Sunday, 1 January 2012

Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon (2011)

In Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, author Mark Hodder completes the cycle of his Burton and Swinburne series of novels. The first chapter, Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, introduced us to Hodder's style of historical pastiche and the twist that transforms history as we know it, being the untimely assassination of Queen Victoria in 1840 as a consequence of meddling by a time-traveller from the 22nd century. This sets history on an alternate trajectory resulting in a Steampunk nightmare of Scientism run amok in the pursuit of absolute social control. The second chapter, Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, deepened the mystery of what happened by invoking mediums, mystic black diamonds and ancient reptilian races while veering in the other direction of a society gone mad with absolute, libertarian freedom. In this final chapter, Hodder looks at the greatest force to affect each of us: time.

At the novel's outset we are introduced to three separate Richard Burtons. The first is the one left to us at the conclusion of Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, Richard Burton of 1863 about to embark on an expedition to Africa in a race against the Prussians to procure the third of three psychically charged black diamonds left behind after the extinction of the ancient, time-conscious race of lizardmen called the Naga. As disclosed in the previous volume, it was one of these crystals that powered the suit of the time-traveller who would become Spring-Heeled Jack. His act not only resulted in the assassination of Victoria but a resonance amongst the crystals that opened up the vistas of time, allowing foreknowledge of a terrifying future war between Britain and Prussia. Prime Minister Palmerston is betting on the power of the African crystal to bring England to victory.

The second Burton we meet is an amnesiac lost in Africa in 1914, in the midst of that very same war. The British Empire has all-but been destroyed, its last remnants fighting a losing battle on the African continent. At its use are the exoskeletons of gigantic insects, such as harvestmen, whose innards have been replaced with steam engines. On the more successful Prussian side are bioengineered plant creatures, such as red weeds that attack enemy troops. All of this would provide fertile material for H.G. Wells in a different sort of reality where he was an author. In this timeline, he is a war correspondent who is the first to recognize the great explorer who should have been dead for decades.

The third Burton is a much aged version carrying a high-powered sniper rifle on a grassy knoll in 1840. These scene is familiar, for it is the very hour of Queen Victoria's assassination. Somehow, over the course of the other two narratives, this Burton has made it back to this moment to try to undo the entire mess created by the time traveller.

Hodder very deftly runs the narratives of these three Burtons parallel to each other, sometimes giving us spoilers to the future in the past and spoilers to the past in the future. H.G. Wells is not merely a character in the story, but a veritable subtext represented not only in allusions to War of the Worlds, War in the Air and Shape of Things to Come, but in the subject of time travel itself and whether the future can be altered. Whereas Wells' time traveller was more of a plot spectator, helpless before the forces of Darwinian inevitability, Hodder's characters are driven by the possibility that they might actually be able to restore history.

Attempting to outwit time involves a very great amount of second-guessing and trials to outwit one's own actions. Not only are we given spoilers backwards and forwards, but so are the characters. Burton bouncing around in history learns of things that he has done that he hasn't actually done yet, and must figure out why, or if he should try to alter things yet again. Layers upon layers of ambition and intention, plotting and counter-plotting, cake themselves upon the timeline as everyone tries to manipulate everything to their ideal outcome.

Pyr's biography of the author makes a point of mentioning Hodder's interest in Buddhism and Transcendentalism, which may inform our reading of his work. Some of it may come out in superficial plot devices like the Naga and the psychic world of the mystic black diamonds. More substantively, the perceptive reader might hear the echo of samsara. In Buddhism, samsara is the cycle of cause and effect, of life and death and rebirth, and of continuous suffering from which the enlightened ones may be released to the "unbound" state of nirvana. Nowhere is cause and effect more keenly felt than in this history altered by the assassination of Queen Victoria, by characters who know that this history has been altered for the worse.

It might be argued that Siddhartha Gautama's great contribution was a recognition of a possible root cause of suffering and a means to break free of samsara. That life will suffer is no great insight, for it is made by practically every religion and even anti-religion. In Christianity, the doctrine of Original Sin outlines this fact of existence. For many atheists, the most convincing argument against the existence of God is the existence of suffering. How are we to break free of this suffering? New Atheism proposes SCIENCE! as a means of gaining control over nature, society, and people, bringing about that utopia of the test tube. Christianity speaks of salvation by a God who will eventually refashion Creation into a perfected form, and Who in the mean time calls us to alleviate the sufferings of others. Buddha's insight is that suffering is ultimately caused by desire: the earnest conviction that the world ought to be different in some way from what it actually is.

Desire has so far motivated every character in the Burton and Swinburne trilogy. It was the desire of the time traveller to redeem his family name that led him to try and stop his ancestor from assassinating Queen Victoria. After his spectacular failure, his delirious ravings about the future inspire the creation of sects of Libertines and Technologists who seek to bring about a social and scientific golden age. One seeks control, the other liberty, and both fail. Politicians seek to use the power of the black diamonds to exert control in their own way, speeding the world ever faster towards apocalypse. The whole morass began with the reptilian Naga, who exerted psychic control over the original time traveller for their own ends. And finally we are carried along with Richard Burton as he desires to right history. As I observed in my review of the first novel, the reader themselves are engaged by the question of whether or not history can be restored to our boring, un-Steampunk and relatively much better version.

As Buddha observed, however, the only way to escape the cycle of life and death and rebirth and cause and effect and suffering is to expunge oneself of desire. Will Burton figure this out? Will the reader?

Overall, Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne trilogy has been one of the few pleasures of recent genre literature. When goggles and the anti-authority scamps who wear them is a primary scenario and plot-driver of most books, his meditation on time, fate, Scientism, Libertarianism, and the malleability of personhood by historic contingency is positively delightful. Of all the various and sundry novels I have graciously been sent to review since beginning this fair weblog, only this and Edward Erdelac's Merkabah Rider series have contributed anything of real merit, lodging themselves solidly within my top 10 or 20 works. They are well, well worth the time spent with them and receive my highest endorsement.

1 comment:

ediFanoB said...

Excellent review!
I do not understand why the Burton and Swinburne novels do not appear on more best of lists.

Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon is the first book I started to read in 2012.