Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Night Lands: An Inner Portrait of Evil

First off: spoilers ahead. I think 97 years is just about enough time for that statute of limitations to run out.

The plot of The Night Land (1912, William Hope Hodgson) is simple: boy meets girl, boy loses girl (in contemporary times). Boy meets girl again, loses girl again (on the Earth long after the sun has gone out). Boy goes questing for girl, with armor and a sword (sorry—”Diskos”). Boy gets girl and guides her all the way home, where after a brief panic they live happily ever after.
Sounds great, right? Very classic, and the far-far-far-future setting makes it unusual for its time . Along with H. G. Wells' Time Traveler and a previous Hodgson novel, House on the Borderland, I believe this may have been an influence on Olaf Stapledon. The first part, where the narrator explains how his world works, makes telepathic contact with his love, and sets off on the quest are all straightforward. Not necessarily well-written, mind you—roughly 90% of the paragraphs begin with “And…”—but not bad. You can tell the narrator views his own story as a knightly quest. Pretty much the only thing he’s missing is a horse.

The problem comes at the halfway point, when he finds his love, Naani. She is the sole survivor of another human outpost where the Earth-force that sustains humanity in this post-solar future has waned. They can still hear others from her settlement being chased and killed by monsters out in the darkness, but she has apparently survived for about a month without any protection. Not bad. As they move forward however, we quickly learn that the protagonist is an obsessive, controlling domestic abuser whose misogyny knows no bounds. Frankly, once he actually interacts with his true love—and their loves transcends the millenia of history!—he is revealed to be, by modern standards, evil.

The amazing thing is that he obviously does not regard his behavior as evil—in fact, he thinks their relationship suffers most when he is too lenient. Neither does the story repudiate his behavior. This is crucial—for a long time I was hoping that the guy was essentially an unreliable narrator and that the story events would prove how wrong/evil he was. Nope! He gets to live happily ever after with his love.

Let me illustrate just how messed up this relationship is. The first hint comes when he realizes that Naani is eating less than he recommends. He ‘shakes’ her for this offense, trying to put some sense into her. That seems like a bit of an overreaction; I can see why she would be trying to conserve limited resources. But to him it is ‘naughty’—his term for anything she does on her own instead of doing exactly what he tells her to.

Next, he decides that he should carry her for six out of every eighteen hours of walking. She doesn’t want to, she’d rather walk, but he forces her to be carried. After several days of this, he realizes that his armor has been bruising her as she’s carried around. His reaction to this: to smack her around some more (more ‘shaking’) for not having alerted him to this harm she’s suffering. OK, WTF? This guy’s got issues.

Next, they find a fairly safe spot and she takes a bath. She’s lingering and joking around (we assume—there’s actually no dialog in the story), and resists when he insists that they leave. So he picks her up and carries her away. After she lets him get a mile or two on, she reminds him slyly that he forgot her shoes. Again, he beats her for his own oversight, angry that she would make him make a mistake like that. After that, she starts acting in a mock-submissive way, not speaking unless spoken to, not snuggling or kissing him, acting like a servant or slave. This is when I had some hope for the story: maybe it’s showing how the abuse is ruining their relationship.

Nope! After a few days of this, he realizes that he’s been too lenient with her, and that’s the problem. He takes off his belt, takes off her shirt, and literally whips her. After that, she tearfully hugs him and their relationship appears to return to an ideal state. Immediately after that, they’re attacked by horrible monsters. He saves her, but almost dies in the process. After running from the monsters a lot (the monsters do no more harm to her than ripping off her clothes—grrrr), she rescues him and gets him to a safe island and nurses him back to health, all snuggles & kisses.

Now, here’s where I was hoping that the narrator was just delusional. I managed to continue reading by imagining that she’s just playing along with him; after all, he’s her only chance to get back to a secure human habitation (the “Last Redoubt”). I kept hoping that maybe, just maybe, they’d get back to security and she’d turn around and smack him.

Not so much.

The darkness attacks her specifically as they near home base, and the narrator carries her for several days—never sleeping, fighting off monsters one-handed as they near their goal. You can see why I was wondering if he were a reliable narrator. Eventually they get close enough that other forces from the Redoubt come out to help them. There, a doctor pronounces her dead and the narrator collapses in a dead faint.

OK, I could deal with that. Maybe he’ll be eaten up with guilt about the beatings he gave her; maybe they weakened her such that she couldn’t fight off the dark powers anymore. Maybe he’ll learn a lesson.

Not so much.

He wakes for her funeral, planning to expire after his final duty to her is done. As they place her on a rolling road at the end of the ceremony (their version of a river funeral, I guess) they see movement! At first he thinks it mere fancy, but no! She’s alive after all! She gets to live with this violent, obsessive domestic abuser for the rest of her life, woohoo! I guess it’s better than being eaten by monsters, but frankly, she’d survived the monsters without him, at least for a time. I might have taken my chances back on that safe, isolated island.

Throughout it all the narrator continually engages in infantalizing language: talking about how small she is (her two hands could fit in his one), her tiny dainty feet (I got to wondering if he had a foot fetish, actually), her childish behavior, child-like innocence, insisting on carrying her, etc. Coming from today’s sensibility, it is incredibly annoying and definitely shocking, especially the unapologetic beatings. And throughout it all he insists, for pages and pages at a time, how very much he loves her and wants only to keep her safe from any harm. He only beats her to keep her from harming herself! She makes him do it! The paradox of injuring someone to keep them from injury never occurs to this guy. It was frankly incredibly disturbing to read and I was very glad to be done with it. It is a textbook example of everything you learn about the psychology of abusers--but from the abuser's perspective. Creepy.

I had previously encountered a terribly misogynistic first-person protagonist in The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel (1908). And it was also pretty disturbing when he, the last man on Earth, started smacking around the last woman on Earth once he finds her. However, the narrative makes it clear that he is almost wholly evil: he also has committed and conspired to murder, was instrumental in (unintentionally) setting off the phenomenon that killed every other person on Earth, and spends some of his post-apocalypse free time in setting explosive charges to blow up entire cities. Even by his own accounts, he’s not right in the head. Night Land however, has no such criticism for its protagonist.

Obviously this book has been very influential: Greg Bear’s recent City at the End of Time (which I haven’t yet read) explicitly takes Night Land as its main influence. Wikipedia also cites Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith as lauding it. There are, I discovered, two anthologies worth of Night Land-inspired short stories out there, both edited by Andy W. Robertson. I’m tempted to pick them up and see if any of the authors engage with the horrible misogyny on display here. None of the people who mentioned the book as one I should read mentioned that feature of the narrative, which I felt dominated the entire second half. They all focused on the amazing setting instead. Likewise, the Wiki page declines to even name Naani, the motivating force/quest object/only named character in the entire book! Apparently the article editors didn’t find her worth mentioning. I’m just really shocked that this novel isn’t up there with the Gor novels as a notorious early example of incredibly f*cked up gender relations.

Full disclosure: I have previously read House on the Borderland and Ghost Pirates by William Hope Hodgson. I was impressed by some bits of Borderland, not much by Ghost Pirates. I’ll never be a fan of Hodgson’s writing style, although I’ll admit that when he wants to he can really pick up the pace. I’ll note that I was also upset by the treatment of the sole female character in Borderland (I think my comment was: “the dog has more agency”) and Ghost Pirates had no female characters at all. As for source, I picked up all of these from Project Gutenberg and read them on my eBook and my PC as circumstances warranted.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Books Received

FTC or no FTC, it's probably a good idea to post 'books received' anyway. I definitely appreciate that Andrew Wheeler and SFSignal do it, and given that I'm not writing as much as I'd like, this seems like an appropriate way to send the authors/publishers some love. So here's the list for this week:

We've got two Glen Cook books here. Curtis and I both enjoy his work quite a bit; I particularly love his Garret Files, and Curtis enjoys both those and his grittier mil-fantasy Black Company books. The Dragon Never Sleeps appears to be one of Cook's rare forays into sf, and I'm hoping to be able to read it someday. Swordbreaker looks like Cook's take on the sentient sword trope of fantasy. The last one of these kinds of stories that I really enjoyed was Lawrence Watt Evans' Misenchanted Sword. I'm definitely curious to see what Cook can make of it.

We've got Neal Asher with another Polity novel. I've read The Skinner and Cowl by Asher. They both had their definite high points, but his style never quite matched up with my tastes. I'm afraid I'll be unlikely to get to this one.

Luckily, I get this one guilt-free. I've already glowingly reviewed Egan's Incandescence for SFSignal.

I'm always looking for good sf/f/h humor novels. However, it's notoriously difficult to do well. I know just enough Cthulhu mythos to be dangerous, so I have hopes that this will be a good funny book to suit my fancy. Maybe over the winter holiday when I'm completely brain-fried but have a bit more time to read?

Last but certainly not least, Finch is likely to jump towards the top of my to-read pile. I've adored both of VanderMeer's Ambergris novels (The City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword). I've had slightly worse luck with VanderMeer outside of Ambergris; Veniss Underground didn't hook me the way I was hoping it would. But Finch is supposed to be set back in the Ambergris universe -- yay!

Meanwhile, I've been playing around with the Barnes & Nobel book reader app for the iPhone. So far, so good, although I haven't had an extended session with it yet. In order to do a full test, I *had* to buy a copy of The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison (1922) and The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesteron (1908). Had to, I tell you! So I started Thursday today, and let me tell you, after months of slogging through William Hope Hodgson's Night Land, reading Chesterton is like flying.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fast Ships, Black Sails (and stuff)

It would have been great if I'd finished reading this in time for "Talk like a Pirate Day," but alas it was not to be. Since starting this work/school schedule, I've dropped from reading 4-6 books a month to only finishing 2. And I'm writing even less. It appears that for this semester at least, actual writing has been displaced by doing stuff with the fencing community. Then I'm working full-time, plus an extra 6-7 hours a week to make up for time spent in class, then 5-10 hours a week on the homework... anyway, it's a very stressful semester. Next semester should be better--the class I'll be taking will have just as much homework, but it will be offered in the evening instead of the afternoon. I'll be able to work normal instead of extended hours, and I expect life to be quite improved. And someday I'll be finished with my Masters altogether! (ETA Winter 2010) I can hardly conceive of all the free time I'll have then... but I dare to dream.

But what about the book? This anthology is a lot of fun, opening with delightful stories by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, Rhys Huges, and Kage Baker. One thing I found most interesting about this compilation is how it lays out so many tropes associated with the pirate tale sub-genre. "Boojum" by Bear & Monette takes on the ship who cares for her crew (here with a literally sentient ship swimming in the vastness of space). Baker's "I Begyn As I Mean to Go On" takes on tales of hidden treasure, curses of the dead and terrifying islands and islanders. She also focuses on the historical and religious context of the pirate tale--particularly the Catholic faith of the Spanish traders, sailors and missionaries involved in the Atlantic of the time of piracy's romantic peak--themes that other authors in the collection also utilize. Howard Waldrop's "Avast, Abaft!" runs a bunch of stock tropes together in a literal mash-up involving the HMS Pinafore, the Pirates of Penzance and Dick Deadeye, amongst others. Kelly Barnhill's story involves the lure of sea, and people for whom saltwater flows in their veins--such people cannot be kept shorebound. Justin Howe's "Skillet and Saber" aims a ship's boy towards violence and cannibalism. Conrad Williams' "68 07' 15" N, 31 36' 44" W" portrays monomaniacal obsession.

In another sf take on the take, "Pirate Solutions" by Katherine Sparrow looks at piracy, either maritime or cybernetic, as freedom. Also on the sf side, David Freer and Eric Flint's "Pirates of the Suara Sea" shows us how ships that are the prey of pirates can turn the tables, even on alien seas. The final sf offering, Jayme Lynn Blaschke's "The Whale Below" shows how even the most straight-forward plunder can go horribly wrong when the deckhands take things into their own hands.

Brendan Connell's "We Sleep on a Thousand Waves Beneath the Stars" deals with colonialist relationships with non-European islanders. Offering an alternate-history twist, "A Cold Day in Hell" by Paul Batteiger gives us the cat-and-mouse game of national navy vs. pirate in a 16th century where the "little ice age" instead froze the very seas. (We'll not inquire as to how any of the surviving population found food.) Naomi Novik, counterintuitively not writing in her Master-and-Commander-with-dragons universe, takes on the kidnapped-aristocrat trope and the woman-going-to-sea-disguised-as-a-man trope all in one go in the enjoyable "Araminta, or, the Wreck of the Amphidrake." Closing the book on a strong note, Garth Nix's creations Mr. Fitz and Sir Hereward plot a course (sorry, couldn't help myself) for the (almost)-impossible-to-reach-bastion and creatures from the abyss in "Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarskoe."

And for flat-out over-the-top fun, I will mention my favorite of the anthology, located right near the front: Rhys Hughes' "Castor on Troubled Waters," one of the tallest of tall tales I have ever had the pleasure to read.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention a few stories that didn't work for me. Steve Aylett's "Voyage of the Iguana" seems to be absurdist humor in the vein of W. E. Bowman's The Ascent of Rum Doodle. That would be fine--I for one love Bowman's comic novel--except that in "Iguana's" case things seems to simply drag on too long. Chalk this up to senses of humor being notoriously individual; I imagine a lot of people will find it hilarious, but I ended up skipping to the next story after a few pages. I also found "Ironface" by Michael Moorcock to be a weak offering, but that is probably because I have not yet found my way into his "Eternal Champion" universe, of which this three page vignette appears to be part. I imagine that people better versed with Moorcock will find it more enlightening.

However, as a whole I found the stories here both fun to read and thought-provoking. I had never before reflected on the richness contained within the microcosm of pirate's tales until the amazing variety of the stories here drew it to my attention. Bravo to the authors and editors!