I've never liked the aphoristic form, never warmed to twee, manga-style illustrations and have always been suspicious of Utopias — in my experience, the latter tend to be either fascist or ridiculously simplistic in nature — or both.
So it was with more than a little trepidation that I leafed through the twin volumes that recently arrived in the mail for me, The Aphorisms of Kherishdar and The Admonishments of Kherishdar, both written and illustrated by one M.C.A. Hogarth, who — remarkably — read my evisceration of Battlestar Galactica's abysmal finale and asked whether I'd be interested in reviewing her efforts at what I think she called "anthropological science fiction".
Well-bound and printed on good paper, but with covers that feel a little too much like mediocre comic book covers, before even opening either book I was already contemplating a quick email to the author, thanking her for the review copies and informing her that I would not actually review the books. Criticizing Battlestar Galactica or doing my small bit to prick the inflated reputation of the likes of Gregory Maguire is one thing. Slamming a self-published writer of little standing in the world of lit-rah-toor is something very different and not a game I intend to play without good reason.
But still, the author went to the trouble of sending me review copies; the least I could do was to ignore the covers and give the words a chance.
And I'm glad I did; Hogarth has written a diptych quite unlike any I have read before.
Kherishdar is a society — an empire — "that spans five worlds and several thousand years, with laws and customs that have served us for as long as we have walked these earths."</p>
Set at some indefinite point in our future, Kherishdar has made contact with aunera — or "aliens", which is to say, with human beings — and the books are an attempt to explain the ways of the people of Kherishdar, the Ai-Naidar, to us, or presumably, to our future selves. One or two human beings play very small parts in some of the chapters, but Hogarth stays true to her intentions and does not offer the reader an easy "in" with a human character exploring an alien culture. Rather, we are and remain the aliens, and so must make what we will of the Aphorisms and Admonishments presented to us.
Ironically, science fiction readers more and more seem to me to (mostly) be creatures of habit, preferring the false sense of the new in endless trilogies and eternal television novelizations (has anyone done a count of Doctor Who or Star Trek novels?). Even ostensibly alien civilizations are seldom more than an extreme version of one particular human tendency or another. And it's the rare piece of SF indeed that eschews a view-point character with which the reader is supposed to identify.
Hogarth does none of the above. There are no good guys nor bad guys, no world-shaking conflict; no war, revolution or invasion. Indeed, neither volume has even an obvious over-riding plot (though the careful reader will see that there is a narrative thread stitching together each volume's 25 stories), merely a narrator who seems no more than Fifth Business, recounting the tales of others who have crossed their paths.
Kherishdar is a society — let's face it, a Utopia, of sorts — that at first glance seems rigidly and even reactionarily hierarchical. Ruled by an Emperor, overseen by Nobles, protected by Guardians, at first glance Kherishdar seems as anachronistic as that presented in Herbert's Dune series, and it seems clear that Hogarth is at least familiar with Plato's Republic even if she is not attempting to directly update it.
Having long since dismissed Herbert's futuristic feudalism as silly and despised Plato's very readable yet fundamentally dishonest apologia for totalitarianism, it came as no surprise to me that I was not convinced by Hogarth's portrait of a similar society as something that not only works as a structure, but as a structure that also works for the individuals within it.
But "not convinced" is not the same as having my suspension of disbelief tossed out the window.
Hogarth's world is one whose "people" all (or almost all) take their responsibilities very seriously indeed. It is a society in which Lords are genuinely responsible for those below them on the social pecking order as well as to those above them.
The narrator of The Aphorisms is a calligrapher, roughly in the middle range of the social hierarchy, whose job extends far beyond that of his equivalent in our world — a commercial artist, perhaps, living off of commissions. At least in the 25 tales presented to us, he sees his calling as one that entails providing his patrons not only with what they want in terms of his craft, but also with what they need in terms of their personal well-being.
Similarly in The Admonishments, the narrator Kor is "Shame" or "Correction", a position without a genuine parallel in any society with which I am familiar. Kor's duty is to heal criminals, those who have in some way failed in their duties — whether to family, friend or to someone above or below them in Kherishdar's hierarchy.
At first glance, the position seems closer to that of a torturer under the medieval Catholic Church, but once again Hogarth's stories make clear that correction — providing what the "criminal" needs — is at the heart of the process. And, as more than one of the tales makes clear, what someone needs may not be what custom or law prescribes.
I said somewhere above that Hogarth hasn't managed to convince me that this alien society, or the aliens within it, might actually exist. My western, individualist prejudices want to argue that Hogarth presents us with an impossibly incorruptible oligarchy, but the point is that I want to argue and not simply dismiss her "secondary creation" as either silly or fascistic. In short, I want to know more about her creation, because whether or not I would ultimately deem her society "good" or "bad", it is definitely different — and so well-worth the time of any SF reader interested in something other than adolescent wish-fulfilment fantasies, or indeed, of any reader interested in thinking about how our world works (and doesn't) and how we might learn to do things differently.
Many of the stories are available for free on Hogarth's website, so you can easily sample them for yourself. If you enjoy them, $20 bucks per book is not at all out of line. Despite my reaction to the covers, some of the interior illustrations (see above for an example) are lovely and the books themselves are well-produced and should last you a good long while.