Gamma Mouse's Reviews > The Company

The Company by K.J. Parker
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Dec 31, 2008

really liked it
Read in November, 2008

“Other people help themselves to penknives and inkwells; if they’re feeling really daring, they might liberate a keg of nails or a few lengths of timber. You steal bits of geography.”—“The Company”

Throughout the course of English literature, islands have often been used as settings, mainly because they serve as the perfect microcosm for civilization and society. Jonathan Swift established this tradition in “Gulliver’s Travels,” using the various island inhabitants Gulliver encounters to satire the British government. The fact that Great Britain itself is an island likely had bearing on Swift’s choice of setting. But Swift also established an island as solitary and isolated, a perfect breeding ground for the unknown and fantastical. It is an author’s Petri dish, a blank canvas in which the psychology of society can be intimately explored.

Romanticism focused on islands as places to commune with nature, while leaving the hustle bustle of society behind. Other novels like William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” took a more Hobbesian approach, watching as civilization inevitably disintegrated as the inhabitants embraced their animalistic impulses, finally resorting back to a state of nature. And it is this aspect which makes islands so fascinating; the ability to thrust characters into the state of nature and watch what unfolds. Do they choose to be human, or do they choose to be an animal?

K.J. Parker’s entry into the island mythos “The Company” breathes new life into the genre. Parker is clearly in Hobbes’s camp, and shapes the story to accelerate the island’s societal breakdown. But her twist is unique. Often the rules of society are what initially hold people in check on the island. They essentially take the societal rules they know and reestablish them on the island, often with deliciously disastrous results. General Kunessin’s ultimate motive in the novel is to escape a society which is hostile to his desires in order to form his own vision of civilization. However, Parker’s main characters are governed by a different bond, loyalty above all else to A Company. The novel concentrates on the question of whether military brotherhood is stronger than societal brotherhood. Does almost dying together make living together any easier? The strength of the Company’s interrelationships is constantly challenged within the story, as Parker piles more weight upon the bonds holding them together, searching for an elusive breaking point. It makes for a fascinating character study. “The Company” as a whole is an intricately developed and intelligent examination of the good and evil we find in humanity. It is human nature writ large, and it’s chilling for that fact.

The chapters are mainly separated into two sections. The first section focuses on historical anecdotes about the Company. The second follows the current narrative on the island. Most of the character development happens through the historical anecdotes, though there are a few flashbacks that become quite relevant to the main plot near the end. The flashback sequences are generally more enthralling than the main plot as the problems the group runs into on the island can be mundane. Much like an episode of the television series Survivor, it’s not survival tasks like the searching for shelter and food that are the most engaging aspect, but the characters plotting against each other in the background. And Parker doesn’t disappoint in this respect, thickening the intrigue chapter by chapter. It’s is at this point that “The Company” really hits its stride, as characters plot and counterplot after reviewing all the angles. The intellectual interplay between Kunessin and Aidi Proiapsen really stands out in this respect.

I thought the mundane nature of the obstacles the Company encounters could be attributed to Parker’s deemphasizing of civilization in the novel. Kunessin’s priorities are different than one would expect in his situation. At times, his attitude seems antagonistic towards using resources to build the best island society he can. He’s a slave to his vision, constantly emphasizing brotherhood over community. Also things like shelter and food are something I take for granted, so searching for them seems trivial to me, even though they are not in this situation.

I think Parker’s deemphasizing of societal bonds is evident in another aspect of the novel, the wives. The women are unapologetically chattel in the book. The men marry them because farmers need wives. The men’s bonds with their wives are quite secondary. Interestingly, women have often been viewed as the basis of society; they are the ones that traditionally make the nest, while men are the hunter-gatherers. I felt that the men’s attitudes towards their wives mirrored their views about society. By deemphasizing the women, Parker deemphasizes civilization’s grip on A Company.

Last Word:
Simply stated, “The Company” is an enthralling read. It is an astute observation on human nature which deeply explores the bonds of brotherhood. The historical anecdotes are fantastic, and K.J. Parker writes with a vision that is above most genre literature.
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