Erin Call

Erin Call

You Can't Spell Engineering Without Erin

On "The Incorruptibles"

I really really want to love the Old West as a setting. It's so romantic: hard, lonely men and women wresting a living from a hard, lonely land under a huge, lonely sky. It's a place and time where you can't rely on anyone but yourself: lawmen, lovers, and old old friends will all turn on you in a second if the price is right. If your wits are sharp and your hands are fast, you might just make your fortune...but the only guaranteed payday is the undertaker's.

Problem is, all that romance is inextricably tied to the genocide of the Native Americans. The only reason that big empty land is so empty is that the army--and the plagues that preceded them--came through and emptied it. There's no getting around it. If the story has no natives, it's another entry in the long list of American cultural works that pretend the genocide never happened. If it treats the natives as unfathomable, implacable enemies, it plays the same notes that made the genocide possible in the first place. Similarly, Tonto-like sidekicks turn a a civilization and culture into a one-dimensional caricature. Few and far between are the stories that manage to use a Western setting in a responsible way.

I recently finished The Incorruptibles, by John Hornor Jacobs. I'm sorry to say that it makes the Native Americans into terrible creatures, ones with whom there is no possibility of dialogue or compromise.

The Incorruptibles is an alternate-history / high-fantasy story. The Ruman empire, which is like the Roman empire but spelled funny, has survived into the Western expansion. Tensions with Mediera (Spain, basically) and the Autumn Lords (China) are high. Our protagonist is Shoestring, a half-dwarven mercenary who won't carry the Hellfire-powered sixguns carried by his colleagues.

Shoestring's characterization fits nicely into the lonely setting. Dwarves are hardly unheard-of, but they're uncommon and of low status. His human side keeps him from fitting in with other dwarves, while his dwarven heritage holds him back among humans. Layered on top of that is his religious horror of the demon-powered artifice so common among the Rumans. His supporting cast have vibrant personalities that really shine as their individual goals start to clash.

Unfortunately, the treatment of the Native Americans casts a pall over everything. There are no native humans on Jacobs's American continent; instead, the land is populated with "stretchers," or elves, who are inhumanly tall, inhumanly beautiful, and just plain inhuman. Their immortality in the face of both age and injury leaves them with little desire to interact with our world. None of "us" speak their language, although some of them know ours. It's repeatedly stated in dialogue that they're too different to understand, so it's not worth even trying.

This is an irresponsible way to structure the book. Atrocities become possible when we forget that they're being done to people. The way that crimes against Native Americans have been consistently swept under the rug over the centuries only makes it more important to start getting it right. Jacobs got it wrong.

The frustrating thing is that the unintelligibility of the Stretchers isn't even central to the story. The tale could have been told just as well with Stretchers who are comprehensibly different. They could've been another culture, maybe weird and surprising, but still people. Instead we got nature spirits with all the depth and introspection of a cardboard cutout.

The Incorruptibles is a good story. I wish I could tell you it's a good book.

Posted on 2014-09-21T03:30:00Z
Posted in books.
comments powered by Disqus