Saturday, June 20, 2015

John C. Wright, Hugo Nominee, Three Novellas

I am very grateful to Castalia House for providing me with review copies of Mr. Wright's work. Their kindness to me exceeds the minimum a reviewer might expect from a publisher; I was also supplied with non-Hugo nominated work, simply because the publisher loved the work and wanted to share it with me.
I'm gonna ramble, because at the end, I'm going to say something I don't want to say. Forgive my pedantry, it's just a cover for cowardice.
John C. Wright is a master at an art form that seems to have fallen into disfavor, the novella. The word length for the categories go as follows: novel, 40K+; novella, 17.5k - 40K; novelette, 7.5K - 17.5 K; short story, less than 7.5K. Wiser heads than mine can explain the rationale for the divisions; until you come up with a better source, I suggest you take a look at the Mad Genius Club and use the search function. Here's a basic definitions page, it will work until you have a blues man in the back and a beautician at the wheel, and are cruising down the road in your cold blue steel.

Now, I'm going to talk about something on which I'm not an expert, but only because I don't think there ARE any experts out there on this topic. What I believe to be true is that story length has largely been a function of physical media, in almost EXACTLY the way that song length used to be. If you were recording a 45 rpm record, you could only put around 2 minutes and 30 seconds on each side. Those same limitations were carried over to the large LP records; you just could get more songs on an LP. There were exceptions on the LP usage; for example, 'Alice's Restaurant' by Arlo Guthrie and "Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida" by Iron Butterfly both took up an entire side of the LP.
Now, with print media, there wasn't the TECHNICAL limitation found on a vinyl disk, but with rare exceptions, short stories weren't published as stand-alones, just because of the economies of scale in binding. A bunch of short stories were accumulated, and published in magazines. Magazines could also support the novella (never heard of novelette, so sorry), and even novels, which were chopped up into sections and released monthly. Jim Baen tried to re-create this experience with releasing books in three sections in Baen Monthly Bundles, but I don't know how successful that's been. They are innovative, and that's an appreciated quality.

A number of writers have discussed the fact that some stories simply don't work in the novel form. The solution? Well, with the decline of the magazine greats, sometimes novellas were bundled with other short stories sharing a similar theme or written in the same universe; I know "The Patchwork Girl" was published as a stand-alone with beautiful graphics because Niven didn't want readers to feel short-changed.

And here is my non-expert opinion: I think the revolution in epub is going to bring the short forms back. It costs a trad pub the same to set up covers, art, layout for 80 pages as it does for 350 pages, but unless there is something else going on (like being "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran ) an 80 page book isn't going to bring in the same dough as a 350 page book. That matters, a LOT, when you have monster set-up costs. However, the set-up costs for an e-pub are negligible, compared to a dead tree version. The trads are struggling, ferociously, with the new business model, but I think in the long run, it's going to shake out so that a lot more short works are offered to the public. They can be priced reasonably, and won't HAVE to be bundled with other works so that the consumer gets his money's worth.

Okay, that's all the dithering I can do; I now have to get down to my review of John C Wright's novellas, two of them Hugo nominees: "One Bright Star to Guide Them" and "The Plural of Helen of Troy", and the non-Hugo "Awake in the Night."
"One Bright Star To Guide Them" is a fascinating read. It would be impossible, I think, to read it and not draw parallels to the last book in CS Lewis' Space Trilogy, "That Hideous Strength," and that is a good enough recommendation in itself.
I here confess my utter ignorance: I am new to John C Wright's work, and the book references events that took place thirty years before; I do not know whether those events are recorded in an earlier book. There is no reference to an earlier publication in the data pages of Bright Star, and there is quite enough information given so that we don't NEED the earlier book to understand what is going on. If no earlier work exists, then we have an excellent class in how to write a prequel-requiring work without the prequel, and that's a rather nice side benefit.
The story encounters the adult Thomas, on the near edge of middle age, and draws him back to his youth in which he encountered and defeated monsters. He is drawn into a quest by his old cat, Tybalt, and with the power of a silver key is able to see things not visible to the eye. He encounters old comrades in arms, some who have fallen, others who have essentially retired. Ultimately, he finds that his mission is not fulfilled by returning to the adventures he had as a young boy, but by growing into his new role. It's quite a great read, and I heartily recommend it.
I cannot recommend either "The Plural of Helen of Troy" or "Awake in the Night." The Helen story is contained in "The City Beyond Time," and perhaps if I had read it as a stand-alone, I would have enjoyed it more. I rather like the noir-detective feel about parts of it, but that was almost entirely masked for me by the tossed-salad chronology; it's rather like the scenes in Pulp Fiction, without the soundtrack. Go with this as a matter of personal preference, PLEASE, and give him your own evaluation. I found the entire "City Beyond Time" to be creepy and scary. That may come as a shock to those of you who know that I love the works of Ringo, Correia, Williamson, Kratman, and Drake, but it is the case.

And Awake, was, for me, more like a nightmare than it was anything else. I made it through the entire novella, but I was graciously presented with the entire four novella collection "Awake In The Night Land." Frankly, I am unable to repay that courtesy, at this time, by reading it, because I was never so glad to exit a book in my life. NOTE: I have ABSOLUTELY dumped books before, without finishing them. By 'exit,' I mean exit in the normal way, by beginning at the beginning and going on to the end.
Now, to be entirely fair, it's not likely that any book set in the context of the extinction of man could be treated as a picnic without ants. It is the story of a man who sets out, at great peril, to rescue a friend who was drawn from the safety of home. He faces difficulty exiting his refuge, and several near death experiences on the outside.  Perhaps this is the merriest of dystopian works EVER, and I should treat it better. I have to be clear: I don't LIKE morbid fantasy, I don't LIKE reading sentences like this one:
The last remnant of mankind endures, besieged, in our invulnerable redoubt, a pyramid of gray metal rising seven miles high above the volcano-lit gloom, venom-dripping ice-flows, and the cold mud-deserts of the Night Lands. Our buried grain fields and gardenlands delve another one hundred miles into the bedrock.
Wright, John C. (2014-05-03). Awake in the Night (Kindle Locations 106-108). Castalia House. Kindle Edition. 
But this is strictly a matter of taste. It's just not my taste, and I most humbly apologize for my shortcomings as a reviewer. I must point out that I am enjoying, TREMENDOUSLY, John C Wrights's essays "Transhuman and Subhuman," and I plan to purchase dead tree copies for myself and for my two most philosophical children, Jordan and Jennifer. This is the kind of writing they will get their teeth into. However, I won't go further, because I plan to review that work in a separate post.


  1. A minor correction. 45 singles could have been standardized at a larger size, but there was no need at the time because any song longer than 2.5 and preferably 2 couldn't get airtime, so for years artists were limited to songs less than 2.5 minutes long. So form followed function, until finally a few pioneers put out longer songs so popular radio stations had to play them.

  2. In "The Strawberry Statement," the book, not the movie, budding radical James Simon Kunen calls a radio station to ask why a particular song doesn't get more airplay. They reply that the AM stations only play 45s, and the FM stations play only LPs. I guess if you limit records-playing time, you get more advertising time in.
    BTW, thanks for the comment. It's like getting a little Christmas present when I get a comment!