Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Best of the Worst – Villains in Modern Sci-fi/Fantasy Novels (Part 2 of 2)


In the previous article, I have discussed one of the most feared monsters in the sci-fi/fantasy genre.

Cthulhu, with his brute physique and strength and superhuman intelligence, is a formidable force in the world of H.P. Lovecraft. Are physical power and intelligence a most fearful combination for a monster? Let’s take a look at other famous villains. 


The Shrike 

As seen in The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons 


The Shrike is perhaps one of the most villainous creatures I can think of, with an appearance from our worst nightmares. It is unclear whether or not he is human, machine, or some cruel combination of the two. In The Hyperion Cantos, he is described as …

A face part steel, part chrome, and part skull, teeth like a mechanized wolf’s crossed with a steam shovel, eyes like ruby lasers burning through blood-filled gems, forehead penetrate by a curved spike-blade rising thirty centimeters from a quicksilver skull, and a neck ringed with similar thorns.

This metal being has incredible power, including what is essentially control over time itself. He is able to move at super speeds, teleport from one place to another, and travel through time as it pleases. Perhaps the most horrifying part is his ability to call himself from another time frame into the present. While The Shrike can and has been destroyed, he will simply travel in from another time, and then duplicate itself from all other times. Similar to Cthulhu, it strikes such fear into the hearts of man that it is worshipped as a god by the Church of the Final Atonement, who has named him The Lord of Pain.

The novel makes it clear that we do not know what The Shrike’s purposes are by way of his introduction. Our first encounter with The Shrike is when he helps the soldier Kassad destroy an invading army. As a silent ally, the creature helps kill thousands of Kassad’s enemies. Immediately after this, however, The Shrike appears as the murderous monster in the poet Silenus’s world, cutting down random citizens, scattering their body parts to be discovered later. Occasionally, he will spare the person’s life by impaling it upon one of the spiked branches of his own Tree of Pain, where they will continue to live in agony for eternity. The reasons for his murders and tortures are completely unknown and never revealed.

This mystery about The Shrike is what makes him such a fearful villain. He could be helping you one moment and killing you the next, his actions never explained. His ability to control time amplifies everything that is frightening about him. Surely, it can accomplish anything it wants, but what does he want? The Shrike is a voiceless being, and his motivations are never shared. He is a monster of pure carnage, a negative force in the world, and one of the greatest villains ever created in fantasy literature.


Anasûrimbor Kellhus

As seen in The Prince of Nothing series by R. Scott Bakker

 

Anasûrimbor Kellhus (Kellhus) might appear to be different from the two previous villains we’ve looked at, but he is no less horrid. While The Shrike is an alien being, Kellhus is a man who has evolved into a monster. Unlike The Shrike who is voiceless, Kellhus is the narrator of his tale, but make no mistake. He is not an ambiguous villain.

In the series, Kellhus is a prodigy of a clan devoted to perfecting humans in every way. To that end, they have selectively bred themselves over two thousand years to transcend beyond humanity. He can access the thoughts and feelings, desires and hatreds of all human beings. His grasp of magic is far superior to even the greatest of human wizards, and none can challenge him. However, rather than treating his fellow humans with compassion, Kellhus uses them as pawns to further his mission.

Kellhus believes that a great doom is coming to the world, and only he is capable of stopping it. He is able to think in the most rational way and spends much of his time meditating on all possible paths and outcomes. Once he has made his decision, he will pursue it with all the fervor of the most extreme zealot. Unfortunately, the best path to him appears to be the genocide of entire nations, and he doesn’t give us any insight into why this is a terrible necessity. As readers, we are left with a disquieting feeling, as sympathy turns to disgust.

To increase his military clout, Kellhus infiltrates a holy army, claiming he is a living prophet and using his powers to convince the masses. Once again, our villain becomes the focus of a religion movement. Using this army of believers, he leads terrible battles to conquer as much of the known world as he can, justifying the death and destruction he causes by claiming that only a united humanity stands a chance against the coming doom. His view apparently, is the only one that counts. There are two men who suspect Kellhus’s dark nature, and he does everything in his power to destroy them. The first, he drives mad; the second, he exiles and turns those who love him against him.

What is truly disturbing about Kellhus is that he is the logical end to being overly rational. He bears striking similarity to a cold and calculating computer, but with sufficient emotional maturity to manipulate and control people completely. Although he is human, his behavior is alien to the reader. He is a monster of unimaginable intelligence and cruelty. For this, Anasûrimbor Kellhus is one of the greatest possible villains.

Unlike the modern, ambiguous villain and “the big bad” mentioned in my previous article, the characters discussed here represent threats that cannot be overcome. Their powers are so foreign and explosive, their impact on me as the reader is visceral. My heart leapt, my lungs emptied when I read those stories. As much as I fear them, hate them, I admire them, not unlike the cult worshippers in these novels. Power is alluring regardless of the identity of its possessor, and heroes and villains are two sides of the same coin. While heroes are ubiquitous, I hope to see more books with superb villains in the future.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Best of the Worst – Villains in Modern Sci-fi/Fantasy Novels (Part 1 of 2)

The trend in modern fantasy leans towards painting a particular type of villain. If you think of some of the most popular novels around today, you will notice that many of their evildoers share a common feature: ambiguity. The modern villain is a fully fleshed out character with their own arc, and sometimes their own narration. The obvious example is the Lannister family of the Song of Ice and Fire series. Many would claim that they are not villains, but rather another group of players in the wide game. Great, villains have matured. And with this maturing, they become more sympathetic, less scary. With villains becoming increasingly accessible and commonplace, one has to ask: will the true villains go extinct?

Another type of our hero’s archenemy is what I’d like to call “the Big Bad”. The Big Bad is the kind of shadowy villain that has powers unheard of and will surely cause the demise of the world, but of course they aren’t ready yet and the hero needs to find out how to stop them! Tolkien’s Sauron is a prime example of The Big Bad: unimaginably powerful, but in the end, an extremely limited force in the novel. Because their power is so great, they never get a chance to use it, or the hero will die. This type of villain always feels flat and one-dimensional to me, designed to be knocked over by the protagonist at the end of the story. They rarely engage in their own story elements, and we never get to truly know them, or fear them.

So we have two main types of villains in today’s fantasy novels, and I have to ask: where have all the true villains gone? Sauron, while powerful, never does anything! And the ambiguous villain? Well, I like them! Tyrion and Cersei? They aren’t “true” villains really! Our insight into their choices allows us to sympathize with them, even when their choices are negative. So I have to ask again: where is the villain that fills me with dread? Where is the true monster?

Thankfully, there is a third type of villain. Though rare, they have the greatest impact on me as a reader. These villains are the genuine article. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Cthulhu – As seen in The Works of H.P. Lovecraft and Beyond


I must briefly address the octopus-er… elephant in the room. Cthulhu is the grand-daddy of the truly great villains. He is ageless, remorseless, and without pity. First appearing in The Call of Cthulhu, this monster is an interstellar creature bent on reaping humanity for those he serves. He is also the god of an earthly cult that has tried but in vain to revive him for centuries. As (worst) luck would have it, Cthulhu is awoken by accident. He rises from the dark waters and kills or drives mad those who disturbed his slumber, only to disappear moments later. Where Cthulhu has vanished to remains unknown, but his dread purpose is there for all to see. The reader is left with a quiet uneasiness. Everything about Cthulhu screams dread, for he is unknowable, vast, and monstrous.

But of course Cthulhu is monstrous; he is after all a monster, specifically from a horror story. But his influence is not to be ignored, and in fact, you will see many similar elements repeating elsewhere. In the next article, I will be talking about two modern villains that are cut from this same primordial ooze, one from a sci-fi series and one from a fantasy series. They both fill me with the same sense of dread that I associate with Cthulhu.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

IOU io9

A few years ago, my friend Amanda sent me a link listing the “10 Debut Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels that Took the World by Storm”. At that time, I was working on what would become the book series for which Children of Lightning would be the prequel. The joy of the sci-fi/fantasy metaverse was a relatively recent discovery to me back then, and she thought the list would be a useful guide in my journey to geekdom.

The link became my entrance into the world of www.io9.com, a fantastic blog with a strange name. I scanned the book blurbs in the top ten list and emailed Amanda back. As always, she did not disappoint.

That informative article became the gateway drug for my downward slide into io9 addiction. Bi-monthly visits became weekly, then bi-weekly, and now, it is my favourite dessert after lunch. With food in my stomach, a cup of tea in my hands, I savour among others, the latest news on Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and most things Marvel.

Every now and then, io9 stretches my eyes, my world, a bit wider. Seeing something that was a liquid and a solid at the same time for the first time was an eyeful. So were some of the most ambitious Lego projects known to man. There was the ancient recipe of self-mummification concocted by Japanese monks, which, grossness aside, was brilliant.

I’ve bought books, and more books, because of io9, books that I would have missed in a bookstore. io9 is not just read by laymen like me, but by bona fide geeks who are as intelligent as they are amusing. Often, the comments sections are as informative and entertaining as the articles themselves.

My conversion to Saga’s fandom was a solo effort from io9. In addition to developing an anti-conventional plot of not having any hero, quest or mission, nothing is as beautifully drawn as Saga. Nothing. The way they hybridize the look of the characters is refreshing. Who would have thought of putting a CRT monitor on a human body and calling that a villain? The monitor is not just a gimmick. It displays the villain’s every dark and erotic fantasy when he is dreaming or losing his mind. That comic series is a joy to read. Saga has inspired me to come up with brand new hybrids for my story.

In io9, I’ve seen toys that money cannot buy. A father, determined to equip his child with all s/he needs to know for a blissful childhood has made this unique set of wood blocks. And no, he can’t make another set for sale. [Image below from io9]


I watch CW’s iZombie based on the recommendation from io9. Unlike other zombies, these ones have style, eat brains served on a platter with sumptuous dose of culinary finesse, not unlike the dishes in an upscale restaurant menu. Basil Parietal Terrine, anyone? Want some Cerebellum Sashimi? Come to Meat Cute. The show is smart and silly. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it has got dialogue to die for.

To this day, I still haven’t read all the books in that top ten list that Amanda sent me, but I have read countless articles in io9 since. They have history, science, arts, all of them entertainment with a good dose of intelligence, insight mixed with a dash of TGIF-abandon. I am sure there are other sites that are just as important, but my path is crossed with io9. It makes the child in me giggle, the adult in me think. If it is a place, it’s where I want to live. If it is a person, he will be my best friend (with benefits, I’m sure).

io9, I don’t just owe you. I love you.