Monday, 11 March 2013

Bite-Sized Blog: Fantasypunk

Ever since Lost Soul Andy introduced me to MrBTongue's series "Tasteful, Understated Nerd Rage" to me, I've been enthralled by his videos, and I may well be using them as starting-off points of discussion in future posts. This one is interesting all on its own, but some of the things he said got me thinking...

A thought came to me watching this video that I might investigate further. An abstract: I'd argue that Howard's brand of Sword-and-Sorcery could be to traditional fantasy what Cyberpunk is to science fiction.

 - Both CP and S&S typically draw from noir styles: Noir is visually styled after German Expressionism, and the typical noir hero could be considered a variation on Nietzche's Übermensch. In this form, the Übermensch is a cynical, magnetic, powerful man who nonetheless operates with a strong internal morality not governed by law, religion, or any other social construct. Sound familiar?

 - The worlds of CP and S&S tend to be full of corruption, oppression and stagnation, the haves treading on the faces of the have-nots. The world is populated with several archetypes: women are downtrodden or trapped by social circumstances, or resort to using their wiles to gain some measure of control over their destiny; brutish thugs carry out the will of craven magnates who earned their fortune either through genetics or villainy; the few genuine law enforcers contend with crooked police and greedy judges as well as outlaws; politicians are in the pocket of some sort of criminal society and more invested in holding onto their station than improving society for the disadvantaged. Over all is hanging a cloud of despair, and a sense of imminent collapse: the world is walking a tightrope between the dominance of a totalitarian regime, and the chaos of all-out anarchy, depending on which part of the world you're in. Sounds rather like the Hyborian Age, does it not? Heck, it sounds like most of Howard's work in general.

 - The "punk" aspect of CP's name suggests youth, impetuousness, the angry young 'un, critical and suspicious of authority, treasuring freedom and self-actualisation. Adding "punk" to something gives a certain sort of impression, of a surly delinquent with a sharp mind, rattling cages, tipping over bins, tearing down campaign posters. Howard began writing professionally in his teens, and his works are certainly full of this sort of thing even as he approached 30.

 - The video alleges that CP operates in a sort of "danger zone": while science fiction operates in the far future and fantasy in the far past/another world analogous to earth's past,* CP is typically set in the Not Too Distant Future, and so the issues of today can be reflected as they are, instead of applied with futuristic/fantastical examples. For example, Cyberpunk could deal with racism directly, instead of alluding to it via fantastic racism between elves and dwarves, or robots and organic life, or aliens and other aliens. You'd think this might fall apart with Howard, but I think there are two very crucial elements: first, Howard's worlds are cyclical. Civilizations rise and fall, peoples flourish and vanish, kingdoms conquer and disappear, and we have no knowledge of them save through smatterings of legends and word cognates finding their way into our languages - to apply a slight reinterpretation on George Santayana's original phrase, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The second is that the Hyborian Age is just as informed by Howard's contemporary world as it is by the past: Mark Finn explains it perfectly in Blood & Thunder, when he discusses how the huge number of migrant workers into the small town of Cross Plains, and subsequent industrialisation and economic upheaval, would have affected Howard's world. Indeed, stories like "Beyond the Black River" are as much about then-modern development as they were about Cowboys & Indians, or Spaniards & Aztecs, or Normans & Gaels, or Romans & Picts (etc), while the much maligned "The Vale of Lost Women" is given much more relevance when compared with the Cynthia Anne Parker story. The Hyborian Age is thus much closer to our modern world than the vast gulfs in time might indicate.

Thoughts?  Am I mad, or just a fool?

*Of course I disagree strongly with this very arbitrary and, frankly, untenable distinction: there's fantasy set in the future, and science fiction set in the past, and plenty of both set in the "danger zone" he discusses. But that's neither here nor there.


  1. A very perceptive piece. It draws a conclusion that I should have reached a long while ago!

    It also explains why I am attracted to cyberpunk, S&S etc. It is the Noir influence...

  2. I think you are spot-on. The crucial differences are really only a few--first, I think Howard regarded raw physicality as more interesting that cyberpunk, which tends to be more interested in the 'modified' human body and the blending of man and machine. Second, I think that the barbarian, as Howard undertood it, was a whole different concept than the 'rebel' in cyberpunk, who tends to participate in a society of his own while fighting against the more powerful corporate or governmental entities that dominate the world. There are many more layers, of course, but I think that you are really on to something.

  3. A quite interesting thought, I like it. I feel that many a times Howard's branch of Sword and Sorcery is also much more grounded in reality whether it is past or present (and it is) than traditional fantasy. It is also not rare that magic and science are sometimes indistinguishable from each other.

    And thanks for introducing me to MrBTongue's "Tasteful, Understated Nerd Rage".

  4. There's a cyberpunk retelling of "The Tower of the Elephant" in Cross Plains Universe. I think it stumbles about halfway through, but the beginning is fantastic.