Friday, December 19, 2014

Story Combat Realism EXTRA--battlefield errors from The Battle of the Five Armies


I promised my next post on combat realism would be on long-term effects of combat. But coming off watching The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies last night, please allow me to insert some comments on ways the movie botched showing combat realistically.

Someone could easily answer that in the genre of fantasy, combat doesn't have to be realistic. That may be true, but I think writers should at least know what is realistic in order to be able to use realism if they so choose. Unrealistic combat scenes in movies muddy the waters of what really is and is not possible, so writer may genuinely think something is realistic, when it it isn't. I hope to offer a bit of clarity.

By the way, these comments will reference some specific events in the story, but won't commit any real story spoilers, nor comment on the overall story. So, listed from the worst on down:

1. War mounts plow through ranks of infantry. Look, a horse or war elk or whatever can knock a man in armor standing firm on his duff, but the mount loses a bit of inertia in so doing. In multiple ranks of standing men, the mount would come to a halt relatively fast and its rider would be in very serious trouble. In the movie, the beasts plow right through crowds of enemies, no problem.

Someone who knows medieval history may object that horsemen did indeed race through infantry at times as if they were a standing field of grain. Yes, they in fact did. Especially when the rider was heavily armored and the infantry wasn't...but what was really happening is most of the infantry were breaking ranks away from the incoming horse in fear. Some brave souls would step forward to attempt to fight the rider, but riders were very skilled at blows aimed at key vulnerable points of such people, especially strikes to the head and neck, to drive them back. The look would be very different from what the movie showed but still quite interesting.

I found it especially annoying when lightly armored mounts plowed through heavily armored infantry...that isn't something you can find hardly any examples of happening in history...leading to the next point:

2. Armor has no effect. Armor both slows down running speed and provides protection against weapons, especially arrows but also other types of blows. The movie varied in its portrayal of armor a bit, but in general nobody was slowed by it very much and especially if you were an orc, it seemed to offer no protection at all. A blow in the middle of the chest plate was as good as any place else. When in reality, you'd aim for vulnerable points where the armor is thinner like the neck, up under the arms, or at the back of the knees when fighting someone in armor. 

3. One blow = instant kill--OR--only main characters can be mortally wounded. Short of a head being struck clean off, most wounds don't kill immediately. Some wounds that will lead to death in 2 minutes from severe bleeding don't necessarily incapacitate in the first 30 seconds or so. Yet hordes of fighters, especially the orcs, drop dead after one blow. Unless we're talking about main characters. A main character usually would die more slowly, allowing some time for a few last words. This is a very old storytelling convention and this movie applied it inconsistently, so perhaps it wasn't all that bad in that context. But it was not realistic in a way I felt egregious.

4. Massive battles turned into individual duels. Does it sometimes happen on a realistic battlefield that main opponents face off against each other? Sure, but not often. A battlefield is a chaotic place and lots of times major warriors have been taken out by relatively unimportant foes (for example, how many people remember who shot down the Red Baron?). Maybe some main warriors facing each other made the story more interesting--but at times it seemed to me the bulk of the fighting got more or less ignored in order to highlight individuals dueling to the death. 

5. Morale shown inconsistently. The human characters especially seem to have morale, that is, they retreat in fear, then look to a leader to help them recover courage. At least a bit. But the non-human characters fight like perfect robots in the film. Mostly. I found it a shame because there is a scene that is supposed to show Thorin rallying the dwarves--but it failed to first show that they had lost morale, that they needed to be rallied. (The Lord of the Rings movies, while not perfect, actually did better when showing the siege of Gondor.)

6. Armies lacked individuality. The elf and dwarf armies especially showed every single person dressed the same clothing, the same armor--with the exception of leaders. I suppose identical troops makes the task of performing CGI battles easier for the filmmakers, but in an era before industrialism, that is, when things are hand-made, people should look less alike. In other words, Dain's troops should have looked like a larger body of the dwarves Bilbo travelled with, even if they maintained the same shield shapes to make an effective shield wall.

7. The amusement park ride. You know--the scene where a wheeled device or sliding object provides a highly improbable "amusmentparkesque" ride for someone during a fight. The kind of thing I can't think of a single example of having happened in the real world. This movie actually minimized that sort of thing compared to previous Hobbit movies. But it was still there.

8. Battlefield conversations. The clash of metal hitting metal is loud. There were points in the story where individuals could hear each other far too easily. OK, it's a minor point, really. But one movie moment was especially egregious, earning it a spot on my list.

9. Limited battle maneuvers. Some of the battlefield tactics you saw a lot of in the movie were frontal attacks and there were also some retreats. But only a few other things. Maneuvering to split foes or to entrap them (other than individual fighters) or deceive them or outflank them or any of the other things armies can do was largely missing. The actual conduct of the battle focused on individuals and ignored maneuvers. Clearly that was a storytelling choice rather than a error, but I felt it was a missed opportunity. I would have liked to see more action from the armies in a movie entitled "The Battle of the Five Armies." I could have lived with less face time from the main characters. Though perhaps that's just me...

10. Not enough blood and guts. You don't have to study warfare to realize that while some blood was shown, it was nowhere near enough to be realistic. And you don't have to be a writer or filmmaker to be able to guess why. Children watch the movie, after all. Nobody wants to traumatize them. I agree--still, maybe a hint of blood when a head is lopped off would be in order...? Or perhaps some bit of red in a few other situations? Maybe...?

That's my list from what I thought was the worst to not as bad. Does anybody disagree with anything I pointed out? Or have anything to add of your own? Please let me know in the comments. :)

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Spheres--A Fantasy Story World Based on a type of "Scientific" Magic


Taking a break from my Combat Realism series of blog posts for a bit, I've decided to share a concept for a new kind of fantasy story.

The kernel of the story idea came from Francis Godwin's 1638 book, The Man in the Moone, in which a Spaniard flies to the moon in chariot drawn by geese. Of course geese can't fly to the moon because there isn't air for them to breathe along the way. And even if there was air between the Earth and the moon, the distance is so far--roughly far enough to equal going all the way around the planet Earth in a circle ten times--the geese would never have the energy to make it all the way. (Of course Godwin was not writing with the lack of atmosphere or true distance in mind.)

"But what if," my mind was wondering, "What if there was a fantasy world in which you really could fly a goose-drawn chariot to another planet? What would that story world be like?"

I immediately seized on the notion that gravity would have to be different. You can't bring large astronomical bodies like the Earth and the moon too close together because gravitationally-caused tidal forces would rip the smaller body apart and do a great deal of damage to the larger. So I decided to change gravity so large astronomical bodies could be closer. I messed around with the equation for gravity in several ways to see if it could be strong enough at a short distance to allow things to seem more or less normal, but still allow major astronomical bodies to do things gravity as we know it does not allow.

I'm not a mathematician, but I wrangled with the problem for awhile and did not really find any solution that provided exactly what I was looking for. So I decided that gravity would have to be artificial in such a fantasy world, that is, deliberately altered on a case-by-case basis to make such an environment possible. And following that thought inspired the rest of this story idea.

Spheres (I intend to write stories in this story universe and will welcome other writers to join me) will feature a world that is Earthlike in most respects, orbiting a sun like ours. But nearby this planet will be a number of other planets, at least a dozen or so, all no greater than 50,000 miles or so apart, bodies from much smaller than the home world to significantly larger. All of these will be enveloped in an massive over-atmosphere of oxygen that all the worlds swim in, allowing travel between them by extremely hardy flying birds (most birds couldn't make the distance) and would allow special sailing ships between the worlds to chart the distance between the planets from the winds that flow between them.

This would happen because the force of gravity would be under the control of powerful wizards, who with effort, manipulate it at will. So the massive over-atmosphere does not slow down orbiting planets so they crash (wizards make adjustments to prevent that) and they also would be responsible to reduce the force of gravity between planets to keep them from rendering each other asunder.

In ancient Greek thought, everything was composed of the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air. My mind in a flash realized modern science has identified four forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Wouldn't it be interesting if the practitioners of "gravity magic" never though of it that way? Instead they would think of themselves as being in control of "earth" and their type of magic (gravity control) as being "earth magic." In like fashion, wizards that control electromagnetism would see themselves as being in control of "air magic" (because light and lightning flashes and even magnetism are easy enough to associate with air). Those who have the power to dissolve the strong bonds of atomic nuclei or manipulate those bonds in other ways would see themselves as practitioners of "fire magic," from something very much like inner fire that really IS at the center of all matter. The weak nuclear force, responsible for radioactivity, does not relate to water very well in truth (except for the ability to make water glow blue), but nonetheless, imagine those who manipulate radioactivity with magical powers thinking of themselves as performing "water magic."

Thus the story world of Spheres would be dominated by powerful schools of wizards at odds with each other, but ALL of their magic would be based on manipulation of the four known scientific forces, with the consequences of such manipulations occurring as modern science would understand, though described in  radically different terms in the thought of the story world itself. Of course not everyone in the story world would be a user of magic at all, not even close, so the key feature of this fictional universe would not be the magic per se but rather the many worlds having a great deal of contact with one another, in an entirely different way from any other fantasy story I'm familiar with.

Like my recent Medieval Mars story world, I plan to write a base story for Spheres, then seek other authors willing to participate in an anthology of stories set in this fictional universe. Medieval Mars needs work first, so I'm not going to be ready to launch Spheres for several months yet.

But if you think you'd be interested in reading Spheres, or better yet, be interested in contributing stories to such a fantasy universe, please let me know in the comments below the post. Thanks! :)

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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Story Combat Realism Part 5--Evil as a System of War



David Grossman's On Combat (as well as his earlier work, On Killing) has largely inspired my blog post series on combat realism, though I'm not delivering the exact same conclusions, nor putting things in the same order he did.

When he discussed the factors that make it easier to for a human to kill another (for almost all human beings are naturally adverse to killing members of our own species), it struck me how a certain combination of factors have defined some of the most terrifying militaries that have ever existed on the face of Planet Earth. These factors define armies that rightfully should be called "evil," a distinction Grossman never talked about specifically. These factors include:

1. It's easier to kill if an authoritative leader is telling you to do so (psychologically, this relieves individual guilt). Let's call this the "Nazi mentality"--"I was only doing as ordered."

2. It's easier to kill if you are with a group of people doing the same thing (individuals tend to feel less responsible for their own choices when doing what everyone else is doing). Let's call this the "mob mentality"--seen in the violence that happens in any urban riot.

3. There is pleasure to be found in surviving the death of an enemy. Among the highly trained professional warrior elites throughout most of history, most soldiers have been instructed not to enjoy the death of an enemy too much (indeed, the Spartan and Stoic schools of thought discouraged enjoying anything too much), But there have been militaries and fighting forces who took the opposite approach--who took as much pleasure in the death of their enemy as they could.

Add to the factors above the reality of the fight-flight-or-surrender response (talked about in the Part One of this series) and it winds up being true that brutal armies have a type of psychological edge over those who are less vicious. Because enemies who are terrified before the battle even begins are more likely to break into flight or surrender.

Modern armies have as a general rule embraced the concept of a moral warrior (I believe the influence of Christianity on Western culture is a large part of the reason why), so it may be hard for modern fiction writers to fully conceive of the idea that there have been many, many armies in the history of the world in which soldiers were expected to enjoy brutality and were also expected, commanded even, to commit atrocities after a battle for the purpose of breaking an enemy's will to fight. That's what I'm calling "Evil as a System of War"--warfare in which armies, whether highly disciplined or not, find the means to either enjoy killing or act with utter brutality towards their enemies with the deliberate purpose of inspiring terror. 

Of course there are evil soldiers within armies that do not embrace evil as a system--and war has evil effects no matter the moral philosophy of those fighting it. But there is a difference--some military systems have wholly given themselves over to what I'm specifically defining as "evil," while others have not.

As I'm writing this mainly for speculative fiction writers, it's true that the epic sweep of many fantasy and science fiction stories lends itself well to portraying armies who revel in terrorizing others. No doubt many readers of this blog will have made attempts to portray evil in an all-encompassing way. But this post is drawing on historical examples in order to help a writer make those portrayals more realistically, to show that an army deliberately embracing evil in warfare does have a "method to its madness" and should be portrayed as such. 

Again, while modern armies do mean to inspire terror in their enemies (as in "shock and awe" as Donald Rumsfeld put it), modern militaries in general also embrace the idea of the military member as someone with a family, someone who obeys a code of ethics, someone who should be respected and admired as well as feared. There have been plenty of societies where soldiers have inspired both fear and respect, but it's those that focused primarily on fear I'm discussing in this post. These included among others the ancient Assyrians, the Huns, the Mongolians under Genghis Khan, the Aztecs, and the Nazi Waffen SS.

Note that some of these terror-inspiring militaries have been barbarian armies in the sense I described in Part 4 of this series, armies that fight without strict emotional discipline and maintain certain other advantages not shared by professional armies. But it was not always true that barbarian armies embraced evil and used terror as a weapon. Nor were all terrifying armies composed of barbarians. Undeniably members of the Waffen SS maintained strict emotional control and in other regards were "civilized" men. Certainly for them the most important factor in what allowed them to kill was not a lack of an ethical system so much as one that called for "inferiors" to be destroyed without mercy and which also emphasized absolute obedience to authority--if the authority said "kill" they were taught to obey without hesitation. Whereas barbarian hordes such as the Cossacks or Huns, while they did believe in and practice discipline in battle at least to a degree, borrowed more from the "mob mentality" than the "Nazi mentality" to become accustomed to killing.

The historical record is not as complete about the ancient Assyrians as it is about more recent armies, but they also seem to have reveled in brutality while simultaneously maintaining a cool, level head. Note the following inscription from Assyrian Emperor Ashurbanipal"I built a pillar at the city gate and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up inside the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes." This was the routine order of business for the Assyrians and seemed to be carried out with a gruesome dispassionate attitude. It seems clear they were disciplined in their approach to inspiring terror among their conquered enemies. They didn't flay people alive because they were angry, but because the effect it had in causing their enemies to submit.

So what I've called "evil" above--what are some of its distinctive features as a method of fighting war? And what advantages or disadvantages does it have? 
Well:

1. Evil armies embrace the concept that war is and should be terrible and in they fact enjoy it as such. Chivalry or mercy to the weak they see as wrong. All enemies deserve to suffer or die and have no rights to their property or persons--and the word "enemy" is described as anyone who gets in the way of the horde--or anyone the evil army has been ordered to destroy--no matter who they are, what they have done, whether they are good or evil, weak or strong.

Advantages: An evil army does not have to worry about caring for prisoners and usually does not hesitate to take booty and to rape and pillage. Fighting in such an army can be very profitable and even enjoyable in a sinister way, which does draw a certain kind of recruit. And if any soldiers are incapable of being sufficiently brutal, they too can be gotten rid of. No actions are ruled out in advance, every option is on the table--so in some ways it's more efficient to be evil.

2. As already mentioned, evil armies inspire a state of terror, which can actually prevent some battles and give an edge in others.

Advantages: When coupled with an offer to "surrender and be spared" versus "die horribly at our hands" the terror of brutality has inspired plenty of people to surrender to armies with a reputation for brutality without a fight. This gives a vicious army an advantage over one that tends to be lenient to enemies. It can also give a psychological edge when not coupled with an offer to surrender, so that enemies of an evil army are too unnerved to fight as well as they otherwise would.

3. Evil armies are always looking to "make an example" of someone and have zero tolerance for the least sign of resistance, in particular among those who have already surrendered.

Advantage/Disadvantage: This trait does tend to reinforce the terror evil inspires. But it also comes with the disadvantage that those who have already surrendered may wind up suffering for relatively trivial reasons. Which does not inspire genuine loyalty on their part (when forced to be loyal with brutality, people tend to look for the first realistic opportunity to betray that loyalty). And which tends to work against new enemies surrendering when it is evident they will suffer at the hands of the evil army no matter what they do.

4. Forces of evil publicize their triumphs and the humiliation of their enemies. They often did this historically with body parts displayed, as in the flayed skin already mentioned. Or body parts of enemies kept as trophies or distributed around to be seen over a wide area. (This kind of thing gets sanitized in some science fiction and fantasy stories. Yes, Darth Vader crushes any rebellion against him. But where are his trophies? Where is his actual lust to make people suffer? Compared to some real historical figures, Darth Vader is rather a lightweight in evil...)

Advantage: The advantage is again to produce an effect of terror especially among already-conquered peoples. But the disadvantage is that it can backfire. In fact, the principle disadvantage of an army wholly embracing evil is that the reputation for terror can cause resistance to stiffen, especially if the brutality is against those who already surrendered. And nations who would not otherwise get along, have no problem building an alliance to fight against a perceived evil. 

So while outright evil has some advantages as a method of conducting warfare, notably its efficiency, the psychological edge on the battlefield it gives, and its ability to inspire surrender without a fight, it does not have all the advantages over "good." Good armies, or ones that include systems of training soldiers that embrace a concept of ethical duties that go beyond the interests of the army itself, have a much easier time rallying together an alliance than do evil armies--and they inspire greater and more permanent loyalty.

Another advantage good has over evil lies in the long-term psychological effects combat has on those human beings who fight in wars. These effects we'll look at on the next post on this topic...

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Story Combat Realism Part 4--the Barbarian Way



Last post I gave ancient and medieval examples of what I could have simply (but boringly) called "the professional warrior." The examples I gave were by no means identical, but they all shared in common an emphasis on long, disciplined study of war and weapons and hard training, on maintaining a code of conduct, and on staying as calm and level-headed as possible on the battlefield.

There's another warrior tradition of note--the barbarian warrior. There are commonalities and overlaps between barbarians and the pros (and even what it is meant by the term "barbarian"), but what I'm marking here as the fundamental difference between them is how they fight. The barbarian, whether a real one of history or fictional analogues, doesn't see any particular value in maintaining a level head in a battle. Not to say all of them are out of control at all times, but they do not specifically train to maintain calmness. Instead they rush into battle in a frenzy of rage and fury and fight with no concern for tomorrow, at least for the moment. That's the barbarian way.

Historically, when the professional warriors faced down barbarians, the pros almost always won. The Roman legions especially made breaking barbarian hordes their bread and butter. Celtic or Germanic (or other) tribesmen would charge the Roman line, howling in battle fury. A series of javelin volleys would slow the charge just enough to break up the momentum of the charge as it crashed into the unmoving wall of shields of the Roman professionally-trained soldiers. After some frenzy and thrashing of long swords breaking into shields answered with quick stabs into body cores for maximum damage by Roman short swords, the battlefield emotion would change from rage to panic. The barbarians, almost as suddenly as they had charged, would psychologically break and turn and run (or surrender). Roman cavalry had the specific mission of running down people in panicked flight on the battlefield, killing them as they fled. (Cavalry was normally held in reserve by the Romans until that point.)

But sometimes the barbarians would win. It turns out the barbarian way does have certain advantages over the training of the military pros:

1. Barbarians are masters of their harsh environment. Hunting down animals may have been a training exercise for Spartans and a passion for knights, but for the barbarian, hunting is a survival skill. The professionals are supported by a peasant class or for modern-day professionals, a base of taxpayers, one that produces food and needed supplies. If the pros come out into the wilderness to fight, they may have already trained in the wilderness and have skills there, but the barbarians are from the wilderness and their useful but non-fighting skills of stealth, tracking, basic survival, and weapons fabrication at least matches the pros and is usually (but not always) greater. The pros may learn to endure the rigors of the field while training--the barbarians live in the field and take the deprivations of battlefield life as a matter of course. Barbarian armies do not need a supply chain, or not much of one. And in general, while out in their home environment, the barbarians know how to blend in, while the pros tend to stand out.

2. They train to fight in informal ways. Barbarian warriors do train for war in contests and struggles with one another, sports of wrestling, horseback riding, archery, and more. But their training lacks the scientific rigor of the pros and specifically lacks the mindset that war should be approached under strict emotional control. However, note that the classic barbarian trains not only in games and contests, he lives in such an austere environment, he naturally develops a very high tolerance for pain.

3. What they lack in training, they make up for in numbers. While historically barbarians have been from harsh environments that did not support populations as large as the civilizations of the professional warriors, training the elite fighters of each civilization took so much time and effort that it was never the case that a majority of a civilization was under arms. Among the civilizations, it seems the Romans hold the record of keeping the largest standing professional army relative to the total population (roughly 1 out of 8, or 12.5%, of all Romans were in the Army). But for some barbarian peoples, every last male of a certain age was a warrior and for some others, every last available woman, too. The harsh lands of the barbarians might be under-populated relative to the territories controlled by literate and sedentary civilizations, but if the barbarians were able to unite, as the Mongolians did under Genghis Khan, they could build a storm cloud of fighters that could overwhelm the more restricted numbers of professional fighters from a sedentary civilization. Hence why the barbarian horde overwhelming helpless defenders is the stuff of legend.

3. Barbarians are masters of movement. In times past, cultures who lived in austere environments like steppes or deserts, who lived day in and out with horses, camels, and donkeys, were usually cultures that practiced warfare in the barbarian style. But there are other examples outside of the steppes and deserts, such as the Vikings and their longships. Barbarians make use of a transportation system as part of their daily survival and they use their skills of movement they naturally acquire in daily life in the way they fight war. (Since this post is not just about the past or epic fantasy cultures, imagine a science fiction space setting with asteroid miners each having their own little ships--that would be a great place to locate a barbarian warrior culture...) While barbarians tactically fight in a frenzy, on the larger scale of strategic combat, they carefully move along the best routes available to them, with speed and stealth, to surprise enemies unprepared. Which brings up their next advantage:

4. Outside the fury of the close fight, they plan and attack with cunning. Barbarians forces in history were often noted for employing clever plans and deceptions. The hordes of Genghis Khan were not scientific strategists, but they regularly employed clever plans to defeat their enemies, specifically taking advantage of their advantages in movement. Ancient Picts, Vikings, Slavs, or Comanches also tended to carefully plan the place and time of their furious attacks.

5. Barbarians don't give up because it makes sense to do so and don't hesitate to use sabotage or "irregular" warfare. Scientific warriors in history have tended to be either all or nothing in a fight, either fighting with all they have or maintaining peace. The barbarian warrior, if strategic conditions don't favor an outright attack, have no trouble making quiet raids and stealthy attacks. It might logical sense to stop the fight altogether, but the barbarian is primarily motivated by emotion, not logic, and will keep resisting an enemy on the large scale even if doing so doesn't make sense (which is of course a separate issue from barbarian armies becoming emotionally overwhelmed in the midst of a battle and fleeing or surrendering). Not all barbarian cultures are exactly alike of course, but in general, if they can't face a professional army in the field, they don't hesitate to take down who they can when given an opportunity. Barbarians don't usually have a code of honor except among themselves. A wise professional soldier always watches his back in barbarian country.

The 5 factors above, when used to examine armies of both fact and fiction, make it evident that most primitive warriors have met the characteristics I'm attributing to "the barbarian way"--but not all of them. Klingons of Star Trek, even with high technology, are best understood as barbarian warriors (even if they have a few aspects like professional warriors), while the Cardassians would fight like pros as would the elite of the Federation. In Star Wars, Imperial forces fight with self-control while in general the Rebel Alliance blends into their environment and leads with their emotions, keeping on fighting even when it doesn't really make sense to do so. Like barbarians.

Zulu warriors were primitive in terms of weapons they used (when compared to the British, that is), but they trained intensely and maintained emotional control in battle to the degree of ignoring gunfire decimating their ranks, so by the criteria I'm using, even though they have some aspects in common with barbarian forces, Zulus should be considered a professional fighting force. While the Taliban fight like barbarians in Afghanistan, even when they are much better equipped than Zulus were and represent a civilization that can read and write. In the struggle in inner cities between gangs and the police, the gangs fight like barbarians and the police usually fight like professional warriors--including having some of the disadvantages pros have always tended to have when it comes to blending into the environment and needing a supply chain and facing enemies who are cunning and unwilling to give up the fight, even if they lose almost every battle.

In the American Revolution, most Colonials were not warriors of any kind, but the frontiersman who mastered the use of the rifle as part of his daily life, who lived in the wilderness every day, represented a form of barbarian warrior who never hesitated to snipe at British officers. The British, who were the ultimate in drilled and trained professional warriors of their day, very rarely broke into surrender or flight on the battlefield, while Colonials often did. But in the end, the undertrained Colonials still found a way to beat the better-trained professionals, even though the main way they did so was by getting better training themselves and working to become more like the forces they opposed (that, and getting help from another set of pros, the French).

The aspect where barbarians do not follow a code of honor that extends beyond themselves leads to another set of observations I'm going to make next time, in a post that I'll call, "Evil as a System of War." Don't miss it. :)

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Friday, October 3, 2014

Story Combat Realism Part 3. How to Train a Samurai, Spartan, or Knight.



At the end of my last post of this series that deals mainly with the psychological factors of combat, I noted that Spartans, in spite of battlefield courage that implies they are natural-born warriors, were in fact the product of superior training. Note that this kind of highly-trained fighting professional is a different sort of fighter than found in warrior cultures who emphasized battlefield rage. This type of elite training was not just a characteristic of Spartans, it was also true of a number of other renowned warriors from times past, including samurais and knights.

To take the last first, the conventional training of a knight began at age 7, when he became a page. Pages served knights in their company, but also learned to ride and fight with wooden swords and blunted lances. They practiced horseback fighting while riding piggy back and were continually exposed to weapons training. At age 14 a page became a squire, who now trained with both wooden and sharpened weapons, who continually accompanied his assigned knight in combat and might also have engaged in combat himself. Squires also studied unarmed combat, especially boxing and wrestling, and hunting was considered an essential part of their training. At age 21, after 14 years of continuous combat training, a squire was eligible to become a knight.

Samurai training varied greatly according to social class and time period, but they generally began at the age of 5. Poorer warriors were instructed in the samurai art of bushido by family members, while wealthier families enrolled their sons in special schools. All samurai training emphasized the calmness of mind required for archery but also included a great emphasis on horsemanship, swordsmanship, and heavy armor training--including, due to Japan's many rivers and coastal areas, how to swim in armor. They also emphasized unarmed fighting that has developed into Japan's many forms of martial arts. As well they engaged in acts of physical endurance and resistance to pain, such as standing naked in a snowbank.

Like the knight, Spartan training began at age 7. But it exceeded knighthood in its difficulty, its requirements of group training, and total commitment. Like knights and samurai, Spartans trained in unarmed combat to include boxing and wrestling, but considered gymnastics and the ability to dance important warrior skills as well. A Spartan warrior would train continuously until age 18, when he would be considered an adult and be expected to marry. At age 20 he would allowed to attempt to join the army--he would only be accepted after being examined and considered fully qualified. Spartans in the army lived together in barracks and continually trained for warfare (an actual war was considered something of a vacation), only visiting their homes on occasion (which were run by the women of the family), serving from ages 20 to 60. Warriors older than 60 returned home, but still maintained the equivalent of "reserve status," where they could be called upon in the event of a national emergency.

All of these warriors not only trained the body, they also trained the mind, which is of more interest to this post than the specific weapons skills they acquired. Their training shared a number of factors in common to a greater or lesser extent, factors that allowed them to overcome the psychological stresses of combat. Beyond what I've already stated, below are some other training features they shared in common:

1. They exposed warriors to the reality of death to such a degree, they would get used to it. Spartans training was so tough that those undergoing it faced the real risk of death. At a phase of their training they famously had to steal food to survive--or starve. Knights and samurai in training accompanied warriors onto the battlefield, exposing young men to combat violence early on. Hunting was also part of training, because the calmness required in stalking an animal and the ability to kill it relates to the use of weapons against other human beings. Knights reveled in hunting, as did Samurai to a lesser degree. There was a phase of Samurai history where their archery training included shooting dogs on the run, not just because its difficult, but to harden them to the act of killing (a shogun eventually forbade this training for being too cruel).

2. They mentally prepared for death. Christian knighthood placed heavy emphasis on life after death, that a man righteous before Christ could expect to live on into eternity. Samurai philosophy was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism and they believed in life after death, though they did not emphasize it quite so much as knights. However, they strove to maintain a state of mind where they continually recognized that death could come in the next minute. Spartans did believe in an afterlife, but it seems they placed a greater emphasis on duty to the city and their unit as the reason to be prepared to die, if necessary. While prepared for death, knights and Spartans especially regarding dying unnecessarily to be a great tragedy.

3. They employed as realistic and as difficult training as they could. From actually being out on the battlefield to the best mock-ups they could make of training dummies, all of these warrior societies trained hard not only in their weapons techniques, but they routinely would go without food, without comfort, deliberately expose themselves to pain, and would face physical and mental exhaustion, pushing themselves as close to the breaking point as they could go. They would also build up their physical strength in systematic exercises to improve not only their physical, but their mental performance. Facing and overcoming tough circumstances in training made the rigors of the battlefield less challenging. Training until actions are second nature or "muscle memory" also ensures they can be performed when the mind is pushed beyond its normal capabilities.

4. They emphasized the value of the group over the individual and benefited from "collective courage." This was especially true of the Spartans. One of the psychological realities that makes it easier for a human being to perform any difficult act is when other people are doing it at the same time. Spartans trained continually to act as a unit, to think as a unit, to sleep together in barracks to do everything together, for the purpose of them acting as a unified group in a time of crisis. Even though this was less true for knights and samurai--far less true, because both groups believed in individual honor--warriors of feudal Japan and Europe did feel a sense of obligation to their fellow warriors and believed it was a dishonor to let them down. They also swore oaths of loyalty to superiors and while there are plenty of examples in history of warriors breaking their oaths, it was considered shameful to do so and was not what warriors normally did.

5. They were systematically taught to stay calm and maintain a level head. This is again, more true for the Spartans than the other warriors mentioned here. Totally unlike the movie "The 300," Spartans admired saying little and keeping their emotions solidly in control. They had a special word for other warriors who would charge into battle shouting and yelling--they called it "pseudoandrea," false manhood. Samurai employed meditation and their focus as Zen Buddhists to maintain calm and control their emotions, though they'd release battle shouts in a controlled way, as happens in modern martial arts. Of these three sets of warriors, knights probably placed the least emphasis on emotional self-control (berzerker rage was not unknown among them), but prayers for calmness and maintaining a cool head (the French term is "sangfroid"-- cold blood) was actually the normal way for most knights to fight.

6. They maintained a personal code that justified them in taking lives under specific circumstances. Killing another human being normally causes psychological trauma to the humans doing the killing--that's the way human empathy works for 96 to 98% of all human beings, as noted in my last post. But when someone strongly believes that an opponent represents an inherent threat, that the other person deserves to die, the natural trauma involved in killing is easier to overcome. And an assurance that a warrior has that he is living up to a high code of conduct also assuages his conscience. This sort of assurance in the personal righteousness of the warrior was especially key in the training of knights and samurai. Spartan training also had an ethical component, but its ethics emphasized supporting the city and other warriors over a code that each fighter could apply to himself individually.

7. They systematically studied the nature of warfare and carefully employed their thinking minds to the art of winning battles. Actually the Roman legionaries were the greatest ancient masters of this last point, even though I did not pick them as one of the examples above. But this was also true of Spartans, knights, and samurai to a degree. In general, moreso than the rest, warriors of Feudal Japan were expected to be literate and to know and understand pertinent written works of strategy. But Spartans were also trained to read and write, even if they did not love literacy and innovation the way their Athenian rivals did. And even knights, who were often illiterate, were not immune to designing and employing new strategies and tactics.

It's important to note that warriors who maintained calmness in the heat of battle (who had faced enough death and suffering during hard training to do that), who fought together as unit, who believed themselves morally superior to their opponents, and who employed their clear, level heads to the use of the best strategy and tactics available, routinely defeated warrior societies who emphasized battle cries and berzerker frenzy. Calm, scientific warriors win, almost every time.

Notice the Klingons of Star Trek share a few of these features I've mentioned above--they are portrayed as training hard, having a strong belief in the afterlife, and as facing death with equanimity. But they are not shown to stay cool and level-headed, to use sharp unemotional minds to employ clever strategies while fighting. Though in defense of the idea of Klingons, perhaps it is not necessary for them as an alien species to maintain tight emotional control in order to be able to keep thinking clearly. Though in fact, the best explanation for them is that Klingons were not written with a realistic understanding of war in mind. And it happens to be true that they have been written with features that in reality are competition with one another to a large degree. (Or maybe...that's why the Federation keeps beating them...)

Note though that even these warriors who were trained to an unbelievably high degree sometimes broke under the stresses of combat--even Spartans on occasion surrendered. But those warrior societies that go the furthest to train into men the ability to successfully stand at places like Thermopylae, who can face death without surrendering or breaking ranks even in the midst of enormous psychological pressure, these societies have certain features in common--if the characters involved are human or nearly so. Portray them in stories accordingly.

Next time we will look at the other kind of warrior society--the ones that emphasize fury, rage, and emotion...

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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Story Combat Realism Part 2--The Fearless Elite

I ended my last post with the following statement: "...in writing battles, it should happen sometimes that characters feel overwhelmed and surrender. Or run. Or if they don't, there needs to be something special about them that accounts for how they differ from what is in fact normal for human and nearly-human characters."

One type of "something special" I'm going to discuss in this post. It turns out according the the book On Killing, the biggest stressor human beings face in combat is killing other human beings. The sequel to On Killing, On Combat, actually puts more emphasis on the danger of being killed, but both things haunt the human mind, largely based on the human ability to feel empathy. To feel the suffering of those we humans kill on the one hand--and to witness friends and colleagues being killed on the other, while feeling their pain as they pass on (and then worry that we are next) form the primary causes of battlefield psychological trauma. Natural human empathy does not like to be at war against other human beings.

Statistics derived from World War II but consistent with records from other conflicts indicate that when human beings are locked in close personal combat for a period of around six weeks or more, between 96% and 98% become psychological casualties. What it means to become a psychological casualty I'll talk about in a later post. But what I want to note here is that 2 to 4% do not suffer psychologically at all. This group, this unusual minority, is what I called "The Fearless Elite" in the title above.

"Fearless" is not really the right term. This minority can experience fear (though not all do). But unlike the overwhelming majority of us, they can fight in war without showing any sign of damage to their inner selves. Note that since the fright or surrender reactions are involuntarily triggered by psychological stress, this small minority also seem resistant to throwing up hands in panic or running uncontrollably. They may still feel fear and still surrender or run--but they would do so by choice it seems, because it makes sense at the moment, rather than because of an uncontrollable emotional and mental reaction.

Why is this small minority different? The answers are not completely known, but it seems the group can be divided in rough halves:

Half of this group are immune to the psychological damage of combat because there is something deeply wrong with them--they are psychopaths. Psychopaths, sometimes interchangeably called "sociopaths" (but there is a difference between the two terms), do not feel empathy for other human beings or only feel it in the tiniest amount. Killing someone else is nothing to them and they likewise are much less concerned with their own deaths.

The other half seems to be composed of perfectly normal people, who usually react differently to combat for largely unknown reasons--though being naturally calm and highly resistant to getting stressed out seems related to what makes these people unusual.

Immediately an author of tales should recognize that a lot of writing effort in war stories has been focused on these unusual people. The villains, those who kill and feel nothing for any one--the heroes, who do feel, but are so calm and level-headed they manage to do the right thing even in the worst of scenarios. These are the men of legend and history, these are the Odysseus, the Spartacus, and Audie Murphy figures; the other half represents the Genghis Khans, Ashurbanipals, and Joachim Peipers.

People of this mentality (both halves) tend to be found in higher percentages in elite units, whether this be among King David's mighty men or the US Navy Seals. It might be interesting to write a story about a non-human race where all the soldiers naturally behave as if they were elite. Or where human beings are genetically engineered to fight without remorse or fear. Note that someone who fights without any regrets or fear would be lacking something psychologically--this lack should show somehow in a story. Even if its a lack of an ability to have a good time because of supreme natural calmness.

It might be tempting to say that the 300 Spartans who stood with King Leonidas at Thermopylae were all naturally elite soldiers. But there is no suggestion based on modern scientific evidence that any nation of people have a higher percentage of natural warriors than any other. In fact, the historical record seems to indicate that Spartan courage was the product not of natural affinity for warfare, but of superior "unnatural" training. In fact, in general, while elite units do attract those most suited to their kind of warfare, elite training is the main ingredient in what makes certain military units superior to others.

What kind of training or background makes ordinary human beings (or near-humans) fight as if each one of them were heroes? We'll look at that subject in the next post on this topic.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Story Combat Realism, part 1--Flight, Fight, or Surrender

Especially in epic fantasy stories, human beings or demihumans like elves or dwarves are often portrayed as fighting to the death with a disregard to danger. Creating larger-than-life struggles is part of the appeal of epic literature, but an author should be aware of the behind-the-scenes psychology of that is normal to be able to grippingly and realistically portray the abnormal. Because it happens to be the case that people don't usually fight until the death--they fight until the surrender.

Many people are familiar with the so-called "Fight or Flight" response, a state of stimulation by danger that can alternatively cause a person to fight or to run away. But as documented in the book On Killing, when fighting members of their own species, not only human beings, but all social animals in creation have a third response--to surrender.

So wolves in a pack fighting to be the dominant member of the group--the "alpha"--don't usually fight until one is dead, but until one surrenders or yields dominance, which is signaled in a specific way by members of canine species, i.e. rolling on the back and exposing the belly. Male bighorn sheep joust, crashing their horns into one another for the right to mate, and on occasion seriously injure or kill one another, but don't usually. They usually go at it until one has had enough and quits the combat, "turning its tail" and moving away. And there are many other examples of this same sort of thing in the animal kingdom.

Human beings also have a surrender response as part of what I would call the "common operating software" that the human brain shares with many other living creatures. It's strongly influenced by culture, but humans usually signal quitting combat by raising up empty hands, showing themselves weaponless.

There are certain kinds of stimuli that trigger the surrender or flight response. For example, human beings tend to be intimidated by opponents who are taller. Which gives a reason why Greek, Roman, and other soldiers wore plumes on the top of their helmets--in addition to making someone easier to identify on the battlefield, such devices makes a warrior look taller. Looking taller didn't help a soldier fight better in the slightest, but it did increase the chances an enemy will feel the urge to run or surrender. (I believe ancient warriors comprehended instinctively that a helmet plume helped them fight, without having identified the reasons why.)

This understanding adds depth to the Biblical account of David and Goliath. Goliath's size not only made him more powerful, it made him more intimidating, which is not necessarily the same thing. Note that the Bible records that Saul had been in many battles and was a noted warrior long before Goliath challenged his army to send a champion to single combat. Yet in spite of his battle conditioning, Saul had no desire to face off against the Philistine giant himself. This went beyond a calculation of the threat the giant posed. It was instinctual--Saul seems to have found Goliath's height intimidating on a level deeper than reason--and David marked himself as a hero by his ability to overcome that instinct through his confidence in God.

Likewise early firearms, while they had the ability to do devastating damage, they were difficult to aim. So each had a practical range less than that of bows and crossbows of the same era. Not only was their range more limited, their rate of reload made them slower to operate that crossbows and much slower than bows. In terms of the ability to kill the enemy, bows or crossbows were not only more effective than the guns that replaced them, they were much more effective. But as a weapon of intimidation, firearms that roll like thunder and shoot flames like mythical beasts (the word "gun" is in fact short for "dragon") were intimidating to enemies in a way arrows could never dream of being. Early guns triggered panicked flight and openhanded surrender to such a degree that the gun was far more effective on the battlefield than bows and arrows, even though it was an inferior killing weapon in the beginning. In other words, it replaced the arrow as the distance weapon of choice primarily for psychological reasons. (Note this is not likewise true with cannons--cannons actually do more damage than the catapults they replaced).

It happens to be historically the case that soldiers have proven more likely to surrender rather than run when attacked from the front and behind simultaneously, i.e. when surrounded. When a route of escape is evident, there is a higher tendency for an intimidated army to run. Running triggers an instinctual response in opposing forces to chase after those fleeing the battlefield (like a wolf chases prey or an angry, territorial bull chases intruders on his terrain). Many warriors in ancient and medieval battles were killed after they psychologically broke and were in the process of running away. Ancient Roman armies employed cavalry primarily for hunting down and killing enemies fleeing from the battlefield.

So the clash of two armies on a battlefield, with both on the line against one another, often ended when one side perceived they would lose and morale broke. And often, especially in ancient and medieval times, far more people were killed on the battlefield after an army broke and ran than before, during what we would consider the normal phase of combat, army facing army.

Roman soldiers showed that disciplined footmen could hold off a cavalry attack even without using the pikes or spears used to break up cavalry charges in other armies. In truth, one of the reasons a cavalry charge was generally effective against foot soldiers came from the intimidation value of the charge itself, horses taller than men galloping their direction, their hooves making a roar like thunder. This often caused men on foot to break and run, or surrender.

As a general rule, troops who are poorly-trained are more likely to break. Troops that are highly disciplined and trained over and over again that surrender is a dishonor, surrender far less often, but still do. For example, while all Japanese troops in WWII believed giving in to an enemy was a grave dishonor and many refused to do so, a certain percentage still actually surrendered. As did even some of the Spartans fighting Athenians in the Peloponnesian War.

Soviet and German troops facing off against each other in WWII had a greater likelihood of fighting to the death than is normally the case, not only because of soldier discipline, but because of the high likelihood of troops being killed upon surrender by either side. A "take-no-prisoners" approach stiffens an enemy's resistance to giving up. But even so, soldiers under the strain of battle, even when they knew surrender would likely result in death, even if they were highly disciplined and had been ordered to fight to the bitter end even then still surrendered sometimes. That's how strong the surrender instinct is in a human being.

So, my fellow writers of fantasy and science fiction, in writing battles, it should happen sometimes that characters feel overwhelmed and surrender. Or run. Or if they don't, there needs to be something special about them that accounts for how they differ from what is in fact normal for human and nearly-human characters.

More about that on the next post covering this topic..

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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

7 Ways to Deal with the Problem Magic Poses Christian Fantasy Writers


First off, what is the problem with magic for Christians? Or sorcery? Or witchcraft? (Are all of those things even the same?)

An entire book could be written on this topic (perhaps I'll do that someday) but to keep this as brief as possible, the short reason this is a problem is the Bible has nothing good to say about the practice of magic (neither does extra-Biblical Christian tradition). No translation of Scripture will record the 12 Disciples watching Jesus walk on the water and say, "Wow, that was magical!" Nor is the mana falling from heaven in Israel's wilderness wanderings described as some kind of powerful spell that Moses used, nor even is his rod described as "magic," even though Moses had the power granted to him by God to turn it into a serpent at whatever time he chose. No, the Bible describes events like these as "miracles," or "signs," or "wonders."

On the other hand, when the Bible talks about "magic" and calls people "magicians" or "sorcerers" (you could substitute "wizards" if you wanted), it includes the court magicians of Pharaoh, who resisted Moses by demonstrating to Pharaoh that the power Moses showed from God was not really that special after all. The Bible also makes mention of a death penalty for witches (Exodus 22:18--though the Bible does not record any instances of this particular death penalty being carried out). It also mocks the interpreters of dreams who worked for Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel, showed sorcerers converting to Christianity and demonstrating the genuineness of their faith by voluntarily burning all of their own scrolls of magic (Acts 19:19), lists magic as a sin from which the Earth under judgment from God will not repent in Revelation 9:21 (the Greek word for "magic" or "sorcery" there is linked to the word "pharmacology" and indicates the use of drugs to induce mental states associated with sorcery), and in general has only bad things to say when the word "magic" or related words like "sorcery," or "witchcraft" come up.

A verse in Isaiah (8:19) directly contrasts reliance on God with the use of magic: "When they say to you, 'Consult the mediums and spiritists who whisper and mutter,' should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on the behalf of the living?" (NASB--the King James Version uses the word "wizards" instead of "spiritists.")

So this seems to be the basic problem with magic as the term applies in the Bible. As defined by the examples the Scriptures provide: Magic is the attempt to use supernatural power outside of relying on the one Creator God of the Bible. Note I've phrased this so that it does not comment on whether "magic" really does contain supernatural power. The very attempt to circumvent God to gain access to the supernatural is, Biblically speaking, a problem.

"So why bother putting magic in stories at all?" someone might ask. "If magic is an issue, why shouldn't a Christian writer leave it out of stories altogether?" I'd say there are three basic reasons to work out a means to include it: 1) Fantasy is a popular genre with loads of readers. It makes sense to desire to reach them from a strictly analytical point of view. Not to mention it can inherently interesting to write fantasy for people who've read it--and fantasy normally contains magic. 2) Fantasy has the ability to use analogy or allegory to create powerful messages about the world we live in. And what is called in the story "magic" can be a key part of any such analogy. C.S. Lewis achieved using magic that way in the Chronicles of Narnia, in fact. 3) And it so happens to be that magic is a staple of fantasy as much as aliens are a staple of science fiction. You could write the one without including the other, but it would not really represent the genre well for the most part. Or be as interesting.

So, how to proceed? I would say the basic task is to make it plain the magic in the story world is not the same thing as the sorcery the Bible condemns. In order to harmonize with the Bible's condemnation, a Christian writer must make it plain that the supernatural power referenced in the story is not in fact in opposition to reliance on the Creator God of the Bible. I know of six good ways to do this (and will reference a seventh):

1. Only the villains have "magic." 
This is probably the most straightforward approach. Bad guys use spells, sorcery, incantations, and magic items. Good guys are stuck with either plain items devoid of any magical powers, or have supernatural power openly linked to God and under His control rather than theirs (and which is never described by the term "magic"). The Left Behind series actually shows baddies into witchcraft whereas the good guys, especially the two prophets in Jerusalem, call down supernatural power overtly in the name of God. To take this notion into the realm of fantasy, take this same sort of thing but instead of setting it on planet Earth, put it in a world of imagination, but one where God is still God, though perhaps under a different name (e.g. Aslan--though note that magic in Narnia is not just reserved for the villains).

2. Rename miracles and prophets as "magic" and "wizards."
Take a person who acts like a prophet of the Old Testament, but call him or her something other than "prophet." Create situations similar to Moses parting the Red Sea or Elijah lighting the sacrifice to God with fire from heaven, but don't call it prophecy or a miracle or a sign or a wonder. Call it "magic" or "sorcery" instead and those who them "wizards" who call upon the equivalent of the name of God in the story. Or along those lines. Doing this would take advantage of the fact that fantasy readers expect magic in a tale, but turns their expectation on its head so the story magic works the opposite from how the Bible negatively uses the word. Therefore, done correctly, such wizards would really point back to prophets and their sorcery powers back to God's power (by whatever name He is presented in the story). Readers who are not Bible-savvy may not immediately notice that the story points back to a Biblical way of seeing the supernatural, even though that's what it would do. By the way, L. B. Graham, Christian author of fantasy, mentioned at a previous Realm Makers conference using an approach roughly similar to this method in some of his books.

3. Treat "magic" as an allegory for the workings of God.
I'm thinking especially of how C.S. Lewis used the term "Deep Magic" as a description of what the "Emperor-beyond-the-sea" had written in the stone table where Aslan was sacrificed (in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). It stated that the White Witch was entitled to kill every traitor and if anyone denied her that right, then all of Narnia would perish in fire and water. But an even deeper magic said that if a willing innocent victim was killed in the place of a traitor then the Stone Table would crack and death would be overcome. Clearly this references how Christians see Christ dying on the cross for sin, but is phrased as "magic." A story could call other acts of God or properties of God that parallel what we know to be true, magic. Wizardry of this sort would not allow characters to use spells and as such might call for the addition of another method of dealing with "sorcery" (one that does allow spells). Though I can imagine a fantasy story without spells at all in which all references to "magic" are simply to acts of God in allegorical form.

4. Treat magic as a form of undiscovered science.
In the multiverse I've imagined behind my book The Crystal Portal, I imagined there is a kind of physics that operates in other universes that is undetectable here. I conceived of magic as a form of power that flows though the multiverse not unlike how electricity flows through a circuit. For universes closest to the source, this power is readily available. It's subject to manipulation by acts of the will and spoken words (so the use of this power resembles spells), but other universes drain most of the power by the time it hits our reality, so it has never been discovered in our world. In universes that have active magic, wizards are like scientists who study the properties of the invisible and learn how to use it, like how scientists learn to manipulate the forms of energy and matter we know about. Like science, such power can be used for either good or evil and like technology, there are unexpected residual wastes that can be harmful. 

Other novelists have invented other means in which "magic" is either science by another name (as I've done myself in the "Time of Magic" referenced in Medieval Mars) or have stated magic is an undiscovered science. Note that making sorcery equal science may create a story universe very similar to ones written from a non-Christian perspective, of the sort that have wizards and spells. But the difference is the kind of story that creates magical power which can be used in a neutral sense isn't really supernatural power anymore. It's the power derived from the ordinary physical world as much as photography, internal combustion engines, and atomic power is. What is called "magic" really should be considered part of the natural order.

It still would be possible for someone to seek supernatural power in an illicit way in such a story world (as magic is referenced in the Bible). Which would make the sin of witchcraft, i.e. trying gain supernatural power while circumventing God, a separate thing from the use of magic, which would in fact be science by another name or in another form.

5. Blend the lines between the supernatural and natural.
What I just suggested in effect blends the supernatural and natural by making acts that would appear to be supernatural merely the acts of a type of science instead. But I'm suggesting here applies stories that go the opposite way. 

Instead of giving everything a natural explanation, nothing has one. Everything is off-the-rails strange and nothing can be said to be a deliberate attempt to achieve the supernatural without God because everything (or most everything) is already supernatural from the point of view of planet Earth as we know it. I'm thinking of Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz type story universes, where scarecrows and rabbits talk, where changing your size is a matter of what you eat and drink, and tornadoes will transport a house to another land without killing its occupants. If magic is so worked into the fabric of everything that it isn't special and using it is as natural as walking and breathing then that sort of magic does not relate to the Biblical condemnation of people seeking the supernatural without God. Though such a story can shut out God by never mentioning Him and can act as a sort of allegory for witchcraft, it certainly does not have to be. A story universe like this can just as soon mention God in various ways, even though the classic examples I mentioned do not.

6. Treat magic as an innate special ability in analogy to spiritual gifts.
This approach in some ways is a subset of #5, but can also employ notions of #4 as well. It might seem logically contradictory for a story to be both more and less scientific in its approach to the supernatural at the same time, but the author I know who uses this method makes both work. Kat Heckenbach in both Finding Angel and Seeking Unseen (both these books are listed on her website that I linked) treats the power of magic as a gift that an individual has, given from beyond herself or himself. As such, her approach runs parallel to what the Bible has to say about spiritual gifts, almost forming an allegory of them. Yet since working the supernatural is just a natural ability, she in effect makes the supernatural more common and ordinary as per point #5. But at times she gives specific descriptions of how someone's ability affects matter or energy in terms someone who has studied science on planet Earth would recognize. Which goes back to #4. In truth, Kat's approach is unique, but her basic idea of making magic an inherent gift the magic user possesses can well harmonize with a worldview that does not include witchcraft in the Biblical sense of the term.

7. Downplay the Biblical objection in the first place.
This approach would be to either ignore altogether what the Bible says about magic or claim it only references a specific kind of attempt to gain supernatural power without God. I have heard people use the verse I quoted in Isaiah to claim the Bible does not condemn all magic, it only condemned necromancy, that is, trying to interact with or raise the dead. Which is why I gave examples outside of Isaiah. No, the Bible condemns far more that just necromancy. It takes a broad shot at magic as a whole, though we need to understand by study what that really means.

I don't recommend approach #7. I think one of the things that distinguishes an overtly Christian writer of speculative fiction is the attempt to work these issues out by some means or other. Not to ignore them. It does not mean conformity to just one way of thinking and it doesn't mean it's impossible to be creative or imaginative. (Kat certainly is creative in her solution.)

There's no reason in most cases to use just one of 1-6 above. In some instances, you can blend two or more of them. Or create your own. I'd be fascinated to see in comments below if there are any other methods to resolve this issue that I didn't think of. If you have an idea, please share it. (thank you) :)

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Breen-Boussh Connection

Boussh costume of the sort worn by Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi

A Breen soldier from Star Trek Deep Space 9



Interstellar cross-time transdimensional ethnographers have unraveled an unexpected fact. The Breen, best know for the Romulan saying, "Never turn your back on a Breen" and third-rate villains (in the opinion of some) as allies of the Cadassians and Dominion against the United Federation of Planets in the Dominion War, apparently at one time discovered a secret gateway to "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away."

Available evidence suggests the gateway (or wormhole) interlinking Breen space with the Galactic Empire actually landed Breen troops into this far-removed galaxy in the early days of the Galactic Republic. The community of Breen, unable to locate Hoth (a world reported to be like their own--their helmets contain a refrigeration unit to keep them cold), underwent a number of cultural and physical adaptations allowing them to better survive hotter climates.

Eventual linguistic change transformed "Breen" into "Boussh" (according to Breen linguistics, the relationship between the terms is simple and logical). They gained fame in the galaxy as a race of bounty hunters and mercenaries to the extent that Princess Leia Organa could disguise herself as one and enter the palace of Jabba the Hut without raising any suspicion whatsoever.

Speculation that the Breen are actually the secret masterminds of the entire universe is premature at this time. Evidence available as of this point can neither confirm nor deny such claims...



(A fun suggestion for linking worlds--of course many other imaginary crossovers between story worlds based on physical similarity are possible. For example, between Vulcans and Elves...;)

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Two Characters Interviewed


Our scene is a tent, someplace dusty, with wind blowing hard outside. I sit across the a wooden table from two men also seated. One I recognize from Colony Zero, the other from Medieval Mars.

  • What are your names?
My name is Simon Chang. Thus says the first man, his openly blind eyes roaming across the room, his broad Asian face adorned with a wide smile.

The second, a lightly built man with close-cropped blond hair and a thin blond mustache, glances nervously at Chang before answering. M-my born name is "Evan." Though by the grace of God, I have become a rider for my Lord Pederson, the Govnor of Mons Ascraeus. So I am now called, "Sir Evan."

  • What one word best describes you?
Chang replies, his arms crossed in front of his simple brown tunic. One word? That's difficult--but I would say I am "faithful."

The full plate armor of the second man clinks slightly as he shuffles on his wooden chair. I-I might have said the same thing. But since it has been said, I will say that I am "loyal."

  • How did you first become involved in the story?
I direct the military on Colony Zero, such as it is. Naturally when trouble arose on the surface--Earthers on the verge of discovering our secret underground dwelling--I was called in to stop them.

Um, I began writing the story of what happened at the point where my Lord declared war on the heretic King of Olympus. Th-though you could say I entered the story earlier, when my Lord came to my defense on the pilgrim road to the Gran Templo at Chryse. It was that day I made my pledge of allegiance to him.

  • What worries you?
Well, I am concerned at the behavior of our guests from Earth. I am also concerned for the welfare of my daughter. But nothing really worries me.

Um, well...why is it no one's telling me what's going on? And I wish Sir Isaac didn't act as if he hated me!

  • What's your favourite song?
I love hymns in Chinese but the English language hymn "Amazing Grace" is probably my favorite.

Uh, "Sublime Gracia" is my favorite. Perhaps that's the same as Simon's favorite, b-but in Spanish.

  • What's your favourite food?
There's a mung bean soup I like. But I'm not picky about food.

Sir Evan's eyebrows scrunch together in puzzlement. I eat whatever's put in front of me.

  • What do you think of the other characters?
I'm not sure this question makes sense to me. God is love. As his son, I love all.

Uh, I-I love Madam Susan...and my Lord, if the truth be told. I love my friend Sir Josiah and my horse Gallant. I admire Sanchez...and Sir Isaac. I wish I knew what I have done to displease him so! And, well, the rest I deal with as needed, with no ill will. Even the Heretic King.

  • What do you think should happen?
I think our Earth guests should accept our love and kindness and join Colony Zero of their own free will.

Well, uh, I think...the Heretic King should restore the pilgrimage. My Lord Pederson should win the war. And I would like the hand of the Lady Rebecca--oh, I forgot to mention her above, didn't I? That was a mistake. I hope she doesn't mind...

  • Are you happy right now?
Yes. Of course.

I'm-I'm kind of nervous right now, to tell the truth. I'm not comfortable meeting new people, such as yourself. But, uh, but I would not say that I am not content. I am content. Really.

  • What do you hope to do with your life?
To serve as I have been served. To raise my daughter well.

Sir Evan leans in closer and whispers his last comment. I think I would like to be a lord myself someday. If God so wills it.


(I hope you enjoyed meeting a couple of my characters--it's off topic from my normal story idea theme, except for the notion that there's nothing that keeps an author from having separate story universes interact with one another.)

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