The Year of Our War – Chronotopic Disruption

Steph Swainston’s debut novel The Year of Our War was published in 2004 and introduces readers to the Fourlands, a world inhabited by three races of humanoids: the Awaians, a winged race; the Rhydannes, a small cat-like race from the mountains, and the regular old humans. A fourth race, the Insects, has taken over the northern portion of the continent and continues to push south, destroying towns and turning them into Paperlands. The novel follows Jant Shira, a Rhydanne-Awaian hybrid whose light body and wings allow him to fly. Jant is a member of the Circle, a group of immortals ruled by Emperor San and charged with protecting the Fourlands. These immortals do not age or die from natural causes, though they can be killed in battle, extreme weather, etc. Jant is the Messenger of the Emperor, called “Comet,” and is addicted to a drug that allows him to access another world called the Shift. Jant finds himself embroiled in the internal intrigue of the Circle while the Insects sweep across the continent and the Emperor threatens to revoke his immortality if Jant can’t provide some answers.

Jant is one of the most interesting first-person narrators I’ve encountered in some time. I spent a lot of time feeling that he was really pathetic: his addiction makes him a weak link in the Circle, his desire to please leads to indecisiveness, and it’s hard to take him seriously when he tries to give orders. At the same time, he’s found himself surrounded by people who discount him due to his age (he was only inducted into the Circle around 200 years previously) or his weird tales of the Shift (which no one but an immortal can access without dying). He often finds his multiple loyalties conflicting as his personal life intersects with his official duties as Messenger. Despite his ability to fly and his status as one of the immortals, Jant has very little control over his own life, and his attempts to direct affairs are always usurped by the louder or the more insistent. This was perhaps one of the reasons I liked Jant as much as I did; he was frequently quite smart, but just as frequently not heard.

My favorite part of this novel is the way it plays with chronotopic disruption. The notion of the chronotope comes from the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and is further theorized Michael Holquist. (Honestly, most of what I know about chronotopes is from talking to my boyfriend who knows a lot.) The idea of the chronotope is a narrative time and place that we expect together. For example, for a Wild West story, you expect a particular a particular place — the American West — and a particular time — the 1800s. With that particular time/place we expect certain things: six-shooters, saloons, horses, prostitutes with hearts of gold, train barons, etc. Likewise, we expect certain things out of cyberpunk stories: a futuristic, urban setting where the lines between biology and technology blur and an evil corporation is usually behind everything. Narratives can also combine chronotopes, so we get things like Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which combines space opera and Wild West chronotopes, without necessarily disrupting our expectations and, in fact, calling our attention to the similarities between the two. Swainston disrupts the fantasy chronotopes in The Year of Our War  in less pervasive ways; in most ways, The Year of Our War seems like a fairly straightforward  fantasy world: archers, troops on horseback, ladies and lords ruling over fiefdoms and swearing fealty to a king (or not), a magical world beyond the world, and so on and so forth. At the same time, we encounter very non-straightforward things: t-shirts, newspapers, marathons, drug addiction, and the like. The affect of this is that the reader ends up noticing when characters adhere to the fantasy chronotope and when they don’t; we pay much more attention to the details of the chronotope itself.

I’m beginning to think this chronotopic disruption is a key feature of the New Weird. When I think back to the difficulties I had with both reading and discussing K. J. Bishop’s The Etched City, I think that a large part of it was that the novel didn’t fit into any chronotope, at least not for long. What starts out as a Wild West story doesn’t stay that way very long. China Miéville’s work plays with chronotopic disruption as well; for instance, The Scar seems like it will be an escape-from-a-harrowing-adventure story, but, while Bellis Coldwine does escape, it is in no way through her own skill or cleverness. I’m really excited about Swainston’s second novel, No Present Like Time; I want to see how she continues to develop the Fourlands and the chronotopic disruptions.

 

The Scar – Agency and the Lack Thereof

China Mieville’s 2002 novel The Scar is a loose sequel to Perdido Street Station, set in Bas-Lag several months after the events of the previous novel. Like its predecessor, The Scar won the British Fantasy Award, and it was nominated for the Arthur C. Clark, the Philip K. Dick, and the Hugo awards.

The Plot: Bellis Coldwine, a former lover of Isaac Grimnebulin, has been forced to flee New Crozubon as all of Isaac’s friends and acquaintances begin disappearing, courtesy of the New Crozubon militia. Bellis books passage to a New Crozubon colony by working as a translator, but on the way her ship is commandeered by a New Crozubon spy and then by pirates. Bellis, the passengers and crew, and the ship are taken to Armada, a city constructed of other stolen ships and led by a pair of sinister figures called the Lovers. As this pair constructs schemes within schemes and persuades public opinion to their side, Bellis works with the New Crozubon spy to get a message back home.

I really like novels that feature “constrained cities”: cities that occupy a single (albiet large) building, cities that a hemmed in by external forces like nature, cities that occupy space ships/space stations, etc. So I found Armada completely fascinating, the details about social organization in the confined space, descriptions of living quarters carved out of what were formerly functional ship spaces, the public garden that had been built by raiding parties traveling to shore to steal dirt, and so on and so forth. What I like about these constrained cities is how often we see social structure affecting and being affected by physical structures; for example, what we think of as a family unit changes when there isn’t enough room for each group of husband, wife, and children to have their own quarters. Armada didn’t disappoint; in a city where the primary income is brought in through piracy, the residents have developed particular ways of divvying up the spoils, including those humans who are brought into residency against their will. Each riding has its own rulers and policies since the city has grown too big to be managed as a unified whole, as we see when the Lovers begin trying to do just that.

Bellis Coldwine was an interesting heroine. I found her immediately appealing because of the way she carefully considers her options in various situations: “Bellis sat still. She was not intimidated by this man, but she had  no power over him, none at all. She tried to work out what was most likely to engage his sympathy, make him acquiesce” (14-5). In the same way, she considers how others, especially the Lovers, are using language to persuade others. She is, in short, a rhetorician, weighing her available means of persuasion and analyzing the means of others throughout the novel as she navigates her way back to New Crozubon. If you read my posts about Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, and Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, you know that representations of rhetors and rhetoric in fiction is one of my primary concerns, and I really consider The Scar a win for rhetoric.

I kept thinking, though, as I was reading, that this novel seemed to be less political than Perdido Street Station; while the social organization of Armada is interesting, it also seems very tied to a particular physical organization and, consequently, has few implications for “real life”. I’ve decided, though, that this novel is just as political, but in a different way; rather than being a story about people getting together to do something, this is a story about not having agency. Bellis realizes at the end of the adventure (for lack of a better word) that she had been a tool the whole time, first of one man, then another. While she did influence the events that happened, she could not do so in any kind of informed or strategic way, because she never had enough information to really know what she was doing, even when she was very good at doing it. And Bellis was very good at persuading others, manipulating some events to (what she thought was) her advantage. When Bellis realizes that she had no real agency in the events, though, she simply accepts this, since her “service” does ultimately earn her a ride back to New Crozubon (so does that count as agency? I feel so conflicted…). It is Bellis’s reaction to this revelation that made me feel a bit, well, cold toward her; I found that I had been pulled into sympathizing with Bellis more than maybe I should have because I immediately grabbed onto what I saw as our commonalities (“You’re a rhetorician?! I’m a rhetorician too! We should hang out sometime!”). Her utilitarian reaction to being a pawn, though, rankles my sense of justice even as it caters to my cynicism. At the same time, the ambiguity I feel toward her now (she can be a right bitch at moments) makes her even better as a character, and I can think of few female fantasy characters written by men who have impressed me this much.

One last thing that I would like to note is that I think in this novel we see some inklings of Embassytown in Bellis’s work as a translator. She is frequently admonished to pay no attention to what she is translating, to only let the words flow through her, but this is, of course, impossible until she begins translating the abstract scientific language of Kruach Aum. That is, the language can only flow through her if it is language she doesn’t understand in the first place — if it isn’t really language to her at all because she cannot interpret it.

 

Perdido Street Station – Rape, Crime, Identity, and Social Constructions

China Mieville’s 2000 novel Perdido Street Station was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula in 2002 and won several other awards, including the Arthur C. Clark Award and the British Fantasy Society’s August Derleth Award. It also put him on the map for science fiction scholars, and since then, he’s been one of the most-often examined contemporary writers in science fiction journals.

The Plot: Isaac, a scientist studying out-of-mode theories who has a khepri artist as a lover, is approached by a garuda who has had his wings removed with an interesting commission: to make him fly again, whether by wings or some other means. In the course of his research, Isaac inadvertantly releases a brain-sucking parasite onto the city of New Crozubon, a parasite with no natural predators for thousands of miles. In the course of amending his mistake, Isaac gleans allies from several groups, including the New Crozubon criminal element, the wingless garuda, the newly sentient Construct Council, mercenaries, political activists, and a creature from another dimension. Even after Isaac and his crew manage to save the city, the oppressive regime in power and a criminal kingpin continue to hunt him as the perpetrator, and he is forced to flee the city.

I read Joan Gordon’s article “Hybridity, Heterotopia, and Mateship” before Perdido Street Station itself and, consequently, had her ideas about hybridity and social organization in my head as I was reading. It’s true that, as Gordon argues, Isaac’s plan requires many different kinds of people in order to work, but I also saw the novel as examining the many ways in which we construct difference. Much like The City and the City, we see many spaces where differences are upheld on tenuous logics, like the separation of the two khepri neighborhoods, Creekside and Kinken. The residents of Kinken, Isaac’s khepri lover Lin reflects, construct Creekside as a ghetto in order to not be living in a ghetto themselves. Likewise, there is a division between the the cactacae who live within the Glass House, supposedly keeping their traditions alive, and those who live without. But we also see several places where differences are real and not constructed, notably with the Construct Council and the Weaver (and I would like to say that I think Miéville does an excellent job of creating characters that fall outside of human ideologies, here with the Weaver and with the Arakei in Embassytown).

I’d really like to spend some time with the garuda, another place where we see real, as opposed to constructed, difference: first with Yagharek and then with the New Crozubon garuda Isaac meets in the Spatters. Before I started off my summer reading with Perdido Street Station, I did a small project on Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy, and I’ve been thinking a lot about her philosophy that utopias in SF happen too suddenly, that humans can’t get to utopia without a great deal of hardship and resistance. Thus, the Xenogenesis Trilogy shows this resistance as well as the small steps towards a better humanity, while questioning some of the ideologies that inform our ideas of “better” (see, for instance, Zaki and Miller). I think that we see something similar with the garuda; their ideology of the individual results in something of a utopian society, but it’s a society that is completely unworkable in the space of New Crozubon, as we see with the hierarchical structure of the garuda in the Spatters, the need for someone to be in charge in order to keep the others safe. I feel like this is an important reminder of how deeply physical space affect societal construction; what seems to be the best way for the garuda to live in small tribes in the harsh desert landscape does them little good in the city where different resources are necessary for survival.

I found Kar’uchai’s meeting with Isaac deeply affecting for a number of reasons. First of all, I felt like Miéville had somehow broken our writer/reader contract by making me sympathize with a character who turned out to be a rapist. I felt like, in some ways, my choice had been stolen, my choice to reject or accept Yagharek after being given all the information. And I was upset that the closing section of the novel seem to present Yagharek as somehow redeeming himself for his crime by plucking his feathers and not being a garuda any more. At the same time, I realized that I was committing the same mistake that Isaac does, by reading the rape of Kar’uchai through my own ideological conceptions of rape. Really, murder is a much worse crime, but I wouldn’t have felt as upset by finding out that Yagharek had killed someone. More importantly, though, Kar’uchai forces Isaac (and the reader) to reconsider how our concepts of rape interpolate the “rape victim” as somehow different from victims of other crimes. She says, “I was not violated or ravaged […] I am not abused or defiled … or ravished or spoiled. You would call his actions rape, but I do not: that tells me nothing. He stole my choice, and that is why he was … judged […] Do not look at me with eyes reserved for victims” (609-10) The one crime of choice-theft for the garuda, with its many possible manifestations, asks the reader to reflect on the underlying logic of our own criminal system and the way that system ranks the severity of crimes.

  • Gordon, Joan. “Hybridity, Heterotopia, and Mateship in China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station.” Science Fiction Studies 30.3 (2003): 456–76. Print.
  • Miéville, China. Perdido Street Station. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000. Print.
  • Miller, Jim. “Post-Apocalyptic Hoping: Octavia Butler’s Dystopian/Utopian Vision.” Science Fiction Studies (1998): 336–360. Print.
  • Zaki, Hoda M. “Utopia, Dystpia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler.” Science Fiction Studies 17.2 (1990): 239–51. Print.