L. Sprague de Camp, Appendix N.
I come to praise L. Sprague de Camp; let others bury him in undeserved, virulent dudgeon.
The man’s fingerprints are all over science fiction and fantasy from the Golden Age of science fiction up until the end of the Twentieth Century. He more than earned his place in Appendix N. He was prolific, fighting in the Isaac Asimov weight category (though, let’s face it, Asimov remains undefeated for sheer volume of publication.) De Camp’s writing was urbane, learned, witty, and full of clever innuendo. I, for one, love it.
If only for his tales of the Viagens Interplanetarias, Mr. de Camp deserves primus inter pares ranking in the pantheon of speculative fiction. The stories and novels of Earthmen adventuring among the planets of the Krishnans, Vishnus, Osirans, etc. are classic de Camp. HIs protagonists tend to come from the scoundrel end of the heroic spectrum, they are out to make a buck. There’s a strong whiff of swords-and-sorcery about these planetary romances. And a great deal of humor. That’s characteristic of much of his writing, a sense of whimsy. The danger the characters face is never lessened, yet there is a sprightliness in the telling that hints that things are going to work out somehow – even if that turns out not to be the case.
Mr. De Camp has written straight swords-and-sorcery. “Tritonian Ring” is a fine example, playing about with the Atlantis myths. Fun stuff. He’s written lost in time fiction, in the tradition of Twain’s “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”” with the classic “Lest Darkness Fall.”
His collaborations with Fletcher Pratt probably deserve a post of their own. The “Tales from Gavagan’s Bar” are prime exemplars of the tavern story genre, like Spider Robinson’s “Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon” stories or P.G. Wodehouse’s “Mr. Mulliner” tales. They are terrific fun. And of course de Camp and Pratt wrote the wonderful “Harold Shea” stories, tossing Mr. Shea into mythical worlds that he must escape by mastering the magical systems indigenous to the myths. Again, fun – a word I realize can apply to most everything de Camp wrote. De Camp and Pratt, like their contemporaries, wrote unbounded by the sort of genre labels and expectations we seem to be stuck with now. “The Carnelian Cube” or “The Land of Unreason” wouldn’t be written or published today, failing to employ any of the tropes that seem required for a work to be labeled as fantasy. And that’s a shame as both were romps, both were…fun.
L. Sprague de Camp is also partially responsible for the much deserved renewal of interest in the writing of Robert E. Howard. I realize that is a controversial and debatable proposition. Some hold that a resurgence in popularity of “Conan” was inevitable. I don’t know and am willing to defer to Howard scholars on the question. What I do know is that I came to read Conan, Solomon Kane, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Sailor Steve Costigan, et. al. because of the series of “Conan” paperbacks de Camp and Lin Carter assembled.
So here’s the first of the controversies, one the sources of abuse hurled at Mr. de Camp. Let’s address it. De Camp and Carter assembled and edited the existing “Conan” stories, taking some liberties with the editing. They also rewrote other REH stories, changing characters and locations to turn them into tales of Conan. They wrote pastiches of their own, creating stories out of whole cloth to create a longer, integrated history for Conan. For this they are excoriated by Howard purists. I don’t want to dip my toe into this teapot: One man’s consuming passion is of only passing interest to another and I mean no offense to those to whom this is a question of monumental significance, but for me it is a tempest in a teapot. However, from my admittedly disinterested perspective, any ‘harm’ de Camp and Carter may have caused is more than mitigated by bringing a new generation to awareness of Howard’s writing, and one member of a new generation in particular: Me.
Of course I can’t continue without addressing the related source of animus. L. Sprague de Camp also wrote biography, including a biography of Robert E. Howard. Many who despise Mr. de Camp do so because of his portrayal of Howard in the biography “Dark Valley Destiny. Again, I’ll leave this one to Howard scholars to dispute. Even if Mr. de Camp’s detractors are correct in their assertions, even if the biography amounts to libel, it does nothing to diminish the stories and novels he has written. Refusal to read them seems to me cutting off your nose to spite your face.
That last point I want to revisit after I discuss the third source of ammunition used by the mudslingers. This is a more recent phenomenon: Apparently contemporary readers hold the opinion that writers of previous generations should have professed in their writing the prevailing pieties of early Twenty First Century progressives instead of the attitudes common to men of their time. This I find baffling. It is the whole cutting off your nose thing again. Why can’t someone enjoy a book simply because the writer lived in an earlier time? Should I have tossed down Julius Caeser’s “War Commentaries” in disgust because of his cavalier attitude toward enslaving a massive chunk of the population of France? Am I to avoid pretty much everything written in Europe from Cervantes on up to Dickens in order to express my dismay at the rampant anti-Semitism? Yes, [insert victimized group of your choice here] got a raw deal during [insert age, decade, reign.] And we can recognize that, oh, Apuleius for example, would make a somewhat embarrassing dinner party guest. Does this leach all value from “The Golden Ass?” No, and I can only feel sorrow for those unable to unpucker long enough to enjoy anything written before, say, last Tuesday.
So go hit the used book store, pick up some aging L. Sprague de Camp paperbacks. Have some fun.