A Drug Dealer in Mantua

There’s something about his person that suggests he is waiting to die. Perhaps he is not aware that he is, specifically, waiting; by now, he swims so deeply in his drugged haze that any impending mortality is just a tint, a faint color on the edges of his life, a dark current that seems to move under his feet; it’s rather that the subtle murmurings of his wares occupy his mind, which struggles as it focuses on empty air, all his thoughts turned inward. Does the addling potency of his salves and poisons extend its power beyond the bottles, enseaming the air around him, rerouting his thoughts, tethering him to his trade? Or does his confusion come from another place – that his father, also in the business, was more practiced than him and understood more of the ancient art, bequeathing his knowledge and his books to a less skilled son, who apes and imitates, brewing the old formulas with exactitude, but remaining dimly aware that the deepest he plunges into the mysteries of these potions is shallow indeed? The workings of his mind immure themselves in this labyrinth of discovery. They are hostile to other notions, which are dead ends in the twisted maze of his purpose. He does not think of the future, which is uncertain (if not a fiction).

In a few moments, he will confront an apparition – young and strong, but in despair: another man at an extremity of human life. This one is charismatic and important. He has both a future and a past (a beginning and an end). He can change himself: he was once a lover, but is now just a mourner, which is what every lover becomes eventually. This sometime lover’s writhing, live flesh, contorted by grief, his manic, frenetic desperation, and his compulsion of want all make an alarming vision for the drug peddler, on whom a starving frailness and fragile cargo enforce a grave slowness. The dealer takes care not to disturb the bottles that clink in hidden places on his person. In some pocket of the stained leather apron, or in a vial that hides in his pants hem (scratching his bare feet), or in the left pants pocket, or in the right, or in the folds of his robe, there is the worst poison, the draught that, once drunk, gives the drinker no more time to live than if he’d pulled the trigger of a gun aimed at his head. Indeed, this is precisely what this living spectre, a picture of grief whose name is Romeo, has asked for:

Hold, there is forty ducats: let me have
A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear
As will disperse itself through all the veins
That the life-weary taker may fall dead
And that the trunk may be discharged of breath
As violently as hasty powder fired
Doth hurry from the fatal cannon’s womb.

Marveling, the audience observes what the apothecary in his drug haze has failed to notice: Romeo in his seach for a lethal instrument has neglected completely the knife that hangs at his side. Could there be an easier and more expedient way to loose life from one’s body? Rather than trying to convince this wretch, who stubbornly refuses to commit a capital crime even at the threshold of starvation, Romeo could already be on his way home to the mausoleum where Juliet lies, the instrument of suicide echoing his trembling heart as it jostles in its bonds there strapped against his thigh. Maybe he lacks resolve. After all, taking a drink is casual and completely ordinary, and its mundanity provides an easy mean of death to any one who can forget for an instant the nature of what’s in the bottle. But plunging a blade into your abdomen is forbidden by all kinds of instinctual resistances. Another possibility is that Romeo isn’t carefully considering what that moment will be like in Juliet’s tomb. In fact, most of the plan is improvised from the very start:

Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight.
Let’s see for means – O mischief, thou art swift
To enter in the thoughts of desperate men!
I do remember an apothecary, —

In the moment of searching, as Romeo’s brain racks itself for the particular passage that will convey him from life, a multitude of other past events align in his head, and they offer their details and circumstances to his cause. He remembers the countless hours spent alone in his room with the shades drawn, where the deprivation of his senses soothed his ravening desire. He remembers the circuitous walks around the public areas of the city, avoiding the streets where an errant word could ignite some duel of swords and emotions. He remembers Mercutio’s death and the agony of anger and loss. Blasted by grief, orderly thoughts leave Romeo’s brain to the ready improvisation of desperation. More appealing to the wild tumble in Romeo’s head is the promise of death provided by an apothecary’s euthanasia than an instrument of bloody murder. It’s useful to think of that choice as the result of the huge anger that Romeo used to destroy Tybalt, who was the best swordfighter in Verona until two days prior. In the lover’s single experience with fighting, arriving at the death of a dear friend, he learned that the violence of knives is an awful, intense proof of life until (and unless) in a moment of combat the last breath escapes one’s body. Fighting innervates the muscles and quickens one’s heartbeat. It spills blood. In a pattern of tension and relaxation of the body’s instruments, it makes the full electric sensation of life – for Romeo in that instant, chiefly grief – live in every channel of the body. It is the wellspring of thousands of individual sensations, and each one is a compelling witness of the body’s animus. Mercutio, for one, might have been desperate for that confirmation. He turned a manufactured argument into his own youthful, passionate suicide, a sexually-charged climax in dirt and sweat. Tybalt was a one that sought similar things; he came running back from safety to be speared on Romeo’s point (no less sexually than Mercutio, perhaps). The others (Sampson and Abram, Balthasar and Gregory) dare one another to ignite the brawl that they are desperate for but lack the courage to start themselves. The ‘lord’ Capulet’s fingers itch to bruise his wife and his daughter and (we suspect) have already shaken an infant or two to death. Do they long to die? Hard to claim, yet they seem to recognize in deadly violence some concentrated sensation of vitality, a precipice where feet and limbs are dangled continually and ever more precariously to arouse that feeling of bodily awareness that comes from great danger. In this manner, Romeo in his final hours does not seem to want to die at all, but only to be dead.

Romeo is in a frenzy, banging on the set, stomping his feet, and calling out for this peddler he needs: “What ho! a-po-the-car-eeeeee!” Often enough the performance is a bit showy, if only because this theater is small and we know the apothecary is right there, watching just out of sight behind the curtain. However, one sometimes-underappreciated geometry of acting is that when someone onstage is calling for someone offstage, the unseen actor has the power to wait as long as he wants before entering. Sometimes when cues are forgotten and these kinds of mistakes happen by accident, which isn’t so rare in fringe theaters, the audience is treated to a moment of somewhat barer truth than any of the planned scenes elsewhere in the play. Especially when it comes right after this display of extreme want, some voice (if not the audience) silently asks the stranded performer: “That’s great. What else have you got?” In response, Romeo will often demur and just keep calling, louder and louder, pleading for his scene partner to come on, afraid to derail from the track on which all his actions run. Occasionally, however, in this interstice, a present and alive actor will find himself dangling off the same precipice that Romeo and the other Verona youth do when they fight, hanging with completely embodied life, the immediate moment totally unplanned. The actor looks around, waiting for the next beat (of the play, of his heart), and he sees a theater, expectant faces, the audience. All present hear his heavy breaths. The audience looks back at him. They share his fear and they relish it, and as long as Romeo stays Romeo, scared and alone in the dark, and does not become an embarrassed actor, the audience doesn’t become embarrassed either. The rapt audience is dangled too, and they notice their aliveness. In this performance, as a spot-lit actor and Romeo simultaneously in one body peer into the darkness, a gaunt and dirty face materializes in the light’s margin, and speaks.

Who calls so loud?

“Who is it making all this noise?” but also, “What sort of person can cry with such strength in the world of silence?” We hear the second question in the first because by waiting, the apothecary has isolated and distilled Romeo’s vitality; he has bottled it inside the transparent walls of the stage, like one of the distillments on his person. By asserting a structural power in the flow of this performance, which is the absolute power of advancing the story, he defines all qualities of the scene moving forward: place, time, the air, the properties of the univese. Time does not pass except through his inevitable entrance. The apothecary appears as a rasping voice and a thin face all, a stooped figure with sunken eyes and trembling hands, a skin sack half-full of bones animated only by the convulsions of sickness and cancer. His abominable health cannot be over-emphasized in his manner and features, because the more deathly a companion it is to Romeo’s easy vigor, the more stark and isolated will Romeo’s pulsating body be. The audience is exhilarated when Romeo astonishes at the contempt and beggary that hangeth upon his back, the need and oppression that starveth in his eyes. They shares Romeo’s revulsion and his fear. It’s the same fear that causes us to distance ourselves from the decrepit and deformed in our daily lives. By asking for a poison that will instantly relieve him from life and its attendant sensations, Romeo actually asks to bypass the inevitable bodily decay that is the fate of all who die of age or sickness, and which the young cannot imagine suffering. The possibility of feeling even briefly these specific sensations of wasting and ebbing, as for example in one bleeding to death, are intolerable to Romeo. If the romance of the young lovers is marked by immaturity, it is the immaturity of being unable to accept pain.

Romeo and Juliet was first published in the first quarto of 1597, and was therefore likely performed for the first time in the years just prior; Shakespeare was known to be in London by 1592, and the theaters were closed for plague from 1592-1593, ending a run of Henry IV. A quarter of London’s population had been lost to plague some thirty years earlier, and it recurred periodically until the Great Plague of London in the next century. 10,675 deaths were recorded in the 1592 outbreak, in a city of some 200,000. Everyone in attendance at a performance of Romeo and Juliet knew someone who had died from the disease. The play conjures repeated vigorous lives cut short by violence to manifest in only moments the destruction of families that the plague brought; in this way, its performance in Elizabethan times constituted a bringing to light and collective witnessing of an omnipresent grief.

Business is slow. When his father was alive, there was always a customer being served in the shop, plus one or two others waiting among drying herbs, disembowelled creatures, and colored powders. Ten years ago, the time when his dad finally became the memory of a funeral rather than the memory of a man, the stream of customers had slowed to a trickle, with at most two or three per day. Now, customers are even less frequent. Eight in a month is very good business, one or two is bad. How did he find himself here? The concoctions seem as powerful. Has general interest in these arcane tools waned? Has he specialized too far, too concerned with poisons and with mind-alteration? He could still cure a headache or a case of boils, he thinks. If he were to be asked.

He hears the knocking first. Someone hammers on his door, then yells out for him by the name of his trade, then claps repeatedly and loudly. The stranger knocks again. The noise cracks fissures in the apothecary’s mind and blows his thoughts into a rough chaos, a house of cards defeated completely by a draft. As the calls of this unnamed person build, so does the intensity of the apothecary’s vision of him. The caller’s eyes, yet unseen, already bore past his frail walls. In a suffusion of terror and anger, the apothecary appears and demands the identity of the hidden roars. For the first time in many years, he is scrutinized. Romeo finds in this man’s obvious poverty the means to argue for what he wants, which is to trade his earthly wealth for that most precious distillment:

Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness,
And fear’st to die? famine is in thy cheeks,
Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes,
Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back;
The world is not thy friend nor the world’s law
The world affords no law to make thee rich
Then be not poor, but break it and take this.

The drug peddler steps away to retrieve the poison, but he doesn’t look on the shelves or in the medicine chest. He is looting his person for bottles: an amber one in the left pocket of his leather apron, a black flask wrapped in tattered papers in the right. A thin jar of clear glass with a dark sludge inside leans out of the pocket of his shirt. They are all wrong. He finds a vial with a tiny cork in the hem of his pants, but returns it to its place after peering at it closely for a long moment. He “finds” the amber bottle again and moves it to a different hiding place. He knows what he is looking for. He remembers the black day when he precipitated it and could not find the courage to throw it away. Finally he senses an unseen weight in one of the hidden folds of his rags, and pulls out a small, chipped flacon stoppered with wood and wax. He holds it to the light. The powder inside has dusted the interior, and it filters the stage light like a dusty window does a sunbeam. He already knows it is the right one.

Put this in any liquid thing you will,
And drink it off; and, if you had the strength
Of twenty men, it would dispatch you straight.

Each actor in a play has not only complete knowledge of how a story will end, but also a detailed knowledge of both the events for which his character is not a witness and the mechanisms by which they are staged. Unfortunately for actors, theater thrives when it is suffused with possibility: the surprise of not knowing what is coming next, or how events will thereafter unfold. Executing a compelling performance is in large part a process of un-knowing what is known; of emptying the mind of all preparation and expectation so that when a line is said or a sword is swung, one must look to one’s brain for a reaction the way a person does in ordinary life, and then choose the correct one because rehearsal has identified and made specific that possibility among the many changing and less-defined other ones that some scenario might generate. When the apothecary takes out his vial of poison, his desire to tell Romeo of its terrible power manifests spontaneously in Shakespeare’s lines even as he sells it. But the actor, too, remembers a line he heard earlier in the play, as he wandered backstage, a line cried out in grief, reaching out unwittingly toward Romeo:

Some twenty of them fought in this black strife,
And all those twenty could but kill one life.

Romeo alone killed the most precise and practiced swordsmen of Verona’s street brawls. Tybalt was known to a pitiless fighter with perfect form, who spent at least as much time refining his swordsmanship as Romeo did wandering forlornly in the streets after dark. How did he lose to Romeo? Does some extreme quantity of fury and grief compensate for a lack of skill? Does intensity of passion and depth of feeling matter most? Or was Tybalt’s ability overblown, just part of Mercutio’s elaborate mockery of him? The actor playing the apothecary wonders these things. When he speaks, he sees a wild lover already unravelled by sorrow, and his actor’s outside vantage point furnishes him with an additional, supernatural knowledge of Tybalt’s killer, which the apothecary only knows as the frail boy before him. He speaks of the overwhelming power of his drugs using an idle phrase – don’t worry, you could be twenty times greater than you are and this would still kill you instantly – that acquires a double meaning through this rememberance of overhearing Lady’s Capulet’s line. The repeated words are both mundane, and they simultaneously conjure, deride, and deny the possibility that Romeo’s strength, his vitality, is in any way extraordinary – that although we might allow the protagonist to cheat death for narrative convenience once or a thousand times, or that he might fake it masterfully at Juliet’s tomb so that he can then be revived to tell his story several times a week for a month-long run, what is inside the bottle cannot be evaded by anyone. Of this the apothecary is certain.

The never-ending cycle of time and wordly events is instead for him a spiral. Last week (or was it a month ago?) when he met Romeo, his starvation wasn’t so advanced that the feasts of bread, meat, and fruit he buys with his newfound wealth should have failed to revive his body, and yet. And yet. Some invisible barrier exists between his blood and the very real nourishment that he consumes. The food tastes rich, it gives him energy, but still his life-force (a soul?) is tugged gently and persistently away from his body, rank disease having already made his organs too weak a vessel to carry health. He does think of the future now, which manifests as a seemingly-perpetual cloudiness of the sky, where tendrils of distant storms or wide, slate-gray plains are drawn into an abyssal gyre above his head. This central eye he does not look at, although he knows that it is a private vision of the blackness that he will encounter, soon, and hug in his arms.

(These are the thoughts that occur to me, night after night, as I wait in the wings, about to meet the lover Romeo who seeks the poison that will end his life.)

The Further Adventures of Professor Spacetime

Professor Spacetime and the Wonders of the Universe

PROFESSOR: Come with me, and I can show you all the wonders of the universe. All of space and time, at your fingertips!
COMPANION: All of a space and time? Really?
PROFESSOR: Well… anything in our future light-cone.
COMPANION: So… most of space and time?
PROFESSOR: More like a small and steadily-shrinking fraction of space and time, within the confines of a slowly contracting cosmological horizon.
COMPANION: But it can travel to other galaxies, right?
PROFESSOR: Indeed! You’ll be dead millions of years before we get there, though.
COMPANION: Somehow I thought it’d be bigger…

Professor Spacetime and the Pocket-Sized Plot Device

PROFESSOR: Quickly, my dear, grab the atomic screwdriver!
COMPANION: Here it is… but what good is it to us now? We’re about to be dropped in a pit of lava!
PROFESSOR: My dear, what isn’t an atomic screwdriver good for? This cunning device has gotten me out of thousands of scrapes over the years!
COMPANION: But how does it work?
PROFESSOR: It’s atomic!
COMPANION: But that’s just a word. It’s like calling it a quantum screwdriver or something – you haven’t explained what it does.
PROFESSOR: This is a life or death situation! I can’t possibly go into exposition now.
COMPANION: You do that all the time.
PROFESSOR: This is different! It would be far too difficult to explain my Spacelord science to a human.
COMPANION: It sounds to me like you just slapped the label “atomic” on it sixty years ago when it sounded cool and futuristic so you’d never have to explain it, and now you’re stuck with it, even though it’s a bit naff.
PROFESSOR: That was pretty easy, actually.

Professor Spacetime and the Witches of Vaxahar

PROFESSOR: I fear we’ve uncovered a terrible evil, my dear. I thought the Witches of Vaxahar were just a myth!
COMPANION: The Witches of Vaxahar? That’s far too many letters from the wrong end of the alphabet to be a good thing.
PROFESSOR: The Witches are an ancient and powerful species from the beginning of time. Where Spacelords – like you humans – mastered the universe through a science based on mathematics, the Witches mastered a different science… one based on words. You might call it magic.
COMPANION: Oh no! But… how will we defeat them, Professor?
PROFESSOR: Well… in order to accurately model the universe, their word-science still had to be self-consistent, and satisfy basic philosophical axioms in the same manner as our mathematics.
COMPANION: So it works exactly like math?
PROFESSOR: Pretty much. Except they never got around to inventing numerals, or mathematical notation
COMPANION: But that means…
PROFESSOR: Yes, my dear.
COMPANION: Word problems!
PROFESSOR: Fiendishly difficult ones. Have you ever tried to model rocket equations using descriptions of trains converging from Cardiff and Brighton?
COMPANION: They really are evil!

Professor Spacetime and the Thousand-Year Reich

MECHAQUEEN: …and as the Earth died, we could not help but despair… until our savior came, to carry us away into the stars. It was the suffering of the children, you see. I think that was what moved the spacewhale most to pity.
COMPANION: So that is how you rewarded her? Torturing her, for centuries, to carry your fossilized constitutional monarchy through the stars?
MECHAQUEEN: We thought we had no choice!
COMPANION: But that’s monstrous! How could you live with something like that?
MECHAQUEEN: Actually, we couldn’t. Hence the whole memory-wiping thing.
PROFESSOR: It’s a pretty ingenious solution, come to think of it.
COMPANION: Professor! You can’t actually think they did the right thing? To imprison such a noble and selfless soul, who wanted only to save lives and alleviate suffering…
PROFESSOR: Actually, I’m a consequentialist; though disturbing, sometimes we have to operate against our ethical intuitions in order to minimize suffering. Besides, your whole argument is predicated on the assumption the spacewhale has humanlike consciousness, and a humanlike capacity for empathy and suffering. Given its completely different evolutionary background and environmental selection pressures, this is beyond exceedingly unlikely; furthermore, its apparent selflessness also has to be held to be suspect. Given the vast emptiness of space, I would wager that spacewhales would be forced to use the k-selection strategy for reproduction; even if they had humanlike intellects, they couldn’t possibly share humanlike empathy for life, much less the lives of children, or they would be paralyzed by suffering and grief, at the knowledge the vast majority of their kin don’t make it to maturity, and end up starving to death in the vast emptiness between the stars. The spacewhale was probably there to feed on what was left after the solar flares destroyed Earth’s capacity to defend itself from spacewhale attacks.
COMPANION: So what you’re saying is…
PROFESSOR: The spacewhale is a dick, and deserves to be tortured.
COMPANION: Oh. Well, then. Carry on.

Professor Spacetime and the Unresolved Sexual Tension

PROFESSOR: I can’t! It wouldn’t be right! I’m a thousand-year old Spacelord, you’re just a girl!
COMPANION: A woman, Professor! And don’t tell me you don’t want to kiss me!
PROFESSOR: But the angst is the only thing carrying this season!
COMPANION: Oh, Professor! All this – the spaceship, the wonders you’ve shown me, the fact you embody all the wisdom and experience of the older man, in the conventionally attractive body of a younger one – how could you not sweep me off my feet?
PROFESSOR: We mustn’t, my dear!
COMPANION: Professor… I should warn you, I-
COMPANION: I’ve been reading fanfiction…

Professor Spacetime and the Translation Matrix

COMPANION: Wait, seriously? You have a universal translator?
PROFESSOR: Of course. Standard Spacelord technology.
COMPANION: So you have a computer capable of instantly and seamlessly translating any language into any other, without significant context or prior exposure, and all you use it for is making conversation with aliens and Welshmen?
PROFESSOR: Why does that surprise you?
COMPANION: Because it’s impossible! Worse, it’s unlikely. A true universal translator would be nothing short of an extraordinarily powerful strong AI – capable of perfectly comprehending context and external reference and encoding these neatly into translated utterances – combined with magic. Zero-context translation would allow you to arbitrarily recover any plaintext from any ciphertext. You could use it to decipher Linear A! To crack every code ever! To generate reverse one-time-pads that turn meaningless noise into the secrets of the Universe!
PROFESSOR: Yes, but then this wouldn’t be a very interesting television programme, would it?
COMPANION: Face it, Professor. It’s all been downhill since Series 3 anyway.

Professor Spacetime and the Ominous Secret

MYSTERIOUS FIGURE: And when the clock strikes twelve, his name shall be revealed!
PROFESSOR: No! That’s impossible! It can never be!
COMPANION: What’s the big deal? It’s just your name.
PROFESSOR: I forsook my name long ago… I am only the Professor now. There is an ancient prophecy that, should my name ever be revealed, the Universe will come to an end.
COMPANION: I don’t believe you.
COMPANION: Look, it’s just a name: an arbitrary ordering of sounds that can be produced by the Spacelord vocal tract. Since Spacelords are suspiciously primate-like, in every external feature, including the manner of their vocalizations, we can assume the physical constraints on the phonology of Spacelord languages are roughly the same as they are on human; therefore, the probability that, even after the virtual extinction of your species, some human somewhere in the wide universe has ever uttered a set of syllables which resembles your name approaches pretty near certainty. But the universe hasn’t yet ended.
PROFESSOR: But… but all this foreshadowing! All these ominous clues, building throughout this series!
COMPANION: It’s something far more sinister, I’m afraid. Do you think your name could ever actually be revealed onscreen? The fact that you’re merely the Professor is one of the few interesting things about you.
PROFESSOR: It can’t be!
COMPANION: It is. I’m afraid the showrunner’s just been writing himself into a corner.
PROFESSOR: No! That means—
COMPANION: Yes. The finale is going to be incredibly disappointing.

Professor Spacetime and the Christmas Special


PROFESSOR: Quickly, my dear! Reverse the polarity on the temporal stabilizers!
COMPANION: It’s no use! We’ll never break free in time!
PROFESSOR: Never say never, my dear! I’ll try to rephase the inertial dampeners with a blast of neutrino radiation from the timecore. Hold on!
COMPANION: The saccharine singularity is about to devour the ship!
PROFESSOR: Try to generate as much cynicism as you can! We can’t take another blast of mawkish cliches!


PROFESSOR: Damn it all!
COMPANION: Professor, I— I think I’ve been affected!
PROFESSOR: Resist, my dear!
COMPANION: I can feel it coming over me, Professor! Holiday cheer! The urge to repeat sentimental nonsense!
PROFESSOR: But it’s absurd, my dear! Remember that! We’re nowhere near Earth, you’re the only human for billions of light-years! What possible relevance could a culturally specific human religious holiday have to our present circumstances?
COMPANION: It’s no use, Professor! I can’t shake the feeling that, somehow…
PROFESSOR: Fight it!
COMPANION: …science ficiton should never make us uncomfortable!

Professor Spacetime and the Planet of the Babyeaters

COMPANION: Why, Professor, that’s the third planet this week we’ve visited that’s reinforced our parochial, middle-class British values!
PROFESSOR: Uncanny, isn’t it? Hundreds of worlds, and our biggest moral dilemma so far is whether I’m allowed to seduce you pre-watershed.

‘Banned by the land of their birth / Rhine refused them’

To the happy memory of 800 African refugees, exiles by the Schengen laws, drowned between midnight and morning of April 19th, 2015.

The Wreck of the Deutschland

Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones & veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

I did say yes
O at lightning and lashed rod;
Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess
Thy terror, O Christ, O God;
Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night:
The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod
Hard down with a horror of height:
And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.

The frown of his face
Before me, the hurtle of hell
Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?
I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,
Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.

I am soft sift
In an hourglass—at the wall
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
And it crowds and it combs to the fall;
I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,
But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall
Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein
Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift.

I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

Not out of his bliss
Springs the stress felt
Nor first from heaven (and few know this)
Swings the stroke dealt—
Stroke and a stress that stars and storms deliver,
That guilt is hushed by, hearts are flushed by and melt—
But it rides time like riding a river
(And here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss).

It dates from day
Of his going in Galilee;
Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey;
Manger, maiden’s knee;
The dense and the driven Passion, and frightful sweat;
Thence the discharge of it, there its swelling to be,
Though felt before, though in high flood yet—
What none would have known of it, only the heart, being hard at bay,

Is out with it! Oh,
We lash with the best or worst
Word last! How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe
Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,
Gush!—flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,
Brim, in a flash, full!—Hither then, last or first,
To hero of Calvary, Christ,’s feet—
Never ask if meaning it, wanting it, warned of it—men go.

Be adored among men,
God, three-numberéd form;
Wring thy rebel, dogged in den,
Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm.
Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,
Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.

With an anvil-ding
And with fire in him forge thy will
Or rather, rather then, stealing as Spring
Through him, melt him but master him still:
Whether at once, as once at a crash Paul,
Or as Austin, a lingering-out swéet skíll,
Make mercy in all of us, out of us all
Mastery, but be adored, but be adored King.


"Some find me a sword; some
The flange and the rail; flame,
Fang, or flood" goes Death on drum,
And storms bugle his fame.
But wé dréam we are rooted in earth—Dust!
Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,
Wave with the meadow, forget that there must
The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.

On Saturday sailed from Bremen,
Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,
Two hundred souls in the round—
O Father, not under thy feathers nor ever as guessing
The goal was a shoal, of a fourth the doom to be drowned;
Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing
Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?

Into the snows she sweeps,
Hurling the haven behind,
The Deutschland, on Sunday; and so the sky keeps,
For the infinite air is unkind,
And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,
Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;
Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.

She drove in the dark to leeward,
She struck—not a reef or a rock
But the combs of a smother of sand: night drew her
Dead to the Kentish Knock;
And she beat the bank down with her bows and the ride of her keel:
The breakers rolled on her beam with ruinous shock;
And canvass and compass, the whorl and the wheel
Idle for ever to waft her or wind her with, these she endured.

Hope had grown grey hairs,
Hope had mourning on,
Trenched with tears, carved with cares,
Hope was twelve hours gone;
And frightful a nightfall folded rueful a day
Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone,
And lives at last were washing away:
To the shrouds they took,—they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.

One stirred from the rigging to save
The wild woman-kind below,
With a rope’s end round the man, handy and brave—
He was pitched to his death at a blow,
For all his dreadnought breast and braids of thew:
They could tell him for hours, dandled the to and fro
Through the cobbled foam-fleece, what could he do
With the burl of the fountains of air, buck and the flood of the wave?

They fought with God’s cold—
And they could not and fell to the deck
(Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled
With the sea-romp over the wreck.
Night roared, with the heart-break hearing a heart-broke rabble,
The woman’s wailing, the crying of child without check—
Till a lioness arose breasting the babble,
A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told.

Ah, touched in your bower of bone
Are you! turned for an exquisite smart,
Have you! make words break from me here all alone,
Do you!—mother of being in me, heart.
O unteachably after evil, but uttering truth,
Why, tears! is it? tears; such a melting, a madrigal start!
Never-eldering revel and river of youth,
What can it be, this glee? the good you have there of your own?

Sister, a sister calling
A master, her master and mine!—
And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;
The rash smart sloggering brine
Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing, one;
Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine
Ears, and the call of the tall nun
To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.

She was first of a five and came
Of a coifèd sisterhood.
(O Deutschland, double a desperate name!
O world wide of its good!
But Gertrude, lily, and Luther, are two of a town,
Christ’s lily and beast of the waste wood:
From life’s dawn it is drawn down,
Abel is Cain’s brother and breasts they have sucked the same.)

Loathed for a love men knew in them,
Banned by the land of their birth,
Rhine refused them, Thames would ruin them;
Surf, snow, river and earth
Gnashed: but thou art above, thou Orion of light;
Thy unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth,
Thou martyr-master: in thy sight
Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily showers—sweet heaven was astrew in them.

Five! the finding and sake
And cipher of suffering Christ.
Mark, the mark is of man’s make
And the word of it Sacrificed.
But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,
Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd and priced—
Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token
For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.

Joy fall to thee, father Francis,
Drawn to the Life that died;
With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his
Lovescape crucified
And seal of his seraph-arrival! and these thy daughters
And five-livèd and leavèd favour and pride,
Are sisterly sealed in wild waters,
To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.

Away in the loveable west,
On a pastoral forehead of Wales,
I was under a roof here, I was at rest,
And they the prey of the gales;
She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
Was calling “O Christ, Christ, come quickly”:
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wildworst Best.

The majesty! what did she mean?
Breathe, arch and original Breath.
Is it love in her of the being as her lover had been?
Breathe, body of lovely Death.
They were else-minded then, altogether, the men
Woke thee with a we are perishing in the weather of Gennesareth.
Or ís it that she cried for the crown then,
The keener to come at the comfort for feeling the combating keen?

For how to the heart’s cheering
The down-dugged ground-hugged grey
Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing
Of pied and peeled May!
Blue-beating and hoary-glow height; or night, still higher,
With belled fire and the moth-soft Milky way,
What by your measure is the heaven of desire,
The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing?

No, but it was not these.
The jading and jar of the cart,
Time’s tasking, it is fathers that asking for ease
Of the sodden-with-its-sorrowing heart,
Not danger, electrical horror; then further it finds
The appealing of the Passion is tenderer in prayer apart:
Other, I gather, in measure her mind’s
Burden, in wind’s burly and beat of endragonèd seas.

But how shall I … make me room there:
Reach me a … Fancy, come faster—
Strike you the sight of it? look at it loom there,
Thing that she … there then! the Master,
Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head:
He was to cure the extremity where he had cast her;
Do, deal, lord it with living and dead;
Let him ride, her pride, in his triumph, despatch and have done with his doom there.

Ah! there was a heart right
There was single eye!
Read the unshapeable shock night
And knew the who and the why;
Wording it how but by him that present and past,
Heaven and earth are word of, worded by?—
The Simon Peter of a soul! to the blast
Tarpeian-fast, but a blown beacon of light.

Jesu, heart’s light,
Jesu, maid’s son,
What was the feast followed the night
Thou hadst glory of this nun?—
Feast of the one woman without stain.
For so conceivèd, so to conceive thee is done;
But here was heart-throe, birth of a brain,
Word, that heard and kept thee and uttered thee outright.

Well, she has thee for the pain, for the
Patience; but pity of the rest of them!
Heart, go and bleed at a bitterer vein for the
Comfortless unconfessed of them—
No not uncomforted: lovely-felicitous Providence
Finger of a tender of, O of a feathery delicacy, the breast of the
Maiden could obey so, be a bell to, ring of it, and
Startle the poor sheep back! is the shipwrack then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee?

I admire thee, master of the tides,
Of the Yore-flood, of the year’s fall;
The recurb and the recovery of the gulf’s sides,
The girth of it and the wharf of it and the wall;
Staunching, quenching ocean of a motionable mind;
Ground of being, and granite of it: past all
Grasp God, throned behind
Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides;

With a mercy that outrides
The all of water, an ark
For the listener; for the lingerer with a love glides
Lower than death and the dark;
A vein for the visiting of the past-prayer, pent in prison,
The-last-breath penitent spirits—the uttermost mark
Our passion-plungèd giant risen,
The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in the storm of his strides.

Now burn, new born to the world,
Doubled-naturèd name,
The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
Mid-numbered he in three of the thunder-throne!
Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came;
Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;
A released shower, let flash to the shire, not a lightning of fíre hard-hurled.

Dame, at our door
Drowned, and among our shoals,
Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the Reward:
Our Kíng back, Oh, upon énglish sóuls!
Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east,
More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls,
Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,
Our hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord.

RIP Terry Pratchett

“She heard him mutter, ‘Can you take away this grief?’

‘I’m sorry,’ she replied. ‘Everyone asks me. And I would not do so even if I knew how. It belongs to you. Only time and tears take away grief; that is what they are for.”

(I Shall Wear Midnight)

The Naming of the Stars

Memorandum of the Contact and Cultural Exchange to the settlement Iparaha: General Sciences divsion From: Dr Renée ISHIKAWA, University of New Berlin (department of astronomy) To: Dr Mara SHANG, University of New Berlin (department of astronomy)

August 11, 2206

Dr Shang,

I know the university senate has been eager for a more substantial update, especially after the worrying communique the UN mission received in July; you can reassure them that such an update is on its way, and that we’re all fine here. Yes, there was a small diplomatic incident, in that the Chereni did eat a couple of members of the diplomatic corps, but it was a genuine misunderstanding, and for what it’s worth, they do feel terrible about it. We’ve been hard at work building bridges with our hosts here at Iparaha, and the governing committee of the Exchange is putting finishing touches now on a pretty comprehensive document on the Chereni in re: the possibility of mutually beneficial scientific and economic exchange between our two species. Though the contents of the report are supposed to remain classified until the General Assembly has time to go over it, I can tell you that things are looking extremely promising. Aside from the aforementioned mixup, the Chereni are quite the peaceful people, and are as eager to learn from us, as we are from them.

As comprehensive as the report is going to be, though, we’ve learned so much in so short a time we couldn’t possibly fit everything in it. The general outlines of Chereni biology, history, culture, law, religion, etc., are there, and I’ll leave it to the experts and exchange officers briefed in those fields to cover them. (In short: the Chereni are like us in a lot of ways, and unlike us in a lot of ways; once you get past the different evolutionary pressures that produced them, and some elementary differences in their perceptual systems, though, it’s more like than unlike – under the slime and the scales, they’re basically human.) But there are some things that aren’t going to make it into the report, for reasons of time and space; of particular interest to me was the Chereni approach to astronomy. Well, not astronomy exactly, but astronomical nomenclature. In short: on the Cheren homeworld, the poets named the stars.

A little background: the arc of Chereni history has been pretty different from Earth’s – not surprising, given the environmental and biological differences, to say nothing of psychological – but it’s just as long and complicated, and I can’t hope to give you anything like a reasonable summary, so you will have to forgive me in advance for butchering it with crude analogies to our own. But there was a period, a few centuries ago, very roughly analagous to the scientific revolution on Earth, when it looked like the general trend of Chereni science and culture (and the interaction between the two) might’ve followed something like the trajectory they did on Earth: science as the province of socioeconomic elites, with time and money to spare, efforts being concentrated by something like universities or national academies, plus elite sponsorship, producing the ancestor of the modern research institution, and so on and so forth. But there was a political upheaval and, to cut a long and boring story short, the first Cheren Enlightenment fizzled. It didn’t die out, but it didn’t have anything like the impact the Enlightenment on Earth did, and the first, tentantive steps of scientific exploration and systematization of thought didn’t lead to anything much. Experiment and empiricism became the province mostly of a few minor religious orders, who laid a lot of the groundwork for the second Enlightenment. But they weren’t much interested in astronomy.

You see, the atmosphere of the Cheren homeworld is thicker than Earth’s. It lets some light through – they say about as much as a very cloudy day here at Iparaha – but their world is further from their sun than Earth is, and has to trap quite a lot of heat so that the surface remains inhabitable. There are very high mountains and plateaus where the clouds thin enough that you can see the stars, but the Chereni can’t survive any better than humans at those altitudes, so there wasn’t much in the way of ancient astronomy. The advent of radio helped a little – natural radio sources in the sky at least got them looking up – but the heavens never captured the Chereni imagination the way they did the human. Their gods were always walking among them, invisible; the skies were like the seas or the caves below the earth, supposed to be filled with demons and monsters, and the unhappy dead.

So even within the scientific fringe, slowly building the foundations of methodical empiricism during this great medium aevum, astronomy was a further fringe; it wasn’t the monks who tried to study the stars, venturing to the high mountaintops and the margins of the great uplands to make fleeting observations of the few visible stars, but mystics and wild-eyed hermits. Even the Chereni can’t account for why they did. I have my own suspicions – and they have to do with the feeling that infects the soul the first time you stand in a place like the Atacama Desert and look up at the night sky – but they remain suspicions, and pretty anthropocentric ones at that. These early astronomers weren’t versed in the religious language which was later adapted to scientific vocabulary, in the way the educated elite of Europe adapted Greek and Latin to science, and their jargon had little in common with the rest of early Chereni science, which only deepened the split. But they weren’t astrologers. They had no truck with gods and myths when they measured the stars – for, after all, among the Chereni, the gods walk the land, not the skies.

When the real Enlightenment came to the Chereni, when the scientific method finally exploded out of the cloisters and the scriptoria, the revolution was as swift and thorough as it was on Earth. Maybe even more so. But it didn’t sweep up astronomy, not at first. Astronomers were wild and dangerous back then – weirdos, not scientists. By the time the mainstream Chereni scientific establishment was ready to treat them seriously, a whole parallel subculture had emerged when it came to the study of the stars. True, they were every bit as systematic and rigorous as the scientists; but the astronomers had no truck with scientific jargon, distrusted dry technical language which was devoid of awe or appreciation of the phenomena it studied, and disagreed entirely with the implicit purpose of the Chereni scientific project. Their goal was not to understand the universe, they claimed, not as its own end. Their goal was nothing less than the transformation of the Cheren soul, in the crucible of beauty.

I’m quoting from an old astronomical treatise there, and not really doing the translation justice – please forgive me. Chereni grammar can be every bit as bloody-minded as human. Nowadays, of course, astronomy, like any other science/philosophy/scholarship, is regarded among the Chereni as one of many valid and interesting domains of knowledge, and probably without any inherent special purpose. It retains a distinct vocabulary, though, and in Chereni schools is usually more associated with what we would mostly call humanities and social sciences: literary and digital criticism, linguistics, conlanging, and sociology. But that’s a historical artifact.

But when I first sat down with my Chereni colleagues to compare our star charts, what really struck me were the names. That’s probably their biggest inheritance from their ancestors. You see, on Earth, we have to rely on photographs to convey the wonder of science to the public. And sometimes, even the pictures don’t do it justice; you see something a hundred times, you forget how special it is, even if it’s a photograph taken from the surface of a barren planet five light years away, by an AI-controlled probe. Jupiter is Jupiter; you forget it’s also hundreds of times the size of Earth, an immense swirling sphere of storms, a world of endless clouds and wind. The Chereni don’t have that problem because, as I said, the poets named the stars.

Their names are systematic; they are precise. They classify objects as rigorously as we do, and though they slice their classifications a bit differently, they use mostly the same basic parameters. But every name for an alien world, or a distant sun in a Cheren language contains a little fragment of awe. They have nothing so banal as the Crab Nebula here at Iparaha, because the first time a Chereni saw it, she saw it through a powerful telescope, and to her it was as if she had seen a forest made of fire. So they named it Ishilar, the Forest of Fire, and that’s how it’s referred to in every encyclopedia, database, and scientific paper since. When they saw the Eagle Nebula, to them, too, it looked something like a great bird of prey sheltering newborn stars. They named it Cuizigan, after the devouring mother of myth, and they added the epithet, Mother of Stars. The planets of their home system are given names a little more mundane, but still evocative of their natures: Taius, the Ice-Clad, Vethrin of the Shroud, Ardal the Broken, and Gorhas, the Desert. Some names are long, nearly unwieldy; some are short and pithy. But every time they speak of these things, they use the name in full. I asked one of my interlocutors why, and she did a Chereni shrug. “Tradition,” she said. “But also this: it reminds us that these are the faces of nature at its wildest and strongest, and the appropriate feeling toward such beauty is always awe.”

Naturally, when Chereni physics and astronomy advanced to the point where true cosmology became a field of study, this habit of poetic astronomical nomenclature was extended to cosmological matters as well. Because actual telescopic astronomy was so hobbled by Cheren’s atmosphere, the two actually developed hand-in-hand for much of the last three centuries. Just as we use metaphorical handles to deal with astrophysical phenomena beyond our comprehension, so do they; but I must give the Chereni credit. Theirs are far more beautiful. There is nothing so mean or naked as “the Big Bang” or the “steady-state model” in Chereni cosmology. They call the former Talasendrion, the ancient word their gnostics use for the birth of God. Sometimes, also, I have seen it named the Elemental Fire, but I believe this more usually corresponds to what we call Planck epoch. The latter is Choraselos, the Universe of Order; your opinion may vary on whether it is an appropriate name, but to the Chereni it carries all of the weight of the hope of a knowable and comfortable universe which inspired it there, as here. Supernovae, I am told, are given a dozen different names depending on the type, but they are grouped together within the “ephemeral and trembling stars,” which include also novae and some variable stars. Among stellar remnants, they speak of white dwarfs, “the white and dying flame,” neutron stars as “the mighty anchor-stones of the sky,” and for black holes they have a word which alludes to the ancient Cheren fear of oblivion, which my companion, shuddering, declined to speak aloud.

You may think that science among humans can be poetic, and until I came to Iparaha, I thought so, too. Certainly, we have our occasional turns of phrase; I am reminded of the old Hubble image, which was given an almost Chereni title, “The Pillars of Creation.” We have occasionally named the surfaces of our worlds with something approaching their majesty: the Labyrinth of Night, on Mars; or the Ocean of Storms. But these names are either informal (as for the Pillars), or rendered distant and sterile by languages whose use connotes all things Scientific and Rational, all things seperated from Emotion and Art. The odd popularizer of science has tried to bridge the gap: Sagan, for instance, when he wrote that bit about “what men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but not if he were an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia?” But Sagan wasn’t really a poet, or not a very good one, and his attempt to reclaim something of poetic majesty for astronomy, though admirable, was not quite up to snuff.

But, ah! The Chereni astronomers could put Shakespeare to shame. I can’t read the language they use here at Iparaha very well – it’s logographic, like Chinese, though they do have terminals that display phonetic symbols for children, and that’s mostly what we’ve been relying on. So I’ve struggled through a few astronomical papers that my hosts have provided. Jesus, Mara, you should read these papers. Hell, even just their encyclopedias. Just as ours tend to adopt the scientific tone when writing about scientific matters, so their adopt the poetic tone when writing about astronomy, or astrophysics. We may speak of the Crab Nebula as a remnant of a supernovae, a pulsar’s nebula in the direction of Taurus. The Chereni speak of Ishilar, the Forest of Fire, whose boughs of a thousand colors reach toward their father, the corpse of a shattered star that sings his death-song in the radio frequency, whose music causes his children to weep and burn. I can’t do it justice, really. There’s a specific vocabulary of usage here: the word they use for “weep” recalls the blue of synchronotron radiation. Their words for “radio” and “frequency” have nothing of the connotation we give them, of technology and wavy imagined lines. In all my years working in astronomy, or teaching it, I have seen nothing like the Chereni papers, and felt nothing like the awe their scientist-poets induce. Mara, I’ve never wept while reading about exoplanets before – but that’s what the Chereni have reduced me to.

I’m working on preparing a short paper on the Chereni approach to astronomy; I expect I could probably get it published in one of the Martian cultural journals. I’d like to try to translate a couple of articles, too, but honestly, I’m just not sure English as we speak it now is up to the task. Our technical vocabulary is – well, too technical. I yearn for a form of the language that could be stripped of the legacy of the industrial revolution, recast in a form where progress and logical positivism weren’t baked into every Greco-Latin syllable at the expense of sorrow, and beauty, and art. Then, perhaps, I could begin to tell you of what the Chereni know of the serene beauty of Andromeda, or the achingly sad yearning they see in the redshifted galaxies at the cosmic horizon; or the bewitching mystery of the Great Attractor, or the loneliness and the silence of the Boötes Void. But alas! We never let our poets explain the universe to us. We will have to let the Chereni do it for them.

Dr Renée Ishikawa HLRN: TA455671(ce) University of New Berlin Department of Astronomy

There is no such thing as America

Let me tell you the story of a man I once met, a man who told me a story. As I said to him many times, I don’t believe a word of his tale. ‘You’re a liar,’ is what I told him, ‘you tell fibs, and you’re a fantasist. A fraud.’

My words made no impression. He continued to tell me his story, in a quieter voice, until I started to shout at him: ‘You hack! You swindler! You phony!’ And when I was done, he just looked at me, smiled sadly, and shook his head with disappointment. And then he said, in voice barely above a whisper, and so softly that it almost made me feel ashamed, ‘there is no such thing as America.’ I felt I had to make it up to him, and promised to do so by writing down what he told me:

It begins five hundred years ago, at the court of a King. The King of Spain, in fact. An enormous palace; silk and velvet; gold, silver, beads, and crowns; candles, servants, and maids. Courtiers who the night before threw down gauntlets at each other’s feet, and now rise at dawn to run each other through with swords; watchmen blowing fanfares from the towers; messengers who hop into the saddle, messengers who leap out of the saddle; the King’s friends and the King’s false friends; women, beautiful and dangerous; and wine; and all about the palace, people whose only purpose was to procure all of these things.

The King knew nothing besides this life, and in the end, life is the same every day. The King was bored. Just as the people of Barcelona imagine that other places are more beautiful, and want to travel to somewhere else.

The poor, of course, imagine how wondeful it would be to live like a king – the King imagines how much better it would be to be poor.

In the morning the King gets up out of bed, in the evening he gets into bed, and during the day he is so bored with his own troubles and with his attendants, his gold, his solver, his velvet and silk and candles. His bed is like a palace all on its own, but what can you do in a bed but sleep.

In the morning, the servants bow to him deeply, and every morning in just the same way. The King does not even notice. At dinner, his fork is handed to him, as is his knife; someone pushes in his chair, and the people around him only say nice things to him, and compliment him, and nothing else at all.

No one ever dares to say, ‘you idiot! You’re a complete blockhead.’ Everything that they say to him today, they said to him yesterday.

Such is life.

And that is why the king has a jester.

A jester can do as he likes, and say what he likes so long as the King laughs, and if they cannot make the King laugh, he kills them, or something like that.

Once he had a jester who loved to play with words. The King enjoyed this greatly. The jester would say ‘so high my mess!’ rather than ‘your highness’, or ‘tassle’ instead of ‘castle’, or ‘dice nay!’ instead of ‘nice day!’. It’s rather silly, to be honest, but the King thought it was hilarious. For a whole six months it made him laugh, until the seventh day of July, and on the eighth, when he got up in the morning and the jester greeted him with ‘dice nay, my high ol’ mess!’ the King ordered his head to be chopped off.

Another jester, who was short and fat and called Pepe, the King enjoyed for only four days. Pepe spread honey on the chairs of the courtiers, all of the nobles, and the knights. On the fourth day he put a big glob of it down on the seat of the throne, and the King no longer found it funny, and Pepe was a jester no more.

After that, the King bought the most terrible jester in the world. He was ugly – thin and fat at the same time, both tall but also short in some ways, and his left leg was bowed. Nobody knew if he could even speak, or if he was completely dumb. His gaze was angry, his face sullen. The only thing nice about him was his name, which was Little Hans.

But then there was his awful laugh. It always started small and glassy and deep in his belly, then gurgled up, until it was a belching that made his face all red and almost made him choke, and then burst out in a big, booming cackle. Then he would smack his knees, and dance about and chortle, and the King loved it, but only because it made everyone else pale and tremble with fear. When Little Hans’ laugh would ring out through the castle, doors were locked and windows barred, shutters closed, and the children were taken to bed with wax in their ears.

The laughter of Little Hans was the most ghastly thing in the world.

Whatever the King said, Little Hans would laugh.

The King said things that couldn’t be funny to anyone, and yet Little Hans still laughed. One day, the King said, ‘Little Hans, I’m going to hang you.’

Oh, how he laughed! He roared out like never before.

So it was decided that Little Hans would be hanged the next day. The King was serious. He wanted to see Hans laugh from the gallows, and wanted to make everyone watch the awful spectacle. But all of the coutiers, the nobility, the knights and the squires, they all hid in their rooms, with the doors locked. The morning of the hanging, it was just Little Hans, the hangman, the King, and his attendants. So the King cried to the attendants, ‘bring me everyone you can find!’ They searched the whole city, but found no one, as everybody was hiding.

Finally, one of the attendants returned with a boy, who they dragged before the King. The boy was small, pale, and shy, and the King had him brought to the gallows and ordered him to watch. The boy looked up at the gallows, clapped his hands in amazement, and said, ‘you’re such a kind King! You’ve built a perch for pigeons! And look, two have already landed.’

‘You’re a half-wit,’ said the King. ‘What’s your name?’

‘I am indeed a fool,’ said the boy, ‘and my name is Colombo. My monther calls me Columbine.’

‘Well, you’re an idiot, Columbine. Someone is about to be hanged,’ said the King.

‘What’s his name?’ asked Columbine, and when the King told him he said ‘aah, that’s a nice name. How can a man with so nice a name be hanged?’

‘His laugh is terrible,’ said the King, and he ordered Little Hans to laugh, and it was twice as bad as the day before.

Columbine said, ‘your highness, what’s so terrible about that?’ The King was surprised, and could not answer, and Columbine went on, ‘I don’t like his laugh much, but the pigeons are still sitting on the gallows. They aren’t frightened. Pigeons have good ears. You should let Little Hans go.’

The King thought about it, and then said, ‘Little Hans, go to hell.’ And for the first time Little Hans spoke, and he said to Columbine, ‘thank you’, and smiled a warm smile, and then went.

The King had no more jesters. The King’s servants and maids and all the courtiers believed, though, that Columbine was the new jester. But Columbine was not funny. He stood around, lost in thought, rarely speaking and never laughing, and never making anyone else laugh. ‘He’s not a jester, he’s an imbecile,’ is what everyone said about him, and Columbine said ‘I’m not a jester, I’m an imecile,’ and then everyone laughed at him.

If the King had known about this, he would have been very angry, but Columbine said nothing about it, because it didn’t bother him at all to be laughed at. At court there were the strong, the intelligent, the King was a king, the women were beautiful and the men brave, the priest was pious and the kitchen maids industrious. Columbine, and Columbine alone, was nothing.

If someone said, ‘Columbine, come and fight me!’ he would say, ‘I am weaker than you.’

If someone said, ‘Columbine, how much is two times seven?’ he would say, ‘I’m dumber than you.’

If someone said, ‘Columbine, I dare you to jump over that stream!’ he would say, ‘no, I don’t think I can.’

And when the King asked Columbine, ‘what do you want to become?’ Columbine would say, ‘I do not want to become anything. I am something, I am Columbine.’

The King said, ‘but you must become something,’ and Columbine said ‘what can one become?’

And the King said, ‘look at that man there, with the beard and the brown, leather face. He is a sailor. He wanted to become a sailor, and he did, and he sailed across the sea and discovered new countries for his king.’

‘If you want, my king,’ said Columbine, ‘I’ll become a sailor.’ At that, the whole court burst out laughing. Columbine ran out of the hall shouting, ‘I will discover a country, I will discover a country!’

Everyone looked at each other and shook their heads, and Columbine ran out of the castle, through the city, and across the fields, and when the farmers who were in the fields greeted him, he called out to them, too: ‘I will discover a country, I will discover a country!’

And so he came to the forest and hid for weeks in the bushes and brambles, and for weeks no one heard a word about Columbine. The King was sorry and blamed himself, and the courtiers were ashamed for laughing. Finally, after weeks and weeks had passed, the watchmen on the tower blew a fanfare and the court rejoiced, for across the fields, through the city, and up to the gate came Columbine, and he went before the King and said, ‘my king, Columbine has discovered a country!’

And because the courtiers did not want to laugh at him, they tried their best to look serious and asked, ‘what is it called and where is it?’ ‘It does not have a name yet, because I have just discovered it, and it is far out to sea,’ said Columbine.

One of the grizzled sailors stood up and said, ‘well, Columbine, I, Amerigo Vespucci, will go and look at this country of yours. Tell me how I get there.’ ‘You go into the sea, and then go straight, and you have to keep going straight and not give up until you come to the country.’ Columbine was terrified, of course, because he knew that what he said was a lie, and that there was no such country. So off went Amerigo Vespucci, and for days and days Columbine could not sleep.

No one knows where Amerigo went. Perhaps he, too, hid in the forest.

Then the trumpets blew, and Amerigo came back.

Columbine was red in the face and dared not to look at the great sailor. Vespucci stood before the King, and said loud and clear, so that all could hear: ‘Your Majesty, O King, the land is there.’

Columbine was so glad that Vespucci had not betrayed him that he ran up to him, hudded him, and cried, ‘Amerigo, my dear Amerigo!’

And the people believed that this was the name of the country, and they called this land that did not exist, ‘America.’

‘You are truly a man,’ the King said to Columbine, ‘and henceforth you shall be called Columbus.’

And Columbus was famous, and all marvelled at him and whispered as he walked past, ‘there he is! The man who discovered America!’

And they all believed that there is such a place. Only Columbus was not sure, and doubted it his whole life, but never dared to ask the sailors for the truth about where they had gone. Soon enough, other people went to America, and then, a great many people. And those who came back all said, ‘America is there!’

‘I,’ said the man who told me this story, ‘I have never been to America. I do not know if America exists. Perhaps people only say that it does, so as not to disappoint Columbus. After all, when you see two people talking about America these days, they wink at each other, and hardly ever say “America”. Instead, they say something vague about “the States” or “over the pond”, or whatever.’ Perhaps when someone gets on a plane or a ship to go to America, they are told the story of Columbus, and hide away somewhere, and come back later to talk about cowboys and skyscrapers, about Niagra Falls and the Mississippi, and cities called ‘New York’ and ‘San Francisco’.

In any case, they all say the same things, and talk about things that they already knew before they left, and that is very suspicious.

And people are always arguing about who Columbus really was.

I know it.

from Kindergeschichten by Peter Bischel (1969)
translated from the German by M Schuller

Ithaca and Durotar

The last time I found myself back in Nashville, in the back of my mind, the whole time, I knew what I really wanted was to be somewhere else – anywhere, in fact, but home.

I have an uncertain relationship with the concept of “home.” There are, I think, reasons for that – I lived in the same house, from the earliest period in my life I can remember, until I left for college at the age of eighteen. Nor was it a sudden, clean break, setting off for a country three thousand miles away, never to return except at Christmases: rather, my adult existence has proceeded in fits and starts, sometimes feeling like a kind of half-maturity, inhibited by the occasional realization that there are times and seasons in my life when I lack a certain critical resolve, and have found my course bending homeward again, back to Nashville, for a few months, or a year or so. But, of course, in time I always rediscovered that necessary strength, and left again. And it helped that every time, Nashville felt a little less like home.

It is the curious feature of time spent away – which we forget, lulled as we are by the closing of conceptual distance by the jet engine and the automobile – that places continue to change even after we are gone. They change while we’re there, too, of course, in ways both welcome and unwelcome. I am not a big fan of change, especially of the unnecessary sort, as anybody who was there for my childhood will attest, but at least when we’re present for those changes, they feel gradual, and can be incorporated into our internal histories of the places we inhabit. But the changes which accumulate while we are away will always seem to have happened suddenly, and to possess an alien quality, because we were not there to witness them unfold. The house down the street is torn down, or repainted. A new building goes up downtown. The menu changes at your favorite coffee shop, and now the staff are all different, and they don’t know what your usual order is anymore.

And these things might seem small, and it might seem only the peevishness of the stubborn mind, intent on finding flaws in the universe where none really exist, to harp on them, and to find in them small traces of a deep and illimitable sadness. But I do, and it is not peevishness, nor stubbornness, nor merely a penchant for melancholic moods (though I admit I possess all three at times, and not rarely together). But we write the psychohistory of our lives in the places that we know; and in that way, we map our selves to the spaces we have inhabited for years at a time, so surely, I think, that the paths and places where we played as children become for us a metonomy of our childhood as a whole: the creek behind the house, the backyard, the floppy-eared dog, the cracked sidewalks, and everything else. And human memory is a notoriously unsatisfactory device: memories fade with time, are lost, and shift in emphasis as we remember them. So how wonderful it is to turn a corner, or visit a favorite spot, or see a familiar face in one’s hometown, and by the physical sensation find oneself confronted with memories suddenly fresh, suddenly new again, and pieces of a life we had thought lost forever returned to us, even if only for a little while. It helps, of course, if the memories are good ones. As for me, I had what seemed unremarkable at the time, but was in retrospect a very happy childhood. And for that reason, maybe, I especially hate to go home.

With time, of course, the city where I was born, and where I spent the vast majority of the first eighteen years of my life, feels less and less like home. My parents are divorced; a strange man lives in my mother’s house where I grew up. The last time I returned, the house had been rearranged, and my room no longer felt like the little sanctuary I had spent years carefully building for myself. Nashville is now a rather alien place, the city of a Capgras delusion, very like (but not the same as) my home. And the city where I have lived, on and off since, feels more and more like mine, even though I don’t hold the local citizenship, can’t vote in the elections, and have a funny accent. Any place you stay long enough will become inhabited with new memories, just like the places you grew up, and I have been lucky in my adulthood, as I was in my childhood, in that many of them are very good ones.

Tonight, at about three AM, because I couldn’t sleep, I reinstalled World of Warcraft. I’m not sure what exactly my motivation was. The new expansion, of course, is being talked about, and the occasional post bubbling up into my awareness on Reddit. When I really can’t sleep, when I feel my thoughts going endlessly in circles, what I want more than anything is to be taken out of myself, and into another world. RPGs are good for that. So I found myself back in Azeroth, for the first time in, I think, about two and a half years. My Tauren druid, level 85, was standing right where I had left him, in a hut in Orgrimmar, a staff slung over his shoulder, in a motley of armor picked up from various dungeons and quests. The sensation of returning to an avatar I had spent a couple of years inhabiting, in a world I knew as well as my own, was not a little pleasant. Aha, I thought; yes, I remember how this goes. The muscle memory of the hotkeys came back quickly enough, and no sooner had the desire formed in my mind, but I had transformed into a hawk and was again soaring through the sky.

And yet, what’s true for Nashville is true for Kalimdor. Out of curiosity, I clicked around on the various social windows World of Warcraft offers. Out of what was once an active membership of a couple dozen people, only five characters still had the guild tag. None of them, save Ekhan of course, had been online in years. Half of my friends list was missing entirely, their names replaced by an ominous “UNKNOWN”; even the long list of people I had permanently /ignored over the years was now two-thirds “unknown” entries. Orgrimmar was functionally deserted (of course, the fact that a new expansion had been released, and that it was the small hours of the morning, probably contributed to that). For curiosity’s sake, I later looked up the server’s entry on Wowpedia; of the top-rated Horde and Alliance guilds listed on that page, all of which had been active when the Path was in its heyday, most did not even have their websites up anymore. Ten million people are subscribed to World of Warcraft – just not, apparently, anybody I know.

And it goes deeper than that. I think in a lot of ways, despite its phenomenal success, World of Warcraft is an object lesson in how not to build a good MMORPG. There are a couple reasons for that. Not the absurdity of the stories it tells, or its penchant for scenery-chewing melodrama – I love that about World of Warcraft. But its theme-park nature, its grindy gameplay, the inability of the players to meaningfully create their own stories in the world, all stand against the strong lessons games like Minecraft – or even EVE Online – have taught us since. World of Warcraft isn’t a tool for players to create with, like good virtual worlds are, and it certainly doesn’t have that alive-sense that the best have. It is, at best, a carefully curated set of dioramas and theme parks, and thus has to be driven by continuous content-heavy expansions, which, when they fail to appear regularly, tend to result in precipitous drops in the subscription rate. What this means, in real terms, I think, is that if you log in for the first time in six months, you feel out of the loop; if you log in for the first time in two years, you feel you have landed on another planet. Old features, like reputation factions from previous expansions, or endgame content rendered meaningless by a raised level cap, sits there, orphaned and abandoned. That’s not all bad: you might have very fond memories associated with those dungeons. But it’s strange – like coming home and seeing the house next door has been abandoned.

Cataclysm in many ways was a serious error on Blizzard’s part. There were things about that expansion that I loved, but it is not a coincidence that it was in the middle of Cataclysm that we wound down the guild. The stories Cataclysm told were fantastic – Chris Metzen has refined melodrama into, well, not a high art exactly, but certainly something I consume with relish, especially where the dynamics of the Horde and the Alliance, and Lovecraftian gods and mad dragons are concerned. But in changing the world so thoroughly, for those of us who inhabited Azeroth for years beforehand, a great deal was lost. I have no strong memories associated with Orgrimmar now, or the Barrens, or Azshara. Those are all zones which, in their previous incarnations (red cliff canyons, endless sere grasslands, high autumnal hills and ancient ruins), I spent an embarassing quantity of time, mostly just running around, and which I knew like the back of my hand. Tonight, though, when I returned to them – well, it’s like coming home, and finding the house next door is now a parking lot.

Parking lots are good. You need somewhere to park your car. But no parking lot in the world is a special place.

None of this is meant as specific criticims of World of Warcraft with my video-game-critic hat on; that’s not what I’m interested in at the moment. I really just want to talk about familiar places, and the passage of time.

I have a problem with time – a beef, a fundamental personal disagreement. It has a bigger, more existential component, but only when I spend too much time reading about astronomy on Wikipedia (don’t ask), but the core of this disagreement is simple, and personal. I don’t like it when things change. I don’t like it when things change, because I don’t like to lose people. I don’t mean death (although yes, I have a problem with that too, obviously). I mean in the most mundane, unremarkable sense of loss; I don’t like to lose people. It is partly, but not only pragmatic – I don’t make friends easily, and it’s a pain to make new ones. But more than that, it’s just sad, a little stab of grief, to look up one day and remember that you have not spoken to someone who used to be a good friend in weeks, months, years – that you have no idea what they’re doing or what they’re like now. Or worse, in the age of Facebook, you know exactly what they’re doing: but it’s like looking into their life through glass, because you have no connection to it anymore. You could send them an email, or write them a letter – but what would you say?

I have this problem with time, because it seems unbearably cruel to me that we should live in a world where even the happiest thing it is possible to have in this world, the bright bond of friendship, is subject to the same slow death as every other entropic process in the universe; and crueler still, that the physical matrix in which the memories of such things are embedded should likewise be subject ot the same decay. Time, that old son of a bitch, can keep his mitts off neither Nashville nor Azeroth; and one day, when I have moved away to some other city, with less soul-destroying winters and less rain, and I return to Dublin to visit, I do not think he will have had the courtesy to refrain from meddling in my adopted hometown as well.

And just as it is true that all things are subject to decay, it is true that such decay is never permanent. You do make new friends. You do fill a new place with new memories. There are always more adventures to be had, a little down the road, even if everything that has gone before is in some sense lost. But ain’t it a bitch all the same? For even if unending future joys should wait for us, a little ways further down the line, there is always sorrow behind. It does not crush; it does not overwhelm. But it accumulates in a slow drift beneath us, like the subduction of a tectonic plate, and carries us along.

I do not know if there is a place in this world which will ever feel like home, in the way the place you are born does, when you are a child. For me, it is not Nashville, nor can it ever be again. It isn’t Dublin, not really. In my mind’s eye, it might be a place a little like my brother’s neighborhood in Berlin, with wide, tree-lined streets, flanked by handsome old buildings. And if it were really home, my heart of hearts whispers, it would always be early autumn in a place like that, with a fragrant breeze and the midday sun; and you would know, that maybe not next door, but not far away – just down this street, or that, maybe a couple blocks over – was every friend you had ever had, and every companion you had ever missed. You might see them often, or rarely; but if suddenly one evening the urge struck you, to while away a few hours with someone you had not spoken to in years, you would know just what door to knock on, and there they would be, beloved, and familiar, and glad. It would be a place without partings, sweet or sorrowful, and there, time would have no power to wound or mar our hearts, because however far we went away, we would return safe in the knowledge this was where we were meant to be all along.

The Simple Art of Murder

Discussed in this essay:
  • Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream/David Cage 2010)

I need to lampshade something at the beginning. Here at Democritus the Third, we review every video game, consciously or un, by comparing it to Deus Ex, the cyberpunk RPG shooter-or-nonshooter from the year 2000. There are some rational and some irrational reasons for this, and going back through the archives of our internal communications, it appears I’ve been as guilty of the irrational ones as anyone. The worst of these moments was an invocation of it in describing Skyrim, which made an initially very positive impression but turned out to be junk by the end: a fair comparison might have been “omg, it’s juuust like Deus Ex if JC Denton hadn’t been able to hack it in his first UNATCO assignment and had been laid off and had to get a job as a driver for FedEx. And then got assigned a delivery route on a bullshit medieval fantasy island.” That’s the irrational talking, the part of me that thinks that Warren Spector is the only RPG developer to have seen the face of god. In the realm of the rational, Deus Ex figures heavily in my discussion of Heavy Rain because they both have similar ambitions in terms of giving the player agency to shape the story, are both generally successful in these ambitions, but have very different approaches to and definitions of things like agency and choice. They are also games which while ultimately very good exhibit a number of shocking, jarring flaws – sometimes even the same ones – such that I think it’s pretty constructive to consider them side-by-side a lot of the time. I’ve also embarked on a playthrough of Deus Ex for the first time in about four years which ran parallel to my playing Heavy Rain, so both have been swirling around in my mind for a while.

For all their similarities, Deus Ex and Heavy Rain come from different sides of the fundamental divide in video games, best expressed in ultimate archetypes: there are Pongs, and there are Froggers. Froggers, a category that includes Frogger but also things like Super Hexagon, or even hide and seek, are deterministic systems through which the player moves using play and game elements, but which only reach their end states through player success. Failure is an option: you can fall in the water, get run over, etc., but this doesn’t produce an outcome. It halts the system, which is then run again and again until the end is reached without the interruption of failure. Pongs are the category that includes games in the larger sense that spans all of human history: Pong is one, but so are chess, soccer, and Candyland. These games all move toward a definite end state (eleven points; checkmate; 90 minutes; hyperglycemia) which produces an outcome, and one of the outcomes for any given player is failure. Deus Ex is a Frogger, but Heavy Rain is a Pong.

Player agency in Heavy Rain works like this: no matter what you do in any given scene, the game continues on to the next one. Completion of or failure to complete the game sequences in the scene will have consequences – sometimes fatal ones – for whichever of the four player characters is the focus of the scene. If you get someone killed, the game continues toward its end state without them or any of the subsequent scenes they would have appeared in. Failure also might not have any immediate consequences, but it might get someone else killed further down the line. There is also ‘failure’ in the sense of refusing to even attempt something that has been laid at your feet: you can get up and walk away, and the game goes on anyway. The implications of this are tremendous, and I need to revisit them when I talk about controls a bit further on. Contrast that with Deus Ex: as many paths as there might be through one warehouse, and as little killing as many of them may involve, there is only one path through the game and the only way to walk it is without JC Denton getting killed. Here, it’s almost (but not quite) the reverse: Heavy Rain doesn’t grant you this decisional sovereignty all the time or in every scene, and some outcomes are scripted to the point where you can push buttons frantically or just put down the controller to cover your innocent stuffed hippo’s eyes from the violence unfolding in front of you and the outcome will be the same. It also micromanages the environment to an absolutely infuriating degree: you can only interact with objects when they have the controller-button halo over them, and not at all when they don’t. This is applied with stunning condescension: searching a room for clues, I can open a closet door because the halo has appeared over the knobs, but once I’ve opened it and my character has seen that it’s empty, the halo disappears and I can’t open it again. In perhaps the most maddening example, the game permitted me, walking down the hallway in a nursing home, to stop and look at some flowers. Since this wasn’t my first video game, I knew I would need them later, but I wasn’t permitted to pick them up until I had walked all the way down the hall, run through a bunch of conversation options with the dialogue holding my hand, and then only after the visit from Captain Obvious was I allowed to walk all the way back down the hall, pick them up, and bring them all the way back – which, by the way, I had to do, Frogger-style, if the scene was going to advance. For a game that lets you choose, ultimately, whether all of the people with speaking parts live or die and which is brave enough to painstakingly construct whole scenes and chapters that never see the light of day because every choice excludes some later alternatives, this kind of railroading is supremely annoying. But it’s hard to say which is more condescending: not being able to pick up the flowers until my cue or permitting me to think that some difference will be made by having a body count of 0 versus 1200 when really I’ve been on a monorail to Area 51 since I landed on Liberty Island and the only choice with any significant consequences for posterity is the one between doors number one, two, or three at the very very end. (It was in many ways more intellectually honest for the end of Deus Ex: Human Resources to be just a big ol’ gleaming console with a red button and a blue button on it.)

Heavy Rain has one of the strongest, most vivid, tightest – both in the sense of coherent and of constricting – atmospheres of any game I’ve ever played. Just as Deus Ex evokes the dystopian cyberpunk horror of Neuromancer and the nighttime, somehow both shadowy and alive with electric possibility, of The Man Who Was Thursday, so Heavy Rain is what would happen if Michael Haneke and Raymond Chandler decided to make a movie together. It has the bitter bleakness, the intensity of suffering, and the chamber-orchestra scale of Funny Games, but the moral grounding, the noir tropes, and the noble punching-bag protagonist of The Long Goodbye. It is not a world-building game – it won’t even name the city it’s in, though connoisseurs will recognize Philadelphia – and the plot is dramatic, not epic. Even as it involves the police, poverty, income inequality, and social exclusion, it is not a Brechtian vehicle for the discussion of these things; they serve to shape and display the emotions and fates of the characters rather than the other way around. And the rain – good god, the rain. It is both plot and atmospheric element, the relentless background to everything, the fundament of the whole story. It is a small wonder that Heavy Rain manages such intensity without ever tipping over into monotony.1 Similarly, the music is instrumental (as opposed to synthesized), vivid, and school-of-John-Adams, gripping the player’s emotions in a very American way by urgently flinging about the same broad, high major harmonies found all over the works of people like Adams and Copland, the kind that have always made me Feel Something even as they blocked my mind’s eye’s field of vision with the same silvery glint given off by quarters. You will have the urge, after playing this game for hours, to towel off your rain-soaked head and warm up with a cup of tea. It works utterly.

This has the effect of making the game’s glaring flaws and oversights all the more maddening. Let’s start with an old saw from the Deus Ex days: where do they find these voice actors? Deus Ex was made on a too-quick timetable and a too-small budget by people in Texas who might, under the most generous possible construal of things, be forgiven for not being able to locate a Cantonese voice actress in Austin at short notice. But I watched the credits for Heavy Rain, which was a multimillion-dollar production with the full backing of Sony, who paid for the game to be dubbed completely into at least four languages, and they nevertheless expect me to believe that French actors doing transparently awful American accents are the best they can do? Let me give you some advice, Quantic Dream and or Sony Computer Entertainment Incorporated: If you are going to develop a triple-A video game whose showpiece villain is called the “Origami Killer”, it may be wise to point your voice actors in the direction of the correct pronunciation of these words, because your hard-boiled Philadelphia police detective becomes a ridiculous figure every time he shouts about finding “origammy” at the crime scene. Have you people ever actually been to America? Come to think of it, I don’t think they have. Emergency exit and fire-safety signs conform to European, not US, standards in the richly detailed environments; a scene in a hospital prominently shows British electrical outlets (go figure), and every light switch without exception from start to finish is of a make and model never before seen between Canada and Mexico. Their Frenchness shines through at other utterly preventable points as well, such as the cemetery: it is French practice to print surnames in all caps in official and technical contexts, something never done in the US, and so you can be forgiven for wondering why, when it shows the grave of Scott SHELBY,2 he was taken all the way to Paris to be buried. This is the kind of immersion-breaking stuff that is as sloppy as it is preventable, and it’s even a little dangerous: by flagging the narrative eye as that of an outsider – there’s a lot of hand-holding or deliberately leading camera work in Heavy Rain, often in ways that exacerbate the problems with railroading controls described above – the director invites his gaze to be examined on other levels as well.

Doing that, in turn, highlights the most unsavory male gaze of the camera, even – uh, especially, actually – in the chapters where the protagonist player character is a woman. Heavy Rain fails all but the first of the three elements of the Bechdel test, and does so no matter which choices you make. Think about that: an elaborate array of choices, whole branches on a plot tree, fate thrown open, and in none of these parallel universes do two women speak to one another directly – the closest one comes is a mother hearing her infant daughter cry in the next room. The woman among the four main characters spends her entire introductory scene taking a shower and then running around in a bra and panties. Every bit of progress she makes in her sleuthing is bought by bringing some degree of sexual satisfaction to a man, be it the Ethan Mars protagonist of protagonists or one of a panoply of gross villains. The androcentric dramatis personae is not itself problematic given that it’s a game about a serial killer with daddy issues who puts his victims and their fathers through Funny Games- or Saw-like challenges as a kind of sadistic test, but the masturbation material really doesn’t add anything beyond putting another straw onto the back of the camel that has to carry #gamergate around. The only thing I can find to say in the director’s defense here is that the male protagonist, Ethan Mars, is subject to the same voyeuristic camera-fucking more than once, but even if you were to argue that sexuality was tied to his having to prove his heroic manly fatherness to proceed, it’s a little bit more abstract and certainly more dignity-preserving than if he were to have to do a little dance and nearly get his cock out to get to the next level, which is the interrogation method that our Nancy Drew is forced to employ. Here, too, player decision is involved. You actually get an achievement for managing to conk out the smarmy sub-villain before you actually have to expose anything, but there’s no player choice – and therefore no choice on the part of the character, Madison – about whether or not he gets to put his hands on your ass first. Spoiler alert: he does.

And here’s where I get to have the interesting discussion about controls. Giving the player meaningful choice, of course, also gives the player a degree of moral responsibility for the consequences of the choice. I don’t feel morally conflicted about killing Gunther Herrmann in Paris because it’s justified by necessity: not only is it him or me, but I also know in advance what choice the game requires me to make, and you can’t get past that scene until you do the killing, justified or not. But there is more blood on your hands when a killing is avoidable and when it is perfectly possible to progress without doing it, and especially so when instead of just pressing X to shoot, you have to, as a player, issue a much more complex set of instructions or make a much more conscious decision to omit. Quick-time events, a controversial aspect of PS3 control heuristics, are applied to great effect here. Playing as the FBI agent, you must literally react instantly to a suspect swiftly pulling a blurry black object out of his back pocket and raising it toward your colleague. Scott the private detective can save himself from drowning with or without untying the other person in the car, and to untie her, you push and hold a series of buttons and move the controller back and forth, jerking it outwards and away from you to kick out the glass of the car window, allowing you to escape. If an action is performed using the stick, the speed and roughness with which you do it as the character correspond to how you treat the controller as the player. And all these converge in the infamous Lizard scene, where Ethan Mars must3 cut off his own finger. This is not done by clicking a mouse. It is done by holding down a button combination that requires you to move your hand over the PS3 controller into the same shape you would use to hold scissors (as Ethan is doing onscreen) and then, when you have gripped the tool correctly, jerk sharply downward with the whole controller to accomplish the cutting. The effect is a nearly holodeck-like sensation of cutting off your own finger, and I had to force myself to do it against the reflexive recoil of my whole body: the controller vibrated sharply as the scissors impacted the flesh, and stopped when they had cut through. It is the most horrible thing I have yet had to do in a video game. The more intimate mind-machine interface, even though it is a primitive boosting of intimacy, draws the player both physically and morally into the choices he has to make – consider the implications of this given that the Origami Killer, it transpires toward the end, has been one of the player characters all along–, and though a lot of things are murky in the world of Heavy Rain, one thing is clear: nothing comes about in this universe for which you, as the player, are not in some way responsible, from the tragedy that sets the game in motion to its bloody end. JC Denton is a stooge; the real conspiracy runs through the fourth wall.

  1. The only exception to the rain motif is the glorious, sunny, bloom-effect-soaked introductory scene, a children’s birthday party in a gorgeous architect’s home. Sitting down to write this, I initially thought “man, there should be one of those untranslatable German words for exquisite beauty that everyone knows is about to be shattered by horrible tragedy but oh my god isn’t it gorgeous right now, let’s not try to think about the sadness”, and then I realized that the word for this is actually just “beauty”, which only ever exists in a transient state at the cliff’s edge of waste and decay, and now I’m in a really bad mood. [back]

  2. This is not a spoiler because the overwhelming odds are that he will not die when you play the game; there are sixteen different endings. [back]

  3. You don’t have to. You can put the scissors and or knife down, get up, and walk away, and the game accounts for this choice and carries on in a different direction. [back]