Monday, November 12, 2018
The Fortress at the End of Time
McDermott's novels were recommended to me by writer and friend Benjanun Sriduangkaew on the basis that they were beautifully written and nothing happens, two of my favourite things. The older I get, the more I'm pushed onwards by aesthetics rather than the strict pull of narrative which spurned me on before. Not that narrative is bad, per se, but the less plot I get, the better, it seems to me. Perhaps my subjective rejection of over-plotting is in reaction to mainstream cinema's obsession with plot above all else; these films operate under the assumption that if there isn't copious, overflowing amounts of plot, audiences will feel cheated. I gather this comes after the extreme success of Nolan's The Dark Knight (which, despite my grumbling and my paeans, I still kind of like). Hence, detractors of Mad Max: Fury Road pointed to its simple plot as a negative; they complained "they drive from one point to another and then back! That's it! Nothing happens!" as if a super-abundance of plot makes a movie.
The Fortress at the End of Time does not have a super-abundance of plot, thankfully. The stakes are extremely low: this is a character study of a clone living in a decaying, rotting watch station at the far edge of the known universe where the military stands ready, ostensibly, for the return of a mysterious enemy (who will no doubt never return). The decomposition of the actual space station is mirrored in the deterioration of the military's standards. The narrator has his ideals and tries to stand firm against this rot, but he is arrogant, naive, almost simpleminded in the execution of his duties. He's moralizing, fervent in his beliefs of military conduct. All of it works against him. The entire novel depicts the frustrating tension between what this character wants and everybody else's wants. Often, when giving narrative advice, writers suggest the plot should derive from the disjunction between the cast's desires; the desires are at odds and thus there is conflict. Most narratives can be boiled down to this: a superhero desires saving the city while a supervillain desires to destroy it. However, most audiences would find these narratives boring if there aren't complicating factors, such as the complexity or uniqueness of the plans used by the characters to thwart each other. The Fortress at the End of Time isn't bereft of these complicating factors; it's just that they are pared down to the roughest of surfaces.
On Goodreads (oh boy, here he goes again about Goodreads), most popular review for this novel reads simply: "What if a guy went to a remote space station on the outskirts of the galaxy and nothing happened?" (here). It's one of the few reviews I've clicked "like" on. Other reviews, more negative reviews, suggest readers were expecting something completely different. No review says this better (or more explicitly) than the poor soul would thought this would be like Scalzi's Old Man's War (ie the Platonic ideal of inoffensive, forgettable military science fiction with an incommensurately rapturous reputation). Other negative reviews make mention of the lack of plot ("nothing happens!") or they persevere on the dialogue, which is somewhat stilted, purposefully so. Not all dialogue needs to be realistic! Just as not all characterization needs to be realistic! Break the chains of realism holding back narrative! Release your desperate grip on the life-preserver of realism! Or whatever metaphor you'd like me to use. However, some of the reviews seem to get it... in fact one says it almost perfectly: "I'm calling this military SF because I suspect it's truer to a lot of people's military experience (being bored a lot in far away places) than zap-pow laser marines fighting alien hordes" (here).
This character study gives enough room for a mild but effective denunciation of how labour without aim, with alienation, can be dehumanizing and soul-destroying. I don't think it's an accident how religious this society is, without all the succor religion can actually provide. The monastery in this novel is as corrupt and conniving as their ostensible allies, the military. Religion, in this tiny place, is as soul-crushing and withering as labour because it is greedy and myopic. We should not take this as the novel's disdain for religion in general—this book is far too clever to be straightforward. We should not generalize from the minimal data (this space station, this monastery) that religion in the entire universe is as predatory. The Fortress holds its cards close to its chest, an ambition we should applaud.
I'm definitely going to read more of McDermott's works now. I'm suitably impressed.