Monday, May 2, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Coming of the Horseclans

Published in 1975, The Coming of the Horseclans, by Robert Adams is the first in a series of novels set in post-apocalyptic North America. In his introduction to this book, Adams describes it thusly:
The following tale is a fantasy, pure and simple. It is a flight of sheer imagination. It contains no hidden meanings and none should be read into it; none of the sociological, economic, political, religious, or racial "messages," with which far too many modern novels abound, are herein contained. The Coming of the Horseclans is, rather, intended for the enjoyment of any man or woman who has ever felt a twinge of that atavistic urge to draw a yard of sharp, flashing steel and with a wild war cry recklessly spur a vicious stallion against impossible odds.

If I must further categorize, I suppose this effort falls among the sci-fi/fantasy stories which are woven about a post-cataclysmic age, far in our future. In this case, the story is set in the twenty-seventh century. The world with which we are dealing is one still submerged in the barbarism into which it was plunged some six hundred years prior to the detailed events, following a succession of man-made and natural disasters which extirpated whole nations and races of mankind.
I find it difficult, reading those words now, not to feel an immediate liking for Adams. His philosophy of writing, as expressed in his introduction, is one that appeals very powerfully to me nowadays and is very much in line with the best adventure stories of any era.

And The Coming of the Horseclans is a good adventure story. It tells the tale of Milo Morai, a mysterious wanderer who eventually comes to lead the nomadic Horseclans, who ride the "Sea of Grass" -- the Great Plains -- and view "Dirtmen," as they call farmers, with contempt. Like Fors, from Andre Norton's Starman's Son, some Horseclansmen possess telepathy, with which they are better able to control their steeds and the sabre-toothed cats some keep as pets and hunting animals. Fierce but honorable, the Horseclans are, in some respects, post-apocalyptic Cimmerians, and there's definitely something Howardian about Adams's writing, from the obvious relish with which he paints battle scenes to the ambivalence he has toward the boons of civilization.

Just as interesting, I think, is the post-apocalyptic North America Adams details. Its main cultures are the Horseclans, the Ganiks (cannibal hippies), the Ahrmenee (Armenians living in the Appalachians), Mehrikans (rather generic middle American descendants), and the villainous Ehleens (Greek invaders). As he suggests in his introduction, Adams isn't trying to present a "realistic" future history, just one that allowed him to tell a good adventure yarn, so the world of the novel must be judged on that basis. I think it succeeds admirably, much in the same way that Gamma World does. However, I'm sure some would disagree, finding both the world and its characters insufficiently multi-faceted for their tastes.

In the latter case, I am inclined to agree. Most of the novel's characters, even Milo Morai, veer toward the one-dimensional, or at least are less well-rounded than one might expect even of pulp fantasy characters. In part, I think that's by design. Adams is more interested in the world-changing nature of Milo's accession to the leadership of the Horseclans than in its actual effects on Milo as a character. This is perhaps inevitable given some of the revelations made about Milo and his place in history and it is to some extent rectified in later books in the series. But there's no denying that many of the characters in The Coming of the Horseclans are ciphers whose primary purpose is to move the plot along.

That said, I have a soft spot for the Horseclans series. Although it's never (so far as I know anyway) been listed as an influence on Gamma World, I've long associated these novels with the game. The main reason I do so is that the North America of Adams's tales may be built upon the ruins of our civilization, but it's still its own thing. That is, it doesn't wallow in the past; instead, that past simply provides the opportunity to re-order society and culture so as to create a post-apocalyptic Hyborian Age. That's how I view Gamma World too. Likewise, Adams doesn't shy away from a number of fantastical elements, one of which I can't help but think influenced a later popular film series, though I have no evidence to support this (and, no, I won't say which series, lest I give away a major plot point of this novel). So, if you're looking for a novel to loot for ideas to use in your post-apocalyptic campaign, you could do worse than to spend a few hours reading The Coming of the Horseclans or its sequels.


  1. Interestingly for me the Horseclans always have represented the realistic end of the spectrum of games I can envision for Gamma World. As fantastic as the might be. But the fantastic elements at least visually are pretty subtle (immortality, telepathy, etc.) and the pulp famtasy feel IMHO prevails.

    Nonetheless I absolutely love the Horseclans. Being a German I first stumbled upon them when I by chance purchased GURPS Horseclans from a bargain bin at a con and I immediately was captured by the byline of "They're deadly warriors . . . for honor, for loot, or just for the joy of a good fight. They would follow their leader, the undying Milo Morai, straight to Hell. And they'd come back with trophies." (especially the last part). Now that tells you something about attitude.

    Again being a German (at that time in an age without Internet) it took me many years to collect all the paperbacks. The last ones I bought in a bookstore at Venice Beach on my second USA trip and still remember the clerk winking at me and stating "Ah, powerful stuff". It might have been the strange smell in the store from some kind of substance, it also might have been the memories of the Horseclans. Maybe both ;-)

  2. Excellent post tying this in with Gamma World.

  3. I don't know if it's a "popular film series" as such; people generally only like the first one! ;)

  4. I love the horse clans. I have most of them and the old GURPS setting book.

    The cover for the Signet edition leads off I post I did on the artist, Ken Kelly, which is People to Be's most popular post of all time. The reason I lead with it is worth knowing. Look at the female warrior in it (I believe it's Mara). That is the single most anti-chainmail bikini picture ever yet I find her sexier than most of those bimbos. That's a common characteristic of Kelly's art and a nice departure from the norm.

  5. The Horseclans series is my favorite series, fantasy, sci fi, whatever, hands down, after Conan. I've run it in campaign form using B/X D&D, Runequest III, and Gamma World (though oddly enough, never GURPS, for which the sole RPG book was ever written). I even belonged to the brief "Horseclans Society" that Adams and his wife founded, many years ago; somewhere I still have the welcome letter and some of the bookmarks they sent in the initial package.

    As Thomas mentions, I've always found it to be a good, solid "realistic" PA setting. The relatively few bombs that actually fell and the bulk of the Great Dyings being from disease and starvation always rang far more true to me than the massive "craters every couple miles" that seems the case in Gamma World itself. And as you mention, the writing and setting is very Howardian, though most of the characters seem to speak with one voice, a writing style Adams never really seemed to grow out of, sadly, though he got close in the last book or two. His combat and action scenes were pure Howard.

    As for the opening statement, the series eventually became riddled with references and soliloquays to his (well, "Milo's") particular personal brand of Libertarian politics. Generally I just glossed over those paragraphs...

    Unfortunately, the book publishing rights are currently licensed to a company that has only been able to release the first book alone in the last, what, four years? And this is a company that releases stuff just on the internet for POD? They should have had the entire series up and going in a week!

    Even worse, the cover of the new "Coming of the Horseclans" e-book is one of those dreadful "3-D" computer rendering illos. Blech.

    And, to add insult to injury, the RPG rights are apparently in a nebulous, unknown state, mostly because Pamela Crippen-Adams is apparently a recluse and won't even take calls, letters, or e-mails.

    Sad state of affairs for what was a very, VERY successful series in its day...

  6. Oh, and I should note... though I do not have the links to the references, apparently both Tom Moldvay and Dave Arneson were influenced by the Horseclans series! I've seen mention of this in interviews and overviews of the careers of both... I think Havard of Blackmoor fame dug these nuggest of info up at one time or another, so the references are probably on his blog, or the Comeback Inn, or somewhere he has posted about their influences...

  7. I always liked these books, although I only ever owned the second one in the series (forget the name, and I'm super lazy so I'm not going to look it up now). But I loved that book.

    I, too, considered them inspirational for Gamma World, although for that use I always preferred Hiero's Journey, which I noticed you're reading right now.

  8. Loved the Horseclans, as well. Stories tended to be a bit predictable, but were still a lot of fun.