To Act or Not To Act, That is The Question – A Review of Quietus by Tristan Palmgren

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This review is based on an ARC given to me for free by the publisher, Angry Robot Books. This does not in any way affect my review. The novel is slated for release on March 6, 2018.

Generally speaking, journalists and anthropological researchers are supposed to maintain objectivity as often as possible when they are covering a story or doing research. This is to ensure that the information is untainted by politics of moral judgements: especially vital in a practice that purports to tell the truth and record history (journalism), and the study of humans in societies both past and present (anthropology). In both cases, moral and emotional distance is required in order to ensure that only the unvarnished truth is conveyed.

But this can lead to dilemmas for journalists and anthropologists alike. In many cases they are witness to acts that might be truly, morally reprehensible – like mistreatment of children, or rape, or systemic spousal abuse. This is especially true during times of widespread social crisis, like during wars or famines. A classic example of this is the story behind a photograph dubbed “The vulture and the little girl,” or sometimes “Struggling Girl,” taken by photographer Kevin Carter during the massive civil war-caused Sudanese famine in the early 1990s. Though Carter scared the vulture away after taking the photograph, and watched the child (actually a boy) in the photo finally get up make it to a UN-run feeding centre, there was widespread criticism of the fact that he did not do more to help the subject of his photo. While no one can be certain if that particular criticism is what weighed most on Carter’s mind when he committed suicide in 1994, it is interesting to note that he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in April of that year, and he committed suicide not long after, on July 27. By that point Carter had done more photographs of equally harrowing events (though “The vulture and the little girl” would be his most famous) and it would not be too outrageous to speculate that perhaps the weight of all the things he had seen and all the things he had done (and perhaps more importantly not done) in the name of journalistic integrity finally crushed him completely.

The question of whether or not to take action when faced with a morally untenable situation is at the heart of Quietus by Tristan Palmgren. The novel is set in Italy during the mid-1300s, just when the Black Death first hits Europe. This period was a particularly dark period in history, a time of such widespread death and astronomical body counts that Pope Clement VI consecrated the Rhone River so that bodies could be dumped into it without compromising the dead’s status in the afterlife – a way of speeding up the disposal of bodies instead of the more time-consuming burial. By the end of it so many people had died that entire villages and towns practically disappeared, while major cities were left to stagger along in a kind of survival mode, the population deeply traumatised.

This is the situation that Dr. Habidah Shen must study. An anthropologist from a highly-advanced, multiverse-spanning civilisation, she and her team aim to study the Black Death in order to find a solution for a plague that is currently eating through their own society: a plague that has no cure and spreads relentlessly, no matter what kind of measures they take. But the more time she spends amongst the dead, the dying, and the doomed, Habidah finds it increasingly difficult to maintain her objectivity. It reaches a breaking point when she saves a monk Niccoluccio from death – an event that draws Niccoluccio irrevocably into Habidah’s world when Habidah uncovers the truth behind her mission: a truth that could spell the end not just of Niccolucio’s world, but of hers, as well.

The first thing the reader needs to understand about this novel is that it is a slow read. By “slow,” I mean that the pace of the storytelling is slow, not that the language is so difficult that the reader deliberately needs to slow down in order to understand what he or she is reading. There is very little whizz-bang action in this novel, at least not in the first three-fourths of the story, which might bother some readers who pick this up looking for a more action-oriented science fiction story. This is a tale for readers who enjoy a more contemplative, more introspective slant to their science fiction, who are willing to linger and consider the world and its dilemmas (both personal and otherwise) alongside the characters. This is not the kind of book that can be finished in one sitting – or it can, but I think the reader will miss out on a lot of significant moments in doing so.

This slower pace also means that the author is able to develop the themes fully. As I mentioned earlier, this novel is about action and inaction in the face of a crisis, and it is tackled from a variety of angles. First there is the personal: both Habidah and Niccoluccio – but particularly Niccoluccio – have issues they are both trying to run away from. It takes them both a while to deal with their respective problems, but in doing so grow as people and become all the stronger – which is as it should be. It also puts them on the same sort of footing, in the sense that they are both presented as ordinary human beings despite all of Habidah’s futuristic trappings, and Niccoluccio’s religious mindset.

Second, and perhaps more important, there is the societal: deeply-embedded systemic issues like racism and political corruption. As the novel progresses Habidah and Niccoluccio must confront hard questions about the society around them, and must ask themselves whether or not it is their right to change all the things that are wrong about their respective worlds. For example, Habidah wonders if it is right to withhold the plague cure from the people who are suffering all around her. Niccoluccio, on the other hand, wonders if it is right to simply keep his head down in order to avoid rocking the boat of society too hard. As the story progresses and they begin to figure out what is really going on, they both realise that standing aside is not an option – not if they wish to do what is right.

At this point, the reader might assume that Habidah and Niccoluccio band together, united by their shared purpose of reform, and together they change not just Niccoluccio’s world, but Habidah’s as well. This would be the usual, expected trajectory of the story, and it is also what I expected would happen. But that is not what happens at all: instead, the author chooses to show how “doing what is right” is not restricted to a single course of action – and that there is no single course of action, or group of people, or even one person, that is purely, one hundred percent “good”. Crises complicated and complex enough to consume entire societies can never be resolved by a one-size-fits-all solution, or by one group of people, and certainly not by one person. Instead, it means attempting to compromise different viewpoints and desires into a course of action that works, but might not be entirely satisfactory to all, or even completely ethical. Sacrifices must be made, even when trying to do what is right.

This is an important point to remember, because I think this story is, at its core, a call to action. I think it is quite clear that the world is not in a good place right now, that change is desperately needed if humanity is to continue surviving and living with itself for the rest of its existence. But as long as people continue standing on the sidelines, as long as people do nothing, then change will never happen. There is no such thing as an “apolitical” choice, because even choosing to do nothing, for whatever reason, is a political act. And if there is one, single thing that is truly hindering change for the better in this world, it is that: the choice to do nothing. Choosing to take action is difficult, and will very certainly be fraught with pain and hardship, but it is better than closing one’s eyes and choosing to pretend that all is right with the world.

However, despite all of the good things I have just mentioned about this novel, there is one thing about I think could have been done better: the characterisation. Now, I have said earlier that this story goes at a rather slow pace, and that there are plot-related and thematic reasons for doing so, but what makes the pace difficult to bear with is the general blandness of the characters. Some are more interesting than others, but they all in general seem to lack a certain spark, a little something extra, that would make them leap off the page and truly stand out in the reader’s mind. This is especially true for Niccoluccio, who occasionally comes across as being a rather whiny teenager despite the fact that the things he’s angsting about are in fact very deep, very complicated issues. Habidah is more interesting, but she suffers from a surfeit of hand-wringing over her decisions than I strictly like. While I suspect that these aspects of their portrayal are meant to show both characters in a more human light (since I think everyone is given to excessive whining, angsting, and hand-wringing at some point in their lives), I also think that portraying them thusly does no favours for the overall story.

Of course, there is also the possibility that this gap shows a certain lack of polish in the author’s writing skills. In light of the greater thematic and plot-related triumphs of this novel, I think this failing may be forgiven, but I hope that the author improves on this so that when they release a new book at a later date, this will no longer be a problem.

Overall, Quietus is the kind of science fiction read that is not all big explosions and fast-paced adventures, but something more contemplative and complex. It rewards patient readers with a deep, layered story that tackles the theme of action versus inaction in a way that applies not just to the context of the story, but to the real world as well. However, the character portrayal weakens what would otherwise be a spectacular tale, mostly because said characters lack a certain life to them that would make them truly memorable. Despite that though, this is a good, strong read, and I look forward to reading more from Palmgren in the future.

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