Interrogating the Text #4: Jay Lake takes a “Long Walk Home”
This is a continuation of my occasional series on what I can learn on the craft of writing from reading the stories of accomplished professionals and examining and understanding my reactions.
For an explanation of what I’m attempting in this series, go here.
Today, I want to talk about a story I read recently by author Jay Lake called “A Long Walk Home“, which you can read for free at the website of Subterranean Press. “A Long Walk Home” is the first science fictional story I’ll review and analyze for this series. As with all the stories/novels I’ve discussed so far, I definitely enjoyed reading Jay Lake’s “A Long Walk Home”. There were, however, some things about the story that disappointed me, which I shall get to in due course. To follow along, you might want to go check the story out first, then hop on back here, as there will be spoilers in my analysis.
“A Long Walk Home” starts pretty strongly, as we’re introduced to protagonist Aeschylus Sforza, thereafter referred to as Ask. The year is 2977 – the distant future – and Ask is an enhanced human. These technological enhancements give him increased strength and durability, longevity (and presumably immortality, as we shall see), a perfect memory, and a direct neural connection to whatever information network exists in the future. Except Ask is cut off from the network, deep underground exploring the strange and mysterious caverns on an alien planet called Redghost - a planet that has been colonized by humans and looks faintly like a far-future version of the American Frontier of yore.
The story begins with an intriguing premise: the caverns Ask is exploring – though they seem natural - don’t appear to be formed by geological processes. What’s more, they’re lined with a combination of materials that are semiconducting. While in this vision of the far future there are alien lifeforms, they’re entirely non-sentient. Humans appear to be the only sentient intelligence in the galaxy. So the mysterious caverns present an intriguing question: they look like a giant computer, which possibly implies an artificial origin – and intelligent life. But the story does not pursue this intriguing question any further. Instead, a calamity takes place which draws Ask out of the caverns.
An earthquake (or redghostquake?) signals the arrival of the disaster, accompanied by an EM pulse that wipes out his surface equipment. He soon discovers that something has destroyed his transport from orbit. And so begins the titular long walk, as Ask must walk from the cavern entrance back to the nearest human habitation, a town several days’ walk away. But there he finds that all sources of electrical energy have likewise been destroyed, presumably by a kinetic energy weapon. And all of the humans are gone. No corpses, no remains, just gone. And thus is introduced another intriguing premise, and the driving mystery of the remainder of the tale.
The story then follows Ask with intermittent episodes over his next 300years of life as he walks the length and breadth of the planet Redghost, searching for survivors (he finds none), burying the few bodies he discovers (people who appeared to have been restrained and prevented from going outside at the moment of the calamity, and died shortly thereafter), freeing the animals that were left trapped by the sudden disappearance of their masters, and wondering (existentially) whether he is the last human left in the galaxy, since no one has come to Redghost in those 300 years to see what happened to the colony there.
And therein we arrive at what I perceive to be the fundamental weakness of this story. It has an awesome premise (two, actually), an interesting character, a difficult journey. But it never answers any of the questions posed in the story. Well, that’s not entirely true. Whatever happened on Redghost, we learn in the very end that Ask is not alone in the galaxy when finally, after 300 years, a ship arrives. And as the hatch opens, and Ask tries to glimpse what’s inside -Human? Alien?- the story ends.
But what happened on Redghost? Why did all the humans just disappear? (Ask idly considers and discards the idea of the Rapture.) What launched the kinetic energy weapons that targeted electronics and power sources with such unfailing accuracy? Mysteries all. And frustrations aplenty.
Presumably, Jay Lake gets a pass on this. He describes “A Long Walk Home” as “deep backstory” for his pending epic sci-fi cycle he calls “Sunspin”. As far as I know, the first novel in what I understand to be a planned quadrilogy isn’t scheduled for release yet, but conceptually, “A Long Walk Home” is a teaser for the books – something to give us a taste of the universe he’s created. And in that regard, he was quite successful. I’m intrigued about his “Sunspin” project in a way that I’m not often intrigued by pure Sci-Fi novels (having, as I do, a general preference for Fantasy over Sci-Fi when it comes to reading novels). That “deep backstory” description promises that eventually the question of what happened on Redghost (or what happened in the galaxy if the event was not localized, as the protagonist believed) will be more fully explored in the novels. Be that as it may, considered stand-alone, it leaves this story with an important deficit: an ending that doesn’t satisfy.
If Ihadn’t already known, before starting this story, that it was a backstory for his WIP novel, I would have been severely annoyed by the ending. As it was, I was still mildly annoyed.
Which brings me to the writing lesson. Perhaps not every story needs a satisfying ending. Perhaps not every story needs to answer the central question it poses. But as a general rule, satisfying a reader usually will mean answering the questions you pose. And especially if your protagonist is going to spend the better part of nearly 8,000 words of story pondering those questions for him- or herself… if you don’t want your readers to pitch your story across the room in frustration (okay, well, not possible in this case, since it’s online… but heaven forbid you were reading it on an iPad or something like that; that would be an expensive moment of frustration), maybe you ought to consider answering those questions that you raise.
None of which is meant as direct criticism of this story, or of Jay Lake. The story is well written. And if “turning the page” is the measure of a story’s success, it is quite successful. But as I develop my skills as a writer, I’m trying to take a more holistic approach to my understanding of story. And getting the reader to the end isn’t the only measure I’m interested in. Leaving the reader satisfied with the ending of the story – feeling that the plot was resolved and the central question of the story was answered – I think is equally important. To that end, I’m interested in learning how to identify the key questions posed in a story – sometimes it isn’t always clear to an author that they have posed a question – and learning how to tie the answers naturally into a climactic moment. Teasing these out is, I think, a subtle art. Alpha and beta readers can help authors identify those central questions that cry out to be addressed by story’s end. But the final responsibility, whether and how to address those questions, lies with the author.
In the case of this story, the knowledge that the unanswered questions may yet be revealed in other stories is not directly a part of the text. You can’t read that into the story. That’s a meta-story issue. But I also realize that Jay is aiming for something else. I’m sure he realizes the question is there, and that it’s a powerfully intriguing question. But what I think he’s trying to do with this story is to explore not the question itself, but the psychology of someone who spends several lifetimes alone, in a remote place, wondering what happened and why nobody every came for him. It is not entirely unlike the experience of ordinary, everyday people who will spend moments in their lives alone (if not always geographically isolated) and emotionally vulnerable. I think that’s the point Jay Lake is after. The problem is, I found his central question so compelling that, as a reader, his other point was lost on me. I just wanted to find out what happened to all the people, dagnabit!
ETA: I just read another story set in Jay Lake’s “Sunspin” universe, here. I’m not going to go through a textual analysis of this one. At least not at this time. Suffice to say here: the concern I discussed, in which the questions of what happened to Ask Sforza on Redghost were left unanswered… it is indeed a central point, it seems, to the “Sunspin” series. Jay’s lates, “The Weight of History, the Lightness of the Future” references Ask’s experience obliquely, but the question of what happened there (and elsewhere) is central to the plot of this story. And this story felt like the first chapter (or chapters) in a novel on the subject. A novel I hereby intend thoroughly to buy. The story is good, and the question of what happened just gets more interesting as complications are added.