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.