Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dark Continents

Being here in Australia, I have given a bit of thought to the concept of Dark Continents and its impact on Sword and Sorcery genera.
Clearly the orgins of the term come from the 19th century, when map makers were unsure of what was in the interior of the continent, so would just leave it blank or "dark."

Nowdays, most folks would still naturally think of Africa as the Dark Continent, for obvious reasons. It is easy to get caught up in the mythology that surrounds Africa with its steamy jungles, Serengeti Plains, and the Sahara Desert that empties into Egypt with its pyramids. There is something quite primal about this backdrop that makes for great story telling. Howard made liberal use of this in his Solomon Kane stories, and Conan borrowed bit and pieces here and there to fill out the Hyborian Age in order to set the right atmosphere.

While the wild animals of Africa make for great stories, of which The Man-Eaters of Tsavo is one of my favorite tales, with its rogue man eating lions. It is perhaps the only place on earth that large animals still range free. The dinosaurs have been extinct for a good 65 million years, but elephants and the other great herd animals still tromp around, giving us but a glimpse of what it would have been like to see large beasts wandering about. Still it falls short of seeing an actual T-rex, but this is the best we have in the modern age.

With all that said, I think the key to the draw of Africa is the idea that older civilization once lived here. The mysteries of the pyramids still remain with us, and are not fully understood. When Europe became aware of Africa, it was a new civilization meets old civilization, and with this, concepts and ideas become possible. It is here that Sword and Sorcery can take root, and creative writing can fully blossom. It is the unknown that defies traditional thinking, allows for the possibility of fantastic stories, and has become a fertile field for numerous authors to plow away on, which they have.

But, Africa is not the only Dark Continent on our planet. One could argue that all the continents have some mysterious past, which begs for exploration by creative authors. The Indian myths of North and South America, the Dark Ages of Europe, the Chinese and Japanese dynasties, just to name a few. This brings us to Antarctica and Australia.

Antarctica is a difficult beast to write about, as no one really lived there in ages past. One has to create a past and give the readers context in which to believe in the possibilities. There have been a number of authors that have succeeded in creating this plausibility for the audience. John Carpenter’s The Thing created the idea of an alien in the ice that goes on to terrorize a group of researchers. This idea of aliens in remote places is not new, and earlier authors, most notably HP Lovecraft, made generous use of this idea, and I suspect that Carpenter was well versed is Lovecraft mythology. Chris Carter’s X-Files borrowed this idea for his first movie with Molder and Scully chasing alien space craft under the frozen ice. Antarctica does work, but one has to set the stage and tap into our primal subconscious, as it does not exist naturally.

This brings us to Australia, a sort of forgotten island in the South Pacific. Australia is a place where civilization exists on the coast and a rugged outback exists in the middle, which to this day is sparsely populated. Lovecraft used Australia as the backdrop for the end of The Shadow Out of Time, as the main character was looking for the remains of the ancient Great Race. Clearly the remote outback, with its unique and dangerous animals, rivals that of the remote plains of Africa. But perhaps where Australia has Africa beat is with its legendary great white sharks. That is not to say that Africa does not have any white sharks, as indeed it does of the off coast of South Africa, but I think most folks, if asked the question, would respond with Australia rather than Africa.

Today, I was out at Bondi Beach, and I could not help but think about the sharks off the coast, as they are out there. My thoughts drifted a bit to Nick Logue’s Razor Coast Adventure which is due out soon (hopefully before Gencon). While I have not seen any of the manuscripts, and what I know from Nick’s website is that it makes liberal use of shark and Lovecraft mythology. I am looking forward to seeing the final product, and my trip here has only heighted my anticipation for this upcoming release.

To return to the opening theme of Dark Continents, this is one of the cornerstones of the early Sword and Sorcery pulps. It’s combination of familiarity and mystery, which lend themselves to be harvested into a new creation that plays right into a reader’s mind. With but a sentence or two, an entire stage is set, and the author has the reader hooked. Blend in a bit of fantasy, and the sword and sorcery story comes alive. To bring this around full circle, I would say that all the major world campaigns have borrowed from this, and one can clearly see where the real world has intersected in the creation of these campaigns.

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