May 11th, 2015

The Hugo Ballot, Part 7: Novelettes

The next story, "The Journeyman: In the Stone House" by Michael F. Flynn, seems more Western than science fiction; it even opens with a quote from Louis L'Amour.  Two companions, Teodorq, a plainsman, and Sammi, a hillman, are trying to sneak past a stronghold built by ironmen.  They are captured by Anya, the headman's daughter, and begin training to fight against the ironmen's enemies.  Teodorq runs into an old enemy, Karakalan, and while both are forced to serve under the ironmen, they are biding their time until they can fight to the death.  But their duel ends in a tie, and the headman forbids them to fight again.  Karakalan complains that the headman took Teo's crime on his own head, and says, "Now I gotta kill the First."  And the story ends.

This is puzzling, but an Editor's Note clears things up a bit by explaining that Teo and Sammi have appeared in Analog before.  What we missed, it seems, is the science fiction part, which has something to do with Teo and Sammi discovering a downed space shuttle and being given orders by what they call a portrait that moves and speaks.   It looks like we're in the middle of a novel; that's why the first half of this story harkens back to an earlier chapter while the second half looks forward to more duels and warfare.

The dialog is a weird combination of fake Western, epic speech, current catch-phrases ("Made in the shade"), and even Yiddish.  This could be the result of a great mixing of languages among Terrans who have forgotten their roots, but the sudden switches in style kept making my head spin.  "Ever seen a kid with a toy what he ain't playing with it, then some other kid comes along and picks it up?" Teo says.  "Give Bowman his space and he'll beat feet."  Just a few minutes later his speech becomes formal, epic, complete with references to himself in the third person: "Very strange was that house-within-the-hill… Then, seeing the bravery of Teodorq and his stalwart companion, the headman of the shuttle summoned them to her council chamber. This was Jamly-the-ghost."  Anya points out that ghosts can't be seen, and Teo replies, "Duh, they're invisible?"

I think this is played for laughs -- why else would Teo think, about the headman's hammer, that there was "more schmuck in that hammer than in the aggregate wealth of the Scorpion and Serpentine clans combined"?  Why else would the headman be called Aya Herpstone?  But pointing and laughing at your characters undercuts their heroism, and runs the risk of making them seem ridiculous.

The worst part, though, is Sammi's dialog, which recalls every stereotyped Indian from every old Western ever made.  When they first see the ironmen and their big houses, Sammi thinks they might be from the shuttle: "Maybe star-folk, like Jamly tell us find?  Big magic, pile stones so high."  But even his speech is inconsistent -- we're told that Sammi is on "walkabout," and when discussing the Milky Way he magically loses his accent and says, "Hillmen call it the Lactation, which means the milk from the breast of the Mother."  Lactation, really?

If Teo and Sammi are some sort of planetary Lone Ranger and Tonto, then it's unfortunate that Sammi is shown in every case to favor cowardice and trickery, to defend sneak attacks and ambushes, and that this is presented as a hillman trait.  "Being the braver man, I went first inside," Teo says, about the shuttle.  "Being smarter man, I let him," Sammi says.  Flynn seems as delighted with Sammi's deceptions as he is with Teo's heroism -- but it's still Teo who gets to be the hero.

Even without these problems I wouldn't have voted for this story.  There's no way to judge it from this fragment, to see what Flynn will do with this fairly commonplace material and how it will end.  I'll take bets, though, that Sammi will overcome his upbringing at some point and go back to rescue Teo.