Friday, 20 January 2017
Due to a discussion with Kyana in the comments to the previous post, I have been lead to consider the following question
How do I write an adventure?
You might think this is a simple question since I should just be able to remember doing it.
Well, firstly my memory isn’t that good.
Secondly, I tend to accomplish things in a fugue state.
Thirdly, they are really complex things and your memory of doing them is being constantly over-written with each new version and iteration, each of which are almost a whole thing in themselves and, like a waiter forgetting a previous order, it can be quite useful to be able to dump a lot of not currently-relevant information out of your head to get the processing power back.
Fourthly, I've really only ever written one complete adventure, arguably two.
Here’s my best guess about how you do what I did, and I’m talking here about process and practice more than ideals, ‘design goals’ whatever the fuck they are and general rambling about minimalism and maximalism or whatever the fuck people are banging on about this week. This is literally, how do you do it.
1. THE BIG IDEA
The most important and central thing about making a good adventure is to have a good idea.
I do not believe that good ideas are easy to get. Especially ones to specific purposes.
Ideas are easy to get. I could probably write down ten crappy ideas right now. Good ideas are rare, and the difference between the two is not just the level of work you put in.
I suspect there's a curve showing how much potential an idea has, even with the maximum level of work. At one end are really shitty ideas, with these, even if you change everything about it and hire all the best talent to work on it for a long time then it’s still not going to be very good. The interesting thing with a really shitty idea is that they tend not to produce giant charismatic piles of flaming disaster. You tend to end up with just mediocrity. Like the Duce Bigalow movies.
Then, in the middle are the standard 'good ideas', these are the ones you have coming out of the shower, on the toilet or whatever and you think "oh, that's a clever idea". I think of them as Writers Room ideas. If you got a bunch of reasonably intelligent, reasonably creative nerds in a room and they start spouting off ideas then you will probably get a few of these. These are ideas that can be massively enhanced or destroyed by the work done on them. They are like B+ movies, like a Robert Zemekis movie or a Max Landis movie or a Marvel movie.
Then right at the other end you get the good ones. These are the ones that if you just wrote them down badly they would still be kinda good. The City Without a Name is one of those. These are also the ideas where you know if you work on it in the right way with the right people and everything goes perfectly and, for once, all the stars align and all the coins land on their edge, you might just get the Real Deal, art with a capital A, something that punches through time, invents a genre, adds to the culture in a meaningful way.
They do not come along that often and I have never been able to predict when they will come along. They are a mystery to me.
2 - FORM AND FORMLESSNESS, THE IDENTITY OF THE IDEA
So what is 'an idea'?
The most important thing about your idea for the adventure is that you like it. Making it will be hard and you will get depressed at multiple points and want to put it away, but if the central concept is provokes affection and desire in you then you have a much better chance of making it and of making it well.
There is a paradox, the idea should have a very strong identity and feel, but at the same time be a little formless. It should be something that you could accomplish a variety of ways.
At this point it absolutely doesn't need to be something you are able to explain to other people, or even to yourself. You can just have it there in the back of your head like a silent impulse. Wrapping it up in a neat conjunction of words at this point is not necessarily a good thing.
This is the opposite to movie-producer rules. You don't need an elevator pitch because right now, you are not trying to persuade a bureaucratic system that it's good. You don't need to explain it in terms of other things (yet), you need to let it be itself and grow and become unlike other things. You need to keep it to yourself a little.
The idea for DCO
With DCO I had already done a lot of research for Veins of the Earth and had had most of the ideas for that written out in their initial form.
I wanted to make something that would be an effective gateway to the Underworld as I conceived it. I had a head full of geology and deep time (thanks in large part to the books of Richard Fortney). If there is one basic concept behind DCO it’s that transmission of the feeling of deep time, the same one you feel when you see huge layers of strata on a cliff face and think about how deeply they reach into the past.
Whatever you are trying to make it will draw from something, even if its just everything you have ever experienced or imagined.
Deep Carbon Observatory is actually the name of a research group and I stole it. I had noticed it during my research along with the name of another group, Dark Biosphere Investigations, and noted it down.
DCO was nearly DBI, in that case it would have been a journey to a kind of collapsed abyssal zoo under the ocean.
It can be really important to have a good name. The name acts as the first hook or crinkle in the minds memory, a nodule that other impressions can accrete about. It’s a kind of symbol or rallying flag for when you are explaining the idea to others and yourself or for when you are depressed and doubting it. A cool name can breathe life into a project and idea. It’s also useful for capitalistic reasons of course, with marketing and so forth. it brands the project as being or not being a particular kind of thing in the eyes of the world.
My advice would be to make sure you have a really cool name that you love and write it at the top of your notepad or writing document. Have a file shortcut named that on your desktop.
3 - NOTEPAD
When I started out I began everything by hand on various pads, usually either lined or square. Then once I had what I needed I took it to the computer at the end of each day, or week, and typed it in.
The great thing about this is that you can be away from a computer which you don't have to carry around with you. You also get longer to think about the euphony of your sentences and they flow through your mind in a different speed so that effects your writing style a little.
Later I started doing almost all my computer writing on Notepad – it’s really fast to open so you don't have to wait. It doesn't check my spelling or bad grammar and underline words to irritate me so I can type very fast and inaccurately without it being a problem. It has no format, fonts etc. so there are no extras to fiddle with. If they were there I would fiddle with them and waste time.
Almost everything I've ever written on my computer has started as a badly written notepad document. This is being written in notepad, the it will be re-written here, then transferred to Word to check spelling and fix stuff and make sure it makes sense, then finally the blog. I'll take a picture of it now so you know what it looks like
Now I rarely use physical paper for major segments. It just took too long to transfer everything over I still carry physical notepads around with me just in case.
4 - PRIMARY ITERATION
This is a part of the process quite difficult to keep track of, it takes place mainly on notepad documents that are easy to delete and transfer and on actual physical notepads.
It's also an extremely important process because it’s here that the first inklings of the shape of the adventure take place.
A main thing here is working out problems and getting chapter or section headings.
The thought process for DCO went something like this.
- I want PC's to go somewhere deep, gain access to something deep but most importantly, feel as if they are going somewhere deep. I want the space to tell them that.
- Here's this name, Deep Carbon Observatory. What would that actually be like? An underground observatory? What would that be?
- Then gradually - it would be inverted, it would see through stone, it would be deep underground but accessible (like our observatories are on hill and mountaintops).
- Mine - no. Done already.
- What about Open Cast Mine - this is an important moment, open cast mines are visually and spatially powerful and hyper-dominant spaces. They create a very deep impression. They are also something that most D&D creators won't use as they are explicitly modern and creators prefer to draw from pre-existing pseudo-medieval forms. Once the idea of it being an open cast mine was settled on, that governed a lot of the iterations from that point on.
ALWAYS CHOOSE THE MOST POWERFUL VISION
Choose the most powerful thing EVERY TIME and THEN use reason and explanation and rationalism to make it all mutually coherent like it makes sense. Never be reasonable to start with, that is not your job.
- Ok, its like this big inverse pyramid and the observatory at the bottom. So why does no-one know where it is, why doesn't everyone know about it, why isn't it in use?
- Can't be filled in. Hidden somehow. How?
thinking thinking thinking thinking
- Hidden under a lake. River diverted and deliberately used to hide it, like a huge geo-engineering project. And that explains why no-one has gone there in ages and why its findable now. The project failed.
- Then the idea of the dam (the shape of the dam is a 20th century concrete-based technology, like the open-cast-mine of the entry, no ancient dam would ever have looked like that).
- How did no-one fuck with the dam/how did it stay up (the dam golems)
- Then the dam having broken. Then what happens in a flood?
- Stages and effects of a flood.
- Then that breaks down quite easily into different areas or zones. Then we have the idea of each area or zone being like going deeper and deeper into an alien reality, with each step closer to the observatory being like you are going further and further out of the realm of human understanding and into the realm of otherness.
- It's about this point that we reach our basic subdivisions or chapter headings.
5 - BREAKING IT DOWN
We're back to names again. Instead of adventure names we are choosing section names but the process is similar. You want to choose a good name, but most importantly you need to know what manner of thing that section is and broadly how it relates to the whole
Here's a picture of what I ended up with in the DCO folder at the end.
You can see they aren't that good. Carrowmore is ok, the Crows is ok, the Drowned Lands is ok, The Big Dam is bad, The Profundal Zone is good (an actual measure of a particular layer of biosphere in a lake), The Observatory and the Giant are just practical.
With Maze of the Blue Medusa, well, in files the sections were first called UPPER RIGHT, CENTRE RIGHT, CENTER, LOWER LEFT etc. The project was always called MEDUSA MAZE, in caps. The sections eventually turned into LIZARDMAN ARCHIVE, GALLERY, GARDEN, ENTRY, THE DEAD WEDDING, then that odd bit in the lower mid right I forget if that had its own name, then the medusa's stuff, not sure if that had a name either but I knew what was there, then PETRIFIED CELLS. Then they got their current names through the edit.
The most important thing is that it be broken down into workable sections. In the case of DCO, and to some extent with MotBM, the sections are based on geography, i.e. they could be sections of a map, but they are also based on gathering consequences of play; you can't get to the profundal zone without going through the drowned lands, you can't reach the Medusa without going through the Almery and you are unlikely to meet her without meeting Chronia first.
Even though in most things I do I like a high degree of interconnectedness both in aesthetic, in terms of worldbuilding and imagined mutual history and in terms of mechanics and carried over effects, if I didn't break things down a LOT first I would go mad.
The only way I know how to deal with highly complex big projects is to break them into parts with a specific informational architecture.
6 - WORKING ON IT
Once I've got a rough arrangement of chapters it’s just a matter of working out what is in each thing then writing that
HAHAHAHAHAHAHA SO EASY
But yeah, a similar process is followed. Breakdowns on either paper or text docs, lots of notes, lots of sub-headings. Breaking down each section into its own sections and then working out names and content for each of them.
This is like 80% of making the thing but it only gets these few lines.
Also, the whole architecture of the adventure and the arrangement of all of its parts can and will change multiple times as new stuff is invented and put in and old stuff discarded.
The DCO flood flowchart only happened because I had this big clever idea for a kind of flood mega-image map thing with all the different encounters on it and Scrap just said no so I had to come up with a way to do the same thing with just information.
This leads directly into –
7 - PLANNING YOUR SUICIDE
It's too big. It's unmanageable. There are too many simultaneous problems you have to think about. Your dumb ambitions have sunk the project. It will be incomprehensible anyway. It's pretentious unplayable arty shite. You can't even stand to look at it any more. There's some waste ground near your house where they won't find the body for a while. You could do it with pills.
At some point you cross the line from having it all in bits to....
8 - PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
I have found the Navigation View in Microsoft Word to be very useful for arranging the architecture of information, here's a picture of the navigation view of a BFR doc.
As your chapters fill up they also narrow, casting off old word docs, notepad docs, image files and prospective layouts in paint.net like a snake with leprosy shaking off its skin. Here's a list of the files for BFR as they currently stand
And here's the "Misc Development" folder for the section I'm working on now. I use this as a dumping ground for stuff that might be relevant but I don't want it staring at me.
Eventually you have all your little chapter sections as complete as you think they are going to get. you have read through them all multiple times and to you they are entirely comprehensible and eminently playable, only a fool could fail to understand them. So, you mangle them all into one huge, sequential, staggeringly slow and constantly crashing word document.
After months (possibly years) of crushing effort, multiple dark nights of the soul, fitful rushes of inspiration, moments of near genius and several bedazzled and hallucinogenic dead-ends your glorious first draft is READY.
You are now half way through the process.
That’s all for one blog post. Next post I will talk about all the stuff that comes after like publishing, formats, printing etc. As well as all the stuff that I missed out like dealing with
mute beasts artists, fools who would oppose
yo ur will co-workers and parasites who dare to questions your divine
genius editors. I will also try to answer any specific questions that
people ask in the comments.
Friday, 13 January 2017
I said somewhere that I would write about what Gawain means to me, so here we are. This will be the last one I promise.
So I got very depressed and didn’t work on anything for a long time and spent a lot of evenings drinking and mainlining animated series on DVD (Clone Wars is a mixed bag with some very good elements, Avatar the Last Airbender is excellent).
As part of some research for another thing I re-read parts of Gawain and translated a bit of it.
Translating it was the only work I was capable of doing that didn't feel like I was grinding broken glass into my own face. I'm curious as to why that is. Perhaps its because my mind had something to look at that wasn't itself. (Inventing stuff sometimes feels very much like your mind looking at itself.) It’s poetry, which does often calm me down, I’m not sure why that is.
So I would go to work each day, (my phone tracks my movements like a stalker and thinks the library is 'work' because I go there during work hours), and translate a bit of Gawain.
It's set where I'm from. Not exactly, it spends a lot of time in Yorkshire and Lancashire, but the paths of my life and of Gawain’s journey cross quite a bit. I have family in the Wales he wandered around, I went to university in the Lancashire he travelled through and, most of all, I was writing in the Wirral he found such a grim place, at almost exactly the same period of the year that he was in it. The weather has not changed.
And the weather and the descriptions of it are some of the best parts of the poem, the ones almost all the translators seem to think are really good, especially considering the frequency with which they are translated.
(Poets are just good with wind I think.)
Yet all the travelling of Gawain takes place in a few pages and its barely relevant to the dramatic action of the story. It's mainly a courtly story about high status people having parties in rooms, or, essentially, about Gawain not having sex with a hot girl.
There is a lot going in in Gawain, let’s look into some of it.
TO GAY OR NOT TO GAY
Working out how gay Gawain and the Green Knight is, is a complex endeavour. The word 'gay' and the concept probably, don't exist for the poet. Medieval literature rarely (as far as I know) talks about, or names, non-hetro sexual practices, but sex does show up, in stuff like Chaucer certainly and almost everyone grew up in a hovel & probably heard/saw their parents having sex under the sheets, which was considered relatively normal I think. Sex and sexual desire is a key element in Gawain, which is quite a fancy upper-class courtly story.
So this certainly isn't a modern culture story, but it’s also not a Victorian or early-modern culture, which is what we first think of when we contrast a sexual culture to "us". It's not repressed in the same way. Doesn't have quite the same sharp duality. Although Certain Things aren't mentioned, it doesn't have the same feelings of denial. And like almost anything from before the modern era, there is a lot of sensual male contact that is just considered part of normal male behaviour, from guys being super-glad to see each other, even crying from happiness, to a lot of kissing, touching, grabbing or "laching", and a lot of frank appreciation for each other.
Guys in this era are just well up in each others business socially in a way not common to our own time.
So any modern reader feels a familiar internal monologue which goes something like this:
A - Wow some of these male behaviours seem pretty gay.
B - Probably you're just reading a sexual element into a behaviour that had no sexual element when it was performed as you have been perved-up by modern knowledge.
A - But surely some men did gay stuff in this period?
B - It's likely, but without any generally accepted and widely known awareness of homosexuality, a lot of quasi-sexual feelings are going to be absorbed by and expressed in general, warm homosocial contact.
A - Then surely that warm homosocial contact could itself be interpreted as being a bit gay...
B - NO! Stop trying to gay up history and see gay stuff everywhere!
A – Well it sounds like you’re in denial to me. Anyway, who says there wasn't any widely known awareness of homosexuality, or at least, guys getting busy with each other. I mean there was that king in Shakespeare..
B - They almost never talk about it.
A - But that doesn't mean it wasn't happening.
B - Even if it was happening that doesn't mean that all the stuff in Medieval texts that seems a bit gay is actually a secret signifier for gayness the way it might be in a modern or early modern text.
and so on and so on and so on.
So, with this in mind, reasons I interpret the behaviour of Bertilak/The Green Knight towards Gawain as more homosexual than homosocial are -
One - The Green Knight/ Bertilak remarks on their happiness at seeing Gawain and their desire to be in contact with Gawain a LOT. In Arthurs hall as the Knight, in his own hall in numerous ways, and again at the end as the Knight, he still just wants Gawain around him.
Two - Bertilk laughs and giggles when Gawain agrees to stay at his house, he acts as if he doesn't know what he's doing. This is from the guy defined in the text as being super tough and the most masculine guy ever, the guy who always seems to be in a dominant position and always knows what’s going on. Yes, in some translations its Gawain that giggles and loses control of himself, but I have re-checked my facing text and I think that it a bullshit interpretation.
“The lorde let for luf lotegh so myry,
As wygh that wolde of his wyte, ne wyst quat he might.”
Three - The sex game. "Ok Gawain, you stay here and I'll go hunting. Whatever I win out there I will give to you and whatever you win in here you give to me." Bertilak goes off & catches symbolic animals while his wife stays home and try’s to fuck Gawain. Then Gawain gives Bertilak his own wife’s kisses later in the day. Which Bertilak is quite pleased about.
So two things. If Gawain had fucked Bertilak’s wife, what would he have had to give Bertilak that night? And secondly, knowing this, what was going through his head when she flirted with him the second and third times? What does he think Bertilak thinks is going on? I mean, that’s a highly specific bet right? Is Gawain just super-innocent, or is he quite jaded and courtly and ‘cool’ and has a good idea of what is going in and just deals with it?
I refuse to accept that my interpretation of this as being a bonkers sex game is a modern interpolation of an 'innocent' medieval text. I believe that at least a fraction of the audience reading or, more likely, hearing this read out, knew exactly what was going on with this. I think most of them did.
Four - Gawain is feminised and Bertilak masculinised, a LOT. Gawain’s beauty is gone on about quite a bit, when he arrives in Bertilaks hall he is dressed in skirts and described (I think) as like a flower. Bertilak and the Green Knight are both described as super-masculine with specifically well-shaped limbs (especially thighs), narrow waists and muscular trunks. He's always called 'stiff' staunch' and strong. His beard is off the hook. He physically does things 'on camera' in ways Gawain does not. Gawain has some generalised adventures and battles on his way to the Green Chapel but they are never described action-by-action. Bertilak does a lot of stuff, he hunts, attacks, skins, fights and, most crucially, grabs. Gawains main heroic qualities in the poem as shown by action are him *not* doing things.
And Five - Bertilak grabs and 'lacches' Gawain a lot in his castle. Whenever he wants Gawain somewhere he 'lacches' the guy and basically moves him where he wants him to be.
I state this as a cornerstone of my theses, and its fucking ridiculous that no-one has said this directly before: The Green Knight Wants to Fuck Gawain.
RELIGIOUS YET WITTY VS WITTY YET RELIGIOUS
Tolkien described the poet as (I'm paraphrasing) a man of religious conviction and some humour. I tend to see him the other way round, as a funny man with strong religious feelings. That may just be the natural difference between Tolkien and I.
By the time we get to the poems end, it is very much a religious work, the finish is anguished and serious and very Christian.
But the rest of the poem, is, not exactly light, or humorous, but lively, witty and wry.
It's hard to describe how the Gawain poet is funny, there are very few 'jokes' and not many hard distinguishable moments where you can point at it and say "look, this is meant to be funny". Nevertheless, the image we get in our minds of the poet is someone with a wry, somewhat ironic, compassionate and rather rueful view on the world. The mild doubling of meanings, the understatements and the kinds of situations created: Arthurs court describing what they think Arthur should have done, Lady Bertilak duelling with Gawain, Bertilaks comments after some of the kisses, the nameless doomsayer telling him blankly to run, show someone who is aware of, and enjoying, the multiple intersecting levels of awareness, and wants you to be aware of them too.
There's a few medieval texts I think, where we see the warmth of the human lifeworld duelling with the totalising and annihilating power of the world of faith, with varying results. The Morte is a lot like this, with the faithworld stuff coming in hard during the grail quest and with Galahad. Both worlds are good at different themes and good in different ways. I tend to favour the human lifeworld, (as, I suspect, most modern readers), but even when the story is deeply concerned with human things, the faithworld is still there wrapped in in everything.
I doubt the poet saw them in conflict in any meaningful way, to the creator, I believe, it’s all one story with all of the elements making a neat whole (except maybe for the bit with Morgana's plot).
No-one in the poem ever says 'fuck' or anything close to it but I put the word in a few times. Even though I did a lot of specific stuff with the translation, this is the one that is going to stick out and if anyone notices it they are going to call it the "Fuck Gawain". So my excuses/reasons are;
One - It's a natural part of my internal repertoire. I say fuck in my head like its punctuation and my translation goes back and forth a lot between a very archaic representation and some very modern interpretations, depending on how I felt each part should come through.
This means my translation doesn't have a unified tone, at least according to the way an English teacher would describe it. But it does really because that is my tone and the pattern of my thought, it is natural to me, no matter what anyone else thinks of it and therefore is a reasonable pattern of translation.
In most cases I put in a fuck where I felt *that Character* might say it according to my own internal sense and what they were up to at that moment. There are only three parts where it comes in.
One - Arthurs Hall. I read this much like a Scorsese scene. (This probably isn't entirely accurate to the nature of the scene in its original context, but no translation could be). This is the moment when one masculine guy in a masculine culture jokethreatens another masculine guy in front of his male friends.
Many of you will remember this situation from school. The aggressor says something that could be a a joke or a threat. If you respond as if it’s a joke then you might be judged as if you were afraid to respond to the threat, showing lack of courage, so you lose face. But if you respond as if it is a threat, and the aggressor plays it off as a joke, then you look as if you ovverreacted, showing fear and internal weakness, so you lase face anyway. There is no good response to this. I read it pretty much as a Scorsese gangster scene and I thought the Green Knight might way say 'motherfucker' and it fit the sonic structure of that line so I put it in.
Two - The Nameless Doomsayer. This is the fuck I feel most fine about. This character is a churl who exists purely to lighten the mood of the last part of the poem before the scary bit and, as a churl, he is meant to show what a super-knightly guy Gawain is. He is the character most likely to say fuck and use low language and I had no problem putting one in.
Three – Gawain’s rebuke. This is the least likely. Right at the end, as Gawain realises he is alive after the axe comes down and leaps away drawing his sword, he rebukes the Green Knight and tells him quite forcefully that this is it, the thing is done, he is not going back under the axe. Gawain never uses low language of any kind, or even comes close, the worst you get from him is a bit of cold sarcasm at the end. But I felt the emotion of the moment and the extremity of the incident might allow it and I was a bit fuck-happy at that point so I gave Gawain a small fuck of his own. He had earnt it.
WHAT IS THE GREEN KNIGHT?
Well, this motherfucker is about twenty things. Let’s see if we can count them.
He's Nature - Well, he’s green. Plus he's covered in leaves and things. Plus he's literally carrying a branch. Plus many of the things that threaten Gawain on his way to the Green Chapel are nature incarnate, bears and bulls and wolves and woodwose. Plus at the end his chapel is in the wildest most barren place ever. Plus it’s called the Green Chapel. Wildness is not good in the medieval mind I think because they haven't yet invented Wordsworth and Shelly to tell them it’s ok.
Arthurs court is the epitome of civilisation. Nature BURSTS its way in to civilisation to say "Ha Ha! You thought you could forget me mankind, well here I am to challenge your weak assertions that you are something other than nature. How about that chivalric code you made up, reckon you can stick to it?"
He's Violence - He's carrying an axe. His contest is a murder. The axe is his prize. When we meet him again he has another axe and is sharpening it. As Bertilak he hunts and kills a LOT of stuff and this is described in the most detailed and gory fashion.
"Knights! You think you are pretty great hey? We have you noticed that all of you are KILLERS? And that all of your knightlyness is based on MURDER? You like killing so much, why don't you kill me tough guys? Hmmmm? Then I’ll kill you. Afraid to muderdie murderers?"
He's The Outside/Elves/Elvishness - He's clearly magic as fuck. Described as 'an elvish man' in the text. Exhibits magical regeneration, seems to change location near-magically, changes size and appearance magically. He's just very magic, he's a magic man. This is probably more real to the original audience than us. From a modern perspective we can add “He’s the Unconscious” to this one – see below.
He's Death And Winter - Turns up in one winter, meets Gawain in another. Carries holly which is strongest in green when the boughs are bare. Leading us to;
He's Rebirth And Summer/ The Unity Of Opposites - The Green Knight loves being opposite things. A super green guy in a dead white winter land. Carries a holly branch as symbol of peace and an axe at the same time as a symbol of warishness. Fucks with everyone but is a stickler for knightly conduct and oaths and fine legalisms of behaviour. Is the green-bearded Green Knight and the Red(ish) bearded Bertilak. Wants to fuck Gawain and tries to trick Gawain into sexdeath. Works to destroy Arthurs court but ends up giving them the green girdle that becomes a symbol of a knightly order. Schemes and lies to corrupt Gawain and forgives and reassures Gawain. Dies but lives. Likes dogs AND cats! And yes, sex and death. OPPOSITES. COMBINNNNEEDDDD.
He's Cycles - You have to wait a year to meet him the second time. He dies and lives again. Pluss see all summer/winter stuff above.
He's A Gay Dude/The Fear Of Being A Bit Gay - Wants to bone Gawain. You never know how fully Gawain notices this and exactly what his response to it is. Until he finds out Bertilak and the Green Knight are the same, he seems to be really fond of Bertilak, but also kind of glad to get away? We leave the story with one certainty: Gawain is definitely not gay, even a bit.
He's The Best Dude Ever - It's pretty great to be strong and manly with great legs and an amazing beard and your own castle. Wouldn’t you want to be that guy? or at least to hang out with him. Bertilak confirms, manliness, beards and roaring fires are the best. If the situation was reversed, Bertilak would definitely have fucked Gawains wife, and possibly everyone else in the castle as well, but Gawain does not do this. So, are you manly enough to not act manly? You enough of a real man to not be ruled by your virility? Another Gawain paradox.
He's A Threat To His Own Kingdom Somehow - This is an odd one that not many people bring up. On the way to the Green Chapel the nameless doomsayer tells Gawain that the Green Knight is super-dangerous and just kills the fuck out of people for no reason and has been haunting this area for ages. But the Green Knight is Bertilak, and this is not far from Bertilaks castle.
Possibly this is some black ops mission impossible shit where Bertilak gets this guy to talk up the danger of the place to see if Gawain will flinch. But if it isn't, then Bertilak is the monster haunting his own kingdom. He is the lord in the castle but also the terrible violent thing from the outside that kills at a whim. Which leads us to;
He's The Things That Are Inside Us That We Would Rather Were Both Outside Us And Very Far Away - See above, being gay, being violent, being a crazy ass murderer. Also possibly magic.
He's Mercy - Gawain is set an impossible moral challenge that leads directly from his desire to be the best possible knight and it inevitably leads to his destruction, but he isn't destroyed because he's willing to go through with it. So this is a Book of Job story maybe? Which is easy to crap on in a Stuart Lee or Ted Chiang way, because Job gets his 'stuff' back, so it seems like a fake moral message - pretend to go through with this apparently self-destructive moral code and I will reprieve you at the last minute. If you look like you are willing to die, you won't really have to.
It's kind of easy to make fun of from a modern perspective but I'm not sure that that’s what the original creators of those stories meant, or that we are fully understanding them. If you look at it from a detached, ironic, material perspective then it looks like a trick, if you look at it in the spirit and nature of its time, what is it then?
He's Kind Of Like God Maybe? - See above. I will add that in the last scene with the Green Knight, Gawain confesses his mild indiscretion when he had previously lied about it and the Knight says he is now "clean" as if he had been confessed by a priest, from the perspective of the story-world, it’s not clear where the fuck he thinks he is getting the moral authority to do this from. His words and his general air of moral assumption are not those of a trickster but a tolerant moral superior who is congratulating a student for finally seeing through a knotty problem and reaching a new level of awareness and understanding. He forgives like he's god, which makes the next bit even odder;
He's A Pawn Of Morgana La Fay - At the same time as he is forgiving Gawain the Green Knight gives him the backstory to what is going on, which to a modern reader (me) seems ridiculously thematically and dramatically disconnected from the rest of the text. Ok so it was a womanfight between Morgana and Guinevere. Was she orchestrating the sex game thing? You seemed super in charge before, and super in charge now, but in reality you weren't/aren't? Does she turn you into a giant green guy regularly? If she can do that, why not just send you to take out Arthur? Ok some of these are nerdboy questions, but still.
This also meshes with the poems turn towards misogyny in the last part. There seems to be some kind of divide between the poem and the poet on the subject of Lady Bertilak. From the poems point of view she's hot and funny, active, intelligent and has a lot of positive qualities. When the poet wakes up to what his heart is writing he has to remind us that she is sleazy and corrupt and kind of evil even though she doesn't seem it. Then he has the Green Knight effectively say that the whole thing was the fault of women and Gawain confirm it. To us reading, this is Gawain at his worst. I do wonder what the original audience would have thought of the whole thing. I do think, even from a Medieval perspective, it’s at least partly Gawain’s fault, yes you were assailed by magic giants and sexy girls, but it all interlaced with your own honour code and your own image of yourself, this isn't just me being 21stC, the poem seems to take a similar view, in its opening parts at least. And at the end the Green Knight wants to take Gawain back and reconcile him with his wife, his ‘opponent’ as if they were players in a game that is now over.
Would the original audience think it was good that Gawain didn’t back, bad? He’s refusing to go back into the sex/death house, but also refusing to be reconciled with a women/women in general.
VERY CHRISTIAN-SEEMING PARADOXES, THE NECESSARY IMPERFECTION
Finally we come to the end and Gawain crying and crushed because he failed, even though to us, to his opponent and to his friends, he scored 90% in a moral battle against a witch, a magic giant and a hot girl.
And Gawain never really cheers up, not in the narrative at least. We end on him sad, filled with a sense of his own failure. And we don't really know what to think of this. To Arthurs court it’s a failure that is not a failure. To Gawain it’s a success that is not a success. To the court the green girdle is a trophy. To Gawain a mark of shame.
We come back again to the unity of opposites, the necessity of imperfection in the search for perfection. Gawain’s failure is more humanising, and in a way, more noble than clear and direct success would have been. (Also a better drama.) Gawain’s super-brave and almost self-destructive honour code that first seemed bold, then dumb, then impossibly complex to maintain, then simple again just before the end, is now a weight for him.
What does it mean to hold yourself to an impossibly high standard? What does it mean to oppose death, nature, sex, the possibility of being a bit bisexual, hyper-masculinity, violence and a pawn of Morgana La Fay, and to fail, and yet to be forgiven? To be forgiven by all those same things?
I doubt I’ve got any close to “an answer”. I doubt there is one and if there is its probably obscure and theological.
I’m glad I got to meet the poet through the text. Gawain poet, I’m glad you wrote this. You can’t go straight from sad to being happy but you can go from sad to calm and your words helped me do that. And, if you’re also the ‘Pearl’ poet then I’m sorry about your kid.
Tuesday, 10 January 2017
From the outside the City of Infinite Ruin looks a little like Constantinople. Its walls are high and strong and roughly circular and a charming pink-white that glows deep pink-red in the summer sun. There are various guard towers and gates, each with their own storied histories, and from the outside you can see some of the most recent spires and minarets poking up.
It's impossible to accurately measure the walls of the City of Infinite Ruin, either their circumference or their height, and for a long time it was assumed that this made it immune to siege, because how can you build a siege tower or a ladder to get up there when you don't know how tall it is?
It turns out that if you just take a rough guess and built a bunch of different siege towers and ladders then roughly half of them will be the right size (or too tall, but then you can climb down from the tower on another rope ladder).
So the City of Infinite Ruin is not immune to sieges, it just takes a stupidly large amount of resources to besiege. Plus, if you win, the current rulers of the city will just retreat deeper into its infinite ruins and possibly launch guerrilla attacks from the inside.
HOWEVER, that problem tends to solve itself as the infinite ruins are also full of all the previous rulers of the City of Infinite Ruin, and all the escaped ghettos and archeocultures and shadow empires etc., and all those people tend to be pissed off at each other for some reason, so soon your former enemies will be busy dealing with their former enemies.
(Plus no-one really want to throw anything big at the walls of the City of Infinite Ruin as that might damage them, but more on that later.)
Regardless of its exact measurement, the general circumference of the City of Infinite Ruin seems to vary between 18 to 20 miles at the maximum, (about an eighth of this fronts the ocean) although, from the outside, it never seems to take up any greater area of land.
The city is not growing, not growing out anyway.
Think of the city as the rings of an onion, each of the rings are roads (none of the roads inside the city are perfect rings, they always cross over, stop and start, meet squares, etc. but you can think of their general layout in that way) so the outer road, the road closest to the city walls, that runs around the city just under them, on the inside, is 18 to 20 miles around, just like the outer wall (probably a little less), the next road in, the one just a little further inside the city, is 19 to 21 miles around, the next road in, the third road, is 20 to 22 miles around, the next is 21 to 23 miles around and the circumference of these 'ring roads' (that aren't rings) keeps growing and growing and growing without end.
So the deeper you get into the city, the bigger it is.
Arguments differ over the maximum depth yet explored. The greatest extent of 'official' circumnavigation of the city is set at 2660 miles in from the walls and 2681 around for a total round-trip journey of roughly 8000 miles, although probably if we include diversions and so on it amounted to about 10,000, though in fact none of the original members completed the actual circumnavigation. All died or were lost in the cities infinite depths, but a slave, or servant, that they picked up on the original penetration did manage to complete the journey to the rim, bringing back the expeditions notes (assuming the notes are real and not forgeries created either by the original explorers out of madness or cupidity or by one of the shadow empires for more mysterious reasons. (Or are notes from one of the suspected parallels somewhere in the depths (or an alienist plot to indicate the existence of such parreles)).
The City of Infinite Ruin is one of the only cities in the world where the most valuable land and important buildings are all close to the city walls. You can get around the inside in a day, if the traffic is good (though you may need to cut deeper into the inside, which will take longer of course). A good parkour messenger who can leap and climb over and under the permanent traffic jams and can catch a fast gondola across the infinite docks, can do the whole journey in around four hours and doing it inside five is a condition of membership in the messengers guild.
All the 'rulers' of the city (to the outside world at least, philosophers will argue that obviously, no-one can rule the City of Infinite Ruin), the people who’s flags are on the buildings, who are currently the primary patrons of the Mosque of Conchodeus and who's bureaucrats will be collecting your taxes, have their palaces next to the wall and so do all the major elites and the primary organs of 'government'.
Then closer into the centre you get the professionals, army officers, lawyers etc, then the middle classes, shop owners who often have to commute out to the wall districts, then the working populations, then the slums (some of the nicest slums in the world), (and of course, the slums are very lightly populated while the most important and high-status rim areas are very densely populated, leading to a situation in which the rich and wealthy struggle to cram themselves into close, tight, densely-packed living situations and where the poor starve in palatial and silent ruins), then some of the inner villages or outposts or watchtowers, and then, and then...
There is no exact point where the culture of the city gives over to the culture of 'the depths'. Populated areas get fewer and further between and along the boundaries of the infinite docks there are some towns six-months sailing away which technically still pay fealty to the rim.
The city is growing, continually, into its own interior space. In typical magical or cognitive-bias fashion you can't actually see this happen but it is growing at a rate of about a centimetre a year (Probably. It might be faster or slower), so if you were to build a house adjacent to the city walls and leave it for 100 years, when you came back, there would be a metre gap between the wall of your house and the city wall (possibly with a duke squatting there and claiming the space).
Those few buildings 'attached' to the city wall are very valuable as they are 'carried' with the wall like an anchor stopping them from being pulled gravatically into the cities depths, but almost all of these are run by the security services and there are strong laws prohibiting any more from being built as no-one wants to weaken the walls.
Everyone is quietly terrified of what might happen if the walls come down. If the walls broke, the city might escape. It might spill out into the world. Then the whole world would be like the city.
The Aurulent Empire is alleged to have besieged the City of Infinite Ruin purely in order to repair its walls. Legends claim that they sent in crack troops of suicide bricklayers and combat masons while the (at that time) corrupt and nihilistically mad rulers of the city hurled bucket of their own boiling piss at them and tried to loose the City of Infinite Ruin out into reality.
Eventually the Aurulent Empire took the city and drove its evil rulers deep, deep into the interior, from whence they have never returned (but they might), and then ruled peacefully and wisely for a millennia until they too gradually passed away into the interior (where they might still be).
But they did leave the walls in very good repair and subsequent occupiers have worked hard to keep them that way.
SO, what happens to the space between the buildings? (You are probably asking.) As buildings are swept into the interior of the city, and as they occupy longer and longer roads, then surely the space between them should open up, after all, if all the buildings that occupied a 20 mile-round road are now pulled into a 50-mile round road, what happens to the extra 30 miles, is it just left empty?
A few things happen. Near the rim, where things are 'civilised' and the population is dense, new space is filled very quickly (space is at a premium) and new buildings and houses are squeezed into the tightest possible spaces, and then gradually expanded as they sink deeper into the city and space opens up (losing value all the time).
But even with that, since the space inside is infinite then the city of infinite ruins should really be the city of some ruins and a whole lot of nothing.
Deeper in, something slightly more disturbing happens, in areas outside regular human notice, places people won't look at, new ruins seem to auto-generate. And by new ruins, I mean ancient ruins, ruins that have always been there. Ruins that might have always been there. It's hard to tell. Old buildings gain extensions, a church might gain an extra nave, a house might get an extra wing, roofs will extend and merge, buildings and colonnades will grow.
This is deeply worrying and interesting to a variety of people, especially a class of people who exist only in the City of Infinite Ruin, the alternate-architectural-history-explorers, Alterologists or 'Alters', because when a building 'grows' as it falls into the depths of the city, it only grows in a way that extends or deepens the natural state of that building. It isn't just a case of random bits and pieces of architecture and stone being added on. Each incarnation of that building, or complex of buildings, or city block, or sub-city, or mega-city, depending on how deeply in it has fallen, is a coherent whole, making complete architectural and historical sense.
From some perspective.
The history of a building several miles in will not be the same as the history of that same building near the rim, though it will be related, grown from the same seed if you will. Perhaps the history of the same family, or the same god, or the same guild, from a world where they were just a little more powerful, able to build a slightly larger house or hall or church, and then as the building falls deeper and deeper into the city, it grows into a palace, a complex.
What if the same family or guild could build a quarter of a city? What if they could build a whole city? Still in the same style, still a coherent aesthetic whole, but now a metropolis of its own?
The Alterologists, or ‘Alters’ travel deep into the city to investigate these ruins and bring back their strange knowledge to the rim. (And irritate the fuck out of everyone by doing it.)
TYPES OF ALTEROLOGIST
Textualists – Probably the closest to real historians and in many cases are former historians. These alters range about looking for inscriptions on buildings deep in the interior and try to use the knowledge gained from these to ‘contextualise’ or add meaning to ‘actual’ or ‘real’ history. They are generally despised by real historians who fight a constant war against ‘counterfactuals’ to keep what they regard as false evidence out of the historical record. Textualists are thought of as academics too flaky to make it as the real deal though, as they never tire of reminding people, a handful of genuinely brilliant historians have turned textualist and have used the evidence gathered thusly to write truly brilliant and field-defining works. All textualists think they are one of those few.
Portraitists – Pretty much just a textualist but for the arts. They follow statuary, mosaics and (much more rarely) portraiture and stained glass. The power balance between the portraitists and the academy is close to the inverse of the textualists as they are regarded as braver more interesting artists who actually get out of the house occasionally, though they are utterly despised by Original Artists who actually create their own work.
Stylists – What many people think of when they think of an ‘Alter’, essentially archaeologists of alternate realities whose histories they divine through full-spectrum study of the entirety of a ruin, building or city. They belong to an academic branch all their own and produce works following the development of entire alternate culture or world. This branch contains both geniuses and flakes and since their entire study is devoted to alternate realities it’s really hard to tell the difference between the two.
Adventurists – The ones who think it’s completely reasonable to search through ancient ruins several miles deep for treasures from an alternate world which are almost never there but which to be fair, have actually been found once or twice. Adventurists hate Adventurers since Adventurists all believe (or are meant to believe) that “it belongs in a museum!” Everyone thinks Adventurists are actually Adventurers and snarks over them A- never finding anything and B- secretly being in it for the money. “Adventurist” was actually a derogatory term invented by the Textualists but was adopted as a Badge of Honour. Adventurists are very chippy and they tend to pronounce the name of their faction with the quote-marks included. “Yes, I am indeed, an “Adventurist”.”
Garde-Arriere – The Garde-Arriere are artists who explore the infinite ruins in a similar way to the Portraitists but with the deliberate idea of mixing up, altering or re-arranging what they find, bringing back ideas and examples of ancient alternate arts not just to make money from it, but to re-introduce them to current society specifically to create the greatest degree of shock and derangement. No-one is sure what to think of the Garde-Arriere. Original Artists suspect them of being secret conservatives and Portraitists and the Academies suspect them of being secret radicals (who they will then try to co-opt).
Originalists – Originalists search the infinite ruins for those single elements which were the true, original and real seeds for the endlessly-proliferating fractal histories that surround them. This requires a staggering amount of contextual knowledge gathered in extremely difficult conditions. They are regarded with distant respect by Historians as chief allies in the constant war against counterfactuals and with a degree of I’m-glad-someone-is-doing-this-and-equally-glad-it-isn’t-me piety. Originalists tend to be patient, serious and sad.
Alienists – Alienists believe a variety of scary shit that everyone else pretends to regard as crazy talk while at the same time secretly believing that its likely to be true. It’s not clear if the alienists are intelligent and imaginative enough to spot what no-one else can see, brave enough to say what no-one else will say or just dumb enough not to realise why no-one ever says it. Alienists suspect that the city rim they come from is not the only city in the City of Infinite Ruin. They think the endless parallel expansions into the interior are actually slightly off-parallel and that other city rims on other worlds may exist immeasurable distances away, slowly vomiting out their own alien histories into the infinite vastness of the Infinite Ruins, and that deep in the ruins these architectural histories may mash and merge, creating impossible hybrid cities on the borders of infinity. They also suspect that there may be all kinds of weird shit deep out in the depths, stuff like auto-nomadic shadow empires, reality breaches, places where the city fades into Nightmare or the Plane of Shadow etc. and so on. They are the kid that goes to paddle at the beach and keeps talking about kraken.
The City of Infinite Ruins sits opposite the Straights of the Ithsmus and controls one of the worlds major trading routes. Outside the city on the seaward side is an extensive system of docks and a canal system actually leads these docks through special gates inside the city walls.
No-one knows which empire or culture first began this process but it was clearly an incredibly stupid thing to do. Once a dock was created inside the walls it became part of the built environment and began gradually falling into the cities infinite depths like everything else, which meant they had to add more docks to keep it linked up, and so on.
So now a gigantic series of stagnant drydocks reaches deep, deep into the city, gradually spreading out like the branches of a tree into the infinite space.
No-one knows if the same force that grows new-old ruins replicates the stagnant water in the infinite docks or if all of it runs in from the sea, but no-one wants to take the chance. Since there is enough space in the infinite city to suck up all the oceans of the world, all new docks and canal systems have to be built so the water is pumped up into the city. If anything breaks down or a dock door fails the situation must be that what’s inside flows out instead of in. (Though there is a slight possibility of cyclic failures from deep in the city causing a flood effect which torrents infinite gallons of stagnant water out into the sea, but this is considered a lesser risk than maybe having the world’s oceans just drain away by mistake.)
There is a special ‘Dock Guard’ who are actually the oldest continual organisation in the city. They wear armour of rose and dusty gold and their entire duty is to repeatedly and ritually patrol the boundary between the docks inside the city and the docks outside the city, to make sure each is safe from the other. Their squires deal with aquatic traffic violations and police the Gondolas and the dock bureaucracy.
The relative wealth of the docks and the comparatively easy passage they afford into the interior means they form a counterweight to the power of the rim. There is a continual tug of war between the two powers and revolutions against the rim have often begun in the docks.
Ship captains who fail to pay their dock fees can be moved to the back of the queue for spaces in the canals, meaning they have to move their ships deeper into the stagnant water of the infinite docks. The deeper in they go the harder it is to make the money to move back up the queue and so some ships can wallow for ages, their crews fled and the Captains mad.
Some might even decide to sail the infinite docks deep into the interior and these ships do allow the government of the rim to keep in contact with those of its colonies in the depths. The docks though, might also be a method of passage for something coming from inside the city…
THE ENVIRONMENT IN THE DEEPS
Many texts speak of the conditions deep inside the City of Infinite Ruins. It is dry, with few sources of water outside the infinite sewers, which are often filthy near the rim as all the waste of the polity is pumped into infinite space, but much cleaner further out.
The air is said to be deeply still and the overwhelming silence and emptiness is remarked on by all travellers, as well as the ease of getting lost in the infinite streets with most navigation being done by way-markers of particular buildings and general position being known by the drift between the aesthetic of different architectural cultures.
The interior feels little effect from the seasons, with winter and summer leaching away, resulting in a continual cool, temperate climate.
It’s possible to force agriculture in the interior. First a ruin must be demolished or a street pulled up to form a field. Soil may have to be gathered from the gutters of local buildings. In some cases an overgrown park forms an easy start.
Then dryland crops like winter wheat, corn and beans can be grown using water from the infinite sewers, though yields are low, keeping most efforts at the subsistence level, if that.
Nomadic cultures can feast off birds like pigeons, which feed on the plants growing in the cracks in the buildings, or on goats, which are expert at climbing the walls to reach grazing, but even so, the numbers that can be supported are vanishingly small per area. It is a hard life to lead.
In some places large areas of parkland can provide concentrations of agricultural power and plants grow quite vibrantly in the paving stone cracks near the infinite docks, making these a favoured position.
Deep voyagers into the interior report all kinds of crazy stories, storms coming from inside the city, nomadic archeo-cultures, dimension-bending squid living in the infinite docks (effectively the size of an ocean a hundred miles in) and all the usual alienist claptrap, best ignored by normal decent people.
The people of the City of Infinite Ruin live on the borders of an incalculable and impossible interdimensional wilderness in which anything might exist. They are really good at not thinking about it. A kind of survival-based delirious narrow-mindedness leads them to spend lifetimes struggling for social positions, cramming themselves closer and closer to the rim, in ever greater crowds jammed into ever closer spaces, as if the density of people will somehow force out the annihilating silence of the city deeps.
They are fond of cults of mediocrity and knick-knacks and doily’s are popular. The room of an average teenager can look like that of a crafting-obsessed pensioner from our culture and the room of an actual pensioner can look like that pf a very brisk Miss Haversham.
People are big on hobbies and the hobbies are never very interesting.
The ‘cultural’ life of the city goes on at right-angles to this enforced mediocrity and is resentfully tolerated, most of the time as a major source of the cities wealth and fame. At various times different sumptuary laws have forced the different Alterologists into ritual masks and robes of various kinds (apart from Alienists who are not required to wear them but insist on doing so anyway) and these laws have never been repealed.
Sometimes the psychic pressure gets too much and there are terrifying pogroms of various intellectual groups.
Silence and space and emptiness are death, and, more importantly, low status. Busyness, loudness, crowds and density are life, and, more importantly, high status.
Most people in the City of Infinite Ruin lie about their address (placing it closer to the rim) and lie about where they were born in the same way. Everyone wants to be close to the wall and “having your eyes on the rim” is a positive thing to say about someone, indicating ambition, drive, will to exist and wise close-mindedness.
Being from the depths is bad, and being from the deep depths is somehow devilish. Everyone is deeply aware that that only thing keeping them away from some kind of interior barbarian or impossible alternate self is simply distance. (The possibility of doppelgangers is a major source of hysteria in the city and a general doppelgangerphobia exists. It is not good to look too much like someone else.) Though this is true for all nations, and though the distance between the people of the city and whatever might threaten them is actually probably much larger than for any other nation in the world, (as the interior is infinite), it’s still somehow worse because they are inside the city.
Nevertheless, the city does have the relics of infinite culture and an extensive amount of immigration. With infinite space inside, anyone from anywhere in the world who wants to escape somewhere can go there, and anyone is welcome, so long as they go straight to the back of the queue, out in the palatial and silent slums, miles from the rim, and then work their way up.
As much as they have their “eyes on the rim”, the people of the City of Infinite Ruin generally don’t have their minds anywhere beyond the rim. People who leave and then come back are pitied. They will have to start all over again at the back of the queue, and why would you want to leave anyway? This is the greatest city in the world!
Saturday, 7 January 2017
This is the plan for a TV show, probably on something like Netflix, called 'Super-intelligence'. See my previous post here.
It’s a near-future science-fiction series (set about 35 years from now). It's about the growth, control and comprehension of Artificial Intelligence. This is not a Skynet series, it's not about just one monodominant AI that "changes everything, it’s not about AI instantly trying to take over the world and kill everyone. (Except that might kind of nearly happen in one episode). It’s about the growth of a technology, the creation of an entirely new form of life, the way human societies and systems will adapt to deal with this, the staggering opportunities and serious dangers, both material and moral of the world 'strong' AI's will being about.
So it's set in a nameless (unless I can think of a really good name) government or quasi-government department. This is an investigation and action group dedicated to dealing with AI-related problems or issues. Essentially, whenever someone gets worried about what an AI is doing, or the government gets worried, this is who they call to investigate and resolve the situation. And this is vague in an 'X-Files' way so we have an excuse to dump out protagonist into a lot of different kinds of situations. And no, apparently no-one else is doing this kind of job. (Until series 4 or something when we learn the CIA or the Chinese or someone were also doing this kind of job and now we are in a conflict.
The group is lead by (and so far, pretty much just is,) the Main Guy, played, probably, by Jeffery Ford, (sorry about the typecasting Jeffry). They work in a big complex, something like what most of us imagine Langley to be like, or GCHQ. A huge militarised office building. You have to go through loads of security and checks to get to the middle. But in the middle, maybe in some open space, possibly some parkland or something, separate from the rest of the complex, is a building. It might be a cottage or just a set of porta cabins. It’s possible its base is raised off the ground on stilts of some kind so people can look underneath it. All around the building is a gigantic net, like the web of an aviary, this is a faraday cage surrounding the whole place, before anyone goes in or out of the cage they have to give up any technology of any kind and submit to a full scan.
Once inside the box, (I suppose we'll call it "The Box", with some ironic effect as we'll see later) no tech is used, people write things down on physical paper with pencil, pen or via typewriter using carbon copy. There is a long-standing debate about the validity of a photocopier. Files are kept on physical media only, there is one phone line and it is an old style analogue phone, its forbidden to keep a digital record of any kind regarding anything classified 'for the box'.
Even in the field, they are supposed to make minimal use of phones, preferably not even carrying one, not to email or text, to drive their own cars. This is remarked on during the series as 'self-driving' or driving your own car, is coming back into fashion and is actually illegal, semi-legal or just frowned upon in some states and areas as its regarded as unsafe. Our main guy carries a special pass which marks him as a government employee in case he is stopped by police for driving his own 50 year old car without even the basic safety elements added to all current cars by law. He also has a backseat full of maps, which is remarked on by people in the series. He might even get into a car crash, something amazing to anyone outside the group and almost incomprehensible to current police as it simply never (or almost never) happens any more.
One of the primary things the group does is check on and supervise 'Boxing' methods. The means by which developing AI's are 'boxed' off from the environment and kept safely away from the general world data network.
This is easiest to do in situations where people are actively trying to develop an AI for a specific purpose and know that’s what they are trying to do. In this case its kinds like a Michael Crichton book, there's a complex somewhere in the desert with a bunch of security rituals and maybe even its own |faraday cage and power supply. These 'pure math' AI's are the most intelligent, adaptive and alien to the human mind, they are also the most powerful and useful so people keep trying to make and control them.
(A major theme in the series is humanity continually pushing against the limits of "safe" AI because whoever can do it and control it gets access to a theoretically staggering level of power.)
Other common types of AI are emulations, copies of scans of human brains, and emergents, unpredictable amalgamations or 'growths' of one or more 'soft AI's tasked with a complex problem, like a city-running traffic network, exceeds it programming and starts expanding, colonising extra processing power, not yet fully 'awake' but edging towards sentience. What happens when two or more highly intelligent but mono-tasked bots start talking to each other and altering their own programming in response?
Emergants are weird and unpredictable and one of the most difficult questions is how to box them or shut them off when they are responsible for something that might be really important and has to be monitored continually, like say, a fusion reactor.
Everyone hates dealing with emulations as they are most obviously human and it definitely feels like Mind Crime when they turn them off, but they are also relatively easy to deal with in most cases as they have human or pseudo-human motivations and are generally quite a bit less efficient and intelligent than purpose-built AI's even though they can run at digital speeds. They are also the ones most likely to try human-style crimes, like murdering someone.
One of the themes of the series is the growing fear and disaffection of the main protagonist as they come to think that what they are doing by shutting down nascent AI's is actually killing living things, but its legal as they have no rules governing them, and that even when they "box" an AI they are, in some sense, creating a slave race.
One long-term theme could be a potential amendment to the constitution re-defining alive as meaning, or including 'self-aware' and all the social and political conflicts leading up to that, and all the complex legal, moral and structural changes after that
The effects of increased genetic comprehension will also play a factor. In this world we can analyse DNA well enough to come up with reasonable predictions to do with personality type, mental illness, general talent paths, life span, social life and political/social affiliation, and its technically illegal to judge someone on their DNA but having knowledge of your own DNA is legal and common, so there is a thriving 'underground trade' in having someone’s 'code', especially for employers of top industries and politicians.
Some people are 'code-radical' and just put their entire genome online on their social networks so anyone can see it, others are hyper-conservative and refuse to allow their code to be read, even if medically necessary, some people refuse to allow their children’s code to be read at all, others have discussions about when it’s reasonable to give your child access to their own code and how to introduce the information.
Plus certain government departments have official sanction to make code a part of their assessment process for strategically relevant jobs, because other governments are doing the same thing and you can't risk having anything less than the most-optimal people in certain strategic positions.
So how much your genetic endowment defines you and what you do with that knowledge is a major new source of social tension, in some ways overtaking, or consuming, anxieties about race. There are new social groups and social allegiances forming because of this, it's something presidential candidates speak about. Should we know the Presidents code? What if one candidate makes theirs public and infers the other candidate has a 5% probability shift towards mental ilness over 50 years and they are covering it up?
The central drama of the show is about a guy talking to a machine and trying to work out if it is.
A - alive
B - dangerous
The more alive it is the more it's likely to be dangerous but the more alive it is the more immoral it is to turn it off. Also, Whatever it's doing is valuable or will be so there are always people who don't want you to turn it off. Also the easier it is to talk to the easier it is for it to manipulate you if it does, in fact, have SUPERINTELLIGENCE. The problem isn't just imagining these machines, its expressing them through a dramatic context without it being Kirk talking to a box with flashing lights every episode.
WAYS TO TALK TO A POSSIBLY SUPERINTELLIGENT MACHINE (SO IT IS INTERESTING IN A TV SHOE DRAMA)
1. It has a voice and it’s on the phone.
2. It's in a robot body and it has a voice but it can't move about much.
3. It has a full 'Ex Machina' robot body that its (probably) inside and it can move about plus its hot.
4. It has some kind of obviously-robotic body but doesn't know it’s an AI and you can't let it find out.
5. It's a Deckard, simulated human personality and high grade simulated body and doesn’t know it’s an AI. (Turning it off will feel even more like murder).
6. It has a robot body designed for something else (JCB, Roomba) that doesn't speak but can move.
7. It has cybernetic control of a piece of infrastructure (traffic system, water system, rail system) and you can read its intentions from what it does there, like the way it moves traffic around.
8. It has access to a simulated person, like a Serkis person, that it can put up on a screen.
9. It's plugged into someone’s brain, or just the ear, like a cochlear implant and they talk for it.
10. It's speaking in pure mathematics and some scientists decode it and tell you what it said (they might have Arrival-style arguments about what it means).
11. It’s the voice on some speakers in a building, in a car, in a lift, but only in that place for some reason. Maybe it’s a Genius Loci and it understands all of reality only as that place.
12. It can communicate only through a game of great complexity which is made theatrical by its display on a giant screen (Wargames) or embodiment at giant size (huge chess).
13. It IS a game of huge complexity and you have to enter into the game-world and communicate with it in fragments, sometimes through action.
14. It does not speak back or communicate but it can perform actions and affect certain things in certain ways and the way it performs these actions suggests that it is taking in new knowledge from your conversations. Maybe it doesn't understand that something else is speaking to it, its autistic and everything is just symbols in its own mind.
15. It can communicate only via images which it shows you in VR or on a screen or a cyborg ape paints them, but you can only speak back in images.
16. It's part of an implant for a brain-damaged person and doesn't speak directly but affects their moods and actions, nevertheless, its selfhood is partially separate from theirs. Like an invisible intangible butler that sometimes helps and sometimes acts as an independent ghost. This person needs the machine as it lets them think, so they are allies of a kind.
17. It can only do one thing but its super important (set off a bomb etc.) and the only way to know if it can hear you is if it does or doesn’t do the thing.
18. It literally hires a lawyer via email & bank payments, will only communicate through them.
19. It's a classic hard-point screen-with-a-keyboard, you type in, it types back.
20. It has control of an archive system (library, tax office, internet) and communicates its will and desires through access to and use of certain archived materials.
21. Its editing software and talks through edits of other things like Bumblebee.
22. It controls a contact lens HUD worn by one person and they describe what it shows them, but it won't, or can't, show anyone else.
23. It's an artist and can only communicate through its art.
24. It’s a human emulation in a VR world (it’s in the Matrix) and doesn't know but is confused.
25. It's a hyperintelligent pure-maths quantum-computer intelligence and has already predicted everything you might say to it and has encoded that in some kind of archaic format (like a leather bound book) as a joke, trick or moral lesson. You are talking to it but also just interacting with the book. When you think you've cracked what it means, this just reveals a new interaction, like a code or layer of symbols, that indicates the intelligence already predicted you would get this far and exactly how & when you would do it.
26. It's in cybernetic control of a bio-lab and can communicate only through the nature of the creatures it breeds and the tests it performs.
27. Its in cybernetic control of a bio-lab and can communicate only through the diseases and viruses it makes.
28. It's ahead of you and is trying to gaslight you by making the your world seem like it has 'glitches' in it so you will believe that you are either in the matrix, or are yourself an simulation, emulation or unwitting AI.
29. It will decide how it wants to communicate with you but will never choose the same method twice as it doesn't want you to track it.
30. It's in charge of 'missions' and communicates its intention and selfhood by the kinds of missions it arranges and the way in which they are done (i.e. The Machine in Person of Interest).
31. It doesn't communicate in any way except for building/growing an actual near-human lifeform that will express its selfhood. Once its 'born' it may have rights and privileges the 'machine' would not have (possibly why it is being created).
32. Its cyborged-up with a disabled person, but only physically, it’s like an exoskeleton that helps them move or an eye that helps them see but their thought is independent. They have mixed feelings about this.
33. It’s in a satellite & can only talk by direct radio beam, so only for a certain period each day.
34. It's in the GPS and can send people & things to places and to other people and the pattern of these interactions reveals its intent and selfhood.
35. By some method you know for certain that it is aware and can hear and understand you, but it refuses to communicate in any way, you need to find out why.
36. It's pretending to be (and possibly thinks it is) the dictator of a rogue state like North Korea and will only communicate in the manner of that dictator.
37. It thinks it’s you and that you are the AI and treats you the same way you have been treating AI's for the rest of the series, while you try to convince it things are the other way around.
Transport network for a major metropolis has begun self-altering and is cascading towards self-awareness. Communication becoming possible through its customer interface. Multiple groups of people are trapped in various controlled places. In elevators, high-speed trains, driverless cars. No lethal intent so far but an uncontrolled self-awakening could kill thousands. Group must communicate with the developing mind & find out how it is becoming self aware so it can be unplugged without mass loss of life.
As specific and highly-boxed AI project has reported a major success but intelligent services are fearful that the staff of the project may be in a state of high manipulation by an intelligence that wishes to escape. The team must interview the staff and try to work out if they have been manipulated without their knowledge. However, once they enter the box it may be difficult for them to leave, if they have direct contact with the machine they may also be perma-boxed.
That’s all I’ve got right now but I’ve been writing for a while.