May 18th, 2015

The Hugo Ballot, Part 11: Novellas

I love the idea behind "The Plural of Helen of Troy," by John C. Wright.  There's a City Beyond Time, Metachronopolis, with shining towers and bridges and gardens.  Fog caused by too many time changes shrouds the lower towers, and in the upper stories live the Masters, who control the forces of time.

Unfortunately there's something of a fog on the story as well.  It starts with the protagonist , Mr. Frontino, watching Marilyn Monroe from one of the towers.  She is attacked, and John Kennedy and Frontino go to her aid.  Then there are multiple iterations of Kennedy and Frontino, there are people going back and forth in time and offering advice or finding new weapons, there are destiny crystals and time-shifting robots and helmets that erase memories, and at every introduction of some new spin or new piece of technology the story stops dead to explain it: "Now, you may ask, why did Tin Man not simply step backward in time and step to one side of the predicted flightpath of the harpoon?"  It all makes for a very long, very prolix narrative.

At one point Wright must have looked at this tangled snarl of a story and thought, "How can I make it even more complicated?  I know -- I'll start at the end, and work my way toward the beginning!"  (Yes, I know events in time travel occur out of order.  It doesn't work in this story, okay?)

The style fails on another level as well.  Frontino is a private investigator brought to Metachronopolis from the fifties, the kind of person who in pulp fiction speaks rarely and then only to utter a wisecrack.  Every so often Wright seems to remember this, and the narrative style tightens and Frontino uses a word like "haymaker" or "dame."  For the most part, though, it's sentences like this one: "Behind me was the gently arching bridge leading across the nothingness to the shining tower of Babylon, where the Greeks didn't win the pennant at Thermopylae, and it was the Persians who…" Well, it goes on from there.

Oh, and Marilyn Monroe is also Helen of Troy.  (Don't ask.)  The descriptions of Helen are about what you'd expect: "The sinuous folds of the silk clung to her body and emphasized her curves," etc., etc.  But every so often another, more sinister narrative emerges.  "Look, I don't blame the dame for using the tools Nature gave her any more than I blame a spider," Frontino writes. "But I'd seen one guy trapped in her web, and I'd heard all about the others.  Even if it was a web she did not spin on purpose, she was a spider… Guys… lost their hearts over this girl, lost their minds, lost their good names.  Sometimes they even lost their lives."

Really?  Men hurt her and use her and want to rape her, and it's all her fault?  She's the spider?  I … don't even know what to say about this.  It takes blaming the victim to a whole new level.