A TWISTER OF A SCI-FI TALE
If my praise in the review of the debut Sci-Fi novel by Callen Clarke - Firadis (Arena) seems excessive then try to keep in mind that I did my best to speak in terms of restraint. Clarke has re-awoken an old passion in me. I grew up with Star Wars - the proper ones - and am one of tens of thousands of Europeans who happily fill in 'Jedi' if asked for religious affilation. To me Star Wars was -and still is - the Millennium Falcon, the scoundrel and the walking carpet. The nitty-gritty low down trash running blockades and switching from legal to illegal cargo at the blink of an eye. Joss Whedon understood this and his Firefly series created a perfect mature continuation of this fascination. The rogue captain of the battered space transport Serenity, Mal Reynolds, summed it up perfectly when he said: "I aim to misbehave."
Firefly did more though, Solo was just a glance at a shadowy culture at the underbelly of society; Firefly added culture and showed us that these rogues, despite being desperate fugitives only one failed delivery away from hunger, had a strong code of honour and a sense of justice which rivalled that of the Jedi.
Firadis (Arena) takes us a step further; now that we understand that strong morality of the underdogs - called malcodes this time - we fully understand the dedication of a team sent out to right a wrong. The rogues return to the attention of the central authoritarian system; this time one where it is hard to tell right from wrong and good from bad. The hero selected to don the coat worn by Solo and Reynolds might surprise you - but I'm not telling you who, you'll have to read it and that, I assure you, is no punishment.
Imagine a world without pain and filled only with physical human beauty; every human inhabitant a specimen of good health and perfectly balanced physical traits. No disease, no sorrow, no crime and no aberrant behaviour. A world in which technology too has been near perfected to serve just about every need one could think of.
Welcome to Annatiir, the heart of the Core and therefore the centre of the known universe in Callen Clarke’s Firadis (Arena).
The reader is not introduced to this apparently perfect world gently; Clarke demonstrates his narrative ability by seizing the reader by the scruff and dragging them along on a desperate mission to destroy ‘perfection’ before we even know about the ‘perfection’. One is impressed by the abilities and utter dedication of these warriors we accompany on a tense covert operation with sublime action scenes that leave you breathless and gripping the edge of your seat.
Imagine then the surprise when other new characters from various walks of life slowly reveal the principles of Genetocracy in which our initial protagonists are revealed to be the dregs of society; the ‘malcodes’ for it turns out that being considered a ‘human’ requires far more than it does today where we all qualify because….well just because we do. We tend to not even think about it though Clarke certainly manages to make it a topic for consideration and having opened our minds he has us where he wants his readers to be (is my guess); ready to accept the layers of existentialism and spirituality that confound each character on different levels and which lend Firadis (Arena) a believable depth of many dimensions. This is no two-dimensional sci-fi backdrop….this is total immersion.
Models were made too
There is a deep irony in the capital city of Ibelesan on Annatiir because those elevated to legal human status have paid the ultimate price for superficial physical perfection: In essence they have sold their soul to the devil for the reader recognizes what they do not; they are bereft of true feelings and emotions. They need to follow specialist courses to acquire the empathic and social skills we consider normal and they need chems to aid the simulation of a real experience. In this they are still recognizably human as there is little self-control with regard to pleasurable experiences; most of the legal humans on Annatiir are doned out on chems non-stop and encouraged to be so by those who think they are in control; for the political intrigues that are revealed….well be ready for a few sucker-punches which will leave you gasping for breath.
A nightmare scenario of a possible future then, an undeniable superlative of Orwell’s 1984 but is it only the future Clarke refers to? I think not. There are subtle echoes of another empire at its very height of power. Bread and circuses for the Romans; Chems and the Arena for those doned out in Clarke’s Genetocracy. All roads lead to Rome just as the paths of the characters we meet –many protagonist and antagonist rolled into one, a delightful combination of heroic and anti-heroic qualities- all lead to the Arena where an epic mid-book climax will leave the reader confounded and unable to put down the book till it has been devoured.
Just as the painted Iqubi ʻtrickstersʼ who greet the public trouping into the Arena invoke Rome’s Coliseum so the words “Thus always to Tyrants!” echo the upheaval of Caesar’s Ides of March. From there it is an easy step to translate bread and circuses to gasoline and mind-numbing TV-shows. Are we, in the here and now, already losing our capacity to feel –especially feel for others- and well on our way to the spiritual void of chems and the Arena?
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The strength of Firadis (Arena) is that it provokes such thought while at the same time taking us on a journey that comes complete with spiralling sky palaces which are dazzling to behold and fleet manoeuvres that make you want to run to the nearest Armada recruitment offices (if there is such a thing) to sign up as well as delicious space age technology such as killdrones, internal air-channel military aircraft, cloud liners, standard imperial gravity, power-flails, spectrasats, visornodes and flynodes.
Clarke uses language to emphasize that the reader is on a world unknown but don’t be put off by this. It may seem bewildering at first but that it precisely what is required for subconscious human curiosity –a much underestimated motor of the mind- to endeavour to make sense of it all. Recent scientific research has shown that this leads to chemical reactions which give pleasurable feelings. Essentially Clarke is a chem-pusher who offers the reader a chance to done out on genuine chemical satisfaction as he or she masters the language of a Genetocracy and develops an instinctive understanding of terms such as retrocodation, dyscoded and cross-codation as well as social levels with Malcodes, Huurcodes, Polcodes, Ordcodes and more.
Callen Clarke said: "What is the lure of writing? Only this: that by my thoughts I might evoke in you worlds you have not guessed." Well, in my estimation he has succeeded in this mission. I cannot recommend this book enough or speak of it in more laudable terms, provided that Callen Clarke writes a sequel. Soon. Because I wouldn’t pay storage for his codes if he doesn’t.
May the Peace of Firadis be upon you.
Clarke can do more than write compelling sci-fi
The author speaks of his models.
"Since we're all SF fans here, I thought I would share a little bit about the design of these ships I imagine. How does one imagine combat between space ships _without_ warp-drives, forcefields, gravity-plates beneath a ship built by 'decks' and filled with air like a terrestrial airplane or ocean ship? In other words, how does one combine the drama of Space Opera with the physics of Hard SF? That was what I wanted to know when I first began imagining stories with these ships twenty years ago. The shape, design and details are all conceived as a means to plausibly deal with the special problems of combat in a weightless three dimensional vacuum."
Review by Nils Visser
Nils Visser is the author of the Wyrde Woods Chronicles. The first novel, Escape from Neverland, is available on Amazon as a Kindle Book but now also in print at selected stores.