It's not every day that I get a cold call from a publisher asking me to review an upcoming collection. It's even rarer that said collection contains work from several of my favorite writers.
Folks, I can't tell you just how fast I jumped at the chance to be among the first to lay eyes on The Penultimate Men, scheduled to be published the first week in July by Pilum Press.
Longtime readers of the blog will know I'm a fan of post-apocalyptic stories. But truth be told, with lockdowns, global pandemics, riots, and other such pleasant subjects saturating the daily news cycle for the last several months, I haven't been turning to the genre as much.
It's not that I've lost my taste for it. Not exactly.
What I've lost my taste for is the way most authors—and filmmakers—present it. The apocalyptic genre is one that easily lends itself to nihilism and misery. Think back to some of the most foundational works of the genre, and you'll see I'm right: Max Rockatansky being double crossed and used as bait, after finally agreeing to help the survivors in The Road Warrior. Charlton Heston's helpless, maddened scream on the beach at the end of Planet of the Apes. The trigger-happy posse executing Duane Jones at the end of Night of the Living Dead.
Sorry, but I've been getting plenty of doom and gloom on the news lately. I definitely don't want any more of it in my entertainment.
But folks, that nihilism and misery is not intrinsic to the genre. As proof, you need look no further than the stories contained in The Penultimate Men. If a collection of post-apocalyptic fiction could ever be called a breath of fresh air, this is surely it.
Authors Jon Mollison, Neal Durando, and Schuyler Hernstrom give the reader tales of heroism, brotherhood, and community. These are hopeful stories, full of wonder, awe, and struggle. Yes, the apocalyptic world presented here is dark. But the light of humanity burns as brightly as ever against that darkness. So what if those humans are sporting a few extra arms or eyes?
The collection opens with a thoughtful introduction by Misha Burnett, in which he discusses genre, tropes, and the loosely-shared universe concept behind the collection: to use the setting of a post-apocalyptic RPG as a starting point (Gamma World, by inference), and for each of the authors imagine a sort of "retro-apocalyptic" future, expanding on it with their own unique, fresh takes.
You heard that right, folks. What we have here is basically an unauthorized Gamma World anthology, written by some of the strongest indie voices working in the #PulpRev.
Jon Mollison offers up two stories, and the range he shows between them illustrates why he's quickly becoming my favorite writer of the apocalypse. The first, "Fire and Folly," is a short, simple coming of age tale a that packs a deceptively powerful emotional punch in its final lines.
The second, "Wind on the Water," is much more action oriented. Opening with an unexpected sighting of strange sails on the horizon and a call of alarm, the story follows mutant hero Wind and the rest of the odd inhabitants of his lakeside village as they try to discern if the strange fleet is attacking, or fleeing from some even greater threat. What follows is a tale of a desperate stand against impossible odds, featuring everyday protagonists—or as close as you're likely to find in this book—wretched monsters, and high stakes. This is the stuff pure adventure fiction is made of. And quite frankly, Mollison's short came closer to capturing the peculiar magic of the late David Gemmell's work than just about anything I've read since the Big Man's passing.
Neal Durando is a writer whose work I was entirely unfamiliar with prior to reading this collection, so his "Root Hog or Die" was my first exposure to his work. This beautifully written short brings the reader into the mind of the mutant in a way that few stories ever do. Its opening lines are delightfully, deliberately off-balancing. The characters, particularly the two-headed narrator Walbur/Wilbar, don't "think" entirely human, and Durando does an excellent job putting us there. But the tribe leader, Gordo, clearly does think in somewhat human terms. He suspects there's more to life than rooting for scraps and hunting, and wants to lead the tribe to the strange lights on the horizon. Definitely a story that will reward multiple reads.
"The Judgement of Daganha" by Schuyler Hernstrom is a sequel to his acclaimed novella, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City." In that story, Hernstrom used his barbarian and monkey duo to take on one of the sacred cows of science fiction, to wide critical praise. This time around, Hernstrom uses the pair to pay tribute to classic Sword & Sandal films of the 1960's, like Jason and the Argonauts or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Tightly plotted, with plenty of intrigue, action, and humor, "The Judgement of Daganha" manages the difficult task of improving on its predecessor, already an acknowledged classic among #PulpRev fans. Featuring scorching deserts, scheming cults, and giant scorpions, it's like the best Ray Harryhausen film you never saw, the one that only ever existed in your wildest imagination.
Take my word for it. If you're a Hernstrom fan, you need to buy The Penultimate Men for this story alone.
Rounding the book out are two essays by Jeffro Johnson, who brings the same level of analysis and lucid commentary that earned him fame for his landmark book, Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. "Starship" is a retrospective look at the game Metamorphasis Alpha, and how it relates to the mega-dungeon and Old School play. The other, "Symbiot," is a look at the literary (and film) inspirations for Gamma World. This essay serves as a sort of coda to Appendix N, and if you found yourself wishing you could get just one more taste of Jeffro's gaming/fiction commentary, you'll at least find it here, as he tackles Gamma World's unofficial "Appendix G."
The final verdict?
A new Mortu and Kyrus novella would be reason enough to buy this collection. The fact that the other characters you'll meet here are more than worthy of sharing their company is just an unexpected and added bonus. Once you meet them, I can promise you'll never forget Spearshaker, Ironmane, Wind, Gordo, or Wilbar/Walbur. Jon Mollison, Sky Hernstrom, and Neal Durando have given us heroes for the end times. What's more, they're heroes worth rooting for, with virtues we'd recognize in ourselves. Men who fight for family, home, and one another, rather than the usual parade of nihilistic survivors, selfish loners, and emotionally broken scavengers.
This is the apocalypse we deserve, genre fans. And it's been too long in coming.
The Penultimate Men will be available to purchase on Lulu.com. You can get it here.
Say one thing for Alexandru Constantin: you can't accuse him of being a man who complains without taking action.
Case in point: when he felt there weren't enough conservative voices in the critical sphere--an opinion he is far from alone in sharing, by the way—he decided to organize the Short Story Book Club. His stated goal is two-fold: create a body of conservative, countercultural criticism, and draw more attention to indie writers overlooked by mainstream media outlets.
I believe both of these ideals are 100% worthwhile, so I'm throwing my hat into the ring to help out.
The fact that the first story Constantin selected for this project is Schuyler Hernstrom's awesome novella, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City?"
Man, that's just gravy.
I first reviewed Hernstrom's story two years ago, when he released it as a standalone e-book on Amazon. You can find that spoiler-filled review here, and it still sums up my overall feelings on this story: It's a balls-to-the-wall awesome piece of science fantasy, the likes of which no one outside the #PulpRev community is writing anymore. It's also a brutally sincere and final rebuttal of Ursula K. Le Guin's Hugo-award winning parable, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."
I'm not going to rehash my old review here. Rather, I'm going to expand on it with a couple of details I noticed during last night's reread of both Le Guin's "Omelas," and of Hernstrom's vastly superior "Mortu and Kyrus." It's also probably going to be just as spoiler-filled as my first review, so be forewarned.
That said, a brief aside before continuing with the analysis:
In terms of pure entertainment, I can't recommend Hernstrom's story enough. And if all you're craving is a dose of pure, adrenaline-filled awesomeness with alien ruins, axe-wielding barbarians, motorcycles, and talking monkeys, then stop reading this review NOW. Buy Hernstrom's new collection, The Eye of Sounnu from DMR Books, which is where you can read this slice of pure heavy-metal havoc.
I promise, you won't be disappointed.
Reader, time has not been kind to my opinion of Le Guin's piece. I've never been much of a fan, mostly because the moral premise it presents is shoddy at best, but certain passages that I overlooked on previous readings jumped out at me last night.
In a nutshell, Le Guin's parable envisions a "perfect society," a perfectly happy city called Omelas, where that happiness is somehow maintained solely via the horrible abuse and neglect of a single child locked in a basement. The parable then talks about the "ones who walk away" upon learning of this suffering. They leave the city, never to return, and this is presented as "remarkable."
In previous readings, I guess I focused mostly on the "stinger" of the horribly abused kid sitting in his or her own filth, because I didn't really remember much of Le Guin's description of her vision of what Omelas' "perfect" society must look like—she repeatedly reminds the reader that they can picture Omelas however they like, as the details don't matter, just as long as the reader believes what he or she pictures.
Anyway, this short excerpt is rather telling, but the emphasis at the end is mine:
But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, and horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger, who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas—at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine souffles to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh. Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the glory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all. One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt. But what else should there be? I thought at first there were not drugs, but that is puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very arcana and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond belief; and it is not habit-forming. For more modest tastes I think there ought to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of victory, surely, the celebration of courage. But as we did without clergy, let us do without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial.
Apparently, utopia is a place of guilt-free orgies in the streets, cheap drugs, and no soldiers. Not to mention no organized religion or temples. In other words, the perfect society—or at least the outward veneer of one—is a hippie Utopia.
Color me shocked.
At any rate, what's especially fascinating to me is that last part in Le Guin's excerpt, the part about no soldiers.
To casually dismiss "the sense of victory and the celebration of courage" felt by soldiers as "the joy built upon successful slaughter" is—at best—a remarkably narrow-minded view of what fighting men actually do, and why they do it. Soldiers fight for many reasons, not least of which is to preserve life from hideous vultures like the ones in Omelas.
Incidentally, the word she's looking for to describe that odd, swelling-in-the-chest feeling about victory and courage? It's "honor."
And no, I won't presume the unnamed narrator of Le Guin's piece is acting as a mouthpiece for her personal beliefs. However, I will say that it's no wonder her narrator—who only sees a soldier's honor as a celebration of killing for killing's sake—can't imagine of any response to evil other than meek compliance or running away.
A coward's worldview can only conceive of coward's solutions, after all, and Le Guin wrote a damnably convincing one.
Compare this to Schuyler Hernstrom's characters, when they encounter a more fleshed out version of Omelas in his White City.
When they learn this near-perfect utopia is maintained through stealing the life-force of orphaned children, Christian monk Kyrus wants to go get reinforcements from the nearby city of Zantyum. He wants to raise an expedition to bring the evil denizens of the White City to justice. Barbarian Mortu, however, refuses to wait that long. His response is destined to become one of the classic lines in Sword & Sorcery fiction:
"You may talk of cities and justice all you wish. Tonight, the pagan wins. My anger will be sated and these wicked people brought to ruin."
He then stalks out into the night to deliver bloody justice on the end of a blade.
Fortunately for lovers of action and adventure, Hernstrom's White City isn't quite as peaceful or devoid of soldiers as Le Guin's vision of Omelas. There's enough violence on display at the climax to be satisfying without being the least bit gratuitous, especially Mortu's final duel with rival Tomas.
Their exchange during the climactic fight is another one that escaped me last reading, among all the other great lines Hernstrom delivers in this tale. Again, the emphasis is mine:
...Mortu smiled down at him and spoke. "The souls of the children cry out for vengeance."
That exchange might as well be a thesis statement for this tale, and for why I love these two characters so much. In Mortu and Kyrus, Hernstrom gave us a pair of heroes who couldn't just walk away from Omelas. He gave us heroes who not only had to do something, but who had both the courage and strength to tear the whole rotten thing down to its foundation.
Of course, that's a solution requiring a less cowardly worldview than the one presented in Le Guin's story. For one thing, it requires such "fearful" and "trivial" things as honor, a subject about which her narrator apparently knows nothing.
Fortunately, the same can't be said for Mortu and Kyrus. Nor could it be said, one would suppose, for Schuyler Hernstrom.
Since its publication, much has been made of the connection between Schuyler Hernstrom's new post apocalyptic sci-fi novella and Ursula Le Guin's Hugo-winning short, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."
I'll touch on that connection in a bit, but if you're still on the fence about reading this, let me help you out.
Do you like barbarians? How about motorcycles? Settings that feel like a combination of Vance's Dying Earth and Mad Max? Enjoy witty banter between two likable heroes? Do you like TALKING MONKEYS?
Then stop reading this review right now. Go to Amazon immediately, and buy a copy of "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City."
If I could describe this book using only one sentence, it's like somebody spilled Jack Daniels on a stack of old Heavy Metal magazines with Motorhead blaring in the background. It's random pages from Gary Gygax's Appendix N, screamed out loud over the analog hiss of a bootleg Manowar tape. It's D20s rolling across the cover of the Player's Handbook, with a blacklight illuminating the Led Zeppelin poster on the wall and Black Sabbath's Sabotage playing on the hi-fi stereo.
It's the sort of gonzo, kitchen sink science-fantasy mashup that made old school D&D so balls-to-the-wall awesome.
Bottom line, this story flat-out fucking rocks.
And if none of that convinces you to buy this book, then gentle reader, I don't think I can help you.
Like all of Hernstrom's work so far, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" is actually easy to summarize. Northern barbarian Mortu and his companion Kyrus—a human priest trapped in the body of a monkey—encounter a swarm of desert nomads attacking a caravan. Mortu swings into action, saving the caravan and its precious cargo. The pair are then invited back to the White City, the mysterious, ancient ruin the travelers have taken for their own. The barbarian and the small monk accept, grateful for the rest. But the seemingly utopian society the travelers have built in the White City holds a dark secret.
If you're familiar with Le Guin's famous short, you can already guess at the nature of that secret. If not, well...
I'm about to go into it, so from here on out the review will CONTAIN MAJOR SPOILERS, both for "Mortu and Kyrus" and for "Omelas."
"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is more of a parable than a story. Wikipedia calls it a work of "philosophical fiction," which I guess is a good enough description. There are no characters, no conflicts, little else except the setting, and even that's kept deliberately vague.
In it, an omniscient narrator describes the city of Omelas as a perfect society, one in which everyone is happy except for one small child. That child is kept in a basement, abused, half starved, and suffering. The suffering of the child is somehow tied to the happiness of everyone else. If the child is ever shown kindness, ever taken out of the basement, ever so much as washed to clean his or her own excrement off, then everyone else in the society will be unhappy. The narrator describes how the citizens of Omelas find various ways of justifying the child's suffering as "necessary." The exceptions, of course, are the titular "Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," those who learn of the child's suffering, cannot abide it, and leave the city forever.
Quite honestly, I never understood the appeal of Le Guin's piece. It struck me as a half-assed attempt at presenting an ethical thought experiment, like the trolley problem. And when I say half-assed, I don't mean the writing. Le Guin is pretty much beyond reproach in terms of prose.
I mean it's half-assed in the construction of the ethical problem.
The moral dilemma presented in "Omelas" is simple and straightforward: preserve utopia by permitting the unspeakable suffering of one, or relieve that suffering and destroy utopia?
The problem I always had with "Omelas" is that those two things are in no way equal, at least not in the way the story lays them out. No indication is given that the citizens of Omelas will suffer genuine consequences if someone helps the child. No one will die. No one else will be tortured. The only consequence is that their idyllic perfection will vanish, and they'll somehow be "unhappy."
I could honestly never see the moral dilemma there, even as a teenager. Choose between vaguely defined happiness and torture? What the hell is there to think about? Torturing the kid is wrong. Full stop. End of discussion. Jesus, how is this even a question!?
Well, Hernstrom plays with a similar set-up in "Mortu and Kyrus." But in my opinion, he does something infinitely more interesting with Le Guin's premise.
Scratch that. He does two things:
The first is that he gives a reason for the citizens of the White City to engage in the horrific torture of the child, as well as real consequences for them should the torture ever stop.
As Mortu and Kyrus learn, the ancient architects of the city left behind advanced technology. Chief among the relics is a machine capable of rendering those within the city immortal, but it does so by painfully draining the life force of one person over the course of several years. The citizens of the White City purchase orphans from nearby settlements to feed the machine, rationalizing that the life of one unwanted child is a small price to pay for their own god-like existence. If the machine ever stops, their immortality ends, the centuries will catch up with them, and they'll die.
It's an important change. With something more on the line than "happiness," the torture and brutality take on a more realistic, believable dimension.
The second interesting thing Hernstrom does is that he actually answers the moral question Le Guin never really got around to presenting.
See, the trolley problem forces the subject to choose between two unspeakable wrongs. It's a true ethical dilemma: which of these equally awful things is the "right" choice? "Omelas," on the other hand, presents us with a clear right and a clear wrong, and then pretends its asking a deep question by rigging the answer.
What do I mean by that?
Le Guin only ever tells us about two groups of people: Those who stay in Omelas, giving tacit consent to the torture, and "the ones who walk away." The sight of the child shakes them to the core, they cannot live in such an awful place, so they leave.
But the ones that walk away are just as guilty as those who don't. They're still allowing the torture of the child to continue, only they can partly absolve themselves of responsibility since they're not enjoying any of the benefits.
Even so, given the choice between "vaguely-defined happiness for the many" and "objectively measurable torture and child abuse," literally everyone in the story chooses child abuse.
This is another reason I've never gotten what people see in this story. For all that "Omelas" is touted as some deeply philosophical think-piece, it's really not much more than a nihilistic statement about human nature.
Sorry, but I already get enough of that outside my fiction.
Fortunately, there's absolutely none of that nihilism on display during the climax of Hernstrom's tale. Instead, the author gives the only answer to Le Guin's question that I ever really believed in. Not only does Mortu save the child and ensure the destruction of utopia, he gives that destruction a head start, taking up his shield and his battle axe, and killing anyone who comes within reach.
Just prior to writing this review, I re-read "Omelas" to reacquaint myself with it. This quote particularly stuck out:
"They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians."
Contrast that quote against Robert E. Howard, one of Hernstrom's biggest cited influences. Howard's main recurring theme was civilization's corruption and decadence, as opposed to the savage but straightforward barbarians on the fringes.
On this re-reading, Omelas struck me as the ultimate expression of the decadent, corrupt civilizations Howard's barbarian heroes rail against. A perfect and peaceful veneer, hiding a rotten core. But if Omelas is the ultimate expression of decadent civilization, the bloody path Mortu carves through the White City is the ultimate refutation of it.
Schuyler Hernstrom sees our Ursula Le Guin. And he raises us a Robert E. Howard.
"Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" is available on kindle for $0.99.
If you travel in pulp sword and sorcery circles long enough, sooner or later you're going to run into the name Schuyler Hernstrom. And with good reason. Few writers working today have grasped the pulp S&S aesthetic as throughly as Hernstrom. The stories in this collection deliver old-school action, weird fantasy, and hard-hitting heroes.
Originally appearing in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, "The Challenger's Garland" is the only reprint. The story follows Molok, a ringwraith-like servant of the Death God, on his journey to challenge yet another champion in his lord's name. The tale is short, and there aren't any real surprises here. Especially not after we're introduced to Lobon, the champion. Even so, Hernstrom's telling is immensely satisfying. Rather than feeling predictable, the linear nature of the story gives the events a sense of finality, and portrays the characters as slaves to an inescapable fate.
"Athan and the Priestess" is the story that gives this collection its title. Athan, warlord of the steppes, receives a vision from Thune, the tribe's dying wizard. Athan is tasked with crossing the magic wall separating the steppe from the lands to their ancient enemies, the Ullin. There, he is to lay with the Ullin High Priestess and father a mighty son. The following adventure is a fantasy in the classic Weird Tales mode, with strange sorcery, wicked goddesses, and ancient towers.
"Movements of the Ige" is almost a science fantasy. The story details a ritualistic battle between the primitive, lizard-like denizens of an unnamed planet. The proceedings are interrupted when an otherworldly "egg" drops from the sky, bringing with it some alien explorers. Once again, there are few surprises here. But Hernstrom paints an exceptionally vivid and well-realized culture among the lizard-like Ige in this short tale.
"The Ecology of the Unicorn" is more-or-less a Vance pastiche. While not explicitly set on Vance's Dying Earth, Hernstrom's work here recalls the earlier, loosely-linked shorts that made up the first Dying Earth collection, especially "Turjan of Miir" and "Mazirian the Magician." The plot is simple enough: the wizard Malathiksos seeks immortality, demanding the help of a captive fae creature named Rutu. The flourishes are what make this story stand out, and the flourishes are pure Vance. In other hands, this one would be a complete misfire, but Hernstrom pulls it off admirably. The ironic twist ending is a hat-tip the master himself would have probably enjoyed.
The longest story in the collection, and probably my favorite, is "Adalwolf's Saga." In a pseudo-Norse/Germanic culture, Adalwolf must avenge his father's death against a rival warlord. The initial battle goes poorly, with only Adalwolf and his brother, Gasto, escaping the field. At first believing himself cursed, Adalwolf soon gains the favor of the All-Father. But his righteous quest for vengeance gradually twists into self-serving ambition, and Gasto questions whether or not the All-Father will be pleased.
It's incredibly rare for me to buy a single-author collection and enjoy every story. Thune's Vision was an exception.
If you enjoy reading the pulp greats of yesteryear, particularly Robert E. Howard or Jack Vance, then I highly recommend this collection. It might not be up to the lofty standards of those two masters, but it scratches that old-school itch in a way that most modern fantasy doesn't.
Thune's Vision is available on Kindle for $2.99. There's also a paperback edition available for $5.00.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.