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REVIEW: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan Title: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent
Author: Marie Brennan
Pub Date: February 5th, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A scientific fantasy which strongly develops its narrator and world.

One of the most interesting themes I’ve found in science fiction is the genre’s complex relationship to science itself: most science fiction stories are simultaneously promoters of science and cautionary tales, warning us of discovery’s ethical dangerous. This makes for an interesting and powerful theme to explore, what with humanity’s unbridled capacity for discovery. But for all of its power, it is a theme which fantasy addresses all too rarely, which is why it was such a delight to recently read Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent.

I grew up on scientist adventurers: Verne’s Professor Arronax (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Doyle’s Professor Challenger (The Lost World), and Wells’ The Time Traveler (The Time Machine) all thrilled with the promise and possibilities reason could bring. These characters practiced and preached a set of positivist values, an Enlightenment tradition untrammeled by the softer complexities of Romanticism. And when a few years later I discovered the history of science, in particular through works like C.W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves and Scholars, Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, and Farley Mowat’s Woman in the Mists I could see how real scientists worked and struggled to fit such values into a more complex world than the fictional.

For all of the positivist values promoted through the works of early science fiction, most of those books derive their conflict from the tension between their characters’ full-throated devotion to positivist principles and the subtler risks – ethical, philosophical, and existential – which science exposes us to. Verne’s Nemo – and his mad political philosophy – is an ethical exploration of the militaristic consequences of science, of technology’s capacity for both good and evil. The dismissal of Challenger and Summerlee’s findings in The Lost World explores how society treats discoveries which fly in the face of accepted wisdom, a social statement on public attitudes to science if ever there was one. And Wells’ The Time Machine is nothing if not a commentary on man’s self-destructive tendencies, offset by the Time Traveler’s genius invention of the time machine itself and his yearning to explore.

Such an exploration of reason, such an application of rational thought, is often inimical to much fantasy. So much of the genre relies on the irrational that it is easy to get uncomfortable when put beneath the magnifying glass. Fantasy generally explores different themes, leaving an exploration of science to science fiction. Some fantasists – notably Patricia C. Wrede in her Frontier Magic trilogy, Michael A. Stackpole in his Crown Colonies trilogy, and much in the steampunk vein – have incorporated such scientific themes, but their approaches tend to use science as a device for getting characters into trouble. Science is not the heart of the story: war or some other life-or-death struggle divorced from science provides the conflict. While such stories may be exciting, I usually find myself disappointed that the science gets short shrift.

But Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons keeps the science front-and-center, and builds tension and conflict naturally from that core. The way in which she achieves this effect is particularly interesting because it is simultaneously more obvious and more subtle than I would have expected. The obviousness stems from the book’s historical models: while it is a secondary fantasy, it is structured along the lines of the memoirs and stories of late Victorian (British) natural philosophers.

I am amazed that I don’t see this approach more frequently in fantasy. For 18th and 19th century readers in the Western world, journeys into Africa or South America would have been the equivalent of a secondary-world fantasy. Their settings and the cultures encountered would have been so alien as to be unrecognizable. They would have to establish and contextualize the strange environment, to explain its characteristics in both sensual and intellectual modes. In other words, the historical models for A Natural History of Dragons would have relied on the same type of world-building as any fantasy.

The basic structure of the story traces a recognizable path: the narrator’s development of scientific fascination, her initial discoveries, youthful exuberance, and systematic maturation as those discoveries mount is a natural progression recognizable, I think, to any adult. Because the novel is set during a time when people are ignorant of dragons, the ignorance of broader society (and initially of the narrator) is shared with the reader. We learn about Brennan’s secondary-world along with our heroine as she and her colleagues make what might seem to be basic discoveries. This evokes the same sense of obviousness we get when we look back at the scientific discoveries of yesterday.

The more subtle key to the novel’s success is maturation. A Natural History of Dragons is presented as a memoir written by the now-elderly Lady Trent, a rather feisty and by implication controversial natural historian. In the hands of a weaker author, her anachronistic attitudes (for her time, which is plainly modeled on the 19th century as conveyed by both voice and details in the text) would have always been present. From childhood, she would have been confident of her abilities despite prejudices against her gender, she would have always been respectful of other cultures, would have naturally become the intellectual and moral center of any expedition she took part in despite the many cultural factors stacked against her, etc. She would have been a modern heroine inserted into a historical world, and would naturally have triumphed over historical backwardness. The world would revolve around her because she is Our Heroine, and so a special snowflake.

Brennan neatly avoids this trap, and by doing so makes the book a delight to read. Yes, our heroine is special. But this is a tale of her youth, before she became Lady Trent with the notoriety such a title suggests. The narrator shows herself to be merely one step out of alignment with the mores of her time both during her youth and presumably at the time when the memoir is written. By alluding to her earlier works, and repudiating the prejudices she espoused therein, the narrator simultaneously acknowledges the problematic tendencies of the source time period, and provides justification for the narrator’s anachronism. The narrator does not share the attitudes of the time period of which she is writing because she – and presumably much of her society – has matured in the intervening years. We can plainly see the distinction between the narrator and her younger self, and this serves to further ground us in the character and the world. Yet the whole structure is made even more plausible by showing us the seeds of the opinionated older narrator in the actions and words of her younger self. It is a very neat trick.

Brennan’s character is clearly of scientific mind, and the focus in much of the book is on the science itself. Initially, one can be forgiven for thinking it a tale of simple positivist boosterism: after all, so much of its historical roots were exactly that. But as the adventure ramps up, Brennan introduces suggestions of a flip side to scientific development and discovery. This squarely puts the novel in the conflicted tradition of Verne, Doyle, or Wells. Yet unlike these far earlier writers, Brennan neatly balances the science with an inner emotional journey that at times can be quite touching.

If I have one complaint about the book, it is that it is too short. Partly, this perception is a selfish one: I would have gladly spent more time in this world, with these characters, and with the voice in which the novel is written simply because of how much fun I had with it. But structurally, while the book works as a standalone novel, it did leave me wanting more.

I don’t know (read: my Google Fu was unable to determine) if A Natural History of Dragons is the start of a series or a stand-alone one-off. This is plainly a memoir of Lady Trent’s youth, and she explicitly references other (it seems wilder) adventures which follow. At the same time, the implicit risks of scientific discovery are brought to the fore near the story’s conclusion. They are not resolved or developed in any meaningful sense, but rather are addressed at best temporarily, which while satisfying in this one volume does beg for further development. Both of these facts suggest that more books may follow, and I for one would be very happy if they do.

(UPDATE: Today’s Shelf Awareness for Readers has a nice write-up of the book, where they mention that it is the first installment in a planned series.)

I would also be remiss if I did not mention that the novel is a work of art in hardcover. I would recommend it on the strength of its design alone (with great deckled edges and a sepia-toned font which further evokes that Victorian sensibility), but for me, Todd Lockwood’s excellent illustrations seal the deal.

I strongly recommend A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent to anyone who has a taste for Victorian-inspired fiction, who loves the long age of discovery that spans from the Enlightenment through to the first World War, or who enjoys classic science fiction like Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, or H.G. Wells.

REVIEW: Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter

Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter Title: Morlock Night
Author: K.W. Jeter
Pub Date: Reprint: April 26th, 2011
(original: 1979)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A fast-paced steampunk adventure, with strong Arthurian roots and a well-grounded setting.

The best science fiction is protean by nature, combining facets of just about every other genre and defying neat classification within the bounds of SFdom. K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night straddles many sub-genre fences: Victoriana secret history, steampunk, and Arthurian legend. Originally published in 1979, the book is judged one of the progenitors of the steampunk sub-genre, and its author as credited with inventing the steampunk label (in a 1987 letter to Locus). Having heard of the book but never read it, I was jazzed to read the new edition from Angry Robot. I was especially curious to see how one of the earliest steampunk novels compares against contemporary clockwork fare, and I am happy to report that thirty-two years from its initial publication Morlock Night remains an enthralling, atmospheric, and fast-paced read.

Morlock Night was originally written as part of a ten book Arthurian series which was to be written by Jeter, Tim Powers, and Ray Nelson (alas, the series never took off). The concept was to show King Arthur reincarnated (or awoken) at various points throughout history when Britain needs saving. This fact is intrinsic to Morlock Night, and at one level firmly sets the book in the Arthurian tradition. However, Jeter’s execution of this concept is unique and exceptional.

The book takes place in London in the autumn of the Victorian era. Like the best contemporary steampunk and alternate history authors (e.g. Cherie Priest or Michael A. Stackpole), Jeter uses voice to establish his character’s in time. The story is told in first-person perspective through the eyes of Edwin Hocker, and his word choices and sentence constructions are firmly rooted in the cadences of the late Victorian era. In the hands of a lesser author, such vocal tricks might make the prose dated or stilted to modern sensibilities. Perhaps, if Jeter had chosen to employ third-person perspective, that might well have been the case. But by choosing to tell the story through the eyes of Edwin Hocker, the story gains immediacy in spite of the distancing typical of late Victorian writing styles.

We meet the questing hero as he departs from a dinner party. At this dinner party, Hocker was regaled with an incredible story about travel to the far distant future, and the strange creatures his host encountered on the way. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it should: Morlock Night is actually a sequel to H.G. Wells The Time Machine (which itself was first published in 1895, three years after the events of Jeter’s book).

Jeter builds much more immediacy into his story by eschewing the framing narrative that Wells employed. We meet Edwin Hocker as he departs the dinner party that frames Wells’ classic, and our hero is then swiftly sent by the mysterious Doctor Ambrose (Merlin) to a war-torn future London where he must fight and flee Morlock invaders sweeping across time to take over the world. Jeter does an amazing job establishing the setting for the story. The first chapter takes place on the foggy streets of London, late at night, after the close of the dinner party. Jeter’s narration is atmospheric – literally, and figuratively – and the fog gradually seeps into both his character’s perception and the reader’s. The brooding city streets, the hazy lights gas lamps, the damp: these are elements that one feels reading the book. When Hocker is thrust into the future, the rubble-strewn London he finds himself in remains recognizable, though shattered as if by the Blitz.

Ambrose pulls Hocker (and a woman he meets in that war-torn London) back to the Victorian era, and uses the traumatic experience to convince Hocker to save Britain. Ambrose explains that the dim-witted Morlocks described in The Time Machine were but the Morlock’s uneducated working class, and that when Wells’ Time Traveller returned to the future following the dinner party, the ruling Morlocks captured him, and used the time machine to travel back to 1892. Now, with the aid of an Anti-Merlin character, the Morlocks intend to conquer the past. And this risks unraveling time and destroying the universe. To save the day, Merlin needs Hocker to free the reincarnation of King Arthur from the clutches of that Anti-Merlin, and to reunite the reincarnated king with the scattered pieces of Excalibur.

The plot itself is fairly straightforward, with a standard quest-based structure: step one, step two, complication, step three, complication, climax. But despite the prosaic structure, the characterization, world-building, and pacing make the book a delight to read. The quest for Excalibur takes Hocker into the sewers beneath London, and Jeter’s descriptions of this dark and dank environment are by turns chilling, thrilling, and fascinating. Loving the real London as much as I do, I can easily imagine the detritus of two thousand years washing up beneath London’s twisting alleyways.

It is in those subterranean environments that Jeter comes closest to employing the tropes of the modern steampunk movement. Looked at from the perspective of a modern reader, Morlock Night has a notable dearth of steampunk conventions. There is little (if any) real clockwork, no steam-powered machinery that I can recall, and certainly no airships. The closest approximation is an ancient Atlantean submarine which figures prominently in Hocker’s adventures in the London sewers. But that is a strange, foreign, and ancient technology: neither a product of the Victorian era, nor an extrapolation of Victorian-era technology.

Jeter doesn’t use the steoretypical steampunk devices because the story simply does not need them: it is centered around the character of Edwin Hocker, and the challenges he faces. Technology is incidental to that, and so Jeter wastes no time lovingly describing it. And despite the lack of steampunk window dressing, the book remains undeniably steampunk. In many ways, it is the quintessential steampunk novel: every element – including technology – is seen through the eyes of a late Victorian-era narrator, with the concomitant sensibilities, values, and preconceived notions. That grounds the book in the Victorian era, and conveys that undeniable feeling of almost-plausibility that is characteristic of the best steampunk. At the same time, Jeter’s careful attention to setting, and the atmospheric, layered descriptions root the story firmly in the London of 1892.

Despite its many strengths, the book does have two weaknesses. The first (minor) weakness is that I found the end of the story a bit predictable. That might be because I’ve read plot structures like this one many times over, or it might be because Jeter’s careful foreshadowing built a certain inevitability into the story. However, the book’s predictability is only a minor weakness; even if I was able to guess how it ended, I still loved the ride. The tension remained high, and I continued to be avidly engaged in the story long after I’d figured out the end. That fact is a testament to Jeter’s excellent management of pacing and tension.

The second weakness I consider more substantial. Early in the book, Hocker meets a woman named Tafe in the war-torn future version of London. She returns with him to his own time, and proceeds to be his companion on his various adventures. She represents Hocker’s love interest (of sorts), and a device for furthering plot and motivation in certain key scenes. When we first meet Tafe, she is in charge: much more strong-willed and competent than our hero, Hocker. But as the book progresses and Hocker takes the fore, Tafe recedes. I was disappointed by this perceived weakening of the character. I understand why it happened, and I understand why it might even have been necessary. But I would have preferred it if Tafe continued to have the strength of character and personality that she had initially.

On the whole, I am inordinately pleased that Angry Robot has reprinted Morlock Night. I especially enjoyed Tim Powers’ introduction and the afterward by Adam Roberts’. For fans of genre history, I recommend reading both essays as they provide valuable perspective on the significance of Jeter’s book. As for the book itself, I consider Morlock Night a must-read for any fan of steampunk. Three decades after its initial publication, it continues to be an excellent, enjoyable, fast-paced story. Fans of Cherie Priest, George Mann, and Gail Carriger will find much to love.

Where Do We Go from Here? Utopia in Contemporary Science Fiction

Over the weekend, science fiction author Charles Stross posted a call for more utopian speculation in contemporary science fiction. I was weaned on Huxley, Wells, Skinner, and Orwell, and so Charles’ call got me thinking: why has the utopian sub-genre fizzled out of style in the last fifty or so years? Why has the search for a good place (eutopia) ended up going no place (utopia)? (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun). I think the decline of utopian fiction is linked to the lack of a cogent utopian response to dystopian critique. What makes the dystopian critique so effective? How are the best dystopias constructed?

The Structures of Utopia and Dystopia

How to Make Perfection Entertaining

The vast majority of utopian fiction was written during the end of the industrial revolution (1880 – 1950), riding on the popularization of socialist philosophy in western Europe. Dystopias rose in parallel, although in far greater number due to their greater entertainment value. The brutal fact is that dystopias sell better than utopias because perfection makes it very hard for an author to introduce conflict.

Starting with Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, every piece of utopian fiction has been written like a travelogue. The reader follows a protagonist who comes from our imperfect society, and who enters (one way or another) the perfect society. Given this set up, it becomes almost impossible to introduce tension. Why would the visitor ever want to leave? What would the hero need to fight against? Conflict is out-moded in a utopia, and this makes storytelling very difficult.

The vast majority of utopian fiction appeals to logos first and pathos second, and it wasn’t until Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delaney that those priorities were revsered. In the 1960s and ’70s, authors like Robert A. Heinlein (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress), Ursula K. Le Guin (The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia), and Samuel R. Delany (Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia) introduced real conflict into their utopian plots. Each did this by throwing the utopia or its representatives (Heinlein’s anarcho-libertarian Luna, Le Guin’s collectivist Shevek/Anarres, Delany’s sex/gender heterotopia Triton) into armed conflict with a non-utopian society (Earth, Urras, and Earth respectively).

As Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delany made clear, the entertainment value of contemporary utopian fiction relies upon the relationship between the utopia and a different (possibly opposed) society. More recently, Iain M. Banks has done this to good effect in his Culture novels, where his protagonists tend to be Special Circumstances operatives (spies) interacting with non-utopian planets/societies/situations. While retaining some aspects of the travelogue, these books take a page out of Victor Hugo’s work and embody the utopian ideal into a principle character. Similarly, they then take the opposing viewpoint and embody that value system into a different character and let the two collide.

Le Guin effectively reversed the utopian travelogue structure: her hero Shevek is the collectivist utopian, but the world he visits (Urras) is the anti-thesis of his collectivist home planet. By making her visitor the utopian, she was able to explore more clearly the strengths and flaws of her collectivist/anarchist society and the opposed individualist/capitalist society. Delany does something similar by sending a visitor (Brom) whose values are inimical to those of the utopia he visits. This sets the stage for a gripping and powerful conflict between him and those he has relationships with, which is mirrored by the interplanetary conflict with Earth.

For those looking to write entertaining utopian fiction that has a hope of competing against dystopias, the lessons are deceptively simple:

  1. Personify your value systems.
  2. Play with perspective, by shifting which character is either narrating the story or the viewpoint character.
  3. Focus on individual relationships, instead of on the philosophical ones.

Viva la Revolucion!

Dystopias, by contrast, are stories of revolution. An ostensibly perfect society is shown to be deeply flawed, hypocritical, unjust. Our hero – usually a died-in-the-wool believer at the story’s opening – realizes his perfect society is a lie and either brings the system down or escapes to a liberated area outside of the proscribed area. The conflict practically writes itself: the situation is dire (our hero is usually alone against oppressive odds), and the stakes are high (death, or worse: conversion).

Structurally, dystopias tend to be logical extrapolations of a central conceit, a conceit that tends to be tied to the philosophical, sociological, and economic concerns of the time:

  • Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 classic We takes the early 20th century’s industrialization, Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon, and constructs a totalitarian world state where individuals are referred to only by number and any burgeoning individuality is earnestly squashed.
  • Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the principles of assembly-line manufacturing are now applied to individuals, whose roles in life are rigidly determined based on their genetic engineering.
  • George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, directly inspired by Zamyatin’s work and extrapolating the concept of a society founded on the Panopticon.
  • Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which depicts censorship taken to a logical extreme.
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron (published in Welcome to the Monkey House: Stories), which shows a state in which everyone is forced to be average in all aspects of their being.
  • Jack Vance’s Alastor trilogy, where each book explores a different society built around a particular social concept (respectively gambling, fuedalism, collectivism).
  • John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, which take show plausible consequences of Malthusian overpopulation and ecological collapse.
  • Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, which takes 1980’s Thatcherite politics and postulates a future based upon them.
  • Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which shows a society built on religious fundamentalism and male chauvinism.
  • James Morrow’s City of Truth, which posits a society founded upon (always) telling the truth.
  • Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, which builds a society around providing the masses with “bread and circuses” (gladiatorial conflict) to keep them in line.

All of the examples listed above hinge upon a central character who comes to doubt the society they are a part of. Whether it is Bradbury’s Montag, or Morrow’s Jack Sperry, the protagonist is a product of the dystopian society who comes to vehemently oppose it. This opposition lends even early dystopias powerful conflict, rising tension, and thematic tension. Even the earlier dystopias established the pattern of embodying opposing principles in their characters. For every Winston Smith, we have an O’Brien (Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). For every Bernard Marx and John the Savage, we have a Mustapha Mond (Huxley’s Brave New World). This gives the opposing philosophies a face, makes them personable and – in the case of Mustapha Mond, at least – deceptively sympathetic.

If utopian fiction has traditionally appealed to logos, and then pathos, then dystopian fiction has traditionally reversed that order. As a result, the success or failure of dystopian fiction lies in its world-building. The memorable dystopian works tend to have fully-realized characters, and conflict-prone plots that put their heroes in desperate situations philosophically and physically.

The Dystopian Critique of Utopia

If Charles Stross is looking for more utopian fiction, then he should be looking for more utopias that apply lessons from their dystopian cousins. By relying upon more three-dimensional characters, dystopian fiction better illustrates how flawed humans may react to situations and choices. “Human nature” is often cited as a criticism of utopian philosophy, and only the works of Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delaney have tried to respond to that criticism. Heinlein’s utopia takes the cynical, ultra-libertarian view of individualism and applies it. Le Guin readily admits to the flaws in her utopia, and posits that society as an aspirational work-in-progress reliant upon the ethos of its inhabitants. Delaney shows that any utopia is indelibly based upon a shared value system, and elements which “don’t fit in” may or may not have a place within that society…even if by ostensible definition, it is an all-encompassing, all-permitting society.

These are not the techniques of H.G. Wells or earlier utopian authors. They are instead the techniques of dystopian fiction, applied to utopian concepts. And if we are to look for modern-day utopian fiction, we should try to write more books that attempt the same. Thinly-veiled imperative lectures (à la Wells or Morris) would not sell today, and though well-written utopian travelogues (like Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age) may win awards and earn respect, they are extremely difficult to get right. I also suspect there is limited demand for them.

If we want to see contemporary utopian fiction, one option is to take a page out of Iain M. Banks’ playbook: establish the utopia in the far-distant future, so far removed as to make it effectively fait accomplit, then use Le Guin’s tactic of taking a dyed-in-the-wool utopian and putting them in conflict/interaction with opposing viewpoints. It’s a technique that works for the most-recent utopias, whether Iain M. Banks’ Culture or the Star Trek Federation. While this technique makes for compelling reading, but the fact that there are few “new” types of utopia limits the potential thematic impact.

Another option is to do as John C. Wright does in his Golden Age trilogy. There, the author takes a page out of the dystopian playbook: he uses a dyed-in-the-wool utopian character to uncover the flaws in his own utopia. Whereas in a truly dystopian work, that hero would then go on to either destroy or escape his society, Wright’s hero instead tries to save his society despite its flaws. Structurally, this is probably the most interesting utopian fiction I have seen in many years. While the utopia itself is of the nearly-ubiquitous individualist/anarchist mold, the technique by which Wright explores his themes is quite refreshing.

A third – and perhaps most challenging – option is to actually come up with some fresh utopian philosophies. In many ways, utopian philosophy has become almost synonymous with either libertarian anarchy or collectivist anarchy, and I question whether there is much more to be said on either subject. Instead, perhaps we should come up with some new models for looking at society, for structuring our relationships. If we do that, then we should apply the structural lessons of dystopian fiction to make the characters compelling, the plots full of conflict, and fundamentally resonant.

One possibility which I see is for utopian fiction that actually precedes the utopia itself. Utopia is – by definition – a static place. But the process of building a utopia, whatever its value system, surely is not. Why not utopian fiction that is directly aspirational? The reality of watching a utopia be built might be like the making of law and sausages: best left unwatched. But if we’re dealing with fiction, then I’m sure we can squeeze some entertainment and thematic resonance out of the struggle for a better world. After all, once that struggle is won, we’ll have no more conflict to write about.

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