Fantasy Tropes & Theory: Oaths in The Domains of The Chosen

The idea of the oath, promise, or word of honour is prevalent has been prevalent in Fantasy fiction for some time. The roots of these oaths are the divine promises of mythology and religion as well as the deep bonds of faith and trust required in feudal societies. The old idea of oaths might seem naive to the modern sensibility, especially in a world full of phishing, misinformation, and purposeful double-speak, but it is worth noting that honesty and keeping promises are still big issues with North American voters — and that they are punishing ‘establishment’ candidates because of this.

I circumvent the idea of a verbal contract in the Domains of the Chosen with magical oaths. The basic rundown of these oaths is that if they are broken, something bad happens to the oathbreaker, similar to the sword of Damocles. These binding oaths are part of the very foundation of the Domains, the glue that binds the Chosen to the Covenant, the Warbound to the Legions, and so on. Here is the oath sworn by the new Chosen in Bloodlust: Will to Power.

A million citizens gave voice to the Oath along with them.

“I give my oath to serve and protect the city of Krass,”…Power flowed

“I give my oath to defend the citizens of Krass,”…into Gavin and Sadira

“I give my oath to obey the laws of the people,”…and through them

“I give my oath to act to prevent The Reckoning,”… gentle, but irresistible

“I give my blood to seal this oath, freely in good faith,”…like the tide

“My oath is my honour, and my honour my life,”… scouring them

“I am Chosen, I serve!”… and binding them.

And that’s that, all of the Chosen get along well, magically compelled to follow the oath, and the series ends right there, right?

Astute readers noticed early on that the Oath is based on the interpretation of the Oathbound. What Chosen Moltar thinks is good for the Domains and necessary for their protection is very likely different than what Gavin or Sadira thinks. Their actions in the book flow from these interpretations.

Even more astute readers may have noticed a different reference to Oaths, mentioned in passing in a conversation between Gavin and his father, and how a powerful oath might take precedence over another.

I began to examine these ideas in Bloodlust: Red Glory and Bloodlust: The Blades of Khazak Khrim. Blackcloak Sax, a surprisingly popular character, is placed on the trail of a conspiracy that led to the death of a popular Gladiatrix in Red Glory, which leads him to a nest of heretics that almost kills him in Frostbay. Unable to get to the root of the heresy, he calls on aid.

In my next work in the series, Bloodlust: The Roots of Ruin (Or maybe Bloodlust: Oathbreakers), I gather more of these disparate threads. Oaths, lies, and loyalties are revealed and tested. It will be awesome, of course. Better than cats.

The idea is that a promise can be twisted, even a magical one. We see that all the time in real life. The problem is that with magic (or a supposed divine agency) backing up an oath, fewer people will expect those covenants to be perverted than they would a mundane verbal contract, creating a vulnerability than the clever can exploit.

Advertisements

Thoughts on the Canadian Election

This is political, and not directly related to writing or fantasy in general.

We had an interesting election here in Canada this Tuesday. A man who has held power for over almost a decade and has been an influence on Canadian politics for even longer has been defeated resoundingly, even taking losses in places where he was though to be invulnerable.

stephen-harper1

Stephen Harper

Harper was a conservative’s conservative. His greatest accomplishments were political, uniting the fragmented Canadian right wing which was lost in the wilderness after many years of Liberal rule and leading them to power. If the CPC survives his defeat then he deserves credit for that, at least. He, along with his media allies, are also responsible for the crushing defeat of the Liberal party, their longtime rivals. At one point the party was declared dead, losing even official opposition status as Harper’s CPC trampled them into the dirt. This led to the rise of the NDP, my favoured party, which captured official opposition status.

Mulcair and Layton

Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair

Jack Layton was a popular figure in Canadian politics. He died from Cancer in 2011, and was succeeded by Tom Mulcair, who led the party this election. The NDP kept the faith for left leaning political junkies like myself after the Liberals were beaten down. Layton was much loved, engineering the NDPs highest seat total ever, and a hard act for Mulcair to follow. And then there’s Justin Trudeau:

justin-trudeau-20141112

Justin Trudeau

Trudeau was the last great hope for the Liberals and the worst nightmare of the Conservatives, who hated his father, a popular prime-minister (But not popular in all of the country, of course). He came on strong at first, weathering the CPC media assault as only someone who has been under media scrutiny his entire life can. He seemed to stumble a year before the election, but ended up convincing the people of Canada that he was the best choice to unseat Stephen Harper, showing great acumen in defeating opponents who led him for most of the race.

Here are some salient points about the Canadian Election

The Lead Up

  • A year before the election the CPC were on shaky ground. A scandal broke out over the way the Prime Minister’s Office handled one Mike Duffy, a CPC senate appointee. Stephen Harper gave contradictory testimony in question period and his credibility dipped.
  • Then ISIS became an international sensation, which coincided with a series of attacks in Canada that left two soldiers dead, and an assailant shot dead in parliament. Security is a conservative strongpoint and so PM Harper immediately took control. He introduced bill C-51, which is Canada’s version of the patriot act, which Trudeau signed on and Mulcair opposed. He also introduced C-24, which received less attention, but was kind of a big deal as well (we will get to that later)
  • Mulcair stood firm against C-51. This was his proudest moment. He was initially hammered in the media (which usually ignores the NDP), but as Canadians examined the bill he ended up looking better and better for opposing such a knee jerk reactionary, monstrous bull. Eventually he took the lead in polls. Meanwhile Trudeau and his liberals looked weak for not opposing the bill, essentially for political reasons and dropped to their lowest point in years. Harper strengthened his base, and readied to attack the NDP.

The Campaign

  • Harper’s Strategy should be familiar to anyone who has seen a modern conservative campaign. Many of the bills he passed made it harder for people to vote. C-51 declared war on terrorists, which oddly enough also included people who harm the “economic interests” of Canada, which played to conservative fantasies of jailing hippies. C-24 literally introduced the idea of SECOND CLASS CITIZENS in Canada, which certainly nabbed the nationalist, anti-immigration vote. He was for oil, against renewable energy, muzzled scientists, and ignored a plee to start an inquiry into missing aboriginal women. Going into the election Harper had all the weapons he needed to win, despite being scandal ridden and unpopular, he just needed to deploy them properly.
  • Harper, using rules that he wrote, made the campaign longer to give the CPC opportunity to bring its deep coffers to bear.
  • Harper refused to engage in traditional debates at the CBC, opting for friendlier broadcasters where questions could be controlled. He strictly limited media access to himself and his candidates, showing unparalleled message control, but looking a little like a paranoid micro-manager at times.
  • Mulcair was riding high for most of the Campaign. Unfortunately for him, the traditional media are allergic to the NDP, and basically criticized him for anything they could. At one point they actually called him arrogant for running like a front-runner, when he was the front-runner. This is the cross the NDP must bear, and will bear until they get some media support of their own.
  • Trudeau seemed to flounder in the early days of the campaign. The conservatives bashed him constantly with ads noting how he was young and not ready to be PM (Harper was the same age when he became PM, with exactly the same amount of experience) and also a teacher (conservatives these days hate teachers, something about unions and lefty propaganda). He made some odd statements about running a deficit and growing the economy from the heart outwards that were roundly mocked by the media (but not by voters, which is key here)
  • The Conservatives engineered themselves several boosts during the midpoint of the campaign. A sudden budget surplus, which mas mostly smoke and mirrors (selling of assets and dipping into EI funds) gave them a boost among their base who really care about security, taxes, and the economy (except the jobs part).
  • A second boost came from new baby bonus cheques — these are the conservative strategy of ’boutique’ tax cuts meant to win them support with certain groups, essentially by bribing them with some sort of fiscal incentive. This is where Trudeau showed an acumen that really should have warned his opponents: he hopped in with Mulcair to show that the baby bonus was smoke and mirrors since it was taxable, but then he offered his own, better version of said bonus, tax-free, and aimed right at lower/middle income Canadians. (I think the line was “Ill cancel Stephen Harper’s baby bonus, which Tom Mulcair supports, and stop sending cheques to millionaires. I’ll use that money to give middle class families a bigger bonus, tax free.)
  • As the midway point was reached the media turned to the Duffy trial, which had proven to be an achilles heel for the conservatives before. The CPC was smashed and sunk to third in the polls. Harper looked finished, but he knew this was coming and had actually prepared.
  • As Harper sunk, Trudeau and Mulcair began to battle each other. Nobody really questionned why Trudeau was rising though, at least not in the coverage I watched.
  • As the Duffy trial became boring again, Harper deployed his secret weapon. It is pretty much confirmed that he hired Lynton Crosby, a monstrous asshole who engineers xenophobia into victory for conservative parties from australia to the UK. He started using words like “old stock canadians” in his speeches. He stripped a terrorist of citizenship using the powers given to him by C-24. Then he deployed his greatest weapon of the campaign — the Niqab.
  • The Niqab ‘debate’ was an example of dog-whistle politics. A woman wanted to wear her Niqab during part of an citizenship cerimony. She even offered to wear a wire so they knew she was saying the words and so on. But the press went into a frenzy of islamophobia. The CPC surged and the Duffy affair was forgotten as the Canadian election suddenly became about us versus them.
  • The NDP, which was strong in Quebec, was smashed as Mulcair stood his ground on the right of people to wear the Niqab. Unfortunately for the NDP, much of their strength came from the places where the anti-Niqab crowd was the most rabid. This was exactly what Harper wanted, and is actually a very astute, if incredibly ugly strategy when it comes down to it. Most Canadians were offended by the debate in the end, but with his base behind him 100% (all of the time, no matter what — as long as he wins) and his enemies splitting the remaining vote, Harper was withing striking distance of a minority Government.

The Grand Finale

  • The Last week was a frenzy of activity.
  • Voter turnout increased by a massive amount. (61% up to 68%, a huge jump)
  • First Nations leaders, angered at Harper’s refusal to call an inquiry about the missing aboriginal women, called on their people to vote en masse, creation an increase of 270% in first nations voters,
  • Some idiot dissed Atlantic Canada, saying that it had too few seats to matter.
  • To shore up support Harper held a rally with the Crack dealing and Crack smoking Ford brothers, conservative stalwarts.
  • Trudeau kept moving up. As the election day dawned most people thought he would get a majority. It turns out that he was constantly consulting voters and creating an appealing platform while trying to be as positive as possible (the Jack Layton strategy). He actually moved left of the NDP, who were too busy trying not to alienate people who thought they might be secret communists to notice (can you tell how much I hate the way our media portrays the NDP?). In the end he came out strongly against the Niqab ban, smashed C-24 as uncanadian, and even managed to seem like he might be ok on C-51 and the TPP. Canadians saw him as the clear alternative and rewarded him with a majority.
  • VISION mattered. Trudeau articulated a vision of Canada that brought people out to vote.
  • Jon Oliver delivered an awesome plea for Canadians not to vote Harper.
  • The American Media noticed that Trudeau was handsome.

Lessons Learned

  • The conservatives underestimated Trudeau and his team.
    • Trudeau is smarter then thy think he is: The Conservatives famously said during one debate that the bar for success for Trudeau is to show up with his pants on. While this is red meat to their base, who reveled in hating Trudeau, it seems that many of them believed it and were caught with their own pants down when he turned out to be more than just a pretty face.
    • Trudeau’s political team had a smart plan that involved Canadians in creating a winning platform. The slow and steady gains show that this was a winning strategy.
    • Conservatives will blame everyone under the sun for their loss, including maybe dear leader, but it might be time to rework the old platform. Trickle down and wedge politics is getting old, guys.
  • The NDP got hammered, yes, but their strategy going forward is much clearer,
    • Mulcair scored points on C-51 and opposing the TPP.
    • Tech leaders seemed attracted to the NDP because they opposed C-51 and the TPP, which harm the businesses of the future in favour of the current dominant interests. Marrying the NDPs socially progressive policies with innovative business support could be a winning platform.
    • Relying too heavily on one region (Quebec) was bad. Most of Canada is politically volatile. (see insulting Atlantic Canada)
    • The NDP needs a strong media ally.
  • Social Media mattered. Strategic voting was very strong in this election. People also showed up to early voting in crazy amounts and
  • Dog Whistle politics can win, but it can also backfire. Harper’s use of the Niqab to get back in the campaign after the Duffy Dip was sleazy, but cunning.
  • Trudeau and his advisers were much, much smarter than anyone thought, Their strategy was solid, building a platform that Canadians could love, and stealing NDP votes by leaning left while the NDP moved to the centre to rumble with the CPC.
  • Whoever pissed off Atlantic Canada should have kept their mouth shut. Having an entire region vote for a single party in every riding is usually reserved for conservatives. Atlantic Canada has now demonstrated just how important it is, politically. They can give support, and they are willing to take it away.
  • There were very few promises made by any side this campaign. I remember campaigns where politicians would come up with hundreds of promises. The new media makes that type of campaign a liability since people can track promises much more easily.
  • The Conservatives ran on their economic record. The finance minister lost his seat,
  • The Conservatives ran on their support for the troops. Canadian Veterans ran against them.
  • It is fucking stupid to call a gruelling, long, brutal campaign against a guy who is a decade younger than you and immune to attack ads. While Harper and Mulcair were tiring, Trudeau was hitting his stride.
  • Ultimately Canadians did not fall for the politics of division. Good for us.

Trump, Demagogues, Populists, and Fantasy Fiction

Demagogue 

:  a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power

:  a leader championing the cause of the common people in ancient times (from Merriam-Webster)

If you follow american politics, even a little, then you are aware that Donald Trump is RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT. Depending on your political inclinations you either find this awesome, scary, funny, or some combinations of similar emotions; I suspect there are very few people who have a neutral opinion of Mr. Trump.

The American pundit class, a huge group of people who churn out endless articles, opinion pieces, and TV shows that try to influence the world’s most powerful democracy have a love-hate relationship with Donald Trump. They love him because he is easy to write about and draws a large audience. They hate him because they have very little power over him.

Trump is one of the great Demagogues of capitalism. He may seem crass and tasteless, brash and ignorant, but to many he is a prophet of the real gods of our times: money. power, and fame. He has a large body of work advising people on how they can be like him (SUCCESSFUL!), and while his guidance might be dubious, it is something he has consistently pushed for the better part of three decades (Art of the Deal came out in 1987) and he has staked out that territory very loudly. The Trump name is synonymous with glitz, gold, and the gaudiest branding in the world.

What does Trump have to do with Fantasy Fiction you ask?

Well for one, heraldry might not be as gaudy as huge, golden “TRUMP” letters on the side of a building but it serves a very similar purpose from a times when literacy was very low. The trappings of the trump empire are very similar to the luxuries sought after by the nobility of old; we’ve just traded in the castles for magnificent glass towers and the garden for the gold green and country club. The gold, the glitz, and the heraldry are still there.

One large difference between Trump and a medieval nobleman, however, is that Trump not only puts his name on everything so that people recognize that it is his and he has power, but also because he wishes to reside in the public consciousness. Trump is very concerned with what the working and middle classes think of him, not because he is afraid of a peasant revolt like a wary noble, but because he understands the power of opinion in a democratic society. In fact, as a master of branding, Trump definitely understands that opinion can outweigh the truth.

Trump is a Demagogue. He would call himself a populist, a man of the people, and in some ways he is. He certainly seems to spend a lot of his time trying to tell people how to be successful. It is quite possible he genuinely believes that he is helping people and not just pretending to care in order to cash in on his brand and make more money. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he actually wants to help people be rich and successful like him. Does that make him a populist? yes, however, even genuine concern about the people does not stop him from being a Demagogue.

Demagogy relies on abusing information in order to provoke an emotional reaction and circumvent rational debate. It is very similar to branding in many ways. Here are a few examples of Trump using false factoids to stir up the people he is currently selling to (the Republican base), just from this past week.

  • There are 93 million unemployed people in America. (The population of the US is 321 million, and that includes people who aren’t looking for work.)
  • The US is the most highly taxed nation in the civilized world. (What?)
  • There are 32 million illegal immigrants in the US. (WTF? 1 in every 10 people in the US is an illegal O.o)

These claims are easily verifiable as not true. But the people Trump is aiming his comments at are willing to take these comments on faith. They fear illegal immigration and everyone hates taxes and is terrified of unemployment. Trump confidently exclaims that he has THE BEST SOLUTIONS and moves on. When someone tries to poke a hole in his plans or call his ideas into question he insults them and moves on. The modern pundit class uses these same techniques, so they know what he is doing, but their business model isn’t based on the truth or good journalism so they don’t really have an easy counter for Trump. Trump appeals to the same visceral emotions that they have been using to sell their work for years. Cynical and well-informed people can see right through the man, but they aren’t his target audience and he knows it. And this brings me back to Fantasy Fiction.

Modern fantasy often scoffs at brash, larger than life villains as much as it does with heroes. And yet in Trump we have someone who often seems like a caricature of a man mining a deep vein of resentment and anger in order to gain power. A villain like Sauron suddenly seems less unrealistic when you compare him to The Donald. Its not like Trump is going to try to take over Middle-Earth any time soon (can you imagine what he would do to The Shire? even Saruman would blanch) but it is easy to see how one can appeal to fear and hatred to gain a fervent following. History can teach us how such a movement can spiral out of control, as well. Trump is just abusing people’s prejudices for his own ends, but he serves as a reminder that sometimes the simplest type pf villainy can be compelling in both real life and fiction. Racism and fear-mongering may be cliché, but they sell baby, boy do they sell!

The Dissenter, A Heroic Archetype for the Modern Age

Like many Canadians, I spent the weekend protesting C-51, in the real world and online. The act, which the conservative government calls the “anti-terror bill” gives an array of troubling powers to spy agencies. While I was standing outside in the rain and cold, I often wondered about how to turn this relatively banal (so far) situation into Fantasy Fiction.

What I came up with the idea of the dissenter as a hero. Now, this is not my idea, and I am sure than any reader of Fantasy can think of several heroes and villains who are primarily motivated by their disagreement with the system. I just think it is a timely archetype, especially since we are living an time of increasing inequality, which creates increasing dissatisfaction with the machinery of our society. Everybody who is not in power, or served by society, has some gripe with the system. We all think that our particular brand of dissent is a special snowflake, but even the most diametrically opposed factions often have gripes about the system, legitimate or not. This makes the dissenter a very figure that everyone can relate to on some level.

Some time ago I wrote a post about how a corrupt, or unthinking system can be the perfect villain in modern fantasy (link). Looking through my posts I can see that it is a bit of a running theme actually, including my review of Django unchained (link 2, link 3, link 4, link 5). The gist of the idea is that the system is the monolithic, monstrous villain that Fantasy often tends towards, but put into a context that the modern reader can instantly relate to.

In the same way the person who stands up and demands that the system be fixed, or at least points out the flaws in a system, can make an interesting hero. Think about some of the great dissenter of past ages, and the interesting lives they led. Martin Luther was not an action hero, and yet his act of defiance sparked a massive sectarian shift that humbled the greatest power in his world.

Here are a few reasons why I think that the Dissenter is a mighty heroic archetype for Modern Fantasy, the counterpoint to the system as a villain.

  • Knowledge is a Weapon: Modern readers prefer a hero who is smart in some fashion, be it simple brilliance or grimdark streetwise. The primary armament of the dissenter is knowledge. The dissenter knows the flaws of the system that they hate. Often they are a victim of that system and have learned as much as they could about it in order to oppose it.
  • Challenging the Dragon: Systems are immense, complex, and can become truly monstrous over time. The same is true of corrupt institutions. Often, in real life, people find speaking out against these entities incredibly intimidating.  Thus, the dissenter shows courage simply by confronting the problem.
  • A Grim Task: History is not kind to those who dissent. People in power, and those who benefit from corruption, have many options in quashing dissent. The sheer viciousness that those who benefit from a broken system will engage in to prevent that system from changing cannot be underestimated.
  • Reform or Revolution: The ultimate goal of any dissenter is either to reform the system, or topple it altogether. Both have their own merits as story points.

The dissenter can easily turn out to be a villain as well, going to extremes to attack the system that they oppose. An anti-capitalist who publishes papers and advocated non-violent protests against the excesses of wall street is a good kind of dissenter, while an anti-capitalist who blows up factories indiscriminately is most definitely villainous. Interestingly from the perspective of those who inhabit the system being challenged, these two are almost indistinguishable, which makes crackdowns the perfect starting point for a dissenting hero.

Humour vs Fanaticism and Honour Culture in Fantasy Fiction

Recommendations?

Ultimately, all fanatics are the enemies of knowledge as part of the public good.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks,  got me thinking about similar episodes in history and then in Fantasy and Fiction. Aside from their real world implications, which while very interesting are beyond the scope of this blog, it demonstrates a stark pattern of behaviour among fanatics.

Killing a person for mocking one’s beliefs is profoundly ridiculous, and all the more appalling because of that. Most people, no matter how faithful or fierce will not engage in such a barbaric act. The use of the word barbaric is deliberate in this case: honour killings in the name of faith, religious or otherwise, are an ugly artifact of the past. If they are allowed to continue and spread then we will return to the barbarity of totalitarianism or even the dark ages.

Faith killings, like the Charlie Hebdo attacks, are a fanatics attempt to uphold the honour of the system that they have dedicated themselves to. They see any affront to their beliefs as something that needs to be avenged. Often this mindset seems strange to rational people, who can have their most deeply held beliefs insulted and challenged on a daily basis without resorting to violence. However, the fanatic is acting from an irrational impulse, usually fear. They fear that if mockery strips the object of their belief of its dignity then all of their work and all of their devotion will be for nothing. A fanatic puts all of his stock in that one belief, and if that belief is devalued in the marketplace of ideas then so is he. The fanatic will not admit to this fear, event to himself, but it is rooted at the core of his devotion. Someone who is secure in their beliefs does not need to kill for them, and will not unless they are directly threatened, which is never the case when mockery and insults are the supposed threat.

In the arena of fiction, fanatics make for interesting villains. The believe that they are right, and do not question the object of their faith. Within the confines of their system, the fanatic is often more moral than the non-fanatic (although this is not always the case). They are not one dimensional, despite how they may seem on the news. They will even deny that they are fanatics, often in a well reasoned fashion, up to a point. (Perhaps I am a fanatical believer in free speech and democracy? would I know?)

Regardless, fanaticism of any sort is an excellent source of villainy for more Epic forms fantasy fiction. A relatively harmless action, like a cartoon, can set off a fanatical reaction where honour can only be restored through bloodshed. In other posts I have detailed types of fanaticism, from religious to economic. It is my belief that Fanaticism can carry over to belief in any system. Pastoral fantasy tends to use fanatics in the same way that it uses orcs — disposable fodder for action scenes and as a contrast to make the hero look good. (see below for grimdark) However, good Fantasy thrives on exploring the beliefs and systems beyond those of the protagonist. In modern fantasy we prefer villains that have some nuance and revel in the justifications for their actions.

Here are a few examples of interesting Fanatics that could appear in Fantasy Fiction

  • The Rathamen of the Kingdom of Yeer believe in keeping their bodies pure. Contact with outsiders is forbidden until they are ritually purified, and touching a Rathaman is considered a deadly insult. Fanatical Rathamen blame outsiders for all illness and will kill them without provocation at the slightest sign of disease. They also believe that illness among their own kind is a sign of weakness and that the infirm and ill should be shunned. This all stems from a belief that arose during a plague long ago.
  • The Dwarves of Hunglelund believe in trade. Trade is both good and natural. They will use their armies to ensure that trade happens freely and unfettered, no matter what the cost. Aggressively opening up new markets is for the betterment of all!
  • The Scrolls of Tharn the Prophet state that the mineral pools of Tradir are sacred and can cure all the ills of the faithful. Unfortunately overuse has polluted the pools. Sadly however, the prophet stated that the pools are sacred, which means to question the sanctity of the pools is to say that the Prophet is fallible. The illnesses cause by this cycle are creating an imbalance in the religion.

More interesting, however, is that the protagonist need not be someone we would normally find heroic when confronting fanaticism. Political cartoonists are not especially admired in normal society, and are certainly far below policemen, soldiers, and first responders in normal estimations of courage. Yet, when fanaticism is at work, and even a cartoon is considered a grave insult that must be avenged then the creators and critics of culture are often front and centre in the conflict. This can make for excellent fiction. Here are a few examples:

  • The God-King is considered infallible and perfect. A simple cobbler discovers that his feet are different sizes, which is impossible if he is divine, setting off a chain of events that shakes the foundations of the empire.
  • A scientists using a primitive microscope discovers that the pools of Tharn contain nasty little critters that are causing illness and corruption. Using his knowledge, he successfully treats the ill. This creates a schism as some claim that he does evil work, while others begin to question the pools, and still others seek to purify the people by infecting them with the corruption from the pools.
  • The Book of Ibb is the only true book. All other books, even those not written by the faithful of Ibb, are full of false knowledge. BURN THE LIBRARIES! (Sorry Alexandria)

Obviously these are simplistic concepts, but they are examples seeds that can be grown into fully fleshed out conflicts for an interesting series. The best fanatical beliefs showcase the unusual nature of the world that the author has created or emphasize the qualities of those who oppose them.

The fanatic can also be a hero, however, particularly in Grimdark fiction. I am minded here of the noble space marines, who are shielded from the shit storm of corruption in the 40k universe by their faith in humanity and the Imeperium. Of course, grimdark takes a dim view of heroes to begin with 😉

On Torture: Modern Fantasy and Dick Cheney

When the Senate report on torture surfaced last week, I was disgusted, but on certain level I was also excited. It was one of those moments where I felt that the rest of the world was catching up to me. It was as if the public conscious had finally digested all of the information that people who are interested in politics, power, and history had known about for years. As I sat down and watched Jon Stewart condemn the Fox news response to the report, I was minded of how people spoke out against the Robocalls during the last Canadian election, but it took some time for it to percolate into the general discourse. I was eager to finally discuss this issue with my friends.

Of course, I discovered that no one really talks about torture. This is doubly true during the holidays. I mean Dick Cheney said that the ends justify the means, was recorded, and the vast majority of people shrugged or twisted their noses

An overwhelming majority of people feel that torture is bad. However, some feel that if it saves lives, like it did in that one episode of 24 (and in no real world case) it might be justified. That pretty much hasn’t changed yet. I was hoping that the information in the report would clear the veneer of partisan bullshit away and open up the discussion. It has, to a certain extent, but the general public seem deeply unwilling to grapple with the issue, especially in the western world. Instead the discussion goes on between pundits, political junkies, and people who are interested in power and history. Everyone else avoids the issue like the plague, except in fiction.

Modern Fantasy is awash in torture and viciousness in pursuit of “the ends”. From the Book of the New Sun and The Sword of Truth series to The First Law, The Broken Empire, and A Song of Fire and Ice, fantasy authors have definitely stopped shying away from the ugly subject of torture. Interestingly the presentation is not once sided at all, as anyone who has even sampled those works could tell you. The only common denominator in the presentation of torture and the torturer is that it is inescapably present.

So as I sit back, somewhat bitter that very few of my friends and family want to discuss the deep and ugly truths of torture in democracy, I take solace in the idea that maybe people do want to grapple with these ideas, at least in Fantasy and genre fiction. That will eventually blossom into real world action and opinion, I have no doubt.

Until that happens, here is why I think Dick Cheney would make a near-perfect template for a villain in Fantasy Fiction.

  1. The Ends Justify the Means: The idea that the ends justify the means is about the most deplorable intellectual stance that anyone can take. People who feel that the ends justify the means perform a sort of arithmetic which allows them to justify any behavior by saying that the end result was worth those unpleasant bits along the way. For many years writers thought that it was too cliche or unrealistic for a villain to follow this thought process, but hey, here we are. A few examples of the ends justifying the means in Fantasy: A peace loving Kingdom that is raided by Orcs starting a “war of pacification” to finally achieve peace by subduing all Orcs, everywhere; A ruler who wants perfect order and so drugs his people so that they are obedient zombies; A druidic cult that sees that humanity will destroy nature and so decides to destroy humanity first; A
  2. Emotional Appeal trumps Rational Discourse: The idea that it was fine to torture and kill people because it might have prevented another attack is morally indefensible. Torture is not only demonstrably wrong and ineffective, it is also very likely to be used against the nation that supported it; after all, if there is one thing these people fear more than the enemy outside their borders, it is the enemy within. However, instead of trying to rationalize the idea of torture, Mr Cheney directly appeals to strong emotions when defending it. He brings up 9/11 and the safety of American children as a counter to every argument because he knows that that appealing to fear, patriotism, and hatred of the enemy erases the short term capacity for rational thought. Fear is the mind-killer, as a wise man one said. Fear and Hatred lead to the dark side too, I hear. Pastoral fantasy often paints the enemy as inherently evil, like the xenomorphs in aliens, or Tolkien’s orcs. Modern Fantasy demands more complexity from its antagonists, and so nations roused to vile acts through fear and loathing are particularly poignant.
  3. Twisting Words: I often feel that language loses its meaning as people try to muddy the waters to justify ugly actions. Rectal rehydration is a lovely example of this. Here we see a medical technique that is useful only in marginal cases (when IV rehydration is not available or possible, which was never, ever the case here) medically to justify anal rape as a part of a programs of torture. By calling it rectal rehydration they can redirect the public away from the ugly truth of the fact that they are violently sodomizing the people that they detain in order to break them down. The same is true with the modern euphemism for torture: enhanced interrogation. Torture is illegal in every court and standard of law, but if we call it something else then it helps avoid backlash, at least for a while. This kind of propaganda has obvious uses in a Fantasy narrative, since breaking down the very words and ideas that people use to communicate helps isolate opposing factions in nay conflict. If we get stuck on the definition of torture it is very hard to deal with the problems the act presents and put a stop to it, which is kinda the point.
  4. Innocents Don’t Matter: Chances are that if you torture someone, they will end up hating you and fearing you if they live. This kind of action is self perpetuating since even an innocent who goes through the process has a strong chance of being brutalized. It turned out that of the cases reviewed in in the senate report on torture around 20% involved mistaken identity, including deaths. In a Fantasy fiction narrative one can follow this same pattern.
  5. Torture is the Ends: People have known that torture is ineffective at collecting information for as long as people have bothered to study the results. People will simply say anything to stop the pain. The inquisition was well aware of this, and would often use torture to extract the names of people that they wanted to persecute from the lips of their victims. It is well known that The Templars were destroyed after the confessed to blasphemous rites under the duress of torture, including things that were plainly impossible, like raising mummies and demons. Thus torture is not really the means, it is an end itself. If you can create a situation where torture is acceptable then you can really justify anything. Don’t like Frank? torture someone until they name Frank as complicit. Want to stay in power? torture people to name your political opponents. The uses for a Fantasy villain are obvious.

A genre fiction can explore ideas like torture without getting bogged down in the morass of modern politics. In a sense I am glad that Fantasy authors are readers have been willing to delve into these subjects in the way that old media has not. Dick Cheney gets endless TV time, while the victims are virtually ignored in old media. I hope this changes, but until then writers will have to carry the torch. In the end, truth is often uglier and less palatable than fiction.

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