Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Piecing together Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword

My review/revisit/recap of/love letter to Anderson's magnificent 1954 novel is up on the blog of Tales from the Magician's Skull. Check it out here.

I wrote this without re-reading the book, but writing it prompted me to pick up The Broken Sword once more and go to war against Trollheim. It's as good as I remembered; I don't feel betrayed by my considerable nostalgia.

TftMS has a 1,000 word cap which I sometimes stray over a little but is nevertheless challenging to write within. I allude to some things in my review that are deserving of a standalone essay. Like Skafloc/Valgard being two halves of a broken sword. Tyrfing feels to me like a symbol of unleashed weaponry best left on the scientists' notebook. I can't help but wonder if Anderson felt the shadow the mushroom cloud, writing as he did in 1953-54. "Yet this is the curse on it: that every time it is drawn it must drink blood, and in the end, somehow, it will be the bane of him who wields it."

We have a potential end to unending conflict in the teachings of the new White Christ. "Was the White Christ of whom she had told a little not right in saying that wrongs only led to more wrongs and thus at last to Ragnarok; that the time was overpast when pride and vengefulness give way to love and forgiveness, which were not unmanly but in truth the hardest things a man could undertake?"

Alas we have forgotten the lesson. No one turns the other cheek, but strikes back with harder force. And so it escalates.

I love this line too; we can meet Ragnarok with bravery at least:

"None can escape his weird; but none other can take from him the heart wherewith he meets it."

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Raging against Twitter and the dying of the written word

“Does anyone go sit down and read an entire blog post anymore? Most people aren’t going to go read an entire 500 word blog.”

These sentences were posted, unironically, on LinkedIn by a VP of Marketing (B2B, SaaS, and other fancy business acronyms). Just yesterday. He seems to have quite a following too. This post got many “likes.”

As the young kids say, “I’m shook.”

We’re now officially at the point where information must fit into a Tweet, or a 60-second TikTok video, if it is to be read or consumed. No one has longer than that to spend on learning, apparently.

Makes sense, we’re all too “busy” these days to possibly read something 500 words long. Not quite 2 pages in a book.

“Too busy.”

Too busy doing … what?

We’re not too busy. We’ve been hijacked into thinking we are. By our devices, by sensory overload, and the accompanying mental fatigue that comes with consuming a cacophony of shit.

We’ve been trained by the limitations of the platforms on which we’re consuming surface-level content. By Twitter. And when these get old, we switch to the next platform to keep consuming. Gotta get on Mastodon, on Discord, while still juggling Facebook and YouTube. “My project will be a success once I figure out how to optimize Instagram.”

Sure it will man.

Take a look at what you’re actually doing. Scrolling your phone. That’s not busy. That’s an addiction.

You’re not making progress, or creating. You’ve become a consumer of the shallow.

Fuck that.

I’m holding the line, and you should too. On my side of the line is immersion, and an attention span. And comprehension. That’s one of the reasons why I steadfastly keep blogging, even though I’m writing to an audience so small it could comfortably fit in my living room. 

Its principle. And the people who I serve here are the ones I value. By the way, these folks have gone on to buy my book, Flame and Crimson, and I hope they choose to buy my next book too.

Not because I need the money. Because I like producing things of value, that might last, after I shed my mortal coil. You won’t find anything of lasting value on Facebook.

The “content” this VP of Marketing is talking about is not actually meant to inform, or enlighten. Its sole purpose is to grab the attention of the attention-less. It’s the equivalent of shooting colorful fireworks into the sky, a pop, a “wow.” Then … gone. It’s the type of content we consume by scrolling on our phones, skim with the eyeballs, and shed in seconds. No thought rendered, just a few seconds of time stolen from you in this “attention economy.”

But that shit doesn’t last. It's ephemera, like so much of the garbage we’re getting online. You’ve learned nothing by consuming it. In fact, you not only haven’t learned a thing, but your mind has been weakened, atrophied.

If you want to understand anything at more than a surface level, sometimes you have to … read more than a Tweet.

Finally, its not even good for the person producing it, the junior marketer who at heart wants to be a better writer. The only way to do that is to put in the work and write something with some substance and length to it. Every day.

If you want to be a good soccer player, you’ve got to put in long hours on the pitch, improving your footwork, conditioning your body.

If you want to be a good guitar player, you’ve got to learn your chords, learn how to read music, how to hear a note and replicate it with your fingers on the strings. This takes thousands of hours.

And if you want to be a good writer, you’ve got to read and write. A lot. 

There are no substitutes, I’m afraid. But that’s how it should be.

A question for the skeptics: Do you think you will learn more about fantasy fiction reading Wizardry and Wild Romance, or spending the same amount of time scrolling r/fantasy? 

An attention span is a muscle that you must cultivate, practice, and strengthen, or it will atrophy. We’re losing it, thanks to enlightened “VPs of marketing” who spread the kind of nonsense above. Who themselves think they are being “productive” by rapidly skimming their social feed on LinkedIn and liking memed photos. 

Imagine if instead of “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” Ursula LeGuin boiled down her magnificent essay into an infographic. No one would remember the fantastic advice that she herself followed to write the timeless A Wizard of Earthsea and Tombs of Utuan.

Imagine Tolkien trying to fit “On Fairy Stories” into a TikTok video. I’m sure someone has done this; I’m sure no one who has consumed that video remembers it. They certainly have no comprehension of what Tolkien actually wrote. They’re too busy looking at a single bone, instead of enjoying the complex soup.

I’m not immune to this. I dumped Facebook, but I’m a LinkedIn user, heavy, for work. I like some of what I see on the platform but am also dismayed by the inevitable dumbing down going on. I do too much scrolling.

To play nice for a moment, there is a place for infographics, short videos, and chopped up Twitter-esque posting. But this blanket “does anyone even read 500 word blogs” is not a sign of enlightened sophistication by a marketing pro. It’s a sign of rot. It’s the words of the athlete who no longer thinks he has to practice. Who thinks he can just show up on Sunday and win football games.

I know that guy. His name is Ryan Leaf.

Innovation is real, but you have to learn how to block and tackle. Master your craft, before you can tell others how to do it better.

A truth about writing: It’s hard. The blank page is a fearsome opponent. It challenges us with its blank stare: Better blankness than your drivel, it seems to say.

But when you beat the resistance and really get rolling the process of writing is generative. It activates parts of your brain that are numbed by scrolling, snow-blinded from the flash of images and video and sound.

We’ve got to hold the line, each in our own way, against the decline of writing and reading, and comprehension over consumption. I’m holding the line on this one. In the voice of Aragorn at the Black Gate: 

For Long Form Content! 

(Or at least, 500 words. Max).

If you want to fight this battle yourself here are some practical tips.

  1. Write every morning. A good word count to aim for is 500 (yeah, that same mark no one has time to read). I'm a morning person and my mind is freshest then; write at night if you are a night-owl and/or have no other options.
  2. Read every night. Opt for paper if you can get your hands on it. If not, make sure your tablet is disconnected from easy internet access. Place your phone out of reach.
  3. Limit your phone usage. Instead, observe the world with your eyes. Take a walk and think. Listen to people, and see how they behave.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. You’ve read more than 1,000 words in a sitting and proved that VP of marketing wrong. 

Friday, November 18, 2022

Sea of Red

Late Judas Priest, off their most recent studio album, Firepower.

Hits me right in the melancholia/nostalgia sweet spot, remembering those who came before us. Lovely song.

As the sun goes down
The silence is profound
For they gave so much
So we might go on and live
Laying peaceful they forgive

Rob's voice is of course not what it was 40 years ago, but it works quite well with material like this. 

Thursday, November 17, 2022


I’m almost 50 and still don’t really know who I am, and at turns, what the fuck I’m doing.

Outwardly I’m successful. Married. Two children. Nice house. Good job. Friends. A life.

All indicative of success.

But what do I stand for? What do I believe in? 

What values do I hold, not just firmly, but eternally? What torch do I bear? What lantern do I hold aloft in the prow of a ship in the night of a storm-tossed sea?

Do values even exist, in this postmodern age where objective truth is apparently a myth, and reality subjective?

Yes, they do. There are Universal Truths. From whence they derive, I’ll leave for another day. But they exist, and they are the framework for leading a meaningful life. 

I’m still figuring mine out. But here’s a hard-earned one I believe in. One I can say, you’re not moving me off of, motherfucker.

Truth is what holds civilization together. Everything depends on people who outwardly commit to a course of action and then inwardly follow through. Who don’t swindle, cheat, or otherwise elide the truth. Who resist the temptation of lying in the service of other “commitments” -- quarterly reports, shareholders, whims of their spineless, shit bosses, their cock. And commit to doing the right thing.

Even when it hurts.

Because everything depends on it.

When a man lies, he murders some part of the world. 

When you don’t tell the truth, you murder something in you. 

I try to operate this way. I don’t always succeed … but I largely do. On the important matters. 

I like to think others largely abide by truth, though they often don’t, with spectacular collapses and destruction left in their wake. See the 30-year-old shitbag “genius” CEO from FTX who cost his investors billions with his lies. 

Elizabeth Holmes. Bernie Madoff. The examples stagger. Read “Rogues in the House” and you see what’s at stake.

Without a commitment to truth, everything we stand on is shifting sand. Collapse is imminent. 

Easy to say, very hard to implement. It means you must take accountability for your actions. But you've got to do it. Hold the line.

Above all, it must be Truth.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

An observation about heavy metal and sword-and-sorcery

Blue Cheer and Deep Purple = Lord Dunsany and James Branch Cabell
Black Sabbath = Robert E. Howard
Judas Priest and Iron Maiden = Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance
Metallica and Megadeth = Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock
Queensryche and Danzig = Karl Edward Wagner and Charles Saunders
Slayer, Sepultura, Pantera = Ramsay Campbell, David Gemmell, Glen Cook
Warrant, Poison, Def Leppard = Gardner Fox, Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp
Black metal, death metal with cookie monster lyrics = Any Grimdark writer

Obviously meant as fun, not some profound observation.

Every art form probably goes through the same evolution, of early experimentation/breakthrough/pinnacle/steady state/commercialization and exploitation, collapse, followed by further cycles of experimentation.

I don’t have enough expertise in other types of art to say that for sure, but horror comes to mind, going through a similar arc.

If I missed your favorite author or band, no offense meant.

Friday, November 4, 2022

The Clansman, Iron Maiden

Still riding an Iron Maiden high after seeing the Boys from Britain last week, and so I figured I'm due for another shot of Maiden in the Metal Friday rotation.

The Clansman kicks some serious ass, both the studio version (off the oft-derided Virtual XI), but in particular when played live. I heard this live last week at the Prudential Center in Newark NJ; in fact Maiden thought enough of it to save it for the first encore.

With a chorus of either "OOOH, OOOH OOOH OOOOOOHHH!" or "FREEEDOM," it's quite easy for Maiden to get the crowd into it, screaming and fists pumping, pretending they're an extra in "Braveheart." They got me. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Post Halloween roundup: The Willows, mysterious writing projects, and other news and ephemera

I carved this! Thanks template.
I always feel a bit sad when the pumpkin candles burn out and I turn off the porch light on Halloween. My favorite holiday has come to a close for another year. Now the days get shorter, colder. Winter is coming. Etc. We were light on trick-or-treaters this year but had maybe 20 kids come by for candy. A few costumes made me smile, including a chubby illuminated ghost, one of those inflatable units. I could see him coming a long ways off, an eerie shade of green. He was unsteady, couldn’t see his feet, and his aim on his candy bag was off by a good six inches. I picked up the candy from my stoop, put his treats into his bag for him, and sent him on his way, watching as he waddled across the lawn to catch up with his friends.

A bit of the season is still kicking around, some leftover candy. My essay on Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” was published on Goodman Games/Tales from the Magician’s Skull website. I’ve read this story perhaps three times now, it has incredible atmosphere and delivers a chill. It was nice to revisit the haunted island in the Danube again for this piece.

In other news…

I’m writing an essay for a future Rogue Blades Foundation book. I don’t know what (or if) I’m supposed to say about it, I’ve seen no official announcements, so I’m staying mum. But the contract is signed and the short essay largely complete. I’ll give it another edit before submitting. More to come there.

Speaking of staying mum, I’ve got a Big Idea for my next book. A cool concept, a detailed Table of Contents, even. I don’t want to say much more until I start writing and reasonably believe it’s something I can pull off. I may yet decide it’s a bad idea, or beyond my ability to write. I’m superstitious about these things. But, it’s a subject near and dear to my heart. Far more memoir than Flame and Crimson. Not academic, but personal. And fun.

Working my way through the final volume in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, Last Argument of Kings. Another massive tome, just after Lonesome Dove? Not like me. But, so far so good. Inquisitor Glokta is up to his creaky immobile chicken neck in political machinations and weighted favors that may cost him his life, Logen Ninefingers is back from the dead and with the old gang on the front, and the war in the North is about to erupt in fresh violence. Good stuff here from Joe.

I head down to Austin, TX next week for a three-day bender—err, company retreat. The CEO and founder of my new company is flying all 30-odd of us out to Camp Lucy, a resort hotel in Dripping Springs. All expenses covered, prepared meals onsite, open bar, axe throwing, archery, other assorted awesomeness. It’s tough being me sometimes. I’ll probably need a liver transplant after this.