03 February 2012

Victorian Controversies, 1885-88: Colonization

Trade paperback, 300 pages
Published 1999 (contents: 1885-88)
Acquired July 2011
Read November 2011
The Man who would be King and Other Stories
by Rudyard Kipling

The best story in this volume is of course the title story, "The Man who would be King."  A long time ago, I saw and loved the film version with its incomparable cast, and the story is every bit as good as the film had lead me to anticipate.  Like much of Rudyard Kipling, it's able to gently poke fun at the follies of imperialism, which maybe isn't the reaction we postmoderns want, but it's enjoyable all the same.  Carnehan and Dravot are two men who've been let down by imperialism-- they went and conquered India, and what did it get them?-- and so they decide to run it for themselves, with the consequences you might anticipate.  The way the narrative jumps between distant and personal, sometimes disintegrating, is particularly effective. (It helps to imagine Michael Caine reading it.)

Other than Kim, this was my first encounter with Kipling.  His body of short fiction is apparently massive; this book brings together just seventeen pieces.  (Disappointingly, none of his science fiction is represented.)  As in any body of work, some worked for me and some did not.  It's a varied body of work; aside from taking place in India, the stories here have very little in common.  There are comedies and tragedies, tales of British soldiers and first-person narratives of Indian natives.

One tale of a British soldier, "The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes" might not be science fiction, but it uses tropes that turn up in many a science fiction tale, with a traveler trapped in a land seemingly outside of time. (I am personally thinking of the Star Trek cartoon "The Time Trap" and a Silver Age Green Arrow comic, but I am sure there are better examples.)  It was definitely one of the stronger tales here.  I didn't always get along with the tales of the British upper crust hanging out in India; skimming back over stories like "A Wayside Comedy" or "The Education of Otis Yeere," I realize that I barely remember what happened.  I really wanted to like "With the Main Guard," which is narrated by Three Soldiers alternatingly, but though the narrative device was interesting, the story itself was so-so.  On the other hand, "Only a Subaltern" was more fun that I expected going in.

From the Indian perspective, we also get strong stories in "Gemini," a black comedy about a man and his twin brother who disenfranchises him in every way possible, "At Twenty-Two," about a group of mine workers, and "In Flood Time," about a bridge keeper, among others.  These stories work in a large part because they immerse the reader in a society that's (probably) not his own; I've read several articles that say Kipling's significance to science fiction is not the science fiction he actually wrote, but rather his worldbuilding techniques, and reading stories like this, I can see that.  The techniques that Kipling's uses are ones that any contemporary reader of sf takes for granted.  They're often even told from the first person, an immersive move that makes for difficult yet rewarding reading.

The tales that explicitly deal with the intersections between the two worlds are also fascinating.  Kipling isn't really for or against colonization, as far as I can tell from reading these stories.  It's simply something that's happened, and he deals with its effects.  Sometimes these are funny (I love the story of the misguided missionaries in "The Judgment of Dungara") but of course there's a decent amount of tragedy running around too.  More usually, a story is both ("On the City Wall," for example.)

Other than the title story, the real standout was "Baa Baa, Black Sheep," a semiautobiographical tale of Kipling's own deprived childhood, separated from his parents and raised by a mentally and verbally abusive aunt.  You're completely immersed in the point-of-view of the boy, and it's harrowing and depressing, but oh so very good.  Poor kid.

It is, oddly enough, possible to read vast swathes of Victorian literature and never realize that Britain has an empire.  You might get the odd mention or subplot, but with just a prologue and epilogue set in India, The Moonstone is already an outlier.  It's odd to think that at the same time Kipling was writing these stories, Thomas Hardy is waxing rhapsodic about the English countryside in Wessex Tales.  For that different perspective on the Victorian world alone, Kipling is worthwhile, but thankfully he has a depth of insight, too.

Also: he's funny.  Best joke is when someone starts to get all philosophical, and someone else cuts her off by saying, essentially, "That's enough, George Eliot."

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