Ah, this book!
With that cover alone, it rocketed to the top of the stack I can tell you. My son actually grabbed it before I could and read it in a single weekend. (And for reference, he’s read Conan and Lovecraft and Amber, but I could not make him read Asimov’s Foundation!) I thought for sure I was in for a treat.
What I got was something unlike anything I could conceivably anticipated. Now I love that– that “I can’t believe I’m reading this” feeling. It just provokes so many questions. James Maliszewski graciously passes over them (which I think is wise), but maybe he’s so steeped in older works that he didn’t notice anything. The Tor.com guys, though… they are completely infuriated by this one. I mean Mordicai Knode couldn’t even finish it before doing his piece on it. (And by the way, when I talk about being inspired to do a “serious” Appendix N survey– which I’ve come under fire for daring to say– that is what I mean by an unserious survey. I do read to the end before making an assessment.)
Now… that gobsmacking, facepalming feeling this book engenders… I think it’s a good thing. That strange mix of frustration and disappointment? It’s not just due to the fact that everyone writing before 1980 was all inherently “problematic” as they say nowadays. It’s not just due to the fact that there is plenty of chaff mixed in with the wheat. A chunk of that is due to books like this flying in the face of how everything should work out in fantasy and science fiction. It’s challenging. It doesn’t fit with how you think stories should work. It doesn’t match up with how your brain has interpolated the history of the medium to be. It is as far from anything that you would ever think of doing as you can get. And that’s why it’s useful to read it.
So yeah, this was a really difficult retrospective to do. It looks like I missed several things that other people pointed out. On the other hand… what I came up with is really different than other peoples’ takes. As weird as this book is, it wasn’t weird to Gary Gygax. He evidently loved the thing. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around that, but it’s fun to try!
Grognardia — “The Carnelian Cube may not have had any specific influence over D&D, but I can see its influence over the World of Greyawk, as Oerth is one of a series of parallel worlds, each one containing versions of the same people and places but subtly different, owing to the unique nature of each parallel. Likewise, if you look at Gary Gygax’s work as a whole, you can see plenty of examples where he treated the topic of alternate worlds and realities and the possibilities for adventure therein.”
Tor.com — “I think that glomming on to a high concept idea like ‘a world where pitiless logic wins’ or ‘a world of individualism taken to the extreme’ and spilling it out for a few chapters is actually a solid Dungeon Mastering trick. I mean, look at Star Trek’s Vulcans; they are basically just elves with “logical” thrown on as a cultural gimmick, right? That sort of tactic is a good way to add colour to your newest fantasy metropolis, or tribe of non-humans, or alternate universe. It might be a ‘cheap trick,’ being a little inorganic, but as someone who runs a game let me just say that sometimes, cheap tricks are the best.”
Paperback Flash — “The different realities of The Carnelian Cube are akin to pocket dimensions or demi-planes in D&D parlance, and the cube itself literally appears as one of the game’s most powerful magic items. Dust off your old hardcovers and look up the cubic gate, and you’ll find that it’s described as being made of, you guessed it, carnelian.”
Astounding — “Quite unlike anything else the reader will find on today’s market….”
The Gnome Press Release — “The jacket copy describes this book as a ‘humorous fantasy.’ It is a fantasy in a heavy-handed sort of way, but as for the humor, the less said the better.”
Here’s the bit from the Dungeon Masters Guide:
Cubic Gate: Another small cubic device, this item is fashioned from carnelian. The 6 sides of the cube are each keyed to a plane, 1 of which will always be the Prime Material, of course. The other 5 can be chosen by any means desired. If the side of the cubic gate i s pressed but once, it opens a nexus to the appropriate plane, and there is a 10% chance per turn that something will come through i t looking for food, fun, and/or trouble. If the side is pressed twice, the creature so doing, along with all creatures in a 5′ radius will be drawn through the nexus to the other plane. It is impossible to open more than 1 nexial link at once.