Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Jeffro Johnson on Margaret St. Clair

Margaret St. Clair

I'm an opponent of the politicization of gaming, just as I'm an opponent of the politicization of fantasy and science fiction literature. That doesn't mean I'm against political fiction or even political gaming per se. So, what do I mean?

Many of the best works in classic fantasy and science fiction were certainly political to one degree or another. What I'm against is one political group - in current times, it's a vocal and bullying minority within the left - taking on the self-imposed role of gatekeeper and censor against authors and political views in opposition to their own or whom they don't like.

Why am I against this? Well, largely because, as strongly as I may feel about certain political issues, some of the fantasy and science fiction novels that I have learned the most from and/or have enjoyed the most have been written from a point of view opposed to mine, often diametrically opposed to mine. People are people, and just because you disagree with them, or even just because they (you think) are objectively wrong about this or that, doesn't mean they don't have something important (to you) to say. Indeed, I would even argue that this is largely how we learn.

I'm not bragging about having a particularly tolerant point of view, or whatever. Rather I assume many if not most readers in the genre have similar experiences and would agree. It's only human, I think.

That's why the bullies want to stamp it out.

Jeffro Johnson makes a number of "controversial" claims in his recent book, Appendix N: A Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons, some of which are, I suppose, in some sense "political" if the term has any meaning. He makes some counter-intuitive observations and arguments about sex and sexism, as well as Christianity - observations and arguments that have not unsurprisingly raised the hackles of some on the left. One of his recommendations is "regress harder," which sounds, and arguably is, reactionary (if that term has any meaning). Not that there's anything wrong with it.

But I think it's important to note that this is only one aspect of Appendix N (an aspect that I think is more than fine, but still). Or rather, if it is the primary aspect, it's meaning may be misunderstood. The authors and books on Gary Gygax's Appendix N list are a diverse lot. About the only things they have in common are 1) they're all on the list, 2) they're mostly forgotten or neglected by current critics and readers, 3) they all influenced to a lesser or greater extent the rules mechanics and/or vibe of original Dungeons & Dragons, and 4) they're all (or almost all) hugely worthwhile to read.

The politics and philosophies of the authors are all across the map.

One of the things I've always admired about Johnson, is despite his opinionated viewpoints (a condition of most OSR bloggers and commentators, of course), he always goes out of his way to find and promote the best or most interesting claims from a wide diversity of people - especially those who might have different politics. This is true for the bloggers he favorably cites or riffs on. It's also true for the authors he talks about in Appendix N.

This might sound like I'm heaping praise on Johnson. Actually, I'm not, or not per se. Rather, it's the natural human approach. And it's how most fantasy and science critics used to go about things. It's only the contemporary politicized bullies that have a problem with it.

Consider the author Margaret St. Clair (1911-95). St. Clair is one of the least well known authors on the Appendix N list, at least today. I'm fairly well acquainted with the history of fantasy and Appendix N lore, but I had never known anything about her (other than knowing she was on the list), and had not read her.

But Gygax included her on his list. Why?

Let's put that question aside for a moment and look at Johnson's first paragraph on her in his chapter, "Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair":
Margaret St. Clair’s formula for an original novel is to start with a realistic dystopian near-future, then layer in a major fantasy element for counter-point, incorporate widespread drug use and hallucinations, and finally throw in at least two over-the-top science-fiction elements that (in comic book fashion) fail to disrupt either the setting or the plot overmuch. It’s a potent combination that so dazzled her publishers that they could only explain her writing talent as being due to her feminine proximity to the primitive, her consciousness of the moon-pulls, and her Bene Gesserit-like awareness of “humankind’s obscure and ancient past.”
Chances are you've never read St. Clair, but if that bit doesn't make you want to read her, I don't know what.

St. Clair was the son of a Democrat politician, a feminist (I think), a Wiccan, a sometime devotee of nudist colonies (along with her husband) and a lifelong supporter of the American Friends Service Committee. In other words, not exactly a right-wing Heinleinesque sort of figure.

She was also, quite probably, one of the inventors (in terms of her influence) of the megadungeon:
Take, for example, this recent comment from game blogger DM David:
In the fantasies that inspired the game, no character explores a dungeon. At best, you can find elements of the dungeon crawl, such as treasure in the mummy’s tomb, orcs in Moria, traps in a Conan yarn, and so on.
This is just not the case. The archetypal Gygaxian dungeon really does have a literary antecedent, and it’s here in this book [Sign of the Labrys]. Each level has a different theme, from living areas for survivors of the apocalypse to scientists and their unusual wandering monster creations, creations, and on to the VIP level, where everyone is doped up on euph pills. Exploration is a key part of the plot as the lower levels are only connected by secret passages. At the same time—just like in the best dungeon designs—there is also more than one way to get from one level to the next and sometimes ways to bypass levels entirely. Finally, the action of the novel is focused on exactly the sort of thing that consumes the bulk of so many game sessions to this day: a battle within a dungeon by two rival factions.
As far as I know, no one has ever made this connection, even though Gygax telegraphed it, more than forty years ago. (The "official" Appendix N list of 29 authors appeared in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide, published in 1979. However an earlier and shorter list, containing 21 authors - 20 of whom would carry over into Appendix N, appeared in the December, 1976 issue of The Dragon magazine under the heading "Fantasy/Swords & Sorcery: Recommended Reading, From Gary Gygax.")   

Not to rub things in against poor feminist blogger Cecilia D'Anastasio, but her tyrannical patriarchal Gygaxian dungeon was actually in part invented by a Wiccan pacifist.

There's much more in the chapter than this, including more of an argument and explanation for the megadungeon thing, and more about the complexity of St. Clair's Wiccan (yes, Wiccan) perspective. You'll have to read it on your own. But here's how the chapter ends:
No, after thinking this over, there is really not one thing I’d change about this book. From the publisher’s bizarre back cover blurb to the original inspiration of the Gygaxian megadungeon, from the drug-infused apocalypse to the bizarre mixing and matching of science-fiction and fantasy elements, this book is a masterpiece. There’s something intensely satisfying about the fact that conventions in tabletop games that we take for granted today sprang from something that was so fiercely original. This is a book that is so weird on so many levels that it really shouldn’t even exist. That’s why it’s awesome.
My own view is that Johnson is rekindling an interest in these works, just as Lin Carter and Ballantine Books did in a different way in the sixties with their "Adult Fantasy Series." And other authors and bloggers are starting to take up the challenge.

As the fantasy and science fiction author John C. Wright says in his Introduction to Appendix N:
Ignore the Thought Police. Read. Decide. Learn to enjoy what you enjoy. Because the heritage belongs to us all. And who knows? You may find the books that your favorite author read as his favorite books when he was young. All these worlds are yours. You have merely to claim them.
Personally, I find that an invitation almost impossible to resist. Clever scribbler, that John C. Wright.

All these worlds are yours. You have merely to claim them.


  1. Once again blogger + adblocker ate my comment. Oh well. Here's the short answer:

    I ordered 'Sign of the Labrys' and thanks for pointing it out. Sounds great.

    As for the bullies - beware the Totalitarians. They're coming, and they are not interested in Justice so much as power. Just a hunch.

  2. Authoritarians Ruin Everything. Never forget that. Doesn't matter what direction they come from. Today it's the left. Yesterday (in the 80s, when I was a kid) it was the right. They'll dress up in whatever political drag and arguments that suit them to crush out anyone's free behavior.

    Ignore the Thought Police indeed.

    1. I agree 100%. The Christian Right spent 20 years trying to demonize anyone who didn't "toe the line" and follow their rules. The left is nothing more than a bunch of weaklings trying to be strongmen by forcing their version of morality on the rest of us. The reason they are fighting so hard right now is that people have started to get up and fight back.

  3. I'm curious - you mention D'Anastasio by name in this post and I think I saw someone else recently - but are there others? Who are these "bullying minority" and "gatekeepers?" What do they say about sci-fi/fantasy and gaming?

    1. Well, I hope this doesn't sound like a cop out, but I don't follow many of these controversies too closely, so I'm not an expert. Jeffro would be a better person to ask. But off the top of my head, here are six examples:

      1. Removing Lovecraft's bust as the trophy from the World Fantasy Awards, because Lovecraft was an alleged racist. As things go, this is relatively minor and silly, I suppose, but still.

      2. Harper Colins refusing to publish a science fiction novel by a contracted novelist Nick Cole because the story had a subplot about robots turning against humans based on observing the existence of abortion. Cole didn't write the book to argue one way or another on abortion, nor, as far as I know, is he even anti-abortion himself (at least not publicly so). He just thought it would be interesting and sort of different to provide that explanation for the oft-used trope of robots turning against humans. No dice. They said he had to take that out. He quit Harper Collins and self published.

      3. The politicization of the Hugos over the last few years, started (I would argue) by the SJW left.

      4. The hate campaign against Zak S and RPG Pundit a few years ago in the gamer community. Even though they were both pretty much socially on the left, they didn't COMPLETELY tow the line on all parts of the agenda, or at least were perceived (largely falsely), not to. So, off with their heads. And if 5th edition featured their names as advisors (along with many others) that was a very very bad thing, and something should be done about it - like taking their names off of the acknowledgments or whatever.

      5. Various examples of kowtowing to SJW special interests in the language and vibe of 5th edition D&D. That's probably a controversial claim in some quarters but there it is.

      6. #NotAtMyTable

      This turning into a rant. And you're probably familiar with and have your own opinions about these cases or examples. Apologies.

      I know "SJW" is a trigger word among many, but I don't know what other label to use. I certainly don't want to suggest that everyone or even most on a particular political side - in this case, the left - are bullies. But some are, no question. And often their targets are people that actually agree with them politically on most things (but not everything - hence the bullying).

  4. ...except Europa.

    Attempt no landing there.

  5. Left-wing authoritarians bitch about stuff on the internet.

    Right-wing authoritarians have the white house, congress, and the supreme court.

    It's not exactly a level playing field right now.

    1. Well, everybody bitches. And I get your point. But in terms of gaming or fiction, which is what I'm interested in for the purposes of this topic, it doesn't really matter who occupies the White House or Congress, does it? Whatever you think of, say, Trump, he's not exactly trying to dictate the nominees of the Hugo Awards, is he?

      My problem is not that a particular political group dominates a particular non-political sphere. You're always going to have that, almost by definition. Rather, I'm against a particular political group imposing their political agenda on a non-political sphere. I don't think that should happen or has to happen.

      Does that make sense?

  6. Is St. Clair's The Shadow People discussed at all? I found the description of the underworld and the elves very interesting.

    1. Yes. I didn't make it clear (I should have) that there are actually two chapters on St. Clair. The other chapter is on The Shadow People. This makes sense, as both novels were explicitly named in Appendix N.

  7. 'The Shadow People' blends a cannibalistic fairy underworld with a dystopian San Francisco then adds in in COINTELPRO shenanigans and escaping to Canada. Fantasy and politics mixed into a great witches' brew.

    If you want the political context for D&D that is generally ignored I'd recommend Slotkin's trilogy on the ideology of Western/Cowboy literature as Gygax's conception of early D&D is deeply influenced by the notion of 'the frontier' (clearing the land of monsters to create 'keeps on the borderland').

    Slotkin's work is massive but it was the first time I could see the outside edges of American mythology. There is even a section on ERB's John Carter which gives a direct stepping stone to OD&D. Both D&D and Slotkin are works of the mid-70s, as Gygax was creating the latest iteration of America's national mythology, Slotkin was sketching out its' history.

    Another book is Gibson's Warrior Dreams which examines the rise of paramilitarist fantasies in the wake of the US's retreat from Vietnam. It looks at the rise of adult forms of play took on increasing violent topics in the late 70s and 80s. He never mentions RPGs but I was taken back by how well OD&D (and my whole youth in the 80s) fit into this dark social change. There is an good review of this book done by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

    OD&D and the lives of its' creators need to be seen in the context of Vietnam. The whole wargaming/roleplaying divide is a reflection of this too. Just look at Gygax's life: he began as an 'anti-war cleric' due to his Jehovah Witness faith, drifted into liberation politics (like his literary heroes Jack Vance and Poul Anderson), and finally died as pro-war, born-again Christian with a son who was an Army recruiter.

    It is fine to consume fantasy in a void (I certainly have!) but the early days of D&D are only intelligible in terms of America's 'frontier' mythology and the cultural reaction following Vietnam. "It's just entertainment" is one of the deepest forms of Thought Police in modern America.