Thursday, September 1, 2011

Howard Waldrop: My GM's Library

 The Set Up Tangent
 I was aware of Howard Waldrop before I was aware of Howard Waldrop. In grade school I recall looking over the shelves of the bookstore we went to and seeing The Texas-Israeli War. It looked like strange book and at that age, I really didn't get it. But I always looked at it and remembered the weird title. Then in high school, I bought most of the new Ace Science Fiction Special series, edited by Terry Carr. That included Gibson's Neuromancer, Robinson's The Wild Shore, Scholz & Harcourt's Palimpsests and Shepard's Green Eyes. But the one I read a couple of time, simply because I couldn't wrap my head around it, was Waldrop's Them Bones. It completely threw me, something so different from what I was reading at the time (PK Dick, Tanith Lee, Harlan Ellison, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Piers Anthony, and so on). Stupidly I never thought to follow up on that book. It didn't even register to me that Waldrop wrote the set up story to the Wild Cards universe, "Thirty Minutes Over Broadway!", even though I read that a couple of years later.

It actually took a strange link up of events to get me to finally focus in and catch what was going on. In 1989/90 I did my junior year of college abroad at American University in Cairo. It was a strange experience. In the second half of the year I managed to pull together a serious GURPS group and ran a campaign which had a solid beginning, middle and end. Since other forms of entertainment: TV, movies or going out to bars had significant barriers, gaming offered a nice outlet. But even more than that, reading. You could find amazing cheap editions of books in stalls on the street- usually in Britsh editions. Often you could find weird authors and a good deal of sci-fi. That's how I finally read all of Dune, a bunch of WS Burroughs I couldn't find in the States, Borges, Amis, and even PD James. These got passed around in our community. There was a girl I realized later I was in love with, Ann, and another I was seriously infatuated with who played in the game, Ellen. From the former I learned to be a more outgoing person, from the latter I got great books.

Strange Stories Read Close Up
The best, by my reckoning, was Strange Things in Close Up, a Legend Books anthology bringing together Waldrop's short story collections Howard Who? and All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past. Ellen didn't like the collection so much- she was an Egyptologist and had some issues with one of the stories. But I loved it- I loved the work and craft that went into every story. I read the collection over three times and then someone borrowed it and I never saw it again. I like to imagine that the copy I got through Amazon used is the same copy, somehow having made its way here by wild coincidence.

Waldrop most often writes alternate history stories, the kinds of what-if and world making things I love. But it isn't that he just comes up with a premise- he absolutely works through it and finds a completely new approach to it. As always I have to bring these things back to role-playing games- and I think Waldrop offers a great model for GMs thinking about new worlds. Not only about finding interesting corners and niches in them, but about how to present that world carefully and subtly to the readers. New worlds require info dumps, and Waldrop's stories never feel like that. Instead they're refreshing- and honestly I've learned about more cool and obscure things through Waldrop than perhaps anyone else. A close second would be Ken Hite, who is the Waldrop of the gaming world- I've always thought that. I didn't know about Izaak Walton's background for I read “God's Hooks!” or anything about Phlogiston before I read “...The World as We Know't”.

I think my favorite story by Waldrop is “The Passing of the Western.” Spoilers: because it is about an alternate Wild West in which Rainmakers battled Robber Barons. But it doesn't tell that story- instead it sort of tells that story in telling about the Western movies made in the early 20th Century based on those tales. But it doesn't even tell that directly, instead the stories in the form of pieced together articles and interviews from film magazines looking at those movies.

And it works. And I love it. And I love the idea that you can tell a story that indirectly and let the pieces accumulate for an effect. I think that applies fully to comic book storytelling and to gamemastering at the table.

I recommend you read Waldrop if you haven't. Howard Who?, All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past, Night of the Cooters, Things Will Never be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980 – 2005 or Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction 1989-2003 are all great places to start. If you like Ken Hite's Suppressed Transmission series or even just smart and remarkable sci-fi, then read waldrop.

Punch-Line
Why am I telling you this? Why am I going on in this way? Well mostly because I wrote an alternate universe story, DC Comic's Project Superman from Flashpoint. Mind you I had a lot of circumscribed and directed plot points from the powers above, but I got the chance to muck with the history. When I went to write it, I went back and re-read all the Waldrop stuff. Which leads me to this picture my sister, author Cat Rambo, took at ArmadilloCon 2011.


That's Howard Waldrop reading the first issue of Project Superman.