May 30, 2004
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.
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.
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,
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
Howard. Instead, these are penned by the likes of Andrew J.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
nothing inherently wrong with the set-up. In the execution
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
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
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
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
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
Jeffrey Blair Latta,
and Supreme Plasmate
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