Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Morning Coffee: The Acacia Trilogy by David Anthony Durham

David Anthony Durham's Acacia Trilogy is one of the most important projects within speculative fiction at the moment. (The first book-- The War with the Mein-- came out in 2007; the second-- The Other Lands-- in 2009; the third is due out fall, 2011; all from Random House). Having mastered the tropes of epic fantasy on his first time out (Durham won the 2009 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer), he is exploring in the Acacia series the intent and self-mythologies of slavers and the impact of enslavement on a global-societal scale. Acacia is world-building as a means to sophisticated, ambitious ends, the use of fantasy to comment on social relations and to imagine alternative power dynamics in our own world-- without resorting to allegory or sermon. Acacia thus belongs to the lineage that includes Plato's Republic and Timaeus, Campanella's City of the Sun, Johnson's Rasselas, besides Persian Letters, Candide, Diderot's Supplement au voyage de Bougainville, and so on down to Orwell.

Acacia is especially powerful because Durham's narrative style is understated, leanly descriptive, matter-of-fact. (Reminds me of Steinbeck, Ursula K. Le Guin, Sinclair Lewis). He understands that the real story is in the mundane details underpinning and connecting all the surface events. Call it the fictional equivalent of Annaliste deep history a la Braudel or Wallerstein. Without slowing down the quick-paced intricacies of the plot, Durham makes the bones of his world visible.

For instance (from The Other Lands, pb version, pg. 166):

"It was so much worse than when she had last been here. Even then, two years ago, the northern Talayans had been complaining about the lack of rainfall. [The Empress] Corinn had thought their fears exaggerated. To her eyes the fields looked like...well, like fields of growing plants, rows and rows of short trees, fields of golden grasses. She understood that this apparent bounty was achieved only because the staple crops that required the most most water had already been replaced by sturdier varieties. [...] Not so, as the scene before her eyes now confirmed. It was a vision of devastation, as full of death as any battlefield. ...withered trees stood naked of leaves or fruit, blackly skeletal...some grain crop glittered as if the stalks were silvered strings of glass, ready to shatter underfoot. [...] The irrigation channels were completely dry, their beds cracked."

Another example (also, The Other Lands, pb, pg.222):

"The trio traveled inland and together explored the region for several days. The area's loamy soil produced bountiful crops of sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, and massive turnips the size of a man's head. Unlike the plantations of northern Talay or the state-run croplands of the Mainland, the region was too rocky to be sectioned off in a grid pattern. The land was irregular, broken by hills and stands of recalcitrant short pines, and not suited to mass labor forces. Instead, small family farmsteads patchworked the area, as they had for centuries. And, as had been the case for centuries, these farmers were forced to pay such a large portion of their crops into the empire's coffers that they little more than subsisted from their labor and their land's bounty."

Such descriptions could be from Defoe's Tour Through The Whole Island of Great Britain (1726), Arthur Young's travel accounts from Ireland (1780) and France (1790), and particularly Cobbett's Rural Rides (1830). Or from the countless surveys, reports, and descriptions of pre-emancipation plantations in the Caribbean and the American South.

Durham takes the reader, with unadorned prose, into the heart of a relentlessly inhumane system. He is a master of the mysterious detail that freezes the heart when its meaning is revealed. For instance, we learn that the wooden slats shipped to the quota-plantations on the Outer Islands are for cribs, in which thousands of kidnapped children will be reared for a life enslaved.

He knows that Acacia's horrors are rendered all the more horrible for being described so clinically. Some of the enslaved children literally have their souls snatched and embedded in the bodies of their owners. Others are physically deformed and remolded to suit their master's whims, to "belong" (as it is called) within the owner's clan. Some fight and die for their masters, others work the fields that produce the poppy-like drug used to pay for fresh slaves...completing the circle of their damnation.

The quota cull evokes the miseries of Goree and Elmina, the soul-eating machine on Lithram Len calls up the horrors of Sullivan's Island. Reading the Acacia novels, one reaches for Gilroy's The Black Atlantic, for Du Bois, Orlando Patterson's Slavery and Social Death and his Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. One turns to Ernst Moritz Arndt's History of Serfdom in Pomerania and Ruegen (1803), to Lampedusa's The Leopard, to accounts of mezzadria sharecropping systems throughout pre-industrial Italy, and so on and on...

In sum: read the Acacia novels, pay attention to Durham. He is not only a gifted storyteller, but a practitioner of speculative fiction as a moral science, a corrective to willful ignorance and the deliberate effacement of memory.

For more on Durham, click his website here.

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