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.
This week it’s Philip José Farmer and his World of Tiers, an epic that bridges high fantasy, the pulps and whimsical science-fiction.
There are different styles of worldbuilding in fantasy. We’re just exiting a big vogue of building worlds through science, of an assumed heliocentric default, a world where gravity and mass and the concept of physics hold tight, where oftentimes “magic” is superscience in the style of Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim, like Andre Norton’s Forerunner or the dragons and Thread of Pern. There are worlds with a scientific default and magic as an exception, like Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions. There are worlds where magic and technology are in tension, worlds where they are blended—Eberron comes to mind—but there are other models as well. Spelljammer had many crystal spheres, and while most were heliocentric, trusty old Greyhawk was geocentric. An older, more fanciful novel…but don’t think that fanciful means fairy dust and kittens.
Philip José Farmer is of that older school. His World of Tiers and Riverworld are books of grandiose worldbuilding: quite literally manufactured. Which I suppose is a bit of a dodge; the World of Tiers is of the “any sufficiently advanced technology…” camp, come to think of it, as well as being on the “big gonzo physics” team. Ancient protoculture of humans so advanced they are basically gods, yadda, yadda. Unlike the usual “god-like technowizards,” the Makers of the World of the Tiers are really into being meddlesome. There is none of this “oh we’ll set up a colony on the moon” or “take me to your leader nonsense.” There are, however, plenty of abductions.
What they do is of course build giant impossible mega-structures, kidnap a bunch of people, perform a range of experiments or alterations on them—making them immortal or into centaurs or putting their brain in an ape (hey, like in Barsoom!)—and then letting them build a civilization…you know, where you are set up as a god, of course. Ah yeah, that is the life…until one of the other big fancy monarchs of space and time comes along and messes it up before stealing it from you. Or you do the same to someone else, because your species is in decline, and while you might know how to use all this future stuff, you don’t know how it works or how to make more…starting to sound familiar?
Now, I’ve got a personal softspot for this kind of thing. I ran in a great campaign in college that was sort of half-Planescape, half-Spelljammer; the different “worlds” were accessible through certain spells, but were separated by an Ethereal Sea, so travel could be done through strange vessels just as well. Each of the worlds or planes was as much one of these strange places with unique laws of physics as anything; a world where everything is always falling, bottomless and plunging, called The Fall, a world set on the inside of a hollow sphere, where it is always Night, hence the name…and a place called the Broken Ladder that very much resembled the World of Tiers.
What Philip José Farmer does that really charms me is…he cheats. So, the premise of The Maker of Universes is pretty simple. Well, relatively simple for a big ideas book like this. The main character starts out in a False Eden and has to climb up the pillars of the world, from plate to plate, from one flat world to the next, trying to get to the peak where the tyrant god-king lives. Because it is all fabricated and created according to whim…well, the “rules” of plausibility are altered. Not just physics, either; history and anthropology, too. Take for instance, Amerind.
See, what is the Amerind tier but a bunch of “pulp Western” clichés. In another book, that might have caused some consternation; after all, fanciful appropriation of real world cultures is not my idea of a good time. Here though, Farmer side-steps those issues by…well, making the people of Amerind, and of every other tier be synthetic “cultures.” The Maker of the World of Tiers wanted a pseudo-Greek land full of lab experiments, he wanted a pulp Wild West nation-world, he wanted a “best of feudalism” tier and a “Robert E. Howard’s fallen Atlantis” tier. The Maker is the kind of DM who runs pre-made settings but doesn’t want to have to pick just one.
Besides which, there are the occasional flourish that, between you and me, are ripe for a clever DM to
steal borrow. Maybe my favorite—and probably old hat to some—are the idea of Great Plains centaurs. A host of Nez Perce-inspired Appaloosas in Maztica, driving the PCs in toward the ancient ziggurat they must explore; put that in along side Aztec-y were-jaguars, have the expanding empire of Law be influenced by the Iroquois Confederacy…see, just that one little notion and I’m already dreaming up whole campaigns. The Jewish knights of the Yidshe is another quick grab; Solomonic nobles with a sort of Knight’s Templar vibe, but you know, Jewish. Putting them at odds with the German knights has a certain flair to it…
This isn’t a Player’s novel; this is a DM’s novel. I’ve noticed a difference in this re-read; stories like Howard’s Conan or the Lankhmar books are character driven in a way that creates archetypes, that sketches out behaviors and well, class roles. You want to know the default setting for “Barbarian” is? Conan is a pretty good starting place. Other books are more like primers for Dungeon Masters, stories like The Moon Pool and yes, even L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt; books that show off settings, or showcase how to come up with “big ideas” on the fly. The World of Tiers is the latter; it is a good teaching aid on how to get past the assumptions of a spherical, physical model, and how you can slide in ideas—like “I sort of want to run this adventure in Boot Hill…”—while making it work.
Mordicai Knode’s home Oubliette campaign is a post-historic hodge-podge of sources underlined by armchair anthropology, so that is his bias. Tim Callahan wasn’t here for this but maybe, like Kickaha, he’s secretly in disguise somewhere?