Review: John C. Wright’s Awake in the Night Land.
William Hope Hodgson wrote some interesting stuff. I’ve only experienced two of his books, The Night Land and House on the Borderland, but both are just absolute treasures of creative thinking. House on the Borderland is thoroughly Lovecraftian but preceeding Lovecraft by a good ten years or so. The Night Land is the original, as far as I am aware, Dying Earth novel.
It’s also a terribly written slog. (Apologies to John C. Wright, who doesn’t seem to think so.) A week or two ago, a friend of mine commented that she didn’t know how such a fascinating book can be so terrible– and, to be honest, I think that’s a perfect description. The world of The Night Land is one in which the sun has died (WHH seems to infer that all the others are dead, too; JCW seems to infer that the solar system and/or earth is just shrouded in an otherworldly darkness.) and the last remnants of humanity are huddled by the millions in an 8 mile tall arcology-fortress, the Last Redoubt. The Last Redoubt has been under siege by various otherworldly and alien forces for millions of years, with no hope of that siege ever lifting; it is universally accepted that when the Redoubt’s defenses fail in the next 5 million years, humanity will end.
Enter into this world a man with memories of a previous life as 17th century gentleman that suddenly hears, coming out of the night, the telepathic voice of his wife Midrath, reborn as Naani in another, failing Redoubt somewhere out in the dark. Our narrator, unnamed in WHH’s novel, braves the horrors of the Night Land to rescue his eternal love.
John C. Wright’s Awake in the Night Land doesn’t deal with Andros, the narrator of WHH’s novel; instead, it gives us four stories set in that world. The first two, “Awake in the Night Land” and “The Cry of the Night Hound” deal with descendants of brave Andros– and possibly the third? I don’t recall, frankly, if the protagonist of “Silence of the Night” is of the house of Andros. The final story, “The Last of All Suns,” takes place in a setting that will be less familiar to those who have only read The Night Land but instantly familiar to readers of House on the Borderland— the end of the universe, when all things, material and immaterial, are returning to what I believe House called “the Central Sun” and Wright paints in more modern terms.
“Awake,” like the original novel, follows a love story, but now with a wrinkle; rather than the neat and orderly reincarnation of Andros and Mirdrath/Naani, the situation is a love triangle. “Awake” gives us two threads to follow, one in which the protagonist is adventuring into the Night Land to save his friends, and one detailing the events that lead to his friends escaping into the Night Land in the first place.
What’s great about “Awake” is that Wright gives us our first glimpse as to why the other powers are so awful. The Night Land shows us a world in which people would rather commit suicide than be captured; and while we understand that reincarnation means that you have to protect the soul from malign, othernatural taint, we don’t really see what that taint looks like in WHH’s novel. But Wright gives us a hellish glimpse of what, exactly, the forces of evil do their captured, and it is awful.
“The Cry of the Night-Wolf” runs a little long, in my opinion, but it’s an interesting conceit– once, animals served man. Why can they not serve man again? The narrator’s brother sets out to tame a breeding pair of Night-Hounds, one of the most feared creatures of the enemy, and the population of the Redoubt is understandably uncomfortable with this.
“Silence of the Night” is short and quick, and it’s here that we see the story starting to take on a bit of John C. Wright’s distinctive flavor. Almost immediately we see Wright invoking Stapledon’s Last and First Men and then adding his own flair to the culture of the Redoubt. It’s a little unfortunate, then, that the ending doesn’t quite seem to click with me; I had to reread the last few pages. It’s probably the weakest story in the bunch, but it’s still a great read.
“Last of All Suns” is my favorite here. One of the things I love about JCW is that you can be sure that when he writes science fiction, you’ll still have to deal with prediluvian men, sorcerers, or nymphs; in his fantasy, you’ll still be treated to the metaphysics of the Big Bang. In “Last of All Suns,” you get everything JCW can throw at you: Enoch, Neanderthals, Matter-Wizards from Tau Ceti. It feels more like a world of Wright’s creation than Hodgson’s, but in a way that doesn’t feel like he’s trying to usurp the mythos. Hodgson gave us a glimpse of the end of the universe in House on the Borderland from the perspective of a 18th or 19th century gentleman; Wright gives us a glimpse of that same end in multiple perspectives, but primarily one of modern physics/metaphysics. It’s a satisfying conclusion to both the book and the Night Land universe. (One personally highly satisfying element came when a suspicion I had about a relationship between The Night Land and House on the Borderland was confirmed.)
What Awake in the Night Land gives you is something very special indeed: The best of William Hope Hodgson’s imagination filtered through the imagination of a highly learned individual with a knack for good story telling.