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Fantasy in Rock Music: Michael Moorcock, Hawkwind and Blue Oyster Cult

Almost anyone of a certain age who is a fan of reading sci-fi/fantasy will have heard of the author Michael Moorcock. Born in the UK in in 1939, his most famous works are probably the Elric of Melniboné series which relate the life of the Eternal Champion, Elric,  servant for the forces of Chaos, possessor of the cursed black sword Stormbringer and inhabitant of the multiverse.

Elric, although a hero – the Eternal Champion, a man who cannot die and is re-incarnated again and again to struggle with the dichotomies of good and evil, chaos and order – is not your typical muscle-bound conqueror. He is an elongated, slim, white-haired albino who has to use drugs to maintain his health. He is, in fact, an emperor, but the last of his line. The books (7 in the main series but Elric also appears in others) tell of Elric’s reluctant battles for the God of Chaos, while at the same time trying desperately to keep a shred of humanity – difficult in itself as Elric is not entirely human but comes from a much more ancient and powerful race who traditionally have had very little regard for lowly, ordinary humans.

Apart from being a junkie albino brooding servant of Chaos, Elric also possesses one of the most famous swords in the sci-fi/fantasy world – Stormbringer, the Stealer of Souls. This black, growling, screaming, mumbling, singing sword not only takes your life but also your soul, which is then dispatched to the God Arioch, God of Chaos. It’s also got its own consciousness too, which often makes it quite difficult for Elric to control, as Stormbringer’s demands don’t always agree with Elric’s wishes.

Now, unless you’re a big fan of Hawkwind and Blue Oyster Cult, you’re probably wondering what on earth their connection is to Michael Morecock and his writing. In fact, Michael was a collaborator of theirs and wrote many of their songs. He is particularly connected to Hawkwind and received a gold record for being one of the writers of their album “Warrior on the Edge of Time”, which is a direct reference to the Eternal Champion. Moorcock also did some of the vocals on this album as well as being very involved with many of their other works and side projects.

Moorcock also collaborated with the Blue Oyster Cult, writing the lyrics for three tracks, two of which are directly connected to the Elric stories. The first is called “Black Blade”, which is, of course, a direct reference to Stormbringer, and the second, “Veteran of the Psychic Wars”, is linked to Elric’s emotions and psychological states. In 1987, Moorcock, who was an accomplished musician with his own band “The Deep Fix”, played onstage with Blue Oyster Cult in Atlanta, Georgia and the members of both Hawkwind and Blue Oyster Cult together with Moorcock contributed to many other songs and album tracks as side projects.

As a result of his deep connection to music, it is often suggested that Moorcock named his infamous sword Stormbringer as a tribute to the famous guitar Fender Stratocaster. Since then, there have been many connections between music, other rock bands and Moorcock and his books, including numerous mentions of the name “stormbringer”, such as the mediocre Deep Purple eponymous album. (Although a direct connection to the Elric stories was denied by the band members, stating that the name was based on mythology.)

Both the books and the music have had great impact on their respective genres and it’s always worth going back to them for another read/listen. The music is available on Youtube and there are various free online sites where you can read parts of the books to get “tasters” before buying.

Enjoy!

Colour in Fantasy

I often add a little bit of what I call “Linguistic Phun” (fun – get it?) at the end of my blog posts, usually a little comment on the roots of certain words used in the post, and often originating from Ancient Greek. Today, I’m starting with some linguistic fun (not in any way related to Ancient Greek as far as I know).

How many of these colours do you recognise?

       Fuligin, Paryl, Octarine, Flicts

One? Two? None? No idea what I’m talking about ? Well, unless you are absolutely crazy about sci-fi/fantasy in all its forms as I am, the chances are you won’t recognise any of them. They are all, in fact, names for fictional colours which have been invented by their creators. To be more specific, Fuligin is a colour “darker than black” from the “The Shadow of the Torturer” (book series “The Book of the New Sun) by Gene Wolfe. Paryl is a colour far below sub-red and can only be seen by “chromaturgical drafters” in Brent Weeks’ “Lightbringer” books. Octarine may be the most famous of the four as it is the invention of Terry Prachett and is the greenish-yellowish purple which is the colour of magic. Finally, flicts, according to Neil Armstrong, is the colour of the moon.  It was actually invented by Brazilian author Ziraldo and is a kind of beigy colour that has no place on Earth. When Armstrong met Ziraldo during a tour of Brazil after the first moon landing in 1969, Ziraldo asked Armstrong if the moon was flicts. Armstrong answered that it was indeed “flicts”.

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I have to admit, I’m a bit of a colour freak. I rarely call anything red just red. For me it’ll be crimson or scarlet or vermilion but never just red. Same thing with other colours. Blue will be azure, cyan or navy; purple can be violet, indigo, heliotrope; green is emerald, forest, verdigris, sage. It matters to get it right. Colour is important, especially in fantasy which depends so much on getting into our imaginations and creating a fantastic world for us to enter and become part of.

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The colours above are imaginary and come from literature but colour is so important in films and TV series too.

Have you seen the movie “Little Joe”, with Ben Whishaw as Chris and Emily Beecham as Alice? It’s a pretty good sci-fi film about a group of geneticists/botanists who develop a plant that gives off a scent to make you happy – a kind of floral Xanax (benzodiazepine). Of course it all goes very wrong, as things do in such films, and what ensues was quite enjoyable and well-acted. But it’s not the film per se that I want to talk about here but rather something that made a big impression on me when I watched this film and that was the use of colour in it and how important the contribution of colour was to the overall atmosphere of the film.

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Right at the start of the movie, Ben’s character, Chris, comments on the trainers (sneakers) worn by Joe, Alice’s son. They are a bright crimson colour which look a little “in your face” for a moody teenager and at odds with Joe’s school uniform. In contrast to these very brightly coloured trainers are Chris and Alice’s lab coats, which are a very ecological pale pistachio green. Then you see that the genetically mutated flower is also the same crimson colour as Joe’s trainers and totally stands out from the pallor of the lab coats. Another experimental flower in the lab is a dull, blackish-blue and you just know, immediately, that this flower will fail. This is the use of evocative colour at its best.

So, next time you read a book or watch a film, pay a bit more attention to the use of colour. You may find it adds a little to your overall experience and, perhaps, improves your vocabulary a little too.

The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons

A monster, masterpiece mash-up of Renaissance knowledge and fundamental sci-fi/fantasy, these books are enormous in their scope. The Cantos is made up of 4 books – Hyperion, the Fall of Hyperion, Endymion and the Rise of Endymion. They take their names from the unfinished epic poem “Hyperion” and the romantic poem “Endymion” both written by John Keats, whose re-constituted “cybrid” personae (there are 2) play an important role in the books.

the shrike and baby Aenea

In the first book, we are introduced to the poet, Martin Silenus, who is on the last pilgrimage to the planet of Hyperion where the Time Tombs, home of the Shrike, the figurehead of one of the current religions, the Church of the Final Atonement, are located. This first book is told in the same way as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in that each pilgrim relates their own personal story of how they came to be on this pilgrimage while they are travelling. At the same time we learn about the Farcaster Portals – a quick means of travelling between planets – the other religions of the time, the role of artificial intelligences and the annihilative, barbed monster called the Shrike. We also learn that the leader of the governing body of the inhabited worlds, the Hegemony, has discovered something about the role of the artificial intelligences and their connection to the Farcaster Portals and she intends to destroy every portal. The second, third and fourth books, obviously, cover what happens after that event.

Farcasterportal

The Greek myth from which Hyperion takes its name is that of the Titanomachy – the great battle between Uranus (whose wife was Gaia) and their sons, the Titans, who, led by Cronus, overthrew him until he, in turn, was overthrown by his own son, Zeus.  Cronos is usually represented as holding a sickle, rather like the blades covering the Shrike, and, in truth, these books echo this eternal battle as humanity itself in the books has to overcome its enemy. The story stretches between many worlds and times, bending both space and time in its course and it is epic.

I deliberately haven’t gone into much detail here. You can easily find that elsewhere online if you want to learn more before reading the books. What I do want to emphasise here is the scope of these books. Dan Simmons is a writer who can weave poetry, physics, architecture (there is a cybrid of Frank Lloyd Wright present in one book), religion, time-travel, sociology and cosmology into one seamless tapestry. He references many important writers and thinkers from the past, not only Keats who plays an important role but many others too. His writing is wonderful, slickly constructed and artistic. At times, I would read a particularly expressive sentence again and again and jealously marvel at just how good it was.

lifetree

(An artistic representation of a Life Tree, one of the means of space travel from the books.)

Hopefully, the series will one day be made into a film or tv series but I have to admit, I feel that any such endeavour could not compare to the books but if a film would encourage others who might not have read the books to read them, I’m OK with that.

Fantasy in traditional Folk Music

Tam Lin and The Hazards of Love

Fairport Convention and the Decemberists.

The strength of love and its ability to overcome all obstacles, including the fact that one of the lovers is in animal form, is a central theme in much literature, not the least fantasy stories. There are so many traditional myths and legends concerning therianthropy and therocephaly – human beings being able to shape-shift into animals or having the head of an animal – in all countries, all over the world, and this, naturally, will also be reflected in traditional music.

In the 1960s, there was a revival of interest in, and bands recording, traditional folk music. One of the most important of these bands was Fairport Convention. Formed in 1967, their album “Liege and Lief” was released in 1969 and included, among several other traditional folk songs, the song “Tam Lin”.

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(Youtube link to this album – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Id-uy–H8tQ&list=PL5m3D2g_Zw3yINePnJ7HAVqD0zTWoQZ61)

In the song, a young woman, Janet, goes to a place called Carterhaugh to pick roses even though she has been expressly forbidden to go there. There, she meets the young, handsome Tam Lin. In the blink of an eye, she finds herself pregnant. Her father tries to marry her off to one of his men, but she refuses. She goes back to Carterhaugh and demands that Tam do his duty. He tells her that he is a captive of the Fairy Queen who will give his soul to the devil as her tithe to him on the night of Hallow’een. But, there is a chance for the star-crossed lovers. On the fateful night, Janet must go to a specific place and as the fairy procession passes, she must pull Tam Lin from his horse and hold him tight. The fairy queen will turn Tam into a variety of different animals, newt, snake, lion in an attempt to get Janet to loosen her hold on Tam and lose him forever. Of course, Janet’s love is strong and she wins her man.

06_Barnum_TamLin Joanna.jpg

(This wonderful picture was downloaded from Google images. Apologies to the artist, whose name I cannot remember as I downloaded it some time ago.)

The origins of this song go back to Scotland and the music dates to the 1500s with the lyrics probably added sometime in the eighteenth century. The song is interesting in that there is no explanation for why Janet wanted to go to Carterhaugh to pick flowers even after being warned not to. It seems that Janet is a very head-strong girl. When Tam asks her why she came to Carterhaugh without permission, she answers, “I’ll come and go… and ask no leave of thee.” It is also possible that Janet has some powers herself. Janet was a common name for a witch with more than half of the convicted witches in Scotland between 1590 and 1697 having this name (Source:mainlynorfolk.info) and it is possible that she went to Carterhaugh to collect a particularly magical rose that she needed for one of her spells although in another longer version of the song than the Fairport Convention one, she can see Carterhaugh from her room with its many beautiful roses and decides to go and pick some.

While “Tam Lin” is an old, traditional song, the rock opera “The Hazards of Love” by the Decemberists was produced in 2009. It is certainly based on traditional folk songs, the title being taken from a 1963 Anne Briggs EP which contained 4 a cappella traditional folk songs, but it is a 21st century piece of music. All the songs create a complete story which has similar elements to “Tam Lin” in many ways. First, our heroine, Margaret, rides into the forest where she meets a fawn. The fawn miraculously turns into a man – love at first sight! Guess what? She gets pregnant, of course. She returns to the forest and tells her lover of her condition and he, in turn, informs her that he is the adopted son of the Forest Queen. He is only allowed to become a man at night while during the day he must remain a fawn. The Forest Queen discovers their relationship and arranges for the Rake to kidnap our heroine and do with her what he will. The Rake is a man who has committed the heinous crime of murdering his three children. Margaret begs for her lover William to rescue her and he is hurrying as fast as he can to do so but he has to cross some dangerous waters. He makes a bargain with the water spirits to allow him to cross and, while the ghosts of the Rake’s three children are hindering his nefarious plans for Margaret, William arrives and rescues her. Unlike Tam Lin, though, Margaret and William do not live happily ever after. The water spirits claim William when they try to re-cross the river and Margaret chooses to die with her lover rather than live without him.

the_hazards_of_love_by_andromoda-d4vg3yx

(Youtube link to this album – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qvw1CVOSmik&list=PLE892D9BB6F1BB0DE)

Shape-shifting is a central theme in many works of fantasy, no matter what their medium, so if you like music as well as a good book or film, spend some time and listen to these songs.

Linguistic phun: Therianthropy – comes from the Greek words “θηριον” (therion) meaning beast and “ανθρωπος” (anthropos) meaning human, and is also sometimes called zoanthropy, again from the Greek words “ζωο” (zo) which means animal and “ανθρωπος”. Therocephaly – comes from the Greek word for beast as explained above and “κεφαλη” (kefali) which means head. A famous example of therocephaly was the Minotaur of Knossos in Crete.

This post was already published on another blogging platform, so if it seems familiar you may have already read it there.

ISAAC ASIMOV (January 2, 1920 – April 6, 1992)

Asimov black and white Yousuf Karsh

January 2nd marked the centenary of Isaac Asimov’s birth in Petrovichi, in the former USSR.

If you are reading this blog, which is a blog about fantasy and science fiction, then you are probably already a fan of Asimov, or at the very least you are aware of his writing. You’ve probably seen the films “Bicentennial Man” with the late Robin Williams and “I, Robot” starring Will Smith, but did you know that Isaac was such a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction and wrote on such a variety of subjects, including poetry, letters and post-cards as well as novels and short stories that he is the only author whose works are included in 9 of the 10 categories of writing of the Dewey Decimal System, the system by which libraries categorise the written word. This is the system that allows you to find the book you’re looking for when you head to your local library. (If anyone does that for books any longer.) This, in itself, is a rather amazing fact for any writer.

If you are into science fiction, then you probably know that Asimov also came up with the three laws of robotics which state:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

Although we are given a foreshadowing of these laws in previous works it was in the short story “Runaround” (1942) that they were first introduced.

The idea of a robot or mechanical humanoid form was not Asimov’s, of course. The word “robot” comes from the Czech language and was introduced to us by Josef Capek in his play “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)”, (1920) but Asimov took Capek’s idea and ran with it. It was Asimov who invented the word “robotics”, defined in the OED as “The technology or science of the design, construction, operation, and use of robots and similar automatic devices.”

Bicentennial man

That wasn’t the only word Asimov introduced into the English language, however. He also gave us two more important scientific words – “psychohistory” (the theory that the history of large populations is statistically predictable, based on psychological theories of human and social behavior) and “positronic” (originally a technological device that provides a robot with a consciousness recognizable to humans.) This word became important in science because a sub-atomic particle was later named a “positron” and the word “positronic” then took the meaning of an adjective to describe anything related to positrons.

I robot will smith

Another fact that many Asimov fans might not know (I certainly didn’t until I was researching for this post) was that he also wrote smutty limericks. He wrote lewd lines by the dozens and ended up publishing 5 volumes. Here’s an example of one of these dirty limericks.

There was a sweet girl of Decatur
Who went to sea on a freighter.
She was screwed by the master
-An utter disaster-
But the crew all made up for it later.

With regard to his personal life, Asimov was an atheist and became president of the American Humanist Association, an organization which promotes (among other things and put very simplistically) the idea that people don’t need a god to be good. Although he was tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs, he hated anything superstitious or pseudoscientific being passed off as “real science”. He also once wrote this quotation,

“If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul”.

In this matter, I could not agree with him more!

I also discovered a number of audio versions of Asimov’s works on Youtube which I definitely intend to check out. I suggest you do too, my readers.

Thank you for reading.

(I do not own the right to any pictures in this blog)

 

 

 

Story of the Yianxi Palace

“The Old Girl talks Fantasy” is usually, as the name implies, a blog about anything related to fantasy and science fiction. That is to say, whether it be books, films, animated series, music or whatever, it doesn’t have much to do with life as we know it. The post below, however, deviates from this format in that it deals with a tv series based on historical events that took place in China during the 18th century. I have included it however because, although the historical background is based in fact, we cannot know for sure if many (if any) of the details in the series ever happened. They are the imaginings of the series writers. As a total fan of anything oriental, though, especially China and Chinese culture, and with this series being so totally addictive, I felt I had to include it. So, here goes.

During the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1711-1799), the man born Hongli, fourth person to reign over China proper, had a variety of wives, consorts and concubines. The series “Story of the Yianxi Palace”, a Chinese period drama which ran in July/August 2018, focuses on the heroine Wei Yingluo and her rise from servant girl in the palace to become the emperor’s favourite consort and later empress.

As it is not documented when Lady Wei entered the palace, this allows for much scope within the series for exploration of the palace intrigues, particularly within the royal harem. The machinations of the consorts and concubines to out-manoeuvre each other to attain the emperor’s favour are totally fascinating, and, as they had precious little to do apart from wait for the emperor to take them to his bed-chamber, it is understandable that  such conniving actually did take place. Each episode is utterly addictive and as full episodes are available on Youtube, it is easy to spend hours binge-watching them. The English sub-titles are also amusing in that a lot of modern American slang is used, which seems very funny coming from characters dressed in 18th century traditional costumes.

Another very interesting aspect of this series is the fact that, even though it became extremely popular both in China and worldwide, it was removed by order of the Chinese government after 70 episodes (along with a similar series, “Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace”) because it was deemed “incompatible with the core values of socialism” and was considered to have “a negative influence on society.” That hasn’t stopped its popularity, though and it has been watched by millions both inside and outside China.

I also have to mention the absolutely gorgeous costumes and headpieces. They are all made as authentically as possible by the limited number of expert craftsmen who still remember how to make these wonderful items. Of particular note are the “tian-sui” or jeweled hair pieces which were made from precious metals and costly jewels, and the “ronghua” or velvet silk flower headdresses.  If you compare the two pictures below, one of its era of Wei Ying Luo in formal court dress and the other her character in the series, you can see what attention to detail has been made.

All of the episodes for the series are available on youtube with English subtitles. I dare you not to binge-watch.

HAPPY NEW YEAR

HEALTH, HAPPINESS AND ALL THINGS GOOD TO EVERYONE

 

 

 

 

Linguistic Phun (BTW, some people have asked why I write “fun” as “phun” – well, that’s just a bit of linguistic fun on my part, isn’t it?)

Chinese words which have come into English – cash, ketchup, gung-ho, kowtow, soy – to name but a few.

(I do not own the copyright to these images)

 

 

Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin)

This is a dark fantasy, post-apocalyptic manga/anime series that started off in comic form in 2009. Its title is rather a misnomer as it gives the impression the story is more like a space invasion of Saturn’s moon, Titan, or a planet similarly named, but it isn’t. A literal translation from the Japanese would perhaps give a better idea of what the series is about – “Advancing Giants”. I have only seen the animated series so this is what I’ll be talking about.

On this Earth, at some point in time, a race of giants, Titans, suddenly appears. It seems their only purpose in life is to eat human beings. They don’t even need humans for food; they just mindlessly want to consume them. These genderless giants have reduced humanity to a small number living behind three great walls called Maria, Rose and Sina. Three corps of military protect the remaining people – the Survey Corps, the Garrison Regiment and the Military Police Brigade. There is considerable rivalry between the three.

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The main action revolves around the three main characters – Eren Yeager, Mikasa Ackerman and Armin Arlert. Eren is a rather angry youth with a very short fuse. He has a habit of getting into trouble because of this. His friend, Mikasa, is the one who inevitably gets him out of that trouble. They befriend Armin when they find him being bullied by some older boys. Armin is rather bookish and fearful and cries a lot.

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The world the friends live in has been reasonably quiet for a number of years but suddenly a giant Titan appears, a Colossus. Together with another new Titan, the Armoured, they breach the outer wall, causing major death and destruction. Eren must watch his mother being devoured and vows to take revenge. The Titans then mysteriously disappear just as quickly as they came, leaving the remaining citizens to move within the next wall and prepare for the next attack.

Five years pass and our heroes are now members of the military. Just as suddenly as five years previously, the Titans appear once again. Eren, Mikasa and Armin are among the defenders. Their unit is all but wiped out during the attack and a rather surprising event occurs towards the end of the battle.

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As the series continues, we get to learn more of how the Titans came into being, their purpose and how the remaining humans plan to oppose them. This series is full of blood, guts, anger and darkness but also shows friendship, loyalty, bravery and selflessness. As with all anime, it is beautifully made but it’s no “Spirited Away”, retaining, as it does, its manga beginnings – it’s very comic book like. Small details like tears and wind-blown hair are amazingly done, but it isn’t something for everyone although I find it has more charm than the Hollywood blockbuster superhero movies. Complete episodes are available on Youtube so you can check them out without too much trouble. You can either watch a dubbed English version or the original Japanese with sub titles.

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(I do not own the copyright for the images and this post was originally posted by me on another blog site so if you’ve read this before you may have seen it there.)