A Timely Political Treatise: A Review of Ricardo Pinto's The Standing Dead
Reviewed by Stephanie Dray
5 January 2004
The Standing Dead is Ricardo Pinto's sequel to his ambitious debut novel, The Chosen. In the first book, the author developed a master race who lived in the exotic and opulent city of Osrakum. If anything, this second novel is even more ambitious than the first, for it explores the misery and subjugation of peoples upon which the splendor of Osrakum is built.
Where the first book was a richly imagined, anthropological study of a fictional caste system, The Standing Dead is nothing less than a political treatise on imperialism. Given the current neo-conservative political debate with regard to the Middle East, the book makes a timely and powerful statement.
The main character, Carnelian, is one of "the chosen." Though born into the privileged ruling class, Carnelian was raised by his father in exile outside of Osrakum. As a result, Carnelian does not share the cruelty and dominant character of his race and when he returns to Osrakum, his good heart and naiveté bring about painful consequences. In Osrakum, Carnelian finds love with another of the master race, a boy named Osidian. But their happiness is short lived. Soon they are captured by political enemies and stuffed into urns to await death.
It is at this dangerous juncture that The Standing Dead begins. Carnelian and Osidian fall into the hands of barbarian plainsmen who bring them back to their tribe. Carnelian quickly adapts to tribal life and begins to form familial connections with the plainsmen. But Carnelian's lover, Osidian, remains aloof, angry, and determined to have revenge upon those who betrayed him back in Osrakum.
While Carnelian would be happy to love Osidian and live a simple tribal life, his lover cannot forget that they are masters. Osidian views the plainsmen with contempt -- they are beneath him in every way. However, Osidian also views the tribesmen as tools, so he begins a campaign to win over the impressionable youth of the tribe to his cause.
Carnelian realizes his lover's nefarious plot to use the tribesmen in his quest for vengeance, but Carnelian's sentimentality prevents him from doing much of anything to stop it. Carnelian's do-gooder innocence and Osidian's predatory nature, combined with the tribe's unwillingness to take responsibility for their own actions, set them all upon a collision course with Osrakum and may destroy the world as they know it.
Pinto is an enviable literary talent -- his prose and world-building skills are considerable. And even though the sluggish first quarter of the book could use some ruthless editing, he injects a sense of realism into his dark, violent universe that brings it to life. No matter how strange, how disturbing, or how foreign, Pinto's vision remains compelling because it asks questions about the nature of man.
Among other things, The Standing Dead illustrates the Machiavellian paradox that to do good, one must have power, but to get power, one cannot be good. Thus, as political commentary cloaked as epic fantasy, the book is brilliant on many levels. What is not clear is whether or not its genius is intentional.
Sometimes, the author's observations are direct and unambiguous, such as when Carnelian's adoptive tribe begins enslaving neighboring peoples. Pinto intentionally and powerfully demonstrates the point made by writers such as Thomas Jefferson that slavery degrades both the slave and the master.
Other times, the political ramifications of Pinto's story are more subtle, and undercut sympathy for his otherwise likable protagonist. For example, Carnelian's well-meaning gullibility is at first endearing but, over time, it appears to mask fundamental weakness. When faced with evil, Carnelian is often paralyzed with indecision and moral ambivalence. As the novel progresses, so does the readers' frustration with Carnelian's inaction. After all, to fight evil requires reason and pragmatic utilitarianism -- neither of which the tender-hearted Carnelian has in any great measure.
And then a fascinating thing happens. When Carnelian despairs over killing men in self-defense and blames the entire episode on Osidian, irritation with Carnelian reaches a fever pitch. It is also the point at which the book becomes most exciting, for it is then that one feels the guilty pleasure of being swept up in the charisma of the villain. In that seductive moment, the heart pounds and the reading light stays on, as the reader personally experiences the visceral pull of darker instincts.
Whether this delicious sensation, this empathy for the tribe's seduction, is the result of deliberate manipulations on the part of the author or an unintended side-effect cannot be known until the final book of the series. Only then will we see the kind of person adversity will finally make of Carnelian and what Pinto means to tell us.
In the meantime, it is possible to reach several more epiphanies about imperialism, racism, classism, leadership, and moral responsibility from the subtext without knowing the author's intent. For example, Carnelian admires the "simple" ways of the plainsmen and blames Osidian for their fall from grace, but ultimately, the moral responsibility of the tribe is unavoidable unless one takes the racist view that they are inferior children. Osidian is merely the spark; the tribe is complicit in all his evil endeavors and provides the tinder for the conflagration.
Thus, what starts out as an ode to the "noble savage" disintegrates into an examination of man's worst instincts when he struggles for survival. Under Osidian's influence and the pressures of poverty, the plainsmen develop exactly the kind of cruel caste system that they most despise. And, in so doing, Pinto seems to be saying that under the right circumstances, without laws and philosophy to guide them, all men would be tyrants.
Yet, The Standing Dead is not entirely a work of political fiction. The book is also intensely personal, asking questions about the limitations of romantic love and its danger to character and integrity.
As Carnelian develops affection for one of the tribesmen, Fern, a love triangle arises which insults Osidian. And though Fern and Carnelian's love is stilted (and mostly irrelevant except as a way for Osidian to blackmail Carnelian) it serves to further exemplify Carnelian's deepest personal struggle.
Several times, Carnelian's love for Osidian or Fern causes him to make the wrong choice with disastrous consequences for himself and others. Carnelian's love often overcomes his reason, his courage, his ethics, and his sense of self. Thus, we see Carnelian's love as both strength and weakness, leaving us hoping that by the end of the series, he will have mastered the conflict within himself.
As a final note, much has been made of the fact that The Standing Dead is a work of gay fiction, but this aspect of the book is elegantly understated. Pinto has an agonizing fondness for detail that sometimes bogs down the story, and yet, when it comes to his love scenes, the intimate details are quickly summarized. It is clear that the alternative sexuality, rather than the sex itself, is what interests him. Ultimately, that Carnelian is gay is not only a refreshing aspect of the book, but unusually appropriate to one whose central question is whether it is better to love a man or to love mankind.
Copyright © 2004 Stephanie Dray
Stephanie Dray is a lawyer-turned-writer. She also runs FiranMUX, an internet game based on her first, unpublished novel, Elik's Shadow. She attended Clarion East this past summer and is currently working on her second novel, entitled Cleopatra's Daughter. Her previous contributions to Strange Horizons can be found in the Archive. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.