Sword or Sorcery?

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.)

Warped Wastelands

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.

Stalker

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.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

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.

Metro 2033

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.

Annihilation

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.

Stalker

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.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

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.

Quotes to write by

Sometimes I wish I will once be able to write lines like these.

“I’m not a hero. Never was, never will be. I’m just an old killer hired to do some wetwork. All the heroes I know are either dead or in Prison.”
– Metal Gear Solid 4

“Will I still be myself?”
“Your desire to remain as you are is what ultimately limits you.”
– Ghost in the Shell

“Is that what they taught you in the Order? To give up when things get tough?”
“As a matter of fact, they did. That’s why I’ve managed to stay alive while most of my colleagues are dead. Because I know when to walk away.”
– Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

“Rudimentary creatures of flesh and bone. You touch my mind, fumbling in ignorance, incapable of understanding. There is a realm of existance so far beyond your own you can not even imagine it.”
– Mass Effect

“See, I’m a man of simple tastes. I like gunpowder…and dynamite…and gasoline! Do you know what all of these things have in common? They’re cheap!”
– The Dark Knight

“It’s not possible.”
“No. It’s necessary.”
– Interstellar

“I am sorry it has to end this way, brother!”
“No. You’re not.”
– Avatar

“Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the force.”
Star Wars

“I won’t fail you! I’m not afraid.”
“You will be… You will be.”
– The Empire Strikes Back

“It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pitty, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!”
– Terminator

“The sky and the cosmos are one”
– Bloodborne

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.

5 Important Books

A discussion on Fantasy Faction raised the idea to put together lists of the most important books to your aspiration to write fantasy. As a means to get some clarification for yourself to understand what actually drives and inspires you, and to look closer at them to find clues to figuring out what is your prefered style. I first thought it would be very easy to name five books that I really enjoyed a lot, but when it comes to books that have been important and influential, this does actually become a bit harder. In the end I was able to come up with five books that left very strong impressions on me, and of which I feel quite certain that they really are the five most important.

In chronological order:

  1. Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver by Michael Ende: There are three books by Ende that we had read to us at an early age, which were Jim Button, The Neverending Story, and Momo. All three are amazing books, but in hindsight Jim Button was the one I liked the most. It’s an adventure story that has the heroes travel to many weird places and encounter lots of strange people and experience all kinds of amazing things. And how can you beat character names like Sursulapitschi, Mister Shufulupiplu, and King Alfonse the Quarter to Twelfth. It’s not as bleak and The Neverending Story and Momo, which are highly existential works, though there is still some actually quite heavy stuff going on that was inspired by the Nazis and World War 2.
  2. Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn: This book isn’t on this list because of it’s quality, but for the impact it had on me as a fantasy fan. I never make a secret of how massive an influence Star Wars has had on me, and during those great years in the 90s I was also reading a good number of books in addition to playing lots of games. I think when the new movies came out, me and my brother had read about all the novels that had been released in German up to that point, except for those written for children. And among these books there clearly is no contender for the throne other than Heir to the Empire. It was the book that laid the foundation for Star Wars being more than just three fun movies, but a massive setting with a huge body of works. And it was also one of the first that we got. And in addition to that, it also is actually a really decent book. It’s good and still quite fun to read. I’ve read it again a while back but still somehow have not turned my extensive notes I took into a proper review.
  3. Conan by Robert Howard. All the Conan stories fit neatly into a single volume which is why I am treating them as one book here. Conan is the starting point of Sword & Sorcery and set the gold standard by which any other works are still being measured. The scale goes from 0 to Conan. Despite being the first real Sword & Sorcery series (though Howard’s proto-Conan Kull did get two story released a few years earler) it set a standard that has never been reached again. Really, what can you say about Conan? It’s amazing. Reading Conan was what got me into Sword & Sorcery and also gave me the inspiration to try writing myself as it shows how great a story can be within a format that I feel I could be able to tackle myself.
  4. Death Angel’s Shadow by Karl Wagner: While Conan has never been rivaled, Kane is perhaps the one that ever came the closest. Death Angel’s Shadow was the first Kane book that I read and I was nothing but amazed by it. Reading Conan made my love Conan. Reading Kane made me love Sword & Sorcery. Hard to describe the greatness of this series in a few sentences, so I am simply linking to the three full reviews I did here.
  5. The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski: I encountered the Witcher in the first game adaptation of the series and was so impressed by it that I eventually gave a try to the books. The first one of which is The Last Wish. Like the previous two works I listed, this book is a collection of stories but one that acually has a very tight chronological order that give it more of an episodic character than a collection of different works. It’s a really damn good book. The series has the best written characters I’ve encountered in a book so far, really no contest there. Like Conan and Kane, it’s also quite existential, which makes the conflicts the characters find themselves in feel so much relevant and meaningful. As with the previous series, I’ve written four reviews about it so far.

Looking at the completed list, I noticed something that really doesn’t surprise me at all. Except for the first entry, all the others are from series that I have given their own categories for posts here. And they are the only four series that I have treated that way. Looking at the categories list on the right could have speed this up by a bit.

Fantasy novels suck at selling themselves

I love reading fantasy novels. I barely ever read fantasy novels. Not because I can’t make the time or any such excuse. It’s simply because I can’t find any books I want to read anymore. Thousands of fantasy booksmust have been written this century, but not one of them has me even the least interested in reading it. And I can’t imagine that it’s because there isn’t a single one that I would enjoy. Even with my somewhat not mainstream preferences, there still must be dozens or hundreds that would very much entertain me.

But I’m completely incapable of finding any of these. And I’ve started to blame this on the writers and publishers who are describing the content of the books on their backs. Nothing that I am reading in the descriptions sounds even remotely interesting to me or creative or original. It all blurs together in the same standard generic mush. A mush that looks different now than it did 20 or 30 years ago, but a still a mush. What I like to call the “Assassins & Politics” genre. (By the way, who had this idea of making “assassins” a description for likeable young protagonists?) It’s frequently said that a book needs to make a promise to the readers of what they are going to get from it within the first 50 pages. Readers have to know whether this is a story that has the kind of stuff and themes that they enjoy or if it’s a kind of book that isn’t for them by that point. But I think any book should give at least some kind of impression of what it’s selling points are and who it might appeal to. When I look at the back of a book or look up a description online, it should make a quick elevator pitch to me. But I don’t feel like I am getting any of that.

And it’s not like fans are helping much either. When I asked in two different fantasy forums what people think are the most creative and original books they read in recent years and why, I got a lot of replies. Which almost entirely consisted only of titles but no real information on what is actually in them.

Two of the most praised books from recent years are The Fifth Season and Prince of Thorns. I doubt that so many people can be completely wrong and so I am sure The Fifth Season is a great book. But from all my brief research, the only information about what is in the book is that it’s about a mother searching for her daughter and that it’s set in a world where wizards can predict earthquakes. Okay, but how does that help me knowing if it’s a book that I would enjoy reading? The sales pitch for Prince of Thorns and the rest of its series is that the protagonist is a psychopathic boy who leads a gang of bandits murdering and raping their way across the land. I fully admit that a truly evil child is an interesting idea to explore, but would anyone want to read three books of attrocities? The book is super popular and so I assume that this isn’t actutally what makes up the majority of its content. But then what is the content?

I think that books also need something that works similar to trailers. Some kind of highlight reel that says “If you like this, you will love this story. There’s plenty more where that came from.” Though the current fad of making stories all about central twists that can only be enjoyed if you have absolutely no idea about anything that is happening in the story is a completely different rant.

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.

My favorite style of fiction I never knew I had

Having recently seen Drive and looking around for interpretations about it, I came upon a term that I had never really paid much attention to.

Neo-Noir.

What is Neo-Noir? It really is pretty much the same as Noir except that it’s used for works made from the 80s forward instead of up to the 60s. Other good recent examples are basically the whole Nolan movie catalog, with Inception and The Dark Knight standing out prominently. (Memento and Insomnia also really look like it, but I have not seen them yet.)

Inception is my second favorite movie of all time, beaten only by The Empire Strikes Back. And when you stop and think about it, that movie also has Noir aesthetics all over it. Pretty much everything happening in Cloud City is prime Noir material.

Looking back at it, the first works of this style that I really fell in love with were Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell (including the TV series). Of course, you could argue that these are perhaps the two biggest cyberpunk movies ever made. But what is cyberpunk other than Noir with futuristic elements?

Which reminded me of Mirror’s Edge, one of my favorite videogames that I’ve always been thinking of as “cyberpunk without the futuristic elements”. Yeah, once you consider Neo-Noir to be a distinct category, it falls perfectly into it. The socially isolated protagonist living in a blurry gray world on the edge of legality. Characters looking for meaning in a heartless world and coming to bleak realizations about their own lives. And they hang out in a place that looks like this.

And suddenly it all came together: Mass Effect 2 is also a work of Neo-Noir. The first game had already blown my mind, but I was amazed when I came out to the street on Omega. And never had a game felt so perfect as when I first stepped through the door into Afterlife. It is my favorite game of all time, with no contenders.

After the really cool opening and time jump, the game starts with the Illusive Man smoking in a dark room with his Femme Fatale henchwoman Miranda next to him. I could write a whole article about that. (And I probably will, eventually.)

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I feel that there are at least a great deal of thematic elements of Noir in the Witcher books. The world went to crap, there’s no justice, characters with questionable morales are trying to do the right thing when dealing with those who are morally bancrupt, and there’s always a slight doubt that maybe everyone getting conquered by the Empire might not be the worst idea. And while it would probably be a bit nonsensical to call Bound by Flame a noir fantasy game, the mood of dignified despair is certainly there.

Bonus content: All my favorite episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. You know, basically everything with Garak in it. (The Wire, Improbable Cause/The Die is cast, and In Pale Moonlight stand out.) And then there is Hellboy, Thief, The Big Lebowsky, Leon the Professional, True Detective, and Breaking Bad. I think it’s probably much harder for me to come up with a list of amazing movies, videogames, and TV shows that don’t have a strong Neo-Noir aesthetic.

It comes as a bit of a surprise after all these years that there’s an umbrella term that encompasses pretty much my entire top list of greatest works of fiction ever made. But then, many of the works I mentioned are considered to be really great by a lot of people around the world, so it’s not like this is a style that hasn’t proven itself over the past decades. The period of their making also started just before I was born, which probably isn’t a coincidence either. It’s a style that I’ve been exposed to all my life. While the aesthetics of Noir and Neo-Noir are generally pretty easy to pin down, definitions of the genre are usually rather blurred and unclear. Yet at the same time, works tend to fall into a pretty narrow band of stories. Socially isolated protagonists who are living with one foot in prison and one foot in the grave whose lives have become empty and who are searching for any kind of meaning in their seemingly bleak worlds. Sometimes they catch a faint glimer of hope they can pursue, other times they doom themselves.

Questions about identity and filling an inherently meaningless existence with meaning are the basic foundations of Existentialism, which to me is really the only thing worth exploring in a story. I’ve been watching, reading, and playing stories of this type for all of my adult life and so I probably already do know most of what there is to know about it on an intuitive level. But as someone interesting in writing my own stories this seems like a great opportunity to refocusing my research.