Monday, 14 February 2011

The Hammer: KJ Parker

Having read all twelve of Parker's books, I think I can say a few authoritative things about what happens in them. There will be a crime which cries out for revenge. There will be a protagonist who ought to be locked up, but is somehow unaccountably free to charm and swindle his way for his revenge. Getting the revenge will involve a scheme so ludicrously complicated that it will somehow destroy just about everything in the protagonist's world, and then for good measure, destroy the protagonist as well. Sometimes I wonder if Parker's carrying some monstrous grudge she just can't get past.

Things you will not see; magic. Elves. Dwarves. Dwarfs even. None of that crap. As I've said before, Parker's work is fantasy in the intensely limited sense that it suits her purposes to write in a past which has not in fact happened. What she wants to talk about is people in a time when technology is just coming into its own, when it's a force which a single mind could conceivably hold entire. I suspect that, like me, Parker rather misses the time when a man like Freiherr Gottfried von Leibniz could quite literally know everything that there was to be known.

With the Hammer, Parker does take one small lurch into the more modern world; for the first time, there are working guns. Not many, and not tremendously useful (at one point the main character tests a gun and painstakingly goes through the process of loading and priming, reflecting all the time that in the same time he could have loosed a dozen arrows and done a lot more damage), but guns none the less. The Engineer trilogy climaxed with someone completely failing to make the world's first gun, and failing so hard that he puts everyone else off the idea for the foreseeable future. This being Parker, that was a mere sideshow to the real game, of course, but her faithful readers could be forgiven for thinking that she'd said her last word on the topic.

The Hammer is otherwise very much like the rest of her work, which of course is just what we genre junkies like; a certain amount of the familiar. Her designated protagonist, Gignomai met'Oc, sets in train an enormously difficult plan to bring industry to a subsistence level agricultural colony. In doing so he almost wrecks the delicately balanced economy of the colony, triggers off a revolt against the home country and ruins his own life permanently. By the time he's finished, nothing on the island is the same ever again, but he's got his revenge. It's obvious from very early on that something has happened which is driving him. but Parker structures the book so that we're not quite sure what's bugging Gig or who he's after until about two thirds of the way through. We're shown just enough to draw us in, but not quite enough to see what's going on. Which parallels nicely the way in which Gig is manipulating the other colonists, telling them just enough of the truth to keep them committed to his scheme, but not enough of the truth about the reasons for it.

Another quirk of Parker's work is that she genuinely doesn't like action. Action's hard to write well, and tends to lead the writer into sin, or purple prose, which is probably worse than sin. So almost all the big action beats of the book, including a horrific murder in the middle of it, are described at second or third hand, usually in the kind of detached language you'd see in a law report. It's a surprisingly effective trick; as is Parker's ability to switch between Gig's viewpoint and that of the two other main characters almost in mid sentence. Only afterwards do you realise that these stylistic tricks have kept the veil over what's really going on and who's cheating who.

As always, there's a lot of fun to be had. Just as Connie Willis' books are always, at some level, about how hard it is to maintain focus in a world of distractions, Parker's books are always at some level about how much easier it would be if everyone would just be sensible rather than getting all emotional. And of course they're about how complicated it really is to make something; at some level, her entire work is like a long screed on the need to think about how much stuff has to happen in the background before you can walk into Curry's and buy an iPod. What makes her work ridiculous, yet compelling, is that one guy winds up having to do all the work.... But there's something wonderfully wry about it all. Her viewpoint characters delight in understatement and irony; as catastrophe unfolds, Parker's authorial voice will often have something dry to say to the effect that things went as might have been expected. At one point Furio, the moral balance to Gig's force of nature, finds himself struggling with a guard; Parker's description of what happens next is quintessentially her: 'Furio had never killed anyone in close combat before, but it turned out that it was something you could pick up as you went along."

She's now done three standalone books, and the question has to be whether she's going to go back to the big stuff or stick in the shorter form. And of course, how long it's going to be before I see another one...

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