Genre: Sword and Planet, Steampunk
Paperback: 375 pages
Publication Date: December 4, 2012
Author Website: Mark Hodder
Though the title indicates an allusion to Heminway’s masterwork The Sun Also Rise Mark Hodder’s foray into sword and planet storytelling lacks little in common with that novel – except for a similar sense of disillusionment in its main character, Rev. Aiden Fleischer, one shared with the post-war generation Hemmingway depicted.
A Red Sun Also Rises is instead an analogy that explores the problem of evil and draws conclusions in line with most humanist thinking through a much underused subgenre of science fiction.
Sword and planet stories, though often dissimilar to each other in various respects all share a key element: an Earthman transplanted to another world. Edgar Rice Burroughs famously did this with his John Carter novels (recently cinema-ized) , and Jack Vance in his Dying Earth series. But not much writing of this stamp has appeared in recent years.
Hodder’s The Red Sun Also Rises follows the Rev. Aiden Fleischer, a man religious by tradition rather than conviction, who along with his humpbacked sexton Clarissa Stark, travels through a rift in space and time to a world with twin suns and curious sentients that look like nothing more than walking, talking mussels.
Perspectivally written as if from a recovered journal by Fleischer, the story begins in the mid-1800s, where uninteresting Fleischer, with a bit of Christian charity, takes in a beggar woman and makes her his sexton. Ms. Stark, a gifted engineer maimed as a child, was treated cruelly by the son of the man that taught her the power of machines. These two have a tranquil life, till a romantic upheaval forces the heart-wounded Fleischer, to take the drastic step of becoming a missionary and dragging Clarissa along with him.
It is on the mission field that the two encounter the strange rift that will take them to a whole new world, and the strange malignancy that dwells there.
There is much to like in Hodder’s story. His world is perverse, odd, and so alien that I was riveted to it. The mimicry of the Yatsill, and the hints at untapped secrets will goad the reader on to find out more about the Yatsill’s culture. The action is fluid and fast-paced, and Hodder is dexterous in pushing the limits of incredulity without wholly jumping the fence. The unusual blending of steampunk (a genre which Hodder has written in before, and which earned him the Philip K. Dick award) with sword and planet creates both a unique world while also honoring the Victorianisms of Fleischer’s perspective.
The story has an almost frantic pacing, one that I felt push me as a reader a little too hard, allowing me little time to swallow one absurdity before being introduced to another. Fleischer as Jack the Ripper? Blood Gods? Evil under the sun? War machines? There is so much packed into these few pages that one wonders when a breather might be had. To me, it felt as if Hodder didn’t want the reader to pause long enough to think about the story, else the loose scaffolding would appear and the structure fall down. In other words, Hodder kept up the pace so as to leave the reader so breathless as to fail to ask questions of the story, the characters, the world, and so obscure the reveal, the secret behind the distracting oddities of the Yatsill’s planet. To whit, A Red Sun Also Rises becomes an epically fast narrative of weirdness built on oddity cloaked by strangeness.
The protagonists, Fleischer and Stark, are a bit two-dimensional. This in no way detracts from the desire to see them succeed, but as I mentioned before, the story, for all its quirkiness, the novel is a protracted analogy dealing with the problem of evil, and Fleischer and Stark are merely means to that end. Each element of their character provides a purpose to the story, philosophical or practical, but neither of them feels real. They are set pieces, props that Hodder uses to provide opportunities for two minds to dialogue over the nature of evil. This why, when another romantic angle figures in later in the book, it feels forces, wooden, as if Hodder knew the reader would expect it and so put it in the book to please the reader, rather than as a real connection between the characters. Even Fleischer’s moral outrage over the villain’s actions lacks depth.
I think it all boils down to Hodder’s premise for the story. In dealing with the problem of evil, his conclusions for his characters, the world, and ultimately the plot of the story follows standard humanist conclusions. Evil does not exist, only injustice does, and evil as we see it is merely the lesser end of a spectrum of good. Therefore, we must rely on ourselves, using our autonomy to right injustice. Left unanswered are questions such as: If good is a continuum, how do we know which end is just, which unjust? If we are autonomous, what constitutes an infringement on that autonomy? Some discussion of the problem of evil exists in this tale, and at times it is even philosophically interesting (certainly the combination of the book’s story and Hodder’s philosophizing is ingenious) I find that Hodder’s conclusions are prosaic, unappealing, and unoriginal.
Yet there is something compelling about the story. No doubt it is the weird environment that Fleischer and Stark find themselves in. For that, Hodder is to be commended. Though I disagree with his conclusions and found his characters underdeveloped, I really enjoyed the setting Hodder invented, and certainly the breakneck pacing and well-captured Victorian narrative voice added much also.
If you are looking for an adventure story that blends Victoriana with classic SF style, Hodder’s The Red Sun Also Rises is worth a glance.