Sunday, January 19, 2020

Fantasy Without Fantasy



Fantasy, Light, Mood, Sky, Beautiful, Fairytale, Dream
Modernity has ruined fantasy.
At one end of the scale, there is the slice-of-life tale, with ordinary people doing ordinary things, just with some counterfactual elements. At the other end, there is a setting that appears totally foreign to our reality–and yet the people who dwell in it base their actions on values, issues and ideologies extremely similar to ours; and on closer inspection what appears to be an alien realm is merely a distorted reflection of modern-day ideology. In the middle are tales set in worlds that aren’t too dissimilar to our own.
Many Modern fiction fall prey to the error of preachiness. Instead of delivering a story, they exist only to hammer home a pet position on a given topic. Other stories may be excellent in their own right — but they are not primarily fantasy stories.
What is a fantasy story? It is a story with elements of the fantastic, naturally. But what is the fantastic?
It is not merely a figment of one’s imagination; all fiction, not just fantasy fiction, blooms from the imagination of the creator. Is it something improbable or unrealistic? Consider that the device you are viewing this post on could not have been conceived of as recently as fifty years ago, and that if you went back in time and informed your grandparents that one day all humans in the First World would have in their pockets a device that would allow instant access to the sum total of human knowledge, they would call you crazy. Then must fantasy be creative? Surely it should be, but creativity alone does not set it apart from other genres that require creativity. What, then, sets fantasy apart from other fiction?
The answer lies in history.
In medieval Europe, Christianity informed all aspects of everyday life, yet the people were not too far removed from their pagan pasts. Magic, demons and other supernatural beings were a part of everyday life. They dwelt in the unknown corners of the world, the untamed wilderness just past the fragile borders of mortal civilization.
People called fairies the Fair Folk not out of admiration, but fear. They believed that fairies would steal their children from their beds and leave in their place fairy-children. Deep in the woods, men had to be wary of strange women and handsome youths, lest they be fairies looking to spirit a mortal away to their courts, returning him only decades later — if at all. The Erlking and his Wild Hunt prowled the night, preying on innocent souls, spreading death and plague in their wake. The medical term ‘stroke’ draws its origin from the phrase ‘fairy-stroke’; it was believed that anyone who suffered a sudden seizure must have offended an invisible fairy.
Some fairies could be bargained with. Some had benevolent intentions towards humanity. The Lady of the Lake handed Excalibur to King Arthur and raised Lancelot. Brownies who live in a human home may do the chores and ensure prosperity, but the human inhabitants must in turn leave them an offering of milk or cream by the hearth. Easily offended, they will leave the house forever if they feel they have been treated with disrespect. Regardless of how they act towards humans, faeries are not humans and do not think, act or feel the way humans would.
Folklore speaks of the place beyond the known world. It is a terrible, dangerous place, utterly alien and hostile towards humanity. Its inhabitants can be cruel and capricious, or kind and caring, but they are not and will never be humans, and to treat them like humans is to court your own doom. This place runs by its own rules, its own logic; step outside the paling of civilisation and the laws of Man no longer apply. Where human civilisation may be the embodiment of order, the wild is pure chaos.
This place is breathtakingly beautiful and perilous beyond measure. It promises great treasure, hidden in the forgotten corners of the world; it is utterly unforgiving, damning anyone who makes even the slightest of mistakes. It mocks the efforts of Man and Church to understand or tame it, yet it obeys a law unknown to mortals. It exists outside the duality of Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil; and so it cannot be easily understood within a Biblical framework. This place is Elfland.
And Elfland is just beyond the distant horizon.
To the ancients, Elfland–the domain of the strange, uncanny, and just plain weird–was a part of lived reality. They may pray to God every day and worship at the church on Sundays, but in the darkness of the night they contended with creatures and forces that do not fall neatly into Biblical paradigms. They ordered their lives by the laws of God and the knowledge of Man–but they were also at the mercy of the Fair Folk.
Today we live in a world without wonder. Every corner of the globe has been mapped from orbit. Every animal, inspect, plant and other life form is studied and known. Summon a search engine and you can learn everything you wish to know about a far-flung culture, modern or historical. With this post I speak to you across vast gulfs of time and space.
Zero HP Lovecraft said it best: the miraculous has become mundane.
Fantasy recalls those ancient days, when the miraculous co-existed with the mundane, when the Weird was within sight, when human civilisation consisted not of contiguous countries but isolated outposts of fragile life huddled against a chaotic darkness roiling with predators and strange beasts. In the unobserved, unknown darkness, without a permanent observer to set in stone the rules of reality and banish all other possibilities, there was infinite potential for anything and everything to manifest.
Modernity spits upon those days. Science and Rationality has forever banished the darkness of ignorance. Superstitions are nothing more than ridiculous fallacies. At best, myths and religion are merely attempts at explaining the unexplained; at worst, they are institutionalised oppression that must be opposed at all costs. Scientists and statesmen, philosophers and poets, they all looked and looked but saw no God. Today, with the arrogance and callowness of youth, the giant of Modernity strides proudly across the world, proclaiming it is the Truth and the only Truth allowed to exist.
Much of the West is now a post-religious society. This society claims it has killed God, but with no corpse to provide proof, it has chosen to become as gods to appear worthy of such a feat. Progress, Science, Reason, these are the watchwords of our age. But in disavowing God, Modernity has shut itself off from the immanent and the transcendent. In this act, it has sealed itself away from the weird, the strange, the fantastic.
The ancients believed in the existence of beings greater than men. They recognized that men, while the nominal rulers of the world, were also fragile and weak and corruptible. They were limited to mortal senses and capabilities, and in Elfland roamed beings whose powers and capabilities surpassed Man. The space between Man and God was vast, and in that space reigned unknowable and untameable creatures who refused to kneel to either Man or God.
By overthrowing religion and installing Man as the axis mundi of the observable world, Modernity places mere men as the measure of all things. Man knows all, thus Man is all, and nothing can possibly exist outside the knowledge of Man. Thus, it cannot accept even the possibility of the existence of something that Man cannot know. And in refuting Elfland it has sealed off the gates to Elfland forever.
Western Moderns pride themselves on having overcome the superstition, irrationality and prejudices of the benighted past. Yet these superstitions are a fundamental component of the human experience everywhere outside the West.
Within the Chinese diaspora, during the 7th Lunar Month, it is believed that the gates of the underworld are flung open, and its denizens allowed to roam the world seeking nourishment and entertainment. Some are the souls of the deceased; some are hungry ghosts, always craving food, yet everything they place in their mouths turn to coal; some are mostly harmless, others markedly not.
During this period, people offer prayers, food and drink, and burn paper representations of money and goods to their deceased family members. In Singapore, burn bins are set up in every housing estate specifically for this purpose. People may also leave similar offerings to unknown wandering ghosts, to placate them and prevent them from causing mischief — or worse.
Entertainment companies set up getai, live stage performances, to entertain the ghosts at night. During a getai performance, the front row of seats is always left empty for unseen spectators. When holding auditions for a getai performance, the organiser seeks the approval of the spirits by using jiaobei divination. Also called poe in Hokkien, jiaobei refers to a pair of wooden blocks carved like a crescent moon, flat on one face and curved on the other. After a prospective performer has completed his performance during the audition, the organiser will throw the jiaobei into the air. If one jiaobei lands on the flat face and other on the curved face, then the performer has received the approval of the ‘good brothers’. Any other result is interpreted as a rejection.
Buddhist and Taoist priests will perform special ceremonies for the unquiet dead. Shopkeepers may prepare altars laden with fruits and incense and other sacrifices, or close their shops altogether. On the fourteenth day of the month, believers will release lanterns into rivers and seas, guiding the ghosts back to the underworld.
During the month of ghosts, a believer must hold to certain taboos. Never stay out late at night. Never step on a paper offering or the ashes of one, even if it were only partially burnt. Never disturb still-burning joss sticks or any offerings. Never eat anything dedicated to the ghosts. Violate any of these taboos and you must immediately placate the spirits. If not, they may latch on to you and follow you home. Or worse, they might take offense, and you will risk a stroke. A fairy-stroke.
The origins of the festival lies in the Ullambana Sutra. When Maudgalyayana, a follower of the Buddha, attained supernatural powers, he used them to search for his deceased parents. He discovered his mother suffering in the underworld, transformed into a hungry ghost. He offered her a bowl of rice, but it turned to burning coal in her mouth. At a loss, Maudgalyayana turned to the Buddha for help. The Buddha advised him to leave offerings of food to the monastic community on the 15th day of the 7th Lunar month, who would in turn transfer the merits of his actions to his parents in his present life and in his previous seven lifetimes. Maudgalyayana dutifully made the appropriate offerings, and through his actions released his mother from the underworld.
Through this story, the sutra transmits the values of filial piety, compassion and redemption. It encourages believers to view all ghosts, not just the ghosts of their own relatives, as sentient beings with their own needs and wants, compelling them to leave out offerings and put up performances for the departed. Rituals for wandering spirits are performed not with the intent of merely appeasing them, but to help them gain release from suffering and attain reincarnation in a better state of existence. Going beyond mere tradition and worship, the festival is a fifteen-day exercise in virtue.
Immanence is part of the human experience. The belief that the spiritual world permeates the physical one drives people’s actions, feelings and values. No matter the time or culture, the belief in immanence is universal.
In Thailand, you can recruit the ghost of a dead child to bring prosperity to your business. In Indonesia, you can hire a bomoh to summon a jinni to give the winning lottery numbers. Haitians seek out voodoo priests when they need the favour of the loa in relationships, work, and everyday life. Japanese Shintoism holds that there are eight million gods, hidden from the world of men yet inseparate from it. Every country and culture has its own endemic practices to enlist the powers of the unseen, which in turn point to how they view the relationship between the mortal and the Else.
Here we see the origins of Elfland. It is not just a place beyond the wild, not just a world dreamed whole from the collective unconsciousness, but an expression of the belief that the metaphysical is next door to the physical. From that belief flows values, practices, traditions, the building blocks of culture. By rejecting immanence, Modernity rejects the practices and traditions that flow from it, and the purpose behind them. What practices they accept, they inject their own doctrines into it, seizing it for their own ends.
Moderns will scorn and snark at such outmoded beliefs. They are merely revealing the boxes they wear over their heads. Within each box is a transmitter repeating the dogma of Current Year and eyeholes fitted with the lenses of Science and Progress. Everything they see through this box they proclaim to be the world entire, but this box limits them from perceiving the immanent.
The lenses filter Elfland from mortal sight. The transmitter drowns out the whispers of the good brothers. In the close confines of the box they smell only themselves and not the ethereal roses that hover just beyond the boundaries of ordinary sight.
In refusing to accept that the world is more than mere matter, that practices and traditions have deeper reasons beyond those expressed in the dogmas of Current Year, Moderns have cut themselves off from the immanent. They have severed themselves from the strange, the weird, the unknowable.
Without knowledge of the fantastic, without wanting to know the fantastic, they can only create shadow-realms that fit neatly within the confines of the box. They can only take everyday tropes and twist them into images suiting their tastes and preconceptions, images strange but not too strange. They are merely remixes of comfortable and familiar tropes and ideas; they do not reflect the immanent and transcendent. They cannot, for they are forged from hearts that do not acknowledge them.
You may be familiar with vampires, werewolves, elves. In fantasy fiction today, they are almost always objects of lust and desire. They are stronger, faster, more beautiful than ordinary humans. They are the ideal partners for women–almost always women–who are universally Strong Female Characters. They exist solely to satisfy human desires.
It was never this way. Vampires are bloodthirsty demons that prey on the innocent. Werewolves may have tragic or terrible backstories, but once in wolf mode they are ravenous monsters one and all. Elves aren’t beautiful long-lived ultrahumans; they are soulless amoral creatures who care only about their own pleasures and politics, and make playthings of men. They are the inhabitants of the Wild, the rulers of the night and the green, and woe betide anyone who crosses them. They are not human and are not treated as though they were human but something more; they lead separate existences, unyoked to the whims and fancies of humans.
Moderns claim that the worldview of the ancients is racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise biased in some way. In truth, their view is the biased one. It is biased against the immanent, against the values and practices that flow from the recognition of the immanent, against everything that is fantastic. I would dare say that this worldview is biased against reality itself.
For you see, the fairy-stroke I mentioned above happened to my uncle.
The Weird is Dangerous, with a capital D, and it’s expressed best in DUNGEON SAMURAI. Harsh and unforgiving, it is a world of danger, of monsters, and of hope. Check it out here.
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Friday, December 27, 2019

Going Bright


Tea Lights, Candles, Light, Prayer, Candlelight, Faith
This world is a dark world.

Open a newspaper and see for yourself. Murder, genocide, civil war, assaults, rapes, kidnapping, sex trafficking, corruption, on and on, and endless litany of crimes high and petty. Any outrage, if any, will last until the moment a celebrity opens her mouth or the media moves on to the next event it deems worthy of outrage.

Evil has been with humanity since the dawn of time. It has been with us long before you and I were born, and will continue to be part of the the human condition long after we are dust.

But if we will, we can become as flames, and drive back the darkness from our part of the world.
And pass on the flame elsewhere in the world.


Monday, November 18, 2019

A Believer in Babylon

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How do you write a Christian in a world without Christ?

In the world of Babylon Blues, the New Gods systematically destroyed or subverted all competing institutions that could oppose them, including the old religions. They stole the mantles of the old faiths and undermined them, through a combination of cultural warfare and public demonstrations of their powers. The old faiths either forgotten or reduced to minor sects. The Abrahamic faiths were no exception.

After all, in a world where gods walk amongst men, who would believe in a god no one has seen?

Given such a setup, modern writers would take this opportunity to take a potshot at the old religions, including Christianity. I refuse. This is not that kind of story. This is a story about faith, not fashionable nihilism. A story about standing fast to truth, not about redefining truth as whatever that is easy or pleasant or convenient. A story about the transcendent, not the temporal.

Christianity is a rich tradition, one that embraces service, sacrifice, holding fast to truth and goodness, opposition to the authorities wherever and whenever they oppose God. Armed with nothing but faith, Christianity endured through the centuries, outlasting pagan Rome, the Shogunate, the Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Union. The perfect religion for a man destined to stand against the princes and powers of the changed earth.

Making Yuri Yamamoto a Christian was easy. Justifying it was... more challenging.

The easy approach is to simply say he learned it from his parents. It would perfect sense, both in this world and in the story world. After all, this is how most believers were inducted into their religions to begin with.

But it's not enough. Not for Yuri Yamamoto.

His mission is to blaze a light into the darkness, and to defend the innocent from the wicked strong. His duties require him to confront bloodthirsty monsters, fanatical cultists, soul-crushing horrors, and even the New Gods themselves.

This is impossible with a lukewarm faith.

The followers of the New Gods are filled with conviction. They have witnessed the wealth and powers of their gods, they are embedded deeply in communities of fellow believers, they have knelt in the presence of their gods. Their faith in their gods is anchored in direct experience.

To compete with that, Yuri Yamamoto would also need direct experience.

Experience with the awesome immanence and transcendence of God.


Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The New Gods of Babylon

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When you think hard about it, the traditional cyberpunk trope of megacorporations literally ruling the world doesn't make any sense.

A megacorp is a massive private corporation, holding monopolistic or neat-monopolistic control over multiple markets. Megacorps are so powerful they can ignore the law, maintain private armies to enforce their will, and exercise extreme control over their employees. This looks like a set-up for a nightmare blend of a dictatorship and state capitalism, but for one small problem.

Megacorps are profit-driven.

Their goal is, quite simply, to make money. As much money as possible, and with it power and influence. That is how they achieved their status, and how they maintain it. One of the most fundamental tenants of maximising profit is minimising costs. And ruling the world is costly.

Governments in the real world spend money like water on public goods, including roads, sewage, public infrastructure, the environment, the legal system, and so on. While their bring great benefit to the public, they incur massive upkeep costs. In corporate-speak, they are loss centres to any private company that is not explicitly in the business of providing these goods and services.

Megacorps may be so rich and powerful they can afford to cover the costs of these goods. But why would they? It is far riskier and much less profitable for megacorps to diversify into new markets and sectors than it is to consolidate and grow their existing market share and to offer even more product. They may well benefit from having excellent infrastructure, a robust national defense, and so on, but it is far less costly for them to simply pay someone else to take care of them so they can focus on their core strengths.

In other words: megacorporations in a realistic setting will need governments. They will not take on the burdens of governance, because the costs incurred from upkeep of public goods would be far too great for any profit-oriented company outside this sector to shoulder. Instead, they will want to create a pliable government, or a hollow state, one that offers them maximum permissiveness and opportunities to pursue profits with minimal oversight, regulations and punishments. The megacorps will leave the hard work (and expense) of actual government to the public sector, so they will focus on profits.

This, by the way, is what is happening in Mexico. The drug cartels may be fighting a decades-long war with the federal government, but they do not actually want to overthrow the government. They do not want to rule Mexico. They wish to carve out a space to carry out their (hugely profitable) criminal enterprises in peace, and to destroy their rivals to capture their market share. They leave the drudgery of day-to-day administration to the civil government so they can accumulate and enjoy their wealth.

Megacorps that do go into the business of actual government must necessarily set aside a pure pursuit of profits, and thus become something other than a hypercapitalistic private entity. They may become an extension of the state, form an alliance with the government, or create some new hybrid private-public model. Whatever form this takes, if they assume the costs and responsibilities of government, if they become the government, then they are not traditional megacorps any more.

With this in mind, I set about creating non-traditional antagonists for Babylon Blues, a decidedly non-traditional cyberpunk work.

Megacorps would not work. Dystopian governments are exceedingly common in fiction today, and in the real world dystopian governments do not usually produce the futuristic aesthetic I wanted for Babylon Blues.

That left me with gods.

More precisely, demons in the guise of gods.

The New Gods of Babylon wish to rule the world. To them, wealth is a necessary prerequisites to gain control of the people, but is not itself the end goal. They may control megacorps to gain profit from sales of goods and services, but it is only a means to an end. They pursue power, and the logic of pursuing power is vastly different from the logic of pursuing profit. Among other things, they will be perfectly willing to spend money on loss centres if doing so will increase their power, such as standing up private armies to do their bidding instead of getting the taxpayer-funded military and police to take care of business.

Of course, few people will willingly pledge themselves to entities that present themselves as demons. To attract followers, these beings present themselves as gods. They wear outwardly-beautiful forms, offering power, blessings, the opportunity to earn the right to become superhuman. With their occult powers, they make the miraculous mundane, and dazzle all who witness them in action.

In our world, there is no widely-accepted proof of God, gods, or other supernatural phenomenon. It is fashionable to be atheist or agnostic, because the physical sciences have not proven the metaphysical. Believers must have faith that there is a higher power.

In the world of Babylon, there is no need for faith. The New Gods openly dispense blessings and miracles on their followers. Every time a believer uses a power, no matter how slight, he becomes a living testimony to the power of the gods. With the existence of gods and powers widely known and accepted, there is no room for disbelief, no way to reject their existence. The only choice you have left is which god you side with, if at all.

And, no matter which god you choose, there is always a cost.

The New Gods dispense blessings and privileges to those they deem worthy. People who desire temporal wealth and power will do everything it takes to win the favour of the gods, and with them their blessings. But there is always a price to gain the power of the gods.

Humans are fragile vessels, tiny motes of dust in comparison to the overawing cosmic entities that are the gods of Babylon. Even if a New God imbues a believer with power, that believer must be strong enough to receive it. If not, the power will burn him out from within, destroying his mind and soul, transforming him into a ravenous blood-maddened beast. A husk of a man, now a monster that must be put down before he brings disaster on the world.

Or, at least, this is what the New Gods want you to believe.

For the believers strong enough to accept the power of the gods, the changes are incredible. They can manipulate their bodies, bend the fabric of space-time, become berserkers, manifest aspects of their gods, wield stupendous technologies, and more. But these powers require a constant connection to their deities.

Which means the New Gods exercise immense influence over the minds of their believers.

And when a god gives you marching orders, you cannot refuse.

Even if it means acting like a Husk -- or becoming one.

The New Gods, one and all, do not inspire their believers to become greater than they are. They do not uphold any values save those that support their rule and doctrine. They do not value truth, beauty and goodness beyond utilitarian uses. They offer power, but in exchange demand the souls of their believers.

They are all false gods.

It is well that they all hate each other, and are constantly seeking to dominate and destroy their rivals, or the world of Babylon would be in even worse shape than it is.

In keeping with these ideas, when planning the New Gods, I based them on religious heresies.

The youngest of the New Gods, and the first we meet, is the Singularity Network. Its heresy is that it believes it can create a god through mere technology. Thus, they focus on cognitive enhancement technologies and cybernetics, and have wholeheartedly embraced the posthuman and transhuman philosophies. They reject the flesh and embrace the perfection of the machine. The closest they have to a god is the Will of the Net, a gestalt of every member of the Singularity Network, operating as a group consensus for global decisions. To outsiders, it is a tech-driven direct democracy that chases perfection. But for some reason, no one opposes the Will of the Net. And maybe they can't.

The Guild of the Maker is a faction for laborers, workers and creators. They proclaim that their god made the universe, and honour him through the act of creation. Take the SN's obsession with tech and spread it out to everything. Everything the Guild creates is a testimony to the Maker, and the Maker blesses his believers with the ability to create wonders far beyond human ken. But the Maker is a jealous god, and tolerates no other gods, and will stop at nothing to achieve supremacy--including using up his believers as pawns and footsoldiers. And in the Guild, the only true sin is opposing the Maker. The Guild, thus, is Christianity perverted and watered down, and shorn of its doctrines and values.

The Pantheon isn't one god, but many. An alliance of lesser gods, believers in the Pantheon are free to worship any or all of them as they please. But this worship is transactional: you make offerings, you attend empowerments, and the gods grant you your wishes and make you an Elect. If you are sufficiently devout, they may let you take on their aspects and become a godman. There are no deeper truths, no central doctrine, no exalted virtues. The only good there is lies in supporting fellow believers against outsiders, and bringing in new believers. They have stolen the visage of the Hindu gods and goddesses, but in truth they have much more in common with rakshashas.

The Liberated hold only one law: do as you will. In this sense they are very much like Wiccans. They worship the goddess Namanah, whose blessings allow them to sculpt their bodies into their idealized forms -- or forms for war, depending on her needs. With their code, they are liberated from all cultural, social, and political norms and attachments, and are allowed--even encouraged--to pursue pleasure and hedonism for its own sake. But the Wiccan Rede actually goes: if you harm none, do as you will. And the threefold law warns that whatever you send out, you will receive threefold. The pursuit of empty pleasure is a slow acting poison, one whose fruits will only be seen in the future, but the Liberated's shadow wars against the other gods will have far quicker -- and far more dramatic -- repercussions. You might even say the Liberated are more like theological Satanists.

The Court of Shadows is the church of last resort. To the outcasts, the broken, the pariahs, the desperate, the Court offers sanctuary, protection--and the power to destroy all who have wronged them. For their signature aesthetic, I took the most popular beings in urban fantasy and paranormal romance -- vampires and werewolves -- and smooshed them together in a horrific hybrid. As with the other New Gods, they may claim to extol virtue, but their belief structure only supports their own believers -- and justifies ultraviolence against outsiders. For their aesthetic, the Court stole the mantle of the Catholic Church and twisted them with death and lust, creating a perversion that could exist only in Babylon.

The Void Collective worship no gods. They pursue enlightenment through the complete dissolution of the ego and all attachments to their outside life. They see space-time as an illusion, and with it all matter and all things. The closest they have to an object of worship is the Void. But the Void is not empty; it is full. The Void Collective took a shallow interpretation of Buddhism and weaponized it for its own ends, and in doing so created a hive mind of hollow puppets.

The Seekers of the Way also do not believe in gods. Rather, they wish to become as gods. An alliance of corporations, military forces and security agencies, they seek to understand the powers and the technologies of the New Gods, and use them for their own ends. In doing so, they aim to transcend their fleshly bodies and become something more. They are like Taoists, who seek to become immortal through cultivation of vital energies and strict diets. But instead of following the Tao, the Seekers impose themselves on the world in opposition to the Tao. And in doing so, they court disaster.

With seven factions in play, at least two of them will be in open conflict at any one time, and the rest are deadlocked. If any faction tries to gain an advantage by allying with others, the rest will quickly counter them by forming their own alliance. However, there are so many players that their interests must eventually diverge. Any alliances are temporary and doomed to dissolution, not the least because they are all competing and all believe there is only enough room for one faction at the top. Likewise, any one group that gains a decisive advantage can quickly be overpowered by the rest -- if only because all groups are carefully watching each other to prevent just that.

The New Gods aren't the only gods, of course. There are countless other minor gods in the world, and in Babylon, it is said that there is a god for every man. And in a world where gods walk amongst men, why would anyone choose to believe in an unseen God?

Who would want to?

This is the crux of Babylon Blues, and the answer to that question is Yuri Yamamoto. He who has gone beyond this illusory world, a world of gods and men and suffering, a world that accepts only that which can be seen, and has experienced something... more.

As for what this 'more' is, I'll leave it to another post.

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Babylon Blues may be fully funded, but the campaign carries on! If you want exclusive book bundles with demon-hunting knights and samurai, check out the Kickstarter here!

Sunday, November 10, 2019

BABYLON BLUES IS FUNDED!

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My upcoming cyberpunk horror work BABYLON BLUES is fully funded on Kickstarter!

I'm incredibly grateful for the support of my backers, friends and family. Without them, this project would not have gone so far in such a short time.

With that said, the campaign still has some time left on the clock. I'd like to announce the stretch goal: a digital art book.

This art book will have 12 images, 6 character portraits and 6 scenes. Each image will be accompanied by a detailed write-up. All backers will receive this art book in addition to the rewards they have chosen. The art book is projected to take 4 months for completion and delivery.

The art book will be unlocked at $2500. With just over a week to go, let's bring this project to a strong finish.

If a demon-hunting cyberpunk horror saga is up your alley, back the BABYLON BLUES Kickstarter here!

Cheah Kit Sun Red

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Blades of Babylon

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Swords are cool.

That alone would be enough reason to include swords in fiction. And you can't have a street samurai without a sword.

But my preferred aesthetic, that of the military technothriller, demands greater justification than just 'cool'. And for good reason: soldiers must justify every piece of gear they carry on a mission. Unnecessary gear just slows you down and takes up space. On the modern battlefield, where death is routinely dealt beyond visual range, there's no place for a sword.

Or is there?

James Williams, master of ancient samurai military arts, noted that in the Middle East, soldiers found themselves fighting threats high on drugs. The 5.56x45mm NATO round, already considered anemic in many circles, couldn't stop them, even with multiple hits. The attackers may take fatal wounds, but until they bleed out or suffer a central nervous system hit, they will just keep coming.

As such, Special Operations troops requested Williams to produce a special kind of knife. A long, heavy knife, capable of cutting through a limb with a single blow. That way, it doesn't matter how drugged-up a threat is. If he doesn't have a hand any more, he can't hold a weapon and he can't harm you.

This story from SOFREP describes another knife use case. In 2011, a gang of pirates hijacked a boat and killed all four passengers. A team of US Navy SEALs boarded the yacht to take down the pirates. During the raid, one of the pirates decided to play dead. An alert SEAL spotted the pirate opening his eye. The SEAL couldn't shoot the pirate for fear that the bullet would punch through the floor and hit his comrades on the lower decks, so he finished him off with his knife.

The Special Operations Combatives Program illustrated a third example of knife use in modern combat: an aggressor jumping on a soldier as he makes entry in a room and wrestling for his gun. The threat is too close to engage with a firearm. A solution is to draw a knife, defeat the grab attempt, and finish the threat. This may require stabbing and cutting him off, but it could also entail using the knife as a lever to facilitate throws and other maneuvers.

From these three scenarios, we see when a knife is used in modern war: to neutralize pain-resistant attackers, to engage threats in close quarters where overpenetration and collateral damage is a risk, and to fend off gun grabs and attempted takedowns.

With these three use cases in mind, I set about searching for suitable blades to arm a street samurai.

The Art of the Knife

The world of BABYLON BLUES is populated with monsters, sorcerers, cyborgs, and powerful demons. Capable of rewriting the laws of reality, the threat they pose to operators in that universe goes above and beyond the threats a soldier would face in ours.

In Babylon, there are Elect with the power to regenerate swiftly from wounds, even seemingly-mortal injuries. Husks that can transform into hulking beasts that can shrug off rifle rounds at point blank. Cultists that can teleport right up in your face.

It's every threat I've described above, but turned up to eleven.

Yuri Yamamoto, operator par excellence, would be intimately familiar with such threats, and would arm himself to meet them.

In line with the street samurai motif, I looked at James Williams' blade catalogue. With his in-depth experience and research into the samurai arts, I was confident that he could provide a solution.
And he delivered.

Yamamoto's primary combat knife is the OZK 002 Osoraku Zukuri Kaiken. Slim and low-profile, it can be carried and concealed almost anywhere. With its neutral textured handle, he can quickly manipulate the knife without losing his grip. The spine is exceptionally thick, making it extremely durable--and perfectly suitable as a lever, even when jammed inside a threat's body. In darkness and deep shadow, the matte black blade will disappear. The blade profile, modeled on the osoraku zukuri pattern, features an armor-piercing point, the better to reach deeply into a target's vitals. 

When operational, Yamamoto prefers to mount his knife in a kangeroo pouch on his plate carrier behind his magazines. This allows him rapid access, especially in a wild melee. The dark handle blends into the fabric of his plate carrier, making it harder for the threat to spot until it's too late. In civilian clothes, he wears the blade horizontally edge-up on the left side of his belt, the way his samurai ancestors would have. In a high-risk situation, he could casually fold his hands over his belt, placing his hand on his handle. If he needs it, he could draw and thrust in the blink of an eye. 

When he needs a longer blade, he turns to an o-tanto, a HZO 002 Hira Zukuri O-Tanto with the blade length of the Hisshou. An o-tanto is technically a long knife, but everyone recognizes it for what it is: a short sword.

The o-tanto is his signature weapon, the blade he carries into high-profile operations. With a single swing, he can sever a limb or a take off a head, decisively ending a confrontation. Against armored threats, he can grab the blade to thrust into unarmored points, almost like half-swording from European swordsmanship.

Other writers might go for a katana or a wakizashi. Their longer blades would certainly afford greater reach. However, Yamamoto expects to use his blades in very close quarters, so close that the extra length and mass would get in his way. He also appreciates the value of a long blade he can conceal under a jacket. The maximum blade length he will accept is twelve inches, and depending on the situation, he might pick a shorter blade. Any range handicap from a shorter blade can be easily overcome with the right footwork and body mechanics.

It is an unorthodox choice--but then, Yamamoto is an unorthodox man.

The Way of the Sword

With Yuri Yamamoto's portrayal as a street samurai, I sought to find a suitable Japanese martial art for him. A martial art that teaches the use of the blade, combining timeless wisdom and modern realities.

Nami-Ryu was perfect for my needs. Headed by James Williams, it took samurai military arts and applied them to modern warfare. On YouTube, Williams has published videos showing the application of Nami-Ryu principles to modern combat. Better yet, Nami-Ryu is itself descended from Yanagi-Ryu Aiki Bugei from the Yoshida clan, a classical samurai combat art.

To complement Nami-Ryu, I chose Systema. On first glance, they seem nothing alike. Nami-Ryu focuses on kata and swordsmanship; Systema uses freeflow sensitivity drills. However, Williams wrote multiple essays describing the many similarities in both arts, including their emphasis on relaxation, softness, and blending. On closer inspection, I saw what he saw, and agreed with his conclusions. Plus, incorporating Systema would further cement Yamamoto as a man of East and West, old Japan and ancient Russia.

Hollywood and pop culture portrays sword combat is crude, unsophisticated ways, or emphasise flash and style over substance. You have characters spinning and twirling and jumping and otherwise performing acrobatics, characters who batter their way through the enemies' ranks, characters who handle their weapons as though they were bats or clubs instead of cutting tools. With Babylon Blues, I wanted to give the reader insight into how high-level samurai combat could have taken place.
Hard blocks are virtually nonexistent in Yamamoto's arsenal. He faces threats so powerful, it is impossible for a mere man with mortal strength to confidently block a blow without being overwhelmed. Likewise, relying on power, speed, or reaction time is useless; there will always be someone stronger and faster than you, especially in the world of Babylon.

Instead, the foundation of Yamamoto's art is deception and blending.

The art of war is deception. In a world populated by berserkers, giants, cyborgs and other inhuman monsters, deception is one of the few tools Yamamoto has that can't be nullified through magic or technology.

There are many techniques to deceive the enemy. Appearing to go in one direction, but in reality going in another. Masking small motions with large ones. Surreptitiously drawing a weapon before a high-risk encounter. Body movements that, to the attacker, appears to be taking you away from him, while in reality placing you in an advantageous location. All these, and more, are the cornerstones of Yamamoto's art.

When a strike comes in, he employs subtle cams and deflections to redirect the force vector, and shapes himself to blend with the force. Instead of traditional steps or shuffles, he pivots away from the line of attack, getting off the X while remaining close enough to deliver the decisive blow. Through body twists, turns, and other small motions, he remains unavailable, yet unavoidable.

The Japanese hold that the way of the sword is the way of strategy. Knowledge of the sword translates into knowledge of all weapons and other methods of war. In an integrated system of combat, body mechanics are universal across all modalities. Sword cutting mechanics are the same mechanics for grappling and throwing; empty-hand movements translate to pistol draws and manipulations; polearm work can be adapted to long guns; sensitivity, deception and footwork apply to all methods of combat.

Executing these techniques under pressure requires a mindset vastly different from other martial arts. It demands relaxation, softness and looseness, the better to feel the incoming force vector and the target. Precision and subtlety are prized over gross motor skills and raw aggression. Instead of meeting force with force, you redirect the incoming energy, lead the enemy into a sudden void, and return his energy as a strike he won't see coming.

Most of all, this way of combat requires faith.

It requires giving up your ego, letting go of all attachments to outcomes and prejudices, to see the world exactly as it is. To give up contesting for space and move as the situation demands. To recognize that inherent in every problem is its solution. To sense and receive forces great and subtle beyond yourself, and shape them to your needs. To recognize that the universe returns what you send out, and that you can be part of the great chain of energy return. To relax and become totally free.
And for a man defined by faith, there is no better art.

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Enjoy stories of street samurai fighting monsters, cultists and false gods? Back BABYLON BLUES on Kickstarter here!

Monday, November 4, 2019

Sneak Preview of BABYLON BLUES Remastered!


YY


What goes into a remastered story?

A lot of work, unsurprisingly enough.

BABYLON BLUES was originally conceived and written as a series of interconnected webserials. The concepts were sound, the characters were intriguing, the tech and world resonated with me and my readers, the stories were compelling -- but they suffered from a lack of continuity. And, alas, deep proofreading.

For the remastered edition, which is currently being crowdfunded on Kickstarter, I'm poring through the old stories and cleaning up the canon. Old terms like 'argees' have been phased out, character descriptions have been cleaned up, terminology and jargon made consistent.

Most significantly, I have rewritten key scenes for additional punch and characterisation. Some action scenes have been re-choreographed for greater authenticity, some dialogue cleaned up to make more sense, and in some cases entire scenes have been significantly rewritten. Case in point, Chapter 10 of the first story, THE BLACK WATCH.

This scene takes place after a climactic battle with a monster. Team rookie Karim Mustafa in his werewolf form has defeated the monster, and team leader Yuri Yamamoto is ordering him to stand down. In the original sequence, Yamamoto conducts an exorcism on the dying Husk, driving out the Dark Power that granted him his powers.

For the remaster, the chapter goes much differently. You can read it below and compare it to the original version.

--

10. Believer
The werewolf beheld the operator.
Yamamoto was a man. A weak, fragile, puny man, barely worthy of his teeth and claws. And yet…
And yet, he stood unflinchingly before him, cold green eyes clear yet inscrutable, short sword held loose but at the ready, his muscles ready to explode into a symphony of motion. Something within the werewolf stirred, something that spoke of a lone warrior in crimson armor standing his ground on a blood-soaked battlefield, naked sword in hand, heart as clear as still water. In Yamamoto he saw a knight of a long-dead kingdom, a samurai who marched for a tattered banner, an operator wielding his blade for virtues and ideas long faded but never forgotten.
Here was a man who had long ago embraced the inevitability of death, yet would live every moment in total dedication to his mission.
The wolf stood down.
He departed from Karim, returning all the mass and materials he had borrowed, reforming them into more familiar substances in places long committed to muscle memory. As he shrank down to a mere human form, his plates, his tools, his ammo, most of all his pistol and carbine, reassembled themselves by the secret methods only Galen had at their disposal.
“Well done,” Yamamoto said. “Now step aside and cover me. I have work to do.”
Karim stepped aside. Connor sidled up next to him, apparently none the worse for wear. Yamamoto positioned himself at the feet of the dying Husk, sword ready to respond to a dying blow. But his face, his eyes, had softened. Once they were hard and unyielding as steel; now they were filled with… compassion.
The Husk was dying. This much was clear. Lying in a claret lake, the Husk moaned and twitched, grabbing its neck with what little strength it had left. Blood squirted from his wounded arm, boiled from his burst eye, gushed freely from its eviscerated throat. Karim scarcely believed that so much blood could exist within a creature, much less be poured out without immediate death.
“Help…” the Husk whispered.
His voice, so weak and so small, drowning in liquid, couldn’t possibly have come from the lungs of such a monster. With its severed throat, speech should have been impossible.
Yet here it was, talking to him with the voice of a dying man.
Yamamoto knelt next to him.
“We can’t help you. Or rather, we want to help you, but our medical supplies are only compatible with humans. You understand?”
“Cold…” the Husk mumbled. “Hurts.”
“What’s your name?”
“John.” He coughed wetly. “Porter.”
“Alright, John, we can help you, but we can’t do that until you’re human again. You have to give up the Dark Power indwelling in you. Do you understand?”
“Dying… Need… help.”
“Yes, but that Power can’t help you anymore. We can.”
“What… can you… do? I’m… already… dead.”
“If you can talk, you’re still alive. Even now, even if you’re dying, you still have a choice. Do you want to die as a man? Or a monster?”
“A… mon….” He coughed. “Man. A man.”
“Then do you reject this Dark Power and all his works?”
The Husk groaned.
“Stay with me. Do you reject the Dark Power and all his works?”
“Yes,” he whispered.
“Do you wish to be free of him?”
“Yes!”
“Very well. To the Dark Power possessing John Porter, I speak to you now. He has rejected you. Release him from your power and—”
“Never.”
The Husk had spoken with a new voice, deep and gravelly, filled with echoes from an otherworldly dimension.
But his lips had remained still.
“John Porter has rejected you. You heard him say so. John, is that right?”
“Yes!” Porter exclaimed, spraying blood over his chest.
“He has rejected you,” Yamamoto continued. “You have no claim over him. Leave him now.”
The turtle’s face twisted into a mask of rage, his eyes glowing a defiant green.
“I will never leave.”
The voice that emerged from his lungs was low and clear and resonant, yet suggestive of rot and decay. It was mold degrading dead matter in triple-quick time, it was the thick poisonous fumes of invisible swamp gas, it was fingernails clawing and scraping the inside of the soul. Karim shivered.
Yamamoto remained steady.
“This man is a child of God, the finest creation of the Creator of the Universe. The longer you hold on him, the greater your punishment shall surely be.”
The creature laughed. No mortal could have laughed like that through a closed mouth and torn throat, yet the Husk’s voice filled the world with a terrible and otherworldly sound, sneaking past Karim’s earpieces and burning into his brain. Galen woofed in rage. At the edges of Karim’s vision, black spots danced and swirled.
“I reject your God!”
Lights cracked and burst, plunging the world into darkness. A strange chill fell, gnawing at Karim’s bones. Inaudible voices whispered at the edges of his hearing. His human self screamed at him to run. Galen the Wolf commanded him to stay.
“Everything you send out shall be returned to you. All suffering you cause shall rebound onto you. This is the iron law of the universe. John Porter is dying. If you hang on to his soul, you shall surely be dragged into a hell of your own making.”
You go to hell.”
The turtle opened his jaws.
Yamamoto reached under his shirt and held out a small object.
“Gaze upon this and know the face of the Creator!”
The Husk recoiled from the sight, screaming in agony and fear and terror.
Karim blinked. Yamamoto was holding up a necklace of some kind. But what necklace could inflict such agony on a Dark Power?
“Witness the symbol of God! The Uncreated Creator who made all things! The Prime Mover who set the cosmos in motion! He who divided light and darkness! The Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last, the One and the All!”
A strange blue-white light emanated from the necklace Yamamoto held in his hand. A faint light, but it chased away the cold, the voices fell silent, and the darkness retreated.
“What is your name?” Yamamoto demanded.
An inchoate roar exploded from the turtle’s lips. It flailed and thrashed about, splashing blood over Yamamoto’s face and body. He continued, unperturbed.
“It is not I who asks you, but God. What is your name?”
The turtle screeched in terror. The windows rattled. Books flew off their shelves. The floor trembled, the ceiling shook.
“TAKE IT AWAY FROM ME!”
“It hurts, doesn’t it?” Yamamoto asked, his tone suddenly and surprisingly gentle.
The turtle snapped its jaws, going for Yamamoto’s hand. Yamamoto drew it away.
“You see the Light? It is the Light of God. It exposes all corruption and heals all wounds. You hurt because the Light reflects in your soul the torment you have inflicted upon others. If you want to stop the pain, ease into the Light. Relax. Let it inside you. Let it heal you. Let me know your name.”
A weird expression crossed the turtle’s face, and suddenly Karim saw three faces superimposed on it. The face of a worried man, slowly relaxing, eyes widening in wonder. The face of the turtle, slack like death. And a twisted green-black ball of knotted, ropy tendrils, compressing ever more tightly.
“John, you see the Light, don’t you? Head into it.”
“I… I can’t.”
“Why not?”
“Hurt… killed… too many people.”
“You caused much harm, but even so, there is forgiveness for he who seeks with a sincere heart. Do you regret your actions?”
“I do. I… I didn’t know it wanted to turn us into… into monsters. None of us did.”
“Then go to the Light, intent on seeking redemption and reconciliation. Accept the judgment and the mercy of God. Ask for forgiveness, and it will be given.”
“Will I… be punished?”
“You’ve suffered enough in this world. There’s no need to suffer even further. Go to God, and all will be well.”
The three faces wavered. The face of the man lifted away from the turtle. The face of the monster remained.
Black limbs whipped out from the dark ball, slashing at the man’s face, pulling him back.
Porter screamed.
“What are you doing?” Yamamoto demanded.
“He is mine! I will never let him go!” the Dark Power screamed.
“It still hurts, doesn’t it?”
The monster bellowed through its gaping wound, a horrible liquid sound that spurted black fluid across the floor. Karim startled. Where had the fluid come from?
“It hurts because you’re still holding on to him,” Yamamoto continued. “What you are feeling is the Light of God flowing into you, through him. The tighter your grasp, the more Light will flow into you. If you want the pain to stop, release him.”
The turtle screamed in protest, but softer this time.
“You can feel it for yourself, can’t you? The tighter you hold on to him, the more it will hurt. But if you let him go, the pain will stop.”
The monster sighed.
The tendrils unwound themselves from John Porter’s face.
Porter’s face folded into itself, transforming into a sphere of light. It shot up and away from the corpse, through the ceiling, and out of sight.
Kari’s jaw dropped. He was a psi. An Elect of Galen. But he’d never, ever, seen anything like this before.
“It still hurts!” the Dark Power shouted. “You promised it wouldn’t hurt!”
“You’re still tense. You’re still fighting the Light. Let it flow into and through you, and cleanse you. The more you resist, the more it will hurt.”
“LIAR!”
“Try it for yourself. Just pause and relax.”
The face of the Dark Power settled into the face of the turtle, darkening the flesh, becoming one with it. And yet, ever so subtly, under the light from the necklace, the dead flesh began to brighten.
“Feeling better now, yes?” Yamamoto said. “Now tell me, what’s your name?”
“I will never tell you,” the Dark Power said, slowly enunciating every word.
“You’re not speaking to me, for it is not I who speaks to you. It is God, the True Light, the Light of the World, the Light of Lights. He who is the Sovereign of all things seen and unseen, the Supreme Judge and the Father of Eternity, he who causes to become, he who decrees the beginning and end of all things. He speaks to you. What is your name?”
An abhorrent sound flowed from the monster’s mouth. It was an unpronounceable word trickling through miles of superheated tar, combining with methane bubbles and the remnants of long-dead creatures, bursting out of primordial muck into an impossible sound. A sound like ‘Aruk’.
“Aruk,” Yamamoto said. “Thank you for your name. The body you are inhabiting is dying. It may well be dead already. You can’t stay any longer. Now you’ve got two choices. You can go into the Light, surrender to the judgment and the mercy of the Almighty, or—"
The turtle howled.
The windows cracked and shattered. The earpieces shut off all noise. Claws tore deep rents in the floor. Tiles fell from the ceiling. Shelves toppled.
A great black cloud burst forth from the Husk. It covered the body completely, shrouding him in a veil of darkness. The inky cloud grew larger and thicker, sucking up the lake of blood into itself, blooming into a pillar of smoke that reached up to the ceiling.
It became a face.
“I WILL NOT SURRENDER!” Aruk said.
Karim’s blood froze. His muscles clenched tight. His heart trembled. His eyes and jaw locked wide open.
“THIS IS NOT OVER!” the Dark Power shouted.
Yamamoto raised his necklace.
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”
The cloud dispersed like smoke in the wind. It blew out the shattered windows and dissipated in the storm outside. The air freshened and cleared, and in moments, it was as if it was never there.
And where was once a monstrous turtle, there was only the shriveled, naked remains of a man.
Yamamoto sighed.
Pressed his hands together.
Lowered his head.
“Was that… an exorcism?” Karim asked.
Yamamoto stayed still for a moment, then looked back up at Karim.
“The technical term is ‘compassionate depossession,” Yamamoto said.
“I… I don’t… how… Are you an Elect? A priest? What are you?”
Yamamoto turned to face Karim completely. His necklace reflected the faint light around the room. It was a strange symbol, one Karim had glanced a few times on the beat but had never investigated, so simple, yet so powerful.
It was a cross.
A cross whose ends terminated in three lotus petals.
“A believer,” Yamamoto said.
“A believer?” Karim asked.
“Yes. Only this, and nothing more.”
“How did you do… Whatever it was you did?”
“It is not I, but God.”
Something within Karim trembled. He had known many of the words Yamamoto had spoken; he had heard some of them in the mosques of his childhood.
Had he been wrong about Allah?
More importantly, did this man have the power to exorcise Galen too? Was this the secret behind the sterling record of the Black Watch?
Who was Yuri Yamamoto?
“What is a compassionate depossession?” Karim asked.
“Well…” Yuri began.
The radio interrupted him.
“Black Watch, this is Three-TAC. We have a… a situation.”
It was Rogers, the SWAT commander.
“Go ahead,” Yamamoto said. “What’s the problem?”
“A Counter Assault Team from the SN is coming up. They want the body of the Husk.”
Connor shook his head, muttering softly under his breath.
“Stop them,” Yamamoto said. “This is our scene, not theirs.”
“We tried. Control told us to stand down.”
Yamamoto sighed. “Understood. We’ll deal with them.” Changing frequencies, Yamamoto said, “Black Watch, Samurai. On me.”
The six operators gathered around Yamamoto. They were battered, bruised and blood-covered, but their eyes were bright and their demeanor firm. Without orders, they reloaded their weapons and fanned out in a semicircle around the body.
The CAT came. Thirteen of them, all cyborgs, marching in lockstep down the aisles. Their uniform was a cross between tac gear and clerical clothing. Black long-sleeved armored greatcoat, black pants, black gloves, black boots. Their cybernetic eyes, three per cyborg, scanned in every direction, their hands held close to their waists.
And in the lead was Alpha Epsilon Eight-Two-Two.

--


Where the original exorcism scene was more dramatic and forceful, very much akin to Hollywood exorcisms, this scene was more low-key and subtle. Instead of driving out the Dark Power, Yamamoto aimed to negotiate a peaceful solution by convincing it to go to God.

The first reason for this change is doctrinal. It is not doctrinally sound for a Christian who is not an ordained priest to attempt an exorcism, and Yuri Yamamoto is most assured not a priest.

The second reason is to create character depth. Up to this point, we see Yuri Yamamoto as an operator par excellence, destroying his enemies before him. You'd expect him to achieve a more forceful resolution. But he isn't that kind of man--not anymore, anyway. He is now a law enforcer, and if the situation can be resolved with a lower level of force, he can take it. Further, as described in my interview with Rawle Nyanzi, Yuri Yamamoto is an unorthodox thinker and a Christian mystic. This approach of compassionate depossession is more in tune with his character.

The third reason is structural. The previous chapter was a huge action scene. In a webserial, readers can take a break between chapters, so the next scene will feel fresh. In a conventional book, however, a high-intensity scene quickly followed by a second and a third quickly leads to burnout. This approach lets me step down the emotional intensity and create a different mood while still resolving the conflict with the Dark Power.

There's a final reason too. But you'll need to read the final chapter to find out.

BABYLON BLUES is six shots of cyberpunk horror, starring a Christian street samurai and his teammates in an epic struggle against monsters, cultists and demons disguised as gods. Back BABYLON BLUES on Kickstarter here!