Mon
Oct 14 2013 3:00pm
Advanced Readings in D&D: Stanley G. Weinbaum

Stanley G Weinbaum A Martian OdysseyIn “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!”


Mordicai Knode just realized Tim Callahan isn’t here today. I haven’t seen him since that ooze dropped on us from the ceiling. Did he “Scooby Doo” accidentally into a secret passage?

14 comments
Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
Yeah, "A Martian Odyssey" was super great.
Eugene R.
2. Eugene R.
Mr. Weinbaum was immediately recognized as the best American writer of sf when his "A Martian Odyssey" was published in 1934, for giving both a plausible alien ecology for Mars and a believable alien sentience for his Martian, Tweel. In the sequel, "Valley of Dreams", it is revealed that Tweel's folk, the Thoth, are the inspiration for the Egyptian god of knowledge. I suspect that the humor of Weinbaum's writing also plays into Mr. Gygax's fondness, too.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
2. Eugene R.

Yeah, I saw that on Wikipedia! But I didn't want to bring it up because sometimes "I saw this on Wikipedia while writing about this book!" can be real annoying, especially when there are people out there who read the actual thing.

I worry, on paper, about that Thoth thing, but given Weinbaum's thoughtfulness, I bet he pulls it off. & voila! Cool DnD species.
David Levinson
4. DemetriosX
You just can't go wrong with Weinbaum, though some of his posthumous stuff doesn't really live up to the things he polished (and that includes The Black Flame, which isn't as fantasy-oriented as it sounds). He was a tremendous writer and could only have gotten better had he lived beyond 33. He was essentially writing Golden Age SF before the Golden Age. He might not have gelled well with Campbell, but he would have found one of the editors of the late 30s to 5os to make him truly great.
Alan Brown
5. AlanBrown
One of the great tragedies of the SF world was losing Mr. Weinbaum so early. His stories were well thought out and witty. I first encountered them in anthologies, and always kept my eyes open for more. He kept you turning pages, and I can only imagine what he could have done if he had time to hone his craft. Like when a young ball player is injured too early, we can only imagine what he would have done with a full career of writing.
Mordicai Knode
6. mordicai
4. DemetriosX
&
5. AlanBrown

Hi guys! It may be the after-work margarita I just had, but I am super enthusiastic that we've managed to form a little community here in the comments; I really am into the internet as a tool for that sort of thing, so to see it in action, & based on some of my favorite stuff-- D&D & pulp-- is just super cool. I'm glad I get to hear from you guys, otherwise it would just be my lone opinion, which-- while obviously awesome-- it tautologically solo.

4. DemetriosX

I'm really willing to believe you; I mean, the nearest parallel is stupidly obvious, given the title-- Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: a Space Odyssey of course-- but you really can see a sensibility of...I don't know, thinking things through? With more jokes. I sometimes say The Culture is like Douglas Adams taken seriously; so maybe I could retcon it-- history be damned, there be whales here, captain!-- to say that this is like 2001 taken as a lark?

5. AlanBrown

I don't know much from ye baseballe-- though some friends are trying to make me go out to watch ye baseballe tomorrow, I doubt they'll have much luck-- but it is a loss. Or well, a find, for me, because yes, I bet if he'd lived he'd be a giant that we'd all know by name. Thanks, Mister Gygax, for the good recommendation; I wouldn't probably have read this guy without you, & I'm happier for it.
Eugene R.
7. (still) Steve Morrison
“A Martian Odyssey” was Weinbaum’s all-time classic; I’d never suggest starting Weinbaum with anything else. It’s worth noting that Project Gutenberg has both “A Martian Odyssey” and the sequel, “Valley of Dreams” with a few more of his short stories here: http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/w#a25246
Colin Bell
8. SchuylerH
@4: Quite a few of the writers from that era who adapted to the Brave New World ended up writing very different stories. Ed Hamilton went from the pulpy Interstellar Patrol to the bleak "What's It Like Out There?", for example. I wonder Weinbaum doing a 50's Galaxy satire would be like?

@5: I know; I never think we really saw all that Weinbaum could do. Was it the Sandman series where there's a library of all the books never written? I think there would be quite a few of his titles in there.

@6: You know, I was just watching 2001. Can we say A Martian Odyssey is like Clarke's story in some aspects, only the ending makes more sense? Clarke was a Weinbaum fan: I think it's most noticeable in The Sands of Mars, though I haven't read that one for quite a while.
Jimmy Dodd
9. BwanaJim
@7: Project Gutenberg has become indispensable for me lately. So many SF/F books and short stories that are (long) out of print but still discussed are becoming available on it that it's becoming one of my first places to search. Thanks for the link.

There are several lists on Amazon.com of the Appendix N books/authors (here, for one: http://www.amazon.com/Gygaxs-amp-Appendix-Inspirational-Educational/lm/R3A9UPKOXVI0I1 ). Looking at all of the "click here for buying options" is rather sad as those are the out of print books. Thankfully Gutenberg is saving many of those for us.
Mordicai Knode
10. mordicai
7. (still) Steve Morrison

It looks like my random scattershot "read whatever comes up first" technique finally paid off!

8. SchuylerH

I'm a fanboy for 2001; as far as I'm concerned it is fundamentally perfect, & the ending makes perfect sense-- if you just slip your brain into a hypnotic trance! Then again, I mean the movie; I like the book a lot, but like Clarke, I consider the film canon.

9. BwanaJim

We built our own Library of Alexandria out of lightning & sand!
Colin Bell
11. SchuylerH
@10: I think that the book and the film are fundamentally different from each other and that this is a good thing (I still think that The City and the Stars and Childhood's End both have a claim to being Clarke's best). By the way, may I assume that you used the 1972 Lancer edition of A Martian Odyssey? (there are several collections with this title)
Mordicai Knode
12. mordicai
11. SchuylerH

Sorry for the long delay-- yep! That Lancer edition is the one I used. I had to dig it off the shelf.
Colin Bell
13. SchuylerH
@12: Thankyou. The full contents of this edition are: "A Martian Odyssey", "The Adaptive Ultimate", "The Lotus Eaters", "Proteus Island" and "The Brink of Infinity". Mine's the 2008 Wildside edition, which contains "Worlds of If", "The Ideal", "The Point of View", "Pygmalion's Spectacles", "A Martian Odyssey" and "Valley of Dreams".
Mordicai Knode
14. mordicai
13. SchuylerH

I am not the biggest short fiction fan-- though I like it when I read it, I rarely seek it out-- so it is interesting to me to see various publishing methods during the day.

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