My brief acknowledgment yesterday was just that, brief and not detailed enough to talk a bit more about someone whose work is inextricably bound up with my younger years. But the passing of Robert Asprin, or as I first learned his name, and as this FAQ uses it, Robert Lynn Asprin, was one of those bring-you-up-sharp moments that inevitably makes you think back with a sigh.
For those unfamiliar with his work, Asprin could be best described in a broad sense as a fantasy and sf humorist — without trying to push the comparisons to the full, because they would be forced, it’s not too much to say that his work easily found itself in line with that of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams on the high end of the scale, Piers Anthony‘s Xanth novels on the low end. (And I know there are Xanth freaks out there — and I hope you’re happy.) This was the biggest public profile Asprin received in general, and for good reason due to one particular book series that made his name.
Myth Adventures was, oddly enough, the series of his which I read that I actually knew the least. I had the first seven books around at one point thanks to the Science Fiction Book Club, though I think I only read them sporadically and in a fitful way. But the continuing story of Skeeve, a wonderfully and unfortunately named young magician out making his way in the world following the death of his mentor, and Aahz, a green-scaled conniver of a sorcerer — from the dimension of Perv, which should give you an idea of what’s up — and their various associates, nemeses and more besides across most of the known dimensions and more than a few unknown ones, is the kind of enjoyably pointless (in the best possible sense) picaresque buddy-buddy adventure that does no harm and makes you laugh at some of the most wonderfully bad (and sometimes wonderfully great) jokes out there.
That may sound like I’m denigrating Asprin’s talents, but far from it — he was of a generation having grown up in American popular culture to the full, bringing in not merely literary antecedents but mass media ones, with models like Laurel and Hardy and Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s breezy road comedies to rely on. Combined with incipient masskultur fantasy geekdom going overground in the seventies and turning into its own perpetual cycle — Asprin was an early member of the SCA, which should tell you something — the timing for the start of the series in 1978 with Another Fine Myth couldn’t’ve been better, and he worked on more books on and off for the rest of his days, with the most recent books being coauthored with Jody Lynn Nye. Classic comfort food by a guy who enjoyed having a laugh.
Yet oddly enough it wasn’t the Myth Adventures that I started with — in fact it was something far more serious in intent, though not without humor either. I mention Nye just now because Asprin was also one of those writers who I think not only thrived best on collaboration but was a more astute creator because of it — he enjoyed seeing what others could do with his initial ideas, and partnerships that resulted often created something greater than the sum of the parts. Back in 1984 or so — I can’t remember specifically when — my then history teacher, Mr. Baker, had learned I was into fantasy and said he’d be happy to lend me two paperback collections he’d recently picked up. I was all ears, and soon thereafter he lent me the introductory volumes to the Thieves World universe, Thieves World and Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn, collections of short stories set in a heroic fantasy universe in the classically-backwater city of Sanctuary, former outpost of a fallen empire taken over by a new one.
What intrigued me about these collections wasn’t that they were all written by Asprin, or even by Asprin and his co-editor/then-wife Lynn Abbey — instead, partially pioneering a model that became more commonplace during the eighties (or so it seemed to me, at least), they created the basics of the universe and then invited in any number of authors to contribute how they liked to it, with characters, schemes, situations and more all bouncing off each other in different ways, each providing a different perspective on the city, its denizens and interactions. An overall chronological structure was partially imposed to keep things moving forward in the fictional universe, but beyond that it was, pretty much, anything goes.
It really was a great way to encourage participation and interest among both writers and fans, and these first two books were my introduction to a wide number of writers I’d only known by name or never heard of before, including John Brunner, Poul Anderson, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Joe Haldeman, Philip Jose Farmer, A.E. van Vogt and others. (Bradley’s own contribution, which introduced the magician Lythande, was one of the earlier examples I can recall of an author brilliantly setting up and then twisting expectations about a character in the final lines.) And by me starting with him here, it meant that rather than taking Asprin as simply a joker playing with the conventions, it showed he enjoyed them for what they were and didn’t see himself being above them at all. I never completed the overall arc, much less the spinoff novels he and others wrote, but I still find it was an essential and enjoyable step for me in terms of sensing who and what else was out there.
Yet for me his greatest work — the one which I still have the strongest fondness for to this day, and another collaboration — was still in the offing. I probably would have first heard of it through the pseudo-zines that Waldenbooks or the like had for SF freaks in the eighties in their bookstores, or maybe something else, but I remember hearing that there was a comic book (or graphic novel? or something else? who knows what terminology was all about then? I didn’t, for sure) Asprin had written that was coming out in collaboration with an artist unfamiliar to me, Mel. White — Duncan and Mallory:
The conclusion of the first book — much like the conclusion of the first Thieves World book, come to think of it — has Asprin talking about how he got the idea for the story, in this case from a ‘gag postcard’ that White sent him showing a variety of fantasy-figure types sitting around playing cards, with one figure — a very self-satisfied, slyly smiling, lithe dragon — clearly winning, and not above a bit of cheating to do it. One thing led to another and soon Asprin and White were off and running with their take on yet another unheroic heroic partnership, with Duncan, an amiable but not always all-together failed knight cast out by his family, stumbling across and hitting off with Mallory — like all dragons a financial genius, but prone to gambling away his profits.
Light, a romp, completely unserious and utterly hilarious, the Duncan and Mallory books are, as with Asprin’s humor in general, best appreciated by an audience steeped in the subculture, but broad enough to draw in folks who basically know the broad outlines. White’s artwork took everything higher as a result, expanding out the humor in the style that another recently deceased creator — original Mad magazine artist Will Elder, perfecter of the ‘chicken fat’ additions to the general outlines of a story, stuffing panels with outrageous references and sight gigs — did on his work.
The results hold up still, and shows just how well suited Asprin was for collaboration. Mallory’s conniving draconian nature comes across in his dialogue while White’s wonderful art work — her depiction of him smiling the toothiest most insincere smile ANYWHERE is still one of my personal high points for visual comic humor to this day — kicks the idea up to the moon. Everything from insurance scams and (literal) loan sharks to one of the most ridiculous ideas around — a dude ranch for herding tarantulas (the better to make tarantula-hair sweaters with, of course) — and more crops up, beautifully realized. (Both Asprin and White appear in the books as well, caricatured by White for the roles of the not-quite-successful schemers Bilgewater and Sadie, a fun cameo.)
There’s a lot more of Asprin’s work that I’ve yet to fully discover, and as times and interests have shifted I might not go back, but it’s good to know he was still plugging away with as much vim as ever. This enjoyable interview with both Asprin and yet another collaborator, Eric Del Carlo, helps to show things were not always smooth sailing for him in recent years — he mentions personal and financial troubles in the 1990s that caused him to focus elsewhere for a long while, which is explained in further detail here, and which also specifically explains why so much of his later work was strictly collaborative — and it’s worth remembering that one’s life is not one’s work, and vice versa. Also, as someone who had settled in New Orleans some years before Katrina and who stuck it out there since, he doubtless saw more thoroughly than most just how poorly this country can serve itself after a crisis (or before it).
But he left his mark, had a full life, and passed at a time when he was engaged in all sorts of further projects and work — no bad way to go, not at all. RIP sir, and thanks again for the laughs as well as the straightforward stuff too. They both made their mark.