Grimdark Norse Masterpiece

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel Let the Right One In (or Let Me In in America) is a grim masterpiece of urban fantasy every bit as interesting for its postmodern socialist subtext as it is for a stark romance of relational seduction to evil.  If you have a strong stomach, this is a bittersweet change from the bodice-ripping sensuality of soft-core chick porn that plagues the genre today.

Lindqvist takes a pinch of Stephen King style nostalgia for a bygone era (1982 this time instead of the small town 1960’s of King’s own childhood) and strips out the flickers of gilded hindsight that touch King’s work and sets a landscape as cold and grey as a Swedish winter.

Set in the Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg, the story depends on the quiet desperation of life in a world without spirituality or hope.  This is a world the government planned with mechanical efficiency, constructed with impersonal bureaucracy, and abandoned to personal neglect as people slotted into the system try and fail to find hope or lasting meaning in life.  This is a world where the government stepped into the place of God, and like Frankenstein, failed completely to act out the role.

You were beyond the grasp of the mysteries of the past; there wasn’t even a church.  Nine thousand inhabitants and no church.

That tells you something about the modernity of the place, its rationality.  It tells you something of how free they were from the ghosts of history and of terror.

It explains in part how unprepared they were.

-Lindqvist, chapter 1: “The Location”

Lindqvist’s prose is tight, precise, and honest.  It has the same sharp angles and bleak walls of the modern apartment blocks the terror inhabits.  He fills the barren landscape with barren lives.  The circle of aging alcoholics seeking someone’s company to grow old and die with even as those relationships falter and fall and the bottle alone remains.  The middle-aged parents and singles are inevitably divorced, estranged, or defective.  The children bully, torment, steal, and hate.  The trend in recent European contemporary horror to shine a light on the problems of pedophilia are highlighted in the earliest portions of the book.

Lindqvist’s protagonist, 12-year-old Oskar, walks through this minefield just coming of age enough to see that there is no sunrise on his lonely, bullied horizon.  The government institutions are indifferent or completely ineffective to protect him from bullying.  They have no answers to give his life any meaning or hope.  Petty theft isn’t enough to give him a feeling of control to deal with his victimization.

And then the child-like vampire moves in next door, and Oskar faces a growing seduction between the nihilism of socialist life, or a personal connection, no matter how terrible, that is at the very least: honest.  Eli, the child vampire is a fascinating metaphor for Europeans living in democratic socialism.  Like them, Eli was failed by the overlords of the past.  They, like Eli, live disillusioned with no hope of a life out of dependency.  Eli cannot grow up and achieve self-sufficiency.

There is no room in the democratic socialist Sweden for life independent of the government apart from a life of crime.  There is no comfort for the tormented, no hope of healing for the tormentors, and with neither meaning or belief in a future, all that remains for his handful of characters is to snatch some feeling of connection and personal power in the moment, for the moment is the only relevant issue.  The future and the past blend into the snow-covered background.

Lindqvist’s plotting is tight.  He spoons out relevant backstory in precise doses that neither alleviate the tension nor answer too much, too soon.  The existential doom that hovers over his cast only grows more painful as even the most terrible character goes through sympathetic plot points.  A monstrous man is loyal and conflicted over his own evil.  The weak have moments of courage and heroism before their heroic acts are ground to meaningless oblivion by a system that has no place for individuals or heroes.

As Oskar and Eli come to know one another, and the adults scramble to deal with an evil that does not fit in their rational, modern worldview, the true horror of Lindqvist’s work crawls up the spine and takes hold.  In this world without meaning, the embrace of the dead is preferable to no hope at all.

Royal Yamato Continuation

I have compared indie sci-fi author Christopher Nuttall’s Ark Royal series to the beloved anime Space Battleship Yamato (which was released in North America as Star Blazers).  In both stories a single refurbished battleship carried the fate of the human race against a nearly invincible alien invasion.  Ark Royal was an interesting military science fiction series that took a modern (effectively secular British) interpretation of the 1970’s classic story.  Add some Battlestar Galactica with one-third mixture of Robotech/Macross and you have the elements Nuttall used to bake up a solid and enjoyable fictional war.

The fourth book, Warspite, proved something exceptional about Christopher Nuttall that was not immediately apparent from his remix of previous fictions.  Nuttall has amalgamated space battleship classics with enough rigor to own the resulting universe.  Years after the original trilogy’s war, a new captain and ship will face new challenges.

What follows is one of my favorite delight in serial fiction, as Nuttall proves himself ready to play in the same league as, if he does not quite match the heart of David Weber’s early works, John Ringo, and the like.

Warspite is more than a mere continuance.  One of my scholarly disciplines is archetypal criticism, and the inversions in the unfolding new epic make for a real treat.  The old Ark Royal was an antique ship, outdated in a perfectly useful fashion with a rag-tag crew of outcasts.  Warspite is a human-alien hybrid prototype, the cutting edge of technological lessons learned in the war.  Ark Royal‘s commander was a half burned-out alcoholic who had to overcome his demons to lead his people into the fray.  Warspite‘s new CO is a grieving homosexual ex-pilot, a bright and rising star who has to carry the weight of a crew of political appointees in a quick, easy assignment that goes rapidly south.  The inversions continue as the two crews Shadow one another, but they reflect around a central axis of Nuttall’s enjoyable fiction.  The characters are typical, but likable and understandable.  It isn’t a crime to have stock characters, since the very nature of archetypes go back to the dawn of fiction in theater and religious lessons.

Nuttall provides solid secular adventure.  His view of the military goes beyond the offerings of Hollywood and the BBC.  I can really only name David Weber and Timothy Zahn as the other military SF writers who make as thorough an offering of multiple levels.  Political conflicts trickle in from the upper nobility to the ramifications of a yeoman’s duties.  Few of the fiction books written by actual military veterans, that have this fabric in the writing also manage to keep the wide-eyed sense of adventure that space opera needs to thrive.  Few space operas have the detail work that Nuttall carries through in space travel, military logistics, and colonial economics.

Nuttall isn’t the best at any one aspect of genre fiction (that non-‘literature’ stuff that has been the vast majority of written and enjoyed works for the past two hundred years or so), but he continues to establish himself in the realm of up-and-coming indie authors whom I will pick up whenever they have something new and I have the price of a Happy Meal to spare.

Affordable, enjoyable, and solid, I recommend the Ark Royal series to anyone who enjoys military SF.

Finally, the take of a literary monk:

A quick comparison of Nuttall’s first four Ark Royal books and the first four Honor Harrington novels highlights the difference between American and British society over the past fifty years, where Britain abandoned God at the end of WWII and America in general waited until the first Clinton administration to go whole-hog-secular.  Two generations of cultural drift away from our former common faith show through.

The differences are not always negative.  If an American author offered a homosexual captain, it would be an active, brash, and probably obnoxious assault in the ongoing cultural conflict between the religious and the anti-theistic.  Nuttall’s captain is neither transgressive nor pioneering.  It’s simply a descriptor of his past, not a definition of his every waking moment, and his happiness and goals do not revolve around the nature of person he used to take to bed.  That genuinely is a rare treat these days.

For all the bright spots, the innate futility and pessimism of the godless worldview, or perhaps it is more accurate to say a constant cast of the godless, carries its own weight through the tone of Nuttall’s otherwise excellent work.  With no concept of grace or undeserved forgiveness, justice is a bleak and hopeless thing.  The same proves true with victimization of the powerless.  Without the hope of supernatural intervention, crises like rape, imprisonment, and conquest result in lifelong damage.  Likewise, those who lose loved ones have no recourse for their grief, no hope of reunion.  Those whose loved ones are not dead, but injured, are on the other side of that despair, where the universally accepted truth is they won’t have the strength of character or enduring emotional commitment to put the damaged relationships back together.

So it isn’t a big surprise that Nuttall’s world revolves largely around pornography and self-gratification for personal pursuits.  I don’t object to the inclusion of Sin City, a lunar base dedicated to every illicit fashion to press your YES button over and over again.  Indeed, I see it as the inevitable conclusion of the worldview.  “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

This is not a puritanical judge-fest.  I enjoy Nuttall’s fiction.  I have bought four of his books and I will buy the next in this series.  But I am glad that I have a hope for more, and the assurance of help for the troubles, injuries, and love for the journey.  I’m also glad for the color and life that religion adds to cultures.  Nuttall’s Russian culture is collectivist, secular, and frequently savage, but here in the real world Russian iconography, songwriting, classical music, dancing, and their churches are vital and beautiful additions to a culture rife with conquest and war.

I believe that the inherent optimism from faith, even from legalistic or liberal faiths that tend to view religions as socio-political constructs more than actual interactions with an invested divinity, colors plot and story.  Weber’s Honor Harrington series starts off with political corruption, innovative space travel, and attempted victimization in On Basilisk Station, covers many of the same topics throughout the first ten-novel series, but they are dealt with in a much more hopeful tone.  The prisoners of war aren’t just dehumanized property who cave in and give up.  They band together, keep their morale, and emerge stronger than before.  Back-woods planets become powerhouses, and though their faith undergoes change, it doesn’t just survive but becomes a source of power and adaptive drive for the Graysons.

So, I prefer it in my space opera not simply because I believe in it, but because I prefer optimism to pessimism, progressive improvement to nihilism, and idealism to hedonistic escapism.

I enjoy both series, but sometimes I come across something I really enjoy that reminds me how, even while I wait for the true joys of heaven, my faith and others’ brings joy and life to the daily experiences as well.

Honorverse Reborn!

Timothy Zahn breathes new life into the stumbling Honor Harrington universe with A Call to Duty, the first novel in a series of books called Manticore Ascendant, and no one should be surprised.

Timothy Zahn is the creative genius who took the rough plans for the last three Star Wars films (Episodes 7, 8, and 9) and turned them into the Heir of the Empire book trilogy.  Those books were so successful they launched an entire sub-genre of fiction that has carried the story decades beyond what we could have imagined back in the late seventies.

Now that same ability to breathe life into an established universe has combined with David Weber’s other super-power: a technically obsessive and professional fan base chock full of military experts.  The result is a new level of verisimilitude in a military sci-fi series.

Live three centuries before Honor Harrington, queen of the Treecats is simultaneously familiar and alien.  Manticore is only a generation or two past the Plague that nearly wiped the colony out.  The economy is rebuilding and the culture is a melting pot as new immigrants with vital skills and a freshly-minted nobility sort out a balance of sorts.  The second king ever sits in power, but his time is waning and the third Winston monarch certainly has his work cut out for him.

From the initial point of view of a high school graduate seeking order and discipline in the military, a tidy handful of main characters covers the range of Manticoran (think British with American touches, also, Britain back when it had a spine) society.

The old is new in many ways.  The wormhole junction has not yet been discovered, so Manticore is not too far from where Grayson stood in the original book series, only barely important enough for its neighbors to bother with.  The Andermani Empire is two or three planets big, and Haven is a kindly older brother a few week’s travel away.

The technical fundamentals of the largely coherent space-faring culture are present, but antique in a way that made me feel nostalgic.  The political struggle continues, but without the operatic villains of earlier series.  Domestic politics at this point lacks the vitriol of the first book, which is a nice breath of fresh air as contemporary American culture grows ever more polarized.

I devoured the book in a single day, because the intellectually stimulating environment of Weber’s Honorverse does away with Weber’s increasingly plodding lack of plot.  Zahn has none of that!  Things happen relatively quickly, with import and a pace that I haven’t seen since the first two HH books ever, back when Weber still had to prove himself and earn his readership.  Weber’s work has always shined brightest in collaboration, and this is no exception.  If the next book carries through with the promise of the first, this may replace the March Upcountry books as my favorite Weber works yet!

A Dance with Dragons and Story Questions

I just finished George RR Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in his Song of Ice and Fire series.

To sum up without many spoilers: The hopes we had from the last book will be stabbed to death in front of our eyes, while corruption, scheming, and evil continue.

A Dance with Dragons covers some ground that the other books have, but it does highlight Martin’s strengths as a storyteller.  The world continues to be full of bright and memorable characters in dire circumstances wrapped up in bright and dynamic situations.  Martin’s world is vivid, well-thought out, and continues to hearken back to actual Western structures without true derivation.  The combination of Mongols and African nomads in the horse warrior Dothraki are just the first.  There are echoes of the old Greco-Roman slave economies blown to hideous proportions, complete with the corruption that semi-Christian Byzantium left as its nominal legacy through all time.  The religious faith of Westeros, the Seven Gods, mixes semi-Buddhist thoughts with Western cultural values and Roman Catholic monastic structures.

The main characters (whether they survive or not) show themselves, with the notable exceptions of Brienne of Tarth and much from young Bran Stark on his journey from cripple to super-psychic.  Denaerys’ new throne in the Bay of Slaves faces a coming war with Byzantine divisions and desperate plots.  Jon Snow’s drama continues on the Wall.  The ruins of Winterfell become a pivotal plot point.  Arya’s path takes a new twist in a brief but interesting blerb.  Winter is no longer coming.  The white raven is sent out to announce that the seasons have changed.  The last two books filled Autumn, and Winter has now come.

Without giving too many spoilers, I will quote the lesson that the HBO’s producers pulled from the book series as a rule for their production of the amazing but gratuitous flesh-filled series.  To whit: honor, duty, and faith never work out.  So, take all of the pseudo-medieval slime that may or may not have been part of European history, and there are plenty of staggering stories, corrupt manipulations, and plots to draw from.  Take out any truth, justice, honor, reliable religious belief, and hope.  Wallow in that cess-pit long enough until it starts to seem like home, just do it magnificently with technical skill.

The best summation comes from heretic and apologist Vox Day (ponder the irony in those two roles, when Arians fight more for their faith than the Orthodox for ours), who despite his other issues has a deft turn of wit on Martin’s work:

Don’t get me wrong. A Game of Thrones is an excellent novel when read in its own context. So are A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords. But among their various themes is the subversion and overt mocking of concepts that Tolkien honored, concepts such as honor, courage, commitment, love, loyalty, and family. In Martin’s world, nobility is equated with stupidity; evil and treachery prospers abundantly on every side. While there is something to be said for rejecting the tedious old tropes of good, in the persona of the young farmboy, inevitably saving the world by triumphing over cackling, cartoonish, and cretinous evil, the reaction against the shadow of Tolkien that began with Michael Moorcock has gone much too far into nihilism and moral blindness.

I don’t object to the ugliness, hate, and perversion in A Song of Ice and Fire and other modern epic fantasies. Such things exist in all fallen worlds and must be included for the sake of verisimilitude in any work of sufficient seriousness and scope. Is there not ugliness, hate, and even perversion in the Bible? What I object to is the near-complete absence of beauty, love, and normalcy to oppose them. As I have written in other contexts, I don’t object to modern epic fantasy on moral or religious grounds, but on literary and philosophical grounds. Theories abound as to why the Martin series has declined so dramatically, but the fact that it is written from a nihilistic and overtly anti-heroic perspective may well have contributed to the lower quality of the two more recent books.

This quote came from a year and a half ago, and recent releases have continued to prove Vox’s point.

I will probably read the next book, but Martin has joined David Weber on my probation list.  If I want to watch despair, corruption, plotting, double-dealing, and no trustworthy faith, I can just follow Middle Eastern politics for a lot less money and higher stakes.

Stories are about tension and conflict.  There has to be a question in the air, a story question, as it were.  WHEN [Something Happens] THE HERO SETS OUT TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.  BUT CAN HE/SHE/IT SUCCEED IN THE FACE OF [Enemies, weaknesses, challenges, etc.]?

Heresies about theology aside, Martin and Weber’s technically deft (in different fashions) long-winded series commit heresies against the fundamental principles of story craft, to ask a question, maintain tension, provide a dramatic climax, and then end the story.

I used to work in a Christian bookstore, but I have long since stopped reading “Christian” fiction for four reasons.  I will discuss them in the next post.  Theology aside, there are seldom real story questions in Christian fiction.  After a lifetime of Christian media consumption, the title Christian in the fiction kicks of a Pavlovian yawn.  The good guys will win, because someone will say Jesus at just the right moment, and all the bad guys who are not killed off or driven away will become Christians.  Forgiven sins will immediately disperse all earthly consequences.  The Christians are all good people who live nearly perfect lives, no enduring struggles with sins or heroic weaknesses.  Peter’s waffling is nowhere here.  Paul’s battle with his flesh (Romans 7) is invisible or redacted.

There is no story tension.  Good guys win, with white cloaks unstained and their arms have the power of a hundred men because of the purity of their souls.

Folks, I have been around the Church and in churches most of my life.  I haven’t really seen that anywhere.  The most amazing Evangelist I know has real theological weaknesses.  The most theologically orthodox man I know has no spine to assert the truth.  The most successful and conservative seem devoid of love and compassion.  Elders harbor dark pasts, sexual sins, and more.  So Christian fiction is not just predictable, but predictable fairy tales.

Back when he wrote his Wild Cards series that I encountered in High School, George RR Martin was praised for writing super hero stories without the heroism.  Twenty-five years later Martin is pounding on the same drum, and he has drowned out the story question with its monotonous beat.

When I pick up a David Weber book written solo (I’m still a fan of his collaborations by and large) I know the answer to the story question, WILL THE HERO SUCCEED is going to be: Maybe next novel.

When I pick up a George RR Martin book, the answer is only slightly more complex: WILL THE HERO SUCCEED?
Option 1: If the hero is noble, good, upright, just, kind, or loyal, the answer is no.  He will make progress, be seen as admirable, and then fail in a gruesome and nihilistic fasion.
Option 2: If the hero is treacherous, murderous, corrupt, perverse, or otherwise vile, the anti-hero will either succeed over the poor schmuck hero, or he will succeed only to be supplanted by someone better at treachery, murder, corruption, perversion, manipulation, and all evil.

Christian fiction fails because good always wins easy victories.
Weber fails because the good will typically make no real progress either way.
Martin fails because the good get F-ed over (a deliberate choice of words given Martin’s fiction) and darkness and evil prevail in one guise or another.

A Dance with Dragons has decent plot progress, some great character development, fascinating resolutions to previous dilemmas, and an end as dark and depressing as anything I have read from them.  Sure, the opening novel in the series was dark, but we had hope because Arya was on her way home with the Night’s Watch, Robert’s son was saved from the purge, John Snow was safe and rising in the Night’s Watch, and Rob Stark had rallied his father’s men in righteous cause with a good chance to win independence from the corrupt south, or overthrow the evil usurpers.

Four novels later, anyone with a functioning memory has learned that Martin only throws false hope.  Never trust the light at the end of Martin’s tunnels.  They may not always be trains.  They may be Kaiju.

Where is the motivation to see more people I’ve come to love die?  Where is the tension for the story’s ending when Martin himself has described his ideal ending as a battlefield graveyard with nothing but wind blowing over the bones?  That probably isn’t the actual ending in mind, but that is the heart, the spirit behind the ending, and we know we can tell a tree by its fruit.

A writer must be able to see the love in both good and evil to tell a story in this fallen world.  With no empathy for evil, there are only medieval style morality plays (trust me, they are pretty boring).  With no home or love in the good, there is only a nauseating darkness like dipping your mind in rancid oil.

It is possible, possible that Martin, who needs to eat and is subject to market standards, will bow to pressure.  His HBO producers need to give a satisfactory conclusion if they want high-paying jobs when Game of Thrones wraps.  His publishers may look at Martin’s plummeting sales and decide Something Needs to Change.

So, I will probably see the series through, but I deeply understand why many will not.

PS. Vox Day would do well to remember Ephesians 5:11-12.  The Bible does indeed speak of many terrible things, but neither explicitly nor in a titillating manner.  It is important to imitate HOW God’s Word discusses terrible sins and crimes as well as the fact that they do so.