Wednesday, 27 October 2021

Review: Bitter Seeds - The Milkweed Triptych: Book One

Ian TREGILLIS, Bitter Seeds – The Milkweed Triptych: Book One, Orbit/Little Brown Book Group, London, 2012.

Octavo; paperback; 398pp. Ex-library: somewhat rolled; the usual cancelled ink stamps and library accoutrements; covers wrapped in adhesive plastic film. Fair only.

Like most long-term roleplayers (I assume), at some point the rules just don’t suffice, or the game setting no longer tantalizes; and so, the ardent gamer sets about trying to cobble together a rule set or a gaming environment – a game in short – that covers all of the bases that they’re hankering for. I’ve done this several times; people I know have done it too. Do these games get published? Usually not. Those created and abandoned - especially in the days before Kickstarter - are now unregarded testimonies to an ardent fandom. A genre that I encountered several times through my association with this process was the notion of an arcane World War Two setting, drawing heavily on the ideas surrounding occult Nazism and its associated kookiness. To be fair, it’s fruitful ground for working supernatural, or science fiction, storytelling – “Achtung! Cthulhu” and “World War Cthulhu” are two games that have mined this aspect fervently, not ignoring those elements that are now canon within the “Call of Cthulhu” roleplaying game itself. I mean, what’s not to like?

In this vein, Ian Tregillis has written this trilogy of speculative fiction titles which are a blending of one-part horror story, one-part science fiction and one-part alternative history, à la Harry Turtledove. My copy of this came into the shop, abandoned by its former owner, who bought it from a sale at the library from whence it was withdrawn. Having play-tested much occult Nazi gaming material in the past, I put this aside to have a look at it on my own time. I’m glad I did.

The premise of this series is that, in the lead up to World War Two, starting right after the Great War, a mad German scientist begins experimenting with the notion of creating super-soldiers and is able to generate several super-powered entities, who come into their own just as the Axis and Allied powers turn their warlike attentions towards each other once more. The powers displayed by these hot-housed youngsters read like a splice of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four: a guy who can fly; a girl who turns invisible; a fellow who can surround himself with super-hot flames; a kid who can phase through solid objects; a cretinous man-mountain who can tear up the scenery with his mind; and Gretel, who can see the future. Their super-powers were brought about by means of them being horribly tortured as infants and by being surgically equipped with batteries connected to wires implanted in their brains. They are a formidable team of Nazi super-commandos and, in our narrative, they are enthusiastically embraced by Heinrich Himmler as everything to which the Aryan ideal should aspire. Of course, things are not entirely happy down on Professor von Westarp’s experimental farm. The scions of his medical tinkering are riven by arrogance and competitive aggression, fostered by von Westarp in a foolish attempt to urge his creations on to greater efforts. His ‘parenting techniques’ only make his creations turn on each other in hatred. And then, to make things worse, there is Gretel:

Much of this narrative turns on the fact that Gretel knows what is coming and uses this knowledge to her own advantage. All the way through the story, we learn that she is subtly manipulating the timeline to ensure that her own desires are met, often at the expense of everyone else around her. Across the narrative, we are privy to the thoughts and feelings of her brother Klaus, the phasing master, and his increasingly appalled recognition of the fact that Gretel is willing to destroy everything and everyone – including himself – to see the world shaped as she would have it be. Her long-game cruelty is riveting to watch: she allows the flying kid to get caught in a missile strike - which she herself foresees and evades - for criticizing her less-than-Germanly-perfect ethnicity; she allows herself to be captured by the Allies in order to infiltrate their secret operations, and to annoy her brother, who is sent in to rescue her; she drives the invisible girl to suicide in order to spite the fiery lad, who sees her as a target for his lust (her death doesn’t actually stop him in this regard, but it does somewhat spoil his moment). At every turn it becomes clear that Gretel is in charge, and everyone is dancing to her tune, whether they realise it or not.

I was reminded strongly of Bill Willingham’s 80s comic narrative “Elementals” and the story arc that it was launching shortly before it was cancelled. At that point in its overarching plot, a televangelist with world-domination ideas had corralled a large number of the Faithful, who signed away their rights to life and liberty and who were horribly tortured to death. In the aftermath of this hideous carnage, a handful of the killed were returned to living existence with new and alarming superpowers and were set on a collision course with the titular heroes… Of course, the inevitable super-punch-up never took place because, it seemed, the origin of our bad guys was deemed too controversial to put before the readership and the entire comic run ground to a halt (and also, Comico went into receivership, so I’m probably just reading too much into the timing!). Given that the origins of our evil super-crowd in Bitter Seeds are remarkably similar, I’m thinking this ‘Horrific Mass-Killing Leads To Superpowers’ idea has become a trope in its own right, thanks to Mr. Tregillis.

The nature of this book means that the characters fall distinctly into two obvious camps – the nominal Good Guys and the evil Nazi Malefactors. Of the two, the baddies are the most compelling crowd, riven as they are by internal conflicts, twisted worldviews and full-on madness. It’s easier to write evil characters, and writing Nazis is easiest of all, because they rely on a stereotypical presentation that’s been common to everyone since before WWII even ended; here they’re treated with a touch more nuance than the material overtly calls for, and that’s quite pleasing. That’s not to say that the White Hats are less crafted than the evildoers; it’s just that the reader is forced to go a lot further in order to believe in them. Mr. Tregillis is more than capable of writing compelling characters of all stripes and, if these were British personae of 1940s-era England, they would be truly great. As it is, they’re not: they are Twenty-first Century Netflix television-show characters pushed against a faux WWII London backdrop.

This is a personal beef and I’m more than willing to own it and be pilloried for it. The characters that comprise our ‘good guys’ team in this book (along with all the others) have clearly been written by an American, who has an obvious outsider’s view of the interiorality of the characters that he is trying to craft. The dialogue has clearly been penned by someone not raised on decades of BBC dialogue – idiom and usage fall down periodically into a thumping mess. Brits of this period did not say “half seven” when they meant 7.30, for instance – that’s a modern expression, and there are plenty of others just like it, lurking in these pages. Also, class distinction is deeply ingrained in characters of this milieu, and the lines were rarely, if ever, crossed, no matter how ‘anti-establishment’ a character is supposed to be. Here, we have a member of a landed family eschewing the costume and behaviour of the upper classes for no really believable reason, and it would not have stood in the time wherein this story is set. Conversely – even perversely – the lower British classes were as proud of their place in society as the toffs, and any attempt to blend in would have been seen as the worst type of parody; here, we’re asked to lap it up. Well: no. No, thank you.

There are other indicators of an American hand at work here: Yanks love their armaments and periodically here, we’re treated to a ballistics info-dump that distracts from the story in progress. Just say “he packed his rifle and revolver”, for chris'sakes; don’t give us the makes and models of each and every gun. American authors also like to treat us to Scottish stereotypes; in this instance our “Scotty from Star Trek” tech-expert analogue is borderline offensive and saddled with the same false anti-class sentiments mentioned above. This just doesn’t wash. Also, Brits were not as effusive in swearing as these people are, not by a long shot, and certainly not within the confines of a workplace hierarchy – here the dropping bombs are as often F-bombs as they are doodlebugs. To be fair, I’ve read far worse along these indicated lines than Mr. Tregillis has provided here; on balance, ignoring these egregious elements, his style of writing is captivating and thoroughly enjoyable – well worth the price of admission.

There is a final issue I have with the writing of this book before I return to the things that are good about it. Firstly, it’s the easiest thing to write plot: pages and pages of writing can be generated just by saying “and then…; and then…; and then…”. It’s the reason why, nowadays, so many books are so huge and yet say so little. Mr. Tregillis has this in spades, and then he does something weird: every so often, the action jumps and the surrounding dialogue and description shifts to accommodate stuff that’s implied but not seen. It feels almost as if, every so often, a few pages have gone missing. Sometimes it’s just an attempt to impinge an arbitrary structure onto the material (the “Prelude” and “Interludes” which really add nothing to the tale) and at other times it’s as if someone took a set of pruning shears to the manuscript, chopping out huge tracts of the plotting and then just roughly ‘making-good’ around the raw edges, like a workman cutting a door into a blank wall. It’s peculiar and yet, I’m not sure that it’s completely a bad thing: in part, it forces the reader to work a little harder to make sense of the proceedings (and therefore, engage more with the text); at other times, it feels like the unwelcome intrusion of a ham-fisted editor. Strange…

Now on to the good stuff…

The ideas in this book are what makes it work. By making a bifurcated plot – with points of view from both teams – Tregillis has to juggle the notion of what each faction knows and understands about the other side. Our goodfellows have only the merest scraps to work with in the beginning – a burnt dossier, part of a crisped photograph and fragments from a melted film reel. They don’t know what it is that they’re looking at and barely know how to begin investigating the matter. When they start to get it all pieced together and to formulate their own response, the baddies get swiftly thrown into the same predicament – what is the enemy up to and how do we counter it? Tregillis handles these viewpoints with ease and makes them work well, elegantly displaying the players’ bewilderment and confusion. In part, he’s able to rest firmly on the fact that his readership is all too aware of what’s going on – we all know what the X-Men can do so he doesn’t need to waste time talking to us about it; he can concentrate entirely upon his own characters’ responses. In a sense, this book is just like Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South, but instead of imagining what the Confederacy would have done with AK-47s, he’s riffing on the idea of what if the X-Men were real and were captured by the Nazis as instruments of war?

Of course, if you mess with history, you get to re-make it how you like, and Mr. Tregillis has a bunch of fun doing this. We see the Nazi advances into France and Belgium through the Ardennes perform far better than they actually did; the Dunkirk rescue becomes a shambles and we read a heart-breaking litany of sea vessel names that are suddenly far less successful than they were in reality; and the London Blitz has its atrocities ramped up to 11. If you know your history of World War Two – and it’s clear that Ian Tregillis does - there are a lot of very satisfying little asides to take away from this.

Most intriguing though is the way that the Allies – the Brits, anyway – choose to address the issue of Nazi Superbeings. They call upon the services of warlocks, strange little trainspotting men able to speak in the Enochian tongue and who concoct bargains with powerful entities that dwell upon the fringes of reality, and which actively despise humanity. By working blood magic to get these “Eidolons” to do things that they want, these warlocks slowly help turn the tide of the supervillain-led Nazi menace. It’s a nice idea to conjure, harkening back to a tradition of nationalistic hedge-wizards using magic to defend the Sceptred Isle, from John Dee to Aleister Crowley. Along with this, the entities ramp up the cost of their services in blood, and the willingness of the SOE commanders to pay this fee – and the way that they do pay it - speaks nicely to the callousness that the British leaders displayed in reality, in instances such as Coventry, India and Pearl Harbour. Injecting this morally-dubious element into his portrayal of the ‘Good Guys’ lends a nice equivocal touch to the narrative.

(One thing that the Eidolons do however as part of their blood-pact with the warlocks, is to block the English Channel with icebergs and blind all the traffic there with pea-soup fog. I guess, if anyone’s going to fantasize about how magicians might counter an invasion force against the UK, they’ll be thinking of a way to stop them crossing this watery barrier; but Susanna Clarke did this too in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (along with phantom ships), so it felt a bit tired. I would have preferred something more in line with Roger Bacon’s invisible brass wall, but that’s just me.)

Ian Tregillis has a PhD in Physics which allows him to explore aspects of his manufactured reality that are unique and peculiarly piquant. I said that he doesn’t need to quote chapter and verse to us about his Marvel Superhero analogues but, in describing how their powers work, he looks at their operation through a physicist’s lens and treats us to the ‘reality’ of how such abilities might manifest. Phasing doesn’t allow the one so doing to breathe, for instance, and being able to melt fired bullets on your chest doesn’t let you escape the force of their momentum. These wrinkles in the effectiveness of our supervillains’ abilities allow for some clever observations, and also help to put some brakes onto characters who are otherwise undefeatable. Go science!

Then there’s time travel. Initially, there’s just Gretel, seeing the future and using her knowledge of it to confound and manipulate everyone around her. This makes for some incredibly chilling moments for the reader and seeing them being set up and followed through is a delight. However, once the Allies start to work their mojo, they realise that the Eidolons, existing as they do outside of time and space, can carry men and munitions anywhere in Reality that they’re paid to, and so they start to mess with temporal events as well. As with Gretel’s prescience, Tregillis handles this stuff well: things happen that don’t seem to make much sense – a man appears out of nowhere and vanishes shortly thereafter; one of our heroes has a leg wound that mysteriously heals; whenever these things occur, we generate question-marks, but Mr. Tregillis doesn’t leave us dangling in the dark for too long. It all starts to crystallise beautifully in short order. Having, until recently, been engaged upon a writing project along these lines myself, I’m aware of just how much cogitation and fine-tuning these “timey-wimey” narratives involve, so my hat is off to the writer on that score.

On balance, I liked this book far more than I thought I would. I have to confess that I get irritated out of all proportion by clunky attempts to re-create past times and places, but – despite the shortcomings listed above – the strengths of this novel far outweigh these altogether far-too-common faults. Many writers struggling with this stuff tend to come off as tourists, doggedly typing while tracing a line on a map of a place they’ve never visited and with which they have no resonance; Ian Tregillis manages to rise above such amateur efforts and displays a real understanding of his setting and a real sense of the place about which he writes. It’s good. If you want a template for magical Nazi occultism in speculative fiction, sadly, you can do worse. You should just stick with this.

Three-and-a-half Tentacled Horrors from me. 

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