Saturday, April 22, 2017

Isekai: From the Familiar to the Strange

El Hazard, a 90s isekai.
Benjamin Cheah talks about the isekai genre in a recent article on Steemit. In it, he lays down the conventions of a popular pulp-influenced genre from Japan, and the basis for many anime, manga, and today's litRPG genre. Isekai is an alternate world fantasy, where characters from the present are spirited away to another world. Cheah describes it as follows:
Fantasy writers need to solve two problems. They need to create a believable fantasy world significantly different from ours that allows for fantasy elements. But this world and the people who live in it can't be so fantastic that they alienate their audience. 
The isekai story offers a neat solution. 
'Isekai' is Japanese for 'other world' or 'parallel world'. In this other world, the author is free to dream up societies, fantasy races, magic and other fantastical elements without being hemmed in by such minor things as history or the laws of physics. To create a connection with modern readers, the author plucks a character or a group of characters from the real world (typically 21st century Japan) and plunks them into the parallel world. Adventures and hijinks follow.
At least, that's how it’s supposed to work.
He also mentions that the transition from our world to the new world often adds new and useful powers to the characters. This could be the ability to jump tall buildings in a single bound or just the ability to see through disguises.

The genre is quite popular today, with anime, manga, and light novels spawning numerous Japanese and japonisme imitators, as well as inspiring new genres. Today's litRPG genre takes more from isekai such as .hack and Sword Art Online than the cyberpunk of the 1980s, for instance.

As a fan of older isekai-style works such as Fushigi Yugi and El Hazard, I would go one step further and say that isekai is anchored directly to the immediate present at the time of writing. The characters move from Now to some Otherwhen or Otherwhere. But it won't be the 2010s, 1990s, or 1900s for long, so some of that immediacy gets lost over time. As such, it is easy to miss the pulp roots of isekai.

Pulp magazines such as Amazing and Weird Tales are filled with stories of people being transported from the safety of the real word of the 1930s and 1940s to some strange place. Sometimes, in the case of Manly Wade Wellman's fantasies, this is just turning the corner into a bit of strangeness on Earth. But in tales like A Princess of Mars or The Wizard of Oz, the main character finds himself in another world, often with an edge over the locals. This movement from now to the strange was editorial policy set on what sold. Amazing's Jerry Westerfield described the reasons in 1940's Writer's Digest:
Stories starting in some large U.S. city are better than those starting off in space somewhere. A story starting in the present is better than one staring in the past or in the future. These last two rules tend to make a science fiction story easier to follow and more convincing. A large U.S. city like New York is concrete and real to the minds of our readers; while a city of on Mars somewhere is vague and indefinite. The ideal story starts in the U.S. and later the action moves to Mars. In the same manner, the present is more realistic than the past.
And it was upon this foundation that 1940s Amazing became the most successful science fiction magazine of the century, reaching sales figures that have yet to be equaled.

This movement from familiar to strange cushions the shock of the weirdness of science fiction and fantasy while serving also as a point of contrast for the strangeness of the new world. The technique helps build sense of wonder through the contrast while lulling the sense of disbelief to sleep by starting in the familiar. Isekai is the current Japanese expression of this movement from the familiar to the strange, and, like the pulps, it's selling like hotcakes.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Quick Guide to Finding the Shadow

"What is the best way to cheaply check out the Shadow?"

The easiest and cheapest way to check out the pulp version of the Shadow is to read Doc Savage: The Sinister Shadow. While it is a crossover with fellow Street & Smith hero Doc Savage, it features all the elements of the Shadow, from his guns and his laugh to his agents and disguises, and it is written in the same style as the Shadow pulps. Essentially, it is Doc Savage in a Shadow adventure, where the sequel, Empire of Doom, is the Shadow in a Doc Savage adventure. Unfortunately, these crossovers are the only pulp Shadow novels in ebook form.

Reprints of the original Shadow pulp novels are available through Amazon and Sanctum Books but cost more, in the range of $9-$30 for new copies depending on the issue.

And Razorfist has been known to post a story from the comics on his tumblr site more than once. However, the comics Shadow is a blend between the pulp and the radio Shadow, and is a separate continuity from each.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Radio Show Wednesday - Arsène Lupin in the Mysterious Traveler

Arsene Lupin is a gentleman thief who often preyed on villains worse than himself. He is a literary forebear of the Shadow, and thus of all hero pulps and superhero comics.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Writing for the Pulps: Walter Gibson

Since discovering Lester Dent's Formula online, I have been searching for similar writing advice from Walter Gibson, creator of the Shadow and father of the hero pulp genre. Unfortunately, more has been made of Gibson's amazing productivity as a million words a year man than his actual technique. Snippets of interviews revealed some of Gibson's writing practices. He was a strict outliner, to an extent rarely seen outside of epic doorstopper fantasies. Where Lester Dent would improvise from his formula, Gibson worked everything out beforehand so that his writing would be uninterrupted. Even then, this fact was included in Gibson's productivity tips, not how he approached the craft of storytelling.

Fortunately, a Writer's Digest column has resurfaced. Titled "A Million Words a Year For Ten Straight Years," it captures Walter Gibson's storytelling approach in his own words. I am currently trying to determine if the article is in the public domain. If so, I will reprint it in its entirety here. In the meantime, let's see what one of pulp's grandmasters has to say about character and plot.


When I first started writing the Shadow stories I had two things to do: create a character and devise a plot. I treated them as one, and herewith made a chance discovery. It was this: build a lead character, and a story will build itself around him. In a sense, he lead character becomes the plot, or at least the main portion of it.

This is by no means as obvious as it sounds. It does not mean to construct a character, equip him with a lot of things that will please you, and may catch the reader. That's just as far away from it as beginning with a solid plot, and then jamming the lead character into it. If the character is to be the personalization of the plot, he must develop with it.

You must treat your character as a discovery, rather than your own creation. Treat him, not just seriously, but profoundly. Picture him as real, and beyond you, in mins as well as prowess. Feel that however much you have learned about him, you can never uncover all. This mental attitude gives you a deeper knowledge of the character than the story itself discloses.

Th plot induced by this process will normally require a lesser character who may be termed the "proxy hero." He is the person, along with others like him, who is matched against the villains of the piece, in a theme which is really the personal saga of that all-important lead character, who is developed through his influence and action towards the lesser figures.

The proxy can be replaced by another, even from the wrong camp. The unity lies in the lead character's identity with the plot. When incidents and situation are fed to him, they are used or rejected, according t how the rebound to the writer.

This isn't metaphysical bunk. It's the system I have used, though it may sound odd when rationalized.

Basically, my lead character is in the game for his own amusement, and therefore (parenthetically) the reader's entertainment.

The thing that amuses him is straightening out the comparatively small problems that concern the lesser characters in the story. Looming large to them, those problems, either separately or linked, reach the lead character, and the combined burden changes his implied fun into damnably earnest business.

I found I could start a story just from that.

However, it wasn't a case of taking any character, and giving him any problem. They must be suitable to that lead character, who IS your story. The "proxy" can be dumb or bright; his problem small or large, plain or bizarre. But it must feed to the lead character, or--here's a help--must furnish the impetus to another problem that is very well suited to him. In which case, the original character and problem is like giving a car a shove, when the starter won't work.

I learned these things the hard way.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday

From Patrick, by Stephen Lawhead:

“The kings and kinglets fell to arguing then about what should be done if no answer could be found. They were still writhing in disputation when the sun soared high overhead. Suddenly ugly black clouds boiled up to cover the sky and the sound of a mighty wind filled all the world. And though it was bright midday, the heavens grew dark as twilight after the sun has set. Not the slightest breath of wind could be felt, yet the roaring of the unseen wind grew louder. There was thunder but no lightning, and the hair stood up on the necks of men and beasts alike. Clots of hail fell out of the sky and lay in the grass smoldering as if on fire.

“All at once they heard a voice crying out to them. They turned and saw, approaching out of the west in the direction of the setting sun, a mighty champion, fair and tall—taller than any three of the tallest warriors among them and more wonderful to look upon than the most handsome man they had ever seen. His eyes were the color of the windswept sky, and his teeth were straight and white. His chin was smooth-shaven, and his brow was high and fine.

“For a cloak the magnificent stranger wore a shining veil as radiant and rainbow-hued as crystal, and for sandals, hammered bands of purest gold. His hair was pale as flax and uncut, falling in curls to the middle of his back. This mighty champion carried two stone tablets in his left hand and a silver branch with three fruits in his right, and these were the fruits which were on the branch: apples, hazelnuts, and acorns. Around his waist he wore a girdle of bronze plates, and each plate could have served as a platter for four kings. In his girdle he carried a knife with a blade made of glass that was sharper than the sharpest steel.

“Around the stranger’s neck was a golden torc as thick as a baby’s arm, and on the ends were jewels: a ruby on the right and a sapphire on the left. His hands were broad and strong, and when he spoke, his voice sounded like the waves upon the shore or like the rushing of many waters.

“He came to stand before the assembled kings of Éire, and he said, ‘Greetings, friends—if friends you be.’ “The princes and princelings quailed before him, but High King Aedh drove his chariot to where the stranger stood. He raised his hand in kingly greeting and said, ‘I am king here, and this is my realm. I welcome you, champion—if champion you be. What has brought you here?’ “‘I have come from the setting of the sun, and I am going to the rising. My name is Trefuilngid Treochair,’ answered the stranger.

“‘A strange name,’ replied the king. ‘And why has that name been given you?’

“‘Easy to say,’ replied Trefuilngid, ‘because it is myself, and no one else, who upholds the sun, causing it to rise in the east and set in the west.’

“The high king regarded the towering stranger with curiosity. ‘Forgive me, friend, for asking,’ he said, ‘but why are you here at the setting of the sun when it is at the rising you must be?’

“‘Easy to say,’ answered the marvelous stranger, ‘but not so easy to hear, I think. For, in a land far away from here, a man was tortured today—and for that reason I am on my way to the east.’

“‘This tortured man,’ inquired the king, ‘of what account was he that one such as yourself should take notice?’

“‘You cut to the heart of the matter, to be sure,’ replied the stranger, ‘for the man of whom I speak was born to be the ruler of the world. He was called the Prince of Peace, Righteous Lord, and King of Kings.’

“At these words Lord Aedh and his noblemen groaned. ‘Certainly this is a grave injustice, and deeply to be lamented,’ observed the king, ‘yet such things are known to happen from time to time. Even so, it does not explain why you have come among us like this.’

“‘The man I speak of was crucified and killed by the men who tortured him,’ Trefuilngid explained. ‘His name was Esu, and he was the rightful High King of Heaven, Son of the Strong Upholder, Lord of Life and Light. When he died, the sun stepped aside, and darkness has covered the face of the earth. I came forth to find out what ailed the sun, learned of this outrage, and now I am telling you.’

“The king drew himself up and said, ‘I thank you for telling us, friend. But tell us, one thing more: Where can we find the vile cowards who perpetrated this injustice? Only say the word, and rest assured we will not cease until we have punished them with the death they undoubtedly deserve.’

“‘Your wrath is noble and worthy, friend,’ replied the magnificent stranger, ‘but it is misplaced. For in three days’ time the same man who was crucified will break the bonds of death and rise again to walk the world of the living. Through him death itself will be conquered forever.’

“When they heard this good news, the king and all the noblemen and bards of Éire wept for joy. They demanded to know how this had come about, and the glittering stranger told them, ‘It has been ordained from the foundation of the world. But it has been revealed to you now so that you may prepare your people for the age to come.’”

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Short Collection of Writing Quotes

March was rough, and unfortunately I was more active on Google+ and than any of the blogs I have a responsibility to. But I did collect a set of quotes on writing and SFF posted on social media during that time.

I believe the difference between pulp and slick writing is this:the pulp story springs from an action idea, and is motivated by action; the slick yarn at its best is conceived from a character idea, and is motivated by characterization. 
—Allan R. Bosworth, Writer's Digest, January 1947
"To me, arguing about hard or soft sf is like arguing about Coke or Pepsi. The are both a drink made of lime, vanilla and caramel. The difference is a pinch of sugar.
"Hard sf writers who sneer at soft sf writers, in effect, are proud of a pinch of sugar. Upbraid this pride, for it is folly. But do not upbraid the extra pinch of sugar, for some folk buy Pepsi."
—John C. Wright
"The science fiction fan is to us what the jitterbug is to the swing band. Out of science fiction's 500,000 readers, only about 5000 of the are fans. But these 5000 make all the noise and shoot off all the fireworks."
—Jerry Westerfield, editor for Amazing Stories, in 1940.

As Jon searched for the sergeants, his mind flashed back to himself on the cubic pyramid. He’d wielded an axe. It reminded him of what the colonel had told him about the ancient Vikings. They had roved the Earth’s oceans, savage warriors with an even more barbaric code of war. The Vikings served Odin, the All-Father. According to the colonel, the Vikings believed that a man would always lose in the end. The purpose of a warrior was to live and, particularly, to die well. He did that by wading into battle cheerfully. He laughed at his enemies as he swung his battleaxe. If he fell in battle, so what? Odin would see the valiant end, send his maidens and take the slain warrior to Valhalla. There, the warrior would fight and feast until the cold end of the universe. 
That had been a warrior’s ethos. Laugh at danger. Enjoy sick odds.

Jon decided it was time to laugh. It was time for every Black Anvil to wade into the impossible fight and see what happened. Everyone lost in the end. The trick was to live well and to be courageous and aggressive. 
—Heppner, Vaughn. A.I. Destroyer (Kindle Locations 4211-4215). Kindle Edition.
If entertainment means light and playful pleasure, then I think it is exactly what we ought to get from some literary work – say, from a trifle by Prior or Martial. If it means those things which ‘grip’ the reader of popular romance – suspense, excitement and so forth – then I would say that every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying examination. If a fiction can’t provide even that, we may be excused from inquiry into its higher qualities.

—C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism
"How does one generate a scientific-marvelous novel?"

"It's all about extending science fully into the unknown, and not simply imagining that science has finally accomplished such and such a feat currently in the process of coming to be."
 —Maurice Renard
"I believe the difference between pulp and slick writing is this: the pulp story springs from an action idea, and is motivated by action; the slick yarn at its best is conceived from a character idea, and is motivated by characterization."

—Allan R. Bosworth, Writer's Digest, January 1947
Complete surety of the plot, before beginning, allows spontaneous writing. 
—Walter Gibson, author of the Shadow