Saturday, June 10, 2017

Tatyana Toylstoya's THE SLYNX

It's not every day that I come across a novel that seems destined for the "among the strangest things I've ever read" category simultaneously as it also just never quite winds up feeling strange enough, somehow, but such is Tatyana Tolstoya*'s The Slynx, a post-apocalyptic and satirical fantasy that is couched very much in terms of a folk tale.

The setting is sort-of-rural Russia, some 200 years after a violent unknown event referred to by its survivors as, simply, "The Blast", which was pretty obviously a nuclear war that didn't quite destroy the world, but sure did change it, starting with the aforementioned survivors. Those in our little corner of what's left of the world who managed to live through The Blast and its immediate aftermath just kept on living unless murdered or killed by a freak accident or finally just sickened of it all enough to commit suicide. But get this: they don't really age, and, if they were of childbearing age at the time of The Blast, they could keep on having children, and did, and so repopulation happened at a good rate.

Only about those children. Yes, about them. That's where mutation sets in. Everybody's got some kind of disfigurement, some visible, some not. And these children age, and die off, and basically enjoy the lifestyle and span of your average Russian serf, circa the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It could be almost idyllic, if your idea of an idyll is a return to pre-mechanized agriculture, ignorance, superstition, and boredom. Oh, and of a whole new sub-race of people who are human but alas, are also quadrupeds and are thus used in place of draft animals.** Draft animals that drink too much vodka and talk back to their owners and occasionally maybe try to stage a revolution...

Enter one Benedikt, son of an "Oldener" woman, who works as a copyist of old pre-Blast manuscripts. His calling is kind of noble and it lends him a certain weird distinction -- in order to copy one has to read -- but the 200 years between the last of these books' publication and his own time have wrought changes that make a lot of the knowledge he can gain thereby useless or nearly so, because it's all about context, and the context has changed. For instance, while books are precious in Benedikt's world, it's chiefly as testaments to the wonderful wit and wisdom of Dear Leader, one Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. He wrote them all, you see. All the novels, all the how-to books, all the chemistry text books. War and Peace, by Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. A Manual of Applied Organic Chemstry, by Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. The 1972 Sears Catalog, by Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe.

And yes, he is a despot, ruling from afar with the help of the dreaded Saniturions, secret/thought police in the guise of public health officials, who punish freethinkers by treating them as vectors of disease. Straight out of the movie Brazil, these guys. All that's missing are the weird baby masks.

But so, the plot of The Slynx (the Slynx being an imaginary monster that attacks and tears apart lone villagers in the night, and pretty much serving as a metaphor for all the woes of this world, especially ignorance and oblivion, because this book is all about what happens when a culture's memory is obliterated and everyone is just trying to make sense of it all from random pieces) is pretty much that of Snowpiercer. Benedikt is very like Curtis, if Curtis was more of a lovable doofus who marries above his station than a guilt-ridden antihero who kills his way to the front of the train, who advances uncomprehendingly through the several strata of a very confined society and learns that its very top/front isn't all that different from the rear/bottom and that it's all pretty much just a sad little cemetery of a society he's living in. But funny. Darkly and deeply funny.

You know, like life is. We're having a Blast. And maybe that's all that we deserve to be remembered for?

*Yes, she is from the same family as that War & Peace guy.

**Not a lot of animals survived The Blast. Mice are the primary food animal, and also serve as a kind of currency, for example. There are other, barely recognizable, creatures around, but most of them are not safe to eat.

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