Tag Archives: sophia mcdougall

Reading Sophia McDougall’s Savage City

Savage Cityby Sophia McDougall
(Gollancz, 2011)

It would be wrong to say that the alternative world setting is incidental to Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy but neither is the working out of such a history the driving force behind the series, not when the point of divergence occurs so far in the past. Yet, neither should the series be regarded simply as a story set against a faux-imperial backdrop for local colour. Instead, McDougall has created a world in which various powerful and emotive issues can be interrogated away from contemporary assumptions and received wisdoms. Once this is grasped, McDougall’s choice of an alternative Imperial Rome as a venue in which to explore personal freedoms and political expediency is more easily understood.

Savage City, like its predecessors, focuses on Una and Sulien, slaves who escaped to Europe and were later freed, thanks to their involvement with Marcus Novius, heir to the Imperial Throne, who had fled from Rome after his parents’ murders, fearing his life was in danger. In Rome Burning, Una had come to realise that Marcus’s cousin, Drusus, was behind the murders, so determined was he to fulfil a prophecy that he would become emperor. As Savage City opens, with the deaths of Marcus and other members of the Imperial family in a bomb blast, Drusus once again finds himself thwarted but usurps the throne anyway and attempts to execute Una and various others because they know what he has done.

A power struggle between unevenly matched forces is a fictional staple; one expects those on the side of ‘good’ to triumph somehow, no matter how unevenly matched the two groups might be. What makes Savage City and its predecessors stand out from the crowd is the focus not on the mechanics of the struggle as on the emotional price it exacts from everyone, on all sides of the conflict. Everyone has a particular view of how various issues ought to be handled and no two seem to agree.

All her life Una has dreamed of the abolition of slavery and, having escaped, is determined to do what she can to make it happen; her relationship with Marcus offers a chance to finally achieve this yet Marcus has been made acutely aware that political solutions are not easily enacted, even by emperors – the economic costs of turning slaves into paid servants is made plain. By the same token, his relationship with Una, even as a freedwoman, cannot be sanctioned by the state; she can be his concubine or his advisor but not his wife.

When the state cannot help, Una turns to grassroots activism, utilising people’s strengths and their willingness to perform various actions according to their own convictions. This willingness to accommodate can be linked to Marcus’s attempts to avert war. Drusus, by contrast, believes in absolute authority and with it the right to dispose of people as he sees fit. War is necessary in order to establish his own supremacy; it does not occur to him to question his own right to order to people to die on his behalf.

In addressing such issues Savage City and its predecessors attest to the fact that it is possible – maybe even necessary – to do something with speculative fiction that goes beyond the familiar tropes. While the fantastic elements of the narrative are low-key – Sulien’s ability to heal, Una’s ability to direct people’s thoughts – and the alternative history doesn’t always entirely convince, the passion behind the narrative is highly persuasive.

Reading Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, ed. Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin

Having finally exhausted my archive of Interzone reviews, it’s time to move on to my archive of reviews for Vector, the British Science Fiction Association’s critical journal. Except, of course, that the bulk of them were written either before the advent of the easily affordable personal computer, or else were written on an Amstrad PCW and not converted to a more easily readable format. At some point in the future, much scanning will ensue. After that there was a long and mysterious reviewing hiatus, which I can’t now account for. However, there are a few reviews from my return to reviewing for Vector, although that archive seems to be a bit of a mess. So the next few reviews may dot around a bit.

I kick off with this review from 2011 …

Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin (Jurassic London, 2011)

Why are we so obsessed by the thought of the world ending? For those of certain faiths, apocalypse is not so much an ending as a new beginning, the revelatory lifting of the veil, at which point they, as believers, will finally see what the rest of us cannot. For others, the thought of the world ending is so incomprehensible, they have to keep pushing at the idea, trying to imagine what it might be like. They make elaborate plans for coping with every possible eventuality, enjoying the exquisite thrill of horror this provokes, before comforting themselves with the fact that it hasn’t happened yet and probably won’t. Some people, like me, suspect that the apocalypse has either been quietly underway for years already and has already gone too far to be stopped or else that it will quite end suddenly, in a breath.

Most apocalypse scenarios assume that people are significant participants in it yet what struck me most forcefully when I saw John Martin’s apocalyptic paintings at the Tate Gallery’s recent exhibition was how insignificant humanity was to the whole business. Tiny figures crowded round the edges of the paintings, almost tumbling out of the frames in some instances, but it was the huge boiling skies, the volcanic eruptions, the floods that were the stars. This apocalypse seems to be an intensely visual experience so how might one write about it? Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, a collection of short stories partially inspired by the exhibition, takes on this challenge with, I have to say, mixed results.

Several stories are directly inspired by Martin’s work but none are entirely satisfactory. David Bryher’s ‘Architect of Hell’ features the correspondence of Mulciber, architect of Pandemonium, to Martin, to whom he has turned for inspiration. Bryher seeks to account for Martin’s extraordinary vision of the world but the story seems slight, perhaps because Martin himself is never present. Scott K Anderson’s ‘A Private Viewing’ is a more harrowing story of revenge, suggesting not only that last year’s riots were harbingers of the end days but that Martin’s paintings themselves might have the capacity to provoke madness. Archie Black’s ‘Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion’, its title taken from one of Martin’s most famous paintings, leads the reader into a hideous post-apocalyptic future as a group of explorers travel south through the former United States. Both are well written but felt more like exercises in craft than attempts to stir up genuine emotion.

In fact, deeply-felt emotion is something this collection seems to lack. Instead we see superficial people behaving badly when the end times arrive and a parade of the selfish and clueless pass by, from Lauren Beukes’s overweening ‘Chislehurst Messiah’ to the guests of the ghastly dinner party disrupted by the end of the world in Magnus Anderson’s ‘Another Abyss’, not forgetting the survivors of Andy Remic’s ‘Πανδαιμνειον’. It appears this time around that the bastards rather than the meek will inherit the earth.

Curiously, it is assumed for the most part that this apocalypse will be a Christian one. This allows for a certain amount of poking fun at those who sincerely believe in the Rapture (such as in Chrysanthy Balis’s ‘The Harvest’) but also permits a deeper questioning of faith, present in Jonathan Oliver’s challenging ‘The Day or the Hour’, Tom Pollock’s nicely observed ‘Evacuation’ with its conflicting love stories and, less successfully if more polemically, SL Grey’s ‘OMG GTFO’, the only story to touch on the other Abrahamic faiths. By contrast, Kim Lakin-Smith’s ‘Deluge’, Charlie Human’s ‘The Immaculate Particle’ and Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s ‘The Last Human’ eschew the contemporary world for fantastical settings but while all are competent stories they sit oddly in a collection which, for the most part, focuses on the familiar. The apocalypse seems to prefer to stay close to home.

Inevitably, the fictional equivalent of the terrible desire to laugh at a funeral comes to the fore a number of times, as authors try either to treat the End Times with a light touch or else reinvigorate the trope with a new twist. Den Patrick’s ‘The End of the World’ seems to fall into this category, as does Lou Morgan’s ‘At the Sign of the Black Dove’ and, much more successfully, Sam Wilson’s ‘Postapocalypse’, which sets science and belief against one another in a very entertaining way. I have mixed feelings about Osgood Vance’s ‘Closer’, not because it isn’t well written and in its way touching but because apparently we can’t even manage the end of the world without an sf baseball story!

Which brings us finally to Sophia McDougall’s ‘Not the End of the World’, the last story in the collection and by far the best. It unfolds slowly, as we meet the inhabitants of Frau Holl’s boarding house, situated somewhere in wartime Germany. The various inhabitants go about their war work, worry about the possibility of being called up, are fearful without being clear what it is they are frightened of. Time hangs heavy, the days run into one another. Only gradually does it become clear that something strange is happening, starting when Elly sees a stream of soap bubbles float past her window, something almost unimaginable in her austere world. This story dips deep into the well of emotion without ever becoming sentimental; the dignified composure of those who know what is happening is set against the blissful ignorance of those who don’t but who are safer than they can possibly imagine. In its understated way, this story says more about the nature of endings than all the other stories put together.

What this anthology demonstrates is that apocalypse itself is a very slippery concept. We think about it probably more than we care to admit, particularly given the present state of the world, but it is difficult to find anything to say about it without resorting to well-worn tropes and images. With single stories we overlook this so it is only when an anthology brings together a group of stories on the same subject that we realise just how difficult it is to encompass the nature of apocalypse. We are too small to see the whole picture. We can only ever experience it in fragments and those individual pieces don’t always fit well together because our personal visions of the final ending are so different. We joke to keep it at bay, or we torment ourselves with the emotional horror of it all. Only rarely can we find the grace to simply accept whatever comes, as and when it arrives.