Arslan, MJ Engh
Arslan, MJ Engh (1976)
Review by Martin Lewis
The Gollancz SF Masterworks is usually pretty predictable. Often this is a good thing: you would expect masterworks to be well known and a surprising number of classics have been out of print until Gollancz brought them back. At other times, it is less of a good thing. I am a huge admirer of Philip K Dick but when you see his umpteenth minor work being badged as a masterwork you do think Gollancz could cast their net a bit wider. So I was excited by the announcement of the addition of Arslan, a debut novel from 1976 by an author I’d never heard of previously, to the list. On starting to actually read the novel, however, my excitement curdled.
This edition is copyrighted 2010 so presumably Engh has revised it and it also has a new introduction from Adam Roberts (who, along with Graham Sleight, is writing introductions for all the new Masterworks). In his introduction, Roberts cautions that this is not the most plausible work of science fiction. So it proves.
General Arslan, a twenty-six-year-old soldier from the imaginary country of Turkistan, has conquered the world. China and Russia are in his hands and, as the novel starts, the US government has bloodlessly capitulated to him and turn the country over to his control. This happens with such rapidity that most Americans have never heard of him until he suddenly becomes their commander in chief. So you can sympathise with the reaction of Franklin Bond, the high school principal who is our main narrator, on coming face to face with Arslan:
“I stared at him, amazed as much as disgusted. It was incredible that that a two-bit warlord from nowhere, infected with some out-moded Middle Eastern strain of agrarian socialism, could be kinging it over my town – let alone my whole country.” (p 27)
The reader is likely to share this amazement. Nor is this the end of such amazingly unlikely developments: Arslan travels at the head of his army (why?); he stops in the small town of Kraftville (why?); he commandeers Bond’s school as his base (why?). None of this makes any sense so when Arslan makes Kraftville the de facto capital of his empire (and by extension the world) the reader simply has to take this in their stride.
It is not until page 170 that we have an explanation for Arslan’s meteoric rise to world domination. Unfortunately this explanation takes the form of some guff about a magical Russian missile defence system and Arslan holding a gun to the head of the General Secretary of the Communist Party. As Roberts notes, “not even the most naïve political theorist would believe global realpolitik works that way.” (p ix) However, he then goes on to say: “The point of all this, though, is not to negate the novel’s plausibility; it is to move it, forcibly, to a different arena” (p ix)
I am not convinced that plausibility is so motile. I agree with Roberts that depicting a realistic global revolution is clearly not the point of Engh’s novel but is that enough to allow her to simply dismiss it out of hand? Again, I am not convinced. And if this is not her point, what is? Initially it seems that with Arslan Engh is seeking to give this evocation America a taste of its own medicine by turning its own imperialism back on itself. Or perhaps she is reaching further back; Engh has an interest in Roman history and death of America may be intended as a modern version of decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Both of these are points Arslan makes himself:
“More than a hundred years without war. A strange way of life.”
“What do you mean, without war? My God, we’ve-“
“You have made war, you have not suffered it! Your nation, sir, has been perhaps the happiest to exist in the world. And yet consider its history. The natives despoiled, displaced, cheated, brutalized, slaughtered. The most massive system of slavery since the fall of Rome… The upheaval, the upswelling, of savagery, of violence. Not revolution, sir, for revolution requires coherence. Not eighteenth-century France, but fifth-century Rome… Grotesque, sir, this combination of a primitive puritanism and a frantic decadence; very like the Romans whom you so resemble.”(p 80-1)
In fact, the whole of Chapter 7 is given over to such bluster as Arslan explains his worldview. Ultimately, Engh has little interest in the big picture though; Arslan shows no more interest in political philosophy or geopolitics than realpolitik. Bond tells Arslan that: ”Your little Turkistani wolf pack looks pretty small in the middle of the United States of America, General.” (p 25) He is wrong. It is the United States of America that looks pretty small. In fact, it is nonexistent; Engh has reduced the United States down to a single town. There is no sign of the army or the government and everything functions solely at the county level. Kraftville might as well be an island. What Engh is really interested in – and where she has some success – is people. If America is collapsed down to Kraftville then Kraftville is collapsed down to two individuals, defined by their relationship with Arslan. To discuss these two we must first overcome another stumbling block for the reader though.
On his arrival in Kraftville, Arslan gathers everyone together in the high school, has them bound and gagged and then matter-of-factly rapes two children – a girl and a boy – on the stage in front of them. Faced with an opening that defies reason and ends with such a blatant act of authorial provocation many readers would be tempted to close to book. This was certainly Abigail Nussbaum’s response the first time she read the book. On his blog Roberts commented: “It is worth persevering with. There’s nothing schlocky or cheaply exploitative about it.” She did persevere and I’m very glad she because she has written a wonderful review of the novel – see here. But whilst what Roberts says is true, I’m not sure it is enough.
The majority of the novel is narrated by Bond. He is there from the beginning and the soldiers are billeted around town he finds Arslan under his roof. An honest American – bluff, hollow and provincial – he is set up in opposition to Arslan. The devil gets all the best lines though. Bond has no internal intellectual or emotional life, only a set of morals; he is less a character in his own right than a mirror for others.
No, if it is a book worth persevering with it is because of the second narrator, Hunt Morgan. Hunt is one of the two children raped at the start of the novel (the other, the girl, is never seen from again; see Nussbaum’s review for much more on this absence).
After the rape he is claimed by Arslan as a sort of catamite. Towards the end of the novel, Hunt muses that this period “- if, of course, I could only have known it – had been our honeymoon.” (p 293) This tells you a lot about what you need to know about Arslan; as both Roberts and Nussbaum suggest, “first the rape then the seduction” (p 269) can be taken as the novel’s queasy mantra. What starts as an obvious act of abuse, by an adult of a child, becomes something more complex: “Measuredly, by a gentle graduation of brutal degrees, I was being weaned away from slavery.” (p 176) Here is Nussbaum:
Hunt’s narrative is a brilliant, disturbing, heartrendingly raw description of a rape victim seduced by their rapist. Rejected by his friends and family both for being a rape victim and for accepting the gifts and protection of the only friend he has left, Hunt is confused by feelings of self-loathing and guilt into accepting and eventually returning the love of the man who violated him–because his is the only love on offer. Both Hunt and the supposedly good people around him take it for granted that having been raped makes him ineligible for the love of a better person, and so Hunt clings to the only form of affection still left to him.
The sympathetic depiction of the relationship between an abuser and their victim is always going to be difficult territory but Engh acquits herself well. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have some concerns though. In the comments to Nussbaum’s post, Athena Andreadis says:
Many writers adopt the shorthand that a tyrant is particularly abhorrent if he rapes boys — girls and women, after all, “should” expect to be raped routinely in such circumstances. Another common shorthand is the amoral bisexual charismatic trickster who wields sex as one of his weapons and to whom all yield as if bewitched.
Although Andreadis hasn’t read the novel and this characterisation doesn’t completely match the truth, there is certainly an element of it. The portrayal of Hunt is presumably intended to subvert our expectations but the relationship developed in much the way I predicted. Indeed, if it had not then there wouldn’t have been any novel. Partially this is because I did not read the book in a vacuum but I think it is also that the book simply taps into a different set of clichés. Hunt’s narrative remains, however, the most intelligent and subtle part of the novel.
Unfortunately we then move back to Bond. With Hunt we can forget (if not forgive) the stupidity of plot, with Bond it is once again brought centre stage. Arslan has fought his fairytale army (which seems to consist of a couple of dozen soldiers) up and down the Americas only to find himself the victim of coup. Given his unfathomable management style the only surprise is that this hadn’t happened previously. Where does he return to seek sanctuary? Why Kraftville, of course. For some reason he envisions a warm reception and this is not far from what he gets. Bond, now mayor of the town and superintendent of the county, welcomes him back into his home and then allows him to once more turn the school into a fort. He justifies this thus:
”Well, the thing is this, Leland. Arslan hasn’t committed any crimes as a private citizen, and we don’t have the authority to try him for war crimes. And even if we did, what good would it do? From here on in, he is a private citizen, and nothing more than a private citizen. He’s entitled to the same rights as anybody else.” (p 271)
Just to recap, Arslan marked his arrival by raping two children and then exported the attractive school girls to work as comfort women in rape camps whilst importing schoolgirls from elsewhere to perform the same function for his men in Kraftville. He also keeps Hunt and a female teacher as sex slaves and then, when he bored of them, sets out to rape his way through the remaining female population of the town:
He wasn’t interested in the esthetic niceties of rape any more, he took whatever the daily dragnet brought him. One of the lieutenants was in charge of picking up a new girl every day and getting rid of the used one. (p 132)
All this is without getting into the routine tyranny, the confiscated assets, the imposed curfew, the summary justice, the executions. History suggests that Arslan would soon find himself strung from the nearest lamppost. Bond would probably find himself up there with him since despite the fact he is notionally the head of the resistance, he more closely resembles a collaborator. The resistance itself doesn’t actually do anything, a fact Bond seems proud of, and its only act of insurrection is planting flowers on the graves of executed townsfolk. Whilst I am sick of so much science fiction and fantasy trading in cheap fantasies of agency the lack of any such agency here is simply fanciful.
Luckily Hunt has the last word. The final chapter sees him hunting a deer, a stag of exemplary maleness:
I counted four points; adding a conservative two for concealed branches, and doubling for the other antler, I could assume a twelve-point buck – old and wise and in all probability master of a considerable harem. (p 290)
In framing the stag in such terms, Engh cannot help but evoke Arslan. The heightened state in which Hunt pursues the deer then recalls his relationship with Arslan as well, complete with moral qualms: “In the end, I could not take him unawares.” (p 297) In eventually slaying the stag – on his own terms and with Arslan’s own gun – Hunt finally kills him, albeit by proxy. Yet as the novel ends we inevitably find Hunt leaving Kraftville to follow Arslan, pursuing him with both love and hate. The whole chapter is infused with such ambiguous intensity that you can almost believe that yes, Arslan was worth persevering with.
But not quite. The portrait of Hunt remains a bright jewel in the tarnished setting of a bad and boring book. Nussbaum concludes her review by wondering if she is simply the wrong target audience. By which she means she is a woman:
To see a male character get raped is an assault on the male reader that a woman’s rape wouldn’t have been, and for the seduction part of the novel to get under that same reader’s skin by confounding all expectations that Hunt will rebel against Arslan and avenge his violation, the object of the seduction must also be a man. The problem with this tactic is that it is aimed exclusively at men. Just as Arslan scarcely bothers to seduce the women he rapes and saves his attentions for Hunt (and just as his seduction of Kraftsville is focused on its young boys, to whom he becomes a mentor), Arslan the novel is only interested in seducing its male readers. The problem with the novel turns out to be its lack of interest, not in its female characters, but in its female readers. We don’t get seduced. The opening rape scene is as much an assault on us as it is on male readers, but the rest of the novel ignores us.
Was I seduced by the novel? No. The opening was not an assault on me, it inspired only indifference and contempt with its ridiculous and manipulative premise. Correspondingly the seduction I required was something other than that I received; the masculinity of Arslan is as alienating to me as it is to Nussbaum. As she says: “If I have ever in my life read a novel that is so dismissive of women’s character, personhood, and agency as this one, I am struggling to recall it.” This is not a book I want to read. If this is a seduction aimed exclusively at men, I wonder what type of men they are.
This review originally appeared on Everything is Nice.