Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Christopher Priest - Fugue For A Darkening Island (1972)

"Everywhere they caused social upheaval; but in Britain, where a neo-racist government had come to power on an economic-reform ticket, they did much more."

   'Fugue For A Darkening Island' is Christopher Priest's damning indictment of Britain's innate conservatism and xenophobia that rings disturbingly true some forty years after it was published. It is also about the dangers of not standing up to evil. In some ways it can be seen as a riposte to the 'cozy catastrophes' of John Wyndham, in which middle class English folk respond to the apocalypse with their typical stiff upper lip and good sense and so maintain order and decency in the face of chaos. Here Priest wields a similarly dry, paternalistic tone to great ironic effect as he undermines the very notion of English decency.
   In 'Fugue For A Darkening Island', the incident that precipitates the catastrophe isn't an alien invasion or a plague. Africa is rendered uninhabitable by nuclear weapons, causing a massive exodus of refugees. Whereas in the rest of the world they simply cause the standard problems one would expect from an influx of a large population in need of food and shelter, in UK, where a racist far right government has come into power, they are met with suspicion, hostility and violence, eventually leading to a civil war with the African immigrants and their supporters on one side and the fascist government and the military on the other. The story centres on Alan Whitman, a British everyman who has never taken a moral or political stance his entire life. He and his wife and daughter are forced to leave their home by the conflict, and join up with a gang of refugees, where he is separated from his family.    
      In addition to its uncompromising subject matter, 'Fugue' is also ambitiously constructed, the structure designed to mimic that of a fugue, with three interweaving plot strands that echo each other as they progress. Episodes from the protagonist's early life are intertwined with the narrative explaining how the political situation collapsed and a third strand follows the protagonist through a socially disrupted England as he tries to find his wife and daughter. What could have been an unnecessary complication turns out to be an effective storytelling device. The disrupted narrative echoes the fractured state of mind of the protagonist, and the contrast of his state of mind and his behaviour throughout different points in the crisis allow us to see just how much he has been damaged by the experience. Additionally it lets us know more about Alan Whitman the person. The frank descriptions of his sexual awakenings may not initially seem to have much to do with the plot at hand, but as the narrative progresses and we get more and more information about his character, it casts some of his later decisions and behaviour in a different light. Whitman is a selfish and self-absorbed man, with that stereotypical British desire to avoid confrontation at all costs. Thus, he finds himself trapped in  a loveless marriage, constantly cheating on his wife and oblivious to the feelings of his young daughter, lacking the courage or conviction to either commit to his marriage or admit it isn't working and move on. This same fear of committing oneself is echoed in Whitman's response to the political situation developing around him. He initially joins a pro-immigrants rights group at his work, but doesn't actually do anything apart from go on a single protest march, and pulls out when the government starts cracking down on dissident activity. He even acknowledges the public's worrying political apathy in the face of political extremism, but fails to notice this characteristic in himself. There is an absolutely cringe-worthy scene in which he finds himself at a pub laughing nervously as an acquaintance makes racist jokes about the immigrants.
   This reluctance to commit haunts Whitman and drives his every action, even as he is forced out of his home by a situation created by his brutal fascist government. It is only as he searches for his wife and child, who have been kidnapped and sent to a makeshift brothel by the militant African forces, that he starts to make the first steps towards action. He shoots down a helicopter with an African pilot out of revenge, but when he goes to investigate the wreckage and finds the pilot still alive but mortally wounded he still cannot make himself either kill the man out of revenge or to put him out of his misery.
   As the story progresses, Whitman becomes more and more of an unreliable narrator. His natural inward focus is intensified by the crisis, and while he still shares his thoughts and experiences in his clipped, detached manner, it becomes clear that his sense of perspective towards outside events is becoming more and more warped as his decisions become less and less rational. The way Priest uses a dry and understated voice to ironically underscore just how twisted his protagonist's perception is brings to mind Anna Kavan's similarly apocalyptic 'Ice'. There is a scene towards the end when the rest of the UK has collapsed into anarchy where Whitman comes across a sleepy middle class village which is blissfully unaware of the situation outside its walls, which is reminiscent of the middle class family in Samuel R. Delany's 'Dhalgren' who still behave exactly the same as always and ignore the complete breakdown of social order going on outside. Priest similarly mines this situation for all the dark humour possible.
   The version of Whitman narrating one of the chronologically earlier narrative strands tells us that the government and military exercised a policy of genocide against the Africans, and he knows that the morally right thing to do is to side with them, however he keeps shying away from actually doing so. By the end of the book he discovers that his wife and daughter have been killed by the African military for not submitting to the brothel clientele's demands, which is finally enough to force his hand in the other direction. He goes on to kill an African boy and runs off into the countryside to seek revenge. By this stage, Whitman is too damaged to see that the Africans themselves are not to blame for the situation; the white nationalistic forces have brothels staffed by female African prisoners of war whom they treat exactly the same, which Whitman himself visits earlier in the story. Both armies have committed horrific atrocities against civilians on both sides, but this is a situation that has come about because the government responded to an influx of immigrants by putting them in concentration camps and trying to exterminate them. If Whitman or the rest of the UK population had the courage to stand up for what was right, rather than deferring to the last moment, this could have been avoided. Towards the end, Whitman's view is so distorted by grief and insanity that he can only see the Africans as enemies, however the only Africans who directly appear in the text, (apart from Lateef, the leader of the refugee group Whitman joins, whose origin remains ambiguous), are all victims rather than villains - the starving refugees arriving on the boats, the prisoners of war in the brothels, the dying helicopter pilot. This is my main gripe with the book, really, that all the Africans and women who appear in the text have no agency. I get that it's a conscious decision on the author's part to emphasise the limited perspective of the viewpoint character, but it's still frustrating.
   'Fugue' is an uncomfortable and uncompromising read. In a world where the UK's government is the farthest to the right it's been in years, and a substantial proportion of British voters are proving that they don't think that government is right wing or xenophobic enough, we would all do well to remember Christopher Priest's warning.  

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

George R. R. Martin - A Song Of Ice And Fire Book One: A Game Of Thrones (1996)

"'The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends,' Ser Jorah told her. 'It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace.' He gave a shrug. 'They never are.'"

Perhaps the most surprising thing about 'A Game Of Thrones', the first volume in George R. R. Martin's sprawling 'A Song Of Ice And Fire' series, is how focused it is. It has a cast of thousands, nine of which are viewpoint characters, yet it rattles along at a healthy pace despite its 800-odd pages, and there is something thoroughly elegant about how the different strands of the plot unfold to their grim conclusions.
   'A Game Of Thrones' is most assuredly Fantasy, from the detailed maps at the front of the book to the appendix detailing all the different family lines, replete with house sigils and words. But in many ways it's a deconstruction of modern fantasy as we know it, and of the various tropes and assumptions that are the very lifeblood and appeal of Fantasy as a genre.

Always start your book with a map. Preferably two.
  Tolkien's influence is pretty much as unavoidable in modern fantasy literature as, say, Star Trek's is on TV space opera. Martin is undoubtedly influenced by Tolkien, but while some books written in his wake have done little more than recycle the same character archetypes and symbols, Martin proves that by playing around with and subverting them there's still a lot of life and appeal left in them. So there is no dark lord waiting in Mordor with the serial numbers filed off here. There are no shining heroes either - many of the characters are deeply unpleasant, and even the characters with more heroic tendencies are far from perfect, and capable of making shocking mistakes. Magic exists - or at least, we have dragons and the zombie-like white walkers, but most of the people think they are extinct or legends.
   More than anything, though, there is a realistic focus on the feudalistic, medieval-ish setting that is the default for most Fantasy literature, and what it would really mean to live in such a society, especially for those disenfranchised by such a system. Amongst our viewpoint characters, we have Jon Snow, a bastard born to a Lord's family who is treated with contempt by his father's wife and will never be able to live the life given to his brothers and sisters born in wedlock; Tyrion Lannister, whose dwarfism mean that despite being intelligent, charming and by far the most likable character in the book he is an outcast treated with contempt by his father; and Daenerys Targaryen, a thirteen year old girl sold as a wife to the Dothraki in exchange for warriors by her vicious and power-mad brother. Experiencing the world of Westeros through their eyes strips away the romantic sheen from the age of chivalry and exposes just how harsh and difficult live could be in such times if you weren't a rich, white male (plus ca change....).
   In a lesser author so many different viewpoint characters could be confusing, (it's still helpful Martin states at the header of the chapter who's view it is), but Martin uses this device really well. It allows him to explore the fictional world through a variety of conflicting viewpoints, so we see many of the main characters, as well as things that happen, in different lights, helping to create a richly developed world. Additionally, Martin uses reminiscences or asides in one viewpoint character's chapter to set up Chekhov's guns for other characters. So for instance, when Tyrion remembers his past fascination with Aerys Targaryen's dragon skulls stored in the basement at the Red Keep in King's Landing, it tells us something about Tyrion's character, but also sets it up so that when Arya runs into 'monsters' while chasing cats we know what they are, even if she doesn't. It's an elegant way of making the text do extra work, which , in a volume this dense, is definitely appreciated.
   One of the main themes of the book is honour, and whether or not it's possible to have it in a society that doesn't really value it. This comes back round again to deconstructing the whole idea of chivalry. Many of the book's most unpleasant characters are lords and ladies, or indeed PRINCES. They show again and again that it is possible to behave in a courtly manner and still be a complete monster. I really enjoyed the chapters from Sansa's viewpoint, much as I don't care for the character. Basically she's tragically wrong genre savvy. A young girl who finds herself betrothed to the Prince, she declares herself hopelessly in love with him and is super excited about going to court and meeting noble knights like in the stories she loves. She's so blinded by her vision of how she thinks things should be it's far too late by the time she realises what is blindingly obvious to everyone else - that Prince Joffrey is spoilt, cruel and vile, and many of the Lannisters and their hangers on are not much better.

The Lannister words are "We're jerks! Except for Tyrion. He even gets to slap Joffrey. It's awesome."

   The book also questions what good honour and chivalry are, really, in the scheme of things. Following the climactic battle, Tyrion meditates on this, thinking about a knight he saw drown trying to cross a river in his full armour:

"Crossing a river at night on a crude raft, wearing armour, with an enemy waiting on the other side - if that was gallantry, he would take cowardice every time. He wondered if Lord Brax had felt especially gallant as the weight of his steel pulled him under the black water."

This cynicism extends to the narrative. This is a book in which no noble dead goes unpunished. Lord Eddard Stark, one of the few truly honourable characters in the book, reveals to Cersei Lannister that he knows her secret and is going to tell King Robert, giving her a chance to escape, when he knows that the previous man in his position was killed by the Lannisters to keep this secret. Unsurprisingly, this pretty much winds up getting him killed. Similarly, Daenerys' attempt to prevent the Dothraki warriors from raping a maegi leads to the death of her husband and her unborn son. But then this links in to how self-centred the viewpoint of even the sympathetic characters like Eddard and Daenerys are. Eddard is so bound to his honour he cannot see how his rigid adherence to it has wound up ruining other people's lives, until it's too late and his family is in danger; similarly Jon Snow is genuinely surprised to find out that his peers perceive him as a smug bully, because while he is a bastard, he was brought up in the Stark household and has the advantage of their wealth, education and training that wasn't available to his peers.
   'A Game Of Thrones' wears its Fantasy colours on its sleeve, but Martin has written SF in the past, and names many SF authors as influences. This comes through in the well-developed and convincing world building. We very much get a sense of Westeros as a real place, in some ways that almost feel SFnal. The central story, with its rival dynasties, echos Frank Herbert's Dune series as much as any fantasy narrative, and while we never get an explanation for Westeros' unusual season cycles, with summers and winters lasting many years, there's always an underlying feeling that it could be explained away in a scientific manner, like, say the aeons-long seasons in Brian Aldiss' Helliconia trilogy.
   While 'A Game Of Thrones' is thoroughly engaging, exciting and entertaining, it's not perfect. Juggling so many characters in so many different places is a tricky balancing act at the best of times, and while Martin rarely falters in this book, the strain shows in places, and it's going to be difficult to maintain the focus 'Game' has over the following six books. Trigger warning - there is a whole lot of rape in this book. For the most part, it's played for drama rather than exploitation, and is there to highlight just how bad things were for women in medieval times and that raping was just one of the things armies did after a battle was won and it was just accepted, which is of course A BAD THING. However, Martin does go to this well a lot, to the extent that the reader starts to get numb to it, and it's just something that's frequently happening in the background. I don't think this is intentional on the part of the author, but it is an issue that needs treating with sensitivity and care, rather than slapped on to garnish a battle scene to make the story seem more gritty.
   There is a sense of Diabolus Ex Machina in some of the more outlandish plot developments - things don't just go wrong, they go wrong in the most gut-wrenchingly, barkingly mad way possible. My personal favourite of these is when Catelyn Stark, on the run from the Lannisters and with Tyrion captive, goes to her sister Lysa for help, only for us to find out that Lysa is petulant, spoiled and completely insane, and that Lysa's son, heir to a powerful house and vital tactical hold, is a simpering mummy's boy still breastfeeding at the age of six. Fortunately, these are pretty evenly distributed across all the opposing factions, to the extent that in the end it kind of works out more like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where it's just a super bad day for everyone involved. Joffrey's villainous triumph, where he executes Ned Stark, actually winds up being a woeful tactical error, leaving the Lannisters with nothing to bargain with when the Starks capture Jaime Lannister and inciting the houses of the north to swear fealty to the Starks instead. Martin's fondness for brutally killing off beloved characters rivals Joss Whedon's, and while that can give a thrilling sense that anything can happen and everything is up for grabs, it can also get off-putting. The last section of the book, with Ned Stark's shocking death and Sansa being forced to look at his severed head by an insufferably smug Joffrey, is almost unremittingly dark. However, the book ends with an image of death and rebirth, and dragons, which does make everything better. Roll on book two!