The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon by Mark Hodder
It’s always more interesting to read a serial than a series. Decades ago when I was young, I cut my teeth on comics that told their stories in weekly instalments. I’ll never forget the excitement of following the adventures of Dan Dare in The Eagle, Captain Condor and Robot Archie in The Lion, and then the text stories in The Hotspur and The Rover. It was the perfect way to learn the art of storytelling. Series are inherently less interesting because they lack full narrative continuity from one episode to another. The characters may, to a greater or lesser extent, stay the same but there’s little organic growth in their memory of past events or the skills they employ. I remember the deep frustration of American television shows like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I kept wanting Crane to turn to Nelson as Kowalski was yet against threatened by a man in a rubber monster suit and say, “Didn’t something like this happen last week?”
The publishing industry has always relied on series to build reader loyalty. In the days when the average novel came in around 50,000 to 60,000 words, writers could churn out two or three a year to keep their fans happy. Earl Stanley Gardner, for example, produced some eighty Perry Mason novels and a host of other books and stories about other series characters under pseudonyms. Never mind the quality, count the words. Yes, authors did sometimes play honest and write duologies, trilogies or tetralogies where a single story was divided into equal parts. But, more often than not, the publishers were actually selling a series in which we got separate stories set in the same universe with each episode having a different focus. So the primary protagonists might be replaced or time might leap forward several years or decades. This has the marketing advantage of making each book a potential standalone. As with an open-ended series, buyers can start more or less anywhere and then pick off the other books in any order. Only in a minority of cases does the author and publisher produce a continuous narrative spread over several volumes.
All of which brings me to The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon by Mark Hodder. This is the third and last in this run of books featuring Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne. Indeed, like the notorious dead Norwegian Blue, this serial is almost certainly no more in its current form (sorry, that should be, “there will almost certainly be no more”). Why, you ask, should publishers give up on continuing an excellent wheeze like this? Could we not have an origin story or suddenly discover previously unreleased events from the life of Burton? Well, the answer, my friends, is blowing through the structure of this third volume. It does rather leave the alternate England behind. That said, an inventive mind could devise a way into a different future. It will be interesting to see whether Pyr offers us the chance to see it unfold.
As to the meat of this book, what started off serious with an undercurrent of wit often exuberantly breaking through, has now become rather darker in tone. Although we do still have one (later two) of those annoying parrots flying around, it’s kept to a minimum as the cast of characters comes under attack — one or two do fall by the wayside. There are some moderately intense battle scenes and, depending on your point of view, some moments of mild horror. But the real change comes in the emergence of the trilogy’s subtext. In the first two volumes, there are patches of exposition where the philosophies and moral stances of the different factions are explained, but the structure of the plot as predominantly “adventure” encourages us to pass these by fairly quickly. Mark Hodder now brings the key arguments to the fore.
Take the question of how power should be exercised through the state. Is the older model of an autocracy like a monarchy/empire and an elite of “nobles” the most efficient form of government? Or is the form of government somewhat irrelevant once a certain size of population is achieved? No single leader or a small elite can be everywhere all the time to monitor and control what’s happening. For purely practical purposes, there has to be some devolution of authority. So the quality of life for the many depends on how the delegates use their power and whether they are held accountable if they abuse that power. You might have a system in which the few literally enslave the many and are never accountable unless held liable by a jury of their peers. Or you might have a society where all are ostensibly free but, unless each individual is born into wealth or privilege, the threat of poverty forces the majority to surrender some of their independence. Without a framework of laws granting rights to the people and courts to enforce them, the majority are always vulnerable. Should wars break out, they are cannon fodder no matter who rules.
So what about sexism, racism and all the other discriminations that can blight lives during the peace? How should knowledge be expanded and how far should states go in educating the people? As we know all too well, many scientific discoveries have unfortunate side effects. In a world where greed dominates, such discoveries may be exploited regardless of the harm they cause. If they are denied access to the underlying science, the majority may never understand what causes their health and other problems. This allows the elite to continue acquisition of wealth without accountability. The education system is therefore distorted to ensure the appropriate classes of people are kept in ignorance. Women may be denied some or all access to knowledge except in areas of skill thought acceptable to their gender. Racial groups may not be taught to read. And so on. Returning to the question of morality, how should the scientists react when they see how their work is being abused? If we believe in universal laws of morality, e.g. as God-given, then scientists should act to reduce the damage caused. In a more open and democratic society, different factions could debate these issues and there’s a chance reasoned conclusions will be acted on. In more autocratic societies, difficult scientists may simply be eliminated. What’s done and how it’s done is ultimately determined by whether individuals, and through them the state, have a conscience. What’s clear is that, should an übermensch emerge, he or she would probably not consider laws of any kind applicable. This could be the ultimate force for good or evil depending on your point of view.
Those who have read the first two books will know that everything becomes unhinged because of the arrival of Spring Heeled Jack. This unleashes the wild outflowing of technology and undermines the emerging influence of morality that might civilise European and Russian societies. It also interrupts the plans of Burton to marry. How different it would all have been had Jack’s time travel been interrupted at an early stage. A very different future would have emerged. I will stop at this point because I don’t want to disturb your enjoyment of how this volume squares the circle. My only reservation lies in the length. I think it takes too long for the expedition to progress through its various African challenges. That said, The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon is an entirely satisfactory ending to one of the better trilogies of the last decade, i.e. it’s one excellent story spread over three books. For this reason, I suspect you will be confused and unhappy if you try this without first reading one or both the other books. Ideally, start at the beginning with The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack.
As the penultimate thought, once again the artwork by Jon Sullivan is magnificent. You should check out the gallery on his website. Some of his biomechanicals and other creatures are terrific.
And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.