—- An overview, in brief —-
I loved the actual science and efforts at serious sci-fi-ing of 40k. In depiction of characters and factions, Guymer works in some brilliant examinations of psychology of people, of astute insights on the human condition. It’s terribly compelling speculative fiction, through and through.
—- Anyway, on with the show —-
Some weeks ago, I picked up the first of the in-flight Iron Hands trilogy: “Eye of Medusa” by David Guymer. This is coming off the back of a year’s worth of Space Marine and Inquisitorial stories (which is also still underway), amongst some other fiction too. By the cover, I wasn’t entirely enthused (mainly as the art style’s not to my tastes, but you know what they say). Similarly, I had reservations about reading an entire novel on the Iron Hands and Adeptus Mechanicus. To put it mildly: they’re ostensibly quite boring, or at least at the inhuman ends of the continuum. Both factions being machine-obsessed, war-obsessed perfectionists whose central tenet might be summed up as “things that are human and humane are weak, the machine is strong”.
So, to my joy: I was wholly wrong in my misgivings. (And wholly correct in my disposal towards David Guymer as an author – I’d recently read his “Thorgrim“, which is a tremendous novel, albeit one of many tremendous Warhammer Fantasy novels.) In any event, I was very pleased with this turn of events.
In short: it was hugely creative, deeply psychological, and forged an excellent ‘hard SF’ edge to the mad baroque fantasy that 40k ought to be. Not by distracting asides into the nitty-gritty of real science, nor by invoking mindless streams of technobabble – rather, by seeding and decorating the world with what to me felt the right ideas and right observations, to make the setting not only be vile, but alive and vivid. Being fairly interested in both science and sci-fi, it’s pleasing to read a book that’s fairly relentless in its dedication to seeing the genre being done well.
As an aside: you may hear the phrase bolter porn bandied about; I prefer to chalk it up to the same bad name that’s given for a lot of women-targeted fiction: dick lit. Suitably disparaging. The idea being fairly simple: lasers and guns and bombs and explosions, not a huge degree of exploration of the human condition. Much of the Black Library fare is all-too-often written off by the online commentariat (even by myself, at times!) for being too heavy handed on focussing on action and not sufficiently deft at tickling my taste buds for character journeys, depictions, and plot. I digress.
In that regard: this is most assuredly not bolter porn, nor dick lit. Indeed, it has music! And kissing! And romance! Not integral to the plot in a overwhelming way, but neither were they casually disregarded or overlooked as irrelevant to the topics at hand.
Indeed, the psychology of this novel is in principle very simple. Ostensibly at the foremost of the story, you have the ambitions of a man proceeding with his job in the face of competent but questionable senior management, and difficult, but not entirely unhelpful co-workers. A companion plot is the ambitions of a woman proceeding in her job, in the face of competent but questionable senior management, and difficult, but not entirely unhelpful co-workers.
In essence, it’s fairly relatable. So to speak…
Within the lore of the setting, these two are further distinguished: one is a transhuman “Space Marine” – a genetically and technologically enhanced supersoldier, interfacing with his new duties. The other is a transhuman “tech priest” – a religiously and technologically enhanced supercleric, interfacing with her new duties. Should they be depicted on screen, I could envision they’d be easily interpreted as ‘inhuman monsters’ by audiences, is perhaps no insignificant detail. (And that exploration of humanity is never lost throughout, for my tastes at least.)
As you can see: there’s no shortage of dovetailing or rooms for literary comparison. My take, here and above, is deliberately trivialising: instead of being a “mere two-hander” depicting two similar-but-not-identical-strands, Guymer manages to weave these (and additional oddities, both in the lore, in the background, and in the narrative structure itself) to play with some incredible concepts and tell an absolutely staggering tail that sits in equal parts ‘slice of life’, ‘action scene’, and ‘psychological conspiracy thriller’.
It’s tense, mind-boggling, huge in scale and scope, yet also deeply personal and utterly compelling. It covers bias, it deals with the propagation of ideas (both figuratively, and also in terms of literal memes – “We should consider a purge of his meme-core.”), it looks at the causes, expressions, and impacts of anger, of abuse, of discipline.
It’s not mild in its take, yet it also manages to be exceedingly mature in its depiction – neither trivialising nor glorifying.
On a point of personal taste: I found it to be dense in detail. Not casually so – breathing life into strange decisions, making curious aspects of the IP’s setting dance with life in a way that previously seemed awkward and offputtingly peculiar. (Google the ‘Clan Raukaan’ supplement to see some brains dribble from the minds of some of the internet’s… finest?)
Indeed, there’s some brave (and in my esteem: very well-executed) structural choices in the prose. Flash-backs that aren’t explicitly explained, changes of opinion that aren’t adumbrated. These choices are ones I can imagine many writers struggling with (and, alas, editors! [Let alone readers…]). Yet, the limited use of them, the tact with which they’re applied leads them to be very effective. They illustrate the points they’re intended to, without being so intrusive or obscure that casual readers will be left outraged at the author’s time-wasting.
These elements of discontinuity, disjointedness, in retrospect are a large deal of my fascination with the book – it is not merely telling a story, but it is telling a convoluted story in a suitably uncomplicated way, something that should be lauded. (Such is the temptation to go the other direction: to overcomplicate relatively simple stories). This non-linearity (in a mathematical sense, in addition to the literary), isn’t such a curious choice, given the plot, but it is a brave and laudable one: the capacity to get it wrong, or execute it less than elegantly presumably haunts many authors.
(Perhaps the outrage or irritation at a perceived lack of elegance only really manifests in the minds of harsh and self-appointed critics who’ve been banging the same drum for many decades; a cohort that I certainly wouldn’t ever fall into! In any case, I’d encourage authors to disregard it, in the main…)
I mentioned the Clan Raukaan fiasco. That can be summarised as follows: some games developers wrote some new fiction to accompany a game supplement, one that introduced a huge new element to the lore, but that also diametrically opposed much of what had been written before. This inconsistence was vexing, for many. (I’d attest to it myself; it seemed needless contrarianism.) It introduced a whole new dimension of religiosity seemingly borrowed from elsewhere in the stories.
In context of this novel, if you set yourself the challenge of reconciling these two inconsistent accounts, I would attest that you couldn’t do this simply by telling a simple story in the conventional sense. Your usual bells and whistles not only wouldn’t be good here, but it’d end up propagating the inconsistency and perhaps even exacerbating the problem. (See also: Protocols For Sleeping Canines, Pedestrian Impacts Against Vespidae Nests etc.)
In the novel that Guymer’s actually written, in the moderate concepts and modest use of some structural conceits, he’s managed something astonishing. In parallel to the philosophies described within his novel, that are central to the variety of conflicts throughout, he’s literally lived and worked an aspect of his own story: a story that might as well be about breaking and fixing things that angry idiots on the internet are furious about.
In telling that story, I’d contend he’s managed to fix a thing and leave it far stronger and more detailed than it was before.
Hell, he’s told a hell of a story in amongst doing that. I loved it.
It’s one of the most intensely bleak and horrifyingly brutal books BL has published, yet it steered well clear of being stomach churning in its graphic imagery. With institutionalised abuse as one of the main concepts dealt with in the story, alongside genocide on a terrifying scale, and bizarre technocratic dogmatists front and centre… it’s easy to see where an author might go wrong. Intellectually, so many of the things herein are deeply repugnant, and yet Guymer gives categorically no warmth to the idea of rehabilitating or emulating the ideas in any way. What he does manage is something absolutely compelling: a hellish nightmare that nevertheless tells a deeply compelling story, being intellectually revolting without actually turning the stomach of the reader.
It’s not an easy book to sing the praises of, but it absolutely deserves praise!