Wednesday, 13 October 1999
Dave Duncan: Past Imperative (1995)
Review number: 357
Duncan's novel, first of a trilogy, impressed me deeply despite its rather shaky beginning. He uses two ideas which are rather unusual in the fantasy genre. The first of these is to vary the standard plot in which a normal Earth person is catapulted into a magical world of which he understands nothing by making the events in the two worlds closely connected - the First World War (the Great War) and a contest between the gods of Nextdoor (the Great Game). The events leading up to the war on Earth are encouraged (or discouraged) by agents from Nextdoor, who hope to use (or prevent the use of) magical power generated by the deaths of so many young men to influence the Great Game.
The fact that the magical system devised by Duncan works in this way leads us to his second idea. Through sacrifice and pain, magical power (which he calls mana) is generated, for the being on whose behalf the suffering is incurred. The gods require mana to continue to exert power, and so the religious system of Nextdoor is unpleasant and tyrannical. Conventional fantasy generally uses sanitised versions of the Nordic pantheon, and religion usually plays little part except possibly to differentiate good and bad (as in all David Eddings' fantasy series). Society is generally fairly secularised, probably it is easier to write about something closer to the author's own background. (One interesting minor point of Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane is the culture shock when Thomas Covenant discovers that the inhabitants of the Land are not talking conventionally or metaphorically when they speak of Earthpower.) Religion on Nextdoor is a large part of life, is distinctly arbitrary and definitely unpleasant, based mainly on ideas from some of the more repugnant rituals of Earthly religions - self-mutilation, temple prostitution, Thuggee style murder and so on.
I sometimes feel as though I write a large number of these pieces talking about the treatment of religion in fantasy novels. This is not, I hope, because I am obsessive on the subject. Religion is an extremely important force in human history, playing a vital role in people's psychological make-up. For the first time in history, we are living in a society which is to a large extent secular. Religious activity is marginalised if not actively mocked, and even the most devout usually live their lives split in two between their daily routine and religious observations. (There are cultures in which this would have seemed incredibly alien; to the ancient Israelite a distinction between spiritual and secular was hardly imaginable.) With the decline of (principally Christian) mainstream religion, a large void has opened up in the lives of many people, to be filled with all kinds of new things: an interest in the esoteric, a religious devotion to secular objects - money, the workplace, pop music for example. The popularity of fantasy is possibly an aspect of this, with magic and religion put into a context where they become permissible. To take religion seriously in fantasy, then, is frequently an indication that the writer has something to say and that they are not just trying to cash in on the popularity of the genre.
The standard of the writing of Past Imperative is not quite up to that of the ideas. The characterisation is reasonable, and includes a major character with a disability, unusual in a fantasy novel. The book begins in a lacklustre way, and the invention of names is distinctly poor and unconvincing (areas of Nextdoor are called things like Narshvale and Sussvale, not particularly evocative or interesting). The combination of the map and name pronunciation chart was almost enough to make me give up before starting the novel. Almost the only aspect of the treatment of language that I liked was the way that the hero, transferring himself from Earth, knew none of the language, and almost inevitably cast himself in the role of "holy fool" required by the plot.