Head in the Stars: Sci-Fi in Fantasy Fiction
I haven't been a productive writer as of late. Most likely a symptom of the turmoil in my everyday life. When I say that, I mean that I haven't been a productive fiction writer, This is my third blog in like two weeks. I pumped out a 5 part Sword and Sorcery story, titled "Hunter of the Masks", and posted it here. I also whipped up a Historical Adventure set in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula in the days before WWI that I called "Honor Among Rogues". I am happy to say, that it was picked up for publication by Rogue Blades Entertainment for their upcoming anthology "We Who are About to Die", where the theme centers on the idea of sacrifice. That's really cool, and I'm hoping to see that one out around X-mas time.
RBE, if you are reading this, when are we getting "Reach for the Sky?" (I kid. But seriously. *insert laughing/tongue out/winky face emoji*)
I am eagerly awaiting the aforementioned anthology not just because my story "Box of Bones" is in it, but because the theme was a mash-up of the Wild West, and Extraterrestrials. I was overwhelmingly underwhelmed by the film "Cowboys vs. Aliens" that likely had a hand in the publisher's creation of this anthology, so I am really excited to see what kinds of things other author's pull out of their brains. If you couldn't tell, I love westerns. Part of why I love living in the Southwest is that the lingering atmosphere of the days of high adventure drips from every old building, cactus spine, and sun burnt rock.
On the flip side of that particular anthology's theme, Aliens scare the living shit out of me.
I am terrified of little green men popping through my window to take me up in their beam of white light and poke at me.
Ghosts don't scare me. The idea of demons is a joke. Serial killers stopped being scary by the time I watched "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" for the 20th time as a high school kid obsessed with horror. I think some of this stems from me not being a religious man. I simply don't believe in ghosts, demons, or whatever else.
I don't have to believe in extraterrestrial life. I already know it exists. I'm sure many of you have heard that it is mathematically impossible for Earth to be the only planet with life in the universe. While we only know of a handful of Earth-like planets out there, and only a handful of those are within the so-called "Goldilocks Zone", statistically there are countless planets out there capable of supporting life, an no doubt some of them do. Now, I'm not saying they are pop culture's versions of the aliens. I'm not even saying they are multi-celled. And hell, they probably don't have the technology to reach us. Still, it exists out there somewhere. It had to.
And that terrifies me.
But it's also really friggin' cool.
This plays a huge part in why the author H. P. Lovecraft remains not only a favorite of mine, but a major influence on me as well. I know there is a ton of controversy about the man. He was a racist, so of course there is. I am not here to talk about that. There is nothing I could say that would add anything to that already tired conversation.
However, something that really gets my goat, is that the world Lovecraft created is super misunderstood. If you did some quick Googling of Lovecraft related material, not only would you find plushies and "Vote for Cthulhu" stickers, you would probably notice all kinds of stuff like spell books, tarot cards, and even the in/famous Simon Necronomicon. I hate that! It is very apparent to me that Lovecraft went to great pains to explain his world "scientifically". While there are a number of stories where what appears to be "magic" comes into play, each occurrence can also be explained by something more science fiction than fantasy fiction. In "Dreams in the Witch House" the magic is actually math. In "Dunwich Horror" and "Case of Charles Dexter Ward" the magic is chemistry, well alchemy, but still. Lovecraft's most famous creations are monsters of science, biology, and even mathematics (also terrifying). I know the Dreamlands exist, but that's a whole different phase in the man's writings.
I assume that when Chaosium created their "Call of Cthulhu" RPG, that is when the spells and magic stuff started gaining traction, but they aren't the only ones to blame. August Derleth, who took over the Lovecraft stuff when H. P. kicked the bucket, had a deep misunderstanding of what Lovecraft had created, making Elder Gods analogies for elements, the Greek Pantheon, and even Christianity, in order to fit it into his own, more religious worldview.
I promise I'm going somewhere.
We all know that Lovecraft was pen pals with Robert E. Howard, creator of "Conan the Cimmerian". Conan is fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, sure. It has magic in it.
I'm not saying that magic doesn't exist in the Hyborian Age, because it does. That being said, a lot of it also boils down to alchemy and aliens. In the first Conan story published in Weird Tales, "Phoenix on the Sword", the evil sorcerer Thoth-Amon summons a "demon from the outer dark". It looks like a mummified baboon and doesn't take damage from mundane equipment. But what is this "outer dark" that Howard invokes? When I first read it, I thought it meant space. I imagined that whatever Thoth-Amon did, he called a creature from somewhere beyond the stars and brought it to Earth to do his bidding.
In the next published Conan story, "Tower of the Elephant" Howard goes full bore and now we are dealing with an alien being flying through space on wings not unlike Lovecraft's Elder Things in "At the Mountains of Madness". Extraterrestrial creatures show up in Conan again and again. Like the winged creature Conan uses to reach Aquilonia in "Scarlet Citadel", Thog in "Slithering Shadow" is undoubtedly a Lovecraftian entity, and the creature in "Vale of Lost Women" is too. Howard also followed Lovecraft's queue in using evolution as means to horror, but that's totally another post.
Another of Lovecraft's circle, Clark Ashton Smith, mashes fantasy and sci-fi together as well, whether it is in the context Hyperborea or the last continent on Earth. In fact, despite not having read ALL of it, it is my understanding that the mixture of Sci-fi and Fantasy was far more common in the Pulp era than it is today.
I am 100% sure there are other examples out there, but I think the most in your face example of this sci-fi/fantasy mash up is Karl Edward Wagner's Kane. In the novel "Bloodstone" we see an all out spaceship battle as two different races war over the space-faring entity we know as the title character. There are also teleporters in that story. Not teleportation spells, but actual Star-Trek teleportation. In "Darkness Weaves" there are alien submarines that shoot lasers. Even Kane's origins have hints of him being some kind of cyborg/biological experiment. In later stories, mostly those that take place in modern day, Kane uses a portable nuclear device he took from a crashed alien space ship (with the help of Elric of Melnibone) to enter "God's" dimension and blow it to shit.
That's gnarly as fuck.
As I mentioned in my last post, I recently started reading "Gardens of the Moon" by Steve Erickson. It is absolutely not Sword and Sorcery, nor have I encountered anything I would call touching upon science fiction. It is High, Epic Fantasy at it's most glorious. I'm not saying that's bad, it's not. It's awesome. But it got me thinking. As I read about gods and goddesses meddling in the lives of mortals, I am not afraid of them. It's good reading. Their presence in the story is intriguing, mysterious even, but not even slightly scary.
And I kind of miss that.
I am not much of a gamer, and by that I mean player of RPGs. I like them a lot, but I just don't have the time or social circle to facilitate that hobby. I do however, love to read RPG settings. Probably my favorite works are published by "Raging Swan Press" because they do lean heavily on the Lovecraftian Horror of nameless things dwelling just beneath the surface, while also maintaining the fantasy setting that you would expect from a Pathfinder/5e supplement.
That being said, I recently stumbled across Planet X games, and I am in love. I first found their supplement "Occurrence at Howling Crater" and I laughed with glee. The publisher prides itself in bringing gamers B-movie-esque exploitation adventures. "Howling Crater" is a total mashup of "Hills Have Eyes" and the Roswell Incident. There is a cult of inbred hillbillies that live on the outskirts of a UFO crash site. It has robots, mutants, aliens, and everything else you would expect with that kind of set up. Their next supplement, "Escape from Skullcano Island" is an adventure tale full of Kaiju and it looks awesome. I recently saw artwork on their Instagram that showed a completely explorable (and maybe pilotable) "mecha-kaiju" that looks unsurprisingly similar to the robotic King Kong from the terrible monster movie "King Kong Escapes". I absolutely adore their unabashed use of science-fiction classics and not-so-classics in an otherwise Dungeons and Dragons oriented setting.
There are also a lot of video games that play with the same ideas, but don't often advertise it outright. For example, the old "Might and Magic' series looks like High Fantasy, but if you were to dig into the lore present in those games, you can see it become a Space Opera on a grander scale. The Elder Scrolls series also dives a little into the Sci-fi, especially in the case of the Dwemer (dwarves to humans, but not the LOTR kind of dwarves) and their robotic sentinels. The Dwarves, who are actually the tallest species of elves, attempted to fuse their souls into a giant bronze robot to create an artificial god. They botched the process and they all vanished, but their mechanical inventions persist. Even the game "Conan Exiles" touches upon extraterrestrial manipulation, as it should.
However, I think the best example of this in video games in the exceedingly difficult game "Bloodborne" by creators From Soft. The game starts you out in a Victorian-like fantasy city now populated with mutants and werewolves. There are also ghosts, and other supernatural horror baddies that roam the corpse choked streets, but the further you get into the game, the more clear it becomes that something "outside" is involved. In a bid for greater power, a religious ministry used blood from an alien being to mix with their own and began all of the trouble. On top of that, this city is built upon the ruins of an exceedingly ancient colony akin to Lovecraft's K'n-yan. Throughout the campaign, the player faces creatures straight from the imagination of H. P. and even straight up "Grey" aliens at one point. It is a hard as fuck game, but the atmosphere and use of Lovecraftian themes in bar none. Thanks, Japan.
When all is said and done, I would absolutely adore seeing more of this sci-fi/fantasy mashup. While I clearly prefer it in something of a horror context, I think that the combination of the two genres has the potential to pump some new imagination into a genre rife with wizards and *shudders* magic systems.
In my own writings, I haven't delved too much into the science fiction side, but that is something I intend to correct. I have used Howard-esque ape things, and neanderthals, but I have also used Atlantean ghosts and evil spirits (that story will show up in a future Weirdbook issue). The only time I have used an out-right alien is in the story "Box of Bones" for the RBE anthology that I mentioned at the beginning of this consciousness stream. While I haven't actually got much writing done, outside these blog posts that is, I have done A LOT of thinking about writing. I am hopeful that all this rumination will add up to something great in the future. As I write this, an audio recording of "Dunwich Horror" playing in the background, I have an inkling of an experiment brewing in the test tubes of my mind. Something like a fantasy Dark Shadows with an Extraterrestrial bent? Sounds like it could be fun.
Do you know of any sci-fi/fantasy crossovers that I missed? I'm positive I don't know a lot of them. If you have a suggestion, let me know! As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts on my ramblings. Links to the two Indie RPG publishers I mentioned can be found below.
Planet X Games (DriveThru RPG): https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse/pub/13957/Planet-X-Games
Raging Swan Press: https://www.ragingswanpress.com/