“The Plural of Helen of Troy”
John C. Wright
Category: Best Novella
Time travel stories are a minefield of paradoxes and plot holes, and there are a couple of approaches successful ones use to keep the reader’s disbelief suspended. There’s the Primer style where some rules are established and strictly followed, and then there’s the Back to the Future style where there aren’t really any rules, but the artist, like a skilled magician hiding slights of hand, uses effective storytelling to keep the audience from looking too closely at the logical flaws. And if Robert Zemeckis is the flashy, crowd-pleasing Vegas stage magician, John C. Wright is the guy playing three-card monte on an overturned cardboard box while keeping one eye out for the police. The plot of this story is presented so confusingly that you get the feeling he’s trying to pull a fast one on you.
The story comes from a collection called City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, which sounds more like a parody of a fantasy novel title than something written with a straight face. (But John C. Wright is nothing if not serious.) In the titular city, Time
Lords Wardens collect historical figures apparently for their own amusement, and seem especially fascinated by white American men. (Also, Queequeg from Moby Dick is here for some reason, despite being entirely fictional.) Stories where a bunch of historical figures hang out together is another for the list of Tropes that Annoy Me. As my girlfriend said when I described the story, “come up with your own characters!” And in this case, it doesn’t even add much: John F. Kennedy is a major player, but there’s nothing particularly Kennedyesque about him apart from his name and his accent.
The story itself is this deeply silly and convoluted scheme in which JFK is attempting to kill his future self. Marilyn Monroe is involved, mostly so that the main character can ogle her in a vulnerable state. (She’s also one of the Helens of Troy of the title, and not just in a metaphorical sense, for reasons that are too stupid to go into.) There’s a third act twist, but since it’s known to the narrator from the start the story is told in reverse for maximum reader confusion (while protesting all along that it makes more sense this way).
And yet, this was my favorite of the three John C. Wright novellas. Maybe it’s just Stockholm Syndrome setting in, but this one didn’t sermonize, and had a fun action scene as the centerpiece. (Wright is, however, in the habit of derailing his momentum by stopping in the middle of the action for some exposition.) One could read this as Christian allegory (and given the author, probably should) but that doesn’t seem to be the point of the story. Granted, the point of the story seems to be to drool over Marilyn Monroe instead, which isn’t actually an improvement.
Winning “Best John C. Wright Novella,” however, doesn’t quite get you into Hugo territory. It’s just that one of them had to be best, and it was this one. It was still a relief to be done, and not to have to spend any more time with this guy until I get to the Short Stories category. His entry there has a huge advantage for best Wright work on the ballot: there’s less of it to read.