Monthly Archives: April 2013

Fantasy Species vs. Race?

What’s the difference between “race” and “species” and when should you use what in your fantasy settings?  I’ve taken a look into this myself and made the right choice for me.  Read on for ideas on making the right choice for you.

Race

What’s a race?  The answer can be complicated (but interesting reading), but race has been described as nothing more than a social construct to describe different versions of homo sapiens (i.e., humans), who are 99.9% the same, having no genetic differences to warrant classification (into “races”).

dwarfSince elves, dwarves, and other races in fantasy are invented, no genetic material exists to determine if they are, in fact, genetically different from humans.  One could assume that the pointed ears of elves must mean something, but on Earth, some races have stereotypical eyes, noses, etc, and are still the same species.  So this suggests such minor differences are not genetic and races in fantasy are just that: still homo sapiens that people have divided into “races” as an artificial construct to classify people.

Of course, “small people”, aka, dwarves, do exist on Earth, but their distinctive height and other characteristics are caused by a medical or genetic disorder, which is only sometimes passed down from parents, meaning it is not a definite outcome, as one would expect if they were indeed a different species or even a race of one.  They are still humans. You wouldn’t expect a dwarf in a fantasy setting to give birth to a human, right?

Species

If races don’t really exist on a biological level, “species” is the other obvious term to use, but that has problems, too.  Even biologists struggle with the definition of species, known as the “species problem”. If they can’t define it, far be it for us to do so.  The word is just used to group similar organisms and is what the average person thinks of when considering a cat vs. a dog, for example.

How are we mere creative writers to make a decision?

Species can interbred and produce offspring (in fact, that’s a part of the problematic definition), so this shouldn’t figure in your thinking between “race” and “species” because both can do it, rendering this moot.

The Status Quo

ElfI’m generalizing, but most fantasy books use “race”, probably because J. R. R. Tolkien’s influential Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit popularized these, along with the later Dungeons and Dragons fantasy role-playing games.  It became expected and lots of people followed along, either not caring about a distinction or finding it too problematic and of no consequence to most people, all valid reasons, really.

One explanation for “races” that’s given in some fantasy books is that beings like elves were created from humans, or vice versa, and therefore elves and humans are races of the same humanoid species.  If this is the case in your world, then “race” makes sense.

Degree of Difference in Your Fantasy Races

One way to make a decision is to consider how different your creations are from each other and humans.  Elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs, humans, and other fantasy tropes and conventions are pretty similar, making “race” a fine choice (they are the same species).

On the other hand, if one creation has wings, another has gills and other adaptations for the water, and another has four legs, these are more suggestive of being different species.  Dragons are clearly another species from homo sapiens, for example.

dragonAlso consider that on Earth, we call Caucasians, Asians, and other versions of humans “races”, so if these exist in your world, you pretty much have to do that, too.  If you also have elves and dwarves, or similar humanoids, are you going to call those races, too, when you and your readers think of them as more different than Asian/Caucasian races of humans?  This is an inconsistent and confusing use of the word “race”.

My Decision

I’ve been creating one setting for most of my fantasy books for over 25 years, on and off, and invented seven species, which I used to call races.  I changed my mind for several reasons, in no particular order:

Reason1

I can’t call Caucasian, Asian, and other versions of humans “race” and also call my other humanoids, who are not human, race, because that doesn’t make sense. (Asian is an Earth term, but you get the idea).

Reason 2

To be different and pull readers out of their comfort zone of expectations.

Reason 3

Some of my creations have multiple versions that are quite different from each other.  It makes sense to call each a species with multiple races of that species.

For example, let’s say I have three humanoids called dokai, lokai, both with wings and similar bodies, and a third with horns and a tail, called soman.  And I decide to call all three races.  This doesn’t really work because dokai and lokai are basically the same (one is good, maybe the other corrupted to be evil) and soman are different.  How can I say dokai and lokai are two races and so are soman?  If I do, then what word do I use to describe the difference between dokai and lokai?  I can’t use race because I’m already using that at a higher level.

It makes more sense to say dokai and lokai are races of a parent species, kai (a syllable found in both names, giving readers a clue), and soman is a separate species.  For example:

Not good

  1. Races
    1. Dokai
    2. Lokai
    3. Soman
    4. Humans

Better

  1. Species
    1. Kai
      i. Dokai (race of kai)
      ii. Lokai (race of kai)
    2. Soman
    3. Humans
      i.  Asian (race of humans)
      ii. Caucasian (race of humans)
      iii. Etc.

Coda

In the end, only you can make this choice and there’s really no right or wrong one.  Some who feel strongly one way or another will tell you otherwise, but it’s your world and you are its ultimate god.

I’ll be publishing novels starting in 2014-5, so if you’d like to see seven new species (and several races), follow this blog for further tips and eventual announcements on publishing dates, or visit my website, www.randyellefson.com.

The Art of World Building

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"Moshkill" Video

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Dave Mustaine of Megadeth is an Underrated Lead Guitarist

Dave Mustaine, May 2007

Dave Mustaine, May 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over Megadeth’s career, they’ve had a handful of lead guitarists who’ve received varying degrees of praise, but I’ve always felt, and still do, that Dave Mustaine is the best of them. As the band leader, spokesman, main songwriter, lyricist, singer, guitarist, and troublemaker, his lead guitar playing is often overlooked in favor of the second guy, with whom he splits shredding duties. It’s an unfair side effect of his versatility, but make no mistake, the man not only keeps pace with them, but does better solos.

Why better? I find his solos more musical.  After all, he’s a songwriter, and it shows. Guys who can’t write songs have solos that don’t sound like songs either.  The best solos usually sound like a song within a song.

Dave’s leads also sound more emotional to me and connected to the song, whereas several others I won’t name sound like they’re doing exercises they practiced, or canned licks they’ve been trying to find somewhere to put. That makes solos sound artificial and, well, not real.

And Dave Mustaine has always been real, whether in a good way or not. The guy is genuine to the bone. It’s part of his appeal.

Dave’s style changes slightly to go with whoever else is playing lead in the band.  He still sounds like Dave, but how many players can (or will) do that?  He’s kept up with guys with better chops, like Marty Friedman or Chris Broderick, obviously practicing more than before and showing the results. Sometimes I’m surprised by it.

But he surprised me the most when I saw him live about 5 years ago and couldn’t believe his playing. I’ve never seen anyone shred like that in person, not even Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, or Joe Satriani. I kept thinking, “Holy crap!”

Before you think I’m a huge Mustaine fan, I’m actually not. He wouldn’t even make my top ten list of guitarists, lead or otherwise. But I still know damn good when I hear it, and I think his solos are great more often than anyone else who’s played lead guitar in Megadeth.

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The Culture of Silence – Suicide Prevention

This suicide prevention article from the Associated Press brought the Live Through This project to my attention and I think they’re both a good read for everyone, whether you’re suicidal or not. There’s a lot of misinformation about suicide and this goes a long way to clearing these misunderstandings up.

Silence Kills

One of the most important reasons to read about this is that the stigma people have given suicide causes suicidal people to remain silent, when silence kills. They need help but often won’t seek it for fear of the reaction, which is why you should educate yourself so you don’t knowingly or unknowingly contribute to the culture of silence by spreading ideas that suicidal people hear – and which cause them to keep their mouth shut.

Certain acts should indeed be taboo or forbidden, but nothing should be taboo to discuss. Rape, child molestation, and suicide are just a few of the subjects our culture, and that of the world, have inhibited discussion of, adding a layer of difficulty to what people are going through.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Some Facts About Suicide (from the Live Through This site)

  • A suicide attempt is made every 40 seconds (over 2000 a day)
  • Someone dies from suicide every 15 minutes (nearly 100 a day)
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US and increasing
  • 90% of those who die from suicide have a treatable psychiatric condition at the time of their death

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Matthias Jabs of Scorpions is Their Best Lead Guitarist

Last year I watched an episode of That Metal Show, where they do this “throw down” thing of comparing two bands, people, or whatever. That night, they asked who was the best Scorpions guitarist. The choices were Michael Schenker or Uli Roth. And I thought in surprise, “What? How about Matthias Jabs?”

Matthias Jabs

Matthias Jabs

Who is Matthias? He’s the only lead guitarist that most people have heard of among the three, and if you haven’t heard his name or recognize him from photos, you’ve certainly heard his lead guitar performances, including songs with classic opening solos, like “No One Like You” and “Rock You Like A Hurricane”. Just about every single song you’ve heard of from this band has him playing the extremely memorable lead parts.

He’s been in the band since the late 70s, over 30 years.  Michael Schenker was in it for one album few care about (their first) and just three songs on another album before quitting.  Uli Roth was in the band about 5 years during a period in the 70s when, arguably, if they’d quit after that, few of us would’ve ever heard of them. Ever since, it’s been Matthias, on countless hit songs that are household names, on guitar magazine covers far more often, and with the Scorpions selling out stadiums. His approach helped transform the band’s sound into a powerhouse.

So how is it that the guys (who are hardly experts) on That Metal Show would overlook Matthias like that? It’s bizarre but not without explanation.

A Theory

Uli Roth

Uli Roth

Uli Roth

My first exposure to Uli Roth and the 70s version of the Scorpions came after hearing the 80s version and several albums of killer stuff, and naively assuming all their albums were like that, so I stupidly bought their earlier discs and was in for a surprise. I never made that mistake again, for the band was basically a different band altogether.

Uli has a huge reputation as a guitarist partly for helping pioneer the neoclassical movement of guitarists adding classical phrases, scales, and other ideas to rock music. His physical technique was arguably ahead of his time and later players like Yngwie Malmsteen.

But what about the music? Tastes and opinions differ, but personally I find the work he did with the Scorpions to be something I want to hear far less often than their later commercial period. I don’t particularly want to hear it. The band as a whole had spottier output. In fact, at times it sounds like two different bands as Uli wrote some songs, and the duo of Rudolph Schenker and Klaus Meine wrote the rest. The difference help prompt Uli’s departure, which paved the wave for the band’s explosion into popularity.

That alone should tell you something. No one can argue that Matthias is responsible for that explosion, because he virtually never writes songs, but Uli’s approach to music, however interesting, would never be popular. He’s had decades to “explode” and never did any more than Michael Schenker.

Is popularity a measure of respect? The general consensus is “no”. If anything, not being popular is considered a sign of authenticity, greatness, and integrity. As a side note, I must conclude that this makes me one of the greatest guitarists ever. 😉

These combine to give Uli high standing, but does it make him their greatest lead guitarist while in the band?

Michael Schenker

Michael Schenker

Michael Schenker

Michael is the younger brother of the Scorpions’ other guitarist and primary songwriter Rudolph Schenker (who seldom does solos and therefore doesn’t figure in the discussion). He earned his reputation as an amazing lead player in the band UFO. And his lead playing is genuinely amazing, but it wasn’t during the Scorpions debut album, and he only did three solos on Lovedrive. I don’t care how good your solos are, no three solos are collectively better than the hundreds by Matthias, who is also great.

Like Uli Roth, he fits a stereotype – the very gifted guitarist who can’t make it big in the United States. His reputation is fearsome, but a reputation earned in other bands doesn’t warrant elevating him over anyone in the Scorpions. Even Rudolph has done more great solos in the band.

I suspect that the esteem causes people to not be objective about his actual contributions and overestimate his work while in the band. He’s done great things since leaving, but that’s irrelevant. I love Michael as much as the next guy, but there’s almost nothing to discuss here.

Matthias Jabs

So why doesn’t Matthias get more respect? He almost never writes songs, and the ones he does are forgettable, costing him esteem. But the question was “who is the best lead player?” Matthias doesn’t use neoclassical stuff or play overly technical leads as some guys do, but that’s a snobby reason to not give him credit. Is it because the band’s output since then has been cheesy? That probably doesn’t help, which is odd, for what do the lyrics have to do with how good the musicians are?

But Matthias’ playing is some of the most melodic, singable, memorable, emotional, and incendiary out there, with some of the greatest guitar solos ever recorded. He sounds effortless and fluid. His tone is great and immediately recognizable. He’s even got a cool image with classic guitars associated with him.

I can’t find a defensible reason he isn’t considered one of the greatest and given more respect. I found his exclusion by That Metal Show to be outrageous and insulting.

Coda

Video for "Crunch Time"

My video for “Crunch Time” from NOW WEAPONIZED!


Why do I care what the guys on That Metal Show think? I don’t. By their own admission, they’re just three guys from Jersey. But they repeated a lack of respect visited upon Matthias for decades, and I just don’t get it. To me it is without merit. I know this blog won’t change a thing, but I had to say something.

No conversation about “who is the greatest lead guitarist in Scorpions history” can be serious when it excludes Matthias Jabs, the clear frontrunner, the guy whose “victory” in that discussion is his to lose.

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