Friday, May 29, 2015

Review: The short fiction of John C Wright (from the Hugo voter's package)

Review: One Bright Star to Guide Them by John C. Wright (Castalia House) SPRP

This story is a Sad Puppy and Rabid Puppy nomination.

Summary: A man who was once big in a childhood imaginary land – or was it? – is called as an adult to continue the struggle. He tracks down his childhood friends to help him defeat the menace which was victorious in the childhood world and is now encroaching on our own Earth.

I can see what he's getting at, but the plethora of things with C S Lewis-style names that he once met, or saved, or was saved by, or lived in, or attended the coronation of are just wearying. He's trying to tell a story of someone who left an enchanted land behind in his childhood in a novella despite the fact that the previous adventures must have filled a trilogy.

The imagination is there, the drive to pound a few Catholic messages home is there, but the writing and editing are not up to the task.

Sample extracts:
The carpet was thick, but his skull still met the floor with a loud noise, and he groaned as drops of blood from his face trickled down.

The wolf leaped on Tommy, but Tommy, despite the nightmarish fears clouding his mind, took the wolf by its shaggy throat with one hand and thrust him back on his haunches.

His or its?

“I remember hearing some very ugly rumors, Richard, about a girl you got in trouble.” Tommy said in a dangerous tone.


Thomas grimaced, and hesitantly stepped up on the sill. The distance to the ground seemed further than it had a moment ago. Dizzy, he clutched the lintels to either side.

Jamb? Casing?

The ink faded into view


The editor of this story is on the short form editor ballot.

Let us eschew messages in our fantasies.

“The National Health Service paid for the abortion,” said Richard with an
indifferent shrug.
“You killed your own child?” Tommy stood up too, his face white with horror.
“Child? Nonsense. It was a mere by-product of conception. It was nothing
more than a minor side effect of the rite needed to summon up certain, shall we say, priapic manifestations of the life-energy.

At first I thought this was clever. The "child" was the product of an act of sex magic. It was literally a by-product of the act. But then I re-read it and it's clearly a by-product of orgasm (like most normal acts of sex magic). It's not a by-product of conception, and indeed it would be extremely icky to have the energy of conception be used as a source of magickal energy.  Conception was unintentional. So the only explanation for Wright's phrasing I can find is that he believes "by-product of conception" is a phrase actually in use. It isn't - the medical wording is "products of conception", not because doctors are mealy-mouthed or PC, but because the aftermath of an abortion or miscarriage includes the placenta and other tissues that aren't part of a fetus. They have to check that all of the products were expelled or the woman may need treatment. Since doctors have to counsel women who dearly wanted a child, it's just not on that they'd call the results of a miscarriage a "by-product".  It's just one of those moments when you realize John C Wright lives in a different world.

Review: “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” by John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House) RP

I don't get it. Even the fox, near the end, says:

Fox said, “I hate to admit it, but I do not understand what all these things

You and me both, buddy.

Some, but not all, of the beasts and birds stand around discussing the disappearance of Man. And discussing and discussing. And discussing some more. Eventually they send Cat to the city, and she sees something there but doesn't explain what it is. She then tells them that they, the animals, have begun to speak, like men, which they hadn't noticed during their discussions. They talk about this a lot, and come to the conclusion that since it's Easter, Man will one day die for them in the same way Jesus died for Man. Some of them wonder what will happen to the other beasts that did not turn into pseudo-men. Will these new men have to die for them so they can be saved? They don't know and neither do I.

One thing Larry Correia was very firm on when he created the Sad Puppies was that he hated message fiction, and preferred a good old fashioned story. So,

And there were pleasure houses where harlots plied their trade, and houses of healing where physicians explained which venereal diseases had no cures and arranged for painless suicides, and houses of morticians where disease-raddled bodies were burnt in private, without any ceremony that might attract attention and be bad for business.

Yep, no messages here, no sirree.

It's written in a high register, but Mr. Wright doesn't seem to have had that long experience with King James, or even Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros that the rest of us grew up on. For example:

Fox turned to Wolf, “Nor you nor I shall enter the empty city, and discover the cause of this mystery, shall we? For we are in awe of Man, and have always been his foes.”

Neither, nor; not nor, nor. Has he never read Ursula K LeGuin's From Elfland to Poughkeepsie? Or Diana Wynne-Jones' Tough Guide to Fantasyland?

He also gets into muddles with bathos.

“Twilight of Man, forsooth?” said the Lion in a dangerous purr, settling himself couchant, and swatting away a fly with swish of his long tail.

King of Beasts to a flyswatter in one sentence.

Fox (who cowered, but did not flee) said softly from a safe distance, “Liege, the poopflinger has a point. After all, you cannot press your claim—just and right as it most certainly is—merely by tearing and terrifying the other animals.”

High fantasy to poop and back.

The search for new similes does not go well.

The Cat was soon found sunning herself in the dying rays of the last of the sun, on a rock that leaned like a balcony above a sheer slope.

Are balconies famous for their lean? I thought they were generally horizontal.

And this one infelicity* - is it a joke? The Cat says:

I was forced to wet myself—a humiliation my kind never loves—to cross
the running stream which ran in an endless circle about the round pagoda, and by this I achieved the island.

Get wet. Wetting yourself is something different.

*Infelicity, get it? Felix the cat? Eh?

Hound, although outweighed and overmatched by Lion in every way, stood and snarled, and the ridge of his back stood on end.

I understand the urge to not write the cliché "the hairs on his back stood on end", or "his hackles raised" and I like the "ridge of his back" thing, but if the ridge stood on end, he'd look like a carousel horse with a pole on his back.

Review: “The Plural of Helen of Troy” by John C. Wright (City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, Castalia House) RP

Time travel detective story. Incredibly inventive but not a professional-grade story.

“Pale Realms of Shade” by John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House) RP

A supernatural detective becomes a ghost. A million ideas a minute.

Sly had come across the dead body of a man who had — let’s be frank with this now — I rode him pretty hard some times. Okay, all the time. And maybe he put more money into the till than I did, and maybe I should not have been so skinflinted about spending it. Half was his, wasn’t it?


I'll give him this much - he has a heck of an imagination. His characters can't get through a paragraph before they're describing ten amazing adventures they had in the past, or will be having in the future, or are just thinking about. We get multiple tours through Ancient Egypt (and its famous "Coptic jars"), Manx fairy tales, Voodoo, Irish mythology and Narnia. Unfortunately this prolixity doesn't help and often hinders the story underneath. I was more interested in what the kids were said to have done in the past in pseudo-Narnia than what the adult was doing today, and more interested in what the supernatural detective was said to have done while he was alive than what he was now doing as a ghost (getting his sins absolved). If he would just slow down and concentrate on the story...and get his fantasy speech register right...and ixnay on the hard-boiled detective cliches...and a few other things...

Then there's the gender politics. Wright does rather more than sprinkle their gender political messages around. I felt I was being belabored about the head and shoulders with a Clue-By-Four.

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