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 & 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 tenth post in the series, featuring a look at Forerunner by Andre Norton.
Just looking at the cover art to Andre Norton’s Forerunner will start you thinking about Dungeons and Dragons, as the pitch black skin and pale white hair of the elfin figure immediately makes your thoughts go to the dark elves, the drow. Here are two things that I’m into: spiders and elves. That ought to give you an idea of where I fall on drow; at least, once you get past the tired clichés. The first thing I did, then, upon seeing the cover for this, was flip to the copyright page—1981—and then look up the drow on Wikipedia. The drow’s first official mention is in the AD&D Monster Manual, 1977, with their first appearance in Hall of the Fire Giant King (G3) in 1978, which really nailed down their signature “look.”
Just an odd coincidence? Perhaps not, since Norton definitely was affiliated with Gary Gygax and Dungeons and Dragons. She wrote Quag Keep in 1979, the first official D&D tie-in novel, about a group of people from the “real world.” How did she know so much about the hobby? Well, because she played in Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk game in 1976, of course. Which means…well, what does it mean? I guess it probably means that either Norton thought Gygax’s dark elves looked cool, and cribbed it, or that they put their heads together and cooked that look up together, and that Norton repurposed it for Forerunner. An ancient race of ur-aliens, a pre-human proto-culture that explored the stars before the human species left their home world for the first time? Yes please!
Of the books we’re read, this is the one that most resembles the campaign I actually run. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth is at the root here, but Vance’s world is much more “high fantasy” than my usual game. What we get from Norton, however, something altogether more…granular. I don’t want to say “gritty,” since that brings up bad feelings of “extreme!” antiheroes with lots of pouches or a casual and cavalier attitude about life and death. The “science fantasy” of Forerunner doesn’t have the same feel as the surreal and madcap twists and turns of Vance. Rather, Norton presents us with a plausible world, a city with webs (drow pun unintentional) of guild politics and economic classes so rigid it might as well be a caste system. She delivers us a low magic setting, with one essential twist; one of the reasons the city exists and is prosperous is because of the spaceship landing grid just outside of town.
The fusion of elements is at the root of the story, and ultimately at the root of the main character. The lower tech level of the city of Kuxortal is where Simsa is from; she is a street urchin with some levels of thief who makes her living digging in the forgotten depths of the city for ancient archeological treasures. She meets Thom Chan-li Yun, a star-traveller, a man from another world who has been genetically engineered to, among other things, resist radiation sickness. Together, low and high tech, they explore ruins from the past. From before X-Arth, even—by the way, a great way to refer to the semi-mythological birthplace of humanity— a series of crumbling towers that themselves are built around an even more venerable secret. There is a whole series of these Forerunner books (and another Tor.com reviewer suggests that these elements are consistent across Norton’s work), and I’ve got to say, my interest is piqued!
DnD-isms? There are plenty. The flying cats, for instance; Simsa’s pet flying cat Zass is a good example of a familiar, and the “broken wing that is mended by magic later in the story”—oops, spoilers—is a clever device for a Dungeon Master who has a player that really wants an imp or pseudodragon at first level. I’ll keep that in my back pocket. So too are her “magic” ring and “magic” bracelet a good example of using the logic of Chekhov’s Gun for magic items; you can give out a ring and not reveal the magical properties until later. Note that “magic” is in quotes; there are “magic items” in the form of anti-gravity devices, gas grenades, and laser pistols—high tech items from the stars. But there is also a deeper, older “technology,” the Forerunner sciences, which adhere pretty tightly to Clarke’s Third Law. And to a deconstructed view of Dungeons and Dragon’s Positive and Negative energies, for that matter.
All in all I’m really impressed; this is my favorite new book I’ve encountered so far in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons series, I think, because it exposed me to Andre Norton. She sure can write, and she does an excellent job with both the story in front of the reader—like the guild lords of Koxortal and the tribes within and without the city—as well as the parts of the story that go off into the “here there be dragons” nooks and crannies. The mentions of a race of librarian aliens, or little linguistic flourishes like “gentlehomo”—there are worlds within worlds, layers of historical occupation, layers of prehistoric occupation. It creates a textured tapestry, the verisimilitude makes me think that if I followed any strand of the narrative out into the broader context of the setting, I would find a whole new story behind that. You know what? I think I’ll have to read more to find out if that’s true.
Mordicai Knode can’t help but see the name “Norton” and think about Emperor Norton. That is just the way he’s wired. He and Tim Callahan have been delving the dungeons of DMs past for Advanced Readings in D&D for a while now. You can find Mordicai on Twitter or Tumblr.