Jerry Jr.'s Reviews > Devices and Desires

Devices and Desires by K.J. Parker
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's review
Aug 16, 2011

really liked it

If fantasy is about suspending some of the rules that govern reality to see what happens, then the ones abated in K.J. Parker's "Devices and Desires" are not so much of physics or biology as political economy. In the same way other authors might produce for their readers' inspections orcs or chimerical conjoined beasts, Parker describes a civilization in which a single society (Mezentia) several hundred years prior to the novel's present achieved a level of technological sophistication in many ways analogous to the Industrial Revolution, then stopped cold in its development because of its commitment to a quasi-religious ideology that presupposed that the then-existing technology could not be improved upon. Moreover, adjacent to Mezentia are two duchies which, despite being involved in trade with Mezentia, are essentially late medieval societies run by nobilities that spend their time hunting and hawking, using gear, and following rules, that are precisely cognate with that would have been familiar to a fifteenth century English nobleman.

That this state of affairs asks "Devices and Desires" readers to rethink many assumptions they might bring about--just to start with--societies governed by self-professed rationalists, or about the self-perpetuating nature of technological development--is a great part of the pleasure "Devices and Desires" offers. In just the same way as a potential customer of Parker's main character Ziani Vaatzes might test his machines to insure they meet "S"pecification, the text seems to invite readers to test the plausibility of the alternate mode of historical development Parker describes. And actually, this gives the act of reading "Devices and Desires" an intense and unlikely intellectual thrill.

Now, for my tastes Parker's alternate world does not always pass this plausibility test. There is a very good reason why world history has few examples of technologically advanced mercantile-industrial powers annihilating the countries on which they depend to buy their exports. Likewise, the nature of competition between states and peoples seems to mitigate against a country ever gaining hegemony over others by means of technological development and then maintaining that hegemony over them while refusing to advance technologically further (for obvious reasons, this makes it vulnerable to its satellite-competitors). Even at the most basic level of the plot, it seems as if the Mezentines have had their plot-crucial bit of military technology (the scorpion) for a hundred years or more, their adversary the Eremians have been next door for that entire time, and the scorpion has had any type of prior use, it should be no surprise to the Eremians that they're then going to be faced with them, and it should have occurred long before now to the Eremians to try to get their hands on the first-rate weaponry.

But really, that Parker's text invites this level of questioning matters more than whether each answer the text presents are debatable. And the truth is that the text is working on more levels than this one anyway. "Devices and Desires" is at its heart about the ethics of technology. But the triumph of the novel is that it doesn't just understand technology with crude literalism as springs and pins and engines, but in the wider sense as any kind of problem-solving by means of tool-using. Specifically, "Devices and Desires" is about how Ziani Vaatzes constructs a machine to solve a problem for himself that includes in its components people and nations, connected not by pulleys or belts but his own conspiracy. This machine, Rube Goldberg-like in its complexity, seems to succeed to the extent it does precisely because it reduces people to objects and refuses to take account of any ethical duties that might be owed to them as people. But at the same time "Devices and Desires" does not hide the cost Ziani's success exacts from these people, and it's the way the novel delivers this message--not moralizing, not melodramatic, but clear-eyed and brutally efficient--that makes it ethically resonant.

At first glance, Parker's main characters seem exude a certain kind of tidy rationality. Even a decision to commit genocide is reached with the dry bureacratic precision with which a company might set the date for an IPO, and there's no evil that occurs that doesn't seem to have been run very carefully through a cost-benefit analysis. Thus, here there's very little of the hubris that animates the main character of "The Folding Knife" or the morbid violence of "The Company." In fact, as late as half-way through "Devices and Desires" I felt the novel cried out for a character fundamentally irrational or corrupt: if we live in a world with villains as cartoonish as Ghaddafi and his fellow despots, then it seemed Parker's fiction sacrificed too much realism by insisting on the absolute reasonableness of the people who make even the worst decisions in her alternate world. But it was only later that I noticed this was part of the novel's seduction: as the story progresses the effect is like the individual pieces of a mosaic resolving itself into the larger image, as individual rational moments and decisions stand revealed as part of arcs of grotesque self-deception and self-destruction. And such was Parker's skill in narrating her characters' descent that they convinced not only themselves, but us too.

Finally, I would be remiss to leave off without saying that Parker's writing style is marvelously efficient. In its understatement it shows a skill that is lacking in many authors who are far more ambitious and "experimental" in their use of language. One of the best results of this is that "Devices and Desires" is really a very witty and very quotable novel, and the characters' jokes at their own expense can in fact suffice to keep a reader going once the subject matter has turned as dark as pitch. There is however a slight problem this creates, given that the dialogue's sharpness is sometimes at odds with the speach patterns one would expect of courtly societies like what Parker depicts. And this problem is made worse by the scattered anachronisms one finds. Mostly, these are forgivable, especially considering the quality of the novel notwithstanding this issue, but it really is quite jarring to read medieval noblemen discussing "approval ratings" as if they just checked YouGov or HuffPo Pollster online before having their conversation. Throughout Parker's work, the inability to quite put one's finger on a precisely analogous time or place in our world's history for the events she's describing is part of the quirky charm, and part of the intellectual exercise. But sometimes she still needs to recognize when her novelist's license just gets pushed too far.

But all in all, it's an amazing novel nonetheless.
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