RETROSPECTIVE: The Best of Fredric Brown edited by Robert Bloch

Monday , 14, September 2015 5 Comments

Frederic Brown’s stories are impeccably well crafted. He really is a master of the short story form. From the opening hook, through the pulse of each development, and on down to the final kicker, there is not one extraneous word or sentence. His tales usually have twist endings in the same style as, say, the old Twilight Zone series. A few of them little more than elaborate jokes. But more often than not, the total effect ranges from delightfully thought provoking to downright chilling. Frederic Brown stories make you think… and they stay with you long after you’ve closed the book.

Reading these stories is a transporting experience for a few incidental reasons as well. Coming out from the mid-forties to the early sixties, they really capture the gestalt of post-war American conventionality. In “The Geezenstacks”, intact nuclear families are taken for granted as sort of a default baseline. In other stories, Jesus and Satan are as liable to put in cameo appearances as archetypal aliens that walk up to people saying, “take me to your leader.” Alcohol is ubiquitous, an essential part of practically every social interaction. And in the background of all of this hangs an omnipresent threat of nuclear war side by side with the conviction that man will conquer the stars in spite of it.

The most striking thing about the characters is that they are nearly all adults. And I mean “adult” in way that you just don’t see too much anymore. Reading about them, it’s clear that they are the sort of people that wouldn’t even have a clue as to what science fiction was for instance. (“Oh, you mean that Buck Rogers stuff?”) If these sorts of people had known Robert E. Howard personally, they would have considered him a freak. They all are very careful with how they conduct themselves for fear that people might ever think they’re crazy. I wonder how much of this conveys the times as they actually were and how much of it was due to a need to meet editorial expectations. The fact that Fredric Brown wrote for both “Playboy” and “Dude” in addition to the usual science fiction and mystery magazines may well have had something to with it.

But if there is a question of what the author really thought in terms of mid-century American culture, it shows up when he attempts to project what life in America would be like in the eighties as he does in “Pi in the Sky” (1945). Not only is an astronomer character described as smoking cigarettes excessively, but a cab driver ends up drinking a fair amount Scotch while behind the wheel. Canada is depicted in this story experimenting with prohibition. The advanced technology featured in the tale incorporates vacuum tubes that are liable blow out– just like the ones in peoples’ radios. All of this pales, however, in comparison to his prediction of what eighties music would be like:

A radio was blaring out the latest composition in dissarythm, the new quarter-tone dance music in which chorded woodwinds provided background patterns for the mad melodies pounded on tuned tomtoms. (page 94)

You know, I can’t really fault the guy for failing to anticipate Devo or Milli Vanilli…. I can even forgive him for failing to extrapolate from radio to television to Music Videos. And you have to give him credit for coming up with new ideas for musical instruments even if he fails to make them be some kind weird space age gadget. And yes, he does in fact correctly guess that music will be import primarily for it’s utility in conveying a payload of advertising along with it. But his conviction that dance music and (apparently) the couples dancing of the Big Band era could still be a norm after all those decades… it’s just kind of sad. The future to him was just going to keep hipper over time… and it’s not just that we’d have our own Charlie Parker types lighting things up, but we’d could count on having a culture that could dig that sort of thing as well…!

At the other extreme, there’s the eerily prescient “Etaoin Shrdlu” (1942). A Linotype machine becomes sentient after a mysterious foreigner uses it to print what can only be some sort of magic scroll. Not only does Fredric Brown anticipate modern word processing and print on demand technology, but he also manages a fairly convincing forerunner to Tron’s “Master Control Program”. Needless to say, with action that amounts to a mashup of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Little Shop of Horrors”, this story puts all of the people that dutifully tend to their cell phones at all hours and circumstances in a fairly creepy light.

Meanwhile, the alien civilization  featured in “Puppet Show” (1962) is right in line with several that were presented in the somewhat later Star Trek television series. They are privy to “fundamental social sciences” that can enable mankind to overcome their warlike nature. But in order to qualify for admission into the Galactic Union, mankind must first pass tests that measure how xenophobic they are. Right in line with Andre Norton’s Star Man’s Son, overcoming racism is the primary task for humanity if they ever want to avoid Armageddon and create an interstellar civilization.

A counterpoint to this theme is one of the more mind blowing stories in the collection. “Letter to a Phoenix” (1949) features a Lazarus Long type character that has lived “four thousand lifetimes” has seen just about everything. And unlike every other cautionary tale from the era that I’ve seen, in this one… it turns out that mankind’s capacity to blow himself up periodically is precisely the key to his collective longevity:

Only a race that destroys  itself and its progress periodically, that goes back to its beginning, can survive more than, say, sixty thousand years of intelligent life.

In all the universe only the human race has ever reached a high level of intelligence without reaching a high level of sanity. We are unique. We are already at least five times as old as any other race has ever been and it is because we are not sane. And man has, at times, had glimmerings of the fact that insanity is divine. But only at high levels of culture does he realize that he is collectively insane, that fight against it as he will he will always destroy himself– and rise anew out of the ashes.

The phoenix, the bird that periodically immolates itself upon a flaming pyre to rise newborn and live again for another millenium, and again and forever, is only metaphorically a myth. It exists and there is only one of it.

You are the phoenix.

Nothing will ever destroy you, now that– during many high civilizations– your seed has been scattered on the planets of a thousand suns, in a hundred galaxies, there ever to repeat the pattern. (pages 170-171)

For someone expecting the authors that Gary Gygax to be primarily oriented towards high fantasy or swords and sorcery, having Fredric Brown show up on the the list is going to be a surprise. On the other hand, there are more than a couple of authors there that are known primarily for their science fiction, planetary romance authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett are at least as influential on the original fantasy role-playing game as J. R. R. Tolkien, and entire swaths of Gygax’s recommended books fall under the heading of science fantasy. But Gygax just wasn’t one to think of science fiction and fantasy as being completely separate genres and consumed both with equal alacrity. When he described himself as being “an avid reader of all fantasy and science fiction literature since 1950”, it’s well to remember that it was actually humanly possible to do that in his day.¹

A common topic of discussion whenever the Appendix N list comes up is who should be purged and how should be added to it. And I admit, it is a perfectly ordinary list that would not have been in any way unusual or offbeat when it was first published. For one thing, none of the works were at all obscure at the time like they are now. But like it or not, these are the works that Gary Gygax cites as having helped shape the form of his game. You can make your own game with its own list of carefully curated authors backing it up… but you don’t really get a say in what it was that ultimately inspired this particular game designer back in the seventies.

Gygax said that dungeon masters would be able to “pluck kernels from which grow the fruits of exciting campaigns” from these old books, and that’s certainly true of Fredric Brown. His mastery of the short story lede is certainly worth careful study. Of course, at the tabletop players of role-playing games typically tune out whenever the DM describes the background at length or reads overly long box text sections out loud. To keep people engaged, it’s crucial that they be given just enough of a hook to grab the their attention so that they can drive play with their own questions, concerns, and interests.

Brown’s mastery of the twist ending is going to be harder to apply consciously given the wide open nature of role-playing. But given the sheer number of variables and happenings and interactions that go on in the typical game session, it’s inevitable that something like this will happen from time to time. For instance, in one game I ran the player character that was in the right place at the right time to hear a critical clue from a dying alien had a personality quirk that he was unable to remember names. And of course, the clue that he had to tell the other players was the name of the person that they had to go see for help! And while players are liable to blow past room after room with nothing particularly crazy happening, there are other times where they collectively decide to do the exact wrong thing for a given set of circumstances. The DM will be embarrassed to run the game and will want to show the players later sections from the module that prove he wasn’t just arbitrarily messing with them!

But if you really want to have an experience that mirrors the satisfying nature of a brilliantly executed Fredric Brown story, my advice is this: let the players fail and (if need be) let them die. Consider the XP awards that were handed out over the course of thirteen sorties into my Dwimmermount campaign:

177, 43, 53, 175, 442, 403, 15, 192, 668, 874, 69, 27, 2240

This was a dungeon that was so large that the first several sorties were taken up largely with exploration. The fifth and sixth delves where they got over four hundred XP? That success was their downfall. They got lax and cocky and disorganized and the very next run they got their noses bloodied big. This more than anything got them to rethink what they were doing, actually formulate a plan, and then work together to pull it off. And even then it took a couple tries before they really got a significant success again. The fact that even at that point in the game not everyone in the party had leveled up– even after all that!– seemed to give the players a kind of determination that I’ve rarely seen in any kind of gaming. The result of that kind of investment is that the reactions to both successes and failures get magnified well beyond what you’d think that they’d merit. This is the part of the game that ends up feeling reminiscent of a story. And it emerges in the most straightforward sessions involving randomly generated low level characters that have barely even a twenty percent chance of surviving a half dozen game sessions.

Classic D&D is a game that requires multiple decisive victories occurring over the course of multiple game sessions before the players can really see tangible benefits from their efforts. And the character that has spent a half dozen sorties working towards leveling up is often just as likely die as the freshly rolled up henchman. People don’t design games like that anymore– not if they’re making a top tier game that will be carried by the big chain book stores anyway. Not everyone has moved on but there nevertheless persists a widely held misconception that this is an overly simplistic “hack and slash” game that people will eventually grow out of before they will move on to the serious role-playing games like GURPS or some flavor of “story game.”

But the fact is, Gary Gygax did come up with a game that generates not just a surprising degree of investment, but narratives with an amazing amount of texture and nuance. If the players are winning, the game feels like a monster movie… with the players taking on the roles of monsters engaging in a triumphant rampage. If the players are doing so poorly that they are facing a significant chance of a “total party kill”, then every player character death carries with it the same impact of the suspense that you see in Ridley Scott’s Alien. And either way, players know what they want. You can see it when, after losing a character, they immediately sit down and roll up a new one. Coming back to the table, they’ll have a vision for what they want from the game. They will be spoiling for round two with something. They’ll have a plan– but they can’t be entirely sure how it will go. But no matter what happens, a story will emerge. And if they are truly role-players at heart, they won’t want it to ever stop…!

¹ We do know for a fact that Gygax canceled his subscription to The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy in 1963. Black Gate reports on this here.

5 Comments
  • Ryan McGrath says:

    Thanks for this post. I just purchased a bunch of Fredric Brown stories for my Kindle.

    • Jeffro says:

      Interesting. The comments on the ninety-nine cent “MegaPacks” on Amazon are largely positive. The one star review crew have not been through these, yet!

  • Jack Amok says:

    Holy smokes! I’d never seen those Amazon Megapacks before. 99 cents for collections of Brown, H Beam Piper, Poul Anderson…

  • ScottD says:

    I recently read Brown’s The Weapon. I never saw so much said in so few words.

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