The last book set in Victorian England that I read was the brilliant The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry – on science, religion, legend and the different forms of love. For the past two weeks, I have been into Smoke – a dystopian novel set in an “alternate” Victorian England authored by Dan Vyleta (@danvyleta). [Comparisons have been made to the Harry Potter series and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004).] Of Czech parentage, Vyleta has lived in Germany, Canada, the USA and the UK. His previous novels are Pavel and I (2009), The Quiet Twin (2012) and The Crooked Maid (2013).
Smoke takes us into a world where vice is visible. All your wicked deeds and thoughts – harsh or harmless – are projected from your body in the form of telltale grit, soot and black cloud. The idea comes from a passage in Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son (1848), which deserves to be quoted in full:
Those who study the physical sciences, and bring them to bear upon the health of Man, tell us that if the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palpable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portion of a town. But if the moral pestilence that rises with them…could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation.
In the novel, there is a stark division between the lower and upper classes. London is full of muck, filled with workers whereas the “cleaner”, and therefore “virtuous”, intelligentsia lives comfortably in the country. At an elite boarding school in Oxford – where sons of the wealthy are being trained to be future doctors, politicians, scientists and architects – we meet Thomas Argyle and Charlie Cooper. It is after a trip to London that these two first begin to grow suspicious of the doctrine of Smoke as it has been taught to them.
Over time, they encounter the aristocratic and pious Livia, daughter of the mysterious Lady and Baron Naylor. What follows is an adventure through woods, mines, laboratories – and a dawning comprehension that there was a time before the Smoke. The Biblical view of the Fall of man has been around for a while, but not always were Adam and Eve believed to have manifested their sinful nature in dark wisps of matter. There are specially manufactured “candies” and “contraptions” that can contain the eruption and spread of Smoke. Moreover, there are people out there beyond Britain – sort of “uncontacted tribes” – who live in totally different circumstances.
As the technicalities of Smoke and the heavy politics behind it are enquired into, the narrative makes references to a wide variety of figures – Plato, Kant, Robespierre. The “Continent”, the “Empire” come up now and then. So do newer inventions like the telephone, latest scientific theories like that of the evolution of species.
I won’t give away too much of the plot but want to mention that although parts of the book felt slow and not particularly suspenseful, the end was fairly surprising and thought-provoking. The prose was overall good, I just wished it was more historical than contemporary in tone.
Vyleta has written in the Afterword that this novel is set in the past but it is really about the present. Makes sense. We are living in a world where physicality and social rank, the colour and neatness of one’s appearance are still used as indicators of intrinsic worth – or lack thereof. Guardian reviewer Adam Roberts makes an interesting observation related to this theme. He writes:
Would the world be a better or a worse place if wickedness could not be hidden, but was inevitably displayed on the body? Vyleta’s answer to that question dramatises Nietzsche’s argument from Genealogy of Morals: “virtue” in such a world turns out to be just another word for “aristocratic”, “wickedness” for “common people”. Smoke is a powerful portrait of a society in which this logic is toxically manifest.
Finally, Smoke is too much about manipulation and deception, the twisting of theology and philosophy, the warping of religion for the purposes of control – does the novel have anything important to say about morality and immorality itself. The author drops a mysterious but meaningful sentence: “…when people love one another, there is Smoke involved.” I think this line opens up the idea of freewill, which allows us to make choices. With the possibility of love, comes the possibility of hatred. With hatred, there is sin. Therefore, no “love” – no “Smoke”.
Four excerpts –
The beauty of Oxford:
They are high up there, in one of the school’s towers. Beneath them, the fields of Oxfordshire: a silver sea of frozen moonlight. Down by the brook, a tree rises from the snow-choked grounds, stripped of its leaves by winter. A willow, its drooping branches dipped into the river, their tips trapped in ice.
The ugliness of London:
Within a minute, the landscape around them begins to be covered by a film of dark scum. Ahead lies the city: a hazy, dark sprawl from which grow the slender spires of factory smokestacks, their outlines cleaner, sharper than anything closer to the ground. After another minute the first houses start, grime-covered brick and narrow courtyards, washing lines full of linen more grey than white. Soon the Smoke outside the window becomes impossible to ignore: it tints their vision and saps the strength out of the sun. The train has slowed to walking pace and London seems everywhere, boxing them in in the narrow chasm of its streets. Something takes hold of Charlie, an emotion halfway between fear and spite. He wants to return to Oxford.
The New Isolationism:
Did you know your father was in Parliament yesterday, introducing a new bill?…The Tory papers call it the New Isolationism. A return to purity, both moral and ethnic. Kick out all foreigners, all nonconformists. Chase off the Catholics and Jews. Limit trade to what we import ourselves from our colonies. No more foreign sin! A high-minded bill. And incidentally rather lucrative for those who hold an import licence.
A taste of democracy:
“We think it’s the coal dust. It filters it somehow. So it’s everyone smoking for themselves. Unseen, unheeded. Miners dying, fighting, making love. All alone.”
“But that’s good, surely. Better than on top.” She looks for the word, finds it. “Tidier.”
“Tidier? Yes, perhaps. My brother, Jake, he has a word for our life down here. He calls it “democracy”.”