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Apocalypse cover

1

The consolations on which the epic poem depends have fragmented and lost their meaning, along with the poetic conventions used to express them. [Page Dubois, History, Rhetorical Description and the Epic (1982), p. 94]

It might surprise us that a firm like Baen

Would publish (well: e-publish) such a thing:—

A ten-book SF novel in blank verse

Concerning man-made climate change and how

It could be tackled, by a team made up

Of racially diverse, and mostly female,

Geniuses. But here’s Apocalypse.

And there’s Baen’s logo, disc of dragon red

And golden thrusting spaceship. So, what gives?

Before the nitty meets reviewing gritty

I’ll spend a moment talking terms and cons.

Has Turner really forged an epic poem?

What kind of definitions are in play?

Apocalypse comes with a preface that

In comic and perhaps embarrassed tones

Discusses just this thing: "the editors"

Admit the "very unusual thing"

They do in putting out "an epic poem

Of any kind" today, "especially

An epic that’s specifically SF."

So much is true. But then they go awry:

"An epic poem," says the preface, "is

A mixture of a novel and a song."

To which the obvious retort is: "no."

Which is to say: it’s really, really, not.

The novel is a bourgeois mode of art

Inherently a modern form that is

Interiorising and mimetic, prone

To intermittencies of form and world.

As Bakhtin says, it’s dialogic where

The epic poem monologically

Describes—or, no: embodies—epic life

Under the logic of the feudal past.

"The totalising will of epic," (to

Quote Moretti) "fuses gods and heroes,

Glory and the sacred" and its force

Is violence as power—a fascist world.

Of course, that term’s anachronistic. We

All know that Omer smote his bleedin’ lyre

Millennia before that term was coined;

But still it captures something of the mode,

A retro-relevance—the characters

Exteriorised, the ethos shame (not guilt)

The valued qualities, Τιμή, κλέος

"Great glory," "fame," (not honesty and love).

The novel, howsoever sing-song it may be

Is always polyvocal, inward, and

Synecdochic. It codes the social frame

Of modern life, where epic’s archos puts

The power-over Simone Weilian Force

In vertical and metaphoric place

As structuring the poem’s universe.

And epic’s no mere synonym for long.

Its features are not adventitious, but

Integral, not to be brushed off or missed:

An invocation to the muse; high style;

Twelve books (or twenty-four); a national theme

A hero, and machinery of gods

And goddesses. A voyage or a war.

Or both. A mid-way sojourn with the dead.

I’m not just listing boxes to be ticked:

I’m trying to describe the formal shape

Of lived experience under epic form.

Now Turner gestures at a few of these:

Invokes his muse, half-heartedly, book one,

And ends with "it’s incumbent that an epic

Gather all its trails of consequence"

To tie his loose-ends up in book ten

(Though epic is as like to end as start

In medias res). But I’m not twitting him.

It’s clear he knows his epic onions.

But really Turner’s talent’s not in epic,

And epic doesn’t match the tale he tells.

"So what?" you ask. Why should it matter how

We classify this work? Say it’s not epic,

Let’s call it a verse-novel and move on.

Except that, in a way, this makes things worse.

Verse-novels were a nineteenth-century vogue

(Aurora Leigh and so on)—even then

They had the musty flavour of poor compromise

About them, neither one thing nor another,

Archaic-quaint when they should be alive

(As Dickens, Tolstoy, Eliot are alive)

And too banal in content to support

The armature of poetry. It died,

That form, and later efforts to breathe life

Back into it have sunk into the sinkhole

Of Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, or Byrne

By Burgess. Awkwardness defines them all

Can Turner wrestle something new from all

This rubble of forgotten history,

The wasteland of a scholar’s pedantry?

Hmm. "Credit where it’s due"'s a good maxim:

Turner has created something strange

And strangeness has a value of its own.

He’s clever, and his verse is pretty good—

Not too iamb-monotonous, and not

Too loose or baggy. Still: there’s something off

That undermines his grand ambitions here.

His strangeness curdles into whimsy, where

It might have found deracinating force

Reshaping genre’s possibilities.

He writes a novel, and is pleased to mould

His blocks of prose into verse lines;

But doing this results in something that

Is neither epic, verse, nor science fiction,

Not quite: fish, fowl, or red-mars-herring.

 

2

Hegel attached the origin, maturity and decline of the major genres in Western literature to corresponding epochs of consciousness. These, in turn, generated and were generated by (the dialectic) historical, ideological and social realities. The heroic epic enacted conditions of life and perception of an archaic social order. It yielded to the conflicts between individuation and society, between the familial and the political represented in drama. Out of the erosion of the mythological-polytheistic or theistic components in drama came the novel. The novel, after Defoe, is wholly expressive of the mundane, secular categories of middle-class and mercantile being. It recounts modes of existence in which non-theological, immanent values and ambitions predominate. Prose fiction, with its highly self-conscious adieu to epic-fabulous presumptions by Cervantes, constructs contexts of totality, related to those in the economic systems of mercantile capitalism and to those aimed at by positivist science. This "totality" has, in Hegel, a crucial, informing function. [George Steiner, London Review of Books 18:10 (1996), p.14]

Let’s have a go at summarising plot:

No easy task—it’s dense with characters

Busy with action, clogged with infodumps.

The premise is that global warming’s real

(It is) and caused by man (that’s also true)

We start with chickens coming home to roost:

A flood in Holland, coastal scares, and worse

To come. With government unwilling or

Unable, Turner’s heroes fill the gap:

Assembled by Noah Blazo, billionaire

Inventor of "the solar battery":

There’s Lucy Wu, a q-computer whizz,

Hydraulics expert Chandra and his son

A brilliant mathematician called Gopal

The biochemist Ellie Tranh, a Brit

Called Peter Frobisher (Christ, what a name;

Like something from a sketch by Peter Cook)

Who else? Well: Costas Jack Barsoomian

A PR type; an agronomist called

Ala from Lagos (she was kidnapped but

Escaped Boko Haram when just a girl

Via action-film heroics). And many more

Not least the poet chronicling the lot

One "Nemo," who intrudes into the story

As hired by Blazo to relate the tale.

Their mission, should they choose etcetera,

Is: put a stop to global warming’s doom.

A clever plan is workshopped and despite

Much opposition (and State violence

Including wholescale naval warfare)

It’s put in play. It works. Particulates

Are seeded in the upper atmosphere

(A magic dust) to cool the world. A mass

Of carbon’s sent down to the ocean bed,

Sequestered there and safe, apparently.

Add: halophytic food crops, and some other

Bits and pieces and hey presto—done.

At this stage we’re not even halfway through:

Events now take an unexpected turn:

It would entail gross spoilerage to say

Exactly how the story shifts and ends.

It goes from Michael Crichton thriller vibe

To something more like classic Arthur Clarke

(with added Kim Stan Robinsonianisms).

I thought this half was better than the first,

Although it makes an almost mystic turn

In its tenth book which left me hmm?-ing, some.

Your mileage, as they say, may verse-y vary.

Apocalypse is readable, in places

Really quite absorbing, with a kind

Of pleasant frisson to the larger vibe:

Let’s not forget this is a book from Baen,

Hard-rockin hard-right Baen of mil-fic rep,

Whose dedicated readers, one might think,

(Or most of them) would give this two thumbs down—

Al-Gorean climate change and epic verse—

A Libtard cocktail! Still it’s a mistake

To generalise a demographic who

Comprise all human variance. No doubt

There will be many fans of mil-SF

Who love blank verse; and some Republicans

Accept the climate’s changing and blame man.

Plus: one would hardly call this book left-wing—

Though Turner strives to outdiverse diverse

In his dramatis personae (which is

To say carminis personae) the tale

Has little time for governments or states,

It posits a benign Steve-Jobs-style figure

As saviour, and it’s private enterprise

And clever individuals and can-do

(With healthy chunks of faith and moral choice)

That fire Apocalypse’s cylinders.

The fact remains this is a verse-novel;

And as such, frankly, it’s a curate’s egg:

In equal measures striking and inert.

No question it’s echt science fictional

A perfectly effective instance of

This kind of techno-thriller doomsday yarn

(Though it mutates into a stranger and

More satisfying kind of story by its end).

And Turner’s good on "door dilated" stuff

Those kinds of unobtrusive details that

Hallmark much trad SF. For instance here:

Noah claps the lights on. In the deep green water
There lies a lovely boat, white lined with blue.
"I had her printed up some days ago.
She’s yours, in thanks for all you’ve done for me.
She’s default automatic, and sleeps four . . . "
A boiling surge sends the boat skimming out,
To settle as the tall mast telescopes

And the sheer sails whisper to their peaks. [3]

There’s scads of infodumping too, the kind

That makes (or wrecks, depending on your view)

The science fiction we call hard, e.g.

The Oort Cloud’s unimaginably thin,
Perhaps one atom in a cubic meter,
But anything that moves as fast as Wormwood,
Twenty-five thousand klicks per second, must
Meet trillions of such atoms in a day— [9]

Plus cool descriptions of, say,

   Jupiter
With roiling bands of rufous oil and whorls
And paisleys, brown and white and palest blue,
And storms in which the Earth would be a bubble;
Callisto, like an orange marble, glows
Sun-crescent on the planet’s vague horizon. [10]

That said, there are unevennesses too.

The mix of high-tech science, politics,

Theology, and love affairs is lumpy,

Doesn’t really gel. And too much happens

In much too short a space, which clogs the whole.

Then there’s the in-room elephant: the verse.

Can this be more than merely affectation?

As far as that goes, it’s quite hard to judge.

The blank verse is not bad, and sometimes is

Surprisingly effective and well-turned.

It doesn’t always work the way it should,

And many of these lines are rather flat.

There’s only so much any poet can do

When wrangling the rebarbativity

Of climate science and engineering and

Hard physics into such a stately form.

And when the sulfur falls into the ocean
It doesn’t turn to H₂SO₄ . . .
But feeds the bodies of the phytoplankton
And salps and jellyfish and macrofauna. [2]

It worked with squares, but not with cubes, alas,
And not with higher powers: Fermat’s puzzle.
There were no integers where x + y
When cubed and added, made the cube of z. [3]

That his renormalizing algorithms
Nicely describe the six compact dimensions
That strings and branes predicted, filling in
A gap in cosmological mathematics. [7]

It’s hard to see just how this benefits

From being styled as verse instead of prose.

(I fear there’s just no way to fit the five

Stressed syllables "H₂SO₄" into

The tender to-fro rhythms of blank verse).

At other times the epic idiom

Drops to banality: the sort of thing

That hardly registers when reading prose

But which just drags and flattens in a poem.

I have been following your paper trail,
With, as I take it, the four-part proposal. [1]

I stared at Noah rather stupidly. [2]

And Annie will suggest an algorithm
To synthesize the information streams. [3]

So here we are, folks, staring up its ass. [3]

Have you been prying in my private parts? [6]

We’re sailing close to bathos here, alas;

And so it goes, quotidian tones that pull

The larger whole into a Dunciad shape.

As Peter speaks, Teddy Bartholomew,
The quiet lawyer we first met on Banks,
Comes in with doughnuts. [4]

It’s not that Turner’s not aware of this.

His writing turns defensive pretty often,

Self-conscious—worse, apologetic. Viz.:

All right, all right. Another bunch of names,
Another complication in the plot. . . .
I’m going to have to give some backstory.
I can’t, as airy lyric poets do,
Just pick the bits that make a pretty posy
And leave the rest to common knowledge. No.
I’ve got to make the common knowledge gel
From scratch, and I’m a rotten choice for it,
If you ask me. [1]

This doesn’t really work,

Though it recurs repeatedly throughout:

("Please pardon me these technicalities" [3])—

It can’t inoculate the whole against

The dangers of a misjudgment of tone.

Now, I’m not saying Turner cannot write.

He really can. He has the gift. It’s just

That his best moments are all lyric ones

(At least as far as versifying goes):

Vignettes that punctuate the epic flow

Rather than embodying and advancing it.

So—here the characters think of rivers:

In their minds’ eye they see the sockeye salmon
Braving the rapids, ospreys, dams, and bears,
Their silver flanks turned crimson and moss-green,
Humping their spine into a mount of threat,
Twisting their calm fish visage to a snarl,
A samurai’s stark grimace, with an eye
Of insane gold. [2]

That’s very nicely done.

It’s just not epic. Rather it is vivid

With the inward concentration of the lyric.

Or this account of the Antarctic world:

Candlemas Island. Now it’s southern spring,
The sun creeps slowly round the blue horizon;
Lucifer Hill, the isle’s stratovolcano
Is active, and when wind and sea are still,
Gives faint thumps, wheezes, wafts of sulfur steam.
At night, high crags lit red. The stars are white.
Here strange thin grasses, warmed by fumaroles
Of boiling water, sometimes mist the slopes.
Around the north end there’s an endless gabble:
A million chinstrap penguins tend their nests,
Besieged by frigate-birds with cloven tails. [5]

Evocative and memorable verse

( . . . although "the isle’s stratovolcano" jars)—

Quite often Turner’s weave of prose-in-verse

And lyric vividness is too abrupt:

So militarily there was no question
If it would come to it, which would prevail.
But tactics sometimes can be strategy,
And when, one cloudless, calm and chilly day,
With icebergs violet and emerald
On the horizon, their first ships appeared,
Our force was ready and disposed for action. [4]

(Those icebergs shine, the rest is made of lead).

But at its best, especially near the end

His voice comes near to fusing with his theme

And questions of the end of times, rebirth,

And God, and human future, find their voice

In stately, even moving blank verse lines.

It seems to me that, after Shakespeare (natch)

The greatest English writer of blank verse

Is Tennyson, at least when at his best,

In (portions of) the Idylls, and "Tithonus"

And "Ulysses." Far as that’s concerned

Apocalypse shows bravery, at least,

In stepping up to the comparison:

Come on, old man, let’s step out one more time,
Like those brave musketeers, into the light;
It’s time for Ulysses’s final voyage,
To sail beyond the gates of Hercules.
Yes, we have had great losses, all of us;
More reason that we honor what they were
By an attempt that fits their memory. [9]

Falls short, of course. But, still: he has a go.

The fact that I have written this review

In blanker-than-your-average-blank-verse

Should serve to make one point at least. Pastiche

Increasingly becomes inseparable

From style: in shorthand, postmodernity,

(Or maybe, now, post-postmodernity

It’s much of muchness really). And this flat

Unmagical pastiche is the text-world

In which a heartfelt tale-in-verse like this

Must try to work its hopeful magic charm.

It draws attention to its form, but only

Flagging up anachronism, not

In making new and shaping genre’s shape.

You wouldn’t call this dumb review an epic

Or even part of one: the affect floats free

The surface sheen discloses nothing else

Than its own surface. Even a verse-novel,

(a fortiori epic) needs much more

Than can be floated in our shallow streams.

The fact that Turner’s wrote his tale in verse,

Regardless of that verse’s quality

(And it is—mostly—pretty good) can’t help

But strike the reader as a gimmick, not

A mode of bringing art to life. This book,

Diverting and unusual though it is,

Remains a curio: brave; strange; inert.



Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.
2 comments on “Apocalypse: An Epic Poem by Frederick Turner”
skinnyblackcladdink

how does Turner's GENESIS fare? Oliver Langmead's DARK STAR?

cute (& judicious). i suppose i shouldn't be surprised that mr roberts knows so much about obsolete literary forms, having read one of his recondite novels, but i'm pleased to find him appreciative of good poetry, to boot. on the other hand, this--no more so than any other form of poetry today that's not song lyrics--is hardly nicked by the suggestion that it wasn't worth doing. only one person had to think it was, & one did.

 

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