Bitter Seeds

In interests of full disclosure, I should say that I love Ian Tregillis with all my heart, even though that bastard awesome houseguest never sent me a galley or ARC or whatever they are called so I could read it before it came out for the general public. Okay, he send a digital copy to my husband, but I turned my nose up at it, because I hate reading serious stuff on computer screens because there is something unserious about them. So, you know, whatever. 

Still, though, Ian, the non-writer Ian, the friend I know, is fabulous and strange, and I can’t believe Tor got John Jude Palencar to do the art for his book, because that’s like wrapping some thing I love in another thing I love, and the whole idea makes me swoon. Go to the libraries, folks; queue this up on your Amazon. The minute this comes out I’m holing up and reading it all damn day.


Okay, admittedly I didn’t hole up and read it all damn day, but I am excited to finally have this in my hot little hands. 


Last Sunday, while I was gulping this down in a haze, I folded up this book and curled up for a nap. Then I fell hard into a nightmare featuring Gretel, who is the biggest bad in this book, which is saying something. I was in a bare room made of concrete block with a concrete floor, with windows near the ceiling, like I was in a basement. I have no idea why or how I was in this room, but I was alone, and then I wasn’t. She was there, her long black hair braided down with the ominous wires, giving me a half-smile. ARG OH GAWD WAKE UP. 

An alternate history, Bitter Seeds runs the second world war with steampunk (gaspunk?) Übermensch on the Axis side and warlocks on the Allied. There was a long conversation about the intersection between the various genres of historical fiction, alternate history, and science fiction on Mike’s review of this book, which really got me thinking about all the ways in which history is coded and turned into narrative. Some of the coding is literal – one of the more fascinating aspects of WWII for me is the shadow war that went on using cyphers and codes, all the way up to the Navajo code talkers who used their own language, albeit in a simplified, reworked way, to pass vital informations. It still manages to blow my mind when I think about this Native language, suppressed for years, overrun, the Navajo people limned into an America that is qualified as a Native America, and how this encoded people and language were hooked up to wires that then transmitted a vital imperial information. ZOMG. 

Of course, breaking a code is never good enough, which the Allies did early with Enigma, they had to then obfuscate where that information was coming from. If the Axis knew their correspondence was insecure, then they would have changed the codes. False information about the information gathering system has to be relayed and planted – false spies, false documents, false events then encode how knowledge is gathered. No, we haven’t broken your codes; we have some spy in place, or whatever. This lead to all manner of horrifying calculus: bombings allowed to do their damage to protect the source of information, people sent to sure death to protect the codes and broken codes. It’s the kind of thing that hurts to think about, even though we sit on the lee side of the war, and can figleaf the equations with the knowledge that ultimately, the Allies won, and the equations added up to something. 

(I’m not sure why I’m balking from using the pronoun “we” in this situation, even though that’s what I keep typing before I key back and write Allies. My family had some dogs in that fight: a grandfather in the South Pacific, great-uncles in France, a grandmother home with a war-baby unsure that her husband would ever come home. But as an American mongrel, I also had cousins removed in the German army and the Danish resistance, in-laws in the camps, a grandfather too old to be a soldier so instead a school teacher. I’ve always thought it would be fascinating to take a group of folk – anyone really – a world map, and a bunch of push pins and string, and chart the movements of our (grand)parents in the War – which still continues to be the war one means if one says “war” out of context – and watch the earth criss-cross. I’m not sure what this would accomplish, but the image of this this web is what stops my sense of “we”, I think. What did you do in the war, dada?)

As usual, I’m horribly off topic. Sort of. I believe that alternate histories are almost coded into the narrative of the War itself, into the narrative of history. When one hears the story of the British retreat at Dunkirk – the scrambling and madness on the beach as the British try to arrange transport – the sense of how close the German army was, how if they had just turned and looked, they would have been able to end the British capacity to mount the later counter-attacks – one sees how close history is, how intimately random. Gretel, the clairvoyant Nazi creation, sees the retreat at Dunkirk and the event does run to this terrible conclusion. 

Future sight – something that has always kind of bugged me in fiction – almost reads as our backwards retellings. The Nazis were evil – this is self-evident historically, so much so that even mention of them in argument has its own conversation ending term – one has Godwined the conversation. But during the war, the Holocaust was only understood in hints – it was coded – again, so much so, that when one views the horrifying footage of the camps being liberated, there are always these weird testimonials from Allied troops giving name, rank and serial number. I saw this – they say – I am real and so is this. Our understanding of their evil is backwards – not false – in some ways – it is something based on later knowledge. The evil of the Nazis was countered in many different ways, but if the center of that evil was not self-love and other-hate, but a cold, calculated personal self-interest of a single sociopath, what would the Allies have to do to counter that? Especially because they did not understand that that was what they were fighting? Ugh. Cue blood-bath. 

Anyway, massive digression notwithstanding, I think this book codes technology, and that ruptures the narrative of the War along lines I’d never considered. The British warlocks – which is a nice piece of nomenclature, non? – negotiate with large, chtonic powers so outside their grasp that it’s almost funny, beings who require blood in a real, non-metaphorical way: the tip of a finger, a pub full of folk, a train car full of people…where is this going to end? Nowhere good. The Nazis, famously less squeamish about taking a shovel to the back of child’s skull for the “greater” “good” – create a creature even they fear – a prescient sociopath – the Gretel of my dream – who has her own agenda. 

It’s easy to run the war many ways and have the Axis win, even provisionally – don’t attack Russia (didn’t Napoleon teach you anything?), don’t attack Pearl Harbor (would the US and its isolationism ever gotten involved otherwise?) – but here I think the question is about how the Germans ran off so many brilliant thinkers: Einstein, Freud, Benjamin (who killed himself days before the papers for him to leave came through), and well, a whole freaking passel of German scientists who bolstered American and British war technologies to the obvious detriment of the Reich’s plan. I don’t think it’s an accident that Gretel – and her brother, who is our pov proxy for Gretel – are gypsy children, war orphans from the previous war, and so insanely pivotal to the Nazi cause that their “bad blood” isn’t so much overlooked as feared to the point of being ignored. I almost need a chart here – one like my push-pinned map – that accounts for a Nazi sense of purity of blood with a purity of will, and how those concepts ultimately implode when in contact with one another. 

Gretel, her brother, and the other children who survive the heinous, thankfully only loosely sketched machinations of Van Westarp – mad scientist extraordinaire – to become the embodiment of will-to-power, are the coded terror of the oven, the camp, the cleansing, one that has its own agenda, an agenda that is to live in defiance, because living IS defiance. Gretel scares the shit out of me, partially because the thought of survival in the face of such institutional, casual hatred makes me want to lay down and die. We – we? – can honor survival, but it comes at a cost, one that can often be measured in pints, as in blood. Pints to quarts, quarts to gallons, and after the gallon, how do we even quantify anymore?

I’ve always liked “The Empire Strikes Back” most of the Star Wars trilogy – I live in an alternate history where the prequels don’t exist, and Lucas never mutilated my childhood – partially because it’s the darkest of the trilogy, laying out the Oedipal conflict without the hard, unsatisfying conclusion of synthesis. But part of my unfinished satisfaction draws from the fact of conclusion – without an ending, even an unsatisfying one, it would just hang, undone. I have some criticisms of Bitter Seeds, as a stand-alone work: my unlove of love triangles, my sense that sometimes the research of the history overtakes the thrust of the story, but my happiest of gripes is that I want to read more. This story is not done: the War has gone Cold – actually literally cold as the ice freezes Europe as the Soviets make their play – and the hot war reaches its chilly détente. Publish the next, now. Get to it, Ian. I wait.

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