Four years ago, the day before Trump was elected, I remember clearly what I was doing. I spent the day finishing off the last book in Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy, which is a superb series of books built around a very small change in history, as the title suggests. In this timeline, England made peace with Hitler in 1941 – which England came so close to actually doing that this other version of the world feels so close you can actually touch it. England succumbed to fascism and the world changed.
Except the world didn’t change, really, for the protagonist of each book in the trilogy. Not at first. Not so noticeably. The first book of the trilogy, Farthing, starts out like a Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie story, what I like to call a puzzle box plot. A puzzle box plot is the sort that starts out looking a little opaque, but gradually the author guides you through all the missing pieces of the narrative and everything resolves with a nice satisfying snick at the end. The box opens at the author’s capable touch and oh, look, there is the solution inside. All threads neatly tied up. You read the book, you smile, you go on with your life.
Like I said Farthing is not a puzzle box mystery, it just tricks you into thinking it’s one by using all the right tropes. We find ourselves in the English countryside, in the latter 1940s. There is a gathering of the upper crust at a manor house. There has been a mysterious murder, in the night. Enter a police officer, come from the city to interview everyone and get to the bottom of things, arrest the guilty and tie up the story in a neat bow, maybe with a little bit of social commentary on the way.
Or that’s what you expect to happen (what I expected to happen). That’s what the police officer expects. Instead, gradually you realize that this is a world where England is now ruled by fascists, and that this quaint country house with its parties is what rule by fascists looks like: terribly ordinary, on the surface. Dig underneath just a little, as the police officer does, and the puzzle box opens to reveal not a solution but a yawning chasm of horror that none of the characters are willing to look at directly. There are no resolutions to be had, here. Instead the police officer guides us through the realization that bad circumstances can cause good people to compromise their very souls.
There is a point in the third book of the series, Half a Crown – each book follows that same police officer, Peter Carmichael — a very memorable point where Carmichael, who does not have many avenues through which he can resist the fascists in charge, finally falls apart in the form of a silent scream. I remember getting to that point in Half a Crown, the day before Trump was elected, the last day I spent not knowing that Trump would be elected but I was still paralyzed with dread, paralyzed by the terrible news cycle of the previous months, the natural disasters and the mass shootings, mixed with Trump’s awful rhetoric, feeling that we were all sitting in the path of a runaway train. Carmichael emits his silent scream. He does eventually find a kind of redemption, later, a redemption tinged by loss, but that was the moment that stuck with me, later: that moment when you finally admit how horrible everything is except you don’t have the words, you don’t have a voice, all you have is a silent scream.
I don’t think I quite know how to blog anymore, this feels like a very early 2000’s activity, from back before the internet got a bit horrible and most of social media an amplification tool for the very worst of human nature. I remember when I used to happily blog every last detail of my life, back when the internet seemed to have about 20 people in it and all of them just wanted to talk about books. I am not sure why this is the tool that I turn to, on the day before one more presidential election in the terribly problematic country of which I happen to be a citizen. I guess I’m just like Peter Carmichael at this point: I’ve seen the innards of the puzzle box, after the last few years of right-wing demagogues taking over a little too much of the world. And I’m just looking for a place to release my silent scream.
A lot has happened since I last picked up any Jo Walton. I think I got a bit scared, after that day I spent finishing the Small Change trilogy seemed to almost shape the future to come. Also my life has changed tremendously in the past four years: I moved continents, had a baby, lost a father. Figured out how to grow tomatoes. A lot has happened. I’ve been writing a lot more fiction than I ever used to, I think partly because I haven’t a clue how to describe the world as it is right now through the tools of non-fiction: this hissing pit that lurks within the puzzle box. I am trying to tell stories that have truth in them, these days, and sometimes you have to come at the truth a little sideways, sometimes the path matters as much or more than the message at the end. In the case of Farthing you make the reader think they’re reading P. G. Wodehouse and then drag them kicking and screaming into the realities of 1984.
Today I’m in limbo again, wondering what is going to happen in the election tomorrow. In a way, the results matter a good deal to me — in another sense, though, the puzzle box is already open. Just one election is not going to change the horrors that were already there, that perhaps before I never had the courage to see.