Sunday, December 15, 2019

Book Review: Sign of the Labrys (spoilers)

On page 8 of the Players Handbook, Gary felt the need to explain the usages of the term level:  “Level as an indication of character power . . . Level as used to indicate the depth of the dungeon complex . . . Level as a measure of magic spell difficulty . . . Level as a gauge of a ‘monster's’ potential threat . . .”  We learn that, “It was initially contemplated to term character power as rank, spell complexity was to be termed power, and monster strength was to be termed as order . . . However, because of existing usage, level is retained throughout with all four meanings, and it is not confusing as it may now seem.”  Of course, since then, ‘monster level’ has given way to challenge rating, but the term for dungeon stratum is immutably Level.

Gary specifically listed Margaret St. Clair's Sign of the Labrys in Appendix N.  Although the notion of successive underworld levels is as old as religion, there is an assumption that the 1963 novel contributed to the D&D concept of dungeons.  I can't argue against this assumption yet, honestly, had I been told Sign of the Labrys influenced a role-playing game but not which game, I would have associated the novel with Paranoia.

In his review of Sign of the Labrys in the March 1964 issue of Analog, P. Schuyler Miller states, “I have an idea this is a ‘sleeper’ that will hang on over the years, growing with rereading.”  (He also lamented, “. . . it catches a case of Van Vogts and goes all complicated.”)  If Sign of the Labrys is a sleeper, then it's still dozing.  Regardless, Sign of the Labrys has fared better than The Shadow People, having been reprinted as part of Dover's ‘Doomsday Classics’ series.  Sign of the Labrys is categorized as science fiction rather than fantasy.  Specifically, the ‘Guide to Subject Analysis for Fiction and Drama’ subject headings for the book are “science fiction,” “occult fiction,” and “dystopias.”  The Library of Congress Subject Headings are “Witches – Fiction” and “Paranormal fiction.”  Lastly, the ‘Book Industry Standards And Communications’ subject headings are ”Visionary & Metaphysical” and ”Occult & Supernatural.”

According to the back cover copy:
This Wiccan-themed science fiction novel was cited by Gary Gygax as an inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons.  Enthusiasts of the role-playing game will recognize the forerunner of Castle Greyhawk and its labyrinthine setting of multiple levels connected by secret passages. . .
Most of the action in Sign of the Labrys takes place in a underground complex.  Apparently, the complex was inhabited as a result of the “great plagues” which transpired ten years prior to the start of the novel and killed 90% of humanity.  People regularly visit the surface without ill effect, but they choose to reside in the complex.  Although the plagues “have been in abeyance for years now,” the fear of contamination has caused people to isolate themselves from one another.  “People satisfy their sexual needs in fifteen-minute contacts,” we learn, “and run away from each other afterwards.”

One of the upper levels “consists of an apparently interminable series of interlacing arched arcades, part natural and part artificial . . .”  With regard to levels, the protagonist narrates:
     It is important to understand what a level is.  It is not much like a floor in an office building.  A level may be a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet deep, and subdivided into several tiers.  Also, access to them is not uniform.  The upper levels are simple and straightforward; one gets to and from them by stairs, escalators, or elevators . . .
     As one goes down, it gets difficult.  Entrances and exits are usually concealed.  The reason for this, I think, was partly to protect the VIP's in the lower levels from unauthorized intrusion, partly to provide a redoubt in case the ”enemy” was victorious, and partly because of the passion for secrecy that characterizes the military mind.
Aside from “stairs, escalators, or elevators,” there are also matter transmitters and anti-gravity tubes, but the existence of such things is not mentioned until the protagonist interacts with them.  Also, the transitions among the deeper levels tend to have guardians.  The protagonist seeks out a witch named Despoina even though he realizes she “might or might not have any real existence.”  In his journey, he descends to lower and lower levels.

Levels are identified by letters rather than numbers.  Tiers are indicated by a number after the letter.  The protagonist declares, “I walked along the dim corridor until I came to F1 (this is a tier, and different from F, which is a separate level).”

Level G is an ecosystem complete with groves of trees and a beach with “salt water and sand to sunbathe on.”  A denizen announces, “We even have tides.”  The level is inhabited by people (and their children) who were VIPs at the time of the great plagues.  Assuming the plagues were instruments of warfare, they sealed themselves off waiting for the end of a non-existent war.

The protagonist reaches Level H with the assistance of a dog with an extra brain.  Enduring hallucinations, he wanders through a stone labyrinth “for at least two days,” eventually reaching on office intended for the president of the United States.  The protagonist then descends to what turns out to be Level I (“the hidden nadir level”) with a floor of ice and with “great pillars, partly hewn and partly natural, that supported the roof.”  He then briefly encounters the witch before losing consciousness.

Later, the protagonist starts to develop Wicca powers as he becomes an initiate.  He is a reincarnation of “the male counterpart of the high priestess, the other focus of power in the circle.”  He recalls some sort of racial memory and is possessed by a “‘pattern of power’ that had been a man once, millennia ago.”

The experiences of the protagonist in Sign of the Labrys are similar to those of the protagonist in The Shadow People; he has a heretofore unknown mystic heritage and undergoes hallucinations while wandering underground.

1 comment:

  1. This book have been on my "To Read" pile for years. I might need to move it up a bit.