by Richard Calder
Published by Earthlight
359 pages, 2000
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Late in the 21st century, more than 30,000 years before the events of Richard Calder's novel Malignos, a cataclysm in a parallel dimension caused alien souls called the Perverse to contaminate a number of human beings. They created a new form of demonic-looking humanity that would eventually become known as Malignos. Shortly thereafter, humanity suffered a period of Dark Ages in which much memory and records of the past were lost. Both human history and the circumstances surrounding the coming of the Perverse are now shrouded in myth.
'Perhaps you are right about our mutual ignorance of the past. The time of the Ancients is a time of mystery. And all we know of the Dark Ages that followed is that it was a time of blood and sorrow. A time when men forgot how to use the machines that had sustained the ancient world, the machines that gave men new bodies, the machines that took them to the stars. Perhaps the notion that we have evolved from those we call the "children of the perverse" is a myth.'
A Malignos addresses these words to the book's protagonist and narrator, Richard Pike: scholar, notorious veteran swordfighter in the most recent war with the Malignos and exile from the Darkling Isle (Great Britain) for the offense of loving a Malignos woman. Pike is a hero in the classic Campbellian mode -- a doer of fabulous deeds on a quest of transformation -- and not in the current, romantic meaning, i.e., a selfless altruist who in the face of overwhelming odds will always do what is right and just. No, the latter definition certainly does not apply to the vain and opportunistic Pike: philanderer, liar, betrayer of trust, bigot, snob and more.
Calder's refusal to supply his novel with the prerequisite likable protagonist is one of the many ways in which he delightfully perverts his pulpy narrative, much like the Perverse have affected the humanity of his story. On the surface, Malignos is a straightforward quest story. Pike and his Malignos lover, Gala, live in exile in the Pilipinas. They are lured into a trap laid by Gala's Malignos family. They punish her for betraying her species by making her drink a potion which wipes out her mind. Pike then embarks on a perilous quest to the center of the Earth, to Pandemonium, capital of the Malignos, where a cure for Gala's condition is said to exist. At quest's end, Pike is transformed and many questions about the novel's premise are answered.
The usual comforting familiarity of the quest narrative is undermined by Pike's tenaciously abhorrent behavior. Calder further refuses make his situation too -- indeed, at all -- pat. The Malignos look like demons. Gut reaction: they are evil. The Malignos, because of their appearance, are condemned by conventional humanity to live, like mythological demons, beneath the Earth, in the underworld. Analysis: they are persecuted and it is humanity who is evil. In a simpler novel it would end there. However, Calder depicts so many atrocities perpetrated by both humans and Malignos that no obvious moral imperative stands out. Further, as is revealed in the course of the quest, the Malignos are fueled by instincts bred in a violent universe of ecstatic beauty. These impulses have in turn been perverted by contact with this universe. The beauty is mostly lost and all that is left is a vicious brutality bereft of the context that gave it purpose and meaning.
Malignos -- related to Calder's earlier novel Frenzetta, but nevertheless a self-contained story -- is redolent of perversion and decadence. The world is filled with decaying human and Perverse technology that no one understands. Pike is swayed from his quest by the merest erotic flick of a female Malignos' tail, be she young, old, or infirm ("If another opportunity to make the two-backed beast with a sick, dying girl should present itself, I feared that, weak-willed as I was, I would find it difficult to deny myself the pleasure"). Humanity keeps slaves made of other humans infected by the same poison as Gala. Malignos matrons keep human boy-toys to amuse themselves. Swarms of youthful cannibal Malignos terrorize the underworld by assaulting and eating Malignos and humans alike. Laws of science have been twisted out of shape, allowing Perverse technology to maintain an underworld resplendent with mythic archetypes and primal fears. Pike's vain machismo involves constantly having to fix his make-up and mascara. The usually ignored phallic implications of featuring a sword-wielding protagonist are, in Malignos, laid bare, ridiculed, deconstructed and perversely genderbendered.
Malignos not only evokes Christian and classical myth but also previous decadent narratives of fantasy and science fiction. The opportunistic Pike's name itself recalls the equally opportunistic Steerpike of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, a connection further highlighted by the disdain held for Steerpike by the very British-like royalty of Gormenghast and Pike's condemnation by British authorities for his sexual preferences. The far-future narrative of an exiled, questing swordsman in a world where technology is so unrecognizable that it appears supernatural brings to mind Gene Wolfe's story of Severian in The Book of the New Sun. Further, both The New Sun and Malignos are imbued with Christian symbolism. The idea of imbedding a lusty, thrilling pulp adventure with linguistics and anthropology harks back to Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure (itself a fascinating perversion of Edgar Rice Burroughs). The Malignos concepts of our present and near-future being presented as a long-lost past of technological wonders and of swords as high-tech avatars of frightening knowledge and power are also to be found in Fred Saberhagen's The Books of Swords. Roger Zelazny's novels This Immortal, The Dream Master and Eye of Cat each portray, like Malignos, a flawed hero's travails in a world where myth and science tensely collide. Far-future decadent sexual mores were previously depicted in Michael Moorcock's classic The Dancers at the End of Time, which opens with an immortal mother and son sharing an intimate and erotic picnic. Calder takes all these influences and antecedents and grandiosely perverts even the most decadent among them.
As all of the above implies, Malignos is rich and dense. Malignos is a sensual delight for the intellect, titillating and thrilling, intriguing and immense. Days after having finished it, I can still feel Malignos worming itself though me, perverting my perceptions. I feel all the richer for it. | June 2000
Claude Lalumière is a freelance writer, editor, translator and publishing consultant. He's the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop.