Review: The Arrival of Missives

(A version of this post originally appeared at CSFF-Anglia.)

The Arrival of MissivesTime travel TV shows can be broadly divided into two categories based on whether they’re about conserving history or changing it. On the one hand, Legends of Tomorrow or Timeless are about characters from our present preserving the status quo of our past, no matter how many historical atrocities must be committed to make that happen. On the other hand, 12 Monkeys or Travelers are (generally better) shows about characters from our future attempting to change the status quo of their past: our present is the error they’re setting out to change. The first category is big on costumes and cliché historical settings. The second is usually about future dystopias that must be prevented by taking action in our present: depending on budget, we may see more or less of the future dystopia itself, which features its own set of clichés.

Travelers in particular is one of the better science fiction shows on TV lately. It’s a low-budget show, light on the fx and heavy on the high concept. We don’t see the future dystopia directly; we only see it in the estrangement of the travelers, the presences they note with joy and wonder, allowing us to register them as corresponding future absences: the clean air, the trees, the birdsong. What differentiates the travelers in Travelers from the ones in 12 Monkeys (or Continuum, or The Sarah Connor Chronicles …) is that they are not a small band of plucky renegades, but part of an organized, civilization-scale collective project. Everybody left alive in the unseen Travelers future dystopia is working on this: many teams are sent back to our present, operating in cells and working on many problems at once. It is understood that the problems of the future do not derive from some particular single event that the time travelers could easily prevent. There is no particular villain to shoot, no bomb to defuse. And because of this, the project is dynamic, as the future adjusts to consequences and sends further instructions. The goalposts are always moving. And all the missions on Travelers are one-way trips: all these people are exiles from the future, committing the rest of their natural lives to the project. That is, they are exiles not only from the future that they came from, but also from the better future that they are creating. This is a leftist/sfnal well that many writers have drawn from before. There is a desperate romance in the double alienation both from the inaccessible future and from the uncomprehending present.

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(Source; full text of poem: “The Bellbuoy”)

Nearing the end of Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives, we think we’ve learned that it’s the second kind of time travel story: a story about a future attempting to change the past to change itself. Though here there are no travelers at all. All that is sent back are messages, the titular missives. Only information. The future is spamming the past with propaganda, hoping that of all the people who receive it, at least a few will be receptive, will be radicalized, driven to action.

Imagine reaching the point where there are no further allies to find, and so, in desperation, you write a message and place it within a bottle and throw it into the ocean. You hope and pray it will reach somebody who will feel the same as you, and who will find a way to aid you across that great expanse of ocean. That maybe they will save you. You pour all your persuasion into that message, and you cast it adrift; you have no inkling as to what kind of person might find it. You can only hope that it is picked up by somebody who shares your beliefs. Perhaps, if you send many such messages, some will wash up on fertile soil.

It matters that these communications are missives. They are entirely static and unidirectional. There is no access to consequences, no adaptation, no movement. The future is not listening, only speaking.

As Jonathan’s review covers in detail, Missives is written from the point of view of a young English woman, Shirley Fearn, who has a crush on the new local schoolmaster, Mr. Tiller. The story is set in early 1920, during which Shirley gradually learns that Tiller is an agent of a distant future that is attempting to change her present in a very personal way. Shirley is not the object of Tiller’s machinations, but his instrument: he wants to ensure that a particular young couple in her village don’t marry, so as to render their line of descent nonexistent. Sort of like Terminator, if the Terminator didn’t attack John or Sarah Connor, but instead sabotaged Sarah’s grandfather’s marriage before they had children. Tiller attempts to use Shirley to break up that marriage before it happens, escalating to violence as his original plan fails.

Tiller was recruited during the war; as a soldier and near death, he encounters the missive as a rock-like object that embeds itself in his body, in what would have otherwise have been a fatal wound. It preserves his life and lets him experience the future’s propaganda as visions when he touches it. When we meet him, he’s a true believer, completely committed to bringing about the future that the future demands of him. His error is in bringing Shirley into his confidence, in attempting to recruit her by allowing her to receive the missive as well. Afterwards, Shirley reflects on Tiller:

He is not mad. He is brave, and determined. He is utterly mistaken in his loyalty. He has taken the vision as undisputed knowledge rather than a point of view. He does not see that this future is not his fight.

Shirley is less susceptible to the propaganda of the future because she is not its target audience. Tiller accepts the missive’s assertions uncritically, that its eugenicist patriarchal white supremacist future needs defending, because it’s aimed directly at people like him. He sees only what the future is arguing for, not what it’s arguing against, because that dystopia is only an extension of systems that were already well in place by 1920. Tiller already understands capitalism, empire, and patriarchy to be good, solidly British, desirable things; how could he see their logical endpoints as anything but perfection? It doesn’t even occur to him that Shirley might find this future alienating instead of uplifting, or that it might drive her to desperate opposition. Which it does—the book ends on a declaration of war, where Shirley abandons her old plans for her own life to hunt down other agents of the future and destroy them. The empire, reaching back through time, is creating not only its fanatical adherents but an equally fervent resistance.

In 1835, Kylas Chunder Dutt wrote a short story called “A Journal of Forty-Eight Hours of the Year 1945”, published in the Calcutta Literary Gazette. It’s one of the earliest published English-language short stories from South Asia, and it’s a science fiction story about a rebellion against the British Empire 110 years in the future—the rebellion fails, incidentally, which is more pessimistic than one would expect from such a young writer (Dutt was eighteen at the time), but I suspect that Dutt was setting out to write about resilience in the face of defeat, not about the end of Empire. It is very clearly a polemic, deliberately seditious. It was, if you like, propaganda from a particular future, all the more remarkable for its prescience. And of course Dutt’s future 1945 is still a quarter-century in the future of The Arrival of Missives, whose little struggle between competing futures may seem to take place in an idyllic English village, but actually takes place in a horrific dystopia of its own. To take only a single example, Shirley and Tiller’s story is taking place more or less simultaneously with the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and its immediate aftermath.

Almost any future can be argued for in a way that (briefly, at least) might make it sound desirable; anybody can claim to be an exile from the future, a true believer. This is also very much a story about how history is written, and by whom, and for whom. History is written by those who have power, but this isn’t just the battleground of the history textbooks: history is constantly being written as it is made. One could even go so far as to define power as the ability to impose narrative on events; to repress and reinterpret history even as it happens, so that even the future’s primary sources will contain those distortions. As Churchill said of his WW2 memoirs, “this is not history—this is my case.” In Travelers, the future’s understanding of our present sometimes includes dangerous misunderstandings based on inaccuracies in the historical record. In Missives, the future attempts to retroactively impose those distortions on the past, to make its narrative of an endangered perfection as compelling and contagious as possible.

This is a tempting but dangerous romanticism, Missives argues, because it’s agnostic to principle. Which is why principles matter, of course. Missives constructs an argument against romanticism using the voice of a romantic young woman, which is why the process of her working her way through various romantic illusions is significant. And the novum—that the future is a dystopia attempting to preserve itself, not a utopia struggling to be born—works because we are already familiar with the grammar of time travel stories, so that we too are tempted to read Tiller sympathetically at the outset. After all, he has a mission and a big picture, which everybody else in this parochial village lacks. Shirley learns to read the missive critically, but too late to save a life. The necessity and method of reading against the grain is what feels to me like the heart of The Arrival of Missives. Shirley has to teach herself how to do this from scratch. The sheer preponderance of time travel narratives here in 2017 that rely on the same devices and uphold the same politics as Tiller’s future space nazis suggests that this has never stopped being necessary.

Review: Empire V

(A version of this post originally appeared at CSFF-Anglia.)

Empire VEmpire V (Victor Pelevin, translated by Anthony Phillips) is about vampires, which is probably guaranteed to turn away many readers who could happily go the rest of their lives without seeing another vampire. The figure of the vampire has by this point been made to stand in for so many disparate things—the sexual predator, the romantic outsider, the lonely immortal, the feral beast, whatever—that the image feels quite emptied of meaning in itself. Merely knowing that there are vampires in a story no longer tells us anything useful about it. At best, one might make two safe guesses: one, that the story is not going to be about vampirism as such; two, that the vampires will be in some way a fringe element to society.

The first of those is largely because the vampire as a figure of fear seems dated; it’s rarely played that straight any more except in apocalyptic scenarios like The Passage or The Strain, or perhaps in retellings like The Historian. In stories with a contemporary, non-apocalyptic setting, the vampire as a romantic sympathetic figure is of course more common. It exploits a convenient otherness, especially if the tiresome biteyness can be toned down—the heroic vampire happens to be “half human” and/or has a “soul” and/or is vegetarian and/or has a plentiful supply of ethically sourced blood, or any other device that allows the story to be about something other than the vampirism per se.

The second safe guess, meanwhile, is what generally unites the use of the image across styles and tones: in a non-apocalyptic scenario, vampires must necessarily be a hidden or otherwise fringe element. They might be secret sybarites living in luxury like in Blade or Underworld, romantic feral loners like in Let The Right One In, comedic suburban left-behinds like in What We Do In The Shadows, or if their existence is widely known, they might even (bizarrely) be an oppressed minority like in the Sookie Stackhouse books. In all of these variations, the vampire is marginal to human civilization, which is still (if only by virtue of numbers) the dominant power. At most, they’re a hidden secret society that might farm small communities of humans, like in Fledgling or Carrion Comfort.

Pelevin’s Empire V is entertaining precisely to the extent that it flouts these two safe guesses. First, the entire book is specifically about the act of vampirism and what exactly it is that’s being sucked, which is no longer blood but money, or rather the human mental processes and anxieties of desire and frustration that money represents; second, its vampires are not marginalized in any way, but are rather the designers and creators of humans both as a species and as a society: humans were bred to have a mind that would desire things, and then given a society engineered to both continually provoke that desire and frustrate it.

As a critique of capitalism, this is perhaps a little too over-the-top to work except as comedy, so of course Empire V hams it up from the very beginning. The protagonist is a hapless and unpleasant young man who is turned by a vampire at the outset and spends the rest of the book being indoctrinated into vampire society, which is (naturally) full of terrible people. Early on, he learns that the actual vampires are a slug-like symbiont (called the Tongue, because it replaces the tongue of a human host): these are creatures who once fed on dinosaurs, and who ensured that mammals and then humans were bred to be compatible for symbiosis.

‘For a long period we lived in large predators, such as the sabre-toothed tiger and other big cats. Our culture was at that time, well … ah … somewhat alarming. Heroic and violent, you might say. We were terrible, magnificent and cruel. But you cannot be magnificent and cruel for ever, and approximately half a million years ago there was a kind of a revolution in the world of vampires …’

The term ‘revolution’ had frequently cropped up in Discourse, and could apparently mean almost anything you wanted it to. I thought of the most recent contexts in which I could remember it being used.

‘Do you mean something like the Orange Revolution in Kiev? Or something more like the Volvo Revolution?’

‘Hmm,’ said Enlil Maratovich uncertainly, ‘not quite. It was more akin to a religious conversion. As I mentioned, vampires set themselves the task of changing over from stock-raising to a form of dairy husbandry. They decided to create a milch animal for their needs. The result was the appearance of mankind.’

This is pretty typical of Empire’s prose: both the sly humour and the way people talk at the protagonist, Rama, who is continually frustrated by his inability to understand vampire ideology and continually insecure about his low position in their hierarchy and his inability to assimilate. Eventually it turns out he’s not a unusually bad learner, nor is vampire pedagogy fundamentally unsound—his education was half-assed because he was earmarked for a social/sacrificial role that he was not expected to survive. But that’s not particularly important. Plot and denouement are not what this book is about. This book is about the pleasure of lazily exploring the metaphor’s odd corners, as if deliberately setting itself in opposition to stories that take the vampire and all its associated tropes as givens.

Vampires, of course, have a stake in every speculative genre. From their roots in horror and the weird to their more defanged cousins in fantasy, they vary more in the affect they are intended to evoke rather than in the plausibility of the explanations for their existence. The most science-fictional vampires, like in Fledgling or Blindsight, are the ones that break the fewest realisms. Unlike the monstrous vampire who is an aberration of nature, or the friendly neighbourhood Vincent the Vegetable Vampire who is fully assimilated into the narrative’s normal, the most sfnal vampire stories are the ones that worry about explanations (where do vampires come from? How do they work? What do they want?) and attempt to answer these questions in material terms. The peculiar pleasure of Empire V is just how much space it devotes to this at the expense of a more conventional plot.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a conventional plot: there is indeed a faux-romance and a rivalry, culminating in a vampire duel. But in keeping with Empire’s absurdist tone, the duel is fought with poems, which inevitably leads into a discussion of the formal requirements of the vampiric sonnet, which may well be my favourite passage in the whole book.

‘So, according to the rules of the engagement you and your rival must each compose a poem. The form of the poem must be a vampiric sonnet.’

‘What is that?’ I asked.

Loki looked enquiringly at Baldur.

‘Did we not tell you?’ groaned Baldur. ‘What an omission. A vampiric sonnet is a poem consisting of twelve lines. Rhyme and metre, if any, are optional. The most important thing is that the last line must metaphorically suck, so to say, all the meaning out of the poem, expressing and encapsulating with maximum brevity the quintessence of the verse. The last line thus symbolises the process whereby red liquid is sublimated into bablos, which you then ritually present to the Mosquito Muse. Understand?’

‘Approximately,’ I said.

‘But this is a lyric poetry convention, not a strict rule,’ continued Baldur. ‘Each poet can decide for himself the manner in which he proposes to convey the sense of the whole poem in a single line. After all, only the author knows what it is, is that not so?’

Loki nodded importantly.

‘There’s one other rule for the vampiric sonnet – it should be written as a reverse stairway. The result is a kind of ladder of meanings, symbolising the vampire’s descent to the lowest essence. But actually that’s not obligatory either.’

‘What do you mean by a reverse stairway? What would it look like?’

‘Like Mayakovsky,’ said Baldur. ‘Only backwards.’

Having been told that humans were bred for milking, Rama (an assumed name, like Loki and Baldur and the rest: all vampires name themselves after human gods when they enter into symbiosis with a Tongue, as a kind of affectation. Among the many hierarchies of vampire society is that technically the human bodies and minds of the vampires themselves, no matter their seniority, are entirely subservient to the Tongue, which is simultaneously the organ through which they imbibe raw exploitation and the one through which they discourse about it) spends much of the book trying to understand, as he puts it, the “milking mechanism”. He’s seen Blade: Trinity so he wonders whether there are shrink-wrapped humans being bled in secret laboratories. When he learns that it’s about money, not blood, at first he interprets that in the most literal possible way, assuming that used paper currency is somehow liquefied into something vampires can drink. But it’s simpler than that. Empire V’s vampires don’t ambush people in dark alleys and bite them or gnaw on their wallets. Instead, they feed remotely on bablos, rarefied human desire; that is, they consume the emotional labour performed by the human mind. (To the vampire, this is the original purpose of human minds and everything else is merely byproduct.) Of course, this is not a new metaphor, but a return to one of the oldest. To Marx, capital was dead labour that, “vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour”—a device literalized in Empire, if broadened somewhat in scope.

The monstrous vampire is usually a particular predator (sometimes a plague of infection, though this is usually zombies or aliens, but mostly individual bad vampires with their own personalities, or at least aesthetics); meanwhile, the prevalent reimagining of the vampire as tortured antihero or even just regular romantic hero (presumably paralleling the reactionary politics of the last forty years) is also usually about particular vampires, focusing intensely on their personal struggles and individual characters. Empire avoids both of those approaches by being very much about vampires as a ruling class, not as individuals. This is underscored by how little their human selves or personalities seem to matter to the Tongues: Rama appears to be selected as a host more or less at random. None of the vampires are interestingly tortured, or even conflicted; rather, new vampires are quickly seduced by wealth and privilege, and completely submerged in a bubble of ideological reinforcement. The eventual revelation and consumption of the bablos is experienced by Rama as euphoric rather than horrific. Tellingly, an older vampire remarks that consumption of bablos is actually traumatic and painful for the human hosts, but that the Tongue then conditions them by releasing neurotransmitters to retroactively believe that the pain was in fact superhuman happiness and pleasure.

I was no exception. I could remember this bright-red germ of hope growing in me … We imagine we are just on the point of understanding something important, of figuring it all out at last, of achieving something, after which a new life will begin, the right life, the real life. But this never happens because the red drop of sense and hope always vanishes, and we must begin again to grow it and nurture it from nothing. And then it disappears once again, and so it goes on throughout our life, while we become more and more tired until finally nothing is left to us but to lie on our beds, turn our faces to the wall, and die …

Now I knew what invariably happens to the red drop of hope. I fell ever more quickly through other lives as my rider was deftly scooping up the last remaining drops of meaning, swallowing them as it sated its inscrutable hunger. Many people I saw were on the brink of understanding what was happening, they guessed it but were incapable of thinking about it. […] In the last second of the voyage I remembered that all of this had been familiar to me when I was a child. Then I had seen vampires flying through my dreams and knew that they were taking from me the most important thing in life. But in the real world it is forbidden for humans to know what they can know in dreams.

The individual vampires in Empire are clownishly malevolent. Not a one of them is a leathery badass or dark mastermind. While the totalizing system of vampiric exploitation is indeed sinister and horrific, the particular vampires who we see benefit from it are as foolish, venal, petty, self-satisfied, and unsexily dangerous as any President or CEO. Arguably this might make the book too realistic to be considered science fiction, but for what it’s worth they do turn into giant bats sometimes.

Review: The Man Who Spoke Snakish

(A version of this post originally appeared at CSFF-Anglia.)

The Man Who Spoke Snakish
The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk, translated by Christopher Moseley.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish is easily the least traditionally science fictional of my shortlist selections: not only does it feature no rockets, but it’s set firmly in the past (and is more about pasts than futures) and it includes talking snakes and something very much like a dragon. In the sense that science fiction is defined by the presence or absence of received ideas and familiar imagery—that is, using the least science fictional definition of science fiction—it would not be considered science fiction.

Science fiction is traditionally associated with imagining futures, but that mechanism is time-symmetric: it is also frequently used to imagine the past, though usually in contained forms like alternate histories or time travel. But it seems perfectly reasonable to apply the same techniques of imagining the far future to imagining the far past. This symmetry makes sense, since the past is exactly as (un)real and (in)accessible as the future. Both are constantly being produced and reimagined, not separately but together. This future of rocket-ships exploring the galaxy and colonizing strange new worlds is simultaneously imagining a past where Europe “explored” Earth and “colonized” strange new lands. That future of first contact where humanity is tested for worthiness by strange wise aliens is simultaneously imagining a past where first contacts were uplifting, or at least could have been if only the restless and doomed natives had had an Amy Adams to hold up a sign with human written on it.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish is set in medieval Estonia and follows the life of Leemet, a boy who eventually becomes the last living speaker of Snakish, which is a once-widespread primordial language in which animals can be commanded and compelled. (Which, incidentally, is a device that previously showed up on Clarke shortlists in a more conventionally sfnal form in 1994—and no doubt in other instances too, this is just the one that sprang to mind—when Neal Stephenson handwaved about Sumerian as a primordial and programmable language for human cognition, or something. The distinction between the two seems superficial to me, relying largely on the interior décor. Science fiction is the one that goes beep.)

Leemet is one of the last generation of his forest-dwelling people, who are either dying out or leaving the forest to assimilate into villages, learning German, Christianity, and agriculture at the expense of Snakish. The world outside the forest is an alien one of Christian monks and knights in armour. The Pope is a distant but threatening presence, like a Borg Queen in a neighbouring quadrant. Leemet spends his entire life working out his relationship with modernity—he is attracted and repelled by it, he commits violence against it, he becomes resigned to it, he resents it bitterly but also yearns for it. Much of this he’s inherited from his family:

Uncle Vootele told me how my father—when he was still living in the forest—would just about explode with irritation and envy when he thought about the interesting life the villagers were leading and the impressive tools they had.

“We must hurry up and move to the village!” he had shouted. “Life is passing us by! These days all normal people live under the open sky, not in the bushes! I want to sow and reap too, as they do everywhere in the developed world! Why should I be any worse? Just look at the iron men and the monks; you can see straight away that they’re a hundred years ahead of us! We must make every effort to catch up with them!”

The conflict between the eternal and progressive views of time is the rod around which Leemet twists. The modern view of time is that there is such a thing as a future: that there is development, that there is progress. The iron men and the monks are not just an invading civilization from the future: they bring with them the very concept of a future (and therefore of a past), and place themselves at its teleological heart. The arrival of alien ships looking for Christians and spices asserts a new sense of time, one whose lines are not parallel and therefore have a vanishing point—one, always, that privileges the alien point of view, putting the arrived-upon on the back foot. As Johannes the determinedly modern villager says to Leemet:

I was taken to Rome and led in front of the Pope, and the glory and splendor I saw there took my breath away. Gold, silver, and precious stones were glittering everywhere; the churches were made of stone and with such high towers that not a single spruce tree here in the forest could reach them. Then I understood that the God that is served by the foreigners is the most powerful, and if we want to achieve anything in life, then it is wise to turn to him and to forget all the silly superstitious customs that make us ridiculous before the whole world. I came back home and was ashamed that we still live like children, while other nations have grown into adults.

These violent futures conjure violent pasts, which Leemet resists in turn. This isn’t a story about clinging to tradition against change: rather, traditions are invented only in response to change, quantum pasts flickering into being to cancel out new futures. Traditions and heritages are just as new, just as suspicious, as progress and development. (Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism, for example, was retroactively invented as a 2,300-year-old tradition in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a form of anticolonial resistance, yes, but one built explicitly along casteist and ethnic lines: that is, rooted in both the native bigotries and the imported ones, the worst of both worlds. It’s instructive—and depressing—to compare it against the more recently, and carefully, constructed Buddhism of Ambedkar.) In Snakish, Leemet is constantly encountering new pasts:

Hiie had another problem too, apart from having to feed wolves all day long and chop up hares with a big ax. She didn’t drink wolves’ milk—and that was extremely bad, in Tambet’s opinion. Think of the pack of wolves squatting in the barn, lactating rivers! What was to be done with all that milk? Naturally it had to be drunk, and every family member had to make a contribution. Apart from that purely practical reason, Tambet was deeply convinced that every true Estonian ought to drink wolves’ milk; it was wolves’ milk that had given our forefathers and foremothers their boundless strength. So refusing wolves’ milk was a terrible crime, a betrayal of old customs, and in Tambet’s opinion nothing was more heinous.

Tambet loathes the village and everybody who moves there. His traditions are produced by his anxiety about the modern: the presence of the village outside the forest is what brings them into being and makes them real. Tambet’s friend and ally Ülgas the Sage persistently constructs a past where the Sages of the Grove and the worship of sprites are central to the culture of the forest-dwellers—a past contested by Leemet and his uncle Vootele, who don’t believe in sprites at all, much less the sages.

Only later did I understand that although Ülgas and Tambet hated all those who had settled in the village, they themselves no longer really lived in the forest. They were disappointed and angry to see the good old sylvan life gradually dying out, and to overcome that they clung to the especially ancient and secret ways. They cherished spells, sought a way out in the invented world of the sprites, and no longer cared for ordinary Snakish words. To them they seemed too weak; they had not been able to keep people in the forest, so must be of no use.

Snakish itself is a source of multiple pasts. It isn’t the language of snakes as such, but the language of the entire animal kingdom, of which adders are the pinnacle and Snakish-speaking humans are a sort of benighted cousin. It is not a human technology, but an adder technology (indistinguishable, of course, from magic) that humans once practised and which was lost through generations of disuse. It’s not the only thing that was lost through disuse; Pire and Rääk are the last living Primates, hominids who still have vestigial tails, and Leemet’s terrifying grandfather still has the poison fangs that were once common among humans. All of them are constantly inventing pasts, and Pire and Rääk are perhaps the most committed to regression:

Likewise the Primates Pirre and Rääk were still in the forest, though they no longer lived in their old cave, but had moved to a tree. That is, in their love of antiquity they had gone so far that even living in a cave seemed senselessly modern to them […] they were no longer young; their fur was gray and it was very troublesome for them to keep their balance on the branches. In the name of their principles, however, they were prepared to undergo any trial.

Pire and Rääk speak a dialect of Snakish older than the one Leemet does, which requires pronounciation that Leemet’s tongue is physiologically unable to reproduce. The Primate Snakish commands a wider variety of animals and harkens back to ever more ancient eras. The paintings on the walls of the Primate cave go back hundreds of thousands of years, but the oldest ones are long lost to cave-ins so Leemet only has Pire and Rääk’s assurances that they even exist, much less what they depicted.

Of all that is lost, the most remarkable are the great monstrous creatures of ancient times who Leemet observes passing into myth. One is the great winged snake called the Frog of the North, who could once be commanded to destroy invading armies by thousands of massed Snakish speakers but now only sleeps. Leemet spends much of his life searching for the Frog of the North, and eventually becomes the sleeping dragon’s guardian, but cannot wake him: a single speaker of Snakish is not enough. Leemet is the last person to know that the Frog of the North is real. Leemet and his friend Hiie also briefly encounter a monstrous giant fish called Ahteneumion, who is “as big as a mountain, and evidently terribly old, for the whole sea was full of its long gray whiskers”, and who decides after a brief conversation that he will never rise from the ocean floor again but will follow the example of the Frog of the North in sleeping forever. Before diving for the last time, the fish tells them:

“You were the last humans I saw and who met me. You know who Ahteneumion is and what he is doing. Others don’t. You are now the wisest people on earth. The last ones to see me. Farewell!”

To Ahteneumion, history centres on himself, and effectively ends with his abdication of it—a charmingly simple egoism that Leemet aspires to but can never attain, even when he becomes the last speaker of Snakish left alive.

While the story begins from Leemet’s early childhood, it’s clearly indicated right from the beginning that this is a much older Leemet looking backwards. It has the feel of a told tale, full of digressions, commentary, and opinions. It is also that fundamentally modern thing: memoir. This isn’t the book of Leemet living his life, but rather of the older Leemet telling, in retrospect, the story of his life. He is narrating it, creating it, trying to make it make sense, to give it a shape, making selfhoods and shedding them. His life is resistance to modernity, but his narration of his life is the degree of his assimilation to it.

Tatiana Larina's Dream by Ivan Volkov (1891)
Tatiana Larina’s Dream by Ivan Volkov (1891). Oh, and Leemet’s sister marries a bear. Fwiw, they have a healthier relationship than Leemet ever manages with anybody.

Snakish gives Leemet a consistent, wry, casual tone, unselfconscious and unaffected. There are some anachronistic jokes (for instance, once referring to a bear as a “teddy” in a pre-Roosevelt setting) which are in keeping with the tone but didn’t quite land for me. Snakish doesn’t take itself too seriously: all the death and loss and violence is accompanied by lots of pure comedic moments like the giant louse who behaves like a dog, or how anything Leemet’s grandfather does is inevitably both extremely violent and extremely funny. On the other hand, for the most part all the women in this book are caricatures who exist to give Leemet something to react to—his mother’s histrionics and overfeeding; Magdaleena the beautiful village girl slash temptress; Hiie the playmate turned love interest and so on—and who mostly die so that he can feel things. So there’s that. Even more tiresomely, a female adder is more of a character than any of the human women, and even she (literally) takes maternity leave from the plot halfway through.

A recurring motif throughout the story is the stench of death, which is a memory from a traumatic experience in his childhood (the death of his uncle Vootele) that Leemet associates with loneliness, abandonment, and alienation, and which eventually becomes the manifestation of his anxiety around modernity. He smells decay even while the villagers openly admire his command of Snakish, because he still believes that Snakish is a learnable language, the common heritage of all humans and not a special power that he alone now possesses. Unlike Ahteneumion, Leemet understands that history has left him behind: or rather, he understands that he now lives inside “history”, and that there’s no place for him in it specifically because it was made for somebody else. Leemet’s climactic rampage of violence is understood to be pointless from the beginning. It’s not a great war of liberation or a final battle between good and evil; it’s just a paroxysm of violence born out of frustration and rage. It is cruel, ridiculous, and unnecessary, and therefore quite authentic. On a more individual scale, though, the story does suffer from the sheer cavalcade of tragedies. So many people in Leemet’s life die suddenly and horribly that one comes to expect it a little too soon, which is possibly why I found myself sometimes impatient for the story to get a move on.

One way in which this is not a Tolkienesque melancholy narrative of a golden age resisting modernity, to which it might bear a superficial resemblance: the pasts in Snakish are multiple, contingent, self-serving. There is no actual golden age: each character invents their own past and implied future, or vice versa, and their competing visions are destabilizing, alienating. Ahteneumion sees the end of history right then and there as he goes to sleep. Johannes sees history as an upward curve of development and progress, much as it is fantasized in history textbooks today. Pire and Rääk see a dizzyingly elongated curve in the other direction, a very long slippery slope of loss. They respectively place history’s end at the opposite ends of time. The text is openly sympathetic to Pire and Rääk’s perspective, even when Leemet doesn’t agree with their gentle, inward-focused devotion to regression. They are the only characters whose movement along any curve of history seems worth cheering for, even if it’s in the “wrong” direction. Pire and Rääk set out on a mission to climb back up the slippery slope and personally undo the losses they see in history; it’s fitting that they get a more elegiac ending than Leemet himself does.