Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Conan Question

Over on his side of the world wide web, Banzai Cat asks a question: Does a local sword-and-sorcery subgenre exist around here?

The first instinct is to answer "yes". Every literary fantasy environment should have its divisions, after all. We know that there are at least a few Filipino writers who work on their own fantasy settings; some reveal their worlds bit by bit in any number of short stories, while others rush their stuff into full-blown primetime TV series. The fantasy genre has long pervaded local literature and entertainment; how can we not have a bunch of stuff that can be lumped under a "sword-and-sorcery" subgenre?

And now that I have those initial assumptions firmly in place, I have to admit that I can't think of a single example.

To be honest, Sword-and-Sorcery (which I'll shorten to the strange-sounding "S&S") doesn't necessarily lie along the same lines of literary thought. It's basically a sort-of "pulp" fantasy -- while traditional high fantasy will flesh out an entire alternate world and explain how everything works through an epic cast of characters, S&S will concentrate on individual wild-ride adventures centering around a single feature character or characters. I find a lot more action and a lot less moral stratification in S&S work; In these stories, the emphasis is removed from the setting and placed firmly on the shoulders of a hard-bitten protagonist. Think Conan, if you like. Or Red Sonja, I suppose. Or Xena, if your mind can stand to be stretched a bit.

On further thought, I realize that the Philippine context might not be particularly conducive to S&S. Our fantastic "pulp" literature actually tends towards the direction of high fantasy -- we get a lot of superheroes, for instance, who gain magical powers from otherworldly forces and proceed to use them in order to save the world. It falls in line with a fairly desperate world-view: In a way, we feel that the Philippine context is so hopeless that our fantasies involve rescuing ourselves from it.

Moreover, our creative background pushes us in the direction of high fantasy as well. For one, our local bookstores are lined with multiple-volume epics by established novelists. Our cartoon fare consists mostly of Japanese animé, none of which takes place in a purely local context. We even play more collectible card games than role-playing games nowadays -- the former promotes a lush setting more than it does an in-depth story.

So with all this in mind, I'd have to say that, no, a local S&S subgenre doesn't exist around here.

And now that begs a certain question: "So what's stopping us from writing it?"

I'm no stranger to high fantasy, of course. You've seen the Antaria setting that I've molded through past posts on this blog, and even that wasn't the first alternate-world setup that I've created. But now that S&S is in the picture, it brings up another concern: Does significant experience in high fantasy invalidate one's ability to get down to the new subgenre?

I don't know the answer to that. I suppose that the only way to find out would be to pick up a pen and try my hand at the stuff. I admit that the prospect of writing fantasy without the standard trappings of fantasy feels difficult, but it might just be worth it to explore a direction that no one else seems to have explored in the last few years.

That would be something to consider the next time I feel like delving into fantasy again... *rummages through character archive*


Dominique said...

One word: Panday.

banzai cat said...

sean: Excellent analysis, man. Though am waiting for you to expound on that analysis on Filipinos' penchant for epic-fantasy-because-its-escapist idea as opposed to S&S-because-its-what? ;-)

dom: Hmmm, that's an interesting suggestion. Lemme see if he fits the bill...

Sean said...

Dominique: The Panday series did come to mind, but from what I remember, it didn't concentrate on its protagonist's exploits as much as it did on the mythic/magic system of its universe. On the other hand, I haven't checked out its most recent reflections, so I could be wrong here.

Banzai Cat: Aww... give me a break. I finished writing this at two in the morning, and that was only because I started getting incoherent. I'll try to resume my train of thought later on.

That said, the first thing that comes to mind involves S&S being closer to life. I imagine quite a few S&S works as following a one-man-against-the-world theme; it might not be the sort of thing that we like reading about, not when we face similar circumstances whenever we wake up each morning.

banzai cat said...

hehe given that you drop interesting comments that go off in my brain, sean, you should stay up as late as much as possible.

in particular, your assessment of the S&S subgenre can be particular apt for the American mindset then (and now?) and could explain the popularity of the pulp serials from which REH's stories came out in (if i got my facts right).

and yes, i might agree with your panday analysis but am thinking of doing a comparative analysis so will get back to that later.

Sean said...

Banzai Cat: I think that the S&S subgenre could have been as much escapist for its American audience as high fantasy is to Philippine readers. Pulp literature came about somewhere around the Great Depression (if I remember my timings correctly); a subset of literature that involved main characters making their mark in a strange world would have been gained quite an empathic audience, I imagine.

Of course, it all hinges on the notion of fantasy literature as "escapist" in the first place... and I don't think that that can be immediately proven right now.

As for Panday, I remember seeing one of the movies on the "legend", and feeling frustrated at the fact that somebody wrote an incredibly stupid storyline for such a redeemable character. As a result, I suspect that Ang Panday may have had the makings of a S&S hero, only to find those aspects unraveled by writers who didn't know what the heck they were doing. Now if only its original creator were still around to ask...

Dominique said...

Now if only its original creator were still around to ask...

Actually, he is: Carlo J. Caparas. Unfortunately, he may be too low-brow for the current crop of spec fic writers. Just a guess.

More info on Panday

banzai cat said...

dom: Why?

Sean said...

Dominique: Hmm... I automatically assumed that it was Mars Ravelo for some reason. I don't tend towards Caparas's works, though -- I find that he pulls in a little too much emphasis on the dramatic for my taste.