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 a lot of 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 inspiration, and have drawn inspiration from…well, everything.  A cool shot in a TV show I saw when I was 8.  The book 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 had a strange influence on me.  I saw the film on video a year or two after it came out.  At the time, 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 the Marvel 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 giant.  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 female characters, especially when they are supposed to be the hero.  So frequently, they’re small and delicate, and if they have strength, it’s supernatural.  In the back of my head, though, was always “Red Sonja.”  At some point, I found some paintings by muscle obsessed Boris, which featured occasional women who looked like they could stand toe to toe with Arnold.  And then some 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.  Though I haven’t liked anything else I’ve read from the author, I can say that Snowbrother rocked my world and is 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).  It was sometime not long after that Baal emerged.  Originally, she was going to be a warlord in a far future Earth.  I was working on a kind of zombie apocalypse, future history.  Baal was a huge, hulking woman, thickly muscled.  She was a warlord, riding a horse into combat.  I wanted her to by 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 some stories I was writing (and drawing, I think) called something like ‘small people’ or ‘big world’ or something like that.  Basically, some of the visuals of movies like “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” and some giant monster films like “Them!” and the like, as well as some of 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, among others 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.  Eventually a more consistent vision started to develop, and Baal fit right in.

As it happens, I went out last night to see the new film, “Wonder Woman.”  Something that struck me about the early part of the film that’s set on Diana’s home island of Themyscira, was that 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 somewhat 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, and 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.  And I think, with its success, we can see that 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 often say that even a bad movie can have something good in it.  It’s a rare movie from which I take nothing away.  Everything gets up there in my head and stews.  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 going to meet with a colleague, and it turned out to be a scene heavily inspired by an episode of a show I 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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