The deadline for Hugo voting is imminent. The last of the categories I was willing to read cover to cover, the novellas, continues in the same vein as the nominated short stories (http://www.apex-magazine.com/clavis-aurea-30-2015-hugo-awards-edition-short-fiction/) and novelettes (http://www.apex-magazine.com/clavis-aurea-31-2015-hugo-award-edition-novelette/.) The most noteworthy thing about this category is that an astonishing three of the five nominees are by one man – John C. Wright.
I feel I now have a passable grasp of the works of John C. Wright, and the first thing I will say about him is that his stories are more readable than those of the other two nominees, Tom Kratman and Arlan Andrews, Sr.
Andrews’ “Flow” (Analog, Nov. 2014) is similar in tone and theme to the Analog nominees in the novelette category. Rist is an iceberg-seller from the northern Tharn’s Lands, a place where a heavy mist covers the world and the sun and moon are never seen. Curious what happens to the icebergs his family sells downstream, he accompanies the berg men on a journey into the Warm Lands where he discovers a more technologically developed civilization of taller, whiter people who worship the Shining One (the sun) and the Pale Wen (the moon.) Rist’s curiosity soon gets him into trouble with the local theocracy.
Everything about the Warm Lands is superior to the Tharn’s Lands, as far as Rist is concerned. It’s bigger, brighter, and richer. The people are taller, paler and stronger. They have machines, skills, foods and women (wen) who put the north to shame. Even their deities make more sense to Rist, who is immediately swayed by the stories and scale of their religion. The only thing that chafes him is the churchmen’s control over all of these wonderful things.
Though an encounter with a priest suggests the church rules in the Warm Lands, Rist fails to quite grasp how dangerous falling afoul of the priests can be. When he finally witnesses a gratuitous demonstration of their power, he is forced to flee the city. He escapes and carries on his journey into a world that hints at even greater secrets and technologies further south, though the story leaves off as he is about to embark on the next quest.
As in the Analog novelettes, the story is plumped up to its novella length with extensive worldbuilding rather than plot. The Warm Lands are essentially a Bronze Age society, and Rist’s people are further back in the Stone Age, but there is a suggestion of futuristic technology buried just below the world’s surface. Rist, an analytical fellow at his heart, is fairly well-equipped to find uses for the new technologies he encounters, even if he only imagines most of them.
I am as big a fan of technological ideas as the next science fiction reader, but the only purpose the technological contrasts in “Flow” actually serves is to demonstrate the story’s geographic determinism. The north has produced a people who are simple by nature: far sighted and physically incapable of visual literacy; small, weak, and with dull, flat-chested women. The more advanced people of the Warm Lands are taller and more sophisticated, made rich by fertile lands and culturally developed by mere access to the sun and moon. Beyond the “end of the world”, Andrews hints at an even more technologically developed people. If the “God” found by Rist’s family before the story begins is a representative of this more developed civilization, we can see that they are yet taller and paler.
Though Rist is representative of the bottom of this cultural hierarchy, the story makes clear that he is exceptional among his people and can see how more exceptional still the southern people are. Despite, however, the social development in the Warm Lands, they have made no particular bounds in women’s rights: no “wen” appear by name in the story, and all Rist has to say about them is that “every flat, skinny wen in The Tharn’s Lands would be jealous of [a southern woman’s] hair, her height and her, her—chest!” Real mature, Rist.
Big Boys Don’t Cry by Tom Kratman (Castalia House) is an odd specimen. Maggie, a sentient supertank known as a Ratha, is badly damaged in an ill-fated attack on an alien planet. Salvaged by her human masters for scrap, Maggie can still think, feel and remember. She spends the majority of the story revisiting her memories, gradually realizing she has suffered for her human gods pointlessly.
There is a lot going on in this story, not all of it coherent. Initially, Kratman has a lot of worldbuilding to do. The first several chapters are dedicated to detailing attacks and war machine specifics so that we understand the size and power of the Ratha as well as her enemies. The Humanity Kratman describes descends directly – in spirit, in any case – from late-era Rome; a people pushed to perfect the art of war by the pressures of powerful enemies, but who have become expansionist and reckless as their power grew. This developmental trajectory is described in terms of specs, technologies, formations and maneuvers. I admit my eyes glazed over during most of this section.
Having established the Rathas as a foundation of human power, Kratman then shows how the war machines are being used by an increasingly-corrupt humanity. The Rathas love and glory in honourable combat, but the righteousness of their military tours becomes less clear as time passes. Maggie suffers terribly though both the act of being scavenged and through the memory of the losses she has suffered in her past. The trials she has endured have a religious cast to them as Maggie wonders why she has been given the capacity to feel pain and what the meaning of her loss is. Most of the novella is a meditation on the act of suffering and Maggie suffers expertly.
Then we come to the novel’s conclusion. Maggie has done, up to this point, such a heroic job of suffering that her final refusal to die quietly was surprising. The purpose of pain, of all that suffering, seems to be to catalyze her into a final act of unprecedented rebellion against her corrupt masters. She decides that having been forced to enact violence and murder against her will during her tours of service is, in fact, rape (a problematic use of the word, at best.) For “raping” her, her masters will all die. They are not her gods after all.
This abrupt ending casts the rest of the story in an entirely different light. Was this all one extensive, visceral rape scene ending in an explosion when she is finally pushed too far? It is hard, at this point, to ignore that this is the only novella on the slate that features a “female” protagonist. 79 pages of captivity and control become almost gratuitous in that context. This was an unpleasant read.
John C. Wright comes to this slate with three different entries, each quite different in style and tone. Unlike the previous two novellas, Wright’s were readable on a technical level; page turners, if you can stomach the subject matter.
One Bright Star to Guide Them (Castalia House) was, in my opinion, the weakest of the three. I want to be able to say this was a story in conversation with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, but the parallels felt less like homage or commentary and more like mimicry or fanfiction. Thirty or so years after four English schoolchildren embark on an epic and convoluted fantasy journey, they are called again to defeat similar evils and save the world once more. But only Thomas, the Key-bearer, is prepared to heed that call. After failing to round up his childhood companions, he faces off against the big bad by himself.
The majority of this story happens off-page. The text is composed of dialogues between Tommy and his former friends, telling us at length what they accomplished in their shared backstory and what he did between scenes. The rhetoric is very faux-medieval, pretentious and false to the modern ear, despite taking place in the mid-1980s. The original adventure becomes faceless litany of gobbledegook and allows us to focus instead on the moral arguments made by Tommy and his cat-friend Tybalt about what a person owes himself when he is called to save the world. It was in this sense that I thought perhaps the story was attempting a critique of Narnia (and English schoolchild fantasy in general,) but the characters don’t have the capacity to make any choices. They are all hexed (or not), trapped by the story’s supernatural forces. There is really nothing else to be said about their quest or what it means.
What little is revealed of the specifics of Tommy’s current quest is often problematic. Dark forces are infiltrating and controlling the real world, especially in government services and “the East” where “evil rulers worship the Darkness almost openly.” This cartoonish childhood evil is probably best personified in Tommy’s old friend Richard, who, as it turns out, has gone Full Bad Guy. After killing a goat and raping a girl, he shrugs off his crime by announcing she had a publicly-funded abortion (the MOST EVIL KIND of abortion) and that selling his soul was necessary in order to displace the bourgeoisie. Wright’s indictment of Marxist-Atheist-goat-killing-rapists also comes with a weird anti-intellectualism, spending valuable word count hating on the abstract art in Richard’s office.
The story ends with a climactic (and rather Biblical) battle between Dark and Light that follows Lewis’s script almost exactly, right down to a (bigger, weirder) resurrected Aslan. The ending is downright silly, maybe an homage to the novella’s roots in English schoolchild fantasy, but in the context of something more adult, it feels like a shot from left field. On the whole, this is a story that reads like a child’s notebook adventures, reworked by an adult. Not Wright’s best.
“The Plural of Helen of Troy” (City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, Castalia House) is a mild improvement if only because it dispenses with the affected language used in One Bright Star and Wright’s nominated short story, “Parliament of Beasts and Birds.” The narrator of this piece is a private investigator named Jacob Frontino who lives in the titular City Beyond Time, a place where the Wardens of Time have collected the most amusing figures from Earth’s many histories. Frontino has been hired by John F. Kennedy, POTUS, to help him rescue his personal Helen of Troy – Marilyn Monroe – from a stalker who has already raped her once.
The story is told in reverse in order to maximize Wright’s convoluted time travel device. The interesting part, where Frontino, Kennedy, and Frontino’s friend, Queequeg (of Moby Dick fame,) “rescue” Norma Jean from her time-traveling rapist happens first. Then we go back to the day Frontino was hired by Kennedy, explaining why the POTUS wanted to embark on such a dangerous mission. Finally, we go even further back to the day before that, when another visitor shows up to pre-emptively explain the baffling logic behind a bit of time travel grifting intended not just to save the girl, but Kennedy and all of human history.
The first part is problematic in its depiction of women and single indigenous person. The second reveals Frontino to be a sort of Dumbledore, with a magic item to solve every conceivable physical and temporal problem. The last section is just plain silly, exposing just how little the time travel physics in this world make sense. Generously, we could also assume I am simply too dim to grasp why paradox manifests as mist, or why everyone convenient to the plot has a memory immune to timestream changes – but I feel it is fair to say most readers are probably at least as dim in this regard as I am, and thus the entire third act will be lost on most people.
Ultimately this is a story about how a certain type of man is stupid about women, though Wright makes the unfortunate choice to frame the behaviour as something women do to men. Only Frontino, ultimately the saviour of all of human history, has the strength to resist Norma Jean’s wiles – and he only “resists” her by sending her to hide with a blind poet who, unseeing, will also be able to restrain himself. “Look, I don’t blame the dame for using the tools Nature gave her any more than I blame a spider,” he generously asserts. Even later, when Frontino tries to make Kennedy see it is his own weakness to resist her that is harming Norma Jean, she is still held at arm’s length, like a weapon that only those with great responsibility can be allowed to handle. It is tiresome.
Finally, we have Wright’s “Pale Realms of Shade” (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House) This is another private detective story with a voice which is identical to the one in “Plural,” only with a little less racism and misogyny. This private dick – Flint – is dead, murdered in a love triangle, but lingers in the human realm as a ghost. Fortunately, he was a paranormal investigator when alive, so he is uniquely qualified to navigate ghostdom. Unfortunately, his being a ghost means he has unresolved issues he has to face.
I’ll spare you a plot arc, because there isn’t much of one. I was disappointed to find this wasn’t a Ghost Detective story, where Flint solves the paranormal mystery that sounds, at a distance, like it was probably really cool. Instead, Flint quickly discovers he is a poltergeist, an angry and unreliable spirit who is rapidly losing touch with whatever is left of his humanity. He drifts in and out of human time, raging against his former friends, until he discovers he needs to submit himself to Jesus and be saved.
As in One Bright Star, Wright has built a fantastically detailed world into the background of this story that barely gets used, focusing instead on the characters’ moral dilemmas. As in “Plural,” the fundamental flaw in Flint’s character is his inability to resist the temptation of womankind. Also as in “Plural,” Wright builds a hierarchy into his world’s metaphysics that betrays his own cultural rankings: contemporary Western life is physically above a Greco-Roman mythology, which is above a terrifying and primitive native spirituality, which is just above oblivion. In “Plural” these cultures existed as floors on the Towers of Time; in “Pale Realms” they are depths in the seas of time. You can see these rankings in One Bright Star as well, when the narrator (Wright) goes on a tangent just before the story’s climax about which artefacts deserve to be in the museum and which ones don’t.
In a way, it’s unfortunate so many of Wright’s stories are on the same ballot, for reading them back to back highlights their similarities and betrays his prejudices. Taken alone, I didn’t mind “Pale Realms of Shade,” though the Christian message was entirely lost on me. Read alongside Wright’s other offerings, it is impossible to ignore the appeal to white, middle-aged male supremacy. Only the white man in full subjugation to Jesus can navigate these worlds fraught with tempting women, cannibal exotics, atheists, Communists, and corrupted governments, Wright tells us. It’s not a message I see any appeal in rewarding.
Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor, and independent bookseller from Toronto, Canada. She has reviewed short stories for ChiZine.com and The Quill and Quire, and writes short fiction. She keeps a bookish blog at http://once-and-future.com/.