Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Swords of Mars: Burroughs and Brackett

The two biggest influences in my approach to Mars are Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett. Burroughs introduces many of the Sword-and-Planet tropes that define the genre and shape my world design, and Brackett's Stark stories add the twists to style and method that really infuse some flavor and create interest with staying power.

The thing that is fascinating to me about this is that I find their works very much in opposition to my own views of the world. But I love their work, and I love the fictional worlds they create. As someone whose political sensibilities began shifting very leftward from early adolescence (despite being rather immersed in comics, science fiction and fantasy stories that tended to point toward a world of rugged individualism, evil government, and love for the military-industrial complex), I would guess that many of the people I have known through the years would be surprised at my love of either of these authors.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Burroughs is perhaps the harder one to reconcile with politics. The structure of his Barsoom novels mirrors colonial adventure stories of exotic lands, noble savages, and superior White men who learn freedom from the exotic foreign lands and show them how to live to their potential. Carter is a Southern Gentleman, a confederate officer of means and lineage whose sense of genteel honor is part of why he can appreciate life in a warrior society. He finds himself an exotic red woman, he becomes a conquering warlord, and only he can typically save the day. To be certain, Burroughs has more depth to his world, and more than a little wicked parody built into his treatment of religion, for sure. And his work is certainly more of the borrowing of a colonial discourse for entertainment purposes than the development of a sort of propoganda supporting the colonial project. But at its heart, this is a story of an indigenous people being saved by the Great White Hope who borrows from them enough culture to become free from the constraints of civilization while becoming the Great Civilizer.

I don't know much of Burroughs' real-life politics. I do know of his time in the army in Apache territory, and how he writes about Apaches in A Princess of Mars, and how he depicts other cultures in Tarzan. To today's sensibilities, that might make him seem racist or deeply conservative, but I suspect that this would be a poor description, and entirely anachronistic. But I think we would have very different views on indigenous peoples, and on the world in general.

All that said, what captured me as a child was a world that is strange, yet familiar, filled with characters I loved, where honor and romance matter, and where adventure is everywhere.

Leigh Brackett

I only discovered Brackett recently. Her Eric John Stark stories and novels, published from 1949 through the early 1970s, present a hero who is equal parts Tarzan, hardboiled detective, and John Carter. From what I know of her, Brackett's personal politics were conservative along the lines of mid-century individualists. Individual freedom and responsibility, limited government, and hardy self-reliance are part of what makes Stark such a badass, but her stories are more complex in their approach.

Stark, for instance, is on the side of the indigenous people, and often against the interests of colonizers from Earth— running guns to alien worlds, fighting alongside the aliens to protect their freedom from outside governments, and the like. Brackett isn't necessarily on the side of industrialists and corporate heads like Ayn Rand, nor does she endorse wealth and power, which she seems to distrust as much as government.

And government is something she attacks vehemently (along with hippies) in her Skaith trilogy. But her critiques of the oppressive power of big government often come with the acknowledgement of its well-being, whether it is in the form of good cop Simon Aston, acknowledging the good intent of the original governmental plans of Skaith's out of control welfare state, or presenting the dutiful and well-meaning haughtiness of the more noble Wandsmen. But in the end, she presents Stark as willing to bring everything crashing down to do what he knows is right, and damn the consequences.

But in the heart of all this is a world background that is rife with interest — conflicts between city-dwellers and fractious barbarian tribes, scheming colonists, complex moral gray areas, and a conflicts between the indigenous peoples and colonizers. All of this creates a living world filled with lots of shadows where scoundrels — both noble and ignoble — can thrive and adventure.

Conclusion

Of course, it's hard to imagine playing a role-playing where things I value — building deep relationships, avoiding violence, showing kindness, trying to effect change on an individual and institutional level — would really work. And I don't see role-playing games as actually being some sort of cultural or political work. They're recreation based on adventure fiction, and part of choosing to engage in that kind of recreation is accepting the tropes and methods of the fiction, film, and art that inspire such work. How your players react to that setting, how they subvert, embrace, or resist the forces at play in your world aren't even really in your power. The fun comes in watching what comes once other people enter the crazy quilt of setting and situation that you set up anyway, so being obsessed about what messages your game gives off seem misguided at best.