Thursday, 26 September 2013

Stephen Hunt: Jack Cloudie

About three years ago I ripped through the first three Stephen Hunt books in a matter of days, finishing by wondering aloud just what he could do in the the threatened three more sequels given that he'd ramped up the destruction in every book to the point where it was hard to know what would be left to write about. 

Either he hit a reset button, or he's gone back to before the calamities and is noodling in around the edges, because everything in the last couple of books is wonderfully intact. His teenage protagonists have to save big chunks of the landscape from certain doom still, but they more or less manage it in the nick of time. I can't quite remember what happened in Secrets of the Fire Sea and I've a wary suspicion that I might not have much of a handle on Jack Cloudie by the time I get round to reading his next book; Hunt continues to be a writer who's better on thinking up cool  stuff than getting me to care what's happening to it.

Jack Cloudie is largely set in Cassarabia, yet another of Jackals' ancient implacable enemies, this time modelled on the Arabian Nights as run by Dr Moreau. If you wanted to take massive offence at its depiction of a caricatured Hollywood Middle Eastern hellhole, you'd be there all day, running up your blood pressure. It's unfair to Arab societies in general, but the depiction of Western capitalism in Jackals isn't doing them any favours either, and if anything, it's more damaging satire. I am a bit more worried about the gender politics. Which is a sentence I literally never thought I'd need to type; in past incarnations as gender officer for two different organisations, I've appalled my constituency by suggesting the empowerment of women by giving them machine guns and by meeting complaints about a male gender officer with a cheery "We thought it was THAT important." So you have to be a long way over the line before I climb out of my trenches and say "Are you sure this is exactly the message you want to send?"

The problem begins with the fact that Cassarabia is a Moreau-ian nightmare; starved of mineral resources, wood, coal or any other damn thing, it solves all problems by breeding livestock specifically tailored to meet the need. And all the livestock is bred out of human slave women, because - well, I think because it's horrible, and Hunt wants it to be horrible. So Cassarabia turns out to be, by a handy margin, probably the most horrible alternative society that Hunt's ever bothered to cook up. Which makes it somehow off when it turns out that the whole engine of the plot (the evil machiavellian plot which the heroes must overcome, not the plot of the book) is a conspiracy to turn the tables on the men and put women in the driving seat. Which, well, how progressive, I'm sure you're thinking. Nah, the women are the baddies. They have all the provocation in the world, but they're still the baddies and they all get schwacked horribly to teach them not to get above themselves, and none of the surviving men are all that terribly bothered or conflicted about it later.

I can see how it's gritty and true to the setting that the men would win, and restore their horrible nasty status quo, and that they wouldn't see anything wrong with it. The problem is that the way Hunt's written it, it's all too easy to come away thinking "Yeah, fair enough, bitches had it coming, didn't they?" And Hunt's stuff is written for a demographic which … might not get the subtext. Hunt needed to put something in there which would spell out clearly that this is a bad day for everyone and that the status quo was not OK. There has to have been a way for him to be true to his characters' world view and yet still show it as mistaken. It's been a couple of days since I finished the book, and it's still bugging me.

Other than that, as the theatre critic said to Mrs Lincoln, it's the usual riot of invention and doing things for the sake of being cool. Despite his image of Cassarabia as a culture working entirely on specially bred animals, Hunt couldn't resist - and never really explains - putting his principal Cassarabian man of mystery in a dune-submarine. I can't blame him for doing it once he'd had such a cool idea, but it doesn't make sense that there's this ONE kind of machine and everything else is creatures… And the logistics of Cassarabia are puzzling, since it's a vast desert which somehow produces enough food to feed and foster a vast array of specialised creatures for every occasion. As long as you keep reminding yourself that it's all supposed to be a cartoon, it's not too bad. I continue to be slightly puzzled what Hunt thinks his audience is; in every book the viewpoint characters are adolescents, but the situations around them are way too dark (half way through the book a character gets straight up murdered, and such is Hunt's form with this kind of thing that it never occurred to me to think that this would all turn out to be misdirection, as it would have been in something more child-friendly). Though if he is pitching it as adolescents, everything I said about gender politics worries me a lot more than it does even now.

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