Radiant, Not Abominable
Apologies, first, for any spoilers in this review, but readers should know they’ll get plenty of good stuff, even if they have a heads-up on some of the reveals. Stoker Award-winning Canadian author David Nickle presents a historical-fantastical body-horror epic, looping in Brownshirts, fighter aces, extreme biology and the nature of faith. And if that sounds like a potent mix, well, try it and see.
Volk unfolds in Europe c.1931, with occasional flashbacks to pre-war America. The Volk of the title refers, of course, to Germanic völkisch ideology, but also to a different and more intense group identity, centred on a parasitic organism, the Juke, which can appropriate human drives, beliefs, and even perceptions to its own needs. The Nazis, and other groups, including the survivors of past encounters with the Juke, are all interested in exploring and exploiting those properties – for diverse purposes and through all sorts of means, some of them very atrocious.
The book is a sequel to Nickle’s previous work on eugenics, also from Chizine, Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, which originally articulated “the biology and parasitology” of the Juke. “I’d never written a sequel until this one,” the author observes in the Acknowledgments. Personally, I hadn’t read Eutopia prior to reading Volk, and still haven’t, but I can tell you that it’s not necessary to do so to catch up on the extensive backstory (you can read more about that here), as Nickle does manage to communicate all the necessary information without Volk feeling like an appendage. He also does a great job of evoking the atmosphere of interwar Europe without overdoing the period detail, in a way that recalls Eric Ambler’s “Popular Front” thrillers. Nickle has appeared in the Queer Fear series, but any overt homoeroticism in Volk is laid on with a light touch.
Obviously, a novel touching on völkisch ideology, racism and totalitarianism has plenty of resonance with our times, but Nickle clearly did not set out to write a polemic. There is no strident simplistic chest-thumping: the arguments, as well as the historical facts, are very well explored, and the often horrific consequences are demonstrated with great imagination. Also, Nickle is obviously too engaged in marshalling his complex narrative and huge cast of characters (including a walk-on part for Joseph Goebbels), across locations from rural Idaho to Paris, Stuttgart, and a mysterious experimental facility deep in the Bavarian countryside, to turn this into any kind of propaganda exercise.
Two of Canada’s finest imaginative writers, Peter Watts (who “continued to aid me in evolving the abominations of Volk”) and Gemma Files (“who dove deep into the prose and brought out a shine that I only flatter myself thinking was there all the time”) contributed to Volk. The abomination of the subtitle only comes into full focus right at the end of the story – and that’s a testament to the novel’s exquisite construction. Volk is technically and intellectually very ambitious, and it succeeds on almost every level, including as good, intelligent entertainment.
From the Book:
The doctor smiled to himself and shook his head, as though to dislodge something that had fixed itself inside there.
He could not call that one a patient. He had never laid eyes upon him.
The doctor could only list what he knew of him, on one of those index cards they used in America.
He was a huge man. Brown haired. A single eyebrow. Very ugly. But muscular. And fearless. With fantastical charisma. But a man with no name or identity yet — not one the doctor could decode, until he could break through with Gottlieb, or the amnesiac French girl, or perhaps some others as his associates in Belgium might uncover. For the time being, the doctor had nothing with which to find him . . . next to nothing beyond that description, and what was almost certainly his phylum:
“You flew in the Luftstreitkräfte,” said Jason. “That so, isn’t it?”
Zimmermann shrugged, and smoked, and then nodded.
“And you, Lieutenant Colonel Thorn, flew in the Royal Flying Corps. Two tours: one begun in 1915, lasting just under a year, and then again in the final push in 1918. You had a bit of a reputation. How many of our planes did you shoot down?”
“One a week.”
“Haven’t heard that one in a while,” said Jason.
Pain is an ordinary thing. And in this aspect, it is extraordinary. It is the most common experience among us. Perhaps it is common to every living thing. It is one of the few universals — at once a proof of life, and a warning of death. Pain is the snap of a trap on a leg. It is a cut of a sharp knife into the soft flesh of a palm. It is in the simple kinetic consequence of a bad fall on sharp rocks. It is an elbow, shattered by a tree branch. It is a shattered heart.
Or a bullet, lodged in a foot.