Awake in the Night Land by John C Wright
[This essay gives away the entire plot of Mr. Robertson's story "Eater." It's a particularly fine story and you may wish to read it first. — KC]
About thirteen years ago, I started a little website.
My wife was only a few years dead then, and she still visited me from time to time. I would wake up in a bed full of her warmth and musk, and feel her sleeping just beside me. I would turn over and kiss her, and she would whisper love sleepily. I would get up and go to wash my face, and go back to the bedroom to kiss her awake. Then I would really wake up.
My daughters would come to the door-gates of their rooms, holding up their arms and saying daddy, and I'd pick one up and snuggle her and take her downstairs to where their grandmother had breakfast ready, then go back upstairs for the other, then grab a bacon sandwich and a mug of coffee and walk down to the train station and go to work. They waved from the windows till I was out of sight. I'd come home late and just have time to kiss them goodnight.
It was a long hard day until they let me telecommute, and I suddenly had a lot of spare time.
There was a man who had a beautiful young wife.
She died, and he dreamed of meeting her again, at the end of time, when the Sun was dead.
I had always been fascinated by the book. The Final Arcology of mankind, Earth's Last Citadel, surrounded by an entire universe that had been taken over by Hell. I wanted to read more stories set in that Land, and now I had the time to do something and a little bit of spare money, I took advice. I was a subeditor for Interzone back then in its glory days, and I had Dave Pringle to explain the legal side of buying fiction to display online.
I set rates and contacted Ralan.com and waited for stories to come in. Meanwhile I started the trimmings. Essays. A gallery of book covers. Then a little step up: Stephen Fabian's terrific paintings of the Watchers, illustrations for the 1973 edition of The Dream of X, the abbreviated version of The Night Land Hodgson published in the US to keep the copyright. I was careful to pay Fabian for his work, for these pictures are surely the first example of someone actually adding to the original The Night Land, adding something that will always be connected to it from now on.
Look at them. They do not so much illustrate the story as form a collateral theme. And quite quickly we got our first story, "An Exhalation of Butterflies" by Nigel Atkinson. This was its basic idea. Every so often, as a gesture of defiance, the Redoubt turns the production of its Underground Fields over to the creation of butterflies. They're kept on ice for a few years to build up numbers and then they are all hatched and sucked up by the ventilation system of the Redoubt and ejected Out into the Night. No practical reason. Just a gigantic Fuck You to the forces in the Night and the horror and the darkness.
I thought it was brilliant. Dave took it for Interzone, and I put it online next month.
I tried my own hand and wrote "Eater". It was the story of a female Seer, telepathically surveying the Land, who is taken over and used to invade the Redoubt. The invasion fails and she dies burned body and soul by the Redoubt defense systems. It's a reasonably good tale, and Dave accepted it to run in Interzone, and Gardner Dozois gave it a tick mark in his year's best recommended. There is nothing special about it, except it was the first time in my life I had ever tried to write a piece of fiction.
The dark, looming images of the Land had made such an impact on me. When I started to write stories set in that world, it was as if I remembered a life I had lived in that society, with its prim manners overlaying iron values and its dauntless courage. I didn't need to make anything up. I just watched it happen.
Brett Davidson sent me a story from New Zealand with a background that complemented and extended my own, and I found the person who would be my principle creative partner. For years we've batted ideas back and forth by email late at night. Other writers joined us and mostly took their lead from Brett and I. We were building a shared world but one so rich and vivid felt as if we were were discovering something that already existed. I don't think I've ever had such fun (while vertical) in my life.
And then I got a new submission, from John C Wright, which was quite apart from all the other Night Land tales.
I'd written a fusion of Hodgson's vision with cutting-edge science, and tried to evoke a credible Redoubt culture, a culture that might really last ten million years. Therefore my Redoubt was a society of strict moral codes, an actual functional and enforced marriage contract, strong kinship bonds, and sharply differentiated complementary behavior of men and women. (It strikes me only now that this is mistaken by some readers for archaism. But of course it isn't. It's futurism. Or just realism. No society without these values or something like them can survive more than a couple of generations.) And I'd written of a society rich in technical and scientific knowledge, including as unremarked givens such familiar SF tropes as nanotechnology, cyborgisation, and Artificial Intelligence. I had some fun integrating these into Hodgson's "scientific" formulation of reincarnation and psychic predation.
I had done my best to reinterpret the Night Land as science fiction, and other writers had followed me. But John's story followed his own dreams.
His character names were derived from classical Greek, not generic Indo-European sememes. The manners of the society were likewise closely modeled on the ancient pagans. Dozois has called this an air of distanced antiquity, and it works well, but I repeat it's distinctly different from my own, which is not antique at all. His was not a technically sophisticated society and seemed not to have a scientific attitude to the alien Land that surrounded it. It ran off rote technology and was ignorant of the workings of much of the machinery it depended on. It was doomed and dwindling and dark and candle-lit, a tumbledown place with a hint of Ghormenghast to it. (I know John will hate that comparison, and I apologize). The story was one of childhood friendship, rivalry, disaster and rescue. The writing style was, incidentally, brilliant.
I bought it and published it in our first hardcopy anthology, Endless Love. It got into Dozois' Best SF and several other yearly anthologies and created a minor sensation. There are still places where the first taste of Hodgson's work a casual reader will get is the translation of "Awake in the Night" in that year's Dozois, and the story is an entry drug not only for The Night Land but for Hodgson himself and all his work. This was a story which Hodgson might have written if he had been a more gifted weaver of words. John remarked to me at one point that he was surprised at the story's popularity. I think we both understood that despite its author's talent, the real power resided in the way it had stayed faithful to Hodgson's own visions, without elaborating them too much. The whole world could now see and share Hodgson's original Night Land. They were seeing it through John's eyes, not mine, but that didn't matter to me. This was what I had set the Night Land website up for.
I expected a whole series of tales from John set in his version of The Night Land, but his next story was a radical departure from anything that he or any of the rest of us had ever done. It surpassed not only Hodgson's talents but, damn it, Lovecraft's. When I read "Awake in the Night" I felt some envy, but when the ms for "The Last of All Suns" crossed my inbox I felt something like awe.
It's almost impossible to describe this story without employing spoilers, because there is nothing else like it to compare it to or to hint that it is like. Baldly, then: the universe is in its final contraction, falling back on itself into a massive black hole, the last of all suns. In one sliver of it, life remains: a gigantic starship, millions of years old. On board this Starship, ruling it, are the great powers and forces of the Night, who have been victorious not only in The Night Land they turned Earth into but throughout the cosmos.
To oppose them on the ship there are a scattering of human escapees, their bodies artificially regrown from some ancient recording, their souls compelled to one final reincarnation for unknown reasons. The oldest is a Neanderthal, or something similar. The youngest is an inhabitant of the Last Redoubt. Yet it is now so very much later than even the Last Age of the Redoubt that the entire time span from the earliest to the latest lives of these reincarnated ones is like the blink of an eye at the start of a long, dark, night.
And now what can I say? How can I possibly describe what happens next? Even if I could, I would probably have to go beyond what is allowable in a review. As I said, this story is unique. I can't describe its plot as "like" anything else. I'd have to go through it section by section, practically retell it.
Yet certain things can be said. For example, I can tell you that when these resurrectees talk to each other, their language automatically translated by some mental trick, their concepts of the universe are so diverse that only method they have to communicate with each other is to employ the metalanguage of myth. And yet this works, and Wright's genius effortlessly makes it credible to the reader that it would work. By selectively recounting the foundational myths of their diverse societies, they are able to discuss their situation, plan their actions, and the plot is rapidly and convincingly advanced.
One recalls the marvelous passage in Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out Of Time" which lists the enormous range of human societies the Great Race of Yith has plucked its time-swapped prisoners' minds from. The dialogue in this story is the sort of language those time-stolen scribes would have had to employ to talk to each other. And Wright drops a few hints that let us know that "The Shadow Out Of Time" is exactly the ur-SF story he is drawing from here. Wright excels Lovecraft — Lovecraft — by this enormous margin; he does not merely list the societies his characters have been plucked from; he gives us their dialog, word for word, and effortlessly makes it believable.
And this is only one tiny facet of a story that integrates The Night Land with The House on the Borderland and goes on to swallow the modern mythos of Lovecraft and Stapledon and most of the GraecoRoman foundational myths of Western society. And modern physics, as easy as an after-dinner mint.
Finally it comes down to this. In place of a soulless mathematical Episode of Inflation or the mindless flutings of Azathoth, Wright gives us cosmos that is founded on the pattern of eternal love between man and woman. And he does it convincingly. He does it without breaking a sweat or drawing an extra breath.
There was a man who had a beautiful young wife.
She died, and he dreamed of meeting her again, at the end of time, when the Sun was dead.
I am not that man. That man was a fiction. I know death is merely the end, there is no reincarnation, that her presence in my bed was merely dream, and we shall never meet again in any age or realm or dimension, not hand in hand looking out from the battlements of the Last Redoubt of Man nor anywhere else.
So how can I write about Eternal Love? Is love a laughable delusion, or is it the only real thing? I'm quite an old man now, suddenly and cripplingly ill, and I have another family with my second wife, who is a good true woman, but it seems only yesterday that She was in my arms and our lips and hands were always reuniting. I understand human sociobiology, I took the red pill decades ago, without the help of the Internet. I understand what they call Game nowadays. I've read and admired its accurate application, I respect people who truly are using this to strengthen marriage, but the bloggers with their bedpost scores and their flag counts are children fighting for bottles of fizzy drink. Love is another dimension. Love is the only thing stronger than death. And I'm writing this as a man who has lost his loved one and might meet death quite soon.
I don't "believe" in love. I know.
It's odd that the one flaw in this, John's best story, is the portrayal of the Mirdath-figure, the multi-souled narrator's eternal mate. The story rings like fine bronze when the men from different aeons resurrected in the death starship speak to each other: but it clunks just a tiny bit whenever she pops up her eager-sex-partner-and-ideal-mother head. Surely the eternal female would in most of her incarnations be an ordinary unexceptional woman only made special by love? But I'm not going to fuss about this.
There is nothing like this story, nothing like it, anywhere else. It is incomparable.
John sent us two more stories. They are both good stories, but I'm going to end this review with only brief mentions of them.
"The Cry of the Night Hound" concerns a doomed attempt to domesticate these monsters, and were it not for Wright's ever-beautiful prose and his moving portrayal of his Redoubt society in (temporary) decay, it might be judged rather improbable.
"Silence of the Night" is a mad, fractured episode that must come from a time close to the Fall. I think it does not work too well, though the beautiful writing and imagery carries it through.
I don't know if Wright has written himself out, and said all he has to say about The Night Land. Maybe he has. Maybe not. (But if you have, I have a theme for you, John, that I think you'll like, that might rekindle your interest, that might produce something as good as "The Last Of All Suns". I really do. But I gave it to another writer who has first dibs on it, and he's doing nothing. If he gives it up, you'll hear from me.) Anyhow. I messed up the marketing of "The Last Of All Suns", and the story fell into an obscurity from which I hope this new edition will rescue it. Now it's been republished by professionals, along with Wright's other three Night Land tales, I hope it sells a million copies.
A final word.
Did the stuff about my wife with which I stared this review strikes you as forced, unreal? Probably. But it was in fact the simple literal truth. I really did experience that, many times, though I have no doubt it was merely a dream.
Perhaps I could have made this review more plausible by leaving it out, even though it was the truth? Indeed I could have. And perhaps in the same way I could have made this review more effective, more believable, by being less effusive, by toning down my praise a bit. Perhaps I could have. But I'm not going to do that. If you doubt my word, doubt away. But truth is truth, and I don't see why I should dodge it just to convince you. Buy this book, read the stories, read especially "the Last of all Suns", and whatever you think about me after reading this review, when you have read the book you will know that every word of praise I give it here is the truth.
— Andy Robertson
© 2014 by Andy Robertson.