Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Review: “Flow” by Arlan Andrews, Sr.

Review: “Flow” by Arlan Andrews, Sr. (Analog, Nov 2014) SPRP

This is a Sad Puppy and Rabid Puppy nomination.

Spoilers: I'm going to talk about the beginning, middle and end of this story. If you wish to remain unspoilt, read it first.

Analog sez up front, "Characters from “Flow” first appeared in “Thaw” [July/August 2013]." Bah. Not another one. Yep, once you get to the end, you quickly realize you've only gotten to the middle. This is not really a novella, but part of a longer story. It's not a novella or novelette if it's an installment.

In the story, a man from the cold lands helps to bring an iceberg to the warm lands for sale as refrigeration material.  The cold lands are very cold and misty, and so he has never seen the sun as a disc, or the moon or stars. He's longsighted, and I got the impression everybody in his tribe is, but he is still literate as his people write on cylinders they keep in their pockets by carving into them with a knife and reading with their fingers. Our man Rist must have the 80 gig equivalent, as he writes down everything that happens, which means he got about 25 pages on his cylinder.  In the warm lands, he hires a few prostitutes, drinks a lot, compares everything to the equivalent back home (which is invariably made from peat, excluding the prostitutes), marvels at the stone buildings, the sun, moon and the stars, and finally steals a piece of some monofilament-style rope the warmlanders dig up from deep mines that go all the way down to the layers where the gods used to live.

He's eventually chased off by a priest and, unable to rejoin his companions, he goes downriver instead, where he discovers a mighty waterfall that doesn't fall off the edge of the world – he can see fields down there. He signals with a mirror (a warmlander trick) and the inhabitants of the post end-of-the-world signal back with red dots that play on his body. Luckily, he knows where to find a long piece of rope.

Then it just ends.

The hardest part of the story to get through is that females – I won't call them women, because there aren't any women in the story – are called "wen".

To the shorter dic:
a boil or other swelling or growth on the skin, especially a sebaceous cyst.
an outstandingly large or overcrowded city. "the great wen of London"

I once gave up on a China Mieville novel partly because it had a wen in it. I was determined to be stronger this time, but when the moon, which is also female, appears, it also a "wen".
“Welcome to the Warm Lands, bird-rider!” his rough berg-companion Cruthar shouted back, also trying to be heard through the thunderous crashing, sharp creaks, and long groans as their shepherded small mountain of ice slid and pounded against river stones. “Down here, the Wen of the Mist and Pursuing Dimness, they lost a sky-war to the Shining One and the Pale Wen!” Cruthar stabbed a gnarled brown finger toward the blue bowl above them. “New gods in a new sky—all blue."
There are far too many exclamation marks.  The dialogue is in Hale'n'Hearty Barbarian speak, which gets wearing.  As for female humans, you must be joking. There are plenty of "wen" though.
 "It was a long night, and they both planned to sleep in the pub’s bedding rooms. But not until willing wen had bargained to escort them upstairs for other pleasures. His particular companion that dark, a very tall beauty with fiery copper hair and peat-green eyes— and a great heaviness of chest that was not muscle at all—was unforgettable."
Yes, the great thing about the women, I mean wen, they find in the warm lands – who are all prostitutes – is that they have tits, unlike the ones back home.

Non-dialogue is clunky.
"The bulk of the men began hammering long iron poles into the surface at the front of the berg, with large hammers."
We get bits like this:
"He carved his speculations on the wooden cylinder that Cruthar had left him, fortunately having stuffed it in his pants pocket during the long ride downriver from God’s Port."
There's a trick writers do, which is when your character suddenly needs something and you've forgotten to make sure he had it with him: You do a search for the passage where you last saw it, and write there, back in the past, that he hadn't, in fact, forgotten it. Something like this: 'He finished reading Cruthar's message, and put the wooden cylinder in his pocket, intending to discuss it with him when next they met.' Fast forward five pages: 'He took Cruthar's cylinder out of his pocket and carved his speculations upon it.'  It's not the world's best trick, but it's better than writing in a straight line and putting in a he-hadn't-forgotten-it-honest clause in the sentence when you need it again.  Arlen Andrews (or his editor) doesn't know this trick.  (And I'm not convinced the verb tenses are correct in the published version. 'Having stuffed it' is a finished action that took a small amount of time. 'During the long ride' is too long for the action. 'At some point during' or 'prior to the long ride' would be better.)

I don't read a lot of short fiction, except when I'm reading for the Hugos (which I mostly don't vote in, anyway). I'm only about halfway through. I have all the John C Wright still ahead of me. I'm already fed up of Men From the Badlands Find A Stone House And Marvel At It stories. Post apoc, in outer space, whatever, it's an old trope. Perhaps big hearty brutes in furs clapping you on the back and taking you for non-peat brewskis and easily-purchased female wens with bazooms is a fantasy that just won't die for some authors, but then again so is Harry/Draco fiction and dinosaur erotica, and they aren't up for Hugos.

I realize I'm generalizing from a small sample, but is the art of writing short stories dead? I mean the ones from the good old days that began with some initiating action, went through a complicating middle and ended when the action had resolved? (Preferably, at least for me, ending with an actual punchline?) 

Edit to add: I woke up this morning in a panic that I'd written "downriver" when obviously (to me) a calved piece of sea ice, a berg, must come into a river at a port and go "upriver". I reread the beginning, and "downriver" is correct. The berg starts at the riverhead.  I don't know how this could work, but maybe it's explained at the end of the previous installment, and another reason why this isn't a standalone Hugo-worthy piece. 

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