“Appendix N” by Jeffro Johnson

The last finalist in the Best Related Work category is Jeffro Johnson’s “The First Draft of My Appendix N Book”. It’s a post published in Jeffro’s Space Gaming Blog last November, and I don’t know why the Hugo administrators have decided to include it like this. I guess the point was to nominate the whole of Johnson’s Appendix N project — that is, the batch of 50+ articles that the blog post links to.

The Rabid Puppies slate (which is probably the driving force behind Johnson’s getting on the finalist list) included the item “Appendix N by Jeffro Johnson” and linked to a post titled “Appendix N Matters”. That is the final chapter which delivers some jabs against the “politically correct” “thought police” that has “taken over# “our culture” — so I can see why Theodore Beale likes to send readers that way, but the bulk of Johnson’s Appendix N project is, luckily, about something else.

Category: Related Work
Slate: Rabid Puppies

But let’s start at the beginning. What the hell is Appendix N, anyway? The title probably leaves most people scratching their heads.

Appendix N is a list of fantasy works that Gary “The Father of Role Playing Games” Gygax mentioned in the Dungeons and Dragons rulebook Dungeon Master’s Guide back in 1979 with “the following authors were of particular inspiration to me”.

dungeonmastersguide

In Castalia House Blog, Jeffro Johnson has been reading through Gygax’s list and blogging about it since 2014. The first 15 chapters were published in 2014, and some of them I already read last year when Johnson was finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo. The last 29 “official” chapters as well as some appendices and extra stuff that Johnson plans to cut were published last year (and are eligible now).

Johnson’s idea is not completely original. In 2013, Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode did the exact same thing with their Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons series. Reading some of their thoughts on the Appendix N books alongside Johnson’s series offers an interesting comparison.

I have to say that I enjoyed Callahan and Knode’s take on it significantly more (even though they are dead wrong about Zelazny’s Amber series), but the reason might be that it’s written for a general (or, at least, more general) audience. Johnson is quicker to dive into the intricacies of Dungeons and Dragons which I have never played and do not really care about. He gives lengthy quotes from books and points out D&D stuff that they relate to, and that’s not a very good way to keep me interested.

I did take a look at some of the chapters that deal with books and authors I’m familiar with (a minority, I’m sad to say): Dunsany, Moorcock, Leiber, Farmer, Lovecraft and so on. On top of that, I read few about writers I know next to nothing about, like Gardner F. Fox.

And it’s a mixed bag: some of Johnson’s points were profoundly interesting, some were not and some were deep in wait-what-that’s-not-right territory. Here are examples of all the three:

  1. The setup of Leiber’s Lankhmar stories captures quintessential features of D&D. (Or, as Knode phrased the same point, they are the most Dungeons and Dragons of anything on the Appendix N list.
  2. Elric has so much contempt for honor that real tabletop gamers would whack him.
  3. Lovecraft’s great attention to detail in his writing makes his tales feel very real.

Even though I don’t care about D&D, I respect Johnson’s mission to educate people about the early alternatives to Tolkienesque fantasy which has later taken over and plagues the genre like a fucking leprosy. The science fantasy tradition is fascinating and it’s truly regrettable that it got pushed out of the market back in the day. Or, to be more exact, the worst thing is that it got forgotten and very few casual contemporary fantasy readers know about this stuff.

On the other hand, Johnson takes it all so very seriously. In his concluding and judgemental rant he seems to treat the Appendix as an authoritative, sacred canon that defines which books of the period are worth taking a look at instead of just a list of titles that Gygax happened to read and enjoy.

A tad pompously, Johnson informs us that

[Appendix N] preserves a sense of who we were… and what we could yet become again if we chose to.

Johnson has his headpalm moments when he suggests that, for example, the Earthsea books shouldn’t be on the list because

the defeating of Lovecraftian terrors with the power of friendship really isn’t how anyone handles adventures in a mythical underworld.

Too unrealistic ways to handle adventures in a mythical underworld? Come on. It might be an un-AD&D-ish book, but Zelazny’s Amber books have next to nothing to do with AD&D either. Gygax’s take on why there’s no LeGuin on his list would be interesting to hear but Johnson’s second guessing is not that convincing. On the other hand, I’m ready to forgive him because he plugs Tarzan of the Apes.

But despite Tarzan, my ultimate response is that I feel my time would have been better used if I had read a couple of these books instead of wading through Johnson’s assorted commentary.

Is his Appendix N project a nice thing to have around? Yeah, why not. Is it good enough to be recognized as the absolute best work related to the field of science fiction, fantasy or fandom that was published last year? That’s a tougher one.

Many interesting things were again left off-ballot because of the slate-voting organized by Johnson’s employer — consider the essay collections Speculative Fiction 2014 (edited by Renee Williams and Shaun Duke) and Letters to Tiptree (edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce), or David Langford’s interview collection Crosstalk, or the non-fiction books on Iain M. Banks (by Simone Caroti), Ray Bradbury (by David Seed), Lois McMaster Bujold (by Edward James) and Frederik Pohl (by Michael R. Page). Like last year, it’s a shame.

Johnson certainly isn’t the worst finalist here, but is he good enough? I’m not sure yet.

 

Spacefaring, Extradimensional Happy Score: 5/10

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4 thoughts on ““Appendix N” by Jeffro Johnson

  1. Mark

    I think that’s a pretty fair review – the question is not whether this is bad (because it’s not) but whether it’s anything special.
    The basic idea of the appendix N survey is a good one – as you point out, it’s so good that others have done it before – and Johnson’s attempt is in many ways a worthy one. As a RPGer I found the more in-depth look at rpg elements interesting (I can see why others would not though) although it’s clear that Johnson hasn’t played some classic rpgs – how can you discuss the Amber books with only a single sentence on the influential Amber RPG?
    Johnson seems to be a pretty typical example of a gamer and fantasy fan of his age (which I suspect is pretty similar to my age), who hadn’t really encountered many of these classics, and this could have been a very interesting tale of someone relatable diving into the backstory of the hobby – he has a certain infectious enthusiasm that is quite readable.
    The problem is his apparent belief that he’s breaking new territory and that no-one has ever gone back and read some classics – that he’s somehow exposing a problem or scandal. I found that that really soured his commentary and made him come over as railing when he should have been enthusing.
    As an example of something that should perhaps have made the ballot ahead of this I’d mention Adam Whitehead’s History Of Epic Fantasy, which as a long blog series on older books is quite an apt comparison. It is noticeably better researched and written than Johnson’s series while taking on an even wider scope.

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  2. Pingback: Wrapping Up the Related Work Category, And a Personal Note | Spacefaring, Extradimensional Happy Kittens

  3. Cirsova

    “It might be an un-AD&D-ish book, but Zelazny’s Amber books have next to nothing to do with AD&D either.”

    Worth noting that the in-world mechanics behind Illusion magic in AD&D (manipulating and calling forth from ‘shadow’) are wholesale lifted from Amber. It’s really not something that would be obvious to most folks, even people who play D&D, since Illusionist is kind of a neglected class.

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  4. Pingback: Humility and the Canon – castaliahouse.com

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