Thursday, June 4, 2015

SNARL: The Journeyman: In the Stone House

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). I have reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella, the five Short Story Nominees, The Five Best Dramatic Presentation Long, and the five Best Dramatic Presentation Short-form nominees .  This is the second of what will be five actual reviews by me of the nominated "Novelette" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of “The Journeyman: In the Stone House” by Michael F. Flynn

I really wanted to like this story. It had some fun characters engaging in delightful dialog. It even provided some jokes for the reader to enjoy at the expense of the characters. I hope the author had fun writing this, because it read as if he did. Unfortunately this does not have enough story in it to make it a great story, and some of the failed experiments the author tried do hold it back from even being a good story. However, I had fun reading this story, and that should count for something; actually it counts for quite a bit, and this story will get five stars (out of ten).

The protagonists are a Mutt and Jeff styled pair of affable primitives called Sammi and Teo. They joke their way through life-and-death situations usually involving their enemy primitive called Kal which is short for Karakalan or Karakalan sunna Vikeram of clan Serpentine. The infusion of dialog humor –especially from the otherwise stoic Sammi- could have pushed this into the realm of reading like a passably entertaining television script, but it did not. Two… no three stars for these entertaining interactions.

The heroes basically become conscripts of a tribe living in a castle. They are taught how to be ass-kicking scouts, and hilarity ensues.

Unfortunately the author’s fetish for long alien words –especially names- grinds some of the dialog down. The author also likes to jump between monikers in a single dialog. It only requires a momentary adjustment to deduce that “The Serp” is “Kal” who was called “Karakalan” in the previous sentence, but it is a moment stolen from otherwise flowing dialog.

The author’s alien word fetish extends beyond names. Luckily he italicizes most of the made-up words. Here is a probably incomplete list: Sawak, schmuck, sprock, plavver, yuke, kospathin, elik, gristlebar, fodanny, valadenny, bo-yashiq. Three of these words are actually names of languages, and one is the name of an honorary title. Some of them sound real enough that I wasted some time trying to look them up; there should actually be something called a gristlebar. When I was done with the list I was struck by how short it was. Reading the story I felt like every-other word was made up.

Looking up words from this story was not always fruitless. Kraal is a South African word for village, and Subedar is a Pakistani name for a military rank that falls between lieutenant and Master Sergeant. The use of somewhat arcane military terms displayed a depth of knowledge by the author that was enlightening. I was left, however, wondering how, given one interesting angle to the novelette, the primitives knew those words.

I do like the ancient astronaut mythos. At some point before the story begins the two protagonists stumbled upon the ancient, but not completely dead, wreckage of Shuttle Starbright-17. The computer (“Ghost Jamly”) makes them “Authorized Personnel”, gives them a quest, and off they go; hilarity and ass-kicking ensues. I love it when an author stitches together spaceships and primitive culture; one more star for this.

Unfortunately the inclusion of the spaceship appears to only be the mechanism for sending up a rather week joke. The people of the castle worship the mythical space-farers, and have a funny holy relic from them. The author provides a picture of the sign from the relic. It includes the rather universal Men’s Bathroom man and some words in three languages including a couple characters in classic Chinese. Are they really worshiping a bathroom door? Google translate tells me the Chinese translates to “Male Toilet, so, yah, I guess so.

A swordfight between Teo and Kal takes up what seems like a lot of the story. I am going to give the author a full star for this fight simply because it is interesting, although somewhat tedious, to read a detailed description of a sword battle.

He stepped out in the batter’s stance, made a right passing step forward and settled the blade onto his upper right arm as he turned his body into a left “augur.” From there, he lifted the hilt up, over, and behind his head to settle into a left-handed batter; then took a left passing step backwards, settling the blade on his left arm in a right augur as he turned.

In the final analysis the author loses more than he gains in his word swamp. For instance I read the term “batter’s stance” and knew what he meant; I pictured a batter at baseball holding his bat. Then I wondered why anyone in this singularly thesaurized story would know what baseball was? And then I began wondering how arcane words had been preserved to accurately describe the items they are used for when people did could not even figure out what a bathroom door was given a choice of three languages and a universal symbol.

The ending would have been a better ending for a chapter than a novelette, but it was a real ending.


Anonymous said...

I was curious what you thought of the others, but you've not done any further reviews. I admit the novellas and novelettes were quite a slog.

adult onset atheist said...

Life has caught up a bit. I do plan on finishing the novelettes at least. Probably within the next week.

Steve Wright said...

If I'm remembering rightly, the made-up words are mostly down to the author indulging in the time-honoured tradition of creating versions of names and words that have changed on the way to this setting's post-apocalyptic future... sprock and plavver, IIRC, seem to mean "language", and look like they're descended from the German Sprach and from "palaver", respectively, so that'd make sense. Again, IIRC, kaspathin is an honorific, and I think it corresponds to the Russian gospodin (simply, "Mister"). The "ironmen" appear to have Russian cultural antecedents, and some of the other words look Russian to me. (Couldn't tell you what they mean, offhand, though - I have only a bare smattering of Russian.)

Just thought I'd mention it.... My own recollection of this one is that it was very slight, and significantly flawed (I found the phony barbarian-cum-hillbilly dialogue very tiring after a short time), but it had an actual plot, and was probably the most entertaining thing I read from the slate nominees. Nowhere near worthy of any sort of award, but it amused me slightly. (I have read all this year's Hugo nominees, and a little bit of amusement is something to treasure in the overall blighted desert of lousiness.)