I have a particular fondness for Philip Jose Farmer's The Maker of Universes, and several of the other books in the World of Tiers series.
The Maker of Universes was one of my earliest introductions to adult fantasy literature, as I first read this novel while still in grade school, but just after my introduction to a little game called Dungeons and Dragons.
James “Chevski” over at Grognardia reviewed The Maker of Universes over a year ago. In his review, he described this book as an example of “classic wish-fulfillment fantasy.” While I appreciate James’ take on this novel (and by association, the series), I ascribe to it a slightly more sophisticated message of guilt, restitution and redemption.
I have not read this novel for several years, but I will try to provide an accurate summary. The Maker of Universes tells the story of one Robert Wolff, a WWII amnesia victim, now aging professor, who is viewing a new condominium development with his wife. Hearing music, he opens a closet in the condo to find a magical gate, through which he sees a red-headed youth, in a Garden of Eden setting, and dressed as an American Indian, fighting several hideous humanoids. The youth is blasting notes from a horn, and, seeing Wolff, he laughingly tosses the horn to Wolff before the magical gate closes.
Wolff, who is unhappy in his marriage and is regretting his retirement, returns to the condo and uses the remembered music notes of the horn to re-create the magical gate. The horn, you see, is the equivalent of a master key, allowing access to myriad pocket universes, based on the notes played. Wolff thus enters The World of Tiers, a disc-shaped world make up of levels, each level stacked upon the level below it. It is a pocket universe, with its own physics. It was built by one of the Lords, a member of a race of virtually immortal humans possessing incredible technologies, which include the ability to create pocket universes. Most of those Lords rule over their own universes as cruel despots, creating tricks, traps and weird monsters, and coveting the universes of other Lords.
The lowest level of this particular universe (The World of Tiers) is a veritable Garden of Eden, with unusually beautiful and exotic naked inhabitants, and food and water with apparent restorative powers, reversing the aging process, and returning Wolff to his peak physical condition (that particular feature of the novel may explain why many view this novel as classic wish fulfillment fantasy).
Shortly following Wolff’s appearance in The World of Tiers, the hideous humanoids (Gworls, surprisingly poorly-designed creations of the Lord), return, and make off with both the magical horn and one of the beauties that befriended Wolff. The Gworls are taking the horn, and the beauty, back to the Lord. Wolff decides to pursue the Gworls, initially simply to re-capture the horn so he can return to Earth. As the story progresses, his purpose evolves to that of rescuing the beauty (Chryseis) and defeating the Lord as well, and Wolff climbs up from level to level, in pursuit of his quest.
Each level has it’s own theme, such as a Garden of Eden level, American Indian level (replete with Indian tribes and Centaurs), Medieval European level (with Dragons and Castles), Meso-American level, and a Mesopotamian level. Wolff has many adventures, and meets and travels with the initially-encountered red-headed youth, Kickaha (another Earth-man, Paul Janus Finnegan by name, also trapped on The World of Tiers), encounters Podarge (a harpy, created as a result of one of the Lord’s experiments of transferring human brains into monstrous bodies) and befriends several other interesting characters who help him along the way.
Wolff ultimately confronts and overthrows the Lord, and in the process discovers the horrifying truth behind the authorship of The World of Tiers.
Unsurprisingly, The Maker of Universes informs my views on Dungeons and Dragons. The existence of a long-extinct race of super-powerful humans, who created and shaped the worlds that the players now inhabit. Items created by those Lords which have super-technological ie. magical properties. Sophisticated tricks and traps to protect the castles, towers, dungeons and homes of these powerful Lords. Bizarre experiments, creating different types of monsters that are now encountered. Magical gates, with their own special keys for activation. The disappearance of those Lords, due to the wars caused by their paranoia and covetousness.
The first four books of this series, The Maker of Universes, The Gates of Creation, A Private Cosmos, and Behind the Walls of Terra, are well-worth reading, if you are looking for the kind of inspiration that I am mentioning above. I recommend stopping after The Walls of Terra though, as feel that Farmer lost his way in his last two books, The Lavalite World, and More Than Fire.
The World of Tiers novel-series definitely deserves to appear in your own personal Appendix N.