Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Petrovitch Trilogy booms and sizzles like a Hollywood blockbuster

From The Week of April 15, 2013

Beforelong, any discussion of what constitutes a good life inevitably turns to the fundamental question of what we, as individuals, owe to the world into which we are born. We cannot choose the society that birthed us. Nor can we necessarily choose to emigrate to the society that best suits us. And so, given that we lack a full measure of agency in this area, one would expect our answer to be that we owe our world nothing, that one can only feel an obligation to something that they have freely chosen to belong to. Despite this, many of us choose to give back not only our time and money, but, in some cases, our very lives. Such a selfless act of devotion to a society can only mean that, to some of us, society is everything. This most enduring debate underpins Simon Morden's explosive, apocalyptic trilogy.

It is the third decade of the 21st century and the world has been convulsed by terrorism. An event known simply as the Armageddon, a series of nuclear suicide bombings perpetrated by zealots, destroyed much of the new century's promise, reducing many of the world's countries to radioactive wastelands and triggering a refugee crisis throughout what remained. The United States and the European Union appear to be the two remaining powers of significance. However, the former is too beset by its own religious fundamentalism and the latter is too convulsed by seeming indifference to set about restoring order to a planet in political, environmental and economic shambles.

Amidst this ruin endures Samuel Petrovitch. A refugee from radioactive Saint Petersburg, he has come to post-Armageddon London, now known as the Metrozone, to attend school at the Imperial College of London where he has distinguished himself as a brilliant thinker in the field of experimental physics. Cynical beyond his youthful years, he has been deeply scarred by a hellish adolescence that has left him with not only a faulty heart, but a heavily burdened conscience that, despite his every effort, he cannot quash. He wishes only to be left alone, to create something glorious out of the rubble, but fate has conspired to place him at the center of great events over which he has only minimal control, events that have the power to transform the world beyond something even Petrovitch's powerful mind would recognize.

Ambitiously grappling with any number of vital social issues, The Samuel Petrovitch Trilogy is a gripping thrillride through a post-nuclear Hell. Mr. Morden imagines a profoundly scarred world that has finally paid a high price for nuclear proliferation. He's then seeded this world with a fascinating array of characters, all of whom have suffered through not only Armageddon, but the socioeconomic fallout that has virtually ended the notion of local government, transferring the bulk of political power, at least in the Metrozone, into the hands of gangland figures and crime lords who possess the lethal combination of ruthlessness and manpower to make some kind of order from the chaos. We are made witness to the birth of religions, of social classes, even of new traditions, that would have been unimaginable even 20 years earlier.

Though Mr. Morden's trilogy is squarely aimed at readers seeking plots and prose drenched in adrenaline, his work here is elevated by a series of ethical questions that will transfix more thoughtful readers. The author deploys Petrovitch as a cipher for the technologies of tomorrow, a means through which his readers can interpret both the promise and the terror of what's to come. What are the potential costs to human society of widespread computer automation of infrastructure and transportation? What are the spiritual implications of creating artificial intelligences which exhibit every indication of sentience and conscience? What should we be willing to sacrifice, in the form of order, to open our borders to refugees from dying nations? These are merely a few of the numerous 21st-century debates that, yet to be widely argued, will undoubtedly define the decades to come. Mr. Morden executes them with skill and style.

For all its thematic virtues, however, let there be no doubt that this series has its numerous troubles. The Samuel Petrovitch Trilogy is the literary equivalent to a Hollywood summer blockbuster, an explosive spectacle that, in the silence between cacophonies, seeks to say something profound. To Mr. Morden's credit, he pulls off this magic trick far more fluidly than do his siblings in cinema, but this does not alter the reality that these three works are bloated with post-apocalyptic action sequences that are both repetitive and overblown. Moreover, when it comes to metaphor, Mr. Morden has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Petrovitch's malformed heart is meant to represent the profound selfishness that is the face he puts to the world. His search for a healthy alternative is meant to parallel his search for goodness, both internal and external. And yet, it's clear that Petrovitch already possesses a conscience and a spiritual heart, compelling Mr. Morden to pivot this metaphor to one of man becoming machine that never escapes the hopelessly theatrical.

However much this trilogy is like a fine rock band that plays too loudly just because it can, its merits ultimately overcome its flaws. This is not just a nihilistic journey through a crumbling world. This is a vision of a utopia being born out of the ashes of human error and ignorance. Executing this vision requires not just talent, but a desire to say something meaningful. That is a virtue we can all celebrate. (3/5 Stars)

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