Last week, I took some random Twitter dumbass to task for mocking the idea conservatives have a culture. That post wasn't just meant as a "point and laugh" moment, however. I also wanted to highlight and call attention to some conservative works in my own little neck of the arts, SF and Fantasy. To that end, I included a list of writers and publishers who adhere to a couple of basic principles, ones that conservative readers I've talked to tend to value highly:
Admittedly, that last one is likely due to a heavy dose of selection bias, as I tend to run in Pulp circles these days. On the other hand, what else are all these "subversive" takes in mainstream entertainment attacking, if not those first two points?
Anyway, I don't plan to rehash that post here. I'm putting my money where my mouth is in regards to highlighting conservative works in the genre, so this is the first in a series of reviews. First up is Singaporean author and Hugo and Dragon-Award nominee, Kit Sun Cheah, with the first volume of his Dungeon Samurai trilogy, Kamikaze.
Kamikaze begins in a dojo in modern-day Japan, where 19 year old Yamada, his best friend Hiroshi, and their fellow students are studying traditional sword arts. Cheah doesn't wait to kick the story off, as by the end of the chapter, a demonic entity has whisked the entire class off to another world, a place resembling a small island.
The demon, Yamada learns, has summoned people from various times and places in history for its own entertainment, and it's been doing so for some time. The demon's terms are simple: it is waiting at the bottom level of a dungeon. As soon as the people get there and kill him, they are free to go.
Unfortunately, it hasn't been an easy task. At the humans' Roman Army-like encampment, Yamada learns the operation to clear and take territory in the dungeon has been a years' long process, and they aren't even close to the bottom yet. Hundreds have died, and each time the numbers dwindled, the demon has gleefully offered to summon more "replacements" from Earth, the latest batch of which includes Yamada and Hiroshi.
After being appraised of the situation, Yamada and the rest of the new arrivals are also hit with the harsh truth: food supplies on the island are limited, and no one in the camp eats unless they pitch in and help with their assigned tasks, be it support, medicine, or fighting. In other words, they're all being drafted into the war against the demon. As the title suggests, Yamada and Hiroshi are selected for service as dungeon delvers, their martial arts experience being the single most valuable thing either brings to the community.
All this is really just the first few chapters' worth of set up, which Cheah gets out of the way skillfully and efficiently, so the reader can enjoy the main show. The bulk of the book is a richly-detailed military fantasy, albeit one that takes place in an RPG-inspired world. It's a blend that works wonderfully. Instead of the usual gaming tropes of adventurer's guilds and grinding for XP, we get a host of tropes swiped from MilSF, like a realistic boot camp sequence, war as boredom-punctuated-by-terror, and the importance of espirit de corps and morale in a combat zone.
Cheah has called Dungeon Samurai the "Anti-LitRPG," and it's easy to see why. Contrary to most of the genre, his heroes don't begin with super powers, and never get overpowered at all. This is dungeon-delving from the grunt's eye view, not from the video game super hero's.
In that sense, it reflects a traditional, old-school value set the rest of the LitRPG subgenre seems to lack. Yamada and his classmates aren't video game addicted shut-ins, suddenly given a chance to play out some power fantasy. They're hard-working athletes, boys who know the value of sweat-equity, discipline and teamwork. Moreover, the situation they're caught in reinforces the need for these values as a survival trait. Their new community is depending on these boys to quickly become strong men, and Yamada and Hiroshi are eager to prove themselves up to the task.
Religion is also an important part of Dungeon Samurai, and not just in the standard "Cleric-class as healers" trope found in most game-inspired fiction. Cheah's characters are men and women ripped from their daily lives, and dropped into unimaginable hardship. Add to that the very real and tangible evil of the demon--something the modern characters like Yamada thought of as imaginary before the story opened--and their faith is all they really have to keep them going.
What I want to call special attention to is the realistic and subtle way Cheah handles it. The struggle to take the dungeon is a slog, like any long military campaign, and Cheah uses the quiet moments in between operations to explore how each of his characters acclimates to his new situation. Primarily, we experience the island through our viewpoint protagonist Yamada and his Shinto faith. But we also get hints about Christian Hiroshi, whose faith makes him sort of an odd-man-out during downtime sequences. He spends religious services with the Westerners in camp, and Hiroshi sees less and less of him when they're not on missions. That said, neither man ever treats the other as anything less than a blood brother. It's a realistic depiction of how clashing faiths, but close relationships, play out in a combat zone.
The other important relationship in Yamada's life is his blossoming friendship--and possibly romance--with young shrine maiden, Katsura. She represents something of a break from the regimented, militaristic life Yamada has found himself in, a small breath of normality in a truly abnormal world. Their relationship is sweet, chaste, and courtly--genuinely not the kind of thing you see much of in mainstream fiction these days.
The battle scenes are well-drawn and exciting, and Cheah's vision of what military life would be like in a game-inspired universe is worth the price of admission alone. It's LitRPG with a layer of trail mud, blisters, and the sore and aching soldiers only an infantryman could appreciate. He's also made it much tougher for me to take the rest of the genre seriously, even as light entertainment. I keep imagining how the average isekai or LitRPG protagonist would fare dropped into the FOB of Cheah's dungeon, with a squad running patrol Ops in the harsh, unforgiving dark. The answer isn't usually good.
Bottom line, Cheah has written a book that's sure to appeal to gamers of all stripes, be it Old School D&D players, console-era players, or modern MMORPG fans. What's more, he's brought back a sense of tactical and strategic thinking to dungeon delving, and married it to his knowledge of real-life martial arts and combat. The result is the single most refreshingly original isekai or LitRPG published in the genre in years, and I'm mad I slept on it for over a year before reading it.
Kamikaze is available in e-book and paperback from Amazon. It has two sequels, Kama no Kishi and Seisen. If you're last-minute shopping for the gamer in your life, there's still time to get the entire trilogy in hardcopy before Christmas.
Take my word for it. They'll be happy you did.
This Tweet came across my feed earlier today.
Leaving aside both the bad-faith argument and the level of sheer bufoonery on display, I thought it deserved an honest response. Not so much for Mr. Black's benefit, since people who pose such questions are never looking for understanding.
Rather, this post is meant as a rally point. Something those on the right can point to next time some dumbass makes a comment like Mr. Black's.
If culture begins with storytelling, then conservative culture begins with the idea that things like Patriotism and Christianity aren't automatic punchlines or villains. For decades, "subversive" takes on these subjects have been the dominant storytelling mode in Hollywood and Big 5
(now Big 4) publishing.
And it's tiresome.
There are only so many times an audience is willing to pay good money to see itself and its values mocked. Sooner or later, they want entertainment choices that don't paint them as ignorant, evil, or both. If major media companies can't provide it, they start looking elsewhere.
The most comprehensive take on this subject is, of course, Brian Niemeier's book, Don't Give Money to People Who Hate You. I highly recommend it. You might not agree with everything he says, but that doesn't change the fact that he's right.
If anything, comments like Mr. Black's only serve to reinforce Brian's message. Black can't conceive of a "conservative culture" that isn't a repressive caricature of Christian values. The conservative worldview is so foreign to him, he literally had to use villains from an 80's movie to make his point.
The comments beneath his aren't much better. Several are worse. None of them line up with reality.
That said, there is a definite conservative culture, especially in SFF. Most conservatives I know gravitate to fast-paced adventure fiction over deconstruction and subversion. They want to read about people solving problems instead of navel-gazing, and they want strong heroes that reflect their personal values.
Here's a partial list of writers who deliver just that:
Jon Del Arroz
Bradford C. Walker
Kit Sun Cheah
Adam Lane Smith
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention two excellent publishers: DMR Books and Cirsova Magazine. If any publication can truly be said to have inherited the spirit of Weird Tales and Argosy, it's Cirsova. They specialize in the same kind of fast-paced adventure fiction many of the above writers do. DMR books specializes in classic-style Sword & Sorcery and Sword & Planet. They've released high-quality reprints of Golden Age classics alongside original fiction from modern masters of the craft.
Which segues into my next point.
Another great pillar of conservative culture--especially in SF and fantasy--is old stories, particularly the pulps. Classic writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft are well known enough to casual genre fans. Their most famous creations are household names even to non-readers. But there are plenty of other, equally important pulp-era writers that have been largely forgotten, writers like Abraham Merritt and Manly Wade Wellman.
Conservative culture is also about reading and rediscovering these stories, and keeping them alive for new generations of readers.
If you need a roadmap, the two best resources for getting into old stories are The Pulp Archivist, and Jeffro Johnson's Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. The Pulp Archivist regularly posts on classic fiction from the Golden Age. Jeffro's book is an excellent primer and overview on the SFF scene as it existed before 1980. As a bonus, you'll also get lots of great insights as to how old pulps and the 1960s-70s SFF scene shaped early Dungeons & Dragons.
You want to see what real conservative culture looks like? Follow some of those guys. Better yet, read their books. Read the old ones, too, to see the style of storytelling they want to preserve, and what some of them are writing in conscious tribute to.
As for closing the rift in popular culture? That's a much taller order. Honestly, it might not be possible anymore. But if you're serious about it, then step one is to stop treating half the culture like the punchline.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.