Creators around the world have been expressing their various levels of distaste and concern at the state of the world and its leaders forever. This is especially the case for creators who are able to use fantastical cut-outs for their commentary: Think of ‘Star Trek’, back in the 60s, as a prime example of this, replicated by The Next Generation in the 90s and even The Orville in the last few years. Superhero comic writers have similarly been using their medium to rail against (primarily) American politics – to varying degrees, depending on the current state of politics (ie, Obama-era less so, Trump-era much more so).
Fantasy and science fiction writers similarly have the opportunity to use their creative outlets to comment on the world around us. J.R.R. Tolkien famously used his The Lord of the Rings to rail against the industrialisation of Britain in the early 20th century, while Ursula K. Le Guin used her The Left Hand of Darkness to examine gender roles and feminism.
Using genre fiction as a cut out to commentate on the state of the world is not a new thing and has been used in subtle ways and, in the case of an author like Daniel Silva, not so subtle ways (he really doesn’t like Trump or Putin).
Similarly, Steven Erikson – author of the wildly successful and popular Malazan Book of the Fallen has, of late, turned his attention to the stars. First, he took to space with his Willful Child trilogy – a spoof of the science fiction/Star Trek genre – and then, in 2018, he published Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart, a not so subtle jab at current global politics through the lens of an alien first contact event.
“Imagine a First Contact without contact, and an alien arrival where no aliens show up,” reads the publicity blurb. “Imagine the sudden appearance of exclusion zones all over the planet, into which no humans are allowed. Imagine an end to all violence, from the schoolyard bully to nations at war. Imagine an end to borders, an end to all crime. Imagine a world where hate has no outlet and the only harm one can do is to oneself. Imagine a world transformed, but with no guidance and no hint of what’s coming next. What would you do? How would you feel? What questions can you ask – what questions dare you ask – when the only possible answers come from the all-too-human face in your mirror?
“On the day of First Contact, it won’t be about them. It will be about us.”
It’s an interesting concept – and I’m relying on the publicity blurb as there is no better way to describe what Erikson has written. I am not sure to what degree this book is revolutionary in the way it deals with an alien first contact – my science fiction reading is somewhat limited – but it is a fascinating and scientifically realistic scenario.
However, even though the premise is fascinating and, at times, is executed flawlessly, the overall impression I was left with was disjointed. Erikson writes in vignettes, and while an overarching story is progressing, it progresses mainly at a distance from the events we end up focusing on. For the majority of the book, every second chapter is simply a dialogue between a human and the alien AI and serves not to drive the story forward, but rather to flesh out philosophical questions the author has obviously been chewing over. The alternate chapters are therefore played out on earth but are simply staccato snapshots from a dozen different points of view of the impact of the alien AI’s arrival on earth.
Mixed into these snapshots are abusive husbands, African child soldiers, and politicians from China, the United States, Russia, and Canada (Erikson’s home country). There is no hiding the fact that Trump and Putin are being called out, here, even if they are named something different, and Erikson obviously has a rather rose-tinted view of China (or is hoping for a rose-tinted future for China). Out of nowhere, then, the Canadians come out as the heroes – in a book where there are really no heroes at all, except for science fiction writers.
A theme throughout the whole book is the value to society of science fiction and fantasy writers – an obvious love letter and encouragement from Erikson to his brethren and peers. The main human character is a popular female science fiction writer who spends nearly the entire book in philosophical dialogue with the alien AI, while on earth, governments reach out to science fiction writers to help them predict what comes next for the human race.
Of course, it’s not as far-fetched as I may make it out to be – there is tremendous legitimacy to Erikson’s ideas as explored in Rejoice – but the whole thing seemed disjointed and lacking any overarching control and drive. The pull-quotes adorning my copy of the book obviously disagree with me – with Stephen Baxter describing it as “An El Niño of a book, dense, provocative, essential,” and Robert J. Sawyer declaring it “Brilliant conceived and flawlessly executed. A masterpiece.” Ratcheting the hyperbole up to 11, Justina Robson claims Rejoice should be the science fiction “book of the year, maybe the decade.”
In a way, I can understand and agree with these descriptions – especially as the opinions of Erikson’s science fiction-writing peers. This is obviously a book many of them have been looking for, as it expresses their fears and concerns about the world. And, even though I found it disjointed as a whole, I nevertheless relished certain aspects of the story – from the elevation of science fiction writers to the appearance of a fully-fledged Klingon Bird of Prey.
In the end, then, Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart is a must-read for the 21st Century and a vital commentary on the sins of current politics. It is powerful and damning, unflinching in its honesty of humanity’s flaws and touching in its portrayal of our potential.
Review by Joshua S Hill
Steven Erikson's ongoing fantasy series, the Malazan Book of the Fallen has brought new life and originality into the fantasy genre. Steven Erikson kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in September 2009, shortly after the [...]
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