Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Enter Hiero Desteen, Pursued by Mutant Wolverines

Hiero's Journey, Chapter One:

(For a chapter-by-chapter index to this series, click here.)

While no-one could confuse Sterling Lanier with William Thackeray, one cannot say that his prose is terrible. His writing is generally clear and workmanlike, and in the opening chapter of Hiero's Journey he demonstrates two characteristics that serve this particular post-apocalypse adventure story well. One is the ability to describe wilderness scenes in rich detail; Lanier's forests, for example, are full of deadfalls, seedlings, colorful lichens and fallen leaves. The author, in other words, treats his landscapes like characters rather than as speed bumps in the narrative. Lanier's other useful talent is efficient exposition. Within one page of the start of this novel the reader knows the main character's name and titles - "Secondary Priest-Exorcist, Primary Rover and Senior Killman" - that he can read minds, and that he rides a giant moose, or "morse," named Klootz. Within ten pages, we have been introduced to the larger setting: northern North America in the year 7476 CE, about 5,500 years after something called "the Death" (a nuclear war) and several millennia after the "Greenhouse Effect" (6) has warmed up the continent considerably, enlarging forests and shrinking coastlines. (We may congratulate Lanier for introducing this idea into a novel published in the early 1970s, though it's unlikely global warming would continue once industrial civilization and its emissions disappeared.) Apparently the Death has left behind a fair amount of radiation and created a variety of mutant species, such as the giant snapping turtles and bison we encounter early in this chapter, both of which came all the way from a '50s scifi movie to be with us today. It hasn't left much in the way of civilization, though judging from a page or two of inventory porn Hiero's people can still smelt metals and make firearms. Moreover, their priesthood appears to have psychic powers - including precognition and clairvoyance - which they can use with the aid of seeing stones and predictive tokens. Probably this is the meaning of Hiero's title "exorcist.".

In the second half of the chapter Lanier introduces Hiero to one of his sidekicks, an intelligent mutant bear named Gorm, and to his enemy, a vast Evil Conspiracy called the Brotherhood of Unclean Evil or Something. Gorm is a two-dimensional character, and the idea of an intelligent bear doesn't impress me too much; I've suspected real-world bears were intelligent ever since one of them offed Timothy Treadwell. Gorm, however, will play an important role in this novel and is about to save Hiero's bacon, so let's not look a gift ursine in the mouth.

Shortly after meeting Gorm, Hiero barely avoids running into some of his forthcoming antagonists: "Leemutes" (or "Lethal Mutants"), in this case a pack of bipedal, intelligent wolverines (cue obligatory Red Dawn reference) whom our protagonist calls Furhoppers, creative nomenclature not being his forte. As in pulp fantasy novels, and the role-playing games inspired by Lanier's work, evil is not merely a behavior but a racial characteristic, one inscribed on the bodies of the evildoers. Lanier takes care to mention the Leemutes' "beady eyes" and "oily-looking fur," and says they are preceded by "a wave of evil a cloud of gas" (15). Maybe it's just me, but these Furhoppers sound less like an evil army and more like a pack of disaffected teenagers. You wolverine kids get off of my lawn!

It soon becomes apparent that there are hierarchies of evil mutant-ness in Hiero's world, as the Leemutes' leader, a robed humanoid named S'nerg (I kid you not!), lurks into view.  Hiero refers to this human-seeming person as one of the Unclean, and recalls rumors that when killed they dissolve immediately into masses of corruption, so vile are their motives and intentions. This Evil High Priest (to borrow a D&D term) is practically a moustache-twirling villain, who detects Hiero hiding nearby, taunts him with B-movie insults, and paralyzes our hero with his evil mind powers. Things are looking dark for Hiero, and it appears that our novel is about to become a short story, when of a sudden Gorm the Bear comes out of hiding and bites S'nerg in the balls.This was probably the point at which, while I was first reading Hiero's Journey, I realized I was going to finish the novel. You just don't get mutant-bear groin-biting in conventional stories.

At chapter's end, Hiero dispatches S'nerg with a killing blow from his ancient pre-war sword. I think, though, that we're going to give Gorm the medal for this particular event.

Coming next: Our obligatory interview with Captain Exposition.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Sterling Lanier's Not-Quite-Forgotten Not-Quite-Classic

A few months ago, while poking around several old boxes of role-playing game supplements I had left over from the 1980s, I happened upon a reference to a sci-fi novel that I remembered enjoying when I was a teenager, and which was an inspiration for the old RPG Gamma World. The novel was Hiero's Journey (1973), an adventure story pitting a biracial Canadian priest with psychic powers (and you don't find enough of those in fiction, do you?) against post-apocalyptic mutants in the 75th century. After doing a little online research, I learned that the novel, pulpy and goofy as it was, still evoked fond memories from other SF fans, and that it was apparently one of the inspirations for Dungeons and Dragons,  which struck me as odd given the large difference in genre between the novel and the game. In an effort to solve this riddle - how did a post-holocaust SF novel inspire a fantasy role-playing game - and as a tribute to a "good bad book" (in George Orwell's phrase) that is still entertaining, I plan to devote a number of future blog entries to Hiero's Journey.

The novel's author, Sterling Lanier, also merits attention: he wrote several science fiction novels in
the '70s and '80s, and he was the publishing-house employee who first decided to publish Frank Herbert's classic novel Dune, which alone should guarantee him a place (if a small one) in the SF pantheon. Lanier was also one of the few science fiction writers to graduate from my alma mater, though he was rather less talented than some of his fellow Harvardians (Edgar Pangborn, Hal Clement, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula LeGuin). Not everyone gets to be famous when they grow up, and perhaps it's as well merely to be useful and inspiring.