How can I wear the harness of toil
And sweat at the daily round,
While in my soul forever
The drums of Pictdom sound?
Robert Howard – The Drums of Pictdom
I am a fan of Sword & Sorcery. I am a big fan of Robert Howard’s Conan and completely in love with Karl Wagner’s Kane, and there are a good number of things I really like in Michael Moorcock’s Elric. I also am not much of a fan of what is in this current decade called Epic Fantasy. (Probably going to be named something else again soon.) It’s mostly the 1,000+ page trilogy format that isn’t doing it for me. It’s not so much the number of pages, but the broad scope and also the endless cliffhangers that keep you waiting for answers for years and decades. At the same time, I have searched my feelings and know it to be true, I don’t have the ability to commit to multi-installment works that will leave readers hanging with an unfinished story when I lose interest halfway through. But in Sword & Sorcery you generally get very tight stories with a clear focus on actual stuff happening, combined with a short length format. It was actually my first reading of Conan that made me consider writing as a medium for my creative ideas in the first place. So writing Sword & Sorcery seemed the obvious choice.
But success has been very limited so far, with a long break in which I pretty much forgot about the whole idea entirely. The format of Sword & Sorcery, with it’s length and scope certainly seems like the right one for me, but I am having doubts if it might be the genre that is holding me back. Conan is fun and Kane is great. But while they are both very entertaining characters to read about, it’s more with a morbid fascination. (Which in the case of Kane seems to have been Wagner’s intention.) Everything that they stand for does nothing for me or is outright repulsive. While I consider Conan to be honorable and behaving rational in the environment he inhabits, his values mean nothing to me. And for Kane there is one simple word that perfectly describes him. Evil. Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, observing him is fascinating and I dare say meaningful, it is not the exploration of evil that fuels the flames of my creativity and imagination.
While Robert Howard was a great writer, I am not Robert Howard. The drums of pictdom are not sounding in my soul. Conan is fun, but he is not moving me. Neither daring the world to try to impose its will on me and then crushing it to assert my individual autonomy, nor struggling with living in a society that doesn’t value or respect my personal inner life are things that are reflecting my own ideals and aspirations. The craving for conflict and need to prove my worth that is so central to the Sword & Sorcery genre has nothing to do with what I value and consider meaningful.
Instead, the works that have much more relevance to me are things like Princess Mononoke, Avatar, and The Empire Strikes Back. Which now that I think about it are all about striving to be good and freeing yourself from greed, hatred, and delusion. (It’s all Zuko that interests me in Avatar, I don’t care much for Aang.) Then there is also Raiders of the Lost Ark (which I admit has a lot of pulpy action concealing a much more interesting subplot), Ghost in the Shell, Mushishi, and Seirei no Moribito. And one very significant work for me is Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher and the videogame series that expands on it. In many ways, The Witcher exists within the context of Sword & Sorcery. It has all the ingredients, but it doesn’t become a story about a great warrior displying his might and challenging the world to try and fight him. Instead, in many ways, it is a rejection of these things. Geralt is an awesome badass warrior with inhuman powers, but he is a character who looks inward is a compassionate and humble as you can expect a man to be in a world where it’s going out of style. It’s a series I have not been thinking about much in terms of my own writing because the setting has a very medieval European style with a culture in which people are deliberately thinking and acting in the terms of Europeans from the 1990s, while Kaendor is meant to not be just uneuropean but actually unearthly and I want to attempt to portray a different mindeset “inspired” by ancient peoples. But I think thematically it’s actually quite appropriate as a comparison or reference point. In its issues and meanings itis one of the closest works to what is driving my own need to tell stories. And it does so in a world of magic and monsters, which is a really nice bonus.
I am still not entirely sure what shape precisely I want to go for with A Wanderer of Kaendor. But I feel that using Sword & Sorcery (and Raiders of the Lost Ark) as my main reference point has become more of a crutch than a means to go forward. Princess Mononoke might actually be much more helpful as an example for a combination of magic, monsters, action, and stricing to do the right thing and become a better person. (And I even like the scale and scope of that story.)
Conventional wisdom holds that games have become much more easier over the last 20 years or so and that they are no longer challeging. I started pondering that myself when I got my first PlayStation 2 ten years ago and soon went to play every game with difficulty settings on Hard as default. And most of the time, I didn’t find Hard to be actually that hard. But was that because Hard had become the new Normal? Or was it maybe that I just got much better over time and my experience helped me even with types of games I never played before?
Over the last years or so I have been playing a couple of really old games that I absolutely loved back at the end of the 90s but that I never got around to complete. Most of the time not even the first third of them. Playing the Thief games was a lot of fun. Then this year I’ve been playing Settlers II, which always had me become stuck at the fourth of ten maps, and Knights & Merchants, where I surpassed the furthest point that I had reached as a kid after just 4 hours. I eventually gave up on the game because it was so incredibly slow and dull. It’s charming, and I guess that’s what had me entertained for weeks with this game, but it didn’t seem to demand any real skill or planning.
Now last week, I got the racing game Redout, which I saw described as a superior clone of Wipeout. I got Wipeout HD a few years back because it seemed like the closest thing to a more modern alternative to Star Wars Racer, but ended up finding it not living up to my expectations. The tracks were just much less interesting than those in Racer, both in the layouts and visuals. As it turned out, Redout wasn’t really that much better in this regard either. So I did the only reasonable thing and actually dug up the real deal. The game that I actually wanted to play the whole time. And I very soon realized that while the tracks were still great, Racer is a much simpler game than Wipeout HD or Redout. Not just simpler, but also much easier. The game has 25 tracks and I got first place on almost all of them on the first try. I think four or so took me second try to get fist place. And after just 3 hours and 15 minuts, I was done. I had completed everything that the game has to offer.
It was a bit underwhelming, to say the least. But it also convinced me of my suspicion I had for years now. Games back in the 90s and early 2000s were not harder than the games that we get today. Instead, we really just sucked at playing videogames when we were kids.
Two years ago I encountered the theory that the creative process consists primarily of “Copy. Combine. Transform.” Most artists seem to agree that you can’t really come up with anything that is strictly new or original in the most restrictive sense. It is the combination of old elements in new ways that really constitutes what we consider originality. Last week I wrote about how Star Wars is one of the best illustrations of this that you’ll find anywhere in fiction and how it is perfectly okay to approach the creation of a new work by trying to emulate it.
But that is only the “copy” part. For the crucial part of “transform”, you also need to draw from additional sources. If you draw only from one source, particularly when you attempt to emulate aspects of it, the result can only be a lesser version of the original. A knockoff. In reality, it’s impossible to only draw from a single source. There is always an endless amount of ideas and concepts you have collected throughout your life. As Akira Kurosawa put it“Creation comes from memory. Memory is the source of your creation. You can’t create something out of nothing. Whether it comes from reading or your own experiences, you can’t create unless you have something inside yourself.”
Since my approach to creating my own works is to try to emulate one inspiration in particular, I find it comforting to make some of my other sources of inspiration just as specific. It feels a bit like a safeguard against unintentionally doing nothing but a simple knockoff, if you will. There are of course the Conan stories and Indiana Jones movies that directly inspired my choice of format I want to work with (in addition to being great adventures, mostly). But while thinking about what else I will be adding to the mix, I realized that I already did that years ago. It’s a style of fiction that you could describe as Warped Wastelands. Or even weird warped wastelands, but that’s a bit too much of a mouthful.
The warped wastelands are a style of both settings and narratives that heavily builds on the Dying Earth style, but with a new 21st century spin to it. While Dying Earth stories are generally far future fantasy, this style, at least how I am perceiving it, is more rooted in near-future science fiction. It’s a sphere of works that revolves around environments that have been warped in weird and alien ways to the point of being completely uninhabitable to people, which is where the wasteland part comes in. Alongside of it, you often find themes of a warping and wasting away of society. As far as I can trace it back, this style goes back to Andrei Tarkowsky’s movie Stalker. In Stalker, a scientist and a writer have hired a guide to take them inside a strange, closed-off area full of strange invisible dangers. Inside of which there supposedly is a room with supernatural powers that can fulfill the greatest desires of those who reach it.
The movie directly inspired a videogames called Stalker that amplifies many of these ideas to a much larger scale. Here the zone exists inside the closed-off irradiated area arount the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and is populated by numerous grotesquely mutated creatures and a wide range of strange anomalies violating the regular laws of physics. These range from relatively mild but still potentially lethal gravitational anomalies to patches of static electricity, erruptions of flames from empty air, and even the apparent localized warping of space and time. All made worse by massive sudden storms that light up the entire sky and melt people’s brains. There is also a legend of a supernatural room that can grant wishes within the ruins of the power plant, but the main attraction of the zone are artifacts that are created from pieces of metal or organic material that have been exposed to the effects of the anomalies for prolonged durations. These artifacts have drawn hundreds of stalkers into the zone who are creepying through the ruins and twisted vegetation in the hope of a find that scientists or collectors will pay huge amounts of money for. All of it completely illegal. Yet things are getting stranger the deeper one enters into the zone and nobody ever returns from the center.
Another nice work is the novel Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky, which takes place in and especially below Moscow after a nuclear war has apparently destroyed the entire world. A good number of people has been surviving in the metro tunnels for two decades as the city above and the surrounding countryside is covered in a toxic and radioactive haze. But it’s not simply that the bombs destroyed the cities and poisoned the surface. Somehow the end of the world also created numerous new and strange creatures that are now populating an Earth no longer hospitable to humans. And in addition there a various strange places and phenomena that people can’t explain in any other ways than supernatural. There’s also a very well regarded videogame adaptation called Metro 2033 that does an amazing job at bringing these phenomena to life.
Most recently, there has been Annihilation, a loose movie adaptation of Jeff Vandemeer’s novel Annihilation. The story centers around an vast area that has been shrouded by a strange haze of shimmering colors from which none of the teams that went to investigate it have returned. The last team that set out on yet another expedition encounters a strange wilderness in which all living things seem to have mutated to a lesser or greater degree, with weird hybrid creatures that even blur the distinction between animal and plant. And things continue to get weirder and more dangerous the further they are getting into the area.
In addition to my love with adventure fantasy, I also have a strange and somewhat conflicted appreciation for horror. I don’t actually like movies or games that scare you and find all the slasher horror and torture porn just revolting with no entertainment value. But I have a great fascination with works that are unsettling, even if they have gory elements. Things like Alien and The Thing, Dead Space, and even the early Silent Hills. And of course you can say without reservations that the Stalker and Metro games both make extensive use of horror themes, motifs, and techniques. The Lovecraftian horror of the Weird Tales, that also was a major influence on the great Sword & Sorcery masters. While today people are using props from Lovecraft’s inventory mostly without much thought as mere big monsters (though some notable exceptions exist), the original idea of the truly inexplicable and unknowable that has no interest in you but will mercilessly destroy you in the most horrific ways if you don’t get out of its way, still has a huge amount of potential. One that I believe really fits well together with a wild and untamed world of adventure and mystic warriors who are trying to protect it from outbreaks of supernatural evil. The Dark Side is bad, but I think you can expand it into a realm of horror that goes to a wholy different level.
Another thing that makes the warped wastelands appeal to me in particular is my long interest existential philosophy, astronomy, and ecology. During my classes in university I came to notice that throughout all the dominant schools of thought about the nature of things and the world, the human soul is put at the very center. It all deals with explaining why the human soul is special and how everything else in existence is defined in relation to it. And it’s about the human soul specifically, not the human as a whole. The human body seems to be universally regarded as either a nuisance or an outright threat to the real potential of the soul. The body is always a bad thing the soul needs to get rid of or at least overcome. In the words of Yoda: “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.” But in existentialist thought this postulation holds no water. Humans can’t be special in their essence, any specialness is attributed by human thinking alone. And when you look deeper into the greater field of astronomy, it becomes obvious that anything happening on Earth does not have any impact on anything in the bigger picture of space and time.
On the other hand, the modern world often has this romantic fantasy of the human mind being corrupted and that nature is pure and beautiful. This perception comes probably from the fact that most of us have never actually seen any actual nature. At least here in central Europe, all the seemingly natural places are basically well tended tree plantations. And even those we only visit for only a few hours at the most before we return to the comforts of civilizations, even if it’s in the form of a camping ground or the road network with its regular gas stations. Nature is neither pretty, nor nice. Everyone who is getting that impression is cherry picking from snapshots of mostly well crafted pieces of landscaping. The real wilderness is a horrible place of predation and disease. You can do pretty well in the wilderness for good amounts of time, but that’s mostly luck. The rest of the time it’s because we humans are deliberately altering our environment to greatly increase the odds of survivial and comfort in our own favor.
In the warped wasteland, all these things come together in a very nice way. It starts with the assumption that nature is doing its own thing and humans are simply along for the ride. They have some ability to manipulate it, but when you start breaking the rules of physics and biology even that quickly reaches its limits. You also often get creatures that are simply more powerful than people, even with their tools and weapons, which puts them into higher spots in the food chain. People have to make do in a world in which they are not the masters but simply one player in the middle among many. In Kaendor, the real masters are the spirits, which can basically do what they want and don’t care for people anymore than they do for any other kinds of animals.
And there’s even already an important transformation to this act of combination. While I described these works as warped wastelands, it is in fact the oppposite that is true in Kaendor. The unpredictable strangeness is the natural way of things. The spirits are in control and they generally pay no heed to the wishes and desires of mortals. It is the small patches of relative calm and stability in which people build their city states that are the anomaly. These are created either by the favor of a powerful spirit that has taken mercy on mortals in return for their worship and sacrifices, or are the work of powerful and dangerous sorcery. Enforcing stability on nature is unnatural and fiddling with it without really understanding it has a huge potential for disaster. And they are also temporary. A couple of hundreds or even thousands of years are more than enough to create a prosperous city state, but it is not forever. When the chaos returns and agriculture is no longer sustainable, the people have to abandon their homes and search for new places that can serve as temporary sancturaries for civilization. I had this idea years ago for an RPG as an explanation of why there are so many magical ruins if there is no great past civilization that fell and turned the world into a lesser age, but I quickly realized that it also has a great amount of potential as a background environment for much more complex and introspective fiction.
I hope that this helped to some degree in giving a better picture of what I am trying to do with Kaendor and not only made things more confusing. Or at the very least, raised some additional curiosity of what the final result would look like.