M.A.R. Barker, “The Man of Gold” (1984) – A small but persistent minority of Citizens wanted me to read this book, so read it I have! It took a while. I usually read a chapter before going to bed. The chapters are short but dense.
His fans call M.A.R. Barker “the American Tolkien” because like the grand old man of high fantasy, Barker was a linguist, working in both Native American and South Asian languages. And it shows! Those short chapters weren’t dense with ideas or involved prose- they were packed with references. Nothing on the planet of Tekumel is just an animal or plant- it’s a “dri-ant” or a “whatever-fruit.” Every page is packed with proper nouns and not just that of characters- gods and clans and cities and empires. Seemingly every word in all of the several Tekumel languages has an accent mark in it (I haven’t reproduced that here because they’re redundant and annoying). The picture I’m going to use to accompany this review on my blog (and maybe I’ll include it on fb and the newsletter?) is a picture of a random page in the book. Truly random- I entered “356” for the number of pages into random.org and produced a page number. Page 307 is the end of an action scene, not exposition-heavy as far as the book goes, and get a load of all the names and proper nouns and accent marks! It reminds of late-era Magic card expansions- they can’t get away with calling something “warrior” anymore, so it has to be “X-civilization’s warrior,” etc.
Look, I like world-building. I like Tolkien, I like multi-layered worlds with lots of history, especially if someone tries to rigorously construct them according to some kind of logic. I wrote a novel and there is too much world-building in it so I have more or less given up on it. But there’s such a thing as too much, too quickly, and too poorly-distinguished. That’s a place where Tolkien’s oft-lamented slowness as a writer comes into its own. He introduces you to the many-fold nooks and crannies of Middle Earth slowly, “organically” even. Not so in “The Man of Gold” – Barker just throws words and concepts at you in an exhausting fusillade.
It’s not an altogether bad world, Tekumel. It’s pleasingly asymmetrical and complex. It seems like it was a colony planet of Earth, thousands of years ago, and degenerated from several eras of high-tech into a kind of medieval situation, except they can’t even figure out iron, just bronze and copper like jerks. Humans live in byzantinely complex hierarchical societies. People belong to temples of one of twenty-odd gods (who might have once been powerful technologists? Or aliens? Or something?), most of whom seem to have multiple mythic aspects as well as their main names. People also belong to clans (which don’t have Tekumel-language names, but names in English, which is both confusing and a relief) and the clans have some relationship to the temples? Then there’s kingdoms and empires, and various non-human races, lizardfolk and mantis-folk, etc. Magic exists, mostly access to ill-understood ancient technology. A lot of it has a Central Asian/Indian imperial vibe, as understood by a midcentury white scholar, to me- layers of history, people bound by multiple codes meant to respond to transhistorical imperatives, ornate flowery language to go with ornate social arrangements, etc. “Orientalist,” probably, but that’s fantasy fiction for you.
The story is pretty basic fantasy boilerplate. A young scholar, Harsan, in the temple of the scholar-god discovers an ancient secret during his linguistic research (like the author, he’s a linguist). He’s sent off on a quest to explain this secret to his superiors. He gets whisked off on various adventures as different factions try to use his knowledge. He has the key to some kind of ancient weapon (the titular Man of Gold) that can defeat another ancient weapon, but can’t consciously access it. All the different factions, most of them vying for the imperial throne, want it. He gets seduced by a lady from the sex-goddess temple. Death-god cultists mess with them. They get shanghaied by slavers. He meets another lady and escapes into ancient labyrinths of ruins to find the titular McGuffin, all while being pursued by various groups. With pluck and fortitude, Harsan survives, averts disaster, and winds up with two wives! Score!
All this is in fairly basic high fantasy prose. That’d be fine, but if you’re going to have that many groups running around, it’d be good to be able to distinguish them more, and Barker either didn’t have the chops or the inclination to do so as much as he perhaps should have in this one. Probably his best creation in this one is the death-cult, classic lawful-evil well-mannered horror villains with all manner of gross undead critters to menace the heroes with. But they also just kind of reminded me of Jack Vance, who did worlds like these but with a much defter hand. Vance often had nigh-indistinguishable factions hating each other in stagnant worlds- but that was the point, that their hates were petty, and he did as much prose-wrangling to get that across and no further. Barker, I think, got lost in the love of Tekumel. Apparently, he was a great dungeon master on the early role-playing game scene: Dungeons and Dragons co-designer Dave Arneson apparently said Barker was his favorite DM. I could see that. But as a novel… well, I’m curious enough to maybe try out another Tekumel book. But ultimately, this was more of a slog than I was thinking it might be. ***