The Last Witness von K. J. Parker

KOLUMNE

Two Novellas Walk Into a Bar: Binti and The Last Witness Have a Drink


Diese Kolumne ist nichts für schwache Nerven, denn hier wird getrunken und diskutiert: Nicolette Stewart liest alle Kurzromane von Tor.com, und dieses Mal hat sie zwei von ihnen an der Bar belauscht. Ladies and Gentleman: Binti von Nnedi Okorafor und The Last Witness von K. J. Parker. Ach ja, Binti wurde mit dem Hugo und dem Nebula Award ausgezeichnet. Yeah!

Two novellas walk into a bar. What, you've heard this one before? I doubt it. You haven't heard the one about Nnedi Okorafor's Binti and K. J. Parker's (who is actually Tom Holt) The Last Witness walking into a bar. Will they fight? Will they kiss? Will one of them get sloppy drunk and puke in the bathroom sink while the other holds its hair back in the bathroom? Well, you're here, so I guess you're going to find out.

They wouldn't have met on purpose. Thematically, stylistically, they run with different crowds. Different hobbies, different professions, such different lives. But both frequent their local pub. Alone. They've got a lot on their minds, and when the weight of their thematic currency becomes too much to carry, they slip away to a quiet place where nobody will recognize them. Their friends love them for being so entertaining, so fucking interesting: God, have you ever talked to one of them? The stories that one can tell!

But both are more talented than their friends. Not just interesting, but far more interesting. Smarter. Deeper. Shaped by violence, they are scarred and strong. They have suffered, and they have survived, and they have kept putting one foot in front of the other. You might say they have prevailed. (But have you really prevailed if, while alive, you have been utterly, irreparably altered? This is, in part, the subject of one of the most interesting analyses of Binti out there.)

If Binti is about self-discovery and acceptance, The Last Witness is about self-discovery and regret. Where Binti is a fairly straight-forward The Hero Comes of Age in Space! story, The Last Witness is a non-linear philosophical anti-hero's cry of pain. (That's a good thing.) Very different animals. And yet, I imagine that with a few beers between them, they'd have quite a lot to talk about.

By the way, I hope you're not imagining two human-sized novellas sitting on bar stools in some dark dive bar. This isn't that kind of joke. Because both Binti and The Last Witness are written in the first person, so you might as well imagine their first person narrators sitting at the bar: Binti, black skin caked with orange clay and long, tentacle-like dreadlocks, and the last witness – you never learn his name, so I suppose we'll have to call him the Witness if we're going to talk about him at all – who ... oh fuck, we never find out what he looks like either. Well, a man, in clothes befitting of a it's-sorta-a-medieval-feeling-ish-fantasy setting without magic (not really) or a name.

Neither Binti nor the Witness would really want to start a conversation, but they would be drawn to each other. Somehow. (Inevitably! I mean, how the fuck else could we even continue with the discussion here?) Maybe the barman would switch up their drink orders, forcing them to start a conversation. Maybe the Witness would be trying to leave, only to discover he'd gambled away all his money the previous night, and Binti would kindly offer to cover his bill. Trade you a story for it, she might say. He would consider, then start to talk. That guy knows a lot of stories. He just doesn't always know which stories were his. Inevitably, they would end up philosophizing about memory. What it is. What it means. How it defines our world.

The Witness might talk a few circles around his strange life for a while, but, eventually, he would get to the point. »What I can do,« the Witness told her, warily, »...is get inside people's heads and take their memories.«*

Binti nodded, diplomatic as ever, unwilling to pass judgment and willing to listen. Far more threatening creatures had defied her expectations in the past.

»Memory is such a slippery thing, don't you think?« the Witness said. »You think you remember something clear as daylight, but then it turns out you've been wrong all along ... unreliable ... And furthermore, after a while memory is all there is – once a city stood here, or hereabouts; once there was a man called such-and-such who did these glorious or deplorable things; once your people slaughtered my people and drove them out of their own country.«

»I'm familiar with the phenomenon,« Binti said quietly, thinking of the Khoush and the Meduse, about how the Khoush had defined the Meduse, and their conflict, for the galaxy by writing the history books. Their memories became truth because nobody remembered anything else. »Did you ever hear about the war between the Khoush and the Meduse? We were all taught the Meduse form of killing in history class. The Khoush built the lessons into history, literature, and culture classes across several regions. Even my people were required to learn about it, despite the fact that it wasn't our fight. The Khoush expected everyone to remember their greatest enemy and injustice. The conflict continued based on those fictions. As if they were truth.«

»Truth is like love; it's universally lauded and admired, and most of the time it just causes pain and makes trouble for people.«

»I'll drink to that.« Binti raised her glass. The Witness mirrored her motion. They drank.

The Witness was the first to speak again. »Consider it this way. The present is a split second, so tiny and trivial as to be immaterial. Everything else, everything real and substantial, is a coral reef of dead split seconds, forming the islands and continents of our reality. Every moment is a brick in the wall of the past, building enormous structures that have identity and meaning, cities we live in. The future is wet shapeless clay, the present is so brief it barely exists, but the past houses and shelters us, gives us a home and a name; and the mortar that binds those bricks, that stops them from sliding apart into a nettle-shrouded ruin, is memory.«

»And you keep every memory you take?«

He nodded. »I've died. I've killed. I've done horrible things and wonderful things.« He shrugged. »But given the slippery nature of memory, does that mean I've actually suffered those things (I can remember), done those things? Might as well have. Close enough, good enough. Do I wake up screaming at night? Well, no. Not since I learned how to distill poppies.«

»When I left my home, I died. I died a second time when I became a diplomat for the Meduse I mentioned earlier. Perhaps to die again and again is more normal than you think. Perhaps you are simply one of the few aware of it. Your ... skill makes you unique. But it doesn't make you different. Do you understand your life the better for it? Do you understand others the better for it?«

»I'm not sure I can tell whose pain is which anymore ... To make a distinction is to miss the point entirely.«

 

Binti and The Last Witness are both novellas published in the Tor.com novella series. You can find out more about them here. I have set out to read them all, and so far, these two are my favorites. Though this discussion of them is more about some of their philosophical points, I'll come right out and say it: If you only read two Tor novellas, read these two Tor novellas.

This column was brought to you by Everything that Isn't Winter by Margaret Killjoy. Featuring: tea farming, post-apocalyptic society, battle, love, explosions. Read it here.

*All of the good bits of this conversation are quotes taken directly from the books in question. All the banal transitional small-talk statements were added by yours truly. But in the interest of giving credit where it's due, I've catalogued which words came from where below.

 

Quotes from The Last Witness:

 

»What I can do is...get inside people's heads and take their memories.«

 

»Memory is such a slippery thing, don't you think? You think you remember something clear as daylight, but then it turns out you've been wrong all along...unreliable... And furthermore, after a while memory is all there is—once a city stood here, or hereabouts; once there was a man called such-and-such who did these glorious or deplorable things; once your people slaughtered my people and drove them out of their own country.«

 

»Truth is like love; it's universally lauded and admired, and most of the time it just causes pain and makes trouble for people.«

 

»Consider it this way. The present is a split second, so tiny and trivial as to be immaterial. Everything else, everything real and substantial, is a coral reef of dead split seconds, forming the islands and continents of our reality. Every moment is a brick in the wall of the past, building enormous structures that have identity and meaning, cities we live in. The future is wet shapeless clay, the present is so brief it barely exists, but the past houses and shelters us, gives us a home and a name; and the mortar that binds those bricks, that stops them from sliding apart into a nettle-shrouded ruin, is memory.«

 

»And, given the slippery nature of memory, does that mean I've actually suffered those things (I can remember), done those things? Might as well have. Close enough, good enough. Do I wake up screaming at night? Well, no. Not since I learned how to distill poppies.«

 

»I'm not sure I can tell whose pain is which anymore ... To make a distinction is to miss the point entirely.«

 

Quotes from Binti:

 

»We'd all been taught the Meduse form of killing in history class. The Khoush built the lessons into history, literature, and culture classes across several regions. Even my people were required to learn about it, despite the fact that it wasn't our fight. The Khoush expected everyone to remember their greatest enemy and injustice.«

 

»When I left my home, I died.«


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