Malazan Reread of the Fallen

Malazan Reread of the Fallen: On Hetan, The Barghast, and the Portrayal of Torture in Fantasy Fiction

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The following post will be dedicated to discussing a specific event in the series: the Hetan scene, which occurs in Chapter Fifteen of Dust of Dreams. Readers should be aware that the conversation that follows contains descriptions of torture and sexual violence, in order to discuss this particular scene within the novel but also in the larger context of how violence is used throughout the series and elsewhere in the fantasy genre, and how it relates to and reflects the real world.

The post that follows contains the reactions of Amanda (approaching the series as a first-time reader), followed by Bill’s reflections on rereading this scene, with some thoughts from the author, Steven Erikson, following in the comment thread. As always, a spoiler thread has been set up for discussion of events beyond Chapter Fifteen, as we’d prefer to keep the comments below spoiler-free….

Amanda’s Reaction

I was given an inkling right from the comments in our Prologue post that there was an event in this novel that I would possibly find disturbing. Then there was some discussion behind-the-scenes between our benevolent Tor.com overlords and Bill about how to handle the horrible events occuring later in the novel. And the Barghast storyline has been gradually building and building into something of horror. So I knew that I was going to feel uncomfortable. I suspected this was going to leave me feeling down.

I actually feel shellshocked. And numb. This series has never been afraid of showing me the worst in human nature – we’ve seen rape, and murder, and truly evil acts. Luckily we’ve also seen the best in human nature to balance it all out.

So what makes this somehow more? Somehow worse?

I hate to say it, but part of it is because the hobbling was done by the women in the tribe. You see women as being part of some sisterhood, of acknowledging that we should stick together, that we are often treated badly by men so we should treat each other with respect. The fact that the women here were so determined to be part of Hetan’s punishing, the fact that they were gleeful at her fall from power, the fact that they urged the men on into serial rape. It makes it more painful.

In the same vein, I found it massively troublesome that the person to cauterize Hetan’s bleeding stumps was a nine year old girl. It would have been horrible to see anyone do this, but, damn, it becomes truly horrific to see a child participate in this ritual punishment and humiliation.

The nature of hobbling – the cutting, the cauterizing, the rape. It’s just too much to face for me. I read with an actual chill. The fact that *everything* is taken from this women. Her freedom is taken, her mind is taken, her body is taken. She is left with nothing – and the women keep her alive in order that she will suffer for longer. Again, the fact that it was the women who stopped the raping after two dozen men – TWO DOZEN – had participated; but not out of any kindness, rather, out of a desire to fix her up enough to prolong the agony and humiliation.

So, stop. I can’t think on this anymore. It makes me feel physically sick.

Why is this worse than other things Erikson has written? Why is it worse than that seen in other novels?

For one, we are in Hetan’s POV as it happens. We are in her thoughts as she decides that this punishment is just for what she did to her children. We see her acceptance as she rises up to receive the first rape. That makes it worse.

It makes it worse because we, as the reader, are not permitted to look away or pretend this doesn’t exist. We see every part of it happening. I think this is very deliberate on Erikson’s part. It is in our nature to look away from things we find disturbing or troublesome. We like to think ‘there but for the grace of god…’ and then move on with our lives. We don’t think much on how different lifestyles and cultures can put people into situations where they experience torture and maiming and rape. We don’t like to imagine that this can happen in our sanitized and ordered life. But, damn, it does happen – and this fantasy novel brings it front and centre and demands that we acknowledge it exists.

You know something? I was told that I could skip this post – that the re-readers with their knowledge could protect me from having to go through what they had gone through, that I could avoid this potentially triggering scene. I understand why this offer was made. But I find that almost disrespectful – both of me as a reader and Erikson as a writer. As a reader, I should not avoid what the author is laying out for me. As a writer, Erikson wrote this scene in order to make a point – what right do I have to say that I only want to read what makes me feel happy and comfortable?

I appreciate the fact that, along with the cinematic scenes, the buddy twosomes, the love expressed, this Malazan series also tackles the big ideas, the big themes, the actual horrors and delights of life. We can’t say that Erikson focuses just on the good stuff (like Eddings). He doesn’t focus just on the grim (like Abercrombie). He presents us with the full gamut of human emotion and behavior, and shows us what it means to be totally alive.

One of the themes we have identified in these complex and rewarding novels is compassion. And I think we need to have compassion in this case. And not just compassion for Hetan and her children. Compassion for those who commit the atrocity because it is part of their lives and will always have to live with it. Compassion for those who see it and do nothing, because they fear for their own lives. Compassion for those suffering real torture and atrocities, in our real world.

This scene – no matter how troubling, how haunting, how triggering – feels important. I can’t say necessary, I just can’t, but important.

I can understand readers who no longer want to read the Malazan novels. I can understand those who found this a step too far. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to read, and, right now, I don’t like Erikson for making me read it. But, at the same time, I thank him, as ever, for making me think. For forcing me to consider a life outside my own. For requiring me to acknowledge that our desire to look away does a disservice to those suffering right now. And for writing fantasy books that feel essential – not just to the genre, but to all readers.

Bill’s Reaction

So here we are. Hetan. Hobbling. Serial Rape. Horror piled atop horror. And to what end? Why do we “need” to read this? Steven has given us some thoughts on the matter, and will try to join us in the conversation as well, but I’m going to give some of my own views here, some of which overlap Steven’s. I’m going to just be thinking out loud, because I didn’t want to formalize this topic—it felt too much like removing myself from it. So this may turn out long, circular, meandering, incoherent… You get the idea. Apologies in advance.

I want to start by talking not about the Malazan world, but about an entirely different creative enterprise—last week’s episode of The Walking Dead. What happened in that particular episode not only frustrated me as that show regularly has, but also truly, deeply, angered me, and did so for reasons that speak directly to my thoughts on Hetan’s hobbling. So if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to give a brief description of the pertinent scenes in that episode. If you watch the show and haven’t seen the episode yet, be warned that there will be spoilers.

In it, we have two young sisters, Lizzie and Mika. Lizzie is more than a little crazy in that she doesn’t see zombies as creatures to be killed or feared. Instead, she considers them simply “different” or “changed.” And so we’ve seen her feeding the zombies rats, not letting the adults kill them if the humans aren’t in immediate danger, and even “playing tag” with a zombie “friend,” until one of the adults kills it (an act that evokes a tantrum on her part). Her sister Mika, meanwhile, knows zombies are dangerous and need to be killed, but she’s just a little too nice and optimistic for this world. Near the close of this episode, the two girls have been left alone (along with a baby they tend to while the adults do adult work), and Lizzie kills Mika, telling the horrified adults who arrive just afterward that it’s OK, they just have to wait for Mika to “change.” Then one of the adults kills Lizzie in George and Lennie Of Mice and Men fashion.

OK, horrific, shocking acts of violence. A young girl cuts the throat of her younger sister, and seems wholly unaffected by it, and then is herself killed with a bullet to the head. In its own way, it is as horrific an act of violence as we see here with Hetan, if less drawn out and torturous. And yet one makes me respond with visceral anger toward the author (s) and one does not. Why?

I’ll do my best to explain, though I’m not sure I’ll be able to, it’s such an emotional response. What so enraged me (and really, I was enraged, ranting and yelling at the TV) was the way this act of violence was meant to shock and do nothing but shock. The two girls had never been developed as characters, so we had no emotional connection to them. The killing could only have happened via the Idiot Plot—no adult ever (ever) would have left Lizzie alone with anyone, let alone a baby (we’d not only seen her playing with a zombie and getting furious when it was killed, but we’d seen her make no attempt to escape a zombie while she had been holding the baby). And there was zero logic (and yes, craziness often has a logic to it) to her “changing” her sister, as she’d never spoken of being a zombie as being a superior life or of her sister having a miserable one that she needs to be freed of. And she of course has witnessed the adults with her killing those who “changed” even when they cared for them, meaning there is zero reason for her to think elsewise when her sister changes. In other words, they were throwaway deaths, with no thought given to them at all save one—this’ll shock the hell out of ‘em.

Oh, I know it was supposed to both shock and move, but it “moves” an audience in a wholly faux fashion, it’s an intellectual, a logical emotional response—A little girl just killed another girl, and then she died herself, and that is horrible, so I should feel really bad about it, and because I should, I will and do—and because it is an intellectual, logical emotional response, it is no emotional response at all. It is a tawdry façade meant to manipulate the audience via violence solely for the purpose of shocking them, and therefore, was entirely gratuitous in my mind. It used the deaths of the girls not to evoke true feeling or thought but just the opposite, and thus cheapened death and violence in the name of nothing. In the service of nothing. It was a betrayal of the audience. I felt slimy afterward.

That’s one example of the use of violence that repulses me. Another type is the “death quip” that is often a staple of action films—the “Consider that a divorce” line Schwarzenegger delivers after shooting his had-pretended-to-be-his wife in the head. Or the way characters nonchalantly mow people down with total glee, or with nary a twitch even if they aren’t joking. I don’t care that they’re “bad guys.” This is not gallows humor, or trying to repress feelings; it isn’t people trying to live with themselves after performing horrible acts. It makes death “funny,” but not in the “If I don’t laugh I’ll weep” way that it needs to be. That it is—see any wake. It makes it funny like cat videos (or so I hear). In other words, it cheapens death and so cheapens life (for a great explanation of soldier humor, see Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Well, for a great anything).

Ok, so what is different about Hetan? A few basic premise points first.

One is a different type of question—what is different about Hetan as opposed to, say, all those people we’ve seen blown to bits by munitions in this series? Or other deaths? Or rapes? Or threatened rapes? Or children dropping dead as they march through the wasteland? It’s not so easy for me to pick out Hetan and say, “Hoo boy, this, this is where I draw the line.” I can’t say for 100% surety there isn’t a difference here, but I’m also not sure that there is. Part of me wonders if it’s a little convenient for us to cherry-pick this rape here, that child killing there, and glide blithely by the other violence (if we do). In other words, I’m not necessarily starting with the premise that this is “worse” than what we’ve seen prior.

I also start with the premise that if you are writing a book about the human condition, and does anyone doubt by now that is what has been happening here, then it’s kind of hard, if not impossible to have violence not be part of it. And truly horrific violence at that (again, there’s that weird what-makes-it-truly-horrific question—why can’t we be equally horrified by the “plain old” deaths?). That’s not to say every book needs violence, as that isn’t every book’s intent (though I’d say authors still have some responsibility since even if it isn’t, they still are presenting a particular view—you don’t get off the hook for cheap deaths by saying, it’s just entertainment in my book). But if violence is part of it, than a chunk of me, a large chunk of me, thinks it’s incumbent upon the author to show it in its true light—to be graphic, to evoke revulsion and anger. Because that is the response we should have, both in the created world and the world it mirrors. If anyone in the real world killed as too many characters do, with killing a nonchalant act, a repercussion-less act, an often “fun” act, we wouldn’t trumpet them or thrill over them; we’d lock them the hell up in the deepest, most secure spot we have because we’d see them as the psychopaths they are.

So it’s hard for me to get too upset over graphic violence in general, because it is part of parcel of our mirrored world. Similarly, I also can’t get too upset over some “particularly” horrid act an author comes up with, because no matter what you make up, it can’t be “worse” than the reality. It’s akin to Margaret Atwood’s statement about The Handmaid’s Tale—she didn’t put anything in there that hadn’t been done somewhere in history. One need only read the news to see examples of socialized rape or maiming.

The Walking Dead episode, in my view, wasn’t depicting violence as part of the human condition, wasn’t mirroring the things humans do to each other. It wasn’t meant to horrify; it was merely meant to surprise. It wasn’t saying anything.

And saying something is another reason I am disturbed by what happens to Hetan but not by the authorial choice of depicting it. Because this violence, all the violence, is in a context of saying something. And that something (again, in my view—I haven’t gotten Steven’s “This is exactly what I’m doing” manifesto) is exactly the opposite of an authorial view that would allow for gratuitous violence—it is the never-out-of-earshot plea for the twin concepts of Compassion and Empathy, the concepts that so permeate this series that you simply cannot read any act of violence without them being bound to that plea.

I find the violence different as well because it has repercussions. And those repercussions last more than a perfunctory five minutes. The violence haunts these people, as it should. As it should haunt us as well.

I’ll try to make the distinction one last time and then shut up. When I see that event in The Walking Dead, I simply wonder how that girl could do such a thing. When I read what happens to Hetan, or to a host of others in this series, I wonder first how could he/she/they do such things, and then also, how could we do such things to each other. And that is all the difference in the world to me.

Ok, apologies for the length, the disjointed nature, the muddiness of this. I’ll try and clarify further in comments.


Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.

Bill Capossere writes short stories and essays, plays ultimate frisbee, teaches as an adjunct English instructor at several local colleges, and writes SF/F reviews for fantasyliterature.com.

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