fantasy, Uncategorized

Why Sword and Sorcery Is Obsolete

As a pre-teen, I devoured sword and sorcery. Even then, I could see most of it was mediocre at best. The sole exception was Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, which was rarely about hack and slash, and first made me aware that fantasy could be humorous and ironic.Leiber, at least, stilll holds up today (In fact, I wrote and published a Master’s thesis on his career). But unfortunately, Leiber was never typical S & S. So when I recently came across a magazine whose goal is to revive S & S, I had to wonder why anyone would want to. The conventions of S & S date both badly and embarrassing.

The most obvious convention is the portrayal of women. In vintage S & S, women are accessories. They kneel at the hero’s feet and gaze lustfully up at his face in a way that leaves no doubt who is the dom and who is the sub in the relation. Often they are manacled. At the end of the story, they tumble into bed with the hero, only to mysteriously disappear before the start of the next adventure. Personally, I suspect the hero sold them for drinking money. Yes, you can point to C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry or Joanna Russ’ Alyx, but they are exceptions, and you can’t easily find them to point out. Vintage S & S is toxic masculinity, soaked with the outlook of a boy who has just discovered puberty, but is still a little nervous about girls and probably doesn’t know any

Less obviously, S & S is still enmired in a concept of other cultures that was dead and rotting before the twentieth century. This concept is seen in the typical barbarian hero — a simple, but honest Noble Savage who is always pitted against the corruption of civilization. S & S rarely stops to consider that such a character never existed, and is essentially racist. A true member of a culture that S & S labels “barbarian” may be unable to read, but is likely to have tens of thousands of lines of poetic wisdom stored in their heads. Probably, too, they can rattle off complicated family relationships and social obligations. They may have no agriculture because they live in a rich environment where you would have to be stupid to starve. Or perhaps their agriculture is centered on practices like clam farms or the rights to a defined hunting ground that the so-called civilized eye misses because it doesn’t expect them. They may even have breathtaking arts. In any event, they are not ill-bred half-wits like Conan. And far from despising or being over-awed by technologically advanced cultures, they will gladly trade with them and cheerily borrow anything that might enrich their daily lives. Barbarians are a stale fictional conceit that has been kept alive only by roleplaying games. In real life, there are only humans with different cultures.

Most of the time, Sword and Sorcery has one basic plot. And it’s not the Hero’s Journey, the story of how a character matures and becomes useful to their society. Instead, the story is a power fantasy, a tale of how brawn and pigheadedness win out over wits and knowledge, traits that are often personified by evil wizards. It is, in the most literal sense of the word, puerile — the outlook of a naive teenage boy who feels overwhelmed by looming adulthood and longs to imagine himself superior to it. There’s a reason Sword and Sorcery has become unpopular in recent decades: shackled with such conventions, it is nearly impossible to write a story in the genre that is meaningful in today’s world. The genre deserves to stay buried — or, better yet, cremated, and the ashes scattered to the winds where they can never be reassembled.

General Writing

Why I’m a Writer, Not a Gamer

Towards the end of his life, Fritz Leiber, the writer of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, was a guest at GenCon IX. Before he attended, he made clear to the organizers that, although he wrote fantasy, he did not play D&D or any other games – not even the newly released Game of Lankhmar, which was based on his stories. He would rather use his imagination for writing, he explained.

As a young man and enthusiastic gamer, I was taken aback by this comment from one of my heroes. How could anyone dismiss gaming in that way?

Many years latter – yesterday, to be precise – I found myself echoing his sentiments. Practicing social distancing in the middle of this pandemic, I wondered if buying a few games would help me endure until happier times. Going to the Humble Bundle site, I scanned various offerings, watching the videos for a dozen or so of them – and quickly found myself bored. The back story for the fantasy games I investigated all seem unmaginative. Even before the 60-90 seconds of a trailer was over, I found myself clicking impatiently, hoping for something different. I never found it. Nor did flipping to other game sites give me a different experience. Having weaned myself on games some years ago, I had no desire to return to them. Like Leiber, I would rather focus on my own stories.

This reaction puts me at odds with many younger writers I encounter online. Many of them live and breathe games, and often refer to them, leaving me to do a furtive search to learn what they are talking about. So what has happened to me?

Partly, I’m no longer the audience for games. The last time I read only fantasy, I was in my middle teens. I still have a serious fiction addiction, but, unlike the average gamer’s, it is fed not only by fantasy, but by mysteries, hnistoricals, and mainstream offerings as well. All these genres add up to more than I could read in one lifetime. Consequently, I no longer have to rely on the mediocre to service my addiction – and modern games do not appear to value originality to any extent. If anything, the demands of the marketplace mean that the opposite is true. Unless I am mistaken, gamers want more of the same.

Just as importantly, to me, games seem to be all about vicariously living. At the end of a dreary day at work, many of the gamers I know snatch a brief nap, then spend as much of the evening as possible immersed in their game of the moment. Often dinner is a snack while still at the keyboard.

By contrast, as a freelance writer, my work day is as close as I can expect to life of leisure. Writing about open source software, my work is often meaningful. When I’m finished for the day, I’m satisfied, not drained. Usually, I’m not looking for escape, but something as meaningful as my paying work. I find that in writing, and my dreams of finishing my work in progress. Gaming seems – how shall I put it delicately? – frankly shallow in comparison. I no longer have to rely on someone else to feel like I’m living.

However, the real reason I’m not a gamer is simple. Even if a game does engage my mind (and I still have fond memories of several versions of Civ and various simulations), the kick from a game feels feeble these days to putting my own imagination on file. I’m engaged with my characters, and with fleshing out their world, and adding a few hundred words or inventing a telling detail is simply more satisfying than winning through to the end of a game. If I manage to publish, I imagine that will be even more satisfying, but even finishing a draft chapter is more fulfilling than the meaningless pleasure of a game.

I don’t regret the hours I squandered on games. Nor am I suggesting that every game should change their mind as much as I have. After all, who am I to dictate what someone else should do. All I am doing is describing my changing reactions. Still, if I had to summarize my feelings, games were the warm-up. Trying to write fiction is the main event. It took awhile, but I now thoroughly appreciate Leiber’s reaction at GenCon.