May 4th, 2015

The Hugo Ballot, Part 3: Short Stories

The next story on the ballot is "A Single Samurai" by Steven Diamond, but I can't find it online.  I'll come back to it when I get the Hugo packet.

The story after Diamond's is John Wright's "The Parliament of Beasts and Birds."  Wright's style here is deliberately archaic, in a stately, somewhat pompous, King James Bible vein, and for the most part this serves him fairly well.  Every so often, though, he will stray from purple into ultraviolet and become lost to human ken.  What, for example, is one to make of "All about the walls of the city were the fields and houses that were empty and still," which seems to have one too many "were"s in it?  Or a description of leaves as "wallowing"?  Leaves may do a lot of things, but I've never seen one wallow.  And then sometimes Wright will leave this style altogether and use words King James would have a hard time recognizing, like "sangfroid."  The effect for this reader at least is to be yanked, hard, out of the story.

[There should be a law that anyone who wants to write in this style has to read Ursula Le Guin's essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie."  Sorry, no exceptions.]

Okay, so what's the story about?  It opens after all the people in the world have vanished, and shows the animals gathering to discuss what to do next.  They are meeting outside a city that seems to cover all the fantasy cliches, with its merchants of "ivory and incense and purple and gold," its dancing girls and gambling dens and pleasure houses.  And then they talk.  And talk.  "Where did Man go?"  "Why are we here?"  "For what cause were we exiled from Eden with First and Fallen Man?"

And then, at the end -- well, this is an embarrassing admission for a reviewer to make, but I have to say I just didn't get it.  Some of the animals stand up on their hind feet, and some stand up too late and can only walk with difficulty, and then two figures "like Sons of Adam" show up and all the animals panic, and then there's some talk about Man redeeming the animals, and then the Cat says to the Worm, "You are a worm no longer, you are a dragon again," and Worm says, "The gift of fire is ours!" and Fox says, "I hate to admit it, but I do not understand what all these things mean."  And I thought, I hear you, friend Fox.

I know that Wright is Catholic, and so maybe the fact that I'm a heathen prevents me from understanding this story.  Still, I've read Catholic works before and didn't have too many problems.  The city is clearly sinful, with its dancing girls and whatnot, and the "Men" have gone to the Last Judgment, and the Worm is… Is the Worm the same as the snake, and therefore the devil?  But worms and snakes aren't remotely the same animal, despite the fact that dragons were once called "worms," but then the Worm becomes a dragon…

No, I give up.  I don't have time to try to figure it all out.  If anyone knows what Wright is trying to say here, I'd be interested in hearing it.  Still, you shouldn't need a crib sheet for a story.   One of the things the Sad Puppies rail against is intellectualism, elitism, but I have to say that any story that has to be decoded is pretty damn elitist.