I was recently reminded of the golden age of Big Dumb Object stories (hat tip to reviewer Roz Kaveny for coining the phrase). As this is not yet commonly accepted genre shorthand, perhaps a definition is in order.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from science fiction, it is “never go camping.” In real life, the worst I’ve had happen to me while camping is minor stuff:
- whomped by a falling tree;
- close encounters with moose1;
- crushed two fingers playing cards;
- that whole thing with the two dead popes.
In SF, camping trips generally foreshadow near-total party kills or worse. Which brings me to Joan D. Vinge’s World’s End, the second volume in her Snow Queen sequence, newly reissued by Tor this month.
You can have your Star Treks, your X-Files and your Expanses. I prefer my SF dramas on radio, partly because I was raised on CBC Radio, BBC World Service and CKMS1, and partly because (as Stan Freberg pointed out) radio’s visual effects are so convincing. We live in a golden age of online archives; many of the classic anthology-style science fiction shows are online. That said, not all radio shows are created equal.
An author has an epiphany, spots a story idea nobody ever had before, writes it in the white heat of inspiration, sends it off and gets a cheque in the mail. All is as it should be. At least, that is, until they discover someone else had the exact same idea at exactly the same time. Or worse—the other person’s version saw print first.
One of the more remarkable examples of this type of unfortunate concurrence occurred in 1979. Working on opposite sides of the planet in an era long before everyone had email, Charles Sheffield and Arthur C. Clarke wrote novels about…well, let me just quote Mr. Clarke’s open letter, which was reprinted at the end of Sheffield’s book…
Once upon a time, there was a reviewer confident that his reading habits were egalitarian, at least as far as books by men or women went. After all, he knew the relevant stats for one of the three companies he freelanced for: 45% books by women, close enough to 50% for folk music.
To his surprise, the story was different at another company he freelanced for. Very different.
Ever finish a book and think “This would make a great role-playing game!”? Me too! My shelves are filled with role-playing games based on various books¹. Some were successful adaptations. Others, not so much. Having spent seventeen years selling RPGs, I have some ideas about what sort of stories adapt well to games and which don’t.
The most important element might be narrative space—room for characters other than the protagonists of the books in question. Worlds designed so that only a single or a small handful of characters are able to take meaningful action are too constrained to let players do their thing. Either the player characters will find they cannot accomplish anything or they will simply recapitulate the source material². I think Foundation, for example, would be too limited by the need to stick to Asimov’s Psychohistory to be playable, but the earlier Empire novels could provide an open-enough setting for a role-playing game³.
Here are six series, some new and some old classic, that I think would make interesting settings for RPGs.
I first read Poul Anderson’s The Enemy Stars in 1976, not all that long after its first publication in 1959. If I had not already been an Anderson fanboy, this book would have made me one. The novel had sense of wonder in spades, and the stock elements in the book were ones as yet unfamiliar to me. I was the ideal reader, being an undemanding, gullible fifteen-year-old. Later rereadings revealed some characteristic Poul Anderson weaknesses. Yet the book does one important thing right, which is why I still reread it from time to time.
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