In the end it all comes down to character. A good grip on it—a solid ability to write with empathy, about believable human beings (or, indeed, aliens)—and I’ll forgive almost any other flaw. And that’s what Susan R. Matthews’ final two novels, The Devil and Deep Space and Warring States are all about, for me: character.
I said this week would be our last look at Matthews’ novels, and so it is. Let me tell about these two: they’re excellent studies of character, and feature the first acts of rebellion by protagonist characters against Matthews’ dystopian Jurisdiction government....
...And the developments in them make very little sense unless you’ve read the first three Andrej Kosciusko books. I’d rather not spoil what transpires, for those of you with access to good libraries or excellent second-hand book dealers. Suffice it to say they’re really interesting space (and planetary) opera, and I recommend them exceedingly.
And in this age of ebooks, they really deserve far better than to be out of print and unavailable. I keep banging on at this point, I know...but I’d like to be able to say go and read them now, rather than go and read them if you ever find a copy.
To round out this brief series, Susan R. Matthews herself has agreed to answer a few short questions. Are you surprised? I wanted to surprise you.
The first question on my mind is, Why torture? What lead you to the setup in the Under Jurisdiction/Bench universe books?
SM: What a great question.
I proposed an authoritarian power structure in which coercive violence is an established and lawful instrument of State in order to invite the reader to consider how it might feel to be completely in charge. I strongly believe that enjoying bossing other people around is a value-neutral, basic human instinct; and that it’s of critical importance to recognize that in ourselves, and watch out for it, because that instinct can so easily lead into (sometimes extreme) abusive behaviors.
Furthermore, torture is something that almost everybody can agree is wrong (though even there people will argue). Andrej in my mind has always been someone who is doing something that he knows is wrong, but from which he derives overwhelming pleasure and satisfaction. His culture is also meant to acknowledge the corrosive effect that torture has on torturers but affirm its lawfulness (within established parameters) and its importance to the rule of Law and the Judicial order; so that not only is his birth-culture and the greater political environment telling him that what he’s doing is lawful and necessary, but also that he’s a hero of sorts for doing it.
Over the years I tried him out, as it were, in a variety of other contexts where that same tension might exist; but everything else I tried (in thought experiments) always failed, sooner or later, because in every other extremity that I could imagine I knew that there were plenty of people who’d get distracted from the point of my story by the question in their minds over whether the “evil” thing he was doing was actually wrong. Suppose for instance that he believed that dancing was morally wrong but found his bliss in dancing and, because of the requirements of his culture and society, couldn’t find a way out of being forced to dance: eh, but not everybody really believes that dancing is morally wrong, so his conflict is less emotionally convincing. Or imagine that it’s morally wrong to teach girls to read and write, but he takes such joy in empowering girls that he persists in the evil behavior: eh, but I’d hope there would be a real shortage of people reading my novel who believed that teaching girls to read and write was morally wrong, no matter how carefully a person set up a person’s fictional environment. Which would make my protagonist’s conflict more artificial and less fully engaging, accordingly.
The short answer, though, is that he was wired that way when I “met” him, as a young man of good character who, in a situation in which he feels he must do something morally repugnant, finds out that not only is he capable of committing atrocity but that it’s the most powerfully persuasive, emotionally overwhelming pleasure he’s ever known in his life. Everything else — what sort of a society must he be living in, and is there anything else that would really express his conflict? — came out of trying to present that problem as honestly and convincingly as I could.
Second question! What led you to science fiction in the first place?
SM: Because if you’re writing historical fiction you need to know what year they started mining opals in Australia before your protagonist can see an opal in someone’s head-dress—er—no, wait....
Some “what-if” stories can be reasonably and usefully placed in the real world, whether present day or in the past. But whenever you deploy “reality” you’ll find readers with differences of opinion on what happened, why it happened, and what it meant that can interfere with their immersion in the story. I don’t want people getting distracted from the story I’d like them to be reading. I want their undivided attention. That’s never going to happen; I have no control over the multiplicity of reactions that people are going to have to my story. I can only do my best to focus the story and everything that supports it on the one point that I want my reader to be attending to. I write science fiction because it gives me the opportunity to define a reality that supports the story I want to tell in the most concentrated form!
In Avalanche Soldier, you wrote about religious conversion and the social tensions involved in challenging the religious status quo. What prompted you to write a book that dealt with these themes?
SM: I was drawn to the idea of an ideologically heterodox, fiercely committed soldier who suddenly came to believe that an enemy, someone she’s been raised to consider a terrorist, was also the religious representative of a God that her faith said was yet to come.
At the same time I’ve also always been drawn to the dilemma of the soldier as I was raised (by a career soldier) to understand it: to do what you are convinced you have to do, to take another life, knowing all the while—with all but equivalent certainty—that you could be making a terrible mistake.
It was the conjunction of those two issues made Avalanche Soldier.
I’ve been watching the skies since Warring States: is there any prospect of readers finally seeing what happens next to Andrej and company? Have you been working on anything else?
SM: The last Koscuisko novel is titled Blood Enemies, and takes place about a year after the end of Warring States. It’s with my agent.
I’m currently at work on the second of three or four historical fantasy novels set in and around the high Pamirs—the “roof of the world”—in 1840. My protagonist, Jefferji Tamisen—an English orphan, the ward of a Rajput prince, a young man trained to combat whose principle pleasure is to dance in honor of Sri Krishna—walks between worlds of the mystic and the mundane, and fights the good fight to protect the innocent on battlegrounds material and magic alike. Wish me luck!
Well I, for one, wish Susan R. Matthews all the luck in the world
Next week, we’ll start to cast an eye over R.M. Meluch. Are you looking forward to it?
And to spare me the need to write reams of analysis here when I have a research paper due for a seminar in two weeks—don’t look at me like that: you’d do the same thing in my place and you know it.