I’ve just finished watching Arcane: League of Legends (Arcane, from now on), the magnificent new fantasy animated series by Riot & Netflix, based upon the characters and setting of the former’s worldwide renowned multiplayer online battle arena (or MOBA), League of Legends (or LoL).
Now, I’ll say right away that I consider the series a must-watch for any fantasy aficionado, regardless of whether you’ve played LoL or know anything about it. In my case, I played LoL a couple of times (I was much more of a DotA player back in the day, for those in the know), but I still enjoyed Arcane immensely.
The reasons for my enjoyment originate from the usual places. Well-written characters; a story that’s almost 100% character-driven; and a fantasy world that’s credible.
Today, however, I want to talk about a specific aspect of Arcane. As a storytelling and fantasy nerd, I’ve always been fascinated by all the different forms fantasy stories take, especially when it comes to their so-called subgenres or subtypes. These “flavors” of fantasy—so to speak—are what make stories like The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire so distinct from one another, for example, even though they are both fantasy stories in essence.
One such flavor is the one in which both technology and magic appear, side by side. My go-to examples for years about this subgenre have been animated series such as ThunderCats or He-Man, as I think they embody best this idea of combining magic and technology in a fantasy setting.
Now, however, I think I’ve found a new best example, one that really excels in terms of not only being perhaps a better story—i.e., a better-told one—but one that takes that distinguishing factor (technology + magic) and brings it to the next level.
I think I may have found the perfect arcanepunk story in Arcane.
What Is Arcanepunk?
Quoting the definition by BestFantasyBooks.com, arcanepunk is a subgenre of fantasy where
Magic and science exist in the world simultaneously—they are two separate fields, but complement each other and are used together. Magic is wondrous and when it’s combined with technology, absolutely revolutionary.
Unlike steampunk, arcanepunk is not limited to Victorian-era London. Stories of this subgenre can take place in alternate histories, futuristic societies, contemporary worlds, or even secondary worlds. The key is that the world has to have reached industrialization.
As it can be seen, arcanepunk is defined in contrast to steampunk so, in order to better understand what arcanepunk is, we need to take a look at its sibling.
Steampunk, the Anachronistic
In this case, we have a lengthy definition and exploration of the term in the wonderful Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1999) by Clute and Grant, where we encounter that
Steampunk, on the other hand, can best be described as technofantasy that is based, sometimes quite remotely, upon technological anachronism. Steampunk tales are thus often placed in an alternate world, to allow their premised anachronisms full imaginative play.
Or, in other words, steampunk fantasy is a type of fantasy that incorporates technology that wasn’t available at a certain historical period and then explores the possibilities of what that premature technological advancement would result in.
One thing this extract doesn’t include is the mention, in the original, of the relationship between steampunk and its originator, cyberpunk science fiction.
Cyberpunk, The Originator
The Wikipedia definition states that cyberpunk is
A subgenre of science fiction in a dystopian futuristic setting that tends to focus on a “combination of lowlife and high tech” featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.
We can see here a very important aspect that is not present in either the definition of arcanepunk or steampunk: the inclusion of “low life” and “the breakdown or radical change in the social order”.
Or, in other words, the -punk element that seems to be missing in both arcanepunk and steampunk.
Where Is the -Punk?
I once had the pleasure of (virtually) interviewing Michael Moorcock, one of fantasy’s most influential authors—and one of my favorites. Among the many and lengthy questions I asked him, we discussed his Warlord of the Air and other steampunk fantasy stories.
I don’t remember clearly what the question was, but I do remember that he talked about steampunk in a very critical way (as he is wont to do about everything). One of the things he said—and I’m paraphrasing here—is that steampunk is now filled with people revering the lords and ladies of Victorian England and, considering that, that they should rename the subgenre as “steamlord” to better reflect their political inclinations and tastes.
And I cannot but agree with that—and that’s precisely the reason why I liked Arcane so much (remember that this is still an Arcane appreciation post).
Arcane Puts the -Punk in Arcanepunk
Although ThunderCats and He-Man are very good examples of arcanepunk aesthetically, they are missing a key component: the -punk part.
In the original ThunderCats, we know nothing about Lion-O and his gang when it comes to their social status, as far as I can remember. They’re essentially refugees on Third Earth, though, so that at least puts them in the most vulnerable part of society.
If the 2011 reboot made one mistake from this perspective (I otherwise adore it), it was to make Lion-O heir to a throne and, as such, a part of nobility; it’s the whole “steamlord” (arcanelord?) problem all over again.
In the case of He-Man, all of its versions have Prince Adam as their main protagonist. Emphasis on the “prince” part.
Not so in the case of Arcane.
Arcane‘s two protagonists—Vi(olet) and Powder—are poor, orphaned sisters from Piltover’s “undercity”, Zaun. They try to steal to get a better life and they lost their parents in a social uprising where the people from Zaun tried to overthrow the nobility running the city above.
Everything about the sisters—and Zaun in general—speaks to the -punk element of arcanepunk. They’re not presented as bad people because they are criminals; on the contrary, they’re the heroes of the story. We feel for them and we empathize with their cause.
What’s perhaps even more important is that the forces of law and order—the police, here named “Enforcers”—are presented as what they are: the blunt instrument of the powerful. The only good “Enforcer” is a female captain who has non-aggression, extrajudicial agreement with the de facto leader of Zaun, and foster father of Vi and Powder, Vander.
Finally, the rest of the cast that lives in the upper part of Piltover is also part of the -punk element by not being what they’re supposed to be. The brilliant man behind the combination of magic and technology known as “hextech”, Jayce Talis, has to literally risk life in exile to demonstrate to the rich and powerful that such wonder is possible.
The man who is Jayce’s first supporter and assistant, Viktor, is disabled and voiced with an accent which immediately signals him as an immigrant. Even the daughter of a noble family, Caitlyn, chooses to join the Enforcers against her parents’ wishes.
This undercurrent of rebellion against the established order is, I believe, at the heart of arcanepunk—as it should be in any subgenre that includes the -punk element.
And Arcane does it better than the rest, at least in my opinion.