David Weber, Hell’s Foundations Quiver. Tor, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.
There’s a level at which I don’t understand why I’m still reading the Safehold books. They are basically pages and pages and pages of technical detail about a) weapons, b) weapons manufacture, c) industrialisation, d) furnaces, e) cold-weather clothing and supplies for an army, and f) other logistics, interspersed with descriptions of battles, and very occasional moments of character development.
If I wanted to read about rifles and furnaces and the problems of winter warfare, I could read a history or three. But somehow there’s just enough character in each volume that I find myself wanting to know what they do next – but really, the interesting bits are less than a quarter of the content. The rest is very skimmable. I keep hoping that one of these days someone will tell Weber, “Less of the expounding on the wonders of steam power/better ways to make things go boom/ironclads, more of the dilemmas of character,” and that Weber will actually listen? But so far, there’s no sign.
But Hell’s Foundations Quiver, while largely readable in between the techsposition, did a thing that pissed me off exceedingly. The Evil Church has set up concentration camps, you see – essentially extermination camps. And Weber does a thing where he briefly focuses on a single family in one of those camps, a sort of SEE HOW AWFUL THIS IS SEE ONE OF THE GUARDS ISN’T COMPLETELY LOST TO COMPASSION OOPS HE’S GOING TO DIE thing, and then one of the main characters – to whit, Merlin – rescues that family from CERTAIN DEATH and even fixes their broken teeth and shit.
And look. This is a questionable narrative decision. Because if a character can save three people in this manner, they can save a hell of a lot more. So what the writer is doing, essentially, is absolving the reader from having to see that “suffering has no limit, and horror no frontier.”* The whole treatment of these kind of camps – concentration camps – gulags – is questionable in its failure to create that bridge of empathy, to stare into the horrors of which humanity is more than capable and refuse to let us look away, refuse to let decline to understand just how human a horror it is. It’s a narrative flinch, a failure of moral courage. And if a writer is not willing or able to force their readers to inhabit that horror as nearly as possible, to confront it in all its human anguish? Then they have no business including such camps in their narrative at all.
And Weber fails on this point. He flinches. He flattens. And it pisses me off no end.
*cf. Charlotte Delbo, “Vous qui savez,” in Aucun de nous ne reviendra, Paris 1965.