Monday, April 23, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Cube from Beyond

Issue #36 (April 1980) saw the sixth literary appearance of Gardner Fox's barbarian sellsword, Niall of the Far Travels, in a short story delightfully titled "The Cube from Beyond." I'm honestly not sure why, but magical/mystical cubes are commonplace in pulp fantasy and science fiction, from De Camp and Pratt's carnelian cube to the "queer, smooth cube" of "The Challenge from Beyond" to the Cosmic Cube of Marvel comics fame. So this installment's title -- and content -- places it firmly within a well-established tradition.

As the short story begins, Niall is still the commander of the armies of Urgrik and is pursuing the magician-king Thavas Tomer, whose stronghold he and his army have breached. Thavas wishes to elude capture and uses every trick at his disposal to throw off the relentless barbarian. When at last his tricks seem to have been exhausted, he flees up some stairs, with Niall close on his heels.
He came at last into a small room, the windows of which looked out over the city and the plains stretching in all directions beyond it. Thavas Tomer was standing beside a large blue cube dotted with a myriad of bright little specks that looked like imprisoned stars.
The magician-king was tall, almost as tall as Niall. He was broad of shoulder and lean of waist; he looked more like a warrior than a magician. There was a cunning smile on this thin lips.
“No more, Niall,” he rasped. “I flee no further.”
“Then surrender.”
Thavas Tomer laughed: harsh, mocking laughter it was, as he drew himself to his full height. “You can never make me surrender, general. Na, na. I have a way to get away from you, even here and now, with you so close.”
His laughter rang out as Niall started forward. With the ease of a trained athlete, Thavas Tomer leaped upward to the top of that big cube— and began to sink into it.
Recognizing the cube as an object of sorcery, Niall decides to take it with him, as a spoil of war. He returns to Urgrik, parading it through the streets, before he presents it to his liege, King Lurlyr Manakor, who congratulates him on having "done what no other man could do." The king wants nothing to do with the cube and gives it to Niall, who takes it back to his own palatial home, where it sits for several months, with no sign as to its true nature.

Despite this seeming inactivity, Niall remains fascinated by the cube. He seeks out his friend, the sage Danko Penavar, to see if he had ever heard of the cube and its strange powers.
Almost under his breath, the old man whispered, “I have heard of it. In very ancient tomes have I come upon faint hints of it, fearful references to that cube.”

He shook his head until the white hairs of his head and beard swayed lazily. “Never did I think to lay eyes upon that thing. I believed it lost forever.”
“Well, what is it?’

“It was created long and long ago by a great magician. It is a universe unto itself, that cube. It is protected by secret sigils and enchantments that have long since been forgotten.”

“Not by Thavas Tomer, it seems.”

The old man smiled wryly. “I wonder where he found it? Where he discovered the way in which to make it work for him?’

“Can I go into it, as Thavas Tomer did?”

Danko Penavar scowled. “You would be advised not to. I know nothing of what might await you inside that thing-always assuming there is a way into it. For you, I mean. It would be best for you to forget the cube—and Thavas Tomer.”
Needless to say, Niall doesn't heed Penavar's words and instead intends to enter the cube and find Thavas Tomer -- and whatever else is inside it.

"The Cube from Beyond" is another fun tale that takes some hackneyed pulp fantasy ideas and presents them engagingly. As I've said many times now, this seems to have been Gardner Fox's great gift, one that ought to be of particular interest to referees of RPGs. All too often I hear jaded gamers cry out for "originality," a quality that, if it even exists, is vastly overrated in my opinion. Far more interesting, I think, is to see well-used concepts, situations, and characters presented with cleverness and flair, something that Fox does exceedingly well. "The Cube from Beyond" is a terrific sword-and-sorcery romp that proves once again that just because a story has been told before doesn't mean it can't be retold in an enjoyable way.

4 comments:

  1. Have these Niall stories ever been presented in a collection?

    Sounds like something Paizo should do for Planet Stories, if they are still planning any new releases, that is.

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  2. "... a large blue cube dotted with a myriad of bright little specks that looked like imprisoned stars."

    Maybe it's a riff of the magic and mystery of the six-sided die? When we're around them we often disappear for long periods too.

    I'd disagree that originality is vastly overrated - the evidence suggests that as a lifeform we wouldn't have made it too far without. Assuming we believe the evidence. But like you I have an interest in seeing existing things explored further, and creative retellings.

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  3. If I had to hazard a guess, the mystique of cubes probably hinges on both the cube's simple shape and regular geometric structure.  Like a dungeon, a cube is something obviously wrought by human or inhuman hands (salt crystals and suchlike notwithstanding) — gravity and erosion naturally favors spherical shapes.  Yet, the design is simple enough to suggest ancient craftsmanship.

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  4. "Far more interesting, I think, is to see well-used concepts, situations, and characters presented with cleverness and flair."

    Amen.

    I do not want every novel or adventure or setting to 're-write the book'. I /like/ the metaphorical 'book'. There are some tropes that that I like- the ones that got me into Fantasy in the first place- that I like to see used over and over- so long as it is done engagingly. I'd rather have some well written/used 'stock' Elves and Dwarves than a pantheon of bizarre fantastical races who's only notable feature is their originality.

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