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.

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Idea: Focus Crystals

This is an idea for a book series that I will likely start writing in 2018, after my third Shadow Wolf Book (The Whore’s War) comes out.

I have gone on about industrial age fantasy before. My current favourite book series that fits the idea is Brian McClellan’s flintlock fantasy which begins with Promise of Blood. I believe that we will see more and more industrial age settings as the genre branches out. I can even see it becoming one of the dominant forms of the the fantasy genre. Steampunk has done well, but the industrial age is larger than victoriana.

The Focus Crystal

The idea behind the Focus Crystal is to combine the industrial age with fantasy magic. The crystal is a specially treated mineral that converts concentration into magical energy that can be used to power magical effects, or as a mundane source of energy.

Key Points

  • The Focus Crystal works better for people with stronger will and better concentration.
  • The Focus Crystal can store energy for a limited period of time. Small crystals lose half their stored energy every 15 minutes while the largest and most elaborately made have a storage half-life of 24 hours.
  • The energy from a focus crystal can power a spell. Originally they were used by hereditary sorcerers to supplement their magical abilities, but it was eventually discovered that the energy could be used for more mundane uses like electricity in the real world. Eventually it was discovered that it could be used by a non-sorcerer to power a magical effect when combined with a spell plate.
  • Focus Crystals can be mass produced from materials extracted from the earth.

In the setting I am considering Focus Crystals undermine the nobility, who claim power through hereditary sorcerous power, by making magic more accessible.

The working title for the series is End of Kings.

The Reckoning and the Nature of Power in the Domains of the Chosen

Why the Chosen would participate in a system that oppresses the majority of the Gifted?

In my Domains of the Chosen series, the Chosen are the potent, ageless rulers of a sprawling Empire that clawed its way to power after surviving a massive magical cataclysm. The Gifted are those who develop the ability to wield magic, and in the Domains they are considered too dangerous to be allowed to develop their talents freely. The Gifted can choose to become Vassals who are sundered from the most destructive aspects of their magic, or to fight for their right to join the ranks of the Chosen as Gladiators.

The answer, in short, is to view the Gifted as weapons of mass destruction. States with nuclear weapons frown on other states trying to develop weapons of mass destruction, but tend be accepting of those that already have them. This even holds up with enemies: Kim Jong Un is dangerously unhinged and could be a much greater and more lasting threat than Isis, but because seems to have nuclear weapons we must practice detente with him instead of regime change.

The long answer is that the Chosen see other magic-wielders as a threat. The Reckoning began because the powerful Gifted of old began a massive war for dominance. The war was of such impressive scope that new races were created (Armodons and Minotaurs are among these and the created races suffer greater racial stigma in the Domains, because they are the product of magic) and the nations of old were mostly destroyed or became puppet states of powerful Gifted. That war went on and on, ending only when the forces that were wielded spun out of control, resulting in massive storms of Chaotic magic that scoured life from the entire planet and tainted the landscape.

The Chosen represent the Gifted who survived because they set aside their differences (temporarily, for survival) and made a pact with the people with the only safe haven around, Krass. Krass needed the Chosen for extra protection, and to help feed and shelter the massive influx of refugees that made their way to the city. The covenant they made was to the benefit of both groups; people hated the Gifted because of The Reckoning, but they needed them to survive. The Chosen needed shelter and could not survive without people (someone needs to grow food, make clothes, etc).

But The Chosen are not a monumental group. They are old enemies who often trust each other less than than anyone else. Any new Gifted who reaches the status of Chosen, migt be an ally for an enemy faction. Thus they use the Great Games as a way to control who has a shot.

It is also worth noting that by the time any Gladiator has a chance to join the the Chosen they have a large amount of popular support from years of public performance in the Arena, which counteracts the lingering fear of the Gifted for most citizens.

Finally a key point is that the Gift is not hereditary. The Chosen do not have a greater chance of having children with the Gift than anyone else. Thus any Chosen with children has a large chance of having ungifted kids; if they love those kids then they have an automatic desire to protect them from other Gifted. If the Gift were hereditary I expect things would play out very differently, with magical-aristocractic families ruling over ungifted peasant slaves.

In the end it is all about power. We can see the lengths that people go to keep and amass power throughout history, frequently killing their own family members and engaging in horrifying  atrocities. In the Domains of the Chosen, magic is power.

A teaser and a pause for consideration.

I am still undecided on what I want to do for my next serial. Also, Ronan is crawling now, which is too cute to miss. Here is a rough teaser from my next book. Bloodlust: The Seeds of Ruin.

As an aside, I find it interesting to consider the use of language in my world. If I were to describe the towers of Kithkaran to you*, I would liken them to stained glass in an old cathedral or the sun shining through a coloured glass bottle, but these are images that do not leap to mind for a society like Krass.

The same goes for concepts of religion. I cannot have a character exclaim ‘god’ or ‘jesus christ’ obviously, but I also lose out on bloody hell and heavenly, concepts that do not belong in their society.

Instead I tend to focus on the Reckoning, ancestors, the arena, and ocean motifs for the metaphors and exclamations of the people of the Domains.

The towers of Kithkaran shone in the sun*. Many of them were over five hundred feet tall, built from glass, gold and great magic, with lifts and lights powered by the very waters that had been turned against them in the end. Now, at last, they breathed again and people would remember the glory that his people had wrought.

Antilluvius smiled, the thin line of his desiccated lips curling slightly. He remembered the terror of those days, the endless rain, the wall of water that had assailed them. He could feel the horror as their magic failed, slowly and then all at once. He could still taste the bitterness of losing everything he’d ever known and the terrible promise that he had made to his family as they brought forth what was now called the Dark Heart. But now it was tempered, all of it, by the sight of his city once again in the light.

The weight of ages was no longer his to bear. He only wished that he could savour it longer, but just as he could not let his beloved city linger in mud and darkness, they could not suffer him to live. While this moment was wondrous, he had done terrible things to bring it about.

“My king, the Legions have begun to march.”

Moraggi’s voice woke Antidilluvius from his memories. He turned and looked down at this man, a heretic who served him, bound by an oath, in exchange for protection from the Krassians. Although old for this world, Moraggi was but a child compared to him.

Triumph

The concept of the Triumph has always fascinated me. For those who are not familiar with the idea, a Triumph was a special parade accorded to an exceptionally victorious general or emperor in the Roman Empire. Think of it as a parade with a host of side activities, including gladiatorial games and other huge celebrations.

We know a fair bit about some of these Triumphs because the biggest and the best of them also involved a Triumphal arch, like the arch of Constantine pictured below.

These Triumphal Arches contain interesting details which have helped historians reconstruct and interpret some of the events depicted within.

L’Arc de Triomphe, pictured below, is Napoleons version of a Triumphal Arch, an attempt to invoke and connect the French Emperor with the glories of Rome.

Arc-de-Triomphe-de-l’Étoile

Triumphs began as parades and grew into political events. The Roman Triumphs also had religious undertones. The sheer glory of having a massive parade with attendant festivities and a monument in their honour, gave the recipient a platform from which to launch themselves into office, or otherwise further their ambitions. Even Emperors wanted Triumphs, which of course meant that they became more and more elabourate and increasingly common as the Empire ground on.

The idea of a Triumph is rife with potential for fantasy fiction. My next novel in the Domains of the Chosen Series begins with one. I use it mostly because I love events, especially huge public events, but I can see a lot of potential here.

  1. The Triumph as a Character Introduction: What better way to introduce a military leader than with a Triumph? The way said character reacts to the honour provides a writer with a grand opportunity to highlight character traits as well as past accomplishments. Other characters can strut their stuff by reacting to the Triumph. For a villainous character, throwing themselves a Triumph is a great way to highlight their arrogance and recklessness, or their political savvy.
  2. The Triumph as a Plot Device: On the other hand, what better finale to an assassin’s chronicle than to have the main character plan and execute a job where the mark is receiving a Triumph? It would frame a series perfectly, a conniving general or despotic emperor reaches the zenith of their power only to be struck down. A nice transition from hubris to comeuppance in a single scene.
  3. The Triumph as a Backdrop: Finally, for almost any series with an Empire with any sense of ritual and style, a Triumph serves as a wonderful backdrop for a common scene. Thieves can fleece crowds. Any sort of action can start. More importantly it is an opportunity to show off some world-building in a dynamic fashion, since a Triumph recounts recent history.

 

A Survey And A Sermon

This week as part of a project that I am working on I put out a survey.
The project is a pitch document for a steampunk turn based RPG. I use steampunk with care because I want to avoid linking the game to Victorian era sensibilities, which seem to be the most common setting themes for steampunk games. I am thinking more along the lines of da Vinci Steampunk, that early industrial age/renaissance flavour that is best defined recently by Bloodborne.
I am becoming more and more interested in Industrial Age Fantasy these days. As I have said before that as we transition from the industrial age into the (mis?) information age Fantasy writers are becoming more and more confident about and interested in writing their stories in those periods. While some of the distinctions and new directions to industrial age fantasy are obvious, some are not. The themes for example, are very different than medieval fantasy.
  • Setting: Industrial age fantasy steers toward the city as a primary setting rather than towns, villages, and castles. Colonies are another possibility, and if the setting includes villages and towns then they might very well be part of a colonial frontier. Themes of imperialism, multiculturalism, and cosmopolitan ideas flow from this.
  • Reason: Reason existed before the enlightenment, but the clash between reason and faith reached an impressive crescendo in the early industrial era with lovely bits like the inquisition, the reformation, the thirty years war, and the Origin of Species. We might replay these debates today, but they are mostly aftershocks when compared to the upheavals of the original events.
  • Technology: Magical tech is, of course, the best part of Steampunk for most of us. Who doesn’t love the idea of an ensorcelled firearm, a clockwork automaton, or some of the more bizarre devices that have been dreamed up in fantasy of late — from goblin zeppelins to steam-powered suits of armour!
  • Resources: In the middle ages land was the key resource for those in power — specifically, good farming and grazing land, which could be used to provide food as well as good game land for hunting and wood. This provided food for followers and enough money to buy whatever else might be needed. While land is important into the industrial age, it is gradually joined in prominence by other forms of capital. Once energy becomes a going concern then the material used to produce that energy flavours the era coal and oil are good examples of this. lending the ages in which they are predominant a very different character than medieval fantasies.
  • A Plethora of Competing Institutions: Feudal era institutions are interdependent and relatively stable. You have the Church, the Nobility, the Peasants/Yeomanry etc, and slaves. Once you get into the industrial age new institutions spring up like weeds. Popular assemblies, universities, actual Justice systems, standing armies, massive trade companies, unions, the middle class, and so on. Added to the upheaval, some of the older institutions lose their preeminence while others are destroyed entirely or rendered largely ceremonial. Naturally each institution seeks to become as powerful as possible which leads to institutional clashes like the Church vs The State, or smaller clashes like unions versus trade companies. Everyone has an angle.

In the end, even if this project doesn’t pan out I am leaning heavily toward an industrial age fantasy sooner or later.

The Forge Father, God of the Vvath & Religion in Domains of the Chosen.

This is a primer for my upcoming book, Bloodlust: The Blades of Khazak Khrim, which will be the fifth full length novel in my Domains of the Chosen series. The Vvath are the major antagonists of the book, a powerful empire based around the ancient fortress-nation of Khazak Khrim and half a continent of subjugated territories. Three of the perspective characters in Bloodlust: The Blades of Khazak Khrim are from this culture, which is very different that that of the Domains and even more removed from our own experiences.

While the Domains are a multi-cultural society of varying beliefs and races, who venerate their ancestors and verge on atheism the Vvath are a monotheistic, unicultural system who place the mountain fortress of Khazak Khrim and the Forge Father at the centre of all things, often reinforcing this belief with pain and violence. Here are some of the tenets of their faith, keeping in mind that not all of the characters believe in all of it, even in such an authoritarian nation.

The Forge Father is a traditional creator god with a smith motif. He created the world by fashioning it on his mighty anvil. He then set about making things. The Dwarves and the were not his first attempt at creating life, but they were the people that he was most proud of making. He put them in the mountains to shelter them, because he knew that his lesser works would be jealous. After a rebellion of the ‘lesser races’ the Forge Father took pity on his older works and created a path for them to eventually be reincarnated as Dwarves, if they serve him faithfully enough. The Vvath indoctrinate their subject cultures with this last point from birth, instilling both a sense of their own unworthiness and a sense of redemption through service and death. Among the Dwarves of Khazak Khrim themselves this particular tenet is also a justification for racism, war, and slavery.

The leader of the rebellion of the ‘lesser races’ is referred to as the The Adversary. In the works of the faith of Khazak Khrim this ill-defined figure is behind all of the attempts to destroy the Dwarven race and usurp creation. In the view of the Dwarves of Khazak Khrim the Reckoning is kind of like the flood in the story of Noah — an event that is meant to purify the world so it can be repopulated by the faithful. This particular belief clashes with the discovery that the people of the Domains also survived the Reckoning (Imagine if Noah ran into an ark full of Buddhists), who even have Dwarves among them.

The Forge Father, as the god of a patriarchal imperialist culture, emphasize aggressive male traits. Women are generally barred from the highest stations, and relegated to subordinate roles. Toughness, endurance, potency, and the drive to conquest are admired above all, reflected even in the meticulous craftsmanship of everything made by the Dwarves of Khazak Khrim. Phallic, weaponry, and forge imagery are very common.

Pain is seen as cleansing by the Vvath. In the view of the Dwarves of Khazak Khrim, one of the things that separates them from the ‘lesser races’ is their endurance. In practical terms this view of pain as cleansing opens the door for torture and a cult of forced submission through coercion. So ingrained is the idea of pain in the culture of the Vvath that many of the followers of the Forge Father will voluntarily submit to “Excruciation”, cleansing through various tortures, similar to flagellants in our own histories.

Unlike most modern religions in the real world, the Vvath have not left behind the idea of blood sacrifice. The Forge Father is a harsh god, and requires a tribute in blood, at least until the Dwarves of Khazak Khrim reign over all of creation. The idea of blood sacrifice is so ingrained in the warrior slaves of the Vvath that they will compete for the honour of being sacrificed, as has occurred in some ancient religions in the real world.

The Blood are the Exemplars of Khazak Khrim. A warrior-culture as strict as that of Sparta, these men are supposed to be the living embodiment of the superiority of the Dwarves. They train from birth, eschewing everything in favour of martial prowess. The final tests that they must face to join the warrior brotherhood are grueling and fatal to all but the strongest candidates. The Blood are few in number, but they wear incredible armour and wield marvellous weapons. The Kings of Khazak Khrim and the nobility all hail from The Blood.

For Dwarves who cannot afford the expense of joining The Blood, or could not survive the tests, there  is crafting and trading, or joining the Excruciators. The Excruciators are the militant arm of the Vvathi religion, including a vast force of infantry, as well as torturers, and even an Inquisition. While not as glorious as joining the Blood is does have its paths into the upper reaches of the priesthood, and even to the Sword-Bearers.

The Reborn, called Sword-Bearers by most, are a monastic warrior society. In reality they are actually the Gifted of Khazak Khrim, the Dwarves who wield magic, but they are presented as a group blessed by the forge father. Each one of them wields a magic blade that they fashioned during their lifetime. Special enchantments ensure than when their physical form dies it inhabits the blade. The Blade can then subvert the will of any who wield it, eventually driving the spirit of the wielder from the body and allowing the sword to possess it. The Sword-Bearers were instrumental in expanding the Empire. The important connection to the Forge Father is that the veneer of religion of the Vvath is required to make a group of what are essentially sword-liches palatable to the rest of their society.

In the end the religion of the Forge Father is the glue that holds the Vvathi empire together. While many who follow the forge father are idealistic fanatics, others are simply pragmatists abusing religion as a tool of dominion. The tensions this creates makes for several interesting narratives in Bloodlust: The Blades of Khazak Khrim.