Nightland Racer is Fenton Wood’s completely gonzo fable about a down on his luck former bootlegger who drives a nuclear-powered truck into the future to battle a malevolent black hole. The past, the present, and the future meet in a world where myths are truer than truth, and the stakes are nothing less than humanity and the world.
During the genre wars of the mid-twentieth century, one of the attempted redefinitions of the then new category of science fiction was as speculative fiction. The idea was that the literary conventions of the time were limiting, and the real value of this new type of fiction was the wild investigation of the unknown.
I’m sympathetic to this argument in principle, but in practice most of the authors who used this term just substituted philosophical limitations for literary ones, leading to an age of despair and a contraction in the number of readers.
Fenton Wood, however, writes the most imaginative and speculative stories that still manage to include the hardest of hard science. In part, this is because he does not share the crippling materialism of the authors who dominated the Campbelline era.
Let me sketch out for you why I think Wood’s work surpasses the attempts of his predecessors.
One part is shamelessly borrowing from those who came before. Wood lists death-energy, the New Sun, the Sevagram, Autofac, the Crystal Forest, the Great Pain of Space, the Black Sun, the Nighthorse, and the King Who Was a Thousand.
But it is not enough to simply take all these ideas to make a great story. Originality is overrated; what matters is what you do with the ideas you borrow or steal. They need to be woven into a new myth, something Wood already had experience with in his Yankee Republic series. In order to do this, you have to take the mythic at face value, embrace it for what it is, and then it all clicks together. There is no irony in Wood’s work, the mythic simply is.
But wait, there’s more! Wood also layers in science, often using expertise borrowed from fellow author Hans G. Schantz, to explore black hole event horizons, nuclear powerplants, hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, and genetic engineering.
Let’s take a direct comparison. Fredrik Pohl, Futurian and prolific author wrote The World at the End of Time, another speculative story that involves embodied angels that live in stars, the implications of relativity, and unfathomable lengths of time. I liked Pohl’s book, it at least took religion seriously as a sociological phenomenon, and it had complex, interesting characters against a background of scientific speculation.
But as a wild exploration of the unknown, of rejecting the boundaries of what a story can be, of letting immense spans of time spool out and seeing what the consequences might be, Pohl’s book is simply far more conventional than Nightland Racer. Pohl didn’t just follow the logic wherever it went, he used it set dressing for an admittedly well done psychological portrait of his POV character, but with SCIENCE!
Which is of course why science fiction bled readers for most of the last century: because you can read tons of novels that aren’t tarred with the disreputability of genre fiction but have equal or better psychological insight. The readers that wanted adventure stopped reading altogether, sometimes substituting other media, but sometimes not.
I’d like to see more books like this. I don’t know that we can go back to the imaginative and commercially successful world of the pulps, but I do think that something new is coming that honors that spirit.
Buy Nightland Racer at Amazon
Buy Yankee Republic direct from the author
Other books by Fenton Wood
Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves (Yankee Republic Book 1) | Second Review
Five Million Watts (Yankee Republic Book 2) | Second Review
The Tower of the Bear (Yankee Republic Book 3)
The City of Illusions (Yankee Republic Book 4)
The Earth a Machine to Speak (Yankee Republic Book 5)