Gary Gygax’s “Appendix N” is a fascinating time capsule of classic science fiction and fantasy works that goes a long way toward providing a snapshot of what he was thinking about as he worked on what ultimately grew into one of the most popular pen and paper role-playing games of all time. The significance of this list – which spans the literature of seven decades – goes far further than simply the inspiration for an enjoyable pastime, however: it’s a window into the past of science fiction and fantasy that affords us a view of a particular literary aesthetic – one that has, in many ways, simply been forgotten by print publishing.
There’s a lot to love in the crumbling pages of old science fiction and fantasy. Of course, there are things that society has moved beyond as well, but even when voices from the past shock us with things we regard as ridiculous or even unthinkable today there’s an aesthetic present from the early days of Argosy and Weird Tales that resonates in the best of the adventure writing of the 1940s and 50s, and in the best remembered works of the New Wave revolution in the 1960s and 70s. Heroism, the struggle between good and evil, the triumph of civilization, the wonder of exploration – these themes drive stories forward by appealing to something fundamental in the nature of humanity. Stories that incorporate these themes engage us, draw us closer to the protagonists, make us care what happens next, celebrate when the challenge is overcome – or mourn when the hero fails. This is the common thread that runs through Gygax’s list, and that pervades the early role-playing games.
This observation on the themes found in enduring stories is nothing new of course – it’s something that writers and storytellers have known forever. In the Western canon, these themes can certainly be traced back at least as far as the Epic of Gilgamesh after all. Where science fiction and fantasy is concerned the key is that in the beginning it was an entirely new realm in which authors could explore these themes, experiment with new ways of engaging them, and build edifices on the shoulders of giants. As explorers in a new space, classic pulp authors were in constant conversation with one another – not only within science fiction and fantasy, but across pulp genres. What we might now view as derivative works were in fact the collective effort of these authors to try again and again to find the right way to fit their bold new ideas together.
Things changed somewhat with the coming of the Golden Age of Campbellian “hard” science fiction. The gothic fantasies, weird tales, and planetary romances of the previous era slid from the limelight as the industry embraced a new aesthetic that had a very clear vision of science and engineering as the foundation of the future – an echo of the techno-utopia flogged by Wollheim and the other Futurians around the time of the first Worldcons. The pulp ideals never faded entirely however, and you can see their influence clearly in the work of Campbell’s best known protégés. Still, the richness of the legacy faded somewhat, despite the continuing work of several authors who dated to before Campbell’s revolution.
This fading, and the impending loss of science fiction and fantasy’s core, is one of the things that triggered the New Wave revolution of the 60s and 70s. That grand effort did a great deal to re-invent the richness of the pre-war era pulps, and led to a series of fascinating new authors with works that – I think not coincidentally – also ended up on Gary Gygax’s list. Sadly, the revolution faltered, and by the time the 1980s rolled in things were changing again. In fact, this seems to be the watershed where the legacy of the pulps truly began to be forgotten.
The 1980s and 90s saw the birth of cyberpunk after a decade of gestation, and at the same time it saw a dramatic shift in mass market publishing that echoed the mega corps of the cyberpunk idiom: a concentration of science fiction publishing in five major houses, and a shift from smaller bookstores to franchise megastores. While there are some excellent writers who flourished in this period, it’s hard to see the rise of franchise series and massive, unending epics as anything but a cooling of the creative engines of science fiction and fantasy as it adapted to the reality of market forces. From here, we fast forward to the e-book revolution and the crumbling empires of English language markets divided between the Five Houses: technology has definitely pushed the balance back to some extent: publishing is easier than ever before, and the new publishing media make it possible to bypass anyone who aspires to be a genre gatekeeper.
I don’t think there is any debate to be had over whether there are excellent modern science fiction and fantasy authors. There certainly are, and the best of them are as skillful with words as any of the classic greats – though there are also of course many less skilled, just as in any literary era. Likewise there should be no debate over whether the pulp era, which forms a large part of Gygax’s list, was universally golden. There were duds, and plenty of them; this should hardly be a surprise when considering the dizzying array of periodicals that were scrabbling for text to print each and every month. But somehow, over the last thirty years entire dimensions of the enormous wealth of “scientifiction” and strange tales have been pared away to leave little history and even less memory of the roots of modern SFF.
This, frankly, is a crying shame.
Fortunately, while the Great Houses of publishing have moved ever further from the core aesthetics that launched and sustained the genre from the early years of the Twentieth Century to explore new thoughts and styles of science fiction and fantasy, the core aesthetic has been kept bubbling in other venues:
The comics boom of the 90s and early 2000s certainly owes something to the love people have for wonder, adventure, and heroism. Advances in special effects and computer generated imagery have also brought us an amazing variety of SFF entertainment on both small and large screens. Moreover, video games have exploded as the cost of delivering ever more realistic experiences plunges, making it more feasible and more satisfying to not just read about heroes, but to live them.
Two worlds of science fiction and fantasy diverged in the decades after the New Wave, but now interest in the parts that had been largely forgotten is growing – and it’s interesting that this is happening just as the technologies that supported the divergence of science fiction and fantasy are themselves converging. Technological convergence has brought us a wealth of amazing new things. The resurgence of interest in older science fiction and fantasy offers the potential for another convergence, this time between the core aesthetic that made the pulp era great and the good things that have been built in the current era.
The vigor and freedom of e-book publishing and other electronic venues echoes the explosion of the pulps themselves in an era of rapidly decreasing publishing costs. In this environment I think the potential for yet another revolution in science fiction and fantasy is enormous, but to make it happen we will need to recapture the essence of that era of exploration and experimentation. And to do that we need to sift through the layers and rediscover jewels that have been lost and forgotten, then work those jewels into the treasures of today.
Just imagine a newly invigorated world of science fiction and fantasy that combines the heroic aesthetic of the classics with the rich language and diverse voices of the present! To my mind, now is an ideal time for such an experiment, and now is an amazing time to be rediscovering forgotten classics.