"Furthermore, I consider that London must be destroyed."

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

A truncated discussion of Ian Tregillis’ Milkweed Triptych and an impassioned plea for the destruction of the United Kingdom.
~
I try to have fun when I read, I really do. Sometimes, when I've finished one of the books in my reading pile concerning, say, the adventures of two insane Europeans who attempt to commit genocide against a race of intelligent amphibians in the Antarctic Sea, or the downward spiral of a Hungarian linguist as he attempts to escape an endless megapolis where every citizen speaks his own language, or even the delightful tale of a creative writing professor at the University of Manchester who slips ever further into self-delusion, I'll say to myself "you know what, Alasdair? You need to read something fun. Something all those geek websites say I should like, and that all those geek blogs can't stop raving about."

But it never works.

Either the stories are so focused on the interactions and travails of the characters that they completely eschew any greater subtext that they appear shallow and lifeless to me, or their subtext is so repulsive that I rebel against the author and imagine alternate readings to the text. It was the latter that occurred when I read Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan books, and it occurred again when I read the first two books of Ian Tregillis' Milkweed Triptych: Bitter Seeds and The Coldest War.

Bitter Seeds - Unfortunate Implications

Bitter Seeds starts out promising enough. In early 1939, as the Spanish Civil War draws to a close, an SIS agent named Raybould Marsh arrives in Tarragona to pick up a civilian defecting from the Condor Legion. Meeting the man in a hotel, Marsh finds him terrified out of his mind, speaking about something the German military has been testing on Republican targets. Initially skeptical of the man's claims, Marsh's opinion is swiftly changed when the man spontaneously combusts in the lobby of the hotel, burning down to a husk. Returning with the melted slag of the man's luggage, the SIS manages to retrieve and restore a filmstrip that reveals impossible things; a man that can control flames, another that can fly unaided by any machine, a woman who can become invisible.

Now, Nazi superheroes would be enough for most authors, but Tregillis sweetens the deal when Marsh talks with Will Beauclerk, scion of a minor noble family and an old college friend. Marsh has good reason for raising the matter with Will; his family, along with a few others, are the inheritors of a tradition of blood magic. By making appropriate offerings to the Eidolons, entities with live in the spaces between spaces and harbor a passionate hatred of all life, they are able to...rearrange matters, so to speak.

In essence, in order to defeat the Nazi superheroes, the British call upon the aid of the Great Old Ones.

Now, the first part of Bitter Seeds is quite fun. There are four main characters in the story, but we only see through the viewpoint of three. On the British side we have Marsh, as he balances the wages of his job with his attempt to start a family and the lingering class antagonism with the officers who populate the SIS, and Will, who becomes increasingly uneasy with his role in the war effort. The German perspective is provided by Klaus, a member of the Götterelektrongruppe, a German superman capable of willing himself insubstantial through his "willpower", an ability activated by a battery pumping current directly into his brain. His life consists mostly of putting up with the dubious comfort of his fellow supermen, of enduring the tyranny of his creator, a mad German doctor straight out of Central Casting, and dealing with the whims of his sister, Gretel.

Gretel is the engine that drives the story. Blessed with the gift of precognition, she does not keep herself tied to the world. She is a canny manipulator, casually sending other members of the gruppe to their deaths, in time openly changing the course of the war to suit her ends. She is positioned as the villain of the piece, but her demonic light-heartedness and her intellectual superiority over everyone in the story made her my favorite character in the book.

This is unfortunate, as the story makes it clear that Marsh is the hero, despite his lack of any qualification for the title.

For the first half of the book, I was having fun. I enjoyed watching the Second World War get underway and start moving in strange new directions. I liked watching Marsh and Will bumble around and figure out what was going on, while Gretel danced from the Ardennes to British captivity and back again, working according to her own plan, with Klaus forever trailing behind. But then, in the middle of the book, the evacuation of Dunkirk fails, and things change. Faced with the likelihood of a German invasion, Churchill turns to the SIS and Milkweed, the branch tasked with researching and fighting against the German supermen, for a solution. Will and the other warlocks recruited to the cause suggest that it may be possible to persuade the Eidolons to alter the weather in the North Sea and prevent a landing. However the blood price would be dear.

In response, SIS gives Will and his associates a supply of bombs, a list of pubs and railway crossings, and tells them to hop to it.

And at that moment, I began to root for the Nazis.

Now, I have my iconoclastic side, and I may occasionally empathize with those who have been judged as irredeemable by the court of public opinion, but I have my limits. With the Third Reich, I am interested in understanding it they way its creators understood it, but I cannot see the enterprise as anything other than waste and a tragedy that should never have happened.

And yet the instant the British started selling the souls of their citizens to fucking elder gods, I realized that the British had crossed a line that even the Third Reich, as terrible as it was, did not cross. Compared to this, building superheroes is a trifle.

After this halfway point, the novel became increasingly strange for me. The actions of the British leadership grew increasingly grotesque, demanding more of their citizens be sacrificed to not only keep the North Sea secure, but to plunge occupied Europe into a permanent winter in order to starve the Third Reich to death. I was hoping that somehow the book was aiming at a criticism of the British leadership, an allegorical condemnation of the "Knight Templar" attitude that prevailed in the Western world after September 11th, that a small elite must cast all moral principle to the wind to defeat "evil" by all means necessary. Through the character of Will, who steadily evolved into the Cassandra of the story, it looked like such a critique was taking place. However, it was Will's companion, Marsh, that led me to lose hope in the story.

Marsh is hard done by the narrative. In the course of the book, he loses his infant daughter in an air raid due to the manipulations of Gretel. He quickly surmises her responsibility, and begins baying for her blood. He brushes off Will's fears about the Eidolons, declaring that they are essential if Gretel is to be defeated. The fact that the price Britain is paying to remain free may be too dear, or that Gretel may be working at a game far bigger and more important than Marsh, one that may involve the fate of humanity itself, remains beyond his grasp. He ends the book as a small, violent idiot, obsessed with his own pain and how bad it makes him feel, either indifferent or supportive of the evil that corrodes his world.

And this man is supposed to be the hero of the story. The character we are supposed to empathize with.

The Coldest War - Burn It Down

I was originally not going to read The Coldest War. As I have explained, I felt that the first book brought up a whole host of issues and implications that I did not feel Tregillis was capable of dealing with. However, I eventually relented because the premise tickled that small part of me that still enjoys counterfactual history.

Bitter Seeds ended in June of 1941, with the Soviet Union launching a war of "liberation" against the starving Nazi empire. The Coldest War picks up twenty-two years later, in a 1963 where the British Empire justifies its existence as a bulwark against communist aggression, the East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere endures as a regional power, and where the United States rots away from the inside. In terms of broad outline, this is a wonderful scenario for allohistorical speculation. The scenario posits a dynamic similar to that of the Cold War we know from history, but the removal of the United States and the expansion of the Warsaw Pact across Europe would provoke several interesting changes. The British Empire would perhaps be the only geopolitical entity that could operate on a policy of containment similar to that the United States used in our world, but the empire would be vulnerable in ways the United States never was. A nuclear arms race would probably be off the board, Britain being both unable to sustain the spending needed to maintain parity with the Soviets and uniquely vulnerable to nuclear attack due to its geography. (Even in the 1950s, American war plans estimated it would only take a handful of bombs before Britain could no longer function as a nation.) At the same time, a Soviet Union that spent the 1940s not recovering from the greatest disaster in its history but fulfilling the old Leninist dream of bringing Europe into the socialist orbit would be a far different nation that the one we know from history.

Sadly, very little of the book is spent on alternate history. Most of the book's action takes place within the anonymous suburbs of London, with only a few details of the broader world leaking through. The modest effort in imagining the alternate world is driven home by that fact that in spite of all that has happened, Nikita Khrushchev is still running the USSR in this 1963.

The Coldest War begins with a murder, specifically with the death of one of the warlocks who defended Britain in the 1940s at the hands of a KGB agent with "willpower" abilities. This murder is revealed to be part of a larger plot against all of Britain's surviving warlocks, which naturally brings official attention around to Will, now settled into civilian life with a wife of his own. Attention is also brought around to Marsh, cashiered at the end of the previous book, who has spent the past two decades drinking, getting fired, caring for his mentally damaged son, and hating everything in sight. Meanwhile, in the depths of the Soviet metahuman research complex at Arzamas-36, Gretel drags her long-suffering brother on another adventure to escape their captors and make their way to Britain, to Marsh and Will.

Now, this book is ostensibly about consequences, about chickens coming home to roost, but throughout the story there is a constant sense that Tregillis is pulling his punches, not being as savage as his premise demands. It is revealed that Will is the one who has been feeding the Soviet embassy with information about the warlocks, but his actions are painted as an personal attempt to assuage his own conscience, rather that as an ethical stance against his society. In any case, all the other characters condemn him for his "selfishness", and the reader is expected to do the same. It is also revealed that the use of the Eidolons to manage British foreign policy has continued and been streamlined, with children who have been raised with the Eidolon ur-tongue since birth being used to manage the transactions. While it is an admission of the depths to which Britain has sunk, it still feels half-hearted, of refusing to come to grips with the nature of the agreement on which British power rests. I can't help but speculate that this may be due to Tregillis' American background; certainly it's easy to name British writers who would use such a premise as a vicious criticism of the empire. When I first read the dust jacket for the book, I was imagining a Kenyan savannah crossed with barbed wire and holding pens open to the elements. I imagined Mau Mau villagers, kept eight to a cage and fed eight hundred calories a day each, lying on the ground with bloated bellies and dead eyes. I imagined hard young men with shoulder holsters and batons shoving another consignment to the abattoir, where a peevish young man in an apron checks the telegram and mutters the appropriate incantations. I imagined caravans of lorries filled with Egyptian nationalists, Zionist terrorists, Indian separatists, Burmese rebels, and all the troublesome people who will soon serve the empire more in death than they ever did in life. I imagined a Britain, not as a beacon of enlightenment, but as a reincarnation of the Aztec Empire, a people who feed on the blood of others in order to placate the dark gods they serve.

It does not help that the three viewpoint characters, even Klaus, are concerned primarily with leaving the world of espionage and superpowers and returning to their families. While it may be tempting to view this tendency as an ironic joke on the part of Tregillis, the sad truth is that the characters who search for a domestic life are meant to be seen as sympathetic rather than solipsistic.

In due course, matters come to a head. The death of the warlocks prompts the Soviet Union to move its military into Iran to secure the oilfields, unaware of the Eidolon children under Whitehall's command. A great tempest soon ravages the north of the country, and thousands of Soviet soldiers are consumed by the elements. However, the move on Iran was only a feint, as the Soviets sent their metahumans on a final decapitation strike against the center of British political, military, and financial power in London. The penultimate chapter of the book is a snapshot tour of the Soviet attack on the city, and it is wonderful. It is framed as the nadir of the story, of the worst-case scenario, but it is not. The Soviet Union is not an aggressor seeking to impose its system upon others. It is a nation terrified for its life, opposed to a monstrous creature that calls itself a "civilized nation", taking the only chance it can to save itself and the world by beheading the hydra in its lair.

In response, Marsh, short-sighted selfish idiot that he is, asks the Eidolon children to ask their gods to kill the Soviet superheroes. Which they do.

And then the world ends.

If the book had ended here, with the destruction of the world brought about by people unable to see anything beyond their self-interest, the books may have been redeemed as a pitch-black satire. However, with the disassociation of humanity hours away, Gretel reveals her grand game. All of her plans and schemes, all of it has been done to preserve her own life and prevent humanity from being destroyed. Versions of her have gone through it again and again, trying to come up with a solution, but the farthest the timeline has been able to go is 1963. Now, with another iteration ended in failure, she offers to sacrifice her own life to have the Eidolons send March back to 1940 in order to remove the Eidolon threat by eliminating the German superheroes. Since Marsh is a selfish git, she sweetens the offer by explaining to him that this will allow him to save his daughter. Naturally, he accepts, and he escapes the death of the world.

The alternate solution, of Gretel sending herself back in time and convincing her brother or the Luftwaffe to kill the warlocks themselves and conquering Britain for the good of mankind, is not discussed.

I have not read the final book in the triptych, Necessary Evil. From what I have heard, it involves Marsh setting history back to the course we know, keeping the people who sold their citizens for a handful of Indian clay in power for the foreseeable future. He and Will also get together to torture Gretel, because that's what heroes do these days.

Suffice to say, I will not be reading it.
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Comments (go to latest)
http://foghawk.livejournal.com/ at 00:32 on 2013-07-29
Weird convergence with fellow Soviet-conflict-plus-Lovecraft story A Colder War. The Stross novelette, judging from your review, is rather better—despite the one-upmanship of Tregellis' title.
Melanie at 05:28 on 2013-07-29
By making appropriate offerings to the Eidolons, entities with live in the spaces between spaces and harbor a passionate hatred of all life, they are able to...rearrange matters, so to speak.


Well, what downsides could there possibly be to dealing with creatures like tha--

In response, SIS gives Will and his associates a supply of bombs, a list of pubs and railway crossings, and tells them to hop to it.


oh
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 06:12 on 2013-07-29
Shim at 07:55 on 2013-07-29
I was vaguely fascinated by the first link, and then:
"humanoid killer amphibians...[with]...perky breasts"

Would a bit of GCSE biology kill these authors?
Melanie at 08:06 on 2013-07-29
...Well, I shouldn't have clicked that link.

Inspired by the creature's ability to laugh and cry—to say nothing of her perky breasts, knack for housework and wordless submissiveness—the narrator begins to think of the cold-blooded creatures as human.


Isn't it impressive how much can fit into a single sentence? It's like some kind of clown car, except instead of clowns it's creepy insights into the author's mentality that keep popping out long after you're sure they're done.
Shim at 12:30 on 2013-07-29
Yeah, it's just... ack. I was expecting either Lovecraft pastiche or some kind of misguided romp, not... that.
Shim at 20:16 on 2013-07-31
Also: sorry Alasdair, none of that has anything to do with your article, which I thought was really good - you have thoroughly convinced me not to touch these things with the proverbial.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 09:30 on 2013-08-02
It is a very good premise for a story, isn't it? I haven't read this one, but it sounds like a big pile of missed opportunities. It is weird that the author wants to hold on to the basic setup of the Second World War in designating heroes, when one would think that the whole point of this sort of story would be to see how elements like magic could mess things up and force a change of viewpoint.

As such, the idea that a defending nation would resort to anything to survive is a good idea and no doubt reflects an element of the Second World War. I think Eric Hobsbawm talked about it in The Age of Extremes, that is that the WWII changed the allies to be more callous, or rather even more callous, in response to the even worse war than any before. So elder gods, nuclear weapons, whatever, as long as the work gets done.

It feels bad when a story misses such potential. I wonder why Gretel couldn't have at least a point of view in the story, even at the cost of lessening the reveal at the end of the second book. This isn't the first story I've come across, where the protagonist is an insufferable idiot that we for some reason have to stand, even if there are many characters much more interesting in the story.

Also, the dead daughter thing is an understandable motivator. The very thought of such a situation makes me want to attack something. But the dead child thing is such an obvious and manipulative way to make the reader empathize, isn't it? You don't need the character to have any depth, if you just sacrifice the appropriate amount of loosely plot relevant innocents to make the reader feel something.

And now I'm getting interested in reading this thing. Which I won't, but still...
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