Worldbuilding: Martial Arts, Magic, and ‘An Account of the Dyer’

I’m working on a new story about a character I’ve had in mind for several years, called ‘the Dyer’. He’s meant to be a mage who mixes martial arts with magic, and he gets his name from the bruising he leaves behind on his opponents, which is actually subcutaneous bleeding. The bleeding is so dark and persistent that it ends up ‘dyeing’ the skin black.

I wanted to write a non-fiction piece about the Dyer, sort of like Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, but told from the point of view of another martial arts master. I came up with the character of Ryu-Ito, who interacts with the Dyer and writes down observations about him.

Here’s what I have so for her book, An Account of the Dyer:

Introduction by RyU-Ito

I write an account of a figure who has no need for words, whose style transcends description, and whose genius demands firsthand experience, not ink on pages. He has read this tract with bemusement and forgotten it as quickly as he was told of it. He never learned his movements from books, and regards scholarship with bewilderment; why would one write about a style, instead of practicing it?
When putting this account to pen, I was faced with these questions and more. But I am committed to the belief that while words cannot bring us to the summation of understanding, they can help us take the first steps. Where words’ usefulness end, experience takes us by the hand and leads us on down the path, which I have learned has no end.

The hand that can break bones moves with strength and speed; the hand that can split the sky does not move at all.

Chapter 1

The first time I met the Dyer, I was taken aback. I had heard of his strange appearance, but I was not prepared to find a man like a scarecrow in the meeting-room. What struck me were his long fingers, wrapped in bandages, and his white porcelain mask, which is unsettling to anyone who is not familiar with his gentle nature.

The Dyer is notoriously shy, but it is well-known that he has a special discomfort for being alone with women. In our meeting, he kept his gaze rooted firmly on the floor, only raising his head when one of the students knelt to fill our cups. It was at that point that I decided to dispense with all the trappings of a formal meeting and challenge the Dyer to a duel.
The cups were cleared away and I shed my outer robes, leaving only my gi. I took my stance and waited. The Dyer stood up abruptly and stood awkwardly for a moment or two, then bowed. I practiced the breathing my masters had taught me and prepared to advance. A thousand subconscious thoughts ran through my head like fish below the surface of the water, gauging his reach, his inertia, his movements. I led with my right hand, leaving my left to block in the wu position, and moved into his range.

And then I stopped. The Dyer, at some point that I had not noticed, had completely relaxed. He was leaving himself completely open to attack from any angle, but seemed absolutely untroubled by it. Gazing at his mask, I searched for a trace of his eyes to give me insight into his thoughts or emotions, but I found myself hypnotized. The harder I tried to look past his mask, the more I saw myself through his eyes. I found myself cycling through a thousand different potential mindsets to explain his serenity, a thousand different images of the Dyer behind the mask, but all of them fell away in the face of him. Suddenly, his great height seemed to grow even taller, and his presence filled my world. He was simultaneously everything I could imagine and none of it, at once peaceful and overwhelming. I knew in that moment, while I stared into the twin eyes of his mask, that I could never defeat this man.

And then he did something surprising: he raised his right arm and held it in the same position I had mine, so that our wrists crossed. He mirrored my stance, and he gently pushed his wrist against mine, so that my arm rotated a little. I instinctively pushed back, and his arm gave way, at which point I ceased applying pressure. He repeated the gesture, and we went back and forth like that for a long time. Slowly, he brought his other arm around, and I met it with mine. We began pushing with both our hands, and I began taking steps forward, which he mirrored, until we were dancing.

It was then that I understood the heart of the Dyer’s style and the secret to his invincibility: no one fights the Dyer himself—his opponents only fight themselves.

Worldbuilding: Martial Arts, Magic, and ‘An Account of the Dyer’

Iaido, Wing Chun, and ‘After the Rain’: Reflections on Martial Arts

I started taking wing chun classes at City Wing Tsun in Manhattan recently. In the two months since I began, it’s been a great experience, partly because the people are almost universally friendly, and partly because doing martial arts has made me feel more at peace.

Practicing some of the forms in wing chun reminded me of a scene from one of my favorite movies, Ame Agaru, or After the Rain. The movie follows Misawa I’hei, a ronin, and his wife, who are staying at an inn. After stopping a duel, Misawa gains the attention of the local ruler, who invites him to interview for the position of master-at-arms at his castle. Misawa turns out to be an unparalleled swordsman, but his weakness is his kindness and humbleness–as one character says, Misawa’s empathy toward his opponents (who inevitably lose) ends up coming across as mocking them, and Misawa himself seems resigned to being perpetually unlucky and undeserving of any good things that come his way.

The scene I was reminded of is a three-minute sequence in the forest, where Misawa is practicing drawing and sheathing his sword:

After two months of Siu Nim Tao, the first form of wing chun, I had a new respect for this scene, which seems pretty simple and boring at first glance. So much time and attention is given to the minute, almost ritualistic movements Misawa uses in the simple act of pulling out and putting away his weapon. When I first watched the movie, I was struck by how long the scene went on, that there was no music or dialogue, and that the director/screenwriter had chosen to forego doing another episodic fight scene in favor of a contemplative scene where Misawa reflects on how useless he is.

For comparison, here’s what Siu Nim Tao looks like:

One of our instructors at City Wing Tsun told us that he’d attended a class of high-level wing chun martial artists who practiced this form so slowly and deliberately that the set took them an hour to complete. Their movements were so gradual that you couldn’t tell they were moving, like the hands of a clock.

Looking back on that scene from After the Rain, it makes more sense to me. Rather than a weird little digression that fails to advance the plot, it touches upon something essential about Misawa: without delving into exposition or his past, it shows that this is someone who has dedicated his life to his art, and has maybe even mastered it. The fact that he does it alone, in the middle of the woods, hints that his path toward mastery was completed alone, and that like a tree falling in the woods, it’s still real even if he’s the only one who appreciates it.

But the end of the scene, where Misawa reflects on his uselessness and how his wife is the only thing that gives his life value, is most important of all: at this point in the movie, Misawa has just fucked up his interview in a catastrophic duel with his potential lord, and once again ruined an opportunity for his (and his wife’s) happiness. Him saying he’s useless, to me, just seemed like dejection, kind of a hapless “I can’t do anything right!” But in the context of his iaido, it seems like he’s saying “What good is mastering the sword if it doesn’t bring you happiness?”

Misawa may be the polar opposite of Miyamoto Musashi in Vagabond, which is my favorite manga series: Musashi is a swordsman driven by a desire to be invincible, and enters his fights with bloodlust and brute strength. Misawai I’hei enters his fights with benevolent intentions, either attempting to defuse the battle or hurriedly asking his enemy if they’re okay once he’s disarmed them. But I think both realize that at the end of the way of the sword is another path that doesn’t need the sword at all.

Iaido, Wing Chun, and ‘After the Rain’: Reflections on Martial Arts

Programmer Spells: The Two-Ton Punch

I’ve spoken a bit about how spells would work in my world, but for a long time I’ve struggled to figure out the details of the nuts-and-bolts mechanics. I’ve drawn inspiration for my spells from computer coding, but I don’t know how to code or the syntax of any programming languages. So with that in mind, I decided to do some research on Python this weekend and see if I could use some of the basic elements of programming to write a rudimentary spell, as I imagined it.

The spell I decided to write out is a draw-redirect spell, one of the first spells I ever came up with. It was originally inspired by Soto’s magical abacus in Terry Pratchett’s Thief of Time, which allowed the monk to move around kinetic force stored in falling bodies (namely, the protagonist Lobsang Ludd). I liked the idea of a spell that could absorb force and redirect it, and after researching martial arts like Aikido and Judo, I thought it’d be a great technique for a martial artist-mage.

The character I had in mind was the Dyer, a mage who had little to no muscle mass, but could topple much stronger foes by absorbing the kinetic force of their blows and redirecting it into his strikes. Here’s what I came up with for a sketch of the spell:

The Dyer’s Basic Draw-Redirect Strike Technique

Part 1: Intercept and absorb kinetic force (Draw)

[IF] [CASTER BODY] [ENCOUNTERS] [KINETIC FORCE] [GREATER THAN] [1 PSI] [THEN] [ABSORB] [QUANTITY: 100%][OF][KINETIC FORCE][AND][STORE][Previously absorbed force][IN][SEA OF DIRAC]

Part 2: Store kinetic force (Draw)

[SEA OF DIRAC]
[DEFINE tolerances: 0 PSI to 120,000 PSI]
[DEFINE shape: bound to caster’s physical dimensions, 1-inch radius around skin surface]
[DEFINE internal structure: triangular tessellation]

Part 3: Release kinetic force on a trigger (Redirect)

[WHEN][1 OF FOLLOWING CONDITIONS=TRUE][Execute respective functions]:

[CONDITION 1: TRIGGER 1 or 2=TRUE]
[EXECUTE][REDIRECT][100% OF STORED KINETIC ENERGY][INTO][RIGHT ARM FORCE INERTIA]

[TRIGGER 1= Caster says the word “release”]
[TRIGGER 2= Caster’s right palm takes designated form MANTIS HAND and makes contact with non-caster living entity]

[CONDITION 2: Sea reaches maximum capacity]
[EXECUTE: dissipate amount of stored energy equal to most recently absorbed energy amount]

The desired outcome of this spell, as it’s structured here, would be to absorb the full force of a punch or strike and dump that force into a magical space I termed a “Sea of DIrac”, which is an actual scientific phenomenon, but pretty much unrelated to the concept of kinetic energy. I first heard the term in Neon Genesis Evangelion, when Shinji encounters an Angel that can suck objects into its shadow, which is actually a Sea of Dirac. I just wanted a shorthand term for a space that existed outside of the material dimension, where energy could be stored indefinitely.

Once the kinetic energy is stored in the caster’s sea, that energy can be released again in conjunction with a strike, depending on one of two triggers: when the Dyer says a trigger keyword, or when the Dyer’s hand conforms to a predetermined shape (in this case, a mantis strike) and meets an opponent’s body. Activating one of these triggers will dump all of the kinetic energy the Dyer has stored into the inertia of his right arm, which, if he times it correctly, means that his relatively weak strikes could become incredibly powerful.

According to this article, the amount of force some elite boxers can put into their punches can range from 776 pounds to 1,300. After receiving only five punches at 800 PSI, the Dyer would be able to redirect roughly 4000 PSI into one strike (if I’ve done my math right). That comes out to about 2 tons.

The next step with this spell is translating it into its own symbols and notation–a magical language. That’s going to be much more difficult, because it means creating a whole set of symbols that correspond not only to programming tokens (like “and”, “or,” or “true”), but to nouns and concepts, like kinetic energy and the Sea of Dirac. Then again, it might be fun to start creating a pictographic language like Chinese or Japanese, especially for small projects.

Programmer Spells: The Two-Ton Punch

The Occult Reading List: Zen, Martial Arts, Annie Lennox, and Tickets to the Moon

I have a bad habit of reading, listening, and watching too many things at once, and at the end of every week I end up with a new list of fascinating things to check out. I thought it would be fun to share some of the stuff I’ve read and listened to in the past week, including some of the books and articles I’ve come across. I’ve also included the songs that have been on repeat in my head.

Reading this list is guaranteed to make you fun at parties.

Books

zen buddhism d.t. suzuki occult triangle labNON-FICTION: Zen Buddhism, Selected Writing of D.T. Suzuki, Edited by William Barrett

An interesting look at Zen Buddhism by one of the foremost writers and translators on the topic. So far, the introduction has drawn connections between Zen and Kierkegaard’s Knight of Infinite Resignation, which is really interesting. It’s also got some fun stories about Bodidharma, the founder of Chinese Buddhism, and his shenanigans. I spoke a bit about Bodidharma before, in my post about Terry Pratchett’s Rule One.

burglars guide to the city occult triangle labNON-FICTION: A Burglar’s Guide to The City, by Geoff Manaugh

This book started out with an interesting premise: burglars, by their nature, have an arcane knowledge and a unique mastery of their surroundings. With this knowledge, they can pull off seemingly impossible, or even supernatural, feats. Liminality is a key idea in this book, which mirrors a lot of studies in magic and the occult. However, like a lot of non-fiction topics written by academics, it ends up losing track of its thesis and instead indulges in whatever the author finds kind of neat. DNF

clarkesworld occult triangle labFICTION: Clarkesworld Year Six Anthology, Clarkesworld Magazine

Clarkesworld Magazine, one of my top three favorite short fiction markets. These are the same folks that published both my essays on fantasy (you can read them here and here). I just started reading their Year Six anthology, and I’m excited to see what kind of insane stuff they’ve got in store. I also sponsor these guys on Patreon, along with Menton3. JOIN THE CULT.

 

opus satoshi kon occult triangle labMANGA: Opus, Satoshi Kon

Despite the most disappointing ending of all timeI highly recommend OPUS by Satoshi Kon. It’s the INCEPTION of manga, with a manga artist, Chikara, getting pulled into his own manga, called Resonance. He meets his own main character, Satoko, and ends up breaking the news that her whole life is a manga, and he’s essentially God. At the heart of the meta-story is the quest to resolve the ending of the manga, which is yet unwritten. It’s a great piece of metafiction, and it pulled at my goddamn heartstrings more than I expected.

Articles and webpages:

bagua occult triangle labWikipedia: Bagua
The heart of the I-Ching, the same book of Chinese divination that fascinated Phillip K. Dick, is the bagua, or trigram. There are eight trigrams: earth, water, fire, water, thunder, mountain, lake, sky. Combined into 64 pairs, the I-Ching uses them to supposedly provide a map to all creation. In fact, Leibniz, the famous mathematician, thought the I-Ching’s use of binaries in the trigrams (each bagua is made of three broken or unbroken lines) could provide a way to express everything. And he was right: binary became the basis of all computing, with 1’s and 0’s expressing things as insanely complicated as weather patterns or the show Neon Genesis Evangelion. You can read my article about using binary in magic systems here.

five animals occult triangle labThe Five Animals in Martial Arts

I’m trying to figure out the basis of a system of magic that would use movement, rather than written symbols or spoken words, as its main component. Sort of like interpretive dance, or the bending in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The Five Animals is what I’m turning to for inspiration, as well as the Shaolin Luohan martial arts.

 

luohan shaolin fist occult triangle labLuohan (Martial Arts)

This is just really fucking cool: a martial arts discipline given by the aforementioned Zen founder, Bodidharma, to the legendary Shaolin monks. The Luohan forms would become the basis for all Shaolin martial arts, and have strong connections to Buddhism and enlightenment–the 18 skills are called the “arhat skills,” with “arhat” being the name for an enlightened person.

Songs:

Every Time We Say Goodbye by Annie Lennox

This is a beautiful, melancholy song. I came across it when I was reading V FOR VENDETTA: during one of the last chapters, when V is giving Evey a final tour of the Shadow Gallery just before his death, Evey plays a couple notes on the piano in the piano room, saying”‘How strange the change…from ma-jor to mi-nor’….no, I still can’t get that part right.” I finally googled those lyrics and found that they came from this song, which is fitting since the whole sequence in the book is essentially an extended goodbye from V.

Ticket to the Moon by ELO

This is another melancholy song. I came across it after listening for “Yours Truly, 2097”, also by ELO. I had an especially weird moment of synchronicity while walking to work one day–I was listening to this song when I came across a piece of graffiti on the sidewalk, saying “TO THE MOON.” This guy is a graffiti artist who tags in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and I’d see the tag before, but it was surreal to hear the song and see the marker pointing down the sidewalk. Even more surreal is that the phrase may be a reference to a famous Zen teaching, expressed below pretty succinctly in the picture below (right).

graffiti moon occult triangle lab
graffiti occult triangle lab moon

 

What is Real by Trevor Something

I love Trevor Something. I have two of his albums, including TREVOR SOMETHING DOES NOT EXIST, which has this song as its last track. The song opens with a piece of dialogue from the 1974 comic sci-fi film, DARK STAR: a scientist is speaking to a sentient bomb about the question of “what is real,” which culminates in the problem of  the intellect and Cartesian doubt. Sprinkled in are quotes from The Matrix (“What is real? How do you define real?” etc.), which is actually just a verbatim quote of Alan Watts, the lecturer on Zen Buddhism, and haunting last piece of dialogue from the bomb in which it quotes Genesis. All of this is sandwiched in some really amazing 80’s synths.

 

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