You Just Went the Full Mr. Peanut. NEVER Go the Full Mr. Peanut!

Saturday , 17, June 2017 11 Comments

Every few months lately we get another round of comment from people that are concerned about the #PulpRevolution getting co-opted by infiltrators. I’m not really worried about this sort of thing. Seriously, bring up the topic of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the snake people will out themselves every single time!

This post from the ODD74 boards is emblematic of phenomenon:

To be far too pithy about it, ERB’s Barsoom novels are essentially H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain stories transported to Percival Lowell’s Mars. (It’s an oversimplification, but one rooted in reality.) Not to mention the threads in American society, like theosophy, that run like an electric current through a great deal of early sci-fi and fantasy. Burroughs did some marvelous world-building and his stories are fine adventures, but he adhered so strictly to formula that you can just about see the innards working when you’ve read enough of his books. There’s nothing wrong with a good formula story, but it’s hardly an unreachable pinnacle of literary genius.

Probably the most lasting impact of Burroughs’s work was to merge adventure fiction with science fiction as Verne and Wells had established it. That played a big part in getting SF into the pulps, which proved to be fertile ground for all kinds of new experiments – some brilliant, some not so much. I don’t want to downplay that I’ve found his books to be excellent reading, I just don’t think they’re even the pinnacle of “planetary” SF. (My own bias is in favor of Dune, which I still think is the best SF novel I’ve ever read; it was unquestionably influenced by ERB in a major way, but went far beyond what he had to offer.)

Note that this is from a guy that is incapable of identifying any literary influences on the AD&D game. He’ll fall all over himself to deny or disqualify any connection between the pulps and the development of tabletop fantasy role-playing. But the John Carter stories…? Totally derivative!

Set aside the criterion of “literary genius” for a moment and look at Edgar Rice Burroughs from a standpoint of raw influence. Leigh Brackett read The Gods of Mars and was inspired to write her own planetary romance. She became the queen of space opera and went on to write the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, a task Lucas handed to her on the basis of her Burroughs derived fiction and not on her acclaim as a first rate scriptwriter. Superman is an amalgam of two Edgar Rice Burroughs creations: Tarzan and John Carter. Every blockbuster superhero film you enjoy today pays homage to a “formula” engineered by a profoundly engaging author.

Never mind that for rpg pioneers like Gary Gygax and Ken St. Andre, Edgar Rice Burroughs was synonymous with fantasy. Never mind that Barsoom and not Middle Earth is given as an example of the kind of fantasy world referees could transport OD&D players to. Never mind that the accounts of ongoing campaigns described in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide prominently feature Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure, a series that hews closely to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s winning formula.

You want to compare Frank Herbert’s Dune to that?! Ridiculous. In the first place, you cannot show Herbert having anything like the same kind of influence on early rpgs that Burroughs had. (E. C. Tubb and and Brian Aldiss were far more influential in the science fiction gamespace than Herbert could ever hope to be.) And honestly, nobody picks up a copy of God Emperor of Dune and gets inspired to start a career as a science fiction author.

No other science fiction author casts as long of a shadow as Burroughs. And no other figure in his field is held to the same spurious standard of “unreachable literary genius.” His spirit infuses not just science fiction and Star Wars, but comics and role-playing games as well. It’s odd that someone this awesome would provoke a cadre of snobs to diminish and disqualify his accomplishments at every opportunity, but it really does happen.

Indeed, say something nice about the man and his legacy and the fake man-flesh comes peeling off.

Every single time!

  • Brian Renninger says:

    Jane Austin or Dickens get taught in schools but, Alexander Dumas will always be loved more by the boys. Whose influence is greater? Arguably Dumas.

    Same thing here. Get the smelling salts, if only we could have more drawing rooms and fewer sword fights.

  • I don’t get the impression he was holding up Dune as a major influencer, just the “best” SF novel he ever read.

  • H.P. says:

    It’s ridiculous to argue that Burroughs wasn’t incredibly, enormously influential.

    It isn’t ridiculous to argue that he was bettered by some of those authors he influenced, whether it be Tolkien, Bradbury, Brackett, or Herbert.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      “those authors he influenced, whether it be Tolkien”



      I see what you did there H.P..

      And for it your standard of “better” can be forgiven.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    At least this guy’s opinion of ERB doesn’t reek of contempt the way most do.

    Why, he didn’t use the words colonial, racist or misogynist even once!

    • jic says:

      Well, it seems to me there was a certain amount of snottiness to what he wrote (I could be wrong, determining tone from text can be hard), but at least is wasn’t ‘ERB’s stories are stupid and evil, and you’re stupid and evil for reading him’.

      • Xavier Basora says:

        Chesteron wrote an article defending the pulps he called the penny dreadfuls.
        He laughs at that snootin3ss and justies the ordinsry man’s sound desire to be entertained


  • Wy says:

    Since you mention Gygax, here is an enormous Q&A thread he did for several years before he died. Some discussion of literary influences in there.

    “if you were to recommend five books that MOST influenced you in the design of D&D, what would they be? …
    I can’t narrow it down to five books, but five authors, maybe:

    Jack Vance
    Robert E. Howard
    Fritz Lieber
    de Camp & Pratt
    A. Merritt

    Honorable Mentions
    Roger Zelazny
    Michael Moorcock
    Fred Saberhagen
    L. Sprague de Camp
    Stanley Weinbaum
    Margaret St. Claire

    Sorry, even being that “narrow” makes me feel uneasy. I read a LOT of fantasy and SF before I got to the penning of the D&D game ”

    “It is hard to rank such infuence, but I’ll take a stab at it…and add authors as well. Some on the list below are virtually tied as I consider them:

    De Camp & Pratt
    Poul Amderson
    …and a score of others ”

    “I omitted JRRT’s work as a primary one because it didn’t inspire me in regards to gaming, to create the material in A/D&D that made it what it is at its core. While I enjoyed THE HOBBIT, the trilogy was not an exciting read for me.

    The listed authors and works were what moved me to want to design a game that allowed participants to have exciting fantasy adventures. The “influences” from JRRT’s work that I included in the game were mainly there to interest others in playing it, not what caused me to want to create it ”

    Lots more over there for the curious.

  • Amadan says:

    I am a big ERB fan (I’ve even pledged for the ERB art collection Kickstarter). But I’ve gotta say, even at age 10, when I first read the Barsoom series, and moved on to Tarzan, Pellucidar, and Carson of Venus, it was apparent to me that Burroughs recycled the same plots and characters over and over again. They were great reads, but I’m not sure what your beef is with the guy you quoted – he isn’t saying Burroughs wasn’t influential or a good writer, he’s just saying he stuck to a formula. Most pulp writers, if they found something that worked, did the same thing – they were writing for a living, not trying to impress future literary critics. From those successful formulas came a lot of great stories, but I cannot honestly say that all ten Barsoom novels or the dozens of Tarzan stories were highly distinct from one another.

    • Jeffro says:

      “He’s just saying he stuck to a formula.”

      No he isn’t.

      But if you don’t find his brand of posturing and sophistry odious, then I’m not going to persuade you that it is indeed noxious.

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