4. Ask A Triceratops


This week I take a look at choosing your sub-genre:

“Dear Susan,
I’ve written an urban fantasy set in Victorian times. My boyfriend says that I can’t call it ’steampunk’ because it isn’t science-fiction but I don’t want to call it ‘gaslight’ because the whole story takes place outside in daytime. My mum says I should just call it urban fantasy but my Dad says paranormal romance will attract more readers.

Any advice for the right sub-genre?

Ms. Difference Engine”

Triceratopian literature also has many genres and sub-genres. A few examples:

  • A stupid t-rex tries to climb a tree and falls out and lands on somebody which hurts them [similar to the mammal notion of ‘tragedy’]
  • A drunken t-rex tries to climb a tree and everybody stands around laughing at them [similar to the mammal notion of ‘comedy’]
  • A drunken t-rex tries to climb a tree and falls out and lands on somebody which hurts them [tragi-comedy]
  • A drunken t-rex is too drunk to even try to climb the tree but not so drunk that they can’t explain to everybody how they are going to climb a tree but the only one who will listen is a triceratops who has misplaced their herd and really just wants advice on finding them [drama]
  • A t-rex gets drunk and eats a wizard [fantasy]
  • A t-rex invents a new way of getting drunk [science fiction]
  • An allosaurus gets drunk and tries to climb a tree and finds a wizard and eats it [historical fantasy]

Saying “my novel has a drunk t-rex and some trees” really isn’t enough to pick what genre it should be in! What story is not going to have a t-rex, some trees and some alcohol related incident?

One solution would be to add elements that make it clearly one genre rather than another. This can be quite forced and can make your story seem odd or unnatural.

A different solution is to clarify the genre-boundary in your book blurb e.g.:

“This novel is a cross between a t-rex gets drunk and eats a wizard stories and a drunken t-rex is too drunk to even try to climb the tree but not so drunk that they can’t explain to everybody how they are going to climb a tree but the only one who will listen is a triceratops who has misplaced their herd and really just wants advice on finding them stories.”

See? The reader knows what to expect now!

“Urban fantasy” will probably work just fine for your novel if you clarify some of the other features in your blurb. To help you along here is my suggestion:

“In Victorian London Elizabeth Hopsworthy finds herself lost in London’s majestic Hyde Park. Who are the strange figures she can see from the corners of her eyes? What kind of enchantment has befallen her? Did she drink one too many sherries? Maybe she could use her font limbs to climb a tree? Ooops! She has fallen out of the tree and landed on a triceratops injuring it. I bet that triceratops has quite the story to tell! Well I’m going to tell you about the time somebody told you the story that triceratops was going to tell!”

Or something like that. I should imagine that humans climbing trees does not have the same inherent dramatic tension as a t-rex trying to climb a tree, what with your longer fore-limbs and twiggy finger things and simian ancestory.


Review: Neoreaction – A Basilisk By Philip Sandifer and Jack Graham

The latest collections of essays from Philip Sandifer is named after the first and longest entry. Thematically the collection takes the reader into a strange world that has intruded into our space in the form of the alt-right. The first four are the most closely interconnected thematically:

  • Neoreaction – a basilisk: a look at the deep but incoherent ideas of a trio of thinkers behind neoreaction.
  • The All Seeing Eye of Gamergate: a reprise and discussion of the events and nature of Gamergate as a phenomenon.
  • Theses on a President: a discussion of Trump – primarily in terms of his prior history as a character.
  • No Laws for the Lion many Laws for the Oxen: an examination with regular collaborator Jack Graham of the Austrian School of economics

These are followed by two more:

  • Lizard People, Dear Reader: A look at the strange ideas of former UK TV personality David Icke
  • My Vagina is Haunted: A discussion of the anti-transgender prejudices of a set of some feminists.

And finally, the collection is capped off with a reprise of some of the themes in an essay entitled Zero to Zero.

The first four provide a historical tour of an idea-space that is both alien and familiar in which psychic monsters wrestle with the Enlightenment. Arguably they fall out of sequence, with the fourth essay perhaps making more sense as a starting point.

The Austrian School of economics should be little more than a footnote – or perhaps a case study in the pathology of ideas. It remains significant as an obsession among libertarians and libertarian influenced members of the right, particularly in the USA. As a form of economics, it is deep nonsense. Deep in so far as it has a complex set of ideas and represents an extensive philosophical program to establish a unique approach to economics within an ideological frame. Nonsense in so far as it makes no methodological sense. For anybody who has discussed politics on the internet for the past few decades, you’ll have encountered the apparently bright, earnest but oddly incoherent ‘libertarian’ who would assert that Von Mises had demonstrated such and such but was unable to explain what they meant. The key element is a strong and fundamental rejection of empiricism as a principle – the Austrian School attempted to build up economics as kind of axiomatic discipline.

To call it pseudo-science is almost misleading – pseudoscience implies a superficial imitation of the scientific approach. Instead, the Austrian school was what might be called a pseudo-geometry – one of many failed attempts to rebuild a discipline following the model of Euclid’s elements. This approach can create some magnificent but fragile intellectual architecture – Spinoza’s Ethics being the most lasting example. As an approach it is rather like dead reckoning as a means of navigation: it requires a sound starting point and no errors in the steps taken on the way but the further you progress without checking to see whether your calculated position matches observations, you are inevitably doomed to get lost. In the Austrian’s case, neither their starting position nor there derived conclusions were sound and the resulting edifice of a theory is essentially bunk. Yet this bunk remains influential as a repeated idea within the libertarian influenced the US right.

As an essay, I thought ‘No Laws for Lions’ was less successful than the others, mainly because it sought to contrast the Austrian School with Marxist economics. It isn’t that the contrast isn’t interesting but in the company with the first three essay (which I will come back to) feels like a diversion. That is not really a fault with the essay as a thing in itself more with how it fits with the historical theme that develops when you look at the four topics as they develop in historical order:

  • The Austrian School as an influence on modern US rightwing thought (chapter 4).
  • Neoreaction as a 21st-century philosophical pathology grounded within internet culture. (chapter 1)
  • Gamergate as an intrusion of the ‘alt-right’ into the mainstream popular culture. (chapter 2)
  • Donald Trump (chapter 3)

The steady decline into nightmarish incoherence and simplistic fascism on the right are what becomes clearer through these essays.

The title essay is the longest and most complex. It has more of the complex (perhaps self-indulgent) structural play that Philip Sandifer does well (well I enjoy it – your mileage may vary) and inevitably that means a lengthy diversion into the visionary mythology of William Blake. However, even if Blake isn’t your thing, this is worth a read (and you can skip the Blake bits if necessary).

Neoreaction: A Basilisk looks at three figures that play a kind of foundational role among the rightwing of internet culture. They are simultaneously figures of great influence and nearly no influence at all when it comes to the alt-right. They are highly influential in so far as they helped create (for one of them, unintentionally) a dialogue which encouraged a rejection of much of the development in political-philosophy since (and including) the enlightenment – if you’ve been wondering why when talking about the alt-right we keep bumping into a distorted view of the middle-ages or find that we have to re-litigate debates from the 14th century, this is why. On the other hand, the current alt-right really have no intellectual foundations at all and best understood as the same toxic form of racism, misogyny, paranoia and authoritarianism that is best described as fascism.

The three figures examined are Eliezer Yudkowsky, Mencius Moldbug, and Nick Land. Of those Yudkowsky is the most interesting and, as Sandifer does repeatedly point out, not a ‘neoreactionary’. What Yudkowsky has in common with not only Moldbug and Land but also the Austrian Economic school, is this same expectation that a broader understanding of the world can be built up from some secure intellectual foundations. As a way of understanding the world, it is doomed to fail for the same reasons I’ve described above.

We lack a good word for the process. ‘Madness’ is to associated with mental illness and as a fallacious way of discrediting those you disagree with. However, it is the best analogy we have. I’ve used the term ‘pathological’ but that still has medical overtones – what we need is a word for how a person can follow apparently (or superficially) rational steps and find themselves advancing anti-rational positions. In Yudkowsky’s case, this is particularly ironic as he has been overtly concerned with avoiding fallacious reasoning.

With Land and Moldbug, this push towards a philosophy that is both far-right and anti-rational is more intentional – a desire to create an edifice of connected ideas to reject modern assumptions about democracy, society and humanity. Sandifer connects all three with their sense of horror about the world that is best described as ‘Lovecraftian’ – as if they each peered into their own ideas and saw horrors and two of them found the horrors particularly attractive.

The Gamergate essay is more familiar territory. Familiar villains (Vox Day, Milo et al) and their villainy. A more simplistic alt-right the baroque complexities of the neoreactionaries but connected by a common theme of internet culture, as well as a kind of nihilism used to justify authoritarianism. Within the process of Gamergate, the kind of epistemological angst explored by Yudkowsky’s thought experiments about future AIs becomes a direct and immediate problem as Gamergaters faced their own confusion as to who was who, which false-flags where which and what anything meant anyway. As the Gamergate proceeded, flinging deep and serious harm at individuals, the epistemological nihilism grew in turn with pranksters and trolls not always clear whether they were one, the other or sincere campaigners for a set of ideals that nobody could adequately express.

Which takes us to the punchline: Donald Trump. The escape from the crisis for the right becomes as inevitable as the Greek tragedy. With a loss of any sense of truth (empirical, observational, logical, ethical) the singularity becomes not some all-knowing future AI but an authoritarian solipsist. A man for whom truth is purely subjective and who the right puts in charge apparently because he is the only being who does not doubt – of course he does not doubt because he doesn’t understand why he should (again rejecting empiricism, observation, logic, ethics and empathy).

The essays chart a landscape of something – a monster or a mad-god that we encounter as either unvarnished evil in our modern world or as gibbering edifice of ideas that simply do not form a coherent whole and which seek only to justify the unvarnished evil. I’m not sure these are even ideas that can be understood or should be but I think collectively these essays help define the ugly shape of them.

Review: River of Teeth – Taste of Marrow Sarah Gailey

This pair of novellas is much better to read as a single novel. The first introduces the premise of a 19th-century alternative version of America, where hippos are ranched and some live feral in the Mississipi river.

River of Teeth follows a plot where former Hippo rancher Winslow Houndstooth recruits a party of outlaw misfits to run a job for a federal agent. The job in question is blowing a dam to destroy an artificial lake that has become infested with bloodthirsty feral hippos.

Revenge and betrayal but also new found relationships mark the first novella. However, the calamitous events at the end of the novella feel rushed and it comes crashing to an end before we’ve really engaged with the characters.

The plot of the second novella seems ostensibly simpler. Houndstooth is looking for his lover Hero after they were separated at the end of River of Teeth. Yet this is when the story as a whole really begins to hang together. The characters pop out into three dimensions and leave their hastily drawn versions behind. Overall, the second is a more satisfying read, it assumes the readers have immersed themselves in the premises of this familiar yet utterly different 19th century America and just lets the current of the events take their course.

Submerge yourself into the story let your disbelief float away and then let the prepostorous menace of the book drag you under…

Book Cover Thing 2017: An Aside on Diagonals

Previously: Start, Longer list, Culling, Artwork

One aesthetic trick I think works really works nicely with book covers is the use of the diagonal implied by the oblong character of a book cover.

authordiagonalI’ve made this one into an extreme example but the elements need not create two regions quite as starkly or as abstractly as this one.

It seems to do a lot of things:

  • create a sense of movement
  • organises features of the cover into more areas
  • allows for different colour contrasts without being too busy
  • introduces shapes other than rectangular blocks

I mention it because I noticed most of the covers in this years list are a lot more centrally aligned – either creating a simple vertical line or implying one by using partial symmetry along the cover’s central vertical line.

An example that is both extreme and very subtle (and why I used purple in the abstract example) are the great cover designs for Heather Rose Jones’s Alpennia books.


That silk curtain/drape does a lot of work – suggesting secrets in line with the alchemy elements of the books, romance elements, aristocracy but also as a graphic design element.

Some interesting diagonals in the cover list I’ve got this year:

Borderline Artist/Designer: an unsung hero| by Mishell Baker, Saga ISFDB or Amazon Entry

Central Station Artist/Designer: Sarah Anne Langton | by Lavie Tidhar, Tachyon Publishing ISFDB or Amazon Entry

Final Girls Artist/Designer: Julie Dillon| by Mira Grant, Subterranean Press ISFDB or Amazon Entry

This next one uses a variety of different oblique lines rather than the main diagonal of the cover rectangle.

Firebrand Artist/Designer: Michael Heath| by A.J.Hartley, Tor ISFDB or Amazon Entry

These last two are just a bit off from vertical but still make some use of the effect:

The Drowning Eyes Artist/Designer: Cynthia Sheppard| by Emily Foster, Tor ISFDB or Amazon Entry

Too Like the Lightning Artist/Designer: Victor Mosquera | by Ada Palmer, Tor ISFDB or Amazon Entry

Trek Tuesday: Patterns of Force

To continue on the them of classic Trek episodes relevant to Star Trek Discovery, I wanted to look at some episodes that I call ‘bad Federation’ episodes i.e. episodes in which the Federation or agents of the Federation do particularly bad things.

Patterns of Force is not a famous title for an episode because it is simpler to call it ‘the one with the Nazis’. I think of it as also one of many episodes where the Enterprise find themselves in a different time period – sometimes because of literal time travel, sometimes because of alien shenanigans and sometimes because a future planet resembles Earth of a given time for some reason. Now, I had mis-remembered the ‘some reason’ in this case being a rogue starship captain but it is actually a Federation historian who was off on a non-interference observation mission but decided to make everybody Nazis instead. I feel it forms one of a pair with the later (far worse) episode “The Omega Glory” which I’ll get to next time.

A quick plot summary:

The Enterprise is heading to a system with two inhabited planets: Ekos and Zeon. When Starfleet last visited, Zeon was peaceful and more technologically advanced than Ekos. Spock and Kirk beam down in disguise (jeans! a wolly hat!) so as to blend in with the locals as they look for the lost Federation historian John Gill. On arriving they are mystified to find that Ekos is run by Nazis who are stoking up hatred of people from Zeon.

Various shenanigans ensue, mainly involving knocking out passing gaurds and stealing their uniforms. Kirk and Spock discover that the Führer is actually John Gill and then later discover he is no more than a figurehead, kept drugged by an even more evil Nazi. McCoy helps Gill get better and he denounces the more evil Nazi only to be shot. At that point everybody gives up being a Nazis – mainly because the inner party seems to have been largely infiltrated by Zeon sympathizers.

It’s better than it sounds. It is often inadvertently funny and sometimes deliberately so. The major and glaring problem is John Gill – who seems to have had some utterly delusional ideas about Nazism. Worse, Spock also affirms these idiotic claims that somehow Nazi Germany was particularly efficient. In Spock’s defense, at the start of the episode Spock had revealed that he’d learned about Earth history from Gill’s books – so there you go, if you learn history from a closet Nazi you’ll end up saying stupid things about Nazis even if you are Spock.

Spock’s history mangling is there to both explain Gill’s very odd behaviour (and direct violation of Federation policy on non-interference) but also to give Kirk something to push back against. Kirk more clearly articulates a Nazis-are-always-bad line but we are still left with an uncomfortably equivocal stance on the obvious badness of Nazis.

The positives? The episode forms part of a growing emphasis on non-interference and a concept of planetary civilizations needing a chance to develop at their own pace. In this case we have a Federation observer breaking that directive in the worst and least subtle way possible.

Book Cover Thing 2017: Artwork

Previously: Start, Longer list, Culling,…

A reminder

Artwork: 0 to 4 points. Not every book cover needs its own epic painting but if it has one then the work gets graded from 0 to 4. Note that this is purely in terms of the artwork on its own merits. Relevance and appropriateness to the book will be covered elsewhere.

Pretty book covers get more points on this criteria but may get less points on later criteria. As always – just my opinion, partly disected.

Pictures after the fold.

Continue reading


Far right troll Vox Day is once again trying to use the issue of child abuse as a way of promoting his publishing business Castalia House. This time he is worried about schools for gifted children:

“For some reason, pedophiles are utterly obsessed with the idea of gifted children”

Note this is from somebody obsessed with “high-IQ”. Also, speaking of schools for gifted children, here’s Wikipedia on Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Glass_Bead_Game

“The setting is a fictional province of central Europe called Castalia, which was reserved by political decision for the life of the mind; technology and economic life are kept to a strict minimum. Castalia is home to an austere order of intellectuals with a twofold mission: to run boarding schools for boys, and to cultivate and play the Glass Bead Game, whose exact nature remains elusive and whose devotees occupy a special school within Castalia known as Waldzell. The rules of the game are only alluded to—they are so sophisticated that they are not easy to imagine. Playing the game well requires years of hard study of music, mathematics, and cultural history.”

It is really daft to play these vague guilt-by-vague-association games. They substitute logic for paranoia and insinuation.