W. F. Harvey, The Double Eye

M. R. James was unusual among ghost-story writers in that every story he wrote was at least mildly interesting; most weird writers of his vintage aren’t as consistent. But many have a handful of good stories and sometimes I even find one that hasn’t been reprinted to death.

W. F. Harvey is one of those writers. The Double Eye collects most if not all of his weird stories and it’s a mixed bag. Some of his stories are brilliant, the rest you’ll forget as soon as you read them. They’re all very short–my two favorites are both under 2000 words. Harvey is jocular without writing outright comedy. He’s sometimes ironic but only mildly so; for instance, a potential murderer might be reported to a psychiatrist by the accomplices he’d tried to recruit. Harvey usually avoids outright ghosts and it’s often unclear whether something supernatural is going on or his characters are having mental breakdowns. (He wrote at least two stories about a man thinking he’d been cursed by a woman who might merely be upset with him.) The worst story in the collection is mildly racist, has a mild racial slur for a title, and would have been better buried and forgotten. At the other end of the quality scale are the two stories most people will have heard of, “August Heat” and “The Beast With Five Fingers.”

“The Beast With Five Fingers” is the ur-story of the disembodied hand subgenre. “August Heat” is weirder. (And takes hardly any time to read, so you might as well do so.)

One hot morning, James Withencroft, an artist, draws a picture of a prisoner on trial. He has no idea why–it just popped into his head. Withencroft has never seen the man before in his life but he’s distinctively large, so when Withencroft goes for a walk and passes that exact man Withencroft spots him at once. Mr. Atkinson and Withencroft are immediate friends. Atkinson is a monument-carver, carving a sample tombstone for an exhibition. Withencroft’s name is on it, and today’s date. Atkinson has no idea why–it just popped into his head. The coincidence creeps Withencroft out, so Atkinson invites Withencroft to stick around until midnight, just to make sure nothing happens to him. As the story closes, Atkinson is sharpening a chisel while Withencroft reflects with an odd detachment that the heat “is enough to send a man mad.”

“And it was only the day before yesterday,” he said, “that I told Maria there were no such things as ghosts!”

Neither of us had seen a ghost, but I knew what he meant.

“August Heat” has been reprinted in a lot of ghost story anthologies–not just weird stories, ghost anthologies specifically. Which is interesting because it doesn’t have a ghost, or anything supernatural beyond two extraordinary coincidences and the implication, putting them side by side, that something is about to follow from them. But why? It’s the obscurity of the story that’s disturbing. There’s no Twilight Zone irony, the characters haven’t brought them on themselves through character flaws. There’s no suggestion that Atkinson is a hidden psychopath, or anything other than the genial man he appears to be. Withencroft and Atkinson have had premonitions of a murder which is about to happen only because they had premonitions of that murder. The event has no beginning; the effect is its own cause. The story feels haunted not by an apparition but by a strangely meaningless future.

My favorite W. F. Harvey story is “The Clock.” It’s one of his less anthologized stories, but googling turned up the text online. It is, again, short but effective.

“The Clock” is an excerpt from a letter to an old school friend. The unnamed writer is asked by a friend of her aunt to go to her shut-up house and retrieve a travelling-clock. She agrees. The story vividly conveys the uncomfortable feeling of being the only person in a dark, silent, deserted house where she’d normally have no legitimate reason to be: “I did in fact feel rather like a burglar, and I thought that if anyone did happen to see the front door open, I might have difficulty in explaining things.”

The writer heads upstairs and finally finds the clock in a back bedroom. It’s still ticking. Which is weird, because no one has been in the house, so who’s been winding it? “Then, without quite knowing why, I shut the door on to the landing, locked myself in, and again looked round the room.” Then she hears something coming up the stairs. Not walking, but “hopping up the stairs, like a very big bird would hop.” Then it pauses, and starts scratching at each of the doors in turn. The writer flees out the window, and as she looks back she sees the window has shut behind her.

Another book I read recently was Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie. I found Fisher’s ideas an interesting lens through which to look at Harvey’s work. Fisher identifies “Weird” and “Eerie” as modes often used by weird fiction.[1] The Weird is easy to describe: it’s something alien and out of place that intrudes on the mundane world, like the crawling hand in “The Beast With Five Fingers.” The Eerie is trickier. It’s an impression of meaning, intelligence, or agency out of place–either present where it shouldn’t be, or absent where it should. Fisher gives the example of an “eerie cry” for the first type, as in the cry of an animal which seems to carry some unusual intelligence or meaning. An example of the second is a mysterious ruin which once had a context and purpose that’s now entirely forgotten. Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is.

W. F. Harvey’s main interest is the eerie. He does tell weird stories–“The Beast With Five Fingers” is a good one. Another is one of his rare outright ghost stories, “Account Rendered.” But Harvey is less fond of ghosts and monsters than most weird writers–he likes coincidences that might not be coincidences, delusions that might not be delusions, and people or animals who might be more than they seem. “August Heat” is both his most famous story and the one that best represents his work; its paradoxical tangle of precognition and predestination is thoroughly eerie.

In that light, “The Clock” is an interesting case. It’s certainly weird. But unlike the Beast With Five Fingers, the whatever-it-was in “The Clock” is never seen and has no hint of backstory, and the purpose of its behavior is obscure. The complete lack of context makes the story feel as eerie as it is weird.

That sense of the eerie doesn’t have anything to do with Harvey’s prose–not all his stories are alike, but like I said earlier, most are breezy and jocular, specializing in a sort of light detective-novel style. He only occasionally dips into stream of conciousness[2] or varies his tone or pacing much. When Harvey’s on form his plots are inherently disquieting even when baldly and simply described, and the lightness of tone contrasts ironically. Contrasting horror and wit is a common strategy in weird stories of Harvey’s era, especially in stories by British authors. It’s often very effective.

Look, for instance, at “Account Rendered.” A Mr. Tolson hires a doctor to put him under anesthesia for half an hour around midnight. While Tolson is under an old man like “a timid but inquisitive tortoise” opens the door, sticks his head in, and observes that Tolson is busy but there’s no hurry and he’ll come back another time. Later the doctor investigates and discovers Tolson hires a different doctor every year on the same night, and no matter where in the world he is, at midnight the old man puts his head into the room. The premise of this story is memorable in itself–I’ve read a lot of ghost stories and among the less inspired ones ideas repeat, but this is new. And there’s something disconcerting in the mundanity of the ghost and its polite relentlessness.

“The Follower” is one of Harvey’s less successful stories. A writer, like Harvey himself, lives near a couple of academics named Canon Rathbone and Dr. Curtius who are researching ancient manuscripts they brought back from overseas. One night while gazing at their house he gets an idea for a story based on them. The next day the academics happen to drop in. The protagonist’s sister suggests he could write about Canon Rathbone’s work and the Canon gets flustered, stammering out that he’s really not into fiction–it’s too sensationalistic. As the academics leave, the writer feels obscurely that he’s been warned off.

The outline of this story has a lot of eerie potential, but in Harvey’s style it doesn’t work. It’s too ambiguous. If “The Follower” had been written by (for example) Robert Aickman it would have been suffused with odd details suggesting something weighty moving under the surface of things. In Harvey’s story Dr. Curtius makes a few odd gestures–nodding at odd moments, stirring his tea in a way the writer thinks is strange–but nothing he or Canon Rathbone do seems all that unusual, and they aren’t in any way menacing. Rathbone seems more embarassed than anything. It feels like the writer is getting worked up over a mundane coincidence.

W. F. Harvey’s weird tales are at their best when the overt events are undeniably strange. When they could be just funny coincidences… well, then, they probably are just funny coincidences. The voice he uses in most of his stories encourages me to assume the least extraordinary explanation for everything. It’s reliable, sincerely friendly; I compared it to a detective-story voice, and it feels like, as in a fair play detective story, it’s not palming any cards. When Harvey’s working, though, he really works. The Double Eye feels padded, but Harvey wrote enough great stories that you could fill at least one volume of more modest size.

(Other stories not mentioned above that I’d include in a notional Best of W. F. Harvey include “Midnight House,” “Across the Moors,” “The Tortoise,” “The Ankardyne Pew,” “The Tool,” “The Dabblers,” and “The Flying Out of Mrs. Barnard Hollis.” “The Star” and “The Man Who Hated Aspidistras” are also good, but are comic stories with no weird content and would be an odd fit.)


  1. Fisher doesn’t claim these are the only two modes or effects weird fiction has; they’re just the ones he’s concerned with.  ↩

  2. There are exceptions; for instance, “The Sleeping Major.”  ↩

Catherynne M. Valente, Space Opera

1.

Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera gets compared to Douglas Adams a lot. That’s not because it’s an Adams pastiche. Space Opera and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy have different agendas and preoccupations, and are written in different styles to fit. Hitchhiker’s has the polite, straight faced, reassuring voice of a travel guide. Space Opera is extravagantly glittery, with sentences you can get lost in carrying you through unexpected scenic routes. The one similarity is that both have plenty of phrases that make you imagine something vividly or see it in a new way, Space Opera having at least one per page as good as Adams’s “hung in the sky like bricks don’t.” “Watching a kebab slowly revolve in front of a space heater like a sweaty meat planet,” say, or “mumble-crooning artificial grit,” which is as good a description of a currently popular style of folk-rock as I’ve ever seen.

The reason for the Adams comparison is that Space Opera is absurdist space opera. Adams is the best known example of that subgenre, though there’s also Robert Sheckley, and Stanislaw Lem’s The Star Diaries and The Cyberiad.[1] The comedy isn’t the point of the exercise. It’s an excuse to go full Jonathan Swift. These books can have aliens who embody human failings and foibles, and wild ideas that wouldn’t fit logically world-built, internally consistent universes whose realities refuse to be rubbery or loopy. Space Opera has, for instance, a viral strain of space-zombie gentrifiers and a planet of screw-ups that becomes an important trading hub because wormholes are alive and feed off regret.

There’s real political and philosophical scaffolding under the humor. These books use their license to be weird to play with serious ideas and some on the less jokey end approach Borges or Calvino territory.[2] The best ones–Space Opera included–are grounded enough to deal with real emotion.[3] Unlike Duck Dodgers’ 24th-and-a-half century, you can imagine living in these worlds.

Science fiction on the Adams-to-Borges spectrum is an under-appreciated and underserved subgenre. Space Opera is the best addition in years.

2.

The disastrous Sentience Wars are over. Now the galactic community settles its differences with the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a Eurovision-style song contest. It’s time for Earth to enter, or else. See, the Great Octave judges new species’ sentience on whether they can cooperate well enough to pull off a decent musical number. If humans place last on their first attempt the Octave will declare us non-sentient and render us extinct so Earth can evolve someone cooler. Due to the vagaries of alien taste, Earth’s least implausible representatives are the two surviving members of glam one-hit-wonder Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes: Decibel himself, a has-been with the aesthetic of early David Bowie but not the talent; and Oort St. Ultraviolet, an undramatic session musician with two kids, a cat, and a divorce. Unfortunately Mira Wonderful Star, the deceased member of the trio, was the one who kept them working together.

Space Opera is a celebration of music and theatre and glamor. A couple of passages have been repeatedly approvingly quoted online and it’s easy to get the impression they sum up the book’s Message. First, the end of the chapter explaining the galactic community’s justification for the Grand Prix:

Are you kind enough, on your little planet, not to shut that rhythm down? Not to crush underfoot the singers of songs and tellers of tales and wearers of silk? Because it’s monsters who do that…. Do you have enough goodness in your world to let the music play?

Do you have soul?

And Decibel’s philosophy as stated in an argument with Oort:

“Because the opposite of fascism isn’t anarchy, it’s theater. When the world is fucked, you go to the theater, you go to the shine, and when the bad men come, all there is left to do is sing them down.”

And if this were really all this book were saying, it would merely be self-congratulations for smug hipsters. But Space Opera is more complicated and ambiguous than that. Yes, Valente is sincere in celebrating music and theatre and glamor, and why not? They’re genuinely wonderful. But it celebrates music and theatre for the wonderful things they really are, without ascribing to them superpowers they don’t posess. Glamor isn’t everything. And music isn’t the only thing the book celebrates.

3.

The first thing you notice about the Esca, the big blue bird who makes first contact with Earth, is that it looks like the Roadrunner. Y’know, the one the Coyote is after. One of the first things we learn about Decibel is that, as a serious young person, he was frustrated by his grandmother’s insistence that Dess’ “serious and meaningful” science fiction films were not as good as Looney Tunes: “mine is bright and happy and makes a colorful noise, so I put it on top of yours that is droopy and leaky and makes a noise like the dishwasher.”

Which is interesting. Both pop music and Looney Tunes are “bright and happy and [make] a colorful noise” but they’re otherwise opposites. Pop music is cool and glamorous. Looney Tunes are goofy and corny, descended from vaudeville and slapstick. Their mascot is Porky Pig, who is the exact opposite of cool; you feel for him because he tries so hard but he’ll never not be awkward.

Space Opera loves goofy cartoons as fiercely as Eurovision. Decibel wants to be David Bowie, but he’s really the Coyote, chasing things he never catches and not noticing the cliff until he’s already over it. Not that this is a problem; SF is glutted with super-competent heroes and we need more books about awkward, mediocre people (who are, after all, us). Anyway, it might not be a problem if he’d just embrace it:

“That is what Mira and Oort forgot, having been, if not popular, always cool. No matter how mad, bad, and dangerous to know a civilization gets, unto every generation are born the lonely and the uncool, destined to forever stare into the candy-store window of their culture, and loneliness is the mother of ascension. Only the uncool have the requisite alone time to advance their species.”

This kind of bright happiness requires a willingness to risk looking stupid, a vulnerability that’s incompatible with cool but sometimes necessary if you want to be open to new experiences or new people. One of Space Opera’s refrains is “Life is beautiful and life is stupid.” If you can’t be beautiful being the Coyote kind of stupid is nothing to be ashamed of.

4.

Douglas Adams wrote a lot of jokes, but one of his sharpest was the Golgafrincham B Ark.

One day the leaders of the Golgafrincham announced their world was doomed. So they built three big arks. The A Ark would take the leaders and scientists and artists. The C Ark would take the workers, the people who do and make things. And the B ark would take the people in the middle: account executives, security guards, management consultants, telephone sanitizers. And the B Ark would go first, because it was important for morale that the new world be well managed. As the B Ark warped away, the A and C Golgafrincham shared a laugh and congratulated themselves on getting rid of their useless middlemen. Although not for long, as the whole species was shortly wiped out by a disease spread by unsanitized telephones.

It’s an ingenious bit of sleight-of-hand. When you read comedy you assume it and you are on the same side, sharing the jokes. So you laugh at the clever trick the Golgafrincham pulled on their consultants and middle managers and ambiguously useful tradespeople. Aren’t those people annoying? Don’t you wish you could just launch them into space? And Adams is making fun of them; most of the B Ark people are in what David Graeber calls “Bullshit Jobs” and the ones we meet are “useless bloody loonies.” But once you’re lulled into your smug sense of superiority, Adams drops the real punch line. The Golgafrincham are all dead, because bullshit jobs are a real phenomenon but you’re probably not as good as you think you are at identifying them, and there sure as hell aren’t any useless people. Incidentally, the B Ark people are the ancestors of the whole human race, you included.

This is an unexpectedly angry joke, and all along the target was you. What Adams is really doing here is asking you to consider whether you might be an asshole.

Pay attention when Hitchhiker’s fans bring up the B Ark, and it’s amazing how often they miss the point of the joke.

5.

Some background on Eurovision is in order. Every year, every European country submits a new pop song. They’re all performed on live television, and the audience votes for their favorite. It started in the 1950s, around the time international live television broadcasts first became practical. At the time Europe was still recovering from World War Two and Eurovision was meant to bring Europe together and promote international understanding.

There’s one important difference between Eurovision and the Metagalactic Grand Prix. The Metagalactic Grand Prix is how the galaxy distributes “communally held Galactic Resources.” Even if you’ve passed the entrance exam coming in last does a number on your economy, and it’s a very low number. And according to the rules, “If a performer fails to show up on the night, they shall be automatically disqualified, ranked last, and their share of communal Galactic Resources forfeited for the year.”

Which explains why the minute Decibel and Oort step out onto this year’s host planet someone shoots at them.

The fundamental question every war is asking, according to Space Opera, is “Which of us are people and which of us are meat?” Eurovision was created to encourage Europeans to see each other as people. The Metagalactic Grand Prix is a different way to sort out who’s the meat. The participants maneuver and strategize. They try to knock out the competition, usually not fatally. They downvote planets they don’t like to mess with their economies. The dodgy backstage deals certain people offer Decibel and Oort are deliberate tests, to see if the humans will betray each other. But meanwhile the established species are scheming for real.

Music, here, is war by other means. And Earth might be a casualty, because just before he has to go on a Smaragdin gives Decibel a potentially terminal case of laryngitis.

6.

“I never did say we were good; just sentient,” apologizes the Smaragdin.

Which raises the question of what sentience is, exactly.[4] The Great Octave has exterminated a few species. The one we learn about in detail is Flus. You can understand why they offed this one, actually; it’s legitimately self-defense.[5] Flus is a totalitarian hive mind that assimilates other life forms like the Borg.

The same chapter introduces us to the Voorpreet, sentient Galactic Family members in good standing, who are… um, a zombie virus that assimilates other life forms like the Borg. Who everyone bends over backwards to accommodate as best they can while still staying safe, or safe-ish. Space Opera introduces Flus and the Voorpreet together and explicitly asks “how different was a Flus infection from a Voorpret infection?”

The Voorpreet are cool. They’re the creative class, wealthy Silicon Valley gentrifiers: “Yes, yes, they obliterated the natural biodiversity of any region they touched, but wherever their infection took hold, they opened a lot of delightful bistros and shops and start-up tech companies with whimsically casual workplace environments and fusion food trucks and artisanal blacksmithing co-ops and performance-art spaces.”

The lyrics to the one song Flus knows go like this: “It is awesome to be Flus / If you are not Flus, you are not awesome / and will promptly be consumed / also your children and pets.

The difference between Flus and the Voorpreet is that Flus says the quiet parts loud.

Flus is a group mind–not a species so much as a single threatening individual–so this chapter doesn’t deal with the fundamental problem with the idea of destroying an entire species–humans, say–for their cruelty. You are by definition destroying the victims with their oppressors. The inherent cruelty of some humans is proven by what they do, and the inherent cruelty of the rest is proven by the things the first group did to them. It’s in the tradition of destroying the village in order to save it, or, more recently, freeing Iraqis by bombing the hell out of them.

You get the impression the Octave is looking out for opportunities to just flat out take somebody’s stuff, like the fine old human tradition of liberating nations that coincidentally happen to have something you want. On first contact, the Esca assures Earth that if humans must be exterminated, “all memory of your collective existence will be lovingly collated and archived, your planetary resources tenderly extracted.”

When the Esca entered their first Grand Prix they called their song “Please Don’t Incinerate Us, We’ll Be Good from Now On, We Promise.”

Being declared non-sentient is a lot like being declared a rogue state, or part of an Axis of Evil. It’s not that these places are not at least sometimes genuinely dangerous. But our condemnations are arbitrary: Pinochet was cool, Saddam Hussein was not. We talk about protecting freedom and democracy, but in practice a lot of American foreign policy is just about keeping the oil flowing.

The galactic community is the Nixon/Reagan/Bush/Trump U.S.A., splashed across the heavens and wearing a shallow dusting of glam. Space Opera’s aliens embody our own human failings; they’re us. If any readers actually thought the Metagalactic Grand Prix was a great idea, or that theater was incompatible with fascism, they may have missed the point.

“But galactic society is still… well, society. And society is rubbish,” says the Smaragdin. “Good lord, the Grand Prix is the best thing we’ve ever done, the utter best, and it’s just a bit of song and dance, isn’t it?”

7.

If you read the premise way back in section 2, you might think you have some idea how this story is going to go. The unlikely misfit who overcomes all odds to become a celebrity is one of Hollywood’s standard narratives. Decibel and Oort will settle their differences at the last minute, give a kick-ass performance that also symbolically resolves their emotional arcs, and prove humans can rock, right?

Oh, hell, no. Decibel can’t even pull himself together enough to manage the minimal obligation of writing a song. Also, the laryngitis. The Absolute Zeroes manage not to lose, but the reason is more interesting than just having talent.

What saves Earth is that Decibel has a mutually agreeable one-night-stand with an Esca. (Yes, this is a novel where the Coyote sleeps with the Roadrunner.) And that Oort meets an alien who resembles a hyperactive red panda and forms a real friendship. And on the night of the Grand Prix their actions bring about a pair of miracles that elevate their performance from a disaster to… well, not a disaster, anyway.

What proves Decibel and Oort’s sentience–and in this they’re considerably more sentient than most humans and most of the Extended Galactic Family–is that they don’t divide people into people and meat. They don’t divide people into those like us, the special shiny people and the other ones, who we can do what we want with. Strangers and foreigners are not threats, not prey, not lesser beings they can steal from or forcibly remake into versions of themselves. Decibel and Oort can look at people nothing like themselves and see them as people. They open up to people who are utterly strange to them and risk admitting they’re not starmen at all, just stupid useless bloody loony tunes like everyone else. Acknowledging your own non-specialness and uncoolness–your inner Coyote or your Porky nature–is the first step towards accepting strangers as equals, or even friends. The friends Dess and Oort are able to make help them create a performance they couldn’t manage on their own.

At this point it’s relevant that Decibel was born Danesh Jalo and Oort was once Omar Calișkan and the Absolute Zeroes are the children of immigrants in a long-past-Brexit England. Xenophobia and fascism are constant threats running through the background of Space Opera. After yet another wrong government comes to power, Mira’s Uncle Takumi dies in a racist riot and Dess’s grandmother, the one who tried to show him the beauty in a cartoon rabbit, is deported. This is a near future in which we have not learned much of anything.

On the whole, it’s just as well the best representatives Earth could come up with were two thirds of a one-hit-wonder glam pop trio.

The real test of a civilization isn’t how it treats its musicians. It’s how it treats its Others–more precisely, whether it even has Others. Foreigners, immigrants, asylum seekers. The real test of sentience isn’t whether you’re shutting someone’s rhythm down, it’s whether you’re keeping children in cages.

It’s tough to say what the long-term critical perspective will be on a book that’s only been out a year, but my guess is that Space Opera will become a classic. It has something in common with most great comedy: underneath the jokes, it’s angry.


  1. On the fantasy end, Terry Pratchett and Ursula Vernon/T. Kingfisher are close cousins.  ↩

  2. i.e. some of Lem’s work, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes.  ↩

  3. Not something Adams is especially associated with, but I find much of his work–Marvin’s death in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish is one example–genuinely affecting.  ↩

  4. What happens if the Octave finds a species that doesn’t even have a sense of hearing? Will they be allowed to be sentient?  ↩

  5. This is a smart move; a straightforward mass murder would have made a mess of the novel’s tone.  ↩

J. U. Nicolson, Fingers of Fear

This is an odd book. Not a good enough odd book to recommend to everybody, alas, but it’s stuck in my memory.

Fingers of Fear is an Old Dark House story. Not just a story about an old dark house–a story in the gothic subgenre typified by James Whale’s The Old Dark House (which is great) and its source, J. B. Priestly’s novel Benighted (which I haven’t read). The whole story takes place in an isolated mansion inhabited by an eccentric, fractious family on the edge of disintigration. An intrusion from outside kicks off the inevitable breakdown, and by the end everybody’s either escaped or self-destructed.

It’s the Great Depression, and Selden Seaverns is broke. (Blurbs on some editions call him Selden Seaforth; I have no idea why.) Luckily his old friend Ormond Ormes hires him to catalogue the library at the Ormes mansion, Ormesby, and write a history of New England literature. At Ormesby Seaverns meets Ormond’s sister Gray, the only person who can control the vicious dogs roaming the grounds. In the morning he discovers a red mark on his neck, like a vampire’s been sucking at it.

Seaverns is smitten with Gray until she has a weird psychotic episode and tries to bite him, leaping for his throat like a wolf. (Seaverns is a little confused as to exactly what supernatural creature the Ormeses resemble.) Soon it looks like she’s killed one of the servants and Seaverns sees her standing naked and bloody in the library. Seaverns angsts over this for a while before discovering the murder was in fact committed by Gray’s previously unmentioned twin sister Grayce, who was also the one who went for Seaverns’ neck. So that’s all right then, aside from the part where Grayce escapes and kills again.

Ormond comes home with Seaverns’ ex-wife Muriel, who he hired to help him with a blackmail scheme. This is a total coincidence; Ormond had no idea they knew each other and Muriel didn’t know Seaverns would be there. Ormond starts to act unstable himself. Seaverns learns Ormond’s parents’ bodies are in the old cistern. They got there courtesy of Aunt Barbara, who has a pipe in her closet she dumps bodies into. She also slides down it herself when she doesn’t feel like taking the stairs. Also, there may be ghosts. Or maybe not. I haven’t covered every weird thing in this book, just the main points.

Fingers of Fear is narrated in first person and Seaverns does a lot of ruminating. The book gets into a rhythm where a weird thing happens and then Seaverns spends paragraphs theorizing about what it means, what other people’s motivations are and what they’re up to, and what he ought to do next. He spends more pages reacting to what happens than describing it.

This is the novel’s main weak point, and the reason I’d only recommend it to someone who really likes Old Dark House stories. Seaverns’ rumination sessions tend to drag, and sometimes the story slows to a crawl when it ought to speed up. This wouldn’t be a problem if Seaverns were a deep thinker but Nicolson is not exactly Melville and Seaverns is no more interesting and philosophical than your average suspense novel hero. Fingers of Fear would be paced better if it were 10 or 15 percent shorter.

On the other hand, I have a lot of time for novels where the characters spend a lot of time thinking things through. And it creates a feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia. We’re stuck in Seaverns’ point of view, and he’s stuck in his present, his rumination focused almost entirely on the Ormeses. We learn the bare minimum about his past. His life is divided into before and after Ormesby. Ormesby is an inescapable parallel world–Seaverns and Muriel are there for months and after a while they start thinking they need to get away, but they don’t. Ormesby sucks them so far in they seem to lose any other frame of reference. By the end Seaverns decides to protect Gray from scandal with a complicated plan to disguise Grayce’s killings as dog attacks. It’s a drawn out and nightmarish operation and he sort of wonders why he’s doing it, but he does.

“This depression in business is having strange results,” says Muriel, which is an understatement. “We can’t blame it directly, of course, and yet, if it hadn’t brought us here, we wouldn’t have become involved in such things.” Fingers of Fear isn’t a deep book, but it’s not without a theme. As wrapped up as it is in Ormesby it never forgets there’s a Depression going on. “It’s changed something in the lives of everyone in the country, maybe even in the world,” says Seaverns. It’s changed him into someone who covers up murders.

The Ormeses spend the book looking for a hidden stash of bonds. When the hiding place is finally tracked down the contents turn out to be… well, not bonds. The Ormeses are a cursed bloodline. You get the sense their wealth and their curse are linked. Maybe cursedness is the natural state of people of the Ormes’s class. The natural corruption of the rich led to the depression, and the depression corrupted people like Seaverns who hadn’t had all that much money in the first place. When he finally gets away he declares “I would not return to the city and the ways of cities for all those fellows’ collective wealth.”

The rich are different from you and me. They’re vampwolves.

Robert Sheckley, Options

Robert Sheckley’s Options is a novel that disassembles itself as you read it, and it’s amazing.

Space pilot Mishkin discovers he can go no further without an engine part. He lands at a depot looking for a replacement. Unfortunately, in the spirit of decentralization the authorities spread the parts all over the planet. Fortunately, they left a robot to guide Mishkin to the right part. Unfortunately, the robot was programmed for some other planet.

Robert Sheckley was one of SF’s great comic writers, and this looks like a recipe for a quick, funny space opera adventure. Except something’s off even before he lands: Mishkin has to argue with his equipment, browbeating his radio and control board into playing their assigned roles. The tools of science fiction are rebelling.

Mishkin trudges cross-planet. His path crosses alien monsters. They think Mishkin is a hallucination, or their multiple heads argue in Brooklyn accents. They’re neurotic and anxious. (“It would be good to remember that when making any strange contacts: The monster feels anxious.”) Mishkin’s picaresque encounters get stranger. What’s with the Duke of Melba, dumped into the story because his wife stopped believing in him? Or the guys playing poker on a narrow bridge, who think they’re in a hotel room?

We cut to a starship whose square-jawed captain and aw-shucks engineer confront a threatening alien. Luckily the captain remembers the “Martins-Turner Interpersonal Equations, which were part of the hypno-training of every human beyond Intelligence Level IV,” and is instantly rational and objective. This bit is a piss-take on A. E. Van Vogt, who loved giving his characters super-powered philosophical systems. Also John W. Campbell, whose conviction that human psychology could be solved like a math problem led him to fall hard for L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. It’s a jargon-heavy expression of hard SF’s susceptibility to Engineer’s Disease–the assumption that with a little scientific know-how a Competent Man can solve any problem, even problems of human behavior or ethics. Certainly the minor problem of finding an engine part.

When a novel introduces a new premise readers assume the new plot strand will link back to the old one. The Captain’s situation is relevant to Mishkin’s, right? It’s an implicit promise on the part of the author, practically a contractual obligation. Not this time, though. We cut again to a gaggle of godlike alien observers who decide they can’t get involved in these plots “for reasons which become apparent to you if you take a moment to do some tenth level Fournean rationalizing.” We never hear from any of these guys again.

Meanwhile, Mishkin is wandering through short, sometimes koan-like chapters. He comes upon a line of people listening to a radio saying, very quietly, “You only live once.”

The Author, “The Man of a Thousand Disguises,” is bored. The reader isn’t. The Author’s boredom inspires an ever-shifting parade of surreal scenarios, wordplay, and comic dialogue. (Sequence, he’s realized, doesn’t have to imply causation.)

The Author has written too many stories to the same expectations. He can’t make himself fulfill them anymore. He’s tired of the expectation that stories ought to follow certain structures–a three-act structure, the Save the Cat formula, whatever. And that his prose style shouldn’t be too idiosyncratic. And that his initial premise (Find that engine part!) can’t mutate or veer off in weird directions if the whim strikes, and that he must always show and never tell. Then there are the genre-specific expectations. A science fiction story must have certain elements–Sheckley is taking the piss out of Campbellian SF, so here we have xenophobia, an obsession with IQ, and engineering problems. Everything must work according to a certain kind of plot logic (No anxious monsters!). Your hero is a Competent Man who knows his Martins-Turner Interpersonal Equations.

Not all of these expectations are always bad.[1] Structures, styles, and tropes can be tools, and some tools are used a lot because they’re actually often useful. A three-act Hollywood thriller structure can be a good skeleton on which to build a unique and idiosyncratic vision, if the writer’s vision fits that skeleton.

Sheckley is not, I think, suggesting we throw out the whole concept of genre. His point is more that genre is no excuse for complacency.[2] Tools used too often can become conventional wisdom, devices used by rote. The resulting stories look like cheap mass-produced products made from interchangeable parts. They’re what the editors are buying right now. Or what the audience expects. Or what all the online writing advice says stories should look like. (Or even what all the MFA workshops say stories should look like. Preconceived expectations aren’t just for pulp fiction.)

In Sheckley’s day these stories might have been written to fill out an issue of Astounding or Worlds of If while baffling or annoying the fewest possible subscribers. These days subcultures exist dedicated to churning out “minimum viable product” space opera for Kindle Unlimited. Stories in which “for all questions there are only a small number of answers, infinitely repeated, typically banal.” Tools become clichés, clichés become sedatives. The Author doesn’t want to write another “ballet for catatonics,” demanding so little imagination from writer or audience that they could write or read it in their sleep. (Mishkin likes “story lines that you could follow while thinking of other things.”)

This isn’t a Kafka-style call for stories to “wake us up with a blow on the head.” Awakenings don’t have to be painful. All a story needs to be engaging is something unique, unexpected, to show the author was an irreproducible individual and not a committee working to a blueprint. Why not an anxious Brooklynite monster? A Duke of Melba? Some guys playing poker on a bridge?

Why tell exactly the same story again, in exactly the same style, when there are so many other options?

At this point I have caveats:

  1. I don’t want to criticize “golden age” SF exclusively. It’s not an era I enjoy–the SF I like started with the new wave. But every genre and era has tics; they’re just different tics. In some ways contemporary SF is much more diverse. In others–prose styles, structure, and types of stories and protagonists–it feels as conformist as ever.
  2. I started this review last year and never finished it. I think it was because it felt like I was restating points I’ve made in other blog posts. Everybody loves irony, right?

Anyway. Disgusted as he is, as much as he wants to blow everything up, the Author is obliged to finish his story. He can’t stick to the premise… but he’s so used to writing by rote that every other premise he tries is equally tired. Tired from his perspective, I mean; from the readers’, they’re still funny. The engine part drifts through a clichéd hard-boiled noir[3] and a clichéd scientific detective story. The Author replaces Mishkin with a conventionally heroic hero, who doesn’t last a chapter.

Discovering that “the Interstellar Space Flight Premise had been suspended,” Mishkin’s Uncle Arnold consults a company called Continuities, Inc., which promises to “create connections between incompatible assumptions… provide a link between these two different realities without doing violence to either.”

The company sends a Kasper Gutman-type agent to search a generic foreign country for the engine part. We actually catch a glimpse of the damn thing. But it’s embedded in another string of bad pulp clichés, a secondhand protagonist wandering a generically “exotic” landscape. The story comes to another abrupt halt when the agent falls deathly ill. Mortality puts the story in perspective: “It has taken us many years to pay attention to what is important.” The engine part isn’t important. Mishkin’s last option has run out.

Options is a cry of frustration with generic extruded fiction product designed to fill time as frictionlessly and forgettably as possible. Pulp fiction, light reading, comfort fiction, whatever you want to call it–it’s art, as much as even the most avant-garde litfic. Not great art, but it’s an expression of a particular person’s unique point of view. Or it ought to be. Even “just entertainment” has to be, fundamentally, not a waste of its author’s or its audience’s time. Is entertainment doing its job if it isn’t surprising and engaging–in other words, if it isn’t fun?

Well, I’m still having fun–when I find the right books. Sheckley’s Author isn’t so lucky; he’s stuck writing the wrong ones. He can’t find a way out except to “walk away, simply leave a situation unresolved, its riddles unanswered.” (Sometimes the unanswered riddles–the ones that leave you with something to ponder–are the best kind.)

The only option the Author has left is to reimagine Mishkin as a kid playing pretend, whose story ends suddenly and happily when he’s called in to dinner by his mother. It’s an ending that hints at what makes Sheckley’s work great, and what the Author needs to rediscover to get out of his rut: a sense of play.


  1. Although the toxicity of the Campbellian Competent Man is never-ending: It’s the default philosophy of 21st century tech-dudebros, who never met a problem they couldn’t fix with blockchain, VR, and Soylent.  ↩

  2. It’s like mystery novels. They’re almost all written to exactly the same template–kill someone, scatter clues, wrap things up with an explanation. I still read piles of them. But the ones I finish are always the ones where the writers had something new to try, or something they wanted to express beyond “I need the money.”  ↩

  3. Featuring a “Johnny Allegro.” There was an actual movie by that name; it starred George Raft.  ↩

Shirley Jackson, The Sundial

1.

If you follow the news it’s hard not to spend time thinking about the end of civilization as we know it. An Australian think tank recently speculated that climate change might end it by 2050. I recently felt like reading Shirley Jackson and immediately thought of The Sundial.

The Hallorans are the wealthy patrons of a nearby village. They’ve just buried the heir. His mother, Mrs. Halloran, may or may not have pushed him downstairs. Mrs. Halloran is getting ready to rid the Halloran mansion of the family and their increasing collection of houseguests and hangers-on–everyone but Fancy, her only grandchild, who she’ll raise to be another Mr. Burns-esque tyrant like herself–when her sister-in-law Aunt Fanny receives a vision from Fanny’s dead father, the Halloran patriarch: in a few weeks the world will end. Only the people in the big house will be saved.

2.

People who’ve never read Shirley Jackson remember her as the author of that haunted house book and that story about the woman who’s stoned to death. They forget she’s funny. Shirley Jackson is one of the greatest comic writers of the twentieth century and The Sundial might be her funniest novel.

There’s a concept called “passage of disbelief.” I thought it was a common genre-criticism term, but I Googled it and the only reference I could find was on the website of a writer I’m not familiar with, so now I don’t know where I heard it. Anyway, the passage of disbelief is the part of a weird story where the characters go from disbelieving the weirdness (Aunt Fanny has lost her mind) to accepting it and dealing with the consequences (Okay, so the world is ending, what now?). As Aunt Fanny is prophesying, the uncanny appearance of a snake in the library gives the family a physical manifestation of weirdness to hang their faith on. And Mrs. Halloran is too proud not to go along: if the end is coming, she’s going to manage it. So The Sundial’s passage of disbelief is mercifully short.

This lets the book get on with things–it’s paced like a screwball comedy. And it lets Jackson milk plenty of humor from incongruity. The Hallorans receive a grand prophecy of doom and react as though the apocalypse is an momentous and inconvenient but basically normal event to plan around. The tone of their dialogue clashes with its subject. Like Arthur Dent, seeing Earth destroyed and asking if there’s any tea on this spaceship.

“Evil, and jealousy, and fear, are all going to be removed from us. I told you clearly this morning. Humanity, as an experiment, has failed.”
“Well, I’m sure I did the best I could,” Maryjane said.

The Sundial’s other comic strength is voice. Sometimes writers trying to be funny give every character interchangeable Whedonesque banter. That’s the wrong way to do it: great comedy is about individual voices and incompatible world views running into each other. Mrs. Halloran talks to everyone like she’s talking to a disappointing servant. Essex, the sycophantic young man hired to catalog the library, never misses a chance to show off his education. Miss Ogilvie, Fancy’s governess, is uncertain and timid, panicking at odd moments. Aunt Fanny switches between surface-polite cattiness to Mrs. Halloran and oracular profundities.

Any two characters are most likely talking past each other. Get everyone into the same room and you’ll be reading three overlapping conversations at the same time, not so much playing off each other as bouncing.

But The Sundial also has an air of menace. Shirley Jackson works in the liminal space between real and unreal and it keeps you constantly off-balance. It’s often unclear what’s possible in her stories, what’s metaphor and what’s literal. Even when they’re funny, they feel eerie. Didn’t we see some of these moments in earlier flashes of prophecy? As the climax approaches, isn’t the weather growing ominous? In Jackson’s world, prophecies of doom might come true.

3.

What is this world? what asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave
Allone, with-outen any companye.

The Hallorans’ sundial is inscribed “What is this world?” It’s a line from Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” and a good question. We use the word “world” in a couple of ways. There’s the literal world (the one that’s ending, everyone’s pretty sure) and then there’s my world, or your world, or Wayne’s or Christina’s world.

Mr. Halloran created a world of his own, self contained–when Julia, one of the guests, decides to leave she wanders through a fog only to end up back at the front gate, as though the outside world has already gone. Inside the Halloran house is a dollhouse Fancy rules with a grasp as tight as her grandmother’s. More ambitiously, Fanny has recreated the four-room apartment where her parents lived when she was a child, before her father struck it rich and built the walled estate near the village. Worlds nest in each other, each shutting out another layer of unwanted reality.

A Babbity businessman who had to be talked out of plastering his mansion with slogans like “You can’t take it with you,” Mr. Halloran wanted to be lord of the manor, philanthropic patron to the villeins. Fanny just wants her parents back. Recreating their apartment is as close as she can get. The Hallorans create worlds where they can imagine living the ideal versions of their lives, and shut out whatever reminds them of the suboptimal versions. Carving out your own smaller, more manageable world can be an act of self-definition. When you’re in charge of your world you’re in charge of your life.

4.

There are a lot of apocalypses in science fiction. Like, a lot. Everybody wants to blow up the world. Standing in the bookstore skimming the blurb of this year’s dozenth zombie nightmare, you may ask: what are all these apocalypses doing here? Good things, often. Some post-apocalyptic stories explore character in extremis. Some speculate on plausible if-this-goes-on disaster scenarios and ways to survive them. Some stories are about rebuilding society and finding new (hopefully more humane) ways to order it.

But some stories just sweep the world away to give their heroes a cleaner stage to act out their fantasies. A complex, uncontrollable, frustrating world is pared down and in the new, smaller, more manageable world the survivors’ true selves are free to blossom. Which may not be that different from their old selves: the stereotypical “cozy catastrophe” follows nice middle class people muddling through the collapse of civilization with middle class niceness. But sometimes the end of the world allows some previously ignored or undervalued person to express their true heroism. Unfortunately this is often a survivalist asshole who was previously ignored because he was an asshole.

Basically, these stories are fantastical echoes of J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton. So are many of their close cousins, portal fantasies and unexpectedly-tossed-into-space SF. The fantasy is that we’re not really the ordinary mediocre people we appear to be. Given the right environment–a desert island, a fantasy kingdom, a post-atomic wasteland–the flaws and virtues conventional society keeps repressed would manifest in everyone, and our own true, presumably better, selves would break free. That’s not necessarily an unhealthy fantasy! People’s environments do affect them. It can be fun to imagine finding one that fits you perfectly.

As long as you’re not a survivalist asshole. The failure mode for new-world stories is the hero who confuses being their best self with being better than everyone else, or being in charge. If your true excellence is only visible after some sizable chunk of the competition has vanished, how excellent can you truly be? Maybe there are limits to how radically a sudden change in environment can transform your character. Sometimes a confused man in a bathrobe, plopped down on a spaceship, is still a confused man in a bathrobe.

One of the Hallorans’ guests does some scrying with a mirror. Her first session isn’t reassuring, but the second time she sees people dancing in a garden, carefree. She’s seeing what everyone expects her to. Fancy isn’t impressed; she thinks the apocalypse won’t change anything, and after the Hallorans have their new world they’ll just start pining for the old one. After all, the Hallorans already have an oversized garden, and if they wanted they could dance in it: the villagers do when Mrs. Halloran throws them a goodbye barbecue. If the Hallorans aren’t dancing in this world, why would they in the next?

5.

The Hallorans don’t mix with the villagers. They’ll throw a festival, sure. They’ll fund the villagers’ schools and libraries and send the brighter ones to college; the lord has obligations to the villeins. But they don’t mix with them. That’s the root of Fanny’s split with Mrs. Halloran, who “came in through the servants’ entrance” to marry the heir.

In Mrs. Halloran’s dreams she lives alone in a cottage. That would be enough as long as no one intrudes to threaten her, like the obnoxious Hansel and Gretel who invade her nightmares. To stay in control of her own life Mrs. Halloran made herself into one of those people who control everyone else. She has it down perfectly; she condescends even to her oldest friends. By the end of the book she’s typing up rules for the new world. (“Mates will be assigned by Mrs. Halloran. Indiscriminate coupling will be subject to severe punishment.”) You’d think the Hallorans were the products of a feudal system going back as far as the land itself, that Mrs. Halloran hadn’t come in through the wrong door, and that Aunt Fanny hadn’t grown up in a four-room apartment. Mr. Halloran’s world insulates the Hallorans from any hint they might not be a superior class of people.

Although for superior people, the destined masters of the new world, the Hallorans seem singularly unprepared to survive. The supplies stockpiled in the library include such necessities as a gross of corncob pipes and a carton of tennis balls. They burned the books to make room; Fanny thinks they’ll be able to get by with a boy scout manual. She also picks up a random guy to help repopulate the earth:

“Captain Scarabombardon,” said Aunt Fanny unexpectedly.
“At your service,” said the stranger, who was clearly extremely bewildered.

See, Fanny has to name him because he needs a proper identity. The Hallorans can’t save just anybody. They’re also still keeping Essex (they probably don’t need him to catalogue the boy scout manual, but we never saw him working in any case) and Miss Ogilvie, but they’re sending the ordinary servants home the night before the event. Nobody thinks they’ll be needed.

6.

Douglas Rushkoff was once invited to talk to a half-dozen hedge fund executives about the future of technology. He was caught off guard by what kind of technology they were interested in:

Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”… The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

For certain wealthy and powerful people, especially the libertarian, tech-savvy types, preparing for the future doesn’t mean making the future better or working to keep the worst possible futures from coming to pass. It means letting the disaster happen, surviving, and making sure they’re still the ones in charge.

Mr. Halloran was the beneficent lord only as long as his villagers played their roles, performing gratitude and staying in their places. If they dropped dead while building his house, he’d be angry about having to move the body. If he needed some farmer’s land for his grounds, he’d wall it off, and good luck finding a lawyer who didn’t work for him. He’d send the farmer’s son to college afterward. It wasn’t generosity. He needed to be the one who did the rescuing, the excellent one, the one who made the rules.

7.

If you’re ever feeling bored you might decide to sort apocalyptic stories into two groups. Or maybe you wouldn’t, I don’t know. Either way, one possible division is challenging and comforting stories. Comforting apocalypses are not all bad. Vonda N. McIntyre’s post-apocalypse Dreamsnake is comforting because it shows people trying to build a saner, kinder world. But other kinds of comforting apocalypse–cozy catastrophes, triumphalist survivalist stories–are about domesticating existential threats. They reassure the audience that the world can end without their personal worlds having to fundamentally change. Which is still not terrible if your personal world is modest. The problem comes when you need to be superior.

Mrs. Halloran can’t afford to ignore Fanny’s prophecy because she can’t imagine a world without Mrs. Halloran at the top.

“It is my house now, and it will be my house then. I will not relinquish one stone of it in this world or any other. Everyone must be made to remember that, and to remember that I will not relinquish, either, one fraction of my authority.”

If it were merely the end of the world, Mrs. Halloran could call Fanny crazy and put it out of her mind. But she can’t risk the possibility that the world might stop being about Mrs. Halloran.

Which it will, inevitably. She’s the center of her own world, because that’s everyone’s world looks from inside. But everybody dies, and eventually Mrs. Halloran’s world will just… stop existing. It’s the inevitable existential threat and it’s impossible to imagine. What is it like not to exist? It’s not like anything. But Mrs. Halloran also can’t imagine a world where she exists, and isn’t in charge.

Douglas Rushkoff ended his visit with the hedge fund executives by giving them some advice:

I suggested that their best bet would be to treat those people really well, right now. They should be engaging with their security staffs as if they were members of their own family. And the more they can expand this ethos of inclusivity to the rest of their business practices, supply chain management, sustainability efforts, and wealth distribution, the less chance there will be of an “event” in the first place.

They weren’t buying it. Which is odd, because in reality most people respond to disasters by coming together to help each other–pooling resources, rescuing neighbors, working together to clean up. That is, in fact, the surest way to survive. By contrast, an underground Bond-villain bunker patrolled by shock-collared security guards is absolutely the most harebrained fantasy in the world. But for Rushkoff’s hedge fund managers, it’s at least imaginable. The end of the world is one thing, but Rushkoff’s inclusive and less unequal world would be the end of their world.

Hallorans and hedge fund managers have something in common with the people who like survivalist aspirational apocalypses: they have more fun imagining the apocalypse than imagining how to prevent it, or recover from it. It’s easier to give up the world we all have to live in than to give up their own superiority.

The wealthiest people in the 21st century–the Jeff Bezoses and Mark Zuckerbergs–have a lot of money. Like, a lot. So much money it’s hard to conceptualize exactly how much money they have. They have social capital, too; everybody listens to them, even when they’re Elon Musk. A few billionaires, if they were willing[1], could fully fund a moon-landing level plan to mitigate the effects of climate change. Unfortunately there’s a small but non-zero chance this would result in a world where, instead of basically owning everything, they were merely very rich. So instead of doing necessary maintenance on the world our billionaires spend their resources on stuff that won’t rock the boat. Or, at most, come up with goofball comic book survival schemes like seasteading, private mars colonies, and underground bunkers in New Zealand.

Good books have many possible interpretations. As time passes they take on new, unintended interpretations in new cultural contexts, sort of like the way those Admirable Crichton-story characters show new sides to their personalities in different worlds. From a 21st century perspective, The Sundial looks like a takedown of billionaire disaster-prep fantasies. If we do come to the end of our civilization–from climate change, pandemics, rising fascism, whatever–it will be at least in part because our real-life Hallorans were more frightened by the end of their world than the end of ours.


  1. Even if they were unwilling, if we just made them, y’know, pay enough taxes to pull their weight.  ↩

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dirk Gently

“We have in our police reports realism pushed to its extreme limits, and yet the result is, it must be confessed, neither fascinating nor artistic.”
– “A Case of Identity”

I might be laughed out of Sherlock Holmes fandom for this, but I think Inspector Lestrade is a good detective when we’re not looking.

I mean, he must be. He’s reached the rank of Inspector without getting fired. Most of the time, when Holmes isn’t around, he’s probably not getting the wrong guy. My theory is that Lestrade is a perfectly good detective as long as he’s investigating crimes that make some kind of sense.

Lestrade’s mistaken arrests are based on sensible assumptions. Take “The Norwood Builder.” Holmes’ client, the unhappy John Hector McFarlane, is a lawyer. The Norwood builder of the title hired McFarlane to make out a will leaving his fortune to McFarlane himself. So when the builder turns up dead of course Lestrade is going to arrest McFarlane. I mean, who else would it be?

What Lestrade doesn’t realize is that he is in a Sherlock Holmes story. Sherlock Holmes stories aren’t police procedurals. They’re melodramas with improbable plots and feverishly heightened emotions. Realistically no ethical lawyer would make out a will to himself; in “The Norwood Builder” it’s unusual, but not unprofessional. Realistically a creep wanting revenge on the woman who turned him down is unlikely to wait twenty years, then fake his own death to pin the murder on her son. In “The Norwood Builder” it’s just one of those things that happen. Procedural detective stories follow the laws of realism. Holmes’ cases follows the laws of melodrama. These are the times Lestrade needs Sherlock Holmes to swoop in and point out the trifling incongruities that reveal something weird.

“How often have I said to you,” says Holmes in The Sign of the Four, “that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Douglas Adams wrote a couple of novels about a “holistic detective” named Dirk Gently. Dirk has a fundamental disagreement with Holmes. As he explains in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul: “The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something that works in all respects other than one, which is just that it is hopelessly improbable? Your instinct is to say, ‘Yes, but he or she simply wouldn’t do that.’”

They’re both right.

Sherlock Holmes lives in a world where improbable things happen: seriously, that kid is a terrible lawyer. But never impossible things: no ghosts need apply. In Dirk Gently’s world, apparently impossible things turn out to be true: why yes, that elderly professor does have a time machine in his rooms. But never improbable things: even in the face of deep weirdness, people have everyday motivations and emotional reactions (a lot of Adams’ comedy is based in bathos).

Sherlock Holmes and Dirk Gently are great detectives because they firmly grasp the true range of what is possible in their respective worlds. This is often not true of detectives in real life. In a different way it’s also not true of Inspector Lestrade, whose down to earth detecting style might work reasonably well in the real world but fails in the world as written by Arthur Conan Doyle. If Lestrade has a fault, it’s that he doesn’t always know his own genre.

Josephine Tey, To Love and Be Wise (With a Guest Appearance by Michael Innes)

1.

Okay. So I hadn’t planned on blog posts being an annual event, but since 2016 I’ve been… distractible. Attention span, (and constant free-floating anxiety) aside, much of my reading has been comfort fiction about which I haven’t often had interesting thoughts. This may be the first of a new run of blogging. Or not, in which case, hey, see you in 2020.

2.

I’ve been reading a lot of mystery novels. Old ones, because they have more problem-solving than angst. I like watching characters make lists and exchange theories.

To Love and Be Wise is the last Josephine Tey mystery I hadn’t yet read. I sort of enjoy Josephine Tey and sort of don’t. She’s the crime-novel equivalent of Robert Heinlein: her prose is compulsively readable, but the whole time you’re thinking Christ, what an asshole. Her narrative voice (usually inhabiting the thoughts of Alan Grant, her detective, or whoever else her main character is) sorts every character into “liked” and “disliked” and when it decides to dislike someone it sticks the knife in constantly and mercilessly. Even Grant’s kind, patient girlfriend can’t catch a break:

‘Cooney was one of the best-known press photographers in the States. He was killed while photographing one of those Balkan flare-ups a year or two ago.’
‘You know everything, don’t you.’
It was on the tip of Grant’s tongue to say: ‘Anyone but an actress would have known that,’ but he liked Marta.

Golden Age mysteries pay a lot of attention to class. You’re constantly aware of how every character is placed. Tey, though, is incredibly classist. Her novels take place in a world where you can reliably read a person’s deep and fundamental character from their class markers–their appearance, their voice, their clothes. Good people are classy. They know their place, high or low, and inhabit it gracefully, effortlessly. Bad people are awkward, out of place, resentful; they try too hard. Bad people are inelegant.

Nothing Tey wrote is as snobbish as The Franchise Affair, but chapter four of To Love and Be Wise includes a passage that sums up her novels’ worldview as neatly as anything she wrote. It is absolutely, stereotypically characteristic of Tey that she thinks “bounder” is a serious insult:

Sitting watching the charm at work, Walter thought how ineradicable was the ‘bounder’ in a man’s personality…. What made a man a bounder was a quality of mind. A crassness. A lack of sensitivity. It was something that was quite incurable; a spiritual astigmatism. And Toby Tullis, after all those years, stayed unmistakably a bounder.

Etymologically, a “bounder” is someone whose behavior is out of bounds. In practice, a bounder doesn’t just stray outside the bounds of proper behavior, but of class. Toby Tullis is a playwright who’s risen to the point where he “was dressed by the world’s best tailors and had acquired the social tricks of the world’s best people” but he’s always “off key” because they’re not in his nature, his “essence.” He doesn’t have the breeding. This is the response he gets from the actually classy:

Looking sideways to see how Searle was taking this odd wooing, Walter was delighted to observe a sort of absentmindedness in Searle as he consumed his beer. The degree of absentmindedness was beautifully graded, Walter noticed; any more would have laid him open to the charge of rudeness and so put him in the wrong, any less might not have been obvious enough to sting Tullis. As it was, Toby was baffled into trying far too hard and making a fool of himself.

Which seems a crass and insensitive thing to find delightful. Still, Tey is often actually amusing, sometimes even when she’s cruel. And her prose is elegant in just the way her narrative voice seems to value: perfectly pitched, graceful, effortless, always saying exactly what it means. I love her books, and feel awful when I read them.

3.

My favorite part of To Love and Be Wise is awkward to write about, because the first time you read the book it ought to be a surprise. It’s something this book has in common with There Came Both Mist and Snow, a novel by Michael Innes, and you ought to be surprised by it there, too. Angst about “spoiler culture” on the internet recently led to a backlash with some people suggesting that caring about spoilers is always bad. And, yeah, a lot of media fans define “spoilers” too broadly and police them too avidly. But a feeling of surprise and discovery can be fun. And when reading a book for the first time surprise is often crucial to the effect the book is trying to deliver. It feels great when a book arrives somewhere you hadn’t expected.

What I’m saying is, if you’re planning to read these books, fair warning.

4.

To Love and Be Wise is about an American photographer, Leslie Searle, who vanishes during a visit to a British family who met him once and were instantly charmed, Searle being instantly charming. (Absent yet compellingly charismatic characters are a recurring theme in Tey. There’s also the murdered passenger in The Singing Sands and Richard III in The Daughter of Time.) There Came Both Mist and Snow, part of Michael Innes’ Inspector Appleby series, is about a shooting which may graduate to murder if the victim doesn’t pull out of his coma.

Both books are full of the stuff of the traditional British mystery. There are miniature worlds, subcultures or microcosms, broken by crime–in these books, ultra-traditional country houses (part of an artists’ colony in the Tey, an isolated priory in the Innes). There are large casts with contentious relationships to tease out. There are sensitive police detectives with liberal-arts educations, who restore order. That’s the comforting part of the detective story: detectives have the power to restore order by identifying the culprit who destroyed it.

And there has to be a culprit. You can’t restore order without a crime to disarrange it in the first place, and there’s no crime without guilt. And everyone is somehow guilty, because what’s a mystery without red herrings? The detective dredges up every secret, forces everyone to face whatever repressed ugliness they ignore to get through the day. And it all starts with a death. For whatever reason, detective novels long ago decided murder was the only crime worth writing novels about. (A mistake, I think; you could get perfectly interesting novels out of scams, impossible heists, and complicated embezzlement schemes.) At least two people, criminal and victim, will never step back into their places in society no matter how well you re-order it.

Once broken, you can’t entirely fix the world. Even the coziest mystery is a little sad.

5.

J. R. R. Tolkien, who should have followed up The Lord of the Rings with a series of gently comic Hobbit detective novels (it would have been way more fun than the Silmarillion), once coined the word eucatastrophe. A eucatastrophe is a “good catastrophe.” If a catastrophe is a sudden unexpected disaster, a eucatastrophe is a sudden unexpected deliverance. Take The Lord of the Rings: Frodo fails, our heroes are screwed, but somehow the ring still ends up destroyed.

Tolkein emphasizes that the eucatastrophe is a sudden “turn”–not just a happy ending, an unexpectedly happy ending. In retrospect it all makes sense (Tolkein starts setting up the resolution of The Lord of the Rings in the first book). But until this moment, given the story you’ve been reading, an ending this redemptive hadn’t occurred to you as a possibility.

6.

At the end of To Love and Be Wise, after chapters spent dragging the river, sure a body will turn up any moment, Alan Grant has a revelation: Leslie Searle never existed. He was a male persona created by a woman he’d claimed as his only living relative. She’d used it to investigate some friends of friends, dropped it when they turned out to be not to be the people she’d assumed, and later was too embarrassed to come forward. There was never any crime worse than inadvertently wasting the police’s time.

At the end of There Came Both Mist and Snow Inspector Appleby runs through a succession of plausible theories on who shot the victim and why, finally pressuring everyone into confessing the apparently damning facts that, together, prove no one is damned. The gun went off by itself because a piece of metal contracted in the extreme cold, and, incidentally, the victim is going to pull through. There was never any crime at all.

These are detective novels that end in eucatastrophe. Not just a restoration of order following a crime, but the revelation that there was no crime, or at least the crime wasn’t serious, and wasn’t committed out of malice. No one is culpable. The world was never really broken.

Crime novels almost never end like this. These two are the only ones I have read and can remember that do. There’s an obvious reason for that: if crime novels used this ending too often it would stop feeling pleasantly surprising and start feeling unintentionally funny. It’s more common in short stories. Arthur Conan Doyle used it a few times–there’s no crime in “The Missing Three Quarter”, for instance. “The Man With the Twisted Lip”, like To Love and Be Wise, is about a situation mistaken for murder because straightening things out would require the “victim” to admit to a more trivial crime. The Sherlock Holmes stories have plenty of leeway to be weird. They were written before the Detective Story was a codified genre, before things that rarely happened–eucatastrophic crime stories, murder-free detective stories–became things that weren’t even supposed to happen.

Imagine a novel with the opposite emotional affect: a detective novel where order is not straightforwardly restored and we’re left with an even bigger mystery than we started with. There are plenty of novels like this outside the strict published-as-mystery category. But every so often I’d like to read an honest-to-god formulaic detective novel that ends with deeper enigmas, just like every so often I like reading detective novels that play tricks with narration, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd-style. (I’m not saying exactly what trick that book plays, but the fact that it plays a trick is well enough known that it’s not a spoiler.)[1]

It’s interesting to go to Goodreads or Amazon and read one-star reviews of Roger Ackroyd, or the other books discussed here. Some readers don’t like Christie’s writing, or Tey’s or Innes’, which is fair enough, but some are annoyed by the endings: “I can’t imagine a less satisfying ending,” is one reader’s verdict on Innes.[2] For some readers, a eucatastrophe or an unreliable narrator is a cop-out; for a few, maybe even genuinely upsetting in its upending of their expectations.

I can’t agree with them, but it’s not because I never have expectations to fulfill. Some formulas push my buttons. The detective-story formula is one.[3] That To Love and Be Wise’s eucatastrophe is a rare ending for a detective novel is exactly what makes it feel like such a relief. But I love the departures from formula as much as the formulas themselves. It’s the fact that detective novels can be twisted, distorted, and warped without breaking them, that any given detective novel might turn out to be one of the odd ones, that keeps them interesting.


  1. I’ve read two translated detective novels predating Christie’s novel that play the exact same narrative trick. I’m not sure Christie would have had a chance to read either book.  ↩

  2. “I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that another of her books features a denouement in which it is revealed that it was actually the reader whodunnit,” grumps one Roger Ackroyd reviewer on Goodreads, and all I can think is that sounds awesome.  ↩

  3. I also love Jamesian ghost stories and those episodes of Star Trek where they solve problems by talking about them over a conference table.  ↩

Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel

1.

We think of spoilers as a recent concern. That’s not necessarily the case. Witness the preface to Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel. None other than Jorge Luis Borges explains why he wants readers to discover the novella’s plot for themselves: “To classify it as perfect,” says Borges, “is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.” Spoilers aren’t the only concept this book anticipates. Morel, first published in 1940 (though not translated until 1964) plays with ideas science fiction wouldn’t pick up on for decades: transhumanism, virtual reality, audiences’ relationships with media. To explain, I’ll have to reveal everything. Sorry, Jorge!

Seriously, though, maybe you should read this book before reading my reaction. That feeling of discovery is one of the best things about it.

2.

The Invention of Morel is efficient, packing a novel’s worth of ideas into 100 pages. The first line is already laying clues to what’s coming: “Today, on the island, a miracle happened: summer came ahead of time.” Morel’s nameless and disreputable narrator is a fugitive. He’s fled to a deserted island with a hotel (called, for reasons he doesn’t yet understand, a “museum”) and a lot of diseased trees. He insists he’s wrongly accused–of what, he refuses to say. Footnotes from a puzzled editor suggest we shouldn’t entirely trust him. Among other things, the narrator is obsessed with Thomas Malthus’s ideas on overpopulation. You get the sense that, for all his intellectual pretensions, he just doesn’t like people much and wishes there weren’t so many.

Rumor has it the island’s last visitors died of plague. Still, as the story opens our antihero is hiding from a sudden materialization of tourists. As sometimes happens in old novels the narrator falls in Love at First Sight with a vacationer named Faustine. As does not happen often enough in old novels, it occurs to him a strange man popping out of the wilderness to declare undying love may disconcert the object of his affection. He starts a garden to attract her attention. When she seems to ignore him he doesn’t immediately approach. So it takes a while to dawn on the narrator that she can’t see or hear him at all.

The tourists are simulations. The island runs on hydroelectric engines. When they’re working a week-long recording of the tourists runs in loops. These aren’t images, they’re physical. So are recordings of the museum, the trees, and even the weather. (Summer came early when recorded sunshine superimposed itself on reality.) Somebody’s invented a holodeck, like on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

That somebody is Morel, the mad scientist whose island and whose party this is. His guests are all friends, but as the loops repeat it becomes clear Morel just invited them as a pretext to get close to Faustine. A few iterations later the narrator is in the right place at the right time to watch Morel calmly explain to his friends how he murdered them.

Morel has invented a new kind of camera. Like film, it records and plays back images. Like a gramophone, it records and plays back sound. Unlike either, it records and plays back everything else–temperature, odor, physical matter. In fact, insists Morel, his invention records everything so exactly it captures thoughts. The recordings played back by the invention of Morel are conscious, but it’s consciousness without free will or memory. Morel and his friends can’t think new thoughts. With each playback they relive the same thoughts and experiences, as though for the first time. But they are real experiences. A pity that the process destroys any living thing it records! Trees or people, all waste away as though diseased. Morel has, nonetheless, spent the last week recording himself and his closest friends. They’ll die, but Morel’s invention guarantees him an afterlife eternally reliving a perfect vacation with his friends. Especially Faustine, whether she likes it or not.

Morel is scary. He’s a mild, unspectacular character. But he’s mildly and unspectacularly an utter sociopath. I thought Dr. Moreau was bad but, as island-owning mad scientists whose names start with “More” go, Morel has him beat.

He’s also a transhumanist uploading his brain into a personal Matrix, which is impressive for 1940.

3.

Early in 2018 the internet paused to gawk at a startup company called Nectome. Nectome offers to record your mind. They’ll store your consciousness–at least, if you believe the optimistic view. Someday, maybe, someone will be both able and willing to run it in a computer, granting you new life as an artificial intelligence in a simulated world. The catch is that Nectome stores, like, your brain. As a cofounder quoted in the MIT Technology Review puts it:

The product is “100 percent fatal,” says McIntyre. “That is why we are uniquely situated among the Y Combinator companies.”

(A line that cries out to be followed up with “Beep Boop. I am a robot.”)

Fatal or not, mind uploading is a popular idea in science fiction and among Transhumanists. Morel sees no problem in trading lives for digital afterlives, though Morel’s simulation runs in the real world instead of on a computer. The narrator considers the implications: what if there’s a way to find and gather “vibrations” long since dispersed? Everyone who ever existed could return to replay their lives. The narrator imagines simulated afterlives crowding out living humans. (At this point the weary editor claims to have removed a long, incoherent rant on Malthus.)

This is basically physicist Frank Tipler’s Omega Point. Tipler imagines a future society with near-infinite computational resources simulating every possible universe containing everyone who ever lived. Less cosmically, yet even less convincingly, some think we could recreate people by combining conscious software with biographical and psychological profiles. To be fair to Tipler and friends, at least they’re imagining an afterlife for everybody. When transhumanists talk about “life extension,” I often get the sense they’re really talking about “life extension for me, the silicon valley billionaire!” without caring how accessible those extended lives will be to the rest of us peons.

4.

This raises questions. Obvious questions, asked many times, without dampening transhumanist interest in mind uploading at all.

  1. Assuming you can copy your mind onto a hard drive, and it’s conscious, is it really you? Is there continuity between you and the you in the computer? Most people (myself included) would say no. You’ve created a parallel version of yourself, a mental twin whose identity immediately diverges from yours. Although from the twin’s point of view it may feel like you. It has all your memories up to the point of upload, and if you had your brain freeze-dried the original you isn’t hanging around to raise awkward questions. Maybe for some people that’s close enough.

  2. Maybe it’s okay your upload is someone else–maybe you just want to leave behind a digitally conscious offspring. The next question: Is it conscious? I’m assuming you made the decision after some due diligence. Presumably whoever sold you on the process let you talk to an AI who assured you everything was great. But were you talking to a conscious mind, or an extraordinarily sophisticated Eliza? Not being inside a computer yourself, how can you be sure?

  3. What kind of afterlife is this? Do you have an interface to the real world? Can a computer run more than one mind? Can you network with those other minds? If you’re one of the first uploads, will you be spending decades by yourself in a low-polygon-count video game?

These are questions The Invention of Morel doesn’t ask, except implicitly: the narrator doesn’t ask, but we’re not meant to trust his judgement. The nature of uploading in Morel makes these questions especially important. The recordings can’t do or think anything new. But they’re (at least theoretically) conscious within those limits. And they don’t know they’re limited: each run feels like it’s happening for the first time.

If they can’t think new thoughts, are they alive? If they don’t know it, from their own point of view does it matter? Morel doesn’t stop to ask. What kind of person would take this deal?

5.

In Morel’s case, the answer is obvious. He’s a type of sociopath we’re all too familiar with, fueled by toxic masculinity and a bloated sense of entitlement. Other people are supporting characters in the movie of his life. If Faustine won’t play the role he’s laid out for her he’ll cancel production. Morel sacrifices his whole cast to replace uncooperative reality with a perfect eternal image.

There have been a lot of debates over the years about how media influence audiences, for good or bad. I’m increasingly convinced the most pernicious influences in popular culture are stories that value protagonists’ self-actualization, emotional fulfillment, or personal goals over the supporting cast’s safety or emotional health. I’m thinking, for instance, of all the action movies where the plot puts the lives of innumerable extras at stake but the emotional through-line is about nothing more than the hero’s conflict with a father-figure.

Our culture needs more heroes who care about other people’s self-actualization and fulfillment.

6.

What’s more interesting is the fate of the narrator. He never knew these people. They no longer exist in his world. They’re characters in a television series or a giant video game. It’s media–a documentary, but it might as well be fiction for all the narrator can affect anything. Still, he turns on Morel’s invention and records himself walking among the tourists. He inserts himself into their conversations, choreographs his actions so they seem to interact. An outside observer would never know he wasn’t part of the original group. The narrator will waste away; his copy will spend eternity pretending to have friends.

At this point it’s worth noting Bioy Casares based Faustine on the actress Louise Brooks–that’s her on the cover of the NYRB Classics edition of the novel. As a young man Bioy Casares had a crush on Brooks. The Invention of Morel is in part dissecting his adolescent self’s attraction to a woman he knew he’d never meet.

What Bioy Casares felt for Brooks is an example of a parasocial relationship. That’s the technical term for the one-sided relationship people have with fictional characters who feels like “old friends.” People can have parasocial relationships with media figures or celebrities, too. But as with explicitly fictional characters they’re only mental simulations of those people. A real relationship goes two ways; both sides engage with the other person’s point of view. In a parasocial relationship the feelings are all on one side. The second party isn’t aware of the first, and can’t be. The second party is fictional.

A horror movie’s audience feels fear they know is nothing like real fear. A tragedy’s audience feels sadness distinct from the sadness they feel when sad things happen in real life. Parasocial relationships are like that, with friendship; they’re not necessarily unhealthy. The devoted fans who check in with their favorite TV show every week have feelings analogous to the emotions associated with real friendships while understanding they aren’t the same.

If they’re healthy. If not, you get the proverbial soap opera fan accosting the villain’s actor on the street. Or a celebrity stalker. Or Reg Barclay, the character on Star Trek: The Next Generation who got so lost in his holodeck sessions he couldn’t deal with reality. Or the narrator, who has the same problem, except Counselor Troi isn’t around to stage an intervention.

The narrator can’t deal with people. I don’t mean he’s an introvert, drained by social interaction. That, I could sympathize with–no one’s more introverted than me! No, the narrator can’t deal with people because he’s a self-absorbed misanthrope. Instead, he’ll spend time with phantoms who can’t surprise him because they’re completely predictable, and ask nothing of him because they don’t know he’s there. For him, that’s close enough.

7.

In the social media age it’s become common for creators (they’re usually women) to get death threats when some cartoon or video game or movie franchise takes a turn its “fans” don’t like. As far as these guys (they’re always men) are concerned, their parasocial relationships with fictional characters are more important than real people’s emotional health and feelings of safety.

I sometimes wonder how many people have, without admitting it to themselves, on some subconscious level convinced themselves other people aren’t real.

8.

Compared to Morel, the narrator may seem merely pathetic. But the novel draws a direct parallel between them! Even the narrator notices, and he’s not especially self-aware. Both claim to be in love with Faustine, but neither know anything about her. They’re not thinking of her as another human with interiority like their own. They look at her and see fictional characters they invented to support stories in which they’re the protagonists.

For the narrator a simulated person is close enough to a real person that a parasocial relationship and a real relationship are almost interchangeable. He’s willing to murder himself for an afterlife surrounded by images. At this point, remember the narrator is a fugitive, and still hasn’t told us what he was accused of. Who is he, really? What’s he capable of? Given the chance, could he have been another Morel? Bioy Casares seems to think the narrator and Morel are different more in degree than kind.

If there’s any hope for the narrator, it’s that at the end he hopes for some future gatherer of vibrations to unite him with Faustine’s consciousness. Maybe he’s starting to realize other people have their own stories, and it might be a good idea to listen.

9.

The official history of science fiction looks like a list of books that aged badly–who can read Asimov anymore without occasionally laughing? Or Heinlein? It’s easy to assume aging badly is an inherent property of the genre, that very little SF more than a generation old is worth reading.

In forgotten corners of the shelves is an alternate history of SF. There are books less celebrated (sometimes forgotten) by dedicated SF readers that still have something to say to us today. The Invention of Morel is one of those. Transhumanism, virtual reality, the merging of real life with media, and destructive, entitled misogyny? This is all very current, if not always current in the way we’d want.

John Darnielle, Universal Harvester

Sometimes a book clearly does not belong to a genre, but works so much like that genre it seems to belong in spirit. Take John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester. It has the story-shape and uncanny affect of weird fiction despite not, in the end, containing anything weird. And though it draws from the horror-fiction end of the genre more than the Borgesian, there’s nothing horrific about it; it is, instead, gentle and compassionate. It’s weird-fiction adjacent.

(I almost don’t want to say that much… I don’t usually worry about spoilers here; I’m writing responses to books, not the kind of book reviews you’d read beforehand to gauge your interest. But I so rarely go into a novel not even knowing what kind of story it’s telling, and that feeling of discovery is amazing, so if this novel sounds interesting just go read it. This essay will still be here when you’re done.)

Universal Harvester starts with Jeremy Heidt, a video rental clerk in Nevada, Iowa, in the 1990s. Customers are coming in perturbed; they report uncomfortably strange scenes spliced into their copies of Targets and She’s All That. Jeremy, his boss Sarah Jane, and their customer and enthusiastic investigator Stephanie (a teacher who maybe finds small-town Iowa a little boring after the University of Chicago) play back the tapes and see short, inexplicable flashes: the inside of a shed, people wearing canvas sacks over their heads, a woman fleeing a farm. Sarah thinks she recognizes the farmhouse.

Universal Harvester tells its story with the tools of found footage. Appropriately for a book about a video store, it’s a cinematic genre.[1] The point of found footage is that it’s incomplete. Most movies assume the camera is omniscient; it knows the whole story and can show the audience any part. The found footage camera narrates from inside the story. It asks us to reconstruct the story from incomplete data and a limited point of view. It’s often said of horror movies that what the audience doesn’t see is scarier than what it does: the images in the viewer’s imagination are wilder (and more specific to that viewer!) than anything the filmmakers could come up with. A good found footage movie extends this principle to the narrative logic. The story in the gaps is more uncanny than what’s on screen.[2]

Universal Harvester’s narrator seems omniscient. It tells us about Jeremy’s job and home life, how he’s considering a new job in Des Moines. About how his mother died, and his father’s tentative new relationship. It tells us what’s going through his head at times. Oddly, it also tells us things that could have happened prefaced by phrases like “in some versions of this story.” Did Jeremy have an argument with his father? Did he get a job at a soil-testing lab, or stay longer at the Video Hut? When a personal pronoun slips out it confirms what we already suspected: the narrator is inside the story. The narrator knows Jeremy pretty well but what we’re reading is, in places, just a version of his story, reconstructed from available information.

Adding to Universal Harvester‘s aura of found footage is a documentary feel helped by its strong sense of place. Nevada, Iowa is a real town, not far from where I grew up. Contrary to popular belief Iowa isn’t all rural; I’ve spent my entire life in university towns, so Jeremy’s culture isn’t mine. But I know enough to tell Universal Harvester has the atmosphere right. I recognize the characters’ affect, their reticence, the way the favorite topic at family gatherings is who’s moved where. The geography’s right, too; Darnielle seems to know the area from more than Google maps.

There’s a second horror influence contributing to Universal Harvester’s aura of the uncanny: folk horror, or whatever the American equivalent of folk horror might be (I’ve seen good arguments that it exists). This is a novel of rural landscapes, odd rituals, and new religions born from old, in this case not a European pagan revival but a Christian cult. The cult figures into the middle of the novel, which jumps back a couple of decades to tell the story of a woman who joins a seedy strip-mall church and disappears with it when it flees town, leaving behind a confused husband and daughter. They hire a detective. The daughter grows up following the cult from town to town, scanning the ever-increasing piles of surveillance tapes for some sign of a mother who, even after the cult leader is arrested and the last few members deprogrammed, never turns up again.

What happened to her? Well, there are different versions of that story.

Nobody knows you the way you know yourself. They see the pieces of your life that happen to occur in front of them. The you they know is a story they reconstruct from the fragments. The story your close friends and family know is probably pretty accurate! But the only person who knows your true, entire story is you.[3]

Universal Harvester’s narrator is reconstructing other people’s lives from the information available to her limited point of view. She’s piecing together fragments of video to find the story of a mother who disappeared. If she’s created strange rituals for herself they’re not so much attempting to reach back as out, to make connections. (Even for the mother, the cult was about connecting with something she was missing.) Universal Harvester is using weird fiction strategies to talk about the unknowability of other people’s lives, and how people reach out anyway in whatever way they know, however odd.

Most work in any genre is a bland mass of repetitious received ideas that blend into each other like gray soup. There are lots of reasons why a story might fail to rise above the general mass of forgettable oatmeal. One of the big ones is when creators never move past their first automatic assumptions about what genres, their tools, or their tropes, are for. Or what kinds of stories they could tell, whether they could be used for something new. Or whether they could bring in different tools altogether to serve the same purpose. Which is as good an argument as any for reading widely, and having a flexible concept of genre.


  1. Though I’ve read horror stories formatted as collections of documents or, especially since found footage movies took off, descriptions of in-story videos.  ↩

  2. There are a lot of terrible found footage movies out there; they fail mostly because they failed to understand this. Most of them actually have two layers of thoughtless tropes. You can tell the filmmakers copied the style without thinking about what it’s doing because they’re using it to tell utterly rote, generic horror-movie stories: clearly defined character and thematic arcs, action climaxes, downbeat endings. There’s usually a point in these movies–maybe while the characters are running for their lives; maybe, alternately, while they’re having an argument that includes some important exposition but the characters themselves wouldn’t bother recording for posterity–when the audience asks why are these people filming this? The answer being because the filmmakers couldn’t conceive of a movie without the kind of scenes only an omniscient narrator would film.  ↩

  3. Even a well-documented historical figure is, to some extent, a mystery. Like, there’s enough on Lyndon Johnson for a multi-volume biography totaling thousands of pages. But there were still unwitnessed and unrecorded moments in his life. In most of them he was probably brushing his teeth or making a cheese sandwich or something. But could some moment have revealed him to be a completely different man? Who knows?  ↩

Short Complaints About Several Books

This summer hasn’t been great for reading or writing. My concentration and attention span are low; I read the first chapters of a book only to get distracted by another. Still, I have a few longer posts in the works about books I liked enough (or in one case disliked enough) to inspire substantial thoughts. Meanwhile, here are shorter notes on some books that inspired insubstantial thoughts. Most of them I wasn’t impressed with.

Steve Aylett, Lint

I can’t decide how I feel about Lint. It took me weeks to read. Not that it’s bad–far from it. But it only works in small doses.

Lint is a biography of Jeff Lint, a 20th century science fiction writer distantly based on Philip K. Dick. It’s comedy in a style that mostly doesn’t depend on obvious punch lines, which I like. (Only a few pieces of this novel feel like conventional jokes and they’re the bits least likely to work well.) Lint has some genuinely incisive lines: “Truth is unpopular because it doesn’t have a dependent need to be liked or believed–its independence seems like unfriendliness.”) Occasionally descriptions of Lint’s novels aspire to the satire found in Stanislaw Lem’s fake book reviews: “In the novel Jelly Result, half of Eterani city is exactly the same as the other half, because the authorities don’t have enough ideas to cover the whole area.”

But the dominant style of humor here is randomness: “On one occasion Lint fired forty pounds of chili from a turn-of-the-century baseball gun mounted on the roof of a 23rd Street apartment block, and eagerly told a baffled Kerouac about it.” Most of the text is a succession of sentences like this. Parts of the book seem written with a text-processing program like JanusNode: “They behave like rain upon travelers,’ he thought, seeing those spirits. ‘We are a circus of ourselves. We make the sleeve. We the alteration.’” This is amusing more often than not, but after a while the rhythm feels overwhelmingly samey, like a stuck nozzle relentlessly pumping out infinite quantities of cake frosting. After every chapter I had to put it down and read something else for a while.

One chapter, though, stood out: the account of Lint’s short-lived animated TV series, Catty and the Major, is genuinely disturbing. It reads like a half-remembered urban legend, suggesting this nightmarish cartoon show hides some deeper mystery we don’t have enough clues to solve. Should you give Lint a try and find the style hard going, it might be worth pushing on to the Catty and the Major chapter. It’s nothing like the rest of the book.

Fran Wilde, The Jewel and Her Lapidary

I got interested in this one because I’d heard it was written at least partly as a travel guide (the blurb begins “Buried beneath the layers of a traveler’s guide is a hidden history”), and then it got a Hugo nomination. It turns out the travel guide entries are just chapter-heading epigraphs. The bulk of the book is a decent but not unusual epic fantasy, with maybe slightly better than average prose.

Unusually in a genre inclined to bloat, this fantasy may not be long enough. It’s plot, plot, plot all the way, with little room to pry into the oddities and philosophical underpinnings of its world. (And there is some odd stuff here, which might have been interesting if unpacked; the power relationships inherent in most feudal fantasy are heightened, with the constant presence of literal physical chains as a metaphor.)

Someday, someone needs to write that epic fantasy in the form of a travel guide. (Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland isn’t quite the same thing.)

Marie Brennan, Cold-Forged Flame

For me, the single interesting aspect of Cold-Forged Flame is how stripped-down it is, almost experimentally so. It’s pure action, lacking any of the context that makes action meaningful–character, setting, philosophy. The protagonist is an amnesiac born at the moment the novel begins. Most of the story is set in a mutable otherworld, the magic-island equivalent of Star Trek’s holodeck–the kind of setting SF series use when they want to be Symbolic. The novel’s only serious engagement with ideas is a brief conversation about ethics.

As a blank slate, the protagonist knows only as much as the reader, and in experiencing the story she initially works as a proxy for the reader. Like, at first what little we see of this world looks like Celtic Britain, but then the protagonist sees a gun and instantly understands guns are a thing in her world: “I’m just wondering how I recognize that thing… How can I know all that, when I don’t remember anything from before I opened my eyes on that slab?” She knows about guns because the readers of Cold-Forged Flame know about guns, and they deduced what the gun meant in the same moment she did. The protagonist learns her world like a typical fantasy reader, with the same background knowledge and skill in deducing the nature of the world from the cues her author gave her. She is in effect a fantasy fan dumped into a random fantasy story.

Like I said, we don’t learn much about this world before the protagonist reaches Holodeck Island. SF stories don’t usually resort to holodecks (or Lands of Fiction, or insanity pepper hallucinations, or other mutable surrealist dreamscapes) until we’ve gotten to know the characters in their normal context; watching them navigate symbolic landscapes is less revealing when, as in Cold-Forged Flame, we don’t understand who they are or how their world works in the first place. As the protagonist of Cold-Forged Flame learns about herself, it’s less and less apparent what the facts she learns mean. At the climax we learn she’s something called an “Archon,” and we’re given some idea of what an Archon is, but having spent so little time in her world we don’t know what being an Archon means: how should she feel about being an Archon? What do other people think of them? What’s their place in the world? It’s not clear, so the scene meant to deliver the novels’ biggest emotional punch falls flat.

Brian Evanson, The Warren

The Warren is the story of X, an artificial being living in an underground bunker. He’s the latest in a long line of constructs, but the first to be alone instead of part of a pair; his past selves live within himself, perceived as a collection of eyes that open when the personality wakes.

X’s selves trade off the first-person narration as they trade off his body, unaware of any of the others’ actions beyond what they might have written. The prose is perfectly controlled, always clear except where it’s intentionally not, with a strong personality. It’s one of those stories that manage to imply far more about its world than they explain, a landscape packed into a small space. It’s apocalyptic, but it’s apocalyptic surrealism. For me, literary surrealism is one of the main attractions of SF.

So it’s odd I didn’t like The Warren more than I did. Like the last two books, the problem is that it feels insubstantial. There are fewer layers here than there ought to be. Expectations are the problem: SF has literary status anxiety, and fans and marketing copy both have a habit of selling SF books as deeper than they are. (It’s telling how often fan-written reviews say a novel is about certain issues but don’t dig into how it’s about those issues, or what it’s actually saying about them.) The marketing surrounding The Warren is best summed up by Charles Yu’s blurb: “What is a human? What is a person? The Warren is a truly original exploration of these questions―the kind of work that causes one to re-examine long-held certainties. Profound and deeply unsettling, in the best way possible.” And, yeah, the questions What is a human? and What is a person? come up in The Warren. But I honestly don’t think it has much to say about them except that, in a science fictional world, maybe our definition of “person” ought to be as expansive as possible. Which is true, but not any more profound than your average quarter-century old episode of Star Trek.

Two Blake’s 7 Tie-Ins

On the other hand, sometimes my expectations are modest but still aren’t met. The Forgotten and Archangel are tie-in novels based on the TV series Blake’s 7, published by Big Finish, a company that mostly produces audio dramas. There’s one in this series I haven’t yet read that I expect I’ll enjoy–it’s by Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum, who have a good track record with Doctor Who novels.

These first two, though… they’re competent, but I can’t call them good even by tie-in standards. They read like bald descriptions of a couple of hypothetical TV stories. They don’t feel like real novels and I get the impression the possibility they could have been real novels wasn’t even on the authors’ sensors. The one memorable incident in either is a strange moment in Archangel when we learn Jenna hates going down to the Liberator’s power section because it “always seemed to have the same effect on her. It affected her fingers first, making them ache until it was difficult for her to grip things, then it would slowly seep down her body until her stomach felt bloated and she needed to use the bathroom.” This is more than I wanted to know about the Liberator’s power section.

Agatha Christie, Towards Zero

Towards Zero is a perfectly cromulent Agatha Christie novel. If you’re into Agatha Christie it will pass the time adequately; if not, then not. The only noteworthy moment is when Superintendent Battle notices a clue because it’s something Hercule Poirot would have noticed. This unfortunately just emphasizes that the entirely charisma-free Battle is the detective instead of Poirot.

D. M. Devine, The Sleeping Tiger

D. M. Devine’s The Sleeping Tiger is one of a half-dozen paperback “Crime Classics” I bought off a remainder table. How it’s a “Classic” I have no idea. This is a stupid book.

Some of the problem is values dissonance; a lot of old mysteries have moments that didn’t age well, but The Sleeping Tiger is way out of touch. When protagonist John Prescott declines to cover for a doctor who had an accident driving drunk, we’re meant to think he’s a stick-in-the-mud. When he slaps his unfaithful wife, we’re meant to think he’s standing up for himself. His love interest by the end of the book is a woman he meets in the first chapters, five years earlier, when he’s in his twenties and she’s fifteen. Oh, and John takes antibiotics for flu. I hate this guy.

This is the 1960s, by the way: circa 1962–1967. The novel was published in 1961. One thing that’s not at all interesting about The Sleeping Tiger, but could have been, is that it could have qualified as near-future science fiction if it had occurred to Devine to wonder how the world might change over the next five years. As it is, the novel takes place in the indeterminate 20th century England of your average Agatha Christie adaptation.

Beyond that, John is one of the dumbest mystery-novel heroes I have ever come across. Never mind that he’s willing to get into a car with a drunk. This is a person who upon finding a dead body moves it, gets himself covered in blood, pulls the freaking knife out of its back, and tells the police an easily-disproved lie about when he arrived. Worst of all for a detective novel, John doesn’t clear his name through brilliant deduction–the villain finally just outright tries to kill him. Give this one a pass.