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!