OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
The Sapien Empire – by Nathan Ogloff
Publisher: Nathan Ogloff, British Columbia, Canada, Feb 6, 2024.
Modern Civilization has collapsed. Warlords are feeding on the corpse. A mechanic thinks he can do better.
In the ancient of days I loved the Gold Key comic book series MIGHTY SAMSON which ran 32 issues from June 1964 to August 1982. I still have 14 of the early ones I collected as a kid. To be sure, the mutants he fought in the ruins of N’Yark city were the cover attraction, but what particularly fascinated me was the whole idea of living amid the ruins of New York city scavenging for still-functioning vestiges of “ancient” technology which could be put to good use in rebuilding a semblance of the “glory” days of civilization. Something fundamentally optimistic about that.
Even now I am a sucker for post-apocalyptic stories, novels and movies. The MAD MAX films are great fun. Beyond that, I enjoy any sense-of-wonder extrapolation of past knowledge or belief system transformed into something which offers hope for a new beginning. A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller, Jr., depressing though it be, remains a favourite. Now comes THE SAPIEN EMPIRE by Nathan Ogloff, the first in a series of four self-published novels. It may be the ultimate version of MIGHTY SAMSON that I’ve been searching for all my life.
Thing is I know Nathan. He’s been a regular at the weekly zoom meetings I host for Canadian SF writers, publishers and editors. I finally got to meet him in person at the recent When Words Collide writers festival. He is a serious, dedicated writer pursuing his personal vision, a belief that no matter how badly things go smash, humanity, by its very nature, will inevitably rebuild a decent civilization. I confess I am not quite that sanguine. Yes, Western civilization built itself up from the ashes of the Roman Empire, but only by surpassing its virtues and its faults, and I’m expecting a new dark age any day now. Which is why I’ve taken up the old Roman saw “Eat, drink and be merry, because tomorrow we die.” My personal version being “Don’t know how much longer I’ve got, so I better publish other people like crazy because I can so I will.” Kind of clumsy for a motto, but it will do.
Nathan is deeply read on the subject of our impending collapse. He knows even more depressing factoids than I do. Still, he retains his optimistic vision. Why? Because he stubbornly believes it’s realistic and something we can count on. Call me “amazed.” As recent headlines reveal, there seems to be little cause for hope in humanity. Is Nathan blind? Is his magnum opus a hippie-dippie California Guru-style nice-nice exercise in happy-happy joy-joy?
Not a bit of it. He takes our traditional bestial appetites fully into account. More, he delves into the subtle difficulties of controlling oneself, knowing oneself, and even avoiding oneself as typical and routine measures necessary to retain sanity and/or stay alive. The novel begins simply but very quickly evolves into detailed character studies and, above all, into intense introspection on the part of the protagonist. Yes, it’s an exercise in psychology, inasmuch as it delves deeply into what it takes to motivate people to do anything. But there’s plenty of slam-bang action, much of it unbelievably ruthless (read “realistic”), and all of it fitting within the complexity and context of the plot. Again, call me “amazed.” Nothing less than an epic is unfolding in the 300+ pages of THE SAPIEN EMPIRE.
I shouldn’t be surprised. Nathan has been working on this project for nine years! All the while studying at university, earning a living, and working out in a gym more or less daily. His project has been workshopped thoroughly, gone through many beta readers, benefited from several knowledgeable mentors and, you may rest assured, been subjected to considerable thought on the part of the author. This is no first draft rushed into print. It is exactly what Nathan wants people to read.
Before I get into the characters and plot, let me explain the setting. The novel takes place around the Salish Sea, which encompasses both the Canadian Pacific Southwest and the American Pacific Northwest. All the familiar cities and towns are gone. Civilization fell not once, but twice. First a cascading series of disasters—economic, political, militarist, climatic, sociological and everything else you can think of—smashed the infrastructure of modern interdependency. Still, holdout communities survived here and there, but because they lacked the resources to maintain the old belief systems and lifestyle, they gradually dwindled away. Then began “The Great Silence.” Nothing to read. Nothing to listen to. An era of subsistence level survival. Humanity on the brink of extinction.
But, you know, good old human nature bounces back. A flood of altruistic saints? No, of course not. Rather, a tsunami of selfish opportunists, of charismatic thugs attracting followers with visions of loot and plunder. As an aside, my own thoughts, many a survivalist allegedly dreams of holding out in his fortified cabin for a couple of years protecting his family with a shotgun or an AK47 or whatever. Then what? Nation restored, and it’s back to being a certified accountant somewhere? Don’t think so. If the “big one” drops, already-organized groups like the Hell’s Angels will (probably) travel from cabin to cabin, taking what and whom they want, ultimately setting up little mini-kingdoms feeding off refugees and warring with other “tribal” territories.
Nathan seems to have cultivated similar thoughts on what it would take to jumpstart enough complexity to hint at better to come, albeit through the worst of methods, at least initially. We begin with Arch-Lordchief Vibrun Magrite throwing a party for the lesser warlords serving under him. Each controls a small city-state and/or a clutch of mercenaries, but he rules them all in a petty kingdom called “The Domain.” His domain, naturally. Conquered through ruthlessness, cruelty, a reign of terror, and the support of “The Abstract,” the all-powerful fate dwelling in the black depths of the bottomless “Shrine of the Abstract” which he alone controls or is controlled by. It chose him, you see, to be everybody’s lord, saviour, and personal demon. You want proof? He’s happy to hurl you into the abyss to question the Abstract yourself. He’s very egalitarian that way. He’ll throw anybody in, including his most loyal followers, if they even hint they don’t worship and obey him in their sleep. Not unlike some contemporary politicians.
Lucky underling Under-Lordchief Vik gets to keep close attendance, for he is Vibrun’s chosen successor. It is with some interest he watches the Arch-Lordchief push a different under-Lordchief into the Abstract. The price of failure. It could happen to Vik on a whim. Not surprisingly, he pays careful attention to everything Vibrun says. This is quite common throughout the book. The characters often discuss their relationships to each other and political events as they happen. Call it mentoring. Call it networking. Call it oneupmanship. But mainly, call it a survival characteristic. Everybody is always trying to figure out what’s going on. What particularly galls Vik is that Vibrun’s “lessons” often take the form of questions which must be answered correctly lest Vibrun conclude Vik is unsuitable material for a successor. Vik sweats a lot.
Vibrun then holds a grand council of chiefs where he tests everybody as they get drunk. Struck me as something superficially akin to a Hell’s Angel barbeque. Not as much fun as it sounds. A lot of potentially fatal undercurrents.
I was beginning to think the novel was going into entertaining but relatively superficial MAD MAX territory when the scene switched to the protagonist, Shindo Dacan, Vibrun’s Machinewright. With a natural aptitude for mechanics, and a tendency to be obsessively focused on the task at hand, Shindo is something of a genius, having repaired derelict vehicles and cobbled together war tanks which enabled Vibrun to kill his way to power. Shindo is privileged. Vibrun leaves him alone in his workshop, providing he comes up with something neat and nifty every once in a while. Like a better machine gun, or a more effective flamethrower.
But we meet Shindo as he attempts to subvert a factory manager into agreeing to make prosthetic limbs of Shindo’s design for the numerous disabled veterans and wounded civilians. Without question Vibrun would consider this an enormous waste of scarce resources and put them both to death. Yet the manager has a conscience and goes along with the plan, providing all measures are taken to keep it a secret from Vibrun. Rather akin to planning a shindig in honour of the memory of Trotsky while Stalin is still the head honcho. Not a good idea, but admittedly a great way to flip Stalin the bird, albeit hopefully unseen.
The above is rather interesting. Not what I would have anticipated given my first impressions. What makes it even more interesting is that Shindo is obviously high-functioning autistic by nature. He can’t read expressions, and only understands the literal meaning of words. He has no grasp of idiom or subtext. He comes across as a cold fish because he almost never shows any emotion, and that’s because he seldom feels emotion, doesn’t even know what emotion is exactly. Not quite true. Threats from Vibrun can throw Shindo into a state of panic, but generally speaking he doesn’t emote his response to communication from others so much as analyse what he thinks they’re saying. Almost always he fails to “get” what they mean. Almost as if people are conspiring to hold back needful information. In his relations with others he is perpetually clueless. This is why he prefers time well spent alone at his work bench.
An example of his approach to emotion comes when he is informed his parents are dying and that he should go to them. He “knows” that he loves them, and is concerned, but the news come at an inopportune time, there are projects requiring his completion, so his parents will just have to wait. Perfectly logical. Obviously, they will understand.
Why then does he want to provide prosthetic limbs to those who desperately need them? Out of an abundance of empathy? Not consciously. He just “knows” they need them, and since he is the only person who knows how to design them, he’s the one to get things going. Obviously. Logical. No choice. The decent thing to do.
Shindo goes from task to task determined to get things done. That puts routine into his life and makes him happy. Until Vibrun demands he drop everything and design something that will turn every mercenary into a killing machine. ASAP if you please or die. This forces Shindo to consider actions and relationships utterly new to his limited experience, and all the while hindered by his total lack of understanding how other people think. The reader can’t help but root for the guy. Never was there a hero so hapless and helpless, yet ripe with potential.
Needless to say, everything falls apart, or rather explodes into complexity as multiple vested interests, including some who never thought of themselves that way before, plunge into an orgy of plotting and backstabbing and rebellion and betrayal more than enough to set up the entire series. All of this accompanied by shocking levels of violence. Oh, not violence for its own sake, every act, every torture, every battle has a purpose and a plot function, and often furthers characterization as well. The whole mishmash is well thought out. Nothing irrelevant.
But what shocks the reader is the approach to violence. Many potential victims dread it. But for the “professionals,” it’s mostly just a boring job, or maybe a career challenge, or maybe just a bit of fun. Nobody is shocked by what they do. At the very least, they believe they have no choice and it must be done. End of story. This is a very common approach to habitualized, professional violence, especially when it is expected of you and “authorized” by your superiors, by law, and by custom.
I remember the mugger who knocked me down and kicked the crap out of my head and chest was utterly calm throughout the process. It was how he earned money. He didn’t stop beating me till I told him he could take whatever he wanted. Business as usual. People think criminals despise themselves for being criminals. Nothing could be further from the truth. They have nothing but contempt for their victims.
I remember seeing a mercenary being interviewed in the village in South America where they had just wiped out the villagers. He laughingly informed the interviewer he had been a celebrity psychiatrist in New York City. Considered his career a dead end and quite boring. On an impulse answered an ad and became a mercenary. Never had he felt so alive. Killing was wonderfully empowering. He recommended it to everybody.
True, not everybody thinks this way. But put people in a war situation where everyone they love is at risk and see what happens. Desperate times produce desperate measures.
Does that mean everyone is doomed? Beyond the Domain are a variety of small communities that have managed to survive and rise above “The Great Silence.” Some, the Rustraisers, are a feisty lot of selfish Libertarians loyal only to themselves, but very adept at salvaging old technology and are potential useful to others. Then there are peaceful communities of Offgriders in dire need of help because they haven’t been able to maintain their self-sustaining ecosystems and must seek refuge wherever they can. All this makes for an explosive mix of alliances and conflicts shifting about like a berserk kaleidoscope. Great fun, actually.
Nevertheless, though it all Shindo and a growing number of allies who appreciate his viewpoint strive to overcome strife and unite survivors in the common cause of restoring civilization. Appropriating weird and wonderful derelict technology is part of their strategy. Their enemies, too, consider archaeology vital to their war effort. An arms race determined by who wields the most shovels, so to speak. Stirs my sense of wonder. The whole book does.
There’s nothing rushed about this book. It may strike some readers as a bit old-fashioned, in terms of the length of scenes, quantity of dialogue, and amount of description. But I found it wonderfully immersive. In movies I hate flash editing. I prefer being allowed to look at what is being shown. THE SAPIEN EMPIRE lets you look at the total experience. You learn to revel in the details, to enjoy the minutiae, to bask in the characters’ confusion. I found reading this novel totally absorbing. I found it hard to put down. I wanted to know what would happen next.
Some writers achieve this with a fast and furious pace, a breathless rush. That works too. But it’s nice to read a novel that is built on rich detail rather than brief, subliminal impressions. Some would argue a throwback to a better way of writing. Certainly, it pleased me.
But what I like best about this novel is what I consider the high level of realism. Oh, to be sure, there are some idiosyncratic characters, and unexpected plot twists you might think the real world is incapable of (Oh, really? You haven’t studied history?), but the psychological factors, the practical rationalizations, the decision-making, all strike me as authentically human.
Yes, the future could be as bad as this (in many places it already is), but there’s cause for hope. That’s the premise, and maybe, just maybe, Nathan could be right.
Main thing is I enjoyed reading THE SAPIEN EMPIRE. It really is epic in scope and a splendid example of careful consideration of what may happen to us and what we might be able to do about it. For some it may contain a lot of triggers but that’s because it is relevant and appropriate to our times. Entertaining, yes, but also dead serious. I’m impressed. Nathan has written an important, multi-layered novel.
Both Kindle and Paperback will be released Feb 6th, 2024.
Pre-order now at: < The Sapien Empire >