RETROSPECTIVE: A Martian Odyssey and the Complete Planetary Series by Stanley Grauman Weinbaum

Monday , 22, June 2015 10 Comments

Stanley G. Weinbaum is another of those names whose cachet depends a great deal on the age of the person you’re talking to. In one generation, he would have immediately been recognizable as a major literary figure, on par with someone like Edgar Rice Burroughs in terms of his raw influence. In the next… the trio of Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov would take the lion’s share of the credit for pioneering “real” science fiction while Weinbaum quietly lapsed into A. Merritt levels of obscurity.

But if you’re the kind of person that rolled their eyes every time the Star Trek franchise introduced yet another alien race that was differentiated only by a personality quirk and a new style of prosthetic forehead, then you want to know about this guy. If you fell out of your chair every time it was revealed that these alien creatures could interbreed with humans, then you want to know about this guy. If you felt like throwing popcorn at the movie screen every time George Lucas introduced yet another world whose entire concept was bound up into a single earth climate, then you want to know about this guy. And if you are the sort of person that always felt really strongly that “strange new worlds” should have a little bit more to them than just a slightly different matte painting serving as the backdrop… again, you want to know about this guy.

If that’s you in a nutshell, then Stanley G. Weinbaum is your hero, because in the mid-nineteen thirties he just about single-handedly pioneered your kind of science fiction. H. P. Lovecraft said of him, “I saw with pleasure that someone had at last escaped the sickening hackneyedness in which 99.99% of all pulp interplanetary stuff is engulfed. Here, I rejoiced, was someone who could think of another planet in terms of something besides anthropomorphic kings and beautiful princesses….”

Weinbaum was a very big deal. Revolutionary, even. Oh sure, there is a stunning red-haired space pirate femme fatale with a secret base on Pluto in these stories. And most of us are going to have a hard time grappling with the idea of a fog-shrouded Uranus with a vast, unexplorable surface that you can actually walk on. Nevertheless, when you read his work, you see exactly the sort of world building that is taken for granted in almost any Traveller campaign today.

Consider the extreme conditions of this tide-locked incarnation of Venus:

One breath of unfiltered air anywhere near the warm edge of the twilight zone was quick and very painful death; Ham would have drawn in uncounted millions of the spores of those fierce Venusian molds, and they’d have sprouted in furry and nauseating masses in his nostrils, his mouth, his lungs, and eventually in his ears and eyes.

Breathing them wasn’t even a necessary requirement; once he’d come upon a trader’s body with the mold springing from his flesh. The poor fellow had somehow torn a rip in his transkin suit, and that was enough.

The situation made eating and drinking in the open a problem on Venus; one had to wait until a rain had precipitated the spores, when it was safe for an hour or so, Even then the water must have been recently boiled and the food just removed from its can; otherwis, as had happened to Ham more than once, the food was apt to turn abruptly into a fuzzy mass of molds that grew about as fast as the minute hand moved on a clock. A disgusting sight! A disgusting planet!

That last reflection was induced by Ham’s view of the quagmire that had engulfed his shack. The heavier vegetation had gone with it, but already avid and greedy life was emerging, wriggling mud grass and the bulbous fungi called “walking balls.” And all around a milling little slimy creatures slithered across the mud, eating each other rapaciously, being torn to bits, and each fragment re-forming to a complete creature.

A thousand different species, but all the same in one respect; each of them was all appetite. In common with most Venusian beings, they had a multiplicity of both legs and mouthsl in fact some of them were little more than blobs of skin split into dozens of hungry mouths, and crawling on a hundred spidery legs.

And contrast it with this region of the world’s night side:

Outwardly the plateau presented the same bleak wilderness of ice and stone that they had found on the plain below. There were wind-eroded pinnacles of the utmost fantasy of form, and the wild landscape that glittered in the beams from their helmet lamps was the same bizarre terrain that they had first encountered.

But the cold was less bitter here; strangely, increasing altitude on this curious planet brought warmth instead of cold, as on the Earth, because it raised one closer to the region of the Upper Winds, and here in the Mountains of Eternity the Underwind howled less persistently, broken into gusts by the mighty peaks.

And the vegetation was less sparse. Everywhere were the veined and bulbous masses, and Ham had to tread carefully lest he repeat the unpleasant experience of stepping on one and hearing its moaning whimper of pain. Pat had no such scruples, insisting that the whimper was but a tropism; that the specimens she pulled up and dissected felt no more pain than an apple that was eaten; and that, anyway, it was a biologist’s business to be a biologist.

Somewhere off among the peaks shrilled the mocking laughter of a triops, and in the shifting shadows at the extremities of their beams, Ham imagined more than once that he saw the forms of these demons of the dark. If they were, however, the light kept them at a safe distance, for no stones hummed past.

Yet it was a queer sensation to walk thus in the center of a moving circle of light; he felt continually as if just beyond the boundary of visibility lurked Heaven only knew what weird and incredible creatures, though reason argued that such monsters couldn’t have remained undetected.

For each all of his worlds, Weinbaum pays careful consideration to their seasonal variations. Even where the science is now dated, there’s usually enough here that updating these planets wouldn’t require that much work. In fact, the only substantial change in principle between Weinbaum’s science fiction and what we have today is that his worlds would have to be sprinkled throughout the galaxy now. It’s mainly the concentration of worlds with a breathable atmosphere all being present in a single solar system that most strains suspension of disbelief.

Perhaps more than any other author on the Appendix N list, Stanley G. Weinbaum’s entry is perhaps the most difficult to explain. It’s the sort of thing people might point to and say, “look… that list of books is just a random list of stuff Gygax liked. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with AD&D or gaming or anything else!” And people do say that sort of thing. And I kind of get why it is that they would.

In the first place, that list of books really does look almost completely random to many people that grew up in the eighties. I mean a lot of people would not even have heard of a great many of the names on that list. It used to astonish me that the stories referenced on it were drawn from well over half a century. But even the more obscure authors on that list would have been on in bookstores throughout the sixties– and not just in things like Ballantine’s “Best Of” line or their Adult Fantasy Series. Many publishers would have had new cover art put together so that many readers might not even have realized right away that they were getting hold of something “old” or out of date.

Gygax’s tastes were not weird, though. There are Hugo award winners like Fritz Leiber on that list… big name authors of the time like Fred Saberhagen. There are foundational classics like the work of Lovecraft and Howard. And there is a whole bunch of stuff that could have been on the rack at just about any drugstore. It’s stuff that just about any dedicated reader could have been into at the time. When Gary Gygax writes that the books “certainly helped to shape the form” of AD&D, then there really isn’t any reason to doubt him.

But maybe it’s not so much that Gary Gygax was weird, but that science fiction and fantasy from before 1980 or so was weird. And I mean literally weird– as in the “Weird Tales” kind of weird. H. P. Lovecraft’s stories do not follow the accepted conventions of today’s horror genre. Heck, even Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories are surprisingly different from the “swords and sorcery” tales that followed in their wake. In fact, the bulk of the Appendix N list is made up of works that are from a genre that barely even exists anymore.¹ “Science fantasy” runs through everything from Vance’s Dying Earth to Zelazny’s Amber series, from Farmers World of Tiers to Saberhagen’s Changeling Earth, and from Moorcock’s Hawkmoon to Lanier’s Hiero. And yet that vein of fantasy fiction seems to have all but dried up right around the time that the Death Star’s towers stopped firing at the X-wing fighters that were cruising down its trench.

But before then, it was practically ubiquitous. There was nothing extraordinary about it other than the fact that it was awesomely entertaining. But then something happened. Somewhere, somehow, somebody decided that fantasy and horror and science fiction were all separate genres that should have very little overlap. Now I’m not saying that there was some sort of smoke filled room where a group of nefarious publishers and psychohistorians came up with a plan to do this. It is enough for me that we can agree that in the space of one generation, people could look back at entire swaths of fiction that was popular before they were born and not even know how to classify it.

It is in that older and (for some) nearly unimaginable context that Gary Gygax put together a recommending reading list of “Fantasy/Swords & Sorcery” authors in the December 1976 issue of “The Dragon”. Stanley G. Weinbaum is the guy that did Campbellian science fiction before John W. Campbell even had the idea to do it… and Weinbaum is on this list!

Why is that? I think it’s because the boundary between fantasy and science fiction wasn’t as hard in his day.² Because Weinbaum’s work was on the shelf right next to other popular authors of the time. And finally… because if you’re going to create imaginary worlds and then turn gamers loose in them, then you’re invariably going to engage in the sort of world building that Stanley G. Weinbaum pioneered. Indeed, Gygaxian Naturalism³ isn’t just some weird quirk that came out of nowhere. Gary Gygax picked it up from the science fiction and fantasy he was reading. And the incredible diversity that infused the literature he enjoyed is a big part of why his game has such enduring appeal. We’ll be playing it and arguing about it for decades to come.

¹ See D&D’s Appendix N Roots Are Science Fantasy on Roles, Rules and Rolls for more on this.

² Remember also that in the early days of the magazine, The Dragon billed itself as “The Magazine of Fantasy, Swords & Sorcery, and Science Fiction Game Playing”.

³ This is a term that was coined by James Maliszewski on his blog Grognardia. See here for details.

  • Daniel says:

    Specialization. Target markets. Blockbusters. Series fiction.

    Dangerous vision gave way to predictable sales forecasts…which in turn gave way to boredom and message romance.

    • Jeffro says:

      Most of my sff reading in the eighties was taken up with three or five different series, more than one of which fizzled by the time it got to the fourth book or so. It felt like a real ripoff at the time, so I took my disposable income elsewhere.

      And to name names like so many demand that I do: Foundation’s Edge, Heretics of Dune, The Gap into Madness, For the Love of Evil, and Infinity’s Shore.

  • Cirsova says:

    You know, I think do think the “Why” is an important question. If, as I’ve seen suggested, everyone from the 70s could’ve come up with a similar list to Appendix N, and “Oh, everybody read those books, especially the people who play games,” then why did Gary feel it was so important to include that specific list of books? The answer is pretty obvious, that those are the books that specifically influenced the game in ways which, at the time of the list’s creation, Gary could’ve quantified. What strikes me as odd is the suggestion I’ve seen floated that it’s nothing more, nothing less than a list of books Gary liked; “oh, there are a lot of better books that were left off that list, we’ve all read those books and a lot of others,”; why has the significance of Appendix N books within the context TO WHICH THEY ARE SPECIFICALLY INCLUDED been so downplayed? THAT is the important “why”.

    • Jeffro says:

      Some people are irritated at what they perceive to be an undue veneration of a random looking list of books and authors.

      On the other hand, filter wargaming through that list of books and combine it with an extraordinary idea… and you have a recipe for great gaming.

      In my opinion, there is far better inspiration for tabletop roleplaying in these books than in a lot of other stuff I’ve seen. If you’re going to sit down and try to recapitulate about thirty years of blockbuster movies in actual play, you’re really missing out. More than likely, you lack the sort of “palette of the imagination” that game designers in the seventies just sort of took for granted. If you can see things more like they did, then I think a lot of stuff that looks strange now can suddenly snap into focus.

      • Cirsova says:

        My only gripe about Master of Dragons is that we never get a good enough description of the types of dragons to quantifiably stat them out save the detail that a Trooper can take a Termagast one-on-one, but two Termagasts could always take down a trooper.

        The inclusion of Dragonlance and Drizzt in Appendix E seems quite indicative of the genre-decay that’s been plaguing D&D for years; people are trying to play D&D to capture the feel of D&D rather than to capture the feel of awesome adventure stories. I’m sure this also has something to do with why everyone and their mom plays as Tieflings now, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

  • Cirsova says:

    Also of note, Dungeons & Dragons has become so self-referential, that I had joked that they would be putting their own franchise fiction in the suggested reading appendix, only to find that they had indeed done so…

  • Ostar says:

    Since Appendix N is mentioned a lot here, G. Gygax was asked in 2007 if there are any books he forgot or would include on the list now. He said,
    “The fact is that I wouldn’t change the list much, other than to add a couple of novels such as Lanier’s second Hiero yarn, Piers Anthony’s Split Infinity series, and the Disc World books.
    I would never add other media forms to a reading list. If someone is interested in comic books and.or graphic novels, they’re on their own.”

    • Jeffro says:

      Oh, thanks for that. Those are about the highest recommendations that could be given to a book as far as I’m concerned. I was going to skip Lanier’s second book… now I have to read it!

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