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donec a diaboli laqueis resipiscat

By Fibi, member

Jul 3, 2015: Anathema is a comforting reminder that even nigh-omnipotent power which transcends the confines of mundane physics is really no match for the bureaucratic superstructure of the United Nations. The world might plunge towards peril but, no fear, properly ratified resolutions on decreasing international tension will lead the way towards multilateral cooperation in twenty years or so, give or take the usual General Assembly bickering.

 . . . Assuming the world lasts that long everything’s quite peachy!

Chairing one too many of Model UN sessions might have inadvertently damaged my soul, but I do always get a small smile out of any story that mentions the UN when utilizing the modern world as its setting. It’s a surprisingly rare thing. Even for stories that attempt a global scale, it’s seemingly easy to forget that there really is a large paper-bound body working to ensure the general humanitarian progress of everybody on planet Earth. And it’s just as easy to forget how utterly infuriating it is when people either don’t cooperate, or small trifles like the "sovereign autonomy of nation-states" get in the way. Anathema doesn’t forget that countries tend to have different opinions, or that the UN is a giant mess, and then the story even goes on to remember that different English-speakers have markedly different accents. That’s a combination of smaller and larger details that work beautifully with each other, infusing a small undercurrent of surprisingly human tension in-between all the end of the world business.

But enough about the formal structure of UN cooperation, let’s talk about superheroes. First order on the agenda, referring to "transitioned meta-humans" as "(the) Evolved" has got to be in direct contravention of the stated UNESCO Guidelines on Maintaining Terminological Infrastructure. That has some unfortunate geo-linguistic implications, and I can’t help but note that there must be a lot of paperwork involved in managing the apocalypse quite without also adding an infinite stream of pedantic, irate letters from tenured biology professors going on about how ‘being able to consciously control air-pressure’ or ‘summon force-fields’ doesn’t really fall within the purview of your average Darwinian natural selection.

Here’s the thing; I only bring up that super important nomenclature aside because Anathema is otherwise so good that I actually noticed when something was a bit off. And that’s sort of a pattern.

The story has a curious cadence, see. It’s about the end of the world, but it’s not really about the end of the world right now. It’s happening, surely and certainly, and through neat tricks of perspective, character and small information asides in the writing you get the impression that things are certainly sliding out of control. But the story is set quite a bit before it all collapses. A conscious contrast between what might unfold and what you see, other things brought up either in conversation or in newspaper pieces.

The same applies to the characters. They’re different enough, somewhere between broken and heroic and all surprisingly human – even the dolphin. No, I’m not going to explain that. But odd moments appear as their internal dialogue (delivered in your usual over-the-shoulder third person perspective) sometimes throw a wrench between the emotions of the scene and the story itself, adding asides or introspective observation that doesn’t quite fit. Like a melody with just a hint of a discordant tune.

Perhaps it’s a pacing issue, where clear story-beats and individually brilliant scenes interconnect with slightly weaker connective tissue. It makes for a curious reading experience as humane, horrifying moments with vivid detail are bookended by curiously truncate establishing shots. There’s an accident, a terrible loss, described both with detail and despair and at the end, in half a moment, someone immediately latches on to the nearest protagonist to blame. I get it, it’s hard to have a story about Fearing the Unknown if everyone is always so bloody understanding and reasonable but, hey, dude, you just saw your closest friends reduced to paste, can you at least scream in incoherent terror for, like, a minute before you get on with the traditional Shunning of the Different? Thus the pattern repeats, perhaps as if the author is a little worried we’d all stop reading if too much time to establish things were taken.

It’s a push-pull thing, where zooming in one scene leads to others being slightly skipped over in order to establish what’s actually important about the moment, but in doing so things become a little conspicuous. It’s a damnable shame, too, because it’s only noticeable precisely because the surrounding words are so good. This is a story wherein someone dancing actually reads to feel as if someone is dancing. I feel like an ass going on about mildly robotic plot initiation by other characters in contrast. That scene made up for all of it! And yet . . . 

Returning to the UN, I’ve seldom read a story that manages to capture the resolution ratification process of any given UN Council quite so well. Lots of meetings, lots of talking, lots of back and forth between agents with their own agendas and about, oh, eight layers of lies and bluffs and double-bluffs all broken up occasionally by ten minutes of sheer terror because, oh dear, a drone overflight outside of a boundary zone is about to spark an international nuclear incident unless everyone agrees sign this paper now and the representative from Uganda just stepped out for tea god help us all.

Granted, you should mentally replace "nuclear incident" with "eldritch powers what twist the natural world" and "drone overflight" with "kid from Germany who just developed the ability to blow up France", but the principle stands. This is a story so far mostly about people, connections, communication and escalating problems, not so much a story about spandex-clad superheroes hitting each other with sky-scrapers. It’s a different kind of tension.

It works very well, coupled with good writing and interesting characters.

Perhaps it’s necessary too, as the powers on display are Powers with a capital P. Any given Evolv—Transitioned Metahuman is a walking, talking weapon of mass destruction. If the story was actually only about giants fighting each other, the only people left by chapter 3 would be the crew on the ISS looking down at the wasteland what used to be Earth. It’s the odd rhythm again – incredible powers; lots of interpersonal development. Global scale issues; a focus on one-to-one relationships. The slow dissolution of the world as we know it; here’s a random slice of the most heartfelt hospital visit you’ve ever read. The most adorable nine year old Empath in the world; the Angel of Death wants to kill us all.

Once you settle into it, the structure and cadence of Anathema is actually really enjoyable but it takes a bit to get there and your final enjoyment is reliant on an ability to sustain an interest over several meetings. It’s worth it, and I recommend reading, but I understand also if someone might think it was all a bit slow and relentlessly grim. But then again as previously established, I sold my soul to be able to chair simulated Human Right’s Commitee meetings. My threshold for interesting character development delivered along with idle atrocities that violate every fundamental aspect of the UN Charter of Human Rights is pretty high.

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