Arslan, MJ Engh
Arslan, MJ Engh (1976)
Review by Ian Sales
It’s hard to know what to make of Arslan. It is, by reputation, a controversial novel, and it is in the SF Masterworks series. Engh was named Author Emerita by the SFWA in 2009, despite having only four novels – her last in 1993, twenty years ago – and some dozen short stories published. Plainly, Arslan is held in high regard, quite possibly because of its controversial nature – science fiction, after all, likes to value books which challenge mores and taboos. Unfortunately, such books often don’t so much challenge taboos as simply break them for effect… and in that regard Arslan is no exception. Its central premise is perhaps less challenging than it might have been in 1976, but one opening scene still has the capacity to shock – perhaps even more so now, and perhaps for the wrong reasons. Arslan is a deeply problematic novel and the passage of time has been far from kind to it. Please note that this novel features rape and in discussing it this review may contain triggers.
In the time of the book – the mid-1970s by inference – the young dictator of a Central Asian republic conquers the entire planet. He is a twentieth-century Genghis Khan. Arslan is set in the small town of Kraftsville, Illinois. General Arslan, after whom the book is titled, and his army stop there on their way from… Well, somewhere in the US to somewhere else. For whatever reason, General Arslan decides to stay in Kraftsville. He takes over the local high school and, in front of his soldiers and the school principal, Franklin Bond, rapes one girl and one boy.
There is no good reason for the rapes – they are meant to shock. As Arslan himself later says, “First the rape – then the seduction” - this is the technique Arslan uses to cow the citizens of Kraftsville. And Engh is deploying the same technique in her narrative: shocking them with the rapes, only to seduce the reader with a sympathetic portrait of Arslan. She does this through the two viewpoint characters of the novel: the aforementioned Franklin Bond, an upright and opinionated Jubal Harshaw-like figure; and Hunt Morgan, the boy raped by Arslan.
Not only do the rapes raise questions about authorial intent, but their presentation is problematical. First, little is made of the young age of the victims – it is their “innocence” which horrifies Bond and the people of Kraftsville. Second, given the casual way rape is treated throughout the rest of the novel, the shock those initial assaults generate is badly undermined, which renders them ineffective as a dramatic tool (and to treat rape as such is often deeply offensive). Thirdly, while the male victim is a major character of the novel, the female victim disappears from the narrative. And finally, Hunt Morgan finds himself in love with Arslan and subsequently self-identifies as queer, as a result of the rape and… argh… wrong.
Arslan himself states, “When a woman is raped, then she is perhaps by so much more a woman – do you understand? But when a boy is raped, he is by so much less a man.” (p 60). There is so much wrong with this it’s impossible to know where to begin. Rape is in no way enabling or ennobling, it is a violation. To treat it any other way in fiction is to trivialise it and its effect on its victims. But then it’s not as if Arslan treats its women characters with any degree of sensitivity – the girl who is raped by Arslan, for instance, is not the only female to disappear from the narrative. Pretty much all the women do. They are either victims, prostitutes, or wives and mothers. Few are named, almost all are defined in reference to their male partners. A female teacher from the high school is kept by Arslan for a while as a sex slave, but Franklin Bond seems more concerned about Hunt Morgan than he does her. Even Arslan’s wife, when she turns up in Kraftsville later in the novel, is brutally murdered in revenge for Arslan’s presence. Arslan treats its female characters very very badly indeed.
And then there’s the character of General Arslan himself. He’s a Muslim, but he drinks copious amounts of vodka and eats ham. Not once does he pray, and the word Allah appears nowhere in the book. Nor does he apparently understand Arabic. But then Arslan is only Muslim because it others him. Engh makes much of Franklin Bond’s Christianity and his Christian morals. Bond even explains Christianity to Arslan – as if a Muslim would not know something about it in the first place. It’s all very well playing off Bond’s upright Christian character against the foreign invader, but it’s a one-sided fight as the opponent is defenceless because his religion is merely a label with a few misconceptions attached. It doesn’t help that Bond parades his ignorance like a badge, referring to one of Arslan’s officers as “Z” because he can’t be bothered to learn how to pronounce his name – “something that started with a sharp Z sound” (p 41).
General Arslan is from Turkistan, which is not an invented land, although it did not exist in 1976. It’s the name of the region in Central Asia inhabited by the Turkic peoples, and was a republic of the USSR between 1918 and 1924. Genghis Khan was also from somewhere near there… Well, no, he was actually from Mongolia, which is not Turkic. Perhaps Engh was relying on the ghost of Khan to add weight to Arslan and his achievements. Which are not actually all that plausible - there’s some hand-waving about missile shields and using the Soviets to blackmail the USA in to accepting Arslan’s command of their military, but it doesn’t really convince and it’s clear Engh wasn’t concerned with it doing so.
Arslan doesn’t want to simply rule the world, he wants to heal it. By reducing its population and reliance on technology. Or perhaps, by removing humans all together. Kraftsville is quickly converted from a late twentieth-century American small town into one from a century earlier. Except… how? The town has its own powerplant and this is shut down. There are mentions of stoves and refrigerators no longer working, but no televisions or washing-machines or hair-dryers, etc. People quickly replace electric lights with kerosene lamps. Fuel for cars is withdrawn, and horses and carts become the chief mode of transport… In 1976? Really? Enough people in a small town keep horses so that total chaos does not follow when the petrol is cut off? People just carry on when 99% of the labour-saving devices in their homes no longer function? For the mid-1970s, it’s simply not credible…
And then you come to the line, “He settled his hat more firmly on his head…” (p 65), and things become clearer. Engh may have written this book as if it were set in the 1970s – and the mention of the missile shield and transport planes may suggest as much – but the only way the story can work is if it is set in a much earlier decade, the 1930s perhaps. A decade in which men routinely wore hats, women were routinely characterised in the media as wives and mothers, there were enough horses around to be used once cars no longer worked, and the only electrical devices in people’s houses were likely to be cookers and fridges…
I’d heard much that was good about Arslan before reading it, and its presence in the SF Masterwork series certainly argued it was considered a classic of the genre. Having now read it, I’m frankly mystified by the high regard in which it is held. Its prose is perhaps a little better than is common in science fiction – although the first-person narrative by Hunt Morgan often seems woefully over-written – and one or two of the scenes in the book do skilfully handle the emotional quagmire Engh has chosen for her plot. But. Its treatment of its Turkic antagonist is deeply racist, its treatment of its female cast is deeply sexist, its treatment of Hunt Morgan is offensive; and in Franklin Bond, Engh has created yet another in a long of American genre viewpoint characters whose authorially-imposed moral certainty cannot disguise a deeply problematic worldview.
So perhaps it’s not hard to know what to make of Arslan. It reads like a lament for a way of life lost to progress, but bizarrely transplanted to a decade in which people could not plausibly maintain their way of life without the fruits of that progress, and in which progress itself is personified by a villain who is little more than Yellow Peril. The hero of the book feels like Jimmy Stewart filtered through Robert Heinlein, losing the charm of the first but gaining all the rigidity of views of the second. And then there’s Hunt Morgan, who is raped by Arslan and subsequently becomes his biggest supporter…
Morgan is clearly intended to be the means by which we come to sympathise with Arslan and his aims. Later injuries suffered by Arslan only literalise the “sacrifices” he has made on behalf of the human race – and, tellingly, most of the depradations described which might justify Arslan’s “final solution” are committed by people imported into Kraftsville (violence by Kraftsville citizens is either in defence, retaliation, or revenge; but always with motive). Morgan, like Bond, is a product of particular mind-set, he is an embodiment of a worldview which sees Arslan as little more than a cardboard cutout, and Morgan’s attempt to see deeper into Arslan is little more than an exploration – and justification – of his relationship with him; which, despite its homosexual nature is presented as either uncritical hero-worship by Morgan or the sort of male companionship common in literature in the late nineteenth century.
There are too many reasons I could not like Arslan. Like far too many of science fiction’s “controversial” books, it fails to question the taboos it breaks and merely uses that breaking for effect. Disappointing.