Beasts and Birds: Bleak and Horrifying vs No Coherent Meaning

I was bemused to find someone (I know not who) reading my Hugo-nominated short story, Parliament of Beasts and Birds, on a YouTube channel that said it had one prior viewing. I have posted a link to this before, so I am sure that more than one person viewed it.

So I listened to it last night to bump that number up to two.

At the risk of seeming senile, allow me to admit I had forgotten the end, was taken by a pleasant surprise at how cleverly the whole thing is arranged, and how haunting it is.

While it is uncouth for an author to compliment himself, I hope I can be forgiven in this case. Enough time has passed since writing it to allow me to see it with unpartisan eyes: I had frankly forgotten how many of the deep roots of the human condition, mysterious or joyful or sad, the story touches on, or how subtly disquieting the ending is.

I had also forgotten the plot twist in the middle, where the Cat almost breaks the fourth wall, and the story steps from an Aesop tale, where animals are expected to talk, into a Cordwainer Smith story, where underpeople wonder at the gift of speech and the curse of nakedness that gift brings.

I also stumbled by accident across this review:

I’m not sure what to say about this one. It uses Biblical/Medieval language and does strike some archetypes, but it’s hard to put it together into a coherent meaning. I gather the story is about Armageddon and the beasts rising to take man’s place afterward. It’s an interesting premise, but that was clear in the first couple of pages and nothing else of interest developed. I hate to be a grammar Nazi, but there’s some trouble with verb tense in the first pages. Most of this should have been past perfect. Half a star.

Hmmm. I am not sure what to say about a review like this. Not every story speaks to every heart, of course. Some readers come from worlds foreign indeed from the author’s, and they share no common language of symbols and tropes, no common observations about human nature.

I often remark that one ought to read a story before reviewing it; but, as best I can tell, this reviewer actually did read it. The writing did not cohere in the reader’s mind. This, of course, may be the fault of the writing rather than the mind.

Now, your friendly author will confess his intention for there to be a haunting ambiguity in the resolution, and to hint that the purposes of heaven are obscure.

It takes a delicate touch to paint an impressionistic image without being too clear, or too unclear. Any criticism that my craft was insufficient for my ambition, I bow my head and lay my hand over my mouth. But a criticism like that requires the critic to take the effort to see what was being attempted, even if it is not to one’s taste, or hails from a foreign worldview.

Here is another review, perhaps the most interesting take on the tale I have yet seen: He says the story “Rocks”!

Wright’s intent doesn’t matter, the story should be judged as it’s own work, and I think it is a really damn good work. I, too, had to struggle to get past my Puppy antipathy, but it’s worth it! Because yes, the beginning is really slow and quite boring. But if you push past that, it keeps getting better and better, and ended absolutely fan-fucking-tastic!! I think I’m a much bigger fan of religious horror than I thought I was.

For starters, the writing style is well done. It’s a throw-back to the old Talking Animal fables, which come with a very distinctive voice, and Wright does an excellent job of speaking in that antiquated, fable-style voice. It’s not amazingly difficult to do, but it certainly isn’t easy (as anyone who’s tried to mimic that archaic style without sounding ridiculous can tell you – eg Ren Faire actors), so it deserves to be noted that he did it well. Both the voice and the structure call up those olden tales skillfully.

But more importantly, try not to listen to it as a preacher delivering a sermon, but just as a story. It soon becomes clear this is a horror story.

Echopraxia kinda cemented in my mind the concept that “If a God existed, it would be necessary for Man to kill him.” Parliament pushed those same buttons for me. Cat’s brush with God is of an intrusive, alien, ever-watching eye, like that of a Lovecraftian Elder God. Then the minds of the animals are altered against their will, changing their personhood (the grossest violation of personhood that there is IMHO), and it isn’t even a change made FOR THEIR BENEFIT. They are given an aversion to nudity that imposes costs on their existence and makes them feel bad. It is a purely malevolent act, and smacks of species-sabotage. Plus the body-horror scene of everyone being twisted into upright grotesqueries. Then they are denied any way to improve their own existence, being put entirely at the mercy of alien minds (the uplifted humans) who may not give a damn about them. Finally, their only way to opt out of this is to literally destroy their intelligence and agency, reducing them to rutting beasts. Possibly a fate worse than extinction, I’m not sure.

The only ray of light I see is Fox. If I was writing this into a novel he would be the cunning trickster, lying just below God’s radar, finding a way to undermine and eventually overthrow the Hosts of Heaven.

It’s a bleak and horrifying tale … its really quite good. So I’m encouraging everyone to try to … read the story like you’d read anything by Watts or Gaiman… When reading, or discussing the piece as a work, it’ll make life much more enjoyable to focus just on the story, if only for one day.

Unlike the prior review, I can see that he, at least, read the tale: he entered into it as a man might walk into a house, and the house seemed solid. It is a more favorable review than a favorable review would be.

“Wright’s intent doesn’t matter.” Damn straight. Amen.

Let those words be burned with cruel instruments of torture from some Kafka story into the inner eyelids of every blind critic and social justice loudmouth who judges fiction by its propaganda utility rather than by its artistic integrity. The story is not about me. I am hardly interesting enough to be the subject of a story.

(Once upon a time, a fat, jolly, old ex-lawyer sat at a desk and typed. Then he typed! How he typed! He pushed keys with his fat, jolly fingers. How he pushed keys! Then, at noon, he stared out the window with a blank look in his eye, thinking odd thoughts. He sipped coffee. Once he scratched. One he laughed. Then he got back to typing. Meanwhile, the figures in his imagination had adventures.)

The reviewer here is also quite correct. The story rocks.

This reviewer looked at what your humble author portrayed, and, while his reaction may differ from other readers, this is nonetheless a compliment to the portrayal, more than I am due. A man who disgusted by the scent and sight of peaches recoiling from a watercolor drawing of a peach pays the same compliment to the painter as a man who loves peaches by salivating: both react to the conceit of the art with their whole imagination. The reaction shows that the painter did his job.

And the story rocks. Hard.

(Above is one of the several animals in Parliament of Beasts who is halfway through the uplift process into assuming human stature. Rock on, Beast!)

Parliament of Beasts and Birds appears, with other tales as good or even better, in BOOK OF FEASTS AND SEASONS

You may purchase the book here: Book of Feasts and Seasons

Feasts and Seasons Cover 2