Monday, November 21, 2016

Does Not Stephen Baxter Fill You with a Sense of Wonder?

Scifi readers appreciate good writing as much as anyone, but usually give it lower priority than what they call “a sense of wonder:” a writer’s ability to evoke the immensity of the universe, the deepness of time, the diversity and strangeness of extraterrestrial life. Fandom is not a literary society but a quasi-religious order, and what most of us want from our novels and movies and games is not esthetic pleasure but transcendence. We tolerate bad writing so long as its author can take us from our mundane lives and tell us of something sublime.

Kurt Vonnegut, who dabbled in science fiction but refused to acknowledge it, satirized scifi writers and fans with his character Kilgore Trout, a dismal writer with a head full of good ideas. In the real world, E.E. “Doc” Smith, inventor (more or less) of the galactic-war epic, wrote his outsized narratives in a painfully juvenile style. L. Ron Hubbard, author of more than a thousand books, crafted space operas (e.g. Battlefield Earth) whose stylistic crapulence matched their delusions of galactic grandeur. The British physicist Stephen Baxter, who began publishing science fiction in the 1980s, fit himself into the Smith-Hubbard-Trout tradition. His early stories and novels, now known as part of “the Xeelee universe,” sketched out a future history of trans-galactic scope. Baxter’s fictions suffered from numerous flaws: clumsy dialogue (“Does it not fill you with a sense of wonder?”), forgettable characters, and the inevitable continuity errors. Fanboys like myself still found these tales fascinating. Despite his mediocrity as a wordsmith Baxter created a milieu of immense scale and mystery, and his stories and novels crackled with ideas – aliens trying to manipulate Planck’s constant, spaceships powered by the primordial superforce, pilots who used black holes as traps, mega-structures woven from superstrings. They offered pleasure to anyone who enjoyed watching an educated and creative mind at work.

Baxter's initial run of Xeelee stories comprised four novels (Raft, Flux, Ring, and Timelike Infinity) and a score of short stories anthologized in Vacuum Diagrams. They described a future history that began in the 37th century and ended ten million years later. The first Space Age apparently ended in our own near future, as humanity turned its resources to repairing our own badly damaged planet. Once people resumed exploring the Solar System they discovered life everywhere, from the caverns beneath Mercury to the frozen wastes of Pluto. A century or two onward, as homo sapiens began creeping toward the nearer stars, they ran into more advanced alien races who conquered and degraded them: the group-minded Squeem and the huge, exotic Qax. (Baxter had little talent for alien names.) One of these conquests actually extended itself backward in time. The engineer Michael Poole, a recurrent character in Baxter's stories, constructed a wormhole time bridge to the fifty-fourth century, through which human rebels and alien warships chased one another. That they avoided a time paradox one may attribute both to their decision to fight in more remote parts of the Solar System, and to Baxter's lack of interest in describing a time paradox.

Through several lucky breaks humanity defeated its conquerors and acquired from them alien super-weapons and FTL space drives. A more militaristic and fanatical human society began colonizing the galaxy, only to run into an even more powerful alien race: the Xeelee. (Told you he was bad with names.) Neither could peacefully coexist with one another by now, and a long series of wars, extending to about 1 million CE, ensued. Human warships broke up planets, set off supernovas, flung neutron stars at their adversaries – this was the background of Flux, set on a pulsar that microscopic humans had colonized – and, in the later novel Exultant, used FTL causality loops to garner tactical intelligence. Seizing at last the Xeelee redoubt at the core of the Milky Way (ca 20-30,000 CE), humanity paused to regroup, but later empires sent warships to attack the superstructure that served as the focus of Xeelee civilization: Bolder's Ring. 

This was a giant exotic-matter matrix, thousands of light-years across, built by the Xeelee as a gateway to other universes. It served as a plot device in Baxter's early novel Raft, wherein a human warship fell through the Ring into a universe where gravity was one billion times stronger than in our own dimension. (The alternate universe, a realm of breathable gas clouds, floating trees, and retrograde human castaways, resembled the setting of Larry Niven's Integral Trees.) In the last of his initial Xeelee novels, Ring, Baxter revealed that the Xeelee had built the gateway not out of ambition but fear. They wanted to escape our universe because a dark-matter species, the “photino birds,” had colonized nearly all of the stars in our reality and were dramatically accelerating the stellar aging process. By 10 million CE, none would remain luminous enough to support life.

Longtime sci-fi fans will note that Baxter's future history resembles Olaf Stapleton's novel Star Maker, which continuously “pulled back the camera,” so to speak, to show increasingly large and sophisticated interstellar civilizations. The Xeelee universe employed a similar creative structure, but increased the drama of its stories by making these alien cultures progressively more advanced and threatening. Humans discovered Solar species as intelligent but less powerful than humans, interstellar societies capable of conquering Earth, an intergalactic race able to fight off even a Type III human civilization, and a universal race of energy predators whom no-one could fight. This allowed readers to appreciate the gradually escalating scale (in both space and time) of Baxter's speculations, even as he used the old-fashioned narrative framework of war and exploration to scaffold out the plot.

After a seven-year hiatus, Baxter returned to the Xeelee stories in 2003 with a trilogy of novels, “Destiny’s Children”*, and two more anthologies. Some of these usefully fleshed out episodes that had received little previous attention, like the Human-Xeelee wars (Exultant) or the traumatic Squeem conquest of Earth (“Remembrance”). Others, alas, tacked on ideas that seemed thematically incompatible with the earlier series. Coalescent posited a sisterhood of Romano-British gentry trying to preserve their culture after the fall of Rome, and eventually developing into a eusocial hive entity. (This was Baxter’s riff on Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive.) “Starfall” recounted an interstellar war, fought at slower-than-light speeds, between an Earth-based interstellar empire and its rebel colonies. The “Old Earth” stories took place on a far-future Earth shielded from the photino-birds by a time field, one which caused time to flow at different rates at different elevations - very rapidly in the mountains, glacially slow in the lowlands. These weren’t necessarily bad tales (okay, I didn’t care for Coalescent), but they fit poorly with their predecessors. Some dealt competently with the concept of deep time, but none really evoked the transgalactic scope of novels like Ring or the diversity-of-intelligence theme of Baxter’s early stories. Mostly they just reminded me of a certain ‘70s TV character vaulting his motorcycle over a shark: interesting concept, but not really what we came here to see.

(Illustration above, of Spline** warships on the move, are from and are copyrighted by Rhysy.)

* No relation to the band, presumably.

** A race of intelligent whale-like creatures who converted themselves into spacecraft and rented their services to other species. This is one of Baxter's better ideas; Douglas Adams would have liked it.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

D&D and World War Three

Ask any literate person to name the most influential fantasy writer of the twentieth century, and she will likely reply "J.R.R. Tolkien." The Lord of the Rings novels and the Peter Jackson film adaptations thereof have brought pleasure and wonder to hundreds of millions of people. But she could just as accurately answer "Gary Gygax," the principal designer (with Dave Arneson) of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. D&D itself remains something of a fringe hobby, enjoyed by a few million active players worldwide, but around thirty million people have played the game at one time or another (David Ewalt, Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It [2014], 32). More significantly, Gygax and Arneson's game also provided the tropes and templates for online multi-player role-playing games like World of Warcraft, whose players acquire a fantasy race and class, fight monsters and demi-humans, acquire treasure, embark on quests, descend into dungeons, and earn experience points. These online games have attracted well over 150 million players*, many of whom have never heard of the men who helped invent their fantasy-gaming experience. The D&D designers' influence persists nonetheless.

There's much overlap between Lord of the Rings' and role-playing games' fandom, but the two creations take very different approaches to fantasy. Tolkien's tale is one of kings, powerful wizards, and immortal elves united in an epic struggle against an ancient, cosmic evil. D&D borrowed some of Tolkien's nomenclature (until Tolkien's estate sued), and the epic-quest-against-cosmic-evil theme cropped up in a number of packaged adventures (the Dragonlance series in particular). At heart, though, Dungeons & Dragons was a "low fantasy" game whose more obscure characters played for lower stakes, and whose dynamics owed as much to science fiction novels - particularly post-apocalyptic science fantasy novels - as to swords-and-sorcery tales like Robert Howard's.

Gygax acknowledged as much in the famed "Appendix N" to the original Dungeon Master's Guide, which listed his literary inspirations for the game. Geekier players know that the magic system in D&D comes from Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, set in a far-future Earth where the study of magic (specifically, learn-fire-and-forget spells) has revived. Another entry on Gygax's list, the obscure and eccentric Margaret St. Clair novel Sign of the Labrys, seems to have provided the model for the archetypal "dungeon," an underground adventure site full of traps and with progressively more dangerous lower levels. St. Clair's novel took place in an underground shelter after an apocalyptic war here on Earth. I've written here of another seemingly-unlikely source, Sterling Lanier's Hiero's Journey, from which D&D appears to have taken some of its monsters (slime creatures and giant animals, in particular) and some of the inspiration for the cleric class. The designers' interest in psionic powers, which don't appear in either Tolkien or most pulp fantasy, also come from mid-century sci-fi, and may have specifically originated with Lanier's novel. And the archetypal D&D adventure often involves players exploring the ruins of an ancient culture, hunting for powerful magical items - a quest akin to Hiero's, or to the protagonist's in Andre Norton's Star Man's Son. (Appendix N doesn't mention this novel specifically but does list Norton as a source.) 

The affect of Dungeons & Dragons also resembles that of a post-apocalyptic SF novel, rather than a fantasy epic. The rules encourage players to focus on their own survival and betterment; advancement is primarily based on resilience, combat skill, and acquiring treasure. The game's "alignment" system and the desire to prevent hurt feelings generally ensured players would behave ethically within their group, but otherwise enlightened self-interest was the highest rule. Critics who refer to stereotypical D&D characters as "murder hobos" weren't entirely wrong. A well-armed hobo wouldn't necessarily fit into an epic fantasy tale, but he'd fit right into a survivalist yarn. Maybe that's the best way to characterize Dungeons & Dragons, at least as most of its players have experienced it. Lord of the Rings is a fantasy inspired by, or at least strongly reminiscent of, World War Two, with its battle between good and evil and its happy ending. D&D is more about the aftermath of World War Three, where staying alive, getting stronger, and helping your friends is a far greater challenge, and endings are best postponed for a later session.

* Lord of the Rings has sold about 150 million copies since the 1950s; the movies have been seen by about 100 million people. Ewalt estimates that at least 200 million gamers have played either tabletop or computer fantasy role-playing games.