The Mongoliad: Volume One

The Mongoliad: Volume One
Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, et al

The Mongoliad is a Northwest All-Star affair. Seattle heroes Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear lead a mostly local team of writers that created a serialized, alternate history of the Mongol invasion of Europe; Amazon subsidiary 47North is now publishing the completed and re-edited manuscripts for those of us who prefer to read on dead trees. (Amazon is also based in Seattle, just in case any readers out there are unaware.) Information about the genesis of the project and its attempts to find new ways to deliver content are covered in more detail at mongoliad.com, also at the Subutai homepage. (Subutai is the corporation formed to handle the business end of the Mongoliad, as well as other future related projects in various mediums.) The back end is almost as interesting as the book itself, but I will spare readers a rehash. It is best to go directly to the source this time.

The book is probably best categorized as alternate history, as the authors suggest that the setting is one or two steps removed from our world. Within the first book however, I wasn’t sharp enough to spot any obvious differences, so one could probably call this historical fiction as well, if one really wants to pick nits. Mongoliad follows a similar pattern as much of Stepehnson’s other work, most notably The Baroque Cycle, where he deals with history seen through an SF lens. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but I would argue that there is a way to approach historical fiction with the forward looking, problem solving mindset of hard SF. (Stephenson has said the same in past interviews.) The Mongoliad is less obvious in this than The Baroque Cycle and its Enlightenment scientists, but there is a certain fidelity to The Way Things Work in effect here, rather than The Way Things Were, if that makes sense. Engineering takes top priority.

The authors track several characters in three groups: A Mongol encampment in Northern Europe, a group of knights venturing eastward through Russia to assassinate the Khan, and the Khan’s court in Mongolia. Characters on both sides of the conflict alternate narration duties, giving the perspectives from the knights, their guide, the Mongols, slaves of various Eastern extractions, and the Khan himself. Because this was written as a serial, each chapter is a discreet, cliff-hanging unit. The authors were apparently shuffled around between storylines and characters, which gives the book a certain unity, but there are still bits and pieces that were clearly written by one or another of the team. This may be jarring enough to turn off some people, though I wasn’t overly troubled by it.

One thing that I’m sure will bother some readers is the painstaking attention paid to fighting. The book apparently grew out of Subutai’s interest in Western fighting techniques; they put that knowledge to use in the detailed action sequences. Not everyone will be interested enough in how a broadsword can be effectively used against a naginata to pay attention through duels that march through multiple chapters, but that concerns the authors not a whit. I found it interesting enough, despite my pacifist tendencies, though it is a bit hard to imagine Greg Bear caring so deeply about correct sword grip. (Not saying that he doesn’t, just that it seems a bit odd.)

It’s a little hard to review this book well, as it is the first of three volumes. I am debating reading the rest online rather than waiting for the dead tree editions, which would both satisfy my curiosity and allow for more complete reactions. Book One is certainly not a stand-alone novel and ends, if not with a cliffhanger, then a notable lack of resolution. I’m not sure it will make by Best of 2012 list (though it might in completion), but it is certainly a fun ride. I look forward to the rest of the story.

Rating: Weeks one through three of a new season. A taste of the action to come, without any real indication of how good the season will be.

The Navidad Incident

The Navidad Incident
Ikezawa Natsuki

The Navidad Incident reminds me why I should read mainstream literature once in awhile. I have thought from the first publisher’s announcement that this is an odd title for Haikasoru to publish, especially considering the balance of their catalog. Navidad, inasmuch as one can assign genre to a book like this, is better considered fantastic literature or magical realism than SF or fantasy. Ikezawa shares more in common with authors like Jorge Luis Borges, Jose Saramago, or, inevitably, Murakami Haruki. (Not to say that Navidad would ever be mistaken for a Murakami novel, but the authors are countrymen and genre-mates, so anyone with a limited knowledge of Japanese lit will probably try to draw connections.) It is also part of the Japan Literature Publishing Project, which means that the Japanese government thinks that this particular book deserves to be out in the world. I am intensely curious how Ikezawa’s novel found itself being published by the SFF wing of an anime/manga monolith. (Haikasoru’s parent company is Viz Media, purveyor of all sorts of crazy Japanese stuff in translation.)

A final bit of introduction. Navidad won the Tanizaki Prize, one of Japan’s most prestigious mainstream literature awards. I think that its namesake, Tanizaki Junichiro, would approve of the choice. Tanizaki and Ikezawa share a similar outlook, a resigned yet sympathetic view of humanity. Like the motley international cast filling Navidad, Tanizaki’s characters often seemed to reflect the idea that we humans are a flawed bunch, only occasionally rising above our own banality, yet still deserving empathy and another chance to make something worthwhile of ourselves. Considering a selection of main characters: a corrupt president, a brothel owner, an alcoholic gay couple that may or may not be super spies, a WWII vet who becomes a right-wing Japanese politician, and a renegade tour bus, it is borderline miraculous that the reader feels any sympathy whatsoever with anyone, let alone be drawn deeply and unforgettably into their world. Well, except for the bus. The bus is pretty easy to like.

On to the book itself. Navidad is the product of a very specific and limited time period. Published in 1993, Ikezawa was looking at a world in which the Cold War had just suddenly and surprisingly ended, the US was unchallenged as the world’s lone political and military superpower, and Japan, not yet realizing that The Bubble had burst and the end was nigh, was riding high as the number two world economy and entertaining illusions of Asian leadership. China was but a twinkle in Deng Xiaoping’s eye, George Bush was admitting problems with “the vision thing,” globalization had yet really set in, and nobody knew what the world would look like now that the godless communists had fallen. The book, and the fate of its characters, is tied to the shifting currents of geopolitics, with the Republic of Navidad a very small, very insignificant, piece on the board. It could not be written now, not in a post 9/11 and post 2008 Recession world.

Said Republic is three fictional islands in the South Pacific, once a Japanese colony during WWII, and now a nominally independent nation. Mathias Guili is the current President of Navidad, but he rose to, and has maintained, power under shady circumstances. He is hardly a ruthless dictator, but he is quite open with his corruption. Guili’s fate, and those of the islands, are hopelessly intertwined with global politics, as Japan and the US half-heartedly woo Navidad’s support. Ikezawa paints a subtle, well-informed picture of the world Japan-leaning Guili finds himself in. I was surprised to find such a nuanced portrait of international relations, not normally a topic one expects to see in all its convoluted glory in the pages of a prize winning novel.

The plot splits in two early on, with most of the time devoted to Guili’s story. The parallel narrative follows a bus full of Japanese war veterans that vanishes into the ether, then has rumored misadventures. On the surface, the main plot is fairly serious, if strange, while the side story is just strange, but there is an underlying unity of purpose that becomes clear later on. Guili’s world is both a surprisingly vivid recreation of South Pacific life, or what I imagine South Pacific life to be, and a supernatural tale occasionally involving ghosts, cults, clairvoyance, and inscrutable machinations that might be supernatural, or might just be dudes in suits somewhere in a government office. Ikezawa never fully commits himself to fantasy, though it would take a stretch to attribute all to an unreliable narrator, least of all the whole bus thing.

“But Pep,” one might ask, “what’s it all about?” That is indeed the million dollar question, for Navidad is a superficially placid novel. There is no mounting and inexorable narrative momentum, no gripping action set pieces, and no real Bad Guys to perilously thwart unless one counts the main viewpoint character, who has plenty of flaws but still engenders more sympathy than is perhaps comfortable. Beneath the gently swaying tropical fronds however, Ikezawa is poking at some big questions. Some are Japan specific, only visible to those plugged into Japanese political discourse, but others are global in nature. Some are captive to the early post-Cold War era, but many remain relevant in spite of the changes of the last twenty years.

Most prominent is the question of whether a state can chart its own destiny in the international arena. Navidad is an insignificant piece on the board, with a population that can fit in a football stadium and the economic power of my neighborhood. Better to become a client of a superpower! No, we can play them off each other to our advantage! Bah, a pox on all their houses! Ignore the imperialists! And so on and so forth. Various diplomats, politicians, and everyday people voice their opinions throughout the book. It is no coincidence that this debate has played itself out repeatedly in Japan over the last two centuries.

Related to this is Japan’s role in the Pacific. While the common image of diplomatic Japan is a waffling and clumsy entity, Ikezawa’s Japan is smoother and more devious. I suspect that this is closer to the truth than people want to give Japan credit for, but I also think that the era comes into play here. Twenty years down the line, things are very different in Asia and Japan can no longer present itself as the presumptive leader. Be that as it may, Ikezawa is, at best, ambivalent about Japan’s Pacific ambitions, real or imagined. He deliberately ties Japan’s economic diplomacy to wartime empire building and seems to question the bottom line difference between physical invasion and the economic and cultural imperialism that happens so much now. Navidad’s dialog about national destiny acts as a proxy for Japan in the past; the final impression I receive is Ikezawa subtly urging his fellow Japanese to reassess Japan’s place in the world, the unspoken assumption that economic might is both desirable and necessarily expansionist.

Finally, and this is somewhat spoilery, Ikezawa uses the missing bus to pose a final question to Japan. When the war veterans return from their odyssey, they find themselves free of the past, able to look ahead to a life that no longer relies on the war for meaning and direction, and much happier because of it. This is a question that comes up in Norma Field’s masterful In the Realm of the Dying Emperor, itself inseparable from the same era as Navidad. (A side note: Field’s book is non-fiction and asks difficult questions, but evokes Japan like almost nothing else I have ever read. It took me within minutes from my sofa in the damp Pacific NW winter to mid-summer Kyoto when I opened it up. Necessary reading for the would be Japanophile. And now back to our regularly scheduled program.) I don’t know how this resonates today, as the war generation is passing along with its cultural relevance, but Ikezawa is very clearly telling Japan to let go of the past and settle its war issues. This is especially poignant now, as we Japan watchers are seeing that window close and the chances of reconciliation fade away.

I’ve been digging around in the undergrowth here, ignoring the joys of the story somewhat in favor of the political goodies buried within. Coming up for air however, I have to credit the story’s quiet power. Despite the lack of pulse-pounding action, it is a compelling character sketch set to a swaying tropical rhythm. Guili and his crew have stayed with me in the way the best characters do. I may not count them as people I admire or want to have barbecues with, but I am glad to have been let into their world for a short while.

Rating: As this is an unconventional book for us to review here, I will use an unconventional rating, comparing this not to football, but to Michael Torke’s Tahiti album. Like Navidad, it can be enjoyed as an outsider’s breezy take on the South Pacific. Also like Navidad however, there is much to be enjoyed beneath the surface.