Our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, gave birth to a baby girl this afternoon:
Very cute. 🙂
Meanwhile, Winston Peters gets to be Acting Prime Minister for the next six weeks, while Ardern is on maternity leave. You just know he’s going to have a great time…
The difficulty I faced in finding a home for my recent vampire story has got me thinking about the wider vampire genre. I think everyone accepts that the creatures have been done to death (for now anyway) – the sleek and melancholy bloodsuckers associated with Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976), and then subsequently turned into pop-cultural sex symbols, have rather saturated the market. They’ll be back, of course – vampires are such a mainstay of horror (and horror-flavoured) fiction that it is only a matter of time before they resurface, but it’s going to require some reinvention.
These now-ubiquitous ‘cool’ vampires were, however, themselves a paradigm shift from the older, monstrous flavour (a flavour that, ironically, many readers now want to see a return to). Pre-Rice vampires were, by definition, antagonists. Villains. Representative of a Good vs Evil worldview. They had a sexual component to them, but it’s a sexual component that feeds into the wider terror – the seductiveness of Lugosi’s cinematic Dracula is that of a spider entrapping a fly, while Stoker’s original is imbued with a general spiritual “wrongness”, of which the exchange of bodily-fluids is but one component. Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) is a Victorian depiction of the unspoken sin of lesbianism, while one of the last gasps of the pre-Rice era, ‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King (1975), mentions the eerie beauty of the ever-multiplying undead hordes. It was also a formula that was blatantly creaking by the end – the film Blood for Dracula (1974) is self-conscious about this, with the premise that Dracula (a relic from an older, more spiritual age) can only drink the blood of virgins – and accordingly finds himself starving to death in a sex-obsessed secular world.
By contrast, Post-Rice vampires tend to play down the monstrosity element – these are creatures that may or may not be antagonists, but they are certainly the products of a more morally relativistic age. Meanwhile, sex appeal in the service of eroticism (to varying degrees) has replaced sex appeal in the service of terror. The vampires of Rice are long-haired pretty-boys with an overlay of ancien régime aristocrat, and the appeal of the Underworld franchise revolves around Kate Beckinsale in a tight-fitting leather catsuit. Buffy’s vampires are demonic entities of the old school… but that does not stop many of them de facto functioning as supernatural bad boys or kinksters (Vampire Willow…). This isn’t completely alien to the Victorian themes of, say, Carmilla, but with the shift in audience attitudes, the implication has changed – sex in the name of social subversion has become glamorously edgy, rather than a sinister metaphor for sin. But it’s a model that has more or less held the genre together for the last four decades, and those modern media portrayals that avoid revelling in the alluring vampire (Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In (2004) is decidedly non-sexy), often still adopt the Rice model of exploring “what it means to be a vampire,” rather than the older notion of “stake first, ask questions later”.
So Rice vampires are old hat – well and good. What now? Well, judging by the last crisis in the genre (the 1970s), the casual horror dabbler will move onto something else, while for the true vampire tragic, there will be ever-weirder and more desperate attempts to inject some freshness into the premise. And this is where I thought a look at Hammer Horror might prove illustrative.
Hammer Horror – that British horror film institution between the 1950s and the 1970s – arguably represents the decline and fall of the old monster model of vampire, and just as interestingly, some of the various pre-Rice attempts to rejuvenate the genre. Back in August 2015 (a pretty nasty winter in this part of the world), I binge-watched Hammer’s old gothic horrors, some forty in the space of a month, and was struck by how often they ended up straying from their famous formula. Terry Pratchett once said “you always know what you’re getting with Hammer” – and yes, you do. Until you don’t (amongst other things, they produced Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960), which is arguably half a century ahead of its time).
Looking at Hammer’s sixteen different vampire films, the obvious distinction is between their Dracula series, and their non-Dracula films. So let’s separate them out, together with my short review of each:
The Dracula ones:
Dracula (1958) – This is often treated as one of the studio’s all-time peaks, along with its first adaptation of Frankenstein. It’s colourful, lavish, and has everything one expects from a Hammer Horror, complete with the iconic scene of Cushing’s Van Helsing confronting Lee’s Dracula. What is interesting, however, is the extent to which it is already taking plot liberties with Stoker’s source material, and how Christopher Lee’s portrayal of the Count is so much more feral in feel than Bela Lugosi’s from 1931. This is a pure monster film.
Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) – This is the point at which Hammer is starting to live off its past glories – there’s no real connection to Stoker, just a sort of gothic theme-park with capes and castles. Lee doesn’t speak at all, and the film is mainly notable for the gruesome manner of the vampire’s resurrection (spoiler – Dracula keeps coming back after each death), and the unusual method of Dracula disposal. Apart from that, it’s not awful, but not great either.
Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968) – This Dracula resurrection is the first that starts to slide into the genuinely silly, and (unusually) it shoe-horns in a Power of Faith theme – it’s not just symbols, but actual Christian faith. On the other hand, the film has one of more the more memorable and unusual Renfield-types. He’s easily the most interesting character – an interesting spin on an increasingly tired formula.
Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) – This is another attempted twist, this time a Dracula film with theme of Establishment/parental hypocrisy. It works less well, and seeing Clegg from Last of the Summer Wine as a debauched hedonist means you can’t help but snigger (yes, I know this was before Last of the Summer Wine started). Dracula himself is killed off (again!) in nonsensical fashion.
Scars of Dracula (1970) -With the end of the Hays Code era in the United States, Hammer was caught between ‘gruesome’ American horror on one hand and ‘sexy’ European horror on the other. So this adaption has the standard gothic theme-park stuff, plus extra nastiness, and a good deal more sexual content (albeit not involving Dracula himself). Lee’s Dracula actually gets some lines for a change, and Patrick Troughton (aka the Second Doctor) as his assistant is awesome. I personally consider this film one of Hammer’s better Dracula sequels.
Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) – This is where the model breaks down sufficiently that Hammer tries having a Dracula story set in the modern day (i.e. 1972). It’s very predictable, and turns into a soulless mockery of Hammer’s golden age (they’re reduced to wheeling out a Cushing vs Lee climax). Even the dated “young people’s party” lacks so-bad-it’s-good value.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) – By this time, Lee was being emotionally blackmailed into playing the Count. That said, it is still much better than Dracula A.D. 1972, and is an attempt to update the Dracula story by turning it into a science-fiction-flavoured political thriller – which against all odds, almost works. The film feels rather like Hammer Horror does a Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who (appropriately enough, since 1973 was the Pertwee era), and it benefits from turning the Count from an archaic nobleman (no longer scary) into a sort of mad scientist figure.
The Legends of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) – A Dracula film without Lee, who had had enough by this point. This is one of those films that proves Pratchett false – Hammer throw their traditional Dracula framework out the window, and feature Kung Fu masters against Chinese Vampires (and Dracula). The result is bizarre as hell, and choc-full of cheese, but the sort of creativity on show reveals how desperate the studio was to refresh its take on vampires. It failed, though not through lack of trying.
The non-Dracula ones:
The Brides of Dracula (1960) – Forget the title – there’s no Dracula here. Still a good film, and especially interesting in that I am struggling to recall many non-Dracula vampire movies prior to this one. It might be stretching things to call it an attempt to get the genre out from under Stoker’s shadow – the manipulative and charming antagonist is still Dracula-flavoured (albeit Lugosi, rather than Lee), but for the first and only time in Hammer, we actually encounter a sympathetic vampire. In that sense, The Brides of Dracula was the closest Hammer ever came to picking the direction the genre would eventually go.
The Kiss of the Vampire (1963) – The best bit is the opening scene, but it’s otherwise pretty meh. If Taste the Blood of Dracula is a later attack on Establishment hypocrisy, this one is a socially conservative comment on dangerous youth movements (this is the 1960s), with vampirism portrayed as a cult. Oddly, the bad guys are taken out with the help of bats.
The Vampire Lovers (1970) – First of the Karnstein Trilogy. Recall what I mentioned about Hammer being challenged by gory Americans and sexy Europeans? The Karnstein Trilogy was Hammer’s attempt to compete with the latter – Scars of Dracula may have ratcheted up the sexual content, but it has to resort to a protagonist and side-characters, since Lee’s monstrous Dracula doesn’t lend himself to audience titillation. Carmilla, on the other hand, does lend itself to titillation – it basically invented the Lesbian Vampire trope in 1872, and The Vampire Lovers is Hammer’s attempt to adapt Le Fanu’s novella (‘Karnstein’ is the surname of Carmilla the character). The result is, well, a lesbian vampire film – pretty edgy for 1970.
Lust for a Vampire (1971) – Second of the Karnstein Trilogy. This one is just bad. Adapting Carmilla is one thing, objectifying teenage girls is another. I should mention though that the Karnstein Trilogy, while still playing up vampires as monsters, makes for much more inventive vampires than Dracula retreads – Karnstein vampires can walk around in daylight (as can Stoker’s original, of course, but everyone forgets that because of Nosferatu).
Twins of Evil (1971) – Third of the Karnstein Trilogy. This one really doesn’t have much to do with Carmilla the book, and there’s less focus on the lesbian angle. Instead, we get a bit of Puritanical witch-finding instead. The result works – the film has memorable characters and an engaging plot. Can’t go wrong with an old-school burning at the stake…
Countess Dracula (1971) – This one isn’t strictly a vampire film, but it is close enough thematically – a film adaption of the legends surrounding Elizabeth Bathory, with copious blood sacrifices of virgins in the name of youth and libido. The film feels a bit of a let-down given the potential of the source material, but it’s really just Hammer trying to mine some source of vampire plot that isn’t Dracula.
Vampire Circus (1972) – This one might actually be my favourite vampire film, full stop (its major competition there is George Romero’s Martin (1978)). Gothic horror meets 1970s-style decadence – what an atmosphere – and the plot is engaging and creative. It’s a crying shame the film is so underrated.
Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974) – Came out at the same time as The Legends of the 7 Golden Vampires, and just as weird. These are non-standard vampires (they suck youth, not blood), up against a swashbuckling action hero in a film that borders on ‘Sword and Sorcery with Vampires’. The result is good, cheesy fun – but we never get to see any more, because by this point, Hammer was short of money, and on the brink of folding.
What to make of this list of old British horror films? Well, as I have mentioned, we are seeing an extended attempt to reinvent the vampire genre – throwing ideas at the wall, and seeing what sticks. Specifically there’s:
There’s some genuine creativity here, and one can see the kernels of what was to come. The distinction between this list and Rice’s Interview with the Vampire is, however, that Hammer remained stuck in the ‘vampires as monsters’ framework – vampires as protagonists, rather than antagonists, was something they didn’t try, semi-sympathetic character in The Brides of Dracula notwithstanding. Nor was there any attempt to explore the psychology of vampires in how they relate to the world – that would only come after Hammer.
I myself have no idea where the genre will go now that it’s past saturation point, but as we seem to have run into a curious case of history repeating itself, I thought it’d be interesting to look at the last time creators were hunting around for a new spin. Perhaps the next resurrection of the genre will find its source in one of the current efforts to reinvent post-Rice vampires? Who knows? For now, I think we’re stuck in a strange and awkward interregnum. To cite a quote often attributed to Antonio Gramsci:
“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”
Relevant, even when the old and new world are the monsters.
OK, so I’ve devoted a couple of recent blog posts to the Three Strikes Law getting repealed. Well, there’s been a development since then, namely that Labour’s coalition partner, New Zealand First, have decided to block the repeal for now.
In short, bugger.
Hopefully, the Government can work through this. Perhaps New Zealand First could withdraw their opposition in return for higher maximum penalties at the top-end? While the Justice Minister Andrew Little wants to overhaul the system away from punitive treatment and towards evidence-based rehabilitation, and the intended repeal was to be part of that, the most serious problem with Three Strikes isn’t actually one of toughness on crime – it’s a unique one of judges being forced to deliver inconsistent and unjust sentences.
But anyway, I thought I would comment on two media reactions to New Zealand First’s actions.
The first is Chris Trotter on the Left. Now, generally speaking, I have more time for Trotter’s nostalgic wistfulness than Idiot/Savant’s holier-than-thou dogmatism (he’s also a better writer). Trotter is quite hit or miss though, especially on current politics, and today is a miss.
Trotter’s argument is to invoke the well-meaning reformism of the 1972-1975 Labour Government – and how it crumbled in the face of Robert Muldoon. Basically, according to Trotter, these are not the sunny times of tolerance. These are darker times, when “lock ’em up” is the catch-cry. Does Labour really want to hand office back to the Tories in 2020 because it was too obsessed with doing the right thing rather than the popular thing?
To which I would make two points:
(i) Criminal punishment is not a particularly significant vote-changer in New Zealand. Sure, it’s there as an issue, and most people will have knee-jerk reactions when they watch the television news over dinner (or when they’re asked leading questions over the phone from David Farrar), but they generally don’t base their votes on it – even Muldoon was only invoking it as just one piece of a wider culture war. With the next election over two years away, there are things like the economy, and the state of the education and health systems to consider, and on current polling Labour would be favourites for re-election.
(ii) New Zealanders do have a deep-rooted sense of fairness… and, well, Three Strikes is mindbogglingly unfair. All Labour would have to do is point out the unfairness of a regime where a bottom-pinch gets more prison time than rape, and things would go much more smoothly. The support for Three Strikes is based off latent “tough on crime” sensibilities and general misunderstanding about how the law works – this is something that can be fixed, even in the face of National scaremongering. After all, the courts have gone out of their way to bypass the Three Strikes Law in practice – even if you disagree with Andrew Little and the evidence-based model, Three Strikes isn’t a coherent way to achieve anything beyond injustice.
As I see it, Trotter is being a useful idiot for the Right here. He’s so obsessed with the politics of the 1970s and 1980s (he has great fondness for attaching historical analogies to everything in a pin the tail-on-the-donkey sense), that he doesn’t realise that his post buys into the Tory narrative, and gives it legitimacy. There’s already enough nonsense floating around without the Left joining in.
(Throwing around terms like “reactionaries,” as Idiot/Savant does, is, of course, thoroughly counter-productive too. But then he’d rather sit a room, celebrating his own purity, than actually try to engage with the 95% of people who don’t agree with him on every issue. What is it with the New Zealand Left that we’re afflicted with the twin evils of defeatism on one hand, and preaching to the choir on the other?).
Turning now to the other reaction, that of the Right. The Penguin is, of course, delighted, but I dealt with him last time. This leaves the National Party’s pet broadcaster, and arguably (in my opinion) New Zealand’s best-paid troll, Mike Hosking.
Hosking is one of those people who gets off on riling up Lefties, so I won’t rise to the bait. But I would like to address some of his points:
Repealing three strikes was pure madness, it misread the problem, it completely misread the public view and it was hopelessly wanting in terms of an answer. People would have died because of it.
How does seven years in prison for a bottom pinch save lives? Meanwhile, I am utterly unsure what Hosking means by “problem” here. Does he mean crime in general, in which case the repeal of Three Strikes is neither here nor there, since the judiciary frantically try to avoid applying it, and for good reason?
Having fewer people in prison, having a more lenient approach to people being punished for crime, giving bad people the benefit of the doubt more often would have, as sure as night follows day, have led in some way shape or form to carnage among innocents who never deserved it.
Now, it’s really tempting to point out that Sir Peter Gluckman has taken a closer look at the effects of criminal justice than Hosking ever has – it is not about giving bad people the benefit of the doubt, but rather stopping people becoming bad (or worse) people in the first place. Moreover, it is extremely noticeable that Hosking doesn’t care about innocent carnage when it’s his bunch cutting access to social welfare.
Less glibly, Hosking is trying to conflate the repeal of Three Strikes with a “soft on crime” attitude. As I detailed above, there is nothing inherently connecting a “tough on crime” stance with supporting Three Strikes. One can still disagree with Little and Gluckman, and advocate for a more punitive system, without supporting seven years for a bottom pinch.
Three strikes had all of those attributes, and I think back to the interview with Justice Minister Andrew Little a couple of weeks back when I suggested people would die as a result of the nutters being out on bail. And Little said as long as authorities could get to the offender quickly it would be OK.
The fact that Hosking would ask such a question shows he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Three Strikes doesn’t affect eligibility for bail. It affects eligibility for parole. There is a difference.
(David Farrar at least understands the distinction, with his “second strikers will commit crimes on parole” argument. Unfortunately for him, parole is not automatic, and all repealing Three Strikes does is actually allow the Parole Board to do its job).
The sad thing is that because Hosking gets such a massive media platform, these are the talking points that will be repeated ad nauseum. Meanwhile, the leading figures on the Left are cowering, or retreating into the comforts of ideological purity. Such is the state of New Zealand in 2018 – I only hope Little can get his reform through later, before we end up with more bottom pinch episodes. Or worse, someone who gets life in prison without possibility of parole… for manslaughter, not murder.
A nice bit of news. My 4300-word Catholic vampire story, Pulmenti, Gloriosum Pulmenti, has been accepted for the October 2018 edition of Bards and Sages Quarterly. This one was a bit of a relief – it’s quite hard finding a home for vampire stories at the moment.
It has been a long time coming, but as of this morning, I have now been admitted as a Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand. That’s me, on the far-left of the picture, in a borrowed wig and gown.
As part of the admission, I also had to give a short address to the court:
May it please the court, counsel’s name is Stride.
Today marks the end of a lengthy and personal journey, from humble student to getting admitted to the bar. It has not been an easy journey, but rather one filled with numerous obstacles, both foreseen and unforeseen, but I have managed it – with help – never once abandoning the hope that, one day, I would stand here as I am now. Perseverance and the assistance of others has got me through.
To that end, I would like to thank those of you who have made it here today for your personal support. In particular, Donna Jones, from OUSA, and my parents, who couldn’t actually make it due to being on the other side of the world. I would like to thank my moving counsel, Jen Wilson, for her assistance. I would also like to thank the Dunedin legal fraternity, without whom I can say with complete honesty that I would not be getting admitted today.
So why Law? Well, those of you who know me, know I am a man of broad interests. Law attracted me, first as an interest subject, then as something more, for the manner in which it can be used as a force for good in society. New Zealand as a country was built upon the notion of fairness, and the role of the lawyer in giving this fair go to everyone is, I think, a critical professional function. After all, while the law applies universally, we have the important duty of ensuring a level playing field to the best of our ability – not just in theory, but in practice, even though it may cause inconvenience. Fiat justitia ruat caelum, as the old saying goes, Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.
Coming from a background that does not represent privilege, one whose forebears toiled in the shearing sheds, mines, and shipyards of both this country, and of Britain, one who was the first member of his family to ever go to University, this is a matter close to my heart. Through education, I have been given this opportunity to make a positive difference to the lives of others. I will not let you down.
As you may have gathered, I am not a fan of the Three Strikes legislation, and am happy about its imminent repeal. But, well, the New Zealand National Party has now pledged to restore this nonsense, which means another rant.
Presumably, National’s decision has a fair bit to do with their internal polling on the matter. Their polling, by the way, is done by this lovable chap:
Oh wait. I meant this guy:
(Believe me. It’s an easy mistake to make).
David Farrar not only does internal Tory polling, he also runs their online propaganda wing… sorry, I meant New Zealand’s largest and most prominent right-wing blog.
Farrar has concluded that a repeal of the law would be electorally suicidal (hence his paymasters’ sudden embrace of what used to be ACT Party policy, rather than their own). His reasoning is threefold:
(i) The law is popular, as per his polling on the subject.
(ii) The Government will carry the blame for any offending that takes place from “second strikers” after their release.
(iii) It won’t affect the overall prison population.
Now let me address these arguments in turn.
(i) Vox Populi
Farrar’s polling questions read as follows:
Since 2010, New Zealand has had a ‘Three Strikes’ sentencing law for serious violent and sexual offenders who continue to commit offences. This law removes parole eligibility for repeat offenders and imposes the maximum prison term available for the offence committed, for those who offend a third or subsequent time. Do you approve or disapprove of this law?
Since the law came into force in June 2010, there have been 9,300 first strike offenders convicted, 257 second strike offenders convicted and two third strike offenders convicted. The Department of Corrections has assessed 85% of the second and third strikers as being at a High or Very High risk of reoffending and on average, these offenders have more than 23 prior convictions. Does knowing these facts make you more supportive of the law, less supportive or make no difference to your view?
Now, I think you can see the problem here. The questions are leading as hell. “Serious violent and sexual offenders”… “high or very high risk of reoffending…” Cue pearl clutching… it’s the sort of emotive language one sees from the National Rifle Association in the United States when they’re trying to convince the public to buy firearms. It’s also the sort of language the Three Strikes Law itself uses, because the law itself is all about emotion, rather than logic or evidence.
You see, when a random person in the street thinks of “serious violent offences”, they have a quite clear image of the offences in their mind. Murderers, rapists, armed robbers terrorising people in their homes, et cetera. If you ask a random person on the street if one ought to be tough on these crimes, of course they are going to approve.
However, when you actually try to write a law for this, you run into the difficulty that not all these serious crimes are equally serious. Indecent Assault can mean anything from a breast squeeze or a bottom pinch, all the way up to rape. It’s an enormous range of potential offences, covered by two simple words… and, well, the effect of the Three Strikes Law is to remove discretion from judges when dealing with this range of offences. The law basically lists the crimes, and tells the judiciary to hop to it… which the judges themselves hate.
To take an example, the very first case of a third strike under the law occurred in 2016, when a prisoner got seven years for pinching a prison guard’s bottom. The judge himself stated that without the law, the sentence would not be more than 12 months… and as for the legal fraternity, the Criminal Bar Association was scathing. It goes without saying that these are the people at the coalface of the law, the people who actually see the Three Strikes idiocy first-hand.
Were Farrar to ask the question of “should someone serve seven years in prison – longer than some rapists – for pinching a bottom?” I suspect his polling result would be very different. New Zealanders have a deep-seated notion of fairness, after all.
(ii) The Government getting the blame
Farrar thinks he’s onto a winner with this one. Aha – a hypothetical rapist on their second strike (so nine years without parole), who is paroled after the law’s repeal, then reoffends. That’d be the Government’s fault!
Well, no. Parole is not automatic, and Parole Boards (obviously) consider the chances of a person reoffending in making their decision. The point is that the Boards would, once again, have discretion depending on the case – and if they make a mistake, it’s at their door. Giving the Boards discretion does not make the Government culpable.
To further illustrate the stupidity of Farrar’s reasoning, suppose all prisoners were sentenced to life in prison without parole for committing any crime whatsoever. This would guarantee no-one ever reoffends. Then suppose a subsequent Government repealed that law, so sentences once again reflected severity of an individual offence. Should the Government then be blamed for any reoffending that does occur? If so, would Farrar be insisting that all crimes ought to automatically attract life in prison? Is he and the National Party willing to tolerate that level of injustice, just for political convenience?
(Wait. Don’t answer that).
(iii) The prison population
Farrar notes that there are comparatively few people currently in prison because of the Three Strikes Law, so repealing it won’t do much in terms of reducing the prison population.
He’s quite correct here.
The reason the Three Strikes Law doesn’t apply very often is because judges and lawyers realise how toxic it actually is… and find ways around it. Has Farrar ever noticed that on the three occasions a third strike has occurred, the judge invariably declares the required sentence “manifestly unjust”? There’s a reason for that.
Meanwhile, Farrar is ignoring the basic argument here – repealing the Three Strikes Law is not about reducing the prison population. It is about restoring consistency of sentencing, and avoiding injustices like “seven years for a bottom pinch.” Prison populations are a red herring.
David Farrar knows this, of course. No-one ever accused the Penguin of being stupid. He and his paymasters have just decided that stirring up emotional Tough On Crime nonsense is politically advantageous to the National Party – and, well, explaining the reality of the situation is too complicated and boring for a New Zealand news media that thrives on sensationalist nonsense, so they might actually be correct in their assessment. Doesn’t make it morally right though, and it sure as hell has nothing to do with justice.
Long ago, I lamented the difficulty of writing swear-words in secondary-world fantasy. Such words embody particular cultural values and norms, so when one tries to “translate” a story from an alien culture to our own… unless the secondary world has the same value-system and ideas about offensiveness as our primary world, there is going to be discrepancy and insincerity.
Today, I thought I would discuss a similar worldbuilding headache: units of measurement in a fantasy world.
Distance, time, weight, volume, currency, and so forth: these are everyday pieces of our own world, and from the point of view of our characters, such measurements are everyday pieces of theirs. So what are they exactly?
Distance, I think, is uniquely awkward. I am a 35 year-old New Zealand man – which means I am a child of the metric system. Metres, kilometres, centimetres, are all stuff I am comfortable with, and can visualise. The problem is that the metric system is a creation of the French Revolution – unless one is writing a pseudo-modern fantasy setting, it is going to feel out of place (science-fiction does not have this problem quite so much; the metric system is, after all, commonly used by scientists). The alternative, the Imperial measurement system – miles, inches, yards, and feet – feels like it buys into the Ye Old Western European Fantasy that has been done to death. It is all very well for J.R.R. Tolkien to use miles and inches, but we’re not in Middle-earth any more, and affecting a system that is (mostly) obsolete just so we can lend some faux Old World charm to a text feels wrong. The exception would be if I were writing American characters – but I generally don’t, and (for me), it would feel like I were altering colour to color or grey to gray without any real necessity.
I personally get around this by trying to avoid describing distances. Problem is, while I can do that (if I’m lucky) in short stories, longer works involve sinking my teeth into the proverbial bullet. Which is why, in Wise Phuul, the Viiminian Empire’s basic unit of length is the furlong (approximately 200 metres), so centifurlongs (2 metres) and millifurlongs (20 centimetres) are the measurement norm for Teltö and friends. Yes, it is utterly absurd – deliberately so – but it is also an attempt to make light of the crushing weight of history my characters find themselves buried under. In a setting less black-comedy-orientated, I would probably have to resort to miles, unless I can find something more setting-appropriate, which in a secondary world is a tough ask. I have also noticed that some other fantasy works make copious usage of leagues (3 miles/5 kilometres), which strikes me as an attempt to make something feel more authentically medieval without the modern American overtones of miles.
Time as a measurement is, I think, one we are generally stuck with, short of something more science fictional. Days, months, and years all carry with them “real world” baggage – the rotation of the Earth, the phases of the Moon, the Earth’s orbit around the Sun… does this mean that this supposed fantasy world is really our own? Can we not write a fantasy setting without the Moon as we know it? (certainly we can – Guy Gavriel Kay uses two moons in several books – but from memory it does not generate a unique measurement system to go with it). Even if one went to the trouble of making days and years different lengths, one would be reduced to translating that back into real-world days and years for reader convenience. Even George R.R. Martin’s variable and multi-year seasons do not interfere with the basic notion of a day or a year, which holds as much true in Westeros as it does Earth.
Weight and volume are, I think, the easiest to deal with, in the sense that they will likely come up less often, and there is arguably more room for fantastical flavour. The reader does not need to know how heavy, exactly, three dragonweight of oats are – it does not impact on the willing suspension of disbelief the way distance measurements do, and it does not require continual translation the way time measurements do. Which is all for the best, since otherwise one is stuck between kilograms and pounds in the same way as kilometres and miles.
That leaves currency, which is the sort of measurement system that is nastier than it looks. It is all very well to have Gold-Silver-Copper Standard units of value, with nice round numbers involved, until you realise that any form of bimetalic currency runs into Gresham’s Law, and that a hypothetical trimetalic system would be Gresham’s Law on steroids. Meanwhile, despite the apparent arbitrary nature of pre-decimal British currency, it actually made sense in terms of permitting easy calculation of fractions – there was method to its madness, in that 12 pennies to a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound makes for even sub-division. Harry Potter’s 17 Sickles to the Galleon and 29 Knuts to the Sickle is (deliberately) whimsical, but would be nasty in practice, because 17 and 29 are both prime numbers, and thus cannot be factorised in the way that 12 or 20 can. Wise Phuul’s currency system (113 bits to the mark) similarly falls foul of the prime problem, but in my defence, it’s close enough to decimal currency that I think one could manage rough guesstimates. And I was going for weirdness, damn it.
Units of measurement is something that can only ever be an issue for worldbuilding, as unlike swearing it does not play a role in depicting character, and it is seriously unlikely to impact either theme or plot. It is, however, the sort of thing I think needs to be thought about, at least for longer fantasy works. Distance, time, et cetera, exist in a secondary world, and the characters are going to know how these things are measured in-universe – their writer probably ought to know too.
I have a new short story out today…
Another Alexandria Next Tuesday is out online, at Aurora Wolf.
This is actually only the second time someone has ever done an illustration of something in my work (after the cover art of Wise Phuul), so I’m vaguely excited about that.
Edit – See the bibliography page for a complete list of my published works.
My publisher, Inspired Quill, are a small UK press that specialise in speculative fiction, and are open to (agentless) submissions about one month per year.
June is the month for 2018, so for any writers out there who have a novel manuscript sitting around, here’s the submissions page:
Completed reads for May:
Another weak month in the reading department. I miss the days when I could breeze through a book in a handful of days, and where my monthly total reached a dozen or more. It’s just concentration, I think.
In the writing department, I am working on a hard science-fiction piece, entitled Pink Unicorns Solvable in O(2) Time. I know I need to get around to restarting work on Old Phuul…
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