The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1966

The science fiction and fantasy genres love awards. They have two big ones, the Hugos and the Nebulas, and both hand out trophies for short stories, novels, novellas, and novelettes, the last two being stories longer than short stories but shorter than novels. You might ask, “Science Fiction, why do you need two words for stories bigger than short stories but shorter than novels? Why can’t you get by with one?” Listen, these people love trophies, okay?

It’s surprising how often these award winners drop out of sight. Not so much the novels, although there are definitely Hugo and Nebula winning novels whose stars have fallen. But pretty much all short SFF feels immediately irrelevant. A story wins a Hugo, or a Nebula, and next year it’s just… not part of the conversation anymore. Well, okay, short stories in any genre haven’t been popular for decades. And the extent to which there’s a cultural conversation around written SFF at all isn’t great. But when people do talk about short SFF they’re usually talking about short SFF still new enough to nominate for something. As soon as award season is over it drops off the radar.

So I’ve been looking for some direction for my reading, and I thought it might be interesting to read some older SFF award winners, most of which I haven’t read in many years if at all. Specifically, stories that made the shortlists for both the Hugos and the Nebulas. These are popular awards, but popular within a subculture. The Hugos are voted on by the few hundred or thousand SFF fans who attend science fiction conventions, and the Nebulas are voted by members of a professional group, the Science Fiction Writers of America. So these awards don’t quite represent the tastes of the much larger group of readers who will pick up some fantasy novels at the library but aren’t interested in arranging their social lives around them. Still, the overlap between the two shortlists is probably a decent guide to what made an impression on readers at the time. Do they hold up, or are they deservedly forgotten? We’ll see.

A few notes on this series:

  1. This project will cover novellas, novelettes, and short stories, and few if any novels. Including novels would involve a lot of reading. More to the point, it would involve reading a lot of books life is too short to read again, or at all.
  2. I’ll only write in detail about joint winners, or other stories I find interesting. Otherwise future posts will be broad summaries of whatever themes I noticed in that year’s stories.
  3. The series will be written slowly and posted irregularly, and will continue until I get bored or distracted. I’ve got to be honest, I may not get out of the 1960s here. I’ll stop before I reach the 2010s in any case, since it’s harder to have critical perspective on writing from the last decade.
  4. I can’t promise it will be comprehensive. I’m an amateur critic writing for my own amusement, and if I have trouble finding a story I’m only willing to go to so much trouble and expense to track it down.

That said, let’s start with:

1966

1966, the first year Nebulas were awarded, makes for an easy start: only two stories were both Hugo and Nebula nominees (along with Frank Herbert’s Dune in the novel category; it won the Nebula and tied with Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal for the Hugo). That might seem hard to believe given the Nebulas’ overstuffed first-year shortlists—27 stories in the short story list alone—but that year the Hugos had only one category for short fiction. By the time they expanded, the Nebulas had figured out how to trim their shortlists to a sensible half dozen entries. Nevertheless, future years will feature longer lists of shared nominees.


So the obvious place to start is Harlan Ellison’s “’Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” which won both the Hugo and Nebula for best short story in 1966. (For stories published in 1965. This series is going by the dates of the awards; the stories in each post will have been published in the previous year.) And having asserted old short SFF isn’t part of the cultural conversation I must admit we have an exception here, at least to the extent that “Repent, Harlequin” is obviously being taught in literature classes: Google it and you get pages of prefab essays for incompetently lazy students to plagiarize.

Which is weird, because you’d think students wouldn’t need the help. Ellison starts “Repent, Harlequin” by flat out telling you what it’s going to be about. “For those who need to ask, for those who need points sharply made, who need to know ‘where it’s at,’” he pastes in a long paragraph from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Which also tells you about its tone. It is, first, looking for a fight. A narrator immediately certain his readers are demanding to know “where it’s at” feels like the kind of guy who’d shout “What are you looking at?” at people who hadn’t even noticed he was there. (Harlan Ellison has a distinctive voice, and this would be a big part of it going forward.) At the same time there’s something playful about a story that provides its own Cliffs Notes.

“Repent, Harlequin” is set in the capital-S System, a society so monomaniacally efficient its systems have no give at all. So it notes whenever anyone is late for anything and deducts the time from their projected lifespan; rack up enough lost minutes and the Ticktockman shuts your heart off by remote control. The Harlequin dresses up as a jester to prank the System by, for instance, gumming up the moving sidewalks with $150,000 worth of jelly beans. The story asks where he got $150,000 worth of jelly beans, then admits it doesn’t care. Jelly beans are the thematically right tool for the job and their origin is thematically irrelevant, so the Harlequin just has them. It’s fiction. Deal with it.

It’s not hard to see why Ellison felt like writing about civil disobedience in 1965. The civil rights movement was winning real victories (Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in August) and opposition to the Vietnam War was picking up. What’s more surprising is a synchronicity with something that hadn’t happened yet, though it would be part of the cultural context for the Hugo and Nebula voters. Namely, the premiere of the Adam West Batman in January 1966. “Repent, Harlequin” is a superhero story about a costumed crusader facing off against a masked villain, and like Batman it’s self-aware and self-parodying. The jelly bean incident is followed by a deflating domestic scene in which the Harlequin’s relatively normal girlfriend takes the piss out of his overdramatic dialogue and (accurately) points out how ridiculous he is. This wouldn’t happen to the square-jawed engineers and space marines who were the stereotypical SF heroes ten years earlier.

Speaking of differences from earlier SF, maybe it’s time to talk about the prose. This is a vast oversimplification, but fans and critics tend to divide mid–20th-century SF into two distinct periods, the “Golden Age” (the 1940s through the 1950s) and the “New Wave” (the sixties through the early seventies). One difference between these eras was stylistic. Most Golden Age SF writers wrote slapdash pulpy prose meant to deliver a plot reasonably clearly, without much attention given to the work the prose was doing beyond simple description. (Advocates call this “transparent prose.” The idea is the prose is a “window” through which you watch the story without noticing the glass.) The New Wave writers’ tastes were more literary and they paid more attention to how language communicates feelings and images beyond its surface meaning.[1]

Ellison was a New Wave writer with a distinct voice, and knew how to make words work for him. When writing about the Ticktockman the prose keeps a regular rhythm, short sentences, or short phrases separated by commas: “You don’t call a man a hated name, not when that man, behind his mask, is capable of revoking the minutes, the hours, the days and nights, the years of your life.” The confrontation between the Harlequin and the Ticktockman is a metronomic tennis-match back-and-forth dialogue. During the jelly bean assault the narrative begins straightforwardly, speeds up to a run-on sentence as the Harlequin looses his beans, switches to short choppy single-sentence paragraphs when the System notices its schedule is off, and goes openly exasperated, all italics and question marks, as it asks what is going on? Every line of “Repent, Harlequin” is crafted to not only describe what happens but express how what is happening feels.

The prose carries you along like a carnival ride. It’s not until the ride is over that you might start to poke at it. “Repent, Harlequin” has, arguably, failings matching the weak points of left-wing culture in the late 1960s.[2] You might wonder whether scheduling, that tool of The Man, is pernicious enough to invite parody; if you asked me to list the problems with a regimented, unequal, surveillance society, things happening at predictable times would be far down the list. In Paingod and Other Delusions Ellison admitted to being chronically late and pointed out the similarity between Harlequin and Harlan; he’s not protesting injustice here so much as something that’s just harshing his mellow.

You might discern an uncomfortable, reflexive disdain for squares. (See again that opening line, presuming a fight the reader wasn’t actually picking.) When the Harlequin buzzes a crowd they faint and wet themselves, and there’s that bit of Thoreau: “In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.”

And maybe “Repent, Harlequin” has a slightly too naïve faith in the power of protest: those Vietnam protests went on for years, involved tens of thousands of people, and did nothing to stop the war. Civil disobedience isn’t a virtue in itself but a tactic, which can be deployed effectively (as the Civil Rights movement did) or ineffectively (all those Vietnam protests). And it’s not clear the Harlequin was effective. As his costume suggests his pranks are in the spirit of carnivalesque protest—balloons and giant puppets, billboard détournement, attempts to levitate the Pentagon, the kind of street protests that shade into street parties—which was popular with a large chunk of the activist left who opposed the war. Say, the Youth International Party (Yippies), who would get their start in a couple of years. But the point of medieval carnivals, with their reversals and tweaking of authority, was that they didn’t challenge the system, just acted as a release valve. After Carnival was over everything went back to normal. “Repent, Harlequin” says “if you make only a little change, then it seems to be worthwhile,” but the little change is that the Ticktockman is three minutes late… which he just denies. “Check your watch.” Who’s going to argue? This is still the guy who can revoke the minutes of your life. Your watch says what the Ticktockman says it says, because the Harlequin did not at any point tip the balance of power and the moral of the story doesn’t account for that.

That said, the prose does carry you. It’s a good ride.


The cover of the magazine that first published Doors of His Face

“The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth”, by Roger Zelazny, is an evocative title for what is basically just a fishing trip. But it earns the title. Zelazny was having a good year. In addition to tying for the best novel Hugo, his “He Who Shapes” tied with Brian Aldiss’ “The Saliva Tree” for Best Novella at the Nebulas.

The title comes from the book of Job, in which God brags about this awesome fish he made:

10 None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?

14 Who can open the doors of his face? his teeth are terrible round about.

19 Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out.

You can find leviathans on Venus. They haven’t yet been caught. Carl Davits tried, and was so awed by the Godzilla-sized fish he froze and couldn’t press the Fish Catching Button. Now he’s been hired as a bait man by Jean Luharich, his ex-wife, who’d like a big fish herself.

“Doors” is an old-fashioned adventure story with lots of technical detail about how a 300-foot fish is caught. (It’s not quite as simple as pressing a button. But there is a button. It’s very Jetsons.) But as with “Repent, Harlequin” it’s the style that matters. Carl has a poetic soul and his descriptions of Venus—how the sky looks at sunrise, what it’s like to approach from orbit—are vivid. Sometimes he slips into self-parody; the story’s last words are “the rings of Saturn sing epithalamium the sea-beast’s dower,” and I defy anyone to read this story without having to look up the word epithalamium. But I think this is more characterization than clumsiness on Zelazny’s part. What makes Carl memorable is the contrast between his inner monologue and his outer presentation as a rough port bum, as when he’s asked what it’s like diving at night:

I puffed, thinking of my light cutting through the insides of a black diamond, shaken slightly. The meteor-dart of a suddenly illuminated fish, the swaying of grotesque ferns, like nebulae-shadow, then green, then gone—swam in a moment through my mind. I guess it’s like a spaceship would feel, if a spaceship could feel, crossing between worlds—and quiet, uncannily, preternaturally quiet; and peaceful as sleep.

“Dark,” I said, “and not real choppy below a few fathoms.”

There’s a The Old Man and the Sea vibe to this story. It’s about humans pitting themselves against nature to prove their courage. But unlike Hemingway it’s not exclusively masculine; the gender politics are not modern but for a mid-sixties SF story (and that’s a big caveat) they aren’t bad. Jean organized this expedition as a publicity stunt for her cosmetics company, but her marketing is about adventure and heroics more than beauty. And she’s a competent adventurer. Their marriage failed because she and Carl were too alike.

If “The Doors of His Face” feels old-fashioned it might be because it feels like a screwball comedy. A critic named Stanley Cavell once identified a subgenre popular in the 1930s–40s called the “comedy of remarriage.” Examples are The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday (Cary Grant turns up in them a lot). They’re about couples who split up at (or before) the beginning of the movie but realize they belong together at the end; they were a way to create an exciting but Hayes-code-friendly simulation of infidelity as the couple dally with potential new partners. Structurally that’s what we have here. Jean also freezes at the vital moment, but because Carl is there to give her some “you can do it” encouragement she unfreezes and presses the Fish Catching Button that defeated him. (If landing the fish seems absurdly simple, it’s probably to keep a hundred percent of the reader’s attention on the drama.) And, well, that’s where the epithalamiums come in. Once you notice this it’s hard not to imagine “The Doors of His Face” as a black-and-white movie, with Katherine Hepburn as Jean and Robert Mitchum as Carl, with leviathans by Ray Harryhausen.

The one thing “The Doors of His Face” doesn’t resemble in the slightest is the book most critics claim as an influence: Moby-Dick. It’s not Moby-Dick, people. I assume you’re all saying this because you’ve never read Moby-Dick but it’s the only book you can think of about a giant sea creature. Moby Dick is unconquerable Nature. The leviathan is a big Filet-O-Fish. Who can open the doors of his face? Apparently these people. “The Doors of His Face” is New Wave in style but its heart is still in the Golden Age; it doesn’t doubt humans can conquer anything.


So I found the politics of “Repent Harlequin” a touch naïve, and called “Doors of His Face” old fashioned. Am I saying these stories aren’t worthy award-winners after all?

Oh, hell, no. These are great. “Doors” is less likely to reveal new facets on rereading—“Repent, Harlequin” is literature, “Doors” is an adventure yarn that just happens to be really, really well done. But they’re both classics. It is, again, all about style. Roger Ebert had a maxim he called Ebert’s Law—I think he might have codified it in a review of a movie called Freeway—that states “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” The same is true for stories. This lesson is, unfortunately, still lost on a lot of SFF, especially at novel length. Scores of novels are published every year that bury a few interesting ideas within but are written like plates of limp noodles with no sauce at all. You can’t say that about these stories; as unimpressed as I am with Dune, I’d say the award voters did pretty well in 1966. On to 1967 in… maybe a couple of weeks? We’ll see.


  1. You can probably tell from this description where my sympathies lie. It’s criticism! I don’t have to be fair!  ↩

  2. To be clear, my own politics are to the left; that’s why the failings of the 1960s counterculture disappoint me so.  ↩

Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

Science fiction has a grade inflation problem. I’ll pick up a popular, award winning book surrounded by piles of excited reviews, and half the time I discover it’s… well, okay. A fun read. Good if you’re tired and need something entertaining but not challenging. These books are hard to enjoy for what they are. After the hype I expected, y’know, more.

Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire is one of those books. Technically it’s about coexisting with empire, and cultural hegemony, and how it feels to identify with a culture you don’t belong to and that threatens to absorb your own. It detours into issues of identity and algorithmic bias. But it never manages to be about those things more than superficially. As I’ve grown older I’ve gotten used to books that dive into their themes, come at them from all the angles. A Memory Called Empire stands back from its themes, points, takes a photo, and gets on with the plot.

A Memory Called Empire is a space opera. The protagonist, Mahit Dzmare, is the ambassador from Lsel, an independent space station, to the vast Teixcalaan empire. It’s a cool job; her favorite books are Teixcalaanli—but she doesn’t quite fit in. Stories about an outsider trying to understand and exist in a fictional society are my kind of thing, or one of my kinds of things, so I enjoyed it. It’s not a book I’d recommend to anyone whose thing this isn’t. If this book doesn’t hit one of your “my thing” buttons, there won’t be enough here to keep you going through 470 pages.

A Memory Called Empire is written in close third person, almost all in Mahit’s head, narrating her experiences with journalistic objectivity and effacing the narrator as much as possible. It’s mostly flatly descriptive, sometimes rising to real eloquence (“Empire was empire—the part that seduced and the part that clamped down, jaws like a vise, and shook a planet until its neck was broken and it died.”) sometimes weighed down by awkward lumps (Mahit sees someone eating meat and is “horribly tempted by the smell of it, and a little horrified at the same time”).

Like a movie it keeps a steady pace, skipping the less plotty moments instead of standing back and summarizing. This means the novel can’t cover long stretches of time. So the plot takes mere days to play out, but the pacing is monotonous. The book overexplains things readers could pick up on themselves, mostly Mahit’s theories on what’s going on in other characters’ heads. In one of the novel’s rare flashes of humor Mahit comes across someone named “Thirty-Six All-Terrain Tundra Vehicle.” A more confident book would have dropped the name onto the page, trusted the reader to understand why it’s funny, and moved on. Here, Mahit and her local aide/obligatory love interest Three Seagrass spend painfully earnest paragraphs explaining the joke.[1]

The novel doesn’t move back or forth in time—Mahit rarely thinks about anything not in front of her. As a result, though the novel is filtered through her POV she’s a bit of a cipher. She recalls the past fleetingly, and only when it relates to the present. All we learn of her family is that her parents are alive and she has a brother, and she seems about as emotionally attached to these people as to a toaster oven. The brother is mentioned twice, briefly, and we don’t even learn his name!

To be clear, vague characterization isn’t always bad. Sometimes it’s what a story needs to accomplish its goals: a detective novel where most characters are types, an allegory where they’re stand-ins for ideas. But it doesn’t work with the story A Memory Called Empire is trying to be, about how Mahit feels navigating a culture she loves but isn’t part of. To really get those feelings, we need to get Mahit. In practice, Mahit feels like one of those old-fashioned space opera heroes written more as identification figures for the audience than characters in their own right—anyone in this book’s audience could imagine ourselves in her place. She doesn’t have weird foibles or rough edges; where she doesn’t need a definite characteristic, she’s nonspecific.

I also didn’t get a sense of Mahit’s class. I’m not sure whether Lsel is a classless society or whether it didn’t occur to the author to consider it. We don’t learn much about Lsel. (The narration has no opinions of its own, so if a POV character doesn’t think about something we don’t know it. Science fiction needs more omniscient narrators!) Lsel apartments are 3 by 3 by 9—but nine what? You have to read closely to confirm the book means feet. And for someone whose idea of private space is a sleeping pod, Mahit’s psychology feels awfully similar to an average 21st century American’s. She has a standard apartment on Teixcalaan and occasionally thinks about its size, but doesn’t feel weird about having multiple rooms to herself. Water is precious on Lsel and she’s boggled at decorative fountains, but surprisingly unsurprised by a shower. Mahit is inconsistently foreign.

She’s also 26. That’s young for an ambassador to an empire Lsel fears might annex it. The Lsel Stationers have devices called imagos that grant people the memories and skills of others, like Deep Space Nine‘s Trill. Mahit is carrying the imago of the previous ambassador; she was the only person available who could integrate it. Even so, it’s interesting no one thinks Mahit is young for such a sensitive position. Do young stationers with old memories often have important jobs? Or is this just another example of science fiction’s youth obsession? The Trill have customs and ceremonies centered around their symbionts but Mahit seems to think of imagos as tools, like iPhones. The ability to pass on their ancestors’ memories is a radical departure from human norms. Stationer culture seems hardly affected.

The same is true of Teixcalaan. We’re told Teixcalaanli poetry is central to its culture, but by the end of the novel we still don’t know much about it. We get only brief snatches and bare descriptions of poems. Quotations from in-world documents are mostly fenced off in the chapter headings.[2] It’s hard to get a sense of how Teixcalaanli literature works, what themes it returns to, what makes it unique and attractive. It’s a hole the rest of the novel circles around. One of Mahit’s formative experiences was reading Teixcalaanli poetry and seeing her world the way she saw it herself, but what did it give her that Stationer literature didn’t?

The distinctiveness of this poetry-obsessed culture isn’t even expressed in the prose. Teixcalaanli are so steeped in verse that at one point we’re told Three Seagrass is “falling automatically into polysyllabic couplets when she wasn’t paying enough attention not to,” but unless the effect was way too subtle for me it’s not demonstrated in her dialogue. Her voice sounds like Mahit’s voice, which sounds like everyone else’s.

Mahit attends a party where Three Seagrass’s friends hold an extemporaneous poetry slam, duelling in spontaneously spohisticated verse, and Mahit is stricken: no matter how long she studies Teixcalaanli literature she’ll never have this way with words. But does every native Teixcalannli? Because these are the local equivalent of ivy leaguers, the best and the brightest. Does everybody spend their childhood cramming for intensive poetry drills, or is it an upper-crust, private-school thing? Teixcalaan isn’t as classless as Lsel—we see the poorer parts of the capital. But the locals we meet are political dissidents or dropouts. Everyone in this book feels like part of the nebulous middle-to-upper class who populate many Hollywood movies.

Lsel and Teixcalaan have foreign elements, but both still feel like places where people put on a suit to go work in an office at a computer while drinking coffee. And, again, it’s not that this isn’t a valid approach. The alien world that’s really just America with a prosthetic forehead is often used to great effect, especially in satire. But, again, this isn’t the book A Memory Called Empire is trying to be; it’s more like it just hesitated to move too far from middle-class 21st century American assumptions about what’s normal.[3] Lsel could have felt like America to get us thinking about how it feels to be overshadowed by a foreign culture. Teixcalaan could have felt like America to get us thinking about the ways in which the United States is an empire. If they both feel like America, there’s not much conflict. Mahit’s journey feels as fraught as moving from the United States to the United Kingdom.

I said earlier I enjoyed A Memory Called Empire so it may seem weird this review is so negative. Like Doctor Who novelizations and Sherlock Holmes pastiches, it’s one of those books I enjoy while still admitting all the ways in which it’s mediocre—but these books don’t normally inspire me to review them. What’s frustrating about A Memory Called Empire, and tantalizing, is that it’s almost about so much.

There are themes of empire, cultural hegemony, and ambivalent attraction to the foreign. And Lsel’s imagoes raise unanswered questions about identity—how does it change you when you suddenly remember someone else’s life? There’s also a contrast between two kinds of cultural memory. Lsel passes memories directly from generation to generation technologically. Teixcalaan remembers itself through collective memory, and ensures the survival and spread of its self-image through cultural hegemony, increasing the numbers of people who learn and remember its literature. (The Teixcalaanli do a lot of memorization and extemporaneous poetry. Some canonical poems have thousands of variations. They have writing but they’re an oral culture. Lsel’s imagoes are, in the stability and immutability of their memories, closer to written culture.)

Another theme dropped into the novel and hardly touched is algorithms—how they’re not the objective mathematical structures they’re meant to be. They’re designed by people with subjective assumptions, and purposes, and points of view. (A set of rules built for a purpose is an argument about what’s relevant to that purpose, and what isn’t.) There’s a potential point here about how a poem is an encoded point of view, like an imago or an algorithm. Late in the book Mahit and Three Seagrass get themselves out of a jam by writing a poem that is, like an algorithm, written to produce a particular outcome. But although this would have made the perfect thematic climax it isn’t emphasized. We’re told the poem spreads like a virus, but we don’t get to see the reaction. A Memory Called Empire doesn’t quite connect the dots between its ideas. It gestures at themes, but doesn’t manage to dig in. And I think part of the problem is the plot.

A Memory Called Empire is a novel of political intrigue. Someone wants to overthrow the Emperor. The Emperor wants an imago machine. Mahit gets embroiled in the kerfuffle. Before I wrote this review I went looking for others. One of the most interesting observations—one that made me realize something about how the book worked, or didn’t quite work—came in a review by Nandini Ramachandran at Strange Horizons of the 2020 Clarke Award shortlist. She points out how friendly Teixcalaan is to Mahit, how quickly people let her in on their secrets and how readily she’s accepted into the halls of power.[4] And what else could the book do? The whole story is in Mahit’s POV. The intrigue plot won’t come off if she doesn’t have a front-row seat. But Teixcalaan feels welcoming, and Mahit rarely feels lost. And for a book about existing in a foreign and maybe hostile culture you love but don’t belong to, that’s backwards! And the novel’s structure tells us Mahit is our protagonist, not a Nick Carraway-style lens for someone else’s story. But it ends with Mahit witnessing a climax that has not much to do with her: the coup ends when a member of the supporting cast, who has hardly appeared in the novel, sacrifices himself to elevate another member of the supporting cast to power. The court intrigue plot actively works against A Memory Called Empire’s themes. It’s full of Exciting Events! but very little of what happens feels significant.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t moments where it comes to life—these are what kept me reading. These are moments where the book engages with its themes: when Mahit watches the bright young things’ poetry slam. When she marvels at the decorative water bowl on a restaurant table, or considers how Stationers have a single word for birds. When she realizes she understands Teixcalaanli poetry but doesn’t really, y’know, understand it. These are moments where the novel steps away from the plot and goes about its real business. By the end I was thinking of Leena Krohn’s novel Tainaron. Tainaron is about a woman who’s gone to live in a city of insects. Like most of Krohn’s novels its chapters are self-contained vignettes that build to something bigger. It follows her over seasons, each chapter revealing a new facet of the city—sometimes weirdly familiar, sometimes deeply strange. That’s the version of A Memory Called Empire I wish I could read—one structured like Krohn’s work. A year in the life of an ambassador, with the plot emerging from a series of human-scale incidents. A chapter for the poetry slam, another reflecting on the algorithms that run the capitol, others for long conversations about imagos and identity, or digging into Mahit’s favorite Teixcalaanli poems. Maybe even a narrator with enough ironic distance from Mahit to understand her better than she understands herself.

So what’s the attraction of the intrigue plot? Here I should note that A Memory Called Empire is not the first SFF novel I’ve read where the plot felt like a distraction from the actually interesting parts. The core science fiction and fantasy genres have assumptions about the range of stories SFF can tell that they only occasionally think their way beyond. Acceptable plots for a novel include variations on the themes of wars, conspiracies, rebellions against dystopia, apocalypses, detective stories, and, yes, political intrigue. Stories where the protagonist is in deadly danger. Thrillers of the Hollywood summer blockbuster variety, stories that might have been produced by the vast entertainment empire beside which literary SF is a hopeful asteroid. Sometimes it feels like SFF can’t imagine an existence outside the gravitational pull of the blockbuster. SFF novels get squashed into this mold even when one of the many alternate plots and story-structures in the wider world of literature might suit them better. A Memory Called Empire is the kind of book you get from a genre whose imagination has been colonized by Hollywood.


  1. You might argue these paragraphs help readers understand Teixcalaanli naming conventions, but there again the book could have trusted readers to figure them out from the actual names.  ↩

  2. Of course, writing literal examples of a fictional culture’s greatest literature rarely comes off—but it’s possible to write about imaginary literature without literally writing it. Borges and Stanislaw Lem have done it, and though Martine isn’t Borges I think she could have pulled it off: in the novel’s glossary we’re told “current literary scholars of Teixcalaan refer to The Expansion History as being composed by ‘Pseudo-Thirteen River,’ an unknown person,” and it’s tantalizing.  ↩

  3. So it’s all the odder that the back matter contains an author’s note explaining “If one wishes to pronounce Stationer words one’s own self, and has only Earth languages to go by, a good guide would be the pronunciation of Modern Eastern Armenian,” for all the world as though most of the intended audience for this novel would be familiar with Modern Eastern Armenian.  ↩

  4. Mind you, someone also tries to assassinate her. But she recovers quick.  ↩

Margaret St. Clair, Sign of the Labrys

1.

In science fiction circles Margaret St. Clair’s Sign of the Labrys is not much more than the answer to a trivia question: what book had the worst back cover blurb of all time? This one shouts “WOMEN ARE WRITING SCIENCE-FICTION!” in breathless all-caps, like it’s news. “Women,” we learn, “are closer to the primitive than men. They are conscious of the moon-pulls, the earth-tides. They possess a buried memory of humankind’s obscure and ancient past which can emerge to uniquely color and flavor a novel… Such a woman is Margaret St. Clair, author of this novel.” This copywriter seems either contemptuously sarcastic or very high.

Women in general and Margaret St. Clair in particular had been writing science fiction for a while by 1963, and St. Clair should be better remembered. I haven’t read her other novels—she’s maddeningly out of print—but her short stories feel like close Twilight Zone-ish cousins to Richard Matheson’s or Charles Beaumont’s, and at her best she’s just as good. (A couple of her stories were adapted for Night Gallery.) As for finding those stories… well, “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” turns up all over, and you can find another story in The Future is Female, but as far as I know the only collection in print in the U.S. is The Hole in the Moon. It’s all worth tracking down.

I wanted to start with that recommendation because Sign of the Labrys is… uh, not a lost classic. But it’s also not worse than some books SF fans think are classics, and if the premise strikes you as interesting it’s a fine way to pass a couple of hours. And its flaws are at least interesting flaws. We’ll get into that.

2.

Anyway, that premise. This is a book where a yeast-based pandemic has depopulated the world and the survivors are afraid to get too close to each other. Which feels not so much “painfully on the nose” as “grabbed the nose and slammed it in a door.” Most people work menial, meaningless jobs—Sam Sewell, our narrator, moves boxes from one side of a warehouse to the other and back again, and no one cares whether he shows up on any given day. The only people with productive jobs are mass gravediggers and the mysterious dudes from the Federal Bureau of Yeast. Sam lives rent-free in a vast underground fallout shelter built by people who were extremely prepared for the wrong disaster, feeding himself on purple fungus and stockpiles of preserved pre-apocalypse food that never seems to spoil. Aside from the fungus, there isn’t much fresh food; too many species went extinct during the plagues.

One day Sam has a visit from a FBY man looking for a woman named Despoina. Sam has no idea who this is but the agent insists he ought to because Sam, like Desponia, is a witch.

Margaret St. Clair was a Wiccan and Sign of the Labrys is practically an advertisement for Wicca, which in this book is not just a neopagan religion but actually grants magical powers. (In this light the blurb’s blather about moon-pulls, earth-tides, and humankind’s obscure and ancient past vaguely makes sense.) Labrys is packed with stereotypically pagan accoutrements like athames and people substituting “Blessed Be” for “Hello,” and St. Clair cribbed ceremonies and other details from an influential mid-century occult writer named Gerald Gardner.

Sam learns Despoina may be in his own fallout shelter and spends most of the novel exploring its deeper levels. Sam’s descending into the underworld to retrieve occult knowlege. He’s also acting out a kind of story modern geek-culture types might find familiar. When the original Dungeons & Dragons came out in 1979, the creators included an “Appendix N” listing books that inspired them and right there, between Fred Saberhagen and J. R. R. Tolkien, was Margaret St. Clair with The Shadow People and Sign of the Labrys. Sam’s fallout shelter is a dungeon.

Even if you’ve never read a D&D manual you might recognize the “dungeon” concept from video games. A dungeon isn’t a literal dungeon (the name, one suspects, was chosen solely for the alliteration). It’s an enclosed space for the players’ characters to explore, filled with traps to avoid, puzzles to solve, and monsters to fight. A dungeon might be a cave, a castle, a tomb, or even (as in Myst) an island—the crucial thing isn’t that it’s literally enclosed, but that it’s self-contained. If people live in the dungeon they’re usually weirdos and rarely leave. Dungeons are challenges first and narratives second. Often they’re arbitrarily constructed and run on weird internal logic. (Why does that white house have a troll and a Flood Control Dam in the basement?) Peculiar though they are, “dungeons” are useful frameworks for exploration-based stories comfortable with a certain amount of absurdity. Star Trek and Doctor Who visit them a lot, enclosed spaces being great budget savers.

And dungeons are great if you want to mash random stuff together and watch it juxtapose. Dungeons are eccentric subworlds, strange terrariums whose isolation and artificiality are license to be whimsical. The levels of Sam’s fallout shelter are incongruous subcultures, unaware of each other—a laboratory complex where floods of lab rats carpet the floor, an artificial garden full of wealthy Eloi, a machine shop attended by a cookie-obsessed miniature-builder with a teleporter. A lot of this is never explained. At one point Sam meets a dog with human intelligence who shows him the gate to the next level. (Through charades, which Sam has to interpret: in true dungeon-crawling spirit, he’s solving puzzles to get around.) Sam never sees the dog again or learn what its deal is. You could look at this as half-assed worldbuilding, or as leaving the world open to interpretation. If you want to send a character on a metaphorical, surreal, symbolic journey, this kind of thing has potential.

But if you want the reader to see the book as “open” and not “half-assed,” you have to live up to that potential. This is where Sign of the Labrys stumbles. On his journey Sam meets his long-lost half-sister Kyra who confirms that, yep, Sam’s a witch! Which means… well, mostly that he has X-Ray Vision, and can make people hallucinate. I read Sign of the Labrys soon after The Hearing Trumpet and, man, was that an unflattering comparison. Both books are surreal, symbolic spiritual journeys but The Hearing Trumpet ends in strange and numinous revelations. All Sam learns is that he’s a superhero. The spiritual journey got into a wrestling match with a pulp novel, and pulp won. This is in one sense banal but in another sense interesting enough to push me to review Sign of the Labrys. It’s a glaring example of a problem I’ve seen before—one of those glaring examples that brings a recurring pattern into clearer focus.

3.

There’s a common pattern in pop culture where a story is structured like a bildungsroman, but at the end of the story the protagonist isn’t a wiser or deeper or a more developed person, just more powerful. Or at least more assertive and confident. They haven’t grown as a person, just levelled up. Think Star Wars: Luke isn’t any more mature when he destroys the Death Star than he was at the beginning of the movie. Or superhero origin stories: often the point of these stories isn’t that their heroes develop. Instead, the heroes’ newfound powers let them express who they already were. (Captain America is brave and decent at the beginning of the movie; at the end he’s brave, decent, and strong.)

Now, in some cases this might be related to serialization. If you plan to keep using your protagonist, they can’t change too much too quickly. (Also, if they get really smart they might figure out how to stop getting themselves into adventures.) But Sign of the Labrys is a standalone novel. The problem here is that, for all that St. Clair is sharing her religion, Sign is a power fantasy and not a wisdom fantasy. (Again, the pulp narrative sucked everything into itself like a black hole.) Sam—and by extension anyone who identifies with him—doesn’t need to develop in any real way. He’s already great. He just needs to learn how to express his greatness.

Actually, Sam doesn’t learn so much as remember. Kyra spends some time preparing him to remember, but once he’s through his initiation Sam masters his Wiccan powers almost as soon as they’re introduced to him. It’s intuitive: he just knows how it all works. Sam has a buried secret identity, it turns out. Spoiler: he’s the Devil! Or “the person our persecutors called the devil,” according to Despoina. “They gave that name to the male counterpart of the high priestess, the other focus of power in the circle. You’re of the old blood, Sam.” Sam is one of those protagonists who are special because of what they are, not what they do.

Having learned this, it’s interesting to go back to the very beginning of the novel. Remember, this is first person narration: “There is a fungus that grows on the walls that they eat. It is a violet color, a dark reddish violet, and tastes fresh and sweet. People go into the clefts to pick it.” Notice the “they.” We soon learn Sam picks and eats this fungus, too—that’s how he knows how it tastes. But the fungus eaters are still “they.” From the first sentence, Sam’s narration is telling us he’s different from other people.

4.

At one point Sam (who’s been a witch for mere days but speaks with the confidence of an old hand) assures us “We Wicca are trained in scruple for life, if we do not possess it to begin with.” So it’s weird that when Sam thinks he’s accidentally killed someone[1] this is his reaction:

I sat down on the ground again by Cindy Ann’s body to think it over. Proximity to her didn’t bother me at all. It was like sitting down by an empty packing case, or a bundle of old clothes. I suppose it was because I didn’t have any feeling of moral responsibility for her death. And then, she hadn’t had much personality when she had been alive. Not much had been withdrawn.

Speaking as someone with not much personality, thanks, Sam. Of course there are such things as unreliable narrators, and unsympathetic protagonists, but Sam doesn’t appear to be either. There’s no sign we’re meant to find his thoughts troubling or absurd.

The real reason Sam isn’t bothered by Cindy Ann’s death is the same reason she doesn’t have much personality. Cindy Ann is a very minor character who only exists to deliver some exposition. Sam doesn’t care because the reader won’t.

Again, I’ve seen this before: stories that confuse characters’ importance to the story on a meta-level with their importance as people to the other characters. Sign of the Labrys doesn’t expect the readers to care about Cindy Ann’s death. We only knew her for a few pages. But Sam doesn’t care either. He only cares about people to the extent they’re structurally important as story-elements.

This problem gets really blatant when we learn Kyra’s history. Kyra, it turns out, released the plagues:

My face must have shown my shock, for Despoina said hurriedly, “Consider the situation, Sam. Have you forgotten? Nuclear war seemed absolutely inevitable. Nobody knew from day to day—from hour to hour—when it would begin. We lived in terror, terror which was sure to accomplish itself. Nobody even dared to hope for a quick death. “Kyra realized what had come into her hands. She acted. She took on her shoulders a terrible responsibility; she assumed a dreadful guilt. She knew that plagues are never universally fatal. She decided it was better that nine men out of ten should die, than that all men should.”

The only problem Despoina sees is that Kyra didn’t consult the boss witches first. Sam soon comes around to the idea that mass murder is okay, actually: “What a person Kyra was! Unhesitatingly she had taken on her young shoulders—she couldn’t have been over twenty at the time—the agony of a decision a god might have flinched from making. Mrs. Prometheus—I felt proud to be related to her.”

Now, to be scrupulously fair to Margaret St. Clair, who seems in all the others of her works I’ve read to be a normal empathetic writer, Sign of the Labrys came out the year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Assuming a fast publication schedule parts of it might have been written during the Cuban Missile Crisis. If you wrote an SF novel during the gloomiest years of the Cold War you might be forgiven for building it around a giant half-joke of the “not ha-ha funny” kind. For decades people really believed humanity might be wiped out at any moment. We came close, more than once. I’m just old enough to remember the Reagan years and if you aren’t it can be a difficult headspace to get your own head around. Or maybe not. It wouldn’t surprise me if novels exist that toy with the idea of wiping out millions of people to avert the worst version of climate change.

Whatever. None of this, in any case, is compatible with sermons on “scruple for life.” You could look at this as a moral problem—that’s a popular critical lens these days, and not necessarily a bad one. But recently I read George Saunders’ new critical book and was struck by how he frames moral failures like sexism or racism as failures of craft—an authorial failture to fully and honestly imagine every character. And I think this is the best, most relevant way to look at Sign of the Labrys. It’s not just that the novel fails to empathize with the background characters. It fails to empathize with Sam. It doesn’t successfully imagine how someone with “scruple for life” would think, or depict him with emotional honesty.

Sign of the Labrys is trying to present Wicca as a positive, ethical system; presumably that was Margaret St. Clair’s experience with it. But the pulp narrative is divorced from any actual ethics and unlike those nameless extras it cannot be killed. Sam and Despoina defeat a fascist takeover by the FBY and find a strain of yeast that will heal humanity’s aversion to close contact. But they can’t fix the millions dead or the devastated ecosystem and the novel doesn’t grapple with that. Sam says, “We Wicca know how to be happy even in a bad world. But we are not content with a bad world.” But the world they’ve created isn’t good, just less crowded.


  1. He thinks he unknowingly infected her with a deadly plague. Later the witches tell him he’s mistaken, but the real cause of death is never adequately explained.  ↩

Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet

1. The Surreal

All this is a digression and I do not wish anyone to think my mind wanders far, it wanders but never further than I want.

—Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet

The Hearing Trumpet isn’t about the hearing trumpet. That is, the trumpet doesn’t have a role in the plot; it’s just mentioned every so often. This is not Chekhov’s hearing trumpet. Still, Leonora Carrington’s novel kicks off with 92-year-old Marian Leatherby receiving the thing from her friend Carmella, so it’s important. Marian’s been given a way to extend her senses—far enough, Carmella suggests, to hear what others say while she’s out of the room.

I love Leonora Carrington’s stories but you want to read them one at a time. Most are heavily into dream logic and too many at once are too rich. I wondered how her style would work at novel length. But of course she adapted to fit the form: The Hearing Trumpet is a novel of escalating boiled-frog weirdness. It’s also both funny—the narrator has a lot of cockeyed opinions and the confidence to state them as fact—and genuinely uncanny. Reading it is like wandering through a slapstick dream.

It starts as (just barely) a realist novel. Marian lives with her son Galahad in Mexico. She keeps to herself and keeps busy. She sweeps out her room, has hilarious conversations with Carmella, saves cat hair to knit into a sweater, and dreams of traveling through Lapland by dogsled. Her self-assurance is vast. Is she growing a beard? Marian thinks it looks gallant, so what the hell. With age she’s stopped minding other people’s eccentricities or caring what they think of her own. In the afterward to the New York Review Books Classics edition, Olga Tokarczuk argues that old age is Marian’s license to be eccentric, fully herself, and frames The Hearing Trumpet as an argument for the revolutionary power of eccentricity, which she defines as a point of view “both provincial and marginal—pushed aside, to the fringes—and at the same time revelatory and revolutionary.”[1]

Marian narrates The Hearing Trumpet in the first person. She’s practical, and calm—absolutely unshakable. Never frightened; always amused, open, and curious. She grants all these qualities to the novel. So much of the feel of a novel hinges on the narrator’s personality. (And every novel has a narrator, even if it’s pretending not to!) Look at The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s packed with events that would be grim in the straightforward, serious world of an Iain M. Banks novel. But Adams’ voice tells us not to panic. The Hearing Trumpet is a reassuring, optimistic book. But if Marian were anxious and unsettled, this would be an anxious, unsettling novel. It is, after all, a book about a woman committed to an institution where she’s subjected to a bizarre, overbearing treatment scheme.[2] The novel changes the emotional tenor of its plot by looking at it from an unexpected point of view.

2. The Surrealer

That’s the first thing Marian hears with her trumpet: Galahad and his family are putting her in a home. “People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats,” says Carmella. (Could Marian make Galahad into a sweater? I don’t think so.) The Institution of Dr. and Mrs. Gambit is a liminal place, the border between the real and the impossible. It could exist—within the laws of nature, I mean—but who’d build it? The elderly women warehoused there inhabit a bizarre jumble of novelty cottages: a shoe, a toadstool, a mummy case. Marian gets a miniature lighthouse she calls the Lookout. Again, she’s extending her senses. “Houses are really bodies,” says Marian, and during this out-of-body experience she’ll see and hear past the surface of the world.

The Gambits indoctrinate their charges in Inner Christianity, a vague regimen involving Movements, Self Remembering, and lots of Significant Capital Letters. Marian has free time to snoop, but can’t entirely escape the regimen—Dr. Gambit is intrusively audible even sans trumpet. Marian’s a vegetarian, used to directing her own diet. The Gambits let her stick to it but won’t give her a second helping of vegetables to make up for the lack of meat. The Institution isn’t adequately nourishing her. Still, she amuses herself by staring at a painting of a Winking Nun hanging opposite her chair. Somehow she intuits this person’s name was Doña Rosalinda Alvarez Cruz della Cueva. The painting has a hidden meaning. The castle housing the Institution holds secrets Dr. Gambit is unaware of, brought over from Spain by a refugee during their Civil War. Something lives in its tower.

Sometimes talking about the genre of a book in broad terms (like Science Fiction or Horror) is less interesting than treating a specific thing the work is doing as its own subgenre, and finding other, sometimes unexpected works that relate to it as a result. The Hearing Trumpet reminds me of Twin Peaks and Philip K. Dick’s VALIS that way, though in other ways they don’t resemble each other at all. They’re all metaphysical investigations: characters peel back layer after layer of their apparently ordinary world to discover unexpectedly idiosyncratic metaphysics. These stories often use existing mythology as a springboard. The Hearing Trumpet brings in the Holy Grail, as well as a lot of Gnostic ideas I’m not informed enough to comment on. But these are only starting points for more personal mythologies.

The mythology of The Hearing Trumpet centers around the Grail, really a pre-Christian artifact coopted by the Church: the cup of the goddess Venus, meant to hold Pneuma, or life-essence. It also takes in bees, werewolves, Taliesin, the Pole Star, soup, and the life of the Abbess Doña Rosalinda Alvarez Cruz della Cueva, who attempted to rescue the Grail from the Knights Templar. This is a book within a book—dozens of pages narrated by a medieval chronicler—provided by Christabel, a mysteriously busy resident who claims to be twice as old as Marian and guards the Abbess’ legacy.

If you’ve read Tim Powers this might sound like the kind of thing he gets up to—setting up a mythological shadow world behind ordinary reality. But there’s a difference that points to why The Hearing Trumpet, or VALIS, or David Lynch feel specifically surreal as opposed to fantastic. Powers’ novels are about specific worldbuilding. The fun is in watching the characters figure out exactly how their world works and how they can work within it. But surreal metaphysics are never completely known. They’re not logically worked out jigsaw-puzzle worldbuilding, but a line into another person’s subconscious. Some of the resonances of their symbols are only fully understood by the author, or the narrator—assuming they fully understand it themselves. Not all questions will be answered, no matter how deep the protagonist digs. The world never loses its mystery.[3] Its systems remain open—you can interpret and reinterpret them forever. These stories aren’t bothered about whether the audience understands everything they’re getting at. They’re not bothered if you understand something else—some meaning from the margins, personal to you.

3. The Surrealiest

Back in the present, two women who are really into Inner Christianity and aligned with the Gambits poison a fellow inmate.[4] This drives the other women to band together and declare a hunger strike until the poisoners are expelled. They feed themselves only from their own resources (for now, mostly a store of chocolate biscuits). As the Gambits lose control, the weather turns mysteriously cold. The world has turned on its side and the poles have migrated to the equator. The margins have replaced the center.

When the world tips over the cause-and-effect narrative (Marian embarrasses her family, therefore they put her in a home) tips over into full surrealism. Now things are happening just because it feels right for them to happen in that moment. The women’s revolution coincides with a revolution of the earth. Christabel emerges as a leader, challenging Marian with riddles and introducing the women to the local bee-goddess. Marian’s friends start turning up: Carmella digs a tunnel to the Institution to bust Marian out, hits uranium instead, and gets rich enough to supply the women with whatever they need. A European friend brings a tribe of werewolves in an atomic ark. The elderly women build an anarchic society of their own in the ruins of the Institution.

“It is impossible to understand how millions and millions of people all obey a sickly collection of gentlemen that call themselves ‘Government!’ The word, I expect, frightens people. It is a form of planetary hypnosis, and very unhealthy."

“It has been going on for years,” I said. “And it only occurred to relatively few to disobey and make what they call revolutions. If they won their revolutions, which they occasionally did, they made more governments, sometimes more cruel and stupid than the last.”

“Men are very difficult to understand,” said Carmella. “Let’s hope they all freeze to death.”

This is, I must admit, one of those stories where the protagonist is empowered by an apocalypse. This isn’t a plot I care for when handled realistically. But this is an openly metaphorical apocalypse. Marian’s inner journey is manifesting itself in the world; her inner world and outer world grow more numinous in tandem. Finally Marian descends beneath the tower and meets herself making soup in a cauldron. She jumps into the pot and the Marians converge, at once being the soup and eating it. Food in this novel is a stand-in for everything that feeds Marian’s mind and soul. She’s self-fueling, feeding her soul from her own resources.

At this point the women retrieve the grail in a full-scale assault on its captors—but it’s an epilogue. It happens very fast and, as it were, offstage. Which isn’t how a typical book would work: isn’t this the exciting part? But once Marian’s gone through her evolution, in a sense she has the Grail already; getting the literal plot-Grail is just confirmation. Again, by this point in the book plot logic has slipped out the back door and run halfway to Canada; things are happening because they feel right.

If too many books worked like this it might get old, but occasionally it makes a nice change. The culture of the 21st century is dominated by TV and film, which in the U.S. means mostly Hollywood. They account for most of what most people consume and their conventions filter out into other media. And our stories are so… let’s say, engineered. Our culture prefers a narrow range of structures and story-types. It’s not like there aren’t good reasons for that; three-act structures and heavily codified writing advice can serve as useful guard rails. It’s easy for weirdly structured or unstructured stories to just not work. But an artistic ecosystem needs mutants. Stories that are weird, baffling, ambiguous, mulishly stubborn, frustrating the audience’s expectations. Works that carve out new ecological niches, off to the sides, expand the range of possibilities for everyone else. This is where surrealism can come in handy.

Marian narrates the beginning of the novel, where she describes life with her son, and the end of the novel, where she describes life in the new world, in the present tense, but the story in between is in past tense. Marian starts out in a pleasant state of present-tense equilibrium and seems to enter into history as her problems begin. Now she’s emerged again into a new open-ended present. By the end of the novel she’s ready to ride through the newly snowy landscape on a sledge pulled by wooly dogs. She’s creating her dreams where she is.


  1. I recommend reading Tokarczuk’s afterword, reprinted at that link; honestly, it’s a better reading of the novel than mine could be. She talks about the value of “openness” and “wild metaphysics” in fiction, and when I read that I thought: yes, that’s what I’m looking for these days.  ↩

  2. For a more serious though still brave version of this story, see Carrington’s memoir Down Below.  ↩

  3. The Jamesian ghost story is a close relative, although its key emotion is fear instead of wonder. It has the investigation, the openness/incompleteness, the hints of more to the workings of the world.  ↩

  4. It might be relevant for some readers that The Hearing Trumpet features a depiction of a transgender woman that seems well intentioned for the mid–1970s but might feel dated. First, she’s also the only character who dies. Second, the characters don’t seem entirely clear on whether she’s trans or living in disguise to stay near a lover, or aware there’s a distinction. But the novel makes it clear she belongs with the other women—at one point she has a dream that indicates she’s being invited into the same mysteries as Marian.  ↩

Charles Portis, True Grit

I have no idea I’ve only just gotten around to reading True Grit. I loved the Coen Brothers movie (which I’d been thinking was recent, but is a decade old now). The book is, as is often the case, better.

True Grit is a Western. A hired hand named Tom Chaney robs and kills 14-year-old Mattie Ross’s father. Mattie is precociously sober and pretty much the head of her household already–she does all her parents’ accounting–but also has a taste for Biblical eye-for-an-eye justice. She travels to Oklahoma in the dead of winter to collect her father’s body and Chaney’s debts. To that end she hires a dissolute but reportedly gritty marshall named Rooster Cogburn. Cogburn joins forces with LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger already on Chaney’s trail. Their attempts to leave Mattie safely in town do not work out for them.

They say my article is too long and “discursive.” Nothing is too long or too short either if you have a true and interesting tale and what I call a “graphic” writing style combined with educational aims.

Mattie is writing her own story fifty years after the fact and Charles Portis uses deliberate technical flaws as characterization. Mattie is rigidly formal, and opinionated, and when she thinks the world needs her opinion on a thing she’ll digress as much as she feels like, thank you. Mattie never uses contractions and puts words she considers vernacular or slangy in quotation marks, like “stunt” or “cowlick.” This is another assertion of her opinions, on language. These aren’t part of her vocabulary, she’s quoting words everybody else uses.

Mattie’s religion is fire and brimstone and accounting: “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.” That aside, Mattie isn’t humorless and True Grit is a funny book. Mattie has a dry wit, but she’s also sometimes not all that self aware. It can be hard to tell when she’s joking. At one point bandits demand Mattie explain the legal papers they’ve taken off a train. We get this passage:

It was a cashier’s check for $2,750 drawn on the Grangers Trust Co. of Topeka, Kansas, to a man named Marshall Purvis. I said, “This is a cashier’s check for $2,750 drawn on the Grangers Trust Co. of Topeka, Kansas, to a man named Marshall Purvis.”

In context, the repetition is hilarious–but is this Mattie’s deadpan attempt to convey her boredom, or has she stumbled into clumsy phrasing because she’s so pedantic about money?

Mattie writes about money with precision. She doesn’t say her family has land in Arkansas, she says her family has “clear title” to it. She remembers what she paid for everything and exactly what Tom Chaney stole from her father after killing him. But Mattie doesn’t love money for its own sake. She asks Rooster, “Why do you think I am paying you if not to have my way?” For Mattie money is control, something in short supply for a teenage girl in nineteenth century America.

Mattie’s father was in Oklahoma to buy ponies. She wants to sell the ponies back to the dealer, who doesn’t want them back. Her starting price is $300 but she eventually negotiates him into paying $325, about twenty dollars a head. The next day she returns and buys one pony back for ten. This happens through force of will more than anything. Mattie just presses harder, never concedes, and throws in a couple of legal threats, and somehow the dealer finds himself agreeing to everything she wants. The next day he’s sick, like Mattie’s drained him; she gives the impression she could kill people by staring at them too hard.

I saw the John Wayne version of True Grit once. It’s not good. It’s a close adaptation of the book but still manages to miss the point. It thinks Rooster is the hero–because, hey, he’s played by John Wayne, right?–and relegates Mattie to a supporting role. Kim Darby is miscast; she’s a 20 year old playing Mattie as a smart and stubborn but more or less ordinary teenager. Mattie is in over her head, but Darby’s Mattie is in over her head much farther.


LaBoeuf picked up a rock and threw it in my direction. It fell short by about fifty yards.

I said, “That is the most foolish thing that ever I saw!”

Mattie the adult narrator doesn’t seem much different from the 14-year-old self she’s describing. This is not because Mattie never grew up. She was already almost her adult self at 14.

From the minute she arrives in Oklahoma Mattie is taking care of other people’s responsibilities. She retrieves her father’s body for her family. She prods the law into moving against Tom Chaney. She puts Rooster’s semiliterate expense accounts in order. The same bandits Rooster’s been chasing ask her to tally up their loot. One of the questions True Grit asks is what makes an adult? Mattie doesn’t always know what she’s doing, but for all her faults she’s more responsible and just more together than most of the chronological grownups she meets.

Rooster and LaBoeuf are impulsive and petty and spend the trip alternately boasting and bickering and needling each other. They waste hours and a good chunk of their rations in an impromptu skeet shooting competition because for some reason it’s important to prove who’s the better shot. Rooster’s life is a long series of bad decisions and evasions of responsibility. He rode with Quantrill’s Raiders in the Civil War. Afterwards, failed as a husband and father and proved too incompetent to run a business. He supported himself by robbing an army paymaster and later a bank. He doesn’t notice any contradiction between his past and his work as a marshall. He certainly has no problem fudging his expense accounts, to Mattie’s annoyance, and he’s obviously lying when he claims he’s only ever killed in self defense.

If you have a passing familiarity with literary irony it won’t surprise you to learn the true grit of the title belongs to Mattie. Rooster and LaBoeuf are traditional Western hero types–LaBoeuf the dashing Texas ranger, Rooster the rough but wily drifter. They’re supremely useful in a Western plot but in ordinary life both are goddamn overgrown children. Mattie has the will of a freight train and survives a trip into the frozen wilderness and the loss of an arm, and she’s honest, educated, sober, and on top of her mundane responsibilities. At least, she’s on top of her responsibilities up to the point she decides to ride off after Tom Cheney. Mattie’s biggest flaw is her vengefulness; it makes her more like Rooster.


When a novel is in first person it’s often interesting to ask why is the narrator telling this story, and who do they think their audience is? Mattie’s tried to sell her writing but hasn’t had much luck with editors. I think Charles Portis meant us to assume Mattie is really telling this story to herself.

Fifty years later Mattie is a successful banker and pillar of the community. She’s also uptight, cranky, and strange. Her neighbors say Mattie never married because all she loves is money and her church, though as she observes herself she’s not the kind of woman most men of her era were looking for. People laugh at her behind her back. This is understandable; Mattie is in many ways a silly person. She’s rigid, stern, moralistic–she’s a stock character type, the unpleasantly respectable pillar of the community who turns up in small-town comedies. Mattie claims people “slander” her because she has “substance.” This is how she saves her pride.

Something that’s occasionally true of good stories but much more often true of bad ones is that every character is who they appear to be from the start. Most stories set characters like Mattie up to knock them over. A few stories give them unexpected depths. In True Grit we see the depths first and then realize Mattie grew up to resemble Margaret Hamilton in the sepia-toned bits of The Wizard of Oz.

The novel’s first line says “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.” Mattie’s story is her proof she has a true, hidden self who isn’t who people believe she is, or would believe. Her decades-old adventure is so core to her sense of self that after Rooster died Mattie had him buried in the Ross family plot, though they hadn’t spoken in twenty years. Her neighbors laughed harder.

Sometimes a novel or a movie seems to sneer at a character, and want the audience to sneer too. Not a real villain, just somebody stuck-up or buffoonish who exists to be the butt of the narrative’s jokes. The wrong partner in a romantic comedy, say. It can be an interesting exercise to imagine who that character might turn out to be in a story that followed them instead. What’s their hidden self? True Grit is that story for a judgmental, rigidly religious banker from small town Arkansas who’s probably the comic relief in the stories her neighbors tell about themselves.

Max Gladstone, Empress of Forever

Vivian Liao, heroine of Max Gladstone’s space opera romp The Empress of Forever, is a tech billionaire. Elon Musk is mentioned by name as a colleague and/or competitor. This is… an interesting choice. Not that this novel is all “Yay tech billionaires!” It’s all about confronting Viv with the consequences of her own supervillain instincts, deconstructing part of the genius entrepreneur myth. It doesn’t appear to notice there are other parts it’s failed to question.

Viv is a nice billionaire. Sort of. Yes, she got rich by designing Clearview-style surveillance software, but she gives her workers free housing (in “targeted congressional districts”) and gets relief workers (branded with “Liao Industries livery”) to hurricane victims before FEMA. Her self-dealing charity has pissed off the vaguely defined near-future government. At any moment Viv expects to be hauled off to a black site for torture. So she disappears and hatches a cunning plan to hack into and take control of all the computers in the world, which is apparently a thing she can do. For high-minded purposes, mind you. She plans to save the world. (And maybe crush her enemies just a little.)

So Viv breaks into a very important server room and uploads a virus. In a welcome non sequitur, a green glowing Empress pops out of nowhere and sticks her hand into Viv’s chest. When Viv wakes up it’s thousands of years in the future and a space monk is fighting a knife robot.[1] What follows is portal science fiction, throwing a contemporary character into a space opera the way a portal fantasies send their protagonists to fairyland. It has a typical epic fantasy plot, the overthrow of a tyrannical monarch–a few thousand years ago, to avoid attracting alien predators called the Bleed, the Empress took over the galaxy and started pruning overly ambitious civilizations.

Structurally, Empress of Forever is an episodic story bookended by plot, like a TV series balanced between a continuing story and self-contained episodes. Viv visits different planets, deals with local problems and accumulates allies–Hong, the monk; Zanj, a crabby three-thousand-year-old warlord; Xiara, a pilot; and Gray, an intelligent mass of grey goo. Viv levels up and seeks out the Empress for a confrontation and a plot twist most readers will see coming long before Viv catches on. (I will have no compunction about spoiling this in a few paragraphs.)

Shortly after Viv wakes up she and Hong find themselves diving into a miles-long elevator shaft and wrestling a robot in free fall. During fights Zanj grows extra arms, hangs in midair, or moves faster than Viv can see. Like a Hollywood blockbuster, this book tends to resolve situations with action set pieces, and it’s the exaggerated, hyperkinetic action encouraged by unlimited CGI budgets. The result is that Viv’s adventures can feel arbitrary. This is one of those stories where you come away unable to recall what the characters did, but remembering how their relationships developed. Viv’s ultimate plan is “get everyone together and do a handwavy thing so we can reach the Empress and beat up on her,” which doesn’t feel clever. It’s more like a middling episode of Star Trek: Voyager where the crew solves the space anomaly of the week by emitting particles. But the important part of the climax is the thematic meaning and emotional core of Viv’s showdown with the Empress. The mechanics of how she gets there aren’t interesting. Luckily the novel is actually good at developing those relationships and delivering that emotional core, so they don’t necessarily have to be–although if they were, it would have been a nice bonus.

Empress of Forever keeps the narrator invisible, sticking to close third person. It feels less jumpy than books with this narrative style usually do because it has fewer points of view and stays in them longer. The novel only strays from Viv when her POV doesn’t have access to a vital chunk of story. The prose is readable–nothing special, but good enough for a lightweight adventure story, which is, after all, what this is. Stylistically it’s space opera written as epic fantasy. In SF terms, everything is full of nanites and internet; some characters mentally merge with entire fleets of spaceships, others are intelligent gray goo. Everyone’s constantly online, their minds uploaded to the space internet–the “Cloud”–which can rebuild their bodies and teleport them through space. In practice, everything is described in mythic language. People talk about the Cloud like a spiritual realm that holds their “souls.” They’re disturbed Viv doesn’t seem to have one.

The story explicitly riffs on Journey to the West (it’s most obvious when Zanj shows up; she has fur and a monkey’s tail). It literalizes, if not actual Buddhist philosophy (I don’t know enough about it to judge), at least a typical Western understanding of Buddhist philosophy. Viv finds she can escape handcuffs and see doors Hong can’t because she’s not hooked into the Cloud. The Cloud isn’t telling her (as it is Hong) that the handcuffs are locked and the door isn’t there. The Cloud is illusion, and Viv can see through it. Later Hong helps the gang escape from the Empress’s traps by recognizing they have no stable selves for the Cloud to pin down and bind: “There are pieces of me in all of you, and pieces of you in me. We are all empty of inherent form. Trace the threads of each of us, and you find not just the others, but the entire universe.” Their individual identities are shaped by the people around them, so they bleed into each other.

Which segues into the book’s other theme, undermining the Randian myth of the genius entrepreneur. The Empress is Viv, a few thousand years after taking control of Earth; Viv is a simulation of her earlier self given flesh. Viv branches away from the Empress when, forced to choose between a friend’s safety and victory over her enemies, Viv chose her friend. She learns to connect and cooperate with people instead of controlling them from the top down, nudging them with intrusive software or just ordering them around. Instead of treating people as minions or tools she puts their needs on par with her own. The solution to the Bleed is one Viv could come up with but the Empress couldn’t: to recognize it’s not an enemy, just a Cloud-based life form fighting the Empress’s control the only way it knows how.

But the book’s treatment of the genius tech entrepreneur myth is where we run up against its limitations. Yes, it realizes the lone genius is a myth. But why does it take the idea that Viv is any kind of genius at all at face value?

Vivian Liao is a recognizable type. Our culture sees certain entrepreneurs and certain companies as geniuses, innovators. They’re CEOs with the personae of gurus, people who get profiled in magazines. They’re young and enthusiastic about technology to the point of self-parody. They run tech or tech-adjacent companies like Uber, Facebook, Theranos, and WeWork. They have apps. That’s the kind of billionaire Viv is: the celebrity innovator. Her braid is her trademark, like Steve Jobs’s black turtleneck. She turns up on magazine covers.

Most of these people aren’t that bright.

They have programming skills, and they’re clever in specific ways that help them make wads of cash. Often this just means they have the charisma to talk investors into backing nonsense. Even the successful tech companies rarely do anything new or useful. Uber is just unregulated taxis you call through an app instead of a phone number, Facebook is a restrictive replacement for personal websites that sells your information to advertisers. Tech companies build smart juicers that do nothing customers couldn’t do with their bare hands and design algorithms camouflaging prejudice as math.

Ask a tech genius to solve a real problem and they’ll try to put it on a blockchain and feed it Soylent. Soylent is the archetypical example of modern innovation, actually, because it incompetently “solves” nonexistent problems in two ways at once: hardly anyone finds food so inconvenient they’re willing to trade it for joyless glop, and anybody with an actual need to go on a liquid diet already had better options.[2] I’m skeptical that the golden children of Silicon Valley would handle getting tossed into a space opera as well as Arthur Dent, much less the schoolteachers, stewardesses and office temps on Doctor Who.

Empress of Forever takes place in a world where entrepreneurs really are scintillatingly brilliant. Viv is exactly the sharp, adaptable prodigy the typical gushing profile would imagine her to be. This seems… well, unlikely. It doesn’t help that Viv’s vocabulary is full of ridiculous jargon: “She’d almost said minimum viable escape plan instead of a way out of this, but somehow she doubted the Mirrorfaith, whatever that was, knew much about development methodology.” She actually thinks of her decision making process as an “OODA loop.” But Viv’s knowledge of tech-industry philosophy and management-babble is precisely what Empress of Forever identifies as her superpower!

“[Viv] didn’t know this place,” says Empress of Forever, “but she knew how to manage a team.” Viv doesn’t understand the world she finds herself in and can’t access the all-important Cloud, but she’s a natural leader. At one point the gang’s spaceship is crashing. Viv doesn’t know how anything works but she knows (better than the 3000 year old woman!) what everybody needs to be doing, and coordinates it. Viv’s character arc is about learning to lead without dictatorial control. That’s a lesson a lot of real executives could use: the corporate world has pushed workplace surveillance to levels that would creep out Frederick Winslow Turner. But the issue is how Viv leads; that leadership is her natural talent is never in question.

One of the foundational myths of American business culture is that anyone with management training can manage any organization at all, even with no experience in its field, moving from marketing to health care to higher education. Empress of Forever takes this idea at face value. Viv founded Liao Industries; of course she can zap thousands of years into the future and immediately captain a starship. How hard could it be?

There’s precedent for this in fantastic fiction. One common character is the naïve but earnest person whose power is a talent for collecting friends and inspiring them to be their best selves. Think Farscape, or The Wizard of Oz. The hero may not be strong or brave or know the world very well but, like the Dude’s carpet, they really pull the group together. That’s what Empress of Forever is doing. So am I just looking for something to object to? Why did this story rub me the wrong way?

Well, it’s one thing when the natural leader is a wisecracking astronaut, or a kid. I’m more uneasy when it’s a wealthy entrepreneur. Our culture tells us these are our natural leaders even though they’re just clearly not, and that any leader can lead anything even though they just clearly can’t. And as I write this, thousands of Americans are dying from COVID–19 because a few million Americans thought a reality TV host could manage the executive branch of the federal government, and that President thinks his real estate developer son-in-law can manage a pandemic response. So on this subject I’m in the mood to be cranky.

Empress of Forever is a fun book. But it’s a book that sets out to teach us a lesson about billionaire entrepreneurs and ends up worshiping them anyway.


  1. The few comments on the excerpt I linked complain about the “tonal shift” and speculate on whether it’s deliberate. I’ve said this before, but SF fans are the most unimaginative and unadventurous readers in the world.  ↩

  2. Also, the Soylent guy thinks it’s more efficient to buy new clothes and give them away when dirty than to do laundry.  ↩

Dino Buzzati, Catastrophe

The title story of Dino Buzzati’s Catastrophe is narrated by a passenger on a train. As it leaves the station he watches a man rush up to a woman, apparently with important news. In the next town people seem agitated. As the train travels on, everyone outside seems to be fleeing in the opposite direction. A torn newspaper blows in through the window; it bears an ominous but frustratingly incomplete headline. It’s impossible to deny something is happening, but none of the passengers talk about it. Talking about it, whatever it is, would make it real. Finally the train pulls into a deserted station. The story ends as the narrator hears someone, somewhere, scream.

That’s typical of the stories in Catastrophe which are, indeed, mostly catastrophic. (A few off-theme stories creep in at the end of the book.) A couple of stories cross the line into actual sadism, but the best stories (and most of the stories count as best) feel like ominous dreams. Everything seems surface-normal but something is coming. You can’t tell what it is; everything just feels increasingly off. You wake up just as everything is about to fall apart.

My favorite is “The Alarming Revenge of a Domestic Pet.” A woman visits her aunt, who has a weirdly intelligent pet resembling a bat despite not looking like a bat at all. (It has the drooping face of a dog, and webbed feet.) The woman is repulsed. The pet wants her attention. The two have a battle of wills which ends when the pet tries to serve her liqueur. When she refuses, it angrily flips the switch on a nearby lamp and “there was a violent series of tremendous explosions and the distant crash of bombs echoed through the whole city, shaking the houses: the air was filled with the roar of a thousand planes.” (What’s most striking about this story is the contrast with the first lines, and the tone of the woman’s narration; Buzzati introduces the story like it’s a particularly interesting anecdote this woman told him at a cocktail party.)

“The Collapse of the Baliverna” is about a man who climbs the side of a building and breaks part of an old grating. Moments later, the whole building collapses. Was it his fault? Did anyone see? Is the man who just walked into his shop a blackmailer? It all ends there. Often these stories feel like the beginnings of longer ones, but carrying them on into actual plots would ruin them. They’d be too definite, too conclusive, no longer uncanny. And, anyway, doesn’t it capture how hard it sometimes is to imagine what the world might be like, after the worst has happened?

In “The Slaying of the Dragon” a hunting party rides out to kill a dragon. It turns out to be a feeble, aging mother dragon dependandt on the goats left by nearby villagers. The hunters stubbornly push on to the end of their quest, though it’s clear long before then they won’t come out looking like heroes. In “The Opening of the Road,” a party of civil servants travel into the country to officially open a new road. As they get further from civilization the road is always a bit further ahead, until the remaining officials find themselves grimly pressing on into a desert.

Buzzati’s best insight into catastrophes is his grasp of how, so often, they happen because no one acknowledged what was going on until it was too late. Everything is normal. Everything is always normal. It’s not polite to point out the thing we refuse to speak of; talking about it would make it real. In “The Epidemic” a Colonel comes down with the flu just as a secretary for the Dept. of Intelligence declares the epidemic only infects the disloyal. As his headache and fever get worse, the Colonel keeps coming in to work. He doesn’t want to be an inconvenient fact.

The Importance of Being Genre

Alix Harrow’s fantasy novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a very good book, and I enjoyed it. I’m a little conflicted about my enjoyment. The Ten Thousand Doors of January got me thinking about two kinds of subtext running beneath some types of speculative fiction to which it bears a distant family resemblance.

These themes aren’t related–at most, they sometimes intersect–so this essay will ramble, and I’m not sure how coherent it will ultimately be. Just bear in mind I’m not trying to tie everything together; I’m describing a Venn diagram where the circles ever-so-slightly overlap.

Subtext #1: You Flatter Us

There’s a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy written to flatter people who like science fiction and fantasy. Its heroes are smart, imaginative, and interested in strange ideas. In stories set in anything resembling the real world, they usually read actual SF or fantasy. People find them strange, dismiss them as impractical dreamers, or bully them.

All this is, if not like speculative fiction fans, at least like their self-images: Today geek culture is mainstream, but older fans still nurse grudges over lectures from teachers or bullying from peers about their then-weird obsessions. That’s why it’s a kick when a hero’s geek traits turn out to be superpowers. Science fiction geek heroes may be the only one who can solve a problem due to their ingenuity and special geeky knowledge. (Ernest Cline’s books are shameless examples.) Fantasy heroes either have honest-to-god magical powers connected to their imagination, intelligence, or love of reading, or are among the privileged few who can see magic or have access to portal or wainscot worlds.

At their smuggest, the lessons of flatter-the-fans stories are:

  1. Science fiction and fantasy are very special genres, and the fan culture surrounding them is also very special!
  2. Being, or at least resembling, a SF fan is a sign of intelligence and sensitivity!

I understand why sci-fi fans love this stuff–I can enjoy it, too, in the right mood. But I’m not sure stories telling fans they’re special are the stories they need right now. Again, these days stuff fans like is mainstream. Most pop culture caters to them already, and to the loudest, most aggrieved fans most of all.

Subtext #2: The Special People

Modern culture, geek culture especially, values people for what they are more than what they do. Sherlock Holmes has privilege but what makes him a hero are his skills, which theoretically anybody could learn with study. Contemporary pop culture heroes might be skilled, but they’re heroes because of powers or privileges nobody else can access. Our standard hero is the superhero. Superheroes are special because they’re aliens, or mutants, or just so rich they can build a batcave and train all day instead of getting a job. Even in a comic-book universe, any kid can’t grow up to be Superman.

It’s interesting watching existing characters evolve to fit the trend. The latest Star Wars protagonist, Rey, went from an impoverished nobody to the daughter of the emperor in two films (mostly because fans were loudly dissatisfied with the former option). The 1960s Captain Kirk was a man in his 30s who’d worked his way up through Starfleet; the new Captain Kirk is handed the Enterprise straight out of the academy. Doctor Who used to be a mediocre, underachieving Time Lord who fled Gallifrey out of boredom; now she’s an ex-super-spy whose superior alien genes are the original source of every Time Lord’s ability to regenerate. (And for a while now she’s been the last Time Lord in the universe, just to ensure no one has the authority to boss her around.)

The Part That’s Actually a Review of The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is about January Scaller, a young woman at the dawn of the 20th century. January voraciously reads pulp novels and tales of adventure. (SF isn’t really a genre at this point, but she comes as close to fandom as she can–she even voluntarily reads Tom Swift books.) She can see doorways to other worlds. And she has the magical power to make things she writes come true, which she uses to open more doorways. She’s not just a fan; she’s become a writer herself, opening doors to worlds of her own.

So, yeah, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is wish fulfillment for fantasy readers. That’s no problem. I am a fantasy reader. And, honestly, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is an excellent novel of its type. I’m not saying it’s deep–it’s unambiguous, easy to interpret, and unlikely to confound or challenge most readers. As with a lot of SF, I get the sense this book is pitched younger than the adult audience it’s marketed to. Unlike a lot of SF, it feels like a novel, not a pitch for the Netflix series many writers seem to want instead. It’s a book about learning, uncovering information, more than presenting breathless action.

Its metaphors don’t work only one way; they rhyme with each other. It’s a novel about doors, and traveling between worlds, but January is also liminal herself: as an upper class mixed-race woman in 1900s America she moves between social worlds. January alone is perceived differently from January in the company of her wealthy white guardian.

We see a couple of worlds in detail, one independent world and one pocket-universe refuge for people marginalized by 1900s America. They’re both vivid. The larger world, a place of islands, tattoos, and word-magic, feels more distinctive and complete than most epic fantasy settings in a fraction of the space.

Ten Thousand Doors’ prose has style, not an attempt at styleless transparency. It’s sensitive to narrative voice, even down to the niceties of capitalization. As the novel begins it’s already asking us to notice the difference between a door and a Door. Which comes in handy, since the book has two narrators: January herself, and a nonfiction book on Doors that becomes a biography of Adelaide Larson, a woman who travels through them.

(That second strand sold me on the novel. Fantasy and science fiction don’t spend enough time exploring the worldbuilding and storytelling possibilities of fictional nonfiction. If nothing else it saves time when you can just come out and tell the reader about the world instead of implying everything through plot, and it’s often the more interesting option.)

And then–here’s where I start revealing the things that ought to surprise you on first reading–that biography neatly transitions into an autobiography of Yule Ian, its otherworldly author, then connects back to January’s plot, which loops around to the very beginning of the novel as she sits down to write, and then past it.

One of my cranky literary opinions is that every story has a narrator. Yes, even when they stick to close third person, or “transparent” style, the whole way through. You’re getting the characters’ thoughts and feelings because someone is telling you them. Sometimes this narrator is a persona the author wants to present to the audience. Sometimes it’s a persona the author doesn’t realize they’re presenting. One interesting question to ask about any novel is who is telling this story, and why? Even stories in first person don’t always consider the second half of that question.

Here, it’s easy to answer. Ten Thousand Doors is a first person narrative wedded to a mostly third person narrative that gradually lets the first person take over. Each narrator is writing to a specific audience for a specific reason.

Meanwhile the real-life readers are in the position of those characters, being addressed by the narratives. The nonfiction strand, addressed to January, ultimately explains her background and powers: you are magic. January’s story turns out to be addressed to an amnesiac boyfriend: an unsuspected magical girlfriend is looking for you. Both reinforce the book’s wish-fulfillment aspects.

On a higher level, both narrators are metaphorical fantasy authors–dreamers, writers, fascinated by Doors–making their cases for the importance of fantasy. But they do a weirdly lousy job of selling what’s so awesome about it.

Everybody Wants Their Genre to Rule the World

Doors are a metaphor for books. Speculative fiction, mostly; books about other worlds and presumably other possibilities.

Doors, The Ten Thousand Doors tells us, are also change. They’re the source of wonder and innovation, where revolutionary ideas slip into our world from fundamentally different ones: “revolution, resistance, empowerment, upheaval, invention, collapse, reformation—all the most vital components of human history, in short.”

The European rebellions of 1848 hung like gun smoke in the air; the sepoys of India could still taste mutiny on their tongues; women whispered and conspired, sewing banners and authoring pamphlets; freedmen stood unshackled in the bloodied light of their new nation. All the symptoms, in short, of a world still riddled with open doors.

Are they, though? There’s a step missing here: The Ten Thousand Doors never tells us what these changes have to do with Doors. It’s like the cartoon about the scientist who solves a complicated equation by writing “then a miracle occurs.” The book insists Doors are change but can’t come up with a concrete example of the world changing because of a Door.[1]

You’ll notice these revolutionary movements happened in the real, Doorless, world. This is one of those fantasy stories set in the real world, which puts it in a bind. The novel can’t introduce changes that never happened or the world won’t look like ours anymore. It also can’t give Doors credit for real-world changes without denying credit to the real people who worked for them. True, a lot of social movements were in part inspired by books… but most of them weren’t the kind of books January reads. They were books like Das Kapital, or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, or occasionally realist novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle.

Mostly Doors aren’t about changing this world, but escaping into other ones. Adelaide finds Yule Ian’s world and her true love. January’s African governess slips into a world free from European colonialism. A community of outsiders and marginalized people take refuge on an uninhabited Earth. And there’s nothing wrong with this. Sometimes people need an escape, a refuge. Weird, bullied people, or those who’ve been genuinely marginalized: The Ten Thousand Doors makes sure to provide portals for the non-white, non-male readers who rarely got to star in the fantasies of decades past. This is all good!

It’s just that there’s a gap between what Ten Thousand Doors wants to make of fantasy and what it actually provides. It tells us stories can change the world, but only ever shows them leading people inwards to their own private worlds. In a way, Doors are change–but only for the select group of people who get to travel through them.

A Bad Witch

I might not have given The Ten Thousand Doors of January a shot if I’d remembered Harrow had also written “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,”. “A Witch’s Guide” has a similar central metaphor but isn’t as smart, or as kind. It’s one of the most obnoxiously smug flatter-the-fans stories I’ve ever come across. It still won a Hugo Award. That might be why it won a Hugo Award.

“A Witch’s Guide to Escape” is about a librarian/witch who sees her job as connecting people with The Right Book, or, as she puts it, “divining the unfilled spaces in their souls and filling them with stories and starshine.” I must emphasize here that at no point in this story is there any hint of irony.

You get a sense of the narrator’s personality when she says “There have only ever been two kinds of librarians in the history of the world: the prudish, bitter ones with lipstick running into the cracks around their lips who believe the books are their personal property and patrons are dangerous delinquents come to steal them; and witches.” She’s the kind of person who thinks there are two kinds of people. And, like a Josephine Tey character, she thinks she can know a person by looking at them. The patrons she’s concerned about are kids. She barely speaks to any of them, but brief glimpses as they pass through her library “kind of [tell] you all you need to know” about their lives. She knows what they need, and what they need is always the same thing. Fantasy, king of literature and the literature of kings!

“And you really can’t do anything for the people who only read Award-Winning Literature,” she says, “who wear elbow patches and equate the popularity of Twilight with the death of the American intellect; their hearts are too closed-up for the new or secret or undiscovered.” Which is amazing. I mean, if the internet has taught me one thing it’s that sci-fi/fantasy fandom includes some of the most incurious and unimaginative people on earth. And a lot of people they’d dismiss as “mundane” are smart, thoughtful readers. The narrator can’t imagine anyone might read “Award-Winning Literature” and find things in it that are new, or secret, or undiscovered. I read fantasy and Award-Winning Literature and off the top of my head I could come up with a half-dozen “literary” novels with more of the new and undiscovered in them than in Brandon Sanderson’s entire oeuvre.

A social worker brings one boy in and suggests he read some nonfiction about his depression instead of another fantasy novel. She’s not as diplomatic as I’d be, but she’s not wrong. I read fantasy, and I’ve dealt with depression. I need some escape sometimes but I can confirm nonfiction is better long-term help in this area than fiction of any genre. The witch is incensed: “Anyone could see that kid needed to run and keep running until he shed his own skin, until he clawed out of the choking darkness and unfurled his wings, precious and prisming in the light of some other world.” And, I mean… does she not realize it’s possible to read more than one thing? No, fantasy solves all problems! Fantasy is the most important literature.

So the witch steers kids to the books she thinks they need. It doesn’t work–one kid, pregnant and desperate, kills herself. So the witch swears she’ll give the boy one of the really magic books, the ones witches keep from the public. And she does, and it’s a literal portal, and the boy vanishes into it. The story says this is a happy ending. Maybe from the boy’s point of view it is. We don’t know. The witch is telling this story, and she’s so disengaged from the kids they barely have any dialogue; we never get his point of view. From everyone else’s POV, both he and the pregnant girl are equally gone from the world. What’s the difference?

But everyone else’s point of view doesn’t matter. The witch is a fantasy fan, “A Witch’s Guide” is here to tell us fantasy fans are wiser and more sensitive than the common herd.

Guarding the Doors

January’s guardian belongs to the New England Archaeological Society. The NEAS collects powerful artifacts from beyond the Doors. Then they close the Doors behind them so just anyone can’t do the same. The NEAS are special, better than the mundanes. They know what’s best.

The NEAS are SF fans. They’re the fans who police the boundaries, set pop quizzes to sort “real” fans from poseurs, and whine when their comic books start to look less white and male. They memorize canons and amass Funko pops while blockading the doors to divide themselves from the herd, keep the club exclusive. What kind of world would this be if January could get in?

But even a lot of fans on the right side of these fights, who want to open the doors, are more like the NEAS than they’d care to admit. January’s magical powers, remember, mark her as sensitive and creative. She’s a character the Witch from “A Witch’s Guide” might like to see herself in. The Witch is a speculative fiction fan, and she doesn’t want to keep anybody out–quite the opposite. But, well, some people are just too dead inside to get with the program, am I right? If they had any imagination they’d gladly be assimilated into her Borg. She won’t accept that people who love literature beyond fantasy could feel the same love for it or get the same rewards. Fantasy is her refuge. She can’t stand the suggestion that anything outside her fandom could be as important.

I’ve seen aggrieved SF fans set up psychological barricades to protect themselves from ideas that might pop their SF-is-special bubbles. They don’t consciously police boundaries, but they have the same combative grudge about other kinds of art that they imagine litfic readers have about SF. They get defensive over even mild criticism of the things they love. They question the imaginations of the non-genre readers, performatively sneer at the books they were assigned in high school, or dismiss litfic as books about professors having affairs with their students.

The result is that SF is so frustratingly small. From the golden age onwards, most popular writers have come out of the same fan culture and read the same books. Most SF draws from a limited range of styles, themes, and subjects. During the “golden age” we got pulp potboilers starring white, male soldiers and engineers. Today, the standard is a low-subtext Hollywood-style thriller. At all times, the style hasn’t strayed far from the contemporary understanding of “transparent prose.”

The core, non-small-press part of the speculative fiction genres don’t learn from anything outside themselves. If SF is so special and powerful, and its readers so especially imaginative and sensitive, what could the outside world have to teach?

Super Genres and Supermen

Alec Nevala-Lee’s brilliant book Astounding is part biography of Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell (along with Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard), part cultural history of his disproportionate impact on science fiction. Campbell was a man of strong opinions, most of them bad. He was convinced science fiction was not ordinary literature–it might even be the most important literature. He once told Barry Malzburg “There’s going to be a moon landing because of science fiction. There’s no argument.” By that point he’d spent his entire career trying to prove science fiction could change the world.

Campbell spent World War II looking for ways sci-fi might contribute to the war effort, imaging Astounding as a laboratory where smart people could brainstorm new ideas. He sometimes pitched schemes at actual government employee Robert Heinlein. Campbell was so desperate to prove his genre could lead to a world-changing breakthrough that after the war Hubbard suckered him into using Astounding to introduce Scientology.

Nevala-Lee writes Campbell saw Astounding as “an evolutionary collaboration between authors and fans to develop ideas at blinding speed… his ultimate goal was to create a new kind of person in both the magazine and its audience—a competent man who might pave the way for the superman to come.” Campbell wanted to be one of those competent men. He was a reasonably smart man who thought he was brilliant–the Dunning-Kruger Effect in human form. He’d grown up precocious, and bullied.[2] The lesson Campbell took was that ordinary people can’t handle genius.

Science fiction of Campbell’s era was stocked with superhumans–people who were naturally smarter than the common folk. A. E. van Vogt’s Slan and Zenna Henderson’s People stories are famous examples. Campbell published Wilmar H. Shiras’s “In Hiding,”[3] about a child psychologist who discovers a boy is hiding his true intelligence because the people around him Just Don’t Understand. The story consists of the kid explaining seriously and at length how smart he is–running selective breeding experiments with kittens, publishing stories in magazines whose editors don’t know he’s twelve. The boy isn’t just bright–normal people can’t educate themselves up to his level through hard work. He’s an atomic mutant, genetically superior. Brains are in his blood.

January, meanwhile, is special because she’s literally magic, and she’s magic because her father is from another world. January’s a better person than the NEAS, she’s not interested in excluding anyone, but she can’t help being special. The abilities that metaphorically mark her as a fan and a creator are hereditary powers no mundane human could learn. January masters them instinctively. They’re in her blood. She’s a superhero.

(Magic powers are often hereditary in fantasy. If you don’t want magic to be absolutely ubiquitous, restricting it to a small part of the population is an obvious solution. But it’s weird that it’s usually genetic. Why does it need to follow the rules of heredity? It’s magic.)

The significant, plot-moving characters in The Ten Thousand Doors are people who know about Doors. Few non-door-aware people get names. The novel cares about how they support or hinder January, or her parents or governess, or her enemies. It rarely hints at what goals they might have of their own. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a struggle for control of fantasy fandom. Here, it’s the only world that matters.

One of the best small moments in The Ten Thousand Doors of January involves Adelaide’s journey to the island world. She needs a ship, and her Door is on top of a mountain, and she hires two Hispanic men to lug it up, and they’re the last people to see her before she disappears. And the book acknowledges the trouble this causes them! They’re not disregarded as extras–Adelaide’s biographer names and quotes one of them. We may not learn what January plans to do for the world outside her charmed Door-savvy circle, but this book knows January and her friends and family have responsibilities to others. The novel is calling Adelaide on her privilege–not just her white privilege, but her hero privilege.

The NEAS aren’t special–but neither are January and her parents. It’s easy to reject a villains’ assumption of specialness. Remembering to question a story’s assumptions about the hero’s specialness is harder. They usually aren’t conscious on the protagonist’s or the author’s part, so they’re more hidden.

Stories of special, magical people that lose this sense of perspective can be toxic. Heroes who are more special than everyone else aren’t held accountable for the collateral damage incurred by their adventures. Superhero movies often center the hero’s self-actualization while disregarding the background extras’ health and safety. They divide people into the special ones and the mundanes, and encourage the audience to identify with the special ones.

I know this post has rambled. I’m not sure it’s entirely cohered. But I do see points of connection between the gatekeeping fans; and the defensive, incurious fans; and stories about special people; and stories where those people are fans. The Ten Thousand Doors of January has the perspective and self-awareness they lack. On top of that, it’s genuinely well-written. Still, this book feels like a candy bar: I loved it, but I know if I consume too much of this stuff I’ll make myself sick.


  1. In reality, the biggest changes SF and fantasy made to the world are Scientology and the Disney corporation’s monopoly on the American imagination, neither of which were a win.  ↩

  2. Which, though it doesn’t justify anything, was probably partly in reaction to Campbell’s own obnoxiousness–for instance, he recalled “solving” games like hide-and-seek.  ↩

  3. Recently reprinted in the Library of America anthology The Future is Female.  ↩

Short Reviews of Weird-Adjacent Fiction

Jean Giono, A King Alone

Jean Giono’s A King Alone is a realist novel, but just for its uncanny tone it would probably appeal to fans of M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood. It takes place over the course of several winters in a 19th century mountain village hemmed in by snow and fog. It’s a cloudy limbo where a man climbing down from a tree seems to come from thin air. Anything can happen.

What does happen is a murder mystery, followed by a wolf hunt, followed by.. what? The title might be more literally translated as A King Without Diversion. The “king” is Langlois, the hero of the first two plots, decisive in a crisis, quick with a gun, and the idol of the villagers. A King Alone deconstructs the adventure-novel hero. The real measure of a person’s strength isn’t how they cope with a crisis but how they cope with ordinary life.

A King Alone does interesting things with narration. The story is told by a village historian living a couple of generations after the events, reporting tales of Langlois secondhand, and seamlessly transitions into the voices of their original sources. The narrator is as often “we” as “I,” like the spirit of the village is piecing Langlois together from collective memory.

This book’s best asset is its otherworldly feel and uncanny imagery. A tree cradles murder victims in its branches, the pursuit of a killer is a weirdly slow and calm walk through clouds and snowdrifts.

Margaret Irwin, “The Book”

I recently came across Margaret Irwin’s story “The Book” for the second time–the first was in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird. It’s good, but I still haven’t read any of her (apparently few) others. She collected them in a book called Madame Fears the Dark which is not in print and not affordable used.

It’s a deal-with-what-might-be-the-devil story about a grimoire that’s found its way onto the shelves of a mild-mannered middle-class businessman. The plot’s predictable–the book presents Mr. Corbett with newly-written investment advice, asking for increasingly-alarming favors in return–but not every story needs a twist ending.

What’s distinctive is how the grimoire seduces Mr. Corbett. It haunts his library. He doesn’t notice it’s there at first; it’s just one of a batch of books inherited from an uncle. But every night the second shelf on the dining-room bookcase gains a strange gap, like something’s left to wander around. And Mr. Corbett has suddenly gone off books. Dickens isn’t funny anymore: “Beneath the author’s sentimental pity for the weak and helpless, he could discern a revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering.” Jane Austen is “a prying, sub-acid busybody in everyone else’s flirtations,” Charlotte Bronte is “a raving, craving maenad seeking self-immolation on the altar of her frustrated passions.” The classics suck, and Mr. Corbett is the first person to notice! Obviously, this is because his mind is “so acute and original he should have achieved greatness,” but until then, Mr. Corbett reads to explore “the hidden infirmities of minds that had been valued by fools as great and noble.” When he finds the one book on the dining-room shelf not newly revealed as idiotic, he’s ready and willing to fall under its spell.

In other words, the grimoire corrupts Mr. Corbett by turning him into a smug, edgy contrarian. Anyone who’s seen too many Twitter threads of the Hey, what’s the worst book you had to read in high school kind might not find the idea too farfetched.

Elizabeth Hand, Wylding Hall

Any interesting writer (even a writer of the “every book is different” kind) will have subjects or themes they return to, because to be interesting a writer has to have interests. I’m only somewhat familiar with Elizabeth Hand’s work–I’ve read this, her mystery novels, and a few short stories–but her go-to theme seems to be counterculture types of the 1960s and 1970s dealing, gracefully or not, with aging, and leftover damage from decisions made decades ago.

Wylding Hall is one of those stories. It’s written as an oral history of Windhollow Faire, a Fairport Convention-style folk rock group, and their legendary final album, recorded at and named after the titular country house. There’s no “objective” narrator, just interviews with the surviving members responding to questions we never hear. The one missing voice is Julian, their lead singer, who vanished during production.

In form Wylding Hall a blend of folk horror and Arthur Machen. Under the surface this is a story about the proverbial kid who goes a little too far in search of something more and drops out or burns out. As with “The Book,” if you’re genre-savvy you can guess where this story will end up. That doesn’t matter: it’s effective in its details and watching it get there is affecting and chilling. This is one of the best stories of its type I’ve read in ages.

It helps that I’m a sucker for the horror tropes Wylding Hall leans on. The hall is a House of Leaves-style impossible space, accumulating styles like a centuries-long physical history of British architecture, expanding and contracting and revealing different rooms to different people. We also get uncanny media: a song may also be a spell, photos show something (and it’s quite a thing) nobody knew was there. And then there’s the fictional album at the center of the story: even in reality, there’s an uneasy aura around last recordings, final books, any artifact created just adjacent to a sad ending.

The key to pulling off this kind of story is to explain neither too much or too little. The multiple viewpoints help; Julian vanished forty years ago, and a lot of these people spent the summer stoned, and the proceedings have just the right amount of fog. In the end it’s not even clear whether Julian’s end was, from his own perspective, horrible or happy. Like A King Alone, this is a story where we only see the lynchpin character from outside. From outside it’s often hard to tell.

Random Thoughts on Recent Doctor Who

(I’ve expanded this post from some thoughts I had on Twitter. If you don’t care about Doctor Who, it probably won’t interest you.)

Earlier this month Doctor Who aired an episode called “Can You Hear Me.” Afterwards the BBC thought they had to apologize for it. See, at the end of the episode Graham tells the Doctor he’s scared his cancer might come back, and she replies “I’m quite socially awkward, so I’m just going to subtly walk towards the console and look at something. And then in a minute, I’ll think of something that I should have said that might have been helpful.” And a lot of viewers hated that was the best she could come up with.

I thought this line was inept, but not in the way most fans thought.

Yes, the Doctor’s response is disappointing, but that’s clearly intentional; anyone who thought it was meant to be cute or funny missed some cues. (For instance, look how the episode juxtaposes this scene with Ryan’s fears that traveling with the Doctor means not being there for his friends.) I sometimes feel like modern audiences have trouble interpreting fiction that doesn’t explicitly, unambiguously spell out how they’re meant to feel.

Instead, I was struck by two things. One points to a change in how the writers of post–2005 Doctor Who think about the Doctor. The other points to a weak spot in the show’s writing under the current producer, Chris Chibnall.


First: is the Doctor socially awkward? Most of the time the 13th Doctor’s distinguishing feature is that she’s more in touch with her companions’ feelings than usual. And I think that “usual” is new. The Doctor’s social awkwardness is a creation of the post–2005 series. The original series Doctors were eccentric and alien to ordinary day-to-day life. But they understood emotions, were usually empathetic, and charmed people more often than they offended them. They comforted their friends in times of distress on a regular basis. In the same situation, any classic Doctor–even the often abrasive 3rd or 6th Doctors–would have come up with something helpful to say.

The idea that the Doctor isn’t competent at people skills is new, and, I think, entirely a product of the modern cultural assumption that thought and feeling are opposed, and smart people necessarily bad at emotions and empathy. This assumption makes it hard for contemporary writers to see certain characters clearly. Take modern depictions of Sherlock Holmes, who is not nearly as cold or thoughtless in the original stories.


The other interesting thing about the “socially awkward” line is that it isn’t a line so much as a description of what the line is meant to do. If “Can You Hear Me” had come out under Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat, the Doctor might have said something that demonstrated she wanted to help but didn’t know how, but without coming out and saying so. By contrast, a fair amount of Chibnall-era dialogue has this… let’s say schematic quality.

For instance, “Praxeus” has its guest character baldly diagnose his own mental hangups to Graham. In a real person this would be a great psychological breakthrough and probably the first step to healing. As drama, it’s perfunctory.

Ryan’s confrontation with his father in “Resolution” is also literal. They don’t reveal their motivations and feelings through their dialogue, they just come right out and lay them on the table. Again, in a real conversation this would be healthy, and I don’t think it’s impossible to make a good story from it. But here it’s all text and no subtext. There’s nothing for the audience to interpret or dig into.

This brings up another point. It’s strange that this subplot is resolved when Ryan rescues his father from a Dalek. The emotional question at the heart of this plot is whether Ryan can trust his father to be there for him; it seems obvious that to really resolve this thread Ryan’s father needs to save Ryan. The emotional closure doesn’t logically follow from the action. There’s a series of exciting action set pieces, and then the resolution you’d conventionally expect at that point in the episode, and it’s sort of implied the latter happened because of the former. But that’s only because they happened in sequence, not due to any actual causality.

This is an occasional problem with the show’s plotting that I think relates to the dialogue problem. Events happen because we’ve reached the part of the episode where they should happen, even if they weren’t properly set up. It feels like they’re nodes in an unfinished plot outline the writers didn’t quite finish connecting, just like the “socially awkward” line feels like a utilitarian placeholder for finished dialogue that was never written.

Relatedly, “Can You Hear Me” is resolved when Tahira, a guest character, learns to “control her fears,” thus controlling the fake monsters the villain had pulled from her nightmares. But we never see how Tahira learns to control her fears–she spends most of the episode standing in the background, until at the right time the Doctor just says she’s learned it. It’s like the writers knew that was how the episode needed to end but weren’t sure how to get there, so they just sort of said that’s what happened. It’s a description of what the plot is meant to be doing.

I hate the common writing-advice doctrine of “show, don’t tell.” It’s badly overused and taken far too literally, especially in written fiction; too many novels drag on longer than they need to because their writers think they’re forbidden to summarize. But I have to admit it has its place. The last couple years of Doctor Who is the rare case where “show, don’t tell” might be good advice.