Sep 30 2013 3:00pm

Advanced Readings in D&D: Fred Saberhagen

Fred Saberhagen Changeling Earth In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” 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.

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

1. slmyrs
"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."

I believe this may be the whole reason, as a quick reminder to aspiring DM's that what they dream up should not eclipse the players and their characters.
Tim Eagon
2. Tim_Eagon
All I know is that Saberhagen re-worked these books in the 1980s and the results were republished as The Empire of the East. It's sitting on my bookshelf at home; too bad I hadn't gotten a chance to read it before this post.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
Speaking of inimical intelligences, I'm also a big fan of Saberhagen's Berserker stories.
Erik Harrison
4. ErikHarrison
Really, none of these things are as interesting as what Saberhagen does with this same universe (once again propelled thousands of years into the future) in the Swords novels. I admittedly haven't read them since the halcyon days of my youth, but I thought the original Swords stories were huge fun, and ideas from them kept popping up in our D&D games...
Colin Bell
5. SchuylerH
@3: If you haven't already, you might like to try the Inhibitor series (Alastair Reynolds). It also has alien AIs trying to annihilate humanity but with a kind of Lovecraftian cybergoth edge to it.
Walker White
6. Walker
Feist's Magician series suffered from a similar problem of tonal shift. Tomas (and to lesser degree Pug later on) goes from classic fantasy support character to force-of-nature/demigod in a single chapter. At which point Feist does not know what to do with the character, and shuffles him off screen.
Colin Bell
7. SchuylerH
@6: This is a problem with long-running series: how do you keep a major character, one who levels up say, once a book, from becoming too powerful? Not everyone succeeds, perhaps most infamously David Weber...
8. JohnnyMac
Mr. Callahan, sorry to be picky about this but you do need to check your plot compass: the East are the bad guys here and the West the good guys. The opening sentence of "The Changeling Earth" establishes this rather clearly: "They were preparing a man for death by slow impalement, for the amusement of the Emperor of the East, who sat in thoughtful silence amid the blooming drowsy richness of his summer gardent."
9. JohnnyMac
By the way, I will say that I like this series much more than you seemed to. That may be, in part, because I read them more or less in sequence: I came across "The Black Mountains" first, then found an old copy of "The Broken Lands" and read "The Changeling Earth" when that came out.

Read in sequence, the stories show a logical progression:

In the first book, Rolf, a young peasant boy finds his parents butchered by soldiers of the East. He joins the local band of Western guerillas and, thanks to an innate affinity for the lost arts of the Old Technology and some subtle guidance from Ardneh, he is key in overthrowing the local Viceroy of the East.

In the second, Rolf is a soldier in an army of the West. The army's mission is to destroy the citadel of Som the Dead, the regional overlord for the Empire of the East. Rolf is recruited by the wizard Gray to help him use technology against Som and the Demon-Lord Zapranoth (the scene in which Gray tries to command a techo-djinn to produce a fleet of balloons for an air assault against Som's mountain citadel is a classic example of the theme of "Be careful what you wish for...". Again, Ardneh is off stage but a source of indirect help for the West.

In the third book, Rolf and Ardneh come face to face (or they would if Ardneh had a face). Ardneh uses Rolf to find and recover the magic gem/fusion power lamp that Ardneh must have to reach his full powers. With this and a brilliant judo strategy he defeats Orcus and leaves Rolf and his comrades to live, if not happily ever after, at least without the overwhelming menance of the Empire of the East.

I would contend that this is a logical and dramatically satisfying sequence. Your mileage may vary.
Fake Name
10. ThePendragon
Can anyone recommend me some kind of reading order for all of his books? I know Empire of the East links to the Books of Swords somehow, but I've been trying to figure it all out and what books I need to get in what order. I'm a stickler for these kinds of things, so it's the only reason I haven't read these. I really want to. I can't find any info anywhere. The info on Wikipedia is barebones.
11. hoopmanjh
@10 -- I think the order is just: Empire of East, then the Books of Swords, then the Books of Lost Swords. I've never read Empire -- I started getting the Swords books before I knew they were a sequel to something. Read the Swords Trilogy and the first, um, several Lost Swords books. Someday I need to go back and start at the beginning.
12. JonLundy
I am very surprised that Gygax selected just the last book in the series. (I'm not counting the 4th book, it was written long after the fact and is an attempt to tie in the Empire of the East books with the Sword books, it also wasn't as good IMO).

The third book is actually my least favorite in the trilogy (but still far better than the extra 4th book), like JohnnyMac said there is a clear progression in the books as Rolf as the scope of the story increases. The first book has several nifty magic items that play critical plot points, foreshadow using magic items in wacky fashions, and which I think might have had some influence on some D&D magic items. I've never read the original versions however, only the collected versions in the fix-up novel.
Sol Foster
13. colomon
The Swords Trilogy was very popular with the guys I played D&D with in high school. I'm pretty sure I never read Empire of the East. Don't know if they did or not. I recall not being as impressed with the Lost Swords.
14. Eugene R.
I had the 1979 Ace edition of the revised three-in-one, the first to bear the title Empire of the East, which has a stereotypical man-in-leather-armor-with-sword on the front cover ... and a tank racing across a desert on the back. Swords and tanks? I'm in.

I suspect that what attracted Mr. Gygax to this work is the same characteristic that our reviewers noted in some previous entries in Appendix N, that sheer "Anything goes" attitude to the fantasy. I mean, the demon is an EXPLODING ATOMIC BOMB?? Yeah, like holy water is going to exorcise THAT problem!
Shelly wb
15. shellywb
I'm with @14. This was an atypical fantasy novel where tech/engineering ability is the magic/wizardry. It was the first I'd read like this (back when it was published), and it started me on a life-long love for this sort of story. I'd guess that it's included as a way of saying don't limit your fantasy to predictable tropes.
Tim Callahan
16. TimCallahan
Oh, man, as JohnnyMac points out, it appears that I have flip-flopped the East and the West. (And this is a book I read twice, so my mistake is doubly-careless.) Okay, just read all "East" references as "West" and vice-versa!

There is nothing inherently Eastern or Western about each of the factions, which is what threw me, but I should have remembered that we Americans were the Western World with our Ardneh and our heroic Rolfs and the "evil" East had a nuclear bomb demon. Because: Cold War fantasy fiction!

Sorry about the compass switcheroo!
Colin Bell
17. SchuylerH
Off topic, but wasn't it great when the DAW Collectors series had yellow spines?
Mark Lambert
18. Ranbato
Actually Ardneh is not W.O.P.R, it is the precursor to the internet.

From Wikipedia:
The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) was one of the world's first operational packet switching networks, the first network to implement TCP/IP, and the progenitor of what was to become the global Internet. The network was initially funded by theAdvanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, later DARPA) within the U.S. Department of Defense for use by its projects at universities and research laboratories in the US.
Clay Blankenship
19. snoweel
I read this series as a teenager in the 80's. It took a while to find all of them in used book stores. I think I knew one other guy who had read them. I only remember bits and pieces but there was an interesting character named Draffut, I think he looked sort of like a Wookie, who was basically an awakened or uplifted dog.
20. JohnnyMac
snoweel @19, I like your idea of Draffut as a wookie! That had not occured to me before. And not just a wookie but a giant wookie. Remember in the final battle Draffut carries the swordsman Chup who is described as " bigger than an infant by camparison."
21. JohnnyMac
TimCallahan @16, it would be interesting to do a survey of modern fantasy fiction and see which quarters of the compass are most often seen as the lair of evil. I would hazard a guess (and it is only a guess) that the East would be most often chosen for this role if only because of the example set by Tolkien (forger of the archetypes of modern fantasy) with "...the shadow in the East." etc.

On the other hand, C. S. Lewis, in his Narnia books, links Aslan with the East. As Reepicheep the Talking Mouse says: "Why should we not come to the very eastern end of the world? And what might we find there? I expect to find Aslan's own country. It is always from the east, across the sea, that the great Lion comes to us." ("The Voyage of the Dawn Treader").
22. Kirth Girthsome
In an early Dragon magazine, Gary Gygax holds up Emperor of the East John Ominor as a prime example of a "lawful evil" character. In the book, Ominor and his head wizard Wood were the ones who chained Orcus in a netherworld.

But Changeling Earth’s deus ex machina is totally WOPR. Or a sentient version of WOPR, called Ardneh.

The "magic" in the setting has its origin in the tapping of unknown cosmic forces to dampen nuclear reactions:

The ultimate defense against atomic attack worked by robbing certain types of energy from certain atomic and subatomic configurations of matter, making the fusion or fission of nuclei enormously less likely.
Quickly men began to forget their technology, maimed as it was by the Change; almost from the moment of the Change they were speaking of the Old World and the New, and taking up the newly opened possibilities of magic to help them finish their aborted war. Since the Change it could scarcely be said that anything was lifeless; powers that before had been only potentialities now responded readily to the wish, the incantation, were motivated and controlled by the dream-like logic of the wizard's world.

Ardneh was actually designed to undo the change and restore the Earth to the pre nuclear-dampening condition:

As I will showyou soon, the world was changed by another machine, or rather by a part of me that has long since done its work and been dismantled. The part of me that still exists, was created to end the Change when the time was ripe. The builders did not really expect that the changes in the world wrought by their defenses would be so great that I would be needed, but they doubted and feared enough to make me and to put the powers of restoration under my control if they should be needed. They thought that fifty thousand years must pass before the proper time for restoration came. But only now has it arrived. The odds for the survival of mankind, if the restoration is accomplished in this year, in this month, are better than they have been at any time since the Change, or are likely to be in the estimable future."
Joe G
23. joeinformatico
@6 Walker:

I didn't mind that so much. Tomas and Pug, while more interesting than most other farmboy-cum-saviour archetypal characters of epic fantasy, were still such stock character types I was kind of glad to see them promoted to Godhood/Gandalfhood and the main character spotlight switch in the later books to Prince Arutha and Jimmy the Hand, the Batman and Robin of Midkemia.

Was Feist the first author to have Leiber-like sword-and-sorcery heroes starring in a Tolkienesque epic fantasy? Probably not (though I can't think of earlier examples), but I appreciated it nonetheless.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment