Sword Fighting with Neal Stephenson and His Mongoliad Co-Authors

It's not even 10:30 in the morning, and I'm already holding an archaic deadly weapon in my hands. I'm in a nondescript warehouse in Seattle, to which I've traveled so that award-winning science fiction novelists can demonstrate how they could cut me in half if they felt like it. Somebody has just pulled a sword out of its scabbard and is passing it around. I'm holding its hilt in both hands, just to make absolutely sure it doesn't slice off something it's not supposed to. It's lighter than I always figured a sword would be.

I'm at the weekly meeting of a bunch of "Western martial arts" enthusiasts, some of them very well-known writers—most prominently Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear. They gather (with various friends, partners and advisors in tow) to talk about swords and pikes and bucklers, occasionally to go upstairs and practice attacking each other with them, and more recently to plan out the open-ended transmedia project they've been working on.

The group — which still doesn't really have a name — began to coalesce a few years ago when Stephenson got interested in swords and assembled a group to figure out how they were actually used back when they were the standard tools of combat. When Stephenson's study of arcane fighting techniques expanded to Bartitsu (a turn-of-the-twentieth-century discipline that has nothing to do with Coyote Ugly but does involve canes), Greg Bear and his son Erik Bear joined the group. Get enough writers together, and one thing leads to another; a cluster of the dojo's members ended up writing a novel. Well, a few novels. Some other stuff, too.

At some point, perhaps after a rousing round of bashing each other with canes, the group started tossing around a concept for a movie — one that, as Stephenson puts it, "would essentially take the tropes of martial arts movies and move them over whole to medieval Europe. If you see a movie set in the East and you see a couple of guys fighting, there's a huge foundation of knowledge and myth that you've got in your head. You know that they're not just making this up: each one of these guys has spent years practicing specific, very highly sophisticated techniques that have names, and give them much greater ability to fight than someone who doesn't have them. That doesn't have to be discursively explained to the audience. But if you see a couple of knights square off, they're doing this kind of HUHHH! — ksssh! — thing..."

The group played with the movie idea for a while, but then they got sidetracked by a question about some of its backstory — specifically why it was that the Mongols, having already flattened Eastern Europe, didn't press onward into Western Europe after the death of Ögedei Khan in 1242. The answer they devised was that a small crew of European warriors, or whatever the European equivalent of samurai would be, came up with the inevitable dangerous but cunning plan.

That became the plot of The Mongoliad, a very long narrative that was serialized online from September, 2010 until January of this year; the first of three print volumes of a significantly revised version came out at the end of April. It was written collectively by Stephenson, the Bears, fantasy author Mark Teppo, journalist Cooper Moo, fighting instructor Joseph Brassey, and the mysterious and pseudonymous "E.D. deBirmingham," about whose identity all the others claim to be sworn to secrecy. (It takes roughly three seconds of online research to find out who she really is, though.) The seven... whatever the Pacific Northwest novelist equivalent of samurai would be... were more or less directed by Teppo, pairing up on particular story threads, alternating chapters, and revising each other's work ad lib.

By the time The Mongoliad got up to speed, they'd decided that what they were creating wasn't just a novel, it was going to be part of a mammoth source of intellectual property — comics, games, movies, you name it — to be called the Foreworld. "We're still working on film and games and that kind of thing," Teppo says. "But it's expensive and difficult to mount those kinds of productions, whereas a bunch of writers have the advantage that they can get something done almost immediately. The Mongoliad grew out of that: 'let's go, what are we waiting for?' The long-term plan is still to nucleate more stuff around that, to include media and games. But the book part has to be run on very narrow margins."

To which Greg Bear adds: "Unless it becomes so horrendously successful that we're all running around in crinoline and organdy, giving up our secret romance writing careers and all that sort of stuff."

Bear's kind of the cheerful uncle figure of the group; he's a bit older than the rest, and a habitual wisecracker. The conversational tic he has in common with his collaborators, though, is that he starts rattling off (genuinely) fascinating anecdotes about historical events and their technological underpinnings at every available opportunity. That explanatory impulse is what fuels The Mongoliad as much as Snow Crash or The Forge of God: science fiction tends to address the intersection of culture, time and technology, and the "time" in that equation is not necessarily the future.

The Mongoliad (like a lot of Stephenson's books) is about the cultural impact of technology as its authors imagine it might have been in the past. As Stephenson puts it, "since we don't have that existing infrastructure of background about these ancient martial arts, we're having to create it out of whole cloth. The whole Foreworld project is an effort to erect that whole infrastructure, so when a character shows up and has awesome fighting abilities, there's a reason why."

As of this sunny Seattle morning, the Foreworld project's immediate scope has abruptly changed a bit. The plan had been to publish the other two volumes of The Mongoliad over the next year, followed by at least two volumes exploring other centuries in the Foreworld timeline. But 47 North — the print branch of Amazon that's publishing it — has suggested that maybe readers would like to continue to hang out around the year 1242 for a while, and the group's on board with that idea.

So, following an hour or so of introductory chatter, Mark Teppo steps up to a chalkboard and calls the meeting to as much order as it's going to get. He's described his role as "cat-herding," which is about right: today's task is figuring out where all the characters are going to go in volumes 4 and 5, and how they're going to get there, and everyone is full of ideas about how to make that happen. But it only takes a few seconds before the conversation becomes eight conversations at once, punctuated by frequent loud laughter from one part of the room or another:

"Maybe we could kill 'em all in the first chapter, then have 500 pages of wind blowing across the graves."

"The party as we left them are in Mongolia, which means they need to come back as far as..."

"Sir, it grieves me to see you wearing those greaves! — Are those greaves, or are greaves on the leg?"

"— It's not right next to Novgorod, but it's in Rus. North of Kiev."

"I'm not sure whether we're going to this year's Comic-Con or not."

"How do the Lithuanians get involved, though?"

"No frickin' story about Russia is complete without Baba Yaga."

"I'll handle Baba Yaga."

"Judicious use of powders and unguents."

"We can't kill him — he has to meet up with Roger Bacon in 1246."

"Who do we have that we can kill?"

Sword Fighting with Neal Stephenson and His Mongoliad Co-Authors

Meanwhile, Stephenson is standing over in a corner, next to a big barrel full of practice weapons that he built a few years ago. He's explaining how it is that "Western martial arts" were forgotten to the point where they have to be reconstructed from sparse documentation. "We got guns," he says, "and we switched over completely to guns and forgot the old tradition. Whereas, in Japan, this very odd thing happened, which is that they had guns and they got rid of them in what we would call the Elizabethan era, and then they put their whole culture into suspended animation until, like, 1867. So that whole time, people were walking around with katanas and maintaining these ancient traditions of swordplay.

"That's part of it. And part of it is that the loss of the actual weapons led to some distortions in what we believe. The only weapons that tended to survive were ceremonial swords, which are ridiculously heavy, because they were never meant to be used, and they've got all kinds of crap hanging off them."

What happened to the other swords, I ask? Angus Trim, a Seattle-based swordmaker, has wandered over to our part of the room. "Where did all the swords go, Gus?" Stephenson prompts him.

"Swords are really prone to things like rust," Trim says. This is a spiel he's clearly got cued up and ready to go at all times. "If they're not taken care of, they're just going to disappear. They're broken up, melted down..." He makes a whatcha gonna do? gesture. "If you got a good sword, that was a valuable object, and so you sharpen it, and every time you sharpen it, you're making it a little bit smaller. You hone it to a certain point and the steel is gone — you're in iron."

Stephenson and Trim are in their element now: they're getting to explain and contextualize weaponry. "You end up with a paring knife that was a mighty longsword a couple of generations ago," Stephenson says. "In Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, there's a scene where they need to pry up a stone, and this guy pulls out his sword — a beautiful sword — and jams it under this giant rock and uses it like a crowbar. Anybody who knows about swords... it's like fingernails on a chalkboard."

"People had swordmakers follow them into battle," Trim adds. "You get a nick in a sword and hit it wrong, whang, it goes flying across a room. How many times did Excalibur have to be replaced in a ten-year period?"

Their enthusiasm has drawn Greg Bear over by this point. "This is why it was a legendary sword — because it lasted!"

I ask Stephenson about the cane-fighting subgroup that drew Greg and Erik Bear into the project, and he's off into explanatory mode again. (I'm not complaining. I could listen to Neal Stephenson explain stuff all day.) "It's an interesting thing," Stephenson says, "because from a distance 19th-century martial arts looks kind of dorky — it looks like Monty Python. It ties into everything we believe about the Victorians: that they were out of touch with their bodies, that they didn't really understand medicine very well, and that they were uncomfortable with physical activities. But once you get into it, you find that these people really knew what they were doing in terms of physical culture, in terms of self-defense. Victorians were really serious about staying fit.

"Part of what makes this an interesting story is how, in the 19th century, jiujitsu was adopted by women. This guy Barton-Wright brought jiujitsu to London. He came back from Japan and created a club called the Bartitsu Club. He taught the mixed martial art of jiujitsu, bare-knuckle fighting, savate, stick fighting and a few other things. He brought in a couple of teachers from Japan, and would take them around the music halls—have them challenge huge, burly guys and throw them around. This had an unintentional side effect that suffragettes would see these performances, and decide they wanted to learn self-defense: 'I want to defeat a man!' Jiujitsu as a 'husband-tamer'!

"We want to do a side-story quest thing about the jiujitsu suffragettes. The image that we're all dying to get into a full-page spread in a comic book is this lineup of Edwardian women with the flowered hats and the long skirts and the bustles, and they're all walking eight abreast down a London street, swaggering toward the camera and approaching a bunch of bobbies... if we could get that image in some medium, that would be a good thing."

Sword Fighting with Neal Stephenson and His Mongoliad Co-Authors

Eventually, the next week's worth of writing has been sketched out, and the group moves upstairs, where they've got an armory full of more or less sharp and pointed things, as well as protective gear of various kinds. There are a few old tires hanging from the ceiling to practice attacking, and mats to practice footwork. The group hadn't really been planning on doing much fighting today, but Mongoliad co-author Joseph Brassey and Michael "Tinker" Pearce, an antique weapons expert and the author of The Medieval Sword in the Modern World, take out some practice swords and a bit of armor, and spar a bit just so their visitors can see what it looks like.

Actual swordfighting, as nearly everyone in the group has mentioned to me at some point, doesn't look much like the clanging-intensive version we're all used to seeing in movies, or even like fencing. Rule #1 is don't get hit. Even armor may not help you if you're facing somebody who knows how to put some body English into a swing. "In the Bayeux Tapestry," Pearce notes, "you see a guy in armor getting cut through the middle of his chest with a single-edged sword. That was believable to the people who paid a lot of money for the Bayeux Tapestry. It wouldn't happen a lot, because you wouldn't wear chainmail if it did, but it could happen."

The group effectively falls into two camps: one for whom swords are everything, and one for whom swords are awesome because they offer a break from ordinary existence. Stephenson's the biggest marquee name involved with The Mongoliad, but he's distinctly part of the latter camp. "It's just a form of exercise," he says. "At the end of the day, we live in a sedentary society; we need to exercise or we die young. The only thing that really matters is: what do you enjoy doing? What will motivate you to get up, get away from the computer and start moving? For me, this is just the thing that's got the right combination of being interesting and being fun. It's got some competition, some cooperation, some historical elements, and it's something that I've stuck with. That's the only real reason to do it. "

Top image via The Mongoliad, other two photos by Douglas Wolk.