I acquired only two paper-edition books at WorldCon (plus a whole lot of samples of this and that and some full books in ebook form). I’ll be taking a look at those in a series of posts, but I’m starting with the two I have in paper because they’re an interesting contrast.
It’s been a long time since I read anything by Van Vogt, and of his books, the one I remember best is The Wizard of Linn, which I liked quite a bit, though I gather it wasn’t really characteristic of the weird, dreamlike style for which he was better known. After the panel on Van Vogt, I’m interested in revisiting him, so I borrowed a couple of books from my brother, including The Voyage of the Space Beagle. I might have read it a long time ago, but if so, I don’t remember. This was first published in 1966. Let’s take a look at the way this novel opens:
On and on Cueorl prowled. The black, moonless, almost starless night yielded reluctantly before a grim, reddish dawn that crept up from his left. It was a vague light that gave no sense of approaching warmth. It slowly revealed a nightmare landscape.
Jagged black rock and a black, lifeless plain took form around him. A pale red sun peered above the grotesque horizon. Fingers of light probed among the shadows. And still there was no sign of the family of id creatures he had been trailing now for nearly a hundred days.
Poor Cueorl! I do remember this. He’s trailing prey, but he’s lost them and he’s going to starve. Then a human ship arrives and he sneaks aboard, or maybe he’s taken aboard as a sample of native life, and he kills a few people, and … I don’t remember what happens after that. I know the humans realize he’s killing people, but nope, I don’t remember anything else. I might not have been very interested in the human characters. Opening with an interesting alien would have made me want to focus on that alien, and that goes double for my teenage years, when I was thoroughly focused toward animals. (Some might argue that this hasn’t actually changed.) (They’d be right).
Well, I’ll re-read this and see what happens next. I have a hard time believing the story ends well for Cueorl – I might have blocked the ending for that reason. But we’ll see.
How about this style? I like it. I believe I see the dreamlike quality that people were talking about. This is an interestingly personified landscape; did you notice that? The night yields, the dawn creeps, the sun peers, fingers of light probe. It sounds hostile, and it is. There’s not enough food for Cueorl and his species. They’re all dying. I think that’s the situation. Maybe the whole world is slowly dying, I don’t remember. It sounds like it, and why? Because this is described as a nightmare landscape from Cueorl’s perspective, not a human perspective. This is presumably the world where his species evolved. He ought to find it beautiful and benign, unless something has gone wrong and the ecosystem is no longer suitable for his species. If that’s not the case, then this is a failure on the author’s part, because it’s ridiculous to describe a landscape this way if humans find the landscape hostile. Humans didn’t evolve here. Creatures that evolved in this ecosystem will of course be suited to the ecosystem and so of course they won’t find it hostile. Penguins don’t glower around at the ice thinking how nightmarish the landscape is, you may be sure.
Did you notice that “black” is used three times in these two short paragraphs? The black, moonless, almost starless night … Jagged black rock and a black, lifeless plain. Does that work for you? I think it’s fine. I think this repetition is one element that’s building a poetic feel. I wouldn’t suggest repeating words like this accidentally. Removing accidental repetition is one thing proofreading is for.
Meanwhile! I have here a totally different book published (English edition) more than fifty years later. I don’t know when the original story was written, but I’m guessing that wasn’t much before the English edition was printed. I mean “much before” relative to 1966. Let me check. Yes, according to Wikipedia, this book was first published as a serialized novel in 2015, which is indeed just about exactly a fifty-year span of time. That’s not all that’s different.
This is The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu.
I picked this up solely because I know commenter Mary Beth enjoys these Wuxia and Xianxia stories, so I DM’d her from the Dealer’s Room and asked What about it, this dealer has this book, here’s the title and the author, should I try it? She said yes, so here it is, one of the (very) few paper books I’ve picked up this year.
The first part of the back cover description says:
Wei Wuxian was once one of the most outstanding men of his generation, a talented and clever young cultivator who harnessed martial arts, knowledge, and spirituality into powerful abilities. But when the horrors of war led him to seek a new power through demonic cultivation, the world’s respect for his skills turned to fear, and his eventual death was celebrated throughout the land.
Sounds like a tough situation! I see that Wei Wuxian then wakes up years later in the body of a young man who sacrifices his soul so that Wei Wuxian can exact revenge on his behalf. That … was possibly a little over the top. But handy for the guy who gets to take over the body, of course. Let’s take a look at the opening:
“Rejoice! Wei Wuxian is dead!”
It hadn’t been a day since the Siege of the Burial Mound, and the news had already flown across the entire cultivation world as if it had sprouted wings. The speed was only comparable to how fast the flames of war had spread back then, if not faster.
Suddenly everyone, whether they were prominent clans or rogue cultivators, was discussing this operation of vanquishment that had been led by the four great clans and attended by hundreds of sects both big and small.
“Fantastic, fantastic indeed! Who was the hero who killed the Yiling Patriarch?”
Reading a few pages more, it looks like he wakes up again in his new body right away, thirteen years and four pages later. That’s good, because the story is going to have to carry the story. That sounds circular, but it’s not. In some novels, the style carries the story or the worldbuilding carries the story or whatever. Not here. The style here is very plain. I don’t mean plain, exactly. Ordinary? Cliched? Maybe that’s the word I want. I mean, here:
“It’s not all because of the cultivation path. At the end of the day, it’s still because Wei Wuxian was someone of bad character. He roused the wrath of heaven and the grudges of men. You know what they say: What goes around comes around; the heavens are watching…”
Three different cliched phrases in two sentences. I wonder how it reads in the original? Regardless, style is not a dealbreaker for me. There are a fair number of novels I enjoy very much at the story level, even though the style is not exactly all that and a bag of chips. I can think of three or four like that offhand. This is a beautiful edition with illustrations and I’m looking forward to reading it. There are four books in the series, btw, and they only had three of the four in the Dealer’s Room. I’m going to be annoyed if I really like this series and can’t get the fourth book in the same edition. I hate that. … And yes, I see, checking on Amazon, that the fourth book looks very different. Maybe it was never published in the same edition or something.
I started Grandmaster yesterday, by the way, and I’m already halfway through the first book. It’s fun, and also fits the relaxing reads category because it’s quite lighthearted. Wei Wuxia is not a guy who takes himself, or anything else, too seriously. I started enjoying the story at this paragraph:
He tripled checked that there was no mistake and cried This is ridiculous mentally ten times before rising to his feet with difficulty, supporting himself against the wall.
I laughed. That line certainly establishes the protagonist. When I needed a break yesterday, this is the one I picked up, and that line is why. As I said, I’m halfway through the book now.