Rich Larson first popped up on my radar with Quandary Aminu vs The Butterfly Man, a fast-paced biopunk story. I really enjoyed that story’s inventiveness, theme and the pacing. Unfortunately, his latest story lacks some of these elements and adds new problems, which make Ways rather mediocre, with the only saving quality being the hints of a rich and very weird universe.
Chimezie works for a large corporation, which tasked him with laying claim on a mineral-rich asteroid. To do so, he needs to hitch a ride on the spaceship Naglfar, captained by a woman named Mola. Actually, “spaceship” is a misnomer. Naglfar is a space worm, which creates its own wormholes for a faster than light travel, and Mola is its caretaker, living inside its body. Even with such a fast travel, however, the voyage is long and tedious. Chimezie must learn how to live within a giant worm, and Mola must become a gracious host to him. Slowly, they learn to appreciate each other, though. They both have their secrets, forgotten pasts, and a task they don’t fully understand.
Mola is instrumental in persuading Chimeze to literally unlock his forgotten memories from a box, and he does so just in time for the landing and an unexpected surprise at the end of their journey. The memories, which were locked away for good reason, come flooding in, and they give Chimeze the moral imperative to perform his task, which had been finally revealed for him.
I tried to be as obscure as possible, given that there is so little to the plot. Most of the novelette is world building and exposition to a wonderfully bizarre universe where most of the technology is biological. People’s bodies are heavily modified, living spaceships are crossing the void, excreting nourishment for their passengers and even producing art supplies. The world in this story has strong vibes of the TV show Lexx, and I mean that in the most complimentary way.
Unfortunately, I’ve had two basic issues with this work. First, the pacing did not work for me. It was way too slow, focusing too much on the weird environments, and too little on the characters or story progression. The final act, on the other hand, was so quick that if you blinked you missed it. It’s as if Larson was so enamored by the world he created that he didn’t even notice that his characters are all but invisible in the story, and as a result, the narrative was lacking any kind of driving force.
Second, the story falls into the same trap as Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit: It overwhelms the reader with unexplained made-up words and concepts, in an attempt to obfuscate the somewhat shallow plot. I’m all for having the reader figuring out things on his own, and I’m not a big fan of exposition, but there should be a balance. Instead, the story feels almost lazy, with the author throwing concepts at the reader, which the reader will work hard to understand, possibly invent his own interpretation and do most of the narrative work without the author ever having to bother with it.
The saving grace of Larson’s story is the worldbuilding. I may have fallen for the author’s con and invented a universe in my mind that is most compelling to me, but I appreciate the hints he has given me to do so. Still, I could see through the paper-thin characters and lackluster plot and realize that this story didn’t reach the qualities of Larson’s other works.