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Review: Martian Sands & The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar is an author many writers must envy. He is not only prolific, having released seven novels alongside numerous novellas and short stories in the last five years, he is also inventive, playful and ambitious. The sight of Tidhar’s name on a work of fiction provides little guarantee beyond events are unlikely play out as you expect. Put another way he is a writer’s writer, or put a third way he is not an author content to extrude consistent commercial products.

There are nonetheless some common themes to his work. Dislocation is a particularly powerful one, befitting an Israeli-born and kibbutz-raised author who has lived on several continents and whose family lost members in Auschwitz. I mention this last point not to intrude into a review with excessive biography but to prepare you for how pertinent this fact proves to both these books.

Another theme common to much of Tidhar’s work is his interest in narratives – not only those he lays upon the page but also those that guide, contextualise or define human lives. This often emerges directly through conflict between characters with opposing cultural worldviews but is also evident from his love of inventing writers and characters within his fiction. Tidhar often sketches out a cultural milieu within his stories and this often helps provide the fabric that connects apparently disparate tales.

Take, for example, the ‘Central Station’ stories Tidhar published between 2012 and 2013. British readers may be most familiar with those that appeared in Interzone–‘The Indignity of Rain’, ‘Strigoi’, ‘The Book Seller’ and ‘The Core’–although others appeared in Analog, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld and elsewhere. These stories are connected to one another by place–the eponymous Central Station–more often than character, although minor characters in one story often come into their own in another.

It is in ‘The Book Seller’ that Tidhar’s habit of inventing cultural works within his fiction most clearly emerges. In this story his protagonist describes a series of books named for their hero, Ringo. These once-popular wild west pulps describe a chisel-jawed cowboy hero, but what’s most interesting about them is that they are the work of ‘Jeffrey McNamara’. McNamara is a pseudonym for a group of Tel Aviv-based writers who are writing these pulp stories to pay the bills.

Ringo and McNamara are mentioned in this story for several reasons, but one that it’s easy to talk about without delving further into ‘The Book Seller’ is that they contextualise the protagonist’s trade as one that has economically struggled for a long time, and Tel Aviv–Tidhar’s story’s setting–as one in which such struggle is commonplace. There is, of course, an allusive tip of the hat to the present day reader inherent in any such aside.

McNamara is a minor invention in the context of what I’ve read of Tidhar’s fiction; a forgotten footnote in a fictional future’s history. Far more significant is Bill Glimmung. Or Bill Glimmung!, or what would Bill Glimmung do?, as his name is most regularly invoked. He is a character referenced numerous times in the Central Station stories, primarily in the context of remembered books or films about this classic, archetypal character. The films that made Glimmung a household name are old enough that memories are always unspecific, and the character and actor (Elvis Mandela, ho ho) have been essentially conflated into one. Glimmung sometimes seems to be a bit of a chameleonic cipher, fulfilling whatever anecdotal purpose is required at the time, though it’s in Martian Sands that this idea comes into its own.

The novel opens with a man appearing in the Oval Office through a door that the President has never seen before. This man–who is, of course, Bill Glimmung–offers Franklin Delano Roosevelt the military material necessary to accelerate success in the European theatre of war. The condition attached to this aid is that it is to be used exclusively to defeat the German war machine and liberate Jewish prisoners.

From there we hop elsewhere in time and space to Mars, many generations later, colonised and occupied by Jews, Chinese, Indians, Russians and more. Here we meet Josh (ah, the Anglic peoples have also arrived on Mars) whose life, for all that it is lived out upon the red planet, is much like many of our lives today. He works in telesales, flogging fertiliser to anyone that will buy it, which is a task he usually struggles with. One day he makes a sale that will have ramifications far beyond the spreading of nutritious shit, and which draws co-worker Shay into his life–briefly, and disastrously.

Miriam works with the Martian presidential office and has been tasked with stopping by a body shop in which a new president is being prepared. The current president, Ben Gurion, has served his purpose, and it’s time he was replaced with a new model. His replacement is Golda Meir. These historical Israeli presidents are essentially figureheads, with administrators getting on with the real business of government in their shadows, but there’s something about this new president that seems a little different.

Carl works in the body shop responsible for creating the Golda Meir, but it is not his work which drives him, nor his insignificant human life. For Carl is also K’t’Amin, a four-armed warrior of long-vanished Barsoomian Mars. The reborn warrior caste of ancient Martian society has its own plans to put in motion, even if they are a little few in number these days, and the body modifications expenses are high.

Martian Sands is a charmingly odd collision of inspirations. In large part it plays out like a Golden Age pulp story, one full of adventure and mystery. Yet its backdrop and grander scale concerns several cultures and, ultimately, their elision. The long-forgotten Martian culture may or may not be truly dead, but with the interference of Glimmung in the history of Earth–and in the formation of the state of Israel–it may find itself fused with something both old and new. This will have ramifications for Mars both past and present.

Glimmung’s role is at the heart of it all – as befits a story that is greatly concerned with the way in which we look to narratives to make sense of the world around us. We use stories to understand events that are otherwise inexplicable, and to define our place in the world. When these narratives are threatened or shaken, the experience can be powerfully disorienting–and Martian Sands is a disorienting ride.

There is no Bill Glimmung in The Violent Century but that is not to say that our love of narratives do not also drive this story. In this longer novel, Tidhar posits a moment in the 1930s when a Nazi scientist named Vomacht flipped a switch and subtly changed the world forever. The superheroes that were once the preserve of American comic books came to be, with a few thousand people the world over gifted with unusual abilities.

The nation states of the 1930s were haunted by the spectre of a terrible war and, in some cases, preparing for another. Nationalism was at its height, and it’s no surprise that the ways in which these ubermensch found themselves used reflected the character and intentions of their home states.

The Americans, of course, clad their heroes in colourful suits, parading this new addition to their military might in front of television cameras. The USSR’s heroes are similarly exploited for propaganda purposes–although their stature may not be enough to save them from internal purges.

Germany attaches its heroes to various military divisions; Wehrmacht, SS, and of course a sinister secret unit tasked with capturing foreign ubermensch. Jewish heroes are scattered throughout the European nations. Britain, meanwhile, hoards its secret heroes, training them into drably-dressed spies who will observe in secret and, rarely, act with precision.

Oblivion and Fogg are two such British cloak-and-dagger heroes. It is primarily Fogg we follow, through recruitment and training, various World War 2 locales– the siege of Stalingrad, occupied Paris, the forested mountains of Romania–and further afield as the Cold War settles in for the long haul. As befits the relationship between two spies, theirs is a subtle dynamic, and some secrets are rarely spoken.

Oblivion has the ability to ‘obliviate’ matter; to render it undone and reduce it to sub-atomic nothing. Fogg’s name gives away his ability; he is a master of concealment and obfuscation. It is particularly useful in these partners’ common role as invisible observers. Other British agents have names that are an unambiguous reflection of their character and ability–Tank, Spit–or employ a degree of whimsy–Mrs Tinkle, Mr Blur.

The novel’s narrative framework is that of a retired Fogg being brought in by his old partner in order to answer some questions for their old boss, who is, suitably enough, known only as the Old Man. The bulk of the book’s events are recounted from the past, although it seems to be a given that the accounts we are presented with are trustworthy representations. Although broadly chronological, brief events may be presented out of sequence in order to reinforce this or that point and as the novel wears on it becomes clear that this is less a novel about war, cold or hot, than one about the roles superheroes find themselves playing in a world driven by conflict and realpolitik, about the wounded humanity that lies at the heart of every person or group that finds themselves used, and about the sublimated impulse towards freedom or love.

The Violent Century does not read like anything else of Tidhar’s I’ve so far encountered. Its prose is largely written in a clipped fashion, a texture composed of short and blunt sentences. It’s a novel that draws inspiration from the Cold War spy novels of Le Carre and his ilk. Its unadorned prose allows little room for ambiguity, but in focusing so much on the small images conveyed within each truncated sentence there’s also an obfuscation of subtler meanings–perfect for a cloak-and-dagger narrative.

At points Tidhar seems unable or unwilling to reign in his usual elegant and thoughtful prose in order to bind it to this stylistic commitment, but these shifts are few enough to not weaken the novel’s tone, and in any case largely occur in moments of joy and colour–moments unlike the largely dehumanised and sepia-grey framework of the novel at large.

Although the use of superheroes in war will seem to many a fundamentally absurd premise, Tidhar largely succeeds with carrying his novel’s conceit to its conclusion. This may rely greatly on his focus upon the British super-spy; a few scenes where ubermensch do fight amidst streams of bullets don’t ring entirely true. Given that a superhero can be killed as easily by a bullet as any other human being, it is surprising that the story’s protagonists get away as lightly as they do. Plot Armour, as always, trumps all other forms of protection.

Like Martian Sands, The Violent Century is concerned with the suffering of the Jewish people under Nazi crimes. A connection is drawn between captured ubermensch and Jewish prisoners, both of whom are fodder for the barbaric experiments of Mengele and his compatriots, although by dint of being fewer in number the ubermensch are less likely to find themselves slaughtered in the name of bad science. Post-war, Vomacht finds himself put on trial as a high-ranking Nazi collaborator–at which a few cameos can be spotted by sharp-eyed comic aficionados.

If Martian Sands can be understood as a novel that is at least partly about the clashing and fusion of cultural narratives, then The Violent Century can, like many wartime or post-war works, be recognised as about their failure. This is despite the integration of the often morally clear-cut world of comics superheroism into the picture (although I must acknowledge how many comics and writers have tackled similar questions since Watchmen).

In truth neither novel informs greatly upon the other; they are conceptually entirely independent of one another. I’d happily recommend both or either to readers of interesting, experimental and well-executed science fiction. It just so happens that they were reviewed together, and what has enhanced the reading of both are the ways in which their themes overlap: a Venn diagram of the narratives of Lavie Tidhar. Long may he continue to explore them.

[This review was published in issue 277 of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. This version of the review should be identical to the print version.]

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  1. […] Martian Sands (PS Publishing, 2013) and The Violent Century (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013) by Lavie Tidhar – Reviewed by Shaun Green […]