You cannot step twice into the same rivers.
—Heraclitus of Ephesus
In my personal history, role-playing games, or back then Dungeons & Dragons, presented a fantasy milieu straight out of Tolkien and Leiber. The heroes — characters — fought enemies, took their treasure, and hoped for bigger and better enemies and bigger and better treasures. The rules created an expectation that high-level characters would seek political power, ultimately retiring from a lifestyle now mockingly or cheerfully (depending on one’s orientation) called that of the “Murder Hobo.” In short, characters hoped to graduate from “Murder Hobo” to “Murder Duke.”
How amusing to hear that term, which seems to spring from the recent past (2011? Anyone?) and see it unlock a whole understanding of a genre that did not previously exist. For while gamer blogs and discussion lists alternately bemoan or celebrate the Murder Hobo habit, there is an entirely different interpretation. The idea that fantasy RPG, D&D-style characters in general definition are homeless wanderers who kill and steal reveals a perspective on the whole concept of fantasy role-playing games that is distinctly contemporary.
Back in the day, Tolkien’s orcs weren’t, to our young, bedazzled gamer’s eyes members of a misunderstood culture: in Tolkien’s mythos they were genetically evil creatures, spawned by Morgoth in a distant age. Good and evil itself were more tangible, less subjective ideas, and this structure appears in D&D and its many iterations in the form of the alignment system, where characters must adopt a position on being good, neutral, or evil (as well as lawful, neutral, or chaotic).
If we could travel back to, say, 1976, the year I first played D&D, and denounce the group of adventurers I sallied forth with into dungeons deep and caverns cold as Murder Hobos, we Jr. High Schoolers would react with confusion. Player characters were good. Orcs, evil. Says so right there in the rules, right along with how many copper and silver pieces one should expect to find on each orc. And for players who thought outside of the box–pretty much everyone–an orc’s gear brought ready cash, too, and usually more of it.
Ah, those were the days. Of course, not all fantasy gamers followed this exact pattern, but even groups for whom “role-playing” trumped the combat part of the game, the general Murder Hobo concept applies. Why should we care? The foes, fictional. The fun, real. The developing a greater ethical awareness, generally inevitable. One cannot step into the same rivers twice, and one can’t play the same games forever.
Enter the Sad Puppies (SPs), who hijacked the Hugo Awards this year. Read more about them here.
For the SPs a spaceship with guns blazing used to mean adventure; now it may contain a novel that, gasp, addresses colonialism. A novel with a cover depicting the quintessential Space Marine may in fact bring up gender issues. The horror.
To radically foreshorten the SPs argument, they want the River to not move — more to the point, to have stopped moving some decades ago. But without going into great detail on another topic, let me amend that to say instead “to have stopped moving some imaginary decades ago.” For not only has the River moved all this time, but the River always contained references to colonialism and gender issues. The SPs lamentation for a lost yesterday of SF & F rings as hollow as those who wail for a cultural return to Leave it to Beaver; neither ever existed.
I leave to the reader’s imagination and the future how the Hugo folks will untangle the mess the SP “freepers” plunged the whole awards process into. There may be something we readers and fans of the genre can do. For now, the idea that change is the only constant (thanks, Heraclitus!) occupies my mind, and the eye-opening concept of Murder Hobos is the lens that focuses this always-true yet usually forgotten universal notion on the subject of Fantasy Literature.
Ahaaa, says the clever reader. About time this blogger got around to it. First, back to the personal. As recently as the late 1990’s I participated in a RPG in which one adventure, for us low-level characters, consisted of ambushing goblin scouts, stealing their stuff, and ferrying it back to civilization to turn it into useful things such as better arms, armor, and consumable magic items. Within a year of that lowly banditry we Murder Hobos did become involved with local power politics at a more meaningful level. Great fun.
For that fun to exist one had to suspend one’s disbelief, much like at the theater, and accept the innate formula that our entertainment involved the (entirely fictional) suffering of enemy combatants and non-combatants. None of us real-life people were such monsters, or so short-sighted as to imagine simple violence (or, as this was AD&D 3.5, quite complex and convoluted violence) would really solve actual problems. Were we so evolved in 1976? Probably not. But, to hammer home Heraclitus: one cannot step into the same rivers twice.
Imagine the surprise and delight when I read Matthew Stover’s Heroes Die, his 1999 novel. At the time I enjoyed how it effectively deconstructs (ouch! literary term, beware!) epic fantasy and the many TV and cinema variations on the hero. Of course, this was before the term “Murder Hobos” did much the same thing in shorthand, and certainly well before the SPs yearned for an imagined yesterday. Matthew Stover, roughly my age, definitely hit a nerve with his portrayal of Caine, the quintessential Murder Hobo.
Caine, you see, is in fact a character. Right out of role-playing game. Who adventures in a riotous fantasy environment complete with Western European feudal lords, D&D style magic (in broad strokes), and intelligent non-humans in all the familiar varieties: elves, dwarves, ogres, and so on. For Caine is actually Hari Michaelson, an actor working for the Studio, the primary entertainment provider in a dystopic future with intense class divisions (no unwanted touching between castes, please!), massive over-population, and a police state running the whole show.
Where we role play by sitting around a table (or possibly in front of a computer screen) describing the actions our characters take in an imaginary world, a paper-based consensual hallucination, Hari is sent to Overworld, where he is paid to risk his life in entertaining ways. He’s an assassin, a mercenary for hire, and as one must conclude from his resonant name, a true anti-hero.
He’s got his problems on Earth. His father is desperately ill and lives on Hari’s dime in a special prison that prevents him from sharing his heretical views about the Rights of Man. Hari’s wife, an actor, left him because Caine is a ruthless killer who enjoys his work. A lot. And the Studio boss directing Hari/Caine’s career understands that ambition fulfilled requires bodies underfoot.
Caine has problems on Overworld, too. His estranged wife fights the godlike emperor of one of the two major nations on Overworld, using guerilla tactics to save those the emperor deems enemies of the state. Betrayed by a companion at the orders of the Studio boss, she’s on the run and living on borrowed time, for a powerful spell has cut her off from Earth, and she’ll die unless she returns. Caine, ordered back to Overworld ostensibly to save her, in fact must unseat the god-emperor. Luckily, the god-emperor so desires the head of the rebel who fights him that he hires Caine to find the rebel, which happens to be exactly what Caine wants.
Hari/Caine pursues his goals, both innate and imposed, with a ferocious, foul-mouthed zeal impressive in its own right. The plot owes much to noir, to classic crime dramas with twists and turns, and to the interpretation of fantasy expressed by role-playing games. The novel caustically re-interprets the heroic tradition while mirroring Campbell’s Path of the Hero.
The River changes, or becomes stagnant; more to the point the River changes, and if our concept of the River isn’t fluid, we stagnate. Matthew Stover’s Caine series (subtitled in later editions as the Acts of Caine) demonstrates a keen awareness that the River flows. How amusing, then, that Caine, who portrays an action hero who in profile represents all the SPs could ever dream about, demonstrates the changing face of fantasy literature. What imagined traditional fantasy tale would include this dialogue, a chapter header illustrating Hari Michaelson’s marital difficulties?
“Hey, I’m not the only guy who kills people.”
“Nobody said you’re the only one, Hari. That’s not the point.”
“I’ll tell you what the point is. The point is: that’s how I became a star. The point is: that’s how I pay for this house, and the cars, and get us a table at Por L’Oeil. That’s how I pay for everything!”
“It’s not you who pays for it, Hari. It’s Toa-Phelathon. His wife. His daughters. Thousands of wives, husbands, parents, children. They’re the ones who pay for it.”
By the time this conversation appears, readers know Caine started a civil war by killing a king, Toa-Phelathon. The Studio boss calculated no war is more vicious than a civil war. And years of civil war did ensue. Many on Overworld died, suffered, were irreparably injured — because of Caine. That kind of cause and effect seems a far cry from what the SPs want.
This side journey in this week’s edition of Fantasy Literature had several goals. First, a general introduction to Heroes Die. Second, an illustration of how the term “Murder Hobos” helps illustrate our changed views of the standard role-playing construct. And finally to strike a blow against the hijacking of the Hugo process. “Freeping” is a well-understood strategy whereby a tiny minority gives the appearance of promoting commonly-held views.
Maybe next year I pony up a few bucks and participate in the Hugos. Maybe anyone who has ever benefited from the (admittedly imperfect) Hugo selections should do the same. After all, much of what we select from the sea of published work rises to the top via Hugo nominations and wins. Even Black Gate appears in the Hugos. See a list of past nominees and winners here: That’s a lot of history!
We don’t have to leave the voting to a tiny minority of fans. Only a silent majority lets such wacky things like this year’s slate happen. Participate in the flow!
All flows, nothing stays.
–Heraclitus of Ephesus
Next week: on to the novel in more detail!
Edward Carmien is a writer and scholar firmly in the orbit of the fantastic. He’s spent some of his recreational time learning skills useful in the fantasy milieu: he can ride a horse (poorly), shoot a bow (badly), hike long distances in the wilderness (pretty well), do others injury with the art of the empty hand (nowadays, who knows, he’s got five decades now…), operate small watercraft, and so on. Tabletop wargaming, gaming, computer gaming, CCG gaming, and cooking are some of his other pursuits.
A member of the SFWA and the SFRA, he writes (not enough), teaches (full time), parents, and husbands in and about Princeton, NJ. Check out his many crimes and misdemeanors in the fantasy field at edwardcarmien.com.