An author to learn from
I’ve been working hard at the fine art of making myself itchy (putting ‘earthwool’ or glass-fibre insulation in the wall cavities of our home.) so I thought it had been a long day and it was time I decamped…
Well, de Camp. Lyon Sprague de Camp, 1907-2000, author of many fantasy, sf and non-fiction works. I happened to mention him to a young author I like and respect, who said he had read almost no de Camp… and I thought, sadly there are probably a lot of sf/fantasy readers and indeed writers who have never encountered de Camp’s work. That’s rather sad, not because he was the best author that ever wrote, but because there is quite a lot of value to gleaned from his work. Like Clifford Simak, the ideas are terrific – but sometimes you wish the story execution was better.
Let’s start by saying that De Camp’s LEST DARKNESS FALL was my second ever sf book – I must have been about 10 — and I loved it utterly. It’s still in my top five comfort-reads. It marked the first time I decided I wanted to write books like this, and has shaped quite a few of my books. LEST DARKNESS FALL was in a way alternate history, starting from a point in history, and quite solid on the history… which influenced my work on the SHADOW OF THE LION and its sequels, and of course PYRAMID SCHEME was Eric and I trying to come up with a way of exploiting THE COMPLEAT ENCHANTER’s concept (which de Camp originally came up with and wrote with Fletcher Pratt). So: I’m not an unbiased reporter.
His weakness – as I said, was often the story itself, the characters not being as well-developed as I’d like and in places very dated in their thoughts and attitudes. – not something you could say about de Camp himself or his ideas – way, way, way ahead of their time. His books had lead characters of different sexes and ethnicities, even sexualities, strong women etc… when these were novel ideas – in the 1940’s. He also had the interesting technique I used in the Alien’s Point of view in SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS, of showing how something your culture or current ‘moral standard’ regards as abhorrent, may well be regarded as highly moral by another (without either being portrayed as ‘wrong’ – a good book is not a sermon. That’s something else the current crop of award winners could stand to learn.) For example, de Camp’s Paalans are cannibals. Very moral about it, and regard not eating people as abhorrent. They’re not ‘evil’ – just in conflict with his other societies, because they think they’re doing the right thing.
Hell, it’s not many authors whose characters are still readable and easy to identify with, long after their time. The current crop will be no different – worse if anything. Occasionally he got it dead right – ‘Mouse’ Padway, while worried about his hat (not a common modern worry) and the dating patterns of his time, is still a great choice for a Fantasy hero. Small, weak, and academic (he’s a historian) in a setting where big, strong and good at chopping people into dog-gobbets would be far more useful. His only asset is his knowledge – which logically forces the story to go a certain way. On the other hand you have Conan…
But let us focus on de Camp’s strengths – because they translate as well to modern writers as those of his era. De Camp was an aeronautical engineer (with a vast range of other interests too) but in a way that I suspect shaped his writing more than anything else. I suppose, trying to put it as simply as possible, his books are characterized logical progressions, with causal determinism. I think that was what appealed to me as a young monkey, who preferred to read non-fiction, because the lack of cause and effect would toss me out of stories.
De Camp in a way was an oddity – a rational and terribly logical man, who didn’t like the use of devices he could not see as possible (he disliked FTL, for example) writing in a field which, when he started out and achieved prominence, had quite a crop of people ‘just making stuff up’. Oddly, for a remarkably inventive and thoughtful man he didn’t do that a lot. His fantasy series THE RELUCTANT KING seems at first glance to be a thing of raw invention, full of magic and the exploration of strange political systems: but if scratch slightly you find that De Camp drew heavily on his historical interests (Persia and Greece, particularly, but everyone from the Australian Aborigines to the Bedoiun). The ‘magic’ is as structured and constrained as science, with logic, cause and effect, balances in energy and matter… which has cropped up in many magic systems in fantasy since. I suspect he was probably really the founding father of that.
Apparently a lot of his stories were his reaction to the lack of these things in other stories he’d read. So: for example LEST DARKNESS FALL is a very logical exploration of how possible inventions would have affected history, and how technology shapes what is possible. In a way, THE COMPLEAT ENCHANTER magic systems are a logical look at how language (another of his interests) made the internal mythology of each of the worlds he wrote of work.
The ideas and settings were plainly a delight to him. Satire too – but he was subtle about it.
In short, if you want to learn how to weave a logical, cause-and-effect fantasy (which is none-the less fantastical)… this I suspect is the guy whose works set that trend, as much as Tolkien provided the blueprint of high fantasy. For me, that is the hallmark of a fantasy I will enjoy. I suppose I remain a scientist at heart. An itchy scientist, who is now going to go and shower, again. Cause and effect.
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