Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness

April 26, 2011 at 1:08 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 8 Comments

The Knife of Never Letting Go coverIt’s been about ten years since I decided I would do my best to avoid reading series until they are finished.  Lately I’ve been thinking about giving up on this.  One reason is that it tends to mean arriving to conversations very late.  Three years ago, Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go was the book everyone was talking about, but I waited until the Chaos Walking trilogy was finished before giving it a try.  So here I am, fashionably late.  As I read the trilogy, however, I found that if anything the experience turned out to validate my approach.  For one thing, Knife ends with a nearly unbearable cliffhanger.  I’m not as sensitive to cliffhangers as I used to be…but still, that was a very tall cliff and I was quite glad I only hung from it a day instead of a year.

But even leaving aside the cliffhanger, I was happy to have read the Chaos Walking trilogy all at once because the second two books turned out to be so different from the first.  Had I read and reviewed Knife separately I would have spent a long time making points that would have been rendered thoroughly obsolete by the second book.  Looking at the trilogy as a whole, I can be a lot more efficient.

Let’s start with the story.  Todd is about to turn thirteen, the youngest boy in his village…  On second thought, let’s skip the summary.  Another benefit of being late to the party is there are literally hundreds of Internet reviews of The Knife of Never Letting Go available if you really don’t know anything about it.  If you haven’t read Knife, I certainly recommend it.  It may be written at a YA level, but there’s plenty here for adults to chew on (I’d hate to think all the chewing I’m about to do is just me being long-winded).

So, with the understanding there will be some spoilers, though I’ll try to avoid anything too blatant, let’s talk instead about what sort of book Knife is.  Viewed dispassionately, it’s a big collection of clichés familiar from genre and YA fiction.  An orphan boy grows up safe but dissatisfied.  He gets forced out into a wide world that he knows little about, and soon he finds what little he knew was wrong anyway.  He meets some friends and makes some enemies.  Like many YA protagonists before him, he learns he can’t trust adults, even well-intentioned ones, and further he is frequently rejected by people who don’t understand him.  Their mistake: not only would it be in their best interest to listen to him, Todd is far from the bad person they think he is.  In fact, he is Special, possessing unique virtues that make him a particular danger to the story’s villains.

I say “viewed dispassionately” but Patrick Ness makes this fiendishly difficult.  The opening chapters of Knife are a textbook example of how to draw the reader into a world.  First there’s Todd’s cute talking dog.  Then there’s Noise, the telepathic broadcast that the men and animals of Todd’s world can’t help but spew into the world around them.  Right after that, there’s the strange and tragic history of Todd’s village, populated only with men because the women died from the same process that brought about Noise.  And then there’s the mystery that awaits Todd in the swamp outside the village.  And so on.  The relentless novelty of the early chapters eventually slows down, as it must, but when it does the narrative has picked up a desperate urgency that propels the story through to the ending without ever stopping for breath.  The combination of the fascinating world with the seductive tropes (they are clichés because they work) would by itself make a fantastic novel, but the whole story is told in a beautiful first person.  I could have done without the misspellings, but otherwise Todd’s voice is a strong asset to what was already a very strong novel.

No wonder, then, that The Knife of Never Letting Go earned acclaim from critics and readers alike.  It received excellent reviews both in major newspapers and genre circles, not to mention a variety of awards.  With the benefit of a certain amount of hindsight, however, there is a little bit of equivocation in some of the book’s reviews.  Everyone agrees it’s a great read, but what exactly is it about?

Many assumed it was about gender relations, and indeed the book won the 2008 Tiptree award.  Certainly the fact that Noise is a gendered phenomenon, affecting men and not women, looms enormously over the book’s conceptual landscape.  But what does it mean?  In her review, Abigail Nussbaum wasn’t impressed by what the book seemed to be saying, but she ultimately concluded that the reason Knife “makes such troubling statements about women and the relationships between men and women is that it isn’t really concerned with either.”

In interviews at the time, the author claimed that Noise was actually a metaphor for the information overload of modern life.  Great novels could be written about this, but Knife is not that novel.  Although animals make a small amount of Noise and population centers make an indistinguishable roar, there really is no connection whatsoever between Noise as depicted and modern information culture.  On the back of the American edition of The Ask and the Answer Ness is quoted as saying “if the Chaos Walking trilogy is about anything, it’s about identity, finding out who you are.” This at least is true, but saying this about a YA novel is close to tautology.  More interesting is the initial clause, which strikes me as rather defensive.

The Ask and the Answer coverIf I were writing after only reading Knife I would be strongly tempted to say that, in view of the cliffhanger ending, the book is really just about getting you to buy the second book in the trilogy.  Reading that second book, however, changed my perspective completely.  The Ask and the Answer is in many ways the complete opposite of The Knife of Never Letting Go.  In Knife Todd and Viola never stopped running, but in Ask they are stuck in place.  They spend Knife together for most of the book, and their mutual struggle is the foundation of the bond between them.  In Ask they spend almost the entire book apart.  Throughout Knife there was a single goal that was constantly at the forefront of their minds, but in Ask they don’t know what to do.

Beyond those differences, The Ask and the Answer almost completely eschewed the tropes and clichés that Knife relied upon.  The attributes I summarized in the previous paragraph sound like the recipe for a frustrating and meandering novel.  Usually weak and passive protagonists, no matter how likeable they are, make for unsatisfying narratives.  But Patrick Ness makes it work.  Because they are separated in difficult circumstances, there are some misunderstandings between Todd and Viola, but instead of taking the usual route of having the relationship fray close to breaking and setting the stage for a big reconciliation in the third novel, Ness lets them patch things up fairly quickly whenever they are together.  This works well because the novel isn’t dependent on relationship drama, even if that relationship is prominently featured. Instead, Ask focuses on its protagonists’ struggle with the world around them.

And what a tough world it is. Knife was a seductive novel to the point of being manipulative of its readers, so I was shocked to find that Ask is brutal and uncompromising.  Todd is forced to work for the Mayor and his bullying son Davy, and although initially what he does is relatively innocuous, before long he finds himself having to do increasingly unethical things while at the same time becoming a symbol of the Mayor’s oppressive regime.  Viola, for her part, ends up with the resistance against the Mayor’s rule, but from the beginning the Answer and its leader Mistress Coyle are presented as ambiguous at best. The safe and manipulative version of this sort of story is Ender’s Game, where Ender is constantly reassured that the bad things he does aren’t in any way his fault, that he shouldn’t feel guilty, and that the fact he does feel guilty when he doesn’t have to proves what a wonderful person he is. When Todd and Viola feel guilty there’s no easy appeal to good intentions and no clear cut absolution. Most readers will instinctively feel that collaborating with the Mayor’s regime is wrong, but we watch Todd making reasonable choices every step of the way, only to find himself doing horrible things.  Seeing the results of this process through Viola’s eyes, we can’t help but wonder: are we sure those choices were really as reasonable as they seemed?

One side effect of this focus on the Mayor’s oppression and the opposition to it is the decline in importance of gender issues.  It’s true that the Answer is mainly women and the Mayor’s army is all men, but Ness makes it clear that this is a tactical choice for both.  Men with Noise can’t sneak up on someone and they can’t hold secrets, making them valuable to the Mayor and generally useless to the Answer.  But nevertheless there are plenty of men who sympathize with the Answer and help support its goals.  Ultimately, gender is eclipsed by colonialism concerns as the novel explores the relationship between the citizens of Haven and the planet’s indigenous aliens, the Spackle.  By the end of the novel it’s clear that while the Mayor is certainly evil, the citizens of Haven he’s oppressing have much to answer for themselves.

While most of the risks The Ask and the Answer takes pay off, there are a few problems.  The first is the incorporation of Viola’s perspective.  While this was both desirable given the importance of her character and necessary due to the structure of the story, Ness is much less successful at giving her a unique voice than he was with Todd in the first novel.  Worse, using very short chapters that go back and forth between Todd and Viola also weakens the effect of Todd’s voice that was such an asset to Knife.  And while I was glad that Ness didn’t make the novel all about artificial obstacles to Todd and Viola’s relationship, constant repetition of “Todd!” and “Viola!” eventually became somewhat tiresome.

Monsters of Men coverThe trilogy’s concluding volume, Monsters of Men, introduces war into the equation as the Answer rises up in open rebellion and the Spackle begin a crusade to avenge the atrocities humans have inflicted upon them.  Unfortunately, this is where I thought things started to get away from Ness.  The setting he did such a wonderful job creating in Knife becomes frayed and questions mount.  Even as armies march and forces gather, the story’s scope seems to shrink to a handful of characters and locations.  We never get a very clear idea how many people are with each faction and what they think.  Given the importance of popular opinion to the plot, this is a major weakness.  Ivan, for example, seems to be intended as a sort of proxy for opinion within the army, but this is a poor substitute for the real thing.  Likewise, when her people eventually turn against Mistress Coyle, it seems to come out of nowhere.

Each major plot event left me with questions about numbers.  After the big battle, for instance, how many troops does the Mayor have left?  His army only numbered in the hundreds at the beginning, after all, and they suffer numerous casualties.  How many humans are there outside Haven?  In Knife it was one settlement out of many, even if it was the largest, but in the next two books it seems to be all of human civilization.  And how many Spackle are there?  Sometimes the Spackle army is spoken of as being “all of them” and other times there are references to there being (as you might expect) millions more Spackle all over the planet.

It becomes clear in Monsters of Men that for all its virtues the world of the Chaos Walking trilogy is extremely thin, to the point of sabotaging some of its narrative power.  Much of the confusion over just what the trilogy is about can probably be attributed to this problem.  Looking back over the three books, there are plenty of important issues on which the story seems to have something to say, but almost all of them turn out to be feints.

Take religion.  Early in The Knife of Never Letting Go much is made about the mutually reinforcing nature of the Mayor’s rule and Aaron’s preaching.  Aaron as a villain has such a dominating presence in Knife that it never occurred to me until after I had finished to ask: just what is it he preaches, exactly?  Something hateful, apparently, but the details are never provided.  In fact, religion ought to be really important given New World is a colony founded by religious separatists, but although Christian terminology is occasionally used we never even get confirmation they are Christians, much less what part of that spectrum they might fall into.  Some reviews call them fundamentalists, but while they destroyed much of their technology in pursuit of a simpler life, those aren’t the fundamentals that word refers to.  Perhaps Ness was trying to intimate these are Christians without actually offending anyone, but surely in the post-Pullman era it’s not necessary to pull any punches in this regard?

Then there’s gender.  I’ve already talked about the difficulty in trying to read any kind of gender message into Knife, but the trilogy as whole only minimizes it further.  The fact women have no Noise is never explained and indeed becomes increasingly improbable as the trilogy reaches for universalist interpretations of Noise in the third book.  What’s particularly strange is when I was reading the beginning of Knife there seemed to be an important clue: when Todd first approaches Viola, he starts crying for no reason, and the obvious explanation is he is telepathically receiving Viola’s grief for the loss of her parents.  If that were true, then women would have a different form of Noise, not none at all.  But this is never mentioned again.  Either Ness never intended this reading (but then why the crying?) or else he got cold feet, and rightly so, about the stereotypes he’d be reinforcing by giving women emotional Noise in contrast to men’s analytical variety.

The Ask and the Answer seems to turn the focus to colonialism.  The human settlement on the planet of New World is remarkably similar to European settlement of the, well, new world.  Religious separatists come over, fight with the natives, and ultimately push them out.  But again, unanswered questions prevent any real development here.  What sort of interactions did the initial settlers have with the Spackle?  Who started the war?  Even though most characters except the protagonists lived through this history, we hear almost nothing about it.  Todd and Viola’s difficulty learning a fairly minor detail about this even becomes a plot point in Monsters.  Even worse, the New World settlers seem completely without self-awareness when it comes to their interactions with the Spackle.  No one makes any comparisons with Native Americans, Africans, or any of the other historical precedents.  They don’t even use terminology in common use today.  This seems to have been a deliberate choice by Ness because when characters from Viola’s fleet arrive they seem as astounded by this as I was, but no explanation for the original settlers’ historical blindness is ever presented.  In any event, the colonial metaphor eventually breaks down in Monsters of Men when the Spackle have to decide whether to commit genocide against the human settlers.  Unlike most natives interacting with colonizing Europeans, the Spackle eventually get a military advantage to go with their moral authority, and in their calculations of cultural assimilation they take it for granted that thanks to Noise it’s the humans who will be assimilating into their culture, not vice versa.

Monsters of Men seems to focus on war.  The title is even taken from a quote by Todd’s surrogate father Ben: “War makes monsters of men.” While that’s certainly true, exactly how relevant it is to the story is never clear.  The Mayor and Mistress Coyle are each monsters of a kind, but has war made them that way?  Were they reasonable people when they arrived on New World?  Once again, we don’t know, because no one ever talks about this extremely relevant history.  The Answer is said to have originated in the first Spackle war, for example, but what use would their methods be against the Spackle, who have no cities or infrastructure to blow up and no roads to force troops near bombs?

It’s interesting, by the way, to compare this with a certain other famous YA series.  The Harry Potter books don’t otherwise have very much in common with the Chaos Walking trilogy, but they too eventually thrust their protagonists into a mess created by the older generation.  By the end of the last Harry Potter book, one gets the feeling J.K. Rowling was more interested in the story of Snape, Dumbledore, Harry’s parents, and the original war with Voldemort given the prominence of flashbacks and backstory.  In Chaos Walking Patrick Ness seems determined to keep the focus on his protagonists in the present, but it struck me as being considerably too far toward the other extreme.  If you want tell a story about how the new generation arrives to fix the previous one’s mistakes, you can’t skip over just what those mistakes were and why they made them.

So in the final analysis, what is the Chaos Walking trilogy about?  When I quoted Ness talking about identity, I stopped before he went on to talk about how it depicts identity in the face of conformity.  Well, that’s close, but I don’t think conformity is the right word.  I would say the Chaos Walking trilogy is really about complicity.  In Knife we learn that the men of Prentisstown are bound together by a clever if impractical ritual that ensures they are all complicit in the town’s evil.  Todd is sent away to avoid this loss of innocence and he spends the rest of the book being hounded by Aaron as well as the Mayor’s pursuing army.  Knife gets into some trouble, in my opinion, when it places this at the center of the plot.  In Prentisstown, it is the ability to kill that turns a boy into a man.  Todd, in turns out, is defined by his inability to kill.  Except the Spackle that he kills midway through Knife.  Aliens don’t count, we’re told.  Meanwhile the book does a great job setting up situations where most people, including Todd, would believe it is right to kill someone.  Futhermore, it does conspicuously little to argue the opposite.  Indeed, when the fight with Aaron comes down to kill or be killed, Viola kills him so Todd doesn’t have to.  While this is presented as something of a sacrificial act on her part, ultimately nothing much comes of it.  Has Viola been irrevocably stained by the act of killing?  If she was, why is it never mentioned again?  If not, what would have been so bad about Todd doing it?

More generally, I think this all just falls apart when one stops to think about it.  If killing the Spackle didn’t count, how come Todd felt so guilty about it?  Surely that guilt, that complicity, is what’s so psychologically important about killing?  Yet for the rest of the trilogy people continue to talk about how Todd can’t kill, or perhaps can’t be allowed to kill lest he be changed irrevocably thereby.  This seems to me precisely backwards.  It’s the person being killed who gets changed irrevocably, not the killer.  And is killing really an action that’s distinct from violence, rather than one possible result of violence?

Thankfully, while the Todd’s-not-a-killer business never goes away, it becomes considerably less important in The Ask and the Answer.  The emphasis is still on complicity, but now in the context of immoral organizations like the Mayor’s regime and the Answer.  Except for the Spackle incident, Todd escaped Knife with his hands clean, but almost immediately in Ask he’s trapped into doing all sorts of unpleasant things on behalf of the Mayor.  Other than the over-the-top torture scenes, this never becomes preachy or pat.  Is Todd wrong to “just follow orders”?  The book leaves that to the reader to decide.  A few years ago, Battlestar Galactica tried to do something similar with its occupation storyline, but that was an exercise in moral equivalence.  Look, we’ve made previously sympathetic characters into extremists!  Here, Todd never becomes an extremist and is never sure whether he’s doing the right thing or not.  I think this is a much more honest (not to mention less manipulative) approach: the person being trapped here is the character Todd, not the reader (or viewer).

In Knife I was extremely skeptical that the Mayor was chasing Todd specifically, despite several characters saying that somehow Todd’s evasion of complicity represented a threat to his new order.  Plenty of people had defied the Mayor’s orders in the past, after all.  I assumed it was just a pretext for an invasion.  But in Ask the Mayor turns out to have an Emperor Palpatine complex.  Todd is strong and could be the greatest of the Mayor’s servants, we are told over and over again, although why this is so and where he came by this strength is never stated.  Midichlorians, perhaps.  Somehow the Mayor knew this even before Todd left Prentisstown and he is determined to turn Todd into his apprentice even at the cost of alienating his loyal son Davy.  Star Wars has made this a familiar enough pattern, but I’m not sure it actually exists in the real world.  Dictators like the Mayor, it seems to me, vastly prefer loyalty to ability.  Successful dictators, anyway.  Monsters adds a fairly silly redemption subplot with much back and forth over whether the Mayor, who murdered someone in cold blood at the end of Ask only a few days before, has suddenly become redeemed by his proximity to Todd’s powerful virtue.

This, then, is the one cliché that Ness does not abandon after Knife: Todd is Special.  In Knife he is Special because he cannot kill, then in Ask he is Special because he is unusually strong in the Force, and in Monsters of Men even the Spackle think he is Special.  According to the Return, Todd is the only human who felt remorse.  Really?  The only one?  This can perhaps be attributed to the Return’s limited exposure to humans, but this is still hard to swallow.  Poor Viola, the one who should actually have been important due to her connection with the incoming settlers, spends the first two books playing second fiddle before finally getting to be jointly Special with Todd in Monsters of Men.  For some reason, the two of them represent the only hope for a peaceful resolution to a war that no one actually wants.  Why they are the last, best hope for peace?  Perhaps being young, they are free from the history and prejudices of those who lived through the initial settlement, but in a simple agrarian society aren’t there lots of young people?

Unfortunately, after courageously leaving his protagonists powerless for most of The Ask and the Answer, Ness finds some fairly contrived ways to give them control over events in Monsters.  It’s not preposterous both would have influence: Todd is basically the Mayor’s adopted son while Viola is the only one the scouts from her fleet will trust.  But then Todd is talking about trying to command the army while Simone is deferring decision-making authority to Viola.  Also, none of the adults question the strength of Todd and Viola’s relationship.  All of this would be understandable if they were, say, twenty, but they’re thirteen.  Maybe Todd’s farming society has a different adulthood threshold than ours, but in most other areas Viola’s people seem fairly equivalent to us.  This is complicated by another thin point of the world: there are almost no romantic relationships other than that of Todd and Viola.  There are a couple of married characters, but they are either old or unimportant.  After the Mayor waltzes into Haven and separates the men and women, most characters seem to regard this as a logistical inconvenience, not a disruption of hundreds of existing families.  Perhaps Lee is meant to be, like Ivan, representative of a broader phenomenon, but he is separated from sisters and a mother, not a wife.

In the end, the transition of Noise from metaphor into magic culminates in some wizard duels where Todd and his antagonist cast magic missile at each other until someone loses.  This actually sounds (and sometimes reads) worse than it is, since lurking beneath all this is the idea that Todd is genuinely connected to other people while the story’s various villains merely control them.  His magic is the stronger magic for this reason, I guess.  I’m not sure that the suggestion that humanity will eventually develop a sort of hive mind is any more convincing here than, say, when Asimov did this in his later Foundation novels, but it does make for a pleasantly optimistic conclusion to the trilogy.

I don’t read YA very much, so I can only really judge Chaos Walking against the adult genre fiction that I typically read (although this would probably be a fantastic book for classroom discussions in schools).  I hesitate to call the trilogy great when, after all, I just got through making all sorts of complaints.  But even if I have reservations about how it handles some of its ideas, the fact I’m motivated to write at such length about them shows there’s a lot more here than in most books.  I would have liked a little more coherence to the ideas and a lot more depth in the world, but this is a trilogy that is constantly thought-provoking while still remaining an enormously engaging read.  That’s more than enough reason for me to recommend it wholeheartedly.


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