Thursday, May 14, 2020

Short Story Book Club: Mortu and Kyrus in the White City by Schuyler Hernstrom


The Eye of Sounnu by [Schuyler Hernstrom]
Recently, Alexandru Constantin announced the Short Story Book Club to advance robust discussion and criticism of fiction. I’ve been looking for an excuse to read, review, and blog more, so I thought I would join in. The story is Mortu and Kyrus in the White City by Schuyler Hernstrom, which is found in The Eye of Sounnu.

Disclaimer

I feel the need to start with a short disclaimer concerning PulpRev, since Alexandru has been promoting Short Story Book Club under that banner. I’ve enjoyed interacting with many PulpRev authors. And I largely agree with and strive for many of the ideals of PulpRev in my own work, as far as I understand them. But because I don’t want to portray myself as an expert in something or as influenced by something that I am not, and I generally dislike categories, I’ve decided not to promote my own fiction under PulpRev, at least for now. So I wouldn’t call myself a PulpRev author.

The reason I bring this up is that to my understanding, the story under review is heavily influenced by the traditions behind PulpRev, traditions that I am not particularly familiar with. So my analysis will try to focus on the story itself, not on how it’s drawing from that tradition, and definitely not on how it relates to my personal storytelling approach.

But enough about me. On to the story. Spoilers below.

Setting

I enjoyed this story quite a bit, and it left me with a lot to think about. The primary thing I admire about it is how developed its setting is given its length. The author does something effectively that I consider a hallmark of good worldbuilding, where he mentions many interesting details in passing (and I’m not talking about just tossing out fantasy-esque names for common things—I hate that) but does not exactly explain the worlds history or many general facts about it. The result is a world that feels very large, since the reader begins asking questions and filling in the blanks.

The details provided, however, are grounded and specific, and the world is easily imagined. One of my favorite images was how one of the nomad warriors wore shoulder armor made from pieces of the exoskeletons of giant centipedes that lived in the desert.

From various conversations, especially between the main characters Mortu (a muscular barbarian warrior) and Kyrus (a Christian monk who has been transformed into a monkey) the historic struggle of humans versus the alien Illilissy can be assembled. The aliens came to the world, interbred with humans creating the northern barbarian race (that Mortu is a member of), and eventually left after being defeated by them, leaving behind technology ranging from Road Warrior style motorcycles and trucks to entire cities with decidedly more advanced technology.

This legend left me with many questions. Were the Illilissy actually extraterrestrials or simply more technologically advanced humans? Did they create all of the technology, or is some of it a remnant from the human side of the war? Is the story set on a future Earth? I assume the answer to the last question is yes, given the fact that Kyrus’s order is specifically Christian, as well as some of the place names lake “Zantyum” (Byzantium?) and “Amerza” (America?).

I love these questions, however, and I’m happy that Hernstrom created them. I feel like a visited a real place, big enough to have mysteries and aspects of its history that are not clear-cut.

Two Moralities

I’m a sucker for setting, but the other notable aspect of the story is the back-and-forth between the pagan Mortu and the Christian Kyrus.

It’s always welcome to encounter explicitly Christian characters in works of fiction, especially in stories like this one. While Mortu always sees things as black and white and acts decisively, Kyrus argues for a nuanced Christian morality between boasts about his intellect.

The conflict reaches a climax when, after discovering the sinister and abusive actions of the citizens of the White City, Kyrus argues that they should get external forces involved, while Mortu decides that justice is best served by killing everyone himself. Of course, Mortu only kills a dozen or two before some actions they took earlier end up killing everyone else indirectly.

The problem is, I’m not sure what the purpose of this moral conflict was, since it seemed like the author portrayed both sides as correct in some way. I could see an argument that the author intended  Mortu’s pagan approach of relying on his personal conscience to determine right and wrong and how to deal with it as the correct morality. However, Kyrus is certainly a protagonist, and not an uncharitable caricature. And I think that the author intended him to be a likable character, especially since the narrator often takes his viewpoint.

Perhaps contributing to to this interpretation is the fact that the character Nathia’s role in the White City’s abuse is ignored. While she revealed the problem to the protagonists, she evidently did nothing about it for twenty years, and she furthered the abuse by helping new children into the city via the caravan. One could argue that she was forced to do these things against her will, but she did defy orders in the story to warn the protagonists. Why didn’t she rebel earlier? In the end, Nathia is forgiven Mortu’s wrath because she had a change of heart and because she is a beautiful young woman. A more objective morality would not let her off the hook so easily.

Another possibility is that the author is using Kyrus’s ramblings to depict and argue against an overly-philosophized, stunted morality, while Mortu has the law written on his heart.

Complicating things, I didn’t discern any growth or change in either Mortu or Kyrus’ views. I have no problem with flat-arc characters, but if there’s no development and ambiguous interpretation, the moral conflict seems to serve little purpose other than the occasional joke.

At a higher level, if we take Alexandru Constantin’s view (from his original blog post) that this story is a “direct assault on the moral degeneracy of mainstream science fiction and fantasy,” it’s unclear to me on what basis that assault is being made. With God-revealed morality from Christianity? With philosophy? With arguments from conscience or what is natural? All of the above? Let me know what you think!

Even though this aspect of the story left me dissatisfied, it provoked interesting analysis.

Other Criticisms

In addition to the above points, I have a couple of smaller criticisms, but these are mainly based on personal preference.

I think the story would have been stronger with a single viewpoint character. This might have clarified which side of the moral conflict between Mortu and Kyrus the author intended the reader to take (if he did intend a correct side).

Also, descriptions tend to get in the way of the pacing of the story. As I mentioned above, specific details like the centipede armor really flesh out the world. But more generic observations, like the colors of everyone’s hair and clothing or the appearance of sunlight or starlight in a specific instances, often interrupt the story’s drive and diffuse tension.

Final Thoughts

Mortu and Kyrus in the White City is a great story on many levels. If the other stories in The Eye of Sounnu are half as good, it’s well worth picking up for fans of sci-fi and fantasy. It also provides a lot of material for discussion! I’m looking forward to reading what the other #ShortStoryBookClub bloggers have to say about it.

I’ll update the links section below as more reviews are written.

Review Links



For more exciting action and moral conflict, check out my new book The Fountain Mechanism, a follow-up to Uriel's Revenge.

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