a review by Evie Kendal
AR1S1NGFALL is the first book in a dystopian trilogy entitled CITY: aliteraryconcerto by author and artist C. Sean McGee. It is set in a dystopian future that, unlike the standard post-apocalyptic wasteland often depicted in such texts, is actually a vast nothingness of the soul. The inhabitants of this world suffer from what is described as both a physical and metaphysical “famine” – the poisoned soil limiting food production while a lack of direction and purpose plagues their minds to distraction. People are seen queuing in the dirty streets for scraps of information that are “rationed” to them each day to think upon; meanwhile the human race is degrading and descending into cannibalism and violence. It is believed the state of humanity has come about due to the absence of the “empathy gene” in the population, essentially rendering the humans psychopaths. Into this chaos, Marcos develops a new philosophy, based on a system of binary oppositions, in which behaviour and focus are conditioned into “collected” children (those kidnapped from the “famined” citizens living outside Marcos’ cult-like educational facility) in an attempt to cultivate empathy in the next generation.
Marcos and his partner, referred to as The Woman, teach the children brought into his complex, The Nest, to exist in a state of one or zero: love or fear. Children are assigned to sub-sections War, Peace, Love and Work, with battle training and farming techniques among the standard lessons. Marcos believes returning humanity to a state of purposeful employment is vital to the “rehumanisation” process, in addition to experimenting with different methods of eliciting empathetic responses. The people under Marcos’ protection in The Nest are referred to as The Collective, with The Collector being responsible for “saving” children from their natural parents before they die of neglect. The Collective is ruled by logic and reason and was intended as a utopia “free from disparity of emotion, free of distraction” (114). Those who follow Marcos’ vision believe he is the saviour of the human race and are willing to fight to ensure he maintains control. It is believed he will lead humanity to the Forever New Dawn, a place described in heavenly terms as “the city of light and sound.”
Following an initial exploration of the dysfunctional relationship between Marcos and The Woman, the story continues with an exploration of The Nest, and following the disappearance of one of the students, Marcos and his army of White Hearts (black-clad officers with white hearts affixed to their shirts) raid the area outside the complex. After trading at the “child market” where children are bought and sold for various purposes, the soldiers start destroying contraband, such as brightly coloured items intended to elicit emotional responses and mirrors and other reflective surfaces (as these encourage self-adulation and thus increase the psychological effects of the famine). During their search, Marcos is concerned to discover tools being created by members of the “famined,” evidence of planning ability and possibly indicative of an intention to challenge The Collective and his authority.
As a dystopian novel this book has all the classic tropes – totalitarianism, brainwashing/conditioning, pharmaceutical control of the masses, oppressive thought policing, military rule and darkness, derangement, disease and destitution. In flavour it is a bit of a mix of Greg Egan’s Diaspora, Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We and the 2002 film, Equilibrium. As such, it is in good company. However, while the storyline is unique and interesting, there are a number of issues with the text that warrant discussion.
The major problems I had with this book were aesthetic and editorial, and as such could be easily fixed. I do not like white book covers, most obviously because they easily get dirty. I also did not like the use of binary code instead of chapter numbers as this made it difficult to know how I was progressing through the book. The faded text on the front cover just looks out of focus, and although clearly deliberate, it gives the book an unprofessional appearance. The use of side-ways type with the author’s name on every page also looks a little tacky. The font of the text is also inconsistent, which is particularly evident when looking at the apostrophes (sometimes curled, sometimes flat). These elements are quite distracting, although the font size is good for fast reading. As the book is quite addictive, this is a significant advantage.
The editing is also a major concern, with countless spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and punctuation inconsistencies. (For example, the term sub-conscious, which appears numerous times in the text, alternates from “sub conscious” “subconscious” and “sub-conscious,” sometimes within the same sentence.) As this book appears to be self-published the lack of an editor to correct these errors is expected, but quite unfortunate, particularly as the writing style is otherwise very sophisticated. The kinds of typographical errors present indicate an over-reliance on “spell-checker” programs with words like “buy” appearing where it should read “by,” “now” instead of “know,” “too” instead of “to,” “of” instead of “off,” “vein” instead of “vain,” “from” instead of “form,” “one” instead of “on” and “exciting” instead of “exiting,” to name a few. Often the wrong your/you’re is used (and in one instance both are used yielding the rather confusing sentence: “I spoke to him and you’re your sister”). In addition there are missing words and random acts of capitalisation that are not consistent, and I strongly believe an editor would have deleted or drastically re-worded the first two preface sections of the book. These sections are the only major weakness in terms of writing style, being full of hyperbole and flowery language. I was deeply concerned when I read them that the whole book would be the same, however was relieved when the bulk of the text was written in a much better style.
In terms of plot, there is only one element that I particularly disliked, which was the representation of gender. It is common in dystopian literature for authors to depict depravity by focusing on the behaviour and/or treatment of women in the fictional society, so this fault is certainly not something that McGee is uniquely culpable of – however, his depiction of The Woman as emotionally needy, nagging and baby-crazy was a little trying. The assumption that all men are physically abusive (“speak through their fists”) seemed rather ungenerous for the men as well. There was also the rather offensive insinuation that the fall of humanity was due to women ceasing to breastfeed their young, presumably as “empathy” may be necessary for lactation. This also indicates a potential plot hole, as it is not explained upfront why alternative feeding methods are not engaged.
My list of likes far outweigh my list of dislikes, starting with the fact that McGee has a policy of making his texts available for free download. As a firm believer in open access this impresses me and I would suggest that people who are interested in reading this book take a look at his online presence (and perhaps consider purchasing a hard copy of the book in support). Another thing I really like is the experimental nature of the book. Although stylistically it is a bit hit-and-miss, I can appreciate the bravery of giving it a go (I particularly like the blurb: “wrong side: turn over don’t live your life in summary”).
As mentioned previously the writing style is good, and the vocabulary is also impressive. The distinct linguistic styles of different characters are also written very well and add three-dimensionality to characters that would otherwise run the risk of being quite flat. The plot is engaging and keeps you reading, with a successful “show-don’t-tell” technique that is often lacking in contemporary literature. In fact, I would recommend this text for university study were it not for the editorial issues already discussed.
I also liked the theme of binary running throughout the story, demonstrated well in this quote from page 72:
All things were zero or one; At Distraction or At Focus. The same could be said for all adjectives, all colourful post-event descriptive states of being. One could only be At Bravery when it was in that moment that he divorced from At Cowardice and only on that infinitesimal moment would he be At Bravery for the moment his focus shifted and defined new direction, he would be At War and in the age of conscious splendour where self-introspection was deemed the vice of the intellectually superior, he would no doubt be At Contemplation and from there, either At Expectation or At Disappointment. But whilst attending any or all of these states, one will always be At Focus and to not be such would mean being At Distraction; zero or one.
In terms of narrative voice the author engages a third person narration that is very effective (with one slip into first person on page 78). My favourite character was the stray dog, Ruff, whose perspective the narrator sometimes explores, thereby providing a good comparison between the humans and animals in the fictional world. In fact, the chapters written from this perspective are among the best in the book. This type of focalisation is well executed throughout the book and covers many different perspectives.
Another plot element that I liked was the twist on the “guide” trope common to dystopian literature. This trope can be seen when a dystopian reality is explored from the perspective of an outsider or someone who is fighting persecution within the system. This is done in order to explain the world to the reader and paint the picture of whatever horrors make the fictional world undesirable. However, in AR1S1NGFALL, the characters the reader may sympathise with are only meaningfully introduced toward the end, with the perspective of the dictator figure, Marcos, being central to the narrative instead. In fact the “victim” character’s indictment of the dystopian society only appears on page 213:
Under the guise of well-being, they committed daily torture on the innocent and weak famined. They would speak of love, while they tore out your heart, they would speak of liberation, while you were bandaged in their binary bondage, they would speak of peace while they whispered sweet insanity into your dreams and they would speak of war while they cowered behind great walls, feverishly domesticating their enemy but never fighting for anything greater than the keeping of their own specific delusion.
As such, the book engages with many of the literary devices of the dystopian form, while also providing a fresh methodology for exploring these. The book manages to discuss some horrific themes without sinking into torture-porn too, which is a delicate balance to maintain in a work of dystopian fiction. (There are some very distressing scenes toward the end of the book that, while short, may upset some readers.)
AR1S1NGFALL fits well in the dystopian sub-genre and fans of such texts are likely to enjoy it. It is definitely geared toward an adult audience, with some extreme coarse language present and various adult themes not recommended for younger readers. There is quite a lot of thought required to make sense of the plot, so people who like puzzling things out will find this text a worthy challenge. There is not any real resolution to the plot at the end of this first book though, so it is not recommended as a stand-alone read, but promises to be an interesting series to follow.