"My Wolfhound Century should grow
Vlaster than empires and more …"
Peter Higgins’s Wolfhound Century trilogy [Wolfhound Century (2013) Truth and Fear (2014) Radiant State (2015)] is one of the most remarkable Fantasy works of the twenty-teens. This assessment seems to me so obvious that the series' relative neglect by the SFF community becomes a real puzzle. Rarely has a literary/historical imagination been so powerfully combined with heartfelt sciencefictional and Fantasy sensibilities. Of course it may be that very hybridity—the bald fact of it, I mean, rather than its calibre—is precisely why this work has been under-appreciated by the genre community and largely ignored by the literary. I don’t mean, in saying so, to sound personally aggrieved. Higgins isn't a personal friend (I've met him once, briefly, at a publishing do [update Jan 2018: full disclosure, since writing this post, I've got to know Peter a little better; although it doesn't alter any of the views expressed below]) and I've no desire at all to become the patron saint of lost literary causes. But it bears repeating: this trilogy deserves much more than it received. Perhaps its time is yet to come.
The setting is ‘the Vlast’, a variant 20th-century Soviet Union in which a variety of fantastical elements coexist with the apparatus of a Stalinist police state, and all its quasi-Orwellian quotidian indignities—overbearing bureaucrats, the smell of boiled cabbage in corridors, cheap vodka, queues in freezing weather and so on. The fantasy aspect of the novels is rooted in a kind of forest magic (indeed, the huge forest is almost a character in its own right). Giants are pressganged into physical labour, shapeshifting werewolves and smoke spirits walk the streets. Also it means angels. These creatures, it seems, throng the dark interplanetary spaces, and at the beginning of the trilogy one such celestial being has tumbled to earth. It is still sort-of alive, gigantically embedded in the ground in the middle of the wilderness.
If I say the plot is not the most notable achievement of this trilogy I don’t do so to disparage Higgins’s narrative. Volume 1, Wolfhound Century, spins a very readable Gorky Park-y policier/thriller, in which Vissarion Lom, his main character, too principled a policeman to get promoted, is sent to investigate nefarious goings-on in the Vlast's capital city Mirgorod, and in doing so uncovers plots and criminality that go right to the top of the politburo-equivalent. This works well. The worst we could say is that, as a mechanism for keeping the reader reading, the gears of this plot stick a little in the first half of the second volume, Truth and Fear (2015). It doesn't really matter. By this point the story and its characters have built up enough momentum to carry the reader through, and the denouement to vol 2 and the unexpected upward trajectory of Radiant State make for more impetus in the reading experience. What I'm trying to suggest is that plot is subordinate, in this trilogy, to something else. I'm tempted to call this something else ‘atmosphere’, but that’s not quite right. The writing certainly is very atmospheric, sometimes intensely so. But although Higgins loads every rift of his paragraphs with the ore of description and mood, I wonder if there isn’t something else at play here.
On publication of the first volume, some reviewers made comparisons with China Miéville. I can see why, although it’s a parallel that misrepresents the balance of mimesis and fantasy in Higgins’ novels, pitched as they such that the latter quality is used to inflect the former, rather (as in Miéville) the other way about. Though it lacks the fantastical aspect altogether I wonder if a better point of comparison would be Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty. What Higgins, Miéville and Spufford all share, I think, is a complicated mix of partiality and horror in their attitude to the old Soviet Union, an attitude compacted out of left-leaning political affiliation, historical knowledge of what actually happened, humane sensibilities and imaginative capacity.*
[*I could mention my own Yellow Blue Tibia here, not as any kind of comparator text, but only because I also share this mix of feelings concerning the old USSR. Of course, perhaps that means I'm merely projecting when I talk about Spfford, Miéville and Higgins. Those latter two mediate their Soviet-y Unions through the lens of Fantasy; Spufford through the lens of alternate history and speculative economics. My own novel uses a UFO fantasia and a self-reflexive SF writing trope as its inflection. It's also supposed to be funny, which is a point I return to below. I don't mean the hilarity or otherwise of my own writing. I mean the rather more significant question of what Martin Amis calls 'laughter and the twenty million'. Higgins, it's fair to say, is not trying to be funny in Wolfhound Empire.]
I have a theory that, in idle moments, I sometimes dandle on my metaphorical knee. It is that one of the ways we can differentiate between Fantasy and SF is the way they handle dystopia. SFnal dystopias are often very horrible, but more to the point they are horrible in a way that is designed to repel. I mean this in the sense that nobody sane would want to live in Zamiatin’s Onestate or Orwell’s Airstrip One. Fantasy is less thickly supplied with dystopias, I’d say, since for many fans the primary purpose of the genre is escape. So it goes that the broad sunlit uplands, romantic snow-peaked mountains and surging blue waters of your terra fantastica may be under siege or even under occupation by the forces of evil, and so temporally dystopified, but it will only ever be temporary. The book’s Shaytan equivalent is defeated and banished and the drought or plague or whatever lifts from your land. This, though, raises interesting questions about those Fantasy texts that don’t do this, Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, I suppose, being the most obvious counter-example. You might want to live in Middle Earth; indeed, when I was a kid I had periods when I yearned to live there, rather than in my suburban SE English mundaneness. But who would yearn to live in Westeros? Psychos? Masochists? I don't know. The popularity of the books, and especially of the TV series, suggests to me that there are people who do indeed yearn for the escape Westeros represents; presumably an escape from civilisation and its discontents.
It has to do with enchantment, or more specifically it reacts to the sense of modernity as a site of disenchantment. One of the notable thing about Wolfhound Century is the way it wholeheartedly commits to the materialism of the Soviet experiment (it is science fiction; there are even spaceships) and to fantasy of magic, giants, ruskalas, golems, vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches and colossal alien fallen angels. It's both at the same time: a superposition of SF onto Fantasy, or (with appropriately dialectical balance) vice versa, sometimes more and occasionally less effectively achieved but always uncomfortable and powerful. We can say more. To these two modes, or inflections, the trilogy adds a third, since the genre most typically associated with Cold War Russia is neither SF nor Fantasy but the thriller. That’s the element frontloaded in the first volume, Wolfhound Century (2013). The book starts with a nod to the opening scene in Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, with our hero, Police Inspector Vissarion Lom, sitting in a café watching his operation through the window, like Le Carré’s Leamas:
Investigator Vissarion Lom sat in a window booth at the Café Rikhel. Pulses of rain swept up Ansky Prospect, but inside the café in the afternoon crush the air was thick with the smell of coffee, cinnamon bread and damp overcoats. ‘Why don’t you go home’ said Ziller. ‘Nobody’s going to come. I can call you if anything happens. You can be back here in half an hour.The narrative moves on in a more Martin Cruz Smith/Gorky Park-y direction from this opening, but it works well. Or at least, it does in the first volume. I mean ‘works well’ in the sense of generating an effective thrillery vibe, a noir mood: the degrees of tension and excitement and that make reading easy. But it proves hard to sustain as the trilogy goes on, since such a vibe depends upon an agent working within the more tightly structured environment of law and order, and towards the end of Wolfhound Century that order breaks down in two ways—the war that the Vlast has been prosecuting comes home to ruin its capital city, and the magical elements in Higgins’s fictional conception become much more heavily foregrounded. Indeed when Higgins tries to return to the ‘Lom is a brilliant investigator overlooked by his superiors because he’s too honest’ vibe halfway through the final volume Radiant State (2015) it doesn’t work nearly so well, because by this stage in the trilogy the tonal logic has shifted comprehensively from policier to Weird Fantasy. It's not a problem, exactly, because the latter element is very powerful. The forest, the giants, the fallen angels and—in Radiant State—the undead soldiers are especially dream-haunting. It’s a question of the larger miscibility of the trilogy's generic ambitions.
Now, as I say, I would argue that this book articulates and therefore appeals to a particular, niche, variety of quasi-nostalgia that a particular sort of person may well feel about the old Soviet Union: that place of tyrannous disaster; that exotic political ‘other’; that homeland to Grossman and Shostakovich and Mandelstam and Solzhenitsyn and the Strugatskis and Akhmatova and Tarkovski; that place of Gulags and mass-murder and Stalin and Beria and so much depressing Social Realist strain and muscle. The 'particular sort of person' I'm talking about will probably be of a certain age, and probably on the left.
This is the appropriate moment to bring-in Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread (2002), a book about the strange double-standard the intellectual left apply to Stalinism. He points out that if we play the numbers game then Stalin was worse even than Hitler. And yet there’s this residue of what amounts to affection in western intellectual discourse for that whole world, especially now that it has vanished (no—not vanished, of course: morphed into the mafiaform kleptocracy of the modern Russian Federation). Amis worries away at the why of this in Koba the Dread; and although it got a rough ride from reviewers when it came out, it seems to me one of Marty’s better books.
Amis says ‘it was a symmetrical convenience—for Stalin—that a true description of the Soviet Union exactly resembled a demented slander of the Soviet Union.’ We could adapt this as a way of approaching Higgins’s Wolfhound novels. He has created a true description of the Soviet Union that exactly resembles a dark fantasy of the Soviet Union; and it works as well as it does because our sense of the latter elides our sense of the former.
If I have one reservation (I'm a little inhibited from raising it, for reasons noted above) it's that Wolfhound Empire is not a humorous work. For many this will not be a problem; but I felt the absence of the laughter. Amis's Koba subtitle, ‘Laughter and the Twenty Million’, identifies something important, I think. Higgins's Stalin-figure, Josef Kantor, is a parched, driven, psychotic and humourless little man. He is well-drawn, especially in the later books, and Higgins absolutely makes the reader believe in the way his sheer will, and puritanical charisma, drives the people around him on, and forces whole cities, and later whole countries, forward. But Stalin was not humourless. He projected an avuncular geniality, and he often laughed. He was, indeed, often at his most terrifying when he laughed. Amis describes how he, with feigned reluctance, took to the stage at the Bolshoi Theater in 1937 and agreed, with faux-modesty, to be a candidate in the upcoming ‘election’. What Amis focusses on is the servile laughter that greeted him. He quotes a contemporary transcript (‘ ... of course, I could have said something light about anything and everything. [laughter] ... I understand there are masters of that sort of thing not just in the capitalist countries, but here, too, in our Soviet country. [laughter, applause]...’) and glosses:
Ground zero of the Great Terror—and here was the Party, joined in a panic attack of collusion in yet another enormous lie. They clapped, they laughed. Did he laugh? Do we hear it—the ‘soft, dull, sly laugh,’ the ‘grim, dark laughter, which comes up from the depths’?Amis then makes the connection with the laughter of western socialists, remembering his old friend Christopher Hitchens addressing a London audience in 1999 in a venue that had often hosted socialist and communist gatherings. Hitchens made reference to this past, and, Amis says, was greeted with 'affectionate laughter.' Of this, and leaning a little too heavily on the outrage pedal, Amis asks:
Why is it? Why is it? If Christopher had referred to his many evenings with many ‘an old blackshirt,’ the audience would have been outraged ... Well, with such an affiliation in his past, Christopher would not be Christopher—or anyone else of the slightest distinction whatsoever. Is that the difference between the little mustache and the big mustache, between Satan and Beelzebub? One elicits spontaneous fury, and the other elicits spontaneous laughter? And what kind of laughter is it? It is, of course, the laughter of universal fondness for that old, old idea about the perfect society. It is also the laughter of forgetting. It forgets the demonic energy unconsciously embedded in that hope. It forgets the Twenty Million.The larger argument in the book is not quite so self-righteously dismissive. Amis understands, I'd say, that the laughter, dark or desperate, cruel or even liberating, was part of the whole Soviet experiment in a way not true of the Nazi one. The laughter does not deflect, but on the contrary illuminates, the horrors. Nor should we confuse laughter with levity. On the contrary, indeed. In his own review of Koba the Dread, Hitchens himself recalls a footnote to Amis's earlier book, Experience:
Batting away a critic [Amis] describes as ‘humorless,’ he adds, ‘And by calling him humorless I mean to impugn his seriousness, categorically: such a man must rig up his probity ex nihilo.’I like that very much. Indeed, it seems to me really quite profound. Hitchens's point, I suppose, is that Amis loses his sense of this great truth in the thickets of horror and outrage that hem in Koba the Dread. There's something in that.
Well: I don't want to perpetrate the fatuity of criticizing Higgins for not writing the kind of book he never set out to write in the first place. I'm entitled, as any one is, to write a quasi-una-fantasia Soviet SF novel structured via irony and laughter if I want to (and have indeed done so). Earlier I praised Spufford's Red Plenty, and one of the things that works so well about that book is its effortless wit. Spufford can be very funny when he wants to be. Miéville, I have to say, can't: despite his many excellences, laughter is not part of his skill-set. So perhaps the comparisons with Bas-Lag have some point after all.
'Why is it? Why is it?' asks Amis. Why the double standard? A Wolfhound Century set in Nazi Germany—The Adolf Century—would indeed be a much less palatable prospect; but why? One possible explanation that Koba the Dread doesn’t consider is: orientalism. The Nazis (according to this logic) did unspeakably wicked things and in doing so they betrayed the high ideals of post-Enlightenment civilized European values. Conversely, the Soviet authorities committed all manner of barbarity, violence and cruelty—but the Soviet Union was an oriental, not a Western, regime, and, as the deep-rooted prejudice goes, those orientals have always been all about the exotic barbarism and colourful violence. They did not fall from so high a eminence in our estimation, because they didn’t occupy such a perch in the first place. It’s bollocks, of course; and whatever problems there are with Said’s Orientalism (and there are plenty of problems) its polemical spearing of the mendacity of this caricature remains powerful. But the fact that it is bollocks hasn't stopped it permeating western culture and society.
Michael Ignatieff, looking back on the Communist experiment from the vantage of the mid-1990s, suggested that Soviet Russia was
a violent but passing form of Oriental despotism, as relentless as Fascism, as single-minded in its appropriation of modernity’s tools to oppress and control, yet fatally compromised, both by its organised contempt for those in whose name it ruled, and by the central conceit that there could be a systematic, total alternative to capitalism. Here, Fascism was shrewder, because it vampirised the capitalist system; it did not wish to break it up, and so could deliver both the goods and the terror. It is because Fascism can live with capitalism that it will remain as a possible nightmare for us long after the last Communist is dead and buried.Interesting that Ignatieff feels unembarrassed about deploying an orientalist stereotype in his analysis of his grandfather’s fatherland.
I'm not, incidentally, suggesting that the Wolfhound Century books are 'orientalist' in this fashion. It's true that Higgins eschews the trappings of post-Tolkien ‘western’ or northern-European fantasy (wizards and dragons and elves, oh my) for an Eastern Fantasy of ruskalas and endless forests. But he does so wholeheartedly from the perspective of the Vlast: the West (here, the 'archipelago') is a marginal presence. Higgins wholly commits to his Vlast as a lived-in habitus. This is in no way an orientalist novel.
In A Secular Age (2007) Charles Taylor fleshes out, at impressive length, the Weberian thesis of disenchantment as constitutive of modernity.
Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.Alan Jacobs discusses the pros and cons of this state of affairs:
a person accepts a buffered condition as a means of being protected from the demonic or otherwise ominous forces that in pre-modern times generated a quavering network of terrors. To be a pre-modern person, in Taylor’s account, is to be constantly in danger of being invaded or overcome by demons or fairies or nameless terrors of the dark — of being possessed and transformed, or spirited away and never returned to home and family ... The problem with this apparently straightforward transaction is that the porous self is open to the divine as well as to the demonic, while the buffered self is closed to both alike. Those who must guard against capture by fairies are necessarily and by the same token receptive to mystical experiences. The “showings” manifested to Julian of Norwich depend upon exceptional sensitivity, which is to say porosity — vulnerability to incursions of the supernatural. The portals of the self cannot be closed on one side only. But the achievement of a safely buffered personhood — closed off from both the divine and the demonic — is soon enough accompanied by a deeply felt change in the very cosmos. As C. S. Lewis notes in The Discarded Image (1964), the medieval person who found himself “looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music” gives way to the modern person who perceives only emptiness and silence. Safety is purchased at the high price of isolation, as we see as early as Pascal, who famously wrote of the night sky, “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie” (“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”).Jacobs goes on to explore the way some modern Fantasy novels (and some other modern things) attempt a mode of re-enchantment. What makes the deeply-felt, poetic and absorbing re-enchantment of Wolfhound Empire so remarkably is the very fact that Higgins attempts it in a fictional version of the acme of dialectical materialism. It's one thing to re-enchant the old England of Mythago Wood; it's another to try and re-enchant Leningrad (the source, I assume, for Higgins's Mirgorod). To try and make myself clear, at the risk of merely repeating myself: Higgins's ambition leads him to embed fantasy enchantment in the least hospitable territory imaginable: a land of Stalinist five-year-plans, sprawling urbanisation and nuclear-pulse rockets. What's so remarkable is how close he comes to pulling this off.
Taylor's A Secular Age argues that we have replaced the numinous apprehension of a cosmos brimming with spiritual grace and danger with what he calls the 'immanent frame' of the moral and existential perspectives of reason and science. Taylor's 'buffered self' is an aspect of this immanent frame, and although he thinks there have been significant attempts to re-enchant the world—he mentions Romantic poetry and philosophy, “New Age” spirituality, various religious fundamentalisms—none of these have broken the immanent frame. For Higgins to join these variegated frame-breakers manqués by choosing the industrial wastelands and furious materialism of Soviet Russia is very bold indeed. That he comes as close as he does to pulling it off is even more remarkable.
By ‘pulling it off’, I don't mean ‘dismantling Taylor's immanent frame altogether’. That would indeed be a big ask. It is enough to attempt to add a third element to Marx and Engels's famous Communist Manifesto declaration. All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned; all that is repressed returns. I think this may be why the half-alive zombie soldier-corpses in Radiant State, dreamily wandering woodland and village, all in their various loops (as the HBO Westworld would put it)—why these characters resonated so powerfully with me. At the heart of this trilogy is a haunting of some kind. Something is trying to get back in, some third element. Trilectical Materialism, maybe.
Still: coming close to pulling it off isn't the same as pulling it off. The epistemological fictions of detection and Modernism chafe, sometimes, against the ontological fictions of High Fantasy. The strain of aligning the two modes, the Soviet-modern-SF one and the Old-Russian arborial magical one, becomes a particular focus of Radiant State, where time itself is pulled into two parallel but differently-paced iterations. It's one of the ways Higgins differs to (and I'd say is better than) Miéville. The Bas Lag novels refract their ideological critique and engagement into in-text monsters and weirdnesses, oddnesses concocted out of Miéville's imagination. Wolfhound Empire of course contains many traditional Russian fantastikons, but its real work is in refracting the Soviet union into this formal, structural disarrangement. Because it is structural it is more systemic, and that works better.
What this is, I suppose, is another way of addressing the question of re-enchantment. Conceivably it is Higgins's commitment to this that explains why SF/Fantasy readers haven't seemed to know quite what to make of his trilogy. Miéville's fantasies are many things, but they are not enchanted (I suspect Miéville shares Moorcock's distrust of the whole enchantment kit-and-caboodle as bourgeois mystification and crypto-fascist little-englander nostalgia). But Higgins, though far from bourgeois in his sensibilities and aesthetics, is interested in enchantment. There is a magic in these novels, in a strong version of the word's double-sense—doubled, that is, in the sense of content and mood. There are problems with this, I think: but whatever else it is, it is a royal road to the marvellous. And Wolfhound Empire is a marvellous work.