The Slag Pits of the Soul

It is like a furnace, fiercely burning

And I have only so much coal

You see

There’s only so much

And I’m only so small

~

I will sometimes find an accelerant

A new beautiful

A random intoxication of the sudden

Surprises have the most BTUs

Next in line are the toxic loops

The feedbacks of flagellant

Hatred creation resurrection

Being born and strangling the self

Oozing back out from your own

Blood

~

Do signs rise over black seas?

Neon lights, the eyes

Of xenon gods

I long to stand on hilltops

Screaming into the rain

Slamming down over an ocean

My arms raised in a fury

A great and triumphant

Arc

Of history, of pain

One willing tide

Of fulfillment

Of fulfilling

~

My eyes can see the sea

My eyes can see the stars

A bridge of promise

The stairs to the new

The sustained

Footfalls of forever

God was a man,

And he had a son.

Disco Pandemonium: The Gotterdammerung of Ideology

A few days ago I beat what is among the best games to be released in the last decade: Disco Elysium. The title functions on so many levels of nuance it’s disgusting, as many as the game itself does, and hits them all straight on. I won’t be delving into what makes it a great game. Better and more prominent (and actual) games journalists have pried into that subject with more depth and expertise than I have any desire to match. Rather I want, like the narcissist I am, to explore how the game made me feel.

But first, a brief explainer: You are Harrier DuBois, a washed-up cop who was once a Rock Star Supercop, a Disco aficionado and creature of the night, renowned for your legendary benders and borderline insane commitment to The Truth. But that was many years ago. Now you’re like an aged bloodhound: You’ve still got the nose, but not the get-up-and-go. You need copious amounts of speed for that, and alcohol to bring you back down to earth. That sordid tumble from cocaine-fueled stardom has led you to Martinaise, as much of a backwater of a town as you are a wreck of a man, a filthy port town in the nation of Revachol. Martinaise’s geography is not one that many in America have to look far to find in the Real World. For those in the Rust Belt, it’s right outside their door. People struggling, hanging on; buildings decaying; trash collecting but never overflowing; just the right side of dismal to keep from collapsing altogether. In essence, a ghoulish behemoth struggling on if only for the fact that its muscle memory reads no other way.

Martinaise, and Revachol with it, however differs from your standard post-industrial American shithole in one key way: It was once host to a revolutionary vanguard. The communards of Martinaise overthrew the local syphilitic monarch and so invited the wrath of the MoralIntern, the game’s stand-in for the IMF/UN/Globalists, who proceeded to annihilate the upstart militiamen in search of a new world and a new future for themselves. To anyone with a glancing knowledge of history, particularly lefitst history, this is a tale told again and again and again. South America is rife with American interventionism in its leftist movements, frequently precipitating violent crackdowns from right-wing factions. Both Russia and China saw foreign intervention in their civil wars in pursuit of a communist state. I’d also be remiss if I did not mention the many movements crushed by domestic police violence a la the Paris Commune of 1871.

This is something we do not know or rightfully understand in America. The protests and organizing of the 1960’s and 70’s pale in comparison to these others, who came far nearer the sun than we could ever have dreamed. To have achieved something, only to see it laid waste by some vast and insurmountable power, is a pain we perhaps will never know. Only this most recent primary can conceivably come close and put that pain into perspective, this massive upswell of organized power only to be dashed by legally illegal election rigging and party apparatchiks. The only way we can truly experience this feeling of defeat and dread, outside Bernie having won and subsequently shuttled off by a military coup, is through media. And Disco Elysium, like Les Miserables before it (yes, I went there), captures this perfectly.

It presents the sort of ideological vacuum that takes hold in the aftermath of the destruction of a popular movement. That sense of directionless, a mindless plodding onward without any heading but that which the bare necessities of life obligate you to pursue, shelter and sustenance, brilliantly exploited by a capitalist system. A void is opened in the heart that any light struggles to escape: We had come so close and were struck down. How do you recover from such a blow? How do you rally the people when charge upon charge of “Look what happened before…” may be levied against you? I don’t have the answer. Disco Elysium did not have the answer and that is perhaps the most poignant, sorrowful note of the game. At the end of all this soul-searching, this uncovering and confronting the ghosts of the past, both your own and the city’s, you are left only with the simple and grim clarity that comes after realizing a thing cannot be put right again. The old wars are lost, and a terrible peace was sown a long time ago despite all your fighting. There is simply the present, wan and plodding, and you simply must get on with it. No amount of amphetamines or alcohol will transmute this washed-out landscape back to its fresh glory. It’s over. They’ve won. And here you are.

It is not so difficult, then, to read this as the dirge of leftism as we have come to know it in the real world. What are all our wars but ones that were fought long ago, with surer hands and many more besides, and still lost? I’ve asked already how we recover from such a blow, but a more brutal question is perhaps how do you build upon ruins? How do you hew a new edifice when the foundations are already cracking beneath you? You can’t, and anyone who tells you otherwise has his hand in your pocket. It’s so very hard to see by the light of the sunset, let alone the dawn. But if we hope to see the full brightness of another day, we’ve got to let the dawn come. We’ve got to realize the sun is setting on the old days and all that the old days entail. We’ve got to embrace the dawn, even if that means embracing the night. We’re living through the twilight as it is–the gotterdammerung of ideology.

If I were to attempt to accurately sum up this current predicament, I’d say modern leftism is the Disco Cop. Run-down, tired, clinging onto the bright tapestry of the past in hopes that it will impart some magnificence to our lives today. And so this is a moment in time with only two outcomes: Either we transcend this crisis point and forge ahead with a new path, a new heading; or we descend, squabbling amongst ourselves and the world around us, into Armageddon. But trying to remain where we are will destroy us. Like the Disco Cop, failing to move on and acting against inertia will only exacerbate the agony when the world chooses for us.

I am of the mind, after all the shit we’ve gone through from 2016 to now, that an entirely new approach needs crafted and pursued. No Democratic Party, no Green Party ticket. Throwing our lot in with either is to embrace the old, the old that hasn’t worked in decades and by no discernible logic looks to work in the future. It is tantamount to willingly take on baggage that isn’t yours. I’d go so far as to abandon the DSA, the SRA, the PSL, and all acronyms in between. Throw the colors in the trash and forget all the thinkers and writers, themselves whales beaching themselves on the shores of history. Retain the theory, reject the fountainheads that only encourage infighting and factionalism. If it casts aspersions or burdens us with iconography that does more to dissolve than to adhere, leave it in the dust bin. The cause is all, and everything is a tool and means to facilitate that cause. Nothing else and no more.

There’s no time or choices left but the one, as near as I can tell. We’re at the finish line, if not as a movement then as a species. This is a war, solely ideological at present, but that does not change the fact that we need to treat the cause as such. All our resources and machinery and infrastructure must be retrofitted to achieve the aim of a socialist state, whether electorally or otherwise. If we don’t right the ship soon, we’ll be living in the same nihilistic hellscape the Russians are right now. Our sense of individual reality will be courted and manipulated by an ominously nebulous state that exists beyond the bounds of electoral action or organizing, in which need to enforce a police state with open brutality is almost nonexistent. Indeed, a political landscape so efficiently managed and crafted to vent frustrations without resulting in substantive change that popular uprisings simply will not occur. I fear, like the Disco Cop, we may be at the precipice already.

So, which way are you gonna jump?

Digging

Imagine you are digging a hole. You’ve your shovel or your pick, your drill or your laser or your pet conqueror-worm. The earth disappears beneath you. Your progress is unfathomable and in another day’s time that progress will remain unfathomable. To have come so far, so fast.

Then the familiar crunch and rasp of soil fades. There is only the wet sucking sound of clay. This day is difficult, each heave dredging up less and costing more, and three days pass before you accomplish the depth you had on the first. But still you are proud, still you have dug. On to the next day.

And on the next day, the clay gives way. For all of a moment, your heart flutters. No more with that slog. It is the soil again. But amid the soil, soon there are cracks and tinks and thunks. Stone. You have reached the depth of stone. The blade of your shovel is next to useless. Your pick begins to blunt, your drill to foul. The laser is running out of juice and your worm needs fed something other than hard rocks.

What do you do? What can you do? Except keep digging. It has worked so far. You have come so far. Certainly it was going to get difficult at some point. And persistence is the modus, yes? It is the virtue. Yes, keep digging, that is the answer. Surely. Certainly.

The rocks wash away on the tides of your labor, as even the cliff face erodes under the eternal duress of the waves. This is the rule, the lesson. You are more confident in this than you are in the strength of your arms or the effectiveness of your tools. Days and days and days pass like the wind over the edges of the abyss you have tunneled into the earth. Finally, at last, the stone gives way…

Only to something more impenetrable: the bedrock. You cannot get through. The eternal question resounds: What is to be done?

In life and as Americans especially, we’re often battered with the phrase: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.” And yet as often as we are redressed with the words, we make the mistake. We make the mistake over and over again. Why? Simple: We do not believe a mistake is being made. Why should we? We’re following the rules. We’re digging. Why wouldn’t we get any farther? It’s worked up to this point. But no matter how hard you work, you won’t circumvent the bedrock that lies in your way.

Exchange the analogy for whatever you like: running, swimming or sailing. The quandary repeats. Whether you reach squall or mountain, the temptation is to determination. To the seductive first principle of persisting, especially when all seems lost. Sail through the storm rather than lengthen the trip, travail the mountain to its peak rather than take the long way around. Dig until you reach the bedrock and keep pecking away rather than dig further to the left or the right.

You might reach your intended juncture, but invite illimitable catastrophes easily avoided along another route. Better by far to simply adjust course or to stop and consider the approach or the tools at hand. The key is to recognize when one has come up against the bedrock, the mountain or the storm, the obstacle which may cost everything to traverse. As therein lies the deception of the maxim.

Of course, it’s insanity to perform the same action and expect a different result. When put simply, anything is obvious. When what worked before or is working now ceases to work, do not merely assume it is failure of persistence or talent or effort. Take that as a sign to fall back and reassess, both your progress and your means. When your legs have been pumping beneath you, launching you across the proverbial landscape, and you suddenly find yourself on uneven ground, it is critically important to not first redress and damn yourself.

In short, first consider that you are digging a hole.

Where Is Everybody?

Ok. State of the Union here. 1 book published, 1 book in the can, 2 nearing completion (I hope). A lot of revision to be done. And where am I? Not very far, but then I didn’t expect to be much farther. I *hoped* I would be much farther, but didn’t expect it. In fact, I expected exactly what I’ve got.

What I did not expect was how cloistered the author community is on social media. Authors buying each other’s books, lifting each other up, and soliciting each other’s support. Which is good. Or would be good, if it wasn’t for the fact that it wasn’t just to other authors. Which is an inherent problem, as they have their own books to sell and trumpet. And let me tell you, there are enough authors out there or people trying to become authors that their followers are frighteningly stacked with each other. Again, which is fine. We need each other. I support each and every one of you.

But the problem yet remains. In sum, we are selling books to authors trying to sell books to authors trying to sell books to authors trying… And so on. It is an ouroboros of grift. And when I say grift here, I don’t mean it (not entirely anyways) in a negative fashion. There is a level of grift in any job. I grift any time I jump into someone’s group self-promo thread. I grift when I post a book announcement. I grift when I try to sell myself so that I can sell my books. Few of us, I think, are *really* (or ubiquitously) interested in one another or in one another’s work. It would sincerely become tiring if we maintained that level of interpersonal investiture. And besides: why should we?

It’s a strange thing, and it happens no less in traditional publishing. Outside of a few big names who draw their own self-sustaining audiences, the rest of the culture relies on itself to pass the same list of names around in hopes of striking some imaginary gold mine. As if this award or that feature or interview will be the magical one to draw in that readership we all lust after. Sometimes it is. We certainly have our success stories in this regard. But we must regard it at some point as something of a myth. The “overnight success”, the “meteoric rise”. It often comes, when it comes at all, at the end of a long road or with the helping hand of a patron already in the scene. Even then the principle remains. We rely on outside factors to gain success. At best, we are Johnny Come-lately’s to the game. At worst, the game was rigged to begin with.

And it’s turtles all the way down.

The reviewers are tied in with the authors, the former relying on access to the latter to maintain the longevity of their relevancy and the latter relying on the former to maintain access to something resembling a prospective fanbase. But here again, that fanbase is largely other reviewers and authors! It’s why a fair few writers pick up award after award and you will never hear from them without tapping into this underground of online communities and review blogs. I have cruised the Speculative Fiction section at bookstore after bookstore for about as long as I’ve been alive and in recent years I have begun to only very rarely stumble upon anyone who, upon further inspection, is actually pretty big name or up-n’-comer in the genre. They simply do not exist in physical space much of the time.

Which is not to say any of this is necessarily bad. Any way to get ahead, I guess. But it does create a system of connections in which each individual relies upon the other so completely that their objectivity is called into question. It is hard to overstate how problematic this becomes when concomitant with a lack of any really invested fanbase or community beyond the authors and reviewers, even more so when we take human nature into account and the conflict that can bring. There’s a kind of tension. Things go unquestioned. The issues of the day are relied upon to draw an audience that otherwise fails to show up. Placating, pandering, whatever you want to call it, has become the mode of creating an audience and maintaining relevancy in some cases, submitting oneself to the dominant narrative and losing one’s originality to it.

But that is a much larger question than I can answer, if at all, in a blog post.

The larger issue is how do you not necessarily circumvent the above–which I don’t endorse, I enjoy being involved in this community–but tap into this kind of faceless readership that buys or otherwise consumes without interacting. There’s some bridge I’m missing, I feel. Some gap that I see, but can’t identify. It’s sad because I really want to try and connect with a readership, to make some tangible effort in this regard, as opposed to casting a net out into oblivion and hoping someone stumbles into it. Which is all that the above really is as far as I can see. Possibly. I’m not one to sift for gold or even really lace blasting charges across the landscape. But I am one for doing the work. Oh, man, I’ll do the work. Until my fingers bleed. But I’d really like to know what work to do.

In short, tell me where to find you! I hope I see you out there.

Diminishing Returns at the End of the World

I finally figured it out, and it’s embarrassing that it took me so long. I’ve recently started playing Fallout 4 for what is probably the fourth time, the previous three unsuccessful attempts at finishing it. Which is a problem in its own right. It has probably the worst plot setup of any modern game, if only because of its quality in many other respects.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Your child is kidnapped and your wife shot, and yet the game allows you the opportunity for a gleeful romp through the wasteland until you decide to finally go figure it the fuck out. Yes, it’s a facet of nearly every RPG that you can kind of waylay the main quest for however long you want. But! The start of the main quest is not usually so imperative as chasing down the kidnappers of your son and last living connection to anything approaching normality. Think about it: You wake up after 200 years, watch your wife get blown away by some mercenary dude in armor made out of tires, and your son taken away by another guy in a hazmat suit. Then you stumble through the Vault you’ve been secreted in, fighting your way through giant mutated cockroaches, and out into the vast unknown of an irradiated wasteland. A bit of a trip, right? Wrong. You’re as cheerful as ever to meet the acquaintance of Preston Garvey, cosplayer of an era he surely would have been able to piece together by listening to the recordings scattered throughout a mysteriously electrified Museum of Freedom. Even talking to your old robot butler, Codsworth, the first NPC you meet in the game, the main character has the emotional depth of a sociopath’s approximation of an appropriate response to the situation.

Which I suppose was a long winded, ranting way of finally getting me to my point. Nearly every Fallout has followed the same formula, with a notable exception being Fallout 2, which turns the genesis of the story on its head by requiring that you delve into a Vault rather than emerging from one. The Vault, in this instance, is the frightening and unfamiliar thing. A suitable followup, not at all a carbon copy. Queue Bethesda’s remakes. Each one: emerging from a Vault in some feebly different way. Fallout: New Vegas, a product of some of the original Fallout team at Obsidian? No Vault. You’re just some fuck. But tired replication isn’t even Fallout 4’s most glaring error. It’s that you have no real instigator for the plot beyond the player’s own decision. And before anyone suggests “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature”, this can be implemented well and absolutely is not here.

Fallout 1–going way back, I know–had similarly dire circumstances that saw you leave your life as a Vault Dweller behind: The water purification chip on which the entirety of the Vault relies to, you guessed it, drink serviceably potable water, has malfunctioned. You, the Vault Dweller, must go out into the wasteland and find a new one before everyone fucking dies. And die they will. Take too long and run out the most gruesome “days until” counter of all? Dead. You can’t fuck around for too long. There are ways to push the counter back. You can arrange for a shipment of water to reach the Vault, although for a ton of currency. But you still need to get that chip, my boy. Does failing this quest end the game? Yes. It’s a game after all. But conceivably you’re still out there wandering the wasteland in the wake of your failure. Game logic aside, you don’t *need* to get the chip. It would just be very helpful and good-hearted of you to do so.

In Fallout 4, you do need, however, to get your fucking kid back. Unless you are indeed a total sociopath, as mentioned above. But herein lies another problem, Fallout 4 breaks from tradition in one of only two significant ways, and it’s a disaster for the plot. You are an Actual Guy With An Actual Life. Do you get to choose his name, his appearance, whether it’s a ‘he’ at all? Yes. But that’s it. You still operate within the certain parameters that you’re a decorated war hero with a nice family and warm, loving home. Which sets the stage for the next departure. All previous incarnations, especially those developed by the original team, pretty well convey that the era before the Day the Bombs Fell deeply rooted in 1950’s America on steroids. The cheery veneer of everyday life was played up to extravagant ends and the extravagance of everyday life was such that even your average car was nuclear powered. This last item is perhaps the only characteristic that Bethesda carried over with Fallout 4. The wrecked, junked cars are indeed nuclear powered and will explode in a bright, fiery display when shot enough. But beyond this bright enamel of normality, everything was a totalitarian nightmare. Constant war, summary executions, political persecutions. Not a *nice* atmosphere in which you’re only concern is prepping to give a speech at the local veterans’ club. It’s absurd! It drives me insane!

But it’s to be expected, isn’t it? Across all forms of media these days–whether video games, movies, TV, or music–we’re getting soulless resurrection after soulless resurrection. Endless repeats of franchises that should have stayed dead. The sequel to the remake of the prequel to the original. It never ends. What can Bethesda do, but serve up an experience for the player? And only an experience, its approximation of what a Fallout game is *supposed* to be. The aim is not to create art. Just to replicate it. And more than this, the end result is a defanged and peppy knockoff. Nothing is permitted to be grim or carry any reminder that there is a world outside which is less than bright and shiny. Which is to be expected when everything is turned into a commodity, nothing left sacred. All they can hope to do is create a vast amusement park ride with enough attractions to distract from the fact you’re paying $7 for a bottle of soda. And, to their credit, they have. Fallout 4 is pretty fun to play. For a while. Then, eventually, after you’ve ridden enough of the rides, you realize just how much the soda costs and how long the drive home will be after you’ve wasted probably your entire day on something that wasn’t near as fun as you imagined–all just to make up for how utterly meaningless it was to begin with.

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