‘Gritty’ and ‘Realistic’ SFF Isn’t

Today it is all the rage to label a specific brand of modern science fiction and fantasy as ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’. Championed by writers like Joe Abercrombie and George R R Martin, these stories star villain protagonists and antiheroes, oceans of blood, torture and treachery, and all manner of depredations. Every time such a dark story is published, critics declare them as masterpieces of gritty, brutal realism.

I don’t know about those critics, but such stories don’t match my experience of ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’.

I grew up reading thrillers. The first time I encountered ‘realistic’, it signalled an impeccably researched story. Every important detail—tactics to terminology, dialogue to descriptions—reflected reality. ‘Gritty’ stories starred indomitable heroes who confronted overwhelming odds with charm, intelligence and firepower. Through force of will they overcame obstacles, identified and neutralised villains, and achieved their goals. The protagonists weren’t perfect, and many of them were not good people, but they held fast to their own code of honour. They might be hardened street predators, but even they had standards. Barry Eisler’s John Rain would never hurt a child, while Andrew Vachss’ Burke took one step further by punishing those who preyed on children. These protagonists demonstrated grit in story worlds that reflected reality.

The SFF Establishment has no idea what ‘grit’ and ‘realism’ really mean.

What is Gritty?

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean…

The Oxford English Dictionary defines gritty in this context as:

  • Showing courage and resolve
  • Showing something unpleasant as it really is; uncompromising

The difference seems simple: the thrillers I read used the first definition while dark SFF insists on the second. And yet this is not so.

The thrillers of my youth weren’t about pleasant things. Vachss’ stories had unflinching portrayals of child abuse, murder-for-hire, gang life, sexual assault and more. Dennis Lehane had stories about murderers, mobsters, kidnappers and other monsters in human skin. These and other stories dive into the darkness that dwells in the hearts of men and rip off the gilt to reveal the maggots squirming underneath. Yet they also show courageous and resolute protagonists who are willing to confront these villains and bring them to justice.

In the dark SFF style championed by Abercrombie and Martin, we only see the unpleasantness. A Song of Ice and Fire is marked by murder, betrayal, rape, intrigue, incest, rape, atrocities, war and of course, rape. SFF books in a similar vein feature unsympathetic protagonists with no redeeming traits, wanton cruelty and sadism, and temporary or hollow victories by the more sympathetic characters—if they indeed secure victories at all.

While the real world is unpleasant and unforgiving, these ‘gritty’ SFF works overexaggerate this bleakness to the point where the discerning reader cannot but disbelieve the stories. If the protagonists are cruel and sadistic murderers, why would everybody else still permit them to live and walk freely? Better to kill them before they cause more harm. If churches serve no purpose except as dens of iniquity and intrigue, why do they still exist? They certainly aren’t elevating humanity and have no positive impact on the story world, so people would not tolerate their existence. If oathbreakers and monsters consistently seize and maintain power, why has civilisation not already fallen into a barbaric free-for-all? This is the final fate of societies shattered by the weight of the Kali Yuga or the Twilight of the Gods, where brother turns on brother and all makes war on all.
A gritty work is harsh and uncompromising. It does not blow up the evils of the world well out of proportion. Writing must reflect the truth of the world to maintain verisimilitude. Allegedly ‘gritty’ SFF does not.

What is Realistic?

Man has two selves

The key part of ‘realistic’ is ‘real’. A realistic story must reflect reality. On the surface it simply means that the story must be well-researched. In my view, though, it is merely a basic requirement. Thrillers and SFF may be different genres, but the best examples of both fields have at least one thing in common: believable characters. And characters can only be believable through accurate portrayals of human nature.

Everybody knows the darkness of the human heart. Open a newspaper and you will see terrorist atrocities, gangland wars, murderers, child abuse and lying politicians in abundance. Evil lurks everywhere in the world. Humans can be beastly, cowardly, bloodthirsty, vicious and covetous creatures. This is reality.

Yet humans can also be noble. Churches have sponsored universities and hospitals, opposed tyrants and freed slaves, and propagated virtues and values. Ultra-rich people give away millions or billions of dollars every year to charitable causes. Strangers have banded together to help people in need. Troops and civilians demonstrate valour on and off the battlefields of the world. This, too, is reality.

Every man has two aspects. One is craven, power-seeking, vengeful, petty, and self-centred. The other is selfless, kind, virtuous, determined and undefeatable. A truly realistic work would reflect both sides of human nature. ‘Realistic’ SFF works shun this holistic approach, seeking only to amplify the former.

This approach does not make for good fiction. Readers need a reason to invest themselves in stories and characters. They must see themselves in the stories, or better yet, the people they aspire to become. Readers have no reason to care about story universes filled with nihilistic bloodshed and unsympathetic villain protagonists. They do care about characters who face struggles that resonate with the readers.

John Rain is a stone-cold hitman, but his conscience haunts him and he tries to redeem himself throughout the series. Burke is a career criminal, but he is loyal to his family of choice and targets monsters even worse than him. In their own way, these men embody honour and ethics in worlds that reject such values. They represent both the best and the worst of humanity, resonating with readers who live in the light and want to peer into the darkness. Contrast this with blackguards and torturers who revel in death and destruction, so far removed from conventional norms of good and evil that they have no common frame of reference with regular people. Readers have no ability to sympathise with such characters, and no reason to. If such people are the protagonists, it becomes very difficult for most readers to invest themselves in the story.

Make SFF Great Again

First the Hugos, and then, the industry!

I don’t understand why the purveyors of dark, dim fiction are pleased to call these stories ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’. I wonder if they truly understand the meaning of the words they use, if their experience of reality is so small that they have experienced only corruption and depravity, or if they are simply projecting their beliefs about reality into fiction.

They are sad benighted souls who praise only the dark side of man and cannot or will not acknowledge the light. They flee from the brilliant splendour of creation for the nihilistic emptiness of unending atrocities. It is as if they dwell in the dark alien chambers beyond space and time where they spend their days playing accused flutes and vile drums to the nameless blasphemous bubbling nuclear chaos at the heart of nothingness.

Grit and realism means more than just stark portrayals of evil. It also acknowledges the bright side of human nature. The great SFF works of the past understood and explored cravenness and courage, villainy and heroism, good and evil. Thrillers today still do. Now is the time to study the lessons of these stories and make SFF great again.

Photo credits:

Sam Spade: The Maltese Falcon
Drama masks: Pixabay
Rabid Puppies 2016 logo: Vox Day

Why I Avoid Reading Violence in Fiction

I’m not a pacifist. But I must confess: in the vast majority of manga I read these days, I skip most depictions of violence. In books, if I encounter an action scene that doesn’t make sense, I just dump the book altogether.

Fiction requires suspension of disbelief, and when a sequence triggers disbelief, then the story has failed. There are plenty of stories out there with excellent characters, tight plotting and sharp dialogue, but they all fail at the first punch. Here’s why.


Violence is not about showing off your character’s skills

In a certain popular urban fantasy series, the first chapter in the first book has the protagonist interviewing an informant. The informant mouths off to her, so she punishes him by tossing him out the window. The protagonist justifies this by saying that said informant is a supernatural creature and would survive the fall.

Being a jerk is not a reason to throw someone out the window. Sure, the informant would walk away with nothing but bruises, but why would the informant come back to her? Why won’t he take his business elsewhere, or sell her to her enemies? He has no loyalties; why would he care about her? Why would he act like a jerk if she’s a known loose cannon? Why does she think physically abusing the only person in town who can help her with her job is a smart move?

From this perspective, it’s clear that the scene does not make sense. It exists only to have the writer the character as yet another stock Badass Female Protagonist.

But being a heavy hitter is not about showing off. It’s not about going overboard on idiots, taking every opportunity to pick a fight or use the flashiest moves. It’s about being so skilled you don’t have to — at least until there’s a compelling reason to.

Here’s an anecdote from Kelly McCann, a combatives instructor, from Combatives for Street Survival: Volume 1.

In the early 1990s, McCann visited a drug store to stock up on first aid supplies. At the time, he was carrying a Glock 27 in his waistband. As he paid for his purchases, 3 men entered and lined up behind him. One of them reached to grab something, noticed McCann’s cash on the counter, then retracted his hand. As McCann left, the men followed him out without buying anything. McCann realised at that point that the men were working up to mug him.Or worse.

In many stories, this becomes an excuse for the author to showcase the protagonist’s moves. The men will try to hold up the protagonist, giving him every opportunity to draw down and kill them all with precision headshots, or otherwise go ballistic.

In the real world, McCann turned to face the men, resting his hand on his gun, and said, “Don’t.”

The men backed off.

Heavy hitters do not go to guns whenever there’s a chance to avoid it. They will not act like psychopaths without a good reason for it — and those who do will face the consequences. Heavy hitters avoid, de-escalate, and deter whenever they can. If they have to draw down or go hands-on, it means all other options have failed — and they will unleash hell on the enemy.

Likewise, in stories, there has to be a compelling in-character and in-story reason to unload on someone. Showing off to the reader is not it. bloody-splat-8775057.jpg

Violence has consequences

In another urban fantasy series, the protagonist is a police officer on a task force that handles crimes related to otherworldly creatures. In one sequence, she is walking down the street when she is accosted by four otherworld gangsters. Insults and disrespect follows. She loses her temper, and next thing she knows, she has killed them all. With her bare hands.

The video goes viral on YouTube by the time she returns to the station. She takes a shower, wonders she’s done, then heads off to a stakeout.

The book lost me at that point.

Violence carries a great cost. Masters of violence pay for their knowledge with broken bones, spilled blood and psychic scars. They also have to contend with social repercussions.

If the above scene happened in the real world, there would be a media firestorm. The protagonist would be yanked off the job and must explain herself to Internal Affairs – especially since she initiated the violence. The story would have ended there and then. Nothing of that sort happened in the story; the only consequence was a short conversation with the Police Chief that amounts to nothing at all.

In the First World, societies have laws and mass media. If violence takes place, the protagonist has to be able to justify his actions to the police, or he WILL be tossed into jail. Or worse. If he can’t, then he’ll have to evade police attention somehow. In places where the norms and customs of civilisation do not apply, every act of violence is an excuse for a vendetta. The protagonist may make enemies too powerful to fight. A psychopath who picks on everyone he can would suddenly find himself outnumbered and outgunned. Or be shived in the back at midnight.

A good example of a protagonist who understands the consequences of violence is Barry Eisler’s John Rain. Rain is a hitman who specialises in making deaths look like natural causes or accidents. He is also a judo exponent. He lives a solitary lifestyle, dictated by security measures that any other person would call paranoia, and has very few friends. He has also been wounded multiple times on the job, which affects how he carries himself, the tools he carries, and his mindset.

Rain is a heavy hitter by any measure, but even he can’t escapes the consequences of violence. He mitigates this through personal security, and by being terrifyingly effective.


Unrealistic Violence

A creator’s primary job is to create content that entertains consumers. But too many creators think that the best way to do that is to have flashy moves, complex techniques and sequences, multi-mook takedowns with a single technique, and duels between the major characters.

It just doesn’t work in reality. There are endless numbers of articles and videos criticising unrealistic violence everywhere, so I’m going to take a different tack.

Look at the combat scenes in Taken, John Wick, the live action Rorouni Kenshin films, the Jason Bourne series and the first two Batman movies starring Christian Bale. The scenes are noted for their raw brutality, the simple techniques and the uncompromising vision of violence. The protagonists are skilled, but they live in worlds where a single misstep would send them to the morgue. By careful employment of tactics and techniques, they will pass the gates of fire – plausibly cementing their image as powerful, capable protagonists.

Real world combat doesn’t have bullet time to show off moves. Adrenaline spikes make everyone stronger and clumsier. Complexity leads to confusion; gross motor skills are king. And multi-mook takedowns are rare, if not outright impossible.

Violence with Verisimilitude

To fully engage readers, strive to have violence with verisimilitude. Violence isn’t about showing off. It’s about doing what has to be done to achieve one’s goals, be it survival or otherwise. Violence always carries consequences, and the best way to achieve verisimilitude is to accurately portray both it and its consequences.

This is just a high-level post, providing a bird’s eye view of the situation. In coming weeks and months I will be writing more posts about how to plausibly depict violence in fiction, drilling down into specific aspects. In the meantime, check out Rory Miller’s Violence: A Writer’s Guide and Marc MacYoung’s Writing Violence for more details from people who have bene there and done that.


To 2017: Write Less to Write More

If you’re a writer, nobody cares about how many stories you’ve written. Only about the stories you’ve published.

Ideas and stories are meaningless if they are locked away in a hard drive or scrapbook. They only hold value when they are shared with the world. You’re not an author if you don’t publish your works.

In 2016, I wrote the most number of stories I ever had. In 2016, I also published the fewest number of stories since I became a published writer.

How did that happen?

Half of the answer is that a couple of stories I submitted this year would, with any luck, be published next year. WE BURY FOR OWN, for instance, will be published when Lyonesse goes online in 2017. The other half is that I wrote too much stuff that had to be thrown out. On the order of 500,000 words.

Five. Hundred. Thousand. More than enough for a trilogy and then some.

Those words comprise of a novel, its sequel, and assorted deleted scenes. The deleted parts overwhelmed both stories combined. Worse, I cannot in good conscience publish either story at this time. Despite the months I’ve thrown into them, the hundreds of thousands of words committed to the page, they’re not good enough.

The reason for this is simple: my old writing style just isn’t good enough.

I used to write like a classic pantser: little if any pre-planning, just open the story and pound away at the keys. It worked, mostly, allowing me to create scenes that organically built upon events in previous chapters.

The problem with that approach is at the meta level: there was little time and space dedicated to worldbuilding, setting and character planning. Exactly the wrong thing to do for the stories I was working on.

The stories are hard science fiction. Diamond hard science fiction. Every piece of technology inside the story would be entirely within the realm of modern understanding science. Everything would be an extension of what is known and possible today. That kind of undertaking required copious amounts of research — and ensuring that everything remained consistent.

More than that, the story was a space opera driven by a romance. A completely new genre of writing. One that demanded in-depth knowledge of the human heart, and how every human and faction within the story would believe, feel, think and act.

Pantsing, I’ve discovered, isn’t adequate to the task. I found myself revising scenes over and over and over again, and at the end of it all, feedback from my writers’ group indicated that it still wasn’t good enough.

In 2016, I found that my old style of writing wouldn’t work anymore. Not for the standard I aspire to.

For 2017, I have to do things differently. Writing less to write more.

I went into pantsing because I wanted to write as much and as quickly as I could. That approach won’t work. I intend to spend less time writing and more time planning. More time on worldbuilding, researching concepts and technologies, understanding characters, planning events.

In other words: I plan to spend more time building the foundations and getting things right before I commit to paper.

That should lead to less time spent on revisions and edits down the road. Which means more time working on the next story, and the next, and the next. In the end, what matters isn’t so much the act of writing as writing excellent work, publishing it, and maintaining the drive.

The same approach applies to blogging. For the past month, I’ve been planning my posts, researching them, focusing them on a single topic. My new posts are between 50 to 75 percent shorter than my old ones. The time and energy savings allow me to post more often, leading to more pageviews.

I’ve already experimented with the new approach for a certain story I wrote this month. Initial feedback has been positive, and next year I hope I can share it with you. I also have other writing plans for 2017. More will be revealed as I execute them.

2016 was a year for learning the hard way.

2017 will be the year the writing bears fruit.

Guest Post: 4 Tips to Win NaNoWriMo

I don’t do National Novel Writing Month. For some reason, every November I find myself mostly editing stories instead of writing them, and this year is no different. But I do have respect to those who take up the challenge, and even more for those who succeed.

One of my closest writer colleagues is Steven Hildreth Jr. He’s completed NaNo five times, and is well on course for a sixth. That puts him in the elite of all NaNo winners, easily in the top ten percent or even one percent of all participants. I reached out to him to pen a guest post for this blog about how to succeed at NaNo, and he graciously obliged.

Without further ado, here are his thoughts.

(Yes, there is rough language; no, I’m not editing it out. This is how he speaks and I’m not going to alter his voice.)


If you’ve tried it before, or if you run in writer’s circles, you see that acronym and know exactly what I’m talking about.

If you’re not a writer, or if you’re new to writing, you may be looking at me as if I have a horn growing out of my forehead.

NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth was founded in 1999 with the goal of teaching writers not to try and be perfectionists on their first draft. The goal was just to WRITE, and write as fast and as furiously as one could. 1,667 words per day for a total of 50,010 words. It originally was set in July, but was shifted to November.

Thirty days of non-stop writing.

NaNo is a dedication to art. In 2009, 167,150 people started NaNo, and only 32,178 completed it. That makes for a roughly 81% attrition rate. If NaNo were a special operations selection course, it would be on par with BUD/S (Navy SEALs), and tougher than RASP (75th Ranger Regiment) and INDOC (Marine Force Reconnaissance).

NaNo is not easy.

Sufficiently intimidated?

Good. Because now we can move forward and build your confidence up a bit.

It’s daunting…but it IS doable. My first time doing NaNo was in 2010. I won my first time. I then completed it another four times. I know what it’s like to win. For a while, I got cocky. I took it for granted. I even looked at people who couldn’t complete it, shrugged, and went, “Well, it’s not for everybody,” without sympathy.

I needed to be knocked down a few pegs and taught a lesson in humility…and that is exactly what happened in 2014 and 2015. I failed TWICE in a row.

The first year, I was taking college courses and working nearly full time. I simply did not have the energy or time management skills to keep up. I washed out around the 22,000 word mark.

The second year, I was in the same scenario. Didn’t even make it to 20,000 words that year.

I was crushed. I questioned if I should even be writing novels, even though I had published two by the 2015 NaNo.

This year, I’m two days ahead of schedule. I’m 5,000 words away from the halfway point. I’ve got a strong plot and I am confident that I can complete it this year for a shot at redemption (I say that with a bit of apprehension, as I do not like counting my chickens before they’ve hatched).


So, what does it take to complete NaNoWriMo?


Here are a few pointers:

1) KNOW YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES. Some people can just pull a complete novel out of their ass with very little planning (pantsers, in NaNoLingo). Others need a very meticulous outline before they get started (planners). And some, like me, need a rigid direction to take the novel, but need a little room for spontaneity (plantsers).


The years I failed, I had no rigid plot outline. I hadn’t done the requisite research necessary to start a novel. I set myself up for failure.


I know this now, and I started NaNo 2016 with a strong plotline. I started writing it before November 1st (but don’t worry, I’m only counting the words I’ve written after November 1st as nobody likes a cheater) and had my momentum going into it. If that’s what it takes, do it!


But, you have to know your strengths and your weaknesses. If you go into it blind, you’ll learn real quick. If that means you fail, then come back next year, equipped with the knowledge from the previous year, and put boots to asses.


2) WRITE. You have to carve out time to write. You have to sit down and actually put the words to paper, digital or real. If you don’t carve that time out, you’re not going to get there. Pretty self-explanatory.


3) DON’T EDIT A DAMN THING. This is the hardest for most. I know this is hard for me. I break this rule every so often, but I won’t do any in-depth edits. The only thing I edit for is continuity. The less you edit, the better. Don’t worry about grammatical mistakes. Don’t worry about rephrasing things. Just get the thing on paper. It’s easier to smooth out a rough, completed manuscript than it is to write the perfect first draft (news flash: there is no such thing as a perfect first draft).


4) IF YOU FAIL, IT IS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD. It doesn’t mean you’re a horrible writer who should quit. People have lives. They have school. They have jobs. They have families. They have issues with which to deal. Writing is often a constant battle against life, and sometimes, life is going to win out. Accept it. It is better to write something than nothing at all.


Set a smaller goal for yourself if you find yourself in that situation and build up from there. Can’t make 50,000 in a month? Write 25,000. Write 10,000. Just write.


One of my closest friends and colleagues, Stephen England, throws a jamboree if he hits 1,000 words in a day. In comparison, I’ve cranked out 10,000 words in a single day to complete a novel.


England’s got four full-length novels and seven short stories available on Amazon. I’m still working on my third novel.


Maybe the NaNo speed isn’t for you, and that’s fine, too. As long as you are writing, and as long as you are completing, then you’re accomplishing the overall goal of NaNoWriMo, even if you can’t complete 50,000 words in 30 days. Remember, coffee’s for closers, only.


NaNo taught me how to complete a novel. Without NaNo, I would not be the writer, the published author, that I am today. I definitely would encourage all aspiring writers to give it a shot. Even if you’re not declared a “winner,” you will learn valuable things about yourself as a writer, lessons that you can apply to your craft and enhance your writing.


Now, stop listening to me ramble and put pen to paper/fingers to keyboard already, goddamn it.


Steven Hildreth’s stories can be found here. They are action-packed thrillers in the vein of Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Andy McNab and Mark Greaney. Likewise, Stephen England’s thrillers have been extremely well-received, and the full list can be found here.

Cultural Appropriation Enriches Everything

Lionel Shriver gave a speech critiquing the concept of cultural appropriation, leading to this temper tantrum filled with politically correct whining. I’m amused that people think ‘cultural appropriation’ is an intellectually honest concept.

What is cultural appropriation? From Shriver’s speech:

The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

But let’s go deeper into progressive-speak and take Everyday Feminism‘s definition of cultural appropriation. (Emphasis theirs)

In short: Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own.

But that’s only the most basic definition.

A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.

That’s why cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other – because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic.

It’s also not the same as assimilation, when marginalized people adopt elements of the dominant culture in order to survive conditions that make life more of a struggle if they don’t.

Some say, for instance, that non-Western people who wear jeans and Indigenous people who speak English are taking from dominant cultures, too.

But marginalized groups don’t have the power to decide if they’d prefer to stick with their customs or try on the dominant culture’s traditions just for fun.

Even with this more specific definition, cultural appropriation is nonsense. Culture is intangible. It is a set of ideas and practices. If a stronger party adopts elements of culture from a weaker party, the weaker party is not in any way further diminished. If anything, the weaker party spreads its memes and ideas to the stronger party, giving it influence over the latter.

How is this not a subversion of the dominant culture? How does this undermine the weaker culture?

The concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ suggests that there is a deliberate effort to steal cultural ideas, but this is clearly not so. Is there an equivalent of an Archchancellor of Cultural Warfare who decrees that the people of his empire should unanimously adopt the practices of a given oppressed people in a certain year? Is there a grand conspiracy that decides which cultures to promote and which cultures to ignore?

No. It’s simply people deciding to adopt the ideas of another culture after finding them useful to their lives.

Looking at the three concepts of culture promulgated by Everyday Feminism, you will see that they are saying that dominant cultures are evil for taking ideas from a weaker culture and for imposing those ideas on a weaker culture. In other words: heads I win, tails you lose. The only way to win is to not play — or to be a self-designated victim.

As an idea to grapple with reality, ‘cultural appropriation’ is intellectually bankrupt. It is simply an excuse for an arbitrarily-designated minority to point and shriek at an arbitrarily-designated majority under the guise of cultural protection. It is a tool to justify affirmative action of the basest kind: to tear down or promote someone else’s work not because of its merits and demerits, but solely on the basis of identity. It is a weapon that self-declared ‘progressives’ use to erase the vibrancy of humanity.

In Singapore, the local patois is Singlish,  English organized along Chinese grammatical rules with loanwords from Malay, Tamil and various Chinese dialects. Singaporean cuisine is a fusion of every culture that has passed through the land. You can find Chinese selling nasi lamak, Indians cooking Western food, Malays preparing curry chicken, and a vast array of restaurants offering food to suit every palate, be it Japanese, Mexican, Vietnamese, vegetarian, even kosher food. Peranakan people are of Chinese descent who settled in the Malay Archipelego, speak a creole of Malay and Hokkien, have Chinese religious customs and adopt Malay fashions, and developed a distinct cuisine. Among the locals and foreigners who pass through Singapore, English (or Singlish) is the language that bridges everybody.

The world would be a far poorer place if people refused to adopt ideas from different cultures.

Where writers are concerned, the first thing they should do is focus on the story. Not the PC harpies shrieking about cultural appropriation, not the elitists who sneer at anything that isn’t capital-L literature, not the social justice warriors who project their narcissism and inadequacies on everyone.

If you’re a writer writing about a culture you’re unfamiliar with, you have to do your research. You have to capture nuances of behaviour, the idiosyncrasies of language, fashion sense, cuisines, social hierarchies, everything that marks a given culture. To do anything less is a disservice to the story.

Dressing up the setting of your story in foreign clothes but making everyone sound like you doesn’t enrichen the story. Kubo and the Two Strings, for instance, has the dressings of Japan, but everyone speaks and acts like Americans, and the weapons and armour are period-inappropriate. This is not cultural appropriation, though — this is simply a failure to do the research, or else a deliberate stylistic choice that detracts and distracts from the story.

Writing about a foreign culture is a road to growth and empathy — the opposite of SJWs who would demand that everyone shut up and stay in their little boxes. Done right, works about different cultures contribute to the wonder and the majesty of art — the opposite of SJWs who would rather everything be reduced to grey, flavorless mush. Stories of different peoples allow readers to see through the eyes of others — the opposite of SJWs whose insistence on arbitrary identities require that everyone become soulless, narcissistic blobs incapable of empathising with anyone.

If you like an idea from a different culture, don’t be afraid to use it. Never let the harpies keep you from greatness.

The Unmaking of Heroes

I grew up with heroes. Sun Wu Kong, Perseus, Thor (the god not the comic book character), Bellerophon, the Eight Immortals, Justice Bao, Heracles, David. The list goes on and on. As I grew older, I found different kinds of heroes: Kusanagi Makoto, Batman, Okumura Rin, the Punisher, Deunun Knute. And, yes, Captain America.

People need cultural heroes. They want to see the triumph of good over evil, virtue over vice. They want to see the wicked punished and the just rewarded. They want to see brave and resourceful people overcome impossible odds. It’s a universal trait, seen in every culture around the world.

People want to believe. They want to be inspired. By reading of heroes doing great things, they can believe that they, too, can achieve great things. When they see heroes smite the wicked, they can believe that they, too, can be agents of righteousness in the world. When they see heroes outwit, outlast or outtalk the enemy, they can believe that they, too, can achieve such greatness.

Belief in virtue is a powerful thing. From such belief we have Martin Luther King Jr., Chiang Kai Shek, George Washington, the Righteous Among the Nations, Sophie Scholl, the Four Chaplains. The everyday unsung heroes.

Never underestimate the power of belief. Never underestimate the power of stories to inspire greatness.

And so, with a heavy heart, I read of Nick Spencer perverting Captain America, turning him from incorruptible paragon to insidious mole.

The Triumph of the Message

Amidst the Sturm und Drang over the revelation of Captain America being a Hydra agent, one small detail was almost left out: the Red Skull, the leader of Hydra. Here’s what he had to say:

“I have just come from Europe — my homeland, in fact. And do you know what I saw there? It was an invading army. These so-called ‘refugees’ — millions of them — marching across the continent, bringing their fanatical beliefs and their crime with them,” Captain America’s nemesis says. “They attack our women, and bomb our cities. And how do our leaders respond? Do they push them back and enforce the borders, as is our sovereign duty? Of course not. They say, ‘Here, take our food. Take our shelter. Take our way of life, and then take our lives.’ Despicable.”

“Your entire culture is under siege,” Red Skull continues to an American audience. “The principles your country was founded upon lost in the name of ‘tolerance.’ Your religion, your beliefs, your sense of community — all tossed aside like trash. And you cannot even speak out against it, lest you be called a bigot!”

This is the rhetoric of American conservatives, the alt right, and European nationalists. Spencer clearly wants to criticise right-wing ideology in his comic. And he isn’t afraid of how much history he has to pervert.

Hydra’s goal is world domination, to implement a fascist new world order. One would imagine that Red Skull would welcome mass illegal immigration and terrorism. This would undermine borders and faith in national governments, creating the conditions that would allow Hydra to step in. Hydra’s ideal recruits would be people who believe in its dream of a united world, run by ubermenschen like themselves, and are willing to commit terrorism. In all the depictions I have seen, Red Skull does not see himself as an American or a German or a European or anything but the leader of Red Skull — and yet here he speaks like an ultranationalist.

Captain America is a paragon of American virtue. I imagine that by some twisted leap of logic, he must also also be an American ultranationalist zealot.

This story concept is weak. It is inherently flawed. Why would a globalist organisation start spouting nationalist doctrine? Why would an organisation hell-bent on world domination espouse ideas that would further divide the world and make it harder for it to achieve its goals?

Spencer wants to portray Hydra as a right-wing organisation inspired by modern nationalist thought. But he doesn’t understand the international right-wing movement. Right-wing parties want to end immigration — and the crime and terrorism that follows mass illegal immigration — and rebuild their societies. They do not care about world domination or invading other countries; they want to restore the days of glory. While there may be cooperation between nationalists and ultranationalists across borders, they aren’t out to rule the world; they’re out to kick out the outsiders and enforce their national sovereignties. Their alliances are built upon opposition to globalisation and supranational organisations like the European Union. It is logically inconsistent for a terrorist group that aims to unite the world under its rule to support an ideology that would keep the world fractured into sovereign states.

And what if this Hydra is now an ultranationalist organisation? Then the question I must ask is: which nation is it supporting? Why does it have a German leader attempting to recruit Americans? Why would it want to poke its nose into the affairs of other nations? Ultranationalists have a national scope, globalists have a global vision; this Hydra is somehow both nationalist and globalist, a walking contradiction that cannot exist and survive for long. Not in the real world and not in fiction.

I have no doubt that Spencer and his allies intend to resolve this story arc by preaching the triumph of the ideology opposed to nationalism: globalism, tolerance, diversity. The same ideology that Hydra — the original Hydra — would have to embrace to be a world-spanning international terrorist organisation with one vision and one goal.

The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. Spencer sacrificed story logic on the altar of politics. No doubt the ‘revelation’ of Captain America’s secret betrayal would generate international controversy — which would ideally push sales — but the story is doomed from the start. Hydra is the core of this story, and Hydra is not logically consistent. If the core of the story cannot hold, the rest of it must fall. Such is the fruit of placing message over story.

A Return to Virtue and Glory

Spencer placed message over story, and the story will fail. We have seen this again and again and again, from dishonouring the original Thor (the comic book character) to create a female Thor, Spider-Woman risking her baby to fight crime while pregnant, to lazily inserting self-censored postmodern commentary into the mouth of a Norse god without having the guts to actually articulate these words or explain why the god would care about modern society.

The intellectually honest thing to do would be to create new characters, new antagonists and new franchises. New worlds with internal consistency and the freedom to fully explore ideas and themes without being shackled by established canon or fan expectations. Instead, a number of ‘creators’ chose to subvert existing heroes, and now they chose to turn a hero into a villain.

This is why I stand with Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies. Stories must come first; messages mean nothing without strong stories. This is why I stand with the Superversive and Human Wave movements. Stories can be a force for good in this world. These ideas underpin my stories, and if they put me at odds with the world, I am proud to oppose.

Social Justice Warriors wish to end the old age of heroes. Now they are converging on pop culture and twisting the popular heroes of my youth. There is only one solution.

Make new heroes.


Behind the Story: Flashpoint: Titan

Between being recommended for Best New Writer Award and this mini-review from Rocket Stack Rank, Flashpoint: Titan is the most high-profile story I’ve written to date. As I look back, I realised that very few writers I know talk in-depth about their writing processes, worldbuilding, characterisation and the stories behind the stories they write.

With Behind the Story, I intend to elaborate on my personal writing process, with an eye to discussing what went into the stories the wrote. With any luck, some passing writer will find inspiration from this series and learn the lessons I did along the way.


Flashpoint: Titan began as a self-imposed challenge: I wanted to write a hard science fiction space battle, significant enough to shape the history of a science fictional universe I am building, without violating the laws of physics as far as possible. It should be rock-hard science fiction while still leaving room for future technology. Most importantly, it should be fun.

The concept of the story began as a novella concept, based on a few lines of dialogue from a supporting character in a work-in-progress. It would have an epic orbital battle, followed by a lengthy siege on the surface of Titan. Then I pared it down, slowly but surely, until it was lean and focused.

The Saturnian system, especially Titan, was a natural fit for the setting. In an age where space travel and fusion power is commonplace, fusion fuel would be the keystone of the interplanetary economy, much like oil is the keystone of the present global economy. In the story universe, helium-3 is the fusion fuel of choice; fusing one molecule of deuterium with one molecule of helium-3 yields one helium-4 molecule, one proton and 18.3 MeV of released energy. To put things in perspective, you could drive a car for twenty years with one gram of D-He3 fuel. Even better, the reaction is mostly aneutronic, so there would be far reduced radiation hazard than other fusion reactions (there would still be neutrons from stray D-D reactions). Rockets would find this extremely useful, as the fusion byproducts can be directed as thrust using a magnetic field. Being a gas giant with a high density of He-3, Saturn is a target for He-3 mining missions. Titan would be a natural base of operations, and with oceans of hydrocarbons the moon is itself a prime resource mining candidate.

He who controls the Saturnian system controls the Solar System. And it is this struggle that the story encapsulates.


Characterisation was an interesting affair. I am neither Japanese nor a native Japanese speaker, and research into Japanese culture was fascinating. I wanted to create a believably Japanese crew, and it had to show in the small details: how they talk, act and think. Fortunately, I could consult an actual Japanese speaker at second-hand, and it paid off.

The crew of the Takao are military men, and it has to show in their brusque, businesslike manner. Unlike civilians, they never use honorifics with each other — which, in Japanese culture, is also a sign of trust and intimacy, as expected of men who live and work together in a very close space for weeks on end.

When talking to each other, they rarely if ever use ‘you’, using instead rank and/or name. This reflects actual Japanese speaking patterns. Likewise, they use male-only Japanese ending particles, like kana and zo.  I also had the men use ‘ryoukai‘ in place of ‘roger’ and ‘sentou youii‘ instead of ‘General Quarters’ to further differentiate them from Westerners.

LIkewise, I wanted the American to sound quintessentially Midwestern through expressions and slang, to further differentiate him from the other characters. For that I have my proofreaders to thank.

As for Commander Hoshi Tenzen, the viewpoint character, I wanted to create a solid Japanese military professional, someone who embodies the value of giri. He is compelled, by his own sense of honour, to do his duty with self-sacrificing loyalty. It is this sense of giri that propels him to make the choices he does. Likewise, it is this sense of giri that compels the crew to obey his orders in the face of impossible odds. There is also a brief conflict between giri and its counterpart, ninjo, or ‘human feelings’, creating further drama. Everything about Hoshi should scream bushido, and in a sense, he is a modern day samurai.

For all that, Rocket Stack noted that the story lacked character development. It’s a valid criticism, and it’s something I need to work on for future stories.

Ship Design

Hard science fiction is hard. Designing the ships of the story required long hours of number crunching, fiddling, conceptualisations and comparisons with wet navy equivalents. But to make the story convincing, the maths and the physics had to stand up. For that reason, I shied away from traditional depictions of ultra-high-gee accelerations. While tempting, there is no need to have such accelerations in space; a mere six milligees would be quite sufficient to propel a ship to any orbit in the Solar system, and at the stupendous speeds afforded by fusion engines, only a slight nudge would take a ship safely clear of an incoming kinetic munition.

I also made a deliberate decision to stay away from the traditional wet Navy ship classification types. I felt that they didn’t accurately reflect the roles and capabilities of what an actual space warship could do. That meant I had to find my own designations.

The star of the story, the JS Takao, is a torchship. That is, a ship with an unreasonably powerful drive. My target was an acceleration of 1/3 Earth gravity and a delta-v budget of 1000 km/s. To hit that figure, I had to cut away every excess gram from the original design proposal and postulate an advanced fusion engine. Takao masses 5000 tons, with a payload fraction of 88% — that is, 88% of the ship’s total mass is its payload.

In terrestrial terms, Takao is a guided missile frigate. Her mission is to rapidly project force anywhere in the Solar System, representing Japanese interests and responding to crises. Unlike a frigate, she can operate independently and still carry enough firepower to win a small war all by herself. She provides an option for policymakers to respond to crises quickly without escalating a situation by sending a full squadron, to secure an inhabited world ahead of a larger and more powerful task force, or screen a squadron.

To make the most of her modest payload, I made her primarily a laser ship, with her main laser capable of reaching out and touching a target over tens of thousands of kilometers. Takao also carries 80 missiles, which gives her the throw weight of a contemporary destroyer. Finally, I gave her a trio of railguns to round things off.


Each weapon plays different roles in a space engagement. The laser would degrade a target’s capabilities, taking out sensors, radiators and other critical systems. It would also defend the ship against long-range missile and kinetic attack. However, lasers generate huge amounts of heat, overheating in mere seconds. The calculations indicated that the laser could only fire just under 1200 pulses before overheating.

Missiles, on the other hand, generate very little heat in comparison. After taking out the enemy’s key systems with her laser, Takao would follow through with a mass missile launch to finish off the targets. To handle enemy counter kinetic fire, and force close-in threats to fly into missile vectors, her railguns would begin firing. During a high-speed encounter, the ship’s generator and radiators would be running at max capacity; the railguns needed to operate independently of the generator and radiator as far as possible. That meant the railguns would have a separate coolant reservoir and employ explosive power generators — which, in the real world, would likely be called explosively pumped flux compression generators.

As for the rationale behind the name Takao, I will simply say this: Tsundere heavy cruiser.

The guard ships in the story serve a similar function to antiaircraft missile destroyers. The term ‘guard ship’ comes from the Russian navy term for small ships designated for escort duties. At 10000 tons, though, the guard ships are closer to cruisers. They are tasked with intercepting enemy kinetics and saturating enemy lasers with more kinetics to allow other combatants to close the distance. That made missiles their principal offensive and defensive weapon. For these ships, lasers are best employed as area defense weapons, taking out kinetics that come too close. For their kinetic component, I chose a spinal railgun specifically to counter laser ships: laser-armed ships would have to either burn through a screen of incoming kinetics (and force their lasers into thermal shutdown) or burn away from the battlespace. Working as a wolfpack, a group of guard ships can swarm and take down other targets using missiles and railgun shells. With a payload fraction of 77%, a guard ship can carry a truly ludicrous number of missiles (400!), perfect for her role.

It’s tempting to think of assault carriers as aircraft carrier analogues, but in truth they are closer to amphibious assault ships. They ferry troops from place to place, and hold a number of drones to support the troops or friendly forces. They don’t need to be fast; they just have to be fast enough to keep up with the regular forces and burn to their objective at a reasonable pace.

If there is one thing I could change about the ship designs, it would be to incorporate afterburners for their fusion engines. I would give the ships an option to dump reaction mass into the fusion burn chamber, increasing their thrust (and acceleration) in exchange for lower exhaust velocity and prodigious propellant expenditure. But after a battle that proves the utility of ships capable of stupendous accelerations, you can bet that afterburners would become standard issue pretty quickly.

Atomic Rockets and Rocketpunk Manifesto were invaluable resources for ship design, and a must-read for anyone interested in creating believable future spaceships.


These calculators proved invaluable in determining what weapons could really do. Armed with these numbers, I had an idea of what space weapons would do to a target. However, real-life space combat in deep space would likely be very boring. Thermodynamics renders all notion of stealth impossible. You’d probably see two waves of spaceships rushing towards each other, flinging everything they have at hand. He who can launch more missiles, fire more lasers and dodge more kinetics wins. It could very likely be boiled down to mathematical formulae. And readers don’t want boring stuff.

That means an intense focus on drama and tension, while keeping hard sci fi tropes in mind. Space combat, as research and speculation suggests, would force captains to juggle power, coolant and munitions. Heat is the Achilles heel of any space warship, followed by electricity. An overheated ship would melt down in very short order, while an unpowered ship cannot do anything.

Space combat is also fundamentally asymmetrical. Lasers and kinetics offer vastly different capabilities, each with pros and cons. Different weapons would be suited for different missions, and I wanted the ships to carry different weapon mixes to reflect different missions. The space engagements in the story reflected this asymmetry, giving readers more to look at than a large wave of missiles approaching a tsunami of missiles.

I also elected to focus on Commander Hoshi Tenzen’s thoughts and emotions as he deals with the situation, using science to drive the story. Stories are about humans, and readers want to read about other people I incorporated thermodynamics, forcing Hoshi to deal with a steadily creeping heat load in the face of a missile massacre, and losing his longest-range weapons. While the capabilities of every laser, shell and missile had to be calculated (if only ballpark figures), I created room for deception. I won’t spoil the story, but I will say that the principle here is to disguise one’s capabilities, allowing the enemy to underestimate you.

Looking back, I would have made a couple of changes to the combat scenes. I would have had Hoshi target sensors instead of blowing away threats where practical; sensors are far more vulnerable, and sensor-kills would be nearly as good as a mission-kills.

I would also have Takao turning and burning more often, presenting her missiles to the enemy while disguising her motion as a vector change. Looking up the figures again, I realized that Takao could possibly outrun her own missiles. Takao is a fusion-powered torchship, and any lesser engine simply cannot match her exhaust velocity or thrust power. To effectively deploy broadside-mounted missiles, especially missiles with engines less powerful that her own, a spaceship would have to present the missiles to the threat before launching. It’s a minor detail, but a crucial one to ensure greater immersion.


Flashpoint: Titan was my first foray into very hard sci fi, and it appears to be highly regarded. It only means that the bar has been set very high, and I hope to exceed expectations with my following stories.

If there is one thing I learned from this story, it’s that science supports the plot, but characters drive the story. Science tells you what is possible and what is impossible in the story, and a character’s choices based on these constraints become the story. There is always a temptation to dump hard-won research material on the page, but readers are ultimately interested in reading about humans. They want to know what drives characters, what they choose, the outcomes of their choices, and how they can relate to the characters and the events of the story.

Stories are ultimately about people. The tropes of hard science fiction are simply tools to build certain kinds of stories about special people living in in imagined time and place, creating an experience for readers unlike anything they can find in this world.

Cheah for Best New Writer

My publisher thought that Flashpoint: Titan was so worthy of merit, he wants to nominate me for the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

I am honoured that he holds me in such high regard. Honour demands that I remain silent on my work, but if you believe that my story is truly worthy of the award, and if you hold a Supporting or Attending Membership of Worldcon, feel free to second the nomination. You can find more information here.

I whole-heartedly welcome the nomination. After all, as certain groups of people the world over insist on pointing out, too many white people have won too many awards for far too long.

Directions for 2016

In 2015, I broke in to the SFF market with War Crimes and Flashpoint: Titan. The response to these stories, and the anthologies they’ve been associated with, have been very encouraging. Come 2016, I aim to build up the Cheah Kai Wai brand — and that means writing.

Last year, I submitted a novel titled No Gods, Only Daimons to Castalia House. In the coming weeks and months, I will be working on bringing it to life.

No Gods, Only Daimons is a science fantasy thriller, the first in a long-running series. It follows the exploits of an atheist black ops agent who, during a mission, comes face-to-face with the physical manifestation of an archangel. Granted supernatural powers, he must prove his worth and fire the opening shots of a secret war. There will be high-intensity martial arts sequences, physics-based superpowers, elaborate mythology and counterfactual history. I’d like to think that this novel is what happens if you cross Brad Taylor with Roger Zelazny, throw in two divine elements, and with a dash of post-cyberpunk.

In addition to editing the story, I’m working on what can only be described as a magnum opus. Light Between the Stars is a hard military science fiction / space opera story, in the tradition of early 20th century sci fi — and with extensively researched physics. The story follows an interstellar war, and the love story at its heart. Think Hoshi no Koe, but with far, far harder science — and, alas, no mecha. With a target length of 400,000 words, it is also the longest manuscript I have ever worked on — though it would likely be split into two or four separate novels.

I don’t like to talk about works in progress; they have an annoying tendency to change themselves before completion. I can say that it will feature ultra-high-powered lasers, fusion-powered starships, hypervelocity and relativistic munitions, space Marines, light speed lag, and a romance that spans light-years and star systems.

Flashpoint: Titan is set in the same universe, twelve years before Light Between the Stars begins. Flashpoint: Titan tells the story of an event that will come to influence the politics, strategies and mindsets that drive characters and nations in Light Between the Stars — and, if I say so myself, is a perfectly serviceable story of space combat in its own right.

Novels aside, I don’t have any plans to write shorter works. Simply put, novellas and short stories do not sell as well as series novels in the current market. I also need to focus my creative energies on one work at a time. However, if I’m invited to write for an anthology or magazine, or if a publishing call catches my eye and sparks my imagination, I might be willing to make an exception.

In 2015, I established a toehold in the market. In 2016, I will break out. Here’s to a productive year, and to many more to come.