The Terror! The Terror!

The Terror by Dan Simmons

The Terror is a story with a compelling idea at its heart – that the explorers are in a world for which they are poorly equipped and unprepared not just at a physical level, but at some deep philosophical or spiritual level. They are out of their element in so many ways.

The problem for me in reading it is that it took far too long to tell that story. It felt like it should have been a concise, tightly written suspense novel with a message bigger than the typical story of that genre. What it felt like instead was a sprawling, overly-detailed and often tedious account of what it’s like to live in one of the remotest places on earth.

There is so much repeat detail in there that it started to bore me – how many times do we need to be told of the crashing sounds of the ice ridges moving around, or that it’s a bit chilly outside and metal will freeze to your skin if you touch it? Details like this are important in a story, but there’s a point where the same thing repeated just becomes annoying.

About a hundred pages in I started skimming the book, jumping over the repetitive sections and the filler, trying to get to the interesting parts. There are striking visual images in this story, and some very well described set pieces that are well worth the read. For each one of those, however, there is a boring description of someone walking around, or a tedious digression.

Maybe it’s just that this wasn’t the story I wanted it to be. Maybe it’s perfectly fine and I came at it from the wrong direction, but I don’t think so. The early chapters and the late chapters I read in full. They were interesting and engaging and felt like they were going somewhere. The midsection – the bulk of the book – felt like it could have been comfortably cut by more than half and been a much better tale. It was too flabby by half, and some assertive editing could have made this a truly gripping read.

I was pre-disposed to like this story. I’ve read a fair bit about the expedition, and I like maritime themes and horror stories. As it is, I’m left feeling that the journey is just about worth it, but only if you shut your eyes now and then and doze through the boring bits. I hate to say this, but I think I’d enjoy this more as a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. A trimmer, tighter narrative and this could have been a classic of the genre.

London Peculiar/London Personal

“Michael Moorcock died of lung cancer, aged 31, in Birmingham last year. The whereabouts of Karl Glogauer are presently unknown”.
James Colvin, introduction to Breakfast In the Ruins.

On a trip back to the United States from India earlier this year I left my copy of ‘London Peculiar’ on the plane. I didn’t realize it until I cleared customs and immigration, and once I did it felt as though I had abandoned a friend. I could visualize Mike’s mischievous face looking out from where I’d left it in the storage pocket of the seat in front of me. It was a strange sense of loss and one that brought home to me how much I’ve enjoyed reading this collection of his essays and diary entries.

Mike is very much still with us, of course, and that moment of realization reminded me of an experience I had back in Maidenhead, England, where I finished my high school education in the late 70’s. I bought a copy of ‘Breakfast In The Ruins’ at Sneath’s Books in a run-down row of shops off the high street. I had been a big fan of Moorcock’s fantasy writing since picking up ‘The Stealer of Souls’, and regularly scoured the few local bookshops for new titles or reprints.

In those pre-internet days, as a middle class kid in a mid-sized, anodyne commuter town, I didn’t see many options for finding the books I loved and didn’t yet have common sense enough to ask the bookshop to order them for me or to take the train to London to the treasure trove of Dark They Were And Golden Eyed. Those things came later, along with wandering Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road looking for a scene and people that had long since departed to other destinations on the moonbeam roads.

The sense of loss and confusion when I opened ‘Breakfast In The Ruins’ and read the introduction is tempered by time but remains real to me to this day. It may seem ludicrous now, but I didn’t know then that Colvin was a pseudonym and I took the introduction at face value. As far as I knew Moorcock was gone, and we were left with whatever he had written up to that time, and there would be nothing else to come. To a teenager invested in the heroes he’d come to know from his writing, this was a real sense of loss.

Some time later – I don’t recall when but mercifully before I saw him walk on and perform ‘Coded Languages’ onstage with Hawkwind on the Sonic Attack tour – I learned that this was not true. I was grateful that he was still very much alive and kicking and that there was much more to come.

‘London Peculiar’, then, has special resonance for me, drawing together as it does writing that spans his life. In doing so it touches on many of the places where his writing and the scene in which he moved has been a part of my life. This is a personal selection, and it is easy to respond to it personally.

The book is divided into sections – London, Other Places, Absent Friends, Music, Politics, and Introductions and Reviews – but I’m a peripatetic reader of collections such as this, so I found the organization largely irrelevant. Each piece in the collection stands independently from any other, so sampling at random is as good a way as any to enjoy it and given Moorcock’s prolific and diverse writing perhaps the best.

In fact, the breadth of the selection makes the title of this volume a little misleading. There is discussion of London here, but equally as much of Paris and Austin and Barsoom, and more besides.

London is where it begins, though, and the first piece, ‘A Child’s Christmas In The Blitz’ is one of the standout pieces in the collection. You don’t need to have read a Moorcock story or be a Londoner to appreciate it, but the essay will resonate more fully if you have experienced his descriptions of ruined cities, the perfect sanctuary of Tanelorn, and the theme of entropy that he returns to periodically. I’m a generation later than Moorcock – my father was born the same year – but the essay evokes stories my aunts and uncles shared of their experiences during the Blitz.

While the underlying framework of the city – the river, roads, ancient buildings, parks – remain constant London has changed since then, in many ways. In reading the essays that have London as a theme, it’s easy to share with Moorcock the sense of sadness at the work of the commercial heritage industry in co-opting and exaggerating every exploitable corner of the city. Those dark corners and strange alleys, little-visited pubs, baroque architectural growths, and peculiar odds and ends that we think of as our own.

As a native of Fulham, and a long time wanderer of London’s streets, I feel rather proprietary about the city. Like most Londoners who take the time to think about it I have my own version of London mapped out in my thoughts and feelings, and it’s jarring when you find someone has layered an ersatz version on top of it. It’s an invasion of your own experience of the city’s psychogeography.

And there’s a word I hadn’t heard until relatively recently, although it has a long history, and one that gets a good deal of discussion in ‘London Peculiar’. I’ve more or less given up reading modern fiction, since most of it isn’t worth the effort. I have the good fortune to have a brother who sends me things he thinks I’d like, though, and he’s usually spot on. ‘The Sunday Books’ was a recent hit, along with ‘Slow Chocolate Autopsy’. If you’re a fan of Sinclair, you can imagine the feelings I experienced on picking up one of his books cold.

Moorcock visits the theme of psychogeography repeatedly in ‘London Peculiar’, providing context and insight into Sinclair’s writing, and adding further perspective through his commentaries on other authors – Ackroyd and Kersh, for example – who have filtered London through their own unique consciousnesses. The term psychogeography seems to me to be in danger of literary overuse these days, but Moorcock’s essays show you the original masters and help you understand why their writing is important.

And the mention of those authors brings me to a more general observation about the book. This is a truly literary collection, encompassing Mike’s thoughts about art, literature, politics, music, and other artists. The reflections on writers – Ballard, Peake, Carter, Sinclair, Kersh, Story, and others – are rich with the sort of personal observations that are only born of close relationships. You’ll also get a cracking reading list out of his mentions of authors that you’ve never heard about before. Many years ago I read ‘The Urban District Lover’ because of Moorcock’s involvement with Savoy books and his mentions of Jack Trevor Story, and I have just picked up a copy of ‘Fowler’s End’ because of his review here of Kersh’s novel.

Beyond that there is the broader context of the development of fantasy and science fiction, the pathways opened up by writers such as H.G. Wells and the many unique and individual voices, now largely forgotten, that brought the genres new life. You’ll also find here discussion of the role played by Mike and his peers in breaking open the comfortable enclave that those genres lived in. If you know nothing of the impact that ‘New Worlds’ magazine had in leading the New Wave of science fiction during the 60’s, this is as good a place as any to learn from the man who made it happen.

And there is so much more than the literary world in here. Mike’s often humourous observations on life in general, and particularly for me (also an expatriate) his asides on life in the United States, span a wide range of interests and encompass a broad understanding of history, art, music and politics. Whether you agree with his point of view or not, you won’t fail to be entertained.

A final point. Mike’s work includes repeated motifs, themes, characters, and the complexity of their interrelationships rewards wide reading of his books. Readers of this volume will also be rewarded more greatly in proportion to their familiarity with his work and those around him. This is a very enjoyable collection in its own right for those who are completely unacquainted with his work but the more you know about it the more nuggets you will mine.

I hope that whoever picked up my copy of ‘London Peculiar’ from that Air France Airbus doesn’t drop it into the rubbish or the lost and found, but takes the time to open the pages and read just one of the essays contained within. I know that if they do they’ll take better care of it than I did.

‘London Peculiar’ is a wonderful collection. To my grateful eyes it’s a happy artifact that my 15 year old self never could have hoped for after reading that introduction back in the 70’s. There are very few people outside my immediate family and close friends who I shall miss when they are eventually gone, but Michael Moorcock (for the second time) will be one of them.

Edit/Delete Message

Of Dice and Men

I picked up David M. Ewalt’s ‘Of Dice And Men‘ on the strength of the embossed D12 on the cover. My first thought, as someone who spent three of his teen years deeply engrossed in the world of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), was ‘why a D12 and not a D20?’ but I’ve learned to let those things go. If you have no idea what a D-anything is, bear with me; this book might still be for you.

A little background might be helpful here so that whether you’re a gamer or a civilian you can see where I’m coming from. I played D&D in the 1970’s, back in the early days when it was becoming a craze. For about three years, my final three of high school, I played the game solidly. It wasn’t the only thing I did, but it occupied a lot of my spare time. After I finished high school I quickly drifted away from playing the game, but stayed involved with the role-playing and boardgaming world for a while, writing for fanzines and dropping in on conventions)1.

At this remove from those heady days I had no expectations in picking up the book other than to see what Ewalt as a fellow gamer might have to say about the hobby. His publisher, however, sets a high bar in the margin notes: “Now the authoritative history and magic of the game are revealed…”. This is a little at odds with Ewalt’s introduction which says more modestly of his book “bear in mind it is largely intended to explain the phenomenon of D&D to a mainstream audience”. I’ll say at the beginning that Ewalt’s self-description is more accurate than that of his publishers’ marketing department.

D&D was indeed a phenomenon, one that’s hard to grasp in a time when online fantasy games are commonplace and the cinemas routinely screen 2-hour fantasy epics. Few people give any thought these days to the idea of a fantasy game with an ongoing narrative, or the concept of characters leveling up, but until D&D arrived those concepts didn’t exist.

In fact fantasy itself was a somewhat disreputable and marginal genre – largely a doughy loaf of pulp fiction leavened with the high fantasy of E.R. Eddison, Lord Dunsany, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, and J.R.R. Tolkein. In the UK the new wave of fantasy that was being championed by Michael Moorcock in New Worlds and in his own writing was starting to gain traction, but it was far from the level of general popularity that it now enjoys. It is against this background that D&D arrived, the product of years of development by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

Ewalt’s narrative approach in telling the story of that evolution is to frame it within his own journey back to D&D. Like me, and I suspect many others, Ewalt played the game exhaustively until circumstances and life changes led him to abandon it. His book chronicles his journey to understand the origins and evolution of the game, and in doing so he makes side trips into the parallel worlds of tabletop wargames and real life role playing.

The book is organized into chapters about the evolution of the game, the company history of its publisher TSR, and Ewalt’s side excursions. The overarching story is interspersed with narratives from Ewalt’s role playing adventures. I have to say that I did some wincing during these narratives – it’s long been a tenet of mine that descriptions of fantasy role playing adventures are really only interesting to those who were there, and they often sound really naff – but Ewalt carries it off better than most, another tribute to the generally high quality of his writing.

The best parts of the book for my money are the origins story and the mid-section when Ewalt describes how the gaming empire that D&D funded fell apart. Much of the turbulent days at the publishing company TSR and the corporate dynamics that went on during the 80’s was a mystery to me, so I found these sections fascinating.

‘Of Dice and Men’ tells how the small town boys from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, had made it big to the point where Gary Gygax was living it large in Hollywood trying to get interest in a movie based on the game. The company had investments offshore – among other things TSR(UK) owned a property on the Isle of Man, a tax haven close to my heart – but the picture was not as rosy as it might have seemed.

In fact by the mid-80’s the company was in dire financial shape. It had gone from a basement business to a booming company to near bankruptcy in the space of a little over 10 years. Ewalt does a good job of putting the company story in the context of societal reactions to the game – the ‘D&D is satanic’ years – and the waning interest in the hobby in the early 90’s.

He treats the material fairly, quoting the point of view of each of the principals in the drama when it would be easy to point to someone as the villain of the piece. This is a role that Gygax often fills in some people’s estimation. It was Gygax who took the game and ran with it (shutting out his collaborator Dave Arneson, who later sued for his share of the treasure), and who in modern parlance, figured out how to ‘monetize’ the game.

This involved (not unreasonably) exerting strict control over his company’s intellectual property. Gygax made a number of public pronouncements in official publications about how he felt about his imitators and those who published their own D&D related material. He didn’t mince his words: “For most of these efforts TSR has only contempt…”

Perhaps it’s self-serving, but to me this seemed at the time all but impossible. The very heart of the game is about improvisation and figuring out for yourself how to make the narrative work. British fanzine writers in the late 70’s, me among them, were in high dudgeon about Gygax’s edicts on indie publications and the characterization of those who wrote and published them as jackals. Having invented a free-form game that encouraged creativity, he seemed to us to be hell-bent on stifling it. This didn’t stop us, of course, but it did drive a wedge between us and one of the fathers of the game.

The gap widened when TSR published Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) in 3 books spread out over the space of about 2 years. The books were hard to use as stand-alones and contained contradictions and changes from the original D&D that were hard to reconcile. They were also far more table-driven and prescriptive, and moved further away from the original D&D aesthetic that had attracted us.

Ewalt makes an entertaining tale of what could have become a yawningly dull story of corporate growth and decline set amid a gaming phenomenon. There are omissions in the tale that long-term hobbyists might grumble at, but this is almost of necessity since D&D is such a broad topic. The one I do wonder at is the lack of even a mention of Runequest, whereas Tunnels & Trolls and Traveller get a reasonable amount of space. Runequest, for my money, is one of the richest fantasy role playing settings that has ever been created and while it may be tangential to the story of Dungeons and Dragons, it at least deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.

Be that as it may, Ewalt writes well and this makes for a very readable and entertaining book. I think he accomplishes his own stated goal of explaining the D&D phenomenon to a wider audience, and fills in a few gaps for the hobbyist along the way. This isn’t going to satisfy those who spent a prolonged and intense period of their youth down in the dungeons, but it’s a breezy trip through the highlights.

 

1 If you’re curious for more information on those years, you can find it here in a narrative geeklist I wrote on RPGGeek a couple of years ago (you’ll find it easier to read if you click on Hide All Comments at the lower right of the introductory section at the top).