Monday, 12 April 2010

Stephen Hunt; The Jackals sequence

Fantasy has been doing some interesting things lately. For a long time I pretty much ignored fantasy, because most fantasy fiction seemed to boil down to "Hey, I just read Lord of the Rings, and I want more of that." No, really, you don't. What Tolkien did was fine, but there's no need to do it again. No-one has ever managed to be taken seriously doing Gone With the Wind all over again, but somehow that simple truth hasn't bit home in the world of endless quests to save the universe from heaven knows what. Anyhow, I tuned out fantasy all the way through the 1980s and 1990s and it never cost me a moment's sleep. Now, it's suddenly worth reading again.

The difference between fantasy and science fiction is like the difference between different kinds of christianity; you'll find no difficulty in getting people to agree there's a difference, but there's a real chance of getting seriously injured if you're stupid enough to try to nail it down. At the risk of that serious injury, I'd say that the difference between fantasy and science fiction is that SF asks itself what the world would be like if the things we take for granted changed, and fantasy seems to take it for granted that everything would be just so much better if there'd never been any change. Which may explain why fantasy seems to be getting a second wind these days; with all the change that's going on, it's hard to resist the charm of an unchanging world of clearcut right and wrong and good and evil and such as.

This obsession with stuff not changing is the thing which hacks me off most about fantasy. It's not the only thing which hacks me off, but it's the biggest problem. I can work my way around the mandatory map which conveniently fits on two pages (while noting that none of my favourite writers have a map at all) and the obligatory weird names and made up languages which don't make a lick of sense. I can even tune out the noises in my head which point out that it's contrary to our understanding of real life to have entire populations of different sorts of humanoid, each of whom have more or less the same personality, because that's just how those dark folks be. Mind you, I can't bring myself to read those damned books which have a hero starting at one edge of the map and having to find his way to the other side. Just once, I'd like someone to write that book, and have the naive hero reach the other side after many adventures, only to discover that while he was faffing about on the quest, some non-naive professional gal who was already in the right place had got the job done and was now the benign ruler of all she surveyed. That would be funny.

But the lack of change thing always gets to me. Fantasy books always unfold against a background in which there's been no significant progress or political change for hundreds or thousands of years. And it's never remotely clear why this is so. What weird collision of lunacy would keep whole worlds mired entirely in the middle ages, never moving beyond swords, bows and feudalism? The usual explanation is that magic stifles progress and ensures stability. The truth is that everyone writing fantasy still loves Tolkien and Tolkien hated progress. It's easy to hate progress when you're sitting in an Oxford don's comfy chambers. Try hating progress if we take away all the things which progress has silently brought you.

There are quasi plausible approaches to lack of progress; I liked the approach Glenn Cook took, in the Black Company books. In his world - which didn't have a map - the world was stuck in a rut. Every time pressure built up for conflict and change, it spilled over into magic-fuelled devastation and knocked the civilisations of the world back into barbarism and dark ages. I could buy that. And I've read other books which I enjoyed enough that the progress issues didn't bother me as much as they should have; it's not at all clear why things are stuck where they are in the works of Joe Abercrombie or K J Parker, but they don't lay a great deal of stress on a huge span of unchanging time.

This is by way of being a very long preface to the odd contradiction in the works of Stephen Hunt.

Hunt's stuff is, and I have to get this out of the way right now, just tremendous fun. I read three of his books in a matter of days and lapped them up. He's not a hugely talented writer in terms of style, but he more than makes up for it in prodigies of invention. The challenge is figuring out which genre he's writing in. It's not traditional fantasy, because the world of Jackals isn't stuck in the middle ages. It's not science fiction either, because magic and mysticism is important too. It's not alternate history, because it's not set in a genuine historical period of our own real history. It's not steampunk exactly either. Of course, if anything is good enough it doesn't matter what the genre is. As I read through the three books, it got a little bit more clear what Hunt seems to be working from. His world is our world, in a very far distant future after repeated collapses and recoveries of human civilisation. So I suppose if you had to jam it into something, you'd jam it into SF, just to give a genre ghetto and forget about it that way.

One real oddity of the books is that although they're set in a world where there's definitely technical progress and political and social change, the viewpoint nation, the Kingdom of Jackals, has been stuck in a weird version of 18th/early 19th century constitutional monarchy for six hundred years. I could never get my head around that bit. I could buy the idea that civilisations had come and gone over the course of thousands of years of lost history up to then, but I couldn't figure out how, given the dynamic nature of the societies Hunt shows us, Jackals had enjoyed political stability for 600 years. There didn't seem to be any reason why it should have been that way, and it never really seemed important to the plot either.

The other great puzzle in the books is a logistical one. The first book, The Court of the Air, starts off with modest challenges for its two main characters and ratchets them up to eleven and a bit by having an invasion of Jackals by eldritch abominations abetted by genocidal neighboring revolutionaries. Hunt doesn't pull any punches; the devastation is widespread and deep. The armed forces are decimated and civilian casualties in the main city of Jackals are enormous. Yet, like Samuel Goldwyn, he's just starting with the crescendo. In the second book The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, the modest opening problems for the characters rapidly run away into a plot to destroy every living creature on earth. And by the third book, the characters have to deal with an invasion by aliens who intend to consume not just all life on the planet but every resource as well. There's a fourth book. Heaven only knows what's going to show up and threaten the polity. Heaven knows what's going to be there to threaten, as a matter of fact, because by the time they've sorted out the space aliens, the destruction we saw in the first book has been dwarfed by the elimination of pretty much every armed force on the planet and the destruction of every political entity that Hunt has introduced us to in the three books so far. So I was scratching my head a bit wondering how - in mundane reality - any of these countries would ever get back on their feet again after the various catastrophes which befall them.

Those are my gripes. They're just gripes; the books are good enough to get you to ignore them. What's fascinating is the way that Hunt can put together a richly imagined world which doesn't have the things our world has, but has figured out other ways to get the same effect. There's no electricity or electronics (it's stipulated that the laws of physics have crept to the point where electricity isn't controllable any more), petrol (seems to have run out) heavier than air flight (they forgot how it worked?) or gunpowder (this gets fascinating - see below). But there are substitutes for a lot of this. They have steam driven "transaction engines" which substitute for computers, especially when supplemented by magic. Coal has displaced petrol as a source of heat and energy, including the entire mechanical race of coke powered steam-men. The underground is vacuum powered, and high rise buildings are inflatable (with a wonderfully imagined notion of how many people working in the ducts it would take to make sure than inflatable high rises didn't deflate). I wonder where all the rubber comes from, come to think of it. For some reason, there's no gunpowder, but there are guns; the projectiles are propelled by a highly unstable plant product called blow-barrel sap, which explodes when its two components are mixed. Or if it's heated. The firing mechanism uses glass cartridges which are broken by the firing pins so as to mix the two components together. What makes this interesting - and worth going into such detail over - is that it makes rapid fire all but impossible. All firearms are single shot breechloaders. if you want rapid fire, you get a steam powered gun which blasts out bullets from a hopper with steam pressure. And that means you need steam-men. And so on. It's fascinating.

The political scene is like a funhouse mirror of the time of Pitt; you've got Jackals, which is England, its neighbor Quatershift, which is revolutionary France crossed with Stalinist Russia and Pol Pot's Cambodia. There's Catosia, which is a weird mashup of Switzerland and Italian city states of the Renaissance. Off to one side is Cassarabia, which is a sketched in bizarro world version of the Ottoman empire, and down to the South is Liongel, which is dah jungle and then some. Some of the political argumentation is weird; with three books behind me, I still don't know if Hunt's a libertarian, or just a cynic. The political system in Jackals is incredibly stupid and cruel; they maintain a mutilated king specifically to humiliate him and provide the crowd with an easy target, while their Parliament, the House of Guardians, settles its debating points with sticks and lives in hock to big business. Yet the government of Jackals is presented as the best of a bad bunch; the other governments are even worse. It's hard to know whether Hunt admires Ayn Rand or is ripping the piss out of her.

In common with a couple of other fantasy type books I've been reading lately, including Robert Reddick's The Red Wolf Conspiracy, Hunt's work feels as though it was originally written with a juvenile audience in mind and gradually got darker as the work made the transition from idea to the printed page. I'm still trying to figure out why that's a recurring trend in these books. I can think of worse things to have to scratch my head over.

I'm looking forward to reading another Hunt book when it comes out in a small enough format to be comfortable to read. Heaven only knows what's left for him to blow to bits, but I'm confident he'll go for it with gusto. But even without another book to look forward to, the very fact that he's cranked out these three cheers me up no end. They have flaws and contradictions, but they're real books with more imagination than most of the competition.


A Question Of ITIL said...

Great writer!
Did you know he has a new trilogy coming out? Scifi Fantasy Book News, Reviews, Bargain - Stephen Hunt - The Far-Called Trilogy

Max said...

I keep buying every book he brings out and then saving them up as treats for when I want to read something to cheer myself up. Which meant that I wound up not reading Secrets of the Fire Sea for almost a year, and I still haven't read Jack Cloudie