Fantasy needs monsters

When I got back into fantasy books a year or so ago, I noticed that there seems to be a quite pronounced scarcity of monsters and nonhuman humanoids in the vast majority of works. When you talk with people about Sword & Sorcery, many have a very firm stance that it has to be human-only and that you can’t maintain the structure, dynamics, and themes of the genre if you include elves, trolls, or dragonmen. Today I came across a short article on another site which I’ve read and very much liked a while back, by a person whose opinions and understanding of the workings of fantasy I usually very much agree with and respect. The main thought was that monsters should be very rare and be limited to the truly unnatural, with a very distinct separation from normal wildlife. And I very much agreed with it, since it helps to ensure that the encounter with an actual monster will be something special and that the audience feels like there’s really an extraordinary danger.

I now very much think that I was wrong about it. Much of contemporary fantasy could be accused of being mostly a fictionalized version of the middle ages with the occasional sprinkle of magic here and there, but very little fantastic elements as far as the plot is considered. But even that would not be correct as many of these worlds are really more like 20th century societies in fictional lands that use technology that superficially looks medieval. I mentioned the relationship of humans, nature, and the divine in my review of the academic book Nature and the Numinous in Mythopoeic Fantasy Literature, but I am going to lay it out again in this article that is directly at fantasy writers. The idea that nature is something that surrounds human cities and is separate from the human world, and that the divine aspect of the universe is located in a completely different place or dimension is very specific to modern western thought. It has been argued that the foundation for this is already found in the myth of the Garden of Eden, when humans were instructed by God to rule over all animals and plants, but it really developed to its current form through the ideas of Enlightenment and Humanism. (Which since the late 19th century got exported throughout the whole world together with the western education system and the modern principles and procedures of science that were based on that conception of the world, so it’s not strictly a European and North American thing anymore.) But in the kinds of societies after which almost all fantasy lands and cultures are modeled this whole concept fairly alien. Even in medieval Christianity, where the distinction between humans and animals was pretty clear, God was generally assumed to work directly in the everyday world, either actively or through agents. And the believe that there were other human-like people living in distant parts of the world was very widely spread. The land of the dog-headed men was a frequent topic among explorers and even the church had serious debates about what to do with them once their land is found. A quite common opinion was that they should be baptised and integrated into the church, just like all other humans. Assuming they are not already Christians.

Fantasy is obviously something you can’t do wrong. Pretty much every world imaginable can be well suited to be the setting for a certain kind of story. But lots of writers, and especially fans, make a pretty big deal of these worlds accurately portraying the technology of various historic periods and places. And often having fictional creatures around is perceived as being too fanciful and unrealistic. But at the same time there is generally no effort made at all to even somewhat approximate the way these people saw the world. We’ve had an interesting discussion at Fantasy Faction a while back about the possibility of “mythic fantasy”, and another one just last month about fantasy books in which religion and religious believes play an important part. (In both cases the search for existing works came up almost blank.) When you look at epics from antiquity and the proto-historic periods before it, it is very easy to see how very mucg similar they are to modern fantasy books, which have of course been very much inspired by them. But in those epics, the borders between human, nature, monster, and gods is often so thin and blurred that it’s not really there at all.

The book I mentioned above examines a small number of 20th century fantasy writers who went against that and deliberately set out to tie human concerns together with nature and the affairs of the gods. The gods don’t make any appearance in The Lord of the Rings, but it’s always clear that there are higher powers at work and that Sauron, Gandalf, and the elves are all major players in a conflict that is much greater than the kingdoms of man. In The Hobbit, Beorn is both a man and a bear, but different from either. You have eagles who are taking direct action in the struggle between mortals and immortals, and trees who walk and talk like humans. And of course all the talking spiders. Pretty much everything that Tolkien did was mindlessly copied countless times without understanding why he did it and what their purpose was. But this dissolving of the boundaries between humans, nature, and the divine was almost universally ignored, perhaps because it was too subtle to even notice without understanding it. There’s not really a lot of different creatures in Middle-Earth when you compare it to most roleplaying games and videogames, but all of them do not exist to create contrast between the natural and the unnatural, but to make such a distinction disappear. In European myths about fey beings, they always are as much part of nature as they are divine, and most of the time they also look very similar to humans. Even the classic fairytale witch is not just a regular old woman who knows a bit of magic, but also a monster. (Maybe I write an article about how the witch is the female counterpart of the ogre one day.) In any attempt to create “mythic fantasy”, the path into the world of spirits and magic should not lead through the wardrobe or the rabbit hole, but instead it needs to be identical with our own. In many mythologies, the Underworld is not another dimension, but an actual cave system that can be entered through any deep enough cave. To have fantasy that is in any way inspired by myth and tries to capture its essence, I think monsters are not just permissible, but mandatory. Without them and the dissolution of boundaries they present, any work can not go beyond the scope of pseudo-history.

Book Review: Nature and the Numinous in Mythpoeic Literature

Today I am reviewing a very different kind of book. It’s neither a novel nor a writing guide, but actually a scientific book written by Chris Brawley and released last year by McFarland as volume 46 of their series Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

9780786494651_lNature and the Numinous in Mythopoeic Fantasy is not popular science, but the real deal. Proper academic literature written by and for scientists. I had not heard of Chris Brawley before and didn’t find any info on him in a quick online search, but this book touches in scociology, anthropology, religious studies, and literary criticism. I’ve studied cultural studies, religion, and intercultural communication for several years and this is just the type of book we’ve been using all the time. You probably won’t find it in regular libraries, but university libraries might either have it or could get it from another university that does. If it’s a topic that really interests you, it’s also not too expensive to just buy it yourself. (The book includes a list of all the other books that have been released in the series. “Culture, Identities and Technology in the Star Wars Films”, “Ursula Le Guin’s Journey to Post-Feminism”, and “J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Howard and the Birth of Modern Fantasy” are all titles I want to hunt down.)

It’s a very interesting book. If you can read it. This is at times pretty heavy stuff. Being an American academic book, the way it is written and the content explained is relatively easy to follow. It’s nothing like German academic books where it often seems like the authors are trying to write in code to prevent the contents falling into the hands of the uninitiated and being released to the general public. (It’s easier for many German students to read American academic books in English than German academic books in German.) But knowing its audience, it does rely on a good amount of preexisting familiarity with the field and jumps straight into the deep end. Someone who is not familiar with many of the technical terms might possibly miss more than half of the information presented in it. But first semester students manage. If you really want to know what this book has to say on its subject, I very much recommend giving it a shot. Even if you don’t understand half of it, the other half might still be quite eye opening.

The main topic of the book is the numinous in the stories of Tolkien, Lewis, and Le Guin. The numinous is a concept that probably very few people outside of this segment of academics have heard of, but it’s not really that difficult to understand. It was introduced about a hundred years ago by Rudolf Otto to help with discussing religious experiences. The central idea is that people occasionally have moments in which they become aware that the world and life are more than just the things they normally pay conscious attention to, which results in a feeling of amazement, wonder, fascination, elation, and possibly fear. Otto argues that such experiences are universal to humans in all places and all times, but people explain these moments and emotions in a wide range of ways based on concepts from their culture and religion. Religious studies is a field that stays neutral and detached from any assumptions about the existance or the nature of the divine and limits itself to the way how cultures and communities deal with such questions, which is a segment of anthroplogy and sociology that can be scientifically studied like any other human behavior. As such, Otto did not attempt to define what could possibly be the source of these experiences, so instead of a noun he refers to it with an adjective that describes it’s most relevant quality. It is numinous. Whether people think of it as God, nirvana, eternity, or a fluke of the human brain, the people who experience such moments become aware of something that to them feels numinous. (From latin “numen”; a divine presence.)

While many writers of fantasy and their readers aproach their works as adventure stories with magic and strange creatures, some see their own works not only as entertaining diversions, but have the aim to create stories that are “eye opening” and get the reader to think about their everyday world in a different way. Not simply to change opinions, but to see more, think more, and feel more, and to experience the world and life as more than just rational facts. Brawly quotes Tolkien that “what fantasy does is to help lift that “veil of familiarity” and allows us to “clean our windows” so that we see the world clearly, and religiously.” Other authors that are examnined in this book are C.S. Lewis,Samuel Coleridge, George MacDonald, Algernon Blackwood, and Ursula Le Guin, which is a quite homogenous group as the author admits himself, with Le Guin specifically included to provide some contrast. But since the topic of the book is quite specific, concentrating on a quite narrow segment of fantasy fiction is not a serious disadvantage. His point probably comes across much clearer than if he would examine a very broad range of highly different writers and works.

I came across this book entirely by accident while looking for any possible pieces of writing advice regarding religious elements in fantasy, since I’ve long been feeling that most fantasy I’m seeing is somewhat stale or even sterile when it comes to being “magical” and “wonderous”. At some point this book title showed up among the search result and with my background in cultural and religious studies recognized it as being exactly about the kind of thing I was trying to get some insight on. Even though none of the authors examined in this book are of the kind I usually read. And though the book is not about writing advice at all, I found it extremely helpful for my own purpose. One of the big points made by the book is that both Christian thought and Western Enightenment are centered around the basic assumption that there is a clear distinction and separation between humans, the divine, and nature. If the divine does exist, humans are not part of it. Humans are also not part of nature. They look at nature from the outside and maipulate it for their own benefit or accidentally causing damage that will become a problem to them in the future. And this position is highly criticized by the examined writers and their stories often tend to tear down these distinctions and seprations. In their stories, humans are part of nature, and both humans and nature are part of the divine. And frequently play very important roles for the fate of the gods and the universe.

The Lord of the Rings is always a good example, not just because it’s so well and widely known. In the world of Middle-Earth you have the ents, who are both like humans and like trees. And there are the eagles, who are animals that can talk and also clearly have some strong connection to heaven. In The Hobbit, you also have a man who is both a human and a bear. And of course there’s also Gandalf who has a human body and lives among humans, but also is divine in nature. Or the elves who are both like people and also at home both in our world and in heaven. Tolkien blurs the lines of what is human, animal, plant, or deity. There are no borders between them, only gradients. And this unification of human, nature, and divine certainly fits the concept of the numinous. An increased awareness of the universe as a single whole. I always wanted to create stories with a strong presence of a Spiritworld and cultures that see their world in an animistic way. Reading this book helped me quite a lot in understanding how that might work in practice.

This books is certainly not for everyone. But if you have some interest in the subject and get an opportunity to flip through it, I very much recommend giving it a look.

Names for Fantasy genres that have some merit and those that don’t

I wrote about the problems of the names used for various types of fantasy fiction at some point last year. But a recent discussion at Fantasy Faction did get me to think some more about it. People categorize most fantasy stories by different genres, which generally is a reasonable thing to do. But in practice many of these genres are not only not defined in even a loose sense, they are also often used completely contradictory. Some of them do have some real merit and are useful in helping people to get a general idea of the style of a work and to find other works of a style that they like. But others are really useless at best or needlessly confusing at worst, and in my opinion should no longer be used by people.

The Good

  • Epic Fantasy: While there is a lot of disagreement what exactly defines a work as Epic Fantasy, there seems to be very little contention about which works are included in this genre. Most importantly is obviously The Lord of the Rings, which really is the gold standard. Epic Fantasies are stories that are about a transformation of the world or a all the lands inhabited by a culture. Ofte it is the reinstating of an old order that has been lost, but in any case it leads to the creation of a better future for everyone. (Which may or may not include the villains.)
  • Urban Fantasy: I’ve also never seen any real confusion here. It’s any work set in the contemporary world, or a fictional world closely modeled after it, with the addition of magic and magic creatures.
  • Sword & Sorcery: Sometimes misused, but it is known exactly who created the term and what he was intending by doing so. Michael Moorcock wrote in a magazine that someone should create a term for the kind of fantasy that he and others were writing to distinguish it from the type of The Lord of the Rings. Fritz Leiber thought that they should call it Sword & Sorcery. So the actual definition of the genre is “the writings of Moorcock and Leiber”, and he also elaborated that he considered Robert Howard to be the best writer of this genre there ever was. What the stories of these three authors have in common is that they deal with protagonists who stand outside of regular society and its rules and commitments and fight for personal goals and by their own moral rules by facing enemies and obstacles head on, generally having to deal with supernatural threats like sorcerers or demons.

The Bad

  • High Fantasy: This term is hugely popular and used all the time. Probably because it can be applied to pretty much everything and has no actual meaning at all. What does High mean? Much? Good? Much Fantasy and Good Fantasy are not genres. The only consent there seems to be about High Fantasy is that Urban Fantasy is not included in it. That’s really not enough to go by for a genre.
  • Heroic Fantasy: This really just occured to me today, but I think it’s actually just as bad as High Fantasy. What does the term tell us? That the protagonist is heroic and does heroic things. With the implication that there will be action. Well, which fantasy story doesn’t? If you count them as fantasy, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz are probably not Heroic Fantasy. But that’s also really not enough to make it a genre. Both The Lord of thr Rings and Conan are often called Heroic Fantasy and they are clearly completely different beast caterint to entirely different tastes.
  • Dark Fantasy: Really the same problem here. It doesnt really tell us anything about what kind of story we can expect other than it won’t be flowers and rainbows. And again, which fantasy story isn’t. Thankfully this never really caught on and we should just forget about it.

The Ugly

  • Low Fantasy: High Fantasy is already bad. But this is much worse. It only tells us that it’s not High Fantasy, and with that one not actually defined it has no meaning at all. Some people use the term, but there is absolutely no agreement about what it’s supposedly describing. Sometimes Conan is Low Fantasy, sometimes Narnia is. It’s completely unusable.
  • Grimdark: Grimdark is a joke that got lots of people laughing for the wrong reason. The term comes from the tagline of the wargame Warhammer 40,000, “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”. The earliest versions of the game were an obvious satire of hypermasculine and hyperviolent fantasy and sci-fi and mocking the 14-year-old boys who loved and often came up with all that nonsense. Obvious to anyone but those 14-year-old boys. They didn’t get that they were made fun of and that other people enjoyed it for being stupid and ludicrous, like deliberately watching terrible movies or reading The Eye of Argon. I remember not too long ago when “grimdark” was used as a derogatory word to mock terrible gritty and violent fiction similar to that parodied by Warhammer 40k. But apparently some of the creators and fans did not realize that they were mocked and in recent years started using the term themselves. The term Grimdark now refers to both the parody of a genre as well as to the genre itself. How weird.

Movie Review: The Forbidden Kingdom

The Forbidden Kingdom is a Chinese-American fantasy movie loosely inspired by Journey to the West. And It’s really terrible. Journey to the West is one of the big classics of Chinese literature, written in the 16th century. This movie is a cheesy portal fantasy in which an American kid is transported into a magical version of medieval China after he finds a magic staff in the shop of an old Chinese man. He quickly runs into a kung fu master, a love interest, and a monk who tell him that he’s destined to return the staff to the Monkey King who has been turned to stone, so that he will come to life again, just as it has been prophecised.

The Forbidden KingdomThis movie reminds me both of Last Action Hero and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Except that Last Action Hero knew that is was a parody of the Action Hero genre. I think this movie actually seems to take itself serious as a wuxia movie. But it’s really more of a travesty. The setup is stupid (I hate Portal Fantasy and Chosen Ones), the plot not really existing, the acting ranges from bland to bad, the villains are forgetable, the jokes are not funny, and the action scenes are pointless. It doesn’t even look good.

I admit that I have not actually seen the whole movie. After about two thirds I could not take it anymore and there really wasn’t any indication that there suddenly would be plot or characterization appearing out of nowhere.

Rating this movie is really very easy. Nay! Don’t watch it. It’s a complete waste of time. It’s even worse than Conan the Barbarian 2011.

Write what you would want to read, Part 2: Stylistic influences

A few weeks back I wrote about my goals in how to structure the ideas for Sword & Sorcery stories that have been flowing through my head for some time. And yes, I could be writing on those stories instead of writing this. But this also is work. Spelling out my thoughts always helps me getting them into order and once I have free floating ideas put into some form of pattern it becomes a lot easier to build upon them. Expanding ideas is always much easier than creating something great out of a vacuum. It’s like starting a puzzle by first sorting out the pieces that go on the edge, put them together to create a frame and then building inwards from there. Trying to find two matching pieces out of 500 is almost impossible and takes forever. (A puzzle under 300 pieces is not worth the effort.)

So here you have my incomplete list of works that captured my imagination and influenced what I would like my own works to be like. In some cases I’ve literally been thinking “I wish there was a fantasy book like this.” Since I seem to be most easily impressed by visuals, most of these are actually movies and videogames. You might also notice that there’s actually more science-fiction than fantasy on the list. But there won’t be any post-Iron Age technology in the Ancient Lands. When it comes to pulp and adventure fiction, their essence is really about personal experience and emotion, which generally can be explored just as well in fantasy as in science-fiction, or even historic settings (see Indiana Jones), and it seems that in the past decades the majority of creators seem to have chosen to go with an outer coating of sci-fi instead of fantasy. After all, in the early days of planetary romance they regularly did both at once. My plan for the Ancient Lands is to continue in this century old tradition of writers and once again going with a fantasy guise again.

  • Knights of the Old Republic: The comic, not the videogame. This part of the Expanded Universe could be seen as a spin-off of the regular Star Wars universe, being set 4,000 years before te movies. You got the Jedi and the Sith, but they are different from those of the later ages, being much more numerous and acting much more out in the open. Which leads to this era feeling even more like traditional fantasy than Star Wars already does. And I actually like them a lot more. It started with the Tales of the Jedi comics in the early 90s, which were created simultaneously to the Jedi Academy novels and served as a kind of backstory but were also standing on their own feet. Later BioWare used those comic as basis for their videogame set some 100 years or so later. And then we got a comic series that takes place just before the game and visiting many of the same planets and having some appearances from the characters of the game, but mostly they are their own story. And while I am not usually fan of American comics, it’s actually my favorite Star Wars work. (After The Empire Strikes Back, of course.) I want to reread it and write a very extensive review for it as wrll. The main hero Zayne Carrick is not so great, being posibly literally the worst Jedi ever. While he’s a complete failure as a Jedi he still manages to become quite heroic in his own way, which is something I consider very much worse exploring in Sword & Sorcery. But to me the real star of the series is Jarael, who is only one character of Zayne’s weird gang of anti-heroes but also got her own storyline that runs parallel to his. And absolutely kicks ass. It’s a bit like Avatar, where the story of Aang was quite entertaining and often interesting, but I really always came back to see the story of Zuko. What I like so much about this era is that it takes the fantasy elements of Star Wars and gives them even greater emphasis, and also makes the universe feel more ancient and mystical. The absolute core concept of the Ancient Lands is “KotOR without the space ships”.
  • Mass Effect: If there is one thing I love almost as much as Star Wars, it’s Mass Effect. The first game blew my mind just by seeing the main menu, but the second one is what I consider the greatest videogame of all time. Mass Effect was created by BioWare after Knights of the Old Republic and being clearly a successor of it, but being set in their own new universe meant that they no longer needed to be confined by the Star Wars license. There are various reasons why Mass Effect had such a huge impact on me. The first one being that it made me understand how much better any story becomes when it is about something meaningful and that this can also apply to whole universes. Mass Effect almost never gets preachy and has no sermons, but everything you run into deals with ending conflict and reaching reconciliation by admiting that you have been wrong in your actions or convictions. Blame and guilt become insignificant compared to forgiveness and only rarely can anyone claim the moral high ground. And because of it the conflicts all become so much more compelling and meaningful. There is real conflict and real doubt, not the artifical lack of ambiguity created by black and white stories where no thinking is required. This also hits very deeply to my existentialist contemplations and believes. These are the kinds of story that are really worth telling. This is the stuff that means something. The other thing about the series is that I like the way the visual style creates atmosphere. There’s something very late 70s movie about them. The way the places in the games feel, particularly the second, is what I want to capture and recreate. There is something ethereal about it which I find just fascinating.
  • Morrowind: I’ve talked about this game a lot in recent months. The world of The Elder Scrolls is not particularly interesting to me in general, but the specific region of Morrowind is amazing. It’s both exotic in its landscapes and wildlife, but it is also a mythic lands, full of philosophers, secret societies, and living gods who live alongside mortals.
  • The Witcher: I love both the books and the games. I often see comments about Sword & Sorcery that claim that it is an outdated genre from the 60s that failed to keep up as culture had been changing and being stuck in a past that has very little to offer to modern audiences. There certainly is a sense that all the good stuff has been by Howard and Leiber and that nothing really got close to them since. But The Witcher seems to me like a series that is very much a new attempt at Sword & Sorcery for the new post-cold war world. I think there was actually a massive shift taking place in entertainment in the early 90s, with one of the most striking examples being the difference between Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. (Also a good topic for a future article.) The stories of Geralt of Rivia have a very strong deconstructive element to them. Fantasy in general, but really Sword & Sorcery in particular, is mercilessly disassembled, all the pieces critically examined, and all the hypocrisies and inconsistencies exposed. But they are not just a hateful critique or even a satire, but instead continue and attempt to straighten out the faults and emphasize the qualities. Or to put it more bluntly, Sapkowskis characters travel trough fantasyland and continuously call each other out on their respective bullshit. But they also have genuine respect and appreciation for their redeeming qualities. Sapkowski takes all the different characters of fantasyland down from their high horses and cuts them down to size, and they all come out of it stronger and you can appreciate what they have to offer for storytelling in the 21st century. Sword & Sorcery is not obsolete, but it could really use some fixing up. And I think reading the books can really help to recognize in which areas Howard and Leiber could be expanded on. They are a solid foundation, but not the end of all there can be to Sword & Sorcery. The writers of the videogames also manged to capture this aspect of the stories very well.
  • Thief: I actually finished this 17 year old game for the first time only earlier this year and somehow I still have not been able to finish the review draft I’ve started for it. The main character may look like a cliche now, being a sneering and sarcastic loner with a dark hood and a master thief as professional as he is unrepentant, but I think Garrett might actually have started this whole trend. Thief is the most straight example of Noir fantasy you’ll ever come across. It’s always dark and rainy in a claustrophobic city of narrow alleys and high roofs and it feels like The Maltese Falcon set in a steampunk version of the middle ages. The first game of the three also is a pretty straight Sword & Sorcery experience, which the second game largely abandoned and went more steampunk James Bond. Though it makes sense as each game focuses on one of the three factions of The City and the first one is all about the Pagans who worship Chaos and nature, while the second is about the Mechanist who are all about Order and technology. I hope to get a propper review done soon, but I really love the first game. It has relatively little action in the conventional sense, but Garrett’s sneaking around in extremely dangerous and heavily guarded places is just as daring and outrageous, even if there are no buckets of blood or piles of corpses. It’s a very gloomy and well thought out story which in many sections dips very strongly into horror as well. What I want to take away from it the most is how ot creates tension, danger, urgency, and dread without relying on combat.
  • Riddick: Thinking of the Riddick movies as very well made B-movies would not be inacurate. And if someone calls them cheesy, cliched, and failing at trying to be artistic, I could see where this impresion would come from. While they are science fiction on the surface, they have the undiluted essence of Sword & Sorcery running through their bodies. It’s hardboiled Planetary Romance. Genres that have always had a reputation for being a bit trashy, but every Sword & Sorcery fans that under the simple and rough presentation there is a depth of meaning and emotion in them that many great artist would envy, if you just know what to look for. The third movie is of similar quality as Conan to me. They are small productions but true art. Like Italian exploitation movies from the 60s were “art”. Of a type that probably is so foreign to most people that it might be impossile to see. What I like about the movies is the sense of desolation and a huge universe that seems almost empty. Civilization being tiny while the wilderness is empty is an idea I find very fascinating but rarely seems to get explored in fantasy. And of course, there’s Riddick himself. He is super cool to the point of beinf ridiculous, but the movies treat it with full seriousness and that makes it work. And as his story progresses (though there is barely any real plot in the conventional sense) you get a character that is both a real monster but also not despicable. He’s a beast, but a magnificent one.
  • Mushishi: This was originally written as a series of short novels, if I recall correctly, but also made into an absolutely amazing anime series a while back. Mushishi is about Ginko, a man who wanders Japan and can be thought of as a kind of ghost hunter or exorcist. But the creatures he is dealing with are not great dragons or demons, but just mushi. The tiniest and most primitive of spirits that are more similar to bacteria than to people or animals. They are a fundamental part of nature, but invisible to most people, except for the mushishi. The series is very slow, has few words, and very little happening, and is very melancholic in mood. While mushi are a part of all nature, it sometimes can happen that their presence has unusual effects on people who get too close to them. And since they are invisible there’s usually no way to tell where they are and what they are doing, unless you know exactly what to look for. When strange events are happening or people seem to become cursed for no apparent reason, the mushishi are the only ones who can help. The special charm of the series is that Ginko can identify the source of the problem and show the people how they can avoid any further harm from the mushi. But he does not destroy them and he also has no ability at all to reverse the damage that has already been done. Sometimes people die from the mushi, often they are severely cripled or maimed. This is no kind of curse that can be lifted and Ginko has no magic to remove the effects. All he can do is to help the people to live with the changes and to ease the pain, and sometimes his help comes too late. In many ways, Mushishi is the total opposite of Sword & Sorcery. There is no fighting or any action scenes. It’s not fast paced and loud but extremely slow and quiet. But what I really love about it is how it deals with the aftermath of encounters with the supernatural. One way in which I think classic pulp tales are falling short is that they generally don’t bother with any consequences. You get a big fight scene and it’s done. I’m actually not much of a fan of action scenes and violence, it always is much more interesting to me how people are dealing with it. And sometimes you don’t win and everything is alright again. Mushishi is all about that.
  • Wuxia: If you’re not familiar with it, it may come as a surprise that the Chinese really love fantasy. Specifically the genre of wuxia, which really is pretty much exactly the same as Sword & Sorcery set in a Chinese inspired world. And they’ve been making a lot of often pretty good movies based on novels for quite some time. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is probably the most famous one in Europe and America (though not considered particularly remarkable in China), but there’s also Hero, and House of Flying Daggers and I also very much enjoyed Reign of Assassins and the most recent adaptation of A Chinese Horror Story. For one thing, I really quite like the setting. Most of it is based on medieval China and probably just as accurate as western fantasy is dealing with medieval Europe. There’s swordfights, witches, and monster. Evil spirits are different than Greek monsters or classic demons, and the magic system is based around chi, similar to the Force in Star Wars, which is all very appealing to me. But there’s also one big difference to western Sword & Sorcery and that is the big place that is made for romance. Romance in western fantasy usually is terrible. But most wuxia movies I’ve seen somehow make it work. Queen of the Black Coast might be somewhat similar. Or pehaps the messed up relationship between Geralt and Yennefer in The Witcher.
  • Ghost in the Shell: A great comic and the movie based on it is probably my favorite movie after The Empire Strikes Back. Ghost in the Shell is probably the defining work of the post-cyberpunk genre, (which is primarily defined by removing the punk from cyberpunk) and particularly the movie adaptations are extremely existentialistic. All the main characters are cyborgs and the main hero has so many enhancements that she has essentially turned into something superhuman, more machine than mortal. While it is as hard as hard sci-fi can possibly get, it often turns quite deeply spiritual. When the brain can be directly plugged into computers and machines, it really feels a lot like magic. It’s a world vastly greater than the human mind with possibilities that can not even be imagined. And of course, there’s also various forms of mind control and manipulation of memory and thoughts. Ghost in the Shell has a really important impact on me to how I am thinking of incorporating magic and the Spiritworld into fantasy stories.
  • STALKER and Metro: Stalker is a videogame inspired by a Russian novel and a movie, while Metro is a series of Russian novels which also got two videogames closely based on them. They are all post-apocalyptic science-fiction and can there really be any kind of sci-fi more closely related to that? I am pretty sure that the games and Metro novels are very strongly based on the experience of growing up in post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine. Things were not great under the Soviets, but in many respects things totally went to shit after that. Turning to post-apocalyptic fiction as a means of expression seems completely natural in that situation. They are not dreams about creating some new utopian societies inspired by the Old West, but instead you have some people who just somehow survive and linger in the ruins because they really have no idea what else to do. It’s not a rebirth of civilization. It’s just some remnants fading away. What inspires me about them is the strong presence of ruins. Wherever you look it’s urban and industrial decay. The Ancient Lands are a world where villages and towns disappear just as fast a new ones are build, with societies remaining at low numbers and ruins being found anywhere. And sometimes there’s still stuff left that can still be useful to the people of a later generation. I want to make exploration and treasure hunting a big theme, as that’s what lots of Sword & Sorcery bheroes do, but instead of robbing tombs I want to go with the leftovers of failed settlements. Both Stalker and Metro are giving me lots of ideas for both ruins and treasure hunters.

New books I got to read. And probably review.

As much as I love The Witcher, after three books I feel like taking a break for a while and look at some other books of Sword and Sorcery. I still feel like I am not really that well read in the genre and if you want to write some interesting stories it always helps to be somewhat familiar with what others have done with it and what might be interesting ideas to follow. So I actually got myself a decent stack of new books I will work myself through over the coming weeks. And most likely write reviews for them as well.

  • Night Winds by Karl Wagner. I really love Wagner. I think he’s the best Sword & Sorcery writer after Robert Howard and Andrzej Sapkowski. After reading a first story in an anthology (which was one of the few good ones in the book) I read and really loved Death Angel’s Shadow, and while Bloodstone wasn’t as great I still enjoyed it a lot. I’ve now seen people say that the stories are generally much better than the novels, so I am going with this one instead of trying out another novel.
  • The Black Company by Glen Cook. I’ve read one Black Company story in a Sword & Sorcery anthology last year and didn’t like it very much. It lacked both action and supernatural involvement and that just won’t do in Sword & Sorcery. But the series is regularly brought up as perhaps the most important one in recent Sword & Sorcery, so I’ve felt compelled to actually give at least the first book a chance. People joke that we Germans have so many snappy words for philosophy and other complex scientific concepts, and I have to admit that it is true. To me, not having read a Black Company book is a Bildungslücke, a gap in (basic) education. As a Sword & Sorcery fan and critic, you just have to know this series to be able to make any relevant comments.
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. I’ve been actually quite surprised to see that this is already almost 10 years old. The way everyone keeps talking about it at Fantasy Faction made me think that it was very recent and one of the books everyone is talking about these days. While it goes against the Jordan Rule of not starting a fantasy series until it is completed, it does very much match my personal rule of paying real attention to books, movies, and games that people still talk about in high praise a year or two after release. I may not always be up to date, but this way I rarely read,watch, or play something that is not really great. And it’s generally much cheaper. (I think the last game I bought within a month after release was Mass Effect 3 and I was already a huge fan of the series. Before that I can’t even remember. Probably over 10 years ago.)
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. I don’t really know anything about it, except that a few people recommended it, both in reply to me looking for Sword & Sorcery and nonstandard fantasy settings.
  • Trollslayer by William King. I’ve read his book Stealer of Flesh last winter and thought it was pretty entertaining. His Grotek and Felix books seem to be more well known and have been recommended to me by several people, so I’ll be giving the first one a try.

Other books I have around and which I plan to get to eventually are Times of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski, Kull by Robert Howard, Warlords of Mars by Edgar Burrough, and the X-Wing series by Michael Stackpole. I also have started reading Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes, but that has an infamous drawn out opening scene that I find indeed quite terrible. There’s a lot to complain so far but also some good things, which I think would all be very interesting to discuss. So maybe I can get myself to endure it and maybe it gets better towards the end. I also want to write a review of the Thraw Series by Timothy Zahn in the next few days.

The inherent racism of Star Wars

I am as big a Star Wars fan as you can get before it gets insane and embarassing. But I am also highly critical of it and more than just willing to recognize its many flaws. And, oh dear, there’s so much of them. But one of the biggest ones is one I’ve almost never see discussed anywhere.

Star Wars, at it’s very essence, is fundamentally racist.

And this has nothing to do with Lando Calrissian or even Jar Jar Binks. People have complained about the Neimodians talking in a Japanese accent and being show as ruthless conquerors driven by greed, and I can understand that to some degree. And really, the makeover of Watto in Episode II is indeed the most racist shit I’ve ever seen outside of Nazi propaganda cartoons.

 "All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental."

“All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”

But no, I am not talking about that here. The problem I want to adress is at the same time less controversial but also much, much farther reaching. Many worlds in science fiction often get accused of being Planets of Hats, where the whole population really has only a single defining trait. Star Wars does that too. And very hard. And all the time. Even ignoring the accents of Neimodians and Gungans and any resemblance they may have to those found in some parts of the world, the entire worldbuilding of Star Wars is based on a way of percieving people and cultures that has a clear and unambigious term: Racism.

Racism, at its very core, is not specifically about discrimination or hatred or limited to any minorities. These are issues that result from racism. Racism itself is the idea that a group of people who share a common ancestry can easily be defined by a few traits that are shared among all of them. So if you have seen one person of that group, you know not only everything about that group, but also everything about every single member of that group. Racism is the idea that shared biological ancestry makes all people of that group the same in several fundamental traits.

And nowhere in fiction have I ever seen this principle applied so consistently and agressively. Though I think it neededs to be added, that this is primarily about the Expanded Universe, all the novels, comics, and videogames that build upon the movies. The movies themselves are relatively free of this since it is rare to ever see more than a single individual of any species other than humans. But in the EU it’s really bad. If you have one character of a species appearing in the movies, even in a really tiny role, that character is almost always turned into the universal archetype for the entire species in all subsequent works.

Take for example the Bith. The Bith really only appear for a few seconds and have no relevance to the plot. They are these guys. bar in which Luke and Obi-wan meet Han Solo and Chewbacca happens to have a band of Bith playing during the few minutes they stay at that place. Do we learn anything about these guys at all? No, nothing. Except that these are in a band that plays in a bar. As the EU is concerned, this is everything you need to know about the Bith. Because in the EU, the Bith are a species of performance artists and musicians. All of them. That’s what they are known for throughout the galaxy. When musicians get mentioned, very often they are Bith. It’s like the Bith have a monopoly on playing music for the whole galaxy.

Jawas_SWGTCGHere we have a group of Jawas. In their natural environment. Shoting at droids to repair and sell them. Jawas have many appearnces throughout Star Wars, but in the movies themselves I believe they really only have one significant appearance. (Other than background dressing.) And they are always surrounded by metal scrap and working on salvaged machines. Most often traveling around in their huge brown, angular trucks. Because in the movies there was one group of Jawas who had such a big brown truck, wore brown robes, and apparently salvaged broken droids to make a living. One group of 10 or 20 individuals. And what they did on that one day instantly became the template for the entire culture and nature of the whole species. You have seen one Jawa, you have seen all Jawas.

And there are virtually no exceptions to this rule. Chewbacca can fix shapeships and droids and in his backstory he used to be an imperial slave. Pretty much all Wookies you’ll ever see are good with machines and the entire species has been enslaved by the Empire. And not just the empire. In the days of the Old Republic, 4,000 years before the Empire, they were being enslaved by the Czerca corporation. Once a slave, always a slave. The whole species.

All Sullustans are good pilots, all Bothans are spies or politicians, all Verpines and Sluisi are great mechanics, all Twi’lek women are strippers, all Trandoshans are bounty hunters, Rodian culture is all about hunting, all Gamoreans are mercenaries, all Hutts are criminal businessmen (…slugs), all Chiss are military geniuses, all Noghri are super stealthy assassins, all Ithorians are pacifistic, all Corellians are roguish pilots with a problem for authority, all humans from Tatooine are farmers. It goes on and on. (And, being Star Wars, on, and on, and on, and on…)

In the Expanded Universe of Star Wars, the basic concept of racism is an actual fact. If just see one member of a species for a few seconds, you know everything there is to know about the entire species and every single individual. I can understand how it happens on a single episode of Star Trek that visits a planet only once, which then is never appearing again. But when it happens over decades and is done by dozens of writers in completely different stories, I find it rather inexcuseable.

Honorable mention goes to my favorite Twi’lek Nawara Ven, who has the distinction of being not some sly gangster but a starfighter pilot/lawyer of unquestionable integrity. But then, being a lawyer does kind of put him into a similar niche as smugglers and spies. It’s just their nature, I guess…

Why Star Wars fans hate Star Wars

Several years ago there was a funny post about Star Wars making the rounds on the internet. The original source seems to have disappeared long ago and it now only exists preserved by other people who felt the need to share it with other. (I once read a report that a study found that on average, any content on the internet has a 7% chance per year to disappear.) Being the big but also critical Star Wars fan that I am, I want to also do my part in keeping this pamphlet of historic significants preserved for future generations.

With the new movies (or “Nu Wars”) being approaching swiftly and some people saying that the Extended Universe is gone, this feels like an appropriate time to share this wonderful manifesto of true Star Wars fans.

By: Adam Summers 5/23/05

My girlfriend doesn’t understand what I see in Star Wars. We’ve had several soul-crushing arguments about what exactly makes this series so important to me, and every time I have found it more and more difficult to argue my case. As the maddening years have wound on, I think I finally understand the reason for this crippling handicap.

There is a diabolical twist to Star Wars fandom, you see, that defies comprehension, and yet is the life-blood of all Star Wars fans. It is this:

Star Wars fans hate Star Wars.

If you run into somebody who tells you they thought the franchise was quite enjoyable, and they very-much liked the originals as well as the prequels, and even own everything on DVD, and a few of the books, these imposters are not Star Wars Fans.

Star Wars fans hate Star Wars.

The primary fulcrum for the Star Wars fan’s hate (including my own) is George Lucas, creator of Star Wars. Unlike Trekkies/Trekkers who adore Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Star Wars fans hate the father of their obsession. We hate the fact that George Lucas got it wrong from the beginning, creating incest between Luke and Leia. We hate the fact that he wrenched Return of the Jedi off of Kashyyyk and set it on Endor with those tiny, furry Hobbit bitches he called “Ewoks”, which is a syllabic anagram of Wookiee if you’re obsessed enough. We despise the entire existence of literally half of the Star Wars movies, blaming George Lucas’ greed and flawed ‘vision’ for everything.

We believe George Lucas’ ideal death time was 2:07am, 14 November, 1990.

Star Wars fans also hate the original Star Wars trilogy. We think Mark Hamill’s acting was whiny, the pacing was flawed, and Empire was better than Jedi, making the end of the series a let-down. We hate the way Boba Fett died, and we hate the cantankerous, arthritic duel between Vader and Obi-wan. We don’t understand why the storm-troopers can’t shoot worth a damn, and we don’t get why “an entire legion of [the Emperor’s] best troops”(ROTJ, Palpatine) can be overpowered by a tribal society of midget teddy-bears armed largely with rocks and twigs. Star Wars fans hate omnipotent war-machines that get their legs tangled in strings, or slip on logs. They hate Darth Vader’s face and that stupid harmonica thing he was playing. Star Wars fans hate the original Star Wars trilogy.

There is also, as you probably know, a series of Special Editions that have replaced the original Star Wars trilogy, and these are also hated by Star Wars fans with an even more scorching fervor. Star Wars fans hate the glaring CG changes made to scenes we already hated to begin with. We hate that Han Solo now killed Greedo in self-defense, and then stepped on Jabba the Hutt’s tail (which we liken to Carrot Top stepping on Fidel Castro’s tail). We hate the fact that the ghost of Alec Guinness (whose name is an anagram of Genuine Class, by the way) now stands next to Hayden Christensen (whose name I tried to re-arrange into a flattering anagram myself, but only came up with “Nn…Dense Chest Hair”). Star Wars fans are unsure if Fidel Castro has a tail or not, but we hate the Special Editions of the trilogy just the same.

There is of course also a prequel trilogy to Star Wars. It is newer, more epic, more expensive, and more visually stunning than the original trilogy. Star Wars fans know this, and so we hate it even more. We hate it with the burning passion of a setting pair of twin suns. Jar Jar Binks, Midichlorians, technology that is blatantly more sophisticated than the “later” original trilogy…we despise all of it. There’s nothing a Star Wars fan hates more than a Star Wars prequel. They demystified Boba Fett, contradicted countless lines in the original trilogy (Obi-Wan: “He was our only hope.” Yoda: “No…there is another.” Obi-Wan (not in script): “Oh, right, I f*cking held both of these kids as they were born in Episode 3. Sorry Yoda, I just plumb forgot!”)

Star Wars fans think Mark Ha…uh…Hayden Christensen’s acting was whiny. And the pacing was flawed.

Beyond the movies, there are also various television-related Star Wars endeavors which Star Wars fans despise. Starting with that abysmal “Holiday Special” in which Carrie Fisher appeared drunk and tried to celebrate Christmas through song in a Jesus-less galaxy, Star Wars fans have watched and hated everything. We think Droids was a waste of time, Ewok Adventures was an extension of everything we hated about Return of the Jedi, and we’ve seen both seasons of Clone Wars which we hate because we believe them to be immensely inconsistent with the prequels we also hate.

Star Wars fans think the Star Wars comic-books are a stockpile of contrivance written for marketing purposes by people who know nothing about Star Wars. Every gimmick imaginable to bring back super-weapons long destroyed and token bad-guys long-beaten is spewed forth from these comic books, and Star Wars fans want nothing to do with it. Star Wars fans have read the one in which Han Solo works in tandem with a giant rabbit and we are not impressed.

Then, naturally, there are the videogames. Star Wars fans hate LucasArts, and the opportunist drivel that comprises most of the gameplay-less apertures known as Star Wars games that they vomit up every fiscal quarter. Star Wars fans know that there is no such thing as a good Star Wars strategy game, we yelled at our PS1 when Masters of Teras-Kasi came out, and we kind-of liked the Jedi Knight series, but not at first and definitely not towards the end. Star Wars fans did not like Knights of the Old Republic, unless they were RPG fans. This does not count. Star Wars fans hate Star Wars videogames.

The final main elixir of Star Wars folklore is the ever-growing library of Star Wars books. These have managed to make a complex main character our of practically every background alien seen in the movies, and expanded the universe into a colossal, self-contradictory maze. Star Wars fans hate this. We hate how trite and tired the books were getting before the New Jedi Order series, and we hate the New Jedi Order series for being so radically different, and not nearly trite or tired enough. Star Wars fans hate it when previously-deceased characters are brought back to life, but we also hate Timothy Zahn for not bringing his characters back to life. Star Wars fans did not hate Grand Admiral Thrawn, but we do now, because he is always dead. The Star Wars movies also contradict and completely ignore droves of information within the Star Wars books. Star Wars fans now know that George Lucas has no idea who Jaster Mareel is, and it makes us very angry. Star Wars fans hate Star Wars books.

Now that I have covered all of this, you can finally begin to compute why I can never prove to Emily that Star Wars is a monumental event worth devoting one’s life to. The very nature of the argument means I have to defend Star Wars, and since I am a Star Wars fan, I don’t actually understand how to do that.

Maybe I’ll put it like this. To be a Star Wars fan, one must possess the ability to see a million different failures and downfalls, and then somehow assemble them into a greater picture of perfection. Every true Star Wars fan is a Luke Skywalker, looking at his twisted, evil father, and somehow seeing good.

My earlier statement needs slight revision. We hate everything about Star Wars.

But the idea of Star Wars…the idea we love.

Book Review: Blood of Elves

Blood of Elves is the third book of the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, by Andrzej Sapkowski. Unlike the two previous books that were collections of stories, this one is the first novel, but they all can really be seen as a single series following a common storyline. In The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny, continuity consisted mostly of regular characters that would travel alongside Geralt for a while and there were several references to previous story. In this book the plot begins to become concrete. Geralt and his friends stop wandering around wherever the road and coincidence take them and start pursuing a common goal. Now they have a purpose.

Blood_of_Elves_UKRight from the start it is made clear that this story is revolving around Ciri, a girl whose story began in The Last Wish and who first appeared in person in The Sword of Destiny. The one who is going to be Geralt’s Destiny, even though nobody knows what this is going to mean. But the circumstances of her childhood and previous encounters with Geralt are too strange for anyone to dismiss as coincidence. War is brewing in the Northern Kingdoms. The mighty empire of Nilfgaard has already conquered all the lands in the south and already devastated and occupied Cintra and nobody believes that they are going to stop. To make matters worse, the Nilfgaardians have open support within the Northern Kingdoms in the form of the Scoia’tael, radical young elves and dwarves who are hoping for autonomy as provinces of the empire instead of opression under the feudal lords and kings. Maybe they are impatient or under direct order of the emperor, but many have already begun striking at the human lords and their subjects wherever they can, causing chaos and destruction and forcing others of their kind to pick a side. All nonhumans become suspect and the situation in the towns is only going to get worse for them. In these dark times Ciri is having regular terrifying visions she can neither make any sense of nor remember, and out of ideas the witchers turn to their friends among the sorceresses for help. Meanwhile a mysterious assassin appears in the Northern Kingdoms, looking for both Ciri and Geralt.

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Game Review: Final Fantasy XIII

I was quite excited about Final Fantasy XIII back when it was announced, having just had a lot of fun with Final Fantasy X. Somehow I ended up actually buying it only much later after its release and then also only played it halfway through until I got bored with it or destracted by something else and forgot about it. And only now did I finally get to play the whole thing. I am not exactly a huge Final Fantasy fan. Before this one I played FF10, played maybe halfway through FF7, and also played a bit FF12. So mostly the most recent games. I don’t really know anything about the games before FF7, which I believe where really quite different things.

Final_Fantasy_XIII_EU_box_artFinal Fantasy XIII is set in the two worlds of Cocoon and Gran Pulse, the later being a big planet covered by wilderness while the former is an artificial hollow moon that has all the people living in the inside of the shell. Cocoon was created by the fal’Cie, a race of powerful and immortal crystal beings of huge size that runs the world both politically and mechanically. On Cocoon, the fal’Cie provide light, energy, food, and the entire infrastructure, making it a paradise for the millions of humans who live beside them. Sometimes they require special servants and pick more or less random people nearby to turn them into l’Cie, giving them great powers which they will need to complete their tasks. Those who complete their Focus are rewarded with eternal life, but those who fail eventually are driven mad and turn into rampaging monsters. Usually the fal’Cie of Cocoon send their l’Cie to fight against their great enemies, the fal’Cie of the planet Gran Pulse below and their own l’Cie which they send to attack Cocoon.

The game begins right in the middle of the action. It has been discovered that a Pulse fal’Cie has been hiding and sleeping on Cocoon for possibly centuries and now it has awoken and begun to recruit people from the nearby town as l’Cie. The response of the human military is swift and clear. Everyone in the town has to be deported from Cocoon and send to Gran Pulse, together with the huge ancient structure that is housing the Pulse fal’Cie. And they have absolutely no mercy. It’s either going to Gran Pulse or death. Anyone who tries to escape is killed immediately. But not everyone is willing to go along with it and we’re introduced to the heroes for this game as they crash the train in an attempt to give people a chance to escape. The most prominent character is Lightning, the lady from the cover of the box, but not truly a protagonist in the traditional sense. It’s not a story that is about her, but about all of the characters equally, though she quickly becomes a kind of inofficial leader of the group. Lightning is a member of the local police/military and looking for her sister Sera, who was the first person to be picked by the Pulse fal’Cie and turned into a l’Cie. The next character is Snow, Sera’s boyfriend and leader of a group of local vigilantes. There’s also Sahz, a middle aged man whose involvement in the whole thing remains quite unclear for a good while; a young boy named Hope whose mother gets killed when she joins Snow in fighting the military; and Vanille, an extremely girly and inappropriately cheerful girl who just somehow sticks to Hope in the chaos of the breakout. Soon all five of them find themselves inside the huge ancient structure in which the Pulse fal’Cie is hidden as it is getting transported to be thrown back down to Gran Pulse where they come face to face with the being and end up all getting recruited for a mysterious task as well. At that point their fate is sealed. Complete their Focus and be rewarded with eternal life by being turned into crystal, or turning into monsters. Both choices are not really appealing and to make matters worse they don’t really know what it is that the fal’Cie wanted them to do before they killed it. Over the course of the game they are trying to find out what’s really going on, what they are supposed to do, and how it might be possible to restore people who have been turned into crystal back to their normal form. Which doesn’t start out very well as both Lightning and Hope have a deep hatred for Snow, whom they both blame for Sera ending up as a l’Cie and Hope’s mother being killed. How the characters come to see things from different perspectives, learn to get along with each other, and how to deal with the situation they’ve been put in is the major focus of the story. And I think it’s done quite well. My first reaction to seeing the characters was thinking that almost all of them are really stupid ideas, but they all end up having a good amount of depth and interesting relationships with each other.

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