This is a review of “Flow” by Arlan Andrews, Sr. (Analog, November 2014)
Overall this was an engaging novella. This is such a grand departure from the other four nominees that I will have awarded this story five whole stars (out of 10) by the time I have done reviewing it. I am sure it would have not scored as well if the competition was not so utterly dreadful.
There were some significant issues with the story, and I will get to them at the end of this review.
It is risky to do much world building in the novella format. It is just not long enough, and one either spends so many pages making a world that the story suffers, or one does a crappy job of world building and the story suffers. Andrews deftly uses some tried-and-true SciFy literary tricks to develop his world through a continual process of discovery. The protagonist, and voice, for the story is an apprentice “reader” named Rist who travels from the misty cold lands to the sunny warm lands where most of the story takes place. Rist is new to the warm lands, and as he discovers what is going on there the reader does as well. This technique can be a bit tricky, so Andrews earns two stars for his story simply by pulling it off.
Andrews does stumble a few times. He continually describes the cold lands as misty with low clouds, and yet he describes them as cold and dry in the context of food storage in peat caves. He either has little experience with peat, has never been in a cloud, or simply forgot what they were like when he needed to talk about them in his story.
Although all the characters speak English (or "peoplespeak") there are other languages that are sometimes used when the warm-landers speak amongst themselves. Do the lower caste warm-landers all speak English simply to accommodate sporadically-arriving groups of a half-dozen ice traders?
Andrews uses English common verbal mannerisms (like “sumpin’” for “something”) to draw us in to the identity of the characters, and then uses invented words (like “dim” for “day”) to spotlight important concepts in his developing world. He does the reader a service by choosing descriptive words rather than just making up difficult-to-pronounce alien words. I love the choice of “dim” for “day” as it describes a sky where things are never fully illuminated. He gains another point for cleverly using simple language to sneak descriptions into the reader’s mind.
One of the words Andrews invented to spotlight a concept –using “wen” for “female”- is actually a bit disturbing, but more on that later.
One of the problems with creating a world through the process of discovery by an uneducated protagonist is that the world can be as small as the bredth of that character’s understanding. Andrews creates an interesting larger world using hints at former civilizations. Giant frozen “gods” are uncovered in the ice of the cold lands, and the warm-lands have mines that yield products from lost civilization(s). These hints work for the story, and Andrews earns yet another star for the way he uses them.
Andrews also manages to create an actual story. The protagonist does stuff that leads to the ending. Some stuff he is forced to do, and some stuff he chooses to do. The novella is a length of story that could create a tale that resonates with conflict that the reader might be experiencing in the real world. Andrews goes for a more personal story. Rist ends his journey by embarking on a new one. Though this does avoid intriguing story elements it is at least a story. Andrews earns another point for this.
The story is not without its problems, and the most glaring problem the story has is with its “wen”.
“Wen” apparently is the universal word used for “female”. I think it is derived from “wench”. Because most of the females in the story are prostitutes that the characters meet in bars it is natural to picture the author deriving his term from the characteristic name for prostitutes found in Ye Olde English bars.
Andrews does not give any “wen” lines… at least none of note. The “wen” have no personality or character. The “wen” are more like furniture than people; except that I suspect Andrews understands furniture a little better than his description of “wen” suggests he understands women.
At one point Rist uses the term “wen-licker” as an insult. Perhaps I don’t understand what Andrews meant by “wen-licker” as it sounds more like a boast than an insult to me.
The degree to which Andrews apparently lacks experience having flesh-and-blood women in his life can be seen in his clumsy attempts at objectifying women in his story:
“He looked back at that wen, and then others in the crowds. Unlike wen back home, these seemed to have a heaviness around the chest, covered by their smoother clothing. The sight was unsettling, but strangely attractive to him. When he asked Cruthar about the extra muscles the wen had, his companion just laughed, “Bird-boy, they ain’t muscles. You sees why we likes to bring in the ice down here, even though it be a long, long walk home. They’s a lot more to these Warm Lands wen than you be used to in The Tharn’s Lands. You’ll find out, this dark.”
Rist mentions many physical encounters with “wen”. How does he not know what breasts are? Perhaps Rist , or his creator Andrews, were never breast fed? Perhaps Andrews is communicating a homo-erotic fantasy through Rist… where Rist finds the breasts of the warm-lander “wen” erotic because he thinks they are the deltoid muscles of buff men? Whatever is going on between Andrews and his “wen” it is undeveloped, and it leaves a huge chunk of his world undeveloped.
Andrews could have done more with his story. He could have done things that would have earned him enough stars to be a worthy Hugo contender. It was as if he was interested in telling something other than the story he was telling; as if he was using it as a vehicle to get across a specific message, and it was a message that did not fit well into the story. I think both the story and the message came out of their relationship the worse for having coupled.