Author Quirks

February 27, 2013

Some authors have characteristic subjects that they return to again and again. I’m not talking about a writer’s distinctive stylistic voice, but rather the topics they choose to cover. In any narrative, some elements of the world are going to be picked out, given the most elaborate descriptions, subjected to the tightest scrutiny. There are not selected at random. Sometimes, events and objects get special attention because they are important to the development of the plot. Other times, they are more a product of the author’s particular personal interests.

Actually, “interests” may be the wrong word. The choice of which elements get more attention and elaboration may have less to do with what a writer finds of interest, and more to do with what the author thinks they can make particularly evocative. For no reason that I’m consciously aware of, I often start stories with people inspecting evidence of injury or death. A typical piece of my juvenilia began, “There was blood on his hands when he looked at them,” and my foremost heroine, Lyka Kaller, is introduced when she stops to inspect a man’s corpse, lying face-up in a dingy alley. Death and injury strike me as a dynamic way to start a story, but I don’t think I’ve ever had that thought explicitly in mind as I first put my pen to paper. The topics that are most characteristic of my writing just tend to show up, unless I make a specific effort to debar them from a particular narrative.

I wonder how much more successful science fiction and fantasy authors address this question. In some cases, the topical quirks are so central to an author’s style, that it would seem pointless (and, many fans would no doubt say, counterproductive) to try to avoid them. I can’t imagine Jack Vance sitting down to write a space opera that didn’t feature an array of unusual fictional cultures. I can, however, imagine him deciding before beginning a new work whether he was going to provide an overall explanation for why such cultures should exist (as in The Five Gold Bands or The Dragon Masters), or whether he was simply going to let loose with whatever weird ideas struck him—no overarching back story required.

On the other hand, Isaac Asimov was obsessed with robots, but he was fully capable of not writing about them. Roger Zelazny was willing to deviate from his basic “macho hero, macho heroine” (as I once heard it put) form. However, when either of these writers produced extended series, they tended to veer back into the direction of their characteristic tropes after a book or two. This may mean that they were running out of the more original ideas that made the first couple volumes of the series atypical. Or they may have been responding to their fans; after all, an author’s most die-hard fans are likely to be the people who are most entranced by that writer’s particular preferred subject matter. Frankly, while I have great admiration for all the authors I’ve mentioned here, I also think they’re all at their best when they deviate from their typical formulas. As a reader, I think what I like best in fiction is variety.

The Two Stones and Chup

February 24, 2013

I definitely like this part of the book, yet it nonetheless feels a bit like the story is marking time before the awesome return of the Elephant. I get this feeling every time I go through the story. The first time, I kept asking, “When are they going to get back to the Elephant?” On later readings, it’s, “I can’t wait til they get back to the Elephant.” There’s a lot of key character development here, but I still find myself hankering for more of the nuclear-powered tank. And I love elephants.

(I can’t remember whether my long-standing fascination with elephants arose before or after I first read this story. At around the same age—six or seven—I had a close encounter with Tombi, the baby African elephant at the zoo in Lansing, Michigan. She was very even tempered, as the zoo camp kids fed her in her enclosure. Her building had been constructed for a smaller Indian elephant, and she eventually outgrew it and moved to Indianapolis, where I happened upon her by chance two decades later with my wife and daughter. The peak of my fascination with elephants came later, in college, after we watched “The Elephants of Tsavo”—a beautiful but unintentionally humorous documentary about a place that’s much more famous for its man-eating lions.)

The encounter in the desert with the mirage plant is the highlight of these two chapters. I like real-world carnivorous flora, almost as much as pachyderms, and this is a really terrifying futuristic mutant version. The false pool is a physically sensible illusion, produced by the variation in the index of refraction of light across a rapid temperature gradient—the same way real watery mirages are produced in the desert. It’s an unusually hard bit of science fiction in what is generically a very soft SF story—although I wonder now how Thomas could have understood of the illusion worked.

In any case, the plant is a very effective natural hazard. The transition from a still pool—irregularly ringed with lesser plants, living there at the sufferance of the illusion’s master, in order to enhance the deception—to the mass of grasping, horny tendrils, surrounded by a strew of small animal bones, is distinctly scary. Moreover, the encounter provides a very natural way of introducing the Prisoner’s Stone, along with Olanthe’s full description of the Oasis.

Olanthe is really the first interesting female character in the story. So far, Charmian has only been observed—by Rolf and Elslood—from a distance; Manka barely appeared; and Sarah has shown no real traits beyond an attractive adolescent feistiness. Olanthe has already been developed more fully than any of them. We learn about her native culture and her initial uncertainty about helping the stranger Thomas. Then she artfully maneuvers to take the riskier job in facing the plant for herself, leaving Thomas rather befuddled. Finally, we learn why she and the other folk from the Oasis of the Two Stones (and incidentally, Thomas’s quip about the Oasis of the Dozen Stones is rather memorable) have reason to hate the Empire and so could be valuable to the Free Folk.

Chapter 8 covers events around the castle, with the point of view moving several times—from Ekuman, to Chup, to Rolf. The sequence of characters grows increasingly heroic and relatable, and this serves an important plot purpose by drawing a clear distinction between Ekuman and Chup. Both the satraps are villains, but their personalities are totally different. Saberhagen points out repeatedly, both in chapters 1 and 8, how much Ekuman enjoys holding power over others—his sadistic glee from having others quailing in fear before him. (Satrap Ekuman would have understood exactly what O’Brien meant when the told Winston Smith, “We are the priests of power.”) Chup, on the other hand, sees humans as being fundamentally of value—to be used, certainly, but not merely as objects to torment. He is cynical, but he respects drive and courage. When Rolf stepped forward to challenge him, Chup instantly respected him. Ekuman could never respect anything but power—the power of Som the Dead and the other lords of the East. And Chup, we learn, has never actually been to the East to pledge his service to the evil viceroy.

There’s a lot of intrigue surrounding Ekuman’s court, of which we’ll learn more in subsequent chapters. Next week will cover chapters 9 and 10.

The “How” of Magic

February 20, 2013

There are two kinds of wizards. Some rely on innate magical gifts or arcane lore they have committed to memory; their magic arises directly out of their persons. Others make use of magical instruments: wands, amulets, and rings; without these mechanisms, they are practically powerless. Both types are well represented in folklore and fantasy literature, but they can be very different types of characters and fit into quite different systems of supernatural power.

Wizards of the first type tend to seem more august, but not necessarily more powerful. Gandalf is a prototypical example, although he lies at the very high end of the power continuum. His ability to make fire is limited by his stamina and the need for something to burn, but he does not require his staff or any other instruments to get the job done. On the other hand, since Gandalf is a being from outside the normal world, he may not be the best exemplar; however, there are plenty of powerful wizards of this type who are clearly mortal men. Sparrowhawk, the Archmage of Earthsea, uses a form of magic that relies on his knowledge of the true speech. Wizards at the magic school of Roke spent years learning the true names of the plants, animals, and places on the islands of their world, so that they could control and command these things; and through careful observation of the world, powerful mages could discern new words, which they might then put to use.

This kind of magic is, of course, very important in role-playing games—both traditional ones like Dungeons & Dragons and the video game versions. The original magic system in D&D was based on a now-famous concept from Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth. It was a very minor part of the plot, in just a few of the earliest Dying Earth stories. In fact, Vance basically abandoned it in his later books. Yet this rather mechanical way of working magic turned out—mostly by chance, it seems—to be hugely influential. Vance’s system involved wizards studying their books and committing certain spells to memory. A wizard’s power was measured by how many such spells they could hold in their head. Each one could be discharged a single time, freeing up a slot to be refilled with another spell at a later date. This system was parodied in Terry Pratchett’s first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic (my favorite in the series). The mind of the protagonist, Rincewind, has no room for any more magic, since a single hugely powerful spell has taken of residence in his brain. (When he finally gets to cast this spell in the sequel, it’s rather a let-down.) Vance’s system was the first one used in fantasy a fantasy role-playing game. Criticized for its lack of flexibility, it has largely been replaced with points-based systems, but in both regimes, it’s a matter of a wizard harnessing their inner skill, not putting some artifact to work for them.

However, many wizards in literature seem to operate with nothing but artifacts—with no ability to conjure at all, if they are bereft of their impedimenta. The mighty sorcerer Thoth-Amon, whose affairs sometimes intersected with those of King Conan, derived all his power from a precious magical ring. Without it, he was just a man—a slave in a bandit lord’s house. But with it, he could summon demons that were untouchable with normal blades and race like the wind across the sea. As told in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” his ring “was of a metal like copper, and was made in the form of a scaled serpent, coiled in three loops, with its tail in its mouth. Its eyes were yellow gems which glittered balefully.” (While rings are very popular in fantasy, as carriers of great power, snakes really were totemic of power in ancient Egypt—upon with Thoth-Amon’s Stygian culture is very loosely based—and elsewhere in the Near East. In the Torah, Moses is instructed to make a magic staff topped with a bronze snake during the Hebrews’ wanderings. This story was probably composed to explain the origin of a real Jewish relic, which later writings describe being destroyed by the zealous King Hezekiah as part of his campaign against cultic influences in Judah.)

When magic works this way, spells can be of two types. Casting a spell may mean invoking the power of magic talisman; this is how Thoth-Amon summoned the demon in the first Conan story. The rituals required may be difficult and recondite, but they are typically not magical in of themselves; in the absence of an item of power, they would be meaningless. Alternatively, there may be no artifacts involved at all. To make a magic potion might require only knowledge of the right ingredients; any crone with a cauldron can be an evil witch in this way, if someone has taught her the recipes. I see this as the magic being spread out throughout the natural world, and the contribution of the magician is in bringing it together. This may require great skill, but an automaton could perform the necessary tasks as well as a human. There is no connection to the soul and consciousness of the brewer.

Naturally, the two views of magic do not represent a strict dichotomy. In fantasy worlds in which wizards draw their power from within, there may still be items of magical might. There is, for example, the ring of power in Smith’s “The Master of Crabs.” The magicians who are battling over the ring have their own innate powers, but possession of the ring could enhance these powers or afford entirely new ones. In a later Dying Earth story, the anti-hero Cugel finds a bracelet with the power to torment and control a stable of imprisoned demons. Whoever wears this bit of jewelry controls powerful magic—but this is a very different magic from Vance’s earlier, memorized kind.

In my own fantasy fiction, the distinction tends to be similarly blurry. There may be wizards with power running in their blood, but there are also items of indubitable enchantment, which function for whoever happens to hold them. However, I did once frame a discussion between two characters about the ambiguous magical of nature of some other items. Perhaps they are themselves magical; or perhaps they are fundamentally mundane, but were created by magic and made more perfect than the work of any normal craftsman could be.

In worlds like this, the distinction may be, at some level, merely one of terminology. Is mastering a magical item considered wizardry or something else? While this seems simple (or perhaps irrelevant) to address, the question is often left unresolved or only touched on in an unsatisfactory way. In Asprin’s MythAdventures parody series, the author pokes fun at a huge number of high and low fantasy tropes. (Sometimes the results are hilarious, and sometimes they fall painfully flat.) A few books in, Asprin introduces the character of Massha, who is initially described as a “mechanic”—a different kind of wizard who relies on artifact powers rather than spells. This is initially treated as merely a different approach to magic, but Asprin evidently changed his mind after a couple more books, and decided that Massha needed to learn “real magic” from the series’s main protagonists.

Another example of fuzzy thinking about these questions apparently led to one rather puzzling comment in the first edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. In discussing the tables used for randomly selecting magical treasures, the author E. Gary Gygax remarked that many of the magical item types would be primarily of interest to mages and similar characters. These were supposed to include staffs, rings, and the powerful category of miscellaneous items. When I first read this, I was already a very experienced D&D player, and I knew that this statement—as least with respect to the rings—made no sense at all. There were very few rings that were specifically suited to magic-users; most of these items could be put to good use by fighters, thieves, rangers, and all the like. Gygax appears to have expected D&D campaigns to accord with a certain version of western fantasy, in that mere possession of a magical ring would mark one as having a wizardly bent. This notion was entirely unfounded in all the games I ever played, because it was not consonant with the actual rules of the game; utilizing a magic ring was not a skill that was related to the skills of Vancian magic.

Not every fantasy story needs to address the question of how magical powers originate. Nor does the answer necessarily need to be consistent from one wizard to the next. Yet in fantasy with a more philosophical bent, this issue often strikes me as an important one, which influences how I see the setting—and how the setting’s wizards likely seem themselves. And when authors ignore the question entirely, they risk making jarring missteps, which can detract from otherwise interesting works.

Desert Storm and Technology

February 17, 2013

There’s a lot of action in this week’s two chapters. Chapter 5 concerns Thomas’s descent into the high desert. Deserts are perhaps the most prototypical hostile environment in adventure fiction. Jungles may be dark, disorienting, and hazardous, yet only because they abound with life. In a jungle story, it’s predators and diseases that the characters need to worry about. In the desert, it’s the land and sun themselves that are the main enemies. I’ve used desert environments before, in my own writing—although I’m not sure how well. I don’t think I’ve every been quite convinced that desert conditions (or other mundane problems) were really sufficient challenges in a fantasy story. So I added evil enchantments or squid-like monsters dwelling beneath the sand, to enhance the feeling of danger. Maybe a powerful group of adventurers crossing a desert plain needed that extra challenge, to keep the story interesting; or maybe not.

In The Broken Lands, it’s Thomas who first crosses through the desert, and Thomas is a much more skillful character than the younger Rolf. However, he’s still very much a man focused on action. When faced with the prospect of capture, he steels himself to fight first, then slay himself if capture should seem immanent. The change in viewpoint character is interesting, but in some ways it’s also a bit jarring to me. These books are, to a great extent, a coming of age story for Rolf. Of course, it’s common for the viewpoint to move around in fiction—especially epic fiction, where the action is taking place in many different locales. However, it can be a challenge to maintain interest in a teenaged protagonist and his or her growth, when the reader gets to spend some time following along with older, more mature protagonists as well. Characters who are practiced, knowledgeable, and in command of their situations require a different style of writing—and any character who is too effective may quickly become boring. (This may be one major reason why it is really difficult to write powerful wizards as viewpoint characters. Such individuals can work as occasional narrative foci—for example, High Lord Mhoram in The Power that Preserves. Apprentice wizards, learning along with the reader about the nature of magic, can also work. However, it may be too difficult to provide meaningful challenges for a character who can see into the future, strike enemies from a distance, and command the forces of nature, for a character like that to remain an effective protagonist.)

Of course, Thomas is not a wizard, and rather mundane challenges can be very hazardous for him. As he flees down from the slopes of the Cascades (which are accurately characterized as neither high nor wide enough to impede a determined crosser on foot), the leader of the Free Folk has a chance encounter with a large group of mounted scout troopers from Ekuman’s castle. Unfortunately, the whole episode with the scout parties, which occupies much of this chapter, was not very exciting. It felt like filler material—inserted to fill out a chapter that was only half a reasonable length. The escape from the soldiers does provide a way of getting the Silent Folk out of action, but that doesn’t seem like a great necessity, nor something that couldn’t have been accomplished another way. Because of the way Saberhagen broke his chapters—essentially whenever there’s a change of setting—he may have been stuck with too little plot for this section of the book. If he wanted to end the chapter with the thunderstorm cliff-hanger, he needed another major encounter to occur between Thomas’s departure from the cave area and his finding of the dead leather-wing.

I thought the description of that dead creature was really the most effective part of chapter 5. The image of the reptile, blackened as if it had been cooked from within, carrying a bag full of ashes and a mysterious magical box, really got me interested in the story again. The brewing storm that follows works pretty well, also, although it lacks the visceral power of the split reptilian body. The final blast of lightning at the end of the passage provides an effective conclusion—with some of the excitement that I found to be missing from the earlier encounter with Ekuman’s troops.

However, the main action this week is really in the cave of the Elephant, and I think the way Saberhagen presents the huge “beast” is fairly effective. As Rolf stares at the huge artifact, the reader quickly realizes that the Elephant is a tank. Yet the machine is explicitly described as most un-elephant-like, and I found myself wondering how this armored fighting vehicle came to be associated with the largest of land animals. But this question is quickly answered, when Rolf spots a stenciled regimental insignia—an elephant brandishing a spear in its trunk. This imagery is reminiscent of (but probably more evocative than) the actual symbol of the real 64th Armored Regiment, whose motto is, “We Pierce.”

It’s interesting how Saberhagen tries to balance Rolf’s complete amazement with everything he sees with the readers’ much better understanding of the military hardware involved. At first, the tank is described in terms that Rolf might use, but later, after the reader has gotten used to the device, Saberhagen has no qualms referring to its “treads,” even though I have a hard time imagining Rolf using a word like that. I could certainly relate to the way the interior of the tank was described. The lights and air circulation still work, but the plastic foam of the seat cushions flakes away when it is touched, forming a irritating dust—just like the original seat cushions from my grandmother’s dining room chairs. It soon turns out that the oxygen masks—which would be key safety devices if the tank were being used in real warfare—are in similarly poor shape.

Saberhagen specifically points several elements during the startup checklist out to the reader, starting with the nuclear power. (The description of the sounds of the reactor starting up, sounding like caged demons crying out in anger, were quite original and an effective return to Rolf’s way of perceiving things. It reminded me of another remarkable description of futuristic power generation, as seen by someone with no understanding at all of the technology involved—John Christopher‘s titular Pool of Fire.) Next we learn that the weapons systems are inoperative; a working flamethrower would probably make any future engagement the Elephant enters just too easy. Finally, Rolf moves on to learning to drive and steer the machine. I think it’s interesting that Saberhagen explains that two levers are used to go forward, go backward, and turn, but he never says explicitly that the each lever controls the treads on one side of the vehicle; readers are apparently expected to know this already.

There’s a lot of foreshadowing in this chapter, some of which I probably missed, even though I know exactly where the whole narrative is leading. However, I found it interesting that it’s inside the Elephant—inside a nuclear-powered device created by the United States military—that Rolf first invokes Ardneh. Rolf is clearly at home with technology in a way that most folk in his world would not be. He marvels at things that seem as commonplace to us a control levers. Yet he is not paralyzed by fear; he tries to make them work and envisions himself as master of the Elephant. He even offers himself as Ardneh’s avatar.

I found the description of some of Rolf’s thoughts quite effective—especially the idea that he has some notion what a demon ought to look like, but he has no idea what to expect from a god. Yet when he sees himself as master and driver of the Elephant, his mind goes back to the icon Loford had described, of Ardneh as a warrior mounted on his war elephant. In fact, throughout this trilogy, Ardneh is often associated with the imagery and attributes of Indra; at one point, the new god, apparently constructed by men to defend their freedom, will be referred to by a sobriquet that is clearly derived from descriptions of the old Aryan war god: “In the name of Ardneh—In the name of He-Who-Wields-The-Lightning, Breaker of Citadels….” The association of Ardneh with citadel-breaking has obvious relevance to the Elephant tank, but the connection to thunderstorms makes me wonder how much hand the mighty Ardneh had in the events unfolding around the Oasis as well.

At the end of this section, Rolf is rather abruptly captured, and we’ll pick up the story again with two more chapters next week.

Sexism in Fictional Worlds

February 13, 2013

One issue that I often wonder about is what to make of stories that posit substantive sexual differences in fictional characteristics. That problem sounds confusing, so let me give you an example. My favorite story by H. P. Lovecraft is “The Thing on the Doorstep,” which is certainly worth reading if you’re not already familiar with it. (Thinking about it, it’s actually rather odd that this should be my clear favorite from among all Lovecraft’s fiction. The story is a very traditional representative of the horror genre; it lacks most of the features characteristic of the “Cthulhu mythos” that I and others admire—aliens, indifferently evil gods, and an alternate world that exists in dreams. I don’t care for most of Lovecraft’s other straight horror pieces, but for some reason this one really works for me.)

A key point in the story is that a woman’s brain doesn’t have the same kind of magical potential as a man’s. This drives a great deal of witchcraft and body-hopping, leading up to a rather exciting finale. Yet every time I read this tale, I am unsettled by the notion that women should be so decidedly inferior in their psychic capabilities (or, at least, the particularly psychic capabilities of interest to Kamog) that the villain needs to go on a killing spree to acquire a male body.

I’ve discussed this story with a number of female acquaintances who have read it, and none of them seemed to be as disturbed by this aspect of the story as I am. So perhaps I am overreacting. How sexist is it, in a substantive way, to say that males are better at some fictional activity than females? There are certainly many settings in which it’s the females with superior (or at least more prevalent) magical powers, and different folk traditions slant different ways in this respect.

The Cave

February 10, 2013

Chapter 4 of The Broken Lands finds the heroes Rolf and Thomas perched amidst the rocks of the Broken Mountains. The chapter is written in two parts—the first detailing what the duo sees as they peer down at the villains’ fortress on the other side of the pass, and the second describing how Rolf gains entrance to the chamber of the Elephant. The storytelling thus splits between exposition and action.

At this point in the story, I want to discuss the question of where exactly these events are taking place. We know from the occasional appearances of Old World items (such as Thomas’s binoculars) that this story is taking place in the future of Earth. The ocean lies to the west, with mountains inland, then desert, then more mountains (the forbidding Black Mountains of Som the Dead, first mentioned in this chapter). If we guess or assume (correctly) that the stories take place in North America, the setting must be on the west coast. The climate and the distances described suggest the Pacific Northwest, but where exactly?

In fact, there are Broken Mountains in Washington state. However, this location is rather distant from the Columbia River. The book talks about the River Dolles, which does not exist, to my knowledge. However, The Dalles, Oregon is located at a major bend in the Columbia, the great river of the Pacific Northwest. The Dolles is presumably a tributary. East of the Ekuman’s castle in the Cascades lies the high desert, and the oasis might provide another landmark. However, I’m not so sure that the oasis existed before the dawn of the future age of magic. So I don’t know how much more specifically we can pin down the location.

To observe the castle—and the arrival of the key character of Satrap Chup—Rolf gets to use a pair of binoculars. Saberhagen points out explicitly that Rolf has a natural instinct for ancient technology, which may make him a valuable asset for the forces of the West in the long run. As Rolf watches, we learn a lot more about the habits and ecology of the empire’s flying reptiles, which I always enjoy reading about.

However, one thing about this passage that always takes me out of the story is the mention of Ekuman’s flag. Chup wears the colors of his own Satrapy (in the Seattle-Tacoma area, perhaps?), black and red. Ekuman’s colors are black and bronze, which poses a problem. Black and bronze works as a color scheme for soldier with metallic cuirasses, but I have trouble seeing bronze as a color that can be rendered effectively in cloth. I always find myself wondering what shade Saberhagen really had in mind, and I think this detracts from the story.

The discussion of Thomas’s binoculars makes it clear that there’s a sharp distinction between old technology, from the world of today, and the magic that also permeates Ardneh’s world. The binoculars still work according to the old principles of science, which are apparently unrelated to the new diabolism. For lesser artifacts and powers, there does seem to be no overlap in this world between things that run on science and those powered by magic. However, as the scope of the stories gets broader and the setting moves eastward towards Stargate Command, phenomena appear of greater and greater power; and for some of these, the delineation between the two realms is not so clear.

Eventually, the story moves on to Thomas and Rolf tying to get into the cave of the Elephant. The highlight of this sequence is naturally Rolf’s jump. While I’m sure leaping from one cliff to another, with only a couple of giant birds who could help me along just a little, would be thoroughly terrifying, it’s not tremendously exciting to read. Rolf’s fear comes through, but the scene seemed overly breathless, especially compared with some previous action sequences. What Rolf does later, inside the cave, is logical and important to the later plot, but it’s also fairly pedestrian.

However, things will pick up again next week, when I’ll be discussing the next two chapters. Let’s talk again after the thunderstorm.

While driving home this afternoon, I heard Dvorak’s tone poem “The Noon Witch.” I don’t think I’d ever heard this piece before, and it’s worth listening to. The composition was prefaced on the radio with a bit of background about the villain from Slavic folklore that inspired it, Pscipolnitsa. Having never heard of this character before, I was rather intrigued.

So when I got home, I looked her up. Wikipedia says this:

“Pscipolnitsa, who makes herself more evident in the middle of hot summer days, takes the form of whirling dust clouds and carries a scythe or shears, but it is likely that the shears would be of an older style, and not akin to modern scissors. She will stop people in the field to ask them difficult questions or engage them in conversation. If anyone fails to answer a question or tries to change the subject, she will cut off their head or strike them with illness. She may appear as an old hag, a beautiful woman, or a 12-year-old girl, and she was useful in scaring children away from valuable crops. She is only seen on the hottest part of the day and is a personification of a sun-stroke.”

What interested me most about the radio announcer‘s description was the point made explicit in the last sentence of the Wikipedia quote. This witch, or demon, was an anthropomorphic personification of the danger of sun stroke. Cultures have developed such personalized manifestations for many of the risks that may beset one in life. Ones like this, where the line between the reality of the danger and the mythologized monstrosity is so narrow, I find particularly effective and fascinating.

Envision a scene: A Bohemian serf is at work in the fields, in the heat of July, far from the well. He begins to feel woozy, and a hallucinated figure appears before him. It questions him, but as the heat addles his mind, he cannot comprehend the questions or give them proper answers. Then he falls headlong upon the clay, overtaken with sunstroke. It’s only a tiny step to make the mirage a real person, who bewitched him and made him ill. (I imagine the shears are a later elaboration upon the primordial myth.)

These kinds of maleficent spirits are common, and they can often be usefully adapted for fiction. Their effectiveness as storytelling devices derives from two closely related features. First, they represent mythologized versions of familiar real-world hazards, helping to ground otherwise fantastical stories with a sense of reality. Second, they are common to the folklore of so many cultures that they can fit into many mythopoeic settings. Perhaps the most familiar of these monsters are the witches that lead travellers astray in the woods. Howard adapted a version of this character in “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” taking place in the icy wastes of Scandinavia/Hyperborea.

Moreover, effective adaptations don’t need to be restricted to the fantasy genre. Another famous personification of a particular danger is the Wendigo, a monster from Algonquian folklore that drove people to cannibalism in the cold winters of upper North America. An encounter with the Wendigo out in the snowy wastes could turn a fellow into a man-eater—or into another incarnation of the Wendigo itself, in some versions of the story. The best fictionalization of this kind of story that I know of is the 1982 film The Thing. (The Campbell novella, “Who Goes There?” that inspired it is extremely original, but less viscerally effective, in my opinion.) The story of The Thing is that of the Wendigo, translated from a magical worldview into a technological one. The creature comes from the coldness of Antarctica, and a solitary encounter with it will transform a man into beast that will devour even more humans.

The fact that this works so well illustrates what I think is an important point about the relationship between fantasy and science fiction literature. In the modern world, believing in magic is not respectable, but believing in stupefyingly advanced technology can be. Some of the best contemporary stories move what are basically fantasy ideas into the science fiction domain—replacing monsters with aliens, thunderbolts with lasers, zombies with robots. Jack Kirby’s incomplete Fourth World comic book epic, especially The New Gods title (which has my wholehearted admiration) was an intentional transformation of gods into more modern forms. The characters still represent the personification of various traits and activities (Darkseid being the embodiment of tyranny), but they exert their control over the world with machines and computers, not spiritualism and magic. (Kirby also recognized the value of presenting an epic in a popular, rather than affectedly literary form, but that’s a separate topic.)

This transposition of folklore and mythic elements into more technological contexts happens outside the arena of fiction as well. Alien abduction claims are a modernized version of the demonic possession incidents of old. Being anesthetized and probed by a gray is fundamentally the same activity as having an incubus lie on you in your bed. And the sociological roles of claims of abduction or possession are very similar as well; such claims bring attention and thus a temporary measure of control over a difficult world to the victims.