Threadbare: Nosedive

Chapter 8

Celia and Mordecai are out in the woods near a mining town doing scout things to power level Celia’s shiny new class skills.

“Two crafting jobs left.” She swallowed. “One of them will probably have to be smith, if I want to— If I want to follow in Mom and Dad’s footsteps.”

“Because of Emmet?”

“Yeah. And more like him, someday. So I’ll probably need Tinker too, like Mom had. So I don’t have a lot of room to learn more stuff.”

We’ve finally got the maximum number of jobs nailed down. Also a suggestion that maybe the ultimate plan here is to build a drone army with which to take over the world, which is surprisingly munchkin for people who can’t figure out how to use public quests for power leveling. Maybe “more like him, someday” means, like, five.

We usually sends little golem birds back an’ forth.”

“So THAT’S what they’re for!” Celia raised her hands. “I asked him and he wouldn’t tell me! He’s got a whole hutch of those things, and they come and go and I never found out why.” She frowned. “Wait, why would he need a dozen of them to talk with you?”

“Ah…” Mordecai shifted. “I ain’t the only one he talks with.” His eyes flickered, and his face darkened. “Though I reckon a lot of his friend up north ain’t gonner be talkin’ much wi’ him no more.”

“What?”

“Nevermind.

Celia is bizarrely underinformed for a native to this world. I half suspect that the idea here is that by making her so uninformed, other characters have reason to explain things to her, and thus to the audience, but most of the exposition she gets is either unimportant (who cares if the world used to run on AD&D rules?) or could’ve been demonstrated (we could learn that Caradon communicates via golem bird just by watching him communicate via golem bird – the concept is intuitive if depicted).

If you rip out 100% of all setting exposition from most fantasy or sci-fi stories and hand it to a reader, they can usually pick up what’s going on with no further assistance. What exceptions exist are almost exclusively abstract concepts like politics and religion, and even these can be worked in without expositional info-dumps if you’re willing to do some rewrites to, for example, depict the king’s men clearing a dungeon instead of talking about it. The tradeoff there is time. If you have a lot of complex politics to explain, having each policy and allegiance depicted might take up a hundred pages or more before you can actually get the plot rolling, and that’s like one-third of a decent size fantasy novel, so there’s definitely a time for expositional summary. That time is not “anytime I need to explain anything, ever.” A lot of this feels like the author writing their worldbuilding directly into their draft and then failing to edit it out rather than maintaining a world bible to drop their worldbuilding into.

Threadbare followed close behind, thinking furiously.

Winnie the Pooh Thinking

Mordecai brings Celia to his house where his half-orc wife is waiting.

“Jus’ stay out of it. Remember I’m fine wi’ it, wouldn’t be doin’ it if I didn’t love ‘er. An’ stay out of the hut till I gives yer tha all clear.”

You’ve got a safeword, right, buddy?

It was green and brown and howling, and it battered him with a heavy club, as Mordecai fought for his life, knife flashing. Blood sprayed and for a second she dared hope—

—but then he reeled back as the club hit his face with a CRACK, and Celia gasped as the two separated, staggering back to take stock of each other.

Guess not.

Celia is fishing with Mordecai’s quarter-orc kids while their parents have weird, kinky sex. That’s not actually a joke. Fight-sex is heavily implied, stopping just short of saying it out loud and that mostly because it’s children talking about it, and so far as it’s depicted it’s basically just predator/prey kink with all sanity and forethought removed.

One of Mordecai’s kids takes the opportunity to exposition dump on his class.

“Most of the fighting types come from the four warrior classes, it’s true, but sometimes they don’t fight for money. Mercenaries, now? We fight, but it’s secondary to getting paid.

You might think from this fragment that at some point the four warrior classes are actually listed, but nope. This paragraph – this whole page – is totally a bunch of exposition dumped in at random, and at one point it even lists the four “wanderer” classes, but not the four warrior classes, nor what other class categories there might be. This is exactly the kind of place where exposition is helpful. You could establish the existence of the four warrior classes by just having members of those classes in the story, but then it’d take the audience ages to piece together what all classes are available, and for as long as there’s an unknown number of classes out there, any problem could end up being solved by the appearance of a new class with abilities uniquely tailored to that situation.

Confining the immediately available classes (even if room is left for obscure, hard-to-get classes) allows for preserving the stakes even when backup is readily available. Even if Celia has access to a large number of allies (say, a village she’s stuck in is under attack and every member of that village has a vested interest in protecting it), we know that these people are all going to have one of the common classes, nothing rare or obscure and no fancy second tier stuff. Knowing that, if we have a complete list of what the common classes are, we know the entirety of what kind of tricks those villagers might be able to bust out, even though we haven’t met all of them and a lot of them are randos in the background who could have any job suite at all.

You can confine the possibility space to eliminate the looming threat of deus ex machina, and Threadbare even hints at the possibility, but it doesn’t actually do so. It’s happy to spend full pages on game mechanic exposition, but not in a way that delivers the most important information. The idea of classes being split into groups is brought up and then ignored in favor of giving the details of the mercenary class, details which are probably not going to be relevant to the story at all, seeing as how they are niche skills on a secondary character.

Chapter 9

Threadbare falls in the stream, encounters a boar, and before anything exciting can happen, one of Mordecai’s kids pokeballs it. Chapter 8 already covered that he was a monster taming class, so this is basically just short circuiting an encounter for no reason. That’d be great if it was in service to furthering the plot, but seeing as how we’re still just bummin’ around the countryside, this is basically just a lost opportunity for a teddy bear to kick the shit out of something.

“Ah, there y’are.” Mordecai rocked on the porch, seated comfortably in a fur-covered chair, feet up on the railing, puffing his pipe. “C’mon up an’ meet Zuula.” He had a weary smile on his face, that she’d never seen before. It was almost smug.

Oh, good. The comically savage half-orc has a name that’s one letter removed from being a homophone of what is probably the single most famous African tribe in the world. Even better, the one letter changed is a u to an a, which anyone speaking a latin-influenced language – including English, the language this story was originally written in – will recognize as making the noun feminine. So her name roughly correlates to “female African” and she has a house covered in skull trophies, wears a ritual mask, and her feral nature is played up as a joke. I wouldn’t care if she were associated with an actual African culture of some kind, but this is just a random grab-bag of primitive African stereotypes attached to someone with green skin instead of black. Maybe some Caribbean thrown in for good measure, but the further dilution of any specific culture into a morass of colonialist tropes is the opposite of helpful.

The little bear wriggled, and Zuula looked down. “Ha! De little Golem!”

And she’s got a stereotypical accent, too. Again: I wouldn’t mind any of this if the author had just swiped an actual culture in its entirety to be the template for his orcs, but what’s actually happened is that only the racist parts made it into this depiction of a vaguely Afro-Caribbean person.

“Ha ha! Fish for dinner! Goes well with every ‘ting that Zuula growed this morning! Bring it in, put it in de gumbo, Garon.”

I feel like my efforts to explain why Zuula is racist were wasted, because it was just a few paragraphs later that the racism kicked into high gear and it became undeniable even on first reading to anyone who is remotely in good faith. No, not that paragraph, there is still the slightest bit of wiggle room on that one, although it’s hardly subtle that the dish being prepared is gumbo and not Jamaican patties or stamp and go or something else that’s popular in Jamaica without being stereotypical. But no, the punchline’s comin’ up next.

“Tch. Waste of good fish heads,” Zuula groused, but shrugged. “Feed to de pig, den.”

“Already did!” Bak’shaz yelled.

“Not all of dem, Zuula hope.” The woman licked her lips.

There it is.

Gonna remind everyone here that Zuula is not actually living in a remote Caribbean island or secluded Louisiana bayou. She lives in the exact same village with the exact same culture as Caradon and Mordecai. She has been married to Mordecai (or making babies with him, at least) for at least seventeen years, the age of their eldest child, she really doesn’t like being separated from Mordecai for long periods of time, and Mordecai has been working with Caradon for a minimum of several years for Celia to be as familiar with him as she is, and implicitly for most/all of Celia’s life. Zuula has been in fantasy psuedo-American culture for at least three or four years, probably a decade or more, and this is still how she talks and behaves. She is a torrent of stereotypes with no trace of a real culture underneath, introduced to us as having a comically overblown propensity towards violence.

If she were just a kind of stereotypical Afro-Caribbean with green skin, that’d be a “quip about casual racism and move on” kind of thing, but her introduction is live ammunition fight-sex over a predictable, petty grievance in front of her house covered in skull trophies, and she goes on to state her pride in a culture of unmitigated violence for profit. This is not okay! This is a completely thoughtless depiction of Afro-Caribbeans, and I mean “thoughtless” in the literal sense of having no thought put into it. Even just talking purely from the perspective of craft, it’s a lazy reliance on stereotype. Talking from the moral perspective, it’s making direct connection between an actual, real world culture/ethnicity and the overblown violence of your standard fantasy orc. It’s not even just that Zuula, the one orc we happen to meet, happens to be from the Afro-Caribbean part of the world where there are also Afro-Caribbean humans and Afro-Caribbean dwarves. No, Afro-Caribbean culture is specifically orcish, and therefore absurdly violent, according to Threadbare. Now, I said this was thoughtless rather than malicious, i.e. Andrew Seiple probably doesn’t think Afro-Caribbean people are inherently violent savages, he just didn’t think this through at all, but that doesn’t really make it that much better.

Later, Mordecai talks to Threadbare alone about why Caradon gave him the Ruler class. Caradon didn’t actually do this. Threadbare got it for killing the king rat.

“The second thought, an’ the one that makes the most sense ta me, is that yer how he wants to give the Ruler job to Celia. And it ent through marriage or adoption. Which leaves…” Regicide, the grass seemed to whisper.

Why not adoption, though? What’s stopping Threadbare from adopting Celia? For that matter, what’s stopping Threadbare from marrying Celia? Does the marriage specifically have to be consummated, or can you just have a ceremony and call it good? Sure, that might muck with Celia’s romantic life a little bit, to be legally married to her stuffed bear, but if raising her in near-total isolation for the first eleven years of her life is on the table, inconveniencing her on the dating scene hardly seems beyond the pale.

“Um,” Celia said after a while. “What’s it like being half-orcs?” Zuula didn’t answer. The boys rolled onto their sides, looked at her, then looked at each other. “I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong? I don’t… it’s… oh dear. I said something wrong, didn’t I?”

“No. Is honest question.” Zuula decided. “But let Zuula ask first… what is it like being a human?”

OH MY GOD. ARE YOU GOING TO TRY AND GIVE ME A VERY SPECIAL EPISODE ON RACISM DELIVERED THROUGH FUCKING ZUULA?!

“The Cane Confederation,” Zuula spat.

“—Right, them. Bunch of little kingdoms and tiny nations, all feuding and only banding together when bigger nations try to invade them. Thanks to constant warring and not enough people to work the fields and do the lousy jobs, they had the bright idea of using slavery to get by. And for a time this worked for them, but it got them a lot of anger from the surrounding neighbors, who didn’t like slavers to begin with and liked them less when it was their folks being enslaved. So some genius, he decided hey, let’s go enslave some people nobody cares about.”

“Orcs,” Mordecai said. “Big, big mistake.”

“Yeah. After a few decades, there were big rebellions, bloody wars, that are probably still going on today. The orcs escaped into the swamps down there, and the places too wild for humans to survive, and grew. Every few years a new horde forms and sweeps up, and there’s a whole lot of death.”

“Orcs don’t forgive. Orcs don’t forget. Cane be enemies. Cane be dead,” Zuula hissed. “It take ten generations or a tousand, dey die.”

 

“Sometimes, ya. The local orcs only got a grudge against the Canefolk. Mind ya, the wild tribes will kill you if they fink yer weak. Or if they’re hungry. Or if they fink they could prosper from yer death.”

“Dey do dat to other orcs too, so is fair. Orcs do dat to everyone. Stronger peoples makes for stronger world. Means demons and worse tings get butts kicked when dey show up.” Zuula made a squiggly hand sign. “Evil beware!”

 

Garon shrugged. “Alright. So being a half-orc means people are gonna look at you and think to themselves ‘wow, that guy’s really tough and really violent and really dumb.’ It means having to live with that, knowing that people will think you’re either a threat or an idiot.”

We Are Experiencing Temporary Incoherent Rage

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