the word “Fuck!” conforms to the basic pre-defined user-experience layout that the nature of the network provides. Stories told face to face are complicated, messy, demanding, full of ‘différance‘, and the weird. Better to deal with the hyperreal data-man, not with the reality, if there is such a thing anymore: the real person is somewhere out there, a tattered shadow of what he imagines himself to be, and he clings for dear life to his sharper-focused hologram, without which he fears he will cease to matter.

Thus we adapt to our “box”, become existentially identified with it, become cognitively unable to think outside it. The theme park and the shopping mall of Beaudrillard’s argument has moved to the internet, into the “cloud”, and from there into people’s minds.

This rant is taken from notes I’ve made over the last few months, in preparation for a nonfiction book I’m writing. I just thought I’d test the idea out on you. Please use the comments section below to reply.

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The Last Fence

The last time I visited Ireland, my other “my country”, was 2009. Yesterday I got this painting from my dear friend Corina Thornton, an artist based in Ireland; and as you can see, I’ve hung it just above my writer’s forge. It’s called “The Last Fence” and it gives me no end of joy: partly knowing it’s from a friend, and mostly from imagining what magical and philosophical discoveries might be made in the undiscovered country before me, just one hop over one last fence.


Here is a closeup of the painting:

The Last Fence by Corina Thornton

I sometimes tell people that I live in a library, because one of the rooms in my apartment has a wall that’s nothing but books, over 800 of them, wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling. But over the last six months I’ve decked my white walls with a landscape (a lake-scape?) by local Ottawa artist Gordon Coulthart, and a water-scape by Elora artist Carolyn Sharp, and a special poem-painting by my dear friend Marie-Claude Dufour, and some reproductions of classics by The Group of Seven. I’ve also picked up from my parents some canvasses I painted back in high school. Maybe my library is turning into an art gallery.

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“A Trick Of The Light”: What I knew as a child, but as an adult forgot.

When I was a child, an empty and partially run-down house stood in my neighbourhood, just along the line where the century-houses ended and the postwar bungalows began. My sisters and I sometimes made up stories about ghosts who lived in it. The house was eventually refurbished and inhabited, so the house became no longer scary, so we stopped telling those stories. Some thirty years later, I found a similar old house near my apartment here in Gatineau, similarly surrounded by trees and by postwar bungalows. Then the story of that house in Elora returned to me.


For my seventh or maybe eighth birthday, I can’t quite recall, my dad gave me a copy of Our Universe by Roy Gallant, and I read it so voraciously that the pages started falling out. I still have that book, more than thirty years later, although some of its pages are now missing. Back then I also had a telescope of my own, although I mostly used it to look at sunspots: an attachment projected the image of the sun on to a white metal plate. I liked to imagine that I was a scientist or an explorer, studying the sun from a spacecraft in high orbit. The idea of a story about a magic telescope, accompanied by a magic atlas, secretly delivered to a curious but not necessarily well-behaved child, had been on my mind for many years.

JB poem

I had other influences, of course. Readers of the first edition noted a similarity with Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. I had read The Golden Compass before writing Jillian Brighton, and it made me want to write a childhood wonder-tale with a hint of adult concern. (But I didn’t want to write ‘fanfic’; I wanted to stay in my own world.) By the way, Jillian’s theft of her mother’s nylons is a tip of the hat, of a sort, to a remark about Susan Pevensie in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. But I leave it to the investigative reader to discover what that was all about.


A Trick Of The Light” is a spinoff story from the world of Fellwater and The Hidden Houses, my urban fantasy series. I wanted to explore areas of the world not seen in the main series. I also wanted to write something that might bring together my two favourite interests from when I was the same age as my heroine: fairy tales, and astronomy. And after living in west Quebec for several years, I found myself feeling nostalgic for my home town, Elora Ontario, the village which serves as the model for my fictional town of Fellwater.

The real impetus to put pen to paper came in December of 2013, when my partner asked me to write her a story for Christmas, instead of buying her a regular gift. I wrote the first draft in two weeks. With her permission, I later self-published it under the title Jillian Brighton and the Wonderful Cosmographic Telescope. This edition in your hands is what happened to it after I ran a crowd-funding campaign to pay for a professional editor for my Hidden Houses series. The editor liked the main character and the story’s premise very much, but he felt that acts two and three needed a complete overhaul. So, during October and November of 2014, I overhauled them. Jillian’s teacher and parents became less prominent. A dark and perhaps dystopian ending was removed. (Perhaps I should say, ‘saved for later.’) Still, after the editor signed off on the text, the length of the story was about 1,600 words longer than the first edition. This is very unusual in an editing process. But I think the result is a much better story.


“A Trick Of The Light” is available in Kindle and in paperback.

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Is this what success looks like for an indie writer?

Suppose I took a narrow, economic view of what success looks like for a writer who, like me, doesn’t write full-time, but has a day-job (which, let it be stated for the record, I do enjoy). The advantage of an economic view of success is that it’s easy to measure: one need only ask how much money was made selling the books, minus the cost of producing them.

Well, here’s a rough and imprecise balance sheet for how much it cost me to make my Fellwater / Hidden Houses novels.

+ $4,700 netted from Kickstarter, after fees and deductions.
+ around $100 more from direct sales this summer.

– $550 advertising the project while the fundraising campaign was underway.
– $4,000 for the editor
– $500 for the audiobook version of one of the spinoff novellas
– $900 (approximate) for the work of two artists who illustrated the characters and the heraldry used on the website and in the Kickstarter campaign
– $1000 for the cover designer and interior art designer.
– $1,700 (approximate) sending rewards to the Kickstarter backers.

Result: I lost $3,850. I can’t say I’m surprised by this; I’ve done almost nothing in the last few months to advertise the books, so direct sales have been low. (It’s still depressing and demoralizing, though.)

But that’s only one way to measure success. There are others. Now that the books have been in the reader’s hands for a few months, many of the Kickstarter backers have written to me privately to say how much they enjoyed them. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. For example: J. J. Colvin, a backer from England, wrote this review of Clan Fianna on the book’s Amazon UK page:

It is an ensemble cast piece, with a great sense of each of the major characters being at the centre of their own story, with all of these individual threads weaving a great and complex tapestry of plot. This immediately brings to mind comparisons with Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin, but for my taste this book exceeds much of the work of both of these super-luminaries…

Robert Jordan – George RR Martin – wow! Reading this, I am overwhelmed, humbled, and excited, all at once. Thus I began to wonder if this is what success really looks like for independent writers.

Not only that: some of the Kickstarter backers offered to create art based on the characters and settings: I’m really looking forward to this, and if each artist permits, I’ll share what they make with everyone on the blog and in the project updates.

Interest in my nonfiction works is picking up, too. Here’s Sable Aradia’s review of “The Other Side of Virtue”: the book is from 2008, but the review is from a few days ago:

This book could be a modern manifesto for humanistic Paganism; but its theories can also be applied to most modern Pagan practice. And it could also be read and enjoyed by humanists and naturalists of any faith. It could possibly even be held up to Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking as an answer on the value of philosophy… I love Brendan’s way of articulating this concept in what I have previously described as “his liquid prose.” His education is apparent through his choice of phrasing; but unlike many other academics, he does not write in technicalities and field-specific terminology. It is easily (and enjoyably) accessible to the layperson…

Imagine someone recommending that Tyson and Hawking should read one of my books! Still, an academic with weird interests like mine, who writes for the general public, in addition to (or instead of) other academics, could hope for no higher praise.

Each book of mine represents thousands of hours of time in researching, thinking, writing, editing, and critical analysis. I’m not exaggerating that time commitment: I keep meticulous records of such things. My nonfiction work is backed by an excellent UK-based publisher, which covers the production costs; my fiction work is entirely in my hands, although with my editor and designer I now have a “team” of sorts. It’s a truly huge burden of labour, for everyone involved. Is all that effort “worth it”? Are we successful? With responses such as the two reviews noted above, I’d like to say “yes”. The books are intellectually and artistically successful, or so it seems right now.

Will they ever be commercially successful? I don’t know – and the business side of being a writer almost always depresses me. A good friend of mine once told me that he had a dream in which Fellwater became just as big as Harry Potter. If that dream doesn’t come true, which seems likely to me, then I can still be a writer and a professor at a small college in western Quebec, and I’ll still have something like an enjoyable life. If it does come true – well, let’s wait and see. (And look for a publicist and a literary agent, in the meanwhile.)

Although many of you, friends and family, have given me so much already this year, I’ve a small favour to ask: this holiday season, please tell someone about my books. Write about them on your social networks and blogs and on the bookseller pages; email them to friends; consider giving them as Christmas gifts to people who you think will enjoy them. As an independent writer and publisher, without the backing of a million-dollar marketing department, I remain dependent upon the goodwill of people like yourselves to help promote my work. And as always, you have my deep and abiding thanks.

So, there it is. I wish you and all your loved ones a happy solstice season (that’s my word for the holiday) and a prosperous and good new year.

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An Open Letter to College Textbook Publishers

When a textbook publisher sends me a review copy of one of their textbooks, in the hope that I will use it in a future class of mine, I usually send a reply like this one. I invite all professors everywhere to do likewise. Indeed, in my view, I think professors have something like a moral obligation to help prevent big textbook publishers from exploiting the nearly-captive market of students, especially in this time of economic instability and recession.

Good afternoon,

In my intro philosophy courses, I use a textbook written by me and some of my friends (professional philosophers all), and which I give to my students for free. I also use resources on the internet available for free.

You need to understand that a lot of my students are from working-class or poverty-class families, and they do not have money for textbooks. Some do not have money even for basic necessities such as nutritious food. Those who are from more affluent families are still provided with free or nearly-free resources for use in my classroom: their right to education is exactly the same, no more and no less, than that of their under-privileged peers. This is why I produce my own course content and I publish it personally, using various self-publishing tools, and I make it available to them for the lowest price possible: free, for PDFs (which they read or print in our college library), and there is a paperback copy that they can buy for no more than the cost of printing it. I make no profit on it.

If your company is willing to give textbooks to my students for free or nearly-free, I may consider using them. But otherwise, I will not use textbooks from your company.

Brendan Myers
Professor, Dept. of Philosophy and Humanities
CEGEP Heritage College, Gatineau Quebec Canada.

Postscript: I’m planning a second edition of that texbook of mine. Stay tuned to this blog, or subscribe to my mailing list, for news about it.

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