The Setting is Wrong

January 23, 2013

Do you ever feel like there’s something wrong with the setting of a story? Sometimes, when I’m reading a piece of fiction from a series I’m already familiar with, I’m brought up short by a feeling of incongruity. I get a sense that this narrative doesn’t fit with the established milieu. This effect can occur for a couple different reasons, two of which I want to illustrate with specific example.

The first example is the “Conan” story “The Blood-Stained God,” (almost full text available here, although the file is a mess). When I first read this story, I was struck by something. The descriptions of equipment, garb, and buildings seemed quite different from what I had previously seen in other Conan tales. To me, the story evoked an impression of Persia or Afghanistan, not the fictional Hyborean age. The vests are silken; the hats are turbans; the swords are scimitars. Men are described as “Iranistani” and wear cloaks of camel hair. It just didn’t fit. This nagged at me for a while, but I eventually attributed it to an attempt by Howard to place Conan in a more distant, more Asian-inspired part of his fantasy world. I got to the end of the story, was unimpressed, and moved on.

I was young when I read this and new to Conan. I had not yet adopted the strategy of ignoring the stories that weren’t penned solely by Robert E. Howard. I was simply reading the stories in the order they were presented, which was intended to be chronological. “The Blood-Stained God” was listed as being written by Howard and de Camp; later, seeing that byline would be a tip-off to skip past, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. I didn’t think much about the story at all, in fact. I just moved on after the ho-hum ending.

Only later did I discover the true nature of “The Blood-Stained God.” L. Sprague de Camp had been responsible for editing a great deal of Howard’s fiction, something he was quite boastful about, which is ironic considering what it contributed to his reputation. When he stuck to his own fiction, de Camp was a decent, although not really impressive, fantasy author, but he was a lousy editor for Howard’s work. The tale of his editing is given by The Barbarian Keep site. In this case, de Camp took a story that Howard wrote but which had naught to do with Conan and slapped the barbarian’s name onto it. The setting reminded me of modern Afghanistan because it was modern Afghanistan. The story’s lone fantasy element, which seemed artificially tacked-on at the end, seemed that way because it was just tacked onto the end of Howard’s story. De Camp justified this by claiming that Howard’s heroes were all pretty much alike—men of action, resorting to violence whenever they were in a fix. He argued that this made the stories relatively timeless, so it was no matter to change a lesser-known hero into the more famous Conan—although he did usually feel obligated to add some fantastical elements as well, to keep with the general tone of Conan stories. And some people are obviously happy with this approach. There are reviews of this story online, written by people who know the history, that praise the universality of Howard’s writing for being transferable thousands of years in time and thousands of miles in space without making the story less enjoyable. I think this just shows these commentators have tin ears, since the setting was so jarring to me when I first read it.

There are many other stories that were mutilated in various ways by de Camp’s ham-handed editing. Sometimes he merely made unnecessary changes to the verbiage, to suit his personal preference. That is somewhat obnoxious, but hardly ruinous. In other tales, the edits are painful and obvious. There are segments that were obviously composed in order to fit the stories better into de Camp’s and Lin Carter’s preferred view of Conan’s world and history. There is an execrable section, in which the hero plots the conquest of Aquilonia, added near at the end of “The Black Stranger.” There is the recasting the Hyrkanian peoples as proto-Mongols. These grate on me when I read them, and they just cry out to me that they are wrong.

While in the first example, the incongruity is a result of a later editor trying to cram a story into a setting where it doesn’t belong, this can also occur where only a single hand is involved. This is the case in my second example, Fred Saberhagen’s novel Berserker Fury. I don’t know how many of my readers have read this. It was written quite late in Saberhagen’s career; it’s one the last books he wrote about the city-sized, life-eradicating robot-ships called Berserkers that plague his vision of the future.

The core of Berserker Fury is a fictionalized version of the Battle of Midway, one of the most important naval engagements in history. Saberhagen had done similar things before, most notably in “Stone Place,” which is based on the Battle of Lepanto. However, the strength of “Stone Place” comes from the way Saberhagen produced alternate versions of the Lepanto’s most famous participants, the commander John of Austria and Miguel de Cervantes, along with the feuding between Venusian Venetians and the other members of the human alliance.

Reading Berserker Fury, I didn’t realize that the story duplicated Midway’s (although I am quite familiar with the facts surrounding the real battle). What I did notice was that all the military matters seemed totally wrong for the story. In “Stone Place,” the Berserker fleet is defeated by ramming and boarding tactics, mirroring the use of war galleys at Lepanto. Hundreds or thousands of years have passed by the time of Berserker Fury, but the elements of code breaking and carrier-based fighter wings just didn’t seem to fit. The story didn’t feel like it was describing a space battle; it felt like twentieth-century warfare at sea. This really took me out of the story.

In addition, the book has other problems. The action skips around a lot, both in position and time, making the thrust of the story hard to follow. A lot of time is spent on a subplot involving Berserker worshippers, but these worshippers are not the insane death-seekers of “In the Temple of Mars” or the tyrannical Norse cultists from Berserker’s Planet. They’re more like peace-loving flower children, who seem totally out of place, both for the time the story was written and the time it takes place. In fact, the whole book feels like a temporal mish-mosh, with Templars singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Saberhagen goes so far as to integrate some of his non-Berserker science fiction into his Berserker universe; this was a setup for his subsequent crossover novel between the Berserkers and The Veils of Azlaroc, Berserker Prime.


5 Responses to “The Setting is Wrong”

  1. This struck me as overly picky, and I couldn’t figure out what the second of the “couple different reasons” was supposed to be.

    I agree that setting can be really annoying if done badly, though.

  2. Buzz Says:

    The first reason was found in the Conan story: A story from another setting had been haphazardly rewritten to attempt to fit it into the Hyborian age. The second reason applied to Berserker Fury: The author took the facts of a real-world military engagement and tried to fit them into a different setting. The result was a tale that felt like a description of a sea battle, not a space battle.

    In both cases, the incongruity nagged at me while I was reading the story. Later, when I learned more about they way each of them was composed, the problems I had felt with the settings made perfect sense.

  3. This post seems a bit small-bore compared to your others, doesn’t it? A rewritten legacy Howard work doesn’t match up to Howard’s actual stories, and one of Saberhagen’s later Berserker–based-on-history misjudged the extent to which the formula of ‘The Stone Place’ could be repeated. Neither is surprising–it was a pretty fortuitous (and creative) thing that Saberhagen was able to bring together the epic cycle surrounding ‘The Stone Place,’ ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and ‘The Face of the Deep’ in the first place. So, ah, well, Midway transferred into space battle against Doomsday machines doesn’t quite work the same way. Oh, well.

    • Buzz Says:

      You’re right about this post being more modest in scope. This will probably be my pattern for mid-week posts while I’m doing more detailed discussions of Empire of the East on Sundays. In fact, I just today posted another short commentary about a situation that sort of the reverse of what was discussed here.

      Since you mentioned Saberhagen’s epic cycle among the early Berserker stories, I wanted to add a few comments. I see that cycle as definitely stretching through “Goodlife,” “Stone Place,” “Masque of the Red Shift,” “In the Temple of Mars,” and “Face of the Deep.” The first one (only the second piece of Berserker fiction written) introduces the character of Hemphill, who is, in my opinion, the most important of the recurring protagonists; and I think “In the Temple of Mars” is a significantly better story than “Masque of the Red Shift” (one can compare them at this site).

      I think one of the things that makes “Stone Place” highly successful is the use of ramming and boarding tactics, which makes what could have been a rather conventional and sterile space battle scenario into something much more personal, involving close-quarters combat. This fits with the analogy to galley fighting in the Mediterranean (while the fighter combat in Berserker Fury is much less evocative), but it also ties into facts established in earlier stories. All the way back in the first Berserker story, “Without a Thought,” it was seen that the Berserker’s used a random number generator to make their tactics unpredictable. (While it’s not without some problems, this scenario makes more sense than plots based on some other notions, like Asimov’s in the Foundation novels, about what could reasonably be predicted with futuristic computers.) Saberhagen thought that this would require a radioactively decaying isotope (which would work for this purpose, and was certainly an evocative image in the atomic age), although by the time the story was released in 1963, the RAND corporation’s table of random numbers, which was generated using much less exotic forms of quantum noise, was already at least eight years old. However, once the existence of the random number generator and its crucial importance to a death-machine’s tactics was established, the stories developed in a very logical way. Hemphill’s adventures inside a Berserker in “Goodlife” led naturally to the ramming tactics used at “Stone Place”—the goal of the boarding parties being to disable the randomization going on in the strategic housing. So the battle tactics from Lepanto were worked very logically into the setting that Saberhagen was building up, and this is one of the story’s great strengths, I believe.

  4. […] I was trying to get at in my recent post, “The Setting is Wrong,” is that well-developed fictional settings have an internal logic to them, and when a story […]

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