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Fantasy shibboleths

So last week I vented a little bit about shibboleths common to the written science fiction genre. This week, it's fantasy's turn in the barrel!

Fantasy is a much broader church than SF; if we're drawing Venn diagrams, you can probably characterise it as a really big circle overlapping at one side with the much smaller circle that is SF. (Items which explicitly blend magic with SF tropes occupy the overlap.) And the fantasy circle is pock-marked with smaller domains.

Here in the middle is your classic high fantasy, in the tradition of The Lord of the Rings—probably relying on a faux-mediaeval European setting, although there are variants off to one side or the other that use another cultural backdrop, usually imperial. (I can think off the top of my head of examples that leverage Roman, Classical Greek, Chinese, Japanese, or more unfamiliar settings: Mongol, Aztec, Dynastic Egyptian, and Vietnamese, to name but some.) A common problem with ancient empires is that they were pretty shitty places to live, unless you happened to be part of the happy 1% who were born into the ruling elite with the right configuration of genitals and the good luck to survive the typically horrendous infant mortality. (Let's face it: history is a crapsack world—even the maximally privileged lacked indoor plumbing, refrigeration, and modern conveniences such as not having more than half their children die before their parents. Yes, some people lived long, prosperous, happy lives: they're rare enough that historical biographies get written about them.)

Off to one side we have the burgeoning field inaccurately known as urban fantasy. You might think urban fantasy would mean fantasy set in built-up areas: but instead it's become synonymous with contemporary settings in the more-or-less modern world. (It overlaps at one edge with the sector of paranormal romance: PR is basically UF as an emergent sub-genre within the romance sector, and whether a story is one or the other is mostly a matter of how it's marketed rather than whether or not it has girl cooties; don't underestimate the romance field, it's a huge market that accounts for more than half of total fiction sales, and like any other genre category it contains the full gamut of qualities, from the sappy to the sublime.) We can stereotype UF as being about elves on motorbikes and PR as revolving around a girl with a gun and a tattoo living somewhere in small-town America and trying to deal with a smoking hot werewolf who wants to own her and an ancient and unaccountably stuck-in-the-past vampire love rat ... but that'd be selling it well short of its potential: the variations are enormous, possibly because unlike classical high fantasy settings, the modern world isn't a totally shitty dystopia that deprives everybody but the 1% of all agency so we can have narratives that don't require the protagonist to be a high Lord or Lady, at least at the outset.

Meanwhile, somewhere else on the petri dish we have the rapidly growing citadel of steampunk. Steam is optional and punk is definitely inappropriate, but ever since K. W. Jeter pinned the tail on the donkey in 1987 we've been stuck with the term of art (although the subgenre itself goes back considerably further). After much thought I'm inclined to say that steampunk when viewed as a fantasy sub-genre (as opposed to a fashion and design aesthetic) is a cognate of urban fantasy that is set in the near-historical past—using a setting 100-200 years past, rather than 500-1000 years ago. The key difference here is that it uses an accessible past: after all the last US Civil War pensioner (the young bride of a very old veteran) died in 2008. The Victorian/gaslight era is still remembered at friend-of-a-friend remove, whereas the Wars of the Roses have definitively moved into a purely historical context. (I live in an early Victorian apartment; my grandfather fought in the first world war: he grew up in a Victorian slum. And so on.)

So what are the peculiar shibboleths of these three sub-genres?

Let me start with urban fantasy, because it's closest to the present and hence slightly difficult to get the setting entirely wrong. I generally notice three common cock-ups when reading works of UF. The first can be summed up as "author is lazy, didn't do the research". In the era of StreetView and Google Maps, it's inexcusable to have your protagonist visit Edinburgh and describe the city in terms that position it north of the Firth of Forth, iron the terrain flat (the core is as steep as downtown Seattle), or get the architecture totally wrong. Ditto the basics of history that you can pick up by simply poking around Wikipedia for a few hours. I'll give works written pre-2001 a conditional pass on the research as the tools weren't so readily available, but newer authors have no such excuse unless they're deliberately confabulating.

My second UF shibboleth is historical contingency. There's one British UF series (I shall not name the guilty party) where we have wizards running amok on the streets of London. Indeed, there are whole orders of wizards, including battle mages, some of whom employ mooks with automatic weapons. Seven books into the series I'm pretty sure the author has racked up a death toll that drastically exceeds the British national murder rate—and much of it involves exchanges of gunfire, fireballs, and killer golems on the motorways. Yes, we have a society of wizards trying to keep the public from noticing, but really? It's symptomatic of a common failing whereby the hidden world exists in the shadows and the foregrounded world of the mundane is identical to our own, despite a medium-intensity civil war raging in the corners. Which leads inexorably to my third UF shibboleth, which is really a alternate variant of the second: the portrayal a world where the werewolves and vampires and superheroes are out in the open—but again, this world is culturally, politically, and ephemerally indistinguishable from our own. (Not all UF works fall into these traps, but they're surprisingly common. We have vampires with mind-control powers but politicians (and election count managers) don't take precautions against them. We have werewolves, but cops with guns don't routinely have a reload of silver bullets to hand. (Kudos to Kim Newman for actually taking this problem seriously in "Anno Dracula", and inventing a vampire-infested world that makes sense, for some value of sense. And before anybody in the back row shouts "Laundry Files!" at me, let me just say I've got it covered—but you'll have to wait for books 7 through 9 to see how it unfolds.))

I'm not going to spend a huge amount of time on Steampunk. SP is prone to exactly the same failure modes as UF—I think as a fictional form it's actually a subset thereof. A distinctive failure that SP is prone to is a wilful blindness to the constraints pre-20th century western society placed on women or people of color or the disabled. Yes, we have a lot of strong female protagonists of eccentric mien and independent means: yes, some people like that actually existed. But focussing exclusively on them runs the risk of whitewashing (or privilege-washing) a particularly dog-eat-dog nasty period of history (which, after all, is written by the victors) by gilding the hard edge of empire. Note: you don't have to go that way. Let me call out "Vermillion" by Molly Tanzer, and "Karen Memory" by Elizabeth Bear, as recent and excellent examples of SP that use female protagonists from non-privileged backgrounds to good effect.

A lesser problem that keeps cropping up in steampunk is what I call the gearbox-crunch—an attempt to portray a fake veneer of science and engineering to a fantasy setting, done so badly that the cogs jam and are unable to rotate freely. External combustion steam engines are lousy prime movers, energetically inefficient and requiring water as well as fuel: there's a reason we mostly don't use them any more, and it's in part the reason why powered heavier-than-air flight had to wait for the internal combustion engine. Robots powered by clockwork ... nope, don't get me started. It's very hard to frame a steampunk setting as scientifically plausible (as, for example, Stephen Baxter did in "Anti-Ice"), despite which many SP authors make the mistake of trying to do so, and fall flat on their faces. Significantly, the master of the sub-genre, Terry Pratchett (whose later Discworld stories are totally Steampunk) didn't go there. (And neither did Genevieve Cogman, who blogged here this month.)

Which leaves me looking at the shibboleths of high fantasy.

Hands up, everyone reading this who likes HF and who hasn't had some (even minimal or second-hand) exposure to Dungeons and Dragons?

D&D has a lot to answer for.

There was a telling passage near the end of the original AD&D "Dungeon Master's Guide" where Gary Gygax wrote about some of the source materials he and the folks at TSR drew upon when they were developing first-edition white box D&D and the later AD&D game. It ran the gamut from Tolkein through Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, to Michael Moorcock's eternal champion yarns, Jack Vance's Dying Earth books, and a whole slew of other early-to-80s fantasy genre works. But it also introduced a bunch of its own baggage along the way, and much of it has leaked, overflowing like a blocked drain and contaminating the collective subconscious of genre fantasy authors who should bloody well know better.

I keep a bushel of cliches to hand. They act as warning signs that the author of an HF work was not paying enough attention to their world. For example: never trust a world where the currency consists of coins minted in precious metal in denominations divisible by 10 or 100: sooner or later it's going to blow out under the weight of its other internal contradictions. (If you want a magisterial perspective of what money was really like in the Olden Days, you could do worse than plough through the first 800 pages or so of "Quicksilver" by Neal Stephenson, or read up on the history of British currency.)

The currency fail I allude to is actually symptomatic of a deeper problem of perspective: which is that, while adopting a faux-historical setting, the authors haven't really bothered to try and understand history. You can approach the study of history from many different angles. The one that we commonly focus on in fiction is "the man on the white horse"—kings, heroes, queens, oh my. (The people books are written about.) But real historians also study climatology and demographics (the iron hands that dictate crop yields, the price of bread, and revolutions), and economics and high finance. Kudos to Seth Dickinson for his debut novel "The Traitor" (or "The Traitor Baru Cormorant", in the US), a secondary world fantasy which actually takes this stuff deadly seriously. (The eponymous protagonist is a meddling accountant, who starts wars or revolutions with the stroke of a pen by dictating fiscal policy.) It's rare to read a work of HF where the protagonists take money seriously—or worry about seigniorage, debasement, or where the money to pay for the next batallion of mercenaries is coming from when the crops are wilting in the fields. And this paucity of depth nags for my attention, because it can undermine the entire surface-level plot that ostensibly deals with heroes and kings, oh my.

Another warning sign: race politics as a shorthand for personality. Elves or Dwarves or Hobbits out of Tolkien hark hack to the prevailing world-view of the professor's own childhood, growing up in the hub of a world-empire prior to the first world war. He implicitly absorbed the values of imperial rule, under which nations were divided and consigned to privilege or servitude on the basis of a spurious perception of racial merit (or rather, utility to the imperial masters). Here in the real world, human beings are graded on a curve. Moreover, human beings breed back towards the average. (Einstein's offspring were not notably world-changing genii.) The pernicious myth of race is exactly that: and the race-essentialism of Tolkeinian high fantasy leads down some very unsavoury alleys. It gets even worse when we consider the pernicious implications of the D&D alignment system—the half-baked dualism of good versus evil, crossed with an orthogonal dimension of law versus chaos, to which entire races are consigned. Religious eschatology, principally Christian, creeps in via this schema because the doctrine of original sin is pretty much baked into this—and contrary to what many Brits and Americans might believe, this isn't actually a univeral belief framework shared among all faiths: it seems to have crept into early Christianity via syncretistic assimilation of chunks of Zoroastrianism (along with other items that went into the melting pot: the Cult of Mithras, the Cult of Isis, early millenarian Jewish mysticism, and a whole bunch of Roman-era pantheons who were repurposed as hierarchies of saints). It's a framework that implicitly condones genocide and atrocity, because it inherently denies the possibility of individual reform. It's occasionally deconstructed to brilliant effect, as in Mary Gentle's "Grunts", but for the most part it's reprehensible: the sort of genre trope one might have expected of the pulp literature that flourished under the aegis of a victorious Third Reich.

A final hideous shibboleth of high fantasy is the folks-were-stupid-in-the-olden-days trope. We frequently see peasants portrayed as thick-witted or slow, societies as static, merchants as not having the wits to bargain their way out of a paper bag, and everyone except the hero-protagonist as lacking in innovative drive. But this just ain't true. Leaving aside the issue of the disease and parasite burden under which the people of much HF worlds labored (hey, anyone else watched "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" lately? Or "Jabberwocky"?), historical societies weren't static. They existed under equilibrium constraints imposed by their local climate, the Malthusian carrying capacity of the land, available crops and parasites, and with random noise and fuzz imposed from the top down by whoever was trying to make themselves King or big themselves up that month. Most mediaeval noble families didn't last more than a handful of generations, any more than modern millionaire dynasties last forever; peasants weren't stupid so much as they were cautious, for a rash experiment in agricultural innovation could doom your family or village to slow starvation over the next year. And the lack of decent energy sources and high purity materials (not to mention the propagation of erroneous beliefs in natural philosophy) manacled a ball and chain around any would-be reformer's ankle before they crossed the starting line. Oh, and while I remember? Horses are not magical hay-burning all-terrain motorbikes, m'kay?

(Actually, there are so many goddamn shibboleths capering and hooting and generally making whoopee throughout the high fantasy field that Diana Wynne Jones wrote a book about them—The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land. It's sort of like TVTropes for high fantasy: if you enjoy reading the stuff or playing AD&D you should probably avoid it, but if you want to write HF you need to memorize it.)

Anyway, enough of my pet fantasy peeves. You'll note I completely ignored a whole bunch of fantasy subgenres (from secondary world fantasy through the gothic novel of the uncanny). What gets you worked up when you read fantasy?



Boring world building (aka, I've seen this all before).
Magic that lifts from Jack Vance. And Tolkein. And their last RPG campaign.
Spending too much time energy and effort on the world, but not the characters. All too often, the eight deadly words are uttered and it goes back to the library, or I dump it from the kindle.


Magic systems that seemingly have no impact on the typically (faux) medieval economy or political landscape. It frustrates me whenever a story has a "court wizard" who in some scenes performs outrageously useful magic but nether the less is just an advisor, tutor and general old man. For once I'd like to read a medieval fantasy novel/series that revolved around magic schools as a primary source of economic development (and the consequences thereof).


Personally, I would say SF is a strict subset of fantasy.


I think you've got it under 'more than half their children die before their parents' but it's worth unpicking the ever-present reality of death in history, and it's absence from Historical Fantasy.

George Martin has definitely got the deaths by violence - and if anyone thinks that he's gone overboard on it, you need to read up on The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Disease, though... How many fantasy novels have have character lose a day due to waterborne illness? Or half an army due to dysentery? Low-level ill-health and episodes of serious disease were normal - typical, frequent, a fact of living. Children died more often than they survived to adulthood and all adults lost time due to illness - admittedly, the interesting ones with agency enjoyed rude good health in addition to their luck in being born into the aristocracy - and, if we're talking about saleable stories, it's fair to point out that illness isn't actually interesting to read; but the airbrushed absence of a *constant* reality in daily life is ridiculous.

The highest of High Fantasy has Healing Magicks that have banished all diseases. So that's that nailed down and put away in a box. Right. But there's a limit to believability and a civilisation with that sort of radically ahistorical technology would be utterly different to the progenitor societies of modern Europe.

Or maybe the same, only sooner...

...Among other things, they'd need really good birth control - and agricultural wizardry, and infrastructure to move the goods, magic everyehere and universal education to maintain that many mages - and now we're moving into a society like the modern-day G7 countries, only with Holy Runes of Magick in the household instead of the familiar electrical socket.


now we're moving into a society like the modern-day G7 countries, only with Holy Runes of Magick in the household instead of the familiar electrical socket.

So how is that different, anyways?

(I maintain that my iPhone runs on magic smoke. I have to perform the ritual of "charging it up" every day, and if I accidentally use the wrong ritual wire smoke comes out of it and it stops working. So obviously the smoke is magical and if you let it out the iPhone loses its magic. Right?)


How would you characterize Randall Garret's _Lord Darcy_ stories? How about Patrick Rothfuss "The name of the Wind" (there's your magical university, Ryan)?


Or the _Taltos_ series by Steven Brust?


As for the abolition of disease/pestilence, I have a one-word solution to the problems it brings that suggests an entire fantasy novel in and of itself: "infanticide".

(Because Malthus was more or less right -- the reason we aren't governed by his rule right now is because we've figured out how to boost our agricultural productivity by pumping energy into it, and once energy inputs aren't a function of labour units, it makes sense to optimize our child-rearing for quality over quantity, so we have fewer kids ...)


The kingkiller chronicles are good, but not entirely along the lines of what I was thinking. It's more focuses on Kvothe though rather than the consequences of artificers. I would still love a recommendation of a novel in which economics of magic was a focus, especially at a national level. The frustration comes from stories in which it should naturally fall out of the system set up by the author but doesn't.


Regarding Malthus, have you read "The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass" by Frederik Pohl?


Magical economy: there's Harry Turtledove's "The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump" and Poul Anderson's "Operation Chaos", though they would be filed under "urban fantasy" these days. Randall Garret dos talk about the effects of the magical revolution in the "Lord Darcy" series.

And there's a groundhog-day web-fiction "Mother of Learning" on Fictionpress that spends quite a bit talking about the economy of the magical world:

Oh, another online work, "The Gods are Bastards", has a whole magicotechnical economy worked out:

Both of these are still in progress, but new chaptars are coming out regularly.


[disclaimer, "fantasy that works as science fiction" is one of my hobbyhorses]


So how's that different?

it's turned into accelerated-technology steampunk, with twinkly-dust instead of brass gears.

Only, with mediaeval political systems, instead of Victorians - who were, if I recall, brutal colonisers and a violently repressive society - and I recall your observation that an industrialised mediaeval monarchy would look like North Korea.


Fantasy gets more benefit of the MST3K mantra (I should really just relax) than SF does.

All of these could be adapted to the SF section, but:

I guess one of the worst plot devices is The Death Star Syndrome: kill the Dark Lord and Evil just runs away or almost instantly collapses.

The reverse problem is well developed societies that collapse to a few heroic stragglers in a month.

Rebuilding a society or a race or a (not necessarily fully sentient) species from 100 people or 20 or (gulp) 2. "You are our last hope." "Uhhh, your last hope was when there were a thousand of us, now you just have an interesting display for your zoo."


Nile -- can you drop me an email?


Shibboleth: the complete absence of religion. Or one religion that everyone believes in. Or, gods that are just super-strong monsters (a la D&D).

Actually, this applies to much SF as well. Even though I'm an atheist, I don't expect everyone in the future to agree with me. Or maybe they'll have something that fills the same social role, even if they don't believe in an almighty creator. The treatment of religion in Ancillary Justice was one of the things that made the novel stand out for me.


Rebuilding a society or a race or a (not necessarily fully sentient) species from 100 people or 20 or (gulp) 2. "You are our last hope." "Uhhh, your last hope was when there were a thousand of us, now you just have an interesting display for your zoo."

Is one or both of the two a really good, er, capable wizard? Entirely willing to grow people in vats?

We've got a bunch of constraints because we evolved. If some wizard goes and makes a species, it's quite likely that it's going to not be entirely like an evolved species in its constraints. It might have various platonic absolutes hammered into it -- the genders really are capital-D different, for example (and then we get into what the wizard thought about gender roles, and what that's like ten generations later under different economic conditions) -- or it might not have enough diversity to safely breed, even though the wizard made a couple thousand, and so there's a Mark II and a Mark III and eventually you get problems because it turns out that Mark II and Mark XVII are interfertile and now you've got an increasing population that's healthy, none of that pesky tendency to gout or fatal allergies to turpentine, but the automatic feelings about their creator wizard... those aren't coming out right.

There is nigh-infinite worldbuilding fun to be had with this sort of thing.


The minefield I'm walking carefully through right now is this notion that fantasy should, especially that written by American white people, should be about white history.

Right now, I'm working on a story with a Korean protagonist who's finding out that Lovecraft's Dreamlands were actually a tiny piece of a much larger set of Otherworlds than ol Purple prose dared dream of. Part of the fun here is upending Lovecraft's bigotry--what if everyone had to deal with weird mythos crap, whatever their level in the colonial pecking order, and it wasn't just neurotic New Englanders or English bureaucrats?

But yes, I'm walking very respectfully as I write it, while still trying to make it fun. I'd rather not be labeled the bigot here.

Still, I've gotten to the point where I just can't finish yet another medievaloid fantasy. It's just not my reality anymore, as I live in a suburb of middle class people from around the world. In any case, I have read the Tough Guide To Fantasy Land, and reading too often gets me ticking off the tropes, rather than getting into the story.


The Difference Engine does a pretty decent job of showing how nasty the 19th century was, even with anachronistic computing technology.


And of course there's Poul Anderson's classic essay "On Thud and Blunder"


Oh yeah, swords and martial arts.

Every dude has a sword. Say what? It's worth looking at the modern-day prices of swords. They're in the $200-600 range, unless you're getting all whiny about having a truly real katana, in which case you're looking at $30,000+ to feed your fantasy.

Anyway, how many peasants make around $1/day? A sword's a year's wages for them. You want to arm your army entirely with swords? I'll arm mine with spears and knives (half the cost or less) and we can see how it all works out.

Oh, and double swords? No thank you, I want a shield instead of the second weapon. It's easier for dealing with people throwing rocks and such. Yes, they're fun to play with, and they're great for showing off in the marketplace, but not quite the thing for a battlefield, unless the other side isn't into the whole missiles thing.

Finally, martial arts. Really? Kata in Medieval Europe? Good grief, you can buy whole books on western martial arts, and if that's too expensive, they're all over YouTube. They didn't do kata. Nor did they do things slowly, tai chi style. Modern tai chi sets were created in an era when there were rifles available. And so forth. Every time I see someone learning swordplay through solo kata, I get really grumpy. Yeah, it should be so easy.

And don't get me started on light sabers.

Actually, if you go to the blog Kung Fu tea, you can read the research of a martial artist turned sociologist who studies the culture of southern Chinese martial arts, where they came from, how and why they mythologize their origins, how they change through time, and what role they actually serve in the communities that house them. It's neat stuff, and there's probably half a dozen novels sitting in his essays.

Still, we get stuck with the old shibboleths. Sigh. Excuse me while I go practice my grump fu.


The 18th century coaching inn appearing in 10th/12th/15th century societies.

(And I'm being generous; many of them are actually 19th century provincial railway hotels)

Which feeds into the whole thing of being a stranger. Towns and cities are used to, if not trusting of, weirdos wandering in and trying to buy goods or services, at least on market days. Regular visitors to villages will have regular contacts where they'll stay and make deals. How do you make the contact? You join up with someone who already travels there and they make an introduction.

(I would also like more letters of introduction when my high fantasy characters turn up in a strange county/country/continent. "Hi King of Transmontaine, these guys are hunting goblins. Goblins are bad. You should give them your support! Hope the family is well. Yours, King Borbert of Mundania.")


The obvious one not mentioned yet (probably because of how obvious it is) is how High Fantasy fetishises monarchy. I tried to read the Riftwar Saga recently and aside from Daughter of the Empire (which is a fantastic exploration of a rigid society from the perspective of a woman) they are painfully bad in places. The last one I nearly threw away because it starts with two princes killing people in a bar fight. The town guard turns up and before they are arrested (they're pretending to be commoners) the king's guard turns up, basically tells the TGs to sod off and take the princes back to the palace for a mild telling off.

Ick. These are the main characters we're meant to like. In one scene we see them murder and get away via corruption and the author wants the reader to see them as fun loving, immature but heart-of-gold lads. No thank you.


Characters with made-up titles using objects with made-up names without any explanation as to why the title is important or what the objects look like.

"Greegblok the Thurin of Moat took out his chaccarine and admired it, again."

Page after page of this stuff. I must have made some bad selections but it's put me off fantasy entirely.


Well, I enjoyed those books when I was 18 or so, so I guess neither of us is the target audience any more. Oh well.

In any case, they are (regrettably) true to life, at least in the department of royalty getting away with murder.

In any case, I agree about the fetishization of monarchy. I've got a guess for why an author would want to do that:

1) it's easier for a medieval noble to have a standard of living that's recognizable to the target audience (a middle-class white boy) than it is for a peasant of the era,

B) Democracy involves a lot of people, so if you want to do the magic of character development, it's easier to focus on government by the few, rather than by the many. That's an aristocracy right there, love em or hate em.

Oh yeah, and

III) It's all exotic and stuff. Perhaps a bit of our distaste comes from rather recent experiences with the Occupy movement?


Another good book to read for all those who succumb to the currency fail is David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years, an excellent survey of the history of debt, credit, and money.


Oh, and while I remember? Horses are not magical hay-burning all-terrain motorbikes, m'kay?

Poul Anderson covered that one in Thud and Blunder decades ago--and still a ton of novels get it wrong wrong wrong.


@Robert. Ha, should have checked comments to see if anyone brought it up before I did.


How about this shibboleth: the social realism author who insists on rubbing your face into the poverty, disease, inequality, misogyny, …, forgetting that the genre is called "Fantasy" for a reason.

Tolkien is racist and sexist? Sure, I can see that. I still enjoy it. So, judging from the film receipts and continuing book sales, do large chunks of the world's population including women and non-whites. (See also Neal Stephenson's observations about the multiracial audience enjoying "300" in Seattle in his non-fiction book.)

I'm glad that Monty Python and the Holy Grail exists, and own a copy. I'm also glad that there continue to be authors who cheerfully write unrealistic stories.

If the story is good enough, I'll overlook many (but not all) flaws. YMMV


Actually, my parents say they read EE Smith as wish-fulfillment when they were in engineering school. After all, everything seemed to work the first time, and the engineering was pretty nutty.

I wonder how many works out there are wish-fulfillment fantasies by historians. The Videssos cycle by Harry Turtledove might fit (IIRC he has a PhD in Byzantine history). Any others?


I'm not sure if the "Robots powered by clockwork ... nope, don't get me started." quote was directed towards Ian Tregillis's Alchemy Wars trilogy (The Mechanical & The Rising so far) -- if not, you're absolutely right and I'm not going to disagree with you.

If it is, though, I think the in-universe explanation for how the clockwork robots work does actually hold up. It's not the clockwork part that gives the robots agency and cognition, but alchemy. That alchemy also imbues their physical mechanisms with supernatural strength and resilience, such that the clockwork is really more about control. Really, excellent books, too; a Stross/Tregillis collaboration could be amazing hint hint.


+1 on the whole Medieval Army Problem. I'm working my way through the excellent Divided Houses, which covers the middle years of the Hundred Years War (1369 - 1399). Time and again in the book, you see the nobility of England, France, Castille, Portugal and so on raising an army at great expense, and telling themselves that this army would be the last one they'd need-- this would be the one to win the war.

Of course, armies need to be paid and fed-- which was often beyond the means of even a wealthy state like France. Also, pitched battles in medieval times were rare. So all too often, an army would be raised, shipped somewhere, take part in a few inconclusive sieges, then disband or desert en masse because they hadn't been paid. Then the recriminations would start. "We just paid 60,000 pounds for an army that we sent to Portugal. It invaded Leon, marched a bit in Castille, then it went home?!?" Lather, rinse and repeat for several decades of this kind of thing.

Medieval war was usually inconclusive at regime change. It was pretty good at creating desolation, famine and massive poverty, of course.


Well, to be fair, the setting of the Riftwars series was actually derived from an RPG campaign


Rabbit snack packs. Leaving aside the problem of rabbit starvation, hunting wild rabbits isn't a easy as firing a bow into a bush, seeing as rabbits really dislike being turned into a meal.


I think my biggest would be systemic repeatable magic systems - I think D&D's to blame here too - but if you can reliably repeat your magic its just odd looking science.

Re Races - I agree that they often end up being lazy conscious or unconscious racial stereotypes or even worst end up being used like that by authors who don't even realise they're doing it. However I can't help feel there might be some interesting works in there in that unlike humans breeding back to the mean fantasy races are (should be?) essentially not human - so where are the stories about long lived elves ritual infanticide to prevent overpopulation or perhaps the dwarven hops plantation economy?

Not keen on the Tough Guide - while it tackles a lot of tropes I think it misses the mark on why they became tropes in the first place - cloaks and stew both being good examples.


Very much agreed, I read A Great and Terrible King a few months back Edward I seemed to spend most of his lift raising money through any means he could think of, persuading his nobles to fight for him and very occasionally invading a holy land, Wales or Scotland - each of which left him nearly bankrupt again.


A couple of quick ones from fantasy computer gaming:

* The "missing infrastructure" of fantasy worlds (things I'm pretty sure would exist, if this were a real place, but which aren't depicted because Plot... or more accurately Budget, lack thereof). Examples include: missing villages, absent crowds, non-existent farming infrastructure, non-existent transport infrastructure (roads, seaport, railways etc). My go-to example for this sort of thing is Final Fantasy VII - it's an Urban Fantasy world, but there's only ONE big city, ONE seaport on each major continent, ONE airfield, ONE place that uses trains and roadways, ONE cable-car.

* Single-generation technology - all the cars are the same model. All the trucks look the same. All the houses are the same basic design. All the technology was created in a single batch, there's no evidence of things which came before or after. (Yet somehow, you're still able to upgrade your weapon).

* How are we feeding all these people? One of the besetting sins of fantasy computer games is that they forget to feed the NPCs. (This ties in with the "missing farming infrastructure" above, but it's enough of a "wait, hang on" moment on its own that I figure it's worth pulling out separately). Again, FFVII comes into its own with this one - I think there's approximately three places where it's made explicitly clear food is being served, and there's absolutely NO evidence in the original game of any agricultural activity being undertaken by anyone, anywhere. Crisis Core gives us a town of fruit farmers, but since they're blown off the face of the map about 2/5ths of the way in, with no apparent replacement of capacity, one has to wonder...


Evil (and Goodness) as active, cosmic forces. It can be done well, but generally isnt. It's typically a lazy way to raise the stakes in a bid for high drama (the evil Lich Sorcerer and his army of undead are out to conquer the world!). Interestingly, I think Grr Martin started out with this in mind, then got so fascinated by his complex human characters that he never got around to developing the army of undead plot.

My other Shiboleth is under-utilized settings. The "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie has whetted my appetite for the late 17th/early 18th century. I know that there are some, but not many, compared to the High Medieval or 19th century period. And what about video games? A setting that works like a computerized simulation, and the world-building implications thereof should be fertile ground for fantasy narratives: I recommend the webcomic "Erfworld" as a well-thought out example of that.


If the writer does the work to explain how you can create or sustain a magical race or line of people or whatever with challenging demographic obstacles, it's no longer a problem. How often do people get excited that they have found the last dragon or the last two unicorns, etc., and a new age of dragons/unicorns/etc. is about to begin? They don't usually say: too bad it will a relatively short New Age.

Your comment reminded me that we never hear about orc wicky-wack* in Tolkien. We know that Morgoth corrupted elves to make the first ones, but we don't know how they keep on going and evolving. Peter Jackson implied that Saruman was manufacturing Uruk-Hai, which would have been against Tolkien's metaphysics. However, he could have just been splicing genes in a tank. There are all kinds of possibilities here. I would be tempted to say that the evil powers just recycle zombie goblins in some kind of parthogenesis or asexual way, except who does this while the Big Dark Powers are in abeyance. Plus there seem to be free range, relatively autonomous goblins/orcs over a continuous time line. So somewhere there are sheila Shagrats or maybe hive queens of some sort.

*This is the generally accepted scientific term for [censored].


Playing various of the recent Final Fantasy games really brings out my inner Marxist. There seem to be dozens of monumental structures all over the place. And they aren't being used for anything except for hiding ancient relics.

I get vicariously outraged on behalf of all the peasants who must be paying the taxes for all this stuff.


FF7 only shows us places that are "relevant to plot". It has vast areas of green(ish) fairly flat land; why do we need to see Smallville or Starling City in order for them to exist? Similarly, you only build cable cars (or funicular railways) in order to get places that more conventional technologies can't reach.

Also, ok this creates a different issue, but it also appears to only have one manufacturing and power company, which explains the paucity of vehicle designs, but not the multiple maco reactors...


Making Uruk-hai grown in pods helps in two ways. It helps Saruman build a huge army in months rather than decades.

And it ducks around the more nasty implications of the Uruk-hai being man-orc crossbreeds. Yeah conceivably all of the Uruk-hai troopers were born of loving relationships across the racial boundary, but what do you think?


Ok, but a lot of them (in the games I've played from the series) are either owned and run by a "world religion" or are threatening to fall down (so not being maintained at cost).


I thought of a few other possibilities, but did not want to delve too deeply on this sub-topic. If they replenish by raiding for new elf females, one, they would have to do that a lot and the elves are diminishing already AND two, the topic would probably have more presence in the subtext (though there might be a little of that here and there.) They might replenish like wasps/parasites in a host body, but the genetic material would still have to originate from some sort of sexual or parthenogenetic process.


That helps, if that's the right word, for Uruk-Hai, but does not explain the big regular goblin hordes that exist for thousands of years. If they were already breeding with men or dwarves, the Uruk-Hai would not be new. (Under Tolkien's rules, I am not sure dwarves could breed with other folk, but that is way too far down the rabbit hole of JRRT arcana for this thread.)


The Order of the Stick came up with something along those lines (2nd last panel).

OOTS is an entertaining webcomic that is heavily inspired by AD&D.


For once I'd like to read a medieval fantasy novel/series that revolved around magic schools as a primary source of economic development...

Alas, that reminds me of an extruded fantasy product I waded through. Chapter one had a great premise: the designated protagonist was at a wizard school for teaching precognition, and she'd had a prophetic dream (the school would be attacked and the library burned). So far so good; I was looking forward to seeing how they'd work with that to minimize damage and defeat an enemy whose identity they didn't know. The plot went off the rails in chapter two, where it turned out that despite having a royally funded academy for learning prophecy there was no mechanism to communicate anything learned to anyone in authority, nor did the government have any plans for handling warnings of dangers that hadn't happened yet.

I did not actually throw the book across the room but I thought about it as I waited for the characters to get a clue.


My main issue is where the author doesn't think out the implications of their magic system. One of the biggest is the fact that a huge amount of our sexual morality falls out of the fact that for thousands of years, paternity was impossible to determine. In a huge number of fantasy worlds, paternity magic should be simple and impossible to fool.

I've thought of countless simple applications of the laws of similarity and contagion to solve real world problems that folks would have had thousands of years ago, such as creating a simple magical telegraph, navigation systems that would let sailors determine latitude, and so on.

Another big issue is simple knowledge of what causes diseases in any given fantasy world. Simple knowledge of what the vectors of disease are, by magic, can lead to minimizing disease by non-magical means (which can minimize some crapsack world issues).

Clarke's third law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Another way to look at it is that magic is indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology. That means that pretty much any fantasy world with reliable magic is by definition not a low tech world.


A pleasure... Except that I have no address for you.

Drop a comment (screened) on my LiveJournal?


Clarke's third law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Another way to look at it is that magic is indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology.

You have to suppose generality, lack of agency, and methodological naturalism to make that formulation hold.

I think all three can be dispensed with for literary purposes.

That is, magic isn't necessarily good for everything (look at D&D; seven thousand forms of excruciating death, nothing for enhancing agricultural production); magic might have its own agenda (try not to live in a world with pervasive magic that loves the tropes of tragic opera); and the idea that the world itself is consistent in its properties is not consistent with the presence of magic as it is generally understood.


Hey! You just landed on a really interesting idea!

"...everything seemed to work the first time, and the engineering was pretty nutty."

You've done engineering R&D, right? Out-there electronics with prototyped components on a breadboard? Or maybe worked with a physics postdoc with a bench of lashed-together equipment that runs and generates usable results one time in fifty?

Now cross over the road and try that in a research Magician's laboratory.

Pratchett's mentioned it in his wonderful sidetracks (and did I read a hint about a 'toxic spell dump' story a minute ago?'... But these are glimpses - not even vignettes - of an underlying truth about engineering that *has* to be true in magic: R&D is messy, it's time-consuming, it's failure after failure after failure.

As such, it's a difficult story to write - how do you keep the readers turning the pages on repeated disappointment? - but you have complete freedom of imagination to create entertaining magical 'special effects' for the blown fuses and sparks and broken gears of an R&D project, and the sheer excitement of it *almost* working, just one more time.

And the dangers are, of course, entirely unknown


For fantasy that takes economics seriously, I recommend Daniel Abraham's The Dagger and the Coin series, one of whose heroines is (as of the most recent volume) disrupting the world by inventing tradable government debt.


I did a little bit of research (it's handy having a museum like the Royal Armouries in a city you have reason to visit regularly). Swords ... swords were pretty much the late mediaeval equivalent of a kitted-out AR-15 in terms of price, ownership, and social significance of walking around the streets with one on open carry. (Early mediaeval/dark ages: add a zero to the end of the price. Or two zeroes.)

Armour and equipment got steadily "cheaper" for some value of cheaper, so that by the 17th century a suit of cheap cavalry plate could be had for about three-quarters of a year's wages for a mercenary soldier. Smart mercenary company captains would therefore lend their new recruits the money, against their armour itself (stop paying/get killed and the captain gets to peel it off your corpse and re-sell it). But it wasn't purely the domain of mounted knights any more. But 3-6 centuries earlier, an armoured knight was the equivalent of an MBT on the 20th century battlefield -- and under the Norman feudal model it was the duty of (and took the economic output of) an entire English village to support one knight and his horse.


We can stereotype UF as being about elves on motorbikes Like, err ....
"The Nightmare Stacks"
(cough )
... wilful blindness to the constraints pre-20th century western society placed on women or people of colour or the disabled.
Almost, but not quite.
The colour-prejudice was worse (in the UK at least) post WWI & maybe at its worst immediately post WWII (Think early 50's London) than it was in the Victorian era.
People like Mary Seacole, Walter Tull & Isaac Rosenberg were honoured in their day.
As usual, women were bottom-of-the-heap, especially between 1832 & 1870 ( Again in the UK, that is. )
External combustion steam engines are lousy prime movers, energetically inefficient and requiring water as well as fuel
Err ... Turbines?


I think it was the Boer War that was the first where deaths due to enemy action were greater than those to disease.
Among the combatants, of course - deaths in the "surrounding" populations make even things like Syria or Sudan look like petty squabbles - look up the death-tolls of the Thirty Years war or the great rebellions ( yes, plural) in the Central Kingdom


"World of the Four Gods" series magic & social constructs ( Including medicine) by L M Bujold?


That's an Industrialised Medieval Theocracy, actually.
The Kims are "God-Kings"


Actually, we only appreciate how nasty the C19th was, because of what Charlie said in the intro.
You think the 18th, 17th, 16th etc ... centuries were any better?
They were not.
See also The 30 Years War" previously referenced.
Or the Emir Timur
Or .....

The Big & Important difference started in "protestant" Europe ( including the 13 colonies ) from about 1750.
It was called: "The Enlightenment" - it's still working-out, & there are still reactionaries & bigots & (ESPECIALLY) religious leaders who are fighting against it.
The Revolution is still a work-in-progress.
How does it go:
"We (The Merchants of Light) make up the noblest foundation that ever was upon the Earth. For the end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and the secret nature of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.
Though that was written in about 1612 (!)


Ryan, I hate to break it to you but that sort of social immunity to consequence was one of the characteristics of monarchical systems of governance. Maybe crudely expressed in that work of fiction (princes aren't supposed to brawl with their inferiors -- the risk of assassination is too high: more realistically they'd have a posse of young nobles with them as hangers-on and unofficial bodyguards) but the very concept of equality before the law that we tend to take for granted simply wasn't a thing prior to the Reformation (indeed, it was a religious heresy: divine decree dictated your place, your merit, and who had the right of justice over you).


the social realism author who insists on rubbing your face into the

That's not a Shibboleth; that's progress for you.

(And, by the way, I'm one of those "social realism authors" you seem to dislike, and you will need to watch your step really carefully around here lest I ban your ass as a suspected Puppy sock-puppet.)


Ahem: Harry says he wrote the Videssos cycle as straight alternate history; editor said, "yes, this is very good, but I can't publish it unless you add magic so I can market it as fantasy", so he did. Because alt-hist wasn't a recognized sub-genre in its own right back then.


I haven't read Ian's newer series (just the first two of the Milkweed Triptych, which were sufficiently harrowing I didn't start on book 3).


And others, asking about a "Magic" system that has a consistent basis.
Oddly enough, Eddings thought about this - his magic-protagonists used surrounding energy for whatever it was they wanted to do - there's the implication that there will be a localised temperature-drop when (say) Belgarath performs some function or other ....
And the "Unsounded" on-line comic by Ashley Cole specifically refers to this method - magic uses energy, which has to come from SOMEWHERE, so the Mages are diverting/re-routing existing energy-sources.


Except ( In theory, but often not in practice) in England - after some people, mostly from the "merchant" classes admittedly, got hold of the ideas in Magna Carta - especially the second/third re-issues under Henry III & made sure that it applied to them too ....

However, is it different today?
IF you are sufficiently rich & sufficiently "in" with the governing "elite" you can get away with almost anything, especially if your name is Murdoch, spit, yuck.


You want to run, not walk, to your nearest online book outlet and grab "On Stranger Tides" by Tim Powers, which is explicitly set during the same era as PotC (and predates it by a decade or two). I don't think you can get them in the US at all, but you may also want to grab the UK ebook reissues of the spiral trilogy by Mike Scott Rohan: first book, "Chase The Morning". And you might want to look for the much more recent portal fantasy, "Child of a Hidden Sea" by Alyx Dellamonica, if that sort of setting interests you (albeit without the historical context).


Politics and moral philosophy become physics, and therefore beyond question. See they are evil, see how the land is blighted. See the white tree of Gondor bloom, the true king has returned. Grates once you notice it.

I feel SF does better on politics and philosophical questions. Lord knows scientific accuracy isn't SF's defining characteristic, bar a minority of writers. Just, by convention, certain topics go with certain bits of scenery.

On the other hand, maybe fantasy does better on personal stories and internal struggles?


Exactly my point.

Arguably, the Boer War was won by Florence Nightingale and her successors, and the unnamed (please correct me!) general who developed and enforced sanitary discipline for large armies in the field*.

Whuch gives us an obvious plot-bunny for a subversive story which addresses this gaping hole in mediaeval High Fantasy: a magical heroine who gives the Good And Just King victory by working miracles of mass healing and disease-banishment...

...By 'spells' and 'rituals' of hospital hygeine and field sanitation which, on a close reading, aren't actually magical at all.

* An aside: that lesson from the Boer War passed unnoticed. The Italian army hadn't mastered the discipline of field sanitation in 1914, and suffered significant casualties from dysentery in the Alpine War. The term 'sloppy' may well have been invented for them.


You can overdo that, too, of course.
Look at the eternal whinger & pathetic no-hoper "Thomas Covenant" f'rinstance (!)


I find I have to be careful about nitpicking this stuff and can accept a great deal of illogic if the storytelling works. I know the London-set urban fantasy of which Charlie speaks and it's definitely starting to get faintly ludicrous, but so far it's not pulled me out of the story and because the books don't seem to be meant as mirrors of our world in the way that, say, the Discworld is (from Equal Rites on) I don't find myself thinking about them much afterwards, so the problems are only problems when someone points them out.

Wodehouse is a touchstone here – looked at from the point of view of a 21st century liberal, almost almost all of his characters are ghastly. Wooster is a braying fool, who makes George Osbourne look positively working class, Emsworth? Mike and Psmith? Arseholes the lot of them. And, because of the writing (certainly not because of the plotting) I simply don't care.

I think the superheroes thing is an interesting case; Marvel and the like hand wave like mad about keeping a world that looks like ours, but with superheroes in it because they're writing this stuff over the very long haul. If they took the consequences of superpowers seriously, their universe would be _vastly_ different from ours by now, and it would become nigh impossible for a newcomer to pick up issue 130 of an ongoing series and have much idea of what's going on. One of the great pleasures of Alan Moore's Watchmen was working out how and why the world had diverged since the event that made Doctor Manhattan, but what's fine over twelve issues becomes hard work (for readers and authors) over a longer haul.

Back in the nineties, I was a fan of Ann McCaffrey's Pern books – I found Dragonsinger in a school library at just the right moment, don't judge – I never really noticed the problems with the world building until I started roleplaying on the PernMUSH and realised that, in particular, it was almost impossible to write songs within the setting. Even a straightforward love song was tricky because the imagery wasn't really there – no gods, no science, no military. Lots of stage flats painted to look good enough for Ann to tell her story, but no substance for players' characters to come from.

I wonder if this is the difference between reading like a writer and reading as a reader – as a writer, you can't help look at the nuts and bolts to see how the author did it, so of course you're looking for her answers to the questions you ask when you're building a world. When it becomes apparent that she didn't even ask the question, it's annoying. As a reader who's not looking to write stuff, so long as the story doesn't draw my attention to those missed questions, I don't look.


Nile: check your LJ messages. NB: "The Curse of the Toxic Spell Dump" was a rather amusing comedic fantasy novel by Harry Turtledove -- not in alt-hist mode, for once, more in "Magic, Inc" mode -- a couple of decades back. Last I heard, he was muttering about writing a sequel, which I shudder in fear of. (It might turn out good. But usually when writers of a certain age start talking about sequels to something they wrote decades earlier ...)

Huh. And suddenly I am thinking that, if consistent-magic worlds resemble high tech worlds through other means, somewhere there's a novel that needs writing about the magic-world equivalent of the Hanford Site, or maybe Pripyat ...


Oh I'm fully aware of how royalty and the upper class would get away with things. My comment probably wasn't that well worded (I'll blame it on the late hour). My gripe was that the author painted these things as nothing but lovable youthful adventures. We're meant to enjoy the fact these characters get off for murder. Things like this happen throughout the series.

While I remember another one came to mind, I very literally threw the book down in disgust: gendered magic ala wheel of time. Virtually always used to justify gender roles by making gender an objective part of the universe rather than a social construct.


About the only good idea in Rick Cook's Wizardry series was the magic system and the thought of what could be done when someone trained in computational thinking got his hands on a Turing complete system of simple spells. Much silliness in the book, but a neat idea at the heart of it.


Or, in fact, almost anything by M S Rohan, since you've mentioned him ...


In that particular set of books, the 'heroes' were player characters from Feist's campaign weren't they? The players had fun getting up to that shit, so of course the readers will too.


No Greg, do pay attention, that one's about an elven princess on a SdKfz 2, not a motorbike.

Women as bottom-of-the-heap in Britain: yes, 1832-1870 was pretty bad, but the l8th century was a lot worse. Burning at the stake for "petty treason" (until 1790, when it was replaced by hanging), the legal absorption of women's property rights by their husbands, a death rate of around 10% from puerperal infections (bloody-handed doctors not washing their hands), death penalty for abortion ... if you stripped off the label "married woman" and gave a strict description of her rights under English law, most modern readers would do a double-take and assume you were describing chattel slavery.

External combusion: sigh, yes, steam turbines are good. But they also need a big-ass heat sink (the sea) and a copious water supply: you try fitting one aboard a zeppelin!


Why go with a female heroine in a nursing role?

Hell, just go with a homeopathic-levels-of-magic system that's basically all about medicine and healing, with a healthy dose of what Terry Pratchett called "headology" and some sanitation thrown in. You then have a magic school (ahem, medical academy) churning out "battle magi" who are eagerly snapped up by kings because when you've got an army in the field you want to keep them healthy.

And of course the side with the better magi wins.

(And eventually some of those veterans retire to become yeoman farmers and remember some of the rituals the magi taught them: a couple of generations later the population explodes and we have marcher kingdoms, peasant uprisings, famine, and civil wars ...)


I specifically picked 1832-1870, because (for other readers) it wasn't until 1832 that women were specifically disenfranchised & 1870 was the first of the "Married Women's Property Acts"
Last burning at the stake was (IIRC) Scotland, not England & was 1727 ( pro Wiki, which also says the year before for England) - so, although it remained on statute, it seems not to have been enacted, or the woman was hanged/strangled first.
All pre-about-1850 criminal sentences seem to have been pretty barbaric, by our standards, though.
[ Last "Transportation" was as late as 1868 ]

"External Combustion" yes, mate but you didn't specify a MOBILE power source - of course if you are talking about Prime Movers, then yes, steam is not the way to go, unfortunately.


Four seemingly small authorial choices that really screw up my willing suspension of disbelief:

Languages and names. Too many authors completely ignore probable linguistics, and end up with nations/cultures/whatevers with vocabularies that are internally inconsistent. If your country is called Arbol'eth, then the natives will not be called Lin-Shi Wen and the town will not be called Woods Hollow. I'm not asking for a complete created language, but a few broad-brush principles for each language is a minimum. Ideally with a sketch of the historical relationships between them, past boundary changes, and the like. That sort of thing could be lightly sketched out in a couple of afternoons - not enough for serious worldbuilding, but enough to hold on to a willingly complicit reader.

Army sizes. I've just been reading a high fantasy series where armies in the tens of thousands are assembled at the drop of a hat, despite there being an evidently sparse and predominantly rural population. The author in question doesn't ignore the issue of food production and supplies (though these are not rigorously thought-through), but all other logistics are ignored.

Prices. This relates to Charlie's 'golds and silvers', though I can easily think my way around that by imagining these as names for the coins rather than actual precious metals (we do the same, talking of 'coppers' for ones and twos*; or with the old imprecation to 'cross my palm with silver', where a shilling did nicely). But often the prices don't scale, and authors pay no mind to the relative prices of different goods (never mind how those scale to things like the cost of levying, arming, and feeding and army). Again, a *rigorous* system might be hard to work out - but a minimally persuasive system not so much.

Compressed training times. So there's this school for assassins, rigorous training, long hours, etc etc. It's *still* going to take years to achieve proficiency. Your hero is not going to take out five seasoned soldiers after months of training. In truth one person, no matter how good, is going to reliably take out multiple seasoned fighters at one time *anyway*, but we accept that in genre fiction - or I do. But it's a simple matter to refer to 'years' rather than 'months' of training. Outside YA, there's no reason your protag has to be 16 rather than 25 or older when they attain serious skillz.

*Plated steel. Now actually plated with copper, but previously plated with bronze (but still referred to as 'coppers.')


The 4th film in the PotC series is based on Powers' On Stranger Tides, at least in theory. In practice, not much made it from page to celluloid.


The maps !
Most High Fantasy has a map at the beginning of the book with highly implausible Geography. Mountain chains without foothills and much in the way of passes, too few settlements etc.

It would be better to go for the sort of maps they actually had pre Mercator and his friends - "Mappa Mundi" with a key city at the centre, itineraries with march distances or maritime maps with rhumb lines.


Ryan, regarding gendered magic. I like to imagine that this is an unreliable narration thing - that social expectations etc are so strong that the gendered modes are taken as fact. Not a few writers *explicitly* use this (think Pratchett's Equal Rites). Of course, such charitable readings are not always possible...


Technically belongs on the earlier SF shiboleth thread, but ..
The Stargate SG1 TV show had an episode where the team gated into an ice cavern, couldn't dial out, and eventually hacked their way out of the cavern to gaze upon a plain of ice stretching to the horizon. "Must be an ice planet" says Carter. Luckily she was dead wrong. It was just Antarctica.


"... that sort of social immunity to consequence was one of the characteristics of monarchical systems of governance."

Well, that's a mantra of the republican left, but I believe that it should be corrected to "hierarchical", as it is also the case in comparable non-monarchical societies that have an excessive division into the rulers and peasantry, and does not always occur in socially constrained monarchies (usually small ones, I agree).


In the Mechanical, which is as far as I've got, the question of consciousness and free-will is critical. Not only are the clockwork alchemical automata horrifically trapped by the geas which compels their obedience, but the alchemical guild are starting to work through the implications of the mind-body problem. If human beings are just biological mechanisms ...


I agree about not thinking out the implications - including where I can see an obvious, simple solution using the 'technology' in the book, and the plot relies on a dementedly complex one being the only one possible.

But there is a corollary that irks me even more, which is when the author uses pseudo-scientific bullshit to cover up inconsistencies. If the inconsistencies become too great for a reader to swallow, that's time to call a halt, rather than trying to explain them away!


I felt that China Miéville managed a readable mix of magic-based technology ('steampunk' is a simplfication too far in this context) and factionalised left-wing politics in the Baz-Lag books, especially the third book ('The Iron Council'). The contrast with the political sterility of the Lord of the Rings could not be more pronounced (although for sentimental reasons I still have great affection for LOTR).


"Finally, martial arts. Really? Kata in Medieval Europe? "

Yes, except they were called "drills". Just being able to swing a sword so it cuts at the correct angle is non-trivial for newbies. Not to mention hours spent just holding a shield and doing air cuts with a sword, solo. When I did that, for the first time, even though I was an experienced martial artist in unarmed style, after half an hour I literally could not raise my left arm or grip with my right hand.
You only get to do pairform, or squad, once you master the basics through drills.
Then the drills become pairform drills - just like pairform kata.


Technically I have no fantasy shibboleths, I want a good story. Well-drawn characters., a decent plot and a somewhat reasonable world (in that order) and I'll forgive other things.

The problem with fantasy being such a broad field, and having a lot of writers within it, is that within every sub-genre (well every one I've tried) there are good and bad writers. One cracking example, although I don't remember the author's name atm, nor the character's sadly, I read them about a year ago and I've read too much since, is a steampunk series where the central character is a woman, and a noble who only dimly realises her privilege. Even when she's destitute, she's still Lady someone, although she gets back on her feet financially by the power her of mind and her inventive/engineering skills more than that, but she's helped at first because she's a person of quality and she doesn't realise that. But later in the series she has her nose metaphorically rubbed very firmly in it. Charlie would probably have given up by then (as is his right of course, it's his time) but it's not ignored, several times over.

I think lazy writing - nothing to elevate it, doing nothing unusual to make it interesting - is what makes me want to give up. It's not a particular shibboleth though. For example, I recently read, at a friend's recommendation, a book which I won't name. Heroine is a Mary Sue, school for witches, Evil witch in charge who the Mary Sue must fight - tick, tick, tick, all the way along. Stir in a bit of modern wiccan ritual and the like. It failed to elevate itself. Give it a good twist or two and it could have been interesting enough to make me buy book two, but no. The one I kept hoping for was "evil witch in charge is actually hard but misunderstood and the beloved grandmother was justly punished" but no, evil witch really was evil.


The Italian army hadn't mastered the discipline of field sanitation in 1914, and suffered significant casualties from dysentery in the Alpine War.

It's not a knowledge thing, as much as a "process" thing (as in "good field discipline").

There was a comparison over daily illness reporting between the two sides in the North African campaign of WW2. Turned out that the DAK had twice the illness rate of the Commonwealth forces; put down to poor latrine discipline, i.e. German squaddies dropping turds just outside their trench, rather than having a properly-dug and properly-used latrine in the field position. I mean, it's dark, you're a cold tired teenager, no-one else is bothering, why trek two hundred yards when you can just... Fear of the Sergeant-Major is a wonderful thing.

Fast forward several years to the Falklands campaign, and the difficulties of providing clean water for all. Water purification tablets went way up the list of "combat supplies" - turns out you can't just rely on the guys carrying their own stocks for a short campaign, you need to remember to resupply them (see also "adequate flannelette and oil for weapon cleaning" after Op ANACONDA in Afghanistan).

Fast forward again to British peacekeeping operations in Bosnia during the 90s; an interested MO noted that when they replaced the use of the eponymous aluminium "Mess Tin" as a plate for collectively-cooked food with disposable foil trays as beloved by Takeaway restaurants, the illness rate dropped by a factor of two (because of the difficulties of cleaning a scratched aluminium bowl between uses, given limited access to hot water and soap). For individually-cooked food (the least efficient and most expensive way of doing things), the "boil in the bag" ration packs meant that your mess tin became a kettle, not a cooking pot.


Finally, martial arts. Really? Kata in Medieval Europe? Good grief, you can buy whole books on western martial arts, and if that's too expensive, they're all over YouTube. They didn't do kata. Nor did they do things slowly, tai chi style.

Take it forward to the 18th century - what, exactly, do you think "Foot Drill" is, as illustrated by the Trooping of the Colour?

It's kata for musket-based warfare. The ability to control a formed body of soldiers, quickly point them in a given direction at sufficient spacing, and to arrange groups such that they can cooperate, is a battle-winner. Remember that muskets are hideously inaccurate, and have an effective range measured in tens of yards (with individual use) compared with maybe a hundred yards or so (when volley-fired en masse against a similarly massed target). The most effective way to use them on a battlefield is in groups of a hundred or more musketeers...

Hence "well-drilled troops" from C18 until WW1. Think of the Manual of Military Foot Drill as the Kata for your gun-fu...


A woman from Georgia the country recently joined our skating group, so out of interest I went to Google Earth and Wikipedia to read up on it. Wow, read the history of Tbilisi - the place has been sacked about every 100 years for 1500 years!

It's at the center of the intersection of Europe and Asia to the north and south, and the Caspian and Black Seas to the east and west. Mountains to the north and south, coastlines to the east and west. Perfect geography for interesting things to happen, and they do!


And not always in "Monarchies" either.
Revolts were usually led by parts of the aristocracy, but there were times the significant merchant classes joined in.
That was how the original (current) founding charter of The City cam about -the local "barons" & the London Merchants had John over a barrel.
Ditto at the end of his son's reign, although the revolt was led by de Montfort, the successful rebels had large numbers of better-off "peasants" & merchants either in their ranks, or supporting the revolt - hence the first Parliament, as we think of one, following the battle of Lewes 1264.
And, even after Henry II's son, Edward had killed off the rebel leaders, he found he could not govern effectively or easily without ... a Parliament.


Fantasy shibboleths - apart from not spelling it "Phantasy"?
Reading a book and at the end finding out that the author has delusions of extending it to N other books and so does not wrap up the loose ends. Phantasy seems especially prone to this.


A fantasy Pripyat?

How About Modesitt's Fairhaven, which after being obliterated is very much a no go zone, with primary trade roads falling into disrepair.


My biggest gripe by far in Fantasy is the Generic Fantasyland Map. North is cold, and south is hot, and there are desertlands over here with Desert Tribe People and umm, lets put a forest next door and a mountain range *here*.

It's bloody awful, and honestly dates all the way back to Tolkein. Since he did a map, everyone else needs to, and since most writers are northern hemisphere based, it's always Cold Up North.

I have no problems with people starting with a rough idea of "my people go from here to there and stuff happens" but when it comes to building the world, a little forethought goes a really long way - if you get the geography roughly right, then a lot of your societies will fall out from there. Here is a trading town at a river confluence. There is a silk route between two major kingdoms.

I have to call out Steven Erikson for his worldbuilding - the Malazan world of Wu is actually pretty plausible throughout - archaeology and anthropology turned out to be a pretty good background for that. I also really like that one equatorial area is Cold Up North because A Wizard Did It, and the breakup of that spell is having profound effects on the continent.


Dirk, that's seldom the author's fault: it's down to industry accounting best practices.

It's normal these days for a midlist author trying to sell a trilogy to be given a two-book contract for books one and two, and if book two doesn't outsell book one (hint: this is very rare for a series work) book three will not be commissioned.

(Yes, I have a trilogy coming out in 2017. Shockingly, I got a three book contract. On the other hand, I'm not midlist any more.)


I think the original Winter of the World trilogy is one of the finest fantasy works written - it takes itself properly seriously, events have real consequences, and even the eventual victory is tainted. It also really cleverly taps into a lot of mythology for inspiration rather than copying what had been done before. Definitely needs more respect than it got.
The Spiral series on the other hand is just damned good fun.


Given that there are half-orcs, it seems the usual equipment is in play.

One of the things I didn't like about the films is the way they made the orcs such obvious monsters, when they weren't in the books. (Another was playing the dwarves for laughs.)


Oh god, have you read Ian Irvine?
Someone really really needs to tell him how to finish a damned series before kicking off the next one. He's onto the third or fourth quartet by now, and we still don't have a proper conclusion to the first series.

Eddings certainly proved that successful series books can have a sequel, so it can't be all marketing's fault can it?


Not in the World of the Four Gods, I think?
( Cold 'oop North, that is )


Actually, we only appreciate how nasty the C19th was, because of what Charlie said in the intro.
You think the 18th, 17th, 16th etc ... centuries were any better?

No, and I didn't claim they were. I just pointed out a steampunk novel that did show the 19th century as a pretty nasty place.


I suppose a corollary of that being Evil that is pointlessly evil. True super-destructive evil is nearly always extremely attractive, both physically and from a religious/ideological POV.
Sauron should have been portrayed as beautiful, reasonable, eloquent and "just doing the best he could with what he had against the true forces of injustice in the world".
I recently watched all 4 seasons of Continuum, where the main Good Cop character travels back in time from 2077 along with the murderous terrorist scum she is hunting. As the series develops, it becomes obvious that the murderous terrorists are actually fighting against the evil system that she is supporting. At the end she changes sides.


Which reminded itself to me, btw.

It appears Camoron is re-crawling up the arse of the Murdoch Evil Empire (hereafter abbreviated to MEE - how appropriate!) when you think, that after last time, he'd know better.
Not that opposition political parties are any improvement.
The last I specifically heard on this subject, the SNP (this was while Salmond was "in charge") were also assiduously anus-diving the MEE.
Are the SNP under Sturgeon persisting in this (IMHO)_ unbelievably stupid practice?
And why do either/both of them do it anyway?
"M" isn't even a "Commonwealth citizen any more, so why don't we just declare him Persona non Grata & be done with it?


"somewhere there's a novel that needs writing about the magic-world equivalent of the Hanford Site, or maybe Pripyat ..."

The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump was about keeping that from happening.

Lands blasted by magic? There's Mordor, though that was more like Tolkein's equivalent of English industrial towns.

Pratchett has references to cursed places left over from magical wars in Sourcery.

Though something like Karl Schroeder's stories about Gennady Malianov (Dragon of Pripyat, etc...) with a magical setting would be rather smashing.


"About the only good idea in Rick Cook's Wizardry series..."

I thought the stuff in the later books about how Zumwalt's magical system upset the ecological balance between humans and naturally magical creatures was rather good.


He is in the backstory: he explicitly pulled it off well enough to fool (and doom) Númenor. Said dooming screwed it up for him; he got caught up in the gods' "when we say don't we mean it."


Tolkien originally said Morgoth twisted elves to make orcs (with the implication that they then proceeded as separate species), but then realized the theological implications were ...uncomfortable. He never actually worked out a solution.

(Theological implications: either orcs appear in the Halls of Mandos, surrounded by Those Bastard Elves, or having a Dark Lord mess around in your great-to-the-nth-generation ancestors' genes is enough to deny one heaven. And Morgoth creating orcs was also theologically inadmissible: only God can create, you know...)


One of the most impressively alien things I've read in years is Jared Diamond's _The World Until Yesterday_. Say what you like about _Guns, Germs and Steel_, I'm willing to believe an anthropologist with a focus on New Guinea when he's writing a book about the anthropology of New Guinea.

And it's a really weird place, because much of it doesn't have the concept of a friendly stranger. A whitefella gets by because he's clearly a space alien and he's brought his own supplies; but the next tribe along, speaking a language as different from yours as Turkish is from Dutch, are enemies as dangerous as an equal number of cassowaries [I'm have said 'wolves', but there are no large mammalian predators in New Guinea]


Yes - it would be interesting to see a fantasy (or any really) novel deal with Geography as complex as that part of the world :-)

The history of the Balkans and Caucasus is complex and fascinating - lots of border kingdoms and small states caught between world empires (Rome, Persia, caliphates, Byzantium, the Ottomans), plus the traders (Genoa, Venice, later Britain and France) to add to the mix. Most fantasy and SF worlds are far too simple. However trying to hold a narrative together in a "Realistic" world would be a nightmare and lose the readers attention.


_Between Flesh and Steel_ by Richard Gabriel (unfortunately a rather expensive hardback or a Kindle of the same price) looks a pretty decent history of military medicine, though doesn't seem to be all that filled with names.

Makes the point that the mud of Flanders is much nastier stuff to have in wounds than the dust of the Transvaal, meaning that for a few years the lessons of the Boer War were counter-productive in WW1.


That may well be so for the case of sequels (or occasionally trilogies) with loose ends - indeed, it is sometimes clear that a next book had been at least planned, whatever the reason for it not appearing. But there are a lot of established authors that write series that add as many new (and often unrelated) aspects to each new volume as they tie off.


Not just Numenor; it was his preferred MO up until the fallout from the Numenor episode deprived him of the ability. See also: Annatar. (Now there's a name to run away from really fast.) Or his near-repentance at the end of the First Age and apparent non-evilness for at least a little while after.

As for orcs: despite the frequent and confusing use of the pejorative "spawned", their reproduction was by the bog-standard mammalian yuck method. The circumstances surrounding its performance are obscure, which is probably all for the best, but the basic mechanism is not in doubt.

Tolkien came up with all sorts of possible origins for orcs and always found something wrong with the idea. To my mind his most promising suggestion was that they were derived from great apes. Quite why he didn't run with that I'm not sure; to me it seems to solve all the theological problems of the other alternatives, but then I do not have his level of knowledge of Catholic theology.


Yes, but if it's an ongoing series with no end in sight and it's selling okay, that's how you sustain reader interest. (At least in theory.) Didn't you notice all the unfinished threads I left at the end of book 6 of the Merchant Princes? (Hint: book 7 is probably coming out in early 2017, only two years overdue and possibly with a new title ...)


I think Sauron was like that in the Second Age. Astoundingly he could not pull off that lie a second time around, even over a gap of several thousand years. Meanwhile back in our world, you can recycle these tricks every decade or two.

Continuum was damn awesome. It had a plan for six or seven seasons, but they were told to finish it in a half sized fourth season. But how many shows have their heroic, hot heroine turn out to be a fascist; then show her slowly figure out the truth and then gradually change over a realistic period of adjustment.


Yes I did, and I've been awaiting book 7 (or is it 4?) ever since I finished book 6 (bought on import).


It's not the convention of depicting a part of the northern hemisphere in maps that I find annoying; it's that the geography depicted is so childish. It is like the sort of thing I used to do playing with trains when I was little: there is a mine, over here; why is it over here? so that we can have an interesting curly track to get to it. Back to front. And it leaves you wondering what the heck kind of geological history the world must have had to end up with mountains, rivers etc arranged the way they are. Even worse when the existence of metallic ores, coal, fossils of marine life found on dry land, and so on, implies that the normal processes have been operating, but the geography does not.


Isn't there a downside to that when new readers look at a bookshelf stacked with Volumes 1 to N and just decide to give it all a miss? Most especially when Vol 1 is missing.
That's been my response to the typical phantasy blockbuster series over the decades I have encountered in bookshops.
"Now the latest instalment of the Third Book of the 9th Chronicle of the 7th Series of the best selling Opus Magnum of...!"


A sad indictment that you are actually one of the people who bothers to look at the map!
Even sadder of you read the Ancient Song Lryics...


Maybe that's another shibboleth: clear memories of things that happened hundreds or thousands of years before, with a perfect understanding of their significance. (I know that Sauron was disfigured or rendered unable to perform a glamour or some such thing after the Numenorian unpleasantness. After a few thousands years, he should have been able to think of a work around.)


Nope. That's because I bought one, found it unsatisfying, looked at the blurbs of later ones, and decided that it was going to be That Sort of a Series. So I gave it away and haven't bought another. Some people like that sort of thing, but quite a few of us really don't.


Am I the only one that finds Graydon Saunders Commonweal books address a lot of these shibboleths about magic and it's impact on society and the world head on?

And so far, Max Gladstone's series don't do a bad job of hitting the economics of magic so far.


That's why most series sales decline over time, hence the ruthless axe-wielding accountancy practices.

Hint: the ones where you get to the third book of the ninth chronicle are the successful ones that pick up reader from book to book, like a commercial avalanche.


Oh yes, one more thing - thanks to Charlie for turning me on to Michael Scott Rohan. I'll have to check out his stuff. The Hammer and the Cross looks interesting.


It's probably not what you thought, based on the early mis-marketing. (Hint: the new trilogy is positioned as near-future SF for a reason ...)


" try fitting one aboard a zeppelin!"

Like Giffard did? :)

His was a bit shit, to be sure, but it worked, and that was the 1850s. They got better later on. There was a period when a steam engined car was potentially a better bet than an internal combustion engined one (although not without problems; see Kipling for entertaining tales thereof); a steam car achieved 120mph to take the land speed record. There have even been steam-powered aeroplanes, which flew; the main reason IIRC for their development was quietness, which makes some sort of sense given that the standard method of the time for detecting the approach of hostile aircraft was to listen for and DF the engine noise. Modern-day steam enthusiasts have attached steam engines to bicycles and achieved a usable result.


I am a sucker for maps. It is impossible for me to not look at one if it is presented, if only to compare it unfavourably with the Ordnance Survey.

(And yes, I do appreciate the work of Karen Wynne Fonstad :))


No, I didn't say anything about group formation drill, nor did I say anything about two-person exercises, because I've done quite a few of those.

What I'm targeting are the single-person, extended exercises, either with a weapon or bare-handed. While they were sometimes used for training, more often they were used for public performance, and occasionally (as with the big kwandaos in China) as tests for admittance to the officer corps, equivalent to the literary exam for bureaucrats.


As with many Extruded Fantasy Product problems with roots in Tolkien, the original has at least a justification the followers often lack - in this case that it's a lot easier to have good records of a time thousands of years ago when you can ask people who were there. (Galadriel being the most extreme example: she has personal memories of the Two Trees, making her older than the Sun.)


Quibbling on "peasants always acting stupid": Poor nutrition typical of the approaching-monoculture of stereotypical "medieval" agriculture can certainly contribute to that, especially if there's a significant "game belongs to the Lord" antipoaching element that further restricts availability of B vitamins and/or kwashiorkor...

...and the less said about the distinction between "stupid" and "uneducated," the better.

Both of which are explanations (and possible points of departure) and not excuses.


Drill isn't a kata or a set. I don't know of any western martial art that has 69 separate moves, as does the popular tai chi set I practice.

And yes, I agree, it took me a long time to learn how to chop correctly, and I still practice that regularly (this is as true for an axe or machete as it is for a sword). If you watch videos of most sets, you'll notice that most of the people holding the weapons don't know how to cut with them, either. They're simply flailing the air with great zeal.


I honestly get this; I don't just do IRL topographical, physical, land use and political maps, but geological ones too!


A fantasy Pripyat?

Although nominally SF, the Zones in the Strugatsky brothers' "Roadside Picnic" are essentially that. The valuable and dangerous alien technology in them is incomprehensible in terms of human science and is, indeed, indistinguishable from magic.


What, like this image from the rather interesting Swiss Pikemen page?


I agree with you, which is probably why I enjoy reading SF more. Though in terms of gaming, a fantasy setting is a ton of fun.

I never really though of Steampunk as pure fantasy, but you have a good point. Things like Baxter's Anti-Ice aside, it only really works if it is a world where some degree of magic works, or some sort of alternate universe where the laws of physics are different in all the right ways. One of the better approaches I found was in the game "Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura" -- basically a High Fantasy world that hit the industrial revolution and evolved into a Steampunk world. It does interesting things with the traditional HF setting moved to a psuedo 19th century. While some parts of the world are isolated and try to keep their HF traditions, others become industrialized melting ports. The have orcs as oppressed laborers in factories, elves as immortal aristocrats and industrialists, and humans doing everything in between. (Dwarves are a separate industrialized nation, it was their tech that sparked everything).

Which brings me to High Fantasy. My biggest beef with that isn't that it doesn't accurately portray actual medieval living conditions, but that it rarely really takes the affect of magic into account. Unless it is a world where magic is rare and behind the scenes, the world should be radically altered. In many ways a HF world with common magic should be closer to the 20th century. Few authors seem to explore this though. But healing potions and spells are often more effective than modern medicine, magical transportation and communication is at least as good as early 20th century, magical weapons and combat spells are as effective as firearms and artillery....


Curses, forgot to add the embedded link to the Swiss Pikemen (

Moderator please help?


I would totally write a novel about Cirdan, if it could be published and if I could write a decent novel.

The shibboleths are part of what makes Extruded Fantasy Product what they are.

Barbara Hambly, whose work is not EFP, sometimes shows societies that have forgotten something that might have been useful to remember, like what exactly caused the equivalent of a Bronze Age Collapse in their world.


Unitary Legal and hereditary systems. Especially important in feudalish systems.

Whose the true king? Or better yet who gets what part of the farm?

Depends highly on location and time. Are you under Danelaw with Gavelkind? Everyone gets an equal share. Later English law (under Anglo-Norman tradition) goes to primogeniture, where the eldest gets the entire pie. But Nottingham, Mongolia, and some German Duchies practiced Ultimogeniture, where the youngest got the cake.

Seniority is currently used in Saudi Arabia, where the members of the eldest generation are inheriting. It will be an issue in a bit when that generation is dead and a much larger generation has to share. Anjou also followed this such that it became a big issue after Richard the Lionheart died and it was unclear if King John or his nephew had the right to the lands in England.

The Irish and Poles both had forms of elective monarchy, with rules about who was eligible to vote for their overlord or who was the heir.

Not to mention the role of women, could they inherit at all? Were they after their brothers, but before their uncles? Were they equal?

And because nobles would marry out for reasons of state, there could be vast differences of opinion between relatives.

Not to mention the actual style of government was usually a hodgepodge that grew up over the years. Differing places may have different rights. One village may have a right to a toll, another might have the right to graze on royal lands. Maybe one village was directly under a king, while an important duke owned the adjacent lands. This stuff got messy fast, and could mean a massive head ache to collect revenues.

Not to mention things like free cities, bishopics, and merchant republics...


Now that I think about it: on a purely physical level, elves and goblins might still be the same. Or elf goblins and men might have done the Beren/Luthien thing thousands of times, hence the variations that Saruman works with. The elvish elves still have their Grace and that's a big deal for Tolkien. It might be enough to explain the rather big differences between the two. On the other hand it makes the lack of a path to redemption for "evil" people even less palatable.

New shibboleth: magical things of great subtlety and complexity that basically become the equivalent of mass produced tools for plot purposes. One of the things that really dragged Supernatural down after the first five years: endless Angel battles where they basically wield their Grace from God like flick knives.


sometimes shows societies that have forgotten something that might have been useful to remember, like what exactly caused the equivalent of a Bronze Age Collapse in their world.

AFAIK we don't really know what caused that systems collapse in our world, though there are several ideas about it. Sea Peoples, climate change, population displacement, etc. See 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline


re. economics and misunderstanding of how people survive and how one part of the world is connected to other parts, I always remember the Fencer trilogy by K J Parker. My abiding memory from it is a city that shouldn't have survived, being mile and miles from anywhere else, and an empire that I had no memory of ever hearing about in the first book, that by the 3rd turned out to be quite important. His world builing was a bit shonky, even if he'd geeked out over the sword making tech.


That's quite a good rant, although...

Actually, there were quite a lot of medieval swords about. They don't rust up and disappear after 3 years. They sat about for decades; I've read of htem being sold off by the barrelload, and they are often valued in wills in England in the late mediveal period for a shilling or two. Or 3, can't recall exactly. But anyway, the point is that lots of men had swords, and bills and stuff, because cheaply made or 3rd hand they only cost a day or three's wages.

Of course, that was as a craftsman in town. You're right, peasants were using polearms for centuries. But, a few hundred spear armed peasants were no match for a tenth their number of trained, armed and armorued knights. (See also England after 1066).

So actually you've led me to another important shibboleth, which the good writers manage to avoid. That there were always lots of people around who really knew how to use weapons and could do so successfully. As if every adult male was in a militia which knew what it was doing.

(Actually in many places they were, but the paucity of evidence doe't help us say whether they were actually any good. E.g. during the wars of hte roses, York won Blore Heath due in part to having the Calais Garrison, who were sort of professional and could follow orders, whereas the much larger Lancastrian army with lots of levies and militia didn't, and so were outmanouvred)

Of course some writers then also underestimate the rate of violence and possibilities therefore.

Double swords are definitely wrong, do they come up much in fantasy these days?


Quibbling on "peasants always acting stupid": Poor nutrition...

Consider also the advantages of fluid intake that isn't laden with bacteria; namely, a solution of alcohol, and its ability to prevent infection (i.e. beers, grogs).

You can be semi-permanently under some affluence of incahol, or you can risk all of the delights of contaminated water...


I might have another go, because I accept that I was mistaken, but I think that you can understand why I was not happy with The Family Trade on its own. However, I stand by my objections to what might be called interminabologies.

That there were always lots of people around who really knew how to use weapons and could do so successfully. As if every adult male was in a militia which knew what it was doing.)
I think it was Mike Duncan's 'Revolutions' podcast made the point that when it came to push of pike the officer class tended to be on horses quite a way away, and so when both sides' infantry were unmotivated levies it's quite possible the 'manly struggle of arms' contained more amateur theatre than your average general may expect. Any takers for fantasy conscript armies just not trying and/or deserting at any provocation?

M S Rohan
Also one on a n other peripheral ancestral relation of his, Micheal Scott ...
"The Lord of Middle Air"


As other posters commented, much can be forgiven if the story/characters are interesting.

Different races eat the same foods, respond to the same drugs, share similar sexuality, have the same values re: power/wealth/privilege/education, use the same animals, etc.

All the good/strong stuff was lost long, long ago … and no one in the millennia since has been able to reformulate this despite (fill in the blank)

No change in language despite mass illiteracy – ancient texts mostly written on papyrus, cloth or paper are not only still around but they're also completely understandable!

Social infrastructure – health, education – who provides and how/why (liege, church, guilds, communes, clans, immediate family?) Who gets taught what?

Cooking/eating, music/dance, arts, clothing - functional and by social status for everyday and special occasion.

Food stewing in the pot all day, everyday … no shortage of wood/charcoal for cooking/heating?

Prayer/chants – prerequisite for wizards, sorcerers, witches is to sing on-key (Card did a series on this)

Magic drawings - prerequisite for wizards, sorcerers, witches is to be able to draw (therefore see, hold instrument, etc.)

Magic body parts - limited to genitals, blood, eyes and hair – why?

Magic association – unless you never move from your house, your skin cells/hair/saliva/sweat will be easily found everywhere you’ve been. So location spells based on this work how? Recency? Twins should play havoc with this system as would highly inbred sibs. (Nail and toenail clippings are related to skin cells, okay ... but why are they so popular as the go-to find-me ingredient in fantasy?)

Magic association (part 2) – Pre-indoor plumbing, you’d just need to go into the outhouse to get cell samples from your victim. (Body sheds cells from intestinal wall pretty regularly.) But these cells would be contaminated with other peoples’ cells of course. So, really, please explain why anyone would use this type of undefendable magic system?

Primogenitor – if you’re having kids every year, why automatically select the eldest (male) that survives?

Sieges – water, hygiene, food, heat, animals, bedding, fleas, lice, diseases, fights, romances/pregnancies, sleepless nights, nappies, people dying, corpses that have to be buried - where?, etc.

What happens to prisoners during a prolonged, costly war or siege? – Immediate, mass executions would seem likely.

What happens to the social structure when all the able-bodied armed men go off to fight a war, and then return a few years later? After WW1, things changed for women – what about earlier times?

How do magicians ‘see’ into the distances or the future? What space-time are they in, and how they get around that?

Mass migrations vs. villages & settlements – what happens when you have to pack up and leave, and no one wants to let you in (historical diasporas and contemporary Syrian refugee issues)

Telescopes & microscopes – any fantasy that has a working telescope should also have a working microscope. [You mean you never looked at an object from all sides? Never turned it around or upside down? You mean none of the magicians/sorcerers have the curiosity, imagination or manual dexterity of a two-year old? - Really?! OMG!]

Gods – if gods were really playing games with men, why not just take over their brains/bodies directly? Much easier or is this their built-in excuse in case they lose?


Am I the only one that finds Graydon Saunders Commonweal books address a lot of these shibboleths about magic and it's impact on society and the world head on?

I really hope not! :)

There's -- or at least, I think this is a useful way to think about it -- a continuum for "how long has the mechanism of magic been around?"

"It just showed up" gives you a mess; suddenly there are people who can do magic, but no working social institutions about it. If it's powerful magic, you get a BIG mess.

"It's always been there" gives you something really, really alien; it should be all through natural selection, there should be trees you never ever even think about picking fruit from if you're the wrong species of mutalist, etc. People whose whole job is negotiating with the Empire of the Ants. (Eusocial insects with a magic-works universe and a hundred million year head start? I think it takes some hand waving to explain large terrestrial vertebrates at that point...)

Tolkien is a subset of this one, where magic was always there but it's being taken away over time so the main stories happen when there's almost none left.

What I was trying for in the Commonweal was a case where magic showed up some considerable time in the past (by human history scales but not by evolutionary time scales) and the mess happened and then just kept ramifying as a mess; nobody managed general social institutions that maintained social stability once magic showed up. And it's meant to be an open question whether or not the Commonweal, in the grip of its first existential crisis, has managed that stability or not.


Or have a hangover...

Although medieval people did drink water, just not every day, and they did appreciate the importance of clean water. The richer sort even had handwashing before eating. Shame they didn't know about the need for proper soap.

I remembered another - I looked at a book in a charity shop, I think some short stories/ novelletes by one author. The first one opened with some mercenary and a woman in her late 30's manouvring some prostitutes body around. It was set in France in maybe 14th century, and the woman had run away to go with the army, after bringing up her child or something like that.
The author was quite famous, but I stopped reading, because although the actual scene was okay in a way, the dialogue and motivation given of the characters was so damned modern it was impossible for me to believe this was actually medieval France. The ideas and mindset behind what they said was just not medieval.

So that's another one or maybe it's been covered before, authors who write pseudo-medieval or even real attempted historical stuff, but don't grok the differences in mindset so somehow think a modern mindset works fine in a fantasy setting.


Some of your examples are weak. Yes, some authors use them improperly, but they have a solid basis.

"No change in language despite mass illiteracy – ancient texts mostly written on papyrus, cloth or paper are not only still around but they're also completely understandable!"

Latin remained like that for over 1,500 years. The spoken language changed, but the written one did not.

"Food stewing in the pot all day, everyday … no shortage of wood/charcoal for cooking/heating?"

Given a reasonably low population density, that's easy in much of the world (including the boreal regions).

"Primogenitor – if you’re having kids every year, why automatically select the eldest (male) that survives?"

Most likely to be a child of the official father. Seriously.


Primogenitor: (Relatively) poor Senatorial families would adopt out the eldest son because he had the most sale value and this could be used to subsidize the other children. Scottish families often kept the eldest son from marrying; so his work could subsidize the other children. The first hundred or so years of the Norman English monarchy worked out as survival of the fittest and/or greediest in practice. Celtic tanistry.

Primogeniture, like patrilineal succession and legitimacy, eventually succeeded in practice for a particular set of historical circumstances and then ossified into tradition and later legal convention. It's an open question whether it had to do so. (Or was more likely to become hegemonic than other systems were.)


It might depend somewhat on the exact type of monarchy, the time (there are more than 700 years between Charlemagne and Henry VIII, a little bit less than double the time between now and the end of the Thirty Years War), the place (I guess English monarchs were somewhat more powerful than Polish ones) and the local power structure (clergy, aristocrats and kings had somewhat different ideas about quite a few things, e.g. tournaments or duels).
Let's just say that I seriously doubt Medieval and Early Modern states had much of a change of appearing less corrupt tham Myanmar today.

I'm also not that sure Reformation was that much of a game changer. First of, before that at least in theory kings end even emperors were still subject to the decisions of the pope (we might remember the fracas of a certain Henry VIII here). Not that this is necessarily better, it just substitutes one above the law for another, but in practice popes were not that invulnerable.
Second of, it but an end to ">certain schools of scholasticism.

I guess

gives quite a nice overview.

OH, BTW, two or three more shibboleths, a totally evil OR totally evil RCC substitute with no inner divisions.

No frictions between base and superstructure, e.g. the fun that gives us Islamic banking.

And no unintended consequences, give women inheritance rights in a collectivistic society, and cousin marriage takes hold. Make divorce easy but don't change morality, and women have not just their husbands to fear but also their own family. Heighten the economical output of women, and polygyny takes hold.


Hey, I like that magic impacts how people live day to day, the government and other institutions. How one trick by an independent set up a glassworks in the creeks.


Okay ... maybe ... Sounds like you're assuming that these fantasies will also have groups akin to monks devoted to perfect recopying of ancient texts?

Pot - nothing ever gets burned, thatch never catches fire while the wife is milking the cow/goat? (Heard from reliable source that you never left a fire unattended on a farm, including in the kitchen. Source is very old, old-world relative. But my main beef is still the fuel ... much too wasteful.)

Re: Primogenitor ...

Very interesting explanations - thanks! Hopefully the fantasy authors will pick up on this.

More stuff ...

Also .. haven't read any author mentioning burying foods to store/preserve, yet this is common practice in many northern cultures.

Intellectual property (IP) rights in fantasy-land ... this could be a hoot! Imagine putting DRM on spells .. wizards would need agents, plus the need for ancillary spells to track usage, etc. If spells are put into wide circulation then you'd need to address liability, e.g. money-back guarantees, warranties, insurance, etc.


While we are talking about science fiction and fantasy, I have a request for reading material regarding story worlds. I like the Hero's Journey framework which usually ends up with the hero and villain facing off at a specific location despite the fact that the villain's plan has story-worldwide effects.

Luke must meet Vader at the exhaust port no bigger than a womprat or the entire moon with the rebels will be destroyed.

Frodo must meet Gollum at Mount Doom or the entire story world will be subjugated by evil itself.

Neo must meet Agent Smith at that green phone or humanity will remain forever enslaved.

They poked fun at this in the movie 'Kingsman, The Secret Service' by requiring Jackson's character to hold his hand on the control panel to keep the worldwide evil plan in affect. "Next time can we just have an on-off switch?" I think they were poking fun at the Bond movies that did the whole thing with a wink and asked the audience to just go along with it for the ride.

Can any of you fine folks point me at some reading, preferably science fiction, where this sort of setup was particularly well done? I know this can be a shibboleth by itself except when done well.


Re: 'No frictions between base and superstructure, e.g. the fun that gives us Islamic banking.'

Just read the Sharia Law banking on Wikipedia, i.e., no interest allowed. Where is the growth coming from if no interest and they allow for the same range of instruments as other types of financial institutions ... subscription fee base only? Odd. Hard to believe.

'According to Ernst & Young, although Islamic Banking still makes up only a fraction of the banking assets of Muslims,[7] it has been growing faster than banking assets as a whole, growing at an annual rate of 17.6% between 2009 and 2013, and is projected to grow by an average of 19.7% a year to 2018.'


I read this:

" Scottish families often kept the eldest son from marrying; so his work could subsidize the other children."

And immediately wondered where you got that idea from. Typing as a Scot with an interest in Scottish history, the nearest I've ever seen to it is from the 19th century, where an oldest son might get a good job and then put off marriage a few years to spend the money on getting their siblings an education.
In medieval and afterwards, Scotland they really wanted the eldest son married so as to continue the line, forge ueful political and economic alliances etc.


What growth? The growth of deposits and customers can be explained by more people using them. Other than that, what growth are you after? There isn't any precent against simple investment is there? That could provide a return with no interest every appearing in the equation.


Latin remained like that for over 1,500 years. The spoken language changed, but the written one did not.

Are you sure about this? I was pretty much under the impression that even written Latin changed a lot, which is why medieval Latin requires different study courses than Classical Latin. Yes, the medievals understood classical Latin - but facilitated by the routine study of old texts (hence ecclesiastical Latin). I think SFReader has a valid point with this one.


Is it evil to suggest Charlie's Jennifer Morgue in this context?


Pot - nothing ever gets burned, thatch never catches fire while the wife is milking the cow/goat? (Heard from reliable source that you never left a fire unattended on a farm, including in the kitchen. Source is very old, old-world relative. But my main beef is still the fuel ... much too wasteful.)
I have one word for all this - Aga!!


You may not charge interest on a sum lent, but you may charge rent on, say, a house that you own and someone else lives in.


I had a similar clash of mental gears, and for much the same reasons.


Probably; I'd expect most of us to know what Charlie was doing there.

Because Malthus was more or less right

You mean his use of his crapsack world as a proof of God? SCNR.

Actually, there are some who think he got part of it backwards, e.g. the poverty is not the product of too many children, but too many children are a product of poverty. It seems the situation is somewhat complicated:

Another thing is for populations to grow geometrically, fecundity would have to be somewhat constant, where AFAIK indications are somewhat mixed:

It might be interesting to compare birth rates after the Black Death, when the situation for peasants was somewhat better, with those before, for example.


From Wikipedia: "The written Latin of today, as used for Church purposes, does not differ radically from classical Latin. Study of the language of Cicero and Virgil suffices adequately for understanding Church Latin."

There's more I could add, but that's the summary.


Well, if you've got a property, there are a couple of ways of dealing with the inheritance.

One is primogeniture (occasionally ultimogeniture too*): someone gets it all, and every other heir is out of luck. You kind of need this for kingdoms, which is why there's so often a civil war after a monarch dies.

The other is equal inheritance, where you divvy up the property and divide it equally (or unequally, according to a will), among the heirs.

With something like a farm, there are two reasons why this can work. One is that it keeps the farm big. In places where the farm is split up among the heirs, pretty soon the plots are all postage sized, and some end up selling to others and leaving, simply because they can't make a go of the land. This is a good way to keep peasants poor, if equal.

The other reason is that, by selecting the heir early, you can train that person into running the inheritance. Now there's no reason you can't train every child into that inheritance (say, by learning to farm all those little plots and learning how to buy out other small farmers), but it works equally well to let the other children know early that they're going to have to find something else to do with their lives.

There are arguments for both systems, which is why both have been used around the world in different contexts. The Mongols even tried splitting their empire evenly among the Khan's sons, not that their empire lasted very long.

Ultimogeniture's a weird one. The only place I really remember seeing it was in an ethnographic account from I think Kiribati. The youngest child (or a young child) would often be sent off to be fostered by a grandparent. As the child got older, they would care for the grandparent, then inherit the elder's stuff (and knowledge) when they died. That's kind of a cool system, actually. The children make their own way, but their children inherit from the grandparents.


"Okay ... maybe ... Sounds like you're assuming that these fantasies will also have groups akin to monks devoted to perfect recopying of ancient texts?"

Natch. One option is that the College of Wizardry would use acolytes or failed wizards for that.

"Pot - nothing ever gets burned, ... But my main beef is still the fuel ... much too wasteful.)"

Your first point is good - yes, fires were a BIG problem, and one of the things that elderly and decrepit people did was watch them. But you get about 4 tons of dry weight of wood per acre per year in the boreal regions. It's not a problem where you have a low population density, and people do it today.


Okay, then I won't suggest it. Or any story with Captain Carrot in it.


Eddings thought about this - his magic-protagonists used surrounding energy for whatever it was they wanted to do - there's the implication that there will be a localised temperature-drop when (say) Belgarath performs some function or other ....

So, does magic become more popular during the summer? I can imagine people hanging around wizards asking them to do tricks during heat waves... Doubtless it would be too convenient if the effect could be localized for refrigeration.


Shibboleth - Ye Olde English phantasy-speak - English words plus German Grammar. [Does anyone do that any more?]
And occasionally jarring anachronisms - like "firing" bows, pre-gunpowder.
Or a more general case of just getting words wrong in near-ish historical settings. For example, I took advice from some here and read Ian Tregillis "Bitter Seeds". Set in an English pub in the 1940s IIRC, the main character pulls out his "billfold". I had to stop there and work out what it was. A wallet.


I expect there is a lot of magic done around bonfires.


Ultimogeniture's a weird one. The only place I really remember seeing it was in an ethnographic account from I think Kiribati
I've heard of it being used in parts of Wales, the idea being similar. The oldest son didn't want to be hanging around the family farm for years waiting to inherit so would go off and find land to work elsewhere. The last son may be 20 or more years younger than his oldest brother so would be ready to inherit around the time his parents were no longer capable of working their land.
Wales also used the equal inheritance mthod though, which is why history is full of princes uniting the country, then two or three generations later cousins would be trying to consolidate the fragments again.


Chaps I know who've driven steam cars reckon they're amazing. Completely insane torque curve if you're used to IC engines. Similar to the Tesla apparently. But with a steam car you are, apparently, always aware that it wants to blow up at you.


"Firing bows" is fine, as long as what you're doing is disarming a captured elvish army! ;-)

I've been exposed to "billfold" for "wallet" in British-written novels containing USian characters since I was 8 (so say 1970) and the oldest copyright date I'd swear to for one is 1956. Accordingly I'd suggest that this one is best treated as narrative voice or character dependent.


I took advice from some here and read Ian Tregillis "Bitter Seeds". Set in an English pub in the 1940s IIRC, the main character pulls out his "billfold"
Took me a while to work out why a character was ramming postboxes with his car and looking at envelopes to find out where he was. US mailboxes tend to be much flimsier than the concrete and cast iron edifices used by Royal Mail so the car would survive more than one or two such impacts, and the USPS insists on return addresses being on the outside of envelopes...


Err, that might be Eclessiastical Latin, not Medieval Latin. I'm not sure how much those overlap.

This is Wilhelm of Ockham's "sum of logic", written in the 14th century:

It has been some time since I did Latin, but it's not different from Caesar's Latin in "De Bello Gallico", written in the 1st century BC:

Actually, the difference might be about the same as my English vs a native speaker.

OTOH, going back 13 centuries does this to English:


"Heard from reliable source that you never left a fire unattended on a farm, including in the kitchen."

Reminded me of one that often isn't really important to the story but the fundamentaly modern idea that farms and farming communities were relatively unpopulated (and also the very modern nuclear family dwellings) - there should usually be an aged relative or older child about to watch the fire (and incidentally you probably want to keep it at least smoldering if you have the fuel lighting them is a pain without matches even when you know what you're doing). Anyway if you've got a real medieval economy upward of 90% of the population is farming and the economy as a whole averages only slightly better than subsistence, better in good years, starving in the fields and trying to subsist in bark and grass in bad.


I don't mind anachronisms in the language (someone "telegraphing" their intentions was an example I saw annoy someone a while back) in part because as the language has evolved we've lost vocabulary as well, taken to its logical conclusion using only 'contemporaneous' language some fantasy should only be written in old and middle English (actually one novel in the style of Chaucer might be fun - don't think it would work for fifteen volumes of "How the Farmboy Saved the World and Married Three Princesses at Once"). That said I agree with you in anachronisms where the superior synonym is still in common use tend to be annoying.


"Err, that might be Eclessiastical Latin, not Medieval Latin. I'm not sure how much those overlap."

A great deal. It's more variations in pronounciation and the vocabulary - the priesthood was not greatly into hands-on warfare, and Caesar wasn't exactly Christian. In the UK until the 19th century, the universities were religious establishments - and, until the 1970s, demanded classical Latin as an entrance requirment. I was taught using Caesar's writings in the 1960s. The reference I quoted was from:


Most of the day the fire is being used anyway. Farmers eat a lot: they need the energy. A big family all farming takes a lot of cooking meals, baking bread and so on. At night, you bank it up, so it's ready to go in the morning without a lot of faffing about.


As mentioned, there are ways around this, e.g. buying a house and leasing it. Funny if said house is build by the leaser, but I digress.

Medieval Christians were faced with similar problems:

And contrary what some might think about dogmatic Medieval times, they found ways around it.

For those laughing about silly superstitions, may I invite you to a drink with some lawyers I happen to know? One of whom is employed by some millers and has nice stories to tell about his colleagues with confectionaries?

Which brings me two other shibboleths, more apt for history fic:

The Dung Ages vs. YeGoodeOldeDay.


"Hands up, everyone reading this who likes HF and who hasn't had some (even minimal or second-hand) exposure to Dungeons and Dragons?"

>Raises hand.

Well, I suppose "minimal second-hand" - I'm aware of D&D and have some sense of the tropes, because I've read things where people take it as given. (And given Steve Eriksen's comments about how parts of the Malazan series were based on his gaming experiences, I had this massive headslap moment, followed by laughter, when I realized how much of the world's internal magical logic seemed to be replicating the experience of a role playing game.)

But I guess one of my critical shibboleths (rather than fantasy shibboleths), as a result, being a person who's read Tolkien (including secondary materials) quite intensely and D&D never, is when people ascribe to Tolkien tropes that have nothing to do with him, but seem to have more to do with Eddings/Brooks/Gygax/whomever.


I am gratified to read this thread and see that I've avoided most of these in my own scribblings. The ones I didn't avoid, I ran into head first with shrieking delight. If you put enough deliberate and obvious anachronisms in a story and keep your tongue in your cheek, readers will let you get away with anything.


"The legend was true!" has got to be my chart topping shibboleth for this kind of thing.

A legend which is thousands of years old, conveyed to our heroes usually through an oral tradition, and which turns out to be as accurate as a precisely drafted technical manual. Need to know how to foil the evil guy's evil plot of malice? Refer to the legend, it contains step by step instructions. No cultural drift, no local adaptations, no misunderstandings from bad translations, no allegorical, it says very clearly in the third stanza that the blonde farm boy from a humble background needs to thrice strike his magic sword against the--


One of the things I really loved about the Black Company books was that Croaker had a pretty good idea about the Company's history because he was the Company historian. It was his job to know, and he had meticulous written records to assist him in this task. But his knowledge of the Company's past wasn't perfect because there were whole sections of the records which had gotten lost or burned over centuries of incessant warfare of greater or lesser intensities, and as it turns out what he didn't know could very certainly hurt him...


Err, two mishaps:

Second of, it but an end to certain schools of scholasticism.

should lead to the School of Salamanca which declared Native Americans had quite some rights. And later on played a role in establishing the Atlantic slave trade.


a totally evil OR totally evil RCC substitute with no inner divisions.

is of course "a totally evil OR totally good RCC", since, as usual, reality is somewhat more nuanced.


I haven't had time to read the whole thread yet, and I'm sure this has been mentioned before, but my one major peeve with fantasy literature is the dark lord who doesn't have any desire or motivation except to be all dark 'n evil 'n stuff. Because dark. And evil. Mwahahaha. If you could convince one of these guys that picking up litter was the sort of thing evil people do, he'd have his orc army out there with pokey sticks and trash bags every morning at dawn.


I'm a huge historical european martial arts geek and love swords in a way that is probably slightly creepy. I've been waving swords about for years and I even teach a small HEMA class. I've read quite a few ancient European how-to-fight manuscripts, some in translation, some I've even helped to translate. Because of that I tend to glaze over during fight scenes involving swords or other hand weapons. Whether fantasy or historical fiction, that stuff is invariably just so dreadfully wrong it hurts to read or watch.

Heteromeles said a few things I'd like to contest/clear up.
Anyway, how many peasants make around $1/day? A sword's a year's wages for them. You want to arm your army entirely with swords? I'll arm mine with spears and knives (half the cost or less) and we can see how it all works out.

See this myarmoury discussion on historical European sword prices. Prices were more expensive at the start of the mediaeval period, to something 'reasonable' by the end of it. Recorded English prices for swords have ranged from as little as 1 penny in a C15th will up to £2000 for some of Henry V's swords. By the C15th, you could get a sword to fit most budgets, with quality proportionate to cost.

Oh, and double swords? No thank you, I want a shield instead of the second weapon. It's easier for dealing with people throwing rocks and such. Yes, they're fun to play with, and they're great for showing off in the marketplace, but not quite the thing for a battlefield, unless the other side isn't into the whole missiles thing.

Definitely a thing from at least the early renaissance, several manuscripts describe how to use two swords. I've done a little bit a while ago, great fun in a street fight. Can't remember which source off-hand, I think Alfieri.

Finally, martial arts. Really? Kata in Medieval Europe? Good grief, you can buy whole books on western martial arts, and if that's too expensive, they're all over YouTube. They didn't do kata. Nor did they do things slowly, tai chi style. Modern tai chi sets were created in an era when there were rifles available. And so forth. Every time I see someone learning swordplay through solo kata, I get really grumpy. Yeah, it should be so easy.

Unfortunately we don't know much about mediaeval European training techniques, the extant manuscripts are sparse on quite a lot of details. That said I'd be very very very surprised if there was not some set of solo sword drills folks used to train alone. By the early 1500's they were definitely doing sword 'katas', or as they are known in English, 'flourishes'. For example Antonio Manciolino goes into great details in his his book from 1520s. I teach medieval sword, and I often send my sword students home with solo drills to practice stuff they have learnt. Solo flourishes alone aren't going to make you a swordsman, but they damn well help.

And don't get me started on light sabers.


I view that kind of thing more as a challenge than anything else. Who says I can't have an evil government that describes it's aims as "Policy goals include instituting an eternal reign of darkness"? If you're audacious enough, it can work. What you can't do is try to be subtle about it at the same time. If you're going to go down that road, you've got to go big, big, BIG and dare them not to laugh.


Well, my secondary (USian High) school debating society once had a mock election in which someone ran as the "$ME for Dictator Party", and won. If it can happen in real life...


Apropos of the fantasy shibboleth that ignores diseases, this is a fun little game:

"Black Death is a humorous and macabre little board game about life in the Middle Ages, circa 1400AD, during the height of the Plague. Each player takes the role of a different disease, and whoever wipes out most of Europe wins! Loads of fun for 1 to 30 million people, though 3-4 players gives best results."


This growth ---- 17.6% to 19.7% per year is insane.

'According to Ernst & Young, although Islamic Banking still makes up only a fraction of the banking assets of Muslims,[7] it has been growing faster than banking assets as a whole, growing at an annual rate of 17.6% between 2009 and 2013, and is projected to grow by an average of 19.7% a year to 2018.[6]'

And, yes, I did consider that some 'growth' might come from real estate, esp. in major Western cities like London, NYC, etc. Even so, that's nowhere near almost a 20% per annum return.

Any Islamic Banking scholars/finance experts around to explain this? And explain how the US banks with their much higher rates, larger customer bases and larger volumes have much lower returns. (What's the comp package for Shariah bankers anyways?)


At the risk of irritating OGH by injecting US politics into the thread, you could make a convincing argument that a certain stubby-fingered billionaire is making a run at doing that right now.


I have heard it from several Scottish people, but in a completely anecdotal way. Also, the context was struggling farm families, not the affluent. Still, it could all be fluff. Regardless, primogeniture is not an automatic reflex for humans, despite our current traditions.


Aga - Yes, at a mere £4,995 for 406 kgs of cast iron (low-end model), every medieval peasant household can afford one.

How many swords' worth of iron is that, approximately?


Aga trivia ...

'Originally heated by slow-burning coal, the Aga cooker was invented in 1922 by the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish physicist Gustaf Dalén (1869–1937), who was employed first as the chief engineer of the Swedish AGA company...'


Okay, I'll stand corrected, if you'll post the spear prices at times relevant to the sword prices you cite.

Note also that we're sliding all over the place on context here, and that's also important.

--back street melee
--duel (one on one)
--demonstration (often for money)
--health and fitness

None of thee are quite like the others

Double swords on a battlefield? The only one I'm *fairly* sure of is the huediedao from southern China, and a lot of them somehow ended up carrying big shields with their butterfly swords when you look at pictures from the 19th and 20th Century. I agree that in a duel or on the street, double swords look really flashy and such, but I'm skeptical about the battlefield.

Flourishes is a great word, and it's way better than sets. Thanks! Sets in kung fu (which I'm most familiar with) range from single motion repetitions (xingyi metal set) to 69 or 108 or more moves (tai chi--each move can be one or more motions). What I'm talking about here is the shibboleth that the person who is taught a single set a la tai chi (one with lots of moves), practices it by him or herself (no partner training), then uses it to win a fight. That's not going to work.

If we're going to argue about someone practicing a parry-riposte or similar short set of actions until it's second nature, then of course I'd agree that's good training. If you look at the pike training, we could easily argue that's what they're doing, since the pikeman stands in a different position at the start of most lines.

I'll even agree if the training is something like the storied Chinese fighter who hung a coconut on two ropes between two trees, and practiced hitting it (with no other training), until he could hit it three times in quick succession no matter which way it bounced. He won fights because he could always hit opponents in the head no matter which way they bobbed or weaved. I have no clue what happened to his hands when he did this, or how much punishment he had to absorb to make this attack work, but that kind of "set" training is fairly universal. That's not what I'm arguing against.

The problem with complex sets is that they contain a large number of separate moves, and they're taught in a set order that may or may not have anything to do with a fight. They're easy to learn as dances, but they're not so easy to decode into individual moves.


I posted higher up about this (in 137)

Ultimogeniture was used in Nottingham, Primogeniture was common under the Anglo-normans. Up north you had danelaw, with gavelkind (everyone gets a share), while the Irish and Scots would use Tanistry to elect an heir from a suitable pool of candidates. Then you'd have Anjou using a Seniority system.

So we've got 5 different major methods of figuring out succession and inheritance within King Henry II's territories. And whether women could inherit, and if they could, their place in line (whether equal to a brother, or between a brother and uncle), are questions each area figured out differently. (and questions that did lead to war over Elenor's lands).

So it's not natural to assume the oldest gets everything. But we're heavily influenced by later British writers during the peak of Primogeniture with a love of entailed estates. (Note everyone who got a clean slate in writing inheritance laws loathed the fee tail).

But the fee fail made sense when the goal was to preserve the Gentry. The best sort of novel to explain why its in our brains and why it sucks are the classic regency romance novels. The fee tail makes it so the estate that's inherited isn't really the property of the one inheriting it. Rather, they are a vassal for it to pass thru. The same for the title. The idea is to insure that a noble house stays noble, and has the wealth to be a player generations later.

As pointed out, gavelkind, which is share and share alike, splits property. For the Viking kingdoms, that was fine, as there was a sense that social mobility was good. Each child might be provided for, but you should go out and conquer your own kingdom (literally and/or figuratively). But a 100 acre estate can quickly become a 25, then 5 acre then 1 acre estate with generations.

Since wealth was land, making the title and wealth go together seemed to make sense. Then a first boy could inherit, a second could be spare/go do risky adventuring, while a third could go to the church.

The thing is, it kept the wealth within only those chosen lines of decent, and had an absolutely freezing effect. It was hard to have your land taken, so bad managers might be land rich but cash poor. They couldn't sell it either, since it was entailed. It led to freezing up markets, making it so utter fools kept control of society, and made a lazy plot device for romance writers.


"islamic banking" is a scam ...
You are not charged interest on the capital you are borrowing, nor is interest paid on the money you are depositing, but .....
There are all sorts of (presumably hadith-approved) wheezes, tricks & workarounds for this.
Such as charging people the equivalent of "parking fees" if you see what I mean, or paying them a "loyalty bonus" for lending the bank the money on dpeosit, etc ... etc ... etc
Come on folks, this is being run by the priests, so of course it's a scam & a con.


Okay, I'll take Poland ... :)

Seriously though, one of the recurring themes in history is the arrival of new plagues/pathogens whenever the army returns home or when new trade routes open.


200, so a serious one: menstruation.

Having your period sucks pre-panty liners, tampons and Moon Cups. (I'd strongly suggest looking into India and charities there if you want to progress humanity).

Not only is it personally debilitating, but it comes with a bunch of bearded fellows waving sticks at you and in some cases banishing you to huts where you have the added joy of the occasional rape. (Yes, that's a thing: Google it).


Because just like dogs, humans can smell it.

It's all shrouded in "polite" obfuscation, but fact is: pre-industrial level soap, disinfectants, deodorants and so on (and things like tobacco that ruin your sense of smell), you can smell it.

Fantasy is terrible at it. Even R. Hobbs doesn't even touch the subject (in novels where grime and blood and death and torture are otherwise maturely addressed).

For the regulars: all those class distinctions about the poor hanging lines of fresh washed clothes in the back yard, and the distinction about the 'neat' and 'cleanly' versus the lower poor?

That was about bleeding.

Only, you're men, and probably missed that bit.

Note: this is addressed at your world, where something went horribly wrong, Snake holding Goddesses lost out to fucking psychos with their sacrifice and burning bushes.


And yeah: If anyone has the balls to mention "magical douches" they get a cookie.

Problem: Periods

Solution: Marketing putting lysol and heinously dangerous chemicals up there (I'm pretty sure I went into this a while back...)

Fucking. Psychos.

"Cure Light Wounds" should have an entirely new meaning.


Development, aging, inheritance of magic...

Wizards/sorcerers develop at the same rate as everyone else right up to when their magic activates usually around late teens at which point their aging slows down so much that some can live for millennia. The transformative mechanism is vague and handwavey yet often familial (therefore likely genetic). We are told that no one has ever made a study of magic inheritance, yet the same story might detail the breeding of cattle, horses, dogs, etc.

If magic is tied to sex hormones/sexual development, then magic users should lose their power at menopause /andropause.


And, tryptic: What do Caesar, Napoleon and Joyce have in common?

The answer to that is probably why Dragons love Maidens.


Anyhow, on a wider level (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), Fantasy doesn't do most of the senses very well.

You get the odd "horse poo" smell or the odd "stench of harbour district" or the odd "ho-ho, everyone smellz" but they never address the important bits.

Which is: Pre-industry and Pre-perfume (hello violets and Monks), the entire world stank. Not just "crusty barbarian sweating in their loincloth" levels, but real, in your face, India levels of stink. Total olfactory overload.

And then, you get howlers like: "Goblins smell bad" or "the rank odour of snakes and scales" when they meet a dragon. Seriously: if you made an IR map using scent, your common garden heroes are lit up like Garden Gnomes in a US suburbia.


And it's only the Wizards who get mentioned, for their "spices, herbs and reagents" that smell funny.

Never mind the female knight who is stuck in full plate, using the same bodkin underneath that she's sweated in for the last year, who is on her period (well, bonus, at least cod-pieces allow for serious padding, looking at Henry VIII and the whys to that fashion, hello boils and sores) and who hasn't had a bath in a week 'cause you're in a dungeon.


Ok, promise I'll stop now.

But like burning bushes, Fantasy doesn't really think things through some times.


I was only clarifying the cost of swords, spears are definitely going to be cheaper, just a knife on a stick. I'm not disputing the fact that you'd also want to arm an army mainly with pole weapons, it's also what they actually did. Swords serving more as side arms than primary weapons. A bit like a pistol in a modern army.

All that said, a very very common weapon carried in the Middle Ages was the dagger, as in the purpose made weapon and not a utility knife.

As you say, context is important, so while a sword and buckler is entirely appropriate while wandering around town, a pole-axe isn't. Vice-versa on battlefields. Same goes for any weapon.

The School of the Sword have a short article on the treatises that cover use of two swords. I was taught a tiny bit of DiGrassi, which is relatively easy. I had a short attempt trying to figure out Manciolinio's two swords on my own and was bamboozled by the instructions.

We are probably talking at angry dolphins here, me being not totally au fait with Eastern martial arts. I took Kata to mean any prescribed combination of moves performed alone. Seems to be more to it than that from what you are saying, more a thing in it's own right than a means to an end.

Manciolino's flourishes (he also calls them embellishments) are for show, but can also be used to practice skills and they tend only to run to 6 or so moves. I can think of some various modern longsword drills that run through dozens of moves, but these are exercising all the combinations of swords cuts, so you've practice which cut to flip to from a given counter.


Not everyone who menstruates is a woman. Not all women menstruate.


Ignoring whether Gimbutas got it right, I think this is why it's called fantasy, not reality.

It's also the same reason why we do infinite variations on European history, a soupcon of Chinese and Japanese history (think wuxia and anime), think venturing into Korea is for adventurers because the established market is tiny, and rarely deal with Oceania or Africa at all, except for exotic places for white men to adventure in.

That is, if we're talking about books published by publishers. That stuff don't sell, so why bother except as fan-fic or a hobby.

Fortunately, you can single-handedly correct this by cranking out those anatomically correct fantasies and selling them on Createspace, along with the rest of us. If they catch on, some publisher will pick you up.


Well, yes. You could be a primate, a bat or an elephant shrew. It's kinda rare in the whole of evolution scheme of things.

Unless you're being really clever there at which point I'll say; Rocks, Seagull (dead), and the screams of the Butterflies.

As for the second: on a spectrum, most do (at points in their lives). If we're being coy and TERFing it, you could point out that anorexia and nutrition (speaking of poor peasants stuck in the mud) are the real issues for it not happening that are solvable. The next-gen stuff (womb transplants or Culture Level growth) might have to wait on the list of "shit that needs fixing now".

A billion lives lived without tampons and with bearded men with sticks versus a few thousand without wombs and relative freedom (until their local equivalent of bearded men with sticks find and beat them to death).

You know which is more pressing, don't you? (Both: but weighed on scales and all).

Not nice, but perspective is important. (Unless you have a pet dragon at hand to speed things along).


"And contrary what some might think about dogmatic Medieval times, they found ways around it."

On the one hand I applaud Cromwell for setting right Longshanks's anti-Semitism. On the other hand I revile him for his motive being nothing to do with that and everything to do with importing a class of professional usurers.


Ignoring whether Gimbutas got it right, I think this is why it's called fantasy, not reality.

I'll assume you've not read R. Hobbes then.

There's a decent sized slice of "gritty" fantasy that positively revels in the grime. I think they made a TV series about it... Game of Bones, or something?

That Time of the Month is Coming and all that.

Lame excuse there. If GOT has rape and violence as "historical accurate" (mentioned up thread), then I think my complaint holds water.


Huge cities underground with no obvious source of food or adequate ventilation.

Sexual liberation in societies without birth control (among commoners who shouldn't be able to afford extra children).

Tiny women beating up multiple trained soldiers (without magic or other genre-reasonable explanation).


Unless you're being really clever there at which point I'll say; Rocks, Seagull (dead), and the screams of the Butterflies.

No, I've got better things to do with my time.

As for the second: on a spectrum, most do (at points in their lives).

Most isn't all, is it? Maybe be more precise and you won't say such stupid things in the future.

The next-gen stuff (womb transplants or Culture Level growth) might have to wait on the list of "shit that needs fixing now".

Except that trans people exist right now. We do or don't menstruate, contrary to social expectations, right now. We're not theoretical, we're not science fiction, and I'm not less of a woman because of how my body works. I think you know that, given your reference to TERFs, but that's just you being pointlessly obtuse and antagonistic again, I guess.

You know which is more pressing, don't you? (Both: but weighed on scales and all).

I know that I've seen friends die cold lonely deaths because people treated their gender identity as something that wasn't worth consideration. We are not frivolous luxury items, nice to have, but unessential. We don't go to the back of the line just because cis women still have trouble. Hint: we have most of those same troubles, but worse.


On scent:

It's also why Tolkien is utter rubbish.

Gollum has spent X thousand years in darkness and lives in a cave without light. His eyes have grown "large and saucerous" due to it.

Hobbit who stinks of Elf bread, sweat and so on puts on a magic ring that makes him invisible.

Gollum then pounces and eats the little shit.


As stated: this is an old blindness that says a lot about the authors, not the genre.


"it says very clearly in the third stanza that the blonde farm boy from a humble background needs to thrice strike his magic sword against the..."

and I thought:

...and they do it, and it works, and the great evil is vanquished and turns into a mouse and for ever after can do nothing worse than widdle on things, and there is great rejoicing.

Then at some later date there is a great earthquake or something and the ancient tomb splits open and inside in some ancient script kept alive by the priesthood there is written what can be recognised as the original form of the legend. But only just, because it has been chinese-whispered so much in its oral transmission that what they actually ended up doing would have been a recipe for disaster according to the original legend...


Well, bites his finger off, at least.


Except that trans people exist right now. We do or don't menstruate, contrary to social expectations, right now. We're not theoretical, we're not science fiction, and I'm not less of a woman because of how my body works

You're picking a fight that doesn't exist.

You created a strawman ("Not all women menstruate") in response to a post that never mentioned the word "all" "women" or even universals.

It mentioned menstruation, nothing else.

It literally didn't do any of those things, because, you know, the author knows where you're coming from.

Nice rant though, I happen to agree with most of it. I'm also rough enough that you can spend a few hours tearing me to shreds and I won't mind if it makes things better.

So, you got what you wanted, which was a nice Mirror to tilt at, but you're better than that.

So, now.

Do you want to howl at a Snake Goddess and lose, or dance a little?

Hint: We're faster than thou. We also love you *nose wiggle*


Go re-read the first post.

No universals, no generalizations, no over-arching "all women must feel this".

Just a complaint about tropes.


And no.

This is the opposite of Trolling.

The first post specifically didn't do the things you'd love it to have done because we're better than that.

When you grow up, you can apologize. But yes, I get the *graaaaaaar*, a lot of ignorant savages make life shitty.


...and before we get all tangled up.

Yes, using the term "ignorant savages" is entirely deliberate and used contra the historical usage of the term.

It also ties into another Fantasy Trope, which is... unironic usage of either:

#1 Avatar levels of "Wisdom tied to Nature" natives


#2 Knowledge and Power and Being the Special ONE tied to Gnostic levels of hidden knowledge that you know, couldn't have possibly helped the poor dying corrupt societies before our chosen Male Mary Sue turned up


Islamic Banking - "This growth ---- 17.6% to 19.7% per year is insane."

They're talking about market size not returns (ie if you have $100m under management, loose $10m and persuade another $20m to invest that's ~20% growth).


I'm not a fan of Game of Thrones, either book or TV. Gimbutas was cool, but the whole archaeology of Crete seems to be so warped by the personalities of some of the head archaeologists that I really have no clue who or what to believe.

However, I agree that you have a good point about rape vs. menstruation, and I'm not cool with rape. Still, that barely touches the forbidden zone. I mean, heck, you haven't even gotten into the whole magical impurity/menstruation thing. That one's right up there with the faeries hating iron in terms of illogic, but it's much more widespread than the former shibboleth.


"Sexual liberation in societies without birth control (among commoners who shouldn't be able to afford extra children)."

Sex isn't just procreation and if the anthropologists are anywhere near right the range of sexual customs and behaviors across societies is pretty mind boggling. The Victorians were rather extreme in their (public) hostility to sexuality.


Without being exclusionary, there's a whole lot of Blood related Sex-Magic-Fertility stuff around.

Like the Victorians censoring really dirty mosaics, you just don't hear much about it.

The real issue is that Abrahamic religions mostly hated women.

But... I'm fairly sure the Bene Gesserit do actually exist.


Which is why April_D thinks that India or Native Americans is a better fit on a scale of things. (Two Souls / Hijra - reality check: they got treated like shit / as whores a lot of the time).

Hint: these are shallow bastardizations of what once was.

The analogy is watching an over-bred Pug (hello NY) with genetic disorders up the wazoo playing with a squeaky toy. Looks happy, unless you know the whole story. Fairly sure Wolves are happier.

And no.

It's a lesson.

Stop your mind conflating the two analogies into a comparison. Humans aren't over-bred genetic freaks, nor are Spectrums of Gender / Sexuality equatable to the word "freak"


That's your mind being smacked with a rolled up newspaper.




in the sword style I practice, kata are generally fairly short sequences of moves (4-6 mostly?) and quite often have sensible reasons for them. (this is the basic defense against someone in front, #2 is the defense against someone on the left, etc.)

Practice is mostly "spend 1 hour working on kata #3 where the Prof said my footwork between position 2&3 needs improvement in this way."

on the other hand, an unarmed style I practiced once upon a time went with the 12-18 move kata, and there was a lot less emphasis on figuring out why something worked or didn't.

I'd bet that there are many, many ways that different instructors use kata & other training terms. I'd also bet that detailing training beyond the barest outline is likely to bore your audience silly.


You wrote: Only, you're men, and probably missed that bit.

Well, I missed it because I don't menstruate. And I'm still a woman despite that. So yeah, you basically called me a man. Me and every other trans woman who's a bit slow on the uptake about things like this.

Oh what's that? You didn't mean to? Tough shit. Throwing around vaguely accusatory statements like this is all fun and games until you stomp on a marginalized community's collective trauma. Then you compounded it with a lot of shit about priorities and the Culture and oh what's that it's the sound frantic obfuscation of the point. You can say you agree with me like I've misunderstood, you can ask for an apology like I've done something wrong, but all that makes you is another shitty ally who doesn't know when to step back and consider she's not the hero she wants to be. Trust me, we know all about your type, and we stopped laughing at the joke a long time ago.

If you want to pretend you didn't say something transphobic and exclusionary, you will have to do so only through recourse to the most transparent of playground sophistry. But don't let that stop you. It's totally an option. You don't have to take responsibility for the things you say, but it's what cowards do, and more or less invalidates your grand project of role playing a grand, superior being or whatever the fuck you're doing.

Oh, and you ain't going to earn any friends acting this way. Hint: when you've just tap-danced over someone else's pain, maybe set the sneering aside for just a moment. It makes you look slightly less loathsome.



"he pernicious myth of race is exactly that: and the race-essentialism of Tolkeinian high fantasy leads down some very unsavoury alleys."

Which is why I enjoyed "The Last Ringbearer"

In Yeskov’s retelling, the wizard Gandalf is a war-monger intent on crushing the scientific and technological initiative of Mordor and its southern allies because science “destroys the harmony of the world and dries up the souls of men!” He’s in cahoots with the elves, who aim to become “masters of the world,” and turn Middle-earth into a “bad copy” of their magical homeland across the sea. Barad-dur, also known as the Dark Tower and Sauron’s citadel, is, by contrast, described as “that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle-earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic.”


Does Norman Spinrad's "The Iron Dream" count as urban fantasy?


Concerning armies struck down by dysentery, weren't the Roman legions with their disciplined camps and strict hygeiene rules more or less immune to this scourge?


As for orcs breeding, Tolkien made it clear that orcs reproduced in the normal fashion - but there were no female orcs.

Being an Edwardian gentleman he did not eleaborate further.


Pot - nothing ever gets burned, thatch never catches fire while the wife is milking the cow/goat? ... But my main beef is still the fuel ... much too wasteful.

This has been addressed already, but I think you haven't done a complete cost/benefit analysis. Yes, it takes fuel - but there's probably a forest nearby, or cow pats, or something that burns. It's pretty rare for humans to settle for long periods anywhere that doesn't have fuel for fires. On the other hand, what do you expect people to do? Start a new fire every time they want to cook something? Start a new fire at least once a day? Getting a fire going can be a pain in the ass. Putting some more wood on occasionally is easy.

I'm told that it's surprisingly hard to get a well maintained thatch roof burning and doubly so if there hasn't been an extended stretch of dry weather, this being the kind of conversation you get in the SCA, but I've never tried it myself...


Thanks for clearing that up. Basically solo drills with a purpose.


Actually "the Jews" were here all along, in very small numbers, but Old Noll had a perfect public excuse for "admission" - because "they are not Catholics, ta-raaaa!"


Actually, some forms of birth control did exist - they were gradually suppressed by both the catholic & protestant churches.
Usually called "Old Gypsy lore" or similar (as well as infanticide & etc.
The "right" herbs will guarantee that the fertilised ova won't implant
Mint, especially "Penny-Royal" is easiest, but Wormwood & Rue (be very careful with that last) also do the job.


I asked before:
"What is this "WE" white-Man?"
How about answering the question?


Absolutely 150% WRONG & A N OTHER Shibboleth which is also WRONG.

Knowledge ( & to some extent "Power" ) are not "Individual" or "Special" they are communitarian - as in, say The Clarendon Laboratories ...
The knowledge we have is the result of a lot of work, by a lot of people, being used by a highly social species.
Individual geniuses' undoubtedly accelerate & improve the process, but, later on, certainly, the whole thing is emphatically NOT "The special chosen one" of any sort, whatsoever ....


Well, I missed it because I don't menstruate.

No, you missed it because you probably don't know much about early Industrialization within Western countries, notably the UK which was the reference here. Bleeding once a month (or more, that's also a thing) doesn't impart magical levels of wisdom or knowledge[1].

The specific reference is that urbanization created very distinct class separations in the Working Class, where the truism was that those who worked in dirty industries (such as coal mining) "always had clean clothes on Sunday" in the Lower-Upper band (the ones whose children would enter the Lower-Middle class if they got lucky, hit a school etc). The 'hidden' reason, not usually touched upon by histories (written largely by men) is what I stated.

"Cleanliness is next to Godliness" - This phrase was first recorded in a sermon by John Wesley in 1778, but the idea is ancient, found in Babylonian and Hebrew religious tracts. It is still invoked, often as an admonition to wash or clean up.

It's not an accident that "Spiritual" cleanliness, Ritual and the old Mind / Soul - Body dualism rests on actual physical cleanliness.

That whole thing (still around) about women not doing X (eating, praying, entering the Temple) while menstruating.

If you want some real fun, look up prostitution and cleanliness, both in Victorian Britain and modern India.


So, you're using your own ignorance to create a Cross to get nailed to, while ignoring the actual substance of the post or the lives lived of women.

It's not very mature. Grow up Lass and get some solidarity.

[1]Hit another shibboleth right on the nose.


Yes, that was my point.


Double-Plus Good
Thank, you sister ( May I call you that? )
I could not have said that, being male, but ... well done.
Have a sausage voucher, or something.


Two of my shibboleths is non-functional and poorly designed armour. Usually at it's worst in the visual mediums as opposed to literature.

Why are people lumping around 50kg+ of steel if the damn thing doesn't have the slightest effect against the hero's weapon? You can't slice through mail with a sword, you'd just scratch plate. Even thick leather will stop most sword cuts (eg: buff coats in the English Civil War).

Same goes for arrows and handheld crossbows against steel plate armour, they'd ping and bounce unless you were point blank and hit the thinner armour on the arms and legs. One of the main drivers for the evolution of plate in Europe was the ineffectiveness of mail against crossbows.

Magic swords and arrows, OK fine, they get a pass, but otherwise, gah!

I also hate armour that is also non/poorly functional in it's design. Extraneous bits sticking out that would catch a weapon, areas left poorly covered and other stuff that just doesn't make sense. Sauron's and the Easterlings armour in LotR are classic examples of this. Jars me right out of any suspension of disbelief as my inner arms and armour geek screams out "What were they thinking!". Gah, art departments.


Also, for reference:

As a result of these laws, people who were trans sought out doctors who could cure them and a whole new field in medicine developed: sexology. The first sexologist who took a special interest in the sexual impulses of trans individuals was probably Krafft-Ebbing (1840-1902), professor of psychiatry at Vienna. His Psychopathia Sexualis was published from 1877 to after his death. Krafft-Ebbing constantly endeavoured to give clearer classifications to the behaviours and individual histories of his patients.

Through the work of the early sexologists such as Krafft-Ebbing and Hirschfield, transsexuality became a recognized phenomenon available for study, discussion and treatment.

You're doing that whole thing where you impart current modern thinking on history. Foucault is probably a good start to unpick the mess.

Where histories collide: try Mary Mudge

Only famous for dying, really:

There has just died in Tavistock Workhouse an old person eighty five years of age, who was known to the authorities as Mary Mudge, and until some years ago kept a small dairy in that town. On the body being prepared for burial, it was discovered to be that of a man, although previously no suspicion had been entertained as to the sex of Miss Mudge, as deceased had long been called, and had all outward appearance of a woman. No cause has been assigned for the disguise...

In 1851 she was listed, age 48, at the Old House in Milton Abbot, an unmarried farm labourer, along with a 59 year-old lodger called Elizabeth Condon (or possibly Langdon)

The rest of her life remains unknown. Which is perhaps what Mary Mudge would have wanted.


But a good indication that trans* issues were around, and that I'm not an evil witch to burn.

But, happy to fence as a Christmas present.


To end the derail:

Mary lived her life as a woman, with all the 19th C expectations that entailed, as a woman who owned (? this is unsure, she died poor though, in a workhouse - no children you see, that's the sad part) a small dairy.

She did a lot of washing in her life, more than likely. Udders probably were a reoccurring theme.

There's also a ribald tale reversal where the local Lord tumbles the saucy milk-maid and we get to gut and reverse the old trans* horror that men (of a certain sort) have when their sexual desire short circuits their societal conditioning, only in our fantasy it doesn't end up in violence, but love.


There were probably a lot of other Marys and Daisies happily (grudingly) doing laundry out there who wouldn't fall under the usual aegis of biological predestination.

You can be sure they washed their smalls and hung them up just as much as the other women, blood or no blood. Just because the history we have is when such things are discovered or unearthed queers our sight somewhat.

Fantasy - the quiet life where such things are unnoticed (or, as Terry would do, noticed-but-politely-humanely-empathetically-not-mentioned).


Grown up version: trans* often meant keeping up appearances, and part of being a woman was laundry.




What do you think of the Rob Roy final duel scene in terms of realism?


Mens reaction to menstruation is probably heavily influenced by the fact that the only time we get to see our own blood, something horrible has happened. Usually not fatal but always unpleasant, painful and sometimes life threatening. Very often a result of violence or stupidity.


Oh, its not really a fiction shibboleth outside the covers, but can we add Boob plate armour to the list? Any fantasy that has women wearing substantially different armour to the men is fatally flawed.

Gaming is probably the biggest example of that one - the following two images are the same armour piece on males and females


Yes, it is dogma in official feminism that all ills imposed on women were and are imposed by men, but it was and is crap. The "bearded fellows with sticks" were at least as likely to be the self-proclaimed "respectable women". Look at who sent out the Serbian boys to suppress the ungodly Bosnians, to take just one recently airbrushed-out-of-history episode. I could give plenty of others.

The rest of your diatribe is accurate, of course.




Err a late 15th C set of armour weighed in at about 25 kg, uniformly distributed about the body.
The "right sort" of sword-cut (or more likely, thrust) would penetrate, as would "a steel bodkin" - the latter usually attached to a clothyard, of course.
The usual with warfare: stone/scissors/paper - which combination are you going for?


Sorry, no known link, but my mind is drawn to a cartoon from Dragon magazine (around 1990) which showed a female elf warrior in the obligatory "wire bikini" (like a string bikini but made from metal), with half a dozen arrow points in each cup, and the dialogue "Fortunately, all their arrows hit my armour!"


More cobblers.
Dr James Barry
An army surgeon in the early C19th


Well, I think the point about menstruation as an ignored (or at best underplayed) aspect of pre-modern fantasy worlds is a damn good one. Especially, as you say, at the more grimdark end of the scale.


You're right-ish about the weights. My late own late full plate over mail C14th harness is around 35kg. I was being a bit melodramatic. Shouldn't have been.

That said, you can't pierce medieval plate with a sword point, not going to happen, you simply can't hit hard enough to do so. You can poke holes in riveted mail though. Sword in plate armour combat is all about using a sword as a short spear trying to work the point into the gaps between the plates, as a lever to throw the other guy to the ground, as a club to beat them into submission or just wrestling trying to get a guy into a lock so you can finish him off. And it really really is great fun.

You can pierce very poor quality or thin plate with a long bow or lighter crossbow at short range, bodkins help some what, but they aren't magical. At longer ranges, meh, decent quality armour, doesn't happen. See this discussion, which references a biased study (the arrows were too hard, the armour too soft), which only had penetration at short ranges (10m) and not of thicker plate.


Obvious flaws in that study:-
1) Bow draw. The record, including worked and raw blanks, shows that the English longbowman could work repeatedly with a draw of over 200lb.
2) The few surviving bodkin points are exactly that, the surviving points. They can't be used as evidence of what treatments were used on the many more points fired in war.
3) Similarly, many of the surviving armours are display pieces and not actual battle armours.


Firstly the period is too late for me, highland broadsword I've only done one class on, rapier a but more. I'm Mr Italian Late Mediaeval. I could bore folks here on what's wrong with it, and as these things got its actually a pretty good one. . But some obvious ones, Rob comes with lots of big cuts, but with his body leading and not his weapon. The other guy would simply remain at distance and slice/stab the leading hand/arm. Why isn't the rapier guy adopting any rapier guards? Deliberate spins? Seriously? When they are in distance to strike each other, noone is covering with their weapon, with way too many lines left open, which no-one then bothers to exploit. Being able to hold a sword bare handed against a thrust? Yes, sword grabs are a thing, no you can't hold one against someone's body weight pushing on it with your bare hands. He should have slapped it instead.


And on occasion celebrated, rather than pilloried;

Hannah Snell spent two years in the Royal Marines in the 18th Century, and even wrote a book about it...

Nadezhda Durova spent nine years in the Russian cavalry, and published her autobiography with the encouragement of Pushkin.


she died poor though, in a workhouse

Not necessarily poor. The infirmary at Tavistock Union workhouse was effectively the old peoples home for the surrounding area, as well as being the hospital for the younger inhabitants of the workhouse and the town. From the history on the page you linked she appears to have been a tenant of the Dukes of Bedford who owned much of the land in and around the town and out towards Lamerton and Milton Abbot. The Russell family were very good as feudal overlords and looked after their tenants. They also put a huge amount of money and effort into improving conditions in the town, the 6th Duke commissioned the workhouse building, Westbridge Cottages were one of the earliest "model estates" and the house plan used in them is repeated as "Duke of Bedford Cottages" throughout the area.

NB: I grew up in Tavistock and thanks to an enthusiastic history teacher and a father who learned a lot about his adopted home town developed an interest in the history of the area.


Whoa there, over 200lbs? That's not what I've heard or read during a decade in medieval re-enactment. 165lbs, yes, that's an estimated draw weight for the Mary Rose bows.
One Bowyer. Pip Bickerstaffe, seems to think the bows were actually more like 100lbs at 30inch draw, based on his own experience and how well the bow strings would last. Stronger bow means bow strings wear out much quicker.


Good point on age/development and magic. Just once I'd like to read a fantasy where the onset age for magic is puberty ... and the magicians start to age rapidly, rate of ageing proportional to the power of their manifestation, so that they're mostly crippled or dead by 30 (and the super-powerful Dark Lord types have a 2-5 year burn life at best). Solution: castration or hysterectomy (both very dangerous in a low-medicine world, not to mention painful, but possibly survivable with magic). Upshot: magecraft is dominated by eunuch politics, long-lived magi trying to breed their siblings to produce more magi, and so on.

(I seem to recall that Kate Elliot/Alis Rasmussen's first published novel had a sub-plot whereby the ultra-powerful magician in it was widely rumoured to be a depraved debauchee -- but his power actually relied on total sexual abstinence. Which worked right up until he had to get married for dynastic reasons ...)


I typed a big reply and lots it due to an expired session. Gah.

Display armours, do you mean fancy armours for show as opposed to use? Then those are designed to look good and be easy to wear and not stop weapons. They are also no mediaeval but renaissance. Horrid things.

There are enough extant fighting armours and weapons to draw conclusions from. Some even from battlefield finds such as Visby, not just stuff preserved in collections. So many that you can draw conclusions from them, William 'The Knight and The Blast Furnace' being an epic study that goes deep into the metallurgy. In it he shows that for an arrow to penetrate C15th 2mm plate, you need something like 190 joules in an arrow when it hits the plate.

Hardy & STrickland, who study bows, give a maximum kinetic energy from a 150lb longbow being around 130 joules. Assuming a linear scaling of energy to draw weight, the arrow from your 200lb bow is going to ping off that steel at point blank range. Given that energy imparted to an arrow scales less than linearly with draw weight, even less of a chance.

So as I said, poor quality armour, or thin plates, yes, decent plate no. Even if you have penetrated the plate, there may be mail you have to punch through under the plate. That depends on the period, my harness is plate over a full mail shirt, from slightly earlier when the steels weren't as good.


Agree to disagree then, because I've got my figures from similar sources, including a different statement about the worked draw from the Mary Rose bows.


Which Joyce? James Joyce or William Joyce?

Cod pieces: yup, their rise (ahem) coincided with the first aggressive spread of syphilis imported from the new world.

But ... the "old world stink" thing possibly over-simplifies. The Roman empire's cities were very big on water -- building elabroate aqueducts for importing it, public baths and water-fed toilets, and (I assume) using the waste water to carry much of the sewage as far away as possible from the noses of the people with money to spend on infrastructure. Some districts certainly stank -- dyeing and tanning, obviously, also anywhere that livestock was slaughtered or kept in proximity to people -- but I suspect the senators and their families smelled a lot less bad than the proles, and AIUI for city-dwellers bathing was a more-or-less weekly occurrence, not a rarity.

Public hygiene went out of fashion with the rise of Christianity (bath houses were seen as hotbeds of sin and fornication; mortification of the flesh was a religious virtue) in the west. And in Arabia and the arid zone left behind by desertification of the north African coast, different priorities applied. But let's not overdo the stink thing, huh? As with so many other things, in any hierarchical society the stench and unpleasantness was reduced the nearer to the apex of the pyramid you climbed.


Aw go on then, gies your sources please!


It's also the same reason why we do infinite variations on European history, a soupcon of Chinese and Japanese history (think wuxia and anime), think venturing into Korea is for adventurers because the established market is tiny, and rarely deal with Oceania or Africa at all, except for exotic places for white men to adventure in.

A commercial reality injects itself at this point: we who write SF/F are generally writing to entertain paying customers. (Okay, the ease of self-publishing these days means that some others, who write to entertain themselves, can now be accessed by the interested; but that's a minority pursuit.) It follows that working authors usually prioritize writing stuff for which there is a market.

A large chunk of the appeal of fiction is that it allows us to vicariously experience the sensory reality of another person, reconstructing it in our heads from the text we are reading. Reading fiction is a weird activity: we stare for hours at patterns printed on lumps of processed wood or fabric to induce pleasurable hallucinations. This is a learned behaviour, and a hard one to master: it is easier when our own experience feeds into the process and reduces the amount of interpretation we have to do to understand the text. So reading stories set in alien cultures is hard work -- and the more alien the culture, the harder it is.

We who grow up in European cultures, or those of North America (which are largely derived from those of the European settlers) have at least got the cultural and cognitive tools to understand the attitudes of other people in our shared culture. But the further away in time we go, the harder it gets -- consider how different Roman attitudes to sexuality (or slavery, or religion) are from those of modern Italians, for example. And by the time we look to really different cultures in historical eras, it's really difficult. To get your readers to follow you down the rabbit hole of an alien culture requires the author to loan their readers an anchoring sense of empathic engagement with their protagonists -- which is really difficult if, for example, you're writing an Aztec detective story (as Aliette de Bodard has done) because the Aztecs were fucking weird (and, arguably, as nasty as Nazis when viewed from our contemporary moral framework).


That is indeed a weird blindness -- and you'd think Tolkien, who'd fought on the Somme and came down with trench fever, would know better, wouldn't you?

But really -- how does invisibility work? Literal invisibility, one might think, would mean that the invisible subject couldn't interact with light. (In which case they'd be blind, never mind electrodynamically fucked up, but that's taking it too literally.) If, however, you view the One Ring as making the wearer imperceptible to others ...

... But then we get into Tolkien's choice of words, and his editor's decisions, and that way lies madness.


You're both making me itch when you say "plate" without much qualification.

I'd recommend the additional material in post-Mary Rose editions of Robert Hardy's Longbow: A social and military history.

Very short version -- white armors, case hardened plate, are good enough to make archery militarily ineffective against them. This happens just after Agincourt. (Roughly 75 years of technological effort to go from mail to white armors.)

Even prior to white armors, a decisive "killed by an arrow" armor penetration against plate was rare; you can look at Froissart and attempt to simulate pre-white armor armors and do tests and the answer comes down to somewhere around ten hits to disable. You're going to die because you have a bunch of puncture wounds, some of which will infect. (Actual archer-army tactics involved killing the horses, piling the charge into a mass, and killing with suffocation as much as anything.)

It doesn't make archery militarily ineffective against unarmoured targets (sailors on ships! horses, many troops, anybody with their visor up...) or people wearing munition-grade plate. (Case-hardening armor without distorting it is hard, and thus expensive. So you get the bloody mess of the Wars of the Roses with archers in munitions grade plate shooting each other to some effect.) But you do run out of good yew, and you do have trouble maintaining the social conditions where you've got so many willing to do themselves skeletal damage, and you especially run out of the social conditions where you can put the armored sons of earls into the mud to cover the baseborn men with the bows. Certainly by Henry the Idiot's day that was gone.


The One Ring doesn't make you invisible; it shifts you into the Otherworld.

"one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible", right?

Sauron is of an angelic order and fundamentally exists in the realm of "invisible" things. The Ring is "much" of Sauron, or, rather, the apparent gold material object is the tangible anchor for more than half a (fallen) angel. Most of it resides in the immaterial/spiritual because it has to. Put it on, and you get yanked into the Otherworld.

Which is why Frodo sees the Nazgul (or Glorfindel) differently with the Ring on, and why Valar can wander around `unclothed' and thus unperceived; mortals can't perceive the otherworld. Also part of why the Ring is so dangerous; being pulled into the otherworld is what happens when you die.

As materialist explanations go this entirely isn't, but it's what was meant.


There's also the issue that in a Melee against other plated knights, you'd have other weapons designed for it. Usually either a bashing weapon (like a hammer), or something with a big spike.

The dutch goedendag is my favorite, as it was pretty good at killing French Knights even when used by unarmoured peasants.

But the traditional Halberd was designed to be a multiple use weapon, including a sharp point that could puncture armor, and often a hammer side to provide a body blow.

And with swords, of course it matters the style of sword. That's more commonly picked up on, but usually by sword nuts.

Something not gotten is sieges and the problems of siege craft. How to build a castle to withstand one, and how to take one. But also how to feed your army why you siege it down.


But let's not overdo the stink thing, huh?

One of the interesting things about jungle warfare is that because of the short sightlines, scent becomes much more important. Patrols are done under "hard routine" - food eaten without fire (i.e. cold), you don't shave, wash with soap, or brush your teeth with toothpaste (although the jungle warfare manual used to mention smokers' tooth powder as an unscented alternative).

After a couple of days, you can smell clean people; while you smell much like the rest of the jungle.

Caveat: my experience of this is based on a single three-week trip to Belize (because the local unit was short of people to act as Umpires and Directing Staff for their big annual training exercise)...


Similar to yours, except that we've obviously talked to/read different individual(s/reports). This is not going to end well, unless we just agree that "at least 165lb draw weight is proven".


I remember reading that James Joyce had the same love for the smell Napoleon famously loved. Did not know that about Caesar.

As for the bathhouses, the important thing to remember for why they were seen that way wasn't because of some aversion to hygiene, but rather that over time the bathhouses of Rome became notorious as a hook up spot and brothels.


Food, too; it's important to eat what they're eating, or you're pretty obvious in ways you might not suspect.

(Eg., subcontinental vegetarians finding people eating a traditional UK sort of diet to smell like spoiled milk, or the well-attested obviousness of people who eat beef to people who do not.)


You're both making me itch when you say "plate" without much qualification
Look, I studied metallurgy for a year. I can probably bore for Scotland on the subject of heat treatments (whole piece and case treatments) and piece distortion.
I also have an amateur interest in archaeology, and a physical scientist's tendency to apply rigour, so my view is that what has been proven by specific pieces is what has been proven about those pieces. It doesn't prove that "white" case hardening was commonplace, just that it was known.


This whole armour discussion was kicked off by my objection to the ease of which armour is penetrated in much fiction, especially TV/Films. In no way am I denying that archery was effective militarily, completely agree with the points you raise.


Re armour vs arrows

This is interesting:

Suggests that plate would indeed have stopped most if not all arrows - but that mail was possibly more of a hazard than it was a protection, so partial plate would only have offered an improvement on odds.

How frequent is the 'bad armour' shibboleth, though? The stuff I've read tends to focus on weapons finding weak spots between the plates. That does perhaps suggest improbable accuracy, but not necessarily an inaccurate indictment of the failings of the armour.


One caution - skeletal damage isn't exactly something people were worried about then, because a) they'd likely be dead before it was really an issue, and b) lots of other things could skeletally damage them, and mere longbow use and combat wasn't actually doing much. During the Wars of the Roses English commerce etc carried on pretty much as normal, and could sustain the battles, supplies such as food, weapons and armour, just fine.
(Different if there actually was widespread social breakdown with roving bands of mercenaries looting where they wished, which, actually, see next point)

I'm not sure how much this has been teased out so far, but one of the things poor writers do is ignore the widespread social connections in their pseudo-medieval piece of work, and that people seem to value a lot of stability and normality, they even set up laws and courts and stuff to help. Society simply wasn't atomised the way you can see it being today.


In a time when women had very few career choices, a cunning plan was hatched so that Margaret could become a doctor. She arrived by sea in Edinburgh as ‘James Barry’, attended medical school and graduated in 1812.

Barry was so successful at maintaining her deception that it was only when she died of dysentery in 1865 that her secret was discovered. The woman who laid out her body revealed that, although she had spent 46 years masquerading as a man in the British Army, ‘James Barry’ was indeed a woman.

I'm unsure of your point - this falls under the usual 'cloak & dagger', hidden life, only discovered at death trope.


To provide an actual, non-hurtful thought as an apology to April_D: I actually understand that this is all about making 'Space' for lived lives in society that doesn't necessarily rely on the usual history of Patriarchy [tm] or even the dualism of Male-Female binaries. (The unsavory alleys link). I also understand the appeal of tripartite systems as championed in native America societies (some; few) and India (at certain points). [I have a slight memory of Mesoamerican and S.E. Asian carvings to suggest things were once much more fluid].

I've been wracking my brains quite hard to think of a fantasy world where such Space exists, naturally without massive illogical shoe-horning going on.


File this under "author is lazy, didn't do the research"; that's actually quite cheerful for a seasonal thought, appreciated.

As for Tolkien & the Ring: I have to admit I skipped quite a lot of it, was sure there was a magical reason for it.

I have to say I'm a bit speciest with regards to Hobbits.



Interesting; he also seems to have proved Pterry's line about how "mail is a collection of holes tied together with metal rings".


One caution - skeletal damage isn't exactly something people were worried about then, because a) they'd likely be dead before it was really an issue, and b) lots of other things could skeletally damage them, and mere longbow use and combat wasn't actually doing much.

Archer skeletons on at least the Mary Rose are identifiable by damage to the left wrist and lower back; they can be told from the skeletons of sailors and agricultural labourers. (That weird hand position of the bow-hand wrist in the Luttrell Psalter? Get into warbow draw weights and your wrist does indeed do that.)

So, no, most folks weren't worried about making discomfortable their (un)expected old age, but the amount of exercise you need to do that to yourself was notable even in context of a mostly agricultural and mostly muscle-powered society. (Which is where the social structures come into it; you have to feed these people well and regularly, too. Which meant something akin to taxes for the purpose.)

Military archery is a range contest which is a draw weight contest; draw weight tops out at about the same limits for wood and people. They're difficult limits to reach. But it does look very much as though there were a couple generations where those limits were reached.


It is also inaccurate... Gollum did smell Bilbo. He just wasn't able to localise him by it. It put him on the alert, but Bilbo still managed to jump over the top of him.

Frodo putting on the ring in Mount Doom didn't stop Gollum pouncing on him; presumably he pounced at the point where Frodo had last been visible.

The smell thing in general... as Martin's post demonstrates, it is subject to the usual differential term in sensory perception. Your normal environment doesn't "smell normal", it just doesn't smell at all - to you. I've been in people's houses where they let the dog shit all over the floor, or had the place full of rotting tomatoes for goodness only knows what reason, and barely been able to breathe without gagging, but the inhabitants were oblivious. If you need a bath other people become aware of it long before you do yourself. But along comes an unusual smell, and you know straight away.

Tolkien's WW1 experience, I am sure, would have told him all about this. Accounts written by occasional visitors to the front mention the appalling stench, but accounts written by soldiers in the trenches do not, as a rule, even when they do something like falling over onto a corpse which proceeds to burst all over them. Vileness so ubiquitous becomes normal and unremarkable.

I reckon the main reason menstruation doesn't get mentioned is the same as why nobody goes into detail about soldiers with dysentery shitting themselves down their leg: it's gross and it doesn't help the story along.

Being able to smell it: true, but then you can also smell pregnancy, and I don't think I've ever seen that mentioned in any kind of writing. Given the frequent attitude to women as heir-producing machines I'd have thought there were plenty of possibilities in it.


No, there certainly were female orcs. They just don't get any mention beyond one or two sentences in Tolkien's unpublished writings.


No, "The Iron Dream" counts as a political metafiction commentary on fascist subtexts in SF. HTH.


Reminds me of a game we played as children, called (unimaginatively) "whippy stick".
It was played in an enclosed area. One of us was blindfolded and had a whippy stick. The others in the game had to be really quiet, while the kid with the stick lashed out trying to find a victim. Once an unlucky, or loud breathing, person got hit the whippy stick homed in mercilessly. Frodo would not have stood a chance.


Ta. (It's about 40 years since I last read The Lord of the Rings, and I can't watch the movies -- too much jerkycam/too little contrast for me to make out the imagery).


My bunch have played with doing things to modern riveted mail sitting in a free swinging pig carcass (which was turned into sausages afterwards). No sword could cut through it, but we could penetrate it fairly easily with a strong thrust from swords or daggers. A very satisfying 'crunch' feeling could be felt as it spit, generally from rivet failure as opposed breaking rings.

Modern reproduction mail is actually of fairly poor quality though. There were a bunch of French reenactors who had a piece of high decent period mail they decided to sacrifice by attacking it with various weapons. Again no cut could penetrate, but neither could any thrust from a hand weapon. They weren't using overly pointy daggers or swords though. Can't find the link unfortunately.


Poignards or misericords spring to mind in seeking holes in mail or joints in plate with hand weapons.


Um, some of the surviving armor that I've seen had holes in it from bullets. That may have been the point. I'm thinking of a Swiss or Austrian half-armor set I saw where the iron shield was basically a manhole cover, and it was deeply dented from musket balls. That was right before they stopped wearing plate armor.

In any case, the pictures I've seen from the fight books shows knights in plate fighting each other holding their swords in the half-sword position (if not reversed, holding the blade and swinging with the pommel). The trick seemed to be to get your opponent down, then to use the sword like a prybar to try to get through the joints or the eyeholes. That's probably why they preferred things like maces and the bec de corbin when walloping armored foes. AFAIK, knights carried swords to deal with peasants, not each other.


Re. did female Orcs exist - is it something of a shibboleth in modern fantasy writing that everything has to have an explanation? It seems to me that a lot of readers now expect everything to be explained, or else that the authors can make wrong decisions regarding what to explain properly and what not to explain properly. Some of the ease with which LoTR goes is down to a lack of technical explanation, we aren't told exactly how magic works.

Paws4thot - yes, we can agree that at least some warbows were around or maybe even beyond 165lbs.
As for daggers, yes, joints and gaps are targets, but remember also the eye slits in the helmets.

BJN - other knightly weapon is the lance, for use against other knights. At least on horseback. In that respect Richard III at Bosworth was doing something rather unusual for the army and time, given that the English had pioneered fighting on foot in the French wars.


Actually, even adult castration can be done without modern medicine, with a low death rate. Farmers doing it is not approved of, nowadays, on animal welfare grounds - and it has other problems, too. The same does not apply to any form of female sterilisation procedure.


Wizenbeak got everything right. Sure wish Gilliland was still doing sequels. Wizenbeak, The Shadow Shaia, Lord of the Troll Bats.

HG Wells in Anticipations thought dirigibles would be lighter-than-air gliders which could inflate one end, rise in that direction, then stabilize. Might have worked on the Silk Road at some point.


"Did female orcs exist?" The earliest I can place them is D&D, either White Book in 1974 or AD&D 1st Ed in 1977.

Longbows - fair enough.
I was including eye (and if exists on specific helm/visor) nose slits as "gaps".

Also, I suspect that the development of the pike from the halberd was partly a response to knights attacking a "stand of halberd" with lances.


Yes, I do get the feeling that there is some expectation of everything being built on the same kind of logically consistent base as one would expect in hard SF. Which is fine for things like plot details, but can be a bit uncomfortable for something like magic. Me, I think it is fine for there to be situations where you might expect magic to work but in fact it doesn't for reasons only a wizard can understand, as long as it isn't clumsily and obviously something the author has pulled out of their arse to prevent the plot collapsing.

The magic in LOTR works for me not only because it is unexplained, but also pretty low-key and not even well defined. The bit where Gandalf gives a highly mechanistic explanation of what went wrong with him holding the door against the Balrog always feels to me like a passage that has fallen in from some other book entirely.

But then LOTR is a bit of a special case because it is in effect the one clearly-visible portion of a world much larger in both time and space. Tolkien deliberately included "unexplained vistas" to enhance the atmosphere, but at the same time he did devote a huge amount of effort to devising well-founded explanations in his unpublished work. So it is possible to indulge a fascination for things just out of sight by exploring the unexplained vistas through the material assembled by Christopher Tolkien - and thanks to the inchoate nature of that material it is exploration, and still leaves plenty of fascinating bits just out of sight. Orc reproduction, in its biological mechanics, is quite definitely the plain ordinary standard mammalian yuck, but its social and anthropological aspects are still pretty open questions.


Re. halberds, if that was all that people had, maybe so, but remember there were 200 years development of spears behind that. Several battles were fought in the 1290's and 1300's where armoured knights came of worst against spearmen, because a 10 to 16ft spear (One 15th century Scottish ordnance says that they should be 5 ells long, i.e. pretty much pike length) is already long enough to hold off lance weilding knights, see for instance Bannockburn.


I accept that a poleax is going to do some damage to plate, as will a couched lance. My original point was raised with respect to bad fantasy/histfic where they have hand weapons going through various armours as if they aren't there. Again mainly a TV/movie thing rather than a literature one,

Currently an argument in my bunch about how much damage a poleax will do to plate worn by a standing man, as opposed to a downed man who can be hammered. This calls for some scientific experiment at our next meet.


Accurately or otherwise, I've seen suggestions that the 16 foot couched spear was an innovation at Bannockburn.


Yes - I got that .. growth of fund ... and still think that's insane unless this is guilt-money because Sharia's become so 'in'/de riguer in that neck of the woods, or this growth is a token input from those who decided no interest (Sharia) is better than negative interest (Swiss bank accounts).


Half swording from 1410. A real joy to do. Turns the sword into a combination short spear/crowbar. Attack
the gaps in their armour, if that doesn't work batter them, if that doesn't work, put them in a lock and/or throw them and finish them at your leisure.

You can also half sword when unarmoured if you find yourself close to your opponent. Different techniques though, basically to shorten the weapon and keep control of it when you are up close and personal.


Now that's definitely getting into silly territory, requiring some quite extraordinary evidence which has somehow escaped all the professional researchers for decades-
I did some research about it last year before taking part in the re-enactment (Not the fighting part, that was run by a well known bunch of nutters, although they did a bit better than I expected).
Firstly there's not actually a lot of evidence around about how long the spears of the time were. Secondly, schiltrons are generally agreed to be an earlier innovation, and, I forget the battle, but there was one where spear armed peasants killed nobility in Flanders or thereabouts in the 1290's.


VERY late reply ....

Not a lot actually.
As someone who is an archery "Blue"- I represented my university at a tournament in that sport & ( a very-long-ago time ... ) & a trained fencer ....

Anyone who did overhand slashes as "Rob Roy" did in that scene IN A SINGLE COMBAT, would have been dead, very quickly, even with "Great Swords".
His opponent merely has to half-drop ( bend knees ) & then thrust hard - & run them through.
Been there, done that, against inexperienced opponents [ i.e I was then a 45(ish) (+) year-old teacher & my 15-year old opponent wanted a legitimate excuse to hack at a teacher (!)]
No chance at all ....
{ I was asked "What are you ON (Sir)? ... & I was't even trying or breathing hard, oops. )

As for the great war (long) bow I have a signed copy of R Hardy's first book ( signed on a "Harry Potter" set, actually ) & it is as the author says, a matter of practice & the draw-weights for a Yew bow really did go up into the 120-150lb range - hence the shoulder distortions seen in remains


Battle of Courtrai/Battle of Golden Spurs is the one you are referring to!


I wouldn't have dropped lunged at Rob Roy when he comes in with those big cuts, you might skewer him, but there's a good chance he will still connect with you. Its not a points fight and thrust aren't instant kills, various historical accounts of folks taking thrusts and still fighting on. Stay at distance and hit his hands/arms. Hard to fight when you can't hold a sword.


I think we have to remember context. LOTR is in the old tradition (along with, say, Conan), where magic was unexplained and magicians were the Other.

What we see now is a different set of traditions, ones that grow out of works like de Camp's Incomplete Enchanter (where magic is rationalized by scientists doing a portal fantasy thing from Earth), Earthsea (where the world is narrativium, but it's a second language for humans), and later on, heavy infusions of various occult (ley line) and chi theories (mostly 70s or later--I first saw these in Robert Aspirin MYTH series).

We're now in a time where unexplainable magic seems to be part of the Magic Realism tradition, while everyone else tries to come up with some theory of why and how magic works, whether magic words, magic energy, genes, the multiverse, or whatever.


A not quite canon suggestion on Orcs, Melkor's "Improvements" (That Glamdring, Orchrist and Sting reacted to.) while breeding true, would not have to be reproduced faithfully by Mandos. A deceased Orc might see a stranger in the mirror. And captured Elves would not only labor, but supply genetic diversity. BTW, if you missed the films but read the books, you've got the story, the films are pretty, but convey an incomplete story.



Okay, I'm calling Time on the technicalities of swords v. pikes/spears v. armour and on The Lord of the Rings.

While the minutiae are interesting both these topics have derailed the discussion by driving out all other issues.

So drop them, please. Right now.

(If you want a mediaeval armour/weapons topic on the blog I'll get Zornhau back in to host it.)


Clarification: I'm happy to hear more about metallurgy, the economics of stockpiling munition plate, and tangentially-related topics; I'm just fed up with comment after comment about the best way to open up a can of blue-blooded spam. Ditto LoTR: if you want to use it as a reference point in contextualizing an argument about genre high fantasy, that's fine -- but dumpster-diving the minutiae of Tolkien's world is getting tiresome.


Sex isn't just procreation and if the anthropologists are anywhere near right the range of sexual customs and behaviors across societies is pretty mind boggling.

Most of those customs and behaviors serve to limit sexual activity to rare occasions. Frequent sex usually leads to pregnancy. Too much pregnancy leads to starvation (and plague, and war).


First you say: Only, you're men, and probably missed that bit.

I point out--gently--that this has some implicitly transphobic connotations. You flip out, dig in your heels, and generally act like the very picture of offended privilege.

Then you say: No, you missed it because you probably don't know much about early Industrialization within Western countries, notably the UK which was the reference here.

So, which is it? The second one is better, sure, but that's not what you rolled with out of the gate. Why not, if that's what you really meant? Is it really so difficult for you to just admit you stepped on a rake?


To get back to the point:

Magic swords! If you had magic that could enchant a blade to be better at blading things, wouldn't you want to spend that magic on something that would be of economic benefit to the entire realm? It seems like when you see someone with a magic sword, you don't often see the enchanted tools you'd expect to go with that. Lumber axes are an obvious pick, and so are chisels. I'm sure a motivated thinker could come up with more examples. These are things that could hugely improve your industrial base, but the king doesn't seem to commission them as often as he does a sword that will likely not be used in anger more than once a generation or so. Seems like kind of a misplaced priority, to be honest.


Two of my shibboleths is non-functional and poorly designed armour.

Once again, Black Company got this right. When Croaker had a brief stint as a Dark Lord's General he wore absurdly ornate and complicated armor with enchantments to make it look like he was on fire. It was purely to be intimidating, as he understood very well that it would be useless in close combat. But, being the general, he didn't expect to get stuck in close with the enemy.


Its been a few years since I've looked at Islamic finance and even that was fairly superficial but I would suspect two things. One, funds under management are tiny (relative to total financial products) so fast growth only requires fairly small changes of commitments (see also 'green' and 'ethical' funds) and growth rates will slow as the market expands.

Two, general religious conservatism seems to be on the rise in the Islamic world - not just the out and out fanatics but the push back against secularism in Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia for instance.


Anyone who did overhand slashes as "Rob Roy" did in that scene IN A SINGLE COMBAT, would have been dead, very quickly, even with "Great Swords".

Greg, you've 100% hit the nail on the head, apart from the fact it was deliberate.

From the actor himself:

I think we worked on that fight (it was two fights and one was cut down a bit) I think we spent about three or four months working on it...

The difficulty with that is that if I have a rapier and I’m fighting someone with a broadsword I would kill him in an instant, the deal was to torture him and bring him to the brink. It was quite enjoyable. I did stab Liam at one point, which is not something that you want to stab a 6 ft man.

Tim Roth on Reddit


I just noticed a Red Card - I didn't get to read it.

Polite comment that said author was smart and 'abuse' was probably deserved.


I got sidetracked by totally unrelated material (
Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy (PDF, legal) by Stephen Duncombe) pondering on the themes of this post.

I'm still having trouble finding a fantasy series that meets the Space requirements (as above).

Changing Images of Trans People in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, Cheryl Morgan, has some interesting commentary on late Heinlein but only a single example from Fantasy: Mary Gentle’s Ilario. I've not read it, on the list.

Then something else popped up, although I suspect it's unrelated: The Sooterkin Tom Gilling. Australian Gothic/Grotesque, but chosen due to themes of reversing the usual carnival and so on. First line is "Pardon the stench".


You're doing that whole thing where you impart current modern thinking on history.

No, only to your statements, which were composed in anno domini 2015. You remember that bit I said about playground sophistry? You're giving us a master class in it right now. But I don't think we're going to be productive in this conversation, so I'm going to try very hard not to engage with it any further.

Sorry for the derail, Charlie.


Well, to detour to the real world for a second, there have been a lot of magic swords around the world (not legendary, real). In Europe, these included blades with everything from crosses to astrological and magical symbols. In Southeast Asia, there are a number of ethnographically-correct swords with attached tiger claws and such that makes them impossible to ship to other countries now (thank you CITES). In Indonesia, the patterning of a keris blade is supposed to be magical. And so forth.

As with the widespread use of folk magic turning into so many fantasy wizzards, it's unsurprising that fantasy has imported a large number of magical swords and other weapons. Why magic weapons? Well, if you've got to use a weapon for its secondary purpose,* you're generally in a fight for your life. If the local magic NPC tells you that engraving a mystical-looking symbol on the forte will give you an edge, why do you NOT believe him?

If there's a shibboleth here, it's that magic swords are just one of a large pile of standard tropes have been chewed on by so many different fantasy writers that by now, many writers have no idea where the original idea came from and are just, um, doing flourishes with it. This is also true for zombies, werewolves, vampires, elves, magicians, cold iron, and so forth.

Of course, other people complain whenever someone comes up with something new, so I guess you lose audience whether you try something new or recycle something old. Such is life (another shibboleth)

*Per Pratchett's rule of weapon design (The Fifth Elephant) weapons are primarily for display, not for killing people. The point is that if you're carrying a deadly-looking weapon, fewer people are willing to try to attack you. This explains a large number of otherwise nonsensical weapons designs out there (like lantern shields).


Given that states prioritise military spending over many other things, I can see why they'd go for magic swords over magic plowshares, especially if magic is expensive and hard to commodify.


I hadn't seen this comment prior to my last, and I appreciate the thought.


I should also point out that agricultural magic is even more common than magic swords. This is something that a lot of novels miss.


Apropos of nothing, which shibboleth is it better to subscribe to:

--Fantasy should be an exploration of real-world issues, and exploring of fantastic worlds for their own sake is stupid,


--Fantasy should be exploration of fantastic worlds as a way to expand out imaginations and get us away from our lives for a bit, and using fantasy to explore real-world issues is stupid?

And an automatic jeer of scorn to everyone who says that it's a false dichotomy, and really both should matter. That's not the point.


My reference to TERF wasn't accidental. Another poster (Private Iron) has already warned me that my brand of mirroring can offend, and would not be seen well by certain communities.

He rather foreshadowed this all - if you'd not read that exchange, you probably didn't see what I saw occurring / had already have happened. But, let's say DEFCON hackles were raised a little (we don't respond well to traps).

My point was threefold:

#1 TERF is kinda silly, but not, but silly and horrifying but also has some small truths to it (complicated: I have studied it in the same manner as the Dark Enlightenment people) and was used as a signifier. Pastiche, if you will.

#2 On a personal level, my opinion is that you're not male in any sense, and that's it. I don't have the mental schema to pry or wonder whatever about the flesh (fetishizing such things I still can't understand). I also know that my opinion on this is meaningless, since I'm not living that life.

#3 I can empathize with your pain / hurt / society, and know the score (2nd hand), but you're still going to get the same ill mannered rude ruffling and fangs. Kid gloves would be patronizing.

While I understand your position, please understand (via Miss Mudge) that some of us don't think in certain ways. You were literally not included in that group not because you don't exist, but you're simply not in that category from my viewpoint.

Suggesting otherwise, to my mind, is extremely Alien. Not so much a rake, but something else.

And I really do mean Alien.


As ever, apologies to Host, I'm sure Old Dragons are only kept around as warnings to the Younglings.


"Given that states prioritise military spending over many other things"

I don't think that's true at all, military spending is usually a fairly small proportion of modern budgets (even in the US its been tending between 15 and 20%).

It'd be trickier to work out military spending relative to other priorities in pre-modern states as the economic systems are so different and the separation state family and sovereign far more blurred. (Take the Mary Rose for example - you might say its a military expenditure but you could also argue it was built to enhance the prestige of the crown and that that requirement dominated practical considerations to the extent the ship sank...)

I'd suggest your statement feels true but only applies in times of conflict.


I would hazard a guess that in an awful lot of cases, the original source of the magic sword idea was, for the writer personally, King Arthur. It's the sort of thing you tend to come across very early in life - "everyone knows" who King Arthur is before they know much about any real kings - so the idea of the hero with the magic sword in a world of entirely non-magical agricultural implements is baked in from the beginning. Indeed the prevalence of pseudo-medieval settings probably also owes a lot to King Arthur.

(I always thought King Arthur was a bit crap and only ever liked the Python version, so I can't remember whether Excalibur was "supposed" to be a magic sword or not, but it fills that conceptual space regardless.)


On a similar vein ... apart from Pterry's Bursar, don't recall any senile dementia among magic users. Fortunately in Discworld, wizards eventually decided that not doing magic was preferable to doing magic, so we never get to see what would happen if a totally gaga wizard decided to throw some spells around ... apart from that time Ridcully decided to ignore a 'do not go into this bathroom' sign. (Damn, that man could write!)

Madness is also a pretty common cop-out to explain away atrocities or sudden changes in a key character's behavior. And often linked to god(s), i.e., god-touched. The problem is that there are better ordinary explanations possible if the author decided to do some fieldwork, i.e., observe different types of people.

More detail = more authenticity ...

I think we've gotten used to having more detailed world building in both SF and fantasy because (thanks to popular media and games), in theory 'anybody can do it'. So, if you're a professional author - the onus is on you to prove it by building a better, more detailed, internally consistent universe that has characters and events that I (the book buying public) can relate to/get excited about. The second reason is the InterWeb thingie that provides forums for exchanges re: favorite fantasy realms. Such exchanges can end up being shouting matches along the lines of 'my favorite author is better than your favorite author because he/she ... '.

Which brings me to ... modern era urban fantasy ... where/how exactly is the Internet in all of this? You can't ignore the Internet/social media: it's everywhere and likely to stick around for a very long time. I want to know why wizards can/can't cast spells via chats or tweets. Whether I need to change my firewall to block curses ... which might overtake cialis ads in the spam filter. Plus, again in keeping with modern day reality which provides massive instant communication and 24/7 connectivity ... there have gotta be some major IP issues for magic users. (Yep - I know ... see the Laundry universe. Butcher sidesteps modern communication technology by saying his wizards' powers don't play well with anything more complicated than gearboxes .. at least in the books I've read so far.)


These are things that could hugely improve your industrial base, but the king doesn't seem to commission them as often as he does a sword that will likely not be used in anger more than once a generation or so. Seems like kind of a misplaced priority, to be honest.

Back when I was working as an engineer, the managers had the best workstations (and the best chairs). The higher you went, the more expensive the computers (and the less they were used). Don't think of a magic sword as a tool, think of it as a status symbol.


The thing about magic swords is, apart from their usefulness against other people with magic swords, is their relative rarity.

Now a magic plough, that would be useful, but not as much as 500 of them. I suppose what I'm saying is 1) the magic object in the story will depend in part upon the social level of the characters within it. So King arthur, there's a hint, of course he's going to have a magical sword.
2) the rarity value, if upended, brings in interesting and not traditional fantasy ideas of egalitarianism. What if every town had people who could enchant ploughs so they were lighter or didn't break or were sharp all the time etc? What if magic was really widely spread through the populace? In which case you wouldn't have quite such an obvious hierarchy as you do in many stories.

I myself have written a good 60k words in 5 or 7 wee stories set in a pseudo-19th century setting, where almost everyone can do magic, and although we don't know quite how it works, it is very useful for making sure steam boilers don't burst, or predicting the weather (Or indeed if enough people are involved, changing it), or simply lighting gaslamps. The hero of course can't do magic at all, but we first see him being interviewed for a job at the Office of the King's Magician.
Now the reason the stories ended up being a bit familiar in terms of social milieu, is partly down to re-reading the Sherlock Holmes stories beforehand, and partly down to lack of brains to come up with something amazingly different, and also simply because I reckon that with sufficiently widespread magical capabilities in a population, especially if there aren't huge disparities in power, you will end up with a social setup less feudal etc.

Meanwhile, technological advance carries on, but half of it comes from obsessive people who keep testing different magical recipes until it works or their house explodes. Hence the legal side of it increases over the years.

The thing is I haven't read enough fantasy to know how much what I have written above has been done.


Another thing I'd suggest as obligatory reading for fantasy writers:

There is No Best Sword, an essay by Hank Reinhardt

It's been around for well over a decade, so it's a bit dated, but like On Thud and Blunder, it's aged well, and it gets at a lot of misconceptions around weapons.

[[ link fixed - mod ]]


Note: This comes from a place of infinite rhizomatic variety.

(Beautiful Creatures You Are, All Speckly and Diverse)

It's a bit Meta, but worthwhile (I think - I also understand it's not exactly a common concept).

Fantasy is really, really good at Cast-Iron Categories (in the Kantian sense) as shown by Host's comments on Races / Species and to a lesser extent, Social Order.

And I'm really struggling to find examples of the Not here.


To throw this one right back to the beginning:

A thigh bone found in Red Deer Cave in Yunnan apparently belongs to an unknown species of human that, like the ‘hobbit,’ coexisted with us until 10,500 years ago.

Three Human Species Existed Until the Late Ice Age, Discovery in China Indicates Haaretz, Dec 17th 2015.

Ahh. Oh, VD, I did warn thee. That's the fifth one.


Literal invisibility, one might think, would mean that the invisible subject couldn't interact with light. (In which case they'd be blind, never mind electrodynamically fucked up, but that's taking it too literally.)

To call out Modesitt again, he generally works on manipulation of light around the caster, and yes invisibility automatically means that the caster is blinded in darkness - no light, no seeing. So far he's fixed this through "magic sensing" of people, adjusting the shield so it blurs instead of totally blocks, or making it a movable wall on one side only. It doesn't always work ... shoot the hoofprints was one memorable event, and it doesn't work to muffle sound or scent...


Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts series has magic that requires castration, although it doesn't otherwise fit what you describe.

@274: The closest I've seen to that was in the Stormlight Archive series, where the three genders are male/female/priest. OTOH, it's heavily implied that their entire gender system was made up on theological grounds by a single woman after an apocalypse, so I'm not sure how "shoehorned in" that counts as. Also, the priesthood is too large to be composed entirely of people who don't fit their assigned genders, so the third-gender status is a bit iffy in practice.


On a similar vein ... apart from Pterry's Bursar, don't recall any senile dementia among magic users

Well, we had Windle Poons, who was pretty close to cracking under the strain of age. Death was quite the improvement in his case. Coin's father was definitely a few eggs short of a basket too.

But senile old wizards are a regular trope in anything derived from D&D. Weis & Hickman had Fizban show up in several series where he would perennially cast Fireball at exactly the wrong time.


First SF novel I wrote had a three-gendered system: male, female, faer. The idea was that gender was as much about survival as about sexuality, in that the world they were living on was such a difficult place that no one could survive alone. At minimum you needed to be married to someone. As in many cultures, they had to divvy up vital chores among (at minimum) two people in order to get everything done so that both would survive. There are parallels, notably in Oceania, where marriage was obligatory for survival purposes. Because women gardened and men fished, unattached men or women weren't getting all the food they needed to survive.

In this SF world, there were two choices: you could accept traditional gender roles for the chores (women stay home, tend the garden, take care of the kids, culture the soil fungi, and so forth), while men till the fields, herd the goats, trade, and so forth. If you accepted a traditional gender role, you were either a man or woman. If you didn't want to (or couldn't) accept these gender roles, you were faer, and had to negotiate your relationships with your partner. In this sense you could have two men or two women in a homosexual relationship, as a marriage between a man and a faer, or a woman and a faer. Or you could have a marriage of two faer of whatever gender (including hetero men and women who rejected traditional gender roles), so long as they allocated their work in such a way that they survived together. Any non-traditional relationship cis-, homo-, trans-, or other, was between or among faer. The essential question wasn't which gender you belonged to, but whether you wanted to conform to external norms or not.

My origin story for this was that the original settler population on this planet basically had no gender roles, whatever their sexuality (they were a faery folk in the sense of the radical faeries). Later on, some of their children decided that they'd be happier with more traditional gender roles, and so that became a possibility too, and the three genders arose.

It's one of those gender systems that's so sensible, it looks totally daft from the outside. I'll have to revisit that world sometime...


I forget who it was who wrote that the widespread desire for the power of invisibility - in its usual form of selective interaction with light, so you can avoid/ignore the blindness and other inconvenient aspects - was a result of insufficiently deep thinking, and a far more useful power would be "impalpability" - selective interaction with matter; you can walk through walls but need not worry about falling into the planet's core. It would make you the world's best assassin, for a start.


#2 is a bit of a lie.

I spent a few years helping a friend out with such things. Alex [MtF] is much happier now. But fuck me some of things done were not pleasant. *CHICKEN SOUP NAOW*

But the worst was moving her to a Secure Compound Facility with other Trans* people due to threats to her life.


I also know that my opinion on this is meaningless, since I'm not living that life.

That's still true. Bystanders don't get to be Crusaders.


Complicated, isn't it?


One of our Male Egos above. Had to have the spotlight.

Xmas Present (phfffft - silly Ego, no-one cares)

Good Will and Love to All.


Here's another one, which I think was lightly touched on in an earlier thread: the ecology of magical creatures.

How many cows would even a single dragon need to eat in order to sustain itself? Even if it spent centuries hibernating, its periods of activities would necessarily strip the countryside clean of all large animals. How would such a creature evolve? What kind of ecology would create a niche for such a creature? Certainly not western Europe as we know it.

You can suppose that creatures of that sort are more aberrations than things in nature. The primal forces of magic reach up and twist them into being out of the raw stuff of nightmares, so on and so on. But if you go that way, you're committing yourself to a world in which magic is The Other, an intruder, and that attitude has gone out of fashion recently. Maybe it should come back; at least it was a far more potent way to explain a lot of problems with a given setting.


Sanderson attempting gender issues is something I have to see. I'd been staying away from that series (don't like doorstops) but you've sold me, you magnificent bastard.


I don't think either of those is especially interesting.

The thing about fantasy is that it gets to use the rules that apply inside our heads, and externalize them. So it's sort of inherently stuck with a category of real-world issues, and also inherently stuck with human imagination. (We've got the adjective. We don't have the thing we can't imagine that would be better than adjectives.)

So, to me, fantasy is the "what kind of thing do I want to imagine? How well can I understand what that says about me?" genre.


There is also the Invisible Gorilla effect, aka "inattentional blindness".
Never worked for me, probably because I'm biased towards novelty, which has its own issues as CD has noted.
Perhaps the effect could be made more reliable by reliably grabbing attention, e.g. with personalized attention-grabbers for every viewer, combined with the usual removal of as much novelty as possible from the person to be made invisible.


I believe someone actually calculated how many cattle Pernese dragons would need to eat, but since that's a SF situation, I suppose the calculation makes more sense.

In any case, Pernese holders had to have been serious cattle barons to feed their air force.


In Glory Road, Heinlein's dragons generated flame by belching hydrocarbons through their teeth, whose surfaces contained small amounts of something that catalysed oxidation. So no energy required, other than that used by digestion. I think the dragons were flightless, so no problems with aerodynamics or fuel consumption needed to power flight.


Leaving aside the issue of the disease and parasite burden under which the people of much HF worlds labored (hey, anyone else watched "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" lately? Or "Jabberwocky"?)

Or read Henry Fielding's The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon:

After having stood the terrible six weeks which succeeded last Christmas, and put a lucky end, if they had known their own interests, to such numbers of aged and infirm valetudinarians, who might have gasped through two or three mild winters more, I returned to town in February, in a condition less despaired of by myself than by any of my friends. I now became the patient of Dr. Ward, who wished I had taken his advice earlier. By his advice I was tapped, and fourteen quarts of water drawn from my belly. The sudden relaxation which this caused, added to my enervate, emaciated habit of body, so weakened me that
within two days I was thought to be falling into the agonies of death. I was at the worst on that memorable day when the public lost Mr. Pelham.
From that day I began slowly, as it were, to draw my feet out of the grave; till in two months' time I had again acquired some little degree of strength, but was again full of water. During this whole time I took Mr. Ward's medicines, which had seldom any perceptible operation. Those in particular of the diaphoretic kind, the working of which is thought to require a great strength of constitution to support, had so little effect on me, that Mr. Ward declared it was as vain to attempt sweating me as a deal board. In this situation I was tapped a second time. I had one quart of water less taken from me now than before; but I bore all the consequences of the operation much better. This I attributed greatly to a dose of laudanum prescribed by my surgeon. It first gave me the most delicious flow of spirits, and afterwards as comfortable a nap.

Which demonstrates why winter was known as "the old man's friend". Fielding is also an excellent antidote to the idea that sailing ships are the marine equivalent of your magical all-terrain motorbike. For a hilarious account of the inconvenience of land travel, search for "CHAPTER XV—EARLY COACHES" in Sketches by Boz.


and I recall your observation that an industrialised mediaeval monarchy would look like North Korea.

Some telling details from Hyok Kang's This is Paradise!: My North Korean Childhood:

  • the propagandist arithmetic problems in school textbooks (*);
  • digging into rat warrens when you're starving, not only to catch and eat the rats, but to get the little heaps of rice and ears of wheat they pile up against the end of the burrow;
  • seeing your skeleton-thin schoolfriend bloat up day by day as he tries to live off grass; then one day, he doesn't come and you know he's dead.

(*) ❝The people's army, after a battle against the armies of the American imperialist dogs and the South Korean puppets, took 15,130 soldiers prisoner. Among them were 1,130 more American bastards than South Korean puppets. How many American dogs and South Korean puppets were there?❞

(*) ❝The respected Great Leader Kim Il-Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il had great consideration for children, and built a Palace of Children for them. Yong Chol lives three kilometres from the palace. To get there, he walks at a speed of 80 metres per minute. But after one kilometre he bumps into Chol Su and chats to him for five minutes. Bearing in mind that he had to be on time for his appointment, and that he has just lost five minutes, at what speed does he now have to walk to get there on time?❞

(*) ❝On a collective field of 1.37 hectares, the harvest totals 1,294.65 tonnes. Before the liberation, only 219.2 tonnes were harvested on the same area. How many more tonnes have the farmers harvested after the liberation?❞


Suppose that a Hero should reform the coinage ...

Back at the end of 2001, I took a trip round Europe to watch the euro come in. I went to the inaugural festival in the town square in Maastricht, with its Euro-tree bearing a branch and a flag for each euro-entrant, its stage across which an acrobat rolled in a giant one-euro coin, and its musical coverage provided by the provincial radio station. I got interviewed outside a cashpoint by Tokyo TV because I was the only English speaker they could find; and I bumped into the BBC Newsnight team in the Winterland fairground, because January 1st is a holiday and that was the only place they could film themselves spending a euro.

Amongst the fairground stalls selling toffee apples and speculaas was one by a company named University Games. Their product was boards with holes for all the coins of each euro-nation, which children were supposed to collect and slot in. A day or two later, I noted a primary-school book called Mijn eerste euro (My first euro), and a coffee-table volume named Vaarwel gulden (Farewell Guilder). Dutch teletext carried news of the first euro-mugging, at a cash machine in Heerlen.

I went on to Braga in Portugal, because I'd worked there before and I wanted to see how the Saturday market-stall holders were coping with the new currency. On the train through Coimbra, a passenger admired the French euros which I'd picked up while crossing from the Brussels-Paris Thalys to the Paris-Lisbon sleeper. He, so far, had only seen coins with a Portuguese national side.

The market-stall holders were doing OK, perhaps aided by euro-calculators that a pedlar was selling in Braga's central square. Other people were less happy, because a local phone company had misprogrammed its conversion routines, direct-debiting its customers 100 times too much.

And in Frankfurt, I got a nice photo of dusk over the Bundesbank, and a guided tour of the Money Museum, with its exhibition featuring monetary unification under Bismarck and its regular exhibits promoting the importance of monetary stability. At the bank's shop, I learnt that the Germans were talking of the "Teuro", because of the euro's effect on prices. I tried to buy a watch with a euro-coin watch dial and a book on the history of the Deutschmark. It had some nice George Grosz cartoons. But I didn't have enough cash, and the Bundesbank doesn't take credit cards.

In the papers, Dutch, Belgian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and German cartoonists were having a field day. One cartoon had two frames. The first showed a man zooming happily down a curved fairground slide. The second frame had pulled back, and you could see that the slide was the upper portion of a tilted €. The man was about to crash into the up-pointing double bar.

And back in Oxford, the "Keep The Pound" group had a stall outside Carfax tower selling CD's on which was a song called "Stand up for democracy, stand up for the pound". I bought a little gold lapel brooch in the shape of a £ sign.

... The Hero's reforms would have all kinds of social side-effects. But how many authors would be able to imagine them?


It's about 40 years since I last read The Lord of the Rings

LOTR is worth rereading from time to time, just to remind yourself that when you are THAT good, shibboleths don't matter.

You can't reduce LOTR to a list of fantasy tropes, no more than you can reduce a poem to a list of individual words.


Okay, coming in late because of the Yuletide celebrations.

Anyway, I wanted to talk a bit about Dungeons and Dragons - I try to roleplay somewhat and I have a lot more games than I ever have time to run, but I like to read them. I admit that somebody might have talked about this and I might have missed this - sorry about that, please mention it if that's the case.

Alignment is still a problem in D&D - the most recent edition, D&D Fifth Edition (or Next) has the "traditional" AD&D alignments of two axes of lawfulness and morality, as Charlie mentioned. They are changed a bit from what they were in AD&D, but the assumed existence of "evil" and "good" is still a problem which is not really addressed. (Also, the "Advanced" was dropped from the title in 2000 with the release of Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition.)

I and some of my friends still enjoy the game, though we usually regard the alignments more like character descriptions than anything really concrete. The spells like "detect evil" now detect extra-dimensional or otherwise "unnatural" creatures instead of "evil" or "good". The monsters still have alignments and it's kind of a given that you can slaughter lawful evil hobgoblins or chaotic evil orcs as much as you like with no repercussions.

I am starting a new campaign now and I plan to make this more interesting - though the gods are, in a way, high-level monsters. Not something that the player characters will ever get to kill and they don't get their powers directly from the worshippers, but they are still something that can be killed. It's part of the plot, at least in the beginning.

Also there has been this thing called OSR, which stands for Old School and either Revival or Renaissance. This means that there are a multitude of new RPGs which are basically the old circa Red Box era Dungeons and Dragons or AD&D 1e/2e Dungeons and Dragons games re-written and published by small indie publishers.

There are a lot of these games and their goals differ. The one I'd like to mention here is Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which is a remake of the Red Box D&D but with some differences. For example, the alignments are like in old D&D: there are only three alignments, Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic. These do not have anything to do with morals but represent the connection of the character to the supernatural powers (and let's forget the definition difficulties here). Magic-Users and Elves are Chaotic because they use magic, and magic is basically Chaos. Clerics are Lawful because their powers derive from Law - and the gods are not described in the game. The real source of power for these classes are left unclear explicitly.

All other classes can be whatever they like. Dwarves and Halflings are classes, because this is old D&D. The game mentions that all humans who have ever lived in the real world have been Neutral.

So, the alignment has an in-game meaning but it does not describe the morality of the people. The game does make a case for the characters being survivalists, just because the game can be quite deadly, and making the characters have hard choices is kind of the meat of this game.

This was a long rant, but I try to roleplay. I like it as a hobby and as an intellectual exercise.


LOTR is worth rereading from time to time, just to remind yourself that when you are THAT good, shibboleths don't matter.

I re-read LOTR with the Fondstad's map book last year, and I don't think I can read it again. I have too many difficulties with the book nowadays.

That said, I have read LOTR for about thirty times alread - most of these before the age of 20.


Correct, but with one slight alteration:
"Two, general religious conservatism seems to be on the rise in the Islamic world
The bloody christians are at it as well, though it's more obvious with the camelherders' rather than the goatherders' myth-believers.
It's probably desperation, as they do realise that they are going to *lose* to secularism & knowledge unless they do something right now.
Not going to be pleasant, though.
Do we really have to re-run all the fights of the Enlightenment all over again?
Unfortunately, it seems the answer to that is: "yes"


Current modern thinking on history
The row a about Cecil Rhodes, Corby wittering on, people campaigning for a "republic", marxists, as previously mentioned. Bloody Camoron going on about "christian traditions", euw.
Every single one of them fighting the battles of the day before yesterday or even the century before last's.
Carefully ignoring the REAL problems, like GW or the fact that we are well on the way to becoming a plutocracy.

I'm beginning to wonder if it's deliberate, in the sense of: "Look, a Gorilla!" - all these supposed pressure & interest groups chasing shadows & ignoring the reality.
( Discuss a n other time? )


Big Python will eat a goat or a deer about once every 4-6 months ...
Scale for a dragon - 2-3 cows for approx the same time-period, I suspect.


IF this is allowed - re "rarity of magic & wizards" ..
In LotR, the wizards are not humans - they are "higher-order" ( "angelic") beings sent or migrated across to Middle Earth - their powers are therefore mandated by Mandos & understandably unusual etc.
Special case, though, based on JRRT's eschatology & world-system.


The King Arthur myth/legend.
Mythology generally has multiple levels of meaning. For example, Arthur does what nobody else can, which is pull the sword from the stone/anvil and thereby become king.
The actual message is simple - swords make kings.


Wouldn't it be more useful, and more true, for the message to be that canniness and political nouse make kings?


No, because in the end it all comes down to coercion or the credible threat of it.
The reason most Westerners don't see it is because it is hidden deeper than in, say, North Korea.
However, if you say "No" long enough and loud enough and do not cooperate you will soon be facing armed forces, starting with policemen and tasers and going all the way up to nuclear weapons.


Oh dear.
Have I contradicted myself?
Look at posts # 344 & 345.

In one, I'm worrying that we will, indeed have to re-fight yesterday's battles for freedom of thought & expression against the forces of (usually religious) reaction & obscurantism. [ note ]
Whilst in the other I'm condemning people for (re)fighting battles of which the outcome is already known or are irrelevant.
Perhaps the get-out is that the first category is a perpetual battle, which has been ongoing since Socrates & the other classical philosophers started asking about what are the limits of freedom & "what is good" & always will continue whilst governments try to balance ( or maybe NOT balance ) the demands of control sufficient to run a state, whilst allowing the citizens whatever modicums of freedom are "permitted" or, better allowed as of right.
Charlie appears to be addressing these problems in the "Merchant Princes" set & the upcoming trilogy, maybe?
Whereas the second category really is sterile ....

note] Is there any social, scientific or technical advance which has not been opposed by "the church", whether that "church is christian, muslim, or a n other, I wonder?


However, if you say "No" long enough and loud enough and do not cooperate you will soon be facing armed forces, starting with policemen and tasers and going all the way up to nuclear weapons.

You are describing it like it is something wrong, but society is built on cooperation. That's the whole point of having a society. I understand the frustration of not being given a choice of being born into it, but that is a choice no one was ever given.


... The Hero's reforms would have all kinds of social side-effects. But how many authors would be able to imagine them?

If you haven't read it already, you need to run (not walk) to your nearest source of books and grab hold of "The Traitor Baru Cormorant" by Seth Dickinson (titled simply "The Traitor" in the UK).

Grimdark secondary world fantasy, with accountancy practices as a tool of empire -- and more. (It's top of my personal list of things I'm nominating for a Hugo award this year.)


I'm not complaining - all societies need levels of coercion.
What I am saying is that whoever controls the most coercion has the biggest say in society.
Traditionally, it would be the strong king.


I'm beginning to wonder if it's deliberate, in the sense of: "Look, a Gorilla!"

Only a little bit.

I have a couple of rules of thumb for evaluating mass public trends. They include:

1. People are easily distracted.

2. Bigotry is fractal.

3. If you can't compress a concept into a 140 character tweet, then at least 50% of the public are incapable of understanding it.

3a (Corollary of 3): at least 50% of the population are unable to learn to understand even basic statistics.

3b (Another corollary): complex ideas don't win elections.

We know that the big oil industry groups understood the implications of anthropogenic climate change as far back as the late 1970s/early 1980s -- understood at a quantitative, rigorously modelled level -- indeed, awareness of atmospheric CO2 as a greenhouse gas and speculation that burning stuff would lead to warming goes back to the early years of the 20th century. Just as the theory of continental drift was kicking around for decades before it finally got some degree of traction in the 1950s/60s and became widely accepted by the 1970s. Just as "animalcules" had been observed by Van Leeuwenhoek as far back as 1700, and Semmelweis' germ theory of disease dates to the 1840s/50s but wasn't widely accepted until the 1880s/1890s.

Basically none of those ideas (climate change, continental drift, germ theory of disease) are easily reduced to a sound bite because they rely on innovative analysis of existing data that defies orthodox opinion; so they took at least a generation to receive general acceptance. (And if we run into a faster/more acute crisis than climate change ... well, we're stuffed. See also: widespread emergent antibiotic resistance because Chinese collective farm workers feed wide spectrum a/b's to chickens and pigs to make them grow fat.)

Random thought: are there high fantasy genre works that play with this sort of cultural inertia -- where the ground rules for magic have changed, but nobody really believes it and they're all sailing towards a waterfall as a result?


4 - If it takes you a paragraph to refute a one sentence claim, you lose.


+1 on Baru Cormoront. It is an excellent, highly disturbing book.

"The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." -Steve Biko


5 - Appeal to emotion beats logic every time


Barbara Hambly's Sisters of the Raven series is similar. Background: Magic could only be done by men. Suddenly, men's magic rapidly weakened, and women could for the first time do magic.

Needless to say, in a patriarchal society, this didn't go down well. And since a big part of what mages did was bring rains in the rainy season, the country was facing drought. But nobody wanted those pesky women to lend a hand.

Happy Holidays to all. Thanks to Charlie for hosting this wonderful blog.


Background: Magic could only be done by men. Suddenly, men's magic rapidly weakened, and women could for the first time do magic.

Wow, that's a wish-fulfillment fantasy if I ever saw one!


The gender issues aren't a huge part of the series, just to let you know. They're definitely present, but they haven't had much of a major impact on the plot.


How would dragons evolve? Well, it all began with a lizard that lit its farts.

The proto-dragon regulated the temperature of incubation of its eggs by the combustion of intestinal gases. The ability to produce flame thus became an indicator of reproductive fitness, and runaway sexual selection took hold, like the peacock's tail.

As the flaming became ever more extravagant the creatures' diet had to change to provide sufficient fuel. They moved from burning fermentation gases to burning fuel derived from dietary fat, and began to inhabit cold, remote coastal areas where they could prey on very fatty animals, from petrels to seals and walruses. (Hence Puff the magic dragon living by the sea.)

Some species became extremely large, and shifted diet again; they would remain at sea for months on end, gradient-soaring like albatrosses and skimming oily plankton from the sea with their jaw, like petrels. Going "direct to the source" as it were enabled them to collect fuel much more efficiently. (The "beard" of bearded dragons is essentially a plankton collector.)

However, being still basically land animals, they had to breed on land, spending long periods incubating their eggs in mountain caves and fastnesses. It is a shared duty; at intervals one of the pair takes over from the other looking after the eggs. The currently-unoccupied one will prey on land animals if it gets peckish, preferring livestock over wild animals as they are generally fatter.

So they alternate their time between a marine phase, collecting fuel, and a land phase, which begins with a spectacular mating display involving lots of stuff getting burnt and then becomes quieter while the eggs incubate, which takes years, marked by occasional episodes of livestock predation.

Some species on the other hand became fully pelagic, having developed an incubation chamber allowing them to incubate their eggs inside their bodies. These generally lost the ability to breathe fire as it is not much use as a display when you are under water. They became the sea serpents.


I liked in SP Somtow's The Shattered Horse when the hero and pals magically improve the fertility of the fields with their personal plows.

I think most people rich enough for swords put some kind of classy, tacticool, religious, or magical goop on the hilts for show. When great Caesar was told his soldiers were putting gold and jewels on their weapons, Caesar said, 'Good, now they are less likely to drop them and run away.'

Gilliland's Wizenbeak is a water wizard who finds water and helps construction for a desert settlement, after a career as mountebank and magic glassworks manager. The magic is well integrated into the society's industrial base.


If you haven't read it already, you need to run (not walk) to your nearest source of books and grab hold of "The Traitor Baru Cormorant" by Seth Dickinson (titled simply "The Traitor" in the UK).

Grimdark secondary world fantasy, with accountancy practices as a tool of empire -- and more. (It's top of my personal list of things I'm nominating for a Hugo award this year.)

Thanks. I'll do that!

But on my trip, I was looking out not only for economic and financial side effects of the euro-inkomst, but also what I think of as second-order social effects. The Farewell Guilder art books; the editorial cartoons; the Portuguese pedlars selling euro-calculators; the Portuguese train passengers craning for a glimpse of my French euros; the collect-all-euro-coins game. Does Dickinson texture his worldbuilding richly enough to include such?

I once wrote a post "Ten failures of prediction; or, what the SF writers didn't foresee about telepathy". That question was behind it too. I've always remembered an essay by Asimov. Imagine that an eccentric and solitary genius has just invented the motor car.

In your typical first-generation SF story, Asimov said, idea is all. The first 40% of story will describe the theory behind the zelvkinetron's propulsion unit, down to wiring diagrams and the solder used. Maybe the inventor runs out of wire just before he's made the final connection, and in a last-ditch attempt to flee the town bully who is after his girl, performs miracles of improvisation with the lid off a cat-food can. Then there's a brief spell of bucolic scenery description — hello trees, hello fields, how glorious to speed so swiftly past the horses — before the zelvkinetron actually does go into a ditch. Our hero tries frantically to unglatch the frannistan, and discovers sabotage. By the horse-freight interests, no doubt (†). To his shame, he has to ride home on one of those very horses he sped so condescendingly past; but on the final page, ideas for improvement and security whirl madly in his brain. Watch out for the zelvkinetron Mark II! (‡)

But in your typical second-generation story, the writer concentrates on consequence. Half a million vehicles pour into the city every morning: where on earth do we put them all? And so on, to as rich a world as the author can imagine.

(†) Christopher Anvil wrote a story called “Bugs”, set in a kind of alternate universe where the horse-freight interests actually did sabotage the nascent car industry. The result was a horribly incompatible transport system which should serve as a warning to anyone who has ever written software.

(‡) My plot, not Asimov’s.


Sense of smell – real-world vs. fantasy –

Smell (anosmia) … women generally have a better sense of smell than men, the sense of smell (olfaction) declines with age, and loss of smell can be the result of illness or trauma. I suppose like the other senses, it is also possible to be born without this sense.

Why smell should matter in fantasy … smell is localized in the same brain regions as religiosity such as the temporal lobe, esp. following stroke, severe head injury/trauma. And there’s some evidence that sociopaths have an impaired sense of smell. (Cantina … these may be some of the real-world connections re: some of your earlier comments. )

This is also the reason why I prefer authors who do their observational homework: they don’t know why someone is acting the way they are, they observe/record a scene/interaction without prejudice.

‘Anosmia (/ænˈɒzmiə/) is the inability to perceive odor or a lack of functioning olfaction—the loss of the sense of smell. Anosmia may be temporary, but some anosmia (including traumatic anosmia) can be permanent. Anosmia is due to a number of factors, including an inflammation of the nasal mucosa, blockage of nasal passages or a destruction of one temporal lobe. Inflammation is due to chronic mucosa changes in the paranasal sinus lining and the middle and superior turbinates. Since anosmia causes inflammatory changes in the nasal passageways, it is treated by simply reducing the presence of inflammation.[1] It can be caused by chronic meningitis and neurosyphilis that would increase intracranial pressure over a long period of time,[2] and in some cases by ciliopathy[3] including ciliopathy due to primary ciliary dyskinesia (Kartagener syndrome, Afzelius' syndrome or Siewert's syndrome).[4] Many patients may experience unilateral anosmia, often as a result of minor head trauma.’

‘A study by Mahmut & Stevenson (2012) has found impaired senses of smell in people with sociopathic tendencies. The study sample consisted of 79 subjects, and the sample was taken from the community (as opposed to a psychiatric clinic). Researchers found that people that scored highly on sociopathic traits had more difficulty identifying scents and differentiating between scents. The researchers hypothesize that not only may sociopathic behavior be connected to frontal brain impairment, but there may also be impairment in other olfactory areas of the brain. The amygdala is one of the parts of the brain that process olfactory sensations, or smells. The amgydala is also connected to social interaction and aggression, two traits that may be found in people with sociopathic behavior. The study authors stated that it would be more difficult to "fake good" or "fake bad" on an olfactory test. ‘

Excalibur – ex calibre … A TV quasi-doc said that Excalibur was the first sword made out of poured metal (ex calibre = out of a mold), making it a technological innovation. A similar sounding word/name ‘excuditur’ (cut out) would suggest that the sword was cut out of a single sheet of metal. So again, a technological innovation.

Thing is … the name of Arthur’s sword varies by region of origin myth, so has different meanings.

355 Charlie: ‘… so they took at least a generation to receive general acceptance ...’

Suggests life span determines ‘progress’ which is why elder-worship is baked into some cultures. Technology uptake is faster if it makes chores easier; it’s slower if it edges into moral/religious territory. Example: watching a pre-recorded service on TV is not the same as going to church on Sunday. Think this is also true in civic law: people still have to appear in person to wed; they can’t get legally married via online exchange of vows.

‘… where the ground rules for magic have changed, but nobody really believes it and they're all sailing towards a waterfall as a result?’

Isn’t this exactly what LOTR is about – age of man, industrialization, etc.? And the Arthurian legend as per Tennyson’s ‘… the old order changeth, yielding place to new …’.

Happy Holidays to all!


There is a huge variation between Humans when it comes to the sense of smell.


Here are my rules, in addition to yours

1) Whatever you do, appear strong. A portion of the population will accept only ideas they define "strong", regardless of the sanity of the ideas. This was a huge appeal to GW Bush in the US, and is currently a huge appeal to my acquaintances who support Trump.

1)a) If you can't do strong, make sure that you do most of the work in the background. That was the deregulation tactic in the 1990s, when debates about the deregulation were confined to the fourth section of the newspaper because people found them "boring".

2) Look at what people do, rather than what they say. I may be totally misreading the situation, but a lot of people who vote in national elections to improve racial tolerances vote the other way in their neighborhood, or at least use the Asian population to argue they're diverse enough.

2)a) Be careful with 2, because some actions are due to a legitimate lack of choice. In the 1990s, the perception was that in the US, most people would say that they opposed GMOs. Many of those people would say that they would pay more for non-GMO food, but the few attempts to introduce such food fizzled out due to lack of demand. Then the organic certifications were introduced...

3) Be careful of accusing people of hypocrisy. Sometimes contradictions between belief and action are due to lack of opportunity, not lack of intent.


Terrific article - thanks, Dirk!

Off-topic cuteness break: nature story with video of otter mom and newborn pup.


Also has an initial map that must unique in being a chart of power structures and not terrain


If you want to see something, try:

Running Wild With Bear Grylls And President Barack Obama Special
[YouTube: 41:53] Dec 20th 2015.

Yes, POTUS called Piss-Drinking-SAS LEGEND to SMACK SOME CLIMATE KNOWLEDGE into the History Channel Crowd. (Spoiler: Aliens).

I wish I was joking. They have some self-respect, there's a few "behind the scenes" asides that acknowledge it's faker than fake.

But yes, you're at the Rubicon.


For UK people who are far more tuned into things (there's some serious noise about this in certain circles), a question:

Why did the Queen's speech mention "A year after a death"?

Who died last year to warrant that specific mention? Or what?

Given the back-ground knowledge here that's frankly scary, count that one as a Wish-Fulfillment request if there's a serious answer.



Hobbes's Serpent Cycle has it going the other way - tiny fry in big ocean, grow up to be big sea serpents, cocoon, dragons.

It's basic distribution of large predator onto multiple food chains.

Note: you can't have dragons without other large herbivores, if they're carnivorous.


Note: you can't have dragons without other large herbivores, if they're carnivorous.

Sauropods. Ceratopsians seem to have had a similar knack for occupying a huge slice of the ecosystem and having consequently enormous numbers, but sauropods are cooler.

Trying to do it with ruminants is just dreary. Mammoth steppe in a glaciated world (so the steppe is getting lots of sunlight even when cold) would be a reasonable second choice. I still think sauropods would be more fun.


somewhere there's a novel that needs writing about the magic-world equivalent of the Hanford Site

Eyes of the Dragon, an S. King opus of the 80s, featured a wizard spicing the king's wine with a single grain of substance from far off lands described as endless miles of toxic powder piled in wind drift dunes. Days later the king died spectacularly of spontaneous combustion, but at least when the hero protagonist crept into the castle by way of its sewage system, it was entirely free of vermin from the wizard pouring his excess poison down the drain. So like botox, there's always a market for innovative applications, just need to find a positive spin.


Suppose that as well as Earth-type animals, the world contains living flames. They might be plasma creatures as in Arthur C. Clarke's "Out of the Sun", maybe ball lightning that has learned to hold itself together by controlling its own magnetic field. Or they might be something quantum, or based on magic and therefore in no need of explanation.

Whatever they are, they find life easiest where there's methane. [Insert handwaving about the special properties of tetrahedral carbon, and for novelty, a molecular-orbital diagram and electron-density plot: as far as I know, not even Greg Egan has used one of those. For extra cred, do something with electron-nuclear coupling.] The flames' original source of methane was wetlands, but these have been lost due to climate change / urban development / desertification caused by mana overflow from warring magicians.

Fortunately, there are these large lizardy things which burp a lot. And they burp methane... Over millenia, the flames come to live in loose association with the lizards. The flames evolve better control of their shape and timing: they provide defence, hunting weapons, cookery (so that the lizards can expend less energy building jaws and teeth), and heat during winter. The lizards evolve to tolerate the bright light and heat from the flames: they provide, as already mentioned, the methane.

Lizard and flame evolve to understand one's body language at least as well as man and dog do in our world. And then the lizards evolve courtship rituals in which the lizard most attractive to a prospective mate is the one who, via subtle body movements, can entice the most elaborate dance from its flame. This is a sign of intelligence and good body control, and hence of fitness to breed.

Perhaps, if the flames are sexual too, their courtship works the same way. They make the lizards dance. But I've realised that I'm now departing from the standard model as regards dragons, so I'll stop.


Why are people lumping around 50kg+ of steel if the damn thing doesn't have the slightest effect against the hero's weapon?

I was 14 or 15 when I saw "Excalibur", and I recall thinking "Why is anyone bothering with armor? Every sword and spear strike goes right through it!"


Terrific example of a Just So evolution story. Bravo!


… where the ground rules for magic have changed, but nobody really believes it and they're all sailing towards a waterfall as a result?

Modesitt has this most closely in his Recluce books in The Death of Chaos - up until then Chaos and Order have been balanced between the White and Black orders of wizardry. However his third faction has started using large amounts of mechanical equipment which increases the amount of Order, therefore Chaos is becoming more powerful as well, but instead of concentrating in one person as a focus, it is just bursting out everywhere as volcanic activity etc.

The conclusion involves tying up lots of both together, and is not pretty for the world, or for any of the magic users involved.

Mercedes Lackey sorta covers it in the Mage Storms series, where the extensive Empire of the East, which uses magic for everything - transportation, military, food growing, heating, lighting, everything - is about to undergo a severe collapse because the way magic works is about to go through the wringer as the waves of the Cataclysm reflect back to the origin points. Their cut off army has to go right back to basics to remember how to cook and clean, let alone anything else.

You could tenuously count Weis & Hickman's Darksword trilogy in there, with the magic users vs the Dead (unable to use magic) invasion, but it's not exactly High Fantasy.

John Ringo of all people used the Magic Goes Away idea in his Council Wars series, though that's a SF/Fantasy blurred line. The series is mostly military fantasy about survivalists and re-enactors recreating society after the collapse and the wars between them, so the pre-waterfall is pretty brief.

I'm pretty sure Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn should count, but I can't think of a good justification. The revelations change how magic works, but not utterly until the very end, and they go into that with eyes open.
It is a really good example of the Nice Job Breaking It Hero trope though.


Random thought: are there high fantasy genre works that play with this sort of cultural inertia -- where the ground rules for magic have changed, but nobody really believes it and they're all sailing towards a waterfall as a result?

There The Magic Goes Away by Larry Niven (and the two sequel anthologies). Not certain if you'd count that as high fantasy. I remember enjoying it a lot as a teenager.


Anosmia can also be caused by some illnesses: my maternal grandmother had no sense of smell after an illness as an adolescent.


We're past 300 posts, so I feel comfortable in asking just WHY has steampunk become part of fantasy rather than science fiction?

I'm not a devout reader of the genre, but have read a couple of early works including The Difference Engine and Infernal Devices. Both seemed to take the science and technology seriously and seemed like alt-history science fiction, not fantasy.

Did authors realise that the tech was never going to work? Did the audience change and the authors wrote what was now being demanded?


Note: you can't have dragons without other large herbivores, if they're carnivorous.

Sure you can. Dragons are the giant, fire-breathing equivalents of ant-eaters, and human cities are the equivalent of termite mounds.

Most carnivores eat things that are smaller than they are and can't kill the predator.* Only a few pack hunters specialize in going after living animals that are bigger than they are. This is one reason why the sauropod/blue whale defense (get too enormous to kill) works pretty well, where there are resources to support it.

*In the most abstract terms, predators are trying to optimize two conditions: minimizing the effort to obtain a prey item, and maximize the resource and energy return from each prey item. Prey items that are common but fairly useless (for example, flies as prey for humans) are generally ignored, and things that are high quality but very dangerous (other humans, for example) are also generally ignored as prey. There are people who ate fly larvae (the Mono Lake Kutsavi tribe did, because there are billions of fly larvae in season on the shores of Mono Lake, and they're edible), and of course, cannibalism is a thing under certain circumstances (such as WWII on the Japanese side in places like New Guinea) where there's a supply of human corpses and not much else to eat.


50kg of steel
You what?
A good sword is NOT HEAVY - that's the, err, "point".
My practice sabre "weighs" under 300g (I've just measured that!) & , even if you added an extra zro by mistake, a sword weighing even 5kg is too heavy.
The "point-of-balance" should be only just into the forte of the blade - i.e. approx 10-15 cm from the front of your fingers.
Ye gods, there's some cobblers talked & written about swords & their use ....


WAS "the tech never going to work"?
Are we really sure about that?
Suppose that the widespread use of electrical devices came along a little as 20 years later, whilst mechanical sophistication proceeded as before ....
You would get electromechanical steampunk, I suspect.
Um, err ....


See also the very recent D Attenborough-commented series on BBC TV (Should be still available to watch on demand) about "The Hunt" ...
And that less than 50% - often less than 10% of individual predator "attacks" are successful.


To which, I may add that:

The Medieval-period people weren't stupid.
They realised perfectly well that a "rapier" would be a better weapon, but their metallurgy wasn't up to it.
The supposed sword of Henry V ( Yes, the victor of Agincourt) is, I think, in the Museum of London.
It is shorter than one might expect & it is not that heavy, either.
It was the best compromise that the best smiths of the period could devise.
See also, reference to M S Rohan's "Winter of the World" series, where a multiple-hammered, bound-wire sword is made & re-forged to make an "ultimate" hand-weapon in ( I think ) the first book of the series.


50kg of armour not 50kg of sword.


The classic - rapier v katana.
The rapier runs the katana man through a few milliseconds before the katana cuts rapier man in half.


And speaking of urban phantasy, and practical armor, this is probably street legal. If you want to back it with some Kevlar, go for it...


At risk of yellow carding - no, medieval people didn't think rapiers were better. Yes, their metallurgy probably wasn't quite up to it, but there's a significant difference between types of swords and their uses, also whether you are fighting in armour or not. Rapiers are civilian weapons, useless when others are armoured, so pretty pointless on a medieval battlefield. Meanwhile, civilians did well enough with bucklers and single handed swords and the like. Also your modern practise sabre is nothing like a 19th century one; too light and different balance.

Dirk #338 - I'm not aware of any legislation against the wearing of armour. Obviously if it had spikes on it, that might be different. You'd look pretty stupid walking down the street in it, but as long as you weren't carrying an offensive weapon or had a good excuse/ were actually known to them, you'd probably be okay when stopped by the police, if you ever actually meet any.

I suppose the danger in crittin fantasy works is that you can be concerned that the fantasy world isn't real enough, which I am guitly of. OF coruse it isn't real it's supposed to be fantastical entertainment.


It's easy enough to make your own phantasy world real. Just not good for ones mental health. Here is a relatively healthy example, but the techniques employed (which I won't describe) can lead one down rather nasty rabbit holes.


"I should also point out that agricultural magic is even more common than magic swords. This is something that a lot of novels miss."

"Even more common"? Oh, come off it! In parts of the world that actually used and use 'magic', magic weapons and armour didn't/don't even register. Agricultural and medical magic were/are the biggies, in both positive and negative forms, with things like shape changing, life extension and posssession spoken of in hushed voices.

What most people seem to miss is that stories of that era were not merely about an elite < 1% of the population (whether noble, heroic or lucky), they were (even at the time) about a highly mythologised version of the lifestyle that small section. Even in most 'realistic' fiction, you get information on the lifestyle of of the masses from incidental remarks and not the main story.


Because steampunk is as unrealistic as high fantasy. Many of the massive changes in society of the Victorian era were directly caused by the increased level and use of technology, and there is no way that you could extrapolate the technology while preserving the society. That is entirely different from saying that the social developments had to be of the forms that they took in real life.


Also, genres are basically marketing categories. The set of customers looking for a mythologized version of the past is different from the set of customers looking for extrapolations about the future.

To me, women seem to be driving the appeal of steampunk and other Victoriana. It seems to be a way of flouting social roles (for a thrill) without going beyond anyone's comfort zone. The patriarchs in steampunk exist solely to be flouted, in much the way that orcs exist solely to be killed in "high" fantasy.


We're past 300 posts, so I feel comfortable in asking just WHY has steampunk become part of fantasy rather than science fiction?

(Also noteworthy are Michael Moorcock's Oswald Bastable books (starting IIRC with "The Warlord of the Air") and Harry Harrison's "A TransAtlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!" -- both from the 1970s and prefiguring steampunk in SF mode.)

Blaylock, Powers, and Jeter -- the triumvurate who more or less invented steampunk for themselves in the 1980s (note also, they were the gang of geeky kids who hung out with that weird guy Phil Dick) -- were unconcerned with the genre category thing.

It was only a decade or two later that we saw what was initially pigeon-holed as "gaslamp fantasy" (thank you, Phil Foglio) really take off. There's the aesthetic fashion-driven thing that came out of real-world music subcultures -- from the 70s New Romantics via Goth in the west, and hybridised via Gothic Lolita in Japan -- which to some extent could be seen as a backlash against the modernist fashions that drove out Victorian excesses of drapery at the turn of the 20th century (fashion subcultures often define themselves in terms of rebellion against the prevailing acceptable norm). There was also the re-examination of the pre-WW1 era as a historical thing, after the last people to have first-hand or word-of-mouth experience of it finished dying of old age: it stopped being something your grandparents had grown up in and started being part of History, the stuff of myths and legends.

Do you power your myths or legends with real engineering or with fantasy? The "real engineering" route probably worked better for people from the pre-1980 era, when machines had moving parts and reciprocating bits and burned fuel and did work -- everyone was familiar with machinery descended from the Victorian, be it an old Singer sewing machine or an oily, flatulent carburettor-fed petrol engined car. But by the 1980s the vast smokestack industries of yore were deteriorating into rustbelt ruins, computers (which themselves are pretty magical: you utter the correct incantation and stuff happens -- sometimes the wrong stuff) were showing up, and the prevailing metaphor for "modernizing development" was informational, not physical.

The Victorian/gaslight period was a modernizing, rapidly changing era. But folks who wanted to play with the nuts and bolts of it, in fiction, could still read Dickens -- Dickens, James, and the other authors of that period are far more accessible than the writing of the mediaeval era -- if you wanted to keep it rigorous there was and is a market for Victorian-setting mainstream fiction. (See for example much of Sarah Waters' work.) SFnal Victoriana (cf. "The Digging Leviathan" by Blaylock) wasn't a runaway commercial hit; but Fantasy Victoriana (cf. "Girl Genius" by Phil and Kaja Foglio) is -- magic is a better fit for our contemporary metaphor of getting stuff to work, we're alienated from old-school mechanical engineering by all those engine management black boxes and "no user serviceable parts inside" labels, and magic is easier to write than stuff like rigorously extrapolated steam-powered airships with plausible engineering.


a way of flouting social roles (for a thrill) without going beyond anyone's comfort zone


Realist-mode novels with a Victorian setting are generally rather unpleasant for female protagonists, albeit in lesser degree then realist-mode antebellum settings are unpleasant for non-white protagonists. (Hint: humans-as-property is bad, although at least white non-lower-class females in Victorian England were relatively privileged property who weren't arbitrarily sold on a whim by their owners.) A woman with no money or connections dumped in Victorian London was almost certainly bound for the poor-house or prostitution. It's notable that most of the female-with-agency steampunk works focus on unmarried upper-class female protagonists with remarkable access to money or enlightened friends.

(Notable exceptions I can think of: "The Oversight" and sequels by Charlie Fletcher; "Karen Memory" by Elizabeth Bear: there will be more out there. But you get the idea.)


Random really important note wrt. Steampunk: the 19th century was not only noteworthy for a breakthrough in the harnessing of energy for manufacturing/transport processes, but for a collapse in the price of cloth.

Go back to the 1350s and the modern-money-equivalent price of a shirt was around $3500. Fabric was monstrously expensive -- all clothing was bespoke, it would be patched and resized and reshaped to fit newer styles until it fell apart, the poor would rely on hand-me-downs or second, third or fourth-hand garments, and you could tell someone's class at a glance simply because they wore their wealth on their body, the way that today you can look at someone's car and tell that the guy with the latest-model Porsche 911 is not poor, and the woman driving the fifteen-year-old hatchback with rusty door sills probably finds it a struggle to fill its gas tank.

Then in the 18th century the Spinning Jenny comes along, followed by the mechanical looms, and kick the planks out from under the artisanal cloth production: then the sewing machine mechanizes stitching long seams, and the cost of fabric (and garments) goes into free fall through the 19th century. Victorian clothing looks ornate and stiflingly elaborate to our eyes because it was a wealth signalling mechanism.

(Day-to-day clothing isn't really a wealth signalling mechanism any more, except at the absolute top end, because it's hard to spend the price of a new car on a non-formalwear outfit, and if you did, most people wouldn't look at you and realize that your clothing screamed "rich"; it'd be a pointless gesture. Formalwear is a different matter, but see also.)

Anyway: clothing, status displays, exponential falls in production costs due to mechanization, fashion trends driven by an earlier century's imperatives becoming increasingly elaborate if not baroque ... then clothing is decoupled from routine status displays, and a lifetime later some people start doing dress-up as a subculture thing because it gives them an outlet for non-conformity. That's one hypothesis to bear in mind: but don't confuse the outward signifiers with the underlying social/psychological imperative, Steampunk semiotics are very different from Victoriana. (And this is something I think Neal Stephenson got very wrong in "The Diamond Age".)



Maybe I should yank comments 395-397 out and turn them into a new blog essay?

(But: new guest blogger coming up in a day or two ...)


" AGAs " ..which gave birth to the genre " AGA SAGA "? " The Aga saga is a sub-genre of the family saga of literature. The genre is named for the AGA cooker, a type of stored-heat oven that came to be popular in medium to large country houses in the UK after its introduction in 1929. It refers primarily to fictional family sagas dealing with British "middle-class country or village life".[1] The nickname "Aga saga" is sometimes used condescendingly about this type of fiction.[2] The term was incorporated into the Oxford Companion to English Literature in 2000.[3]" People may be thinking too HIGH towards the Planet Middle Class. Reality for most people in the British Working Classes was closer to this ..

My Grandmother cooked a coal fired cooking range until well into the 1970s. You'd be amazed at what could be cooked in and on these ranges; she did very good bread.

Until the slums started to be replaced by council housing estates a great deal of the housing for the urban poor was in " Victorian " houses that were divided up into two room flats and all heating and cooking came from the coal fire range that was in the Main room. Water - for shaving say - was in a bowl on the landing and the water came from a cold water tap out in the yard that was alongside of the Lavatory.

Ah the good old days of yore eh?


I'd love to see this:

Steampunk semiotics are very different from Victoriana. (And this is something I think Neal Stephenson got very wrong in "The Diamond Age".)

unpacked a bit.


You have it right; I was using "aga" as a generic rather than an (over-priced) brand name.


Not just clothing, though that's one of the more extreme. Household, garden and agricultural implements were similar, and iron ones often ended up as nails. But even they were wooden until very late. Small change was sometimes given in pins until well after the first world war.


Here's your unpacking: the social meaning of descriptions of clothing is very different in a steampunk story from a historical Victorian story (or in real historical context) because the steampunk thing is not an accurate reconstruction of an earlier age's sensibilities but a wish-fulfilment vehicle for contemporaries of ours who want to play dress-up.

See also the earlier observation that the Victorian paterfamilias in steampunk is typically there as a foil/comedy villain for the female lead to struggle against/defeat -- whereas in an actual Victorian novel he's the head of the household, the runaway girl is wrong, demented, and a danger to herself who needs to be brought to heel/taught the error of her ways ... and if she goes wrong, shrug: we can always send her to the asymlum and make sure to be less lax with her younger sister.

It's like comparing Captain Hook in Peter Pan with the real, historical Edward Teach: one's a harmless fantasy rendition of something long-gone and leached of all potential for real harm, and the other was the 17th/18th equivalent of Da'esh. (Violent, but with very good PR that inflated his reputation and did a lot of his work for him.)

As for "The Diamond Age" ... Neal wanted to depict a new age of quasi-Victorian mercantilist entrepreneurialism, with a side-order of imperialism. Well, fine. But then he dressed it up in actual Victorian drag -- elaborate costumery, puritanical public morality, and private hypocrisy. The trouble is, aspects of his world-building are internally inconsistent. Women in his elite subculture appear to have had nominally equal rights and independent means -- they were valued as productive citizens and could work outside the home -- but they still followed a Victorian code of sexual conduct rooted in female subordination and lack of independent agency. (And which in real historic fact tended to be honoured only to the extent that people didn't admit in public to their affairs outside of marriage.) Also, their families stuck to a mid-20th century post-demographic transition nuclear family structure, rather than the typically much messier pre-transition families -- high death rate/high birth rate and no social security as such tended to result in lots of kids, step-parents, and elderlies/unmarried siblings living alongside the married couple, at least among the non-upper-class. Upshot: it smelled wrong to me. I'm not saying you couldn't maybe get to a plausible late 21st/early 22nd quasi-Victorian culture from here, but a bunch of necessary intermediate steps didn't show up in the book (steps necessary to explain a sexually-repressed workaholic outwardly-puritan ruling class, I mean).


Maybe I should yank comments 395-397 out and turn them into a new blog essay?

We are living in such an unprecedented era in human history, is it surprising that almost ANY historical setting is rapidly turning into myth and fantasy?

Steam punk is just a start. Diesel punk will become fantasy as well. I mean, 30 years ago there were no cellphones, no internet and no GPS - how the hell do you relate to those people? They might as well lived in caves...


the steampunk thing is not an accurate reconstruction of an earlier age's sensibilities but a wish-fulfilment vehicle for contemporaries of ours who want to play dress-up.

That's true from most kinds of fantasy.


Dieselpunk has been a thing for about a decade, now -- just not as visible as Steampunk (or their sibling, Atompunk).


speaking of tropes, 50KG or amrour has to be in there somewhere in addition to swords to takes a strong man to lift.

Hardly any real swords were heavily then 2-3kg and the ones that were, were weird showpieces of the really late Landsknecht era

Armor could run from 20KG for maille, but significantly lighter for plate armour

Also, Steam Punk is what you get when Goths start experimenting with dark brown


Has anyone tried explaining to Goths, particularly female Goths, that 1920s and 30s films are in monochrome and those "black dresses" may in fact be deep blues, greens or reds?


I know. What I mean is it will become increasingly more punk-y as time goes by...


Why would they care? Goth is a style that features a lot of black, with some red and white in the mix.


Ahem: Goth has been around since the late 70s/early 80s (hint: I grew up in Leeds, home of the Sisters of Mercy) and there are tons of subtypes of Goth these days. (That chart omits the superannuated 50-plus Goth dad and granddad types ...)


Still wrong
25kg of armour, no more.
All this "too heavy to lift" stuff is more rubbish - as stated in the previous thread, IIRC.


Very good FICTION
Meanwhile: "Psychic" ??
Pull the other one.


Your "see also" link is depressing.
Has the idiot who wote that nver, really, heard of "dressing up"?
A game everybody ( NOT just females ) can play, with great gusto & fun.
Or maybe it's because I know that whatever I'm wearing, it's "Just another set of Kit" - I've just changed out of my black breeches, white socks & dancing shoes f'rinstance. My habitual; wear of a nice tweed jacket, "Plaid" shirt & cravat is, after all, just a set of kit, as is my "total gardening scruff" which most tramps would instantly reject as too down-at-heel.

However, the main point about the price of cloth & garments, therefore was the real industrial revolution that demanded, originally fixed steam-power, then mobile & away the whole thing went in a downhill bicycle-race that is still accelerating (maybe)


It depends a lot on time and place. Giving a single definitive answer's inappropriate to a multi-century span of history.

Pre-white armor, you did get French knights in some very heavy armors because they were trying to survive archery with inadequate metallurgy. You got some very heavy Chinese armors for similar reasons. And you get, drifting out of tonnelet armors into English Civil War, some very heavy breastplates again, before people give up on stopping musket balls with steel armor.

And armor does vary with the size of the person wearing it, too.


See my photographs taken in the mid-1960's just before the end of steam-power on the railways, here.
"Romantic" yes, evocative, yes, but ... working conditions?
A vanished & forgotten age.
As in, recently, on someone else's TV I saw an episode of "Call the Midwife"
The buildings were CLEAN - forget it.
For what it actually looked like see this article ( written & photographed by your 'umble servant ) or this one, too


Is there a reason to single out SF and fantasy tropes from all the other tropes that exist in our culture?

Honestly, in every genre of every art there will be, by Sturgeon's law, 90% of works that can be reduced to list of components, and 10% where some via some mysterious creative process the components blend together into a thing with emergent properties, and we get a masterpiece.


Hardly 10% masterpieces. Just 10% not-crud.

The critical process is worth engaging in, even if you're not trying to construct the stuff. It can enhance the pleasure of reading.


Has the idiot who wote that nver, really, heard of "dressing up"?

Actually, I agree with Baggini 100% on this topic. What you're missing is the difference between voluntary dress-up and mandated dress codes that signal conformity/submission to the expectations of your social superiors. In this context, evening dress for men at business/professional functions is just another irritatingly expensive version of male officewear.

(Disclaimer: I haven't worn a necktie in 18 years and counting and have no intention of doing so ever again.)


See my photographs taken in the mid-1960's just before the end of steam-power on the railways, here. ... For what it actually looked like see this article ( written & photographed by your 'umble servant )...

Remarkable. I don't suppose you ever make it to US conventions? There are some rail fans I (and Charlie) know who'd talk your ear off about such things.


Is there a reason to single out SF and fantasy tropes from all the other tropes

Yes! -- Whose blog do you think this is?

(Clutches head in hands.)


No, it's a result of applying a psychological methodology to the world and following through on it with physical action. It's related to a form of confirmation bias whereby whatever you look for hard enough, you find.


Re. Charlie's comment above about clothing not being such an obvious differentiator today between classes, I was wondering what we used instead.

Some of it still accent based, I am sure. Another is how you act and what you talk about. Someone who is on an owning class salary and mixes with people who own stuff, tends to have a slightly different sort of behaviour from someone who is merely trying to make themselves look important.

What else is there? Accoutrements, such as watches etc, can also be faked. There is of course simply where you are, as the rich spend more time in their own little bubbles, thus you can assume that the majority of people you meet are not owning class, because why would they be anywhere near where you live? (Obviously parts of central London are a bit different, because even owners like to do some window shopping some time and private shopping arcades aren't quite something yet)


Accents are still strong in the UK - analysis of call centres showed that the Yorkshire and Newcastle regional accents are highly favoured for initial contact as they were 'friendlier'. However when you want to speak with a manager, they need to have a RP English accent - it is expected and strongly preferred. Which means you can't rise in the industry unless you can learn a different accent.


I was wondering what we used instead.

In the USA, it's the car you drive that identifies you.

It is the same to some extent in the UK, but we have a higher proportion of non-drivers and people, like me, who own a car which gets driven maybe once a month and therefore don't upgrade frequently. (Mutter grumble: last week I was offered an absolute bargain by a family member -- what the dealer was offering him as a trade-in on a really nice Volvo XC70 with all the trimmings, about 3 years old with only 30,000 miles on the clock and already depreciated by 70% from new ... but I can't justify spending the money. Existing car has 100K on the clock, is 9 years old, and has fewer luxuries and fripperies: if I drove over 6000 miles a year it'd have been a no-brainer. Alas, I have driven 6000 miles in a year maybe once these past two decades.)

It's also the neighbourhood you live in, needless to say.

Accent, topics of conversation, and so on are all signifiers, of course. So is the colour of your credit card. So is not using credit, but buying stuff with cash/bank transfer. Also personal grooming, to some extent: although sometimes people look unkempt because they simply can't be bothered, rather than because they're too poor or too busy to get a haircut.

But designer clothing is ubiquitous and startlingly cheap by the standards of yesteryear. So it stopped being a guaranteed signifier of status some time between the 1950s and the 1970s.


I have an active and informed imagination.

What I cannot imagine is researching any fiction by reading other fiction. Or by, for Fantasy fiction, as you point out, with something like D&D. Pure recipe for disaster.

To perform authentic historical research calls for depth and breadth of investigation, not a single book with pretty pictures and gushing prose over how lovely the manners are. Cultural histories aren't anywhere near good enough without understanding the religious, political, economic and other material milieus which are the context and the matrix. Which is why I hardly ever can finish any fantasy fiction at this point. Or for that matter stand to watch most sf films and tv.


"What I cannot imagine is researching any fiction by reading other fiction. ... To perform authentic historical research calls for depth and breadth of investigation, not a single book with pretty pictures and gushing prose over how lovely the manners are."

Well, no, but reading contemporary fiction gives a good insight into what the times were like from the perspective of the author/story. You don't look at the main plot line, but the incidentals - and that approach is used in serious research.


Steam punk is just a start. Diesel punk will become fantasy as well.

I have open in front of me a browser window I'm using to research a project I'm writing about a Soviet tank crew in 1943 fighting Nazi zombies raised by the Thule Society in their fancy new walking mecha tank that was built using alloys recovered from the site of the Tunguska Blast so....



Actually, Julian Baggini has "form" in this area ... I didn't realise it was "him" until after I'd read & replied.
Note the bit about supposed (cod actually) "Philosophy"?
Yes, well .... 'nuff said.

Now I know that it is "him", I'm afraid we will have to agree to disagree.


I have approximately 1000 photos, mostly taken in Manchester, where I was at university, & the NE of England ( on rail visits) plus those you've seen - many taken when I was still at school, on weekends.
For all that steam's day as a prime-mover is numbered, travelling behind an "A-4" in normal service at over 90 mph is something else - been there, done that, got the T-shirt.
Ditto going through a long single-track tunnel ( Ventnor Down) on the footplate of a diminutive late-Victorian 0-4-4T loco, Like this ... Or over the long drag & through Blea Moor tunnel ( supposed to be haunted) behind a "Standard 9-F" - done that, too.
Oh, dear, I think I'd better stop, before I start to dribble ...


Depends on how you define "A necktie", doesn't it?

For those who don't know me, I don't think I've worn a conventional tie for as long as Charlie, but I do often wear ... a cravat.


Again, I freak some people out, here.
My normal speech is a fairly clipped/old-fashioned form of "RP", but I can drop instantly into 1950's NE-London, or sometimes "Manchester". ( I can make a fair stab at "Morningside" too ..) My German is even worse - I learnt pronunciation form a Berlin refugee, who had left in 1933, so I sound "dreadfully" clipped & "RP" - but it does help people understand me, because my "Grammatik" is ghastly!


Err ... Land-Rover - as in "don't bother, we can't work it out?"
And, also ... err ... neighbourhood.
My father stretched to pay £2700 for my house in 1948 - it's now worth, probably at least £950 000, even with the cracks.
You what?
Yes, it's horribly confusing, isn't it?


Similar issues are happening in the US. Housing prices are going wonky everywhere in the western world it feels like. It doesn't make sense outside of the nagging sensation that all the new housing being built is being built for people who are in the market for a second home, a when-I'm-in-town condo, or what have you. At least that's the feeling I get in Portland where rents are spiking but all the new buildings they're putting up are luxury towers downtown that will sit empty rather than let the grubby poors march in like they own the place.

Hm. That's a thought. Fantasy predicated on housing scarcity. I think I might have read a fragment of something like that...


If by contemporary, you mean fiction written by an author who lived in that past era and set her fiction there, i.e. wasn't writing historical fiction, yes, to a degree one is correct, but it doesn't go very far as serious historical research. Even our and everyone's else's beloved Jane Austen isn't that good for fiction set in 1805, because she had her own vision of what she was trying to do. All these women in her fiction -- because it is FICTION -- end up with happy marriages, even Kitty, for pete's sake since she's too self-centered to notice that Wickham despises her. The reality of marriage in those days didn't end with poor girls of no name and fortune marrying wealthy men with name and fortune. The reality was much more like Vanity Fair than P&P, in that aspect of things.

However, it cannot have escaped any writer's notice thatgnovels were not being written in most eras of the past -- fiction of this nature being such a novel invention.

Nevertheless one cannot be shocked at how many -- writers and readers -- point to other novels (or television series, etc.) as 'how it was / is' etc. Cop shows no more reflect the reality of most cops' lives than did the the boy heroes of the penny dreadfuls reflect the fates of poor boys in the Industrial era, whether English or American Victorians. Louisa Alcott does a splendid rant on that in Eight Cousins.


Was talking to a friend of mine on Twitter and we discovered another niggling issue that pops up from time to time.

People seem to agree on history way too much in Fantasyland. There might be disagreements, but they're disagreements of moral weight or meaning, not disagreements of fact. Shit could have gone down a thousand years ago, and people talk about it like it happened at last year's Super Bowl. Even if some of the characters are old enough to have witnessed the event, who's to say they got the whole story? Who's to say they're not shading things in their memory? Or, you know, lying?


That is why I said that you need to ignore the plot line, and look at the incidentals. Novels, as such, date from the 18th century, but there are plenty of relevant works from before then.


In the USA, it's the car you drive that identifies you.

As a genuine USAin living in SATx, I'd opine that that's only weakly true. On the very high and low ends of the spectrum it is true, but there's a vast middle part that includes everything from Fords and Nissans to Mercedes and BMWs where the cars look pretty much alike and few people get marks for driving one or the other.

As an aside, I've long noted that all the makers from top to bottom make a Honda Accord knock-off. A neighbor owns a Jaguar Accord.


Re: cultural inertia and dwindling magic: Zen Chos 'Sorcerer to the crown' comes to mind - even if the reason for a loss of magic in Britain is found (and somewhat resolved) in the story.


Greg, I hate to break it to you, but you could easily pass for the specific subtype of Home Counties Hooray Henry who doesn't bother with the posh accent because he has his second cousin once removed and his wife to tea twice a year ... whenever HRH The Duke of Edinburgh is passing through the neighbourhood -- the DofE has to stop and catch up on the family gossip.

(Non-UKans; there is a subtype of incredibly high end British upper class who vaguely resemble vagrants, except that they approach their social subordinates -- lord mayors and police superintendents for example -- with the sublime assurance that comes from knowing that they're 28th in line to the throne. And the DofE's wife? Is the Queen.)


(Since I've already gotten you interested in it, I might as well go the whole hog.)

Historical uncertainty is actually a major plot point in the Stormlight Archive. One of the major characters spends most of her time in the first book trying to figure out what the Voidbringers (creatures which, legendarily, came very close to destroying the world thousands of years ago) were. There are also various historical/magical inaccuracies in official theology.


In my experience the abandonment of officewear and formalwear is the opposite of liberating.

Simply put the looser dress codes are still codes, they're just more complicated and confusing. The right jeans, the right shirt with the right print, the right band shirt, but only from the right bands in the right temporal span. Shoes are even worse. And that's still outside of the peacocking of subcultures and before postmodern irony and the memefication of everything.

As an introvert the option to express oneself is the daily terror of having to express oneself. Thousand decisions before breakfast and still the experience of failing all the time. And that's only the cis-male experience, women with similar sentiments have it a thousand time worse. There is no neutral clothing, no , the neutral zone died in the sixties, whatever other good changes they have brought.

I dreamed sometimes of some sort of soviet science fiction scenario where everyone dresses in jumpsuits. Classic suits would be better, since they're made for making the wearer looking good or at least decent. But of course you'll judged wearing a suit today as a member of a subculture and in nerddom actively as an enemy, whatever else is in your brain.

The best hope of dressing unobtrusive and without sending too many false signal would be creating some form of a new uniform out of some basic scraps the current trend allow you like the protagonist in that Gibson novel. But of course you'll need to update it every n years. You'll never have peace.


It's not that outrageous - you only have to look at Northern Ireland, where 300-year-old events are described with strong consistency. Not saying that the "accepted public truth" is any more accurate then that surrounding the more recent Treacheries of the Slaveholders (a century closer to us)...


Really? There were apparently "No.4 rifle and bayonet v katana" fights, where the bayonet both won and survived...


Who ate more recently? might come into that.

I wouldn't put a No.4-and-a-bayonet in the same bucket as a rapier; it's a short and versatile polearm the katana mostly can't cut through. Given equivalent training and condition, it might well still have the advantage.


I remember watching a fascinating TV interview with a Russian woman, who at age 17 had been driving a T-34 and the only woman in her tank battalion.

She was describing being treated as their "little sister" by her comrades; cropping her hair to stubble, and washing her clothes in fuel to deal with lice. The program then went on to interview female aircrew and ground crew; and the occasional sniper. Cuddly grannies with a lapel-full of medals and a brutal past... some with rather fixed opinions about what constituted a "good German".

The Russians are currently running a TV drama about female fighter-bomber pilots in the Great Patriotic War; I found myself watching most of an episode on YouTube... it might be an interesting insight into a more Russian way of thinking on the subject.


Even our and everyone's else's beloved Jane Austen isn't that good for fiction set in 1805, because she had her own vision of what she was trying to do.
That's true, and to appreciate why she's a good writer you have to realise that she was writing comedies of manners, not accurate social documents about fictional people.

For instance, whilst the Hollywood film "Clueless" has its flaws, they don't lie in the basic plotting, which is an update of "Emma".


I will absolutely try to hunt that down. Do you have the name of the program or anything? Washing clothes in fuel is exactly the kind of detail I'm having trouble finding in history books.

It's stunningly easy to get order of battle tables and day by day accounts of advances and retreats, but it's like reading a Goddessdamned football scorebox when you're trying to understand what the locker room smells like.


You might find Soviet Military Aviation to have some useful hooks. Marina Raskova doesn't seem to have a biography in English but is a good search term.


I know exactly what you mean; I expect a "biography of a T-34 tank commander" to be concerned with tactical level actions, how the crew messed, getting (or not getting) resupply, not "we advanced on $city losing 3 of 37 tanks to broken tracks along the advance"...


Rifftrax riffed a short film warning 1930s American housewives not to wash their laundry in gasoline; so apparently that was a thing back then.


more then you ever want to know about the weight of armor

heaviest I've seen documented is 40KG jousting armor


"In the USA, it's the car you drive that identifies you."

No it's not. Case in point, NYC where half the people don't drive cars at all.

There actually isn't one set of class signifiers or one unified class structure for the US, there are multiple regional ones. DC is very different from NYC from New England from the LA from the Bay Area from the South. Members of the upper crust of those regions don't even recognize the signals from the other regions much less conform to them


Oh, I can't agree at all. I think your difficulty is that you care too much about things I am scarcely even aware of, such that your list of points you find awkward is largely meaningless to me.

Selecting jeans is easy: exclude any colour other than black (so they do not fade, and it does not show when I get oil on them); exclude strange fits, such as tight leg-clinging ones (because they are not comfortable); exclude strange materials, such as lightweight or stretchy ones (because they are not durable); and after that it is simply a matter of tramping round the shops to find the lowest price out of the approx. 2.5:1 range for an otherwise-indistinguishable product. Shirts are much the same. And after that I can forget about the whole thing for however many years it takes for the clothes to wear out. I do not have "a thousand choices before breakfast": all my clothes are the same, and the only decision is one based on current weather conditions, ie. is it cold enough to need a jumper as well.

I have the same kind of view of ties as Charlie: it's probably 25 years since I last wore one; the only job I've had where people wore ties I simply didn't bother, and nobody ever said anything. They are uncomfortable and serve no purpose ("meeting the expectations of silly people" does not count), therefore I do not wear them.


For all of you mentioning class signaling in the US, you are focusing on class distinctions within a white-collar office space. Although class distinctions within an office do exist, they are not the primary class distinctions used in the country and are relatively subdued.

I have little personal experience with blue collar workers, so I don't know what signalling is used to separate them from white collar workers, outside of those who embrace the redneck culture as a symbol of blue collar workers? How do you break down class of a restaurant owner vs another type of white collar worker?

I would remind you that class breaks down by race to an extent here. A good way of looking at this is - what is used for signalling across racial lines, outside of the color of the skin? What is used by a (for example) African-American or Latino person to signal that they are not the stereotypical poor Latino or African American?

As previously mentioned, class signalling also varies by region. What is used to signal that one is a poor vs rich person in the Appalachian coal country? What about rural class distinctions (since ~17% of Americans live in rural areas)?

I have no idea what the equivalent is for the UK (if it exists)?


Agree completely.

Basically, I do not give a fuck what my coworkers think of my clothes, and judging by what they wear neither do they. Every morning I put on whichever pants and shirt are handy, and call it a day.

My office building has a gym, so I bring shorts and a T-shirt to exercise. Once it dawned on me that one of the pairs of shorts I have been wearing to gym is actually (i.e. was originally made as) a pair of boxer underwear. Instead of getting mortified about it... I continue wearing it to the gym.

I think Schattenrein cares far too much what other people think about him. Why?


What is used by a (for example) African-American or Latino person to signal that they are not the stereotypical poor Latino or African American?

Easy. A suit and and a tie.

In my experience, rich black men are far more attentive to their attire than rich white men.


Agatha Christie's Poirot cleaned spots etc. off his jacket with benzene, the primary 'dry' cleaning solvent for several decades.

Clothes and technology ... recall a documentary discussing the jacquard loom and computing - basically, they said that such looms were the first programmed machines, i.e., computers.

Aniline dyes (birth of commercial chemistry) was another milestone where status-thru-clothing changed because now almost anyone could afford brightly colored fabrics. Ditto for cotton ... The exports from the US plantations reduced cotton prices substantially. (BTW, cotton was very desirable because it accepted dyes very well/evenly ... and was relatively light weight, threads were very fine and could be loomed into a wide range of lusters and weights, kept the wearer cool in the summer heat, didn't stink when wet, could be bleached safely, etc. Overall, cotton was/is a superior textile. The interest in all things Egyptian around the same time probably didn't hurt cotton's popularity either.)


"...striding down the path looking like an animated rummage stall was the Dowager Duchess of Quirm, who probably owned more land than you could see from the top of a mountain on a clear day" or whatever the quote is. Terry liked that one; I wonder how many of his non-UK readers knew what he was referring to.

Not sure you're right about cars, though: all the poor people drive rich people's cars these days. They are clean, shiny, and have no visible rust, even if they are totally shagged in less-visible respects, and are all pretty new. Expensive cars like Mercs and BMWs are a lot cheaper, relatively, than they used to be, and correspondingly more common. Cheap cars, practically, no longer exist - no 2CVs, or anything like them; and no basic Iron Curtain machinery - Skodas are no different from anything else these days. Corrosion protection is far better than it used to be, as is mechanical durability, while shite failure-prone unrepairable expensive sealed electronic boxes that mingle critical and non-critical functions in the same unit are all over the place, so cars are deemed to have "had it" due to some invisible and trivial fault while still fairly new and good-looking. And there are far more idiots willing to cripple themselves with years of debt and interest to buy a nearly new car instead of buying a cheaper old one, and then keep repeating the process every few years for no apparent reason, and far more parasites willing to make it easier for a wider range of people to do it.

So even on "poor people estates" like the one I live in all the cars are new and shiny, and those that predate the recent change in format of registration plates are conspicuous by their rarity. And everyone has one. The Ford Escort with both front wings a different colour after the originals rotted away, or the Datsun 120Y held together by the paint, just aren't around any more.


Ahem ... any of you folks ever watch TV?

The people working in wardrobe take great pains to dress each character appropriately because quite often 'clothes mirror the man'. So if you want free professional style advice, pick your reference TV character and there you go! Once virtual (magic?) mirrors become available, enter your favorite TV/fantasy character and you'll be able to find your ideal wardrobe without leaving your home.

Oh dear ... are we being led down into the 'Emperor's new clothes' lala land?


I think it was TH White who made quite an entertainment out of the awkwardness of jousting armour - cranes to lift the knight onto his horse, his inverted-tortoise helplessness if he fell off, and so on. And I'm sure I've read factual references to battles around the time of Agincourt which made the point that if a heavily-armoured knight fell off his horse he was at the mercy of anyone minded to open his visor and stick a pointy thing in.


Agincourt was muddy, and the thing about armor is that you can generally do anything in armor you can do out of it, but not for as long. So if you've been knocked down in the press and the footing is bad, you're going to have trouble getting up of sheer exhaustion. (I don't recall which of Henry V's brothers died at Agincourt, but it's generally held to have been of exertion.)

The English tradition among the archers was to use stake-driving mauls; drag the knight down off their horse and pound. Much safer than going for the eye slits. It persisted long enough that Great Harry's show of archers at the Field of the Cloth of Gold had mauls with lead in the head.


I think Schattenrein cares far too much what other people think about him. Why?

Because getting it wrong is unpredictably consequential, very likely.

Dealing with social expectations is not uniformly straightforward for everybody; imputing moral fault in those who find it more difficult is the precise opposite of helpful.


jousting armour especially 15th century plus was a very special beast, almost only used in tournaments. No one wore it into a real battle.

Plate armor that is used was used in war was surprisingly light and nimble. That doesn't mean it didn't have a draining effect on endurance over the course of slogging through the mud for a mile through a rain of arrows (like Agincourt for instance)

A lot of the perceived problems with Plate Armor are pure trope

There is actually a lot of debate on arrows vs plate and exactly what went down at Agincourt


"arrows vs plate" is difficult to approach through reconstruction.

Making the armor is something we don't know how to do; it would take a lot of work to replicate the materials. Charcoal-smelted iron (from ore deposits that haven't existed in centuries) worked with what kind of hammers? How? shaped how? hardened how? Modern rolled steel plate is wildly inaccurate because it's much too homogenous. (and also typically too ductile.) So even though there are people who can make armor that looks like the historical examples, it's not suitable for reconstructive archeology because it starts with modern rolled steel sheet.

Making the arrowheads, same problem. Coined? Very probably. Quenched? often. How? No one knows. Slice them up and you get information, but not instructions.

Self-knocked, quarter-split, straight-grained white ash steles, planed down to a tapered round that's a bit front heavy and forty five hundredths of an inch through the thick part? I've done that. (Light for a warbow arrow; the real thing would be about half an inch, maybe fifty five hundredths.)

Goose feathers aren't that hard to get; neither is peacock. Nor pitch, nor fine silk thread. You can make a fletching jig with wood and lead, given a little skill at joinery and the tools to do it.

You wind up with arrows that are four to the pound, or fewer.

Make a D-section self bow a span longer than your archer is tall with a hundred fifty pound draw at 30 inches? It's been done recentish, and with yew. Same with flemish splice strings in silk or linen (though you will struggle to get truly unbleached linen today) suitable to the draw, and you can probably find someone who can pull it in the proper style and hit something at a hundred yards, though that might be optimism speaking.

But unless and until the plate and the arrow head are both "start from bog iron and an acre of oak trees" artifacts the answer isn't going to be definitive. (And maybe not then; one can always question technique.)

I think you'll get a better answer by chewing through Robert Hardy's Longbow and doing statistics on the numbers of arrows versus the numbers of casualties of what sort. It's not that much, but if it looks promising (and someone cares that much) there's always all the original French rolls to compare to the English tax records.

Hardy's answer was, yes, you did get arrows going through. There's some experiement (using Victorian iron) to back that up. But not always, and certainly not at better than a rate of about ten arrows to the opposing casualty. And, perhaps, much less after about 1415 and white armors.


Actually, there are so many reasons for anosmia or hyposmia that it makes little sense deducing generalisations. For starters, it seems dopamine plays a big role in smell, since both drugs (amphetamines and antipsychotics) and diseases (Parkinson) involving dopamine can enhance (amphetamines) or decrease (antipsychotics, Parkinson) smell.

Also, benzodiazepine withdrawl is mentioned in the wiki article about hyperosmia, e.g. enhanced smell, so I wouldnt be that surprised if other sedatives/antiepileptics would lead to hyposmia.

Last but not least, there are some developmental defects that lead to it:


Works both ways, though.
I'm also well-aware that another set of my ancestors, unlike most of their fellows, just scraped into this country, in the clothes they stood up in, in 1685.
I have no time at all for the myths of "class" as you well know ...
Which reminds me - we were talking about Dressing Up were we not?
Yup, that's me, centre-of-picture, staring out into the landscape of Guildhall Yard.


Second thoughts on that one.
Unlike a lot of people, I know who some of my ancestors were.
They were among the poorest & the most indigent ( Lincolnshire peasants, basically ) or poor religious refugees, as mentiond & This guy and his son The freak of genetics that has produced a strong facial resemblance is scary.
However, there's a point to all this - Charlie has half a point - I really do not care about "class" - I think it is being used & manipulated by politicians at both ends of the "Right-Left" spectrum & I refuse to go anywhere near it.


VIIIth Army stripping-off, rubbing all their clothes in sand, having inverted them, to remove the lice - or, if lucky, doing more-or-less the same near the coast at places that have re-entered the news of late, being in Libya.
See also Spike Milligan's accounts ....


I'm in my early 50s, and remember benzene (in a specialised dispenser) being sold for removing grease and paint spots from clothing.



Ah yes, that well-known account of how the Soviet army took Tobruk from the Wehrmacht. Oh wait, slight problem there!


These days, of course, you can inhale as much benzene as you like simply by standing behind a car that hasn't warmed up yet.

Carbon tetrachloride is another vanished domestic chemical - my mum used to have a wee bottle of it for spot removal when I was a nipper.


...Chaps in the trenches heating the seams of their clothing with match flames to kill the louse eggs.

Agree re Spike Milligan. Accounts from the ordinary soldier can be a good source, if they are written by the right person - someone who can write, and who is writing for a general audience, rather than an audience of people who were in it themselves and therefore aren't interested in the unpleasant commonplace minutiae they were all too familiar with.

On a slightly different angle, Siegfried Sassoon gives an excellent account of just what a confusing headfuck being in action could be.


I can get up while wearing a 25 Kg pack, and am not a 'strong guy'; it would be slightly easier with armour, but I am almost certainly a lot heavier than a typical mediaeval knight. The real point is that it's a lot slower getting up laden than unladen, which gives your opponent a window of opportunity.


Washing with soap does not kill lice, fleas, clothes moths etc.; dry-cleaning (including washing with petrol) does.


"30 years ago there were no cellphones, no internet and no GPS - how the hell do you relate to those people?"

Oh, there certainly was GPS. GPS was designed to be decodable with the very early, slow and primitive processors. It's a good 20 years since selective availability became redundant because of processors getting fast enough to track the phase of the actual carrier rather than the code.

I, however, do not have one: in an inhabited area, and especially one as densely inhabited as England, I have no need or use for it, any more than I have for a sextant, chronometer and ephemeris. Nor do I have a cellphone; I have no need or use for that either. And I wouldn't have internet if I hadn't been fascinated by computers ever since I encountered the two-legged camel program in the Science Museum.


"See my photographs taken in the mid-1960's just before the end of steam-power on the railways, here."

This sentence implies that the word "here" should be a link, but it isn't. Any chance of rectification, please? Or were you referring to the photos illustrating the LR articles?


Speaking of gasoline.

My father (who is 91 and served during WW2) passed on an anecdote from his father, who died before I was born -- I'm 51 -- and served during WW1 in Alenby's army in the Palestine campaign. So we're into FoaF territory here (father of a father, as opposed to friend of a friend), but hey ...

Palestine, 1918, on campaign: not notable for having good water supplies and copious laundry soap. Dry cleaning had been invented in the 1850s (but didn't really catch on until the 1930s with the development of modern solvents and cleaning machines); however folks knew that greasy or oily stains could be removed from clothing by washing it in gasoline. So this is what the officers' batmen tended to do for their masters -- hand-washing with gasoline in a bucket in the open air.

(This came to a screeching stop (at least in grandpa's battalion) when one particular officer got a bit impatient for his spare uniform and put it on as soon as it felt hand-dry ... then lit a cigarette.)

That particular army was largely mounted -- granddad was a sergeant in charge of a platoon of mule-borne heavy machine guns -- but what vehicles they had could presumably cope with gasoline that had a bit of oil-soluble crud dispersed in it. I don't expect they were using diesel oil as a dry cleaning solvent!


@Graydon the thing is that, not counting all the surviving examples of bows, arrows, and armor from the 100 year war period, the forging of iron and steel are not magic and all the permutations of steel are pretty well known

similarly the power stroke of a bow is just physics

even if you make very optimistic assumptions about the bow and arrows ability to deliver kinetic energy and very pessimistic assumptions around the armor, you still don't even get very close to an arrow that can penetrate plate even at close range

You also don't see a lot of evidence of plate getting thicker over the 100 year war time period which you would suspect if arrows were punching through it (like happened with gunpowder weapons).

Reconstructive tests have validated that physics works

However there is a ton of historical record around the effectiveness of the archer on the battlefield. A great conundrum

My own personal opinion is arrows punching through plate or even chain is another fantasy trope. However massed archers dumping arrows on a small area of a battlefield probably achieved significant damage by landing hits on the seams in armor, visor etc


I don't expect they were using diesel oil as a dry cleaning solvent!
That's not going to work (even if the diesel-engined road vehicle had been properly invented in 1918) because dry cleaning solvents need to be volatile at more or less room temperature. Hence the mentions of carbon tetrachloride, benzine, toluene (do not try this one with tri-nitro toluene, well at least not whilst within a mile of anyone I've ever met ;-) ) and straight(ish) chain octane as solvents.


Hello? Explaining much to someone who is already clear on the concept?


Magic swords! If you had magic that could enchant a blade to be better at blading things, wouldn't you want to spend that magic on something that would be of economic benefit to the entire realm?

+3 scythe of reaping, enchanted plough of furrowing, well bucket of purification.. pretty much any enchantment that increases food production or reduces disease/infection will have broad societal benefits that outweigh the discrete benefits of an enchanted weapon.

Another frequent fantasy feature, the mouldy bread poultice. The origins of this "folk remedy" seem rather vague, but it appears every fantasy author has the notion that bread mould ought to be Penicillium sp..


I did a little bit of research (it's handy having a museum like the Royal Armouries in a city you have reason to visit regularly). Swords ... swords were pretty much the late mediaeval equivalent of a kitted-out AR-15 in terms of price, ownership, and social significance of walking around the streets with one on open carry. (Early mediaeval/dark ages: add a zero to the end of the price. Or two zeroes.)

Do they still do the live action demonstrations? - relevant to good writing, they used to do a very good piece that demonstrated how Shakespeare understood what he was talking about when it came to period combat - particularly with Romeo and Juliet where several small details are all very precisely correct.

Has the idiot who wote that nver, really, heard of "dressing up"? A game everybody ( NOT just females ) can play, with great gusto & fun. Or maybe it's because I know that whatever I'm wearing, it's "Just another set of Kit"

He's heard of dressing up; he even mentions he has no problems with fancy dress. What he's objecting to is being made to wear things as a power play — in this case, being expected to wear certain class markers aspirationally (and therefore condoning the class and it trappings as worthy of aspiration).

Very different.