- The Hugo Ballot, Part 13: Novellas May 21, 2015In "Flow," by Arlan Andrews, Sr., we follow a crew riding an iceberg down a river to the Warm Lands. The first half of the story is little more than a travelog, as the main character, Rist from the Tharn's Lands, learns about the Warm Lands from his compatriot, Cruthar.It's not terrible. The two societies are different in interesting ways, and Rist makes a good naive traveler. But it is, once again, not a story but an excerpt; we've already missed the beginning and there is no real ending.There are other problems as well. For one thing, Rist seems remarkably dim. It takes him an unbelievably long time to realize that the sun covered by mists in the Tharn's Lands is the same as the shining sun in the Warm Lands. He learns Warm Lands' words for things -- "day" instead of "dim," for example -- and yet every time he goes to use a word he forgets it and has to remind himself, or someone reminds him. (The Warm Lands' words are all italicized -- west and east and morning and Shining One -- something that started to drive me up the wall.) And it's not just Rist who seems none-too-bright but everyone from the crew. At one point Rist waits patiently until Cruthar counts up to three.*I don't know if this is intentional -- if the Tharn's Landers are actually not as smart as the Warm Landers, maybe even another species. (They look fairly different.) But it's something the reader should be able to figure out.The writing is pretty hard to get through as well. There are far more adjectives than necessary: "'Welcome to the Warm Lands, bird-rider!' his rough berg-companion Cruthar shouted back, also trying to be heard through the thunderous crashing, sharp creaks, and long groans as their shepherded small mountain of ice slid and pounded against the river stones." There's a sharp point-of-view switch, when with no warning we're in Cruthar's head instead of Rist's. At one point we hear about Rist's father's "advanced literacy in reading" -- as opposed to, I guess, his advanced literacy in basket-weaving.Like I said, though, it's not terrible. There's some action, finally, after pages and pages of exposition -- although, unfortunately, the most interesting part seems just about to occur when the story ends. But there's nothing new here, nothing that stands out or makes this worthy of a Hugo.-----* Fairness compels me to admit that something else may be happening here. Cruthar is making several points to Rist, and has gotten through numbers one and two. Then he pauses, and "Rist waited while Cruthar struggled to count up to the next point." So Cruthar could be trying to think of the third point, but that's not how I read it at first.-----
- The Hugo Ballot, Part 12: Novellas May 20, 2015The next novella -- oh, God help me, it's another John Wright story. No, I can't face it. It's too much. Look, I'll tell you what -- instead of dealing with all the things that are wrong with this story, I'll narrow it down to just one. I'll try to discover why, whenever I try to read him, I end up lost in a haze of confusion, why my mind wanders and my eyes lose focus and great black spots appear between me and the computer screen.A brief summary of "Pale Realms of Shade," just so you know what I'm talking about -- Matt Flint, a private eye, has been killed and returns as a ghost. He doesn't remember who killed him, and goes on a quest to find out. (If you've read what Wright had to say about Marilyn Monroe in the previous entry you can probably make a good guess who the murderer is. Hint: it's the wife.)A lot of this murkiness, I think, is the prose. Wright never uses one word when ten or twenty will do. "As I swam, I could feel the tugging, towing, hauling, heaving, wrenching sensation trying to pull me back," he says. Or: "It was not just a bolt of lightning, but an intricate symphony of lightning, of pure light, the divine powers blazing with all the colors of the spectrum, and the million other colors human eyes never see, beyond infrared and ultraviolet, all the way from radio waves to cosmic rays, each one more beautiful than the next." I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide which of those words can be cut, but, really, you could probably take out a fourth of them and still keep the sense. Then there's "[W]e acknowledge none to be superior to us, to gainsay our word, nor say us nay," where the last two phrases mean exactly the same thing.Some of it is the poorly thought out similes and metaphors. Here he is, swimming through the waters of time itself "from America before Columbus, maybe before the Indians, to whatever horrid future was waiting for us -- I could see it all." And what does he compare this mystic, awe-inspiring experience to? "It made me dizzy, like I was a groundhog trapped in the wheel of an airplane during takeoff."Or what about this: "Her wild mass of gold-red hair was like a waterfall of bright fire tumbling past her shoulders… Atop, like a cherry on strawberry ice-cream, was perched a brimless cap." Okay, let's try to sort this out. Her hair is a waterfall, but the waterfall is also fire. And her hair is also like strawberry ice-cream, and on top of this hair/ waterfall/ fire/ strawberry ice-cream is a cap. Or a cherry.It all just feels like words thrown at the reader. The story stops dead while the poor befuddled reader tries to figure it out, to pull all these unrelated images together.And the meaningless mythic names are back: "Turns out the Crow Cousins were Renfrews, playing footsie with the Night Folk of the Blood Feast. And then there was a whole coven of Drowned Ones cooperating with smugglers and Nicors causing all those wrecks up the coast, near the haunted lighthouse the Good Witch uses." The reader has no idea who or what these things are; Wright never says. And since we don't know, the names just slide past. There's nothing to catch hold of, no light in the darkness.A final reason for all the confusion is that the narrative feels disjointed. Flint visits his partner, goes swimming in the aforementioned waters of time, surfaces at a cathedral, goes back to swimming, meets what seems to be the devil… Well, it goes on. Looking back I guess I can see some reason he has all these experiences, but Wright is in effect saying, Trust me on this, it'll all make sense in the end. There are some writers I would trust without hesitation, but having already read three turgid stories by this same author I have to say that Wright isn't one of them.And I'm done! (With John C. Wright, at any rate.) And I hereby make this sincere promise to my future self -- you will never, ever, have to read anything by Wright again.
- New Review at the B&NR May 20, 2015I look at the new one from Neal Stephenson:http://www.barnesandnoble.com/review/seveneves
- The Hugo Ballot, Part 11: Novellas May 18, 2015I love the idea behind "The Plural of Helen of Troy," by John C. Wright. There's a City Beyond Time, Metachronopolis, with shining towers and bridges and gardens. Fog caused by too many time changes shrouds the lower towers, and in the upper stories live the Masters, who control the forces of time.Unfortunately there's something of a fog on the story as well. It starts with the protagonist , Mr. Frontino, watching Marilyn Monroe from one of the towers. She is attacked, and John Kennedy and Frontino go to her aid. Then there are multiple iterations of Kennedy and Frontino, there are people going back and forth in time and offering advice or finding new weapons, there are destiny crystals and time-shifting robots and helmets that erase memories, and at every introduction of some new spin or new piece of technology the story stops dead to explain it: "Now, you may ask, why did Tin Man not simply step backward in time and step to one side of the predicted flightpath of the harpoon?" It all makes for a very long, very prolix narrative.At one point Wright must have looked at this tangled snarl of a story and thought, "How can I make it even more complicated? I know -- I'll start at the end, and work my way toward the beginning!" (Yes, I know events in time travel occur out of order. It doesn't work in this story, okay?)The style fails on another level as well. Frontino is a private investigator brought to Metachronopolis from the fifties, the kind of person who in pulp fiction speaks rarely and then only to utter a wisecrack. Every so often Wright seems to remember this, and the narrative style tightens and Frontino uses a word like "haymaker" or "dame." For the most part, though, it's sentences like this one: "Behind me was the gently arching bridge leading across the nothingness to the shining tower of Babylon, where the Greeks didn't win the pennant at Thermopylae, and it was the Persians who…" Well, it goes on from there.Oh, and Marilyn Monroe is also Helen of Troy. (Don't ask.) The descriptions of Helen are about what you'd expect: "The sinuous folds of the silk clung to her body and emphasized her curves," etc., etc. But every so often another, more sinister narrative emerges. "Look, I don't blame the dame for using the tools Nature gave her any more than I blame a spider," Frontino writes. "But I'd seen one guy trapped in her web, and I'd heard all about the others. Even if it was a web she did not spin on purpose, she was a spider… Guys… lost their hearts over this girl, lost their minds, lost their good names. Sometimes they even lost their lives."Really? Men hurt her and use her and want to rape her, and it's all her fault? She's the spider? I … don't even know what to say about this. It takes blaming the victim to a whole new level.----
- The Hugo Ballot, Part 10: Novellas May 17, 2015We've made it to the Novellas! (Halfway through!) Coming up, three John C. Wright stories in a row. I'm not doing these in the order on the ballot but in the order the download came in, because that's the way I read them.First up, "One Bright Star to Guide Them." When Tommy was a child he and his friends Richard, Sally, and Penny had adventures very similar to the ones in the Narnia books, where they "faced the Faceless Warlock, and broke the Black Mirror of the Winter King." ("…faced the Faceless Warrior," incidentally, is pretty awkward. How do you face something that doesn't have a face?) We don't get to see any of these adventures, unfortunately. Instead we start when Tommy's over forty and is reunited with the cat who had accompanied him and the other children. The Winter King has returned, says the cat, Tybalt, and Tommy is needed once again.Tommy goes to his old friend Richard but discovers that Richard now serves the Winter King. There's a battle with the king's servants, and at the chapter's end "the smell of the sea filled his nose, and Tommy could neither see nor breathe."We don't get to see what happens next, either. Instead, unbelievably, the next chapter starts with Tommy meeting another of his old friends, Sally, and telling her what had happened. It's as if someone had taken an entire book, cut out all the interesting parts, and published the rest. (Amusingly, in "John C. Wright's Patented One-Session Lesson in the Mechanics of Fiction," included with Wright's stories, he stresses the importance of "showing, not telling" to the narrative.)Gradually, though, the story grinds to a start. It becomes the usual fantasy quest: Tommy has to go various places, do various things, collect various objects.There are more problems than just the lifeless nature of the narrative, though. For one thing, we're inundated with mythic folderol. "You followed the clues and found the Shining Sword trapped in the roots of the Cursed Black Oak in the middle of Gloomshadow Forest, where none of the Fair Folk could go. The wolf boy helped you…" None of this ever coalesces into a coherent system; it's all just names: the ships of Lemmergeir, the Tall White Tower of Noss, the Crystal Cup of Vision. They end up blurring together; it they have any incantatory power at all it's to put the reader to sleep.At the end the cat Tybalt urges Tommy to kill him. Tommy resists but finally gives in, and the cat is reborn as something like a panther or tiger or lion, but bigger and with wings. (We don't get a terribly clear description.) At this point, for me, the story stops being an homage to the Narnia books, or speculation about what would happen to the kids if they grew up, and moves perilously close to plagiarism. Though I don't remember the Pevensie children actually killing Aslan, and the theology of doing such a thing is more than I can figure out.In addition to the homage (or whatever) to C.S. Lewis, there seems to be a hint of G.K. Chesterton in this story. At the beginning Wright seems to try for Chesterton's wise, wide-souled view of the world, his ability to see the strange and magical in the familiar. But as the story continues, as nearly everyone Tommy meets turns out to be associated with the Winter King or other evil forces, the mood turns bad-tempered, sour. Hey, if everyone I met showed the mark of Evil Eye or turned into a hideous monster, I'd be surly too. It's a pretty grim and unhappy way to look at the world, and it makes for a grim and unhappy story.
- The Hugo Ballot, Part 9: Novelettes May 14, 2015I feel I should have more to say about this one. Maybe fatigue is setting in -- maybe that's been the Puppies' plan all along. Maybe they want to tire us out so that their alien lizard overlords can sneak past us annnnnnRight, where was I? In "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium" by Gray Rinehart, humans have settled the planet Alluvium but were conquered by the alien Peshari shortly afterward. They have fought back several times but failed each time, and oppression by the Peshari is growing worse. Pesharis have myths of being buried under landslides or avalanches, and a man named Phil Keller thinks that the fear of this could be a cultural memory, the way the myth of the Flood might be for humans. "It has become an engrained truth that you could sum up by saying, 'It is wrong to bury any person,'" Keller says. And so he proposes to curse the land of Alluvium for the Peshari by having himself buried when he dies.Well, but -- the story of the Flood doesn't work that way. It didn't poison water for humans -- we swim in it and sail across it and under it all the time. If some alien said to us, "We're going to bury our dead in the ocean -- so there," we'd say, "Fine, knock yourselves out." It seems a very tenuous theory to hang an entire rebellion on, is what I'm saying."Ashes" is so slight, in fact, it could have been about half its size. The first section, where Keller asks a Peshari artist to make him a tombstone and the artist refuses, might have been cut, and there are other unnecessary parts as well. (The section gives us some important information about Keller and the Peshari, but that information could be presented in other ways.) I actually like the idea of studying an enemy's myths in order to defeat them, but I don't think the story manages to use it to full advantage.