Dino Buzzati, Catastrophe

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of Being Genre

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

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

Subtext #1: You Flatter Us

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

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

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

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

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

Subtext #2: The Special People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody Wants Their Genre to Rule the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bad Witch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guarding the Doors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Genres and Supermen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Short Reviews of Weird-Adjacent Fiction

Jean Giono, A King Alone

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

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

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

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

Margaret Irwin, “The Book”

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Hand, Wylding Hall

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

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

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

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

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

Random Thoughts on Recent Doctor Who

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margery Allingham, The Mind Readers

A well structured novel isn’t the same thing as a good novel. The Mind Readers, Margery Allingham’s last Albert Campion mystery[1] is a case in point.

Cover of The Mind Readers

By the standards of the novel-writing advice industry, The Mind Readers is a lean-to made of tinkertoys and string. The plot is disjointed. Characters drop in and out. The scene that feels like the dramatic climax comes before the actual climax, in which Campion passively watches a lengthy TV broadcast that functions as extended infodump and deus ex machina in one. But The Mind Readers is weirdly compelling. A less idiosyncratic novel wouldn’t have the same effect.

Allingham was one of the best golden age mystery writers and also one of the most underrated. She’s a better writer than Agatha Christie (though no one beats Christie at constructing puzzle plots) and I’d rate her best work alongside Sayers. She was always trying something new. The Campion books ranged from pulpy adventure to straight mysteries to character studies of criminals. She was still experimenting in her last book: The Mind Readers is science fiction. And though the iggy-tubes aren’t remotely plausible this is actual SF, not a detective story with a sci-fi MacGuffin: the exact properties of the SF element are tied to the novel’s themes.

The plot kicks off when Campion’s wife Amanda’s nephews[2], Edward and Sam, come home from school for a visit. They’ve brought a gadget they call an “iggy-tube” that, placed against the jugular, makes them telepathic. It’s not clear where they got the thing. There’s some suspicion it came from the island-based government research facility where Sam’s father works. (As anybody who’s read The Men Who Stare at Goats knows, in the 1960s governments were genuinely investing in ESP.) Well, where else could it have come from? It’s a breakthrough.

We learn why a scientist might have handed the iggy-tubes over to schoolchildren when Campion’s colleague Sergeant Luke tries one out. It’s traumatizing, overwhelming mental chaos, a tangled forest of thoughts and feelings, not all happy: “I thought they were all mine and it scared me stiff.” The kids don’t have the same problem. They don’t have the life experience to recognize the more difficult parts of the subconscious, or associate fraught emotions with painful memories. They haven’t yet learned to draw back from the forest; they’re not too panicked to weave their way through to the thoughts they want to receive. “The less you know the less you are afraid of the unknown,” as one character sums up.

There’s one problem: Sam has kept his iggy-tube connected too long. Without it, he turns vague and uncommunicative, and it’s a couple of days before he’s back to normal. Sam has temporarily forgotten how to function as an individual instead of a relay point in a grammar-school gestalt. Amanda’s nephews are turning alien.

Meanwhile, the adults are anxious. What does it mean for privacy when anyone can read your mind? (Only kids can use iggy-tubes now, but it’s early days; whoever built them will come up with an improved model.) More to the point, what does it mean for the intelligence community? Won’t someone think of the spies? Edward and Sam are nearly kidnapped by a politely nameless foreign power. Meanwhile a peer named Lord Ludor puts the island lab on lockdown. Ludor is the kind of man who’ll torpedo your career if he thinks you haven’t shown him proper deference. Telepathy could help Ludor control people or put them beyond his control entirely, depending on whether he’s the mind reader or the mind getting read.

Campion is on the island when it’s closed and is stuck there for a large chunk of the novel. Looking for a way out, Campion runs across an old acquaintance, an ex-crook and surveillance expert turned “lonely old man of the sea” surrounded by young technicians. He seems desperate for Campion’s company, which reminds him of when he felt relevant. But Campion feels extraneous himself. Not for the first time in the series–he makes not much more than a cameo appearance in Hide My Eyes. But this time the narrative focus stays on Campion while the real action is elsewhere–Edward has now disappeared entirely. Both Campion and the readers are sidelined together.

Here the murderer waylays Campion on the road. A lot of modern genre novels feel like attempts to recreate Hollywood summer blockbuster thrillers on paper, but a suspense scene can be a quiet conversation instead of a breathless set piece, and in a book that often works better. The confrontation with the culprit is the best written part of The Mind Readers, and it functions as exposition and suspense at the same time. It’s exposition as chess match: Before the culprit puts Campion out of the way he needs to know what Campion figured out, and when, and who else knows. Campion needs to put his death off as long as possible while learning everything the culprit knows about the plots surrounding the gadgets. Every line of dialogue is a calculated maneuver. Campion never gets the upper hand; when the confrontation turns physical, his enemy is younger and stronger. He’s rescued because Sam telepathically overheard his panic.

Unlike Hercule Poirot or Nero Wolfe, Campion aged in real time; according to Allingham he was “the same age as the century.” The Mind Readers was published in 1965, which puts him at retirement age. Campion’s ankle hurts and he’s exhausted. He’s old, and for the first time he feels it.

It’s a great scene; whatever flaws The Mind Readers might have, Allingham is at the top of her game. Which raises the possibility that the flaws aren’t really flaws. Keep that in mind during the last two chapters which, judged by the current consensus on how stories are supposed to work, are very weird.

The book ends with heroes and villains alike gathering to watch a television program on Amanda’s advice (delivered through the surveillance Ludor has put on her house). It’s a talk show. The guest is Edward. The host proceeds to deliver two chapters of exposition about everything that’s gone on in the background while Campion was on the island. Most of these two chapters are a transcript of the broadcast, which the reader watches along with Campion.

In short, no one gave Edward the iggy-tubes–he developed them himself. (It’s a long story involving some weird transistors found in a batch of ordinary radios.) Before the book even started he was testing the tubes with his classmates and writing up his findings for a junior science magazine (the TV host reads his letter out in full). After the kidnapping attempt Edward arranged his own disappearance, again coordinating with his classmates as well as Amanda. Then he went to a newspaper and demonstrated an iggy-tube to the editor, who set him up with the TV host.

What’s notable is not just that Allingham has ended her novel with a two chapter infodump. It’s that the broadcast takes the patient, reassuring tone of children’s television, like an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. (“Above all, do not be afraid. Your secrets are safe for a very long time.”) But it’s not the kids who need reassuring; they handle ESP just fine. The host is reassuring the grown-ups, who have discovered they’re irrelevant.

Two nations’ intelligence services spent the entire novel on a wild goose chase. The murder of the scientist achieved nothing. Campion, Sergeant Luke, and Lord Ludor were looking in every direction but the right one. Edward was in charge all along, and everyone else can only watch while he announces the fact on live television. Ludor is defeated by learning the situation is just plain out of his hands. His one last stab at relevance is to try to get the kids on side, offering them a job as soon as they’re out of school, but Sam shoots him down: “‘It’s very kind of you,’ he said seriously. ‘But do you think you ought to promise? There’s going to be a lot of change in the next ten years. You may not have anything for me to do.’”

And, yes, I know this sounds massively unsatisfying. The threads we were following never mattered and now they’ve been suddenly, neatly severed by a deus ex machina. It’s like everything we cared about for the last 150 pages was a waste of time. But it’s the perfect ending for this book, because it puts the readers in the same position as Campion. The rug’s been pulled out from under us by a clever kid who never meant us any harm but inadvertently left us feeling irrelevant and foolish.

The point of a novel isn’t to tell a clockwork-perfect story, with a well-crafted structure and all the beats in the right place. The point is to get the reader to experience certain feelings and think about certain ideas, which as far as I’m concerned Allingham manages here. Sometimes a weird and ramshackle novel has tools that aren’t in a well-crafted but conventional novel’s toolbox. Weird tools, with neon paint jobs, unexplained dangly bits, and racing stripes.

What Allingham is feeling here, the theme she’s grappling with, is how time and change seem to accelerate with age. When Allingham published The Crime at Black Dudley in 1929, television didn’t exist. Neither did the atomic bomb. Everything was getting stranger. If she was still finding new things to do with Campion it’s partly because so many old stories–the boys’ own adventures of the early novels, the polite high-society crimes that followed–didn’t make sense in this new world. In The Mind Readers she ushers Campion into a future that may not need detectives at all, much less detective-story novelists. Allingham’s husband completed one more book and wrote a couple of sequels of his own, but this feels like Campion’s last adventure–no big final act, just life overtaking him and leaving him behind. Maybe it’s time for the kids to start running things.

And maybe that’s okay? Again, that two-chapter infodump feels reassuring, like a trusted parental figure talking her fellow parental figures down from a panic. The sixties were a decade when a lot of older creators started getting cranky about The Kids These Days. Margery Allingham has seen the future. It’s bewildering, and she’s not sure she has any place in it. But she also seems to think the kids might be all right.

Allingham doesn’t have a simple message to impart. She’s working through ideas and feelings she isn’t sure about. I love novels that explore ideas without being sure where they’re going, and try to do too much, and seem to be doing some of it accidentally. They’re often more interesting and powerful than novels that know exactly what they want to say, and say exactly that. The Mind Readers is not a great book, and in some ways not even a good one, but it sticks with you. It’s good for stories to be a little messy.


  1. The novel she was working on when she died, Cargo of Eagles, was completed by her husband.  ↩

  2. Apparently by different siblings; the relationships feel as vague as Donald Duck’s relationship to Huey, Dewey, and Louie.  ↩

Perceval Landon, “Thurnley Abbey”

Perceval Landon is one of those writers remembered for a single story, the ghost story “Thurnley Abbey.” He was a journalist, a close friend of Rudyard Kipling, and travelled the world as a special correspondent for the Daily Mail and The Times. He accompanied Britain’s 1904 invasion of Tibet and wrote a book called The Opening of Tibet. Otto Penzler in his brief bio of Landon for The Big Book of Ghost Stories calls him “powerfully British in his attitudes and judgments,” which is probably a diplomatic way of calling him an enthusiastic imperialist. If so, his attitudes aren’t obvious in “Thurnley Abbey” beyond the assumption that a stint in India is a normal thing for a gentleman to have in his background.

Landon’s fiction was pretty much limited to a 1908 collection called Raw Edges. Apart from reprints of his one famous story it doesn’t seem to be available anywhere.

Generally I think criticism ought to minimize the time it spends summarizing plots. But sometimes working through a summary is the simplest way to pick apart what a story is doing, so that’s how I’ll organize this post. I’ll try to keep the description-to-analysis ratio within reason.

Like a lot of Jamesian ghost stories “Thurnley Abbey” has a framing narrative. The narrator is on his way to India, waiting for his ship to sail, and the prologue captures the feel of a tedious journey: “We slept after luncheon; we dawdled the afternoon away with yellow-backed novels; sometimes we exchanged platitudes in the smoking-room, and it was there that I met Alastair Colvin.”

Colvin is an obvious gentleman–later he gives his club as a reference–and makes “the usual remarks in the right way” but seems preoccupied. After dinner he makes a strange request: he asks to sleep in the narrator’s cabin on the ship. “And he coloured a little as he said it,” says the narrator. That flash of deeper feeling seems out of place in Landon’s polite, orderly prose. Gentlemen exchange pleasantries and platitudes. This puncturing of reserve–admitting weakness to a stranger–just isn’t done.

Colvin explains. His story begins as leisurely as the narrator’s; it’s not slow, it just doesn’t feel hurried. In India Colvin made a friend named John Broughton, who inherited a large estate and returned to England. Eventually Broughton decides to move into his manor, Thurnley Abbey. It’s rumored to be haunted; supposedly the ghost is an “immured nun.” Further details are thin on the ground.

Broughton thinks a former tenant spread the rumors to scare trespassers; certainly, he was known to enhance them by playing tricks with lights. He and Colvin agree that if one ever did see a ghost, one ought to talk to it. Broughton has workers in, laughing at their nervousness, and fixes the roof and installs electric lighting. He gets married, and Colvin goes back East. When Colvin returns to England Broughton asks him to visit, and do him a favor.

Colvin arrives to find a standard country house party of the sort Hercule Poirot detects murders in. A couple of guests trot out the standard lines about how they wouldn’t live in the Abbey for any amount of money. A woman at dinner goes on for a while about how wit is vulgar and all truly great art is melancholy and tragic.[1] Broughton can’t bring himself to tell Colvin what the favor is–he keeps putting it off until morning. He seems “somehow ashamed of himself,” trying to bring the conversation around to ghosts but changing the subject when Colvin asks directly. The most Broughton can manage is an odd joke as he drifts off to bed: “‘Mind, if you see a ghost, do talk to it; you said you would.’ He stood irresolutely a moment and then turned away.”

Colvin tells the first half of his story lightly but with emotional reserve. The prose maintains a polite distance from the reader. Colvin calls Broughton “a light-hearted soul” but “steady and capable” and steady is high praise. Gentlemen keep their upper lips stiff. They talk in bright pleasantries and banter (“‘Good old nun!’ said Broughton”). They’re undemonstrative, uncomfortable with and embarrassed by strong emotion. Broughton avoids asking Colvin for a favor because the favor is bound up with a shock. Talking about it would break the rules.

So it’s a big moment when Colvin wakes in the night and feels something: “I know that my heart stopped dead, and my throat shut automatically.” And the feeling comes before we learn what the feeling is about. That Colvin feels anything this strongly is more shocking than the shock that caused it. After 4,000 words of calm Englishness, this is the story’s first moment of heightened emotion.

Then another unusual thing happens: just for a moment, we return to the frame story. Everyone else is in bed and the narrator and Colvin stare out over the water into the night. The story decelerates to a moment of absolute stillness. Colvin continues his story, and because Landon wrote this bit extraordinarily well I’ll quote the next paragraph in full:

Leaning over the foot of my bed, looking at me, was a figure swathed in a rotten and tattered veiling. This shroud passed over the head, but left both eyes and the right side of the face bare. It then followed the line of the arm down to where the hand grasped the bed-end. The face was not entirely that of a skull, though the eyes and the flesh of the face were totally gone. There was a thin, dry skin drawn tightly over the features, and there was some skin left on the hand. One wisp of hair crossed the forehead. It was perfectly still. I looked at it, and it looked at me, and my brains turned dry and hot in my head. I had still got the pear of the electric lamp in my hand, and I played idly with it; only I dared not turn the light out again. I shut my eyes, only to open them in a hideous terror the same second. The thing had not moved. My heart was thumping, and the sweat cooled me as it evaporated. Another cinder tinkled in the grate, and a panel creaked in the wall.

I’ve rarely come across a fantasy or horror story that better depicts a certain kind of fear or shock, the kind where time seems to stop for a moment while your brain processes what’s happening. “Thurnley Abbey” has been anthologized a lot, and some editors call it one of the most frightening ghost stories in the English language. If so, it’s not because the events of the story are particularly frightening (the same plot could just as easily be turned to comedy). It’s just particularly good at convincing us its narrator is afraid.

This paragraph is, again, very still. Colvin’s description is precise and clinical, and the slow cataloguing of detail reads like one of those moments when absolute shock slows time to a crawl. His playing with the dangling lamp-switch is perfect, the kind of thing people do when their minds haven’t caught up to their situation. And again there’s a new intensity to his reactions, a previously unsuspected emotional range: “my brains turned dry and hot in my head,” “My heart was thumping, and the sweat cooled me as it evaporated.” These are palpably physical states the reader might have been in, or can at least imagine, and they’re more vivid for the contrast between this scene and the story’s earlier reserve. The emotional contrast and Landon’s masterful control of pacing make Colvin’s awakening feel like a night terror or fever dream on paper.

Then, from a dead stop, “Thurnley Abbey” floors the gas pedal. Colvin decides the figure is a dummy set up as a practical joke. Like a switch his utter terror flips to white-hot rage. He leaps forward and punches it in the face. When it doesn’t resist he pulverizes it, pulling it apart, stomping the skeleton, leaving not a single bone in one piece. It’s sheer mindless frenzy.

Colvin grabs a skull fragment and bursts into Broughton’s bedroom, screaming something-or-other, but Broughton doesn’t react as Colvin expects. Broughton is too terrified to speak, only shrieking when he sees the bone. He grabs it, makes for the door, but trips and drops it. Everyone hears shuffling footsteps coming down the hall.

Here the story takes another unexpected emotional turn. Broughton and his wife hide their faces in the bedclothes and after a moment Colvin joins them. This is awe, in the old-fashioned sense. What you’d feel if a god descended from the sky. It’s not just that no one wants to see the Nun, it’s like they’re not even worthy to gaze upon her. She comes softly into the room and gently picks up her bone. Then she just leaves. “At the end of the corridor I thought I saw something that moved away. A moment later the passage was empty. I stood with my forehead against the jamb of the door almost physically sick.”

These emotions feel vivid partly because of the contrast with the story’s first half. Another reason is that “Thurnley Abbey” pays attention to the fallout. A common ghost story strategy is to stage the climax, then get out while the reader is still reeling, but “Thurnley Abbey” covers the next few hours of Colvin’s life. He and the Broughtons are explicitly traumatized–in modern terms, they may have actual PTSD. They sit up together until dawn, barely speaking; “we all three knew that our reason had gone very near to ruin that night.” They have to negotiate what to do in the morning because no one can stand to be alone. Eventually Mrs. Broughton thinks she might be all right alone for five minutes, with the windows open, while Broughton and Colvin check Colvin’s room. They do, and apart from some blood where Colvin cut his hand there’s no sign of the mess. Broughton only says “half as a question, half as a reproach, ‘You didn’t speak to her.’”

It’s an intense story. On my first reading it didn’t even occur to me to wonder: why has Broughton never spoken to her? Living with her as he does, he must have noticed the Nun is benign. At no point does she do anything but watch and endure. There’s no sign that she’s even offended at being torn apart, which, given the speed at which she reassembles herself, has got to be a minor inconvenience. She’s quiet, curious, and patient, and Broughton and Colvin’s reactions seem to have almost nothing to do with her. She seems to unconsciously carry an aura of terror, harmless in herself but a catalyst for loss of emotional control in the living.

I’m not a strict death-of-the-author adherent, but writers often really do write more than they intend. I don’t know Landon’s intentions; probably he just wanted to write a scary story. But it feels like something deeper is going on here. People don’t run from the Nun, they hide their faces. “Thurnley Abbey” feels suffused with shame.

Maybe it has to do with those “powerfully British” attitudes. Remember, Broughton came back from soldiering in India to accept his inheritance. Colvin still travels back and forth and reads himself to sleep with a volume of Kipling.[2] So maybe it’s significant that Broughton has taken possession of the Abbey, become its master, and rebuilt it to his liking… but the place has a prior inhabitant. One he can’t subordinate, kill, or move along. No matter what, she endures, an undeniable fact he has to confront. Is it any wonder he can’t bear to speak to her?

Then again, maybe it’s about the destruction of Colvin’s self-image. Colvin thinks of himself as a gentleman. He belongs to the right club, knows the right things to say and to do. He’s cool and steady; his honor and dignity are unimpeachable. He’s above everything. Until he encounters something he thinks is mocking him, at which point he discovers his reserve and honorable deportment are a thin veneer masking his chaotic, animalistic, rage-filled true self. In the Nun’s presence, he’s no gentleman. What’s worse, his tantrum doesn’t even accomplish anything. His rage is impotent. The victim of his violence can’t actually be harmed, and won’t go away; she pieces herself together and reproachfully continues to exist.

Either way, the Nun is a mirror. Colvin and Broughton can’t look at her because she shows them things they’re ashamed to recognize in themselves—most importantly that the world, and their own lives and selves, aren’t as much under their control as they like to think.

“Of course I am much better now,” says Colvin, “but it is a kindness of you to let me sleep in your cabin.” Now that Colvin knows himself, it’s hard to sleep soundly.


  1. This is a common attitude even today; a lot of people think only morbidly grim stories are truly Serious.  ↩

  2. An advocate of empire whose stories are still reprinted mostly because they seem so uneasy about their own imperialism.  ↩

Doctor Who, Celebrity Historicals, and Meddling

Fair warning: unless you watch Doctor Who this post will probably be of no interest to you whatsoever.

Recently news leaked about an upcoming story from the next season of Doctor Who. It’s a spoiler, I guess, although not much of one as it’s not the most original idea. The word is that Mary Shelley will meet the Cybermen, who will give her the idea for Frankenstein. In reality Frankenstein, like most great novels, was the result of a whole array of ideas and influences. Apparently in the Doctor Who universe Mary Shelley just saw a Cyberman. (This blog post assumes the description of the episode is roughly accurate. It could still turn out to be more complicated than that.)

I commented on Twitter that when SF stories explain a historical event was really caused by time travellers and/or aliens, they usually pick something that isn’t actually mysterious and come up with an “explanation” less interesting than what happened in real life. Doctor Who doesn’t often base entire stories around this concept. It’s usually a joke; an allegedly funny tag scene or name-dropping anecdote in an story about something else.[1] This is partly because the TV show rarely visits specific historical events at all. (The TV series, specifically–it’s more common in the books and audio plays.) At least, until recently. Between the Shelley rumor and season 11, the first produced by Chris Chibnall, it looks like the way Doctor Who uses history is evolving. This lets it tell different types of stories, but they’re story types with potential pitfalls.

You can divide historically-set Doctor Who stories into two categories. (Parenthetical caveat #3: Not the only possible groupings, just ones I’ve chosen for the purposes of my argument.) Type 1 stories have a historical setting, and may deal with historical themes, but aren’t about specific historical events–“The Pyramids of Mars,” “Black Orchid,” or “Thin Ice” (which uses a real event as background but isn’t about it).

Type 2 stories throw the Doctor into a specific, real historical event. This was more common in the 1960s when the show did what fans call “pure historicals”–stories with no science fiction elements aside from the TARDIS. (The only post–1960s pure historical is “Black Orchid,” an odd Peter Davison two-parter.) After the show went all SF, all the time, it’s hard to come up with examples. “City of Death” involves the Mona Lisa, but we never meet Leonardo. “Mark of the Rani” has Luddites but isn’t about them; they’re just background for bizarre Master hijinks. Before season 11 the new series had “The Fires of Pompeii” and… well, “The Idiot’s Lantern” and “Day of the Moon” take place while history is being broadcast on television, but the Doctor is in the audience watching, just like us.

Most Type 2 stories are about the Doctor landing in trouble and trying to survive long enough to escape in the TARDIS. The historical event is usually wide-ranging enough to keep the Doctor away from the center of the action–the Reign of Terror, say, or the Parturition of India. You see why when you watch “The Gunfighters,” one of the few Doctor Who stories centered around a small-scale, local historical event. When we reach the big climax in episode 4, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, the Doctor is absent. There’s nothing for him to do there.

When the Doctor gets involved in real history there’s only two ways the story can go: she can observe, or she can intervene. First, Observation: the Doctor stands to the side and observes history without affecting it. This keeps historical figures at the center of their own stories, but reduces the Doctor to a supporting role in her own series. She isn’t participating in a story, she’s an audience member who has a closer seat than we do.

One variation on Observation is the story where someone travels back in time to change history, and must be stopped. It’s a popular idea but is almost never used in Doctor Who. The only time meddler stories in the original series are “The Aztecs,” “The Time Meddler” (both Hartnell stories), “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (in which the villains never manage to leave the 20th century), and “The King’s Demons” (another oddly old-fashioned Davison two-parter). “Rosa” is the only one I can think of from the new series. It rubs against the grain to have the Doctor working to keep everything the same; meddling is what Doctor Who is about. In fact, after the Hartnell era the show rarely mentions the possibility of changing history at all. In the new series “Father’s Day” and “The Fires of Pompeii” explain for the new audience what the Doctor can and can’t interfere with, but otherwise it’s assumed that changes, as the eleventh Doctor puts it in “Hide,” “mostly work themselves out.”

Another kind of Observation story sends the protagonist back in time to witness a famous disaster or injustice. Often it’s an event society is still processing–Quantum Leap used this model a lot and was specifically set up to take stock of the Baby Boomer audience’s experiences. The time traveler can’t make a big difference in what happens, though they might help a few people. The traveler learns more about history and the story follows their emotional journey as a proxy for the audience’s. “Witness to history” stories can be problematic. They’re often stories of privileged people[2] having feelings about things happening to marginalized people. That’s less of a risk the more distance there is between the audience and the history; for instance, an inoffensive literary example is Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book. This is another plot Doctor Who almost never uses. The only one in the entire classic series[3] is “The Massacre,” and two things are interesting to note: first, it’s not an especially fraught tragedy for contemporary audiences, most of whom wouldn’t feel a strong personal connection to the persecution of Hugenots. Second, the witness is the companion; the Doctor disappears for most of the story. It’s as though this plot isn’t compatible with the Doctor.

The other way the Doctor can interact with real history is Intervention: let the Doctor, or the aliens she meets, inspire or intervene in history. This lets the Doctor be active but diminishes the agency of real historical figures, giving fictional characters credit for their accomplishments.

Which brings us back to Mary Shelley. Assuming the description is accurate, the Shelley idea works according to an inanely reductive theory of art and invention where every idea can be traced to a specific incident from the author’s life. (There’s a lot of this among the Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare crowd: Shakespeare must have been noble, because only a noble could or would have written so much about nobles.) It’s a condescending, teleological version of cultural and technological evolution. Our ancestors weren’t sophisticated enough to come up with their own ideas–they needed help from us, the smart future people!

Doctor Who has flirted with this attitude before. Seventies Who got a lot of mileage out of Chariots of the Gods?, with aliens boosting ancient cultures a la von Däniken. And it tends to agree with Star Trek that low-tech cultures—including present-day Earth, from the Doctor’s perspective—need to be protected from anachronistic technology they’re not ethically developed enough to handle. Which I find dubious inasmuch as not everyone can handle the technology we have in real life. Let’s go for the edge case and consider nuclear weapons. If you showed a nuclear missile to random medieval people and explained what it did clearly enough that they really understood it, would they really be any less likely than people today to ask “Why the hell would you even build that?” By contrast, plenty of moderns assume we could survive a nuclear war and on more than one occasion in the last century we actually almost blew ourselves up. We have more information than our ancestors. In many ways, on average, we’re more enlightened. But that doesn’t mean we’re smarter. And it’s important to remember that our descendents will consider us ignorant and morally deficient in ways we can’t predict.

The time traveller who hands a historical figure their big idea is an inane gag, but scriptwriters never tire of it. Doctor Who has “explained” H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and even Richard Nixon’s penchant for recording himself. On Quantum Leap Sam Beckett invented everything from the lyrics of “Peggy Sue” to the Heimlich maneuver. Back to the Future had Marty McFly writing the music of Chuck Berry, which was not only insulting but, inasmuch as it gave an average white kid credit for the work of a black man, also racist.

In classic Doctor Who, once you’re past the Hartnell era historical celebrities rarely appear onscreen at all. After “The Gunfighters” in 1966, the first historical figures who weren’t illusions or robot duplicates didn’t appear until 1985’s “Mark of the Rani” and “Timelash.” Modern Doctor Who invented what fans call “celebrity historicals”–stories where the Doctor visits the past and teams up with a famous historical figure. Charles Dickens or King James I wander into a standard Type 1 historical Doctor Who story and act as a one-off companion, with the Doctor and the guest sharing the role of the hero–or anti-hero, in James’s case.

But it sounds like in the Mary Shelley episode the Doctor is going to be at the Villa Diodati while the Byron-Shelley circle are writing their horror stories. This is a Type 2 historical story. What’s more, after a decades-long post-Hartnell dry spell season 11 has two of these stories: “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab.” And they’re different from previous historical stories in other ways.

First, these stories put the Doctor into segregation-era Alabama or the Parturition of India, history that’s both emotionally fraught and within living memory. Generally Doctor Who has stayed away from events that might be connected to painful family history for some of the audience. “Rosa” and “Demons” avoided trivializing their subjects, but it was a risk.

Second, these are exactly the kinds of stories Doctor Who hardly ever tells. “Demons” is a witness to tragedy story. Luckily it’s a good one–about as good as these stories can get, in fact. The writer is himself British-Indian and it’s a story about Yaz’s family that’s focused on her feelings, not the Doctor’s. And “Demons of the Punjab” is about witnessing and remembrance. The aliens of the week and the story itself are both memorializing the dead.

“Rosa”, meanwhile, is the first time meddler story since the Davison era. The script, co-written by a black writer, avoids most of the potential pitfalls of grafting a time meddler story to Rosa Parks’s most famous moment of activism. It doesn’t soft-pedal the racism or romanticize mid–20th century Alabama, which feels appropriately unpleasant. (I liked Quantum Leap but, steeped as it was in Boomer nostalgia, it presented a theme-park version of the past[4] even when it wasn’t appropriate.) “Rosa” doesn’t focus on the Doctor’s feelings and manages to avoid looking as though Parks needs the Doctor’s help. On the other hand, to offset the meddler’s work the Doctor does a lot of behind-the-scenes manipulation and stage managing, which is still not a good look. And the episode’s “Sound of Thunder”-style butterfly effect theory of time travel, in which small changes can rewrite history, has unintentionally problematic implications. The premise of the meddler’s plan is that just having a different bus, or a different driver, on the day Parks refused to give up her seat could derail the civil rights movement. This is different from how any other Doctor Who story has handled changes to history.[5] For one thing, if every episode worked on these assumptions just stepping out of the TARDIS to buy a newspaper might shred the web of time. More to the point, the idea that some asshole messing with a bus schedule could stop Rosa Parks from making her mark on history is at odds with the fact, which the episode itself acknowledges, that she was a committed activist. The butterfly effect model of time travel suggests progress is fragile. All human achievements, large or small, are the products more of random chance than of human effort. A time traveler steps on a butterfly and decades of social progress are undone.

There’s a progression in Doctor Who’s use of time travel. The classic series used it mostly as a way to move between settings and genres. Russell T. Davies introduced the celebrity historical. Steven Moffatt brought in twisting, achronological storylines in the tradition of (albeit much simpler than) Primer. And Chris Chibnall is introducing traditional time travel premises that haven’t been seen much in Doctor Who.

“Rosa” and the upcoming Mary Shelley episode are celebrity historicals mixed with the Type 2 historical story: the Doctor makes a guest appearance in the historical figures’ own stories and gets involved in the events that made them famous. This is new. I mean, sort of new, in a not-actually-new-at-all sense. The spinoff media, the books and audios, do this all the time (Big Finish, as I mentioned above, has even used more or less this exact Mary Shelley idea). But in the actual TV show it’s rarer than you’d think.

There’s a reason for that: again, there are only two ways a story centered around the event that made the celebrity famous can go. The Doctor can be involved in the celebrity’s big moment, but then it’s going to look like the show’s giving her partial credit for their achievements. Or the Doctor can stand off to the side and watch the celebrity do their thing, in which case she’s not the actor but the audience. In either case, somebody’s probably going to be Poochie.

That’s Poochie as in “Itchy and Scratchy and.” The Poochie is a character who shows up partway through a story, encroaches on the cast’s narrative roles, forces them to react instead of acting, and looks cool and super-competent mostly because when the Poochie is around everybody else is less cool and competent. When the Doctor gives H. G. Wells the idea for The Time Machine in “Timelash,” he’s the Poochie–turning up in Wells’s biography and inserting himself into Wells’s most famous books. On the flip side, in “Marco Polo” the Poochie is Marco. He steals the TARDIS and the central narrative role from Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor. For seven episodes the show becomes the Marco Polo show, guest starring Doctor Who.[6]

I have one firm opinion on how Doctor Who ought to use history: if you’re going to do a celebrity historical, the celebrity should guest star in a Doctor Who story instead of the Doctor guest starring in the celebrity’s story. An original Doctor Who story can make room for more than one hero without shortchanging any of them. But the celebrity’s biography is an existing story and it’s hard for the Doctor to insert herself into it without to some extent hijacking it. I’m not interested in watching the Doctor become Forrest Gump, wandering into the frame whenever someone else does something interesting.


  1. There are exceptions; see the paragraph on von Dänikenism.  ↩

  2. If nothing else, the time traveler is temporally privileged in that they’re going back to the future as soon as the story ends.  ↩

  3. The original 1963–1989 series. It feels like the distinction may be meaningless soon, inasmuch as the new series is pushing 15 years old, but it’s what everybody calls it.  ↩

  4. I kind of cringed at how weirdly ignorant the TARDIS crew are of the dangers of Alabama in the 1950s; despite everything, they start the episode acting like they’re wandering around Disneyland. Later Graham turns out to be so well informed about Rosa Parks that he even knows the name of the bus driver, so why is his reaction to landing in the 1950s “Can we meet Elvis” and not “Hey, maybe this isn’t the safest place for my grandson?”  ↩

  5. With the possible exception of “Turn Left,” although in that case Donna’s left turn didn’t change real-world history.  ↩

  6. “Marco Polo” is one of only two missing Doctor Who stories I would not be excited to have back; the other is “The Celestial Toymaker.”  ↩

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.