Monday, August 21, 2023

Freedom & Necessity & Revolutionaries

When I'm looking for something new to read, I have a few possible avenues to follow. The easiest is thinking of an author who I already enjoy and finding a book of theirs that I haven't read yet, either because it's their latest book or because I haven't exhausted their catalog yet. I also maintain a reading list spreadsheet; this is where I pop in books that are recommended to me in one way or another (personal recommendations, a positive review I stumble across online, a reference from some other piece of media, etc.). A recent source from the last couple of years has been a particular list from China Mieville, an author who I generally enjoy, and who has led me to quite a few enjoyable books from authors I otherwise wouldn't have read.


The latest entry from that list is "Freedom & Necessity" by Emma Bull and Steven Brust. I haven't read (or even heard about) either author before; from some extremely light online research, it looks like they usually write fantasy novels (separately). I went into this book completely cold, not knowing anything other than that China Mieville enjoyed it.


The first thing I noticed was the form: the novel mostly consists of a series of letters written between the major characters. Each person will usually recount some piece of action that recently occurred, but also include a lot of their personal reflections, references to previous experiences, and maybe some good-natured ribbing. Early on I would typically flip forward to find who signed the letter, then go back and read the whole thing. After a while, though, you get to know the voice of each author so well that this becomes unnecessary. Kitty is particularly easy to identify, with breathless run-on sentences spilling from her pen. Along with the letters we get occasional journal entries: Susan encrypts hers, while Richard does not. And there are a few articles from The Times which, apparently, are taken verbatim from the actual paper.

Unlike my initial assumption, this is not a work of fantasy, but rather of historical fiction. It's set in England during the 1840s, and while reading this novel I came to realize just how little I know about this period: well after the War of 1812 and long before the peak of the Empire, what was happening in England? There were quite a few times while reading this that I went over to Wikipedia to look up some reference and would swiftly go down a rabbit hole, swept up in the fascinating revolutionary movements of that era that I was completely ignorant of. For some reason I assumed that both authors are British, but I see now that they are American, and I think it's cool that they found and explored this period of history.

There were some parts early on when I thought that there might be some fantasy to this after all: Kitty writes about opening the gate and communicating with spirits, James speaks in an unrecognizable tongue. Much later in the book there are some other references to pagan-ish rites. The book itself seems resolutely realistic, though. Characters are interested in mysticism because people of that era were interested in mysticism, not because mysticism is real within the context of the book.

So, what is the book about? It's pretty hard to tell for quite a while! I honestly had a bit of a hard time getting into it. The letters-writing mechanic isn't my favorite, and the plot is so vague and for quite a long time that it's hard to hold on to anything in particular. There's a general sense that something is afoot and various events that seem to be evidence of some form of conspiracy, and that sense of foreboding looms over a lot of the book before you start getting clarity. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing: most of my favorite fiction of these days are from writers like Bolano who specialize in ominous-but-vague writing. The old-fashioned language may have been an issue as well; the book uses modern spelling, but the pacing and writing is a lot like the contemporary Austen and Bronte novels.


Once you do get to the actual plot, though, I found it really compelling. There are a lot of different threads in play, but the most exciting one revolves around the Chartist movement. I'd never heard of this before, but it was a working-class political movement in England and Ireland that was agitating for a more democratic system. That included demands like universal male suffrage, salaried members of Parliament (so people who weren't independently wealthy could afford to serve), proportional representation, and so on. Today all of those demands have been implemented and they sound innocuous, but at the time it was seen as a dangerous, treasonous, revolutionary sentiment, and the Chartists were brutally suppressed, with many leaders thrown into prison or killed by the state.

One of the main characters, James, has been an undercover Chartist for years. Like all of the other main characters, he was born into the aristocracy, but he sees it as corrupt and wants to overthrow (or at least reform) it. One of the tricky things about the book is that James is coming from a life of deceit, and so a lot of the information we get from his letters (or that others record him saying) isn't accurate. It takes a while for us to get a clearer picture of what's actually been happening.

While not a key part of the plot, one of the most enjoyable elements of the book is the inclusion of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx as supporting characters. We barely see Marx at all, but Engels is a great presence: warm, helpful, challenging, curious, bright, passionate. You get a sense that "fellow travelers" existed long before that term existed; Engels is following his own program, but sees the kindred spirits in Chartism and wishes them well.

The big revelation near the end of the book is that, rather than trying to untangle a single big elaborate conspiracy, they've actually been facing something like three or four separate conspiracies, all after them but for different reasons, and competing with one another as well. That was a pretty clever reveal; it makes things even more complicated, but that feels appropriate to what the book is trying to do.

The core political conspiracy has to do with the Prussian government stoking a false-flag operation that will cause the British government to crack down on the community of Continental leftist exiles living in England at this time, eliminating the threat to stability that they pose. There's also a set of personal conspiracies revolving around James, the son of Andrew Cobham: Andrew is a wealthy and powerful man in society, and we learn that he also leads the Trotters Club, a secret society organized around ritual murder. There's a three-way struggle within the club: Andrew wants to keep control of the club and eliminate James, his bastard son and a living embodiment of Andrew's shame; Allan Tournier is a longtime foe of James who also joined the Chartists but has been informing on the organization, and now seeks to kill Andrew and James and deliver the Chartists to the government, so he can be rewarded with leadership of the Trotters as well as receiving the old family estate; and Allan's sister has arranged to get impregnated by James and wants her unborn son to inherit the estate.

It was kind of satisfying to have all these threads finally out in the open and start to draw closer near the end; the flip side was that the novel becomes "The James Show" near the end, with everything being about the character I liked the least. Kitty has the most compelling voice but is almost completely missing from action; Richard is incredibly likeable but is in exile in the Continent for much of the last third of the book, and only appearing to back up James at the end; Susan is great, and does have some really wonderful lovemaking scenes with James, but (her great feminist words notwithstanding) by the end she seems to mostly serve as a window to show us more of James. James himself does change by the end: he's more trusting, less cynical, has a reinvigorated sense of purpose and destiny, while keeping his lifelong determination; but, I dunno, I just didn't like him all that much.


Even though it wasn't completely my cup of tea, I did enjoy this book, and liked it a lot more the further I got into it, as I got more used to the language and could wrap my arms around some of the plot. I am pretty curious about exactly how it was written: my assumption would be that Emma wrote the parts that came from the women's perspective and Steven the parts from the men's, but I wouldn't be shocked to learn that they did it differently.

Looking back, it seems like the 90s may have been the peak time for collaborative novels. When I was growing up I loved the (age-inappropriate) Thieves World books, a shared-world setting with a bunch of different authors contributing stories that used each others' characters. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens came out in 1990 and might be my favorite collaborative novel ever. Freedom & Necessity was published in 1997. I'm sure that people are still co-writing spec-fic novels, but off the top of my head I can't think of one I've read from the last decade. Which definitely could say more about me than about the publishing industry! But it is interesting that in an age where it's so easy to collaborate with one another (both technically, through sharing editable documents rather than mailing manuscripts, as well as through the many tools available for instant communication over long distances), we don't seem to have experienced a corresponding explosion in collaborative works of fiction.

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