Monday, November 27, 2017

The Old Ways

Sometimes I get asked why I write Sword & Sorcery, and why I have this whole blog dedicated to it. There seems to be a pervasive idea that S&S is essentially a juvenile medium, wallowing in sexist tropes and quasi-racist archetypes that are only acceptable in light of the time period when the genre was created. The thinking is that Sword & Sorcery fiction is outdated, and is like Sword & Planet or Edisonades – a relic of a bygone era, doomed to niche appeal to only a small audience of enthusiasts.

Obviously, I don’t feel that way or I wouldn’t be here. I am often frustrated by the wider public view of Sword & Sorcery as an immature genre that began and ended with Conan the Barbarian, and is not allowed to grow and change. I even find a lot of fans fall into this mindset, seeing the old works as the best, and not allowing as much room for new innovations or directions.

Fans are, of course, allowed to like what they like. I myself have a shelf full of Howard collections, owning damned near everything the man ever wrote several times over. I have my shelf of Moorcock and Lovecraft and Burroughs and Brackett and Moore and Leiber – all the greats of the old days have a place on my shelf. I am as guilty as anyone of preferring the old ways.

But the very success of the style in the early years worked against it. After all, S&S started out as a pulp genre, and pulp it remains even today. You can dress it up all you like, but the genre deals in violence, iron-muscled heroes, and black-hearted villains. It lives on pulp tropes, and you can’t really change that without making it into something else.

Pulp gets a bad rep these days. The association is that pulp means “juvenile” when really, it was never a genre aimed at younger readers, it was rather seen as more lurid and intended for adult readers who liked action and excitement. Pulp is vivid and intense by nature. It can use subtlety, but that’s not its main strength. It stands in opposition to the slower, talkier high fantasies that got more mainstream respect out of the gate. Not that it is their enemy, but they are both doing very different kinds of things.

So rather than wonder if a pulp genre has any place in the modern landscape of genre literature, we should stop treating “pulp” like a dirty word. Plenty of stuff is pulp, but just stopped calling itself that because of the associations with trash literature. Star Wars is pulpy as hell, Superhero movies are pulp, crime shows like Breaking Bad are pulp. Pretty much 90% of all horror stories and movies are pulp, and so are romances. Pulp means vividly giving the readers what you know they want, and certain kinds of creators and critics hate it.

There was something in screenwriting that William Goldman called “The RX Factor”, and by that he meant that a movie had a leg up on awards if it was seen as “good for you” - in other words, a movie that Teaches You Lessons or makes you think Deep Thoughts or is About The Human Condition. There is a deep impulse in the American psyche that feels like the arts should always be to elevate and improve people, not just for fun.

And yet pulp is supposed to be fun, first and foremost. Pulp is about gratification. About giving you what you are here for, and there’s a cleanliness and a purity to that. It’s not about subtle lessons, or commentaries on the human condition or politics or any of that. It may address those things – because writers put themselves and the things they believe into their stories – but they are not the reason it is here. Pulp is here to fucking entertain you.

Once Sword & Sorcery was tarred with the pulp brush it never got free of it, and all subsequent works were therefore dismissed out of hand as not “real” literature. The clinging to the old masters has done a lot to make this worse, and it is kind of an uphill battle for new creators to make a name when a lot of the potential audience is just here for the stuff they already know they like.

I believe that S&S can be more than it has been, and there is plenty of room for the genre to grow and evolve without losing sight of what it is here for and what it does. I don’t mean that it should stop being pulp, I just think we should be unafraid to say it is pulp and that we like it that way. We should not bastardize S&S by trying to make it “respectable”, but rather find out all the things we can do with it while still keeping it bloody and fierce. Sword & Sorcery should never be ashamed of what it is.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Emperor of Night

There was no day, here at the utter north of the world, in among snow-blanketed hillsides and evergreen forests. This was the cold land where the Old Empire was born when Druanu rose to become a hero of his people, and now he returned to this place a shadow of himself, driven by powers he could not overcome, and the swordmaker’s daughter followed him, with a horned helm and a blade made all of fire.

Shan waded through the deeps of the snow, following the path of blackened footfalls as it wound through the deeps of the valleys. The trees closed in overhead, and she was shielded from the baleful glow of the sky fires as she made her weary way. The sword warmed her flesh, but her heart was cold, her spirit worn and hollow from the deaths she had seen and encompassed to reach this place. She was tired down into her bones, yet she would not turn aside.

She entered a valley that stood silent and undisturbed beneath the blazing sky, and she saw the entrance marked by pillars of stone. They were ancient and worn, but they still bore the mark of the craft of man. Beyond the gateway was a place of hollow hills, and she knew she now entered the great secret of the Karkahd people, the ground they had lived and died to defend for a thousand years. This was the valley of tombs.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Sword and the Planet

In the lineage of Sword & Sorcery, the most immediate ancestor is not quite adventure fiction, nor horror – it is, rather, a genre that was huge when S&S was born and raged for another quarter century before it began to fade, and today is little more than a nostalgic blip on the Fantasy radar. I am talking, of course, about Sword & Planet.

Obviously named of a piece with Cloak & Dagger, Sword & Sandal, and Sword & Sorcery, Sword & Planet was an outgrowth of the kind of stuff that is sometimes called Planetary Romance, and which also led to the rise of genuine Science Fiction. In the late 1800s the market for adventure fiction was growing even as the blank spaces on the map were shrinking. Knowledge of the other planets was expanding around the same time, and it all was kicked into high gear by astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1878.

Schiaparelli got some good looks as Mars through his telescope and described some features he saw as “canali” - which in Italian just means “channels”, but in translation this became “canals” in English, and people lost their collective shit over the idea. Nobody could see well enough to tell whether Mars had life or was even capable of supporting it, but the idea seized hold of the popular mind like a rabid badger. People started writing stories about Mars, life on Mars, and what that life might be like, a guy named Percival Lowell wrote a series of entirely speculative and very imaginative books about what life on Mars might be like, and the whole topic was very much in the public consciousness of the early 20th Century.

Enter Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote the genre-defining A Princess of Mars in 1912 (though it did not appear in book form until 1917, before that it was serialized in magazines). It was extremely popular, and was followed by not only ten sequels, but kicked off a whole wave of imitators who dominated up through the 1960s, and who continue even to this day.

The genre conventions of Sword & Planet were these: a male hero from Earth, usually the United States, who is a misfit in his own culture due to his code of honor and restless nature. He is transported somehow (S&P was not big on scientific explanations for anything) to another planet. This may be a planet in our own solar system, or may be a world unknown to the modern age – the location is not really important. On this world he finds humans who live in a barbaric society that he finds suits his temperament much better than our own safe and stultifying Earth.

There will be a woman – usually a princess or a queen – and the hero falls in love with her, but in order to win her he will have to impress her with his prowess, rescue her from multiple threats, monsters, and kidnappers, and often in the process save the entire world/kingdom with his sword-swinging derring-do.

Now it is true that there is a lot more Errol Flynn than Solomon Kane in most Sword & Planet adventures, but that does not mean the genre as a whole did not have an effect on the evolution of Sword & Sorcery. Both genres entail lone heroes who are more virile and badass than the people they encounter. Both take the reader to alien and fantastical worlds, and both entail a lot of solving problems with violence.

Imagery, in particular, is very similar between the genres. Ever since Burroughs decided to make Martians go around functionally naked, warriors in straps and loincloths and princesses in golden bikinis have been a staple of Sword & Planet art. Throw in the fact that the S&P hero will invariably be brandishing a sword in the face of some hideous monster and you are already almost there. The two major differences are that a S&P hero will sometimes also be waving some kind of gun around, and a Sword & Sorcry hero will be engaging in much more bloody levels of violence.

The literary differences are really ones of style and execution. A Sword & Sorcery hero will usually be a primitive from some almost stone-aged tribe, while a Sword & Planet hero will be a person from our modern age, able to explain things to us in a modern vernacular style. There will be no express magic in a Sword & Planet tale (though there may be super-science that mimics the effects of magic). The violence in a S&S story will be much bleaker and bloodier than the more PG-13 violence found in the Sword & Planet genre.

The real different aspect is the thread of Horror that runs through Sword & Sorcery. There will not be a whiff of Elder Gods or prehuman monstrosities in a genuine Sword & Planet story. Right now, writing that, I am thinking how cool that could be, but it would not be a proper story in the genre if you added those elements. Sword & Planet is almost always expressly hopeful, set in a world of black and white morality where the good guys always win. It has nothing like the moral grayness of Sword & Sorcery, with its grim landscapes and fatalistic heroes.

Sword & Planet was born in the early years of the 20th Century, but it remains very much a product of Victorian sensibilities and tropes, while Sword & Sorcery is much more modern to our eyes. It porytays a world without moral absolutes, where a man’s fate may be forged by his steel, but there is no assurance that he will win, or even that he is the hero.

The imagery and ideas of Sword & Planet fiction clearly had an influence on S&S, if not at the beginning, then later, as the genres evolved through the early 20th Century and then when both had a revival in the 60s. The loincloths and swords and monsters and exotic locations, the muscular heroes and scantily-clad heroines, the bright colors and lurid situations – all of it kind of grew together in this pulp-fueled mass, and yet they remain distinct genres because they are doing different things. Sword & Planet has modern heroes and lives in the light. Sword & Sorcery is in love with the primordial, the primitive, and will always dwell in the dark.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Ablaze in the Northern Sky

Alone, bearing a burning sword and a broken helm, Shan stumbled into the cold northlands under skies of winter fire. She left behind her betrayed followers and a burning city, and now she was no longer hunter, but prey. It would not be long before the Tyrant himself came following, his blighted pale wights ranging ahead like hounds, and they would run her to earth.

The land she passed through was low and cut by a hundred curling streams, the ground boggy and festering with limp grasses and pale fungi. She fought through the mire, staggering through the shallow, cold waters edged with ice. The stars blazed overhead like a fortune, and from the north, the uttermost dark at the limits of her sight, came the crawling, many-colored fire she had heard of in tales, but never dreamed she would see.

It hung in the sky like curtains of shifting blue and green, casting a phantom light over the world below, and she knew that in that demon glow her blood would look as black as the ichor of the fallen. Ahead of her she saw mountains looming against the night, their shoulders cloaked in deep forest, and she did not know where to go for what she sought. She remembered the words of Chona, the fallen princess, but she did not know her destination. She could not follow the Tyrant to his end; now he was at her heels.

All through the long night she looked back, seeking a sign of the pursuit. She saw nothing but dark, and though she knew the Tyrant would be heralded by his pillar of smoke and frost, still she imagined she would be ambushed in the dark, would see the pale legions closing on her, their black mouths open and hungry. She gripped her blade tight, and she knew if it came to that she would battle them to the last, but there were too many of them. They would drag her down, and they would kill her, and then she would feel the cold power coming in to animate her body. She wondered if the fallen were simply dead, or if they still remained trapped within their corpses, screaming inside for release.

She was staggering with exhaustion when daylight came, but the rising of the sun was feeble in this land, and it did not come high above the horizon, glowed weakly through the slate-gray clouds. From a world of dark she entered a world of half-light that gave no comfort or warmth. It was said that of old the Tyrant and his armies came from this land, where there was never day nor sunlight, where even summer was a season of ice.