REVIEW: Iron Chamber of Memory by John C. Wright

Monday , 25, April 2016 14 Comments

When the subject of Appendix N comes up, people almost invariably turn toward the question of what more recent fantasy belongs on the list. Certainly, several people have made the case that Clark Ashton Smith should have been included in the first place. Many are irked that C. L. Moore was excluded as well. And no small number of Earthsea fans have argued that Ursula K. Le Guinn deserved a mention. But you don’t tend to see anything quite like that level of consensus emerge for any of the writers that came onto the scene after 1977.

One reason for that is that as years got on, it became harder and harder for authors to be a direct inspirational source for a tabletop rpg. By that criteria, it’s Brian Aldiss that we should be talking about for incorporating into later iterations of the list due to his efforts in laying the groundwork in what would become Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha. Another example in a similar vein has would be Larry Niven for his work in putting the concept of “mana” into a format in which game designers could readily transfer to role-playing games.

People tend to get far less specific about just what it is that’s so inspirational about the more recent writers. Fantasy and D&D are at this point so intertwined that many claims that this or that book “belongs in Appendix N” really boil down to people meaning that they like the book. At best they might claim that it is useful to someone running a campaign, but even then they don’t mean running a particularly Gygaxian style campaign. They mean whatever it is that D&D has evolved into at this point, of course.

Meanwhile, the actual works on the Appendix N list are by now so obscure that they no longer serve as a frame of reference for these sorts of discussions. People don’t go out and find recent examples of weird tales, planetary romance, or science fantasy and advocate for them to be added. Those genres can hardly be said to even exist any more, of course, but it wouldn’t matter if they were thriving because they are no longer associated with either D&D or fantasy in any kind of substantial way. So while the wide-ranging diversity of Appendix N is the most striking thing about it, the underlying attribute of most peoples’ suggestions for new inductees is instead that of conventionality.

That being the case, what would a book look like that really was in line with what you see in Appendix N?

Well for starters, you might see a litany of magical loot that reads like it could have come straight out of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series:

One of the mirrors had been opened like a door. Behind was a cabinet made of dark wood, and piled high with parchment bound with ribbons, scrolls, librums, folios and quartos, grimoires, manuals, and books with iron padlocks.

You would also see the invocation of elements of Christian Lore side by side with the mythical and the fantastic– just like you would in stories by A. Merritt and C. L. Moore. Just as one example of this, compare the “last remnant of the strange race which sprang from the original Tree of Life” from the opening chapter of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Gods of Mars to this:

That wand was a branch from the Tree of Life, whose roots run deeper than the world. While you grasped it, you could not be moved.

From Lord Dunsany to Poul Anderson, the invocation of elves and Elfland is almost uniformly bound up with themes related to time. This disappears when elves become reworked into just one of many fantasy “races” that can be described fully from within a purely naturalistic standpoint. In a “real” Appendix N book, however, you are much more likely to see something like this:

Lanval said, “Arthur is in Avalon, recovering from the wound that Mordred dealt, and the years and seasons in that land have no power to pass away, save when the three fair queens grant them leave to go. Here in the mortal world, time flies. There, time tarries. Evil prevails but for an hour.”

Looking at the classic AD&D monster manual today, it can seem a little hokey to see entries for traditional creatures such as the basilisk, centaur, dryad, harpy, hippogriff, leprechaun, medusa, merman, minotaur, nymph, pegusus, satyr, sphinx, and unicorn side by side with more usual dungeon denizens and beings drawn from widely differing mythologies. But the “monster mash” approach is something you see in everything from Narnia to The Broken Sword, so if something was going to invoke old school fantasy, I’d expect to see something along the lines of this:

With roars, shouts, howls, and yips of excitement, the throng of people shoved themselves into the chamber, dragging Manfred with them, and then the talking animals, walking mermaids, lamia, man-eaters, ghouls and witches, their apparel glistering, and making a riotous and unruly noise.

Similarly, in the Appendix N time frame, Atlantis was almost ubiquitous in fantasy literature. (As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, H. P. Lovecraft, Manly Wade Wellman, Philip José Farmer, and Edgar Rice Burroughs all treated it as a first class world building element.) So if someone was going to bill something as being “Appendix N” today, I would expect to see Atlantis dusted off and then worked into the overall background setting– more or less like this:

And the fires of the rainbow, Lanval saw, were words written in the three languages of Man, the Latin of Europe, and the Aramaic of Asia, and the Hieroglyphs taught to the Pharaohs from long-drowned Atlantis. Thunder and lightning fell from the black cloud all around Mandragora.

Finally, if someone really wanted to create something that could be billed as “old school fantasy in the tradition of Appendix N”, above all else it should explore the alien-ness of faerie– and explain why it would make sense for Christendom to be so leery of it. Reading it should make you understand why the question of whether or not elves had souls could have been a serious game design issue back in the seventies. The book should really capture both the allure and the perilous nature of elves by incorporating things like this:

“Near Wool is the ruined Cistercian monastery of Bindon Abbey. A boy who once served the monks there would dawdle and frolic on his errands, and swim in this river. His name was Lubberlu. Well, once from between the bulrushes appeared a maiden whose eyes sparkled like sunlight on blue water, and whose silver hair was like a flowing waterfall. They dallied and kissed and laughed, and the boy day after day finding any excuse to be sent on errands, always found his way to the waterside as the summer days turned toward autumn, and the feast of all souls drew nigh. Lubberlu approached one of the monks of the abbey, and said he wished to marry the girl. But the monk knew she was no mortal maiden, and forbade it, warning him of the murderous ways of the daughters of the river water, the nix, the mermaids. In tears the boy fled, vowing to bring the girl to a proper Christian wedding, and turn her from her ways. The next day his drowned corpse was found floating face up in the river, tangled among the bulrushes.”

The book that all of these passages are taken from is Iron Chamber of Memory by John C. Wright. And while you’ll see contemporary authors ranging from Saladin Ahmad to Terry Brooks, N. K. Jemisin, George R. R. Martin, and Patrick Rothfuss incorporated into the latest iteration of D&D’s “inspirational reading list”, I’m doubt any of those additions are going to be anything like this. Fantasy role-playing and the genre of fantasy in general have just changed too much over the years.

Speaking for myself, reading this book… it was as if someone had read everything I liked about Appendix N books and everything I disliked about post-1977 science fiction and fantasy… and then made a novel that addressed every single point I’d made about them. It’s astonishing, really, but this is the book that has forced me to retire my “they don’t make ’em like this anymore” spiel. Today’s fandom may be divorced from its roots for the most part, but I think it’s fair to say that the depth and breadth of classic science fiction and fantasy informs nearly every paragraph of Wright’s stories.

If you are a devotee of Appendix N literature, you won’t want to miss this one. While it has more than a little of C. S. Lewis’s approach to fantasy and science fiction within its pages (and while the case can be made that he is a great fit for D&D, admittedly he was excluded from Appendix N) it is nevertheless firmly within the same tradition of fantasy that Lord Dunsany and Poul Anderson explored.


  • SumDood says:

    “By that criteria, it’s Brian Aldiss that we should be talking about for incorporating into later iterations of the list due to his efforts in laying the groundwork in what would become Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha.”

    To which Aldiss works are you referring?

    • Jeffro says:

      Hothouse is directly cited by First Edition Gamma World as an inspiration. Starship is not the only book of its type, but it is hard to read that one without seeing the Starship Warden, Gamma World Mutants, and Cryptic Alliances on every page. Finally, I suspect some of his early short stories are the inspiration for how robots in Gamma World are intended to be played.

      • SumDood says:

        Ah. Was aware of Non-Stop (AKA Starship) as the Metamorphosis Alpha inspiration but not of the Hothouse/Gamma World connection.

    • Don says:

      Metamorphosis Alpha was a nice simple under appreciated game. It was a booklet practically when everything else was everywhere from one big book to three. Plus it was just fun.

  • Don says:

    Wright gets fantasy at its deepest level then brings it into the light of day where we can understand it and appreciate it.

    From Nightlands to Everness, to Somewhither and now the Iron Chamber he has proven that he not only should be part of the appendix N of D&D he should be part of the appendix N for any gaming system.

    He has certainly inspired me to create characters for roleplaying that are deeper and more varied than ever before and I have been playing for forty years this year.

    • Jeffro says:

      All I know is, when I read The King of Elfland’s Daughter and The Broken Sword, I said that I’d really like more books like that. John C. Wright is writing them.

  • Jack Amok says:

    When I typed in “Iron chamber of memory” into Amazon’s search panel, the first hit was for “Powerful Medicinal Mushrooms for Mental Clarity.”

    Mr. Wright’s kindle edition was the second hit.

    Somehow, that does seem to be a fitting Appendix N sort of thing.

  • Funny that you single out the legend of Bindon Abbey for mention. It comes straight from a book on English folklore unchanged

    • Jeffro says:

      The way your story is in conversation with that and expands on that sort of thing is what makes it of the same class as the other “boy meets elf” type stories in Appendix N. But I didn’t want to go into the details of how exactly you do that lest I spoil anything for people.

  • Astrsorceror says:

    By the way, if you haven’t read “Iron Chamber” yet, by all means do so. It is one of the finer tales of fantasy I’ve read, and should be a classic in a hundred years.

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