Blogging the Hugos: Flow

“Flow”
Arlan Andrews, Sr.
Category: Best Novella

In this story a curious man named Rist from a tundra-dwelling tribe ventures out of his homeland for the first time to learn about the the more advanced civilization to the south. It’s a “wide-eyed country boy visits the big city” kind of plot. After gawking at the locals and their customs for a few days, he manages to anger the local authorities and has to get out of town. He goes on to further adventures at the end, so maybe the idea is to expand it to novel-length at some point.

Like the previous novella I read, characterization is a real weakness here. The protagonist is reasonably well-developed, but the other major characters are indistinguishable exposition vehicles. The author has no use in particular for female characters, the sole example of which is a prostitute whose only role in the story is to service Rist. She receives neither a name nor a single line of dialogue.

The world-building is somewhat more detailed (indeed, this is why there’s so much exposition to be delivered). There are religions, wars and trade routes, ancient technologies from a fallen civilization. Rist’s people have a naturalistic way of speaking to set them apart from their southern neighbors: everything is “hands” (groups of five) and “fingers” (fifths) and “man-lengths”; since the north is has a permanent cloud cover, there are “dims” instead of “days” and “dimwards” instead of east. In case we don’t get it, the second half has Rist constantly translating as he tries to learn the southern way of speaking. There’s an alternate word for woman (“wen”) which is a little uncomfortable in light of how the story seems to view them; there’s no similar substitution for “man”.

Unfortunately the world-building came at the expense of not just the characters but the plot—I kept waiting for something to actually happen, and it took until about the two-thirds mark for some kind of dramatic tension to appear. Had the author been describing a truly unique and compelling world, I might have been more forgiving, but I didn’t find very much that was new or groundbreaking. And without good characters or a compelling narrative to animate it, the setting ultimately seemed pretty lifeless.