Wednesday, July 22, 2015

All is Allowed, Nothing is Possible

Much like the Soviet Union co-opted Marxist rhetoric to justify Russian imperial ambitions, so do American libertarians co-opt the language of radicals from Bakunin to Bookchin to justify their own material comfort.

Case in point: John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods. The organic "green capitalism" grocery chain beloved by white liberals and supplied through cheap prison labor. That might seem a little incongruous at first - an avowed supporter of personal liberty benefitting from state incarceration - but it really makes perfect, awful sense when you factor in Mackey's hatred of unions and labor rights. 'Cause prison workers don't get that kinda liberty at all:
And it’s not just that Colorado’s prison laborers are cheap: Smith made clear that, as director of a prison labor program, he had more ways to motivate an employee than an ordinary boss. What would happen if a worker was late? I asked. “Straight back into the general population,” Smith said.
But that's par for the course for "libertarians" these days, isn't it? What once included such anti-property revolutionaries as Proudhon has degenerated into rationalization for the status quo. Rand Paul, of the perennial dark horse candidates, even took the side of the police against outraged protesters of Baltimore - a position that both goes all the way back to his father in the 1990s and reflects the dominant sentiment among the conspicuously white middle-class males who identify with the L word.

The most pressing "liberty" issue in America today - besides a woman's liberty in reproductive health - is the rate at which police assault and murder unnarmed citiznes. But you never hear modern libertarians talk about it; their victories thus far consist of lionizing Edward Snowden while conveniently forgetting all about Chelsea Manning. This highlights the solipsism at the heart of modern libertarianism: Manning exposed US complicity in war crimes while Snowden exposed a meta-data collection project. The thought of other office drones reading their emails is a much more threatening and galvanizing issue to libertarians than the murder of a couple thousand brown people whether abroad or in their own neighborhoods.

It gets down to the ugly guts of American culture, specifically the culture of not-too-rich but not-poor white dudes. The sorts who spend more time on Reddit than on dates and who swing their atheism like a cudgel, eager to "debate" religion despite their only experience being the bland Protestantism of Middle America. "Libertarianism" for this vast cohort isn't so much a coherent political theory as an identity, like a gamer or a furry (both disproportionately represented in this same crowd). The very name Reason Magazine is a signal to these sorts: "Come, our analysis is rational. If you parrot our pundityr, you too shall be as logical and infallible as Mr. Spock." They decry the opinions of others as sentimental  while celebrating their own cranky fixations as some empirical Good. They are, put simply, insufferable assholes.

And they never achieve real power. They can be born to it, like the Trumps and the Pauls and the Mackeys who arrived in this world with all the hard work of accumulation and network building done by their parents, but there's a noticeable lack of people who started from poverty and followed the Horatio Alger path to the Fortune 500. There is only hereditary plutocrats and a mass of suckers. While that's nothing new in history, these neofeudal dupes then go and piss all over the great works of the original libertarians, embracing the "privilege of some founded on the slavery of the rest" because it furnished them with an Xbox. They are not only authority-worshipping reactionaries but mendacious creeps who conflate the full expression of human liberty with rote, blinkered consumerism. Their ideal "freedom" is nothing but a gilded cage.

The late, great Joe Bageant said it best:
Freedom is freedom, and you have it across the board or you do not. It does not come piecemeal and is not defined by any single freedom. Human freedom is holistic -- full spectrum. It covers everything because, well, it's freedom.
The world of American libertarianism, with its reactionary twerps and hypocritical oligarchs, is about as far from freedom as you can get. It deserves to join it's cousin, Soviet Communism, in the trash bin of history.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Recovered History: Michael Moorcock on the Previous Generation of "Sad Puppies"

Earlier this year, the venerable Hugo Awards were vote-rigged and spammed by a conspiracy of neofascist lunkheads. This upset everyone who isn't a goddamn moron but also prompted a discussion on the politics of the sci-fi and fantasy genre that - for better or worse - dominates popular Anglo-American culture. Are the stories of spaceships and dragons getting too liberal and PC? Is there room anymore for "good old fashioned SF" - which for some reason always means Robert Heinlein's hackneyed Americana futures and never the brutal weirdness of Jack Vance.

Being an internet debate, it's miserably ignorant of history. Michael Moorcock, fantasy author and creator of the endearing rat-bastard Elric, answered these very questions back in 1977:

The bandit hero -- the underdog rebel -- so frequently becomes the political tyrant; and we are perpetually astonished! Such figures appeal to our infantile selves -- what is harmful about them in real life is that they are usually immature, without self-discipline, frequently surviving on their 'charm'. Fiction lets them stay, like Zorro or Robin Hood, perpetually charming. In reality they become petulant, childish, relying on a mixture of threats and self-pitying pleading, like any baby.

John W. Campbell, who in the late thirties took over Astounding Science Fiction Stories and created what many believe to be a major revolution in the development of sf, was the chief creator of the school known to buffs as 'Golden Age' sf and written by the likes of Heinlein, Asimov and A.E. Van Vogt wild-eyed paternalists to a man, fierce anti-socialists, whose work reflected the deep-seated conservatism of the majority of their readers, who saw a Bolshevik menace in every union meeting... They were xenophobic, smug and confident that the capitalist system would flourish throughout the universe, though they were, of course, against dictators and the worst sort of exploiters (no longer Jews but often still 'aliens'). Rugged individualism was the most sophisticated political concept they could manage -- in the pulp tradition, the Code of the West became the Code of the Space Frontier, and a spaceship captain had to do what a spaceship captain had to do...

Over the years Campbell promoted the mystical, quasi-scientific Scientology... a perpetual motion machine known as the 'Dean Drive', a series of plans to ensure that the highways weren't 'abused', and dozens of other half-baked notions, all in the context of cold-war thinking. He also, when faced with the Watts riots of the mid-sixties, seriously proposed and went on to proposing that there were 'natural' slaves who were unhappy if freed.

Heinlein's paternalism is at heart the same as Wayne's. In the final analysis it is a kind of easy-going militarism favoured by the veteran professional soldier -- the chain of command is complex -- many adult responsibilities can be left to that chain as long as broad, but firmly enforced, rules from 'high up' are adhered to. Heinlein is Eisenhower Man and his views seem to me to be more pernicious than ordinary infantile back-to-the-land Christian communism, with its mysticism and its hatred of technology. To be an anarchist, surely, is to reject authority but to accept self-discipline and community responsibility. To be a rugged individualist a la Heinlein and others is to be forever a child who must obey, charm and cajole to be tolerated by some benign, omniscient father: Rooster Coburn shuffling his feet in front of a judge he respects for his office...

Here's the full essay. It expands on some things I've touched on myself in the past but Moorcock is much better at placing the reactionary trend of genre fiction within a larger political context. For those of you too lazy to click the link, it's basically how Ayn Rand is to "liberty" what Adolph Hitler is to Hanukkah.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Straw Dogs of Europe

Greece is screwed.

I know that must sound like the easiest summation of current events but it really gets to the heart of the matter much more than any wrangling over debt and pensions and whatever else. By the end of the summer, Greece will either have surrendered its democracy to the ECB's glorified money laundering scheme, or they'll be in the orbit of the Kremlin. That's as lose-lose as it gets.

Others are saying just how much this is about power rather than fiscal policy: "almost none of the huge amount of money loaned to Greece has actually gone there... Greece has gotten but a pittance, but it has paid a high price to preserve [French and German] banking systems." But that's been clear to anyone willing to look for years now. It was inevitable that the ECB, IMF, and European Commission would keep pushing the Greek government on the unpopular - and perpetually failing - austerity measures that lead to Syriza sweeping the Samaras government out earlier this year.

What happens next has gotten much less attention. A bunch of think pieces here and there about a "Grexit" which all the Very Serious People agree would be much worse for Greece than just biting the pillow and accepting the Eurozone's terms. But very little talk about the biggest player waiting in the wings: Russia.

All the reporting on the manufactured Greek "crisis" has ignored anything outside the immediate Euro-American context. Western economists and pundits have ameliorated their fears of Greece leaving the Eurozone with the assumption that Syriza won't go that far due to the pain Greece would suffer from the resulting hyperinflation and lack of foreign investment - and the Greek economy is but a house of tourist dollars and euros. Except they never factored Russia into the equation as a potential trade partner for post-Eurozone Greece, something Putin obliquely proposed just recently.

Let's backtrack to some earlier European history. Following World War II, the US and UK worked to jump start the shattered economies of Western Europe while Stalin consolidated his control over the East. Tito and his Yugoslav partisans proved particularly problematic because Tito didn't much care for the Soviet model and had earned himself tremendous popularity by fighting Nazi occupation. While the rest of the Eastern Bloc sat out the Marshal Plan, Tito brokered his own deal with the US for millions of dollars gifted to Yugoslavia - not because the US was all that excited about Serbo-Croat self-determination but because it served a strategic role in the burgeoning Cold War.

Seventy years later and the same could very well play out again, this time with Russia adopting Greece as a jab at NATO and sanctions. Greece needs friends in the international community and Russia is already outside the "respectable" sphere of Euro-American power, so this would be a natural alliance. Some Greeks might even get a kick out of sticking it to the some priggish Brits and Yankees who helped extirpate their own heroic partisans at the same time Washington was cozying up to their socialist neighbors up north.

Except it's Russia. Being their ally has historically been about as healthy as being an enemy of Rome. Putin's territorial ambitions rival those of Stalin, he's just much more shrewd in his methods - the Siloviki can now holiday in Crimea like they did in the Brezhnev era, but you won't see any VDV parachuting into Ukraine no matter what the hysterical neocons say. Putin arguably believes in the Eurasianism he espouses - at least more than Stalin believed in Marxism - but like ol' Koba is determined that Russia be the "first among equals." Greece won't get Sovietized like the Poles or Czechs in 1950, but they'd still be a client state, beholden to the whims of the Kremlin as much as they're now beholden to French and German bankers.

But what options does Greece really have? The austerity imposed by the ECB broke the last government and the people in Syriza are smart enough to understand that buckling will cost them the next election. More importantly, the austerity still demanded by the Eurozone is simply untenable given the current Greek economy. A lawyer in Athens makes less these days than a dishwasher in Baltimore while university students dream of being moderately successful farmers. Talk to any Greek and they'll point to a feeling of hopelessness throughout the country, among all professions and classes. If one Great Power is threatening you with insolvency and a crushed economy, why not sign on with the other Great Power even if only out of spite?

That's the ugly reality of the Eurozone's failed love affair with austerity. At best they've broken one of their own members and kneecapped the periphery market Germany's much-vaunted economy desperately needs to maintain its own profits. At worst, they're pushing more of Europe into Russia's orbit. For Greece, it's two sides of the same bad future.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


This past June 19th was the 150th anniversary of the United States Army's glorious victory over the fascist trash that called itself the Confederacy. Sadly, it was overshadowed by a white terrorist trying to keep the Lost Cause of the South alive - and, for the really thick among you, that Cause is terrorizing African Americans.

Let's get that perfectly clear right off the bat: Dylan Roof is a flag-burning, anti-American twerp who is one tan away from being another ISIS shovelhead. He explicitly killed the three men and six women of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church because they are black and he had appointed himself the vanguard of an expected race war. And every single pol and pundit who has tried to distance his crime from that hideous Confederate rag is a fool, an enemy, or both.

If you've been here before, you may have noticed a fondness for Grant and Sherman and the other brave boys in blue who battled the worst fascist state in history from 1861 to 1865. That's because, for all it's ridiculousness and mindless cruelty, the United States is still leagues better than the Confederacy and fer chrissakes, those treasonous creeps started a war to preserve chattel slavery! No, it was not something more nuanced or "states rights" or whatever other lies you've heard:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

Straight from the monster's mouth. The Confederacy was of, for, and by the slave-holding class of the South who didn't want to grow up and join the modern world. The vain dream of rich imbeciles who wanted to preserve their feudal demesnes and compliant serfs. And the best thing that ever happened to them was Sherman burning down their sad little kingdom.

We don't need no water, let the motherfucker burn!

Though clearly it was only temporary. The sore losers of the South, even in the wake of a blatantly Neo-Confederate terrorist attack, are still crying that old saw about "Heritage Not Hate." Claiming that removing their precious traitor's flag from the South Carolina capitol is some sort of "cultural genocide." Even asking the stupid question of "Are white people safe in black churches?" because they are perpetually scared of warmer, browner, and more industrious peoples. They're even trying to call the suckers who fought for the Dixie Dumbass Dream "brave" and "Americans."

Rot all of that. The Confederates, from the lowliest private to Robert E. Lee himself were at best dupes and more commonly vicious reptiles disguised as human. Nathan Bedford Forest, who pioneered the concept of war crimes, spent his years after the war forming the Ku Klux Klan. A dozen other Southern "gentlemen," magnanimously spared from the gallows by a too forgiving Union, endeavored to re-create slavery in everything but name: blacks were barred from suing or even testifying against whites, blacks could be "bailed out" of jail by whites in exchange for indentured servitude, and black men were lynched en masse for the crime of merely existing. A greater reign of terror than the Jacobins ever managed and all because these dumb crackers still couldn't accept that they'd lost.

Monuments to this grand state of denial exist in all the former traitor states. Statues and monuments to the American ISIS who fought for slavery and tortured even other white people at the infamous Andersonville POW prison. Taking down their flag should be just the first step, followed by toppling these edifices of treason and fascism. Just like Saddam Hussein's statue in 2003, Old Glory wrapped around their ugly mugs. To all the cries of "heritage" and who cares what else these dead enders might offer, there is the reply voiced by Sherman 150 years ago:

All the powers of earth cannot restore to them their slaves, any more than their dead grandfathers. Next year their lands will be taken, for in war we can take them, and rightfully, too, and in another year they may beg in vain for their lives. A people who will persevere in war beyond a certain limit ought to know the consequences. Many, many peoples with less pertinacity have been wiped out of national existence.

The Confederacy is dead. Good riddance. Now let's see it buried.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Children of the Famine Queen

You've probably read the Vox article "I'm a Fussy Yuppie and I'm Scared of the Same Things as Your Racist Uncle." It's been all the rage on the interwebs, so much so that Vox published a counterpoint that is getting much less traction because it talks about labor rights among academics, rather than how the feminazis are taking over the world. Which is a shame because the rotten career prospects for academics is screwing up higher education way more than a few touchy knobs.

But that's exactly why so few people care - Americans, liberal or conservative, are always more concerned with propriety than people.

This is why "identity politics" and "political correctness" are such bugaboos of the American rightwing. As the most terminally Victorian people since the Pontifex family, they just can't abide any higher education that isn't on Jesus or "practical" things like bricks. Really, so much of rightwing criticism of academia in America boils down to "We're stoopid and we likes it!" So any sign that university culture might be bad - real or imagined - is paraded around on social media as just more proof that the world is going to Heck in a handbasket.

They're morons, but you knew that already.

But what to make of all the earnest liberals decrying identity politics in the classroom? That very earnestness is the clue - like their neovictorian cousins at Fox and Brietbart, many a white American progressive isn't so much concerned with progress as politeness. It's why they initially jumped on the PC bandwagon, not out of sympathy for those oppressed by the systemic racism of an inhuman capitalists system, but because words like "spic" and "queer" are uncouth. Not the sort of thing you want to say in a job interview.

And that's what really has Anonymous Yuppie Proff's pants in a knot - how an offended student may damage his career prospects. As Taub points out - with actual statistics - getting sacked for not putting enough trigger warnings in the syllabus is practically unheard of, despite the supposed powers of the PC students' lobby. Yet Anonyprof lives in terror of this bogeyman for precisely the same reason of any other muddling American - his career is the be-all-end-all of his existence. Not the pursuit of knowledge, not teaching waterheaded undergrads, but the comfort and security of the tenure-track.

Careerism is the unspoken, bipartisan principle of all Real Americans. That's where this united front against "PC Totalitarianism" is coming from. Much like the original Victorians, these modern Southeys are more offended by threats to their careers, to the imagined security of their dull middle class cages, than by the very real bigotry and suffering that still goes on in America. Like Tennyson traveling Ireland in a sealed carriage, desperately ignoring any sights of "Irish distress."

History's greatest monster.

As the past seven years have shown everyone, America is still a very un-enlightened place. A whole political movement was birthed out of Calvinist contempt for the poor and blatant racism. The most recent Supreme Court cases have all been about limiting access to contraception - a fight most sane people considered finished - and income inequality is fast turning the celebrated City on the Hill into Russia circa 1997.

There is certainly a lot of distress in America today. Not just in the systemic racism laid bare by one police abuse after another, but also in that the crux of Anonymous Pisser's original article is the lack of labor rights in academia. That bit should have tipped everyone off it's not the oversensitive undergrads who are the problem but rather university administrations running their schools like a business, complete with squeezing workers for more labor at less pay. That the white liberals are trying to sneak out of this particular conflict now through hand-wringing over the very "language policing" they pioneered should really come as no shock though. If they had the stomach for a real fight, they wouldn't have abandoned Marx half a century ago.

UPDATE: "I'm a professor. My colleagues who let their students dictate what they teach are cowards" by Dr. Koritha Mitchell.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What A Lovely Day

Mad Max: Fury Road is an opera wrought in fire and chrome. A delirious western at the end of the world, with more nuance and intellectual rigor than anything to be celebrated by the Academy Awards in at least a decade. And best of all, it utterly takes the piss out of all the macho crypto-fascism poisoning modern culture.

The connections to the previous films is tenuous at best. It begins with Max still driving his suped up muscle car from the first film and a half, only to have it wrecked in the first few minutes and find himself a captive of the War Boys. Max doesn't do much for the next half hour or so, as director George Miller has a far vaster story to tell than the angst of one shell-shocked survivor.

Enter Immortan Joe, one of the greatest film villains since Peter Ustinov's Nero. A warlord bedecked in medals and a death's head mask, commanding the War Boys and leading them all to Valhala. Ruling the Citadel with an iron fist, doling out water rations as he deems fit and using women as livestock, either to breed his degenerate sons or slaved to industrial milking machines. An impotent, incompetent old hag who throws away everything in the doomed pursuit of his escaped wives.

The very first time the audience sees Joe is in all his scabrous and flabby mortality, being bundled into armor that never sees real fighting anymore. "Immortan" Joe is a walking corpse, kept alive by the suffering and sacrifices of the poor and desperate who crowd around the Citadel - an aquifier he seized through conquest back when he could walk without a cane. Even his iconic mask is nothing but a respirator, doing the breathing for him.

*wheeze* *hack* *wheeze*

Alongside the Bullet Farmer and the People Eater, Joe is the apotheosis of everything wrong and stupid in the world. A saber-rattler, emboldening the gullible to ugly and meaningless death from the safety of his Citadel. A self-absorbed whiner who goes to war to preserve his nightly booty calls, Joe sees everyone and everything as his own property but cannot see his own impermanence in the world. After he's gone, his empire comes apart faster than that of Alexander.

Fury Road marries visuals and music in a way rarely seen outside the films of David Lynch. Hammering drums and grinding guitar surround the extended chase sequence that forms the core of Fury Road, often accompanied within the film by the ludicrous Doof Wagon - a military truck decked out in war drums and a post-apocalyptic Buckhethead thrashing away on a flaming guitar. That's not hyperbole, it's a literal goddamn flamethrower!


This is the drummer boy of Immortan Joe's army. The bagpipers who play the War Boys into battle, keeping their spirits up. That it's a horrible waste of resources for people trying to survive in the wasteland is entirely the point, as are the yearning strings that constantly rise above the doof metal in the film's score. Everything about the War Boys is extreme, over the top, and pure artifice. For all their macho bluster, it is the softness of humanity that triumphs in both the story and the music.

Much has been made of the film's feminism. Much should be made, as it's both readily apparent but not preachy - Joe and his War Boys are every macho stereotype in a muscle car and drinking Jägerbombs while Max and Furiosa work together in more of a buddy cop formula with no romantic or sexual tension at all. But even more revolutionary is the implicit contrast between Max and Joe, between the nomad and the warlord.

A good analogy would be that Immortan Joe is Leonidas, leading his 300 War Boys to glory. Max is the Scythian, the nomad of the Steppe, hardened and confident from a life in the wilderness. While Joe needs to dress up in his medals and skull mask, needs to rule the Citadel and lay with only the choicest females, Max simply gets what he needs to survive and keeps moving. And so Joe's insecurities and grasping desperation are laid bare through contrast with the elegant simplicity of Max.


Just as the quaint and old fashioned violins of the chase music endures more than the thunderous electric guitar, so do Max and the many free women of the film endure better than Joe and his screeching adolescents. They endure not through some innate superiority or deus ex machina, but rather through working together. In this way do we see the single greatest and most important contrast between the two male leads - Max changes while Joe remains static.

Max doesn't even change all that much, but just enough to recognize the common humanity between himself and Furiosa and the wizened biker grannies - another Steppe nomad analogue. His plan to charge back through the pursuing war bands and take the Citadel is presented calmly, with no rousing talk of the "glory of battle." War is a serious matter that requires sober consideration, as well as cooperation. Max, Furiosa, the wives and the Scythian grannies are all keenly aware of their mortality, all desire to live and find some little bit of peace in this world of fire, and the film clearly argues that only by working together can they hope to achieve any of that. You may call that socialism but I call it survival. And so does Max.

And survival is really the defining theme of Fury Road, just as it's been for every Mad Max movie. Joe and his orcs are a tempest in a teapot when placed against the awesome, unconscious forces of nature. Which George Miller does frequently, in shot after beautiful shot. Fury Road presents a world after climate change, where all the denials and excuses are so much pissing in the wind. The world is bigger than you and doesn't care about your feelings.

"Fuck you." ~ Nature

Against such forces, an individual is just so much paste. Joe rages against this reality in everything he does, more petulant child than bold warrior. His boys do the same, being paint-huffing screwheads with more testosterone than brains. Max accepts the reality of the situation, and so accepts the aid of Furiosa because he knows he can't win all by himself. What could he "win" in this blasted hellscape anyway, other than a few more precious days of life?

Mad Max: Fury Road is the greatest film of 2015 and the greatest film of George Miller's career. In all its bombast and fire, it tells a very human story with more pressing concerns than whatever happened in the last seven Marvel movies. And best of all, it eschews the sterile computer animation so endemic to modern action films in favor of good old fashioned pyrotechnics. Go see it twice.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Get Your Witch On

You may have noticed the internet is all in a tizzy over that Witcher 3 thing. Even Conan O'Brien got in on the action, being the most informative game critic out there today. He says it's good because he had sex on a unicorn.

But for those of us who already regularly have sex on unicorns, the Witcher games have been pretty lackluster. Convoluted controls, overlong cutscenes - masquerading as "gameplay" with some dialogue options for the same taciturn frowney-face protagonist - and run times that rival Dragon Age for "Get on with it." Put simply, these games are shit for everyone except the cretinous gamerbros who need gobs of jiggling fanservice as it's their only sexual experience.

Which is a shame because the source material is goddamned brilliant. Created by Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski nearly thirty years ago, the Witcher stories and novels are the most interesting thing to happen to the genre since Tolkein named his angelic entities "wizards." While a vast and complex cosmology of converging spheres and dwindling elves fills out the setting, the stories remain largely focused on Geralt of Rivia and his interactions with very common people.

Not just commoners, but "common" in the sense that their motivations and failings are entirely human. A king who loves his possessed sister too much to have her put to death properly, a village that wants to keep the troll under their bridge because it does all the upkeep and collects tolls - despite a standard high fantasy setting, Sapkowski populates his world with very small and familiar dramas. Geralt himself is largely just a glorified exterminator, clearing away bothersome critters and not getting himself involved in any epic goings on. For the most part.

This allows for much of that gray morality that's so popular in sword and sorcery these days. But rather than just an excuse to get lost in high seriousness and graphic rape, this moral ambiguity forces the reader to question the usual genre assumptions. In one instance, Geralt happens upon a gloomy old castle where he is greeted by a charging, snarling monster. The monster, seeing that it cannot scare off Geralt like other interlopers, resignedly invites him in for a drink and regails him with the story of how a witch's curse gave him all the tusks and hair.

He keeps regailing Geralt, telling of how he tried to get into the spirit of being a monster. When an unweary merchant stumbled into the courtyard, the monster demanded "Your daughter or your life!" The merchant protested that his daughter was only eight, creating a very awkward situation where the monster sheepishly withdraws and hands the poor man a sack of gold out of apology.

Which of course leads to merchants showing up from all over with daughters to ransom to the monster. About here is where most "dark" fantasy would stop, asking you to recoil at the callous greed of these merchants. Sapkowski is better than dark, and goes on to show the relationships between the monster and these ransomed daughters - one of whom even rides on his back like a warrior queen, naked, as they joyfully raid caravans together. These memories go on for page after page, the titular Witcher not even figuring into the tale until the very end.

Sapkwoski is a good enough writer to create a basic, taciturn hero as a vehicle into his world for the reader. With that accomplished, he goes on to turn traditional fantasies and folk tales upside down, challenging the reader's assumptions about society and morality in ways few "serious" literature can manage these days.

"The Lesser Evil" highlights all of these qualities in what the reader will gradually recognize as a remixing of the classic Snow White fairy tale. A girl prophesied to bring terror to the land escapes the woodsman hired to cut out her heart and hides out with seven gnome bandits for a couple years. She emerges as a mercenary queen, bringing just as much terror to the land as prophesied, though whether due to demonic possession or the cruel circumstances of her own life is a distinction Sapkowski does not make, leaving the interpretation to the reader.

Finally, there are the elves. You can't pitch a brick without hitting the pointy-eared buggers in this genre but Sapkowski again does something unique and thought-provoking. His elves are just as doomed and diminished as Tolkein's and just as persecuted by the more successful human kingdoms as in The Riyria Revelations, but unlike in previous works - and much like Snow White - it's given them a real chip on their shoulder. These aren't the high alien creatures of Middle Earth, somberly accepting their fate, but active people with a violent will to survive. They frequently attack humans, and Geralt, but rather than making them villainous this only highlights their desperation. When captured and interrogated by an elf chieftain, Geralt sees that even though they are superior to humans, they are still dying out and are already lost. This isn't a triumphant revelation for him, but something sad and melancholy. And he, the sword and sorcery hero, can't do anything to change their fate.

However, they are not victims. Far from it, they're terrifying forces of the wild, kept in check by the weak walls of villages and the humans' higher birth rate. Though Geralt - and Sapkowski - feels their pain, no one is about to bear their neck to an elven blade. It's a situation reminiscent of the Indian Wars in 19th century America, where the encroaching white men are certainly now seen as the villains of history but that doesn't make the Sioux or Apache necessarily nice. Wars of extermination have no good guys, just survivors. It's a harsh, unsentimental view of history but one Sapkowski embraces and manages to convey in rousing pulp adventures.

Because that's finally what makes the Witcher stories so good - they're just plain fun. From getting drunk with the monsters to talking down a psychokinetic princess, Geralt's life is never dull. That Sapkowski manages to weave such complex and literary themes into rollicking good fantasy yarns places him in the upper echelons of the craft, alongside Jack Vance and Philip K. Dick.

The Witcher stories are some of the most thoughtful and creative work by any writer alive today. Shame everyone only knows it for those video games full of scowling and tits.