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  • TITLE: The Year Of Our War
  • AUTHOR: Steph Swainston
  • AWARDS: Crawford Award winner, John W. *********** Campbell Award, best new writer


    Fantasy novels say nothing to me about the real world or about my life; real people don't act like the characters in those epics. Tolkien said that fantasy ideas were 'endlessly combined' — he knew that fantasy means boundless imagination and reinvention, not clinging to staid ideas.

    -- Steph Swainston, HarperCollins interview, undated


    Like discovering alien-made artificial worlds in space with such entries like Ringworld, Orbitsville, and Titan, fighting arthropodic aliens has certainly become a sub-genre of fantasist literature. The cinematic Alien and Predator franchises notwithstanding, some of the most noted science fiction novels involve Big Bug Bashing. Ender's Game, The Forever War, and Harrison's A Storm of Wings come immediately to mind. Souped-up insects make wonderful enemies. Few people would not run screaming from a Gregor-sized cockroach, but add a few million fellow travelers and there is true loathing and unmitigated terror.

    And now, add The Year of our War to the Bad Bug yarns.

    The Insects of this novel possess no hive-like intelligence, nor do they have leaders or many distinguishable features. They swarm and infest the plot like locusts, turning village after village into saliva-glued cocoons of abandonment. The enemy has no face to hate like Saddam Hussein , Adolf Hitler , or Ghengis Kahn. They are the AIDS virus, nuclear winter, or the Black Plague of the Middle Ages sporting antennae and mandibles. Since Western heritage instinctively pushes to seek individuals out of any group, insect gatherings and behavior have always been especially repulsive. In this sense, then, the Insects can symbolize the submersion of individual freedom, will and rights to the group, further threatening the spirit with becoming chattel to Religion, the State, or the Corporation.

    Desperately fighting this infestation are humanoids and humans, Gods and ghosts. They navigate by Polaris, so the world called The Fourlands exists on Earth, although whether it's the past, future, or parallel is up for debate. These are Medieveal times, with Kings and castles without gunpowder, yet the inhabitants wear t-shirts with slogans, faded jeans, and talk using present-day colloquialisms. God exists but he is more akin to Cronos of the Titans than any Christian , Jewish, or Muslim God. Unfortunately, he is on vacation, according to popular consensus or myth, and has positioned San as his Emperor to oversee His “playground” (Eos, trade paper edition, ISBN 0060753870, c.2004, p.321) with a Circle of fifty bestowed with immortality. It's all very Greek, with the fifty quasi-gods carrying out San's decisions with a minimum of interference to the general population. They are chosen for eternal life, which can be rescinded at the whim of the Emperor, to fulfill archetypal positions like Sailor, Archer, Strongman, etc.

    The first-person protagonist is the Messenger named Jant Shira, nicknamed Comet. He is an elusive narrator at best, and probably an unreliable one as well, since he is addicted to a shooter drug like heroin or crystal meth, that, in his world is nicknamed “cat”. Because he is immortal, he can essentially OD and enter a dimensional world he calls “The Shift”. Nobody else believes in it, except for the demised King Dunlin, and only because Comet doused him with the narcotic on his deathbed and permanently crossed him over. It makes for a fascinating ontological argument. God's Being is undeniable, since proof lies in His gift of immortality on Earth to a chosen few. An afterlife is never mentioned except by those experiencing it by deadly overdose. The Shift's cityscape of Epsilon is as irrefutably real as Being is in the Fourlands: the resolution of the plot's global conflict with the Insects depends on it. So, with a verified afterlife, not only are God's Chosen immortal, so are drug addicts and Insects! And, the dopers and bugs don't have to fret over some celestial Santa Claus taking back the presents. But then, nothing's mentioned about life among the dimensions as going on forever, either. Worst-case scenario is that you age, but, as long as you have a stash, you can merely shift to another dimensional world like Osseous, land of “the Horse People” (p.257), ad infinitum.

    The peculiarities of Swainston's creation readily shift into all sorts of mind-bending idiosyncrasies, but the primary rumination is the difficulty of identifying deeper addictions within the conscientiousness of free will and moral judgments to the pragmatic actions of individuals, the society, and the world. Immortality is the Grail here, and what the characters are willing to do to obtain it illuminates their mettle and adds a deeper gloss to the novel's action. Some will kill their spouses while others will face suicidal situations for acceptance into god's eternal Circle. By the luck of the draw and a driving, self-serving vanity, the junkie narrator tenuously holds onto his Dance Forever! card, and the reader's sympathies for his acned personality, by posturing as the quintessential Outsider. But his vapid pronouncement, “anything goes but this—you don't lie, don't cheat, and don't grass on your mates” (p.223), seems like adolescent brio when facing the larger addictions of control and power tied immutably to endless longevity.

    This parallel Earthworld is startling and brilliant, and the author chops lines with enough facts, clues, people and things to keep the reading compulsive. But it's like looking out a French glass door where one pane is crystal clear and the next one cloudy or hazy, as the window to this world shifts between solidity and porosity. I never understood with any coherence the differences between the races of humans, Awians, and Rhydanne. And Epilson, that otherland “where blue monsters worship entrails” (p.277), sways between woozy and just plain silly with animals like whorses, giraffiti, and terribulls.

    Author Swainston has written a sequel entitled No Present Like Time, with another installment following at the first of 2007. Hopefully, Comet's joined Narcotics Anonymous and things will be a lot more perspicuous.



    --illustration by Christophe Sivet

    © review copyright 11/11/2006 by Larry Crawford

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