Epic Complexities: Conor Kostick, Epic (Dublin, O’Brien Press, 2004)
(Apologies, one day late, but this is a 300 page book).
First of all, ignore the mildly clunky writing of this novel. I promise you, it’s well worth your time.
On an unnamed planet a group of colonisers play the interface game of Epic. Once a mere past-time for bored star-travellers, over the centuries Epic has come to be the arena of the economy and of law. Prizes and monies won, given or traded transfer as points accumulated in the real world. Victory in the graduation tournaments can bring a university place. Armour bought with the pennies stolen from kobolds become tractor allocations or books for a school. Presiding as a referee over the system is Central Allocations. Made up of the most prestigious and victorious players this Committee ensures fairness in everything from hip replacement operations to luxury goods.
The difficulty is that over the years, the colony seems to be doing worse, although CA is forever talking about improvements in the future. Equipment is degrading, people’s lives getting harder, and the gap between the rich and poor in the game seems to be growing.
Which is a good cue for a pause to consider Conor Kostik.
Conor Kostick has designed a live fantasy playing game, a board game, has written political and cultural essays and history books and teaches medieval history at Trinity College Dublin. This proves an astonishingly powerful combination because Epic,which I originally handled rather gingerly, may be one of the most complex political sf novels for children I’ve read so far.
One of the premises in Epic is that CA decisions may be challenged in the arena, and when Erik’s parents feel their village has been treated unjustly in the allocation of solar panels they decide to give it a go. Unusually, they succeed in reducing the CA team to a draw, but in doing so unmask Erik’s father, who it turns out was exiled for the crime of violence—much later we’ll discover that his victim was the more violent man. This one act sets of a chain of political events as the CA becomes increasingly repressive in order to hold in place the economic system they think preserves society.
But there is also another chain of events. Dead once again in the game, Erik, in a flash bravado, creates a new character very different from the norm. The emphasis in the political system on accumulation of prizes and powers as the route to economic success has led to a game world in which avatars are attribute loaded grey pixels, and almost all action takes place in the arena. Eric flippantly assigns almost all his start up points to beauty and wit. In response, the game offers him more opportunities to interact.
Kostick introduces two things here: first, he begins an argument that the game—once a rich exploration—has been subverted. The more it is tied to a crude capitalism, the less interactive, rich and joyous it becomes, By part way through, we learn that the game itself is pretty unhappy here. Second, Kostik begins to argue with the way young gamers tend to respond—and here it will be worth me comparing this book to the 1980s game books and to what I can find on modern gaming (I’m not a gamer myself).
In addition, Kostick also does something so clever it took my breath away. I said earlier that Kostick’s style was a bit clunky, but this does not diminish the skill with which he shifts back and forth from game to real world. The entire story is told third person, one pov, but when in the game Kostick clearly delineates between Erik and Erik’s avatar Cindella in a simple, but perfect way: any action described is Cindella doing. Any thinking described is Erik doing. So “Cindella walked down the street” might be followed by “Erik noticed the merchant by the side of the road, gesturing to him.” So neat, and I almost missed it.
I also said earlier that this is a politically complex novel: one of the things Kostick uses it for is to present a critique of meritocracy. The graduation games, for example, which are supposed to test the mettle of the young, are lies. Not because anyone cheats, but because it is well within the rules of Epic to gift powers and spells, weapons and potions, so that some young people enter the arena with a rich inheritance of armour while others enter with the small pieces of plate that their folks grubbed together penny by penny. In Epic, accumulation is compound not hierarchical, so that the richest have the opportunity to get richer. Not unreasonably, one character advocates “violent surgery”—Kostick neatly paraphrases a number of radical parties—but demonstrating his sophistication above the norm in such novels, Kostick also allows the same character to denounce those who hold dogmatic ideals.
The characterisation is very rich, Kostick grounds individual’s lines of enquiry in their interests and ambitions, which has the laudable effect of leading Erik to fight for others’ goals. He is mostly interested in knowledge, but his friend Injeborg is interested in social justice and it is she who explains the way the study of Epic—much like poetry in the Chinese Empire—has come to undermine the whole economy as it siphons off energy and both mid-directs, and probably misindentifies—the “best and brightest”. This clear approach to characterisation means we are also spared the easy trust so many juvenile protagonists offer. The one time Erik does trust without reason, it turns out to be a seduction.
Amid so many books in which the loss of knowledge seems inevitable and the tearing down of society a given, it was wonderful to read a book in which each movement was part of a set of sane, sensible, but fundamentally unpredictable chains of decision.
(I'm off to Paragon 2 -- the UK Eastercon-- today and I hav forgotten to pack any books. It's been that kind of a morning. If I buy stuff there I'll blog, but otherwise, my next post is likely to be Tuesday evening next week.)