The Martian: Thoughts

Sometimes I have thoughts about movies I’ve watched. Sometimes, I’ve decided, I’ll put those thoughts here, incoherent as they may be. It’s a good writing exercise. In any case:

What a lovely film The Martian was.

I’m not sure I can remember when I last watched a film that was so deeply humane and intelligent – and, for that matter, positive about humanity’s ability to do big, complicated things well. For some reason most films about technology today are exhaustingly and spiritlessly negative– they’re “dark” and “gritty” and “profound”, they’re “warnings” or “reminders” or something vaguely patronising like that. (Why would anyone pay money to watch a warning?) What’s kind of extraordinary about TM is that its premise is *perfect* for that Nolanesque trick of trading in profoundities that are not just incoherent (because incoherent can be interesting) but just flat-out banal & boring. It’s one person, stranded on a planet, facing the real possibility of his death. There’s like a billion heady opportunities for philosophizing. But TM’s got none of that. The film is not a comedy, but it’s very funny, and all the characters are decent, niceish people you really, really, really root for. The characterisation is near-perfect. The main character must be one of the most likable and decent ever to be put on film.

Another thing: this is probably the first film I’ve ever seen which portrays intelligence persuasively. There’s actually a very big problem filmwise when you want to point out that a character is smart, because often real intelligence is kind of invisible. I mean, the stuff really clever people do tends only to be understandable by other really clever people. Most films just resort to trite gimmicks (epsilons, deltas, phis + integral functions (Always integrals! Why?) swimming about some genius-character’s person as his face contorts in some bizarre fetishistic paroxysm of revelation – or CHALKBOARDS! – or characters saying SO SMART WAUW, etc.), and when you watch a film about a Really Clever Person, you learn next to nothing about what the thing they’ve applied their intelligence to means (see: all big-budget films about White Male Genuises, some of which I’m OK with, but none of which I actually like).

TM has a really nice (and, to my mind, realistic) way of dealing with intelligence. All the main character does is break down one big problem into other smaller problems, and then smaller problems again, and he works on them one at a time. The solutions to the problems are played out on-screen, and we kind of understand what they actually are. They’re practical and elegant and clever. No paroxysms. Has any film ever bothered with this kind of intelligence – mental discipline, planning carefully, working stepwise? Probably. I’ve not heard of it, though. Engineers (OK, and botanists) don’t get anywhere near enough love in today’s culture.

Plus the science is really good. It doesn’t all leap over some chasm called SUSPEND DISBELIEF to eventually become stupid new-age mush, Interstellar-style. It all works, with the exception of the storm at the beginning, which probably never gets bad enough in Martian atmosphere (100X thinner than Earth’s) to tip the thing over. But that’s it. Everything else is just basic chemistry and Newtonian mechanics (Einstein for the slingshot? I’ve actually got no idea if Newton is enough for that. Eh, given the distances and accuracy needed, probably not.) The film doesn’t actually feel like sci-fi, though it’s obviously fiction in which science plays a large part.

Plus intelligence is not something concentrated in one character. There’s a lot of people working together in this, in a lot of different institutions (which institutions are given a pleasingly prominent role) and they’re all very capable and smart. That’s probably a much better representation of what doing stuff in science today is like, and it makes for very good drama.

Very Good Drama. I’m quite serious: when the main character gets rescued, after a lot of people have done something which is very brave, very ridiculous, and very clever, I swear I’ve never wanted to leap up in my seat and whoop as much as I did.

Couple more things.

A. Maybe things in space don’t need long tracking shots (Cuaron) or grandiose soundtracks (2001: ASO & nearly everything after, but I’m looking at you, Interstellar) to be amazing. Maybe things in space look kind of amazing and cool because they just are that way. The bigness of it, and the austere, crystalline weirdness of seeing physics that’s often just smudged out by friction and gravity on Earth play itself out in full: all that might actually be all we need. (Also, Mars looks great.)

B. Since both GotG and TM have done this with great success, it might be time to edit the list of things that make great auditory accompaniments to space (currently reads: Richard + Johann Strauss, Ligeti, Zbigniew Preisner, and uh no-one else) to include: a lot of 70’s disco. (Seriously: who thought that the final drive set to ABBA’s Waterloo would work so well? Cf the Blue Swede in GotG’s opening.)

C. A female character does (many) smart, brave things, a black character figures out the main outline of the relevant plan, and the Chinese are not evil (in fact, they’re quite helpful).

D. In-jokes about LotR (hardcore ones, that require knowledge of the Silmarillion – and Sean Bean) + the Pathfinder probe.

The Thing About Debating


So I’m going to write about one of the stranger things people do in university, and what it’s like to do that thing.

University life is weird. It’s weird all the way through, but there’s special weirdness about the beginning. There’s a sudden heady flush of freedom, but also the suffocation of negotiating a brand new social life that is – for me, at least – not liberating at all. So the things people choose to do with their free time[1] are kind of telling – the results of a desire on the one hand to live out some ill-defined platitude about self-discovery, and on the other to take the path of least resistance, to make this new place as radically and rapidly homelike.[2]

It’s a bit puzzling that people choose to debate. It involves a lot of mental self-flagellation and a lot of sacrificed time and a lot of discomfort of the boring embodied kind. We’ll come to that in a bit. In many cases, many people do choose to debate, in universities all around the world. I’m sure many of them sign up for the debate club at the university they’re at, drawn by the allure of an activity that is so self-consciously clever but which lies on (maybe!) just the right side of nerd-dom. You’re just talking, after all, which is a thing everyone does. You’re not hunched silently over a board. You’re not discussing made-up words from Star Trek, or mathematical things that (to your mind) might as well be made up. You think you can be the sort of bright, sparky person that everyone likes and says You know, so-and-so debates! about in a way that might imply some kind of respect and maybe even a tiny bit of intimidation.[3] Maybe you’ve had a couple of arguments around the dinner table and think arguments, at least when spoken, just aren’t that hard. Maybe you think you’ve got this special way of turning a phrase – all your friends laugh whenever you’re around, after all. Maybe you believe, that debating will help you in life in general, or at least offer an invisible hand through a job interview.[4]

Most people eventually drop out. At least, that’s what I strongly suspect to be the case, and if it’s not true it’s certainly what I hope does happen.


My way into debating was not typical. I was very lucky. I was also lucky to be aware that I was lucky. This didn’t happen because I’m the sort of person who pays much attention to my own peculiar causal history. I don’t look back at things I did and see my past making itself manifest like a particle trail in a cloud chamber. I was aware of my luckiness because circumstances just happened to be such that I couldn’t really help noticing it.

The main thing was that I’d done a decent amount of debating before I’d come to university. I’d been told when I was 15 that I was a bit noisy in class, and I should try it out, and things sort of followed. In any case, by the time I got to university I was a solid schools-level debater. I hadn’t delivered any speeches which I thought were killer or anything, or run any crazy-brilliant cases, but I knew I didn’t fuck up that easily. This gave me a big – a really big[5] – advantage over people of approx. my age who were just starting out.

It also explains why I took up debating. I wasn’t from the UK. I was from Singapore. Three years before I got into university, if you’d asked me if I thought I had a chance in hell of getting into Cambridge, I’d have said no,[6] but also said that it’d be stupidly, deliriously, amazing if I managed to do it. I’d probably have said that if that happened it would probably exhaust the full extent of my living ambition. Inside the dream, of course, everything looked suspiciously and disappointingly real. The other people in my year in my college studying my subject weren’t particularly fun to be around, at least at first. They were nice in that glassily alien way. I was hopelessly intimidated by my DoS.[7] I collapsed (with much enthusiasm and a bit of desperation) into debating because it was something I knew for certain I wouldn’t be totally awful at. I also knew, from what experience I already had, that in debating the formula for gaining social capital had a big fat term in it relating to how good you were at debating.

I vaguely remember that the Cambridge Union held a freshers’ signup which I went to. I didn’t have the faintest clue what the CU was like but I knew it was effectively the university debate club. The CU building was biggish and old and dark and damp, kept shiny mostly through prestige.[8]

In the UK, the beginning of the academic year usually features a handful of novice tournaments meant to ease freshers into the rigours of proper competitive debating: these tournaments are basically only for first-years. I signed up for the earliest possible one, something called the President’s Cup.


The particular format of debate used in UK tournaments is something called British Parliamentary style. It’s the format used for the World University Debating Championships. You’re given a topic, and you have 15 minutes before the debate starts. This isn’t convenient, especially since the range of possible topics is vast: you might get chestnuts about the death penalty, or reforming the UN – or you might get something about ICC indictment procedure, punishing people who pay ransom, causing kids to be born deaf, voting policy, Grexit, sex-selective abortion, right-wing politics in India, designing a literal birth lottery, racialised policing, Al-Jazeera, retrospective taxation, commercialisation of indigenous cultures, or IMF policy.

There are four teams (of two people) in each debate; two on the government, and two on the opposition.[9] You speak for 7 minutes. You’re fighting to win against three teams. To defeat the teams on the other side you do the usual thing: rebut. Defeating the team on your own side is trickier. You’re not allowed to openly contradict a team on your own side, so what you have to do to win is make a new set of arguments for your side, and then imply in as many way as possible that the other team on your side missed the point, didn’t explain things properly, got a couple of facts mistaken, or that your point is just so colossally important for whatever reason that it just crowds out all the other arguments like Chris Christie taking the lift. It’s this strange tactical dynamic – the need to fight three ways – that often causes speeches in a debate’s second half to become a strange mix of argumentative savagery and satiny mendaciousness.

There’s usually a panel of (3) judges for each debate. After the debate, they take 10 minutes or so to discuss the debate among themselves and come to a consensus decision – a unanimous vote on the rankings of the teams. A dissent is viewed not exactly as a flawed outcome,[10] but is certainly not expected to be the norm (especially when a novice judge dissents from an experienced chair judge, or, even worse, when two novice judges outvote the experienced chair. The latter is usually cause for minor uproar and one very annoyed chair judge.) The judges don’t judge based on personal knowledge or biases but assume the persona of something called the average intelligent voter[11] when assessing the persuasiveness of arguments.

BP does not create nice, clean debates which go argument-counter1argument-counter2argument-counter3argument, etc. BP debates are a mess. They’re wild, frenzied, haphazard – big whomping things weedy with tactical complexities and snide asides and subtle/un- misrepresentations and deft (or clumsy) attempts to pre-empt or forestall or sidestep or narrow down. Arguments are made and attacked and abandoned and resurrected and reframed and eventually shamble bleeding and zombielike into the judges’ notes, from whence they are regurgitated into the judges’ post-debate discussion and promptly subject to a second mauling.

This was a problem for me. The format I was used to, and had almost exclusively debated in, was something called the World Schools format. It was classically neat: two sides of three speakers each, one hour of prep. No complications. The first two speakers on each side provide positive arguments and a bit of rebuttal, the third exclusively rebuts. At the President’s Cup I remember feeling constantly frustrated that the teams on my side never defended an argument I made. I remember sitting there with my partner, furiously thinking at the speaker: My argument was good, you wanker, why won’t you defend it? I also recall being a bit offended that speakers were not penalised at all for disorganised speeches and dubious timing:[12] in my training while I was in the national team, I had been taught that structure was all that separated us (humanity) from the beasts (the beasts), more or less.


I guess the primary thing, in the beginning, was that I really wanted to get into the scene. I took every judge’s feedback very seriously.[13] I went to pubs and sat there and felt vaguely flattered whenever someone I thought was a good debater bothered to talk to me. I grinned at in-jokes I did not understand.

I tried, really really hard, to win. This was not typical of many novices, I think. The reason for this was that I wanted to tell people, without having to ever say so, that I was good at debating. I wanted to say, I’m already one of you, you just don’t realise yet. And I wanted to say this because I had already been debating. I expected something.

My partner[14] and I won the President’s Cup. This made me stupidly happy. It also made me stupidly happy that at some judges had told me in feedback that my speeches were good. It is kind of obvious to me now that those judges – often very successful debaters themselves – were trying to do something they didn’t get to do that often in an activity which rewarded formalised meanness: be nice.[15] I do the same thing nowadays, and I don’t even think about it anymore.


The debating community is a strange thing. For a start, calling it a community is a bit misleading. What exists is really a complicated nesting of different groups of people . You’re in a club. But that club is part of a particular part of the country, which is also part of the country, which is then part of a continent, and so on. Sometimes this stacking is neatly delineated by formal arrangements like regional championships or councils; sometimes it just emerges from the Brownian bumping-about of debaters in circuits; sometimes it’s pure perception. To take the example of Cambridge, the nesting would go something like this: Cambridge Union < Oxbridge (cf. North+Midlands / London) < England (cf. N. Ireland / Scotland) < British Isles (cf. Australia, US, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, etc.) < Europe (cf. Americas, South Asia, Australasia, etc.) < world.

The general rule is that the longer you stick around in debating, the higher up the chain of communities you’re able to settle. You start out debating in the club, and so get to know people there. Then you go for competitions. At small competitions you meet people from your particular bit of the country. At bigger competitions you meet people from all over the country. At the most important university-level tournaments in your country – the Oxford and Cambridge IVs in the UK, the Yale IV in the US, Sydney Mini in Australia, to name a couple – you get international teams. You might judge the teams or debate against them, but basically you’ll the chance to get to know some interesting-ish people doing the same thing you do from a different bit of the world. You might even be lucky or good enough to be sent by your institution to another country’s big international IV, and that guarantees that you’ll be able to meet loads of people from that circuit. They’ll be eager to be nice to you, and vice-versa, and Facebook will artificially cement a tenuous acquaintanceship in place for long enough that it might become a proper friendship.[16] And then there are regional championships, like the European Universities Debating Championships or Australs, and then looming vaguely above them there’s the World University Debating Championships. Getting to debate at regionals/WUDC is not easy, but if you make it there you get to fraternize with an even more diverse array of debaters.

Debating forces you to get familiar with people, but in a weird way. This is due in large part to the way tournaments work. All tournaments have preliminary rounds – sometimes 4 at a small tournament, and a pretty gruelling 9 or so at regionals and WUDC. Preliminary debates are “power-paired”. This just means that you will be placed in a room with teams having the same number of team points as you (teams get 3 points for coming 1st, and none for coming 4th). So over the course of the 9 rounds at the WUDC, for example, there will be a steady convective churn of debaters across the rooms, with good teams coming to orbit the top rooms and bad teams the bottom rooms.[17] A solid team might win its first three debates, drifting upward until it arrives in the top room, whereupon it get mauled and drops into a lower room, from whence it will might recommence steadily drifting upwards until it arrives in the second room, where takes a 3rd, and oscillates back down, etc. The point of power-pairing is to obtain a precise ranking of all the teams by strength. This is in turn used to determine the teams that “break” into the “outrounds” (octo-, quarter-, semifinals, finals) and to determine team pairings[18] for the outrounds. In any tournament the top 48[19] or 32/16/8 teams are the only ones with a chance of winning the whole thing.

The main thing I’m trying to point out, however, is that in the course of the preliminary rounds you’re very likely to meet a couple of teams twice – power-pairing does that by stratifying the deck strengthwise. Crucially, this effect is vastly exaggerated if you’re one of the top teams and are consistently doing well. The number of teams with a very high or low number of team points is (by definition) small, and so they’re forced to constantly rub up against each other in a rather dispiriting process of mental/verbal/psychological abrasion.

The effect is this: average debaters might not come to know over average debaters very well, but very good debaters will almost certainly come to know other very good debaters quite well. If you’re in the top room and you take a 2nd, and some other team takes a 1st, it is very likely that in your next preliminary round you’ll meet them again. If in the next debate you take a 1st and they a 2nd, you then know that you’ll definitely see them yet again, and if you take a 3rd in the next round and they a 2nd, it’s still very likely you’ll meet again. If you take a 4th and they a 2nd, you’ll certainly fall out of the top room, but if you win the next two debates you might be back in it, where that team might still be lurking, etc.

If you pair this effect together with the good-debaters-tend-to-be-sent-by-their-clubs-to-international-IVs effect, you get a community that is quite viciously stratified by familiarity. Good debaters don’t just debate more because they’re good; they have a much broader network of friends, many of whom will be other good debaters from other circuits.

Meeting a team even twice has strange effects. You start to (over-)analyse its internal dynamic, its argumentative tricks, the speakers’ speaking styles, their areas of expertise. But you also kind of get to know these debaters as people (inflected, of course, through their trying hard to make you lose a debate.) Debating is curiously revelatory re people’s personalities. No-one is really in control during the 7 minutes when they’re giving a speech. They’re relying on a set of more-or-less embedded instincts to put together sentences or varying grammatical and terminological complexity from a set of hastily scribbled notes, rebutting using a set of kneejerk intuitions and stock arguments, while a vague part of their brain observes their partner and the judge for any clues re how the speech is going.[20] A debate speech relies on a very elaborate type of muscle memory, stuff you aren’t in conscious control of, and so you can’t help but be yourself to at least some extent during a speech. You first notice the regional variations. Americans begin sentences with I think quite a lot and some of them even use freedom or market solves  in a non-ironic way; Australians have a fondness for in the first instance; British debaters often use the precise but odd on the comparative; and so on. Then you notice personal quirks: a debater might really like academic language: neither here nor there; by hypothesis; reify; epistemic modesty; we put to you. Or they might move their hands in a funky way: this speaker puts her hands out, palms facing each other, and moves the hands in parallel up and down jerkily like this and like this when she emphasises a point. This speaker opens his mouth in shock and horror in a way that manages to be predatory and, clearly enjoying the moment, turns to the side and clasps his forehead and runs his hand back through his hair as he repeats a point you’ve made as if to say I’ve run out of words with which to explain how stupid your point was and I’m honestly equal parts appalled at and worried for you right now so give me a moment here, will you?; this speaker vibrates one hand constantly with mesmeric intensity and stares so hard at the judge their eyes attain a sheen that almost appears lustful; this speaker punctuates high points of their speech by hinging one leg backward and kicking the floor forcefully in a Johnson-refutes-Berkeley convulsion; this speaker gives a speech so boring it’s basically a a debate Cosmic Microwave Background: a big faint flat thing that smothers the debate under the weight of its rigorous banality; this speaker delivers speeches that are actually in sonata form, like seriously they have an exposition and a recapitulation and a development section and a coda; this speaker always puts one hand in the pocket and shrugs and nods while thoughtfully pouting and says things like okay, guys, or,  you know, I think the other side has good intentions, or, okay, so I know this debate has been kind of intense, but – while smiling (aww, these kids) and generally trying hard to come across as really chill and people’s-person about the whole thing and after the debate turns out to actually be pretty chill and people’s-person about the whole thing; this speaker has dead grey eyes and thin lips and achromic skin and a Mads Mikkelsen lower lip and  manages to be perfectly still throughout the speech while radiating condescension like Freon; this speaker caveats the analytic goodness out of everything; this speaker (you realise) actually sees all arguments in terms of graphs (marginal cost curves, geometric sums to infinity, IS-LM, NAIRU, etc.) and so on (and on).

After the debate, you end up hanging around outside the room with the other teams, waiting for judges to reach their decision. It’s a very strange period of time because no one’s really sure what to do. On the one hand, you want to stalk off with your partner to dissect the debate, or to moan about that OG team who misdefined and made it all go to shit. After all it’s a bit weird, making small talk with the team(s) you just spent 7 minutes relentlessly mocking or whatever. On the other hand, you and the other teams now have the shared experience of an hour’s intellectual incest, so it’s not that difficult to find something to talk about. On the other hand (I’m on to three hands now, but don’t let this worry you), it can be metaphysically exhausting to continue talking about a debate even after it’s ended, so sometimes the very last thing you want to do is take the risk of getting sucked into a thinly disguised re-debate outside the room. On yet another hand, you might want to get a gauge from the other teams of how well you did, even though you know whatever reply they give won’t be that helpful. Usually what happens is a mixture of all the things I just described: one team stalks off and returns, the others chat listlessly about nothing in particular until someone brings up the debate, and then those debaters who despise talking about debates will then go off to have a conversation of their own, etc. And if the judges’ deliberation goes on for too long so that everyone is forced to stand together outside the room, it’s not that bad: you just talk about the judges taking too long.[21] The important thing is just that you get to know people in a less debatish sense: are they standoffish or affable, funny or dead serious?[22] And remember: you might repeat this process with the same teams across multiple rounds, and that is much more likely to happen if you are already one of the elite.


For most of my first year of debating, my partner was a ridiculously chilled-out South African postgrad named Joe.

Usually, debating societies have some internal policy for who they choose to send for competitions which toggles a couple of factors: how much you’re contributed, how much you’ve already debated, how many people they can afford to send, how good you are, etc. For the big competitions like the European Universities Debating Championship or the World Universities Debating Championship, however, most societies have trials. I didn’t trial for the WUDC in my first year.[23] Joe didn’t trial either, because he was one of the Chief Adjudicators of that year’s WUDC. The Oxford IV was happened just after trials: it was (and is) one of the international tournaments on the circuit. Cambridge usually sends WUDC teams to the Oxford IV; it’s what’s sometimes called a “prep tournament”. Cambridge usually has a fairly large number of team slots for Oxford, so Joe and I, as sort-of-leftovers with some debating experience, were sent as a team.

We made the final of Oxford. We also, later in the academic year, made the final of LSE.[24] And just after the academic year ended, we made the final of EUDC. I don’t think the latter two successes were warranted, mostly because I was awful in the quarterfinals of both.

It was strange. The EUDC final was the second time in my life I had to wear black tie,[25] and I remember that it was the first time in my life I had to deal with French cuffs[26] and cufflinks. Joe and I were in our hotel room, too nervous, really, to feel happy about being in the final.[27] I was too nervous, too, to feel embarrassed about asking how the cuffs worked (and do the cufflinks face out or in? plus how on earth are you supposed to use your left hand to put on the right cufflink?), and Joe was probably too nervous (and too fundamentally decent) to express any surprise that I was asking these questions.

It is stupid, isn’t it, that the way cuffs fold back on themselves has any relevance to an EUDC final.[28] Well, it doesn’t, really. But it does not feel that way.

By far and away the strangest thing was how much I wanted to win the final, especially when I didn’t really think I should have been there. The point was not the actual probability of it. The point was that I wanted it so much it turned into a dull swollen ache I could feel over there just under the sternum like you do when you sneeze hard and suddenly and something goes kooky with your diaphragm. I went outside the hangar-like space where the final was held, onto the wide concrete stairs. A couple of people said something nice to me; I don’t remember really remember, and what they said probably made me feel worse. Everyone was talking. They were comfortable, totally comfortable, and they stood in clumps, talking, and they smiled. It was horrifying to think that they might be talking about the debate, maybe, even, about something I said.[29] They stood there, talking, and I had no idea what they were talking about, and I wanted to know, but I couldn’t possibly go over to talk to them. The night was warm and dark and wrong.

I called mum (or she called me, which seems more likely) and she prayed over the phone,[30] which she always does. But what I really remember is that in the middle of that phone call it became very, very, clear to me that  I wanted to win because I knew for certain that if I won that year I would never have to come back to do EUDC again. This would be the last time I attended EUDC. The thought burned.

Logically (as if it matters) that makes no sense. If all I really wanted was not to debate at EUDC again that option was open to me. I think what was going on was that I knew I would keep coming back, and something would be strange about it, but I would not give myself any choice.

After the whole thing was over and I got piss-drunk and Joe and I got back into our room we both sat on our beds and didn’t say a whole lot. My ears were still ringing; the music at the club had been extremely loud and I had spent most of the night/morning in front of a giant speaker. One sleeve of my dinner jacket was wet with something alcoholic. It was Joe’s last year at Cambridge. I said, “So the year has been pretty fun. Oxford and LSE and this.”

One of us said, “It’s a bit shit not to win anything, though.” Both of us definitely laughed.


When I started out debating, I had a certain constellation of debaters in my head that I considered great. There was something a bit magical about them. They had a command that seemed to operate just beneath the level of conscious thought: a pulse that urged yes, yes, yes. There was something compelling about them, and I mean it in the most literal sense: something that brought you against your own will to believe what they said. Some of them (but not many) were people I debated against. These ones in particular had an irrefutable mystique. Irrefutable because if I could see why they won, then it was clear they were far better than I was as debating. But if I couldn’t see why they won, that was just because of something I had missed or didn’t appreciate: a compelling. No machinery, no seams, no parts. No hum or hiss of strain or effort or even thought. Something at running at right angles to everything else.

This is part of what makes debating strange and hierarchical. Being one of these people means that people fetishise what you say in a weird way; means that they’ll laugh at your jokes more often; means that they’ll be more likely to tolerate (even accept) your pontificating or your complaining about bad accommodation or time management or food.  I suppose this deference happens because we live in a society where cleverness is taken to be a kind of self-evident good and because people assume that being good at debating means that you are clever. Neither of those things is correct, but there you go.

There’s also another far more basic fact that explains this hierarchy, which is that debating is powered in large part by the exact set of reptilian urges that makes us want to eat/fuck/shit, a taut red neural knot somewhere in the basal ganglia obsessed with power and all its ways it is made manifest: aggression and dominance and territoriality and ritual.[31]

You can see this. Sometimes when you[32] watch a speech you realise, suddenly, that this is not a human thing to be doing at all, that there’s something strange and alien and kind of horrifying about this person standing there arguing for something not believed in, that this person has become a ticker-tape Turing machine, a device lodged in a Chinese Room rigged to churn out moral claims, no intentionality or mind involved, and that there’s something ophidian in the person’s eyes – that this person might catch their skin on a doorknob and their momentum would carry them forward a little bit till there was a jerk, and all that skin would come off, all of it at once, just like that, smoothly and whitely. And then something would be standing there, going ha-ha, well this is awkward, isn’t it? And then you wonder whether that something would actually carry with it something like belief, or even empathy, or whether it would be nothing but glinting and cunning all the way down. What I’m trying to say is that debating is powered by [all this] at least as much as it is powered by the warm-blooded hand-wringing neomammalian stuff that evolution slapped on late in the game mostly for the Technicolor visuals and surround sound. This does not really make university-level debating different from any other competitive activity except for the fact that debating really insists in a loud and public way that it’s an essentially intellectual exercise.


The second time I attended WUDC, I got paired with a fresher named Tom. I was then a third-year undergrad. The original arrangement had been for me to attend WUDC with the partner with whom I’d won the European Championship,[33] but because WUDC was in Chennai that year and my partner was Pakistani the visa application process turned into a nightmare, and he couldn’t make it.  The way trials for WUDC work is that everyone is ranked and then sorted into three different teams based on that ranking. The selectors could not break up the B & C teams to find me a partner, so Tom got subbed onto the A team.

I tried to be upset about this but I found it hard to be upset. The first thing was that the arrangement took the pressure off us to do really well at WUDC. I don’t like pressure. It’s awful and irrational but it’s just there and I can’t really make it go away. I can’t deal with it too well, even now. If I get to a semifinal, I usually find an excuse to get out of the room when the result is announced.[34] Closed rounds fill me with spooky dread. There was something great about knowing that people would now think we were screwed and we could lose and it would be fine. It made debating something to explore again.

The second thing was that I knew, in a way most people didn’t, that Tom was really good: we’d debated against each other before university.

He’d been on the New Zealand team for the World Schools Debating Championships. We’d faced against each other twice in WSDC, in the ugliest circumstances possible. We’d first met in the last preliminary round in Dundee; NZ had won all their previous debates and we’d already lost two; losing a third risked us missing the break. We were desperate. We weren’t any good. We lost. We broke 15th (out of 16 teams). NZ broke 2nd. Sickeningly, the folding table meant that we had to face NZ again in the octofinals. The debate itself was basically a draw – as close to a draw as it is possible to conceive of – and we lucked out and went through on a 3-2 split.[35] I remember sitting onstage feeling a sickening dismay as the judge went through the reasoning for the decision: I am very sure that the judge made it sound like we had lost.

For most people, Chennai WUDC was a disaster. Things went so badly that Chennai WUDC is used nowadays as a measuring-stick for how fucked-up a WUDC can be, a Platonic Form of Things Gone To Shit. People got locked out of their rooms at the hotel, which attempted to blackmail attendees into overpaying for their stay; one of the buses shuttling contestants around got involved in an accident; the rides from the hotel to the debating venue were long and hot and dusty; debaters were confusingly housed in a bunch of different hotels and not in the accommodation they had been promised; judges were not properly compensated for travel costs, which caused them go to on a spectacular strike[36] to demand (1) payment (2) in the promised Euros rather than Rupees; at one point the police attempted to round up the Pakistani debaters; the break night[37] entertainments were comically misogynistic; the electronic system for keeping track of teams standings broke down; the hall where debaters gathered for announcements was too small to house them all, etc.

But I liked Chennai. The fact was, nothing bad that happened in Chennai affected me. It wasn’t my first time in India, so I was used to the weather and the food. I got locked out of my room, but that got solved in 2 minutes. I didn’t mind the longish rides in the cranky buses they used to get us from the hotel to the venues. I’d always liked long commutes through strange places because I could look at things and because I’d just listen to stuff on my iPod.[38] The delays between rounds suited me just fine –  I talked with Tom or went off to find friends to gossip about rounds (“that judge majorly fucked us over: if you see [name] don’t bother rebutting”; “that motion is opp-weighted or I have no clue what opp-weighted means”; “this frappe is really good”; “what the fuck is the TPP anyway?”; “we bit the bullet on children dying and took a 4th…”) and got puzzlingly moreish frappes with Tom from a little stall at the far end of a very big and dusty football field just outside the main hall where we gathered. I felt vicariously embarrassed for the volunteers helping out: their tournament had fucked up in a big way, but they had little to do with it and were eager to please in a way that felt disturbingly colonial. I vaguely wished everyone would stop eviscerating the tournament but because everyone was doing it I joined in: and it did feel good, in a dishonest way.

Debating with Tom turned out to be a lot of fun. He did it very differently from me.[39] I’m boring:[40] I like enumeration; I like structure; I like short chains of reasoning; I like direct responses to arguments; I like pretty words; I’m fond of non-consequentialist arguments; I like obvious arguments made well or weird arguments made very well. When I go up to speak I have maybe four or five sheets of paper with numbered points[41] (and subpoints, and sub-sub-points) written down in very large font on them; I usually stick closely to what I’ve written.

Tom always had one sheet of paper per speech, which I still find faintly ridiculous. Twice, I think, I’ve seen him take two sheets of paper up. I think the first time was when we found ourselves in what we thought was the top room in Chennai (we ran to our assigned room: we were OG, and despite a pledge we’d made earlier that we wouldn’t panic about anything, we thought walking and talking this time probably wouldn’t be enough), caught in a stupidly complicated debate; and I can’t remember the second time. I think of the moment when Tom goes up and puts two sheets of paper down as corresponding roughly to the moment in The Empire Strikes Back when DV tells Luke Don’t make me destroy you.

I think I come across as at least a bit emotionally involved in the topic of the debate. Tom comes across as being emotionally involved in the stupidity of the other side, but I should stress that there’s a mystifying naïveté about his particular brand of emotional involvement. His NZ accent is very strong[42] and gives his speeches a Ravelesque sheen of  just-about-there sarcasm, plus he speaks like he is writing an essay: every single word is there (no “stuff”, “thingy”, “like”, etc.), nothing is repeated, he occasionally cites his sources, and the tendency is always to formalism in aid of precision (“non-linear”, “multivariate”, etc.) He’s got a way of saying things that makes them sound insultingly true. But because there’s a consistency to this approach, a kind of academic truthiness, his emotional concern for what the other side has got wrong really can’t come across as vindictive.


In 2015 at the World Championships I became the best speaker in the world.

Most of that sentence is misleading. For a start, I didn’t even come close to winning the thing: Michael (my partner) and I were neatly KO’ed in the quarterfinals. All the BSW title meant was that over the course of 9 preliminary rounds and 3 days my average speaker score was higher than everyone else’s. The BSW isn’t even something you need to defend – you keep it for the whole year, until the next WUDC, even though many people might be debating better than you are over the course of that year. And there are many people who have just have retired from the hobby or aren’t attending because they’ve got better things to do who might be better than you are. My average score was 84.9,[43] which is pretty lousy compared to other WUDC tab-toppers.[44]

It didn’t feel particularly great to be BSW. It felt good when I went up and people clapped with a mixture of happiness (people I knew and liked and who liked me in return) and resentment (people who thought I wasn’t any good) and uninformed admiration (everyone else). It felt good to know that I good at something I had chosen to sink quite a lot of time into. I think we all want to be good at something. There are many things I would like to be good that which I know I can never be good at, mostly because I started on them way too late. So it was good, and it felt good, to know for certain that I could debate well.

But it didn’t feel great. I didn’t whoop for joy or get shitfaced or anything like that. I went back into my room, missing most of the night’s festivities, and numbly drifted through Facebook, watched a couple of Youtube videos, and then wrote a bit, and then went to sleep.

Debating offers you, in place of some general formula for feeling good about yourself or other people, an alchemised anger. When it all comes to an end it’s not easy pulling yourself back. A debate is the sort of place where someone could tell you to fuck off and after a while you wouldn’t notice. It takes time to move back into the usual liturgies of decency, even sincerity.

It didn’t feel great also because it had not been entirely unexpected. We’d done very well in the preliminary rounds – we’d come 1st in 8 of them, and 3rd in just 1. We broke top with 25 out of a maximum possible 27 points. For most of two days we’d sat in the top room, fending off challengers in pleasingly King-of-the-Hill-ish fashion. So Michael and I knew that it was very likely that one of us would top the tab. And we knew that merely being in the top room guaranteed us an unearned speaker point bonus – very few judges across a tournament get to judge the top room, and so if you’re a judge and it’s announced that you’re taking the top room, you feel a bit flattered and a bit excited and a bit worried that if you fuck up the call in the room the big names will be pissed-off at you.[45] All of that heavily predisposes you to dump an extra 3 points or so on top of everyone’s normal speaker score.[46] There’s also a helpful sense of occasion: because the best teams in any tournament are concentrated in the top room, you know that you’re getting to watch the final before it happens.[47]

The other reason why it didn’t feel great was because I’d never been the sort of person to top speaker tabs. I don’t think I’m a prominent speaker, if you know what I mean. I think I’m good at helping my partner win the debate, but I mostly play a supporting role very well. So my team would often break 1st, but I didn’t top tabs, and I was absolutely fine with this. I’d convinced myself about two years before my last WUDC that speaker tabs, while not totally random, were not worth caring much about: sometimes you’re screwed by your opening team doing something weird, sometimes you got a dodgy call, sometimes you were on the wrong side of a weighted motion, etc. The gap between the #1 and #2 was usually so small as to be rather meaningless, as was the gap between the #2 and the #3, and so on. Besides, thinking of your individual ranking is a guaranteed way to fuck up your team dynamic. So it was good being BSW, but I couldn’t convince myself that it meant a huge deal. I was very surprised when well after WUDC someone asked me if I’d rather be just World #1 or World #30 and World Champion. I thought this comparison was a no-brainer: of course I’d rather be World Champion. I didn’t know people thought the BSW was such a big deal.

There will be people who think that because I am BSW I have access to something about debating which they don’t – some black box I open which contains a clutch of arguments which no one’s quite thought of yet. That’s very wrong, but it’s also the thought that gives the BSW title most of its meaning. The fact is I mostly muddle along with a loose grab-bag of worn tricks and stock arguments and gotcha factoids and battered strategic intuitions, which grab-bag probably has a small orange baggage tag coming off the side reading DON’T FUCK THIS UP. My reaction to a topic when it comes up on the screen is probably much the same as anyone else’s, most of the time: I’m befuddled for about 2 minutes and then spend the remaining 13 minutes trying to nudge myself towards something like clarity, trying to come up with a policy, a structure, a hazy sense of strategy. Sometimes I go, “This is just like that other debate”, or “Shit, I think I’ve got it”, or “Actually, I think there might be a sneaky point to make here about irreducible normativity,” or (very rarely) “I know all about this”, but this does not happen often. Sure, sometimes I’ve come into the debate ready to sing the body electric or whatever, knowing that I have something that probably puts me ahead of  the other debaters given this particular topic and position, but that’s probably only happened to me 20 times in my entire life.

In any case, the low-level buzz of becoming BSW didn’t quite fade out into nothing. It discoloured into a feeling of so this is what it’s like. Thought about abstractly, there’s an austere and utterly absurd glory to the BSW title. The gap between #1 and #2 seems qualitatively different from the gap between #2 and #3, unbridgeable, and there’s no discernible reason for this. This had always been the way I thought about BSWs. Being BSW meant that I realised – and this was a shocking thought – that maybe all the other BSWs were like me. Maybe none of them were special. Maybe they also got hopelessly confused in debate prep and made stupid blunders and delivered lousy speeches and forgot what their POIs[48] were when someone accepted one of theirs. Twice now I’ve been a debate where I’ve had one of my own speeches repeated back at me nearly verbatim. Both times I’ve responded by making a joke about how this must mean I’ve made it, eh? But what those debaters did was exactly what I’d done myself. Many of the speakers I idolised had been BSWs in their time, and it was difficult trying suddenly to think of them as fully (and fallibly) human. There are some debaters whom I have only recently managed to think of as people, and to like as people. It’s taken 4 years.


Debating can be lonely. If you’re lucky you travel with your partner but if you’re not then it’s long train rides and flights where you’re mostly thinking, this is a bad way to spend a weekend. A couple of times I’ve been asked to go to places you might consider nice to help out at tournament, usually by judging. But you never really get to see the place or meet the people, most of the time.

This sense of being-apartness is greatly heightened at WUDC. You’re put in a metal box powered by little explosions and shuttled back and forth between your hotel and the debating venue; your rooming arrangements are designed to keep you around people you are familiar with; the people who live here are seen through glass, as if they’re in a tank; you debate about poverty + religion + culture but don’t really notice it around you as if in thinking about something you’ve abstracted it from brute fact, made it less real. The argument is the end; it’s complete and self-contained. It does not reach out into the world. Instead it sits there occupying the space that might have housed appreciation or compassion or even the thin skein of pity.

One of the stranger ways in which debating is lonely has to do with the way it follows you around. You end up replaying a speech in your mind over and over again, weighing it, getting annoyed at yourself for screwing something up, for missing arguments. This is not something that can be shared. All of it is all inside and it’s incommunicable. I suppose anyone who does any competitive activity will spend a lot of time thinking about it. With debating it’s more painful because the thinking is tied into the activity. It’s about how clever you are, see? Sure, you talk, you produce words, but that’s not where the action is: the action is in your head. Sidelong, without you realising, debating can end up becoming about who you are.

On the second day of Chennai WUDC Tom and I came back to our hotel room very hungry and very tired. The day hadn’t been a disaster but it hadn’t really gone well either. We called room service and ordered a TexMex. It didn’t come. We waited for a while, and then without really agreeing to do so we both fell asleep. At approx. 2 a.m. they knocked on our door with the TexMex. We placed the thing between both of us on the bed and finished it, without speaking to each other at all, in about 3 minutes. I put the plates on the floor in front of the bed and we went back to sleep. We didn’t talk.

Looking back at it now, we laugh about how pathetic the entire scene was, how sad it was. That’s often what debating is like. There’s something a bit broken-down about the whole thing, something that feels in need of repair or fulfilment. If you’re not at a big competition you’ll probably have to crash at someone’s place, which basically means sleeping on the floor of a well-meaning person who’s sacrificed a chunk of their home to house a bunch of debaters for the night. You’ll lie there in the dark, uncomfortable in a way that can’t be diagnosed, wanting to sleep but not being able to. In the morning you’ll be a bit sore and a bit frayed. The point is that you have a partner when you debate and it needs to be the right kind of person to make it worth it. (I was about to say tolerable, but on reflection that seems unnecessarily negative.)


Is debating capital-G Good, i.e., good all things considered? I don’t know; I suspect not. When it comes to most games we know the rules are silly and arbitrary. But in debating the rules, unfortunately, don’t look silly or arbitrary,[49] and this lets debating put itself forward as some essentially moral enterprise: something that makes you a better person, or at least makes things better for society, somehow.

I can’t quite believe it. Debating will make you better at inventing arguments in a short period of time. It might make you cleverer; it doesn’t make you more empathetic. Debating is a competitive activity, and all competition immunises you to the fact of other people’s grief.[50] Your attitude towards other people must be, for a time at least, one of hostility. You need to believe that they’re inferior. This is about as far from a moral attitude as I can imagine.[51] The problem is that people might start out just wanting to become better people, or cleverer, or more informed, but after a while what they end up wanting is to become a better debater. And many things that are good for debating are simply good for debating alone, and many of them only very loosely track things that we want people in the real world to have. Debating has made me a bigger asshole that I ever would have become if I’d never touched it. Quite often I think about what I’ve just said to someone and I’m sort of horrified: you absolute wanker, a fluorescent lamp in my head dimly sputters. I can see this in other people too: they win something, they get a reputation, and then suddenly they’re dicks.[52] And there’s a very small number of debaters who’ve learnt to win debates without really making arguments: they consist of a husk of entertaining hokeyness around a salted caramel centre of profound stupidity, like, I suppose, Antonin Scalia.[53]

There’s also one other thing. In real life, we generally think that it’d be good if we considered the arguments on both sides of a thorny issue before we formed our position on said issue. Unfortunately most of the time what we do is the opposite of this: we start with an opinion, and then all our arguments are post-hoc rationalisations. The problem with debating is that it’s just an elaborate formalisation of the latter process. Debating fixes your stance on an issue – you are assigned your position in the debate – and what’s allowed to change is the set of arguments you use. It’s a dazzling celebration of post-hoc rationalisation: You already believe this to be true. Now figure out why.

There are things to be said on the other side, of course. Maybe it’s not the post-hoc-ness that is bad; but the post-hoc-ness-vis-a-vis-our-personal-beliefs. Maybe making arguments that go against our personal positions on issues makes us (1) change our minds or (2) makes us justify our own positions better. That seems fair enough. I’ve changed my mind quite majorly on things like homosexuality, but that happened when I was 17; nothing’s much changed since then. More plausibly, debating makes you a lot more knowledgeable re immensely complicated stuff like feminism (which I used to think was just like misogyny, except pointed in the opposite direction; 16-y.o. me was horrified when my RA Lit teacher, whom I admired hugely, told the class that she was a feminist) or monetary policy, or the politics of development aid, etc. But if debating does not make you empathetic this is all rather useless except for liberal credentialing. The point is that there’s stuff to be said on either side, and it’s not clear debating’s moral account comes out in credit.[54]


The small-g’s probably where it’s at.

I’m a Type 1 debater. I like arguments because they’re pretty. There’s something about being assigned a side on a topic which you think is monstrous, maybe just flat-out indefensible, and then somehow making an argument that works. There’s something about being able to abstract out of yourself. I think I might even find it easier to make arguments that run against my personal beliefs; this might just because I’m forced to think carefully about what exactly I want to argue for, and that sort of rigour is hard to get going when the you’re arguing for something that (to you) looks a bit duh. Debating more or less forces you into situations where you can’t be consistent with your own beliefs: that’s kind of fun.[55]

And then around the central pleasure (for me) of just making arguments other smaller thrills orbit. There’s something satisfying about just delivering a speech where everything just follows. I’m a huge sucker for structure. It makes things clean. It’s not showy or applause-worthy or even noticeable but it makes everything fall into a pattern and there’s an ascetic elegance to it. Given how arguments are made in the real world, maybe clean is something that should be valued a little more. And there’s the opposite pleasure, where you go up in front of an audience, something like fury or indignance bubbling inside you, your notes completely forgotten, and you stand and you see the faces of the people in the audience glowing like masks, unreal in the light, and the teeth of some machine in you suddenly lock, and you rant.[56] And sometimes there is pleasure in the funny strategic things you do too: trap POIs, counterintuitive stances + counterprops, etc.[57]

Sometimes, you get to see speeches that so good they are actually enjoyable. This happened less and less as I got better at debating. Remember how earlier I said that for the really great debaters it’s sort of impossible to figure out how they do what they do? That doesn’t always last. After a while you see the seams; you hear the whirr. You pull sceptical faces instead of leaning back into the speaker’s charisma or whatever it is you used to do. But sometimes it still happens. In the semifinals of the Leeds Mace my partner, a lanky Mancunian mathematician nicknamed Floppy,[58] began his speech with a blindingly virtuosic two-minute long comedic routine on the topic of (unbelievably) whether or not the IMF should require collateral for bailouts. He ended that bit with: “So hopefully I’ve demonst[w]ated,[59] using the power of comedy, [pause for laughter] why you can’t intimidate the Greeks”. His arms moved around floppily. He walked back to the notes on his table (in the course of his enthusiastic miming, which had included a reference to Aristarchus, he’d moved waaaaay out to the front, close to the judges). He pushed his hair back, exhausted by his drollery. The audience roared with laughter; I cried a little.

There are other miscellaneous pleasures. It doesn’t happen too often, but sometimes when you’re in a debate and the other side is being annoying, you end up banding together with the other team on your side to despise the opposition. This happens spontaneously when you and your partner team both realise that you’re making the same outraged faces at the speaker and leaning back in shock and horror more or less in sync. Wordlessly, a pact is formed. You and your partner team end up nodding vigorously at each other’s speeches. In the middle of an opposition speech you might lean over to your partner team and go, wow, this is fucking awful, isn’t it? And they’ll nod and roll their eyes at the speaker.  When your partner team is delivering one of their speeches you’ll bang the table and say hear, hear, and nod aggressively. And if you’re the opening team, your closing team might say something lovely about you in their rebuttal along the lines of And to their credit, opening gov spent a good 7 minutes tearing this ridiculous argument apart, and we’ve had literally no response from the closing opp to what they said. This is about as warm & fuzzy as debating gets: the whole thing involves so much aggression that discovering that you’ve suddenly got a new set of friends in a debate comes as a huge relief. It’s odd, isn’t it – the world’s most apparently intellectual sport, and this gorgeously primitive tribalism.

Debating also provides you with a directedness to a big chunk of university life that’s quite pleasing. You go for prep tournaments in the run-up to WUDC; you meet your partner to talk about what went wrong the last time, what worked well, what needs to be oiled or discarded or adjusted; you make travel plans. This sense of maybe not so much purpose as function extends to the experience of debating itself. When Michael and I were at WUDC there was a motoric quality to debating in the preliminaries, a sense of things in harmony, one thing slotting smoothly into another. On the last day, the day with the closed rounds, we had three debates that were exceptionally vicious and gnarly and complicated, and we managed to win all of them. It wasn’t so much the winning as it was the feeling that things were going right that mattered. A couple of times in prep one of us would abruptly clap his hands together and yell I’ve fucking got it (the other would shush the shouter[60]), and twice I ran an extension[61] which Michael (he informed about this me well after the fact) did not understand until I’d actually finished my speech; both times Michael defended the extensions brilliantly.[62] We had a system and it worked.

But the biggest small-g good thing is just that you get to meet people when you debate, and quite a lot of these people will be friendly and interesting and will like for you for reasons that have nothing do to with whether or not you debate well. I started out debating because I thought I would be good at it, and I thought that if I was good at debating – well, people would be friends with me. Now, as it was bound to become, things are different: I worry that the only reason people tolerate me is because I am good at debating. But I don’t worry much. I’ve spent enough time around people I like to know that they don’t really give a fuck. Long before Michael and I were paired as a team we’d go for dinners because I wanted to hear him talk about math and (I hope) he wanted to hear me explain stuff about fugues etc. to him. More recently he’d taken to coming to my place and we’d spend a good three hours or so talking about movies[63] or I’d pull a Beethoven sonata or whatever up on Youtube and talk about it while it played, pausing and rewinding and pausing and rewinding until the thing I was trying to get at became clear.[64] Tom and I once spent 2 hours in a McDonald’s in London discussing whether there were non-doctrinal grounds upon which to favour Catholicism over Protestantism (and vice-versa). Then there are stories. Story Number 1. The first time I went to the US for a tournament Freddy decided to drive us from Boston LIA to Geneva despite (A) his only having gotten his driver’s license about a year(?) before; (B) his not having driven a car till then; (C) his never having driven in the US; (D) his having left his spectacles in the UK, which he claimed left him unable to read any road signs. Things went more or less OK till we had literally reached our hotel, whereupon Freddy decided to drive on the wrong side on the road when turning in and was immediately picked up by Highway Patrol. He shakily pulled over and sat there going Shit, shit, shit, while Michael vehemently hissed from the backseat: Get out, Freddy, fuck’s sake get out and talk to him; and when Freddy opened the door and stepped out the officer immediately went Get in the car sir or I will draw my firearm, which made Freddy withdraw into the vehicle with extraordinary haste and a very delicate Okay, okay. He managed to persuade the officer not to issue a ticket on the basis of his being really apologetic + British (You’re not from around these parts, sir, are you?), while Michael and I helped by frantically trying to disguise our laughter. Story Number 2. That time in Chennai when Tom and I were opposing some motion on NATO unconditionally offering membership to former USSR states and I asked Tom during prep to take out the almanac that we’d bought because something about NATO voting procedure might be relevant to the debate.[65] Tom opened his cinch bag and slowly withdrew one empty plastic water bottle, and another, and another – and by the time the 6th one came out I was pretty sure that the bloody almanac couldn’t have been the bag, but Tom persisted and eventually withdrew the 7th water bottle, before taking a good inside the bag and noting that he hadn’t brought the almanac.[66] Story Number 3. That time I made Michael watch Sinister in the hotel and he was nearly catatonic with horror. Story Number 4.That time Joe tried to explain the Higgs to me over the course of two hours and most of what I got out of it was that it involved something called spontaneous symmetry-breaking and sombrero hats. Story. Story. Story.

And then there is, outside all this, the stray time – time on the train, time between rounds, time after we’ve finished judging some debate – not so much interstitial time as much as enlarged time, time that grows into space for conversation about anything, really.[67] It’s probably just a product of being pretentious and sincere in a way only university allows you to be, but for some reason lots of conversations on the train just end up being about Life: how to go about it,[68] career plans, family problems, personal pains/regrets, and so on. I think this stuff is important when you’re dealing with debaters: it’s central to rehabilitating their realness as people back from the muddy margins of your imagination.


That’s about it. Debating’s badnesses are not so different from the badnesses of any other kind of competitive activity, and it’s goodnesses are not so different from the goodnesses of any other kind of activity that lets you make friends, or show off a little, or align the moving parts of your life around something.  By the time you see the strangeness of this activity, its primordial gameishness, you’re probably already twined in, and pretty decent at it. It’s probably not wise to parse this all too carefully. Do that to anything you love and it dissolves into a jumble of facts.

University life is weird. My experience of it at first was that it was essentially lonely and a bit sad. We’re not really programmed to be all that happy, I think. It’s unnecessary. The dramatic, big-L Literary way of putting this is to go (as someone did): What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears. That’s probably overstating things. But most of the time we want something to do that won’t be painful or boring, and for some people debating is neither painful or boring, and can be exciting, for a time at least. And that makes it an OK thing for people to do. It’s not a great thing or an important thing, but it’s OK, and OK is important. I’ve been very lucky in this hobby –  and even though I’m not doing very much of this anymore, I’ve got many other OK things in my life, and that adds up eventually to something that’s kind of good.

[1] I’ve heard people say that they just don’t have any free time in university. This is rather flabbergasting. Not because degrees can never involve vast, surreal, cruel amounts of work, but because psychologically, no-one can just work non-stop like that. At some point, if you’ve got that sort of degree, you’ve just got to fuck things up and miss a couple of deadlines, just for the variety. And you’re left with some free time.

[2] Not as in “physically like home”, but as in a place which you can think of as a private emotional groundstate.

[3] So you can still be friends with everyone, but can monopolise the well-this-is-a-tricky-politicalish/moralish/socioeconomicish-problem-so-lets-ask-so-and-so-what-they-think-and-that’ll-let-us-nod-and-move-on-to-more-interesting-topics-of-conversation niche that occasionally (satisfyingly?) emerges in social situations.

[4] I can’t believe that people believe this, but people I know believe that people do believe this, so I can’t leave this out. If debating societies market themselves on this basis it’d probably be good if they stopped, I think. Even if these species of self-help claims are true they seriously misrepresent what real competitive debating is like, what you really get out of it, and definitely what you come to want to get out of it.

[5] Also, I guess, unfair. Although I’m genuinely uncertain about whether that counts as a bad thing.

[6] By which I mean I thought that I had something like a 2-7% of getting in? There’s something quite futile about trying to define a crushing sense of uncertainty in numerical terms, because while you’re feeling it you’re always trying to put a number to it, but of course you can’t, since if you could you’d probably feel a lot less worried. It’s a meta- kind of uncertainty, is what I’m getting at. I’m not sure people really understand what it’s like to be from a country that is not a WLD and not have parents who went to university and look out at places like Oxbridge or the Ivy Leagues. These places aren’t really places as much as they are fixed conceptual points made fantastical by imagination and distance. There really is something heart-stopping about them. They imply a kind of heightened reality. I don’t feel this way now, but I know for certain that at that point in time it was difficult for me to think of these places, to actually imagine people in them, actually living and talking and eating and shitting and fucking and writing and thinking in them, without becoming weak with aspiration and stupidity, without painfully wanting that kind of, you know, Wagnerian falling-into. I’m trying hard to put this across but I think it might just be one of those things.

[7] Director of Studies. The person in charge of everyone studying a particular course in College. My DoS, Nick, was really an extremely caring and helpful guy. But he had decided to adopt the introductory tactic of shocking us into academic success by scaring us shitless – emphasizing how different a law degree would be from everything we had done in the past and how useless our past academic successes would be as guides, how many ways there were to majorly fuck up an essay (lack of structure, lack of precision, failure to differentiate, inattention to detail, overlooking counterarguments, misreporting cases, misunderstanding terms, domain elision, bad grammar, lack of an utterly crystalline and lucid and illuminating and shrewd and mature and intelligent and practical and sensible and generally all-round gorgeous first paragraph, lack of a clear position, overuse of acronyms, underuse of acronyms, being too uninteresting, being too interesting, insufficient attention to academic debate, thralldom to academic debate), how tricky it was to read textbooks, how awfully written legal judgments were, and so on. Also the one thing we knew about him was that he was or had been a Prize Fellow at All Souls, which made us wary with admiration. The only thing we sort-of knew about becoming a Prize Fellow was that it involved some thaumaturgic admissions sieve so brutal it let the chaff of mere academic brilliance pour sleekly through. All very silly, all very understandable. After submitting my first ever law essay to Nick, I went back to my room and decided to re-read it, spotting five or six disastrous spelling errors. At the next supervision, when Nick returned my essay, I apologized profusely for them, nervously tacking on a faux-casual my typing’s awful or some lie like that. He smiled and looked a bit puzzled and said he hadn’t noticed.

[8] Even after four years, I can’t really say I like the place. I suppose anything run primarily by students is mostly glitz and facebook events orbiting a core of essential dilapidation. It turns out that the CU, or at least most of it, is only tangentially related to what you might call debating. Probably more than half of all CU presidents have never ever seen a competitive debate, and a much larger percentage than that have never participated in one. Most of the people involved in it thrive on small-time hackery and CV-building. Can’t say this is bad, really: I had a job lined up for me before I entered university, so I could basically go around doing what I wanted without an eye to eventually out-competing people for jobs. Entirely plausible that had things been different I would have attempted to run for a position in the CU.

[9] The four teams are called, in speaking order, the Opening Government (OG), Opening Opposition (OO), Closing Government, (CG) and Closing Opposition (CO).

[10]In good debates in the semifinals or finals of major competitions, dissents (or splits, to use the more common term) are expected. There are two reasons for this. The first is that a good debate is a close one, so judges are more likely to have reasonable disagreements. More relevantly, I suspect, judges in big rounds are usually all experienced, and so are more likely to stick to their guns in the post-debate discussion. It’s sometimes said that the second debate among the judges matters more than the thing that they are supposed to be judging; if the judges are good debaters themselves, this is probably true. In the finals of big BP championships sometimes deliberations go on for 5/6 hours without any real consensus forming. The judging panels in these big debates are also often quite large, consisting of up to 9 judges. This complicates things because you get horse-trading. In one WUDC final, if I recall correctly, 4 judges thought CG won, 3 judges the OO, and 2 the CO. If everyone had stuck to their guns CG would have won on an admittedly bizarre (unheard of?) 4-3-2 split. The problem was that the judges who thought an opposition team won were determined not to let CG win, and so the judges who thought CO won (despite not really believing OO’s case), swapped their votes from CO to OO. Eventual result: a 5-4 split for OO. I’m sure the actual details here are a lot more complex – probably the judge swap from CO to OO was a product of them both wanting CG not to win and genuinely being persuaded of OO’s case – but this account seems fairly plausible in its outline.

[11] This is a standard that is changed nearly every  year at the WUDC council, and which is variously reworded and reinterpreted at regional tournaments. I don’t really understand what the AIV is: for a start “average” and “intelligent” seem at least a little bit contradictory. If “average intelligent” is read together (as in “take the voters, select the intelligent ones from them, and then average all these people out”) to remove the contradiction the question then becomes what exactly “intelligent” means, and there are longstanding discussions about whether this refers to a standard of knowledge (Does the AIV read the front pages of most reputable broadsheets? Does the AIV scan the news once a week? Does the AIV have debating as a hobby? (Recursion! Circularity!) Does the AIV have the telly gently spooling out Fox News in the background when he/she returns from work bent under inexplicable weariness and goes to the fridge to find something with which to feed the microwave? Does the AIV discuss the moral implications of the Experience Machine in the pub with unspecified but assumedly average friends?) or a standard of intelligence conventionally/un- defined (Open-mindedness? Moderate bias in favour of classically/Mill-ian liberal government? Forensic attention to argumentative detail? University-educated?) or both. Probably both. In any case, if this seems really dry and technical: yes. Yes it is. This is as far from what makes debating fun as it’s possible to get.

[12] E.g., starting a new argument after the 6th minute. I’d been taught that if you were doing both rebuttal and substantive content in a speech you (A) had to signpost and structure your rebuttal, and (B) transition from rebuttal to substantive content by 3.45, all necessary to avoid civilizational ruin etc. Of course in BP no-one gave a damn.

[13] Far too seriously. A judge cares less about your speech than you do; I have the impression that you should probably only care about their feedback as much as they care about your speech, unless they’re really seriously good at judging.

[14] An all-round great guy called Freddy who was very smart but had the uncanny ability to be more confused about things than he actually was.

[15] Freshers are easy to be nice to, because (A) you feel at once that you are doing something good for “the community”, (B) they’re usually eager to learn, and so present heady opportunities for indoctrination, and (C) you can usually rest assured that said fresher won’t really be a threat to you in a debate. You think: Let the next generation tangle with this one; I’ll just watch like a grizzled old-timer from a distance.

[16] This also means, if the people from that circuit really like you (and if you have a robust-ish CV), that they might ask you to come along to their country on a paid flight to be Chief Adjudicator at one of their tournaments. Having a foreigner CA your tournament is seen as a quick way to guarantee diversity in topic-setting, and gives the tournament a thin Styrofoam package of gravitas. The less familiar people in a circuit are with you, the more intimidated/impressed they’re likely to be. Nice for its own sake, but also reduces the probability of stuff like complaints.

[17] These rooms are often called bin rooms. (As in, “we’re fucked for the break; I think we were in the bin for the last round.”) It’s unclear to me if there is anything that is meant to be consciously derisive about this.

[18] Not power-pairing this time, of course, since that would ensure the best teams KO’ed each other and wouldn’t make the final, but folding-table pairing. Basically take the best + worst teams that broke and place them together in a debate. So the top breaking team debates against the 32nd breaking team but also (BP: 4 teams, lots of necessary complications) the 16th/17th breaking teams, the 2nd breaking team debates against the 31st breaking team + 15th/18th, etc. Folding-table pairing is designed to facilitate the best teams making the final and rewards breaking high, but because there are four teams in a BP debate, and because in each outround the top two teams progress to the next round, there are circumstances where it’s advantageous to break just below the very top teams. The maths is a bit confusing but if you draw a table and work out what happens in the semifinals of a tournament with octofinals and quarterfinals it’ll become relatively clear. Please don’t, though.

[19] This is not, as you might have noticed, a power of 2. WUDC has something called a partial-double-octofinal, and is the only tournament in the world I know of which uses this system. In EUDC 16 teams break.

[20] Generally, if judge puts pen down and gives you a dead stare, you’d better fucking move on. Wince = you’re toast; skeptical frown = move on or explain more, depending; tightly controlled smile = things look either good or great, depending on judge; lean-back-in-seat-laughter + table-slapping + the other team on your side grinning combatively and saying hear, hear = you’re killing it. If partner gets a glazed panicky look or starts shaking head despite everything, get ready to do serious apologizing. If partner cackles, your team is working fine, but this might have little correlation with how well you’re doing objectively.

[21] This is almost always an ominous sign: the longer the deliberation, the more random the result. You might even have a wings-outvote-chair situation on your hands.

[22] There’s also a sharp-ish distinction, I find, between (1) debaters who think arguments are interesting in the same way baubles are shiny: they’re to be admired in an aesthetic manner for their cleverness and counterintuitiveness and rhetorical power, independent of what moral weight they have; (2) debaters who think arguments are good only insofar as they have moral worth or concord with their prexisting beliefs; and (3) debaters who think arguments are only interesting insofar as they have tactical value in a debate. If you go to a bunch of debaters and tell them that’d you’ve just run a case premised on an analytic argument against the possibility of free will, you can tell which debaters in that group are (1)-, (2)- or (3)-types be seeing how they react. The (1)-type debaters are the ones whose eyes light up; they’ll get excited and will probably unselfconsciously bring up one of Nozick/Schopenhauer/Descartes/Dennett/Hobbes; the (3)-types will roll their eyes and jovially say something like “actually you people need to fucking calm down and get over this”; the (2)-types will probably be a bit ambivalent but privately wish the argument was not analytic but was based on the hegemonic false-consciousness-generating semiotic/cultural/distributive structures of late capitalism & its rearticulations of white/male/cis power.

[23] Mom had 3rd stage colon cancer. Totally, totally, overcomplicated year +.

[24] LSE is an Open, not an IV: this basically means that non-university teams can attend. For some reason LSE has become the tournament that brings all terrifying dinos out of the woodwork. “Dinos” here refers to debaters who are done with university life, who’ve in some sense moved on from debating. It’s one of these terms that’s used with equal parts awe and irritation since dinos are seem as spoiling the fun for everyone else, especially when they turn up at IVs. (They aren’t supposed to, but tournament organizers don’t always dare to say no.) But for LSE dinos are more or less the whole point. LSE features BP debating at a particularly surreal pitch of intensity. It’s the sort of competition you tell novices not to attend as speakers but to watch, and where it’s considered not too surprising to see in the top room a (former) EUDC champion teamed up with another (former) EUDC champion debating in a room against a (former) World No.1 and a (former) World Champion and a (former) European no.1 and the (current) EUDC champion, etc. Most people at LSE are a bit flushed and a bit dazed and a bit what the fuck just hit me? If LSE has any moral purpose it is to show that sometimes a crushing defeat can be flattering. And and and the team names: they’re great. I was particularly proud, in my 2rd year, of Just the Washing Instructions on the Rich Tapestry of Life (I think the organizers shortened that name), and, the next year, of my attempt to get the phrase Mongoloid Porn Inferno on the projector display. (We eventually settled for something similar but less allude-y.)

[25] The first time was for the law dinner at college, where I rented a suit from A.E. Clothier’s. The whole black-tie thing, to be honest, sent me into a minor panic.

[26] Turns out that’s what they’re called. The ones that are for some stupid reason twice as long and need to be folded back on themselves.

[27] I understand that to some people this might seem slightly absurd, like I’m trying to take something which they wish very much they had and belittling it to look like I’m above it all. The point is that I was not at all above it all, in fact I was very much in it, and the thing about being in it was that you don’t have time to notice the specialness of the moment since it’s spread thin all around you and the only way to see that specialness is from a quite a long way off (competition stage- or time- or geography- wise) where the moment gets contracted into a bright shiny point. And then you get some time or sense to try and make something cool out of it.

[28] Plus they are poke-y and all-round irritating. There’s no point putting them on when it’s warm, and it was really warm in Belgrade. The first night I spent in the hotel the air-conditioning didn’t work and when I woke up the floor was covered in little white moths which had, apparently, died in the heat.

[29] I gave a bad speech. I remember Joe’s speech being pretty amazing. Mine wasn’t any good. But that wasn’t really the problem.

[30] People don’t think I am religious. That’s okay and sort of sweet, a kind of testament to how much faith people have in my rationality – plus I’m discreet. But it’s irritating (to lesser or greater extents, depending on how much I already like the person) when someone refuses to seriously believe that I am religious even after I tell them quite categorically I am. I suppose it has to do with the unconventional-ish? nature of my belief. There’s something about this already on this blog, so I’ll leave it at that.

[31] Observe any debate and you’ll see it: people will pretend to be casual with the judge; they’ll say with faux-weariness Another one on Greece, eh?; they’ll smile and shake their head condescendingly as they offer a Point of Information; they’ll allude (glancingly, if they’re any good) to their expertise on the particular topic of debate; they’ll have ridiculously extravagant putdowns (in one debate involving some discussion of statistical methods, a debater I know very well said something along the lines of Mr. Speaker, the reason a man from my university invented the scientific method 400 years ago was to prevent people like him [I imagine the him spat out with disgust] from making arguments like that; and grieves me to say it hasn’t worked.)

[32] Well, what I should be saying is that I get this feeling sometimes. It only happens if I’m really tired and mostly wanting to go home, and when I’m in OG (I usually deliver the first speech, which means 7 speeches come after mine where I’m not doing very much work). I end up staring into middle distance and when I get back to the speaker (and at this point I’ve obviously lost the thread of the debate at least a little bit) there’s a little lost animal jerk of huh? What the fuck is this?

[33] This sounds good but is something I find it very difficult to be proud of, because, in a pattern that should be familiar, I was bad in the final. Anser was fantastic, but my speech was crap. I haven’t, till this day, succumbed even once to the basic narcissistic desire to watch that final, even though it’s on Youtube. I wince when people tell me I spoke well in it, and more recently I’ve taken to correcting them. The EUDC final’s distant enough emotionally from where I am now that I don’t care so much about people thinking I spoke well. This is exactly the sort of thing that people mistake for maturity or honesty.

[34] I hope people haven’t noticed. If they have, well. It’s very hard trying to pin down why this matters.

[35] This octofinal started a running joke; Tom has had, over his university debating career, a complicated relationship with outrounds. I bring up this octofinal around Tom sometimes – he’s the sort of person who doesn’t take offence at anything – and pretend it was a clear decision. He plays along and points out in (what must be) faux outrage that NZ won that octofinal crushingly. There’s something surreal about the fact that one of my favourite debating partners is someone from a different country, whom I met under the most intensely adversarial circumstances possible, and who probably spent an evening passionately cursing my team inwardly after I’d spent an evening cursing his team (more or less inwardly). I attended my last debating competition in the UK with Tom. Our team name was Dundee Waterfront; when we were at Dundee something of a big deal had been made about the Very Exciting waterfront developments / improvements. The DW became the subject of loads of jokes at WSDC, not because people were cynical about it, I think, but because at WSDC everyone was so focused on trying to win the damn thing that seeing a smart nice guy in a suit present us with beautifully done-up CGI model of the renovated waterfront and a little talk about its aesthetic/cultural/economic benefits came across as strangely disjointed from the bigger WSDC experience. The same point applies even more forcefully to WUDC, where often we get presentations about the culture of the host country, its rich history & lived diversity, its natural beauty, etc., and no one gives a fuck. This is often what debating is like: the most interesting places in the world, and being in no state whatsoever to appreciate them. In any case, it was neat that my last UK tournament was had with someone I’d debated against at WSDC. Tom was best speaker at the tournament. It was, in hindsight, a good way to end things.

[36] The strike-leaders’ speeches were excellent. Stirring stuff.

[37] The last three preliminary rounds of WUDC are “closed”; the judges’ decisions are not released and you go on straight to the next debate. The eventual break is announced late on December 31st at some swanky (or not) venue crammed with nervous debaters where there’s usually a lot of alcohol and loud music and possibly even food. This is called break night. I hate it. You’re so tired it’s hard trying to be nice to people; most of them are drunk, anyway, and the noise sticks in your brain like prions. My partner usually has to drag me down. I managed to miss (most of) the break night for my 3rd and last WUDC. That was good.

[38] Desolation of Smaug had just come out and I liked it, so I listened to Ed Sheeran’s I See Fire on loop on the way there, and Les Barricades Misterieuses on the way back: it put me to sleep.

[39] There’s something about debating with a partner whose style is quite different to yours. You get to watch and enjoy your partner’s speeches; and there’ a satisfying mystery to whatever’s going on because you can’t really see the seams. Both Joe and Anser’s speaking styles radically differed from mine. Both could do speeches whose structure was basically narrative: no numbers, little signposting. And it worked. I haven’t the faintest clue how this is done; the rules for pulling this off don’t fit in my Standard Model. Joe did a concentrated and undeniably charming sotto voce –  and didn’t do the thing I often did, which was to start speeches by placing them firmly in the context of this debate, but started his speeches from a certain philosophical idea (PIV sex is always immoral; free will is weird) and let things just grow from there, finding his way into the stuff that had already happened the debate by – chemotaxis, I suppose. It all came across as very thoughtful and wry and clever, which is something I really envied. Anser’s speeches had a fantastically rabble-rousing quality to them; he’d leave his notes behind and walk out to the front and point his finger in the air while citing 16th century Islamic jurisprudence or excoriating governmental laxity re environmental policy. He had a baffling ability to ignore about 50% of what the other side had said (unthinkable for me) and spend an entire speech making essentially one point – he would repeat it, openly, brazenly, with a don’t you see, people? note of urgency quavering there, and the point would become true, and it would become the only thing that mattered. Very mystifying. He could make a joke about the etymological origins of algebra and have people laugh.

[40] If I think I’ve got no good arguments I get a bit more animated: if you can’t win on the argument you have to win on something else, so I get a bit snarkier and a bit ruder and a bit more “passionate”. If you’re losing a debate, you’ve got to mess things up: confusion only helps you.

[41] The numbers are big and are put in fat bold circles because I’m mortally afraid I’ll miss a link and the entire argument will fall apart. Of course this is not how verbal arguments work: the judge’s intuition and experience usually fills in (without them really noticing) what you’ve missed.

[42] I’ve asked other NZlanders and they agree: Tom’s accent is strong by even internal standards.

[43] After the judges decide what the team rankings are, they award individual debaters speaker points. The speaker score (“speaks”, in debater parlance) is nominally out of 100, but in reality the worst possible speech (complete silence) gets a 55-60, and the best possible speech (the speaker makes you want to stand up and cheer or cry and poses  challenges to your own belief system from the level of Dasein upwards or just turns into Jesus) gets something like 93? So the real range of the speaker score is 40 points; an average speech is a 75. I’ve always wondered why we don’t just set the scale so it’s properly out of 100 points. There are lots of rather wishy-washy reasons (too much variance = bias, familiarity, etc.) as to why, but I think the most basic reason is that there’s something subconsciously comforting about confining the range of possible scores such that even the worst speech gets a 60/100 – which looks, to the ordinary eye, pretty okay. In practice the speaker scale has a logarithmic quality to it: it’s very easy to move from a 75 to an 80 (or 70), but moving from an 85 to an 88 is unbelievably difficult. I’ve got a strong hunch that this is because many judges are extremely reluctant to give out speaks that are higher than their own personal bests. Say your personal best is an 86. You remember this speech clearly. It crushed the debate. The judge was effusive. You remember even now the prickly sensation you got up your forearms when you were speaking, how the words came out just like that, and they were correct and beautiful, and everything directed at your speech just slid off it like it was Teflon. And then you are judging and suddenly this speaker comes up and gives an awesome speech and you are forced to confront the possibility that this speaker has just done something you have never done because you think, for a moment, that this speaker has just pumped out an 88. This speech has beaten your all-time best. What do you do? You consider the speech very seriously and realise that it was not an 88 after all: maybe it was an 85, or if your wings push you, an 86. I’m not trying to be mean in writing this. What I’m saying is that it’s an entirely natural and human thing that this effect exists. We don’t want to be outdone. We don’t want to think that there are hard limits on what we can do that are different from the hard limits on what someone else can do. There are situations, I grant, where we look at someone else and think, with real happiness, I could never do that. But often that’s because we’re not aspiring to become what that person is – because we’re not in the same arena, as it were – or because that person is someone we truly care for: a child, a lover, a close friend. But I don’t think these situations pop up often in debating. In any case, I think there’s solid evidence for this personal-best effect: judges who have been high-speaks debaters themselves tend to give out high speaks.  I’ve been in roughly 250 debates over the course of my university life: I’ve gotten a 90 only thrice, every time from a judge who’s gotten a 90 at least once before. Once my 90 was clearly undeserved, once it was a bit generous, once it was spot-on (I think!). But then I’ve gotten 85s for what I hoped would be 89s, so there’s that.

[44] The speaker + team ranking is called the “tab” by most debaters. My guess is that it’s a contraction of “table”.

[45] I’m generalizing from how I feel. Some judges are so experienced that nothing really affects them anymore.

[46] I’ve given similar speeches in the preliminary rounds of small local tournaments and in the top room at WUDC: the speaker point gap is ~5 points.

[47] In fact, the final of any tournament usually happens at least twice before the actual final in the top room. This isn’t strictly accurate, of course, since the element of luck needed to make the final means that often 1 or 2 of the 4 best teams in a tournament get KO-ed, but you get the general point.

[48] In BP debating you’re allowed to give Points of Information between the 2nd and 7th minutes of an opposing speaker’s speech. You stand up and go “Point of Information” and the speaker can accept or decline your POI. A POI is basically a short interjection that’s meant to be a rebuttal or some question that’s a sneaky tactical trap. It’s very dangerous for a speaker not to accept any POIs: judges will penalize you, although no-one has even come close to working out what the nature of this penalty is, since it involves some very suspicious counterfactual construction. POIs are one of these bits of BP debating that audiences unfamiliar with the format will laugh at when they see them happening for the first time. Someone pops up and stretches out a hand, and the speaker, without pausing, goes, “No thanks”, or just dismisses them by stretching out the middle and index fingers and flicking them downwards, twice – and the POI-offeror sits down. There is something vaguely comical about it. I think it’s the contrast between the rather dramatic sight of someone standing up and interrupting a speech and the easy, practiced rejection from the speaker that forces the POI-offeror to lamely sit down.

[49] Because they’re all about evaluating arguments, and we think this function is, somehow, not arbitrary.

[50] Or at the very least their struggles, or their disappointments, or their sufferings.

[51] I’m an act/preference utilitarian, probably. I don’t think words like justice or fairness or rights or dignity or freedom or will mean anything. I’m certain in an angry sort of way that personhood and identity do not mean anything. I’m sure happiness means something, and consciousness. I’m not sure (though I am close to it) right and wrong mean something, although I think should means something. I’m not even totally sure if good and bad mean something, though I’m fairly sure better and worse mean something. But the reason I’m utilitarian is because I think only utilitarianism takes seriously the idea that other people exist, and they have lives as vivid and real and as my own, and that there’s nothing special about me: the interests of everyone have just as great a pull on my reasons for action as the interests of everyone else. I have no moral priority. So I’d push the fat man because the lives of the 5 people I save are just as real as that of the man who dies. (I’d also take the organs, or pull the lever, or plug someone in, etc.) None of that Rawlsian touchy-feeliness about respecting dignity and equality and seperateness of persons – all that nonsense designed to let us immunize ourselves against other people. But my point is that I think it’s important to take the existence of other people seriously, and competition is not at all designed to let you do that.

[52] Dickishness, I should stress, is a complex thing: its instantiations are probably uncountable. Rudeness works; as does dismissiveness; as does glum preachiness; as does a bellicose shall-we-continue-that-debate-after-it’s-ended-ness; as does a desperate-attempt-to-look-too-cool-for-debating-while-at-a-debate-tournament-ness, etc.

[53] As far as I can tell, Scalia has mastered the art of stating his conclusion entertainingly and repeatedly as a substitute for explaining how said conclusion was reached. He’s learnt how to build an essentially incestuous relationship with his audience: “ha, he says argle-bargle and applesauce, he’s just one of us, no?People go: oh, epic burn, or what an apocalyptic dissent, but all that’s going on is cunning and artful ineloquence. This tricks people, even clever people who disagree with him, that there’s intelligence at work in his decisions.

[54] Some competitive activities come out in credit because they’re spectator sports: regardless of what the activity does to the competitors, we all get to sit back and watch. Debating is not a spectator sport. It might have started out with strong aspirations to become one, but as with any particular intellectual exercise its grown more intricate and involute, with its own set of technical terms. Which is not to say no debates are fun to watch; it’s just that most of them are a bit dull. The ARV standard in BP debating stops it from descending to the ludicrous extremity of e.g., US-style Policy Debate. There’s also two more problems I haven’t discussed, which are the lack of female representation in some debating circuits and racial (+ institutional) bias at WUDC. There’s nothing important or interesting to be said about these problems that can be said succinctly.

[55] Actually, I know two debaters who claim that they’ve never made an argument that’s contradicted their personal beliefs. I find this a bit unbelievable: if your beliefs can accommodate so many different positions in so many debates you need to get a more precise set of beliefs.

[56] This is very difficult to pull off. You can only rant if you really, truly, actually believe what you are saying, and you are usually just sacrificing some analytic rigor unless you’ve got the ability to bludgeon moral intuitions out of people’s heads via sheer force of will. When this works it’s awesome to watch, though.

[57] It’s hard to understand why these things are fun in abstract, so here are some examples. The archetypal trap POI is the one that an opposition debater delivers in a debate on electing judges: “How often,” this POI-er asks, “would you re-elect your judges?” The proposition speaker, not really seeing the point of the question, says, “I don’t see how that’s relevant, but let’s make it 5 years.” And then the opposition speaker gets to win the debate by pointing out that re-election is a fucking awful idea. If the POI had been “Would you re-elect your judges?”, the speaker would have probably said no, but the how often phrasing lets you sneak the concession in. Re counterintuitive stances – this is mostly about being clever w/ the words of the motion. E.g., the OG in “This house regrets organized religion” might choose to concede the existence of God, and run a case entirely about how organization disrupts the connection between individuals and God. This tactic (A) wrongfoots the opposition, who might be preparing a general defense of religion, and (B) gives the OG team an edge over the closing government, since CG (which cannot to contradict the OG, remember) now can’t run any generic anti-religion arguments. Sometimes a sneaky stance is a way of turning a nearly unwinnable motion into something that almost looks like a trivially good idea. In Chennai the motion for round 7 was “This house believes that government agencies that regulate drugs should only test whether a drug is safe, not whether it is effective, before approving it for public use.” If you’re OG it might look like you’re in a bit of trouble, since OO gets to yell about companies lying to the public, etc. But the motion does not in fact say that the government will stop testing for effectiveness, merely that it will not be necessary before a drug is approved for sale. So in OG you’re perfectly entitled to have a policy which basically says that you’ll release the drug before it’s tested for effectiveness, but that you’ll test for effectiveness and publish the results anyway, so lying companies will get called out. The only effect of the policy is that people who would almost certainly die of terminal illnesses now get their hands on novel treatment methods a couple of months earlier than they otherwise would have: and you probably win from OG. A counterprop is basically a stance or policy from from OO that departs from the status quo.

[58] Because, he assures me, of the way he moves his arms when he’s debating.

[59] Floppy has “r”s that are a bit w-ish.

[60] There’s no designated location for prep if you’re not OG, so people cluster in corridors or sit on steps. You don’t want to talk too loudly or one of the other teams in your room might overhear you.

[61] Remember how if you’re a team in the closing half you need to make points for your side that are different from the ones you opening team ran? These are called extensions.

[62] In fact, Michael’s debating career is something of a case study in extreme directedness. For a period of over one year he would wake up in the morning and the first thing he would do would be to select a random topic from the internet, prep for 15 minutes, and then deliver a PM speech. Every day. That sort of dedication is very, very impressive, and a little worrying. In any case, Michael went from being world #45 or something to world #2 over the course of one year. For some time he was just the guy who hung around competitions, and then everyone started to notice that he was really good. In our team I always spoke first, and it’s always a first speaker’s dream to have a second speaker you can be confident will always be able to defend they stuff you’ve said, even if it’s a bit crap.

[63] It turns out Michael is terrified by horror films; Tom and I love them. There was a period when Michael and I would name our team at various competitions after characters from Tolkien’s legendarium (Glaurung; Ancalagon; Smaug, etc.), mostly because we both loved the LoTR films.

[64] My parents made me play the piano when I was young, despite having no experience whatsoever with classical music. I hated it at first, then hated it more, and then fell wildly in love with it. But it’s hard to get people to like quite a lot of classical stuff without doing a lot of explaining and pointing-out.

[65] The only almanac we were able to find was a hilarious thing called Manorama, which had a large chunk of how to gain employment in the Indian civil service and (I kid you not) featured a section on the UN which began: “The UN is the hope and conscience of mankind.” It became a running joke among the two of us.

[66] The debate went fine: as you’ll probably have realized from reading the motion, it was rather opp-weighted.

[67] Sometimes you’re asked to do something a bit more formal, like be Chief Adjudicator of a tournament. This is, generally, a pretty thankless task. As CA you basically do three things; you set motions (= topics), you assign judges to rooms (some rooms are more important for the break than others, since there will be rooms where all/no teams will break – these don’t matter so much; the best judges go to those rooms where some teams might break and some might not – so-called “bubble” rooms [you float or you pop!]), and you judge debates, much like any other judge. The problem is that the first of your functions – motion-setting – is hard. The main thing is just that a good motion is very difficult to generate. Sometimes a motion is balanced (i.e., there’s a similar number of good arguments on both sides) but shallow, so that the opening teams go up and state the only 2 good arguments for their respective sides and leave the closing teams with nothing new to say at all. Sometimes a motion is deep but unbalanced (there’s lots of good arguments for both sides but the proposition arguments, for instance, are extraordinarily subtle / require lots of hedging / require specialist knowledge / require one very specific strategic stance or policy to work at all / are just difficult to think of). Sometimes a motion is deep and balanced but just weird: as in the classic case where the motion is so complicated that both opening teams flail about and finally keel over and die, leaving the closing teams to sort out the mess with the wisdom that comes from having just witnessed the argumentative equivalent of a highway pileup. (One type of motion which has an unusual tendency to lead to these situations takes the form “This house, as a certain actor X, would threaten a certain actor Y to do action β”.  OG needs to figure out: (1) whether or not X can actually do β; (2) whether X wants to demand a certain set of actions α from Y; (3) whether or not Y will take seriously the threat to do β; (4) whether, if Y believes the threat, Y will act so as to prevent β  by doing, say, α ; (5) whether (4) is good; (6) whether, if Y believes the threat, Y will not act so as to prevent β; (7) whether (6) is good; (7) whether to argue that whether or not Y believes X’s threat / reacts as per (4) or (6) all outcomes will be good or to concede that (6) would be awful but that it’s (4) that will happen, etc. And the OO also knows that all these options are available to OG, but has no idea which argumentative path the OG will take until the debate starts, so OO often ends up spreading itself thin preparing for all strategic eventualities, which then leads to opening half debates featuring two very large, hastily built ships sailing right past each other in the night.) There’s another difficulty layered on top of this problem of finding good motions. As you’ll probably have realized, whether or not a motion is good depends on a whole host of subjective considerations (Is the argument sufficiently obvious? Is the argument persuasive? Is the correct stance to take too obscure? Are the facts common knowledge?), and most of the time you won’t be setting motions alone but with 2/3 other CAs. This massively complicates things because inevitably, there will be motions which you think are good (deep and balanced and otherwise un-weird and maybe even interesting) which your co-CA does not think are good, and vice-versa. And the process of hashing out your disagreement can be pretty agonizing, especially if it’s a big tournament and the other CA has been saving up this motion for a while. The co-CA will propose an amendment to the wording on the motion, or an information slide, and then you’ll squirm and insist on the original wording, etc. I’m going through all of this because I want to highlight the strangeness of the fact that one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done in my debating career was be DCA of EUDC 2014 in Zagreb. For some reason there were 8 of us in the adj core – that is to say, 8 of us setting motions and allocating judges. This number was a little mad, and we were all expecting things to fuck up. As it turned out, however, things went great. I went in not really knowing 6 of the 7 members of the AC, and at the end of it all I really liked all of them, and still miss them a little. To be fair, our motion discussions were apocalyptic. We started out having discussion as per usual, and then realized we needed to have discussions about our discussion (viz. What was the voting procedure to be used when we were finally deciding whether or not to set a motion? Was there a veto? Was a 5-3 majority needed? Was there to be some rough quota for certain types of motions? What sort of gradations of displeasure-with-motion were we allowed to express? [Meh But OK; Iffy But OK; Settable w/ Real Reservations; Not Settable Until Reworded; Not Settable Until Balance-tested; Not Settable w/o Recontextualisation; Not Settable; Totally Undebateable – what the fuck are you twatnozzles thinking?; Over My Dead Body; I’ll Resign From the AC , I Will]) and then we realized we needed to have discussions about our discussions about our motion discussions (Should we allow anyone to speak twice if everyone has not spoken once? Should we give the motion-proposer 2 minutes to sell their proposed motion?). Things went well because we were lucky to settle quite early on a set of motions (out of 200+ listed in our initial spreadsheet, I think) we thought were definitely good, and because each of us was so worried about things going horribly that we happily murdered our own motions if people didn’t like them and moved on. Plus we all played Spaceteam (Google it: it’s a fantastic game, especially if you’re in a group of size 4n) and more or less lived together for a longish time and ended up spontaneously singing The Internet is for Porn together while preparing breakfast (we even passed the dialogue-y bits from one person to another), having lengthy discussions about ethics and our home countries (the adj core included a Scot, a Serb, a Slovenian, two Israelis, one Dutchman, and a Turk + me), hunting for chicken nuggets late at night, developing a taste (or not) for a sour yoghurt drink that’s popular in Croatia (I loved it), and so on.

[68] My general feeling is that to be happy you need to have 5 hobbies, all of which you care deeply about, and you should be prepared to ditch one at any point. In any case it’s probably a very bad idea to care mostly only about debating. You need to have a limited number of fucks to give, and at some point you should run out of them. My  guess is that there’s a part of our brain that’s always chugging away, steadily churning out fucks, but this little bit of gray matter replenishes them at a finite rate that probably diminishes over time, so fucks should be rationed very carefully – and they certainly shouldn’t all be dedicated to one activity. But what would I know.

kind of getting away: 16

May I illustrate? I will illustrate.

The eye passes over you. This is what is terrifying. It does not look through you. It passes over. It passes over as if your outline is a blankness in the world, a silhouette cutout propped against the ether. The eye moves and at the exact moment it encounters you nothing changes in it, and as the gaze leaves you also nothing changes. It looks at you like it looks at everything else. Blankness, fullness, whatever.

In Such a Life

The air was made for them. The stooping peregrines were the only things in the world that could take that great shining gap and chase it into life. They could lean against it and tilt it. The moment, a billion years of change, of evolution and movement, all pressed into this: from a numinous line above the horizon it rolls effortlessly, and simply stops. Silence. There is nothing more to it. There is no magic or story. It raises itself slightly and the wings fold over that brown back and it slips forward, casually, without any hint of control. The origami of itself. It drops – but that is a lie, it does not drop, you never see it drop, for its untrespassed arc becomes the reference, and the gorge becomes a delirious blur spun into incomprehension by the fall of this bird, there, twisting even in the very rush of it, its mind making crankings and adjustments that cannot be believed, more fundamental and violent than a track flung out in a cloud chamber, dropping to something that has been singled out in the blue air below and will never know what has hit it, will never see its death and the sharp glory of its going. In such a life, in such a life lived in this way there is no regression, there is no slouching to the mean. Would that we could move too in vessels that in their movement would remake the world to fit them, and tremble the world until it shimmered and exploded with ecstasy.

Visitation: 2

Beneath the Wrecked Church there was a single Hasp. Its name was not known. The consensus among those in the SM faculty was that it was not of the usual order of Hasps; no. It was a Category I, expressed in Form II. And it was the last line of defence, for nothing could stand against a naked Haccieter, against the final idea of a basic force. Why The Defence was where it was no one knew. The Wrecked Church was around 12,000 years old, and as far back as records went it had always contained the Hasp. In that ancient past some deal must have been struck, a trade of some still-incomprehensible value. What was in it? Friendship? That surely was a heresy. It was impossible to imagine.

In any case the Hasp could not be moved. Of course it had been tried. But it could not be done. It was fixed relative to the gravitational centre of Stize. There was also the problem that anything that came within a metre of it (99.2 cm, said the notices at the entrance) would disintegrate as a result of absurd tidal forces. Outside that radius, however, those gravitational forces simply disappeared. They did not tail off; they simply did not extend there.

They could see the Wrecked Church now, the shattered spire of six metal plates, most of the top half entirely gone except for where two of the triangular sheets stretched skyward, nearly touching before cleanly cut off as if by some unnoticed catastrophe, some antiseptic violence that had come tumbling from above. Copper green with intimations of wisdom, flying buttresses broken and left clawing at vaulted notes the hearing of which was like a musical gesture in the middle of its enactment, like a sign paid out in instalments, the long spinal nave of stone and its interdenominate vertebrae locked in place, the high holy orifices of the windows agape, unprepared after all this time—

“It looks pretty good for a ruin,” Garf said, sweating a bit now. “I know it’s a stupid thing to say but it doesn’t look very – ruinlike – doesn’t it?”

They stopped to look.

Bizzo leaned back and shaded his eyes. He said nothing.

“It’s a bit like that Cubist stuff. Not really Cubist, I mean, but like that – who was it – Worthow, I think.”

“Ah,” Sal said.

Garfield drew a hand across her forehead. “I wonder why I never noticed before.” She took two steps back and stretched out her hands in the direction of the structure, moved them mechanically up and down as if measuring something. “You really get a sense of its size, hm? Standing here. I suppose that’s it.”

“In Canon II there is a section on the influence of prehistoric art,” Sal said. Canon was the vast university library.“I think Worthow is mentioned. There’s a book called The Lineage of Art from Before Time. Brewer and Fentiman. It’s good.”

“It isn’t really a church, is it?” Bizzo said. He coughed. “All the later ones that were copies of these two, those were churches. But we’ve not got any idea what this was for.”

“No,” Sal said. “Although there are many theories.”

“Why isn’t there anyone around?” Garf said.

Sal went up to the door and pushed it open.

Above the long darkness of the nave light seeped from the clerestory, touching nothing. At the end a great flood from broken spire.

“I spoke to QC,” Sal said. He grinned.

Garf took in a deep breath of cold air. “And it didn’t let anyone in today.”

“It re-arranged things,” Sal said. “So there would be an empty window.”

Bizzo stood just inside the door, his hands in his pockets. “There’s something, you know, oppressive about this. This place.”

Outside was the human noise, the human suffering.

The very thought.

Garf opened her mouth to say something but Sal said, mildly, “No. No. I understand.”

They walked over in silence to the crossing. The North Transept was ruined and from where they were they could look out at the sun pluming outside, the trees, the rolling air. In the middle of the crossing  there was a shallow bowl worn out of the basalt floor and at its bottom there was, incongruously, a lift, a large steel box.It looked like it could take ten or so people at once.

They got in and the doors hissed shut and they immediately began to descend.

Down hypodermically through rock. This is the song of an unassailable people.

They did not stop for a while.

“What the fuck?” Bizzo said when the doors opened.

They were at the edge of a vast rectangular chamber tiled entirely with what looked like white ceramic. The scene was a study in perspective; the dark lines of rock which showed between the tiles ran from where they stood to the opposite wall nearly a kilometre away, across the floor, walls, ceiling.

The light came from everywhere and nowhere and was painful.

Near the far end of the chamber there was a black square, so dark it looked nearly unreal, like something projected into vision: a perfect cube ten metres in height. Around it the neat lines formed by the tiles appeared to bend, to warp and wrap in on themselves again and again.  A space around where light congregated endlessly, fawned without end.

“So that’s the casket,” Garf said. “Trippy.”

“Is that lensing?” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“Hmm,” Garf said.

“This shouldn’t be that surprising. What do you know about The Defence?” Sal said.

“It’s Type I,” Bizzo said.

“If you go to the SM faculty page you can find a list of well-defined Hasps and their properties. One standard way of classifying Hasps involves a Reissner-Nordström transform. You express properties about the Hasp by treating its derived properties as if it was a charged spinning black hole. Once you figure out a Hasp’s effective implied charge you can give it a certain mass. It’s not an actual mass, but you can treat it for certain calculations as if it has one. Basically you can figure out what Hasp in Form III would look like. The Defence is in Form II. But its inferred Form III mass – and it’s probably the only Hasp whose Form III mass has been precisely calculated, for obvious reasons – is approximately 4 billion solar masses.”

“Urk,” Bizzo said.

“That’s a big number,” Garf said.

“If you rank the well-defined Hasps by mass it’s pretty high up.”

“That is frightening,” Bizzo said.

Sal said nothing. He looked at the dark cube and said nothing.

The stuttered world made fiduciary to this.

“Is that number a limit?” Garf said. “What does it actually tell us about what this can do?”

“It’s not a limit,” Sal said. “That’s not what a Hasp contains. It’s an expression of actual gravitational potential, not potential gravitational potential.”

“I don’t –” Garf began.

“Garf,” Sal said, voice clear, cordial, knowing, “Don’t worry about it.”

Bizzo was staring. “We can’t go near that,” Bizzo said. “If the gravity is strong enough to bend light like that there’s no way we can go near that.”

“If it was a gravitational field, we’d be dead by now.”

“Terrorist!” Garf said, but put no heart into it.

“What is it? It not a gravitational field why’s the light fucked up like that?”

“I can’t get QC,” Garf said. She turned to Sal. “I just tried to make a query and got nothing.”

“There’s also no Composite Dust in the air,” Sal said.

“What is it?” Bizzo said.

“It’s a field,” Sal said. “It’s complicated.” He grinned like he had made a joke. “It only affects massless particles – photons – the way gravity does.”


“It’s safe,” Sal said. “Let’s go.”

Garf looked hesitant. “Is The Defence doing that?”

“Of course.”

“And what’s that?” Garf pointed to the long gash in the floor where the tiles had been crushed in an arcing path that ended with the casket.

“Continental drift. The casket moves a tiny bit each year as Wassea drifts underearth it. Let’s go.”

As they walked the lines around the casket slipped and dilated like liquid. They came to the door in the side of the casket.

“We’re standing right here but I can see you just fine,” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“I shouldn’t be able to,” Bizzo said. “Not if this was bending the light.”

“It’s strange that the door’s just like that,” Garf said. “I’d expected something more impressive.”

“Security?” Sal said.


“It would make no sense trying to keep the Hasp in. And it can’t be damaged or moved, so there’s no sense keeping anything out.”

The door was visible only as a faint outline in the smooth black surface. A handle was set into it; Sal took it and pulled and the door hinged open smoothly.

Inside the light was dimmer.

It was on a small plinth and it was black.

“There’s a smell” Bizzo said. “It’s like the smell you get when you get into the car in the morning and the air-conditioners come on. But it’s sweeter than that.”

Garf went up to it. There was a circle inscribed into the floor: come no closer. She stopped a metre away.

How to stare this cruelty away?

A monument like the word if and just as improbable.

“It’s sort of muscly,” she said, “Very lean, like you can see through the skin to the muscle underneath. Is it crouching?”

“It’s like you took a military jet and made it into an animal,” Bizzo said. “You know what I mean?”

“It’s crouching,” Sal said. “It has its head between its knees. It’s digitigrade – you can see how the legs fold beneath it. It looks like it has an extra joint there. If it stood up in this form it’d be well over two metres tall.”

Anatomy. How to embroider a wound.

Teeth do not rot in the grave.

Garf shook her head. “It’s black.”


“I can’t make out the – the contours of the limbs. Those are the arms wrapped around its – knees –  that is the neck, the neck, going down between them. It doesn’t look alive.”

“It’s not alive,” Sal said.

“Why would anyone want to come so close to something like this?” Bizzo said.

“If you look inside the circle,” Sal said, “You can see – although it’s hard to make out since the floor is so dark – you can see human remains.”

Garf brought one hand to her face, rubbing, checking.

“Those smudges?” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“Oh,” Garf said.

“This is such a strange place,” Bizzo said.

“I can’t get a feel of it,” Garf said. “It’s not – you know – threatening, now that we’re here. But it doesn’t have a present the way a sculpture has presence. It’s a gap. Do you know what I mean? I’m not sure if I’m putting this across. I feel sad for it. I know this makes no fucking sense at all but it looks sort of sad. Not to move after all this time. It’s so fantastic it’s beyond fascination. I can’t even describe it properly. Seriously. If I go back out and someone asks me, ‘What was it like,’ I’m pretty sure I’ll say ‘I don’t know,’ and it’ll be really honest. And if they person says ‘What did it look like?’ I’ll say, ‘It was dark and crouching and made the light funny and smelt strange,’ and that sounds ridiculous.”

Garf looked at Sal. Sal looked at the Hasp and did not say anything for some time. Then he said, “Look at this. After all this time this is what we rely on.” His hands had been pressed together but he spread them apart now, raised them. “Look at this.”

A child before the blackness, hands raised, wrists loose, lost already in ritual.

“Uhm,” Bizzo said. There was a look on Sal’s face that he had no seen before, the look of something caged and now finding its larger intention, the latch in its trammel. It was not a rapturous look. It was slightly sorrowful.

“Rely on?” Garf said. “We’ve never used it in any way.”

Sal turned to Garf.  Then he turned to Bizzo.

“I wouldn’t know,” Bizzo said.

“This is the basic threat.” Sal pointed at the Hasp. “This is under everything. Isn’t it absurd? Isn’t it obscene? It is a threat so powerful it cannot be used. It is the basic violence under our structure. Do you know how other nations see us? To them we are already a Kingdom of totems. Providence picked bare. They don’t even contemplate conflict with us. And then they see this, our Defence. And what do you think they think? And we use that. I use that. Its hint is in everything I do: you cannot overcome us. Even if I did not want to I would be forced to.” He stopped and looked thoughtful and nodded, or maybe that movement was only imagined. “Look at this thing. I am the same as it. Don’t you think?”

Bizzo and Garf stood and looked at him and did not say anything. There was a light in his eyes and a deadly calm.

“Don’t you think?” Sal said. He held out his wrists. He smiled and there was nothing in it that was not genuine and warm. “Come on. Do not believe that I am something else. Under my skin there is a violence. There is a violence. Don’t look at me that way, Garf. It’s the most basic eloquence and it’s all here, all inside me. Hm?”

A wild and profligate gesture.

Him receding now, just like this, taken by therapeutic quantities of darkness.

“That’s not – a problem,” Bizzo offered. “It’s not easy, being the Leviathan, but it’s not a bad thing, I guess.”

Sal looked up and titled his head and looked at them out of the corners of his eyes, as if puzzled, thinking. “Oh, Bizzo, I’m not complaining.” It was a terrifying look, alien, suddenly, maybe cold, haughty. “But this encroaches on me,” he said. “Come now. You must know this. This is easy to see.”

Garf said, “But the Defence has never done anything. It’s not doing anything now.”

“Garf,” Sal said, “I am not an alternative. Do you understand? What’s – I don’t know, choose what you want – what’s truth to violence? What’s violence to greater violence? What’s me to a God?”

“You are saying you can’t control this,” Bizzo said. Sal looked at him blankly.

“It’s The Defence, Sal,” Garf said. “It’s not doing anything bad. It’s just a defence.”

“Do you think that this must be a defence? Do you really think that?”

Bizzo said, “What else could it be?”




“Something to kill everyone?”

“Well, think about it. This whole world is already impossible to attack. There are too many forces conspiring against it. QC. Gates. Gatekeepers. Compydust. College AIs, if necessary. Armouries. But if we were all to die it would be through this.”

Garf said, “So this is about controlling it.”

“I’m not complaining about anything,” Sal said, “I’m just saying this is the way things are. I’m pretty okay with it.”

“I’m pretty sure you could stop that from happening” Bizzo said. “I’m sure there are ways to do it.”

“Why would I prevent it?”


“Why would it not be me making that order?”

“What is this about?” Garf said. She had her hands in her pockets, her body tight against itself.

In a different world trees stood shocked in the sun, canopies small spaces and worlds apart.

“Kasakadei has written little thing. A monograph. Have you heard about it?”

“The ethics majors in Hakon mentioned –” Bizzo said.

Evitable and Inevitable Duties of Non-Existence. It’s what you would expect from Kasakadei. A tight airless thing. The arguments in it are not new – they are clarifications of some very ancient claims. Dusted off, restated to avoid some obvious attacks.”

“What is this?” Garf said.

“If it is not a moral evil to fail to create a utility-positive life,” Sal said, “then it follows.”

“What follows?”

“That it might be good that we all die. Isn’t strange that such a small concession, something look inconsequential, almost, could lead to this? Small things have big consequences.”

“When you say we you mean, all, as in all of us?”

“You see now why a Hasp is useful for this purpose.”

“What is this argument? I don’t see how anything follows.”

“It’s about an asymmetry. We all agree that it is wrong to create a life if it would be one of suffering. To cause the existence of such a life would be a moral evil. We therefore have a duty not to create such a life. But it is not clear that we must think that the flipside is true – that we have a duty to create a happy life, given the chance. But if there is no positive duty to create a life where that life would be a happy one – if that is not a moral good, then we are left with a conclusion that the happiness that a non-existent life passes over is not a morally relevant loss, while the pain and suffering that is passed over is a morally relevant gain. Do you see? This asymmetry means that we have a duty to create not life at all. An inevitable duty of non-existence obtains. No matter how gloriously happy the life we create is, as long as that life contains some sort of suffering, no matter how slight, that pain could have been avoided by not creating that life in the first place. Yes, no happiness would have been experienced, but if you think that failing to bring a utility-positive life into existence is not a moral wrong, then all this follows. The Inevitable Duty of Non-Existence.”

Bizzo was quiet. Garf was thinking.

Horror could be thus held purely by its skin.

Garf said, “This is an argument about why it is wrong to cause life to come into existence. It does not say that once life is created we should end it.”

Sal laughed. “Yes! Yes. But one does rather imply the other. And if the killing is quick there is little harm done.”

Bizzo said, “You don’t believe any of this.” He ran his tongue over his front teeth like an animal. “You don’t believe any of this.”

“Bizzo, darling, why do you ask me? Think about it. Any answer I give to these sorts of questions will not be motivated by my desire to tell you the truth but by the necessities of my position.”

“We’re clearly not dead,” Bizzo said. “So you don’t believe that.”

“No,” Sal said. “There you go, I guess.” He laughed.

“Shall we head?” Garf said. “We’re having lunch at Porales.”

“No,” Sal said.

“Come on, let’s go,” Garf said. She started moving toward the doorway.

Sal looked at her. “No,” he said smoothly, without any gap between Garf’s exclamation and his denial.

Garf stood as if paralyzed.

“You should know about the other argument,” Sal said. “Don’t you think? Evitable duties of non-existence. You should find out.”

“Why are we discussing philosophy?” Garf said.

“We’re not discussing philosophy at all,” Sal said, sounding surprised. “We’re discussing why I should not be minded to kill everyone.”

“Okay,” Garf said. She grasped her face and ran her hand down it, pressing into her cheeks. “Must we do it here?”

“The arguments are made rather sharper here, aren’t they?”

“Go on, then. Explain.”

“It’s not complicated. It’s an old argument, an ancient argument, really, that Zapffe Ipcress articulated fully in Grief and Sublimation. It’s an argument for an evitable duty because this duty is sensitive to the value of existent life itself; it matters how that life is to be lived. The claim is that happiness is not real. That is to say, it does not exist independently. Suffering is what exists independently, as the groundnorm. There is nothing intrinsic about the satisfaction of fulfilling desire because desire multiplies – and desire is only a kind of pain evolution has forced us to clutch at, reflexively, a lie of value that we must hum to ourselves over and over again. Ipcress’ words. Do you know what Ipcress writes in the second annex to Four Meditations? I can recite it for you. It slips into the mind quite easily:

“‘Conscious life, although nothing on the scale of cosmic time, is laden with suffering. This suffering is directed towards no other end but its own perpetuation. This is to be expected. All suffering directed elsewhere, which is to say all honest suffering, has long since ended. It is lost to us. What exists is that suffering which, by making a terror of everything, threads the barren and yawning needle of mere survival. We feel, deeply but pointlessly, that life nonetheless has some meaning, or at least some pattern-of-value. We feel that because we hold in ourselves an argument that, even if unarticulated, is as powerful as it is false. What is this secret argument? (1) To say an interest is morally relevant is to say that it matters morally; (2) If it matters morally, it must matter to the entity whose interest it is; (3) For an entity’s interest to matter to it, there must be something that it is like – that it feels like – to be that entity; (4) That feeling-of-being this entity possesses must be indicative of the relation of its interest to its being; (5) The relevant part of this feeling-of-being is desire; and hence (6) Desire must, if not identify precisely, at least indicate those interests that are morally relevant, and thus stake out within each life a space for meaning to develop. At each stage this argument proposes an erasure of suffering and its replacement with meaning, or something like it. Call it truth. Call it light. Call it nobility. Call it honesty. Call it freedom. Call it dignity. But it never shows its true face. That true face is that it is correct in one place only, and it locates a truth. Life is morally relevant – that is to say, it matters, but only because it is an evil. It needs to end.’”

Bizzo coughed. Garf was staring at Sal.

“Well,” Garf said.

“Do you agree?” Sal asked.

Do I agree?

“No. No, I fucking love my life, Sal. I would never give it up.”

Sal laughed. He looked at Garf and then at Bizzo. He. shrugged apologetically. “I think people should know about that argument. It is eight centuries old. It shouldn’t have taken Kasakedei to resurrect it, to put it in so-called analytic terms. It is worth hearing.”

“Sometimes I am terrified of you,” Garf said. “I mean that. Sometimes I am.”

“Sorry,” Sal said. He turned his palms up and that hint of good-willed gangliness came back.

“You didn’t bring us here to do – that, did you?”

Sal made a face of pretend-woundedness. Then he laughed and shook his head. “No, no. I came because I thought it would be interesting to see The Defence.”

“You don’t believe in that argument.”

“What can I say?”

“No, you don’t.”

“Well, I don’t believe in it. Crane has some sharp things to say about it.” He looked at them, gauging if this was enough. “I told you it’s not useful, asking me these things. Let’s go.”

“Fuck me,” Garf said. “I am suddenly famished.”

Sal looked at The Defence. He spoke to it. “You’ll be here, won’t you?” Lightly again. “This luminous grave. It must be good. Oh well.” He turned to Bizzo and Garf. “Let’s go.”

kind of getting away: 15

It’s getting colder now. Around me trees dying into new life. Snow has appeared over the last week. I come across footprints over and over again. There are strangely moving, an extension of the thing that made them, but left unsupported, defenceless. They broaden with time and thin out.

The past day I have done nothing but rest. The sun is not yet gone. But it is close. As far as I remember the sun has been invisible the last few days, its whole being smeared out into greyness, greyness and rain for me here infinities below. My route is greased by wind.  It is a strange feeling. The basic lockstep of even that great star somehow thinning out into a scrawl of light spread out over acres of time. I cannot remember right now exactly when the sun was not obscured by cloud or rain. I don’t even feel it getting that cold anymore.

I am sitting in the mouth of my tent. The wind’s blue hands stuttering welcome. In the dark near and far creatures stop and continue. Their notice of me ends here.

There are Brown Hearn flying over the ridge now. Fluting the air with the dim vapour of their flight, as if the air needed elaboration. They don’t have a colour in this light but that does not make them out of place. Winter is almost here. Everything bleeding promissory colour. Everything remade. I don’t know much about Hearn but now it seems enough now for me to just watch. I’m at Ridge H-64. This is a place made without thought for cartographers. The horizon is always stiff and wrinkled with rain. Here coordinates vanish. There is something shocking, therefore, about seeing something inhabit the sky like this, so violently. They don’t alter space but reveal it. There is no leftover flying. Nothing collects in their wake. I will go to sleep and one of them will glides a lateral fathom, tailless afterthought in blue air dreams, back to its home, having given no thought to its actions.

Yesterday was my rest day. I was thinking of the EWFT and so went to the Teal, the only big river I will be encountering on this excursion.  Went down through the trees and it was there. Shocking and disdainful breadth. I splashed around in the shallows for a while, watched the Broach move in the water. Three days ago the temperature abruptly rose; the small streams everywhere seemed suddenly unstopped and the Teal filled like a heart. In any case I went down into the water. The Broach stayed away but then they came near my feet, asking. Quick and like silt. I had to learn how to see the slim bodies, things wedged dimensionless against the water.  Arrows saying west of here, west of here. Weeds held in wet slit mouths. Far enough into the sea rivers lose their names.  The ocean waiting to sting its thirst alive and hence accept everything offered riverwise. I moved once and the Broach flashed away. Things pre-empting the concept of weather.

How do they resolve the water, the flash of teeth?

I put my head in the water; it was cold. The Broach disappeared again, pulled the wet sky around their bodies and were gone. But I imagined. The sound of the locked double heart furrowed through kilometres of water.

When I came out the water the thing that I think had been following me was on the bank, looming over me. It happened in the past; it happens now. Fear detonates inside me. It is looking straight at me. It seems massive, something not part of this space, like something sketched in. A spadelike head larger than my chest. On the four feet talons. Cuspid aviiform, recites my head in response to that implied violence, a chant like a ward. I call for Helper but in my head there is silence. The thing comes closer, a single movement without assertion or timidity. Eyes like a haze of Magellanic water. They are large and I see myself in them. I do not look scared. I seem to it to be a reimagining of its vision, a dream cycled over and over again through the same process, a lock gate stuck half open, a changed thing not aware of the changing. It knows my name and providence. Then it does something that I cannot imagine; it cocks its head and pushes its head forward slightly, as if the snout is tasting the air. I think how different I am, body an animal apart. Its body is black, nearly unreflective. I think how dark my body is this moment, how unlike other living things, how light only comes in through the sudden wound.

It opens a vast black canopy above itself and the air beats down on me. Behind me water fragments over stone. Then leaps and it is in the air. I am bewildered that something this large is capable of vertical takeoff, of rising against its own weight, until I tell myself this is not my world. I might never have loved violent under this sky and woken up crawled on by stars. Everything must be alien and beloved. I turn to look at that dark spot as its goes high, higher, enters a strange world of facticity.

That was all yesterday. Helper does not know. My tent shivers a little now, a small thoughtful movement. The sun manages to throw a last light on the mountain for the first time in a long time so that the glaciers burn. This world is strange once again. If I stood and told the day, open, meaning it, what would happen? Is there a use in coercing an answer from the long mute flats of existence, of this sure-footed being-here-ness? Well, no. Let days come. Open.

Kind of getting away: 14

It’s been good the last few days. I’m tired but things are going well. Lots of tagging, sampling. Yesterday we came across the Bochstiannanas, and it was so windy that most of the water was going up, white spray plumed and very cold. The B. is not quite iced over yet but in a few weeks it will be.

I’m coming to the edge of the Bowl now and the trees here are thinning out. Warm colours in the long blue light. It is a good place to be. This is the outside: neither structured by geometry nor struck by any kind of grief, nor made poor by want of expression, nor exuberant for its own sake. None of that. But the colours. On and on. Nothing for with an apology can be made, things textured in themselves over and over again. There are little lakes everywhere around that are bigger than they appear. The water continues through the surrounding grass and when it is very still throws back the sky at me. But most of the time it just wets my feet and makes a gentle sound when I go through it. That sound. Something more felt than heard, a communication, something that deepens the world, by which I mean all of it, all of it just from this burble, this lilt that comes up from my feet when I move. Sometimes I just stop, not because I have planned a rest or anything like that. Petrified by being. But I stand there and listen to something for a while. I have discovered the Trove is a part of this, can be invited in: Tableaux Suite 33, no.2, in C, or TS 32 no.10 in B minor. They’ve given the composers names now: this one is called Taiga[1].Nothing to hold, but something that feels like flight, like being in the air, oceans of holy feeling opening up.

One slightly – I suppose – strange thing happened, and that was two days ago when I sort of stumbled into a Harpiege with my Cover down. It was feeding but the moment I moved it heard me and turned to stare. Its eyes[2] were all pupil and it looked straight at me, or maybe it looked down at me. It couldn’t have been particularly large but I seem to remember it looking down. It’s a look only animals can master, something that is utterly unaware but also all-encompassing, all understanding and no thought. Everyone knows it: a pulse of luminous blackness. It made that circular movement of the head that is part of its FoFR. And then as I was taking a step back it made a tiny retching noise and opened its mouth and spat venom all over me, a spatter that went down my face and front. It must have been terrified; I was nearly completely covered in black. I felt and resisted a stupid urge to call Helper. The venom is harmless. I am not, after all, of this world.

Checked the log today. Some interesting developments. The tertiary fold  of the polypeptide chain in the Tk-haemoglobin of Fleckeri spp. resembles that of the Eastern White Fallwhale Tk-(D)myoglobin complex. Genetic conservation? Probably. Plus strange diversity found in the basic structure of tryposin inhibitors[3].

Oh well. I’m out of this area now.

I am outside for many reasons. The biggest thing, however, is Dyhaus. While living there I decided to hike the Eastern Wind Flank Trail. Don’t know even today why I decided to do it or why I chose the EWFT. The EWFT is long, very long, 2600km. Maybe that’s why I did it. It goes all the way from the Dyhaus/Enalt border to South Throuper. It might have just been me wanting to take some serious time out, trying to see what of the natural world there was on Ditarod. No. No. The main thing eventually was that I kept being told how beautiful EWFT was. Giant Park was on the trail, and Fincher Pass, and Cascade Park, and Monument Range. 63 mountain passes. A stretch where you have to walk 281km before you see a road.

The EWFT monument at the beginning of the trail was a plain thing; a vertical stone column stating the date of the trail’s completion and its length. Hikers’ hands had worn the edges on the bottom of the column smooth. I put my name in the trail register and I read what thousands before me had written. Impossible to be cynical at that moment. There were many people wishing everyone else luck. And then the usual: The only impossible journey is one you never begin; Kate & Rog –stupid way to do a honeymoon but HERE WE ARE!; A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; CONQUER NATURE – CONQUER YOURSELF. It went on. It was in, a strange way, moving. I think I was afraid and a bit puzzled at myself. The trail register helped. It said: you are one among many.

People do the EWFT because they love hiking or because they want to leave something behind. There are traditions: Hikers get a trail name. It is a token of membership. You are on the trail for a long time; at least a month, for most people attempting a thru-hike. It is a way of dilating what happens here. I write here but of course what I mean is there. It is a way of sieving out the normal life from the life on the trail. There is a code for what you ask people about, what you ought to automatically help out with: EBliSus. Equipment, Blisters, Sustenance. You don’t ask people which trail they are planning to take; you let them tell you. You don’t ask them why they are doing what they are doing. People will talk; sure. Let them choose to do so. But you help each other out with food. You respond if someone needs equipment repaired. And you lend each other plasters. Actually, you’d really better fucking pass those plasters around. Blister really is a totem for the physical trials of the hike. Blister includes sprain, fracture, and bad graze.

It was a primitive part of a primitive world. It was good. The trick to living this sort of life was, I found out, to put in slightly more effort into almost everything than I would think reasonable. I had done hikes before but nothing this big. But the rhythm came eventually. I’d hike for several days and then head to a town to pick up the food boxes I’d mailed ahead. I stocked up in convenience stores where I could.  The early bit of the trail was winding, taking us over the crests of the Snakes. Rocks and big cool forests.

I became Poley to trekkers. I had a habit of using my trekking poles to stabilise my tent. I had a small superlight was not too stable and I thought it was a good idea. About a week in I met Boiler. I was in my tent and she came over to apologise about the noise.

“What noise?” I asked.

“Fantastic,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”

We liked each other almost immediately. She was taking her gap year; we talked about astronomy and where to find food places along the trail. She passed me antifungals from her bounce box when she got it. We went over Gamble Pass together and headed on the West Branch after that to hit the good old Runoff.

“We should fish or something,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

We both stank, as everyone else did. I mostly wanted to splash about.

“Do you know how to fish?” I asked. It was a stupid question because the important question was whether or not we had any fishing equipment, and I knew the answer to that was no.

“No,” Boiler said.

We took off our pants went down into the Runoff’s shallows, bracketed in that space by the ridges all around. We waited until we saw the gunmetal flash come past and then we plunged our hands in and tried to grab them. They were fast. I could feel them moving around my feet. At the end of the evening we had caught seven. The barbecue was delicious.

I eventually figured out why Boiler was Boiler. She didn’t use the standard-issue water safety pills. She boiled her water. I’m not sure why: she had WSPs in her bag. But we all need rituals. Here is water; here is what I shall do. The alcohol stove, the little holding container. A flame that hisses out suddenly in the evening. Light snagged against the trees, casting about only for people. Sparks ghosting out, brief companions to minor stars.

Friendship on the EWFT was not simple but it was straightforward. In the day, when we were crossing the desert plain of the Carazon in the flush of the spring flowering, we’d often get separated or walk with other groups we found; we’d get three, four, kilometres apart, sometimes, but at night we usually found by some unarranged magnetism where the other was camping. Or we’d see each other the next night. Once, I don’t remember exactly when, we stopped at a road crossing and Boiler waited for me whiIe and I went off and fell asleep in a hollow under a big Brescia Fir for a couple of hours. When I came running back I expected her to be gone but she was there, looking like perhaps she was starting to get worried.

“I thought you’d be gone,” I said, not knowing what to feel. We often ducked out for brief rests from the sun but I had been gone very long.

She hefted her pack, looking bemused. “It’s okay,” she said. “The place is nice. I talked to a couple of speeders.”

“I fell asleep. There was a spot that looked just irresistible.” I grinned and she grinned too.

We took the Six Point Route across Carazon. We went up and down the stony dunes, sometimes following the crests. As we did we listened to the apocalyptic alt-rock Boiler liked and eventually she convinced me to sing to it: Because eh-eh-eh you know the world eh-eh-eh cannot catch you aah, aah, o-AAH— We played impromptu football with plastic bottles on the flats with other trekkers taking a day off. In any case I got tired after the Carazon, and after we descended Ripas Gorge together I said I wanted to take a rest day or two at a trail angel lodge. I had my stinking clothes off and had my feet in a creek.

“If you want to go on,” I said, “You should go on.”

And she left.

It is like that on the EWFT: friendships become memories fast. Nothing to be spoilt by time and overexposure. It was the early sections of the trail and people at this stage wanted to get as much distance out of daylight as possible. Maybe she had a tight schedule. I don’t ask. But there was nothing bad about what happened.

It was at the midpoint of the EWFT, after Lake Niyare and approaching the Dippers, when we had come to the basalt fields of Mishila, that I met Bread. He explained the name. He’d gotten a bad nosebleed early on.

“I had nothing to stop it,” he said. “Except bread.”

“I see,” I said.

“I never knew how good bread smelt,” he said. “Not the freshly-baked sort of smell, but like the actual doughy smell you get when it’s right up there in your nostrils.”

Bread wasn’t quite like everyone else. He was small and skinny and pretty young. He looked too fresh to the entire thing. His frazzled little beard grew out rather than down. His MexTexes looked a little new. My Merrells were tattered and filthy and looked considerably more comfortable.

I never asked him why he was doing the EWFT. Beside his pack’s shoulder strap there was a scar where there had been a chemo[4] port. He kept fingering a spot under his hipbelt. Sometimes he did it absentmindedly.

He didn’t want to go fast. That was good for me; I had time. We chatted for long times about lots of crap. He was a bit of a daydreamer. He talked a lot about wanting to make the Big Three. I indulged him. After a while I stopped indulging him and the conversations took on a life of their own; he actually wanted to do it.

When we were leaving Mishila the trail started to rise. We had done 20km of the climb when he stopped on the lava flats and waved his arms and yelled from up ahead, “Look at this!”

I looked around.

“Isn’t it fucking amazing?” he said.

Around us the taut rocks flexed, frozen and perfect. I was very tired but I looked around.

“It’s like a river!” he said. “Must have been amazing when this was all lava. Like standing on the surface of the sun.” He sat down, let himself collapse, with his legs in front of him, looked out at the sun. He squinted or winced. He sighed. We ate granola with a stick of butter in it. Trekkers eat lots of butter. We took off our shoes. We felt some blisters that looked threatening. He started crying. I didn’t say anything. “I fucking love granola,” he said. He poured some into his mouth and wiped his lips.  He swigged water hard from his bottle. I hugged him briefly. “I’ll be okay,” he said. He looked very determined.

Bread kept taking selfies. At first I was a bit embarrassed by this. It turned out I was more embarrassed at being embarrassed, however, and we really got into it. Standing nearly at the peak of Tall Dipper, crags falling away around us into unbreathed blueness; clinging to the guide ropes in the middle of Hilper Fall, eyes barely open in the spray and the thundering noise; pointing at lewd signs outside towns; us dwarfed against the Tempuis of Catherdral Park.

When Bread and I stopped in a town for a food box he would try to find some place to develop the photos and mail them to someone. He wrote letters too. He had his writing stuff in a Ziploc and in the evenings if he was not shattered he wrote a little. He always kept his Gillie hat with all its rings of sweat on when he wrote. Hikers have rituals.

“Does it sound stupid,” he asked, “to say I feel like I can do everything? Does it sound, like, arrogant or something?” We were in a Youth Lodge and between the clothes and the shoes and the sweaty burnt bodies the place reeked. We stopped smelling it after a while and he had started writing.

“Nope,” I said. “Sounds perfectly good.”

“The problem about hiking,” he said, “is that after a while it’s very hard to make it sound different. I mean all the places you’ve been.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think it’s something you must do.”

“The thing is its shit. It’s so wearying. But that makes it great. Doesn’t it?” People were bedding down so he said this in an intense whisper.

I laughed. It was true.
We had a strange cold spell right after that. Snow, even. There were danger signs going up but Bread decided to go on and I decided it was probably okay. Sometimes after a day of walking our hands got too cold for us to do anything properly in the evenings. We clipped our tent canopies using our teeth. It was pathetic and it was noble, and it was shared. We had hysterical and near-silent laughing fits in the tents.

Two months in or so I got up one morning to find that he could not move. His eyes were alert and glassy.

“Box in left compartment,” he said, very softly. He tried to turn and an involuntary sound came out of his mouth. “Fuck,” he cursed. “Fuck, fuck.” I rummaged around in his pack. The box was there, near the top. I opened it. Small compassionate rows of pills, muted colours. Inert. Incredible that so much could ride on this. An autoinjector.

“Needle,” he said. “Right hip.”

He insisted on moving on the moment he could walk.  He wrote a little more, over the next week, I think, or maybe I started giving it more significance. We bought jellybeans and gorged on them. I tried to notice when he took his pills. I saw him take them in the mornings, but only occasionally. We made one or two detours to scenics, which before we hadn’t really done. We looked irrepressibly happy in the photos we took. Negotiating terms. When the trail widened for two to walk abreast we did so.

After White Meadows he started to slow down. He had an easy way with the trail but now he struggled more than he usually did. He would stop and bend over and breathe for a while. He took his hat off and used it to wipe sweat off his face. On Temple Rise for every seven or eight steps he took he slipped a little and would curse.

That night he said, “It’s really frustrating sometimes, hm?”

We had just treated ourselves to baked beans.

“I get so frustrated sometimes,” he said. “If I don’t finish this it’s all going to be my fault.”

“We’re going pretty well,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Half the people who start out finish,” I said. “We’re only two weeks away.” After all those weeks, all the mountains and the ridges, the long desert plains, I felt a thrill.

He laughed. “We’re fucking boss,” he said. We were near Brotherswater. If we were very quiet we could hear the water. We had talked about how we were going to fish in Brotherswater. I told him about what Boiler and I had done in Runoff. He had said that we could probably only do that in running water. I told him that mountain lakes were worth visiting anyway. He said of course we’d have to go.

“We’re fucking boss,” I said.

“Wait for the Big Three,” he said.

“I’ll read the news,” I said.

Before he finally went to sleep he said, “I’m feeling so lazy now. Late morning?”

I said that I might walk to my next pickup and come back.

“I won’t wake you,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said, and then later, in his tent, I heard him say, “This has been unbelievable.” He didn’t say it so loud that I thought he was talking to me and so I said nothing.

The next morning his trail runners were in the camp and he was gone. I remember seeing them, grey things with laces undone, outside his tent. I don’t know what happened. You cannot walk far without shoes. You cannot walk at all, in fact. But I never found him. In the morning he must have gotten up, looked up at the dawn, and decided that this would be the end of it.

The Marshal came to ask me questions and I answered all of them. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I kept thinking about that last night. In the end I decided that he had not done anything wrong at all. I never asked about a corpse or Bread’s name. It had been perfect, what he did. He knew when beauty and struggle became too much to bear and how to put it away, put it out. Too much to bear.

I imagine myself standing there, the tent not far away, while the trees rise and arch around me, and I am looking at myself from above, rising and rising until the trees are pointillist specks tethered to a great tide of rock, and I am a point, turning about and seeing only trees, finding nothing, and I see now where Bread is, how big the spaces he occupies, how pelagic the urges he carried, how unfoundable. I’ve always wanted to go outside since then.

[1] There is nothing cold or particularly Arctic about the stuff that has been attributed to Taiga. I’ve no idea why the people on Stize opted for this. But TS33/2+32/10 fits perfectly with that name.

[2] Its two primary eyes. The secondaries on the top of the head were invisible.

[3] Bichirality responsible again? Possibly.

[4] I think we got them to stop it and use GpTH eventually, but that was after I left. It’s what they do to you if you get cancer: they pump you full of cytotoxins that destroy basically everything in your body, but destroy the cancer a bit more effectively than everything else because of how fast it divides.


“If you want to do it, you absolutely should,” The Magician said.

“What Alfen is saying,” Garf said, “Is that you would be an absolute moron to try.”

Alfen Vrodie-Stangster, known everywhere to people who followed the game as The Magician, winced and tried to smile at the same time and Sal felt a sudden stab of pity for her. “I don’t think the Leviathan is a – uhm – well, a moron, necessarily, in anything, Garfield,” she said.

They had been talking for a while and it was clear to Sal that Alfen was one of those people so monomaniacally nice that they became sort of boring. In Alfen’s case she was so flatly unaware of her banality that it was touching, in a way, an impairment that elicited sympathy.

Alfen was also the 6th-best player of the game on Stize, that is to say, stupendously, horrifically, strong. She was possibly, behind the World Champion, the most popular onplanet player. Alfen’s over-the-board inclinations were diametrically related to her personality; her over-the-board style was hyperaggressive, antipositional, wildly speculative, sacrificial. In her first ever First League tournament a 15-year old Alfen had played two games where she sacrificed, almost at whim, huge amounts of material for vague compensation that had evolved gradually into a welter of murderously subtle mating threats; the games were enshrined in brilliancy collections everywhere. The second, an Old Sicilian with a queen sacrifice on f6 on move 12, was held as a kind of rallying totem for attacking club players. “A magician,” the commentators had said then, had breathed as beautifully coordinated, classical positions withered under wild attacks, “This is the work of a magician.” The name had stuck. Alfen never stayed at the board when she was playing; she made her move and immediately walked off, to look at other games. Whenever she did choose to remain at the board she bowed her head as if praying, eyes closed, often with one hand covering them, unmoving, a pose that made her look as if she was weeping and was trying to hide it, but was rigid with concentration. Everything about it spoke to a magic, yes, this was The Magician.

Alfen’s style was fundamentally unsound; engines found refutations, obscure and cold-blooded but refutations nonetheless, to most of her ideas. “But sound chess is not so fun,” Alfen had said, earnestly, when she had been asked. “You know, I don’t understand the positions I get OTB. But my opponents don’t understand them either. So at the very least both of us have something to talk about after the game.” “I see,” the interviewer had said, looking skeptical. “That’s all there is,” Alfen said, “Really.” “And why do you walk away?” “The board gets in the way of calculation. If it’s a messy line then looking at the board makes you hallucinate, makes you see ghosts, forget that things have moved.”

“He is being a moron, Alfen,” Garf said.

“It does take time,” Alfen said, agreeably. She moved her head from side to side slightly as if considering seriously a suggestion she had just made to herself, confirming something. “I was at it for 8 years before I made it into the First League.”

“But it wasn’t so bad once you were there,” Sal said.

Alfen paused. “No. But that was not, uhm, so typical, really.” In fact Alfen was one of the very few Grandmasters that had not begun their FL careers with a string of agonising losses. Her particular style had come as something of a shock to most people. Most aggressive players who entered the FL did miserably. Aggressive players relied on two things for wins: getting good positions from which attacks could be launched, and on opponents cracking under consistent pressure. There was nothing shameful about the latter, nothing dishonest about the technique; it was just the way humans were. Four hours of perfect defense could be ruinously spoilt by a single slip. Everywhere outside the very highest levels of chess an asymmetry of economy existed; attackers had an advantage. Attacking moves were easy to find; defensive responses were often subtle and difficult to spot. For the attacker calculation was easy because the moves came in a neat sequence, like the path of an arrow: I will push my h-pawn, I will place my knight on f4, I will place my queen on g3. Mate will then happen. But for the defender, seeing even three moves ahead was difficult because there was no straight path; there was no arrow. Instead the lines branched and branched again, a thicket that extended beyond the horizons of brute calculation: if this, then this? or this? or this? And if that, what then? Is my endgame worse? Do a sacrifice a pawn now to stave off the attack or do I cling to my material? Do I defend or try to drum up my own initiative? And then a mistake would come, or a series of small inaccuracies that swell and crest into something greater, and out of the blue a forced sequence – a line with no branches at all, where each move and countermove allowed for only one response, a continuation rigid with clarity – that caused the position to fall apart.

None of this was true in the FL. Everywhere else, yes, this logic held, but not in the FL. A part of this was due simply to brute playing strength; the GMs of the FL could sneer at what their intuitions told them were unsound attacks, and they could simply sit and cold-bloodedly calculate their way through the wildest variations. And a part of this was because they knew enough theory that they would never allow an attacking player to get a good position in the first place. But there were threshold effects at work too. Any attack tended to burn bridges – often material would be sacrificed by the attacking side, so that if the attack was beaten off without a countersacrifice the attacker was left with fewer pieces with which to play the endgame. It was the most painful game for the attacking player: to see an attack peter out to nothing while the vast desolation of a long defensive grind in a lost endgame beckoned.  But more commonly it was simply the case that the attack expended all the positional trumps in a position – pawns aggressively advanced left behind weak squares, pale tremulous things over which the opposing player’s pieces swarmed, weak points suddenly appearing and multiplying until the position collapsed; or pieces clustered around the enemy kingside would leave unprotected other areas of the board where a vicious counterattack would gradually emerge, hints of counterplay that would constantly imply themselves, which would be replied to almost as an afterthought, but would demand more and more attention, would gnaw at the position until the attacker would eventually be defending, and the position would give way.

This was the basic problem for the attacking player: if the attack failed, the game would be lost. There was a general complaint, not unjustified, that in the FL it was nearly impossible to see out-and-out attacking games. Positional manoeuvring was everywhere, yes: subtle attacks on weak pawns, the rarefied combinatorical mathematics of endgames, but few actual attacks on actual kings. Many aggressive players, having made it to the FL, moderated their natural tendencies, traded the neurotically barbaric King’s Indian or Kmoch for quieter positional systems: the Caro-Kann, the Catalan, the Berlin, the Chebanenko-Sprung, the Quiet Game. All except for The Magician. In the cool waters of the FL she burnt like a cinder. She played games that held out the notion of there being some mysticism in the game, that represented gloriously unscientific commitment to complexity, to ideas that could be ramified but not tamed…

“You’re the only really aggressive player to be holding a title now, aren’t you? The only really, you know, romantic player.” Sal said. “The Noa.”

“Yes,” Alfen said, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t like it when my table gets relabelled, though. GM Vrodie-Sangster feels correct. Noa Vrodie-Sangster feels too flattering. I was very lucky.”

“Title?” Garf said. “Noa?”

“Uhm,” said Alfen, and looked unhappy at the idea that she would have to explain.

“Don’t you follow anything about the game?” Sal said.

“Fuck you very much,” Garf said, smoothly. “When you summit K7 on a mountain bike I’ll give you permission to mock.”

Sal laughed.

“It’s a lot more impressive than being good at the game,” Alfen said. “K7 is pretty ridiculous.”

“Tell her about being Noa,” Sal said to Alfen.

“I’d really rather – ” Alfen said, “Uhm, you know.”

“Hm?” Sal said.

“Please,” Alfen said.

“So,” Sal said. “There are seven tournaments in the FL that stand out, so-called Supertournaments. Invite-only, and very difficult to win. Named after the organising colleges: Intemper, Noa, Learnt, Tityrant, New, Ancient, Estuary. They’re all prestigious enough to be what you call titled, which means that if you win one of those you carry around the name of the tournament and it replaces your usual title. So Alfen is the Noa. Not a GM, the Noa.”

“There is a World Championship, though. I keep hearing about it. Where does the World Championship fit in?”

“It’s the Estuary title. It’s called the World Championship because of the format: you get a Candidates Tournament where all the six other titleholders and four other GMs (selected based on global ranking, I think) duke it out to play a long match against the current Estuary.”

“Murderous tournament,” Alfen said. “Ouch.”

“The current number one holds four titles,” Sal said. “The two most difficult tournaments are Estuary and Ancient. He holds both of those titles, the Great Pair, and is also the Learnt and Intemper. It’s a nice full title, isn’t it? Estuary-Ancient-Learnt-Intemper Saracen.”

“Being called the Ancient is pretty cool,” Garf said.

“It’s a quadruple round-robin,” Alfen said. “It’s quite exhausting.”

“What were we talking about?” Sal said.

Garf knew he never actually forgot what they were talking about. She wondered when she would stop noticing when he did things like that. “Alfen was saying something about doing well when she first got into the FL.”

“Ah,” Sal said.

“She was saying that doing well was not typical for newcomers. Implying, I think we can agree, that you are a moron.”

Alfen was gripped by what looked like genuine panic. “I—”

“I don’t think I’m typical,” Sal said, smiling. He didn’t say it differently but they were all silent for a moment.

“No,” Alfen said. “Of course not.” She looked aghast. She looked from Garf to to Sal and back again. “I did not—”

“Stop it,” Garf said, looking at Sal. “Don’t encourage him.”

“I am truly sorry, Leviathan,” Alfen said, looking like she could not live with herself.

Alfen never used Sal’s name; she always called him Leviathan. Sal did not mind; Garf did, it seemed, but did not say much about it.

Sal leaned back in his chair and put his legs on the table.“It does not matter,” he said. “I’m not particularly fussed by these things. I want to know what it was like. Tell me about theory. Did you have to learn a lot of theory?”

“Theory is really useful. I was not really an opening expert what I first entered but I had to learn quite a lot to keep up.”

Theory referred to positions that were well-analysed and well-known. Most theory was about the opening; there were over 1600 named openings and variants, many analysed to over 20 moves deep. There was far too much opening theory to memorize; most GMs specialised in a few select openings; a few adventurous ones experimented. Some theory was about certain types of endgames: the Lucena and Vancura positions in rook-and-pawn endgames, the Diagonal Technique for winning with knight and bishop against king – it went on. Most high-level games, and nearly all played in the seven titled tournaments, became theory; these games were memorized to be regurgitated as was necessary. Why waste time finding your own good moves OTB when you could play moves that better players had already determined to be good?

“How long does it take to get up to speed on modern theory?” Sal said.

“Uhm,” Alfen said.

“Tell him how long you took,” Garf said, “And he’ll work it out.”

Alfen shrugged. The gesture was comically exaggerated by the way she sat: hunchbacked, peaked shoulders framing her head like the folded wings of a bird of prey. A lump in her throat moved up and down with unreal vigour, like a piston. “It depends on how much of a theoretician you want to be. I know a decent amount but my gift’s not really there.  I find wading through theoretical minefields tiring. It took me about five years to get book-up enough to not worry about openings in the FL. But I’ve always preferred sidelines. I think I can bring out a drawing variation if I need it – the Berlin, the Marshall Gambit, but that’s not the usual thing. Those two took me –” her eyes flicked over Sal “—the better part of a year to get down.”

Sal looked thoughtful.

“Could I make a suggestion?” Alfen said.


“If you want to get booked-up fast I’d recommend covering all the basic openings and defences with d4 and e4, nothing fantastically deep unless you really like it, and then move on to largely non-theoretical lines. It’s not, uhm, that great, really, fighting theoreticians on their own ground. It’s better to get them out of book and then force them to find good moves OTB. Force them to actually play a game, to figure things out there and then.”

“Alfen,” Garf said, with viciously calibrated emphasis, “Sal has never played a game before. Not even one.”

Alfen looked surprised. “Well,” she said, is if this was clear and beyond contestation, “You do think he’s going to be the Estuary at some point, don’t you?”

“World Champion?” Garf said, suddenly realising something.

“To begin with,” Alfen said, looking at Garf.

Sal’s expression did not change but there was a shift in it, a new sheen to the smile, a different shade that had come over it and remained there.

Garf looked Sal and Alfen and did not know what to say.

“You’re not dumbfounded very often, you know,” Sal said, very lightly and precisely. His smile grew.

“But the risk,” Garf said. “If you lose, and everyone knows about it – if everyone sees the Leviathan losing – I mean, seriously, why – is it necessary to take this sort of risk? You know what role you play, you know how people will see it. Why would you do it?”

“Pleasure,” Sal and Alfen said, at the same time. But Sal was not smiling as he said this. He was looking straight at Garf and he looked, in a way, Garf thought, possessed, held by something.

“Yes,” Garf said. Her mouth felt dry. “Pleasure.” She saw then how Sal was different but could not put it into words. She looked at Sal. She felt studied. There was a test and she did not know what it was. “Okay. Okay. You know what? I’ll just not say anything about this. You two go on. You know what I think but you probably know better.” She was staring but she was not angry.

Sal laughed. “It’s just a bit of fun, Garf. That’s all. That’s where the challenge is.”

“As long as you don’t get too bogged down in theory,” Alfen offered, helpfully.

Sal was still looking at Garf. “O Garfield Keynes Hunter, you lack faith in your hyperbred superintelligent unkillable God-King.”

“Not so unkillable, I hope,” Garf muttered darkly.

There was a sharp intake of breath from Alfen. Sal raised his eyebrows and then he and Garf grinned.

“So,” Sal said at last, “So.” He turned to Alfen, who was vigorously biting her lower lip, looking a little mortified. “What were you saying? Oh yes. Well. I’d play to play some novelties, you know. It’d be nice for me to add something to theory.”

At the highest level novelties were some of the deadliest weapons available to GMs. A novelty was simply a new move; something in the opening unknown to theory. When one was played in a game for the first time the opponent would be suddenly be left bereft of theoretical lines, and would have to tread water and think as the position risked falling away from them, while the player who had prepared the novelty would sit there in the iron fortress of their preparation, playing every move instantly while vast agonies of thought and uncertainty went through the opponent. GMs agreed that one of the worst moments in a game was when the opponent banged out a new move and then walked off, and the realisation came that one was facing this new position alone, while the opponent came to it with hundreds of hours of glinting engine analysis. Of course not all novelties were devastating. As theory grew it naturally shut out novelties and congregated around the very sharpest opening lines.  Most novelties were quiet, subtle moves – moves to which many possible responses existed, or deliberately suboptimal moves not considered part of theory, designed purely to get the opponent out of book.

“I’ve never caught one of the top five in my prep before,” Alfen said. “You’d need dozens of novelties prepared before you have a realistic chance of catching anyone in prep. Too much theory. I’m not saying that you can’t do this, not at all – it’s just, you know, from the perspective of, uhm, efficiency –”

“Yes,” Sal said. “No, you’re making perfect sense.”

Alfen paused. “I still can’t really believe it.”


“That the Leviathan would ask me to tell him about chess.”

“Garf knew you, so it seemed the natural thing to do.”

“We only met in first year, really. As you can tell I’m not overfamiliar with the game.”

“It’s still a bit overwhelming. Meeting the Leviathan and giving, uhm, advice.”

“Oh, Alfen,” Sal said. He put an arm around her, even though he could barely reach around her shoulders. Alfen shrank a little. “It’s very nice of you. Get used to it. I’ll probably be asking you stuff quite often. How are the players?”

“Uhm, in the FL? Or generally?”

“In the FL.”

“Well, they come in all flavours, really. When I started out they were mostly lovely people. But I got to know some who were really single-minded, very competitive.”

“Total towering cockwombles,” Garf translated. “Dickporpoises. It’s Alfen-speak you’re dealing with here.”

“Near the very top it’s all very professional. After a bad game against me they could get a bit, hm, cold, maybe—”

“They fucking detest your face,” Sal said. “They have passionate dreams about you dying in a tragic wanking accident. They hate you with all the metaphysical force they can muster.”

“—but they get over it really fast, and are usually really pleasant to have around. I really wouldn’t use the word ‘hate’, Garf. That’s a bit inappropriate. There’s some – ah – trash-talking, you know? Sometimes, not often. It’s just a way for people to get into the feel of things.”

“They convince themselves you’re shit to get themselves psyched up because the presence of a planet-sized ego sometimes does not get you that extra oomph, you know what I mean?

“Oh, no, no.” Alfen looked nervous, maybe a bit grieved at having to contradict someone so consistently. “We all really respect each other’s strengths. We’ve played each other to many times now, followed each other from one league to the next.”

“It’s all an awful morass of hateful, vindictive bile.”

Sal took Garf’s hand in his own. She thought of how much like a child he looked. “Garf,” he said, grinning, “You’ve really given up trying to persuade me not to do this, haven’t you?”

“Fuck fuckitty fuck fucking fuckery fuck,” Garf said, primly. “Fucks all around for everyone. Great.”

The Magician winced again.


The glow had long gone down behind the serrated edge of the mountains. It was late.

The order had not come in yet. Earlier Ary had asked Major Kenner if he and John could take the patrol of the outer encamp.

(“Why?” Major Kenner said.

“Everyone’s tired,” Ary said. “We thought since we’ve got no orders yet that we could take things off C-2, sir.”

Major Kenner was one of those people who was always calm. He stopped writing and looked up at Ary.

“They got hit three days ago,” he had said. “Three deaths.  They need something to do.”

From another person that might have been cruel. But Major Kenner was not like that. He leaned back in his chair and gave Ary a look that said, go on, say what you think.

Ary only said, “I understand, sir.”

“No,” Kenner had said. “You are right. I can’t unfuck this situation for C-2. Hope they get through this.”

“Have they been to Combat Stress?”

“Do you know what C-2 is like? They were teasing Danks all the way through because he’d not got his first kill. He was the loader, of course he hadn’t done it. They said he needed to do it so that they’d be a hundred percent. They will not go to Combat Stress. I can’t make them.” He stopped. “Well, I could. But it wouldn’t work if I made them do it. I need not to be the asshole here for a while.” Kenner grinned and looked tired. He did that. Ary was not used to it. He never did it if there was a Lance Corporal around but if he was with anyone from O2 onwards he sometimes came across like the rugged, fundamentally decent guy, the guy just a bit tired of it all, the guy that he must have been when he was a Corporal.

“No-one thinks you’re the asshole, sir.”

He shook his head. “Do Perries do platitudes now?”

Ary was about to say that he had meant it something but Kenner waved it away.

Kenner called Sergeant Friend and said, “Leave C-2 off it tonight.”

“Yes, sir.” Surprise.

“The Perries will be doing the patrol. Tell C-2 to rest for tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir.”

Kenner turned to Ary and said, “Thanks, I guess.” Not like an O5 at all.

“No problem, sir.”)

The night was still. Ary walked but was not thinking of anything in particular. In the distance the grinding gears of the terrainers and the Big Ts moving. It was strange how even in the most urgent of times everything seemed to move slowly. There was something good about the patrol. The stillness came from outside and went into him. Vague tonnage of exhaustion coming away, one small weight off his shoulders. There were not many times when he could feel this way.

He noticed the soldier because he was holding a cigarette and he could see the light a long way off. He was standing against the perimeter and smoking. After some time the guy put the cig out and then stood there, not moving, looking out. He held his rifle to his chest with one arm and did not move.

When Ary was close and coming around the corner he made a noise with his step so that the soldier would know.

The soldier turned and started violently. There was panic and sudden terror on his face. He jerked around and fumbled nearly unconsciously let the handguard tip from his right hand into the palm of his left and before he knew it the muzzle of his AR was pointed straight at Ary. Then he realised what he had done.

“Oh, shit. Shit. Fuck. Sir, I’m sorry sir, I didn’t mean to do that. I just—”

Ary saw the name stitched onto the sleeve of the soldier’s BCO: Hasse.

He did not recognise the name but he thought he recognised the face. Hasse was in C-2. He was a big guy but there was a tilt to his eyebrows that always made him look a little sad even when he was laughing.  Ary had seen him with the others neatly painting letters onto one of the FOB terrainers: FUFB. Fuck you FOBbits. Someone might have called him Doleface.

Hasse backed away and slung his rifle. “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll go back now, I just needed to get out for a while, you know, for – for –” He stopped. “I’ll go back now, sir, if you let me.”

Ary did not say anything. He knew how Hasse felt, the shock of seeing something alien come out from the dark like that.

“Muzzle discipline,” he said. He nearly said Corporal but did not. “You’ve let it go to shit.”

There was a moment of hesitation where Hasse did not know if he was looking at an Officer (Spec) or just another human.

“Why are you here?” Ary said.

People did not know how to speak to Peregrines. You could see the way their eyes moved, looking for a mouth or the eyes in the mechanical head, shuttling, searching. Most people looked away after a while. They talked normally but they looked away. Hesse looked right at Ary. He hesitated and said, “I was looking for you, sir.” Then he leaned against the wall and slumped against, let himself be pulled down until he was sitting with his back against the perimeter, rifle between his knees. He put his forehead on the butt and let out a long shuddering breath.

“Things have gotten so fucking—” He put both hands out in front of him and clenched them hard. “I needed to get out, talk to someone outside, you know, not outside, but not part of the whole – this whole –”

“Have you been to Combat Stress?” Ary said. It felt stupid as it came out of his mouth and he knew how Hesse would read it; an inquisition, a command.

“I can’t,” Hesse said. “I don’t have a problem. It’s about Tom. The care packages came in earlier today, do you know? I stood in the line and got Tom’s because he was my best friend. I didn’t think he would wake up, I didn’t know, so I opened it.” He shook his head and held the AR very tightly. “Look at this,” he said, “Isn’t this pathetic? Me, here, bitching to a fucking Peregrine.” He hit himself on the side of his head, lightly, twice. “I’ll go back in. Sir. I’m sorry.”

“If you need to talk,” Ary said, “You should talk.” He did not know what else he could do.

Hesse was silent for some time. “I don’t know how you deal with it,” Hesse said. “How did you deal with it?”

“I didn’t,” Ary said. “It’s not something you deal with. That’s not what they usually say, I think. But that’s all I’ve got.”

“I got his care package and inside there was only a bar of soap. It was so fucking ridiculous. Why would Tom need a bar of soap? There’s so many other things you need out here. Photos, food from home. But all that Tom got was a bar of soap. Maybe his family was poor. I never asked and he never said. I don’t know, when I saw it I just broke inside and I stood there suddenly realising I wanted to collapse and cry but you can’t let them see you like that. So I didn’t do it, I smiled and made a joke. I said, well this is good isn’t it, because I don’t care what heroic shit he’s done, he’s a holy stinker, and I laughed. But then I had to go to the showers and cry like a baby for an hour.”

“When I started out,” Ary said, “I had a friend who was religious.”

Hesse stopped for a moment and then said, “What, like he prayed and all that shit?”


“What happened to him?”

“He was the first one to die on our first Drop.”

“Didn’t help him, did it?”

“I’m sure it did. But it can’t stop you dying.”

“That fucked you real bad, huh? Sir.”

“When they read his Personal Effects Statement it turned out he left me his personal music player. He’d got an electric one, one of the old ones, just because he would never Woodpecker stop him listening to whatever he wanted, he said. I couldn’t use the player at first. I would look at it and it would be too much. One time I tried it and it wrecked me. But it helped. The loss became real and became possible to actually take, to grasp. The track at the top of the frequently played list was something from the Trove. It’s hard to imagine but there it was. From what is now our enemy. Sheep May Safely Graze.”

“Have you heard what happened to Tom? Sir.”

“It’s strange for someone to keep calling me sir. I went straight to this from sergeant. I’ve never been called sir before. And I don’t talk to people in the company very much. It’s strange.”


Ary could see the way Hesse was holding the rifle, upright against the ground, both hands on the barrel. The barrel had been painted ochre but some of the paint had flaked off and the dark metal shone from beneath, small irregular patches. He felt a sudden surge of sympathy for Hesse, for the anguished thing seeing now the whole world that had been circling around finally closing in, bereavement  shrunk to a brute knowable fact.

“What happened to Tom?”

“We were clearing a street in Otley, the usual thing. We were in the APV.”

Ary had seen it. The C-2 APV, like many others, had had a message written on the inside of the driver door. Those who survived mines in anti-ambush vehicles felt the need to do these sorts of things: This truck saved the life of my friends and I four of us on Apr 02 04 Kilnet at 1700.

“It was all normal and then it went off right underneath us, lifted the entire APV up. It wasn’t a small thing. It was an EFMP, it went right through the front and killed Rewes, straightaway, cut him nearly in half. The change in pressure or something left Zima and Watters unconscious, bleeding from the eyes, the ears. The rest of us got sprayed with molten metal. When Tom and I came out of the back it was a complete fucking mess. We had been completely cornered. We got told at first that one of the worst things you could get caught in was a firefight. We didn’t believe it at the time but it is true We ran to Sergeant Savidge but she had been hit under the arm and twice in the chest. It was fucked-up. The flak stopped the two to the chest but the one under the arm was bleeding like skippy.

Tom looked down the alley and saw everyone pinned and he took the Handle from Savidge and he did the suppressive fire, he organised it by himself, and then he said he wanted to run down the front of the alley and get Odell and Wyer. I told Tom, no, don’t do it, but he just said no. I think he heard me. When he disagreed he never had a fight out of it. He just did his own thing. He thought about what you said and if he didn’t agree he would do his own thing, you know? So I gave him cover and he ran down and got struck immediately in the knee, I saw it ricochet off the guard and his leg fold in a bit so that he nearly kneeled, and although that sort of shot hurts like hell, he went on and took Odell and Wyer by their vests and hauled them back. I think he was hit again, twice, I don’t remember where. But it was when he turned to go back even though I was fucking screaming at him from behind the APV that he got hit in the face. I was crouching there and then Tom’s blood was all over me and he spun a little bit and fell like he was already dead. He was just lying there in the middle of all the scattered bearings from the APV. I think I lost my mind a little, you know? I didn’t imagine this sort of thing. I lost my shit. I screamed and ran – this is what they told me – I ran out to him and got him to the 9-ton, I must have done it. The thing I remember is that the round that got him was not the ordinary thing. It splashed something over his flak and the ARA had melted. Do you know what I remember? It was strange because it’s a smell I know from home. I was pulling him back and I smelt the barbecue and it was him, Tom, Tom was burning in my hands as I dragged him. It was in my nose. Didn’t go away until long after.

“Look, man, I know there are no heroes in the military. It’s all a lie. I’m as fucking – I don’t know – as fucking cynical as anyone else, but Tom was that sort of thing, he was very close to the real thing. That one time he got shot in the neck in Lome-I. He came around to us with his hand on the side of his head like that, the sick bastard, blinking like he knew it was the end, trying not to scream or shout, he just said, hey, I’ve been hit, what does it look like. And it looked like there was just a fuckload of blood coming out of the side of his neck, and I seriously thought he was a dead man. And Tom just looked at me and said, you’d better be scared shitless because I’m going to steal all your pussy now.”

Hesse stopped and breathed. “I looked at him in TRR. He’s not got half his face. Can’t imagine all that pussy he’s going to get now, huh?” He tried to make his voice sound playful but there was much more in it, uncertainty and much more. “All those pity fucks.”

“You’ve been lucky,” Ary said. “To know Tom.”

Hesse tried and failed to avoid crying.

His shoulders moved a bit.

“I thought when I came in I’d just try to do the good thing, get a little respect, try to do the correct thing, but look at this. I think he was keeping me alive and now. I don’t know. Maybe I’m broken. Maybe I’m not. I’m okay with explosions, I don’t flinch or anything. I can get back in the APV. But I’m – I’m fucking diminished, you know what I mean. Suddenly it’s all gone from under me.”

Ary remembered the look of sudden terror on Hesse’s face when he had seen Ary appear, that reaction that without any words or thought had spoken: kill, kill, kill.

In the distance there was a loud blare from a terrainer backing up, probably involved in some delicate negotiation with the Big Ts. “Grief is the correct thing,” Ary said. “It’s not a problem. It’s the necessary thing. It says something. This is what it’s about, really. You know it and it is not a bad thing.”

“I feel,” Hesse said, almost drowsily. “I feel—”

“Yes,” Ary said. “Me too.”

Hesse got out another cigarette and tried to light it but could not and threw it away. “They came to me, just earlier today. They’re starting to work on Tom’s Full Citation for valour because they think he’s going to die. I knew what they wanted me to say so I said he was selfless, you know? I said he didn’t care at all about himself, he cared for my squad. That was what it took, to run out into the fire like that. He probably wasn’t even thinking about it. Selfless. It was easy to say because it was all true. And I got so fucking angry then. I felt like reaching out and hitting them. So much violence you might as well call it grief, call it trauma, CSR, call it what you want to. Because I thought, if only the fucker had been less selfless, if only he had been a bit more of a fucking coward and come back when I called. I wanted to tell them about how he was a great guy, like where the real value in him was, that it had nothing to do with the fact that he was a fucking idiot—” Hesse stopped to pull the sleeve of the BCO over his face. “—fucking idiot who ran out into, into fucking intense fire, nothing to do with all that shit, it was just that he knew but to make tired people happy, he made people feel like they could not die, he knew when not to talk and when to talk. But they don’t give a shit. I looked up what citations before I entered. I thought it was cool to get one of those. They were all the same: ‘complete disregard for personal safety’, ‘extraordinary calm and presence of mind under intense pressure’. How could Tom be that? Was he calm? Who the fuck knows? Was he disregarding his safety? We were his safety and he was mine. He’s not just like everyone else. Fuck, this is – this is – just –”

Ary did something he had seen someone in Combat Stress do once. “What’s your name, Corporal?” he said.

“James,” Hesse said.

“James,” Ary said. That was all he knew.

Three kinds of fire support: suppression; neutralisation; destruction. Discourage or maim or kill. And Ary knew that these were not just things to be done by one army to another but things that each army did to itself, to each single thing in it, when the promises of departure began to dim, and maybe even well before that, when all the lives crowded themselves out, all perfect and all past repair, and forgot about all the time that had to steal by before they could say it and not have as a lie: all is well. All is well.

“I can’t believe it,” Hesse said. “How did I not imagine it?” He took in a long breath and as he let it out he tried not to let it shudder. He stood up.

“James,” Ary said. “I don’t think anyone imagines it.”

“If there were proper war films people would never go. The honest film would not be a story. It would be someone smiling and coming towards the camera, laughing down a street, and then a round comes screaming and it all ends. Thirty seconds and that would be all. Or someone burning up ten thousand metres above the ground when the world below is still a turning marble. Or someone dragging themselves out of the hatch in a sub and then getting stuck and drowning in foam, in the surf.  I watched all the movies, you know? Even the ones that were about the horrors of war. All lies. All lies. All of them were beautiful. They had images that stayed with you because they were so well put together. In this war nothing has been put together like that. Everything stays with you because you were there. That’s all there is to it. The only good thing about it is when you are about to fight and there is a thrill. It’s not joy, it’s a kind of yearning. You want to get the hundred percent. But you only get that if you want to kill and no film does that. It cannot make you want to kill. ”

Ary saw how Hesse’s hands were shaking.

“Do you get caffeine at the DFAC?” he said.

“Yes,” Hesse said. “They let me.”



“Don’t do it,” Ary said. “It does not help.”


“Go see Tom.”


“Ask the medics how he is. If you want to sit there for a while. I’ll tell them to let you.”

Hesse shook his head. He pulled at his hair, not violently but with force.

Ary waited for a while and then said, “You need to get some sleep, James.”

“Yeah.” Hesse sounded like he wanted to say something more but had stopped himself. “Do you know – do you know what I wanted out of this? I wanted people to respect me. When Tom was around I could really believe it. That’s what I wanted at first. People will always respect you. You can do these amazing things, you know? You’ve proved yourself. Me, myself, I’ve got nothing to prove. I mean – there is nothing I can prove. I hope people respect me because of what I’ve been through.”

Ary wanted to say that was not what it was about. But he did not say it. “I don’t deserve to be here,” he said. “Nobody deserves what they get whether or not it is good or bad. When I got into my first Carcass in the Peregrines I realised they were all broken too. It’s okay.”

Hesse was quiet for a while.

“What’s it like, out there? Sir.”

“Doing Wanderers?”

“Yeah, the Wanderers. Can you – are you allowed to say?”

Ary looked out. Now nothing was moving. Things had moved out of sight. “It’s lonely,” he said, “but in a good way. I have my partner.” He realised his mistake as soon as he’d said it.

But Hesse said, “That’s what I’d thought. Just imagine what it is like to be invincible, to be like that.”

Again Ary wanted to say, no, that was not it, but instead he looked at Hesse. There was nothing left in Hesse anymore, like he was empty, unspooled too fast, dissolved from the heat of friction.

“Let’s go in,” Ary said.

“I can’t even know your name,” Hesse said. He looked at Ary. He was young but his face was lined everywhere with anguish big enough to be invisible, all but invisible. “Thank you.”

“Let’s go in,” Ary said.

“Sergeant Friend will see us.”

“I was asking you about the patrol. Don’t worry about it.”

On the way in Ary realised that he did not know who Tom was, at all. He looked up the TRR (Critical) list. It took sometime time because only the surnames were listed alphabetically. But eventually he someone with the correct brief. Lance Corporal Thomas Eely was not expected to survive another 48 hours.

“Get some rest,” he told Hesse. The big shoulders were slumped but tight.  A note forever wrapped inside its own bell. “There are things to be done tomorrow.”

He watched Hesse disappear inside and then went back out to the encamp, hoping that nothing had managed to come through while he had been with Hesse.

Visitation: 1

“—and the weirdest thing that happened, by which I mean not necessarily the funniest but certainly the most surreal and I suppose if you think about it maybe even instructive, was something that happened just after the Khorsan Shit-Surge –”

“Khorsan Shit-Surge? You mean the bombing of the waste processing—”

“The Khorsan Shit-Surge is its proper name, proper meaning the name we, the perpetrators, gave it, of course. But as I was saying, what happened was that L. broke his penis. I see you sceptical faces but allow me to elaborate and make more plausible what I know sounds to be an implausibly farcical situation. What happened was that L. decided to celebrate the KSS by fucking some native guy, having grown rather overfamiliar with us, and so booked a hotel room with two single beds for the act. And it was by all accounts, by which I mean his account, going very well, since if I remember correctly this guy had unconscionable stamina. And so L. is fucking this darling cumlet (his words) up the arse, in the very throes of high passion, when he withdraws his penis to attempt a truly heroic thrust, to really skewer this fine fellow, and because they had taken the two single beds and joined them together by the primitive expedient of shoving them together and covering them with a blanket, (a room with a double bed had been considered and rejected by L. since Ditarod society is highly suspicious of homosexuals, feeling perhaps collectively threatened by their collective sexual vigour and exuberance, and one room with a double bed for two men crossed a certain threshold of apparent suspiciousness in L.’s generally highly accurate estimation) some combination of action and reaction occasioned by L.’s rearing, tensing of the fleshy and tendinous fasciculi of the lower back to arch the spine and bare the cock in prelude to the rigid muscular thrust that was to follow, and the backwards force exerted on one of beds and the complex trusswork of springs and struts maintaining the bed’s taut yet smooth and pliable surface, causes the beds to slip ever so slightly apart and one of them to fold inward in a subtle way, with the result that L.’s cock, previously so precisely honed in on the other guy’s anus, veers off course and ploughs with still-unchecked force into the otherwise pleasingly well-developed gluteus maximus of the other guy’s left butt-cheek. The guy yelps and gets a bruise that swells, passes through a phantasmagoric array of colours, and eventually dissolves, over the course of a week or so, but poor L. – and he has a penis which, I can assure you, when in the full fastness of complete tumescence is very rigid indeed – takes the full brunt of that vehement thrust on his penis, which has a much smaller cross-sectional area than his partner’s gluteus maximus, and so breaks. That is not the formal term, of course, there being no bone in the penis, (which after all needs to change size and posture quite often and so would not benefit, evolutionarily speaking, from the scaffolding of a rigid bone) but that is the term all the relevant people deployed, relevant of course referring to us eco-terrorists, for something in the penis had in fact broken, some sliver or vital spirit or anima had snapped, had been cleft in twain as I believe L. had said.

“L. proceeded with haste to the local hospital where an operation was performed of which he had little direct experience since he was anaesthetized, anaesthetic being necessary since no self-aware creature has developed the poise of constitution necessary to withstand one’s member being hemmed and hawed over by a group of strangers with whom one does not plan to have intercourse with in the short-to-middle term. The long and short of it was that while L.’s penis was sort of repaired the inconvenience which the penis-breaking occasioned had only begun. L. had to take a flight back to meet us but had been told by his doctors that every hour his penis had to be thoroughly iced in order to reduce (unwanted) swelling and to minimize post-operational discomfort. There is I think an interesting observation to be made here about the general state of medical technology on Ditarod, which is that even though in a high-functioning if deeply pathological capitalist society people should in general be willing to pay through the nose to demand the best possible services to repair damaged genitals, genitals being so important in general social joshing and occupying something of a totemic pride of place re conceptions of self-worth, dignity etc. as far as bodily appendages are concerned, genital repair services on Ditarod were so primitive that a waddling and tragically un-reinterpretable gait and timely icing were necessitated by even the most sophisticated operational procedures. But the main thing was that this particular icing requirement caused L. quite some embarrassment on the flight back to meet us, since every hour he had the raise his hand to catch the eye of the air stewardess and ask for ice – no, not ice in a drink, or even in a cup, just a bag of ice, please, and no, thanks for the concern, but he was most certainly not feverish at that moment – and while people stared (he got an aisle seat) he would put the ice on his trousers over where his penis approximately was and the ice would slowly melt leaving him with a form-hugging little bag of cold water and condensation would collect on it and soak his trousers so that he looked as if he was incontinent, rather than having merely a broken cock – and then an hour later, which was before the damp had left his trousers even in the very dry air of the cabin, he would have to very discreetly get the attention of the air stewardess again, and say, could I – until of course she was finishing his sentences while her look metamorphosed from one of bemusement to unbearable pity and compassion. The whole situation was so excruciating that that once or twice L. resorted to taking the ice with him into the toilet and dunking his penis into the bag, eventually stopping this experimental practice because it was a hassle plus he could not use the toilet if it was occupied or when there was turbulence and, if he thought about it, the implications of his proceeding to the toilet for long periods with a bag of ice were at least just as disturbing (if more puzzling) as him sitting there while a patch of velvety blue metastized across his groin, besides dunking his cock in ice cubes resulted in painfully uneven cooling, and if he waited and tolerated it until the ice had melted somewhat the pain went away but only because his penis was turning a deathly shade of maroon.

“But the worst thing, and this, if you know L. (which you do not, so make my word for it) really was the worst thing, was the fact that the doctors had told him that under no circumstances whatsoever was he to let himself get an erection. If L. had been in the company of a loving and supportive group of friends and colleagues I suppose they would have escorted him from one sexless public space to another, turning aside each erogenous object, fastidiously avoiding beautiful people and paring down their vocabulary to the most blandly functional, but instead L. was trapped for the next month with us, and we were all of us fascinated to see what a broken (or only recently un-broken) penis would look like if erect – like a punctured blimp attempting lift-off, Cortanse speculated, or two slugs very tightly entwined in a pink mating-dance – and we would burst into his room naked, all us beautiful men and women, a posse of irresistible eco-terrorists, and we would dance with our penises and breasts flopping around as if possessed while poor L. screamed and cowered in his bed and used his blanket (on which, in a show of unspeakable venality, we had inked all over with minute and cleverly tessellating penises) to cover his eyes in an attempt to ward off our limbic onslaught, until he nearly passed out from sobbing with self-control, from the sheer effort his will expended while swathed in a halo of venereal glory.”

“That all sounds very cruel.”

“Being a terrorist demands a certain steeliness, a viciousness of temperament.”


“You could never be a terrorist, Garf, and I cannot expect you to understand. I am not angry. It was too much to expect.”

“Well, you can just – are you laughing, Sal?”

“I can tell you that L.’s torment did not end there. We sent him messages marked URGENT: RESP IMM containing only images of the most crushingly well-formed men. We scoured the pornographic stashes online (our AI, good old Semirhange, must have downloaded a fifth of the internet) for the most vivid and hallucinatory –”

“What happened in the end?”

“In the end?”

“You know, after.”

“In the end L. came back one day in a total paroxysm of joy because he had accidentally had an erection – one of our messages had triggered it, at last – and it had been fine. The thing had not erupted into a geyser of blood or deflated terribly like a balloon, no, it had just been fine. L. was so happy that he lay on the floor in the foetal position and sobbed like a child, a large and horny child, I grant, but with innocence nonetheless. We could all understand. It had not been a good time for him. When he tried to confront us we would run at him with high-quality glossy porno printouts and he had no choice but to weep and flee.”

“When he recovered I hope he beat the shit out of you.”

“Of course not.”

“What did he do.”

“He fucked us.”


“We’re here,” Sal said, and stood up. He looked at Bizzo. “It’s fine, Bizzo. Let’s go.”

“Of course it’s fine,” Bizzo said. He blinked. “Why wouldn’t it be fine?”

“You get talkative when you’re nervous,” Sal said.


“You’re excellent when you’re talkative,” Sal said. They got out of the train carriage. It was nearly empty. “I wouldn’t have expected it.”

The exit took them to the edge of a large field. The sign said: Malament; Wrecked Church & Old Park.

“It’s okay, Bizzo,” Garf said. “Seriously. It’s not like The Defence is going to eat you or anything.”

“It has —” Bizzo protested, but there was little energy in it to match his sincerity. He coughed and made a face.

Garf went down the steps. “Gorgeous day,” she said.

And indeed it was. All of Old Park lay tremulous and dazed in the sun. Birds lodged in trees panted, struck speechless by the heat, rare calls like faults in the air, shrink-wrapped eroticisms hurled and taken aloft…

Stizostedion was an overprotected world. The Kingdom made no pretence about its value, and things had been done to the place, things discussed in other quarters with fear and trembling, with fury and appreciation approaching extremes that might be termed aesthetic, with a film of despair, even, and envy… There were the great armouries on all the Gates that led to Stize. There were the onworld Gatekeepers; a ludicrous 228 of them, when Naze, the capital, had only 24. And then, and then…ah, there was QC with its Composite Dust, Drizzle to End All Days, two grams of which had been sufficient in wilder days to raze three cities on Moheger and transform the Union’s 5th Battle Group (Mixed) into a mere commixture of essential dusts then pressed into a boule of machine essence and expelled just before noon onto the plains of Saracen, an ingot of ambitions too tragic to even speak about…and yet on Stize CD was the very air itself, and the even the light that came through it was a membrane plucked clean by force, that carried the basic grace that came from having asked permission,  amniotic rigging strung through the air as mucosae sticky with predatory intent, ardour made manifest in a trillion trillion shudders and gasps, a twining together of motes, of unnumbered urges, aches, infatuations, eggings – into a coil of awareness bent upon itself, bent upon the entire world, a chrysalis that invited, a veil that was all voraciousness, oh come, oh come indeed all ye faithful…

But that was not enough. What if there was a rent somewhere? What then? What if the ravenous panoply fails? What then? And so one arrives at The Defence.

Beneath the Wrecked Church there was a single Hasp.