Wednesday, May 6, 2015

SNARL: Flow

There has been a big kerfluffle about the Hugo awards in Science Fiction this year, and most of it has been about the political and cultural implications of the works and the award process. At this point we have a set of nominees. I will be voting in August for which author will take home the coveted rocket-shaped Hugo trophy(s). This is the fifth of several actual reviews by me of those nominated works of fiction, and the final novella review. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

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.





3 comments:

Happy Turtle said...

You rated that story higher than I did. I thought the story couldn't decide whether it was "rube gapes at the city" or "clever country boy". He goes from having to be told about the existence of the sun to being able to imagine having 20/20 vision when his entire tribe is far-sighted. I could go along with either event for a character, but not both in the same character. Someone who has the imagination to think 'What if eyesight worked differently? What would we see?' would also be able to imagine that there is a Something on the other side of the Misty Sky making all that light.

The breast thing was... no. Just no. You've never seen a woman with breasts before. Let's say your tribe/sub-species/whatever doesn't have visible breasts except when feeding young, and then after weaning, the breasts flatten quickly. (That's how it is in most mammals. Humans are the odd ones to keep our breasts all the time.) Say women feeding young are kept in a special warm cave where older children and men don't go. So Rist really has never seen breasts since his own weaning. Allowing for all of this - why does he find them at all attractive?

We had this conversation in another forum, and we finally came up with the answer that it was because bewbs. Boobs are the universal Peoplespeak. Which insulted all of us, male and female both, that we just wanted to throw the book across the room, but we couldn't, because of it being in electronic form.

That was also enough to distract from the end being about how Rist got religion and started praying to the god of the people who were trying to kill him. I'm not sure if the guy they executed was supposed to be Christ and Rist was Paul carrying the gospel of Sun past the end of the world? The whole religion thing was seriously tacked on and stupid and I hated it because dear lord, he got through all of what he did by being clever, so NOW he's going to get religion? UGH! (And is this theme how it made it onto the slate? UGH UGH UGH)

Anyway, I give the story 0/10. Glad you got more out of it. :)

adult onset atheist said...

I have to admit that my scoring is not as consistent as I would like. I have never sat down to read stuff like this crop of Hugo award nominated novellas. They may have an audience that is tuned to them, and I (and apparently you) am just not in that group. If I had read all of the novellas before beginning to score them I would have been more consistent (I may also have used negative scores). By the time I began reading this one I desperately wanted to see something worthwhile in the stories. I would like to one again use the word "engaging" for enjoying a story rather than a euphemism for "I did not pass out or throw it across the room in disgust". I do think this is the best of this year's novellas, but that is mostly because the others were less "engaging". If you have not read the other novellas yet then you are in for -insert euphemism here-.

Happy Turtle said...

Yeah, I haven't read any of the other Novellas yet. I started with the Novellettes. A couple of them were light and fun stories. None of them impressed, though none made me as angry as this one.