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Arslan

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arslan

The Gollancz SF Masterworks is usually pretty predictable. Often this is a good thing: you would expect masterworks to be well known and a surprising number of classics have been out of print until Gollancz brought them back. At other times, it is less of a good thing. I am a huge admirer of Philip K Dick but when you see his umpteenth minor work being badged as a masterwork you do think Gollancz could cast their net a bit wider. So I was excited by the announcement of the addition of Arslan, a debut novel from 1976 by an author I’d never heard of previously, to the list. On starting to actually read the novel, however, my excitement curdled.

This edition is copyrighted 2010 so presumably Engh has revised it and it also has a new introduction from Adam Roberts (who, along with Graham Sleight, is writing introductions for all the new Masterworks). In his introduction, Roberts cautions that this is not the most plausible work of science fiction. So it proves.

General Arslan, a twenty six year old soldier from the imaginary country of Turkistan, has conquered the world. China and Russia are in his hands and, as the novel starts, the US government has bloodlessly capitulated to him and turn the country over to his control. This happens with such rapidity that most Americans have never heard of him until he suddenly becomes their commander in chief. So you can sympathise with the reaction of Franklin Bond, the high school principal who is our main narrator, on coming face to face with Arslan:

“I stared at him, amazed as much as disgusted. It was incredible that that a two-bit warlord from nowhere, infected with some out-moded Middle Eastern strain of agrarian socialism, could be kinging it over my town – let alone my whole country.” (p.27)

The reader is likely to share this amazement. Nor is this the end of such amazingly unlikely developments: Arslan travels at the head of his army (why?); he stops in the small town of Kraftville (why?); he commandeers Bond’s school as his base (why?). None of this makes any sense so when Arslan makes Kraftville the de facto capital of his empire (and by extension the world) the reader simply has to take this in their stride.

It is not until page 170 that we have an explanation for Arslan’s meteoric rise to world domination. Unfortunately this explanation takes the form of some guff about a magical Russian missile defence system and Arslan holding a gun to the head of the General Secretary of the Communist Party. As Roberts notes, “not even the most naïve political theorist would believe global realpolitik works that way.” (p.ix) However, he then goes on to say: “The point of all this, though, is not to negate the novel’s plausibility; it is to move it, forceably, to a different arena” (p.ix)

(In this context, it might be worth refering to Rich Puchalsky’s recent piece on Roberts’s own fiction: “The Ideal Author of his books, to revert to how they appear to me to be written, is not someone who wants to write a seamless set-up, believable characters, and realistic plots.” This is a response to a piece by Paul Kincaid which identifies Roberts as a Menippean Satirist. Both are well worth reading.)

I am not convinced that plausibility is so motile. I agree with Roberts that depicting a realistic global revolution is clearly not the point of Engh’s novel but is that enough to allow her to simply dismiss it out of hand? Again, I am not convinced. And if this is not her point, what is? Initially it seems that with Arslan Engh is seeking to give this evocation America a taste of its own medicine by turning its own imperialism back on itself. Or perhaps she is reaching further back; Engh has an interest in Roman history and death of America may be intended as a modern version of decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Both of these are points Arslan makes himself:

“More than a hundred years without war. A strange way of life.”

“What do you mean, without war? My God, we’ve-“

“You have made war, you have not suffered it! Your nation, sir, has been perhaps the happiest to exist in the world. And yet consider its history. The natives despoiled, displaced, cheated, brutalized, slaughtered. The most massive system of slavery since the fall of Rome… The upheaval, the upswelling, of savagery, of violence. Not revolution, sir, for revolution requires coherence. Not eighteenth-century France, but fifth-century Rome… Grotesque, sir, this combination of a primitive puritanism and a frantic decadence; very like the Romans whom you so resemble.” (p.80-1)

In fact, the whole of Chapter 7 is given over to such bluster as Arslan explains his worldview. Ultimately, Engh has little interest in the big picture though; Arslan shows no more interest in political philosophy or geopolitics than realpolitik. Bond tells Arslan that: ”Your little Turkistani wolf pack looks pretty small in the middle of the United States of America, General.” (p.25) He is wrong. It is the United States of America that looks pretty small. In fact, it is nonexistent; Engh has reduced the United States down to a single town. There is no sign of the army or the government and everything functions solely at the county level. Kraftville might as well be an island. What Engh is really interested in – and where she has some success – is people. If America is collapsed down to Kraftville then Kraftville is collapsed down to two individuals, defined by their relationship with Arslan. To discuss these two we must first overcome another stumbling block for the reader though.

On his arrival in Kraftville, Arslan gathers everyone together in the high school, has them bound and gagged and then matter-of-factly rapes two children – a girl and a boy – on the stage in front of them. Faced with an opening that defies reason and ends with such a blatant act of authorial provocation many readers would be tempted to close to book. This was certainly Abigail Nussbaum’s response the first time she read the book. On his blog Roberts commented: “It is worth persevering with. There’s nothing schlocky or cheaply exploitative about it.” She did persevere and I’m very glad she because she has written a wonderful review of the novel. But whilst what Roberts says is true, I’m not sure it is enough.

The majority of the novel is narrated by Bond. He is there from the beginning and the soldiers are billeted around town he finds Arslan under his roof. An honest American – bluff, hollow and provincial – he is set up in opposition to Arslan. The devil gets all the best lines though. Bond has no internal intellectual or emotional life, only a set of morals; he is less a character in his own right than a mirror for others.

No, if it is a book worth persevering with it is because of the second narrator, Hunt Morgan. Hunt is one of the two children raped at the start of the novel (the other, the girl, is never seen from again; see Nussbaum’s review for much more on this absence).

After the rape he is claimed by Arslan as a sort of catamite. Towards the end of the novel, Hunt muses that this period “- if, of course, I could only have known it – had been our honeymoon.” (p.293) This tells you a lot about what you need to know about Arslan; as both Roberts and Nussbaum suggest, “first the rape then the seduction” (p.269) can be taken as the novel’s queasy mantra. What starts as an obvious act of abuse, by an adult of a child, becomes something more complex: “Measuredly, by a gentle graduation of brutal degrees, I was being weaned away from slavery.” (p.176) Here is Nussbaum:

Hunt’s narrative is a brilliant, disturbing, heartrendingly raw description of a rape victim seduced by their rapist. Rejected by his friends and family both for being a rape victim and for accepting the gifts and protection of the only friend he has left, Hunt is confused by feelings of self-loathing and guilt into accepting and eventually returning the love of the man who violated him–because his is the only love on offer. Both Hunt and the supposedly good people around him take it for granted that having been raped makes him ineligible for the love of a better person, and so Hunt clings to the only form of affection still left to him.

The sympathetic depiction of the relationship between an abuser and their victim is always going to be difficult territory but Engh acquits herself well. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have some concerns though. In the comments to Nussbaum’s post, Athena Andreadis says:

Many writers adopt the shorthand that a tyrant is particularly abhorrent if he rapes boys — girls and women, after all, “should” expect to be raped routinely in such circumstances. Another common shorthand is the amoral bisexual charismatic trickster who wields sex as one of his weapons and to whom all yield as if bewitched

Although Andreadis hasn’t read the novel and this characterisation doesn’t completely match the truth, there is certainly an element of it. The portrayal of Hunt is presumably intended to subvert our expectations but the relationship developed in much the way I predicted. Indeed, if it had not then there wouldn’t have been any novel. Partially this is because I did not read the book in a vacuum but I think it is also that the book simply taps into a different set of clichés. Hunt’s narrative remains, however, the most intelligent and subtle part of the novel.

Unfortunately we then move back to Bond. With Hunt we can forget (if not forgive) the stupidity of plot, with Bond it is once again brought centre stage. Arslan has fought his fairytale army (which seems to consist of a couple of dozen soldiers) up and down the Americas only to find himself the victim of coup. Given his unfathomable management style the only surprise is that this hadn’t happened previously. Where does he return to seek sanctuary? Why Kraftville, of course. For some reason he envisions a warm reception and this is not far from what he gets. Bond, now mayor of the town and superintendent of the county, welcomes him back into his home and then allows him to once more turn the school into a fort. He justifies this thus:

”Well, the thing is this, Leland. Arslan hasn’t committed any crimes as a private citizen, and we don’t have the authority to try him for war crimes. And even if we did, what good would it do? From here on in, he is a private citizen, and nothing more than a private citizen. He’s entitled to the same rights as anybody else.” (p.271)

Just to recap, Arslan marked his arrived arrival by raping two children and then exported the attractive school girls to work as comfort women in rape camps whilst importing schoolgirls from elsewhere to perform the same function for his men in Kraftville. He also keeps Hunt and a female teacher as sex slaves and then, when he bored of them, sets out to rape his way through the remaining female population of the town:

He wasn’t interested in the esthetic niceties of rape any more, he took whatever the daily dragnet brought him. One of the lieutenants was in charge of picking up a new girl every day and getting rid of the used one. (p.132)

All this is without getting into the routine tyranny, the confiscated assets, the imposed curfew, the summary justice, the executions. History suggests that Arslan would soon find himself strung from the nearest lamppost. Bond would probably find himself up there with him since despite the fact he is notionally the head of the resistance, he more closely resembles a collaborator. The resistance itself doesn’t actually do anything, a fact Bond seems proud of, and its only act of insurrection is planting flowers on the graves of executed townsfolk. Whilst I am sick of so much science fiction and fantasy trading in cheap fantasies of agency the lack of any such agency here is simply fanciful.

Luckily Hunt has the last word. The final chapter sees him hunting a deer, a stag of exemplary maleness:

I counted four points; adding a conservative two for concealed branches, and doubling for the other antler, I could assume a twelve-point buck – old and wise and in all probability master of a considerable harem. (p.290)

In framing the stag in such terms, Engh cannot help but evoke Arslan. The heightened state in which Hunt pursues the deer then recalls his relationship with Arslan as well, complete with moral qualms: “In the end, I could not take him unawares.” (p.297) In eventually slaying the stag – on his own terms and with Arslan’s own gun – Hunt finally kills him, albeit by proxy. Yet as the novel ends we inevitably find Hunt leaving Kraftville to follow Arslan, pursuing him with both love and hate. The whole chapter is infused with such ambiguous intensity that you can almost believe that yes, Arslan was worth persevering with.

But not quite. The portrait of Hunt remains a bright jewel in the tarnished setting of a bad and boring book. Nussbaum concludes her review by wondering if she is simply the wrong target audience. By which she means she is a woman:

To see a male character get raped is an assault on the male reader that a woman’s rape wouldn’t have been, and for the seduction part of the novel to get under that same reader’s skin by confounding all expectations that Hunt will rebel against Arslan and avenge his violation, the object of the seduction must also be a man. The problem with this tactic is that it is aimed exclusively at men. Just as Arslan scarcely bothers to seduce the women he rapes and saves his attentions for Hunt (and just as his seduction of Kraftsville is focused on its young boys, to whom he becomes a mentor), Arslan the novel is only interested in seducing its male readers. The problem with the novel turns out to be its lack of interest, not in its female characters, but in its female readers. We don’t get seduced. The opening rape scene is as much an assault on us as it is on male readers, but the rest of the novel ignores us.

Was I seduced by the novel? No. The opening was not an assault on me, it inspired only indifference and contempt with its ridiculous and manipulative premise. Correspondingly the seduction I required was something other than that I received; the masculinity of Arslan is as alienating to me as it is to Nussbaum. As she says: “If I have ever in my life read a novel that is so dismissive of women’s character, personhood, and agency as this one, I am struggling to recall it.” This is not a book I want to read. If this is a seduction aimed exclusively at men, I wonder what type of men they are.

Written by Martin

10 March 2011 at 17:23

Posted in books, sf

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18 Responses

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  1. Very interesting. I mean, obviously, I think you’re a big old wrongheaded headwrong as far as this novel is concerned; but the convergence between your reaction and Abigail’s (and Athena’s, although she hasn’t actually read the book) is starting to make my admiration for this title look outnumbered and, in the strict sense of the word, eccentric.

    I suppose it occurs to me that you’re working with a set of assumptions that aren’t very helpful for getting at what’s worthwhile and wonderful on the book: for example — that the way to represent politics, the effect of tyranny on ordinary life and so on, is through an aesthetic of verisimilitude (‘plausibility’ and so on). So you say ‘I am not convinced that plausibility is so motile’, where it seems to me the point is not whether it’s motile, but whether it’s the right aesthetic criterion in the first place. The Simpsons (which I’d argue is one of the major contemporary televisual representations of American family life: it does for White suburban US existence what The Sopranos does for New Jersey crime, or The Wire for Baltimore) gives to the provincial backwater town of ‘Springfield’ a similar American and indeed global centrality and importance that Engh gives to Kraftville. Imagine if you read a review of that series that went through episodes disgustedly listing the ‘implausibilities’ of Groening’s representation. Wouldn’t you think someone had missed a crucial point? Nor do I think this is because the Simpsons is comedy, still less because it’s a cartoon — both are versions of real life filtered through a deliberately, creatively estranging filter, exactly like SF. Or maybe what I mean is: the fact that it’s a comedy, and a cartoon, mean that it’s easier not to get distracted by tedious questions of documentary verisimilitude. (I mean: just count how many fingers Homer has! outrageous!)

    So, yes; you say ‘I agree with Roberts that depicting a realistic global revolution is clearly not the point of Engh’s novel but is that enough to allow her to simply dismiss it out of hand?‘ But the second part of this sentence suggests you haven’t really taken on the sentiment of the first part (‘I agree plausibility isn’t the point, but does that really mean plausibility isn’t the point?) As if one might say ‘I agree that, in Picasso’s portrait of a Weeping Woman, depicting a photographically realistic image of a woman in tears isn’t the point of the painting — but is that enough to allow him to simply dismiss it out of hand?’

    And if this is not her point, what is?

    Well, you know my thoughts on this, having read my Masterworks intro, so I won’t go into them at length here except to say: I think the point is to interrogate a particular, and powerful, perspective on love. I think it does this in a way that is unique, and timely — modern, I mean (postmodern, actually): at the pinch point between the parent and the child, the master and the slave. I also think its formal repudiation of documentary verisimilitude is a feature, not a bug. But like I say: I could be wrong.

    Still … let a thousand flowers bloom, a thousand schools of thought contend. You big old wronghead.

    Adam Roberts

    10 March 2011 at 22:34

  2. I’m at a conference and must be brief.

    It’s amusing to see my points invoked when people agree with me versus their tendency to say “you don’t know what the shit you’re talking about” when they disagree with me.

    Adam and I had private exchanges about Arslan after he expanded his views further in Abigail’s blog. In these exchanges, as in Abigail’s blog, he kept insisting that women’s issues were beside the point. It is worth noting that of the people who commented on the book at any length, Abigail and I have first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to live in a dictatorship or a war zone.

    It’s true I haven’t read Arslan. Nor do I intend to, just as I don’t plan to read Mein Kampf, Hubbard’s Dianetics, creationist screeds, fundamentalist recipes of womanly submission, birther tracts, etc. Life is finite, and I for one need to conserve my neurons.

    Athena Andreadis

    11 March 2011 at 01:56

  3. A pair of interesting comparisons, Adam, and ones that I think prove I’m not (entirely) a wronghead. I am going to be away from my computer so let me quickly deal with the latter example and come back to The Simpsons later.

    When I said “I agree with Roberts that depicting a realistic global revolution is clearly not the point of Engh’s novel but is that enough to allow her to simply dismiss it out of hand?”, I hope I wasn’t ignoring your sentiment but its possible I misunderstood it. Going back to the motility of plausibility, when you say “The point of all this, though, is not to negate the novel’s plausibility; it is to move it, forceably, to a different arena”,

    I took you to be saying that the plausibility of the novel lies not in its depiction of what we might call worldbuilding but rather its depiction of love. We might usually approvingly describe such treatment as “honest” or “truthful” but “plausible” also works and I took you to be explicitly applying the term.

    I don’t see anything contradictory in the general statement “A novel has a primary purpose X which is not y but does that mean y can be dismissed?” Nor do I see anything contradictory about applying it specifically to Arslan in these terms. In other words: “I agree with Roberts that the primary purpose of the novel is the plausible depiction of a specific type of love but does that allow her to simply dismiss plausibility of worldbuilding out of hand?

    I don’t see anything incoherent about that formulation. With ‘Portrait of a Weeping Woman’, on the other hand, Picasso had a primary purpose (let’s say “realisation of a new aesthetic”) that is incompatible with the other purpose you propose (photo-realistim).

    Since you describe love as being depicted “in a way that is unique, and timely — modern, I mean (postmodern, actually)”, I imagine your response would be that you don’t consider plausibility to be an appropropriate term to apply. But in that case I’m confused by your suggestion that the novel doesn’t negate plausibility, only shift it to another arena, particularly since in this comment you question whether it is the right “aesthetic criterion in the first place”.

    I now find I’ve got a bit of time to talk about The Simpsons. I would agree that it gives the “provincial backwater town of ‘Springfield’ a similar American and indeed global centrality and importance that Engh gives to Kraftville.” I would say there are important differences though. Springfield not only stands for America, it is clearly part of America. Washington DC exists (the Simpsons vote, write to their representatives, are generally plugged into a wider political discourse). Wall Street exists (represented particularly in the form of Krusty Burger, a local example of international capital). Both are completely abscent in Kraftville.

    I am not convinced that both works are “versions of real life filtered through a deliberately, creatively estranging filter” to the same degree. But even putting that to one side I would suggest the verisimilitude of The Simpsons is much greater than that of Arslan.

    Martin

    11 March 2011 at 10:02

  4. I’ve read your and Abigail’s pieces on this novel with a great deal of interest. The rather sad fact that (not necessarily in the SF Masterworks edition) I own all of the novels in this series notwithstanding, I was initially keen to read this one because it’s had had so much positive coverage over the years.

    As already noted, I’m glad I read it. I’ll refrain from using the word ‘enjoyed’ as that’s probably not quite true! That said, I have to admit it’s not a novel I particularly enthuse about – there are plenty that I’d recommend long before this one.

    Just to chuck my own two-penneth in, Engh’s novel interested me from the point of view of the time in which it was written. It seemed to me that the novel points towards the kind of cold war paranoia that infused a great deal of literature and film, well, until the cold war ended. The kind of cold war paranoia where small-town America was under threat.

    I must confess that this is something that I was taking to my reading of it, though. Because (as previously indicated) as I’d read a little about the novel over the years before this edition was published, I have to admit to backgrounding the aspects that are criticised here in my own reading. What interests me is that throughout the post WWII period is that – even when at the peak of its strength – the US seemed infused with a deep uncertainty about the true extent of its strength. Crudely expressed, I suppose, by Kennedy making much political capital through a non-existent missile gap. Of course, some paranoia may have be manufactured to justify increased military spending and so forth. Anyway, I’m not saying any of this as a militarist. Far from it. It’s just interesting to me.

    Over-simplifying here, for the sake of brevity.

    Mind you, I have to confess that I now feel a bit weird about my own reading of the novel as it seems that other reactions are so hot or cold, whilst I’m splashing about in lukewarm water on this one.

    Richard

    11 March 2011 at 10:11

  5. To be honest, I was expecting a bit more of that sort of thing, Richard. The novel feels very Seventies and was published the year after the Vietnam War ended. It initially seems to set itself up as a political story but then retreats from it (or, as Adam would say, this was never the intention). I hadn’t thought of Arslan explicitly in terms of paranoia though. Perhaps that would be a more profitable way of considering it rather than as direct political statement.

    I have to confess that I now feel a bit weird about my own reading of the novel as it seems that other reactions are so hot or cold, whilst I’m splashing about in lukewarm water on this one.

    I wouldn’t say my reaction was hot or cold. It is was a book where I found things to admire but which didn’t sustain my interest or provide me with much pleasure. So lukewarm probably sums it up.

    Martin

    11 March 2011 at 12:17

  6. I really have only one unbreakable rule as a reader interested in finding more to read: if someone hasn’t read something but offers an opinion on it anyway, I ignore them.

    jeff vandermeer

    11 March 2011 at 16:14

  7. Interesting discussion thread. I may be wrong in my admiration of this book, of course; that’s a possibility. The thing is, whilst I can think of texts that laud the fascist dictator as a noble hero, and I can (obviously) think of texts that revile the fascist dictator as the Devil Incarnate, I can’t think of any novels, apart from this one, that explore the idea that everybody knows fascist dictators do evil in the world and yet people love them — they gain power because people love them. Some self-deluding people love them because they foolishly think them noble heroes perhaps; just as some will revile them as the devil and fight against them; but a large constituency know their wickedness perfectly well and yet love them anyway. I don’t know whether Martin would consider that ‘a direct political statement’ or not. It seems to me a world away from Mein Kamf, though.

    On reflection, the Simpson analogy probably isn’t a very useful one in this context. I remember talking to a high-culture high-brow friend of mine when the first Lord of the Rings film came out. He told me he hadn’t been able to read Tolkien’s book, and wouldn’t under any circumstances go see the film, because he thought it adolescent and trivial to get excited over ‘stories of wizards and knights with swords and so on.’ I said to him: ‘but your favourite opera is Parsival, which is precisely about wizards and knights with swords and so on.’ He looked at me as if I were insane, or at least deliberately being obtuse. I was never going to persuade him.

    Adam Roberts

    11 March 2011 at 21:39

  8. Athena: I’m sorry if I gave you the impression that I believe ‘women’s issues [are] beside the point'; I don’t think that, generally speaking or as far as this novel is concerned. The female experience is not at the heart of this novel, it is true; but that’s not the same thing. To say that women’s experiences were ‘beside the point’ in any context would be a monstrous assertion.

    It is worth noting that of the people who commented on the book at any length, Abigail and I have first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to live in a dictatorship or a war zone.

    This seems to be saying that I am disqualified from commenting on this novel because I have never lived in a warzone. Is that right?

    Adam Roberts

    11 March 2011 at 21:44

  9. Let’s not go down the route of deprecating our own readings. Our readings are all valid; they are probably not all equally valid; the collision of our readings will hopefully encourage us all to read a bit harder. I would dearly love to come up with another example of a novel that explores the idea that everybody knows fascist dictators do evil in the world and yet people love them. I’m sure they exist, I’m sure I’ve read them but I can’t think of any. I need to re-examine my assumptions.

    As for whether I consider that a direct political statement, I will have to chew on that. My initial reaction is to say no. My feeling that this idea is pre-political which is why Arslan succeeds on this front but, to me, fails on the political front (but maybe this is a post-hoc justification to my reaction to the novel).

    I think Athena’s comment on Abigail’s post identifies some wider trends in literature that are of interest here but, as Jeff says, if you want to comment on a specific text, it is imperative that you’ve actually read. I think it is spectacularly unhelpful to suggest Arslan is the equivalent of Mein Kampf or Dianetics and I would hope that most people wouldn’t jump into such a comparison without having read the text under discussion. I also find the idea of war zone experience Top Trumps extremely problematic.

    Martin

    11 March 2011 at 22:04

  10. “I also find the idea of war zone experience Top Trumps extremely problematic.”

    It’s surely uncontroversial, though, that only astronauts have valid opinions about novels set in space. Honestly, I don’t know why all you non-astronaut sf critics are even wasting your time…

    Rich

    12 March 2011 at 10:12

  11. Great post. I’m glad there’s been more discussion of this book even if we can’t seem to agree what we think about it (and, in my case, that disagreement is also with myself – I find myself wanting to defend the book to you and Athena, and decry it to Adam). I do wonder whether your break with the novel comes not on the level of being unable to stomach its implausibility, but due to your lack of interest in Franklin, who to my mind is the heart of the work. You’re right to say that Franklin “has no internal intellectual or emotional life, only a set of morals,” but this does not make him merely “a mirror for others.” If Franklin is a mirror, he is a fun house mirror – he distorts rather than reflects, and that distortion is the crux of the novel’s political statement. Franklin is the sort of man who keeps America alive in his heart long after the nation itself has died, and the version of America that he tries to maintain, the consequences of his determination to do so, and the fate that lies in store for him, are surely as definitive a statement about US politics in the mid-70s as anyone could hope for, and absolutely not a retreat from the subject.

    Adam:

    let a thousand flowers bloom, a thousand schools of thought contend. You big old wronghead.

    Just letting you know that I’m adopting this as my new personal motto.

    Athena:

    It is worth noting that of the people who commented on the book at any length, Abigail and I have first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to live in a dictatorship or a war zone.

    I’m not sure what you mean by this. Though there are people living not far from me who have lived through these ordeals and though I have experienced war, I certainly wouldn’t say that I’m lived in either a dictatorship or a war zone. There are times when being an Israeli gives me a unique perspective on the books I read but I don’t think that Arslan is one of those times.

    Abigail

    13 March 2011 at 14:23

  12. [...] a recent review, Martin Lewis discussed how important plausibility is for the enjoyment of fiction, briefly in the [...]

  13. I did not comment on Arslan as a reader. I simply (though repeatedly) said that based on three reviews of it I wouldn’t read it. I also used the content of the book to make general comments about when a tyrant is considered particularly reprehensible.

    To those who said “Oh, so you’re saying that if you haven’t experienced X firsthand you can’t write about it” — set up another straw woman to demolish.

    Athena Andreadis

    14 March 2011 at 09:03

  14. [...] Martin Lewis reviews Arslan. A review which does not make me want to read this any more than Abigail Nussbaum’s review did. Arslan is a novel that starts with a horrific rape scene in which a teenage boy and girl are raped by Arslan the warlord, which in itself is enough to squick me out, but what both reviews also made clear is that the setup of the novel is far from realistic. Arslan is a warlord out of a fictional country in the former USSR, who by way of nuclear blackmail becomes ruler of the world, only to end up micromanaging a small town in flyover country USA. It’s an absurd setup that Arslan‘s author needs to tell the story she wants to tell. I can deal with novels that rely on either of these two authorical tricks, but novels that use both need to be very good to end on my to read pile and so far nothing I’ve read makes me think Arslan falls in that category. [...]

  15. Interesting reviews and discussions; thanks for them.

    I came to this novel by way of Orson Scott Card (way back before I knew anything about Card’s political views), who I seem to recall said it was one of his favorite books. (But that was, oh, twentyish years ago, and I may be misremembering.) So I’d be interested in hearing whether anyone sees a connection between Arslan and Songmaster, particularly in the loving-a-ruthless-emperor aspect. (Although it’s also been a very long time since I read Songmaster, so I may be misremembering Mikal’s ruthlessness, and perhaps an emperor who thinks his ruthlessness is in the service of the general good (see also one view of Klaus Wulfenbach) is a different kind of beast than one who’s simply incredibly charismatic.)

    Jed

    17 March 2011 at 18:09

  16. [...] Arslan by MJ Engh [...]

  17. [...] review originally appeared on Everything is Nice. Share this:TwitterFacebookStumbleUponRedditDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

  18. There’s not much I wish to add except to say that I’m grateful to have stumbled upon these varying perspectives on one of my favourite novels, and am delighted that the Masterworks edition might introduce new readers to the work.

    I very much agree with Adam Roberts’ comments, both here and on his blog, and was also rather taken by the interpretations offered by Abigail Nussbaum- specifically the idea that the book is an assault on the conception of masculinity embodied by Franklin.

    Looking through the more negative appraisals of the story, I’m struck by the repeated reference to plausibility, or lack thereof. I would argue that there is not nearly enough information available to make such a criticism. We don’t actually see anything of the outside world except briefly via Hunt- who is a highly unreliable narrator. As for Arslan’s machinations, we learn of them only in the vaguest terms, and even then, we have no guarantee of anything that he tells us. In fact, I initially read the “nuclear blackmail” scene as a cute fiction being fed from master to slave. For all we know, society disintegrated through other means entirely, and Arslan and Nizam are two generals out of thousands who currently bestride the shattered world, divvying up the pieces among themselves.

    Personally, I do think that Arslan is mostly who he says he is. But my point is that every single thing we learn about the outside world is presented to us through the eyes of a traumatised teenage boy or via the words of a megalomaniac warlord. There is no means for us to verify or expand upon their accounts, which leaves us completely at a loss as to what the heck has happened outside Kraftsville. Which I’m sure is frustrating to some, but for me this refusal to provide even the correct questions, let alone the answers, is the most effective way to tell a post-apocalyptic story..

    The only question of plausibility that we are able to ask is this one: in general terms, is it conceivable that the United States could be invaded and at least partially conquered by a foreign power? In 1974, the answer was yes.

    Daniel D

    9 April 2012 at 13:29


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