Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Maze of the Split Medusa

I went away and came back and when I did I found Maze of the Blue Medusa waiting for me, conscientiously addressed to my work address and then (as I had requested, b/c I am a pain) with that address scribbled out and my home one written on it instead – so even the package was a palimpsest. This is news to nobody even remotely interested in interesting roleplaying at this point but it's a masterpiece, rich and strange and brutal and so very sad. And on one level why shouldn't it be a masterpiece b/c it's the work of two of the half-dozen highest-performing people in the field, bearing fruit after long and rigorous gestation. But as the work of almost any musical supergroup will show you, collaboration between geniuses often produces a dead, halfway thing. Here we have the opposite thing: something that is, yes, more than the sum of its (hundreds of) parts, but also where it is possible to revel also in those parts and where in some (positive) sense the parts are more than the sum of the whole. I tried to come up with a list of the various kinds of parts, which is a silly endeavour anyway but mostly made me think of China Mieville's description of the perfect, fictional video game -

It was a totally immersing piece of art, a multilayered environment that passed through anarchic and biting political commentary, bleak dreamscapes, erotic staging posts. 

(from his for-some-reason-freely-available-online-having-been-published-in-a-minor-British-IT-newspaper story An End to Hunger - http://www.theregister.co.uk/2001/01/10/the_reg_brings_you_more/)

Maze of the Blue Medusa is like that (even including the erotic staging posts) but with more submerged Robot Wars gags – and real, and produced by people with even more of a fuck-you work ethos than in Mieville's story.

(By which I mean not just Zak and Patrick but the publishers: I am a person who works in that industry and if you aren't one too you have very little idea how savagely, wrenchingly difficult it is to succeed at making a book with this many moving parts – full colour and cross references and fancy binding and clever formatting and all of it pretty much DIY by Satyr/Sator/Ken, who also respond(s) promptly and usefully to inane customer emails from e.g. me, and who has a transparent work process and pays good royalties and I could not possibly have more respect.)

But, so, why does this thing work so fucking well given the above about collaboration? Yes, ours is a collaborative hobby – but again so is being in a band and yet the Travelling Wilburys never did any work to approach MotBM or you can be sure you could know about it. No, MotBM is I think such an extremely successful thing because it is densely and intimately about collaboration and cooperation and rivalry (which is a form of these other things), and about palimpsests and cicatrices and other words your English teacher tried to teach you. Just look at the timeline that opens MotBM. The first time I cracked the book I skipped it, thinking, this is too many names I don't know (yes, I ignored the authors' note to this effect, I'm a dummy) and moved on and found myself even more lost in the labyrinth. So I went back and read the timeline – which builds to its own conclusion with rhythms of its own and works the way a good trailer does for a better film – and then dived back in. If the timeline is a trailer it is also a mission statement for the book/labyrinth: its success comes from the fucked-up filo pastry fabric of meanings and histories and secrets.

The place I was coming back from when I came back from away to find this package was Split, in Croatia, and before that Sarajevo in Bosnia and Skopje in Macedonia. The ex-Yugoslav countries are palimpsest countries to an extreme: Skopje was a hypermodernist city of the sixties now being surreally written over by a faked-up classical past and Sarajevo is a thick lump of the 20th century's scar tissue from the First World War to the Yugoslav Wars (by which I do not mean to suggest these places are not beautiful and wonderful, because they are, and I will probably do whole posts about them soon): and Split is a city that was first founded as a giant town-palace by the Emperor Diocletian, after he had finished saving the Roman Empire from itself and decided he deserved a pleasant retirement growing cabbages (that detail is not so D&D but oh well). In the centuries since it grew up and in upon itself, and the domed mausoleum of the god-emperor was turned into a cathedral for the new, self-resurrecting god, and the neat Roman plan was unneatly, medievally filled in, and still is to this day, having been a major city of, at various times, a major city for a sclerotic, grandiose but collapsing empire (Byzantium), a fabulously wealthy conspiratorial oligarchy (Venice), a tyrannical, world-reshaping modernising empire (Napoleonic France), a bickering, absurd, rotting but fertile monarchy (Austria-Hungary) and a repressive, idealistic, iconoclastic impossibility of a state (Yugoslavia).

That is to say – MotBM is the same kind of creation as Split, an embrace and fetishisation and centralisation of messiness and complexity and granularity and layering, by two of the people best placed to make it work. In which sense it is an achievement as literally monumental as Diocletian's nice little seaside retreat. Go buy it.