I find myself thinking quite often about this essay by Adam Roberts quite a lot when I’m reading contemporary fantasy. Its central thesis is that style and language are crucial to worldbuilding: that “a bourgeois discursive style [typical to 20th and 21st century literature] constructs a bourgeois world”; and that, therefore, evoking a pre-industrial setting is not just a question of set-dressing, it’s about recognising that pre-industrial mindsets and habits of thought were radically different to those that modern Western societies currently possess. It’s precisely the mismatch between style and content which Roberts identifies in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind that bothered me about K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City.
The novel’s protagonist is Orhan, colonel-in-chief of an engineering regiment belonging to what is essentially the Byzantine Empire except with all the names changed. One of life’s natural con artists (he has strong Moist von Lipwig energy), Orhan finds himself, through a series of calamitous events, the highest-ranking military officer in a not-Constantinople besieged by a mysterious barbarian army. The situation looks dire: the entire chain of command has fled, the emperor is in a coma and the closest thing there is to a military force in the city is three thousand carpenters with blunt swords. Orhan must come up with a string of increasingly unlikely and desperate schemes to keep the city’s remaining population alive and stave off the barbarians’ inevitable assault a few hours more.
It ought to be entertaining, even thought-provoking, touching on such weighty themes as institutional racism, the fall of civilisation and the ingenuity of ordinary people. Its lack of meaningful engagement with the actual sociocultural and moral dynamics of the period, though, means that it ends up just being slight. The novel is meticulously researched, the world carefully built; Parker can, and does, tell you all about how military supplies are distributed, about the workings of the city’s criminal underworld, even about its sewage disposal systems. None of it changes the fact that Orhan expresses himself in a jarringly 21st century idiom.
He stabbed me. I hadn’t seen the sword in his hand. I thought; what the devil are you playing at? He pulled the sword out and swung it at my head. I may not be the most perceptive man you’ll ever meet, but I can read between the lines; he didn’t like me.
More egregiously modern are the novel’s racial dynamics: Parker trots out that old faux-profound chestnut, “What If White People Were The Oppressed Ones???” (The besieging barbarian army are all white, as is Orhan, whereas the civilised people in the city are called, derogatorily, “blueskins”.) I will admit I don’t know much about the racial dynamics of the period, but it seems unlikely to me that they would have so closely mirrored our own constructs of whiteness and Blackness only conveniently flipped (the flipping in itself a misunderstanding of how modern Western culture treats race).
There’s a sense, possibly, in which I’m being unfair to the text. Orhan’s modernity is after all deliberate: his irreverent, working-class voice is meant to contrast jarringly, or at least surprisingly, with the antique setting, just as his lack of social status and proper respect for authority make him an extremely unlikely commander-in-chief of the empire’s forces. For me, though, this isn’t a productive contrast; it doesn’t make me revisit my understanding of the classical period the text is set in, it doesn’t force me to confront genuine strangeness. In fact the novel’s prioritisation of a Western 21st-century perspective feels pretty egotistical: the assumption that we in this corner of the globe in this particular historical moment, have somehow stumbled upon the best, the only way to understand the world around us. If I’m reading about the past, and especially if I’m reading alt-history, I want to read something that can only be set in that past; where the cultural specifics of that past are key to the author’s thesis. That’s something I don’t get from Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City.