Archaeological Adventure Fiction II: Uncharted: Poe’s Fortune

Last week’s post discussed the Indiana Jones series and the works of pulp fiction author A. Merritt, who may have partly influenced the movies. One modern (or postmodern) narrative continues the tradition of what I call archaeological adventure fiction: the video game series Uncharted.

Nathan Drake
Nathan Drake

Hero Nathan Drake is a professional thief, who believes he is a descendent of English explorer/pirate/privateer Sir Francis Drake, who is most famous for sailing around the world. Like Sir Francis, Nate travels to various exotic locales in search of treasure. And he has a crew: ex-Marine Victor Sullivan, who is nearly a father to him, Elena Fischer, a reporter and love interest, Chloe Fraser, an excellent getaway driver and competitive love interest, and Cutter, a Jason Statham look-alike.

The Uncharted series breaks boundaries in the fluidity of its third-person gameplay and in the quality of its storytelling. It is possible to play the game straight through without consulting any level-select menus, for example, and the narrative is supported by many cut scenes that play out almost like a movie. The games offer the pleasure of imagining that there still might be uncharted locales around the globe in this age of satellite imagery and Google Earth. The world has been thoroughly mapped now, but Nate follows in the footsteps of those first explorers like Drake, Marco Polo, and more modern figures such as T.E. Lawrence. Spoilers lie ahead.

The first game, Drake’s Fortune, involves the classic search for Eldorado, which Francis Drake was supposed to have discovered shortly before his supposed death. It is both Nate and Sir Francis’ fortunes that are at stake. Nate discovers Drake’s journal in the explorer’s barnacled, but otherwise empty lead coffin off the coast of Panama, and is soon on the trail after the fabled city, which turns out not to be a golden city at all, but a large statue.

Picking up the trail from where a Nazi U-boat expedition failed horrendously–the crew mauled by some kind of animal–Nate ventures to an island in the Pacific with Elena. An old forgotten Spanish colony, the island is where the conquistadors brought Eldorado. After their plane is shot down, it’s a race to find the statue before some old creditors of Victor Sullivan get their hands on it.

Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake

Evidence emerges that Eldorado is cursed somehow. A ledger reveals that the statue was the last shipment the colony received, before Sir Francis set gunpowder to the town and sank the fleet in the harbour. A precautionary measure to keep people out, or keep something in? Deep in the catacombs, they find Francis Drake’s skeleton, his true final resting place, and are soon swarmed by a race of naked zombies who crawl around on all fours like possessed things.

In the end, the bad guys get the statue, which the leader of the expedition opens, only to find a rotten mummy within. Immediately, he turns into one of the zombies, attacking his own second-in-command in pure instinctual rage before he gets shot through the eyes. It turns out the number-two knew about this strange effect all along and was only waiting for a moment to steal the statue and sell its dark properties to the highest bidder. Nate grabs onto the statue as a chopper hauls it away and later fights the villain on the deck of his ship. The final blow is one of poetic justice: Nate knocks the statue overboard so the rope holding it wraps around his enemy’s leg, dragging him into the ocean along with it. You want your treasure? There, take it, pal.

A classic move similar to some I might have seen in movies such as Indiana Jones and National Treasure. Evil punished for its lust for wealth, so that it gets just what it wants, only too much of it, so that it is beaten to death in a shower of gold–like the villain in The Mask of Zorro. Why does this kind of ending prove, on wider inspection, to be such a key part of a good formula across so many narratives?

If you read Drake’s Fortune seriously enough, you discover that it dramatizes the problems associated with imperialism. In fact, I argue that the quasi-supernatural disease that underlies the golden idol of Eldorado is an expression of an anxiety about capitalism. Beneath the luxurious facade of the statue–the treasure par excellence that really did impel so many conquistadors to drive out the Aztecs and Inca and establish their own rule over South America–there lies the reality of exploitation and thievery. This unfairness and its accompanying guilt is expressed not directly, but through the metaphors of disease and zombie.

Eldorado
Sculpture of Eldorado

If capitalism finds a monstrous metaphor in the figure of the vampire–who sucks the blood of its subjects without producing any blood of its own, the same way the higher classes never work in production but exploit workers–then late capitalism, the socio-economic condition of our consumerist, postmodern society, finds an apt metaphor in the zombie, which is reduced to blind instinct and an appetite for brains. Brains are the very thing that make us human subjects and the zombie’s urge to consume becomes a metaphor for ‘the age of consumption.’

That such a potent symbol lies behind the gold facade of the statue that was supposedly Drake’s fortune, should be read as highly suggestive.

Zombies
Zombies

The Spanish colony being destroyed by the zombie virus further suggests how colonialism, and capitalism more generally, are not sustainable practices. The acquisitiveness of the Spanish–and Sir Francis Drake’s crew–results in their own undoing, their transformation into zombies. This sixteenth-century disaster finds a link to the modern-day phenomenon of neoimperialism in the arms dealer’s attempt to sell the statue in a black market auction. The zombie disease would have not only become a commodity, but a weapon. In a world where ‘Third World’ countries, frequently in turmoil, are exploited and impoverished by wealthier nations, Eldorado would have gone to the very mercenaries who maintain that instability through constant warfare.

On whether or not Drake’s Fortune is fantasy or at least scientifically plausible, it would all have to depend on whether the curse is scientifically explained. In fact, it is not given such an explanation in the game, although the various zombie films in recent years, such as I am Legend and World War Z, have provided now-famous scenarios of a rabies-like epidemics going rogue. Gamers are left, therefore, in an ambiguous state of mind in which science and the supernatural provide competing explanations. Whatever the case, the disease does make a certain moral point that makes such explanations unneeded.

Of course, to really decide on the extent of Drake’s Fortune‘s use of the fantastic, one would have to factor in awkward questions like whether ancient civilizations really had the technology and manpower to construct elaborate temples underground fitted with counterweights, rising platforms, and wall-climbing footholds simply for the purpose of constructing an enormous puzzle. Nate runs into these Legend of Zelda-style temples frequently in Tibet in Among Thieves and in the castles of Drake’s Deception. But the hidden question of who provided the labour to build these enormous buildings–slaves, perhaps?–is elided by the game’s need to make a complicated level.

Continuing on the thought of puzzles, it is worth noting that Uncharted, although filled with similarities to archaeological adventure fiction and the Indian Jones movies, is not so much about archaeology as treasure hunting and antiquities in general. The quests follow an ‘X marks the spot’ pattern rather than one of scientific excavation. All the temples are accessible above ground, even if they later lead to subterranean levels; there is nothing actually buried. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones does dig up the chamber where the Ark of the Covenant is kept, but even the fabled city of Ubar, the Atlantis of the Sands in Drake’s Deception, is accessible by a front door.

The ‘X marks the spot’ formula for an adventure story has a history. “The Gold-Bug” by Edgar Allan Poe tells how Mr. William Legrand, his black slave Jupiter, and his dog methodologically follow a trail of clues to the location of the buried treasure of Captain Kidd. Poe, while mostly known for his morbid first person narrations, is also credited as the inventor of the modern detective story, for example, in “Murder on the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.” The same obsessive interest in signs and symbols that characterizes his detective stories leads Poe to develop the treasure-hunter story.

"The Gold-Bug" by Edgar Allan Poe
“The Gold-Bug” by Edgar Allan Poe

Legrand is bitten by a golden scarab beetle and might be going mad. He invites the narrator over so he can see his sketch of this scarab, but the narrator sees a human skull instead of a beetle. When the narrator returns some weeks later, Legrand leads him outside in search of buried treasure, and orders him to climb a tree, find a skull resting on a branch, and pass the scarab on a string through the skull’s eye. He uses the place where the scarab touches the ground as an indication of where to start digging. Legrand then elaborately begins to describe how he knew that treasure was buried there. In an extended retrospective speech, he describes how he heated the parchment with the sketch on it because he suspected the skull the narrator saw was a sign of a pirate’s treasure map. He discovers a code written on the parchment and deciphers it step-by-step in one of the first examples of a cryptogram in literature.

The resulting paragraph is still a cypher: “A good glass in the bishop’s hostel in the devil’s seat forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north main branch seven limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death’s-head a bee-line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out” (95). Upon close analysis, these words are separated into sentences, and then the locations and angles are deciphered.

In this kind of story, maps, cyphers, and old texts hold the signs needed to locate treasure. The quest traces a horizontal line towards a goal, rather than a vertical line into the earth. It is this paradigm of sign interpretation that forms the basis of Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake’s searches after lost cities. Usually a main text, such as a diary of an explorer who has gone before–whether Henry Jones’ Grail diary, or Sir Francis Drake’s lost journal–supplements a map and some kind of key, like the Tibetan ritual dagger in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which can unlock special secret doors.

The interpretation of signs on these artefacts–scrawled symbols for example–add hints and clues to the location of the quester’s goals–but also enables the antagonist to steal the items needed to find the treasure. Such maps, journals, and keys almost become McGuffins–items around which the narrative revolves, with all the characters having their reasons for pursuing them. It is no surprise then that Uncharted and Indiana Jones contain not only a quest but a race.

This sense of competition runs strong in Among Thieves, in which Nate must discover Ximbala (aka Shangri-La), where the fabled and unspeakably powerful Cintimani Stone is kept, a legendary sapphire supposedly discovered by Marco Polo. Nate races against the sinister leader of a mercenary army–Zoren Lazarovic–who uses the instability caused by Tibet’s civil war to search for the powerful stone with brutality and impunity. The medieval past of Polo’s voyage becomes the path which Nate must follow through the chaotic world of modern urban warfare. Lazarovich wrecks a Tibetan city, slaughtering resistance fighters while searching for a certain temple that will lead to his goal. He later attacks a peaceful mountain village with a tank, in his extreme obsession to have what he wants.

“The quest for the Grail is not archaeology,” says Sean Connery, playing Henry Jones in The Last Crusade. “It’s a race against evil.” What begins as a simple quest to retrieve a valuable treasure becomes a race to prevent Lazarovic from becoming unstoppable. The Cintimani Stone lends whoever holds it the power to subdue all their enemies. An elderly German in the village, Carl Schaffer, tells Nate that Genghis Khan held a mere fragment of the stone and conquered all of Asia with it. The Nazis had been searching for it too, but Schaffer, seeing the power of the Stone, shot the SS who were trying to discover it. Lazarovic leaves a path of destruction in his wake, demolishing statues and flattening buildings–everything that stands in his way. Just when Nate feels like turning back from finding Ximbala, Schaffer, echoing Henry Jones, tells him he cannot simply walk away.

The archaeological themes fall away when the story becomes about good versus evil. Although Nate and his companions are thieves who work for various clients, they have no pretension of being archaeologists like Indiana Jones in the first place. They are not necessarily highly educated, although Nate does know Latin from his Catholic boarding school education. This sidesteps the problem of representing archaeology as a romantic profession. The quests in Uncharted are therefore “Gold-Bug”-style treasure hunts with pistols, rifles, and RPGs that retain the Jones movies’ themes about evil’s lust for power, wealth, and dominance.

Whether Nazis, as in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, Communists, as in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, or the arms dealer in Drake’s Fortune, Lazarovich in Among Thieves, or the occult secret society in Drake’s Deception, evil represents the forces that seek too much power for themselves, who are willing to use objects considered sacred, cursed, powerful, or simply valuable for their own selfish and world-destroying ends.

There is a connection between antiquities and power expressed by these narratives. Something is being expressed about how society imagines history and the deep past–as a place of wonder and yet of danger. Cheering on Indy and Nate as they fight, we are hoping to preserve the past from those who would corrupt or destroy it. Archaeological adventure fictions symbolically resolve tensions about capitalism and imperialism, while imagining the defeat of the bugbears of history such as the Nazis, from ever claiming possession of the past.

In light of the recent advance of ISIS into Palmyra, the site of awe-inspiring Roman ruins, and their explosive demolition of the ancient cities of Babylon and Nimrod, I hope I am not alone in observing who the bugbears (the Nazis, the Commies, the Lazarovics, the Genghis Khans) of today are. Their so-called ‘caliphate’ is a real-life force bent on destroying the past. They wish to obliterate all memory of pre-Islamic antiquity, and have, like Lazarovic, brought ageless statues to dust, although they do it for the additional reason of abolishing idolatry. If only there could be a hero, we might pray, who can come around to stop them.

Roman Theatre in Palmyra
Roman Theatre in Palmyra

Picture Credits

Nathan Drake: http://leaperoffaith.deviantart.com/art/Uncharted-3-Drake-s-Deception-209006700

Sir Francis Drake: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sir_Francis_Drake_by_Jodocus_Hondius.jpg

Eldorado: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Dorado

“The Gold-Bug”: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Gold-Bug.jpg

Palmyra: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Scene_of_the_Theater_in_Palmyra.JPG

Zombie: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zombie_%28folklore%29

Works Cited

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Gold-Bug.” Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales & Poems. New York: Castle, 2002

Shaviro, Steve. “Capitalist Monsters.” Historical Materialism 10.4 (2002): 281-290.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Video Game. Naughty Dog.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Game of the Year Edition. Video Game. Naughty Dog.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. Video Game. Naughty Dog.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Script. Courtesy: dailyscript.com.

Antioch by William Harlan

The following is a book review of Antioch by William Harlan. Below the review is a criticism of the book, which I hope can help all first-time authors develop their talents. You can learn more about the series and read other reviews at http://www.williameharlan.com, as well as see his magnificent illustrations. You may also listen to the audiobook version on the same site. Click here to like his series on Facebook.

 

AntiochTwo worlds separated by an uncrossable ocean meet each other in the midst of a zombie apocalypse: this is the premise behind William Harlan’s novel Antioch, which is Part One of his series The Circle.

One world consists of a primitive medieval society, built around the authority of the church (a group of knights gifted with healing powers), and a distant northern king. The second is the more advanced world, either Victorian or twentieth-century, and is the home that a group of gun-totting, slang-speaking sailors have left behind, in the wake of the Fall.

Both societies have lost loved ones to the plague that is turning ordinary folk into deadly undead killers: bauran, also known as “devils.” Their meeting results in the breaking apart of the authority structures that bind Antioch, the largest city in a medieval wasteland.

Michael and John are two knights of the church who begin questioning their vows in the wake of the apocalypse. They are capable of summoning riin, a mysterious power that can heal wounds and make them the strongest warriors in their land. Riin bears some resemblance to the Force of the Jedi knights in Star Wars, but Harlan gives it a twist…

The Captain, Biggs, Andalynn, Ditch, and Drake are among the sailors who survived the deadly crossing of the ocean, only to arrive in the ghost town of Meroe, which has been devastated by zombies. They carry the big guns and strike up a friendship with the locals of Antioch. Except for Drake, they are much older than they appear—while in their sixties, they appear to be in their thirties. A mysterious figure named Ezekiel once saved them from the zombies, using riin to restore their youth and leaving behind only a single message:

Armageddon is arrived.

Break your silence.

Open the library.

The survival of both worlds hangs in the balance. The violence in the novel may be gruesome (what else to expect from a zombie apocalypse?), but the foul language is kept to a minimum. The concept of this book will appeal to any lover of zombie apocalypse movies or fiction, and to post-apocalyptic aficionados in general.

 

William Harlan is the author of Antioch.
William Harlan is the author of Antioch.

Congratulations to William Harlan for finishing his first self-published novel! Having written a novel myself, I am aware of the challenges that a first novel can bring, and the path of discovery the author inevitably journeys on in its process.

Harlan openly posts reviews that both criticize his novel on his novels, and those that praise it. This is a humble gesture that I respect. I could make a list of faults that I found with this novel, but instead of striking his novel over the head with a hammer, I will examine the work for what it is—a work written by a developing author. Hopefully, his future novels will overcome the setbacks of the first. All authors must evolve, and no one is more aware of this than myself, an unpublished novelist. For making the bold move of self-publishing his work, I can only praise William Harlan.

To a certain extent, my criticisms are biased towards the printed word–you might find that hearing the audiobook read by the author is smoother than reading the novel.

Now I invite all first-time novelists to look over my shoulder as I briefly examine his novel, to hopefully learn something for yourselves.

My first criticism would be the development of his characters. At the beginning, Michael has little characterization, though we see he is an accomplished warrior with vows he holds dear. About a third of the way through, Harlan starts exploring the relationships of his characters, which is good. They appear more fleshed out as the book continues. One scene, a flashback, presents Drake’s point of view quite well. However, the book does open weakly with characterization, and I would stress that what readers remember most about a book after setting it down are not action scenes, exquisite descriptions, or even world building, but characters.

An illustration for a chapter of Antioch by William Harlan
An illustration for a chapter of Antioch by William Harlan.

The result of Harlan’s exploration of character is that more than half the book, it seems, is taken up with the characters’ boisterous camaraderie as they laugh at each other and crack jokes in a medieval restaurant. The historical inaccuracy of such a location aside (perhaps Harlan meant an inn?), the end result may be that character relationships are deeper, but it is at the expense of the story. While the opening of the novel promises a story of kick-ass zombie slaying and an attempt to find a cure for the disease, most of the novel is composed of talking-head scenes where nothing much happens.

The book is best when dialogue, setting, and characterization are balanced evenly in a scene, though many scenes are dialogue heavy and disembodied in the setting. Especially for fantasy authors, setting is important.

Furthermore, the medieval society seemed to lack many of the defining constraints that defined it, such as the aristocracy and the vassalage system, among other things. Perhaps Antioch is closer to a Renaissance city state? Also, the Continent has a vastly different history from our own world, but the customs are essentially the same as in the Unite States today, which I found to be unlikely. The book would have benefited from more setting details, and more world building.

DrakeAnother rookie mistake is the author left me, as a reader, wondering why things were happening. Most scenes, especially at the beginning, but also in the middle and end, left me disoriented. This is because things about the world are simply not explained, or if they are, they should be explained sooner. While it is true that an author should not dump massive piles of exposition in the middle of a scene, Harlan seems to take that rule too literally. It is okay to explain backstory and world-building details a little bit, otherwise the context is lost on the reader. Doing it cleverly, sneaking it in through scene tension, is the best way to do this. It happens that first time authors may have a whole world plotted out in their head—I certainly struggle with that myself—but if it does not appear on the page, it does not transfer to the reader’s head. And if that does not happen, the writer has not done his telepathic job.

By page 19, I did not know anything about the characters or context, other than that Michael kicks zombie butt. But if that is so, why should I care? We need to bond to Michael right off the top, in the first paragraph, or even the very first sentence. The first sentence should announce a question to be answered, or a hint at a problem, and if possible the stakes of that for character. And we need context to follow that introduction.

In terms of style, Harlan has potential to be a good prose writer—many of his sentences are pithy, short, effective. However, it would be best if he stayed away from writing the Southern accents into the sailors’ dialogue, which distracted from what they were actually saying to each other. He can probably hint at the accent through word choice and sentence structure instead of cutting off vowels with apostrophes. (Also, it would be fun for the medieval people to speak more formally, to contrast better with the sailors.) There were also some common grammatical mistakes and awkward sentences, perhaps made awkward due to an attempt to antiquate the language. Worse was the repeated letters in dramatic, emotional dialogue (“Noooo!”) which reduced moments of deep emotion into bathos—emotion that fails because it tries too hard. The result of the accents and clumsy, unprofessional-looking prose is that I could not take the novel seriously. This would be fine if Harlan was writing a comedy, but given the post-apocalyptic scenario, I would doubt this was his intent. Mind you, this problem disappears slightly in the audiobook, since there is no physical page to frown at.

Devil's MArkFinally, I would say his plot needs tweaking and more structure. The ending does not end with an obvious success or failure, but more or less in the middle of things. While it is in the middle, in a way, of the series, after reading nearly 200 pages of buildup, I was expecting a showdown that had some kind of closure to it—not a total defeat of evil, but a definite change of circumstances for the protagonists. Writing Excuses, a fantasy/science fiction writing podcast, talks about a seven-point story structure system that I find helpful and clarifying.

I write these criticisms to aid Harlan in his writing career, and I hope he will take them to heart, and learn the art of the writer. These criticisms may also aid any other first-time authors out there, whether you are published or not. Read some well-written fiction to learn from the greats, develop your personal style, and consult Stephan King’s On Writing and Strunk &White’s The Elements of Style. You might also want to consult How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, if that is your genre, and Writer’s Digest Write Great Fiction Series, especially Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. The only danger is one of my own ongoing struggles: you might read more about writing fiction than you actually write, so keep practicing and practicing!

Note: While it is a slight departure for The Vinciolo Journal to review a self-published author’s work, I hope the review above justifies my choice. I generally do not accept self-published works, but will handle queries, should they arise, on a case-by-case basis.

A map of the post-Apocalyptic setting of Antioch
A map of the post-Apocalyptic setting of Antioch.