A masterpiece of political science fiction and a book to challenge such works as Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed, Arslan is a book that others are now measured against. "It's about fathers and sons, about power, about a genuinely ruthless (but not unfeeling) mind in pursuit of a practical solution to the world's problems." So M. J. Engh describes Arslan. This is a novel of power and depth that is unforgettable.
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By M. J. Engh
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1967 M. J. Engh
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When his name first cropped up in the news reports, it was just one more foreign name to worry about, like so many others. And like so many others, it graduated in due time to the level of potential crisis. But before it had gone any further than that, suddenly all the rules had been changed when we weren't looking, and if you said "he" without an obvious antecedent you were talking about Arslan.
On TV and in the news weeklies he'd looked no different from a lot of them: young, jaunty, halfway Oriental like the second-row extras in Turandot, and every one of them a major general at the very least. "Turkistan — is that independent now?" Luella had asked me, one of the first times he showed up.
"I think it always has been." I meant to look it up in the big atlas at school; but I was busy planning for quarterly exams, and that intention went the way of a lot of other things I meant to do. I never did get around to it till after the Emergency Broadcast Network began its terse announcements that martial law had been proclaimed throughout the United States and that all U.S. armed forces were under the command of General Arslan. Among other things that hectic day, I looked at the map of Central Asia. Turkistan. Cap: Bukhara. Pop: 1,369,000. Even South Vietnam would have been able to handle a place that size. Still, with China on one border and Russia on another, and an oil field begging for development, it was small wonder Arslan had made a splash at the U.N.
"Stay off the highways," the EBS kept saying. Whether that was a friendly voice or a hostile one was anybody's guess. "Only military transport is permitted on state, interstate, and national highways." Military transport — that included, apparently, the great commercial trucks that rolled past the square and on through town. We stood and watched them in the early dusk, and I wondered if it was good luck or bad that Kraftsville happened to lie on a main highway.
"I've got to get home," Paul Sears protested. "I can't help it if I live on the hardroad."
"If I were you, Paul, I'd go around by the back road." That was Arnold Morgan, knowing all the answers. "Once the President invokes his emergency powers, we're required to follow his instructions. That's Federal law."
Paul snorted. "It didn't sound like the President to me."
"I'd feel better if I knew who that General Arslan was," somebody else put in. Which was about par for Kraftsville. Plenty of people in town had never heard of Premier Arslan, or didn't remember it if they had.
"He's the one that's been talking to Red China," I said. The last news I remembered hearing about him, Arslan and the Chinese premier had been in Moscow by invitation, presumably discussing their border dispute. The Russians had been offering for months to mediate it. Turkistan had been cagey, China had emphatically refused; but at last they had agreed to a Moscow summit meeting, agenda unspecified. Now, a few days after the meeting started, Arslan was Deputy Commander in Chief of the United States armed forces. And the trucks were rolling. It didn't make a whole lot of sense.
Everybody was on the telephone. Long distance calls were getting through to some places, but none farther away than Louisiana, where Rachel Munsey talked to some of her relations and found out there was fighting going on down there. Maybe riot or maybe war — Rachel had managed not to find out that little detail; but there were people with uniforms and people without, and black and white in both categories. We couldn't make connections with the East Coast or the West Coast, and even Chicago was cut off cold. There were open lines to St. Louis, our nearest city, for just two days. Then they went dead, sometime in the night.
And the next morning we got word from Monckton that a real, genuine army was driving west on Illinois 460, which meant straight towards us. But Kraftsville, Illinois, wasn't likely to be anybody's military objective, and the highway didn't pass the school; I saw no reason to declare a holiday.
It was just after lunch when Luella came hurrying across Pearl Street to my office. "I thought I'd run over and tell you instead of tying up the phone. Helen Sears just called, and she says they're passing her place right now; they ought to be in town in a few minutes."
"You shouldn't be alone," I said. "Why don't you go over to Rachel Munsey's?"
"No, I'd rather be in my own house. And somebody might call."
"All right. Call me or come over if you hear anything that sounds important. Otherwise just stay put. I want to know where you are."
From Nita Runciman's eighth-grade room, which was the southwest corner of the top floor, you could see a little bit of the highway four blocks away. I told Nita to post one or two of her students there as lookouts and let me know as soon as they saw anything. In less than ten minutes she was on the intercom. "They're coming through," she said. "Mr. Bond —" Her voice crackled. "Some of them are turning down Pearl Street. Trucks and jeeps."
They didn't pass the school; they stopped beside it. I watched them from the south window of my office while I talked on the intercom. They pulled up in a line right in front of me, their engines still running, stretching nearly the full block. The last jeep of the string drove past the others and turned into the parking lot. There was a driver, and a man with a submachine gun, and one passenger. I didn't know what I had been expecting, but when I saw him, my heart went down a notch. He was too young, too young and too happy.
I had no doubt of who he was, much as I could have used a little doubt right then. The news pictures that had seemed so anonymous suddenly flashed into vivid focus. He gave orders exuberantly, waving his hands. Soldiers swarmed out from Pearl Street in both directions, into the schoolground and into the yard of my house. I searched the upstairs windows for a sight of Luella. But I didn't have much time to look. Soldiers were at the south door, a few steps from my office, some of them with rifles reversed — ready to smash the glass if the double doors were locked, or maybe just for fun. I got there first, and they waited grinning while I opened up. We might be wanting those doors intact.
They pushed in. Whatever they were, they weren't Americans. I got in front of a sergeant (I didn't bother to count his stripes, but he looked like a sergeant) and braced my legs. "Wait a minute!" I said. He looked at me without much interest and gave an order, and three men backed me into my office. I guessed this was what was called token resistance; anyway, it seemed like the best idea available at the moment. Now it was my teachers' turn. They had instructions to sit as tight as possible, cooperate without objection, volunteer nothing, and keep the children still. There wasn't much else we could do on such short notice.
Boots thudded along the hall, up the stairs, down into the basement. Doors opened, doors slammed. A long barrage of thumps told me they were opening the desks. Then most of them came trooping back and out of the door. It had only taken a few minutes.
The sergeant held the south door open, saluting smartly, and General Arslan strode in, with quite a retinue behind him. He was stocky, but he moved with lightness and bounce, like a good welterweight boxer. He turned into the office as if he knew his way around. The soldiers let go of my arms and fell back, and I was face to face with him.
"You are in charge of this school?" His English was very clear, his voice a quick baritone.
"That's right," I said. "I'm the principal."
"What is your name?"
He had been smiling all the time. Now he tilted his head in a little hint of a bow, never taking his eyes off mine. There was nothing else impressive about him that you could put your finger on, but he did have the most piercing eyes I'd ever seen. "Good," he said. "You will show me your school."
"Gladly. But I'd like to know what you're here for."
He strode out, and a bayonet prodded the small of my back, in case I hadn't gotten the message. My legs were a good deal longer than his; I caught up in two steps, and we went down the hall side by side. He glanced up at me with amusement. "I shall bivouac in your town." Well, that sounded temporary. "I shall hold a dinner here tonight. You will be my guest."
I showed him the new west wing first, with the kitchen and cafeteria and the wide folding doors opening into our gym that doubled as auditorium. He took it all in with those eyes of his, as if the fate of the world hung on everything he looked at. Then the library and the audio-visual room and the music room. Then I had to lead him back into the main block of the school.
"And what is this?"
"That's the fire door." Where he came from, it might be a revolutionary concept. "In case a fire ever broke out in one part of the building, we could pull this steel door down and keep it out of the other part."
He nodded and ran his left hand up the tracks. "It is good," he said. A connoisseur's appreciation.
It wasn't much different from a start-of-school guided tour for the PTA. A little pack of soldiers — half a dozen, maybe — seemed to be tied to General Arslan's heels. I showed him the shop, the furnace room, the washrooms, the teachers' lounges, the broom closets. We looked into every classroom. He asked the name of every teacher. The children sat subdued and uneasy at their desks; I was proud to see that the teachers were keeping them quietly busy.
The only classroom we actually went into was Nita Runciman's eighth grade. Arslan paused a moment at the open door, resting his hand lightly on the frame, and then stepped in with a broad smile. He stood with arms akimbo, surveying the class. For the first time I noticed he wore a pistol on his left hip. The children watched him blankly.
Suddenly he stepped forward, down one aisle and back another, swiftly tapping three children on the shoulder as he passed. He was saying something, chuckling, to his men as he came back toward the door. Immediately the three were pulled from their seats and hustled after him. It was two girls and a boy — Paula Sears, LouAnn Williams, and Hunt Morgan. He had picked, very possibly, my three best eighth-graders.
"Wait a minute," I said. He had to stop or walk into me. He stopped. "Where are you taking these children? And what for?"
He put on an expression of mocking innocence. Yes, he was too young. He shrugged. "Is it important that you should know this? However, I tell you. They will serve at my dinner tonight." He stepped forward, and the faithful bayonet prodded me out of his way.
Back in my office, one hip perched on the edge of my desk, he lit cigarette after cigarette, smoking each one down in intense short drags till the live coal touched his fingers, flipping the smoldering butts onto my floor. He had a window opened, which let in a cold draft without clearing the air much. Meanwhile he was busy. The three eighth-graders had been led out and driven away in a truck. Soldiers kept coming and going, reporting to Arslan and receiving orders. Every one of them looked like a kid getting ready for a birthday party. I'd never seen so many jubilant faces on grown men at one time before. Whether it was a good sign or bad remained to be seen.
He wasn't just planning a bivouac and a dinner. It was to be a feast. It was to be, all too obviously, a victory celebration. The cooks were put to work, not just in the kitchen but in the home ec room, with Maud Dollfus in charge there. Five of Maud's best students were drafted to help, and so were the music teacher (Hunt Morgan's mother Jean) and our new little librarian. The freezers were emptied. There was a regular procession of soldiers carrying cases of liquor. My phone kept ringing, and Arslan kept answering it himself, sounding brusque and casual in his ungodly language. I wasn't much acquainted with the ways of generals, but it seemed to me he was an almighty informal commander.
I'd settled down in my desk chair at first, to keep him out of it; but the intrusion was getting to my stomach, and pretty soon I had to stand up and move around. I was just pacing back from the big window when he suddenly swung toward me with a friendly smile and announced, "Now it is your turn." He waved his hand hospitably toward my phone. "You have three hours, twenty minutes; at five P.M. the telephone service stops. You will inform the parents of your students that their children are held as hostages for the good behavior of all citizens. You will inform them that they will surrender all vehicles and all weapons and ammunition to my soldiers on demand. You will inform them that each time one of my soldiers is attacked or resisted, two children will be executed — if possible, children belonging to the family of the guilty citizen. You will inform them that they may bring one blanket for each child, to be delivered to the southwest corner of the school grounds by five-thirty P.M. You will inform them that for each citizen seen outside his or her home after six P.M., one child will be executed — if possible, again, a child belonging to the family of the guilty citizen." He straightened up suddenly from the desk and stepped close to me, thrusting his face up toward mine. He was alive with eager pleasure. "Have you understood?" he demanded exultantly. "Do you believe that I can do what I say — and that I will do it?"
Maybe and maybe not. I pushed past him, bumping his shoulder hard, and picked up the phone. He was still grinning as he led his retinue out.
There were about two hundred families represented in the school, and not all of them had telephones. I called first the ones who were most likely to be of help and gave each of them a list of others to contact, ticking off names in the school register. It wasn't just a matter of spreading the news. Everybody had to be convinced. Everybody. The middle of southern Illinois might not be a very likely spot for military atrocities, but I was damned if I'd call his bluff. I wasn't going to have children slaughtered — not my own students, not in my own school. And he looked like a man who could have a taste for blood.
The second call I made (I wanted to let Arslan's men get out of the office first) was to Luella. "They've been here," she said grimly. "They took the couch and the green armchair, for some reason. And they turned the whole house wrong side out. They just ransacked everything. It'll take me days to get it cleaned up."
"But they didn't hurt you?"
"No, no. I just stayed out of their way."
I gave her a list of names to work on and told her to be careful — good advice in a cyclone, but there wasn't much else to say.
I was still on the phone at five, checking with people who'd helped make calls. The line went dead almost on the second by the master clock. That was it. I rubbed my face and said a little prayer.
They had left me alone all this time, and when I stepped out into the hall nobody bothered me. I walked down to the cafeteria and through it into the gym. My living-room couch was standing in the center of the stage at the opposite end, with my coffee table in front of it. Some of the cafeteria tables had been moved into the gym, and between them the floor was crowded with chairs — all of the school's folding chairs, teachers' desk chairs, and a medley of chairs that must have been confiscated from people's homes. No doubt my armchair was in there someplace. I strolled back into the main block of the school.
Relays of children were being led into the A-V room and the shop room, and a couple of Arslan's officers were interviewing them there. The officers were polite, but it wasn't likely they'd get much information, considering that the scared kids couldn't understand one word in four of their accented English. A lot of blankets had already been delivered, and more were coming all the time. Grinning soldiers were distributing them, as friendly as you please. Little Betty Hanson was very shaky, but the rest of the teachers made me proud. I sent Nita Runciman down to help Betty with her third grade, and took Nita's class across the hall to join the other eighth-grade class under Jack Partridge.
This time there was a colonel in my office. He was in the process of going through my desk, taking a few notes and helping himself to a few of my papers, which he filed neatly in a large folder. He glanced up when I came in and introduced himself in an atrocious accent. It went with his dark, sharp features and wolfish eyes; he would have made a pretty good villain in an old movie. I couldn't make out the name very well, but part of it sounded like Nizam. I stood and watched him till he got through with my desk and applied himself to the file cabinet. Then I sat down and watched him some more. He breezed through the files very rapidly, not seeming to find anything worth taking, thanked me, and stalked out.
Excerpted from Arslan by M. J. Engh. Copyright © 1967 M. J. Engh. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was intriguing from start to finish. Engh did an amazing job of creating an interesting character, Arslan, who is so horrible but I couldn't get enough of and had to know more about him. How is he able to take over this town, the country, and the world? How does he survive? How does the narrator(s) deal with the situation? Each scene and experience felt very real. Read this book.
When the name General Arslan is first mentioned on American TV, no one has heard of him and very few people can locate his nation Turkiston. His country happens to be a small central Asian country boarded by China and Russia. Not long after making the news for the first time, Arslan decides to begin his plan to save the planet from the spiral of corruption and destruction that its leaders seem to desire. He quickly becomes the Deputy Command in Chief of the US armed forces and behind that, conqueror of North America without a drop of blood spilled. Arslan comes to strategically unnecessary Kraftville, Illinois to bivouac. In the small town, General Arslan meets Principal Franklin Bond who takes the new world leader on a tour of the school. Here in this tiny little spot where Arslan meets someone treating him like an equal not a conqueror, the young General sets up house. Is the premise of a General from a country smaller than Brooklyn conquering the United States seems a stretch on first thought? Absolutely that is until you read M.J. Engh¿s fabulous science fiction novel. The two key characters, ARSLAN and Franklin seem real as they form a special bond between them. In the vein of The Mouse That Roared, this political science fiction tale lives up to what readers have screamed since its initial release five years ago: classic. Harriet Klausner
It's not really a science fiction, though perhaps in the 70s when it was written, this would be the only category in which it would fit.Anyway, it's more like an alternate history (though, I suppose, in the 70s it was not history, but it is today). So, it might even make more sense now if it was treated as an alternative history story.It's not very interesting, however, because it's sort of like a political discussion of 'imagine if someone tried to take over the world' based out of small-town USA. It's not as humorous but it's very much like Hogan's Heroes where the captives play along with the captors. And, like Hogan's Heroes, there are no female characters/characterization, unless, of course, you count the brothel workers.
not an "easy" read, but gives a viewpoint on why people come to love their tormentors