Monday, February 24, 2014

Guest Blog by James L. Cambias - Sexifying Monsters! - February 24, 2014

Please welcome James L. Cambias to The Qwillery as part of the 2014 Debut Author Challenge Guest Blogs and the A Darkling Sea Blog Tour. A Darkling Sea, James' debut novel, was published on January 28, 2014 by Tor Books. You may read James' DAC Interview here.

Sexifying Monsters!

by James L. Cambias

It's a curious observation that monsters in fantasy or horror tend to get sexier over time. Things which start out as unambiguous monsters turn into ambiguous monsters and then sexy monsters and then sexy non-monsters.

Consider one of the oldest folkloric monsters: the fairies. We tend to think of fairies as Disneyfied pixies scattering fairy-dust and living in acorns, or Tolkeinified forest Vulcans with great hair and swishy clothes, but it's worth remembering that "elf" and "fairy" and "dwarf" and "goblin" were originally synonyms. You called them the "Fair Folk" because you were scared that if you bad-mouthed them they'd come into your cottage at night and murder you.

But as the fear of the wilderness and the night declined, the fairies got nicer. Shakespeare turned them into tiny sprites living in acorns. One could call this "Disneyfication" except that it happened about three hundred years before Walt was born. By the time the Romantics got hold of them in the 19th Century, fairies were figures of wild freedom opposing buttoned-up Victorian morality. Modern fantasy has transformed them into sexy leather-jacketed immortal hipsters who can do magic, pretty much indistinguishable from that girl who lived with your college roommate for a while.

The sexification of fairies left an ecological niche open, and vampires moved into it. Vampires were once smelly, shambling walking corpses who fed on the living. Their breath smelled of decay and grave-dirt, they were covered with hair like an un-waxed pro wrestler, and they didn't talk or do anything but try to murder you. But then Dr. John Polidori decided to turn vampires into Lord Byron with fangs (which says a lot about his relationship with Byron, I think). Then Bram Stoker gave Count Dracula a way with the ladies which would make even Pablo Picasso jealous. Anne Rice took that and ran with it, and Stephanie Myers took it past eleven with her sparkling pretty Edward. Now vampires are sexy leather-jacketed immortal hipsters who can do magic, pretty much indistinguishable from that dude who used to go out with your college roommate for a while.

Dragons are another surprising example of sexification. They started off as big poisonous snakes, with no ambition beyond lying around on a treasure hoard and murdering people. They got legs, then wings, and their poison turned into fire. But they were still big monsters who ravaged villages and murdered people. Then Tolkein wrote The Hobbit, and gave half the best lines in the book to Smaug the dragon. After that, dragons in fiction never shut up. They got smarter, they got magic powers, and they started sexifying up. Authors like Patricia Briggs and Mercedes Lackey made them into shapeshifters, capable of appearing human. Now dragons seem to spend most of their free time in human form, as sexy leather-jacketed immortal hipsters who can do magic, pretty much indistinguishable from that guy whose college roommate you dated for a while.

Werewolves? Started out as forest psychopaths who took on animal form to murder people. Now they're sexy bare-chested immortal hipsters like that dude who wouldn't leave after your college roommate's party until you threatened to call the cops.

Demons? Started out as embodiments of pure evil, then Marlowe gave Mephistopheles all the good lines in Faust. Devils acquired wealth and taste, became shrewd bargainers, and finally now are sexy leather-jacketed immortal hipsters like your college roommate's friend who sold you what he claimed was weed but wasn't.

Frankenstein's Monster? Two words: Aaron Eckhart.

Even angels have gotten sexified. Angels started out as . . . not all that different from demons except not trying to murder you as much. Consider the things Ezekiel saw, all wheels and eyes and fire and wings. But then artists started making sexy angel statues (check out Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Theresa, some of the most NSFW church art ever) and modern fantasy writers wanted darker and edgier angels, and now they're yet another bunch of sexy leather-jacketed immortal hipsters, like that vegetarian chick your roommate used to live with who said buying milk was like slavery.

The only standard monster I can think of that hasn't sexificated is the zombie. In fact, it's notable that zombies have actually become less sexy over time. Originally zombies weren't smelly cannibal undead, they were more like brainwashed not-quite-dead-but-not-really-alive-either beings. The fear wasn't that the zombies would murder you, but that you might wind up a zombie yourself. And about five seconds after someone heard the story of brainwashed people bound to serve an evil sorcerer, we got a whole passel of black and white sexy zombie movies and pulp sexy zombie stories.

But as vampires abandoned the shambling undead cannibal niche, zombies moved in, losing their sexificativosity in the process. A brainwashed person in thrall to a depraved sorcerer has much more inherent sleaze appeal than a rotting corpse looking for brains. Still, I have no doubt that the sexification process will apply to zombies before long. Fast zombies are already a harbinger. Pretty soon we'll get fast talkative zombies, then sexy zombies, and before long they'll acquire leather jackets and magical powers. The zombie apocalypse will look like your college dormitory on Sunday morning.

What drives this process? Why the urge to sexificate monsters? Well, I think it's a fairly obvious pattern. When a monster is first invented, it's a monster — a threat to escape or overcome. But after you've written a few dozen stories about overcoming that kind of monster, the audience gets bored. "Use silver bullets!" they say. "Put a stake in him!" So what's an author to do? Well, turn the monster into a character. Give them good lines and a personality. From there the obvious next step is to make the monster character sympathetic. And if you're being friendly anyway . . . cue the Barry White music.

Plus there's the undeniable fact that power is sexy. Call it "Kissinger's Law." Monsters, in order to be credible menaces, have to be powerful. They're strong, they're dangerous, they're aloof and predatory. In short, monsters are walking pick-up artist handbooks. Add to that the bonus of social power that wealthy, aristocratic vampires, fairy nobles, or gold-hoarding dragons can boast, and it's no wonder they have groupies like rock stars. (Less aristocratic werewolves have to get by with nothing but animal attractiveness, and poor proletarian zombies can't get past the bouncer at the club.)

Sexified monsters are an interesting bellwether of social attitudes, with both good and worrisome implications. The good part is that it shows how completely accepting our society has become of "outsiders." Falling in love with an undead bloodsucker or fire-breathing dragon is just another lifestyle choice. Nobody (except the Evil Business Guy played by Ronny Cox) is depicted as irredeemable in modern fiction.

The worrisome part is how all this works as a model. One of the purposes of fiction is that it helps us learn to interact with others, and vicariously "try on" different social roles. Do sexy monsters encourage the notion that you have to be a monster to be sexy?

A Darkling Sea

A Darkling Sea
Tor Books, January 28, 2014
Hardcover and eBook, 352 pages

On the planet Ilmatar, under a roof of ice a kilometer thick, a team of deep-sea diving scientists investigates the blind alien race that lives below. The Terran explorers have made an uneasy truce with the Sholen, their first extraterrestrial contact: so long as they don’t disturb the Ilmataran habitat, they’re free to conduct their missions in peace.

But when Henri Kerlerec, media personality and reckless adventurer, ends up sliced open by curious Ilmatarans, tensions between Terran and Sholen erupt, leading to a diplomatic disaster that threatens to escalate to war.

Against the backdrop of deep-sea guerrilla conflict, a new age of human exploration begins as alien cultures collide. Both sides seek the aid of the newly enlightened Ilmatarans. But what this struggle means for the natives—and the future of human exploration—is anything but certain, in A Darkling Sea by James Cambias.


There is a terrific tie-in website for UNICA (The United Nations Interstellar Cooperation Agency):
  • A mission statement for Ilmatar Expedition III
  • Facts about Ilmatar
  • What we currently know about life on Ilmatar
  • A description of the Hitode Station
  • Crew bios where you can meet the personnel of the Ilmatar mission
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • The Ilmatar Expedition 111 Mission Blog
  • Information about The United Nations Interstellar Cooperation Agency
  • The personal website of the universally famous explorer and adventurer Henri Kerlerec, currently on mission with the Ilmatar Expedition

About James

James L. Cambias was raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, and no matter where he goes, that city will always be home. He attended the University of Chicago intending to become an astronomer, but became fascinated by the history of science and wound up getting his degree in History and Philosophy of Science in 1988. At Chicago he also met Diane Kelly, who later became his wife.

Jim worked for two publishing companies right out of college -- Pelican Publishing of Louisiana in New Orleans, and then Nelson-Hall Publishers in Chicago. But in 1990 he decided to try freelance writing full time.

For most of a decade Jim wrote for roleplaying game publishers, becoming a mainstay at game magazines like GDW's Challenge, Steve Jackson's Pyramid, and the Star Wars Adventure Journal. Because of his Star Wars pieces he has an entry in the online "Wookieepedia," which is extremely impressive to his young son.

His first game book was Arabian Nights, a sourcebook for the Rolemaster game system from Iron Crown Enterprises. Over the next two decades he wrote six game books and coauthored to ten others. His best-known game products are probably GURPS Mars, GURPS Castle Falkenstein, Star HERO, and GURPS Space Fourth Edition.

In 2006 he joined with Diane Kelly and Joseph Steig to start Zygote Games, a company publishing science and nature-based games, dedicated to the idea that educational games don't have to be lame. The Zygote game Parasites Unleashed was picked by Scientific American as one of their "Top Science Toys" in 2012.

He has also written nonfiction for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including aviation history pieces for Airpower and Balloon Life, articles on maps, wine, parenting advice, travel, restaurant reviews, and astronomy. He writes a weekly stargazing column for the Greenfield Recorder.

Mr. Cambias has been writing science fiction since his teens, but his first professional sale came in the year 2000, when his short story "A Diagram of Rapture" appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Since then he has published 19 short stories in F&SF, Shimmer, and several original anthologies. In 2001 he was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer. A Darkling Sea is his first novel.

When he isn't writing, Jim Cambias cuts firewood, cooks, plays roleplaying games, and haunts coffee shops in western Massachusetts. He blogs at


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