Highlights from GIFCON 2017 and my trip to Scotland!

Hey, so you probably heard I was asked to speak at the Glasgow International Fantasy Conference on my 2015 project, The Rats in the Walls. The talk went great, and I’ll be publishing the full text soon, but in the meantime I wanted to give some of the high points of the trip.

First off, while walking around Glasgow, I could catch a few glimpses of the Glasgow Necropolis, which was awesome. I’d never seen a graveyard like it, and the ‘skyline’ of monuments on the hill made it look like a true city of the dead. The giant doors in the hillside were especially cool–they made me think of the gates of a city, leading into the earth.

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Second, the actual Conference took place in Glasgow University’s chapel, which was beautiful. The University is over 550 years old, and a lot of the passages still feel more like a castle than a modern building. The presentations, including Phil Harris’ talks on worldbuilding and game design, Rob Maslen’s lecture on the book as a fantastical object, and Julie Bertagna’s speech about her YA fantasy series, Exodus, were fantastic.

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Third, I ended up meeting some great people at the Conference, including professors, writers, and academics. It was great to hang out with fantasists, instead of having to expand the gathering to include the other SF genres, like sci-fi and horror. There’s a lot of things unique to fantasy, and for once I was able to talk with people who were familiar and excited by the ins and outs of fantasy worldbuilding without having to explain what it was or how it worked. Most surprising of all, I was surprised when I found out the University had recently christened a new Masters in Fantasy Literature program, and that many of the attendees were members.

Fantasy has been dismissed for decades as commercial, not ‘serious’ literature. Most people who get their writing degrees see a significant stigma attached to writing fantasy in a university setting, including the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, who I interviewed recently for Outer Places. It was good to see more attention and credit given to fantasy as a genre at Glasgow U. At the same time, I felt a bit uneasy when the time came to present papers: GIFCON did so much to accord itself with traditional academia, both in the topics that were presented (including a Marxist interpretation of Dark Souls) and the way people spoke about them. For example:

While listening to a presentation about using a psychoanalytical approach to the dreams and visions in Game of Thrones, the moderator asked the presenter if he had thought about alternate interpretations of the characters’ dreams, ones that didn’t fall in line with his thesis. The presenter responded that there were a lot of visions/dreams that didn’t match up, but he’d focused on the ones that did.

As someone who’s gone through a Bachelors Degree program and written a couple academic essays for Clarkesworld, I’ve slowly realized that academia, especially academic scholarship on literature, is primarily focused on viewing one tiny facet of a subject in one very specific light, then discrediting or ignoring anything else that contradicts it (or admitting the contradictions and claiming that you’re ‘grappling’ with a complex topic that defies even self-definition). I know I’ve been guilty of this–it’s hard to take a complex world and distill a consistent, meaningful pattern from it into writing, rather than just be selective about what you pay attention to and pretend that everything else falls in line. But that latter attitude encourages a very narrow view of any given topic, and the moment it’s presented outside of its very familiar (and tolerant) academic setting, it suddenly appears incredibly myopic and (sometimes) even indulgent.

The ‘indulgent’ element is especially galling. So much scholarship, when it gets down to it, seems to be initiated because the author thought it ‘interesting.’ Certain aspects or viewpoints on a topic are discarded because the author thought it would be ‘more interesting’ to explore what they wanted to write about. There’s also very little consideration for an audience outside other experts in the field, which means all this supposed knowledge will never reach anyone outside a small circle of people. These aren’t new concerns, but they are persistent, and it makes me wary about treading deeper into the academic sphere as a speaker or writer.

GIFCON was a great experience and I hope it grows over the coming years, but I hope that it takes a note from its popular audience and material and moves away from emulating contemporary academia. I don’t know. I’m certainly not advocating for anti-intellectualism, but at the same time, attending GIFCON and seeing fantasy taken ‘seriously’, it throws into sharp relief that there are deep problems in the way academia approaches knowledge and literature. Maybe there’s something to be said for being underground, unexamined, and mocked by the establishment–it means we don’t have to play by the rules.

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P.S. The milk in Scotland is delicious, cheap, and plentiful. 10/10.

 

Highlights from GIFCON 2017 and my trip to Scotland!

A Manifesto for Neo-Fantasy

When people ask what I write, I usually say “fantasy.” From there, people ask if it’s like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, and I would go “Ehh, kind of.” I can name some of the books that influenced me, like Mountains of Madness or Wizard of Earthsea, but they aren’t good comparisons to what I write now. So I’m coining a new phrase: “neo-fantasy.”

I use the term “neo-fantasy” because nothing else seems to fit. The stories I’m writing are mythopoeic, but the label ‘high fantasy’ doesn’t work because these are the stories of individuals, not of empires, quests, or battles between good and evil. Dark themes like cannibalism, murder, and even outright horror appear in my writing, but don’t define it, like dark fantasy. Moral ambiguity and grittiness are often present, but my stories don’t rely heavily on them, like grimdark. Slipstream’s blending of science fiction, fantasy, and literary elements seems right, but the emphasis on cognitive dissonance and confrontations with reality doesn’t.

“Neo-fantasy,” as I see it, is a kind of hybrid between mythopoeic fantasy, literary fiction, and something like cyberpunk. These are some of the characteristics:

  1. Comprehensive worldbuilding. It is set in a secondary world with a fully developed history, cultures, magic, and setting. The realism, depth, and verisimilitude of each of these elements is especially important—the worldbuilding must be thorough and comprehensive.
  2. Magic is crucial. The use of magic is usually connected to the conflict of the story, and is often its solution. Magic is generally handled in a systematic, analytical way comparable to computer programming, but has a metaphysical dimension to it: magic usually represents a conduit to meaning, truth, or a greater reality. It is not reducible to a ‘science’, however.
  3. The conflicts in neo-fantasy always have a personal element. Emphasis is placed on internal struggles and an exploration of the characters.
  4. Neo-fantasy is essentially humanist. Humans are empowered to shape their lives and the world around them, and there are no limits to the power or understanding that humans may achieve. There are beings more powerful than humans, but they are either derived from humans or able to be surpassed.
  5. Neo-fantasy’s primary goal is to explore the sublime. ‘The sublime’ represents the extremes of wonder and terror within life. Reverence, awe, and despair are also key themes.

My short story The Crownless King is a good example of neo-fantasy: the story takes place in a world with a strong history and magic system, and the central conflict is whether the protagonist, the wizard Samal, will save his apprentice Iz or let the weight of his past crush him. They key themes of The Crownless King are despair, horror, and death, but against it all stands the small hope that the human spirit can survive.

The term “neo-fantasy” may never come into general usage, but that doesn’t matter to me as much as having a term that I can use to unite all of these thoughts under one umbrella and articulate them to people who haven’t read my work. Everyone wants to be part of something new, avant-garde, and fashionable, but the wars over genre and theory matter less than the stories themselves.

A Manifesto for Neo-Fantasy

Writing Hypertext Fiction: The Dream-Eater

Since college, I’ve wanted to write a story using hypertext, partly because of Serial Experiments: Lain. The show weaves together a bunch of different references to conspiracy theories and cyberpunk elements, including references to Xanadu, the life-long work of Ted Nelson. Xanadu was one the first hypertext projects, and was meant to lay the groundwork for “a global community united by perfect information.” There’s a great article in Wired about it, which includes a profile and interview of Nelson. Here’s the clip from Lain:

Fittingly, there’s another fantastic article in Wired about why hypertext fiction is a defunct format. In short, it’s generally considered too difficult to write and too hard to read, all without bringing substantial advantages over traditional, linear fiction. Print versions of hypertext literature, like House of Leaves or Choose Your Own Adventure, are either messes or lacking in depth.

As I’ve said before, any kind of ergodic literature should be intuitive and feature a narrative that matches the format. That’s what I’m shooting for in this new story, which is about time and dopplegangers.

The story has a working title of “Dream-Eater.” It takes place in an underground city that’s divided into two caverns, which have opposite day and night schedules. The story begins with a narcomancer, a dream-mage, waking up and realizing that his sleep schedule has been broken and he’s been sleeping for the past 24 hours. To compound that, he can’t remember what parts of the previous day were real, and which parts were just his dreams. In that 24-hour period, though, someone that looks like him has been carrying on his routine: cleaning clothes, talking to his friends, etc. The story is about him trying to reconstruct what happened before he went to sleep and what his doppleganger did while he was sleeping. It’s also about his slipping grip on reality.

To chart out the flow of the story and divide it into nodes, I started writing notes:

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The arrows on the left represent links to other nodes, which in this story lead to memories (which are fragmented and need to be pieced together), dreams, thoughts, or texts, like books or sheet music that don’t need to be included in the main text. The idea is to have the surface level of the story in the main nodes, but the deeper layers that reveal the truth, like thoughts and memories, hidden in a series of lower nodes that branch off the main narrative at strategic points. This way, the mystery isn’t just exploring the world and reality, it’s exploring the inner space of the protagonist.

Writing Hypertext Fiction: The Dream-Eater

Worldbuilding: Spell Maps and Magic Systems

Despite this being the Occult Triangle Lab, I haven’t spoken much about occult trigonometry. I’ve talked about using binary code as the basis for magic systems, as well as magic as poetry, but not much to do with triangles. Except for that origami pyramid wrapped up with Zen.

The origami pyramid Nirodha.

Magic in fantasy, as I’ve said before, shouldn’t be a science. It shouldn’t be a palette-swapped form of electricity or physics, where mages carry out “experiments” like Isaac Newton (though he himself was apparently a big fan of alchemy). The reason is that magic, when approached like a science, brings up same reductionism that haunts modern people: if we’re all just chemical reactions in our brains, is there space for truth, or meaning, or wonder? Because those are the very things fantasy can explore like no other genre.

I think magic in fantasy should have rules. The way I conceive it, it should undergird the workings of nature and the world, similar to how Ursula LeGuin’s used taxonomy as magic. But when I imagine magic, there’s something transcendental about it that goes beyond science and materialism. How do you begin designing a system like that? It’s like making up a fictional branch of aeronautics. But that’s what’s so amazing about worldbuilding: you get to make the rules.

What follows is the basic building blocks for a magic system that I conceived back in 2014, combining the art of Buddhist mandalas, computer coding, and musical theory with metaphysics, astronomy, and trigonometry. This is, in the realest sense, a product of an occult triangle lab. One note, however: this is all hypothetical. I don’t have a degree in linguistics like Tolkien, or in graphology. To actually create the symbolic language I describe and to embed these kinds of patterns in it would be something akin to making a crossword puzzle out of an entire language. It would take years of careful construction. So maybe a long-term project for me.

But in the meantime…

Spell Maps, COMPUTER CODE and GEOMETRY

A couple years ago, I started to sketch out the beginnings of a written magic system for my fantasy world. I imagined putting together a bunch of symbols in a sequence that expresses what you want to happen, like you’d do with a line of computer code. But there is something inherently beautiful about how these symbols would fit together: if you deconstruct the interactions between the symbols, you would find that all the symbols could be grouped into discrete units, with the groups’ unity based around shared markings in their graphic composition (similar strokes and dots in the symbols) or the part of the spell they affect (such as binding or flight). These rows of symbols would form rectangular paragraphs, and these rectangles could be oriented to one another like building blocks to form geometric shapes, with each paragraph forming a side of the shape.

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These shapes would be arranged into a “spell map,” a geometric representation of how the different parts of the spell work together. It would form a radial or symmetrical design based around a central polygonal figure, such as a square or hexagon. Arms extending from the central polygonal shape would represent the different aspects of the spell, and the smaller components of the arms would be based around their own geometric patterns, making a chain of hexagons, squares, triangles, and so on. So the patterns contained within the individual lines of magical code would eventually form spirals of meta-patterns.

A functioning, well-written spell would have perfect symmetry when all the symbols are arranged in this manner, so a mage writing a new spell could actually lay out their writing in a half-made spell map and figure out what to write next based on their knowledge of geometry and angles. They can also figure out where their spell is going wrong based on the symmetry of the design.

Spell Maps, Triangles, and Designa

The thing is, every polygon is made up of triangles. When you have a regular polygon, like a pentagon, you can subtract 2 from its number of sides and multiply that by 180 to get the sum of its internal angles. Why 180? Because that’s the sum of the angles in a triangle! If you’re trying to create huge, perfectly geometrical spiral designs, the key lies in the shapes that will work well with the central polygonal shape; linking together a hexagon and a pentagon will make for some crowded, chaotic spiral arms. Shapes made from the same sort of triangles that make up the central polygonal figure, on the other hand, might work to create perfect mandala-like designs.

Working with triangles as the basic building block of all shapes, you can figure out the angle measures of the “ideal” triangle for your central polygon (say, a hexagon, which is made up of equilateral triangles with angle measures of 60 degrees) and create a grid made entirely of those triangles. Using this grid, you can be assured that all shapes made from those triangles will have angles measures and lengths that will synch well together. If you’re a mage, it also means that you have all routes for the development of a new spell map.

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But in practice, single-triangle grids may not contain all the triangles necessary to create perfect designs, especially if you want a mix of different shapes. You’ll need permutations of the right triangle, the equilateral triangle, and 30-60-90 triangle, with angles and lengths adjusted to fit the angle measures of your central polygonal figure to have all possible options. This means, to see all possible shapes, you should be working with three triangles grids superimposed on top of one another, calibrated to the right angle measures.

So that’s where things get complicated.

A book I picked up from The Strand is a great guide to this kind of geometrical drafting–it’s called Designa by Wooden Books, and it walks you through the history, drafting techniques, and mathematics behind different designs from all over the world, including Muslim religious patterns and Celtic knots. Woven into these patterns are symbolic meanings and symmetries, reflecting beliefs about the universe, nature, and God.

So there you have the first stage: the idea of a spell map, a meta-pattern that gives a geometric structure to a normally linear, code-like spell made of symbols. Like a computer system, it can be revised and troubleshot based on the patterns embedded in its operations. When it’s evoked, it casts the spell coded into it.

SPELL MAPS, MAGIC, and MUSIC

After looking at the triangular grids I’d made, I used the horizontal lines made naturally when you mirror two rows of triangles vertically to measure the size of a map, which would express its “magnitude”: the larger and more complex the spell, the more space on the grid it will require, and the greater its “magnitude,” since larger spells means using more lines of symbols. And that led to a new idea.

As I looked at the designs I’d made, I wondered what it would look like if I tried to reduce all of the symbols and patterns to binary, so that a spell could be fed through a punch card-computer, like UNIVAC. I also realized that the “magnitude lines” I’d drawn also imposed something like a musical staff on the whole design. It reminded me of Deadmau5 playing the Castlevania theme on a bunch of modular synthesizers, and the Black Midi series, especially this one, where the designs made by the notes end up looking like large spell map. I imagined playing cross-sections of a spell map like Black Midi, with every symbol being a note.occult triangle lab chris mahon worldbuilding fantasy spells

Music is made of patterns and mathematics, and the same kinds of waves that describe sound can apply to light, energy, and matter (I dove into sound waves and quantum mechanics in this post). In my sketches, I started to see how a given spell could be expressed as a song as well as a mandala-like graphical representation. And if you look back to wizards like Vainamoinen, spell-songs are exactly what mages used to change the world around them. It’s a really cool piece of synchronicity, and it’s one of the fascinating coincidences that pops up when you delve into this kind of worldbuilding.

Metaphysics, Spell Maps, and the Universe

But when I looked closer at my sketches, another pattern started to appear. I started to see how a spell map could also be a reflection of the symmetry of the universe, in the same way that Buddhist and Hindu mandalas supposedly reflect the order of all creation. In fact, the structure of a spell map looks like a universe of sorts: it’s a miniature galaxy, with spiral arms containing dozens of individual ‘solar systems’ (symbol-rows grouped around the center of a shape) containing sometimes hundreds of individual ‘worlds’ (symbols) and comprising thousands of ‘people’ (individual strokes that make up the symbols).

In my conception of this magic system, this is where magic crosses over from being a computer program and reveals its ties directly to metaphysics. Like a fractal, the pattern of the whole universe is expressed in miniature in the spell map, because magic is essentially a way to change the universe. And in this system, the way to change reality is to build a microcosm of the universe and rewrite it by hand. In this way, a spell map could also act as a kind of divination or scrying tool, like the I-Ching (a book that fascinated Phillip K. Dick to no end), reflecting the conditions of the world rather than changing it.

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Conclusion

Great worldbuilding should work like an iceberg: 10% on the surface, 90% below the waterline. I think this is one of the reasons the worldbuilding in Dark Souls rakes in such unreal praise. There’s a sense that beneath the immediate information you’re given, there’s whole volumes of knowledge and secrets to learn and immerse yourself in. It’s the opposite reason people can’t get through Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion. But whether you’re revealing all of it or letting the reader unravel how everything fits together, I think the best way to accomplish that feeling of a vast, immersive world is to actually build it behind the scenes. I spoke about this before, but the small details are crucial to making fantasy work, and this is especially true when it comes to magic.

So if you’re a fantasy writer building a world from the ground up, explore everything. Everything feeds into everything else, the world is a frightening and wonderful place, and when you dig deep enough, triangles lie at the heart of everything.

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Worldbuilding: Spell Maps and Magic Systems

The Grinning Man: Necromancer Helmet Concept Art

When I think of necromancers, I imagine a cross between a Zen Buddhist monk, an amateur surgeon, and a hardcore survivalist preparing for the end of the world. It’s not about raising an army of the dead and taking a kingdom, it’s about being the last man standing when the Sun falls out of the sky. It’s about living forever. This is someone with the apocalypse constantly on their mind, thinking of contingencies. That obsession with survival made me think of an astronaut’s space helmet, a kind of sealed, self-contained piece of headwear that could protect the skull and seal out dust, fire, and the vacuum of space.

I started to wonder what a survivalist necromancer’s helmet would like, so I drew on some of my favorite helmet designs from across all kinds of media, from Neon Genesis Evangelion and Elfen Lied to Daft Punk and TES III: Morrowind. The final product was appropriately macabre, frightening, and functional for someone bent on eating souls and living forever.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind: The Native Chuzei Bonemold Helm

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(If you haven’t read my long-ass post about how Morrowind should be the gold standard for fantasy worldbuilding, read it here)

Morrowind’s Bonemold armor is so damn cool: crafted from bonemeal, the individual pieces of armor are molded in hard, light shapes, like the lacquered wooden armor of samurai. Each Dunmer House has its own style of armor, with their own custom helmets and shields, each reflecting their own unique character. House Redoran’s helmet had a shawl to keep out the dust and House Telvanni had some kind of insane squid helmet because they’re weird-ass wizards who live in mushrooms. But the single coolest helmet in the history of fantasy gaming is the Native Chuzei Bonemold Helm.

The swept-back design with the swooping crest on the back and lack of conventional eyeholes in favor of dual slits made it look intimidating, alien, and sort of like a grinning, demonic face. I loved this helmet, and I wanted to steal its design for any kind of helmet I made in the future.

Daft Punk: Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s helmet

I have an obsession with Daft Punk, especially their helmets. There’s something about the anonymity of masks that makes the wearer larger than life. My favorite version of Guy-Manuel’s helmet is still the one used in ELECTROMA.

When I was still in high school, I actually attempted to make Guy’s gold and black helmet from a skateboard helmet, a motorcycle visor, and a paintball mask:

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I loved the helmet design so much that I wanted to incorporate in my stories, which is where Guy Manuel’s helmet merged with the Chuzei helm to create the helmets that the Elves in my stories wear:

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Elves in my stories are the end-products of generations of the pursuit of immortality: humans warped and altered into a completely different species. Their helmets, like my initial astronaut helmet idea, allowed them to survive the vacuum of space, like the starfish-headed Old Ones in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. And like other human necromancers, survival was the ultimate priority.

The skull-hugging shape, smooth lines and lack of conventional eyeholes stuck with me in particular. But that changed when I saw…

Neon Genesis Evangelion: EVA Unit-01’s helmet

By fora on Deviant Art

Evangelion is my favorite piece of media, hands-down. Between the Kabbalah occultism, the Phillip K. Dick-inspired apocalyptica, the complex mathematics and existentialist philosophers snuck into the show, it is the Space Odyssey: 2001 of mindfucks. And they had some really cool robots.

There’s a rumor that Hideaki Anno, the creator of NGE, wanted the EVA units to be extremely complicated so that the famously aggressive Japanese toy industry wouldn’t be able to create action figures of them. In the end, we still got Evangelion canned bread.

The most beloved EVA unit, and my favorite, too, is Unit 01. It’s got a kind of kabuto helmet, and its giant, toothed jaws are both really cool and absolutely horrifying once it starts screaming and eating other EVA units.

 

Yeah, the EVAs are nightmarish homonculi made of human flesh and bone grafted onto mechanical parts, animated by trapped human souls with the capability for madness and rage. The reveal that EVA Unit 01’s helmet covers something approximating a metallic skull is one of the images from NGE that stuck with me. The teeth and jaw especially appealed to me.

Elfen Lied: Lucy’s helmet

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Elfen Lied is the most violent, gory, and traumatic romantic comedy anime ever (only half-joking here). From the opening minutes of the first episode, a naked pre-pubescent girl sealed in a helmet from The Man in the Iron Mask starts vivisecting, decapitating, and ripping the literal hearts out of a team of security personnel in a juxtaposition of eroticism, innocence, and relentless, brutal gore.

elfen lied gore violenceAnd damn is that helmet cool.

 

Lucy’s helmet is relatively simple, both in its design and concept: round head and jaw piece sealed onto the skull to restrain a prisoner in a test facility. It looks suitably clinical, the kind of medical appliance you’d imagine would be in use in a telekinesis research facility. In Lucy’s case, wearing this helmet isn’t a choice–it’s forced onto her, as a means of control, as if they were trying to seal her skull in a container, like an airtight jar.

The Necromancer Helmet: THE GRINNING MAN

Building off the idea of “the crownless king,” the title I made for a necromancer who could survive decapitation, I wanted to create a helmet for a character who would keep their head sealed in a helmet like a safe. This would be Oroboro, the same necromancer mentioned in the Ergodica posts. From there, this character could actually substitute other people’s heads for their own, as a sort of voodoo: with possession of another person’s head, they could gain all of that person’s knowledge, speak in their voice, and communicate with their ghost. The idea emerged of a necromantic collector, someone who collects trophies from their dead enemies and binds their ghosts to his helmet by stealing their heads.

I imagined an eyeless helmet with a hinge on the front, so the entire thing could open like a pear of anguish, and a removable jaw.

Culaith helmet draft Chris 3 Culaith mask draft Chris 1 Culaith mask draft Chris 2 Culaith mask draft 4 Chris

I decided to describe the helmet to a friend of mine, Joel, who has done a lot of fantasy concept art in the past. This is what I told him:

“When you consume someone’s ghost or soul, you gain all of their memories, identity, and knowledge…he keeps the heads of people he values in his helmet, or their teeth embedded in it. The teeth are like quick-keys to call up the ghosts of those he wants to channel, and the head in the helmet is possessed. He’s supposed to be an abomination. The helmet and everything connected to it breaks every rule I could think of when it comes to magical morality…I’m not sure how I want the jaw mechanism to work–I was hoping you could help me figure that out. The goal of it is to be able to unhinge the jaw, so he can take abnormally large objects into himself, like a snake. As for the material, I was thinking of either iron or heavily pitted and varnished wood.”

After some back and forth about the lore behind the helmet, the magic and mechanisms, Joel produced this rough sketch, meant to depict an iron helmet:

Culaith helmet sketch Joel

Joel described his sketch like this: “I really liked the worked metal aspect around the teeth, like it’s been scratched or welded into shape to hold the teeth, so I ran with that. Tried to give it more of the welded look, it makes it look almost flesh while the rest of the helmet is obviously metal. I thought the concave shape around the teeth gave it a more unnatural look and gave the impression that you almost had to dig out some of the mask to find the teeth underneath.”

I loved Joel’s sketch, especially the teeth–they evoke the ravenous, all-consuming potential of the eyeless Langoliers from Stephen King’s story The Langoliers, as well as David Hine’s graphic novel, “The Man Who Laughs,” published by Self Made Hero, which was the inspiration for Batman’s Joker. I decided to dub this helmet “The Grinning Man.”

With Joel’s rough sketch showing how it all would fit together, I decided to do a sketch of my own based off Joel’s art, showing the complete helmet:

chris oroboro culaith helmet necromancy

Conclusion

Necromancers can be a lot more than guys summoning skeletons. These are the people who are plumbing the depths of life and death, the decay of the body and the action of time, searching for the line between man and god, mortal and immortal. They can be horrifying in their own right, and they don’t even need zombies to get the job done. And they can look absolutely terrifying while doing it.

 

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The Occult Triangle Lab Review: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

wot01_theeyeoftheworldLet me put something in perspective.

If you read Neuromancer, you remember the surreal paradise of Straylight, the space station Case and the crew travel to. You remember McCoy Pauley, the “Flatline,” his accent, and his bizarre dead man’s laugh. You remember the sequence when Case jacks into the matrix to take on the T.A. AI. And if you’re like me, you remember the last line, “He never saw Molly again.”

The entire story of Neuromancer took place in 270 pages. All of its minutely detailed worldbuilding, its revelations about Riviera and Wintermute, and Case’s struggles to get over Linda Lee are encapsulated in those 270 pages.

Page 270 is where I stopped reading The Eye of the World from sheer disinterest. There were no characters I cared about, no aspects of the world that captured my imagination, and nothing in the plot that made me keep turning pages. In the space of 270 pages, the same length that entire masterpieces of fantasy/sci-fi have been written, nothing of substance had even appeared to give me a reason to finish the book.

Let’s go deeper here.

Wizard of Earthsea. If you read the first book in the Earthsea series, you know Ged becomes Ogion’s apprentice, travels to Roke, stays a year in Kurremkarmerruk’s tower learning runes, builds a rivalry with Jasper, unleashes a gebbeth on the world, fights a clan of dragons to a stand-still, finds the Ring of Erreth Akbe on an abandoned sandbar, and travels to the end of the world to confront his own death in 183 pages.

The Fellowship of the Ring. By page 200 in The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo and his friends have already made it through the Old Forest, the Barrow-Downs, and the encounter with the Ringwraith on the road. They’ve encountered Elves on their travels, watched Bilbo disappear, and Frodo has learned about the diabolical nature of the Ring and the stakes of destroying it.

In 270 pages or less, each of these stories accomplished what Eye of the World did not: present an engaging cast of characters, the beginnings of an interesting, well-paced plot, and  a reason to care about any of it. You could say everyone’s tastes are different, and that if I didn’t like it, that has everything to do with me and little to do with the story. As a writer, I disagree.

To borrow from Harry Plinkett’s Star Wars prequel reviews, a litmus test that every character in fiction should be able to pass is to have someone describe them without explaining their appearance, their job, or role in the plot of the story. What’s their personality, their character? What do they want, and what drives them as a person? Taking a step beyond that, are the character’s desires or goals driving the story and their actions in it? What will they get at the end of it all, what’s their “payoff”? All of these are roundabout ways of saying “Why should I care about this story and what happens in it?”

I couldn’t answer any of these questions about the characters or the plot of The Eye of the World because, as in most D&D campaigns, the story lurches forward because The Plot requires it to. This isn’t a story about people struggling for something, this is a puppet show. Set on a pair of rails, the characters have to play along with no agency and no motivation beyond staying alive, nothing personal at stake.

I’ll make a note here about Egwene, who develops the desire to become an Aes Sedai after Moraine reveals her ability to channel. Egwene has a personal stake in getting to Tar Valon: she wants to become special and learn the extent of her abilities. But Egwene’s presence on the journey to Tar Valon is so incidental, so badly rationalized as “a part of the Pattern,” that it renders her whole role in the plot moot.

But what frustrates me almost as much as the characters and plot is the insistence on the part of fans that The Eye of the World represents good, even great worldbuilding. As I’ve said before, good worldbuilding has very little to do with depth or complexity and everything to do with how it immerses readers in the story at hand. Looking at H.P. Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness, the overwhelming detail of the expedition’s gear and supplies ends up grounding you a scientific mindset that makes everything afterward, from the frozen city to the ice to the shoggoths, all the more credulous and frightening. Instead, The Eye of the World alternates between spending page after page describing mind-numbing, mundane  medieval farming life and reeling off long expositions about this world’s history and lore, the most egregious example being Moraine’s recounting of the heritage of Edmond’s Field. There is nothing immediate and applicable about these details, like Neuromancer’s complex descriptions of the technology Case is using, and nothing vivid and interesting that reminds me I’m in a fantasy world, like Case’s wanderings through Night City.

Someone might argue that Jordan’s writing, the prose of the book, is what makes everything hang together. I read 1100 pages of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon almost on the strength of the writing alone. If anyone sits down and compares the writing in Eye of the World to a random chapter in Cryptonomicon (even the one with the Captain Crunch), the difference in sheer vividness will be immediately clear.

So, to sum it all up: I don’t think The Eye of the World is a good fantasy book.  I don’t think it represents what fantasy should be, or what a book should do. If it can’t give me one good reason to keep reading it in the span of pages that other books have told entire stories, I think it’s safe to say that it’s not a good book overall.

[Stands up, pushes chair back]

I’m going to go back to my triangles now. Let me know what you think below in the comments.

The Occult Triangle Lab Review: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

Narcomancy: Morphine, Lucid Dreaming, and Binaural Beats

READ PART 1 HERE

If Captain Jack has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes you’ve got to dream a little dream. He doesn’t have much advice about how to build a magic system around dreams, though. N.K. Jemisin already uses the term ‘narcomancy,’ meaning dream magic, in her Dreamblood series, but after sketching out the magic system for the new story I’m working on, I found my narcomancy resembled William Gibson’s Neuromancer more than Killing Moon.

In a similar way to Case in Neuromancer, the narcomancers in my story operate by immersing themselves in an alternate reality and working from the inside. The reality in this case isn’t a Matrix, but a dreamscape that stretches across the world, with dreams and dreamers showing up as brainwave patterns, tuned to certain frequencies like bands of radio stations, each frequency representing a different stage of sleep—alpha, theta, delta, or REM.

I got the idea of imaging brainwaves as radio bands from Kevin Mitnick’s memoir, Ghost in the Wires, which explains (sometimes tediously) how he and many other hackers started out as ham radio operators. There was one repeater frequency, 147.435, that they called “the animal house,” a channel that was open for anyone to scream into, spread rumors, or meet random people. I liked the idea of tuning a radio into a certain frequency and hearing people’s dreams from all over the world, sort of like John Cheever’s The Enormous Radio. The idea for a worldwide dreamscape also came partly from Serial Experiments Lain, which touched on the Schumann resonance as a means to create a worldwide consciousness using the Earth’s magnetic field, then merge reality and the Wired into one. These ideas are really interesting to me, partly because they straddle the line between real scientific phenomena and fantasy.

The dreamscape, as I’m imagining it, can be visualized as having several different bands, or layers, each one corresponding to a different sleep stage:

dreamscape diagram

Part of the job of the narcomancers in the story is to find “bands” of dreamers in delta sleep and begin trying to trigger them into moving into REM sleep, where they can start manipulating their dreams. REM stage sleep is also known as paradoxical sleep, because it closely resembles the waking state of brain activity. It’s strongly associated with vivid dreaming, and it’s usually in this stage that you have real trouble distinguishing reality from dreaming.

REM stage sleep is also when a sleeper’s eyes begin to move rapidly behind their lids, hence the name: Rapid Eye Movement (REM). Imagining someone’s eyes moving hyper-fast, as if trying to keep up with thousands of flashing images, made me think of the mentats in Dune, who have a similar association with eyes. Their blue-tinted mélange-addicted eyes signaled their superhuman ability to think and process facts like computers, and in a similar way, I imagined  a sleeping narcomancer attaining an almost superhuman level of consciousness during REM, allowing them to deal with huge amounts of sensory input and making them able to pull off a performances.

REM stage sleep, like every kind of sleep, comes in cycles, with the brain diving and rising through the different stages several times over the course of one night. As the night goes on, REM stages become more frequent:

sleep-cycles

This brought me to another idea: sort of like a bank heist, what if narcomancers could only operate during their REM sleep, in 40-50 minute periods? It would almost be like a high that would wear off in time, forcing them to operate quickly, get in, play their music, and get out before their REM abilities wore off.

But there would have to be another hurdle for narcomancers to help distinguish them from regular dreamers: lucid dreaming. When I dream, it usually feels like I’m in a trance, like I’m watching myself doing things from somewhere slightly removed from my body with no real conscious control (Fun fact: sleep paralysis, a possible side effect of being woken up from REM sleep, often causes this same feeling, called bodily dissociation, also known as ‘having an out-of-body experience’). How could narcomancers, and musician narcomancers, hope to operate something akin to a mental DJ set when their mind isn’t working at top capacity? The only way to attain that kind of conscious acuity would have to be through lucid dreaming, where one would be able to recognize that they’re dreaming, then think and act as if they were awake.

To answer the question of how to attain lucid dreaming, I turned to 1980’s drug culture. Since the story was originally inspired by the rave-like EDM concerts of bands like Daft Punk, I turned to one aspect of rave culture: party drugs. So I invented a liquid, opium-derived product with a lot of similarities to morphine, which is apropos since morphine derives its name from Morpheus, the god of dreams. It’s also the kick-ass main character of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, but that’s another story entirely. Sezumi, this fictional drug, would have one new feature apart from morphine: it would allow lucid dreaming once it put someone to sleep.

But another aspect of narcomancy, one of the key elements of manipulating dreams, comes from a unique phenomenon that’s also connected to lucid dreaming: binaural tones. Caused by playing two high-frequency notes with slight difference in their frequencies, binaural tones are sine waves that cause the brainwaves of the listeners to begin to synch with the binaural frequencies, meaning that you can ‘tune’ your brainwaves to certain patterns, such as theta or delta rhythms. This would be tremendously useful for a narcomancer who has to move between different stages of sleep, but there’s another use for it that makes it the central skill of narcomancy when paired with lucid dreaming: synching your brain waves with the brain waves of dreamers, then manipulating them.

Consider it a very primitive form of hacking, to use the Neuromancer analogy again. While lucid and on your REM high (with a 40-minute window) you find a frequency band with many dreamers’ brain waves operating on that wavelength, then start using binaural beats to manipulate them into attaining REM stage, then fine-tune your brainwaves to match theirs. Once you’re on the same frequency, you’re the only lucid person around, while everyone else is operating on the subconscious level. From there, you can begin manipulate and shape the dreams into something like reality-bending art, using music as your tool.

 

Narcomancy: Morphine, Lucid Dreaming, and Binaural Beats