Discussion of "Longtail: A Prologue"

by Troy Jones III
(Huntsville, Alabama, USA)

I looked around the site and it appears there doesn't seem to be a discussion of "Longtail: A Prologue" by Xianjun Zeng (to be found in Tales to Astound). It may be that a discussion is out there somewhere, but I am not seeing it. Since in the introductory note to the story, it says that "readers (are invited) to reflect on what the author has built up so far", I thought I would share a few thoughts and questions.

First, I want to say it is a really interesting piece. It is very evocative, painting some really interesting pictures and creating a fictional world that seems like it would be a suitable setting for something much longer. I say "piece", because I am not sure how else to categorize it. I am really curious as to what the original author envisions it as, and/or what their plans for it are. As you say in the introductory note, it doesn't really work as a short story, and the main reason it doesn't (in my opinion) is that it is trying to be exactly what the title suggests it is: a prologue for a novel (or perhaps chapter one of a novel).

At the end of "Longtail", not much has changed for the titular character. He found his way home, but he did not find what he was looking for, and while he made some interesting discoveries along the way, the significance of what he has found is not at all apparent. In fact more questions are raised than answered. I do understand that the Old Ones are so advanced as to be "indistinguishable from magic", and that requires, from a storytelling perspective, keeping some aspects about them enigmatic and ineffable. They need their mystique. All the same, it is far too easy to take that to the extreme of writing a "story" where mysterious, inexplicable stuff happens, the hero escapes (or dies), but in the end nothing is explained and the reader feels like the author has just been jerking them around the whole time from start to finish. "Longtail" steers dangerously close to those reefs. That is one issue.

A bigger issue is that a story's protagonist should usually be changed by the end of the story. Either their external circumstances have changed in some tangible way (e.g. they have finished their quest), or their internal POV has changed (e.g. they've learned something that feels important). Neither of these changes seem evident at the end of "Longtail". The Skybridge to the Cloud Ocean's moon was a dead end, but at the end of the day the Longtail has no reason to give up his quest for the crystal flower. One has the impression that the story is intended to continue from here. Hence, "A Prologue", I guess.

But is "Longtail" a novel's "prologue" or its "chapter one"? The difference is that a prologue is usually only tangentially related to the main novel. Often it's from the point of view of a minor character (who often does not even make an appearance in the main body of the novel), and serves to introduce the world and the novel's main conflict/plot before we meet the novel's real protagonist in "chapter one". And the fact that the protagonist of "Longtail" is not given a name, but called simply, "the Longtail"-- i.e. referred to by the name of his species instead of a personal name-- suggests that ultimately the Longtail is intended to be a minor character in the grand scheme of things.

On the other hand, it *feels* to me like the author of "Longtail" is (or was) planning to pick up right where he left off with the further adventures of the Longtail, in which case "Longtail: A Prologue" is not a prologue at all, but "Longtail: Chapter One". (In that case, not giving the Longtail a name is simply an error, trying too hard to be cutting edge. Come now, there's no valid storytelling reason for Angry the Sand Mule to be given a name while the main protagonist himself has to go nameless.) If on the other hand, this IS intended to be a prologue for a completely different story-- say, the story of Olbo the Swimmer (made up by me just now), who has already found the crystal flower, causing herself no end of trouble-- then a lot of the backstory we get with the Longtail, e.g. the bit with Angry the Sand Mule, or the story of the Longtail's father dying, is irrelevant and can be cut. (There is always a danger in writing a prologue that readers will become attached to the prologue's character and resent being told by the author that now they have to root for a different character once the "real" story begins in chapter one. If that is the direction the author wants to take this story, then too much backstory for the Longtail character will be an issue.)

This is a bigger issue for me, because before a fix can be proposed, it would be necessary to have a sense of the overall shape of what the final story is intended to be. (And no matter what the author decides, big rewrites will be in order). Is the Longtail character the real protagonist of the rest of the novel? If yes, give the Longtail a name and write the rest of the novel. Or is the Longtail only a minor character in the greater scheme of things? If yes, then not having a name is fine, but axe the irrelevant backstory (oh, and write the rest of the novel). Or is this intended to be a standalone story? This option probably would be the easiest one to do since you wouldn't have to write a whole novel to follow up on the existing prologue, but to make it work would require making the resolution of the story more satisfying, with the Longtail changed in some fundamental way, and especially not leaving any open plot threads (e.g. the Longtail's missing father).

Last, a question. The introductory note says "Those worlds are not named, and we are supposed to guess what they are. The Red Desert is obviously Mars, but what about the others? I would argue that one major fault of the tale, so far, is that we are given insufficient clues. But this is rectifiable." And later suggests that the story itself may be edited at some point based on reader comments. I am curious as to whether that rectification has happened some already? The other planets besides Mars are pretty clearly identified in the story as it currently stands, so am I right in thinking that the story has already been fixed up some?

(And the reason I am only posting about this now? Well, normally, I have a personal policy not to read unfinished stories since 99% of the time they never get finished, but I found myself with nothing better to do recently, and the introductory note for "Longtail" piqued my interest enough to give it a read.)

-Troy Jones
(of "Headless Skeletons of Mercury" and NOSS-T Debate infamy haha)

{Note from Zendexor: this is an ideal piece of feedback, at just the sort of analytical level which an author should want. The comments on prologues made me think of the one in Keith Laumer's "The Star Treasure" (non-OSS). The characters in it reappear in the main story but from a different viewpoint, and its scene intrigues and whets the appetite for that main story, without giving too much away too soon.}

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