Arslan by Engh, M. J., 1979

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Arslan is one of the oddest science fiction novels I have ever read. That may be because it was written by a woman (M(ary) J(ane) Engh), and not to sound sexist, but most science fiction written by women usually reads oddly to me. But its probably because the premise and execution of this novel are really frightening, even if quite implausible. This novel tells the story of a tin-pot dictator in a third-rate country who strong arms his way into a meeting with the Soviets, and thereafter, bloodlessly, takes control of the entire world. Arslan is available as a trade paperback these days, and was alternatively titled A Wind From Bukhara in its original paper back incarnation. Three out of five stars.

Arlsan starts much like the film Red Dawn does, with invading armies, who have already established their right to occupy, rolling into a small town. The small town in this story though is in Illinois, not Colorado. Arslan, the dictator in question (from the city of Bukhara), has decided for some unknown reason to base his worldwide occupation from the small town of Craftsville, Illinois. As I said earlier, Arslan has accomplished this feat in a completely bloodless and highly unbelievable way, but as soon as he sets up shop he shows who is boss by murdering a teacher at the local high school, stealing away all the local women of breeding age, raping a young boy named Hunt Morgan, and taking up residence forcibly in the residence of Franklin Bond, the high school's principal, and boss of the murdered man. Arslan lets Bond know that if he is killed in his sleep, everyone will be put to death, effectively buying himself a sanctuary.

Right away Engh begins setting out Arslan's social and political motivations. He seems to be an environmentalist of sorts, but lets himself fall prey to his own worst sadistic fantasies of retaliation in the name of nature. He dispatches American troops overseas and brings foreign soldiers here to keep the peace, believing correctly that the US citizens will be in fear not only of the South Asian regulars, but also the Russian soldiers that he has brought here. He gives the town's girls to the Russians to rape as they please in order to keep them from rampaging all over the countryside and killing everyone in site, as Arslan has confiscated any and all weapons from the town. Once things calmed down after the invasion, Arslan began implementing his real plan. It seems that his real problems with the world were those brought to us by overpopulation and increased commerce. Arslan has decided that the best way to correct this problem is to separate each and every community from its neighbors, and let the worthy live and the unworthy die. And that is just what happens. Engh never treats us with descriptions of what happens, say, in New York City, or London, or Moscow (although she does briefly discuss an abortive attempt at revolt with nuclear weapons), but folks in Craftsville sure feel the effects of eating only what they can produce, of no commerce with other towns, and of a lack of replacement medicine after what they have on the date of invasion is used up.

After Arslan has the entire world firmly in his grasp, and has returned to Bukhara with his wives and Hunt Morgan for an interlude away from the main action of the story, it is revealed what Arslans final solution really is. In the beginning of the book Arslan ordered everyone to take a shot, so as to protect them from virus after the medicine was cut off. It was really a permenant contraceptive so that nobody could ever reproduce again. And this is the second place that Engh's efforts as an author fail. Like Herbert in The White Plague, she never makes it clear why Arslan could come to the conclusion that humanity is unworthy of survival and must be exterminated. Left in a vacuum like that, the failure to tell us why becomes a huge gap that many readers will not be able to get past. From the context of the novel, I was never sure if he was completely insane, or if he truly believed that this would be the only way to save the Earth from our action. Or both.

Franklin Bond is the main character in this book, and at least 1/3 is dedicated to Hunt Morgan's experience. His section is very lyrical and bittersweet. Hunt's section shows you in painful-to-watch detail how Arlsan rapes the young boy into submission, and then twists his fear into some disgusting kind of twisted affection. This section is every bit as moving as it is revolting, and may be what brings me back to this book again and again.

This book is really not for everyone. The actions people in this novel take are, to be perfectly frank, as brutal and despicable as they come. But beyond that, and as horrible as the things Arslan does, there is something much more unsettling. To me, it seems that because this book is set in the United States, and the horrible things he does are to US citizens, it becomes that much more powerful and moving. Even though Arlsan plots the slow murder and death of the entire species, there is something about this happening to us, here, that really makes this book as horrible as it is. Arslan stops at virtually nothing to bend the will of others to his, including rape, torture, coercion, and heavy psychological mind games. The scope of this novel is incredible. Engh seems to be making a comparison and reversal from the rape of the land to the rape of the people, and she does such a thorough job of getting into the minds of the characters that you really do tend to forget the two glaring holes in the plot. As a first novel, this did make quite a bang when it came out in 1979. Unfortunately, from what I have been able to tell Engh was never able to follow it up what anything that make quite an impact. This novel is now easily available. If you want something really different, or are as big a fan as I am of end of the world stories, give this one a try.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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