Any good-hearted, whimsy-favoring reader, from acned to aged, who delights in chaotically fantastical or fantastically chaotic narratives involving the quest for one’s authentic identity and place in the world will surely enjoy Gabe Hudson’s debut novel, Gork, the Teenage Dragon. Its nonstop madhouse escapades, compressed into the span of one extremely eventful day, summon up comparisons to the work of Walter Moers (Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures) and Tom Holt, who has done a couple of dragon-based books himself (Paint Your Dragon and Nothing But Blue Skies). Additionally, Gork satirically plumbs some of the same supervillain territory that forms the basis of recent films like Despicable Me, while also juggling many of the standard tropes of science fiction in a thoroughly disrespectful fashion guaranteed to entertain.
Gork is Hudson’s novel-length debut, but not his first book. That was a short-story collection from 2002 titled Dear Mr. President. As Hudson has publicly recounted, the success of that volume was a mixed blessing, leaving him somewhat deracinated from writing and at sea about a follow-up project. The freestyle, loosey-goosey, unpretentious nature of Gork — narrated in true scatterbrained, irreverent, and heedless teen fashion by its adolescent protagonist — seems to have provided the liberating tactic for unchaining Hudson’s muse.
The book begins with a feisty direct address to readers from Gork, a sixteen-year-old orphan dragon, thus establishing its literary pedigree and commonality with other such self-justifying teen narratives as Huckleberry Finn — a book later explicitly referenced by Gork — and The Catcher in the Rye, also name-checked.
We learn that Gork was initially raised from egg-hood by the artificial intelligence named ATHENOS, resident in the crashed and undiscovered spaceship lying in some untouched wilderness area on Earth. Then, when he was three, this lost scion was rediscovered by his grandfather, Dr. Terrible, a notorious and powerful dragon from the planet Blegwethia. Brought back to dragonish civilization by his stern and strict and perhaps mentally unstable guardian, Gork was soon enrolled in the WarWings Academy, an institution of dragon-centric learning whose graduation rate is decremented by the tendency of its students to maim, slaughter, and eat each other upon the slimmest pretext. Imagine playground disputes among humans that generally end in lethal knife fights.
Somehow Gork (nicknamed “Weak Sauce”), despite being extremely underwhelming in all his terror-inspiring features, especially that of horn dimensions, a dragon’s central point of pride, has managed to survive to Crown Day. This rite of graduation requires all male dragons to select a mate, a Queen, with whom to propagate. Gork has unrealistically set his sights on Runcita, the daughter of Dean Floop (cue the Animal House allusions), an administrator who is a rival to Dr. Terrible and hence bound to look unfavorably on Gork. (Gork’s love, by the way, is introduced in an homage to Nabokov: “Run-ci-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three taps down the palate to tap, at three, on the fangs. Run. Ci. Ta.”).
The bulk of the shaggy-dragon plot, such as it is, consists of Gork running the gantlet of rivals, authorities, the environmental dangers of Blegwethia, and his own self-sabotaging bad decisions and weak nerves, in order to make his proposal to Runcita. In this Quest he is more or less alone, save for ATHENOS II, his replacement tutelary AI (not entirely trustworthy), and Fribby, a cyborg girl dragon who is unfailingly loyal and supportive. A couple of other helpful figures include Professor Nog, the hell-dwelling deceased faculty member who specializes in demonology, and Metheldra, the sexy adult “swordupuncturist,” whose semi-sadistic treatment succeeds in shrinking Gork’s overlarge heart, thus instilling in him, at least temporarily, the requisite lack of empathy for others that allows dragons to conquer. His chief antagonists are Dean Floop; an aide-de-camp named Rexro; and Gork’s own relative, Dr. Terrible, who proves to be the ultimate nemesis to all Gork’s plans and dreams.
Here is a delightful sample of Dr. Terrible’s personality and attitude, from a letter to his ward. In line with the cartoony flavors of the book, one is put in mind of Mojo Jojo from The Powerpuff Girls, Sheldon J. Plankton of SpongeBob SquarePants, and other resonant over-the-top animated megalomaniacs:
Now let me address the elephant in the room. Idrixia. First off, I want you to know that I am not sorry for stealing Idrixia away from you last Friday and marrying her. Because my name is Dr. Terrible and this is what we Terribles do. We act terrible. Now if it’s any consolation, when I was your age my grandpa stole the love of my life away from me and married her. And so I only want you to know that I feel your pain. But I also laugh at it, because I am terrible. And I am sure that right now you’re feeling a lot of raw and jagged emotions but I would ask that you not let your heart turn icy with hate for me, your loyal and dutiful legal guardian. Though the truth is I guess I really don’t care if you do . . .
[S]omehow try to find yourself another dragonette for EggHarvest. If that is even possible, I don’t know. Because it seems like any chick you get is really just using you as a way to get to me. Though you really can’t blame them, the chicks I mean. I am after all the infamous Dr. Terrible. Impossible to resist, really . . .
P.S. Idrixia says hi! She’s lying right next to me here in my nest. We are still technically on our honeymoon. Ha-ha! I am so terrible. (:
This letter is indicative of one of Hudson’s main achievements in the book: vividly fleshing out the unrepentant, Darwinian, nihilistic, amoral dragon civilization. Like the Bizarros of Superman’s universe, the dragons antithetically embrace all the worst aspects of human culture, endorsing pillage, cruelty, rage, hatred, and selfish individualism. Inevitably, of course, our supposed opposites begin to look disturbingly familiar, and the comic fantasia gives way to a fairly dead-on portrait of humanity at its worst.
The second accomplishment of the tale is the gleeful farrago of SF tropes that are mashed together, making this book a true instance of satirical science fiction rather than any kind of fantasy. The dragons possess spaceships, time machines, mind-transfer gadgets, interdimensional travel, and a galactic empire. But of course, being dragons, their setup resembles Star Wars as if populated by id-driven three-year-olds. Commentary on certain SF classics comes into play as well — is the WarWings Academy meant to resemble the training facility in Ender’s Game? — but no one parallel rises to prominence: instead, Hudson creates an omnivorous parodic vibe worthy of Futurama.
The main armature of the tale is of course Gork’s forced, hazardous maturation and the fulfillment of his destiny, a fate of whose lineaments he is mostly unaware until nearly the end. There are elements of The Story of Ferdinand here, given that Gork’s overlarge heart makes him resemble that peaceful, flower-smelling bull. We also naturally think of the Grinch, but in reverse, insofar as Gork’s remedy for his problems is to shrink his heart rather than enlarge it. Rather unconventionally for a tale of adolescent angst, Gork is not a rebel. He does not wish to shatter conventions or undermine the establishment. In fact, he just desires to be more like his peers and to fit in. However, by the final chapters — which are crafted in bite-sized chunks to match the accelerating pace of the action — Gork has come around to a somewhat revolutionary stance that will undermine the status quo — at least in the limited sphere to which he becomes heir. He attains — to use the title of an earlier novel of schoolboy exploits — “a separate peace,” an accommodation and truce that does not reform Blegwethia and the dragon civilization at large. I think it not much of a spoiler, since it follows the Hollywood pattern of such romances, to reveal that Gork finds someone other than Runcita to be his soul mate.
Although its surface affect is that of adolescent autobiography, the overall atmosphere of this book calls to mind two minor and perhaps overlooked classics of the field: Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad, in which two hyperbolic robots engender one farcical disaster after another, due to their overweening hubris; and David Bunch’s Moderan, the surreal chronicle of a future Earth all plasticized and devoted to incessant combat, a war of all against all. The deranged, neologistic language of Moderan is echoed in somewhat attenuated but still potent form by Hudson.
First, a bit of text from Bunch:
I filled the breath bags full as they would stick of the scarlet vapor-shield air, worked hinges and braces of legs to stand me to tallest tall, brought the wide-range Moderan vision down to alternate pinpoint scowl and arrogant look of dare-you-now, flexed my new-metal flailers in purest nonchalance, like the champion boss cat on the block lazily blinking and shooting his claws in and out of sheath in the Old Days, toyed a bit at my breastplate door, meaning to hint that dire things of havoc might be there stored, and moved on down toward the “warning of the line,” knowing full well that it was high noon in my career now and the sun now could set very fast and send my future to the dark.
Next, from Hudson:
Now up on the screen there appeared the deranged Evo-Mach 3000. The Evolution Machine was a giant upright stasis tank that comprised two fused pods, and each pod was filled with thick clear goo, and inside one pod was a lion and in the other pod was a tiny worm. Each pod had a series of tubes running out of it, which met in a small silver pyramid hovering above the pods. The pyramid was pulsing with light, as if the fiendish machine were breathing.
“Now,” said Dr. Terrible, as he looked out at all the dragon journalists in the audience, “I created the Evo-Mach 3000 so that our species can utilize the mind-swap, for the purposes of stealth warfare. Because now with my new Evo-Mach 3000, dragons will be able to hide in plain sight, blend into the native population on any planet we have come to conquer.”
While not as utterly and blithely demented as Moderan, Gork, the Teenage Dragon still offers us the insights and pleasures of seeing an absurdist, more savage version of our own bestial arena, a vision that makes us rethink our own default derangements.