Wonder Woman, Red Sonja, & a Shrink Ray

The strange evolution of Baal and the Conquest of the Sphere

Where do you get your ideas?  It’s a question a lot of authors are asked.  Not me.  Not many folks have read my fiction.  But a lot of authors.  I’ve thought a good deal about it, myself.  Where do I get my ideas?  How does a concept come about and grow into a story?  Like any artist I beg, borrow, and steal.  I draw and have drawn inspiration from…well, everything.  A cool shot in a TV show I saw when I was 8.  The cover of a paperback found in a used book store.  The riff in an obscure rock tune from the mid 80s.  Crossing a rope bridge at a coastal park in Atlantic Canada in the late 70s.  A tent pitched below a vineyard, spotted from the window of a speeding train in rural Italy.  That sort of thing.

Yesterday, for no particular reason, the 1985 movie, “Red Sonja,” popped into my mind.  It got me thinking about how that movie has had a strange influence on me.  I saw the film on video a year or two after it came out.  I loved it.  And I was captivated by Brigitte Nielsen, who played the titular character.  Now, I’m not arguing that “Red Sonja” is a good movie.  It’s not.  Going back and watching it recently…I mean, wow.  It’s terrible.  And Brigitte Nielsen is a terrible actress.  She’s also horribly miscast as Sonja.  Red Sonja is a Marvel Comics invention, a sword woman in a chainmail bikini, who runs around in Marvel’s kinda goofy version of the Conan universe.  Robert E. Howard had written about a Red Sonya in one of his historic fiction stories, but the Marvel character only seemed to lift her red hair.  As I said, Nielsen was terribly miscast.  Instead of a lithe swashbuckling type, we see Sonja as a lumbering giantess.  As wrong as that was, it was very good for me.  Here was a woman warrior who was big.  In fantasy and science fiction, there have been many warrior women, but they’re almost always portrayed as petite women with some kind of super strength or skill.  They’re not portrayed as large or muscular.  That’s bugged me.  Yet, Nielsen’s Red Sonja stood out as a physically imposing female hero who stood against Arnold in a way no less convincing than anything else in the movie (really, it’s a bad film).

As I grew up (or older, at least), I became enamored of the powerful paintings of Frank Frazetta, I began reading Robert E. Howard’s actual short stories, and got into tabletop role-playing games.  The more I read, the more I was annoyed by many female characters, especially when they are supposed to be the hero.  So frequently, they’re small and delicate, objects to win or lose.  If they have strength it’s not physical, emotional, or intellectual, it’s supernatural.  In the back of my head though, there was always “Red Sonja.”  Eventually, I found paintings by muscle obsessed Boris, which featured occasional women who looked like they could stand toe to toe with Arnold.  And then Brom, who also wasn’t afraid to show women with some hardness.

I was probably 13 or 14 when I read the book Snowbrother, by S.M. Stirling and it rocked my world.  It’s one of the things I’ve read that has changed the way I look at and approach writing.  It was the first time, to my knowledge, that I had read a fantasy novel where there were no good guys, or bad guys…just a bunch of guys (or in this case, gals). Not long after, Baal emerged.  Originally, she was a warlord in a far future Earth.  I was working on a multi-generational, zombie apocalypse, future history.  Baal was a huge, hulking woman, thickly muscled, riding a horse into combat.  I wanted her to be physically strong, as well as intellectually and spiritually tough.  Things didn’t pan out, and though I worked on the zombie stuff for a long time (even producing the absolutely awful first draft of a novel), I abandoned most of that world.  Yet, Baal stuck with me.  And one day in my early 20s I felt like taking a swing at writing a Robert E. Howard style story.  So, I brought Baal back.  I plunked her down in a totally different world, the world that would become Conquest of the Sphere.

Conquest of the Sphere is its own beast, with a long history, too.  I believe its earliest origins are in stories I was wrote (and drew, I think) called ‘small people’ or ‘big world’ or something like that.  Visuals of movies like “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” and some giant monster films like “Them!” floated around in my head.  The trippy concepts in A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels had me thinking about size and scale.  I got really into the idea of people being tiny, facing off against things much bigger than themselves.  This evolved over the years.  Larry Niven’s Ringworld got me to thinking about massive constructs and deep time.  Multiple revisits to “The Dark Crystal” reminded me of how creative Fantasy can be when not stuck up Tolkien’s butt.  And of course, going back to the wells of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft time and again got my brain juice flowing.  Eventually a more consistent vision developed, and Baal fit right in.

As it happens, I went out last night to see the new film, “Wonder Woman.”  Something struck me about the Themyscira.  The women warriors looked tough, hard, and large.  I don’t know if the actresses are especially large in real life, but they were shot in a way that made them look imposing.  They were also ‘allowed’ to look like real women.  Not all of them were traditionally beautiful, not all of them were young.  More than 30 years later, women warriors once again looked big.  They looked like they could match any buff dude in a fist fight.  These weren’t Luc Besson or Joss Whedon’s waif-super-soldiers. Maybe people do not have a problem seeing physically strong women involved in heavy action.  It hasn’t just been me, all these years.

When people ask me why I watch awful movies (which I do, quite often), I say even a bad movie can have good in it.  It’s a rare movie from which I take nothing away.  Everything goes in my head to stew.  Combining it with art, music, social interactions, and life experiences, nearly anything can turn into inspiration.  And it might leak into my writing at any time.  Like when I started writing a recent chapter about a religious inquisitor meeting a colleague.  It turned out to be heavily inspired by an episode of a show I’d watched where chefs Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert hung out in China.  I didn’t know that would happen when I sat down to write the scene.  And I certainly didn’t suspect that 30 years later, a terrible sword and sorcery movie would end up being such a profound influence on me.

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