J.G. Keely's Reviews > The Sailor on the Seas of Fate

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate by Michael Moorcock
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Dec 13, 2011

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bookshelves: fantasy, uk-and-ireland, reviewed, sword-and-sorcery
Read from December 14 to 18, 2011

Too few fantasy authors ask what 'magic' means, which is a problem, since, with a few notable exceptions, magic is what makes fantasy fantastical. When reading Moorcock, it becomes clear you have found an author who is very interested in exploring what 'magic' is, and who has made very deliberate decisions about what his magic means.

Magic is a conceptual space. It was created, inadvertently, as a representation of the inner reality of human thought, as opposed to the external reality of the physical world. Human beings saw the physical world around them and, in attempting to understand it, created a matching symbolic world in their heads.

They looked at a river, which moves and changes, floods, and pulls people under, and they imagined a River Spirit for it. They would have a string of bad luck, remember a person who had spoken ill of them, and imagined they were cursed. Magic mostly exists as a way for people to take inexplicable things and imagine how they might be controlled or personified, hence making them more 'human'. So magic is largely symbolic, because it is made up of ideas, of the meanings that we create to make sense of the world around us.

Thus, anyone who has studied the history of magic, from epic poems, myths, theology, and early sciences--like astrology and alchemy--can see that magic shifts and changes with time to match the changes in how people think. As a conceptual, metaphysical space, magic is made to fit our changing ideas and philosophies.

Because of this, magic is fundamentally different in different cultures and at different time periods, because of what the people in those places and times are capable of imagining. If you go back to the myths of the Ancient Greeks, you will not find teleportation, alternate realities, or time-travel, because these ideas are based on modern knowledge and theories.

When the gods move swiftly from one place to another, they must still pass the intervening space--however quickly--because dematerialization does not have a place in the ancient Greek worldview. We may get visions of the afterlife and spirits who take the form of men, but they not the concept of an alternate world which is like ours, and which contains an alternate 'you'.

In plotting my own fantastical stories, I have often struggled in deciding whether or not to include such modern concepts in my magic, fearing that my story would end up like so many others: with characters, politics, and magic feeling so thoroughly contemporary that barely anything fantastical remains. When an author makes magic a simple replacement for technology, a tool for resolving plot conflicts so the characters don't have to, structuring it with points and levels and 'schools' like a videogame, it ceases to feel magical.

What makes it magical is when it is unpredictable, unusual, and when, instead of solving all the characters' problems, it makes new problems. But until reading Moorcock, I had not considered that since magic is built from the geography of the human mind, it could be used to look forward as well as back through time.

A fantasy author who seeks to capture the feel of the past must research, and must make sure the psychology of his characters and his magic give the reader insight into a different place and time. Likewise, a fantasy author can take a cue from authors of Science Fiction (and Speculative Fiction) and show us a vision of the future of human thought, even if it is dressed in the trappings of an ancient myth. Apparently, the problem with dull genre fantasy authors is not that they are too modern in their thinking, but that they are not modern enough.

As I mentioned in my review of the first volume in the Elric series, Moorcock draws on many unusual concepts in crafting his world, so that his magic is equal parts quantum mechanics and myth. The result is something wholly unique: a mythology of modern scientific concepts which are just as strange, unpredictable, and awe-inspiring as any ancient god.

In the second volume of the series, he allows his imagination to fly away with the concept, abandoning for the moment the introspective political intrigue that marked the first plot arc, and diving headfirst into something much more unusual. Instead of slowly building to a climax, we are immediately thrust through time, across dimensions, into dream and myth and symbol, where ships of fate ferry a handful of different faces of the same man to a rendezvous with the end of the world, where selves must be combined, Shiva-like, to save a universe already lost from what may be a robot and his sister.

It is jarring to say the least for Moorcock to leave us with a certain expectation after the previous book and then to abscond on this daring vision of half-dreams. Though the structure is sometimes less than flowing, and the prose rises to moments of greater beauty than the first volume, what carries it all over is the pure, unbridled imagination.

It is a vision that has proven very influential over the past half-century of fantasy--though it is an influence which often goes unrecognized. From the man-doomed-to-live to the soul-stealing sword to the battle between the forces of law and chaos over an entire 'multiverse' of realities, one is bound to find echoes of him in most modern fantasy, though sadly, very few of authors have done as much with the concepts and Moorcock did, and most have just reused them thoughtlessly, failing to recognize what made them interesting in the first place.

Eventually, Moorcock gets us back on track toward the central plot, but each smaller story is its own unique arc, reminiscent of the technique used by Howard and Leiber of creating many brief stories which suggest a larger, more complex world in the gaps between them, though since Moorcock's stories have fewer gaps, there is not quite the same sense of scale.

I would have appreciated more story and less explanation, and more character and psychology, allowing the vastness of the many worlds to loom mysteriously. Moorcock is not foolish enough to make his world truly small by over-explanation, but I enjoy a story more when the setting serves the characters and the plot, and not vice versa, and Moorcock sometimes crosses that line.

But throughout he is surprising, as the ideas drive the story along at a clip. It sometimes feels as if Moorcock is worried that his story might not be different enough, that he needs to establish the incomprehensibly vast strangeness of his world quickly and fully, but that's the thing about the incomprehensibly vast: it can't really afford to be rushed.

There is little risk of Moorcock being like other writers because he has a thoughtful, well-considered direction for his world. He has asked himself what magic means, what purpose it serves, and what sort of tool it is for him, as an author, and he has a good answer. If magic represents the inner-workings of human thought, then why should it have any limits other than what we are capable of thinking?

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message 1: by Slap Happy (last edited Dec 18, 2011 01:30PM) (new)

Slap Happy "...characters, politics, and feeling so thoroughly comtemporary that barely anything fantastical remains."

I gotta bone to pick with that sort of fantasy too. The last one I read that was like that was called the Dragons of Babel, from a highly acclaimed author who has won literary awards for the genre. The videogame, Skyrim, had the same affect on me too. In it I can cast magic like fire or ice or whatever but something about the experience felt mundane and not very fantastical. In contrast, Dark Souls, with its skeletal plotting and opaque character motivations, achieves an actual sense of mystery and wonder that Skyrim could never achieve, whose politics and history seemed familiar and even contemporary at times.


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

Yes, Dark Souls! That game is infinitely better than Skyrim in every way possible.


Zach D_Davis wrote: "Yes, Dark Souls! That game is infinitely better than Skyrim in every way possible."

Agreed. Dark Souls actually has a lot of back story packed in if you pick it out from the various item descriptions and what have you.


J.G. Keely ". . . from a highly acclaimed author who has won literary awards for the genre."

Well, I must say, in defense of literary award committees: at least they are consistent. It seems like every year they give out awards to books which are more-or-less indistinguishable from last year's winner. It must simplify the judging rubric immensely to only include books which are precisely comparable to one another.

"In [Skyrim] I can cast magic like fire or ice or whatever but something about the experience felt mundane and not very fantastical."

Yeah, I've been finding the same thing. The design work isn't bad (certainly a step up from the gouty jowls and phosphy jaws of Oblivion), but it feels rather empty for a 'sandbox world'. I can 'interact' with numerous characters who I cannot change using dialogue trees which never have more than two branches, I can clear out numerous bottomless bases of mindless enemies in order to fetch items from chests, but compared to Baldur's Gate, Torment, and KOTOR, I rarely feel like I actually have any options in how I achieve things, only in what I choose to undertake.

Amusingly, anyone who read the first Elric book might notice that it lays out the Elder Scrolls cosmology pretty fully, and portrays a more interesting version of the plot of Oblivion. You have your hero gulping down endless potions to maintain his strength, summoning demon lords to open portals into the chaos planes where he must fight demons, pass through flesh-gates, and return with a soul-stealing sword.

I feel like I have to find a place to start reviewing games, just so I can get these thoughts out of my head, like I do here at GR for books.

I have heard Dark Souls mentioned here and there, with a great deal of praise, but I can't shake the notion that console gaming is too extravagant an expense for me to justify, so, like Red Dead Redemption, it'll have to be another miss.


message 5: by Slap Happy (new)

Slap Happy You could post game reviews in your writing section on GR. It's your space to do what you want with it. I'd definitely read 'em if you post 'em.


J.G. Keely Hmm, I suppose I could. Well, I'll figure something out and let you know.


message 7: by mark (new)

mark monday another brilliant & exhaustive review. really loved this one

When an author makes magic a simple replacement for technology, a tool for resolving plot conflicts so the characters don't have to, structuring it with points and levels and 'schools' like a videogame, it ceases to feel magical.

this makes me really curious as to what you'd make of The Magician King.


J.G. Keely Hard to say. All I've heard about it is that it's 'Harry Potter with sex'.


message 9: by Han (new)

Han Asra aboxofcereal wrote: ""...characters, politics, and feeling so thoroughly comtemporary that barely anything fantastical remains."

I gotta bone to pick with that sort of fantasy too. The last one I read that was like t..."

For me, one of the greatest crime of video game world ever done is to give Game of the Year or RPG of the Year award to Skyrim instead of Dark Souls.

Zach wrote: "D_Davis wrote: "Yes, Dark Souls! That game is infinitely better than Skyrim in every way possible."

Agreed. Dark Souls actually has a lot of back story packed in if you pick it out from the variou..."

Very true, and compared to gameplay that Skyrim provide, Dark Souls become even more gigantic to look at.

Skyrim presentation of the story and worldbuilding with wooden-dialogue left me a bitter taste. Even Tom Bissels, a quite good critics that sadly lacked to play many games, said that one night in Skyrim could drive someone mad.

Keely wrote: "". . . from a highly acclaimed author who has won literary awards for the genre."

Well, I must say, in defense of literary award committees: at least they are consistent. It seems like every year ..."


Well Keely, I could said that Dark Souls, or perhaps Soul Series is one of the few gritty fantasy video game done right. The world is mysterious, and so does the magic. There are many places that feels fantastical when you first visit them, and even untill now I'm still feel fantastical when revisit them. Although the magic in-gameplay feels as much as it does in another video game (being have multiplayer feature doesn't allows to make it mysterious and unpredictable), but overall the magic feels fantastical, being a godly deity even capable of making mistake in her creation by mean of magic that cost very dearly to the world.

The story laid bare within the enviroment instead of being told by hundred of hour dialogue or cutscene. Even the most mundane items could provide meaningful information about our character or NPC background. So does the placement of item. Except for consumables, there is no random loot. A treant wouldn't drop a bastard sword, and a boss character would only drops item that related to them, complete with information about said boss. The process to pieces all of that information into one, comprehesive lore feels like another game for me. One could have different interpretaion about said information that given by item, seeing how open it is. You could find in GameFAQS where there is a guide to Demon's Souls lore. The detail and what written there left me baffled as I realized how much things that I missed in plain sight. This is also why I thought Souls Series is at it best of an open-world game in conveying a story by mean of visual and wall-of-text-less.

That kind of storytelling is not without fault I guess. Because it required player's initiative to search and piecs the story as whole, those who are not aware might find themselves playing meaningless, ultra violent fantasy RPG that a boss could One-Hit you.

This all what makes me feel that Skyrim is very dull, unfantastical, and bleak in nature. The dungeons are there just to serve as place for us to loot. There is hardly any interesting landmark because the world try to replicate medieval europe. But even then, Europe have interesting pieces of landmark like Leaning Tower of Pisa and another hundreds of landmark that possibly destroyed in the course of history.

The whole gameplay and questing itself is pretty standard. I could admit that I enjoy my first Skyrim plathrough, but I always fail to do another one. There is hardly any bizzare character or places that worth meet or visit more than once. Or quest that good enough to do in different way. The side quest is so generic and soulless even when compared to Oblivion.

The focus of the story and the lore itself that the the game tried to convey also left me baffled. I have to said that I'm the type of guy that like to lurk and obsessively read well writen wiki database to gain more insight about the said game world. The Elder Scroll have some interesting and quite-different material to explore, like the Daedra Princes. But instead they took a genreic turn, telling about dragon and destruction of the world and how our hero, a choosen one prevents it. Most of the interesting part of TES come when they focused on those princes. Both Shivering Isle and Dragonborn are better than their main game (but still Shivering Isle is a piece that superior and second only to Morrowind).

To summarized, Soul Series is superior to The ELder Scroll Series in very term. Gameplay, story, and lore are very much dwarfing them in term of quality. It utilized its medium as a video game really well throughout the interactivity and visuals. But I wouldn't recommend this Soul Series casually to you Keely, since this an Action-RPG that usually being called as a hardcore modern game. And I wouldn't recommend Demon's Souls Lore Guide either because one need to play the game to really know what was written there.


And about the review itself, it is overall very interesting, particulary about the magic and setting. I could said the success that Susanna Clarke have to achieve is not just because her prose and story, but how well she conveyed how magic should be in Napoleonic Era Britain really well.

The magic part make me question myself too, as I tried to create magic based on Jungian Psychology and Buddhist-Tibetan mysticism in a Victoria-esque world. How do I make it part of the world? Can it really be feel like it is part of nature? I tried to avoid the trapping of magic that many contemporary fantasies had, but I don't really know how. Maybe I should really read Moorcock to see how he had done it with meta-psychic. To which volume of Elric before I stopped reading them?


J.G. Keely Han said"Skyrim presentation of the story and worldbuilding with wooden-dialogue left me a bitter taste."

Yeah, I agree completely--plus the fact that so many of the important character interactions in the games were done through finding people's notes and diaries instead of conversation.

"Except for consumables, there is no random loot. A treant wouldn't drop a bastard sword, and a boss character would only drops item that related to them, complete with information about said boss."

Well, to be fair, that was also the case in Skyrim--things you defeated only dropped what they were equipped with at the time.

"You could find in GameFAQS where there is a guide to Demon's Souls lore. The detail and what written there left me baffled as I realized how much things that I missed in plain sight."

I guess that was part of the problem I had with Morrowind (and a lot of fantasy books), that the world seemed more interesting from reading the wiki than it did while actually playing or reading. If the most interesting thing a person can do in a fantasy game is sit down and read the books on the walls, that suggests to me that the world was never properly translated into the plot and characters you encounter.

"as I tried to create magic based on Jungian Psychology and Buddhist-Tibetan mysticism in a Victoria-esque world. How do I make it part of the world?"

That's a question I've been asking myself, too. I've been trying to write up a post about it on my blog, but so far, I haven't quite stumbled across the breakthrough that I need. There are a few basic things I'd say, though:

1. Make sure the magic isn't the cause of and solution to problems in the plot. Plot problems should be caused by the needs, desires, and motivations of the characters, and they should be solved by the meaningful actions of those characters.

2. Remember that magic has always been representative of ideas and relationships, of power and justice and malice--but those are just the generic, cliche representations, there's no reason magic cannot represent sorrow or regret or thoughtlessness. Of course, we also have to be careful not to let the magic just turn into an allegory, where it is a one-to-one representation that builds into some didactic message. It can be all too tempting for an author to set up two magical symbols and then make the one he agrees with 'win' without actually taking time to explore the complex relationship between those ideas.

3. Just like you don't want to have two characters sitting around discussing what another character is like, you don't want your characters to sit around and explain how your magic works. Instead, find ways to demonstrate the magic through its presence, just like you demonstrate a character's personality through their presence. Having the narration explain the magic is just as problematic. After all, what makes something magic is that its strange and unknowable and wonderful, not straightforward and constrained by many known rules.

So, those are things I like to keep in mind when I'm trying to write magic.

"Maybe I should really read Moorcock to see how he had done it with meta-psychic."

I guess generally, I found Moorcock's concept of magic and the ideas he explored with it to be the interesting part. I don't think he always succeeded in making the magic a pervasive part of the world, but he certainly did, some of the time.

I guess I'd try to read different portrayals of magic in different books, like Susanna Clarke, China Mieville, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany, Poul Anderson, Ursula le Guin--you know, unusual authors who might have a different take. Certainly, you could read a few Elric books, too, or some of Moorcock's later work, which is a bit more polished, such as the Corum series.


message 11: by Han (new)

Han Asra Keely wrote: "That's a question I've been asking myself, too. I've been trying to write up a post about it on my blog, but so far, I haven't quite stumbled across the breakthrough that I need. There are a few basic things I'd say, though:

1. Make sure the magic isn't the cause of and solution to problems in the plot. Plot problems should be caused by the needs, desires, and motivations of the characters, and they should be solved by the meaningful actions of those characters.

2. Remember that magic has always been representative of ideas and relationships, of power and justice and malice--but those are just the generic, cliche representations, there's no reason magic cannot represent sorrow or regret or thoughtlessness. Of course, we also have to be careful not to let the magic just turn into an allegory, where it is a one-to-one representation that builds into some didactic message. It can be all too tempting for an author to set up two magical symbols and then make the one he agrees with 'win' without actually taking time to explore the complex relationship between those ideas.

3. Just like you don't want to have two characters sitting around discussing what another character is like, you don't want your characters to sit around and explain how your magic works. Instead, find ways to demonstrate the magic through its presence, just like you demonstrate a character's personality through their presence. Having the narration explain the magic is just as problematic. After all, what makes something magic is that its strange and unknowable and wonderful, not straightforward and constrained by many known rules.

So, those are things I like to keep in mind when I'm trying to write magic."


Very insightful thought here. I've always keep it in mind to not to list character traits, physical appearance and so forth through laundry listing. I could see how depiction of magic would greatly be done by using the tenet "Show not Tell". I hope you could turn these into a blog post about magic later in the future.

Keely wrote: "I guess I'd try to read different portrayals of magic in different books, like Susanna Clarke, China Mieville, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany, Poul Anderson, Ursula le Guin--you know, unusual authors who might have a different take. Certainly, you could read a few Elric books, too, or some of Moorcock's later work, which is a bit more polished, such as the Corum series. "

I've read China Mieville and Susanna Clarke works. Clarke really did a fine job with her magic, and while magic never been a focus on Mieville's story, he still do a great work by making it really fit into his world. I've yet to read the rest but greatly looking forward too, especially The King of Elfland's Daughter.

Well, thanks for all Keely.


J.G. Keely Yeah, no problem.

Oh, I realized while discussing Dead Souls with someone else that I forgot to respond when you said this:

"But I wouldn't recommend this Soul Series casually to you Keely, since this an Action-RPG that usually being called as a hardcore modern game."

Because that has been a concern of mine, since I've never really cared about being good at a videogame. I play games to see the vision the artists and writers have created, and the ideas they present. I find character builds, twitch gaming, and strategy puzzles to be very boring.

It feels like I'm reading a story, but in order to get to the next chapter, I have to do five math problems and beat someone at checkers. I'll usually try a battle or puzzle about four times before I get bored and decide I'd rather do something else with my time.


message 13: by Han (new)

Han Asra Keely wrote: "Yeah, no problem.

Oh, I realized while discussing Dead Souls with someone else that I forgot to respond when you said this:

"But I wouldn't recommend this Soul Series casually to you Keely, since..."

I know that too. Game's like Planescape:Torment, Fallout 1&2,and other CRPGs are the one that suit you best since they really focus on the story.

I have a question in mind. If Watchmen considered as graphic novel, could game like Planescape: Torment and other game that focused itself on story called visual novel or interactive novel?


J.G. Keely Yeah, I'm actually almost finished with a playthrough of Torment--for all the times I've started it and played half the game, I've never actually gotten to the end before. I'm excited to see how it turns out.

"If Watchmen considered as graphic novel, could game like Planescape: Torment and other game that focused itself on story called visual novel or interactive novel?"

Well, I guess I tend to think the term 'graphic novel' is pretty overused, I'm hardly sure it means much if anything, anymore. I mean, in Watchmen's case, it was actually a monthly superhero comic that was collected and sold in a larger binding later, so if that's a 'graphic novel', then are all TPBs 'graphic novels'?

I understand that people have a desire to talk about comics that use different structures and have different aims in their storytelling, but in my experience, a lot of people are just saying 'graphic novel' because they're embarrassed to be reading comics.

However, in the case of CRPGs like Torment, there really is a difference in presentation versus games that don't have stories, like sports games, but it seems to me that any RPG is going to fall under the category of 'interactive novel', because it has a story, a plot, characters, and all that.


message 15: by Millenia (new)

Millenia Wow. Those are some brilliant thoughts on writing magic. Great review!


message 16: by Rynnec (last edited Aug 26, 2015 11:56PM) (new)

Rynnec Zuhac "When an author makes magic a simple replacement for technology, a tool for resolving plot conflicts so the characters don't have to, structuring it with points and levels and 'schools' like a videogame, it ceases to feel magical."

Out of curiosity, what do you think of the concept of 'magitech' (that is, the fusion of magic and technology)?


J.G. Keely Millenia said: "Wow. Those are some brilliant thoughts on writing magic. Great review!"

Thank you, you're very kind--I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Rynnec said: "what do you think of the concept of 'magitech'"

I think it can be quite interesting. I mean, for a lot of authors, 'technology' is more of a palette they work in--think of Star Wars, a fantasy of wizards and magic swords which is given a veneer of technology. There's nothing forward-thinking or speculative about it, it's mostly a set of design principles for the artists, modellers, and costumers.

Then you have examples where forgotten technology becomes seen as magic, as in Vance's Dying Earth or Le Guin's Rocannon's World, which can be a clever trick to pull on the reader. At a certain point, it often ceases to matter whether it's supposed to be magic or technology in the first place--since they can both be used in the same ways in a book.

When I was talking about magic being a simple replacement for technology, I mean fantasy authors who substitute magic lanterns for light bulbs, wash golems for laundry machines, and genie engines for steam locomotives. It means that they're really just writing about the modern world with a thin screen over it rather than trying to write a strange and foreign world of another age.


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