Wednesday, August 19, 2015

SOMEWHITHER by John C. Wright - a review part 2

So if you think for a moment of C.S.Lewis and H.P.Lovecraft (born in 1898 and 1890 respectively) as being the spearcarriers for fantastic fiction with, respectively the christian and atheist world views.  (And I love both their works) John C. Wright is positioning himself here to stand as to C.S.Lewis as Robert E. Howard was to Lovecraft.  (And I mean that as a compliment. There's plenty of room for a writer of 'muscular christianity' - lets see how he does.)

SPOILERS START HERE (note I'm only 85% through according to kindle so some of these thoughts may change yet.)

So, if you can imagine for a moment - a pro-Christian/pro-high Catholic, fantasy work with 'lots' of violence and fighting (all of which is well done, if perhaps rendered a bit passe by the protagonist's "worst superpower ever".  A fosterling from the aeon of Cainen (a timeline where so far as I can tell, the disobedience in the Garden of Eden consisted of eating the fruit of The Tree of Immortality and not The Fruit of The Knowledge of Good and Evil, leading to a race of immortal deathless blunderers, who have no family feelings (abandoning their invulnerable children as soon as they annoy, and no feelings of gratitude - because if you can't die why would be be grateful for someone saving your life) our hero Ilya Muromets, whose been raised on our world and doesn't initially know his heritage, can't die (though he can be injured, and boy can he feel pain). Ilya is sucked (semi-literally) into a war between biblical jonbar hinge timelines, when the universe of the Dark Tower, takes advantage of a mistake in the Super Large Hadron Collider, to seed our world with instructions which will open a gate (morbius loop) which in turn (though the opener won't know this) will give the Dark Tower a bridgehead to invade our world. He's trying to keep a promise and impress a girl.

The narrative voice of a confused home-schooled young man, who's been raised in what you might imagine a household to be like that was headed by a Heinlein patriarch, who's also secretly a Knights Templar tasked with watching where spacetime is a bit thin, and whose wife is trapped in another universe, is rendered fairly well. (One bit sending him out coatless to walk to school in the freezing cold because he won't hang his coat up, is seemingly added just to give JCW a chance to whale on Political Correctness Gone Mad, when the (swearly family hating/well meaning) school authorities turn up, but may also be a hint that IIya is basically invulnerable - I suspect though that JCW just thinks this good old fashioned forceful childrearin' - see biases later.)

IIya's background and youth limits Wright's tendancy to verbosity a bit in the narration, although Ilya is very well acquainted with all the archetectural terms and names for obscure gems a boy might need to describe a Tower three times the circumference of the Earth in height built with a Babylonican design sensibility.  He also seems surprisingly low on biblical accuracy, and high on sf pop-culture referrences, but this is a fine line to walk and if IIya had been too preachy he might well be offputting.

All this is good - I will have some critical points to make later, but given the biases of the author they are mainly about what readers will or won't find sympathetic in the worldview on display rather than the raw quality of the text.

The main philosphic conflict in this book is between astrological fatalism/determinism and free will.  The Dark Tower is run (presumably ultimately by demonic forces) by a system of predictions which, if avoided, redouble in ever more horrrible ways, leading eventually to even Evil Master Magicians basically playing their parts will awful worldweariness as they make the threats they have been predicted to make to the prisoners they have been predicted to catch. This works very well.

While I am an atheist, I share Wright's view that 'higher actions' - he would mean godly ones, I would mean 'rationally considered ones with what A E Van Vogt would have called a thalmic pause - a conscious break between impulse and action' are governed not by instinct or the lower self, but by the effect of the image we have of ourselves in our conscious model (I don't do x (any more) because I'm not (any longer) the sort of person who does x).  With Peter Watt elsewhere stepping up to the plate for aconsciousness, it's refreshing to see the free actions of free individuals depicted as valuable. [I'm willing to argue with people who think actions taken on the basis of a high order model are not free, I think they are so 'free' as to be theoretically unpredicatable by inuniverse computation, but that's a question for a different article.]

(Speaking of A. E. van Vogt, I haven't counted - but it wouldn't surprise me if Mr Wright were deliberately using Vogt's method of throwing in a surprising change or action every 800 words: as this book reads very like World Of Null-A in places, and each chapter has frequent subdivisions.)

Eventually having gathered a party of like-minded warriors and refugues and disaffected slaves and freemen (with their eyes in their chest and no heads) about him, Ilya battles his way to the rescue of the woman he was trying to help in the first place, only to find both she, her pet hawk, and his best friend from back home are also more than they seem.

This is where things break down a bit for me (aside from the biases issue which we'll come to) when everyone in a narrative is really 'a super special secret bearer with a super special secret' the unlikelyhood of the text begins for me to foreground itself, and there are hints in the narrative that some of this has been retrofitted into the text, as the author worked and not really smoothed down enough.  For instance is Professor Dreadful's name that because he was a stage magician or because its the same as what his real name means in his own aeon?
Both are of course possible, and they're not contradictory, but a person working in secret might be less likely to choose a nomdetheatre that means the same as his last name, specially if he's being secret from the Dark Tower whose servants speak the language before babel and can therefore understand every tongue. 

Incidently the language use is quite a good way to drop in exposition about the horrible culture of the Dark Tower.

to be continued....

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