Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons

Advanced Readings in D&D: L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

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In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more.

Welcome to the tenth post in the series, featuring a look at The Carnelian Cube by the prose tag-team of L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt.

Mordicai Knode: Here we go again. Neither of us was very keen on Lest Darkness Fall, and frankly, The Carnelian Cube is more of the same, even with the addition of a co-author. I mean, I haven’t finished the book yet, so there is a chance for the story to take a sudden right turn and surprise me, but I doubt it will happen. In fact, The Carnelian Cube might even be a worse offender; part of what made Lest Darkness Fall so frustrating was the inherent misogyny of the story, but there the sexism is largely related to the romantic subplots. Here, the romance is sort of the main frame of the story—or at least, it holds up each of the repeated vignettes—which makes the whole “women as explicit objects” stand out all the more.

See, I get it, L. Sprague de Camp. You’re a cynic. I’m just exhausted by all this cynical fiction; I yearn for the “gee whiz!” of some of the other pulps, I guess. See, in Lest Darkness Fall, the gimmick of the story was that the protagonist—a upper crust academic white dude—is thrust into the end of the Roman Empire. In Carnelian Cube, an upper class white academic is…also thrown into a fish out of water scenario. In this case, it is a series of worlds linked by his imaginings—a world where reason flourishes, or where individuality is the watchword of the civilization—each given a dystopian twist. I will say this: it makes the “modern day humans thrown suddenly into a fantasy world!” elevator pitch of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon make a lot of sense. Then again, so does Three Hearts and Three Lions, which I preferred.

Tim Callahan: This book demoralizes me. I can confidently say that it’s the worst book out of the entirety of Appendix N, and I haven’t even read all the books yet. I’m sorry to say that nothing happens in the last half of the book to save it, but it does spiral downward into its own abyss of humorlessness, so you have that to look forward to. And here’s the thing: L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt are trying ever so hard to make this book hilarious. You can see it in every scene. They must have seen this book as nonstop laughs, because it has all the hallmarks of a comedy, with its ridiculously exaggerated characters and its sitcom-like set-ups and the unrestrained use of dialect. I mean, what could be funnier than characters who talk like local dinner theater actors in an oh-so-clever performance of Colonel Sanders Presents the Best of Mark Twain as Recited by Guys Who Were Known as Third-Rate Jim Varney Impressionists?

Practically the whole book is like that.

If Lest Darkness Fall was a riff on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but with more pedantic history lessons thrown in—and it was—then The Carnelian Cube is de Camp and Pratt’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn plus their nerd-snobbery brand of satire and minus any redeeming qualities whatsoever.

I can’t believe how much I despised this book. But I really did. After the first chapter, which is just your standard set-up of “hey, here’s this weird artifact” and “what a weird dream” it just keeps getting worse and worse until the whole thing escalates into what I can only imagine is the equivalent of the worst 1980s Rodney Dangerfield movies that don’t even show up on cable any more.

You know what The Carnelian Cube is? It’s a Grand Guignol of the unfunny.

MK: Wait, did I just read a serious and straight-faced piece of Anti-semitism in this book? I mean, I was already like—“oh look, the people who aren’t white in this book are a bunch of second-class citizens and buffoons, but at least all the white people are buffoons too”—but then there was a…screed about miscegenation? Out of the mouth of one of the supporting characters, at first, but then the…protagonist steps in to help him refine his ideas of how the Jews and race mixing were to blame for the Assyrians? I kept thinking that the main character would contradict him, or at least have an internal dialogue about it, but sheesh! Nothing doing. You know, for a book originally published in 1948, that is…just, wow. Wow in a bad way. Hashtag Shaking My Head.

The book is sort of like, “what if Mel Brooks wasn’t really funny, and also was a huge misogynist?” Actually, the women in the story really work in that analogy; Mel Brooks also as a little bit of a ribald sense of humor (“a little bit” may be an understatement) and so his movies hinge on sex quite often, as well as historical gender roles. Mel Brooks, however, lampoons that, while at the same time still having, you know, jokes about Vestal Virgins. L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt on the other hand would take the same opportunity and use it as an excuse to demean women, maybe have their protagonist bully and coerce someone, and sort of grin rakishly like “ain’t I a stinker?”

Yeah, Carnelian Cube. You are. You stink.

TC: I don’t know how else to talk about this book except to not talk about it, so I’m going to head in this direction: why do you suppose this book ended up on Gygax’s Appendix N list?

Other than the cube itself, which acts as a kind of alternate-reality hopping TARDIS-sans-quality, there’s little in the way of sci-fi or fantasy trappings in this novel. Not in any recognizable way that could have influenced a role-playing game. It is like a series of terrible Mel Brooks scenes written by computer science nerd who had only read about Mel Brooks scenes and also hated almost everything and thought that southern accents were inherently hi-larious.

But the cube is just a storytelling conceit and it doesn’t have any special powers in the way that a D&D magic item might—it can’t really be used, but rather it just propels its subject from one alternate reality to another, yet more non-hilarious and likely-very-offensive, alternate reality.

Maybe that’s the thing. Maybe that’s Gary Gygax’s sweet spot. He did base an adventure on his heroes bumbling down through a portal into a warped version of Alice in Wonderland. That was what he liked to see: some physical humor and some viciousness and something that we wouldn’t likely recognize as comedy. But only in small doses. Most of his adventures weren’t really like that. Or maybe they were. The fact that he goes out of his way to name not just these two authors, but The Carnelian Cube specifically as recommended reading is one of the great mysteries of Appendix N.

MK: Well, personally I think it is a factor of a couple of things at work; some petty, some rather insightful, actually. Well, not in the text—as established, a pretty terrible book—but in what I imagine Gygax’s reading of the text to be. First, there is the eponymous cube, which is a pretty viable template for a D&D artifacts, or at least a big influence. A classic MacGuffin. Secondly, there is the issue of perverting wishes; you know that is some Gygaxian flavor right there. If you give your players a Ring of Wishes, you are obligated to try to misinterpret them…the same way that the carnelian cube’s created dream worlds are pessimistic inversion of the users original intentions.

The other is in terms of worldbuilding. I think that glomming on to a high concept idea like “a world where pitiless logic wins” or “a world of individualism taken to the extreme” and spilling it out for a few chapters is actually a solid Dungeon Mastering trick. I mean, look at Star Trek’s Vulcans; they are basically just elves with “logical” thrown on as a cultural gimmick, right? That sort of tactic is a good way to add colour to your newest fantasy metropolis, or tribe of non-humans, or alternate universe. It might be a “cheap trick,” being a little inorganic, but as someone who runs a game let me just say that sometimes, cheap tricks are the best.

Still, not a good enough reason to read this book, though.

TC: And, as someone else who regularly runs games, I’ll say that silly accents go right along with single-minded high-concept NPCs, and Carnelian Cube is nothing if not full of those things. And I’ll second all of your remarks. Especially the part about not reading this book. Or recommending it. Or ever mentioning it again.


Tim Callahan usually writes about comics and Mordicai Knode usually writes about games. They both play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons.

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