Someone’s been reading my unpublished novel

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Actually I think there are two main kinds of cliche fantasy settings. The first, which this map is going for, is probably ultimately derived from Middle-earth. The main cultures are vaguely Dark Ages northern European (although this map has one ‘exotic city’, just as Middle-earth has Southrons).

The other main kind of setting is the ‘kitchen sink’ setting where each area is a different thing that the author thought was cool. The original of this is probably Robert E Howard’s Hyborian Age, where you have one country of chivalrous knights, one that’s ancient Egypt, one that’s vikings and so on. This is a science fiction version of the same idea:

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Published role-playing settings seem to tend towards ‘kitchen sinks’, such as Rifts and D&D’s Mystara. I suppose this is partly a commercial decision, so they can keep putting out setting material.

Can anyone name this article?

I’m looking for an article. I thought it was in an old Dragon magazine, but I can’t find it there.

It was about historical individuals that resembled Conan. The argument, from memory, was that real ‘barbarians’ weren’t like that–instead, you got wandering freebooter types from societies that were in transition.

I had the idea it was by L. Sprague De Camp.

China Mieville (part 2: Is Tolkien a wen on the arse of fantasy literature?)

As I said yesterday, China Mieville once said that Tolkien was “a wen on the arse of fantasy literature.” A wen, by the way, is a cyst on the skin. Mieville is like Tolkien in that he likes using obscure words. Another, more significant, similarity is that he has good guys that are good and bad guys that are bad. I can’t imagine either of them having characters like Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, who are far from evil, but who arguably do more harm than good, and certainly aren’t fighting for anything other than their own wealth. I also can’t imagine him having a hero appointed by a prophecy.

Similarly, in Mieville’s stories it always matters to the broader world whether the good guys win or not. If Conan was to die his ex-lovers and comrades in arms would be sad, but it wouldn’t cause any great suffering in the general population. The people he’s robbed might even be relieved. But in the New Crobuzon stories the city is always in actual danger unless the heroes win.

However that didn’t stop him saying that

Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious – you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés – elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings – have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.

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The point about “elves and dwarves and magic rings” is probably one that lots of people will nod their heads at. Of course they aren’t really Tolkien’s original ideas, but it’s true that most examples of elves, dwarves and magic rings in modern popular culture come to us via Tolkien (probably by way of D&D and the computer games that copied it, and by fantasy authors copying all of the above).

However it wasn’t Tolkien who made these things cliches, it was all the people who copied Tolkien. That isn’t a reason to dislike Tolkien, it’s a reason to dislike copying. If Tolkien had never lived, I don’t imagine fantasy fiction would be any more original. There’d probably just be a lot more sub-Robert E. Howard and sub-HP Lovecraft and China Mieville would be talking about “sorcerers ‘n’ barbarians ‘n’ forgotten, slumbering gods” (which, of course, actually are fantasy cliches). Or if those writers had never lived either, “lost valleys ‘n’ dinosaurs ‘n’ Martians”. The lazy, ‘vanilla’ version of fantasy would be different, but just as lazy and vanilla.

In any case, I think talking about Tolkien’s style or ‘literary merit’ is missing the point. The real issue here, I’m pretty sure, is that Mieville doesn’t like conservative Catholicism.

I can sort of see why Mieville dresses up this fairly straightforward argument so that it sounds like he’s complaining about too many dwarves. A lot of people really, really hate the idea that fantasy writing can have a political agenda. Or at least they hate the idea when it’s writers they like, and when they agree with the ideas. I remember having an online debate with James Maliszewski of the Grognardia blog about this, in which he seemed to argue that the Catholic Church has never engaged in politics, and therefore Lord of the Rings has no politics. I imagine that he’d say that China Mieville is trying to drag politics in where they don’t belong, and that this is both evidence that he’s an inferior writer and one of the causes of his inferior writing.

A lot of people, maybe even most, seem to be ashamed to say “I enjoy writing more when I agree with the political ideas behind it”. Perhaps there’s a pervasive idea about ‘great books’ that everyone should prefer, or that good writing is about ‘eternal truths’. Whatever the reason, I think people’s inability to own up causes a lot of ridiculous arguments about books where everyone tries to find another reason to justify their preferences (‘Tolkien is cliched’. ‘No, Mieville is a bitter cynic’).

So I can see why Mieville would want to try and argue around that. However I don’t think you should fight bullshit with more bullshit. Clearly fantasy writers have ideas about how the world works, clearly they use these ideas in their writing, and therefore clearly fantasy has political ideas. Those ideas might not be very interesting or controversial ones in some cases, but that’s partly a function of the society in which they were written. “Black people are savages” was quite an uninteresting and uncontroversial assumption in past decades, and if someone had written with the opposite assumption they would have been the ‘political writer’.

So I guess I’m saying that “I don’t agree with conservative Catholicism” is quite different to saying “Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature”, and you shouldn’t say one when you mean the other. However a lot of the arguments you hear in response seem to be equally dishonest, because they pretend that Tolkien is ‘apolitical’.

China Mieville (part 1)

I’ve been reading a fair bit of China Mieville lately, after discovering that my university library had most of his books.

For those who haven’t read him, he’s probably best known for three books set in the city of New Crobuzon and the world of Bas-Lag. New Crobuzon is a ‘big evil fantasy city’ in the tradition of Lankhmar and Ankh-Morpork, but much grimmer than either.

He says that he’s influenced by role-playing games (and he actually wrote some stuff for Pathfinder). Perdido Street Station has a brief appearance by an obvious D&D adventuring party. More broadly, the city is one where lots of non-human species live side-by-side with humans, and there are large non-human societies elsewhere. He doesn’t use dwarves, trolls etc like Terry Pratchett. His main non-human races are frog-people, cactus-people, and the most interesting ones, khepri, who are red-skinned women whose heads are giant dung beetles (there are males, but they’re just giant dung beetles and aren’t intelligent). Another D&D-like quality to his work is that magic is common, and magicians are analagous to academics, specifically scientists.

The most distinctive thing about the New Crobuzon books, to me, is that politically powerful figures act like politically powerful figures in the real world, and are condemned as such.

Some examples of what I mean: Fritz Leiber presents the ruler of Lankhmar as borderline insane, but this fact doesn’t effect Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s lives very much and the story sort of laughs it off. It’s part of the picturesque detail of Lankhmar. Terry Pratchett presents the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork as a cold, scheming despot. But, very improbably, he always wants what’s best for the city. And although it’s stated that he tortures and kills people,.he never does it to a main character and it’s apparently not something that you’re supposed to worry about. Whereas when the rulers of New Crobuzon have people murdered, you’re supposed to be outraged, and it’s often part of the plot rather than a background detail.

Similarly he has organised crime, but they do things like deal drugs and murder each other, rather than being a loveable thieves guild.

Anyway he once described Tolkien as “the wen on the arse of fantasy literature”, which not surprisingly caused a lot of bad feeling. Tomorrow I’ll get into that.

Tekumel needs Conan and Princess Leia

People who follow role-playing blogs, particularly those concerned with old versions of D&D, are likely to have heard of Tekumel. M.A.R. Barker’s fantasy world is as lovingly detailed as that of Tolkien or any of his successors, but has a very different inspiration, being a combination of ‘pulp’ fantasy and science fiction and various non-European civilisations.

There have been four official role-playing games set in the world, and none of them have proved successful. Several people have wondered why the setting isn’t more popular. Here’s my take on it.

Empire of the Petal Throne, the first Tekumel game (and either the second or third RPG ever, depending on when you count Tunnels & Trolls as being first published), assumes that the player characters are ‘barbarians’, just arrived in the great city of Jakalla.

When I first read this I assumed that the characters were supposed to be from a ‘normal’ D&D-like setting, and that the characters would discover Jakalla along with the players.

In fact it turns out that the player characters are supposed to come from places with roughly the same culture as Jakalla (although the details are different enough that the game gives percentage chances of accidentally committing a crime simply by wandering around).

Not only that, but the fandom of the game, if not the rules themselves, seem to assume that you will ‘really role-play’. That is, your character ‘has to’ approve of slavery, human sacrifice and impaling people for minor crimes.

No one seems to put it this way, but in D&D terms the big cosmic conflict in Tekumel is between Lawful Evil and Chaotic Evil – and even then the conflict is something of a trick, since the gods are specifically stated to be aliens masquerading as gods.

There doesn’t seem to be any place for someone who either truly comes from outside the society, or who was born into it but rejects its values. And this, to me, seems quite different to the source fiction.

So, in conclusion, Tekumel would be better if it had good guys.

from Rattle of Bones

“My sorcerer is rattling his bones,” whispered the host, then laughed wildly. “Dying, he swore his very bones would weave a net of death for me. I shackled his corpse to the floor, and now, deep in the night, I hear his bare skeleton clash and rattle as he seeks to be free, and I laugh, I laugh! Ho! ho! How he yearns to rise and stalk like old King Death along these dark corridors when I sleep, to slay me in my bed!”

Robert E. Howard.

Barsoom has clerics – part 2.

A while ago I posted this, in which I mentioned that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars has unrealistically fast healing, and that it was the only example I knew of D&D style ‘instant healing’ in fiction. Several people, however, commented with other examples.

Simon Forster mentioned Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion series, which has paladins (using that name) as well as wizards who can heal.

Dariel mentioned Fred Saberhagen’s Empire of the East, the Tanu in Julian May’s Pliocene Exile series, and the Conan story The Slithering Shadow, in which Conan drinks a ‘healing potion’ (not named as such).

Finally Keith Davies mentioned the Taltos series by Steven Brust, which has magical healing and bringing people back from the dead. From his comment, it sounds like they come back as in D&D, with no drawbacks, rather than the more common fictional device of coming back ‘but with a terrible price’.

I think there are a few different types of ‘D&D healing’ that we’re talking about here:

  • Healing of wounds ‘between one scene and the next’ – either instantly, or so quickly that the plot doesn’t move on while the character is recuperating.
  • Characters surviving wounds that should actually kill them.
  • Bringing people back from the dead, with their personality and body intact, and without any magical payback that renders it not worth doing.

In rules terms, I’d say this is covered by

  • Healing potions and magic, recovery by resting being unrealistically high (even in early editions – you only gain 1 Hit Point every two days in OD&D, but if you’ve got 3 Hit Points that means you can recover from any non-fatal wound with four days’ rest), and in 4th edition healing surges.
  • Dying at -10 Hit Points instead of zero (and in early editions it seems like saving throws were meant to be this as well – you ‘should’ die, but something might save you)
  • Various high-level spells.

Now that I analyse it, I actually don’t think ‘D&D-style healing’ as a whole is rare in fiction. Action heroes certainly heal their wounds quickly, and “wait – he’s still breathing! My God, he might just make it!” is pretty common (or evil characters might do something similar, in which case the audience would usually be supposed to react with horror).

I think the difference is that, in most cases, you’re supposed to suspend your disbelief. Action heroes are meant to be made of flesh and blood, have organs that react to bullets the same way that other organs do, and live in a world without magic. The fact that they’re fighting fit in a few days isn’t explained, it’s just ‘action movie logic’ that you roll your eyes at and accept.

Whereas in Barsoom

  • There’s a specific world element that justifies the healing.
  •  It isn’t a characteristic of the wounded character (like Terminator or Wolverine), it’s the skills of another group of characters.
  • The ‘healers’ are very common in the game world (in fact it seems that all women on Barsoom can do this), and they do it routinely.

A setup that D&D-like is pretty uncommon in my experience. The Elizabeth Moon series is definitely inspired by D&D. I don’t know about the Steven Brust series, but I’ve emailed the author to ask him.

EDIT: Steven Brust got back to me, and said “It was inspired by many things, one of which was a game that was inspired by a game that was inspired by D&D.”