Posts Tagged ‘M J Engh’

M.J. Engh’s Arslan opens with a sequence out of many nightmares: an Asiatic army sweeping across the American midwest, the government having fallen ominously silent, the people left at the mercy of the intruders and their charismatic young leader. Arslan Khan makes Kraftsville, Illinois the effective capital of the new world order he is intent on forging, simply by settling there. He asserts his authority over his new dominion simply and brutally, killing on a whim and committing much worse atrocities before his first day in town is over.

Observing all this is Franklin Bond, the local school principal, who finds himself in for a change of career. Arslan decrees that the school is to close, the telephone system is to be permanently disconnected, and that Bond is to oversee the conversion of the county to a system of complete self-sufficiency. The same rules apply everywhere that Arslan’s authority extends – which means most of the planet, and virtually all the developed world – Arslan has decided that the main part of humanity’s suffering can be alleviated simply by removing modern civilisation and driving everyone back to a more agrarian mode of living. Or so, at least, is his stated aim. Bond comes to suspect he may have an even darker agenda…


Arslan is, I think it’s fair to say, a difficult and somewhat polarising book. To start with, it’s not the apocalyptic thriller that it sounds like, and Engh never seems interested in supplying the reader with easy answers, or indeed any answers at all. The effect of the opening chapter – rattling, disturbing, frightening – comes from the fact that Arslan and his army turn up in the middle of America with no-one quite understanding who he is or where he’s come from, and certainly not how he has effectively become ruler of the world. Inevitably, though, one finds oneself wondering just how the ‘abdication’ of the governments of the US, the USSR, and so on, has been brought about. It’s well into the second half of the book before Arslan reveals how the trick has been turned, and it is only just credible. (As you can perhaps tell from the premise, Arslan was written in the 1960s and 70s, and may reflect some of the attitudes of the period, particularly with respect to international and domestic American politics.)

If you reach the second half of the book, however – and it seems that many readers don’t, dissuaded by one or more of various factors including the graphic horrors of the opening chapter, the fact that not very much seems to happen for long stretches, or some jarring shifts in the narrative voice – you will by this point have figured out that Engh is more interested in character than incident.

According to the author, Arslan was written between 1966 and 1974, roughly speaking. I was quite surprised to learn this, as I would have been prepared to swear that one of the inspirations for Arslan and his regime was Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ‘Year Zero’, instituted in 1975. Certainly the book seems to be an attempt to explain the dark charisma of this kind of warlord. When faced with the legacy of a figure like Pol Pot or Hitler, one inevitably finds oneself wondering just why they originally rose to power, what their appeal initially was, how they inspired such devotion? Arslan seems to be an attempt to answer that question: its eponymous character is a nihilistic messiah on a scale much greater than any historical figure, committing atrocities both personal and intimate, and on a global scale. And yet over the course of the book Engh sets out to make him, if not entirely sympathetic, then at least comprehensible. You can perhaps understand why he has earned the loyalty not just of his own men, but also many of his victims.

Or perhaps you can’t. Some may be put off by the studied ambiguity of the three main characters of the book – they are Arslan himself, a young male victim with whom he forms a close connection, and Bond – none of whom come through the story with their integrity wholly intact. Some may be repelled, and perhaps justifiably, by the way in which the book derives its shock opening from scenes of sexual violence, but then follows this up with a plotline where one of the victims becomes a loyal follower of his rapist. (Or, alternately, the way in which the plight of a whole series of female characters is scarcely explored: the women in the book are exclusively cast in supporting roles as wives, girlfriends, mothers, and sex objects.) Compared to some of this it almost seems a relatively minor transgression that the presentation of Arslan and the other central Asian characters is arguably fairly racist.

But, again, perhaps Engh’s intent is to take the racist stereotype of the Oriental monster and invest it with some depth and humanity. She certainly succeeds, but if she does it’s by steering the book away from the comforting certainties of the traditional narrative-driven thriller and more into the realms of (whisper it soft) literary fiction. Like a few others, I was led to Arslan by Orson Scott Card’s description of it as ‘one of the great works of literature in our time’, and Card certainly puts it into the right category…

(Things being as they are, it is almost irresistible to consider just what it is about Arslan that so appeals to an equally controversial figure like Card. A sympathetic reading might be that it appeals to Card’s literary sensibilities and appreciation of fine writing. The less sympathetic (and, dare I say it, majority) opinion might be that the story chimes with some of Card’s own beliefs: primarily that homosexuality is something one person inflicts on another, violently, producing lasting psychological damage.)

…though again I have to say that I found the much more straightforward prose style employed when Bond is the narrator rather less irksome than the pretentiously irritating one adopted by the other narrator. The book’s literary aspirations may also explain the lack of a conventional ending: the book ends with the conclusion of Arslan’s reinvention as a character, not the climax of his story as a person. The fate of the world is largely left open, along with that of all the major characters.

In the end, I have to say Arslan does not live up to the promise of its opening, simply because of its ambitions to be something more than a piece of SF – which isn’t to say that SF can’t have literary merit, but that the two can be fused more elegantly than happens here. People seem to be genuinely split over just what kind of book it is: Card suggests it’s a character study, Samuel R Delany considered it a brilliant piece of political fiction, while the author herself indicates she wrote it as an ecological novel. This is perhaps indicative of what an awkward book it is. The first half is undeniably gripping, but it almost becomes a bit of a slog by the end, and there are all the problematic elements I’ve alluded to as well. Worth reading, though, if only because it is such a unique book.

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