Monday, December 28, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Under the Green Star

Lin Carter is a figure about whom I have a great deal of ambivalence. On the one hand, his working shepherding the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, beginning in 1969, is in my opinion a key factor in the appearance of the hobby of roleplaying as we know it today. On the other hand, his Conan pastiches, which he wrote primarily with L. Sprague de Camp, did an immense disservice to the legacy of Robert E. Howard, contributing to the popular misunderstanding of both the writer and his greatest creation. And then there are Carter's own literary contributions. About these I am probably most ambivalent of all, for they simultaneously reveal both sides of his character -- at once hopelessly derivative and uproariously fun.

A good case in point is 1972's Under the Green Star, the first in what would become an entire series of sword-and-planet novels after the tradition of Burroughs. Like many of its antecedents, this novel presents itself as a real document, written in the first person, by an individual who has, by means of astral projection, transported his soul to another world. This individual, who is never identified by his Earth name, is wealthy but crippled. His ability to send his spirit to a place -- learned at a Tibetan monastery, naturally -- is a great boon to him, as his physical impediments on this planet need not limit him on another. This is a common conceit in sword-and-planet tales: the protagonist's "second chance" to overcome some handicap, whether it be physical, social, or economic, that prevents him from achieving his full potential as a hero. It's a conceit younger people might first have encountered in Stephen Donaldson's various Thomas Covenant novels, but it has deep roots in this sub-genre of pulp fantasy.

The narrator's soul finds itself inhabiting the body of an unfortunately named warrior, Chong the Mighty. Chong had been cursed by a sorcerer a century before the novel begins, his soul torn from his body, which was carefully preserved in expectation of his eventual return. After the obligatory time he must spend acquainting himself with his new world, its culture, and language -- another staple of sword-and-planet yarns -- the narrator become embroiled in its conflicts. He also, as is typical, falls in love with a beautiful young princess. His devotion to her precipitates many of his adventures in the novel and is also instrumental in his eventual forced return to Earth at its end.

I find it difficult to form an objective judgment about this novel and its sequels. On a fundamental level, it's a wretched pastiche, a piece of Burroughsian fan fiction hardly deserving of anyone's attention. But it's fun, or at least I found it so. Carter is not, by any means, a great writer. His prose is often infelicitous and his dialog wooden. His characters are a mixed bag, but tend more toward cut-outs than fully fleshed out human beings. Yet, I can't deny that I enjoyed this book in spite of it all. Or perhaps it was because of all of its failings that I liked it. There's something very primal about this book. There's a reckless spirit of childish fun that I found infectious, even as my adult mind frequently reeled at its lack of originality.

Of course, I sometimes feel that originality is overrated, at least when it comes to pulp fantasy, where tapping into pre-existing archetypes is at least as important as coming up with something genuinely new. Under the Green Star certainly does that in my opinion, which is why I am willing to overlook its many, many flaws. It's not great literature by any definition of the term, but it is a quick, fun read and, from a gaming perspective, provides a good model for creating pastiche settings of one's own.

17 comments:

  1. I've never read this one. Nice review, James.

    No Carter protagonist is as unfortunately named as poor Thongor. He sounds like a barbarian underwear merchant.

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  2. I'm actually a fan of Lin Carter. I'm not afraid to admit it. Sure his stuff is derivative and he wrote several pastiches (even Phillip Jose Farmer wrote Burroughs pastiches) but his writing is enjoyable.

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  3. "It's a conceit younger people might first have encountered in Stephen Donaldson's various Thomas Covenant novels, but it has deep roots in this sub-genre of pulp fantasy."

    Huzzah, I'm a younger person for the day. :)

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  4. What I find compelling about Carter's work is more of the ideas than the execution. He conceived his "Lemuria" tales as combining the best of Burroughs and Howard, which is pretty cool.

    He also wrote novels (the Man Who Loved Mars, and others) in Brackett/Moore pastiche Mars, one of the few authors (I can only think of one Moorcock short-story) to catch on to that evoke setting.

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  5. Under a Green Star was my exposure to Burroughs style fiction. My memory of it is really fond, but I read the series when I was 11. I wonder if reading it now would destroy my pleasant impression.

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  6. I'm another Carter fan, even though I am critical of a lot of his work. In general, I think the prolonged series was a fatal weakness in him--however promising they begin, they tend to end with a whimper.

    In this series, for example, I really enjoyed the first two books. The second one, in fact, has some great stuff about the dead city of towers and the science-wizards inhabiting them. But it gets a lot less inspired as it goes on and the wheels of the narrative become so obvious.

    And no series goes downhill further than the World's End series. Actually, you can usually just assume that if pirates show up in a Carter book, he's lost his inspiration.

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  7. Good review as always James!

    Although they aren't my cup of tea, it's hard for me to hold the Conan pastiches against Lin Carter, or DeCamp, or even Roy Thomas.

    They got offered something most of us can only dream: writing Conan.

    Of course they took it, and of course they weren't as good at it as Howard.

    But I can't begrudge them grabbing that brass ring. I sure would have.

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  8. > Yet, I can't deny that I enjoyed this book in spite of it all. Or perhaps it was because of all of its failings that I liked it. There's something very primal about this book. There's a reckless spirit of childish fun that I found infectious, even as my adult mind frequently reeled at its lack of originality.

    Disengage brain and enjoy, eh: where are those "original stories" after all?

    "Pastiche" is an interesting word to use since ERB's Barsoom could easily be said to be a pastiche of Lowell's Mars and Gustavus Pope's /pre/-pulp Journey to Mars (1894) which is finally back in print again (http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=FI-0JwuS8ZUC) (http://www.challzine.net/23/23mars.html / http://www.erbzine.com/mag14/1405.html , etc.).

    Have to agree with your gaming comment, of course, since I had several decades worth of campaign setting inspiration from one of Lin's series. "Pastiche", of course... and science fantasy, too ;)

    > This individual, who is never identified by his Earth name, is wealthy but crippled. His ability to send his spirit to a place -- learned at a Tibetan monastery, naturally -- is a great boon to him, as his physical impediments on this planet need not limit him on another. This is a common conceit in sword-and-planet tales: the protagonist's "second chance" to overcome some handicap

    *g* I thought for a moment you were going to make passing reference to a certain current movie (Sir Bela on Jorune? ;) at that point. :)

    Good call on the review, James, and looking forward to the next couched apology for liking Lin's writings. ;)
    *
    With regards to REH: I'm pretty sure it's safe to say his work will survive Lin's over-enthusiastic fannishness and that many, many people would not have come around to REH's "true legacy" without having first approached that via Carter.

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  9. > Matthew Slepin wrote:
    > I'm another Carter fan, even though I am critical of a lot of his work. In general, I think the prolonged series was a fatal weakness in him--however promising they begin, they tend to end with a whimper.

    Yes; that's a stronger - and less frequently made - point of criticism of Lin than the more usual "pastiche"/"derivative"/"damaging legacy" ones, IMHO.
    Whether that was through running out of inspiration, jumping (back) onto other projects ( http://www.erbzine.com/mag17/1717.html ) or for other reasons, it is more than slightly annoying in many cases...
    (On the minor plus side, cutting a series short /is/ still a preferable approach to feeling obliged to churn out the rest of your 9,000 page trilogy of trilogies for financial reasons or "to keep the fans happy" and leaving them wanting 7,500 pages of their lives back).

    In the case of the World's End series, I'm /very/ glad that he wrote the end first since that gives some sense of "completion" to add to the free-rolling inspired fun, genuinely neat ideas and general loopiness of the "start" of the series (starting slap-bang on that 1974 turning point in a RPG context). The gaping hole in the "middle" at least left ample space in which to create, in a quieter corner of Gondwane whilst hoping in vain for the rest to appear...

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  10. I just saw the movie 'Avatar' today. It has a very similar premise - albeit there's a lot more going on in the movie than just that.

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  11. @irbyz--I assume that Carter kept at series even when he lost interest because it was easier to see as sequel. And it's hard to find too much fault with him, since he was writing to eat. But still, some bad, bad books resulted.

    That said, books like "Giant of World's End" and "The Wizard of Zao" are fine books.

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  12. "...And no series goes downhill further than the World's End series..."

    Matthew, that may be the most offensive thing I have ever read in my life...my blood is boiling with nerd-rage right now!! ;)

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  13. I remember (albeit hazily) reading this when I was about 12 in the Junior High School library. I also remember thinking, "What the Hell is going on here?". Years later I read it again and had much more appreciation for Carter's work. I am even in the minority and I can handle some of his Conan pastiches.

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  14. Having recently finished reading the Barbarians of Lemuria RPG, i'm interested in checking out some of Lin Carter's Lemuria tales. Thanks for posting this book review!

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  15. > ancientvaults wrote:
    > I am even in the minority and I can handle some of his Conan pastiches.

    Heck, some people even /love/ those pastiches; e.g. http://www.sfsite.com/10b/cl138.htm
    *ducks* ;)

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  16. @irbyz: Well, having lived a majority of my life in Northern Idaho (with a few escape attempts ranging all over the world as an ESL teacher or just rambling around the US) at an early age one really couldn't be too picky with their literature. I read voraciously (and still do) and I realize that re-reading some of these stories how different they were, back then it just devoured Conan stories as I found them, now I appreciate REH and I do applaud some of the pastiches. Some.

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  17. I enjoy Carter a great deal. I first found him via Jandar of Callisto once I finished the Barsoom books, which they are a pastiche of.

    On the RAH issue, I don't hold him in quite the contempt many do and consider his crimes much less the deCamp. One, unlike deCamp who I believe was merely about money, Carter's career makes it clear Carter's work is about the love of the genre, as you point out. For that I'm willing to forgive his Conan work as being less money grubbing and more fanboy getting paid.

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