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. This time, Tim takes a look at Fred Saberhagen’s Changeling Earth.
Gary Gygax mentions no other Fred Saberhagen book by name, but he includes Changeling Earth on his list. It’s even on the proto-Appendix N that Gygax published in the fourth issue of The Dragon magazine. For some reason, he loved Changeling Earth above all. Let’s try to figure out why.
It’s an odd choice, by the way, because it’s part three of the four-part Empire of the East series. Sure, the fourth book didn’t come out until 30 years after D&D was conceived, but at the time Gygax started naming influential reading material, Changeling Earth was still the third part of a trilogy. Certainly, it’s a weird selection to highlight, when he doesn’t at all mention the first two books or the series in general.
The overall series turns Cold War panic into a fantasy setting. It’s literally the East vs. the West in the novels, and the West is notably more evil than the East. An Evil Empire, if you will. The whole thing takes place 50,000 years into our own future, and Saberhagen lingers on the troop movements and leadership-decision-making, but it’s undoubtedly a fantasy novel. Magic has replaced technology, mostly, and if it hasn’t, then the technology has advanced far enough to defy the laws of physics as we know them so it might as well be magic.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
If you’ve read the first two Empire of the East books and have some particular insight, please offer your commentary, but I skimmed through them after reading Changeling Earth—mostly out of curiosity about why Gygax would omit them—and here’s where the problem lies: the first two books, and most of Changeling Earth, seem like prologues for what happens beginning on page 100 of the third novel. Page 100 is where things finally get interesting. It took Saberhagen a whole lot of words to get there.
It’s not like the first 99 pages of Changeling Earth are terrible. And based on my admittedly not-very-dedicated reading of The Broken Lands and The Black Mountains, those two volumes look to be a whole lot of the same kind of stuff. It’s just that the struggles of folks named Chup and Duncan and Mewick and Charmian are less interesting than what happens after they become background characters in their own story. Until then, Saberhagen gives us a kind of espionage/military fantasy take on this world he’s created. This world of 50,000 years hence. I appreciate that he doesn’t fall into Tolkienisms or generic fantasy traps, and it’s pretty cool to read about some of the more James Bondian sequences in a world of magic and swordplay, but Saberhagen doesn’t quite pull any of that off convincingly. I think it has to do with the vagueness of his fantasy setting. It’s not quite precise enough to imagine, and so we’re left with an allegory that’s a bit too fuzzy and indistinct, with characters moving around a chess board that we can’t quite make out. I couldn’t anyway. It seemed like a good idea for a series of novels, not fully realized.
And Changeling Earth doesn’t quite redeem the whole series. It, like its precursors, is still a bit vaguely-defined, but on page 100 some elements of the story snap into place to clarify a whole lot of things in retrospect. Maybe it’s not a surprise to anyone who paid close attention since the opening pages of the first novel, but as someone who came in with volume three, and didn’t know anything about Saberhagen’s fictional world other than what he tells us as the story progresses, I was surprised and delighted by the twist. Partly because it’s so obvious that I kicked myself for missing it, but also because it makes such perfect sense in a novel that wants so deeply to be an important Cold War allegory.
Here’s the big reveal—and I guess it’s a spoiler, though everything you’re likely to read about the series online gives it away—the god-like power that watches over the East, and sometimes intervenes or seems to intervene, the force that powers the Eastern armies towards what could be a confident victory over the West…well, it’s WOPR.
You know, WOPR! From WarGames!
It’s not called WOPR, of course, because John Badham’s 1983 kids-and-computers-may-destroy-us-all fantasia hadn’t yet been released when Fred Saberhagen dreamed his fictional dream of 50,000 years in the future. But Changeling Earth’s deus ex machina is totally WOPR. Or a sentient version of WOPR, called Ardneh.
Ardneh, who is basically an energy being with psychic powers, evolved from AUTOMATED RESTORATION DIRECTOR—NATIONAL EXECUTIVE HEADQUARTERS. It isn’t quite as catchy as War Operation Plan Response, but it’ll do. And it avoids the Burger King allusions.
Ardneh is the East’s guiding light and secret weapon. But the West has its own super-powerful force in the form of Orcus. Yes, Orcus, that classic D&D demon in his Saberhagen-drenched form of…get this…a nuclear explosion that was frozen in mid-explosion and then chained underground by the Western forces that would attempt to control it. Orcus is a nuclear power, contained. It’s only a matter of time before he is unleashed and the exploding-bombiness of Orcus vs. the super-electro-psionics of Ardneh reach an intense climax.
How can the struggles of a guy gamed Rolf, the character in the typical hero role throughout the novel, hope to compete with something as epic as that?
They can’t. He can’t. And that’s the problem with Changeling Earth. Its background becomes its foreground and makes everything else—all the things that Saberhagen spends so many pages describing, at the human level—seem so trite.
Maybe that’s the point. That humanity is insignificant compared to the forces it has unleashed upon itself. But really, my takeaway is that sentient godlike supercomputers and demonic nuclear bombs are way more interesting to read about than the little guys that run around the planet trying to pretend what they do matters in the larger scheme of things.
So why did Gygax include it as the lone Saberhagen inclusion in Appendix N? Sorry, I’m too distracted by the explosive battle between Ardneh and Orcus to pay attention.