These blogs, looking at low-key critical issues in fantasy literature, are not reviews. That’s a good thing, because if this were a review, Caine’s Law would not fare well.
This concluding text of Matthew Stover’s The Acts of Caine experiments with narrative in an interesting way. In science, there is no such thing as a failed experiment. However, when an experiment leaves the lab a stinking, smelly ruin…
Fictional narratives sometimes play games with chronology. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 represents the stock example. There, the exact timing of Snowden’s death is concealed by Heller’s playful use of time. Readers experience the consequence of Snowden’s death, the archetypal rock hitting still pond water, by reading through concentric ring-waves taken out of order from the signal event, until at a critical moment in the text the scene of Snowden’s death plays out for the reader. Each of those ring-waves remains coherent, through thematic markers, repeated tropes, and interlaced imagery.
Stover attempts much the same trick in Caine’s Law. Alas, no. Here is the fig leaf Stover offers his reader:
Several parts of this story take place before the events depicted in Act of Atonement Book I, Caine Black Knife.
Other parts of this story take place after. Still other parts take place before and after both. Some parts may be imaginary, and some were real only temporarily, as they have subsequently unhappened.
But this does not cover the jumble the novel presents the reader. By attempting an end-run around the familiar noir formula the worked with books 1 and 3, Stover loses his reader in the weeds.
Luckily, this isn’t a review. Caine’s Law reminded me of a product published by TSR, Inc. in the mid-1980’s. Colleague Frank Mentzer revised the D&D game (reader, note the absence of A in that title!). These boxed sets include the classic Basic (levels 1-3), Expert (4-7), and so on through Master, levels 26-36 (!). Despite being demonstratively more coherent, complete, and playable than AD&D, these sets were not used by most who played D&D back then, and even today AD&D progresses through numerical revisions, while this otherwise excellent rules set remains an artifact of the past.
Where does Caine’s Law meet the Dungeons & Dragons system? In Mentzer’s Immortals set, an unusual product that proposes to manage game play for characters who have exceeded mortal bounds and become gods. A quick look at our friend Wikipedia reveals the bemusement this product received. Reviews lauded the system but questioned the utility of a game environment in which essential questions of game play boil down to metaphysics.
Anecdotally, I never heard of anyone playing at this level (thanks ahead of time to that one gamer posting a comment saying “did so, did so!”). Why not?
Role-playing gaming equals interactive storytelling. Stories rely on drama, which springs from conflict. While Immortals provides god-level foes, challenges, and problems, the essential problem involves the toolset players use to resolve their conflicts. Those tools are essentially infinite — perhaps not literally, but unbounded by traditional RPG limits, certainly.
Any review of Caine’s Law that fails to highlight this similar lack of bounds in what characters can do as a problem in the text misses the essential point. Kudos to Stover for taking on storytelling with characters operating at a “manipulates reality” level. No surprise the experiment blows up the lab.
As an aside, gamers with a pedigree that goes back far enough remember Amber Diceless Roleplaying, a very handy way to simulate near godlike powers while retaining dramatic tension. Interesting yet futile to speculate how this late-game Earth Vs. Overworld (hell vs. heaven) grudge match would play out using a more limited dramatic paradigm.
From a purely critical perspective, while Caine works against earth’s colonialism, and while the novels appear to champion a conventional, politically acceptable post-colonial perspective, Caine himself represents a suspect agent for change. He fights the Overworld Company’s colonial schemes, but of course represented them for decades before his change of heart. Caine essentially “goes native” (a term fecund with meaning in literary criticism) and becomes Overworld’s greatest champion.
While the essential over-powered-ness of the main character interactions cause the novel problems, I suggest another issue exists in the basic contradictory nature of the ethic or philosophy proposed by the novel. Caine replaces an uneasy truce between mortals and gods with Caine’s Law — hence the title — but his solution seems to be more of the same, just with “Caine” tacked on the front.
Earth, run by an anonymous Board of Governors, members of the Leisure Class, is a dystopia. This is the imagined future world that spawned the Studio (exploiting Overworld for entertainment) and the Overworld Company (exploiting India — I mean Overworld — for resources and lebensraum). Society’s rigid class system is enforced by the Social Police; the proletariat live in concentrated misery and the world in general is going to hell in a handbasket. Caine, an agent of the Studio, helps exploit Overworld until he “goes native” and begins fighting back; in the end Overworld wins a decisive victory — apparently at a godlike level of reality, not merely in the mundane world — and declares to the Board of Governors of Earth:
If you want to live through this, you need to follow the rules. Some of you may not be familiar with them. Pay attention. There’s gonna be a quiz.
Rule One: f–k with me and you die. This is your only warning.
Rule Two: what I say goes. Break Rule Two, you get hurt. Break it again, you die. Again: this is your only warning.
Rule Three: f–k with my family or my friends, and you’re f–king with me. When in doubt, see Rule One.
Just so you know: my family and friends now includes everybody who isn’t you.
In essence, Caine’s victory establishes a force-based totalitarian rulership — of a sort — over Earth. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?
A lot of narrative water flows under the bridge through the four novels that feature Caine, and it seems anticlimatic in the closing pages of the fourth to replace an impersonal, dystopian dictatorship with a personal, dystopian dictatorship — but that’s how the cookie crumbles.
Of note, then, are the several hybridities that Stover brought to his readers. The clever commentary on present-day entertainment. A look, at least, at colonial and post-colonial politics as expressed through fantasy literature. And ultimately a giant swing at crafting a narrative in which some characters are unbounded by traditional reality.
We’ve covered the following books in the Fantasy Literature series:
Edward Carmien is a writer and scholar firmly in the orbit of the fantastic. He’s spent some of his recreational time learning skills useful in the fantasy milieu: he can ride a horse (poorly), shoot a bow (badly), hike long distances in the wilderness (pretty well), do others injury with the art of the empty hand (nowadays, who knows, he’s got five decades now…), operate small watercraft, and so on. Tabletop wargaming, gaming, computer gaming, CCG gaming, and cooking are some of his other pursuits.
A member of the SFWA and the SFRA, he writes (not enough), teaches (full time), parents, and husbands in and about Princeton, NJ. Check out his many crimes and misdemeanors in the fantasy field at edwardcarmien.com.