Thursday, February 25, 2010

Aaron Allston's "Doc Sidhe"

I should go a little easy when reviewing this book, because it was written in 1996, a year after "The Golden Compass" (published as "The Northern Lights" in Britain) and at the time, there was something very trendy and novel in the idea of alternate worlds that look a lot like a post-industrial past. Nowadays, this trend has been pretty much played out, and the Steampunk craze has run its course. "Doc Sidhe" does have something to offer, however, because the characters are so interesting and Aaron Allston is very good at extremely poignant moments.

In short, "Doc Sidhe" is about a down on his luck kickboxer that discovers a portal to the fairy world, an alternate universe that progressed to the cultural and technological level of the 1930s. The fairy world has human-sized fairies that live in cities with skyscrapers, but with a weirdly fairy tale edge: giant stone chimera and dragons adorn the art deco buildings. "Doc Sidhe" is a wizard/inventor from the fairy world, who befriends Harris.

If you want to make a checklist of steampunk elements this world has, you can take it almost beat by beat:

Airships. Check! I cut them some slack here because airships are cool, so I can understand the fascination.

Referring to things by old fashioned names, so you know it's an alternate universe? Check! One day, someone somewhere will visit an alternate universe where chocolate is called chocolate, but thus far, no dice. Spain is called "Castillan," Britain is "Cretanis." Like the Golden Compass, chocolate is called by a weird, Mesoamerican and historically accurate name, "xioc au lait," or "xioc with milk." Everything in fairy-ruled America is called by British names, like "lift" for elevators and "lorry" for trucks, and people drive on the left side of the road. This is to be expected in British-written fiction, but Anglophilia is one of the most bizarre American characteristics, and one that I unfortunately can't blame the South for, like I usually do with traits in my own country that I don't like (anti-intellectualism).

An aristocracy surviving to modern times? Check! Why do people find this exotic and interesting, anyway? The Star Wars or Dune-style resurrection of noble houses and monarchies in future or alternate societies always struck me as one of the more bizarre choices that writers make, since that particular stage in human development is behind us, even in places that historically had aristocracies like Sweden and Russia.

There are lots of cynical little details that make the world feel a lot less romantic, and thus more interesting, but frankly, not enough for my tastes. Darker-skinned fairies are unfortunately treated as shabbily in the fairy world as they were in the real 1930s for instance.

There are a few really great ideas in the story, among things that feel cliche for readers of industrial fantasy. The first is a superpower that, to the best of my knowledge, I have never seen anyone use before anywhere. The second is that, as a society becomes more complicated, "magic" becomes something that is technologically harnessed and studied. In the Fairy world, even the term magic itself is a discredited one.

What's more, the single most interesting thing about the plot is the main character, Harris, a down on his luck kickboxer. He's the classic textbook definition of the audience identification protagonist. He actually adds a lot to the story as a point of view character, something many pulp influenced stories are generally missing. When he goes on a mission with Doc's gang and has to plug a criminal, he feels horrible, something that a traditional hardboiled character wouldn't. His relationship with his girlfriend, who dumps him at the very beginning of the book, is the most interesting part of the story. Harris is a really nice guy, which is his problem: he lacks his own needs and wants of his own, and the reason his girlfriend left him is that she felt he wasn't a real person - just putty in the hands of anyone.

The character of Doc Sidhe only really becomes interesting at the very end of the novel, with a shocking twist that comes in the last 20 pages. Doc Savage was a great character, but like Tarzan, he's very distinctive, so anybody that is even slightly influenced by him shows his imprint. The way Aaron Allston created Doc Sidhe was to write him in a way that we think Doc Sidhe is identical to Savage...then, suddenly, have a sharp reversal that has all the more entertainment value because we don't see it coming. For instance, towards the end, we learn to our great surprise that Doc Sidhe has a girlfriend, a sexy Aztec fairy that is crazy, foreign, extroverted and says whatever comes to mind.

Aaron Allston is a supremely gifted writer at characterization. He creates people you like, and everyone had a personality trait, and you could never confuse dialogue from one character with dialogue from another. This book gives the feel of something written in a single draft, and believe it or not I mean that as a compliment: Allston was obviously figuring out who these characters are in the middle of the story, which is interesting to watch. It certainly means that unlike other books, it isn't something that starts off strong and then falls flat at the finish line; the book is "meh" in the middle and then quickly speeds up to a very, very strong finish.

Aaron Allston is extremely skilled at squeezing very powerful emotions. The death of one major character is much more profoundly moving than one would expect. One of the characters is Joseph, a golem-like monster made of clay created by a criminal that is a gentle being that in the past, was compelled to perform murders. Needless to say, his story does not have a happy ending.

In terms of action and adventure, Aaron Allston's characters aren't immortal and assured of victory. You get nervous for them because of their mortality, and how much you find you care about the characters.

In short, I'd recommend it.


David said...

This is my favorite phrase of the day:

a down on his luck kickboxer

You always picture those guys having such an idyllic life. :-)

This kind of thing is so NOT up my alley it's not funny, but from what little I know of fairies, I was under the impression they had magical powers. If so, why do they need skyscrapers or airships, and why would they endure prejudice? If you have magical powers, why "progress" even to the technology of the 30s? Who needs vacuum tubes and steam engines when you can conjure up everything you want, or fly or teleport wherever you want to go?

The only "alternative history" things I even halfway considered buying were the ones that dealt with "what if Hitler won the war" and that sort of thing. They were everywhere in the late 90s but I haven't seen them in a while. I remember seeing one on alternate presidential histories, and the cover showed a smiling Thomas Dewey holding up a newspaper with the headline, "Truman Defeats Dewey." But then I figured it's already sad enough that I read more historical fiction than true history, so reading "alternative" historical fiction would just slide me down another wrung.

Darker-skinned fairies are unfortunately treated as shabbily in the fairy world as they were in the real 1930s for instance.

See, this is why I need to read more history. I had no idea dark-skinned fairies were treated badly in the 30s. Thankfully they fixed that by the 50s, allowing Little Richard's career to thrive.

Continuing in the nit-picky groove, it's neat how you use the author's full name almost every time you mention him. Bob Dole likes this.

Julian Perez said...

Man, this is cause of that (admittedly) gratuitous little dig at the South, isn't it? Don't I get any David Points for mentioning that the South is specifically NOT responsible for Anglophilia? The true culprits are of course, weaselly argyle wearing skinny Brooklyn hipsters on mopeds.

In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, the way that "Doc Sidhe" approached this was to say that as society became more complex and the scientific method was discovered, "magic" became just another discipline of science, alongside chemistry, biology, and anthropology. When humans from our world use the term magic, the fairies get a little peeved, as it was an attack on the professionalism of their discipline.

They also did put some thought on what a world would be like where everyone is allergic to iron. Guns jam all the time because bullets are made of brass. Steel is required for skyscrapers and tall buildings, and steel frames have to be covered. In poorer districts, where construction is shoddy, people die of iron poisoning all the time.

I've been really wanting to do a blog post in the future on my favorite "Hitler won" alternate history novels.

My all time favorite was "Swastika Night," which was actually written in the 1930s, so it's actually more speculative science fiction instead of alternate history. Hitler said his Reich would last for a thousand years and people had no real reason to disbelieve him. It was a weird future world with no Jews or Christians and the official religion was a weird state Hitler-worship, involving pilgrimages to the sacred airplane that Hitler personally flew to attack Moscow.

It was apparently a feminist novel about how fascists treat women terribly, which I find bizarre, since when you make a list of the groups Hitler picked on, it would be pretty long before it gets to women.

Julian Perez said...

David -

To answer your question about the magical powers of fairies...according to the book, most people don't have a superpower, to the point where an infrastructure that provides transportation and housing is necessary.

Like I said, except for a few opening jokes, I decided to go easy on the book, because while this kind of world is cliche today, at the time it was innovative.

David said...

Fairies are allergic to iron? Good to know.

Kidding aside, I do appreciate your sharing your thoughts on the book, so I don't have to read it. Some books are like high school reunions for me; I want to know what happens, but not enough to actually show up. The Fabio hair and dragons on the cover would probably have been enough to keep me away from this book, and a mention of "fairies" on the back cover would've cinched it.

The "Hitler Won" books I saw seemed to be geared not toward political commentary (pro or con) so much as fantasy-oriented "men's adventures", for armchair mercenaries who like to daydream about waging guerrilla warfare against the Nazis using modern weaponry ("Boy if we only had Uzi's in WWII, what we could've done...).

Julian Perez said...

Yeah, fairies are allergic to iron! And you should know that, because of the Walt Simonson Thor. Remember when Malefik the Dark Elf was shot by that private detective that stowed away along with Thor to investigate the Wild Hunt?

That bullet really smarted. Malefik cried out, "Iron! A mortal weapon!"

I once had a friend in High School that used to write all these macho, Conan the Barbarian fighting adventures involving his obsession with medieval weaponry, who was sort of like the historical version of the kind of guys you're talking about. Thanks to him, I know everything there is to know about medieval weaponry, including what a "ranseur" is and what it was used for. It was a pretty transparent kind of war-porn for him.

David said...

I haven't read Simonson's Thor since the mid-80s, so yeah, I'd forgotten that scene. I do remember that PI, though, or anyway I remember that he was a Korean War vet and I really liked him. In a book full of immortals, it was cool to have a guy you could really worry -- and thus care -- about.

I've been holding off on revisiting those books in hopes Marvel will issue the whole run as an Omnibus. Rumors are it may happen.

Eduardo M. said...

Is the guy you're talking about named Eric Willis? I remember him and his son Roger being mentioned in Malekith's entry in Marvel Universe Handbooks and I've always wanted to read the stories he was in.

Julian Perez said...

Eddie -

Yeah, that was his name, Eric Willis, the mortal private dick that got ahold of the Casket of Winters.