Tag Archives: fantasy

The Semantics of Naming Genres For Books (and other things)

A Curmudgeon-In-Training Rant: cf. http://curtisagency.com/blog/about#comment-9784


OK, so Richard J. Wilson asked on a publisher’s WordPress-maintained blog (and had received no visible response after MONTHS…):

Can someone please define these terms: “commercial” fiction; “mainstream” fiction; “upscale” fiction; “literary” fiction; “steam punk” fiction. Thank you!

 My immediate reply said in part:

The first four genre-indicators you list are essentially variations upon the same theme, and may apply at one point or another in the lifespan of any given book with equal degree of squishiness / accuracy (or failure to achieve direct semantic meaning when examined in isolation).  The first three in particular are more-or-less semantically null: a book falls into those because the publisher or a critic says that it does.  “Literary” is a bit more of a stretch, and often indicates something with a high degree of acceptance by critics and perhaps academia, but often lacks true market penetration with the majority of readers (at least within the year or two after initial release).  _Valley of the Dolls_ might be one example of a novel spanning all four categories within my lifetime (and I’m still short of six full decades as I write this).

Steampunk is actually the most descriptive out of the five, and also perhaps simultaneously restrictive and free-wheeling.  The most simplistic definition of steampunk is as a subgenre of science fiction (and fantasy) where technology has advanced or otherwise exists in combinations not seen in the “real” world.  From TV and film, approachable examples can be “Wild Wild West”, “Briscoe County Junior”, and “Back to the Future III”.  In books and derived works, the ancestors of steampunk include Captain Nemo (Jules Verne), the Traveller (H.G. Wells “Time Machine”), and Anthony “Buck” Rogers (Nowlan – yes, a novel came before the film serials, comic strips, and more recent TV series).

So here, in an initial form, is the Curmudgeon-In-Training’s long-form response defining some uses of “genre” in categorizing literary works:

Ground rules up front – what follows is MY opinion.  That opinion is based upon more than a half-century as a reader, and may in some ways contradict your own.  Almost certainly things I opine here will be at odds with one publisher, or academic, or critic, or any other individual who reads.  However, my blog = my rules.  (Grumpiness number one established.  Yay.)

OK, with that basic precept / (hopeful) understanding established, here’s the next biggie:  as long as my stories are getting sold, I don’t give much of a rat’s behind what some scholar in academia or critic hiding behind their position’s title might say, at least as far as I am accorded the right of defense AND (gosh-darn-it-all-to-heck) real and intelligent debate upon our differences.

Going for the third leg of the tripod:  genre definitions inherently begin with a value judgment as to the veracity of the work being defined by the genre. Is it a work of fiction? Is it a poetic examination? Is it NON-fiction? (Yes, there are cross-overs and cross-pollinations and cross-ups out there in the wilds of the “real” world. Live with them. I will attempt to recognize them in the chart/outline when we get there, but remember always that I never claim this to be THE definitive work on this subject. It will go further than the most simplistic basics, however.)

Batter up!  OK, yet, mixed metaphor alert should also be issued.  If I am going to batter at the gates of the literary castles out there, I’m bringing siege equipment to bear upon the task, including shovels to clear away the batter. (Some research may be needed on your part to follow portions of the preceding sentence — have fun storming the castle!…)

Definitions Before Definitions:  Topicality versus “True” Genre

Publishers have traditionally (mis-)used genre to such an extent that the term is indeed rather fuzzy around the edges.  My working Rule of Thumb is to differentiate Genre from Topic.  Genre is hereby decreed to cover a range of topics that have some (RATIONAL) commonality.  Sub-genre is often determined as restrictive to a narrow range of topics.

By way of example, consider the Fiction:Young Adult genre.  One traditional sub-genre of Young Adult popular in my own youth  was Animal Stories, which were further distinguished by topic as Horse Stories, Dog Stories, and the like.  In more recent years, a substantial subgenre of Fiction:Mystery has grown up around Cat Mysteries.

Generally recognized sub-genre in Fiction:Romance may be complicated about as far as any other of the top-tier genre can be.  Consider for the moment a romance set on an alien planet among the survivors of a crashed starship, who have the uncomfortable additional complication of developing psychic abilities due to contamination of the water supply.  Is it Science Fiction, Paranormal, Survival, or Eco-Disaster – or simply Romance in a strange setting?  Pity the traditional publishing assistant trying to market this one!

Genre:  The Essential short-List

  • Fiction
  • NON-Fiction
  • Poetry
  • Games/Simulations AKA Participative / Interactive Entertainment

That’s it.  Oh, you wanted more?  Therein lieth the rub.  You get as much out as you put in, and in this case that REALLY requires some skull-sweat on both our parts.

Also, here is as good a place as any to handle “and other things” from the title of this blog entry. “Media” has become another of those over-used conflated words that it really does yield results for us to peel back a few layers from every now and then. Every form of information presentation in a recorded and reproducible form goes into making up “THE MEDIA” — at least when it comes time to try and define genre. Whether a given tale is being related by written words or full-immersion VR, the story will at some point be categorized as existing within the context of one or more genre. I can read an adaptation of any entry in the Indiana Jones movie franchise or I can watch the films. I can do the opposite with Harry Potter, where the books existed first and independently of the cinematic productions. Likewise for The Avengers, or Superman, or One Piece (the last is anime-related, just in case your personal viewing habits aren’t the same as mine).

To maintain our rationality, and occasionally to challenge it, humans tend to categorize the disparate elements of the world we live in as we build up our cognitive understanding of that world. This happens on both individual and group levels, At the least, perhaps at the best, the practice tends to improve not only understanding but the communication of our individual understanding to others we come in contact with. Categorization reduced to memes begets genre. Or such is MY understanding.

Genre Within Super-Categories

I like outlines when dealing with multiple levels of description.  Blame my high school teachers who taught me how to use The Outline as a tool and not something to be feared.  Therefore, we are going to extend the definitions above as bullets-in-outline warrant doing so.  (I’ll keep these as visually consistent as I can, within the limitations of the HTML implementation I’m using to generate this blogpost.)

  • Semantic-Null Market Definition (Publishers / Critics) Gradations

See above, in my initial response to Richard.   “commercial”, “mainstream”, “upscale”, “literary” and – sometimes – “non-genre” all tend to blend in and out, mutable marketing terms in the main.  “Literary” is perhaps the one item in the list that is most often MIS-used, particularly when applied to works that haven’t yet been released to the general reading public. In my most curmudgeonly moments, I would advocate reserving Fiction:Literary to works that have remained in print (or return to print regularly) for at least 25 years, or whose authors are deceased and still continue to be reprinted, and / or can truly be described as “timeless”. Note further that I am very well aware that this definition is in serious need of refinement for the new reality of electronically-published works.

  1. Fiction (general catch-all heading)
  2. Fiction:Children’s
  3. Topics and sub-topics within Children’s Fiction generally are over-shadowed by intended age of the reader and intent of the writer. Much that is written for children has a substantial educational purpose above and beyond entertainment for entertainment’s sake, but not all. Bless Dr. Seuss for now and forever! Theodore Geisl got it right, and brought back silly for the child in all of us…

  4. Fiction:Young Adult
  5. Fiction:Young Adult:By SubGenre/Topic
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Adventure
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Animal (may be better described as Animal-Centric: Lassie, Flicka, Black Beauty, Flipper, etc.)
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Teen Angst (High School / College Life)
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Mystery/Thriller (including series such as Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Rick Brandt, etc.)
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Vocational (a [dated] series example is Cherry Ames: [whatever] Nurse)
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Fantasy (e.g. Harry Potter, )
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Science Fiction ([dated] example Have Spacesuit, Will Travel)
    • Fiction:YoungAdult:Paranormal
  6. Fiction:Young Adult:Media-Driven
  7. Fiction:Science Fiction
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Space Opera
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Alternate Reality
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Apocalyptic
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Post-Apocalyptic
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Media-Driven
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Military
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Science Fantasy
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Slipstream
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Steampunk
    • Fiction:Science Fiction:Sociological/Political

    and so forth… Science Fiction as a genre has been under attack of one form or another since the genre was developed.  Often conflated with “pure” Fantasy even by the practitioners in the field, there has been some push from time to time to use “Speculative” fiction to describe the combination — a somewhat misleading term, as ALL fiction is in some fashion speculative.

  8. Fiction:Adventure AKA Men’s Adventure (significant subgenre by topic exist)
  9. Fiction:Mystery
  10. Fiction:Nautical
  11. Fiction:Nautical:Pre-Napoleonic
  12. Fiction:Nautical:Napoleonic
  13. Fiction:Nautical:Other Historical
  14. Fiction:Alternate History
  15. Fiction:Western (“Horse Opera”)
  16. Fiction:Romance
  17. Fiction:Horror
  18. Fiction:Fantasy
  19. Fiction:Thriller
  20. Fiction:Thriller:Techno-thriller
  21. NON-Fiction
  22. NON-Fiction:Journals, Memoirs,  and Auto-biography
  23. NON-Fiction:Biography
  24. NON-Fiction:Erotica
  25. NON-Fiction:History
  26. NON-Fiction:Science
  27. NON-Fiction:Religion
  28. NON-Fiction:Textbooks and Instructional Materials
  29. NON-Fiction:Commentary And Criticism
  30. Poetry
  31. Poetry:Lyrics
  32. Poetry:Epic
  33. Poetry:NonRhyming

“Roughing It In” – Weapons Theory & Descriptions: Part V “FANTASY”

“Roughing It In” – Weapons Theory & Descriptions: Part V “FANTASY”

Mike C. Baker


 (Caveat: I’m not only a writer, I’m an old-school wargamer… and the following is at best a SUMMARY of the field)


Whew. If ever there was a wide field to explore for weapons, here it is.

With or Without Magic?

Possibly heretical in the eyes of some, I must begin this segment of our study with two truisms / “laws”:

 Clarke’s Law (paraphrased)

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Magic.

Fantasy does not require magic to be fantasy.


Now, now, don’t send the villagers with pitchforks after me just yet, please. What I mean by this second observation is that to distinguish fantasy from science fiction (The future! OR is it necessarily?), I will make my distinction based upon whether or not the underlying universe follows the “laws” of science as generally expected for our own universe. This does introduce / incoporate the possibility of “science fantasy”: H.G. Wells’s “Cavorite”, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom, John Norman’s Gor all come immediately to mind in this light.

Where does that leave us? Fantastical weaponry that exists without magic as well as all manner of weapons that have been enhanced or created by magic.

We’re gonna have some fun now, ubetcha! 

Except … as before, I will have to define some additional terms as we go along.


Materials Science:

  • Glass / Ceramics – tempered or otherwise treated, glass-bladed weapons have been postulated for years. At least one sub-group relies upon a glass blade to introduce poison / venom into a wound (as part of the shards created when broken, via ducts within or grooves upon the surface of a more durable weapon, etc.)
  •  “impossible” Metals / Alloys – collapsium, neutronium, ur-metal, ultron, adamantium, silver-steel are some notable possible examples (while the first two are more likely associated with future based science fiction, their attributed properties usually cross the border into science fantasy in the opinion of many purists; anti matter can fall upon either side of the description boundary as well…)
  • Invented Materials – includes materials with properties different than those known to “real world” science: “lifting wood”, “uhl”, unobtainium, radioactively stabilized uranium, Barsoomian “radium” explosive projectiles ({Edgar Rice Burroughs}from which the “radium” explodes when the shell is broken open and the contents are exposed to sunlight)
  •  Mundane materials granted special properties by the milieu – silver bullets or blades for attacking lycanthropes or certain undead; mirrors used to reflect and weaponize natural light sources.; laminated fish scales built up to form a buckler, etc.

 Weapon Forms:

  • Culturally-modified Weaponry – examples that come immediately to my mind are the Yuetshi knife with the saw-toothed back edge {Robert E. Howard}, the Karjixian yggdraxel two-handed claw-on-a-stick alternative to the sword favored by the Tigermen {Lin Carter}, and the four-handed sword carried by the Thark (Green Men) of Barsoom {Edgar Rice Burroughs}.
  •  Culturally “Dissonant” Weaponry – the “boom stick” Ashe carries against the medievals, and his chainsaw (Army of Darkness movie franchise)
  •  Complete fabrications / inventions – odd patterns for the blades on polearms, new names for rarely seen items from real world cultures (Star Trek was particularly productive in this arena, with both the Klingon and Vulcan / Romulan cultures: for example, the batleth is essentially a bardiche with the pole removed, and the ahn woon is a variation combining a simple sling and the usually knotted strangler’s cloth); the so called “glaive” from the movie Krull (debatable science in that piece of fiction tips the scale to fantasy on my tally-sheet); the floating/levitating “death sphere” in Phantasm / Phantasm II
  • Gladiatorial Weapons – particularly those never in general use outside of an arena, but still notable for their use inside… the ancient Roman impresarios became fairly inventive in trying to maintain interest in their audiences.
  •  Adapted Tools of the Fantasy Setting – the tarn-stick and the tharlarion goad of Gor {at least in John Norman’s book series} or similar handling equipment in other settings; thuribles and censers “borrowed” from Church rituals and now used to thrown acid or distribute soporific smoke across a group of opponents; shoppo diggo {H.Beam Piper, Little Fuzzy}
  •  Defensive Items – a fish skull helmet, split dinosaur bones for greaves or vambraces, turtle shells for paldrons (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic books, et al.), etc. 


Considerable underlying theory must be filled in for a “compleat” understanding of magical weapons. This includes particularly and especially an examination of just what magick is, and some consideration of how it produces tangible results.

 Forms of “Magic”

Writers are a marvelously inventive lot. Game designers, a sub-set of writers after all is said and done, tend to be even moreso even when they limit themselves to the existing body of myth, legend, and folklore. Nowhere is this as apparent as in the basis of magick.

 Therein is also a root distinction to be made: one occasional but sometimes necessary distinction is between “real” magick and “stage” magic, also known as prestidigitation or “theatrical illusion”. There is no clear preference out there in the “REAL” world, but the addition of the terminal “k” was popularized by P.E.I. Bonewitz (among others) when attempting to lay the groundwork for serious modern study of the Artes Magickal.

Principles Underlying the “Laws” of Magick

  1. Contagion – two things near to one another begin to share similar properties, and those shared properties can be manipulated to affect either or both things
  2. Similarity – two things which are similar are linked by that similarity, and the link so established can be manipulated to affect either or both things
  3. Substitution – one thing can be substituted for another to create an effect that affects another thing (related to the thing being manipulated by reason of Contagion or Simularity)
  4. Energetics – All forms of energy are permanent, although they can be manipulated into behaving like other forms – or converted into other forms by some means. An extension of this principle was formulated and popularized by A. Einstein in the e=mc-squared formula, the distinction being that mass is merely stored energy (in a semi-fixed form) and light is only the most visible of the energies by which mass can be converted / converted into.
  5. Will-force (Intelligence and Self-Awareness – the use of or imposition of a magickal effect ultimately requires the intervention of a self-aware being, which in turn implies an intellect. However, every magickal effect may have unintended consequences (As observed in the ABC-TV series “Once Upon A Time”, all magick comes at a price, and the practitioner / user does NOT always know the full extent of the price required at the time the effect is triggered or invoked.)


  • PRIMAL (“UR-” magics) – The energies associated with the original creation of the universe, in their pure & original unused form, are generally accounted as being more effective than any other to achieve a given desired outcome. With greater power or effect also come greater potential side effects / total degree of effects: burning down the whole castle instead of simply blasting through a door is typically a Bad-Thing…
  • ELEMENTAL – manipulation of the basic alchemical materials and their directly-associated energies
  • ILLUSION – as one of the primary Artes Arcane, deals with appearance and affect more than physicality and effect. Associated most often with but not limited to visual imagery.
  • EVOCATION – direct effects created by direct transfer of energies to a target. The classical example is the mage’s fireball or lightning-stroke
  • TRANSFORMATION – a form of magery focused primarily upon substitutions. Most alchemy involves transformations as well as elementalism.
  • NECROMANCY – generally associated with manipulation of or creation of the undead; may involve any of the energies related to death, life, and the transitions in between
  • ENCHANTMENT – creation of effect by instilling energy into a target item or person
  • SORCERY – the Sorcerer or Sorceress derives magick from a source outside themselves, often after a bargain has been made according to some descriptions but conceivable due to ancestry or association by other means. (SEE ALSO: Theurgy)
  • INVOCATION – deals in the transference of energy by the imposition of the mage’s will
  • THAUMATURGY – magery driven by rote and ritual; often touches upon the borders of theurgy. Important subschools include numerology and astrology; most divinations make use of thaumaturgical means.
  • DIVINATION – although often exercised through other source means, divinatory Arte is typically considered a separate major school dealing in revealing information, particularly information about the a subject person, thing, or place. Sub-schools deal in psychometry (the history of an object, place, or person), interpretation of omens / cards / astrological charts / etc., and dowsing (locating a substance, person, or object by any of several means: includes but is not limited to the forked-stick dower’s rod, pendulums, paired rods or wands, etc.)
  • THEURGY – magick accomplished through the intervention of Powers (gods, goddesses, angels, or their direct messengers); generally differs from Sorcery in that Theurgists are receiving a gift while Sorcerists are drawing directly upon a source through some channel. If you will, Sorcerers “pull” while the Powers “push” to their supplicants.
  • ABJURATION – the Arte of barriers, and of the denial of another’s will
  • PSYONIC / PSYCHIC – Effects achieved by direct impositionof the practitioner’s will-force upon energy & matter. Sometimes referred to as “mind-magic”, often considered as completely separate from Arcane or Theurgic magics

The Place of (small) Rituals In Considering Weapon Enchantments

A recurring theme in the lore of magic weapons involves the need for an activation phrase or other “trigger” action. Items that store spells for later discharge are particularly likely to need the wielder to speak or at least think a phrase or magickal word, or make a series of particular motions to invoke, evoke, or call forth an effect. Indeed, in the wizard and muggle world created for Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, wands generally require both prescribed movements and associated incantations to create spell effects – and unintended effects can occur if a mistake is made in repeating either element of a casting.

Other fantastical settings have differing rules to be followed, different expectations of the witch, wizard, druid, sorceror, or muscular fighting man presented with a shiny new glaive or ancestral battle axe. “My strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure” just doesn’t ring quite as true for the villain as it does for a noble hearted Prince; likewise, a classic Hero doesn’t get as much mileage pronouncing an ancient curse upon his foes as his buddy the not-so-pure wizard will get…

Creation of magick, especially magickal weapons, very seldom fails to involve some form of ritual. Likewise with their later destruction. (Just would NOT be the same if the One Ring as envisioned by J.R.R. Tolkien were vulnerable to a common blacksmith forge, now would it?)


Enhancement of Existing Weapons

In the literature to date, swords are generally the most likely magick weapons to receive individual names.

  • Enchanted Swords – Excalibur, Durandal, Glamdring, Sting, etc:  Swords tend to be the most-often recognized magick weapons. Common changes include unbreakable blades, incredibly sharp blades, resistance to corrosion, stored magick spells, personalities, usage restrictions (e.g. the Sword in the Stone that could only be drawn forth by the true heir to the throne), emitting light, acting as a direction finder or detector, innate telepathy, etc. Less-common are properties like disguise or invisibility (for the weapon, the user, or both), flight, singing, ability to ignore / completely penetrate armor, non-lethal damage inflicted, regeneration or other healing of the wielder (or others), etc.
  •  Enchanted Bows, Crossbows, Slings:  Increased rate of fire, improved range, enhanced targeting, resistant to damage (the weapon, the user, both), keyed to specific user, uses energy bolts in the shape of arrows, always supplied with the “best” arrow to use against an intended target, etc.
  •  Enchanted Axes and Warhammers (plus related “tools”):  An axe that fells any (normal) tree in a single blow; Hammers that strike with the force of a thunderbolt; Hammers that when thrown strike with force that is somehow multiplied / duplicates the attack of a larger assailant (e.g. damages like a giant thrown boulder)
  •  Enchanted Spears, Javelins, and the like:  Javelins that transform into lightning bolts or beams of fire when thrown; Spears that also function as banners (extend the effects of the leader’s presence, communicate commands to forces out of immediate normal earshot, etc.); Halberds that provide “perfect” defense if the user chooses to defend instead of attack
  •  Other Enchanted Blades:  Daggers that return to the owner if thrown (and/or if stolen); Stiletto blades that act a bit like fish spines / hooks (and do more damage coming out than they did going in); Knives that “multiply” / separate to inflict more possible strikes against a target than the single weapon would otherwise deliver
  • Enchanted Arrows, Sling Stones, Quorls/Bolts:  general-purpose enhancements to hit or damage, envenomed missiles; missiles as the method of delivery for other spell induced effects; specially prepared missiles intended for specific targets (individuals or broader type classifications)
  • Animated Objects (weapons that fire / wield themselves)
  • Enchanted Firearms / Enchanted Ammunition


Purpose-Built Magickal Weapons

  • Wands – of Fireballs, of Negation, of Thunder & Lightning:  Depending upon the origin, wands may be general-purpose tools in the mage’s repetoire or may be storage devices with prepared spells loaded which one only needs to activate (by will-force, key word, mechanical manipulation, or other method)
  • Rods:  Differs from the Wand primarily in mode of construction, may be more common in items prepared by Theurges.
  • Staves:  Wizard’s staff, Druid’s staff, or other similar forms have long been associated with magery, while theurges (priests and the like) are far more likely to enchant staves than wands, and seldom go to the rod for “positive” / “good”-related purposes UNLESS associated specifically with healing / recovery.
  • Other Storage Devices / Means of Invoking or Enlisting Aid:  Rings, Amulets, Talismans, Bracelets, Necklaces, Other Jewelry
  • Golems and Other Constructs – The Golem, Minoton:  Statuary or Clockwork or other material depiction to be animated and (preferably to most!) controlled.


Heroes, Demi-Gods, and even the Powers themselves have need of more than just weapons to succeed in their quests and other endeavors.

  • Armor and Shield: the Aegis, the hide of the Nemean lion:  defensive items worn on the person
  • Mobility Aids: Hermes’ Sandals, Arthur’s Ship, ARGO:  winged boots or sandals, chariots, boats / ships, animated objects
  • Hats, Robes, Cloaks: the Tarnhelm, Cloak of Invisibility, Wizard’s Robes:  invisibility, invulnerability, spell enhancement / transport of spell components or prepared objects
  • Belts, Girdles, Baldrics, and Bags / Purses: the Portable Hole, the Bag of Holding:  damage resistance or quick repair (healing), other protective qualities, strength, increased carrying capacity, safe transport of dangerous substances, invisibility, disguise,etc.
  • Cauldrons, Kettles, Spoons, Other Kitchenware: the Kalevala, Arthur’s Cauldron: Food, shelter, potion creation, other creations,
  • Other Oddments: unicorn horn, the root of the mandrake, feathers of the Stymphalian birds, Gorgon’s Blood, Medusa’s Head water from a particular source, poison/venom neutralizaton, poison/venom, creature summoning, direct attacks, indirect attacks; knowledge / wisdom, invulnerability, increased vulnerability, transformation(s)