Saturday, December 30, 2017

Review of "Weep For Day" by Indrapramit Das (2012)

Introduction:  Being well aware that this story was probably put at the head of the Best New SF 26 anthology to highlight some sort of committment to "diversity" (because the author was obviously Indian and was one of whom I had never previously heard), I approached it with some trepidation as to the likely quality.  I feared that the quality would be marginal and the entire story a thinly disguised anti-Western rant.

What did I find?  Well, that's the whole point of this article.

On to the review.

Major SPOILERS for "Weep For Day"

Setting:  "Weep for Day" takes place on what is very obviously to the reader a lost colony, but one which has obviously forgotten its own interstellar origins.  The world is tide-locked:  its dayside mostly uninhabitable to humans due to its extreme  heat, and its nightside mostly unihabitable due to its extreme cold.

A human civilization has emerged here, which regards the planet as simply the "world," and  its star as  simply the "Sun."  They displaced and  apparently exterminated a race of dragons, the "sunwyrms," who dominated the day-side part of the twilight region, and drove the Sunwyrms toward the Night, and further displacing a sapient humanoid race which they term the Nightmares, who were adapted  to the night-side region of the twilight zone.

The humans conquered and settled the twilight belt, founding a planet-girdling conurbation they call The City of Long Shadows, under a semi-theocratic, semi-feudal society which they call the Monarchy. The Monarchy seems in some ways to be rather like the late 18th to early 20th century British, and in some ways like traditional India, which is to say, its flavor is somewhat "Anglo-Indian."

The humans have fought a generations-long genocidal war against the humanoid Nightmares.  As this has gone on, human technology has advanced, to the point of an Industrial Revolution (the "Industrialization") which has led to much larger populations, steam power, railroads and high-quality armor and weapons, including rifles.  With these new capabilities, the humans have driven the Shadows to the brink of extinction, and -- with primitive spacesuits and electrical lighting -- are finally advancing into the coldest regions in which the Shadows survive, wiping out the last remnanets of the species.

I was very impressed by this scenario.  It's very Stapledonian, in its image of a planet on which two very different sapient races are struggling for survival.  The normal Stapledonian outcome would be the extermination of the lower-tech species by the higher-tech ones, and this is what seems to be happening.

The quality of the imagination and writing, coupled with the writer's Anglospheric origins, makes me suspect that Indrapramit Das may have actually been inspired by Olaf Stapledon, in particular Last and First Men and Star-Maker.  If anyone, especially Mr. Das himself, knows if this is true, I would appreciate commentary on this.

Plot:  The first-person protagonist, Valyzia ("Val") is a young woman growing up in the last decades of the long war against the Nightmares.  Her father is a former hero of that war:  a knight who ventured into the Night to fight them with the more primitive armor and weapons of the last generation.  Her parents love her, and she essentially has a happy childhood, save for her rivalry with her elder brother Velag, who when young is a bit of a coward and crybaby.

One day when she is eight, Val and Vel are taken by their parents on a trip to a town established on the fringe of the Night, where a local notable shows them a captive Nightmare.  Vel is terrified of the creature, but Val is struck by its essential commonality with humans, and pities it.

Vel is so embarrassed by his fear of the Nightmare that he later violently assaults his sister, threatening to strangle her to death if she makes fun of him.  This to some extent poisons their sibling relationship.

Nine years later, when Val is seventeen, her brother Vel graduates from the military academy and prepares to be shipped off to the  front.  Val can tell that Vel is nervous about this, and she tries to persuade him to resign from the military, but fails.

Within the year, her brother is dead, slain in battle by the Nightmares.  Val mourns him, for she loved Vel and had long forgiven him for laying hands on her.

Some years later, Val is an adult participating in a scientific expedition to the Night.  She has become a lesbian, which is forbidden in her culture, but she will not forswear her beloved, the biologist Ilydrin, who is also a member of the expedition.

Her expedition has discovered abandoned caves which reveal something of the culture and history of the Nightmares.  They show that the Nightmares were a civilized race, rather than the monstrous horrors the humans imagined them.  As the story ends, the expedition is about to attempt to discover if there remain any survivors of the Nightmares, and try to make peaceful contact with them if possible -- a plan with which Val agrees whole-heartedly, though she is well aware that they may well wind up being slaughtered by the (understandably) suspicious Nightmares.

Characters:  Val is a classic hero -- both physically and morally brave -- who is doing a classically-heroic thing.  She is putting her life and reputation at risk in order to explore the unknown and end an ancient war-of-mistake.  Val is notably intelligent and willing to stand up for what she considers to be right.

The only unusual thing about her in this regard is that she is a lesbian -- which may be obscurely foreshadowed by her rivalry with Vel.  In the classic-heroic mold, she seems to regard her love affair with Ilydrin in romantically-idealistic terms.

Her father is an admirable character who has courage and loves his family, but who represents both the good and bad aspects of the past.  In his youth he clearly saw fighting the Nightmares as a good thing, but he also obviously feels bad after Vel's death for having urged him into a military career.  This is shown by his putting away the Nightmare head after Vel falls in battle.

Val's mother is also loving and caring, but gets less characterization.  In part this is because the story is only ~8,000 words long, but in part this may represent that she has somewhat subsumed her own identity in favor of her family's.  This may also have helped influenced Val to avoid romantic relationships with men.

Vel is a complex character who clearly does not really want to go into the Night and fight the Nightmares, but believes that he must in order to live up to his father's example.  This is made obvious by his fear of the captive Nightmare and his violence toward Val in their childhood.  His fate is all the more tragic, because he never knows that the war has become pointless; the  Nightmares are no longer a threat to human domination of the twilight zone.

Sir Tylvur, the man who owns the captive Nightmare, comes across as cruel and bigoted.  He represents the strong strain in the Monarchy that is entirely uncritical of the long genocidal war:  he can't see that the Nightmare is a fellow-sapient deserving of compassion, even with it right before him.  Or, possibly, he must not see this, because it would damage his own self-esteem.

Ilydrin doesn't get much characterization, aside from "brave" and "smart," both pre-requisites for her role in the expedition.  One hopes that she is well worthy of Val's love.

Theme:  The importance of tolerance and understanding; the extent to which hatred springs from fear  and may lead to terrible consequences.

To elaborate ...

It is very clear to me that something went wrong with the human colonization of this  planet.  The humans originally "came out of" the lakes common in the Day-bordering parts of the Shadow zone.  It is possible that their ancestors landed there by accident or mistake, in an area which turned out to not be habitable in the long term.

Their  early history consisted of fighting  the Sunwyrms, who may or may not have been sapient, but certainly were formidable  enough to threaten both the Humans and the Nightmares. The Humans drove the Sunwyrms deeper into the Shadow zone, where they displaced the Nightmares.  Only then did the Humans meet the Nightmares.

The Humans had already lost most of their culture and technology, regressing to (probably) Iron Age barbarians.  They were primed to consider other natives of the planet hostile, as they had fought the Sunwyrms.  The Nightmares saw the Humans as terrifying invaders, and had an even lower technology (somewhere in the Neolithic to Bronze Age).  It was inevitable that the two races met in genocidal conflict.

And yet it was tragic.  The Humans were better adapted to the Day; the Humans to the Night.  Thus the Humans could have ranged out further into the Day and the Nightmares to the Night, extracting and trading resources.  Instead of a centuries-long genocide, there  could have been a peaceful mutual exploitation of the planet, and a peaceful mutual climb up to an advanced technological civilization.

Had the Humans and Nightmares, from the beginning, realized what Val has realized, much tragedy on both sides might have been avoided.

But this realization would have required moral courage.  Which can, as here demonstrated, be even more important than physical courage.

And Val, very obviously, has both.

Analysis:  There is a clear analogy here being made to both the Aryan and the British conquests of India.  Both these conquests were unnecessarily brutal, and both ended not in the annihilation but rather the merging of the two cultures.

The Aryan example will be less familiar to many Westerners, but, basically, in the mid-2nd millennium BCE, an Eastern Indo-European people -- the same as the ones who conquered and founded Persia/Iran -- entered the Indian subcontinent and overran its pre-Aryan inhabitants, consisting of whoever it was who comprised the Indus Valley civilization (modern Pakistan) and the Dravidians of the main part of the subcontinent.

Originally, the Aryans set themselves up as a master race, distinguished both by more classically Indo-European customs and by having lighter skins (the caste system derives from "varna" which literally means  "color," it coming from the same roots word as our "varnish").  But in time, despite caste rules the populations interbred and the cultures intermingled, producing what we now think of as traditionally "Indian" culture.

The British conquest is more familiar.  India had been conquered by the Muslim Mughals.  As the Mughal Empire broke up, the British expanded from coastal trading enclaves to pick up the pieces, subjugating one after another native principality.  The British became quite racist toward the Indians, rendering them second-class subjects in their own lands.

At the same time, the British brought many advances to India, most notably the Industrial and (to some extent) Information Revolutions.  These advances were and are highly-valued, and consequently when the Indians finally regained their indpendence after World War II, they retained major aspects of British culture.  Most notably, English is in India one of the major languages (the other two being Hindi and Urdu), and the most prominent one of science and scholarship.

Thus India has a love-hate relationship with Britain.  On the one hand, Britain humiliated India for two centuries.  On the other hand, Britain brought a more advanced science and technology, from which India continues to benefit today.

This leads to a strange combination of defiant nationalism and glorification of Ancient India, with a strong conformity to 19th-20th century British culture -- especially in the Indian upper classes, and especially among scientists and scholars.

"Weep for Day" somewhat shows this, in that the Monarchy is very reminiscent of the late 19th to early 20th century British Empire (Val even speaks of her generation fashionably mocking the old morals, whch is rather Edwardian or even Interwar British, she just stops short of referring to "Bright Young Things").  On the other hand, Val's family strikes me as very Indian in their basic dynamics, and the names are suspiciously Eastern Indo-European in tone.

The Nightmares are regarded less as the British regarded the Indians (the British never attempted to wipe out the Indians), nor even as the Aryans treated the Dravidians.  Instead, they are seen by the Monarchy as more like the demons of Hindu mythology -- merciless and vicious dark-dwellers who must be destroyed root and branch by avenging demigod-like heroes.

Of course, this concept of the Nightmares turns out to be largely wrong, as Val discovers by the story's end.

Tone:  This is very much a classic science-fiction story, complete with strange alien world, heroic adventurers, and wondrous discoveries.  Yes, it deliberately subverts some of the cliches -- the hero is a lesbian woman, and the monsters turn out to be less monstrous than everyone previously assumed -- but then again so did the Interwar and Golden Age pulp stories, more than many 21st-century stories realize.

Conclusion:  I was mostly very pleasantly surprised.  I expected some sort of dreary "check all the Diversity Boxes" production, but instead I found a masterfully-written tale of intellectual and geographical exploration.  To the extent that the author being non-Western mattered, it actually helped in that he came out of a different and interesting intellectual tradition, and applied it intelligently to his fictional world.

The story is imaginative and well-written, and Indrapramit Das clearly a highly-skilled writer.  There is a strong theme of anti-imperialism, but it makes perfect sense in the story's context, and is more anti-situational than anti-Western.  So Mr. Das, well-done, and I'll likely be seeking out and enjoying more of your work.

Also, this is a fascinating world, and I want to read more of  it.

You all should, too.