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 and 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 next post in the series, featuring a look at A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum!
As the poets say, oops, I did it again. Another science fiction collection that doesn’t have any obvious bearing on the history of the hobby, though I will argue a bit further on that it does have elements that a good Dungeon Master could learn from, and if those sorts of things are consistent across Weinbaum’s oeuvre, I can see why Mister Gygax picked Weinbaum. I bet they are!
First though, I want to talk about why I keep ending up here. There are a lot of factors feeding into it; notable among them is the fact that back in the days of the pulps, the division between science fiction and fantasy was much more fluid then it is today (though I think they are starting to bleed across again). You could say that it isn’t that rigid these days, for that matter: Star Wars is just spaceships and wizards, laser swords and riding fantasy critters, right?
I haven’t discounted titles from Appendix N authors just because the book appears to be science fiction, because for every Humanoids story that doesn’t quite fit, there is a Forerunner or Warrior of World’s End, or heck, Jack Vance or John Carter of Mars. The history of the game does stem from plenty of science fiction stuff; in a real way, the combined “Science-Fiction and Fantasy” tag really does apply to the books of Appendix N.
A Martian Odyssey is a collection of an eponymous novella and a few short stories. I picked it because it came up near the top of the results when I searched for Stanley G. Weinbaum’s name on the internet. You know, I don’t regret that at all, because while “A Martian Odyssey” isn’t particularly “DnD” on the face of it, I think it actually does show how a good worldbuilder or Dungeon Master should think. Oh, also it is phenomenal.
The story essentially details a stranded astronaut’s exploration of Mars…but it is the life-forms he meets along the way that really make this story a gem. Oh, did I mention that “A Martian Odyssey” is in fact a really delightful read? Humorous and interesting in equal parts. Tweel, the first alien the narrator meets, seems at first like a clever avian analogue but as the story wears on you start to realize that it is Tweel who is patronizing the astronaut; to the xenobird he’s a very clever ape analogue! Then there is the strange nautilus-like creature; not that it was a “tentacles” alien but rather that it was a silicon-based form of life extruding a shell and living in it until it outgrew it…on a geological, rather than biological, time scale. A pyramid building “hermit crab.”
The mimic, the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing, makes an appearance next, using telepathy and hypnotic suggestion rather than shapeshifting or camouflage, and then a drum-shaped, xorn-like hive-mind creature enters the picture. The thing about all of the xenobiology here is that…well, it is plausible. It holds up, eighty years later, because it is well considered. So besides the fact that there are creatures who superficially resemble a couple of Monster Manual beasties, that is the lesson I think we should take away.
When you build a world, or a dungeon, or anything, really, you should take a moment to think about the psychology and the ecology of the stuff you put into it. What is that manticore eating (goblins?) and how do the goblins and the manticore interact (the manticore eats goblins who don’t bring him a new riddle, like a backwards sphinx, but will aid those goblins with good riddles against the mindflayer) and think about how alien minds would approach the world (the mindflayer is a super genius, so you cheat and let him “metagame” information that he wouldn’t normally know, because he figured it out).
That last bit, about how a Dungeon Master—who I’m sure has an 18 Int, all of us DMs do—can portray a monster or alien with a far greater intelligence than them, also informs the Weinbaum story in this collection called “The Lotus Eaters,” which is Venusian, rather than Martian. Let me say this about the gender relations in the story: yes, it falls prey to the “damsel in distress” problem, but it also has a female protagonist who is an explorer and a scientist. And between she and her husband, she’s the one in charge. I take what I can get when it comes to stories written in the 1930s.
The tale—which involves three-eyed vampiric gargoyles and scuttling upside-down basket aliens—poses a question as to the ultimate value of sentience, and the ultimate ramifications of omniscience. Not just philosophical musings, but rather a thought experiment predicated on axioms (sort of like The Carnellian Cube, except I liked it). That is to say, the sort of thing that would be helpful for a DM to think through, when they add strange beings to their game. “The Adaptive Ultimate” provides another such conundrum on morality and…well, the alignment system, on law and order, good and chaos. Not phrased as such, but that is what it is, if you think of it that way.
So that is the story here; perhaps this doesn’t superficially resemble what you expect when you think of D&D, with astronauts and aliens instead of wizards and monsters. But at a deep core level, the stories contained in A Martian Odyssey are about exploring weird places—even a weird dungeon—and meeting weird creatures and occasionally stealing incredible magic items. That sure sounds “DnD” to me.
Of course, I fully expect wise grognards in the comments to say “you should have read The Black Flame!”