Friday, 24 July 2015

Science And Magic - And The Arcanist

Hi guys,


People often ask me where as a writer I get my ideas from. Usually I resist saying something like the bottom of a packet of cornflakes and try to give them some sort of vaguely intelligent answer. But the truth is I often don't know. This is one reason I seldom tell people in the offline world that I'm a writer. In the case of the Arcanist I do actually know where the idea came from though. The Arcanist and a companion book which has yet to be finished were written as a response to one of my favourite computer games of all time – Arcanum. A game which sadly doesn't seem to run on either Vista or Seven – at least not for me.


Arcanum was a fun role play game which I spent uncounted hours playing before finally retiring that computer due to advanced old age and worn out keys! And while it was similar to many other role play games of the time it had one aspect that I found fascinating. The interaction between technology and magic.


In Arcanum magic and technology oppose one another, with each the downfall of the other. So for example wizards had to ride in the back of trains, as far from the engine as possible, because their mere magical presence might upset the delicate workings of the steam engine. Meanwhile the presence of technology might upset the ethereal balance of spells.


This dynamic also impacted directly on how you designed your character. If you wanted a spell caster to run around and zap people, you needed to make sure that he didn't learn any technological skills and only grew in certain attributes. Otherwise you'd end up with a weak character – which was never good when it came to fighting the big bad and winning the game. Similarly if you wanted a technologist as your character, you had to advance only certain technological skills and attributes or risk having his guns misfire etc.


That dialectic between magic and technology stuck with me for many years, not least because I realised that it is a tension that exists in the real world of the twenty first century. One that began in my view with the age of enlightenment and reason. Because science and magic are both aspects of two opposing world views.


Science is part of what is often called the materialist world view. The belief – and I use that word intentionally – that the universe can be understood. That it is all nuts and bolts, atoms and forces. And that if only we have enough time and knowledge we will eventually be able to weigh and measure, name and put to work everything there is. Nothing is beyond logic and reason.


Standing against this is the world view of the idealist. A view that says yes hey, science is wonderful and all, but it's not everything. There is more to this universe than those things that can be weighed and measured. That there are things called souls and true free will. That there is an actual right and wrong and life has a purpose. And that those who attempt to put everything in little rational boxes are actually cheapening the whole meaning of what it is to be human.


As you can see these two world views oppose one another directly and so for those who are firmly stuck in one camp the other is a complete load of twaddle.


Enough said about the philosophical side of things. I could waffle about this stuff for hours and bore the pants off you – please check that your belts are still done up(!) – but instead what fascinates me about this as a writer is the practical side of this debate. And despite the fact that all this sounds dry and academic there is a practical side.


What occurred to me is that for the past few centuries the world view of materialism has been in the ascendant. Ever since science started uncovering the explanations for many things that formerly seemed mysterious, the materialist has been crowing. Believing more and more strongly that everything is pure nuts and bolts.


But – and this is what mattered to me – as belief in the materialist world view strengthens it necessarily means that belief in the idealist world view weakens. That those who believe in magic and spirits and whatever else, are little by little relegated to the category of fools and madmen. They are considered delusional and sometimes even called liars and con men.


As a writer the question that struck me was what does any of this mean for magic and the unexplained? Especially if as many claim, magic is dependant in part upon belief? Does magic work but we simply refuse to believe it? Does it not work because the collective will is so anti-magic that it can't? And perhaps even more strangely – does science itself work in part because we believe in it?


It was this understanding that led me to start writing two books last year based on the opposite interactions between magic and technology. Both books began with the same character in the same social position; a man with a knowledge of technology and the gift of magic, but living in two completely opposite worlds. Superhero fans will probably think bizarro worlds here!


The first book was one in which magic and technology complimented one another. This is the book that became The Arcanist. The second world was one in which magic and technology interfered with one another as in Arcanum. That book, which may yet be finished one day, is tentatively called Wings.


Both books became in part an exploration of what it would mean for the worlds to have magic and technology both and for these forces and understandings to either work together or at cross purposes. They were also an exploration of what it would mean for a technologically minded man to have magic.


In one world for a technologist to have magic would be a complete disaster as it would undo everything he strived to achieve. Imagine him building a flying machine and have it fall out of the skies because there was wild magic in his bones. Equally for the world itself it would be a disaster as societies could not advance. Technological advances would be undercut by magic. Magical advances would be undercut by technology.


Given this, and the desire of all societies to advance, my thought was that this sort of world would swiftly become divided and isolationist. The natural inclination would be to isolate magic and technology with some cities and lands embracing technology, some embracing magic. In time those with one or other of the particular arts would find themselves forced to live in the appropriate land.


That is the world of Wings, where a died in the wool technologist suddenly finds his world turned completely upside down as he discovers he has magic – at the same time as all the technological devices around him start failing!


In the other world of course a technologist would welcome magic. Just imagine how much better his inventions would work with a spark of magic to boost them. Consider a gun built with both the best metallurgy and chemistry known and then boosted with a spark of magic. That would be a weapon to fear! Or how about spells enhanced by wizards who apply technological principles to them.


This is the world of The Arcanist where our hero has had both the aptitude for technology and the spark of magic for his entire life. And where he uses both to win his battle.


Anyway, enough rambling from me. Now you can all go rushing out to second hand stores and start hunting down old computer games!


Cheers, Greg.





Sunday, 5 July 2015

Real Villains


Hi Guys,



(All graphic elements were taken from PhotoMorgue.)

New topic for me. Having completed the first draft of the third volume of the Wizard At Law books – Money Matters, I had a little time on my hands. Enough time to create new covers for all three of them, and then to go on my various fora and get back into some serious chatting with other writers.
On one of them a question was asked that fascinated me. Not so much for the question itself, as what it said about the entire genre of fantasy and where it's heading. And yet on the face of it the question was a stupidly simple one. How do we make our villains more real?
This is a topic I have touched on briefly before when I wrote about not really wanting to understand villains – just dispatch them. But it's not really something I've explored in any depth. This time though I want to go into the psyche of the fantasy villain in more depth. In particular the concept of making the villain more “real” and the place of this within the modern fantasy sub-genre known as grimdark.
Grimdark is as the name implies, simply a movement in the genre towards the creation of worlds and characters that are more gritty – grim and dark. It is a movement where the heroes are flawed and the villains are often as much misunderstood victims as they are actual villains. And currently the best example of this movement and certainly one of the most popular is George R. R. Martin's Game of thrones. In his world, every hero has feet of clay and every villain has a reason for being as dark and terrible as he or she is.
Proponents of grimdark, and fans of course, will argue that this is more real. That real life is not black and white. That there are no white knights slaying evil dragons. And on the face of it that almost seems reasonable – until you remember that we're all writing fantasy! But then when another writer asked that simple question I I turn had to wonder – is it actually any more “real” than what preceded it? And my thought is that it actually isn't.
The movement towards grimdark in fantasy in my view has been born of a dissatisfaction with and a rejection of the former typical heroic fantasy of the golden age of science fiction and fantasy. It is a reaction to having read and seen too many heroes of pure nobility and courage and of course pure hearts, racing in to save the world from the dastardly villain – and maybe kill a dragon or two along the way. And I understand that. You can only read the same thing so many times before you start to want to read something new and fresh. But while it makes sense to want something new, it doesn't make sense to believe that that something new is more realistic. True the white knight and the Bond villain were not real. But neither are the new crop of fantasy heroes and villains.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly in my view, than in the villains.
Consider the archetypal big baddies. Starting with Ming the Merciless – and seriously what baddie would call himself “the merciless” to begin with – it sort of gives the entire game away as to who he is! Ming was a simple villain. He wanted nothing more than ultimate power and to rule the universe, while his arch enemy Flash Gordon was the all American hero. Really there wasn't a lot of character development that went into our baddie. His motivation was simply a lust for power and that was enough to explain him.
And that pattern has continued for decades with a while host of Bond villains. You know the ones – petting their cats and coming up with ingenious plans to take over the world. They had no great depth until the more recent movies. And obviously this is no longer enough for audiences.
So obviously as writers we can't use these archetypes so much any more as a basis for our villains. But what do we use instead? Because that is where grimdark falls down.
We can't use real villains, no matter how much we want to make our villains more “real”. The reason is unfortunately as simple as it is sad. Real villains are sort of pathetic. Most of those who commit serious crimes, are from bad homes, raised with little in the way of education, and by and large simply aren't very bright. The reason they commit their crimes is usually a horrible lack of coping strategies. They actually find themselves in difficult situations and the only way they can think to get out of them is by doing something bad. As a basis for arch-villains they would by and large be unconvincing and boring.
Sociopaths became rather fertile ground to explore with the advent of villains like Hannibal. And for a while we were all thrilled by the idea of this super-intelligent plotter with no moral compass. But unfortunately while sociopathy is not nearly as rare as we would like it to be, the reality is that most sociopathic criminals aren't incredibly smart. In fact they aren't particularly smart at all. For a rather disturbing view of one of them you should watch the interviews done with Richard Kuklinski – the Iceman as he was known. With what is believed to be over a hundred assassinations that can be laid at his door, the man was cold and not particularly bright, with a violent temper and little actual understanding of people.
In reality the reason he was not caught for so long was that he was protected by organised crime and there was no relationship between him and his victims and therefore no reason to suspect him. It is this same lack of connection between victim and killer that makes most serial killers harder to catch than others – not any great intelligence.
Last I suppose there's the tortured soul. The angst ridden, long suffering wretch who is so twisted up inside that he can do the most vile things. Probably the benchmark for grimdark villains. These are the ones that readers want to believe are real. But really are they? Yes there are such people in the world. Sadly I've worked in an institution and met some of these people. But the sad fact is that these people don't generally become major villains. They sometimes commit crimes, sometimes horrible crimes. But as to taking over the world etc, it's not usually in their compass. It's hard to be taken seriously as a master villain when you spend your days talking to yourself, or curled up in a corner staring at a wall. And that's the sad fact of the matter. The more tormented the soul is the more likely the man is to be so badly broken that his capability to be an arch villain is destroyed.
Which brings us back to the central thrust of this post. The question that was asked. How can we as writers make our villains more “real”? And my answer is that we can't.
This is fantasy, and the villains we write are not real at all. They never were. They weren't real when they were archetypal power crazed despots and Bond villains. They weren't real when they were super-intelligent sociopaths. They weren't super-villains when they were based on actual criminals and in fact they were too boring for the most part to even pen. They weren't real either when they were tortured souls reacting to the horror's of their past lives.
Grimdark is no more “real” than heroic fantasy was before it.
So my thought is that as authors instead of concerning ourselves with questions like how real our villains are, we should instead ask the more accurate question – how believable are they? Because that's what people actually mean when they talk about “real”.
Well, enough wild ranting from me for one day. As always be good or don't get caught.
Cheers, Greg.