Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What Rough Beast: The Orcish Mind

"A routine soul-smear confirmed the presence of pure evil."
- Dr. Hibbert, The Simpsons

Orcs as read in D&D are the epitome of evil, congenitally irredeemable. And they're ugly, too.

As something of a reaction to this portrayal, latter-day orcs are often semi-noble savages. Something like Star Trek: The Next Generation Klingons.

In the world of Arn, I wanted orcs to be creatures mostly as suggested in the Monster Manual. Clashes of cultures are fine, but I've got human cultures to clash. Orcs are to be monsters.

Just because they're monsters, though, doesn't mean there can't be a reason for their monstrousness. Orcs can be understandable, I think, without being particularly relatable.

My inspirations here are recent works with more of an emphasis on psychology. R. Scott Bakker's fantasy epic Prince of Nothing trilogy, and its follow-up, the currently on-going Aspect Emperor series, has a new take on the Tolkien-derived orc concept. The Sranc are derived in perverse fashion from the Tolkienian, elf-like Nonmen--making them analogous to orcs in more ways than one. The sranc are unreasoning marauders with beautiful Nonmen faces, who roam in large packs, and seem only semi-intelligent, but can employ weapons. Unlike Tolkien's orcs, the sranc explicitly derive sexual pleasure from their violence. Here's a descriptive passage from The Judging Eye:

"Running with rutting fury, howling with rutting fury, through the lashing undergrowth, into the tabernacle deep. They swarm over pitched slopes, kicking up leaves and humus. They parted about trunks, chopping at the bark with rust-pitted blades. They sniffed the sky with slender noses. When they grimaced, their blank and beautiful faces were clenched like crumpled silk, becoming the expressions of ancient and inbred men.

Sranc. Bearing shields of lacquered human leather. Wearing corselets scaled with human fingernails and necklaces of human teeth.

The distant horn sounded again, and they paused, a vicious milling rabble. Words were barked among them. A number melted into the undergrowth, loping with the swiftness of wolves. The others jerked at their groins in anticipation. Blood. They could smell mannish blood."
Like the neurosurgery patient turned serial killer in Crichton's The Terminal Man (1972)--violence seems to be wired to directly to pleasure areas of sranc brains. Presumably, this was done, along with the physical changes, by the No-God, who warped the sranc from Nonmen stock.

Another species or subspecies with modified neurocognitive structures are the vampires from Peter Watts' 2006 science fiction novel Blindsight. On Watts' website there's a rather clever PowerPoint-type presentation that details the fictional history how the search for a gene therapy for autism lead to the discovery of the genetic basis of vampirism. In Watts' novel, vampire (or as Watts would have it, Homo sapiens whedonum) brains are much better at certain types of pattern recognition and information processing than standard humanity--but are also violent, and totally lacking in empathy.  In other words, what we would call rather extreme sociopaths.

So what does this all mean for the orc? Well, it seems to me that orcs in the world of Arn, like Tolkien's orcs or Bakker's sranc, are the products of biothaumaturgical engineering. The base human (or other hominid) stock employed was twisted to create shock-troops for war--an intelligent creature imprisoned by a brain hardwired for hatred of all beings non-orc, and deriving a great deal of neurologic reward from inflicting violence. Individual orcs will vary in the degree these traits are manifest, and half-orcs even more so, but orcish brains make them what they've always been--the implacable enemies of man.


Chris said...

Interesting. I came to a similar conclusion, albeit from a different direction.

IMG Orcs are what happens if soldiers (or bandits, raiders, adventurers, etc.) enjoy the 'sack, pillage, torture, rape and butcher' part of their job entirely too much. There's a gradual degeneration into bestialism as moral restraints and taboos decay under the pressure of violence, lust and gluttony.

The ultimate end result: what was a man becomes a beast. To put it in terms of E.G.Palmer's 'folklore is true' Wyrd Greyhawk: the wind changed, and their faces stayed that way (just as they were warned as children).

Why do Orcs move across the landscape like locusts, destroying all they set their eyes on? Because that's what made them Orcs in the first place.

Trey said...

I like that, too. Degeneration is very pulp. And of course, there's:

"He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."

Anonymous said...

I am all for magical bioengineering but building a race purely to encourage them to preform violence seems like a very bad idea. What would keep them from turning on each other or on their creator?

Trey said...

A couple of possibilities:

1) Who says they didn't turn on their creators?

2)Presumably Dark Lord Sauron stand-in made 'em so they wouldn't rebel against him.

As to the other point, note I said "brain hardwired for hatred of all beings non-orc"--obviously their would be a certain amount of "in-group" mediation of violence. Likely some sort of neuroedocrine signal (pheremones) that keeps 'em from slaughtering each other.

Or it's magic. Take your pick. :)

Scott said...

Well sure, but this portrayal just demonizes those who don't conform to the dominant neurological standard.

Seriously though, you should (if you haven't already) check out Harn's Gargun, a version of orcs that I wish I'd thought of myself.

Trey said...

I never said I was above demonization. :)

Yeah, I'm a fan of the Gargun (why I didn't mention them here, I don't know)--good stuff!