RETROSPECTIVE: Hiero’s Journey by Sterling Lanier

Monday , 4, May 2015 9 Comments

This is pretty much the original source for what ended up becoming TSR’s Gamma World setting. Oh, there are differences, sure. The equivalent of the surviving “pure strain humans” here almost all have some degree of telepathy, precognition, and clairvoyance. There is nothing quite like the mutated plant creatures of the game. And there’s a complete lack of any of the truly weird technologies, robots, or cyborgs that are a central feature of Gamma World gameplay. But the basic premise of post-apocalyptic mutant mayhem is right here in a fully realized form.

This book is just plain loaded, too. It’s main character hails from the north, riding a mutant moose across the wilds with his mutant bear ally. He wields a jury rigged rocket launcher and lance, engages in psionic battles with some seriously weird creatures, and reverently paints a maple leaf on his forehead when he has time to keep up his appearance. His primary foes are the dreaded Leemutes: mutant humanoids that range from vicious ape-men to cunning rat creatures. (And yes… I did just about fall out of my chair when the Hoppers turned up.)

The best thing about this book is its excellent treatment of many random wilderness encounters. That along with its depiction of a desperate attempt to rebuild civilization in the face of overwhelming odds really captures an essential aspect of the Gamma World setting:

The world was full of savage beasts and more savage men, those who lived beyond any law and made pacts with darkness and the Leemutes. And the Leemutes themselves, what of them? Twice he had fought for his life against them, the last time two years back. A pack of fifty hideous ape-like creatures, hitherto unknown, riding bareback on giant, brindled dog-things, had attacked a convoy on the great western highway while he commanded the guard. Despite all his forelooking and alertness, and the fact that he had a hundred trained Abbeymen, as well as the armed traders, all good fighters, the attack had been beaten off only with great difficulty. Twenty dead men and several cartloads of vanished goods were the result. And not one captive, dead or alive. If a Leemute fell, one of the great spotted dog-things had seized him and borne him away. (page 11)

It’s the  tenuous climb from barbarism, a romantic effort to rebuild society from its own ashes; the glimmer of hope even as a remnant of sanity threatens to succumb to an encircling chaos…. But most of all, it’s the desperate need that drives these peoples to send their best and brightest out into the wilds, searching for anything that would give them an edge. And more… it’s the things they come across that are so bizarre, that you may never full understand exactly what they are or where they came from. This is what a great Gamma World campaign should be like… something like that!

As interesting as it is to see the original source of some classic creatures of gaming, it much more intriguing to see what the designers elected to leave behind. For instance, psionic abilities here can only be improved by engaging in deadly psionic battles:

He was amused that his new confidence seemed more than temporary. Beyond, and indeed underlying the amusement, was a hard-won feeling of mental power. Hiero knew without even wondering how he knew, that Abbot Demero or any others of the Council would now be hard-put to stand against him. He hastily put aside such thoughts as vainglorious and impertinent, but they were still there, buried but not dead, in the deep reaches of his mind. He was learning something the Abbey scholars of the mental arts were just beginning to conceive, the fact that mental powers accrete in a geometric, not arithmetical progression, depending on how much and how well they are used. The two battles Hiero had won, even though the bear had helped decide the first, had given the hidden forces of his already strong mind a dimension and power he could not himself have believed possible. And the oddest thing was, he knew it. (page 80-81)

And as if it is not enough that this book provided the lion’s share of the inspiration for Gamma World, the original source of the Dungeons & Dragons game’s green slime monster is here as well. (You know it’s the D&D monster because it’s vulnerable to flame.) There’s a relatively significant component of Traveller, too. Anyone familiar with that latter game will immediately recognize the mysterious coyns of the alien Droyne who live on worlds scattered all across the Third Imperium:

“Can you really make more sense out of it?” asked the girl. “It seems, well, a bit vague. Most of the stuff could almost be guessed, if you think about where we are, and what we’re doing.”

“First,” said the priest as he finished unrobing and packing,” You’re absolutely right. It is a bit vague. But I’m not a good talent at this particular form of foreseeing. I know men, friends of mine, who could get a lot more out of it, maybe draw ten symbols or even fifteen at one time, and make an extraordinary and detailed prediction. I’ve never got more than six myself, and I feel I’ve done well if I even get a modest clue as to what’s coming.”

They both mounted, Luchare in front as usual, and with Gorm ranging in front, he continued to lecture. “Now, we do have something to go on. The symbols are an odd mixture of forces, you know. Part of it is genuine prediction, part wish-fulfillment and part a subconscious (I’ll explain later) attempt to influence events.

“So– we have the Spear, the Fish, the Clasped Hands, the Lightning and the Boots. A reading of the obvious answers might, I stress might, run as follows: a long journey, or perhaps the next part, will be on, in or over water. Now there are lots of other permutations possible. Oh yes, the journey will start with a bad storm, or in one or something. That’s what I get, anyway. And I feel pretty certain that the storm is coming. That’s the surest of the signs.” (page 134-135)

Given how much there is to like here– and I hate to have to say this, too– but the story falls apart about half way through. I mean it just flounders. Part of it is that the handling of the romance aspect is just atrocious. And that’s not because it starts off with a standard princess in distress scenario. It’s not even because the author is clumsy handling the interracial stuff in a ham-handed manner either. (Though the paragraphs dedicated to describing her afro are awesome in the way that only seventies fiction can truly attain.) And I could almost handle the gratuitous sex, but it’s just insane that they have to do their thing right in the middle of an epic adventure to save civilization.

The fact that she’s a princess never actually becomes pertinent to the story the way that, say, Dejah Thoris identity did in Princess of Mars or even Princess Leia in Star Wars. She’s just there to look exotic, to titillate, and to get told to shut up whenever she asks a lame question. After the fifth or sixth time that happens, I really have to wonder why she is in the story at all. And even with all of those cringe-inducing scenes, she still has to be set up so that she can find the “secret MacGuffin” at the end. Sorry, but no… that doesn’t make up for her dead weight after all those chapters. It’s more like one last insult to the reader for the finale.

A similar thing happens with the group of thirty sailors that end up tagging along with the adventurer at one point. They will follow our square-jawed hero anywhere and look up to him, but I just never quite get sold on that. Sure, he wins a critically important single combat… but he also makes a blunder that costs them their ship. Just as with the romantic arc, there’s never this point where he really captures their respect or demonstrates that he can be responsible with it. I mean sure… I like the protagonist. But if everyone around him likes the guy for no reason and constantly fawns all over him, then I might as well watch Notting Hill or something instead….

By far the worst error in this vein is in the handling of the venerable, Gandalf-like character Brother Aldo. In the first place… I could not read this character’s dialog in anything other than a Morgan Freeman voice. (That was just plain weird, too.) Secondly, the character is just too powerful. I could have handled him bailing out the protagonist at a critical point… but having him join the party really ruins the suspense. And I get so tired of his constant pontification. While I could respect the guy for being really in tune with nature and for being a Charles Xavier level telepath, when he imparts his great wisdom about how everything got to be the way that it was, it actually gets downright painful:

You look about you, children, came the message from Brother Aldo’s mind, and you see in the world, green forest and glade, blue sea and river, yellow prairie and marsh. In them today lurk evil things, yet they also hold uncounted sorts of beauty and wonder. The singing birds, the breathing plants, the shy animals, the savage hunters, all have a place. Alone and unhindered, they change slowly, one kind yielding place to another over the centuries and millennia. This is the ordered course of nature, the plan as the Creator designed it.

He almost sounds like Yoda there. And while it’s bad form to mix evolution with Intelligent Design, we can cut this guy some slack given that he’s living in a weird post-apocalyptic world.

But before The Death, things most rapidly were changing, yes, and for the worst. The entire world as well as simply here in what was once called North-america, was dying. It was being choked, strangled in artificially made filth and its own sickly refuse. He pointed a lean hand at the ring of ruined towers glaring across the lagoon.

See there! The whole planet, the good round Earth, was being covered by these things! Giant buildings blotted out the sun. The ground was overlain with stone and other hard substances, so that it could not breathe. Vast man-made structures were built everywhere, to make yet more vast structures, and the smoke and stench of the engines and devices used fouled the world’s air in great clouds of poison. He paused for a moment and looked sad.

This was not all. The Earth itself trembled. Monstrous vessels, to which that Unclean ship of yesterday would be a skiff, fouled the very seas. Overhead, the air vibrated with the rush of great flying machines, whose speed alone, by its vibration, could shatter stone, carrying ever more goods and people, charged madly along, their poisonous wastes still further fouling the already wearied air.

Now he’s starting to sound like Jim Morrison in “When the Music’s Over.” A little hokey maybe… but still relatively believable to some extent.

And then, there were the world’s people. The warring, breeding, struggling, senseless people! The peoples of the planet could not, or rather would not, be brought to reason. Not only did they refuse to see how they were killing the life of the world, they could not even see how they were killing themselves! For they bred. Despite vast poverty, great ignorance, disease and endless wars, humans were still tough! Every year there were more and more, until the cataclysm was inevitable. Wise men warned them, scientists and humanists pled with them. God and Nature are one, they said, and hence neither is mocked and defied with impunity.

A few listened, indeed, more than a few. But not enough. Certain leaders of religion, men ignorant of any science and any learning but their own outdated hagiography refused to heed. Other men, who controlled the world’s wealth and soldiery wished more power. They wished yet more men both to make and to consume what they sold and still more men to wage the wars which they fomented in the name of one political creed or another. Races warred against races of other colors, white against yellow, black against white.

Okay, this is really where an editor should have reigned this in. This is just plain nuts. The apocalypse was brought about by a combination of the population explosion, capitalism, racism, and bible thumping right wing religious fundamentalists. Seriously?! As if anyone thousands of years into a bizarre future would still care about the hot cultural issues of the 1970’s? I think I liked it better not knowing the secret origin of this setting.

The end was quite inevitable. It had to come! Men of science who had studied many species of mammals in laboratories of the ancient world had long predicted it. When over-population and crowing, dirt and noise, reached a peak, madness remorselessly follows. We today call that madness The Death. Across the whole world, by land water, and air, total war raged unchecked. Radiation, hideous chemical weapons and artificially spawned disease slew most of the humans then in existence, and much of the remaining animal life, too.

Fears about overpopulation evidently reached a fever pitch during the early seventies: John B. Calhoun’s mice experiments attained a degree of mythical cachet on par with the Book of Revelation. Did this sort of thing make the book more relevant, more accurate, or more scientific when it came out? I couldn’t say. It sure looks painfully transparent today.

At any rate, this material was not considered to be up to snuff for the requirements of the Gamma World setting. These passages appear to have impacted the game to some extent, but only after some significant reworking. In James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet’s future history, all of the pressing social issues of the late twentieth century were successfully worked through: “the rape of the earth’s beauty and resources in the late 20th and early 21st centuries had been halted and reversed, due to man’s tools.” Thanks to the wonders of engineering and technology, mankind would be living in a golden age by the 24th century.

In the Gamma World game, the downfall of civilization can be traced back to a war between two factions, the League of Free Men and the Autonomists. Their disagreement was over whether or not there should be a unified world government. Their acts of terrorism went on for so long and got so far out of hand that a third faction calling itself The Apocalypse declared that they would blow up the entire world if these two groups didn’t knock it off. To prove that they meant business, “the capital city of every nation in the world was turned into radioactive slag.” That’s when all hell broke loose:

Again, due to lack of records, it is not known how the location of The Apocalypse base was discovered, or who it was who initiated the attack. Some evidence indicates the action was a joint effort by nearly all the surviving terrorist factions and vigilante groups — united for the first time in the Shadow Years. In the end, though, a massive attack was mounted against The Apocalypse base. In turn, The Apocalypse retaliated with a fury never before witnessed on the face of the earth. Oceans boiled, continents buckled, the skies blazed with the light of unbelievable energies.

Suddenly it was all over.

The civilization of man had been slashed, burned, crushed, and scattered to the four winds.

Gamma World is an over the top, tongue-in-cheek game of real wahoo! adventures…. But it’s designers understood the need for a back story that could merit being buttressed by pull quotes from the book of Revelation. Sterling Lanier sacrificed that in order to peddle the hot political narrative of his day… ruining what could otherwise been a masterpiece of science fantasy.

9 Comments
  • Ostar says:

    There was at least one sequel to this book. Most of the creativity was used in the first book, sadly.
    The author did realize that Hiero’s mental prowess was too unbalancing, and arbitrarily “burns out” and removes his powers gained in the first book.

    • Jeffro says:

      I thought he ran into the same problem that Isaac Asimov ran into when he went back and revisited his Foundation stories. The story sort of runs away with itself until it’s just a pile of grey goo.

  • HP says:

    Few things are more pitiable than a Malthusian peering down his intellectual nose at his betters. I do frigging love this book, though.

  • InterestedObserver2 says:

    I fail to understand why everything in “viscous” these days. I’m pretty sure that word doesn’t mean what everyone seems to think it means. Perhaps you meant “vicious?”

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