I mentioned in a previous post, and here they are, Schuyler Hernstrom’s latest two works, “The law of the Wolves,” a short story fable, and “Morty and Kyrus in the White City,” a sword & bikery novella with future installment already in-the-making, or at least planned out.
I’ll start with The Law of the Wolves, which is the shortest one, and one that won’t require me to sperg too much. Also, if you are a stingy asshat who can’t bother buying two books at 1$ each, I’d recommend this one first. Simpler, straightforward, shorter, and in a style underrepresented these days.
I don’t care much about spoilers, they never bothered me and they sometimes actually enhance my enjoyment of the work. At first, I won’t spoil anything when I go over the second book (I’ll spoil it anyway but you’ll have a big warning beforehand.) Therefore, this is TLotW‘s condensed plot without getting into details for those of you who get all up in arms over these things: Girl gets a taste of the mortality and ugliness of life and flees in search of self-determination, self-discovery, and self-selfing; gets rekt by reality.
You can read it as an antithesis of 2017’s Hugo short story winner, Seasons of Glass and Iron (uh… if you click, there’s a spoiler to this short story there at the end because I got to read an early version of The Law of the Wolves.) But it’s better written, with the fairytale/fable style being consistent from the first sentence to the last, it’s more interesting, as you don’t guess the ending and soapboxing (it doesn’t have any, by the way) from the very beginning, and you can actually learn something.
As Hernstrom has repeatedly stated when talking about this story, it’s not a tale that would easily get published nowadays. The inner censor of the cognoscenti would recoil in horror at what it’s, not so much saying but stating by showing. A woman who can’t accomplish everything she desires, whose goals are foolish, who ends up badly, and, worst of all, who is not the victim of the story? All the others could be swallowed, but the last one? Pretty much verboten.
I guess I could explain more, but that’s pretty much it. A Dunsany-like fable in a pre-industrial setting, dark forests, brooding fate, human nature and people trying to flee from it. Wolves. A lot of Wolves, both in human and animal shape. It gets a clear recommendation from me.
Now, to the second book, Mortu and Kyrus in the White City. The people I follow who have read it have been quite enthusiastic about the book, and they have also hinted or mentioned that this book “answers” or attacks a classic sf&f short story. I did not know that at first, but it’s relevant as I will explain later if you read the spoilerific part.
In its outermost layer or reading, Mortu and Kyrus, follows the tradition of sword & sorcery (although not much of the latter being shown explicitly) but set in a world (our world, by the way) following the post-apoc tropes of the Mad Max-inspired settings, with the usual elements: sprawling deserts, ruins of the past civilizations, and so forth. I say tropes because the postapoc elements are aesthetic or background and there isn’t a traditional “apocalypse” either. It’s not a story set just after the global destruction in our era but many epochs later, and the damage to the planet and humanity is not really self-inflicted (nuclear weapons, virus, etc.) as much as a result of an external invasion by immortal and highly-advanced aliens.
None of the aliens are alive at the moment, at least nobody thinks so, and they are mentioned as an ominous threat from the past (and I actually would have enjoyed a bit more of exposition about this.) One of the protagonists, Mortu, also follows the barbarian-from-the-North trope (big, strong, long hair, ax-wielding, etc.,) but with some peculiarities. First, he’s a biker, which is notable enough, but most importantly, he is a descendant of the race of warrior-slaves that rebelled against the alien overlords and overthrew them. He is the descendant of a race of genetically-engineered humans that had “something” (it’s not specified exactly what) of alien in them.
The second protagonist, Kyrus, from which most of the humor of the story comes, is a priest trapped inside the body of a little monkey. Yep, that’s what he is. And when I say priest I mean Christian priest. Of course, that’s a wide term since there are many denominations and sects, and although the protagonists argue quite a lot over their worldviews they don’t get into unnecessarily-detailed religious arguments (and probably for the better) but this is OUR world, so the religion is not some Christianity-like doppelganger. For example, Jesus is mentioned. Mortu, on the other hand, is a “pagan.” At first, it irked me a bit to see this terminology used in such a wild and far-flung setting, but I got used to it.
The story starts with the barbarian riding his steel steed, Kyrus on his shoulder arguing the non-existence of his false gods, when they come across a convoy being assaulted by a gang of nomadic bikers. He intervenes and routs them, saving the convoy, and since the two are going in the same direction as grateful travelers, they accept their invitation to accompany them and, eventually, to visit their White City, an apparently idyllic society but, as you can already assume, where not everything is what it seems.
To finish this part of the review, I will say that I think I enjoyed Thune’s Vision more (which I liked a lot, so that’s a difficult record to top.) Now, at first, I thought it was simply a matter of the greater variance in stories the other book told, but then, after reading the classic sf&f story The White City references, I know that’s not the main reason. I also realize now that some of the (quite minor in general) issues I had in Mortu & Kyrus are not really Hernstrom’s fault. Without going into spoilers (that will come later,) the problem is that the story it attacks is so dumb, that some of that nonsense, like it or not, gets stuck to the person doing the counterargument. Once I had realized that, I went over my mental list of the issues I had found and I realized that pretty much all of them existed because of the other story.
So that’s it for the non-spoilerific review. I recommend both books and I’d probably rate them 4/5 or above that. Whatever faults I found are minor stuff and, as I have said, some of them aren’t even Hernstrom’s fault. And here are the obligatory Amazon (affiliate) links.
And here are some unrelated images to warn you that what follows is an analysis that will hold back no information, plot twists, or endings.
So that’s the warning.
The story M&K in the White City serves as a counterargument is The ones who walk away from Omelas (just Omelas from now on,) by Ursula K. Le Guin, winner of 1974’s short story Hugo Award and usually considered a classic of sf&f. And to be honest, I was happier before knowing this story existed. You can, and probably should, read it if you want to understand the next part.
In short, Omelas is the literary equivalent of those annoying and infuriating “moral dilemmas” teachers like to throw at their students, like… a train is going to run over five people but you can throw a fat dude to stop the train, what would you do, kill the fattie or let the five people die? I remember being very pissed off at those “dilemmas” because my brain was unable to understand why they were dilemmas at all when none of the things they described could even happen in the first place and they were clearly designed to fuck with me. They are pretty much nonsense.
Omelas is like that, and it’s not even a proper story. And it’s clearly not science fiction or even fantasy either — it has symbolism, at best, or what today would be called “magical realism” or, “it happens because the author says so.” It presents you with an idyllic society, specifically described as your ideal society (as long as you are a hippy, of course,) which pretty much breaks any suspension of disbelief since the author is winking at me half the time.
But this “ideal” society has a little problem, there’s a basement where a little boy is imprisoned. He is in pain, miserable, and covered in filth. And his suffering makes the happiness of the city possible, and if someone ever did something good to him, the utopian nature of the city would disappear. So, no, you cannot pick up a pail of water and wash the filthy kid a bit so at least he isn’t covered in shit. That would immediately make everybody else unhappy.
Now, if after reading that you think, “wait, that doesn’t make any sense,” yeah… it does not. “Why can’t the utopians at least give good food to the kid instead of disgusting gruel?” Nope. “Can’t they just…” Nope. “But what if…” Nope. I’m surprised so many people mention this story as one that “makes people think” seeing as the answer to all the questions that kept popping up as I read it was an authorial “Nope.” Like those “moral dilemmas,” you just have to accept what the author is stating no matter how nonsensical it is. It’s a forced guilt-trip, and the point is that the kids suffering -> Others joy. It’s like an argument in propositional logic, “if, and only if A, then B.” No buts or ifs… well, there are two, but you know what I mean.
When some other bloggers have said Mortu & Kyrus is a rebuttal of Omelas, I assume they don’t mean that, in some way, Omelas justifies the boy’s imprisonment. I mean, I believe the story is bad, but not bad in that way. I’m not sure what was Le Guin thinking when he wrote Omelas, but I assume it was the standard New Left idea of privileged people profiting from the suffering of distant people and our desire to look away from said suffering. Or perhaps a rebuttal of extreme utilitarian morality, where the happiness of the majority outweighs the unhappiness of the few (although note that it’s not just that the happiness in Omelas “outweighs” the suffering of the boy, but that it — magically— causes it, and vice-versa.)
No, it’s a rebuttal because it cuts the Gordian Knot of Omelas. Mortu doesn’t just leave the city of Omelas (the White City,) and walks away from its oppression (he is a foreigner there anyway,) he doesn’t fall victim to the sophistry of the supposed moral dilemma, he destroys it. Literally.
But here’s the problem, and why I was puzzled at some things in Morty & Kyrus. I believe that Omelas is a nonsense story, only interesting to superficial thinkers and guilt-addicted Westerners, but if you want to make a rebuttal, you’ll have to include some of its elements, which, unfortunately, may not make much sense or may feel forced. It’s pretty much inevitable.
But while Omelas is the kind of story where things happen just because the author says so, M&K is a proper fantasy story, which means it’s real or, rather, it’s verisimilar. Here the suffering of the boy is not symbolic, forced, and non-sensical; he’s attached to a machine that tortures him and sucks the life out of him. The link between his suffering and what other people gain (immortality and youth) follows cause and effect, unlike Omelas’ where nothing is really explained and you just have to accept it. And while Omelas’ idyllic nature is axiomatic (it’s just stated as a necessary and obligatory fact,) The White City is a real society, not a psychological/philosophical experiment where happiness is presumed. Its Utopian nature is not as straightforward either, and you can clearly see that envy, jealousy, and so forth still have a powerful role in it, even if they are repressed.
But since M&K is answering Omelas, it has to be a mirror image of it in some ways, even when, I believe, that may not help the story that much because one is trying to be a real story but the other is just a forced philosophical experiment with no link to reality and no sense of plausibility. That’s why the sacrificial boy and, in fact, the whole idea of keeping one kid as a victim to give (through some mysterious means) eternal life to whoever lives in the city felt… a bit forced to me, tacked on, and a bit un-Hernstrom-like. Now that I know what that scene and plot element were answering, I can understand it better.
About destroying Omelas/The White City, well, really, I think I would have killed them all even if their immortality didn’t depend on snatching orphans and attaching them to evil arcane machinery, W40K-style. Of all the fictional immortal beings who feed on the sacrifice of others to survive beyond their allotted time, I believe the people of the White City or Omelas (although I don’t remember if it’s stated that they are immortal in that one, I think they are not) may be the worst of them all. Because they are completely useless.
At least your average lich, vampire, or demon-consorting wizard does something with their extended lives. Yes, evil things, but still things. They have goals, purposes, ambitions. These utopians… they are literally immortal hippies. It’s disgusting. They stand around, eat fruits and vegetables (because they had to be vegans, of course) maybe they have communal sex from time to time and… that’s it, apparently. It’s claimed they study the past and are scholars and whatnot, and they shout (as Mortu slaughters them) to have “accomplished much”, but really, nobody has heard of them although some of them are 500-years old and they are literally sitting on a shitton of alien technology.
Their destruction is pretty much a “and nothing of value was lost” moment. It’s not like they are powerful immortal kings, or that the machine also gives them super intelligence so they are the best scientists the world has to offer so it would be a loss for the world to kill them. Like their Omelas’ counterparts, they are just useless hippies, frolicking and prancing around with their dicks out and doing pretty much nothing.
Strange as that may sound, their pacifism, introversion, and yes, even goodness (they keep to themselves and do no harm to others,) almost make the, for lack of a better word, sin of their immortality worse. If you have to sacrifice children to live forever, at least do something useful afterward instead of… nothing.
And that’s how Hernstrom answers the problem of Omelas. By killing everything in there. It’s the proper way, really.