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TWIG

I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created.

By Fibi, member
Jul 13, 2015:

Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. —from Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein".

Let’s talk about Twig without talking about Twig. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series takes place in a world where Charles Darwin was a wee bit more ambitious than in ours, popularizing not only the theories of natural selection but also the secrets behind large scale genetic engineering. The result is that on the eve of World War 1, the British Empire is defended by flotillas of giant floating whales whose main armament is large swarms of metal-spitting bats or acid-covered birds. Oh and the Germans have giant mechanical dreadnaughts, because I guess they took one look at the animal by-products and scoffed: "Pfh, vhat good iz mere protein against the awesome forces of INGENIOUS GERMAN ENGINEERINK?" then decided to slap a cannon on a cannon that was already on a cannon.

If you’re anything like me then upon witnessing this menagerie of the monstrous and the mechanical, your first thought is: "I bet the development of hyper-efficient biological creatures radically change the agricultural system of the British Mainland. Oooh, exciting new types of grain!". Congratulations, we share the same debilitating mental quirk of being fascinated by industrial out-put charts. Perhaps you wonder if the realization that many natural biological constraints are just accident more than intent would radically redefine the roles of men and women in society, undercutting centuries of assumed biological determinism? Okay, hell, if the Central Powers of Scott Westerfeld’s world have functioning land-walkers, their industrial output must be off the charts and every citizen privileged and prosperous as automation takes over from back breaking muscle-based agriculture?

The answer to all that is "Don’t think about it, it doesn’t matter, here’s a robot punching out a kraken.".

Okay, that was a random interlude, Fibi, what’s your point?

My point is that in Twig, some chapters in, mention is made of how the ability to hire re-animated workers who ceaselessly toil for no pay and require no food is causing many farms to be completely out-competed by larger Stitched-backed conglomerates; how this change is causing many to wonder if their own livelyhoods are threatened but even further, wonder what resistance they could possibly offer against a system that so out-classes them. If you were the type to wonder: "Hey, wouldn’t that change be a pretty big deal?" – congratulations, yes! It was and is and the story is different because of it.

Consistent thematic structure makes for a rewarding reading experience. It means that any investment you make in attempting to understand the mechanics of the world you’re reading about pays off, because wondering about the connections between facet A and B allows you to appreciate the underlying structure, make predictions about the plot itself and immerse yourself in the situation the characters are experiencing. Twig has that, and is better because of it. Many other stories don’t, and so end up parlaying otherwise fancy aesthetics into merely being so much colorful wall paper. There’s a noticable difference between a story that goes: "This world-changing event actually changed the world, and here’s how humans deal with the changes at hand, for better and worse" and a story that goes: "This world changing event means everything is exactly the same but isn’t it hella-cool when the German robots fight the British acid bats? Awesome! Explosion! Boom!". Sure, hyperbolic-example Fibi, it is indeed "hella-cool", but it’s also stale. One treats the possibilities of the world as actual possibilities that can reshape and redefine *everything, the other sets any tale as a kind of mechanical clock-work contraption where the best you can do is maybe alter the paint-job – women will be women, men will be men, and even the existence of giant flying whales can’t change the outcome of WW1.

Both approaches make for good reading. But only one of them makes for a genuinely good story. ( . . . no points for guessing which is which)

We are unfashioned creatures, but half made up, if one wiser, better, dearer than ourselves — such a friend ought to be — do not lend his aid to perfectionate our weak and faulty natures —Victor Frankenstein; Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein"

If that didn’t convince you to go give it a try, let’s instead talk about the infinite power of Friendship! The idea of "Teenage Gang Solves Mystery!" is a pretty well-worn one in fiction, because it works so well. A bunch of unique interesting characters get together to figure out a problem, are beset by circumstance, and eventually triumph through the use of their individual skillsets. A heart-warming lesson about the powers of individuality and cooperation both, huzzah.

Okay, so in Twig they’re all the abominable products of blackest biological science, twisted and warped by injections manifold and mutagenic, but it’s principle of the thing, guv’nor. You get a cast of characters that interact and bounce off each other in interesting ways, and their mutual development shore up each others otherwise weak and faulty nature. It’s interesting in a meta-textual fashion, as the generic archetypes gradually get their edges abraded off and reveal facets of personality that makes them seem gradually more compelling. It takes some skill to pull that off well, because it’s exceptionally easy to accidental flounder into making every character almost stereotypical. "Ah, so the Popular Guy does X, but the Clever Girl does Y, so we know that the Smartass will do Z . . . ", but on the other hand the distinct classification of each person allows the reader to easily identify who is who.

So what happens if those "stereotypes" aren’t a natural thing, but rather a deliberate experiment by a group of shadowy conspirators? You get some interesting interplay that way. Sure, the Generic Smartass is generically sassy, but he was created to be that way; so how much of his personality is that and how much isn’t? And in what ways can the various characters define themselves outside of the role actually ascribed to them by their creators? It’s sort of a neat exercise, and as the characters develop and interact it becomes neater still (tying into the thematic consistency point from earlier).

I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel —Monster, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

There’s a few rough patches in Twig, the most obvious of which is the in media res start and the somewhat wonky first arc. There’s a lot to establish, and with the backlog of information needed to make sense of the world at large, some moments of confusion are unavoidable. A few scenes end up somewhat garbled, fast forwarding through things that could perhaps have been established slightly better. Keeping in mind that everything will make sense shortly, you can treat the first arc (and some parts of the second) as an introduction to the mystery. Thinking: "Wait, what the hell is going on?" is perfectly reasonable, the characters are thinking the same. Every arc being essentially a single case allows you to decompress well enough, but there’s a few moments of slight catch nonetheless.

Oh and I think I saw a word that was spelled incorrectly once.

Yeah, that’s the height my criticism reaches. Other than that, Twig is pretty good and well worth reading, especially if you have a fondness for the possibilities of biological pulp-horror.

5 of 5 members found this review helpful.
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