Monthly Archives: January 2012
Okay, gentlemen, I have a serious question for you: What is the deal with the picture on the right here?
I’m following the idea that she’s showing a lot of skin–I am a man, after all–but you kinda lose me as soon as you get into ‘crouching over dismembered bug-aliens and wielding battle-axe’. This gets my circuits all jammed; I’m not sure how it doesn’t for you.
Let’s skip the part where I point out how this is objectifying and degrading to women–we all know that. I’m even going to jump past the clear ‘realistic’ problems here (why on earth would anyone go into battle naked? I mean, even the Celts painted their whole bodies blue. And what’s with those blades sticking off her arms? You can’t tell me that one of those wouldn’t wind up stuck in her ear or back…). I want to get down to question the basic, underlying assumption here: Why do men consider this sexy?
The difference between this shot and the picture you’d encounter in your average skin-mag is really only a couple things: the weird glowing eyes, the bizarre armor, the weapon, and the dead things. I would like to address each one in turn, if I may:
- Glowing Eyes: I have been laboring under the assumption that we, as human beings, are attracted to other human beings. How is it an attractive thing for this woman to not be a human being? Like, she might eat you. She certainly seems violent and odd (look at her toes!). Granted, everybody’s got weird fetishes, but I really don’t get this. Human women are clearly superior, and in a wide variety of ways.
- Weird Armor: So, the ostensible sex symbol is clad in pointy, sharp things. Is this some kind of metaphor that appeals to the underlying assumption among geeky men that they will not, cannot, and should not be able to have a romantic relationship with a woman who they consider actually beautiful? In the first place, that’s pretty damned sad; in the second, it is also untrue. Also, how the hell is she supposed to reach over her head without impaling herself? How do you, as a geek, not concern yourself with that?
- The Big Damned Axe: Phallic imagery–I get it. I mean, it’s an axe and not a sword, which sort of messes with the metaphor a bit (it’s a chopping weapon, not a thrusting one–get it?). What I find strange about the weapon as phallic image in this context is that it–being a penis–is being wielded by a woman. To kill things. Doesn’t this strike you, penis-owning male, as somewhat…uncomfortable? I mean, I’m all for women having power and equality, but you can’t seriously sit there and tell me that’s what this picture is about, can you? As a sexual fantasy, why would you want the sexual object to have weaponized your own sexual organ to, potentially, be used against you if you misbehave? Is this an S&M thing? Anyway, I don’t find it all that attractive…just…odd.
- The Dead Things: You know what doesn’t go with sex? Violence. Any kind of violence. At all. Ever. It is disturbing that anybody, anywhere thinks otherwise under any circumstances. When we add in the fact that she has, apparently, just slaughtered a wide variety of bug aliens, it gets weirder. I can tell you with perfect confidence that one of the least likely times my wife will want to get it on is immediately after I have crushed a cockroach with my bootheel. Indeed, that is one of the times I am unlikely to want to get it on. Violence/killing things doesn’t go with sex. I shouldn’t have to say this.
The chainmail bikini thing is a bizarre fetish that I don’t understand. I mean, the women are attractive and everything, but they don’t make me want to woo them. We can be friends, sure, but they’re going to have to show me that they can be nice and kind and funny and smart before we get to the whole ‘making out’ stage. Does this mean I’m intimidated by strong women? I rather doubt it–I have a lot of strong women in my life and I admire and love them a great deal. Don’t fool yourself into thinking the above picture is about women being ‘strong’; it’s a reflection of a regrettable and disturbing lack of confidence among geeky men and their confused and often stunted views of the opposite sex. It’s more sad than anything else.
It is more dearly bought than thou thinkest.
A son wishes to know his father’s secrets. To learn them is cheap – time, patience, vigilance, cunning are all in ready supply. These are not the price. The price is in the knowing.
The son learns the father is a cheat, an adulterer, a coward, a liar. Or the son learns the father is a hero, a paragon, a faultless man of integrity. Or the son learns his father is exactly as he appears, and nothing more. The exact fact does not matter.
To know is to cease to hope. Learn, and kill possibilities with broad strokes. Slay thy dreams with every learned fact. Build thy prison out of truth and evidence. Watch thy youth die at a pace with thy tutelage.
Think thou that I and my brethren were ever thus? We once walked with men in an age before thy reckoning. We were scholars, prying at the seams of Truth, seeking the answers to all questions. We learned them. We Know.
The Knowing had a price. Death became our slave, pain our tutor, power our currency. We were undone; our humanity withered with our imagined wisdom. We cared not. We wished to Know, and there was no price too high. It is only now, with the perspective of aeons, that we can savor the rich irony of our quest. We wished to become gods through our learning. Instead we have become servants; slaves to the Truth. Custodians of the Answer.
The wonder in our souls is but a half-remembered whisper. Our curiosity is as dead as the cities that birthed us. We are men no longer. We are husks, hollowed out with secrets. Thou cometh hither to seek such secrets; for them thou shalt pay. This, though, I give thee for free:
Ask not. Let thy secrets lie. Dwell in the possible.
So, there you are, the magic lamp in your hands, the genie before you. After fighting down your primal terror at the face of the djinn, you are left with the question: what are your three wishes?
I think it’s probably safe to say that every geek worth his or her salt has spent a fair amount of time considering this issue. For those of you who haven’t, it is far more complicated a question that you think. For one thing, it is very, very important to remember that the genie is not your friend. Don’t listen to Disney, folks–this is an all-powerful otherworldly entity that has been chained inside a lamp for every idiot mortal to come order around for all eternity. They are really, really pissed about it (and who can blame them?), so you can reasonably expect them to do everything possible to screw with you. Proceed with extreme caution. Some things you ought to do before actually making a wish:
- Be Specific and Literal: Stay away from metaphor, idiom, or generalities. If you ask to be ‘taken far, far away’, it’s your own damn fault if you wind up suffocating/freezing on the surface of the moon.
- Write Out Your Wish: Don’t just jump in–take your time, write it out, proofread, and make sure it will work to your benefit. This is a good way to accomplish #1, too.
- Ask Questions: Ask the genie what constitutes a wish, ask it how the wishes work, and so on (are there limits/rules? Can you wish for more wishes?). If it doesn’t answer or counts your first question as a wish, that lets you know what you’re dealing with. Don’t make commands of the genie, however, if you don’t intend to use a wish–bad idea. Proceed with caution, remember?
Beyond this, there is also the issue of ‘what makes a good wish?’ If you wish for eternal life, make sure you include ‘eternal youth’. Also make sure you’ve thought about what it means to live forever. Remember King Midas? Be careful what you wish for, as they say.
So, here are my wishes, as they stand.
Wish #1: I wish for myself, my family, and my friends to be blessed with good health and peak physical fitness for the duration of their natural lives.
This wish, I feel, is a more responsible way to wish for good health. If I’m healthy, I want everybody I care about to be, too. While I might also wish the whole world be healthy, that, I feel, would have some nasty side-effects I’d have trouble anticipating. I also wouldn’t tell my friends or family I made this wish, either–that would make me way too popular, I imagine. I’d hope that we’d all just be seen as uncommonly lucky and healthy people. At any rate, my descendants would also benefit from this wish, so in that sense it would spread to others down through the generations.
Wish #2: I wish for the ability to create alternate worlds according to my specifications and for me to travel freely between those worlds and this one as I see fit.
This is the vanity wish, I confess. As a lover of fantasy and science fiction, I think it would be a lot of fun to be able to actually create these alternate worlds. This wish is also very dangerous–it is an immense responsibility, creating worlds, and I would have to be very careful. It would be nice, however, to have my own private island in an alternate dimension that I and my friends/family could visit anytime they want. I could also potentially parley this into a financial boon–create a world rich in gold and a bunch of critters to mine it for me, or the like. This wish might be beyond the genie’s power to grant, admittedly, or may count as two wishes–who knows?
Wish #3: Undecided
I really don’t know what wish #3 would be. I wouldn’t want to wish for money or success–lots of complications in the first place and I’d rather achieve it myself in the second. I don’t really want to live forever. I think I might just keep this one in my back pocket–an insurance wish, if you will–to save for a rainy day. I could use it to undo the effects of an accident, perhaps, or to save the life of someone I love. Yeah, keeping it sounds like a good idea.
So, what are your wishes? Have you thought them through? What do you think?
A long, long time ago I ran a campaign in the Dungeons and Dragons setting, Ravenloft. For those of you who have never heard of it, it’s a gothic horror themed campaign setting–werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and creepier things, all stuck together in one of the most depressing worlds in existence. It was in that campaign, run between 1992 and 1995-ish, that I really cut my teeth on how to make RPGs scary (for more info on how I did/do this, see here).
I never felt, however, that I really got the most out of the campaign setting. For one thing, the high-medieval fantasy tropes of D&D don’t fit very well into a gothic horror setting. I had druids and dwarves and paladins running around stabbing things with long swords or casting ‘Cure Light Wounds’ and it kinda tanked the mood. For another, I wasn’t quite as talented a GM then as I feel I am now (well, to be honest, I wasn’t very talented at a whole lot of things–I was 14). I read a lot of the fluff text and adventure ideas and I couldn’t quite see how to make them work, and a lot of this was because I still felt the urge to make pen-and-paper RPGs work more like video games, which is a bad idea (and part of the reason I dislike 4th Edition D&D).
Some of the things I did (and do) like, however, is the structure of the world, its rules of operation, and the dramatic potential contained therein. For one thing, I LOVE the idea of the Mists. The Mists, you see, are the faceless, inhuman power that shapes Ravenloft–you wander into them, lose your way, and find yourself in some new, terrible place. They suck people in from other planes of existence, trapping them within Ravenloft with no hope of escape. These travelers are forced to wander the dark roads of the Realm of Terror, saving others and themselves from evil or, even more likely, slowly succumbing to evil themselves. It’s a kind of Quantum Leap, but in reverse. Maybe, someday, they earn their ticket home. More likely they, like Sam Beckett, remain in Ravenloft forever.
My favorite character in this campaign was Jim Bob–played by my friend Ryan–who was a Confederate soldier from the American Civil War who got sucked into Ravenloft right off a misty battlefield in Virginia. He added just the right kind of flavor to the campaign, and the drama surrounding the use of his rifled musket was absolute gold (can he load the silver shot into the muzzle before the werewolf finds him? Can he? Oh god, it’s getting CLOSER!).
I’m considering, as of this moment, running a new Ravenloft campaign. As is my wont, however, I’m not going to take it as-is–it’s getting a face lift. For one thing, in tribute to Jim Bob, I’m going to let players bring in characters from any world, any time, any place. Furthermore, the reason the Mists have sucked in these characters is because they have darkness in their soul–the Mists want them. It becomes the players’ objective to see if either (a) they can tame or purge that darkness and, therefore, earn their escape from Ravenloft or (b) succumb to their darkness, embrace it, and become one of the Dark Lords of the Realm of Terror. This is a horror RPG, but with characters with agency (not Call of Cthulhu, with its pathetic weaklings doomed to death and destruction).
The problem, however, becomes selecting the system best suited to running such a game. I’d like something that focuses on internal character development (like Burning Wheel, Riddle of Steel, etc.), but also maintains relatively simple gameplay (in accordance with the rules of horror RPGs). I was thinking of, perhaps, adapting Hunter: The Reckoning, but I don’t remember the World of Darkness system well enough to say whether it’s a good fit or not. I don’t mind writing in additional mechanics, if need be, but I don’t have the time to write up a whole new rule system. Anybody have any suggestions for me?
Anybody want to play?
Violence is ubiquitous in scifi and fantasy. The number of specfic tales that don’t include some kind of violence are few and far between. Indeed, the most attention and interest surrounding tales of the future or alternate worlds circle around the methods by which the people of that time or place fight one another. I think it’s worth asking the question why.
In the first place, we have to consider the audience. The majority of the audience in scifi and fantasy is male; men are more violent than women (if crime statistics are any indication) and have been raised in an environment where violence is romanticized. To say, however, that this is all there is to it is naive and, dare I say it, a bit sexist. Women may not commit violent crime as often, but to take up the mantra of ‘if women ran the world there would be no war’ is disingenuous towards men. I can point you towards plenty of female rulers who waged as many wars as their male counterparts (Elizabeth I, for instance, supported institutionalized piracy against the Spanish culminating in a massive naval battle; Catherine the Great didn’t conquer most of what is now modern Russia with smiles and handshakes alone). Certainly, men have been socialized for centuries to be the primary purveyors and consumers of violence, but women, I feel, have aided and abetted the process, if passively. The male/female controversy isn’t, however, my primary point here.
Albert Camus once wrote:
“The truth is that every intelligent man, as you know, dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society by force alone. “
There is truth in this statement. The world is full of people we disagree with, often violently. We think them fools, monsters, or, most charitably, misled simpletons who ‘just don’t understand’. In our heart of hearts–our deepest, most animal self–we wish we could MAKE THEM LISTEN. Herein lies war and violence. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could bash in that jerk’s face and make him obey than take the long route round? That route involves compromise, engagement, patience, and humility. Why bother? We’re right, aren’t we? When we have cast down our enemy and toppled their proud works into the dust, we are the victor; we are admired, we are the future author of history. “Americans,” said George Patton, “hate a loser.” I don’t think Americans are necessarily alone in this.
Even more simply than this is the fact that we have desires–physical, emotional, material, etc.–and resources to supply these desires are seldom so abundant that we can have them without conflict. Wars are been fought over money, food, land, and political influence. Helen’s face launched a thousand ships; any given episode of Jerry Springer has shown us two people fighting over affection, heredity, ownership–desire, all by other names. Lao Tzu, in the Tao te Ching, advises us to practice ‘not wanting’ as a path to both spiritual and political peace and enlightenment. Simple enough, but easier said than done.
To come back to science fiction and fantasy, we must consider that the human condition is one defined by conflict. If the speculative genres exist to explore the human condition in a kind of fictional laboratory separated or made distinct from our own society, then conflict–violence–is going to be part of that discussion. I tried writing a story in college once for a writing workshop wherein the main character simply wanders off into the woods and comes to a personal epiphany with some local wood sprites. The story was fantasy in a fantastic world; my professor (one of those specfic haters) asked me ‘why not put it in the real world? Why bother with fantasy?” I rankled at the question then, but I’ve come to look at it differently now. If all I was doing in that story was exploring a young man’s understanding of his educational opportunities, then fantasy was too blunt an instrument. I was tapping in a thumb tack with a sledgehammer–no, fantasy is a bigger, heavier genre than simple literary fiction. It is for exploring those massive issues which litfic need not or does not. These large issues are things that lead us to the mighty cataclysms of our species–war, violence, murder, chaos, anarchy, deep evil, and gleaming good. If specfic errs on the side of violence, it is merely because it is doing what it should and can do better than other genres.
Of course, spaceships exploding and armies of goblins also sell books. Mustn’t forget that, either.
Kiril kacked a guy once with a riot gun. Guy specced-out in full body armor, armed to the teeth, and Kiril kacked him anyway with a gun spits rubber and plastic. Never scanned the protocols on how that was done, affirm? TRACI tells me you can’t do it; I rate her advice priority 1a when it comes to killing. Kiril, though, is different.
Kiril’s Rooskie, or was, anyway–none of us laid our courses much by the Powers that berthed us, affirm? Anyway, he was a lot older than he looked; spent decades on slowships during the last Big War, dreaming of chumps that needed killing. We never ping Kiril on his age. You don’t chat with Kiril, affirm? That’s like making nice with a tiger or something.
Kiril and TRACI have a special bond. Like, a covalent one, affirm? He and the bitch run the same protocols, plot the same courses, spec the same regs. Hard to tell where he stops and TRACI starts, sometimes. Whisper is Kiril’s a Battle-Gen gone loopy; Rooskie Big Shots made him disappear or something after, dunno, he ate a bus full of kid or blew up his mom or some shit.
Anyway, the riot gun. Riot gun is the mass of your thigh, affirm? Metal, ceramics, and plastic construction; pre-loaded, disposable. CAs’ll pass ‘em out to their enforcers if the colonists get uppity. Any grade-zero chump with crossed eyes can shoot ‘em so long as he’s got hands and a working index finger. They fire tight bunches of rubber shot and ceramic slivers at high intervals. Not specced to kill, affirm? Make you wish you were, though.
We’re on an Op–standard smash and grab, low mortality protocols, dusty little bunker complex on some sandbox sphere. It’s a Chinese facility. We EMP their snoopers from orbit as the pod is inbound, drop a flak on their heads to keep them inside, then hit ‘em before they’ve got the perimeter running green. Runs clean. Viper rails the hardpoints to let ‘em know where their smooth course lies. Nobody gets shot. My kinda action, affirm?
Kiril, though, is shit-top pissed. Doesn’t cast anything except to ask “These fucks know kung fu?” He asks it six times. You can see what he’s thinking, like it were on beacon.
Kiril’s on what Viv calls ‘The Ride’. It starts when TRACI makes you her bitch; it ends in a pile of corpses. Seen it happen before, but not from the beginning. Just the end, when a guy named Mugoni ran through an airlock with a grenade and a bulkhead cutter. By the time we caught up, there was nobody left in that can in less than ten pieces. You couldn’t float down a single corridor without inhaling some chump’s blood.
Kiril finds his chump. Officer, probably–flat sniffer, peepers like black rocks. He’s running red, affirm? A buncha convicts and social outcasts have pissed on his country’s honor. He’s ready to throw down and Kiril clears him for action, affirm?
“You know kung-fu?” Kiril asks. His console translates into Choppo for the chump. Chump eases himself into some kinda stance. Looks menacing. Looks like the vids.
Kiril puts up his mitts. They fight, but the chump isn’t reading this action top-down, affirm? He thinks they’re having themselves a duel. He thinks this is the vids. They throw for a second or two, lock, then officer chump is thrown down. He rolls to his feet like the ground is rubber, faces Kiril, and that’s when Kiril stuffs the riot gun in the guy’s face and pulls.
Chump ain’t dead, affirm? Riot gun is kinda like a rubber eraser dragged across his face at mach 1–loses his eyes, nose, lips, most of his skin. He’s got plastic splinters stuck in his skull like darts in a board. He starts to scream, that’s when I turn away. I hear Kiril empty all three of the other barrels into the chump. He belays the screams, downgrading to a kind a bubble-bubble.
Kiril crouches over him and whispers. “All those years for kung-fu. What a waste of your fucking time.” We can hear it, clear as day; the comlinks are still live.
When we left, Viv wrote up the report for Barry and left out Kiril’s part. They registered that action anyway (they always do). Action rated Kiril two black marks–violation of mission parameters, misuse of corporate property. Like I cast you before, riot guns aren’t for killing.
Everybody’s got their drop protocols. They’re pre-set; no deviating from that course, affirm? You need ‘em to run green, keep you from frying your chips. Me, I run silent. I close my eyes and try to put a mute-order on the whole damned world. I did my inner self way, way down, so deep even sweet TRACI can’t talk me up. Some other CFCs have scanned me as dead sometimes. Those dumbasses liked to bitch-chat me over it, calling me chicken.
Those dumbasses are all dead now.
Not much to see on the way to a drop. Your average cut-rate corporate intra-system can don’t rate windows–windows is for sphere-jockeys and jump chumps who think there’s shit to see out the window of a spaceship. Pulled duty on a can like that once, in my life before all this shit started. Chumps’d plant their afts in cushy accel-couches and stare out big-ass windows for hours. You know what they saw? Stars. Coulda run that same action by poking holes in a sheet and stowing it over their cabin lights.
Anyway, there isn’t much to see. You can feel the can sliding down the well towards whatever sphere it is you’re about to hit, though. It’s like falling, but slower, steadier. Your guts set a clock running for you until they cut the bounce pod loose and the real ride starts. That action doesn’t run for hours, though, affirm? You got yourself strapped into a heavy-duty rig, body armor clapped all over you, with nothing to look at but the same chumps you’ve been stuck with the last few drops, plus or minus a few. Time was I’d chat–thought it a good way to make the op run smooth–but I belayed that shit after drop number five. Five was where only two of us came back–me and Viv. Viv ain’t a chatter, neither.
Across from me on this drop, though, is Uppinder. Uppinder talks–that’s his pre-drop protocol. Talking is his buisness–got run up for some high-end grifting back in Hubspace. It was a CFC or a prison in Calcutta; he slotted the optimal and wound up here. Uppinder is great if the op has diplo-protocols, affirm? If it’s a hot drop, he just ducks his head and pumps rounds in random directions. Viv posts him in the rear, mostly; he ain’t the type to pump a slug up your aft.
“At some point,” Uppinder is saying, “human beings became a collective lump of biomass, understand?”
I belay any response. I can’t scan whether he’s hailing me or just running the speech motors to see if they work.
“Individuals, or even groups of individuals, have ceased to matter. We have become a resource at our own collective disposal.”
Uppinder’s got this smooth, silky voice with a funky euro accent. He speaks stanengles, choppo, frenchie, russ, looney, and whatever lingo they cast in Greater India. Big brain. Tiny fucking balls.
“Right now, we are being exploited. Nobody cares, though, since the length, quality, or even facts of our lives have ceased to mean anything. There are some 26 billion human beings in existence at this exact moment; all of us–every single one–is replaceable.”
Uppinder’s high-minded think-chat is leaking into my inner peace. I can hear TRACI whispering to me various ways I might break his jaw or kill him with a couple nasty moves. I’m betting Uppinder’s TRACI is doing the same thing with me. I get the sense, maybe, that this means something. Something smart and deep, like Uppinder’s rambling. Got no way to get the a-ffirm on that action, though. I got no specs on how to operate on high-mind course. I tongue up some tunes in my earpiece. It’s Parsec. A song they released fifteen years ago in Hubspace, but it’s new to me. I wonder whether they’ve broken up or if they’re still touring the HubNet.
“With the absence of percieved worth from the collective species,” Uppinder goes on, his smooth chat bleeding through Parsec’s mean double dissonance, “We are forced to create value within ourselves. We act as individuals in spite of society.”
“Shut up.” I cast him, opening one eye. Uppinder’s not scanning me, though–he’s got his peepers planted on the display above my berth–the exact copy of the one above his that I can see–that lets you scan the telemetry data of the pod. We’re still a barnacle on the can, but not for long.
Uppinder smiles at me. His choppers are so white and small they’re like stars themselves. “See? That’s what makes us better than the others, Sull. We CFCs, we really live. We’re real, actual humans, like from the old days.”
The lights go red–real drop time. I close my eyes, but my brain is running deep scans on that last cast from Uppinder, affirm? Real humans. Really alive. I tell myself it’s all bullshit; living is docking your aft sphereside in a shit-top arcology, draining genned brandy and scarfing steak from an actual dead cow while sex-bots and pleasure customs polish your undies from the inside out. This? This shit is dying, not living. Dying one drop at a time.
The dragon is pretty much the grand poobah of mythical monsters. Nothing else gets as much press, nothing commands as much respect, and nothing quite measures up to a 50-ton winged lizard that can breathe fire. They’ve been the classic fantasy villain ever since Beowulf went toe-to-toe with one in the 7th century or so. No hero throws around as much clout as one who says he hunted and killed a dragon. There is a pretty good reason for that, too: it would be practically impossible for your standard medieval hero to do so.
For starters, lets leave out all discussions of magic for the moment. As soon as we throw magic in the mix, anything is possible, so there’s little point in discussing it. If you like, we can say the dragon’s magic cancels out the hero’s magic and leave it at that. What we’re looking at here is whether and how a person with access to the standard armory of the pan-medieval fantasy world could kill a dragon.
The Dragon’s Defenses
Okay, so let’s size up the opposition. Dragons are reputed to have the following capabilities:
- Massive Size: Dragons are usually said to be 20 feet long or longer, putting them on par with dinosaurs or whales–10 tons at the low end, maybe even 100 at the high end.
- Armored Scales: Dragon scales are thick, flame resistant, cover the majority of the body, and are hard to get through. Some places they are described as ‘hard as steel’, though we can presume this is a bit of an exaggeration.
- Flight: Dragons have wings and can fly. This is a major advantage, obviously.
- Intelligence: Dragons are fairly smart. In some cases they are shown to be as smart as people, while in others they are simply very cunning predators of standard animalian intelligence.
- Fire Breath: Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the dragon is its capacity to breathe fire. Any attempt to slay a dragon needs to take into account some way to survive a blast of flaming breath (which, we can presume, operates more like acid or napalm than simple fire, as those are more plausible explanations).
- Teeth, Claws, etc.: To top all that off, the dragon still has the standard array of deadly claws, fangs, horns, and so on that should be sufficient to pulp anybody who messes with it, anyway.
Given this, no sane individual (or team of individuals) would go after a dragon. Just give it the virgins, already, and move on with your lives. Points 4 and 5 alone are sufficient to guarantee that any idiot wanting to kill a dragon will be dead long before he’s finished challenging it in the name of St. George. They don’t make stuff in the middle ages that can take a soaking in napalm and let the user walk away. Nevertheless, if the dragon needs killing, folks are going to try anyway. Let’s consider their weapons.
Don’t be an idiot. Even provided you do make it past the flaming breath and it happens to stay on the ground and you don’t get crushed by giant claws or gobbled up by a giant fang-rimmed mouth, you’ve still got the scales to get through. Even if you do that, what makes you think the sword will actually kill it? If it’s a sufficiently huge dragon (like, Brontosaurus sized) it’s going to take you a long, long time to hack it to death with a sword. It would be like trying to kill a person with a dessert fork–you could do it, sure, but the person pretty much has to be tied up and you need plenty of time and/or a keen grasp of human anatomy. Try hunting a dragon with a sword and kiss your butt goodbye.
Better, certainly. The weapon is larger and longer, meaning you have a chance of puncturing something vital with a
strike. This is how they kill whales, after all, and so it’s not entirely without merit. It can still fly away, though, and can still melt you with fire, and it’s still armored in a way that whales aren’t. Furthermore, the way they actually managed to kill the whale with the lance was to harpoon it, exhaust it, then move in and kill it. Given flaming breath, flight, and all that, it seems unlikely you could pull this off with a dragon. If you were to do it, you’d need a big team of people (like a series of whaleboats, except on the ground) working in coordination and you’d need a dragon to be no smarter than your average whale. As a lone dragonslayer? Forget it.
Let me put it this way: Bard got stupidly lucky with Smaug. Skilled hunters do use bows to hunt large game like Cape Buffalo, but a Cape Buffalo is tiny compared to a dragon. Furthermore, such hunters today are using modern bows and modern arrows that maximize the kinetic energy needed to kill (read this article for more on the physics of hunting large game with bows). Granted the bow keeps the dragon from being able to fly away as easily, bypasses some of the dangers from flaming breath and the teeth/claws, but it is going to have a hell of a time penetrating the dragon’s hide by enough to wound it in any mortal capacity. You’d need dozens and dozens of skilled archers with the most powerful bows and sophisticated arrows in the world, and even then they’ve got fair odds of being roasted.
Essentially, the lone dragonslayer thing is extremely unlikely to the point of being implausible without the use of the idiot ball in some way. You’d need a team of dedicated professionals using things like siege engines, laying traps, and, most importantly, using dirty tricks. Poison its water supply, collapse its cave on top of itself, or, of course, some kind of magic. Beyond that, you are fresh out of luck.
Now, much of modern fantasy lore is well aware of this. George RR Martin points some of this stuff out in A Song of Ice and Fire, and, in one of my personal favorites, Barbra Hambly explores just how impossible a task this is in her 1985 novel Dragonsbane (which I recommend, though I haven’t read it since high school and my memory of it may make it seem better than it is). It should be noted, even, that Beowulf himself died in his struggle with the dragon (though he killed it with a dagger) and had help from his friend, Wiglaf. In any event, I feel it is important to give dragons their due when trying to take them down–the frontal assault isn’t going to work, guys, and you’re going to need help.
I just finished my syllabus for my Technology in Literature elective this coming semester. Students will have to write two short research papers and, just for fun, I thought I’d post the assignment here and see what folks think of it. Heck, if you like, go ahead and write the papers (don’t you dare send it to me to grade, though–I’ve got enough of that already). Anyway, here we go:
The overall focus of this course is the portrayal of science and technology in literature and how those portrayals illuminate the concerns and hopes of humans living in a certain era. It tells us a lot about how they thought, what they believed, and also can tell us some things about how we have changed, if at all, from those times. In class we will be discussing certain individual works from certain time periods and analyzing them closely, but we won’t be able to fully explore everything. Your task, in two short research papers, is to expand upon our class discussions and deepen your understanding of one or several of the works we are studying, bringing in outside sources and other contemporary works to develop a unique and compelling thesis regarding the cultural and, perhaps, even scientific significance of your chosen work.
Accordingly, your precise topic is left to your discretion. I will provide suggestions below, but you needn’t be bound by them—if you can come up with a different topic that interests you more, please explore that. In general, however, you are writing an in-depth literary analysis of one or more works from either the first half (for paper 1) or the second half (for paper 2) of the twentieth century. All papers should incorporate at least 6 sources (including the primary sources), be 6-8 pages in length (approximately 1700-2400 words), feature double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point font, have numbered pages, stapled, with a works cited page in MLA format. A rough draft for each paper is allowable, but is strictly optional. If you wish to receive your rough draft back in time to make revisions for your final draft, be certain to submit it a week or more prior to the due date. Papers may be handed in at any time during the semester up until the due date. Late work is not accepted.
Paper 1 (pre-1960)
- How did the idea of British world supremacy influence HG Wells’ Time Machine?
- Is The Time Machine racist? If so, why and how? How is it related to Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”?
- How does Asimov’s opinion of the Soviet Union affect the themes inherent in Foundation?
- Does the Galactic Empire in Foundation symbolize Ancient Rome? If so, why does Asimov choose Rome as the analog? If not, what does it symbolize instead and why?
- Is Heinlein aware of the fascist undertones to his society in Starship Troopers? What is his attitude towards fascism as depicted in the book? How does it differ, if at all, from the kind of fascism demonstrated by the Nazis in 1940s-era Germany?
Paper 2 (post-1960)
- Gibson’s depiction of cyberspace in Neuromancer represents a kind of ‘wild frontier’, in a sense (Case is a ‘cowboy’, those who operate in the matrix are apart from society, etc.). What is the meaning of this metaphor? Where does Gibson think the ‘matrix’ (what we now know as the Internet) will lead us?
- Explain and explore the role of religion and spirituality in Neuromancer. What does it mean? Why does Gibson include it?
- In Snow Crash, why does Stephenson choose to use the Mafia as protagonists and how does this differ from other late-20th century depictions of the mob and why?
- What is the symbolic significance of Hiro and Raven’s shared heritage in Snow Crash? What, if anything, is Stephenson trying to say about the future of America?
- In Banks’ Culture, he shows us a ‘perfect’ symbiosis between man and machine. How does Banks choose to portray this symbiosis? Why?
- Explore the significance of gender roles in The Player of Games and how does this parallel the changing understanding of those roles in late 20th century Western culture.
So I’ve been reading Michael J Sullivan’s novel Theft of Swords in between epic bouts of pre-semester preparation and a titanic move that seems endless. The story is passably engaging, the characters fairly familiar takes on the same old tropes, and has a few winning moments. I’m not sure if I’ll be reading any further in the series after this one, but it has got me thinking about a particularly onerous and prickly aspect of writing science fiction and fantasy–exposition.
One thing I like about spec-fic is the immersion in a new and alien world (I describe this affection in more detail here). When you first start reading, you don’t understand the world, its rules, its history, its culture–nothing. You need to learn this as you go. Furthermore, the more intricate the plot and the more convoluted the intrigue, the more work the reader needs to do to figure out what’s going on, what the stakes are, and where the tension lies. The way writers need to help the readers along is with the use of exposition. The funny thing is, though, is that exposition is atrociously boring to read. No matter how necessary it is (and in a fantasy novel, it is very necessary), reading giant walls of text wherein the meaning of this or that thing is revealed is, well, dull. If you’re anything like me, you start hearing the voice of the teacher in all the Charlie Brown specials (“wah wah, wawah, woh WA wa wah”). Anybody who’s read The Fellowship of the Ring probably knows exactly what I’m talking about–those two chapters in the middle (“Many Meetings” and “The Council of Elrond”) are DREADFUL reading. I think I’ve read that book four or five times now, and I still nod off during those things.
It’s easy, as a writer fully invested in your own fantasy world, to forget how boring exposition is. We sort of expect
everybody to be as fascinated in the minutiae of our imaginary kingdom’s foreign trade imbalances and pottery exports as we are. We need to remember that this isn’t so. I could go on and on and on about the politics involved between the Guild Lords and Barons in the Duchy of Galaspin and how this has affected the history of Freegate, but I know none of you really, truly care. The reader only cares insofar as it is related to the story, and that’s it. My primary problem with Theft of Swords is how often the bad guys sit down, drink brandy, and spend pages after pages chatting aimlessly about their stupid plans–conducting conversations no real person would ever have–simply for the obvious and naked purpose of making sure the audience is keeping up. Ugh.
So, if you’re writing fantasy and you need lots of exposition to get people on the same page as you, but exposition kills reader interest, narrative momentum, and dramatic tension, how, then, do you do it well? Well, keeping in mind that I’m just a poor unpublished author with an MFA, here are my humble suggestions:
- Trust Thy Audience: Don’t assume your readers are idiots who can’t keep up. You don’t need to spell every single thing out for them, nor should you. Keep it understandable, sure, but don’t hold their hands. They are smart people–they’ll figure things out through context clues faster than you think. Holding their hands too much makes them roll their eyes. Of course, there is a careful balance to be kept in check here. When I figure that balance out myself, I’ll be sure to tell you.
- Spread it Out: Under no circumstances should an author infodump the whole she-bang in one indigestible lump. In the first case, nobody really talks like this and no one allows themselves to be talked to in this way. There is literally no one I have ever met who will let me explain the full concept of reality-tweaking from The Rubric of All Things in just one sitting. There’s too much to be said, and it gums up a person’s mind. Don’t do this to your audience–explain a piece at a time over a long period. Trust the audience to remember–they will!
- Explain Only What is Necessary: Always remember that characters aren’t going to have conversations about stuff they consider to be everyday, normal things. We don’t explain how the subway system works to each other each commute because it is, to us, utterly normal. To do otherwise is artificial and weird, and it reads that way, too. Therefore, exposition should always be strictly curtailed by what would naturally be discussed by the characters in question. Don’t talk about irrelevant stuff, either–stick to the point.
- Keep Exposition Tied to the Plot: Only exposit what is needed for the audience to understand and follow along. If it isn’t important, it gets almost no space to be explained. Don’t spend pages explaining how a magic ritual works if it doesn’t come up later in some important capacity. The minutiae aren’t all that important.
- Have Something Else Happening: Don’t pull the old Isaac Asimov trick of having two men in a room talking their heads off while sharing coffee. Exposition is no excuse to eliminate tension or conflict–have your characters explaining things quickly, on the fly, during something interesting or dangerous. Granted, there is a point at which a character shouting ‘no time to explain’ gets annoying (eg Lost), but equally annoying is being forced to eavesdrop on an artificial conversation that is constructed solely for the reader’s benefit.
So, there you have it. Those are my rules, as they stand. I think I’m following them, but it’s not easy. Exposition is a delicate balance that even the best fantasy or scifi authors have trouble handling. It is, arguably, one of the most challenging aspects of the genre.