Hello, everyone. Charlie has kindly invited me to post here because I am a science fiction writer. But for the next four guest posts I'm going to be talking about fighting, martial arts, the media, and women. I have a lot to say. In this first post I'll give you an idea of where I'm coming from when I'm talking about fighting.
So you need to know that I started martial arts training when I was thirteen because as a young woman I was always being told I was a potential victim; I wanted to move past that. It was kind of ironic how at sixteen, studying karate in Okinawa, I was singled out for 'special training' by one of the higher ranks, who then felt me up liberally and eventually propositioned me in front of his wife. She was translating for him!
But don't worry--we won't be going there.
I just want to establish my background. I was kicked out of my first school for insubordination because while preparing to test for black belt I refused to train with the women and children, but other than that I was well-behaved. I dabbled in various arts off and on throughout my teens and twenties. When I was 28 I started training with Steve Morris, who is known in Britain for his deep knowledge of fighting and its training methods. Steve taught me to hit. Hard. Eventually we hooked up and we are still together. Through sixteen years as Steve's website administrator, camera guy and partner I have learned a lot about martial arts from a technical, historical, political and personal perspective.
Most people think of martial arts and fighting as being more or less synonymous. I see them as a Venn diagram of two sets that overlap by a tiny margin. This is because most martial artists don't fight and their training isn't directly based on what happens in a fight.
There are reasons for this. The problem of training for a fight is a tricky one. If an instructor puts students in an actual fight (as opposed to highly controlled drills with restricted moves), they might get seriously hurt. But if instructors can't create an accurate representation of a fight in the gym, trainees will never really be tested. To make up for the lack of fighting, martial arts typically focus on displays of fake combat that illustrate the combative moves that have been passed down through history. They may have non-contact or light contact fighting, but this only tests your ability to touch the other person with the techniques you have been taught--not your ability to hurt them for real much less take a beating yourself.
Most people who study martial arts study a system. Whether the system is historical (like kung fu and karate) or modern (like Systema and Krav Maga) the techniques are taught formally, with ranks, with semi-compliant drilling between members of the same school, and with a heavy dose of hierarchy that keeps everybody in their place. With a few exceptions (Gracie Barra jiu-jitsu is one system that grades predominantly through hard competition) the idea of all-out fighting is a theoretical one, kept well in the background.
But fighting is chaotic. It's often unpredictable. It doesn't systemize well and it's difficult to pass on as a body of knowledge. What people don't realize is that no matter how effective the founder of a discipline may have been in his (or in the case of Wing Chun, her) day, unless the practices of that system involve rigorous testing in realistic fighting conditions against non-compliant opponents from outside your system, you can never really know whether you can make their moves work for you.
It's not a big leap to get from martial arts to religion. To a greater or lesser degree, you are expected to take what's being taught to you on faith.
There are a lot of problems with this, but perhaps the most offensive to me is the fact that a person can rise to high rank and great influence without possessing any fighting ability whatsoever. Thus is born a cycle of bullshit. You have someone teaching you (allegedly) to fight, but they have no fighting experience themselves let alone the know-how to help you. If you go along with this long enough, you can aspire to turn around and teach others one day. Ad infinitum; ad nauseum.
I've been a part of that cycle. When you realize what's going on, it's disheartening. And the more heavily you are invested in the hierarchy, the deeper the disillusionment, and the more difficult to throw away your investment. Even if your investment turns out to be shite. For years, even after I saw karate guys biting the dust against trained grapplers in the UFC cage, I believed that the great karate masters from my former school's lineage had some special combative power that was too dangerous for the UFC. I thought that if they weren't fighting in these contests it must be because they were too spiritual--not because they'd be shit-scared to try.
This is what happens when you have a powerful imagination. Fundamentally, I'm a nerd. And I swallowed a lot of bullshit because I wanted to be a part of a warrior culture (groping notwithstanding). I later learned that many people have made the same mistakes that I did.
By contrast to me, my partner was an athlete and street fighter from a very young age. In his youth Steve was kicked out of Kyokushin Kai for excessive contact so he moved to Japan, where he trained so hard he earned a third degree black belt from Yamaguchi Gogen within a year. When he got back from Japan he ran a martial arts club in central London for many years while researching global fight training methods and their history. Around 1973 Steve started an 'anything goes' fight class where all methods and techniques were allowable--it was a kind of proto fight club. He told me that the immediate result was that the white belts started beating up the black belts and the black belts fled the club in droves.
Steve's not famous, but people in the know are aware of him and what he does. Over the years a lot of higher ranks have walked through his door looking for guidance, and I personally observed any number of black belts come undone under even mild pressure. They realized painfully that their system had failed them.
Many made an initial effort to change. A few threw away what they'd learned and worked very hard to start over with a fight-centred approach. These guys did improve massively, and they developed self-reliance and self-respect--one became a successful professional MMA fighter. Some quit the martial arts. Many others--I'd say the majority--soon realized how hard it was going to be to deal with the challenges of fight training, and went back to their systems. They seemed chagrined, embarrassed--but not enough to let go of their status in a recognized hierarchy. Some of these guys are quite highly ranked teachers with respected credentials.
I could never understand this last response. Before I realized I was crap at fighting it was maybe understandable that I placed faith in my karate training. But once you see something, you can't very well un-see it. Unless you are an ostrich. Or you run a dojo.
Which brings me at last to the parallels between science fiction and the martial arts. Over the years I've formed the opinion that both are most commonly used as means of escape from reality. Nothing wrong with escapism as a thing--you need to be honest about it, though, and martial arts tend to fail big in that department.
Of course, science fiction doesn't only have to be a way out--it can also be a way in. For me, both martial arts and science fiction are the most rewarding when they engage with reality in all its depth and complexity.
But what does engaging with reality even mean? That's a question for next time, when I'll talk about personal combat as we see it depicted in popular media. Headsup: it's usually absurd.