Oh wow, this book . . .
So, one of the side-effects of my various single-minded blogging missions is that I get really into the subject I'm blogging about. Back when I was doing video games, I didn't just play the games and write about them, I also did a ton of reading, about game design principles or the politics of the video games industry or even just other reviews of whatever I happened to be playing at the moment. It was such an all-encompassing obsession, that I wound up totally neglecting my other hobbies.
A similar process has been going on now that I'm focusing on rpgs. It's a bit trickier, because tabletop rpgs are more of a niche, but I have noticed myself doing a lot more research on related subjects, checking out science-fiction and fantasy blogs, and occasionally stumbling onto something relevant (like the Asians Represent podcast breaking down Oriental Adventures)
In other words, I'm trying to learn, to become better at this whole criticism thing as time goes on. That's important for me to say, because I am embarrassed by how easy I went on Oriental Adventures and I'm dead certain that if I'd read Dead Magic II even as recently as a year ago, I'd be embarrassed by whatever milquetoast opinion I'd expressed about its "unfortunate tendency to indulge in the exoticization of non-European cultures."
(The quote is of the hypothetical me who would have been willing to give this book a pass because it's not actively hateful like The Complete Barbarian's Handbook).
But it's the year 2020, I've read 2 3/4 editions of Mage: the Ascension, and Wizards of the Coast has finally conceded that there might be a problem with orcs. I don't have to hedge.
This book is really racist.
It's tricky, because it has six authors, and I don't think the fault lies with any one in particular, but consider the disclaimer:
While great care has gone into researching this material, what you see here is not an anthropological text, nor is it a guide to any modern practices derived from [these] beliefs. This is a sourcebook for a roleplaying game and should be accepted as such . . . The material here is, first and foremost, meant to be used for your entertainment.
I bet know what you're thinking - that's a pretty mealy-mouthed way of dealing with an issue as complex as cultural appropriation. You can't just slap a warning in the introduction and absolve yourself of the harm you might do by claiming it's "just a game." But just maybe you shouldn't be on your high horse about this, John, because this is from 2003, and we all know that you wouldn't have even begun to think there might be a misdeed worthy of absolving.
And that would, indeed, be a fair take . . . were the disclaimer in the introduction and not on page 93 in the middle of the Norse section. The word I deceptively rendered as "these" was actually "Norse" in the original. The disclaimer is specific to potential misconceptions about pre-Christian Norse spirituality. Meanwhile, in the Polynesia chapter, this conversation happened:
"You know what long pig is, yeah?" asked Mo, a chuckle in his voice.
"It's a kind of meat. If you're ever offered any, I think you may want to decline."
"What is it?"
"It's what they call human meat."
A useful bit of context: "Mo" here is a Professor of Polynesian culture at the University of Auckland, and a 300-year-old Maori mage. The person he's talking to is Matt, a Salish Dreamspeaker who's fleeing the Technocracy and getting a crash-course in the WoD's version of Polynesian history.
And I don't know. Maybe it's supposed to be characterization. You're on a long boat ride across the Pacific, you're shooting the shit with your fugitive buddy, and maybe you figure you'll freak him out. That's why you start out so coy about it "You know what long pig is (tee hee)? If you're ever offered any (hee hee), you may (snort) want to decline (bwa hah, hah, hah)."
But that doesn't explain why you would then continue the conversation for another page and a half. Or why you would dwell on the case of Anne Butchers, a figure so obscure she's not mentioned on the wikipedia page for the ship she traveled on (the ship has a wikipedia page, she doesn't) without mentioning that she's the only European woman ever reliably documented to be eaten by Polynesians. And it certainly doesn't explain why you'd wrap that little anecdote up with the phrase "Now entering Polynesia. Welcome to the food chain."
Maybe it's one of those things I'm too white to understand. A couple of indigenous people get together on a boat and the talk immediately turns to all the hilarious ways their ancestors killed the colonizers. I wouldn't blame them if that were the case (hell, the Cook Islands website mentions it explicitly), but something about the casual tone set me off. Like, yes, cannibalism happened in the Pacific Islands, but it's also something Europe used to dehumanize and exploit the Pacific Islanders. Maybe a professor of Polynesian Studies, of all people, would be one to draw that distinction.
I'm getting sidetracked, though. The original point of all this was that Polynesia didn't get the "this isn't 100% accurate" sidebar. Australia didn't get the "this isn't 100% accurate" sidebar. India didn't get the sidebar either. The European Shamanism chapter did, though. It's called "Artistic License" and it's just as bad as the one I quoted earlier, but at least it's there.
And that's where the distributed authorship of the book throws me for a loop. Six chapters. Six authors. Maybe it's just a case where only 1 in 3 authors even bother to put in disclaimers, and it's just a coincidence that the two whose numbers came up just so happened to be writing about white people. Just like it's a coincidence that Polynesia, Australia, and India featured fiction with main characters who were foreign to the cultures under discussion, but the Norse and European Shamanism chapters were told from the perspective of natives.
It could be a coincidence. It wouldn't be that hard to believe. There was clearly very little coordination going on between the chapters, otherwise someone would have noticed the redundant sidebars, cut them, and put a more general note in the introduction where it belongs.
Speaking of which, the Intro's disclaimer is . . . profoundly bad, explaining that just because this is not under the Black Dog imprint, that doesn't mean should "read this with salacious intent." "This book is meant for mature audiences" because "you can't talk about Kali without considering some disturbing images." No, WW, you can't talk about Kali without inventing some disturbing images (there's a sex scene, it's gross).
I think what's going on here is a clear example of institutional bias. The India chapter suggests setting a campaign there and actually says, "Visiting a country in the middle of a political crisis is risky."
There's plenty in this book that made me uncomfortable ("The Dreamtime is a rare kind of spiritual phenomenon, a very large, semi-sentient flexible and polymorphic Shallow Realm."), but that one word really brought it home. Unlike the first Dead Magic, half of the cultures here are not even plausibly dead, but Mage is treating them like places to visit instead of places to come from and that becomes really obvious when it also has a couple of cultures that are plausibly dead, but also unquestionably white.
I've got a lot of specific notes I haven't used just yet, but I think that's pretty much the gist of what I've taken away from the book as a whole. The parts about Europe were actually pretty good, because they didn't waste time telling you about how exotic and mysterious they were and instead got down to the business of being exotic and mysterious. The other parts, well, the best I can say about them is that they don't feel like they're motivated by malice, but you've still got a presentation of India that is a step backwards from Dragons of the East.
Ukss Contribution: Ooh, this is a tough one. I go back and forth whether this meets the threshold I want to establish for "evil." It's careless, certainly. It says things about India that I wouldn't want going on my permanent record, and it does that White Wolf thing where it acts like Australia's racial problems are all in the past (someone at WW must have loved Australia, I can just feel it). However, it's not exactly hateful. Even in those chapters where a white person travels to some new land to learn the magic of the natives, colonization is generally treated as the evil it is. Let's just say that I'm doing this with reservations.
The hardest part, though, is picking something secular enough that I'm not repeating the book's shameless cultural appropriation. Maybe the Chaos Drum. It doesn't quite control the weather, but it does make it worse, a kind of nautical WMD.