Tuesday, 10 May 2005

Steph Swainston: The Year of Our War (2004)

Edition: Gollancz, 2004 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1293

The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston's debut, does everything a genre novel should: it brings new life to familiar ideas, and has something unusual about it. The unusual aspect is not the plot, which is typical of the genre: the empire under attack from faceless hordes (known as Insects, which on occasion gives the story the air of a fifties B-movie) and can only be saved by the heroic acts of a small number of people. There are some interesting features in the background: the band of potential saviours are immortals, the Eszai, granted eternal life by the emperor because they are the best at some task useful in the fighting - the fastest messenger, the most skilful sailor, and so on - and they have little in common save their immortality and are mostly limited in anything outside their specialisms. While this is not the kind of idea often encountered in a serious fantasy novel, the Eszai are clearly a band of flawed superheroes who could well have come from an Alan Moore comic strip.

The part of The Year of Our War which is basically unique is the central character. Jant is one of the Eszai, plucked from the gangs of a large city because of his unique ability: he can fly. He has a really major flaw, however: he is a drug addict. The drug, known as cat, is an addictive psychodelic, which has effects something between crack and LSD. Being part of a fantasy world means that something can be made of the visions perceived while under the influence; they shift the consciousness into another world. One of the biggest acheivements Swainston pulls off (in, as must be remembered, her debut) is to make the two imaginary settings of the novel quite different in style, and with different derees of versimilitude: the drug world seems more arbitrary and artificial.

There are parts of the novel which could be better. The title is poor; it's punning nature suggests something much lighter than the novel inside the covers. Lifting character building above plotting is not a problem (and makes a change from complicated versions of the hero's journey populated by cardboard cutouts - the clichés of the genre). However, the novel's structure betrays some inexperience; given the lengthy buildup, the denoument is too short and too facile. Even so, this is an enjoyable, well written fantasy novel with an adult grittiness missing from most of the genre.

Drug addiction and the experiences induced by drug taing have long been part of science fiction. The history of this generally seems to lead back to influences from crossover readership in the sicties between the genre and the cult writing of people like W.S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. SF provided some of the important books in hippy culture, such as Stranger in a Strange Land. Novels as diverse as Aldous Huxley's The Island, Stanislaus Lem's The Futurological Congress and Robert Sheckley's The Alchemical Marriage of Alistair Crompton all fed into or followed from psychodelic ideas about mind expansion through drug taking. But the darker side of drugs really became part of the SF mainstream only from the advent of cyberpunk in the eighties, though the psychodelia in Philip K. Dick is already less optimistic, and there are hints that drugs might be used for control in dystopian fiction back to Brave New World (which shows how much Huxley's mind changed on the subject over the years). Despite this long SF tradition, there is far less history of serious treatment of drugs in the sister genre of fantasy. It is hard to think of anything before the turn of the millennium which is more serious than the trivial references in (say) the Spellsinger and Belgariad series. (David Eddings created an entire race of addicts in the Belgariad, but the Nyissans are generally minor characters and the consequences of their drug taking are never treated in human terms - it is at best a convenient plot device.) It is really only recent writers like China Miéville how have begun to introduce the sordid to their fantasy worlds: that is one reason why he is an important writer, even though I don't like his work personally.

While it would be possible to put together an academic thesis on the history of drug references in SF and fantasy (and I suspect that someone already has), the interesting question is why it should be so different between the two genres, so similar in terms of their fanbase and use of the fantastic. (Afficionados generally seem to feel that the difference is in terms of the treatment of science - in pure science fiction, it should be possible to justify everything in some kind of scientific terms, though with some traditional themes of the genre, such as time travel, this is more difficult than others.) Both SF and fantasy have a strong tradition of satire and parody, a lightness not so common in other genres; thus, Terry Pratchett is the best known author of fantasy writing for adults today. In science fiction, this tendency has begun to diminish over recent years, as the oft derided amateurish writing style detractors detect in the genre begin to be replaced by more professional and polished work: the association of author and fan is becoming weaker. My suspicion is that this has come about through the huge success of genre films, since Star Wars; the equivalent film for fantasy is The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and that is too recent for it to have had much of an effect on novels as yet. This has left most fantasy (and certainly the popular end) either light and humourous or epic and cliched. (The biggest exception to this until recently is Stephen Donaldson.) Steph Swainston's debut novel is part of the process of bringing more adult ideas into the fantasy genre, and, whether or not it turns out to be as successful as it deserves, The Year of Our War should be welcomed.

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