Thomas Ligotti’s “The Town Manager” ends with the narrator offered the leadership role in a new town, a position that he has discovered from decades of exploitative policy leads to the slow destruction of the town but fattened wallet for the Town Manager. We are left asking if he will take the role, and how he would shape a society given what he’s seen. Fiction creates simulations able to portray the workings of human nature and reality, and the powerful flexibility of genre gives us untold ways to build a story off of core ideas. Weird tales translate supernatural elements into a contemporary setting, but it also branches out into two other genres that either uses magic and the occult or science and technology to reveal how the world is truly governed. Robert E. Howard’s fantasy story “The Phoenix on the Sword” and George R. R. Martin’s science fiction short “Sandkings” give us two different answers to “The Town Manager’s” leadership dilemma, from the ground as a king leading men or from above as a god pulling the strings of fate from behind the veil.
Humanity possesses a need to explain the parts of the world it doesn’t quite understand, and Weird literature persists as a type of folklore that explores whatever odd phenomenon marks the times; today’s weird fiction is every bit as strange as that of our old fairy tales and fables but replaces small forest cottages stalked by witches and gnomes with industrial cities poured in concrete and rebar plagued by its own monsters. Don D. Elgin describes fantasy as the means to test human nature in humanity’s natural environments, noting that they either fight against the world’s rules to attain freedom or they accept their existence and just try to get by without causing trouble (Le Lievre para. 1). Fantasy often looks to the past to set its stories in ancient or legendary lands like Atlantis with creatures long in our cultural psyche including serpents and dragons, which is an interesting difference to how Sci-Fi uses theoretical tech and alien planets to present mysteries of science and the universe, anticipating the future just over our horizon. Robert Heinlein described SF as “a realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method” (Shippey xxxi). Through these foreign settings, the beasts of long lost civilizations or aliens on unexplored planets, both genres offer worlds just outside our reach and enriched by our imagination, exploring the myths of the past or making predictions for our future.
Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian is legendary in fantasy and his Hyborean Age mythology is full of savages and spell-casters, kings and deities, and the barbarian’s first tale “The Phoenix on the Sword” shows him as a king ambushed by conniving forces seeking his throne, and dispatching them with cruel, efficient brutality. By contrast, the desert planet of Martin’s “Sandkings” is home to bored elite Simon Kress as he breeds the enigmatic sandkings, a sentient alien race confined to their aquarium who group together based on color. But Kress is looking to be entertained, and the wars the sandkings wage are so enthralling that he starts interacting with them, changing the stakes of the game based on his mood, and the little civilizations begin to exhibit violent resentment towards his rule. The difference in these two characters is stark, with Conan taking up arms and fighting groups of trained warriors where Kress can only show his dominance over those smaller, with power bought by money rather than steel.
By virtue of being connected to the Weird, Fantasy and Sci-Fi are able to incorporate many of the same ideas in different forms made of interchangeable parts, and probably their most obvious similarity is how they give characters seemingly supernatural abilities with which to affect change in the world. Magicians and sorcerers have long existed in our mythological cannon and often cast spells and incantations using words and language to conjure physical objects and energies, but Sci-Fi can do the same with hackers, using lines of code input into a computer to drain a bank account or hijack an electric car on the other side of the planet. It reminds of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” because the only difference between magician and hacker is the language they cast spells with, the input device, and the year on their calendars. Sci-Fi’s great advantage, however, is that it runs at the speed of progress which is increasingly developing technology so powerful and accessible that someone could walk to their local electronics store and become a god for the low low price of the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price plus tax.
Both “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “Sandkings” deal with the role of the Gods in people’s lives, those able to look inside our cosmic box from outside its borders. With the assassins en route, King Conan is summoned in his dreams by Epimetrius the long-dead sage, who tells him of the plot against his life and grants him a sword, emblazoned with the icon of the Phoenix, to fight off a powerful enemy. Kress directly interacts with his subjects as well, tossing a giant spider into the aquarium and gleefully watching the course of civilizations change and everything erupt into chaos. Is this so different than the faceless, unknown town manager who, with a flick of a pen, can change policy and radically alter people’s lives?
A fascinating part about both these stories is how polar opposite the main characters are to their antagonists, and how it affects their chances of victory. Conan is a man of direct action because his life as a warrior demands that he confront obstacles head on, and so it’s no wonder that his enemies must scheme and corrupt from the shadows as they are no match in a test of might. Simon Kress is a man who attacks indirectly by manipulating others to fight his battles, to hiring mercenaries against the sandkings who have grown stronger from his terror and are now powerful enough to make it stop. Amazingly, this unification happened to Conan as he cut a swathe to his throne as well, and now leads loyal armies willing to die for him, which is far different than the horrid, disfigured visage of Kress the sandkings etched as monument to his malice. Kress had chosen himself over others at every step of the way and it walked him into oblivion.
It’s clear that genre is fluid and modifiable, and while fantasy and Sci-Fi are born from Weird literature, their elements can be so similar that they exist on a spectrum of their own, and it’s no surprise that the hybrid science fantasy genre both emerged and became popular. But even these stories are different depending on how much science or fantasy is mixed into the recipe; George Lucas’ “Star Wars” and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom stories use Sci-Fi’s alien planets and future tech but still work with mystical elements and swords, while FASA’s pen and paper RPG series Shadowrun teleports elves, orcs, and magicians into a dystopian cyberpunk world with computers and mega corporations. The genre is a deep and endless ocean of possibilities.
Through the magic of fiction, abstract ideas can be transformed into machines able to run thought experiments and build worlds as diverse as our imaginations. Experiencing a story can be so powerful as to inspire a person to make the right decision when it matters the most. So where does that leave the man who may become Town Manager? Will he be Conan the warrior sandking who stormed the castle in defiance to the established order or the God Kress cruelly pulling the strings to make the world so uninhabitable that a “Conan” must rise up to stop him? Regardless, that we are confronted by these questions means that we live in a weird world, but whether it’s weird because of magic or because of technology is up to you.
Howard, R. The Phoenix on the Sword. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. Ed. Patrice Louinet. First ed. New York; Del Rey Books. 2002. 7-27. Print.
Le Lievre, K. Wizards and wainscots: generic structures and genre themes in the Harry Potter series. Mythlore. Vol 24, Issue 1. Napoleon, MI; Mythopoeic Society. 2003. Print.
Ligotti, T. The Town Manager. The Weird: A Compendium of Strange And Dark Stories. Ed. Ann & Jeff Vandermeer. First ed. New York: Corvus, 2012. 968-974. Print.
Martin, G. Sandkings. The Weird: A Compendium of Strange And Dark Stories. Ed. Ann & Jeff Vandermeer. First ed. New York: Corvus, 2012. 521-452. Print.
Shippey, T. Critical Survey of Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature. Critical Survey of Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature. Third ed. Hackensack, NJ; Salem Press, 2017. xxiv-xxxvi. Print.