A Real Fight Club With Swords—and a Famous Sci-Fi Writer

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Oct. 2 2012 6:00 AM

Sword Fight on a Hong Kong Rooftop

How Neal Stephenson and I stopped bashing each other with sticks and learned real swordsmanship. 

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Twelve seconds in, Lancelot hit me with a move known as “the fool.” He simply brought his sword up from a low starting position and slapped my hands from below. The move is possible only if your fool-of-an-opponent leaves his hands where they can be hit. Which I did—for almost the entire fight. Still, I had a fair amount of time in the ring and a natural fighter’s sense of timing and speed. About 15 seconds in, I disemboweled Lancelot with a cut across the gut. It was dramatic and looks cool, but it was also suicidal. Lancelot’s sword naturally fell on my back. If these had been real swords, we’d both be dead.

About 52 seconds in, I got in a decisive strike to Lancelot’s head. Eight seconds later, in a wonderful display of German technique from “the ox” position and an obvious example of “I can reach out and touch you if I want to” Chinese chutzpah, Lancelot stabbed me in the throat. Like a boss. It was a great, clean hit—and it scared me. Back in Seattle, a neck guard protected our throats. That was not the case on Lance’s rooftop. Fortunately, he had pulled the thrust so as not to seriously hurt me.

(The choking, gagging sound I made as I was stabbed in the throat so entertained the guys back at the office that they sampled it and made it the incoming email sound in my Microsoft Outlook email program. Every time I’d get a new email I was treated to the amplified sound of me being stabbed in the throat. Har har.)

It was like playing chess with a master. There was no doubt I was going to lose, but it was a pleasure sparring with someone who really knew what he was doing. I was thoroughly enjoying the interaction and was disappointed when he glanced at his watch.

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“Security,” he said glibly. He picked up the camera, switched it off, and headed into the stairwell. I pulled off my helmet and realized I was drenched in sweat. The humid Hong Kong air combined with 20 minutes of instructive battle had me tired, breathing heavily.

Lancelot led the way back downstairs to his sword shop, where we closed the door and listened. Within a minute, the security guard walked past us in the narrow hallway and went up to the roof. The guy was patrolling—looking for wayward sword fighters. But Lancelot knew his schedule.

“That man hates me,” Lancelot whispered. I nodded and smiled. This was cool.

After the security guard left, we went back onto the rooftop. It was getting dark, and Lancelot had students coming at 7 o’clock, but we took a few more minutes to fight one last time. No instruction this time, no camera, just full-out slashing. These minutes were among the more memorable of the entire experience. Because we were really going at it, but also because we’d gained an audience.

People in the taller, newer apartment buildings that surrounded Lancelot’s rooftop were standing in their windows watching the fight. I could see at least half a dozen figures silhouetted against the lights. Several of them flashed their lights on and off after Lancelot or I scored a great hit. The effect was crazy cool. We were sword fighting in a Chinese Thunderdome!

The fight ended when Lancelot’s students showed up. I stayed through the class and helped as I could, placing plastic bottles on the cutting stand and cleaning up the remains. And I returned to the hotel a wiser man.

Back in Seattle, our swords routine changed dramatically. Instead of strapping on padded armor and flailing about, we consulted several classic sword-fighting texts Neal had acquired. We drilled on many of the same moves Lancelot had shown me on the rooftop. Custom steel helmets replaced the off-the-shelf kind. We started using real metal swords made by Tinker and Trim instead of the foam “boffers” we’d made ourselves. Taken together, these changes allowed us to truly train in Western sword fighting and gain a working knowledge of the art.

In early 2010, Neal Stephenson proposed our band of merry swordsmen put down or weapons and pick up our pens to write The Mongoliadthe story of how an intrepid band of men saves the Western world from being overrun by the Mongol empire. I jumped at the chance to join the project, and when it came time to write fight scenes I didn’t have to look far for inspiration—I just relived that night on a Hong Kong rooftop. You can bet my main characters don’t fight with bad stances like some n00b, they wield their weapons with the competence and deadly skill of a Lancelot Chan—like a boss!

Book 2 of the Mongoliad trilogy will be released by Amazon.com’s 47 North on Sept. 25.

Cooper Moo once survived an epic sword battle on a Hong Kong rooftop. He never thought the experience would help him write battle scenes, yet he is now a member of The Mongoliad writing team with sci-fi authors Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear. He has also written various publications, including Seattle Weekly.