The Influence of Dune

I was thinking about Dune recently.

Dune is one of my favourite books (also movies, even though they are so different). It is one of the few great works of genre fiction that so many subsequent authors draw from that somehow manages to seem cohesive and powerful even today.

Dune remains an unfinished series for me. I loved Dune Messiah, but was disappointed by Children of Dune. I have not had the heart to continue on into the series, despite most people saying it gets better.

Even as a standalone book, Frank Herbert’s Dune is impressive, dealing with topics that we are grappling with even now, in grand fashion.

  • Extractivism: Dune has strong overtones of the age of industry, with the primary driver of conflict in the book being a resource of incredible scarcity and potence: spice. Control of the planet is vital to the Emperor and all of humanity since the spice is the basis of interstellar travel.
  • Fanaticism: In Dune and Dune Messiah, the religious, tribal fanaticism of the Fremen is presented as a potent force. Despite everything man has learned and accomplished, it is the power of his irrational impulses and prejudices that produces the greatest fears. Sound familiar?
  • Automation and AI: In Dune you read in passing of the Butlerian Jihad, a great religious upheaval against thinking machines and robots of all kinds. The Jihad rids known space of AI and sentient machines, but also sets humanity back into a kind of dark age. While Herbert’s view of automation and machines was often repeated in later scifi, his replacements for machinery in the genetic coding of the Bene Gesserit and things like the human computers known as mentats were very inventive. Star Wars has sentient robots but they fight wars like they are in the 1970’s and seems to indicate that they change very little of everyday life, Dune tackles these changes head on and builds a more cohesive universe.
  • Transhumanism: Cloning, genetic modification, and outright shedding of one’s humanity figure deeply into Dune from the beginning. Herbert toys with the idea of prophecy heralding a certain needed sequence of genetics in Paul (or Leto II) and muses on the idea of clones and a human being becoming something else through technology or symbiosis. This is a surprisingly modern idea.

This along with the culture clashes, the philosophy and the deep politics of the series have made it stand out in my mind.


Shades of Obsession & Steampunk Themes: What Fantasy Writers Can Learn From Bloodborne

Madman's Knowledge. an item from Bloodborne

Madman’s Knowledge. an item from Bloodborne

Last Sunday, I waxed poetic about Bloodborne in my review of the game. Today I am going to relate that to genre fiction, and Steampunk in general.

My view of Steampunk is that. as we move away from the industrial age and into the information age, it will become more and more popular. Bloodborne represents From Software’s foray into Steampunk/Industrial age fantasy, and I feel it is a smashing success. The company was previously known for the Demons Souls/Dark Souls series, which is medieval and high fantasy.

Bloodborne takes place in Yharnam, a rambling gothic city with magnificent skyline full of cathedrals and high towers. The lower streets are, of course, choked with debris and narrow, but the heights of the city, when you get to them, are magnificent and definitely not medieval. Only the Church, the old sections of the town, and a few other places hint at the feudal age from which the place must have grown.

The weapons and attire in Bloodborne also speak of the industrial age, as well as to older traditions. Alongside axes and swords we have various forms of firearms, and even some reminiscent of the late medieval combination weapons like a gun spear and a pistol/rapier combination weapon. The guns are generally wielded in the off-hand and are used both offensively and defensively to interrupt and stagger enemies, while the main hand melee weapons do most of the damage.

When I first started playing games the idea of a gun being used as a secondary weapon would have induced seas of foaming nerdrage. People just didn’t like mixing guns and fantasy back then, and when they did they often felt the need to show the primacy of the gun. I blame that scene in the first Indiana Jones where Harrison Ford is confronted by a scimitar wielding fanatic, who pulls of an amazing kata, and just shoots the guy. In Fantasy guys with swords coexist with guys with magic, so guns must be better than magic too, right? That attitude has eroded over the years, thankfully, and we now see guns treated more or less as any other weapon and even see enchanted guns cropping up more and more.

The monsters in Bloodborne are also drawn from industrial age sources. Vampires, werewolves, and things that would be at home in the tales of the brothers Grim or Lovecraft seem to be the primary inspirations for the creature’s visuals, although they are all tied together by a common thread, thematically. Instead of a knight facing dragons and orcs, you take the role of a hunter cleansing a city of monsters, acting as a kind of pest control really.

But you all know about that, I expect. Sreampunk is on the rise as Fantasy expends and becomes more popular. Bloodborne has many of the cool trappings of Steampunk, but what does it do so well that can we learn from it for our games and writing?

  • The Clash Between Reason and Mysticism: We can frequently see this in modern society, unfortunately, but in previous centuries this was a deep and abiding battle. Galileo was condemned for “vehement suspicion of heresy” and spent the last decade of his life under house arrest.  Darwin was even more vilified then than he is today. The Church was a real political power in the early parts of the industrial age, it was fading compared to its dominance in the feudal age, but it still had real strength. Bloodeborne does an admirable job of showing the clash between mysticism and science as the clerics of Yharnam and the various schools of thought that grow up around the study of blood clash in the background and backstory.
  • Resource Based Themes: The Industrial age is deeply concerned with the exploitation of natural resources, almost in the same way that the feudal age was concerned with land and agriculture. In Bloodborne the resource in question, the trade on which the Town of Yharnam was founded is the Healing Blood. The Healing Blood is a substance that can cure disease and give long life. It has many other miraculous properties that one can discover in the game, and many theories have developed around it. Like any good industrial age story, the resource being exploited also has flaws. You discover fairly quickly that the Healing Blood has the side effect of turning people who use it into monsters when the moon is full. [SPOILER] Ultimately you discover that the Healing Blood is basically taken from a Lovecraft-like entity that was discovered below the city, and that some see the side effects as evolutionary instead of monstrous. Reminds me of the mixed blessings of oil, coal, nuclear power, and so on.
  • Obsession and the quest for Knowledge: While the clerics of Yharnam and the scholars often seem at odds, they have many things in common. Most importantly they nearly always seem to end up as victims of their various obsessions. This is the deepest theme of Bloodborne and one that is pulled off brilliantly. Often these days I see scientists or mystics portrayed as bumbling idiots who cannot but help to go too far, because too much knowledge is bad mmmmkay? Jurassic Park, Age of Ultron, and Ex Machina from this year all leap to mind as having plots that are driven by people who seek knowledge and cause havoc by doing so. Bloodborne also has this, in spades, but the player is also a knowledge seeker and the game treads the razor edge and condemns obsession over curiosity and love of knowledge, which is a much more accurate view. The endings of the game conform to this theme very nicely.

Paradigm Shift: Systems, Change, and Fantasy

We live in fascinating times: we are experiencing impressive changes in technology that will shape our lives and our future. I am going to use one of these shifts to illustrate how paradigm shifts can be a wonderful source of conflict in genre fiction, focusing on Fantasy.

Oil is the keystone of the industrial economy. It seems obvious to any forward looking person, however, that oil will be knocked off its pedestal by renewable energy sources within a decade or two. At this point the same people denying that oil is facing a serious challenge are the same people who deny climate change, mostly for the same reasons.

However, oil has been so important for so long that whole systems have sprung up around it. Oil not only dominates the energy industry, it has a huge amount of influence on the automotive industry, construction, the air industry, and so on. Just watch the fluctuations on various stocks when the price of oil changes. Here in Canada we have become so closely tied to oil that when the price of oil drops the TSX often drops with it, and the valuation of the Loonie seems tied to it. Meanwhile if the price of oil drops stock in airlines will often go up, for example, as they save more fuel costs.

With this kind of importance oil and oil companies have a lot of power. Many people argue that certain recent wars have been fought mostly at the behest of oil interests, and even if you disagree, you have to admit that the idea of wars fought over oil sound plausible. They are the sort of conflict that could easily replace good vs evil in a fantasy novel , but more on that later.

Entities with a great deal of power will use that power to put down threats to that power. The transition away from an oil based economy is as inevitable as the transition from a primarily paper based workplace to a digital one. Oil won’t cease to be used, but it will no longer be nearly as important. Obviously this is a problem to anyone who is heavily invested in that lovely black stuff. This is why we see have seen so many seemingly stupid, misguided attempts in recent years to shut down renewable energy. People who have a vested interest in oil are trying to prevent rooftop solar from gaining popularity, for example, and are willing to pay large sums of money to politicians to do so. This bleeds over into other sectors as well. Gasoline is a big boon to the oil industry, so suddenly electric cars become a political target, after all if you can charge a vehicle with energy from solar or wind then that takes a big bite out of the demand for oil.

The most interesting, and ugly, use of the power that the systems built around oil have accumulated is in the twin dismissals of climate change and concerns over oil spills and pipelines. People are being paid to lie, change laws, and enhance the profits of an enormous industry which is doing serious damage to the environment, possibly on a very large scale. Rather than sit back and examine it, the industry seems determined to use short term political power to preserve its dominance. If you look at it properly, it all sounds very human, like a rich king trying to keep his throne at all costs even as the clamour for democratic reform reaches a fever pitch.

With those points in mind it is very easy to see how a paradigm shift over something as seemingly banal as oil can ignite conflicts that can easily power a compelling narrative. The best part is, in a Fantasy novel, the author can illustrate these changes without stepping on any political toes and offending readers or tailor the paradigm shift directly to the story he wants to tell.

Anyone who has read my works knows that I enjoy using magic as a metaphor for power. So let’s replace oil with magic. Imagine, for example, that a certain type of magic has risen to pre-eminence, but it is somehow limited to a small number of people. Heredity would be a good example of this. If magic is passed down only through certain bloodlines, then it is easy to see how those bloodlines would become a sort of feudal nobility by default, especially if magic is powerful. Those bloodlines would wield a tremendous amount of influence, even beyond the power that they possess.

  • The magical nobility would likely treat non magic-users as second class citizens.
  • Magical dynasties would make sure to control the destiny of the bloodline. It would be bad for one of their young to marry someone without magic and thus dilute the line. Arranged marriages are almost certain, while breeding programs are not out of the question.
  • The power structure of each nation would be based around the family, again similar to feudal societies.

So lets say that our mages have set up a kind of republic, with only those with magic allowed into achieve full citizenship. To avoid the standard medieval feudal setting we have our mages meet in some kind of senate, where only they are allowed to vote. Each family vies against the others for control, and they all more or less ignore the non magical plebs or use them as pawns.

Then one day, someone discovers that fashioning a staff out of a certain kind of wood and topping it with a certain kind of crystal will allow anyone to use certain kinds of magical effects.

  • We decide that this type of magic is less powerful, but just about anyone can use it.
  • The wood and the crystal are common enough that this type of magic spreads quickly, but not so common that it becomes ubiquitous or can’t be controlled.

The reaction of the magical nobility, and the conflicts that followed would be interesting. Here are a few thoughts on what this paradigm shift would cause.

  • The magical aristocracy would likely first try to make the staves illegal and hunt down anyone who knows how to make them.
  • If the magical aristocracy was powerful enough they might try to take over the sources of crystal and wood. There would be a huge black market for these items and they would inevitably become available.
  • People would become less reliant on the mages. This would lead to them wanting more say in their government.
  • Cracking down on this new form of magic could make even the most loved of the magical nobility into villains in the eyes of the people.
  • Someone would eventually form an army of staff wielding soldiers. This would create whole new forms of warfare.
  • Places where the staffs become commonplace would have a better of quality of life than the others, setting off even more desire for reform in places where they aren’t.

Acting to preserve one’s own power is not inherently evil, but as things shift conflict occurs, and those who resist an inevitable change can become more and more desperate to hold on to their beloved source of power and influence. This can easily lead to an excavating series of oppressive and evil actions that could make a wonderful plot for a fantasy series.

Saruman with staff

Revolutions, Rebellions, and Modern Fantasy.

It is a pressure that builds, explodes, and then carries everyone along with it.

It is a pressure that builds, explodes, and then carries everyone along with it.

I am a big fan of the subject of Revolution. The modern era began with a series of political revolutions, from the enlightenment to the American and French revolutions. The rule of kings, despots, emperors, and Theocrats was wiped away — not completely, of course, but pretty convincingly.

For some time Fantasy seemed to shy away from the subject of Revolution. Rebellion, yes, but serious social upheaval, struggle, and reform? no bloody likely. There are several reason for this in my mind. The first is that revolution is generally associated with urbanization, which is something that the early authors of the genre either had trouble selling or simply shied away from (with notable exceptions). Another is that for a revolution to ring true it cannot be cast as a black and white events. A rebellion casting down a Dark Lord is not a revolution, it is a myth, an uprising, a tale of justice being done, and rebels fighting the good fight. A revolution is a bloody, ugly affair that pits the old guard against reformer and forces everyone to either takes sides or take shelter. A revolution is a brutal, deeply human affair that pits the followers of one paradigm against another, and often leads to great upheaval and tragedy even for the winners. The complexity and brutality of a revolution requires a writer to lovingly create a society, one that has merits as well as flaws, to ring true and then to add stresses to it until it explodes.

Recently, however, Fantasy authors have begun to tackle the idea of revolution. China Mieville’s Bas Lag series and Brian McLellans Powder Mage trilogy leap to mind, although there are many others. Personally, I think that much of this willingness to tackle mire difficult ideas comes from the broader readership that Fantasy has. With a more developed, larger readership, writers can afford to be more daring in seeking out their niche. We live in an age where Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and A Song of Ice and Fire have all seen huge success.

Here are a few ideas about revolution in fantasy.

  • The underprivileged against the privileged: Revolutions are about grievances. Generally this involves an underclass, or more likely underclasses, that are systematically underprivileged. Basically something about the society that they live in prevents them from enjoying and participating fully in that society. Racism and poverty are obvious examples, but they key word here is systematically. If a monarch is racist and is overthrown and replaced with a better monarch as a result, that is a rebellion. If the monarchy itself is based on a racist code, and the whole monarchy is thrown out it is a revolution.
  • Democracy, when it works, is a series of little revolutions: Currently in the West, we have a lot of democratic malaise. This has a fair bit to do with the machinery of politics, especially things like gerrymandering, lobbyists, and secret trade deals. These all help keep the powerful in power, even when the people think that they are doing a poor job of it. Democracy is always rough, but when it does work you can trace the ideas gaining and losing favour (and sometime gaining favour again) as a nation moves forward. These changes are like small revolutions in my mind.
  • The desire for reform is a pressure: Reform  and change are word that you often hear in politics. Even the establishment candidates pay lip service to change and reform. On the surface this just feeds cynicism, but on a deeper level when a real reform is needed that pressure will keep building. Some societies, like Democracies are able to deflate that pressure a little by piecing out reform and giving people a say, but when reform is resisted long enough that pressure builds to an explosive level.
  • Revolutions are causal, but unpredictable: While we can understand the pressure behind a revolution, no one really understands why they often coalesce around a single event, like the match thrown into a powderkeg. One minute everything is under control, at least on the surface, and then the next people are in the street and things are happening at a speed that people often cant quite grasp. How does a centuries old system of Feudalism disintegrate in less than a year?
  • Revolutions are about ideas and systems: We are all familiar with the Robespierres, the Georgre Washingtons, and the Che Gueveras; the great larger than life heroes and villains that are the faces of a Revolution. But the heart of every revolution is an idea. Unfortunately, ideas usually work very well on paper, but can fray a little when expose dto reality. Hence the need for a system to implement that idea — No taxation without representation thus gives way to a constitution which defines a Government, which can amend and interpret the laws of a nation and so on.
  • There are two sides in every Revolution: As a writer I think it is imperative to define both sides of the Revolution. The privileged and the strong have their own narratives and the system that supports them has to have some merit or it would not exist longer than the rule of one strong family.  Modern Fantasy loves a complex identifiable villain and heroes that are not especially clean cut. A proper revolution delivers this in spades as it quickly becomes an event with a life of its own, with characters we can understand and perhaps even sympathize with on both sides.It is a pressure that builds, explodes, and then carries everyone along with it.

Disease in Fantasy

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all. – Edgar Allan Poe, The Masque of the Red Death

I have an annoying cold today, which, along with an episode of Vikings, inspired tonight’s topic.

Most of us who enjoy the benefits of modern civilization cannot quite fathom the  impact that disease once had. Disease has done far more to hold the human population in check throughout history than war. Times of plague could shape an entire narrative in a Fantasy world, especially when superstition and the politics of ignorance come into play.

The black death is perhaps the most famous of ancient diseases. It is best know for ravaging Europe, peaking in ~1350, a brutal time that is well recorded, but current theories have it originating  in the east and travelling along the silk road, the great east-west trade route that loosely tied Europe, the Middle East. the Orient, and Africa together. It reduced the world population from ~450 million to 375 million or lower, with a fatality rate of 30% or more at this time. Other outbreaks were reported, including a period in the middle of the eighth century that may have been just as bad. These are just general figures, but we don’t need to be exact to see how such an occurrence could be the centerpiece of a work of fiction.

In men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg…From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous. As the gavocciolo had been and still was an infallible token of approaching death, such also were these spots on whomsoever they showed themselves. — The famous quotation from Giovanni Bocaccio’s Decameron about the symptoms of the black death.

The Black Death had several interesting consequences. Naturally fanatics bloomed in many areas that suffered, seeking to blame the spread of the disease on whatever local group most offended them, feeling that the disease must have a divine origin. While it is a sad comment on human fallibility that these acts became common, this sort of madness makes great fodder for stories. The plague his some nations much harder than others, greatly changing the balance of power. It also hit cities harder than rural areas, changing that balance as well.

Disease is underused in Fantasy. My favorite use of diseases in Fantasy, excluding diseases that make you awesome like vampirism or lycanthropy, and zombie based diseases, are found in the Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind especially. What I liked about these were the weird varieties of diseases that your character could encounter, each with its own symptoms and origins. Of course the fact that a simple potion or spell could rid you of most of them, made it less than arduous, but it was a nice touch. Many older tabletop RPGs had extensive lists of diseases, some of which could be the subjects of great quests to find cures.

Here are a few ideas to consider when using disease in a Fantasy setting:

  • What is the nature of your plague? Is the disease fatal, or just crippling in some way? Is it passed by fleas on rats, brought back by soldiers on crusade, or the result of the vicious spells of an insane cult? Is death quick or grim, blissful or horrific? In a way the disease is like a character in your work and should reflect the mood and themes you are trying to convey. The bubonic plague works much better for Grimdark than for a more pastoral fantasy.
  • How will people react to the disease? The emotional response of the characters to the disease is important to the story, and the attitude of groups and nations  to the disease is a key part of world building in a plague ridden setting. If fanatics lash out and blame, who will be there targets? If your world has visible, active Gods, what role do they and their priests play in the cycle of plague? What happens if the disease only targets elves? these are all rich considerations for story material.
  • How will the disease change how people live? If the population of the world dropped by half in a short period of time, things would change. Settlements and cities would shrink or be abandoned. Labour shortages could cause problems, but also create a rise in opportunity for those lucky enough to survive.
  • How will the disease alter the power structures? Some groups will use every opportunity that comes their way. If a kingdom is weakened by plague, another might decide to invade (which could, amusingly, increase the spread of the disease). A nation or guild might decide that keeping the cure to themselves is the key to power. Essentially you need to decide what changes the disease will bring to institutions as well as to individuals.
  • How will fantastic elements interact with the disease? How does the disease interact with magic in your world. If wizards hold the only cure they might become very popular and very powerful, but also make enemies. What happens if the disease interacts or changes magic somehow? The possibilities here are endless, but you should consider what effects the plague will have on the more unique and unesual elements of your world as well.

Corruption and the villainy of systems: how every hero who lives long enough becomes a monster…

It was done for our own good, at least initially...

It was done for our own good, at least initially…

I believe in entropy, not only as a half-understood (by me :P) scientific concept, but also as a metaphorical construct.

Every thing that exists in the world, no matter how pure and close to perfection, is subject to change. Every ideology, no matter how well it is thought out, frays a little when it leaves theory and enters practice. This is probably not absolute, especially when dealing with simple ideas or easily observable phenomena, but when dealing with complex structures like modern institutions, economics, warfare and so on — it seems to me that those who possess absolute certainty  are always proven fools in the end. This is why I support science and democracy, which both admit that getting things right is an ongoing and problematic process, and very much subject to change and refinement.

I have frequently written about how ideologies and systems can be seen as villainous on this blog, turning a person who could otherwise be seen as good into a monster. Javert from Les Miserables is perhaps my favourite example of this, but it can be seen in Fantasy as well. Sauron’s obsession with order and control could have been a good thing at one point. King Arthur’s quest for the rule of law over the rule of might starts off well, but gives us Mordred, the Knight who follows all the laws openly and is thus protected by them, even though he is obviously rotten. These characters are all introduced as villains, however, what about characters who begin as heroes and are made villainous by the systems they support?

I have often seen this in real life. We invest a great deal of time in the ideas we believe in and the relationships that we build. Sometimes it can be difficult for us to admit when something that we love or believe in becomes flawed. Politics is the obvious example, only the most callous hack or foolish dupe would be unable to point to examples of corruption in the party they last voted for. But that is an easy and cynical observation, hardly worth a story these days. What about a respected family member who is doing something wrong? or an organization that a person has helped build that needs to be defended? These do not have simple answers and make for epic conflicts.

A personal example would be my forays into writing. I am an avid reader. I follow many authors and even count myself as a fan of several publishing companies, especially those who brought my favorite genres to the fore. I am, however, a self-published writer. This puts me at odds with some people who I once saw as great, almost heroic figures. A few traditional authors who benefit from the current system are naturally drawn to defend it, and some go too far in their resistance to change. It puts me in the interesting position of seeing how people who I admire can end up being my enemies.  It is particularly crushing to see some authors and critics violently attack all self-published works. It does, however, give me ideas.

A more fantastical example would be the Trojan war. Fate and the machinations of the Gods aside, it is Priams and Hector’s love for Paris that dooms their city. If they had promptly returned Menelaus wife to him and negotiated a suitable punishment for their thieving son, would Troy have survived? Probably not, but you can see how it would have robbed the Greeks of the moral high ground that  they used to launch and sustain their invasion. Ten years away from home is a long time to fight without a cause you believe in. Of course that would have required Priam and Hector to go against their own family. Few of us are so in love with justice that we would not have done the same.

There is the seed of a simple and great Fantasy story in the idea of a hero turned to villainy through their support of a system.

1) Loyalty to the Crown: Loyalty is a virtue. But what about the Hero who gives their loyal support to someone unworthy. The Samurai who serves a lord who is cruel, or a knight who is loyal to a corrupted church are excellent villains if written with sensitivity.

2) Old Prejudices: The orcs were once dire enemies of the free peoples. People who killed orcs were considered heroes. But times have changed, and a man who became a hero acting on his hatred of orcs now becomes a villain for acting on the same impulses that made him famous. Any race, ethnicity, or creed could be substituted for orcs. The idea is that the inability to swallow that enmity makes a hero a villain.

3) Changing Circumstances: The virtues that once made you great do not always hold. The founder of a great kingdom might be a hero during war and conquest, but turn out to be a terrible ruler in peacetime. A revolutionary who overcomes a great evil could turn out to be a tyrant in the end. A man who drags himself from the gutter with nothing but ambition and wit often becomes dangerous if he assumes that everyone can do the same and persecutes them if they don’t.

4) Traditions: Over time, traditions that once made perfect sense can become burdensome and downright oppressive. We all know that a suggestion to act modestly written in a holy book can be used by a zealot as an excuse for murder. But what about less obvious choices? Dragons may once have been the scourge of all, but at what point does a noble dragonslayer become a maniac bent on the genocide of a sentient race?

5) The Nature of Power: Power corrupts… why? because those who wish to retain power must often work to enforce their office. Even those who want to give up that power might find it difficult to do so. A man who has power has enemies, and those enemies may not feel benevolently inclined even if you give up that power. Power thus becomes an end unto itself, turning even a heroic reformer into a potential monster…

A final modern example is the NSA. They spy to prevent terrorism. We cannot know what they are doing because that would tip off the people that they are spying on. It is easy to see how those goo intentions have led to the current debacle, where those who protect us are arguably far more dangerous to our liberty that those who they are protecting us from. It is not to hard to take this basic idea and turn it into a great fantasy story!

The Survival Dynamic: Zombies, Shipwrecks, and Magical Apocalypses

It works just as well for a Fantasy series…

My Domains of the Chosen Series takes place in an Empire that has risen from the ashes after a magical disaster called the Reckoning, caused by the fallout of an all-out war between the world’s greatest magic users, has warped the fabric of the world and reality itself. One of the most common story requests that I receive is for tales that take place during or just after the cataclysm. You see, in my books, while the disaster still effects the psychology of  the Domains and taints the land outside of the Domains, it is a settled, historical event. It lacks the survival dynamic of a running apocalypse or sudden catastrophe.

The survival dynamic is a cute shorthand for all of the drama that can occur in disasters, cataclysms and other traumatic upheavals, big and small. The characters are thrown out of their comfort zones as the normal social orders are eroded or outright removed and replaced with more primal concerns like food, shelter, and not being eaten by hungry Zombies. Here a some thoughts on what the survival dynamic can bring to a fantasy story.

1) The simplicity of survival: everyone, instinctively at least, understands survival. People often talk about what they would bring if they were stranded on a desert island, or with shocking frequency these days — what their plan to survive the zombie apocalypse would be. Because we all understand it, or think we do at any rate, survival is an easily accessible hook for almost any genre. It is nearly procedural following the simple needs of safety (getting away from danger), finding food and water, finding shelter, and contacting other survivors. It is a great starting point for many types of stories, and works just as well for a fantasy.

2) Lawlessness: Whether society collapses or the characters are merely temporarily isolated from it, lawlessness is a big part of the survival dynamic. In many kinds of disaster the temporary disruption of the institutions that modern life are built around such as the courts, the police, banks, the power grid, and international trade compound the problem. The whole premise of classic books like Lord of the Flies is built around the reactions of characters who can no longer rely on institutional authority and law, and the pitfalls of creating a new social order. The idea is that that without social norms, some people become monstrous, This has become a rather big theme in zombie games, shows, and movies where the human survivors are more dangerous than the undead. The walking dead tagline “fight the dead, fear the living.” is a good example of this.

3) Moral Dilemma?: The survival dynamic does place characters in interesting dilemmas, pitting morality against the needs of survival. Food and resources are scarce, other survivors may be liabilities that endanger the main character and so on. Personally I feel the negative aspects moral dilemmas of survival are a little overplayed at this point. Generally, only a truly heroic character or a fool will sacrifice themselves for morality and I’m tired of cynical writers hammering this home as if to say we are all bad people at heart. I’d love to see something more uplifting where a grizzled survivor type takes a risk to help others and is actually rewarded instead of doomed by their kind actions. I know, i know… I’m getting soft.

4) Tabula Rasa: Eventually the successful survivors will start again. In small scale disasters they will have to re-adjust to societal norms that may seem wrong to them now. In large scale disasters they may have to start society anew.  Removal from society and history as a result of the survival dynamic allows the writer to experiment with what happens when the survivors adjust to the new paradigm and get around to rebuilding. This is a very exciting field of writing, especially if the author follows closely to the logic of the situation. As a reader I just love series where characters cobble together new social norms and grow civilizations from a disaster organically. This goes double if the series starts with the cataclysm and follows through uninterrupted.

5) Scaling, from epic to personal: interestingly, the survival dynamic works just as well in large scale tales like a worldwide zombie apocalypse to smaller, more personal stories like that of shipwrecked pirates on a monster infested island. This scaling allows writers to choose their focus, or even vary it over the course of a series.

So what kinds of survival dynamics can be created in Fantasy? I can think of a few…

1) The usual:  Cataclysms, shipwrecks, and Zombie invasions all work just as well in fantasy. The elements of magic and the wondrous do allow the author to tackle it from a different direction. Robinson Crusoe would be way different if the island was home to the ancient elven ruins, and the Walking Dead would have an entirely different feel if necromancy was in the mix…

2) The magical disaster: something changes the way that magic works, and everything gets messed up as a result. In my favourite published RPG, Earthdawn, a rising tide of magic allows monstrous beings called horrors to cross into the world from the astral plane and survive. The people are forced to build magical shelters and try to wait until the magic ebbs enough for most of the horrors to dissipate. In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time the male half of the power gets tainted, which drives most male magic users insane.

3) Divine intervention: Several fantasy settings I have enjoyed have involved distasters that were cause by divine wrath or are cause by a war between the gods. The main difference here is the anthropomorphic element of the disaster and the reaction to it. The characters have to factor in the will of the divinity into the disaster to survive and prosper. Love it or hate it, the Left Behind series is a good example of this; the survivors must also deal with the will of God. Variations of this can include the waking of the ancients, dragons razing society, and so on.

4) Revolution: There is even a case for revolution, perhaps the most modern of upheavals, as a survival dynamic. A revolution can be just as destructive as any other form of cataclysm, but is entirely man made… The difficulty is in dealing with the politics of revolution.

However the writer chooses to use the survival dynamic, it is as compelling for Fantasy fans as it is for any other genre. I mean, really look what Zombies have done for westerns…

Yeah, I’m saying it is a Western.