Sunday, 8 September 2013

Paul Hoffman: The Left Hand of God Trilogy

Fantasy is, of course, bollocks. Some of it is very well written, and some of it makes a real effort to imagine- and more importantly explain - a world where mere progress stays still but magic stomps around with its kickin' boots on. But even the good stuff is bollocks. [1]

There is, for the most part, an unspoken compact between the writers and readers of all this bollocks that we will not acknowledge the sheer fatuousness of the whole notion of fantasy. Paul Hoffman decided, because he is so all-fired clever and such as, to take a huge steaming dump all over this unspoken compact, and write himself a trilogy which ripped the ever-loving piss out of the hero's journey which lies at the tedious heart of practically every sequence of such books. This is a bit like announcing that there is no Santa Claus to a dribbling room full of five year olds. On Christmas morning. While setting fire to the tree. With their presents under it. It's just rude. 

Of course, sometimes you have to do rude things. There's a time in everyone's life when they need to appreciate that there's no Santa Claus. But you need to replace that Santa Claus with something better, even if it's only the valuable understanding that there's no such thing as a free lunch. Hoffman, full of the notion that he's got a memo that the rest of us have missed, does not seem to have got that memo. If you're going to rip up the fun of fantasy itself, you'd better be either hilarious or really really good at whatever it is you think you've invented. 

As to hilarity, I have no doubt that Hoffman could write a better blog snarking out the world around him than I do. As to being really, really good; when the second book came out, I had to reread the first book because I couldn't remember the plot or half the characters. A year after I'd read it. When the third book came out, I couldn't remember much of either of the other two. Why bother buying and reading the third book at all, you might ask? Well you might. I'm not at all sure. The vague hope that Hoffman's obvious intellect and stylistic talent might just bring the whole mess together at the last minute, I think.

This did not happen. The first book is pretty straightforward, being the origin story of the main character, the thoroughly unlikeable Thomas Cale. Mad monks bring him up to be the deadliest tactician on earth, in the apparent hope that he'll act as the field marshal of a lunatic plan to kill everyone everywhere. It's a sardonic and somewhat unlikeable take on the well-worn hero's journey, spiced up with a clever, somewhat supercilious narrative voice, and that vague head scratching which comes over any fantasy or SF reader where the narrative is littered with side references to events and places from our own real world history. Is all of this supposed to be happening in some distant future where our own past is a jumbled memory? Will the usual annoying stasis of fantasy world be explained at some point?

Well, no, it won't be. In the second and third books, Hoffman just goes all over the place, digging up various battles from human history (including the fictitious battle of Duffer's Drift, used to train a generation of British army subalterns in the wake of the Boer War) and reframing them to showcase Cale as the military genius of the age. Hoffman's actually quite good at describing battles, which is an uncommon skill, though not quite so good at making me care what happens in them. Cale's destiny is revealed to involve bringing about the end of the world, but I will not be ruining your enjoyment much when I tell you that this does not happen, even a little bit. Everyone's a buffoon, a knave or a self-destructive idiot, with many characters managing all three at once. And there's a terrible disjointedness of incident; epic battles tossed off in a page or even a line, while chapters are devoted to minor skirmishes in the underworld. And the initially intriguing use of names from our own world just starts to seem like a stupid joke carried on long after everyone's stopped laughing (Hoffman is interestingly defensive about it in an afterword). By the time the third book opens up, it's quite clear that this has all been a mannered post-modernist joke; the third volume opens and closes with a cod-serious papers about the dubious origins of the entire manuscript in some future archeological dig through a rubbish tip. Oh dear, I thought to myself, it's going to be like that, is it? I had half a hope that Hoffman might construct a framing narrative which would make it all less stupid, and at least pay lip service to his audience's need for things to make sense and rise above ridicule, but no. And towards the end, I felt like he was losing interest even faster than I was; the war peters out in a half hearted description of the final battles which robs it of all weight, and then the baddies collectively hang themselves before Cale walks off into the sunset for no apparent reason and no apparent end. And that, my dears, was that.

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those fantasy cycles which takes place in a medieval-ish world where nothing much seems to have changed for hundreds of years but gunpowder is just around the corner. If you like that kind of thing, read KJ Parker. Religion is a horrible malevolent force which blinds people to the humanity of other people and thus evokes more evil than mere amorality ever could. If you like that kind of thing, read just about anything in any genre published in the last twenty years or so. The political landscape is a wild jumble of pastiches of long dead historical polities usually badged with slightly misspelt versions of the names of completely different countries and cities. If you like that kind of thing, read Stephen Hunt. The world is dominated by criminals and by debauched aristocrats who make the criminals seem fastidious; again just read anything published in the last 20 years or so, whether in SF, fantasy or crime.

In short, for any given element of what Hoffman is about, you can read better somewhere else and not have the feeling the whole way through that the author is taking a piss down your leg while staring straight into your eyes daring you to make a fuss about it. 

[1] Which is OK, since most fiction is bollocks, existing as it does to fill that most important gap in our own experience, the need to feel that something, anything, in the world around us makes some kind of sense. Fiction has a plot, where life is just the collision of a myriad human impulses, all unaware of each other, into a chaotic jumble of events. Our own lives are not what we expected, not what we were striving for; but in a book or a movie, for a brief while, everything has a clear and obvious cause, be it ever so stupid. 

1 comment:

trevor said...

not sure we read the same books! nor why i bothered to read your blog for that matter !