Hal Johnson's Reviews > Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons

Empire of Imagination by Michael Witwer
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it was ok
bookshelves: biography, toys-and-games, pub-2015, sfnf

Empire of the Imagination isn’t really a biography in any traditional sense. If I liked it better I’d call it an experimental biography; but I did not like it, so it looks to me more like a category error. Rather than a biography, it’s a series of fictionalized vignettes about events in Gary Gygax’s life, loosely connected by nods at context. One chapter (for example) dramatizes over the course of three pages Gygax agonizing over what to do with his life, climaxing with him deciding to join the marines (and implausibly circling the recruiting ad in red pen, as through leaving clues for Scooby-Doo); the next chapter begins with him not in the marines, but fortunately there is a quick flashback later to establish that he was discharged.

The style and tone owe much more to the conventions of fiction than the conventions of biography – most of the book, if you showed it to a random observer, would be mistaken for a novel. “‘Keep it down, damn it!’ said the teen in the brown leather jacket as he worked his way around to the front of the car in the small barnlike garage” is the first sentence of chapter 6; “‘More champagne, ma’am?’ asked the flight attendant” is the first sentence of chapter 31; and these are I think a fair representation of the book. Unfortunately, because the conventions of fiction require so much dialogue and detail, the majority of the incidents in the book require Michael Witwer to make things up; and in making things up, he takes the safest route and falls back on cliches, such as the red pen above. “Bang! Bang! Bang!” is the opening paragraph to the chapter in which Gygax’s wife pounds on the door and shouts, "I know you're in there, Ernest Gary Gygax!" (each chapter's opening is usually its weakest part). The end result is neither good fiction nor good biography.

The obvious inspiration for this manner of pseudo-non-fiction is the “dramatization” familiar from TV tabloid news. At the risk of sounding like a crank, I must say I find it remarkable, and also depressing, how often book authors insist on taking their cues from the death-throes of the moribund medium of television. This is most noticeable in the reality-TV-inspired “challenges” so many nonfiction writers assign themselves, but also in the flat, cold, trite, purely visual prose that we are subject to in many books, including this one.

Jumping around between various “good scenes,” as Witwer does, necessarily presents an odd, skewed portrait of a life. The time young Gary encountered a poltergeist reads like four pages of a Goosebumps novel – a good scene indeed! – but there’s very little attempt to justify its inclusion, or length, beyond the inherent drama of the situation. A general lack of rigor in the facts makes the accuracy of Witver’s imagined scenes suspect, or even more suspect than they already would be when viewed with a healthy skepticism about fictionalizing someone else’s life. One example: On page 97 Dave Megarry’s DUNGEON! board game is listed as an inspiration for Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign; on page 126, Dave Magarry has joined TSR “to publish a board game version of D&D, aptly named DUNGEON!” These two statements are not irreconcilable, but they do demand some kind of explanation, which is not forthcoming.

Also, there’s an ongoing conceit in which…cosmic forces? game with Gygax in a campaign that is a sustained allegory for his life? This was not a good idea.

The end result is a book that is resolutely pro-Gygax – perhaps not an incorrect, but certainly a partisan and unbalanced stance – and consistently prioritizes atmosphere over content. This latter quality is so similar to a late-second-edition rulebook that I would almost think it was a homage, like the great Jeff Easley book jacket – except of course Gygax had nothing to do with 2e books.

I won’t be the first reviewer to mention that Peterson’s Playing at the World covers much of the same material in a fashion that is more authoritative and intelligent. This book does extend to later in Gygax’s life than Peterson’s does, and so interested readers won’t be wasting their time with this book. I’m still hoping Gygax will someday get the biography he deserves.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
December 8, 2015 – Shelved
December 8, 2015 – Shelved as: biography
December 8, 2015 – Shelved as: toys-and-games
December 8, 2015 – Shelved as: pub-2015
December 8, 2015 – Shelved as: sfnf
December 8, 2015 – Finished Reading

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