Monday, March 9, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Legion of Space

Dungeons & Dragons, though a "fantasy" game, is the product of men who grew up in a time when the distinctions between that genre and what we now call "science fiction" were less firm. Indeed, one could argue with some justification that those distinctions only really firmed up in the years after the publication of OD&D. I myself sometimes find it difficult to come to terms with this reality. One of my great failings is that I like to put things into little mental boxes. This flaw has served me well in many ways, not least in ordering my thoughts as I marshal arguments in making my case for this or that. But it's a flaw nonetheless and it frequently leads me astray, particularly when I come across things that defy easy classification. Trying to put such things into a little box not only does them a disservice but it also prevents proper understanding.

Jack Williamson's 1947 novel, The Legion of Space, which was originally published in 1934 as a serial in Astounding Science Fiction, is pretty clearly a science fiction story. Yet Gary Gygax admitted that Williamson's science fiction yarns were a big influence on him in creating D&D. Until about a year ago, I wouldn't have been able to make much sense of this. On some level, I still find it odd, mostly because I'm working against decades-worth of indoctrination by the "fantasy and sci-fi don't mix" brigade that I sometimes think sprang up in reaction to the immense popularity of Star Wars, which gleefully committed that Original Sin of genre fiction.

In any case, The Legion of Space is a clever reworking of The Three Musketeers as a science fiction novel (one of the main characters' names is an anagram of Dumas). The titular Legion is an interplanetary police force/army that arose after the downfall of the Purple Hall, a tyrannical regime that had once ruled humanity. Now, a scion of the Purple Hall seeks help from the alien Medusae to assume the mantle of Emperor of the Sun and only the colorful members of the Legion stand in the way of this nefarious plot.

It's very easy to see why novels like this were so beloved by Gygax. Not only are they fun, enjoyable reads in their own right, they provide good models for referees looking to adapt classic literature to other ends. Williamson's borrowing from The Three Musketeers makes plain why the original story is considered a classic -- its characters, situations, and themes really do transcend both the time in which they were written and the times in which they were set. I suspect it's this that appealed to Gary and from which he took inspiration. As a novice referee, I know I cribbed heavily from my favorite books, although certainly not as skillfully as Williamson. Nevertheless, I think doing so was an important part of my "education" as a referee.

Books like The Legion of Space are another teacher, as they show a more sophisticated way to do what I often attempted less successfully in my youth. They're also vital in developing a more expansive understanding of "fantasy," something I think is key to comprehending the long-lasting appeal of Dungeons & Dragons. I'm still in the process of training myself to look beyond a staid conception of fantasy and to see a wider perspective. It's been an illuminating experience and one I recommend highly to anyone who, like me, is psychologically inclined to putting things into boxes even when it flies in the face of reality.

7 comments:

  1. Re: The spilting of fantasy and sci-fi

    I think this does predate OD&D but not by much. The Lin Carter edited Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series began in 1969. It attempted to establish, in a way, a canon of fantasy literature separate from science fiction (although some entries, such as volumes of Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith cross over).

    What I do think it is accurate to say is OD&D came out about the time they genres began to strongly differentiate and is both a product and a part of that differentiation. A D&D ten years in either direction would have been a much different beast.

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  2. Williamson's stuff is good, though I haven't read this one. As someone who started reading after the genre battle lines were fairly well drawn, it took me the longest time to come to appreciate authors who can't be pigeon-holed as "straight" SF (Heinlein, Asimov, et al.) or fantasy (Tolkien and his bastard stepchildren). My favorites now are those which defy easy categorization.

    The Appendix N list, which for two decades was my go-to resource for discovering new things to read, can also be somewhat limiting in ways. EGG's taste was undoubtedly sound as far as it went (with a heavy emphasis on picaresque novels), but no one can read everything, and I've gleaned some of "my" best D&D (and SFRPG/Traveller) ideas from unlisted authors who blur genre distinctions. To name a few I've never seen you mention that IMO are veritable gold mines of relevant ideas:

    Philip K. Dick
    Cordwainer Smith
    Harlan Ellison
    Peter Beagle (esp. The Innkeeper's Song and related short stories, tons of very suggestive new creatures with so little detail you can make most of it up!)
    Alfred Bester ("My name is Gully Foyle/Terra is my Nation/Deep space is my dwelling place/The Stars my Destination")
    Frank Herbert
    William Gibson (Neuromancer, looked at from an oblique angle, is almost a S&S tale, all the classic elements)

    YMMV

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  3. I recently read Williamson's "Wolves of Darkness" and thought it was terrific. I'll have to check this one out, too. Thanks for the tip.

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  4. What I do think it is accurate to say is OD&D came out about the time they genres began to strongly differentiate and is both a product and a part of that differentiation. A D&D ten years in either direction would have been a much different beast.

    Both your points here seem very plausible to me.

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  5. Willamson's The Reign of Wizardry (originally published in "Unknown" magazine in 1940, republished in book form by Lancer Books in 1964) is straight-up fantasy, specifically a swords & sorcery-flavored retelling of the Theseus myth. Very fast-moving; lots of fun. Recommended.

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  6. In the spirit of Thalmen Dahr's comment, I wonder if it would be interesting/useful to open a thread on recommending authors & works that are good for looting - perhaps with a few words eplaining what's so great about them?

    My own go-to is Tim Powers: I find he fits my pulp-Cthulhu sensibility perfectly, even if I don't always love his handling of language. I've lifted characters, devices, concepts and set pieces wholesale from his books.

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  7. Richard,

    That's an interesting idea. Maybe I'll make a post about that later in the week to give people something to talk about over the weekend :)

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