Sunday, June 3, 2012

Bad fruit

So there's this thing going around. I think I've written before about how, while I wouldn't necessarily say that science fiction is one of my favorite genres, many of my favorite authors are classified as science fiction authors. (Also science fiction is kind of the now! I'm getting frikkin' laser beams shot into my eyes in a few days so I can finally see. That's pretty sweet, although I'm holding out for my jet pack and/or personal teleportation device.)

Which, science fiction has become this sort of big umbrella term. The boundaries of the genre are pretty elastic, I find, but there's this interesting sub (sub?) - genre of science fiction (or, as we're now calling it, speculative fiction) that creates alternative histories.

Kind of like playing a big what-if game with history. Interestingly, World War II is a pretty popular era in this subgenre, which I guess makes sense, since there were huge leaps in technology, and also some terrible experimentations going on.

Which! Brings me to Ian Tregillis' Bitter Seeds. The first installment in a trilogy (book two is due out next month), Bitter Seeds follows Raybould Marsh, a British secret operative trying to dismantle a terrifying Nazi experiment.

Which! Okay, so - in the 1930s and 1940s Germany wrapped itself up in this incredibly bizarre, almost entirely invented mystic, proto-pagan, neo-Germanic national myth. Basically, Germans imagined a national history and began teaching it as fact, inventing this 'pure' Germanic race that had been tainted by foreign influences. At the same time, a lot of bogus, pseudo-scientific disciplines began popping up, and an obsession with the idea of creating a superrace developed.

Germans weren't the only ones - the Soviets, although not dragging around quite as much racial claptrap baggage, seriously thought that you could develop superhuman powers like telekineses or telepathy.

In Tregillis' novel, the Germans have succeeded. An aristocratic mad-scientist type, Doktor von Westarp, has been collecting orphans and performing gruesome experiments in a bid to awaken their Willenskraeft. Using a combination of torture, brain surgery, and a battery that harnesses the Goetterelektron, von Westarp kills a whole lotta kids, but manages to make a handful of supermenschen: prescient, sociopathic Gretel, her brother, Klaus, who can become insubstantial and run through a building or stop a heart, invisible woman Heike, the pyrokinetic 'salamander' Reinhardt, and brain-damanged Kammler, who can create a swathe of destruction with his mind.

Hooooowever, their powers are dependent on a continues supply of the Goetterelektron, and they have some interesting limitations (Klaus can't breathe in his insubstantial state, for example).

With the Reichsbehoerde at the Nazi's command, things look really dicey for the English. After France falls, they're separated from the German forces only by the tiny English Channel.

This is where it gets really speculative. A small group of warlocks step to the defense of the Empire, summoning the capricious, omnipresent Eidolons, invisible demonic forces who are willing to aid England's war effort...for a price. (Actually the Eidolons remind me of Mieville's Weaver spiders, noodling along the interstices of our reality and confounding anyone who tries to bargain with them.)

The plot revolves around Marsh, his damaged, aristocratic warlock friend, Will, and the prescient Gretel, who is playing a much larger game than Marsh or her handlers can comprehend.

I really liked this book. Tregillis has a very keen eye for historic detail, and his characters are flawed, often disgusting, sometimes heroic, and very complicated. The Reichbehoerde are saved from caricature by their weaknesses and fragility. Tregillis has a good feel for the horrible bargains that are driven during war.

But, and this is probably better left to people who are, I don't know, conversant in discussing literature, but I felt distinctly uncomfortable reading a novel about World War II that never mentioned the Holocaust. I wonder about the ethics of this particular genre of speculative fiction, but that discussion may better left until Tregillis finishes his trilogy.

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