Friday, June 4, 2021

"There Are No Countries" by Marshall Smith--Fiction Review

Today’s review is on a bit of weird fiction with an incredible sci-fi setup, throwing you right into a tale told by a living human statue located in a castle discovered on an alien planet. “There Are No Countries” is an enigmatic book written by Marshall Smith.

Marshall Smith

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

Aesthetically, I like the setting and setup of this novel. It reminds me a lot of Area X in “Annihilation.” How our main character Doug gets to the planet Dandros is only thinly explained—something to do with universe splicing, whatever that is—and it adds to the mystery of the novel, but it isn’t super important. He’s there now, and there is no going back. He’s stranded on this vast uncultivated world, filled with pristine environments which are all just a little uncanny.

As for Doug himself, I’m not entirely sure the man turned into a living statue at the beginning of the novel, which endlessly tells the story of his arrival on Dandros and his life there was ever actually a human being like you or me. Or, at the very least, he’s not a human from our universe. Just like the setting of the story, there is something Uncanny Valley-Esque about him. 

Maybe I’m thinking way too much into it, but it’s little things at first, where he refers to everyday objects in a slightly off manner. Early on, he refers to a device that he has on him that does everything you’d expect a typical smartphone to do, but he calls it an almanac. He also occasionally refers to one of his favorite shows, involving a survivalist and adventurer that, at first blush, you can recognize as Bear Grylls—but Doug refers to him as Bare Gryllz—close but off, again. Early on, he refers to a coworker who worships a “Goddess” as though this faith, while a bit unorthodox, should be common knowledge to us as the reader like we have a shared cultural history. But we don’t. It also occurs to me that Doug is a talking statue that has been self-admittedly trapped that way for hundreds of years, and maybe his memory is just a bit faulty. Still, it really made me suspicious of him right out of the gate and made me think of, unreliable narrator.

What I don’t love about this book:

I don’t like Doug. He’s a vicious, manipulative weasel, and to boot, he’s the worst kind of vicious manipulative weasel—one that thinks he’s not that bad a guy. Also, since he’s the protagonist, we spend all of our time with him.

I’m really not a fan of how terrible Doug is to Annie. Annie, while I’m not exactly certain what a preform is—other than a living machine of some sort—seemed to be really nice and devoted. Well, you know, except for the part where it’s implied that Annie might be murdering other women out of jealousy in her devotion to Doug.

After the strong opening of the book, and unrelenting weirdness to everything, including the guy telling us the story, the rest of the plot just seems to mark time and meander. There is some kind of conflict between the preforms, who are terraforming Dandros, and this Goddess, but it all feels distant and without stakes. It feels without stakes because I couldn’t emotionally latch on to anything or anyone in the book. It’s kinda like watching multiple rival anthills do battle. It can be interesting at times, but it’s hard to emotionally invest in our main character—a narcissist with an unwarrantedly high opinion of himself—or the preforms and melted people, who are equally strange and always a bit unknowable. So plot-wise, things just happen, and they aren’t predictable developments, but every event in Doug’s long, long life hits with the same emotional off-key note of, so what?

Also, like I mentioned before in my review on “Ink and Bone,” the synopsis of this book gave me false impressions of this novel’s plot. The synopsis gives you the impression that this story is from the perspective of the people who find Doug and have to reconcile with his extremely odd story that left him a statue when really it’s pretty much just his weird story. It’s got a real, blink and you miss it sort of context that Doug is even telling the story to someone or someones else, and not just the walls of his empty castle.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

“There Are No Countries” starts off with Doug telling someone his story of how he ended up on Dandros and his life there up until being turned into a living statue. It nearly immediately smash transitions from that interesting setup to his first day on Dandros. He and part of his office building were somehow transported to this pristine wilderness.

From there, his immediate concerns are with survival when he doesn’t have many resources at his disposal. Needless to say, he’s no Bear Grylls—or Bare Gryllz as he calls him—and nearly dies as a result. But, he’s eventually saved by some odd entity and is nursed back to health by two preforms—living machines on Dandros that are some of the only sentient things on the planet.

Over the course of a long time, years maybe—it’s unclear—Doug lives with and meets more of the industrious preforms, which are busy preparing the planet for life that comes after them. They’re kind to him, taking care of him as a sort of curiosity, and one of the preforms, Annie, is even particularly smitten with him. But it’s ultimately a lonely existence for Doug since the preforms hibernate in the winter months, and he’s left to his own devices.

In his isolation, Doug becomes increasingly interested in the Goddess statuette he had found in his office, on his coworker’s desk who prayed to the Goddess. He found praying to the figure caused some dramatic and odd imagery to happen in front of him. Then one day, while the preforms were still smack dap in the middle of their hibernation cycle, Doug is abducted by a monster. The monster drags him through a portal to what might be a parallel universe, but it’s never really clear. There he meets the Goddess and is immediately involved in a physically amorous relationship with her.

After his first encounter with the Goddess, Doug is returned to Dandros and the preforms. From that day on, his obsession with her grows in proportion with her contempt for him. She uses him to steal from the preforms, and he starts with Annie, who, after Doug’s first encounter with the Goddess, becomes even more infatuated with him than before.

Doug eventually uses the preforms more and more as his personal servants, along with the actual servants the Goddess grants him. It never seems to occur to him that a woman who drinks blood, demands living sacrifices, and gets her entertainment by watching brutal fights to the death between her “people”—isn’t a very nice lady. He just accepts his privileged place in her little cult without question or wavers in loyalty even when she nearly kills him by ripping his face off along with one of his arms and legs. He gets better. She’d modified his body in some way so that he survives grievous injuries.

Eventually, though, it comes to blows between the leader of the preforms and the Goddess. Doug picks the Goddess’s side nearly immediately with little to no consideration for what the preforms had done for him in the past. The story ends with Doug left alone on Dandros, seemingly abandoned by the evil space monster Goddess—who would have guessed—and the preforms wiped out. Annie shows up again years and years later after Doug lived in his castle—that the preforms made him—alone for over a century. They have a heart-to-heart, and she tells him that she thinks she was tricked into loving him, and then that night she dies, disintegrates. Shortly after, Doug’s people discover Dandros and show up, and it seems he’s turned to stone, maybe because he’s just been there so long.


This book is a very experimental kind of story, which is something I deeply admire. Without stories that push the boundaries and experiment, literature stays the same and stagnates. Stagnation is how we get a million zombie stories that are all essentially the same thing—retold in a slightly different way. So, I will always admire an experimental story that tries something new and falls on its face more so than a competently told but unoriginally safe story.  

Here’s the sad truth: most experimental stories have parts that just don’t work, and this book is no exception. Its weakness in character and plot looms over it just as much as its bigger, more exciting ideas. It’s genuinely a cool idea that maybe we’re reading an account of a seminal event in a parallel universe through the eyes of its inhabitants that are experiencing a profoundly weird conflict over great gulfs of time. However, we, as the audience, are doubly removed from the main action of the story. That, compounded with little to grasp on to and identify with, makes it more a bewildering series of events happening to this guy than a story.

It reminds me a bit of the classic hard science fiction stories common of Asimov’s day, so focused on their big ideas—in their case speculating on where technology was going—that the basics of character development and voice get short shrift. All and all, it’s an interesting piece of weird fiction for its flaws as much as its virtues.

Parting thoughts:

Cosmic Horror and Weird Fiction usually are inextricably linked together somewhere under the umbrella of science fiction. I think this is because the content of a cosmic horror story—vast, unknowable entities from beyond our known universe are revealed and have motivations incomprehensible to humankind—is inherently weird. 

“There Are No Countries,” manages in my opinion, to split off from the horror element to just fully embrace the Weird Fiction subgenre. Sure there are scary moments to it, but they’re scary in the sense that a bolt of lightning is scary—it’s sudden and unexpected. Or scary like lions are scary, they can rip your face off and do terrible violence to you quickly. What it doesn’t do is build an atmosphere of dread like a horror story. Surely nearly getting struck by lightning or mauled by a lion is scary in the moment, but neither event feels like it was inevitable—just the bad luck of wrong time, wrong place.

This quality makes “There Are No Countries,” rare in my mental library of books I’ve read, to focus on the weirdness of the story and not necessarily about the terror the unknown typically brings. The only author I’ve personally encountered with this aesthetic to their work is Robert Aickman, whose short stories had “creepy” elements to them, but the point of most of them wasn’t to terrify but to take you on this strange psychedelic journey. Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” series is a sort of mental cousin to this kind of story. However, still, in VanderMeer’s work, the unknown is ultimately pretty frightening and never offers to sit down with you and shoot the shit like Robert Aickman’s and Marshall Smith’s oddities could at times.

While reading this book and writing this review, I’ve often felt that I was a bit stark and harsh in my criticisms. This is only because I think that this book has a terrific setup, and Marshall Smith has truly some genuinely sublime and grand stories in him—but “There Are No Countries” is ultimately a flawed curiosity. In its vision’s distance, profound, but light on the details of the journey, and prone to meander with trivialities.

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