Oct 28 2013 3:00pm

Advanced Readings in D&D: Fletcher Pratt

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 week, Fletcher Pratt’s Blue Star is on the menu, as Mordicai and Tim look into a story about witches and worldbuilding.

Tim Callahan: Fletcher Pratt’s Blue Star begins with three guys named Penfield, Hodge, and McCall theorizing about a society developed upon magic—witchcraft, more specifically—instead of science. And then the whole book is a high-falutin’ romance set against a complex political system in which magic is forbidden.

It’s a love story with a well-developed setting and a confident depiction of a fantasy world that’s bound by many of the social and political and religious rules as our own. It’s a courtly melodrama in an alternate realm.

It reads like an Alexandre Dumas novel with all the action scenes removed and replaced by more descriptions of the window dressings. I struggled to make it through this tedious, tedious, tedious book. (It’s by one of the co-authors of The Carnellian Cube but I didn’t hold that against him, even though I probably should have. We’ve been Pratted again!)

Mordicai Knode: I really liked it! But then I like boring, tedious worldbuilding. That is my jam, my whole scene; it is a running joke. I’m the guy who was like “you know, Anathem could have really used another 1000 pages about the soap opera and melodrama inside of a secular monastery.” That said, once you have a detour to another country just to see the sights before returning home, it does get a little...gratuitous. So I see your point.

The thing that really got me is...well, part a conversation people have about A Song of Ice and Fire. Which is to say: is the misogyny in the story authorial, or is it an implicit critique of patriarchy? The Blue Star contains a lot of oppression and assault. In fact, I would say that the relationship between the two protagonists is created by...well, for lack of a better term, date rape. Sexual coercion is perhaps the most dominant theme in Lalette Asterhax’s story.

For me, I find the whole idea of witchcraft and the blue gem to be a really great central conceit. I don’t think the book indulges in it enough; I want more witchcraft, I want more telepathy! The point of building a cool, cohesive world is that then you can use your supernatural elements without them ruining the suspension of disbelief, right? Sadly the book sort of falls out from that, and is instead a mix of a travelogue and a meditation on power and sex. Or not; I’m not sure if the politics of sex and violence in the book are mindful or more thoughtless sexism.

TC: I’m not going to be the guy who tries to delve into authorial intent and assume I can ferret out what some guy thought as he was writing some book over sixty years ago, so whatever I say here is based purely on the effect the novel has on its readers—or, more specifically on this one reader called me—but Blue Star seems like a book that’s supposed to be forward thinking and possibly even pseudo-feminist in its approach except Fletcher Pratt can’t get out of his own way. Based on this book and the terribleness of Carnellian Cube, I imagine Pratt to be the kind of guy that propounds about the flaws of society at a dinner party and then spends the rest of the evening making passive aggressive sexist jokes to everyone who walks by. Blue Star seems like a set up to explore something about politics and gender and gender politics but then where does the book go with those issues? It shows an oppressed matriarchy? That’s it?

And it doesn’t even do it in a way that’s interesting. As you say, there’s not enough witchcraft. Not enough telepathy.

For a book that replaces technology with magic, there’s just not enough magic. It’s dull. Like a lecture. From that guy who sexually harasses the waitress but then complains about the social constraints of the glass ceiling in the workplace. Oh, that Fletcher Pratt!

MK: That is an entirely believable depiction you’ve painted. Okay, well, let’s keep this debate going! Another thing that I think this book succeeds in—similarly to what we talked about with Carnellian Cube—is in worldbuilding, which for a Dungeon Master is pretty crucial. Carnellian Cube is sort of a “think quick about this toss-away clan of monsters” primer, you know? Take a big idea, throw it at the wall, see what sticks. The Blue Star is a textbook on how to create a campaign setting. Heck, the frame story of the three old white dudes makes it explicit. Sit down, think about what you are changing, and think about how it would play out. Except, like you say...he doesn’t let it play out. Pratt sets up the dominoes, and they are cool dominoes, right? Witchcraft and telepathy? The Great Wedding? Weird religions and conspiratorial skullduggery? Did I mention witchcraft?

Then he just...doesn’t do anything with them. Lalette—who, can I just say, has the best name? Lalette Asterhax? Awesome!—is too overwrought to use it and Rodvard is just a piece of garbage. Rarely have I hated a protagonist as much as Rodvard Bergelin. At least Cugel the Clever is a rogue, and pretty much fully wicked. But I supposed to sympathize with this rapist? I mean, let’s call a spade a spade; he rapes her. She says no, she fights, and he forces himself on her. Her giving up isn’t consent. The back copy says he was ordered to “seduce the saucy witch-maiden” but that isn’t what “seduction” is. So yeah, no, he rapes her to take the power of the eponymous Blue Star, and then proceeds to use her and coerce her. And of course they end up together. Because barf.

That said, I still think the central premise is pretty neat.

TC: Just to clarify—is the central premise you’re referring to something like this: “A fantasy world in which magic has replaced technology, but the patriarchy has attempted to suppress and exploit it instead of allowing it to flourish?” Because that’s the essence of the premise upon which the world is built, as I understand it, and while that may be interesting, it’s just the foundation. What’s built upon it is endlessly tedious and unpleasant and really just repetitive.

It’s like Fletcher Pratt did a nice job with the masonry, but when he built the house, he put a bunch of rooms on top of one another that don’t have any flow and they are also overly ornate and have velvet pictures of animals and a golden bathroom with red curtains and a pool table with clear glass balls I’m just describing a hideous house I once visited, but Blue Star is that hideous house in narrative form. Pratt is an interior designer who wants to be an architect, but he has bad taste lacks a sense of proportion.

As a world-builder, he’s pretty bad at the building part.

MK: Which I guess is why my mind drifts to George R. R. Martin, who has sexual brutality in his books, but doesn’t romanticize it. Though I guess you could look at Drogo and Dany and disagree with me, especially since everyone in the Song of Ice and Fire is supposed to be, like, thirteen. But I’m getting off track; you are right that he almost purposefully makes a lot of boring choices. Given the option of super sweet witchcraft or banal repression, he’ll take the latter, every time. It is a let-down; I want to see the witches in full effect! You know, that is exactly what I want, I want the Boudica, a pagan witch-queen. Not for nothing is Iggwilv my favorite Dungeons and Dragons personality!

I disagree with your analogy. I think the foundation and the masonry is well crafted, but the actual building itself is...just banal. Like he laid out the blueprints for a phenomenal palace, but ran out of funding halfway and ended up with a squat and ugly ranch-style house. Which maybe is why it tickles the Dungeon Master in me. I could take the rules of his universe—the interwoven relationship between sex, fidelity and magic on one hand, the politics of revolution, patriarchy and theocracy—and make up a pretty good story for a group of players. Spoiler alert, the story would probably have a “barbarian” sorceress Genghis Khan type.

TC: Yeah, I really let my analogy get away from itself. Banality is the word. And that’s what’s so frustrating—that it reads like Pratt imposes some kind of realistic aesthetic on a world that he’s built that could have so much splendor. It could have great tragedies and magnificent triumphs, but instead it’s just...nothing. Perhaps that’s part of his thinking behind Blue Star, that the oppression in the world keeps the sense of wonder suppressed. But that makes for a book like this, which is not one I’d ever want to recommend to anyone.

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

Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
Ha ha ha I totally am the guy who wished Anathem was more boringer.
2. Jonlundy
I loved the enchanter series, tolerated the Carnelian cube, and NEVER managed to finish 'The Blue Star' despite multiple attempts based on its recommendation in Appendix N. I applaud your fortitude.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
2. Jonlundy

We're both high CON builds.
D. Bell
4. SchuylerH
Fletcher was a rather interesting man:

He developed a very complex modern "naval wargame" involving vast numbers of small wooden ships.

He was a prolific history writer, producing such works as
A Short History of the Civil War: Ordeal by Fire, which is considered to be one of the finest short histories of the conflict.

He owned a dozen marmosets, named after friends, which he kept in his living room.

He also owned a vast house in New Jersey, the "Ipsy-Wipsy Institute", which Frederik Pohl described as "a sort of road-show version of an English country home".

He established the "Trap Door Spiders", a club which also included Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Lin Carter, Lester del Rey, Willy Ley and Martin Gardner.

@1: I am sorely tempted to think that when writing Anathem, Stephenson misinterpreted M. John Harrison's remarks about world-building as a how-to guide.
David Levinson
5. DemetriosX
It's odd that Gygax picked this book specifically for Pratt. I would have expected more Well of the Unicorn if he was going to pick any of Pratt's solo work. That naval war game was probably looming fairly large in the back of his mind, too.
Mordicai Knode
6. mordicai
5. DemetriosX

Yeah, on Twitter folks said the same. As I've mentioned before though, this is a little bit "fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice," since we didn't like his work, previously. Pratt & de Camp had two chances each!
Alan Brown
7. AlanBrown
I haven't read this book, but it sounds like like an example of the type of fantasy fiction that ended up in John Campbell's Unknown magazine, a magazine that for a few years tried to do for fantasy what Astounding was doing for SF--present stories that built a consistent world based on logical extrapolation, albeit the logic of a magical system or fantasy world, in the place of the logic of science.
And it sounds like Pratt was indulging in his history writing tendencies in this book--to the point where the story itself began to get lost. As others have stated, a precursor of Neal Stephenson in that regard!
It was in his role as a historian that I first encountered Pratt. I was a little guy during the Civil War Centennial, and every month Life Magazine devoted quite a bit of space to articles about what had happened 100 years ago during that conflict--articles that I followed with fierce interest. And an aunt bought me one of Pratt's histories of the Civil War. It is still in my basement somewhere, dogeared and ragged from overuse.
I looked at his bibliography on Wikipedia and note that he also wrote Invaders from Rigel, one of the strangest SF novels I have ever read, where humans were turned into metal robotic creatures by some sort of gas released by those nefarious invaders.
Alan Brown
9. AlanBrown
@9 Sure looks like it. Or a Sweet homage/tribute/ripoff! ;-)
Tim Eagon
10. Tim_Eagon
@8. Walker

I have that edition of The Blue Star and it is indeed a Darrell Sweet cover.

This was the first Pratt book that I read and while I liked it more than Tim & Mordicai, I don't think it's his best work (that would be The Well of the Unicorn). When it comes to exposition, Pratt throws you in the deep end and leaves you to figure out what's going on from reams and reams of details. Seriously, what's up with all the parenthetical asides?
Mordicai Knode
11. mordicai
10. Tim_Eagon

I liked it okay, know, the moral of the story & the a lot to put aside.

8. Walker & 9. AlanBrown

Well spotted! It didn't click but now I obviously can't unsee it.
12. EdAllen
I don't remember the book very well, but the naval wargame was a lot of fun with a big group and a lot of floor space.

His mathematical Enchanter books with DeCamp were good and pertinent to D&D.
13. Fraser Sherman
I enjoyed it. It is much more a political drama in a fantasy setting than a fantasy novel, but it worked as such. And I don't find the worldbuilding tedious at all--I think we're mostly left to figure out the tenets from whatever's happening at the moment (and in this case, I didn't find that confusing).

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