Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Sign of the Labrys Link Roundup

I think a lot of us grew up with conception of fantasy as being more or less along the lines of Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and D&D. Some people would go on from there to pick up guys like Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. And those swords and sorcery guys… I always got the feeling that they were hip to something cool that I knew nothing about. I could tell from what I picked up from their gaming that they just had completely different notions of how fantasy ought to be conceived.

And while that sword and sorcery had a lot going for it and could be so much more inspiring than the tedious Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms books that flooded the market about the same time that Leiber’s backlist was dropped by publishers… there was really so much more that we missed out on. It didn’t have to be that fantasy would settle successively on these two strange attractors of swords and sorcery and the Tolkien pastiche. There was a whole lot of other ways to do this stuff!

So I really like the weird stuff on the Appendix N list. Vance’s Dying Earth stories are really out there. And while Zelazy’s Amber, Moorcock’s Hawkmoon, and Farmer’s Tiers books all had some really strange stuff in them, de Camp and Pratt’s Carnellian Cube really went beyond all those on an even more fundamental level. But for weirdness in the Appendix N list, there is one book to rule them all. It also happens to be among the most influential works and the least appreciated. So given all that, I’m really excited to roll out this week’s Appendix N post. Here it is:

RETROSPECTIVE: Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair

Blog of Holding — “It is interesting to note that just going down a set of stairs doesn’t guarantee that you’re going into a deeper “level”: a complex that’s 150 feet deep, and composed of several tiers, can be considered a single level if it’s part of the same ecosystem. And that is, I think, how early dungeons were designed. Each level was its own conceptual unit: it might or might not be composed of several floors. The author goes on to explain something else puzzling about Gygaxian dungeon design: levels aren’t always stacked one above another.”

Cloggie — “It is not even half as lurid as the blurb made it out to be. Sign of the Labrys is in fact a solid old-fashioned science fiction story. It’s pretty well written, better than the standard of the time. Most pre-New Wave science fiction writing is somewhat bland: the writing is there only to further the plot or to show off as efficiently as possible the neat idea the writer has thought of. In contrast, St Clair’s writing is almost lyrical in places, a pleasure to read. She has also spend enough time on characterisation to make her protagonist come to life.”

The Caffeinated Symposium — “Attitudes aside, this is what struck me about the characters in The Sign of the Labrys. It was as if they were wandering through Castle Greyhawk with only their wits, a single charm person spell, and a couple of lanterns to throw. The labyrinth in the novel is, in many ways, an archetypal megadungeon. It is laced with secret doors, special rooms, various servitors and defenders, and all sorts of interesting tricks and mechanisms. It is huge and fathomless and full of mysteries.”

The Alexandrian — “In short, Sign of the Labrys reads like a strange hybrid of Dungeons & Dragons and Metamorphosis Alpha. Here we find a clear predecessor of Castle Greyhawk: A multi-cultural, subterranean menagerie laid out in a pattern of levels and sub-levels connected by both the well-known thoroughfares and a plentitude of secret passages and hidden ladders. This, by itself, would have made Sign of the Labrys a fascinating and worthwhile novel for a D&D afficionado like myself. But I also found the novel to be very entertaining in its own right. Addictive, in fact. It’s got a page-turning, pulpy pace mixed together with some nigh-poetic language and a strange, enigmatic mystery that leaves you yearning to know the answer.”

Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations — “Unfortunately, Sign of the Labrys is a disappointing read. The post-plague world is dark and creepy and for the first half an uncanny (palpable) tension permeates. But, ultimately the fantastic setting, revisionist stance on the normal pulp gender dynamics, are weakened by a disjointed (verging on amateur) narrative filled with Wiccan “craft” practices and references. As other reviewers have pointed out, one could easily substitute the Wicca magic with the pulp SF staple “psi-power” and I agree completely.  I suspect Margaret St. Clair felt more comfortable with the short story form.  Sign of the Labrys has all the same flaws as other works produced by short story writers who tried their hand at novels in the 50s and 60s (Robert Sheckley comes to mind). Individual scenes are transfixing but the transitions, characterizations, and thrust of the work all verge on inarticulate.”

KIRKUS — “She and her husband led a comfortable life in California, where they owned a house with an extensive library, gardened and became Wiccans shortly after its introduction in the 1950s.”

SUVUDU “Sign of the Labrys is such an odd novel, even by the standards of the sixties. It’s brilliant, have no doubt, but it’s not like anything I’ve ever read. It’s an occult work of science-fiction/fantasy.”

Semper Initiativus Unam — “St. Clair’s book Sign of the Labrys was important in creating the concept of the dungeon as an underground world.”

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7 responses to “Sign of the Labrys Link Roundup

  1. Joachim Boaz September 8, 2015 at 6:32 am

    I am confused how this work is influential. Perhaps in my readings of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of novels from this period I’ve missed something….

    • jeffro September 8, 2015 at 7:02 am

      See Blog of Holding’s breakdown of how this book contains the source of the concept of a Dungeon Level. As a fundamental element in video game design, this is pretty huge.

      • Joachim Boaz September 8, 2015 at 7:04 am

        I highly doubt people even read Sign of the Labrys — it went through very few reprintings. So, unless he can connect it directly I’d take that claim with a grain of salt. Ok, well, I’ll give you an earlier and MUCH better novel/more popular and earlier with “levels” — Dark Universe (1961), Galouye. Read it!

      • Joachim Boaz September 8, 2015 at 7:09 am

        Likewise, the “underground lost world trope” is a VERY prevalent concept in Victorian SF. I fail to see a direct link…

      • Joachim Boaz September 9, 2015 at 6:24 am

        But as a book, yeah, it’s not good. But obviously, historically, its influence was great.

    • jeffro September 8, 2015 at 7:37 am

      This is the only thing in the Appendix N list that is even remotely like a Gygaxian Megadungeon. This is not a style of dungeon design that is something a novice is just going to randomly stumble upon. A lot of people that came of age in the eighties are shocked by just how weird the seventies play style was. Of course, that it was a default assumption of what the characters would get into is baked into the AD&D rules– such as the oddly specific Dwarf abilities for detecting sloping passages and such.

      The off the wall layout of the Gygaxian megadungeon– with themed levels no less– is incredibly fun to play. Much more fun, say, than the gridbound mazes of Richard Garriot’s Ultima. I have always looked at this stuff as being unique to the seventies and/or to Gary Gygax himself. Oh, that Gygax… such a weird guy.

      You see that with how people react to the term “fighting man” from OD&D as the class name for what became the “fighter.” People erroneously ascribe that to Gygax being a weirdo. They point and sneer at it and make cracks about it. But as I’m sure you know, the term “fighting man” was practically ubiquitous in sff literature from 1911 to 1977.

      This same thing is happening here. Gygax is generally credited with originating the concept of a dungeon level. But this concept actually had a literary antecedent. And what’s more, the antecedent has many of the same oddities that are reflected in the particular way that Gygax expresses it. I think that’s a big deal. Gygax is easily among the most influential game designers of the past hundred years. That Margaret St. Claire handed him something like this to work with makes her pretty influentual, too. As far as tabletop gaming goes, her contribution is on par with Burroughs, Howard, de Camp & Pratt, and Vance.

      • Joachim Boaz September 9, 2015 at 6:23 am

        Interesting, I obviously did not know the back story. And yes, I think it’s odd (and pretty cool) that a novel with such a small readership was so influential….

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