“Life is conflict. We are but wolves that walk on two legs. Build your temples, write your books, nothing will ever change.”
More than any other story written in the twenty-first century, Schuyler Hernstrom’s “Mortu and Kyrus in the White City” from his latest collection, The Eye of Sounnu, exemplifies the ethos of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Civilization is a thin veneer over the law of the wild. It’s kill or be killed. The strong rule over the weak, a man is either predator or prey, and no amount of art or culture will hide that. This is embodied in the form of Mortu, a motorcycle-riding, axe-wielding barbarian from the unspecified North, a race of men created to serve the alien Illilissy and who later rose up and overthrew them long, long ago. And like Conan, Mortu lives to the fullest, wringing every last drop of his time on Earth (if, indeed, Earth is where this story takes place).
And yet Hernstrom adds another layer, one not so present in Howard’s seminal works, and that is Christian mortality. If Mortu represents the pagan, then Kyrus, a monk turned into a monkey some dark magic, represents the teachings of Jesus Christ. An erudite little fellow, and brave in his own way, Kyrus is sarcastic without being snarky, arrogant without being annoying, and deeply respects Mortu’s prowess and spirit; wonderfully, this respect is returned by Mortu. There is no Christian-bashing OR pagan-bashing in “Mortu and Kyrus in the White City,” only an interesting examination of how these two moralities intersect.
Mortu laid the body down gently and stood. He took up his axe and made for the stairs. Kyrus tugged at his hand.
“Where are you going?
“I am going to kill everyone.”
. . . Kyrus continued his argument. “Wanton slaughter is not the way! These people must face justice!”
“Justice is what I mean to dispense.”
“Justice does not come from a blade’s edge!”
“It most certainly does.”
Who do you agree with? Is either Mortu or Kyrus wrong? In addition to being bad-ass, this makes for a deep read, an adventure story with meat on the bones.
I suppose it’s time to describe the plot now. I don’t want to give away too much, but as others have noted, if you’re familiar with Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away Form Omelas,” you will likely see “Mortu and Kyrus in the White City”‘s twist coming. This does not make it any less shocking, or any less infuriating. And you will see the parallel to the modern world.
“Mortu and Kyrus in the White City” begins with our protagonists riding down an abandoned desert highway, en route to the city of Zantyum from where they both hail. I think. Part of the charm of Hernstrom’s writing is that he drops us in in medias res and doesn’t explain everything in great detail, providing just enough in his dialogue and descriptive prose to create that sense of wonder all the best works of fiction have. They make for Zantyum, presumably after a series of prior adventures, to seek a cure for Kyrus’s condition. Along the way, they save a caravan of tractor-trailers from attack by vicious nomads and are then invited to travel with the caravan by their beautiful, mysterious leader, a woman named Leguna, who takes an instant liking to the hulking, battle-hardened Mortu. There are also two children with Leguna’s group, tended to by a young beauty named Nathia, whom catches Mortu’s attention.
Mortu and Kyrus agree to help, and are soon taken to a majestic, gleaming white city atop a plateau, full of technological marvels, and utterly empty except for some two-hundred members of Leguna’s seemingly perfect utopian commune. It is a peaceful life, and utterly alien–fitting since this city used to belong to the Illilissy.
But what happened to all the children? And why does everybody seem younger than when Mortu and Kyrus first met them?
The fun of “Mortu and Kyrus in the White City” is not necessarily the plot, which is rather derivative of both “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and others, but in how Hernstrom presents it. The pacing is strong, absent any flights of fancy or wasted words. His prose is economically beautiful in the way Japanese aesthetics are–not a wasted line, but what is there is placed perfectly. The action flows, never resembling an instruction manual or a choreography diagram. And he uses the word “thews,” which automatically raises a writer’s esteem in my eyes. Influenced by Howard as well as the great Jack Vance, Hernstrom most certainly does not write like “a toddler stomping around in Vance’s boots,” but as a fully realized writer of his own.
Even more so, as Alexandru Constantin notes, “Mortu and Kyrus in the White City” is ” a direct assault on the moral degeneracy of mainstream science fiction and fantasy.” Not only in the portrayal of Christianity as a positive force. Not only in the disdain for those who would trade spiritual yearning and service to something higher, pagan or Christian, for ease and comfort, and most certainly those who would gobble up and barf out their future for the selfish opportunity to live more in the here-and-now. Plus, the only scorn Mortu and Kyrus show is for the licentious and the morally incontinent.
I highly recommend this story. I can almost guarantee if you’re a fan of the pulp masters of yore, you will love it, you will want to read the rest of Hernstrom’s work, and you will eagerly look forward to his writings in the days to come.
Buy The Eye of Sounnu here
Other #ShortStoryBookClub reviews of “Mortu and Kyrus in the White City”:
If you want more Vance-inspired science-fiction, you’ll love my book The Last Ancestor. Buy it here.