So there’s this story that goes around about the origins of Codex Alera, a fantasy series by Jim Butcher. The story goes that someone was arguing that some ideas were just bad, and couldn’t have good novels wrung out of them. Jim Butcher said he could write a good novel out of any idea, because what mattered was storytelling and craft, not big ideas. So the other guy challenged him to write a book about the lost Roman legion and Pokemon, the two worst ideas he could come up with, and Jim Butcher did, and it was Codex Alera.
I hate how popular this story is, because even though I agree with the ultimate point, this is a really weak way of defending it, and being so weak implies that it’s the best defense the idea has. The fact is, Jim Butcher half-assed the inclusion of both the lost Roman legion and Pokemon in the actual end result of Codex Alera, and neither of those two things were particularly lame ideas in the first place.
Codex Alera’s depiction of the Roman legions is deeply flawed and pretty thoroughly fails to capture what the legions were actually like. There are no decanii. A decanus was a man elected by each eight-man tent group to represent the interests of the group to the centurion, and was usually the most veteran and thus most respected soldier of the group, but they could elect whoever they wanted, including the brand new kid who’d never seen battle if, for some reason, they wanted to do that. There are no camp prefects. The camp prefect is the highest ranked common soldier in the legion and is loosely equivalent to a senior NCO in the modern military – he is an extremely important dude and often the most veteran and experienced man in the company, even over the legate who is actually in charge. Claiming to write about the lost Roman legion and then leaving out 1) probably the single most interesting and unusual military position in the legions and 2) leaving out one of the most critical positions in the legion could very easily be construed as failing the challenge. The challenge issued was to write a book based on the lost Roman legion and Pokemon, and if the military organization you end up with is just some generic military tropes with Roman names slapped on, it’s a Hell of a stretch to say the challenge has been met. Would you say the Pokemon half of the challenge would’ve been fulfilled if the protagonist of the book had been, without explanation, named Pikachu, and did not otherwise resemble anything from Pokemon? If not, there’s not really any reason to justify saying that Codex Alera is meaningfully based on a Roman legion, whether that’s the lost one or any of the others.
Similarly, while the tribunes are present, they’re completely messed up in a way that makes very little sense. Rather than being one thick-striped tribune who is an experienced officer and second and command and then a bunch of noble twenty-year olds who are primarily there to learn from the legate and his number two how to officer, the Codex Alera tribunes are a council who are in charge of specific specialty commands. That would be fine, except that some of those specialty commands make no sense and I get the feeling they were tossed in just to get the total number of tribunes back up to six, like in the real Roman legions. But if you’re completely changing the role of the tribunes, why stick to the number, especially if that requires you to have a bunch of really weird positions like the Tribune Tactica, whose job is to oversee the tactical maneuvering of cohorts in battle, and the Tribune Strategica, who oversees the legion’s long term strategy?
What does the legate do? If he has people on hand to both oversee the tactical maneuvering on the day of battle and to oversee the campaign-level strategic situation, then what’s left for the actual legion commander to bother with? Come day of the battle, does he just lie around and have gophers fetch him lemonade while the Tribune Tactica gives all the orders? Do he and the Tribune Tactica both give orders, and cohorts just have to figure out which one to listen to? Is the Tribune Tactica an advisor of some kind? The captain’s already got a second-in-command, the Legion Tribune, who is basically just the thick-striped tribune from the regular Roman legion, so does he have two people whose only job is to offer advice and suggestions while he’s trying to make seconds-count battlefield decisions? You will not be surprised that no particularly major character holds any of these tribune positions, so we never really get to see the answers to these questions.
It’s not a particularly good translation of Pokemon, either, though it’s better than what the Roman legions got. Now, obviously Pokemon couldn’t be ported over directly for copyright issues, and a direct translation isn’t even necessary to meet the challenge, because the challenge was to use the basic idea of Pokemon, not copy it wholesale. The challenge is still to copy the specific idea of Pokemon, though, not just any kind of elemental ally. Codex Alera can make a better argument for meeting this end of the challenge than the lost Roman legion end, but all that means is that instead of “this bears only trace surface resemblance to the idea you said you’d use as the basis for your story” we have “the substance is vaguely similar but could just as easily have been based on Avatar: the Last Airbender.” In Codex Alera, people can channel elemental powers. Most of these magic users get plain old elemental super powers out of the deal, but really strong ones can summon up elemental allies. Generally speaking someone is only good at one or maybe two elements, so most people have one or two elementals at their command if they’re really good, but occasionally you get super awesome grandmasters who can command all six elements.
Far from being nearly omnipresent like Pokemon are, these elementals do not exist in the world except when summoned (in theory, the elementals are always around, they’re just invisible and do not physically affect anything except when commanded, which in practice means they do not exist except when summoned), there is nothing resembling the gym system, the element list has been cut from eighteen (or whatever Pokemon is up to now) down to six, and the process of getting a living weapon as your best friend is completely different. There are “great furies” (as opposed to garden variety furies, which are what the regular elementals are called) who loosely map to legendary Pokemon, and the basic substance of Pokemon – i.e. your dog can breathe fire – is there, as opposed to the Codex Alera legions, where there’s a bit of Roman style plastered on to what is otherwise unrecognizable as having anything to do with the lost Roman legion. Still, for a book that was supposed to specifically answer the challenge of being able to write a good story based on any two ideas, no matter how lame, getting the idea of Pokemon mostly correct is pretty weak tea.
And yeah, about that whole “any two ideas, no matter how lame” thing, what the Hell was the guy issuing the challenge thinking when, given a blank check to prove his point with the two lamest ideas possible, he decided to go with 1) an unsolved mystery revolving around the most famous ancient military of all time and 2) one of the most successful and compelling video game franchises released since the invention of the medium? Those aren’t lame ideas! Those ideas are pretty rad! If you told me that someone had a book coming out that was based on those two ideas, I would read the Amazon sample based on that pitch alone. Not only that, I would read the sample if the premise was literally that the actual lost Roman legion fell through a dimensional portal and wound up in Alola. How does the legion react? Are the legionaries, cut off from the empire they fight for, going to start deserting and the legate has to keep things together while also contending with the bizarre new wildlife and the machinations of Team Whatever? Maybe a tent group decides to break off and become Pokemon masters? Maybe some of the cohorts stick together under the legate’s command and try to claim the archipelago for the glory of Rome? I would read any of these stories. Even the most literal interpretation of those two ideas sounds awesome, let alone the actual premise of the bet, which was just using those ideas as a foundation (like I said, the Pokemon end of the bet is met, so it’s not like you have to be a super close copy to claim to have turned a “lame” idea into a good story, I’m just kind of disappointed by how narrowly that end of the bet was met despite having set out specifically to prove a point – and I’d probably be a lot more forgiving if the “lost Roman legion” end of the bet hadn’t been so thoroughly botched).
You know what’s really a lame set of ideas? Decreasing lead mining operations during and after the Crisis of the Third Century in the Roman Empire, and the process of conducting the American census. I’ll bet it’s possible to write a good story about those two ideas, but unlike with Pokemon and the lost Roman legion, ideas for how to do it do not immediately leap out at me. Making a good story using those would be way more convincing.