||"dawnbreak in the west"|
Sunday, April 21, 2002
The real Prophet Smith
Long before I was interested in politics, I was interested in fantasy literature. I was (am!) also interested in Dungeons & Dragons, a role-playing game with many points in contact with mediaeval fantasy, and has in fact begun the career of many a pulp novelist. Superficially D&D looks like warmed-over Tolkien, but deeper down you'll find that its main influence is Robert E Howard, who wrote the Conan the Barbarian cycle.
But some "modules" - D&D jargon for adventure-templates - take their cue from darker stuff. Bruce Cordell's twisted Gates of Firestorm Peak owes much to HP Lovecraft; a dwarf clan has unwittingly settled alongside a mad scientist who has made deals with entities beyond even the fantasy multiverse of gods, demons, and mortals. Tracy Hickman's gothic Ravenloft updates the Dracula legend. And Tom Moldvay's claustrophobic Castle Amber takes the mad-house of Edgar Allen Poe's House of Ussher, and splices in elements from Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.
The latter received pride of place on his own, as the party could only escape the castle via Smith's world of Averoigne, a fictional province of mediaeval France. Space considerations prevented Moldvay from giving Averoigne the treatment it deserved, but he did provide a bibliography so that "DM's" (game referees) could expand it on their own. Unfortunately his books had been long out of print by 1984, when I picked that module up. In fact in the two decades since I have been able to find only one of those books.
So who was Clark Ashton Smith? Simply put, he was the master of horror-tinged fantasy and science-fiction in the early part of the 20th century. He was the regular correspondent of HP Lovecraft and Robert E Howard both, with whom he shared ideas in a three-way trade. And now, after decades of neglect, his works have been rediscovered, to great joy among D&D and Call of Cthulhu fans. You can find a list here.
Smith, like Lovecraft, was primarily working in the tradition of Poe. His best works are set in Zothique, a future Earth in which there is only one continent left, barren, scorched by the heat of a dim sun (alone of sci-fi in his day, Smith assumed the sun would grow warmer over time; it turns out he was right). Many rulers run their domains in league with demons; others rule legions of undead through necromancy. The entire world reeks of death, and if not that then its nearest relative, opium.
This, then, is the future as Clark Ashton Smith saw it. A people held at bay by tyrants who hold an overwhelming technological advantage. A people where those who in nature ought to be dead outnumber those who have just been born. A people who fritter away their pointless days with mind-bending narcotics and sadistic sex. A people of the perpetual, arid present.
Most secular liberals, for the record, support government benefits and subsidies to keep the elderly alive; they support birth control; they define "life" as a legal status of those who are presently born (i.e. support for abortion, cloning); they oppose the war on drugs.
The result has been a declining population of Western youth, and a strong constituency for a government of benevolent masters. Utopia?
POSTSCRIPT: The idea of linking CAS with the effects of modern liberalism came out of reading a number of articles not normally linked with approval from mainstream bloggers. An exception is Brothers Judd blog, 17 April, 6:52 AM (no more specific link unfortunately), whose comments section inspired me to publish.
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