Ellery Queen, And on the Eighth Day

Years ago I read an Ellery Queen mystery (Ellery Queen being both the name of the detective and the pen name of the authors, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee). I don’t remember which one. It was one with a title following the “The [NATIONALITY] [THING] Mystery” template. Probably either The Dutch Shoe Mystery or The Roman Hat Mystery. I didn’t like it. I recall it as a straight puzzle without the sense of humor or shrewd observation of character that make the best mysteries worth reading. Also, Ellery himself was written as one of those piffle-spewing dilettantes who plagued golden age detective novels. The best of these–Albert Campion, say, or Peter Wimsey–quickly toned down the piffle and turned up the three-dimensional characterization. The ones who weren’t are no longer read. Ellery Queen seemed closer to the second group.

Since then I’d heard that a few Queen novels were ghostwritten by Theodore Sturgeon, Avram Davidson, and Jack Vance, from outlines by Dannay. And I recently discovered the Queen novels were available as ebooks, including And on the Eighth Day, secretly by Avram Davidson. It is, as you might expect from Davidson, a weird book. I’m going to have to take another look at the later Queen novels, because if the series could handle And on the Eighth Day it must have gotten a lot more interesting.

(To explain why, I’m going to spoil the whole book. If you want to read it I suggest you bail on the review halfway through.)

Cover of And on the Eighth Day

And on the Eighth Day was published in 1962 but is set in early 1944 and begins with Ellery taking off for Hollywood to write military propaganda films. After a spell of 12-hour days he breaks down and starts mechanically typing the same few words over and over like Jack Torrance, only instead of “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” it’s his father’s name. (Ellery is unmarried and lives with his father, which until this scene I did not find weird.) So Ellery heads back east in his car, still addled, and gets lost somewhere in the Nevada desert. But that’s okay, because he wanders into Shangri La.

Ellery finds a green valley in the middle of the desert. In the valley is a town called Quenan founded 70 years earlier by one of those communist utopian communities that 19th century America bred like very earnest rabbits. Quenan is led by the Teacher, a very old man and the son of the colony’s founders. It’s completely isolated from the outside world, aside from the Teacher’s occasional visits to an equally isolated general store; the Quenanites have no idea there’s a war on, or what those flying things that keep passing over their village might be. They’re sure they’re expecting a messiah, though, and because “Ellery Queen” sounds kind of like the more Biblical and/or locally significant “Elroi Quenan” the Teacher thinks Ellery might be The One. Ellery goes along with this, mostly because he spends the whole novel loopy from exhaustion.

What follows resembles one of those science fiction novels like Looking Backward or Herland where an outsider is taken on a tour of the author’s fictional society… which is what And on the Eighth Day is: a utopian novel about a utopian community in the historical sense. It takes over a third of the novel for the actual mystery to show up. Basically, And on the Eighth Day is what you’d get if News From Nowhere starred Philo Vance.

Ellery learns how Quenan gets by in the desert, how it irrigates its crops, what animals it raises; the Teacher explains its government (it’s run by craftspeople) its marriage customs (everybody has to get married by a certain age, and the Teacher gets multiple wives, though he doesn’t seem to be sleeping with anybody) and its religion. Being so long isolated, Quenan has developed a language of its own; it’s governed by a “Crownsil” and worships “the Wor’d”[1] and has been looking for the lost “Book of Mk’h” which the Teacher is pretty sure he found at the general store a few years back. But not entirely sure, because no one in Quenan can read it.

Ellery and the narrative think of Quenan as a simple unspoiled paradise needing protection from the outside world, like a prime directive-insulated planet on Star Trek. (I’m not as convinced as Ellery that Quenan is idyllic: it once imposed the death penalty on a weaver who hoarded some extra cloth; public offices are said to be open to everybody regardless of gender but the Crownsil is in practice overwhelmingly male; and I have to question Ellery’s assumption that being a Teacher’s wife must be a sweet deal.)

Sadly for Quenan Ellery is one of those detectives. The ones who attract crime the way asbestos deposits attract lung disease clusters. The Teacher notices someone’s moved the keys[2] to the forbidden room containing Quenan’s stash of silver coins and the Book of M’Kh. Someone was too dazzled by Ellery’s fancy car and gold watch; for the first time in decades Quenan knows greed. Soon the thief is found with his skull bashed in. Apparently someone confronted the thief and killed him in self-defense. So Ellery gets his fingerprint kit out of the car[3] and sets to work.

Now the story is traveling further into standard detective novel territory, and yet this doesn’t stop it from getting even weirder. The mystery isn’t even very mysterious; both the red-herring suspect and the real killer are the only obvious choices for the roles. It’s like the detective plot took one look at Quenan, threw up its hands, and surrendered to the weirdness.

Ellery observes the crime scene, talks to witnesses, and, in a very long scene, explains to the Crownsil how fingerprints work. The evidence seems to point to the Teacher, and when Ellery presents his case to the Crownsil the old man doesn’t deny the crime. But Ellery isn’t satisfied, possibly because he’s noticed the novel still has a couple of chapters to run. Privately, the Teacher admits he framed himself: the real culprit is his young successor, who Quenan can’t afford to lose. So the next day everyone watches as the Teacher, like Socrates, very calmly drinks poison and lies down to die. Ellery stumbles out of town, dazed. But first he makes sure to steal and burn the Book of Mk’h, because it’s actually a copy of Mein Kampf. And then, as he leaves, a pilot bails out of his crashing plane right outside Quenan. A pilot who happens to look just like the teacher only fifty years younger, and whose name, Manuel Aquinas, sounds kind of like the more Biblical and/or locally significant “Emmanuel Quenan.” Ellery suggests Manuel check out the town.

So what we have here is a book that looks like a detective novel, published as just another entry in a long-running series of detective novels, but written by an eccentric fantasist and only perfunctorily performing the usual detective novel functions. Instead, it’s an allegory about a representative of justice who visits a community of innocents, bringing temptation with him; watches their leader, for the good of the community, sacrifice himself for another’s sin; and ferrets out and destroys the unsuspected evil lurking at the center of paradise, after which the Teacher symbolically rises again to rejoin his people.

The detective novel is, I will admit, a formulaic genre. Every one of them has the detective, the murder[4], the investigation, and the moment of revelation; readers have seen so many unimportant details revealed as vital clues that we unerringly sense they’re not actually unimportant. Sometimes, though, a formula is freeing. As long as all the elements of a formula–in this case, the detective, the crime, and the revelation–are present and correct, the audience has no reason to complain when the accompanying material is undisciplined or eccentric. The rest of the story can do anything else. Break the fourth wall and drop in the occasional M. R. James pastiche, reveal the entire cast to be undercover detectives… and then there are outliers like Thomas Hanshew’s Hamilton Cleek stories, which read like somebody’s fever dreams. It’s a freedom that not enough mysteries take advantage of, and even those that do usually do so too timidly.[5] But I keep looking, because there are always that few that recognize that a formula is a license to be eccentric, and let loose. Detective novels are like paintings that do their best work in the negative space; it’s not that the subject isn’t important, but it’s everything around it that keeps me coming back.

  1. The Quenanites love apostrophes almost as much as terrible epic fantasy writers.  ↩

  2. The Teacher keeps his belongings perfectly symmetrical. It’s too bad Ellery didn’t bring Hercule Poirot; he and the Teacher would have gotten along swell.  ↩

  3. Of course Ellery has a fingerprint kit in his car! He’s one of those detectives.  ↩

  4. It’s weird that it’s always a murder. It’s not like it would be hard to make an interesting story from a jewel theft or an embezzlement case.  ↩

  5. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd may have an unreliable narrator, but I have to admit it doesn’t have much else of interest.  ↩

Dezso Kosztolányi, Skylark

I was trying to think up more creative titles for these reviews, but I’m not sure I’m that good at it… so, back to the author and title. And from half-written reviews of books I read ages ago to one I read recently…

Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi is about a week in the life of an aging married couple in Hungary at the end of the 19th century who live in a self-contained world with their awkward, unlovable daughter Skylark. When she leaves for a week in the country, the break in their routine forces her parents to reconnect with the community and shocks them into reevaluating their lives.

This is, obviously, not science fiction or fantasy. Nevertheless I’m going to spend a large chunk of this essay writing about SF. My running theme lately seems to be “Why does the SF genre as a whole seem so disappointing, when I still love so many individual SF novels?” And here’s another clue!

Cover of Skylark

Most of the non-SF novels I read are somewhere between a few decades and a couple of centuries old. This is because the world of mainstream fiction is bigger than any given genre, and harder to keep track of, and if I filter it by what’s good enough to have stayed in print a while it’s easier to find the books I want to read. But it’s occurred to me that I also read older novels for the same reason I read SF: I want to read about how people live in environments unlike mine, and also unlike any place I could theoretically, given unlimited time and money, travel to. For my purposes it doesn’t matter if those places don’t exist because they never existed, or because they exist only in the past.

Skylark is a concentrated dose of this. Because it’s about reconnecting with life, much of Skylark just shows how people live in Sárszeg, a small Hungarian town, at the turn of the 20th century. Mother and Father Vajkay eat at a restaurant, and the food is described so well you can imagine the taste. They meet neighbors they haven’t spoken to in years. They see a lousy play that nonetheless delights them. Father visits his club for a chapter’s worth of innocent debauchery and gets drunk for the first time in ages.

Skylark describes everything in meticulous detail–not lengthy detail, but well-chosen detail, so in less than 150 pages Sárszeg feels like a place you’ve visited. Kosztolányi can tell us in a few words things that other writers would spin out over chapters:

They had given her that name years ago, Skylark, many, many years ago, when she still sang.

There’s an entire biography in that single sentence, and those last four words are devastating.

Skylark is a compelling novel about very small things. Which raises a question. Why do the science fiction and fantasy genres, no different from Skylark in that they’re about other times and places, insist that as soon as fiction steps away from the here-and-now it must turn Epic?

SF writers think the only fit subjects for the genre are wars and high body count disasters. The rest of literature creates drama from family conflicts, ordinary crimes, personal troubles, and small crises. As I’ve complained before, the only way most SF writers know how to generate that all-important Sense of Wonder is to go big. Apocalypses! Invasions! Mass death! As a result most SF novels focus on the least interesting aspects of their invented worlds. Wars and deaths in fantasy are all pretty much alike. I want to know how people in Magic World live.

How would a plot like Skylark’s would work in cultures with different underlying assumptions, including completely invented underlying assumptions? That would be fascinating. I would totally buy a book that showed me what a story like this would look like in Dungeons and Dragons world.

Skylark at once acknowledges the ridiculousness of everyone in Sárszeg–the theater is amateurish, Father’s drinking buddies are aging buffoons–yet sympathizes with everyone. To the extent that Skylark is laughing it feels with more than at.

That’s crucial to why Skylark works. A more condescending, less empathetic novel with the same plot would seem upsettingly cruel. Because the Vajkays’ ultimate realization is that their daughter, who they genuinely love, who has never intended them any harm, has ruined their lives. Under Skylark’s care the family drifted away from the community. They never eat out because Skylark disdains spicy restaurant food. They don’t go to the theater because the atmosphere makes her ill. When Skylark is present, they’re Mother and Father; only when she leaves do they regain their names, becoming for a few days Ákos and Antonia. Drunk and disinhibited, Father finally admits he hates what his life has become, and as much as he loves Skylark he also resents her.

On the other hand, the last scene of a novel is often a point of emphasis, the part the reader comes away thinking about and remembers later. And Skylark’s final pages are the one part of the novel not given to Mother or Father. For the first time the narrative inhabits Skylark’s point of view. She’s aware the people around her are miserable, and she’s grieved by it, but doesn’t know what to do. She’s not a bad person. She is how she is, and everyone else is what they are, and they just don’t fit together. Skylark gives its final words to the character who for most of the narrative was absent but, by the effect of her absence, constantly judged. It’s a measure of this novel’s kindness that its final, most important point is a reminder that Skylark has feelings, and a story of her own.

A Turtle-Related Existential Crisis

When you’ve read as many novels as I have you start to appreciate the stories that don’t settle into predictable shapes. Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary is one of those.

Really, it’s Turtle Diaries: two narrators alternating chapters. One is William G., a lonely middle-aged bookstore clerk living in reduced circumstances after a divorce who gets an urge to liberate sea turtles from the London Zoo. The other is Neaera H., a lonely middle-aged children’s book author bored with the limitations of her career who gets a simultaneous urge to liberate sea turtles from the London Zoo. Together, they… uh, liberate sea turtles!

Cover of Turtle Diary

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, there’s a fashion in genre fiction for structuring novels like Hollywood movies. I even see writers reflexively use film vocabulary–scenes, acts, beats–when discussing their writing. These books borrow not only the structures from Hollywood, but also their focus on action and their tendency to pare away anything that doesn’t serve the plot. I usually give up on a novel when it starts to feel like the mathematical average of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Robert McKee’s Story,[1] and Save the Cat. I like novels that let their characters ruminate, philosophize, and wander off the path of the narrative whenever they find an interesting side alley. William and Neaera think interesting, meandering thoughts and aren’t too concerned with single-mindedly and mechanically fulfilling their plot functions. The changes in their thoughts are the point of the story–really, are the story. The plot is a framework for the characters to grow on.[2]

William and Neaera seem bemused by how important the turtle project becomes to them, but the reader understands. They identify with the turtles. William and Neaera are stuck; somehow their lived dumped them into a tank. They swim in circles when they should be swimming towards… well something. William and Neaera don’t know what it is, but it’s got to be there, right? For a while freeing the turtles can be their goal.

You think you know this story, right? It’s one of those standard middle-aged catharsis deals. Hollywood loves them; they go all the way back to Bringing Up Baby.[3] Beaten-down, dead-inside protagonists stumble into quirky mysteries, or weird new hobbies, or manic pixie dream girls and/or boys, and, bam, they’re reawakened to life! If Turtle Diary followed the plan, William and Naera’s turtle release would be the climax. At the moment they let the turtles out of their crates they’d solve their stuckness. There’s never any doubt the heist will come off. William and Neaera have the cooperation of the reptile house keeper, who thinks the zoo ought to free their sea turtles on a regular schedule. So the release goes off without a hitch… well before the end of the novel.

So now what? The question for the rest of the novel is not just what William and Neaera will do next, but whether there will be a next thing or just a blankness. Is the turtle release catalyst or capstone? Stories end in epiphanies, and tell us their protagonists will live happily ever after, and we don’t have to worry about what, exactly, ever after looks like. Lives just have more days, like all the other days, until they don’t anymore. And the epiphany you have halfway through does not, by itself, make the days that come after substantially different; you’re just more awake to them. William attends a new age seminar that turns into a rebirthing ceremony; it’s a comic set piece, not a revelation. Turtle Diary is skeptical of instant renewals.

So the epiphany created by the metaphorical turtle adventure didn’t solve everything. You may think you’ve guessed what Turtle Diary does next: romantic comedy. It’s not just that “fall in love” is, in popular culture, the preeminent solution to the fictional midlife crisis. Most movies, and a hell of a lot of novels, pair a couple of characters off by the final chapter. Given all the ways two people could relate to each other it’s odd that pop culture resorts so predictably to romance subplots. Sometimes it seems like our culture devalues friendship, and indeed any relationship that isn’t romantic. Turtle Diary doesn’t feel the need to pair William and Neaera off. Neaera finds a relationship, William doesn’t; Neaera’s relationship won’t single-handedly solve her problems any more than their adventure did, but by the same token William’s singleness won’t doom him.

So what does get William and Naera on track? No one thing. The turtle release is a turning point, but also an opportunity for them to realize that finding something to swim towards is an ongoing, lifelong process. The standard pop culture depression story presents recovery as happening in three to five acts with dramatic unity. One of the little self-esteem-crushing things about depression is that recovery isn’t as automatic as our stories tell us it should be; it’s rarely solved by having a wacky adventure, getting back to nature, or find a quirky new job with eccentric colleagues. Turtle Diary acknowledges that finding reasons to get out of bed every morning isn’t that simple, and still leaves room for hope.

  1. I got burnt out on novels that feel like they want to be movies years ago after reading too many mediocre Doctor Who novels of just that sort during the BBC Books era. I have heard that, despite the fact that they published novels, the editorial staff advised their authors to read Story.  ↩

  2. Turtle Diary was made into a movie. I haven’t seen it and it doesn’t seem to be readily available, but Hoban himself didn’t think it captured the book.  ↩

  3. The genre also includes Harold and Maude, because “middle-aged” is in this case a state of mind.  ↩

A Very Confused Detective

This year I read two Stanislaw Lem novels I’d never read before. The Invincible didn’t impress me, but The Investigation is one of his better books.

The Investigation is Lem’s take on the British mystery. As you might expect the subject isn’t the usual mundane murder: Lieutenant Gregory of Scotland Yard is assigned to look into reports of dead bodies found moved with no one around to move them. It seems corpses are getting up and walking.

Cover of The Investigation

Generally[1] I think Lem is at his best in his satirical books, like The Cyberiad, The Star Diaries, and A Perfect Vacuum. The Investigation isn’t one of those, but it’s not dry and numbingly earnest like The Invincible. Lem’s prose is good here, with sharp and memorable descriptions, as when Gregory looks at his fellow train passengers and sees “a sea of accidental faces.”

The Investigation is set in detective-novel England as seen from Poland. In the first few pages we hear of places like Engender, Planting, and Spittoon, and minor characters with names like Thicker and Samuel Filthey. Lem drops these into an entirely straight-faced conversation about animate corpses. It reads like a CSI briefing done in Monty Python voices. Lem surrounds straight man Gregory with interestingly grotesque characters.[2] The best is the birdlike, irascible statistician Sciss, who is incensed by the suspicion that someone might be making fun of mathematics.

Where The Investigation shines is in its surrealism. Lem writes like a dream here, literally: when he drops in a dream sequence it’s not a typical allegorical novel dream, it actually has the disjointed, illogical feel of a real nightmare. Yet it’s still one of those dream sequences you don’t initially realize is a dream, which says a lot about the novel’s tone. Gregory is, after all, investigating walking corpses. Meetings with his superior often take place at night, or in darkened rooms, as if Scotland Yard has instituted mood lighting policies. The case culminates with the nightmarish image of a body moving like a wind-up toy, and I can’t imagine a horror movie pulling off a creepier image than the one The Investigation evoked in my imagination.

The more impossible the case seems the more Gregory moves out of the ordinary world, and the more alienated he becomes. His life outside Scotland Yard is a series of small awkward failures to connect to other people, from the bartender whose simple questions about dinner he’s too abstracted to understand to a humiliatingly unsuccessful attempt to give a few coins to a beggar. Gregory is ultimately so confused that he walks down a tunnel, finds another person blocking his way, and only belatedly realizes he’s walked into a mirror.

Like the astronauts in The Invincible, Gregory is dealing with an apparently intelligent phenomenon that may have no intelligence behind it at all. Sciss’s best explanation for the animate corpses is essentially that some random physical phenomena happened to come together in just the right way to make the dead walk. For Gregory this calls to mind a metaphor of the universe as a bowl of soup in which bits randomly clump together to form something whole. Improbable, but as Lem wrote in another novel, mathematically improbable events sometimes happen anyway. Lem was seemingly fascinated by randomness and probability, returning to the theme over and over. (One of the fake book reviews in A Perfect Vacuum covers a book arguing that if the laws of probability are true then the universe itself, being so improbable, cannot possibly exist.) Lem’s characters seek order in statistical chaos. Many of his novels hinge on distinguishing between meaningful, intelligent phenomena and pareidolia: the misapplied pattern-seeking that, for instance, lets us see faces in clouds. His aliens are really alien. Is Solaris bringing visitors’ memories to life for a reason, or is it an autonomic response, like white blood cells reacting to a virus? Is it possible, without anthropomorphizing, for humans to understand what’s happening on Eden? Most of Lem’s stories and themes come back to the limits of human ability to comprehend an infinite, incomprehensible universe.[3] (In this Lem has a weird thematic parallel to H. P. Lovecraft, although happily Lem’s preoccupation with incomprehensibility is based in a sense of wonder, not xenophobia.) The Investigation takes these themes out of their science fictional context and applies them to the detective novel.

How readers interpret the genre of The Investigation will affect how they interpret Sciss’s theory. Gregory can’t decide what genre he’s in. Sometimes he’s seduced by Sciss’s ideas—if the human mind can’t understand everything, he reasons at one point, maybe it’s irrelevant whether an explanation seems to make sense. Sometimes he’s not buying it: the outbreak of walking dead must have some human intelligence behind it, and he increasingly suspects Sciss himself. But because the name on the cover is Stanislaw Lem and not Agatha Christie, the reader knows the impossible may be happening.

And that’s what Gregory ultimately confirms. But his superintendant has a more mundane theory—a truck-driving prankster—that almost fits. And it’s a tidy theory, since the suspect has since died and wouldn’t be inconvenienced by the accusation. In the end it’s not clear what Scotland Yard’s going to go with. Is a tidy but probably wrong explanation better, or an unsatisfactory mystery? Lem, as you might expect from somebody who lived in Communist Poland, suggests the authorities would rather be satisfied than right. The real horror isn’t the walking dead—it’s the thought that the universe might be too big, random, and weird for human beings to get their heads around.

  1. Exceptions include Solaris, natch.  ↩

  2. The biggest problem with The Investigation is that, as is often the case with older SF, it’s lopsidedly male. Only a handful of women appear and we’re well into the novel before one even gets any lines. I’m mentioning the biggest flaw in a footnote because it’s an all too common problem in older SF, and not even an interesting problem. There’s only so much I can think of to say about it beyond “it’s this crap again.”  ↩

  3. I haven’t read Lem’s philosophical book Summa Technologiae, but in it he apparently argues for something like the Singularity: eventually, he suspects, humans will reach the point where we have so much information we can’t process it all.  ↩

Elf Bureaucracy

When reading secondary world fantasy a question I rarely ask is: What language are these people speaking? Most fantasies assume (and there’s nothing wrong with either choice) that everybody in the other world speaks a language just like English, or that the story was translated from some imaginary language. Of the fantasy novels I’ve read, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison–the pen name of Sarah Monette–is among the best at giving the impression that it’s a translation from some another language, and at giving some idea of what that other language is like.

Cover of The Goblin Emperor

The premise is that when the emperor of the elves started feeling embarrassed about his married-to-a-goblin phase he packed his half-goblin son Maia off to the hinterlands in the care of a resentful cousin. Thus, when the entire royal family dies in a blimp-related assassination Maia turns out to be a convenient backup. Maia, whose biggest concern heretofore has been getting through the day without pissing off cousin Setheris, spends the rest of the novel figuring out how this “emperor” business works.

Maia’s language is centered around manners and protocol. A complex system of titles indicates status. Maia uses different forms of address for intimates and acquaintances: The former is indicated by the use of “thee” and the latter by the first person plural, what’s (ironically) known as the “royal we.” You don’t need to understand any of this to follow the story[1]–if you have trouble at first keeping track of all these people and their different titles, that just means you and Maia have something in common. But how these people talk is a window into how they think, and how their society works.[2] It says a lot about Maia’s situation that he uses the intimate form of address hardly at all, and almost always when addressing himself in his head. As emperor, he literally has no intimates.

The fashion in SF is for lots of POV characters. TGE stays in Maia’s head all the way through, which makes him one of the better characters in recent SF: we’re not bouncing around a cast of thousands, so it feels like we have time to get to know him. And because Maia was kept out of the Emperor’s world until now, he knows almost as little of it as we do. We learn his environment with him and this eases us into the novel’s complex worldbuilding. The strict POV is also a structural cue to Maia’s introversion and intellectual bent: Maia lives in his head, and so does the novel. The story’s personality is Maia’s personality.

His personality is different from other contemporary genre heroes. Most pop culture protagonists right now are either face-punchy tough guys or geniuses with no social skills and an excess of snark.[3] Having had my fill of both, I’m now most interested in heroes who solve problems while being decent. Maia is one of those. You get a sense of who he is when he discovers he’s the emperor. He doesn’t ascend to the throne out of ambition, or because he has a Destiny to fulfill. This messenger shows up to take Maia to the capital, and he’s a little panicky but he goes along because he’s agreeable and conscientious. If this guy is telling Maia he’s the emperor now, he has to remember protocol and try his best to live up to his role, because trying his best is just what Maia does.

As Emperor Maia solves problems by building connections with other people. It’s his most vital skill. He has to rely on others often. He’s one of those Louis XIV on-constant-display emperors, so his position limits where he can go and what he can do. And he’s a constitutional monarch, not a dictator, so he can’t order his desires into reality at whim. Maia collects plenty of reliable allies because The Goblin Emperor, like other books I’ve reviewed recently, is optimistic fantasy. Maia’s world is unjust–women and people of Maia’s goblin ancestry are second class citizens, and economic inequality is bad enough to inspire revolutionary assassins. But most people mean well, and the world’s problems are fixable.

Maia is retiring by nature but conscientious enough to see when something needs to be done, and to do it, if it’s within his limits. He has moments of anger and resentment but is self-aware enough to recognize them and realize that anger in an emperor is dangerous. His mix of introversion and determination reminded me of another one of Sarah Monette’s characters–Kyle Murchison Booth, protagonist of the M. R. Jamesian stories in The Bone Key. Although fortunately for Maia he’s living in a fantasy novel, not a horror story.

But Maia’s story begins at the point where the standard epic fantasy clichés end. Fantasies starring would-be monarchs usually leave the coronation to the epilogue, spending their obligatory three volumes on travelogues interspersed with battles. Maia’s job isn’t to secure the throne. He has to figure out what to do once he’s on it. He spends the book negotiating, learning to navigate the bureaucracy, and figuring out the subtler details of elven politics. And it’s more absorbing and suspenseful than 99 percent of those multivolume quests. I wonder again, as I so often do, why so many SF novels lean so hard on action when thought and dialogue are what prose does best.

I’ve seen internet commenters argue that, despite being filled with elves and goblins and wizards and priests casting spells, The Goblin Emperor somehow isn’t actually fantasy. Apparently there’s not enough magic, or what magic exists in the book isn’t sufficiently plot-relevant. Which is stupid. I mean, first of all, The Goblin Emperor is not the kind of fantasy novel that explores every rule of a clockwork-perfect magic system, but that doesn’t mean that magic is absent. Anyone who thinks it doesn’t affect the plot isn’t paying attention, or maybe isn’t even reading carefully enough to recognize the plot. More importantly, as criteria for classifying a novel as fantasy “it’s gotta have wizard people” is asinine. Gormenghast does not have magic. Neither does Swordspoint. Magic is irrelevant to the plot of some Discworld novels–Monstrous Regiment, for instance, might as well take place in a world without it. Nobody questions their fantasy credentials. I’m not sure what’s different about The Goblin Emperor.[4]

Most importantly, The Goblin Emperor could not be set in the real world without burying its concerns under layers of real-world politics. It’s about a person of mixed background and ambiguous respectability thrown into an unexpectedly exalted position and learning to function in it and govern well. Now, you could, for instance, write an alternate history about an Anglo-Indian ruling the British empire instead of Queen Victoria. But that novel would be about India, and the British empire, and their cultures and history and politics. And the audience might have strong feelings about those issues that might overshadow other themes. The Goblin Emperor, by setting its story in an invented world, takes one step back from specific historical concerns. This allows it to focus on a question relevant to many times and places: in a flawed society, how can someone be a decent person in a position of power?

I mentioned that The Goblin Emperor starts where most epic fantasies end, with a new ruler coming to power. Science fiction and fantasy are especially political genres. Interestingly, fantasies about big political changes are more often concerned with what leads up to the change than the consequences, which maybe get a reassuring epilogue. Epic fantasies end in coronations; we never find out whether Aragorn is a competent administrator. Dystopian stories, if they allow their heroes to triumph over the repressive old order, don’t get into what those heroes plan to put in their place. Stories of revolution are about how the heroes get the upper hand, not how they rebuild. Snowpiercer smashes the train and doesn’t concern itself with how the survivors will get along in the freezing cold with the polar bears; Jupiter Ascending has no real idea what its heroine might do after securing her position among the Space Aristocrats.

Pop culture critics have spent gigabytes worrying over Hollywood’s ever-accelerating rebooting of its franchises. Most are fantasies of some kind–superheroes, super-spies, space operas. Every reboot is another chance to retell the hero’s origin. Hollywood loves origin stories, maybe because they match up with the Campbellian “hero’s journey” Hollywood still takes for a prescription. Expand the definition of “power” beyond the political into the personal–physical power, social power, economic power–and you can see how this connects to the last paragraph. Origin stories are about rising to power. We’ve all noticed superhero stories, our dominant film genre, can’t get away from origins. The comic books reboot themselves every couple of years now. Critics of literary SF speculate on why Young Adult novels are popular even among older readers. That fits the pattern, too: YA stories are about characters discovering their personal agency. By contrast, how many SF stories are about old people?

It’s not that no one writes SF about people trying to decently manage the power they have rather than leveling it up–in fact that describes Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, one of The Goblin Emperor’s Hugo co-nominees. But pop culture seems more interested in the process of getting power than in handling it responsibly.

I think this reflects a larger trend. American politicians exist in permanent campaign mode, always looking to the next election, and when they’re on the job many have no clear idea what to do beyond obstructing their colleagues from doing their jobs. Business leaders extract short-term profits while ignoring the long-term health of their businesses, then walk away with generous severance packages. Silicon valley startups base their business models on “disruption,” by which they mean looking for excuses not to follow the rules that apply to their competitors without worrying about what those rules are for. Americans in the 21st century want money and status. They don’t want to think about what they’ll do with it, or the effects of what they do to get it. Our popular culture gives us what we want, or what it thinks we want. So it gives us fewer stories about everyday responsibility, or how we live and work outside of the crises depicted in a Hollywood blockbuster.

Standardized epic fantasies pretend their heroes’ only job is to plant the right asses on the right thrones. But replacing the head of state does not reboot society. Maia is a more thoughtful and just person than the last emperor, but that doesn’t automatically make the system he’s now complicit in less corrupt. He’s going to have to put in a lot of slow, patient work to change it. The lesson of The Goblin Emperor is that diplomacy and administration, the everyday societal maintenance that keeps civilization running and sometimes even improves it, can be just as dramatic as revolution. The Goblin Emperor keeps traditionally “exciting” plots running in the background–a murder investigation, attempted coup, and attempted assassination. But the real climax comes when Maia convinces the ruling council to make their citizens’ lives a bit more convenient by building a bridge. I can’t imagine a climactic battle scene as exciting.

  1. Although, if you care, everything is explained in an appendix. I’d recommend getting a paper copy to facilitate flipping back and forth if you want to consult it.  ↩

  2. This is not an endorsement of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, that language constrains the way people think. Instead, the way people think shapes their language.  ↩

  3. This is why most of the detective novels I read are old. Hercule Poirot could be a fussbudget, but at least he didn’t need a minder to supervise all his interactions with other human beings.  ↩

  4. Well, beyond the fact that it was one of the few works to get a Hugo nomination on its own merits in a year dominated by incompetent pulp fiction nominated by resentful culture warriors.  ↩

A Less Apocalyptic Postapocalypse

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre won the 1978 Nebula and the 1979 Hugo awards for best novel. It also won the Locus Award, given on the basis of a poll run by Locus magazine. Its first chapter was originally published as a novelette called “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand.” That got a Nebula, too. People really liked Dreamsnake, is what I’m saying. Despite this, it was out of print for years and is now only available as an ebook. Apparently it got caught in a couple of publisher meltdowns. I’d at first wondered whether it was just so different from the last twenty years’s worth of science fiction that publishers didn’t know what to do with it.

Cover of Dreamsnake

While checking the dates on those awards I came across Tor.com’s rundown on the 1979 Hugo awards and there were multiple comments to the effect that Dreamsnake hasn’t aged well. Which is weird. I mean, yes, this is a very 1970s novel. It’s a post-apocalypse where the apocalypse was a nuclear exchange, not a climate disaster, pandemic, or zombie swarm. Humanity enjoys copious free love because someone has invented biofeedback-based birth control, perhaps following the discovery of a surviving Whole Earth Catalog. Dreamsnake does not contain dolphins, but if it did they would probably talk. But these are minor quirks, not problems. Many, many SF novels still considered classics have aged far worse. There are more interesting ways in which Dreamsnake departs from today’s SF, and to me those differences make it seem fresh.

I read Dreamsnake a few months ago. I decided to finish and post this review after The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet because Dreamsnake is another SF novel set in a world that doesn’t feel malign. Which is funny, because it’s a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland. But it’s the rare post-apocalyptic story about how civilization still functions, more or less.

Snake is a doctor on the post-apocalyptic equivalent of her internship. She travels through scattered communities with a trio of snakes engineered to produce medicine instead of venom. Unfortunately a patient’s family freaks out over her dreamsnake, the snake that provides anesthetic, and kills it. Dreamsnakes are really hard-to-get space snakes, so this is equivalent to the new intern letting somebody smash the MRI machine. Snake hopes to salvage her trip by finding a new dreamsnake, or at least some clues to how to convince the damn things to breed. Meanwhile over in the B plot Arevin, a relative of the ophidiophobes, leaves to find Snake’s people and let them know the dead snake incident was totally not her fault.

Many modern science fiction and fantasy novels follow one of two templates: endless, meandering serials with oversized casts and heavily media-influenced series whose individual volumes read like Hollywood movies. Dreamsnake is a single, complete, not-overly-long novel with only a couple point-of-view characters. Like Long Way it’s a picaresque novel with ongoing plot strands that come up at the climax. (Between these novels I’m coming to realize how much affection I have for this narrative structure.) An episodic structure is exactly what this novel needs to express its themes: moving Snake between different people with different cultures and technologies, and showing them coexisting, is the point. Arevin’s subplot gives another perspective on the places Snake visits, and reveals more about her society without having to send her home.

The different sub-stories allow Dreamsnake to run its themes through several variations. What’s interesting about the novel’s setup is Snake’s reaction to the death of her dreamsnake. It would be easy to put all the blame on the people who attacked her snake, who honestly should have known better. But Snake also blames herself for not getting how afraid they were, or explaining enough: she “didn’t understand them until too late.” She should have talked to them more.

Snake’s adventures center around communication, and problems caused by miscommunication and bad assumptions. An exile from a domed city dies because she went prospecting in a radioactive crater; her people lied to her so often she no longer believed in the danger. A young man is given outdated information on those birth control techniques and causes an unwanted pregnancy. Snake discovers and rescues an abused child by being the first person to pay any attention to her. On a less fraught note, Arevin discovers late in his journey that he may have mildly offended several people by misunderstanding what they meant when they asked if there was anything they could do for him.[1] In between, Dreamsnake is punctuated by small misunderstandings cleared up by talking. Snake solves problems by asking questions, sharing information, and considering other points of view. She loses her temper with stupidity or genuine evil, but generally she’s patient, tolerant, and curious.

This is unusual for a post-apocalyptic hero. Post-apocalyptic fiction is squarely in the middle of that strain of SF that assumes heroes are tougher than they are smart. This is especially true of media SF, but given that novels are a textual medium it’s odd that many SF novels also have heroes who don’t primarily solve problems by using their words.

SF has a bad habit, going back to “The Cold Equations,” of valorizing people who make what are laughably called “hard choices” to survive. By this they mean that their heroes will compromise their morals to ensure their own safety. This never seems as difficult to these heroes as the phrase “hard choices” would imply. Nowhere is this a bigger cliché than in an apocalyptic wasteland. Survivors lock the riff-raff out of the fallout shelter and leave the weak and injured for the zombies. This is not how most people behave during disasters in real life. That’s because real life doesn’t have writers out to punish anyone who doesn’t live up to their standard of toughness. Post-apocalyptic heroes make hard choices because they’re in the power of authors who contrived their worlds to require them.

But Dreamsnake’s world isn’t inherently hostile to the people in it, so most of those people are reasonable. Dreamsnake has villains, including an abusive guardian and what’s basically a drug dealer, but it’s interesting how tawdry and how small these villains are. The narrative doesn’t center on them and they don’t drive it. They’re not strong, charismatic, or clever. They aren’t Snake’s biggest problems; they seem more like symptoms of problems. In Dreamsnake’s world villains aren’t powerful, just pathetic.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, Dreamsnake is not a utopian novel. This is, again, a world with radioactive craters. But the communities that are left are getting along okay because humanity didn’t abandon every value it ever held the moment the bombs fell. Most people do their best to cooperate and to fix things, and McIntyre didn’t construct their world to constantly pull their football away. I wish Dreamsnake had been a bigger influence on the SF genre. It needs more novels where evil is weak and heroes solve problems with kindness and curiosity instead of face-punching.

In closing, I should really try harder to review books I liked on their own merits instead of spending most of the review comparing them to the ones I disliked.

  1. They forgot to add “Nudge nudge, wink wink.”  ↩

More Science Fiction Novels Like This, Please

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is a rarity in modern science fiction and fantasy: A novel with a large ensemble cast, none of whom are assholes. Most of the people in their universe are not assholes. Even the guy who’s sort of an asshole turns out to want not to be an asshole, and is just incompetent at it. God, this is refreshing. I had no idea how much I needed an asshole-free SF novel until I read it.

Cover of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which I think I’ll just abbreviate as Long Way, is a space opera about people traveling the galaxy in a small spaceship. Many reviews have compared it to Firefly. This is less because it’s a good comparison than because nerds have spent the past decade mentioning Firefly every two minutes and have forgotten how to stop. I mean, I liked Firefly, but I have to admit it was kind of asshole-based. Which this, as I mentioned, is not. Also the characters on Firefly were drifters and borderline criminals, and Long Way’s crew have actual jobs building space portals for the Galactic Commons. One of the characters is a clerk who solves problems with form-filling skills and general reasonability. If you have to compare Long Way to a TV series a better choice would be Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is also about people who like each other despite their differences working together to accomplish productive things in space.

Long Way’s structure encourages the TV comparisons. It’s an episodic novel: The crew of the Wayfarer are taking a months-long trip to set up a portal in a distant system, making stops along the way. Their adventures are thematically related, and set up plot strands that come together for the denouement, but don’t have a single overarching plot. I’m often impatient with novels that remind me of movies or television, but that’s because those novels usually seem written to fit the Procrustean bed of the default Hollywood blockbuster plot template. Long Way’s episodic structure was common in the days when SF writers gathered their stories into fix-up novels, but it goes against the modern conventional wisdom on how genre books should be written, which is pretty much “use the default Hollywood blockbuster plot template.” So I haven’t seen it much lately, which makes it feel fresh. And the novel uses this structure deliberately to support its themes. This is a novel about a family accepting a new member and becoming closer over the course of a long journey in each other’s company. Every member of the Wayfarer’s crew gets a spotlight chapter that allows both us and the other characters to learn their background and understand them better.

This isn’t just an unusual structure for modern SF, it’s an unusual subject. The SF genre tends to think that, at least at novel length, the genre is properly about epic problems: wars, invasions, world-wide conspiracies. Big crises with high body counts. Any SF plot that doesn’t put at least an entire city in peril doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Some stories kill hundreds of offstage extras just to prove how Serious they are. Not enough SF is about the human-scale problems that make up the bulk of almost every other branch of literature, from romance to social satire to murder mysteries. Long Way is proof that a small human-scale story can be far more compelling than epic bombast. A standard epic space opera plot is brewing in this universe–the Wayfarer gets caught at the very edge of it–but the novel concludes that the civilized galaxy ought to be sensible enough to have nothing to do with this sort of nonsense.

The villains are a culture that cannot tolerate difference, even in opinion: everything is true or false and they work out conflicts with fights to the death. The antagonist who seeks to establish a single worldview, creating order by assimilating or destroying anyone who doesn’t fit, is another trope standard in televised space opera–think Star Trek’s Borg or Doctor Who’s Daleks. As with those shows Long Way‘s villains clarify its heroes’ values by embodying their opposites. Everyone wants to understand each other better, and this “understanding each other” strategy generally works because in this world when you extend a hand to someone they are unlikely to bite it. The Galactic Commons is a place where everyone’s first instinct when meeting someone different is curiosity.

In SF the world is as much a character as the actual characters. Long Way uses a lot of explanations and infodumps in its worldbuilding, but that shouldn’t put anyone off because Long Way is a perfect example of how infodumping can be a workable technique.[1] Long Way’s infodumps stay interesting because they’re placed where they’re directly relevant and centered on people instead of things. They explain how the characters live and what’s happening to them in that moment, and end long before they test the reader’s patience.

Some critics are skeptical of the entire concept of worldbuilding. They’re right that it’s a bad sign when a novel echoes with what M. John Harrison called “the clomping foot of nerdism”: irrelevant yet intricately worked out histories and legends of how Lordfather Zargon collated the heavens and Tuf the Mighty defeated the Poodlians at Smug Harbor. The most unreadable of these books–usually they’re epic fantasies–include whole prologues of this stuff, usually in italics. But there are different kinds of worldbuilding. I like the kind that imagines the material conditions of the characters’ lives. Who else lives in this world? What jobs do people do, what hobbies do they have? What do they eat? It sounds trivial, but I’ve found one of the surest signs I’m reading a good SF novel is that it pays attention to food. This is the kind of worldbuilding Long Way engages in.

Material worldbuilding gives the sense that the protagonist’s world isn’t the backdrop for a solipsistic hero’s journey populated by disposable extras, but a lived-in world full of other equally significant people. The story revolves around the protagonists, but their world does not. I think this distinction is crucial to how Long Way is able to create a world that feels less dysfunctional and more benign. Not safe–these characters get hurt. But hurt is not constant and not their natural state. This world is not designed to constantly punch all but the most privileged people in the face. So when one character actually did die it connected with my emotions in a way very little recent SF has managed. It’s not that it was an unusually well written death scene, though it wasn’t bad[2]. I just hadn’t been numbed by 500 pages of prior misery. Numb, I’ve come to realize, is what most modern SF leaves me feeling.

For a couple of decades the dominant strain of fantasy and science fiction has been grimdark. This stuff appears to have sprung from the brain of Timon of Athens in full root-chewing mode. A Game of Thrones is the thought leader here: Trust gets people killed, callousness trumps compassion, and the continued existence of any possible society will inevitably depend on an exploited underclass. Fans call this “realistic.” I guess I can see how they might believe that, if they’re still stuck at the emotional age of twelve.

There’s also a superficially similar tradition of dystopian SF that’s produced worthwhile and even brilliant writing, using dysfunction and dystopia to come to grips with real injustices and the brokenness of the real world. Much as some fans would like to believe otherwise, SF is inherently political. If its imaginary worlds are not responses to the real world, wrestling metaphorically with real problems, the genre isn’t doing its job. Getting down into the weeds with exploitation, oppression, and dystopia is one way to do that, and a vital one.

What depresses me–

And when I say “depresses” I don’t mean “I don’t want to think about this stuff,” I mean I’ve come to realize many novels I’ve tried to read have literally not been good for my mental health–

What depresses me is that when I browse the SF shelves at the bookstore grimdark and dystopian stories are practically all I see. Diving into the misery seems to be the only tool left in 21st century SF’s utility belt. So much SF has so much grimness baked into its worldbuilding, it seems the genre is telling me it cannot even imagine a world that isn’t either a boot stamping on a human face or a war of all against all, if not both. Exploitation and injustice are inherent, ineradicable properties of the real world and of any other world conceivable, no matter how fanciful. It’s exhausting when most of our fictional alternatives are… well, not really alternatives. It’s like SF was taken over by Margaret Thatcher.

Long Way gave me what I haven’t had nearly enough of from recent science fiction and fantasy: a world that isn’t irredeemably terrible. Not a world without problems: the Galactic Commons is maybe too willing to make deals with assholes if it might be profitable, and their caution over transhumanism translates into second-class-citizenship for clones and artificial intelligences. But this society is not Omelas and doesn’t need to be entirely dismantled before anyone can begin to fix its problems.

Grim SF is one perfectly fine way to deal metaphorically with an imperfect world, but the genre needs alternative metaphors[3] and a wider emotional range. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet imagines a world where people are trying to do better. Not a warning, or a cry of despair, but a role model. I hope it’s a sign of a trend.

  1. Moby Dick and Les Miserables are big on infodumps and I’m fond of both.  ↩

  2. Not as good as Hamlet’s, but way better than Little Nell’s  ↩

  3. I should acknowledge, because I can imagine someone misunderstanding my argument, that when I say “alternatives” I really do mean metaphorical and allegorical alternatives, not literal alternative plans for society. I mean, I don’t expect very many people to misunderstand that, but it’s always worried me that when you mention Star Trek people–even fans, who should know better–talk about Gene Roddenberry’s “vision” as though he had a workable blueprint for the future. We’re talking about people flying around in a spaceship, guys!  ↩

Stephen Bates, The Poisoner

The Poisoner is a biography and account of the trial of William Palmer, who was convicted of poisoning a friend and suspected of poisoning any number of others in the 1850s.

The Poisoner is the kind of narrative history I like: one that doesn’t try to read like a novel, but will leave the main path and go into detail whatever historical topics the main subject touches on, like gambling, forensics, and insurance fraud. A single story expands into a fuller picture of life at the time. It might be a little dry in places, but I like history to err on the side of dryness.

Cover of The Poisoner

The jacket copy promises “an astonishing and controversial revision of Palmer’s life” but you can’t trust jacket copy. You know the riddle about the guy on the right who always tells the truth, and the guy on the left who always lies? The guy on the left is a book jacket. Anyway. There’s little doubt that Palmer killed John Parsons Cook. The Poisoner’s revision to the standard narrative is that Palmer was not a criminal mastermind. Charles Dickens started a Household Words essay on Palmer by calling him “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey dock” and explained in typically Dickensian hyperbole that Palmer’s calm demeanor at his trial was the sign of a manipulative and devious mind. This, thought Dickens, was a man with “carefully laid plans” and “secret knowledge of the difficulties and mysteries with which the proof of Poison had been, in the manner of the Poisoning, surrounded.”

I came away from The Poisoner picturing Palmer as the serial poisoner equivalent of a W. C. Fields character. He probably didn’t poison as many people as some think. (People died around Palmer a lot, but in nineteenth-century England people died around everybody a lot.) Anyone who spends time on the internet is likely to have heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect: the idea that the people most incompetent at a task will be too incompetent even to recognize their own incompetence. The concept originally occurred to the psychologists who named it after they heard the story of a bank robber who thought he could make himself invisible to security cameras by rubbing lemon juice on his face. Palmer was, in fact, probably not much more skilled when it came to murder. Maybe Dickens was convinced Palmer had to be a master of deception because it was easier than believing the authorities weren’t very good at detecting poisoners.

Nineteenth century forensic science made poison investigations difficult. Judith Flanders’s book The Invention of Murder discusses a mid–19th century poison panic in which lower-class women were convicted of poisoning family members and acquaintances on little evidence. What struck me when I read that book was how similar the suspects seemed to the accused in earlier witch trials. Many suspects were outsiders who had something “wrong” with them–a reputation for promiscuity, a bad temper, more children than they could support. Accusations often occurred in small communities and might be based on gossip. At trials “experts” testified who had never previously seen wounds or poisonings of the kind in question. In many cases statements were believed or disbelieved based on the witness’s social class.

When I read about nineteenth century criminal investigations what strikes me is their lackadaisicalness. The investigation of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, the first 19th century British murder of note, began with sightseers trooping through the crime scene. From there the police had a very slow learning curve. The authorities of the time tend to come off less like police than like sapient prairie dogs who’d maybe seen some police once from a distance.

Then I look at how many wrongful convictions we have in the modern United States, and I wonder how much we’ve actually improved.

The Palmer investigation was nearly as haphazard. John Parsons Cook’s post-mortem was held at a inn. This was common since inns had large public rooms and it had not yet occurred to the police that, hey, maybe they ought to build more places they could use for postmortems. The supervising doctor didn’t bring his instruments because he hadn’t realized he was expected to actually perform the post-mortem; instead a chemist’s assistant and a medical student did the dissecting. No one objected when Palmer himself horned in even though the victim’s stepfather considered him a suspect. When the student removed the stomach Palmer sort of accidentally on purpose shoved him, spilling the stomach contents. It and the intestines were placed in a sealed jar. The jar then disappeared when no one was looking. When the doctors noticed this Palmer cheerfully said he’d put it by the door because he “thought it more convenient for you to take it away.” Somehow a hole had developed in the seal.

The postmortems didn’t find any strychnine in Cook. The jury convicted Palmer because as soon as Cook’s stepfather challenged him he did everything he could to incriminate himself, including blurting things he could have followed up with “Did I say that out loud?” At the postmortem the supervising doctor heard him say “They won’t hang us yet.” William Palmer didn’t lose a battle of wits to a brilliant detective. He was just a rather stupid person whose luck finally ran out.

Conspiracies, criminal masterminds, and brilliant psychopaths are all over pop culture. We’ve built entire TV shows around impossibly skilled assholes like Hannibal Lecter, Dexter, and Pale Imitation of Francis Urquhart. Counterintuitive as it seems, these stories are comforting. No one could blame us for falling prey to the well-directed malice of a master criminal, and no one could blame the police for convicting the wrong guy. Those master criminals are smart. That real police might be fallible or even corrupt, that we’re less likely to be targeted by a genius than randomly endangered by a doofus with an assault rifle… Those ideas aren’t just frightening: they’re indignities.

In Which I Notice a Subgenre

When I wrote my post on Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible I’d intended to make an observation that would have taken the post on too long a detour. The Invincible belongs to a branch of science fiction I’ve never seen acknowledged as its own subgenre. (Although it wouldn’t surprise me if someone had already defined it somewhere.[1] I don’t have that many original ideas.) It’s a blend of space opera and horror and for the purposes of these notes–this post is too much a working-out-of-ideas to call it an essay–I’ll call it Spaceship Gothic.

I use the word “gothic” advisedly. Spaceship Gothic isn’t just any horror/science fiction mashup, but a kind with characteristics analogous to Gothic novels’ obsession with architecture and air of doomful cursedness:

  1. A small group of people confined to a spaceship, space station, or enclosed, uninhabited planetary environment.
  2. A dangerous and incomprehensible discovery. A natural phenomenon, transcendent force, or alien life form we can’t understand or communicate with.

Combine #1 with #2, assume nothing good will come of it, and you’ve got Spaceship Gothic. The best-known example is the movie Alien; I’d also cite Forbidden Planet, The Black Hole, and Event Horizon.[2] Novels include Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible and Solaris, James Smythe’s The Explorer, Peter Watts’s Blindsight, and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Dry Salvages. On television we have any number of Doctor Who stories and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Q Who” (though I’d argue that later Borg episodes don’t qualify, as the Borg became more communicative and more comprehensible).

The Spaceship of Otranto

The Gothic novel is a genre centered on environment. The hallmark of a Gothic, the thing it absolutely has to have to be Gothic, is a mansion or a castle, isolated and sparsely populated. It’s a genre named after architecture.

The horror genre borrows from the Gothic novel the tendency to strand characters in enclosed locations. Get everyone into an abandoned hospital, a cabin in the woods, or an old dark house. Isolate them with a freak storm, bleak moorlands, a confusing forest, even just a flat tire miles from anywhere. Then you pick them off one by one.

Spaceship Gothic takes this to its logical conclusion. A Gothic needs a house; Spaceship Gothic needs a spaceship. A spaceship is the ultimate closed environment. You might think your Old Dark House is in the middle of nowhere but most of the time a spaceship is surrounded by literally nothing. From the time it leaves its home planet until it reaches its destination, a ship is its crew’s entire world.

Some Spaceship Gothic stories, like Planet of the Vampires or Prometheus, take their crew to a planet. If so, it’s uninhabited aside from an alien ruin, archaeological site, crashed ship, or sparsely crewed or abandoned base. Most space opera treats planets as small spaces, metaphorical islands.[3] Whatever the crew finds planetside, it feels paradoxically claustrophobic: yeah, technically the crew has an entire planet to roam, but where would they go?

Other spaceships are the same deal: abandoned, wrecked, drifting. Few or no survivors. Except for a Curse.

The Curse

Like the heroes of happier space operas, the ones with their eyes peeled for New Worlds and New Civilizations, Spaceship Gothic crews are explorers and solvers of mysteries. They just have less fun solving them. The crew of the Nostromo is reluctantly diverted to an alien crash site. Prometheus is about an archaeological dig. Stanislaw Lem’s novels star scientists encountering unusual life forms on alien planets. The crews in Event Horizon and The Black Hole discover what happened to earlier, vanished space missions.

All of which is standard for space opera. As I implied, you could probably find a Star Trek episode with the same setup as any Spaceship Gothic story. The difference is in where the stories end up. Space opera is optimistic. The characters find a new life form, a strange gadget, a new scientific phenomenon, or a tricky engineering problem and it’s awesome, in the old sense of “inspiring awe” as well as the new. It’s a mystery to solve. Not all space opera characters succeed, but they could. Theoretically. We can talk to the aliens, we can figure out how the MacGuffin works. The universe is understandable! Human potential is limitless! Spaceship Gothic is what happens when it’s not.

In a Spaceship Gothic story the characters set out to solve a mystery but discover a curse. It’s bigger than whatever they thought they were looking for, if they were looking for anything specific at all. It’s transcendent, inherently incomprehensible. Something beyond. The characters throw themselves against it, and break.

If the Curse is an alien it won’t communicate or cooperate. It might be hostile, like the Borg, the eponymous Alien, or any number of Doctor Who villains, but it could be indifferent, or even trying to help. Solaris is, as far as we can tell, benign, but that doesn’t stop it from confusing and disturbing everyone who visits.

Often the Curse isn’t even a life form, just a force like the time warp from James Smythe’s The Explorer, or an impossibly advanced artifact like the Krell machinery in Forbidden Planet.

The Curse doesn’t need to hurt anyone itself. Spaceship Gothic being horror, it sometimes leaves most of the cast dead, perhaps with one or two escaping, Ishmael-like, to tell the story. (This is much more common in Spaceship Gothic movies, which tend towards the exploitative.) But the Curse doesn’t necessarily kill them directly. It’s often just a catalyst, the actual villain being some initially-sympathetic character whose character flaws have turned operatic. If there even is a villain. Sometimes the crew just can’t deal with this incomprehensible thing they found and self-destruct like the cast of a Coen Brothers movie.

So What is this Genre Doing?

I nominated two of Stanislaw Lem’s novels, The Invincible and Solaris, as Spaceship Gothics. I’d also add Fiasco and Eden, and maybe the novel that inspired the movie First Spaceship on Venus, though I’ve never read that one (I’m not sure it’s ever even been translated). Lem was interested in randomness, and how people look for order in randomness. He was also interested in the limits of human knowledge, and how people cope when they discover the answers to some questions (what’s Solaris up to? What’s happening on planet Eden?) are beyond their reach. Those themes, and Lem’s specifically pessimistic take on them, led him to write Spaceship Gothics.

Spaceship Gothic is a genre of incomprehensible forces that roll into people’s lives and leave them reeling. Remember how I mentioned the way planets in space opera work like islands? In SF, subjects and settings often stand in metaphorically for things on different scales. When SF talks about the universe it’s often, on another level, dealing with the world, or just our little part of it. Like the characters in SF stories, we’re surrounded by complex forces and systems–economic, legal, physical, ecological. They run our world. In a human lifetime we can only comprehend a fraction of what there is to know about them. But that doesn’t stop them from affecting our lives. No amount of Heinleinian competence can guarantee we won’t get knocked down by a natural disaster, a recession, a chronic disease, or the side effects of climate change.

(To a certain extent, this could be not only a working-out of anxieties, but also a corrective to traditional space opera, which, at its worst, can have a colonialist streak–its admiration for humanity’s potential has sometimes led to the assumption that space opera heroes have the right to control anything they find.)

The good news is that the universe is vast and there is an infinite amount to learn. This is also the bad news.

Traditional space opera looks into infinity and feels a sense of wonder. Spaceship Gothic is what you get when space opera looks into infinity, feels anxious and creeped out, and decides to hide under some blankets until it goes away.

  1. TV Tropes has a page for “Raygun Gothic,” but they’re talking about something completely different and using the word “gothic” with no reference to what it actually means, the same way geek culture uses the word “punk.”  ↩

  2. For movies aimed at such different audiences, The Black Hole and Event Horizon have weirdly similar gimmicks. How many stories are there where a Spaceship crew find a lost ship near a black hole that turns out to be a gateway to hell?  ↩

  3. A lot of Star Trek and Doctor Who becomes easier to understand when you realize they’re distant cousins to the middle part of The Odyssey; it explains, for instance, why most planets seem to have one major city and why most aliens have a single culture.  ↩

Stanislaw Lem, The Invincible

There are two Stanislaw Lems. I’m a big fan of the playful satirist who wrote The Cyberiad and A Perfect Vacuum. The hard science fiction writer, not so much. Not that Lem couldn’t write brilliantly in that mode–Solaris really is a classic–but his track record wasn’t as good.

For the longest time the only version of Solaris in English was a translation of a translation. A few years ago an ebook of a new, direct translation was released. More recently I came across another new Lem translation of The Invincible, which I’d never read.

Cover of The Invincible

The Invincible is Lem in Hard SF mode. It’s very much not Solaris. In fact, of all the Stanislaw Lem novels I’ve read this is the weakest. Lem was famously unimpressed by American science fiction but reading The Invincible it’s hard to understand why. It underachieves in exactly the same way as most “golden age” American SF.

The Invincible’s prose is nothing more than functional. It’s so straightforward it’s a slog to read. That might seem contradictory, but the difference between functional prose and good prose is the difference between a monotonous drone and a song. What’s more fun to listen to: a Beatles album, or your refrigerator? The Invincible is the refrigerator.

It’s hard to tell whether this is more the fault of Lem or his translator. Lem was usually lucky with his translators,[1] but The Invincible often felt off. For instance, at one point the text refers to “shadowless lamps” where Lem probably meant they didn’t have lampshades.

But never mind the prose–Hard SF fans will tell you the ideas are the star! This argument has problems.

First, if described badly enough even the most fascinating ideas can be boring. The Invincible’s opening sets the tone. Before any of the characters even wake up it spends 500 words narrating a starship’s automatic processes, and we’re halfway through the first chapter before we get any dialogue that isn’t tech jargon like “Full axis power. Static thrust.” This novel cares more about things than people.

We’re told 83 men are on board.[2] That statistic is hard to recall. There might just as easily be 47 men, or a dozen, because they have no personalities or distinguishing features, as even the text acknowledges:

It was baffling, because both men were entirely indistinguishable from the others in their clothing, weaponry, and appearance.

Most of the crew don’t have full names and it’s impossible to remember what surname belongs to who, or which characters we’ve seen before, or when, or where. The Invincible feels like a sketch comedy where all the characters are played by the same two or three people.

Some, again, would argue that The Invincible is the kind of book where the ideas are more important than the characters. But the main advantage a novel of ideas has over a nonfiction book is that it can bounce its concepts and themes off of idiosyncratic characters, with their own concerns and opinions, who will send those ideas in unexpected and strange directions. If the characters are flat, the ideas probably won’t bounce far.

Most of The Invincible consists of long dry descriptions of the crew’s investigation of a planet. Their activities sometimes seem to have equal emphasis regardless of whether they lead to any interesting discoveries. Following one methodical search of what appears to be a ruined city:

Rohan contacted the Invincible, informed the commander of what they had learned—which was essentially nothing

Oh. Okay, then.

Lem built The Invincible around ideas that were, for 1960s science fiction, ahead of their time. The planet is inhabited by self-organizing, self-replicating nanites which aren’t truly conscious but display pseudo-intelligent behavior as an emergent phenomenon. Most of the genre didn’t pick up on concepts like this for a couple of decades. But The Invincible doesn’t do anything with them besides argue that the universe is rather complex and incomprehensible, a theme Lem handled better in other books. “Here are some ideas!” says The Invincible. “I’ll just leave them here. My work is done.”

Which is a problem, because, well, the rest of the genre eventually did pick up on emergence and nanotechnology, and did find more interesting things to do with them. Heck, Doctor Who has done more interesting things with them. That’s the other problem with science fiction that only exists to drop a few ideas: science fictional ideas have a sell-by date. Once a SF novel is conceptually past its time it needs to give us some other reason to keep reading it. The Invincible didn’t manage that.

  1. Michael Kandel in particular is brilliant. Lem’s more playful works include wordplay that sounds completely natural in Kandel’s English but must have been hell to translate.  ↩

  2. Literally all men, which only serves to make the crew even more bland and indistinguishable. ↩