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.
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. 
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— 
Plus cool descriptions of, say,
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. 
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. 
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. 
That his renormalizing algorithms
Nicely describe the six compact dimensions
That strings and branes predicted, filling in
A gap in cosmological mathematics. 
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. 
I stared at Noah rather stupidly. 
And Annie will suggest an algorithm
To synthesize the information streams. 
So here we are, folks, staring up its ass. 
Have you been prying in my private parts? 
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. 
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. 
This doesn’t really work,
Though it recurs repeatedly throughout:
("Please pardon me these technicalities" )—
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. 
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. 
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. 
(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. 
Falls short, of course. But, still: he has a go.
The fact that I have written this review
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.
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