Monday, April 16, 2007

The Unholy Reanimation of Dr Vector's Book Club

I wasn't going to blog about this book. But it's stuck in my head like a thorn.

In the first edition of Dr Vector's Book Club I recommended Dan Abnett's Fell Cargo, which features pirates fighting zombies. That recommendation stands; if anything, it's stronger now. If you want to give Abnett a try but don't want to blow a wad of cash on a hardback or an omnibus, get that book.

On the strength of Fell Cargo, I've been not-so-patiently waiting for The Founding, an omnibus which collects Abnett's first three Gaunt's Ghosts novels. The Founding was finally published in February, and recent airline travel has given me time to devour it, and to press further into Abnett's oeuvre.

I was going to write about The Founding. It's good military SF; if you've burned through David Drake's work and you're looking for something else to scratch the itch, you could do a lot worse. But it's merely good.

Eisenhorn is great.

Like many of Abnett's books, Eisenhorn is set in the Warhammer 40K universe. That doesn't matter, in that no prior knowledge of the universe is necessary to enjoy the books. And it matters a lot, in that the WH40K universe is a handy setting for exploring certain questions.

And Abnett is angling for very big questions. Is it okay to use evil to fight evil? How much? Should dangerous knowledge be locked away or destroyed? What about dangerous people? Is a bad person ever beyond saving?

Would you voluntarily sacrifice one innocent life to save others? Who? When? How many?

In the WH40K universe demons are real, heresy is contagious, and the church and the state are one. Gregor Eisenhorn is an Inquisitor, tasked with uprooting and destroying the major threats to human civilization: aliens, mutants, and heretics (the three branches of the Inquisition, and the titles of the individual novels, are Xenos, Malleus, and Hereticus). Thanks to advanced technology, high caste humans of the far future have lifespans measured in centuries. The Eisenhorn trilogy spans something like 300 years, during which time Eisenhorn builds up a supporting organization, tackles ever more dangerous adversaries, and increases his own knowledge and power. Whereas most WH40K novels deal with soldiers and combat, the Eisenhorn books are more like mystery thrillers. Well, science fantasy mystery thrillers punctuated by frequent firefights, anyway.

Actually, what comes to mind when I think about Eisenhorn are two comments that I read about Steve Erikson's Malazan books. First, that they are "epic pulp". That's just about perfect for Eisenhorn. They are epic, and they are pulpy. And yet Abnett is just using pulp trappings to tell a much more subtle and interesting story.

Second, that the characters are too powerful and there are too many battles. That made me laugh when I saw it written about the Malazan books; no criticism could make me want to read a book more. However, I found the Malazan books impenetrable, mainly because of the Star Trek Effect (see below). Abnett's books are a lot more accessible, and by accessible I mean "easy to follow" and not "poorly written". By the end of the trilogy some of the characters are outrageously powerful, but none of it feels forced or unearned because you've followed the character's development all along and seen the specific choices and events that shaped their fates.

The book is not perfect. My main gripe deals with what for want of a better term I call in-story logistics. What are the rules by which the universe operates, where does everyone stand, and how do you know? These are questions that tend to be easier to answer in science fiction than in fantasy. A plasma torch either does or does not have the power to cut the head off a combat cyborg. If it does not, I don't want to read three more chapters and find that the same plasma torch can now cut through the hull of a multi-kilometer space dreadnought. That kind of thing makes it impossible for me to suspend disbelief, and I think that factor above all is what makes most genre fantasy unpalatable to me. A wizard who can levitate his residence just because it pleases him should not be seriously threatened by a barbarian with an axe. I call it the Star Trek Effect: if you can beam onto the Borg cube at all, don't screw around sending Worf and Data. Send over some antimatter and save the Federation, even if means ending the episode 38 minutes early.

Warhammer 40K is a science fantasy universe. In other words, spaceships plus magic (like Star Wars). And that may be part of the problem. I have some idea of how a battalion of Leman Russ tanks would fare against a battle titan, but the fantasy elements are less well constrained. In the Eisenhorn trilogy we see a lot of examples of what daemons can do when they're pissed, but there's really no frame of reference for those events. What are the limits of a daemon's speed and power? Which laws of time and space can they violate, and which can they not? What would ever convince a human agent that he could engage in combat with a daemon and succeed? Under what conditions is success possible?

To be fair, almost nobody gets this right. Darth Vader is supposedly less agile than Anakin Skywalker because he's more machine now than man, twisted and evil, but General Grievous is even more mechanical and he's a freakin' acrobat. The Nazgul are supposedly in thrall to the One Ring but they are able to attack Frodo while he's wearing it (shouldn't they be, like, worshiping him?). No, no, don't flame me, I'm just sayin': fantasy is a tough genre. Magic has to have rules to be believable, but it has to be at least somewhat miraculous or it ceases to be magical.

In Abnett's defense, his characters always seemed to know the score even if I didn't. Their words and actions are all happily consistent, and Eisenhorn is still one of the best (science) fantasy books I've read.

Some reviewers knock Abnett for a couple of things that turn up in a lot of his books: he has no compunctions about killing major characters, and his endings tend to be a bit abrupt. The first one is not really even a complaint in my book; it's more like a compliment for being able to write characters that we care about and still being tough enough to tell the necessary story. It's also true that Abnett's books come to quick ends; you can't help noticing that there are only 15 pages left when you're still gearing up for the final confrontation. On the other hand, this ain't Return of the King. You're not going to cry at the end and neither is Samwise Gamgee, so there's no reason to drag it out for half a dozen endings. I know it's cliche, but really, seriously, the Eisenhorn trilogy is about the journey, not the destination. It's not what Eisenhorn does to the bad guys that's of primary interest; it's what he does to himself and his loved ones along the way.

Go read the durned book.


The second image above is Daryl Mandryk's winning entry from the CGSociety MachineFlesh contest. It's not related to Eisenhorn, but it could serve as an illustration for a scene in the book.

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Anonymous Randy said...

Perhaps if you had read the Chaos codex and the Warhammer 40K rule book section on battle psychology (page 48 and parts of 49), you would know the exact limits of a daemon's powers, be they devotees of Slanessh, Khorne, Tzeetch, or Nurgle, the Great Unclean One.

1:46 AM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Wow, that was sudden. All this respect I've built up for Randy over the past couple of years: all blown away by one little blog-comment.

Back to the start, Randy. Throw a six to start.

6:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too bad that post wasn't made by the real Randy - R. Irmis. I have no clue about what this person is talking about. Also, I am at least capable of capitalizing my own name.

Randy I.

3:11 PM  
Blogger TheBrummell said...

This book, and the previous entry in your book club, relate to a low-level discussion I've been having with a few people about boys not reading.

Apparently, grade-school boys don't read. Books, magazines, newspapers - not read. Their female classmates do not seem to share this problem. I have no hard data to support this; sorry. All is anecdotal, from people such as my newly-qualified-teacher sister.

One solution to this baffling problem is to produce and distribute to 10-year-old boys what Cliff Burns calls "dick lit.", in opposition to "chick lit.". Guns, explosions, chainmail bikinis, gritty down-on-their-luck detectives, car chases, etc. You know.

I recently read an old Alistair MacLean book that fit the bill. From your descriptions, maybe Dan Abnett's work would, too.

Also, I love your reviewing style. I am entertained. Thanks.

7:32 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Apparently, grade-school boys don't read.... One solution to this baffling problem is to produce and distribute to 10-year-old boys what Cliff Burns calls "dick lit.", in opposition to "chick lit.". Guns, explosions, chainmail bikinis, gritty down-on-their-luck detectives, car chases, etc. You know.

I do indeed. I support it. Who is this Cliff Burns, and can we get him some kind of award?

From junior high on, I was mired in the swamp of lurid, brain-rotting science fiction. A lot of people that age nerd out on genre fantasy. I was on a steady diet of David Drake and Star Wars tie-in novels.

Damn, it was awesome.

Every so often now I get the urge to read something with lots of tentacles and explosions, some good ole dick lit (not to be confused with gay erotica), and I go back to the well. Abnett is just that kind of fix.

Also, I love your reviewing style. I am entertained. Thanks.

Hey, thank you! You just made my day.

9:41 AM  
Blogger TheBrummell said...

Big fan of David Drake here, too. I especially like the anthologies he's edited, like the "The Fleet" series and others. Jerry Pournelle does similar stuff, and when Larry Niven invited pretty much everybody into Known Space for the Man-Kzin Wars... ah, so good. I could go on... Keith Laumer and Bolos, S.M. Stirling, even C.J. Cherryh's various merchant-starship stories (e.g. "Merchanter's Luck"). OK, I need to stop daydreaming and thinking about the nice weather here (sun + grass + giant sentient tanks = happy).

I just discovered the awesome Cliff Burns, via a link to his new blog / website from Peter Watts' page. I especially recommend reading his "Spleen" section.

Cliff Burns:

Peter Watts:

12:01 PM  

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