Bewildering Stories discusses
“The Deathless Hand”
with Danielle L. Parker
Why did you write “The Deathless Hand”? It seems to depart from your favorite characters and themes.
[Danielle] The story was written specifically for a pulp magazine. It is a departure for me in several ways, though elements of other stories I write are also pulp.
[Bill Bowler] I enjoyed it very much, Danielle, and I’m somewhat familiar with the sources. Once upon a time I read The Lay of Igor’s Campaign, where Vseslav Polotsky “runs like a wolf.” It was in Old Church Slavonic, though I’ve forgotten it all now. You did some very interesting things with the material. And yes, give us some more, please!
[Danielle] First, it is the first story I wrote that features unapologetic magic and not science pretending to be magic.
[Bill B.] This is interesting about magic, Danielle. I hadn’t noticed it, it’s so well integrated into the narrative, but now that you mention it, the magic is beautifully depicted.
As I recall, Don has some resistance to magic in stories — am I right, Don? But one of the authors Danielle has turned me on to is Jack Vance. and Vance does what you do here: weaves magic imperceptibly into the world depicted, so that the reader hardly notices and the magic becomes real.
[Don Webb] You’re right, Bill. But I agree with you and Danielle. I object to authors’ getting carried away by fascination with magic or science and using either one for its own sake. That’s the main reason I find comic-book “superhero” stories such as those of Superman or Captain Marvel boring.
On the other hand, time travel is pure magic but has its uses. I treat it as science for the sake of logical consistency, to the extent it’s possible to do so. Unfortunately, the authors of many time travel stories forget that it’s a dramatic device, not a gadget.
Cyrano de Bergerac’s multi-stage rocket to the Moon was fantasy mixed with magic in the 1650’s; in 1969 it literally became science fact. Cyrano might shrug and say, “I told you so, but the point is that I only pretended go to the ‘Moon’; I went to ‘the other world’.” And he practically hammers on that point throughout his novel.
Jack Vance makes a kind of cameo appearance in “Parachuting into Paradise” (cf. the note to “ecstatic trance”): “Telekinesis is used for space travel in Jack Vance's ‘Telek’ (Astounding Science Fiction, January 1952), but in that story it serves mainly as a metaphor for the political power of an oppressive aristocracy.”
Likewise, the characters in “The Deathless Hand” use magic, and the story succeeds by not allowing magic to use the characters.
[Danielle] Second, I tried to consciously keep away from “saying something meaningful.” Just “make it fast. Make it fun.” That’s pulp. It was actually hard for me, throwing away themes.
Worthy Bad Guys are hugely important in pulp, so Levkin the Werewolf Prince had to have complexity. You need to allude to larger stories, because pulp sagas go on and on... How many bad guys did Batman bash through? Though if he’s worthy, your hero needs only one opponent — think of Holmes and Moriarty.
The point is, you need lots of room for more adventures, and you need to both satisfy the reader with the current installment and have him/her ask, “What’s next?”
How do you keep the fantasy elements under control? That is, how do you make them work for you rather than let them take over the plot?
[Danielle] Do research. Mash ingrediants. Let brine cure and serve. You can’t really answer the “How do you create?” question. Better authors than I have tried.
But if you keep plot/characters as the keys, I don’t think you get into the syndromes of “look at my cool magic system!” Or “neat-o weapons, eh?” Maybe filmmakers have more trouble with that, as they are primarily visual artists.
What are the traditional sources?
[Danielle] Russian, Chinese and Norse fairy tales and mythology, of course. How I love mythology! A good first source for newbies is Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. You read the Greek myths first. They’re basic arithmetic before you broach algebra and calculus. The foundation, in other words.
Neither Russian nor Chinese is as well covered as Greek or Grimm. But if you find a good Russian fairy tale book, like Lucy Maxym’s Russian Lacquer, Legends and Fairytales series, you can enjoy the fabulously lush artwork as well.
[Bill B.] I don’t know about the Chinese part, but among the Russian sources are the Povest Vremennykh Let (Tale of Bygone Years); Slovo o Polku Igoreve (Lay of Igor’s Campaign); byliny (heroic folk epics); and skazki (folk tales and fairy tales).
The half-historic, half-mythic heroes from the epics and the fantastic creatures from the folk and fairy tales loom large in the history of Russian literature.
Start with Pushkin: he acknowledged later in life that his beloved old nanny who raised him had filled his head with fairy tales. in his famous prologue to Ruslan and Lyudmilla, Pushkin refers and pays homage to Baba Yaga, Koshchei, and other fairy tale figures who formed so prominent a part of his creative consciousness.
Gogol’s writing is full of fantastic and magical motifs derived from folk and fairy tales. his monster “Vii,” for just one example, had eyelids that touched the ground.
In the 20th century, Bulgakov’s “Heart of a Dog” and “Master and Margarita” are prime examples of the continued deep influence of folk and fairy tales on Russian literature. but I’ll save perhaps the most interesting example for the next question.
How have the major characters been updated for a modern audience?
[Danielle] I modernized names and hinted at occupations these “immortals” might have in a modern world. Irrelevant really. Koschay (Koschei) remains a primitive archetype by intent. He is a frozen being who does not move with the times.
His Russia is old Russia and its stark values. It was a ruthless place. A lot of Russian fairy tales make Grimm look soft. “And the Tsar dropped the wicked man in boiling oil...” Sometimes the Tsar dropped the good guys in boiling oil, too.
Koschay himself is an ambiguous figure in myth, like his sister Baba Yaga, the Woman of Fire. He/she may give aid but it’s always risky for the protagonist to seek it. His help to Kosterkin is to “reap” him.
The Vaslev/Levkin figure was actually mashed with the swan sorceror of Swan Lake, and Levkin’s penance and immortality was an invention,. too.
Baba Yaga was supposed to be immortal by drinking a tincture of magic blue roses, and I had Levkin forced to pay her so I’d have lots of room to use Levkin in future stories... sometimes as a good guy! Temporarily, of course.
I ended up more fascinated with the bad guy than the “hero” almost by the end of the story. Koshay is more a one-dimensional primitive or archetype figure. Levkin fit the swan imagery; swans come in both black and white. I have a story planned where Levkin is in his three days of being forced to be good.
[Bill B.] The work of Russian literature that “Deathless Hand” most reminds me of is the Strugatskys’ “Monday Begins on Saturday.” They employ the same device: placing fairy tale characters in a contemporary Russian setting.
The young scientist protagonist of “Monday...” arrives at the “niichavo” institute and the first thing he sees is a hut on chicken legs. The old woman (baba) and her cat are employees of the Institute, where the faculty are magicians of various degrees of accomplishment.
Koschey’s affirmation that he seeks to “protect Mother Russia” is almost disingenuous as an explanation of his motives. What kind of Russia does Koschey seem to have in mind? That’s a question in Challenge 575, and it addresses the idea of Koschey as a kind of one-dimensional archetype. It also points to possible character development in sequels.
[Danielle] Koschay is an archetype of a more primitive time and primitive moral values. But ask yourself whether times have really changed. Is modern Russia a kinder, gentler place? Is Europe permanently “civilized”? Does the stark good-and-evil of fairy tales truly belong to a vanished age?
[Bill B.] Defending Mother Russia is the glue that binds all Russians: Oni srazhalis’ za rodinu! [They fought for the motherland!]. Having been invaded by the Teutonic Knights, the Tatar hordes, the Grande Armée, and the Wehrmacht, Russians have fairly good reason to feel their country is under siege.
[Don W.] It is understandable that Russians might feel that way. Like Poland, the Baltic countries and even Germany, Russia has no natural borders. When you live in a geographical fiction, the question “What is this country, anyway?” always lurks in the background.
Battle cries can be significant. “Srazhat’sa za rodinu” takes for granted that the Motherland must be protected in order to be defined. Charlemagne’s battle cry “Monjoie” was simpler: it meant, crudely, “Let me at ’em!” As a Frankish king, he was fighting to re-establish the western Roman Empire and for what would become France.
Likewise, in Jerry Bruckheimer’s film King Arthur (2004), the invading Saxons shout, presumably in Old Low German, “Slachten Feindar!” (‘Slaughter the foe’). But Arthur and his comrades are Sarmatians who have been conscripted as knights by the Romans and stationed in Britain. Their battle cry is one word: “Rus!”
Arthur himself seems conflicted: is he Russian or Ukrainian anymore now that Britain is his home? The word “rus” appears to be of Scandinavian origin, and one may wonder whether the Rus, as such, existed in the 5th century. But it’s a terrific film!
[Bill B.] Constant neglect and outright hostility from the West only serves to feed the fire. What kind of country is “modern” “civilized” Russia? the two adjectives hardly seem to apply. It’s Chinatown, Jack, don’t go there. For some reason, the old Russian folk saying comes to mind: Don’t blame the mirror if your mug is crooked.
[Don W.] Western commerce has hardly neglected or been hostile to Russia in recent decades. And the West — despite the occasional benighted politician — wants peace, because it’s good for business. Let me quote for the second time in this issue Terry Pratchett’s words of wisdom: “War is a wicked waste of customers.”
In the end, the important question is not “Who are you?” but “What might we trade?” Nor “Where are you from?” but “What is your country like?” To the latter question, Russian dissidents have emphasized that Russia needs not geographical boundaries but a civil society. Slogans are a snare and a delusion. In 1917, Russians decided they would fight only for a country worth living in; the struggle has been very hard ever since, but it is worth the effort.
And that leaves the door open for Koshchei to become more than a comic-book superhero. Take the challenge, Danielle; give him a heart. His “Mother Russia” needs and deserves it.
Copyright © 2014 by Bewildering Stories