Wednesday, January 26, 2011

How the Kaika Lost its Legs


As previously noted, Chirene (AKA Jeff Berry), Aethervox archivist and an early participant in Professor M.A.R. Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne campaign, has generously offered to provide the Humanspace project with assistance in our research of the far future’s past.

Recent conversations with Chirene have provided insights into Professor Barker’s view of the time of the star-faring Ancients and, interestingly, how advances in real world technology and changes in the sci-fi genre over time have altered Tekumel.

Tekumel grew out of the dreams and fantasies of the young M.A.R. Barker, a precocious youth in the 1930s and 40s, an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy pulp magazines of the time. Tekumel was a science fantasy world-building project of a scale almost unheard of, a brilliant, incredibly exotic world and universe with its origins in sword and planet tales, the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Weird Tales, and Astounding Science Fiction Stories.

Time passed, scientific discoveries were made, books were published and games were played. Tekumel becomes legendary in the RPG hobby, a creation so detailed, so exotic and strange that some considered it unapproachable. Still, its fan base grew, internet forums were devoted to discussing the Empire of the Petal Throne and the world of Tekumel.

Pause for a moment and consider that Tekumel, unlike the bog standard Tolkien influenced fantasy worlds of many early role playing games and campaigns, Blackmoor withstanding, included a background of star spanning empires, space aliens, and super scientific devices. The internet fans, fueled by an access to information previously unheard of, wanted more of this super-science and they wanted it to be…scientific.

Chirene noted:

Many of Tekumel's fans don't seem to be able to understand that Tekumel was created long before many of the scientific discoveries that we regard as commonplace, and that Phil(Professor Barker) just didn't have all of that information on hand in the 1940s.
… one of the things that always hurt Phil was being hit with questions about technology when he didn't consider it important to the stories he wanted to tell; very technically sophisticated fans would really take him to task about this, and it always really bothered him that they hadn't read any of the fantasy or science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s that he had grown up with.
Phil *always* got hammered in these discussions as he literally had no idea how this stuff worked; all he had to know, he used to tell me, was that the Three-Light Drive was used to move ships around between star systems, and devices like the interfogulators were a later refinement of the principle that was used to move smaller objects like people around the same way, two different approaches to the same purpose, providing the required plot device to get to the same goals.
 
Clearly for Professor Barker, at least in the early times, the super science only mattered in terms of its efficacy in the game, in telling stories, and in keeping the action moving. Physics always took a back seat to fun and a good story. This approach was not good enough for some of Tekumel’s fans and Professor Barker evidently felt pressure to make some concessions.

According to Chirene: 


In-system ships move around at very high speeds, as they have to move fast enough in Phil's happy phrase "to keep the plot moving". The speed of light is probably their upper limit, but the engines are gravitic ones that are similar to the ones in the planetary cores of Tuleng's system. Again, same principal, different applications. Phil was actually pretty consistent in how he used what technology he needed, and tried to keep the same underlying principals at work if only for simplicity's sake.
…Phil would change his view of his world to suit their preconceptions. In my own time, I watched this sour him a lot, and we wound up trying to head off a lot of this as it simply upset him. Phil wanted to walk with Dejah Thoris; many of the fans thought she was dumb and hopelessly old- fashioned, and wanted the bridge of Babylon Five.
It's been kind of sad to see the fan community in most of the genres becomg more and more fixated on the hardware, and not on the action / adventure / romance plot lines that Phil first wrote in. For Phil, the hardware was never of much interest; he wanted to tell exciting stories about the people and places that he imagined, not about the right shade of paint or the kind of screws used to hold the panels on.

Chirene has a great story that sums up the sad problem of the toll taken by scientific advances and changing tastes on Tekumel, specifically on one specimen of its fantastic six-legged fauna:

How the Kaika Lost its Legs 
The 'old' kaika, in 'old' Tekumel, was a large turkey-like waterfowl that was very comical; small, pretty much useless wings, and six legs. Very tasty, and easy to catch and prepare for dinner. Phil once joked that we should have a kaika for Thanksgiving dinner, and his wife Ambereen offered to get four extra turkey legs and sew them on a turkey for the occasion. Unfortunately, a fan on the then new Internet trotted out his degree in biology and denounced the kaika as being "scientifically impossible"; too many legs, and the offending legs were soon deleted in the later drawings that were published.” 

The kaika still has its six legs in Chirene’s 'classic' games, and his players are still amused by its antics just as we were at Phil and Ambereen's dinner table years ago. Chirene suggests that one look at the oldest material for Tekumel to better perceive Professor Barker’s vision of the world.

Check out Chirene’s other accounts of gaming in the early years of EPT with Prof. Barker and Dave Arneson:

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for that fascinating, and rather sad, tale. It's such a shame that many modern gamers don't grasp the romance and pulpy-ness of the classic adventure yarns :(

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  2. There are times when I agree with author/critic/douchebag Lawrence Miles' low opinion of sci-fi fans, albeit for largely different reasons. The obsession with technical detail and accuracy so often stalls a shared narrative.

    It's sad when adherence to science becomes a greater priority than fiction exploring the effects (and affects, if we're going to get all literary-critical about these things) of science - that last being the point of the genre, correct?

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  3. I completely agree. Tekumel can be called Science Fantasy or Action/Adv
    enture or Sword & Planet but it's not "Hard" SF. Let the aliens have multiple limbs. Let there be airships and lost cities and especially princesses!

    Our beloved Sword & Planet is not the most popular genre but that's a good thing. Look what happened to Star Trek over the years. It started off with "The Cage" - a true ripping yarn grounded in S&P and 50s style SF. Now "Star Trek" means that excremental Hollywood hack job from 2009.

    Take heart and fly the Sword & Planet flag - We Still Live!

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  4. I confess, I "like" hard sci fi and S&P. However, I realize that scientific accuracy is NOT to be expected from Tékumel or from Prof. Barker (he's a linguist, not a physicist or a biologist) and that knowledge doesn't affect my enjoyment of the setting. Now, if the started introducing magic to, let's say, 2300 AD THEN I'd probably complain.

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  5. Great post, the eclipsing of the pulpy adventure story feel of those first years of EPT makes even more sense when seen against this kind of cycle.

    Though that famous Arthur C. Clarke quote has been beaten to death through over-usage, it is highly appropriate here: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." If anything this should be the motto inscribed on Tekumel's banner.

    A Ptolemaic Greek philosopher/scientist of the 2nd-century would scoff at the fantasy of a football field-sized metal aircraft being to fly though the air, so why can't folks cut Barker some slack for a setting over 60,000 years in the future?!

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