Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Making Planetary Romance Work

I'm meandering through Lin Carter's Sky Pirates of Callisto, and I am struck with Carter's attempt to slavishly emulate Burroughs' style and storytelling structure. While he certainly does so without the sly winks and sloppy stylings of Micheal Moorcock's Mars novels, Carter's Jandar novel seems to eaily and unquestioningly latch onto some of the more annoying elements of Burroughs' Mars novels. In particular, Carter's Jandar is a bigger lunkhead than John Carter himself. And a bit of a smug ass, too.

Maybe I read the Barsoom novels with a bit of bias after having read them since childhood, but despite his general bone-headedness, John Carter comes across as charismatic, and Burroughs' archaic writing seems flavorful and strongly evocative. I think Burroughs stands the test of time.

Lin Carter's hero is less charming, his romantic interests unconvincing, and the writing through which we get to know him is workmanlike. While Sky Pirates is an entertaining read, the level of suspension of disbelief for the heroes' general stupidity is too much to bear. And Carter's writing style just seems too much like Carter fanfic.

I take this as a cautionary tale. Too much slavish emulation of a genre staple is bad. Heck, worse than being bad, it's dull. If a thing comes across as a simple pastiche without its own spark of life, it begins to seem forced, and just meanders about without its own direction.

The good thing about approaching planetary romance as a role-playing game rather than a literary venture is that a large chunk of the role-playing experience comes from a source outside of the Referee. While I may sow the seeds of the experience, it's the players who breathe life into the game. I need to set up some flavor and mood, but in the main I'm looking to the players to give this its own life and keep it from falling into the trap of boring pastiche.