Around 8 years ago, on my old and defunct blog, I put myself through a daily writing exercise to learn some consistency and discipline.
The rules were simple:
It was a good exercise, and it definitely served its purpose. But it only ever produced a handful of things I liked. I found that old folder of stories again today, and I'm far less happy with most of them than I remember being at the time.
That said, there was one exception. The prompt was "Create a character that sees a phone number on a restroom wall. Describe what happens when he or she dials it."
Rereading the result, I was pleasantly surprised. It has heart, even if it is kind of melancholy. It almost f reminds me of Brian Niemeir's "A Gen Y Tale" (narrated here by David V. Sewart), touching on the same Generational feeling of being lost and unmoored in today's world. That said, it is a much angrier piece than Niemeir's.
In retrospect, I think I was grasping towards more heroic and inspiring subject matter, even if I didn't know quite how to do it yet. Maybe because I had some other influences going on at the time, like Robert E. Howard's Conan tales and Hawkwind's Chronicle of the Black Sword album. Sharp-eyed readers will even spot a line lifted directly from the latter.
Needless to say, it's not my best work. Especially now. But I'm still proud of it, warts and all. I might even try to revisit it someday, and write a better story using the same characters and set-up.
The piece never had a title at the time. It was just "Exercise no. 1" in my folder.
I almost called it "A Gen Y Isekai" for this post, partly as a nod to Niemeir's work. But I think "Wasteland Dreams" does the job better. Especially considering the discussions and commentary happening in my online circles today.
It's presented here the same way it was on my old blog: rough, frantically written, and and edited only once.
I hope you all enjoy it.
A Gen Y Isekai
There it was, buried beneath promises of blowjobs, handjobs, and at least one offer for a “titty twister.” Though it was probably in the wrong bathroom for that last one, Gary thought.
Near the bottom of the toilet stall, written in black sharpie, there was a simple two-line message. “Adventure and Glory!” it said. “Call today!” A toll-free phone number followed it.
It was weird. Maybe it was some kind of viral marketing thing? He fished his phone out of his pocket and snapped a quick picture. Maybe he’d Google it later, when he got home.
He forgot about the number for weeks. He only came across it again when he was deleting pictures off of his phone. Pictures of Jess, the cheating bitch. How could she smile in so many of these?
Because she was fucking Brad behind your back, Gary. It’s easy to smile when you’re getting laid every afternoon on your lunch break.
He almost deleted it, too. But he scrolled over to the next one. It was Jess, eating an ice cream cone at the beach. The mental image was too much, and he threw the phone.
He was on his third straight day of playing video games in the dark. He hadn’t answered his phone in weeks. He’d only even left the apartment once, when Brad and Jessica came by to pick up her stuff.
The boss killed him again, blowing his space marine off the platform and into the black void. He gave up, more bored than frustrated. He turned the game off and started scrolling through Netflix. He was halfway through a list of “Thrilling Comedy Murder Mysteries” when he remembered the phone number.
He scrolled through the pictures on his phone until he found it. He ran a quick web search for the number. It was probably advertising for an upcoming game. Smaller studios couldn’t afford big ads. He knew they sometimes pulled stunts like this.
A web search turned up nothing. The number wasn’t registered to anybody.
Huh. How weird is that?
An hour later, with nothing better to do, he called it. It rang three times. The line picked up, and there was a brief delay followed by a very recognizable background hiss.
Recording. Then again, what did he expect?
There was a swell of trumpet music. A call to arms. Soon a small orchestra joined in. Strings, then percussion, followed by all the rest. And they began playing a half-assed rip-off of the theme from Conan the Destroyer.
“Are you a man of action? Do you long for the days of High Adventure? Press 1 for ‘yes.’ Press 2 for ‘no.’” The quality of the recording was poor. The voice sounded so far away. This had to be a shoestring budget thing.
Gary pressed 1. And he waited. And he waited.
“Are you a sorcerer? Are you a warrior chief? Press 1 for sorcerer. Press 2 for warrior.”
Maybe it was the Conan music. Gary pressed 2. He waited. The music abruptly stopped in mid movement. The recording immediately looped back to the beginning, to the swell of the trumpets.
Then there was a click and a dial tone. “Piece of shit,” Gary muttered. He went back to playing video games.
That night, Gary sailed the skies on a Drakken bird. His sword rested in a scabbard built into the saddle, a saddle hand-worked by his father. He felt the crisp, cool wind against his bare skin. In the distance, nestled between two of the Argan Mountains, was the Needle. It rose nearly as high as the peaks behind it. It was perfectly straight and impossibly thin.
No normal stone structure could stand like that. Any tower raised that high by mortal hands would crumble beneath its own weight, or be sheared in half with a gust of wind. But the Masters of the Needle were not mortal.
Gary could die there. He knew it. He felt it. But he knew there was no other place he’d rather be. He felt the exhilaration of the hunt. The anticipation of the battle. He was alive in these moments. Truly alive.
Gary inhaled deeply. The air was sweet. The wind was in his hair. He lightly kicked the flanks of the Drakken bird.
The Drakken bird cawed. And with a stroke of her wings, she accelerated.
Gary woke up covered in pizza crumbs. The TV was tuned to the cartoon channel. Even before he opened his eyes, the smell hit him. The air in his apartment felt so stale. So thick. How the hell did he never notice it before?
He stood up and stumbled to the window. He kicked oold Chinese food boxes out of the way. He opened the window, but the air outside wasn’t any better. All he could smell was exhaust and filth. The city stank. Christ, he could almost taste it. He went over to the sink for a glass of water. But as soon as he turned on the faucet he smelled the burning, chemical scent of chlorine.
There was no way he was drinking that. The only thing in his apartment that didn’t smell like chemicals was an old bottle of whiskey. He poured himself four fingers. As he swallowed, he wished he could just have a drink from the cold stream that ran behind his house. But...
But there was no stream behind your house. You grew up in Quincy. You lived three blocks from a T Station.
It was the dream. He’d never had one so real, so vivid before. It was like he was really there. The smells, the tastes. Hell, he even remembered the childhood of the guy he dreamt about.
He looked at the clock. It was seven AM. He’d have to go back to work today. He already burned through all his sick leave. One more call out and he’d be fired.
Then again, maybe that was a good thing. All this isolation was starting to affect his head.
He spent the whole day in sluggish funk. His clothes felt stiff and rough against his skin. He wished he could just rip them off. The air in the mall was even than the air in his house. Here he could smell the perfumes and the colognes. It was disgusting. It was so...
That was it. Everything around him felt so fake and thin. Yet in that wonderful dream, he’d been free. He’d been soaring above the clouds. He’d been alive. He folded another pair of pants and arranged them neatly on the display table, wishing he could go home and dream again.
That night, he dreamt his usual dreams. He dreamt of Jess. Only in his dream, she didn’t move out of the apartment. She moved Brad in. He dreamt of the three of them living together. Of Jess and Brad laughing and holding one another on the couch while the three of them watched TV.
He woke up with a panic attack.
The TV was on, playing the same show as in the dream. He threw an ashtray at the screen. He couldn’t get back to sleep after that. Hours later, he was still staring at the ceiling as the sun slowly crept through the blinds.
He decided to call that phone number again tonight, after work. It couldn’t hurt anything.
The line rang three times. The cheesy music started up again. Then he heard that crackling, far away voice.
“You are a man of action!” the recording told him. “You long for the days of High Adventure!”
Huh. The recording was slightly different this time.
“Are you a sorcerer? Or are you still a warrior chief? Press 1 for sorcerer. Press 2 fro warrior.”
Well, what the hell? Gary pressed 1.
Again, the music cut off in mid-movement. And again, it looped back to the beginning. Then, just like before, the line went dead.
You’re being stupid, Gary. It was just a dream. That’s all. This isn’t going to help you sleep any better.
There were still some of Jess’ old Ambien tabs under the sink, from when she was going through that thing with her mother. Gary checked the date. They were two years old. They’d probably los some potency. Plus he outweighed Jess by about sixty pounds. He took the recommended dose, plus one extra tab. Then he went to bed.
Gary’s hands were bound in with rough, rawhide cords. The savages had him. All of his power, all of his studying, all of his training. And it wasn’t good enough. The savages still took him. And now he was going to die.
They threw him to the ground in front of the chief. Behind him, an enormous bonfire roared. Among the burning timbers, he could still make out the charred form of Tak. Poor, loyal Tak. Gary could hear the sizzling of the fat beneath his skin.
The chief glared at him from behind a horse-skull mask. “Tell us what your masters have done with my daughter, Conjure Man!”
Gary felt the heat of the flames against his skin. He sat up. He tried to say something, but his mouth was too dry. All that came out was a hoarse croak. He worked his tongue back and forth, to moisten his lips.
An instant later pain exploded against his head. He back fell to the ground. A warrior stood above him, holding a short, sharp stone pick. The tip was red and wet.
“No spells, sorcerer. Keep your spirits on your tongue. Or I will cut it out.”
Gary reached up and touched the fresh gash on his forehead. It was an old superstition among the savage tribes. They believed that Witch Men and sorcerers couldn’t use their powers if they suffered a wound to the Third Eye. And like many superstitions, this one was true.
Only the young imbicile had missed his mark by about an inch. Gary hid a smile. He could beat these fools yet. He just needed to buy time.
He began to tremble. He let out a long, low whine. “Please! Spare me, oh great Lord of the Wastes! I’ll tell you everything I know!”
The chief smiled, showing a row of rotten, blackened teeth beneath the horse’s mandible. He pointed at Gary, and he raised a fist in the air. The gathered tribe let out a cheer. Then the chief began to chant his own name.
“Savrik! Savrik! Savrik!” The tribe took up behind him.
That’s right. Eat it up, you horse-headed halfwit.
Gary continued to cry and beg at the chief’s feet. At the same time, he focused his Third Eye. The savages and their camp disappeared, giving way to a cloudy gray plain. In the murk, he could see dark shapes. They were indistinct, like shadows against shadows. They moved like insects, crawling and skittering. Some were no larger than his hand. Others were bigger than a Goliath Bear.
In his Astral Voice, he called to one of the big ones.
Around him, the chanting of the warriors died down. The chief was standing over him. “You cry like a woman, sorcerer. And I grow tired of hearing it. Now tell me! Where have your masters taken my daughter?”
“Why, back to the Needle, of course.”
Gary’s answer stopped the chief in his bluster. “What?”
“You heard me, Savrik. The Masters of the Needle have her. And if you and your people hadn’t been so stupid, I might have even helped you find her.” In the fire, the logs began to move.
“You’ll speak to me with respect, sorcerer. Or you’ll be joining your friend in the fire soon.”
Now Gary smiled openly. “No, I won’t. In fact, I believe he’ll be joining us.”
There was a loud crash, almost like a thunderclap. Flaming logs scattered across the camp. Warriors cried out in fear. The thing that stumbled out of the fire was wearing Tak’s body. But it was roaring for blood with an Astral Voice.
Gary woke up at noon. He sat up groggily. Again, artificial smells and stale, stagnant air assaulted his nose. He opened the window, and he poured himself another four fingers of whiskey.
His head hurt. He reached up, and he felt a tackiness there. And pain. He made his way to the bathroom mirror. There was a gash on his forehead. Just off center, to the left of where his Third Eye was.
In the dream, he corrected himself. Where the Third Eye was in the dream.
There were three messages on his phone. He already had a pretty good idea what they were going to be. The first two were from the floor supervisor, asking him where he was. The last one was from the daytime manager, informing him that he would be receiving a final paycheck in the mail.
“You took two weeks of sick time without a doctor’s note, Gary. You showed up smelling like alcohol yesterday. And now, you’re a no call, no show. You aren’t leaving me any choice. I’ve already talked to Human Resources. We’re going to have to replace you with someone more reliable.”
Well, at least that meant he didn’t have to go out today.
At about four o’clock, he got another message on his voicemail. This one was from Jess. She’d heard that he’d been acting funny lately. Missing work. Not talking to friends. She just wanted to know if he was all right.
“I’m sorry I hurt you. I never meant it to be this way. Please, just call me back and tell me how you’re doing. Okay?”
By nightfall, she’d called two more times. He didn’t answer either one. He looked around the room. It was such a small place, his apartment. He felt so closed in. So trapped. But he knew that going outside wouldn’t be any better. He’d still have to deal with the dirty air, the artificial light, and the stink and the feel of people all around him. Their perfumes. Their soaps. And their endless chatter.
In the Wastelands, they wouldn’t last. Their noise and their smell would attract Goliath Bears. Or worse.
He thought of the dream again. The clean air. The smells. The life and the freedom. Even the last dream, with its sense of danger and terror, was so much more vivid and so much livelier than this dull, shitty life.
I don’t even work at a fucking department store anymore. I’ve got nothing. Nothing to look forward to, except those dreams.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He did have half a bottle of Ambien left. And he still had his cell phone.
He washed the pills down with the rest of the whiskey, and he dialed the number one last time. The line rang. The cheesy Conan-like music came on. And the distant, far off recording of the voice followed it.
“You are a man of action, Gary. You long for the days of High Adventure. Even if it means your life.”
Gary laughed. The recording knew his name. He could feel the pills working already. He felt drowsy.
“Are you a sorcerer? Or are you a warrior chief? Press 1 for sorcerer. Press 2 for warrior.”
By the time the line went dead, Gary didn’t even remember what number he’d pressed.
*The book of prompts was The Writer's Block by Jason Rekulak, a gift my wife bought me to encourage my writing some years back. It's still available.
Earlier this week, the topic of classes in Dungeons & Dragons popped up in my Twitter feed again. More specifically, the question of whether or not the classes successfully represented fantasy archetypes.
Now, maybe in current editions—particularly the overstuffed and bland 5th edition—you could argue those classes don't represent much of anything. But in classic editions like OD&D? They absolutely do represent archetypes.
The Fighting-Man, the Magic-user and the Thief all have direct literary antecedents in the fiction that inspired the game. The Fighting-Man is none other than Edgar Rice Burroughs' Virginia fighting-man, John Carter. He's also Conan. He's also Eric John Stark. The Magic-User? Take your pick. He could be any of the magic-users from Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Or Harold Shea from The Compleat Enchanter. He could be Elric. Or Corwin. Thieves? Gary Gygax's Appendix N is lousy them, most notably the two best thieves in Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber's legendary Fafhrd and Gray Mouser.
The classes—the core classes at least—most certainly do represent archetypes. They're the archetypes of classic pulp fantasy.
What's more, those three archetypes—broadly speaking, the Strong Guy, the Mystic Guy, and the Sneaky Guy—represent just about every possible solution to a problem you could run into.
The only one missing is the Cleric.
Surely, the Cleric's design is just a function of pure game mechanics—a need to have a "healer" class to go delving with. It's not really archetypal at all, right?
Hold your horses.
The basic problem with assigning the Cleric a fantasy archetype like the other three is in looking to the same sources for its inspiration. But the Cleric doesn't have pulp fantasy roots. I'd argue his archetype is actually something much older and more primal than that.
In his wonderful video on dungeon theory-crafting, Dungeon Design and You, Mr. Wargaming outlined and explained some of the metaphysical and spiritual ideas surrounding the concept of "the Underworld," and how they apply to gaming.
Mr. Wargaming was, by his own admission, drawing on the work of other great gamers and thinkers on the subject, notably Jason Cone and his famous segment on "The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld" from Philotomy's Musings. But Mr. Wargaming's video is a much more succinct, accessible, and thorough discussion on the topic than anyone else has given to date, and if you haven't watched it yet, I'd highly encourage you to do so.
In brief, what Mr. Wargaming describes as "the Dungeon" or "the Underworld" isn't just a cave filled with kobold bandits. It's a place where the rules of reality itself are suspended the deeper you go, because you're getting farther from the light (sun) and the source of goodness, closer to the sources of Evil and Chaos.
The parallels with Hell and pandemonium are in no way coincidental.
So what does all this have to do with the Cleric?
Simply that if you think of the game in terms of the Mythic Underworld, Hell, and Chaos, the Cleric archetype is—quite literally—the opposite of all that. If Chaos, Hell, and a march toward Entropy are what define the Underworld, then Humanity, building greater creations, and adherence to the gods' Laws are what define the surface world. If that's so, then the Cleric as an archetype isn't just Humanity, it's a Humanity perfectly in touch with the Divine.
What's more, it's Humanity taking its faith in the Divine down into the dark places for a reckoning. It is the good, the holy, and the natural going down into the earth to cleanse the evil, the unholy, and unnatural. Parallels with Dante obviously spring to mind here. So does Jesus' harrowing of Hell. Not to mention much older things like the myth of Ishtar, descending from the world of natural laws, into the foreboding Underworld realm of her sister goddess Ereshkigal.
For those unfamiliar with the Ishtar myth, Ishtar passes through seven gates, each time removing an item of her regalia, in the end becoming naked and powerless, and having to trust the power of her own name as a goddess to guard her against her sister. It ends up being a mistake, but the point stands.
What can I say? Sometimes, you TPK or get captured...
The point is, this is a far older and far stronger archetype than anything in Sword & Sorcery fiction. We're talking the stuff of myth, legend, and religion here. We're talking about archetypes as old as the recorded word itself, if not as old as humanity.
The Cleric's Archetype is the Divine—and our faith in it—against the deep, dark Underworld, when all the other weapons we have are useless.
Though I don't entirely agree with everything the man wrote, there's a damn good reason that almost half of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand faces describes a pattern in which the hero descends into an underworld. It's because these symbols are powerful, and hold powerful meanings around the world and across cultures. They're as close to hardwired into the human mind as anything can be.
Admittedly, all this is heavy stuff for a game of make-believe about Elves and Goblins. You may wonder why it's worth even adding this stuff in. But what guys like Jason Cone, Mr. Wargaming, and I are pointing out is that you're not really adding it in. This stuff has been there all along, just beneath the surface. You just need to know where to look.
Start by playing a Cleric.
It will all unfold naturally from there.
In case you missed it, I was invited to write a guest blog over at DMR Books earlier this week. The subject was A. Merritt's incomparable proto-Sword & Sorcery novel The Ship of Ishtar, but the larger topic was the idea of "adult" fantasy, and how it's far bigger and more meaningful than just violence, sex, and swearing.
You can read the whole thing here.
DMR has actually honored me by asking me to participate in their annual Guest Bloggeramma event for three years running now. It's always both humbling and exciting to be included among the talent Dave Ritzlin and Deuce Richardson gather up each January. The writers they invite are some of the very best essayists and fictioneers in the pulp and Sword & Sorcery fields, and getting to throw my $.02 in alongside them is just as big a thrill as seeing what they have to offer every year.
For completeness' sake, (and on the off chance any readers here missed them the first time around) here are links to my other two articles.
The first is 2020's, which was a deep dive into the hidden history of John Bloodstone's novel Thundar: Man of Two Worlds. Read it here.
The second is from 2019, which was a comparison and retrospective of Robert E. Howard's two stories about the 1014 battle that ended Viking rule in Ireland, "The Grey God Passes" and "Spears of Clontarf." Read it here.
Say one thing for Alexandru Constantin: you can't accuse him of being a man who complains without taking action.
Case in point: when he felt there weren't enough conservative voices in the critical sphere--an opinion he is far from alone in sharing, by the way—he decided to organize the Short Story Book Club. His stated goal is two-fold: create a body of conservative, countercultural criticism, and draw more attention to indie writers overlooked by mainstream media outlets.
I believe both of these ideals are 100% worthwhile, so I'm throwing my hat into the ring to help out.
The fact that the first story Constantin selected for this project is Schuyler Hernstrom's awesome novella, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City?"
Man, that's just gravy.
I first reviewed Hernstrom's story two years ago, when he released it as a standalone e-book on Amazon. You can find that spoiler-filled review here, and it still sums up my overall feelings on this story: It's a balls-to-the-wall awesome piece of science fantasy, the likes of which no one outside the #PulpRev community is writing anymore. It's also a brutally sincere and final rebuttal of Ursula K. Le Guin's Hugo-award winning parable, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."
I'm not going to rehash my old review here. Rather, I'm going to expand on it with a couple of details I noticed during last night's reread of both Le Guin's "Omelas," and of Hernstrom's vastly superior "Mortu and Kyrus." It's also probably going to be just as spoiler-filled as my first review, so be forewarned.
That said, a brief aside before continuing with the analysis:
In terms of pure entertainment, I can't recommend Hernstrom's story enough. And if all you're craving is a dose of pure, adrenaline-filled awesomeness with alien ruins, axe-wielding barbarians, motorcycles, and talking monkeys, then stop reading this review NOW. Buy Hernstrom's new collection, The Eye of Sounnu from DMR Books, which is where you can read this slice of pure heavy-metal havoc.
I promise, you won't be disappointed.
Reader, time has not been kind to my opinion of Le Guin's piece. I've never been much of a fan, mostly because the moral premise it presents is shoddy at best, but certain passages that I overlooked on previous readings jumped out at me last night.
In a nutshell, Le Guin's parable envisions a "perfect society," a perfectly happy city called Omelas, where that happiness is somehow maintained solely via the horrible abuse and neglect of a single child locked in a basement. The parable then talks about the "ones who walk away" upon learning of this suffering. They leave the city, never to return, and this is presented as "remarkable."
In previous readings, I guess I focused mostly on the "stinger" of the horribly abused kid sitting in his or her own filth, because I didn't really remember much of Le Guin's description of her vision of what Omelas' "perfect" society must look like—she repeatedly reminds the reader that they can picture Omelas however they like, as the details don't matter, just as long as the reader believes what he or she pictures.
Anyway, this short excerpt is rather telling, but the emphasis at the end is mine:
But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, and horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger, who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas—at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine souffles to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh. Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the glory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all. One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt. But what else should there be? I thought at first there were not drugs, but that is puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very arcana and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond belief; and it is not habit-forming. For more modest tastes I think there ought to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of victory, surely, the celebration of courage. But as we did without clergy, let us do without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial.
Apparently, utopia is a place of guilt-free orgies in the streets, cheap drugs, and no soldiers. Not to mention no organized religion or temples. In other words, the perfect society—or at least the outward veneer of one—is a hippie Utopia.
Color me shocked.
At any rate, what's especially fascinating to me is that last part in Le Guin's excerpt, the part about no soldiers.
To casually dismiss "the sense of victory and the celebration of courage" felt by soldiers as "the joy built upon successful slaughter" is—at best—a remarkably narrow-minded view of what fighting men actually do, and why they do it. Soldiers fight for many reasons, not least of which is to preserve life from hideous vultures like the ones in Omelas.
Incidentally, the word she's looking for to describe that odd, swelling-in-the-chest feeling about victory and courage? It's "honor."
And no, I won't presume the unnamed narrator of Le Guin's piece is acting as a mouthpiece for her personal beliefs. However, I will say that it's no wonder her narrator—who only sees a soldier's honor as a celebration of killing for killing's sake—can't imagine of any response to evil other than meek compliance or running away.
A coward's worldview can only conceive of coward's solutions, after all, and Le Guin wrote a damnably convincing one.
Compare this to Schuyler Hernstrom's characters, when they encounter a more fleshed out version of Omelas in his White City.
When they learn this near-perfect utopia is maintained through stealing the life-force of orphaned children, Christian monk Kyrus wants to go get reinforcements from the nearby city of Zantyum. He wants to raise an expedition to bring the evil denizens of the White City to justice. Barbarian Mortu, however, refuses to wait that long. His response is destined to become one of the classic lines in Sword & Sorcery fiction:
"You may talk of cities and justice all you wish. Tonight, the pagan wins. My anger will be sated and these wicked people brought to ruin."
He then stalks out into the night to deliver bloody justice on the end of a blade.
Fortunately for lovers of action and adventure, Hernstrom's White City isn't quite as peaceful or devoid of soldiers as Le Guin's vision of Omelas. There's enough violence on display at the climax to be satisfying without being the least bit gratuitous, especially Mortu's final duel with rival Tomas.
Their exchange during the climactic fight is another one that escaped me last reading, among all the other great lines Hernstrom delivers in this tale. Again, the emphasis is mine:
...Mortu smiled down at him and spoke. "The souls of the children cry out for vengeance."
That exchange might as well be a thesis statement for this tale, and for why I love these two characters so much. In Mortu and Kyrus, Hernstrom gave us a pair of heroes who couldn't just walk away from Omelas. He gave us heroes who not only had to do something, but who had both the courage and strength to tear the whole rotten thing down to its foundation.
Of course, that's a solution requiring a less cowardly worldview than the one presented in Le Guin's story. For one thing, it requires such "fearful" and "trivial" things as honor, a subject about which her narrator apparently knows nothing.
Fortunately, the same can't be said for Mortu and Kyrus. Nor could it be said, one would suppose, for Schuyler Hernstrom.
Unsurprisingly, the debate concerning gender roles in Sword and Sorcery rages on...
Morgan Holmes' latest article on the subject offers a compelling look at the raw numbers, in addition to some more anecdotes and observations about the shifts that occurred in the publishing industry. If you've been following the argument with any interest, I highly recommend it.
Anyway, in a comment below the article on social media, Jason Ray Carney made the following statement:
"It seems you’re making incompatible claims in order to strategically adapt to changing rhetorical needs (the hallmark of tendentiousness). In the past you claimed that epic poetry endures and appeals widely because it manifests something like universal, anthroprological insights and lessons about being a human male; now, when that same appeal to universality is deployed against you, the spirit moves you and you become cultural relativists. Where was this enlightened, relativistic view of culture when you were discussing masculinity and epic poetry? Can’t you see what you’re doing?"
To clarify, Carney is referring to a comment I made some weeks back under a separate thread, where I drew comparisons between the Men's Adventure genre, Sword and Sorcery, and the heroic tradition exemplified by epic poems like Beowulf and The Iliad.
I responded (briefly) in the thread, but I wanted to organize and expand my thoughts on that comparison here. What follows is likely my last word on the subject for now, a sort of "closing argument" from Brain Leakage.
The fact is, I've only encountered other people reading The Iliad in two places.
The first one was in the classroom, where it was assigned reading. The guided discussion there hewed fairly close to what Jason Ray Carney talks about when he mentions our "gender-neutral, all-too-human struggle against (and inevitable defeat by) time." A major topic of the discussion was mortality, and the finite nature of life.
The second place was in the Marine Corps, where several of my buddies passed a copy around the barracks. We ended up discussing it late nights over beers, while cleaning weapons at the armory, and while hanging out around the smoke pit.
The subject of those talks?
The courage of Hector, standing alone before the walls of Troy. How that courage momentarily broke when he was faced with the wrath of Achilles. How he found it again, to stand and face his own death. Achilles' desecration of Hector. His eventual remorse and mercy towards the grieving Priam.
In short, we were discussing what warrior virtues were and weren't modeled by the characters. Granted, we used more f-bombs and euphemisms for female anatomy than most scholarly works on the subject do.
But those raw, profane, and—above all--sincere discussions by a bunch of young men in the barracks had something those classroom sessions lacked.
We were engaging with the story in its natural habitat.
You see, tales like The Iliad and Beowulf weren't born in the classroom or the lecture hall. They weren't even born in the grand auditoriums of the classical world.
They were born by the fireside.
Long before these stories were ever written down, they were oral tales told to young warriors and would-be warriors, modeling idealized warrior behavior. Songs of great men to inspire and instruct the neophytes, as they sharpened their spears for the coming battle.
Glory and immortality went to those who displayed strength and bravery. Dying a glorious death was better than running away. Honor meant loyalty to your king, loyalty to your home, and loyalty to your brothers.
Simple lessons, but timeless ones. And still applicable to modern warriors.
Which, of course, raises the question: what about warrior behavior is distinctly masculine? Aren't idealized warrior traits as "gender neutral" as Jason Ray Carney's "all-too-human struggle against (...) time?"
No, they're not.
Historically, men have been expected to serve and perform as warriors in a way (and on a scale) that women simply haven't. Yes, there have been examples of women warriors throughout history. Nancy Wake and Leigh Ann Hester spring immediately to mind.
But no matter how many Nancy Wakes or Leigh Ann Hesters a society produces, its women as a whole will never be judged by their ability or failure to perform as warriors.
But its men will be.
Strength, fighting prowess, and physical courage aren't considered masculine traits because only men can display them. They're considered masculine traits because only men are ever judged deficient for lacking them.
And sure, you can say that's an outdated definition of masculinity. You can call it backwards, sexist, regressive, or whatever other word you want to throw at it. You can even call it "toxic," if you want to use the fashionable term.
Hell, you might even be right.
But those young men huddled around that Bronze Age fire? The ones listening to tales of Achilles to bolster their courage? I don't think they'd agree. Neither would those foul-mouthed young Marines, discussing the same stories almost 3000 years later.
I'm going to close with a quote from an article I wrote for DMR Books back in January:
"Critic Damon Knight once made the half-assed assertion that 'the human race has never produced and never could produce such a man' as Howard's Conan. I say anybody who believes that has obviously never heard of Arminius, Miyamoto Musashi, or Audie Murphy.
The fact is, there's a damn good reason so much of storytelling throughout human history has focused on men like Achilles, Hector, and Brian Boru. A society with a heroic tradition is a society that produces men capable of heroic acts. There's a primal, almost intrinsic need for these stories.
It's a need that few writers understood as well as Robert E. Howard."
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.