Monthly Archives: December 2011
I’ve been coming across various blogs, sites, and fantasy-related discussions in which participants have discussed the
importance of understanding and studying mythology when constructing a fantasy world. This has particularly been the case when discussing the creation of urban or contemporary fantasy novels (which, for the initiated, are those fantastical stories set in our own world–think things like the Dresden Files, Harry Potter (to some extent), Twilight, most zombie or vampire tales, etc.). Now, on the one hand, I agree that having a good grasp of various cultural myths can be a great help when world-building. On the other hand, I also see the adherence to and obsession with the minutiae of these myths to be a severe limitation on what the fantasy genre can do.
If I write a story and I want fairies in it, it would behoove me to read up on fairie mythology–this only makes sense. If you want to contribute to a long-standing ‘conversation’ if you will surrounding a certain topic, you ought to do a little bit of research. However, if I want to change my fairies so that they operate at variance with the behavior of the prototypical ‘fairie’, I should be able to do so. In fact, I would go so far as to encourage people to do so. It is a constant wonder to me that the speculative fiction genres are, at times, so damned rigid in what is acceptable or unacceptable. The whole reason the genre is called ‘fantasy’ is that you can do anything you damned well please. Fairies aren’t real, so there are no actual rules regarding how they can be portrayed. There are only perceived rules.
That said, you can’t go about writing about amphibious vampires who feed on gelatin and thrive in the sunlight and still call them vampires. There is a certain essence to ‘vampireness’ that must be respected in order for your contribution to the vampire genre to have meaning. To figure out what that is, you need to really sit down and think about what a ‘vampire’ really represents. I, personally, find vampires cowardly and pathetic creatures–slaves to their baser instincts and self-absorbed parasites too terrified of their own mortality to accept it. Now, if I take that idea (what I consider to be the thematic core of vampirism) and filter it into a vampire character that picks and chooses from the mythology in accordance with the overall idea, I’m going to wind up with something that is both vampire and not vampire. My vampires won’t be heroic or even anti-heroic. They will be irresponsible, cowardly, ruled by fear and lust and hunger. They will probably have only false bravado, not the firm confidence of Dracula. I will probably give them an aversion to sunlight, but not for the same reasons everyone else does. I won’t have them working in large family groups. I won’t have vampirism be a disease or a contagious curse. You’ll know they’re vampires, but I’ll be using them in a different way and for a different purpose. They will remake the old into the new.
The above is what I think fantasy should always seek to do. Take a bit of the old, but don’t enslave yourself to it. If you want to make fairies more like regular people with regular jobs, then do it. Who cares if that isn’t the trope? Tropes lead you to predictable stories, boring characters, and forgettable writing. Take the tropes and break them. Make up your own rules. Twist the ideas around into something new–something of your own. It’s okay; you’re allowed to do it. Not every werewolf is killed by silver bullets. Yours can be different, new, interesting–they can go from the mundane to the fantastic.
That, after all, is where we fantasy fans all want to be.
Last night I had a conversation with my friends Bobby and Claire regarding mermaids. Claire remarked, “You know what I don’t get? Why do they have belly buttons?”
“It’s an umbilical cord thing.” Bobby offered.
I shook my head and, from there, we launched into a discussion of whether they would be warm or cold-blooded. The above exchange, by the by, is why my friends are awesome. It also is the tip of the iceberg concerning why mermaids are really, really implausible. Even if we were on a different planet with a different environment and followed a different evolutionary path, mermaids, as depicted, wouldn’t make any sense.
First off, let’s start where Bobby and Claire began: the belly button. A navel indicates the attachment point for the umbilical cord. This, furthermore, indicates that mermaid would bear live young, like mammals. Plausible, I suppose, but it puts mermaids in a really peculiar evolutionary category. Fish lay eggs; fish are also cold-blooded (ectothermic). Mammals bear live young; mammals are warm-blooded (endothermic). Mermaids, ostensibly, are some kind of hybrid. So, are they ectothermic creatures who bear live young? If so, why? These things tend to happen for a reason, if indirectly–a species happens upon a particular adaptation that serves them well and, therefore, survives (that’s how evolution works, essentially). Now, ectothermic creatures are comparatively simplistic organisms–they lack (and don’t need) the various complicated systems we endotherms use to regulate our own internal temperature. One of the reasons we mammals bear live young is that it takes a longer period of time for an endothermic embryo to develop to the point where it will survive on its own–you can’t typically leave something like that in an egg and have it work out (the exception, of course, being the ever-bizarre platypus). Cold blood creatures, to my knowledge, exclusively lay eggs. It’s easier and they have no reason to do otherwise. Mermaids would fall into the same category, so then they wouldn’t have belly buttons. They also wouldn’t have breasts, which would instantly make mermaids less interesting to men worldwide.
Now, if they’re warm blooded, that would change how they look. Endotherms need to maintain their body temperature, and the ocean, you may have noticed, can get pretty damned cold. Endotherms that live in the ocean (seals, whales, dolphins, manatees, etc.) combat this problem with thick layers of blubber or fur. Mermaids, really, should be pretty beefy, chunky folks. The Little Mermaid would have had more in common with Shallow Hal than it would have with Cinderella.
While we’re on the subject of bodies, let’s talk about the arms, shall we? The mermaid arm is built like a human arm (and, yes, I realize that mermaids are really just another incidence of anthropomorphism used for metaphorical or thematic purposes, but that’s not my topic here). The human arm is built so as to assist us in lifting, climbing, striking, and, to a lesser extent, grasping. With the exception of grasping, none of those things are really that essential in a watery environment. Mermen certainly wouldn’t have any cause to develop the muscular torsos so often seen in illustrations, anyway. They’d be better off with tentacles, which are better at grasping than hands, and grasping well is what you’d want. I suppose those arms are handy for pulling yourself along on shore, but mermaids don’t seem to do that often, except to tempt sailors to their doom or some such, and that seems a pretty niche purpose for so complicated an appendage. Stranger stuff has happened in nature, but it raises doubts, right?
I don’t really need to go much further, do I? I mean, why do they wear clothes (or, if they need to, why wouldn’t they wear much more)? Why do they have eyelashes? Why would they wear their hair long? Are they really amphibious and, if so, why? Shouldn’t their eyes be better adapted to see in the dark? Man…the problems go on and on.
If you wanted intelligent creatures of the deep, I humbly submit these guys, whom I cooked up a while ago and have thought about at length since. There’s your merpeople–squids, not hominids. Creepy and slimy and maybe beautiful, with not a seashell bikini top to be found.
So, on occasion I watch Fraggle Rock. My daughter likes it; we have some of the DVDs and play them often. Since I’ve watched the same three episodes or so over and over and over again to the point where I can probably recite them from memory, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve begun to overthink every aspect of the show. My usual target for such ruminations? The so-called Gorg Empire.
Seriously, what the hell is up with the Gorgs?
It goes without saying that the so-called King and Queen of the Universe do not rule a kingdom, do not have an empire, and have no subjects. They mention how they have never met their subjects on at least one occasion, and it is only very rarely that we see other beings in their world at all. We are forced, then, to presume one of two things:
- The Gorgs are delusional. There never was an empire, they aren’t really kings, and they’ve been making all this stuff up.
- The Gorg Empire once existed, but doesn’t anymore. The three Gorgs in the show are the very last survivors of a once-great civilization.
Being a literature guy, I know that #1 is never the right answer. No, they aren’t just ‘crazy’–that’s a cop-out. That leaves us with option #2: post-apocalyptic Gorgs eking out a living on a wild scrap of land among the bones of their civilization. The parents persist in the fiction that the empire is alive and well because they cannot fathom explaining to the child the atrocities that brought them to this turn and, furthermore, are probably not emotionally equipped to handle the revelation themselves. Accordingly, they cling to the old traditions and tell the old stories and pretend nothing is amiss.
Causes for Collapse
The reason for the collapse of the Gorg Empire could be anything–war, famine, natural disaster, plague, or whatever. Without asking Madam Trash Heap, we will never know for certain. My favorite theory, though, is this one: the Fraggles did it.
You know how Queen Gorg is always freaking out anytime she sees a Fraggle? They’re considered vermin, right?
Well, one of the reasons we humans have instinctually negative reactions to vermin is because they represented a health risk to our ancestors–they ate our food, they spread disease, and they rendered areas unliveable. The Fraggles are the same thing–they are vectors for disease. Furthermore, since they happen to be quite intelligent vermin, they would be exceedingly difficult to eradicate. Centuries or even millennia of Gorg history likely passed with Fraggles ravaging gardens and ruining abandoned homes. This, though, doesn’t destroy the empire, does it? They’d need to spread some kind of terrible disease that the Gorgs would have no defense against. Wherever could the Fraggles have gotten such a thing? Hmmmm…
Right: Earth. Outer Space–favorite home of such civilization-killing diseases as smallpox, the bubonic plague, and even cholera. The legends of Outer Space abound even before Travelling Matt makes his sojourn through the workshop and into the world, so presumably fraggles had been there before. Some fraggle could have popped out into Outer Space, looked around, and then popped into the Gorg Empire to raid some cabbage. A sneeze or some tainted water later, and boom–a deadly plague raging across the continent. In our own history, diseases spread to new continents were terrible to behold; it doesn’t stretch the imagination much to think a cross-world plague would be worse. Dead Gorgs piled in the streets. Plague carts roving the countryside. The collapse of civic order, the decent of the barbarians–death, destruction, and unending pestilence.
Mamma and Papa Gorg were the lucky ones–immune to the disease, survivors of the chaos that followed. Can you blame them for holding on to the past? What have they got to live for now? Radishes? An idiot son?
Chills the bones, don’t it?
Anyway, these are the things I think about while watching children’s programming.
Every year around this time we are bombarded by images and stories of people losing their minds in retail environments. People are trampled, beaten, even pepper sprayed, all in the quest to acquire the newest pair of sneakers, some doll that giggles when you tickle it, or God knows what else. It’s crazy, it’s stupid, it’s disgusting, and it’s contrary to what the Christmas Spirit is really all about.
Or is it?
Remember, now, that these people aren’t busting in faces to buy something for themselves. They’re doing it for somebody else. They want to please someone else, improve their lives, let them know that they are loved. To them, they are beating in that other person’s face because, on some level, they believe that it is the best way to make their children and loved ones happy. Deranged as it might be by materialism and cultural expectations, its genesis is a fundamentally good one. Weird, huh?
This is why, of all the wonderful characters in Tolkien, Boromir often intrigues me the most. Boromir represents the fundamental flaw in the human spirit. Boromir is a brave man, a hero, a good son, a good friend, and a man who wants, beyond all other things, to help his country, his family, and the free peoples of Middle Earth. You can’t help but like him. At the same time, though, he is brash, short-sighted, overly proud, short tempered, and foolish. When he tries to take the Ring from Frodo, he’s doing it because he thinks he can help. He believes he is doing the right thing – bring the Ring to Gondor, use it to defeat Mordor, save the world, etc.. Who wouldn’t want that to be the case? Nobody can say Boromir’s an evil man – weak, perhaps, and certainly unwise, but not evil.
Lots of folks can sit back and shake their head at Boromir basically trying to mug Frodo in the woods and say ‘what a jerk’ or ‘how stupid is that?’ Not that many folks, however, can say they wouldn’t be tempted to do the same in a similar scenario. For example, say this Christmas there is a screw-up at Amazon and they send you a new Ipad that you didn’t order or buy. You know the person who should have received it is going to be bummed out, but they’ll get their Ipad eventually and on Amazon’s dime. You could totally keep the Ipad – just a little lie, or even just a sin of omission, and it’s yours.
Well, do you keep it?
Understand this: no matter how you rationalize the keeping of the Ipad, you are now a thief. You have taken that which does not rightfully belong to you so that you can make either yourself or someone on your list happier. Perhaps this is just what your sick cousin needs as he’s laid up in the hospital and bored. Perhaps your unemployed brother could really use a new computer, but he can’t afford one. By taking this Ipad, you will be doing good. Who are you harming, right? It’s just Amazon – faceless corporation, soulless materialistic monolith – it doesn’t have feelings. They won’t even feel its loss! Doesn’t matter, though – you are still a thief.
Don’t get me wrong – almost everybody would keep the Ipad (well, except my wife, to whom this really happened, but she’s more Aragorn than Boromir, anyway). This is why Boromir’s struggle is so wonderful to watch – it’s the same as all of our struggles. Do small evil to do great good? Yeah, why not? Steal that doll from that other person’s carriage – they’ll be okay. Keep consuming – there won’t be any major repercussions, I’m sure, and everybody will be so happy, right? It’s Christmas, man – lighten up!
It’s just a little thing. Such a little thing…
Okay, so I had a pretty kickass idea for a video game the other day. Maybe it already exists, and it was one of the various options in the GTA games, but I’d take it a bit further. The idea was first planted in my by this student I had in my freshman composition class a few years ago. He had a confidence and maturity that far exceeded his fellow freshman. I came to find out that he was actually 21 and had spent the years since high school riding in an ambulance as an EMT. Once, he looked at me with a gleam in his eye and said, “my team and I never lost a call.” That is to say, every person their ambulance team picked up lived long enough to see the hospital. Awesome, and good for him.
If you think about it, being in an ambulance has got to be one of the most intense, stressful things anybody can do on a daily basis in the city. You think you’re upset by traffic? What about the guys who have someone bleeding to death in the back seat? I can only imagine the cursing. Well, I can only imagine how I’d curse, at any rate. Think of the video game you could make based on ambulance calls! Each mission would have you on a tight clock, racing across a busy city to get to a victim before he or she died on site, stablizing the person there, and then shooting them to the hospital before they died. I’d have each mission be bracketed by a story–the story of the person who you are running to save. Mission #1: little girl gunned down in gang crossfire at an inner city playground. You fail in the mission? Guess what the mission failed screen is: the girl’s funeral. Crying mom. People in black. Weeping multitudes. Do you want to see that? Hell no you don’t. Drive, dammit. DRIVE.
If you pass the mission, you get to see the little girl living her life. Ramp up the pathos, make you tear at the eyes. Feel like a hero.
This wouldn’t be GTA, though. You’re an ambulance–you can’t run people over, you can’t kill people. Yeah, you can bash up cars and drive on the sidewalk and break the traffic laws, but you’ve got to balance it with public safety. All the missions happen in the same city; you learn the roads, know the traffic patterns, figure out the best routes to the various hospitals. Make a wrong turn, and your patient dies. Get stuck in traffic, figure a way out. Kill somebody? Mission failed. Use the siren.
There’s more to it than driving, though. You’ve got a team in the back working to keep the victim stable. Figure that, with the driving, there will also be prompts for hitting certain buttons in certain orders to get the medics in the back working to top efficiency. The screen will have the victim’s vitals running; the longer you go, the more complicated it is to keep them alive. You’ll need fancy fingers.
Each mission ups the stakes. Start with the little girl shot after school. Move on to a mass casualty event–a bus accident or explosion–happening on a holiday. Icy roads. At night. Have one during city-wide rioting–now you’re not only dodging traffic, but angry mobs. Have another one during an earthquake or tornado. Alien Invasion. Zombie Apocalypse. The possibilities are endless. Keep an open-play option there, too–just drive around and make relatively normal calls. See how many you can get there alive, learn the city in the process.
Upgrade your ambulance. Pimp out its design. Custom sirens, decals, lights, hubcaps. Hire new and better team members–better paramedics, better EMTs, better drivers. Soon you’re driving the A-team of the ambulance world; the team that drives into the alien invasion and saves all the school kids from PS122. Badass. It almost makes me wish I were a game designer.
I’d play that game. I’d like, for once, to play a game where it wasn’t about being vicious or cruel or violent. It’s action, but it’s about saving a life. It’s about everything that makes humanity noble and good.
Okay, so I’ve been doing this blog thing for about 5 months now, and I suppose it’s time for some self-reflection. When I started this blog, I swore to myself that it wouldn’t do or be about a couple things.
- No Navel-gazing: That is to say, the blog won’t be about me, my personal life, my problems, or anything like that.
- No Politics: I’m not interested in starting political arguments, I’m not interested if people think my opinions regarding the state of the world are right or wrong, and I don’t want to be tempted into debating things with people who don’t agree with me.
- No Random Spam: If I’m putting something on the blog, it’s mostly going to be my own thoughts or reactions to some idea I’ve had or been inspired to discuss by others. I’m not just going to, say, post a picture of a thinking monkey I found on the internet somewhere and go ‘LOL!’
Now, with the exception of #3, I’ve avoided this stuff (I had a post at some point just linking to the Straight Dope wherein they discussed the practicalities of a cube-world. It was awesome; forgive me). I intend to keep sticking to my rules; I like them.
What I have been putting on the blog is a fairly even mix of critiques about sci-fi or fantasy topics, random ideas and observations or even analyses of spec fic topics, and finally my own fiction. Of it all, the stuff that I’ve liked the most has been my fiction, but the stuff that everybody else has liked the most has been the other stuff. As it is my intent to become a successful, published author, I’m not sure what to make of that. Furthermore, friends of mine have drawn my attention to this blog post entitled “How Not To Blog,” wherein the author tells me that posting unpublished fiction on a blog is a Bad Idea.
If I may digress on this point for a second: Why not? Well, yeah, I guess people don’t read it all that often (I average 30-ish hits for non-fiction posts and only 20-ish for fiction, both of which are tiny), and obviously if I were to post an entire story here, I’ve given up or decided not to publish it professionally, but I really can’t understand how it hurts my chances of getting an agent. First off, the stories I publish up here are usually pretty damned good, if I may say so myself. Are they my best stuff? Well, no–that stuff I’m sending off to sell. The excerpts of novels I’m trying to sell, well, I guess I can see it as being a bad idea to post stuff I hope to publish, but those instances are really only the barest fraction of what the work entails. I’m not serializing it, and it isn’t like I’m not querying through the normal channels in the meantime.
Furthermore, if I’m a fiction writer and I’m not supposed to post fiction, then…why am I here again? Are folks really tuning in to read my opinions on why Avatar sucks, but repulsed by my own stories? WTF, internet. Is that what blogging is about? It’s okay for me to bitch and moan about my personal problems or go all glassy-eyed about that one time I saw that really pretty rainbow or rip apart somebody else’s creative work, but when I try to create something myself, it’s not okay? Hmph. Sounds a lot like academia, to me–yeah, get your PhD in How To Read Everybody Else’s Stuff and you’re the toast of the town, but get your MFA in Making My Own Stuff and you’re a second-class citizen. Bull and Shit. If this is how the Publishing Industry works or some facet of Self Promotion I don’t understand, then that goes to show that I really ought not self-publish, since I clearly don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
Alright, rant over. Back to reflection. Cue the soothing music. Light up the incense (let me get my inhaler…pfft…okay, yeah, light it now).
Anyway, traffic around here has steadily increased, so that means I’m doing something right. I have more followers than when I started, which is also a good sign. I think for the future I’m going to focus more on posting fewer longer stories and cut the novel excerpts out entirely (better safe than sorry). That won’t stop me from posting the occasional vigniette or short-short–stuff I wouldn’t sell anyway. I will probably up the amount of RPG posts I’ll make, since those seem to be popular. I’m currently posting 2-4 posts a week, which seems a manageable pace. Furthermore, and against my original predictions, I have enjoyed posting here. I hope you’ve enjoyed it too, since I’m going to keep doing it. Tough luck, Facebook.
I’m very open to suggestions or comments regarding my blog thus far. If you have an opinion of what I’ve been doing, good or bad, let me know. Oh, and thanks ever so much for reading!
The plain, wooden letterbox on Banric Sahand’s desk was so nondescript that a visitor to his voluminous field pavilion might have noticed it anyway, given that everything else in the tent was unforgettable. An educated person would quickly note that the contents of his bookshelf ran in two varieties—military strategy and proscribed magical texts—and that the vast majority of the books there had long been thought lost or had been banned throughout the West. A businessman or merchant would have noted the ostentatious quality of the Kalsaari rug that covered the ground, or the expense and rarity of the iron-and-mageglass chair that loomed behind his massive, hand-carved desk. A soldier would note the rune-inscribed broadsword on the rack by the fire not only for the weapon’s quality, but also because it was clearly kept sharp, oiled, and in regular use, as were all of the various weapons and armor supported by racks and stands and attended to by invisible specters bound to Sahand’s will. An uneducated person, meanwhile, would have likely been distracted by the imposing person of Sahand himself—his heavy fur cloak; his polished, silver-shod boots; the dark, iron circlet resting on his rugged brow; the goblet he drank from, made from a human skull. All of these things were amazing, terrifying, and incredible to varying degrees, and then, as some kind of strange, mundane joke, there was the plain wooden letterbox, sitting alone in a corner of the desk of a man who had once sought to conquer the West.
Of course, few ever noticed it, or anything else at all about the room. They were usually too busy lying on their faces before the Mad Prince, groveling for their lives, to take in the finer points of His Highness’s personal living quarters.
On this particular afternoon, the groveler was a warlock from Ayventry named Hortense. Hortense was perhaps forty, with a wife and a teenage daughter, and had come highly recommended as a man of skill, principle, and noble bearing. Sahand’s right-hand man, the towering Gallo, pressed a heavy boot into the small of the man’s back, pushing his face towards the floor; watching this, Sahand noted yet again how quickly one’s ‘bearing’ slipped when faced with imminent death. Hortense was weeping tears, drool, and snot on Sahand’s expensive carpet. “Pl…please, Your Highness, permit…just…just permit me one more chance….I, I, I know we’re close…”
Sahand sighed and looked out the open tent flap, where the snow was falling in heavy sheets along the upper slopes of the Dragonspine mountains. “Hortense, what did I tell you last fall?”
Hortense tried to look up, his eyes blinded by tears, but Gallo pressed his face back down. “Oh! You said…that…that I had one year to get the machines to work.”
“And how long ago was that?” Sahand asked calmly.
“Silence.” Sahand nodded to Gallo, who pressed harder on the engineer’s back. “Now, I am not certain how they read contracts in Ayventry, Hortense, but if it is anything like in the rest of Eretheria, twelve months equals a year. That means you are two months behind schedule, which means I am two months behind schedule. This strikes me as unfair, Hortense. Doesn’t that seem unfair?”
“V-very unfair, milord…”
“I agree, it is very unfair. It seems that you are in a breach of contract, even after I so graciously granted you an extension to complete your work and even went to so great a length as to kidnap numerous thaumatuges to assist you and procured literally scores of wild beasts from all over the world to make your work possible. Are you aware of how much such activities cost me?”
Hortense’s voice was mangled by his cheek being pressed into the carpet. “A great deal, milord.”
“Do you hear yourself, Hortense?” Sahand asked, standing up. “Are you aware of just how cavalierly you just uttered the phrase ‘great deal’?”
Hortense’s breath heaved in heavy sobs. “I…I didn’t…I don’t…”
Sahand crouched besides the prone warlock. “Of course you don’t, Hortense—this, I believe, is the problem we are having in our professional relationship.” Sahand grasped the man by his hair and jerked his head back until Sahand could see his eyes. “You simply do not appreciate my problems. My goals, my aspirations, my operations, my finances are abstractions to you, aren’t they?”
Hortense didn’t answer save to produce a nasal whine through his running nose.
“I have a solution to this problem—a way to bind your self-motivation more closely with my own interests. Now, of course, you are too valuable to punish physically—an injured, ill, or starving man does not work well. However, I have found men with families in jeopardy show a great will to succeed in their tasks.”
Hortense’s bloodshot eyes widened and his face crumpled into an even less flattering expression. “Oh…oh please, Hann, no! Anything! Anything but…”
Sahand permitted himself a tight grimace. “For every day you do not meet the goals I set for you, on that night I grant my officers access to your daughter. It is my understanding that they are not gentle lovers.”
Sahand rose and nodded to Gallo, who released the sobbing warlock. Hortense simply sat in the center of the room, tears streaming down his face, his palms upwards in his lap. “It’s…it’s impossible! It cannot be done! I…I…can’t!”
“Well, then, Hortense,” Sahand said, sitting behind his desk, “Congratulations—you will soon be a grandfather.”
Gallo seized Hortense by the scalp and dragged him from the room like a sack of grain. The tent flap closed behind him, leaving Sahand alone. He glowered at the dark stains on the rug where the warlock had been. Ten years! He had spent the past ten years of his life painstakingly preparing for this winter, and now to think he might fail just when success was closest. He wanted to flay the skin of that inept fop of a warlock himself. He wanted to make the entire city of Freegate wade in rivers of blood. He wanted to call down all the powers of the world to crack the fortresses of Galaspin open and feast on the flesh of the fools inside like a bird cracking open a snail. He clenched his fists and teeth until he heard the leather in his gauntlets cracking and heard his teeth grinding with the stress.
He stood up and released his rage into The Shattering. The heat and raw power of the Fey roared through his blood and blasted forth into one of his bookshelves with a spectacular boom, reducing the shelf and the books to flinders and torn pages. The Mad Prince watched the paper flitter around the tent for a moment before taking a deep breath and sitting down. Then he heard something drop into the letterbox.
On the inside of the lid of the plain wooden container was a spider web of intricate astral runes that, when the lid was closed, linked the interior of the box with a spatial rift through which secure messages could be sent. It was, without a doubt, the most expensive object in the room. Even the mighty Arcanostrum of Saldor did not possess such devices. The Sorcerous League, however, possessed many secrets the magi of Saldor did not.
The letter inside had a red seal, marking it as important and specifically addressed to him—the whole League would not be privy to its contents. Waving his hand to seal the tent from intrusion, Sahand broke the seal with the proper word of power and flipped open the letter:
6th Ahzmonth, 33rd Year of Polimeux II
Our friends in Freegate have come upon a unique and unusual opportunity regarding your operations in the mountains. A meeting is requested this very night for those involved to discuss the situation.
Curse the Name of Keeper,
The Office of the Chairman
Sahand frowned, pondering the implications. The vague wording wasn’t unusual for a letter from the Chairman, of course—it was the highest priority of the League to maintain its secrecy, and so any official correspondence would lack detail in case the message were intercepted. The League was, of course, aware of his actions in Freegate—they had afforded him material support in the form of a variety of magecraft—but what they would consider a ‘unique and unusual opportunity’ was very much a mystery. Especially since they had no idea what his real plan was, else they never would have agreed to support him in the first place. Whatever the reason, the meeting would have to be attended. As usual, the timing was very poor.
Sahand summoned Gallo back into his tent. Gallo was a man of similar stature to his lord, but far less social grace. Even in this cold, he wore dull and dented plate and mail with a wolf’s-head helm that only partially hid his horrendously flame-scarred face. His breath was a choking rasp that gurgled and wheezed constantly, as though the man were constantly drowning in his own saliva. His face was a ruin of burn scars, with only a ragged hole for a mouth and two, dark, fish-dead eyes. Of all Sahand’s underlings, he knew he could rely on Gallo. Gallo was that rarest of creatures—a man without ambition or compassion. Whatever fire had melted off the warrior’s face had also taken with it whatever made him human.
“I am not to be disturbed for the remainder of the evening for any reason, on pain of death.” Sahand ordered. He found threatening death to be the most reliable way to keep his idiot underlings away from him for any lengthy period of time, and he knew Gallo would follow through without hesitation. Referring to the spirit clock in his tent, he saw that he had only seven hours before midnight—just barely enough time for the ritual to be completed. Again, he wondered what could be going on for the meeting to be called on such short notice.
Gallo’s voice was a hollow rasp. “Is that all?”
“No. Keep Hortense working, and inform the city that we will need to get the idiot more help. You are dismissed.”
Gallo executed a stiff bow and went out.
“This had better be good.” Sahand grumbled to himself. He sealed the tent, threw the letter in the fireplace, and got to work.
Author’s Note: This is the first half of a chapter from Tyvian Reldamar and the Iron Ring (working title), an Alandar novel I’m currently putting through it’s final revision (hopefully) before it’s healthy enough to send out. Sahand is one of the major villains.
The list had no end. The yellowed, six-inch wide span of parchment, thin as a Bible page, spooled out of the old man’s hands both above and below, falling on the floor in a tangled, Gordian mess. It filled the room, piling up in great drifts of paper that had to be swept aside so others could pass, obscuring the cupboards and bookshelves that lined the wall in an imitation of the snow that fell endlessly outside the single, circular window. A fire blazed in a great hearth at the opposite end of the room, a heavy iron grating covering its wide mouth so that sparks wouldn’t set the never-ending list alight. That had happened but once, and the repercussions had been terrible to behold.
Spectacles perched on the tip of his large nose, the old man peered through the flickering firelight and woodsmoke at each entry on the list—a name and birthday, written in a neat, efficient elfish script. He would read each name to himself, mouthing the words carefully, as though tasting each syllable. On occasion he might stroke his beard and sit back, puffing on his pipe for a moment, his eyes far away. The name would glitter in his mind, a constellation of memories and feelings, each as sudden and as real as though he were experiencing them himself. Sometimes he would laugh at this, a small smile playing across red lips; other times he would sigh heavily, and his lips would retreat behind the snowy tresses of his beard in a deep frown. When this happened, he would produce a small stick of charcoal and draw a thin, black line through the name in question. His inspection through, he would take a deep breath and move on to the next name.
Every few hours, the parts of the list which had been reviewed were snipped off by silver shears and carted away in a wheelbarrow of gold and deep green. It was from there to the archivists, who would record which names were unmarked and marked for posterity. This was, arguably, the most important part of the process, but the old man paid it no heed. He hadn’t the time anymore. All that concerned him, all that could concern him, was the present—the inexorable, pitiless present which consumed his every waking hour.
Name after name after name paraded before his tired, old eyes—the lives of countless people dancing through his heart. He felt the warm glow of a child’s happiness and the lovely flutter of a youth’s discovery; he felt the trembling excitement of young love and the warm pulse of a love well-worn with age. These things made him happy, yes, but also brought with them his own memories, keen and tinged with grief, of times he would no longer see. More and more, however, he found himself drawing his charcoal across the names. These brought with them other feelings—the sting of bitter resentment, the slow burn of buried anger, the shuddering horror of a cruel act, and sometimes even worse things, things which he could scarcely bear to feel. These things made him weary beyond words; they weighed upon his ancient bones like Marley’s chains, and sometimes he would close his eyes for a while before going back to the list.
Once, a long time ago, there had been an end to the list. He could have done it all in a matter of weeks, sent it off to the archivists, and then seen to other duties. Those days, though, seemed far away. He had been forced to delegate so much of the work upon his elves. They, of course, had readily accepted—they were tireless and so very loyal—but he missed the work just the same. With every name on the list that he spoke, that longing grew, until it felt as though there were some massive, black hole at the center of his great belly, gnawing at the edges of his body with feelings of frustration and doubt.
There was nothing to be done, though. The list was more important than his feelings. The list was more important than him, more important than his workers, more important than anything else he did of had ever done. It was a solemn duty he had undertaken long ages ago, and he would not set it down for the sake of his own comfort.
“A fresh pipe, sir?” A shrill voice asked.
The old man looked down at the elf, dressed in the red livery of a house servant, and shook his head. “It is time for my dinner. Surely you know that, Sörig.”
The elf doffed his pointed cap and bowed. “Yes, of course, but…”
“But? No ‘buts’, Sörig, or I’ll have you back down in Sweets and Candies! I’ve a schedule to keep, and a late meal will throw it all off.”
The elf trembled beneath the man’s gaze. “I…I’m very sorry, sir, but I…”
“Dinner, elf, now!” The man roared, his beard shaking with rage.
“Yes, at once my Claus!” The elf bowed even lower and then vanished in the blink of an eye.
“Nicholas,” the old man grumbled, “My name is Nicholas.” He took a last puff from his dying pipe and then tapped the ashes out on the floor. “Nicholas.” He said again, tasting the name.
This time he felt nothing.
Author’s Note: This is the prologue of yet another project I’ve got simmering. Though I’m not actively working on it now, I’d be interested to hear what you think. Want to read more?
Are you ever bored by action sequences? I am. As much as I love action movies, dig a good scrap between hero and villain, and adore edge-of-your-seat stunts, I often find myself bored or underwhelmed by very technically advanced and well choreographed action in movies and, indeed, in books and comics as well. Where one film can blow twenty million dollars on some special effects extravaganza involving two guys wrestling on top of a moving plane in the middle of a dogfight and fall utterly flat, another movie can have a simple brawl in a bar that takes my breath away. So, what’s the difference? Well, quite simply it boils down to emotional investment in the stakes involved.
The same rules that make good musicals can and should make good action movies. Sound crazy? Well, consider this: when do characters sing in a good musical? Well, they usually do it at a crucial juncture in their story–when they are trying to make a decision, expressing their emotions, or are at a point where they can’t do anything other than sing to resolve the tension or advance the conflict. Fights and action sequences should basically work the same way. A hero should get into a fight when the stakes are too high to do anything else–they are at a crossroads, with an obvious choice to make, and we are invested in that choice as it is an important part of the story. The best action and adventure movies understand this implicitly. Take, for example, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which features many of the best action sequences in movie history–every single one of them involves high emotional stakes for Indy, for the audience, and are necessary for the plot to advance. Each sequence adds to the film, rather than wastes our time by putting the ‘real’ story on pause.
For a good example of how to both do this right and do it wrong, we need look no further than the Matrix movies. The first film was fantastic–the stakes were clear, we were invested in the outcome of the fights, and they served to advance the story. The fight between Neo and Agent Smith in the subway station is cathartic; it is the culmination of the plot, and we hang on every blow. We feel as though Neo’s life is in legitimate danger (even though we know it probably isn’t through simple plot calculus), and when he escapes agaisnt all odds, we cheer for joy. It works because it fits with the story, not outside or around it. It’s part of why we’re there.
Now, let us consider The Matrix Reloaded. Now, I don’t think the essential storyline of the film was bad (John Kenneth Muir writes this review that explains why better than I ever could), but the action sequences were objectively terrible. Think back to that never-ending highway fight. Remember it? Do you remember what that was all about? Yeah, neither do I. I didn’t know when I saw it, either. I remember vaguely they were trying to catch something, but I forgot what during the scene. Oh, right–they were trying to get that keymaster guy, I think. Hell, I don’t know. All I do know is that the scene went on for a really, really long time and must have spent a lot of money for me to be checking my watch halfway through. It’s purpose wasn’t clear, if indeed it had one, and we weren’t invested in the stakes. Snore.
A lot of adventure books, movies, shows, and so-on live by the mantra that the next fight needs to be bigger than the last. Budgets get larger, stakes get higher, and CGI effects multiply like mosquitos in a Louisiana swamp. The funny thing is, though, that bigger doesn’t automatically mean better. Better means better, and what makes something better is high stakes, yeah, but stakes that we identify with, care about, and understand. If the fight doesn’t do that, then what’s the big deal? They may as well sing, for all I’ll care.
An acquaintance of mine, author Rich Steeves (check him out here), drew my attention on facebook to this post by comic writer Jim Shooter regarding violence, killing, and heroes. His overall thesis, in brief, is this:
My feeling is that each heroic character should be true to his core concept. Some few will not kill. Period. Most, I think, will kill in extremis. Some, of the new bad-boy “hero” ilk will kill when it is “fair” enough, but not really unavoidable. Some kill seemingly callously or carelessly. “It’s okay, they’re bad guys.”
Whether the characters at any particular level on the killing scale are “heroes,” I suppose, is up to the beholder. To me, the latter two categories might be protagonists, but aren’t heroes or heroic in my book. Doesn’t mean they aren’t legit protagonists, or can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done. Do them well, I say. True to their core concepts.
But be conscious of consequences.
I think this is both very true and something to keep in mind anytime we are writing about violence, heroic or otherwise, or even playing violent characters in RPGs. Killing–murder, by any other word–is a heavy and significant thing for a human being to undertake. It has weight–moral, psychological, perhaps even physical–and that weight ought to be taken into account.
If you’ve got a character who can blithely kill and then go about their business with no repurcussions, you are either dealing with a sociopath or someone who, through a variety of factors and psychological defenses, has somehow inured him or herself to the act. That’s a big deal from a characterization point of view. There are, of course, lots and lots of ways to interpret it, but I think forgetting about it or glossing it over is a bad idea. In the first place it portrays killing people as ‘no big deal’–this isn’t true at all in the real world and, provided we are writing about worlds that are close parallels to the real thing, it should be the same in our own fantastic and speculative realms. In the second place, it’s lazy characterization. You mean your 18 year old protagonist just shot some gangsters with her father’s shotgun, and she’s not thinking about it afterwards? Really? It doesn’t have an affect on how she talks to people? How she feels about guns? How she feels about gangsters? Come on!
I very much agree with Shooter’s assertion that we must be aware of our characters’ ‘core concepts’. These kinds of things are easily violated or changed–the fundemental moral makeup of who you are isn’t under as much of your own control as you think. Yeah, Conan doesn’t give a damn how many fools he kills in bloody fashion–it doesn’t phase him. Do you know why? He has lived a life of constant hardship and pain and been forced to adapt. He is a damaged person, fundamentally. That doesn’t necessarily make him an evil man, or even perhaps keep him from being a hero (depending on your definition of heroism, naturally), but it is an aspect of his character we need to understand and appreciate. If we are portraying characters killing people, it’s something we, as writers, actors, players, or whatever else, really need to give some thought. If you ever want to see how it’s done, just look no further than Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven.
We all have it coming. Think about that.