M.A.R. Barker 1929-2012

Mohammed Al Rahman Barker died this week at the age of 83. He was a professor of South Asian languages and literature, his academic interests included the language of the Klamath people of the Pacific north-west and the languages and cultures of Meso-America. He was an adult convert to Islam. He is survived by his wife of fifty years, Ambereen.

Barker is one of very few people to have a profound influence on fantasy in which fiction is secondary. He wrote novels and stories, but he was primarily a worldbuilder. The world he designed, Tekumel, is utterly original and full of the kind of detail and weirdness that you’d think nobody could make up. He was clearly influenced by knowing South Asian and Mesoamerican cultures and languages, also by Vance (with whom he corresponded) and by his deep knowledge of linguistics, but the intelligent giant insects must have come from his own head. It has the kind of layered depth that reflects it being one man’s obsessive hobby. 

In 1974 Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson formed TSR and published Dungeons and Dragons. D&D was influenced by Tolkien and Leiber and European folklore and history all mashed together, and in turn it was influential on the fantasy written after it. Barker took to roleplaying right away. Dave Arneson was a member of Barker’s gaming group. Barker almost immediately realised that this was something he could do with the world he had made. He self published Empire of the Petal Throne only six weeks after the original D&D, and then TSR swiftly republished it. It was the second roleplaying game ever. New Tekumel material has been published in every decade since.

Barker also wrote five novels and some short stories set in Tekumel. I’ve only read one of them, Man of Gold, which was a lot of fun. The normal sequence of events is for there to be fiction and for a gaming world to be created from it. With Tekumel it happened backwards—there was a demand for fiction set in Tekumel because lots of people were already fascinated by Tekumel.

Tekumel was influential on a whole generation of gamers, some of whom became fantasy writers. The influence of Tekumel can be seen very clearly in the work of Raymond E. Feist—Magician has a standard medieval fantasy world invaded through a magic portal by aliens from a world much like Tekumel. C.J. Cherryh’s Serpent’s Reach also shows some influence, and at a further remove so does China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. There’s also a clear influence into fantasy computer games, especially Bethesda Games Elder Scrolls Morrowind and sequels. Barker’s creation seeped out of Empire of the Petal Throne into the collective unconscious of fantasy just as it was starting to become a genre and had a profound influence.

If you look at the Tekumel website you can see some of the detail of the world. In addition to Professor Barker’s erudition and creation you can see the passion and enthusiasm of the world’s many fans—almost forty years after the first publication of the game, there are people still playing in the world, adding to it and arging about it. The world and its influence are out there on their own now without their creator. Death sucks, there’s no two ways about it. It’s some comfort when you can see so clearly that the work will live on.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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