Lewis Pulsipher on Why Appendix N Started a Literary Movement

Friday , 20, January 2017 1 Comment

Jeffro asked me to write an introduction for his book and talk about “why Appendix N started a literary movement.” But I don’t pay attention to literary movements and don’t care about them. I read what I choose and that’s that. On the other hand, I’m a teacher at heart, and Jeffro is a great example of the value of teaching. Jeff took an online course I created, “Learning Game Design.” He told me recently, “. . . this [Appendix N] book is basically an application of your game design class and book. It was like a key to unlock my productivity.” What could be better for a teacher to hear?

I trust that what Jeff is teaching us, in his essays, will help someone else do exceptional things. Certainly it should help readers to discover science fiction and fantasy that senior citizens like me knew quite well “back when.”

I had read most of the Appendix N books before Gary Gygax wrote the Appendix.

Appendix N books were books that helped create science fiction and fantasy literature. I understand that nowadays many so-called science fiction fans sneer at, and will not read, anything written before 1980. I don’t understand how that can be, because it rejects some of the greatest authors such as Asimov and Heinlein, as well as many who were as good or nearly as good. And it rejects the founders of science fiction and fantasy. Edgar Rice Burroughs may not be technically the greatest science fiction and fantasy adventure writer – he depends far too much on coincidence – but he still wrote some outstanding adventures, and showed the way to many others.

In the old way of playing Dungeons & Dragons, we made up our own adventures and rarely supplemented them with professionally published material. We used science fiction and fantasy literature as resources. Nowadays, younger people apparently have less productive imaginations because everything in their lives is served to them on a plate, no imagination required, and so they tend to use professional adventures rather than make up their own, much to everyone’s loss.

For me, novels are entertainment, not literature. Yes, Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” But most minds like to be entertained. I don’t read fiction to examine ideas, I would rather read non-fiction for that purpose, and likely learn a lot more that way. It’s the same reason why, if I want to learn history, I read a non-fiction book rather than play a game, even though I have designed published historical games. I design them so that they can help teach people, but primarily to be entertainment.

Yet older books do actually help people think about ideas, because in older books we see the results of non-contemporary attitudes. If you go back two or three generations, or even four generations to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first novel in 1912, you find differences in social attitudes. My Ph.D. in history helped show me how much each generation has different attitudes that often fit their situation, but look peculiar to people today. ERB was writing in an era before women were allowed to vote in most places in the United States, and a little of that shows through. But it didn’t prevent him from writing heroines who are not only “princesses” but are willing to fight for what they believe in, and fight with swords and daggers, not with guns that kill from a distance. They are not “damsels in distress”. For his time his heroines were very “advanced”. However, they may not seem so to the current generation.

Slavery is a good example of changes in attitude. Most of us think now that slavery is entirely “bad”. The ancient Romans routinely enslaved prisoners of war. If they were told that turning their prisoners into slaves was immoral, they would say “well, what do you want us to do, kill them? Because we can’t begin to afford to support our enemies, they’ve got to earn their keep. So we enslave them.” The Romans could also say that their slaves had a much better chance than slaves in other cultures of becoming Freemen. Slavery was certainly “good” from the point of view of those who would otherwise have been slaughtered, and a practical solution for the time.

You have to look at these things from the point of view in their times, not from our point of view. Too many people nowadays are all wrapped up in “me” instead of in seeing the other side. Older stories can help you see another side.

I have no doubt that there are attitudes that seem perfectly normal to us today, that in the future will be regarded with disgust, as in, “how could they ever have done such a thing?” I don’t know what that is, but I’m pretty sure it will happen. For me, complaining about the social attitudes of authors from generations ago is foolish. The question is, did they write an entertaining novel? In most cases we can ignore the oddities that show they were a child of their times.

I can be “Dr. Pulsipher” when I want to be, but I don’t want to be when I’m being entertained. I will admit that when I first watched the original Star Wars movie I came out of the theater complaining about all the dumb things in it. But I’ve watched that movie many, many times since then, because it’s a great adventure. I don’t want, from my entertainment, more of everyday life, of the mundane world. I get that through living. What we need from science fiction (the only uniquely 20th century form of literature, Asimov called it) is adventures. They can also be examinations of ideas while they’re adventures, but they should be adventures first, or ultimately the form will die.

I’ve been known to say that I only like movies that have swords, explosions, or magic spells in them. And I tend to look at written fiction the same way, as did those “Appendix N” writers. As I understand it, the modernists have tried to take the adventure out of science fiction, and that’s a big mistake.

One Comment
  • deuce says:

    Great post, Dr. Pulsipher!
    Regarding ERB, there are a couple of things. One, coincidence played a much larger role in literature when the literati and the average man believed in Providence.

    Secondly, non-“realistic” literature really needs to be judged by a slightly different metric. Whatever his minor/not so minor flaws when plotting or depicting characters, Burroughs was a veritable nova of imagination only matched by A. Merritt in the 20th century.

    I also think his persistent and cogent social commentary/satire in a Swiftian vein is way too often overlooked.

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