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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53 thoughts on “An author to learn from

  1. He wrote a fine non fic book on ancient engineering as well. I remember his analys on Greek Triremes. It was the only book of its type at my library, popular and readable.

    1. Readable non-fiction is just such a treasure. Like good alt-history it makes this accessible and enriches all of us. I loved his An Elephant for Aristotle – which I read many years ago and wish I had a copy of. Must track it down.

        1. You can catch up with me fairly easily, actually – I just realized that I have only three of his oeuvre in my library. The Ancient Engineers probably shouldn’t count, either, as it is non-fiction and I inherited it from Mom.

          Sigh… Rags to riches. There are so many writers these days that I would prefer to buy from over the deceased because it puts food on their tables that they eventually convert into more food for my brain.

  2. I’d also point at the opening paragraph of Divide and Rule as one of the best examples of using a quiet phrase to tell us that this really is something different. It set a quiet pastoral scene, with a few minor words seeming different — and then we get a really different environment.

    1. Ben, sometimes he got it very right. His bit on religious persecution (summary: what if a tenet of your faith is to persecute other religions?) was just brilliant, and his exploration of political systems in The Reluctant King where he simply showed each system in operation was fascinating.

  3. Huh. Probably 45 years since I read Lest Darkness Fall, but I remember it as terrifying, because I could see into that oncoming abyss. And as a kid, I preferred his incarnations of Conan — in fact, I’d credit those with my being shifted from reading anything with words (toilet paper wrappers on up) to a decided bent for SF/F. They weren’t the first I’d read, but they were what hooked me beyond redemption. 😀

        1. You are not completely gone until you are able to recite all of the ingredients in Heinz catsup – in order. (Mom eventually gave up with me on the rule about not reading at the dinner table.)

          1. How dare you! Heinz makes ketchup. Catsup is made by Del Monte.

            I was devastated when Mom told me they were the same. This seemed impossible to my 2nd grade mind. They were obviously different words. Which was correct. “Mom! What do you mean that they are both spelled correctly?” 2nd grade… When spelling rules were IMPORTANT.

            1. Urp. I abase myself… You are quite correct.

              (Your Mom wasn’t. Ketchup is clearly superior to catsup. My mom served ketchup, my grandmother served catsup. I learned to never eat bologna sandwiches at Gram’s house…)

        2. What, you feel bad about having cereal box backs memorized because it’s the only reading material at breakfast? Why?

          1. ^^; in fairness, we …kind of weren’t really following the ‘don’t read at the table’ rule after we pointed out Dad read the newspaper. So reading the cereal box was voluntary.

            This comment took me ten minutes to write because I spent a lot of that trying to re-wrap the infant who insists on unwrapping himself, then getting upset that he’s cold from the air conditioner.

            1. The difference between humans and cats is that eventually humans can be trained out of that behavior….. 😎

      1. Usually a nice upgrade from the wrapper label. And you know you’re too far gone when prior to poising on the loo, you fetch a few bottles from under the sink as planned reading material…

  4. His own work can be interesting, or incredibly dry, depending. But I know there’s a lot of Robert E. Howard fans who resent his stewardship of Conan. The rewriting of REH’s stories, the insertion of (largely inferior) pastiches into the canon and his constant amateur psychoanalysis of REH caused a lot of damage which lingers today. One almost gets the impression De Camp was jealous of REH (but that’s just my amateur psychoanalysis, take it with salt).

    But I do like some of his work, particularly his Atlantis non-fiction work Lost Continents. I especially get a kick out of the part where he rips into the pseudoscientific drivel which is . . . continental drift.

    The science in De Camp’s day was settled, you see.

    1. In mild defense of those ripping continental drift, until a mechanism was found in the form of the oceanic rifts and trenches, it did sound really odd. (My first earth science textbook was a touch out of date, and mentioned continental drift, but since no one had found a driver, it was just one of those interesting dead ends and a coincidence of shapes. This was the late 1970s-early 1980s date for the textbook.)

      1. My local library had the original edition of Lost Continents which had the mockery of continental drift. The version I own is the 1970s edition with that section updated.

        1. I just re-read that part of the e-version of “Lost Continents” and yes he “changed” his mind about it.

          Of course, Continental Drift has little to with places like Atlantis, Mu and other mythical “Lost Continents”.

      2. ISTR seafloor spreading was at least a well known subject, if not fully understood one, by the 1960’s.

        1. *hand waggles* Not really. Lost Continents was published in 1954 where the possibility that Eugeosynclinal Theorum (the standing notion of the day for mountain formation.) was wrong was rather mildly being pondered, mostly because there were too many holes in it. Continental drift had been proposed by a Geographer sometime in the 19 aughts, and largely not taken seriously except in certain excitable circles. With the new tech from WWII, Geologists were looking forward to seeing evidence and maybe discovering a mechanism for Eugeosynclinal pressures. (The general notion was ‘some how the oceans are exerting pressure on the continent. It wasn’t satisfactory but it did better than anything else they’d figured out.) The first detailed map of the ocean floor wasn’t made until 1957. And the reaction was “What is this F*ery?” Because it was very different from what they expected.

          They expected to see the Appalachians continue, in eroded form, all the way across the northern Atlantic through Iceland down to the Scottish Highlands. From then to about mid 60s They were trying to hash out what the new data meant. Continental drift was brought back from a “C’mon guys. Come back when you actually have something other than wild speculation and a just so story” state to a “Well maybe we should look at this again, seriously this time.”

          Eugeosynclinal theorum didn’t die completely until the 70s. Honestly some of the terms (mostly for rock formations) are still around.

      3. The demand for a mechanism was a furphy used to avoid discussing the evidence. The “settled science” for example, required a land bridge appearing between South Africa and the west coast of Tasmania, then vanishing.
        I had the privilege of studying under a student of one of the early “continental drifters”, and got to hear from (and discuss with) Prof. S.W. Carey on the subject. Reading pre-Fifties geology texts can be incredibly amusing when you see what assumptions they make based on static continents.

    2. It’d be interesting to look into that section of Lost Continents, figure out what was known about the fluid mechanics then, and what we know how. As an aeronautical engineer, he would have had some exposure to fluid mechanics. But maybe not the bits of fluid mechanics which describe continental drift. Or seem to describe. I’m really not sure how well our current models of drift work, and how much is properly within the field of fluid mechanics.

    3. Eh. We all get it wrong. And he later admitted that. There is the crucial difference between then and now: Now it is ‘the science is settled – not a defense of that science, and they NEVER admit they got it wrong. How many ‘climate catastrophe’ predictions have been and gone – and never once do the defenders or proponents of the same say ‘Okay we got that wrong. You were right and maybe the science isn’t settled and we need to re-think it.’ You know… I trust people who do that a lot more than ones who pretend it never happened.

    4. He can be uneven. The hero of Solomon’s Stone is supposed to be a guy who reads about Musketeers and daydreams about being one. Being transformed into one, he neither enjoys it for a second nor for a second contemplates how he does not enjoy what he has always dreamed of. I could not believe that he really daydreamed about it.

    5. I have something of a love-hate relationship to de Camp’s work. As a Howard fan who attend REH Days in Cross Plains every year, I can’t stand what he did to Howard in general and Conan in particular.

      OTOH, I was reading de Camp in 7th grade and was totally unaware of the Howard side of things. I really enjoy his short stories. It seems to me that he loses interest in his novels at some point and seems to give up. YMMV. I do need to read/reread more de Camp.

      And Dave is right about de Camp writing in response to things he had read. IIRC, de Camp wrote “A Gun for Dinosaur” as a reaction to Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”.

  5. I have worked with rock-wool and fiberglass. Putting them into a ceiling, along with doing sheetrock up there, and on the walls. I’m not certain if I’d ever itched that badly before, or have itched that much since. Dave, you have my sympathy. 🙂

    1. Nasty stuff, indeed. One of the places that I agree with workplace regulations that require what is almost a clean room suit for people that do it day in and day out.

  6. I have mixed emotions about de Camp.

    In my youth, I was a huge de Camp fanboy. So when I encountered his version of Conan, I walked away with the attitude of “if *de Camp* can’t make the character more interesting than *that*, why would I waste my time on the original version? (Worse, the next exposure I had was Robert Jordan’s version. It’s a wonder I ever got around to giving REH a chance. And even when I did, I went in looking for cheesy unintentional comedy. )

      1. I was accusing my former self, not the monkey who randomly threw the crap I formerly spewed back in my direction.

        😉 Sometimes you receive karma, sometimes you dispense it. You are a multifunction monkey, currently dedicated to the cause of itching. (Fiberglass makes cutting alfalfa seem pleasant! )

  7. De Camp and Pratt’s “The Compleat Enchanter”, one of my all time favorites. Other things by De Camp I’ve read seemed a little harsh by comparison, I think the collaboration with Pratt moderated some of De Camp’s inner crustiness a bit.

    Working with fiberglass insulation, over your head, in the summer. Jeez, Dave. Why not just run yourself over a couple times with the tractor?

    My kit for insulation is full-coverage disposable paper paint suit with hood, rubber gloves, work gloves over them, full-face respirator. Barrier cream on hands and face, because it gets in there anyway.

    -Cold- shower afterwards, the cold water closes the pores and keeps the itching down. A little.

    Fiberglassssss…. We hatesss it, Preciousss!

        1. It does help with eczema. enough that as I get older I’m considering moving near the sea. Doesn’t have to be cold. Has to, unfortunately (because more expensive/hard to find low crime areas near) be the Atlantic. So I think salt content/mineral content.

          1. Hmm. They do have hot mineral springs up there. Just checked one out; amazingly reasonable ($150 for 20 day passes for 2 people).

            Might be better than moving and starting Yet Another House Renovation Saga. (Didn’t check the cabin prices. I am considering renting a mountain cabin down here in Arizona for a week if I have a novel close to completion in the off season…)

          2. ! Drat my baby brain, I’ve been meaning to tell you about this stuff for eczema we started using lately, because hopefully it’ll help.

            If you have access to the Avene (accent on the last e) products, I can tell you they work. There was a girl on the news here who had had eczema, BAD, since birth, and had been given a chance to go to the springs in France. The three week treatment there had her looking like a normal little girl for the first time in her life (and there were other children there who had it worse than her!)

            So I told my hubby (whose stay here in our formerly cat-infested house spiked the start of his eczema as he was allergic to cat dander, and the wife who lived here before us had three, and sheltered twenty visiting neighbor cats, all of whom had reign of the house and used the grassy front and back yards as toilets and STILL DO to my frustration) and he bought some of the lotion and the bottled water sprays from our local chemists (which was having a sale that day, but he says the prices are competitive for the eczema-friendly stuff.)

            He started getting better within days of my regularly applying the stuff on his back, and his regularly applying it on the rest of him. And he puts some on Jaenelle, who has also developed eczema from the carpet, worst on her legs and arms.


    1. Oh, having a co-writer definitely moderated De Camp’s more annoying tendencies. Just compare the Conan pastiches they wrote together to the one De Camp wrote all on his own (Conan and the Spider God) and you’ll see how Carter was the one injecting the pulpy energy into their stories. Without him, it’s the most dry and toothless Conan ever put on paper. His big ambition in the novel is to get married and become a city guard. Not exactly the same guy who promises one of his lady-loves that he’ll burn a city to light her way to his tent.

  8. I can’t say I *recall* reading de Camp, but I am rather sure that I have. What creeps into mind, though, I recall seeing “Sprague” on some (older?) capacitors, and the name is a reminder of a thing not necessarily related.

    Of course, then there’s also ‘Black Cat’ and capacitors and firecrackers should generally not be treated as interchangeable.

  9. De Camp wrote an excellent book on writing SF back in the day. I have an autographed copy of it.

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