Anything But Mundane
By Cheryl Morgan
As some of you will know, Geoff Ryman is a supporter of Mundane SF, a literary movement that believes that speculative fiction should not stray too far from what we know. Perhaps more importantly, Mundane SF champions the cause of interesting characters and stories ahead of interesting technology. Some of Rymanís work has, of course, been highly speculative, but he doesnít write space opera, and his latest novel, The Kingís Last Song, qualifies as genre only in that it is in part a historical novel. Nevertheless, it is a very fine book, and a story that very much needed to be told.
Once upon a time, in a country far, far away, there lived a king. When he was young, the king was very popular as he succeeded in extricating his country from the rule of foreigners. But politics in his part of the world was not easy. Other great nations fought over the region, and the local countries were drawn into the wars. The people of the country, who were mainly simple farmers, became unhappy. Some foreigners whispered in their ears that having a king was out of fashion, and that if they overthrew him they would become wealthy. Then a local man set himself up as the leader of the people. Depose the king, throw out the foreigners, he said. We will make a country that is fair to all.
The kingís name was Sihanouk, and the man who would depose him called himself Pol Pot. The story of his brief and terrible reign is so horrific that if an author made it up in a book everyone would say it was too awful to ever happen.
The Cambodians wanted the Vietnamese out of their country and China to stop feeding the Khmers Rouge arms. They wanted America to stop supporting China. They wanted the Soviet Union to solve its own problems. They wanted it to stop. They were exhausted.
Geoff Rymanís novel begins in 2004. The French, Americans and Russians are long gone from the region, bringing their wars to other parts of the globe. Cambodia is struggling to find its feet in the world. Men like Ly William, who are too young to remember the civil wars, are interested only in making their country rich, and the best way to do that is to welcome the Westerners back as tourists. The beautiful and ancient city of Angkor Wat is an ideal tourist destination. Luc Andrade and his UN team of archaeologists are busy helping research the history of the site and recover ancient treasures. William makes sure he gets close to the Westerners. He can learn from them, and they pay in dollars.
The one thing that Luc doesnít need, however, is a major find. An ancient book, apparently written by one of Cambodiaís most famous kings, and inscribed on gold leaf, is just the sort of thing to bring all of the old corruption and rivalries to the fore. The government, the army, the police, the Thai art dealers: all of them want a piece of the action. And the Khmers Rouges have not been destroyed, they are just waiting in the fields and the jungle for a chance to strike.
Half of the book tells how Luc is kidnapped by revolutionaries and how William and the policemen, Tan Map, try to rescue him. The other half is the book: the Kingís last song, apparently written by Jayavarman VII, the famous Buddhist King who united the country in the twelfth century and brought a period of prosperity, religious devotion and peace. William and Map hope that this book can inspire the Cambodian people to greatness once more.
Ryman, however, has no stars in his eyes. He knows that kings, especially mediaeval kings, do not come to power easily. Pol Pot did not invent the idea of civil war, and for all his piety Jayavarman still had plenty of blood on his hands.
Our swords rose and fell like the rain. We waded through a swamp of blood, sinking in ooze, having to be mindful that the fallen men would still strike. They clawed and bit and kicked and would not be still so we cut them to pieces. [Ö] Yama the devouring sun was full upon us.
Central to this story of national redemption is Tan Map. A senior member of the Khmers Rouges, Map later defected and enlisted in the government army. By that time, like many Cambodians, he was sick of fighting and only wanted to find out if any of his family had survived the slaughter. But, of course, some of Mapís family have been killed because of who he was and what he did. Others do not have the strength to live through the aftermath of Pol Potís rule. Map has his own need for redemption, and appears not entirely sane.
Trouble is my girlfriend; I love Trouble; she comes up to me all slinky and says, you want to have a party? I donít even need a dollar to pay her, Trouble loves me so much.
Well, thatís one way of dissuading all the people who would love to kill you.
I suspect that many genre readers will have little interest in The Kingís Last Song, even though Ryman is currently flavor of the month in the SF industry. It is about as far away from a heroic fantasy as you can get. But Ryman isnít interested in the fantasy, heís interested in the reality that lies behind the myths, and how that reality gets spun. Jayavarman VII was no saint, although the Buddhists might portray him as one. Tan Map is not a hero. But Cambodia is a country desperately in need of myths. Geoof Ryman and Tan Map have set out to write one.