One-A-Day: John Wright, Fugitives of Chaos

I feel like finding new authors to like in genre fiction can be quite difficult. You know who you already like, but the marketing of work by new authors often makes them seem either as if they’re derivative of someone you like (and therefore suspect) or totally unlike anyone you like (and therefore suspect).

I do a lot of my book buying through Amazon, but one thing I still do in the bookstore is go up and down the science-fiction section to see if there are titles, authors, book covers or even spines that look unfamiliar. You have to do it somewhat often because the average Borders doesn’t keep newer work in stock for very long unless it hits big right at the start. I make a certain amount of “spec buys” of SF and fantasy paperbacks so that I don’t miss the first book in a series that I come to like, or end up having to chase down earlier work by an author who gets some reputation. Once I like someone, I tend to buy most of what they do up to the point that it starts to be seriously bad in some fashion. (Say, the way that certain famous SF authors start to churn out really weak stuff, sometimes with co-authors or ghosts, as they get near the end of the road. I appreciate all the stuff you’ve written that I’ve loved, folks, but let’s keep the memories happy, k?)

John Wright is one of the “new” authors I found this way. (Probably the better and cheaper way to do it is read genre short stories imore regularly, but for some reason, I’ve never found SF and fantasy short stories that satisfying, with some notable exceptions.) I really loved his trilogy that began with The Golden Age and ended The Golden Transcendence. His second series, a contemporary fantasy that begins with The Last Guardian of Everness, was also a good read.

So I grabbed his new book, Orphans of Chaos, with eagerness. And I stuck with it through Fugitives of Chaos, the sequel.

I really should like these books. I like the author’s previous work, and they have some of the same mix of dense intellectual referents, lightly postmodern self-referentiality, and conceptual inventiveness. Plus they focus on mythology, in particular Greek mythology, which I’ve been a sucker for in speculative fiction ever since I read the D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths. I should like them, so I made myself work through them. (Normally I give up fairly quickly on genre fiction that isn’t working for me.)

Why don’t they work? In the most basic sense, because there simply isn’t much of a plot. If a work of speculative writing is going to throw some of the craftsmanlike pleasures of disposable fiction overboard, it had better have some other kind of aesthetic tricks and compensations to offer me. In two books, the basic narrative of this series has scarcely advanced: the first two books substantially repeat the same elements. In the first, the lead characters uncover some of the secrets of their own identity, plot an escape, and are recaptured, whereupon all but one of them has their memory reset. In the second, the lead characters uncover the secrets of their identity (though one of them remembers previous events), learn a few mildly new things about what’s going on behind the scenes, plot an escape and appear to escape successfully. Along the way, there’s also some weirdly squicky stuff going on about sex and bondage where I can’t really tell what Wright thinks he’s doing, exactly.

More importantly, however, a huge amount of both books is delivered in the form of an internal monologue, in huge gobs of tedious exposition. That exaggerates the lack of incident and action, and it’s all the worse because the protagonist is either tedious or lacking altogether in an internally consistent character.

I think that’s the key problem, in the end. It took me a while to figure out what was really bugging me. The lead characters are mythological beings who are being kept as secure hostages to prevent the outbreak of an apocalyptic war between two major mythological factions. Wright can’t really settle on a distinctive individual personality for his protagonist or on a kind of stable “cultural” sense of who his characters are. They mix antiquarian and high literary references with contemporary pop culture and fantasy references in a way that never feels convincing or consistent. His gods and monsters don’t seem to live in the world, among mortals, the way that sometimes is the case in contemporary fantasy. (As in the somewhat-Potter-derivative but entertaining Percy Jackson books, for example.) But their cultural and psychological referents are often drawn from human history and contemporary society.

In the end, this is what even low-intensity world creation is about in fantasy. It’s not necessarily about the full-monty Tolkienesque population of a consistent alternative world with languages, architectures, histories, cartographies and the like. It’s about establishing some parameters for the characters so that they make sense, so that we can relate their internal histories as beings to some kind of external milieu. You don’t have to do that for me if I’m reading about middle-age ennui in suburban America, and you don’t have to do that for me if I’m reading a fantasy that straightforwardly recycles established tropes. (No need to explain to me what a wise old wizard, a young hero and a wisecracking sidekick think about a dark lord up the road who is terrorizing the local yeomanry, for example.) You do have to do that for me if you’re consciously intending to mix things up a bit, unless your fiction is so self-referentially postmodern that it is deliberately eschewing niceties like setting, characters and plot in favor of metacommentary of some kind. Wright’s not doing that either in these books.

I’ll still be back in the bookstore buying up Wright’s next series of books, but unusually for me, I’m two books into this trilogy and it’s over and out for me.

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1 Response to One-A-Day: John Wright, Fugitives of Chaos

  1. cgbrooke says:

    I’d heard good things about Wright, but never read him, so I picked up the first Chaos book, and had a lot of trouble understanding why I’d heard good things–I didn’t enjoy it for some of the same reasons you detail above. I’ll try something older, though…

    I do the same thing for f/sf in terms of browsing the bricks & mortar. And it drives me crazy crazy crazy to find the 2nd book in a series when the store isn’t stocking the first. Borders probably loses 10-15 sales a year from me that way.


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