A Sword-Fighting Lesson With Neal Stephenson

The sci-fi author plans to make a more realistic sword-fighting game
Photograph by Kyle Johnson for Bloomberg Businessweek

Throughout movie history, cinematic swordsmen have flung their weapons and flipped their bodies around during combat, all to create an exciting visual spectacle. Consider the somersaulting Jedis in Star Wars, for example, or the jousting warriors in Gladiator. As difficult as it is to believe, much of what we see on screen is technically bad form, according to the past thousand years or so of sword-fighting historical practice. “Turning your back on a man with a four-foot long steel bar who is trying to murder you is generally not viewed as a wise strategy,” says science fiction author Neal Stephenson.

Stephenson, the droll writer of seminal novels such as Snowcrash and The Diamond Age, is talking about his passion for sword fighting to promote an unusual new project. Subutai, a startup he co-founded and named after Genghis Khan’s chief military strategist, aims to create video games and other media that accurately depict sword fighting as it was practiced hundreds of years ago by skilled warriors in battle—and these days by geeks in parking lots. Earlier this week, Subutai posted a video on the fundraising site Kickstarter, soliciting contributions to develop a game called Clang, a “Guitar Hero with swords” exercise that mines knowledge from the community of scholars and enthusiasts who are recreating the long-dormant martial art. Folks seem to like the idea and have already donated about $250,000. “It turns out what actually makes sense in this kind of combat was figured out a long time ago, in extreme detail, by people who lived and died this way,” says Stephenson.

Stephenson is talking about the project from the back of a south Seattle acrobatics studio, and helpfully gives me a few sword fighting tips. (You never know when they will come in handy.) One weapon on hand is a 13th century-style, two-handed long sword that thankfully, has dull edges. Stephenson is an enthusiast but not, he notes, an instructor. He says the first mistake novices make is to initiate a fight with their sword held defensively—upright and in front of their bodies. (Think Luke Skywalker preparing to confront Darth Vader.) Well, bad idea: Your hands are exposed. “A lot of people want to instinctively protect themselves, but getting hit on the hands is bad,” Stephenson says, snapping his sword toward the exposed arms of Mark Teppo, Subutai’s chief executive officer.

A safer option, Stephenson demonstrates, is a stance like von tag. He holds the sword upright near his shoulder, a little like a ballplayer holding a bat. Another stance is called Posta di Donna, in which the sword is also cocked at the shoulder, but pointed downward. Teppo, wielding his own sword, demonstrates various defensive maneuvers for each, like a chess player responding to an opponent’s opening gambit.

Many of these tactics were developed during medieval times. If someone leveled an allegation and there were no witnesses, Stephenson explains, a judicial duel would be set up. The accuser was required to make the first move in the fight, which put him at a natural disadvantage; it is meant to deter spurious accusations. (This is a process the U.S. Supreme Court might consider reviving.)

Using Teppo to demonstrate further, Stephenson then shows off a few offensive maneuvers. Striking from von tag with a powerful, lunging assault could cut Teppo in half, he notes. But if Teppo were simply to back up and step out of the way, “I’m standing here like a complete a——, with my sword out of the action,” he says. The smarter option is to snap off the assault near his opponent’s head. Proper footwork is crucially important, “or you fall down.” (Note: Think twice before working with Neal Stephenson.)

Subutai wants to capture all this subtle precision in its games, which will use a sophisticated, Wii-like motion controller. The end product will probably look nothing like what we’re used to seeing on television or in movies. Stephenson doesn’t begrudge those depictions of sword fighting. Even though the HBO series Game of Thrones anachronistically combines fighting styles from different eras, he commends the program for showing characters who practice and hone their skills. “This is a small detail and very important,” he says. “No one is just instinctively waving the sword around. They are actually studying something.”

Stephenson doesn’t even begrudge Star Wars “because it brought the romance and beauty of this kind of fighting” back into popular culture. He admits that getting it right doesn’t always make for great entertainment, which will be a big challenge for Subutai. “Historically accurate long sword fighting just isn’t very cool,” Stephenson says. “It tends to be over very quickly.”