Thursday, July 02, 2020

Of course, we also read books.
The point of Dungeons and Dragons was that it was a fantasy saga in which YOU became the hero. But fantasy sagas were in short supply. We endlessly sought out books that felt like role-playing games. "I want to game this" was the highest accolade one could give a story. 
Dungeons and Dragons was based on the holy trinity of J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard. A professor of Anglo Saxon; a leading light of the 1960s counter culture and a manic depressive hack from small town Texas; of course they got together and formed a band. 
Edgar Rice Burroughs was sometimes mentioned. The Dungeons and Dragons magic system was vaguely lifted out of Jack Vance. Every Dungeons and Dragons fantasy city—indeed, every fantasy city—more or less acknowledges Fritz Leiber as its onlie begatter. Traveller was based rather explicitly on a writer named E.C. Tubb who wrote a series of, oh god, 33 books about Dumerest, a hero bumming around the universe taking jobs while trying to find his way back to his lost home planet.21
I had read the Hobbit and started the Lord of the Rings. The blue Dungeons and Dragons book is linked in my mind with the awful terrible dreadful not good Lord of the Rings cartoon; and those huge unplayable collectors' item S.P.I Wargames with names like Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith, simulating parts of the novels I had mostly skipped. It all merges in my head into one great big proto-Star-Wars fantasy mush. 
There was no internet. There were libraries but on the whole they didn't believe in pulp science fiction. I think I found a few volumes of Elric, in fairness, and a rather elegant John Carter omnibus, with maps of Mars on the flyleaf, in the adult section. I may not have understood the finer points of Traveller, but at least I could scoff at people who said "Mars" rather than "Barsoom"...
...and once again we are pining for a long gone universe when there was no such thing as a Mall and Wood Green Shopping City was scarily exhilaratingly modern. McDonalds had not arrived, but Wimpy Bars half understood what hamburgers were and gave away Marvel Comics stickers with every milk shake and I once found a Spider-Man mug in a "slight seconds" china shop. But the centre of Shopping City and possibly the universe was W.H Smiths: a whole alcove of lurid covers: Illuminatus and Dune, the Beasts of Tarzan and the first Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy novels alongside Protect and Survive, book tokens and pocket money and just going to gape at the covers and make mental reading lists and rushing home for the next episode of Planet of Evil...
Now there are Official Dungeons and Dragons novels and Official Warhammer novels and god-help-us official Minecraft novels; so you can fall into an endless single genre loop, books of games and games of books and games of books of games. It would be physically impossible to read every Star Wars novel and every Doctor Who novel even if you wanted to. Then we had to scour through cheap paperback reprints of cheap pulp magazines searching for intimations of Dungeons and Dragons in books by novelists who had never heard of it.
Sometimes, in indoor markets and seaside spinners you would find books with yellow or blue page edges and stern warnings about not circulating them in different bindings. This was the hard stuff: American editions, the Shadow and Doc Savage and stories about barbarian ladies with not nearly enough clothes on. The Gor Series, surprisingly, was sold openly in Smiths.
At one point the British Marvel reprint comics must have run out of Avengers stories to publish, and started rotating lead strips, so that one week you had The Avengers Starring the Master Of Kung Fu and the next week you had The Avengers Starring Conan the Barbarian and a week or so later it reverted back to The Avengers Starring the Avengers. Those early Conan comics are legendary: Barry Smith is one of the prettiest comic book artists there ever was. Cerebus the Aardvark started life as a worshipful re-creation of Smith's Conan. But at the age of eleven I found them, the Conan comics, incredibly boring. I have gone back to them as an adult and discovered that this was because they are, as a matter of fact, incredibly boring. 
I dutifully tried to read the novels. Like so much that was coming out at that time, they were aimed at people who were already fans. They assumed you knew lots of stuff and refused to bring you up to speed. Each chapter started with an excerpt from a text called "A Probable Outline of Conan's Career." Was this a book I could go into a shop and buy? A piece of real history? A made up tome, like those quotations from the complete works of Princess Irulan that disfigure the Dune series? I only found out quite recently that it was nothing more than a piece of fan-fic that someone had sent to Robert E. Howard in the 1930s.
The Conan books which you could buy in 1970s Smiths now look a lot like exercises in fan-fiction. Robert E. Howard had only written a handful of Conan stories before inconveniently shooting himself. The books were bulked out with stories by people with names like L Sprog De Carter; some of them based on Howard's outlines; some of them repurposed from Howard stories without Conan in them; and some made up out of their heads. 
This desecration of Howard's legacy now looks like one of the most disreputable products of the fanboy mindset. Conan's handlers explicitly compared themselves with Sherlockians. Take a fictional character, they said, pretend that he was a real historical figure, they said, and proceed accordingly. There are hundreds of non-canonical Holmes stories: but everyone agrees that the canon begins and ends with Sir Arthur's original series of novels and short stories. Most/many/some of the Holmes apocrypha is by clever writers of detective fiction: presenting us with a Holmes story which would have been worth reading even if it wasn't about Holmes. Corporate Conan seemed happy to ploddingly invent texts in which Conan killed him a wolf when he was only fourteen because it says on the back of one of Bob Howard's envelopes that the boy Conan was in a certain forest in a certain winter at a certain age. 

Howard never thought of world-building in that way. Conan and the Hyperborean Age were only ever literary devices to allow for the creation of fast-moving masculine pornographic violence fests.
"Robert E. Howard was a not a fantasy writer", I once told a True Believer.
"Oh? Then what was he?"
"A pulp writer" I said "The best pulp writer in the whole wide world."
More recently it has become possible to read the Conan stories in their original magazine form: Robert E. Howard, all of Robert E. Howard and nothing but Robert E. Howard. About one in five of them are very good indeed. Rollicking power and energy and fight scenes and a little light flagellation. And an actual crucifixion. Ladies are always naked and Conan is always naked "save for a loin cloth". 
Today I would say that Dungeons and ragons took the blood spattered historical action pulp pastiche of Conan and reduced him to a piece on a chess-board; a very sanitized impression of a very vibrant series of books. Back then it seem that Conan was Dungeons and Dragons with all the colour drained out; quests and dungeons replaced with slogs through featureless landscapes; orcs replaced with foreigners; wizards rare and mad. Dungeons and Dragons is golden and deep green. Conan is snowy and grey and brown.
Michael Moorcock I liked. The best Michael Moorcock story is the one you read first: so my favourite is the Prince Corum trilogy. It would be interesting to pinpoint the exact moment when it ceased to be true that Alan Moore was trying to be Michael Moorcock and it became true that Michael Moorcock resented the fact that he was not Alan Moore. 
He tossed off entire fantasy trilogies over long weekends. They contain landscapes and cosmology and undigested ideas. He is easy to understand but his worlds are wholly alien. No-one can successfully illustrate Michael Moorcock. The little paperbacks had abstract covers that would have served for hippy LPs and possibly did. Prince Corum is an immortal being who lives on a very ancient earth, at a time when primitive orc-like creatures called humans are taking over. His mutilated hand has been replaced by a magic item called the Hand Of Kwill. In the final volume a scary one handed giant called Kwill turns up, fairly miffed. Corum is the re-incarnation of all of Moorcock's other heroes. The idea of the Eternal Champion is pretty thrilling even before you have encountered Joseph Campbell. 
I read a book called Swords Against Deviltry. I have never heard the word "deviltry" in any other context. Fafhrd is a viking with red hair and the Grey Mouser is a wizard. There is a horrible city called Lankhmar which morphed into Sanctuary and then into Ankh Morpok. Unnecessary consonants are very much the order of the day. Swords Against Deviltry was the first in a series: Swords in the Night; Swords and Ice Magic; Swords in the Mist; Swords In a Balloon Up a Creek. I now understand that, like the Conan series, the books were fixed together from magazine stories of widely different vintages, assembled according to narrative chronology. They only made sense if you already knew what was going on. Why am I supposed to care about this viking whose village is getting wiped out? Why am I now supposed to care about this urban thief who wants to learn magic? Because in several stories time they are going to bump into each other in the city and form a partnership. There were lots of short stories about the wizarding / smiting partnership, but volume one was a prequel. I never reached volume two. 
This is how I know that it is a terrible idea to read the Magician's Nephew before you have read the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and a terrible idea to watch The Phantom Menace before you have watched A New Hope. Swords and Deviltry ruins Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Triplanetary very nearly kills the Lensemen series. The labyrinthine attempt to create a chronological Conan could only have been attempted by someone who had completely failed to understand Conan.
Edgar Rice Burroughs I loved. One day I will re-read all the Mars books and the Venus books and fill in the gaps in the Pellucidar books and the later Tarzan books. Edgar Rice Burroughs bridges the gap between H.G. Wells and Stan Lee. Reading the Gods of Mars, which begins and ends in a cliffhanger, stands alongside Star Wars and Spider-Man and Rhinegold as one of the main events in my adolescence. 
Everyone has heard of Tarzan. The Tarzan books are good enough. People sometimes picture Tarzan as a pulp reworking of the Jungle Book, with monkeys instead of wolves. Burroughs doesn't know or care about jungles or animals or monkeys. He thought there were tigers in Africa. Reading Tarzan is more like reading Robinson Crusoe. We are centred in Tarzan's mind; we learn what he learns; we know what tools he has in his tree-house. Tarzan is the direct ancestor of Conan. The best Tarzan book is the one where he is an uncivilized brute in Paris, getting into fights and duels. When Burroughs gets going it is not so much a story as movement and exhilaration and plummeting from one plot point to the next. But he can stop for chapters and tell you about Martian or Venusian animals and plants and customs in a way that makes you think of Olaf Stapleton. I read Last and First Men, and Star Maker as a well. I wanted to base a role-playing game on them.
Bob Howard was an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan. Everyone was an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan. Michael Moorcock wrote a point for point pastiche of the Mars books under the name Edward P. Bradbury. (E.P.B: get it?) There is a scene in To Kill a Mocking Bird where Scout and her friends are acting out scenes from Tarzan and the Ant Men. Not just a generic Tarzan story: that one in particular. Cognoscenti think Ant-Men is the best thing E.R.B. ever wrote. 
The Mars Books were magical. I had heard about the Mars Books for months before I could actually find them. They never even reached the hallowed shores of W.H. Smiths; but they could be obtained as imports in the exotic Soho fleshpot that was Dark They Were And Golden Eyed. Just reading the titles was thrilling enough. What on earth could a story with a title like Chess Men of Mars be about? (It was about people on Mars who play chess. Martian chess is not about killing the King, it's about capturing the Princess. They play it with live princesses.) A Princess of Mars exists in the same narrative space as Tarzan; not so much spinning a yarn as slowly taking us on a travelogue and building up details of an alien world. The language is so old-fashioned it seems transgressive; as if we are reading an old school text book or a Mowgli story, but hearing, not about elephants and Hindoos but about six-armed-apes and red-skinned egg-laying women. The second, Gods of Mars, adds mythology and mysticism; it has our hero waking up at the wrong end of the River of Death from which no Martian ever returns. It ends on a cliffhanger which the third volume entirely fails to pay off on. The others merge into a single mass of sword fights, lizards, amazing technicolour Martians, arenas, scantily clad ladies and light bondage. 
I forget if John Carter really shouts "I still live!" at his enemies or ever describes himself as the greatest swordsman in three worlds. He briefly visits Saturn in one of the latter episodes.

Dungeons and Dragons turned me into a reader. But it turned me into a reader of a very particular kind. There may have been a moment when I was disappointed with Dungeons and Dragons because it didn't really allow me to become a character from Lord of the Rings; but I rapidly became disappointed with Lord of the Rings because it stupidly and carelessly failed to follow the rules of Dungeons and Dragons. 
One man can be killed by a single arrow said Pippin to Denethor, and Boromir was pierced by many. Except that Boromir must be at least fifth level, which is like, 25 hit-points easily and arrows only do a D4 so you are talking thirteen or fourteen arrows to kill him minimum....
Someone put the Mines of Moria into White Dwarf as an introductory scenario. I have no idea how many hit points the Balrog had. The writer pointed out that although Gandalf is the most powerful wizard of the Third Age, he never does any of the things a 20th level Dungeons and Dragons wizard would do. No Temporal Sphere or Prismatic Stasis. He makes a few bangs and flashes and knows a lot of passwords for opening doors. He's actually more like a third level cleric. This excited me. Gandalf is a third level Cleric. Gandalf is a third level Cleric. I excitedly told everyone who would listen. "Gandalf can't be a third level Cleric" they told me "He uses a sword."22
And so gaming consumed literature. The more times I saw Star Wars, the more Star Wars reminded me of Traveller. Later it reminded me of the Star Wars RPG. Tolkien was that thing Middle Earth Role Playing had been based on. I eventually read Roger Zelazny so I could understand Amber. Call of Cthulhu is so important they named a game after it.

21 SPOILER: It was the earth all along.

22 For reasons lost in the Mists of Time Clerics are not allowed to shed blood with a sword; but they can smash people's heads open with a mace.

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Richard Worth said...

During the olden days, the Pope enjoyed his clerics that 'thou shalt not spill blood or use the sword'. Warrior priests took this a little literally, and Bishop Odo of Bayeux is seen in the tapestry wielding a large club. In A&D game balance, it means that clerics don't have high-damage or ranged weapons that would make them good fighters. However, one theory is that priests needed a lot of acolytes, deacons, temple-maidens, so the rules said that every cleric should have a 'large staff' and some players misunderstood this, due to a clerical error...

Andrew Ducker said...

At least one of the Minecraft novels is written by Catherynne M. Valente, and is apparently very good.

(She is very good - I highly recommend The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making)

Jez Higgins said...

"The best Michael Moorcock story is the one you read first" - now you've said this aloud I absolutely know this is true but have never been able to even approach articulating it.

"Corum just is better than Elric, because, erm ... because I read it first."

Thank you.