Monday, October 19, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Flashing Swords! #1

The pulp fantasy revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s is the background against which our hobby arose. It's important to remember this for a number of reasons, chief among them being that the content and style of those pulp fantasies were quite different than the latter-day fantasies that followed in their wake. The historical amnesia of this fact has, in my opinion, made it much harder for gamers not immersed in that culture to understand the early days of the hobby and the RPGs it produced.

As a genre, pulp fantasy is distinguished from other types of fantasy by its format as well as its content. The short story, the novelette, and the novella are the preferred forms of pulp fantasy fiction. While there are novels in the genre, they're fewer in number and are often little more than a collection of smaller works strung together by linking material, which is why they often have picaresque qualities that set them apart from the epics many nowadays tend to associate with fantasy. These qualities are the ones that, in my opinion, early gamers seized upon when crafting their own games and campaigns and it's the rejection of the same that led to the decline of the Old Ways.

Whatever his merits as an author in his own right, Lin Carter was one of the most important and influential editors during the pulp fantasy revival. He put together numerous collections of swords-and-sorcery literature, including the Flashing Swords! series, which ran from 1973 to 1981 and ultimately encompassed five volumes. The series included contributions from many of the prominent members of the Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America, a literary group dedicated to the promotion and popularization of the S&S genre. During its existence, the Guild presented a Gandalf Award for contributions to "heroic fantasy," which just goes to show that, at the time, the fine distinctions guys like me make weren't recognized and writers like J.R.R. Tolkien were considered as part of "the club," despite the clear difference in their content and style from authors like Leiber or Vance.

Flashing Swords! #1 consists of four novelettes. The first is a story of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser entitled "The Sadness of the Executioner." The story itself concerns Death, his role in Nehwon, and how Lankhmar's most famous pair of adventurers fit into his plans. It's a terrific story that, I think, nicely exemplifies the pulp fantasy ethos, on both a personal and a "cosmic" level. "Morreion" by Jack Vance is a tale from his "Dying Earth" series, which would later re-appear in his 1984 book, Rhialto the Marvellous. "Morreion" is particularly of interest of fantasy gamers looking for one possible way to represent "space" travel. Ioun Stones are also prominently on display here. Poul Anderson's "The Mermaid's Children" is another installment in his fantastic medieval quasi-series that includes books such as Three Hearts and Three Lions and The Broken Sword. It's just as good as its predecessors and as suffused with sadness. Rounding out the book is Lin Carter's own "The Higher Heresies of Oolimar," which is by far the weakest piece in the whole thing. If ever there were any question that Carter had no shame, it's fully on display in this silly piece, which comes across as exceedingly amateurish.

Regardless, Flashing Swords! #1 is well worth a read if you can find it. Its four stories -- yes, including Carter's -- are a very good encapsulation of the pulp fantasy revival: three-quarters genius and one-quarter hack-work. Come to think of it, that description might fit the old school movement too ...

18 comments:

  1. S&S is by far my favorite genre of fiction- and the one that most influences my own gaming. I think, however, that the inclusion of the dwarf, elf, hobbit trio in the early incarnations of the game clouds the issue of what type of fiction was most influential at the dawn of RPGs more than any historical amnesia. Whatever the reasons for their presence and how EGG felt about it are not as important as the fact that they ARE there, imo.
    I hate, hate, hate LOTR, but the presence of these races swamps the single all other influences, imo. M I'm almost certainly weak minded, but once Bilbo's in the potential mix, I have a hard time imagining Conan being there- much less Turjan. Furthermore, that leaves aside the fact that rules had to be broken in order to create the Mouser in the 1e Dieties and Demigods book.

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  2. I think, however, that the inclusion of the dwarf, elf, hobbit trio in the early incarnations of the game clouds the issue of what type of fiction was most influential at the dawn of RPGs more than any historical amnesia.

    It's possible, but my feeling is that, when you look at the demihuman characters in context within OD&D, particularly their level limits, they feel more like Gary's saying, "Well, sure, if you really want to play one of these weirdos, here are some rules to do so, but they're no good compared to humans." The hobbit limits feel very much like that to me, but perhaps that's my own biases showing.

    I think the larger issue really is that the vast majority of gamers who got into D&D, then and now, expected a more epic style of multi-racial fantasy and the fact that the game allowed for it from the first has provided the thin wedge by which they've been able to advance that interpretation.

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  3. It's possible that EGG was trying to express things as you see them- or he might have been trying to model hobbits as he saw them from Tolkien more than he was truing to discourage their use. However, I stand by my original statement that the reasons for the inclusion and how Gary felt about it- and even how he implemented it didn't really matter. I think the fact that level limits were largely ignored bolsters my arguement a bit.
    Actually, rereading your last paragraph- I think we're saying just about the same thing, really. I just think the wedge end was pretty thick.

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  4. James, do you know how, if at all, the version of "The Merman's Children" found in this collection differs from the later stand-alone printing?

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  5. I'm not sure how the novelette included here and the later version differ. I presume, as is usual the case, that the later version is somewhat expanded, but I can't say that for a fact.

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  6. James, do you know how, if at all, the version of "The Merman's Children" found in this collection differs from the later stand-alone printing?

    I'm not James, but I know that the story "The Merman's Children" in this anthology is the first quarter (roughly) of the novel by that same name published a few years later. Another section from that novel also appeared in one of the later Flashing Swords anthologies.

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  7. The series included contributions from many of the prominent members of the Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America, a literary group dedicated to the promotion and popularization of the S&S genre.

    My understanding is that "SAGA" was never really a "group" in the sense that it had active members. It was pretty much just an editorial vehicle for Lin Carter, who solicited S&S stories from the authors who were "members", and publishing them under that rubric. Moorcock is a case in point, in that he is both cited as a "founding member" and has repeatedly stated that he wasn't really involved in SAGA. Like you say, Lin had a talent for self-promotion.

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  8. Howarth,

    Your point is well-taken. SAGA -- an acronym that doesn't even work -- was pretty much a creature of Lin Carter and died with him. Its Gandalf Award was given almost exclusively to people with whom Carter worked, including his mentor De Camp. Still, there was a semi-formal "membership" and, as I understand it, they did make a point of getting together and sharing ideas with one another over drinks at cons and the like. Perhaps not a true literary guild but I wouldn't have minded being a member.

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  9. Black Gate tips the cap to Lin Carter today, too, also for all the right reasons. http://www.blackgate.com/2009/10/18/why-i-like-lin-carter/

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  10. Perhaps not a true literary guild but I wouldn't have minded being a member.

    @ JM - I'm with you there :).

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  11. I think the short story format is really important to understanding adventure construction, as opposed to designing a campaign whole cloth.

    Older modules are clearly unconnected short stories strung together, that tell unrelated events to depict the life of a single group of adventurers.

    The Dragonlance modules, on the other hand, are much more structured along a Sword of Shannarra type epic trilogy.

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  12. I will continue to champion Lin Carter even while recognizing that he wrote some lousy stuff.

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  13. While I don't think much of his writing (and even less of his work on Conan), I do think that for his efforts as an editor (not only Flashing Swords, but the Year's Best Fantasy Stories series, as well as other anthologies) Carter helped revitalize fantasy fiction in the 70's, and for that he should be remembered fondly.

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  14. I love Lin Carter, but everything I have read by him is entertaining trash....aside from the "World's End" series which stands heads and shoulders above any other of his works I've been exposed to.

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  15. I think that the one-off Wizard of Zao is a very good book. One of Carter's (many) weaknesses was the series (or "cycle" as he insisted on calling them). It was just too damn easy for him to start writing the fantasy equivalent of the Perils of Pauline.

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  16. > Black Gate tips the cap to Lin Carter today, too, also for all the right reasons. http://www.blackgate.com/2009/10/18/why-i-like-lin-carter/

    *g* well, that's freaky timing since I'd just replied to the original thread before that was reposted; http://dragonsandswords.blogspot.com/2009/09/why-i-like-lin-carter.html

    Yeah, and that's for Lin the Author (/particularly/ in "World's End" mode), rather than Lin the Editor, Lin the Critic, Lin the (Fantasy, etc.) Promoter, Lin the Fan, and so on, which are rather over-looked given how well several of those hats fit in with the timeframe running up to and just after D&D was first published.

    (Not that he didn't go /way/ back to the 40s as well, of course; his Callisto series actually started on Mars back then with an unpublished short story and his world-creation maps in Barsoomian tradition, for example).

    With regards to this particular volume; yes, good, safe choices of author and stronger works therefrom which makes it rather more difficult with that inevitable comparison to his own fannish self-induction to the volume. Had he had included/expanded slightly upon one of at least two separate episodes from The Enchantress of World's End (taking forwards two years) per that blog link, instead, he'd've been in good company /and/ on the level, IMHO.

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  17. (digression/Linnish background & later fiction w/RPG hook)

    "Callisto was originally Mars" (or "Darloona was a silly name for a lady after all"):
    One of Lin's maps from his mid-1940s "Mars" world-creation portfolio; http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2667/4028451222_ce4cc2c5c7_o.jpg
    End of the (separate) short story - his first, perhaps - from 1945-49/50 period; http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2767/4028451474_0eb2a95d55_o.jpg
    Only a few borrowed names remain as revisited in his Callisto series ~25 years later; original pseudo-Barsoomian outline plot being USAF pilot Brian Clark over Burma in 1945 vs. Red Cross pilot Jonathan Andrew Dark in Vietnam/Cambodia.

    There are many "forgotten" people and their world-creations and ongoing ideas rolling forwards from back in the 40s/50s, no doubt. And many of those who came to the fore only did so through some random occurrence; e.g. Lin losing his job and deciding to chance his arm on the literary front professionally (*hooks back to top of thread*) after decades in the fandom, Prof. Barker who only published because some D&D player decided to go kill an angel, etc. (And credit to Lin for not being derivative all the time by any means, since he did not borrow from Tekumel that I can see despite having that entire world in his hands from 1950).

    Any thoughts on Lin the Gamer, too? i.e. collabs w/Scott Bizar on Royal Armies of the Hyborian Age and Flash Gordon and the Warriors of Mongo.
    IMO, it's a pity he couldn't have encouraged other authors in that "informal group" (SAGA) to have taken a more active involvement in gaming as well since that was haphazard at best (with Fritz Leiber, for example).

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  18. Historical note: The Frazetta cover art shown here was later used for the Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set.

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