In Which I Pick Some Nits

If there’s two things I’ve come to dislike equally, it’s bad fantasies with dragon characters (cough Eragon) and bad speculative fiction that recreates Horatio Hornblower or other Napoleonic-era stories (cough David Weber). So I really thought there was no way I could possibly enjoy Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels, which are about Napoleonic-era dragons and their riders.

When I finally did give the series a try, I was really surprised at how entertaining the books are. It’s a real credit to Novik that she takes themes that have become hideously cliched and somehow still makes them work as entertaining genre fiction.

However, I found it kind of difficult to bend my head around some of the twists in the latest book, Empire of Ivory. I was really pleased to see the series take off into early 19th Century Africa, something that seemed possible after the prominent mention of the Atlantic slave trade and abolitionism in the previous volume. But the way Novik plays out the story introduces a strange asymmetry into her alternate fantasy-history, one that illustrates nicely why historians writing counterfactuals tend to give the “grand narratives” of modern history a wide pass in favor of dealing with battles and specific episodes.

The first two books in the series stay fairly tightly focused on a conventionally Napoleonic scenario with dragons added in. England’s military power is still primarily naval, Napoleon’s strength is in his army. England’s society is very much as it is normally pictured in fictions about the late 18th Century, with the interesting twist that the officers in the dragon-based Aerial Corps are sexually egalitarian and far looser in their manners and practices than the rest of the gentry. (This isn’t as imitative of McCaffrey’s Pernese weyrs as it sounds.)

By the third book of the series, we learn that there is an Atlantic slave trade, and that Wilberforce and others (including the estranged family of the series’ lead character) are engaged in trying to abolish it. We’ve also seen a detailed look at China, where the dragons are much more respectfully integrated into human social hierarchies as intelligent beings in their own right, which in turn gives the main dragon character, Temeraire, some new ideas about equality that he intends to take home to England. There’s a fairly extended glimpse of the Ottoman Empire and its dragons as well, in which they’re mostly portrayed as part of the closed social world of the Ottoman court. We get a look at Central Europe as well, which is pretty much the Central Europe of the Napoleonic era with dragons and a few flourishes added.

However, some things are already becoming confusing about the alternate history that Novik is sketching out. Namely, where are the slaves taken in the Atlantic slave trade going to? There aren’t European colonies in the Americas: it’s specifically mentioned that American societies with their own dragons prevented European attempts at conquest. There doesn’t seem to be a widespread presence of African slaves doing labor within Europe itself. It could be that there are still colonies in the Caribbean and various eastern Atlantic islands, but it’s not very clear.

This is where a comprehensive counterfactual like these novels starts to become like a game of pick-up sticks: pull too hard on one thing and everything begins to collapse in a way that simply saying “it’s fantasy” can’t quite save it. Not only is it hard to see how there could be an Atlantic slave trade without extensive European involvement in the Americas, it’s hard to see why Novik’s Britain and France are so recognizably “normal” to the Napoleonic genre. Why does Britain have such a large navy, if not for the Atlantic economy? Was there a French Revolution before Napoleon? If so, why does Temeraire have to go all the way to China and Africa to encounter a radical discourse about the equality of thinking beings? (I was almost thinking the fourth volume of this series would set Temeraire up as a part of the Scottish Enlightenment. I grant you it wouldn’t exactly be a thrill-a-minute scenario to have a dragon just hanging around with Adam Smith, Edmund Burke or Jeremy Bentham, but a historian can dream.)

When Novik takes the characters off to South Africa in search of a cure for a dragon plague that has infected most of Britain’s Aerial Corps in the fourth volume, things get a bit more off-kilter. The interior of the continent is thought by the European characters to be inhabited by dangerous “ferals”, dragons without human companions, who kill any explorer or traveller. But when they find a mushroom that cures the plague, they run into a powerful African society that is pretty an even partnership between dragons and humans, with the dragons imagined as ancestral spirits by their human compatriots. I was really confused when the African characters had names drawn from all over southern African history with a major settlement right at Victoria Falls until I skipped to the end, where Novik sets out some details of her alternate history. She posits a dragon-human “Sotho-Tswana Empire” that stretches over most of interior southern Africa. It apparently doesn’t go any further than present-day central Zambia as the Sotho-Tswana characters refer to a Lunda character as an enemy (and a slave trader).

This is fine, though the significant historical divergence required to create this alternate history is somehow very asymmetrical to the very “normal” history of Western Europe in the books. Where it gets weird is when the powerful Sotho-Tswana decide to strike back against the Atlantic slave trade (in part because the British characters bring an emancipated slave woman who is working with the abolitionists along with them, and she turns out to have been taken from the Sotho-Tswana). This is already kind of a significant shift, because southern Africa was the one major region of the continent that was relatively insulated from the Atlantic slave trade, and the precolonial Lunda state had almost nothing to do with the slave trade. The Sotho-Tswana attack and destroy the British settlement at Cape Town as retaliation for the slave trade. So far so good. Then they attack Portuguese settlements in Angola and Congo and destroy those. Still plausible.

Then they attack Cape Coast Castle in West Africa and destroy that. Presumably if they can do that, they destroy any other West Africa slave-trading ports, though others go unmentioned.

Now I have a problem. Novik has tried so hard to make one region of Africa to have a historically concrete character, but to do it, she makes the rest into blank darkness. The only thing we hear is that the states of West Africa, whatever they are, neither impeded the Sotho-Tswana attacks nor did they contest the Atlantic slave trade.

Now, this is a series in which the main human and dragon characters have flown from China to the Ottoman Empire to Prussia and thence back to England. Long flights aren’t implausible for these dragons. But that was an epic journey that took up much of the third book, and was filled with logistical and political challenges. Suddenly we’ve got a force of African dragons who just take off from the area around Victoria Falls and fly all the way to West Africa in force, impeded by nothing in between, and then demolish European ports. This raises tons of questions. Why were Europeans able to establish slave-trading in the first place? Why did it take the Sotho-Tswana a century or more to retaliate? If the Lunda Empire is a slave-trading state with sufficient power (apparently) to resist the Sotho-Tswana, then how is it that the Sotho-Tswana are able to just fly happily right over their territory on their way to West Africa? What about the historic states of West Africa? None of them have dragons, and all of them accepted the slave trade? Does Novik have any idea how far away Cape Coast Castle is from Victoria Falls, by the way? If the Sotho-Tswana can fly to Cape Coast Castle, they sure as hell can fly to Arabia, Turkey, India, and Western Europe. Why didn’t they before now?

This is always a problem with alternate history, whether it stays close to human reality or interjects major fantasy elements. The more consistent its alternative vision gets, the less recognizable to history as we know it, and therefore the expositionary burden on the author grows and grows. But keeping some things very tightly fixed on history as we know it and allowing other things to shift fancifully is equally messy. It shows just how hard it is to rewrite our imagination of history in a truly globalized or open manner. Even in fantasy, it’s tough to provincialize Europe.

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13 Responses to In Which I Pick Some Nits

  1. Rob MacD says:

    OK, so I haven’t read this series, and in the event I did, I imagine I’d have a similar reaction to yours, but let me run something by you: If we accept the truism that science fiction set in the future isn’t really about extrapolating a plausible future, but rather about emphasizing or commenting on some aspect of the present, then shouldn’t it also be true that alternate history isn’t really about extrapolating a plausible counterfactual history but rather about simply remarking on or playing with actual history in some way? In other words, alternate history =/= counterfactual argument, and it must be judged by other criteria than plausibility. How plausible, one might fairly ask, would our actual history be if it didn’t happen to be true?

    Am I just being a killjoy by making this point? I don’t mean to be. I’m trying to convince myself of this so I don’t get too worked up about the plausibility of (say) my favorite Napoleonic-era dragon fiction.

    Now that I think about it a little more I wonder if your critique really is about plausibility. I mean, can you critique a book about talking dragons on the grounds of plausibility? But you can fault it on aesthetic grounds. There is something messy, as you say, in changing the premise mid-series from “basically our history + dragons” to “radically alternate history + dragons”. But it’s an argument about aesthetics rather than one about historical plausibility.

    Anyway, I think it is excellent that I know people willing and qualified to critique sub-Saharan dragon history in this way. And I would totally read that book about dragons in the Scottish Enlightenment. I’ve got a friend back in Boston who has been trying unsuccessfully for years to get people to play in his “Scottish Enlightenment + goblins and faeries” role-playing game.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I don’t want to be a killjoy either. In fact, I totally like this series even better because she took a shot at African history. Plus plus plus for that. But still, there’s this weird asymmetry where you hold European history more or less steady (dragons + Britain = well, Britain with some late-19th Century bohemians who fly on dragons) while everything else is free to swing wildly into some new shape (Sotho-Tswana empires that crush the slave trade, Incas who use dragons to kick Iberian ass).

  3. Fats Durston says:

    “Dragons, Slavery, and State-Building in the Bight of Benin, 1663-1868” JAS Vol 46 No 3, 109-45.

    Great review, however, I’m wondering about the title. Does the ivory trade matter when there are dragons? Do dragons produce bodily products that once crafted a good middle class person might desire to own? Do dragons eat elephants? Would dragons defend against slave-raiding/ivory-collecting caravans?

    And to go a step further with your critique, how can Napoleonic Europe exist without the wealth of the New World to create that particular timeline? What did the Columbian exchange look like? Wouldn’t the small pox etc. have killed off Amerindians anyhow, if somewhat slower, even if peaceful relations opened up?

  4. withywindle says:

    “A mortal tutor?” asked his Grace, the Duke of Westernesse. “What are you thinking of, boy? Surely he can teach you nothing more.”

    “Now, Pater. Mr. Smith is quite sharp as humans go.” The young elf-lord bit into a Hesperidean apple with sharp teeth. “Indeed, some of his insights into moral behavior apply to elfs as much as men, and are worthy of preservation. But, no, ‘tutor’ is by way of euphemism. He was a witty companion while I sojourned in Edinburgh, and I would gladly continue the acquaintance. He desires time to study, and has expressed interest in a sojourn to the Faerie lands. What objection can there be?”

    “The drain to my purse,” his Grace grumbled. “And there is the problem of the return journey.” He cocked an eyebrow at young Verdigris. “Have you discussed that with him?”

    Verdigris’ fangs devoured yet more of the apple’s pulpy flesh. “Mmm … no. I thought I would leave that as a challenge to him. He is intelligent, Mr. Smith. Surely it will be no great challenge for him to figure out the route.”

    “Moral behavior will get him past the Hounds?” His Grace barked laughter. “It hasn’t even taught him to distrust an elf prince.”

    “Intelligent, but young, my Mr. Smith,” said Verdigris. “But he will have time enough in Faerie to mature his wits.”

  5. I’m glad you say you like the books regardless, because on first reading of your review you completely undermined my enthusiasm for the books on the basis of the first three. Maybe “enthusaism” is the wrong word; I don’t think they’re particularly good books, but they were a ton a fun. And the third book won a lot of sympathy from me because of its willingness to play the Napoleonic wars relatively straight (as straight as possible when you’ve got dragons in play), with the British and Prussians getting stomped at first, instead of pulling out some miraculous change of fortunes there at the end of book three.

  6. Doug says:

    Her livejournal is here

    why not ask? You might get roped in as a beta reader, but that could be fun. Maybe that’s the way to get Mr T to Edinburgh for a little enlightenment.

    Also, I think that Capt Riley’s family is said to have holdings in the West Indies, so apparently the sugar trade is still there. That would provide at least some underpinning for the Atlantic slave trade, even without the colonies that eventually became the US. Also, Halifax is mentioned as a breeding ground and (I think) naval station, so maybe Nova Scotia, Labrador and others are settled by Europeans. Presumably Newfie jokes will eventually be told in Novik’s world. Maybe one trade route is Caribbean/Atlantic Canada/Great Britain, with Halifax as big as Boston and all the fishing on the Grand Banks done from there. Absent Virginia and the Carolinas and you don’t have as much slave trade, and you don’t get King Cotton a little later, but sugar plantations — and possibly Brazil — might provide enough market for the slave trade as depicted in the books.

    As for provincializing Europe, Paul Park’s A Princess of Roumania is an interesting take. Bucharest is the most important capital on the continent, with Ratisbon (usually known to us as Regensburg, Germany) apparently a close second. Haven’t read the second and third books in the set, so I can’t say how it holds up, but it’s an interesting take.

    I’ve also long maintained that Henryk Siekiewicz’s epic trilogy is just waiting to be marketed to an F&SF public, with mega-dollars to be made by the first press that gets it right.

  7. Doug says:

    Sienkiewicz is relevant here because his setting is the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, an important player in Europe from the 1400s to the 1700s but well off the beaten path of Plato-to-NATO, or indeed most general courses in European history. To say nothing of the many heaping servings of warmed-over England that form the basis of so much fantasy writing. Putting provincial Europe at the center of your work is another interesting take. (Guy Gavriel Kay has done this several times, I’m led to understand, but the only one I attempted was a re-hash of Emperor Justinian, and the fantastic elements seemed superfluous and uninteresting once you figured out the historical model.)

  8. Brad says:

    “…there’s this weird asymmetry where you hold European history more or less steady […] while everything else is free to swing wildly into some new shape…”

    One explanation: human history is a tale of cruel, sadistic, aggressive, destructive behavior, so by holding European history steady Europe is saddled with that baggage, while everyone else’s history can be “improved” (even to the point of moral superiority if one so chooses). It’s not unusual; I come across this even in so-called nonfiction.

  9. Withywindle2 says:

    You seem to have a moral imperative lurking in your comment, about the desirability of provincializing Europe; this might be spelled out. But set that aside for a moment: at the level of craft, should one abandon the familiar historical narrative completely? Part of the attraction of F & SF – of fiction writ large, I suppose – is that it speaks to a partly familiar subject matter, a common history – it anchors the strange in the familiar. Whether or not we should be attracted to the completely strange–provincializing the familiar–is it in our nature as readers? In our capacity?

    Then too, history is a ground for invention – incredibly rich – and fantasy soars not least by building upon that rich ground – and on all the other fictions that have built upon that ground, and now themselves form a further ground for invention. When you call for provincialization, it seems to me you call for a leap of genius, imagination, that can substitute for the rich ground of history and genre convention. This asks a great deal of writers – perhaps is worthy of the attempt – but also involves abandoning the collectiveness richness of the tradition in search of something new. Your implicit aesthetic, it seems to me, may have higher literary costs, for writer and for reader, than is at first apparent.

    All this separate from the question of whether these Temeraire novels are uneven in their execution of their desired aesthetic.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    In the sense of this post, provincializing Europe is just about taking its history as being history like any other. In the world that we actually live within, saying that you want to get beyond being analytically Eurocentric is a more complicated prospect, because there is a relatively value-free argument to be made that structures or ideas or experiences that were internal to Western Europe really did transform the rest of the world relatively independent of any larger forces, structures or experiences, that modernity emanates outward from Western Europe and therefore that European history has a different determinative weight than other histories in the last 500 years.

    I can argue for or against that kind of perspective pretty easily, and of course, it isn’t ever a value-free argument either way.

    But if you’re engaged in fantasy, or in alternate history that isn’t narrowly counterfactual, then you’re no longer so burdened by what really happened. In the case of these books, the author has actually taken away a lot of what made Western European societies globally powerful in the late 18th Century. If there’s colonization in the Americas, it’s only in the West Indies and possibly Brazil. That has to affect the sheer volume of the Atlantic slave trade at the very least, though Brazil and the West Indies alone could account for a great many slaves. There can’t be a “triangular trade” in quite the form that we know if it there aren’t colonies in North America. It doesn’t appear that there is extensive British or Portuguese involvement in India. Or for that matter Portuguese involvement in Mozambique. I don’t know that she’s said anything about Dutch involvement anywhere–the British are in control of Cape Town in the fourth book, without reference to the VOC. That alone is huge: try to imagine the Renaissance and the Enlightenment without an economically powerful Netherlands.

    So once you’ve kicked out that much from the underpinnings of the history we know, keeping Western Europe in its familiar Napoleonic contours while making southern Africa rather imaginatively (and attractively) different starts to raise questions about how we always put Europe back in the center even when it doesn’t belong there. I understand why Novik is doing it this way: it’s the same reason that SF authors often imagine aliens as cat people or toad people or insect people. Because your readers need a safe harbor when you’re imagining a world that runs by different rules. Napoleonic fictions (and reality) bring the fantasy to ground in something that the readers know and find comforting. But the imaginary history is now running on two very asymmetrical bases: a world that ought by all lights to be completely different from the history we know is in one place almost absolutely the same and in another place radically, even implausibly, different. I think it would be a good idea to think about provincializing Europe in some of our imaginings. If even in our fantasy histories, Europe is always what we imagine that it was, while other societies are clay for our imagination, then there is some sense in which we are believing in the racial or cultural destiny of Europe no matter what. Which seems silly to me, whatever I might think of the influence or impact of Western expansion. I can think of a zillion plausible points of contingent divergence where Western Europe didn’t turn out to be the Europe of Enlightenment, of Renaissance, of Christianity, of the scientific revolution, of industrial capitalism, of colonial expansion, of slavery–well, at least if I’m also imagining dragons.

  11. Fats Durston: Dragons eat elephants–it was the domestication of elephants which made the African dragon/human civilization possible.

  12. rhd9w says:

    Whatever the other problems, Novik actually makes clear that the slave ports were destroyed by multiple parties of dragons departing from the same location, each taking about a week to get to their target. So its not just one dragon army flying around faster and farther than previous books had shown possible. See p. 317.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s right. It’s not a question of the dragon’s capability. But when Temeraire flew across Asia and then into Western Europe, there were a series of questions about how he would deal with both ferals and with human-dragon societies along the way, as well as deal with water and food. When Novik has the Tswana-Sotho dragons and their human companions flying in a week to Cape Coast Castle (which I think is a bit faster than we’ve seen dragons fly the same distance before), it’s as if there is literally nothing in their way in terms of other societies and as if there are no problems whatsoever keeping the dragons supplied. Contrary to the way some people imagine rain forest, for example, I think the dragons would have had immense difficulty finding food in the Congo basin. It’s one thing to have them eating elephants or other game in open savanna and another in that region. And they would have had to go through there or along the Atlantic coast (equally difficult environment for large animals) in order to get to West Africa in anything like the time frame specified with the capabilities they’re said to had. Moreover, they would have had to go through regions where there were large and powerful precolonial states in our history, so do those simply not exist (or do not have dragons) in Novik’s Africa?

    It’s as if Temeraire had gone from Western China to Napoleonic France without encountering the Ottomans or the Prussians.

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