Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Dreamspeakers

Waagh! I'm out of my depth again. I have to write about this book and I'm just way too white to have an informed opinion. And this isn't like The Complete Ninja's Handbook, where it was pretty obvious that it wasn't treating its subject matter with the respect it deserved. Dreamspeakers is a very respectful book. Or, at least, it very clearly presents its intent to be respectful. It's even, at points, radical. It doesn't shy away from the racial politics of presenting a faction of American, African, and Australian mages in a post-colonial world. No book that has a sidebar advocating for clemency for Leonard Peltier is going to be entirely unwoke.

Does that mean, then, that Dreamspeakers is actually good?

That's what I'm too white to tell you. I've got some intuitions, based on my limited knowledge of the contemporary discourse that surrounds cultural appropriation, the relationship between Africans and diaspora blacks, and Anglo use of native American spirituality that the book might cross a few lines, but I couldn't tell you what those lines actually are.

The only thing I've really got a handle on is the idea that, with this book, White Wolf seems to think they're really going to get away with shifting the blame for the existence of a group as ill-conceived as the Dreamspeakers onto the fictional Traditions. It's tricky because it's really a quite transparent gambit, but on the other hand it is responsible for all the gameline's most forceful and persuasive condemnations of colonialism.

I think what makes it a tempting solution is that it's superficially very convincing. Lumping all the native mages of four continents into a generic "brown people magic" faction is hella racist, and everyone knows that people in the past were racists. The European Traditions might do something like that. The flaw, however, is that in-setting, the decision to create the Dreamspeakers came in 1466, and it was made by people who were hundreds of years old at the time. They are literally too old to be that racist.

Far be it from me to speak authoritatively on the complex history of the development of the white identity, but I do know that the Columbian Exchange was a huge part of it, and the African slave trade a bigger part still. But even then, the rationale attributed to the European Traditions doesn't quite track. They thought the proto-Dreamspeakers were "primitive?" Why? Because they didn't have guns or celestial navigation? That's what the Traditions were gathering to fight against.

In the world of Mage, there's no such thing as scientific or technological progress, because everything we would categorize as science or technology was the result of a conspiracy of magicians trying to sneak their spells into popular consciousness. So, realistically, there's no way that someone wielding a magic sword is going to have a damned thing to say against someone who shows up with an enchanted macuahuitl. And, of course, in the context of the Grand Convocation specifically, the only Aboriginal Australian these people have ever met is the one who was capable of teleporting halfway across the globe.

I suppose you could attribute it to home-field advantage. Given the distances involved, only a few individuals from other continents would be able to make the trip, whereas any old European mystic would be able to wander in from off the street. If you've got Celestial Chorus, Verbena, and Order of Hermes delegations that number in the dozens or hundreds and then six guys you don't know what to do with, maybe it makes sense to give them a "miscellaneous" group. Except not really. You'd more likely want to figure out the resources they could bring to bear in their native lands. At the very least, you'd have to know that they were too scattered geographically to form a coherent organization. It's a little weird that the Traditions knew just enough about their magic (they believe in spirits . . . like every other religion in the world, and which definitely verifiably exist in the World of Darkness) to lump them together, but not enough to see that putting them all in one group made no kind of sense. Maybe they should have asked them a second question, instead of just the first.

Which is just my long-winded way of saying that the Dreamspeakers are 100% the product of '93 White Wolf's ignorance, and nothing in this book has made me forget that.

What the book did convince me of, though, is that their continuing presence in 2nd edition was motivated by a sincere desire for inclusiveness. There's a lot of research that went in to this book. A lot of proper nouns floating around (always a sign of seriousness in my eyes). However, I've got a feeling that they're as much a careless polyglot jumble as the rest of the Tradition.

I wish I could say it's because of my extensive knowledge of Native American culture, but really, it's only one small detail. At one point, the book describes the Dreamspeakers as "a potlatch of diverse people's and cultures." This is something I'm familiar with. From context, it sounds like the word they were looking for is "potluck," and it's a common folk etymology is that "potluck" was derived from "potlatch," but really the words have nothing to do with each other and cannot be used interchangeably (though it is kind of a fun coincidence that they are similar enough to cause this confusion). It's not the worst mistake in the world, but I wonder if it's not indicative of the book's approach to inclusiveness - going with novel terms from non-European languages to evoke a certain aesthetic without true understanding of what the terms mean.

I do have a new perspective on the Order of Hermes, though. I've long thought that they were the "bad" Tradition because they make people learn magic from books, but as I tried to gather my thoughts on why the Dreamspeakers felt a little too saintly in their depiction, it occurred to me that "evil shaman" is an ugly colonialist stereotype, and as much as I might wish to see power-hungry Dreamspeakers who exult in their command over the energies of creation and tread a dangerous line of growing hubris, it might actually be impossible to do a Dreamspeaker anti-hero without being racist. Maybe the reason the Order of Hermes are such dicks is that they're the only mages it's "safe" to badmouth.

So that's my only real critique of the book. It's not great inspiration for classic scenery-chewing world of darkness fun. It's much too earnest for that. As to whether the book as a whole is racist or not, my gut says that it's probably as non-racist as it's possible to be, given that it really shouldn't exist at all.

Ukss Contribution: Covering, as it does, such a wide range of time and space, Dreamspeakers never quite gets into the sort of eccentric, specific details that always catch my attention. Which isn't to say that it's bad, just that it tends not to stray from its general feel. My biggest worry, though, is that I'm going to choose something that's incredibly sacred and then I'll be as guilty of thoughtless cultural appropriation as I suspect the book might be.

With that in mind, one of the example familiars is named "River Rat Smith," which is just a great name in general, and perfect for one of Ukss' intelligent rats.

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