Monday, December 6, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Man of Gold

As a general rule, I'm not usually keen to read "game fiction." That's probably why, all other considerations aside, I don't tend to think very highly of, say, the Dragonlance novels. To me, they're so clearly vehicles for selling game products that it's difficult to accept them as works of literature in their own right, let alone noteworthy ones.

As with all such prejudices, there are always exceptions and M.A.R. Barker's 1984 novel, The Man of Gold, is a good example of one. The novel tells the story of Hársan, an orphaned, clan-less acolyte of the Temple of Thúmis, the god of knowledge, as he makes his way from his home in a rural province to the capital of Tsolyánu, the Empire of the Petal Throne. Hársan, though young and inexperienced, is remarkably intelligent and talented, particularly in the field of languages, which come to him almost effortlessly. He can even speak the language of the insectoid Pé Chói, a feat no human has ever mastered. And it is because of Hársan's facility with languages that he soon finds himself on the road to the capital at the behest of powerful figures within the empire, a journey that will eventually take him far and wide in a quest far more important than he -- or anyone else -- imagined.

I would be lying if I said that The Man of Gold is a great novel. Stylistically, I found it dry and almost academic in tone, which is no surprise, given its author's background. With the notable exception of Hársan, most of the characters are somewhat flat and their dialog stilted. Yet, despite that, I found it hard to put The Man of Gold down. The book is filled with a plenitude of difficult to pronounce names and byzantine plots, but it nevertheless moves at a brisk pace, even with all the digressions into matters of history, anthropology, linguistics, and theology. While it may be true that Professor Barker is no great novelist, he is clearly an excellent teacher; I came to understand far more about his world of Tékumel through this novel than I ever did through his game writings. For my money, The Man of Gold is probably the best primer of this remarkable campaign setting that I have ever read.

And that's the real appeal of this novel. The overall story is only so-so in my opinion and, as I noted, its characters and dialog lack a certain vitality. However, the world in which the novel takes place is brilliantly vibrant and well-presented. In many ways, it is the star of The Man of Gold and why I continued to read the novel even when its story might otherwise have failed to hold my attention. That's why I consider The Man of Gold a rare example of a gaming novel that works: it makes me want to play in the world of Tékumel. Better still, it's quite accessible even to people who've never read a single gaming product that described that alien planet and its strange races and cultures.

Whenever someone asks me the best way to learn more about Tékumel, I always recommend they seek out a copy of The Man of Gold. Reading it will give a far better sense of what the setting is like than almost anything that's ever been written about it. Moreover, it'll give a better sense of what one does in a Tékumel-based campaign. Too often gamers become overwhelmed by all the details and minutiae of Tékumel and fail to see that, at base, it's a wonderful pulp fantasy world after the fashion of Burroughs. Far from being "unusable" as a roleplaying setting, it's actually a pretty straightforward evocation of sword-and-planet literature, albeit one that's done with surprising skill (and, let's be honest, more than a few areas of authorial obsession).

Ever since I first read this novel, I've felt that it ought to be more widely read. A few years ago, there were plans to reprint it, I believe, but, so far as I know, they never came to pass -- a pity. Still, I regularly see copies in used bookstores and there are many online vendors from whom copies can be obtained. If you're at all interested in Tékumel as a fantasy setting, The Man of Gold is as good a place as any to start. It's not the most compelling novel, I've ever read (though it's far from the worst), but it's an unmatched introduction to one of the most interesting imaginary realms ever conceived.

22 comments:

  1. "I don't tend to think very highly of, say, the Dragonlance novels."

    I never read any of the Dragonlance books, but I did wince my way through the Star of the Guardians series by Margaret Weis, which is both a shameless Star Wars pastiche and also a vile pro-monarchy screed. I assume she's no more readable with a co-author.

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  2. I actually liked Star of the Guardians, but then I'm a medievalist and a closet monarchist. ;)

    I agree with James, though. Every time I read MoG, I want to run a game with my group. The only problem is, my group would kill it in a scene reminiscent of KoDT. :)

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  3. I have read MoG, twice about 20 years apart. I appreciated the setting the second time. Also the writing seemed geared more toward an adult reader than a teenager. Especially, the holding cell where, Hársan and the female, are placed. Just enough room for the two them, standing face to face. The only food and water they get is what ever the jailers throw thru the top of the cell. That has given me a few shakes

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  4. Not a bad book, but I think Flamesong is the best of the two published by DAW. It's a really great adventure story.

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  5. I agree with you, James. None of Prof. Barker's novels are very good novels. I read them all for the insights on Tekumel. I just wish that the novels included the foreign languages' diacritical marks.

    I also like how in The Man of Gold polygamy is presented as the solution to love triangles.

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  6. I greatly enjoyed both Man of Gold and Flamesong when they came out, in spite of the weaknesses you correctly note. The rich history of Tekumel appealed to my inner-History geek on a very deep level, and I wanted my game worlds then (and still do now) to have that same feeling of depth.

    I bought Professor Barker's three later novels that came out a few years ago, but never finished them, in spite of my great interest in what he had to say about the empires outside of Tsolyanu; they were nigh unreadable.

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  7. My teen years were all about Game Fiction. Looking back, it was pretty much a solid mass of 'ugh'. In a way, though, it was helpful by providing examples of what not to do - for instance, it taught me that, despite what many people seem to think, 'character development' should involve more than having characters sit around on promontories bitching about their lives. (Salvatore, Weis, Denning, Hawke, yeah, I'm talking to all of you.)

    I picked up 'Man of Gold' randomly a few years ago on a used book excursion - I'd heard the name before, and I knew the EPT had something to do with gaming, but didn't know much more than that. I never got around to reading it, but I might need to pull it out now, since the bits and pieces I keep hearing about Tekumel really has piqued my interest.

    Oh, and as far as polygamy to solve romance issues goes, I know I've seen a Chinese writer use that as well, though in that case, it was being played mostly for laughs (eight wives...*shrug*).

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  8. I came to understand far more about his world of Tékumel through this novel than I ever did through his game writings.

    Yep. It was hard for me to thread a bead on the EPT campaign setting until I read Man of Gold. I share your distaste for "gaming fiction," but your post makes me think about what other fiction might be offered as a newbie's introduction to a particular campaign setting. For example, I've always suggested Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and REH's Conan series as a beginner's guide to the classic D&D setting.

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  9. Since Tékumel as a setting predates its existence as a role-playing setting (and predates even D&D), I wouldn't necessarily call The Man of Gold straight "game fiction." Maybe quasi-game fiction. In any event, The Man of Gold and Flamesong are the only game-related novels I have ever read. I unwittingly read them in reverse order, but I was very pleasantly surprised by their quality and consider them on par with or better than the average non-gaming fantasy novel (and probably vastly superior to most gaming novels).

    Prof. Barker's greatest strength, as you stated, is to convincingly evoke a sense of place. Many fantasy novelists strive and fail to achieve what Prof. Barker accomplishes so masterfully.

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  10. I've read both. From time to time MAR is able to hit you with something original and truly creepy. The confinement mentioned above is one example. I remember people falling from a railing onto, I think it was, the Food Of Ssu, these man eating vines. MAR is capable of the occasional dash of real horror.

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  11. The recent EPT threads had me reading MoG again just yesterday. I would call it the best of Prof Barker's 5 novels. I enjoyed re-reading it but I'm not sure it's as much fun for a Tekumel novice without a map and sourcebook on hand.

    I'm reading Lords of Tsamara next. I would place the MoG, Flamesong and Tsamara above all other game fiction I can think of. They do what few other books can - transport me to a original and vividly imagined world.
    The other two books are interesting as Tekumel documents but not as nearly as well crafted. Much of the action and adventure promised by the plot happens "off screen". I've even heard of people questioning the books' authorship.

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  12. "it's an unmatched introduction to one of the most interesting imaginary realms ever conceived."

    Maybe this shows that fiction in RPG manuals isn't an inherently awful idea, it's just the quality of most of it.

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  13. By the way, there's an interesting discussion inspired by this post in the Gaming section of the Huge Ruined Pile forum: http://hugeruinedpile.s4.bizhat.com if you haven't seen it before.

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  14. I totally agree with you James about "game fiction". Most of it suck so bad I'm amazed that people can stand the stuff.

    That being said, I have read a few to get a grip on a gaming world. Only one have actually worked, though. It was a Earthdawn novel. I don't even remember its name, but it really managed to get the point across about what you'd do in the world as an adventurer.

    Now. Why on earth can't that be communicated as clearly in the game books (rulebooks and supplementary materials) as well? That I wonder.

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  15. I wonder if it would work to have a product which had role-playing rules, and professionally-written fiction that was there as background.

    I suppose writers want more money than RPG writers.

    However this doesn't explain why it doesn't happen even when, as is often the case, the source fiction is in the public domain (or, as with Empire of the Petal Throne, when the author and game writer were the same person).

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  16. The fantasy setting for Steven Erikson's Malazan novels (which are excellent IMHO) originally came from his AD&D campaign. So I guess they could be considered a rare example of good "gaming fiction."

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  17. The professor has always had a knack for horror( such as the Book of Ebon Bindings) and really wish he would of branched out and written for other game systems. I wold of loved to seen him design a module for 1ED or even a CoC scenario.

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  19. Re: Game fiction. Some of the very early Warhammer novels were pretty good; Drachenfels by Kim Newman, Zaragoz, the Ian Watson Space Marine books, etc.

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  20. There are still plans to republish Man of Gold and Flamesong. I have read all the Professor's novels, but Man of Gold is my favorite with Flamesong a close second. The other three are interesting but not, imo, as good (A Death of Kings, Prince of Skulls and Lords of Tsamra are the other three). There is an OGL based set of rules in playtesting for Tekumel btw. The basic rules look good, but we'll see how that goes.

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  21. As Bruce has alluded to, there are plans to republish Man of Gold and Flamesong. In fact, I just finished layout for both of them. After we get through a round of proofreading and corrections, they should be available from Zottola Publishing. Happy Holidays!

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