These two wonderful books, by Michael Cisco and Lavie Tidhar respectively, set me thinking about the role of a protagonist.
A core tenet of mine is that my books should have characters the reader really cares about, whether they’re rooting for them or not. Equally, I don’t enjoy, as much as I otherwise might, books I read where there aren’t characters I really care about.
Both these books have made me think about the necessity of strong characters to a book.
Low is the titular Narrator of Cisco’s novel. Conscripted into an army by mistake, this is a war novel set in a secondary world that is truly ‘phantasmagorical’, to use Jeff Vandermeer’s phrase in his introduction. The book is very much in the weird fiction subgenre, if that’s a legitimate category at all, and if you like Vandermeer (as I do) and China Mieville, you’ll like Michael Cisco. I could summarise some of the reviews of this book as: ‘If Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe wrote Full Metal Jacket’.
It’s never completely clear, to me anyway, what a Narrator’s role is, but while Low acts as a medic on the battlefield, he is also somehow a war reporter, with a mandate to record the truth of the events he witnesses, a mandate generally, and in his commander’s case, reluctantly, to be upheld.
The novel is split more or less into three parts, the waiting for his unit to be deployed, the journey to the front line and then, once there, a quest into the heart of a powerful and strange place called The Cemetary, where both his unit and their enemy are going to petition Spirits that could conclude the war in either’s favour.
The world Cisco has created is a masterpiece. It is original and gothically weird; from the steamships to the war machines to ‘The Cannibal Queen’ that Low is besotted by, in a city that Cisco captures brilliantly the culture and weirdness of using Low’s ‘tourist’ eye’s view of, in particular its Life and Death priesthoods. Early on the journey his unit empty an asylum of its inmates, automatically conscripting them to bolster their ranks. That it makes sense in the wider madness of a war is testament to Cisco’s handling of what is common to all wars, the loss of meaning and morality, the bleak and pointless horror of it all. I was reminded of Apocalypse Now.
What was particularly interesting regarding the novel was an extension of the uncanny into a sort of meta-text about a being that is a narrative, perhaps the narrative, being born from a pile of rotten pulpy bookcases and pages, a being of ink and paper:
Your eyes were running pits of ink, black and sparkling, and glue trickled from your nostrils and filled the pleasts to either side of your lipless mouth, fringed with hairline wrinkles. You drew breath at once, not to breathe, but to began (sic?) to speak…as you always vomit when you speak, the fragrant black ink ran in curds down your chin and spattered down your front…So you, the narrative, gradually draw nearer…
Yet much earlier in the novel there is a line, Low thinking;
If I ever were to write an account of these events, which are in any case written, my narrative would be incoherent and inconclusive;
Fourth wall? I’d need to return to the book to unpick Cisco’s purpose here regarding, presumably, the nature of narrative, but his ability to fold this more thematic concern into the uncanny and weird fabric of the world Low moves through and its effect on everyone in it is excellent, and that’s before I get to the remarkable sequence of events by which Low creates a potion that teaches a character called Pepedora to speak the ‘Alak’ language.
That the book achieves so brilliantly its weirdness is principally down to Cisco’s facility with prose. It’s the best prose I’ve read since Sophia Samatar where such is in service of transporting you to an entirely new world with its own metaphysics. Indeed, I think the central challenge in writing weird fiction particularly is how difficult it is to create the sense of the uncanny and disturbing, the blend of weakness and incomprehension in the face of inscrutable beings and technology and the ruin they bring to all who are unfortunate enough to come into contact with them.
Her sleepy face is sallow and vaguely made
We straggle together and begin heading back, in a mixed silence. Some of us are rattling more than we might, maybe trying to stir up some familiar sound
I’ve chosen two subtle examples of what I mean, precisely because they illustrate the continually ‘off kilter’ sense of the goings on in the novel. The word choices here are exquisite, a real lesson for me as an author about the vast weight of choices every phrase waits to be born from. What is a ‘vaguely made’ face? I might have opted for ‘no distinguishing features’ but this suggests an agency, hers or another’s. One could wonder if its being made means she herself is not a real woman.
In the second phrase, I love ‘mixed silence’. Silence is more easily considered absolute, but of course, silence in a group, or a crowd, isn’t truly so, and this is economical about the plethora of sounds, of movement, that are unavoidably made by different people while walking. Yet the sounds there are, the rattling, is not of things but the people. Again, an unusual description. Not a chest rattling or equipment, but the person themself, and moreover, whatever that rattling might be, it is intentional.
You might wonder why I am obsessing over single words and phrases, but they illustrate the consistency of the prose to the purpose throughout, always describing what is happening in off-kilter ways, every line unnerving, requiring processing and leaving a soft breath of things not being quite right. The book’s astonishing weirdness is a gorgeous culmination of Cisco’s imagination and, I say this with a dollop of envy, his ability to express it. Like all good books, it sends me back to my own, invigorated.
Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station is a work of fictional cultural anthropology. As with Cisco’s book, I never really fell in love with any of the characters, and perhaps it was the lack of a growth arc in any of the ensemble whose intertwined lives Tidhar explores. And yet, they were fully realised as people and the sense of their friendships, loves and how they were interwoven with place was vivid. As the novel progresses, the themes of memory and its value, love and family wash through each other. This was all the more impressive because it takes our history and present and moves them forward into an era of space travel and an integral/biological connection to the future internet (The Conversation) that evolves the way the internet is currently fundamentally changing how we relate to each other.
I say it’s more anthropology than story because while things happen, Tidhar’s intention is only to poke a camera into the lives and thoughts of the characters, with first and third person omniscient reminiscence and historical perspective combining to tell the story of this space station built in Tel Aviv and those who depend on it and have been shaped by its presence and function. The novel does take as its locus the character Boris, returning to Central Station from the ‘Belt’ and elsewhere, rediscovering his former love Miriam. But if the camera is anchored anywhere, it’s only in a small orbit around the ensemble that intersect with him or those he’s closest to.
Tidhar’s great strength, and the reason I wanted to write something about it by way of recommendation is in his ability to render the sense of place both physically, culturally and technologically. It’s in the detail that great worldbuilding is done, whether it’s Achimwene and his ancient paperback books that are amusing twists on classic story tropes to the ‘robotnik’ that, like Robocop, can’t quite recall his former humanity but can’t understand why a woman would love him as a robot war veteran with something like ptsd. (Most of his brethren are homeless from similar wars where the losers simply stopped sending these sentient warriors instructions wherever they stood.)
There are cutting asides too, to the idea of religion, from the ‘Crucifixation’ drug that makes you feel as though you’ve seen God (yet people would still believe the drug only opened a door to what’s there) to Eliezer, an old man who makes gods with his hands simply because he can.
I said at the top that these two books made me think about the role of a protagonist in novels. I’ll remember these books for a long time without either having a protagonist I could tell you about in any detail. If science/speculative fiction novels can exercise our imaginations and induce a sense of wonder, ought we ask more of them?
The feature image is reproduced with permission, and my gratitude. For more of Olivier’s fantastic work, click here.