Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Cooking and the Atlantean Fallacy

I'm snowed in at home today, so I thought I might take a moment to illustrate what I think of as "the Atlantean Fallacy," and how it can be demonstrated through the simple art of cooking.

Let me start off by saying that I love to cook. As time has gone on, I've discovered that cooking and writing are similar in that you feel happier about doing it if you can do it for someone other than just yourself. Like writing, you'll cook for yourself to stay alive--because for a writer, not writing is a fatal condition--but your big thrill comes from seeing other people enjoy what you've made.

Since I'm snowed in right now, I was cooking for myself alone. As I was standing over the stove, adding Italian seasoning to my handmade pizza rolls, I thought about how badly I screwed up the dish the first time I tried making it. I didn't enjoy cooking when I was younger, but that was mainly because I didn't know how. I just thought I could throw things together and make them hot, and magically they would become food. Learning to cook for myself was a terrible struggle--also like learning how to write. The talent was there, and the love of the material, but not the refined ability. In both cases, I knew somewhere in me was a person with ability, but the sheer frustration of trying and failing repeatedly was almost heartbreaking.

Even today, while I would consider myself a good cook, I wouldn't consider myself a great one. I often screw up a recipe the first time through by missing some small but vital detail. And unlike writing, you can't go back through on a finished dish and edit it. You can refine your technique each time you make a dish, over time, but that doesn't help the people who have to eat something flavorless or nasty. I know that there are great cooks out there, people who have the intuition and skill necessary to create truly magnificent dishes... but I also know that they rarely make something perfect on the first try. Cooking, like writing, is an art where the creator refines over time.

Now, we come to the Atlantean Fallacy and why cooking matters.

The Atlantean Fallacy is the idea, prevalent in genre fiction and fantasy gaming, that the first of whatever you're talking about in the setting is inevitably the best and most perfect example of that thing. This comes from the idea that Atlantis was the first human civilization, tens of thousands of years ago, but somehow they were more advanced than the Greeks who wrote about them, or even the modern people who still theorize about them. Whatever we come up with, Atlantis probably had first--and then some.

This attitude extends into genre fiction with surprising regularity. You see it all the time: the first wizard was the most powerful one, the first civilization was the most noble, the first sword ever forged is the most deadly, the first monster of a breed is the most cunning and lethal. More broadly, this translates into a systematic campaign of nostalgia for past times in genre fiction and fantasy gaming. The ancients were wiser and more powerful, the elder wizards knew secrets that our modern folk cannot achieve, and so on.

If you look at these sort of statements logically, they never make any kind of sense. If the first of something were the best, then we'd all still be driving Model-T cars and eating raw meat. I keep drawing parallels between cooking and writing because they're both things I love, but the truth is that all human endeavors can be improved through refinement of technique, training, and better materials. Unless magic in a setting literally can only do the things that the first wizard can do, and literally cannot improve past his level of skill with them, then magic would also follow this axiom.

Quite frankly, I find the concept that "the ancients were always better than us in every way" more than a little insulting as a player, and quite limiting as a GM. If the great achievements are always in the past, what can the heroes of the current era hope to accomplish that the ones of the past couldn't? While there are a few settings that have really good answers to that question, most don't bother even thinking about it. There are also a few settings that deconstruct the Atlantean Fallacy quite neatly, either directly attributing that idea to nostalgia or justifying it as the result of an in-setting apocalypse of some kind.

I find that I enjoy settings that subvert or justify the Atlantean Fallacy, but I just can't take seriously any setting that just uses it without thinking about it. Like cooking, worlds progress and advance over time, refined bit by bit into something better than before.

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