Their new weapons they hung on their leather belts under their jackets, feeling them very awkward, and wondering if they would be of any use. Fighting had not before occurred to them as one of the adventures in which their flight would land them. --The hobbits, upon receiving blades from the Barrow-Downs, in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring.
The Lord of the Rings is a microcosm of the evolving role of martial arts in SF and fantasy. In Tolkien's 1954 trilogy, the hobbits are given weapons but are never taught how to fight with them. The quote suggests that the hobbits have never even worn a blade before. But when the time comes for the hobbits to fight, they do so, apparently instinctively. In Moria, even Sam the gardener manages to kill a spear-wielding orc. I can suspend my disbelief enough to accept that a tiny hobbit could kill a huge orc, but Tolkien stretches it to the breaking point when he adds that the hobbit has never even used a sword before. It's a curious omission from a writer so focused on practical details that he never neglects to say where his characters are getting their food and water.
Both film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings add training sequences. Ralph Bakshi's 1975 Lord of the Rings animated film shows the hobbits being taught sword-fighting in Rivendell, and Peter Jackson's 2001 The Fellowship of the Ring has Boromir coach Merry and Pippin on the use of their blades.
This is not just the usual variation between page and screen -- it marks a sea change in the attitude of fantasy authors in writing about fighting and martial arts. (For this article, I'm defining "martial arts" as coherent systems of unarmed or armed [excluding firearms] combat, which may or may not be Asian or "traditional.")
Lord of the Rings comes from an early period in the development of the fantasy genre. At that time, the convention was that the only thing necessary to make an ordinary person into a warrior is a weapon. Similarly, in C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, the gift of non-magical swords and bows endows English schoolchildren not only with battlefield competence, but with mastery.
Genre conventions have changed, and now the "training sequence" is almost obligatory in novels in which previously untrained characters end up fighting. Mirroring the evolution of the wizard from ancient Merlins and Gandalfs of mysterious origin to Ursula K. Le Guin and J. K. Rowling's youngsters in wizardry schools, writers began paying attention to how warriors, those other standbys of fantasy, learned to do what they do.
A cluster of historical events made a very basic knowledge of martial arts, and the necessity of having to study them before one can achieve competence at them, become part of the collective Western consciousness. And once the knowledge became widespread, writers began to write about it.
The spread of martial arts knowledge
While Asian martial arts had been taught outside of Asia for many years -- a Kodokan judo school was established in Seattle in 1904 -- the schools where they were taught were few and not widely known. But after World War II Asian martial arts schools began opening across America and Europe. Soon anyone who was interested could find one. A number of the people who were interested were or became SF writers.
As martial arts are now and were then a voluntary study, and one undertaken more for personal satisfaction than for necessity, the people who pursued such training did so because they loved it -- and the things that writers love have a way of appearing in their books.
While a handful of people were experiencing martial arts first-hand, far more were getting a second-hand taste via television and movies. "Kung Fu," which debuted as a TV movie in 1972 and continued as a TV series until 1975, brought basic martial arts concepts into living rooms across America. And in 1973, the kung fu movie Enter the Dragon catapulted Bruce Lee to international stardom.
On a smaller scale, but of major significance to fantasy, the Society for Creative Anachronism began with a medieval party and tournament at Berkeley, CA, in 1966. The party was put on by a group of fans, including Diana Paxson and Marion Zimmer Bradley.
The SCA is now an international organization which re-enacts the Middle Ages "not as they were, but as they should have been." Its members often practice medieval (or medieval-inspired) martial arts. Tournaments may include archery, Elizabethan fencing, and single combat and group melees in which participants wear armor and fight with rattan swords.
A number of SF and fantasy writers, such as Poul Anderson, Randall Garrett, Jerry Pournelle, Gordon Dickson, and Fritz Leiber, joined the SCA in its early days. That gave them the opportunity to practice or observe recreations of medieval martial arts.
Media portrayals and the new availability of martial arts training had a profound influence on writers and readers. By the early 1970s, there was an entire generation of writers who were also martial artists. They knew from experience what it's like to be kicked in the head, or how hot armor gets when you fight in the sun. Such details naturally began to creep into their books. And they knew that their readers were already familiar with martial arts, from the show "Kung Fu" if nothing else, and would find it hard to believe that characters could win a duel the first time they picked up a sword.
I don't mean to say that Tolkien and Lewis really believed that sword-fighting was instinctive; but only that depictions of martial arts training did not become a convention of modern fiction until the knowledge of martial arts was widely disseminated in the west.
Western martial arts, like boxing and fencing, have always been part of Western culture. But fantasy is the literature of the outré rather than the ordinary, and generally of the past rather than the present. It took the presence of "exotic" Asian arts and the revival of past Western ones to inspire fantasy writers to connect the fights in the stories they were writing with the fighting styles they now knew. Boxing may seem incongruous in a high fantasy novel and old-fashioned in SF; but elegant sword forms and deadly Asian-inspired striking arts fit right in.
Martial arts in SF and fantasy
Merriam-Webster dates the term "martial arts" to 1933. The first use of the term I found in an SF story was in Roger Zelazny's 1963 "A Rose For Ecclesiastes:"
If they had refined their martial arts as far as they had their dances, or, worse yet, if their fighting arts were a part of the dance, I was in for big trouble.
Zelazny, an aikidoka (practitioner of aikido) who later edited Warriors of Blood and Dream, an anthology of SF martial arts stories, was, as usual, ahead of his time.
As the knowledge and availability of martial arts training spread through the West, the depiction of martial arts evolved. I would like to trace three stages of this evolution. These stages are as much a matter of content as of copyright date -- at least one third stage novel was written when nearly everyone else was writing first stage novels, and first stage novels are still being written today.
In the first stage, martial arts are limited to a brief mention, or as a bit of extra color in a fight scene. The term "martial arts" is rarely used, though individual styles may be named. Most importantly, no one trains and, while there may be fight scenes, there's no sense of a coherent system of fighting in use.
When Asian martial arts appear, they are often used as a spice of exoticism in the Western hero's background, as in Sherlock Holmes' use of "Baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling" on Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls in the 1903 "The Adventure of the Empty House." (Baritsu, also known as Bartitsu, was based on judo and invented by E. W. Barton Wright.) Asian arts also appear as the alien skills of a supporting character from the Far East. For instance:
Saburo, whose knowledge of ju-jitsu had taught him everything there was to be known about nerves and nerve-centres, touched a spot in the scout's neck, and he went over as though he had been poleaxed. --The House with the Red Blinds, by Trevor Wignall, 1920.
Evidently the Japanese originated the Vulcan nerve pinch.
Early works of fantasy, from epics like Lord of the Rings, to children's books like The Chronicles of Narnia, to sword and sorcery like Robert E. Howard's Conan, belong to the first stage. Sometiems the characters in these books are already great fighters when the story begins, and their training is not mentioned. When, like Tolkien's hobbits or Lewis's children, the characters rise from humble beginnings, their training begins and ends with a gift of weapons.
It could be theorized that Tolkien's hobbits and Lewis's children, like Galahad, have the strength of ten because their hearts are pure. (Conan is a force of nature, and to inquire about the state of his heart or where he learned his skills is like asking questions of a tornado.) Walter Jon Williams, a writer and martial artist whose own work will be discussed later on, suggests that Tolkien and Howard's books are in the Romantic tradition, and as such, their characters fight effectively because it's their nature to do so.
But Lewis chose to focus on children, as Tolkien did on hobbits, because they're unlikely heroes: small, frightened, and traveling in foreign lands. Their strength is moral, not physical. They have to learn to use a tinder box or address a king, and complain when they can't get a decent breakfast. Their fighting prowess cannot be entirely ascribed to a lack of realism, or to the idea that right makes might, or even to the Romantic notion of character, poised as the books are between Romance and modern fantasy.
The children and hobbits are beneficiaries of the writing convention of the time, which was to leave training in the category of going to the bathroom: presumably it happened, but off-page. So though they suffered many hardships, at least they never had to listen to a smug sensei make enigmatic pronouncements, then smack them with a wooden sword.
In the second stage, one of the most prominent aspects of martial arts -- the idea that combat proficiency requires extensive and lengthy training -- becomes important in the fiction. Training sequences become a near-obligatory part of books featuring characters who begin not knowing how to fight, but who will later have to. Martial arts are treated in greater detail. But they are not a primary focus, nor do they illuminate theme. They are there to provide realistic detail and entertainment value, and to serve the plot.
The Bakshi and Jackson Lord of the Rings films belong to this second stage. Both movies include training sequences, and the Jackson film has a sophisticated understanding of how martial arts differ by culture, and how similar fighting styles vary subtly depending on the personality and body type of the fighter. (The weapons and fighting styles of men, elves, dwarves, and orcs are quite different; Boromir's sword-fighting emphasizes strength as much as Aragorn's does agility.) But in neither film are martial arts a central or thematic concern.
In second stage works, the reasons for training are practical -- to fight the war, to get revenge, to avoid rape by bandits -- and don't go beyond the practical. Training brings skills but not emotional changes, except perhaps some mental toughness.
Martial arts may also be used to denote character, often by revealing hidden depths. In Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, Harry's unexpected aptitude for fighting and riding is the first hint that she has a Destiny; in P. C. Hodgell's God Stalk, the amnesiac heroine's martial skills make her identity more apparent to others than to herself.
The third stage denotes books in which martial arts are no longer a mere convention, but are an integral part of the story, are explored in depth, and are used to illuminate larger issues common to fantasy and SF. This can be a rich and rewarding blend of genre with subject, for the central issues of SF and fantasy are often central issues for martial artists as well.
The thematic uses of martial arts in fantasy and SF can be broken into four general categories: practical, extrapolative, transformative, and transcendental.
Martial arts for practical purposes: self-defense, revenge, war, or as part of a gentleman's education
This is the most common use of martial arts in fiction. In addition, self-defense is one of the most common real-life reasons people start training. This is also virtually the only role for martial arts in first and second stage books. But in a third stage book, it goes beyond being a plot device. Martial arts, in both third stage fiction and real life, have a sneaky way of changing one's outlook in ways one hadn't bargained for.
This category is often explicitly or implicitly linked to feminism. I have read at least twenty fantasy novels in which a woman who has been raped, lost her family to pillaging Vikings, or is otherwise oppressed, finds a wise martial arts teacher, and, in learning to wield a sword or her fists, gains personal power and autonomy.
Martial arts are designed to make skill defeat size and strength, to give the underdog a chance; and no one is more of an underdog than a woman in the patriarchal cultures that are common in fantasy. When a small woman defeats a big powerful man, it's often a metaphor for the overthrow of the patriarchy by the collective power of women. In Marion Zimmer Bradley's Thendara House and Doris Egan's Two-Bit Heroes, women who learn self-defense from female teachers shake off their victim consciousness with every elbow strike.
The wooden blade caught [Arya] high in the breast, a sudden stinging blow that hurt all the more because it came from the wrong side. 'Ow!' she cried out. She would have a fresh bruise there by the time she went to sleep, somewhere out at sea. A bruise is a lesson, she told herself, and each lesson makes us better.
Women have few rights in the brutal world of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice And Fire. The tomboy princess Arya is too young to articulate this, but she's not too young to resent it. In what could be interpreted as a message that women need men's help, or merely as an unsentimental acknowledgement that sisterhood wasn't popular in medieval times, no women support Arya's desire to fight -- but some men do. Her half-brother gives her a sword, her father hires her a fencing master, the fencing master teaches her and fights to the death for her, and a mysterious man helps her kill her enemies.
Still, Arya spends most of the series cold and miserable and under others' control, lulling herself to sleep with a recital of the names of the people she wants to kill -- a list which keeps getting longer, even though she occasionally manages to cross one off.
It's hard to tell how good she is with her sword Needle; most of what she does is to, as her brother suggests, "Stick them with the pointy end." But her teacher encourages her to be determined and independent-minded, and that proves as valuable as any amount of skill. Like the Braavosi sword style she learns, all nimbleness and evasive action, Arya uses her physical and mental agility to make the best of the perils she encounters.
In contrast, her obedient, feminine sister is beaten and abused, and the wolf to whom she's telepathically bonded is killed. (Arya sees this coming and makes sure her own wolf escapes.) In the end, Arya's training is less important than the spirit that made her want to train in the first place. As my own sensei Stan Uno says, "The hardest thing you'll ever do at this dojo is to walk through the door for the first time."
Martial arts as extrapolation: projecting the future of martial arts and using them to examine wider changes
The main thrust of SF is extrapolative: how do people and their arts and technology and society evolve, and how do they stay the same? Martial arts are also in a constant tug-of-war between adapting to keep up with changing times, and being preserved as a cultural tradition and link with the past.
A number of works speculate about the future of martial arts: mastery in a chip in The Matrix, non-lethal weapons which provide the means for a humane rebellion in Steve Perry's The Man Who Never Missed, and the Might-Sword of China Mieville's The Scar, a probability device which enables a skilled wielder to select from all the myriad ways a fight might go, and choose the reality in which every strike is a kill.
And then there's Walter Jon Williams' Aristoi:
Gabriel had been undecided whether to fight right-handed or otherwise, and the sight of Silvanus made up his mind: he gave his body to a left-handed daimon and shifted the sword to his left.
AUGENBLICK: He's left-handed, Aristos.
GABRIEL: Take command of my body, Augenblick. He won't be used to left-handed opponents.
In the section this quote is taken from, Gabriel, a man who has attained great inner mastery, is engaged in a deadly duel. Augenblick is but one of many of Gabriel's subsidiary personalities, or daimons, who chime in during the duel: chanting to direct his flow of qi, reporting on his opponent's pulse rate, suggesting strategies, expressing anger, reminding him to kiai. The world of Aristoi overflows with high technology and tapped human potential. Gabriel's daimons are not a symptom of mental illness, but his mind working at its fullest capacity: he is vast, he contains multitudes.
Williams holds a fourth degree black belt in kenpo karate. The quote below is taken from an interview he did for SF Site:
One of the things that a movement art will do for you is make you more aware of the interface between your mind and your body, and how that works, and how the one can program the other. And I realized that through doing kenpo, my mind was being reprogrammed through my body. The people who devised this art were very intelligent people who had very particular points of view, which they reflected in their movements. By doing these movements, you can absorb the thoughts and attitudes of generations of martial artists.
I thought that expanding this idea into a kind of universal kinesic technology for Aristoi would be valuable, a way of creating a body language more universal than spoken language.
Within the world of Aristoi, this body language goes beyond communication: gestures known as mudras can compel obedience or force a state of mind in an observer. The term is taken from the hand gestures in the Indian dance-drama kathakali, which is related to the south Indian martial art kalaripayat, which may have been the source art for kung fu. The mudras in kathakali, like the ones in Aristoi, have precise meanings.
Martial arts in Aristoi fuse such ancient terms and traditions with the highest of technology and psychology. The mudra is an ancient concept, but one given power with a science fictional gloss. Qi, today's mysterious and possibly non-existent energy, is Aristoi's controllable phenomenon. The rush of thoughts, feelings, images, and physical impulses experienced while fighting are distilled into daimon voices.
It seems idyllic: who wouldn't want to have daimons, or learn the Mudra of Compulsion? But daimons can take control. During Gabriel's duel, he discovers a new daimon within himself, and who subtly takes control. The progression of its hold on Gabriel is signaled through his kiai, or shout, which changes from "Tzai!" to "Dai!" to "Die!" At that, the new daimon gets its way: Gabriel, who had meant only to disable, kills his opponent. But when your daimon whispers, "Die," it's hard to say no.
Aristoi's martial arts mirror the themes of the book as a whole: the utopian fusion of the best of the old and the new, and its hidden cost; and that the most significant changes have come about through psychology rather than technology. (In a sense, the psychology is the technology.)
Martial arts, in life as in Aristoi, are as much a matter of the mind as of the body; and the two are not as separate as one might think. Though physical capabilities decline with age, experience and savvy are quite capable of beating youthful strength and speed. As Williams suggests, the final frontier may be inner space.
Martial arts as transformation
SF and fantasy is a literature of transformation as well as extrapolation: the stable-boy who becomes a hero or a king, the human who surgically or genetically alters himself into a superior form, and the callow youngster who gains maturity and self-knowledge are common. As Walter Jon Williams pointed out, to become a serious student of the martial arts is to transform oneself physically and mentally.
The most familiar way in which this plays out in fiction is the blossoming of the wallflower: timid and out-of-shape people take up martial arts and build muscle, lose the spare tire, acquire self-confidence and inner peace, and stride away with their fighting skills the least of what they've gained.
In fantasy, this dream of empowerment often has a feminist slant. Gael Baudino's Strands of Starlight involves a literal transformation: a rape survivor who's too small to wield a sword prays to the Goddess, and is changed into a tall strong woman. Only then can her training begin. (Such is the power of the "training sequence" convention that even the Goddess can't just grant her skill.)
In former karate instructor Barbara Hambly's The Ladies of Mandrigyn, the men of male-dominated Mandrigyn have been enslaved, so the women hire a mercenary to teach them to fight so they can rescue the men. But their training, and their time spent running the town businesses, empowers them in more ways than one. Gender relations in the town are permanently changed, and not all the husband-and-wife reunions are happy.
He drew back his hand, stepped back and watched her, amazed at the pig-girl who moved like a figure in a drifting dream.
His teaching, he thought. He was capable of creating something like this.
C. J. Cherryh's The Paladin is a new twist on the archetypal tale of a young woman seeking revenge and the retired swordsman who reluctantly teaches her. It's told from the point of view of the teacher rather than the student, and this unusual strategy allows for a fresh perspective on an old story.
Saukendar is a disgraced swordsman with a crippled knee who intends to spend his last lonely days as a hermit. Taizu is a stubborn peasant who wants to get revenge on a lord and doesn't care if she dies doing it.
As he teaches her, they both begin to change. Taizu's transformation is immediately obvious, as she learns to harness her strength and agility into swordplay. She points out to Saukendar that he favors his wounded knee rather than strengthening it; and he, offended at first, begins training himself. Soon the changes go beyond the physical. She learns trust, he learns hope; both learn desire.
By the time they leave the mountain, the aristocrat who despised peasants and the peasant who hated men have become lovers. Taizu learns to make better plans than "I'll just go to his castle and kill him," and Saukendar gives up his precious meditative solitude to lead what turns into a small-scale military campaign.
In a final transformation, this one of perspective, people take Taizu for a demon, as that's more plausible to them than a woman warrior. Taizu takes advantage of their fear and dresses up as one, claiming the power that she has been told women cannot possess. As a demon, she achieves her revenge. But the legends of demons say that they always leave after the battle, and Taizu walks away, caught up in her final transformation. But while Saukendar has taught her swordplay, she has taught him stubbornness, and he follows her. When you teach a student, Cherryh seems to say, the student will also teach you.
Martial arts as transcendent experience
SF and fantasy are uniquely well-equipped to deal with the desire for transcendence of earthly matters and the longing for a perfection that is inherently impossible. Martial arts may also be a spiritual path, or the pursuit of an unattainable level of physical and emotional control, or the medium in which to attain a level of focus so complete as to be ecstatic, as to lose oneself in the moment.
I group these issues together because they involve aspects of martial arts which are subjective, intangible, and exist only in the present moment -- which makes them subject to ceaseless longing and endless pursuit.
Barbara Hambly writes sensitively of the doomed search for perfection through martial arts in the duology The Silent Tower and The Silicon Mage. Steven Barnes often writes of martial arts as a means to transcendence. But one novel captures the quest for the perfect present moment better than any other:
For the moment the two were evenly matched, arm against arm. Michael prayed that it would never stop, that there would always be this moment of utter mastery, beautiful and rare, and no conclusion ever be reached.
In this excerpt from Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, two men are fighting a duel to the death. It's nothing personal: St. Vier is a professional swordsman who has been blackmailed into dueling Michael, a young student of the sword. Michael's teacher, Vincent Applethorpe, is a swordsman who was forced to retire young when he lost an arm. St. Vier is the best duelist in generations. But when St. Vier challenges Michael, Applethorpe claims the fight.
There can be no happy ending. Either St. Vier or Applethorpe will die; either Michael will lose his teacher, or a young man waiting across town will lose his lover. St. Vier is fighting the wrong man in a duel he never wanted; Michael is forced to watch as another man risks his life on his behalf; and a one-armed man can't stand a chance against the legendary St. Vier.
That's the view from outside. Inside the minds of the men involved, it's a different story. Michael is drunk on the beauty of the technique, swords flashing so fast that he barely follow the movements. St. Vier is startled to find himself fighting for his life, and delighted: at last, a challenge. Applethorpe seems thrilled to be back once more in the life he was forced to leave, and even giving the great St. Vier a run for his money.
All three men are caught up in the transcendent moment. Like the cherry blossoms that symbolize the brief life of a samurai, its brevity is what makes it precious. The characters of Swordspoint are on a quest for such flashes of transcendence, for the grand and glorious gesture, for the stylish life that's lived purely in the moment, for a life lived at swordspoint.
Swordplay is not only a means to that end in Swordspoint, but the quest itself in miniature. The hypnotic concentration of practice leads up to the precious moment of the duel itself. And then it ends, and one man is dead, and another goes off to seek another moment. The quest, the art, the life, the sword itself all reflect each other, deadly and irresistible.
If you've ever wondered why people who are forced to quit martial arts because of injuries rarely regret the practice that ruined their joints and made expensive surgery necessary, but only say wistfully, "Sometimes I still dream of karate," Swordspoint goes a long way toward explaining it.
There are two more uses of martial arts which are rarely or never dealt with in SF and fantasy.
One is the indictment of martial arts as part and parcel of a deadly military culture. While this has historically been a common sentiment -- conquerors often ban the martial arts of the cultures they've subdued, and it's not just because they're afraid of being attacked by barehanded jujitsu masters -- it's rare in genre fiction.
SF novels which are anti-war or anti-military culture don't tend to deal with martial arts as I've defined them, as a study which requires extensive training and doesn't involve firearms. The powered armor of Joe Haldeman's The Forever War or John Steakley's Armor is an anti-martial art, like an automatic rifle, something which needs only possession to confer deadliness.
Fantasy, which rarely features firearms and often features traditional martial arts, is not often written from a pacifist point of view. Though some writers, like Martin, are busy exploding the myth of the chivalrous knight, so far no one's done the same for the samurai. Fantasy still tends to glorify both knights and bushido-influenced societies.
Finally, people who write about martial arts often do so because they've studied them extensively, and no one voluntarily devotes enormous amounts of time, effort, and sweat to something they believe is pernicious.
T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone is one of the few books in this category, and it's an anomaly in more ways than one. It fits neatly into the third stage paradigm by including martial arts not only for the purposes of plot, plausibility, and atmosphere, but to illustrate some larger point -- and it was published in 1939.
Throughout the novel, the young Arthur's martial training is a counterpoint to his intellectual training. As Merlyn uses magic and words to teach him the civic virtues of government, compassion, and justice, an array of knights and sergeants teach him jousting and archery and sword-fighting -- the pursuits of a culture that's convinced that might makes right.
A sword, not a book, is the talisman which reveals his heritage and gives him the throne; and by the end of White's later expansion of the tale, The Once and Future King, peace and government have given way to war. Arthur must fight Mordred, and their prowess with sword and spear results in nothing but death, and the end of Camelot.
This is one of the few books which makes a connection between martial arts as sport and martial arts as skills for warfare, points out that they're inextricably intertwined and suggests that getting a taste for the sport makes one start thinking that real fighting would be equally appealing. White pin-points political geography -- the lines on maps that are national borders -- rather than martial arts as the primary cause of war; but one suspects he'd have thought the SCA in poor taste.
And the loneliest category of all, which I haven't come across in a single SF or fantasy novel, is that in which martial arts are studied as a means of cultural preservation or exploration. This is not only a common real-life motivation, but one which has been covered extensively in mainstream literature.
A few non-fiction examples are Mark Salzman's Iron and Silk, about a year spent studying wu shu in China, and Lost in Place, in which he learns kung fu from the lunatic Sensei O'Keefe in 1970s Connecticut; and Dave Lowry's Persimmon Wind, about his trip to Japan to visit his sensei and research the history of their sword style.
It's a strange omission from SF and fantasy, as so much of both genres is concerned with the destruction and preservation of culture. Surely the Taoist-analogue culture in The Telling had a martial version of the healthful tai chi-like exercises Ursula K. Le Guin so lovingly details; the fighting arts of Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana must be an integral part of the sophisticated culture his Tiganans are battling to save; and when the elves of Lord of the Rings pass over sea, their sword styles no doubt pass with them.
But if any of that is true, it exists only off-page and in my speculation. Perhaps this will be the next wave of martial arts in SF and fantasy, as I can see no particular reason for its absence other than that no one has happened to tackle it yet.
That next wave has begun to break. We are in the midst of a renaissance in the depiction of martial arts in Western media, a more advanced version of the breakthrough in the early seventies.
Hong Kong has been making brilliantly choreographed martial arts films for decades; movies like Jet Li's Once Upon a Time in China series, Michelle Yeoh's Wing Chun, and the collected works of Jackie Chan. Now Hollywood and its American audiences have started to catch up, making hits out of The Matrix, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
As in the first media martial arts revolution of the 1970s, where visual media is at the vanguard, print media is bound to follow. The trend toward sophisticated and thoughtful depictions of martial arts in written fantasy and science fiction is likely to continue and advance.
Rachel Manija Brown has been a development executive at the Jim Henson Company, a staff writer on Fox Family's horror-comedy "The Fearing Mind," and a disaster relief worker for the Red Cross. She has an MFA in playwriting from UCLA, and had a play produced off-Broadway before she was old enough to drink. She lives in Los Angeles, where she studies Shotokan karate and works on her first novel, a fantasy set in 1850s India which combines her favorite bits of weird history, like the practice of using monitor lizards as live grappling hooks for sneak night attacks on forts, with Indian mythology. She is collecting self-defense success stories, especially from women; if you have one or know anyone who does, please contact her.