The Western is a genre traditionally concerned with how civilisation comes to be. It is the literature of the frontiersman, of the advance party which arrives in a place before it is tamed. In this sense, it is a normalising mode, at extreme odds with science fiction's marriage to estrangement and disconnect; How The West Was Won has the whole narrative in its title, and the audience knows from its beginning that they are being brought to where they already are. Since the 1960s, however, the cosy assumptions of the Western have slowly been picked apart, until the genre's theme has almost become the end, not the start, of things: from the corporatising destruction wrought upon the denizens of David Milch's TV series Deadwood, to the fade into alien modernity on show in the novels of Cormac McCarthy, the modern form seems almost a chronicle of decline, not ascent.
Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, McCarthy recently trespassed onto the territory of science fiction. The Road (2006) takes place in a blighted future where only human life remains on Earth, the result of some nameless cataclysm, and society has collapsed in on itself with horrific consequences. In many ways, the novel is a culmination of his Western work: in its depiction of brutality it echoes the frontier violence of his Blood Meridian, whilst in its theme of societal breakdown there is much of All The Pretty Horses and the other novels of the Border Trilogy. It's therefore easy to find sympathy with Michael Chabon's contention that The Road isn't really science fiction at all. It lacks an interest in the future—in, ironically, how it might be built or rebuilt. It's an adventure story, much like the traditional Westerns it is in most ways so separated from.
Far North, Marcel Theroux's new novel, also takes its cues from the modern resurgence in the Western; yet unlike McCarthy Theroux's story relies on an engagement with the causes of, and the reasons for, the world his characters inhabit, and the implications of those causes and reasons for the world we have now. "We live in a broken age," intones Makepeace, the novel's narrator, early on in the story (p. 15). The rest of the book spends its time setting out how the breakage happened. "The newest things end soonest," Makepeace tells us (p. 43), and Far North concerns itself very much with the newest things (ways of thinking as much as ways of doing, or machines) that last civilized generation created, and just how they met their end.
Theroux is slippery on whether that last generation is us, our children, or our great-grandchildren, but there is precious little in the book to put its events too far into the future. Very clearly this is a novel by a mainstream author which applies itself to contemporary problems and anxieties, extrapolating from George Monbiot articles in The Guardian rather than doing much in the way of world-building itself. This is a fault in a science fiction novel, which Far North can hardly pretend not to be, and if a reader comes to the book looking for a rigorously and materially convincing future they will be disappointed. At one point, Theroux performs a sleight of hand not entirely to his credit, in one paragraph fingering global warming for the fate of this broken world, and in the next disowning it. Science fiction, and if the author is uninterested in that then responsible politics, requires a little more intellectual honesty than that.
Yet Far North is not without its charms. Resource scarcity and the wars engendered by it have diminished the world, leaving Makepeace living as sheriff in a lawless ghost settlement. The settlement itself is what remains of one of five cities established in Siberia by Americans who chose to opt out of global capitalism, adopting Quakerism and rustic lifestyles in a conscious separation from the system choking the world to death. Their belief that it is best for humans to live humbly, and embrace the scarcity of uncushioned living, is not romanticised by Makepeace, who asks, "Why turn your back on anything that will make life easier?" (p. 50) This is the disbelief of one who has nothing, and Theroux is obviously sceptical both of Makepeace's father and the ever increasing number of the modern middle class who think growing their own and riding their bikes to work is in some way a meaningful statement.
Theroux and Makepeace have little better to say about the alternative, however. Indeed, Far North is bleak about humanity. "From what I had oberved," Makepeace tells us, "it only took three days before desperation and hunger overturned all civilised instinct in a person" (p. 120). The character to whom this is said protests that this is too pessimistic a view. "In his experience, it was closer to four days."
This taciturn dryness is of course the very stuff of the western, and Makepeace is a hardened, competent, world-weary cowboy of the old school. At least, she would be were she a man. Theroux leaves us only a couple of chapters in the dark about Makepeace's gender, and in truth it is far less important to the book than it might have been: Makepeace is depicted to have always been a tomboy, and bar some dreams, apropos of nothing, about babies and giving birth she rarely contradicts genre and gender types in any other way than in lacking a penis: even here, she follows in the footsteps of other hallowed Western figures, a post-apocalyptic Annie Oakley or Calamity Jane (herself the subject of a far more engaged interrogation of gender in Deadwood). Nevertheless, there is a little more to say about Makepeace's gender, in good time.
Meanwhile, it is clear Theroux is acutely aware of his generic antecedents. The tradition of the science fiction western is as present as that of the earthbound. As in Firefly, the anti-technological nature of much of the novel's future, all Winchester rifles and horseback riding, contrasts effectively and evocatively with the high technology which exists here as remnant: the memory stones, which play recordings of life long ago, or the futuristic cities which lie sphinx-like on the horizon of these primitives made anew. There is a response, too, to Jonathem Lethem's Girl in Landscape (a version of the John Ford classic The Searchers), itself the story of a family leaving New York due to climate change; but Theroux eschews the spaceflight solution for a resolutely solutionless future, in which humankind is forced to face up to the consequences of its actions. There are no reset buttons, only coping.
Indeed, it is on this point that I diverge with M John Harrison's recent review of the book, which concludes, as a result of the novel's ascribing our destructiveness to our lust for life, that Far North "forgives us our trespasses too soon and too completely." Theroux certainly holds out hope, and Makepeace says at one point that, "I've never doubted that something will survive of us. Of course, I won't make it" (p. 184). That second sentence goes some way towards supporting Harrison's contention that the novel is a "personal story"; but I'm still not sure it follows that the book therefore absolves us of our wider responsibilities. I agree too with Harrison that Theroux's world-building is weak—he has very clearly decided what story he wants to tell prior to inventing the world in which to tell it—and yet, again, if this speaks of disingenuousness, it does not necessarily lead by default to the commuting of our sins. "We had been so prodigal with our race's hard-won knowledge," Makepeace opines at the sight of a savage, just prior to her statement of belief in humanity's endurance. "And when the Zone was exhausted, we would be lucky to be this boy, stalking poisoned animals in a forest we can no longer name. He was our best possible future" (p. 184).
Ah, yes. The Zone: a city which the Russian government had filled with the greatest scientists, and which the scientists had then filled with their most wondrous inventions. Makepeace never forgives her ancestors for poisoning her world, but that cannot spoil her wonderment at what they level behind. Indeed, it is the Zone alone which places this story some distance from our current time: some of its contents is clearly beyond our technology, and indeed the nature of it remains something of a mystery to the reader and characters alike. Yet, even in scavenging these magical items, the humans of the future lack the ability to understand them. Even those who live the best in the future of the Far North live lesser lives. A report from a visit to Alaska: "[It] was like waking up from a bad dream. I mean, it wasn't like it was, but compared to everything we'd seen . . . " (p. 262). Harrison is his usual perceptive self on two points: that Far North lacks the crushing weight of true world-building, and thus focuses on the personal, and that in umming and ahhing about the totality of its vague cataclysm's destructive force, it holds out the possibility of survival (and thus commutes our sentence). This makes it a relatively weak science fictional dystopia; but at the same time Theroux is compelling in what he chooses to do instead.
Far North finds its principle interest in Makepeace's journey through the blighted landscape of her future. Theroux finds the truth of that landscape not in elaborate descriptions of its topography, but in the weathered skin on the faces of its inhabitants, and the cruel ways they must treat each other within it. "Goodness only lives when the times permit it," says Makepeace (p. 74), and it is these interpersonal details in which Far North finds its true power. In this way, Theroux parts company with genre science fiction, which often prefers to centre itself around the environment, with its characters operating as exemplars to show the reader how it works; but in other, subtler senses Far North is also rooted in previous works within the genre. Tim Martin has pointed out the plot's similarity to Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers (he subsequently finds fault with the book on literary, rather than generic, grounds), but there is also surely something of A Canticle for Leibowitz in its historically regressive future, and even of I Am Legend in its bald depiction of the loneliness of the last civilized person on the planet.
And civilized Makepeace is, despite her world. "Try as I might," she admits, "I haven't been able to give up on [humanity] wholly." She saves books and preserves an old pianola, though she can't use either herself. This vestigial sense of community makes her in a particular sense an old-fashioned nurturer; and in her love for a mother and her unborn baby, which rekindles Makepeace's own lust for life, she is seen to have a strong maternal instinct. But she also prizes the practical and no-nonsense, condemning her father's idealism and having little time for starry-eyed visions or anything but the brute business of survival. Finally, her physical appearance is androgynous, and in wearing her privations roughly she can pass for a man. Even though I argued earlier that Makepeace's gender barely registers in the novel as important, Far North does in this limited way mix gender types. Nevertheless, this tension seems largely an effect rather than a feature of the book's material: the plot requires at times Makepeace's femininity and at others could not continue if she were recognized as a woman. As with his future, frequently it feels that his narrator's sex is more a facilitator for Theroux's story than anything else.
What all this amounts to is a novel which doesn't practice ambivalence without aiming for safety; a book with a number of cross-currents, which refuses to settle one way or the other, and one which derives its richness from these internal struggles: a weak dystopia, but an informed contribution; a gender puzzle but one uninterested in pushing the study further than the bounds of the character allows. If Theroux does not possess the poetic vision of McCarthy, he is still some way ahead of many other writers in crafting a novel which works its sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes competing threads lightly and decoratively. Much of what is here builds up slowly, by cross-reference, by evocation and allusion, and Makepeace is by novel's end, if not precisely a revolutionary study in cross-gender role-playing, then nevertheless a solid character with her own particular voice. (So particular, in fact, that early on the reader would be forgiven for thinking it is a voice with discrepancies—the faux-cowboy clunker "I didn't know him from the oriential Adam", for instance, or her fortitudinous, "the sight of that made me come over a bit queer"—whereas in reality Theroux is simply brave enough to let it jar as it should.)
In Clint Eastwood's 1992 anti-Western, Unforgiven, a character begs, "I don't deserve . . . to die like this." His killer, the film's hero, responds plainly, "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it." The new Western's stoic acceptance that the white hats do not always win is more honest, and more in tune with science fiction's tendency towards the apocalypse or singularity, than its traditional authorising and normalising aesthetic. It also informs every page of Far North, a novel which is carefully written and advisedly magpie-like, and which despite its weaknesses, tensions and evasions, depicts a character and a people who do not deserve to live in the time they do but are intent on survival now they must. It makes for an ambivalent book on all levels; but at times such a novel can leave a reader with more for later than a book more perfectly formed and finally stated.
Dan Hartland has been doing this too long to think anyone cares who he is.