The Land Across by Gene Wolfe (http://us.macmillan.com/tor.aspx, 2013) is both literally and metaphorically a weird book. As to the title, a moment’s thought should tell all those of you burdened by a classical education that the Latin for “across” is trans. This book is set in an Eastern European state. The first reference to this particular piece of the map was ultra silvam, i.e. beyond the forest. Following the success of Bram Stoker’s novel, everyone now knows the home of Dracula. From this you will understand this novel is an unpredictable mixture of supernatural thriller, political allegory in a somewhat Kafkaesque mode, mystery, and espionage/secret police adventure. It all begins with our potentially unreliable narrator, an American who writes travel books, seeking entry to a country that’s proving elusive. When he tries to book a flight, he fails to get a seat or the flight is cancelled. He therefore decides to make a more direct approach and takes the train. It seems he crosses the border while he’s asleep for the first he knows of his arrival is his arbitrary arrest for entering without a visa. Removed from the train under arrest, his passport confiscated, this leaves him stranded in one of this country’s slightly unusual cities. He’s commanded to stay in the house of a local couple. If he leaves, the secret police will execute them.
So, at a stroke, our seasoned traveller is ripped untimely from the familiar and dumped in a country where he does not speak the language and does not know the local customs. Even at the best of times, it would be difficult to negotiate a route to escape but when he’s not entirely sure who has his passport nor how to open a dialogue about its return, he’s forced to explore his immediate surroundings to see what comes to light. During this early time, it’s possible he meets a vampire and the wolves he commands. He also discovers an empty house which is associated with a long-missing treasure. Then he’s kidnapped and literally shipped off to the capital city. This brings him into William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) territory in which he makes radio broadcasts as an American. The state in which he’s being held prisoner is a dictatorship and, if an American is critical of the leader, this gives the underground opposition party greater credibility. For these purposes, it doesn’t really matter what he says. Not many in this country speak English. Nor do they have access to any of the technology we take for granted. Even access to telephones is tightly controlled. Think of this as being a country in a kind of time warp. It’s not unlike East Germany but without any of its more obvious virtues. The secret police has almost complete power and is remarkably unaccountable for whatever its operatives do.
In allegorical terms, we’re supposed to be questioning how a country could regress into such a state. It’s a variation on the Edmund Burke “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Put another way, the only thing standing between a working democracy and a dictatorship is the quality of those who step forward to represent the people in the elections. If you get too many of the “wrong” type, they vote themselves into a more permanent position of power. Fortunately, our hero and forced radio personality is first arrested (again) and then released on condition he helps one of the senior operatives investigate some of the events that have been happening around him. In political terms, this means probing the “opposition” except they may actually be literally “evil”, i.e. able to use dark forces (or, if the dictator is on the dark side, the opposition may be on the side of the light). When it comes to naming and shaming the scapegoats, the dictator has control of the media and can say whatever he likes about those who oppose him. Indeed, when individually and collectively the Church may also be investigating whether society has been possessed and should therefore go through a process of exorcism, the battle-lines take on more significance. It’s at this point the book begins more seriously to conflate a police procedural investigation with a formal supernatural thriller as a hand of glory is discovered.
Although this has moments of obscurity and some of the political subtext is slightly naive, this proves to be one of Wolfe’s more accessible novels as we slowly discover more about this country and its political system. There are some quite pleasing aspects to the investigation itself and the process of deduction is moderately rigorous. I suppose one more cynical responses to this narrative might be to see it as a dream. Our hero falls asleep as the train approaches the border and what happens after that is just the product of his subconscious. This would help explain the sometimes quite arbitrary way in which our narrator skips over events and sometimes refuses to elaborate on the bare bones of description offered. Since no country this backward exists in Europe (North Korea might approximate this level of poverty both in political and material terms) and no-one today seriously believes in vampires or supernatural devices such as a hand of glory, we could safely treat this as an allegory. Yet, there always comes a moment when our narrators wake. This could be when the border guards invade his compartment on the train, or it might be as the last page turns. You should read the book to find out. The Land Across really does hold interest and arrives at an intriguing ending.
For a review of another book by Gene Wolfe see Home Fires.
This book was sent to me for review.
The mark of a good author is to be able to take a rather tired trope and breathe new life into it. I suppose I should not be surprised that Gene Wolfe can do it but, in Home Fires, he has not only contrived to reanimate some old favourites, but also to do so in one of his more accessible novels. Frankly, Wolfe can be heavy going. He tends to write rather dense prose. This level of complexity is sometimes matched by the subject matter. So, for example, The Shadow of the Torturer will remain a classic for decades to come. But there have been times when the reading effort required was not rewarded by the quality of the content.
Here, we have an inversion of one of his characteristic literary devices. Wolfe is particularly associated with the unreliable narrator, leaving it to the readers to puzzle out which of the possible variations of reality might be true. Yet in Home Fires, we have the epitome of rationality — an expert defence attorney, skilled in the art of cross-examination — surrounded by a crowd of people, all of whom may, to some extent, be unreliable. It’s therefore left to him to try puzzling out who each person actually is and what their motives may be for being there.
To make all this more challenging, Wolfe reuses the standard brain mapping/recording trope. In this future world, the technique may be used in a number of different ways. A person going into hospital or, say, a combat situation will be recorded. Depending on what happens, the recorded version may be replaced in the same body, or it could be transplanted into a different body. It’s also possible to edit the memories in recorded form so that, as transmitted to the body, key events may be erased. At the two extremes, this could be a therapeutic device intended to relieve a patient from post-traumatic stress or some other psychological disorder, or it could potentially create the perfect spy. Imagine you wipe the mind of a key person and insert the mind of a spy. . . In this novel, we also have the technique used for reanimation with a person employed by the reanimation company used to become the carrier — the body survives as the mind of the former occupant goes through a form of suicide and a second mind awakes to the news she died some years earlier and is now in a younger body. Of course, no-one ever manages to make an infallible machine when it comes to dealing with the human mind. The editing or wiping process may not be as complete as the manufacturers promise in their ads.
As a variation on this theme, let’s take a secondary “ghost in the machine” question. If you have the medical technology to graft a large enough portion of one dying person on to a wounded soldier, does anything of the previous owner of the body parts pass with the flesh and bones? It might, of course, depend on exactly which part of the body was replaced. Acquiring someone’s legs might not have the same effect as acquiring some of their brain.
To add depth to this thoughtful exploration, the four central characters are father, mother, their daughter and her “nominal” husband. The daughter enlists to fight in the alien wars. Because of the time dilation effect, the short tour of duty is twenty years of Earth time. During her absence, her mother dies, her father becomes an enigmatic figure, and her husband becomes a highly successful defence lawyer with a long-term mistress. When the daughter is seriously wounded and rebuilt, she returns to Earth. Her husband has her mother reanimated as a Welcome Home gift. Her father observes events from a distance for the first half of the novel. So, as a good Catholic author, Wolfe assumes the nominal marriage will survive the twenty year hiatus. Our hero dutifully sheds his mistress and prepares to court his wife a second time on a sea cruise. But what of her parents? Does the wife’s reanimation in a younger body also resurrect her marriage? And, after twenty years, how should a daughter who divorced her parents before she left now relate to them on her return?
To make all this fun, the sea cruise turns into a murderous voyage as, first, pirates take over the ship and, then, various secret agents and spies make their presence felt. It seems some of the different Earth factions and the aliens have an interest in what our returning heroine may know following physical and mental reconstruction. To make matter even more exciting, the body now occupied by the mother’s mind also seems to be a target for murder — finding out who first occupied this body is therefore essential before the wife dies again.
Although this sounds like a seriously tangled web, it’s actually fascinating as our cool lawyer interrogates everyone and speculates on exactly who everyone is as the body count rises. Indeed, you have the sense Gene Wolfe was having fun when he wrote this. Dare I say, he actually made me smile several times. This is not an author cracking jokes, but it’s as close to it as Wolfe ever comes.
So, as we have the crackle of gunfire and explosions disrupting the quiet waters of the Caribbean, Home Fires contrives to produce an interesting discussion of what it means when two people make commitments to each other. For once, I can positively recommend a Wolfe book to almost everyone. Although this is set in a future where we are fighting aliens for the rights to occupy life-supporting planets, it’s simply an excuse for humans to engage in the usual spy/undercover agent roles on a sea cruise — with pirates taking over the ship, holding the passengers for ransom, and creating enough mayhem to keep us entertained. This is a vessel for a thoughtful exploration of ideas in a sea of confusion, told with a general sense of fun and followed by a more or less complete explanation of what’s happening as our heroic lawyer makes his best guesses.
For the review of another book by Gene Wolfe, see The Land Across.
This book was sent to me for review.
For the record, this book has been nominated as one of the 2012 John W Campbell Memorial Award Finalists.