Sword an sorcery is a genre that's devilishly hard to define. Ask ten people to lay out their personal guidelines for what is and isn't S&S, and you're likely to get twelve different answers.
Examples are easier to come up with, if somewhat less helpful. And like definitions, you're rarely going to get many people that agree. Sure, some examples are more-or less a given. Robert E. Howard's Conan. Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. Michael Moorcock's Elric. But disagreement tends to crop up when people throw up examples outside that established core.
In an old SF Signal Mind Meld, several writers were asked to define what "sword and sorcery" meant to them. Answers were, predictably, all over the board, most of them boiling down to lists of common tropes. But the first answer came from Michael Moorcock himself, and it touched on something elemental:
Basically I see it as a good old-fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama with strong supernatural elements. Captain Blood meets Cthulhu.
Folks, that quote may be the closest thing this genre has to a Rosetta Stone. It explains why so many of the "borderline" examples people disagree about feel wrong to those well-read in the genre, even if they seem to contain most of the tropes.
First, re-read Moorcock's statement. Notice the order he puts the two components in. It's no accident that "old fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama" gets precedent. The story has to function purely (or almost purely) in those terms, absent any fantastical element.
Conan sneaking into the Tower of the Elephant. Elric of Melniboné leading a pirate fleet against the impregnable port of Imrryr. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser running headlong through the labyrinthine halls of the Thieves' House, one step ahead of their murderous pursuers.
Any of those moments could be dropped into a historical adventure story, while retaining 100% of its excitement and impact. They speak to something primal in the reader, something that exists independent of the story's magical elements: Courage in the face of certain death. Wit and steel against overwhelming odds. The chase. The hunt.
Next, notice Moorcock's carefully chosen word, supernatural. There's a reason he didn't say "cloak and dagger fiction with magic." Or "sword and sandal drama with elves and dwarves."
Supernatural implies the weird, the unknown, and the dangerous. Supernatural is the fantastic. But it is the unfamiliar fantastic.
In sword and sorcery, magic is rare and terrifying. Monsters are a violation of the natural order. Dwarves and elves, if present, aren't simply another culture in a fantasy melting-pot world. They're a freak survival of some ancient and forgotten age, like Howard's stooped, serpent-like "Worms of the Earth." Or Moorcock's vaguely etherial, Chaos-bound Melnibonéans.
What I like about Moorcock's definition is that it's not just descriptive. At the risk of paraphrasing Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Moorcock's definition doesn't just describe what a sword and sorcery story is. If it did, it wouldn't be much more than a genre dowsing rod.
Rather, Moorcock's definition describes what a sword and sorcery story needs. It can be a map for building one from the ground up.
Sword and sorcery 101. Start with historical adventure. Add the supernatural. It's as simple (and as complex) as that.
I have a long history with The Thing.
One of my earliest memories is watching the 1951 Howard Hawks version with my mom and dad. I was about three or four years old, curled up on the couch in between them, with the blankets pulled up to my chin. I can still vividly remember my horror as I watched the shadow of Will Arness' Thing out in the blizzard, casually slaughtering the team's sled dogs. To this day, that scene of the arctic scientists trying to determine the shape of the magnetic anomaly in the ice—cheesy music sting and all—holds an eerie power for me.
Catching the 1982 John Carpenter version on cable was one of my formative pre-teen experiences. I was already a horror film junkie by that point, well versed in everything from Hellraiser, to Evil Dead, to Alien. I considered myself quite the jaded little gore connoisseur. And if you had told me I was about to watch a movie that would blow me out of the water, one that would genuinely scare me, I would have laughed right in your face.
The Thing, though, was some straight up next-level shit. Everything about it, from the Ennio Morricone score, to the perfect cinematography, to the still-unequaled practical creature effects, was a bar-raising landmark. Combine that with the tight pacing, the claustrophobic sets, the paranoid direction, and the virtuoso acting performances, and you have one of the most perfect horror films ever made.
Naturally, when I got around to reading the original novella that inspired both films—1938's Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell—I was already predisposed to liking it. And I did. No, it's not quite the timeless masterpiece of horror storytelling that Carpenter's film is. The ending isn't nearly as exciting. The sense of menace doesn't quite build the same way that it does in Lovecraft's better-written tales. Aside from McReady, the characterizations are thin to non-existent.
But as a pulp SF tale of the "men-with screwdrivers" school, it more than delivers. Campbell sets the claustrophobic tone in the story's first lines, describing the queer, mingled smells that choke the Antarctic camp's tunnels. When McReady comes on the scene—here as a meteorologist rather than a pilot—he is described in appropriately pulpy terms, a red-haired giant, a bronze demigod come to life. When the creature is at last revealed in the block of ice, Campbell gives us the almost superstitious reactions of the otherwise coldly rational scientists. The discord produces a fantastic effect.
All in all, the opening scene is a master class in establishing mood, setting, and tone while simultaneously kicking off the story with a bang. I'd even go as far as to say this opening is the one thing that Who Goes There? legitimately does better than either of the film versions, both of which take a little time to orient the viewer before introducing the horror.
Which is why despite my excitement, I have a few reservations about the upcoming release of Frozen Hell, from Wildside Press.
In case you haven't heard yet, writer Alec Nevala-Lee recently rediscovered the lost manuscript for the original, novel-length version of Who Goes There?. A Kickstarter campaign to cover publishing costs met its goal in less than twelve hours, meaning we'll all get to read it early next year.
Admittedly, my first reaction to this news was sheer, unbridled joy. And for part of me it still is. So why the reservations?
According to the project's Kickstarter page, Frozen Hell is apparently 45 pages longer than Who Goes There?, with most of the new material taking place before the novella's opening. In other words, that fantastic, moody first chapter will take place somewhere around page 30-35 or so.
Which brings me to an interesting thought about the novella, and half the reason for today's post.
One of the most common bits of advice trotted out to new writers is not to open a story with the dreaded "info-dump." You should hook your reader into the story first, giving them relatable characters and conflict, before giving them blocks of expository text or dialogue. Otherwise, the reader won't care.
There's plenty of truth to that advice, enough where it's a pretty reliable rule of thumb. But what always struck me about Who Goes There? is how much of that opening scene really is just info-dump. For several pages, we have McReady and the other scientists just standing around in a room, talking about this frozen creature.
What's more, in this same scene Campbell violates another piece of writing advice that's become akin to gospel over the years: having characters talk about things most of them already know, purely as an excuse to fill in the reader. Or "As you know, Bob," dialogue.
Campbell partially sidesteps it here, by having Commander Garry address the assembled men first:
You know the outline of the story back of that find of the Secondary Pole Expedition. I have been conferring with second-in-Command McReady, and Norris, as well as Blair and Dr. Copper. There is a difference of opinion, and because it involves the entire group, it is only just that the entire Expedition personnel act on it.
The rest of the opening consists largely of McReady and Blair explaining the events leading until now, events many of the assembled men were already present for. But because it's presented as a briefing intended to get the station's personnel all on the same page, it works.
Even so, it was a genuinely audacious storytelling choice, particularly in a format as dependent on fast-paced thrills as the pulps. The whole thing is carried by Campbell's moody description and the gradual reveal of the situation through dialogue, both of which give the scene its necessary suspense. More proof that you can break any writing convention, provided you do it with style.
Of course, the discovery of the Frozen Hell manuscript reveals that scene's original placement, which was roughly a quarter of the way into the story. That's much more in line with the standard "hook your reader, explain things later" advice. While I'm genuinely curious to see what hook Campbell uses, something tells me it won't be quite as innovative or memorable as an in-media-res, "as you know, Bob," info dump.
There's no question that I'm going to buy Frozen Hell the second it's available for general release. Maybe it's better than the novella. Maybe the scenes leading up to that tense, wonderful cold open will somehow make it more powerful. Maybe not.
In some ways, I feel like a kid who snuck a peek behind the curtain at a magic show. Now that I've seen all the mirrors and the hidden trap doors, I'm just sitting in the audience, hoping the Astounding Campbell can still wow me.
Here's hoping. Either way, I'll be the first in line.
Since its publication, much has been made of the connection between Schuyler Hernstrom's new post apocalyptic sci-fi novella and Ursula Le Guin's Hugo-winning short, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."
I'll touch on that connection in a bit, but if you're still on the fence about reading this, let me help you out.
Do you like barbarians? How about motorcycles? Settings that feel like a combination of Vance's Dying Earth and Mad Max? Enjoy witty banter between two likable heroes? Do you like TALKING MONKEYS?
Then stop reading this review right now. Go to Amazon immediately, and buy a copy of "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City."
If I could describe this book using only one sentence, it's like somebody spilled Jack Daniels on a stack of old Heavy Metal magazines with Motorhead blaring in the background. It's random pages from Gary Gygax's Appendix N, screamed out loud over the analog hiss of a bootleg Manowar tape. It's D20s rolling across the cover of the Player's Handbook, with a blacklight illuminating the Led Zeppelin poster on the wall and Black Sabbath's Sabotage playing on the hi-fi stereo.
It's the sort of gonzo, kitchen sink science-fantasy mashup that made old school D&D so balls-to-the-wall awesome.
Bottom line, this story flat-out fucking rocks.
And if none of that convinces you to buy this book, then gentle reader, I don't think I can help you.
Like all of Hernstrom's work so far, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" is actually easy to summarize. Northern barbarian Mortu and his companion Kyrus—a human priest trapped in the body of a monkey—encounter a swarm of desert nomads attacking a caravan. Mortu swings into action, saving the caravan and its precious cargo. The pair are then invited back to the White City, the mysterious, ancient ruin the travelers have taken for their own. The barbarian and the small monk accept, grateful for the rest. But the seemingly utopian society the travelers have built in the White City holds a dark secret.
If you're familiar with Le Guin's famous short, you can already guess at the nature of that secret. If not, well...
I'm about to go into it, so from here on out the review will CONTAIN MAJOR SPOILERS, both for "Mortu and Kyrus" and for "Omelas."
"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is more of a parable than a story. Wikipedia calls it a work of "philosophical fiction," which I guess is a good enough description. There are no characters, no conflicts, little else except the setting, and even that's kept deliberately vague.
In it, an omniscient narrator describes the city of Omelas as a perfect society, one in which everyone is happy except for one small child. That child is kept in a basement, abused, half starved, and suffering. The suffering of the child is somehow tied to the happiness of everyone else. If the child is ever shown kindness, ever taken out of the basement, ever so much as washed to clean his or her own excrement off, then everyone else in the society will be unhappy. The narrator describes how the citizens of Omelas find various ways of justifying the child's suffering as "necessary." The exceptions, of course, are the titular "Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," those who learn of the child's suffering, cannot abide it, and leave the city forever.
Quite honestly, I never understood the appeal of Le Guin's piece. It struck me as a half-assed attempt at presenting an ethical thought experiment, like the trolley problem. And when I say half-assed, I don't mean the writing. Le Guin is pretty much beyond reproach in terms of prose.
I mean it's half-assed in the construction of the ethical problem.
The moral dilemma presented in "Omelas" is simple and straightforward: preserve utopia by permitting the unspeakable suffering of one, or relieve that suffering and destroy utopia?
The problem I always had with "Omelas" is that those two things are in no way equal, at least not in the way the story lays them out. No indication is given that the citizens of Omelas will suffer genuine consequences if someone helps the child. No one will die. No one else will be tortured. The only consequence is that their idyllic perfection will vanish, and they'll somehow be "unhappy."
I could honestly never see the moral dilemma there, even as a teenager. Choose between vaguely defined happiness and torture? What the hell is there to think about? Torturing the kid is wrong. Full stop. End of discussion. Jesus, how is this even a question!?
Well, Hernstrom plays with a similar set-up in "Mortu and Kyrus." But in my opinion, he does something infinitely more interesting with Le Guin's premise.
Scratch that. He does two things:
The first is that he gives a reason for the citizens of the White City to engage in the horrific torture of the child, as well as real consequences for them should the torture ever stop.
As Mortu and Kyrus learn, the ancient architects of the city left behind advanced technology. Chief among the relics is a machine capable of rendering those within the city immortal, but it does so by painfully draining the life force of one person over the course of several years. The citizens of the White City purchase orphans from nearby settlements to feed the machine, rationalizing that the life of one unwanted child is a small price to pay for their own god-like existence. If the machine ever stops, their immortality ends, the centuries will catch up with them, and they'll die.
It's an important change. With something more on the line than "happiness," the torture and brutality take on a more realistic, believable dimension.
The second interesting thing Hernstrom does is that he actually answers the moral question Le Guin never really got around to presenting.
See, the trolley problem forces the subject to choose between two unspeakable wrongs. It's a true ethical dilemma: which of these equally awful things is the "right" choice? "Omelas," on the other hand, presents us with a clear right and a clear wrong, and then pretends its asking a deep question by rigging the answer.
What do I mean by that?
Le Guin only ever tells us about two groups of people: Those who stay in Omelas, giving tacit consent to the torture, and "the ones who walk away." The sight of the child shakes them to the core, they cannot live in such an awful place, so they leave.
But the ones that walk away are just as guilty as those who don't. They're still allowing the torture of the child to continue, only they can partly absolve themselves of responsibility since they're not enjoying any of the benefits.
Even so, given the choice between "vaguely-defined happiness for the many" and "objectively measurable torture and child abuse," literally everyone in the story chooses child abuse.
This is another reason I've never gotten what people see in this story. For all that "Omelas" is touted as some deeply philosophical think-piece, it's really not much more than a nihilistic statement about human nature.
Sorry, but I already get enough of that outside my fiction.
Fortunately, there's absolutely none of that nihilism on display during the climax of Hernstrom's tale. Instead, the author gives the only answer to Le Guin's question that I ever really believed in. Not only does Mortu save the child and ensure the destruction of utopia, he gives that destruction a head start, taking up his shield and his battle axe, and killing anyone who comes within reach.
Just prior to writing this review, I re-read "Omelas" to reacquaint myself with it. This quote particularly stuck out:
"They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians."
Contrast that quote against Robert E. Howard, one of Hernstrom's biggest cited influences. Howard's main recurring theme was civilization's corruption and decadence, as opposed to the savage but straightforward barbarians on the fringes.
On this re-reading, Omelas struck me as the ultimate expression of the decadent, corrupt civilizations Howard's barbarian heroes rail against. A perfect and peaceful veneer, hiding a rotten core. But if Omelas is the ultimate expression of decadent civilization, the bloody path Mortu carves through the White City is the ultimate refutation of it.
Schuyler Hernstrom sees our Ursula Le Guin. And he raises us a Robert E. Howard.
"Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" is available on kindle for $0.99.
If you travel in pulp sword and sorcery circles long enough, sooner or later you're going to run into the name Schuyler Hernstrom. And with good reason. Few writers working today have grasped the pulp S&S aesthetic as throughly as Hernstrom. The stories in this collection deliver old-school action, weird fantasy, and hard-hitting heroes.
Originally appearing in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, "The Challenger's Garland" is the only reprint. The story follows Molok, a ringwraith-like servant of the Death God, on his journey to challenge yet another champion in his lord's name. The tale is short, and there aren't any real surprises here. Especially not after we're introduced to Lobon, the champion. Even so, Hernstrom's telling is immensely satisfying. Rather than feeling predictable, the linear nature of the story gives the events a sense of finality, and portrays the characters as slaves to an inescapable fate.
"Athan and the Priestess" is the story that gives this collection its title. Athan, warlord of the steppes, receives a vision from Thune, the tribe's dying wizard. Athan is tasked with crossing the magic wall separating the steppe from the lands to their ancient enemies, the Ullin. There, he is to lay with the Ullin High Priestess and father a mighty son. The following adventure is a fantasy in the classic Weird Tales mode, with strange sorcery, wicked goddesses, and ancient towers.
"Movements of the Ige" is almost a science fantasy. The story details a ritualistic battle between the primitive, lizard-like denizens of an unnamed planet. The proceedings are interrupted when an otherworldly "egg" drops from the sky, bringing with it some alien explorers. Once again, there are few surprises here. But Hernstrom paints an exceptionally vivid and well-realized culture among the lizard-like Ige in this short tale.
"The Ecology of the Unicorn" is more-or-less a Vance pastiche. While not explicitly set on Vance's Dying Earth, Hernstrom's work here recalls the earlier, loosely-linked shorts that made up the first Dying Earth collection, especially "Turjan of Miir" and "Mazirian the Magician." The plot is simple enough: the wizard Malathiksos seeks immortality, demanding the help of a captive fae creature named Rutu. The flourishes are what make this story stand out, and the flourishes are pure Vance. In other hands, this one would be a complete misfire, but Hernstrom pulls it off admirably. The ironic twist ending is a hat-tip the master himself would have probably enjoyed.
The longest story in the collection, and probably my favorite, is "Adalwolf's Saga." In a pseudo-Norse/Germanic culture, Adalwolf must avenge his father's death against a rival warlord. The initial battle goes poorly, with only Adalwolf and his brother, Gasto, escaping the field. At first believing himself cursed, Adalwolf soon gains the favor of the All-Father. But his righteous quest for vengeance gradually twists into self-serving ambition, and Gasto questions whether or not the All-Father will be pleased.
It's incredibly rare for me to buy a single-author collection and enjoy every story. Thune's Vision was an exception.
If you enjoy reading the pulp greats of yesteryear, particularly Robert E. Howard or Jack Vance, then I highly recommend this collection. It might not be up to the lofty standards of those two masters, but it scratches that old-school itch in a way that most modern fantasy doesn't.
Thune's Vision is available on Kindle for $2.99. There's also a paperback edition available for $5.00.
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.