August 16, 2005

Arslan by M. J. Engh

But driving west on Illinois 460, he had received the answer. Nizam had caught up with him, bringing the confirmation that he could accept from no one else: Moscow was docile, Washington was well in hand; those generals who had shown themselves uncooperative had been rendered harmless. For the first time (perhaps the last), Muzaffer Arslan Khan knew himself to be the master of the world. The place where he found himself became the universe's center.

The premise is this: Arslan is a young general, half-Uighur and half-Uzbek, the leader of his country (Turkistan: a fictional creation of Engh's based on the existing ethic groups in Central Asia). By sheer strategic brilliance, Arslan manages to conquer the entire world (a world that is not too different from the one that existed in 1976).

As the novel begins, Arlsan sets up his headquarters in a small town called Kraftsville in Illinois. The takeover of the town is efficient and without much resistance. There are atrocities, however, conducted by Arslan personally. Surely he must be a monster to casually perform public acts of rape and pederasty. This is the question that Franklin Bond asks himself. He is the principal of the local school and the only authority figure in Kraftsville recognized as such by Arslan. The blurb on the book excerpted from the New York Times review of the book summarizes the reader's emotions on reading this book: `Engh creates a truly shocking situation, introduces a monstrous character, and then refuses to satisfy any of the emotions he has aroused ... Engh's performance is as perversely flawless as Arslan's.'

The first act of the novel is narrated by Franklin Bond which lays out the cruel efficiency of Arslan's command. There are very subtle allusions to all the major perpetrators of war crimes: Chinggis Khan (an obvious one given Arslan's ethnicity) but also Alexander of Macedon, Napoleon and Hitler.

The narration then shifts to the voice of Hunt Morgan. Hunt is introduced early as a young boy, kept by Arslan as a catamite. He grows into the role of his lover, and then simply a consort. As a consort, he narrates his emotions and his experiences with Arslan as he journeys away from Kraftsville. The voice of Hunt is one so earnestly literate, as one who has learnt everything vicariously through reading, even though his own experiences rival anything in those books.

A science-fiction novel that hasn't dated in 25 years is one that deserves an automatic recommendation. But, even without that, there is much to admire in this masterful work in an otherwise barren genre of military/political SF.

There is a distinct philosophy that pervades this book. While it is difficult to articulate (that's why it needs a novel) it seems to me to be at times overwhelmingly nihilistic while at others it is profoundly humanistic. Whatever you might think of these contradictory philosophical attitudes, the viewpoints are so unique and presented with such command over the prose itself that it is a treat to ponder the motivations behind the actions of the men in this book (despite being written by a woman, there are no major characters in this novel who are women).

Kudos credits to M. Dras for recommending and lending me his copy of this novel.

%T Arslan %A M. J. Engh %I Tom Doherty Associates %D 1976 %D :reprint edition 2001 %G ISBN: 0312879105 (pb) %P 296 %K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/07/15

Posted by anoop at August 16, 2005 10:40 PM