Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I ordered this book from Amazon Japan, and it arrived on the day of release. The packaging had a sticker on saying “Deliver after 8:01 am on July 21st”, so that it would be after midnight London time, but it didn’t reach me until about 1pm. This is clearly discrimination.

I did still manage to finish it on the day of release, and thus avoid spoilers, but that didn’t leave time to write about it. And then there’s a backlog of book comments to post to my blog, so it got held up more.

The downside is that I don’t get to look like a cutting-edge opinion former, posting my review almost as soon as the book hits the streets.

On the bright side, that reduces the chance of my blog spoiling it from someone who really wants to read it. By this point, I suspect that most people who really want to find out how the series finishes by reading the book have done so, and can’t have it spoiled for them. Still, there might be a few left, and on the off chance that they are reading my blog, I’ll hide the actual spoilers from the front page.

So, if you click to read more, you will find out what happened. You Have Been Warned.
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Boston Unveiled

Boston Unveiled is the default setting book for Mage: The Awakening. These books serve a couple of functions. The most obvious is to provide a developed setting for chronicles, to save storytellers a bit of time. The other is to provide examples of the ways that the rules can be used, and the sorts of characters you might create. On the whole, I think they are more successful in the second role.

This book is no exception. As a collection of example mages and cabals, it does a very good job. It fills in the details of what the Awakened might do with their time, or want from their power, and, naturally, makes them all slightly tainted, because the series is essentially a set of horror games. The non-mage ideas are also good; I particularly like The Prince of 100,000 Leaves, an imaginative and terrible horror. That’s an idea that I immediately want to steal.

However, I’m not sure that they work so well in the first role. The problem is, I think, inherent to the form. They fix the broad outlines of the chronicle, but leave most of the details to be filled in. However, designing the broad outlines is the fun and easy part; it’s filling in the details that takes time and effort, at least for most people. On the other hand, it’s very difficult to do the details without the broad outlines.

I think the Tribunal books we do for Ars Magica are a bit more useful, because they provide a lot of information on the history and medieval myths of the area, and that saves storyguides a lot of research. But, fundamentally, they suffer from the same problem; they run the risk of cramping the storyguide’s style without saving him a lot of time.

This is not, therefore, a criticism of this book. I think it’s a good book for Mage, and very useful for people playing the game. I’m just not sure that it actually achieves, or can achieve, the ostensible aim.

The Confessions of St Augustine

The Confessions of St Augustine is, of course, one of the great classics of western literature. It’s also one of the earlier classics of African literature, although it doesn’t seem to get put into that category very often; Augustine was born in North Africa, spent his youth there, effectively went to university in Italy, and then returned home. Of course, one could legitimately argue that if you are trying to broaden the literary canon, Augustine doesn’t count. It’s not like he hasn’t been in the canon for about 1600 years.

Having now read the book, I can see why it seized and held on to such a place. It is really very good. Apparently his Latin style is also excellent, but as I read it in translation (I’m such a lazy person), I can’t comment on that. The content, however, is very interesting. Some of the scenes are very famous, such as the “take and read” scene in the garden, or Augustine’s prayer: “Lord, grant me chastity… but not yet”.

It’s clear from Augustine’s account that he was a Christian, and a religious one, from birth. Even when he was a Manichee, he thought that he was a Christian, and arguably he was right, no matter how much he came to disagree later. However, he did a lot of anguished soul-searching, before finally deciding on celibacy and a particular version of Christian doctrine. It is tempting to label that version “orthodox Catholicism”, but a large part of the reason that position is orthodox is because Augustine held it. Within limits, there’s a pretty good chance that any position Augustine had taken would have ended up orthodox.

While the earlier sections of the book are largely autobiographical, there are philosophical and theological elements throughout, and the final sections are dominated by such discussions.

One notable feature is that Augustine was wrong on most of the important factual points he made. In his discussion of time, for example, he argues that only the present exists; that the past and the future do not. That position seems now to be untenable. Special and General Relativity mean that “the present” is not uniquely defined, so both the past and future must exist if the present does, because the present for some observers is part of the past and future for others. In his discussion of Biblical exegesis, he argues that Moses wrote so that everyone could understand, and interpret him in all the ways possible, consistently with truth. We now know, of course, that the opening of Genesis is, at the very least, highly misleading. It misled everyone who read it before the mid-nineteenth century, and continues to mislead a significant number of people now. It is possible to interpret it metaphorically so that it isn’t inconsistent with the known facts, but, basically, in any other context there would be no question about saying that it is simply false.

And that raises possibly the most important problem with his position. Augustine never questioned the authority of the Bible, in part because he believed that it was believed throughout the world. He appears to have been completely ignorant of the states of affairs in India, China, and sub-Saharan Africa. That may be forgivable, as the late Roman Empire had few contacts with those places, but there is a more serious point.

In Book Six (6.5.7), he says “Thus you [God] persuaded me … that I should not listen to any who said to me, “How do you know that these books were given to mankind by the Spirit of the one true and truthful God?” That fact was to be believed above all[.]” I have no problem forgiving his ignorance of relativity and evolutionary theory; Augustine was brilliant, but it’s asking a bit much to expect him to manage several centuries of science all by himself. I’ll even forgive his ignorance of the state of most of the world he lived in, because communications were difficult. However, his response to this question is unforgivable. Once that problem has occurred to you, it is deeply intellectually dishonest not to try to come up with an answer, and “I’m not listening! Not listening! La-la-la-la” is not an answer.

I find it very difficult to believe that someone of Augustine’s intellectual acumen and personality was not profoundly bothered by this issue. I know it used to bother me, back when I was a Christian, and I ceased to be a Christian when I decided that there was no good answer to that question. Some people are not inclined to worry about such things, but Augustine was the sort of person who writes a whole chapter on the nature of time, and the problems of trying to pin down what it could possibly be. He has discussions of epistemology in some of his other works.

In short, if he was preaching as he did while as unsure about the Bible as he should have been, he was intellectually dishonest. If he did not harbour the doubts, despite confronting the questions head on and having no answers to give (because I am fairly sure that he would have given them had he had them), he was culpably negligent, and probably lying to himself. It is somewhat disappointing to find that even Augustine falls in this way.

The Origins of Human Society

The Origins of Human Society is part of the Blackwell History of the World. It covers human prehistory from the first emergence of the genus Homo to the first emergence of history. Thus, the end of its discussion varies depending on the part of the world concerned; in the Middle East it ends around 3000BC, in Japan around 600AD, and in North America around 1600AD. Obviously, with such a broad canvas, it cannot cover anything in great depth. Rather, the author concentrates on fitting local phenomena into a broader picture of the development of human society.

I enjoyed it and found it interesting. The parts the overlapped with things I already knew seemed reliable, so I’m inclined to trust the other bits. However, there wasn’t a large overlap, so I could be misled. Blackwell are a generally reliable publisher, though.

Actually, this is a very difficult type of book to write about. It’s a general introduction to a broad field, so its main focus is on providing information. It’s outside my specialist field, so I can’t really criticise the information. So I don’t have a great deal to say.

One thing did strike me, however. The author said that he was working on the assumption that society was shaped by self-interested households. This may be true, but only if “self-interested” covers sacrificing yourself and your family for an abstract ideal. That argument can be made, but it tends to rob “self interest” of any usefulness as an analytical tool. You can redefine “self interest” as “interest in improving one’s own economic standing, either absolutely or relative to the surrounding society”, and that will be useful in explaining a lot of things. It won’t, however, explain the existence of European cathedrals, nor, I suspect, can it explain Stonehenge.

A problem for the prehistorian is that the belief systems that lead to things like cathedrals vary widely between societies, and they don’t get preserved in the archaeological record. Thus, it’s very hard to have evidence for such claims about prehistoric societies. On the other hand, I suspect that it’s even more obviously true that they did exist, in some form, and thus explanations that lead them out can be known, pretty much in advance, to be wrong. Indeed, even in this book the author often talks about religious behaviour, but tends to see it only as a tool used by elites to solidify their power. This is indeed something religion has been used for, but historically it is not the only thing. Making that assumption about prehistory would seem to be unwarranted.

Or, to put it another way, a lot of modern Americans believe in their religion. It seems likely that a lot of prehistoric Americans did, too. Any theories of prehistory that don’t take that into account seem likely to miss things of great importance.

Ash: A Secret History

Mary Gentle’s Ash is a really big book. It’s probably pushing half a million words. It is also very good.

The most useful way to describe it is “historical fantasy”, although it’s probably technically science fiction. But if you think you’re going to read a historical fantasy, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the sort of book you’re going to get, while “science fiction” would be very misleading. The eponymous Ash is a female mercenary captain in Burgundy in the late fifteenth century. Naturally, she is involved in a number of wars, and she gradually gets caught up in bigger and bigger events.

The rest of this article will discuss specific plot elements of the book, and thus probably spoil things for you if you haven’t already read it.
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The Last Harry Potter

So, the last Harry Potter is released tomorrow. I have it on order, and Amazon Japan have apparently already shipped it, so I should get it tomorrow. I will read it fairly quickly, for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s a pretty good series, and I’d like to know how it finishes. I’d like to find out by reading the book, though, which means I’ll have to read it pretty quickly after it comes out; avoiding spoilers is likely to be impossible.

From a different perspective, Harry Potter is fantasy fiction, and that’s the field I work in. It’s not really a good idea to be ignorant of the largest phenomenon in your professional field. Yes, Harry Potter is work, too.

Before it comes out, I’m going to put my speculations on record. J. K. Rowling has said that two important characters die in the book. I reckon it’s Harry and Voldemort.

Second one first. Yes, Voldemort is an important character. What else would you call him? I am pretty sure he’s going to be defeated in the final book.

And then, Harry. There are three reasons for this. First, the sympathetic characters killed off in books four, five, and six have got steadily more central, thus preparing the audience for the death of a truly central character. More central than Dumbledore means one of the three children. Second, the discussion of Horcruxes in the sixth book sets up the possibility that Voldemort cannot truly be killed unless Harry is, because Harry is actually one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes.

Third, Rowling has always emphasised that death is final in the Harry Potter universe, so if she kills him off, she can’t be asked to write sequels. This will allow her to go off and try writing other things, which will almost certainly be criticised as “not as good as Harry Potter”, or to do something else. After all, she doesn’t exactly need to continue working for a living. (I don’t think this will actually work as a way of stopping fans demanding more, though, and I doubt Rowling thinks so, either. It might make refusing easier, though.)

Of course, good authors (and Rowling is a good author, despite some carping from critics) try to set up false leads in their books, as well as genuine ones. That way they can surprise readers. So maybe I’ve just fallen for all of her traps.

So, my alternative prediction: Harry and Ron die, betrayed and killed by Hermione as she turns to evil and joins Lord Voldemort to bring the entire world under the Dark Lord’s sway.

Skinchangers

This book is a supplement for the World of Darkness, and covers shapechangers of various kinds, as you might guess from the title. The WoD contains a whole game about werewolves, so this book is about other shapechangers. The first chapter is about humans who steal the shapes of animals, generally by killing animals and wearing their skins, or something similar. The second is about people possessed by spirits who make the change shape. The third is a grab-bag, ideas that do not really fit into the categories of the WoD setting. The last category is quite important, because in a horror game, it matters that you have the unknown.

The second chapter has a pet peeve. It takes up the Kitsune, shapeshifting foxes from Japanese mythology, and makes the head fox Inari. Inari is not a fox. Foxes are the messengers of Inari, in Shinto. Grrr. (This is standard RPG fan annoyance when the authors get something wrong in a field I happen to know better than they do. It’s something that, wearing my author’s hat, I have to learn to live with.)

Apart from that, it’s a good book. Several bits inspired me with ideas for stories and characters, which is the main point. The Kitsune, in fact, were good apart from that Inari thing. The Serpent Guardians, snake-spirits who hoard knowledge, also had a lot of story potential. The whole first chapter suggested lots of ideas, for various sorts of skinthieves. I’m not sure that I’ll ever get to use these ideas, but they’ll probably help if and when I have to write other books for the line.

It also confirmed my strongest impression of the new World of Darkness; I want to run a mortals campaign in it. I might segue it into a Mage chronicle at some point, but this version of the WoD is set up to work really well as a horror game for ordinary human characters. There are the layers and layers of secrets needed to make such a game work, as well as powers that humans cannot hope to confront head on. This is something that I never felt that the old World of Darkness really managed, so I think this is a significant improvement in the overall setting. It’s more flexible than the old one.

Overall, then, this is a good, solid book for the World of Darkness, with interesting twists to add to any chronicle.

The Analects

I finally got around to reading the Analects of Confucius, in Arthur Waley’s translation. The introduction claims that this is actually a good, fairly literal, translation, which would make it different from his translation of, say, the Tale of Genji, which gets called a paraphrase. I imagine that’s an exaggeration born of scholarly outrage, but it has been clearly superceded by more recent translations.

Anyway, back to the Analects. I have to confess that I wasn’t impressed. Part of this is that I think Confucius is completely wrong in his choice of the ideal form of government; he’s a supporter of divine right monarchy. Another large part of it is that the Analects are irredeemably vague on just what makes right conduct. A great deal is made up of exhortations to behave properly, and with Goodness.

Well, obviously.

To illustrate the point, let us take one, fairly fundamental, issue. Confucius appears to believe that it is Good for the descendant of earlier emperors to rule with absolute loyalty from his subjects. I believe that democracy is basically Good. Now, the issue. I believe that Goodness involves compassion. Does Confucius think that? I have, honestly, no idea. He is so different from me on one point that I have no confidence that he will agree with me on other points. What, then, is his ethical position?

Reading books like the Analects is valuable, because it brings home the fact that the difference between good and evil is very far from being obvious. If you took an historical vote, feminism would come out as evil, even if you let women vote. There’s actually a good chance that it would come out evil if you restricted the vote to people alive now; history would definitely tip the balance. I think that the majority of all people who ever lived are wrong about that; are wrong about a fundamental feature of ethics. The existence of “honour killings” makes it clear that people alive now do not agree over “murder is wrong”. (Strictly, “killing, without juridical authority, someone who poses no immediate or even long term threat to your or anyone else’s physical well-being is wrong”. “Murder” comes loaded with wrongness as part of its meaning.) It’s important to note that the existence of murder doesn’t demonstrate this; people do things that they believe are wrong. The people responsible for “honour killings”, however, believe that they are doing the right thing.

If people can disagree on such fundamental points, a text that merely exhorts people to do the right thing, without being very specific about just what that is, is pretty much useless as an ethical text. And that, in the end, is how the Analects struck me.

Truth and the Absence of Fact

I bought this book about four years ago, because it was cheap in Galloway and Porter in Cambridge. It then sat in my pile of “things I will get around to reading” for quite a long time, partly because it got left in England when I came out to Japan. Anyway, I finally got around to reading it. It’s a technical work of academic philosophy, primarily concerned with the philosophy of language. I thought quite a lot of it was very interesting, so this post is also likely to get a bit technical.

Hartry Field, the author, is (or, at least, was in 2001 when this book was published) a proponent of the disquotational theory of truth. This holds that there is nothing more to truth than sentences of the form “”Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white”. It’s called “disquotational” because all you really do is remove the quotation marks.

One of the odd things is that he, and other proponents of this theory, occasionally talk as if proponents of other theories of truth are committed to sometimes violating the disquotational formula. They can’t really mean this, because it’s obvious that no theory of truth can actually violate the formula; the terms “snow” and “white” means the same both inside and outside the quotes (if they don’t, disquotation is wrong), which means that the equivalence must hold no matter what makes the statements true.

Disquotationalism is also applied to reference, the theory of how words refer to things in the world. The worry raised for other theories is “how do we know that “snow” refers to all the snow, and only to snow?”. However, this is also obviously an empty worry. Snow is the stuff that “snow” refers to, no matter what the theory of reference. If there are cases of small, agglomerated ice crystals falling as precipitation that are not referred to by “snow”, then they are not snow. I’m not quite sure what they would be; some variety of sleet or hail, perhaps.

There are genuine problems quite close to this one, however. The example that Field uses is the pre-relativity use of “mass”. According to relativity theory, there are two quantities, rest mass and relativistic mass, each of which has some of the properties attributed to “mass”, but neither of which has all of them. There is a real problem as to what we should say about mass when we discover this. There are several options. We can say that there is no such thing as mass, and adopt different terms for the relativistic quantities. Or we can say that we had false beliefs about mass, and there are several choices for which beliefs were false. Finally, we can say that our usage of mass was fundamentally ambiguous, with indeterminate reference.

I’m not sure that there is a right answer to these questions. I think we can choose, to a great extent, because language is something that we create. (Of course, we can’t normally choose as individuals; language is socially created, so we have to go along with other speakers of the language if we want to communicate.)

One thing I am sure of, however, is that disquotationalism doesn’t advance the discussion. It is remarkable how much you can do without worrying about the deeper issues, but I still think the deeper issues are real issues, and that philosophers should be trying to solve them.

Promethean: the Created

This is the latest in White Wolf’s new World of Darkness series. Each game covers a monster type, and this time, it’s the turn of Frankenstein’s monster. I have to confess that I wasn’t particularly enthused by the concept, and basically bought the book because, as I’m writing for the new WoD, I feel that I ought to be at least generally familiar with all the major elements of it.

However, the game looks a lot better than I thought. Characters have a fixed goal: become human. The chronicle is of finite length, and is built around achieving that goal. This isn’t like Vampire: the Requiem, where it may be possible to become human again, or may not. It is definitely possible for the created to become human again, and some of those who have done so are around, and may help or hinder those who still seek it. This is, generally, brought off very well, both in the flavour text and in the rule systems.

One of the things that helps is Disquiet, which means that Prometheans draw the hostility of humans, and corrupt the land if they stay in one place for too long. This gives them a good reason to seek humanity, even though that means they will lose their kewl powaz. This is, however, one of the few problems in the book. The description of Disquiet given in much of the text is a lot like The Gift in Ars Magica, creating suspicion and hostility in those who deal with the Promethean in person. However, in the section on Disquiet itself, the description is completely different. Personally, I’d just combine the two, but it was a little disturbing.

A lot of the structure of the book will be familiar to anyone who’s read World of Darkness games. There are five types of Promethean, and five philosophical factions, for a basic total of twenty five possible character types. There are kewl powaz unique to Prometheans (called Transmutations). And there are enemies for Prometheans, in this case Pandorans: the creatures that result when an attempt to create a Promethean goes wrong.

It looks like it would be a fun chronicle to play, and the publishing model is similarly different. After the main rules, the supplements will be published over a single year, and may, in fact, already all be out. This is something that White Wolf have done before, but it does seem particularly well-suited to this game’s concept.

In short, this game appealed to me a lot more than I initially expected. Recommended.