“Fallout taught fans that war…war never changes. Military historians, however, argue otherwise. Case in point: the stirrup.
Before firearms dominated the battlefield, it’s generally agreed that the stirrup was the most important innovation in warfare for a couple centuries. Fans of the Rohirrim will recognize why: cavalry is fast and maneuverable, and the stirrup allows the rider to swing swords, carry lances, and fire arrows with ease. Anyone who doesn’t have an army equipped with stirrupped cavalry is doomed to be dominated by those who do. As a result, the stirrup changed the way armies waged war and (arguably) the very face of medieval Europe. Keep in mind, the stirrup is a piece of leather that’s attached to the saddle.
With that in mind, what would magic do to warfare?”
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:
[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.
I’ve said this before: magic should not be science. Magic can be systematic and internally consistent, but it shouldn’t be reduced to a human tool, like astronomy or chemistry. A lot of writers and worldbuilders don’t seem to understand the difference–didn’t Arthur C. Clarke famously say that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic?”
But there is a difference. That’s what my new essay is about.
In this essay, titled “Frodo is Dead” I wanted to show how basing magic off of science, ration, and the Enlightenment philosophies that informed them inevitably leads to a breakdown of its fantasy world by turning it into a mirror of our world.
I was playing through TES III:Morrowind recently, and I came across three books in a necromancer dungeon: Darkest Darkness, Arkay the Enemy, and N’Gasta, Kvata, Kvakis.I remembered these from years ago, and was excited to see them again: these are necromantic books you can actually read in-game–they’re short, and they give you a bit of insight into the beliefs and ideologies of the black mages you’re going up against. My favorite was A Game at Dinner, which was a sort of epistolary novel from a spy to their dark lord.
I’m writing a new story about the necromancer Yute, who I spoke about in my last post about the psychopathic mind, and one of the main plot points of the story is his own manifesto, The Nokizi. The Nokizi is meant to be a book similar to Arkay the Enemy: something to be passed around and read by the initiated members of the necromancer community.
But ever since I first conceived Yute, I wanted his necromancy to be at odds with the popular ideas of the day–I imagined him as an unorthodox figure, a radical other necromancers would be wary of, like Malcolm X or Timothy Leary. As soon as I imagined him, he needed an establishment to rebel against.
The Nokizi is Yute’s critique on the current state of necromancy and the major figures whose work has influenced it. These figures include Amassad, Togorun, and Banasail, all three of whom have achieved a different kind of immortality and huge followings of acolytes. These three are sort of like Hindu gurus who promise their followers eternal life and enlightenment if they follow their teachings. Yute, meanwhile, is based off the Bodhidharma, the iconoclastic founder of Zen in China.
I imagined that Yute brought all of his new ideas before the gurus first, expecting to gain praise and recognition from the masters and cement his position as a new master. It would be a sort of “look at me, I found a new path that is undeniably better than all of yours, and now you must admit it.” Instead, he was laughed and jeered out of their temples and abodes and derided by all their students, one after another. Yute, not one to take humiliation well, devised his Nokizi as a critique of the establishment that rejected him, and a manifesto for his new method and philosophy.
The actual critique is a blend of mathematics, paradoxes, parables, German philosophy, and Rinzai Zen, with the goal of showing that 1) Amassad, Togorun, and Banasail are all going about immortality in the wrong way, 2) the current conception of time and the self are wrong, and 3) that immortality seekers should employ mathematics, not body-modification or other techniques, to achieve immortality.
At the very end of the Nokizi is an encrypted portion, along with the promise that anyone who solves the cipher will gain the secret to his new method. The idea is that, though the necromantic community rejected him before, he is willing to allow converts into his new method if they are clever enough. But it’s all a trick–the insanely complicated cipher encrypts only a bunch of gibberish and nursery rhymes, as a giant, spiteful fuck-you. “You had your chance to be my acolytes, and you laughed me down,” is Yute’s internal reasoning. “So I’ll show you what you’re missing, offer you my secrets, then laugh at you.”
I love this book. I picked it up from Poetic Earth’s booth at New York Comic-Con this year, and it’s got a hand-tooled leather cover. Last night, I made the first entry in it on the title page (see above).
The triangle-tesseract design is the same one that came to me in a dream several years ago, after a night of reading too much about fractals. If you place each letter of the word “OROBORO” at the right vertices, the name should repeat perfectly across the whole design, meaning you can read “OROBORO” forever in three dimensions.
Beneath that is the phrase “ONE THOUSAND EYES OPEN.” This is the same phrase I used for one of my artists books, which used origami and an eye design to create an interactive little book that read “ONE THOUSAND EYES OPEN” no matter how you folded it.
At the far bottom, I drew the symbols of the three gods in my canon: Erroth, Sol, and Ormun.
I’m planning on using this book as a reference document for my worldbuilding, especially magic systems. Right now, I’m thinking of including diagrams of the Sephiroth, Qliphoth, Eightfold Path, the Five Skandhas of Existence, Pascal’s Triangle, and the Sierpinski Gasket, along with notes from my notebooks. This way, I’ll have all my notes and inspirations in one convenient tome.
This is Vol. 3 of the Occult Reading list, where I collect all the interesting stories and strange pieces of trivia I’ve picked up over the past week from books, articles, and webpages. Also included are the songs that have been on repeat for me this week.
Guaranteed to make you more interesting at parties.
Disclaimer: There’s no conspiracy between me and New Retro Wave–I just listen to their songs all the goddamn time. But if they want to talk sponsorship deals, I’m down to sell out and get some of that sweet 80’s merch.
Trevor Something, give me a call. We’ll work something out.
THE Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
This is the Hugo Award-winning sci-fi book by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. It’s garnered some unreal praise, and I finally got around to reading it. So far, I’m 200 pages in and I’m not a fan. Putting aside the difficulties of translation, the plot and pacing are where the book comes up seriously short. So far, the plot has been a very choppy clockwork affair, with the main character essentially shuttling himself from place to place, listening to exposition, then periodically popping in to the VR world of Three Body. Every exposition scene happens almost back-to-back, with Wang Miao acting as a plot-automaton who decides, “hey, let’s give this person a call,” followed immediately by “let’s visit this person,” and then “they told me to visit this person, so let’s go here and speak to this person.” Rather than Jack Bauer in 24, who is propelled from place to place by desperation, gunfire, and a constant stream of new discoveries, the countdown Wang faces doesn’t drive the action, and the only thing Wang needs to do is go to places so people can talk at him. There’s no tension or challenge to ferreting out the information he needs, and the plot comes off as a series of mechanical scenes strung together without much attempt at subtlety or tension. The scene in which Wang discovers the murder of Shen Yufei and listens to the revelations of her husband are the worst perpetrators of this.
On top of the lackluster plotting, the video game world of Three Body ends up being a bizarre, pseudo-metaphorical dream sequence. Unlike Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse in Snow Crash or William Gibson’s Grid in Neuromancer, the rules and logic of the virtual world are opaque and confusing. Characters can randomly speed up the passage of time as it suits them, the logic and mechanics behind player dehydration are completely unexplained (do they go into spectator mode? Log out?), and it’s not even clear if the entities Wang is encountering are NPCs or players. The most baffling question is about advancement: the game revolves around trying to predict the movements of the sun, but a succession of players (if they’re indeed human players) seem to put forth antiquated versions of the solar system. No human player but the protagonist seems to contribute to the game or its advancement but the protagonist, who always arrives at exactly the right time to see the key developments.
I haven’t finished the book yet, but already I’m feeling like The Three Body Problem is going to be a monumental disappointment.
This is a nice survey of how different fantasy series have used language as the basis for magic systems (a topic I’ve written about in relation to both binary and poetry). It deals with the big-name franchises, including LoTR and Harry Potter, but also The Spellwright Trilogy and video games like Skyrim and Treasure of the Rudras.
I still remember opening up a book in Morrowind after clearing out a den of necromancers and reading about the Nords shouting down their enemies’ walls with the magic of their voices, and how the most powerful had to be gagged to keep their voices from destroying everything around them. At the time, I thought “They could never turn that into a real magic system. It’s cool flavor, though.”
So it was an awe-inspiring bash to the head to find out that that little, innocuous passage from the early 2000s was kept in mind across the development of Oblivion and brought to glorious fruition in a fully realized magical language and system in Skyrim. Next, I want to see the snake people from that one hidden continent!
This is a cool little post from V.E. Schwab, author of A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows, both of which I own (thanks, publishing friends!). Schwab touches on the difficulty of composing languages for a fantasy world, as well as the promise: she explains how the poetry and sound of language can reveal something about the nature of the world and its speakers, and how it can immerse a reader in the world of the story by forcing them “to learn as they go, just as travelers would, when passing through a foreign land.”
Schwab also touches on the dangers of fantasy languages: “Used poorly, fictional languages can feel like a wall, preventing all but the well-versed from feeling included in a world.” I’ve seen this pretty often, and it comes from the tricky management of a learning curve within the narrative, by which a reader learns about the world, the culture, and the events of the book. Introducing too much foreign information leads to alienation and frustration, like a mother spelling out words so she can speak over the head of a toddler. “Don’t you know what a ba’aleth is, reader? No? It’s very important.”
This is just a couple thoughts from Eric Honour, who has a page on Medium. It’s mostly some criticism on the simplicity and lack of verisimilitude that characterizes language and naming in fantasy. One thing he touches on is how monolithic language and names become when the creator just sits down and pushes two words together like a caveman, like “Iron Walker” or (my personal pet peeve term from Dune) “lasgun”. But one particular insight from Eric struck me:
“This is something that turns me off about a lot of fantasy. It’s also something that I can see is difficult to navigate — having multiple names for things is more realistic, but also can feel like it’s overwhelming the reader. Real-life historical names are full of metonymy and misapplication and the shifting sands of living language, and that’s a level of complexity that might not even be advantageous to a fictional world. But not even making the attempt feels sort of lazy.”
Something that the articles from Tor and V.E. Schwab also touch on is that language shifts and changes to reflect its culture and its world. To create a language, or even naming conventions for armies, you have to think about how words and people use and abuse terminology. A great example is military slang and acronyms like FUBAR, SNAFU, BDU, and MOPP, or the backronyms of gang culture. There’s something more than the denotative meaning of words, a kind of vitality to them, and that’s what a lot of fantasy writers gloss over.
“Just Like You (Hazy Mountains Remix)” by Chromatics
One of my top three favorites from the world of New Retro Wave, Just Like You is one of those haunting love songs that evokes the kind of otherworldly, illusory lover that ELO sang about in Yours Truly, 2095, or even the twisted virtual love in Bad Religion’s I Love My Computer. It’s a song wrapped up in nostalgia and ethereal, lovesick illusions, and the reverb clings to your mind like cobwebs. Most disturbing (or enticing) of all is the idea of a doppleganger, a lover who “looks just like you/he even says the same things/he even wears the same clothes,” who ultimately “loves like you used to.”
“The Glory” by Reapers
The Glory is another of my top three favorites from the good folks over at New Retro Wave (THERE IS NO SPONSORSHIP DEAL), and one of my favorite songs, period. The contrast between the low, dirge-like like chanting and the full-throated, almost plaintive rock-and-roll yelling of the chorus gives the whole song a sense of loss and bitterness. The lyrics, which seem to be an ode to death, end up making it the perfect song for people interested in the dark side of the 80’s.