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May 30, 2004

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Conan...and the Problem with Fan Fiction

The Chinese, so I have heard, have a saying.  A curse actually.  It goes: "May you live in interesting times."  This is a curse remember.  A bad thing.  Somewhat like, "May your crops wither and your nose hairs flourish."  Which isn't a Chinese curse.  So far as I know.

We'll get back to that in a moment.

I recently bought a copy of the Ace Conan book, Conan the Avenger.  This was number eight in the series of Conan books published in the 1960s, edited by L. Sprague de Camp, which put Conan, and his creator, Robert E. Howard, on the pop cultural map.  Sure, the Marvel comics helped as did Arnold's big screen portrayal, but there's no other way to put it.  Those books made Conan the failed television series he is today.

As a kid, I collected several of those Ace Conan books, but not Conan the Avenger.  I was only interested in the original Conan stories written by Robert E. Howard and, though Howard's original twenty one stories were sprinkled throughout the collection, Conan the Avenger was a new novel written by L. Sprague de Camp and someone named Bjorn Nyberg.  So I gave it a pass.  Recently though, I have begun to have a change of heart.  Now that the original stories are readily available both in Orion's The Conan Chronicles vol I & II, and Del Rey's The Coming of Conan The Cimmerian vol. I (and up-coming vol.s II and III), I find myself making my peace with Mr. de Camp for his hubris in editing some of the original stories, and for mixing his pastiches in with the REAL STUFF.  I've decided to complete my collection of the Ace books and I may even try reading some of the stories written by Lin Carter and de Camp.

With that goal in mind, I entered the ebay arena, opened up a can o' whoopass, and came away with a slightly used copy of Conan the Avenger.  Only then did I discover what I had bought.  Conan the Avenger, you see, is actually an alternative title for the novel The Return of Conan.  And The Return of Conan, as the introduction explains, was a Conan pastiche written by a fellow named Bjorn Nyberg in the late 1950s, and spruced up by L. Sprague de Camp.  But it isn't just any old pastiche.  No, sirree.  It, Faithful Fiends, is THE pastiche.  The original Conan pastiche.

Allow me to elucidate.

Throughout most of my life, there have always been Conan novels in the bookstores.  But not the original books by Howard.  Instead, these are penned by the likes of Andrew J. Offutt, Poul Anderson, Robert Jordan and Steve Perry (and, recently, by Harry Turtledove, if you can believe it).  But all those books came after Nyberg's The Return of Conan.  He was the one who started it all.

From time to time, I have weakened and picked up one of those later Conan books and so far I have never found one that didn't bore me out of my gourd.  Obviously, someone must like them, because they keep on a-comin', but I just find them too... damn... SLOW!  (I would also point out that Howard did not give his blessing to these later writers, nor did he give his permission for them to use Conan, since he had, after all, died back in 1936.  I mention this because I have seen at least one website which claimed he did.  Not true.  Like it or not, we'll never know what Howard would have thought of these followers-in-his-footsteps.)  These later Conan novels are called "pastiches" because they use the characters and reality created by Howard, but aren't actually written by him.  They are, therefore, basically the same animal as The Return of Conan (aka Conan the Avenger)...except for one difference.

When a fellow named Bjorn Nyberg sat down to write The Return of Conan (in a foreign language, by the way -- he lived in Sweden), he wasn't a writer for hire.  He wasn't contributing to an on-going series like Jordan and friends.  He had no reason to expect anyone would publish his pastiche.  For all he knew, outside of a few close vänner, no one would ever read it.  He wasn't writing for the money and he had no previous examples to follow.  He was on his own.  More importantly, he wrote The Return of Conan because he wanted to play in Howard's sandbox.

In other words, he was writing "fan fiction".

Up to that time in the late 1950s, even the short Conan stories written by de Camp and Lin Carter were still in the future.  But Nyberg had enough confidence in his novel that he sent it to the publishers, who liked it enough to ask L. Sprague de Camp to fix it up. 

All this has special interest for me because, when I was a teenager, I tried to write a Star Trek novel.  I had high hopes for that novel, and I was damn proud of it too.  At that time, the first of the Pocket Books' Star Trek novels had just begun to appear.  You could still count the number of contributing authors on the fingers of one hand...well, two hands, maybe.  Sadly though, I never managed to submit it to Pocket Books, namely because I couldn't figure out how to find an agent.  (One agent I tried jerked me around for three years, then unceremoniously dropped me.  Believe what they say.  Always get a contract!)  The point is, I know how it feels to want to play in somebody else's sandbox.  And reading The Return of Conan, I could see all those same feelings and desires expressed by Nyberg.

When you play in somebody else's sandbox, you find yourself pulled in two opposing directions.  On the one hand, you just want to create "more of the same".  On the other hand, you want to leave your own mark.  You want to take the sandbox in directions which the original author never did, but which you think he ought to have.  These are two completely opposite goals.

So, what did I think of The Return of Conan?  Mixed feelings actually.  The use of language was pretty good.  Very colourful and florid, but not so much so that it becomes intrusive.  I never once felt Nyberg (or de Camp) was showing off. 

The story, though, that was another matter.  The Return of Conan begins with Conan late in life, king of Aquilonia, as he was in The Hour of the Dragon.  In fact, the story takes place shortly after The Hour of the Dragon and Conan has made good on his promise made at the end of that earlier tale and married the lovely Zenobia.  But now, during a gala ball, a big, dark, winged whosis swoops down out of the sky and kidnaps poor Zenobia (right off the balcony, the rotter!).  Before you can say Burroughs-rip-off, Conan sets out to rescue her and the rest of the novel becomes a series of adventures which he encounters along the way.

In a sense, then, it is similar to The Hour of the Dragon which featured Conan tracking down a magic jewel, encountering a series of adventures along that journey.  So, there's nothing inherently wrong with the set-up.  In the execution though...

Even an episodic storyline like this must follow the basic rules of drama.  We have to believe in the hero's actions.  The problem with this story is that, once Conan sets out on his mission to rescue Zenobia, he seems to forget about her entirely.  He becomes side tracked by other concerns, not the least of which is...a tasty little tomato named Yasmina.  Yes, that's right -- the same Yasmina who made such a good impression in what is often counted as one of the best Conan stories, "The People of the Black Circle".  So, sure, we can understand how Conan might be tempted to dally a night in her boudoir after a long day sword-quenching.  The problem is, the whole motivation for this journey is his supposed love for the kidnapped Zenobia.  Maybe you're thinking: Sure, but Conan is a friendly guy.  He can handle more than one woman at a time.  And maybe he could have -- in the old days. But the introduction to this novel informs us that Conan has mellowed with the years, and, before marrying Zenobia, he dismissed the entire Royal seraglio.  Like it or not, this is supposed to be a one woman Conan.  To use his love for Zenobia as the central motivation, then to discard that motivation whenever it suits the authors simply doesn't work -- at least, not for me it doesn't.

Nonetheless, I still found The Return of Conan more readable than the other Conan pastiches I've read. I enjoyed reading The Return of Conan because I knew it was the original pastiche, made for no other reason than because Nyberg wanted to play in Howard's sandbox.  Reading it, I could feel the love and pleasure that went into its creation.  The use of Yasmina, for example.  Criticize that as I may, I know why Nyberg did it.  He did it because, when he finished reading Howard's "The People of the Black Circle" in which she originally appeared, he thought to himself: Gee, I'd like to see more of her.  Maybe he even thought, Why couldn't Conan have spent a night with her?  And so, motivation be damned, he put her in his novel.  Maybe it was a mistake, but it was done with good intentions.

I said before that writers of fan fiction also find themselves altering the sandbox in ways that the original author never did, but which they think he should have.  So, I was interested to discover that The Return of Conan is where Conan first exhibits his "Cimmerian battle cry".  Howard never refered to such a thing and I think it's pretty obvious Nyberg was influenced by Tarzan's "victory cry of the bull ape".  I find it a little silly, but the fans must have liked it because it crops up repeatedly in the later pastiches.

One mistake which I think Nyberg avoids is the tendency shown by authors of both fan fiction and pastiches to write from the reader's point-of-view rather than the hero's point-of-view.   What I mean is -- we all know that as readers we enjoy a good adventure story because the hero goes through all manner of exciting scraps, escaping cliff-hangers, rescuing his true love, and so on.  We want the excitement and thrill of danger.  As a result, though, too many pastiche and fan fiction writers attribute the same love of danger to the hero.  For example, a Star Trek novel may begin with Captain Kirk sitting on the bridge of the Enterprise contemplating how terribly bored he is simply delivering life saving anti-toxin to some planet in the hind end of nowhere -- how he wishes something exciting would happen to relieve the boredom.  An attack by Klingons would be just the ticket.  And, oh look, here they are now...

To me, that is the height of absurdity.  It robs the hero's motivation of any claim to plausibiltiy and, in a fantasy context, plausibility is essential.  When the hero craves excitement...the author is really writing from the reader's point-of-view.  From the hero's point-of-view, things look a lot different.  Think about it.  In real life, would anyone want their true love to be kidnapped by a madman bent on rape and murder?  Would anyone want to find themselves caught in fiendish traps with a very real possibility that they wouldn't escape alive?  Would Captain Kirk want excitement knowing some poor red shirt will probably be flash-fried before it's over?  I think we would all just as soon pass, thanks very much. 

Recently I was reading a novel by Otis Adelbert Kline called Planet of Peril.  Kline was famous as the only pulp author to write Edgar Rice Burroughs imitations which were nearly as good as Burroughs' own.  (He was also Robert E. Howard's agent.  Just thought I'd mention it.)  In the beginning of Planet of Peril the hero is offered the chance to teleport to Venus by exchanging consciousness with a Venusian.  With boyish enthusiasm he accepts.  But here is how the scientist describes the Venusian with which the hero will exchange consciousnesses: "your physical counterpart is a gentleman who has been enslaved by an Amazon ruler -- a princess with no thought save of her own pleasure.  He finds it impossible to escape from bondage, and is therefore willing to make the exchange." 

Yikes!  Honestly, I know that description promises loads of lascivious thrills, but surely any real person would run screaming rather than trade places with a slave to some nutty Amazon dominatrix.  The Venusian slave was so desperate to escape he was willing to trade consciousnesses with an Earth man.  Shouldn't the hero have taken that as a clue? 

Burroughs rarely made that mistake.  No matter how exciting were his stories, they usually began with John Carter of Mars (or whomever) assuring the reader that, had he known what was to come, he would never have embarked upon the journey about which you are about to read, blah, blah, blah...

This point is neatly illustrated by the Chinese curse with which I began this editorial.  "May you live in interesting times."  (See how I bring it all around?  And you thought I was just a pretty face.)  Interesting times are fun to read about, but they are not so fun to experience in person.  One man's "interesting" is another man's Alien: Resurrection (ie. an unpleasant experience best done without).  Remember that the next time you are writing an adventure story.  Or the next time you are offered the chance to trade places with the slave of a Venusian Amazon dominatrix.

Although it probably wouldn't hurt to get her number.  Just in case.

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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