Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Pendragon Protocol

Philip Purser-Hallard The Pendragon Protocol (2014)

I've always enjoyed Philip Purser-Hallard's writing, and to the point of believing his name deserves to be at least as ubiquitous as those of Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds and all those other top billing English science-fiction authors, not least because I would say that for the most part his is probably the greater talent. He's wrought some genuinely wonderful stuff within those little patches of universe left behind by the passing of the man in the blue box, and so the prospect of his first major steps away from the shallow pools of the more conspicuously licensed reaches of genre fiction has been a source of great anticipation for me. With this in mind, I must confess to some eyebrow-raising when I first read that The Pendragon Protocol would introduce us to the technologically sophisticated Knights of a twenty-first century Round Table sworn to protect us all from villainy. It made me think of Torchwood, or Primeval, or anyone who ever considered tales of secret government agencies full of superheroes with access to alien technology as being anything other than sheer arseache of the worst kind; but, I told myself, such fears will almost certainly be unfounded given the author's track record.

Happily I was right, and whilst I wouldn't quite describe this as having a startlingly original premise, as does Simon Morden on the back cover - at least not given how many times Arthur's lads have been coaxed back onto the field by everyone from Stephen King to Alan Moore to probably Pee-wee Herman - as a novel it has defied my narrative expectations, and is in all respects pretty bloody formidable. The key to this being that the author has remembered to write a book which is actually about something, as opposed to just a bunch of guys grunting and romping away with swords and cellphones for a few hundred pages.

To start with, the psychological mechanism of these Knights as the most recent expressions of an archetype is ingeniously told, precluding the need for anything so cock-obvious and hokey as reincarnated spirits, agencies of higher powers by traditional fantasy terms, or indeed anything requiring suspension of disbelief. In this sense The Pendragon Protocol does at least some of what C.S. Lewis tried to do with That Hideous Strength but without the sneering. Futhermore, reviewing That Hideous Strength, Orwell wrote:
[Lewis's beliefs] weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader's sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance. When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict, one always knows which side is going to win. The whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid.

Philip Purser-Hallard avoids this problem by means of simple narrative realism in combination with lively and unflinching investigation of the nuts and bolts of belief as it may relate to an objective reality without ostentatious demonstrations of divine power getting in the way. This refusal to stoop to the flashily miraculous allows the underlying argument of the text to really breath, to expand and to examine the greater context of belief - belief in the collective understanding of what constitutes human society, and so on. In other words, The Pendragon Protocol, rather than simply being Highlander with 'O' levels, demonstrates that belief in a Deity, a noble cause, the laws by which we define civilisation, or even that a piece of paper can stand for monetary value, are essentially aspects of the same understanding and are therefore closely related.

Jory Taylor, our main protagonist and current expression of the characteristics of the legendary Sir Gawain, here finds himself torn between two schools equating to mutually exclusive views of the moral environment he inhabits, specifically amounting to the establishment and to forces opposing the establishment, without either definitively revealed as either more corrupt or any less worthy than the other; and this seems to further translate into a dialogue between faith and belief as either a personal matter or something which comes from outside and which may be embodied in a collective institution.

Anyway, this is what I took from the novel, poorly expressed though my version may well be, which, if nothing else, is at least to say that this is a philosophically meaty read yielding some truly vertiginous revelations - at least to me - whilst rattling along at fair old pace without any sacrifice to the quality of language. To reduce that further into Daily Mail English, Philip Purser-Hallard has achieved that rare balance of a way above average intellectually stimulating novel you can read by the pool with a beer and a hot dog.  The Pendragon Protocol genuinely deserves to sell so well that we're all sick of hearing about it by this time next year, and I'm already looking forward to the second part of the trilogy.

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