|For tyrants they are both,
even flat against their oath
To grant us they are loathe
free meat and drink and cloth
Stand up now diggers all.
(Image via Goodreads.)
Told in the second-person, the story follows Torquell, the son of a rural village headsman, whose life gets turned upside down after he makes the mistake of having an altercation with the son of the Ogre noble who oversees his village, and is forced to flee into the wider world. Through Torquell’s eyes, readers are taken on a tour of this society, seeing factory towns, exploited military regiments, and Ogre high society.
Nuanced, iterative worldbuilding reveals a complex set of social relations, despite an initially obvious – and blunt – metaphor about inequality.
Ogres may be one of the most overtly leftist pieces of mainstream SFF published in the past 50 years; it is clearly informed by Enclosure Acts-era British rent seeking, by Dickensian living conditions, by The Sound Of His Horn, and by Marxist theory. This is not Marxist in the pop-culture understanding of the word, but informed by the academic intellectual framework.
This theoretical underpinning is evident in the ways societal structures reinforce the Ogres’ control, and maintain economic disparity. The use of religion as a tool for maintaining the compliance of economically disadvantaged people is particularly striking. Likewise, the way that “economic” is used as a pejorative by the Ogres highlights the philosophical stance of the book, as well as how the Ogres think about humans.
By the end, it is clear that what makes the Ogres monstrous isn’t their enormous size or their strength, but rather their wealth. Those who attain such heights of power and privilege are monstrous, no matter what their shape or size.
At times, the second-person point-of-view narration can come across as a bit precious. It is certainly not the standard perspective for most fiction, and this may present an impediment for some readers. But once the story gets going, this quirk of prose style becomes less and less obtrusive, and by the book’s conclusion it is evident why the second-person voice was necessary.
may be his most
political work yet, and
is among his best.
(Image via Pan MacMillan)
While this isn’t the easily accessible prose that Tchaikovsky’s fans have come to expect, it is just as rich as his other works. For example, the book is filled with some excellent turns of phrase such as a line in which someone is described as “used to weighing others by the amount of world they displace.”
At the risk of offering a relatively mild spoiler, the second-person perspective pays off in the last 10 pages in a note-perfect and unexpected recontextualization of the entire narrative. Portions of the denouement that seemed improbable or overly convenient were put in sharp focus — and improved — by this conclusion. It was the sort of ending that may prompt re-reads of the work for those who want to find all the little clues throughout. If we had our way, it would be included in a creative writing curriculum.
Over the course of several of his most recent novellas (Elder Race, Expert Champion, Ogres), Tchaikovsky has explored various iterations of Clark’s Law. In Ogres, he goes one further and shows that while sufficiently advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic, sufficiently advanced inequality is indistinguishable from grimdark fiction.
Science fiction and fantasy are at their best when something real is reflected through unreal worlds. The monstrous nature of Ogres is effective because it is so real.