In the past weeks I’ve written some stuff about my ongoing concept work for A Warrior of Kaendor. About the preparatory worldbuilding and the stylistic influences that are going into it, and my considerations for the right format and presentation. But I have been noticably quiet about any narrative content or plot. Which is because this main aspect of writing is still very much work in progress. There is a high concept for a series of mid-length stories, but turning it into actual plots continues to be an ongoing challenge. I have a rough outline for a first story, but I have to admit that I am still not entirely hooked by it. It would be good practice to write, but is it really something compelling to read? It keeps striking me as somewhat banal and an exercise by the numbers. There are also four much more fascinating ideas, but they seem too daunting to tackle with such little practical experience for now.
But I think to create something really good, you have to be fully convinced that you are working on something with the potential to be great. It’s hard to put your passion into practice work. One frequent, and wise, peace of advice for creating a draft is to write what you would want to read. And I have made good progress with figuring out the setting by putting together the things that I would love to see appearing in stories. But things that are appearing in a story are not a story. Simply looking at a collection of things and making a story out of it is hard. I would know. The question of what you would want to read goes beyond that. What kinds of events and situations would I like to see in the book of my dreams as a reader?
The first thing that comes to my mind is characters travelling through vast isolated wilderness, being dwarved by huge trees and massive cliffs, disappearing between the deep shadows and thick undergrowth on the ground while the bright sun and moon are half obscured by the branches far overhead.
And I want them to climb up to villages high up in the trees and creep along balkonies and crumbling walkways of towns carved into mountainsides, wearily peeking into the black doorways leading deeper into the stone while the wind is tearing at them.
I would love to read about great clear lakes far out in the forests whose magical waters connect to a higher reality, even when just looking at them.
I want the stories to take the characters to ancient towers that are overlooking a sea of green below and have a clear view of a large, dim orange sun and a huge blue cloudy moon, surrounded by bright stars and polar lights.
I want them to ride through shallow streams between the trees a d giant boulders on their dinosaur steeds and observe giant flying beasts cast their shadows on the ground.
I want them to encounter eldritch spirits made from light and water and talk with the shadows of men dead for centuries, standing over their crumbling bones. To glean wisdom from the empty eyes of a sorcerer’s skull.
I want them to meet warriors with painted skin and feathers on their spears, witches with wooden masks, and warrior priests with faces of bronze. To walk up the marble stairs of temples flanked by fire bowls lighting up the chilly night. And descend into vast caves covered in huge crystals and glowing moss.
I want them to have moments of quiet insight when they see the distant past and future, and touch the minds of people far away.
That is what I would want to read! And maybe that is what I should try to make into a story. Not begin with filling in the vacancies for villains, locations, and macguffins.
I’ve been thinking about worldbuilding these past days and I think that the best worldbuilding always has a function, instead of just being something that would be cool or fun to have in the setting. Either it communicates something emotional about the characters, though I see that working best in visual media, or it establishes the rules that the plot will have to follow and that limit what the characters can do. To tidy up the often messy worldbuilding of Kaendor, and to tighten it up, I made this list of basic rules that define the setting and also the stories to take place in it.
All the land is either forest or mountains.
Spirits control the natural forces of the environment.
Spirits do not care about mortals.
Civilization can only exist in places where powerful spirits shield the people from unpredictable weather and encroaching wilderness.
Civilization is always limited to only city states and some surrounding farmland.
City states never last longer than a few hundred years.
Outside of civilized regions, time and distance aren’t as clear.
Magic can only provide awareness of the environment and subtle manipulations of minds, and summon spirits for direct services or to ask for their insight about the past and the future.
Sorcery can reshape things and change the laws of nature in limited areas.
Sorcery always corrupts anything it changes, making them sickly, brittle, and insane.
The powers of great spirits can reverse the corruption by strengthening the natural life forces to break the sorcerous restraints put on them.
The size and strength of spirits is reflecting their supernatural powers.
There is no afterlife for the dead and no reincarnation of the soul. Undead are only immitations or shadows of the dead.
Priests and shamans always have great political power.
Architecture and environments are often very vertical.
Travel is almost entirely by water.
Traders make up most traffic.
The economy runs on salt, silver, and slaves.
Mounts can not keep up with runners over longer distances.
Spears and bows are the primary weapons. Knives, axes, and short swords are used occasionally. Armor is lamellar or leather scale, but shields and helmets are the most important.
Personal disputes are settled with boxing duels.
Killing someone will always have repercussions.
Making this list made me spot a Chekhov’s Gun. When so much about the world’s culture revolves around the fact that civilization consists of tiny precarious islands of stability within a vast hostile wilderness, the audiences will reasonably expect to get shown the demise of at least one such city. And of the five plot ideas I currently have in reserve, two of them have this as one of their stakes.
I’m not really much of a Sci-Fi fan. It’s generally all fantasy for me. And even with my fantasy I have a clear preference for medieval or particularly ancient and prehistoric styled settings over early modern ones. But there is one thing in modern and futuristic settings that is really cool, and you just can’t have in these types of settings.
Engines are really damn fucking cool. Going at full power with the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars or the War Rig from Fury Road is just pure fun awesome. Going at insane speeds riding on a cycle of continuous explosions is just plan cool. I was thinking about how having something like that in fantasy while watching Fury Road the whole time. But you can’t have that in pre-industrial settings. There’s always magic as an alternative option, but using magic as a replacement for technology never feels right to me. Magic should be magical, not utalitarian.
However, there is one other alternative. Wind power. Particularly with boats. Scandinavian longships are pretty cool fast and agile vessels, but they aren’t exactly racing crafts. But polynesian sail boats are very close to that and have been around for over 3,000 years. Modern high tech racing trimarans can reach speeds over 50 knots, which is about 90 km/h in relation to the water current. Somehow it seems the internet does not have any real information about the speeds of polynesian sailing canoes, but racing dhows from the Indian Ocean are quite capable of reaching over 20 knots, which is in the realm of 40 km/h, and a wooden catamaran build for speed should get considerably faster than that. This may not seem very fast when looked at from inside a car, but in a small boat with the water just half a meter below you, this would be crazy fast. Like this:
Now imagine crews fighting each other with spears and fire bombs and trying to trick the other boat in doing tight turns that flip them over. And I think under certain weather conditions, it could possibly get a good deal faster than this.
Fast sailing boats are great vehicles for adventuring heroes and for marauding pirates. While you could create a fantasy series just around this, the Kaendor setting was always planned as a forest setting first, but also a coastal setting as the immediate second. One with strong natural forces being ever present in the outdoors. I can totally incorporate this into Kaendor seamlessly instead of making it it’s own distinct thing.
When I was in Greece last summer, I was doing a lot of swimming in Epidauros. It was also on that beach that I finally completed my reading of Conan stories with Queen of the Black Coast, which somehow had slipped by for years. Right across the water sits this looming island.
I’m pretty sure it’s a nice tourist place, but it did inspire me for a shipwreck story about Mira that starts with a pirate battle in rough waters. I was thinking more about big shooners and junks, but sea battles are already a part of the world. Making it more about small fast catamarans only makes this aspect more cool and fun.
And it also allows me to do fun crazy stuff like this.
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.)
Two years ago I encountered the theory that the creative process consists primarily of “Copy. Combine. Transform.” Most artists seem to agree that you can’t really come up with anything that is strictly new or original in the most restrictive sense. It is the combination of old elements in new ways that really constitutes what we consider originality. Last week I wrote about how Star Wars is one of the best illustrations of this that you’ll find anywhere in fiction and how it is perfectly okay to approach the creation of a new work by trying to emulate it.
But that is only the “copy” part. For the crucial part of “transform”, you also need to draw from additional sources. If you draw only from one source, particularly when you attempt to emulate aspects of it, the result can only be a lesser version of the original. A knockoff. In reality, it’s impossible to only draw from a single source. There is always an endless amount of ideas and concepts you have collected throughout your life. As Akira Kurosawa put it“Creation comes from memory. Memory is the source of your creation. You can’t create something out of nothing. Whether it comes from reading or your own experiences, you can’t create unless you have something inside yourself.”
Since my approach to creating my own works is to try to emulate one inspiration in particular, I find it comforting to make some of my other sources of inspiration just as specific. It feels a bit like a safeguard against unintentionally doing nothing but a simple knockoff, if you will. There are of course the Conan stories and Indiana Jones movies that directly inspired my choice of format I want to work with (in addition to being great adventures, mostly). But while thinking about what else I will be adding to the mix, I realized that I already did that years ago. It’s a style of fiction that you could describe as Warped Wastelands. Or even weird warped wastelands, but that’s a bit too much of a mouthful.
The warped wastelands are a style of both settings and narratives that heavily builds on the Dying Earth style, but with a new 21st century spin to it. While Dying Earth stories are generally far future fantasy, this style, at least how I am perceiving it, is more rooted in near-future science fiction. It’s a sphere of works that revolves around environments that have been warped in weird and alien ways to the point of being completely uninhabitable to people, which is where the wasteland part comes in. Alongside of it, you often find themes of a warping and wasting away of society. As far as I can trace it back, this style goes back to Andrei Tarkowsky’s movie Stalker. In Stalker, a scientist and a writer have hired a guide to take them inside a strange, closed-off area full of strange invisible dangers. Inside of which there supposedly is a room with supernatural powers that can fulfill the greatest desires of those who reach it.
The movie directly inspired a videogames called Stalker that amplifies many of these ideas to a much larger scale. Here the zone exists inside the closed-off irradiated area arount the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and is populated by numerous grotesquely mutated creatures and a wide range of strange anomalies violating the regular laws of physics. These range from relatively mild but still potentially lethal gravitational anomalies to patches of static electricity, erruptions of flames from empty air, and even the apparent localized warping of space and time. All made worse by massive sudden storms that light up the entire sky and melt people’s brains. There is also a legend of a supernatural room that can grant wishes within the ruins of the power plant, but the main attraction of the zone are artifacts that are created from pieces of metal or organic material that have been exposed to the effects of the anomalies for prolonged durations. These artifacts have drawn hundreds of stalkers into the zone who are creepying through the ruins and twisted vegetation in the hope of a find that scientists or collectors will pay huge amounts of money for. All of it completely illegal. Yet things are getting stranger the deeper one enters into the zone and nobody ever returns from the center.
Another nice work is the novel Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky, which takes place in and especially below Moscow after a nuclear war has apparently destroyed the entire world. A good number of people has been surviving in the metro tunnels for two decades as the city above and the surrounding countryside is covered in a toxic and radioactive haze. But it’s not simply that the bombs destroyed the cities and poisoned the surface. Somehow the end of the world also created numerous new and strange creatures that are now populating an Earth no longer hospitable to humans. And in addition there a various strange places and phenomena that people can’t explain in any other ways than supernatural. There’s also a very well regarded videogame adaptation called Metro 2033 that does an amazing job at bringing these phenomena to life.
Most recently, there has been Annihilation, a loose movie adaptation of Jeff Vandemeer’s novel Annihilation. The story centers around an vast area that has been shrouded by a strange haze of shimmering colors from which none of the teams that went to investigate it have returned. The last team that set out on yet another expedition encounters a strange wilderness in which all living things seem to have mutated to a lesser or greater degree, with weird hybrid creatures that even blur the distinction between animal and plant. And things continue to get weirder and more dangerous the further they are getting into the area.
In addition to my love with adventure fantasy, I also have a strange and somewhat conflicted appreciation for horror. I don’t actually like movies or games that scare you and find all the slasher horror and torture porn just revolting with no entertainment value. But I have a great fascination with works that are unsettling, even if they have gory elements. Things like Alien and The Thing, Dead Space, and even the early Silent Hills. And of course you can say without reservations that the Stalker and Metro games both make extensive use of horror themes, motifs, and techniques. The Lovecraftian horror of the Weird Tales, that also was a major influence on the great Sword & Sorcery masters. While today people are using props from Lovecraft’s inventory mostly without much thought as mere big monsters (though some notable exceptions exist), the original idea of the truly inexplicable and unknowable that has no interest in you but will mercilessly destroy you in the most horrific ways if you don’t get out of its way, still has a huge amount of potential. One that I believe really fits well together with a wild and untamed world of adventure and mystic warriors who are trying to protect it from outbreaks of supernatural evil. The Dark Side is bad, but I think you can expand it into a realm of horror that goes to a wholy different level.
Another thing that makes the warped wastelands appeal to me in particular is my long interest existential philosophy, astronomy, and ecology. During my classes in university I came to notice that throughout all the dominant schools of thought about the nature of things and the world, the human soul is put at the very center. It all deals with explaining why the human soul is special and how everything else in existence is defined in relation to it. And it’s about the human soul specifically, not the human as a whole. The human body seems to be universally regarded as either a nuisance or an outright threat to the real potential of the soul. The body is always a bad thing the soul needs to get rid of or at least overcome. In the words of Yoda: “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.” But in existentialist thought this postulation holds no water. Humans can’t be special in their essence, any specialness is attributed by human thinking alone. And when you look deeper into the greater field of astronomy, it becomes obvious that anything happening on Earth does not have any impact on anything in the bigger picture of space and time.
On the other hand, the modern world often has this romantic fantasy of the human mind being corrupted and that nature is pure and beautiful. This perception comes probably from the fact that most of us have never actually seen any actual nature. At least here in central Europe, all the seemingly natural places are basically well tended tree plantations. And even those we only visit for only a few hours at the most before we return to the comforts of civilizations, even if it’s in the form of a camping ground or the road network with its regular gas stations. Nature is neither pretty, nor nice. Everyone who is getting that impression is cherry picking from snapshots of mostly well crafted pieces of landscaping. The real wilderness is a horrible place of predation and disease. You can do pretty well in the wilderness for good amounts of time, but that’s mostly luck. The rest of the time it’s because we humans are deliberately altering our environment to greatly increase the odds of survivial and comfort in our own favor.
In the warped wasteland, all these things come together in a very nice way. It starts with the assumption that nature is doing its own thing and humans are simply along for the ride. They have some ability to manipulate it, but when you start breaking the rules of physics and biology even that quickly reaches its limits. You also often get creatures that are simply more powerful than people, even with their tools and weapons, which puts them into higher spots in the food chain. People have to make do in a world in which they are not the masters but simply one player in the middle among many. In Kaendor, the real masters are the spirits, which can basically do what they want and don’t care for people anymore than they do for any other kinds of animals.
And there’s even already an important transformation to this act of combination. While I described these works as warped wastelands, it is in fact the oppposite that is true in Kaendor. The unpredictable strangeness is the natural way of things. The spirits are in control and they generally pay no heed to the wishes and desires of mortals. It is the small patches of relative calm and stability in which people build their city states that are the anomaly. These are created either by the favor of a powerful spirit that has taken mercy on mortals in return for their worship and sacrifices, or are the work of powerful and dangerous sorcery. Enforcing stability on nature is unnatural and fiddling with it without really understanding it has a huge potential for disaster. And they are also temporary. A couple of hundreds or even thousands of years are more than enough to create a prosperous city state, but it is not forever. When the chaos returns and agriculture is no longer sustainable, the people have to abandon their homes and search for new places that can serve as temporary sancturaries for civilization. I had this idea years ago for an RPG as an explanation of why there are so many magical ruins if there is no great past civilization that fell and turned the world into a lesser age, but I quickly realized that it also has a great amount of potential as a background environment for much more complex and introspective fiction.
I hope that this helped to some degree in giving a better picture of what I am trying to do with Kaendor and not only made things more confusing. Or at the very least, raised some additional curiosity of what the final result would look like.
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