sexta-feira, dezembro 22, 2017

The Smallnesses of War: "The Two of Swords, 3 volumes" by K.J. Parker


“I always say that music can’t be about anything, it ought to be as close to abstract as it’s possible to get in an imperfect world. Otherwise you get stuff like violins trying to sound like rainwater, which is very well, but rain does it so much better. What’s for dinner?”

In “The Two of Swords, Volume 3” by K. J. Parker


This book in particular, and K. J. Parker’s SF in general, reminds me of a quote by Yevgeny Zamyatin:

“It is an error to divide people into the living and the dead: there are people who are dead-alive, and people who are alive-alive. The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes; only machines make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment.”

Zamyatin was referring to the deadening effects of Stalinist oppression on the arts but I think his quote can apply to bureaucratic and warring societies like ours as well. Go and apply for a bank loan or talk to a lawyer about an insurance claim and experience some treasured moments with the dead-alive.

Despite being fortunate enough to be married with kids and have enough close friends in my life, I like solitude. I've always identified with Graham Greene's protagonists, as well as those appearing in many of Haruki Murakami's stories. Maybe that’s why I'll probably never outgrow the teenage thing (SF, AOR music, dabbling in programming, rugby, etc.).

Anyway, veering slightly off topic, I realised recently that there isn't enough time left to probably read all the books I've ever wanted to read, which struck me as a bit sad. Imagine how you would feel when you got to the last page of the last remaining book which you wanted to read. It is a bit like money. It might seem to be a good idea to run out of it just as you get to the point of dying but it is probably more sensible to still have some left when arriving at that destination.


That is why love both Montaigne and now K. J. Parker: Montaigne in his essays (a genre he is credited with having invented), he seems to have covered the whole of human subjective experience and emotion, questioning and reflecting on everything from various perspectives; K.J. Parker is able to that with SF. His SFional-Weltanschauung reads like a never ending essay. We can think nowadays that even Shakespeare was indebted to Montaigne, most obviously in “The Tempest”. One little detail is that at during the period of Renaissance humanism, when the orthodox view was that man is the measure of all things, he asked whether his cat might not be playing with him as much as he plays with his cat. His radical scepticism paved the way for much of the scientific and philosophical progress of following centuries. Moreover, his writings always suggest a thoroughly reasonable and pleasant person. The same happens with K.J. Parker regarding the way he perceives the way society, and war in particular, works (or should work I should say). I have just finished reading "The Two of Swords". It is one of the most honest and insightful books on war, and leaves the reader in no doubt as to the dreadful waste and utter stupidity of war. Politicians, officers, you name it, are very much like the rest of us. They fail because we fail and we fail because success is not possible. No system, economic, social or political can be designed which is human-proof. The selfish urges within us will emerge in our actions and words corrupting whatever beautiful structures we create for national and international order. The best we can do is seek to transform ourselves and those around us into kinder, gentler versions of ourselves. This is a struggle that never ends and begins anew every time a new child is born. Success is only ever temporary and only ever a mitigation not a total victory. For all that it is an effort worth making but utopian dreams of a New Jerusalem are more of a hindrance than a help along the way. But it's one thing to say war is stupid, another thing is to say it's futile. It’s such a facile, throwaway line. Of course war is terrible, and futility is certainly a frequent aspect. It’s like saying that murder is bad, and claiming some moral superiority because you’ve said it. But irrespective of the claims of pacifists, it takes only one side to start a war. It’s just that a war with only one side is more commonly called a genocide. So rather than take a simplistic, clean view, one that protects your own conscience at the (possible) expense of other people’s lives, why not instead try to understand that war is deeply complex. 


Certainly the political machinations of the European Powers were not sufficient reason to fight a war. The First World War was the archetypal war of futility. And the Crusades, and the Alexandrian Campaigns, and Vietnam, and Iraq, and a host of other wars can also be properly categorised as futile. But the Second World War was not, nor the response to the Bosnian Conflict, nor the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In almost all belligerence, the real causes are hidden behind a veil of patriotism, religion or politics. These are the methods by which warmongering leaders get their populations to suspend their usual moral code. If a war is fought for any of these reasons, it is almost certainly futile. But if it is fought to protect people from these things, it might be far from futile. The nation state is not unlike feudal society like the one Parker depicts, with the only difference being is that we elect our kings and nobles now. The middle class and the poor for the most part enforce their will all under the guise of democracy, socialism, communism or theocracy. The ruling class were prepared to sacrifice some of their own young on the altar of conquest during the WWI. It’ no wonder then that they showed such utter contempt for the lives of the working class as they flung them into the slaughter in their countless thousands. And again in many conflicts since where the ruling and officer class remained well away from the butchery as the working class did their bloody work for them.

Parker has written a major essay in the form of fiction, the best kind there is. And can I even call it SF of the fantasy kind. There’s no better speculative fiction/science fiction/fantasy writer at the moment. What a delicious way to wrap things up 2017-wise. No other SF writer could put into words and philosophise at the same time the question “on how humanity can ever achieve the peace between people”, or “is our nature itself the well spring of conflict?”. If a large country makes a claim and can seize some land or other by little effort, e.g., Ancient Rome wrt Israel, the lot of the many can be said to be improved, while the lot of a few would be reduced. But doesn't all change adversely affect a few? What drives the change, real material gain overall, or the satiation of a covetous and acquisitive nature? Either way it's always the prospect of the future that capture my SFional imagination. Is the present really so bad? Perhaps we need to learn to savour what we have in the present rather than what we could have in the future. Is it our inadequacy, which drives us to gamble all on gaining something more? And what is our inadequacy other than a mistaken belief that we are in some way inadequate? Perhaps that is the pivot point, believing that we are acceptable and loved?

The way the bit of a scrap between Forza and Senza in the middle of the desert is narrated ("show-don't-tell" in play) is worth by itself the price of having these three huge tomes on my bookshelf.


NB: Read the three volumes published late 2017.



SF = Speculative Fiction.

4 comentários:

Book Stooge disse...

Since I'm too lazy to go look it up, any idea how many pages this whole trilogy is?

And on a completely off-subject note, the author of Algorithm of Power never contacted me. Maybe my blog posts scared him off?

Manuel Antão disse...

500 + 400 + 400 = 1300 Pages. And worth every penny!

Luís Filipe Franco disse...

Hi Manuel! Trying to catch up on your review's I'm amazed on your words on this one:). Recently I was amazed on a war trilogy with only 2 books out yet which was from Ken Liu. I'd like that you'd compare this with that world because those were also pages I cherish as one of the best I read (until now).

Manuel Antão disse...

Hi Luis. "The Two of Swords" is better in my humble opinion. The world-building is on another level altogether. Is this the year when you're going to start reading massively?