I didn’t expect to return to the Night Land so soon, but I found out about this one on Fenton Wood’s Twitter feed and bought it upon release about four months back.
Review: Nightland Racer, Fenton Wood, 2021.
Wood states, right up front, who influenced this novel beside William Hope Hodgson and his The Night Land: “John C. Wright, Gene Wolfe, Alfred Bester, A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Jack Vance, J.G. Ballard, Larry Niven, Frank Herbert, Cordwainer Smith, Arthur C. Clarke, Roger Zelazny, H.G. Wells, Herman Melville, Tom Wolfe, and the SCP Foundation”.
Part of the fun of this novel is spotting all those influences which I think I did except for Herbert and van Vogt and the SCP Foundation whose work I am entirely unfamiliar with.
There are a few similarities in plot between Hodgson’s novel and this one. Both thrust a man into the distant future. Hodgson’s X is psychically projected into the future. The hero here is Reynard Douglas. Like his model, the real-life Junior Johnson, Douglas is a former moonshine runner turned race car driver who ran afoul of the law.
The book is something of an alternate history starting out in roughly 1984 when no less than the President shows up in person with a job offer for Douglas. They want a man to drive a vehicle into the Zone, an mysterious area that appeared years ago in the American Southwest and is expanding. (Wood credits Jon Mollison’s Barbarian Emperor as inspiration for the Zone.)
That vehicle, the ENLAV (Experimental Nuclear Vehicle, Antarctic Model), is a modified version of an actual design, but that one wasn’t nuclear powered and didn’t go in excess of Mach 2. You need that speed because the Zone is inhabited by hostile creatures. The mission is simple. Drive in fast, put a nuke down by the singularity that created the Zone, and race out.
About the first fifth of the book is Douglas training, with a bunch of hotshot military pilots, on using the ENLAV and developing physical stamina. Douglas may be twice the age of the pilots and out of shape, but he’s onery and no one is a better racer. He’s run all kinds of races in all parts of the world.
So, Douglas is given command and gets a pilot as a crew member. But the mission goes wrong and finds himself alone millions of years into the future of the Night Land.
And here we get more similarities with Hodgson’s novel. There are abhumans, though of a different sort than Hodgson’s. The world is dark but not because of Hodgson’s dying sun. Wood brings in modern scientific ideas to give us a more complicated origin story for the Night Land than Hodgson’s did. Our sun has been replaced by the Black Sun, and stars in this universe are sentient creatures capable of evil. There is a Last Redoubt here as in Hodgson’s work. And, following, not exactly, in the footsteps of John C. Wright’s Awake in the Night Land, we hear about the other settlements in the Night Land’s past. As in Hodgson’s work, there is a Watcher.
.Besides Wright and Hodgson, the other primary spirit infusing this novel is that of Roger Zelazny and his mix of science and myth and archetype. Here we get the shades of extinct creatures and the archetype of the First Horse. There is much wandering. Douglas will go much further afield than Hodgson’s X does. And it’s not to save a woman in a dying city, Hodgson’s story. In fact, there is nothing like a normal human woman in this entire novel. What Douglas sets out to do with the help of Tao, a man from not quite as distant a past as Douglas is. Together they set out to resurrect the world. Like Ishmael’s sidekick Queequeg in Moby Dick, Tao is even a harpooner.
I gather Fenton Wood is associated with the New Pulp movement, a movement whose politics I’m more sympathetic with than their aesthetic judgements about science fiction and its history. And one of those judgements is a belief sf and fantasy should be blended more, not something I’m fond though I’m not inexorably opposed to it.
To be sure the story has plenty of action. I liked the account of infiltrating an ancient fortress and the depiction of an autofac city. And I appreciated Wood trying to get so many technical details right.
But, by the time Douglas and Tao take the ENLAV into space, I found my patience wearing thin, merely skimming over those details to get to the end.
I’m afraid, writing this review up about four months after I read the novel, most of the parts of the novel I remember after we enter Night Land are those abhumans, all extrapolations of groups we are cursed with now. And I liked the sting when Douglas gets some idea of what happened to his world shortly after he left it.
Still, I’m grateful for someone again taking up Hodgson’s world and showing, along with the other modern treatments of it, that it still has interest and dramatic potential more than a 100 years after Hodgson bestowed it upon us. Hopefully, others will follow Wood’s work.