If you write fantasy or science fiction, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself facing the problem of creating a foreign language. You’ve got a species of aliens or a distant culture and it just doesn’t make sense that they would speak the common tongue of your main characters. Furthermore, even assuming they do speak their language, the odds that the main characters would not encounter nor even pick up a few phrases here or there of the native tongue is pretty unusual. Heck, in many settings, the world is so cosmopolitan that so-called ‘foreign’ tongues are every bit as common as the one the characters speak themselves.
So, what to do?
Now, if you’re Tolkien (or a linguist), making up languages is probably doable. At the very least you are going to be pretty good at faking it. Tolkien, of course, made Elfish into a workable tongue before he even published The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, enthusiastic Star Trek fans actually went to the trouble to invent and fully explore the Klingon language, so much so that it has sold 250,000 dictionaries and is considered an artificial tongue of sufficient sophistication to warrant study from serious academics. Damn.
The sad thing is that not all of us are linguists. Sure, I dabble a bit in speech and language structure (I teach English, so it’s sort of inevitable), but I do not have the skills to make up a believable tongue. Few authors are, to be fair, and they get along just fine. Most just create a working vocabulary of cool-sounding non-words and lay it across a map somewhere. Perhaps they put the words in italics (to make them appear special) and pepper them through common speech to give the dialogue a sense of erudition. This is a tried and true method, and it does in fact work so long as nobody comes along and tries to break it down.
As something of a completest/perfectionist, this isn’t enough for me. I want there to be a rationale behind the words. Sure, I’m not above using the cool-sounding-language thing from time to time, but that doesn’t always cut it. I have, therefore, become something of a language thief. I steal phrases and vocabulary from other languages, but mess them up a bit. The internet is a great tool for this – stuff like BabelFish and Google Translate give you easy access to a wide variety of languages beyond one’s typical ken. I’ve filched a lot of French, Spanish, Turkish, and Dutch for Alandar, and the world of Nyxos is being heavily influenced by what cool words I can dig up from Ancient Greek. The words I pick are usually the confluence of ‘sounds cool’ and ‘actually means something’, which gives the language shenanigans a lot more validity in my mind.
But Wait, You Expect Me To Believe People Speak French in a Fantasy World?
This little language theft idea has run into this criticism before. In Alandar, I typically defend it by saying that various cultures in the West are intended to be funhouse mirror reflections of various historical European cultures, so why shouldn’t they speak a version of the real language? I’ll also point out that I am not the first person to have done this, either. Honestly, I’m less interested in the ’true’ language than in its stylized cousin. Akrallian is not really French; I don’t actually speak French in any competent capacity, so mostly I’m stealing phonics and accents and sounds. It is no more odd to me than every fantasy world ever being chock full of folks with English or Scottish accents, or the fact that everybody’s ancient dead language sounds suspiciously like a bizarro version of Latin. We all want to create an effect with our imaginary languages, right? Well, why not use the real world to enhance or even inform that effect? It can lead to a lot of interesting ideas and discoveries about your own world you may not have thought about before.
Of course, we’d all rather be Tolkien, but trust me: trying to invent your own language is very, very difficult and likely frustrating unless you possess the proper skill set. Trust me, I’ve tried (and continue to try) to do so. It hasn’t gone very well. I’d even go so far as to point out that Tolkien himself stole a fair amount of Elfish from various real languages, too – Finnish, I think, and some old Celtic and Saxon tongues. In the end, if the purpose of fantasy is to cast a twisted reflection of the real world, why shouldn’t we reflect that in the tongues our world speaks? Just make sure your theft is worth it, is all.
When it comes to duels, two weapons rule them all: the sword and the gun. For all Legolas did for the bow, for as much stick-fighting as there was in Pacific Rim, and no matter how many fireballs Goku conjures from his hands, nothing will ever beat these two weapons in terms of ‘cool.’ Also, interestingly enough, they seem to be somehow opposed to one another. Guns and swords do not mix, nor do their aficionados. Nowhere is this more clear than in the contest for Luke’s affections in Star Wars. Obi Wan decries blasters (guns) as clumsy and random; Han points out that “hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” It is as though these two means of dispensing death were somehow at odds with one another, at least thematically. Why is that?
We can perhaps take some of our cues from Star Wars itself. The sword is the weapon of the Jedi – an “elegant weapon from a more civilized age.” It is used by the forces of good to defeat evil and for the forces of wisdom and order to impose peace in realms of chaos and madness. It is metaphorically significant that the Jedi reflect back the blaster bolts of their foes: they turn the violence of their enemies back upon them. Their defense is sufficient to destroy their enemies, since it is their enemies’ aggression (the Dark Side) that ultimately consumes itself. The sword is a symbol of control over oneself, of a kind of spiritual unity between the body and the physical world that combines to become a perfect weapon.
This metaphor is borne through a lot of heroic movies and literature. It can be seen that Inigo Montoya cannot defeat Count Rugen until and unless he can control his rage and focus on his swordsmanship – his initial chase of Rugen and frantic attempts to catch him almost kill him. It is only when he achieves a kind of spiritual peace in the form of resignation (“I am sorry, Father. I failed you.”), that he again regains control. Likewise, the blade of Isildur, Narsil, is not re-forged until the race of Men is once again ready to take control of themselves (in the form of Aragorn) and restore order to their fractured kingdoms. In the reverse, we see Conan bound by his obsession to regain his father’s sword and learn the riddle of steel. It is only when he realizes that the sword is no more important than the spirit that wields it (i.e. when he gains control of himself and marshals his rage to serve his purposes) that he can use the Atlantean blade to defeat Thulsa Doom.
The sword is an implement of separation, in a certain literal sense. In this vein, it is the tool by which the hero chooses and categorizes the world around him. It is power, but the power to control both oneself and others. It is defense and offense balanced and necessarily shackled to the will of the wielder. It is personal. This is even recognized in cultures as ancient as that of Japan, where the concepts of zanshin and kokoro paint a picture of a way of combat and swordsmanship that center less on the sword and more on one’s ability to control and be aware of the world and themselves in it.
The gun, meanwhile, is something different. The gun represents not control but power, raw and unfiltered. It is, furthermore, power that is not tied to the wielder, but to forces outside the wielder’s scope of influence. In literal fact, guns harness the powers of physics and chemistry – the forces of nature itself – to destroy the enemy. To be sure, physical skill is required to use the gun well, but not to the level of the sword. Guns are loud, destructive, indiscriminate, and volatile. They are not defensive in nature – they do not protect except if used preemptively to destroy. If the sword symbolizes civilization and order, the gun symbolizes chaos and barbarism. This is not to say the gun is morally inferior – I’m not necessarily ascribing to Obi Wan’s distaste for firearms – but it is an indication of their symbolic purpose. The gun is nature – a forest fire, a storm, the raging sea. All that chaos and destructive disorder is harnessed so that it may be used by humanity to destroy its enemies. The gun is black sorcery; it is the ultimate power trip.
Again, such a use for the gun can be clearly witnessed in so many stories and, indeed, in historical attitudes towards them. In westerns, for example, the gun is a fearful tool. It takes skill to wield, but the true challenge is not so much in the wielding as it is in how fast one may choose to deploy it. In this sense, the gun is only the tool and the real conflict is a moral one - to destroy or not to destroy, and how soon. It is not accidental that the Matrix films used guns to destroy the nobodies yet opted for martial arts to face the true foes. There is no moral challenge in gunning down the unnamed cogs of a soulless machine network, but to face Ultimate Evil, one must master themselves and therefore hand-t0-hand combat (the realm of the sword) is more dramatically appropriate.
In instances where the gun is used as the final arbiter of the conflict, there is a fatalism and suddenness to the exchange. When William Munny faces down Little Bill in Unforgiven, the true action is in the dialogue preceding the end, not in the series of explosions that follow. Why? Well, the gun lacks the physical language of the sword to express the combatants’ experience of the conflict, for lack of a better description. When in a gunfight, it is not so much the fight itself that matters, as the weapons employed are not extensions of themselves but rather representations of elemental forces.
It is part of this that once tarnished the gun when it first became common in any given society. The sword was a weapon of honor, requiring devotion and control to master, wheras the gun was (and is) a kind of power that could be distributed evenly to everyone, controlled or otherwise. The democratization of deadly power was resisted by those who wished to maintain control (if any fool with money could equip the peasantry with firearms, what would become of the Samurai or Knight or Cavalier?), as they saw in the gun an opposing viewpoint to their understanding of warfare. It was no longer one-on-one, skill against skill alone. It was a free-for-all, decided by fate as often as skill. The wisdom of the gun is not how to fight, but whether to do so at all and when. Violence was no longer a gentleman’s game.
Now, as to which I prefer, I am torn. I feel both have great symbolic weight, and I find myself drifting between the two. In the end, it is important also to remember another kind of metaphor they both symbolize: that of the male phallus, and the corresponding ’male’ desire to dominate his surroundings. Whether shooting or stabbing, Dr. Freud still has the last word, I’m afraid.
Last week I caught an episode of Almost Human pretty much by accident. I have to say it was pretty fantastic. The story followed Dorian the android and a human detective as they tried to track down an illegal sexbot ring that was using human DNA in the skins of their androids. The show had a nice sense of humor, some cool advanced technology, good action and pacing, and excellent dialogue. It culminated with Dorian being present for the ‘death’ of a sexbot made with the illegal skin. It was the climax of the episode’s central theme – what happens when you die, and how can others derive comfort from it? It really was very, very well done.
Accordingly, I expect Fox to cancel it within 12 episodes or so.
Anyway, the exploration of human morality through the lens of androids is not a new one. It arguably dates all the way back to Isaac Asimov’s Robot trilogy. In Caves of Steel we meet Detective Bailey and his robot partner Olivaw and watch a dynamic quite similar to that of John and Dorian, except the roles are more stock: whereas Karl Urban’s John is the one that is emotionally damaged and unavailable and Dorian is empathetic and open, Bailey is the poster boy for emotional appeal compared to Olivaw’s bloodless logic. In Asimov’s case, however, he was attempting to show the technology of the future as helpful and wise despite its frightful appearance. Almost Human is doing something a bit different; it is taking a more even-handed approach to the prospect of advanced tech, showing the horrors as well as the benefits. Dorian is meant to be more human than John and in many ways he is. Unlike Asimov, who is asking social and economic questions, Almost Human seems to be concerned about psychology, morality, and humanity on a more personal level.
In this sense, then, Almost Human owes less to Asimov, all noble and ponderous upon his gilded throne of Golden Age Science Fiction, and a great deal more to the fallout-choked alleys and half-religious psychadelia of Philip K Dick. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, replicants are virtually indistinguishable from humans save via extremely intricate post-mortem physical exams or less-than-reliable ‘empathy tests’ based off the assumption that androids are incapable of feeling empathy. The society of the book adopts this mantra as the quintessential definition of humanity, and yet the action of the book spends a great deal of time demonstrating just how foolish a definition this is. Humans are shown not to be empathetic at all and not only towards replicants; they hurt each other, they judge each other, they demean each other with casual familiarity. The world, as shown by Dick, is hostile to life in all its forms, and no creature comes to expect quarter from any other, replicant or otherwise. This is not to say that there is no hope, but rather to demonstrate how we who feel that humanity is doing just fine haven’t really stopped to look at ourselves. Dick does this with Replicants, as artificially creating the ’other’ to be abused by the so-called noble, pious, empathetic forces of humanity makes it easier for us to see ourselves.
So, too, does Almost Human attempt to show us reflections of ourselves in the person of androids, in the hopes that we can actually recognize ourselves better when faced with that which we define as not ourselves. These stories, when done well, are hard to watch. They have the power to levy biting criticism unfettered by the softening insulation of social context or apologism. These stories are also not easy to do – too many of them fall into trite echoes of ‘traditional’ values (Spielberg’s AI comes to mind). So far I feel that Almost Human has done a good job, but it is very early. I will keep watching, though. I hope very much they can keep it up.
Author’s note: What follows is some teaser text for a gothic horror RPG campaign I’ve been running and am currently attempting to restart. I hope you enjoy it.
Life is cheap on the slopes of Mount Radu.
The boy has heard this from his father, spoken in bitter tones over cups of vocht, after the concertina ceased to bluster and old Nirri had fallen to snoring before the fire. He hadn’t ever really known what he meant. Now he think he knew.
The boy’s sister had found the crack in the basement wall. She, being a good girl, had run to tell father, and father had gone down with mortar to seal it. The boy had gone to sleep before father had come up, and then next thing he knew he was being shaken awake and had a beaverskin coat thrust on him and they were out in the bitter cold of the night, the snow crunching beneath their feet. Mother and sister would not answer the boy’s questions, and father was wild, crossbow looped over one shoulder, torch clutched in one white-knuckled fist, waving the flame at any shadows that looked suspicious.
They were to walk all night to the neighbor’s house, Veldavaya. The fir trees seemed to shuffle closer to them at night, and the boy breathed into his hands to keep them warm. His eyes darted towards the pale gray shapes the snow made on the tree trunks. Did that one move? Was that a light? An eye, like in old Nirri’s stories, red and hateful, gleaming in the flickering torchlight?
Where was old Nirri? The boy had asked, but no one had answered. Mother’s mouth got tight at the edges and she shook her head. The boy didn’t know what to make of it.
“Shhhh!” Mother hissed, but it was pointless–no one was talking. They did stop walking, though. Silence fell on them like a quilt. They huddled around the torch, eyes searching the dark, mouths open.
kruch-kruch…kruch kruch kurch kruch kruchkruchkruchkruch…
Little feet. Little hands. Scrambling through the snow like a hoard of greedy children. Coming at them from all sides, closer, closer, closer…
“RUN!” Father yelled. He seized the boy by the collar and dragged him, the boy’s legs flailing as he tried to get himself upright. Father wouldn’t give him the chance. He dropped the torch and tucked the boy under his arm like a hen. The pale glow of the starlit snow whirled before the boy’s face, pine-needles and icicles brushing by his raw cheeks. He heard his mother scream. He heard his sister shout his name. Father did not stop.
The sound of the little feet in the snow had become a stampede. It was joined by shrill cries and sharp little laughs, and the boy closed his eyes. Here they would die, just like in the stories. Dragged beneath the mountain, to be thrust in the stew-pot at the table of the Goblin King. The fate of bad little boys and bad little girls, just as old Nirri had always said. The boy wept and shouted he was sorry, but he didn’t know for what. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want father and mother and sister to die for what he had done, whatever it had been.
Father fell to the ground and the boy landed face-first in a snow drift. He scrambled out in time to hear the cry of a horse and the thunder of hooves as they galloped past, huge and somehow blacker than the night. There were riders with torches and sabers. They dove into the underbrush without call or trumpet; the boy heard shrieks of dismay from the darkness and, somehow, he knew the goblins had gone. They were saved. The boy got up, trembling. His father took him by the shoulders and hugged him close.
Then the riders came back. There were six of them, clad in silver mail with snow-white cloaks. Their faces were covered by a mask of alabaster, showing an angelic face, serene and at peace, with black, vacant holes where the eyes should be. The riders surrounded the man and the boy and looked down at them both with those empty, black eyes. For a long time, no one stirred.
Father knelt before them. “My regards to Prince Ladislav, and my thanks. You saved us.”
“There is a price.” The voice came from one of the riders, but the boy couldn’t say which. It was thin, cold whisper, like rainfall on snow.
“Take me.” Father said.
One of the riders shook his head slowly, once to the right, once to the left.
“He isn’t old enough.”
“He will be, soon enough.”
“There is no other way?”
“Are you refusing the Prince’s protection, woodsman?”
Father bowed his head. “Never.”
The rider nodded. “Then follow us.”
Father rose and took the boy by the hand. He did not look at his son, though. Not again for that whole night.
This was how the boy learned just how cheap life is on the slopes of Mount Radu.
The comic book store argument is a staple of the geek subculture. You’ve seen it on The Big Bang Theory dozens of times: Sheldon, Raj, Howard, and Leonard sitting around their living room, arguing until they’re blue in the face over whether Thor’s Hammer can penetrate Cap’s Shield, or what the difference is (or ought to be) between zombies and mummies. As much as I gripe sometimes of the stereotyping of geekdom by that show, I do have to admit in that one respect they are generally spot-on. It is a thing. It happens all the time.
But what is the point? They aren’t real, so why bother?
Do you go around telling kids there’s no Santa Clause [sic], too?
Let’s ignore the spelling error for a moment and take for granted that the commenter in question is not referring to the Tim Allen film franchise, both loved and admired by all humanity (he gets fat by magic – comedy gold!). Let’s engage the essence of the critique here: why ruin all the fun? It’s a worthwhile question, and it does deserve an answer.
Geeks have these conversations because they are fun. They are fun in the same way that analyzing literature is fun, or critiquing the fashion choices on the red carpet is fun, or really any act where you pass judgment on something is fun. It isn’t just geeks who do this – we all do this. Having opinions and backing them up with arguments is part of the deal with being able to think. Can such arguments go off the rails? Sure they can. Conflicting opinions can often be confused with personal rancor, feelings can get hurt, and all enjoyment can get sucked away by some guy crossing the line. Most of the time, though, this doesn’t happen.
Part of what makes these geek conversations unique is the fact that their subject matter is often entirely fictional. There is no empirical definition for the weight of Thor’s Hammer, only what can be inferred by circumstance. I once had an argument with a guy about how lightsaber duels weren’t reflective of what a duel with a plasma sword would really look like. My critique was oriented around the supposition that the plasma wouldn’t have the same mass that the sabers seemed to when fighting – less mass means less inertia, which means a whole different set of fighting techniques become possible, thus changing the duel. His argument was that we had no way of knowing how densely packed the plasma was in the blade, therefore it may have the same mass as a lightweight sword of the same length. I came back by citing the conservation of mass – if the plasma had that much mass, where did it go when the blade retracted? Lightsaber hilts do not get visibly heavier when shut off, therefore…
You get the idea.
These conversations are often fun. They ask us to think and analyze what we observe and to draw conclusions from it. This is how human beings learn. This is how we adapt and change. If nobody asked such questions, nothing new would happen. Now, granted, science fiction and fantasy franchises aren’t the most important thing in the world to debate, but to equate critiquing their conventions with ruining Santa Claus for little kids is unfair. For one thing, that implies that scifi/fantasy is only for children, which I object to in the most strenuous terms possible (I mean, have you even read Freud or Jung?). For another, that suggests that we are having this conversation for the express purpose of ruining something for someone else. Not true. We’re trying to change it, in our small way. We’re trying to say it can be better. We try not to have these arguments with people who don’t care or don’t want to hear them (at least the more socially facile of us do) – the last thing a geek really wants to do is ruin somebody’s fun. If you like the old thing, well fine – opinions differ. If you have such a problem with my disagreement, offer me a robust defense. Debate it.
It should be fun.
(Three men cluster around a table, viewing images of the Kaiju attacks on San Francisco and elsewhere. They are the PRESIDENT, DOCTOR THINK, and GENERAL COWBOY)
PRESIDENT: Well, gentlemen, we need a response to these giant monsters. Our planes and tanks aren’t cutting it.
DOCTOR: If I may, Herr President, I believe the primary difficulty lies with the fact that our pilots are shooting the giant monsters with machine guns and flying so close to their bodies that they can be struck by the beasts.
GENERAL: What? You want ’em fly way up in the sky, like sissies? Up close – that there is how a MAN fights!
DOCTOR: If you possess a vehicle that can fly thousands of feet in the air, why would you feel the need to give the giant beast a haircut. Also, Mr. President, we should be shooting missiles at them, not bullets.
PRESIDENT: The missiles haven’t worked, Doctor Think.
DOCTOR: We could build bigger missiles. We don’t even need to put them on planes, actually. Terrestrially-based missile silos could support ordnance of sufficient dimensions to render a Kaiju of even twice this size completely…
GENERAL: Blah, blah, blah! That’s all you eggheads ever do is flap yer gums when it’s time to do something. Well, Mr. President sir, I’ve got a plan. What if we built giant goddamned robots – really big fuckers with cool-ass names like…uhhh…Danger Stan or Super Tower Piledriver!
DOCTOR: Why would we do that? We barely have such technology developed, and the expense would be…
GENERAL: Now’s not the time to penny-pinch, poindexter! We need us some big ass robots to beat down these big ass beasties in some kinda gawd-amighty throw-down. (makes jabbing motions) Pow! Whammo! Biff! Foom!
PRESIDENT: Are you suggesting that the robots will punch the monsters?
GENERAL: Fuck yes! How awesome would that be?
DOCTOR: What you are suggesting it engaging in hand-to-hand combat with giant creatures that will be both faster and better suited to such things. It is pointlessly risky and expensive, not to mention impractical.
PRESIDENT: The Doctor does have a point.
GENERAL: Listen, I got it all planned out – we just get the robots to link with our brains, right? You eggheads can figure that out, can’t you? That way the robot will move just as fast as the monster, and then it’ll be martial arts chop-socky against alien monster brawn. (makes karate chopping motion) HAI! Badass, yeah!
DOCTOR: One person’s brain will be overloaded by this. We’ll need two people at minimum to operate one body for a made-up pseudo-scientific reason I am citing right now. The challenges to finding two people suited to do this with each other will significantly decrease the numbers of robots we can field.
GENERAL: Bah! We’ll just have them fight each other with sticks. Believe me, brother, once you try and bash a guy’s face in with a stick, you’ve seen into his fucking soul, amirite? (to president) High Five!
PRESIDENT (leaving GENERAL hanging): Stick Fighting?
DOCTOR: The stick-fighting plan is irrelevant. The point is that this is the stupidest possible way to fight these creatures. You are engaging them on their own terms! They emerge from the water – do we propose to make these robots able to swim?
GENERAL: Why swim when you can walk? Look, fellas, you’re missing the *point* here. This would be AWESOME! The guys that beat down these things will be such studs they’ll be able to score in a convent! Who doesn’t want to watch a giant fucking robot wrassle himself a big-ass sea monster?
DOCTOR: I presume you would give the robots claws and teeth and such. At minimum, giving them a centauroid structure to lower their center of gravity will…
GENERAL: No, no, NO! No teeth, no claws, none of that shit. These robots need to be saleable in toy stores, and nobody wants a hero with giant fangs. I guess we can give them a sword, but all pilots should be trained not to use the sword except in dramatically appropriate moments. Punching, fellas – this is all about the punching. OOO! We could even put rockets on their elbows to…
DOCTOR: Could we give them poison spines?
DOCTOR: Electrify the hull?
GENERAL: Then how could they wrestle? No!
DOCTOR: Could we at least make them fly?
GENERAL: That’s why we have dozens and dozens of helicopters on stand-by!
DOCTOR: You know, we could have the helicopters armed to assist…
GENERAL: Nope! Wouldn’t be fair. We want a classic throw-down, understand? Like in the movies.
DOCTOR: Surely, Herr President, you see how foolish this idea is.
PRESIDENT (scribbling in a notebook): So, General, what do you anticipate the licensing revenue would be for these things…
DOCTOR: That’s it. I’m going back to Austria, where we will never, ever see a Kaiju. Good luck, idiots. (exit)
I play Warhammer 40,000 (or ’40K’). I play Warhammer as often as I can, which is not nearly enough. If I had my way, I’d play a game a week and enter a tournament a month. As it stands, I play about a game a month and enter tournaments once or twice a year. I am always trying to get new people to play the game, because those friends of mine who do play are either few in number or difficult to pry into actually playing (or both). Typically, when I broach the subject of playing 40K with somebody who sounds potentially interested, I usually get the response “It’s so expensive, though!”
And that, my friends, is just soooo much bullshit. So, in the interest of procrastinating the mountain of work I’ve got sitting here to be graded, I’m going to rant a bit.
All right, Warhammer 40K is not super cheap. The sticker shock of buying an army outright seems overwhelming. The rulebook will cost you $75, the army specific rulebook (which you’ll need) will set you back another 50. Most full-size armies, if bought at the sticker price, will cost you several hundred dollars. Throw in another hundred-ish bucks for paint and brushes, and you can reasonably expect to drop ~$500 to start up (though there are a *lot* of ways to get discount stuff and come under this figure). When people go to the website and start adding things together, they start to freak out.
What they’re forgetting, though, is that nobody expects you to go out and buy everything all at once in the same sense that nobody expects you to go out and buy every single piece of a model train set all at the same time or expect you to buy and entire set of golf clubs and attire the first time you play. This, I feel, is part of the misunderstanding: people think Warhammer is a game. It isn’t. It’s a hobby.
Playing the actual game of Warhammer 40K is only about a third (or less) of what you spend your time doing. For the rest of the time you are buying models, building/painting/customizing those models, putting together army lists, modeling terrain, chatting tactics online, and so on. For every game I play of Warhammer 40K, I’ve probably put about 10 hours of prep time behind it over the course of however many weeks or months. I enjoy this process - it is part of the hobby. It’s fun and very satisfying to finish painting a really cool model to add to my collection.
People who think it’s a game are usually folks that approach the world from the perspective of the video gamer. You buy it, you sit down, you play it, and, 20-ish hours later, it’s over. Never mind that video gamers are paying the exact same amount of money (if not more) for their consoles + games as I do for my 40K armies. Nevermind that, unlike video games, an army that I build or a model that I paint I can use and will remain relevant forever. I am still fielding models I purchased almost ten years ago. Did that little plastic tank cost me $50? Yeah, it did. But when I laid out the money for that tank, you were laying out $50 for Halo 2. Tell me, are you still playing Halo 2? Hmmm?
Didn’t think so.
Furthermore, when you compare Warhammer 40K with other actual hobbies, it compares quite favorably. It’s cheaper than golf by a country mile, it’s less time consuming and less expensive than fishing. It costs a damn sight less than boating hobbies of any kind. Model Trains? Warhammer is both less expensive (overall) and takes up less space. Gardening? People spend more money on gardening than on any other hobby (in aggregate, granted). Sure, when you’re a teenager with a crap minimum wage job you only work part time, a Warhammer army is realistically out of your reach. If you’re a full grown person, though, with a salary and a car who pays your own rent and taxes and still has the money left over to occasionally take your significant other out to an expensive dinner, don’t sing me the ‘but it’s so expensive’ sob story. Bull shit, cheapskate–if you want to, you can afford it without even making a noticeable dent in your bank account. Hell, I afforded it while working as a dog walker and then as an adjunct professor, and let me tell you: those jobs do NOT pay that well.
If you want to whine to me about how much 40K costs, what you should say to me is “I don’t like the idea of this hobby enough to invest the resources necessary”. I don’t have a problem with that. That is totally fine by me. There are a lot of hobbies I don’t like enough to invest in (like fishing, for instance). I do not prance around, though, using the ‘exorbitant’ cost of fishing rods as an excuse not to get involved. I just say ‘no thank you’ and move on. What drives me bonkers is the perception (A) that if I play this game I somehow have buckets of disposable income and (B) that I’m supposed to believe that you really want to play but are just too broke to start. Sure, some people are legitimately strapped for cash for a variety of reasons, but the majority of the people who say this to me are not among them. They’ve been making more money than this poor-ass writer for a long, long time. They just, for some reason quite beyond me, can’t simply admit to me that they don’t think the cost is justified considering the enjoyment derived. That doesn’t mean you can’t afford it; that just means you don’t want to. Stop pretending and just tell it to me straight.
From time to time over the years, I have had arguments with friends, family members, and teachers over why I write/read science fiction and fantasy. Many of these people have characterized their objections thusly:
Why don’t you write something real?
Let us, for the nonce, put aside the assumptions of reality and how it is experienced inherent in that statement. The central critique there (and I have heard it in many forms from many different people) is that, because the events of science fiction and fantasy either cannot happen or are not currently happening, entertaining their existence is pointless. Better to focus on the here and now and real.
I’m sorry, but I fail to understand how that is in any way superior an endeavor.
I’m not saying it’s inferior, mind you – not at all – but rather that it is essentially equivalent. The focus on the now and the actual teaches us things about who we are and who we were. It peers inward and backwards. The focus on the potential and the theoretical teaches us things about who we might be or what we might become. It peers outwards and forwards. I think that is something as important to consider, don’t you? Time does not stand still. We are (as individuals, as a society, as a species) changing, often in ways unexpected. We need to think about what might happen to us or what will become central to our identities if X or Y is stripped away, morphed, replaced, undone.
Tolkien once wrote:
He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.
Tolkien may be right in the realm of the real world; there is no good reason to destroy society before one understands it, no good reason to dismantle and institution or a device of a belief before you can see how it works. The change we see in the world can be both destructive and creative, and which is healthier cannot often be seen by looking inside or gazing backwards. Because something happened before does not mean it will happen again, particularly not if circumstances change (which they always are). So how, then, can we theorize? Well, by speculating. Hence, speculative fiction, hence dreams, hence, fantasy. See?
Look at these maps. Look scary? It is, I suppose. It is also, in a perverse way, exciting. The world is going to change. How we adapt to it and what becomes of that change is often dependent upon how well and how creatively we dream about the future. It also deals with the past, of course (betcha Holland is going to get a lot of phone calls), but it cannot rest exclusively upon the province of what has been. Ironically, history is littered with the corpses of societies that thought looking backwards was superior to looking ahead. You never go anywhere if you do that, and he who stops moving dies.
In science fiction, we imagine our world as it might be; we apply basic principles of science to the world we know and imagine how it reshapes the world. In fantasy, we can strip away the preconceived notions of history and culture and expectation and perform, if you will, a kind of mock experiment upon the human heart. We learn from both, and to openly decry either as pointless to our culture is worse than wrong, it’s willfully ignorant.
So, yes, I think it’s fine that you have a love-affair with the Old Masters and that nothing gets your heart a-stirring more than a deeply flawed character stumbling through modern life in the latest upscale fiction sweetheart shortlisted for Booker Prize. You’ll forgive me, though, if I stick to my Nebulas and Hugos and World Fantasy Awards. Reality has never been all that motivating for me, anyway.