Chevalier & Gawayn: The ballad of the dreamer by Phillip Mann (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2022), 472pp, $37.99
Imagine a very dystopian regime somewhere in the future and presumably somewhere on Earth. A few cultural hints suggest it could be a future Britain, but maybe not. Technology means nearly everybody can be spied on. It is mandatory to wear a ‘helmask’—a combination of helmet and mask, but packed with technological systems for instant communication and surveillance. There is an overriding Council that rules, but there is also a severe class hierarchy. Bureaucrats live in high-rise buildings, with all the latest gadgets and mod cons far from the hoi polloi. The impoverished and desperate classes live in the lower depths, the slums prettily called Primrose Valley but in fact crumbling unsanitary buildings overshadowed by skyscrapers and rarely seeing the sun. Among them are many ‘Morbids’ and ‘Dismals’, meaning people so unhappy they often choose suicide. The super-rich live, with their mansions and yachts, in a walled-off place called Elysian Fields. It is rare for the classes to meet.
As in many dystopian fictions, official groups are given soothing but deceptive names. Healthfriends control the population with very strict and punishing laws about hygiene. Taxfriends might appear to be collecting tax, but they are obviously investigative police. Wayfriends, far from helping people on journeys, are the more coercive branch of the police, controlling traffic and riots and harassing potential rebels. Some sort of massive climatic crash has happened. Beyond this dystopian city, there are vast arid lands and many animals that we know are now extinct. If you want to discover what an elephant looked like, you have to go to the Palace of Animals, where you can see a dead elephant expertly put together by taxidermists. Heathfriends, supposedly concerned with public health but with a strong eugenics streak, really hate animals. As a character called Meranda says, the Healthfriends ‘fundamentally think animals—in fact all Nature come to that—are a threat, the place from where come diseases and deformity.’ To own a pet is forbidden.
Now how would you deal with this depressing regime? You could rebel, but there would be little probability of succeeding. John Chevalier, Taxfriend (in other words, a detective), is tasked with finding out who has been stealing specimens from the Palace of Animals. Chevalier diligently goes about his task, and about halfway through the novel he has cracked the case. But what his superiors don’t know is that Chevalier is an amateur taxidermist who illegally sells stuffed animals to the very rich … not that he’s one of the thieves. This is his tepid form of rebellion.
His real strategy is not rebellion. Like so many citizens of this dystopia, his strategy is to escape reality and cultivate dreams and fantasy. He regularly uses the Joyboy or Go Girl networks, which make him sleep with the belief that he is part of what seem to be soft-porn events. But ‘at dream’s end there were always a few hours of euphoria, followed by emptiness and hunger as the real world reclaimed them.’ The illusion doesn’t last for long. Then he discovers the CIRCE network (yes, the name obviously refers to the deceptive sorceress in the Odyssey). CIRCE not only persuades him to believe he is part of fantastic events, but it makes him the hero of events and allows him to believe the same once his dream ends. Here is ‘the ballad of the dreamer’ as given in the novel’s subtitle. And in real life, he meets people who were part of his dream and who say he was part of their dreams. Riding his magnificent horse Gringolet, John Chevalier becomes Gawayn, knight at the court of King Arthur, rescuer of kidnapped princesses who were abducted by horrible toad people; he is also a dancer, singer and sometime bedfellow of Queen Guinevere, the Lady of the Lake, and other women. But it is not quite the Camelot we are used to. Figures from Greek mythology (Atalanta, Ulysses) are part of Arthur’s entourage. Modern and slangy language, such as Thomas Malory or Lord Tennyson never used, is thrown about the royal court by the likes of Lancelot and Galahad. Galahad has read the philosophy of Nietzsche. As for sexual mores—they seem, to use a current euphemism, more like a somewhat frenzied ‘gentlemen’s club’ than a medieval (or pre-medieval) court.
I’m commenting on this for a reason. John Chevalier, who is also Gawayn, is the centre of this speculative fantasy. At various points different people (there are too many to name in this 447-page novel) offer different interpretations of what the CIRCE phenomenon is. Some see it simply as a way to connect people—the creation of an enlightened community. The ruling Council comes to see it as a subversive menace undermining its authority—especially when the Council is planning to limit the population in the most brutal way. One pundit says it’s the next step in human evolution—first there was speech, then there was writing, and now there will be speechless telepathic communication. But I’m more persuaded by what a wise chap called Amos says: ‘All CIRCE does is clarify, to give tangible shape to your deepest desires—desires of which you are probably not aware, and which might even embarrass you.’ (Even the Lady of the Lake tells Chevalier, aka Gawayn, that she is a figment of his imagination.)
What CIRCE really gives is feedback to fantasists, an enhancement of what their subconscious was already brewing. The author notes ‘the truth is that Chevalier had no close friend and no lovers either in this time of strict sexual austerity. Though he had made love passionately a thousand times in his dreams, thrashing about in his bed, he was yet a virgin.’ I am aware that late in the novel, mythical characters pop out of dreams and become part of the dystopian ‘reality’. I am aware that at points Mann more-or-less implicitly raises the question, ‘What is reality anyway?’ This links with the old fable of the man who fell asleep and dreamed he was a butterfly—and when he awoke he wasn’t sure if he was now a butterfly dreaming he was a man. Even so, the best I can make of John Chevalier’s experience is that it is a desperate virgin’s wish-fulfilment dream.
Mann’s specialty is speculative fantasy. Chevalier & Gawayn is his eleventh novel, and he knows his business. Some of his tropes are familiar ones. The notion of an underground underclass and an overground elite is almost as old as science fiction itself (Eloi and Morlocks in Wells’ Time Machine; but more persuasively, the lower depths and the pleasure palaces in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). The idea of brains being taken over by artificial devices and the problem of what reality is are more recent tropes (see Blade Runner and The Matrix). But Mann makes the situation his own. The dystopian environment is presented in credible and precise detail, from the slick and antiseptic domiciles of the bureaucrats to the sordid, rotting, fungi-laden, rat-infested, whore-haunted streets of the underclass. The large cast of characters is engaging—especially the sometimes enigmatic figure of Ishmael and the adventurous young teenage girl Ednamay, who runs away to live in the lower depths.
Most importantly, Mann writes in very clear and readable prose, pacing the story and seeding it with the twists and surprises that are required in a tale of this length. On the negative side, the concluding account of an escape from the dystopian state is rather laboured, taking up too many chapters and coming near to cliché. Characters who pass through barriers by pretending to be jugglers and circus performers? I think this stunt has been used too often. But that is my only real gripe. Taken as a whole, Chevalier & Gawayn fulfils all the requirements a reader of speculative fantasy could hope for.
Dr NICHOLAS REID is an Auckland poet, critic and historian. He writes the book blog Reid’s Reader.