Horizon: Zero Dawn Has a Secretly Upbeat Message About Human Destiny

I’ve been playing a decent amount of the new game Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s been justly praised on the basis of its very capable following of the open-world blueprint of games like Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption, and Far Cry. But the world has also gotten a lot of attention – the game imagines a distant future where civilization has basically collapsed, but there are many technological holdovers from a long-forgotten past.

That includes lots of huge robots which, I’m sure for Reasons, resemble dinosaurs and sabretooth tigers, and which make up the (really, really fun to blow up) main enemies of the game. But it also includes a lot of mundane objects, from ceramic mugs to corkscrews to a Bluetooth headset (more or less) that’s central to the game’s plot and mechanics. The humans interacting with this stuff have no idea how it works – the entire setting hinges on the dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology resembles magic.

The game’s approach to time and human collective memory, though, are what I think really set it apart. Post-apocalyptic stories are a dime a dozen, but that’s not what this is, despite the sense that there’s been a technological catastrophe. In Mad Max or Fallout, there’s a sense of nostalgia for the lost past, and a struggle to survive in a harsh present. They seem to reinforce, in that way, the inherent value of the real world we live in now – they suggest that we should treasure what we have, because look how horrible things would be if we lost it.

But things aren’t that horrible at all in the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn (these dual titles are really unwieldy, execs). There are wars and conflicts, but humans now live in fairly well-structured, semi-primitive tribes and proto-nations, including farming and hunting societies. They’re not 21st Century America, but they’re not some sad vestige of a glorious past. They’re just different, functioning societies.

And they don’t pine for any past, either. The builders of the technology they see all around them are more mysterious ‘others’ than direct forebears, closer to ancestral gods than actual people. There’s no powerful sense that protagonist Aloy and her people have ‘lost’ anything – this ecosystem of strange and dangerous robots, and occasional technological scraps, is simply the world they live in, and make their living from.

This sense a much different message about human fate than the standard postapocalypse narrative, and considering that we’re likely headed for something catastrophic pretty soon, it’s a bit of a light in the darkness. Humanity (according, ahem, to this video game) is robust enough to survive up and down cycles – while we may recede from the progress and horror of the 20th century, there will still be an essential humanity to us, and we will continue. We will make hunting armor out of car reflectors, and maybe that’ll be enough to propel us to the next good patch.

On Lucius Shepard, The Novella, and Weirdness

I’ve become moderately obsessed in the last few months with the writer Lucius Shepard. I was lucky enough to hear his name dropped on a weird fiction podcast, I’ve actually forgotten which, maybe Cromcast. I was initially underwhelmed when I had a look on Amazon – almost none of his work is in print, except in ebook editions whose design makes them seem, frankly, just short of amateurish.

Of course, many of you will know that Shepard was a luminary of sci-fi for a time. But, now that I’ve read a mid-sized sampling of his work, I find the fading of his star since then totally baffling. He was something close to a genius, and he demonstrated with blinding clarity the most profound potentials of weird fiction. His stories melded emotional depth with surreal imagery and supernatural happenings, using effortlessly beautiful and believable language to render the electrified ghosts of Vietnam casualties, a sleeping dragon casting subtle spells, a poisoned jungle plotting to save itself from destruction by man.

He manages the itself-supernatural trick of perfectly balancing finely detailed, realistic and emotionally weighty characters, substantive and propulsive plots, and unhesitant strangeness.

Shepard completely avoids cliche – none of the ghosts or dragons do quite what you expect them to. Even more impressive are the junkies and brain-damaged boxers and construction workers who themselves become implicated in the unreal, who slip into realms beyond and make that transition part of the still very real lives they lead.

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In his heyday, Shepard was hardly unknown – he won a Nebula award and a World Fantasy Award, among others. Yet his work is less visible than the latest “Cthulhu by Gaslight” schlockfest. There are several reasons for this, some perhaps inevitable and structural, but also some that fans and writers of weird fiction should pay serious heed to, if they care about the long-term health of this community.

It doesn’t help that he was an older (and now, tragically, dead before his time) writer, in a genre full of young-ish men and women who are at readings and on Twitter frantically clamoring for your attention. But he’s not, at the same time, old enough to join the mythical pantheon ala Lovecraft, Howard, or Clark Ashton Smith (the last of whom, by the way, Shepard is vastly superior to).

He was awkwardly in-between in another way. Shepard’s obituary pointed out that his taste for writing the novella helped keep him marginal. It’s the perfect length for what Shepard does, long enough to draw a reader into a very detailed dream-like world, to generate empathy for a central character, and to unfold a meaningful plot – but still lean, without, in particular, the novel’s lengthy dialogues.

It’s also, unfortunately, long been a wildly uncommercial form. Now that we live in the heyday of the edited volume, even short stories are far more marketable than novellas – a moderately successful writer and writing coach recently posited to me that 4,000 words is the most salable length for a short story. The best works in The Best of Lucius Shepard are closer to 12,000 words.

But that, I have some hope, might be changing – if not in time for Shepard’s own legacy, then at least for future fans of the novella. The rise of electronic publishing makes the physical dimensions of a book almost irrelevant. And novellas can be easily sold for the appropriate-seeming price of 99 cents or so.

(I’m actually about to experiment with this myself.  Before I had any sense that stories were things you sold, I would simply write them until they felt like they were done – which is how I ended up spending 12 years on and off trying to sell an 11,000-word story now called in night we coax things out of hidden shapes. I will be releasing it as the first Blown Horizonz publication in a few weeks – please sign up for our newsletter for updates and some upcoming giveaways.)

For another underappreciated genius, read here about M. John Harrison.

But there’s another, more deeply worrisome interpretation of Shepard’s marginality – one which might be blamed on one of Shepard’s own most important heirs. Jeff Vandermeer may be the living Weird writer whose command of the intersection of truth and weirdness is closest to Shepard’s. But it was also Ann and Jeff Vandermeer who – for a lot of very good and laudable reasons, and with a lot of laudable results – have really given life to The Weird as a genre. They’d maybe object to that characterization of their editorial project, but it’s essentially inescapable.

And genres, and their audiences, are inimical to writers like Lucius Shepard. He has been often compared to the Latin American writers of Magical Realism, and the contrast is productive. Those writers, from Marquez back to Cervantes sideways to Borges – are part of a tradition, not a genre. They have a command of a worldview, not a set of tropes. And a genre can’t be anything so nebulous or alive, because ultimately it’s a market category. A set of recycled tics and monsters and scenes and gestures. On some level, it’s a shell for mediocrity, in readers as well as writers.

Luckily, I don’t think weird fiction is there yet. There is undeniably a lot of lazy crap out there, in fact an increasing amount of it. But the darkness could be neutered, if we’re not careful. Probably the best insurance against that is to cast skepticism on mediocre recyclings of the predictable, to continue venerating uncomfortable freaks like Thomas Ligotti and Michael Cisco – and to add Lucius Shepard to that list.

Capsule Review: SP4RX, Wren McDonald

SP4RX Wren McDonald Akira

NoBrow press is a generally amazing home for weird visual material in a sci-fi or fantasy vein (and now, it seems, of a line of kid’s volumes for hipster parents who want to warp their seed from birth). But they have a pretty minimalist house style, so when Wren McDonald’s SP4RX comes billed as a “stoner Akira,” it’s no big surprise that doesn’t encompass the meticulous, almost tactile virtues of Otomo Katsuhiro’s landmark work.

You might think, in fact, that “stoner Akira” is a little redundant – but Akira is more of a cheap-speed jam, with all those fine lines and hyperviolent deaths. SP4RX has a similar techno-dystopian setting, and a similar fight against authoritarian evil, but it’s all a lot more laid back. The drawings are cartoonish and approachable, though still occasionally evoking a sense of wonder at the great/awful future.  And the dialogue is of the affectless punk variety, lowercase, minimal punctuation, offhand. The sort that resists intensity.

What you get instead of that Akira intensity is a certain stoned charm, as a hacker hero and friends, including a cute/dangerous robot, work their way through a straightforward but relevant plot about class and the threat automation poses to workers. Some of the scenes are really fun, and you get to see a lot of bad guys blown up in very satisfying ways.

I could see this being a bingeworthy ongoing series, and in many ways this volume looks and feels like the setup for one (though unfortunately outside of Japan, it’s tough to pull off). The line art and simple monotone coloring would make it easy to churn out a lot of pages, and it’s the kind of thing I could zone out with on the couch for many, many hours. The current volume, at about 120 pages, really seems to barely get you in the zone before it’s over, but it’s a warm and fuzzy ride while it lasts.

AMREADING: M. John Harrison, The Centauri Device

I’ve just finished M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device, which I picked up for a very well-spent $12.50 from Sarasota’s pretty awesome Parker’s Books last week. It’s a great piece of work on its own, but particularly interesting to me because it was Harrison’s third novel, published in 1974 – and there’s no contemporary writer whose artistic evolution is more fascinating, challenging, and inspiring to me than Harrison’s.

If you’re not familiar with Harrison, don’t beat yourself up. He’s a very unfairly lesser-known member of the so-called New Wave of science fiction writers of the 1960s and 1970s, centered mainly in Britain, and also including Samuel R. Delaney, Harlan Ellison, and Michael Moorcock. Like Delaney, he started his career working pretty firmly in the mold of adventurous sci-fi, then went with great determination in sometimes extremely strange directions. He’s most frequently compared to Moorcock, but at his most weirdly adventurous – A Storm of Wings and In Viriconium – Harrison creates more hallucinatory worlds and more convincingly acidic characters than Moorcock, using language that simultaneously pushes the boundaries of sensibility and penetrates the truth.

What’s even more interesting about Harrison – to a writer, at least – is that after pushing things so far into the formally and substantively bizarre in the Viriconium books, he took a rather drastic turn into more subdued psychological realism, then returned to sci-fi with slightly more conventional novels like Light – which is, incidentally, a fair preview of Anne Leckie’s recently highly praised Ancillary series.

In short, he’s a master at multiple styles, and reading his mature work is a sure way for a writer to get discouraged. But what about the earlier books?

The Centauri Device is, on one level, quite encouragingly straightforward. The essence of the plot is not just spare, but clichéd – the last living member of an alien race is also the only key to operating an ancient superweapon, and several factions vie to capture or control him. The central character is also a fairly standard-issue Space Rogue, and the factions rotating around him are Space Empires, Space Rebellions, and Space Religions. It’s fun, quick, and, structurally, not particularly ambitious.

But in the details of Centauri, there are clear signs of what Harrison would deliver in A Storm of Wings six years later – strange poetry, bizarre imagery, and most of all, characters that by design don’t live up to their roles as heroes. In Centauri, that’s John Truck, the secretly-last-of-his-race who, though he shows a few flashes of concern and initiative, is for most of the novel a passive layabout, putting his greatest effort into avoiding responsibility.

But the factions battling to control Truck are even less appealing than he is, a collection of bullies and manipulative zealots. The sole (maybe) exception is a crew of anarchist pirates, who seem to have laudable motives, but aren’t able to make much of them. In short, it sounds like a space opera in outline, but it undercuts the easy good-vs-evil polarity that dumb fiction of all sorts continues to hinge on to this day. There really aren’t any good guys.

It’s just as nihilistic as it sounds – and readers who want ‘fun’ are going to be bummed right out. But it’s not joyless – what saves it, and more than saves it, is the same wealth of non-descriptive descriptions and turgid-yet-profound turns of phrase that define the Viriconium books. Here, in a particularly great example, are the dying words of one of the book’s more admirable characters:

“You were there when she bled into the dyne fields, you saw the substance of her flaring out like ritual evidence of the future. I believe she was near to her proper place, then.”

It’s not clear what this means, even in context. But there is a weight and precision here that makes it at least seem that Harrison had some sense of its meaning, was trying to point towards that meaning, worked on these words. There are tensions between them, allowing possible interpretations.

Or this description of a spaceship in action:

Precarious and hungry, hovering on the edge of the time when its prey might come into season, like a huge fragile insect against the gloomy bulk of the earth, it spun and darted – extruding its armament and making playful threatening passes . . .

What’s really glorious about this is that you don’t have much visual image of what the thing looks like – but you have what’s better, a rich feeling of the experience of seeing it. It’s the same trick that Harrison would later pull with the superficially mundane villains of A Storm of Wings. They’re just giant insects – dying giant insects, at that – but because every description is inflected with this kind of emotional resonance, they’re deeply unnerving.

Plenty of readers are frustrated with Harrison’s combination of nihilism and verbosity, and the Amazon reviews of this are a fun read. The ending in particular is a giant Fuck You to conventional heroism. But that sense of challenge is exactly why the book is still so much more worthwhile than most of its contemporaries.

As far as what that means for a writer, trying to measure himself against the arcs of the people he admires? On the one hand, Centauri is, again, encouragingly straightforward in structure. A lot happens, but it’s all linear. My own current project is on shaky ground in that regard, with several entwining threads and an inevitable measure of jumping around through time. Which is another way of saying that discovering that linear simplicity is in itself a skill.

And, though there are those flashes of intense subtlety, a lot of The Centauri Device is written fairly straightforwardly. Overall, it’s a reminder that you have to walk before you run, and this is one of the great writers walking, with occasional sprints, trying out his legs.

The real x-factor here, of course, is Harrison’s timing. He both loved the SF of his time, and was frustrated by it. The Centauri Device isn’t just a book – it’s a strategy of a moment, which is the main reason it may still hold interest for those of you who aren’t total word nerds. Most evocatively, it’s worth considering that John Truck – the lackadaisical anarchist smuggler – appeared three years before Han Solo – the lackadaisical anarchist smuggler. I’m not suggesting there’s any direct influence, but the two are a product of the same moment, of a related subversion of space opera.

The big difference is that Solo redeems the archetype for tradition, ultimately choosing to serve the ‘good’ guys. John Truck has no such comforting delusions.

Though it doesn’t exactly seem to be currently in print, you can get The Centauri Device in several formats on Amazon (isn’t the future grand?). I recommend the 1974 hardcover, available for 20 or 25 dollars with shipping.