Nukes are Kind of Magic
Michal: Higgins is very clear that the introduction of nuclear weapons represents a cosmic-scale shift in humankind’s relationship with the supernatural. Up until this point, the citizens of the Vlast conceptualized power almost entirely through the stone angels. The remnants of their bodies are literally the source of the Vlast’s strength, experimenting with those remnants the primary driver of industrial development. The living stone angel is the apex for most of what power even means. However, not all focus has remained on the angels, and when scientists develop nuclear technology it upends the very idea of how power works in the Vlast. Before, the measure of power was how closely you communed with the stone angels, afterwards, we’ve flipped the hierarchy. Wolfhound Century spent so much time emphasizing the insignificance of the Vlast’s petty squabble when measured against the greater struggle between the angels and the forest. Here, humans suddenly grasp the power to destroy both and, if they choose, the Pollandore as well. When Chazia sees the destructive potential of this new technology she comes to recognize what Josef Kantor always knew; she can force the living stone angel to communicate with her instead of desperately trying to grab its attention as she had before. Kantor’s ambitions are greater but Chazia has the tools in place to accomplish her goals. Through scale of destruction humans can seize control of a higher place in the universe.
Fantasy novels have dealt with nuclear warheads multiple times before, but as a metaphor where some magic item or sort of spellcasting takes its place. And invariably, we can defeat that threat. In Truth and Fear, the development of nuclear warheads obliterates the need to rely on magic altogether and is a permanent break in a series focused on radical breaks in history. As I said before, Higgins doesn’t frame this development as the age-old thematic struggle between technology and magic found in so much fantasy. Nuclear weapons are instead an alternate path to exercising dominance, another end-and-beginning that will result in traumatic upheaval and a redefinition of all we know, and all the characters have to contend with this new order.
Furthermore, the development of a nuclear bomb has the potential to destroy all possible futures as well. Alasdair, what do you make of Chazia’s attempt to destroy the Pollandore by, well, blowing it up?
Alasdair: Properly discussing the role of atomic weapons in the Wolfhound Empire trilogy is a bit difficult at this stage, as they go on to play an even greater physical and thematic role in Radiant State, but there are still a few things that are safe to discuss at this point in the story.
I must admit, I was somewhat surprised when nuclear technology ended up playing such a crucial role in Truth and Fear. In some ways, I feel this is an example of the generational difference between Higgins and the two of us. We’re both solidly of the post-Cold War generation; neither of us has grown up with the threat of atomic war and mutually-assured destruction hanging over our heads. For us, when people speak of nuclear threats, we imagine terrorists with dirty bombs or nations destabilizing the regional balance of power. The whole complex of anxiety and paranoia surrounding the atomic bomb is something we’ve learned about in books rather than had imprinted on our minds since childhood. (For myself, I found Paul Brians’ Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction to be a fantastic resource to this culture’s manifestation in American popular literature.) I do wonder if this generational difference has affected reception of this trilogy; I feel the later parts of Truth and Fear specifically dealing with the nuclear spectre would resonate more strongly to someone who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s than someone who came of age in the 1990s or 2000s. (The same could also be said about the trilogy’s depiction of the Soviet Union itself.)
I wholly agree with your interpretation of atomic weapons shifting and redefining mankind’s relationship with the supernatural. While the analogy is not perfect, what Wolfhound Empire does with nuclear weapons reminded me of Carnivàle, that forgotten HBO series from the early 2000s. The show depicted an eternal conflict between supernatural forces of good and evil that recurred every generation, with the show’s particular iteration being set in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. While the show was ultimately cancelled a third of the way through its run, the original plan of the showrunners was for a six-season conflict that would wander back and forth across America, climaxing in 1945 with the Trinity test in New Mexico. With the detonation of the first atomic bomb, the age of magic and the eternal struggle would end, and the “age of reason,” dominated solely by man, would begin. Something similar happens at the climax of Truth and Fear. To shamelessly spoil the novel, in the final chapters Lom races towards Novaya Zima, hoping against hope to save Maroussia and stop Chazia. He succeeds in killing Chazia, but is unable to stop an atomic bomb from being detonated over the Pollandore. However, what happens next is unexpected; the Pollandore survives the blast, only to remove itself from the world with Maroussia inside, while the angel, so long obsessed with the Pollandore, finds itself ensnared by it and dragged out of the world along with it. The conflict between forest and angel appears to have ended with a victory for the forest, albeit at the cost of the Pollandore.
Now, as for your question about what to make of all this, I would like to return to the discussion of the Pollandore we had in our Wolfhound Century review. Along with preserving a copy of the world that existed before the angels and the Vlast, the Pollandore is also a generator of dreams and possibilities, showing people presents and futures that could exist. For me, the Pollandore is, in part, a physical manifestation of the utopian, dreamlike nature of revolutions, of the initial moments when “all that is solid melts into air,” when any new combination of political and social structure seems possible. Given how all of Wolfhound Empire is a metaphoric examination of the Soviet Union through the lens of fantasy, the Pollandore is an integral part of the world of the Vlast.
When Chazia detonates her bomb, it is her attempt to crudely force what the forest ends up doing by removing the Pollandore from the world: it brings the age of possibilities to an end. Higgins’ description of this event is filled with imagery of things closing down, of opportunities shrinking, of horizons narrowing. With the departure of the Pollandore, the world has transformed into a place ruled by fate and destiny, where everything is feeding into a single possible future. To continue the revolution analogy, this is the period when the revolution “turns sour.” The particular set of circumstances that leads to this judgement varies from person to person, but the diagnosis is always the same. It is the time when the victors of the revolution finally have to concern themselves with maintaining their rule, determining a plan for the future, and with excluding the others who disagree with them.
In Truth and Fear, the historical analogy is crystal clear. By the end of the book, there are only two major characters left from the first novel. Lom, the protagonist, is left abandoned and alone on the cooling ground of the Novaya Zima test site. Meanwhile, Osip Rizhin liberates the city of Mirgorod from the Archipelago with a rain of atomic fire; the first, he promises, of many victories to follow. The final words of Truth and Fear are the innermost thoughts of Rizhin himself: “I am free of [the angel]. Free of it and alone. I am the voice of history. I am the mile-high man.” The age of Papa Rizhin, and of Stalin, is about to begin.
Michal: Yes, while Truth and Fear seems a structural departure from Wolfhound Century it still maintains that novel’s strong thematic focus. That’s fortunate, because while the plot plays a much greater role in this volume I found the pieces don’t always lock together.
Early on, Higgins introduces Antoninu Florian who conveniently intercedes in events when Lom gets in too much trouble. While Florian is himself an interesting construction—not a werewolf, but a wolf who struggles to keep human shape—he makes things all too easy for Lom and Maroussia to get where they need to go. The final revelation about his character justifies his presence, but he’s one example of how messy this trilogy can be.
Contemporary publishing seems to put a large value on neatness. Neatness in the name of internal consistency, though, sacrifices the hints and pushes towards a greater store of ideas you can get from some chaos. The messiness of Truth and Fear, I think, is responsible for its richness, a melding of ideas and possibilities we might not always consider together.
Alasdair: And let’s not forget about Bez Nichevoi, the nosferatu (or “vyrdalak,” in the book’s terminology) that Chazia has on retainer to handle abductions and assassinations…
But to get back to your final point, I would agree that there is definitely a pleasurable messiness to the Wolfhound Empire books, though for me I found the final book of the trilogy, Radiant State, to be messier than Truth and Fear. Given the story Higgins set out for himself, such messiness was inevitable. This is, after all, an allegorical history of the Soviet Union told through the rubrics of detective stories, fantasy quests, sci-fi dystopias, and travelogues. It wouldn’t take much effort to expand the trilogy beyond the three 300-odd page books into a great fantasy-history novel like War and Peace or a multivolume science fantasy epic akin to Dune.
As it stands, though, I deeply enjoyed Truth and Fear, warts and all. If you’ll forgive the old saw, Higgins is one of the best prose stylists working in fantasy today, and he can find the beauty in everything from a war-ravaged city to a lonely seaplane following winding rivers across the endless northern forest to the nanosecond-by-nanosecond fury of a uranium fission reaction. While not everything Higgins puts in his world fits together, I would say that everything he has put into these books gives his work a scope far beyond what most fantasy trilogies have. History mingles with folklore, fantasy, and science fiction to produce something far greater than the sum of its parts, and the combination of the four allows us to see the Soviet Union, a nation that has spawned endless libraries of writers plumbing its mysteries, glories, and terrors, in all its complexity and contradictions as if for the first time.
Michal, it’s been a pleasure talking with you about Truth and Fear, and I look forward to what you have to say about Radiant State.
It’s been a pleasure talking to you too, Alasdair. We’ll be back for the final book in the trilogy, Radiant State.