Thursday, January 3, 2013

M.J. Engh's ARSLAN #OneBookAtATime

Man, am I starting off the new year with a brain-bang! I came across M.J. Engh's Arslan via a Google Plus discussion of New Scientist's curated list of "Brilliant SF Books that Got Away".* Arslan was not one of them, but my friend and fellow Wyoming sci-fi aficionado Walter Hawn** suggested that it should have been, and he's yet to steer me wrong, has Walter.

And, well, he still hasn't!

Caveat lector, though: this book should maybe come with a trigger warning, because the first public act of the titular warlord of this tale (I'll get to him in a moment) is the rape of two schoolchildren in the full view of his army and at least one of the children's conquered parents. I would urge those of you who will find this hard to handle to just soldier through it, though, because avoiding or putting this book aside just because of this scene, which is over very quickly and is barely described -- a quick rip off of a band-aid -- would really be a shame, because this is an amazing, amazing, book. And it's vital to the plot, that rape, almost as much, say, as the one that really starts events moving in The Jewel in the Crown (though that one spawns not one but four novels, the famous Raj Quartet). For the act snowballs in unexpected ways.

Arslan himself is a modern day Tamerlane, a Turkic warlord who takes over the world with a single gunshot but then has to travel it, more or less constantly, to consolidate his control and put in motion his plan for the planet, of which conquering it is only step one. What is step two, you might ask? Well, it involves undoing the industrial revolution (the information revolution had not yet taken place when the novel was written in 1976) and bringing the entire human race back to its agrarian village roots. As for step three... no, no, it is neither a question mark nor profit.

The narrative unfolds through Arslan's extended visits to a small farming town in Illinois, and is related by two very different characters: the principle of the primary school Arslan seizes when he and his army first come to town, and one of the two children Arslan publicly rapes his first night in town. The former, Franklin Bond, a humorlessly old-fashioned midwestern hardass whom you can just tell was a church deacon, maybe the Rotary Club president, is the only person in town whose authority Arslan will recognize (we learn he's had ample experience with elected officials), who tells the first half of the story in a stern and angry voice as he describes high school girls rounded up to serve as courtesans, dissenters publicly shot, mechanized farm equipment and electronics and herbicides and pesticides confiscated and destroyed, with Arslan living as a permanent and unwecome guest in the principal's own home. The latter... ah, the latter.

"First the rape, then the seduction," the unrepentant pederast Arslan says, explaining his strategy for molding the 13-year-old Hunt Morgan into his number one companion. He keeps Hunt around as a bed companion, sure, but also presses the boy into service as his reader. Having always sensed that his education was less than adequate, Arslan wants to learn everything. But he doesn't want to read it himself, so Hunt spends most of every evening reading aloud from everything from Greek and Roman classics to engineering texts to Paradise Lost. Which is to say that, in the process, Hunt becomes as autodidactically awesome as Arslan himself, and discovers in his reading that he is changing Arslan as much as Arslan is changing him, which is, in the end, even more seductive than Arslan's campaign to overawe the boy with his power and charisma -- and let him bask in the sheer presence of the guy whose presence overwhelmed world leaders. Watching Hunt's transformation from a bitter and helpless victim into a devotee/henchman who comes to view as a rival the nine-year-old girl Arslan takes up when Hunt gets too old for him is weird and disturbing, but always utterly convincing, as is his narrative voice, a ravishing and very convincing rendering of an autodidact's thought processes and associations that is often surprising in its loveliness, even when it's put to the service of rhapsodizing Hunt's systematized brutalization.

Interestingly and effectively, the book does not reveal how Arslan conquered the world until this second half, after we've spent a good dozen chapters dealing with the fait accompli of his triumph. Franklin Bond, in rural Illinois, is too busy dealing with consequences to spare much thought for how this could possibly be; it is left to Hunt with his agonizingly complex mix of emotions toward the warlord to explain how all this came to pass -- and by that time, the reader is so invested in Franklin's results narrative, in all its ugly, nihilistic glory, that Hunt's cause narrative of Arslan remaking the human world is utterly plausible. "I saw how Arslan with his square-nailed fingers worked at it, stretching and cutting and piecing and smoothing, so that someday, the scraps discarded, the web should fit neatly over every painted continent."

If I'm making this sound like a difficult book to take, well, good. And I'm not even giving away the whole disturbing enchilada. A lot of dystopian fiction is really pleasure-reading escapism; as I've talked about elsewhere, we read that kind of stuff to enjoy vicariously the idea of ourselves as survivors, as plucky rebels, as the lucky few. Arslan is not that kind of book. While its premise sounds a bit preposterous (though, I would argue, less so now than when it was written), it will convince you of its possibility, and then convince you of its inevitability. It might destroy your hope.

But all that, all that is evidence of a job very, very well done. And Engh didn't have to resort to sentence fragment gimmickry to do it either. Cormac McCarthy, I'm looking at you.

*I'm pretty sure I'm going to read all of these this  year, or at least all of them that are available as ebooks, because they all sound amazevaries, you guys.

**Who also takes a mean eyeabetes-inducing photograph.

***Curiously, that appalling first rape scene features Arslan taking a girl first and then a boy, but the girl completely disappears from the story. I'm not sure what point Engh was making thereby.


  1. As I told you on twitter, I just couldn't get into this book, as much as I tried. Maybe the rape scenes, but I think its something deeper than that. It might be the theme or the goals of Arslan that I find so repellent. Not sure.

    1. I can understand that. Arslan is definitely a repellent type with probably the most repellent goals in all of sci fi, if not indeed in all of fiction. But those two narrators Engh cooked up made the story for me, absolutely, the one almost as awful as Arslan, the other a textbook case of Stockholm Syndrome. Wow!


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