Monday, May 4, 2015

SNARL: Pale Realms of Shade

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 fourth of several actual reviews by me of those nominated works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

I had hoped to post a review for “Flow” by Arlan Andrews Sr. before the third story by John C. Wright, but I had a little difficulty tracking down a copy of it. I now have a copy in hand, and should be able to review it soon.

This is a review of: “Pale Realms of Shade” by John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House)

This story is a bad entheogenic trip trying to pretend that it is really straight, and hoping it will come down before the reader gets annoyed by the way it scratches itself in public. The best thing about it is the way it starts with the protagonist being dead and a bit of questionable grammar. Neither the story nor the protagonist ever recovers. I don’t really think this story is a science fiction or a fantasy story. I give it zero stars.

The story is a straightforward “Jesus Saves” morality lesson; like the poorly penned ones street preachers sometimes hand out. Mr Wright has added psychedelic visions to his in the hopes of making it profound. He fails.

The protagonist (a Mr Flint of Flint and Steel psychic detective agency) has died and become a poltergeist as a result of his jealousy (his widow takes up with his ex partner after his death). He flies around a bunch in what would pass for a very bad trip if he were not dead, and eventually meets a devil character. The devil character gives him the choice to blow his ex partner up (with a bunch of collateral damage), but Mr. Flint chooses not to, and then he gets to confess to the angel Gabriel who then leads him back in time to Jesus.

"Then shall he say, 'Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain; they are retained.' Without these words being spoken, no sins would be forgiven."

I love how when true believers go back to ancient Israel it is so common for them to discover everyone speaking Ye Olde English.  Just like the original Star Trek.  I bet Mary Magdalene wears a really short miniskirt like Yeoman Rand did. 

Before his death Mr Flint dealt with all sorts of miraculous stuff. Werewolves, and magic items, and exorcists, and all sorts of wild supernatural stuff populated Mr Flint's life. However the presence of this stuff did not work to make him more religious; even when -by his own recollection- he witnessed miracles that proved the power of the biblical God:

“I saw the ice crack open, and the river leap as if with joy and reach with watery fingers white as foam to drown the scowling Egyptian king, who shouted in rage as ghosts of jackals howled, unable and unwilling to believe the God of the Hebrew slaves could fell him. “

The idea that a person would become too jaded by the supernatural to find salvation in Jesus if they lived a life where religious items and magic were commonplace is not profound, and does not really make sense to me. The idea that they would then want to find salvation after an extended period of floating about in some time-soup between worlds is misguided. The idea that adding random images of psychedelic stuff will create an atmosphere worth trudging through to find out if the story goes anywhere is just bad writing; especially when the only thing perfectly clear about the images that author is pushing is that they spring from a bigoted fearful mind:

“I did not look closely at the future shadows of the city in years to come. Somehow, I did wish I could warn the living to enjoy what they had now, to give thanks, and to cherish what they were so soon to have never again, not even as memory. The people and things living and not living in times to come would make sure no undistorted record, no uncorrupted memory, would remain. There were no steeples in that future, no church bells, just thin, wailing cries from thin, ugly minarets.”

So the future is some Islamic Orwellian nightmare with too many commas?

This nightmare is foreshadowed at the very beginning of this story. This story begins with a single-sentence paragraph. This story begins with a comma splice:

“It was not the being dead that I minded, it was the hours.”

Some people do not think there is anything wrong with the comma splice. Others think of it as a way of throwing sentence structure convention to the wind in order to create an effective voice. Still others believe the comma splice is a way of invalidating the petty desire some readers have of reading a story that begins with a well-crafted sentence.

This initial paragraph could have worked well as a two-sentence paragraph:

“It was not the being dead that I minded. It was the hours.”

I can picture using a semi-colon here; because I like semicolons:

“It was not the being dead that I minded; it was the hours.”

Not everyone likes semicolons. Kurt Vonnegut famously hated semicolons:

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, “A Man Without a Country

 Since Mr. Vonnegut was one of the greatest writers of all time such disdain for an element of grammar cannot be capriciously dismissed, but he was wrong, and now he is dead.


Happy Turtle said...

Don't forget the lovingly described torture porn of eternal damnation - now with kid sizes as well!

I don't consider this SF or F either. I saw too many of these stories in church growing up.

No Award for sure. Maybe it deserves a cross award from somebody, but it doesn't deserve a rocket.

adult onset atheist said...

There is also a nominated Short from this collection of Wright's stories. It is a bunch of talking animals contemplating what to do now that God has taken all the people for the end times festivities.

Happy Turtle said...

So far, I'm seeing religious themes in most of the puppy nominations I've read. But this one is the worst. I just read "Talking Animal Sidekicks Learn About Nudity" (which would have been a MUCH better title) and that one is just really dull. But it didn't remind me quite so painfully of youth groups where it was discussed how awful it would be after you died to be tortured in Hell and realize it was Too Late. Ugh. I think I need to give this one -10/10 for that.

adult onset atheist said...

I don't want to cloud the reviews by dismissing them on the basis of religious content. It is too easy for a reviewer by the name of "Adult Onset Atheist" to be dismissed because of anti-religious prejudice. However, the religious themes appear to be the most plausible reason many of these stories were nominated at all, and so it really cannot be avoided without appearing to have a deep prejudice.

I do think there are good places on this blog (like in these comments, or a different -non SNARL- review) to dissect both the religiosity of these stories and the fantasy that is the religion behind that religiosity.

Happy Turtle said...

I've now finished all the short fiction that was available free on the web.

Novella category:

"Flow" - Rist learns to pray, despite only having spent a couple hours of his entire life in a temple. (Let alone the problem of those priest trying to kill him.)
Religious content: Mild

"One Bright Star to Guide Them" - Good vs Evil story, where Evil people are all throughout the world disguised as regular people, and a cat has to be killed then resurrected to save the hero. Combination Bible and Narnia.
Religious content: Heavy

"Pale Realms of Shade" - A ghost haunts his former partner and is tormented by a devil until he prays to Jesus and is rescued by Angel Gabriel
Religious content: Off the charts

"The Plural of Helen of Troy" - JFK dies and is resurrected, to make a new city where time travel is only used for the forgiveness of sins.
Religious content: Moderate

I'm not opposed to having some faith in my SF/F. On the contrary, I think it adds to a story's realism if the world-building includes faiths - more than one, as humans work that way. Leave some room for atheists, as we've always been around. Humans are messy. Give us a son of god, and we'll split him up into 40,000+ ways to worship him.

However, none of the Wright stories have approached religion as a world-building issue. It is clearly dragged in from Wright's real faith and inserted with all the subtlety of an anvil drop. I can imagine no reason other than religion that these stories would have been included, or even published.

The Andrews story is much less religious. Had it not ended in prayer, I'd remember it as the story where a boy-man had never heard of boobs. The religion is poorly done, in my opinion, but it doesn't seem to be an attempt to proselytize. It does seem to be more of an adventure story than a morality lesson.

Conclusion: Too much religion? Or just too much hamfisted, badly written, thinly veiled author insert religion? Or just No Award the category and not think about it any more?