My own sense of place

Some years ago I came across an old post on Hill Cantons about the Sense of Place in fantasy. While my mental image of the Kaendor doesn’t come from one single place I actually can think of a number of environments that hugely impacted my own image of how I see the perfect fantasy world in my mind.

I grew up in Hamburg, which really isn’t a place to inspire fantastic landscapes. (Though it does have a fantastic zoo with lots of big animals from all over the world.) However, my grandparents lived on the edge of a village just about an hour’s drive away until recently, and me and my brother were staying with them over weekends about once per month. And this is what we had right out the door.

Northern Germany clearly doesn’t make it high on anyone’s list of fanciest places in the world but this is what we got and I think it’s actually pretty cool. That river used to be the Iron Curtain. The far shore is Eastern Germany. But you couldn’t see it from the west shore because all the border fortifications were a good distance futher back for secrecy. (You could occasionally hear land mines going of, though.)

When I was in first grade we had our first school trip to the Lüneburg Heath, which I don’t think many people suspect to start right outside of Hamburg. We did five day trips and fortunately had amazing weather which really made it a huge experience that stayed with me forever.

I think the pictures aren’t really doing justice to the real place. Or at least to my memory of it. But it doesn’t really matter if I remember it as much more impressive than it really was, since in a fantasy world I can make it as amazing as I want.

Then there was this place:

I can not overstate what an enormous influence The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi had on me. More than anything else, seeing these movies on a friday night and saturday morning on a tiny TV at a friend’s place when I was 11 defined what my creative imagination is today. Only playing Baldur’s Gate when I was 16 comes close, as it introduced me to the whole world of fantasy RPGs.

I think it was in summer 2000 when we went on vacation to Norway. (Because I remember being excited for Diablo II which would be out when we got back). And what forever stayed with me wasn’t the fjords, but the mountain tundra of the Dovrefjell.

I instantly loved this place and it’s still easily my favorite place in the world, even though we stayed in that area for only two or three days. There isn’t really anything to do, but it just looks amazing. And I think it might have reminded me of having seen the Lüneburg Heath. It doesn’t really look like you’re high up in the mountains because everything has been flattened by glaciers during the Ice Age, but even in the middle of summer, when you got something like 20 hours of daylight, it still gets really cold even that relatively far south.

The next year we had a one week vacation to Denmark, which isn’t really much of a big deal when you’re from Northern Germany and we’ve been there before. But this turned out to be one of my favorite vacations ever. I’m not completely sure, but I am pretty certain that we stayed in Løkken. While looking for pictures I came across several that showed old World War 2 bunkers and a paragliding club, which I both remember being nearby.

While thinking about what kinds of pictures to hunt for, I became aware of a consistent trend that goes through most of these places. And you’ve might have noticed it from looking at the pictures. I really like dried yellow gras. And looking at it now, also huge open skies. But I guess the later comes naturally when you grew up in cities in Northern Germany. Once you get out of the city you immediately get this vast open view.

There’s also something else I got reminded of by the aesthetics of these pictures:

Dinosaur Books!!!

The love for dinosaurs is in my genes. (I am pretty sure it’s on the y-chromosome.) What could possibly be more awesome than dinosaurs?

Dinosaurs with freaking laser beams attached to their heads!

Okay, getting a bit overboard here. (But seriously, was there ever a toy line more awesome than this?) But still, I’ve always been a big dinosaur lover, and I think even more so than the average 6 year old boy. And the landscapes shown in dinosaur books from the 80s always had a certain style that I think really had an enormous impact on my sense of environmental aesthetics. And all these places I love share some resemblance with it. I originally planned to write about the finding emotional core of my plans for the Ancient Lands (which I’ll hopefully get to tomorrow) and this environmental aesthetic is a major part of it.

This post is a slightly revised version of one that I wrote in February 2017.

Emulating other artists?

Earlier this week I was gathering my thoughts on which of the many ideas I had for fantasy worlds over the last years I really want to focus on with my first proper stories. There’s always more ideas than you can possibly use and not all elements that are appearing “cool” are really contributing to every individual core concept. I recommend this article on Mythic Scribes for some further details on this.

To find the focus for A Wanderer of Kaendor, I made a list of scenes from other works that serve as my reference points for overall style. (To me, concept work is mostly making lists.) And one source of inspiration is standing out above all others. Who could have guessed it? Star Wars. Seriously, what else could it have been if you’ve read anything I’ve written about style and worldbuilding before.

As a pure novice, what seems to be the easiest way to emulate the way parts of these movies made me feel is to replicate many of the elements they are build from. Not so much the Rebels against Empire stuff, that’s Epic fantasy that isn’t really my cup of tea. But the way magic works, the Jedi as a scattered group of monks, the Sith as secretive sorcerers that have gained the upper hand without revealing their true nature, and the criminal underworld of smugglers and bounty hunters are all things that resonate with me the most and that I can see working very well in a Sword & Sorcery context.

But should I? Few things seem as creatively bankrupt as rippoffs of successful and popular works. I despise them myself. Not only do they feel like atempts to fake skill and ride to success on someone elses coattails, there is also very little creative satisfaction in it. Even if you can permit it on moral grounds as doing no evil or harm, it still feels dodgy as hell ethically. How doe it make you feel about yourself and your own art and creativity? On the one hand I fully support the notion that whatever makes you passionate to create, you should go with without fear or shame. If you think it’s amazing, then there are other people who feel the same and with persistence and some luck you will find your audience. Yet at the same time, how you can respect your own work as an artist is also hugely important and what joy can there be in art when you feel like being a fraud and can’t argue with confidence against those who would call you an immitator? Taking the magic, sorcerers, and scoundrels from Star Wars, the culture from Morrowind, and the landscapes from both as the stage for a Sword & Sorcery story is, in my eyes, the coolest idea ever! But can I justify it to myself and defend it against accusations of being a knockoff?

While thinking about these things, I remembered having seen a short documentary called Everything is a Remix, thas is talking about how all art is really the process of creative recombinations of existing ideas, rather than the inception of completely new ideas. Looking for some additional perpective on my problem I went to watch it again, and, to my only mild surprise, it contains a whole section dedicated entirely to how Star Wars is the product of almost straightly copied parts from other movies. The concept repeatedly returned back to in the documentary is Copy, Combine, Transform. This is presented as the essence of the creative process. Transformation could be seen as the most creative and original aspect of creating, as with thousands of years of storytelling it’s basically impossibly to come up with anything truly new and the act of copying is not simply a necessity. But the choice of which elements to copy and combine is already a deeply creative process. With there being nothing new under the sun and everything that could be said having been said before, the potential pool of elements to pick from is almost limitless. Chosing eight or ten things out of an infinite number to combine and transform is a hugely important part in the creation of a new original work. Your choice will inevitably be one that leads to a combination that has never been made before. Combination is the point where a work becomes original.

Looking at some other related videos, I realized that this copying of other director by Lucas isn’t limited to the first movie being a combination of Kurosawa’s samurai movies and British World War 2 bomber movies. Star Wars is perhaps the most remixed thing popular culture has ever produced. Like Kill Bill, you could recreate the movies entirely with footage from other movies. An in fact, someone did. Even without the video title and the iconic opening crawl, it’s instantly recognizable.

The amazing thing about this is that these sources don’t seem to have any common traits, except being works from the early to mid 20th century movies. (Which at that time was pretty much all but the most recent history of movies.) How could you put British pilots, medieval Samurai, and Gone with the Wind in the same movie? In SPACE!? But Star Wars is not just copying and combining, most importantly it’s transforming. It manges to fuse all these things together and feel like a seamless whole that is impossible to separate. And it lead to works that are absolutely unique in fiction. Nobody has ever created anything that would be the same type of fantasy, like you have lots of works of the same type as The Lord of the Rings or Conan. And people love it! Star Wars is one of the unchallenged titans of entertainment. It defies categorization yet is one of the most succesful concepts ever.

From this I am taking confidence that I can fully justify to myself to take elements directly from other creators and try to emulate some of their distinctive style. And eapecially when it comes to Star Wars, nobody can ever justify any claim of ripping it off. Star Wars is the gold standard for remixing. However, this also made me realize that simply copying my favorite elements from Star Wars will not be enough to create something original. When you draw almost entirely from only one source, then no combination can be happening. And without combination, how do you want to transform! I thick that’s what gets people to regard something as a knockoff. When an artist only copies from a popular work, but doesn’t meaningfully add to it to make it really feel like something new.

I already have some things in mind that I would want to explore for their potential to enrich this mix, but those are thoughts for another time.

What is this Kaendor anyway?

I started reading the classic works of Sword & Sorcery about four years ago and found it to be a kind of fantasy that is just the type that really matches my tastes in fiction. It’s about adventures in fantastical places and, above anything else, encounters with strange supernatural beings and phenomena. It also has its moments of savagery with no pretentions of violence being a noble thing, and plenty of horror elements that give it a serious and somber tone. Its storytelling conventions and structures also lead to lengths of work that are a good match to my reading habits. Each story can be read in one sitting or two and even when they form episodes in an ongoing storyline, you can still enjoy them one by one, in any order, and all of them together can generally fit into a single book. It is this format that realy got me thinking that this is something I could do too. A thousand page trilogy seems too daunting to me as I am a person who needs a goal in sight to get anything big done. And I actually don’t much like reading them either. After a good deal of initial research I lost sight of it for a while but got back into it a few months ago and my ideas are getting more and more into a clear shape.

From my years in cultural studies and communication at university I’ve took away a lot of knowledge and understanding on a wide range of topics like East-Asian history and culture, buddhism, shinto, existentialism, Greek religion and philosophy, cross-cultural interactions, and perceptions and experiences of the foreign. We even had our small informal bucircle of two teachers and about eight students who you would find in one or two classes about buddhist or existentialist topics every semester. There was rarely anyone else in those classes and most times only two or three students handed in a paper at the end to get a grade. The rest of us were just there for some oldschool academic philosophising, as it has once been the regular expectation at universities. I used to feel a bit down that I eventually left without a degree even after having been granted an extension past the regular semester number. But know I know that working in academia probably wouldn’t have worked out for me anyways, and I think that these classes were actually much more valuable than if I had studies literature and arts. It didn’t provide me with technical knowledge but with a vast pool of knowledge to draw from, which I think is much more useful when you want to actually write and not analyze.

The Concept

Kaendor is meant to be the world of a Sword & Sorcery series in the classical format. Works of 20,000 to 100,000 words with a single plot line. Loosely connected by the setting and characters, but each being a fully developed story with its own beginning and end that doesn’t require any specific order to be fully comprehensible. Sword & Sorcery is a genre that has grown out of the pulp environment and has a somewhat trashy reputation. And when you look at the works of Leiber, Carter, and de Camps, or any movies from then 70s and 80s, it’s understandable where this perception comes from. It’s silly fun for casual audiences. But Sword & Sorcery has endured as a serious genre because of writers like Robert Howard, Michael Moorcock, and Karl Wagner, who took their stories deeply serious and filled them with a lot of philosophical ponderings. The ponderings of violent and evil men, fighting for their own place in violent and evil worlds. These are embedded in plots that mirror the classic hero tales from the dawn of storytelling. A hero travels into the underworld and returns with something. Something he needs to fix a problem, or some kind of insight and increased understanding. The only author I have encountered yet who has taken this classical tradition into our more contemporary world to make new observations about power and identity is Andrzej Sapkowski with his Witcher stories. I see this as a field with great potential that nobody really is trying to write in these days. But it’s precisely what I want to read. And as the wise saying about writing goes, “Write what you would want to read.”

Kaendor is not one epic story, but rather an environment that serves as the stage for stories that go into things that I regard as meaningful. It’s a world that has room for many protagonists and antagonists, and my approach is to create stories that have real effects on individuals while leaving the world intact. But that is potential options for the future. For the immediate present, my efforts are concentrated on creating A Wanderer of Kaendor, the adventures of a single protagonist who has various encounters with the supernatural that are shaping her as a person throughout her life. Her adventures are tales that lead her into the otherworld that lies beyond the edges of civilizations, where she encounters supernatural beings that provide her with glimpses at a higher reality beyond the everyday experience of mortals. In her design, I was greatly inspired by three of my favorite characters. Indiana Jones, Zuko from Avatar, and Garak from Star Trek. What makes them so fascinating and appealing to me is their combination of incredible potential and very believable weaknesses. In their own way, they really want to do the right thing, but very often they fail and suffer greatly for it. They are magnificent scoundrels, but they never get anything handed to them. They struggle and they suffer, but they always presevere. They presevere because of a deeply felt belief that they have to and that giving up is simply not an option. Not for honor, not for fame, not for wealth. But because it is the right thing to do. Yet this comes with a self awareness of their own failings and shortcomings, that makes them so very sympathetic to me. This is the type of character I want to write about, and who I want to send on journeys of discovery into the realms beyond our own perception.

The Setting

The world of Kaendor has its origins as a reaction to the omnipresence of fantasy that comes across as magically enhanced versions of medieval Europe by people who don’t really know anything about medieval society and culture. It is something that is so common that it is taken for granted as the default reference frame, to the point that the term “Standard Fantasy Setting” can be used completely unironically. It’s not that basing a fictional world on Europe or on the medieval period is any worse than basing it on any other place or time. But when I started to seriously think about worldbuilding, I got very curious about what you could end up with if you start with other reference points. In the end, two things came together. The Bronze Age of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and the premodern periods of East Asia. Instead of putting them together side by side, Kaendor came to be as an attempt to combine the two and transform them into a new whole.

Similarly, there were other conventions about modern fantasy that I questioned and that had me curious to see what I could do if I tried to do something else. A major one of them is idea of the Past Golden Age. In the distant past everything was better and the present is just a faint echo of how great things used to be. There’s amazing past empires that left behind incredible ruins and wonderful magic that people in the present just can’t replicate. It’s a very old concept that is even found in pretty much all major religions and you find it everywhere in fantasy and even spacefaring science-fiction. I have various problems with that, most prominent of them the mindset that comes up in history again and again, that we have to restore the glorious past that we vaglue remember from our childhood by repressing everyone who isn’t just like me and has been ruining it all for everyone. There is also the hypothesis of Modernism that progress is an inevitable process that always goes up toward a single objective state of perfection. It’s the very basis for the entire idea of civilizing other people for their own good, even against their will. And of course, everyone is less civilized than us and our way is the only way. From my misgivings about these aspects that are found everywhere in fantasy, I created the concept of the Perpetual Apocalpyse. There is no progress, time is static. Not in a literal sense, but in the greater picture, nothing ever really changes in Kaendor. It’s a world in which civilization has always considered of small kingdoms centered around city states that prosper for a few centuries before falling into obscurity and being abandoned to be reclaimed by the forests. There are plenty of ruins everywhere and lots of useful and valuable stuff to find there. But they are not any better than what currently existing civilizations are able to produce. In a sense, Kaendor has no history. There are only personal life stories.

Connected to this approach to civilization and time is the idea that ultimately people don’t matter. The natural state of the world is wilderness. Civilization is a temporary aberration that always disappears just as quickly as it arises. There are always a few city states somewhere, but its not like people can ever really claim to have made themselves the masters of the world. In pretty much all philosophies and religions, humans are the peak of the hierarchy, everything else are lesser creatures. Not in Kaendor. Kaendor is a world of spirits in which people are just some higher group within the sphere of animals. The world is not about them, they merely exist in it. Now humans are clearly dominating the planet Earth and there are lots of people (particularly sci-fi writers) who assume that it’s a given that humanity will go on forever and cover the entire universe. I very much doubt that myself. At the grand scale of things, humans won’t leave any mark of significance on the cosmos. The Kaendor setting is designed as a place to explore these thoughts on a more human scale.

But let’s now come to the more concrete influences that should provide a much better impression of what I am actually going for. There are two main sources that pretty much define the overall look and feel of the world in my imagination. Star Wars and Morrowind.

Star Wars has had a massive influence on me from the first time I saw it and I think it really shaped me as a person. It was the starting point for me to really imagine other worlds way beyond the scope of the plots of the fantastic children’s book I had been exposed to before. It’s impossible for me to even imagine what kind of person I might have become if I didn’t have a passion for fantasy. Was it inevitable for a person like me to become hooked on it once I encountered any halfway decent work of grown up fantasy? Perhaps, but the work that did set me on this path was Star Wars. It was in particular The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi that came to define what I still consider to be the ideal feel and atmosphere for fantasy. Whatever I do, it must at least within my own perception, aim for this aestethic and mood. It is from my reception of Star Wars that I got the ideas for a world that lacks any direct references to the European middle ages, that is vast in scope and dwarfing any single person, and that appears to be disconnected from time and history. It’s at it’s very heart a pulp adventure. One that is full of ridiculousness but never falls into camp and always remains deeply and hearfelt earnest. (Of course only taking the three classic movies into account here.) I think the war between the Rebells and the Imperial forces has very little impact on my desire to emulate the overall style. As far as I am able to tell, there isn’t really anything of that in Kaendor. But it is also the world of smugglers and bounty hunters and that’s much more interesting to me. But the big one is obviously the Force, the Jedi, and the Sith. As dearly as I love these movies, these elements are only scratched on at the surface but hint at much greater depths. And the way in which these were exapanded on in the Expanded Universe do leave me rather cold. I would have done it differently. I am going to do it differently.

Morrowind is an incredibly fascinating game. I think as a game, it is actually rather poor. It doesn’t really do anything for me, just like all the other open world RPGs Bethesda has made. Meh. But it’s setting is simply out of this world. Much of the world of Tamriel is pretty generic standard stuff, but Morrowind is different. This is a corner of the world that is simply completely unlike anything else that has ever been created. I love this setting. There’s the Tribunal with its three living gods that rule like kings and popes, and its host of brass masked Ordinators that enforce their power. There’s the Ashlanders hiding in the volcanic mountains and sticking to their worship of the demonic Daedra and the secretive noble houses and tongs that really pull the strings in day to day life. Morrowind is a place where you won’t find and horses, cows, dogs, or bears. Instead it’s a place with mushrooms larger than trees and people riding on huge silt striders or having their carts pulled by dinosaurs. Morrowind is an alien world, but one realized entirely within a more conventional fantasy context, without the space ships and lasers that are ever present in Star Wars.

Awesome future novel idea #5: Scouts of the Eldritch Wilds

Unlike previous awesome future novel ideas, this is one I actually plan to give a try very soon. It’s something I am still bouncing around in my head but intend to give a shot as soon as I have more of the basics figured out. Don’t hold your breath, though. I’m impulsive and have a very poor track record of completing long term hobby works.

The idea is a synthesis of the conceptual work I did for game settings in the past that also incorporates my love for the great neo-noir and wuxia movies from the mid-90s forward. At the center stands a world that is full of life, but hostile to people. A world in which the spirits of the land rule, with civilization confined to small enclaves along the coasts where priests and sorcerers maintain a tenuous state of stability. It’s a world in which the forces of nature are particularly powerful and unpredictable, as are the spirits who control them. Civilization is in an eternal state of siege and to keep the constantly encroaching wilderness at bay, the priests and sorcerers need to know what is going on beyond the borders of civilization.

Within this context exists a special class of scouts, who are knowledgeable in eldritch lore and accustomed to the ways of the barbarians who inhabit the lands of their wild gods. The scouts are not soldiers, though most of them are mercenaries of a sort, offering their skills and knowledg to the courts and temples for pay. They are a society of their own, at home both in the wilds and civilized lands, but set appart from either population by their delvings into esoteric things. Violence is not their trade, but alone among barbarians and magical beasts, they are highly skilled with spear and bow. Among each other, knowledge is the main currency of their trade and connections worth more than gold. Yet there is also great rivalry and competition and out in the wilds they are beyond the laws of either kings or tribes.