March 2009 Review by Sean Melican
Duchamp, L. Timmel. Blood in the Fruit, Book 4 of the Marq’ssan Cycle. Aqueduct Press: 2007.
Duchamp, L. Timmel. Stretto, Book 5 of the Marq’ssan Cycle. Aqueduct Press: 2007.
Buckell, Tobias S. Sly Mongoose. Tor: 2008,
Cornish, D.M. Lamplighter, Monster Blood Tattoo, Book Two. G.P. Putnam’s Sons: 2008.
Just before sitting to write this, I read these words from a special issue of The Economist, The World in 2009, p. 16:
The financial crisis coupled with the shredding of America’s reputation over the past eight years has given weight to those people in the [Chinese] regime who argue that Western capitalism and democracy are old, flawed models.
L. Timmel Duchamp is not Chinese, but she is firmly on the side of those who argue that capitalism and democracy are not only old and flawed, but empty of sentiment or value beyond remaining status quo. It is difficult to argue as we watch the new Democratic regime appoint individuals with the same flaws as the old, largely in terms of abusing tax, employment, and immigration laws.
L. Timmel Duchamp argues that governmental structures exist solely for the purpose of existing, however noble their origin; that voting is a means of keeping the populace in line; that only style (how politicians speak and dress) matters; that substance (what they say) is entirely irrelevant.
In the last two novels of the five book Marq’ssan Cycle, Duchamp continues to develop the arguments begun in the first three, attacking the notion of government as fundamentally flawed; starkly arguing that sex is, or can be, a tool of manipulation, control, and torture. The brilliance is that, unlike most utopian visons, Duchamp is aware that not everyone is waiting to greet their liberators—in this case, the Marq’ssan. It is natural that those in power—most notably Elizabeth Weatherall—would continue to maintain power, and even increase theirs. Curiously, Weatherall recreates uses the change brought about by the Marq’ssan to alter the male-dominated Executive government to a more female-oriented government. In earlier utopias, feminist governments are utopia; but Duchamp argues that governmental structure, regardless of who holds power, cannot be anything other than dehumanizing.
Yet contrasting with Weatherall is Celia Espin, a socially active lawyer who endures rape and torture at the hands of the government, the loss of her right to practice the law, and the loss of nearly everything she owns including her dignity and humanity, continues to insist that government must exist—that the rule of law is inherently necessary.
It is this awareness of the varying reactions (and not just a simplistic dichotomy) to such radical change—from government to anarchy (keeping in mind this is not synonymous with chaos, but merely the complete lack of government agency and agencies) that imbues the series with such power. Characters are not merely mouthpieces, but are fully fleshed out and more importantly, their arguments are fully fleshed out. Duchamp does not use straw men and women. She challenges her own thoughts and assumptions. Her novels are the strongest utopias written to date.
While the Marq’ssan cycle follows the structure of political or utopian novels (featuring large chunks of dialogue, for example) Tobias S. Buckell continues to challenge the traditional structure of monolithic space opera, such as the Culture and the Federation. In his previous two books and numerous short stories, he has colored in and out of the lines (along with Samuel R. Delaney, Nalo Hopkinson, Vandana Singh, and others) a whitewashed genre.
What is perhaps his greatest strength is his hyperawareness of the frailties of human society. Sly Mongoose features a hierarchical city, including children who sacrifice their bodies through rigorous exercise and bulimia so that their city can survive and their parents can enjoy the privilege of relative wealth. Yet the city itself is lowest on a hierarchal scale, largely forgotten by what might be considered post-humans. Added to the very messy, very realistic mix are other groups of space-going humans—the League and the Raga—who are at odds with each other despite the threat of alien invasion which should, in an ideal fiction, unite the human race. One need only think of the numerous fragments of our world who have conflicting ideas on how to manage the twin threats of evangelical Christianity and Islamism, or travel between an urban city and suburbia to get a sense of how realistic Mr. Buckell’s fiction is.
The story itself? An plague is about to be let loose on humanity, engineered by malevolent aliens intent on destroying humanity. I’ve mentioned before how refreshing that humans, rather than being the top of the galactic food chain are the universally despised by the much more powerful alien empires. Pepper comes to Chilo (in a neat, beautifully rendered scene) to warn humanity. Humanity, however, is (as we still are) much, much more concerned with its local politics; its pitiful, myopic struggles for power (what matters who is the local leader if the aliens are about to obliterate our race?); it’s defining of the Other as inferior in some way—even the lowest humans, the residents of Chilo, find ways to dehumanize the more powerful post-humans.
I continue to advocate that Tobias Buckell’s vision of the future is much more realistic than most science fiction and realistic fiction, as its concerns are not with the rich and powerful, but the poor and ordinary. He approaches the topic of human and political frailty from a different slant than L. Timmel Duchamp, but their points are very much the same:
Humanity needs to overcome its sectarian politics.
Lamplighter continues the Monster Blood Tattoo series. Much of what I said earlier still applies: this is a world loved and lovingly rendered by the author, complete with glossaries, diagrams, dialect, and so forth. Indeed it is the thoroughness of world-building that earns the book part of its honor. The other is that, while the hero is the orphan figure (see Les Miserables and Oliver Twist for just two of many antecedents) who has unusual gifts, it is not until the end that we learn of them (and the reactions of other characters is atypical of most cookie-cutter fantasies of the type I remember). He in fact is embarassed by his feminine name and his short stature, which makes his chosen profession difficult to master. Indeed, his equipment is shortened so that he can use it.
He is surrounded by various characters from whom he learns valuable lessons and skills, and is fast friends (of course) with the great heroes and the outcasts alike. Granting depth to this hoariness is that the heroes are somewhat unheroic in his eyes, hunting innocent monsters for economic, not spiritual, rewards.
Much of the story meanders, however, as he is sent to a distant outpost along a disused road. Why not simply let the weeds overtake the road and pull the lamplighters closer to cities and safety? I found the answer in an unusual place: The Great Wall by John Man, which argues that the Great Wall of China did not have a physical purpose—it was no more an impediment to the ‘barbarians’ than a few broken stones—but existed as a demarcation between ‘barbarian’ and ‘civilized’. The wall Rossamund and the lamplighters guard is such a demarcation. Importantly, the demarcation is the driving force behind the books: in a world sharply divided between humanity and monsters, is there a definitive break? (The answer is of course no, as some humans act monstrously and the monsters act compassionately, but that the point is an old one does not detract from the sharpness of the book’s focus.)
Lamplighter does suffer from a lack of focus as the story only really develops a thread a third of the way from the end, but the multi-dimensional world, the lovingly crafted structures, and the fully fleshed characters make Lamplighter an excellent series for children and adults alike.