What happens when you put a weapons lord together with a dissatisfied, angry teenager, a normal girl just desperate to feel, two broken and angry old men, an Old Testament prophet turned into a drugged out rave queen, and an ice princess ninja assassin? Well, you get the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in a future world where class stratification is literally represented by heaven and earth. (Ninja Assassin and Old Testament prophet slightly exaggerated.)
I’ve been working on one that is a child-spawn of one of my oldest projects, “The Grunge Appeal.” Right now, it’s working title is “Not My Love Story” for the opening paragraphs by the melancholy narrator:
“Do not be fooled. This is, above all, a love story. And it is not my love story. They were children, and they had just discovered, as children do, how the world pumps and flows through their arteries, how the tiniest itch in the universe can electrify their every nerve. They were at that part in their youth when you are simultaneously self absorbed and absorbed by everything: the one part in life when you can see and feel and hear the machine that you belong to with complete and unassailable empathy.
And when that knowledge had struck them, quite without warning, they also struck each other. Aleksandr and I, seeing the ferociousness in their devotion, took advantage of them. We had lived our whole lives as poor, broken men. We had only wanted to feel, as they did, that the world is impressionable.”
The novel traces the lives of seven characters through a world in our not so distant future, where a great war has devastated the nation-states of today and created a class stratification that is based on the physical space of ground, tower, and sky. In the sky are the floating cities, where the rich and powerful moved to evacuate the devastation of war. In the middle are the towers, the small urban protectorates that the sky cities maintain to bolster their economies. Then, there are the free quarters, the slums surrounding the towers where people flock from outside the protectorates, places that are in limbo, places that the sky cities own but do not really govern. Dreams of good work in factories bring people to these slums, yet the corporations that manage them are irresponsible and not under any knowable law. Lastly, there are the nation states outside of the protectorates, beaten down nations with nothing left, all of their urban centers now owned by corporations that float above them in the sky, and scarred deeply by the memory of the war that destroyed them.
The love story at the center of this novel is between Michael and Arie, a boy from the free quarters and a girl from the towers. They meet at a low-grade college, the only one that both can pay for, and fall in love at the same time as they fall for the dream of having a different, less impotent life. Michael has old ties to a nationalistic gang-turned-syndicate which tells utopian tales of life without skyton rule. However, his fervor for ideas does not always translate into success–he struggles to listen to his professors, unconvinced of their wisdom, and more convinced of their brainwashing. Even though he wants to succeed, he meets no one who understands how to help him, or so he thinks, as he arrogantly and insistently denies any hands offered to him. Arie, drawn to his convictions and poetry, follows him without question, as he fills the gaping hole of emotionless consumerism that she was raised in. She finds his rhetoric liberating, his story intoxicating, and his angry demands for a better future inspiring. She is the kind of girl that demands hope out of every inch of the world, demands beauty from everything she sees, and in her voice their world is described in loving rigor.
Michael eventually brings Arie “down under the tracks” to meet his ‘family’, or the group of men and women who surround an old syndicate knight, Aleksandr Fedor.
Aleksandr is supposedly a washed up man. He owns a bar underneath one of the train stations, and at every semi-regular interval the train shakes the foundation of the place and reminds them all of their status underneath all things. His business partner, Jacques, is another narrator for the story. Together they have been taking in stray kids with talent and connecting them with people who can make their life something better, even if it only is protection and work with the syndicate.
Five years ago, Aleksandr was the lauded knight of the syndicate, working some of the dirtiest and most difficult ‘removal’ jobs alongside the famous and capable Shim. The two of them were the gentlemen who established the right of the syndicate, turning it from a nationalistic gang with lofty ideals into something that did indeed hold a place in the hierarchy of the free quarters. However, now that the syndicate has power over the drug trade, and the prostitute rings, and the right to collect bribes, they have become increasingly less interested in their original, pure cause: demanding attention from the Sky Cities, demanding the right to be free.
Now, Shim is a drunk and his daughter, Angel, is being held close by the syndicate. Aleksandr is left mostly alone, but his ‘building’ of a ‘family’ is not going unnoticed. They know that by holding Angel and his other companions close, they have control over him. But this is not enough. Two of the counselors decide that in order to remove Aleksandr from their horizon, they will command him to assassinate someone so high profile that it will simply ruin him. They choose the man running for governor for the protectorate, Edmond Hawthorne Feris.
Aleksandr then has to make a choice: refuse, or go forward and most likely be killed and imprisoned in the process. It is Shim, drunk as he is, in his filthy apartment with his daughter cleaning up his continual mess, that tells Aleksandr that he must go forward: to absolve them all from the sins that their cause has perpetrated after achieving power, they must make a statement in its name even if it is absurd. Angel becomes infuriated with her father’s recklessness, but in the end, after her rage gets the better of her, she says: “Our blood doesn’t boil anymore. I would rather be dead than be like this.”
So Aleksandr takes the challenge.
It is in to this world that Arie walks, quite unaware. Michael knows the history of his family. Their plans develop at exactly the same time he is looking for any form of rescue from his decent into nothingness. He grabs hold of them as if they are a rope dropped into a bottomless well. Arie, in love with the Michael she knew before the crash, is determined to remind him of the person he could be, rather than the person he is becoming. She imagines that the hand she is offering him is the one that can save him, so long as she keeps it extended for as long as possible. But, in her attachment to him, she inadvertently becomes a part of their plan. She is becomes friends with others involved in the plan, like Angel and Persephone, the wild, drugged fallen princess of the Sky Cities, and Peter, the computer skills teacher.
Even though Persephone’s drunk, drugged statements are painfully true and prophetic, the seriousness of Arie’s place in the plan does not truly sink in until Michael finally fires that shot, and the police descend on him. Then, in a dark alley in the free quarters, our first narrator, Jacques, takes her identifications, her money, her credit cars, the photographs of her brothers and sisters, and rips them up, discarding them so that she can run from the eyes of the police and become invisible. In the end, unable to save Michael and wrapped up in the violence that destroyed him, she walks into the abject poverty of the free quarters, because as Jacques says to her, “The only way to truly disappear is to be poor. You have no life up there anymore.”
It is a novel about how violence comes from systematically enforced impotence, the way in which young men feel powerless, the failure of education, the invisibility of the poor, and the way that invisibility occasionally erupts and breaks all the rules. It is originally based off of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in which seven young men become involved in a conspiracy to assassinate a figure of their oppression. However, that small act causes an eruption of world war, tips a delicate balance, and sets in motion a century of madness, violence, pain, but also incomprehensible progress, cultural development, and human development. It is the story about how just one upset, ignored, and arrogant individual can set the whole world on fire, and how each one of our personal stories and convictions can influence even the greatest systems. It is also a warning against turning to violence for absolution, as the characters in the novel are all destroyed and broken by the end. This is something in a way that I struggle with, because even though it is a demonstration of each person’s power, it is a negative one, and one that ultimately ends in destruction and chaos.
This dissonance, perhaps, is why it is so easy do write about but not easy to actually write.