...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Day 4542: FACTION PARADOX: Against Nature (Lawrence Burton, Obverse Books)


Short form: weird, poignant, brilliant, mind-expanding, read it.

Long form: Faction Paradox are, supposedly, all about rejecting the "stuffy" linear constraints imposed on History by their former kin the Great Houses. The enemy is usually described as "an alternate form of history". But what would that look like?

"Doctor Who" is often described as the most flexible story-telling format in history. Of course, it isn't. But the irony is that, to really express how far you can flex this universe, you have to edit the Doctor out of history from the very beginning. That's where Faction Paradox comes in.

AGAINST NATURE, Lawrence Burton, Obverse Books

There is a very well-regarded Doctor Who story called "The Aztecs" which, unfortunately, contains the Western, Christian, Euro-centric, liberal English misconception of the Mexica civilisation in its very title and, rooted there, it informs – or misinforms – the entire narrative. Since "The Aztecs" is a not a story about a genuine historic people, but actually about predestination and time travel, and a view – that you cannot change history, "not one line" – that the series ultimately chooses to reject, this particularly black-and-white misconception is curiously apt and doesn't undermine the story. I love "The Aztecs". But it's really not a story about "The Aztecs".

(And I notice that Microsoft spell checker accepts the word "Aztec" but not the word "Mexica" which tells you this is not a forgotten problem.)

In our comfort and our privilege, we tend to be very, very squeamish about the concept of "sacrifice". In particular, we tend to jump straight in at chopping people's hearts out as an automatic by-word for evil and end any discussion there. "Sacrifice" becomes synonymous with "Murder".

But it's worth referring to the entry on "Sacrifice" in "The Book of the War" (ed. Lawrence Miles), where it says, in simplified terms, sacrifice is something that you do, it isn't something you do or even can do to someone else; it's about "giving up", not "taking away".

(I should say up front, you absolutely don't need a grounding in the lore of Faction Paradox or Doctor Who, or a copy of "The Book of the War" to hand in order to enjoy and fully understand everything that goes on here. Having said that, "Against Nature" does explore and expand a great many concepts and conceits from other Faction Paradox related titles, be they amaranths – "Christmas on a Rational Planet" – arithmancy – "Interference" – or House Xianthellipse, Walking Dead or Waves of the House Military – various entries in "The Book of the War" – which is the mark of a good player in a shared-world sandpit.)

We have become so used to abundance that even the Wartime use of "making sacrifices" is becoming an almost alien concept to us, and even the comparatively slight slowing of growth is called "austerity" and "hardship" as if we can understand that. The idea that people who have very nearly next to nothing to give up might choose to do without things and especially people that they value highly totally dumbfounds us.

(And yet, how many "Doctor Who" stories finish with one character – usually a guest character, but every now and again the lead – dying "for the greater good", often to save someone else, usually lots of someones, but again every now and again just one other someone?)

What Lawrence Burton does here is take that paragraph and really run with it.

It helps that he really knows his stuff. Don't let the peculiarity of the Nahuatl names of people and places put you off; instead let yourself fall into their alternate poetry. Later in the book, as time unwinds, passages of the text start to be written in the form of Mexica history, and this really works as a way of conveying a universe whose rules are being rewritten, and in parallel demonstrating the Faction concept of "alter-time states".

The Mexica religion and philosophy is so different to the standard Western view of the universe – and yet with some curious parallels: for example, there are strong echoes of Plato in the understanding of the difference between what is and what really is – that this is the perfect place to examine what "alternate forms of history" could look like and what happens when their continuity clashes with ours.

But this isn't "enemy" action; rather the ultimate nihilism arising from within the ranks of the House Military, reflecting the damage that war does to the warrior, but also the dangers of forcing the highly conservative agents of the Great Houses, whose entire Universe literally begins and ends with them putting constraints on History, to fight a war on behalf of life in all its diversity.

Starting with five stories – representing the five cardinal directions of Mexica theosophy – that initially appear to echo one another as they revolve around their common axis before beginning to bleed into one another and finally colliding explosively. The conclusion is as satisfying as it is ingenious, an explanation that both makes sense and fully encompasses why the entire scheme to destroy the Universe – spoilers – fails, based as it is in the same misconception of the Mexica with which we began.

The book is full of striking and memorable characters, from Grandma Doña Ultima to a talking Chihuahua to the Gods of Death, by way of central characters Primo, Todd, Emiousha of House Meddhoran and Momacani, and a mysterious, almost-identifiable one time agent of Faction Paradox and/or demoness Yaotl, some of whom may be Time Lords and some of whom may be dead.

(I spent a lot of the novel idly speculating whether Yaotl was Compassion or Lolita, and therefore which "side" she might come down on. In fact, a solitary use of the word Immaculata is suggestive, and the ambivalence about which side she is on becomes an obvious clue. And the idea that there are "good" and "evil" sides is something the whole book is pitching against anyway.)

The landscapes of Mexico City; San Antonio, Texas; the recursive Netherweald where House Meddhoran finds itself lodged thanks to Faction-inspired arithmancy; historic Tenochtitlan and the cities of the Triple Alliance; and ultimately the Tlalocan underworld are all vividly drawn and gather you into their respective worlds, excepting maybe San Antonio – ironically in the light of events later in the book – which I felt was not as distinguishable from present-day Mexico as the other segments, its main character being that Todd's home town it was somehow less vivid than Primo's city. Though that does sort of make sense as well, he says cryptically.

It's also at times a funny book, including an (unobtrusive) nod to that Doctor Who story, and another to name-check Mr Miles "This Town Will Never Let You Go". And a climactic reveal that echoes another classic "Doctor Who" cliff-hanger (I really can't say which) raised to a whole new level. These are the sort of touches that, I have to admit, I do when I'm writing, and in so many ways it's the sort of book I would like to have written myself. If I had ten years to sit down and do the research.

Short of quaffing peyote-based alcohol, this is the best way to expand your mind Mexica style.

PS: "Scarface" in not quite an anagram of "Sacrifice", and it's not deliberate, but it's worth thinking about how coincidence creeps in even when you're not looking.

No comments: