Yesterday, PZ wrote about having read “Opera Vita Aeterna”, the novelette that was nominated for a Hugo Award this year in a bloc voting move. Coincidentally, I was reading some excerpts from Vox Day’s political writing elsewhere and marveling over the (lack of) quality of the prose. I thought that if his fiction were as awful, it might cross the line into unintentionally entertaining to read. And as I personally relate to him mostly as that sad, whiny pest who will be arrested like his father if he ever tries to return to Minnesota, reading his work in which his racism, sexism, and delusions of religious persecution weren’t the main focus wasn’t much of a chore for me.
So I went out and found a free copy. It turned out Day was inviting people to read the work by offering it for free. I’m not going to link his site from here, but it’s not too difficult to find someone who did from a search based on the story’s name.
As it turns out, the story was not entertainingly bad. Don’t let that lead you to think it was good, however. It was dully, prosaically bad, with rookie problems that most critique groups would point out if he gave them the opportunity. Of course, in order for that to be useful, Day would have to be able to respond to criticism with something other than atavistic hostility.
This means I can’t recommend reading his story for the same lulz you’d get from a Steven Seagal movie. I can, however, give you a taste of that experience and spare you any misguided curiosity.
Let’s start with the title. It tells us in (mangled) Latin that we’re dealing with the works of an eternal life. Okay. Obscure, but titles are allowed to be obscure.
Then we hit the first two paragraphs.
The cold autumn day was slowly drawing to a close. The pallid sun was descending, its ineffective rays no longer sufficient to hold it up in the sky or to penetrate the northern winds that gathered strength with the whispering promise of the incipient dark. The first of the two moons was already visible high above the mountains. Soon Arbhadis, Night’s Mistress, would unveil herself as well.
The brother standing on watch duty at the abbey gate drew his cloak more closely about his shoulders, waiting for the bell that would summon him to Vespers and the warmth of the catholicon. While he was armed with a wooden staff, his only armor was the thick brown wool of the cloak. But this close to the inhuman lands, so near the elvenwood and the Waste of Kurs-magog, there were few brigands and thieves to trouble the stone walls that guarded the brotherhood of St. Dioscurus. One of the lesser orders, given formal recognition by the Sanctified Father only thirty years ago, the Dioscurines were not a mendicant order, but neither did they possess the wealth of the larger, more established brotherhoods.
At this point, nothing has happened except someone bundling up. We’ve had dumped on us a bunch of information I’ll mostly forget because I don’t know which part of it is relevant to anything that happens in the story. I do, however, see that we’ve moved away from Latin toward Arabic and Semitic naming, then back to Latin for churchy things. Okay, Latin = church. Got it.
Then we are introduced to the new arrival, walking up the road. The second thing our monk determines he is not is a robber. Very important to rule this out early when thieves are the rarity we’ve already been told they are. We also know that this traveler carries a walking stick “carved in an extravagantly ornate manner” and is wearing very rich wool, seen in the “ineffective rays” of the setting sun before the traveler turns off the road to approach the monastery. Apparently we’re not actually supposed to remember those two paragraphs of turgid description.
Additionally, we discover that the monastery sits on the “road to Bithnya”. So we have a Latin monastery in a place where the moon is referred by a roughly Arabic name, the nearest land is Semitic, and the road is referred to as having a Turkish destination. Either that, or these names were chosen because they were “cool”. Nobody actually reads these things with any pre-existing familiarity with any languages other than English, right?
The traveler turns out to be an elf, identified by the monopoly of his kind on detailed carvings and good wool. The monk hails him with “Peace be with you,” he bowed and greeted the elf in the humble manner he had been taught to show king or beggar. “Be welcome in our house, in the name of Our Immaculate and Ascended Lord.” Yes, it’s not just that Latin was chosen for monastery names for its association with the early Catholic Church. This is the early Catholic Church, plopped on a planet with elves and two moons. But this wouldn’t have changed how the church developed in any meaningful way.
The traveler asks for a place to stay, and the monk welcomes him. This surprises the traveler, even though it’s exactly what he asked for. By the way, if you’re curious why I keep referring to them as “the monk” and “the traveler”, this is because neither one of them has a name yet, a full page into the story. Mysteries, oooooh. Yeah, no. The monk introduces himself as Brother Sperarus a couple of paragraphs later, his name springing into being as soon as the author figured out a clunky and obvious way to provide it.
The mysterious traveler though–surely there is mystery there? Nah. We just get paragraphs about how Sperarus can’t ask for a name because hospitality and curiosity being a sin, mixed in with a sentence about food at the monastery that is more descriptive of how the brothers live than the bit in the opening paragraphs that attempted to tell us explicitly. Finally, the traveler makes his first move toward becoming reader proxy by just telling Sperarus that his damned name is Bessarias. I guess elves are Persian.
Bessarias is a high elf, by the way, a city elf. This surprises Sperarus, apparently because while elaborate carvings and fine wool are unique to elves and can be spotted at a distance, there’s no discernible distinction, even up close, between how forest elves and city elves dress and accessorize.
We are blessed by a jump cut at this point to the POV of the monastery’s abbot, Father Waleran. No, don’t ask me why a Latin order that adopts Latin names has an abbot with a Germanic name. Maybe it has something to do with being surrounded by the eastern end of the Mediterranean. *cough*
The abbot thinks very hard about the history of the order and how the buildings are put together as he goes to meet his newest guest. They pussyfoot around Waleran asking Bessarias what he wants from them, because that’s how you provide good hospitality, a particular mission of this monastery. Once again, Bessarias has to insist on providing back story so the rest of this will make sense to us.
Long story short, a monk–with a Latinized Germanic name–from a different order–Latin–showed up in the elves’ magic school–Latin–and bested everyone in magic. Bessarias killed him to stop other people from torturing him, a confession which put Waleran at ease. Bessarias wants some of that magic for himself, so he’s come looking for magic monk’s god, while at the same time not believing in that god. This makes sense to Waleran, who invites Bessarias to stay.
Cut to winter in our Mediterranean-surrounded Latin monastery, where “The snow fell relentlessly for what felt like months” and cows froze in the field. The monks, by way of showing hospitality, have forced Bessarias to renounce his magic while he stays with them. Bessarias has been hanging out in the library, which is also the scriptorium for some reason. He has drawn them a pretty picture as a stay against the end of his immortality.
We have our first work of an eternal life. Pay attention now. The title tells us that what he’s about to decide to do is what the story is about. I snark, because, ugh, this story, but this is the smartest part of it. Bessarias decides to study his bible by creating a fresh, illuminated copy of it. Just don’t ask me to reconcile that canon, with 45 books, including three “approved apocrypha” with any canonical bible in use by the Catholic Church at any point in it’s history.
Cue theological discussion. I have no idea what “incorruptibility” is supposed to mean in this context. Either we’re supposed to know or it doesn’t matter enough to make sure we get it–even though they argue over the definition of the word. Some very basic understanding of infinity will tell you the problem with the question posed. It’s almost like a straw man has been erected in order to sell us Waleran as a great theologian.
Then a demon shows up. It possesses a fox. It’s very scary. Our demon fox wants Bessarias to return to the elf magic school to sway the balance in some political maneuvering that we’re told too little of to understand or care. The fox is banished by the use of a simple request, but threatens to return once a year to see whether Bessarias has changed his mind and…is incapable of walking back the way he came apparently.
Ten years pass. We get a demon bunny and a demon squirrel. It appears the area suffers from a shortage of large predators. Or maybe the demon likes cute. Bessarias isn’t done with the book yet. Waleran is writing his own book on theology that recreates the arguments he has with Bessarias. We’re not told whether they get better at defining their terms or who the possible audience for this book is if they don’t bother making their terms explicit before arguing about them.
Bessarias needs to run into town for supplies. He takes with him two monks we’ve never heard of, Brother Latin Shades and Brother French Surname. They come back and everyone is dead. Goblins (goblins exist here too?) have killed everyone at the behest of the demon. Bessarias wanders through the monastery until he finds Waleran in the chapel. Bessarias fights the urge to use magic to destroy the goblins that are no longer at the monastery and prays to the god he still doesn’t believe in to give his friend eternal life.
So now we don’t know which works of which eternal life we’re supposed to be thinking about, since they each created one, or whether the title should have more plurals in it. The coda to the story doesn’t help us either. It’s just an older monk and a younger monks oohing and ahing over both books three hundred years later. Bessarias has drawn the dead monks into his illuminated manuscript, so there are more eternal lives we could be concerned with.
Aristotle, Augustine, Virgil, and Peter Lombard all make appearances as historical figures at this point. Waleran and Bessarias are put on a level with them, but their names are lost to time. Apparently, neither thought to name the other when they represented each other in their work, bringing the eternal nature of their lives as given through art into question. At the same time, however, the younger monk says the manuscripts preserve their minds.
The end. Have any of you seen Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman?
So, yeah. There’s the story that got nominated as…what? More proof that people are willing to embrace crap in order to spite those who interrogate privilege? Don’t they worry they’ll get dirty?
Look, the opening drags for several reasons. Information is withheld and scenes are drawn out to no purpose. The author uses Earth naming conventions and historical people, but just dumps them willy-nilly into a non-Earth world. It screams, “I can’t be bothered to think through worldbuilding!” The author doesn’t know how his chosen historical setting would really be set up. The title–the title!–contains glaring grammatical errors that obscure its meaning. There are a grand total of two sources of conflict (plot). One of them is resolved accidentally, when one of the parties dies abruptly. The other isn’t resolved at all, as we don’t know whether Bessarias went back to the magic school. The only example of “eternal” theology we’re given is a misunderstanding of math, but it’s “resolved” instead by an opaque semantic argument. And there is zero character development.
I do, however, have to admit that I didn’t spot any spelling errors.