Friday, June 23, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #1: Introduction

Everyone thinks that they know religion. I've haven't yet met anyone off the street who doesn't think of themselves as expert as the most knowledgeable expert. We live in a culture steeped in religion, so its natural to feel like an expert. I honor your experience, yet I hope to take you beyond that into something new.

I'll use the analogy of connoisseurs and chefs. The connoisseur is an expert of food and its qualities, learning to appreciate the experience in a deep manner. Even with so much expertise, you would never confuse a connoisseur with a chef. A chef's job is to gather ingredients, arrange menus, and present to the connoisseur food worth paying for, a quality culinary experience for the money. Although a connoisseur may appreciate what the chef does, he does not confuse himself for a chef. And although the chef may possess many skills that belong to the connoisseur, his skills must be far broader and deeper because he must navigate a far more complex set of decisions.

In the same way, as a religion creator, you will be the chef, creating religions for others to experience. You will be judged not by your intentions, but by your results. You will use your accumulated knowledge and skills to create something that the reader will pay for, and if you've done your job right, rave about and come back for more.

There is one truth that both religion and cooking share: nobody knows everything, and even the simple things often take considerable knowledge and skill to appreciate, if not master.

To begin this discussion, here's a brain dump of possible topics. This list should give your something to think about even if you read nothing else in this series.

I don't promise to hit this list in any particular order.

  • What is Religion? What is religion in a fantasy context?
  • Basic Approaches towards Religion
    • Real
    • Uncertain
    • A lie
    • Not a lie
    • Flavor text
    • Ignored
  • Cookie cutter religion
  • Religion like what I already know
  • Wicca, Neo-Paganism, and other modern notions
  • Like pagans are shown in stories/media/movies
  • Religion Tropes
  • Temples and high priests
  • Religious Places
  • Fundamental relationship to divine
    • Patron
    • Placation/fear
    • Doom
    • Estrangement
    • Unfamiliarity
  • Big Gods and Little Gods
  • Gods of X and Y
  • Religion as Magic System
  • Religion as monetary exchange
  • Worship by
    • Prayer
    • Dance
    • Song
    • Ritual and Ceremony
    • Event
    • Structures
    • Location
    • Times and dates
    • Memorial
    • By Classes
    • By Gender
    • Public vs Private worship
    • What is this worship thing anyway?
    • Idols, statues, and imagery
    • Myths, legends, and stories
    • Symbols
    • History, religion changing over time
    • Holy things
    • Language
    • Differences by location and cult
    • Written word
    • Taboos
    • Life Events
  • Priests as 
    • Imitators of the divine
    • Officials of the divine
    • Bureaucrats
  • Fun Gods and Not So Fun Gods
  • Godlike Beings
  • What are the functional limits of godhood?
  • The economics of a temple
  • Duties
  • If gods are real, does that make truth real?
  • Relative morality and divine relationships
  • Religion as license to break rules
  • Accurate vs Inaccurate beliefs
  • The religion is lying to you
  • Religion as weapon: heresy and crusades
  • Gods and civilization
  • Who controls the religion?
  • Priests, shamans, monks, and other assorted holy men and women
  • Life, Death, and Rebirth
  • The underworld and the afterlife
  • Judgement
  • Heaven and Cleanliness
  • Religion and Individual
  • Religion and Society
  • Religion and the State
  • Religion International
  • Religion: Us against Them
  • Religion and Oppression
  • Religion and Freedom
  • Literally Real or Totally a Lie
  • No Religion at all - dodging the bullet?
  • Pantheons
  • Pantheons not getting along
  • Titans, demons, devils, and all sorts of other immortals
  • Big gods vs local gods vs household and local gods
  • Exclamation points, by Crom!
  • Religion and Law
  • Religion or not religion? Cultural differences.
  • Life Events
    • Birth
    • Marriage
    • Naming
    • Death
    • Maturity
    • Revelation
    • Childhood
    • Youth
    • Maturity
    • Old Age
  • Magic
    • Divination
    • Revelation
    • Summoning
    • Divine Favor
    • Prayer
    • Healing
    • Scripture
    • Transformation
    • Resurrection
    • Demons and Devils
    • Possession and Channeling
    • Ancestors
    • Fortune
    • Divine Parentage
  • Hidden Knowledge
  • The Dual Nature of the Divine

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Blue Sword (1982)

The Blue Sword (1982) by Robin McKinley is the first of her two Damar novels. In this fantasy-romance, a young woman is swept away by a desert king, but only to train her for war.

Robin McKinley seems to have two modes for me: she's either engaging or long winded. This books falls onto long-winded, as she could easily have told this tale in half the number of words. While nicely written, as is usual for Robin, for me the story falls into the dull and tedious category, with an extra layer of pointless thrown in just to be sure. Most of what happens is a long justification for why a woman can be in war and fight her enemies. However, if you remember that this is the 1980s, when few people making women heroes, justification seemed needed. (It wasn't needed. Other authors simply blew past the justification part and went straight into the adventure part.)

For an adventure novel, it's pacing is quite relaxed, walking our hero through all sorts of things for most of the book.

I found the concept of kelar interesting, a way of interacting with magic that is one part revelation and one part manifestation. Kelar shows you what you need to know, but also provides what you need to accomplish the deed. It is magic, but never quite controlled magic, so its appearance in the story changes the story's direction. I enjoy inexact magic systems.

If this book set out to do anything, I think that it missed most of what it aimed for. It's not enough of a romance to satisfy a romance reader, not enough of a fantasy to satisfy a fantasy reader, and not enough of an adventure novel to satisfy and adventure reader. While Robin handles both romance and fantasy far more deftly, her handling of adventure seems deficient.

I can't pronounce this a bad book, because it does hold together, it's just not my slice of bacon.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Well of Shiuan (1978)

The Well of Shiuan (1978) by C.J. Cherryh continues the tale of Morgaine and Vanye. Morgaine is an otherworldly sort, dedicated to the destruction of gates, and Vanye is the sword and sorcery minion who's out point of view character for most of the story.

This was her second publication, and here she addressed many issues that haunted her first work. In this book, she creates a much better feel for location and place, she better articulates goals, implications, and moral conflicts, and she generally keeps the through line of the narrative far clearer. In the sort of tale where moral ambiguity usually doesn't exist, this tale hinges on those ambiguities. However, even with all the improvements, there are still places where the tale feels muddled and ill directed.

Also gone is the stiff dialog of her former work. The dialog in this novel, while still not fully naturalist, has greatly loosened up, The characters no longer feel like they're always reading from cue cards.

Interestingly, Cherryh begins the story from a third character's view, that of Jhirun, a young woman that lives in the marshlands. I found her the most present and engaging of all the characters, and I wished that we had spent far more time with her point of view. She gives us the world and the complexities in a way that no other character does, with a vulnerability that no other character has. Because she's so unspecial, her actions have consequences where a hero's never would. To me, that made her a more interesting character than any other in the book.

Parts of the book still felt forced, while other parts seemed aimless. Cherryh still has a ways to go before she hits her stylistic best, but with this tale, I begin to see those traits that would make her later books so interesting.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Alphadia 2 (2013)

Alphadia 2 (2013) is an old school RPG for the Android operating system. By the aspect ration, I must assume that the game was ported from a platform with a squarer screen. The game is a direct sequel to Alphadia, featuring the same world and several characters from the last game, such as Enah, the android. Most of the game mechanics remain identical, including rings and infusing.

The overall play difficulty of this sequel was noticeably more challenging than the first installment. While I could cruise through most fights on auto, the fights themselves ground down my party. At times, I found myself constantly healing party members after every fight. The fights could also be grinding while exploring, with encounters erupting as frequent intervals. Scout Orbs are available to avoid fights, but they don't last long.

While the primary artwork was pixels and sprites, each character had a high res portrait for conversations that looked clean.

For the most part, I didn't care about the characters or the plot, not that you need much plot for dungeon delving. Where the story hewed to "go there," I was happy enough. I wasn't ever in doubt about where to go. When the story skewed towards the actual plot, I didn't care, with tiresome conversation following tiresome conversation.

This game had a mission mode which I found annoying. While most missions were straight forward, and therefore fun, some missions that required finding certain items dragged on and on because those items didn't drop. By the end of the game, I still hadn't found enough of one drop type, even with farming, to complete the first set of basic missions. While the missions did offer a mission store which used mission currency, I found it cheaper and easier to just purchase the items from a vendor. This made 95% of all store items useless to me. One early mission didn't work right when the receiving clerk refused to accept my items. Since that part of the game was bugged, I didn't go any further. Later on, I found out that you were supposed to give those items to somebody else, which is completely stupid because you are supposed to give all mission items to the receiving clerk.

I found the ending tougher than expected. I'm used to hard endings, but this one seemed harder than it ought to be. I think it's an example of, "you must win by playing a certain way" style of ending, where I played the game wrong, so I lost repeatedly. If I had really liked the game, I would have thrown myself at the ending, but as I don't care, I don't find myself well motivated. I may try the ending again, but I won't work hard at it.

On the whole, I'd give this game a medium review. It's entertaining enough, but there's nothing here to fall in love with.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Phantom Tollbooth (1961)

The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norton Juster is a charming morality play written as a boy’s improbable adventure. While often silly, descending into lexigraphic literalism with aplomb, the story engages that childish delight in bending, folding, and mutilating possibility, while at the same time using absurdism to show the natural limits of those possibilities. Written in a light and breezy style, the story rolls along at a steady pace, ready to engage minds with short attentions and big imaginations.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Gate of Ivrel (1976)

The Gate of Ivrel (1976) by C.J. Cherryh reads like something old and something new. The stiff writing style, formalized language, and dense narrative reminds me of mid-20th century fantasy and SF that was rapidly falling from fashion in the 70's. Written in the sword and sorcery style of the day, the tale primarily revolves around humans, and just how bad humans are to each other before any magic gets into the mix. We have all the prerequisite oaths, oath breaking, tribal codes, and exaggerated systems of masculine honor.

Stunning in this work is the introduction of a woman as the bad-ass of the series. Like the best of all action-hero women, she never compromises nor apologizes for her behavior. She's a woman on a mission that leaves thousands dead, but that doesn't mean that she likes it. With this 70's action hero goes a truly terrible sword, one in the tradition of Stormbringer, one that gives any honest reader pause.

Despite the surface narrative of two tough sword swingers, the story carries and undercurrent of imperfection and weakness, where the lead characters of Morgaine and Vanye show themselves humans underneath their layers of toxic-masculinity. If anything, the book works against the very notion of sword and sorcery, where the toughest and baddest win. Underneath all her layers, Morgaine is a woman on a mission that's too big to go forward, but impossible to go back. Vanye is a man who's lost his male honor, but which also gives him the freedom to roam free of the hyper-masculine narrative so tied to the genre. He's tough, not because of his hardened outside, but because of his well developed inside. When he becomes Morgaine's follower, he seconds himself to the woman without hesitation or qualms, nor is he so tough that he stands unbreakable before the world.

The book appears to be among her earliest works and it shows. The story has deep flaws. My biggest issue was with place. All the places of this tale blurred, one into another, until I didn't know where we were coming from or going to. There are places where characters seemed in the wilderness, yet other characters come out of the woodwork like they're in Times Square on a Saturday afternoon, a little too like the sudden twists and turns of a cheap movie. And like a cheap movie, the scenes between often prove dull and tedious, providing a little information, but mostly wasting your time.

Despite the appearance of being well developed characters, both Morgaine and Vanye often come across rather flat and dull, just going about their way while continuously stumbling into danger. Wandering about also describes the basic plot. We do learn what we need to know, but somehow the elements never come together into a cohesive whole, even at the end. All the plot lines feel like spaghetti.

While I did enjoy some bits, I mostly have mixed feelings about the book. As a novel, its not really strong enough to stand out on its own merits, its innovations mostly smothered by its mediocrities.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Greek Ruling Couple Meta-Narrative

I was thinking about the story of Perseus the other day, and what gobsmacked me about the story was the absolutely pointless rescue of Andromeda. What was behind that? What narrative purpose did it serve? The only answer that I could come up with was that a queen was a necessary component of ruling as a king. In that vein, I will posit the Greek Ruling Couple meta-narrative.

According to Greek myth, Zeus was the king of the gods, while Hera was the queen. You can't pick and choose, having one or the other. You must have both aspects, both male and female, the make a stable throne. Zeus and Hera, Cronus and Rhea, Uranus and Gaia, these each represented the paradigmatic couples. If we dig a little deeper, we notice that we know the names of both the king and queen in all the stories, which is odd because you normally don't expect to know all the queens, especially in the Trojan War, where the relationships between these couples are significant.

The Greek Ruling Couple Meta-Narrative looks like this:

  • A kingdom requires both a king and a queen.
  • When a kingdom is missing either, it is incomplete and unstable.
  • Happiness ensues when the ruling couple is united again.
  • The ruling couple exists for life. Nothing short of death divides the divine couple.
  • They are the symbolic embodiment of Zeus and Hera on earth.
  • Each rules over their own gendered sphere.
  • When things go awry, the situation can't be resolved unless the couple is reunited or somebody dies.

We see this strongly with Odysseus. He spends his years traveling home, waylaid by multiple women, but these women aren't enough to make him happy. He will only be set right when he reunites with his wife. Meanwhile, Penelope is desperately fending off suitors, because she doesn't believe that her husband is dead, and if he's alive, the gods will surely frown on the new divine couple, wrecking havoc on the kingdom. The story ends when Odysseus and Penelope are reunited, the divine couple is formed again, and those who would blaspheme the divine couple murdered by the score.

With this understanding, the abduction of Helen becomes all the more terrifying. Helen leaves her role as divine queen, but that's something that she can't do. There's no way possible for Menelaus to ignore this slight, for while Helen is alive, he cannot remarry and form a new divine couple. His kingdom is literally doomed because it has lost its feminine elements. The loss of  Helen is not just a loss to ego, but a stab to the very heart of  of the Laconia. He has no choice but to respond, and his allies join in, because they too recognize the blasphemous act. The war cannot end until the divine couple is restored. (Of note, when one person finally won Helen's hand, all other suitors swore to act against any who would break up the marriage. They all understood the important of a divine couple.)

Compare this to Agamemnon, whose wife took a lover during the war, then murdered him on his return. This is not only shocking because a queen assaults a king, or a wife kills a husband, but because the action is a total abrogation of the divine roles of each ruler.

This interpretation makes the story of Oedipus all the more shocking, as if all the relationships in Oedipus weren't shocking enough already. Oedipus makes an utter twisted horror of the divine couple.

During the Trojan war, Achilles falls for his slave girl, Chryseis. Even though they weren't married, you can see how a young man would project the divine couple idea onto a possible future bride. (She was from a good family and would have made an acceptable wife.) For Agamemnon to step in and attempt to take her away would not only have been a social affront, but perceived as religious affront by Achilles, one strong enough to demand an extreme response.

Resolving these issues takes either reconciliation or death. You can see how that sort of extreme solution would result in a series of happy endings or bloodbaths or both, which helps makes sense of the body count in Greek tragedies.