Read ‘Em And Weep

I’ve just re-read Last Call by Tim Powers. I love this book.

I’m a big fan of all of Tim Powers’s books, but this one is my absolute favourite. It’s been about five years since I last read it, and I love it as much now as I did the first time I read it. Maybe more, because I know a little more about the real-world things he’s talking about. Not that I believe in the occult aspects of the book, but I know now about the traditions he draws from, and I’m better able to appreciate the rich, deep background he’s created with it.

I read a fair amount of modern fantasy, because I like the juxtaposition of the non-rational with the structured, technological milieu that is modern society. Until Last Call, though, most of the stuff I read was drawn from the well of celtic myth and paganism, things like Emma Bull’s The War for the Oaks and Charles de Lint’s Moonheart*.

Last Call was the first modern fantasy book that I read that used other themes – in this case, a mix of ceremonial magic in the Western esoteric tradition, Jungian archetypes, and Arthurian myth. It did a fantastic job of making you believe in a real underground network of people who are clued in on some level, in the know about the mystic underbelly that most folks refuse to acknowledge. And it showed the level of obsession that was necessary to take part in it**.

So, what’s the book about? It’s about a man, already behind the eight-ball because of who his father is and what his father wants to do to him, who manages to dig himself in deeper by playing in an ill-advised poker game. Twenty-one years later, the debts are coming due, and it’s not just him who has to pay the price, but his friends and family, as well. Not having anything left to lose, he travels back to the source of the evil reaching out to claim his life – Las Vegas – to try and find a kind of redemption.

Mixed up in there are the powers of the archetypes represented in the Tarot cards, the evil man lurking behind Mandelbrot equations, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, quantum probability, ancient Greek and Egyptian gods, body-swapping, evil Elvis impersonators, the ghost of Bugsy Siegel, and the friendliest hit man you could ever hope to meet.

It’s filled with desperate action, wild speculation, and a twist on history that does a lot to illuminate the reason things are the way they are. It charts a man’s heroic (and not-so-heroic, sometimes) attempts at redemption, seeking the love of a father who once tried to kill him.

It’s also got a couple of explosions and a spear gun battle under the waters of Lake Mead, lest you think it’s all about soul-searching and healing the child within.

One of the things I love most about Tim Powers’s books is the way he weaves historical facts and personalities into them. I read an interview with him about the rules he used when writing the book Declare, all about Kim Philby and Noah’s Ark. I’m paraphrasing, here, but his rule was that he could not contradict an established fact – if there was a report that Philby was in Cairo on a certain day, then Philby would have to be in Cairo on that day in the novel. All the weirdness, conpsiracy, and mysticism had to be woven in and around the gaps, changing not the facts, but the meaning of the facts***.

This is showcased less in Last Call, as the only real historical figure to take a role is Bugsy Siegel, but it shows up a lot more in The Stress of Her Regard, featuring the Romantic poets, and Expiration Date, the sort-of sequel to Last Call that features such notable personages (or at least their ghosts) as Tom Edison and Harry Houdini.

Tim Powers’s novels have a sheer inventive genius about them that really appeals to me. The ideas are creative, solidly built into the background and structure of the novel, and hang together very believably. Beyond that, he has a clear, clean prose style that really appeals to me, avoiding overblown descriptions or purple prose. And his characters are deep, individual, and fascinating.

Having finished Last Call, I’m starting on Expiration Date. This will be followed by Earthquake Weather, which transforms the three books into a trilogy by tying together the first two books. The three books were published some time apart, and I’ve never read them back-to-back like this, having bought each when it was released.

That’s the down side to being a Tim Powers fan: the man does good work, but you never seem to get enough of it****.

Anyway, I see I need one more new book cited to round out the Amazon sidebar, so let’s end with The Drawing of the Dark, a Tim Powers novel about the siege of Vienna, the reborn King Arthur, a bunch of wandering vikings, and beer.

How can you top that for cool?


*Both very excellent books. You should read them. Now.

** This idea of obsession being necessary to transcend the mundane and take part in the mystical is one of the core tenets of the Unknown Armies RPG, which I had the tremendous good fortune to do some writing for. UA owes a considerable and acknowledge debt to the works of Tim Powers. It’s one of the reasons I love the game the way I do.

*** This is related, in a way, to what I said about reading with filters in this post here.

**** Not to sound ungrateful. I’m happy for what I can get. I’m just greedy for more.

The Great Mystery

Or why my dream magic system will never be made in a roleplaying game.

I’ve read a lot of roleplaying games in my life. Really, a lot. And one of the criteria I use to judge the system is how they implement magic.

Let me define my terms here. I’m going to be talking specifically about magic as a mystical force. The same systems are often used by RPGs to model other types of special powers, whether they call them psychic abilities, cybernetic enhancements, super powers, or whatever. For the purposes of this little rant, I’m just talking about magic that is done through mystical means – you know, the kinds of things wizards and sorcerers do. It could be in a pseudo-medieval setting, like D&D, or it could be in a modern setting, like Dresden Files, or even a futuristic one, like Shadowrun. It’s the use of supernatural abilities to elicit a change in the environment.

How’s that for a definition? Good. Moving on.

There is a strong tendency in fantasy RPGs to make magic a technological substitute, and to approach it in a very scientific, mechanistic kind of way. Some do this behind the scenes, like D&D, while others get the player or character involved, like in Savage Worlds. Either way, you wind up with recipes for magical effects that are repeatable and predictable.

Fantasy novels have embraced this idea, as well, especially those that have mystical characters as main characters. You get exposition on how magic works, what laws it adheres to, how the various factors intermix, etc. There is a decided effort to make magic understandable, to minimize the necessary suspension of disbelief to integrate magic into the story.

And I like those books. Well, not all of them obviously, but in general.

And I like those games, too. Again, some more than others.

But in both cases, the magic doesn’t really feel, well, magical.

It’s reasonable that authors and game designers take this path for their magical systems, and I don’t argue it. You need a predictable structure to magic in a game, so that the players know what their characters are capable of. So that the GM can properly assess challenges for the characters. So that there is a shared understanding of what magic is and what it can and cannot do. In books, it helps the author avoid contrivance in plot and present believable limitations and challenges for the characters. It helps them play fair with their audience, not relying on deus ex machina in the form of magic to save the day.

It’s a perfectly viable approach. Understandable. And, done well, enjoyable.

But there are other ways of understanding magic that I like better.

Like not understanding it.

Charles de Lint wrote a book called Greenmantle which is all about Mystery in the deep green places of the world, a power that predates modern understanding, and can never be completely understood. It touches everything around it with a transformative power that cannot be denied.

Guy Gavriel Kay wrote a book called The Summer Tree, in which a young man sacrifices himself to a god on an old oak tree, and is sent back into the world with a power of knowledge. He knows things, whispered to him by the god’s ravens, and, though he has no real mystical ability himself, he is accorded equal status by the lesser gods and goddesses in the world.

Sean Stewart wrote a book called Resurrection Man, where magic awoke in the concentration camps of the second world war, and runs through the world to this day. Minotaurs form in the twisting slums of the violent inner cities, and some few people have an angel inside them that shows them the truths of the world in dark and disturbing ways, and leads some of them away from humanity into a new existence.

(By the way, you should read everything that those three gentlemen have written. They are each of them magnificent authors. And the two that I have met are very gracious with their fans.)

I cite those examples to show a different approach to magic. Joseph Campbell, in his book Primitive Mythology, talks about magical thinking as a process different from the logical thinking that typifies modern life. The RPG Nephilim tried to produce that sort of experience for the players, and came pretty close when they moved from the standard list of magical spells to the more free-form type of magic in the supplement Liber Ka.

This is the kind of magic system I want. One that works on The Logic of Elfland, as G.K. Chesterton called it, instead of on the mundane, predictable logic of the real world.

I want to be able to act on a symbolic, mystical understanding of a situation, and have it work both narratively and mechanically. I want to be able to weave the lies told by a villain into cords that will bind his happiness, never letting it free. I want ants to come to my rescue because I prevented my brothers from destroying their hill. I want to win the fair maiden’s hand because I’m the third son and my name is Jack. I want to trick Death into a sack where I can keep him confined forever. I want to stand between life and death, able to look into each realm, and negotiate between the inhabitants of both.

It’s not going to happen, though.

Maybe I’ll be able to play someone like that in an RPG some day, but it’ll be a very rules-light, GM-intensive game. Because of the problem Joseph Campbell noted.

Magical thinking isn’t like our modern logic.

So, how can we develop mechanics that properly reflect it? We can’t, in my opinion. Every rule we create to structure magic strips away some of the mystical, leaving it a little more predictable and a little less magical. By the time we get something playable, the sweet mystery of magic has been tied down and tamed. The wildness is gone.

I’m going to keep looking for it, though. If nothing else, it lets me find a whole bunch of interesting games that do it the other way.

And that’s not bad.

It’s just not my dream system.