The Vingare were unused to obscure answers. They are a concrete people.
The thing about fantasy is that you can do anything, logic doesn’t matter. It's all a dream world.
Well, no! Dreams are brief and evanescent. If we try to extend them, make them solid, they quickly become confusing and dull. Yet so many writers of fantasy believe that they can pile incongruity upon incongruity and it doesn't matter. All they are doing, so they believe, is adding to the atmosphere, the mystery of their story. In fact, all they are doing is wrapping what story they have up in so much cotton wool that it is soon stifled.
When I first encountered "The Insect and the Astronomer: A Love Story" by Kelly Barnhill (Lightspeed, November 2013), I thought that was happening here. I wasn't sure I could make sense of the story. I wasn't sure the story made sense. And yet, it seemed to work. It was that disconnect that drew me back to it. And yes, there is a thread, a spine of story that runs through it all. A story that we are all familiar with: this is Oz, and this is another iteration of the parable of the Tin Man.
It is still a story that shouldn't work. It is filled with stuff that is there just for the weirdness, not because it has any organic place within the necessity of the story (at the most basic: why an insect? why an astronomer?), and it proceeds mostly by the logic of authorial fiat. And yet, if you will pardon the pun, it is a story that has a heart.
The Insect has never been in love.
The Astronomer has never been alive.
The first thing we learn about our protagonists is negative. We are told more about what they are not than we are about what they are. We know, for instance, that they are both male only because Barnhill consistently uses the male pronoun when referring to them.
This approach is, I suppose, meant to give our imaginations free rein when picturing them. I'm not sure it works like that. It suggests, rather, that the author isn't too sure about the solidity of her inventions. When the mayor dines with the Astronomer, the mayor refers, in the sort of rococo phraseology that passes for dialogue in this story, to "your two flesh eyes and your one living brain and your own beating heart," to which the Astronomer replies, with surprise, "But surely you know I possess none of these." Whereupon: "His fingers pressed to his painted mouth and stuck tight." Had Barnhill said "lips," we might simply imagine that the Astronomer uses lipstick, but in the context we can only assume that the whole orifice is a decoration. In which case, how did the Astronomer manage to consume the food and drink that he has just shared with the mayor?
The fact that all our knowledge of the Astronomer comes from what we are told he does not possess leaves us forever unsure of what he is and what that entails. As a result, awkward questions, such as whether he can eat and if so, how, assume a greater import than they might otherwise do. Barnhill is very careful to make everything about the Astronomer vague and imprecise.
The Astronomer has always been here.
The Astronomer has just arrived.
Both are true.
So much of the story is made up of paragraphs comprising such short and often conflicting statements that this is clearly a deliberate strategy. Are we meant to be excited by such imprecision? Or intrigued by it? It is an overt way of saying: this is fantasy, so anything and everything can be the case. And in some circumstances, such as the mystery of the Astronomer's presence, it does work, it does intrigue. This is the power of suggestion, but when it comes to character we need more than suggestion. The Astronomer is not a character, rather he is a set of characteristics that do not apply to him. We can't make much out of that, which makes it difficult to sympathize with his needs or understand his motives.
We are luckier with the Insect. The Insect even has a name: The Hon. Professor Pycanis Educatus—called the Insect, or the Pyca, or the Bug-in-Spats, or the Insectus Insuferablilis, or the Hon. Doctor Please-Swat-Me Creepy-Crawlie. Actually, Pycanis is the Latin name for a genus of Shield bug or Stink bug, so this identifies a type rather than an individual, but it will do since we are also told that he is the only one surviving. Certainly there are many more ways of referring to the Insect than there are to the Astronomer, and Barnhill uses most of them indiscriminately. At least we can check out Shield bug on the Internet and get a much better idea of what the Insect looks like than we ever can of the Astronomer.
Other than the apparent specificity of this profusion of names, however, Barnhill really tells us little more that is concrete about the Insect. We know he is large, but not how large. We know he is the last of a species that was "widely known for their devotion to the Arts and Sciences," but not why his fellows have died out. We know that he teaches, but not what he teaches. We know he speaks English spiced with Latin tags (even when he is talking to himself), which we presume is an indication of his learning, until a farmer he meets along the way also drops a line of Latin into the conversation.
(Parenthetically, the Latin is translated in footnotes. This is no problem on the Internet; hover the cursor over it and the translation appears. But in a different format, a book or magazine, say, I suspect this many footnotes would break the frame of the story for many readers.)
As the title tells us, the Insect and the Astronomer are central to the story. Other characters flit briefly around the edges, but are even more numinous than the eponymous duo. The fact that we cannot get a grip on these two central figures, therefore, should be absolutely fatal to the story. Indeed, the writing is flawed, Barnhill is so obviously and relentlessly striving for the ethereal and the atmospheric that she completely fails to allow us to see anything distinct through the fog of words. Yet somehow, within this all this unvisualized language, the story remains, and it works because it is made up of archetypes that we recognize. Because we know the story already, we see where it is going even if Barnhill cannot show us the details.
The Insect and the Astronomer are isolated figures, alone of their kind, and because they are lonely they are incomplete. (If we were being very generous, we might say that the incompleteness of Barnhill's language mirrors the incompleteness of the characters, but I suspect that might be going too far.) I don't know if the Astronomer actually is a Tin Man, I have no idea what he is made of, but he is an avatar of the Tin Man from Oz, lacking heart and, more tellingly, soul. So, in his way, is the Insect. Each so obviously needs the other for completeness that it is inevitable that they should be drawn into each other's orbit. Before that happens, however, there must be trials along the way, trials that emphasize the isolation of the two figures.
The Astronomer appears in Vingus from nowhere and, as we have seen, from nowhen, and begins to build an elaborate but oddly pointless tower. But his attempts, his desire, to be part of local society are rebuffed.
He never gave up his desire to become as near-to-like his chosen kinsmen as he could, however. And while he would never be Vingus, he would have to settle for Vingus-non-Vingus, and that would be that. And he would be alone.
The Insect, meanwhile, is drawn to Vingus by his dreams: "Go to Vingus Country, his dreams told him. Find the Astronomer. You'll understand when you arrive." But along the way a local farmer deliberately and conspicuously fails to offer him the traditional hospitality of the region. Then he is tricked by a pair of insect hunters who want to add him to their collection (the only point in the story when the fact that he is an insect has any bearing whatsoever on what happens).
But of course the two find each other at the very last, and we learn how each might complete the other. As a story, its very deliberate lack of clarity is unsatisfactory; but it is a fable, which means there is something very simple, very obvious, but oddly robust running underneath the disturbingly intangible surface. And as a fable it works better than it has any right to do.
Paul Kincaid has received both the BSFA Non-Fiction Award and the Thomas D. Clareson Award. His latest collection of essays and reviews, Call And Response, is forthcoming from Beccon Publications.
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