The best speculative fiction, particularly of the secondary-world variety, immerses its readers in its setting, often in initially quite baffling ways, and lets them work out the details of its imagined cultural and social milieu as they go. Sadly Flamesong doesn’t do this, but takes very slim pretexts from the earliest pages to indulge in lengthy passages of exposition, that make little sense within the narrative, either as reflection or conversation. Such digressions will be familiar to readers of fantasy and science-fiction, and are often forgiven, as long as there is a good story once you’ve gotten past them. Authors of such fiction, I guess, tend to fall in love with their background materials. There’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact I would argue that the world-building that subtends some fiction constitutes a literary form in its own right (and I should also issue the disclaimer that it’s my own current creative focus); but writers need to recall that when they are telling a story, they are telling a story, and have faith that any well-conceived world will emerge in all its glory as glimpsed through the spaces in the narrative framework.
For the most part writers’ love for their own world-building is misplaced. The vast majority of secondary worlds that I have encountered are derivative and unimaginative, with very little to tell us about the primary world – and I am also happy to argue that the primary intellectual duty of secondary-world fiction is to disclose insights regarding the ‘real’ world. M.A.R. Barker’s love for his world of Tékumel is far from misplaced, however. For the reader persistent enough to plough through the early expository excursions, there waits a decent enough thriller, set in a truly magnificent world. It’s a minor tragedy that Barker did not have an editor committed enough to his work to send back his manuscript and tell him to re-write it, because the irony is that while I struggled to retain any information from his lengthy passages of exposition, his world emerged for me with exotic, polychromatic clarity from the social interactions and personal perspectives of his characters.
This for me is a product of two factors. Firstly, the holistic, linguistically focussed approach, and sheer staggering quality of Barker’s world design; and secondly, the fact that he writes his characters as products of their societies, and thinks through the ways that those immersed in them would understand their social, cultural and material context. The characterisation at an individual level is quite patchy, with the exception of the two central characters, Ridek and Trimesh, who are both fairly cookie-cutter inhabitants of their social contexts, but the beautiful thing about the way that they are written is that they come across as the not-hugely-interesting protagonists of a thriller set in a real place, rather than as fantasy stereotypes. They are like the objects that begin to mysteriously appear in the primary world in Jorge Luis Borges’s Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, refugees from an encyclopaedia of the imagined.
The plot is well-constructed, well-paced and engaging, although it is continually impeded by contrived opportunities for its characters to either reflect internally on aspects of the world, or to explain them to other characters. Had this scene-setting been restricted to the earlier chapters, the book as a whole might have been more readable, but I fear that its readers now will primarily be those, like me, who are as in love with Tékumel as Barker was. There is a lot to love: his cultures are diverse, and like his languages draw more on Far Eastern and South Asian primary world cultures for inspiration than they do on European ones. Their histories are long and complex, punctuated by the same kind of unpredictable happenstance that characterises the history of the primary world. The languages themselves are things of enormous beauty, phonologically fluid and complex, morphosyntactically exotic to European minds, and possessed of a coherent historical and cultural logic in themselves. They are present in this book exclusively in the form of proper nouns (although there is some discussion of language among the dramatis personae), but the complete linguistic systems that underlie them produce a coherence and conviction that is hard to fake. There is a divide among authors of secondary world fiction (other than those rare visionaries like Barker and Tolkien, that develop functional languages) between those that do make the effort to fake that coherence, such as Ursula K. LeGuin or G.R.R. Martin, and those often talented authors that do not, such as China Miéville or Patrick Rothfuss, and it is one that is fundamental to the issue of whether or not their worlds feel as though they continue when we have closed the book.