ARTICLE: The True God of “Throne of the Crescent Moon”

Saladin Ahmed’s THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON lost the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and I think that’s one that the SFF community should regret.1  George R.R. Martin praised THRONE as “a rollicking swashbuckler,” and even that does the book a disservice, in my opinion.

It’s sword-and-sorcery fantasy, sure, but steeped in the flavors of home and history.  Dr. Adoullah is an aged ghul hunter who is both empowered and burdened by his own experience, and whose grumblings and observations give delightful charm to the narrative.  The story takes place within the city of Dhamsawaat, which feels more real and lived-in than most other fictional cities I’ve read in the genre.  Early on, the text observes, “Despite Adoullah’s dark thoughts, trading the familiar insults with Yehyeh felt comfortable, like a pair of old, well made sandals.”  Reading THRONE feels a lot like stepping into those old, well made sandals; Adoullah and Dhamsawaat feel simultaneously real and storied from the get-go.

That level of immersion is the backdrop for an exciting hero’s quest against supernatural forces, and gives the dimension and texture that makes the novel great.  But the aspect of THRONE that really makes me think is Ahmed’s treatment of God.

Gods in fantasy are too often strangers to the characters, the distant engines of an author’s magic system and the proper nouns to be plugged into worldbuilding documents.  Sometimes it feels like the default setting for gods is to act as the wrongful justification of overbearing authoritarian institutions.  Other times, the gods are like Greek pantheons, providing all of the power, fun, and scandal of such an approach while sidestepping any semblance of divine morality.  Authors are happy to grant their fictional gods the power of miracles, but won’t concede the powers of moral authority or intimate spirituality.  In short, the gods of SFF are often several levels shy of how the majority of humans view higher power in reality.2

And that’s fine.  There are plenty of good reasons to approach things that way.  But THRONE’s treatment of divinity feels more authentic.  Adoullah banters with God with the familiarity of an old married spouse, similar to Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”  His relationship with God is just like the old, well made sandals of the earlier metaphor: comfortable, informal, and lived-in.  As such, it reads a lot more like the thoughts of an actual person who actually believes in God.

All that being said, THRONE is not a story about religion, per se, even with the main characters invoking “Almighty God” on every other page.3  While Adoullah is a servant of the Almighty and considers himself such, the true God of THRONE is not the Almighty but the city of Dhamsawaat.4

To compare anything with divinity is obviously a problematic enterprise from the start; history is filled with bloody debates just over the definitions.  But I find comparing the city of Dhamsawaat to THRONE’s Almighty God is productive for understanding the book, the main characters, and the main engine of conflict that churns the story forward.

Like a god, the city wields an external power over the lives of everyone — not just politically, but through seemingly random interventions that mirror what we often call “acts of god.”  I’m thinking mostly of the Horrible Halt, which is essentially a traffic jam which delays our heroes and entangles them with the Falcon Prince.  Adoullah reacts to such things with the same fond frustration of his complaints to God.  The city also holds a kind of moral authority similar to that often attributed to deity; the ultimate stakes of the book are about the good of the city.  Additionally, the city is itself both metaphorically and literally the nexus of power in THRONE; the corrupt Kalifs wield political power from the Throne of the Crescent Moon that gives the book its title, and the most extreme supernatural powers come literally from that very same throne.5

The political dilemmas mirror the spiritual ones.  The Falcon Prince is a complicated political figure who bounces between authentic goodwill and brutal political expedience.  Meanwhile, religion is shown as both an earnest and empowering force for both Raseed and Zamia, but a corrupting one via the Humble Students.  Raseed bin Raseed’s conflict of “Am I doing right by the Almighty?” is mirrored by Adoullah’s conflict of “Am I doing right by this city?”  It’s fitting that the final two climaxes of THRONE are, in order, (a) Raseed coming to terms with his standing before the Almighty, and (b) Adoullah choosing Dhamsawaat’s political future.  Both conflicts are resolved literally upon the Throne of the Crescent Moon as it ascends at the end of the book.

There’s a lot to think about there, and I appreciate Ahmed’s juxtaposing community and deity so tightly here in THRONE.  There is also some interplay between them: sometimes Adoullah wonders if a choice he is making for the good of the city would see favor from the Almighty, and other times Raseed is in danger of upholding his honor with the Almighty rather than performing a positive deed for his community.  These kinds of character decisions between conflicting values are all over fiction.  What makes these conflicts stand out to me, and THRONE stand out to me, is how the text shows the many similarities between those two values.  It’s not apples to oranges; it’s orange-like apples to apple-like oranges.

I posited earlier that the “true god” of the book was the city, Dhamsawaat.  While the text and the characters pay much service to the Almighty, the heart of the book is still the countless backdrop individuals who are portrayed lovingly and with great character.  Just as the gods of fantasy are too often, as I said, “the distant engines of an author’s magic system and the proper nouns to be plugged into worldbuilding documents,” fantasy settings are too often preoccupied with magic systems, customs, and architecture instead of the actual people.  You could argue that THRONE’s setting is its people.6  It is the people of Dhamsawaat who hold the moral authority of what is right and best, represent the greatest stakes, and ultimately win Adoullah’s decision between condoning spiritual corruption and the good of the city.7

THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON is a fun adventure novel, and me finding excuses to put New Testament scriptures into the footnotes is probably as good a sign as any that I’m overworking the dough.  But I’m delighted that such an entertaining book can also be so thoughtful and intentional with its themes.


ARTICLE: The Fascinating Problem with “The Three-Body Problem”

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is the Hugo-winning SF novel about Chinese communists telling aliens to come conquer the Earth.  That basic plot is dressed up in a lot of intrigue and compelling backstory, and flavored with a lot of interesting scientific concepts.  The novel was translated into English by Ken Liu, which I’ll get into later.

I found this novel interesting overall, but the story itself seemed surprisingly basic.  The most compelling portions of the book were the beginning, which takes us back to China’s Cultural Revolution and the devastating politics at play then, and the weird-but-intriguing sessions of a mysterious virtual reality game called Three Body.  When those portions aren’t pulling the story forward, scientific quandaries do some work as well.

When you get to the bones of what’s actually happening in the story, however, things seem awfully straightforward, to a point that it’s almost unbelievable.  Much of the plot is concerned with an organization that’s preparing the way for these aliens to arrive on Earth, and the organization’s goals and the motivations of its members are rather simplistic and strain credulity, particularly when we’re told to believe that large numbers of influential people are all making these decisions en masse for exactly similar reasons.  It seems very convenient for the plot and pacing of the novel that this is so.

In fact, several aspects of the plot — the virtual reality game, the politics at play — seem too simplistic for reality, and contrast greatly with the incredible care that Liu gives to the scientific concepts in the book.  At the points where the plot didn’t titillate, the science did.

Three-Body is a translation, which introduces another level to the experience.  Ken Liu, the translator, actually uses footnotes to explain various aspects of Chinese history that American readers won’t immediately understand, particularly those relating to the Cultural Revolution.  The result is that the story can sometimes feel framed and instructional, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The book also has some interestingly different pacing and literary choices.  As Ken Liu explains: “The Chinese literary tradition shaped and was shaped by its readers, giving rise to different emphases and preferences in fiction compared to what American readers expect. In some cases, I tried to adjust the narrative techniques… In other cases, I’ve left them alone, believing that it’s better to retain the flavor of the original.”

I can only guess what differences that made in the text, but I can say that some of the dialogue and exposition seemed very different.  Some particulars were explained in the narration that I would’ve expected to be expressed through dialogue, and vice versa.  Some things which American readers would take for granted were spelled out (the particulars of arranging a meetup between characters, and so on), and some characters seemed overtly expressive about their emotions in ways that I think would be considered unrealistic in American fiction.

The three-body problem itself is a scientific concept that concerns the impossibility of predicting the gravitational relationship between three separate bodies.  Reading Three-Body is much like that quandary itself, with the three bodies being the original story, the translation, and then the cultural and literary expectations that the reader brings.  Those three different perspectives rotate and pull on each other, leading to a fascinating and layered experience.

It’s certainly a different experience.  But that’s what science fiction is for, and Three-Body delivers on that.

DESIGN: Netropolis Draft this Friday, and a New Hack

I’m excited to be hosting a Netropolis draft this Friday at 10 p.m. ET.  I’ve struggled with the UB mechanic, Hack, and have designed probably six or seven different attempts.  The latest is a variation on the unnamed “grind” mechanic from Gatecrash, which milled your opponent until you hit a land card.  So hack is an action word that will perform the “grind” action, and then most cards that hack will also have an additional effect depending on how many cards you’ve hacked (read: milled through the “hack” action) this turn.

Originally, the hack effect (the one dependent upon the milling effect of hack) only cared about how many cards you hacked with that specific hacking action.  But one of the potentially frustrating things about this mechanic is that you have very little control over the top of your opponent’s deck, and so too often you’ll want a minimal effect from your hack card but only end up milling one or two cards.  Changing it so these effects only care how many cards you’ve hacked this turn — not just the ones you hack with that card — allows you to set up cool turns where you chain hack effects together to end up with a splashy finishing hack effect.  It creates the possibility of a hack deck that puts hack cards together not just to mill your opponent for the victory, but to create highly impactful spells.