Monday, August 14, 2006

"the color of a bleached skull, his flesh"



If my sci-fi leanings have a genetic Adam and Eve, then Adam would be Robert Heinlein's1 Starship Troopers, which may be of no surprise. After all, whose skiffy roots aren't? Eve, however, is definitely Michael Moorcock's Elric books.2

Specifically, it’s the second volume in that saga, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, which I first purchased. I read the second book first because (a) the first book, Elric of Melniboné , was not in stock at the Waldenbooks at the mall of the mid-western town the Tinzeroes' clan was blowing through during the late '80s, and (b) of the available Elric books in stock, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate had the coolest cover.



Of greater significance, however, was that I went to Waldenbooks, and picked those two books out in the first place, because I was already in possession of the Avalon Hill board game versions of those skiffy stalwarts. I'm confident that Starship Troopers was the first to catch my eye at, strangely, the aforementioned mall's Kay-Bee. Additionally, chances are all the Avalon Hill products were on clearance, which explained my mother's willingness to buy them for me.



Like the other Avalon Hill games I came to own (1776, their RPG Powers & Perils, Squad Leader, Freedom in the Galaxy), I "played" Starship Troopers by myself 99% of the time, which mostly involved going through the elaborate starting game set-up procedures of putting a hundred-odd ¾" by ¾" pieces of card board ("chits") on a board divided up into hexagons.3 But man, by Arioch, that Starship Troopers game just straight-up nailed the translation of a sci-fi book into actual board game mechanics. Those boys in Baltimore at Avalon Hill were some mean board game mechanicists.



Since the game's design and mechanics were so completely derived from the text of the book, and included a handful of actual quotes from the book, and since the game and the rulebook so completely infatuated me, buying and reading (repeatedly) the book was not a big conceptual leap.4 The discovery of the Starship Troopers game led me to haphazardly pick out other Avalon Hill titles, of which one of the early ones was the ELRIC board-game.



Just like Troopers, the degree to which the game was absolutely and directly derived from the text of six, count'em, six books boggles the mind a bit.5 Hate to spoil it for you, but the sixth book, Stormbringer, ended with Elric unleashing the End of the World. This had the effect of ending the influence of the petty Gods, preventing them from meddling in the affairs of the universe ever again. Unbelievably, the board game incorporated this element.



Many other specific events from the books were in one way or another represented in the game, which was an odd way to design a board game, really.6 The number of sub-sets of rules which represent the various incidences from the books essentially dictated 'this is Michael Moorcock's world, and we're all just pushing chits around in it.'

-d.d.

P.S. See also, Moorcock's Miscellany.


1Speaking of Heinlein, at the time of this writing, I am terminally stalled mid-way thru Heinlein's buddy E.E. "Doc" Smith's sixth & final book in the Lensman series, Children of the Lens. I mention this since Heinlein and Smith were friends, and Heinlein claims that once he asked Smith to help him buy a car. The two of them took the car for a test drive. Smith drove the car over unimproved roads at high speeds, with the two of them pressing their head against the roof of the car to see if they could hear deficiencies in the car.

2The appropriateness of genetically likening the Elric books to Eve and Starship Troopers to Adam is remarkable. To date, I have only read two other Heinlein books, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and, of course, Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein's Friday is still one of the few books I ever started that was so completely unreadable I just stopped after about 50 pages or so. This rather skimpy sampling of Heinlein's collected works makes the Elric books the metaphorical Eve, since I have read many of Moorcock's books. Seven Elric novels, Warlord of the Air, The Land Leviathan, The Dragon in the Sword (still one of the stranger created worlds I've ever read – and Hitler's in there, somehow), pseudo-historical-fantasy-fiction Gloriana, and, of course, his Nebula winner Behold the Man!, wherein Jesus Christ is a stranded time-traveler.

3The singular exception to this rule was the hands-down brilliant game The Mystic Wood, which I'm still pissed I don't have anymore…

4If this was the way, which seems really complicated now, that I became acquainted with sci-fi, and, indirectly, "adult" literature in general, then how the fuck do kids today make their introductions with the craft of reading, if its not spoon-fed to them via family or school? Certainly, my parents and my school(s) never handed me a copy of Heinlein or Smith, much less Moorcock.

5Credit where credits due: California-based Chaosism originally developed Elric, and I suspect many Avalon Hill's products were actually acquired from smaller companies. I find little fault with this since I highly doubt I would have ever found these games in a Kaybee in the middle of the American gulag if not for Avalon Hill. Salut!!

6 For example, Section 2.0 of the ELRIC rulebook read as follows:
THE WORLD OF ELRIC For 10,000 years the mighty Melnibonean Empire ruled the world. It was an inhuman race,. originally peaceful In their ancestra1 homeland of R'lin K'ren A'a. When the gods needed their city as a neutral meeting ground to create a lull in their cosmic strife, the ancient peoples were blessed with great powers and sent into the world. They found their way to the isle of Melnibone, mastered the dragons which lived there and began the building of their empire. Through sorcerous research and experimentation, the earliest emperors established mystical bonds and pacts with the gods and spirits of the planes. Armed with such knowledge and power they gained easy conquest of the known world. Thus secure, they settled into their long rulership; entertaining themselves with all known and several unknown experiences until their centuries filled with jaded dreams. Then the gods moved again, setting cosmic forces into motion. The Young Kingdoms arose, casting off the Melnibonean yoke. Once free, they squabbled about their petty human pursuits. The Melniboneans continued to decline. their dragons slept longer after each battle. and the race drifted into a deeper slumber, like that of the black lotus eaters. Then the Cosmic Balance grew more unstable as the struggle between Law and Chaos became more than philosophical discussion. Nations rose and fell, and ancient monsters and deities again stalked the world. This time of legend and dangerr demanded a new breed of person to confront the grave dangers. Thus began the age of heroes. There were many heroes in those days, but formost among them was Elric. Kinslayer, Red-handed Reaver , the White Wolf were among his names. His saga is powerful and bitter, the story of a man whose life was a curse and whose blessing was evil. EIric was the last of the Melnibonean emperors. As if to personify the decadence of the race, this emperor was born a weak, sickly albino able to remain alive only through the constant use of powerful magics and drugs produced by Melnibonean sorceries. Yet he was stirred to immense curiosity and intellectual vitality amid the slumbering race. This isolated him. He was known as a brooding and alien king by his own people. EIric sought and suffered from mighty magics. Through his knowledge and fate he came to find the mystical sword called Stormbringer. This ancient blade was a tool of the gods, for instead of merely taking the life of a person, it drew the very essence of their sours into its wicked being. Yet this power was useless without one to wield the weapon, and in return for Elric's hand upon the hilt the sword was bound to share its unholy energy with the emperor. Elric, needfu1 of such vitality; accepted the pact. Sword and man became slave to the other. None could tell the master. It was Elric's destiny to be tossed about by Fate and the gods, bandied like a toy, forced Into the most dangerous and foolhardy positions, suffering forever the doom of his sword. Thus he went forth into the Young Kingdoms.
Got all that?! Because there will be a quiz when the game is over!

2 Comments + Unabashed Criticism:

Blogger Fat Contradiction said...

You forgot Dune.

7:03 PM  
Blogger Fat Contradiction said...

Lessee if we can't complexify this fambly tree a minnit.

Heinlein, or "Ayn Rand for non-scumbags", was my pop Frank Contradiction's favorite writer. I'd read Glory Road like four times by the time I was 12. (Reading a pastiche of Burroughs before reading Burroughs probably explains a lot about my tastes.) Starship Troopers I still rate, and a couple other early pieces. Methuselah's Children was pretty sweet.

I recently reread Fifth Column, which I suspect strongly was written while Bob was wasted on meth. It sketches the invasion of the USA by the "Pan-Asians". Predictably, the Anglo resistance is headed by an advertising executive who masterminds the mass-production of a death ray that only works on those dastardly Pan-Asians. He distributes death-ray-guns through a fake church that the cowardly, superstitious Pan-Asians don't investigate. Just a typical, by-the-numbers piece of military/political SF...

Right up there with Farnam's Freehold, where a middle-class family* ends up knocked into the future, where, predictably, cannibal black dudes run the world. Lots of white-wimmin harems in the future. When I first read it, what really struck me was how dull Heinlein made bridge sound.

In later years, I struggled through a ton of the ol' fucker's late dreck, which all seemed to revolve around incest, polyamory, and women getting really, really, slutty. You didn't miss anything by giving up on Friday, is what I'm saying.** Time Enough for Love is really when the wheels came off: Heinlein stopped writing anything but wish-fulfillment for characters that were thinly-veiled fantasies of himself. The one where Lazarus Long goes back in time to Heinlein's childhood to sleep with his mother...wow. Really takes something to get a book like that out onto the mass market, y'know?

Moorcock, though... I stole a copy of the Chronicles of Corum from my best friend in the 5th grade, Alex Corum. (His parents hated me, thought I was low-class and a bad person, which probably explains a lot about why I stole stuff from their son.) I still dip back into it every now and again; it's okay. Years later, enthralled by Grant Morrison's Invisibles, I gave Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books a shot, and found them unreadable messes. "This is like a collage", I'd muse, "except it makes no fucking sense". I started the Land Leviathan, which at least made sense, but was boring as fuck.

Maybe the Elric books are readable, though, I dunno.

Like you, I mourn the loss of my Avalon Hill Starship Troopers game. Not as much as I mourn the loss of my Steve Jackson collection, though.

-F

*The kind of typical middle-class family where the patriarch is an elderly engineer with a slutty, subserviant young wife and a live-in colored as a servant. Not to put too fine a point on it, but my kind of middle-class family.

**Heinlein's asinine politics sound even worse through a female mouthpiece. Particularly in the lengthy discursions on rape. --I think it's utterly inarguable that Heinlein needed an editor more than any other comparable genre figure: unfortunately, his colossal stature in the genre precluded any such reining in.

7:22 PM  

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