by BJW Nashe
People love weapons. They always have, and perhaps always will. Weaponry has played a considerable role in the rich and troubled history of our species, and in the rise and fall of various civilizations. Weapons are a source of fascination: people like to study, design, manufacture, and collect them. Weapons are fun to play with, and useful in self-defense. Weapons also serve as cultural signifiers. They are style statements, expressions of who we are as a people, both in terms of individual identities and collective values.
In this light, we are faced with some unpleasant facts: our national obsession with guns and our “gun culture” has not worked out so well. Our cities and towns are plagued with far too much gun violence — more than any civilized society should be willing to tolerate. Approximately 30,000 people in the U.S. are killed by guns each year — and a significant number of these are children. Another 70,000 or so are wounded by gunfire. Meanwhile, our polarizing national debate on gun laws threatens to drive us all mad. The gun lobby continues to fan the flames of outrage in order to protect the profits of gun manufacturers. Congress is unable to agree on rudimentary safety measures such as universal background checks and restrictions on certain types of assault rifles.
It’s an ugly situation all around. Setting aside the whole issue of gun legality for the time being, I propose that we quit romanticizing our gun fetish, and instead focus our attention on weapons that are far more interesting and considerably less damaging. I am urging people to put away their guns, and take up the sword. It’s time to follow visionary author Neal Stephenson’s example. It’s time to join the sword fight club.
Sword fight club? Swordplay? In the 21st century? Yes, this is anachronistic, but that is part of the charm.
Think about it. Any half-witted jackass can load up a semi-automatic 9 mm Glock and start blasting away. Where’s the skill or intelligence or finesse involved in that? I have fired guns before, so I have a fairly good sense of the experience. I don’t deny that there is a certain thrill involved. But shooting soon grows boring and tiresome. After the initial adrenaline surge wears off, pulling the trigger is no more exciting than starting up a lawn mower or plunging a clogged toilet.
But swordplay is another matter altogether. This is a martial art, practiced by true warriors. Like most martial arts, swordplay draws upon a rich tradition of not only strategy and tactics, but also philosophy, aesthetics, and even spirituality. All of this makes swordplay vastly superior to gunplay. In terms of pure action, the sword might be seen as one of our finest inventions, a pinnacle of human achievement. Who can deny that Uma Thurman’s samurai sword fighting in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill puts the bullet-strewn orgies of Rambo to shame? It’s no contest — not even close. Violent cinema doesn’t get much better than Tarantino’s epic sequence where Uma slaughters an entire army of assassins by wielding a single blade of Japanese steel.
No doubt Neal Stephenson would agree. Stephenson — author of acclaimed works of fiction such as Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle — has for some time now been at the forefront of renewed interest in sword fighting. In his life and work, the sword has become a key to unlocking the key mysteries of life. He has trained in sword-fighting, written about sword-fighting, and formed an entire corporation centered on sword-fighting.
During the past year, Stephenson has been working to bring his obsession with swordplay into the lucrative world of computer games. He helped launch a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised half a million dollars for a new company called Subutai, which would use the money to develop Clang — intended to be the first virtual game that accurately simulates real-life sword-fighting. Unfortunately, in September 2013 the Clang project was put on hold until new financial investors can be found. Hopefully this enterprise — a labor of love among a group of people who share a unique passion for technology, storytelling, and martial arts — will be able to drum up enough capital to move forward and put a successful product on the market sometime soon.
Subutai Corporation, a secretive enclave located in the heart of San Francisco, is about more than the Clang game, however. Clang has been the focus for 50% of the operation. The other half creates and sells content for Stephenson’s digital entertainment application called The Mongoliad. This is a subscription-based service that tells an alternate history where eastern and western swordsmen fight each other. Fans of this fantasy realm get to enjoy the unlikely spectacle of Japanese samurai warriors doing battle with medieval European knights. Stephenson, a serious student of forgotten western martial arts such as Italian and German swordsmanship, views The Mongoliad project as an experiment in new ways of telling, and selling, tales of imaginative fiction. It is a collaborative writing project that weds traditional narrative structures and methods with cutting edge digital technologies. Think Conan the Barbarian goes cyberpunk, and then ask yourself, well, why not?
What’s particularly fascinating is the way in which the quest for sword fighting verisimilitude in virtual gaming and storytelling has grown out of Neal Stephenson’s own flesh-and-blood fight club adventures. One of the The Mongoliad contributors, a man named Cooper Moo, has shared with us some of how it all went down. In a fascinating piece for Slate in 2012, Moo explains the growth of a certain underground club, comprised of a very special assortment of lunatics:
“In 2004 I joined a fight club. It was more of a sword-geek guild, really. We met every Sunday morning in a nondescript warehouse in Seattle’s industrial district, made our own weapons, and fought with them. It was gloriously homegrown and savage. Olympic fencing this was not.”
“Our rapiers were hockey sticks with modified handles and a retracting spring mechanism built into the hollow fiberglass shaft to allow us to stab without injuring one another. Much. Our long swords were true-to-form in weight and balance with a wooden core and a metal crosspiece at the hilt. The blade was clad with high-density foam wrapped in ballistic cloth. The handles were covered with the grip tape used on tennis rackets. Shields, when we used them, were wooden and also covered in foam—because a protective shield can become an offensive weapon. For armor, we wore thickly padded martial arts gear and helmets with face cages. Our gloves of choice were either hockey gloves or well-padded “extraction” gloves used by prison guards.”
Moo describes the fight club as more Mad Max than Robin Hood. They would meet each Sunday to suit up and crudely thrash away at each other. The only rule was to not inflict any serious damage — especially to the hands, since everybody was either a writer or a programmer who made their living tapping away on a keyboard.
Moo says that the Sunday bash-fests went on for two glorious years until one fateful day, when a founding member of the group, none other than Neal Stephenson, told them that they were doing it all wrong. Figures that the author of mammoth 1000 page novels would start doing in-depth research, and try to push the others into full geek mode.
“We were swinging the swords like bats, he explained, striking our opponents with a contact point about two-thirds of the way down the blade from the hilt. We weren’t sword fighting; we were beating one another with sticks.”
Cooper Moo initially fought the transition from wild chaos to order and expertise. He knew there would be training, structure, drills — all of which threatened to take the fun out of the Sunday sword fights. But he eventually came around. A big turning point was when Neal brought in two of the nation’s foremost sword makers, Tinker Pearce and Angus Trim, to demonstrate the beauty of real swords, and the proper way to wield them. Tinker unsheathed a long, razor sharp weapon and showed the novices how to swing and strike with the last six inches of the blade, not the middle section, or anywhere close to the grip. Tinker swung smoothly and neatly halved a 2 liter plastic soda bottle filled with water and placed on top of a pedestal. There were oohs and aahs all around. Then they took turns on similar soda bottles. It wasn’t all that easy to slice those bottles cleanly in two. But Stephenson’s Seattle fight club received some welcome instruction on that day, and their lives were never quite the same.
From then on, the rag tag band of Mad Max fighters became devoted and skilled swordsmen. Amateur hour was over. They understood that sword fighting was not about hitting each other with sticks. It was about cutting with blades. It was an art form. It was a freaking science.
That initial crash course from Tinker and Trim blossomed into an obsession. The Sunday fights became a deeper, more intense experience. Off-hours were devoted to studying up on techniques. Cooper Moo describes searching the Internet for anything he could find pertaining to realistic swordplay. Pretty slim pickings, overall. On YouTube, however, he came across one stunning exception:
“A man in Hong Kong who called himself Lancelot Chan was not merely cutting pop bottles of water—he was cutting pig carcasses. And he was doing it on a high-rise rooftop. Cool. And by sheer luck, my family and I were already headed to China and would leave in just a few weeks. I emailed Lancelot immediately. To my delight, he responded the very next day. He not only invited me to join a sword-fighting class, he extended the ultimate offer, a chance to fight!”
Moo doesn’t mention Stephenson’s reaction to any of this. But I can imagine the manic encouragement Moo must have received from the great author. Dude, it is essential that you meet up with this guy in Hong Kong immediately.
Cooper Moo gladly made the trip to Hong Kong. He took his whole family along during their three-week vacation. Once there, he made an appointment to meet up with the enigmatic Lancelot Chan. He obtained an address, which he wrote down for his wife. “So we know where to look for your body?” she asked him, laughing. On the evening in question, just before 6 P.M., he rode in a taxi cab to a street overflowing with the traffic of a bustling night market. His destination turned out to be a nondescript office high-rise at the end of an alleyway. He took the elevator up to the top. Lancelot Chan was waiting for him, checking his watch. He knew when security was due on their nightly rounds. Best to avoid them. Chan said they weren’t too fond of the sword-fighting and the pig carcasses. After brief introductions, Lancelot led Moo straight onto the roof, saying, “We should fight. It’s getting dark, and security is coming.”
And fight they did. Nothing bloody — they used foam-covered swords — but it was a splendid battle, and it was all recorded for our YouTube viewing pleasure. What I find particularly enjoyable is the friendly banter between the two men between each thrust and parry, and also the way in which lights in the windows of neighboring buildings flicker on and off during an especially intense exchange. The whole scene is enough to temporarily renew one’s faith in humanity. Cooper Moo handles himself well, but he is no match for an expert swordsman such as Lancelot Chan. As Moo puts it, “Though I get in a couple of good strikes, Lancelot undeniably hands me my ass.”
At one point, Moo is nearly stabbed to death in the throat:
“About 52 seconds in, I got in a decisive strike to Lancelot’s head. Eight seconds later, in a wonderful display of German technique from ‘the ox’ position and an obvious example of ‘I can reach out and touch you if I want to’ Chinese chutzpah, Lancelot stabbed me in the throat. Like a boss. It was a great, clean hit—and it scared me. Back in Seattle, a neck guard protected our throats. That was not the case on Lance’s rooftop. Fortunately, he had pulled the thrust so as not to seriously hurt me.”
But a bit of throat-stabbing is not about to put a damper on this splendid evening. For Moo, the whole fight is a valuable lesson from a renegade YouTube Zen master. It is also a blast of pure madcap fun and adventure.
“People in the taller, newer apartment buildings that surrounded Lancelot’s rooftop were standing in their windows watching the fight. I could see at least half a dozen figures silhouetted against the lights. Several of them flashed their lights on and off after Lancelot or I scored a great hit. The effect was crazy cool. We were sword fighting in a Chinese Thunderdome!
“It was like playing chess with a master. There was no doubt I was going to lose, but it was a pleasure sparring with someone who really knew what he was doing. I was thoroughly enjoying the interaction and was disappointed when he glanced at his watch.
“The fight ended when Lancelot’s students showed up. I stayed through the class and helped as I could, placing plastic bottles on the cutting stand and cleaning up the remains. And I returned to the hotel a wiser man.”
Surely Neal Stephenson was filled with intense pride (not to mention laughing his ass off) when he first saw the video of the Chan-Moo roof top battle. Epic trilogies have been inspired by far less than this. The Chan-Moo sword-fight is the kind of odd event that can be truly life-changing.
In fact, it was life-changing. Moo getting his butt kicked on that Hong Kong roof top set the pace for several key developments in Seattle and San Francisco. Entire industries might be impacted. The future of civilization itself seemed to hang in the balance.
“Back in Seattle, our swords routine changed dramatically. Instead of strapping on padded armor and flailing about, we consulted several classic sword-fighting texts Neal had acquired. We drilled on many of the same moves Lancelot had shown me on the rooftop. Custom steel helmets replaced the off-the-shelf kind. We started using real metal swords made by Tinker and Trim instead of the foam “boffers” we’d made ourselves. Taken together, these changes allowed us to truly train in Western sword fighting and gain a working knowledge of the art.
“In early 2010, Neal Stephenson proposed our band of merry swordsmen put down our weapons and pick up our pens to write The Mongoliad — the story of how an intrepid band of men saves the Western world from being overrun by the Mongol empire. I jumped at the chance to join the project, and when it came time to write fight scenes I didn’t have to look far for inspiration — I just relived that night on a Hong Kong rooftop. You can bet my main characters don’t fight with bad stances like some boob, they wield their weapons with the competence and deadly skill of a Lancelot Chan — like a boss!”
After Hong Kong, everything about Clang and The Mongoliad makes perfect sense. There is an air of inevitability about these larger than life ventures. Even if they don’t “succeed” in any material sense, they are still undeniably valuable and worthwhile. They are philosophically and spiritually successful, no matter what the outcome. Funding and investors are mere trifling matters, in the larger scheme of things. Sword-fighting is not a business. It is a passion. It is a way of life.
In light of such knowledge, why would anyone bother with a gun show or a firing range ever again?
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