Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sword & Planet & Anime & Satan & Eberron & Margaret Thatcher

So I asked Google plus this question:

What, to your mind, is the difference between old Sword & Planet science-fantasy (John Carter, Carcosa, Hawkwind, Planet Algol) and newer Last Three Levels of the Japanese Video Game style science-fantasy (Lunar, Eberron, Final Fantasy). Are there any thematic/philosophical differences? Or is it all just art direction? And is Moebius the Rosetta Stone that translates here?

Here are some highlights from the discussion from various people (imagine quotation marks around all this stuff):


-To my mind, the Sword & Planet stuff evokes a feeling of savage struggle (Burroughs) and swashbuckling (Flash Gordon) that is reminiscent of historical and sword & sorcery fiction in tone and action. Technology is largely window dressing, an exotic element blending in with cultural stylings (thinking arabesque blending with Art Deco here).

Heavy Metal magazine and Marvel's Epic Illustrated, along with Moebius, bridge that gap, sometimes adding a touch of psychedelia.

Video game science fantasy, on the other hand (as well as a lot of the steampunk and cyberpunk aesthetic, as an aside) seem to fetishize the blend of technology and fantasy.

-This may just be me, but I've gotten a general "science/industry bad" in the old Sword and Planet stuff (in a "What hath man meddled with! What horrors hath he wrought upon the rest of us!") while a lot of the newer stuff is more "Invention, science and progress is good, even if occasionally used for bad things!"

-Tech (or magitech) seems to be ubiquitious/understood in more modern treatments while in older ones it seems to retain its unknown, mysterious culture as the province of madmen and freaks.

-I don't think they are similar--except in some surface ways, perhaps. Sword & Planet is (from the aughts to the seventies) science presented in such a way that it resembles fantasy. It mostly maintained it was science.

Eberron and Final Fantasy are expressly fantasy, but where magic is able to reproduce technological results.

(this is Cam Banks:)

-Sword & Planet and Sword & Sorcery both had their "bad guy" forces. In the former, it's industry and science, yeah, unless it's been redeemed (but even then, it threatens to go out of control). In the latter, it's sorcery and magic and so on. In both cases I think the heroes are raw, skilled, courageous types who oppose all of that. In the new stuff you're talking about, rarely is there the "this is totally out of our control!" approach, rather, it's "this is Evil (tm) but our version of this is totally Good (tm)."

-I don't know if there is a common rosetta stone. Moebius translates between Barsoomian and Moorcockian. Amano drew both Elric and FF.


-(Me) I often wonder if I knew more about anime whether there was more stuff that had that sexy 70s bad trip darkness. I definitely get the impression it was there but weirdly hidden--like how Japan's Black Sabbath equivalent was called "Flower Travelling Band" and is totally metal but...they're called Flower Travelling Band. Thinking about it...I think actually an attitude toward sex is a huge part of it. In old sword and planet there's a sort of satan/oldness/evil/femme fatale/sex=danger/mystery mentality whereas in the newer stuff there is often lots of sexiness but it's more about a sort of pre-married young people back-and-forth social dynamic. Actual sex is kinda off the table as a theme but flirting is everywhere.

-Seriously older : orientalism, decadence, tension of exhaustion/vigor

70's-derived : drugs, rocker culture, dropoutitude

-Well with the new stuff there is also that "One true love" stuff.. Which I don't know how prevalent that was in Sword and Planet stuff.

-Not un-prevalent.

-(Me again) Reconsidering my previous comment, there's tentacle hentai. Get rid of the high school and Urotsukidoji is very sword and planet. it's the sense of unfamiliarity that's missing in the later stuff. I think sword and planet sees the future as mysterious whereas the newer stuff sees it as just a setting.

-New school science fantasy, at least the Final Fantasy style stuff, is always caked on layers of metaphors and borrowed symbolism at the expense of everything else.


-It might be that the idea of endless technological innovation (at what was once considered breakneck pace by these writers grandparents) is now taken for granted.

Edgar Rice Burroughs would have been around people who for the most part, lived the same as their grandparents had, who lived the same as theirs, etc etc, on a technological basis. Burroughs would thus be part of the first generation to see the shift of constant innovation (technologically) and it would have been weird, mysterious and somewhat alien. But now the idea that technology isn't a constant engine forward would seem alien to folks. In a sense the idea of a future without huge amounts of new technology would seem alien (barring a disaster) while a swathe of new gizmo's is just another setting.

-(me) Here's one: in the old stuff technology is usually from the past (post apoc) (post '50s) (golden age behind us) (mysterious). In the new stuff it is what we are working in now (full metal alchemist)(new merging of human and machine etc)(speculative, experimental, not mysterious). And…mmmm..yet to see a non-trippy japanese sci fantasy, but I do think the obsession with symbolism does "normalize" a lot of it.-I would almost base that on the space race. Before it was a case where our technology seemed inferior to the possibilities of science. Once we put a man on the fuckin' moon though? Fuck those Atlanteans, even if they existed they obviously suck since I don't see any Atlantis flags on the moon (except more eloquent). I think the space age has really shifted mankind's perception of our place in history and the specialness of this moment in time.

-(Re: Trippiness) well there's a difference between "What i learned from this metaphorical experience" and "I am in the psychic now"....well it's not psychedelic when you go back to your rural village and petals are falling and you meditate upon how your journey brought you back to this place - the "trippy" is an illusion that breaks.


-And what about Warhammer 40k? Is that an in-between? Or does the long shadow of Orwell make it uniquely British?…the exoticism is kinda long boot-face-stamped out of 40k I think. What's the cosmic other in 40k? It's fucking evil and chaos and Satan and symbolic and you fight it.

-But i think all the stuff I see that's any good is sometimes "trippy" in that second way, even if it's just monster design...and well 40k has a difference in tone from Moorcock (or even Nemesis) but the difference isn't Britishness - plenty of sword-trip is British

Probably the difference is basically Thatcher.


-The difference may have something to do with 80s-D&D (and relatives) that contribute to a more vanilla fantasy/quest form and back to the rural village, i wonder, is a lot of the difference "gamification?"


Well the positiveness and lack of sex is definitely gamification. Possible Genealogy: Sword and planet ---->D&D and Star Wars -------->Final Fantasy------>postAnime sci-fantasy. Are D&D and Star Wars the translators here? The "force" is the only overt fantasy element in Star Wars really.

-Yeah i think D&D (and D&D-derived video games like Wizardry) and Star wars are a big part of the transition

Star Wars is cool but so not psychedelic. the layers and metaphor of JRPG video games, and their RPG descendents are often sort of the force writ baroque.

-I think the whole Human-Spirit > Everything aspect of a lot of anime (and by proxy, japanese video games) makes the mysterious unknown really hard to pull off. Its hard to take Azathoth as seriously when a little girl can take him because she is best friends with everyone.

-And is Cole right in saying that The Human Spririt is basically derived from (maybe a slight post-Taoization) of The Force?

-i feel like should also say i'm not painting a broad swath of "anything an anime has touched, ever" but a more narrow sense of "the type of fantasy especially in western RPGs and related media that takes its aesthetic from console JRPG".

Like, Eberron, while cool, is not very trippy outsde of a few peripheral elements.

Whereas Nausicaa goes BONNNNGGGGGGGG,

-But Nausicaa goes BONNNGGGG about a single little girl and like one kind of monster and with an eco-theme. Whereas all of Eberron is like Srslymorecrazyeveywhere (because D&D).

-Yeah and (because D&D) is a factor there, and Eberron is a whole setting which is designed to facilitiate many character's separated epics.

-It gets crazy there in the last few volumes. I mean, it pitches human progress as any kind of ideal and has a huge war is hell subplot and Evas and deathmold.

-Well Lodoss War is just 80s Vanilla D&D-The Movie


-Is the sheer disturbingness of Evangelion a sort of return-of-the-repressed sexdeathsatan metaphors from the Sword and Planet era? Like: hey Good Guy in Good/Bad postgame scifantasy Land remember when Evil meant something? AAAAAAAh brainFRY

Is Willow basically an anime?

-Willow is the lord of the rings made by the guy who came up with The Force so it's an expression of the same ideas.

-Evangelion is pretty tangential but obviously has influences from New Wave SF that was read by the same people who took drugs and read the 70's S&S/P.

-It's got robots and mysticism, if Star Wars is relevant then Evangelion is. I think the space as metaphor for mental interior and/or human destiny theme is reallllllly important

-I think the disturningness of Eva has more to do with the creator actually having a nervous breakdown near the end of the series.

-Ok "Well I know the creator's breakdown in Evangelion was a real thing, but all of this "fantasy" stuff is psychological: Is the lack of an expression of "the dark side" in the genre ("the Zentraedi are our friends and love love after all!") and the culture that created it relevant to that, though? I think maybe. The creator's work and breakdown are both an expression of something psychological as are the tropes of the genre.


-To address the original question, I've always seen the major thematic divide being that S&P seem to be more about a sort of "stagnation" (not sure if that's the best word) where the world has been this way for centuries, and Eberron-style worlds that have for of a feel of "progression" where there's obvious signs of advancement and change. Freeport's another example of the later style.

-What makes "Progression" exciting for a game setting? in the context of a (relatively trad) game, I think, progression isn't interactable with (unless you time travel to the future or something) while decline is, you interact with pre-decline stuff constantly.

I guess maybe if you have a lot of people furiously fighting progress that you can kill?

Is it just "optimism?" Thats a buzzword I see a lot in game-designer talk that, I admit it, I'm an asshole, but is not thrilling to me. But I wouldn't call Eberron "optimistic" anyway so maybe i'm totally out of bounds here

-I would call Keith Baker optimistic (as a human I know personally). So maybe I tend to kinda see Eberron as more "full of intrigue and adventure" than "full of decadent machination" because of that--which is just a slight turn of the coin. However, I think the whole "You can play the monster and s/he can be good" is a very positivey post-Star Wars theme compared to S&P which is more about cultural barriers even when the alien is helpful.

Does the game-friendlyness of post D&D post-videogame fantasy automatically make it more positive partially because every Other has to be a playable (therefore possibly good) race?

-Probably. See also : Worf.

-Or maybe it's more boring than all this: the popularity of Tolkien and pop "positive" sci fi (i.e. Star Trek, comics) simply has made all later-era sci fantasy more heroic and optimistic.

-Also the boom for this stuff was the late 80s when US cultural exports were shit-eating-grin positive.

-Can we blame toy-sellers for getting rid of satanic evil then? He-man and the rest?

-Though i'm not saying "satanic evil" so much as sexdrugsfuzzdistortionbrood.

-I think "Progressiveness" is something you can interact with, but it's done at the expectation/setting-buy-in level that at a real "character" level. Like, I have a hard time believing that a setting like FR or Elder Scrolls can be advanced 100 years but not actually have any societal or technological advancement. Although that's probably my mother the Social Studies teacher talking as well.

-I think Cole's saying "as a PC, you don't experience that progress as an event in the campaign" whereas you do find (and use) old stuff from back in the day. Though I'm not sure I agree --"brilliant new discoveries" appear a lot in games and things and are often mcguffins.


-I think this does leave out some cool things about postanime-specific themes like the sort of universal polyglot sexiness. You could kind of see the muscley shirtlessness of He Man and the endless "love" themes in She Ra as trying (in perhaps a clumsy American way) to get at the same flirty themes that a lot of anime has.

(Keith Baker, author of Eberron shows up)

-While I'm late to the conversation, I agree that while there is "ancient and mysterious magic" in Eberron, one of the underlying themes that matters to me is the continuous evolution of magic as a science and a force that affects society - which is a contrast to science/magic as a tool primarily of ancient times or dark forces. There are certainly dark elements to the world - uneasy balance between industry & politics, ancient evils on the rise, all manner of intrigues - but it is a world where new innovations are being developed every day.

With that said, I think that if you took a group of soldiers from the Last War and transported them deep in the middle of unexplored Xen'drik, you've got a great foundation for a Barsoom-y campaign... and in such a campaign you can find, for example, dark elves living in an ancient city of the giants and using magic they can no longer replicate on their own.

Whether or not it's a regular event depends on the direction the DM decides to go, but advancing magic is certainly a theme that can play an important role in an Eberron game... I wrote a piece about Dragonmarked industrial espionage a few weeks ago.

-i suppose you could advance the timeline by months between sessions and say "this year, they invented the telegraph," this year they invented the blimp," "this year they invented the camera"

i.e. "progress-via-equpiment-list-update"

-Great Pendragon Campaign does that.

(Keith again)

-I will say that given that magic-as-science is a theme of Eberron, I am frustrated by how little depth the history of magical innovation currently has. There are dates for a few key discoveries, but not a lot of focus on the key innovators and discoveries (aside from those of the present). It's certainly something I want to do more with in my next world.

-I think maybe there is a cultural movement timing differentiation thing going on - Eva was late 90s, Next Gen late 80s ... the positivist thing you could say starts with Macross in the Eighties, but before that the 70s/early 80s fantasy and sci-fi anime has a much more pulpy, nihilistic bent - stuff like Cobra, Fist of the NorthStar, Go Nagai &c


-However, I don't think it all reduces to: the 70s are the 70s the 80s are the 80s the 90s are the 90s. I think there's an interesting question of what, exactly, the supernatural and space are supposed to represent to people.


  1. Your question and, even more, this roundup makes me realise that I'm just not part of the newer wave - I have no idea about it at all, I'm just a plain old 70s demons-n-planet kinda guy.

    So I'm commenting just to say "holy cow, that giant dong sword/saw thing in the Patriot Gender pic is like something straight out of Beardsley."
    Which I guess is intentional.

    1. Well, Beardsley would have just straight up drawn a giant dong.

  2. Insightful. I have not considered the anime vs. S&S connection systematically, but I have said before that Evangelion is a better Stormbringer story than Moorcock's seminal, but rather poorly written original. .)

  3. This was a paticularly insightful conversation for me as I am an unabashed fan of both these things. It was interesting to have both disected and observed without any real hate for either genre.

    Such is the benefits of having a discussion with non-assholes, I suppose.

  4. "Fuck those Atlanteans, even if they existed they obviously suck since I don't see any Atlantis flags on the moon"

    Finding an Atlantean flag on the moon would be a pretty interesting starting point for a campaign of some sort.

  5. Just feeling the need, as I wander past in the aether, to note that "Final Fantasy" as an umbrella term on the series encompasses such a broad swath of themes, levels of magic/technology, and responses to those three things (among other things) from game to game as to make using the umbrella term a lesson in futility *grin*

    1. Well you could say that about even the works of any single author--Moorcock, for example. But I think rather than a certain bestiary or plot what we are talking about is an attitude toward how you use magic and technology thematically in a story.

  6. Been following for a while but seeing as this discussion lands directly on the work I've done in my own campaigns I can't help but comment. One pairing which felt natural to me was Jack Vance's "The Dying Earth" and Final Fantasy, where each describes a world shaped by unknown history, where magic and science are readily interchangeable.

  7. I think one major turning point in both eastern and western sci-fi was The Bomb.
    Up to that point readers/viewers expected some quick fantasy and adventure.
    And with Hiroshima and Nagasaki the fiction became reality, unfortunately.
    So what else are we really capable of?
    What happens when science screws up even worse?
    Pop culture answered with the giant mutant movies of the fifties. Japan gave us Godizilla, the walking Bomb.
    Later Star Wars turned things around again, bringing the fantasy and heroism back.
    It had many influences.
    A country bumpkin gets mixed up with two slaves who know too much about the evil shogunate. While cruising around the dunes in his flying hotrod, he meets with a psychic ronin who just happens to be the teacher of the shogun's possesed executioner.
    Another thing to consider is the influence of eastern philosophy on anime.
    Most of the best "hard" sci-fi asks questions about how technology is going to change society and the individual. What are the boundries of humanity physically and mentally?
    I don't think early S&P fiction focused on that as much as stories of survival in weird environments and against inhuman foes.

  8. If you're looking for that pulpy, extremely trippy, sword and sorcery vibe in anime, I'd definitely point you toward the work of Go Nagai, which Keith mentioned in passing. Dude has more than earned a throne in crazy person Valhalla for the stuff he's put to page and screen.

    From his giant robot stuff on the more mainstream end (The Mazinger series' being my favorites, definitely "metal" both literally and figuratively, although stuff like Shin Getter Robo is pretty prime too), through his pervy super heroine stuff (Cutey Honey, Kekko Kamen) and on through to his ultraviolent horror/post apocalyptic stuff (Devilman, Devil Lady, Violence Jack) his capacity for dream/nightmare logic and brain-on-fire inventiveness can give you a lot of raw inspiration.

    You could fill a couple monster manuals with the stuff he and his crew came up with for the villains in all those series, and the protagonists are usually raw, brutal, take no prisoners, I can kill you with my sideburns types (unless they're cute girls who's clothes explode when they're preparing for battle, which may be a little off topic, but ymmv)

    He's very much of a piece with the zeitgeist of Japan in the 70's, or maybe the whole world of the 70's, before the 80's era of zaibatsu's and idoru's kind of took hold.

    It's late and am rambling as I often do, but it's well worth giving Nagai a look for the vibe I think you're talking about.


  9. I've always felt that the appeal of the two genres was similar, both a sort of para-nostalgia for a time that likely never was, but slightly different. In both cases I think they are a reaction to the sense that the modern world, particularly with respect to human conflict, is much to haphazard and random - it doesn't matter how strong, fast, or smart you are, it only matters how many new weapons you have. The sword represents masculine virtues of strength, valor, and skill, and its absence emasculation. I wouldn't get all Freudian and say the sword is directly a symbol for the phallus, but that may be more right than wrong.

    The sword-and-sorcery fantasy is an outright return to that world, and is an old tradition: the Odyssey is a high-bronze-age epic written as the iron revolution worked its way through the Greek-speaking world, reducing the importance of wealth and strength and cheaper and deadlier weapons became available; Edward III created the Order of the Garter to replicate the ideals of the Round Table at a time when archers and footsoldiers were supplanting chivalrous knights as the important part of the army; modern s&s emerged as the mechanization of warfare became complete.

    Sword and planet, I think, takes the same urge but applies it to the modern world directly, based on the premise that in spite of everything, it is still possible to face your enemies armed only with your masculinity (sword) and cunning and still win, even against guns or tanks or death rays. Thus it has more in common with martial arts films like Highlander or Kill Bill than with Tolkienesque fantasy, although none of them are really that far apart from each other.

    1. that seems to (smudgily) define the baseline of the lowest common denominator of all adventure fiction rather than why a particular work or genre would be particularly appealing or why it'd be different than another

  10. Wow, man. You have given this some serious thought. I'm gonna have to make a couple of trips to try and understand it all.