Monday, April 17, 2017

You'll Surely Drown

You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay by Alyssa Wong has been nominated for a Hugo Award, and since the online conversation about the Hugo Awards is driven primarily by what authors look like, it might be nice to take a moment to do something very, very different - read the work in question and talk about the story itself.  Nutty, I know, but as a literary critic par excellent, it's just the sort of nuttiness that churns my butter.

The good news is that you can read the Hugo Nominated novelette* online for free right here.  The even better news is that you don't even have to read it!  If you're curious about, here's everything you need to know:

A witch-man goes off into the desert, marries her, and sires a were-desert named Ellis.  The local miners, fearful of such creatures do what comes natural and put that witch-man in the ground.  Their decision is proved wise when the desert buries the lot of them at the bottom of a silver mine in retaliation.  After a bit of literary faffing about, the story proper starts off with up with two tenderfoot businessmen and their Preacher-man guide meeting Ellis.  This story was nominated for a Hugo, so you can already guess that as businessmen, these are the villains of the piece, and that one of them harbors latent homosexual feelings for the other.  Gotta check those boxes, baby!

The two men, William and Samuel, might just be Ellis' uncles on his father's side - like so much in this story, it isn't entirely clear.  They deffo sing the same lullaby that Ellis' father used to sing to him.  At any rate, they work for a mining outfit, and if William can get to the mine, he can use his own witch-man powers to use an animated army of dead to do the mining.  That would save labor costs, save lives, and make him rich all at the same time.  What a bastard.  When Ellis realizes the full import of William's vile plan he attempts to kill the lot of them.  But Samuel skins his hog and gives Ellis a case of lead poisoning before Ellis can go full Tasmanian Devil on them.

What the two evil businessmen (but I repeat myself) don't realize is that the Preacher-man is Ellis' uncle on his mother's side, and like Ellis, can bring things back from the dead.  The Preacher-man does that voodoo that he do so well on Ellis, and Ellis takes the bones of all the people his mother killed back to town for a good old fashioned hootenanny complete with a lynching of the two men who killed Ellis in self-defense.  You know, one of those mean old men loves the same girl as Ellis, and offers to take her out of the whore-house and give her a life of ease back east?  The bastard surely deserved to die.

Ellis then turns the love of his life loose to go find a man to love who isn't Ellis...because when you love some one, you first kill anyone who loves her, then tell her to go find somebody else to love?  Then Ellis skips off to take his rightful place as the king of the dead lands.

Brace yourself for an extended metaphor here.  The Harlem Globetrotters have some astounding technical basketball skills.  They can do things with a basketball that make your head spin.  They dribble like monsters, dunk like beasts, and shoot the lights out.  It's incredible to watch.  Even as you marvel at their mastery of the game's tricks and fundamentals, you understand that what they are doing isn't really basketball.  In a straight up game with any NBA team, they'd get killed.  All of those tricks and all of that showmanship just doesn't translate to the actual game of basketball.

I think you know where I'm going with this:

Sweet Georgia Brown, It's Alyssa Wong!
Alyssa Wong is a writer who knows all the tricks, and can pull every single one of them off flawlessly.  The problem with You'll Surely Drown is that she uses them all to terrible effect.

The story is told in second person format.  A bold choice that makes perfect sense for instilling a sense of urgency and discomfort in the reader.  It can also be used to lend additional sympathy for the primary point-of-view character.  It's a great trick, but it just doesn't work in a story like this.  Putting the reader into the shoes of a wild child necromancer stretches things past the breaking point.  The additional cognitive dissonance created by translating the narrative from the second person serves as a constant distraction.  This story has layers of background that are gradually revealed throughout the course of the tale - background that would have been more naturally revealed through the use of more traditional framing devices.

This story is rife with payoff moments.  They happen over and over and over.  The reader goes through a constant cycle of wondering what the heck is going on one moment, only to be told that something else was going on the whole time the next.  Again and again and again.  Used sparingly, this style of story telling can hammer away at a reader and draw forth sudden reactions of delight.  Used repeatedly, they numb the reader, leaving each additional revelation no more special and no more magical than any other passage.

This series of writing exercises masquerading as a story is deliberately designed to be largely opaque.  Wong's writing is evocative, but dense, and her plotting and slow-drip information reveal demand constant attention on the part of the reader.  The resulting narrative reads more like a textbook than a proper story.  These can be a lot of fun to read - they are the basis of the entire mystery genre, after all!  But one of the biggest failings of Wong is that reading the story too closely destroys the narrative.  Everything the reader sees, he sees through Ellis's eyes, but Ellis' narration is one of the most unreliable ever sent to digital print.  He is utterly untrustworthy, and reading the story with the attention it demands exposes the reader to all of the cheap tricks and plot holes that ruin Wong's approach to the story.

Make no mistake about it, Wong has solid writing chops.  She knows how to use tempo, rhythm, word choice, and description to draw a reader in.  She knows how to layer detail and time those character beats to bring things to a riveting climax.  She has clearly spent years honing her craft.

It's a shame she squanders her skills on cheap tricks instead of genuine sportsmanship.

There's a great story here about an orphaned witch boy struggling to come to terms with himself and his power, and about how fear and retribution always rebound onto those who act out of a misplaced desire for vengeance over justice.  There's a story about impossible love and the conflict between civilization and nature.  There's a story about a girl forced to choose between the boy who loves her and the man who can care for her.  But Wong is too enamored of all her pretty little writing tricks and her misplaced faith in nature over man and cleverness over wisdom to write that story.  So instead we get the usual sort of ivory tower bouncing balls that make the fans of showmanship guffaw, rather than the workmanlike attention to story-telling and human nature that results in entertainment at its highest level. 

* Is anyone else amused that the name of the category whose nominations were swept by the fairer sex ends with the female diminutive suffix?  That kind of literary humor writes itself.


  1. Reminds me of a Jeffro review of a Kowal book for the Hugos - technically executed well, story itself is miserable crap.

  2. Excellent analysis. Do you know if anyone else on this side of the ideological divide is attempting this sort of read and dissect sort of thing? I'm trying to follow along with you, putting my theological .02 on the matter. Maybe we can start a sort of "Sad Puppies Book Club - Torture edition"?

  3. Tomas has a very different take on this story than I do. He looks at some deeper ramifications of the narrative over on his blog: