Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Jo Walton: Half a Crown

Jo Walton's Half a Crown completes her "Small Change" series with a distinctly different ending. The second novel in the trilogy, Ha'Penny, was a co-winner of last year's Prometheus Award.

Small Change is an alternate history in which Britain made peace with Hitler and itself moved toward fascism. The story follows Peter Carmichael, a police inspector in the first novel, now head of Britain's Secret Police, The Watch. Carmichael is gay, and this fact is being used by his superiors to keep him in line. But they don't seem to know that Carmichael has been secretly operating an underground railroad from inside The Watch. In Half a Crown, Carmichael additionally struggles to deal with the troubles of his protege Elvira Royston, a debutante planning for her presentation to the Queen. Elvira accompanies a friend to a political rally to watch the parades, and is rounded up along with the provocateurs after a riot erupts. The government decides to make an example of the provocateurs and Carmichael has to scramble to extract Elvira from the mess at great cost to himself and his friends.

The books provide a clear depiction of innocent well-meaning people getting caught up in a totalitarian struggle, and having to choose which of the things they value they will work to preserve and at what cost to their other values and to the rest of society. The first two books had downbeat endings, as Carmichael and others gave in on major issues that allowed the totalitarian government to take power in order to preserve a small amount of personal autonomy. This third book has the same feeling most of the way, but in the end Elvira finds a way to turn the tables and expose the machinations that led to the government takeover. I don't know if Britain's government really would work the way Walton portrays it, but as an American, it felt like deus ex machina.

The characterization is interesting. We've come to know Carmichael from the previous books, and his motivations (protecting both his lover Jack and Elvira, furthering the secret projects that allow some people to escape) are clear and well established. Elvira is a newcomer to the story, and Walton demonstrates her thinking and motivations clearly in alternating chapters that Elvira tells in the first person. The others, which mostly follow Carmichael, are given in third person, which allows Walton to follow other characters when necessary.

Half a Crown has been nominated for this year's Prometheus, and it's a strong candidate. The application to libertarianism is clear, but I think there are other books which will do better. Cory Doctorow's Little Brother seems a more powerful cautionary tale along the lines of It Can't Happen Here, though I'm not quite finished with it yet. The book is well written, and my only complaint is that the happy ending seemed forced. I don't think dystopias have to end in a downbeat to be effective, but the total collapse of Britain's fascist government seemed to run against a lot of previous description showing how that the government had co-opted most of the country's leaders and that the institutionalized prejudices were in harmony with those of the populace who were learning to get along with the other consequences of institutionalized repression. The quick turnaround in response to a single speech was a surprise. This is, after all, still an alternate history in which the Germans and the Japanese have taken over two thirds of the globe. Britain will have to figure out how to co-exist with an external world dominated by fascism.

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