Tag Archives: Epic fantasy

A Salute to Sekinder: or, How Much Does a Golden Skeleton Weigh?

A post originally published elsewhere in 2012, now brought home to my own site.

This could be amusing to you, or perhaps it will serve as a dark warning about the dangers of writing epic fantasy to the modern world. I’m aiming for both!

I ran into a conundrum when taking notes on the most recent chapter of my WiP, “The Plane of Dreams”. I had first witnessed the events in this tale more than twenty-five years ago; before Hussein had invaded Kuwait, almost before Al Gore had invented the internet. I’m not a scientist, I studied history. But enough excuses. I saw something back then, in the Lands of Hope, and now was starting to doubt the truth of it.

{Brief aside, for anyone tempted to conclude that I made this whole thing up. I repeat, I am not a writer, but a Chronicler, and the event I refer to was witnessed by over a half-dozen others. So, nyah.}

Oh the Places You’ll Go…

To the matter at hand: 26 years ago (real world calendar), a group of heroes and I were observing the fabled underworld city of Jengesalamur in the year 2001 ADR.

The Tributarians, after surviving several weeks on the perilous Shimmering Mindsea, had discovered the ancient city of Despair and come across notes from the journal of Sekinder, the mad alchemist who had been the city’s ruler millenia ago. In his diary, Sekinder made obsessive references to his quest to find the Eternal Reagent, a chemical solution that would turn any substance to gold. After much searching through the city, and fighting against undead guardians there, the heroes came across the alchemist’s laboratory. There, to their horror and astonishment they viewed all that was left of Sekinder: a perfect golden skeleton holding a bubbling alembic over his head in short-lived triumph.

A True Treasure “Haul”

After much rejoicing, a few unkind jokes and some more deadly encounters, the Tributarians hauled the skeletal treasure back to civilization, thus ensuring the fame and fortune with which they began the tale known as “The Plane of Dreams”. Now that I was tasked with writing up that story, a sudden thought gave me a chill- was this even possible? Not the bone-to-gold thing; that we accept as a matter of course. But what would readers say about a golden skeleton?

Could they have moved it? And what would it be worth?

As I said, I am an historian, not a mathematician (or a doctor, to echo James “Bones” McCoy!). My early calculations, containing several important errors, indicated a weight that wImage result for i'm a doctor not an escalatoras beyond credit. I almost panicked- what had I missed? Was gravity in the Lands of Hope as low as that on Barsoom? Was Spitz, the party’s largest warrior, five or six times as strong as my notes indicated? But I knew what I saw, so I plunged back in and eventually straightened out my calculus. You might say I boned up on the subject. But I wouldn’t.

Sekinder was, for all his evil and arrogance, a normal-sized human, a bit thin and tall like others of his era. We can safely assign him a weight of 150 pounds and height around 6 feet.  The weight of a human skeleton (using Bing to find all my mathematical/scientific data points) ranges from 12-20% of the total, and I used the suggested average of 15%. At this point I converted to metric (because of the later calculations needed) so I concluded that Sekinder had 10.13 kg of bones under his skin. Who’d have thought the old man to have so much calcium in him…

He Ain’t Heav– well, OK he’s NOT my brother

If all that mass of bone converted to gold, the total weight (gold being 10.17 times as dense as human bone) would be 102.96 kg (around 225 pounds) of golden treasure on the hoof. Literally.

wikimedia

But just a moment, what about calculating via volume? What is the volume of a human skeleton, and what would that weigh converted to gold? This route yielded a more interesting, and somewhat more alarming figure.

The only solution I could find was to draw an imaginary cylinder around Sekinder. The formula you’re looking for is:

V=πR2h

And assuming Sekinder’s diameter is 2 feet and height 6 feet, you arrive at 32,556 cubic inches. How much of this was comprised of skeleton? I could only guess that it was a small percentage, since the cylinder contained a lot of not-Sekinder within it. I used a figure of 5%, yielding 1,628 cubic inches. Converting to cubic feet and then to cubic meters gave me just 0.03 cubic meters of bone. Seemed small, but that gave me a startlingly-high 50.69 kg of human bone in the alchemist’s body- in gold, a whopping 515 kg (over half a ton in English pounds)!!

Man Enough!

Even so, I realized, Spitz could do the job of moving it.

This is where it gets tricky, because while we observed these heroes of the Lands closely over the years, we couldn’t actually pull them into our world and give them a nice NFL tryout or other means to gauge their strength. But I used some guidelines I had developed in my notes. Please understand that Spitz, at six and a half feet of ripped muscle, is enormously strong. Spitz can use his foot to batter open locked doors, and if he drops his two-handed sword he can snatch up tables and chairs to swing as weapons. He’s also a true shield-brother with a sexy deep voice, charming smile, not a jot of fear and a snazzy dancer. OK, exaggerating about that last bit. But he’s STRONG.

Spitz can lift and carry 90 kg for a long period. So by my first method, he could almost tuck Sekinder-in-gold under his arm and walk away. If he sets his mind to lifting, Spitz can certainly bench-press 125 kg (about as much as he weighs) and dead-lift nearly 180 kg; more than needed by the mass-method, but still short by the volume-method. However, he doesn’t need to lift the statue, he only needs to SHIFT it. With no mechanical assistance, he can push 324 kg, and with maximum exertion Spitz can shift up to 450 kg, which is pretty close. Spitz and the heroes rigged up a travois, like a cot with two wheels on one end, and carted Sekinder off with his arm in the air and that look of astonishment still stamped on his skull-face. Spitz split time with the others in the party (who worked in pairs) hauling it over sand (admittedly, not an ideal surface).

So they WERE able to move Sekinder- affectionately known to the heroes as Golden Boy- though not fast enough to outrun the nine-foot tall iron demon-golem who guarded the city. But that’s another story!

How much was this treasure worth when they got it home? As you will see in the tale, Sekinder was never melted down and cut up into coins; the statue was sold intact as a work of art. So once again I had to estimate. Depending on which method you fancy, the Golden Boy weighed in at either 3,300 or 16,500 Troy ounces (the unit of measure whereby gold is valued in the real world). I didn’t bat an eye at purity- nothing but 24-carat gold, I was sure, would do for an evil alchemist willing to spend that long and work that hard for success. At a current price of $1,657.45 (goldprice.org, noon on Thursday April 26th 2012), that yields a market price (before Imperial taxation of course) of between $US 5.4 and 27.4 million. The Tributarians probably got ripped off on the price, and still were outfitted with new enchantments, the finest equipment, nothing but the best… until the robbery…

So then- how much of all that went into my story? Not one jot.

But yes- evil does not pay (though it can occasionally generate a lot of loot for the good guys). Sekinder did die in the moment of his victory, the Tributarians did haul him back to town, Spitz was bushed (yet still manly), and the heroes were definitely rich as well as famous. It’s a relief to know that my eyes did not deceive me.

Here’s hoping that the internet age won’t rise up to haunt you in your writing.

Fantasy, by the Planets- My Faults are in the Stars

A post first issued in 2013, now brought to my own site for the first time.

With a tip of the broad-brimmed hat to Ciara Ballintyne, whose wonderful post on the subject kicked my dusty brain into gear, I fell to thinking how to classify the various works of fantasy that I love so well. I’ve come to realize from posts at various sites, that my views are quite simplistic- also showing their age, frankly- but perhaps for beginners I can offer the following easy taxonomy. If it helps you to write, then it’s good.

  • I’m following a rule of three, split by Stakes and Mood, for a total of nine sub-Genres. Yeah I know- too tidy, old-fashioned, unconvincing. Sue me. I have simple tastes, and believe that many things folks call genres are better described as flavors.
  • Among those things you won’t see reflected here by name are Urban, High/Low, Historical, Dark and most likely others you’ve come to like. My, I’m being grumpy today. It’s just that I prefer a few categories, and then one can speak of works that split-the-distance, or bend the genre. That strikes me as the greater compliment than to give every great work that comes along a category of its own.
  • My model is a solar system- in fact, ours. The planets represent centers of gravity that define something qualitatively different about the writing, and of course the reading experience. But plenty of room between the heavenly bodies, and most of what we read doesn’t nestle down precisely in one atmosphere or another. Most planets have moons, and there are uncounted millions of asteroids: I know what you’re thinking, the literary genius goes on and on.
  • And here’s another point, before I lay the figure on you. It’s a solar system, which means there’s room outside it as well. Maybe you’ll find the stuff you really like is off beyond Pluto somewhere, and that’s cool. I know that some of my works to date have spicing from other genres such as Horror, Mystery, and Romance: if Fantasy writing was a country trading with its neighbors, I would say imports outweighed exports by about 10 to 1. Might be cool to consider that in a future post.

A Question of Stakes and Mood

So I’ll give the graphic representation here, which I hope is pretty self-explanatory (thousand words and all that). I hope you enjoy it, and then if you like scan as many of my notes as you want. I’m a heroic and epic fantasy chronicler, so believe me, this IS the short version! But stop whenever it’s not helping you anymore. I’m very happy as always to hear your thoughts too. You should be able to click on the picture to make it bigger.

One chronicler's suggestion
One chronicler’s view

I’ve suggested three major genres of fantasy- Epic, Heroic and Sword and Sorcery (down the middle)  with variations of Mood (across the top) from Cinematic to Morbid, and a second spectrum of Stakes (along the side) from Casual to Crucial. At each “planet” I installed a title that pretty closely fits the location: most of my selections reveal my age but I think they will still be familiar to many. One word of warning; these planets are not arranged in the same order as you might expect by the presence of the “sun” in the picture. More explanations than you could ever want follow here!

The Stakes of a Tale

EPIC Fantasy is defined by Crucial Stakes; the main character is called upon to Save the World. Combat is rare, humor limited and every act reeks of consequences. Things happen for a reason, it all ties together.

HEROIC Fantasy involves some kind of quest within more limited boundaries, to Save the Kingdom. Heroes fight more often, there can be humorous moments and even mistakes before the (usually happy) ending.

SWORD & SORCERY sometimes identified with “Low” fantasy, has the smallest, most Casual stakes; for the protagonist, the job  is literally Save Your Skin. Fighting and action ranges from frequent to non-stop, and nearly any vice you can imagine is on the table (sometimes taking its clothes off) while mistakes are common (and mean less). By the end, there has often been little or nothing accomplished. Except you’ve enjoyed a great story.

Getting Into the Mood

But these tales are also qualified by a tone or Mood which puts them in definable categories. The CINEMATIC (or Light) mood generally carries more humor, a higher level of action and suspense, and often brings more misadventures whose purpose either distracts or relieves tension derived from the main plot. Not surprisingly, fantasies with a Cinematic Mood make good movies. The Stakes are the same (a Cinematic Epic Fantasy is still a quest to save the world), but you can laugh along the way, there’s more of a campy flavor. There’s also less doubt that the world/kingdom/skin will, in fact, be saved. You don’t spend sleepless nights wondering how it will turn out. On the opposite side of the spectrum, fantasy tales of all three genres can be Morbid (or perhaps Dark), bearing not just on death but on a much grimmer prospect regarding the Stakes. You can certainly doubt whether “it” will be saved, or you might be uncertain if you want the main character to succeed. Many works hailed as deconstructions of fantasy, in another view, are Morbid.

THE BOOK TITLES: In case you were interested, some notes on the choices I made. I spotted my own works with initials in purple (TMM- Three Minutes to Midnight, and so forth). I think I have them in the right orbits, but let me know!

Epic: Lord of the Rings is the obvious call, hard to see how any work could displace it. I also include SRD’s Thomas Covenant series as a later, but still seminal example of the Stakes involved. Ironic point- Middle Earth is lost unless Frodo refuses to use the Ring, and The Land is done for unless Covenant decides to use it!

Cinematic Epic: I chose the 1980 version of Flash Gordon for two reasons. First, even though it’s about as silly and campy as anything ever put on film, the Stakes are unmistakably Crucial: Ming is moments away from destroying Earth and ruling the entire galaxy. It’s technically science-fiction, but the lasers and mind-probes are pretty soft-pedaled especially in this movie: the best moments like the stump-of-death and the tilting-floor duel are pure fantasy. Secondly, it’s a shout-out to anyone who was at Camp Dudley YMCA in 1983, when five hundred boys trooped to the movie-hall after four days of torrential rains, expecting to see another boring baseball series recap film. Instead, the pulsing drums of Queen preceded Max von Sydow sneering “Foolish Earthlings, who can save you now?” The cheering echoes up in the Adirondacks to this day.

Morbid Epic: I think Stephen King’s Dark Tower series stands well here, because of the grim tone, the gruesome moral choices made and the severe prices paid. I’m not sure who I want to win, nor whether anyone will. And the Stakes once again are the entire world (no matter how small). Should I have yelled “Spoiler Alert” a few paragraphs ago?

Heroic: I personally put Ursula LeGuin’s series on a pedestal just as high as Tolkein’s or anyone else’s, and the first book I think is a splendid example of individual heroic activity for big (but not yet universal) Stakes. There are two kinds of readers on earth- those who need to read Earthsea and those who need to read it again.

Cinematic Heroic: The book is better, yet the movie of The Princess Bride brings out the Cinematic mood just as well. But the book is better.

Morbid Heroic: Here’s where I would stash GRRM, personally, and for emphasis I laid him alongside Elric of Melnibone. I think Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch can also be classified here. The struggles going on in Game of Thrones et al will not bring the world down to darkness (most likely)- and with most characters showing a gleam of virtue already dead I’m not sure anyone would notice if they did. Heroes are saps. Even some of the bad guys are suckers, compared to some of the other bad guys. I count down from the top of my list of characters who are a) somewhat good and b) still alive, and here’s my top 3:

  1. The brave bastard (no really) who’s still alive because he lives at the polar ice-cap so none of his enemies can be sure where he is
  2. The girl who’s hoping to become an assassin
  3. the blonde guy who actually said no to boinking his sister for a change, and who might be getting a tad weary of being so evil all the time

Can you tell I don’t like Morbid fantasy much?

My choices for Sword and Sorcery are all nearly as old as I am and I cannot see into the darkness far enough to make out a Morbid choice. Perhaps you have some suggestions to fill in my star-chart?

Planetary Considerations (is this for real?)

Speaking of that, let me wrap up (this IS the short version) with a run-down of the various planets.

The SUN brings “light” of course, so the three planets closest to it are Cinematic and the furthest are Morbid. But that’s not strictly a distance thing.

Arranged to fit my own fantasy
Arranged to fit my own fantasy

Venus is where you should expect to find her, both the lowest and most light-hearted spot suited to the pursuit of, ahm, venality.

Neptune occupies the Cinematic Heroic spot because like many tales in that sub-genre, it’s turned on its side.

Pluto is Cinematic Epic because its very survival (as a planetary body) is at stake. Despite being so far away it is at least solid, and remarkably bright for its small size. So a nice combination of light and far-out.

Mars is the home of Sword and Sorcery and if Conan wasn’t so cool I’d have put Jon Carter there as a title in a heartbeat.

Earth is the home of heroes. Full stop. Keep looking, they’re there- and my Lands of Hope are the proof.

Epic Fantasy is the King (I know, the planet I used has rings, but it’s a great color). And Jupiter has many moons, lots of tremendous titles we all could name in its orbit.

Morbid S&S needs a planet where things are cold as hell but can move quickly and dangerously. Mercury, remember, doesn’t spin- the dark side temps drop to -350 F or lower. In a Morbid S&S your life could be over in fewer seconds than the days of Mercury’s orbit.

Uranus is appropriate for Morbid Heroic because it’s so large and full of gas. Deadly gas. Fortunately for me, it’s also far away. Did I mention Morbid is not my favorite?

And Saturn wishes it could be Jupiter again but will have to settle for second in size, still slow of speed, lots of material in its orbit too.

Sincere thanks for your patience, I’ve enjoyed the rant. Ar Aralte! (Hope Forever)