The first was In the Age of Iron and Ashes by Aliette de Bodard (available here as an mp3 and here in print courtesy of Beneath Ceaseless Skies), a complex and cerebral India-themed fantasy about a soldier, a war, the inevitability of death, and what it means to die. The story was beautifully written, the main character and his family evoked with such reality that I couldn't help but feel for him. In fact, In the Age of Iron and Ashes was nearly perfect, except... well, more on that to come.
The second was Biographical Notes to "A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes" By Benjamin Rosenbaum by Benjamin Rosenbaum (no, that's not a typo) (available courtesy of PodCastle). This was also a complex and cerebral piece about causality, narrative, and what it means to be a writer of fantasy. The story was beautifully written, with descriptions that jumped out of my car stereo, beat my brain into submission, and made me like it.
Although both stories were entertaining, Biographical Notes to "A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes" By Benjamin Rosenbaum was in my mind far superior to In the Age of Iron and Ashes for one important reason. To make that reason clear, I'll have to resort to two brief synopses:
Biographical Notes to A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes By Benjamin Rosenbaum tells us the story of Benjamin Rosenbaum, a fantasy writer in a world very little like our own. He is riding a zeppelin back from a writer's conference in a divided America, in the process of being sliced up by the colonial powers of India, China, and others. He begins to work on his newest project, but is diverted by a conversation with travelling prince and his consort. Over the course of this conversation, much of the setting is explicated and the philosophical point of the story is introduced.
But before Benjamin can finish his conversation, he is interrupted by an assassin, who tries to kill his conversation partner and possibly-soon-to-be-patron. Benjamin leaps into action, hoping to save the prince's life, and soon finds himself swinging from a safety cable far above the surface of the Great Lakes, leaping from airship to airship, defending his life to a pirate captain, and fleeing to - and then from - an enormous floating war-city covered in moving statues of Hindu gods. All the while, Benjamin contemplates the causes of his deepening predicament, making the story's philosophical and metaphysical points against a backdrop of action.
In the Age of Iron and Ashes opens promisingly enough with the main character, a soldier named Yudhyana capturing an escaped slave. The young woman later turns out to be descended from a line that once held divine blood. Yudhyana's superiors in his city's hierarchy hope that by forcing her to dance, divine wrath can be brought down on the army that comes to besiege the city, saving them all.
Yudhyana visits the slave in prison, contemplating death. He watches her dance, contemplating death. He watches her die, contemplating (you guessed it) death. Finally, he goes home dwelling on the bitter knowledge that nothing can save his family. He wakes up in the night to the shouts that tell him that he invaders have breeched the wall, murders his wife and children to save them the pain indignity of rape and slow deaths, and then goes forth to die himself, contemplating rebirth.
While Yudhyana's progression from near despair through real despair and finally to a kind of hope was interesting, In the Age of Iron and Ashes was hindered by the fact that nothing really happened. A girl who had no real hope of escape was captured, a city that had no hope of survival was destroyed, and a man watched it all happen while mostly thinking about death. There were no surprises here.
On the other hand, Biographical Notes to A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes By Benjamin Rosenbaum balanced a deeply personal and philosophical story with nonstop action. Things were always happening in Biographical Notes to A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes By Benjamin Rosenbaum. The narrator thought about his life, certainly, but he also leaped from airship to airship, had tense conversations with fellow prisoners, and fought to survive.
In Biographical Notes to A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes By Benjamin Rosenbaum I was riveted by what was happening. In In the Age of Iron and Ashes I held on in hope that something would happen soon and eventually left disappointed.
So what's the point? Make sure something is happening! A true burning zeppelin experience is an emotionally significant moment that happens against the backdrop of action. In my opinion - and in my work - neither can exist satisfyingly without the other.
But do listen to both stories - they're both quite good.
Watch out for airship pirates. And if they catch you, well, there's always your next life.
* * *
- Where else have you encountered another story that expressed great characterization and great craft but failed to have things actually happen?
- Where else have you encountered stories that mixed action and emotion (or contemplation) well?
- Does anyone else think after listening to Biographical Notes to A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes By Benjamin Rosenbaum that he ended up in the wrong world?