Writing, Philosophy and the Colors of Magic

Mark Rosewater is the head designer for Wizard of the Coast’s card game Magic: The Gathering. He’s also a former scriptwriter for the TV show Roseanne and has a degree in communications. He also goes to great pains to interact with the audience of the game and share information with them. One subject that frequently comes up is the color pie.

Now a brief aside, for those unfamiliar with the game – and yes, this does all tie back to writing so I hope those who are interested in my thoughts on that subject won’t tune out. In Magic, players gather land cards and use them to cast a variety of spell cards. Each spell can be one (or more) of five colors (or no color, but that’s much less common.) In order to make the game more interesting, each color tends to do different things with it’s spells. The layout of what color gets what effects is referred to as “the color pie.”

The mechanics of the pie itself aren’t what’s really important to us, so we’ll gloss over that part. What is important is that each color’s abilities are heavily influenced by it’s philosophy. The philosophies of the color pie are as follows:

White wants every one to stand in line for their pie, and will make sure that everyone get’s a piece that’s the same size.

Blue wants to know what’s in the pie, to study the recipe and try to improve it.

Black just wants as much pie as possible, by whatever means are necessary, and hang the consequences.

Red wants pie now, and doesn’t really care about what it takes to get it. Even if the pie is technically on fire when it arrives.

Green wants organic pie, and as much of it as possible.

Each of these philosophies gives different gameplay. For example, White is all about fair play and order, it’s not going to arrange an “accident” for its enemies in order to get its way, though Black might, neither is it going to run about doing things at random, although Red might. That brings us back to Mark Rosewater, the color pie guru.

See, in the time he spends talking with the people who play the game and getting feedback one question that gets asked a lot is, “Why can’t my favorite color do this?” Where “this” is something that the color wouldn’t normally do, like Red spinning a clever illusion to protect itself from attackers. Red sets it’s attackers on fire. (Works a lot better.) The answer Mark gives, every time, is, “That doesn’t fit your favorite color’s philosophy.”

Okay, so you’ve made it this far and there hasn’t been anything about writing yet. So what lessons can we learn about writing from the way Magic handles the color pie? The answer is simple. Your characters have to be consistent to who and what they are at all times, with meticulous attention to their attitudes, ideas, predispositions and prejudices, whether they’re good or bad for you, them or the story, just like the color pie of Magic, or else their impact will become muddled and your story will suffer.

For a simple answer, it sure was long, huh?

Okay, let’s break that down. First, why is an example from a game designer even relevant to a writer? Don’t get into a haughty snit if you’re not a fan of card games or other geeky hobbies. Magic: The Gathering has lasted twenty years and continues to experience growth in sales and mainstream acceptance. Whatever Wizards of the Coast is doing with it, they’re doing right. Mark, as one of the public faces of the game, insists that the color pie is a big part of it and he’s in a position to know. They do research into this stuff.

Second, just like comic book fans tend to identify with some specific character such as Wolverine or the Flash as their “touchstone” in a comic universe, many people who play Magic identify with a specific color. People care about these things, and if they’re not consistent, they cease to be as meaningful. For Magic, the difference between the play styles of the colors is a big part of what gives them their identity. Look at chess. The black and white pieces all work the same. There’s no identity there. The colors of Magic have identity because they’re different, and those differences must be maintained.

As a writer, your characters are what people identify with and touch base with. You have to stubbornly work to keep them distinctive in order to keep people engaged with them. If all the characters start to look the same, they lose value immediately. It’s better for you to have a character that is passionately hated for consistently unpleasant behavior than for you to tinker with the character and wind up with a totally forgettable character. Keep attitudes and dispositions consistent and a character becomes much more believable.

By the same token, actions have to match attitudes or credibility is lost. If a character isn’t likely take part in a plot of his or her own free will, hound them. You have total control over their circumstances. Put other characters in their path constantly, bend circumstances until they have no choice and then hit them with the consequences of avoidance – lost time, missed opportunities, hurt feelings and anything else you can think of. This stuff is the meat and potatoes of the story.

This isn’t to say that characters shouldn’t change over the course of your story. The characters of your story are very dynamic, and free to discover new parts of themselves or go through revelations that challenge and change the way they think. But we have to see the hows and whys of that change, and if you’re not very deliberate about them then you risk damaging your character’s impact. It’s also important not to do too many of these changes at once, or your readers will have trouble keeping track of everything that’s happening. They already have a lot to track in real life.

But in real life, as in card games and writing, consistency is key. It’s a skill well worth developing for the sake of all three endeavors.

Cool Things: A Mighty Fortress

It feels like there’s something  I haven’t done in a while. Oh yes, it’s time once again to plug the local theater community.

If you don’t live in Fort Wayne, or just have no interest in theater, this may not be the post for you. Sorry! But please come back on Friday for yet another rambling post on the art of writing. Of course, you’re welcome to stick around if you wish.

This year’s all for One season starts with a play on the life of Martin Luther, called A Mighty Fortress. Now that may not seem very interesting to you, as his primary claim to fame was as a religious leader who caused great disruption in the Roman Catholic Church by publishing a tirade skeptical of many church practices of the time. Many people feel  that religious conflict is just bickering about whether you use candles or electric lights, or how much money you should give or to who. And in Luther’s case, they’re partly right.

But the ideas we espouse influences how we act and the culture we live in. Luther came at a time when the idea of unquestionable authority was in. The divine right of kings and the unfailing nature of the pope were ideas that everyone accepted, but few people bothered to ask if they were consistent with the other ideas that defined their culture.

Luther stood up and challenged the idea that there was any infallible man on Earth. Not only was this not a popular idea at the time, it technically meant directly challenging his boss, as Luther was a monk and monks worked for the church, and thus the pope.

However, Luther felt that the ideas that undergirded his faith didn’t allow for one man to dictate to others to the point where men could set right and wrong. His belief in even the most powerful men being subject to higher laws was, in many ways, the intellectual foundation of the Western republics and paved the way for the American government of checks and balances.

A Mighty Fortress is a look at Luther in one of his darker moments, when he was jailed for his ideas and before he had any idea how meaningful they would become. (Arguably, he never would as he died before they could fully play out.) afO veteran Jeff Salisbury takes the role of Luther in what’s looking to be a great show.

The play will run through the weekend of September 6th, 7th and 8th. Ticket information and show times can be found here.

Water Fall: Foreward

You are too dangerous. By nature, what you are and what you can do is too great a possible threat to let into the world. Certainly, you could do great good. But the very fact that you could also do great harm is enough to cause panic, terrify people into either fighting you or bowing down before you. Neither one is good, and the fact that you have the potential to cause both is enough to warrant preventing them entirely. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just the way the world is. Or it’s the times, or the culture or the conclusion of a more enlightened age. Regardless, we all have to live with it. You’ll just have to live more carefully.

It’s a simple premise. In troper terms, it’s called The Masquerade. It’s the foundation of a thousand and one paranormal/urban fantasy story lines. In fact, it’s at the heart of Project Sumter and an inescapable influence on the lives of independent talents like Open Circuit, Heavy Water and the Grappler.

It’s a lie.

On some level, everyone understands that. But the lie makes life so much easier. Just do away with the uncomfortable ideas, hide them from people and drag anyone who uncovers them into your Masquerade and you’ll never have to deal with any large scale problems, am I right?

Except the very act of stifling the information in itself raises problems, often far greater ones than the ones you hoped to suppress. Squashing the truth, spiriting people away, coercing cooperation and browbeating silence all comes with consequences. Ask the Soviets. Grudging acceptance and growing resentment are a powerful and dangerous combination, a powder keg just waiting to go off. Instead of constantly working on a better, more stable solution you wind up running around putting out ground fires while a volcano is about to erupt just underneath your feet.

That which you have whispered in secret will be proclaimed from the rooftops.

Sometimes it will come from avenging angels, come to set the wrongs to right at last. But far more likely it will come from upset, middle aged men who have spent their whole lives struggling against heavy handed declarations of what is best for them, working to understand why they cannot seem to use their best abilities for their own edification and the betterment of themselves and others.

Worse, these people will come out of the woodwork with no mind for negotiation, little or no thoughts for the ramifications of their ideas and no mercy at all. The world they’ve lived in has left no room for such things, and it will be at least partially the fault of the people who have worked all those years for secrecy. That’s not to say there’s no fault resting with the other side. When two people come to blows, there’s usually plenty of blame to go around. But when you’ve spent the entire time trying to keep them quiet, why should they keep trying to talk to you?

So what do you do when your duty is to keep law and order but the way law and order has been kept until now is both immoral and chaotic? For a long time, people like Double Helix, one of Project Sumter’s most powerful and experienced talents, have been pondering that issue. But pondering isn’t change, and when the situation calls for change nothing else will do.

Because little by little, Open Circuit is changing the status quo. And with every crime, a little bit of the Project’s control of the situation is lost. They strike the Project like drops of water, slowly leaking through a crack in the dam. Each one carries away a little of what holds the Masquerade together, widening the crack until the whole edifice must way, and the flood begins.

The water starts falling next week. It will be a sight to see.

Put the Outline Out

Outlines are something of a controversial subject among writers. Some just don’t like doing it – if they’re going to write, they should just write, right? Some think it constrains them too much. Some think it’s impossible to write anything without at least a thesis statement and a dozen bullet points. Some writers without an outline are constantly on the verge of crippling panic attacks. And on and on it goes.

As I mentioned before, I’m working on the outline for Water Fall, the second book chronicling the activities of the U.S. Government’s secret agency that handles talented individuals (read: superpowers).  This has been a therapeutic exercise for me, because I love outlining. It lets me get all my ideas out somewhere I can look at them and mess with them in a physical (or at least digital) medium.

See, I don’t like to just write and run with it, because whenever I do it I wind up leaving something out. On the other hand, when I’m outlining it’s often a frenzied exercise where things just pour out in a rush. For example, on my first pass at the Water Fall outline there were at least two dozen points where I just wrote, “So-and-so does things.”

Sometimes I included a note as to the tone of the things being done, like, “Tension!” or “Foreshadowing” or, my personal favorite, “CD” which of course stands for “character development.”

Not every part of my outline is that vague, some scenes I have a very clear picture for, they just don’t all string together nicely and I frequently have to fill in the gaps between major events during second and even third passes on the outline. Of course, to keep my mind fresh, I usually let the outline sit for a week or two between passes, which is how I come to “still” be working on it. (Because it’s not like I’ve been writing anything else…)

One reason I like having an outline is because it lets me quickly run through the pacing of my story and see how I like it. It’s at this point that I spend the most time moving things around and tweaking what characters a scene might call for. But this isn’t the be all and end all of what I’m going to need, frequently in the process of writing details that I hadn’t anticipated come up and the outline can get changed on the fly. While I like having it, I try not to let it become diktat, that alone can kill a story.

It’s important to keep your outline and the length of your story in perspective. For example, Heat Wave had an outline with 80 to 90 points to begin with. However, Trial by Winter had a ten point outline. Obviously, Trial by Winter was not 1/8th the length of Heat Wave. Rather, each “point” represented a smaller chunk of the story. (Exactly what kind of outlines I tend to use and how they tend to translate into story is probably a subject for another post.)

On the whole, outlining is something authors can do to help them get a handle on their story and keep the broad strokes of it in mind, and easily at hand, so that when they are buried in the minutia of the story in progress they don’t have to stop and run through everything again in their mind to get a handle on where they are. Whether it’s something that they haven’t written yet or something that has already been put down in digital print, a glance at the outline brings it to mind much faster than relying on memory or having to page through pages and pages of what’s already written.

So, an exercise! (I know, I’ve never done writing exercises before. If you don’t like them I promise they won’t become a regular thing.) Find your favorite book and put together an outline for it. Then, find a story you’ve written and do an outline for that. And lastly, create the outline for a story you’d like to read from scratch. You don’t have to finish it, just rough out the ideas. Most importantly, enjoy!

The Laundry Files

So. Cosmic horror. It’s a dark genre, but one that exerts surprising amounts of influence in fiction today. Most people agree that the man who codified much of it, H.P. Lovecraft, was also one of it’s greatest voices. Unfortunately, Lovecraft’s work is also full of truly unpalatable things. I’m not talking about the meaningless of life or the cold hostility of the cosmos, I’m referring to the racist overtones of many of his stories, as well as a seeming emphasis on eugenics and blatant Anglophilia.

Of course, in a universe that is devoid of meaning, where human ideas are laughable deviations from the norm anyway, it shouldn’t matter if Lovecraft’s other unfortunate overtones are present or not. But, if you’re interested in learning more about the genre, if for no other reason to get a better grasp on it’s influence on modern entertainment, and you want to see a modern take on the genre, I recommend Charles Stross‘ The Laundry Files.

The protagonist of this truly unique little jaunt into the mind-numbing darkness is Bob Howard, who works for a super secret British agency called the Laundry, which deals with all those nasty, mind numbing horrors. According to the cover of (at least one edition) of the series opener, The Atrocity Archives, Bob’s job is to save the world (it involves a surprising number of meetings.) The basic premise, that Bob has to simultaneously fight eldritch horrors and deal with bad management, unclear org charts and ludicrous mountains of paperwork, is both interesting and funny. And so are the characters we meet along the way.

Most of the early action revolves around Bob finding new ways to “optimize” magic, which is basically properly applied math, and getting himself into field work as a result of it. In particular, the constantly evolving nature of the Laundry’s “basilisk guns” is a nifty running gag. It also serves to remind us of the always immanent nature of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, which is both a case of the stars aligning and spelling our doom and an example of the lovely codenames the Laundry is always throwing about. How anyone manages to keep secrets when they name them in all caps with phrases that might as well just be “nifty code name” is beyond me.

In short, the basic window dressing of the series is sound. In fact, some of my inspiration for Project Sumter came after I read The Atrocity Archives. Unfortunately, just as cosmic horror is about our slow and inevitable decline, so that premise slowly leeches away at the fun of the books.

Now I can live with the idea that there are incredibly powerful and intelligent beings out there. I question how smart they can really be when the seem to always be shooting themselves in the foot (see the horror from The Atrocity Archives) or somehow getting themselves locked away to starve to death (Stross’ take on Nylarathotep) but sometimes you just have to go with the flow. No, what bothers me is the way everything basically ends up ringing hollow.

The characters live in a world with no hope or joy, nothing of lasting meaning, and spend half their time declaring that fact and how they intend to ignore it today. Then they go to sleep at night and pray their dreams don’t come alive and eat them. This is their fate, and they are sure of it.

Fiction really isn’t a good medium for certainties. It’s a medium for beginnings, for possibilities, for growth, but not well suited for done deals. It’s why protagonists are pretty much always seekers and rarely finders.

Of course, part of the point of cosmic horror is to present a done deal. But if you still want to check it out, at least the deal Stross offers you will be more entertaining than most.

Trial By Winter

When the pipes in the house froze they started to get really nervous. The snowstorm in the New Mexico had surprised them a little, more because it rattled the thin walls of the house like a ghost rattled chains than anything. The sense of high flying altitude had been unsettling too, but after a while they got used to it. But when they got thirsty and realized they couldn’t get any water out of the pipes, that’s when they started to get really nervous.

They had just made their third complete round of all the faucets in the house and come back to the kitchen sink to try and think up something to unfreeze it when they noticed someone was coming.

It wasn’t like they heard footsteps or anything. But there, on the edges of their minds, like a small weight, something pushed down on the edge of the cold. It was getting warmer in a small area. That usually happened when people wandered into an area they had frozen, usually attracted by the snow. But if they weren’t prepared for the cold, and in New Mexico who would be, they tended to leave pretty quickly. But this warm spot was making it’s way in to the house and towards the door.

The two girls exchanged a glance. “Do you think Frau Nagel is back?”

Her sister shook her head. “She can’t move the cold. She wouldn’t come here alone.”

“When she finds out that we made cold without her permission she’ll be mad enough it won’t matter,” the first girl said.

They shared a knowing nod and started to move towards the laundry room at the back of the house. They hadn’t gone far when the door to the house rattled. The girls stopped and exchanged another glance. Both Frau Nagel and Herr Schmidt had keys, had the only keys to the house. Anyone who didn’t have a key wasn’t supposed to come in.

Reluctantly, the sisters stepped back to the kitchen counter and set their water glasses there. They were still thirsty, how could they not be after so long in the cold? But robbers breaking into the house couldn’t be tolerated. Herr Schmidt had been quite clear on that. It was one of the few things he and Frau Nagel agreed on.

The girls had gone half way to the door when the sound of the lock clicking brought them up short. They didn’t have time for anything else before the door swung open. It wasn’t Frau Nagel, which made things a little easier.

Things like lock picks were beyond the two of them, so they simply assumed that the two men at the door had gotten a key from somewhere – most likely, Frau Nagel, as she had gone out to “look in on someone” before the cold. One of them was fairly short, only a few inches taller than they were. He was saying, “How often do you have to do that, anyway?”

The taller man tucked something into his jacket pocket and then shrugged. “Often enough that it’s better not to talk about it.”

Once again the sisters exchanged a dubious glance. If these were the people Frau Nagel had gone to look in on they were certainly a strange pair. The taller man was plain, except for his goatee. The shorter man had light brown hair and blue eyes, except for his height he looked every bit the good German, so that was something at least. But they were both speaking English. With a silent nod, one of the sisters stepped forward.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said. “May I ask why you are here?”

The shorter man jerked, as if surprised. On closer inspection, the girl decided he couldn’t be that much older than they were. He didn’t have lines on his face like Frau Nagel or Herr Schmidt did and, of course, he was not that tall. Surely he must be young then.

The plain man murmured, “Field work means being on your toes, Double Helix.” Then he knelt on one knee and rested his hands on the other and gave the two sisters an evaluating stare. “Now what do we have here?”

“Has Frau Nagel sent you for the eugenics test?” The same girl asked.

“Eugenics?” An eyebrow went up on that plain face. “I’m not sure. I’ve never met Frau Nagel, is she around here?”

“Oh.” The other sister shrank back behind the one who had been talking up until then. “Frau Nagel and Herr Schmidt are very insistent that we not talk to strangers.”

The shorter man rested his hands on his hips and nodded. “That’s really good advice, ladies.” The girls blushed slightly at being called ladies. “I don’t suppose Herr Schmidt is here either?”

There was a short pause for a whispered conference between them, then the girls nodded solemnly. The older sister swallowed once and said, “He’s in the back room. Do you want me to take you to him?”

“That’s all right, honey,” the plain man said. “Why don’t you just ask him to come out here? We can wait.”

“I will take you to him,” the older sister said firmly. Then she wavered a bit. “Unless one of you would rather remain here?”

The plain man stroked his goatee once and looked at her thoughtfully. He seemed to be wondering why she was suggesting that rather than seriously considering staying behind. “No,” he said finally. “I’m afraid that without my friend close by it would be a chilly here for me.”

“You can push the cold?” The younger sister asked. Both girls gave the shorter man an expectant look.

“Well…” The young man wavered for a second, and it was time for the two men to exchange a glance. But his older companion just gave a quick shrug, leaving him to figure out an answer on his own. The girls leaned forward a bit, eager to hear the answer. “I guess it’s something similar. Close enough that it doesn’t make much difference, probably.”

“Did Frau Nagel really not send you?” The older sister asked.

“Never met her,” he said. “I’d like to, though.”

It was a hint and the girls knew it. The sighed and started towards the back of the house. The younger hesitated as they reached the kitchen, and her sister stopped and gave her a gentle nudge towards a chair, saying, “Wait here.”

“We’re not getting you into trouble, are we?” The young man absently cracked his knuckles as they walked, although it seemed more like a nervous habit than anticipation.

“We are already in trouble,” she answered.

“Well, maybe when we talk to Herr Schmidt…” His voice trailed off when the girl opened the door.

Herr Schmidt stood there, his skin a pale blue, two fingers snapped of the brittle end of his hand. The girl looked back at the two men and said, “We are not supposed to move the cold unless someone is here to supervise us. My sister is worried that Herr Schmidt won’t recover. We’re keeping him cold until Frau Nagel can tell us what to do.”

The older man swallowed hard. “Uh. I don’t think that’s going to help any.”

“Agent Templeton,” the younger man said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Can I talk to you for a second? Outside?”

——–

“Double Helix, you’re in over your head.” Darryl Templeton folded his arms and gave the kid a hard look over. “Maybe you should head back to the van.”

“Aren’t you the one who just told those girls you’d freeze without me around?” The kid planted his hands on his hips, a posture he used whenever he was feeling stubborn. Darryl had only known Double Helix a few days, but he’d spent a lot of that time being stubborn. “I’m not going to wander off and let you freeze. And I’m worried about those girls.”

Darryl sighed. “And it’s not a bad thing that you are. But do you even have any idea what’s going on here?”

“My best guess is they’re related to Jack Frost.” Helix glanced over his shoulder, back at the house, where the two blonde girls were waiting, huddled in the doorway. “The names of their guardians and their German accents, along with their talking about eugenics, all make them-“

“Wait.” Darryl held up a hand. “You’ve lost me. Who’s Jack Frost? Outside of fairy tales, I mean.”

Helix looked back, seeming a bit surprised. “You’ve never heard of him? Do you know anything about Sergeant Wake or Operation Underworld?”

“I’d never heard of Sergeant Wake until I read about him in your file. I suppose this has something to do with the founding of Project Sumter during the Second World War?”

“Yeah.” Helix grew more animated. “He was assigned to-“

“Hold up.” He wasn’t glad to cut the kid off, it was the most positive expression he’d seen out of Helix since they met. The kid seemed to brood a lot, although that might not be surprising given all the scrutiny he was under at the moment. But rules were rules. “You probably shouldn’t tell me anything more about the Sergeant or his activities. I’m not cleared to know it and you’re not even a part of the Project, so you might get in trouble for even thinking about it.”

“Whatever.” Helix snorted and chewed his lip for a second. “This is bad stuff, Agent Templeton. These girls are so brainwashed and out of it they think keeping Schmidtsicles in the back room is a good idea. The kids need help-“

“Kids!” Darryl laughed. “They’re maybe twelve. That’s what, five years younger than you?”

“Not the point.” Helix fumed for a minute. “Look, they’re identical twins with talent and-“

“They both do?” Darryl’s jaw sagged a bit. “That’s… the file only has one codeword…”

“You’re worried about your paperwork at a time like this?”

“No, it’s just…” Templeton hesitated. “Identical twins, with the same talent? The eggheads will have a holdiay with this.”

“That’s part of what I’m worried about.” Helix folded his arms. “These girls have been a commodity all their lives. If my grandfather was right, the remains of the Nazi talent management program have been trying to get talents to pass from parent to child for nearly a hundred years. These kids are brainwashed and they plan to use them like they just won the National Dog Show. Breeding, or something. What they need is to learn to use their abilities from someone with a conscience.”

“Did you have someone in mind?”
“Clear Skies taught me the ropes.” Helix spread his hands. “I figure she’ll do for these two, as well. Cold spikers and heat sinkers are close enough in nature that at least she won’t get herself the liquid nitrogen treatment.” He gave a quick glance at the dusting of snow around them. “And Project Sumter won’t have to try and explain why winter has shown up in the middle of the desert.”

Templeton thought about that. Clear Skies may have been able to handle a young and rambunctious Double Helix, but she’d been younger then. He’d never met Helix’s grandmother, but he was willing to bet she wasn’t as spry as she used to be. And there was the whole disturbing question of what had happened to Herr Schmidt in the first place. At least there, the girl’s conditioning was likely to play in their favor.

Darryl walked back to the door of the house and motioned for the girls to come out and join them. After a moment’s hesitation, they did. He dropped into a crouch to get a little closer to their eye level, hoping to engender a little trust, and said, “Okay. My name is Darryl Templeton, and my friend here is Double Helix.”

The girls nodded solemnly but didn’t say anything, so he pressed on. “We’re going to take care of Herr Schmidt.” True, although ‘taking care’ would probably involve a plain coffin and quiet burial. “Then I’m going to go and try and find Frau Nagel. Double Helix is going to go with you somewhere, but where depends on your giving me a truthful answer to one question.”

“Of course. Anna and-“

“No names,” Helix said quickly. “Agent Templeton is going to give you new names, and we need you to use those as much as possible.”

“Oh.” The girls nodded sagely. “Yes, we always get new names when we move.”

That made Darryl feel a little queasy, but he did his best to ignore it. He pointed to the girl on the left and said, “From now on you’ll be Frostburn.” He turned to her sister and wavered. There had only been one new code name for a talent opened. “You can be…”

“Coldsnap,” Helix suggested.

“Coldsnap,” Darryl repeated. “Okay?”

“Those are funny names,” Coldsnap said, wrinkling her nose.

“You could be stuck with Double Helix,” Darryl pointed out. Helix grumbled something but Darryl ignored it. “Now, I need you two to tell me what happened to Herr Schmidt.”

There was a moment of embarrassed silence from the girls, then Coldsnap said, “It’s because of the eugenics.”

“Huh?” Helix’s question wasn’t the most intelligent, but it did kind of summarize Darryl’s reaction as well.

“You see, Frau Nagel and Herr Schmidt say we are some of the best Germans there are,” Frostburn said, sounding a little proud of the fact. “So we must be very careful not to look at men who aren’t also of good Aryan blood.”

“That was why, last year Frau Nagel told us very strictly not to go into a room with Herr Schmidt if she was not there,” Coldsnap added, sounding a bit apologetic. Darryl realized she was probably referring to the fact that, from what he’d seen, Herr Schmidt had dark, curly hair that didn’t really mesh with the Aryan ideal.

“So when Herr Schmidt came into her room,” Frostburn nudged her sister, “we were surprised. And…”

“It was an accident,” Coldsnap hastened to add. “We were surprised, and rushed out and he grabbed at me and…”

The girls trailed into silence and Darryl sighed. The worst part was, he couldn’t tell if this was just some kind of simple misunderstanding or if the man had actually been some kind of pervert or if it had been some kind of combination of the two. Probably the latter, with the idealized position the girls held in Schmidt’s twisted ideology not helping matters at all. “All right. If the two of you will turn down your cold and let the desert go back to normal, Double Helix will take the two of you to meet his grandmother.”

“Really?” Coldsnap seemed surprised. “Will that be all right?”

“Relax,” Helix said. “If there’s one thing Clear Skies has always wanted and never gotten, it’s more grandchildren. She’s only got me, and I think she always wanted a granddaughter or two.”

Darryl took his arm and led Helix off a few paces, then lowered his voice. “Look, kid, I know this is a big deal for you, but seriously, in my book you’re already qualified for field work. If you want to work for the Project I think it’s just a matter of finishing the paperwork. You’ve made it past the Senate Committee and kept a level head in the field. The deal isn’t going to fall apart if this doesn’t work out, so don’t put too much pressure on your grandma, okay?”

Helix just gave a wicked smile. “Agent Templeton, all I can say is you’ve never met Clear Skies.”

The girls flanked Helix as he led them back towards the waiting vans, which had to park half a block away to stay outside the worst of the girl’s unnatural cold. Of course, with the girl’s cold spikes gone, the temperature was rapidly climbing back up to desert norms. Frostburn was saying, “Your Grandmother must have very good German blood as well, if you could make it through the cold. It’s too bad Frau Nagel couldn’t give you the eugenics test. I think you’d have good, German children.”

Helix gave a nervous chuckle. “Listen girls, let’s not mention eugenics tests or children around Clear Skies, okay?”

“Why not?” Coldsnap asked.

“Because if there’s one thing Clear Skies wants and hopes to have in the near future, it’s great-grandkids.”

Darryl just shook his head and started back into the house. There was still a lot of clean-up to do, and the mysterious Frau Nagel to look for. One thing he was certain of, if Double Helix did come to work for Project Sumter, whoever his supervisor wound up being would have a lot more paperwork than normal to deal with. Not an appealing prospect, that. Not appealing at all.

Fiction Index

Genrely Speaking: Cosmic Horror

Many genres of fiction focus on unanswered questions. However, the allegory is rather used to create stories that vividly illustrate great truths in a clear and forceful way. I use the term “great truths” to refer to those ideas that are central to the way the author looks at the universe, many of these ideas have been hotly contested since the beginning of time.

Cosmic horror is the allegorical fiction of a particular brand of hard core Rationalism, most forcefully pioneered by H.P. Lovecraft. It attempts to illustrate the emptiness of human existence and the meaningless, indifferent nature of the cosmos, not using math, logic or philosophy but rather through the careful application of pure dread. Whether that is because dread was what Lovecraft felt was the most enlightening human emotion or simply because Lovecraft thought it was most likely to produce the desired reaction in his intended audience is unclear.

A few quick notes before we go on. First, like all brands of mythology, cosmic horror has gained a great deal of popular acceptance over the years, although it’s still much more obscure than many other flavors. However, just as the movie Clash of the Titans had little in common with Greek mythology, most aspects of cosmic horror that are used in pop culture today have little to nothing in common with cosmic horror. Don’t be surprised if what I describe sounds nothing like the stories about squidheaded Old Ones you’ve heard before. If you’ve no clue what that even means and/or you’ve never read any Lovecraft, Nylarthotep is a decent primer.

Second, like all brands of fundamentalist religion, cosmic horror is not representative of the whole or even the majority of Rationalist thought. However, also like most brands of fundamentalism, it does show what core ideas look like in their most undiluted form.

Third, debating the validity of core ideas is not what the Internet is best for. While I am going to point out what look, to me, like weaknesses in cosmic horror as a storytelling platform, deconstructing an analyzing the systems of thought behind the genre is not my purpose here. It’s way outside the scope of a single blog post. That said, I’m sure one of the reasons I dislike cosmic horror as a genre so much is that I also find the ideas it’s founded on to be… lacking. I do have a bias when writing this, so keep it in mind.

So what defines this obviously very difficult genre of fiction?

1. A strong emphasis on the insignificance, helplessness and doomed nature of mankind. Lovecraft didn’t think much of humanity, looked on them as something of a cosmic accident. They had stumbled onto Earth with their bizarre ideas of reason, purpose and civilization and proceeded to muck everything up. Fortunately, they were constrained by their nature and doomed to an inevitable fall back into what they had originally come from – primal instinct and savagery. These instincts are programmed into man, and he cannot escape them no matter how he tries.

2. Powerful, incomprehensible, amoral and uncaring beings, usually aliens, that exist and sometimes tinker with humanity in some way. Probably Lovecraft’s most enduring creation, the great Old Ones were what he considered the nearest thing to gods to exist, in fact they were often portrayed as at the center of cults and possibly even as the inspiration for major world religions now and in the past. These creatures don’t care anything about what their activities do to mankind, they may not even realize we exist, and if they did we are so different that there is no way we could relate to one another. Humanity is helpless before them, we survive only because the stars have aligned in such a way as to thwart their activities and lock them away. (How such incredibly powerful beings could fail to predict and allow for the mathematically logical movements of stellar bodies is unclear.) So powerful and strange are these creatures that just encountering them drives people insane.

3. An emphasis on occult knowledge. Which is to say, the “truth” of the universe is known only to a select few. These people have delved “too deeply” into some field of knowledge, gone exploring where they should not or studied some arcane, forgotten document and thus been exposed to the truth. These truths will ultimately destroy those who know them, but ignorance is no defense, offering only a false sense of security. Characters are predestined for destruction whether they know the truth or not.

What are the weaknesses of cosmic horror? Well, if I got going we’d be here all day, so I’ll try and just hit what I feel are the top three.

Poor characters. While the protagonists in cosmic horror are usually well educated, articulate or at least worldly men, the emphasis on their total inability to accomplish anything of note really cuts them off at the knees. Ultimately they’re unimportant, so why bother getting to know them? Whether because of the nature of the genre or simply because cosmic horror authors rarely learn to develop good characters, there’s rarely anyone you can relate to in a cosmic horror story. This stems, at least in part, from the constraints the genre puts on human characters.

Poor conflict. The greatest threat to humanity is often the Old Ones, beings so immense in potential that they are to humanity as we are to microbes – they are totally beyond our ability to trouble in any way.

ASIDE: I’m not sure if this analogy is original to Lovecraft, I haven’t read his full body of work, but just about every other cosmic horror writer uses it, so I suspect it is. Regardless it’s a bad one, considering viruses, the smallest of microbes, have probably killed more human beings than war and famine combined… END ASIDE 

Back to the conflict part. Since part of the conceit is that Old Ones drive people insane, just being around them effectively ends the story.  Cultists are sometimes used as proxies, but in the end they’re just as big dupes as the main characters are. The Old Ones are inscrutable, with aims supposedly beyond human knowing, and totally indifferent to humanity. So, by the same token, clever manipulation or direct hostility on the part of the Old One is out the window as a source of conflict.

Most conflict in cosmic horror consists of the main character(s) trying to escape his fate and finding he can’t. This usually takes the form of the environment reshaping itself to prevent it or the character simply being restrained by inexplicable forces. When the character’s reason or the advice of others plays any part in moving him towards his doom he usually repents of it later, only to find he was trapped by predestination, his birth or the wonderful invisible hand all along.

With all these forgone conclusions built into the genre, there’s very little in the way of doubt about the ending. You just sort of sit there and wait for the hammer to fall. It might be kind of entertaining the first time or two, but it doesn’t really hold up well.

Poor analogies. You would think, after nearly a century of existence, the genre would have come up with some new ways to describe the influence of its prime characters.

But no. There are some phrases the genre simply cannot seem to get away from. Unnatural or non-Euclidean geometries. Fleshy tentacles. A feeling of immense presence or intellect. These analogies are evocative, if vague. Lovecraft himself coined a number of other very nice phrases to explain specific instances. A color out of space is probably the best. However, the genre’s very insistence on experiences that defy reason and rely on occult understanding make it a very poor genre for explaining things. You must either experience it and be equipped to understand, the cosmic writer seems to insist, or you will merely be another one of those deluded fools who can’t handle the truth.

Now it may sound like I’ve just said that the very things that define the genre are part of what make it a weak form of fiction. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m saying. The tropes and devices of the genre actually work to undermine it’s storytelling potential – just one of many reasons I dislike it.

What are the strength of cosmic horror? If done correctly, and the reason most people mention Lovecraft as their example first, last and always is that he’s one of the few people to have done it correctly, cosmic horror is really, really scary. Not in the, “something jumps out of the closet and yells boo” kind of a way, nor in the, “look, there are zombies everywhere” kind of a way. Rather, in the, “something under the bed is drooling” kind of a way. You know it’s out there, and that it’s coming for you. But what are you going to do about it? Nothing! HAH! Because there’s nothing you can do!

Ultimately, there’s not much to recommend cosmic horror. Sure, existential dread is great if you’re an angsty teen or an overly intelligent author who never seems to have developed sympathy for your fellow, less intelligent man, but in the end, even if the allegories it presents us with are true, thinking about it overmuch doesn’t get us anywhere any more than worrying about our gray hairs will make them go away or stop them from coming. I have better uses for my time, and you probably do, too.