Saturday, June 25, 2011

SF Masterworks #84: M.J. Engh, Arslan

"It is true that Kraftsville was a safe and pleasant place, in comparison with other places.  Your hungriest paupers have been better fed than the chiefs of towns.  Your people have slept in security.  They were free, they were healthy, as human health and freedom go.  They had never suffered war.  But you know that in most of the world, sir, there has been war and war again, and again, and again war, so that every generation learns again.  Strange.  It is very strange."  He shook his head like a man in real puzzlement.

"What is?"

“More than a hundred years without war. A strange way of life.”

“What do you mean, without war? My God, we’ve-“

“You have made war, you have not suffered it! Your nation, sir, has been perhaps the happiest to exist in the world. And yet consider its history. The natives despoiled, displaced, cheated, brutalized, slaughtered. The most massive system of slavery since the fall of Rome… The upheaval, the upswelling, of savagery, of violence. Not revolution, sir, for revolution requires coherence. Not eighteenth-century France, but fifth-century Rome… Grotesque, sir, this combination of a primitive puritanism and a frantic decadence; very like the Romans whom you so resemble.”(pp. 80-81)

M.J. Engh's 1976 novel, Arslan, will aggravate, frustrate, and confound many readers who encounter it.  It is, among other things, a story of the United States falling under the sway of a global dictatorship, a tale of resistance, a narrative on childhood, but above all else I would argue that it is a commentary on power and the relationships engendered from it.  For some readers, Engh's seeming reduction of a vast array of complex issues down to the size of town/county affairs might not be as much an affirmation of former US House Speaker Tip O'Neill's adage, "All politics is local," as an annoying conceit that serves to cover up the sketchiness of Engh's plot.  For others, however, her decision to focus the action of the story around the rural Illinois town of Kraftsville frees herself from the encumbrances of having to explain the external mechanics which might divert the reader away from the often uncomfortable socio-political issues that Engh wants to explore here.

The basic premise can be discussed and dismissed briefly:  a young warlord, Arslan, from the fictional Central Asian country of Turkistan, has bluffed and threatened his way into gaining control of a secret Soviet anti-missile laser system (SDI a decade before the "Star Wars" program was ever announced to the American people).  In short order, the major governments in Europe, the Soviet Union, China, and the United States surrender.  Arslan and his soldiers, Turkistanis and Russians alike, suddenly set up camp in the small American town of Kraftsville, where Arslan regales his troops with a victorious gathering topped off by the raping of two selected youth:  a female and a male, Hunt Morgan, who later becomes one of the novel's two narrators.  From this graphic scene, Arslan comes and goes in Kraftsville (or District 3281) over intervals of several years for the next two decades.

Rape, especially over the past half-century since it became a war crime, is a problematic issue in any novel that contains it, but even more when the rape of a (male) child is involved.  Several reviews of Arslan focus on the shock and discomfort found when encountering the rape of Hunt Morgan in the opening chapter of the book.  Since Hunt's complex relationship with Arslan forms an integral part of the novel, perhaps it is best to explore the ways in which this rape is used.  Engh certainly does not sensationalize, nor does she dismiss with a cavalier attitude, Hunt's rape.  Rather, his rape becomes a concrete metaphor that works on several levels:  the representation of the plight of youth of both sexes in war-torn areas (the fact that the US hasn't suffered this since the end of the Civil War is harped upon in passages like the one quoted at the beginning of this review); the degradation of power relationships along the lines of imperialist resource/people exploitation (here shown in reverse); the terrorization that is unleashed on District 3281 in the immediate aftermath of Arslan's triumphant entry into the city.  This does not diminish the reactions engendered by Arslan's rape of Hunt, but it does serve to provide a context in which Hunt's later actions can be seen as much more than a sickening case of sympathy for one's own tormenter.

Arslan's character and actions might be just as disconcerting for several.  From the ceremonial rapist, Arslan moves away from the diabolical, warlord character toward something more nuanced and mystifying.  His initial actions are unequivocally brutal (the rape, the rounding up of girls for a harem, the harsh martial law established in District 3281), but the bon homme that he is portrayed as being after the first third of the novel is much more seductive than assertive.  It is, as he says about Hunt (and which could be applied to others), "after the rape comes the seduction."   In his conversations with Franklin Bond, the principal of Kraft County's high school (and later the conflicted head of the Kraft County Resistance), Arslan comes across as being more and more reasonable, even as some of his actions (the injection of people worldwide with a sterility-inducing virus) are perhaps even more horrific than his first deeds, mitigated only by the distance (the world outside of Kraft County is shrouded in a fog of non-news) and reader sympathy with the root cause (the need to reduce human overpopulation).  By the novel's concluding chapters, Engh's seduction of the reader's sympathies has been far advanced after the sudden rape of their sensibilities.

Why does this occur?  Perhaps it is because Arslan's character is never presented as being "just" evil or "just" anything; he is, just like President Clinton was a philanderer who was still admired for his policies by many despite his numerable character flaws.  Arslan is a breath of life compared to the stolid, sometimes smug Franklin Bond.  He achieves things, he overcomes certain socio-political roadblocks that just aren't broken in contemporary representative democracies.  His dismissive attitude to his own power is beguiling because it promises a possible non-corruptive personality, even if subsequent events might lead one to question that presumption.  He has power over the other characters precisely because he has control over himself.  He may weep, he may rage, but what Arslan does best is expect.  This is seen in how quickly he overcomes Bond and others with his force of personality; he expects them to hate him, distrust him, revile him, but also to ultimately obey him because they have run out of other alternatives.  This might ring untrue to most reading it, but there is a certain appeal to this powerful cult of personality that certainly has its parallels in several charismatic leaders of the past two centuries whose callous actions still garnered them admiration from their purportedly-repressed constituents.

Throughout Arslan, these unbalanced power relationships are played out.  From Hunt's subsequent treatment by the townspeople to how he, when he appears as a narrator, casts Arslan as a noble, complex personage, power relationships are presented in terms that underscore the inequalities of the relationships.  Very rarely are people presented as being co-equal.  No, what we see is a smug, pathetic "resistance" to Arslan's commander, Nizam, that amounts to nothing substantive and which presents as its only "victory" the continual honoring of those executed for an assassination.  Never is Arslan's own authority ever really challenged; even the symbolic resistance grounds down into a sullen compliance.  This subordination has become so final that even when the signs of dominance are removed, the effects of Arslan's reign still rule the people of Kraft County.  Power might corrupt, it might beguile, but it certainly does hold sway over people, even when they think themselves free from it.

Engh's up-close look at power relationships through the character of Arslan and the dramatic changes he engenders is not free of flaws.  Some might find the local/personal nature of the story to be underwhelming because so much is lost in the "fog" of events elsewhere that might seem more appealing to them.  Others might find the messages contained within the narrative to be unappealing and unconvincing because they are not argued for as much as presented as being fait accompli.  Certainly some will not experience that "seduction" which follows the "rape."  But for others, Arslan is a moving, powerful work because it forces the reader to reconsider his or her own assumptions about how power relationships work and whether or not one might be willing to be an accomplice in the subversion of ideals once held to be steadfast and true.  For those readers, Arslan will be a true masterwork that will resonate with them long after the initial read is complete and after re-reads are done in coming years.

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