Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fantasy Masterworks #32: Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword

"The world is flesh dissolving off a dead skull," mumbled the troll-woman. She clanked her chain and lay back, shuddering. "Birth is but the breeding of maggots in the crumbling flesh. Already the skull's teeth leer forth, and black crows have left its eye-sockets empty. Soon a barren wind will blow through its bare white bones." She howled as Imric closed the door. "He is waiting for me, he is waiting on the hill where the mist blows ragged on the wind, for nine hundred years has he waited. The black cock crows - "

Imric locked the door anew and hastened up the stairs. He had no liking for making changelings, but the chance of getting a human baby was too rare to lose. (p. 13)
Although I had heard of Poul Anderson and had seen his second novel, The Broken Sword (1954), praised by authors such as Michael Moorcock, I never got around to buying a copy of this book until a few weeks ago, after I read Richard Morgan's Suvudu article on his problems with J.R.R. Tolkien. In the furor that emerged there and on various blogs and forums, Morgan mentioned Anderson as an author who wrote a more "authentic" [my word for what Morgan was describing, although he might have used it in one of the numerous exchanges last month] fantasy that did not provide a cop-out, consolatory ending, but instead was the other Norse-influenced fantasy novel of 1954 that kept most of those sagas' Götterdämmerung elements in the narrative. Curious to know if Morgan's high praise of Anderson was merited, I imported a copy of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition of The Broken Sword to see what my initial impressions would be.

When I wrote my reflective essays on Tolkien, I kept referring back to the occasional problems that I would have with Tolkien's prose, or rather with the opaqueness that often would occur when Tolkien would shift to a more archaic, formal narrative voice. I found that this, combined with said language often being tied in to Tolkien's introduction of his invented historical events to the narrative, to be a distraction that detracted from the "present" story. Anderson also utilizes a narrative voice that resembles that of the old Norse sagas. However, this prose style enhances the story rather than weakening it, due to Anderson's story being set in a slightly-fantasized England of the earliest Norse sagas of the 8th and 9th centuries CE.

The quote at the beginning of this essay illustrates how well Anderson uses this literary mode. The elf lord, Imric, seeks to have a changeling replace the newborn human child of Orm the Strong, Valgard, as humans fostered in the elvish Alfheim are of great use against the elves' primary enemies, the trolls. But instead of spelling it out in laborious detail, as might be expected if Anderson had used contemporary prose styles, his use of a quasi-epic poetic style forces the reader to consider the import of each word. In the passage quoted above, the changeling Valgard is the product of a cruel rape. The troll mother's hate-filled lament takes on the form of a prophecy, with death's skull and suffering's barren wind conjuring images of devastation without any hope of redress.

This passage and a later one introducing the titular broken sword presage fell and horrific tragedies to follow. Just as many of the Norse sagas contained horrific weirds and mass slaughtering, so too does Anderson's take on this ancient narrative form. The stolen child, renamed Skafloc, and his changeling double, Valgard, have intertwined fates that involve each losing everything near and dear to them. Anderson is unrelenting with their characters, showing each to be pawns in greater games being played by the old gods against the growing menance of the White Christ, whose cross is the bane of elf, troll, and god alike, as well as them being tools of the elves and trolls in their immemorial battles for supremacy over the other. While at times these two characters come perilously close to being cardboard cutouts of dynamic, conflicted characters, for the most part I found myself caught up in their personality differences. Each is the mirror of the other. If Valgard be sullen and quick to enter the bezerker rage, Skafloc is a smooth, seductive operator. If Skafloc be comfortable with his role as Imric's foster human child, Valgard never manages to fit in with Orm's other children. Anderson masterfully uses their disparate character traits to drive the plot towards its damning, bloody end.

The broken sword itself is an intriguing plot element. A mysterious gift to Imric, its fell destiny as being the accursed weapon that Skafloc is fated to use to tragic effect stands out in comparison to Tolkien's Ring. Both are "evil" artifacts, but whereas Tolkien's Ring could be seen as a metaphor for the glamors cast by temptation, Anderson's sword, later forged anew, can be viewed as being a representation of fate and of the tragic suffering that humans will endure, whether it be at the hands of gods, chance, or humans themselves. Take for instance this passage after Valgard discovers his true origins:

"I am strong," he growled, deep in his throat. "When I was a viking, I broke men with my bare hands. And I have no fear in battle, and I am cunning. Many victories have I won, and I will win many more."

His hands fell slackly to his lap and his eyes darkened with horror. "But what of that?" he whispered. "What of that? Why am I so? Because Imric made me thus. He molded me into the image of Orm's son. I am alive for no other reason, and all my strength and looks and brain are - Skafloc's!"

He stumbled to his feet. Blindly he stared before him, and his voice rose to a scream: "What am I but the shadow of Skafloc?" (p. 241)
Here Valgard takes on the role of the accursed victim of fate, one doomed to kill those around him. It is a bleak, tragic life, one that is portrayed in turns as being sympathetic and loathsome. I found myself drawn to this solitary character, reminded of another Tolkien character, that of Túrin. But whereas Tolkien's Túrin finds momentary pleasures that simultaneously lessen and increase the magnitude of his black fate, Anderson's Valgard has no moments of cheer, no hopes of love, nothing but an almost nihilistic desire to have all symbols of his past erased by fire and his axe. Skafloc, however, with his fated encounter with Freda, balances Valgard's unrelenting darkness by his gradual fall from a diffident playboy type to a suffering, love-stricken fool whose love proves to be another example of fate's capricious cruelty. As a tragedy, The Broken Sword is one of the earliest (and best) produced in fantasy literature.

The conclusion to The Broken Sword fulfills the promise of the earlier plot revelations and of the characters' intertwined, mirrored personalities. As rage and suffering builds throughout the final third of this 274 page novel, the narrative becomes more taut, as the plot tension is distilled into short, terse paragraphs that pack a strong punch. The formerly-broken sword's trecherousness is revealed and the Skafloc/Valgard duo discover this in ways true to their characters. There is no sense of "closure," only that their tragic tale is but one small part in a greater, unfolding tragedy that is destined to spill out into all the realms at some indeterminate date.

Although I worried that reading The Broken Sword less than a week after finishing The Lord of the Rings might lessen the effect on me, I found the opposite to be true. I can see why critics of The Lord of the Rings (the story of The Silmarillion is a different matter to be addressed at a future date) blast him for not going far enough with his narrative at times, "settling" for narrative cop-outs that fail to meet the promise of the set-up. Anderson certainly does not shy away from showing the trials and tribulations suffered by his characters. They are not saints, but neither are they empty malevolent ciphers. Instead, by showing them as lusty, hearty characters, Anderson breathed life into Skafloc and Valgard and the characters surrounding them, enabling the reader to be caught up in their tragic tale. It is a shame that The Broken Sword is out of print in the United States, as I believe there is a market for this sort of dark, brooding fantasy, one that can serve as a complement (if not a straight alternative) to the sort of epic fantasy influenced by Tolkien.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fantasy Masterworks #28: Gene Wolfe, Peace

Unlike Wolfe's New Sun or Soldier series, Peace is a single novel that's only a shade over 260 pages. However, this 1975 novel perhaps contains within its pages even more levels of symbolism and meaning than either of those two more well-known novels. I recently re-read it for the second time and after scouring the web for other takes on it, I think it is safe to say that it is a novel that can be viewed as a lament on aging and dying, a murder mystery akin to Flann O'Brien's excellent 1967 novel The Third Policeman, a look at memory palaces and how a talented author can use them to construct a vivid story, not to mention perhaps being one of the more terrifying horror novels that I have ever read. But these interpretations only scratch the surface of this remarkable novel. While Wolfe's other works almost beg for multiple re-reads so the reader can reap the maximum benefit, Peace practically demands it.

Alden Dennis Weer on the surface appears to be a somewhat embittered old man struggling through the last days of his life. Suffering from a stroke, Weer reminisces about scenes from his childhood, all the while reflecting upon certain rooms in his old Midwestern house. Weer's stories, at first apparently devoid of fantastical or symbolic elements, comprise the majority of this story. As Weer shuffles his stoke-damaged body throughout the house, he remembers various scenes from his life. In the next few paragraphs, I shall highlight some of these scenes and how they stood out, not to mention that I shall hazard a few guesses as to their purpose and intent.

In these first passages that I quote (from pages 52-55), we see Weer as a young boy, morbidly fascinated with the idea of dead bodies and disinterment, but pay close attention to the tone in which these words are delivered:

"Aunt Olivia, if Ming-Sno dies, or Sun-sun, can we bury them here?"

"What a thing to say, Den. They're not going to die."

"When they get real old." Actually I would gladly have killed them on the spot for the fun of the funeral. Sun-sun, who had been sniffing at a woodchuck hole, had dirt of his nose already.

"Why do you want them to be buried here?"

"So somebody a long time from now will find their heads and be surprised."
Here we get the first talk about disinterment and the finding of the dead. This discussion shall be seen in a refracted form later in the novel. In the next part of this scene, we see a possible connection between young Alden (Den) Weer and the mythic but terrifying dragon, again something that is hinted at elsewhere in the novel in other forms:

A moment later we were at the top; while the professor and I sat down to rest, my aunt, facing into the wind, took off her wide hat and loosed the jet-headed pins that held her hair. It was very long, and as black as a starling's wing. Professor Peacock took a pair of binoculars from a leather case on his belt and said, "Do you know how to use these, Alden? Just turn this knob until whatever you're looking at becomes clear. I want to show you something. Where I'm pointing."

"A dragon," my aunt Olivia said. "The claws of a dragon, imprisoned in an antediluvian lava flow. When Robert cracks the rock, he will be free and alive again; but don't worry, Den, he is a relative of Sun-sun's."
While the dragon often represents a Satanic-like figure in various religious texts, it is the entrapped claws that I believe represent something more key here - entrapment. I will discuss this later, but first, the conclusion of this scene in which the first hint of secret, well-hidden murders is revealed:

Through smaller and more closely set tree, through blackberry brambles and thickets, the five of us passed around the shoulder of the hill; then, over grass now drying in the first summer sun, to its top. This was a higher hill than the first, though the ascent (on the side we had chosen) was easier, and I recall that when i looked from its summit toward the hill from which we had seen the cave, I was surprised at how low and easy it appeared. I asked the professor where the town lay, and he pointed out a distant scrap of road to me, and a smoke which he said came from the brick kilns; not a single house of any sort was visible from where we stood. While my aunt and I were still admiring the view, he tied a large knot - which he told me later, when I asked, was called a "monkey's fist" - in one end of his rope and wedged it between two solidly set stones. Then, with a sliding loop around his waist, he lowered himself from the edge, fending off the stones of the bluff with his legs much as though he were walking.

"Well," my aunt said, standing at the edge to watch him, with the toes of her boots (this I remember vividly) extending an inch or more into space, "he's gone, Den. Shall we cut the rope?"

I was not certain that she was joking, and shook my head.

"Vi, what are you two chattering about up there?" The professor's voice was still loud, but somehow sounded far away.

"I'm trying to persuade Den to murder you. He has a lovely scout knife - I've seen it."

"And he won't do it?"

"He says not."

"Good for you, lad."

"Well, really, Robert, why shouldn't he? There you hang like a great, ugly spider, and all he has to do is cut the rope. It would change his whole life like a religious conversion - haven't you ever read Dostoyevsky? And if he doesn't do it he'll always wonder if it wasn't partly because he was afraid."

"If you do cut it, Alden, push her over afterward, won't you? No witnesses."

"That's right," my aunt Olivia told me, "you could say we made a suicide pact."
But there is more to this than just the presage of murders in the still of the night that go unsolved. It is the direct reference to Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment's Rashkolnikov that I believe holds a key to understanding one layer of the narrative, that of from what point in "life" is Alden Dennis Weer speaking? More on this later.

This extended childhood memory scene does not come to a full stop, but instead branches out into other stories. One that might hold some interest for readers is that of Mrs. Lorn's resurrection egg, a finely-crafted easter egg that serves not just as an embodiment of virtues not otherwise seen in this novel, but also it could be viewed as being the counterpoint to the action transpiring in Weer's stories. It is the bidding on this egg that leads into other stories, but I thought I'd bring it up as a point to consider when trying to make up your own interpretation of this novel.

One particular story that has baffled many readers is that of the pharmacist Mr. T (no, you're not the only one to think of B.A. Barracus here, I promise!) and his orange. I have come across many interpretations of this "orange" in a web search, but the one that seems to best fit my own reaction to the scene is that of transmutation. Not only is there the sense that the pharmacist might be dabbling in alchemy, but with the rather grotesque figures that he is able to produce by injecting his concoctions into things like the orange (witness the woman with hands at her shoulders), there is a biological transmutation that seems to be occurring as well. But based on the passage below, I suspect there might be a third type of transmutation going on, a change from the rather ordinary into the bizarre grotesqueness that often is a key element in ghost tales, such as the one Mr. Smart appears to be telling, with this event serving as the transition:

"So, as I said, my room was the one at the back of the house, which was large and a nice enough room, but hadn't much in it but a high bed, a rickety chair, an old dresser, and an chromo - I think it was 'The Stag at bay' - and me. Well, I drifted off looking at that yellow moon and thinking about Mr. T's orange; and then I woke up.

"The moon wasn't shining right in at the window the way it had been, but was off at a slant, so just a little spot of light hit the floor in one corner. That made the rest of the room darker than it would have been otherwise. I sat up in bed, listening and trying to look around: there was someone besides me in that room, and I was as sure of it as I'm sure I'm sitting here in Miss Olivia's parlor. I'd had a dream, if you want to call it that, and in the dream I was lying in that bed like I was, and there was a terrible face, a horrible face, just within inches of mine. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed, and as I did my hand touched a spot of damp on the sheet that I knew was none of my doing." (p. 137).
But yet this dampness is not immediately explained, although one might presume by the following description of "stickiness" that it might not have been perspiration or water, but perhaps blood instead. No, instead we are launched into an explanation as to why Mr. T has been dabbling in alchemy, why we see an armless woman with hands on her shoulders, not to mention the dog boy. But yet that bit still remains in the mind, unresolved, even as the frame story shifts from that ghost tale of Mr. T's transmutations to other memories of Alden Dennis Weer regarding Mr. Smart, until we get to this scene with Dr. Black (who had been Den's childhood doctor) that closes the third chapter:

"Doctor, I have had a stroke."

He laughs, shaking his big belly, and smooths his vest afterward. There is a gleaming brass spittoon in one corner, and he expectorates into it, still smiling.

"Doctor, I am quite serious. Please, can I talk to you for a moment?"

"If it doesn't hurt your sore throat."

"My throat isn't sore. Doctor, have you studied metaphysics?"

"It isn't my field," Dr. Black says, "I know more about physic." But his eyes have opened a little wider - he did not think a boy of four would know the word.

"Matter and energy cannot be destroyed, Doctor. Only transformed into one another. Thus whatever exists can be transformed but not destroyed; but existence is not limited to bits of metal and rays of light - vistas and personalities and even memories all exist. I am an elderly man now, Doctor, and there is no one to advise me. I have cast myself back because I need you. I have had a stroke."

"I see." He smiles at me. "You are how old?"

"Sixty or more. I'm not sure."

"I see. You lost count?"

"Everyone died. There is no one to give birthday parties; no one cares. For a time I tried to forget."

"Sixty years into the future. I suppose I'll be dead by then."

"You have been dead a long, long time. Even while Dale Everitton and Charlie Scudder and Miss Birkhead and Ted Siniger and Sherry Gold were still living, you were almost forgotten. I think your grave is in the old buring ground, between the park and the Presbyterian church."

"What about Bobby? You know Bobby, Den, you play with him sometimes. Will he become a doctor, eh? Follow the family profession? Or a lawyer like his granddad?"

"He will die in a few years. You outlived him many years, but you had no more children."

"I see. Open your mouth, Den."

"You don't believe me."

"I think I do, but my business now is with your throat."

"I can tell you more. I can tell - "

"There." He wedges a big forefinger between my molars. "Don't bite or I'll slap you. I'm going to paint that throat with iodine." (pp. 164-165).
This scene can be taken one of two ways. One, since Weer reveals that he has had a stroke, we might be seeing a person (or perhaps that person's anima, or soul/spirit) who is reliving moments from his life almost involuntarily in an almost dream-like setting, with the rooms of his house serving as symbols for these scenes. Or conversely, we could be reading a ghost's account of his former life, considering that supposedly ghosts dwell most upon the traumas and key points of their lives to the exclusion of other events. While I can see why many would believe the former, I have come to the conclusion that the narrator Weer has already died. Below is one such bit of evidence that I offer up in support of this belief. Weer is chatting with a librarian with the topic dealing with the attrition of his family over time, before this intriguing bit is said:

"Various things. Let's just say that I'm conscious from time to time that my skull is being turned up by an archaeologist's spade."

"You shouldn't feel dead before you are, Mr. Weer."

"That's the only time you can feel it. You're like the people who tell me I talk too much - but we're all going to be quiet such a long time."(p. 177).
It is not so much a vapid conversation (which it could be, taken by itself), but that this theme of disinterment mentioned earlier reappears here as a little hint. Conversely, just before this scene occurs, there is a brief allusion of sorts to the image of Mr. T's orange:

What was her name? I can't remember it, I who pride myself upon remembering everything. And of course there will be no coffee. The drawers of this desk are nearly empty, but not completely so. A few stale cigarettes, a picture of a girl caracoling a clockwork elephant before the eighteen-foot-high orange in front of this building, the orange that shines like a sun by night. In a moment I will leave this place and find my way back to the room with the fire, where my bed is, and my cruiser ax leaning against the wall. (p. 174).

There are at least three things going on in this brief passage. First, it is but one of many asides, a reference not to a past event alone, but also to Weer's "present," such as it might be. Second, the orange reappears, perhaps to stand for yet some other transmutation, perhaps not. Finally, there is this mention of a "cruiser ax." If you pay close attention to the narrative, there are many allusions to all sorts of weapons, from axes to swords. I suppose some might argue that these are just hints that Weer might be a bit violent, considering the numerous deaths that occur around him, but which are never followed to their conclusion. I suspect that might be the case, but I am not completely convinced of that, although it certainly is plausible.

I spoke earlier about the possibility that Weer is dead and is living in a sort of hell. Part of what led me to consider this hypothesis is found in a book Weer finds that Mr. Gold possesses:

When he [Gold] was out of sight, I walked to the back of the store where his office was. There were several books on his table, and I picked one up. It was Morryster's Marvells of Science and, opening it somewhere near the middle, I learned that though it was a mortal sin to do so, the man who wished might, if he knew the procedure, summon devils or angels, "and this not by fayth, for he that doth as he is instructed shall gayn his end, whether he believeth or no." And that angels are not, as commonly pictured, men and women whose shoulder blades sprout wings, but rather winged beings with the faces of children; and that their hands grow from their wings, and in such a way that when their wings are folded their hands are joined in prayer. That Heaven is (by the report of the summoned angels) a land of hills and terraced gardens, with cold, blue freshwater seas; that it is shaped like an angel - or, rather, like many for (like Hell) it repeats itself over and over again, always different and yet always the same, for each angel Heaven is Perfect, as each is Unique; and that the various angel Heavens touch one another at the feet and wingtips, and so permit the angels to pass from one to another.
And again that Hell is a country of marshes, cindery plains, burned cities, diseased brothels, tangled forests, and bestial dens; and that no two devils are of the same shape and appearance, some having limbs too many, some limbs too few, others with limbs misplaced or with the heads of animals, or having no faces, or faces like those long dead, or the faces of those whom that hate so that when they see themselves reflected they detest the image. But that all of them believe themselves handsome and, at least compared to others, good. And that murderers and their victims, if they were both evil, become at death one devil. (pp. 211-212).
Not only is there a sense of the grotesque in Weer's depictions of his childhood (see the earlier passages about burying the Pekingese dogs and, of course, Mr. T's strange orange), but again there is that passing reference to the merger of murderers and evil victims into a single devil in Hell. While there certainly are other, more mundane explanations, there seems to be a circumstantial body of evidence mounting in this novel for the argument that Weer is trapped in some sort of a personal Hell, reliving his past in flashes before certain decisions are made. But it is in the final pages of the novel, where the sidhe are referenced in relation to long-lost geese, that we get the final clue: Weer's aunt Olivia's voice comes to him from the intercom, asking "Den, darling, are you awake in there?"

Perhaps this story is but like a dream of pastiches finally coming to a close. If so, it certainly would be more of a nightmare. But I suspect what we are seeing is the residual memories of a ghost haunted by its own past, realizing in its remembrances of former events that it is guilty of some terrible wrongs. While these wrongs are only hinted that (there are certain unexplained deaths that otherwise would have to be due to Weer's actions), I cannot help but to conclude that like O'Brien's narrator in The Third Policeman, Weer has been condemned to relive his past misdeeds. If so, then Peace is a very ironic title for this complex, nuanced novel. Peace is the furtherest thing from the events in Alden Dennis Weer's narrated life. Truly worthy of the epithet of "Masterwork."

SF Masterworks #42: Ward Moore, Bring the Jubilee

I was born, as I say, in 1921, but it was not until the early 1930s, when I was about ten, that I bean to understand what a peculiarly frustrated and disinherited world was about me.  Perhaps my approach to realization was through the crayon portrait of Granpa Hodgins which hung, very solemnly, over the mantel.

Granpa Hodgins, after whom I was named, perhaps a little grandiloquently, Hodgins McCormick Backmaker, had been a veteran of the War of Southron Independence.  Like so many young men he had put on a shapeless blue uniform in response to the call of the ill-advised and headstrong - or martyred - Mr. Lincoln.  Depending on which of my lives' viewpoints you take.

Granpa lost an arm on the Great Retreat to Philadelphia after the fall of Washington to General Lee's victorious Army of Northern Virginia, so his war ended some six months before the capitulation at Reading and the acknowledgment of the independence of the Confederate States on July 4, 1864.  One-armed and embittered, Granpa came home to Wappinger Falls and, like his fellow veterans, tried to remake his life in a different and increasingly hopeless world. (p. 1)

With the possible exception of World War II, the largest number of alt-histories centered around the events and personages of the American Civil War.  What if Lincoln had not been as "headstrong," as many of his detractors had noted?  What if Maryland and Missouri had voted to secede in 1861, cutting off Washington, D.C. and most of the Mississippi River from Union control at the war's outset?  What if Buell had not arrived in time at Pittsburg Landing?  What if "Stonewall" Jackson had not been shot?  What if Lee's general orders had not been rolled up in tobacco and dropped, only to be discovered by Union forces before Antietam?  What if the Confederate forces had occupied the Round Tops at the onset of the crucial Battle of Gettysburg?

These are the sorts of questions that have haunted historians as well as citizens on both sides of the conflict.  Although, as I said in my earlier review of Keith Roberts' Pavane, I have a professional wariness of alt-histories, sometimes these works, if they revolve around more than just a single person or event, can add something to our understanding of the historical event or era in question.  Ward Moore's 1953 novel, Bring the Jubilee, deserves to be placed in this categorization of rewarding alt-histories.  Its combination of events, trends, and awareness of social dynamics raises it above the level of a mere "what if?" hypothesis, as there are some disturbing elements explored in this work that certainly apply to American society of Ward's time and perhaps for our own as well.

Bring the Jubilee is written in a first-person, pseudo-autobiographical format.  The narrator, the young Hodgins M. Backmaker, born in 1921, narrates life in the defeated Union almost a century after its defeat at the hands of the Confederacy.  As a native Southerner who grew up hearing tales of the "Lost Cause," Moore's transference of the mixture of guilt, anger, and emotional depression from the gutted South to an imagined defeated North rings true.  From the KKK analogue, the Grand Army, to the widespread, deep economic recession that wipes out all of the early proto-industrial developments in the North during the antebellum period, the Civil War, now known as the War of Southron Independence rather than the War of Failed Southern Independence, has come to hold the same level of bitter significance for the Yankees as the Civil War has had in the South in reality.

Moore also does a very good job extrapolating from the conditions he alters.  From the horrid treatment of African Americans in the Union (comparisons are made in a few places in the text to the Jewish Pogroms of the early 20th century) to the anti-immigration initiatives to the Confederate conquest of Mexico in the late 1860s, these events feel all the more "real" because of how well Moore hints at the root social causes:  scapegoats for the defeat, the need to appease the stronger powers around the shrunken Union, to the desire of the Confederacy to expand in order to preserve its polity and power. 

As strong as Moore's social historical extrapolations might be, some readers may find his narrator to be almost too invisible in the background.  Backmaker, as a historian, serves the narrative point of detailing the alt-history that has unfolded.  He is a witness, not an active participant, for most of the novel.  This narrative "invisibility," while it serves to accentuate Moore's imagining of how events could have unfolded differently, does make it more difficult later on in the novel when Backmaker becomes involved in a physics experiment in the 1950s that ends up with him playing a much more decisive role in the "Jubilee" than what had transpired for the first 80% or so of the novel.  This shift in the narrator's importance to the overall story was a bit abrupt, but yet it does circle back to a part of the introductory chapter that I chose not to quote.

Bring the Jubilee's strengths far outweigh its negatives.  Far from being a simple "what if?" alt-history, it is a well-considered, well-constructed argument for how social attitudes could change in the light of military defeat.  His defeated United States feels very plausible and the related world events around this time fit comfortably with Moore's takes on people, their fears, their desires not to rock the socio-political boat, and so forth.  Although the final two chapters may feel awkward in comparison to the first, Bring the Jubilee certainly is one of the finest alt-histories that I have read, one that is well suited to the "masterworks" label attached to its Gollancz edition.

SF Masterworks #35: Keith Roberts, Pavane

On a warm July evening of the year 1588, in the royal palace of Greenwich, London, a woman lay dying, an assassin's bullets lodged in abdomen and chest.  Her face was lined, her teeth blackened, and death lent her no dignity; but her last breath started echoes that ran out to shake a hemisphere.  For the Faery Queen, Elizabeth the First, paramount ruler of England, was no more...

The rage of the English knew no bounds.  A word, a whisper was enough; a half-wit youth, torn by the mob, calling on the blessing of the Pope...The English Catholics, bled white by fines, still mourning the Queen of the Scots, still remembering the gory Rising of the North, were faced with fresh pogroms.  Unwillingly, in self-defence, they took up arms against their countrymen as the flame lit by the Walsingham massacres ran across the land, mingling with the light of warning beacons the sullen glare of the auto-da-fé. (p. vii)

As a historian, particularly one who concentrated on cultural and religious history, I am very wary of any work of alt-history that introduces radical changes from a simple "what if?" scenario.  It is not because I think such speculations are fruitless.  After all, not much would be accomplished in historical studies if such questions were not asked daily of almost everything.  Rather, it is the sense that for many, perhaps for the authors as much as the readers of such alt-histories, there is a distortion that occurs whenever a focus is shifted to a singular person or event.  Unfortunately for me, Larry as Reader, whenever I have to confront these questions of possible historical distortion in a story, Larry as Historian intrudes upon the Reader/Text/Author interpretation triangle, muddying the waters of story analysis.

This certainly was the case with my recent reading of Keith Roberts' 1968 novel, Pavane.  Roberts certainly crafted a stirring beginning, as indicated by the first two paragraphs of his two-page prologue that introduces the vastly-altered 20th century setting.  The year 1588 certainly was a momentous occasion, as some date from it England's rise to international prominence, a position it maintained until the end of World War II.  There certainly were precarious conditions within the country, as Roberts does note, as well as conflicts with Spain and to a lesser extent, France.  But there are a host of other issues, ranging from social divisions that ran deeper than the newly-formed religious factions to the already well-developed sense of English nationalism, that make it difficult for this reader at least to accept that there was a blithe acceptance of the posited Armada conquest and the full and total restoration of the Catholic Church in England.

Sometimes reviewing a work means that the reviewer has to review his or her own biases and attempt to quell them, if they cannot be suspended for the duration of this piece.  For the most part, once I accepted that there was going to be a dissonance between my understanding of history and what Roberts uses as a catalyst for his story, I was resigned to the fact that I would be battling myself in an attempt to enjoy this story and to appreciate what Roberts does accomplish with his six interconnected stories and a brief coda.  Despite my misgivings about the rationale behind such an alt-history and despite my puzzlement over some of the implications of the imagined alt-choices that Roberts highlights, there are things of value within this story.

Most of the action of these stories takes place in the early to mid-20th century.  The Catholic restoration has been in place for nearly four hundred years, not just in England, but also in the formerly Protestant German states.  Technological advancements have mostly been halted, although there are some curious analogues to the Industrial Revolution.  The guild system is still largely intact and the populace has been redivided into ethno-linguistic lines (a restored Norman French, Middle English (!), Modern English, Welsh, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, and Latin are now the languages of Court and People).  There is steam transport, but the use and power of it is heavily regulated.  Learning is concentrated in the hands of the few, and the Papacy has as much influence as in the days of Innocent III.  It is an alien world to us, one that frankly seems unrealistic considering the developments in Catholic countries during the 15th-18th centuries (not to mention that of the Protestant-controlled regions during the same time), but the key to these stories is not to focus so much on the backdrop, but instead on the characters' interactions with this alt-environment.

Roberts' characters shine in the stories contained within this narrative collection.  With very few characters appearing in more than one story, each of the characters that do appear in these stories typically find themselves confronting the world around them, questioning the order of things and in some cases, wondering about these apparently mystical "old ones" that appear on occasion, hinting at a different reality.  Roberts doesn't rush the telling of these stories; he allows the characters to "breathe" and to express their hopes and fears in such a fashion that the reader becomes more drawn to unraveling those little connections between the stories.  The prose is very well-constructed, as few words are wasted and everything builds up to a strong conclusion in the Coda.   If the reader can accept the plausibility of the narrative overarching the individual tales presented within it, Pavane can feel just like the slow, intricately-constructed dance after which the book is named.

But that is the key issue here.  Can the reader suspend his or her disbelief enough to enjoy the rich tapestry of stories?  For myself, I struggled throughout.  I did appreciate how well Roberts constructed his stories; I just could not accept the premise.  Even with the revelations at the end that overturned some of the conceits found within the linked stories, I found myself thinking far too often "this just is not plausible enough!" for me to gain full enjoyment out of it.  However, this is a highly individualized reaction and I could see for those readers who want well-constructed stories with interesting characters and prose that makes their concerns feel vivid and "alive" where Pavane would be just the sort of story for them.  Recognizing that a work may be a "masterwork" does not mean that one has to "like" it, of course.  For me, Pavane was a book whose merits were partially obscured by my own biases and skepticism about the premise behind the stories contained within it.  Those biases and skepticism were never fully overcome, thus lessening my enjoyment, if not my appreciation, for this work.

SF Masterworks #66: Lucius Shepard, Life During Wartime

One of the new Sikorsky gunships, an element of the First Air Cavalry with the words Whispering Death painted on its side, gave Mingolla and Gilbey and Baylor a lift from the Ant Farm to San Francisco de Juticlan, a small town located inside the green zone, which on the latest maps was designated Free Occupied Guatemala.  To the east of this green zone lay an undesignated band of yellow that crossed the country from the Mexican border to the Caribbean.  The Ant Farm was a firebase on the eastern edge of the yellow band, and it was from there that Mingolla - an artillery specialist not yet twenty-one years old - lobbed shells into an area that the maps depicted in black-and-white terrain markings.  And thus it was that he often thought of himself as engaged in a struggle to keep the world safe for primary colors.

Mingolla and his buddies could have taken their R and R in Rio or Caracas, but they had noticed that the men who visited these cities had a tendency to grow careless upon their return; they understood from this that the more exuberant your R and R, the more likely you were to end up a casualty, and so they always opted for the lesser distractions of the Guatemalan towns.  They were not really friends; they had little in common, and under different circumstances they might well have been enemies.  But taking their R and R together had come to be a ritual of survival, and once they had reached the town of their choice, they would go their separate ways and perform further rituals.  Because the three had survived so much already, they believed that if they continued to perform these same rituals they would complete heir tours unscathed.  They had never acknowledged their belief to one another, speaking of it only obliquely - that, too, was part of the ritual - and had this belief been challenged they would have admitted its irrationality; yet they would also have pointed out that the strange character of the war acted to enforce it. (pp. 1-2)

The 1980s were a strange time for the American people.  The country was still smarting over its failures in Vietnam and views of war and its purposes were perhaps the bleakest ever in American history.  Several movies about the Vietnam experience and its effects on the soldiers were made, ranging from anti-war movies such as the Ron Kovacs' autobiographical story, Born on the Fourth of July, to the Rambo movies to the Missing in Action movie series.  There were also TV shows such as The A-Team that referenced the war and the indignities that the returning soldiers experienced obliquely.  During this time, the American government continued to be engaged in covert operations in Central and South America to prop up anti-Communist forces in Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua, and perhaps most tragically, in El Salvador, which suffered from a thirteen year civil war from 1979 to 1992.  Several novels, realist and alt-historical alike, were written about these conflicts and the psychological traumas that they inflicted upon soldiers and civilians alike.  One of the strongest portrayals of this period and its mindset is Lucius Shepard's 1987 classic, Life During Wartime, which combines the psychological elements of Apocalypse Now with a close look at the small-scale wars in Latin America that perhaps can be viewed as the forerunners for today's conflicts.

Above is a quote taken from the book's introduction.  Shepard immediately removes the reader from his or her comfortable setting and places them in the midst of a conflict that has already embittered and stressed the combatants.  Notice how there are only last names given; no first names nor ranks.  There is a sense of superstitious cynicism about Mingolla and his two companions.  They are together only because they are forced together, and yet that force is not anything formal or commanded, but is an ad hoc reaction to what they have witnessed.  Already there are nicknames for locales - the Ant Farm could as well be Hamburger hill - and there is a tension present, as if at any moment the soldiers might snap.  Shepard sets the stage here for an insightful look at brutality, but he takes it further than what a contemporary war novelist might have written.

Mingolla, whose pre-war life is barely touched upon (he was a high school athlete who entered the military after graduating from high school) except to provide contrasts for his future development, is soon tested for an experimental new army group, the PsiCorps, a group of soldiers who, with the right drugs and training, are able to use their minds to influence thoughts and actions of those who are not gifted with this ability.  As seen in one early scene, this power disconcerts him:

The Cuban eased toward Mingolla's door, his progress tangible, like a burning match moving behind a sheet of paper.  Mingolla's calm was shattered.  The man's heat, his fleshy temperature, was what disturbed him.  He had imagined himself killing with a cinematic swiftness and lack of mess; now he thought of hogs being butchered and pile drivers smashing the skulls of cows.  And could he trust this freakish form of perception?  What if he couldn't?  What if he stabbed too late?  Too soon?  Then the hot, alive thing was almost at the door, and having no choice, Mingolla timed his attack to its movement,s stabbing just as the Cuban entered.

He executed perfectly. (p. 52)

Shepard's use of limited third-person perspective to show just what was happening to Mingolla during his development is superb.  Mingolla's thoughts, his reactions, all of this feels "natural" and not too rushed or too explicit.  Shepard integrates well the psychic training that Mingolla has received with the harsh brutality of the Guatemalan jungle warfare that is occurring between the American-led forces and the Cuban/Communist opponents.  But before the reader begins to think that this will settle into a sort of psychic/psychological game of cat-and-mouse, Shepard introduces a wild card:  the mysterious woman named Deborah, who may be a spy for the Sombra group, the counterparts to PsiCorps.  Shepard easily could have made Deborah into a sort of Bond seductress, but in one key scene about halfway into the novel, he shows the other side of the conflicts that Mingolla and others have been experiencing during the jungle campaign, one that is at least as brutal as anything the soldiers have undergone:

"Maybe I should tell," she said.  "Maybe it'll explain why I was so reticent with you at first."

"Back in Emerald?"

"Yes...you see there were a lot of reasons I didn't want to get involved with you like this, and one was I was afraid it wouldn't be any good between us."

"You mean sex?"

She nodded.  "It hadn't ever been good for me, and I thought nothing could change that, not even being in love.  But it is good, and I keep getting scared it won't last."


"Because it's so perfect...the way you fit me, how you touch me.  And everything before was so imperfect."  She turned away as if embarrassed.  "When they brought us in for interrogation...the government..."

"Your family?"

"Yes.  She let out a sigh.  "Why they brought us in, I knew they'd rape me.  That's what they always do.  I prepared for it, and every day that passed, every day it didn't happen.  I grew more afraid.  I thought they must be saving me for something special, some special horror."  (p. 266)
Rather than just simply continued, tortuous rape, the Communist regime has something even more nefarious in mind with this delay and the subsequent raising of hope:

"I was beginning to think the major just wanted me to sit there and look nice.  Then about two o'clock he came to his door and said, 'Debora, I need you now.'  Just the way he'd ask a secretary in to take dictation, just that offhanded tone.  I went into the office, and he told me to take off my underwear.  Still very polite.  Smiling.  I was afraid, but like I said, I'd prepared for this, and so I did what he asked.  He told me to get down on my hands and knees beside the desk.  I did that, too.  I shed a few tears, i remember, but I managed to stop them.  He pulled out a tube from his drawer, some kind of jelly, and...and he lubricated me.  That was almost the worst part.  And then he dropped his trousers and came inside me from behind, the way you..."

"I'm sorry;" said Mingola.  "I didn't..."

"No, no!"  Debora's hands fluttered in the dark, found his face, cupped it.  "Sometimes I wanted you to do that, but..."  She sighed again. (p. 267)

Shepard manages to navigate between the treacheries of being too casual with such a scene and overplaying the brutality of the repeated rapes Debora had to endure before she would accept her training as a psychic agent.  Debora's inhumane treatment, underscored by the sheer callousness of the major's hum-drum approach to degrading her by utilizing sex as just another manipulative tool, contrasts nicely with the character development of Mingolla and certain other characters in the first half or so of the novel.  These vivid scenes serve not just to develop the mood, but to further the plot, until the narrative tensions builds to a crescendo that comes crashing down in a finale that lives up to the promise of the slow psychological buildup.

Life During Wartime is one of the best psychological SF stories that I have read.  Shepard's prose is outstanding through.  His characters feel "real" and their traumas, subtle and obvious alike, are woven into a taut plot that furthers its thematic exploration of war and the traumas inflicted by it.  There are very few weak points to discuss, if any.  Perhaps a character's arc could have been furthered a slight bit further, but it would be at best quibbling over what really is an outstanding work of fiction.  Highly recommended.

SF Masterworks #21: Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker

In a study of Poe's Eureka, Valéry has observed that cosmogony is the most ancient of the literary genres; despite the anticipations of Bacon, whose New Atlantis was published at the beginning of the seventeenth century, it is possible to confirm that the most modern is the fable or fantasy of scientific character.  It is known that Poe approached the two genres separately and perhaps invented the last one; Olaf Stapledon combined the two in this singular book.  For this imaginary exploration of time and space, he did not resort to vague troublesome mechanisms, but instead to the fusion of a human mind with others, to a kind of lucid ecstasy or (if one wants) a variation of a certain famous Cabalistic doctrine, which supposes that in the body of a man can inhabit many souls, as in the body of a woman about to be a mother.  The majority of Stapledon's colleagues seem arbitrary or irresponsible; this work, in exchange, leaves the impression of sincerity, despite the singular and at times monstrous nature of his stories.  He doesn't accumulate inventions for the distraction or stultification of those who will read him; it follows and it registers with honest rigor the complex and shady vicissitudes of a coherent dream. (Jorge Luis Borges, Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos, p. 232)

Borges' commentary on Olaf Stapledon's 1937 novel, Star Maker, serves as a perfect introduction to this work that builds upon and expands the scope found in his earlier 1930 novel, Last and First Men.  In my review of that earlier book, I focused on the cyclical nature of the narrative as two billion imagined years of future human existence were outlined.  Here in Star Maker, Stapledon expands that narrative in two ways.  The first is simply a matter of magnitude, instead of a measly two billion years, he charts a course through innumerable epochs of stars, galaxies, and the life that sometimes sprung up out of dead stellar material.  The second is more tricky.  As Borges notes in the excerpt I translated above, there is a sort of union of souls, as the human narrator at the beginning of the novel finds himself disassociated from his body, which in turn permits him to touch upon what may be the ultimate cosmic mind, the Star Maker himself.

Due to the presence of this disembodied human observer, the narrative structure for Star Maker oddly enough feels less "distant" than that of Last and First Men, despite the tens of billions more years covered in this book compared to the other.  Although the narrator is mostly content to make observations about the various strange (and sometimes familiar) life forms he encounters on his psychic journey through space-time, there are times that his observations serve to create a sort of quasi-mystical connection between various lifeforms and their struggles to understand that central mystery of "what is life and why am I alive to ask this question?"  Take for instance this passage about a race of plant-men:

It was of course through animal prowess and practical human intelligence that the species had long ago come to dominate its word.  But at all times this practical will had been tempered and enriched by a kind of experience which among men is very rare.  Every day, throughout the ages, these beings had surrendered their feverish animal nature not merely to unconscious or dream-racked sleep, such as animals know, but to the special kind of awareness which (we learned) belongs to plants.  Spreading their leaves, they had absorbed directly the essential elixir of life which animals receive only at second hand in the mangled flesh of their prey.  Thus they seemingly maintained immediate physical contact with the source of all cosmical being.  And this state, though physical, was also in some sense spiritual.  It had a far-reaching effect on all their conduct.  If theological language were acceptable, it might well be called a spiritual contact with God.  During the busy night-time they went about their affairs as insulated individuals, having no present immediate experience of their underlying unity; but normally they were always preserved from the worst excesses of individualism by memory of their day-time life. (p. 118)

Although there was some hint of this metaphysical concern in Last and First Men, it is here in Star Maker where Stapledon unfolds his narrative further to incorporate speculations on "meanings" and "purposes" for life and the cosmos.  While much of Stapledon's writings show at least some influence from authors like Schopenhauer and Spengler, the structure of Stapledon's narrative here (as it was to a lesser extent in Last and First Men) is that of a Marxist character, especially with its focus on societal mechanisms of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.  However, Stapledon added a few quasi-religious undertones to this narrative (as the above quote hints at) that likely confounded the more orthodox Marxist readers of this text.  In speculating on a divine figure, Stapledon is not demonstrating any loyalty to a particular creed; if anything, his Star Maker is a troubling entity, unconcerned as it seems to be, at least at first, with the organisms, ranging from galaxies to microbes, that it creates in order to destroy, perhaps in order to learn how to perfect what it has created.

This is not a comforting element.  It can be downright disturbing to imagine.  Yet Stapledon manages to create a sprawling narrative around this Star Maker (as witnessed in glimpses by the disembodied narrator) that somehow manages to be less threatening than it otherwise may have been.  Perhaps it is the Star Maker's quest for perfection reminds us of our own all-too-human desire to improve and expand our horizons and accomplishments that makes at least one facet of its immense personality fathomable to us.  Star Maker is not as much a novel about the universe as it is a microcosm in print form for all of our hopes and dreams regarding where we came from and where we're heading.  As such, it is a fitting sequel to Last and First Men and its sometimes-inconclusive responses to core human concerns makes it a "masterwork" worthy of reading by people from all walks of life even after seventy-plus years since its initial publication.

SF Masterworks #11: Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men

Life comes, life goes.  Species rise to prominence, only to fade into extinction.  Vast ecosystems emerge, then suddenly crash into a near-total collapse.  Over the three billion or so years that life has been present on Earth, this has been the rhythm of life.  The same doubtless will hold true for humanity.  We have risen from the drying forests of eastern Africa, learned to walk upright, to speak, to sing, to make tools, to create lasting cultures.  We have built cities, only to turn around and destroy them ourselves or to wait until natural catastrophes strike region, laying low tribes and nations of people.  The higher we build and aspire, the greater our fall can and most likely shall be.  We are not separate from the planet's ecosystem, no matter how much we may wish otherwise.  As has been stated in several "wisdom" sayings over the centuries, this (we) too shall pass.  There will come a time when human civilizations have changed so much that whether it be due to our own self-injurious machinations or due to nature's fickleness, our "modern" civilization will cease to exist.  Homo sapiens may become extinct or it may evolve into a higher form.  Whatever happens, the life that we know almost certainly will not last for millions of years.

British writer Olaf Stapledon spent the second half of his life pondering these sorts of issues mentioned above.  A pacifist at heart, Stapledon ended up serving as an ambulance driver during World War I, where he witnessed not just the worst atrocities that human aggression and fear can afflict upon its populaces, but also some heartwarming episodes of camaraderie and shared sacrifice.  He was influenced heavily by the immediate interwar writings of Oswald Spengler, among others, as his most famous work, Last and First Men (1930), displays the sort of cyclical and often pessimistic attitude toward civilizations as that found in Spengler's The Decline of the West.  But whereas Spengler's work has fallen into disrepute since the beginning of World War I, Stapledon's work continues to inspire generations of SF writers, including Gregory Benford and Brian Aldiss.

Last and First Men, strictly speaking, is not a novel.  There are no characters, nor is there anything remotely resembling a conventional plot.  It is an imagined history of the world, from the early 20th century until the final death of the eighteenth human species two billion years into the future.  Broken into sixteen chapters, this book might be best imagined as a spiral, with our present being at the center and with each turn having a wider space between the preceding layers.  The first third of the novel is devoted to telling the continued rise and then fall of the First Men (homo sapiens sapiens).  We see an emergent America whose capitalistic spirit threatens the fabric of the fragile peace wrought from the trenches of World War I.  These first five chapters perhaps are the most dated, as Stapledon's references to then-commonly held assumptions on race and national characteristics are so foreign to our post-Auschwitz understanding of societies.  It may be a dry and rough patch for readers to overcome, but once the story moves five million years into the future, after the First Men have collapsed due to environmental degradation and increased vulcanism on the Earth's surface, the story begins to become all the more compelling to read as Stapledon traces the rise and fall of several other successor human species.

To sum the matter, circumstance had thrown up a very noble species.  Essentially it was of the same type as the earlier species, but it had undergone extensive improvements.  Much that the First Men could only achieve by long schooling and self-discipline the Second Men performed with effortless fluency and delight.  In particular, two capacities which for the First Men had been unattainable ideals were now realized in every normal individual, namely the power wholly dispassionate cognition, and the power of loving one's neighbor as oneself, without reservation.  Indeed, in this respect, the Second Men might be called 'Natural Christians', so readily and constantly did they love one another in the manner of Jesus, and infuse their whole social policy with loving-kindness.  Early in their career they conceived the religion of love, and they were possessed by it again and again, in diverse forms, until their end.  On the other hand, their gift of dispassionate cognition helped them to pass speedily to the admiration of fate.  And being by nature rigorous thinkers, they were peculiarly liable to be disturbed by the conflict between their religion of love and their loyalty to fate.

Well might it seem that the stage was now set for a triumphant and rapid progress of the human spirit.  But though the second human species constituted a real improvement on the first, it lacked certain faculties without which the next great mental advance could not be made. (pp. 117-118)

The above passage is representative of the general tone and tenor of Last and First Men.  Told in a distant, "historical" voice (toward the end of the book, we learn just who has been doing the telling and how their own histories have influenced the writing of this missive on the long human past), the story concentrates on detailing the attempts of various human species to rise above their current condition and the struggles, internal and external alike, that combine to defeat most of these noble goals.  As the Second Men fade and the Third arise, only to beget the Fourth, more artificial human race, which is supplanted by the fifth and so forth until the eighteenth and last human species, Stapledon introduces concepts such as the conflict noted above between Love and Rationality, between altruism and a desire to defeat mortality.  There are successes along the way, but most of these prove to be ephemeral.  But there is something that seems to improve within most of these successor species as the two billion years allotted for humankind unfolds.

The result of this is a very powerful story that serves to make us reflect upon our own goals and aspirations.  If part of being human is the quest for the seemingly unattainable, then the quixotic quests found within Last and First Men are perhaps some of the more powerfully told stories of the human race of the past century.  Grounded in the troubled interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s, Last and First Men still possesses a power to move the hearts and minds of early 21st century readers.  It is a staggering achievement of the imagination, for it encapsulates so many of our hopes, dreams, as well as our fears and neuroses in barely 300 pages of text, all without the need for a framing character or plot.  Truly a "masterwork" of the imagination, rivaled perhaps only by another Stapledon novel, Star Maker.