Friday, 12 July 2013

Rambling Band

People often - well, sometimes - well, once - look, it's a figure of speech, all right?

People often ask why we at the PPC are so hung up on Jay and Acacia. What is it that makes them the iconic Assassins, or even Agents? Why were they special? Acacia was barely with the Protectors two years; why are these two so emblematic of our organisation? Actually, it's quite simple:

They were the first.

Not the first PPC Agents - that was Elizabeth, Anya, and Osbert, way back in the day. Nor were they the original Assassins, or anything like that. But they were the first to write it down. The very first mission report ever released on the Network was Jay and Acacia's. Actually, the first half dozen or so were all theirs, before other agents caught onto the idea.

Mission: Rambling Band
Agents: Jay Thorntree and Acacia Byrd, DMS
Continuum: Lord of the Rings

It is hard, now, to remember how things were back in Jay and Acacia's time. It had only been a few years since the Reorganisation, and the PPC had not truly recovered. We were more like a loosely-associated collection of departments than a true organisation, and what went on under the direction of the other Flowers was something of a mystery. If you were a Slasher (so the thought went), your business was to know about Bad Slash. You talked mostly to other Slashers, studied only techniques related to Bad Slash stories... we were insular.

Jay and Acacia changed all that. They talked to everyone, whatever their department, and when they wrote their first mission report, they tailored it to provide an introduction to the 'secrets' of the Department of Mary-Sues. Thus, we have the famous introduction:

"It's happened again." Jay leaned back from her console, indicating a flashing red light. "Someone's mucking with the plot continuum."

Acacia sighed. "Exactly what is so wrong with the canon that everyone wants to break it?" she demanded rhetorically. "Which world?"

"Lord of the Rings." Jay winced. "The massacre of Tolkien continues. We have... a Mary Sue."

And later, lines such as:

"[...] I don't think we can do the Duty until they're out of Rivendell."

"Why?" said Acacia, knowing the reason full well but wanting it explained again anyway.

"They haven't officially ruined the continuum until they've joined the Fellowship. Be patient."

Far be it from me to accuse the famous Assassins of lying, but these don't really sound like the sort of things people would say. They sound like what they are: an introduction to the workings of the DMS, a way for unfamiliar readers to get a grip on what Jay and Acacia did for a living.

Of course, simply writing a 'Beginner's Guide to Mary-Sue Assassination' wouldn't have been enough for their purposes. A bad, or worse, uninteresting mission report would have soured HQ to the whole concept. But Jay and Acacia were up to the challenge; even more than their dialogue, the narration reveals their frankly wicked sense of humour:

[Acacia] fired. Laurel, being a Mary Sue, didn't intend to die so easily and dodged. That was why the shot went into her shoulder, and not her heart. (Meanwhile, the men of the party had as a body rushed forward to save her; things would have gone pear shaped if another orc hadn't strolled out of the bushes, tripped Legolas, and watched the rest of them fall over him.)

Acacia's poison could kill a full-grown man in seconds with only a few drops. That was why it didn't matter. Acacia's poison had several other lovely redeeming features; for one, it paralyzed the vocal cords, snuffing any risk of tear-jerking "dying words."

And their spoken lines reveal the combatative cameraderie that made them such a compelling team to read about:

Jay gasped. "That's... that's not right... Arwen doesn't act like that... why the hell is she putting the bint in a gown?"

"Since when do the males wear robes?" Acacia volunteered. "They certainly weren't in robes when I read the story. And it doesn't matter that Arwen doesn't act like that, we wouldn't be here at all if the canon were intact."

Apart from the sheer entertainment and delight I find in reading it, 'Rambling Band' is interesting for another reason: it shows how the PPC has changed since the Flowers became able to read exactly what happened in our missions. Acacia thought nothing of calling the writer of Rambling Band 'crazy', which nowadays would be seen as a flame worthy of a reprimand, and the entire Charge List for this iconic mission runs as follows:

The Fellowship stared as the orc began to recite: "It is my duty to inform you that you have been charged with disrupting the canon by joining the Fellowship, bringing twenty-first century knowledge to Middle-earth, interfering with the characters of... at least ten people, so I won't list them all, but most severely Legolas and Boromir; and also being a Mary Sue."

Some of these changes are undoubtedly for the better - we should never flame, even in the slightest - but others are more ambiguous. Do we need a ten-foot-long charge list read out for each mission? The Flowers seem to think we do, but I'm not so sure...

'Rambling Band' is iconic. It was the beginning of a wave of change that is still sweeping through HQ. And it introduced the PPC to the magnificent Jay Thorntree and Acacia Byrd. It - and every other mission report by this legendary team - is well worth a (re)read.

-T. Ryan, Dept. of Personnel, DOGA Archivist - and long-time fan

Friday, 26 April 2013

An Unexpected Companion

Another day, another sheaf of paper slipped under my door...

Mission: An Unexpected Companion
Agents: Christianne Shieh and Eledhwen Elerossiel, DMS
Continuum: The Hobbit

I find myself somewhat drawn to this pair of agents, particularly Eledhwen. I think it's because, unlike many non-human agents, she hasn't thrown out her upbringing just because she's joined the PPC. Beginning early with her partner noting that she was essentially homesick, she displays a consistent love of and familiarity with Middle-earth that isn't often seen.

Her idioms are clearly retained from her former life - "she has to act like a wraith," Eledhwen says of Kestrel the Mary-Sue - and it's clear that her mindset is still that of Middle-earth. One of her strongest protests is at Gandalf being referred to as 'a magician' - "He is no more a magician than I am an elfling," Eledhwen declares. Later she refers, apparently entirely naturally, to the dwarves as 'the sons of Aulë'.

Of the three features which stuck out to me from this report, Eledhwen's representation is likely the most cheering. The second, unfortunately, is rather less positive, since this mission seems set to become a major part of the Kill And Scram debate.

Many years ago, the renowned Jay Thorntree was fond of the phrase 'major break in canon'. She and her partner took great care to never kill a Mary-Sue before such a break occurred - usually the Sue joining the Fellowship of the Ring. The key point was that something which happened before the story began - something which was part of the background to the plot, as it were - rarely counted as a 'major break'.

In more recent times, the guidelines Jay and Acacia followed have been stretched and bent, and this mission is a clear example of how far they can be pushed. Very little plot is seen - a Mary-Sue buys a necklace, lands in Middle-earth, and is promptly arrested. Yes, three noble dwarves have been torn from their final rest - but this took place before the story began. By the Thorntree Test, no major break has yet occurred.

In my opinion (and I am aware that the argument is raging in some corners of HQ), the problem here is that a mission, and by extension its report, is not designed simply to punish and excise bad writing: its true purpose is to show why it is a problem. Especially in a case where the spelling and grammar are (mostly) adequate, I would argue that it is essential to let the badfic run long enough for the consequences to become apparent. Why is it a problem that Mary-Sues come to Rivendell? Because they join the Fellowship of the Ring in defiance of canon. Why is it a problem that Thorin and his nephews are resurrected? We assume because they are then seduced - but because of the 'Kill And Scram' approach the agents took to this particular mission, we are not allowed to see.

Related to this debate is the question of how much of a badfic should be shown in a mission report. Christianne and Eledhwen's report gives a total of seven quotes, and a handful of narrative glosses. The rest of the badfic is conveyed entirely in the agents' commentary.

In many ways, this is a good thing. As seen in the direct quotes, there is nothing inherently interesting in the badfic's writing style, and the instances which are quoted include most of the 'bad writing causes unexpected effects' moments. The narrative glosses, and the agents' discussion, convey the majority of the plot well.

In other places, though, some more quoting would have made the difference between a good report and a great one. A notable instance is the transition between World One and Middle-earth - Eledhwen notes that 'most Sues do not take this much effort into describing their transition into Middle-earth', but we do not get to see this description, merely a summary of it. This has a negative impact on both the entertainment value of the report - is 'the sky above began to mimic a bathtub with the plug pulled' a semi-quote, or an amusing interpretation? We have no hints - and also the educational value. A report should highlight and dissect particular problems with a badfic - not merely provide an outlet for the agents' complaints.

I'm aware that I rather derailed this review into a continuation of the two parallel debates. Allow me to emphasise that these were not a primary concern in reading the report: it's only because both topics have been widely discussed in HQ that I noticed them at all. In the end, I read this report to be entertained, and I was. I was also, in places, deeply moved:

“I don’t want to go,” whimpered Kíli. Eledhwen swallowed thickly at the sight of the three suddenly-dying Dwarves. Christianne crouched at Kíli’s head, looking down at him with saddened eyes.

Many agents would have passed over this moment, both in their report and in the mission itself. It is a credit to Agents Christianne and Eledhwen that they noted, helped, and in a way mourned the passing of these canon characters. Their emotion comes through clearly in the writing, and affects the reader in the same way. This (to return to the terms of the debates above) is PPC writing at its best: the dreadful impact of the badfic is brought to the fore, and its true consequences allowed to play out. How many agents have been tempted to try and avert their favourite character's death? And yet none have done so. This is the meaning of the PPC - to understand the difference between desire and reality, between wish and will - and this mission captures it perfectly.

-T. Ryan, Dept. of Personnel, DOGA Archivist

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Interlude - The Mini-Mogget Adoption Agency

Oh, are we still doing this? I thought that filing error had been sorted out.

Apparently not. Now not only am I receiving copies of random people's... heck, this isn't even a mission report, just a 'here's what I've been up to' sort of thing... but I'm also being sent copies of other people's responses to them. What am I expected to do with that? Post them? Read them and laugh? Eat them? Who knows.

Report: The Mini-Mogget Adoption Agency
Agents: Skeet and Amy, DMS
Continuum: None, but mentioning Abhorsen

I have to admit, even though I still have no idea why this stuff is being forwarded to me, that I found this report quite funny. Unlike some agents, Skeet and/or Amy (I don't know which one wrote this up - the usual Third Person Past Tense problem) is actually capable of writing down speech the way it was said, rather than describing themselves as declaiming great works every time they open their mouth. Of course, in some cases that could be a bad thing, but Skeet and Amy are genuinely funny, with... well, I get told off for saying 'chemistry', but you know what I mean.

I do get the feeling the recorder has understated a few things - in particular, despite the fact that there are apparently thirty-odd mini-Moggets running around the room, they spend remarkably little time underfoot. Clearly the recorder has simply avoided the repetition of writing "and then I tripped over a mini" a dozen times, but it still registered. Given how much space /three/ mini-Balrogs can take up when they get together (back when Agent Illian's RC was a regular playground for Thanduril, Witchking and Elberath), I refuse to believe the mini-Moggets were that quiet.

But I'm not really the one who's responding to this report. When it came through my door, it had a sheet of yellow note-paper clipped to it. I've reproduced it below.

-T. Ryan, Dept. of Personnel, DOGA Archivist

Dear Agents Skeet & Amy,

I have read your report with great interest - and by interest I mean rising fury. Are you aware of how long proper concrit takes to make? Even after we manage to track down enough reviews which actually give it - no easy task, I tell you, since a square meter of concrit takes approximately a hundred and ten lines of good-quality source material - we have to grind up the generic rocks (which of course necessitates going into a badfic which features them - and yes, we have to do this ourselves even though we're Infrastructure, not Action), source the blessed water (it doesn't matter who blesses it, of course - it's the blessing itself that acts as a binding agent - but most priests balk at the idea of blessing a hundred tonnes of water at a go), and mix the whole thing together, which is nowhere near as easy as it sounds.

And what do you do with all our hard work? You go and slice gigantic holes through it. Never mind that using a chainsaw on concrit will set up resonances that weaken the structure of the whole wall - never mind that a lot of the piping and wiring for HQ (yes, we do have that stuff, what did you think the place ran on - magic?) runs through those walls - never mind that if you had bothered to ask, we'd've been more than happy to make you a proper door - no, you just go lashing out with your power tools while making comments like "what Building Maintenance didn’t see, wouldn’t bother them", "They can get kind of... funny... about stuff like this", and "What, you think that we’re gonna get in twice as much trouble because we made the hole twice as big?"

To which, by the way, the answers are 'Yes it will', 'Yes, we do', and 'Yes, you very much are'.

But hey, it's not all bad. At least you had a good time, set up an adoption centre for your pet cats, and, oh yeah, mentioned your RC number in your report. I'll be seeing you shortly.

Yours in aggravated anticipation,

Agent Colt, Department of Operations, Building Maintenance