RETROSPECTIVE: The Carnelian Cube by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

Monday , 20, July 2015 1 Comment

This book is just plain strange. It’s more in line with older works like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz than anything even remotely like Dungeons & Dragons. And as much as anything, it reinforces the impression that the fantasy genre as we know it today simply did not exist in the nineteen-forties. It says on the cover there that it’s “science-fantasy”, sure… but this is neither a post-apocalyptic mutant-filled wilderness adventure nor a tale of far future magic where science is forgotten and plate mail is back in style. Perhaps that genre was simply a catchall for titles that don’t really fit into any other category.

The premise of the story is that archaeologist Arthur Cleveland Finch has acquired the titular cube from an Armenian digger, who’d declared that it was his “dream-stone.” He told Finch that if he slept on it, it would take him to heaven, which he describes as being “a place where everything is like you want.” A colleague then points out that it fits the medieval description of the Philosopher’s Stone:

“The alchemists were always talking about making gold with it, but when you pinned them down, they always had a metaphysical explanation, something about meaning spiritual perfection by ‘gold.’ You might say it transmutes the base metal of the actual world into–”

“Another nightmare.” Finch grinned. “Maybe I will try it.”

Needless to say, it works. And Arthur Finch finds himself in all kinds of trouble in one weird world after another. And I do mean weird. If Lest Darkness Fall is any indication, then L. Spraque de Camp supplies both the “know it all” protagonist and a range historical details. And going by The Blue Star, Fletcher Pratt seems to have contributed his penchant for extraordinarily deft world-building. Together these two are a potent combination, effortlessly conveying the sense of entire cultures and making them seem unbelievably real.

But these are not stock standard fantasy or science fiction settings. These are alternate earths. And while normally people whipping these up tend to be making some sort of thinly veiled political point, if that goes on at all in this novel then it is too subtle for me to detect. This is not at all like the having communists turn up on Venus in an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. These is not like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”, an obvious jab are real world policies and factions. In contrast, de Camp and Pratt just seem to start with their premises, extrapolate from them faithfully, and then let ensuing zaniness go wherever it leads.

In one world, high ranking politicians form the some sort of caste system and are liable to get incoherently violent if something triggers them. They’re fairly ineffectual overall, granted… but it’s against the law to defend yourself even though the police are never in time to really help. The next world shows an extreme in the opposite direction where Southern notions of chivalry and honor run amuk, with rival gangs dominating everything from restaurants to small press publishing. This actually wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that the protagonist’s patron is prone to jealousy when it comes to his wife. The kicker is that the guy can actually read minds.

If both of these worlds are shown to be equally barbaric, the final scientifically oriented version of reality fares little better. There, nearly everyone is liable to be conscripted into playing parts in massive recreations of everything from the Battle of Waterloo to the reign of Shalmanesar IV. Conditioning ensures that participants won’t even know that they’re playing a part. And if they come to a bad end, well that’s a small price to pay for great scientific results.

These dream worlds are far from being anything like heaven. Quite the opposite in fact. But if there is one common theme in each of them, it’s that bogus intellectual make-work is a foundational element of any good hell. In the first dream world, Finch takes a job as Genealogist:

“I’ve had a good deal of experience in history and archaeology.”

“You have? That’s much better. The history will give youse your basic research methods, and the archaeology will help youse with the job of faking tombstones when it’s necessary.”
“Faking tombstones?” said Finch, wonderingly.

“Sure. Youse’ll see. Rational thing to do; harms no one and satisfies the people that commissioon youse. Reckon youse had best get a couple of textbooks, and then call me in if youse strike a hard case. De William’s Methodology of Geneology– I can loan youse a copy of that– and Morgan’s Historic Families of Kentucky are about what youse need to start with. Don’t take De Williams’ hyperaletheism too seriously, though.”

“His what?”

“Hyperaletheism. Higher-truth theory. His school holds that when one goes back a sufficient number of generations, everybody is bound to be descended from everybody by the laws of probability, so that a faked pedigree showing a descent from Charlemagne is virtually as good as a real one, since the person at issue is bound to be descended from him. He fails to distinguish between genealogies carefully prepared for the district archives and those prepared on commission for patrons.” (page 49)

In the world of the ultra-violent Pegasus Literary Society, everything is a sham backed by force. Stopping off for a bit to eat mean’s you’re liable to be served you whatever the proprietor feels is good for you. If you don’t like it, then he’ll see to it that you’re coerced you into enjoying it!

“Come on, boys,” said Colonel Lee. “Suh, the honor of the Pegasus will not permit our tastes in food and drink to be dictated to us.”

“No ye don’t!” roared MacPherson. “Ye ha’ come to me for nourishment, and nourshed ye shall be.” The inner doorway was suddenly filled with five more leapord-skinned giants. As Impy fumbled for a gun one of the new-comers pounced on him. Finch had a brief and apprehensive glimpse of the two locked in struggle for the zenith-pointed firearm which went off with a roar. Then in a moment the wole party of visitors was disarmed and on their stools, with a blonde Hecules behind each. “Eat!” said MacPherson.

With sour looks and downcast faces, they pecked at the salads. “Ow! yelled Basil Stewart suddenly.

“What’s the matter, Wullie?” rumbled the proprietor.

The monster behind Stewart explained: “Pop, this dissipator was trying to stuff his watercress into that fancy coat of his, so you’d think he’d et it.”

“Beat his harnies out against the wall if he tried it again,” saud MacPherson, amiably. (page 84)

Finally, the science themed world combines the first reality’s nonsense with the second world’s thuggery– and then slathers a mathematical veneer over the top. And even though bartenders are called Methymiscologists and everyone glibly chats about the implications of vector analysis over mixed drinks, repeating experiments is forbidden. The scientific method is replaced with science themed snake-oil and the entire planet is eaten up with a “cult of the new” mentality:

“Sir, you  are anti-familiar with the basis of astrological science. In the procedure of approximativity, we calculate from the sign in the ascendant at the exact moment of birth. But where as many individuals are unable to recollect this necessary moment, there was introduced some time ago the determination procedure of assumptivizing as in the ascendant the sign occupied by the sun at horizontary ascension.”

“I see. I should think that would give quite different results. If I were born at sunset the sign in the ascendant might be the Dipper, but by the previous sunrise it might have been the Bridge-Table or something.”

Beauregard smiled. “Sir, I suspect you are ridiculizing. Ursa Major is not within the zodiacal limitations and there ain’t no constellation of the Bridge-Table. The horoscopular reading depends largely upon the relative positions of the planets, and while that is very little changed, sir, in the course of tenty-four hours, very little, you undebatively have a talking point. I feel that way about myself.”

“Why in the world do you call the new method the ‘accurate’ one, then?”

Washington Beauregard looked astonished. “Dr. Finch, are you humorizing me again? The entire system of scientific seniority rests on the fact that a new method is better than an old one, since it outroots the errors of earlier practitioners in response to new evidentiary matter.” (pages 179-180)

Reading this book, it becomes clear just how much of our fantasy maps are filled with thinly veiled historical appropriations and outright clichés. There’s a reason for that, of course. Whether you’re running a game or telling a story, pausing to explain the counter intuitive aspects of an alien civilization at every turn tends to cause an unworkable amount of drag. It’s a completely fair move to admit up front that you’re not going to expend any effort with that sort of thing. But if you have a yen to take the opposite tack and really focus on the implications and consequences of cultures that are set up on radically differing premises, then this book will provide you with invaluable inspiration.

One Comment
  • Student in Blue says:

    This actually sounds like a really interesting read. I’ll have to pick up a copy of it.

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