Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Great OSR Novel?

There is no earthly reason why a great fantasy novel couldn't be written about dungeoneering. I picture it as being not so much character-driven as an extended depiction of a place: something like a fantasy version of Manhattan Transfer in which the main character is itself the dungeon, and its true nature and extent is gradually revealed as groups of adventurers encounter it, explore it, and expire - or successfully (or unsuccessfully) retire. 

It would also be more entertaining than Manhattan Transfer, which I think would have been markedly improved if there had been orcs in it.

I want this book to exist, and I want Gene Wolfe to have written it; the other option is Jack Vance, which would produce a decidedly different but also, the more I think about it, in some ways not-so-different text. A kind of picaresque, but a picaresque of location: it's not a story about the adventures of a rogue living off his wits in a series of bizarre encounters, but rather a story about a place in which adventurous rogues have bizarre encounters which kill them or make them rich. Each chapter is devoted to the career of a group of comrades in a different portion of the dungeon; they come and go, but in the end only the dungeon and its inhabitants remains. The reader has followed a narrative arc, not towards the climax of a plot, but towards knowing the fictional creation in intimate detail.  

(Gormenghast may in fact be a better exemplar.)

32 comments:

  1. I've heard good things about Aku Aku by Thor Heyerdahl. But that's like non-fiction exploring caves and then Easter Island.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aku-Aku

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  2. Gormenghast is a good reference point insofar as the place is as much of a character as the people are, but it's still the same collection of people from the beginning of the first novel to the end of the last. Steerpike and Titus have character arcs of the same length as that of Gormenghast itself.

    Surely there's a better example, if not in literature then in film or television. A haunted house story, maybe? With multiple waves of inhabitants/victims? Surely this has been done with films or film franchises, if only in the form of a prologue that ends with the grisly death of the first wave of explorers (to be exhumed later by the protagonists in the main story).

    There are also surely films and/or novels about locations in the wilderness -- lost cities, remote islands, and so on -- that feature the survivor of an earlier expedition providing exposition for the benefit of Our Heroes as they set off to plunder the mysterious, rumor-shrouded locale.

    In the action/adventure context, these stories always end with the mysteries of the location solved and its dangers defeated. In the horror context, however, the main story is just as likely to end with the house keeping its secrets and its ghosts intact, and Our Heroes being consigned to death or insanity. That seems to me that it would fit the bill. Now if only I could think of a good single example where the House itself is understood by the end of the story to be the main character...

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  3. Doubtless something else will occur to me later, but it did occur to me that elements of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps.

    Really. In much of the book (adaptations are a different question), Richard Hannay is alone, with any allies very distant. His enemies are hunting after him; he is in a semi-wilderness (the Highlands of Scotlands). The lone hero means you have something of a concentration on action; in terms of stealth or violence or subterfuge as necessary. Dialogue takes a back step (for better or worse); character comes through in a different fashion.

    See also Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male.

    The interlinked stories of Vance's Dying Earth (specifically, that initial collection called The Dying Earth) may be another good model. Of course, an entire world has more diversity of character than one dungeon.

    [Incidentally, the first Chapter of The Thirty-Nine Steps is 'The Man who Died'. The first Chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is 'The Boy who Lived'.

    Coincidence?!]

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    1. Pardon me; that is to say that elements of Buchan might be interesting to consider.

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    2. Dumfries and Galloway Tourist Board would like to point out that the Thirty Nine Steps was set in their wilderness, not The Highlands.

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    3. I should like to apologise to the Dumfries and Galloway Tourist Board and thank them also for The Five Red Herrings.

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    4. *Sigh*. Ms. Rowling has so much to answer for. The south-west is still as wild and beautiful as it was in Buchan’s day. Sadly the train service is not a patch on that immortalised by Dorothy L. Sayers. If one was looking for a great dungeon of place novel set in The Highlands it would be The New Road by Neil Munro, published a year before The Thirty Nine steps. The eponymous road defines the quest structure for the party. Probably best played using The One Ring.

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    5. My recollections of Kirkcudbrightshire tally with that most neatly.

      Tangentially, Buchan wrote a short story about the Border Reivers; 'The Riding of Ninemileburn'.

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    6. I think we are moving towards the conclusion that the great OSR dungeon of place novels our host sought do exist, just not within the narrow confines of genre. Post-1977 fantasy genre coventions mean that the genre novel he seeks can now never be written. Personally, I would argue that OSR is a short-story phenomenon in any case.

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    7. I take that point, but I think actually we may now just be in the right era for it to be written - but probably through self-publishing on Amazon or whatever rather than a conventional publisher.

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    8. Having re-read Rogue Male on account of this post today, I am in agreement with your point on genre conventions. The mechanical or procedural component of a certain type of thriller would be a useful element in writing the OSR novel, given its roots in gameplay.

      John Buchan and Geoffrey Household are probably better sources for this than, say Forsyth's Day of the Jackal or Clancy's Hunt for Red October due to both setting and scale.

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  4. This sounds like a good idea but I wonder why few if any writers make place paramount. Two kinds of writing occur to me with a similar precedence of environment over character: Gibbon's parade of Roman Emperors is dizzying when each one might be the subject of a novel or play (I Claudius), and so the place seems to channel the characters through an assassins' funfair and carry on. Then there is apocalyptic fiction, Day of the Triffids and the even better The Death of Grass. These IMO inspired Romero and what came after. The environment strangles characters and compels them to strangle each other, the author distances himself as scientist performing a thought experiment.

    A problem is that within a D&D Dungeon, under a harsh DM, at least each player is concerned for his own character. No one else is though. Who cares to listen to another player recounting his escapades. Unfascinating. Im only pointing out that the excitement of the dungeoneer doesn't broadcast even if each player is having a great time. Then again maybe the 'character' could come from the dark side, the Balrog and the Orc who bested Boromir and Aragorn, they have character, what were they thinking as the party came through? The monsters of The Night Land have more character than the humans. I am assuming that character, a history of thought and action in one being, is important for readers of fiction but admit it can be worked around in the historical or documentary styles.

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    1. You would do a good job. You have all the knowledge you need, your prose is strong, and you have a great sense of setting-as-character.

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    2. Scott, are you Kent in disguise?

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    3. No, and he hates me because I made a bad mistake and insulted him. But I really do think he would be a great candidate to write such a novel.

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  5. I'd like Michael Cisco to write it. Or M. John Harrison.

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  6. Red Harvest. Adventure in cursed city. Geas confines protagonists to urban mega-dungeon. Quest-giving patrons. Great dungeon factions. Intra-party conflict. Extensive tactical combat. Pulp author. Japanese spin-off franchise. Vile misogyny. Undoubted masterpiece of twentieth century American literature.

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  7. Would an OSR novel necessarily be set in fantasy-medieval Northwest Europe? I would love to see a Greek megadungeon delve with all the attendant mythology. I think it would have great crossover appeal. Harryhausen meets Correia.

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    1. I increasingly think the ancient world in general is a better model for D&D.

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    2. D&D works in a number of settings. Antiquity is a good one, but maybe not the height of Rome.

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    3. Oh yes, it'd be amazing. Also, I wish I was running more Mazes & Minotaurs...

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  8. This is actually a relatively new genre of fiction called Dungeon Core. It's a sub-genre of LitRPG, so most examples have lots of video-game style leveling. Some of my favorites are the Divine Dungeon series, Living Dungeon, & Dungeon Crisis.

    Cheers!

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    1. I had never even heard of LitRPG. Are these actual published novels or more like fanfic type things?

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    2. Yeah they are actual published novels. It's a genre that wouldn't exist without kindle self-publishing though, so editing & quality varies. Also it originated in Russia so there is a bit of a cultural barrier at times. Basically the whole premise is the main character spends the majority of their time playing a full-immersion virtual reality mmorpg. Most stories read like high-fantasy with a pedantic emphasis on stats, levels, quest rewards, etc.
      Dungeon Core kinda grew out that with the heavy numbers systems... the character is a dungeon who has to create loot & monsters to attract adventurers to gain exp, which is used to grow the dungeon and get access to better materials.
      Both genres are relatively new, but entertaining to a math & video game nerd like myself :)

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    3. Somebody should write one about *hack or *band roguelikes (if they haven't already).

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  9. Hmm, that would be interesting. If I ever have the time to accept this challenge, I will.

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  10. Clark Ashton Smith should have written this.

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  11. It's not exactly a dungeon but The Black Company books read like an RPG campaign. The stories are shaggy and seem to written in stream of conscious - they do get somewhere but it's not a very direct or "plotted" sort of road.

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  12. The Barrow by Mark Smylie is a novel whose prologue is basically a short dungeon crawl with all the quick mistakes=quick deaths of the OSR milieu. But it more explores the idea of characters and culture as the real dungeon than what you're proposing.

    The rest of the book is a sort of quest to the dungeon while being pursued and having minor encounters on the way kind of deal that exists in a very detailed setting. So detailed it in fact has its own table top system and setting book (Though both are difficult to find now) and the novel and the game are tie-ins for one of the best (Unfinished) comic series I have ever read. The name of the series is Artesia and though the art in the first few issues is a little rough (and there is a stylistic tendency for sameface) when you realize it is all hand drawn and water coloured the detail in the later volumes is stunning.
    Though I would warn any who read either, both are violent and very sexually explicit. In fact part of the themes explored in the novel is the idea of really digging into a restrictive patriarchal low fantasy setting and how that affects everyone's mentality and often its very rigidness leads it to greater explorations of depravity than if it were more flexible, among many other things. But yeah if you don't want to read about sex stuff this may not be the thing. Another interesting concept the author was exploring was taboo as horror and how that is one of the few areas that still make people squirm, while many are inured to the more common horror elements. This guy has one of the most intricate and living breathing settings I've explored though and I've stolen so much from him I really just want to throw his stuff more attention.

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    1. I have heard of Artesia. I just googled the book and the editions I've seen have very unfortunate covers that make it look like one of those soft-core "dark fantasy" Twilight ripoffs you see in bookshops. I'll trust you that it isn't like that!

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    2. @noisms

      I never got around to reading the third volume of Artesia, but I did read the first two and I wouldn't characterize them as softcore dark fantasy. If I had to oversimplify, I might say something like lo-fi feminist Berserk (if that helps).

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