Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Night Land: A Partial Review

Imagine, if you will, a future so distant that the very existence of the Sun is but a legend of ancient times, where the last dregs of humanity live in cowering fear inside a single Pyramid reaching 7 miles into the heavens, surrounded by monsters and half-breed mutants.
Imagine a million years of silence emanating from the Last Redoubt (for that is what the Pyramid is known as), and the host of silent Watchers of stone waiting for the last defences to collapse so that the faint spark of humanity that lies within can be finally extinguished.

Thus lies the basic premise of William Hope Hodgson's "The Night Land", a novel which I've just finished reading. And more than anything else, I have found it to be pretty disappointing. Let me start at the very beginning.

STYLE: Hodgson uses stilted prose like a crazed dwarf swinging a greataxe. He literally bludgeons one to death with his over-use of the literary styles of the late 17th century.

DEVICES: Considering that this was one of the first science-fiction novels ever written (1912), belonging to the Dawn Age of Imperial SF, one can sympathize with his choice of subject - the last citadel of Noble Humanity being battered down by the savage Hordes of sub-humans, a theme which has been tackled in various subtle as well as non-subtle ways by writers such as H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, the recurrent theme of the Others. Hodgson, however, cannot be forgiven for his misuse of the tacky literary device of being "warp-zoned" to the future in a dream. Yes, matey, the hero simply dreams of the far future, in such utter vividness that the mind boggles. Literary devices and constructions such as this should be tackled, nailed to the ground, and shot in the head with extremely fine-caliber rifles.

NARRATIVE: Or the lack of it. Hodgson describes, in excruciating detail, how the Hero (whose name we fail to discover) walks from one place to another, over a matter of fifty pages. Fifty pages of descriptive prose concerning how scared he felt, how tired he was, how the grass was long and the night was dark, until one wishes that the Hero would simply get discovered by one of the ScaryMonsters(TM) and get eaten. A fitting end to one of the most boring characters to have ever graced the pages of a novel.

POSITIVE POINTS: A lot. Which is why the disappointment, simply because I had expected much more from someone considered to be one of the greatest writers of science fiction. One catches glimpses of sheer genius in some parts of his prose, for example in the extract below:

Before me ran the Road Where The Silent Ones Walk; and I searched it, as many a time in my earlier youth had I, with the spy-glass; for my heart was always stirred mightily by the sight of those Silent Ones.
And, presently, alone in all the miles of that night-grey road, I saw one in the field of my glass--a quiet, cloaked figure, moving along, shrouded, and looking neither to right nor left. And thus was it with these beings ever. It was told about in the Redoubt that they would harm no human, if but the human did keep a fair distance from them; but that it were wise never to come close upon one. And this I can well believe.
And so, searching the road with my gaze, I passed beyond this Silent One, and past the place where the road, sweeping vastly to the South-East, was lit a space, strangely, by the light from the Silver-fire Holes. And thus at last to where it swayed to the South of the Dark Palace, and thence Southward still, until it passed round to the Westward, beyond the mountain bulk of the Watching Thing in the South--the hugest monster in all the visible Night Lands. My spy-glass showed it to me with clearness--a living hill of watchfulness, known to us as The Watcher Of The South. It brooded there, squat and tremendous, hunched over the pale radiance of the Glowing Dome.
Much, I know, had been writ concerning this Odd, Vast Watcher; for it had grown out of the blackness of the South Unknown Lands a million years gone; and the steady growing nearness of it had been noted and set out at length by the men they called Monstruwacans; so that it was possible to search in our libraries, and learn of the very coming of this Beast in the olden-time.

The passage extracted above reminds me, somehow, of H. G. Wells at the peak of his writing.

BOTTOMLINE: How I wish that Hodgson had been gifted with the power of story-telling to match his visionary imagination. How enriched literature would have been!

As for me, I'm on to the next novel. Will get back to you as soon as possible.

1 comment:

LitmusTest said...

You call the world in a dream to be a tacky device. But then may be.. just may be it was a huge craze back then in 1912 ;). If you like HG Wells more thats a different story. Well I havent read hodgson or wells all that much so can't say who is what. Just wanted to point out that you might have been a little too harsh to poor hodgson(may his soul rest in peace). :-)