Review: “Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart” by Steven Erikson

4 min read

Review by Alex Khlopenko

Is there a timelier concept than post-scarcity?

That is the premise of Steve Erikson’s first contact novel”Rejoice, a knife to the heart” – pacifist aliens abduct a cigarette-smoking, Canadian, science fiction author/youtube personalitySamantha August because, well, she is a science fiction author and a feminist vlogger and hire her as emissary for them as they ban violence and give food and shelter to everyone on Earth.

Their force fields indeed ban all sorts of human-on-animal and human-on-human violence – from domestic violence to poaching, to all kinds of war all around the globe. Military-industrial complex becomes obsolete, borders are unenforceable, drugs don’t work (same as alcohol and cigarettes), so most world economies plunge into darkness.

People move freely, with millions of refugees all over the place – so the aliens supply them with food and cover to. No one hurts anyone, and there is enough of basic resources for everyone. So the creator of the Malazan Book of the Fallen shows us through multiple POVs of presidents, PMs, media moguls, arms dealers, and junkies, how this new world order affects them. 

After establishing such an important and much-needed positive view of the future, the novels trouble began.

If you read Malazan Book of the Fallen, it is no surprise that Erikson loves to speculate and meditate on human nature and how different concepts affect it. It may have worked in a series spanning tens of books and thousands of years, but a couple months and four hundred pages make the plot feel unfocused. Constant changes feel forced at best, and unnatural at worst. What makes it worse are the POV characters themselves. 

It is understandable that for such a post-modernist approach to First Contact novels, plot and character are secondary, and yet. Erikson masterfully deconstructs the established tropes, the entire genre, the politics, and the lives entangled into the whole kerfuffle, and yet it lacks something more tangible.

We are allowed behind the scenes of US and Russian Presidents, British and Canadian PMs, Australian-American media mogul who-is-not-Rupert Murdoch, and how they handle the imminent change in the way the human population and the world economy is governed.

At first, it is, once again, timely and courageous to see acritique of real-life politicians, albeit under pseudonyms. This approach promises depth, real analysis, and social and political critique of today’s issues with the proposition of a way out of it – something unique to the science fiction. Yet all of the POV characters don’t fulfill their potentialand fall flat. We end up with shallow, apologist caricatures of Putin, Trump, Theresa May/Tony Blair Frankenstein, and female Justin Trudeau, who act like Alec Baldwin SNL parodies of themselves – their issue simplified, their shortcomings comical, their history, complexities, and potential change – nonexistent.

This methodology, in building the story and its characters can be seen throughout the entire book. Be it a junkie in the midwestern US, an arms dealer in Malawi, or president of Russia, Erikson arrives at the same simple conclusion for every character arc – the world has changed because the aliens changed them because we were wrong and now we should change our ways. Prime Minister of Canada is to be the leader of the new communist utopia quote– “because she is from Canada”. Putin reflects on his mistakes, weighs on his imperialistic legacy, and thinks maybe he was wrong. And Trump… well, Trump remains Trump even in the most daring science fiction.

The aftertaste of most of the above characters was like watching a Stephen Colbert bit – an angry and simplified YouTube review of yesterday’s news cycle. This is rather ironical, considering the stance of the novel on this same issue of misinformation. 

A separate nod goes to Samantha August and the collective character of SF authors – with ‘cameos’ from Margaret Atwood, Ian M. Banks and some fictional fiction writers, as an ultimate force of good in human society. Their representation in the book, as fun as it is, was akin to Hollywood making movies about financing or journalists (take Argo, The Artist, Spotlight) – it’s a pat on their own backs. It means “Yeah, we are the good guys in this one.”

But what scares the most in “Rejoice” is the underlying premise that Erikson seems to accept and preach to us: we are so beyond redemption at this point in humanity’s history, that we fucked up so much, that it would take an alien intervention to change anything. It is a dystopia in a sweet coating of Cosmo-positivism.

‘Rejoice’ might not stand the test of time and become a classic like “Left Hand of Darkness” and Banks’ “Culture” series, but it is a very important piece for today. Steven Erikson dares to take a science fiction darling of the post-scarcity world and applies it to our current world, even if the result falls short of expectations. It is a must-read for anyone who is not okay with what is happening in the world and asks herself “what should I do to bring change?”.

We’ve gotta believe we don’t need aliens to do better. 

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