In my time here in Viet Nam, I have been exposed to countless things applicable to writing a fantasy world. Between foods, animals, and just the simple alternative way of thinking and doing things, there is a wealth of inspiration to be found in any place far from home.
Let’s cut to the chase. Agent Orange; otherwise called Dioxin by locals here, was a chemical herbicide used during the American War. The history and lore behind dioxin is long, complicated, and disgusting. I will do my best to not get political here, as it’s very easy for a man to get passionate about this sort of thing.
Though the politics alone set the stage for a wealth of stories.
Suffice it to say that the use of this stuff is among the coldest, most inhumane and irresponsible things done by the U.S. government. And there’s quite a long list of inhumane and irresponsible things for which America is responsible; I say this as an American who reads.
Not an American-hating foreigner.
Originally used as a defoliant during Operating Ranch Hand (1962-1971), Agent Orange was intended to keep Viet Cong and local farmers alike from using the land, whether reduction of cover for guerrilla fighters or simply obliterating everyone’s food supply. The use of Agent Orange had devastating effects, leaving behind a residue, a legacy, that persists to this day.
Because of Agent Orange, and other chemicals used in that black mark of history known distantly to many Americans as the Vietnam War – an event that has been largely reduced among us to jokes about “Charlie in the trees,” or “digging an elaborate series of interconnected tunnels like the Viet Cong” (Fuck you, Mike Myers.) – people today still suffer.
A lot of them.
Drinkable water comes only in bottles, presumably imported from less toxic parts of the world. While my experience so far stretches only within Sai Gon, I think it is a safe assumption that one simply does not drink the water anywhere in this country.
Yet the Vietnamese are resilient. They carry on, they rebuild, and they make the best of what they have, which is more than I can say for what I and many people I’ve known have done.
Agent Orange succeeded in defoliating the land. It also succeeded in depopulating villages, not only from starvation and outright poisoning, but other, sinister long-term effects. Plants in sprayed areas no longer grew, and people in affected areas gave birth to stillborn or disfigured children – or simply could not have children anymore at all. I won’t share images of the physical effects had on people here. If you want to know, they are readily available.
This is truly a sad, sadistic thing.
And we as writers can derive inspiration from the darkest places.
In my mainline novel setting, there exists a substance that, to keep it simple, allows magic to be used in an otherwise magic-less environment. I call the stuff sujhurite, a word derived from the Korean word for crystal, and this substance in its rawest form is hazardous to handle. Close proximity to a sujhurite formation causes madness in some folks and, in a rare few, can cause the thoughts of an individual to take form in reality. Whatever they think of becomes true, manifesting before them; in other words, magic.
Usually it doesn’t go well for anyone involved, since the effects are unstable and most people lack the capacity to grasp what’s going on, and how to control it.
So sujhurite is dangerous enough as it is, but when refined and fashioned into idols, or ink (written on scrolls), it becomes much more controllable. Scrolls being more common; write a word in sujhurite ink and that word manifests from the reader’s mind. Example:
Don’t think of a pink elephant.
Once read, the scroll is consumed, it’s charge spent. Anyone familiar with games would recognize this mechanic in play. Sujhurite idols or statuettes, though, contain multiple charges, and are considered less stable than scrolls. Objects created with sujhurite with this purpose are known as dhirunes, and dhirunes have been weaponized to varying effect.
The use of a single dhirune on an otherwise magic-less world altered the course of history, a pinnacle moment in the novel.
But I am not satisfied with the risk of a dhirune simply being “Be careful, it could blow you out of your fucking boots if you drop it.” No, combustion or otherwise immediate effects are a risk, but that’s not the kind of thing I’m going for.
Enter Agent Orange. Sure, a dhirune blast will kill anyone in the immediate vicinity, but now there’re unforeseen aftereffects to their use. Those exposed to dhirunes suffer later in life, and within the blast zone there lingers a long-term effect on the environment.
Plants no longer grow. Nearby villages find their birthrate slowed or halted, and something’s wrong with those children who survive. Living creatures avoid these dead zones at all costs, and stumbling into one is nothing short of hazardous. A number of dhirune blast marks dot the landscape, and it is not until decades later that connections are made between the blasts themselves and long-term effects on the population.
I will essentially be adding traits of Agent Orange to a pre-existing situation in my work, in part to add depth, but also to spread awareness. After all, Viet Nam is not the only place effected by dioxin.
This concept solves a few setting/plot holes as well, some major some minor, and I shan’t get into them here. That’d be tedious. Suffice it to say that dioxin, and its effects, is but one of the multitude of inspiring (albeit dark, angering and depressing) things I’ve come to discover her in Viet Nam.
There are other things. Sexuality and marriage, language, customs and architecture based off the climate, even the mentality and attitude towards foreigners – or other Vietnamese – I find all of it fascinating.
But those will be for another time.
Today’s music selection is, as they tend to be, completely different.
Among a small pile of movies watched on the plane from Newark, NJ to Hong Kong, I saw The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. I believe this is a movie everyone should see, and I rather enjoyed the soundtrack. Hard to describe it in words other than great or good, but this one would vote that the movie is worth your time, and it was surprisingly applicable at the time of watching it.