Monday, January 26, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Carnelian Cube

As further evidence for my thesis that L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt are important keys to understanding Gary Gygax's vision for Dungeons & Dragons, there's their 1948 collaboration, The Carnelian Cube. Like many of the titles listed in Appendix N, this novel is a story of alternate realities and of a modern man transported between them. This is a such a common theme in Gygax's list of "inspirational and educational reading" that I can't help but wonder why no published D&D product, either during his time at TSR or subsequently, dealt with it, except very obliquely. The notion of a person from contemporary society flung into another world has a long pedigree and contains rich veins of adventure to mine. One wonders why it never seems to have had been an appreciable impact on the development of D&D, despite Gary's repeated references to books dealing with precisely this theme.

The Carnelian Cube itself tells the tale of an archeologist named Arthur Finch who confiscates a weird stone -- the eponymous carnelian cube -- from one of the workers at his dig in Turkey. The stone, it turns out, belonged to the Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana, to whom later generations attributed various occult powers. When Finch places the stone under his pillow and goes to sleep dreaming of a more perfect, "rational" world, he awakens to find himself in a parallel Earth, where everything is done on a solely rational basis, resulting in the elevation of self-interest above all else. Finch wishes to escape but, unfortunately, the carnelian cube does not make its way with him and he must seek out the parallel version of the worker from whom he confiscated the stone so he can return home. Regain the cube he does, but with unintended effects, for each time he steals it and dreams, he finds himself transported into yet another parallel world that isn't quite what he wanted.

The Carnelian Cube may not have had any specific influence over D&D, but I can see its influence over the World of Greyawk, as Oerth is one of a series of parallel worlds, each one containing versions of the same people and places but subtly different, owing to the unique nature of each parallel. Likewise, if you look at Gary Gygax's work as a whole, you can see plenty of examples where he treated the topic of alternate worlds and realities and the possibilities for adventure therein. One might be able to argue that D&D's portrayal of the multiverse owes something to Gary's enjoyment of alternate world tales. Like most things in the game, the application of its inspirations is often quirky and not immediately obvious. That probably is the case here too, but I am nevertheless left wondering what Dungeons & Dragons -- and the wider hobby -- might be like today if stories like The Carnelian Cube had exercised a more clear influence.

12 comments:

  1. ...novel is a story of alternate realities and of a modern man transported between them. This is a such a common theme in Gygax's list of "inspirational and educational reading" that I can't help but wonder why no published D&D product, either during his time at TSR or subsequently, dealt with it, except very obliquely.

    Perhaps I'm just waxing philosophically this morning, but is not our very activity of gaming nothing more than the story of a modern man being transported to an alternate reality? A gaming supplement addressing such a scenario seems almost superfluous.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Quite honestly it sounds better as a concept than it does in actual play. Every time we tried something like this my group reverted back to the standard mode of play.

    This was probably due to the fact there are already modern people playing. That most fantasy worlds are really Olde Tyme settings than historical recreations. That the character being played are generally modern in outlook.

    Nothing wrong with any of this mind you. But it all combines to make the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur scenario a lot less compelling in a D&D game.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Likewise, I'm also a little skeptical -- it seems like using "modern man in fantastic medieval world" would run into all the same problems that using LOTR for gaming does. Story too specific for gaming, if the one transported character perishes there's no obvious way to replace them, etc. But I'd entertaining hearing a pitch for what such a scenario would look like.

    As the poster above notes, the modern-man-transported works particularly well because it serves as a representative for the reader, who has modern-world expectations and needs to learn about the new world. (See also: Every Hollywood movie set in an exotic location needs a white American protagonist in the mix.)

    But since D&D is set up to generate and adjudicate PCs from the medieval world, now that's our "home base", and it would be most direct to have adventures with the medieval characters flung into different worlds. And that we do basically have, with things like S3, the "Mace of Cuthbert" adventure, etc.

    I would guess that a modern-man-in-medieval-times story would need the modern man as an NPC propelling the action forward.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well, it would seem that at least Richard Garriot picked up on such implications. The Ultima series was influenced by Dungeons & Dragons and is largely about a modern man transported into a fantastic medieval world.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm with Mike. Playing a Yankee in King Arthur's court seems like an unnecessary layer of complication compared to just playing a knight or playing yourself the way the original Blackmoor players did.

    ReplyDelete
  6. but is not our very activity of gaming nothing more than the story of a modern man being transported to an alternate reality?

    An intriguing question!

    ReplyDelete
  7. This is a such a common theme in Gygax's list of "inspirational and educational reading" that I can't help but wonder why no published D&D product, either during his time at TSR or subsequently, dealt with it, except very obliquely.

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Amityville Mike
    I agree.

    Thanks for this review. Does the book cover the carnelian cube's origins? Might it be that the world Finch is living in when he discovers it (i.e. ours) is someone else's mis-creation? (I don't believe that, but it's a spooky thought)

    ReplyDelete
  9. On a completely more prosaic note, I'm immediately put in mind of a cubic gate ...

    ReplyDelete
  10. Quite a while back R.A. Salvatore put out a book called The Woods Out Back that dealt with this theme. It was a pretty good book, reading when it came out (I was 12 or 13 at the time).

    Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Woods_Out_Back

    ReplyDelete
  11. I was thinking along exactly the same lines as Amityville Mike.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Does the book cover the carnelian cube's origins?

    Beyond the Apollonius connection, I don't recall any further explanation for the nature of the cube.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.