There is only the future
At long last, we’re down to the last volume in Peter Higgins’ Wolfhound Empire trilogy, 2015’s Radiant State, and Alasdair Czyrnyj’s back for another round of discussion.
Six years have passed since Truth and Fear and the Vlast is a very different place; the nuclear shenanigans have spirited away the multi-future seed of the Pollandore and changed its fundamental nature, but have also sealed the stone archangel within the borders of the endless forest along with its new aspect in Maroussia Shaumian. Forest and Vlast are now fundamentally alienated both in space and in time; the slow struggle between angel and forest continues to play out but the rest of world is left to the designs of Papa Rizhin, the Vlast’s newly-minted dictator. And his desires are to force the Vlast into a rapid, impossible technological leap that will make humankind oust the stone angels as masters of the stars.
What really struck me this time is how each novel in the trilogy takes a complete structural turn from the last one. Truth and Fear left behind the ambling plot of Wolfhound Century for a driving, straight-line narrative. Radiant State is a different beast entirely, broadening the scope of the story to a much larger and more complex interplay of moving parts and clashing motives. I found it the most ambitious and also the most impressive; still of a thematic piece with the rest but bringing the same issues to a cosmic scale. Some of the more personal and intimate moments that characterized the first book are lost, but what we gain feels just as weighty and affecting as it moves into a genuine reflection on the Soviet experiment.
In the first review, I mentioned the persistent theme that historical memory is constantly obliterated by various actors. That idea finally gets vocalized in Rizhin’s motto for the New Vlast, “There is no past, there is only the future.” This takes on a very literal interpretation in Radiant State. Alasdair, what did you make of the metaphor threatening to become a reality, and how do you feel this book on several occasions literalizes the various thematic struggles that were simmering in the first two volumes?
Alasdair: To properly understand Rizhin’s motto and the world of his new Vlast, we need to return once again to the old. In Wolfhound Century and Truth and Fear, the main metaphysical struggle was between the angel, which dreamt of a return to the stars, and the eastern forest, which dreamt of a world inhabited by trees and spirits, free of both angel and man. Each power gathered its forces and did battle in the human realm. With the flesh of its dead brothers, and with its own voice whispering into the ears of a few chosen proxies, the angel helped humans build the Vlast and push the forest back. However, the “conquest” was never completed. The forest successfully resisted the efforts of the Vlast to penetrate its depths, and it created the Pollandore as a time capsule of the pre-angel world to both protect that world and to show humans the existence of potential futures other than those offered by the Vlast. Even in Mirgorod, citadel of the Vlastian state, giants still walked the streets and rusalkas swam its canals. While the Vlast succeeded in imposing its will across most of a continent, the forest always probed for cracks and pushed back.
However, the new Vlast of President-Commander Osip Rizhin is a much different beast that the old Vlast of the Novozhd and his predecessors. The difference is made clear even in the structure of the novel. While the bodies of both Wolfhound Century and Truth and Fear are broken into short chapters, each centered on a single viewpoint character, and grouped into larger parts, Radiant State has longer chapters subdivided into numbered sections, with each section having a separate viewpoint. Additionally, the book throws the reader off by not only opening with a six-year time skip, but by also opening with a new character, Engineer-Technician 2nd Class Mikkala Avril, overseeing the launch of the Vlast’s first manned spacecraft, the Vlast Universal Vessel Proof of Concept. From her, the story continues on to the remnants of the widely separated Cornelius family, only reintroducing Lom and Maroussia in the third chapter.
Thus disoriented, the reader is in a proper place to appreciate the extent of Rizhin’s remaking of the Vlast. Mirgorod has been rebuilt into a place of shining concrete skyscrapers, monuments, and broad avenues, becoming less like dank old Petrograd and more like a dream Moscow in Stalinist Gothic. Everywhere there are posters, placards, and pocket books celebrating the wisdom of Papa Rizhin. Most of the supernatural beings living in the old Vlast have vanished, as have the once-feared mudjiks. Military-industrial megaprojects are the order of the new day. At Vitigorsk in the north and at Chaiganur in the southern steppe, cosmodromes have been erected from which nuclear-pulse rockets are launched, great spacecraft that ride the shockwaves of exploding nuclear bombs through the atmosphere and into orbit. At the same time, the battle-hardened military of the Vlast has been mobilized to march east on missions to both clear the forest and find the body of the still-living angel. Everywhere the novel speaks the language of speed and acceleration, of industry and dynamism, giving a powerful breakneck energy to the world of “Rizhin country.” While the Vlast of the first two books retained a mix of tsarist and Soviet elements, Rizhin’s state is unmistakably and wholly Stalinist. While Radiant State does have some problems in its use of Rizhin as a Stalin analogue, the novel perfectly captures Stalinism at its most radical.
This radicalism is pithily expressed by Rizhin’s motto. It is the creed by which Rizhin himself lives, as shown when he torched his previous identity of Josef Kantor in Truth and Fear, and it is the first commandment of his new Vlast. As a result of this edict, Rizhin’s Vlast has a far more extreme attitude towards its own history and the world than any previous regime. When there is no past and there is only the future, everything is up for grabs. History no longer has any special meaning in and of itself; it is a resource that can be preserved and reworked to fulfill some particular function, or it can be thrown away and replaced with something better. The Soviet Union tore down churches and used the land for public buildings, while preserving the art and literature of the old masters to use as models for a more socialist form of aesthetics. Rizhin’s Vlast takes the once-feared mudjiks, now rendered inanimate by the imprisonment of the angel, and grinds their bodies down into material for the space program’s nuclear bombs, a fate Rizhin also plans for the angel itself. Rizhin’s motto also has a hidden corollary; if there is no past, only the future, then the present doesn’t matter as anything other than a means to an end. The peasants are being starved into cannibalism by grain requisitions? Need to keep the cities fed! The Proof of Concept has no ability to return to the Vlast, leaving its crew to either asphyxiate or burn up on re-entry? The data they gather will be invaluable to the engineers working on the next generation of spacecraft! Hardships must be suffered today in the name of the future!
The precise nature of the future Rizhin envisions eventually becomes the driving mystery of Radiant State. When Lom finally uncovers the truth at the Vitigorsk cosmodrome, it is quite fittingly a radical, utopian vision. The final goal of the Vlast’s space program is the construction of two fleets of nuclear pulse rockets. The larger fleet will be sent all across the universe, carrying pioneers to explore and settle strange new worlds, who will eventually learn to reconstitute themselves from dust and live forever. As for the second fleet, its sole mission is to reach high orbit and begin raining nuclear bombs back down on the planet, incinerating the forest, angel, Vlast, Archipelago, all. It is the ultimate expression of Rizhin’s worldview, where the entire past of humanity is to be destroyed to allow it to live forevermore in the future. It is hard to know what precisely to make of it. In a novel set in the real world, it would be the pseudoscientific delusion of a madman, and certainly all the other characters of Radiant State find it horrific. At the same time, in a world with angels and spiritual forests, inspired by Russian myth and early utopian science fiction, who is to say what is possible?
Michal: Rizhin’s plan recalls Cortez burning his ships upon landing in the New World: for Rizhin, humankind will never supersede the star-faring angels unless they sever all ties to what they were before. But I wouldn’t say other characters find the idea as horrific as you’d expect. The reason why people in the upper echelons of power balk at the idea is not because the world will be destroyed, but because they aren’t invited on the ships that will create the New Vlast of the Stars. They fear the fiery death of nuclear blasts but do not fear the end of the world itself, if they are among the chosen few who can escape the conflagration.
That’s fitting in a series that centres so prominently around traumatic breaks in history. Events have forcibly wiped out collective memory so many times, whether through angelfall or assassination or war, that it is only a tiny leap forward to imagine the planet no longer existing as well. Rizhin may present his motto as a revolutionary idea that will propel the Vlast towards utopia, but he is only building on an ideology that has defined the Vlast ever since the stone angels came plummeting into their landscape. Rizhin believes all he plans is forceful and new, but his aims are all modelled after the archangel’s own. His press for extending human life and changing our nature is to make them as the angels were. Which is not to say he is simply a servant to the angels, but that his contact with them has impressed upon him a vision for what the future of humanity could be. His former ally-of-convenience Chazia wanted with all her soul to become a faithful servant to the archangel; Rizhin in his new capacity want to usurp the archangel’s place in the universe. With the Pollandore’s exit from the Vlast, the future kept out of the archangel’s grasp becomes achievable while the archangel, ironically, is cut off from bringing its plans to fruition. But fortunately (?), Rizhin is on hand to force the flow of history towards that path.
No wonder Josef Kantor/Osip Rizhin enjoys a communal bond with the fallen archangel throughout the trilogy; no wonder, in the end, they merge together to become one and the same. Rizhin’s ideas are the angel’s ideas: using humanity as a tool towards the ultimate goal of breaking out from the gravity well, leaving behind the threatening forest, and sailing into the everlasting night.
Alasdair: While I would agree with your basic point, I would suggest an extra nuance to the relationship between the archangel and Rizhin. While Rizhin’s dream of the future is the same as the archangel’s, albeit with a different choice of apotheosized, it should be remembered that Rizhin took a Vlast mired in ruin, occupation, and civil war and drove it to put its first cosmonauts into space in a mere six years, and that the final preparations for the ultimate plan are estimated to be completed in a handful of decades. Without Rizhin, Mirgorod would probably be an Archipelago polity, the Vlast would be an inland empire of hangmen, and all the angel’s cautious manipulations over the centuries would have been for naught. Perhaps this is an appropriate place to imagine the archangel and Rizhin to be in a Lenin-Stalin relationship. The first is the dreamer who shows that a new world can be built, but who lacks the proper tools to put it in order, while the second is a zealot with limited theoretical sophistication who can organize, build and inspire like no other. Individually they are limited; together nothing can stand against them. (Of course, this interpretation depends on how much you see Leninism as a direct prelude to Stalinism, and there’s still a lot of open debate on that question.)
To shift topics slightly, Rizhin’s special plan for the world also brings up another long-running theme of the trilogy that comes out into the open in Radiant State: the conflict between industry and nature. It’s a very old theme in fantasy, older than even The Lord of the Rings, but there is a unique dimension to this conflict in the Wolfhound Empire books, one that only becomes clear in the final book. In the 2010 afterword to his 1987 masterwork The Total Art of Stalinism, the Russian art critic Boris Groys argued that the most distinctive trait that separated Soviet communism from most other revolutionary projects was a deep desire “to break with nature, even human nature, and build the new society as a completely artificial construction.” (p. 121) While the liberal revolutions of Enlightenment Europe were based on theories of man in “the state of nature” and the Nazis built their philosophies around spurious theories of biology and race, the Soviets wished to escape nature entirely. Manifestations of this tendency can be found in the campaigns against psychoanalysis and Mendelian genetics, the collectivization program, even in the basic idea that a person was “a pure potentiality, a fluid nothing that becomes something only if it is given a certain function, a certain role in the process of socialist life-building.” (p. 122) Rizhin’s ultimate plan for humanity also falls in line with this belief, purposefully engineering a way for humans to divorce themselves from nature permanently, as well as waging both a conventional and nuclear war designed to end nature itself.
Higgins’ choice to have the Vlast build nuclear-pulse rockets is also appropriate. The basic concept of nuclear pulse propulsion was originally outlined in Project Orion, a DARPA project initiated in the 1950s to design a space vehicle that could easily explore the inner solar system and be built with contemporary technology. The project died with the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which banned the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and space. Given the basic premise of the nuclear-pulse rocket, it is hard to imagine a form of technology more unabashedly destructive to the environment. The spectre of nuclear anxiety also appears late in the novel in an unfamiliar form. When the Vlast’s army finally uncovers the surviving angel, its flesh infects all those who come into contact with it, converting their bodies into living concrete. With the mining camps becoming triage centers for dying soldiers, the operation to mine the angel ends up resembling nothing so much as a fantasy version of the Chernobyl cleanup.
However, even under Rizhin’s campaign to re-engineer the Vlast, there are still a few holdouts, places that have not yet begun to accelerate into the future. Michal, would you care to share your thoughts on these little pockets of orphaned time?
Michal: I agree that the conflict between nature and industry takes on a special twist in the trilogy. In other fantasy works using that theme, pre-industrial, untouched landscapes are indeed the natural state of the world and filled with dying magic. But in Wolfhound Empire, the natural world is not imbued with such mysticism; the (literally) endless forest on the eastern border of the Vlast is not “natural.” It is the protrusion of an alien entity through a dimensional rift and is no more a “part” of the world than the angels are. The long-running struggle between stone angel and green forest appears to employ the usual fantasy dichotomy but lies outside of it; only here, in Radiant State, does that older fantasy motif come to play, and as you noted, it has a Soviet bent in how the actors conceptualize the struggle in the first place. Nature is people too, human nature itself is part of what Rizhin wants to crush as he remakes humanity into what the angels are.
The slippery nature of time is yet another example of the literalization process; by dragging the Vlast to become something humans were never meant to be, Rizhin has destabilized time to such an extent that certain parts of the world refuse to follow. At its most basic, the areas where time runs slow simply gives physical and temporal reality to the impression one gets seeing photographs from times and places in history where nations have undergone rapid industrialization: the disparity between urban areas filled with smoke and concrete alongside a rural countryside where villagers use ox-drawn plows–see China just before the Great Leap Forward, Japan during the Meiji Restoration and, of course, Russia under Peter the Great and during the push of the five year plans. The totalizing ideology of progress does not have the practical reach to uniformly affect all areas; in Radiant State, some parts of the world “pull ahead” of others and do not run on the same clock; the break of Rizhin’s ascension has fragmented time itself. Yet I got the impression that the places “left behind” are the ones where time is running as it should; the acceleration elsewhere is the spreading cancer of a World that Should Not Be since the removal of the Pollandore delivered the future to the dreams of Josef Kantor.
The side-story of Yeva and Galina, two children evacuated from Mirgorod into one of these pockets where time runs slow, gives a glimpse into the lost Vlast that pre-dated the angelfall, embodied in the villa of a former noble family where they live for what seems a short while but in the Vlast proper is, in fact, a long, long time. The pockets of slowed time fly in the face of the driving philosophy of the New Vlast. There is a past, but it lies within a separate realm from public view, in the nooks and crannies of places forgotten or places citizens prefer should not exist. The Lodka, once the great stronghold of the empire, lies abandoned and clings to what the Vlast was before it “moved on.” When Lom enters the Lodka, it has become a shrine to the realm before Rizhin’s rule and in its corridors time runs out-of-step with the rebuilt Mirgorod around it. Some of the most evocative passages in Radiant State take place within the Lodka, where three vampire sisters have collected scraps of the history-that-no-longer-is and hang them throughout the halls of this former seat of power. These archivists view the scraps as mere curiosities, nothing compared to their own distended lifespans, but in Mirgorod their venal decorations are the last reminders that the Vlast has a history and that history is all.
Continued in Part II.