The OF Blog: Matthew Stover, Caine Black Knife

Friday, October 17, 2008

Matthew Stover, Caine Black Knife

I made a fist and hold it out. "Tonight is a good night to die."

They look at each other, at the niter-scaled walls, at the shadowed vault above. Anywhere but at me.

Christians like to say the truth will make you free. Guess I've got the wrong truth.

"Listen - " I let my fist go slack and rub my forehead. "Listen: I've got my share of problems, y'know? You all know it. I'm an asshole. Nobody likes me. Sometimes I don't like me much either."

I give them a second to disagree. Nobody jumps in. Big goddamn surprise.

"Shit weighs down on me, y'know? Like it does on everybody, I guess. I worry what the fuck I'm doing with my life. I've got a sick dad, and I can't take care of him, and this girl I'm hot for thinks I'm a jerk, and shit, y'know, she's right, but somehow I just can't help my - " I manage to avoid looking at her. "Ahh, forget all that, it's not important.

"Here's the point: that's all future stuff, y'know? Everything you worry about. Everything that keeps you awake at night. All the shitty things the world has waiting for all of us. You know: Failure. Old age. Loneliness. Heartbreak. Cancer. Whatever.

"All of that is gone, now. You get it? That's all shit to worry about tomorrow - but we won't have to. Not ever again.

"For us, there is no tomorrow.

"Think about it. We have nothing left to worry about. Nothing. Shit, those Black Knives out there tonight? They're giving us a gift. Because all that bad stuff, all the rotten fucking shit that could possibly happen for the rest of our lives...won't. Because the only rest of our lives we have left is a few minutes to decide how we're gonna die."

"What difference does that make?" somebody says. "Dead is dead."

"Don't care how you die? You don't even have to leave this room. Just step over here." I open my arms, offering. "You won't feel a thing."

No takers. No surprise.

"I'll tell you how I'm gonna die."

A long, slow look, eye to eye to eye. I let that spark in my balls heat up my voice. "I'm gonna drown in their smoking fucking blood." (pp. 84-85)

Matthew Stover in his first two The Acts of Caine novels, Heroes Die (1998) and Blade of Tyshalle (2001) created a brutal, violent, sadistic futuristic society in which a secular caste system controls life on Earth. Akin to the Roman gladiators, many lower-caste men and women found themselves agreeing to become Actors in a hyper-reality show in which they would be transported to an alternate dimension and their exploits (carefully edited, of course) would be beamed back to Earth. Each grunt, each slash of the knife would be felt in the homes of millions as if they were participating alongside the Actors. The most famous Actor, Caine (played by the formerly upcaste - before his father was demoted to Laborer caste for espousing dangerous ideas - Hari Michaelson), was the most famous Actor of them all, one whose blood-and-vomit filled adventures entranced millions and made him a star.

In the first two novels, Stover explores several thematic issues revolving around a Bread and Circuses-oriented totalitarian state, what "honor" means to someone who is smart but held down, how desire can create both opportunity and destruction, as well as exploring how religious/philosophical ideals evolve out of expediency. Caine's attitude, expressed in the passage quoted above, pervades virtually every single page of these three novels.

For Caine Black Knife, Stover had the difficult task of addressing the question of "Now that you've saved the world from outside imperial aggression, what do you do for an encore?" He chose a very complex story of atonement, showing Caine/Hari at the beginning of his Actor career making a name for himself by practically annihilating the fearsome Black Knife clan (and later being adopted by one of them, Orbek) despite the long odds depicted in the scene I quoted above, before then switching to the literary present, thirty years later. There Caine is not as brash or as eager to spit in the eye of Death; he has become worn down by age, injuries, and the knowledge that he is little more than a harbinger of destruction.

The "now" sections of the novel revolve around Caine's return to the Boedecken, the scene of his legend-creating adventures escaping the Black Knife clan. He is haunted by memories of the people he abandoned there, the hurt that the survivors told, although he also realizes that he did what he felt was necessary at the time to survive. Stover utilizes first-person accounts for both the "then" and "now" segments to construct a very complex composite character image. Caine's travails have altered him and while Stover does have Caine acknowledge this explicitly, more often this paradigm shift is shown in scenes such as this one, where a few snotty Artan/Earth rich kids have managed to get around the blocks on interdimensional travel and have appeared in simulated form:

"You're kids..." My brain had somehow turned into a wet wool blanket stuffed inside my skull. "You're all kids."

"Well, sure," one of the Sauds said. "This is still in beta, and they need playtesters, and Turner's really pretty all right, you know, he set us up, it's a real party, even though everything's virtual. The simichair hookup cost my dad a bundle, and he's itching to play, too. Maybe once they smoke the bugs out and get this ready for release. This is way sweeter than even firsthanding, because, you know, first off, the Studio hasn't even done that in like forever, and even then, if we were like firsthanding you, we'd just be riding along while you kill people. This way we get to kill them ourselves - "

"And eat them." Bush's tusks gleamed pale and wet in the moonlight. "We get to kill them and eat them. This is way harder core than even your stuff - no offense, y'know; I'm a real fan, not like Ass-Packard. I have your Collector's Platinum Edition box-set, plus I've got a bootleg master of Servant of the Empire - "

"Just 'cause your mom sucked Turner's wrinkled old grampadick for it," Packard sneered.

I shook my head. "You little shits understand that these are real people? You get it? This isn't just a fucking game - "

"Sure it is," Packard said. "Our pack gets points for every civilian we take out before the Knights knock us to pieces. We get extra points for taking out armsmen, and killing a Knight's an automatic win, unless another pack gets a Knight too, and they've got more civilian kills than - "

"And you get points too just for duration, you know?" Bush nodded enthusiastically. "We're short on kills, but just standing here talking to you we've racking our score, and that's bone grippy, because we get to meet you and everything, and we can still do our mission objective, because we came down the river - these grills we're piloting are already dead, y'know, they don't have to breathe - and the Knights aren't here yet - "

I couldn't get my mind around it. "You're just sonofabitching kids - "

Packard smirked at me. "Yeah, right. How old were you the first time you killed somebody?"

"The first time I killed somebody I was fighting for my life, you little bastard." Which was a damn lie, but what the hell. "You're a pack of spoiled Leisure brats sitting in simichairs a universe away - "

"Well, sure," the other Saud said, shaking his head at me like I was a goddamn idiot, which was exactly how I felt. "You think our parents would let us do this if we could actually get hurt? I mean, check it out - " He lighted his loincloth to show a ragged stump where the Smoke Hunter's cock had been severed at the root. "We can't even fuck. What are we supposed to do except kill people?"

"I never killed anybody just for fun - "

"No, you killed 'em for our fun." Bush's smirk was almost identical to Packard's. (pp. 274-275)
Much of the character interaction follows this basic path - people who know of Caine, but who do not understand him, despite their beliefs that they do. People who idolize his violence (while often secretly being terrified of being in a similar situation) but who fail to understand that he doesn't take pride in his violent, sometimes "evil" ways; he has tried to move on and wishes others would accept that as well. But his past still haunts him and as the novel progresses, he is forced into a confrontation with a ghost from his past, one that haunts him as this volume concludes on a cliffhanger.

Compared to the first two Caine novels, Caine Black Knife is just as intelligently plotted and written. Caine's character, strong as it is, never verges toward sanctimoniousness nor caricature. He remains a complex, dynamic character whose development makes for a fascinating read. Stover's use of the "then" and "now" chapters serves to highlight this shift in Caine's personality, creating a narrative tension that drives this novel towards a strong cliffhanger ending. Caine Black Knife is one of the best character-driven fantasy/SF novels that I have read this year and now I resume my wait for the final Caine novel, My Father's Fist.

Publication Date: October 14, 2008 (US). Tradeback.

Publisher: Del Rey

1 comment:

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