Friday, January 20, 2017

Thoughts on Appendix N

Full disclosure: In January I began contributing a column on vintage SFF and genre literary history for the Castalia House blog, at +Jeffro Johnson ’s invitation.  The below is my own thoughts on Jeffro’s Appendix N project. I receive no payment from CH, nor have I been asked or encouraged to promote Jeffro’s book beyond a friendly thanks from the author for what little I’ve done to support his project and his hope that I’ll talk about it. 

And I will. 

I’ve been engaged with what has come to be called #pulprevolution since long before it became a thing. My ongoing mission[1] has been to learn more about the roots of SFF, and to bring back some of the amazing aesthetic that was dominant in the pre-Campbell era. Part of that is a matter of developing my own writing – to learn from proven classics how it’s done. Part of it is to delve deep and learn about the social and cultural contexts in which my mentors[2] were working.

So, when I stumbled on Jeffro a couple of years ago[3] imagine my surprise – and pleasure – to discover that he had decided to undertake a project:

He wanted to know more about the roots of one of his favourite games – D&D[4] – and since the 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide[5] contains a convenient list of books to inspire and inform adventures in a fantasy world he decided to start there.

Over months, he searched out books and stories, many of which are actually quite hard to find today[6], and many of which he had never even heard of.

He read them.

He was blown away.

What he found in those pages turned out to be more than just an exercise of “oh, that’s where that module came from” or seeing the image of some obscure mechanic. It was stories he’d never seen before, stories better than he was expecting.[7] I was familiar with a lot of what was on Jeffro’s reading list already, but many of them were things I’d read long ago – I started following his quest mainly because I was curious, but soon got swept up in his bubbling enthusiasm. It was simply invigorating to see these stories through his fresh eyes.

This book - Appendix N - is the product of his exploration, and I think it’s a great read if only for the sheer energy it projects and some of the fascinating connections he discovers between works you might never have thought related.

Now, Jeffro came to some conclusions that I found puzzling, and others that I disagree with. But there was a thread there of ideas that resonated with my own, and areas where I could whole-heartedly agree:

Gary Gygax’s “Appendix N” is a fascinating time capsule of classic science fiction and fantasy works that goes a long way toward providing a snapshot of what he was thinking about as he worked on what ultimately grew into one of the most popular pen and paper role-playing games of all time. The significance of this list – which spans the literature of seven decades[8] – goes far further than simply the inspiration for an enjoyable pastime, however: it’s a window into the past of SFF that affords us a view of a particular literary aesthetic – one that has, in many ways, simply been forgotten by print publishing.[9]

There’s a lot to love in the crumbling pages of old science fiction and fantasy. Of course, there are things that society has moved beyond as well[10] – we are better for it – but even when voices from the past shock us with things we regard as ridiculous or even unthinkable today[11] there’s an aesthetic present from the early days of Argosy and Weird Tales that resonates in the best of the adventure writing of the 1940s and 50s, and in the best remembered works of the New Wave revolution in the 1960s and 70s.

Heroism[12], the struggle between good and evil, the triumph of civilization over barbarity, the wonder of exploration – these themes drive stories forward by appealing to something fundamental in the nature of humanity. Stories that incorporate these themes engage us, draw us closer to the protagonists, make us care what happens next, celebrate when the challenge is overcome – or mourn when the hero fails. This is the common thread that runs through Gygax’s list, and that pervades the early role-playing games.

This observation on the themes found in enduring stories is nothing new of course – it’s something that writers and storytellers have known forever. In the Western canon, these themes can certainly be traced back at least as far as the Epic of Gilgamesh after all. Where SFF is concerned the key is that in the beginning it was an entirely new realm in which authors could explore these themes, experiment with new ways of engaging them, and build edifices on the shoulders of giants. As explorers in a new space, classic pulp authors were in constant conversation with one another – not only within SFF, but across pulp genres. What we might now view as derivative works were in fact the collective effort of these authors to try again and again to find the right way to fit their bold new ideas together.[13]

Things changed somewhat with the coming of the Golden Age of Campbellian “hard” SF.[14]

The gothic fantasies, weird tales, and planetary romances of the previous era slid from the limelight as the industry embraced a new aesthetic that had a very clear vision of science and engineering as the foundation of the future – an echo of the techno-utopia flogged by Wollheim and the other Futurians around the time of the first Worldcons.[15] The pulp ideals never faded entirely however, and you can see their influence clearly in the work of Campbell’s best known protégés.

Still, the richness of the legacy faded somewhat, despite the continuing work through the 60s and 70s of several authors who dated to before Campbell’s revolution.

I think that this fading, and the impending loss of SFF’s core, is one of the things that triggered the New Wave revolution of the 60s and 70s.[16] That grand effort did a great deal to re-invent the richness of the pre-war era pulps, and led to a series of fascinating new authors with works that – I think not coincidentally – also ended up on Gary Gygax’s list. Sadly, the revolution faltered[17], and by the time the 1980s rolled in things were changing again. In fact, this seems to be the watershed where the legacy of the pulps truly began to be forgotten.

The 1980s and 90s saw the birth of cyberpunk after a decade of gestation, and at the same time it saw a dramatic shift in mass market publishing that echoed the mega corps of the cyberpunk idiom: a concentration of SF publishing in five Houses Major[18], and a shift from smaller bookstores to franchise megastores. While there are some excellent writers who flourished in this period, it’s hard to see the rise of franchise series and massive, unending epics as anything but a cooling of the creative engines of SFF as it adapted to the reality of market forces.

From here, we fast forward to the e-book revolution and the crumbling empires of English language markets divided between the Five Houses: technology has definitely pushed the balance back to some extent: publishing is easier than ever before, and the new publishing media make it possible to bypass anyone who aspires to be a genre gatekeeper.[19]

I don’t think there is any debate to be had over whether there are excellent modern SFF authors: There certainly are.

And the best of them are as skillful with words as any of the classic greats – though there are also of course many less skilled, just as in any literary era. Likewise there should be no debate over whether the pulp era, which forms a large part of Gygax’s list, was universally golden. There were duds, and plenty of them; this should hardly be a surprise when considering the dizzying array of periodicals that were scrabbling for text to print each and every month during the 20s, 30s, and 40s. But somehow, over the last thirty years entire dimensions of the enormous wealth of “scientifiction” and strange tales have been pared away to leave little history and even less memory of the roots of modern SFF.

This, frankly, is a crying shame.

Fortunately, while the Great Houses of publishing have moved ever further from the core aesthetics that launched and sustained the genre from the early years of the Twentieth Century to explore new thoughts and styles of SFF, the core aesthetic has been kept bubbling in other venues:
The comics boom of the 90s and early 2000s certainly owes something to the love people have for wonder, adventure, and heroism. Advances in special effects and computer generated imagery have also brought us an amazing variety of SFF entertainment on both small and large screens. Moreover, video games have exploded as the cost of delivering ever more realistic experiences plunges, making it more feasible and more satisfying to not just read about heroes, but to live them.

Two worlds of SFF diverged in the decades after the New Wave, but now interest in the parts that had been largely forgotten is growing – and it’s interesting that this is happening just as the technologies that supported the divergence of SFF are themselves converging. Technological convergence has brought us a wealth of amazing new things. The resurgence of interest in older SFF offers the potential for another convergence, this time between the core aesthetic that made the pulp era great and the good things that have been built in the current era.

The vigor and freedom of e-book publishing and other electronic venues echoes the explosion of the pulps themselves in an era of rapidly decreasing publishing costs. In this environment I think the potential for yet another revolution in SFF is enormous, but to make it happen we will need to recapture the essence of that era of exploration and experimentation. And to do that we need to sift through the layers and rediscover jewels that have been lost and forgotten, then work those jewels into the treasures of today.[20]

Just imagine a newly invigorated world of SFF that combines the heroic aesthetic of the classics with the rich language and diverse voices of the present! To my mind, now is an ideal time for such an experiment, and now is an amazing time to be rediscovering forgotten classics.

[1] Seriously had to resist the urge to call it a 5 year mission – but who likes limits!

[2] People like Jack Vance, A. Merritt, Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore – and yes even Howard and Lovecraft. But also le Guin and Norton and Moorcock and Heinlein and Philip K Dick and Laumer and…oh the list goes on forever!

[3] I was actually looking for gamers, and hooked onto him because he was posting stuff about Star Fleet Battles, a game I miss playing!

[4] D4 thieves or nothing!

[5] I just realised I haven’t typed that all out in years.

[6] Interestingly, the zeitgeist must have been bubbling in the back of his mind, because quite a few of the works on that list have mysteriously become available in digital editions in the last year or so.

[7] Because for some reason the popular image is of the pulps as low quality crap on every page, when in fact there were some excellent authors at work as well and those are the ones whose work endured.

[8] For context, think about this: how many people today have a passing familiarity with fiction spanning seven decades? This alone tells us something about the lack of attention older genre fiction gets today.

[9] That’s not to say that there is something fundamentally wrong with the aesthetics that have emerged in the decades since of course – just an observation that a particular era seems to be completely invisible today, and this seems puzzling.

[10] And things we’re still struggling with, and new things that in a decade or two’s time we’ll look back on with shame, I suspect. Such is progress.

[11] Particularly on issues of race and gender.

[12] I’m speaking of the heroic in terms of the literary device, not in terms of thick-thewed warriors. Briefly: the idea that the protagonist must face some challenge to ideals, and must (in part) be successful by staying true.

[13] And actually, there’s little more fun for a bookworm than to stumble on the different takes on a single idea by authors writing at the same time and obviously “arguing” with each other over the best way to write it. Or maybe I’m just strange?

[14] Though with Campbell, apparently “hard” SF also includes telepathy and dianetics…

[15] A social engineering rallying cry that was taken up in slightly different form by Damon Knight, Harlan Ellison, Joanna Russ and others in the 60s.

[16] Surely it’s no coincidence that Moorcock, one of the engineers of this revolution, gives explicit credit to pulp master Lester Dent (of Doc Savage fame) and his formula for adventure fiction in his own formula for writing a novel in three days?

[17] If the detractors are to be believed, in part because of the pessimism of the plots, in part because they were perhaps too experimental in their move away from the Campbelline tradition.

[18] Gratuitous Dune reference.

[19] Or rather, by making it easier to put your own work in front of them returns the gatekeeping power to the readers – where it belongs.

[20] Resisting the urge to continue the Dune analogy and refer to spice instead of jewels…

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