Monday, September 1, 2014

The Books of Summer

Summer is ending, but the summer reading goes on. I always have a lot on my plate when it comes to reading. My eyes are bigger than my brain. (Most things are bigger than my brain.) There are stacks of books in various places all over my house because I'm often reading multiple books at the same time and I have nowhere to put them all. Even when I'm not in the middle of a book, the shelves are full to groaning and my iPad is stuffed full of ebooks for my Kindle and Nook apps. A lot of what I read are weighty (sometimes ponderous) academic tomes on history, theology, archaeology, grammar, politics (God forgive me), or the more high-brow kind of literature, poetry, essays, etc. So every now and then, I need some literary roughage to clear out the system.

This roughage takes the form of books that don't cause me to stop every other paragraph and ponder the deeper meaning of the world. Instead, they are just pure reading pleasure. I can fly through page after page and stay up late into the night (too late, perhaps) trying to get in just one more chapter, page, paragraph...

My most recent cerebral colon-blow came from M.A.R. Barker's long out of print Tékumel: The Empire of the Petal Throne novels The Man of Gold and Flamesong.

Greg Maggard (a.k.a. El Grego of the many blogs) got me intrigued with the world of Tékumel from postings on his blog The Pewter-Pixel Wars. I remember Tékumel from the 1970s when M.A.R. Barker published the RPG Empire of the Petal Throne. I never played the game, but I liked the figures produced for it by Ral Partha Miniatures. They looked like Meso-Americans gone wild. In fact, my friend Ron Towler and I considered them as possible ersatz Mayans for a gaming project we were thinking about (and never did). No one made Mayan figures in the 70s—in fact, I don't think anyone makes them now.

Barker first published Empire of the Petal Throne through TSR in 1975. Nine years and much EPT stuff later, he published The Man of Gold, the first of what would be five novels set in Tékumel, whose most powerful kingdom is Tsolyánu, the Empire of the Petal Throne.

Tékumel is a devolved world. The planet had been terraformed to some degree by space-faring hi-tech humans long ago, but a cosmic catastrophe had cut its solar system off from the rest of the universe. Only the planet's sun and two moons provide light; the skies are devoid of stars. Since the catastrophe, the world has descended into a roughly 1st c. technology, even then many resources are unavailable. Iron is very rare and most weapons and armor are made from the very tough hides of an indigenous animal, the chlen-beast. In this world of low technology, working bits from the ancient world before the catastrophe remain and are highly sought after. The world also contains "magic" in the sense that some people are able to tap into power from the "Planes Beyond."

There are also several non-human races on Tékumel. Some are indigenous and inimical to humans and other races, others were brought to the planet by humans in the time before the catastrophe.

The Man of Gold is the story of a young low-level priest named Harsan who gets caught up in the search for an ancient object which the few ancient texts refer to as "The man of gold." He alone posses the ability to find it and use it, but he's contending with unscrupulous elements from within and outside Tsolyánu who want to use the man of gold to gain power for themselves.

Hot on the heels of The Man of Gold, I managed to find a used copy of Flamesong, Barker's second Tékumel novel. I finished it just this morning. Like Man of Gold, Flamesong is a page-turner. The Flamesong of the book's title is a destructive weapon that comes from the gods. Trinesh, a hereksa (a commander of 100 men) in a Tsolyáni legion, gets caught up with characters from the enemy kingdom of Yan Kor and haphazardly travels with them around the kingdoms of Tékumel in tunnel cars (a remnant of the pre-catastophe technology) as both allies and rivals through the various situations they find themselves in. In the end, Flamesong is thwarted and things more or less settle into the status quo ante.

Barker is often compared to J.R.R. Tolkien (by Barker fans, incidentally, not by Tolkien fans). Both wrote novels set in fantasy worlds whose verisimilitude was achieved by creating a depository of history and culture—including creating whole languages—outside the novels, and then drawing on that depository for the breadth and depth required for meaningfully describing the worlds they created. Tolkien broadly modeled his work on the Northern European Dark Age. Barker modeled his on India/Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, pre-columbian Meso-America. Both were philologists and professors. Both told gripping stories. However, the comparisons end pretty much there.

I thoroughly enjoyed Barker's novels as fast-paced swords 'n' sorcery adventure tales. However, there isn't anything deep in them. One of the things that strikes me about Barker's books is that they read a lot like you'd expect a post-mortem of an RPG session to read if you gave it some good literary flourishes. This isn't accidental. Barker's novels followed his RPG by almost a decade. The world of Tékumel was created not as the background of a novel, but as the background of a role-playing game. Barker wrote numerous background booklets for Empire of the Petal Throne in the late 70s and early 80s.

Tolkien, on the other hand, was the inspiration for Dungeons and Dragons, although he had nothing to do with the game and died the year before it was published. Tolkien's inspiration for Middle Earth had much more to do with his own world view, which was profoundly Catholic. Tolkien wrote that Lord of the Rings was "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work." Although Lord of the Rings was never allegorical (Tolkien disliked allegory), it did express deep Catholic ideas in the world Tolkien created and in his characters.

Barker was a convert to Islam in the 1950s (the initials M.A.R. stand for his Muslim name, Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman), but I'm hard-pressed to see anything Islamic in his themes, characters, and in the world-view expressed in his books. In an interesting contrast to Tolkien, Barker is quite profuse in his descriptions of religion and sex in Tékumel. Tolkien never mentions either about Middle Earth. Instead, Tolkien's work speaks of faith and love.

I could go on—and if you're still with me at this point, thanks for hanging in there—but I can sum up the distinctions between Barker and Tolkien thus: Barker writes a great story but, unlike Tolkien, never rises to the level of great literature. For literature to be great it has to show us what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful. Tolkien scores high on all three and Lord of the Rings is considered by readers to be one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century or even of the last millennium. Barker's novels are rather obscure and appeal to a niche audience. Nevertheless, if you can find a copy of Man of Gold or Flamesong, buy it and enjoy it.

Earlier in the summer, I got around to reading C.S. Lewis' space trilogy. Although I'm a fan of Lewis' writing, I'd never had much interest in the space trilogy before, but I read something that referred to the series quite favorably, so I was interested enough to get a hardback set of all three: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.

I burned through the first two volumes very quickly. Perelandra wore me out, not because it was tedious—to the contrary, it was riveting—but because the depiction of evil in the book was deep and disturbing.  I know this is a departure from my commitment to literary roughage, so I've put the third novel, That Hideous Strength, on hold.

I've posted earlier of my love for H. Beam Piper's book Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. I picked up a copy of John F. Carr's biography of Piper last week. So far I've just nibbled at it, but with Flamesong finished, I'm about to dive in more deeply. Piper is a fascinating and enigmatic character. He's a bit obscure in the sci-fi genre except to his devotees (such as my humble self). He might have been one of the greats if not for the fact that he killed himself in 1964, pretty much right on the cusp of wider success.

Carr's book tries to uncover the mysteries of Piper, who seemed to be very active in his lifetime in obscuring any real knowledge about himself. It's almost as much a detective work as a biography because so much of what Piper told others about himself turns out to be untrue, so there are only snippets of letters and personal remembrances to go by. He destroyed much of his unfinished work, which is a pity perhaps. He was embarrassed by his juvenilia (so to speak), which is why he burned it.

He never made much money as a writer and lived far beyond his means and put up a false front in regard to his financial well-being. He amassed an impressive collection of antique firearms, which he loaned to the local historical society. Even when in dire financial straits, he was too proud to take back the collection and sell it for the money he needed to live. Instead, he shot pigeons on his roof and ate them to avoid starvation until another advance or royalty check came his way. The experience made him vow to never let himself starve like that again, which must have been a factor in his suicide.

I also have a recently acquired copy of Federation, a collection of Piper's short stories for his Future History series. The last story in the book, "When in the Course," has only been published here. It uses a similar setting as Kalvan, including the names and characters of the people in Hostigos, except there is no Calvin Morrison and no Paratime Police. Instead, the story involves interplanetary settlers, who side with Prince Ptosphes and Hostigos against Styphon's House and its allies.

"When in the Course" was only discovered among Piper's papers some 16 years after his death. It's his original conception of the story of the "Gunpowder God" that was reworked and published as Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. It makes one wonder what other gems he had that went up in flames. He was working on a novel about the great Spanish Renaissance general Gonzalo de Cordoba, The Great Captain. It's a great shame that that work was unfinished and lost.

I started "When in the Course" a while ago, and then switched to re-reading Kalvan, which I liked better. I need to settle back and get through "When in the Course." I'm sure I'll find it rewarding.

Postscript 9/2/14

I finished "When in the Course" this morning. It definitely doesn't have the same feel as Kalvan. I can see why it was re-worked into the Paratime series. Piper had been serializing the story in Analog magazine when he died.

Apparently, publishing Kalvan posthumously while the serialization in Analog was still in progress was a sticky issue.