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Book Reviews: Of Beowulfs and Albino Anti-heroes

My musings on three products I loved from the 70s which had some likely-not-coincidental cross-over use of drug-dependant albinos and sci fi Beowulf references.

Elric of Melniboné

Recently I finished reading ‘Elric of Melniboné’, the first book in the original 6 novel Elric series by Michael Moorcock. Moorcock reads much like Robert E. Howard’s Conan: fast, pulp action, dripping with eldritch wizardry and exotic settings. Elric is the 428th sorcerer-emperor to hold the ruby throne of his kingdom. He is unusually introspective & weak for his race — he is a dependent albino who needs special potions to keep himself alive. He eventually encounters a sentient sword called Stormbringer who give him special strength — but at a cost.

The anti-Tolkien

moorcockSome have said that if Tolkien epitomizes about half of all fantasy literature, Moorcock is the muse for the other half. In contrast to Tolkien’s Christian take on medieval fantasy, Moorcock gives us a worldview dominated by a nihilism unsullied by concepts of good or evil. Chaos and Law are the only points on the moral compass of the land of Melnibone. In contrast to the Lawful Good D&D alignment of Tolkien’s protagonists, Elric is Chaotic Good on his best days, with descent into Chaotic Evil on occasion. (At least, this is how it seems in the first novel; I haven’t read the rest of the series to see how and if Elric evolves).

Elric does speak about Melniboné’s need to change away from its evil bent:

‘I must go away from Melnibone, Cymoril, for a year. What I have learned in recent months has made me want to travel the Young Kingdoms–see how other nations conduct their affairs. For I think Melnibone must change if she is to survive. She could become a great force for good in the world, for she still has much power.’

‘For good?’ Cymoril was surprised and there was a little alarm in her voice, too. ‘Melnibone has never stood for good or for evil, but for herself and the satisfaction of her desires.’

‘I would see that changed.’

The stories are a larger-than-life and hearken back to the Greek classics, in part due to the direct involvement of self-absorbed, Greek-style gods who are apathetic about the plight of humanity. As one blogger writes:

“In Elric of Melnibone you won’t find hundreds of pages of characters delivering monologue, spanking each other, engaging in lengthy introspection on their internal demons, or a description of every leaf color or market smell. What you will find is a fast-paced, action-laden adventure full of sword fights and sorcerous duels. This story embraces the “Sword & Sorcery” genre, whose modern roots were established by Robert E. Howard with creation of Conan, and who in turn derived it from Greek mythology and Tales of the Arabian Nights. The genre name was coined by Fritz Leiber in an exchange with Moorcock, who wanted a name to define the style. As the popularity of Lord of the Rings grew, by the late 80s and early 90s, Epic Fantasy had caused Sword & Sorcery to become a derogatory term. Many current authors of the “dark genre”, like Abercrombie, Lynch, and others owe some of their roots not only to Sword & Sorcery, but also the anti-hero, a character with flaws. Elric was the first character I read about with serious flaws: the weak strength, the subsistence on drugs, and a naivete that would come back to haunt him.” Source

It was a fun read, and I love the action packed writing style that is so richly evocative. The many ‘deals with the devil’ Elric is willing to make in his pursuit of his enemies are a bit dark for my tastes though.

Beowulf Shaeffer, The Other Albino

neutron-starAfter Elric of Melniboné I read ‘Neutron Star’ by Larry Niven. Coincidently, it also stars a drug-dependant albino named Beowulf Shaeffer.

‘Elric of Melniboné’ came out in 1972, but ‘Neutron Star’ had come out back in 1968. I’m not sure which character was first invented, or if either author influenced the other in creating their drug-dependant, albino anti-heroes, but sure seems like a weird coincidence 🙂

‘Neutron Star’ is a great introduction to Niven’s Known Space setting and introduces many key ideas like Known Space, Outsider Hyperdrive, and the Puppeteers. See my recent post for a recommended reading order for the Ringworld and Known Space series.

I’m now re-reading Ringworld, the next book in the series (it’s actually a couple of centuries after Beowulf Shaeffer’s time with other characters). Niven has written dozens of books in the Known Space settings, so there’s lots to read if you like Beowulf Shaeffer and Niven’s style of hard sci fi in the far-future setting.

Free Trader, The Other Beowulf

1977 Classic Traveller Box Cover“This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone…Mayday, Mayday…we are under attack…main drive is gone…turret number one not responding…Mayday…losing cabin pressure fast…calling anyone…please help…This is Free Trader Beowulf…Mayday….”
— From the tabletop RPG Traveller

New Beowulf Shaeffer sci fi stories were coming out from 1968 and in a steady stream throughout the 70s. The books were wildly popular. Then in 1977, the Traveller RPG debuted, with the iconic ‘Free Trader’ model spaceship name the ‘Beowulf’. Coincidence? Hmmm. In any case, I know that when I bought the game around 1981 and I saw the name ‘Beowulf’ on the box cover, my first thought was of the Larry Niven Beowulf Shaeffer stories. And that was a good thing: I bought the game 🙂

Ringworld Novels & RPG

Larry Niven's Ringworld

Larry Niven’s Ringworld

I just finished Larry Niven’s Neutron Star; amazingly good stuff! I read a lot of Larry Niven’s Known Space science fiction back in the 80’s. I am beginning to re-read his novels. His characters and stories span several centuries, so it’s hard to know where best to jump in. I did some research and put together a recommended reading order. Below is the sequence in which I’ll be reading his epic saga. Oh, and this setting has an RPG as well. More on that in a sec.

Ringworld

For the uninitiated, Ringworld is an epic saga that has an original series written by Niven (Ringworld, Engineer, Throne, Children) followed by a new series of Known Space novel co-authored with Edward M. Lerner (Fleet of Worlds, Juggler of Worlds, Destroyer of Worlds, Betrayer of Worlds). Ring world was originally written in 1970. It was set in his Known Space universe and is a classic of science fiction literature. Ringworld won the Nebula Award in 1970, as well as both the Hugo Award and Locus Award in 1971 (one of the few novels ever to win both the Hugo and Nebula).

Niven later added four sequels and four prequels. (The Fleet of Worlds series, co-written with Edward M. Lerner provides the four prequels as well as Fate of Worlds, the final sequel.) These books tie into numerous other books set in Known Space.

Ringworld

Ringworld

Reading Order

The Ringworld Saga

  • #1 — Neutron Star (introduces many key ideas like Known Space, Outsider Hyperdrive, and the Puppeteers).
  • #2 — Ringworld (introduction to Ringworld).
  • #3 — Protector (the backstory of the Pak, which is crucial to many key points in Ringworld).
  • #4 — World of Ptavvs (reveals more about the ancient Slavers that ruled the Galaxy; this novel is included in the omnibus Three Books of Known Space).
  • #5 — Ringworld Engineers (we discover the fate of the Puppeteers and the Ringworld).
  • #6 — Ringworld Throne (the least gripping of all the novels; reveals Puppeteer technology).
  • #7 — Ringworld’s Children (stunning conclusion to the Ringworld arc).

Fleet of Worlds Backstory

  • #8 — Crashlander (the backstory of Beowulf Shaeffer; contains the Hugo winning Beowulf Shaeffer story “The Borderland of Sol”. Some other stories here duplicate Neutron Star. However, if you’re reading the ‘of Worlds’ series, you’ll want to read “The Borderland of Sol” first (since the Worlds series have spoilers for “The Borderland of Sol”).
  • #9 — Flatlander (the backstory of Carlos Wu; you could skip this book though).

Fleet of Worlds Saga (Prequels to Ringworld Saga)

  • # 10 — Fleet of Worlds
  • # 11 — Juggler of Worlds
  • # 12 — Destroyer of Worlds
  • # 13 — Betrayer of Worlds

The Final Novel

  • # 14 — Fate of Worlds (Larry Niven and Edward Lerner’s explosive finale to the Ringworld and the Fleet of Worlds series. Fate of Worlds opens as (from the Ringworld series) Ringworld’s Children closes, which is decades after Betrayer of Worlds, the prior book in the Fleet of Worlds series. The novel concludes both series, and involves characters from both.)

RPG

Ringworld RPG

Ringworld RPG

And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Ringworld RPG. I just ordered a copy off eBay. It’s long out of print, and not sure I’d ever run the system as is. By itself, if nothing else, it serves as an amazing setting guide for Known Space. The system uses Chaosium Basic Roleplaying system and has a version of the rules used in Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, and Runequest. One caution I’ve read from people who’ve played Ringworld RPG is to do something about the random age rules. The rules as written will let some players have very old characters who are healthy through the use of anti-aging booster-spice and are overwhelming more powerful that a young character. Just house-rule it so everyone is around the same age and you’re good to go.

I might run Ringworld RPG at NTRPGCon someday. If I ever run a campaign in this setting, I’d might use some version of Classic Traveller instead if players didn’t want to use the out-of-print rules.

‘Star Trek: Vanguard’ and Other Cool Books

I’ve started to hear about other books folks in our Dicehaven group have recently read (or read way back in the day). Thought it might be cool to have folks who are interested jot a note or two on the blog on what books they like (or don’t like). If you want to blog about such stuff and don’t have an account, drop me an email.

Some book series might get enough synergy to evolve into a roleplaying campaign at some point in the future. Dresden Files, Ringworld, and The Lord of the Rings are example candidates, but there are many others.

I also moved my ‘Stan’s Reading Lists’ page from swshinn.com; not you can find it at https://dicehaven.com/stans-reading-lists/.

Anyway, here’s a dump on several books I’ve got cracked open at the moment.

Books I Recently Read

vanguardI recently read ‘Star Trek: Vanguard #1: Harbinger’ (Star Trek TOS) by David Mack.

Review: Was great fun to read since I loved seeing new characters set in the Original Series universe, set at the time Kirk first took command of the Enterprise. Had just the right old-school flavor, including women complaining about (or using to their advantage) the newly issued Federation mini-skirt uniforms.

One issue is that book ended with no plot lines resolved. Turns out you have to read it as part of a 7 novel series. Folks have raved about the series, and I did enjoy the first book. I will resume the series hopefully sometime, but at the moment I’m more interested in reading some books that ‘end’ without committing to 7 novels straight. I’m too reading dyslexic at the moment to commit to that many books in a row. 🙂

Books I’m Now Reading

Novels:

  1. ‘Elric of Melniboné’ by Michael Moorcock

Short Story Collections:

  1. ‘Neutron Star’ by Larry Niven (Short story collection; reading intermittently; inspiration for Imperium or Ringworld campaigns).
  2. ‘The Complete Hammer’s Slammers: Volume’ 1 by David Drake (Short story collection; reading intermittently; inspiration for Blood & Steel campaign).
  3. ‘Berserker (Saberhagen’s Beserker Series Book 1)’ by Fred Saberhagen (Short story collection; reading intermittently; inspiration for Blood & Steel campaign).
  4. ‘The Man-Kzin Wars (Man-Kzin Wars Series Book 1)’ by Larry Niven et al. (Short story collection; reading intermittently; inspiration for Blood & Steel campaign).

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