SUPERVERSIVE: Going to the Source

Tuesday , 29, March 2016 5 Comments

JD Cowen at the Wasteland and Sky blog has been reviewing Cirsova magazine in a series of blog posts (here, here, and here.) Here’s his take on my retrospective that was included there:

The last thing to talk about is the essay by Jeffro Johnson on the novel, Toyman, by E.C. Tubb, and comparing the rules it established in space travel with the game Traveller which took much inspiration but forgot a lot of the appeal. As someone who had either never played Traveller or read the book in question I quite enjoyed his comparison between the two as it did shine a light on a problem I see a lot, especially these days. When we don’t go to the source and consider the roots of what we love, we might not only miss out on seeing it from a new perspective, but we might even miss why it exists in the first place!

I know this from experience with my read of Three Hearts & Three Lions by Poul Anderson. I don’t read much modern epic fantasy and this book emphasized a lot of the reasons why. That said, I thought the book was excellent as a fantasy tale and a story, but the elements that had been borrowed for D&D and in turn swiped for many other fantasy stories miss a lot of the heart (pun intended) that beat at the center of this story of a man fighting for a world he never knew could exist. Reading it was such a fresh experience because I had never read a modern fantasy novel that ignores unwritten rules because they simply didn’t exist when the story was written.

You know, I wasn’t really thinking any deep thoughts when I wrote that piece– I was just trying to make sense of an old game that had stymied me for decades. But there actually is a lot going on with this. For instance, there are three different streams of science fiction literature and a child of the eighties picking up a game from the seventies could very well have been unaware of one or even two of them. There was a Planetary Romance stream that was heavy on action and lighter on politics and realism. Then there was the more “serious” stream that dealt with issues like racism, the threat of a nuclear holocaust, the population explosion, and pollution head on. Finally, there was the other kind of “serious” science fiction that delighted in real science and especially real engineering over nearly everything else. (And sure, these streams overlapped and fed into each other.)

Whole swaths of Traveller were inspired by the first stream… but the game was I think eventually consumed by the latter one. Rpg designers at the time were liable to pilfer from nearly everything they’d read, but while a heavy handed message wouldn’t keep them from lifting things from a work, they nevertheless tended to leave that sort of thing out in the translation process. The Frankenstein’s monster approach to the genesis of early rpgs leaves a great many oddities that are hard for the novice to understand. Trying to learn more about the Traveller a few years ago was overwhelming to me: every referee had their own way of explaining or explaining away the things that had made less and less sense with each passing decade. In the end, I realized that I just couldn’t keep up with those guys. I had no idea, though, that the answer to my gaming problems was in a genre of science fiction that had fallen so far out of fashion that I would have had a difficult time conceiving that it could even exist.

The moral there should be self-evident: an ignorance of the origins of things can not only make it difficult to understand something that’s only few decades old– it can limit the very scope of your imagination. Maybe that’s just gaming and it really isn’t that big of a deal, but in any case Three Hearts & Three Lions tops that. It reveals that the alignment system from classic D&D– the one that resulted in countless arguments, endless confusion, and outright mockery– can really only be understood in the context of a fundamentally Christian world with a positively alien take on elves that hasn’t been dominant in fantasy for almost a hundred years. Alignment’s literary antecedent actually makes sense because of its connection to history and culture and folklore. Stripped from that context, you get something that worked well enough to get a game off the ground. But the effect was rather like a people looking around at monuments from an earlier advanced civilization with no idea how or why those things were even built the way they were…!

That short novel not only has the literary source of the AD&D paladin class, it not only explains the surprising roots of Law and Chaos, it not only intermixes science and fantasy as if they weren’t really two distinct genres, it does not merely explain just why it is that a Keep on the Borderlands would be facing so much trouble and why it is that trolls regenerate… but it shows a world where the name of Jesus is pretty much the sort of “I win button” that game designers would bend over backwards to keep out of their tabletop adventures.

As mind blowing as everything else in that book is, it’s that last bit that gets me. It’s indicative of another one of those massive changes in science fiction and fantasy that are just plain inconceivable to people on this side of the Appendix N generation gap. Some kind of divorce really has taken place. And a way thinking has not so much been snuffed out, but rather smothered by all those books and movies where (just as one example) it’s not the cross itself that has power over vampires, but rather the sincerity of belief and the intensity of feeling that the protagonist has for whatever sacred object he is most sentimental about.

Seeing the older stuff really is shocking– and not just because it’s predicated on all kinds of assumptions that have steadily bled out of the wider culture over the years. It’s hard to imagine that sort of thing even been published anymore, much less being created by someone that went from founding the Society for Creative Anachronism to becoming president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Times really have changed. People now think twice before putting something explicitly Christian into a story, not so much due to the potential for lost sales, but due to a tacit threat of a damaged career.

And those bad old days when a surprising level of ideological diversity could be taken for granted…? Science fiction and fantasy writers might have been small in number, but their actual influence was much greater then. Indeed, rpg designers in the seventies were not only fluent in decades worth of stories, they also included countless homages to the authors in every facet of their games. The magazines and the short two hundred page paperback novels were primary in a way that is nothing like how things are today. And that is the most surprising thing of all about all of this: even their very conception of science fiction and fantasy really would be unimaginable to many of the next wave of people that would be playing their games ten years down the road.

The sheer volume of science fiction and fantasy produced at that point might have dwarfed that of preceding decades… but a conversation that had been going on for decades became muted in the process. Cut off from the root, subsequent fantasy increasingly became a shadow of a derivative of an echo. And people are quick to point out that 80% of everything is mediocre at best or that we think the past was better because we only read the best of the best of the old works. But I don’t think some of these obscure works that inspired D&D and Traveller would pack quite as much punch if our contemporary works were as evolved as people like to think.

Having read the books that defined science fiction and fantasy to the game designer “super fans” of the seventies, I have to say… those new “unwritten rules” that JD Cowen mentioned strike me as being not just overly restrictive but damaging as well. (A case in point: Tanith Lee’s endless fertility and constant self-reinvention was a liablity in the publishing world of the nineties. Absurd.) Sure, new fashions and conventions are inevitable. But it’s clear to me that shifts in publishing not only changed how people wrote; for an entire generation it’s changed what people can even think. Simply pointing that out is enough to merit accusations of being a tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist I suppose, but the people that have no clue what fantasy was like before Tolkien’s ascendance are now legion. Likewise, the “weird” fiction of the twenties and thirties is completely off the scope of a great many peoples’ mental maps of what science fiction even is. And so much that is said about the pulp era is so wrong, people can’t help but be surprised when they finally experience the real thing for themselves.

The lapse into obscurity of so many great authors is perhaps inevitable– but starting during the seventies or so, what would have been a natural process has been exacerbated by weird smear campaigns. Few would categorize this as being the low grade cultural revolution that it is. After all, even the most outspoken critics of Lovecraft’s racism, Howard’s alleged misogyny, and Heinlein’s supposed fascism are liable to have copies of their works on their shelves at home. Isn’t that proof positive that there’s no suppression here, no Fahrenheit 451 scenario playing out…? Not exactly. (In what other pursuit is this much acrimony leveled at the giants of the field? Did Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton stop being cool at some point? Have mathematicians felt the need to distance themselves from Descartes and Pascal…? Was there an effort to paint Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms in the absolute worst light possible? Maybe I missed it.)

It’s worse than a dozen influential authors being singled out for censure or even erasure, though. A great many people are in fact working overtime to create a generation that is unable to read almost anything published before 1980 or so. And by now, the hatefest directed at the pioneers of science fiction and fantasy is identical to the one being waged at pretty well everyone nowadays. (At this point, I have to read the classics just to get a break from the pearl-clutching hysteria of our present age.) Not everyone would agree that those guys (and gals) were far superior to their imitators. But their detractors in many cases haven’t even bothered to read the works of the people they so casually demonize. I guess that sort of thing scores them points within their shabby political movement. But it sure makes them stupid.

5 Comments
  • JD Cowan says:

    Very good post.

    I have to thank you personally for your Appendix N feature for giving me so much to think about in regards to tradition and roots.

    Reading a single A. Merritt alone was a wake up call that I missed out on so much.

  • Andy says:

    “Was there an effort to paint Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms in the absolute worst light possible? Maybe I missed it.”

    Well, they certainly have it in for Richard Wagner.

  • Jack says:

    Thanks for this post! I like Poul Anderson but have never read the Three Hearts. Now, to rectify that over-site.

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