Welcome back to the big blog, it’s been a while and a lot has happened, none of which I propose to tell you about. I recently returned from a rather peculiar working holiday, some of which I spent contemplating, of all things, the rules of rebounds (how far indeed we have fallen in four years from Rules for Revolutions). More on that in a letter someday, maybe. This here is the most old-school of bogey blogs: a comparative review.
I’ve been struggling to write about two novels that I was really looking forward to reading but then found deeply dissatisfying: Steven Erikson’s The God is Not Willing and Rachel Hartman’s In the Serpents’ Wake. Reading my notes, I realized that perhaps my reasons were not as far apart as the novels themselves (they are both fantasy novels, though pitched to very different audiences). I liked them both enough to recommend them to others, so if that’s the only use you have for a book review, proceed no further. My problem with both, however, was their relationship to politics.
Insofar as one of the perennial debates within literary criticism is about the relevance of politics to fiction, I should say I am quite firmly partisan. I think the idea that truth and beauty can be either entirely conflated or entirely divorced is silly, and since they are both products of history I don’t understand how anyone can be expected to conclusively extract one from the other, if that is indeed the burden imposed by taste upon good readers. However closely one might read any specific text, it remains a text that, by virtue of being one, necessarily contains the contradictions of the moment in which it was written and the moment in which it is being read. The only real justification for the existence of a book review is that those two moments are closely situated, and thus it is possible for a critic to show another contemporary reader how the text reflects on the contradictions they are both likely consider urgent and/or important. Calling something timeless in a book review— as opposed to other forms of critical reflection— is effectively an abdication of that duty. Reviews are, and should be, saturated by their times. (This is, yes, a subtweet, text me.)
Novels are cultural objects, and I see no justification for the false choice between ethics and aesthetics in interpreting them. Anglophone literary fiction has been so haunted by the anxiety of this separation for the last few decades that it is usually either twee or didactic and terribly boring either way. Politics is never far from the surface of any cultural production— this is not, I think, the place to rehearse my objections to “surface reading” — and at least genre writers accept this as a feature rather than a bug. It is not possible to build worlds for a living if you are unwilling to consider their relationship with the one you happen to live in. This can result in outright propaganda (consider almost all MilSF) but in the best genre fiction it supplies those necessary literary virtues: grounding and gravitas. But sometimes novels get bogged down by such concerns, and this is what I think happened with these two very different books. They defend a political vision insufficiently thought out, and muddy politics makes for muddy novels. This was especially surprising to me in the context of Erikson, since the original Malazan books were consistently insightful as they were formally innovative. For years I maintained it was just not possible to write epic fantasy—especially of the swords and sorcery variety—in their wake, though I never expected Erikson himself to make my case with the sequels.
The Malazan Books of the Fallen were, as Simone Weil once argued about the Illiad, “impartial like sunlight.” They were books about war— endless, remorseless war— century-spanning conflicts so multifaceted and all-encompassing that it was impossible to take a side. There were so many fucking sides, all of them twisting in the winds of history, each of them at once noble and despicable. Insofar as the Malazan books had a point hidden underneath their vast and satisfying plot, it was simply: war is stupid, stop waging it, but if you find yourselves in the middle of one, as we all do, fight your corner in service of the cause that appears the most just though probably it will turn out you were wrong. In the final book, some people win and others lose, but it is clear that what was ultimately lost was the world itself, the shape and weight of it, and whatever comes next is potentially even more monstrous. Whatever history will be written of that victory, it will not be in the terms that the people who participated in it (on any side) will recognize. This is why they are the books of the fallen, not the books of the victorious. No day shall erase you from the memory of time might be how an expansionary empire chooses to memorialize its fallen (however inexplicably) but in Erikson’s books the innocent do nothing but die, and an empire only survives by forgetting them.
By the end of the original series, thus, the world had ended, if perhaps less gruesomely and more equitably than it might otherwise have done. The new trilogy, which The God is Not Willing inaugurates, is about what happens once it does. Literature offers us many answers to the dilemma of victorious warriors: the lucky, like Achilles, die; the unlucky, like Paul Atreides, go quite mad. Agamemnon is murdered, Odysseus turns feral; this is the way the world ends, never all at once. The Malaz option, predictably enough, is that they go back to war. Wherever man goes, as Hannah Arendt once said, he encounters only himself. This might be one reason I found the new book less compelling than the original series: I am older now, and I no longer find the fireside banter of bored soldiers as engaging. But I think the problem is deeper than that: in this novel, Erikson picks a side. Malazan marines are no longer a conscripted death cult, they are now stalwart representatives of a gentler empire that takes in climate refugees and civilizes slave-owning natives.
This is, admittedly, not the most generous reading of the book, which has many layers and a lot of interesting things happening. But it sacrifices the thing I loved best about the original series—its irreducible ambiguity, the way in which it depicted a world so complex and so weighted with hazardous history that any resolution could only be contingent, temporary, and unstable. In this novel Erikson enlists his world in service to ours, and the result is a surprisingly spare novel in which some (mostly good) people help other (mostly good) people survive an environmental catastrophe. There are still hostilities and even a few battles, but this is a novel about forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation, and redemption. These are, of course, all good things and I don’t mean to imply the original series had no moral center. What I liked about them was that they had so many, none of them absolute. I think I see why Erikson chose to do this. In the Kharkhanas prequels, written between the original series and the sequels, he swung in the opposite direction, and those novels got very claustrophobic. I still liked them better than The God is Not Willing, though I am probably alone in that opinion. Perhaps we all, eventually, need some hope. But it is difficult to read the new novel and not be struck by its retreat into a sort of liberal triumphalism: in the end, when the planet turns on us, it is a benevolent empire that will come to the rescue. Thusly muddy politics, cos almost for a certainty this is not the effect Erikson intended (insofar as it is possible, or indeed useful, to speculate on authorial intent).
In the Serpent’s Wake’s politics are straightforwardly woke, which I rarely have a problem with unless, as happens here, the only purpose of most events in the plot is to underline how woke everyone is, or should be, or could be. The whole novel is a sort of voyage into the dawn of wokeness, in which every lead character is gradually enlightened about the various errors of their privileged ways. Again, this would not be a problem if literally anything else happened. As it stands, this strident compulsion to virtue reduces even the most creative worldbuilding— which is abundant and fascinating— into a staging ground for a predetermined morality. The world in this book is overflowing with interesting oddity, yet it feels sterile because the people witnessing it seem to talk in sermons and epiphanies.
This is a genuinely weird problem to see in a Hartman novel, especially the sequel to Tess of the Road, one of my favorite YA novels of all time, which handled trauma with sensitivity and respect and made several clever choices that are then steadily undone by this novel. I don’t want to spoil the novel for anyone who wants to read it (which, as I said, I think you should) so I won’t discuss the decision I consider the most wrongfooted, but really it happens on nearly every narrative level. Consider, for instance, the relationship between Tess and Seraphina, her older sister, who is the protagonist of Hartman’s earlier novels set in the same world. Seraphina, unlike Tess, is a Chosen One. As the trope goes, she is universally beloved, uniquely relevant, and frequently insufferable. The first Tess book cut Seraphina down to size in the way only a younger sibling can do, and one reason I liked it so much was Hartman’s skill in showing us that the two sisters effectively live in two different worlds. In this one, Seraphina is mostly restored to her pedestal while Tess becomes a minor league chosen one herself— chosen, unfortunately, to do very little besides fret about her own inadequacy, which is why I prefer the second Seraphina novel’s tendency to slip into soft orientalism to this novel’s insistent wokeness. (There is an argument to be made that Serpent’s Wake risks orientalism as well, but woke orientalism is slippery territory, and I… would prefer not to.)
Seraphina’s books left her room to maneuver, and they allowed the world to be bigger than her understanding of it. Serpent’s Wake reduces Tess into being an observer of her own life rather than the driven and conflicted protagonist she was in the first novel. It does so primarily (it seemed to me) to make a series of stock observations about how empire is bad and totalizing and we should embrace diversity and respect others and not be entitled assholes. Which, yes, don’t be an entitled asshole, and the novel is astute about the ways in which the world makes it easy to be one. But the only way to collapse politics into morality in this fashion is to make the book’s villains cartoonishly evil and the protagonists incredibly naïve. They just don’t know any better, the novel seems to be implying, and once they do, they immediately improve. And yet: why don’t they know any better? We spent the first novel watching Tess learn how the world works, and she seemed a quick study. The other protagonists are a scientific magnate and an aristocratic priest, both of whom seem to have the benefit of a decent education. If they retained their willful ignorance through all that— which, as we know, privileged people usually do— why are they willing to abandon it now? Is decent people doing better really the solution, or is that simply the problem restated?
It might seem churlish to first complain about how one novel resigns itself to empire and then complain about how another righteously rejects it. I can already see the texts and emails: is empire good or bad, din, make up your fucking mind. But this is, sort of, my point. Empire is bad, of course, as is anything built on the premise that some people matter more than others. But politics— if by that we mean our collective ability to negotiate and transform these evil realities— is neither good nor bad, it is merely strategic and necessarily ambiguous. Fiction is, and should be, political to the extent that it shows us possibilities, potential frameworks through which we might analyze our reality or imagine a better one. It is also political because it demonstrates to us how other people, differently situated from us, functionally inhabit a different reality than we do. Fiction, I mean to say, is descriptive rather than prescriptive: it shows us the world so we might work out how to be better people in it; it doesn’t teach us how to be better people. Or, at least in my opinion, it should not. To describe something accurately and well, one must accept the complexity and contradictions that comprise it: the way in which empire, for example, is good for some people and bad for others. To describe empire as either bad or good for everyone is, essentially and unforgivably, to lie— and an indictment is an inadequate substitute for an appraisal.
Empire can even be, and often is, a good thing for good people who are nice to their families and kind to their pets and generous with those less fortunate. It can equally be a bad thing for bad people who survive in a wrecked world by bullying and torturing others. It can be a good thing for bad people and a bad thing for good people, which is what we conventionally call tragedy. All those truths co-exist, in fiction as in reality. The beauty and the splendor of The Malazan Books of the Fallen was that they demonstrated this by walking the tightrope between ruthlessness and compassion for ten straight novels. The first Tess novel understood this in its own, more contained (but equally devastating) way. Their sequels don’t—or at least not as well—and I, for one, mourn the loss.