On Visionary Fantasy

When I first read the Song of Ice and Fire books by George RR Martin, I was pretty much entranced by them. I was unemployed at the time, and had nothing to do every day but send out job applications, play Red Dead Redemption, and read books– so I ended up reading every book in the entire series in two weeks flat, finishing just two days before the most recent entry in the series– A Dance With Dragons– came out. So I read that right away, too. For just under three weeks, I spent about 75% of my waking hours in Westeros. I had entered one of those weird fiction-induced flow states where nothing in the real world seems quite real, and your imagination seems more physically powerful than any of your actual muscles.

About a week after I finished the books, the glow wore off, and I started having serious misgivings about what I’d read. Namely, the fact that practically every female character in every one of those books is raped or at the very least threatened with sexual violence, like, all the goddamn time! When you look back and see exactly how often rape is brought up in those books– how often it is used as a weapon against people of both sexes, but far more often against women– it gets really disturbing. It really began to wear me down, no matter how hard I tried to focus on the book’s good parts.

So I started reading up on critical responses to the ASOIAF books to see if anyone else had picked up on this, and was gratified to see that a lot of people, actually, had. This humorous article covered my misgivings most comprehensively, pointing out the books’s sheer, overpowering amount of rape, the amount of slut-shaming, the stereotype-riddled characterization of most of the major women, and the similar bizarre stereotyping of the (rare) plucky lady adventuress heroes.

This article spoke so clearly to my growing misgivings that I simply had to share it on Facebook, which I did, only to discover that this made at least one of my Facebook acquaintances nuclearly angry that I would dare criticize a “medieval” story which has “gritty realism,” because GRRM is only trying to be “authentic”.

Now, I studied medieval and early modern Europe for four years in college, culminating in a focus on cultural history (history as it is expressed by the cultural productions of the era, including plays, church records, bible translations, pamphlets, newspapers, etc), so I am very familiar with how women were treated and thought of at that time. Yes, it was bad, but women were not actually getting raped every minute. Some of them even managed to defeat the restrictive bounds of their patriarchal cultures and wield actual power and get serious respect. Sometimes they subverted their patriarchal culture in exciting ways which I wish were better-known and more-admired. I don’t know if it’s bizarre enlightened foolishness which makes us think that the past was an uninterrupted orgy of violence and oppression, but it wasn’t. When you take a step back and look at the great diversity of world cultures, the past wasn’t even consistently sexist or homophobic. And though those moments were rare, we should seek them out and celebrate them and hold them up for everyone to see. Pretending that the past has always been completely bad sometimes ends up working to the disadvantage of progress, by subtly validating modern oppression. I’ve seen that kind of thing happen a lot with regards to the areas of my own study. I’ve seen people sighing that the past was bad, so we shouldn’t be too disappointed by a lack of progress in the present. I’ve seen people using their imaginary vision of the past to justify fucked-up fantasy worlds in the present. And when those fantasy worlds get as popular as GRRM’s have, it’s a problem. Medieval European culture in particular wasn’t the torrent of abhorrent violence you’d believe it was if you took GRRM’s books for actual commentary about the past.

Because they’re not, really. They’re superficially medieval political dramas, and the past has practically nothing to do with the plots and characters in the story. 100% of the stuff in the book is the pure creative creation of GRRM himself. As Tiger Beatdown put it in the article linked above,

A Song of Ice and Fire is known for being “gritty” and “authentic,” so really, aren’t I just objecting to the realism? Reader, here are the things that George R. R. Martin changed about Ye Olde Medieval Europe, when he set out to write A Song of Ice and Fire: Religion. Geography. History. Politics. Zombies. Werewolves. Dragons. At one point, when asked why his characters were taller, healthier, and longer-lived than actual Medieval people, George R. R. Martin explained that human genetics and biology do not work the same way in Westeros as they do in the real world. So George R. R. Martin considered that he could change all of that while maintaining “authenticity.” Here’s what he left in, however: Institutionalized pedophilia.

Everything in those books was put there deliberately by a man who is clearly very experienced at his craft. So it’s not accidental: GRRM wanted to write a story in a world where rape and the oppression of women and female children are common, everyday things. That’s the kind of imaginary world he cooked up in his head. And there’s nothing ‘authentic to the past’ about it. So what the fuck, I ask you, is going on in his head?

I feel that the only reason to have a story set in a world where rape normalized is if you’re going to make some kind of point about how rape is actually bad. Like, the only excuse I can see for ASOIAF’s rapeyness is if in the very last book, all the female characters get up and announce “all y’all rapey men SUCK, do you hear,” and then they take over the world and put all the rapists in jail. Because if this isn’t some long game on GRRM’s part to tell a slow parable about how terrible rape and patriarchy are, there is really no excuse for this shit in a story written in and told to the modern world.

I am totally serious about this. If we are committed to changing bad cultural shit in our own time, we have to express that stuff in our stories. The future lives partially in our inventions. Gene Roddenberry’s idealism in Star Trek is a great example of this: his stories broke the taboos of their age, changed television standards, and so inspired the world that they resulted in the creation of an actual spaceship named Enterprise. If you can’t imagine a just world for your fantasies, are you committed to bringing about justice in the real world? I’d say: no. You are not. You are basically celebrating bad stuff, actually. Unless you are telling, as I said, a long parable, and one of the punchlines is “oppression is bad!”

I bring this all up now because I’ve had the joy of reading a couple of fantastic fantasy books set in a world where gender equality is normal, homophobia is absolutely nonexistent, the only time (that I can remember) that rape is mentioned is when someone says you can’t do that, and half the important characters are complex women with real goals and skills and (about 99% of the time) actual personalities. The books? The Gentleman Bastards series by Scott Lynch.

These two (soon to be three) stories are superficially based on medieval/early modern Italian city-states– just as superficially as GRRM’s magical land is based on England. They center around a group of con men who have crazy caper-y adventures stealing loads of gold from rich people in years-long cons full of false identities, magical traps, crazy contraptions, sneaky plots, and last-minute game-changing reveals. They’re pretty much excellent– excellently written, excellently imagined– and they’re even more excellent because they’re full of so much goddamn JUSTICE, particularly when it comes to gender equality and LGBT rights.

The first book in the series features: a mafioso’s clever daughter who is expected to grow up to be chief of thieves herself, a pair of female gladiators with a secret, a noblewoman who is basically the family moneymaker due to her crazy alchemy/botany skills, and one extremely powerful and important politician woman who I can’t talk about without revealing secrets about the story. The book is filled with mentions of female guards walking around with spears and swords. It includes female thieves, lots and lots of gladiators who are women, and more. Wherever Lynch has a chance to point out yes, both genders can accomplish this thing, both genders are accomplishing that thing, right there in front of your face. There are also a number of sidelong references to the fact that in this universe, homosexuality is just dandy, and celebrated right alongside heterosexuality.

The second book takes it up a notch. We learn, early on, that sailors in this universe believe it is an unforgivable sin to go to sea without many many women on your ship. If you are not on sea with women, the god of the sea will get so pissed at you that he will fucking destroy you! So, naturally, there are tons of women on every ship, many in leadership positions, and everyone is cool with them reaching great heights of power and influence. One of the most important characters in the story is a woman who is a pirate and a mother and whose three-year-old kids are on the ship with her. In some scenes, she goes straight from stabbing people to feeding her kids dinner, and everyone takes this in stride. She is part of a pirate’s council where most of the captains are women. Also in this story: lady soldiers, politically powerful lady naval officers, a disabled lady ex-soldier who is a casino security master who replaced her injured hand with a fucking robo-arm that she fights people with, a lady pirate captain who is a lesbian, various bisexual and gay pirates, and on and on and on: just loads and loads of rock-solid idealistic fantasy flying around.

Now, it is possible to read books like the Gentleman Bastards series and say “well, okay, but all the main characters are still men, so this isn’t idealistic enough for me.” But I’m willing to take this victory and enjoy the show. It’s also possible to say “well, if you want us to imagine idealistic universes, why are you stopping with gender and sexuality? Why aren’t you pissed off that there are poor people in this story, or cruel dictators, or torture?” But again, I’m willing to say that this thing, right now, is pretty great, and we shouldn’t knock it. Every story will need to have challenges for its protagonists to overcome, so there’s no point in writing a story set in a perfectly idealistic world. But there is a point in helping us imagine ways in which cruelty and oppression can be overcome by showing it in the story. And when it comes to gender and sexuality, a great way to show that is to simply show a universe where most people, to be frank, are better and kinder than we are.

If GRRM doesn’t have the strength, conviction, or vision to imagine such a world, whatever. Fuck that guy. I’ll be reading The Gentleman Bastards instead.

Verified Facts coverage

So, Verified Facts really took off! We got a ton of coverage in a lot of high-profile places. Our short-lived internet fame was a very intense experience.

First of all, Ian Webster, who coded the project, wrote his own overview here. If you have magical code powers and want to learn how we did it, he’s the guy to read.

Ian then posted Verified Facts to Hacker News, where we were highly upvoted. We got a lot of traffic from this!

Hacker News people put it on reddit, in a couple of places. r/conspiracy was not so amused (figures; we actually took a lot of ideas from that particular subreddit!) but r/skeptic really liked us.


At some point Charlie Stross, the author who wrote Accellerando, posted about us.

Then NEIL GAIMAN tweeted about us. Holy fuck! This was ridiculous for me in particular, since I’ve read so much of his stuff. Ian had no idea who he was:


Then BoingBoing posted about us. This was huge. Super huge.

Then MetaFilter.

We got a really kind writeup by this person here. It is nice to be treated as if you have a sophisticated master plan and deep comprehension of the things you are doing, but I think during the creation process were were less focused on whether or not we were a sophisticated piece of satire or criticism, and more focused on whether or not we could be completely funny. In retrospect, the project is definitely a commentary on conspiracy theorists and the conspiracy theorist mindset, but the commentary is not particularly deep* and throughout the project, I mostly was just having a good time, not pondering deep mysteries. That said, I’m now reading Foucault’s Pendulum. So, there you go.

Anyway, we were very excited and grateful to be received so positively. We generated hundreds of thousands of conspiracy theories and entertained hundreds of thousands of people in under a week. Heck, I even got retweeted by Neil Gaiman on my birthday. (One of the best birthday presents I have ever received!) It seems as if we picked the right topic: conspiracy theories are exciting and intriguing as well as somewhat disgusting and deplorable, and there are a number of strong internet communities which find them fascinating and hilarious (‘skeptics’, weird fiction fans, etc). This helped us get a lot of attention very quickly. I doubt we’ll be able to replicate this experience again, but it was tons of fun, we learned a lot, and we made both ourselves and many other people happy.

So, overall, a massive success.

* “Wow! This paranoia is so meaningless, it can be modeled by random chaos!”


There is a certain type of person who really can’t handle non-traditional games. That’s all fine; nobody is under any obligation to like anything in this world.

When they get vocal, defensive, and prescriptivist, though, these people can be extremely annoying. I’ve written down my opinions about this before. Every time I’ve seen it used, “XYZ is not a game” has added nothing to any conversation. It’s a regressive argument born out of incomprehension (and possibly fear).

One of Proteus’s creators recently wrote a wonderful article about the issue. He covers a number of the problems I also have with this “debate,” ranging from its use as a tool for exclusion…

The stricter the definition of an inherently nebulous concept, the more absurd the implications. Should Dear Esther and Proteus be excluded from stores that sell games? Not covered in the games press? Since Sim City is either a toy or a simulation, that should be excluded too, along with flight simulators.

…to the disingenuous, uncourteous crusading that often characterizes the not-a-game side of this argument:

Outside of academic discussions, encouraging a strict definition of “game” does nothing but foster conservatism and defensiveness in a culture already notorious for both. Witness the raging threads on the Proteus Steam forum, most of which are posted (and re-posted and re-posted) by people who don’t own the game. There’s a huge difference between this kind of “activism” or claiming something is the Emperor’s New Clothes and individual people trying something and deciding it’s not for them.
Proteus was certainly made by a game developer (and a musician), working in the context of videogames, using game design and development techniques to express a particular set of things. None of that is really important, because the proof is in the playing.

When I was in school, I was exposed to works by strict ludologists who spent all their time haughtily dismissing games with narrative experiences. These people, too, loved to loudly decide what a game was and what a game wasn’t. In the worst cases, these writers would sit around arguing that the more games we made with stories in them, the more we risked “subjugating” games as an art form “under” traditional storytelling media like books and movies. Which is bullshit, of course. I always told myself, “It’s okay. Ordinary people like games with stories. Games with stories will always exist.”

Later, when I started reading a lot of games writers and fans and exploring what “ordinary people,” whoever they are, actually think about games definitions, I was equally bothered by their resistance to games which push traditional boundaries. They treated games like Passage as personal affronts, as threats to their “culture.” They argued– and this is a conservative paraphrase, people actually said this shit– that if we “let” people treat these things as games, then somehow “pretentious” “art games” would “take over” and the definition of “game” would be ruined (presumably because it would be more open, and invite the perspectives of a more diverse range of human beings). So I told myself, “It’s okay. Academics and indie games fans like games which push boundaries. Games which push boundaries will always exist.”

Of course, both of my conclusions were true. Creators will always take games to interesting places, and critics have practically no influence on what games can be. Which makes it doubly or triply ironic that I am now posting about an argument between critics and creators about a game that has no trouble being exactly what it wants to be. (And there is of course the problem that I once even considered myself a critic.) These days, I have a hard time agreeing with myself about whether critics are important at all, to anything:

  1. Of course they are: if they weren’t around, who would I have read and loved in college, when I was learning about games and writing and literary theory and all that other wonderful stuff? Who would hold up a mirror to society?
  2. Of course they aren’t: they don’t actually affect real games. I have my own tools to analyze stories now. I don’t need critics to explain anything to me. Nobody looks at that mirror anyway.

And then there’s the problem of what they do for me, if anything:

  1. These debates make me unhappy.
  2. These debates keep me thinking.

Sometimes I guess we have to put up with frivolous bullshit to keep our brains limber.

Verified Facts

EDIT: A lot of people who have seen this site on Reddit and Hacker News have assumed that we did something fancy to get the conspiracies flowing. We didn’t! There is no “Markov chain generation” in this project, just a LOT of writing and some clever sentence linking-rules. See Ian’s post about how he programmed this project to learn more.

Recently, my friends Ian Webster, Emily Snowman, and I made a website that generates conspiracy theories.

It’s essentially a very detailed mad-libs generator. It mixes and matches about 33 pages of content we wrote over the course of two weeks. Although the conspiracy theories it generates are not always very coherent, it does attempt to create an illusion of intent or coherency by getting the main sentences in each conspiracy to share nouns.

How it works

Each passage is made up of two kinds of sentences: “main sentences” and “filler sentences.” Main sentences look like this:


but the content we wrote looks more like this:

Studies show that people who spend too much time in {{place1}} frequently end up with incurable cases of {{malady}}. This trend is consistently repeated all the way back through {{era}}, when {{government_org}} first set up shop in {{place1}}.

The items in {{brackets}} stand for words which will be substituted in from our massive list of content variables. There are 12 categories of content variables: maladies, dangerous nouns, eras, abstract nouns, government organizations, companies, countries, civilian organizations, events, places, famous people, and government people. I haven’t counted all the individual nouns we have in the system, but it appears to be over 650. Some of them are silly and a bit flippant; some of them are the kind of things that conspiracy theorists might actually say. Others are historically problematic and make me uncomfortable whenever they show up! Filler sentences are static, and contain no variables. They say practically nothing, too.

The passages this program generates each have a minimum of 4 main sentences: an introduction, two arguments about “evidence,” and a conclusion or warning. There can be additional evidence sentences, and there is a chance for one “filler” sentence to appear between any sentence after sentence 2. Here’s a conspiracy it generated, with the parts labelled:


When the program first begins constructing a random passage, it selects one introductory sentence and a bunch of nouns to fill it with. It then attempts to select a second sentence that shares at least one of those noun fields. There are never any filler sentences between these first two main sentences; this helps the passage feel more like someone is telling you a story about something instead of just linking random phrases together.


The process continues. For each main sentence, the program selects a sentence that shares noun categories with the immediately previous main sentence, then fills those categories with nouns used in the earlier sentences, generating new nouns to fill new categories if necessary.  The nouns shared between later sentences don’t have to be identical the noun shared between the first two sentences. There are certain classes of nouns which the program prefers NOT to link: for example, it would rather share a {{person}} between two sentences than an {{era}}, an {{abstract_noun}}, a {{dangerous_noun}}, or a {{malady}}. The program also attempts to bring back previously-mentioned nouns, even if that noun has not been consistently shared. If the {{person}} “Oprah” shows up in sentence 1, but not in main sentences 2 or 3, she could still show up in main sentence 4 or 5.

The effect of this passage-structuring system is that our passages tend to feel rambly and unfocused, but that they also have a chance of returning to original topics or making neat circular arguments. We feel that this is an appropriate way for conspiracy theories to behave. I’ve noticed that writings by real conspiracy theorists tend to display bizarre, barely-penetrable dream-logic, as if the author is following directions on a map nobody else can read. Therefore, when it came to verisimilitude, we found it acceptable to write a system that assembles passages randomly, with no real comprehension of related “topics” or sentence subjects.

The project also contains fake footnotes and relevant page titles. Page titles can list one or two nouns. The first noun listed is always the noun shared between sentences 1 and 2. If this noun is also the noun repeated most-often throughout the conspiracy, no other noun is listed. But if another noun is listed more often than this first noun, that noun will also be included in the conspiracy title. Footnotes, on the other hand, are just selected randomly and in random quantities from a collection of works found via Google Scholar.

Problems and solutions

We are aware that much of the time, our conspiracy theories sound nothing at all like actual speech, or like actual coherent conspiracy theories. However, we have settled with this in favor of solutions which would have harmed the overall quality of the project.

  1. We could have trained the program to recognize the subject of a sentence. We could have done this by adding additional tags to indicate which noun field in each sentence was the subject. We then could have written a linking algorithm which paid more attention to sentence topics/subjects. However, this would have taken a very long long time and probably a lot of backtracking and content re-writing, and we were treating this as a short project.
  2. We could have written the main sentences in a more vague or homogenous way, so that they resembled one another more closely in tone and style. However, this would have forced us to make the content overall more “mellow” or “middle of the road”, which would have made the project less hilarious.
  3. We could have had a more strict linking system, where each sentence in a passage shared the same noun or couple of nouns. This would have made the sentences less rambly and more uniform, which was not something we found appealing, stylistically.
  4. We could have been more judicious about using certain noun categories more frequently. Right now our collection of sentences contains far more instances of {{government_org}}, {{dangerous_noun}}, or {{organization}} than {{era}}, {{abstract_noun}}, or {{event}}. I would like us to even out noun category usage over time, but right now, I think the imbalance is OK, since it gives more weight to the kinds of noun categories that are traditionally associated with actual conspiracy theories.

We are satisfied with the current state of the project but figure that there’s a lot of work we could still do on it.

About mad-libbed content

I have previously tried to complete other mad-libbed content projects, but have always failed to actually implement any systems. This is the first time I have seen a random-prose-generation project through from start to finish.

In the end, content proved to be both our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. Our system was entirely creator-content-based; the program had no ability to write its own sentences, and users could only contribute individual nouns in predefined categories, via the “Search” feature. No matter how sophisticated our linking systems are– and no matter how sophisticated they might become in the future, after more development– the quality of our content will still be our major limiting factor.

For example, when we first started working on the project, there was no distinction between {{organization}} and {{government_org}} and no distinction between {{famous_person}} and {{government_person}}. Additionally, we had a lot of people in those lists who were long dead– so long dead that the didn’t make sense in most of the sentences they’d turn up in. At one point, we had to go through the variable lists and split everything up and cull a ton of words.

We had similar problems with the main and filler sentences. Sometimes we’d write a sentence that sounded good by itself, but made no sense in the context of other sentences. Sometimes we’d write introductory sentences that had too many variables, and seemed to tell too complete a story– so every sentence that followed would sound unrelated and weird.

Every time Ian (who programmed the entire project) made adjustments to the linking systems, our passages improved– but they could improve only so long as the sentences made sense. I think the most time-consuming, dull, and frustrating barrier we had to overcome was the degree to which poor content limited us.


We hope to continue updating the site, but we will always have to navigate a tradeoff between conspiracy “coherency” and other qualities we value, like randomness, rambliness, high variance, and the sheer size of the project overall. (The sentences themselves contain over 9500 words!)

If I ever have to work on a project where I must write a mad-lib content generator, I will prefer the passages to be much less detailed than the ones in this project. I’d prefer to work with passages consisting of only a few sentences– three sentences, say, and no filler– and much less than 12 variable categories. With good content, such a project could seem just as varied and interesting, while requiring a fraction of the necessary man-hours to implement, and granting the creators more fine control over the final generated results.