Thoughts on evil in fantasy fiction

“Great People talk about ideas, small people talk about other people.” Tobias S Gibson, paraphrasing an old saying attributed Eleanor Roosevelt (Ideas > Events > People) or maybe even Socrates.

The days when Fantasy fiction limited its portrayal of villains and heroes to purely black and white are long gone. While unfathomable evil still has its place, and we all love our elder gods and zombies, these are rarely the enemies that take centre stage in modern works. Instead we might focus on the high priest who dooms the world by re-awakening great Cthulhu or the compound of survivors who do unspeakable things to others after the undead uprising. Partly this is the maturation of the genre: the language has solidified to and extent that it no longer needs lengthy exposition (one barely needs to define what a zombie, and orc, or a spell are any more). Perhaps more importantly, modern entertainment is fixated on characters over story and setting, arguably more than ever before. We like complex, rich, interesting characters, and while the elder gods and zombies are awesome and very popular they do not have the greatest “voice” when thrust centre stage as main characters (though some books do just that).

Of course the best works of modern fantasy manage to layer a more complex set of ideology and commentary above the character level. The clash of ideas is truly elevating and interesting, and can work with almost any tale in the hand of a skilled writer. Of course, some writers have no desire to move beyond Jersey Shore Fantasy, focusing entirely on characters who have little meaning behind the interactions. Myself, I like putting characters in situations where grand, crumbling systems and powerful influences lurking behind the action act as the true villains. Evil still has a place in even the most down to earth Fantasy fiction, even if it is only a shade darker than the protagonist.

Here are a few of the better versions of evil in modern Fantasy and my thoughts on them:

  • Evil is the unknowable outsider: It used to be that the outsider as evil was uncomfortably close to racism. Orcs, savages, and barbarians raiding civilized peoples occasionally strayed uncomfortably toward certain world views about closed borders and nationalism. Now the Orcs and Barbarians are more often the hero and the outsider is presented as something well beyond our understanding or ability to communicate with, such as zombies. The Zerg from Starcraft and the Tyranids from 40k, are other favoured examples of unknowable evils — these are forces more akin to sentient natural disasters than understandable beings. This trope works well, but as I noted above an evil that is unknowable is best used as a background element, since it is by definition hard to characterize in a compelling fashion. Its not a bad trope, as long as one does not stray into xenophobia.
  • Evil is what is at the bottom of the slippery slope that begins with selfishness: Extreme selfishness, the hoarding of vital resources, the taking of what belongs to others, disregard for life and freedom, and so on harkens back to the a more traditional view of evil. This view of evil is fairly simplistic, but still capable of nuance. A thief that steals bread, for example, is far better than a rich man who takes food from others to control them. Again, if well done, this sort of evil can avoid entering mustache twirling land, but I think the author would have to work in some views of how the society and systems create the conditions for this kind of selfishness for it to catch my interest.
  • Evil is the apathy/indifference of good men: Apathy is one of the great modern evils. In societies where everything is compartmentalized it is easy for everyone to deny personal responsibility. After all, if someone is being murdered, that is a matter for the police, right? Of course, the denial of responsibility was used as a defence for people who ran the death camps in the Holocaust. “Just following orders,” turned out to be a poor defence when complicit in genocide. This is one of my favourite evils, but understandably it is very, very hard to work this into a character driven fantasy narrative. For one, apathy and indifference are usually boring qualities for a protagonist and not exactly exiting as forces to fight against. More power to those who can actually make this idea of evil actually work in their novels.
  • Evil is the purposeful promotion of ignorance: (rant warning) I despise Fox News and, to a lesser extent, the other 24 hour cable news shows. These channels purposefully promote large scale ignorance in order to simply push their ratings higher. In world of complex, fun, entertaining media from books to computer games it is really difficult to fill a channel with meaningful news 24/7  and get viewers to tune in. The truth of things is that beyond our areas of interest most of us are only interested in the news, beyond staying informed, when something important is happening. To compensate the 24 hour news channels overinflate the importance of almost everything. The worst of them purposefully obscure the facts or outright lie to get ratings. The same is true with climate change deniers funded by oil billionaires, men paying to obscure the facts so that they can continue to reap record profits. There are more examples everywhere, but the central idea here is that the people who promote great ignorance for their own ends are doing something evil. This is an idea I love seeing explored in genre fiction, because we can remove it from the hyper-politicization that characterizes modern discourse on most subjects, and examine the consequences of promotion of ignorance in an of itself.

In general, I think evil in modern Fantasy should remain on the idea level, influencing the actions of the characters. Characters who are evil personified are too simplistic for the most part, and readers who want complex characters are unsatisfied by that kind of characters, be they villain or hero.

The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Blade Breaker 1.32

On Thursdays I hone my writing skills with a little serial, raw and uncut. Gather round, gather round, tis time to let Ragnar and his pack loose upon the city of Myrrhn!

If you want to start at the beginning click this link, and follow the links in comments to read along.

If you missed last week’s chapter, here it is.

“A trap that summons an elemental?” I said. “Who would be able to make something like that?”

“There are at least a hundred elemental craftsmen of that skill level registered in the city,” said Murith. “We try to keep close tabs on them. I don’t see a makers mark on the ring though.”

“Not a legal sale then,” said Renoit. “That tells us something.”

“Can you persuade the watch to lend you a mystic analyst Murith?” I asked.

“Well this is a murder case, but I would hate to have to explain what we were doing with Madrinpo here,” said Murith, brows furrowing. “Besides, if they have compromised the Guild and the Doxies union, who is to say they don’t have agents in the watch.”

“I can get someone to look at it,” said Sildus.

It didn’t surprise me that the Guild had that capability; the Assassins of Myrrhn are the best for a reason, after all.

“How soon?” I asked.

“Tonight?” said Sildus, almost apologetically. Murith’s eyes widened. I imagined she was thinking how many cases she could solve with that kind of swift action on the Watch’s behalf. Sadly, that is not how Myrrhn worked.

“Very well,” I said. “I will meet up with you at the Inn of the Willing Wench tonight. For now we should disperse. I will help officer Murith with her statements regarding the demise of Priest Madrinpo. The rest of you should be on your guard, just in case.”

“Do you think we will be targets now?” said Renoit, trying to sound nonchalant. I could tell he was excited, however, at the prospect of being attacked. No doubt his house had some elaborate defences or he’d learned a new move he wanted to put to the test. Renoit needed to let himself out his cage more often.

“I expect so,” I said. “It might be prudent for everyone not directly protected to try to meet up with us tonight.”

<>

Sildus was waiting at the Inn of the Willing Wench by the time I made it there. Night was blanketing the city as I entered, signaling a change in the tenor of the place. The merchants and the more respectable people of the city flowed out of the streets, into the safety of their homes or well appointed places where one could enjoy the nightlife without fear of crossbow bolts, while everyone else who was unfortunate enough to be out after dark kept an eye on the shadows.

The Inn of the Willing Wench was a safe place. The owners had fought of several assaults over the place’s long history, and only a fool would attack it now. It was well known that they paid both The Guild and the largest of the Mercenary Companies based in Myrrhn to keep the Inn neutral. A wise business policy, if well beyond the means of most. Consequently the Inn was always busy, and ours was hardly the only group of schemers in the place.

I was especially delighted to see a sinuous form draped around one of the massive spits rotating around a well-tended fire pit. Coilers, a form of enormous aquatic constrictor oft mistaken for a true sea serpent, are a common source of meat in the North, but a delicacy in Myrrhn. I helped my self to a heaping plate, smiling broadly as I greeted the waitresses and cooks.

Sildus tracked me through the room. I took my time, in case anyone was watching, before sitting down with him in a booth concealed in an alcove.

“Did you get any weapons past the doormen?” I asked.

Sildus smiled. “I didn’t need to. The room is full of weapons already. I would say that the policy of taking weapons at the door benefits me more than anyone.”

“True, I suppose,” I said between mouthfuls of serpent. The sauce, blueberry and blue cheese, was excellent. I generally prefer my meat unadorned, but this was a glorious addition.

“Are you interested in what I learned?” asked Sildus.

“I am,” I said. “But I figured that you aren’t the type who likes repeating himself. Murith is on her way, and I expect Git and perhaps Renoit will join us as well.”

“Yes. I did not want to be rude earlier, but is he… that… Renoit?” asked Sildus.

“Probably,” I said.

“You have interesting friends, Nordan,” said Sildus.

Just then Murith appeared at our table. She looked upset. Git and Renoit were with her.

Before I could even invite her to sit down, Murith said, “Ragnar, we have a problem.”

On Recommending Fantasy Books.

Recommendations?

Recommendations?

It used to be that Fantasy was a much narrower, and smaller, Genre. I could get away with recommending my personal favourite fantasy novels and not have to worry about leaving someone out. If someone didn’t like one of Tolkien, Moorcock, Fritz Lieber, Ursula K. Le Guin, or whatever you might be reading at the time, they probably would not be spending much time with the genre.

Since I started reading, fantasy has exploded as a genre, forming distinct sub-genres, mating with others genres, and branching out beyond medieval and classical world backgrounds. What this means is that people have far more to choose from, and I feel that I can no longer safely recommend just what I enjoy.

Fandom is a strange beast. A true fan often feels so passionately about their favourite obsession, that they will recommend it to everyone. As an author this works to my benefit, since word of mouth drives sales, and more importantly it refreshes me when I talk to people really enjoy my work. However, not every work is for every person. This is a difficult lesson to learn for some. When I was young, I simply assumed that people who did not like what I liked were lacking in some fashion. I liken it to pop culture in high school: people who have not developed their own personal sense of taste enough tend to gravitate toward the popular. This later acts a springboard into more specific likes. One might start with Justin Bieber or Britney Spears and end at Mozart, Led Zeppelin, and/or Sinatra. Not a perfect view of the process, but you get the idea.

True fans often forget that others do not have the same tastes as they do. You might absolutely love and understand every little bit about The Gardens of the Moon, or The Name of The Wind and defend them to the hilt, but they are not for everyone. People who don’t like what I like are not (necessarily) deficient: they simply have their own tastes. Fantasy is now diverse enough as a genre to accommodate a diverse readership, some with very different tastes. So how does one go about recommending a book without being boorish? Here are a few suggestions.

Simple Suggestions:

  • Recommend my book: I had to try.
  • Recommend your favourites, but qualify: If you are really enthusiastic about a book, by all means recommend it. Just don’t force it on someone. Don’t tell them they have to read it if they like the genre. Instead tell them why you like the book. Don’t go into too much detail, but try to capture the essence of what you think makes the book good. Are the characters interesting? is the plot engaging? is the World-Building especially good? that sort of stuff. While you are discussing the book, the listener will pick up on clues and keywords on their own and see if your description matches with their tastes.
  • Dot not attack their tastes: Often I see people putting down books, games, and other media that they dislike in order to promote what they like. This is a sales technique, and a fairly tacky one as far as I am concerned. If you are recommending to someone, and you care about being polite, don’t slap them down by saying your tastes are better than yours. Try to make your recommendation in a positive fashion.

Complex Method (step by step):

  1. Find out what books they enjoy: This is my preferred method of recommendation. These days fantasy is such a rich genre than you can usually recommend books based on similarity to other books. Even if those books are outside the genre, I can often recommend based on similarity to sub-genres of fantasy. For example fans of thrillers are more likely to enjoy the Dresden Files than Tolkien, at least to start.
  2. Delve deeper: Find out what the person likes about their favourite works. Do they enjoy strong, upright, moral characters, or do they favour assassins and bastards? Do they like a particular historical time period? are they looking for action or intrigue? Do they want a book with Dragons or Zombies?
  3. Find out what got them interested in Fantasy: Some people may not have book interests that can be easily related to fantasy, for these you have to discover what sparked their interest in the genre. Some will come from games, while others might have watched Game of Thrones on TV. Once you have established this you can go through steps 1 and 2 again.
  4. Remember that you live in the information age: There are plenty of helpful sites and lists out there that will help you find the right book for someone. Amazon has an also-bought recommendation section, Good reads has listopia, and so on. These can spark  your imagination if your are having difficulty.
  5. If they are new and nervous, start with something simple: Don’t throw Gormenghast at people new to the genre,, who are just looking to test the waters, it will only discourage them.

Above all, remember that the genre is big and growing, and with that diversity it is more and more likely that you will find something suitable and maybe even discover a new book that you might like along the way.

The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Blade Breaker 1.31

Once again, tis time to visit the cobbled streets and dark alleys of Myrrhn, following the adventures of Ragnar Grimfang, Twiceborn exile.

This is a serial, if you are new to it, start here and follow the links in the comment section of the post.

If you missed last week’s episode, I am happy to link it to you!

The Priest looked at me, wide eyed, then back to Sildus. If he were a true Devout,  I expected that he would have attacked immediately, regardless of the obvious outcome; the Devout were a powerful force, but ultimately brought down by their reliance of brute force and attack, even when it was ill advised. Priest Madrinpo looked frightened: he obviously knew something, but he was not one of them. What then, was the connection?

The sound of the water cascading from the fountains soothed me, banishing the images of Sapphire, Bjorn, and Crimson Wind for the moment. Priest Madrinpo was obviously already terrified of Sildus; I needed to give him the impression that I was willing to cut a deal with him, that I was the reasonable one. Perhaps not the best role for me to play, but we were improvising. I took my hands off my weapons and sat down on the bench opposite Madrinpo. With Git and Murith standing guard, the isolated area between the fountains may as well have been an alcove in the Obsidian Tower. I was confident that we would not be overheard by passersby.

“I saw the look in your eyes when I mentioned Sapphire and Crimson Wind Madrinpo,” I said. “I saw you at your funeral. I know about the Devout. Tell me how you are involved in all of this and perhaps I will let you walk away.”

“They will kill me Northman,” said Madrinpo. “They will kill us all.”

“If you don’t talk, I am going to teach my friend here the throat screw,” I said, referring to a gruesome method of execution used in Sirutiran lands. “He is Sapphire’s former lover, you know? We might die, but you will die screaming, assuming you can draw breath past all the blood.”

If there is one part of deception I am skilled at, it is threats. Besides, I think Sildus was seriously considering the idea. The assassin’s eyes were bright and hard, like a hawk before the kill. Madrinpo’s eyes went wider as he looked between us. He didn’t seem as brave as I expected a Sirutiran Priest would be. After a moment, he looked down.

“The Devout are here, in the city,” said Madrinpo. “They are posing as followers of Kamesin Greeneyes as cover. They were trying to recruit Sapphire to get to her sister and her clients. They recruited Crimson Wind to get to Madame Glorianna. They want to start a war in the city. They have found something under the city, something–“

Water rose like a tidal wave crashing down on Madrinpo and Sildus before I could clear my chair. The assassin reacted with characteristic swiftness, hurling three little blades as he moved, but his attacks merely passed through the water. As I stood the liquid began to force itself down their throats. Madrinpo’s eyes bulged.

“ELEMENTAL!” I shouted, pushing my hand into the water, reaching for Madrinpo and Sildus.

Renoit leapt over the fountain behind the elemental, his rapier slashing through the water. I stood my ground, growling, as a glistening pseudopod of solid water slammed into my head, reaching into the water. One would think that being smashed by a watery limb wouldn’t hurt, but it felt like a blow from a solid oak branch. Murith ran forward, grabbing my belt to brace me. I felt her strength added to mine as my fingers contacted something in the slippery depths.

“Ragnar, I can kill it!” said Git, excitedly, pulling a  charge of powder from his belt. “You need to get them out!”

“I’m trying…” I said, grunting. Then, just as I felt a strong grip clasp my hand, the Pseudopod’s shadow fell over me again.

“No so fast, villain!” said Renoit. leaping over the elemental, slashing the Pseudopod with is Rapier. It was enough to distract the beast and I heaved, muttering a little prayer to Magni for strength.

“Now Git!” shouted Murith, hauling me back, inch my inch.

Git tore open the powder charge and tossed the contents into the elemental. I roared and shouted, pulling with all my might. I was quacking with strain and fighting for inches when suddenly resistance ceased and I fell to the ground.

The elemental wavered, turning a weird shade of green, then brown. It moved toward’s git, who stood his ground, fumbling for another charge. Then with a shudder, the elemental simply collapsed into a puddle of foul smelling brown goo.

“Good word Git,” I said.

Murith was helping Sildus, who was on his hands and knees, spitting up water and blood. Madrinpo was dead. Judging from the blood and grey matter leaking from his nose and mouth, the elemental had done more than try to drown him. His face was frozen in terror. I shivered at the thought.

“I don’t see anyone nearby,” said Renoit. “I don’t think more than a dozen people even noticed we were being attacked. I saw no sign of any assailant.”

“Good,” I said, looking down at Madrinpo.

All ascended can sense a little magic. Looking closely I saw that one of his rings was active. I picked it up and handed it to Git. The goblin turned it over in his fingers for a moment.

“Its a trap,” said Git. “It looks like it was enchanted to summon an elemental nearby when he spoke or was about to speak a certain keyword. Whoever he was dealing with did not want him to talk.”

Classic Villains: Jack the Ripper.

A Political Cartoon about the Ripper, circa 1888

A Political Cartoon about the Ripper, circa 1888

I am not a huge fan of fantasy murder mysteries, unless the murder works alongside/into a larger plot. I feel that this is because much of the focus of more modern mysteries is on the procedure and police-work, which would not work well with medieval notions of justice. Part of the true brilliance of Game of Thrones is in how a certain Stark follows a path very similar to the modern police/rational detective stories but is violently derailed by the notions of medieval justice and a very medieval crime; it is Mr Martins way of driving home, very effectively, that modern notions of justice, fairness, and law do not apply in his world.

Meanwhile it is hard to find a killer that holds up well to the scale of fantasy, or the magic. What are mere criminals compared to the likes of Smaug, Elric, The Bloody Nine, Conan, or Arya Stark? Only a few killers seem worthy of a fantasy stage, which usually deals with a grander scale and more spectacular action scenes.

One real world killer who fits the bill is Jack the Ripper who holds still inspires a macabre fascination, even over a hundred twenty years after his crimes. Just today I was shown an article about how they finally, potentially, sort of, may have “solved” the mystery with DNA evidence (link). The Ripper murders make for very compelling modern fantasy fare, and the Ripper himself would make an excellent villain in a fantasy novel with little allowance. Here are a few reasons why:

1) The Ripper is Bloody: Modern fantasy tends to be fairly violent, and the Ripper murders fit right in with this trend. Grisly evisceration, performed with surgical precision in some cases, was the hallmark of the Ripper. The Ripper was, above all, brutal, which makes for a good villain in any genre.

2) The Ripper preyed on Prostitutes: Modern fantasy, at times, seems obsessed with prostitutes, particularly those who work the streets and who lead troubled lives. As a villain you could do far worse a person who preys upon unfortunate women who are forced to sell themselves to survive. The connection between poverty and street prostitution is pretty clear, and a villain who preys on the poor hits home in days of growing inequality. Score that for the Ripper as a good villain.

  • Interestingly enough the cartoon that I included at the beginning of this post comes from a period piece trying how Jack the Ripper was symbolic of the “social neglect” problems surrounding places like Whitechapel. Some feel the Ripper murders helped galvanize support for early social justice movements. They certainly shone a light on the seedy underbelly of they city.

3) The Supernatural Element: The Ripper was never caught, and over time, his abilities and prowess became exaggerated to the point that supernatural traits and great skill were attributed to the killer. Partly this is because forensics at the time were still iffy — many of the coroners and investigators could not agree on the man’s surgical skills or which victims were his. The list of suspects was also enormous, all with varied skills and reason. Eventually all of this got packed in and blended into a legendary character who grew larger than life. A legendary murderer makes for an excellent fantasy villain, one that may require epic means to track down and confront.

4) The Taunting Letters: A letter, with part of a Kidney was sent to the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. The letter is often assumed to be a hoax in modern times, but became a canonical part of the Ripper’s character. Taunting the police is a frequent trope in serial killer stories, and certainly would not go amiss in in a fantasy novel. However, it would be much better to add an interesting twist, such as a duel of wits a la Moriarty, or perhaps something magical like a necromantic Ripper animating his victims and sending them to carry the letters to the watch (I may do this for my next Shadow Wolf saga).

5) The Missing Organs: Several of the Ripper’s victims were missing organs. At the time this fact led to both scientific theories, and occult theories. The occult view lends itself well to Fantasy. What if the Ripper is a powerful sorcerer out harvesting ingredients for a particularly nasty spell?

6) Politics: Several of the Ripper theories have taken the view that the murderer was never caught because of his political connections. Some even point to a Royal connection. This is perfect fodder for a Fantasy villain, of course. Imagine, the Queen’s son, a Necromancer, stalking the downtrodden, with royal agents covering his tracks to prevent embarrassment…

The Ripper character fits so well as a modern fantasy villain that I am surprised that he is not mined for inspiration for more often. Of course it may also be that mainstream fantasy is currently dominated by books where the hero is essentially a Jack the Ripper type, a cloaked figure with strange powers who kills with impunity from the shadows.

The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Blade Breaker 1.30

Once again it is time to prowl the shadowy streets of Myrrhn with Ragnar and his pack.

This is a serial story, start here and follow the links in the comments!

Missed last week’s post? here it is!

Sildus joined us without ceremony as we crossed the ancient stone bridge onto the isle of pillars.  He simply appeared out of one of Myrrhns many alleys, letting us see him before crossing the street to join us. Dressed in grey, black, and brown leathers with a small hood hanging back past his shoulders he could have almost passed for a traveler. Certainly he did not stand out next to any of us, we were armed and armoured, which does attract some attention in Myrrhn.

I nodded to him and made introductions, then casually explained what I had learned.

“But what would the Devout want with Sapphire, or Madame Glorianna for that matter?” asked Sildus.

“I’m not certain yet,” I said. “They may have killed Sapphire simply to make it look like you killed Bjorn, which would bring The Guild into conflict with my people. Perhaps the want to weaken the city for an attack, or maybe they want to take advantage of the chaos. I just don’t know.”

“The plan does seem to be unusually subtle for the Devout,” said Git. “We are discussing the same group that actually managed to get Dragmaar, the Verdant Court, the Nordan Confederation, and the Thraxian Empire to ally against them.”

“Not to mention ten other nations,” added Renoit. “Including my beloved Loragons.”

“They’ve been humbled,” I said. “Even fanatics can find pragmatism in the face of extinction sometimes. Besides, that the Devout are behind this is only a guess. We do know that the priest of Kamesin Greeneyes is a common link however. We need to find out what he knows.”

The bridge to Isle of Pillars was one of the oldest structures in Myrrhn, far older than most of the buildings in Old Myrrhn, strange as that may sound. It was thin and delicate looking, made of fitted stone and covered by a strange ivy that did not eat away the rock anchoring it. Historians say that the bridge was built by the Aven in the age of legends. It contributed to the feeling that Myrrhn was eternal, Empires came and went, but the city just grew and changed keepers.

As the religious centre of the city, the only place, in fact, that one could build a temple or shrine to any religion, the Isle of Pillars was a chaotic jumble of architecture and culture. Monolithic temples to the Sun Deity of Caemoulia and the Seven Powers of Thrax stood in stark contrast to simple shrines the gods of lesser nations or simpler faiths. I was not familiar with many of the faiths represented in the crowds. I did not visit Pillars very often. Not many Nordan do.

A reliable informant, Murith’s, not mine, had given us directions to the temple of Kamesin Greeneyes and informed us of the priest’s schedule. We made our way as directly and subtly as we could.

The Temple of Kamesin Greeneyes was an enormous hide tent, the kind that a truly successful Sirutiran Warlord would reside in. The entrance flap was open, but two Sword-Brides flanked it. As we approached I made eyes at Git and Sildus who both melted into the crowd.

With Murith and Renoit flanking me, I marched directly to the entrance, stopping when I was within weapon’s reach of the Sword Brides who were now measuring my every move.

“I am Ragnar Grimfang, Twiceborn, known in deed and song,” I said. “I am here to see speak with Priest Madrinpo.”

One Sword Bride, hand on the hilt of one of her Kiyaris, leaned into the the tent and spoke a few words in what I assumed was Sirutiran. A gravely voice answered. The Sword Bride turned to me.

“We have sent for him,” she said, looking at me directly in the aye. “You must wait for him here.”

We waited. The Sword Brides stood resolutely. A woman passed into the tent. A man passed out out. Time stretched into minutes. Murith and I shifted uncomfortable on our feet, while Renoit stood as still as the Sword Brides.

After some time Git appeared at the end of the street. He nodded to me. I nearly smiled, before turning back to the Sword Brides.

“I am out of time,” I said. “Please convey my apologies to Priest Madrinpo when you find him. He will know how to contact me.”

Once we were out of sight, Git joined us, leading us to a lovely fountain dedicated to Saint Chloe of Archaea, all crystal, and silver with elegant waterflows.  There, sitting on one of the benches was a grinning Sildus with a worried looking man beside him. I smiled. Sildus and Git had been waiting to grab anyone who seemed to be fleeing: the worried looking man was our priest.

“It worked,” said Murith.

“It was a good plan,” I said. “They always run if you let them.”

I looked around. Sildus had chosen the fountain well. It was loud enough that eavesdropping would be difficult, and the bench he sat on was hidden from view on three sides. I turned to the priest.

“Priest Madrinpo, I am here on behalf of Sapphire and Crimson Wind,” I said. The images of two bodies flashed through my mind. “I hope you can explain a few things to me.”

Geek Chic, E-Sports, Gamer Communities, and Confidence.

It has been an interesting month to be a Geek. D&D 5th edition surged into the spotlight, leading a large number of luminaries to out themselves as D&D players in various new publications. Gencon, a convention that revolves around RPGs and other very geeky pursuits set record attendance yet again this year. The international, a tournament for DOTA2 boasted an prize pool of over a million dollars this week, while its competitor, League of Legends apparently averages a daily user base of over 65 million people. Oh, and did I mention how almost all of this year’s blockbusters will be based on Geeky fare such as Comic Books, Fantasy Books, and Kaiju?

Geek Culture in all its myriad forms seems to be on the rise in our times. It is a little baffling for someone whose hobbies were a bit of a stigma growing up to see billion dollar fantasy movies competing with comic book franchises to crowd out old school action flicks. That discussion has been done to death, however, and is something that I hope the new generation of geeks, gamers, and fiction fans can avoid.

Sadly this month also saw the whole “Social Justice Warriors” vs. “Men’s Rights Advocates” debate in the gaming community, triggered by an Indy game developer possibly using sex to influence some game journalists. True or not, the whole debate became a colossal flame war that spread out of control and led to a lot of hurt feelings. Geek culture has always had a problem with women and inclusiveness. Geeks are intelligent, but often obsessive about their particular domains. I still remember the vicious wars that erupted in my University Games Club pitting D&D against World of Darkness or Tabletop versus Larp. Don’t even get me started on the Gamist, Naritivists, Simulationist flame wars. The trekkies versus star wars fans are perhaps the most famous example. Today these debates are mostly settled, and thankfully incomprehensible to outsiders, but the reflex that triggered them remains.

Geeks are very protective of  their little piece of culture, even if that piece of culture is an enormous multi-billion dollar industry with millions of fans. This leads to vitriolic clashes as passionate gamers defend anyone and anything who tries to force what they love to change. This may seem reactionary to outsiders who want to try something new or developers who want to put a new spin on an old game, but I still remember when D&D had to change Demons and Devils to Tanar’ri and Baatezu to avoid frantic associations with satanism in the Reagan years. Hell, some of the newer players tell me that D&D still gets banned in some of the local high schools. You would have trouble finding a less harmful past-time, but some people still feel the need to persecute what they see as weird. That these are increasingly in the minority as Geek Chic takes off does not erase the years having to defend our hobbies that many of us lived through. Here are a few cogent examples:

Mazes and monsters: A movie about a group of kids who take their game-playing too far. One of them goes insane and causes a great deal of trouble. Sounds pretty silly… but it stars Tom Hanks

Mass Shooting, Must be Video Games!: This still goes on. Instead of talking about mental health, or limiting the access of dangerous people to dangerous weapons, even a little, almost every time there is a mass shooting in the US, someone brings up video games. It is an ongoing controversy, manufactured by the same fearmongers who gave us the Iraq War.

Some of these are very recent, especially concerns leveled against video games. This creates a defensive mentality in the group and causes them to lash out against perceived threats.

This becomes a huge problem when the reaction extends to an expansion of the medium. We have all seen how a strong core group that resists outside influence vehemently can rot from the inside, becoming increasingly frantic and vitriolic as they man the walls against those who would taint the purity of what they love. New people and new ideas are required to keep geek culture fresh and interesting. The problem is that the worst proponents of these new ideas, even something as benign as gender inclusiveness, frame their criticism as an attack. Fans who are already wary of their beloved medium being beaten up on Fox News often react… stupidly.

What Geek Culture needs now is confidence. The confidence to grow, confidence to include everyone and covert new people, and most of all the confidence to face criticism with an open mind. Everyone will benefit as our space grows more inclusive and incorporates better ideas, aside from a very few to whom any sort of progress is seen as anathema. Here are a few things that need to change.

  • Fake Geek Girl shaming (and Fake Geek Guy shaming): This is just juvenile. It reminds me of the idiotic purity tests that some political organizations adopt to protect themselves from dirty, dirty outsiders. Not to mention that many, many women are very fluent in geek culture, and contributors to geek culture these days. Assuming that women, especially “attractive” women are automatically faking their interest in geek stuff is not only sexist and rude, it demonstrates a frightening lack of confidence in the allure of the culture you love. It reflects poorly on Geek Culture when we hound/chase people away because of their gender, appearance, or identity.
  • Flame Wars and Trolling spiraling out of control: I don’t support Aneeta Sarkesian. I do think she deserves to be heard. I think threatening her with rape, dismemberment, and death is rather crazy. Language that is used to taunt your opponents after a game seems insane to outsiders. It reflects very poorly on Geek Culture as a whole when a woman receives ranting threats and has to leave her house. When you disagree with someone, put your brain power to use and attack their ideas instead of posting where they live or threatening them.
    • Sub-Point: We need to be nicer to each other in general. The communities in most games, especially the forums, have a distressing habit of becoming toxic these days. Riot has done some interesting research on how to stop the viciousness in some games, but we need to be more sportsman-like.
  • Mentor, don’t act superior: In general I find that Geeks tend to use their knowledge as a way of finding their place on the social ladder of geek culture. Instead of sharing and educating a few of us will hoard knowledge and then use it to show our superiority over people who know less than us about our area of interest. This is silly. Why not impress people with your lore and skills by helping them instead? The thing is as geek culture grows, there will be a steady supply of new fans who want to learn what you know. Think of them as your students…