IN DEFENSE OF “WOLD-NEWTONRY”
By John A. Small
(Originally posted on the Internet site ERB-Zine, Issue 1484 [http://www.erbzine.com/mag14/1484.html]; 2005)
To The Editors of ERB-Zine:
I read with great interest Den Valdron’s recent article entitled “H.G. WELLS’ BARSOOM!” which dealt with how certain writers have endeavored to make the Martian invaders of Wells’ classic novel compatible with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ epic tales of Barsoomian derring-do. Having been a fan of both Wells and ERB since the third grade, I found his article to be quite good in general, informative and for the most part entertaining.
However, there was one aspect of Mr. Valdron’s essay which, quite frankly, bothered me. I refer to the following paragraph that appears near the beginning of the article in question:
“Further, fans and theorists, including the Wold Newton people, have written extensively of the mixing and matching of the worlds. Personally, I tend to take the Wold Newton stuff with a grain of salt, those people have too strong a tendency to discard inconvenient facts and invent imaginary facts to make their theories fit.”
Before I respond, a word of explanation is in order. I have already stated that I have long been a fan of Burroughs and Wells; I readily admit to also being a fan for many years of Philip Jose Farmer’s works regarding what some have come to call the “Wold Newton Universe.” (I myself prefer the term “Wold Newton Mythos,” but that is a topic for another time.) I became introduced to Farmer’s concept at the age of 12 – some 30 years ago now, I am somewhat pained to suddenly realize – and was intrigued by the imaginative tapestry which Farmer had weaved; I rather liked the idea that so many of the literary characters to whom my parents had introduced me over the years might actually exist within a single unified mythology.
Of course this was not a concept that Farmer created; as he himself has acknowledged, Farmer was simply building upon ideas originally set forth by the likes of William S. Baring-Gould in his scholarly works concerning Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. In doing so Farmer no doubt introduced more than a few readers to characters and works they might otherwise have never even heard of, let alone sought out, and (like Wells, Burroughs and so many others before him) ignited a spark in the collective imagination of more than one genereation of fans – some of whom have endeavored to further build upon the foundation which Baring-Gould, Farmer and others have laid.
As a professional writer myself, I have had the opportunity to make my own (admittedly miniscule) contributions to the further expansion of Farmer’s concepts. It has been an enjoyable experience, one which I have come to treasure both at a professional and personal level. But for me it is a hobby, a diversion – a game I play every now and then to help relieve the tensions of my day-to-day routine. (I am by trade a newspaper reporter, which according to several studies I have come across ranks high upon the list of most stressful occupations – which may explain why so may reporters tend to become alcoholics. But where many reporters tend to drink a lot, I prefer to read and write about my favorite childhood heroes – it’s far less expensive in the long run, and not nearly so hard on my liver.)
And unlike, say, checkers or Twister, it is a game without any hard and fast rules; gather any 10 such Wold Newton devotees in a room together, and you’re likely to hear 10 different explanations of what characters and works should or should not be included in the Mythos and why. And each argument will be equally as valid as the others, when considered from each individual’s point of view.
That is part of what bothered me about Mr. Valdron’s statement: his indiscriminant painting of all devotees of the Wold Newton concept with such a broad brush. Labelling all fans of any fictional series or concept as “those people” brings to mind the unfortunate stereotypical image of the “fanboy” (to use the derogatory term originally coined to identify a certain type of comic book fan) or of “Trekkies,” labels which generally are used with derision and disdain by those who don’t happen to share these fans’ particular passion. Such labels and others like them are as inaccurate as they are unkind, as I’m sure a great many fans of both “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” will gladly attest.
(For the record, I am also a fan of both “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.” However, I have never attended a George Lucas film dressed as Luke Skywalker and brandishing a lightsaber. And I am certainly no “Trekkie,” or “Trekker,” or whatever term is currently in vogue among those whose behavior gave rise to such stereotypes in the first place; in fact, I was once asked to leave a convention hall full of some of the more rabid “Trek” fans because I dared to suggest publicly that the reason the Klingons from the original TV series looked different than those seen in the films and subsequent TV spin-offs was because the later productions had more money in their budgets for creative make-up appliances. If there is anything more disconcerting than to be regarded as being odd by a group of people wearing rubber Spock ears, it would have to be finding yourself being chased out of a room with those rubber Spock ears bouncing off your back.)
I have referred to my own interest in the Wold Newton Mythos as a game or diversion; this is not meant to belittle the Wold Newton concept in any way, and I hope that others do not read such intent into my comments. Indeed, I happen to share the view of a number of friends and colleagues who consider the study and expansion of Farmer’s concepts to be a legitimate field of literary scholarship; what separates me from such students of this field is not lesser interest on my part, but rather my comparative lack of adequate time or resources.
I mention this because it occurs to me that if attaching a label to all fans of a particular science fiction series due to the behavior of a relative few is unfair, then dismissing an entire field of study as something that “those people” do is equally ill-advised. It is an act akin to disavowing the entire field of biology simply because one does not agree with the theories set forth by Darwin, or showing contempt for all geneticists because of the controversy surrounding stem cell research.
Casting members of any group – biologists, geneticists, individuals of different religious or political persuasions, even the “Wold Newton people” (to use Valdron’s terminology) – as “those people” creates an unnecessarily adversarial, “Us vs. Them” dichotomy that is both counter-productive and, ultimately, intellectually dishonest..
Which brings me to the other aspect of Mr. Valdron’s statement that I found disturbing, as well as somewhat puzzling. After going out of his way to issue what amounts to a blanket condemnation of Wold Newton devotees, he then proceeds to engage in exactly the same manner of scholarly literary exercise which he has just so cavalierly dismissed. Mr. Valdron would no doubt dismiss this last observation of mine as inaccurate, yet a simple comparison of his essays with those produced by Wold Newton devotees clearly demonstrates otherwise.
Such comparison will also reveal to the open-minded reader that Mr. Valdron’s studies have in certain cases led to observations and conclusions that are identical or similar to those reached independently by other literary scholars who, as it happens, are devotees of the Wold Newton Mythos. Yet his view appears to be that his work is above reproach, while similar conclusions that have been arrived at by anyone who even professes interest in Wold Newton scholarship is somehow suspect. He is welcome to this opinion, of course, but his believing it does not automatically make it so.
Just as there are a number of variations of the game poker, so too are there more than one way to play the game which we are considering here. A college professor of mine referred to it as “literary archeology”; Mr. Valdron has similarly referred to it as the “Archeology of Unreality,” while certain devotees of Farmer’s concepts refer to it as Wold Newtonry. In my younger days I called it “Sleuthing in the Stacks” – a reference to a 1944 book of the same name by Professor Rudolph Altrocchi, a work referenced by Richard A. Lupoff in his excellent “Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master Of Adventure.”
But no matter what name we may individually apply to it, no matter how the rules may vary from one variation to the next, in the end we are all playing the same game; to suggest otherwise is, again, intellectually dishonest at best – and blatantly hypocritical at worst. Our perspectives and methodologies may differ, our conclusions may not always be compatible with one another’s, but in the end our goal is the same: “to try and get it all to fit in plausibly together,” as Mr. Valdron himself has stated.
There was more I had originally intended to say, but I believe I’ll conclude here. It is not my intent to engage in a war of words or dispute literary ideologies with Mr. Valdron (although one can’t help but get the impression from his work that Mr. Valdron, for reasons known only to him, might actually welcome such a fight); such debate would be a fruitless exercise, an unnecessary expenditure of time and energy unlikely to change anyone’s mind, and which would serve no real function other than to take away from the joy many of us with an interest in such things derive from this game in the first place.
And at the end of the day, isn’t that really what this is supposed to be all about? Aren’t we just trying to have fun?
I know I am…