Cool Things: Ghost in the Shell

Welcome to our final installment of manga and anime month at Nate Chen Publications. So far we’ve examined a selection of what I would consider “entry level” series. They’re aimed at a younger audience but deep enough and well enough executed to be interesting to many people. Just like Harry Potter was aimed at young people but found widespread acceptance among people of all ages, so with TrigunRurouni Kenshin and Azumanga Diaoh.

The Ghost in the Shell franchise is not such a story. The story began with the work of author and illustrator Shirow Masamune. The original manga was published in the 1980s and became an animated movie in the 1990s. That movie is credited with codifying many of the ideas that would ultimately find expression in Hollywood with The Matrix.

While the manga and movie were engaging and interesting the ideas in them are so dense they didn’t really find full expression until a season length animated show was produced. That show was Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. As the title implies, this adaptation was not connected to the movie in any way – except, of course, for theme.

Ghost in the Shell takes place in a world where every part of the human body can be reproduced synthetically. The entire human body can be transformed into a cyborg and memories and personality transferred into an artificial brain. At the same time virtual reality has progressed to the point where it is almost indistinguishable from regular reality. Questions of identity, humanity and the nature of truth run throughout the series. Of course, the plot of the series has as much to with cyberterrorists, corruption and secretive government agencies as human identity.

Events revolve around Public Safety Section 9, which deals with counter-terrorism and particularly cybercrime. Led by Motoko Kusanagi, a retired JSDF Major and total conversion cyborg (meaning body and brain are artificial), Section 9 has to figure out the motives and goals of the hacker known as The Laughing Man. Their work is frustrated by his extreme skill and a number of copycats, and the fact that ol’ chuckles was partly working to uncover corruption in the government. A number of corrupt officials will interfere with Section 9 to avoid exposure.

It’s hard to explain exactly how The Laughing Man ties in with the themes of Ghost in the Shell without spoiling things. But I can say that a lot of time is devoted to the ideas of the Ghost – what defines human identity – and how much our body – or the Shell – defines it. At the same time no one attempts to hand the audience a pat answer, which is always nice.

Now if a story of corruption and the nature of human identity sounds too dark for your tastes be assured that there’s plenty of other things going on here. There’s a subtle romantic subplot between the Major and one of her colleagues, the diverse backgrounds and personalities of Section 9 are played for both laughs and insight and there’s plenty of well rendered action as well. It’s hard to believe the series was animated over ten years ago.

Oh, and there’s Tachikomas. Little blue, crab shaped mecha running AIs with the disposition of cheerful five year olds who are convinced they are RPG characters. The closest thing to dedicated comic relief, even these weird little AIs manage to be interesting characters and active participants in the plot. It’s an impressive achievement.

Serious sci-fi is as rare in anime as it is in any other medium but Ghost in the Shell manages to be serious and, at the same time, accessible and entertaining. That’s an impressive achievement in itself. But it also manages to do it in a context that will make sense to anyone from a modern developed country, not just people from the islands of Japan. And that makes it worth noting here.

Like many series licensed for distribution in America, you can find Ghost in the Shell on Youtube here.

A Doyen in the Hand

(Sorry this post is so late, and very long. More about this in the notes at the end.)

They say you never forget your first love. For Dmitri, he’d first seen his when he was eight and had gone to Court for the very first time. For one reason or another his minder had decided to bring him through the Terra Front, rather than by portal. Honestly, he couldn’t remember the reason and it really wasn’t important. Because the very first time he set foot through the shallowing and found himself in the pillared concourse, the six sides of the building each an arcade looking over the vista of another world, the high ceiling peaking in half twilight above his head and glimmering not with stars but the faint light of magic and order and all other thoughts had left his head.

With the Throneworlds extending on one side of every Front and five other worlds of the empire on each of the remaining sides it felt like you could literally set out from the center of one Front and go anywhere the human mind could conceive of in a matter of a moment’s walk. Even after months among the wealth and riches of the Court he’d still found his mind drifting back to that first moment stepping into the Fourth Front. Now he was in a different place but feeling the same thing.

Here was a scene big enough that even a man at the beginning of adulthood reverted to childhood wonder whenever he saw it.

There were plenty of reasons to stay there, in the center of what seemed like unbridled possibilities, whenever he had to return to the Throneworlds. Mons didn’t need his input to do his share of the work and the immense power of his title made people uncomfortable. And there was no way to spend more than five minutes on the Throneworlds without someone wondering where you were. Officials had to answer such questions truthfully, which inevitably led to questions and all kinds of attention and… well, it was better to stay there. The Terra Fronts weren’t used for much anymore, with the convenience and economy of portals having removed much of their commercial and military utility. Really, their only practical use was  their original purpose.

And Terra Eternal hadn’t invaded anywhere in nearly a century.

So they served as a sort of private means of transport from world to world for high level officials, of which Dmitir was one of the very highest. It was one of the few privileges he had that he truly enjoyed. At least, most of the time.

“Doyen Dmitri Dostoyevsky. May all your paths run smooth and peacefully.”

Suppressing a grimace, Dmitri turned to face the man who administered this particular Front. “Palatinus Alvin y-Santos. I greet you on behalf of myself and my brothers, and my father and his brothers.”

The two men bowed slightly to each other, hands spread at waist height with palms facing each other, as was proper in court circles. The only similar thing between the two was their insincere smiles. Skinny, save for a surprisingly plump gut, bald and constantly a little sweaty looking, Alvin y-Santos had always struck Dmitri as something of a grotesque. But maybe that was just because Alvin also had the vaguely predatory air he’d always hated about people at court – like a scavenger waiting to snag an easy meal once something died.

Dmitri absently smoothed his own hair back and out of his eyes, as if to be on the lookout for trouble, as he said, “To what do I owe the honor of this visit, y-Santos?”

“Why, I’ve just come to bid you welcome here, as you are always, my doyen,” Alvin answered, his smile stretching further across his face.

“Thank you,” Dmitri said, dry as dirt. “Your courtesy is always the highlight of my visit.”

Alvin made a show of glancing around. “I see that the Blade of ben-Gideon is not with you today. Is it time for a new Blade already?”

“I’m sure we’ll have at least one or two more assignments together before his year is up,” Dmitri said. Honestly, he wasn’t looking forward to having a new team of three assigned to him but it was one of the few parts of his job that he had no control over. “Indeed?” Alvin asked, oblivious to the other man’s thoughts. “I had heard that his replacements had already been selected.”

That brought all of Dmitri’s attention to the matter at hand. “And how is that? No one outside of those offered the position should know the members of a Doyen’s Blade.”

“And undoubtedly it is so,” Alvin said with a smile less forced and less pleasant than normal. Dmitri didn’t miss the implication. Someone Alvin knew had been offered the job.

“Then it is well,” Dmitri answered, even though it wasn’t. Someone had been talking when they shouldn’t have. “No doubt you will find some productive use for the good fortune you have found.”

“I was wondering if might ask you for a favor…” And there it was.

Alvin y-Santos was an infamous politicker and every time Dmitri had met him he’d asked for some small thing or another. As a rule Dmitri hadn’t agreed to any of it, thinking that it was better not to give any ground to the scheming man, but he had come to dread the requests. Doyen only served for ten years and after all the power and authority was gone, one thing that was supposed to keep them from running rampant was the reality of having to deal with some of the powerful people you’d angered in your position over the years.

Of course, this meant people like Alvin were always trying to curry favors from the local doyen in exchange for help and shelter down the road. Which brought them right back to the matter at hand. “No favors, y-Santos. You should know me well enough by this point.”

“It is nothing of importance,” Alvin was quick to say. “I just hoped you could convey my greetings to the new administrator of the Eighth Front. She has only come to it in the last week or two and, being a busy man, I haven’t had time to go myself.”

Dmitri stared at the other man for a long, uncomprehending moment, then said, “Y-Santos, you run the Seventh Front. It’s a five minute walk from the Eighth.”

“Regardless,” Alvin began, “I haven’t had the time-“

“Unfortunately we’re not going to the Eighth Front any time soon,” Mons said, coming down the concourse from the Throneworlds side of the Front. He was moving quickly, doubtless aware that Dmitri wanted Alvin far away as fast as possible, but his normally authoritative three-fold voice was muffled by the mask he wore. Most Souls of One wore them to hide their identical faces, something Dmitri found more unsettling than the sight of three – or even five or six – identical people moving in perfect synchronization, but Dmitri had encouraged Mons to stop wearing it over the last year, with some success. Now it was back and he wasn’t sure why.

“In point of fact,” Mons continued, his voice dropping to more normal conversation levels as he got closer to them, “we’re going to the Second Front next, and we may be there for some time. You’d best deliver your greetings yourself.”

“The Second Front?” Dmitri and Alvin asked, for once in sync on something.

“Indeed.” Even with his face hidden Dmitri could tell Mons was smiling. “We’re going off the beaten path for a while. A suitably grand task for our last outing together, don’t you think?”

——–

“Doyen Arianna Kahlenbeck?”

Terra Eternal’s only current female doyen paused in the middle of her latest case summary, surprised to find there was someone in the vacant office she’d borrowed. As was her want she hadn’t really told anyone she was commandeering it, just sort of set up camp there for the duration of her stay on world, so anyone finding it in the first place was a sizable achievement. And this fellow, well, his just getting into the building must have taken a lot of effort.

He wasn’t wearing the steel blue of the architects, nor the bronze of the cartographers or the white of the channelers. In fact, he wore a weathered brown coat, pleated pants of a lighter shade of the same color and a white garment that looked almost like a robe in place of a shirt. He had long, sandy hair and thin, sensitive looking hands that were reaching into his coat to pull out a small brown envelope. He looked nothing if not out of place.

“I’m Doyen Kahlenbeck,” Arianna said, setting her pen aside and leaning back in her chair. If this fellow wanted to eschew ceremony she’d go along with him, at least to a certain extent. “Who are you?”

“You’re handling the Venger Bar-Luzon case, correct?” The man asked, ignoring her question.

Arianna decided to continue the trend and parried that question with yet another. “Who?”

The man froze for a second, envelope not quite free from in his jacket, a comically quizzical look frozen on his face. “You’re not looking for Venger Bar-Luzon?”

Arianna leaned forward. “I wasn’t before. Should I be?”

“Just to be sure…” He glanced around the room once. “This is Terra Rasa, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Arianna said slowly, waiting for some sign that all this was going somewhere.

But the man just shoved his envelope back into his coat and fished around for a second before pulling out a long scroll that he partially unrolled and looked over, muttering, “I’m not sure this scenario was covered…”

Patience now exhausted, Arianna got to her feet and braced her hands on the borrowed desk. “Look here, you, I don’t know what your game is but you’re wasting my time and I don’t appreciate it.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, his attention still on the scroll he was reading over. “I was told you handle most problems that creep up here on Terra Rasa but I guess they handed this one off to one of the other doyen. Not sure which one, though. At least there’s only four others to deal with.”

The cavalier way of ignoring her was so out of place she couldn’t really do much besides blink in surprise. Which was exactly how long it took the man to vanish from the room.

Arianna looked around the room once, a weird and very uncomfortable feeling working its way down the back of her spine. She went to the door and yanked it open, startling the members of her Blade as they kept watch in the hallway. She glanced at Lambert, the regulus, and said, “Did you see anyone come in here recently?”

“No, my doyen,” he answered immediately. “Did you need someone specific?”

“Nevermind.” She thought it over for a minute. “Do you know the name Venger Bar-Luzen?”

“No, my doyen. Does it have anything to do with the trade dispute we’re working on?”

She thought it over for a moment. “I really don’t know. But I’d love it if you found out.”

Lambert nodded immediately. “Of course, my doyen.”

——–

“Terra Rasa is the perfect place for Bar-Luzon to hide if you ask me,” Dmitri said, absently cutting his meat into manageable chunks while keeping an eye out on the dining hall around them. He didn’t like staying in a public house but there hadn’t been room for four people in the local channeler barracks and he didn’t want to divide his forces on this job.

“I really don’t follow your logic on this one, my doyen,” Mons said, talking with only one voice so the other two could eat.

For a brief second Dmitri envied his friend. The local food was unusual but tasty and Mons had gone all out, getting three different meals to experience. But that wasn’t why they were there. “It’s a good hiding spot because it’s the first Terra we found with not native population. Everyone here is an immigrant, so while there’s something like a local culture it’s not a very strong one yet and outsiders won’t stand out as much. By the same token, it’s been settled long enough for there to be a few large cities to blend into. He could be anywhere.”

“Do you want me to send to the local architects and see if the local patrols have heard anything?” Mons asked. “Try and recruit some honest to goodness lawmen?”

“I’m not sure.” Dmitri stared down at the chunks of tangy meat and green vegetables on his plate, trying to work out how he should approach the problem. “Leading a manhunt isn’t what they prepare you for, you know. We’re supposed to hammer out jurisdictional conflicts or settle internal disputes, not find rogue agents.”

Mons just grunted and continued to eat. For a while that was all either men did.

Finally, Dmitri said, “Did you know him?”

“Venger Bar-Luzon?” The question was such a transparent play for time that Dmitri ignored it and just waited for Mons to answer. Which he did, eventually. “Even if we weren’t from different generations there’s a lot of differences in how you train Souls of One dependent on how many you have. Groups of three, five and six all go through different programs.”

“And a group of twelve probably requires a custom built curriculum.”

Mons laughed, almost spraying soup all over the table. “A Hex of One is bad enough. But doubling that to a Parliament? Surely you’re joking.”

“We grew up together,” Dmitri said softly, poking at his food and surprised to find he had little appetite. “Mons, I’ll tell you a secret. I know you Souls of One aren’t really one person, no matter how much you project that idea or even believe it yourselves. I can tell you apart.”

He jabbed at the Mons all the way to his left. “Like you. Whenever just one of you talks, you’re the one who does it. You can switch up your gear as much as you like, you can even fool people who have known you casually for a long time. But I see through you. You’re more like closely knit brothers who have been taught to coordinate telepathically than a single person.”

Mons fidgeted for a second before asking, “Is this all going somewhere?”

“I was just wondering if maybe we got this job because of you. Could you do what he did?”

Mons just stared off in three different directions for a moment, none of his pairs of eyes really focused on anything. Finally he said, “I don’t think any one of us could run off and abandon the others, no. In fact, I met a Hand of One once. It only had four in it.”

Dmitri suppressed a snort. “A Hand is five people, Mons. By definition.”

“But a Soul of One is a person who has been born the same on multiple worlds,” Mons pointed out, his attention back in the present. “If one of them dies you cannot simply send out for a replacement. No such person exists.”

Dmitri paused mid chew, the implications of that beginning to dawn on him. “What happened to that Hand, Mons?”

“It ceased to exist. When one of them died they ceased to be a whole person, Dmitri. It happened a lot in the early days, when Souls of One were a new thing that no one really understood. These days it happens less, in part because they warn us of the danger and try to prepare us to work around it.” Mon shook his head. “But to just cut out four fifths of your mind and walk away from it? I can’t imagine a sane person who would do that.”

Dmitri drummed his fingers on the table top for a minute, figuring that out. “So you think we’re looking for a madman?”

“I think it’s certainly a possibility.”

“Well. At least it’s a place to start.” After that the rest of the meal passed in silence. But it wasn’t the comfortable sort.

——–

The viewing crystal gave only a fair idea of what a person looked like, on par with a poor quality photocapture but without even a third dimension to give it depth. Still, Arianna could tell enough of the expression of the man on the other end to know he was telling the truth. That wasn’t a good thing, though.

“You’re telling me you have no idea where the Hand of Venger Bar-Luzon is?”

“No, my doyen,” the man said, an undercurrent of panic in his voice suggesting he knew how bad this situation was. “Uh… one of him went missing a month and a half ago. We haven’t been able to locate him anywhere on Terra Indissolute. We’ve started looking for him elsewhere but… there have been difficulties. We even filed a request with the Office of the Doyen two weeks back. The rest of the Hand went into seclusion until he returned. When you first contacted us we summoned him but… he wasn’t there.”

“You filed a request with the office?” That interested her. Maybe she was talking to the wrong people. “Thank you for your time, Palatinus.”

“Of course, my-” She tapped the top of the crystal and it went dark and silent before he could finish. Tracking down who Bar-Luzon was had been the work of three days and Arianna had a feeling she didn’t have a lot of time left for niceties. Too many people had no idea what was going on, herself included. It made her nervous…

——–

The file clerks Dmitri had met generally fell into one of two categories: Those eager to impress you and move on to a better job or those who loved their files and thought of others pawing through them as some kind of sacrilege. The local law architect clerk fell into the later category. Clerk – Dmitri thought of it as his name and didn’t think the man would mind – had insisted on an entire orientation tour, a not-so-brief overview of the filing system and a lecture on the importance of not misplacing valuable files.

After all that Clerk had finally accepted his request to search the records personally only when Dmitri hinted that he was willing and able to demote the other man all the way down to dustman if things didn’t hurry along. Hopefully Mons was fairing better finding a patrol squad who could put them in contact with the local snitches and rumor mongers.

“These are the vagrancy files and associated records,” Clerk said, stopping by a rather large scroll rack. “Most recent files on the top, older files towards the bottom. You can read them at that table over there.”

“Thank you,” Dmitri said, dismissing him with a gesture. “You’ve been most helpful.”

Oblivious to the sarcasm in Dmitri’s voice, Clerk nodded and headed back towards his desk at the front of the room. Dmitri started pawing through the files. Anything older than a couple of weeks wasn’t of interest to him so most of what he needed was on the top shelf. He collected a handful of the older ones and headed to the table.

Vagrancy reports were not exciting reading but it was important and he managed to plow through five or six of them in the next hour. He was deep into his seventh file, a much more interesting tale of a homeless man who seemed to know the back alleys much better than the local patrols and never quite got caught when they went to grab him, when a voice asked him, “Doyen Dostoyevsky? On the Bar-Luzon case?”

“That’s me,” Dmitri said, attention still mostly on the scroll he was reading.

“Fourth time’s the charm,” the voice said. A hand placed a brown envelope on the table next to him.

“Thank you.” He looked up to see who had brought the message but there was no one there.

——–

“…And that’s why we chose to give the matter to Doyen Dostoyevsky.”

Arianna rubbed her hands together absently, studying the older man in the viewing crystal for any clue what he thought of all this. As usual, his expression gave away nothing. “Well that does sound like a mess, Director Rand. But looking at the description and photocaptures you’ve provided Bar-Luzon isn’t the man who visited me last week. Do you have any idea who he was?”

“No.” Director Rand was the man who picked and chose what problems warranted the attention of the Doyen and which would simply have to languish in bureaucratic limbo until someone found a good solution to them. As a former doyen himself, Rand understood the stakes and frustrations of the job, and he did his best to keep the doyen abreast of situations that might be relevant to their jobs. The years of hard work showed on his face, never more so than when he was frustrated like he was just then. “I do know that at least one other doyen has run into someone matching that description. Doyen Tan reported meeting a similar man asking the same question two days ago. I think it’s time I tried talking to the others.”

“Lovely. Best of luck with that.” Doyen had a lot of autonomy in their jobs. They weren’t required to check in with their central office until they finished an assignment. That made keeping track of them hard and Arianna didn’t envy Rand the task of trying to find the other two. Of course, Dostoyevsky was apparently somewhere on Terra Rasa. But that was still a whole world to search. “I’ll tell you what, Director Rand, why don’t I see if I can help you find Doyen Dostoyevsky while you try and track down the other two?”

“I would appreciate that, Doyen Kahlenbeck.”

——–

The address was a small building, well appointed, located on the far eastern side of Petrograd, near the river. It looked more like a former bakery than a hideout. What was certain was that Dmitri would probably not have found it even had he searched the architect files for months. The only way he could have begun to suspect Venger Bar-Luzon was there was the note he had gotten. That in itself was suspicious.

Mons was setting up a cordon outside the building with a hand’s worth of the local architects, all that they’d been able to gather on short notice, while Dmitri headed in to confirm whether this was, in fact, the hiding place of a runaway Soul of One or just some bizarre joke.

In complete defiance of his expectations Dmitri had his answer almost as soon as he stepped through the door.

Venger Bar-Luzon was sitting at a table in the middle of the large room that took up much of the ground floor. A counter, probably for merchandise back when the building was still a shop, ran along the left wall and a bunch of other tables and chairs were stacked on the right. Venger stood up at the table and offered a formal bow. “I greet you, my doyen. I am Venger Bar-Luzon. May all your paths run smooth and peacefully.”

As his greeting implied, Venger wore the bronze robes of a cartographer, a specialist in Locke’s methods of travelling across worlds and the horizon. That was a problem in itself. Travelling worlds required huge amounts of magic and cartographer robes were mostly just cleverly disguised wells of magic reserves. With the right matrices to channel it through even an untrained combatant could be dangerous. Dmitri decided to play it safe until he had a better idea what Venger’s game was. So he fell back on formality. “I am Dmitri Dostoyevsky, Doyen of Terra Eternal. I greet you on behalf of myself and my brothers and my father and his brothers.”

Venger’s eyes widened ever so slightly. “I wasn’t aware that the Throneworlds had appointed a seventh son of a seventh son as doyen.”

Dmitri laughed in response, a short, sharp bark of pure surprise. “Of all the times for that greeting to be recognized it would be now. Only one in a hundred people even know what that means. I’m impressed, Bar-Luzon.”

“And I’m in trouble.” Venger slammed his hand down on the table, a spell matrix that Dmitri hadn’t been able to see from his angle suddenly lit up at the same time Venger yelled, “Abort! Siphon to dexter!”

The next ninety seconds went by in a blur. Dmitri snapped to his left, which was Venger’s right, just in time to see three heads popping up over the lip of the counter. Three pairs of hands were already setting a syphon, a powerful magic draining matrix, with the opening of the V shape pointed towards him. It was more than enough to drain the average magic supply of a person down to nothing in a minute but then, Dmitri was no average person so that wasn’t what bothered him. He didn’t have time to work out what was bothering him because he was too busy lunging towards the table, hands scything counter to Venger’s matrix, activating the most logical countermatrix he was carrying. That was his biggest mistake, in hindsight.

Just because Venger wore the robes of a cartographer didn’t mean he didn’t know anything about combat. Dmitri had just walked into a trap and it sprang out from under the tables and chairs along the right hand wall in the form of six young girls who caught him in a flexible glassweb matrix, a spell that bent like spiderweb when you pressed against it and, if you weren’t careful, would tear you to ribbons with its scything slivers of magic.

Dmitri managed to pull back from the glassweb before it cut him. His own spell, a simple bulwark matrix intended to slam Venger into the wall behind him and halt his mischief, wouldn’t do much of anything against a glassweb, except maybe get cut to pieces. So he changed tactics and, not even bothering to recapture the magic he’d put into building his bulwark already, set his own syphon.

How effective a spell matrix is was depended on a lot of factors. How well magic meshed with the material the matrix was made out of, how much energy was pumped into it and whether or not the magic energy would burn out the materials the matrix was built out of. There was more to it than that, but those were the essentials.

Most spell matrices were built out of metal, since it was easy to mold into the necessary shapes and readily available. But the human body was a kind of spell matrix itself, containing many of the basic shapes and patterns that magic clung to. Most people were a less effective matrix for magic than metal.

But then, most people were not the seventh son of a seventh son.

Most people could not rip apart a glassweb matrix just by forming a syphon with one hand, much less syphon down the transparent wall of energy a bulwark consisted of, even if it was half formed. Dmitri managed all that and had the presence of mind to pull out his core tap with his free hand, cranking it all the way open and releasing the full force of its magic on the room. The glowing rectangle and triangles glyph that represented the Eternal Throne snapped into existence above it and raw magic flooded the room, snapping against the magic sails in Dmitri’s and Venger’s clothes, energizing a half a dozen spell matrices that had been hidden around the room and probably blowing out ever other spell matrix in the neighborhood that wasn’t combat rated.

Three things happened at once. First, Dmitri realized what had bothered him a moment before. Both the ambush from behind the counter and the one from in the tables had been executed by children. And not just any children, but children with identical features moving with a familiar kind of eerie synchronization. They were moving as two different Souls of One, not nine separate people.

Second, with a strobe of light and a gut-wrenching twist the full Hand of Venger Bar-Luzon teleported into the room. Already they were preparing an escape spell. It was a canny move, since doyen relied on the Throneworlds for transport – one of the few checks on their power was a prohibition against carrying teleportation or horizon crossing matrices.

Third, one of the six girls bit him on the wrist and he dropped his core tap. Then another kicked it across the room towards Venger. Unfortunately for her it a loose board in the floor and skittered towards the tables along the wall rather than to Venger himself.

For a second Dmitri stood paralyzed. Venger’s matrix already encompassed most of the room, with four of the six girls and the three boys already caught in its turns. But the girl who had bitten him was scrambling after the core tap and Dmitri couldn’t run the risk that she’d grab it and the whole group would still get away. Rather than break Venger’s teleportation matrix he dropped a bulwark in front of the girl and dove past her, coming up with the core tap just as the teleportation matrix finished and the whole group vanished.

——–

Arianna looked up at the younger man. She’d never been very good with ages but she was guessing Doyen Dostoyevsky couldn’t be more than twenty – and she seriously doubted he was that. It showed in a lot of ways but the biggest was how much trouble he was having hiding his dejection. He’d let Bar-Luzon get away and caused some serious damage to the neighborhood in the process. Now, to top it off, he was apologizing to the doyen who’s territory he was intruding on. She could tell how much each and every one of those facts ate at him.

It would have been cute if the situation wasn’t so serious.

“I’m starting to think that this was a trap of some sort,” Dmitri was saying. “I think he meant to lure you to that empty shop with his note then steal your core tap.”

“That would fit with his pattern in the last few weeks,” Arianna admitted. “He’s kidnapped at least two Souls of One in training, from what you saw, but when the folks on Indissolute went looking for him they found at least six trainee Souls missing. Three blades, a hand and two hexes.”

Dmitri whistled. “That’s a lot of potential, right there. Even if its not fully trained. Add in a core tap as a power source and you could cause some real damage. We should try and-“

“No.” That came from both Lambert and Dmitri’s Blade of One.

“This is no longer the kind of thing that falls under the Doyen’s purview,” Lambert continued. “Theft of strategic resources and everything else that goes with it is squarely the responsibility of the channelers and the Throne of Vesuvius. We’ll file a report with them and let them handle it.”

Dmitri gave Arianna a sympathetic look. “New blade?”

“We’ve been together a month,” she confirmed.

“I sympathize. Mons is swapping out after this job.” He glanced at his blade. “But first, I really think following Bar-Luzon is a part of my mandate. Just because I didn’t catch him here on Terra Rasa doesn’t mean I shouldn’t follow him.”

“But following him gives him another chance to steal your core tap,” the blade replied. “And this time he’ll be prepared to deal with someone of your abilities. No. We’re done here. Regulus Lambert is correct. Leave this to the Vesuvians. It’s time to report back to the Director.”

Arianna smiled inwardly. All doyen had to be a little bit idealistic to do what they did. But as time wore on it was easy to loose the enthusiasm one started off with. Hopefully Dmitri wouldn’t loose his. “You’ve got a good blade right now, Doyen Dostoyevsky. Listen to him, even if it’s for the last time.”

Dmitri sighed and nodded. “I suppose I should.”

“Do you know who your replacement is?” She asked.

“I don’t.”

“I do,” Mons said, then hurried through the rest before he could be cut off. “At least who the blade’s regulus is, since you’re not getting a Blade of One again. You should know too, so you can start thinking of how to deal with him. His name is Oscar y-Santos.”

Once again with comical straightforwardness Dmitri’s expression morphed from annoyance at Mons, to shock, to resigned acceptance. “Of course it is. That’s just the perfect end to the perfect day, isn’t it?”

Fiction Index

(Okay, so this post is really late. A few weeks ago I was on vacation and ever since I’ve gotten back I’ve been helping out as a replacement in a theater production with some friends. Between going to rehearsals and frantically memorizing my lines, most all of my free time has been shot and I haven’t been able to write much. I’m lagging behind where I want to be and I don’t want to rush things.

I delayed this post because this story marks a turning point in the development of Dmitri’s character, as well as the things that are going on in this fiction setting as a whole and I wanted to do it right. I think I mostly succeeded in that. Next week we go back to Project Sumter for another short story. After that I had originally planned to plunge straight into Thunder Clap, the third and final book in the story arc I’ve been working on.

The thing is, I’ve not done some of the outlining I wanted to do and I’m planning a vacation with family the weekend of August 11th. So the new plan is to take a week between “Moroccan Heat”, next week’s short story and Thunder Clap, so that I can try and get my feet under me again. It’s my hope that all other content on the blog will go forward as planned, so the 11th will be the only blank spot in the calendar. Life is a mess and plans, they will be achanging. Thanks for your understanding.

Nate)

Language, Language

If you’ve read this Monday’s short story you may have noticed that Dmitri uses the term “Palatinus” to refer to the high ranking official he turns his case over to once his work is done. I have to admit, I was leery of using this term for reasons that are at once very simple and very complex. But before I can talk about that, I need to step back and admit something about the way Dmitri talks and his home in Terra Eternal.

If you’ve read the two stories I’ve done on Dmitri – Monday’s and this one from last summer – along with the Terra Eternal world building posts – here and here – you’ve probably realized that Terra Eternal speaks a language with heavy Latin influences. I made this choice for very simple reasons. Generally, when you’re telling a story, it’s best to give the audience what they expect.

Yeah, sure, you can defy expectations but if its not something that’s central to your story then your failure to live up to them will just be a distraction. Popular culture today associates Latin with magic and fantasy, elements that are central to the ethos of Terra Eternal. Yes, I could have made up a bunch of words of magic, people do that all the time when building fantasy worlds. But part of the schtick is that Terra Eternal isn’t a totally different world, it’s another version of our world. The Endless Horizons are really just echoes of the same world with fundamentally similar people in superficially different circumstances. It’s logical that the languages would be similar as well.

In fact, Sophers that study language in Terra Eternal work by this principle. All the languages they’ve encountered fall into one of sixteen different groups based on the basic rules of sound and grammar involved. These groups are called phonemes (a real word I’ve given a different meaning, another part of writing in this setting) and most public officials like Dmitri understand the basics of at least two of them – their native phoneme and the First phoneme, which is the Latin equivalent of the Throneworlds. The only things that really vary from world to world is vocabulary and pronunciation. Barriers, to be sure, but not as insurmountable as entire different languages.

This is why terms like Regulus, Praetorian and Century are scattered liberally through stories about Terra Eternal. While an empire that touches all or part of fifty two worlds is bound to wind up with a melting pot of a language, and Terra Eternal has stolen a plethora of terms from other cultures as they were assimilated, the bones of the First phoneme is Latin in nature.

That brings me to palatines. I’ve mentioned once or twice that I work in a Genealogy department and one category of records we have is an index of palatines who came to America. When I started there I’d never heard the term before but I quickly learned from context that palatines were some kind of high born people and the word had a good ring to it, so when I started building Terra Eternal I was thinking of using it as a term for a high ranking official. But I wasn’t sure what kind of official they should be so I started doing some research into the term and I discovered I had heard the word before, just with a different pronunciation.

You see, most fantasy geeks would spell it paladin.

Palatines were officials in many European courts, but the most powerful of them was probably Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire. Some poet wrote a verse about who twelve of these palatines, the Peers of the Realm, and their great feats upholding the empire and this later became the archetype for the holy warrior, made mighty by his devotion to truth, justice and righteousness. I’m not sure whether the spelling was changed deliberately or accidentally but over time this particular meaning became associated with the spelling paladin until Gary Gygax basically enshrined it with his Dungeons and Dragons role playing game.

So what’s this all mean?

Basically, I’d adopted a linguistic conceit, that the powerful, magic-driven culture spoke a Latin-based language because it was what the audience would tend to expect. But the word palatine was closely associated with the idea of holy warriors by that same audience and that was a concept I wanted to avoid focusing on with Terra Eternal. On the flip side, palatine was a real word with concrete meaning and that’s a resource that shouldn’t be quickly cast aside. I wanted most of the basic social structure of Terra Eternal, the empire’s superstructure if not the local governments, to have Latin terminology and palatine was a part of that. But I didn’t want to give false impressions either – the palatines are just high level bureaucrats, not holy warriors.

Looking back on it the answer should have been obvious but as is so often the case it took me a while to get there. The actual Latin word is palatinus, which is different enough from paladin that I didn’t think confusion was likely. And that is how the character of Palatinus Sollenberg came to have his title and I came to wish that I’d chosen some other language for the basis of an interdimensional empire.

Like sign language.

The lesson for today? Worldbuilding has a lot more to it than you’d ever expect.

Cool Things: Azumanga Daioh

So we’ve covered gunslingers in outer space and Meiji era romantic swordsmen, what remains to give a full bodied, even handed overview of manga and anime, this month’s focus here at Nate Chen Publications? Oh, yes, of course.

High school.

Now many Americans have fond memories of their high school days. But in our culture college is probably the more important educational milestone. While fewer people go to college, it is where a lot of people seem to form their first meaningful lifetime relationships outside of their birth families. Roommates, sports teams, fraternity or sorority friends or just people who took the same classes you did, college is where you meet them. Sure, you have some friends from high school who might stick around, if you’re lucky. But for the most part, in America, college is where independence really starts and tends to be our high water mark for growing up.

In Japan, it’s high school. College admission exams are exponentially more difficult there, often consuming most of a student’s free time in their last year of high school so, at least in pop culture, the first two years become a frantic rush to accumulate experiences and meet those people sharing your interests. Then you bond together and set your sites on a life path and work towards it as a group.

This theme is made so much of in Japanese pop culture that I have to conclude it’s what actually happens on at least a semi-regular basis. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to sell it so frequently. But the way it’s typically presented in Japanese pop culture is probably not the way it really is.

There is one work I’ve ready that has the ring of truth to it, though, and that’s Azumanga Diaoh by Azuma Kiyohiko.

If you’ve read/watched any manga/anime at all you know that the Japanese have a slightly higher tolerance for abnormal elements like superhuman martial arts, mind readers, spiritualists and the like in their entertainment and fusing these elements with high school is a very common approach to story telling. Azumanga Daioh is not that.

High school manga or anime are also considered a great format for stories of all out competition with sports teams or game clubs or even movie making groups doing all in their power to win a major competition before exams crash down and end their high school days. Azumanga Daioh isn’t that either.

Lastly, even in America we recognize the unique romantic atmosphere of high school. There’s cute members of the opposite sex all over the place to be chased, gossiped about and rejected by. The Japanese are just as fine writing high school romances as Americans. But Azumanga Daioh doesn’t waste its time with romance.

Azumanga Daioh is what’s known as a slice-of-life drama. It follows its central characters around as they arrive in high school, get to know each other, do funny, stupid or otherwise entertaining things and eventually graduate.

I know, I know. This sounds boring. Somehow, it isn’t.

I really wish I could explain this manga better. It’s roughly the equivalent to a comic strip, what’s called “4-koma” in Japan. Most of the stories are told in a series of four panels that serve to basically tell a joke. But in each of those jokes a surprising amount of character development goes on.

This is significant since Azumanga Daioh (and slice-of-life in general) is not a sitcom. The genre is driven by its characters and not the situation they are in. What Kiyohiko does is he builds a set of very understandable, deep and relatable characters and then lets us live with them for three years until they graduate (high schools in Japane have a 3 year curriculum spanning 10th to 12th grade, just one of many differences between Japanese education and the U.S.) By the end we really feel like people like Osaka, Chiyo and Sakaki really were our classmates. That’s a particularly impressive achievement if, like me, you were homeschooled…

The Japanese pop culture obsession with high school may not always make sense to Western readers. But it is that very fact that makes Azumanga Daioh a great example of it for people dipping their toes into manga and anime. It seems as if this is what they’re really expecting to get, what they really want out of high school. It’s an idealized take on the formative years of young people, from the perspective of Japanese culture.

Plus it’s consistently funny, occasionally heart touching and not that hard to get a handle on. Maybe saying it’s a story about girls who go to school for three years, become fast friends and graduate to move on to bigger things doesn’t inspire you. But all dreams need foundations. And, in a very real way, that’s what Azumanga Daioh is – a foundation for bigger things.

The Bear, the Doyen and the Portal (Pt. 2)

(Part One here.)

The Alligecko shot up the side of the dome, his aura clinging to the wall much like the lizard he took half his name from. Momma Bear took the direct route, the dull rustic glow of her aura quickly building up into the form of a fifteen foot tall bear that leaped straight from one level of the spiral ramp to the next, heading straight towards the center of the room and the crackling portal there.

Unfortunately that left Galen alone at the bottom of the ramp – a ramp that he now realized was much higher than the outside of the building suggested. The inside of the building occupied at least twice the volume of the outside, which made about as much sense as everything else that had happened in the last few months. Galen gave it a philosophical shrug and went on.

With nothing but a voice in his head to carry him on his way he had no choice but to take the long way around and go up the ramp in a more normal fashion. Galen pelted up at top speed but, after all that time cooped up in a tent with no real exercise he wasn’t in the best shape of his life. Not that the best shape of his life was anything to write home about. Galen was out of breath before he was even half way to the top where the portal was located, cursing whatever brilliant mind had decided that they had to make getting up to the level of the portal so difficult.

The ramp wasn’t that long, the real problem was how out of shape Galen had gotten combined with all the walking of the past two days. He just didn’t have the stamina to go for long. About half way up the ramp he started wheezing and slowed to a walk, splitting his attention between gasping for breath and watching the action unfold on the platform by the portal.

The flagstones beneath his feet were shot through with metallic tracery in patterns that looked vaguely familiar. All sharp edges and sudden corners but built out of curving lines it looked kind of like a circuit board that had been partly melted like a blow torch. The patterns nagged at the edge of his mind like-

Infinite uniqueness in infinite regression.

-like fractals. That was it.

A spear crashing onto the ramp a few feet ahead and bouncing away towards the wall of the building got his attention back on the portal up ahead. Momma Bear had gotten up there only to be stopped in a cloud of the shards of light the portal guard wielded. It looked like she couldn’t take a step forward without getting sliced by them and, even as Galen watched, a trio of larger panes of energy slashed across her extended arm of her aura. The energy lost cohesion and then, to Galen’s amazement, seemed to flow into the blades of light.

For a brief second Galen got a glimpse of a spiderweb of lines connecting the shards of energy and the blonde man at the center of the vortex they formed, the entire matrix forming a fractal pattern much like that beneath his feet.

Wind. Wind on windows wielded by one beyond weariness.

It was weird that the voice was so chatty at such a lousy time but that didn’t bother him nearly as much as the bad attempts at alliteration.

Momma Bear looked like she was going to end up on the ropes but just as she started to give ground the ceiling above them shifted subtly and the Alligecko dropped down from it, teeth flashing. There was a shout from down by the door and the guard reacted fast enough to swing his cloud of light slivers up between himself and the Alligecko. The barrier bent in slow motion, like a sheet of plastic, giving the guard enough time to roll out of the way.

Galen looked towards the shout and saw three new men, all dressed in the ubiquitous white coats and wearing masks but armed with a grab bag of weaponry, one with a pair of hook swords, one with a spear and one with the heavy gauntlets, making their way up the ramp behind him. As he watched the one with the hooks reached up and snagged them on the next tier of the ramp then used them to half drag, half walk up the wall and cut a huge loop of his trip. Then he turned around and held one hook down for the one with gauntlets, who grabbed it with one hand and the third man with the other. In less time than it took to tell all three were up on the next level of the ramp and preparing to repeat the procedure.

Thrice born.

That didn’t mean anything to Galen but he did realize that the three of them were probably going to cut him off if he didn’t do something about it. Drawing on reserves he didn’t know he had, Galen managed to get up to the third section of the ramp before the masked trio were ready to start trying to climb it. As the hook user snagged his weapon over the lip of the ramp at his feet Galen gave it a swift kick. Since the masked guard had been in the process of starting up the wall at the same time he wound up falling unceremoniously on his back side.

Just as Galen was congratulating himself the one with the gauntlets flicked his hands out and made a motion like he was twisting a doorknob. The weird riot of lines and shards of light flickered between them for a split second, then the light sprang forward like a striking snake.

“Skata,” Galen whispered.

The curse had barely left his lips when the torrent of light hit him. Or rather, it broke on the sides of a bubble that sprang into existence as soon as the curse was spoken.

Of course being in a little bubble of light didn’t completely void the laws of physics. That would have been too convenient. Instead of knocking him flat the impact knocked him up the ramp like a stray ball. On the bright side he was close to the top and skidding in his barrier brought him almost all the way to the top. The floor of the portal platform was at waist height when the shield dissolved and deposited him unceremoniously on the ground again. He’d have to figure out what the heck was going on with that.

In the mean time he needed to get through the portal and out of trouble fast. Galen jumped up onto the platform and started towards the center, ducking under the swaying tail of the Alligecko before he even realized he’d heard it coming, rather than seen it. Beyond them the guard was wrestling with Momma Bear.

To Galen’s amazement the massive ursine aura she took her name and power from had shrunk until it was barely larger than she was, and it had grown transparent enough that he could see her through its outsides. The Alligecko’s tail swung back and slammed into the matrix of lines and shards of light that stood between him and the guard but the defensive wall just bent and popped back into shape. In the mean time energy kept draining out of Momma’s aura, trickling out in wisps and dribbles before being absorbed into a whirling collection of glowing orbs that swirled around the guard’s left hand.

On a hunch Galen yelled, “Charon take him!”

It was the only directed curse he could think of at the moment but it worked. As the words left his mouth a river of power formed, rushing towards the guard and slipping through the cracks in his wirework wall with almost no resistance. It swept him up and dashed him to the ground, which was good. It also hit Momma Bear and swept her down as well, which wasn’t quite what he’d been hoping for.

The weird mess of light and lines that had been between them broke up as the guard went down and the Alligecko shifted as if to go and grab Momma Bear but almost as soon as he did the three masked guards were up on the platform. The first guard made to get to his feet but Momma tripped him and yelled, “Go through! I’ll get back!”

Galen started to protest but the Alligecko grabbed him with his tail and dashed towards the portal. When the giant reptilian aura came into contact with the tear in reality there was a moment of resistance, as if it didn’t want to let the two of them through. For a split second Galen saw what looked like an identical room on the other side then suddenly the portal seemed to spasm, folding in gut wrenching ways, and the two of them spilled through the portal into a back alley that looked a lot more like home than anywhere he’d been in months. The Alligecko’s aura faded almost as soon as they were through.

Galen wound up landing hard in an undignified heap so he wasn’t sure, but it didn’t seem like the Alligecko even lost his feet. All Galen knew for sure was that the other man was dragging him to his feet almost immediately. “Welcome home,” the Alligecko said, dusting him off. “What do you think?”

“Somehow,” Galen said, catching his breath, “this is not what how I expected heroes to start out.”

The other man just laughed.

——–

“Did you work out where the portal led after it was diverted?”

“Yes, my Doyen. Or at least, we know what the general characteristics were, if we wanted to cross the horizon there again.”

The cartographer handed Dmitri a scroll with the exact details written on it in the usual notation then folded his hands behind his back. To his left, the Regulus for the instillation cleared his throat. “Forgive me, my doyen, but are we sure that the information is trustworthy?”

“I had ben-Gideon keeping an eye on the recording team right up until the moment the intruders arrived,” Dmitri said absently, peering over the information on the scroll. “If he didn’t notice any tampering I’m sure there wasn’t any. I have every confidence in the accuracy of this information. And it looks like they went to a sleeping world – no functional magic there at all.”

“That was our conclusion as well, my doyen,” the cartographer said, pulling a small book out of the bronze folds of his robe. “In addition, their world matrix suggests that-“

“Thank you, but I was only really interested in the magic potential of their destination.” Dmitri rolled the scroll and handed it back to the cartographer. “Now. We’ve clearly determined that the portal was being used by outsiders, not people from the camp. It seems to me that the cartographers and the Throne of Locke have little to gain by sending total strangers there repeatedly.”

He took a moment to look up at the ceiling of the portal chamber, now much lower since the energy of the portal didn’t warp the shape of the room. “Particularly since the portal collapses every time it’s used this way and takes them a week to reset. Nor do I see any reason for the guards to be complicit in sending small groups of total strangers to a world without magic as part of some strange plan to annex it into the empire. Terra Eternal hasn’t annexed anything in almost a century and we’re better for it, plus a world without magic is of very little benefit to us. Are there any objections to that assessment?”

An uncomfortable look passed between the cartographer and the guard captain. Finally they both said, “No, my doyen.”

“Excellent. Then I’ll strike your mutual accusations of treason from the records and pass a recommendation up to Palatinus Sollenburg to do something to tighten security even more.” Dmitri gave the ramp beside him a rueful kick. “You can’t be calling in specialized forces every time something goes wrong in a portal chamber, after all. Someone should look into toning down the magic sapping properties of these places.”

“I notice you and the intruders did just fine,” the guard captain said suspiciously.

Dmitri held up the pendant that doubled as his power source and badge of office. “Just a reminder but I have a full strength core tap. You’re not going to be able to siphon off all the power here with just a portal chamber. And our friends were using bruja magic. No telling what kind of results that will have. Speaking of which, where is our prisoner?”

“Your Blade of One has her over there,” the cartographer said, nodding towards the wall.

“Thank you for your time, gentlemen,” Dmitri said, bowing slightly with his hands spread slightly and palms out. The two men returned the gesture, bowing much deeper, and waited until their doyen turned away before departing themselves. Dmitri found Solomon ben-Gideon about half way around the circumference of the room standing guard over the attractive, powerfully built woman he’d found under the spectral bear he’d fought with earlier. At some point they’d decided it was more expedient to slap irons on her than just hold her down all the time so now her wrists and ankles were chained together in front of her, giving her an almost piteous look. The fierce defiance in her expression kept Dmitri from feeling any pity, however. That and the fact that she’d tried to twist his head off like a lid.

As soon as he got up to them Mons handed him a necklace of flat silver plates and said, “She was carrying this. It seemed to serve as a magic reserve. Plus,” here he gestured towards her hair, which was braided and pinned up in a number of loops behind her head, “this is a hair style that was popular among first and second rank cartographers at court a few years ago, favored for its storage capacity. We’ve siphoned off the stray magic and left it in storage here.”

“Excellent.” Dmitri examined the necklace for a moment. It was well crafted but didn’t have any of the markings you’d expect of an artifact crafted specifically for magic storage. Most likely the woman had owned it before and simply discovered it functioned as a magic reserve when she discovered magic. “What phoneme does she speak?”

“I can understand you,” the woman interjected. “Mostly.”

“Good! That saves trouble.” He knelt down beside her and looped the necklace back around her neck. “There. I return what’s yours to you. And to go with it, I add another present.”

He pulled a small black box out of one pocket and removed a pair of silver bracelets from it. Each one glowed as bright as a lantern. “Key.” Mons handed Dmitri the key to the shackles without protest and Dmitri unlocked the wrists, replacing them with the bracelets. As he slipped each one over the woman’s wrists he pressed on it until it shrunk and became skin tight. “Now. What’s your name?”

“Why do you care?” The woman countered.

Dmitri sighed. “Do you see the way these bracelets glow?”

“It’s hard not to.”

“It is, indeed.” Dmitri waved his hand at the domed room they were in. “This room, and most of the buildings in this camp, run of a very specific frequency of magic – you understand frequencies, yes?”

The woman snorted in exasperation. “Yes. We have them at home, too.”

“Everyone has them, the question is whether they understand them.” Dmitri tapped one bracelet to draw attention back to them. “These glow only when exposed to that frequency of magic. Which means they will glow like this whenever you come here again, or whenever you trespass on the territory of Terra Eternal again. You will be found. You will be executed. I ask for your name only because, should it prove necessary to execute you, I feel your grave marker should have a name on it.”

The woman’s expression lost some of it’s huffiness and became a bit more curious. “You’re very young to be so jaded.”

“I deal with the fallout of shortsighted hubris day in and day out. Believe it or not, people who shut down a major part of our infrastructure, making commerce difficult and potentially ruining our ability to react to trouble here are not the biggest problem I’ve seen in the last year.” He rocked back and looked her over once, matching curiosity with curiosity. “Let me just say that I know a woman of breeding when I meet one. Do you really want us to remember our first face to face meeting to end with a bad impression?”
“Maybe I’m just waiting for a rude boy to give me his name, first,” she countered.

Dmitri laughed and nudged Mons in the leg. “If it’s a full fledged introduction you want, then by all means I will give you the courtly treatement.”
The three men removed their masks and bowed in perfect sychronization. “May I present Dmitri Dostoyevski, Doyen of Terra Eternal, who speaks with the full authority of the Eternal Throne.”

Dmitri added a slight nod of the head and said, “I greet you in the name of my self and my brothers and my father and his brothers.”

Most people Dmitri had met failed to recognize the form of his greeting, or if they did they were too overawed by the title of doyen to give the correct counter greeting. His prisoner didn’t even pledge fealty to the Throneworlds but in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, she managed a better proper greeting than any he’d had in a long time. She rose, in spite of the chains on her ankles, and said, “I am Maria Berggolts, by blood, daughter of the Boyar of Italy. Though that is a title that means little, these days. I do apologize for any trouble I or my companions have given you.”

With great effort Dmitri managed to keep his expression neutral. He knew the natural-born-lord-of-all-Terra type, the Empire was full of them, but Maria didn’t quite fit the mold. For starters, you’d never find any of them breaking into secure military instillations wrapped in bruja magic and fighting with their bare claws.

“Unfortunately an apology isn’t enough to pardon your intrusion.” He rose to put himself back on eye level with the prisoner. “You remain banished from our territory on this world and all other fifty one words that swear fealty to the Throne of Terra Eternal.”

Her eyes widened. “Fifty one?

“Plus this one,” Dmitri added dryly. “For a total of fifty two. Anyone else we catch trying to use this portal as you did will be given the same warning and marked as you are. But do try and spread the warning around.”

He handed the scroll that detailed profile of her world to Mons, who took it and started looking it over while also removing the shackles from Maria’s feet. Dmitri wished, for just a moment, that he had six hands and three sets of eyes like his three-fold companion. But that came with its own problems. “In compensation for being our messenger to your world we’ll even give you a hand in getting home. But I recommend not coming here again. Your world built itself without magic. Best not to unbalance it adding too much.”

He turned to go and wrap things up, there was still paperwork to do and a report to write and no good place to do it in the portal chamber. But he stopped as Maria called out, “What do you mean don’t come here again?”

“Magic used in your world doesn’t go away, you know,” he said over his shoulder. “It just sort of disipates. And the kind of magic you find here – well, it’s not safe by itself and you don’t have the expertise to sterilize it. Leave it be, Maria Berggolts.”

He couldn’t see her expression from where he stood but her tone was slightly bitter. “Sometimes trading safety for the power to make a difference is the right choice. Surely you realized that when you sought out your position, doyen.”

Mons burst out laughing, three voices in eerie harmony. Dmitri turned to face them fully, annoyed, but Mons spoke before he could. “Doyen Dostoyevsky has never once in his life been weak.”

He blushed. “Thank you, Mons, that’s enough.” Mons just shot him a grin and slipped his mask back on. Dmitri looked at Maria once more and said, “Don’t assume power is a blessing. As often as not, it’s a curse greater than weakness.”

He stalked back towards the entrance, the last words he heard from Maria Berggolts echoing in his mind. “Jaded indeed.”

Part One
Fiction Index

Genrely Speaking: Alternate History

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking! Unless, of course, this is your first encounter with this running gag feature, in which case welcome! Genrely Speaking is where we look at genres, those loosely defined groups of literature that, in theory, frame any discussion about fiction we care to have. Since it’s important to understand what is meant by any given genre – or more specifically what any given person means when they talk about a genre – I’ve taken it upon myself to go through most of the genres I read and talk about and define them for your convenience!

Today’s subject is alternate history (or Harry Turtledove) a genre that skirts around scifi territory but really isn’t. While both are, in one way or another, about human ideas, alternate history does its best to stay within the bounds of, y’know, historical events. You can tell you’re dealing with historical fiction if the following things are present:

  1. A framework of familiar history. While some works of historical fiction can wind up very, very far afield (coughHarryTurtledovecough) they almost always begin with a distinct jumping off point, a moment in history that readers will already be familiar with or can become familiar with in fairly short order. For example, the novel Days of Infamy begins with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, while Guns of the South begins in 1864, just as the Confederacy’s decline began to pick up speed.
  2. One huge difference. This is the alternate part. In order to be alternate history, something must be different from what we knew. Some writers will try and find the smallest possible thing they can change and still make an interesting story but usually it’s pretty big. In Days of Infamy the Japanese follow up the bombing of Pearl Harbor with an invasion of Hawaii. Guns of the South tells how Robert E. Lee actually manages to win the war.
  3. A careful and thoughtful examination of what might actually result if these things had been changed. Some of these can grow to absurd lengths. The complete breakdown of Guns of the South ran through four books, including the original, at a minimum. I haven’t read all of them, trying to hunt down all of Harry Turtledove’s work is an mammoth task.

What are the weaknesses of alternate history? There’s a lot of them. It can come off as dry, particularly if the author is trying to run down and explore all or just most of the fallout of whatever his big idea is. Like many scifi or scifi related genres, alternate history is in danger of drowning under the weight of its own ideas. It shows how invested the author is in his story but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s well told.

Worse, it can drown in its own scope and size. Alternate history authors tend to look at the big and the bold, not the small and the mundane. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that once you change one thing about history the changes snowball until your reader can feel lost and confused. Particularly since people who read this genre tend to be familiar with history already… and thus the new details can get mixed up with the old.

Finally, you see a lot of historical figures creep up in alternate history. Which is fine, but if not meticulously researched and carefully done they can come of not feeling quite right, or worse like a caricature of themselves rather than a real person. Granted, that’s all you can really get from reading a book – but the audience shouldn’t feel like that while they’re reading the book

What are the strengths of alternate history? Well for starters “what if” is one of the most basic questions of human existence, right up there with “why”, and everyone likes to try and answer it. Furthermore, “what if such-and-such had happened” is one of the most common forms of that question, whether it’s in regard to something stupid we’ve done or something stupid someone else has done. So obviously stories that revolve around  just that question are going to interest us.

Secondly, there’s a lot of room for controversy in how a person chooses to answer that question. The people who read a lot of alternate history are also the type of people to have reams of facts to draw on to test the author’s conclusions and will get a kick out of doing it. And then getting on the Internet and rehashing it with everyone they know and thousands of people they don’t. And they will do this at length and in excruciating detail.

While some of them may need a job, a girlfriend or some other aspect of a life they are lacking, they are an impassion fanbase and there’s nothing that will propel the growth and maturation of a genre like an enthusiastic group of people telling you what you did right and what you did wrong (but mostly the latter.)

Alternate history, like many scifi based or scifi related genres, is still young. But it’s also rapidly expanding its appeal and maturing. Sure, sometimes the plots are flat or unbelievable but scifi was the same way a hundred years ago and now… well, now its at least not as bad as it was.

Alternate history is a genre to watch, not only because its fun and interesting, not only because it’s changing from a genre just starting out to a genre that is starting to demand a place of its own in literary circles, but because reading it makes people more interested in real history, and trying to figure out the details of what they just read. What was based on real history? What did the author make up? To answer those questions they’ll learn more about their own past and that can’t possibly be a bad thing.

Rurouni Kenshin

Manga is more than just a variation of comics – it’s a learning experience! A great example of this is Nobuhiro Watsuki’s classic Rurouni Kenshin. The title character is an Issin Shishi veteran of the Meiji restoration, one who lived as a killer, an elite fighter sent to eliminate the most dangerous opponents of the revolution. What’s so interesting about this story is that it doesn’t take place during the Bakamatsu, but rather afterwards.

All soldiers need somewhere to go when the war is over but people rarely plan that far ahead. The Bakamatsu was no exception. So when the long days of fighting are over Kenshin is left with nowhere to go and no idea how he goes from a hardened killer to the citizen of a peaceful country. Like many long veteran soldiers, Kenshin finds he loathes fighting and sets out to live in peace. He exchanges his katana for a sakabato and vows to never kill again.

Unfortunately, back in the day Kenshin had quite the reputation and a decade after disappearing into the mists of history Kenshin finds that someone has stolen his name and is using his old reputation for their own ends. Living in peace is not enough to satisfy, it seems. Kenshin must ultimately seek redemption for his misdeeds. He will find it only in humility, service towards others and diligently performing housework for women who will never learn to do it on their own. Everything from the way he lives to the way he speaks, referring to himself in a diminuitive fashion and addressing most other people with the highly respectful “dono“, point to the change in Kenshin.

Rurouni Kenshin is a shonen manga to the core – it has lots of action, lots of humor and an emphasis on making the community you live in a better place.  Every time Kenshin swings his blunted blade he does so in the hopes that the ideals he fought for during the Bakumatsu will be upheld in the new era but, unlike many works about the past, Watsuki makes no attempts to sugarcoat the reality of the Meiji era. Yes, there were patriots out there on both sides of the conflict. But by and large most people were seeking their own gain.

As a weekly comic that ran for five years, Kenshin had a lot of time to look at the various forms that took. Disreputable merchants looking to buy power over people, disreputable teachers looking to play the wealthy and well intentioned for their own ends, well intentioned men branded criminals so others wouldn’t take the heat, virtuous men who turn to violence and crime in the search for petty revenge. All these and more are things that Watsuki and Kenshin stare down through the pages of their manga. Each one is overcome by relying on three simple rules:

  • Serve humbly.
  • Fight for the oppressed.
  • Teach others to do the same.

Rurouni Kenshin is a great yarn about a country, an era and the people that made it. It’s not going to give you anything like a comprehensive idea of what the time was like but it will give you a starting place. None of the historical events mentioned in it are made up, although much of the story taking place around those historical facts is pure fantasy. But there’s still one thing beyond sketchy that Kenshin teaches.

Heroes, it seems, look the same no matter what the culture or the era.