Some authors claim they like to break genre conventions. Others do it as easily as breathing. Benjamin Cheah is one such writer. A leading light of the Pulp Revolution, Cheah’s works like No Gods Only Daimons, Invincible, and his myriad short fiction run the gamut from apocalyptic sci-fi and fantasy, to military fiction, high-flying martial arts, and horror, with a healthy does of a thriller’s breakneck speed and over it all a constant sense that anything can happen.
Inspired by the writers of yore, Cheah puts his heart into his work, imbuing everything with a dose of breathtaking fun. It’s why the announcement of his Kickstarter campaign for Dungeon Samurai made me want to interview him for another installment of Interesting People.
The project is called Dungeon Samurai, for crying out loud. How can you not be pumped?
Welcome to the Dungeon
Yamada Yuuki is an ordinary Japanese college student with an extraordinary hobby: the classical martial art of Kukishin-ryu. One evening, a demon rips through the fabric of space-time, abducts everyone in his dojo, and transports them to another world. To return home, Yamada and his friends must join forces with other abductees to conquer the dungeon that runs through the heart of the world.
Standing in their way are endless hordes of bloodthirsty monsters, treacherous traps, invisible clouds of poison gas, and unfathomable horrors lurking in the lightless depths. Armed only with steel, faith and sheer guts, they must battle their way through the winding catacombs and confront the demon waiting at the bottom floor.
Yamada was once a student. Now he must become a samurai.
Dungeon Samurai is a trilogy of military fantasy novels running to about 65,000 words per book. It is the story of a harrowing campaign into the unlighted depths of a monster-filled dungeon. No pity, no mercy, no room for error.
If you ever wondered what old-school Dungeons & Dragons would look like if it were run like a military campaign, Dungeon Samurai is for you.
I had a chance to chat with Cheah about Dungeon Samurai, writing, and his philosophy about what makes Pulp Rev the most exciting development in sci-fi and fantasy. My questions are in bold.
* * *
First, tell everyone a little bit about yourself and how you got into writing sci-fi and fantasy in the first place. How’d you catch the bug?
I’m Singapore’s first Dragon and Hugo Award nominated writer. As Kai Wai Cheah, I wrote the Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons, and its sequel Hammer of the Witches. I’ll also be publishing a new superhero series, A Song of Karma, through Silver Empire’s Heroes Unleashed universe soon. Under Kit Sun Cheah, I aim to self-publish pulp-style stories, starting with my forthcoming Dungeon Samurai series.
Growing up, I read everything I could get my hands on. Fairy tales and folk stories led to me to fantasy fiction. Encyclopedias and technology articles in the news sparked an interest in science fiction. At the age of 10, I was introduced to thrillers — specifically, Tom Clancy — and they quickly dominated my bookshelf. These influences bled into my homework, specifically the stories we were tasked to write. I seemed to be the only student in class that actually enjoyed writing compositions (what we called essays and short stories).
At the age of 12, I decided I could write my own novel. I combined everything I knew and was interested in to produce an alien invasion tale. A story of two warring species of humans, a secret organization dedicated to fighting the invaders, a traitor to homo sapiens who used to serve alongside the hero, a wider story universe that followed other characters in the same organisation.
The product was painfully subpar. Unfortunately (or not?), the manuscript was destroyed when my ancient computer hanged while I was saving it to a floppy diskette (yes, I’m old enough to have used one regularly!). The following morning, I got up early and began work on an improved version.
That story didn’t work out either, and I moved on. For a while I tried my hand at writing thrillers, similar to the thrillers I’d loved. That, too, didn’t quite work out. I realized that I was far more comfortable writing stories in settings where I could just make stuff up instead of having to visit certain locations in person and assess them myself. Not to mention that, being a secondary school student then, it was slightly difficult to routinely fly overseas on research trips.
I couldn’t match the thriller writers I knew in terms of authenticity, research and lived experience. What I could do was create whole new worlds from scratch — and I’d seen other authors like John Ringo, Tom Kratman and Jim Butcher do it. I dedicated myself to writing science fiction and fantasy and never looked back.
These days, though, I’m less concerned about genre distinctions. I just adopt whatever genre elements I need to support a story and carry on. In this sense my personal philosophy evolved to match the mindset of the old pulp writers.
The genre-blurring is one of the most interesting thing about your work. You’ve got apocalyptic tales of demons, secret agents, fantasy elements coexisting with the divine in gritty, real-world settings, military sci-fi themes and ideas . . . it’s FUN and exciting, and that willingness to take chances shows. I love how the thriller genre and its conventions informs your work.
Which brings us to Dungeon Samurai. For anyone who hasn’t heard of this project yet, what’s Dungeon Samurai all about?
Dungeon Samurai is the story of Yamada Yuuki, an ordinary Japanese college student with an extraordinary hobby: the samurai martial art of Kukishin-ryu. One evening, a demon rips through the fabric of space-time, abducts everyone in his dojo, and transports them to another world. To return home, Yamada and his friends must join forces with other abductees to conquer the dungeon that runs through the heart of the world and confront the demon lurking at the bottom floor. Standing in their way are endless hordes of bloodthirsty monsters, treacherous traps, invisible clouds of poison gas, and unfathomable horrors in the lightless depths. To survive, Yamada must set aside his old life and become a samurai.
Dungeon Samurai is one part isekai dungeon crawler, one part military fantasy, and one part martial arts extravaganza, with sprinklings of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E Howard. It’s how an OSR Dungeons & Dragons game or a Darkest Dungeon campaign might be run by professional soldiers with limited resources, and fought by modern-day samurai forced to adapt their tactics and techniques to the unforgiving environment of the dungeon.
I mean, how can one not be psyched for this? It’s the kind of genre-bending you’ve proven to be a master at. And that goes to the pulp spirit, doesn’t it? A near-total disregard for strict genre classifications. No wonder you are, as you say, the herald of the pulp rev!
Before getting deeper into your philosophies about writing and some more technical aspects, you have a Kickstarter for Dungeon Samurai going on now. Where can we find it, and what’s your ultimate aim for the story: A stand-alone? A series?
Dungeon Samurai was originally conceived as a standalone webnovel. Then I realised it would work better as a series, so I broke it down into a trilogy. Each book in the series runs to about 65,000 words each.
That sounds like a great project. Best of luck, and I’ll do my best to spread the word!
So one thing I’ve noticed about you is that you’re so prolific! Novels, short stories, and writing about cultural issues. Where do you find the time to do all of this, and what’s your writing schedule like, if you have one?
And yes, this is a bit of a selfish question! What is your secret?!
I’m fortunate in that I work from home, so where most people spend time commuting, I spend it writing. Beyond that there isn’t much of a secret. I get up early to write, then go to work. In the evening, I sit down to write again. And on the weekends, I write whenever I have free time.
I don’t have much of a life outside of writing. I’m able to focus completely on writing, without diverting my energies to other distractions. On the other hand, with so much screen time every day, I need to take pains to schedule exercise and other physical activity.
Not commuting is a huge time saver. Good for you! What kind of physical activities do you partake in outside of writing, and do aspects of these come into your work in any way?
The major one is martial arts. I’ve studied Pekiti Tirsia Kali, a Filipino martial art, for the past three years. It’s the martial art I’m most familiar with, and as such, many martial arts scenes in my written stories prominently feature kali, both armed and unarmed. With the exception of Dungeon Samurai — that one is grounded in Kukishin-ryu.
Aside from that, I also try to exercise every day. Every morning after I wake up, I practice qi gong and other breathing techniques to flood my system with oxygen and shake off the cobwebs. In the evenings, after work, I head outdoors for physical training. I do strength training at least three times a week, using bodyweight exercises like push-ups and pistol squats. Once a week I go for a long run. I’m integrating High Intensity Interval Training and flexibility exercises into my workout plan too.
I don’t have as much time for training as I used to, but I do my best to move every day. Sitting at the computer all day isn’t conducive to a long and healthy life.
No it is not. I’m sure all of that helps not just your body, but also your mind . . . which of course leads to better, more productive writing.
Speaking of which, if you don’t mind, given your advocacy for “regressing harder” and looking to the pulp-era as a guide to countering the tide of politically correct, cliquey, and boring sci-fi and fantasy we see nowadays–resuscitating a dying literary genre, in effect–what is your philosophy, so to speak, about the Pulp Rev?
I do, of course, have Amelie Wen Zhao, among others, on my mind as I think about what the world of fictional publishing has become.
PulpRev, to me, is a mindset. It is about learning from the grandmasters of the pulp era and applying these lessons to the modern writing world. It is about writing fast, punchy stories; producing as many books as possible without lowering your standards; and constantly pursuing the refinement of your writing craft.
Above all, it is focused purely on writing stories that entertain the reader. Not personal politics, purity testing, social activism, pseudo-diversity or other cancerous political practices or dogmas that plague other writing groups and movements. Likewise, we don’t restrict ourselves to the trappings of genre fiction if we can make the story even more awesome by genre-blending. We don’t settle for producing one or two books a year and call it good; we strive for high output, high quality, all the time. In many ways, what PulpRev does is the complete opposite of traditional publishing.
For PulpRev, the reader, and therefore the story, always comes first.
Focusing on entertaining the reader first and foremost is certainly what attracted me to PulpRev and it’s writers. It felt like a group of kindred spirits, home I didn’t know I had. The focus on speed is also a great aspect a strategy compared to trad pub.
That said, one question I’ve been wrestling is with the idea that all fiction is, at the end of the day, message fiction, in that good triumphing over evil, and a focus on hopefulness over nihilism IS a message that’s, dare I say it, political in this day and age. I know these are generalizations about pulp-inspired works, but you rarely see soul-crushing, anti-human stories from that era.
What are your thoughts about this? Am I way off the mark or do you see some merit in this observation? Because, as you said, the focus isn’t on “personal politics, purity testing, social activism, pseudo-diversity or other cancerous political practices or dogmas,” but there are other things that become the “message,” are there not?
I’m not trying to make this a leading question; I just want to make sure you understand where I’m coming with this.
I get where you’re coming from.
I think humans are meaning-making beings. That is, humans are constantly interpreting everything they perceive through their own perspectives, worldviews, beliefs and experiences, and drawing connections between them. People can’t help but infer meaning from the stories they read — especially stories that resonate emotionally with them — and alter or reinforce their own beliefs accordingly.
The very best fiction speaks to the universals of human nature. The triumph of good over evil, hope over despair, love over all obstacles, and other such themes. These are universal human experiences, not limited by race, language, religion or nation. By speaking to human nature, these stories resonate with their readers, and in so doing influences them.
Intentionally or otherwise, consciously or not, stories influence their readers. Readers may or may not be aware of this influence; those who are may choose to accept or reject it; but they will certainly feel themselves being stirred through the power of well-written prose. What ideas, meanings and themes the reader infers from the story becomes the message of the story. Skilled writers are cognizant of this effect, and possess the ability to guide their reader to the conclusions they wish to communicate by tugging at their heartstrings.
In the case of PulpRev, we recognize the power of stories to communicate ideas to the audience. Luminaries like Daddy Warpig and Jeffro Johnson have noted how pulp stories and books from Appendix N consistently uphold the virtues that underpin Western civilisation. In so doing, these stories affirm the strength of these ideas, and sway their readers into accepting and upholding them. Unlike modern-day message fic, though, these themes are interwoven into the story through dialogue, action and plot. The reader is free to draw his own conclusions, instead of being bashed over the head. The author trusts the reader to enjoy the story on its own merits, and ideally see where he is coming from, instead of disrespecting the reader by telling him how he ought to think.
Fiction is a powerful medium for communicating ideas, virtues and memes. I think it bodes well that PulpRev is aware of this, and focuses on writing entertaining stories that uplift readers instead of crushing them.
It’s the allegory versus propaganda distinction, isn’t it? Allegories tell deep truths about human nature–which ideally are apolitical–while propaganda is pushing a particular point, or disparaging another. PulpRev seeks to embody the former spirit, even if not constructing a formal allegory the way your high-school English teacher tried to explain to you.
So it’s great that you mentioned Jeffro, DW, and Appendix N. This is a great segue into my next question: Which pulp works of yore, whether specifically mentioned in Appendix N or not, really resonated? What gave you that “A-ha! These are my people!” moment?
And, of course, to a newbie to the idea of “regressing harder,” which writers and stories would you recommend?
Everything by Robert E Howard resonates with me. His blend of brilliant prose, memorable characters and visceral action, and his contrasts of civilisation and barbarianism, is everything I aspire to achieve with my craft.
H. P. Lovecraft’s remarkable breadth and depth of vocabulary, and the way he establishes a gloomy atmosphere and builds up his stories to the final mind-shattering revelation is also incredible. While I’m not a pure horror writer or reader, Lovecraft’s work is exceptional.
I found Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions to be a refreshing story. It’s a story with clear demarcations between good and evil, order and chaos; a protagonist who faces mortal and moral perils; a world where faith is celebrated instead of denigrated; and an isekai story where the character’s modern-day knowledge is actually relevant to the plot.
Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth is a masterpiece of ethereal beauty. While the prose is old-fashioned, it is undeniably gorgeous and haunting.
I’d recommend all these stories and writers to newbies to the pulp sphere, specifically those who enjoy action and adventure, literary pyrotechnics, fast-moving plots and larger-than-life characters. That said, a modern reader would be well-advised to read Lovecraft and Vance with a dictionary close to hand.
This is a great list. You’ve got to love the vocabulary used by these classic authors.
Benjamin, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for your time, and best of luck to you with Dungeon Samurai! Where’s the best place for everyone to find you on the web?
I can be found at the following addresses:
Kai Wai Cheah: https://www.bookbub.com/profile/kai-wai-cheah
Kit Sun Cheah: https://www.bookbub.com/profile/kit-sun-cheah
It’s been a pleasure speaking with you, too. Good luck with your future endeavours!
The pleasure was all mine. Best of luck with Dungeon Samurai!
For a taste of what my future endeavors might be, check out my debut novel A Traitor to Dreams. The $0.99 sale ends TODAY, so download your eBook for a fun, thought-provoking action-adventure with some unexpected twists!