Reading List: “The Queen of Air and Darkness”

If nothing else, “The Queen of Air and Darkness” (F&SF, April 1971) will now be my go-to example for the absurdity of overcategorising short fiction, since it won a Hugo as best novella, a Nebula as best novelette, and a Locus Award as best short. I’m not sure I’ve read any of the stories it was competing against in any of those categories, but it doesn’t strike me as exceptional work.

At the very least it’s a more conventionally plot-action-driven narrative than either the Russ or Delany stories. On a colony world called Roland — where, although no intelligent life has been found, settler stories about mysterious beings persist — a child is lost on a biological research expedition. His mother, Barbro Cullen, believes he can still be found, but in the absence of help from local authorities, turns to a private investigator, Eric Sherrinford. Together they set out on an expedition into the wilderness to investigate. Of course there is native life, and in fact interspersed with Cullen and Sherrinford’s journey are other viewpoints, most commonly the perspective of Mistherd, a human boy who was abducted as a baby, and raised to view the human colony as an enemy.

What such a summary omits is that the story addresses a question framed by Sherrinford at the very end: “We live with our archetypes, but can we live in them?” The pipe-smoking Sherrinford himself is clearly — and, as it turns out, self-consciously — modelled on the Consulting Detective; he reports that he’s been studying Roland stories of the Old Folk “on the principle of eliminating every imaginable possibility”, and insists that “when facts are insufficient, theorizing is ridiculous at best, misleading at worst”. Meanwhile, the Old Folk themselves are understood within the frame of Earth legends of faery, with the sections focusing on Mistherd, told in a quite different register to those focusing on the travellers; compare:

A boy and a girl sat on Wolund’s Barrow just under the dolmen it upbore. […] He played on a bone flute and she sang. They had lately become lovers. Their age was about sixteen, but they did not know this, considering themselves Outlings and thus indifferent to time, remembering little or nothing of how they had once dwelt in the lands of men.

And:

In from the sea came freighters, the fishing fleet, produce of the Sunward Islands, plunder of whole continents further south where bold men adventured. It clanged in Portolondon, laughed, blustered, swaggered, connived, robbed, preached, guzzled, swilled, toiled, dreamed, lusted, built, destroyed, died, was born, was happy, angry, sorrowful, greedy, vulgar, loving, ambitious, human.

This difference is more than a stylistic conceit on Anderson’s part, since it turns out that the Dwellers have been playing quite deliberately on human superstitions as part of a long-term strategy to defeat the colonists. They can do this thanks to their psychic powers — Anderson attempts to provide a justification for these, but it’s not terribly convincing, and sits oddly with the introductory note to the collection I read this story in, which notes that “you will find nothing [in these stories] which most twentieth century physicists would flatly call impossible”, and leads to FTL being ruled out of bounds — and the movement between a more and less rationalist worldview lends a convincing instability to the story.

Less convincing is Sherringford’s deductive process, which starts from the rather dubious premise that “something must be causing” spacefaring humans to believe in fairies because as good “hardheaded, technologically organized, reasonably well-educated” people they’d never do that of their own inclination, although is revealed as a bit more nuanced over the course of the story:

His pipestem gestured at the stars. “Man’s gone to stranger places than this.”

“Has he? I … oh, I suppose it’s just something left over from my outway childhood, but do you know, when I’m under them I can’t think of stars as balls of gas, whose energies have been measured, whose planets have been walked on by our prosaic feet. No, they’re small and cold and magical; our lives are bound to them; after we die, they whisper to us in our graves.” Barbro glanced downwards. “I realize that’s nonsense.”

She could see in the twilight how his face grew tight. “Not at all,” he said. “Emotionally, physics may be a worse nonsense. And in the end, you know, after a sufficient number of generations, thought follows feeling. Man is not at heart rational. He could stop believing the stories of science if those no longer felt right.”

This does ring true, and is a nice way of getting into one of the tensions that seems to run through a lot of planetary romance (more on this as and when I write up The Heritage of Hastur and Golden Witchbreed), but it’s a bit of a shame — or an irony signposted too subtly for me to spot on one reading — that in working out this argument to its conclusion, Anderson removes from the Dwellers not just any sense of their own culture or concerns (that, at least, could be read as deliberate, we can’t truly know the alien), but any sense that they’re really a credible threat to humanity. More in sorrow than in anger, seemingly, Sherringford observes that “They tried to conquer us, and failed, and now in a sense we are bound to conquer them”, on the grounds that rationalist mechanistic technology has been proven — through the rescue of Barbro’s son — to be superior to the Dwellers’ alternative biotechnological pathway, which is reduced to failed magic. It’s another archetype shaping the story, but not fully acknowledged.

5 Responses to “Reading List: “The Queen of Air and Darkness””

  1. Reading List « Torque Control Says:

    […] Reading List: “The Queen of Air and Darkness” […]

  2. James Davis Nicoll Says:

    I have that in at least two collections: the one I think you read, which is named after this story, and The Book of Poul Anderson. The second one includes “Her Strong Enchantments Failing” a 1974 essay by Patrick McGuire, which when I encountered it highlighted some quirks of Anderson’s that made it very difficult to ignore them afterwards.

  3. David Moles Says:

    “you will find nothing [in these stories] which most twentieth century physicists would flatly call impossible”

    This is 1971, right? I don’t think psi was considered out of bounds till at least some years later, if the Niven oeuvre is anything to go by.

  4. Ted Says:

    Back in the 1950s, Campbell was a big proponent of psionics; the aftereffects of that probably lingered for a while.

  5. Niall Says:

    Is that a conviction within (parts of) the sf field, or within science, though?


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