What more can be written about Fritz Leiber? He was one of the giants of swords and sorcery. Among the genre’s congnoscenti, he is recognized as a peer of Robert E. Howard. Of course, to the casual reader he’s less likely to be a household name. For those of you who have played Dungeons and Dragons, Leiber has influenced you whether you’ve heard of him or not.
For many, the 1980’s were years shadowed by the specter of nuclear war. I never worried about it. But nuclear war — the chances, the scenarios, the aftermath — fueled the creations of filmmakers, writers, musicians, etc. It was the decade that brought Kris Kristofferson’s seamed, craggy face to our TV screens for the mini-series Amerika. It brought us Phil Collins caterwauling with puppet Thatcher and Reagan on MTV. And it brought us Sterling Lanier’s post-apocalyptic novels Hiero’s Journey and Unforsaken Hiero.
I approach this entry with some trepidation. I knew I’d need to write about Robert Ervin Howard at some point. But I’ve been reluctant to do so because, really, what more is there to say about the man? More ink has been spilled critiquing REH than any other Appendix N author save J.R.R. Tolkien. There are dedicated Howard scholars contributing to journals. The late, lamented blog “The Cimmerian” curated years worth of commentary. The annual Howard Days in Cross Plains, Texas, offers panel discussions. The topic of Robert E. Howard has been covered.
But, I’ve taken on this labor of Appendix N commentary, and by Crom’s beard, I’m going to write about REH. Adding a few more drops of digital ink to the ocean.
Today I’m turning my attention once again to Appendix N. The writer in the spotlight this time is Gardner Fox. Not exactly a household name, not even among aficionados of sword-and-sorcery fiction. He’s probably better known to comic book fans as a prolific comics scripter, writing from the 1930s into the 1980s. His claim to Appendix N membership is predicated on his Kothar sword-and-sorcery novels.
Opinion time, readers. What is your preference, or perhaps tolerance, for the amount of description of places, things, physical appearance, etc. in fiction? Do you like to have an exacting rundown of what the characters look like, what the furniture in a room looks like and how it is arranged, and what everyone is wearing? Or do you tend to skip the descriptive paragraphs and scan down the page until the action recommences?
Today I continue considering the authors of Appendix N. August Derleth managed to escape my voracious reading attention for a very long time. That is surprising, considering the volume of material he produced. Derleth wasn’t an Asimov-class churner of words, but with over 100 published books to his credit, he was respectably prolific. And, like Asimov, he covered a lot of subject territory in both fiction and non-fiction.
What August Derleth is best known for is his championing of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos. He published collections of Lovecraft’s stories and even wrote a biography of HPL. Additionally, he dove into the Mythos himself, writing several stories of Elder Gods, forbidden books, and the questionable inhabitants of New England.
Philip Jose Farmer (or P.J., as Appendix N has him) was a prolific author of pulp adventure. (By the way, I don’t need to keep spelling out what Appendix N is, do I? If you’re reading this web log you’re probably hip to the reference.) I’d call him an acolyte of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He mined the same story veins, and even wrote in Burroughs’ worlds, including some straight-up Tarzan books, as well as spin-offs. Check out his Opar novels, fantastic pre-history, lost-civilization adventures spun off from Tarzan’s adventures in Burroughs’ fictional Opar.
Farmer is noted in Appendix N for his “World of Tiers” novels. I’ve not read them all. Something I should, perhaps, remedy. What I think of when I consider Farmer is his “Riverworld” series. I picked up “To Your Scattered Bodies Go” when I was twelve or thirteen. And I proceeded to devour the entire series. Those books started a fascination with Richard Francis Burton that lasted until I learned a lot more about the famed explorer’s true character and actions. I like Farmer’s Burton much more than the original.
The conceit of “Riverworld” is that everyone who has ever lived on Earth wakes after death upon the banks of a world-encircling river. The reader is tossed into the story in the point of view of Burton, and learns the mysteries of “Riverworld” along with him. There’s a lot of great action as well as spot-the-historical-figure fun. These latter include Alice Liddell and Samuel Clemens. At least, I think so. It has been decades since I read these books, but they did leave an impression.
Farmer was an obvious fan of genre fiction. His oeuvre is replete with pastiches of Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, and Tarzan. (Yes, I did just serve up the phrase “oeuvre is replete.” Deal with it.) I doubt I presume too much suggesting that Farmer’s taste in stories aligned closely with that of Gary Gygax. It’s hard to imagine Farmer not appearing in Appendix N. (Though I imagine “J.C. on the Dude Ranch” was less to Gygax’s liking. I recall reading that story with appalled fascination as a kid.)
The man was a pro, a solid entertainer. He’s not going to knock your socks off with his prose stylings, but he wrote competent, engaging fiction. If you pick up one of his books you’re practically guaranteed a fun read.
There is a tendency to think the military comprises dour, unimaginative people of the sort who’d have no use for science fiction, fantasy, or other such frivolous nonsense. A lot of films depict soldiers as robotic, linear thinkers, programmed to follow orders without deviation.
I think most of us know better than that, right? The military has long been home to devotees of speculative fiction. Pick any large military base in the United States, then travel to the nearest town. In addition to the inevitable military supply stores, sewing shops (never short of customers needing new patches sewn on uniforms), tattoo parlors, barbershops, and bars, you will find a well-stocked game store, a comic book shop, and a used bookstore with an excellent selection of science fiction and fantasy.
Is there a work of science fiction that acts as the standard-bearer for the entire genre, the way “The Lord of the Rings” does for fantasy? I’m not sure. The field is crowded with worthy candidates. But I’d nominate Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”
It is a sprawling, glorious space opera, replete with memorable images, clever conceits, scientific speculation on a grand scale, and magnificent characters. The villains are vile and the heroes heroic. Who can ever forget Baron Vladimir Harkonnen? Or Duncan Idaho? “Dune” gave us mentats, gholas, hunter-seekers, the Gom Jabbar, and ornithopters.
Bernard Cornwell is one of the foremost historical novelists working today. He is best known for his “Sharpe’s” novels (“Sharpe’s Company”, “Sharpe’s Tiger”, et. al.,) chronicling the military exploits of the fictional Richard Sharpe during (and prior to) the Napoleonic Wars.
“Why then, Ken,” you may ask, “are you writing about Bernard Cornwell in a web log geared more to discussion of speculative fiction?” Or, you may not. Probably not. But let’s pretend you do. And here’s the answer: “The Warlord Chronicles.” Cornwell wrote an excellent Arthurian trilogy. Once you start writing about King Arthur (a ‘historical’ personage notable mostly for his apparent non-existence), no matter how meticulous your historical research, you’ve stuck your foot into the fantasy pool. Often you’ll find “The Warlord Chronicles” shelved in the fantasy section of the bookstore.