Thursday, May 20, 2010

A RoboMule for Sister Zhara

Space Westerns.  Many of C. L. Moore's Northwest Smith stories could be seen as Space Westerns.  So could Leigh Brackett's Eric John Stark tales (as corroborated by Trey in the comments below).  The movie Outland was definitely a space western.  If you haven't seen this 1981 classic with Sean Connery, I highly recommend it as a good example of how to do a space western.  You can catch the trailer here:

Lovecraft's In The Walls of Eryx and his collaboration with Zealia Bishop The Mound are both claimed as being space westerns by the folks at spacewesterns dot com.  The idea of a 'space western' sounded peculiar at first, but then I recalled Outland, and was reminded of Serenity/Firefly, and even some episodes of Babylon 5.  So okay, maybe The Mound is some weird sort of proto-Space Western after all.  It's definitely weird.  I've always liked The Mound, despite a few bushel-baskets of flaws and a passel of plot-holes.  The sheer feverish conglomeration of wild ideas and accumulating strangeness makes that story stand head and shoulders over quite a few other HPL-collaborations.  Subterranean worlds that might be otherplanar in nature, Bulwer-Lytton-esque prehistoric societies surviving beneath Oklahoma and getting discovered by Spaniards, nuclear-powered zombies and some of the most atrociously disgusting human-(de)based breeding programs ever committed to paper make this one disturbing and creepy in all the right ways, for Lovecraftian horror.  But until now, I've never considered it as being a space western.

When I first began work on Riskail, I had three primary themes that I wanted to keep in mind as foundations to everything else.  Surrealism was first and foremost.  Ecology was the second.  And no, not the hippy-treehugger nonsense, but real ecology, the kind that Frank Herbert would recognize; more Rachel Carson and less granola.  The third was mythology, the kind of mythology that Joseph Campbell talked about, only moved forward in time and space as part of the human experience out past the boundaries of here and now.  Everything else, all the technology, robots, geneering and gates -- it all is just so much frosting applied to the three layers of Surrealism, Ecology, and Mythology that make up the core layer cake of the setting's foundation. 

I've already posted a bit about Surrealism and the Ecology-aspect of things seems to be coming along nicely, especially as I post the travelguide to Riskail, the Gate Plazas, Moons, and the series of pieces detailing the River Senube and the Sea Gates.  Those are all in-the-works even as you read this.  I expect to be busy posting loads of stuff in the next few weeks.

Surrealism and Ecology are pretty much covered, so that leaves Mythology.  Greek, Roman, Norse and Egyptian mythologies have always been around and available to me for as long as I can remember.  Sumerian, Babylonian, Celtic/Arthurian, and the rich panoply of Buddhist and Hindu/Vedic mythologies have fascinated me since I first discovered them in a section of the school library I was supposedly too young to be checking things out from.  A wonderful English teacher, Mrs. Book (that was really her name!)  came to my rescue as I was arguing (unsuccessfully) with the librarian about checking out a copy of Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur.  She asked me to read from the book, so I did.  The librarian stood there open mouthed in shock.  As far as she was concerned I was way too young to be able to read such a book.  I wasn't.  Mrs. Book nudged her and I got to check out the book.  Later on Mrs. Book introduced me to Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are, which was something that she did not want me to miss or overlook as I insisted on rummaging around in the more grown-up section of the library.  In thinking back to this incident, I was reminded to look outside the comfortable boxed-in parameters that I might be getting used to, or accustomed to, and see what else was laying around.  Two forms of modern mythology that I definitely enjoy are Espionage and Westerns.

Espionage is a lot like politics as applied mythology,  and I will be developing quite a bit of stuff in this area fairly quickly as I detail the Houses, Clans and Factions and go over the timeline, recent history, calendar, the Old Regime and the Eternal Revolution, and so on.  And by the way, Ravishing Virgins is not the only story I have for Bartolomeo Grell, nor the crew of the Smiling Gaijin III.  There will be more espionage-stories set in Riskail in the near future.

So that leaves Westerns.  And Space Westerns.  A circuit clicked into place for me when I started thinking back to one of the earliest exercises I did in order to establish my approach to Riskail.  I wrote down on the top of a piece of paper the words 'What I Want From a Setting' and I didn't care if it was an RPG or a novel or a comic book/graphic novel.  I focused on the setting.  One of the first things I wrote was that I wanted to have a setting where ...the unnamed High Plains Drifter who might or might not be the illegitimate bastard son of the Comte St. Germain and who once rode as Zorro and sailed as Sinbad or Jason (possibly with Oddysseus) could ride into a Noirish-type town from someplace far, far away and face off against mad scientists, vampiric censors and fascist marketers... Not bad.  Gaudy, overwrought and quite a mish-mash, but it served its purpose and got me to working out the details that would support something sort of resembling just such a setting.

Zorro and Sergio Leone 'spaghetti-westerns,' merged into the voyages of Sinbad, Jason and Ulysses were the jumping-off point for the kinds and sorts of characters that would be fun to build and the sorts of exotic locales to explore and grim-and-gritty challenges to be faced.  I'm glad that I drafted that document and looking back on it, I can see a dozen or more things that I have got to get down and posted, including more of the Western-ish stuff, the multi-world-spanning caravans, the voyagers who traverse the treacherous waters of the Sea Gates, the Embodied Principles and outlawed temples, and so on.

Northwest Smith's stories were about emotions and mood more than any plot.  They were exercises in atmosphere and tour de force examples of character-driven story-telling that have more in common with film noir and westerns than with the usual suspects that pass muster as science fiction or even fantasy.  The guy just happens to have a ray gun and just happens to travel from planet to planet.  But really, that could all be dropped, changed or glossed over and it wouldn't matter.  And that got me to thinking about how a richly developed setting can host any number and variety of characters from any sort of background and tell just about any sort of story.  Stripped-down to the bones like the setting in Shambleau, for example, or as elaborately evolved as Tekumel or Talislanta or as complex as ancient China, Egypt or Central America, on the other hand, can accomodate any character, any story, because they either mold themselves to the character (Shambleau) or they swallow the character alive and force them to conform to the setting, one way or another (Tekumel).  In Moore's Northwest Smith tales, she's keeping the setting to a minimum, and allowing the characters to hog the limelight.  With Tekumel, you get a deeply layered setting that you'll never be able to change without destroying it; literally, the very thing that makes it work is the social structure that prevents anyone from tampering with things too much.  You can develop human-Pe Choi hybrids, but the setting includes built-in immune-response structures (Of course, the Pe Choi kill everyone involved in a terrible war, even if you are an emperor, and you will make a deal as every temple, clan and noble has a sword, eye or spell aimed at your head until you restore the peace).  You can go off the deep end, but the setting brings you back to the mainstream.  Balance is restored.  Not quite as jarringly as a typical Star Trek episode where everything gets re-set by the end of the last scene, but it comes close sometimes.  I find that peculiar cultural inertia intriguing.  I'm not sure that Riskail would benefit from such a conservative impulse, but then again there are factions such as the Amortals and Necrosophics who truly do value conservativeness in ways, means and to a depth no one who still draws breath can hope to fathom, so maybe there is some sort of similar or parallel mechanism buried within the Deep Infrastructure to help preserve the setting no matter how badly some group of miscreants player characters try to screw things up.  Maybe.

In film noir, the characters interact however the story winds up going, but in the end they are all changed by the experience, almost always for the worse.  There is a deep-seated pessimism inherent in Noirish narrative that can add some spice to things, so long as it doesn't get overpowering.  There is a definite leavening of the Riskail setting with some vestiges of Noirish-ness, but that is more a function of looking to the Pulps for inspiration than in trying to consciously ape film noir conventions.  Riskail owes more to Casablanca/The Maltese Falcon and Bogart than to Alan Ladd, though there is a definite place for Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet in any of my games.  So the Noir-influence is there, but it's not central, nor is it as essential as the influence of John Wayne movies, Louis Lamour and Zane Grey have been and will continue to be, though it might not have been too overly apparent just yet.

In a Western, the characters interact and most often we get a morality play ruminating on Good, Bad and the general Ugliness that most humans try to avoid facing or owning up to, but is there all along deep inside each and every one of us.  In that regard, the Western has a lot in common with Horror, the other not-quite-white-meat of literature.  Horror is also a morality tale, very often wrapped-up in sexuality.  See all the slasher movies.  Read some Clive Barker.  I'll spare you the discussion of surrealism as a transgressive movement and how transgression is at the very heart of both Westerns (events set in motion by some low down dirty owlhoot's transgressions against the widow markus) and Horror stories (monsters violating victims with machetes, tentacles or Cronenberg-style arm-pit syringes...) and just leave it at this: Film Noir, Westerns, Science Fiction, Sword & Sorcery, (Sword & Planet), Horror and Surrealism all merge comfortably in the literary backwater that is the Pulps, the catch-all genre that used to be called 'weird,' and I rather like how they all mix together like colors on a palette as I paint-in the details of my setting.

Not only is Riskail a Truly Weird setting, there's a healthy dose of the (Space) Western in it as well, and you'll be seeing more of that in the days ahead.  Poe and Lovecraft facing off with six-guns beneath an alien sun over the dubious virtue of a saloon-droid that looks just a little too much like Darryl Hannah in a film noir directed by Salvador Dali or Jodorowsky in collaboration with Sergio Leone.  It does a soul good just thinkin' about it.  I like this Weird Space Western vibe.  I think I'll play with it a bit more before moving on.  You know, there ought to be a Zorro-complex virux out there to infect the aristocracy so that they take up the fight protecting the oppressed urfolk of the perimeter villages...

And now for a little bit of Space Western Theme Music for you:


  1. Oh man, the drug-induced epiphanies I had about the links between Spaghetti Westerns and Zombie Flicks years ago in another life...

    Nevermind the Conan/Western thing.

  2. Cool article. Moore is the creator of Northwest Smith, though, not Brackett (you got it right later on in the piece, so just a mistype at the start). Brackett's Eric John Stark has a Spaghetti Western, vibe.

    I'm surprised you don't mention El Topo. Jodorowsky might be able to handle the Spaghetti Western bit without Leone's help. ;)

  3. Yo Blair; Zombie Westerns are cool. Deadlands was one of those RPGs that I always wanted to play, but could never find a group into it. As for Conan, yep, Howard's glorious bastard kicks tail in the Wild West or even in the Far East. You just can't keep a good barbarian down. Not for long. Especially if they regenerate or are a zombie with six-guns.

  4. Trey: You are right. I edited-out the Leigh Brackett references (Eric John Stark) and missed the mention in the front. It'll get fixed ASAP. Thanks for pointing that out. Yikes. I do not want to get C. L. Moore cranky with me.

    I thought about mentioning El Topo, especially as it is about as Surrealist as you can get...but I have not been able to see the whole thing yet. Just bits and pieces. But you are correct, Jodorowsky could pull off a western all on his own, definitely, but if he was collaborating with Leone it would go in a different direction and that alone could make it worth the trouble. I'm going to see if I can track down El Topo out on the could serve as the seed kernel to a whole post in and of itself. Again, thanks for the comments and input. Loads more on the way...


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