Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Book Review: The Night Land

At one point I didn’t think I could finish this book. Starting at about half way through, it became such a chore. I slogged on through it wondering how it was that the book could be as influential as it was. Fortunately, the action picked back up into something more readable towards the end. The thing that the author was setting up turned out to be quite different from what I was expecting, and though I can’t completely explain it, but the conclusion was strangely satisfying. Which is to say… I’m happier having read that book than I was actually reading it.

The main draw for the average gamer here is the bizarre post-apocalyptic setting. Take every action movie where the good guys save the world in the end, pretend that they failed, then fast forward through uncountable millennia: that’s what might lead to this. There is no sun. Mankind is confined inside a massive arcology surrounded by mindbendingly strange monsters and hazards. People rarely go outside, but look out the windows with their spyglasses.

If a youth desired greatly to make the adventure, he should receive three lectures upon the dangers of which we had knowledge, and a strict account of the mutilatings and horrid deeds done to those who had so adventured. And if, after this had passed over him, he still desired, and if he were accounted healthful and sane; then should he be allowed to make the adventure; and it was accounted honour to the youth who should add to the knowledge of the Pyramid.

The imagery is staggering, evoking scenes in the mind as if Erol Otus had been hired to depict unfathomable Cthuloid nightmares. The author seems to be struggling to describe things which science and genre fiction were not yet developed to handle at the time of his writing. This lends a stark anachronistic feel to the work even as he reaches into the poetic in order to communicate his visions.

And here I must make known that these weapons did not shoot; but had a disk of grey metal, sharp and wonderful, that spun in the end of a rod of grey metal, and were someways charged by the Earth-Current, so that were any but stricken thereby, they were cut in twain so easy as aught. And the weapons were contrived to the repelling of any Army of Monsters that might make to win entrance to the Redoubt. And to the eye they had somewhat the look of strange battle-axes, and might be lengthened by the pulling out of the handles.

He creates a world where the boundaries between matter, thought, and spirit are porous… and a time where there are so many fates worse than death that no one goes out without having a quick-trigger suicide device implanted in their arms.

And there was afterwards writ a proper and careful treatise, and did it set out that there did be ruptures of the Aether, the which did constitute doorways, as those more fanciful ones did name them; and through these shatterings, which might be likened unto openings– there being no better word to their naming– there did come into the Particular Condition of Life, those Monstrous Forces Of Evil, that did dominate the Night, and which many did hold surely to have been given this improper entrance through the foolish and unwise wisdom of those olden men of learning, that did meddle overfar with matters that did reach in the end beyond their understanding.

Now that I’ve whet your appetite for this monumental piece of literature, let me break the horrible secret of this work: it’s a love story. The opening chapter details how the protagonist falls for the girl next door, how she nearly breaks his heart, how they finally marry, and how the object object of his affections died all too soon. And yet… such is the power of true love that both live again in the far future, remembering their past together. The realness and relatability of this connection provides something of an anchor as you enter into a thoroughly incomprehensible world. Later, when the protagonist contacts someone half way across the world with the “Master Word” and his “brain-elements”, it provides the motivation for the hero to strike out across the impossible hellish landscape of the future earth. His true love from beyond eternity is in deadly danger and he must come to her aid.

All of this is fine, as far as it goes. This is a reasonable enough basis for adventure fiction, sure. And there are some really compelling scenes of raw terror as monsters storm across the landscape in the vicinity of the second arcology when he finally discovers it. The few remaining survivors are cast out of their redoubt and are slowly succumbing to their grisly fates. But the real trouble comes when the hero finds his love, saves her, nurses her back to health, and attempts to bring her home.

Oh, it’s bad enough for current readers that she is utterly weak and completely dependent on the hero. Many people are going to be throwing the book across the room when she insists on preparing the protein pills and dehydrated water. Some people’s heads will explode when she displays no particular skills or passions beyond doing her hair, washing clothes, and performing low level health care tasks. People that are undeterred by these things are still liable to throw up when these two characters kiss and coo and nestle and cuddle and hold hands and call each other by their pet names… all in the midst of a far more interesting postapocalyptic wasteland.

Maybe there’s a bit of artistry to the contrast… you know, just one small relic of paradise in that awful hellscape. If only it were that simple. It soon becomes clear that the author is spending so much time on these apparently extraneous details because things are about to get far more complicated. You see… his true love has something of a rebellious streak. Although she seems to reciprocate the protagonist’s feelings for her, her “naughtiness” slowly grows to the point that she is a danger to both of them. He’s built like He-Man. She’s a helpless maid. They are timeless soul mates and hopelessly in love… but for the hero to rescue the damsel in distress this time, he is actually forced in this case to master her even while there are many miles to tread and many monsters to fight though.

Maybe I don’t get out much, but I really don’t know that many people that are going to appreciate how this turns out. Squaring the fairy tale ending with the author’s antediluvian views of romance and marriage is going to be impossible for a lot people to wrap their heads around. And this particular relationship’s presence in a science fiction story are going to be downright weird… and perhaps even scarier than the monsters! Seeing it enshrined as the very height of love, honor, and faithfulness is at least as inscrutable as the horrors of the Night Land.

I admit, I personally was moved by the tale even as I was stunned by it. I suppose that makes me something of a neanderthal. The behavior of the girl is not unlike what I’ve observed in teenage girls that are toying with their first boyfriend: fickle, alternately hot and cold, making up problems that serve as the perfect excuse to get close… followed by made up offenses that allow her to punish the guy. In sort, she behaves like a child… but with a power of manipulation matched only by the Second Foundation. As foolish as she might be, she is still innocent and therefore likable. Of course, the fact that she is no Delilah or Jezebel only makes it harder to read what happens to her.

Now I was just complaining on here the other day about how Mary Robinette Kowal used an incredibly sickly husband character as the means to make the main female character look strong. Is this happening here in reverse…? Not at all. The hero here is strong because of his physical strength, his skill in combat, his discipline, his courage, his persistence and his daring. The female character in this story serves to highlight his Achilles heal. And unlike the monsters which are occasionally scarce enough that they can rest in peace, once this relational conflict begins it tarnishes every waking moment until the girl’s testing of the boundaries escalates into stupidly dangerous actions.

While the female character is probably the more politically incorrect, it is the hero that is perhaps not even imaginable today. It is the juxtaposition of so many hard contradictions that make him so difficult to accept. He can spend hours holding and kissing her and admiring her… but he is at pains to never take advantage of her or force his affections on her. He is more hopelessly romantic than Paul McCartney and Barry Manilow put together; he puts the girl on an insanely high pedestal, and she is the only one for him in all of time… but he is willing to whip her into submission if she is disobedient. Probably most surprising is the fact that while they both considered complete intimacy to be something that must wait for marriage, this kind of dominion seemed to be in force well beforehand.

Those that are mortified at the thought of such men existing have little to worry about. Whatever ones were left when the Titanic was going down were (along with the author) expended during the War to End All Wars. And although the “gentleman” in the story is difficult to accept, one has to admit that it is at least as hard to imagine an epic hero of the milennia accomplishing great quests while at the same time being himself “whipped” at home. Although it’s rare to see a complex relationship get developed to the degree we see here, it’s to be sure not what most people reading post-apocalyptic science fantasy are looking for.

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5 responses to “Book Review: The Night Land

  1. dgarsys May 16, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    Echoes a lot of my thought. The second half (I’m only nearly done) does indeed drag on, and yeah, I’ve seen enough real-life versions of “let’s you and him fight” or “things aren’t dramatic enough, I want some stimulation” (the latter mostly from my own girls…) that Nani comes across as a spoiled teenager.

    A note on the language. There’s enough people who weren’t like me growing up on stuff like Robert Louis Stephenson, Kipling, Arabian Nights, Mark Twain, Dorian Gray, and yes, Lovecraft.

    Even then, I need 10-15 minutes of solid reading to get my head wrapped around Shakespeare’s speech patterns. Ditto here – which is why it’s been so slow, as I’ve not been able to set aside a few hours at a time.

    Reading this book, from both a speech-pattern sense, and exhibited mores, is taking our “modern” lens, and looking across time to a far and distant future, as portrayed by a 17th century english gentleman, through the eyes, biases, and misconceptions of an early 1900’s writer.

    The ideas that survive are still poetry, described in a roundabout way that still brings out all of the horror and dreariness. The expected roles for people are rigid – but what else do you expect of a society that is trapped in its fortress and manages to not implode over the course of millennia? And the plight of the first rescue mission bears example of “fates worse than death” and how well hodgson manages to make a silent house with an open door something to be terrified of.

    The repeated “as you well know” type statements can be annoying, but also, lake a sales droid asking you to act/decide, pushes you to fill in your own reasons for why this is sensible, or not, or that was done…

    I’m glad I read it – even if only for the first half. And unlike Lovecraft, this isn’t hopefulness dashed by despair and gibbering insanity, but heroism, joy, hope and love of life amidst known horror and likely hopelessness.

  2. Kieran Bartley May 18, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    I am amazed people are still reading this. I found it by chance 30 years ago, just beginning college. How did either of you find it? I remember originally loving the language, and agree with dgarsys’s comments about needing long reading sessions to become familiar enough with the language to comprehend it (ditto with me and Shakespeare’s, as well). Oddly, that was one of its attractions. I also agree with what the two of you say about how the narrative portrays the characters and their relationship. I tried reading it again in late middle age and had no patience for the language or the relationship. Yet, many of its images are still vivid: the narrator’s being warned by his first fire in the Nightland that a creature is hunting him, and it’s large head peering through the bushes before he kills it; the narrator standing before the darkened entrance of the lesser pyramid, thinking he’s too late; the diskos and its sparks; his realization at the end that the great pyramid is risking everything to protect him; and how I was so wrapped up in the story at the end that when the narrator decides he must stand up and run across the Nightland, I completely understood that such an act was meant to be the most desperate act anyone could do. (Trying to convey the drama of that moment to people who don’t know the story is like trying to explain to the drama in Ethan Frome to people who haven’t read it: “You don’t understand! He broke the pickle dish!” They look at you as though you are mad, as they probably should.)
    I went on to read Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates, The House on the Borderland, and the Carnacki stories. All were written with straight-forward diction, no specialized language. The only ones I’d look at again are some of the Carnacki stories.
    Kieran

    • jeffro May 19, 2014 at 8:41 am

      Oh yeah, the ending is good– he doesn’t have to explain anything, really, because everything is set up. An interesting feat given the alien-ness of the world. It just moves.

      I discovered the book because John C. Wright has written four novellas set in Hodgson’s future. I wanted to read the real thing before checking out what he did with it….

  3. Brian Renninger May 21, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    Yes, the book is one of the great evocations of strangeness. When people ask for recommendations for science fiction to read, I always recommend it. It has so much in it and from so early a period in the genre. I also admire how he really could evoke dread without actually saying why something was dreadful. It is way more than the sum of its parts.

    Also, foot-fetishism!

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