Note: this is the latest entry in a loose series of critical looks at some SF novels, preceded by Evil and Mortality in Philip Palmer’s Version 43 and Artemis, Shall I tell you the Problem with Adam Roberts?, Embassytown considered as a post-modernist collage, Cold War Paranoia: Ian Sales’ Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and The Irresistible Mixture of Banality and Melodrama, or, Why Dance with Dragons.
Al-Qaeda Zombies and American Vampires: On Christopher Farnsworth’s Blood Oath
The words “bug fuck crazy”, one sometimes feels, get bandied about too often by careless reviewers, yet I feel no hesitation in applying them to Christopher Farnsworth’s remarkably screwy series of thrillers featuring Cade, the titular President’s Vampire. These encompass Blood Oath, The President’s Vampire, and Red, White and Blood.
I came across Blood Oath by seeming accident. A friend handed me a pile of recent SF/F review copies for me to “catch up on what people are doing”. The truth is, I read little science fiction these days, and so this year I’m making something of a conscious effort to read more, somewhat to my regret. The pile included such glorious contributions to recent literature as an anthology titled ZOMBIES!, and then it had Blood Oath, which I opened on the train back out of idle curiosity before being struck, like a terrorist facing a squad of elite US assassins, by the sheer and awesome brilliance of Farnsworth’s conceit.
Let us begin with the cover. One could have hoped for a suitably lurid cover but Blood Oath is marketed as a thriller, so it has one of those dull, non-specific thrillerish covers. But then there’s the blurb!
If Dan Brown wrote a vampire thriller, this would be it.”—Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America
Has ever a blurber damned more with faint praise?
If Dan Brown wrote a vampire thriller!
Thankfully, Farnsworth is not Dan Brown. Thankfully several billion people are not Dan Brown, but I still hold a grudge having been stuck on Eurostar from Paris with nothing to read but the second half of The Da Vinci Code. My general philosophy is, when in doubt, blame the French, but in this case the French are, dare I say it, blameless. But anyway. I’m sure they can be blamed for something.
And then you start reading the book.
Let me sum it up for you: Cade, the President’s vampire, must save the United States from an Al-Qaeda zombie attack.
Perpetrated by Dr. Frankenstein.
Who is an ex-Nazi.
And the best part? The very best part? There’s a moment in the book when Cade has to get from somewhere back to Washington in time to save the President. From the zombies. Who are made of the body parts of dead US Servicemen. I am not making this up! But he can’t make it back in time. It’s a three hour flight by conventional airplane.
So he rings up the US Air Force. And they send over a plane designed from alien technology recovered from the Roswell crash.
As you do!
It’s genius. It’s sheer, bloody genius, a gloriously screwy pulp novel about the War on Terror as conceived by H.P. Lovecraft’s deranged teenage neighbour, who was into corpse-robbing but ended up acquiring a typewriter instead.
Now, there are all kinds of pulps, and meta-pulps. One of my favourites has to be Paul Malmont’s The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, a marvellous novel about a group of 1930s pulp hacks, including Walter Gibson, Lester Dent, H.P. Lovecraft (as a zombie!) and a young L. Ron Hubbard solving one of their own pulp mysteries in New York, all the while cranking out stories for the pulps (in one scene Dent’s typewriter breaks. Without breaking stride he reaches for another and we realise he has typewriters all stacked up in his room, for just such an eventuality).
Indeed, the Guardian‘s own Damien Walter has been trying to encourage a conversation recently on something he calls New Pulp (Neo Pulp? Pulp Nouveau?). It seems a bit redundant – how does new pulp differ from old pulp? Is it the quality of the paper? But, were we to look for appropriate candidates, none would come better qualified than Farnsworth, who is actually doing something very interesting in this series.
Blood Oath – and its sequels – are novels about American politics as filtered through a pulp lens. If my own novel, Osama, is a sort of metafiction – the War on Terror viewed as a pulp novel – then Farnsworth’s is the War on Terror as a literal pulp novel – as if Mike Longshott, the fictional pulp writer in Osama had sat down to write the novel instead.
One of the key elements of the series is the conspiracy within the American government and its institutions, a Shadow Company working, one suspects, for Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, whose tentacles reach everywhere and who direct American (and by extension, the world’s) history for their own nefarious purposes. There is a secret war within the war, a supernatural war waged by both the Americans and their enemies (we’ll talk more about Osama bin Laden in a moment).
In one way, of course, this reduces the current conflict to a crude and unrepresentative conflict of Good vs. Bad. But of course, that has already happened, as Bush’s famous speech on the “Axis of Evil” has long shown us. This is, rather – within the gloriously lurid pulp iconography of the text – also a subtle critique of the power of both institutions and individuals, an essentially paranoid view of the way power is both used and misused.
It is filled with numerously knowing and affectionate references to genre and pulp – to Lovecraft, to Charles Fort – but its genius is transposing those pulp elements into our own modern-day reality, our wars, our terrorists and freedom fighters, our fear of science (in the same of the monstrous Frankenstein) and our trust in military force. One cannot so much review Blood Oath than simply point and say OMG! at the sheer chutzpah of the conceit, but it works. Perhaps it shouldn’t, but somehow it does.
Farnsworth is one of several Hollywood screenwriters recently to move sideways into novels. Another is Ernest Cline, whose recent Ready Player One (also in that pile of books I got alongside Blood Oath) has been well received, and whose film Fanboys is an affectionate comedy about sci fi fans.
Both Blood Oath and RP1 share a sort of filmic writing style, an easy, accessible way of storytelling. Blood Oath reads very much like a thriller or a film script. It has short punchy chapters, a smooth and essentially invisible way with words that mean you must focus on the Story rather than on the way it is told. It does not offer depth in the way of its characters, or any beautiful passages you might want to hold on to with starry-eyed admiration as though you had just run into China Mieville in the men’s loos. The women characters in Blood Oath are weak: the girl vampire infatuated with Cade, the evil Shadow Company woman who blows Dr. Frankenstein in the hope of eternal life (no, really!), they follow a well-prescribed 1950s Narrative for Women. This is a Men’s Book.
Which is, of course, part of the point. This is Men’s Adventure updated to the new millennium, and one can make the suggestion – only half-seriously, admittedly – that Farnsworth is also making here a point about the role of women in American politics. Perhaps. But the other question is, does the book make a point at all? That, I’m afraid, is something for each reader to decide on their own.
I should also add that I’m aware of the problematics of women’s roles in my own writing, which is very much its own brand of Boys’ Own fiction updated. When one criticises one must apply it equally, however much it stings. Similarly, I’m painfully aware that the reviews posted so far have all focused on men’s writing. As I am currently reading both Danie Ware’s forthcoming Ecko Rising and E.J. Swift’s just-released Osiris, I hope to begin to redress the imbalance soon, but it is there nonetheless.
Incidentally, Ready Player One does make several points towards the end. With a sledge hammer. So perhaps a little less point-making does not go amiss. Not that I am always averse to making points with a sledge hammer. And I did enjoy RP1 a great deal, in the end.
Anyway, the main point to be made about the Cade series is that it is bat-shit crazy in the best possible way. When I mentioned my enthusiasm for Blood Oath, Jared from Pornokitsch went all glassy-eyed and said, “But… but… did you read the second book?”
“No!” I said. “Why?”
“Cade goed to Afghanistan!” Jared said. “And he fights Osama bin Laden!”
“Who is a demon!”
“And that’s just the first chapter!”
As I write this, I’m half-way through The President’s Vampire (the second volume in the series). And what I discovered to my utter joy is that Jared wasn’t kidding. Cade goes off to Afghanistan and kills Osama bin Laden, who is indeed, literally, a demon, and that is just the first chapter.
The second chapter has lizard men.
I cannot think of a higher recommendation than that.