I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, “The game's afoot!” I wanted to float down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of Bilgewater and the Lost Dauphin. I wanted Prester John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be what they had promised me it was going to be - instead of the tawdry, lousy fouled-up mess it is.

-Glory Road, Robert A. Heinlein


It may surprise a few of my readers to know I had never heard of the term ‘isekai’ before someone used the term to refer to the Schooled in Magic universe.  The basic concept of portal fantasies existed in Western science-fiction and fantasy writing well before manga introduced the word isekai to our language; a person is sucked into another world, or goes back in time, and finds themselves having adventures there.  Lest Darkness Fall is not the first example of the genre, of course, but it is one of the most well-known.  It details both the advantages and disadvantages of an influx of modern ideas and technology into the past, as well as the difficulties involved in doing so and, perhaps most importantly of all, treats the locals as intelligent and sensible people in their own right.  Our ancestors did not have our technology, let alone our moral and ethical insights, but that did not make them stupid.  They were adapted to the world they had, not the present day.


There are, as a rule, four different kinds of isekai story.  First, a person or persons are transported to an alternate world and given a task to do, whereupon they are eventually returned home by whoever summoned them.  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a very basic example.  Second, a person or persons falls into the alternate world or time by accident (or thinks so) and has to find a way back to their home.  Amphibia and, after the end of the first season, The Owl House falls into that category, where Anne and Luz both want to get back to Earth, rather than spend the rest of their days in an alien world.  Third, a person finds themselves in an alternate world and either discovers their talents from Earth mean power (A Wizard in Rhyme or The Soprano Sorceress) or that, through an influx of ideas from another world/time, they can carve out a place for themselves.  Finally, and drawing on the article that prompted this afterword, there are stories where the hero, an outcast in their world, finds they fit in much better in their new world.


These rules are not absolute, of course, nor are they exclusionary.  Schooled in Magic fits neatly into the first, third and fourth category.  Amphibia has Anne, who wants to go home, but also Sasha and Marcy, both of whom would prefer to stay in their new world and make it theirs.  Generally speaking, the more fantastic the world, the less room there is for new ideas and social change.  There is no sense the heroes of the various Narnia books ever introduced modern technology to Narnia and the world remains in a kind of medieval stasis from birth to death.  This could also be said of both A Wizard in Rhyme and The Soprano Sorceress, with main characters that – again – make no attempt to improve the world around them.  The latter is a particularly odd case, as the heroine has good reason to do it. 


This article – drawing on The Owl House - which started all this, takes a more cynical view and separates isekai stories into ‘male’ and ‘female’ categories.  The ‘male’ stories follow characters, mainly men, who impose their will on the world around them; the ‘female’ stories follow characters that either find themselves fitting into the new world and, eventually, deciding to stay or work hard to get home.  Their goals are often smaller and they change to fit in, rather than forcing the world to adapt to them; the article argues that Luz and (the presumably human) Emperor Belos are foils, in that Luz has no interest in imposing her will on the Boiling Isles, while Belos very definitely did just that.


This misses, in my opinion, a fundamental point.  Luz did not ever have to impose her will on anyone.  She found safety fairly easily and could, at least until the end of the season, return home any moment she liked.  She had room to breathe, to make friends and discover her talents and build a life for herself.  Belos may not have had any of those things.  He may have found himself trapped in a world that would kill him, if he didn’t take control of his surroundings, and eventually became the effective ruler of the known world.  The relative safety Luz found – relative, because the Boiling Isles are still a death trap for the unwary – may be due to Belos, a point acknowledged in one of the episodes.  Belos may be bad, and there is no disputing the fact he’s a tyrant, but the Savage Ages were worse.


I think this is true of a great many ‘male’ isekai stories.  Lest Darkness Fall had a hero who had to either introduce new technology or find himself being caught up and probably killed in the chaos that, in our world, destroyed Rome.  1632 and Island in the Sea of Time have protagonists who must either change the world around them, or risk being destroyed by the locals.  The Axis of Time books feature warships from the future, trapped in the past.  How can they escape the world around them?  What choice do they have, but to intervene?


Amphibia, in fact, seems to be both ‘male’ and ‘female.’  Anne finds herself in a place of relative safety – again, the world is something of a death trap – and she can work towards fitting in and getting herself home.  Sasha, by contrast, finds herself in a place where she must carve out a role for herself or risk being killed, which brings out the worst in her; Marcy, who doesn’t want to go home at all, spends her time trying to improve the world around her, to mixed results, while remaining blind to the shadowy manipulations surrounding her.  It doesn’t end well for her. 


The article notes that such stories are wish-fulfilment (it implies this is only true of ‘male’ isekai stories, but I think it’s true of ‘female’ stories too) and they tend to be power fantasies, in which the hero – scorned and rejected by his own world – finds another in which he is the admired superhero, after getting a chance to show what he can really do.  His rejection is the fault of a society that doesn’t recognise how great he truly is, thus justifying a series of conquests that eventually pave the way to empire and eternal fame.


I disagree, at least in the case of the third class of isekai stories.


First, a person from the modern world – with access to modern ideas – would be seen, at least at first, as astoundingly brilliant in the past.  What we see as trivia, things we have left behind long ago, would appear wondrous to them.  To us, a biplane from the First World War is a primitive joke; to Generals Grant and Lee, it would be a marvel beyond compare.  A person who knew how to churn out guns from 1914 would have one hell of an edge over Napoleon, let alone William the Conqueror.  Or, in an alternate world, he might have new insights that the locals simply miss, because they know their world too well.  The application of the scientific method could change the world even if it doesn’t run on modern principles.


There is, in fact, a historical example of something along these lines.  Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of the Aztec Empire, was not – by European standards – a particularly good general.  Compared to the various city-states/tribes of the region, however, Cortés was brilliant.  He was playing from a far more advanced playbook – diplomatic as well as military and technological – and managed to lead a small force to victory over a far more numerous foe.


A writer who knows his stuff can do a very good job of outlining what happens when modern tech – and ideas – hit the past, or other worlds.  How do the locals react?  How do they take the new ideas, good and bad, and build on them?  What are the implications of future ideas entering the mainstream?  How do the great heroes – and villains – of history react to how the future sees them?  Is the future fixed, or can it be changed?


Second, what is wrong with adventure stories anyway?


Scott Palter, may he rest in peace, once commented that he’d grown up on studying history and reading fiction and the fiction was more fun.  I think that is essentially true.  James Bond, for example, may be a strikingly unrealistic spy, but he’s a lot more exciting than someone who sits at a desk all day.  The readers of pulpy adventures don’t want to be lectured: they want to see adventurers having adventures, they want to watch the world changing and developing … they even want to watch the heroes growing and changing too.  And they really don’t want people who are boring and/or reminders of their own failings.  Wesley Crusher was a poorly conceived, poorly written and poorly acted character, but the real problem was that he wasn’t the character anyone wanted to see. 


This may be a reflection of deeper problems within our society.  It is feeling increasingly small and, worse, increasingly confining.  The days in which one could go west in search of a better life are over; the space age is developing slowly and it may be decades before the average person can emigrate to another world.  There is less room for people to act out, let alone look for adventure or significance.  There is nothing new, right now, under the sun.  As Sue Townsend put it:


They give us job creation schemes, when what we want are hopes and dreams.


It is easy to say, of course, that many of the early isekai stories are, by modern standards, deeply problematic.  John Carter of Mars doesn’t read so well these days.  The Guns of the South made sense when it was written, based on what was known at the time, but it hasn’t aged as well as it should.  We know things, now, that Turtledove didn’t when he wrote the book.  And yet, that doesn’t strip them of their excitement.  One does not have to accept the beliefs of the main characters, let alone the unfortunate implications, to enjoy the stories.  And one can learn from the earlier stories.  Island in the Sea of Time has an empire-builder – William Walker – who is decidedly, in and out of the universe, the villain, as well as local characters who learn from the future and change the world, for the better and for the worse. 


But that isn’t the point.  The point is to have fun.  And, perhaps, watch modern jets scythe Nazi aircraft out of the sky.


And now you’ve read this far, I have a request to make.


It’s growing harder to make a living through writing these days.  If you liked this book, please leave a review where you found it, share the link, let your friends know (etc, etc).  Every little bit helps (particularly reviews).


Thank you.


Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2022