Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Catholic Geek: Live with Jeffro Johnson

Today is the day! (And on Robert E. Howard’s birthday no less…!)

At 7:30PM, EST on January 22, 2017 host Declan Finn will welcome the illustrious Hugo Award Nominee Jeffro Johnson, where we will cover as many topics as we can squeeze in, from pulp fantasy to the New Wave to the genesis of tabletop role-playing games, the transition of short fiction from primary influence to major irrelevance… the weird campaign to prevent people from reading anything from before 1980 and science fiction’s transformation from Christian to Post-Christian. Cast down the false idols of some snarky clique’s “Big Three”. Take a look back at the really awesome stuff that is now completely unimaginable!

Check it out!

Forbidden Thoughts Launch Party! – Superversive SF Livestream

This is on the air now…!

And note that I am scheduled to come on at 4PM Eastern.

Neal Durando on Why Appendix N Started a Literary Movement

We came up unknowingly on the same plain where Howard had set down Conan. One Spring, my mother read me White with the screens open. Nights, my father read me The Lord of the Rings, Foundation, and Dune while smoking a cigar. On a cloudy day we would go out, the small band of us, maybe hunt rabbits or maybe just to shoot our fiberglass bows and Bear brand arrows. But when then the sun came out and stayed all bets were off. You went back to the library spinner.

The thing about the spinner rack, unlike the juvenile shelf, you couldn’t quite get to the end of it. Nor did it fit neatly into the Dewey system. Simply put, it threw off mysterious books I had to read. Every week there was something I hadn’t seen. Alan Dean Foster. Jerry Pournelle, Philip José Farmer, Fritz Leiber, the extended run of Heinlein. Every young reader must enjoy a similar period where everything he reads seems written exclusively for him. Zelazny! His name served as my interjection for discovery. Lovecraft was something else altogether but also of piece with the rest.

Lots of energies were at play across the land in those days: The 700 Club, Cheap Trick, the Strategic Air Command. The Spielbergian nukes had gone off. We had felt both blast waves but were yet to feel the weakening effects of their fallout. The merchandising, the figures, the masks, the promise of yet more. My parents gave me Holmes Basic D&D out of the blue. There must have been some coordination as most of my friends received a similar gift about the same time. This was before Blackleaf died, so even the Christian kids were along for the ride. We got quickly beyond the box, broke out of Skull Mountain implanted as we were with false memories of Melniboné, Lankhmar, and parts west. Our dice went off louder than bombs. “Appendix N” as a list of books we had already taken in explicitly or in groups. Such a list wasn’t news; it was communion. I’m not going to belabor it. If you walked between similar planes, you already know.

What did I steal off the spinner rack? What remains in my pocket today? The worst oppressor is the policeman in one’s head. That those cops could be rumbled from cover simply by rolling three six-sided dice, six times, in sequence. That one’s identity and circumstances are only so important. The self is violable, voluble. That it doesn’t take that much to get along in the world and you’re not all that special. Since those days, the spinner rack has lost momentum and cheap books at small chain stores went away. (There is a glorious past available at half price, if you know where to look.) A lathe passed through publishing and only the rentiers survived and somehow we settled into the posy inertia of selling character portraits which look for all the world like social realist ideals replete with ponderous and final certitude. Behold my paddle sword!

Nowadays, the truly savage action takes place in what passes for criticism. Regrettably, it rarely happens on the page. When I go back to reading science fiction and fantasy, it is to old titles. Call me whatever you must. If it matters that much to you, ask yourself why. But perhaps we can get past the static action-figure poses, get back to the kinetic and speed things up a bit, invoke physics some, slam some stuff into other stuff. With luck, dark gods might hear the clash, stir, and the rack might slowly begin to spin again.

Not Everyone Sees What We See

Twila Price writes in with a really good question:

I am in the older half of the demographic, who grew up with the paperbacks readily available and so I know all these books; read them when I was tiny, and not so tiny, among other books that were just as fine. I loved Black Agnes and Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith and Solomon Kane and Tarzan — I still do. And I have spent most of my life telling people how fantastic these books are and sharing them with the younger folks I’ve come into contact with. I understand your excitement in finding all these treasures. Because they truly are treasures. (Some more than others, and I’m not and never will be a Jack Vance fan. Well, that one short story… but the Dying Earth? Pfui!)

But… I just don’t see the split in sf the way you do, or the way a lot of your fellow bloggers do. It’s not just SJW/modernists versus the hardy pulp superversives — a lot of people I know and read have drunk deep of this mighty current of awesome but take a very different message from it. They choose to diverge and build upon this foundation their own palaces and edifices. Who’s to say they won’t be the equivalents of the Leigh Bracketts and Poul Andersons of tomorrow?

I am so glad you asked that– and especially that you’d invoke those two authors in particular.

There is a particular stream of fantasy that runs from Lord Dunsany to C. L. Moore to Poul Anderson to John C. Wright. This type of fantasy requires a familiarity with the foundational myths and tales and lore that most everyone would have been familiar with back when fantasy was still an extremely niche thing. There wasn’t a whole lot of it, so people would range rather far to get what they were looking for. That meant a whole lot of myth and fantasy than you tend to see today.

Now I’m going to make two claims that people will have varying degrees of comfort with:

  1. The lack of familiarity people have with the genuine classics (ie, pre-1900) is a primary cause of why most fantasy from after 1980 or so is so derivative.
  2. The attempt to create a new foundation will necessarily have political/cultural/spiritual motivations that produce a pronounced tendency towards an inferior aesthetic.

Not everyone agrees with the latter. But I’m sure you’ll agree that there are a whole bunch of people that compromise their works in order to fit with the times or else accommodate gatekeepers. People that do not read from before 1980 are incapable of even being able to acknowledge that this happens. People that do not read from before 1940 are not conscious of the extent to which they reflexively do this.

What can you do about it? Read! Because you are not what you write, but what you have read. I expect that to happen and I expect to see change in this area continue to develop.

Leigh Brackett is a special case, though. She really is the hottest of hot potatoes. While ignorance can explain the dearth of Poul Anderson types in the field today, the lack of any successors to Brackett is something else entirely. Consider that reaction that Hooc Ott got when he brought her up to a group of book reviewers. Hooc’s analysis is pretty insightful:

She is fighting, who and what for she makes more then a little opaque sure, but that is war she is doing there.

It’s sort of a secret now that Christianity was integral to the old style fantasy. I thought it was odd that nobody seems to talk about that much, really. But with Brackett’s case, you see outright war. It’s not that you can’t write like Brackett anymore. You can’t even talk about Brackett! People do, but they botch it every single time because everything about her life and career is inconvenient to the wrong sorts of people.

Why is that…? Well… she wrote Edgar Rice Burroughs style fiction… but it was really, really good. Her execution was impeccable. And she is the only person I’ve read that could rival A. Merritt’s delivery of sizzling pulp style romance. Hers is the most undiluted presentation of heroism and romance anywhere.

Culturally speaking, we are light years away from being able to do anything remotely like what she did. I’m not sure if there’s any way for people escape their brain damage on this point even if they wanted to! This is the heart of the matter. You’ve got a whole generation of creators right now that don’t even know they’re ideologically opposed to the sort of thing Brackett produced. It’s going to take a lot more than an acquaintance with the classics to fix that.

But there really is no substitute.

Alexander Macris on Why Appendix N Started a Literary Movement

Dungeons & Dragons casts a long shadow. Certainly it’s shadow looms over me – I often joke that everything I needed to know in life I learned from the first edition Dungeon Masters Guide. It’s only half a joke, really; with its wide-ranging coverage of topics, from lists of disease and illness, to magical properties of gemstones, to mercenary types available in medieval Europe, to known systems of government, to monster ecology, there has been no tome written like it since then. There probably never will be.

In fact, I will say there cannot be. Dungeons & Dragons changed the landscape of the imagination: The pristine wilds of fantasy have forever been altered by the gardening of Gygax.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of speculative fiction. All fantasy written today is necessarily either playing with the tropes established by Dungeons & Dragons, or reacting against those tropes. It is possible to escape the influence of Tolkien – the entire genre of swords and sorcery, which predates the great Oxfordian, has done so. But there is no escape from D&D, whose influence spread into every tabletop game, and from there into every video game, and from there into everything.

It is for this reason that Appendix N is a vital reference for the fantasy gamer, fantasy author, and fantasy critic. Appendix N allows us to identify where Dungeons & Dragons’ tropes come from – and what they looked like in their original form. It is the Aristotle below the Aquinas; the Cicero below the Constitution. A young author whose magic system is inspired by the spellcraft of Weis & Hickman’s Dragonlance is painting a copy of a copy; only by reading Vance can the Platonic form, the Real, be seen. Paksenarrion, by Elizabeth Moon, is the beautifully-written tale of a paladin; but Paks is based on the D&D paladin, and the D&D paladin is based on the character of Holger from Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions.

Why does this matter? Why does fantasy matter? Some would say it doesn’t, that fantasy has become a tired genre, a genre that must be reinvented with gritty nihilism or contemporary critique or social commentary. These critics would tell us that a return to the past is a waste of time, an effort that can bring no reward when our culture has moved on.

Nuts, I say.

Fantasy fiction can and does re-tell the same story endlessly because the story that fantasy re-tells is the best story – the mythic story, the story of the human experience with the sublime. But to do so, to re-tell the best story, the fantasy author must first know it, in its purest and most undiluted form. A chef who hopes to serve a fine meal must have eaten a feast of the freshest morsels, or he will not know what a fine meal is. One who has only tasted reheated and repackaged TV dinners cannot know the taste of better.

Learning the great story is a lifetime of effort and most of us come to it unprepared. We cannot recognize it when we see it. It is too rich for our blood. Howard, Leiber, Vance, Zelazny, Tolkien, all of them were closer to the great story than we are. When we read their works, we find ourselves closer to the fountainhead of the imagination, closer to the mother lode. There is an earnestness, a vitality, a vigor that has been sapped from their epigones. The success of Dungeons & Dragons has spread the beauty of fantasy everywhere, but in so doing it has spread it thin. Appendix N is the original sauce.

Every gamer should read Appendix N to get a better understanding of Dungeons & Dragons; it is a worthwhile and fulfilling endeavor that will make the game more enjoyable. But someone who will never pick up a D20 should read Appendix N, too, to get a deeper understanding of fantasy storytelling itself, in a time before it had been codified, packaged, and deconstructed.

It is my hope that the present work will help Appendix N establish itself as the canon of fantasy literature. But of course, we publish in a time when the very concept of a canon is itself frowned upon in some circles. Appendix N will be mocked and belittled in the same way and for the same reason an education based on the classical canon is mocked and belittled: Because if the writers of the past can offer us valuable insights that are useful today, then that means some things are eternally true. And that is a claim that our postmodern culture cannot accept.

But isn’t that what fantasy says?

To read the great works of the past is to have the question answered.