Oliver Langmead was born in Edinburgh, and now lives in Dundee. He has an LLB in Law, and an Mlitt in Writing Practice and Study, with a distinction. He is occasionally seen behind a midi keyboard or shouting into a microphone, but mostly behind a regular household keyboard, agonising over word order.
The word “epic” gets thrown around a lot these days. It gets used to describe the latest blockbusters, those big, franchise films filled with action and two-dimensional characters defined by their strength of arms. It gets used to describe any television show, or book, with some real depth and background to it. Epic is anything with big battles, huge chunks of lore, superheroes, or intergalactic politics spanning galaxies. If I told you that something was epic, then I would expect you to imagine something with scale, with a scope that covers whole kingdoms, or planets, and amounts to huge conflicts between them.
And you might be surprised to learn that in most cases, this is entirely the right description. Because “epic” isn’t just a word to describe something with magnitude. It’s actually a genre, defined by a lot of those traits above. In fact, it’s one of the oldest genres known to exist.
You will have heard of the ancient epics, because we still talk about them. The Odyssey and Iliad, The Aeneid, Beowulf, The Mahabharata, The Divine Comedy and, of course, Paradise Lost, still inform popular culture. We still study them, make movies about them and talk about them. Indeed, a lot of the defining traits that they share are used in stories by modern writers.
You’ll know it’s an epic because it starts in the middle of the action. The main characters, of which there will be a lot, will be defined by the culture that they embody, and the powers that they possess. The scope will be vast, the stakes will be high and there will be great battles fought between massive armies. Does this sound familiar? It should. I’m comparing the great epics of old with stories like Star Wars and Game of Thrones, which are undoubtedly epics.
Of course, in the traditional epics, there are a lot more rules. They’re poems, for a start. But that’s not my point here. My point is that people have enjoyed massive stories for thousands of years. It’s still a genre that we’re interested in. Even in our big, modern world, with its big, modern achievements and advancements, thousands of years after Homer was around, we still read his works, we still copy his style and the epic genre is still going strong.
Sure, we don’t write massive book-length poems any more-
Oh, wait. I did.
You could ask me why I wrote a poem the length of a book, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Honestly, Dark Star was going to be written in prose. And then, one day, after learning about the epic genre in a bit more depth, and ruminating on it for a long while, I decided to give it a go. I decided that attempting to write a science fiction noir poem was a good idea. And sure, at first it didn’t work. It was a mad idea after all. But I kept trying. I was told that there was something in my odd attempts at combining genres worth pursuing by people with the right kind of knowledge, and it kept me going.
In the end it took me a couple of months to find the opening I was looking for: The kind of short passage that would inform the rest of the book. By that point I was hooked.
Dark Star doesn’t have a massive scope. It’s set in a dark city, and involves characters defined not by their strengths, but their weaknesses. It’s only epic because it has some of the lesser-known traits of the genre. It’s written in verse, features a peculiar kind of divine intervention, and a descent into a barely recognisable underworld. It’s not the kind of epic you know. But it might be the kind of epic that you’re interested in experiencing. It’s the side of the genre that got lost for a long while. And sure, it took a lot of writing to get it to work today. But it does work. And I’m told that the result is something pretty unique.