Used to I’d know if I was on the right track because I’d start getting a lot of flak. Not anymore! The low grade hostility and the suppression fire of snide remarks, sneering, and pedantic nitpicking just don’t cut it anymore. When it was just a collection of blog posts, the other side could still dismiss what I was doing as being a “mostly harmless” exercise in digging up obscure facts related to the origins of tabletop role-playing games. But now those blog posts have an awe-inspiring cover by Scott Vigil, a thrilling introduction by John C. Wright, piles of rave reviews, and the completely unexpected distinction of having risen to the #1 mark in the Literary Criticism category 0n Amazon. And that changes everything.
So what do they do now…? Normal people on the edges of the discussion notice Appendix N and then have honest questions about what it is and why it matters. Then I either comment or else link to their stuff in my own affable way. And then…? Crickets. A couple weeks later I come back to check up on why a normally hot topic is strangely cool and then I get the rest of the story: I’ve been unfriended, blocked, or else the blog post has been taken down altogether.
Here’s the comment that most recently triggered this behavior. It was in response to a guy that asked point blank why Appendix N was provocative:
Science fiction and fantasy before 1940 was essentially Christian and Western. The post-christian stuff is synonymous with the field for even the most zealous reformers today. The old stuff is now largely unimaginable to most creators as a comparison of contemporary works to C. L. Moore’s material makes evident. The transparent and aggressive subversions of Le Guin, Zelazny, and Moorcock are equally unimaginable today, however. The thing they were battling simply doesn’t exist! You can see a lively pluralism during the seventies as the culture war played out. The consolidation of key gatekeeping positions circa 1980 sealed the deal, however. Colleges indoctrinate students to more or less recoil in horror at anything from before 1980. Surveying every single review of the classic works that I can find, you can see Appendix N transition from being synonymous with the field in the science fiction and fantasy encyclopedias of the seventies to people pretty much ritually denouncing them. (You know the litany.) There were exceptions, but the old school game blogs had an entirely different ethos from the wider science fiction and fantasy scene. But even relatively open minded game bloggers were silent on the things that make Appendix N most controversial.
As follow ups to NATO: The Next War In Europe, my dad and I broke out two VERY different WW3 game to try out.
The first was The Red Storm. This game simulates the first big push into West Germany and towards the Low Countries and France’s border, though it does so on a much more tactical scale than NATO.
The components and map were both very well made, sturdy and incredibly colorful, though the different sizes of particular pieces and disruption counters sometimes made stacking a bit of a challenge.
In our one play-through, I played as NATO and actually had a lot of fun. I may have felt differently had I played as Warsaw Pact, but the number of defensive and offensive options available to the NATO player throughout the turn allowed for a lot of different tricks and stratagems to try out.
I guess it all goes back to the Shogun Warriors. And sure Gobots and Transformers were a full fledged craze in their own right. The fact that Robotech had an actual storyline (butchered as it was) was mind-blowing in and of itself. But if you were playing giant robot games at the tabletop during the eighties, you got something entirely different from the ethos surrounding the toys and television shows. You got BattleTech.
It’s hard to describe how strange this was. The effect was very similar to that produced by Star Fleet Battles. You would sit down to play Federation vs. Klingons and flip through the rule book and marvel at how well it lined up with the old television shows, right down to the inclusion of Larry Niven’s Kzin. Then you might stumble across the old Franz Joseph Designs Star Fleet Technical Manual and be floored yet again: this game was more “real” and more faithful to the source material than anything the movie studios were putting out.
Where was the bedrock of the giant robot genre…? Oddly enough, it was in a line of model kits which conflated the universes of the Macross series with the somewhat more obscure Fang of the Sun Dougram. There was no source material to back up the implied setting of the kits. But the dioramas on the box lids were so compelling, so real… in the minds of American kids that lacked easy access to the Japanese cartoons, this accident of science fiction became the gold standard in all things Mecha.
I come by my love of speculative fiction honestly: my parents. They both like and appreciate Science Fiction– and fantasy, to a lesser extent– and are actually fairly big consumers of Sci-Fi television and movies. Neither are what I’d call a nerd, exactly, but neither are they really mundanes. And maybe that’s why I find their unwillingness to attempt to watch anything animated– particularly anime– so mind-boggling.
Maybe it’s a generational thing. I’ve known a couple other folks of their age who appreciate the fruit of the nerd world and won’t touch animated works. Mom can’t get images of Speed Racer out of her head, apparently. But then, I know a few people out there of my age or younger who also won’t touch the stuff. And I suppose, at first blush, it’s reasonable. Until recently, the stereotype has been big eyes and poorly-dubbed, poorly animated cartoons; as of late, the stereotype is big eyes and probably a little sleazy, or else cute monsters and children.
So why do I keep dragging up anime shows in this column? Why should the uninitiated care?
Here, the genuine “weeb” would probably lecture you about the superiority of Japan and Japanese animation. I’m not; I think a lot of it has been utter crap lately. (Though I think it’s likely that Sturgeon’s Law is just more visible with the internet making importing foreign entertainment easier. Once upon a time, we had to wait for a company to decide it was worth importing and localizing an anime, or a fansub group deciding it was worth their time; now it takes about 12 hours for even amateur fansub groups to translate and release an episode.) What I do think anime has going for it is, A), a limited-run format that typically encourages shows to have complete story arcs, B), a willingness to gamble and creatively stretch due to that limited-run format, C), a foreign culture that gives fresh perspectives on things, and D), what is, as far as I can tell, an almost complete lack of SJW taint.
Come children, let me tell you a tale…
There was once an age, a Golden Age, an age of wonder and delight, of adventure and heroics, of creativity and imagination unbound… an age undreamt of by modern man, an age forgotten and buried, like hidden treasures beneath the sands of Ægypt.
And into this Golden Age came enemies, like ninjas in the night. (But not the awesome kind of ninjas, who totally kick ass, but the other kind. The bad kind. Ninjas who foreswear honor and kill for money. BOOO!) And these bad guy ninjas assassinated all the heroes and leaders of the Golden Age, and took their places, and had all their names and images erased. This they did, so that people would forget the awesomeosity of the Golden Age, would forget the great deeds done by the Golden Agers, and would be content with the sometimes-pretty-good-but-just-not-as-awesome deeds of the Silver Agers.
And we call these villains… THE FUTURIANS. And their reign was grim, indeed.
Erasing the Pulps (Hooc Ott) Tarzan in Strange Beds — “Heinlein got the idea for the novel when he and his wife Virginia were brainstorming one evening in 1948. She suggested a new version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894), but with a child raised by Martians instead of wolves.”
Role-Playing Games (Just The Caffeine Talking) Nostalgie du Geek: Champions! — “Champions also completed my transition to fully plotted adventures. A comic book style story has to have a villain, and that villain has to have a plan, and ideally there should be some fun set-piece action sequences. These are not the sort of things one can throw together on the fly by rolling some dice on a random encounter table. Especially not when designing that master villain and all his henchmen requires as much fiddly number crunching as creating a new player character. I never sat down to run a Champs game without a fully prepared scenario.”
Appendix N (John C. Wright) Razorfist on Elric — “Elric of Melniboné, whose exploits were faithfully recorded by the famed (if notorious) Michael Moorcock, is one of those characters I am glad I read when I was young, because I do not think I could enjoy such stories today, as my tastes have narrowed. But a luminary of the fantasy genre he certainly is. He is the anti-Conan, frail where Conan was brawny, overcivilized and decadent where Conan was hale and barbaric, etc., and hence is the godfather of all the dark fantasy antiheroes we now swamping the genre.”
Book Review and Interview with the Author
(First in a series of book and film reviews, focusing on lesser-known works.)
Too many fantasy writers fall into two categories: imitative of Tolkien, or consciously reacting against Tolkien. But once in a great while, a writer strikes out into uncharted territory.
THE SEVEN CITADELS is a four-book YA fantasy series by British writer Geraldine Harris, published in the early 80’s. It’s something of a misfit: too advanced for children, and too simplistic for adults. But the patient reader is rewarded with haunting images and original ideas.
I encountered the series at age 12. I remember writing down a list of fanboyish questions, and waiting eagerly for the final book that would provide the answers, only to be perplexed by the mysterious ending. I forgot the name of the author and spent years searching for the series, which seems to be a common experience. I re-read the series twice as an adult. Each time, I found striking parallels between the themes in the series, and the projects I was working on at the time.
The setting is the land of Zindar. Kerish-Lo-Taan is the favorite son of the Emperor of Galkis. His aristocratic beauty and strange purple eyes mark him as one of the Godborn, descendants of Zeldin, the Gentle God, who rejected the embrace of a dark goddess and chose a human wife.
There are no mirrors in the palaces of the Godborn; they are forbidden to look into their own eyes. To be the descendant of a god is a strange and terrible burden, bestowing mysterious powers and the risk of insanity. Kerish is haunted by the fate of his older cousin, who looks much like himself but is driven mad by visions of bright birds.
The Godborn have become decadent and corrupt, and Galkis is threatened by war and invasion. The Emperor is a broken man, lost in grief for his dead wife. Only the legendary Saviour, imprisoned behind seven gates, can save Galkis. Kerish and his half-brother Forollkin are sent on a journey to free the Saviour, by persuading seven sorcerers to give up seven keys. This is no easy task, for the keys bestow immortality on those who possess them.
On the surface, this is a standard fantasy quest. But underneath, it’s much more. The cultures of Zindar are a mixed bag, but there are some strikingly original touches. The final book undergoes a startling genre shift into something like anthropological SF.
Most of the villains are sympathetic, ranging from the tormented ruler of a dead kingdom, to the barbarian chief who keeps his soul in a wooden sculpture. There is no overarching theme of good vs. evil; no Satan figure. Instead, there is a recurring theme of the gulf between human and alien, and the danger of forbidden knowledge.
Humans are not native to Zindar. The original inhabitants were a race of three-eyed avians, so unlike humans that it would take a lifetime just to learn their language. Kerish and his companions travel into forbidden lands and encounter their ruined cities, where strange guardians protect deadly secrets. Did the avians die out – or are they still lurking in the hidden places of the world?
The style is understated, and the plot takes a while to get moving. But every book has something unexpected. There are mysteries that are never explained, but left to the reader’s interpretation. (What lies beyond the Ultimate Mountains that portends the doom of Zindar?) There are thought-provoking ideas that open up whole new worlds of speculation. (How would a race with a completely alien mental structure perceive the world?) There are psychedelic visions, more weird and cryptic than anything in Tolkien. (What are the creatures of the lake, so complex and fragile that mere perception destroys them?)
Some of the answers are obvious, if you think outside the fantasy genre. But I won’t spoil it for the reader.
Finally, there is the cruel and heartbreaking final chapter. “Your death is strange and distant and I cannot see it clearly,” said the prophetess in the first book. Younger readers will be perplexed, as many were perplexed by the infamous ending of the Dark Tower series. But in both cases, the ending is exactly what it should be.
Kerish never ascends the final stair, and we are never shown the ultimate reality. The nature of Zeldin, and Kerish’s exact relationship to the god, remains a mystery.
I had the great privilege of interviewing Geraldine Harris via email. It’s not often that a writer gets to talk shop with one of his early influences.
Q. How long did it take to write? Did you keep notebooks and develop the ideas over a long period of time?
A. The books were written over a long period and went through many revisions. The story was originally in nine parts and there was another sorcerer (in Lan Pin Fria) who got cut out. The basic idea came to me when I was sitting in a palace garden in Austria during my late teens. The first thing I did was to draw a map of Kerish’s journey – later turned into a much better drawn map by my brother. The writing of Citadels was interrupted by the need to concentrate on my degree course at Cambridge and later by my research degree at Oxford but I don’t think this was a bad thing. The academic work I was doing fed back into my fiction. Luckily, I had a very understanding research supervisor at Oxford. The sorcerer Vethnar is essentially a portrait of him.
Q. Did you do any specific research?
A. The only specific research I did was on traditional boats and ships and I probably should have done a lot more on this topic.
Q. Would you describe your education as classical? Was it different from the kind of education provided by today’s universities?
A. Well, I’d just finished my Ancient History A Level (which along with my other A Levels I studied for at home without a teacher) when I went on the fateful trip to Austria. I went to some pretty hopeless schools so I would say that I was self educated before I went to university. Two Classical texts were a big influence. I think that reading a children’s version of Homer “Odyssey” when I was six or seven was the beginning of my love for Fantasy and particularly for `voyage stories’. I feel that Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War taught me all I needed to know about wars. I would describe my university education as rigorous rather than classical. I did two tough courses (Part One in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic and Part Two in Egyptology and Assyriology) which each involved learning several languages and studying the history and culture of whole civilizations. The equivalent courses now tend not to be so detailed and usually don’t demand that you read the sources in the original languages.
Q. You have a background in Egyptology and ancient history. Were there any particular eras that interested you?
A. Lots but I suppose I’d pick out Middle Kingdom Egypt, the height of the Byzantine Empire, Britain in the early Dark Ages (though I hate that term), Tang Dynasty China and Heian period Japan. You can find elements from all of these in my work. In this new era of Censorship I expect this counts as `cultural appropriation’.
Q. The ancient Egyptians had some strange ideas about the nature of the soul that historians don’t fully understand. Was this an inspiration for the unusual theology and symbolism?
A. I formed most of my ideas about Galkis before I began to study Egyptology in a formal way but I had been reading about Egypt since I was about nine years old. Many of my influences are visual. Tutankhamun’s jewellery, with its complex mythological symbolism, was certainly the model for the Galkian royal regalia. You are right that I was intrigued by Egyptian ideas about the soul (or souls, since everyone was thought to have several different types). Another Ancient Egyptian idea which had a big impact on me was that personal magic was a gift from the gods to help humans bend the rules of life and death but that humans were really better off without it.
Q. “The Golden Bough” is a well-known resource for writers. Was this the source of ideas such as the barbarians who keep their souls in wooden sculptures, and the young woman who becomes the incarnation of a goddess?
A. I certainly read “The Golden Bough” at quite an early age and parts of it gave me nightmares. An uncle who lived with my grandparents had a large collection of books on folklore, mythology and anthropology. While visiting my grandparents if I was a good girl (which sadly I nearly always was) I was permitted to read my uncle’s books, even though they weren’t all suitable for children. This began my lifelong interest in myth and magic. However the academic writer who had the greatest influence on me (and on Citadels) was Joseph Campbell. I read his “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and his “The Masks of God” when I was a teenager.
Q. “White Cranes Castle” has a similar theme of two brothers with opposite personalities. Did this book serve as a prototype?
A. Although “White Cranes Castle” was my first published novel it was written while I was in the middle of working on Citadels. You could call it a variation on a theme. The central characters are another pair of contrasting royal relatives but their story plays out much more darkly. “White Cranes Castle” was directly inspired by reading two books on Japanese cultural history by Ivan Morris – “The World of the Shining Prince” and “The Nobility of Failure”. Ideas and images from these books also fed into “Seven Citadels”.
Q. Was there anything unusual about your life that served to broaden your outlook?
A. I never lived overseas but my parents quite often took me out of school to go with them on their travels – such as a nine-week voyage around Africa when I was six (this was the first time I saw Egypt). I was also inspired by the exotic presents that my father (a Quaker industrialist) used to bring back for me from his business trips to countries such as Russia and China. I suppose it was unusual that I got to play with members of the Ethiopian royal family in the English village where I lived but that’s a long story…
Q. Was C.S. Lewis an influence?
A. Probably, “Perelandra” and “Till We Have Faces” are among my favourite novels. However, I don’t think authors are always influenced by the books they enjoy the most. Books you argue with can be more stimulating.
Q. Is there any lowbrow or pulp fiction that you enjoy?
A. Do the Adventures of Tintin count as pulp fiction? Captain Haddock has always been one of my favourite heroes. My answers to your specific questons make me sound horribly highbrow but as a child and teenager I read anything I could get my hands on, including my brothers’ comics (so much more fun than the girly ones). Once I got to university and finally had constant access to good bookshops and a specialist library, I gorged on American SF and Sword and Sorcery novels of the 1930s to 1960s. Some of it, like Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, I really enjoyed. However, there were aspects of much of this fiction that I reacted against, including the levels of violence, the somewhat prehistoric attitudes towards the female characters and the prevalence of one-dimensional villains. It made me more determined to write about a hero who solved problems with arguments rather than with a sword and to avoid having any characters who are purely evil.
Q. The unusual thing about the series is that’s it’ll full of raw material, novel ideas that are hinted at but not fully fleshed out.
A. I have always liked rough-edged books that leave gaps to encourage the reader to fill in their own interpretations or continue the story in their own way. Two novels with enigmatic endings which were a particular influence are Zelazny’s semi-formed “Jack of Shadows” and “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” by Walter de la Mare (also known as “The Three Royal Monkeys”). I think that the latter is one of the best Quest stories ever written.
Q. The portrayal of the Ferrabrinth raises some intriguing questions about nature of perception and the nature of musical harmony. Was this suggested by Greek philosophy, or esoteric religious writings, or something else? Did you have musicial training?
A. I didn’t have any musical training apart from singing lessons. I have no idea where the Ferrabrinth came from. They arrived in the story unannounced. All I can say is that I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of Beauty and how you define it.
The author also reviews fantasy works on her blog. https://fantasyreads.wordpress.com/
The original hardcover illustrations (shown above) are wonderfully evocative, but the new edition from Speaking Volumes contains the author’s preferred text. Amazon has a confusing multitude of editions, so I’ve provided the links below.
Prince of the Godborn
Prince of the Godborn
Author and game designer James Cambias explains why he uses a home-brewed alternative to the official setting of his preferred role-playing system:
Why use a fantastical Earth rather than a made-up world? Two reasons: laziness and obsessive attention to detail.
Laziness means I can let Google Maps, the CIA Factbook, and Wikipedia do my world-building for me. Look up a place, look up who lived there around 1600 (the approximate date of the campaign), look up what religion they followed before converting to Christianity or Islam (if they ever did), maybe check one of those “Ten Things to See In X Place” travel articles for some local color or ideas, and voila! Prep work is done. I don’t have to spend time reading up on the imaginary history of a game setting, because I’ve already spent forty-five years reading up on the history of the Earth.
Obsessive attention to detail means I don’t have to think about questions like “Why does this fantasy setting in an alternate universe have humans in it?” or “Why do they have made-up gods but use real names of demons and monsters from Terrestrial folklore?” or “Why do these made-up cultures look so much like historical ones except for some annoying concessions to 21st-century sensibilities?”
See, I actually think about things like that, and they bug me. (I guess I side with Tolkein rather than Lewis in that respect.) I want my imaginary game world to hold together, which means I want to know why their human cultures and races manage to fall into patterns from Earth’s history, despite radically different geography and history.
Isaac Asimov was not a fan of action fiction. He had this to say about sword and sorcery fiction in an editorial for Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine:
“I imagine that almost any male would at least occasionally wish he had biceps as hard as chrome steel and could wield a fifty pound sword as though it were a bamboo cane and could use it to drive vile caitiffs to the chine…Oddly enough, I shudder at such things…Heroes date back much farther than Conan, you may be sure. They are as old as literature, and the most consistently popular one are notable for their muscles and not much else…It took the ancient Greeks to come up with something better. In the Odyssey, however, the hero is Odysseus, who is an efficient enough fighter but, in addition, he had brains…In this battle of brains and brawn, however, the audience is never quite at ease with the victory of brains…Clearly, the readers are expected to feel that it is noble and admirable for the hero to pit his own superhuman strength against the lesser physiques of his enemies, and also to feel that there is something perfidious about a magician pitting his own superhuman intelligence against the lesser wit of his enemies. This double standard is very evident in sword-and-sorcery, in which the sword-hero (brawn) is pitted against the sorcery-villain (brain), with brawn winning every time. The convention is, furthermore, that brawn is always on the side of goodness and niceness (a proposition which, in real life, is very dubious…Nevertheless, I consider the typical sword-and-sorcery tale to be anti-science fiction; to be the very opposite of science fiction. It is for that reason that you are not likely to find anything of the sort published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.”
Despite this attitude, New American Library seemed eager to slap Isaac Asimov’s name on the cover for a series of fantasy anthologies.
Bradford Walker of Walker’s Retreat is banging the drum for today’s much ballyhooed episode of Geek Gab:
Daddy Warpig, Dorrinal, and Brian Niemeier deserve all this hype for making this happen- especially adding John C. Wright after this initially being only Razorfist and Jeffro talking Appendix N and related matters. If you’re not already subscribed to the Gab on YouTube, let me link that for you. You used have to throw money at a convention or a public radio station to get this sort of event together, and it would still not be as awesome as you hoped. Now? You can enjoy this from the comfort of your home, free of charge (but really, throw them some spare change to the Gab if you can and buy the books put out by John, Brian, and Jeffro).
Be there, 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time. You can count on the chat being as active and thrilling as the main show, which makes being there live even more of a benefit. Break out the special reserve, folks, because this one’s going to be EPIC!
Watching the response to the announcement, I have to say… I don’t recall seeing anything remotely approaching on this kind of excitement in the fantasy and science fiction blog scene of the past several years.
This is unreal.
So don’t miss it!
Here, things differ. It is not as on Earth. Approach the tree naked, carrying no ax, no saw. Explain in a clear voice your sorrow, but do not use words. Sing. Our trees know music as our universal language. Perhaps there is much which cannot be expressed in such a language, but these things, the important things, can.
Once the tree understands who you have lost, it will move. Roots will reach down to find your wife’s body, no matter how deeply buried. The fruit of life will bloom, for we have no winter here. Once she is drawn to the surface, squeeze the juice into her mouth. One drop is enough. Two will make her a poet, and three, a prophet.
The branches will weave themselves into a bower in the crown of the tree. There you may dwell in peaceful happiness for all days.
I forgot to mention. To prepare the tree, hang a god from its branches, and let his blood go into the roots, the fruit, and all around, so that the power of infinite love- What do you mean you already had a tree like this on Earth? Why did you come here? The house you will build in that tree is a mansion indeed, if your god is the carpenter’s son as you say.
So you will see her again. You believed in stories of my strange garden enough to brave the journey here.
Why not believe Him?
by John C. Wright