A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder
Language is a fickle friend. Just when you think you’ve met all its conditions for a lasting relationship of real meaning, you can suddenly find yourself cast adrift in a fog of uncertainty. To put it mildly, this is a most disconcerting experience. You know all the words but somehow your grasp upon them becomes slippery, as if they are resisting your best efforts to grab hold of the ones best suited to say what you want to say. In my own case, the excuse is one of age. Naturally, as dementia beckons, I’m overcome by the delusion I’m still making sense when, actually, my word selection has gone to pot as senior citizen moments of mental vacuity become whole minutes or even longer. Why am I delaying a discussion of A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2012)? Well, there’s something of a problem with the language and the debate about beliefs and psychology is unconvincing.
Back when I was emerging from the mists of childhood, I enjoyed myself demolishing Victorian and Edwardian adventure books. There’s a wonderfully naive quality to them as heroes dash around, avoiding the predictable annihilation by running faster, jumping higher or being prepared to crawl through sewers no other self-respecting human being would ever think of entering. In the midst of all this, some authors had the temerity to interweave ideas. It’s a radical thing to do. When we’re all expecting derring-do, the author suddenly switches his attention to a discussion of something of profound importance. A classic, albeit slightly later, example of this phenomenon is the Space Trilogy by C S Lewis which pretends to be science fiction but is actually rehearsing the process Christianity has gone through to emerge from early myth-based beliefs into the current faith-based form. So what we have here is a journal supposedly written by a Victorian man who passes through a dimensional fold and, with a young woman by his side, finds himself on an alien world. It’s obviously not a spoiler to reveal this interdimensional movement is not permanent because our hero returns to Earth to write the journal we read (as in Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom novels). So like Elwin Ransom from the Space Trilogy, our hero is sent off to another world so he can learn to be a better person.
The other book I need to mention is Cycle of Fire by Hal Clement which, I confess, is one of my favourite books from the 1950s. It catalogues the exploration of the planet Abyorman as it follows its unusual orbit around a binary star, producing sixty-five-year cycles of temperate and hot climate. As Nils Kruger, our young hero, and Dar, his alien “friend”, walk across the landscape, they realise there are extensive ruins from a completely different civilisation yet none of the current inhabitants seem to know anything about the builders. It’s a nice puzzle for the protagonists to solve. A mirror image to this idea emerges in Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton and parallels are found in The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. A Red Sun Also Rises is a more sophisticated variation on the original theme with what begins as a nicely balanced system thrown out of kilter by the unfortunate arrival of an outsider.
If this was a straight science fiction novel of a young human couple who are sent to another world and struggle to survive in a hostile environment, I think it would have been very good. The basic plot idea has been well thought through and there are enough obvious threads to make the threats to our two humans potentially terrifying. But there are two authorial interventions to contend with. The first is the language. Over the last ten years, the occasional book reproducing early writing styles has become two or three bookshop shelves. Some modern authors have been hooked on the notion their work is somehow better if they wrap up their science fiction or fantasy as if written by Jane Austen or some other luminary. Even though I think most of them deluded, their books have been selling in sufficient numbers that each year sees more titles emerging. In this case, we start off with a young and terminally inexperienced Anglican clergyman in the 1880s who dutifully shows Christian charity to a disabled woman. This section is written in a reasonably conventional Victorian style which grows slightly more purple when they move to London. At this point we have the primary theme introduced.
He has been displaced from his quiet parish through his naive reaction to an amusingly corrupt family. Early on in London, he reads Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Later, he literally stumbles on the first victim killed by Jack the Ripper. This produces an emotional crisis. He’s been burdened by guilt because he lacks his father’s simple faith in God. Now he knows true fear. Put the two together and this is not the ideal state of mind in which a man should set off as a missionary. He rationalises his experiences as proving some people are inherently evil. He worries that he lacks essential goodness and is therefore fated to end up as evil as the murderer of the prostitute in Whitechapel. This is a version of Platonic psychology which assumes universal versions of good and evil exist. Further, although there’s a rational part of every mind that should prevail, there are appetites that can overwhelm reason. Such moral weaknesses can lead irrevocably to evil if the desires are strong enough.
If we had stayed with Jules Verne filtered through H G Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, I would have lived with the philosophical debate as fitting into the character of our rather pathetic specimen of humanity as hero. Unfortunately, shortly after arriving on the planet, the natives suddenly affect a spirited version of English not unlike that spoken by the characters in P G Wodehouse. Frankly, this killed my interest almost stone dead. I read it through to the end to see how it was all resolved. There are fantastical machines, potentially in what we now call a steampunk style although they are more ERB-like with aircraft and submarines powered by the energy released from crystals. There are some rather superficial political diversions into the potential merits of hive socialism enforced by a form of mind control and our hero finally reaches peace of mind by abandoning the Platonic view of moral psychology and all associated notions of a kind of internal war between forces of good and evil. Rather he sees everything as being on a single scale of goodness. The psychological resolution is therefore somewhat adjacent to the Aesopian “Hercules and the Waggoner” and the idiomatic need to avoid judging books by their covers. Sadly, A Red Sun Also Rises is a backward step for Mark Hodder. His first two books were exuberant fun. This is somewhat dour and, for me, uninvolving.