In retrospect, it makes sense that one might find a ‘philosophical thriller’ lurking within the pages of a full-throated sword and sorcery collection of short stories written by metalheads. Those guys are generally well read and widely read, and the powerful effects in their music arises in part by their drawing inspiration from deep philosophical wells. That they know philosophy and can use their knowledge to great effect in their writing makes perfect sense. If fits, but it’s just not what you expect from a collection of full-throated epic fantasy stories like Swords of Steel, Volume Two – the book with the sword slinging fully armored knight on the cover.
Michael Scalzi’s That Than Which There Can Be No More Terrible takes place largely within the confines of a college philosophy class. It’s only at the end of the tale, when the full import of the philosophical discussion becomes clear that the action, such as it is, move on to a satisfying conclusion. Before getting to that conclusion, thought, the reader is treated to a seemingly rambling introduction to a few philosophers and their famous thought experiments.
The usual suspects, Plato and Aristotle, get name checked, as do but so do slightly less famous philosophers such as Saint Anselm of Canterbury and one of his respondent’s, Gaunilo.
The nearly thousand year debate between those two philosophers is repeated in the halls of an un-named university, with the fiery and perhaps slightly unhinged professor taking the role of Saint Anselm in proffering a proof for the existence of God. The students object, until the narrator asks if Saint Anselm’s proof also means that the most terrible thing imaginable must exist as well.
It is a rare author who can seamlessly roll heavy philosophical debates into a tight thriller, and rarer still the one who can make a tight thriller out of nothing more than a philosophical debate. Scalzi shoots for the later and succeeds, ratcheting up the tension throughout the story all the way to the climax. In fine Hitchcockian fashion he uses the mundanity of the setting to contrast against the horrible implications of the results of the philosophical debate. The uncertainty of which world this tale live in – the staid real world, or one where the most terrible thing imaginable exists – helps lend the proceedings a heavy sense of impending doom.
In many ways, That Than Which There Can Be No More Terrible is the natural next step in the evolution of Lovecraftian fiction. It’s not the cookie cutter homage that has become all the rage these days, (“Yo, check it, my story has ancient tentacle monsters in it so its totes Lovecraftian”) nor is it the deliberate and hamfisted subversion of Lovecraft’s techniques (“The real eldritch horror was racism all along!”). It’s the passionate professor and his naïve graduate student who blunder into the blasphemous works and accidentally discover that all of man’s pursuit for the eternal, capital-T, Truth of the universe might have been better spent elsewhere.
Dropping this sort of tale into the midst of battle-hardened warriors and wizened and crafty old sorcerors takes a lot of guts. It’s a high risk gambit, switching gears so abruptly, and it’s hard to imagine a corporate entity signing off on a collection with such widely varying styles of story. Which is a shame, because the gamble pays off. It works, in large part due to the high quality of Scalzi’s writing, and the undercurrent of “Things Man Was Not Meant to Know” that runs through the book. And it’s just that sort of risk that the world of publishing needs to take these days. We should all be grateful for the changing climate of publishing that allows these sorts of chance to be taken, because when they work, as this one does, they are amazing.
Although not part of the story proper, Swords of Steel includes a brief paragraph from Michael Scalzi in which he discusses the genesis of That Than Which There Can be No More Terrible. It may be a simple matter of personal preference, but I love these brief autobiographic addenda. These brief glimpses into the minds of authors serves as an excellent ‘alternative take’ on stories. All too often writers try to cram all of their thoughts on a story into the tale itself, to the detriment of the piece. Particularly with a first-person account like That Than Which There Can be No More Terrible, the author does the reader a service by letting the story stand on its own account, and then offering a chance to get the author’s own take as a post-script.
There was a time when this sort of post-script was much more common in Dinosaur Publishing. Two authors leap to mind, Larry Niven and Piers Anthony both included multi-page post scripts that were the sole source of information on their lives in the pre-internet age. For whatever reason, the practice fell out of favor, and its good to see at least one publisher bringing the tradition back.