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Beautiful Blood by Lucius Shepard

July 7, 2014 6 comments

BEAUTIFUL_BLOOD_by_Lucius_Shepard

Beautiful Blood by Lucius Shepard (Subterranean Press, 2014) is, in a word, magnificent! It manages something only rarely seen in these increasingly less intellectual years. It takes a work of fantasy about a dragon named Griaule and contrives to make it about ideas. Under normal circumstances, no doubt even the most hardened fantasy lover would run screaming from the room. But this carries off the entire project with such panache, you can’t help but be enthralled by the chutzpah and emerge applauding at the end.

Way back in “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” (1984) we were introduced to a large lizard. As a result of combat with an altruistic magician, concerned the dragon was becoming too much of a hazard for local people, the giant beast was, for the most part, frozen into immobility. Proving that humanity is remarkably adaptable, a settlement springs up around this beast in its magically-induced coma. In due course, the settlement becomes a village becomes a town becomes a small city. The few straggling lean-to hovels, develop a life of their own as some buildings extend up the sides and on to the back of the beast. Others become the essential ground-based buildings any group of people need from church to brothel, from militia compound to tax collection vaults. One of those who come to this new spawning ground for humanity is Richard Rosacher. He’s a man who pursues a dream of science and seeks to understand the body so obviously dominating the local landscape. Being a man who likes to work with blood, he pays a local to climb into the mouth of the beast to extract some of the life-giving essence from the beast’s tongue. Unfortunately, through circumstances outside his control, our hero ends up with a substantial amount of this blood injected into him. We spend the rest of the book watching what happens to the man and attempting to distinguish between evidence of determinism and free will.

Lucius Shepard

Lucius Shepard

So let’s get to some of the ideas. Going back to the origin of this enforced sleep, the beast has entered a phase of what we might term physical stasis, i.e. the body is not affected in any significant way by the passage of time. So Richard finds himself experiencing a form of dislocation in time. It seems he lives through the years but only fully inhabits his body at intermittent moments. This is sufficient to accumulate memories of what he has been doing but, only when he surfaces, does he pick up the thread of running the body in real time. At such times, he can receive warning messages in his dreams from contemporary or future individuals who have a “relationship” with Griaule, e.g. as scalehunters. In other words, he becomes a form of sock puppet for the dragon. Even when he’s autonomous, there’s still some doubt as to whether he’s truly free. Assuming the dragon to be a form of god, this may be inevitable since gods always manage to get their prophets to do what they are supposed to do. There’s a parallel model of this state in a child rapist called Frederick. He’s also transformed by Griaule and becomes altogether something more primal. The point of this counterpoint is to show both Richard and Frederick have different kinds of friend who offer guidance or direction, yet both in their own ways end up as forms of marauders.

In turn, this leads on to a consideration of the extent to which the beast should be considered a deity. At an early stage, we see flocks of birds and insects being influenced as they move around or fly close to the surface of the dragon. Even Richard finds he achieves a rather pleasing meditative state at some points on the dragon’s skin. During these times, he feels his mind can make sense of different factual elements in his life. Who’s to say whether he’s integrating these facts into a coherent understanding or telepathically communing with the dragon and listening to its thoughts. No matter who’s doing the thinking, the result is that Richard survives and the dragon’s existence is not threatened in any meaningful way (unless you count the poisoned paint and only the dragon knows whether it’s permitting the slow death to come). It’s therefore not unreasonable to believe the dragon is influencing the people who live on it and, to a lesser extent, around it. When a major physical beast or object can interact with those around it, promoting the interests of those who do its bidding and punishing those who defy it, characterising it as a deity is not unreasonable. Indeed, the otherwise powerful church feels threatened by the presence of the beast and would like nothing better than to dispose of it. Unfortunately, the fallible human beings in charge of the church lack the control over the people to sway them away from dragon worship (which can come with fringe benefits) in favour of conventional beliefs which have less provable benefits in a life hereafter.

In turn, this leads to a meditation on the different forms of leadership and whether it’s ever going to be possible to have a human leader without faults. For these purposes, we’re offered many exemplars. At the apex, we have Breque, an overtly corrupt and not a little incompetent man when it comes to the management of finances. He runs the city forming around the dragon and, amongst other things is responsible for defence. Carlos is the king of the neighbouring state. He lives for and through his people. If there’s a local problem, he jumps on his horse and rides out to solve it. He asks no thanks, only that his people love him. Ah, so he’s a narcissist and while such men can go through a benign phase, they can get a little tricky to manage if they lose confidence the people actually love them. Some of the most interesting debates consider how best to motivate the mass of people into doing what you want. One might develop an opiate for the masses, i.e. leadership through the exploitation of chemical dependence, or another might rule through a primary emotion like love or fear, or someone might seek influence through the interpretation of faith, and so on. Power comes in many forms, whether between individuals in relationships or at wider levels. Curiously, the dragon’s rule (if such it be) is through passivity. This leaves its presence as enigmatic and, of course, that allows people to develop all kinds of superstitions about it. Perhaps that’s the most effective long-term way to control people. To allow them to deceive themselves into doing what you want. Put all this together and Beautiful Blood emerges as the most intelligent work of fantasy published so far this year.

For other reviews of books by Lucius Shepard, see:
The Dragon Griaule
Louisiana Breakdown
The Taborin Scale
Two Trains Running
Vacancy and Ariel

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Dong Yi — the politics

July 16, 2011 1 comment

One of the more interesting questions about any modern drama is whether it can escape the limits of our own time and achieve some degree of universality. If we look back at Shakespeare, the people of his time no doubt thought him good. At the very least, they paid to see his work on the stage and read his poetry. But I seriously doubt anyone thought he would still be going strong almost four-hundred years after his death. That his work is still performed is remarkable for two reasons. First, the English is four-hundred years out of date, and a not insignificant amount of the vocabulary is no longer in direct use. Second, the format of blank verse makes the delivery of the words sound even less natural to our modern ears. Yet, despite the fact the language represents a barrier to understanding, the themes are as relevant today as they were yesterday. The plays speak to the realities of power and the frailties of human beings. Sadly, men and women have always been afflicted by excesses of pride, jealousy and cruelty. Fortunately, they have also been uplifted by charity, wisdom and love. That we have survived all these generations is testament to the fact that a balance has been struck between the virtues and the vices, with the former edging into the lead to the race to glory or perdition.

Ji Jin Hee usually showing the King as a man of great humanity

Dong Yi is a Korean sageuk serial, directed by Lee Byung-hoon and based on a script by Kim Yi Young. It’s a story set in the real-world Late Joseon court of King Sukjong (Ji Jin Hee). It’s not about destiny or fate although there’s a Macbeth-style witch to predict the future. It’s about choices and living with the consequences. The framework for the story is the political situation inside the court. It’s bedevilled by infighting between the Western and Southern factions, the latter later dividing into the Soron group which supports the claims of the Crown Price to succeed his father, and the Noron group which prefers the son of Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) for the next king.

The main problems with power and wealth are not just in maximising their accumulation, but being able to keep what has been acquired and decide what’s to happen after death. Succession planning becomes a key focus because those who follow the current power-brokers must decide how they will align themselves when the next generation takes over. The fact that fathers may favour one group does not guarantee the sons or daughters will view that group with the same favour. In a way, Dong Yi is a variation on the themes of King Lear in which an ageing king decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. We all remember Goneril and Regan, but it’s the virtuous Cordelia who wins out in the end.

Han Hyo Joo as Dong Yi showing the clothing appropriate to different ranks

Dong Yi balances on a political cusp between an old order and a new order. At this point, the inertia of the past reinforces an essential conservatism. Those that have the power naturally want to preserve the status quo and their politics are right wing. These are the High Tory grandees and the stalwarts of the Republican party. The new order is founded on more abstract notions of social justice. In utilitarian terms, it assumes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, that through the emancipation and empowerment of the lower classes in a society, the community as a whole will benefit. Making an economic point, if wealth is more evenly distributed, the poor have money to spend. They form a market and, if those with capital build businesses that sell goods and services to the poor, the quality of life for all may improve. This is not to say that either old or new order is more rational. But the issue is whether the combination of rationality with a more altruistic use of power produces a better, more enlightened society. If it does, then the new order will prevail.

The problem with King Sukjong is that he lacks the motivation to live up to his Confucian ideals. Like Lear, he’s delegated the running of the kingdom to successive political factions within the palace and “trusts” them to run the country properly. So, in the debate about means and ends, the realpolitik of this historical period sees a well-intentioned king forced to confront the corruption inherent in the old order. For the nobility, the end is the accumulation of personal power, no matter what the cost. By contrast, Choi Dong Yi accumulates power almost inadvertently and only uses what she has for the benefit of others. The relationship between the King and Choi Dong Yi therefore takes the first step in the direction of a renaissance. This is selfless individualism with the power to confront the entrenched interests, thereby promoting the notions of class mobility and a meritocracy. Going back to the issue of succession, this is moving from what we might call a noble line based on blood, to a noble line based on ability and virtue. It’s therefore a threat to the status quo, not to say revolutionary.

Lee So-Yeon as Lady Jang Hee-bin showing the high-ranking hairstyle

In terms of statecraft, the new order reflects a more profound application of Confucianism, demonstrating that being righteous and honest in the service of humanity creates a new political reality. Given the nature of Korean society as an autocracy, Confucius teaches that a ruler will lose Heaven’s Mandate if he acts without proper respect for humanity. This produces a framework of benevolence in support of the people. Mencius also hints at some degree of democratisation in that a ruler should listen to the will of the people on important matters affecting their interests.

Coming to the Jang family as the primary representatives of the old order, we have Lady Jang (Lee So-Yeon) who starts off in an indeterminate state. She is filial and has been involved in the inevitable manoeuvring to acquire power. But, as the family gains status through the murder of competitor nobles, she becomes less directly involved and, in the end, rises above the infighting. She has intelligence and this could have empowered her as a force for good in King Sukjong’s court. Yet she is trapped by her relationships and loyalties. Her decision is to sacrifice her emerging virtue to protect her brother, Jang Hee-Bin (Kim Yoo Suk). This is fateful, based on selfish emotion without concern for the broader social consequences.

Choi Jong-Hwan as Jang Moo-Yul dressing down to pass unnoticed outside the palace

Jang Hee-Bin and Lady Yoon (Choi Ran), his mother, lack Lady Jang’s intelligence. They move at a more instinctive level, driven by the short-term desire to hold what they have despite the consequences, whether positive or negative. The most interesting counterpoint to Choi Dong Yi is Jang Moo-Yul (Choi Jong-Hwan). He represents the most rational mind in the old order. It’s interesting to watch him offer his services to Choi Dong Yi. This is pure pragmatism to join the new order while it ascends. If it then stabilises and holds power, he will be in prime position. If it should appear weak, he can bring it down from within. When she rejects him, he dismisses her as naive because he does not understand how fundamentally Choi Dong Yi’s philosophy will infect those around her. He’s blinded by his own faction’s orthodoxy, assuming the predatory ways of the court cannot change. As a result, he misses the straws in the wind like Matron Yoo (Lim Seong-Min). These people accept a second chance, develop a conscience, or trust each other as honest without looking for hidden motives. He loses when he selfishly overreaches to protect his own interests.

Although allegories are, by their nature, simplistic, Dong Yi is not simple fodder for television audiences. For those who want to look beyond the melodrama and romance, there’s a robust debate on the nature of power, who should have the right to wield it, and for what purposes. There are also fascinating uses of everyman figures. These are the fools and less able who nevertheless find their positions in the new order. To all their just deserts as we watch the more universal moral messages play out. Dong Yi is probably not going to be remembered in hundreds of years as a work of Shakespearean quality, but it’s a brave attempt to say something interesting about the kind of society we should all like to live in.

For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

Dong Yi — the minor characters

Dong Yi — final thoughts

Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:

Dong Yi — the first 22 episodes;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 55 to 63;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 70 to the end.

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