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THE NEW HUMANS

Man’s reach must exceed his grasp.

By Snuggle Squiggle, author of Endless Stars

Feb 5, 2019: The New Humans is a story that tries very hard.

It’s a long-form serial that’s been updating irregularly for over two years now. It’s a kind of period piece, exploring superpowers in 60s Australia.

And it suffers from that common double-edge sword of serials: the writer is improving. The opening chapters are rough. Just as you’ve heard many times before — for many different serials — it gets better.

The consensus is that this story hits a stride at the seventh chapter. But that’s 31k words to get there, no small investment. Is the story worth it? I say it is, but not for everyone.

I was hooked from the start, though, and that owes to the story’s greatest strength: the prose. TNH is a story that tries at times to be literary, and doesn’t entirely fail. There are impressive almost-poetic descriptions, and even when the prose falls simple and bare, it exudes a certain profluence which assures you that you aren’t in the hands of an amateur.

Most of the time. There are blunders that keep the prose from being seamless or graceful — expositional passages that feel like “let’s stop the story for an infodump”, perspective shenanigans that confuse, jokes that miss more than they land. There are footnotes, too, and I can’t say I’m a fan of their use in fiction. TNH manages to be charming about it, and the often humorous footnotes are placed not to detract from moments of emotional honesty.

More divisive is the perspective choices. There’s a few different ways to do third person. Third limited — kinda like first person with different pronouns, though perhaps more distance — is very common because it’s immersive. TNH is third authorial (or omniscent), and so it switches characters perspectives on a dime, sometimes not even implying a perspective. But switching perspectives like this can be jarring or dissonant, and make you work to figure out the logic of the prose. And it distances you from both perspectives.

This is most egregious when it dwells on the protagonist Allison’s perspective for a while, starting to feel almost like third limited. Sometimes this intimacy melts away gracefully, sometimes it doesn’t, and either way you glimpse a world where the author wrote more conventional third person, and he certainly didn’t do a poor job of it.

Yet despite its faults, the prose is still engrossing and rhythmic. More than that, it’s clever and dense in a way that rewards careful reading. You can tell that the author and editor put time and care into their words. My attention was ensnared from the very first chapter, and it’s what pushed me through the slow, meandering beginning.

Because that’s the shame of TNH and its improvement — it takes a long time for the other aspects of the story to enter the league of the prose. The plot isn’t initally clear, and the characters are . . . decent.

Allison starts off bland, and it’s not till she makes friends her own age that she really starts to shine as a character. Before then, she’s quite passive and even after, it’s not a problem that goes away quick.

The other characters are sooner to shine, but it’s fair to say that it takes a while before you truly feel for most of them, especially the adults like Basilisk, Żywie, Melusine, etc. Later on in the serial, you get a feel for what drives them, the sort of conflicts they grapple with, but early on, apathy is easy.

And yet, even in the beginning, the relatively mild characterization is no barrier to striking emotion being portrayed. TNH can often have a feel like that of slice of life, and it can convincingly convey some striking emotional beats. Strip away the prose, and that emotional engine at the core of any story is functioning in TNH, and I say that makes it worth it.

The serial is set in an alternate past, and it makes good strides toward verisimilitude — such as Allison being startled by a recording device with life-like fidelity. It doesn’t shy away from period prejudice, but manages to handle it tastefully. The setting’s uniqueness doesn’t stop at the time period; most of it takes place on a quiet farm instead of a city. The author calls this story superhero adjacent rural gothic, and it gives this story a texture unlike any other I’ve read.

Let’s talk about plot. TNH eschews web serial conventions with its structure. There are no arcs, instead there are massive volumes twice a novel’s length. It’s like a run-on sentence at the chapter level. Arc breaks offer a nice caesura for those who read in bursts or just like the feeling of progress. Most readers won’t care, though, and it’s a small loss.

It does make seeing the structure of the plot more tricky, though. Because even without explicit breaks, you can see vague arcs outlined, and the first of these arcs is the weakest. The start is slow and almost directionless, and it’s here where Allison’s passivity drags most on the story, and it’s hard to decipher the true plot for a while because Allison is more of a sidenote in it. When the plot finally comes to a head, though — I shan’t spoil it. Suffice it to say, the ending of volume one almost makes you forgive the poor beginning.

Do note, however, that this is a volume one problem. Volume two is much stronger in this regard, which is helped by the sense that more things are happening, and those things matter — even without knowing what the final conclusion will be yet.

But, as crucial as plot and characters are, I’d be remiss not the mention the other things TNH has going for it: the powers, and the power design.

I like the powers of TNH. I don’t love them — while flavorful, they aren’t the most creative and they couldn’t sell the story alone — but Allison’s power is one of the best. The others do fall largely into well-worn archetypes (the water control power, the teleport power, the biology power, the sound control power (well, powers — yes, there’s more than one), and so forth). There are other exceptions too, but they’re exceptions.

This addresses the story as it stands (as of the 36th chapter). But the setting has hints of some greater cosmic or metaphysical situation with powers. While the underbelly may (likely will) prove to be very novel, the surface is so far only above average.

The New Humans has fantastic prose, characters that grow on you, a deeply intriguing setting, and a plot which builds to some intense surprises. Does TNH sound like your type of serial? Even if it doesn’t, I’d recommend giving it a few chapters. The author and editor are doing something a little bit different from anyone else, and it’s worth your time for that alone. And if its reach exceeds its grasp, well, what’s a serial for?

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