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The Northern Caves

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Transcript of WebNerdHist Podcast, Episode for 10/23/15 ("Fantasy, Fandom and Fanaticism")

Damien: Hey.

Walter: Hey.

D: So what's up?

W: Well, you know . . . the usual.

D: I guess that's usually the case, huh?

W: You made a joke there!

D: That I did.

W: But so I had better acknowledge what you're actually prompting me to do, and introduce the topic of today's show.

D: Feel free.

W: So, like, we've got a really meaty topic this time.  Something you can really sink your teeth into.

D: Walt made me do a ton of background reading for this episode.  [facetiously] You'd better appreciate what I'm sacrificing here for the sake of this show.

W: This one's really a rabbit hole.

D:  If anyone listening wants to wade into this crap, we made a sort of abbreviated compilation that'll get you more or less up to speed.  It's already on the site -- there should be a link beneath this very podcast you're listening to.

W: "Abbreviated compilation?"  I thought all you did was mirror the report --

D: -- yeah, but I put a few of the other things you sent me in there too.  Like Charles Adair's review and part of that thread where they're all talking about the report.

W: Okay, I'll let that pass for an "abbreviated compilation."  Whatever that is.

D: So anyway, Walt, I think you're more of the expert on this bit of internet history, so maybe you can give a little capsule summary for the listeners?

W: Okay.  So I should clarify that this is a thing that I've been kind of fascinated with for, like . . . years?  I think years.  So I'm speaking from a position of having been immersed in this stuff for a long time.

D: Listeners, take note -- Walt has been immersed for a long time.

W: I might have gotten a little pruny.

D: When you gaze into the abyss . . . 

W: Right.  So, like, let's keep that caveat in mind, and I'm sorry if this is not a perfect summary for first-timers.  But, basically, okay . . . there are these books, a fantasy series, by a guy named Leonard Salby.

D: You might have read a few of them, actually.  This stuff was weirdly pervasive for a time in maybe the mid-eighties to early-aughts.  I read the first few myself.

W: Yeah, it's that kind of fantasy series, where it's -- not culturally pervasive like Tolkien or Lewis, but maybe like Terry Brooks, or Piers Anthony.  You'd see them in the school library.  Other kids would talk about them, if you were a nerdy kid.

D: Right.  I mean, Piers Anthony might be an especially relevant comparison -- sui generis, certainly not good from a grown-up perspective, but the sort of thing a middle schooler could find comfort in clutching to his chest.

W: Probably his chest -- I remember the readership skewing pretty heavily male.

D: Yeah.  We're going to get back to that later, though.

W: Sure.  So this fantasy series started out with a book called A Thornbush Tale -- which was a really very charming children's book, kind of a classic in its own right.  There was a series of sequels, which went under the general heading "Chesscourt."  I actually read every single one of those back in middle school, though I haven't touched them since then.

D: Probably a good decision.

W: The Chesscourt books were very -- sort of a weird kind of mid-tier fantasy?  Not nearly as derivative as a lot of the other stuff that was coming out around the same time, which probably accounts for a lot of the appeal.  In terms of inventive fecundity, maybe Zelazny would be a good comparison?

D: Something like Zelazny, yeah.  Or maybe Pullman.

W: Right, but both of those are misleading comparisons, because the attitude toward sexuality, toward war, toward social structures, was very . . . limited in Chesscourt, in a way it wasn't in those authors.  It had the feel of a large number of interlocking game pieces, but none of the game pieces really came alive as plausible things that might exist, you know?  I mean cultures, or institutions, that sort of thing.

D: Right.  The world was almost pre-adolescent.

W: So, right, okay, these books have an internet fandom, because everything does.

D: This was around 2002, 2003, 2004?  So mostly forum stuff.  This was before the tumblr brand of fandom.

W: Yeah, it was the sort of time where things were much less . . . filtered, and you had a really weird mix of people who had just come together because they happened to like this thing.

D: I think this capsule summary is long enough already.

W: Yeah, yeah, okay.  The point is, there were plenty of fandoms like this, hanging around on little phpBB communities, but this one achieved a sort of notoriety for a time around 2004.  And that had to do with . . . well, it's hard to sum up briefly, but basically, there was a sort of scandal where a bunch of fans got together, stayed up late and took a bunch of drugs, and then were tangentially involved in a mysterious string of suicides by employees at a local diner.

D: To be clear, I don't think any of them had anything to do with the suicides.  It was just a bizarre coincidence.  But understandably, that drummed up some attention, and there was some discussion in the local news about the dangers of Leonard Salby's books, in a sort of Mazes and Monsters way.

W: But the reason this is interesting, or the reason I find it interesting --

D: -- to be fair, you find a lot of things interesting.

W: The reason I find it interesting is that we have a number of accounts from the participants, including their forum interactions before, during and after the incident.  In particular, the most substantial account of the incident was written by one Paul Lotke, who himself developed a sort of cultish neo-religious philosophy on the basis of Salby's books.

D: Which is nothing new -- I mean, people did it with Stranger in a Strange Land, for instance.  Trying to become one another's water brothers in real life and all that.

W: Yeah, but that was a case where there was a clear ulterior motive -- obviously Heinlein's free love attitudes appealed to a certain sort.

D: Sure.  And I guess what you're getting at here is that the psychology involved in Lotke's case is more essentially . . . fannish?

W: Something like that, yes.  Particularly, maybe, in the sense that I think it could have only really blossomed in the context of fandom for this sort of work.  Which, as I said earlier, is a very specific sort of . . . internally complicated, but psychologically very unambitious, even infantile, sort of fantasy writing.  Which of course is widespread, but I think Salby is an extreme case, and that's probably responsible for what happened with Lotke.

D: Let's unpack that a bit.  What is it that you think Salby exemplifies?

W: Well, going on my memories of the books -- and I read the whole damn series, remember -- they're very focused on morality, but it's a very odd, cramped sort of morality.  I think Michael Moorcock wrote a piece on this?  It was either him or China Miéville.  But anyway, the whole series centers around a set of aristocrats with a magical lineage.  And these aristocrats have a set of duties.  And the whole thing is sort of obsessed with duty, in this kind of white-man's-burden way -- I mean, the aristocrats venture out into foreign lands, there's a new foreign land in each book if I remember correctly, and in each case of course it turns out that this land has some problem which only they can solve.

D: So obviously it appeals to that need in, say, nerdy middle schoolers, to feel special and destined for greatness, for one thing.

W: Right.  But you have to wonder about the sort of person who, as a fully grown adult, deeply yearns after that kind of noblesse oblige.  I mean, I think we agree that there's not just a conservative, but an actively reactionary strain in modern nerd fandom.

D: This need to preserve an old order, this panic when there's any potential for it to be upended.

W: And what the Salby books provide, and I think they're almost unique in this, is a conjunction of that aristocratic urge with a yearning for the clarity of pre-adolescent childhood.  There's virtually no romance or sex in the books, for one.  And for another, there's an almost obsessive focus on games -- the whole thing is based around an overwrought chess metaphor, most obviously, but also there's a very intricate, but still very rule-bound, "magic system" in play, where actions have predictable consequences, like moving a game piece.

D: So there's a total . . . evasion of the uncertainty that arises in adolescence, when you realize that, say, girls don't have "rules."

W: Well, either you realize that, or you become a pick-up artist.

D: Ha, yes, or an adult Salby fan.

W: So to get back to Lotke.  There's a whole part of this story I haven't mentioned yet.  It's a rabbit hole, like I said.  So it turns out that there's this book Salby was working on before he died, which he never finished, called "The Northern Caves."  The manuscript got online, and these fans pretty quickly realized that it was not the sort of ordered thing they were used to.

D: From what you've told me, it's sort of a bargain-bin Finnegans Wake?

W: Pretty much, yeah.  Kind of on the border between sense and nonsense, a lot of puns and wordplay, a lot of sexual and horror imagery, very standard "experimental fiction."  I've read bits of it and honestly it's just pretty tedious.  But I think for Lotke and these other fans, it really created a problem, because it wasn't the kind of thing they were capable of assimilating.

D: So then, at first, there were a lot of attempts to make sense of it the way the fans had made sense of the earlier Salby books.

W: Yes.  In particular by one poster, who went by "Errant KnightsMove" on the forum -- the game theme again -- and who appears sometimes as "Aaron" in some of the other documents.  There were also efforts by another fan, who went as "metamarsh" on the forum, and who ultimately hosted the event that became infamous.

D: And these got very complicated, because they were fitting a square peg into a round hole.

W: Right.  A lot of Errant KnightsMove's ideas -- I mean, from what I've looked at, even I haven't read every single bit of this crap -- centered around trying to invent a new consistent "magic system" for The Northern Caves, centered around reincarnation, so that it would all make sense again in terms of games and systems.

D: One thing I'm not clear on was Lotke's role in all of this.

W: Lotke wasn't a major participant at this point.  Where he comes in is after the big group read --

D: -- you'll have to unpack that for the listeners.

W: Right.  So at some point one of these fans came into possession of the documents Salby had left behind when he died, and there was a kind of mini-convention where some of the most hardcore forum users got together to look through them for clues.  This is the event that happened to coincide with the string of suicides.  And so Lotke ended up being told to write a report describing what had happened at this event, and how it had, or hadn't, "caused" the suicides.  There are two main notable features of this account -- first, that it's the most detailed evidence we have about all of this, and second, that it inadvertently details Lotke's gradual descent into a delusional worldview derived in part from the Salby books and documents.

D: So obviously this is an interesting bit of fandom history because, if nothing else, it shows how fannish analysis is on, almost you could say a continuum with the sort of paranoid and delusional thinking that Lotke ended up with.

W: Yes.  Lotke in particular became fascinated with a number of documents found in the Salby papers, which seemed to describe a sort of life philosophy called "Mundum."  From what I can tell, those papers are also very -- well, they're delusional in the same way Lotke became.  So taken as a whole this could be a kind of cautionary tale for where thinking like Salby, or Lotke, or any of these people, would eventually take you.

D: Which is a lesson we could extend quite a bit, really.  I mean, isn't Salby reminiscent of Ayn Rand in a lot of ways?  Who had a whole devoted cult of her own.

W: Yes.  And these sorts of fascinations can drag in completely innocent people, as well.  There's a fan named Jennifer who's a major figure in Lotke's report, and she seems completely devoid of the sort of tendencies that led Lotke down the path he went.  And yet she followed him the whole way.

D: Yeah, when I was reading the report I couldn't help but wonder why she was spending time with these creeps.

W: I mean, it was a different time.  I think she'd have been safer on the modern internet.

D: I hope so, but the modern fantasy fandom has its fair share of Salbies.

W: Sure.  And I think it's important that we make ourselves heard about these sorts of writers, and encourage better, healthier fandoms for better, more complex authors.

D: "Complex," right -- that was what Charles Adair said about Salby, wasn't it?  That he was complicated, but not complex?  I loved that.

W: So did I.  I think it sums up the whole crux of the problem, right there.

D: Hey Walt!  You know what time it is?

W: Let me guess.  Our show's time limit is up.

D: You win!  I grant you 5000 Magic Salby points.

W: Thank you.  I'll be sure to spend them wisely.

D: As always, please comment if you enjoyed the show.  And tune in next time.

W: This has been the WebNerdHist Podcast.  Thank you.