Archives: Edgar Rice Burroughs

Remedial Fantasy For the Chronically Lazy: A Top Five List

A couple of weeks ago I moderated a panel on the essential science fiction writers of the Golden Age. The premise was which writers should someone read if he were interested in acquiring a grounding in sci-fi but possessed either limited time or small inclination to read copious amounts of early twentieth century fiction. Who are the not-to-be-missed highlights? It was an engaging, free-ranging conversation. Many writers were brought up and discussed. The panelists agreed more often than not. I doubt we managed to pare the options down to an easily digestible reading list.

My original concept for the panel included fantasy as well. But, as it was a science-fiction convention, that idea was (rightly) nixed. But I still think it worth discussing. What if you, dear reader, had an interest in fantasy, indeed enjoyed reading the current crop of authors? What if you wanted to learn more of the inspirations guiding your favorite writers and where certain tropes and archetypes originated. But what if, for whatever reason, you didn’t want read a bunch of old stuff? Which authors could you read, at a bare minimum to fill this gap?

Philip Jose Farmer, Appendix N

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.

My Second Novel, “Under Strange Suns”

No suspense, no buildup. Here’s the deal: I placed my novel Under Strange Suns with Twilight Times Books. http://www.twilighttimesbooks.com/

There, that’s out of the way. Details, then. It is a science fiction story. Or rather, planetary romance written with a twenty-first century audience in mind. That means, pace Burroughs, I cannot simply have my protagonist fall asleep on Earth then wake on an alien planet. While that works well for John Carter, and I’m not knocking ERB’s story-telling at all (perish the thought of such hubris), I don’t think it would go over well with contemporary audiences in a new novel. Meaning reliance on science fiction instead of fantasy. While the science may – from the perspective of today’s physicists –  be functionally equivalent to the John Carter dream transit in plausibility, at least it has the scaffolding of science to hang the implausibilities on. Spaceships! FTL!

Top Ten Most Influential Fantasy Writers of the Twentieth Century

The wellsprings of modern fantasy run deep. Very deep. People could write books about it. And they have. So if I have the temerity to toss my two-cents worth into the conversation I’d best limit the scope. I’m limiting myself to author’s who wrote in the Twentieth Century (some continue on into this century) and ignoring all the giants of prior centuries upon whose shoulders they stand. This is pure subjective opinion on my part. I’ve done no empirical research to support my conclusions, so take this a grain of salt the size to meet your USDA daily sodium intake.

I’d like to include writers such as E.R. Eddison and James Branch Cabell. But their influence appears to have waned. You might see a touch of Eddison in Clark Ashton Smith, or a hint of Cabell in Jack Vance. Might be a faint echo of both in Gene Wolfe. But I don’t see elements of either in much contemporary fantasy. So my personal preferences won’t play much part in this list.

Note that I’m excluding YA authors from the list. Hey, it’s my list. Write your own damn list if that bothers you.

On with it.

Number 10. Some essayists claim you should begin with your strongest argument. I’m a contrarian, or a fool. Maybe both. Meaning I’m beginning with an entrant whose qualifications I’m least certain about, Anne Rice. “Anne Rice,” you splutter, “doesn’t she write horror?” I don’t know. Could be. These definitions get nebulous at the borders. She writes about vampires, werewolves, and mummies in a more lyrical vein than most horror writers. I think she can be considered a fantasist. Whether she qualifies as a fantasy writer or not, she was certainly influential. The shelves in the bookstore wouldn’t look the same absent her popularization of the vampire. Modern urban fantasy wouldn’t exist in its current form without her. The Science Fiction/Fantasy section wouldn’t feature covers of sword-wielding biker chicks embracing half-clad vampires. So, Ms. Rice leads off at number 10.

Number 9. Jack Vance.The great Jack Vance brought us world-weary amoral heroes. He brought sparkling dialogue and a sardonic sense of humor. His influence comes primarily through his Dying Earth stories. You can trace the genealogy of stories set in a future Earth nearing the end of its habitability to Vance. There are earlier examples of the subgenre, sure (e.g., William Hope Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith.) But Vance popularized the concept. You can find anthologies paying homage to the Dying Earth. Gene Wolfe’s Long Sun books owe much to Vance. Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison, to name just a couple, have written books in this subgenre.

Number 8. Fritz Leiber. Leiber and Vance shared a literary sensibility. Fitting they’re paired here. Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser fathered any number of duos and odd couples. Leiber’s DNA is all over mismatched pairings ranging from Violette Mahan’s Dhulyn and Parno to Simon R. Green’s Hawk and Fisher.

Number 7. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fingerprints are all over fantasy. Tarzan helped popularize lost civilization stories. They are less common now in this time of satellites and Google Earth but writers from A. Merritt to Philip Jose Farmer used to spin those. ERB brought us the Sword and Planet or Planetary Romance novel. Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, and Henry Kuttner, to name three, carried on that tradition. Wasn’t that long ago Disney released a big budget John Carter film. Word is Edgar Rice Burrough’s Inc. is trying to get another version in the works. Hollow Earth novels are still seeing publication. ERB’s influence continues.

Number 6. Michael Moorcock. The speed-writing peddler of the multiverse, Law vs. Chaos cosmological conflict, and albino, elf-like anti-heros. Others may have preceded him with some of these. Poul Anderson was writing independently about a Law/Chaos divide. But Moorcock owned it with his Eternal Champion cycle. The concept of the multiverse is common parlance now, popping up in everything from novels to television shows. Elric of Melniboné can almost be considered an archetype now, cf Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

Number 5. Anne McCaffrey, mother of dragons. Time was you picked up a book with a dragon in it, you knew who the villain was. With The Dragonriders of Pern and those gorgeous Michael Whelan covers that all changed. Now you see a dragon on the cover it could just as easily be an ally as an enemy. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series can claim Pern as a progenitor.

Number 4. Howard Phillips Lovecraft. There’s the horror/fantasy question again, though there used to be little – if any – distinction made between fantasy, science fiction, and horror. HPL’s influence is unquestionable on horror, even science fiction (think Alien or any other H.R. Giger-involved film.) But he was also influential in the development of fantasy. Even immediately so. Think Conan, preventing a wizard from summoning a nameless cosmic horror from the gulfs in the blackness between the stars. This is HPL’s influence, the idea that the demon being conjured is not in fact a demon in the traditional sense at all, but an unknowable entity from a cold, uncaring universe with no interest in man one way or another. I’d argue that philosophically the “grimdark” school owes something to Lovecraft. And you know the Cthulhu mythos has wormed its tentacles deep within popular culture when you can buy a Cthulhu plush doll.

Number 3. Glen Cook. With The Black Company Cook altered the landscape of fantasy. Writing with a gritty, modern prose style, Cook laid the groundwork for the so-called ‘grimdark’ school. Without Cook there is no Joe Abercrombie, no Steven Erikson, possibly no Game of Thrones (though that’s hardly G.R.R. Martin’s only claim to fame.)

Number 2. Robert E. Howard. Can there be any question? One of the big three (along with HPL and Clark Ashton Smith) Weird Tales contributors, Howard was the quintessential pulp writer, churning out Westerns, boxing tales, hard-boiled detective stories, horror, and fantasy. He created the Puritan swordsman Solomon Kane, the barbarian-turned-king Kull, and the barbarian-turned-king Conan. Every broadsword wielding, mighty-thewed barbarian to come down the pike since owes his existence to Conan. From Brak the Barbarian to Druss the Legend, Howard’s influence is undeniable.

Number 1. Come on, say it with me. J.R.R. Tolkien. You saw that coming, right? Tolkien’s influence is deep and indelible. Starting with The Iron Tower and The Sword of Shannara the bookstore shelves have overflowed with Tolkien imitators. You couldn’t find a paperback fantasy back cover blurb in the 1980’s that didn’t compare the author to Tolkien. When people like something they want more of it. And if you’re going to imitate something you could do worse than The Lord of the Rings.

There you have it, the top ten. What do you think? Did I miss an obvious candidate? Is my order out of whack? Who is in your top ten?

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ "The Mucker"

20140202_124632_1Continuing here the sporadic series discussing the works of Appendix N. Well, sort of. The entry for Edgar Rice Burroughs lists Tarzan, the John Carter books, the Carson of Venus books, and the Pelucidar books. I’m not going to discuss those. I doubt they need much more digital ink spilled on them. Instead I’m going to discuss one of ERB’s lesser known books, “The Mucker.”

“The Mucker” features a bona fide anti-hero. The main character is utterly unlike the standard ERB lead: a  virtuously noble paladin. Instead we have Billy Byrne, the eponymous Mucker, a term apparently describing a certain class of criminal lowlife with no redeeming characteristics. And ERB writes Billy Byrne as living up  – or down – to that label. He’s a thief, a drunk, and an overall bounder. For the first third or so of the novel. It’s kind of refreshing.

Book Bloat

I’ve been considering book bloat.  Literary logorrhea.  Volume avoirdupois.  The fantasy and science fiction best-seller lists seem increasingly dominated by physically hefty books of  massive page counts, generally installments of on-going series.

Fine.  That is what sells.  Many publishers refuse to even consider a manuscript submission that weighs in at under 90,000 words.  A larger book can demand a higher price.  Series fiction ensures repeat business.  And authors enjoy a large canvas to paint in ever more detail of the their painstakingly crafted universes.

For that matter I enjoy reading some of these encyclopedia length series.  A large book, a long series, allows for greater immersion.  Of course I am reluctant to pick up a book if the cover indicates that it is ‘part one of an ongoing series.’  I’m already committed to enough of those.  And frankly, some of them smack of pay-check cashing or hint at the author’s drift, lack of focus, or growing boredom.  I fear many of these are begun without a definite end in mind.  That suggests a violation of the unspoken agreement with the reader.