Sword & Saucery

How and why of eating your words.

Something that constantly disappoints me is the small role paperwork plays in the field of fantasy. Yes, it’s true that we rarely see how something like an accounts payable section or human resources department operates in a science fictional setting but at least when it comes to science fiction we can presume such matters are dealt with much as they are now but with better technology. Besides, setting the average office in a far future setting is fraught with the danger that your far future technology will become dated centuries before it’s supposedly still in use. This happened to Eric Frank Russell in a short story of his, Study In Still Life, that appeared in the January 1959 issue of Astounding Stories. Study In Still Life is all about how a humble clerk working on a frontier planet plays the bureaucracy of a galactic empire in order to fill a request for equipment he feels is more important than the alcohol that’s actually planned for delivery to his boss. Overall the story is decent enough but unfortunately one scene revolves around the sheer size of the library the purchasing department needs to maintain, a library which was according to Russell was ‘so large that a fully equipped expedition was needed to get anywhere beyond the letter F’. Of course in our future world of today the problem Russell envisions no longer exists due to the existence of computers and search engines. (For the record I’m sure it would be possible to update this scene with an equally entertaining problem based on current technology but of course in 50 years such a change would be every bit as dated as Russell’s original library of reference books.

In the realm of fantasy on the other hand problems such as obsolescence don’t exist and instead we can enjoy imagining how modern administration techniques and paper trails might be re-imagined in a fantasy setting. For example in Lord Of the Rings does King Théoden pursue Gandalf’s ‘borrowing’ of Shadowfax through the Middle-earth equivalent of a small claims court or does he upgrade the case to grand-theft equine? (Don’t groan, that pun just had to be made.) Another example is in Game Of Thrones where it might be demonstrated that the Lannisters always paid their debts because they have invented and become masters at double-entry bookkeeping. (Actually L. Sprague de Camp already made good use of that idea in what I think is his best novel, Lest Darkness Fall. In that book archaeologist Martin Padway is visiting Rome in 1938 only to be transported to 535 AD Rome via a lightning strike. Once there he attempts to change the ancient world with various inventions but none of his major projects work out. Instead, certain other innovations he introduces without much thought turn out to be far more influential. Among the latter successes was the theory of double-entry bookkeeping.)

Given the preceding I don’t suppose you’ll be surprised to learn I’ve been giving the paperwork aspect of fantasy a good deal of thought. In particular it’s occurred to me that it must be rather complicated for characters in a fantasy novel if they live in a world where paper hasn’t been invented. And given making paper of any quality is a moderately complex process it seems reasonable to consider a fantasy setting without paper being as just as likely as one where such a convenient product exists.

So why does it matter if the characters in a fantasy world don’t have access to paper? It’s not like there aren’t plenty of alternatives to paper after all. This is true and for most purposes those alternatives are perfectly adequate. Mind you any culture that doesn’t discover a relatively compact and portable medium on which to write upon is going find its recording options limited. While, for example, the Babylonians made extensive use of clay tablets for recording accounts, writing letters etc I can’t imagine it would be easy to write a novel like Dune using such a medium. I keep imagining the following exchange:

Friend:          “Hey Frank. How’s the novel going?”

Herbert:        “I gave up and built a shed with the rough draft.”

Still, could be worse, the Paleolithic version of Dune would only be available as a series of cave paintings. Even if Herbert managed to finish his graphic novel I bet he’d have a real job convincing anybody to come up and see his etchings.

Taral

Novels to one side I suspect the greatest problem in a fantasy world without paper is how to send secret messages to your confederates. The big advantage of paper in this regards is that it’s light, compact, durable, but relatively easy to destroy if it’s about to fall into the wrong hands. The same cannot be said for any of the other obvious options.

Of course in a fantasy world the obvious option is to use magical means but I see two main problems with the idea of relying on magic users to pass messages back and forth. The first being that this requires the ability to use magic be sufficiently common that magic users can be employed as the equivalent of telegraph operators. Colour me cynical but I suspect that if magical knowledge was that common then the interception and decoding of magical signals would also be a thing. The second is that not everybody put in a position of trust can be relied on to remain trustworthy. If you consider the how often tales of banks and other businesses suffering embezzlement surface you will see what I mean.

Then there is the idea of sending out a messenger who has memorised the entire contents of a lengthy and complex message. This is not as impractical as you might think given that during our own ancient and medieval periods it was common for individuals to learn how to memorise vast amounts of information. For example consider this quote about the ancient Greek Poet Simonides of Ceos. It comes from Daniel Boorstin’s book about the history of discovery, The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search To Know His World & Himself:

Once at a banquet in the house of Scopas in Thessaly, Simonides was hired to chant a lyric in honor of his host. But only half of Simonides’ poem was in praise of Scopas, as he devoted the other half to the divine twins Castor and Pollux. The angry Scopas therefore would pay only half the agreed sum. While the many guests were still at the banquet table a message was brought to Simonides that there were two young men at the door who wanted him to come outside. When he went out he could see no one. The mysterious callers were, of course, Castor and Pollux, who had found their own way to pay Simonides for their share of the panegyric. For at the very moment when Simonides had left the banquet the roof fell in, burying all the other guests in the ruins. When relatives came to take away the corpses for the burial honors, the mangled bodies could not be identified. Simonides then exercised his remarkable memory to show the grieving relatives which bodies belong to whom. He did this by thinking back to where each of the guests had been seated. Then he was able to identify by place each of the bodies.

Even if we ignore the hyperbole, I think we can assume that Simonides exited the banquet for more prosaic reasons than to answer the call of the gods, this is still an impressive feat. Not only did Simonides memorise a lengthy poem to be recited at Scopas’ party (I assume lengthy because nobody pays for a limerick sized party piece) but while reciting it Simonides was able to note and remember the location of everybody present. I would imagine that anybody capable of such a feat would surely be able to memorise just about any sized message they were given.

The downside to this being of course that if the messenger is taken prisoner there’s no guarantee said messenger will be able to keep what they have been entrusted with secret. Perhaps those captors won’t be able to find a punishment, threat, or bribe which can penetrate the armour of the messenger’s silence but who wants to rely on that?

So, if using your most talented agents to carry messages via memory is too risky an option then the obvious alternative would be to send out less valuable underlings carrying hand-written messages. If said underlings are illiterate then they will be suitably ignorant of what the message contains and thus no amount of interrogation will give the game away. However, this option creates a different problem in that all of the traditional alternatives to paper have significant flaws. Clay tablets are right out as they’re both too bulky and almost impossible to destroy quickly. Parchment (made from the skin of sheep or goats), vellum (made from the skin of lambs or calves), or silk are a little easier to dispose of but would still take far too long to destroy if an agent is likely to be captured. On the other hand obliterating a message written on on a wax tablet would be quick and easy but wax tablets are fragile and there would be a significant risk of accidental erasure, which is not a good development if the messenger doesn’t know what was in the message.

Okay, so what to do if all the traditional options are either too difficult or too easy to destroy? Time to think out of the box then and consider the possibilities of non-traditional writing surfaces. This is when it occurred to me that in any fantasy world large herbivores should be pretty common and the meat of such animals can be dried and cured to make a substance called jerky. Normally this process was used by to preserve meat from going bad but it was also a useful way of carrying a ready supply of protein on long trips.

Okay, so how about expanding the possible uses of jerky by carving messages into nicely dried chunks of meat? The beauty of this system is that there’s no longer any danger of important documents falling into the wrong hands. If the messenger entrusted with with such a message carved into a strip of jerky feels there’s a real chance of being captured all they have to do is eat the message. If it helps I don’t see why messengers couldn’t carry bottles of their preferred condiment to help the meat go down quick. Adding a little sauce should render the jerky tender enough for quick consumption, and make it tastier as an added bonus.

Using jerky has another advantage in that because of its three dimensional nature messages carved into slices of cured meat could also be read with the fingers like braille. This would be a very useful feature as it would allow the recipient to ‘read’ it in the dark or with the message out of sight.

However, I do think such a system requires two things in order for it to work properly.

The first would be an alphabet of rune-like symbols into which every message would need to be converted. This is not so much to encrypt the words as to make both the carving and reading of them easier. A set of symbols mostly composed of straight lines would be far easier to inscribe than text such as you’re reading here.

The second requirement would of course be for couriers who have the ability to dispose of the messages entrusted to them quickly and effectively. I don’t think bird-like eaters need apply for this sort of employment.

Jim Cawthorn 4 - Amra 62

So there you have it, the perfect way to keep all fantasy world correspondence safe. And it’s not like this idea has to be limited to secret messages as an entirely jerky based bureaucracy should be possible. All your clerks would need are some sharp knives and a ready supply of meat. Not only that but such documents can go into a stew or soup once they’re no longer needed. Try that with a clay tablet and see what it gets you.

Art credits (top to bottom): Taral Wayne (originally appeared in Yhos #51, August 1991, published by Art Widner), & Jim Cawthorn (originally appeared in Amra #62, October 1974, published by George Scithers).

Conan the Rebooter

What is best in life? To revive a franchise, to turn it into a success, and to hear the lamentation of your rivals!

I really do wish Hollywood would consult with me before embarking upon certain film projects. I’ve no doubt my sage advice could save them endless money and embarrassment in regards to the making of the more expensive science fiction and fantasy sort of films. “What’s that Mr Executive? You’re thinking about green-lighting a film based on the game Battleship? No. Just no.”

Ah, but I sense you would like some proof of my ability to deliver such sage advice. Fair enough, let’s then consider that famous barbarian, Conan, by Crom! As a teenager I read at least eleventy-seven paperbacks featuring Conan stories (published by Sphere Books in the UK and by first Lancer and then Ace Books in the US) so I’m reasonably familiar with the source material. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve read any of Robert E. Howard’s stories but I think I can unequivocally state that neither attempt to put Conan on the big screen was unflawed.

Sphere Conan

Okay, I know that statement won’t sit well with the myriad fans of Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger, but perhaps they will forgive me once I explain.

In fact the 1982 film, Conan the Barbarian, is a watchable but overly generic fantasy film. And that of course is the core of the problem from my point of view. Howard gave Conan an origin, a history, a philosophy, and a detailed world to stride across but to me little or none of that is present in this 1982 epic. In particular the origin story included in this version, an origin in which his parents and all the other adults of Conan’s village are killed by mounted raiders and Conan himself put into slavery, bears no resemblance to anything Howard wrote (but is quite like scenes from so many other sword and sorcery movies of that period). Given the source material for Conan is uniquely detailed it’s a great pity the Dino De Laurentiis Corporation filled Conan the Barbarian with scenes that are indistinguishable from contemporary sword and sorcery films; films such as Hawk the Slayer (1980), The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), Ator, the Fighting Eagle (1982), & Deathstalker (1983). At least once Conan’s origins are dealt with the rest of the plot is serviceable and doesn’t clash (at least as far as I can recall) with Howard’s creation.

Actually, given the tendency of the plot and settings towards generic imagery I do wonder if Conan the Barbarian would be more fondly remembered than, for example, Ator, the Fighting Eagle had the director of the former cast Miles O’Keeffe as Conan instead of the hugely popular Arnold Schwarzenegger? For that matter would Conan the Barbarian be so fondly remembered if Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t then go on to star in The Terminator? I think not because while Arnie made a pretty decent Conan (it could be argued that he was the best thing in the 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian) nothing about the rest of the film stands out. I suspect that Conan the Barbarian benefits from the fact that The Terminator is a film that drags every other part of Schwarzenegger’s career up a notch or two (well except for Hercules in New York, I’ve seen that one and you had better believe me when I tell you it’s beyond even the gravitational pull of The Terminator).

This is a great pity because I really do think Arnie worked well as Conan despite him not really being much like Howard’s vision. He certainly didn’t look like the magazine Conan, a character who I think is closer in looks to Frank Frazetta’s depictions on those Sphere covers above. The script also had him displaying the occasional flash of unconscious humour which while not canon I thought a necessary addition. Howard’s Conan is a very serious character, even a little pompous at times (especially when decrying the faults of civilisation), and I can’t imagine him coming out with anything like Arnie’s line about the lamentation of the women. Now while that level of seriousness is tolerable in Howard’s relatively short stories the occasional lighter moment is a welcome relief in a full-length action film. Also, the humour works because it’s clear that Schwarzenegger’s Conan isn’t aware of the fact that something he said or did comes across as funny.

All of which brings me to the 2011 reboot of Conan the Barbarian. First of all, given the comments above I doubt you will be surprised to learn that I thought the casting of Jason Momoa was one of the stronger points of this second version. I was also very pleased with the early scenes depicting Conan’s origin story. I would like to note here that some reviewers of the film have mocked the absurdity of the birth scene for being absurd. Which is true, it’s absurdly over the top but it’s absurdly over the top in the stories too. What these reviewers seem to have missed is how important this absurdity is to the Conan mythos. The fact that Conan was born on a battlefield is there to underline just how over the top the character of Conan is. I would bet good money that’s why Howard kept mentioning the born on a battlefield business in the first place, to make it clear that Conan’s over the top feats are possible because he’s already been established as an over the top character.

Unfortunately this version of Conan goes downhill once the main plot takes over. The whole villain who must be defeated or whole world will suffer plot was done to death long before this film was made. At this late stage the only way to make such a plot tolerable is to make the villainous threat secondary to other aspects of the story. If the film doesn’t concentrate on character interaction or include a major mystery to be unravelled then these ultimate evil plots do tend to be pretty boring. It also a bad plot to use in an action flick that intends to be the first of a series (as I assume they hoped the Conan reboot would be). Really, if you pull that trick in your first movie then what do you do in the sequel? Start with averting the end of the world and it becomes very difficult to produce a sequel that doesn’t feel like a let-down. Howard clearly knew that and avoided writing himself into such a corner. Which is another reason why this plot was entirely inappropriate for a Conan movie. Anybody familiar with Robert E. Howard’s stories about Conan know he kept the stakes small in order to ensure that whatever he wrote didn’t eclipse latter stories. As far as I recall it wasn’t till he wrote the novel length story, The Hour of the Dragon, which is set towards the end of the Conan story arc, do the stakes become significantly higher than in stories set earlier in Conan’s career.

All in all as far as I’m concerned while each film version of Conan the Barbarian has some good features neither has enough to be a fully satisfactory movie. Interestingly though with a little judicious hacking and stitching I cold see the two plots being joined together to make a pretty decent Conan film. Begin with the origin story of the second film and continue on with the small-scale plot of the first and the end result would be at least adequate.

So why is this so? To me the obvious answer is that other than The Hour of the Dragon Howard never wrote any novel length stories featuring Conan. Howard was writing for the pulp magazines of course and in order to achieve the best possible financial return he focused on writing shorter stories in the hopes of achieving fast sales. The trouble is what worked for Howard doesn’t work when scripting a Conan film because stories of 30K or less he was writing just don’t have enough plot to fill out a feature length film. So the scriptwriters needed to create a plot from scratch and as we’ve seen not just in Conan but all those other sword and sorcery flicks the average scriptwriter just doesn’t have the right background to do justice to the genre. They either produce something dull and cliché ridden or venture out into the valley of the very dumb (and some especially gifted individuals manage to do both, go watch Wizards of the Lost Kingdom if you don’t believe me).

If it was up to me Conan would never have become a film property at all. To me the Conan stories beg for television treatment instead. Turn Conan into a series of 45 minute episodes and it becomes possible to tell the sort of stories Howard was writing without needing to recycle . Each week Conan would find himself in a different location dealing with some difficult but less than world ending situation. Like the original stories the nature of the situation would vary, some weeks he would be working for somebody in power, other weeks he would be carrying out some scheme as a self-employed ruffian, and sometimes he would just accidentally ride into a situation that requires a few heads be bashed together in order to achieve a satisfactory resolution.

Now to elevate this above the average villain of the week plotting there needs to be some ongoing elements to link the episodes and give them a little more complexity. Of course to do this would require a significant departure from Howard’s original stories but I don’t think it could be helped.

For the first series at least (yes, I’m assuming a lot here) this linking could be provided in the form of a quest.

As I really like the relationship Jason Momoa’s Conan had with his father I think I would employ something similar. So let’s have Corin, Conan’s blacksmith father, be highly regarded by his fellow Cimmerians and let his father’s standing frustrate Conan because like so many teens he knows he is destined for greatness and isn’t it about time everybody noticed this and accepted the inevitable. However Conan’s father doesn’t have the good grace to step aside so Conan decides the only thing to do is venture outside of the Cimmerian homeland to retrieve the Seven Keys of Pentuzler which the evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom stole from the Cimmerians decades before. Conan’s reasoning being that if he returns with the keys his fellow tribesmen will have no choice but to acknowledge him as the greatest Cimmerian ever. So all he has to do to is search the kingdoms of the south, where no Cimmerian has ever set foot, until he finds the evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom, kill said evil sorcerer, find where he has hidden the Seven Keys of Pentuzler, and return in triumph with the keys, easy peasy. Corin and the other men of the tribe would of course have the good grace not to raise even one eyebrow among them when Conan announces his intentions and it’s not until Conan is riding out of sight that the following exchange occurs:

Shaman:   “How long before he comes to his senses?”
Corin:   “Hopefully not before the south knocks some humility into that boy!”
Shaman:   “Assuming the south survives the encounter.”
Corin:   “Gaah! Now you’re sounding like him!”

I’d also like to diverge from the original stories by giving Conan a permanent companion to do a lot of the talking so Conan can concentrate on being moody and impulsive. A companion like Alvazar the wisecracking thief would also be useful for nagging Conan into revealing why a Cimmerian has come south and other important nuggets of information such as:

Alvazar:   “You must wish this quest was over so you can return to your homeland given what a low opinion you hold of civilisation.”
Conan:   “Maybe. I have some unfinished business first.”
Alvazar:   “Really? What could be so important as to keep you away from the adulation of your people?”
Conan:   “Before I leave I must defeat every warrior and empty every tavern. My honour is at stake.”
Alvazar:   “You have a most frightening sense of honour Conan. Let me see, Zingara has a lot of taverns and swordsmen. We might as well start there.”

You’ll note that I gave sex the big swerve n that last exchange. Mostly because I think going even partway down the Game of Thrones path would introduce one too many changes. I would prefer to preserve as much of Howard’s original vision where I could so I’d rather underplay the sex angle. Besides, this is another opportunity for unconscious humour from Conan:

Conan:   “Southerners are too soft! I will not lie with any woman who cannot knock me out with one punch and carry me to her tent!”
Alvazar:   “I seem to recall Red Sonja managed something like that…”
Conan:   “Bah! She hit me from behind with a cask of ale! That was cheating!!”

Such a series should also have a supporting cast of occasionally appearing characters such as Bêlit, pirate queen of the Black Coast, the wizard Thoth-amon, Taurus of Nemedia, Epimitreus the Sage and Red Sonja. If the series moves around the lands of Hyboria it seems reasonable to have the cast very a lot from episode to episode. On the other hand it wouldn’t seem out of place for Conan to team up with or go against certain characters multiple times. The evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom should in particular be a recurring character as Conan seeks to hunt him down.

Well, I could go on for pages outlining every little detail but I think you have the general idea now. Hmm, perhaps I should tell Netflix all about this next. It does seem like the sort of thing they would make.

And they do seem keen to cause some lamentations.