Black Box – a review

Well, what can I say? :0)

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Gods Playing Dice

Writing and RPGs

 

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The classic edition of Traveller, Game Designer’s Workshop, 1977

 

As a young man back in the spiked, crimped velveteen 80s I spent many an happy hour enjoying sessions of role-playing games (now suddenly fashionable). These undoubtedly nurtured my writerly imagination for it is through them I caught the bug for storytelling and creating detailed scenarios. The three systems that enthralled me the most were the classic version of Dungeon & Dragons, Call of Cthulu (based upon the works of HP Lovecraft) and Traveller – through them I experienced the immersive delights of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. It is the latter that is particularly on my radar at the moment, for my SF novel, Black Box, is ready for launch (being published through the crowdfunding platform, Unbound). Although the novel has been consciously informed by a lifetime of reading and watching SF, by Climate Change, and by research into space exploration and artificial intelligence at the University of Leicester where I’m currently completing my PhD, looking back I realise that those lively sessions with fellow schoolmates (in particular Garrie Fletcher, who has gone onto to become a wordsmith too) really nurtured the ‘SF brain’ part of me. With its stylish series of black manuals, and hard edge, Traveller was always the coolest of the RPGs, the Fonz of the whole Happy Days bunch. Each session, usually held around ‘Budgie’s house’, another schoolmate from Mereway, felt like being inside an episode of one of our favourite TV shows – Blake’s 7, Dr Who, Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica (this was pre-Firefly days and that show in particular captures the maverick freebooting attitude of the game – a motley crew taking on some dodgy mission for a fistful of credits, normally running the gauntlet of the Imperium, space pirates and hostiles). The main benefit of these games was, of course, the social angle – lifesaving for a bunch of awkward nerds (speaking personally): the sessions were some of the most enjoyable spent as a teenager – hearty laughter, shared creativity, and heart-pumping excitement. But in hindsight, as someone who has made writing the heart of their career, I see other spinoffs that have a direct benefit to novelists: immersiveness (far more visceral than any virtual reality); multilinearity (complex branching narratives effected by one’s choices); storytelling (how to engage and sustain an audience, create narrative traction, suspense and tension); characterisation (designing vivid characters, improvising dialogue); the importance of setting (almost a character in its own right – certainly spaceships can be); and fictionality (the giddy freedom of making stuff up, spinning a yarn, and weaving worlds out of thin air). These have all become of primary importance in my novel-writing. Of course novels seem, on the surface, less multi-cursory and multi-player – they are a direct interface between author and reader (although they can be shared by millions) – but in the composition of them, the malleability of the plot, the behaviour of the characters, and the volatility of the structure, makes it feel like being in a ‘session’ as DM,  player-characters, and non-player characters – a schizophrenic’s paradise. Aspects of your personality talk back at you: shock, astound and devastate – and you risk coming across as a complete loon, bursting out laughing or crying out in frustration at a screen. Anything can happen in the white void of the blank page. The lonely long-haul of writing a novel may lack the sociability of a RPG (except in the camaraderie with fellow writers and, if you’re lucky, readers), but in compensation one has complete creative control (eventually, if the wild beast of the book can be tamed sufficiently). It can bring out the emperor-god-being in you, the tyrannical deity that plucky characters loved to frustrate. As with the best DMs, who run a game ‘dice-light’, biasing the flow of storytelling over a punctilious compliance with the rules, the best writers always allow their characters to have a lucky break now and then, and to steal the show over a mechanical fulfilment of plot. And writers weaned on RPGs will always remember who the narrative is ultimately for – not the ‘god behind the screen’ but the reader-participant.

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 30 April

Pledge to the Black Box campaign and help support the publication of my first science fiction novel: https://unbound.com/books/black-box/

Muse of Tragedy

 

Melpomene

 

Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy,

we come to greet you,

clad in dark attire,

wearing widows’ weeds,

faces covered in ashes,

the mask of sorrow,

weeping for the world.

The vast tragedy of it all.

 

Yet seeing the beauty

in every small miracle,

the heaven in the disaster zone.

 

O Melpomene, let us sing your goat-song,

so we do not forget.

So we remember and honour.

Work through our grief,

dance our sorrow

and let go when we’re done.

Move on, move on.

Let not our grief become our identity.

It is only a mask, a costume,

for the danse macabre.

The sun still shines; the birds still sing.

The world still turns, saying, Begin! Begin!

Aid us to heal conflict,

to bring peace

through understanding, through empathy.

 

Time to stop playing soldiers;

time to put down our guns.

Time to dismantle the warheads;

time to defuse the bombs.

 

Melpomene, from your deep heart

bring peace, end suffering.

You know the depths of humanity’s sorrow.

Listen and release it. So.

 

 From ‘House of the Moon’ by Kevan Manwaring

featured in the forthcoming collection Silver Branch: bardic poems, Awen 2018.

https://www.awenpublications.co.uk/

Survival Manual for the Human Race

Friday, 13 April 2018

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Things may seem pretty bleak out there at the moment – geopolitical unrest, climate chaos, displaced populations – and threats are real not only to the peace and security of our families and communities but to the very existence of humankind as the dominant species upon this planet. It all feels like The Eighties: the sequel. It was back then, living in the shadow of the Cold War as a teenager, that I first started to get seriously interested in science fiction as a way of speculating about the future. Alternative versions of now. For SF holds a dark mirror up to the present day. It has done this since its inception, in Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, published 200 years ago, but haunting us still about the perils of playing god, of science running amok. In the 30s Aldous Huxley explored the spectre of genetic engineering, or eugenics as it was known back then;  in the 40s George Orwell contemplated a Fascist future which feels eerily prescient; and in the 80s Margaret Atwood depicted a dystopian state that has struck a chord with many. And that is just a few.

I humbly join the conversation – not to compare my efforts with the giants I stand upon the shoulders of, but because it is hard not to speculate about where humankind is going; whether we’ll last the decade, let alone the century. It is hard not to be pessimistic, but one thing I am sure about – the limitless power of the human imagination – and that gives me hope. While we have the freedom to imagine and express other futures, other ways of being in the world, there is always hope.

In Black Box, I wanted to look into the abyss, but I also wanted to offer a glimmer of light. I offer not another bleak dystopian vision of the future, nor a wildly optimistic utopia, but what Atwood terms an ‘Ustopia’ – for one man’s heaven is another man’s hell.

Of course it can be argued that novels, like poems, don’t really ‘change anything’, but they can offer an aesthetic, intellectual, emotional or moral counter-balance to the prevailing discourse of the times, an articulation of inarticulated or silenced voices, sobering thought experiments that project possible outcomes based upon current trends (often by taking things to their logical conclusion), or the healthiest form of escapism from the mad prison of the world (as Le Guin and Tolkien have pointed out). Science Fiction and Fantasy in particular facilitate this – by encouraging us to imagine what is beyond, what makes us human, and what is home, we can find a renewal of meaning and deepened appreciation for the fragile miracle of existence.

Black Box is being published by Unbound and you can help make it happen. The bid is going live on 1 May, 2018. Watch this space!

 

Visions of Albion

William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion

Petworth, 25th March.

Blake Another Sun

‘Visions of Albion’ offered an excellent overview of Blake’s time in the county (when he stayed at a cottage in Felpham on the south coast, 1800-1803), in the handsome surroundings of Petworth, now a National Trust property, and formerly the home of Lord Egremont and his wife, the Countess (who were both patrons of Blake and his widow).

 

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Blake’s Cottage, Felpham, Photo by K. Manwaring, 2017

 

Facing increasingly financial difficulties in London, Blake took the suggestion of the poet William Hayley to move to the pleasant cottage on the coast (‘the sweetest spot on Earth’, as he described it) as a lifeline. Hayley helped secure him the accommodation and provided him with several commissions for engravings and paintings. At first these were a great boon, but Blake started to see them as a bane, draining his creative energies and distracting him from his own visionary work. Yet he was not unproductive on that front. While at Felpham he wrote and illustrated two epic poems, ‘Milton’ and ‘Jerusalem’. In the former he penned the then untitled verse that was set to music by Parry in 1917, going on to become an unofficial national anthem (what Blake would have made of Tories, Last Night Prommers and WI members singing his invocation to the spiritual city of Jerusalem, which he saw as an emanation of the giant Albion, we can only speculate). In the latter epic poem, Blake wrote, ‘In Felpham I saw Visions of Albion’, and clearly it was a stimulating time for him, reflected in the artwork and writing on display at Petworth.

 

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The Last Judgement, William Blake, 1808

Chief among these are the three paintings commissioned by the Egremonts: ‘The Last Judgement’ (painted for the Countess, who was suffering her husband’s many infidelities and was perhaps considering his fate… In the painting the Countess herself is depicted rising to Heaven with her children); Lord Egremont was to request ‘Characters from Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’ and paid Catherine Blake (by then Blake’s widow) a princely sum of eighty guineas for the painting on muslin. Also on display are the luminous watercolours Blake undertook for his friend and patron Thomas Butts of Biblical subjects – the graceful lines are clearly those of a trained engraver, and the colours of muted greys perhaps reflective of the Sussex coast (they vary dramatically from the intense, infernal palette of his London engravings). His three years on the coast (the only time Blake lived away from his beloved city) lingered in his artwork – nearly twenty years later his was to limn ‘The Sea of Time and Space’ (1821) which visibly draws upon remembered seascapes. The wild seas are perhaps indicative of the fact that Blake’s time in Felpham was not all idyllic. It was punctuated most violently by an altercation in his garden when he found two soldiers (invited by the gardener) who he forcibly ejected. He frogmarched one (Schofield) to the nearby pub. Hot words were exchanged, which landed Blake in court, charged with sedition (and physical assault). The latter charges were dropped (Blake initially defended himself), but the former could have had him doing the gallows dance if not for the intervention of Hayley’s solicitor. He was acquitted, but the incident left him badly shaken, and soured his time in Sussex. Even in Arcadia the iniquities of life had found him. It was time to return to the land he knew, London.

 

 

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Elizabeth Ilives was a remarkable woman, by all accounts. K. Manwaring, 2018

 

The small but fascinating exhibition displays the legal proceedings of Blake’s trial, plus his handwritten descriptions of his commissioned work, a letter from Catherine thanking Lord Egremont and other archives – rare editions and prints, alongside Blake’s originals, still luminous and arrestingly strange after all these years. Thomas Philips iconic portrait of Blake from 1807 portrays him in a borrowed studio coat and packages him as the romantic poet, eyes fixed on higher things, pen ready to channel the divine downloads from his angelic Muse – his lightning rod to the gods of his very singular pantheon. For a brief while, during his Felpham years, patronised by nobility, Blake tasted their ambrosia.

 

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Illustration for ‘Northern Lights’, by Philip Pullman

 

Alongside the Blake exhibition is a small display of Philip Pullman ‘lantern slides’, the illustrations the author provided for ‘His Dark Materials’. Pullman, a dedicated Blakean, is the president of the Blake Society. As a writer-artist he qualifies himself to join a rarefied fellowship that included Blake, Rossetti, Peake and few others who achieved excellence in both. Pullman makes no bold claims about his own artistic ability, but the metonymic motifs are strong designs that adorn the text handsomely. They are perhaps closest too Blake’s wood-cuts, a series of which are displayed at Petworth (a commission by Dr Robert John Thornton of ‘Pastorals of Virgil’). As a carpenter, Pullman no doubt found an affinity in this exquisite working of his dryad material. Elsewhere in the North Gallery of the main house – a sizeable hall filled with statuary and paintings there are works by Turner and Fuseli (a kindred spirit in his use of symbolism). The house itself is packed with social history, both upstairs and down; the Capability Brown gardens extended as far as the eye could see but farther than legs wanted to carry; the daffodils and follies made us linger awhile but eventually we departed, knowing other treasures await for future visits.

 

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Ionic Rotunda, 1766, Petworth, in the Capability Brown gardens, K. Manwaring 2018

 

 

 

Equinox Bridge

For #WorldPoetryDay – a taster of my forthcoming collection, Silver Branch from @Awen_Books. Performed this from memory at Richard Austin’s ‘Feast of Friends’ a couple of years back here in #Stroud

The Bardic Academic

(reposted in memory of the families and victims of Manchester Arena)

Sleepy Stroud on a sunny Sunday morning

Rising to the brightening fields

to the bridge of day and night

when all is in balance

briefly.

Friends, families, dog-walkers, gather

by the quickening stream

united by their mutual awe.

This morning a kingdom

holds its breath,

the day of the new moon,

the day of the Spring Equinox,

the day of the solar eclipse,

the sun entering Aries,

all the usual astrological mumbo-jumbo.

 

But the solar system is not our personal orrery.

 

The show is not for us,

although we act like it is.

 

Not full totality here,

but dramatic enough

for us to stand and stare

astonished,

as the moon takes a bite out of the sun,

Fenris’ rabid bite-marks

raising hackles of primal fear

beyond science and common sense.

Birds quieten, a wind stirs,

pets are bewildered.

 

Yet we…

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Uncanny America: Day 7

 

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Winchester House, San José.

 

Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.

ELIZA THOMAS

This blog is intended to be a true(ish) account of a road-trip taken from Asheville to San Francisco, early November, 2017. It’s a long journey – all 2594 miles of it – and so I’ve just focused on the highlights here, filtered by my own academic penchant. It was done in a 2001 Dodge Dakota Pickup 4WD, pulling a silver trailer, with London our mahmout bodyguard. Enjoy the ride!

Day 7 – California

And with a whoop we crossed the state border into California! We knew how the Settlers must have felt – yet the Great Plains had not finished yet. We still had Death Valley to traverse. Here we marvelled at the petroforms – lines formed in the volcanic debris, stretching for miles snaking across the eerie emptiness. No one quite knows what they are for – although there are plenty of theories. They seem akin to the Nazca lines of Peru. ‘Landing strips for UFOs, clearly,’ was J’s unhelpful suggestion.  The Sequoia national park offered natural wonders – some of the oldest living things on the planet. The trees here were just on a different scale entirely to what I’ve been used to and I walked among them truly dwarfed. Our road-trip had begun with tacky artificial ‘World’s Largest’ attractions and ended with the real thing.  We both spent some time communing with these silent giants.  We lunched at the park, then carried on. After a week on the road we were keen to reach our destination but we had one essential detour to make – to the Winchester Mystery House! It took us quite a while to get to San José – we didn’t have to stop and ask for directions though, although we couldn’t help singing the corny song, our spirits lifting as we neared our destination.  We’d made it to the West Coast – yippee! And so – like Scooby Doo and his gang (my Thelma to J’s Daphne) we took our mystery mobile to the Winchester Mystery House. Sprawling over six acres, this seven storey structure contains an incredible 160 rooms (apparently the owner never slept in the same bedroom twice to confuse the spirits of the slain which haunted her conscience), 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. It belonged to the widow of  William Wirt Winchester, son of Oliver Fisher Winchester, Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut and manufacturer of the famous Winchester repeating rifle. Sarah Winchester, nee Lockwood Pardee, was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1840. Known as the ‘Belle of New Haven’ Sarah received all the privileges her parent’s wealthy lifestyle could afford. She spoke four languages and played the piano well. She married William in 1862 and they became the toast of New England society. But then in 1866 tragedy struck when their beloved daughter, Annie, died tragically of the mysterious illness known as Marasmus. Sarah was grief-stricken and inconsolable, falling into a deep depression from which she never fully recovered. Fifteen years later this was compounded by the death of her husband by tuberculosis. This seemed to have been the last straw. After, the widow Winchester sought the advice of a medium – the Boston Medium – who told her the deaths of her loved ones were the result of the blood staining the Winchester family, from all the victims of the repeat-action rifle which had made their fortune – Native Americans, Civil War soldiers, et cetera, et cetera. Legions of the dead. The only way to appease these spirits was to move west and build a house – and ensure that the building work never stopped. The perpetual banging would mirror the sound of the rifle, and the confusing labyrinth that would result would ‘baffle’ the angry ghosts. Such a house would ensure a place for her in eternity. And so Sarah followed the advice of the Boston Medium and headed west, secured some land near San Jose – an unfinished farm house – and ordered for the work to begin. This continued to her death (heart failure in the middle of the night) on 5th September 1922. Then the workmen downed tools – leaving nails half-hammered into the walls. Mrs Winchester, the heiress of the Winchester fortune, had been a philanthropic recluse – using her vast wealth to not only fund the perpetual building work but also the founding of a medical center (sic) for the treatment of TB. Although children from the neigbourhood were welcome – treated to ice-cream and allowed to play on her piano – Mrs Winchester was fastidious in her privacy, apparently wearing a veil and sacking any workman who saw her face (though she paid her workers twice the going rate). She was said to have retired to the Blue Room every night, wearing one of thirteen coloured robes, and there with the use of a planchette board, consult the spirits for construction advice – in this case, the term ‘cowboy builders’ seems to have been apt. The house still stands as a creepy testimony to a life cursed with tragedy – and to the fact that having great wealth is not a guarantee of happiness.  It was with some relief we left this chilly place, back out into the glorious Californian sun – and made our way north to San Francisco. We whooped at the sign that announced we had arrived at our destination city. I was looking forward to exploring all the landmarks – Union Square, Chinatown, the City Lights bookshop – but for now, we ran the gauntlet of the freeways to the bay and pulled up in a layby to enjoy the view … of the Golden Gate bridge. We popped open a bottle of chilled white Californian wine to celebrate.  We’d made it!

Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.