Friday, 14 October 2016

Sex and Sexiness in History

Society can move backwards as well as forwards. In the 14th century, a man would probably get a far harsher sentence for cutting down a large oak tree than he would for raping a woman.

This wasn’t because Edward III was a fundamentalist tree-hugger. It was because large oaks were cultivated and deliberately kept straight so the trunks could be used as rafters in large structures and as the masts of ships. Growing one took a damned long time, so if some pesky peasant cut down a tree your grandfather planted, the blighter would probably end up swinging from the nearest (intact) tree.

That explains the harsh penalty for arboricide. But if a man raped a woman, then (unless it was a nobleman’s daughter, in which case he’d probably round up a posse and hang the culprit summarily), it’s unlikely she’d bother reporting it. If she did, it would be unlikely to go any further. If it did, the man would probably not be found guilty. If he were, he’d probably be given a small fine. In short, being a nobleman’s daughter was a good thing to be.

Language is another area of drastic change over the centuries. A four letter C-word is one of very few to actually become considered more vulgar over time. Words like ‘mischief’ and ‘naughty’ are now so soft that any parent would use them in front of any child. However, way back when, they referred to things like going out on the rob, or an evening of rape. [Sadly, this sort of attitude still exists today. Recently, soldiers in South Sudan, in lieu of wages, were given permission to commit rape].

In fact, women had fewer rights under the Normans than they had centuries earlier under the Anglo-Saxons. Now, I’m not claiming there was equality in the 9th century under Alfred the Great, but there was a greater measure of it, for women, than they had under the Norman kings. Aethelflaed, Alfred’s daughter, actually ruled Mercia in the early part of the 10th century. It sounds bizarre that society could move backwards, but this does happen. Progress is not a straight line, and nor is it an inevitability.

After the Normans came the Tudors, and their final monarch was Elizabeth I (some argue that this was actually the perfect system of governance, where Parliament had power but the monarch did too, ensuring a steady hand on the tiller whilst also enabling a democratic element. So, neither mob rule nor tyranny, but a combination of monarchy and democracy). During this era, women began to gain still more equality with exceptional individuals becoming doctors or writers. The proliferation of literacy meant many women started putting together practical books about cookery or medicine.

It should be stressed this was still unusual, but a combination of Protestantism winning the religious war over Catholicism (and Bibles being written in English) coupled with a strong female monarch helped to encourage female literacy.

A small aside: during this era showing one’s cleavage was considered absolutely fine (even Elizabeth I did it). However, a lady baring her arms or legs was considered beyond the pale. Only the lowest of the low (washerwomen) would do such a thing. So, a long-sleeved V-neck top would be fine, but a short-sleeved t-shirt would be considered a bit racy.

Showing one’s hair or covering it up is another area where modern fashion can be radically different to history. Hats were much more commonplace even 60 years ago, and centuries past they were ubiquitous. For women, this often entailed totally covering the hair. Loose hair could be seen as a sign of, ahem, paid-for friskiness.

So, where are we now? Not in the best of places. In many parts of the world (most particularly the shrinking territory of black flag lunatics) women are considered property, or slaves, and are forced to utterly cover up. Their rights in all areas are curtailed or utterly secondary to the whims of their husband/master. In the West, there are generally good standards, although there are still black spots (banning the image of a healthy woman in a bikini on the London Underground or the wearing of the burkini in France).

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Friday, 30 September 2016

Two Ways To Create A World

Before I wrote Bane of Souls, I did a lot of world-building in preparation. At the time, this was unusual for me, but I didn’t feel time pressure because I’d only started working on it whilst trying to get a separate (and doomed-to-fail) story traditionally published. So, I tried to do as much background work as possible. Continuity was a big weakness of mine, and having background info ready and waiting helps both keep the world consistent and provides immediate ideas for little snippets you need (for example, social habits might include smoking, visiting cockpits and bare knuckle boxing).

This stood me in good stead, and the world created served as the foundation (with later additions) not only for Bane of Souls, but Journey to Altmortis and a future trilogy (first part, Kingdom Asunder, due for a December release).

However, I accidentally discovered a completely different approach when writing comedy. My world-building for Sir Edric was zero. I made up the incidental aspects (brandy being Andelic, elves having Greek-ish names, the Ursk eating humans) as I went along. Reviewers praised the world-building but, whereas I’d put months into Bane of Souls’ background, I’d done sod all for Sir Edric.

I’m a cautious sort of chap, and my writing method probably reflects that. So it was a bit of a surprise to find that the most neglected aspect of the comedy went down very well.

This does, I think, highlight an important point that’s relevant to both approaches. You’re not writing a guided tour of the lovely, or horrid, world you’ve created. World-building only matters insofar as it touches the characters and plot. And as showing is almost always better than telling, it should be, at it’s best, indistinguishable from the story. It’s the antithesis of an info-dump, the desire is to get the reader to learn about the world without even realising they are.

Maybe that’s why the Sir Edric approach worked so well. There’s little description, but a lot of action and dialogue. An inspiration for this is the approach adopted in Outlaws of the Marsh, a Chinese classic I bang on about sometimes. It’s brimming with action. You don’t need to be told Sagacious Lu is hard as nails, you learn it when he flings a gang of thugs into the nearest cess pit.

So, maybe a lot of background work isn’t just unnecessary, but a backward step. After all, I’m not here to write a guidebook for the Kuhrland or Denland or Felaria, but to write an entertaining story.

It’s worth pointing out a substantial difference between the two styles, though. I write comedy, for Sir Edric, from a single perspective. The eponymous knight is the centre of the story, the world, the perspective. Just about everything is filtered through his prism (hence why attractive women will get more description than plainer ladies). Kingdom Asunder and other serious writing is done from multiple perspectives. This means getting continuity right for both the world and things like timing the plot is more complicated.

I think the single POV approach of Sir Edric lends itself more naturally to spontaneity, as well as making it easier to keep things consistent. It’s not an area where there’s a right or wrong answer, because the two approaches both have merit, but I think it’s interesting that, even for a single writer, the two can work despite being completely different.


Friday, 23 September 2016

PS4 Pro: Why It Has Already Failed

I have a bad habit.

Every console generation, I buy at the wrong time. Within a year, often within months, a better version of the console (a slimmer one, or one with a bigger hard drive) comes out. Like clockwork.

This time is a little different, though. Because both Sony and Xbox have more advanced consoles which are souped-up versions of the existing generation. I’m focusing on the PS4 Pro, both because it’s just been announced and because I have a PS4.

It is a stupid idea. A strategic blunder.

In basic terms, this either sells well and succeeds, or poorly and fails. If the latter, that’s obviously a failure. But even if it sells well, there’s a problem.

Sooner or later, the PS5 and Xbox RandomNumber will come out. But who, beyond the rather rich, is going to want to buy one? A few years after that, the PS5.5 and Xbox RandomNumberB will come out. You’ll then be left with an invidious choice: buy the slightly better console that has the same range of games but will cost extra for a second console purchase, or go without and stick with the peasant version.

So, I imagine many people will wait. Meanwhile, Sony and Microsoft aren’t getting the console sales they hoped for, because the public are wary of their dodgy generation-and-a-half ways. Game sales are down, console sales are down, and everyone makes less money.

Consoles aren’t like mobile telephones. You spend for convenience. If you want to incrementally improve your gaming experience and have the dosh to throw around, the PC is there for you. PCs are more powerful in every way, games can be played without worrying nearly so much about backwards compatibility. Yes, they’re fiddlier and costlier, but that’s the trade off.

Consoles = cheaper, more convenient
PCs = more expensive, better experience

I didn’t spend a couple of hundred pounds on a black box to spend even more on another black box a year later to play the same games.

Maybe I’m just more of a skinflint/poorer than other people, or just a bit old-fashioned (that latter point is almost certainly true), but the PS4 Pro seems stupid to me. Anyone wanting continual improvements can get that already. The whole point of consoles is that they’re easy. You splash out once every seven years or so, plug in and play.

Another problem with the PS4 Pro is that to get the most out of it, you need a 4K TV. And the VR. Which also means a camera. And probably a couple of Playstation Move peripherals.

I might be wrong (I’m into F1 and classical history so I’m well aware I’m not Captain Everyman) but it seems too expensive for most people whilst offering too little (the games are the same) just a few years after the initial PS4 launch. Far better to have that for a PS5 launch, and have a VR bundle for those who want that, no?

As an aside, the Xbox Scorpio, or whatever it’s called, is a good chance for Xbox to strike back against Playstation in the console war.

Late additional bit: fresh from an underwhelming presentation, Sony’s delighted PS4 owners a little bit more. Bethesda, who wanted Fallout 4 mods on PS4 in June (they came to Xbox One in May), have said they’re cancelled, and squarely blamed Sony for that. Mods are also not coming to the PS4 version of Skyrim.

If you’re a huge Bethesda fan, that’s a great disappointment. I do like Bethesda’s games (less taken with Fallout than Elder Scrolls), and find this to be unsurprising but bad news.

There are suggestions (following the news that a farming simulator game will have mods on the PS4) that some form of mods may yet happen for Fallout 4/Skyrim on the PS4, but that remains to be seen.


Friday, 16 September 2016

Review: Twelve Caesars, by Suetonius

I first read this quite some time ago, but recently re-read it. The edition I have is translated by Robert Graves, revised and updated by JB Rives (a Penguin Classic).

The book is a series of small biographies of the first twelve rulers of late Republic and then Imperial Rome, starting with the dictator for life (but not emperor) Julius Caesar, and continuing through to Domitian.

As you might expect, Caesar, Augustus and Tiberius have lengthy biographies and Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Titus rather shorter (Galba, Otho and Vitellius were all short-lived emperors in 69AD and Titus only reigned two years). It’s a shame and a surprise that Vespasian in particular, who was a good emperor reigning a decade or so, gets a relatively short biography.

The biographies have a slightly odd approach. Whilst they tend to begin with early life and end up with death, the middle parts are ordered according to topics rather than chronology. An emperor’s fiscal approach may be followed by his moral virtues, then his vices, for example. It’s not awkward or clunky, just unusual compared to modern day biographies, which tend to be dictated by the order in which things occurred.

Suetonius is perhaps the single most easy-to-read classical history I’ve encountered (perhaps Livy is close). I read on a forum that some see him as a tabloid historian, which is a pithy summary of his style and the veracity of his offering.

With rare exceptions (Thucydides, Polybius) classical historians were not fixated on accuracy as we hope modern ones are. Suetonius is a bit of a gossip, relaying anecdotes (sometimes mentioning he thinks they’re unlikely to be true) along with facts. However, that does not prevent him painting vivid pictures of the imperial lives, and giving us an indication of how they were seen shortly after Domitian’s downfall.

There really isn’t much I dislike about it, with the exception that endnotes rather than footnotes are used.

Twelve Caesars is a most enjoyable book that’s very easy to read both in terms of the writing style, and that practically no previous knowledge of the era is necessary.