Unhidden Agendas and flying your flags

Whether you want to accept that “everything is political” or not, when it comes to writing fiction, it is impossible to stay neutral or not express an opinion on social questions. When you write a story, you make a statement about what you think is right or wrong. You make choices on what things you portray in a positive or a negative light. Your narration indicates what characters’ actions you approve or disapprove of. Even if you “only want to write fun adventures”, you make decisions on what events and behaviors you want your audiences to cheer at. The only way to not express an opinion or take a stand is to not write anything.

Depending on how you want to look at it, the idea that fiction can be apolitical or neutral on social issues is either a delusion or a lie. Anyone who claims to not want social issues to appear in the fiction they write or read and watch is expressing a desire to either stick with the status quo, or more commonly to revert to an outdated consensus from the past. Wishing for fiction to return to the social norms of the 50s or the 30s is a very explicit stance on social issues.

That is not to say that all people who don’t want to get involved in debates about social issues in fiction are reactionary bigots. That’s only the ones who constantly have to tel everyone and can’t stop shutting up about it. I think probably a majority is simply shying away from the boogeyman of controversy and are afraid to repel potential audiences by committing to any opinion. But that’s not how things work. You can’t not take a stance or not express your personal views.  To write fiction is to express your view of the world and of right and wrong.

One of the most annoying expression in debates (though usually they are angry shouting matches) is the tired idea of hidden agendas. All fiction has an agenda because all fiction expresses a view on right or wrong, with the intention of getting the audience’s approval for that view. The whole thing only becomes hidden when the creators shy away from committing to it. Either out of a fear for controversy or a desire to please everyone for all the sweet, sweet moneys.

I think this is a mistake. If you have to say something, stand up for it and defend it. Things are controversial only because society has not yet reached a consensus yet on what is acceptable or not. And they will remain controversial until people come out an take a stance for what is right and speak up for what is wrong. I am German, and in Germany we take reflecting on the errors of the past very seriously. To slightly misquote Edmund Burke, we know that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to say nothing.”

I do understand that there are many people who genuinely can’t handle loudmouthed idiots shouting hurtful shit at them, regardless of how obviously wrong and stupid it is. Not everyone is made to just have it bounce off and forget it. I am all for picking your fights and knowing when to walk. But wanting to please everyone, even the idiots who are obviously wrong in their bigoted beliefs, is not a sufficient reason to deny having an opinion on things. Few people become writers to get rich (which would be one of the worst ways to get there). People start writing because they have something to say and want it to be heard. All fiction stands for something and writers should be able to fully stand behind it. Sanitizing your work to be free of “controversial content” defeats the entire point of writing it in the first place. If people have a problem with the values expressed in your works, and you feel certain that these people are wrong, then so be it. Don’t try to sneakily get them to read your work and hopefully not notice what you believe in. I think all artists should be open about what they believe in.

I recently added the two flags to the sidebar of this site because of it. Though not to gain attention through virtue signaling and hoping people will like me more if they know I believe in social equality and diversity. The actual intention is as a deterrent for people who might mistake me for being supportive of their reactionary bigoted views of “traditional fantasy classics”. My interest in fantasy fiction leans very heavily to Sword & Sorcery, which is a genre that looks very simple and pretty dumb on the surface, but has very interesting hidden depths once you start looking for them. With the stereotypes of hyper-manly barbarians killing whoever they please and rescuing voiceless naked slave girls, Sword & Sorcery is one of the most obvious styles of fantasy that has huge appeal to the worst kind of fantasy fans. I always feel like walking on eggshells when I discover a new site with Sword & Sorcery content and take a careful look around to make sure I didn’t stumble into some neo-nazi hate pit. I really don’t want to deal with these people and always worried that the currently resurgent interest in Sword & Sorcery could be mutating into some alt-right hate forum.

I think a new Sword & Sorcery movement would have great potential to be boldly progressive and inclusive. It has always been about protagonists who live outside the accept structures of society and assert their individuality against the expectations of others. When you write them poorly they can be self-congratulating bullies, but they can just as well be people who have what it takes to ignore social expectations to do what is right, instead of what is accepted. It’s also a genre that never aspired to be respectable and willing to cross boundaries in the pursuit of fun. There is potential for abuse, but also great potential to be a force for good. But to keep it from getting hijacked by people with bad intentions, I think is is absolutely mandatory for writers to establish the developing space of dialog and exchange of ideas as one that doesn’t tolerate hateful bigotry. If you wait until some alt-right idiots or neo-nazis start spewing their poison, it will already be too late. You can never get rid of them and end up with the progressively thinking people gradually hemorrhaging away and dispersing instead of making the required step of making a deliberate split.

For that reason I think it is necessary to make my stance on these things known now. Better to be rejected by certain people early than finding out later that you’ve fallen in with the wrong crowd and participated in helping them getting a stage.

Awesome Future Novel Idea #8: Space Miners Noir

I am not actually a sci-fi fan. I like Star Wars and like space horror movies, but these just use space as a setting and don’t concern themselves at all with technological progress and its impacts on society.

But a few months back I had been thinking again about how one could make good science fiction stories that are accurate to physics, and played around with various ideas regarding spaceship construction, space stations, space industry, and the implications of post-scarcity societies developing from access to efficient fusion power. I think most futurists are thinking way too fantastical and simply want their jetpacks and Mars colonies, willingly ignoring economy, sociology, and even physics to get there. Looking at what might actually happen is much more interesting to me.

I also have been watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for the fourth or fifth time over the last half year, and there were a couple of episodes in the later seasons that seemed really out of place for Star Trek, but still felt quite intriguing to me. One of them has a character visiting her family who owns a big mining company on a lawless border world and are having trouble with the local organized crime. It also is connected to an undercover investigation into organized crime episode from one season earlier. This really doesn’t feel like Star Trek at all, and it was just a 45 minute oneshot with mostly single appearance characters thst were not very well developed. But it had me thinking that I would love to see a whole show just about this family business.

Blade Runner (1982)

I was talking about this with someone and how it had me thinking about the aesthetics of Blade Runner, and he reminded me of the movie Outland. It’s a pretty obscure movie and has been almost entirely forgotten, but I’ve seen it twice over the years and it’s actually pretty good. It has Sean Connery as security chief on an industrial space station investigating a series of suicides by miners who were drugged up to their eyes and corruption in the administration.

Outland (1981)

Even though it’s set on a space station, it has the same very low-tech style of Alien. I’m a sucker not just for 80s fantasy art but for the sci-fi aesthetics of the time as well, and this is exactly the kind of imagery I had in my mind from the start. Like the two Star Trek episodes, both of these movies are really Noir stories. And I also really love Noir. Many Sword & Sorcery stories are fantasy noir stories, and cyberpunk is sci-fi noir. I love this stuff.

Right now I really need to get my Sword & Sorcery ideas getting worked on. But one day in the future, I might come back to this and give it a try. I think it’s a really cool idea.

Another thing that came to my mind recently was that in space industry, food supplies would be a major factor that usually gets ignored by most sci-fi. And I just happen to be studying to become an agricultural engineer, with a strong current interest in industrial in-door growing facilities. Maybe instead of mining, my family business should work in vegetables for deep space colonies instead of mining. I actually know a lot more about this stuff and it might make the setting feel more fresh. (Pun absolutely intended.)

Review: The Phoenix on the Sword

It has been over five years since I started reading Sword & Sorcery with Conan and then expanding into Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and Kane. Since I started actually working on my own stories this year, I thought it would be a good idea to go back and read them again, this time with an eye on how they are written and what makes them tick. I also recently noticed that most of the old reviews of various Sword & Sorcery books were pretty negative and I am actually a bit surprised about what I said about them, compared to what I remember of them.

So I don’t just want to read my old books again, and finally get around to read those I had been missing yet, but also to re-review each story again and see how my opinions about them might have changed. My plan is to reread all of Robert Howard’s Conan stories, two or three of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser collections, Michael Moorcock’s Elric (from Fantasy Masterworks), Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea, all five of Karl Wagner’s Kane books, and the recent anthologies Swords & Dark Magic, The Sword & Sorcery Anthology, and Swords & Mythos. And maybe also get Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher in somewhere. While that’s a lot of books, most of them are really not very long. I think this might be perfectly doable in a year or two.

The Phoenix on the Sword is not the first story set in the ancient prehistoric past written by Robert Howard, (Kull was written before it) but it was the first one that was published. Which quite justifiably could be regarded as the moment when Sword & Sorcery appeared in the world of fantasy literature.

The first thing I noticed about the story is that the first half of it is nothing but really heavy handed info-dumping. You have three scenes of characters telling a long monolog about their past histories that led up to the current events. Two of which are told to characters who already know all of it. It jumps straight at you right on the second page and should make everyone cringe. But somehow, it’s still entertaining. It obviously is blatant info-dumping, but the stories that are being retold are actually quite intriguing.

First we start with the mastermind of a conspiracy telling his enslaved sorcerer the whole plan and background of their conspiracy. We are getting a lot of exposition on politics and power in Aquilonia, but the information is about a conspiracy and the other conspirators have just left the house to make the final preparations for their assassination. That makes the information much more interesting and relevant to the reader. I think it also helps that the mastermind reveals right at the start of his monolog that the other conspirators think he’s just one of their peons and that they are in charge of everything. So we get a conspiracy within a conspiracy. That’s interesting and we want to know more.

Then we have Conan retelling telling the story of how he became king of Aquilonia to his Aquilonian advisor. It’s also a pretty interesting story because we only get to read parts of it and the spaces that are left blank sound intriguing. Most of what Conan says also relates to why there is dissent against his reign, which connects directly to the conspirators we just heard about in the scene before. It’s info-dumping, but since the information is about things the characters in the story were recently doing, it’s also very much flashbacks. It’s not like we’re being told things with no context and told “trust me, this will be important later”. I think that’s what makes the story still entertaining to read.

One could probably write full papers about Conan’s words about the poet Rinaldo who is stirring up resentment against Conan with his songs, calling for an uprising, and eventually taking part in the assassination attempt. Conan gives two reasons why he doesn’t want to have Rinaldo arrested and executed before his agitation will cause him problems. The first is that Conan believes that as a poet, Rinaldo is untouchable and above him in power. He could have him killed, but it might make the people even more angry, and history will judge him by the songs of the bards. There is no winning for Conan in such a fight. The other reason is that Conan has heard Rinaldo sing his songs and unwilling to lay hand on such a gifted artist. When he sees Rinaldo among the assassins, he begs him not to force his hand and kill him. But Rinaldo strikes him anyway and lands the wound that almost leads to Conan’s death. I am not entirely sure what Howard seems to be saying here about the importance of public opinion in government, but I certainly feel that here he tries to make a cause to place the gifted poet above the powerful ruler, and thereby elevating his own profession.

The third scene is in my opinion the weakest, because nothing about it really feels believable. Everything about it feels massively contrived. Thoth-Amon tells the nobleman about how he was an extremely powerful Stygian sorcerer until a thief stole his magic ring, he had to escape from his enemy, and is now being blackmailed by his current master who will make his true identity public if he tries anything funny. And he goes on about how one day he will find his magic ring again and then there will be terrible revenge. There really wasn’t any reason to tell that to the nobleman. But then the noble says “Well, isn’t that the funniest coincidence. I happen to have a ring that I got from a Stygian thief, who told me he stole it from a powerful sorcerer.” Sorry, I don’t buy it. This scene is stupid.

However, the description of what happens when Thoth-Amon sees the ring is super interesting:

The slave’s eyes were blazing, his mouth wide, his huge dusky hands outstretched like talons.

“The Ring! By Set! The Ring!” he shrieked. “My Ring—stolen from me—” Steel glittered in the Stygian’s hand and with a heave of his great dusky shoulders he drove the dagger into the baron’s fat body. […] Flinging aside the crumpled corpse, already forgetful of it, Thoth grasped the ring in both hands, his dark eyes blazing with a fearful avidness.

“My Ring!” he whispered in terrible exultation. “My power!” How long he crouched over the baleful thing, motionless as a statue, drinking the evil aura of it into his dark soul, not even the Stygian knew.

Was this the typical depiction of magic ring ownership in traditional myths? I know the One Ring of Tolkien has precedents in the Niebelungenlied, but here Thoth-Amon is just a hair’s breadth away from saying “My precious!” Interesting find.

Once the assassins get to Conan, the whole scene is almost entirely one big fight. And I found it quite interesting how Howard describes the fighting. He was a huge history and martial arts nerd, and you can see that in the amount of detail he gives about what everyone is doing in the fight. But 90 years ago, decent information about actual sword fighting and armor certainly would have been much more sparse and more difficult to find, and this shows as well. Today we have people actually making historically accurate replicas of weapons and armor, and other people training with them, which has revealed huge amounts of lost knowledge over the recent decades.

What I really liked is how the story gives emphasis to the fact that Conan starts putting on his armor on the first sign that something seems off, and then later has the attackers point out that he’s at a big disadvantage because he’s not wearing a helmet and couldn’t get to his shield in time. But then we also get Conan swinging his weapons like a baseball bat and several mentions of blades cutting through armor. One of the attacks that wounds Conan is described as going through a gap in his incomplete armor, which is great. But then he’s cutting through metal plates, which is simply impossible. But that’s really just whining from a modern history and martial arts nerd. The important thing is that Conan is getting hit badly a lot and close to death at the end. Yes, he was fighting twenty men all at once by himself, but he didn’t simply brush them aside like nothing. So yay, a nod towards realism.

This story really has it all: Fighting, monsters, sorcery, conspiracy, ghost helpers, magic weapons, traitors. It really is no wonder that the editor wanted to get more stuff like this to publish. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, but I really shows huge potential. And as we all know, the rest is history.

Hellblade 2 Trailer Impressions

This weak Micosoft announced Hellblade 2 for their new XBox, apparently to everyone’s surprise. Not sure if they plan it as a full or timed exclusive, but given that the first game was first on PS4 and then came to Xbox One a year later, I think there’s a good chance that it will come to PS5 eventually, even though the developer Ninja Theory was bought by Microsoft last year. Guess we’ll have to see.

Even though it’s a short cinematic trailer without any narration, there is actually quite a lot of visual details that are really interesting, if you have played the first game. In the most basic terms, Hellblade is a game about an Iron Age woman who has traveled from Scotland to Norway to rescue the soul of her lover from the Norse underworld after he was killed in a raid by Northmen. She also almost costantly hears and sees spirits all around her that are driving her insane, which are very closely modeled after psychotic hallucinations and have gained a lot of praise for how well they replicate the actual mental condition.

I mistakenly assumed that the Picts in Scotland had disappeared before the Norse settlement of Iceland, but the two societies actually did coexist in the 9th century. I rewrote the following parts quite substantially with that in mind.

The trailer opens with the camera crossing the sea to a frozen, barren land with a big volcano that clearly identifies it as Iceland (and couldn’t possibly be Scotland). We get a small settlement that looks like a miniature version of a typical Iron Age hill fort.

The second shot is Senua with elaborate warpaint, surrounded by fire and shadowy figures in the background. And it really doesn’t look like they are a threat to her and give more the impression of supporting her.

Third is a first person shot of someone walking with a crowd of people with masks and torches towards a great wooden idol that is set on fire. Since the lighting is similar to the shot of Senua, and the camera in the first game was always very close up third person, I think this is probably from her perspective.

And finally there is another first person shot of someone walking with a group of what looks to be Northmen along a beach and awakening a giant. One of the men is clearly wearing a typical Germanic helmet, and the shields are just the type that was used in Scandinavia. The symbols on the shield don’t look Scandinavian, but they match the style that is frequently seen in Norwegian ruins in the first game. And as they get closer to the hill in the background it turns into an awakening giant.

It’s all very vague, we don’t have any additional details, and so I might not get it perfectly right. But I feel that there are some very strong implications here: My impression is that Senua traveled to Iceland after the first game and became a shaman. If she’s with Northmen explorers or some other rival group of settlers isn’t clear. But in the first game a lot of the narration was about Druth teaching Senua stories about Norse magic, and some people said that her lines in the trailer are an approximation of Old Norse.

What the overall tone seem to make very clear is that there is some kind of violent conflict going on, with Senua being in the middle of it. And what I find really interesting is that she seems to be a shaman or druid  just as her father was. Not to give too much away, but their relationship was a complete mess. To put it mildly. I could quite well imagine a story in which Senua ends up leading others to war with her powers of visions and knowledge of magic. And given that she’s not mentally well, the first game frequently got quite horrific and intense, and was rated 18 in Europe and M in America, this could become quite a violent and gruesome story.

The first game didn’t really need another story and I think nobody really expected one. It felt pretty wrapped up, eve with its very ambiguous ending.  But the game was essentially about how people in the Iron Age would have handled mental conditions, and treating it as a curse is only one option. Another is to regard the hallucinations and visions and messages from the gods, allowing the affected people to take the roles of shamans and oracles. I actually thought this aspect would have been nice to have in the first game as well and I see a very strong potential for a story of that kind.

There’s nothing really definitive about any of this, except that I am 99% certain it’s set in Iceland, but I think the overall tone gives a good impression of what we might expect.

The Stars are Right

“That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange eons even death may die.”

There seems to be a whisper on the winds, and a smell in the air. Still barely noticed, but anywhere you look where people go to talk about Sword & Sorcery, there seems to be an itching or a hunger for  more tales of both the heroic and the eldritch.

Appreciation for Robert Howard remains unbroken, and Conan is still a name that seems to bring another movie, RPG, or videogame to the market every year. Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock are still being discussed, and you will find many who caution not to forget Karl Wagner.

But it has been a long time since the last, or should we say most recent hurrah of Sword & Sorcery. In our times, it seem to mostly live on in curation of the classics and analysis of the Old Masters. A worth cause above reproach, but there is only so much of their works to read and eventually you’ve read it all. And there remains a craving for more.

In recent years there appears to have been a realization that we can not simply create more, but would need to create something new. We want writers to Robert Howard, but we can not tread in his footsteps. Particularly in recent months I’ve come across more and more voices that writers aspiring to create new Sword & Sorcery tales can not tie themselves down to the tales of Robert Howard and the aesthetics of Frank Frazetta. Those works already exist. Everyone remembers Conan, but who would really call himself a fan of Thongor, Brak, or Kothar? It was tried in the late 60s and failed, and it would fail just the same today.

As the late Romantic composer Gustav Mahler said “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but passing on the fire.” And thoughts like these seem to have become more frequent in recent months.

4 Things Sword and Sorcery Needs to Improve to Become More Popular

A Passion for Sword and Sorcery

Sword-and-sorcery and the problem of Robert E. Howard

The Scale of Sword & Sorcery (or Why Conan Doesn’t Suck)

Robert E. Howard Changed My Life and Continues to Inspire Me

It has been over 30 years since campy B-Movies send Sword & Sorcery to its crypt and permanently cemented its reputation as juvenile trash.

Maybe the time has finally come to break the seals and open that crypt again.