Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Playing in the Islands of Hate: Jan Mark, Useful Idiots, (London; David Fickling Books, 2004)

Two notes before I start; I'm actually using the pb because my hb is stuck in Dublin (an improvement on the rest of my books which are in storage) and I heard a rather excellent paper on this book by Mary Harris Russell only a month ago and before I read the book. As I don't have a copy of the paper, I've fuzzy on what are Mary's ideas, what are mine, and what are a combination of the two.

Useful Idiots reminds me a lot of John Christopher, Richard Cowper and specifically Robert Westall's Futuretrack . The book is set post flood in a drowned world. The UK is now islands, part of a European Federation. Nationalism is viewed with suspicion, racialism (ie the identification of oneself through race, not prejudice against the other) is even dodgier, but despite this each landmass has its own pockets of racial hold outs. In the Isles they are the Inglish, descended from the kind of people who think weights and measures are part of our identity, but who also tend to be all white.

The story is of Merrick Korda, an archaeology grad student who helps to dig up a contested body. The story turns out not to be about the contestation of the body but the role of this dig in some people's attempt to get aboriginal protection acts overturned and -- one presumes--either reclaim the land or destroy the aboriginals. In the course of the novel we see vicious exploitation (the aboriginals have been used--in the past--to cultivate a kind of oyster generated in human bone by the horsefly), real racial prejudice (Merrick turns out to be only third generation assimilated, ie an aboriginal in inheritance--this bit doesn't quite make sense, his skin colour would be notiecable, surely), and a rape (which led MHR to speculate on whether this was really a YA novel--by sense is that given similar themes in the earlier The Ennead and that in this novel adolescence lasts into one's thirties, then yes).

I thought the plot a great deal better than most of the books I've read so far, for an oddly enough non sf reason. Most of the other books seemed to be confined to what we think of as "Sf plots". By this I mean that the plots themselves were about sf-ness. Meet the alien, travel to the new planet, be invaded, reject the invaders. Mark in contrast has realised what sf as a genre accepted long ago--you can make sf out out any plot. This book is the classic secret conspiracy to be uncovered, made sf by the context and the construction.

So, to context and construction: the unfolding of the world is done brilliantly in what I think of as the "classic" way: you tell the audience what is, and only later do you explain it. In addition, Mark uses the limitations of her society to create problems, so that a DNA test can't be done on the found bones because it would encourage nationalism. The email virus Comfort and Joy trashed the world's computer archives but there are still books, and "disgust" emptied the museums. The riffs on contrived "disgust" are wonderful. Mark is witty and snide.

I have only one doubt. Don't get me wrong, I don't always want happy endings, and I know the world cannot be remade at the end of each book. But when I got to the end of this book--which I already knew, I felt let down. At the end, Merrick loses the pearl he has been cultivating as evidence to defend the aboriginals (it's complicated). It is stolen by the very people he hoped to defend, who would rather just have the money and run. In some ways, this is very realistic, but it reminded me very strongly of those YA post-nuclear holocaust books which end with the "you can't fix it if it's broke, so we are all going to die unless *you* the reader, fixes it now". There is something hopeless about it. So I ought to like the ambivalence of this ending, but instead I'm left again thinking--all that trouble and no sense of consequence at the end, not even a sense that without the court case Merrick wanted, a genocide is about to be unleashed on the world, one in which Merrick might be caught up (he has already been noted by others to be aboriginal by descent).

At the end, Jan Mark implies that Merrick and his aboriginal friends can run off and it will change nothing about the world. Merrick will be free.

Let me say this flat out; Jan Mark perpetrates a lie. Merrick has changed something. He stood at a Jonbar point and failed. There will be consequences. This book refuses at the end to accept the hints it contains.

I could conclude there, but just want to say that this is not unusual for a Jan Mark book. The Ennead also ends with the same message of ineffectualness, the same argument that the individual cannot make a difference. Merrick's failure does not, as Merrick seems to think, excuse him from trying again.

None of which stops me from loving the book.

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.

by Rev. Martin Niemoller, 1945


Anonymous Del said...

He stood at a Jonbar point and failed

I read Williamson's The Legion of Time when I was a child, but ave never seen or heard a discussion of it (compare with The Legion of Space, which I've never read but seems more famous).

Is it better known than I realised, that you can use it as a reference like that?

8:47 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

The book is not terribly well known, but "Jonbar point" has become the standard short hand among critics for "the point at which things can go different ways and create different worlds" or alternatively, Pratchett's Trousers of Time.

1:49 PM  
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