Hel’s Eight by Stark Holborn
(Titan Books, 2023)
Reviewed by Nick Hubble
Hel’s Eight is the sequel to Stark Holborn’s 2021 space western Ten Low and, while it could be read on its own, readers would probably benefit from reading the earlier novel first. There has been some debate as to whether describing these books as westerns is selling them short but that rather depends on people’s attitudes to westerns. If like me, you are a fan of the spaghetti and revisionist westerns of the 1960s and 1970s, and especially trippy counter-cultural westerns such as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo or Monte Hellman’s The Shooting, then you will relish the feverish intensity of these novels. As an upgrade, the traditional gender politics of the western have been long outrun here so that we have in Joanne Harris’s words ‘a wonderful fusion of Firefly and Joanna Russ, with an Ennio Morricone soundtrack’. This is the kind of future that I used to dream about in my wildest fantasies but somehow the twenty-first-century grind of capitalist realism has driven such visions away from us. Therefore, the first task of this review is simply to register gratitude for Holborn’s implicit invitation to readers to completely unfetter their imaginations again.
Not that one should get carried away with dreams of liberty in the manner of the radicals who named a town on the desert moon Factus, Neue Freiheit. By the time Ten ‘Doc’ Low pulls up her mule in the main street outside ‘Lazar’s place’, Neue has long since morphed via Noia into Paranoia; a town that ‘is filled with the usual activity in a place where there are no authorities to interfere’. Ten Low worked clever variations on staple Western set pieces, such as the stagecoach party fighting off hostiles or the train robbery. In similar vein, Hel’s Eight gives us the bad guys riding in to shoot up town. This gang, the ‘Metaldogs’, are ‘body mod freaks’ working, town by town, to bring the moon under the control of the capitalist corporation, Xoon Futures. They seem set to achieve their objective after pinning down any remaining resistance within Lazar’s, a bizarre blend of hospital and bar, but then the Metaldog leader makes the mistake of screaming to those inside that she’ll give them a chance, holding up a coin and calling ‘Snake … or Eight?’
These coins, depicting on one face an ouroboros, a snake devouring its own tail, and on the other a figure of eight on its side—eternity and infinity—both hold the key to the novel’s plot and represent a more general concern with the ineluctable nature of quantum probability. It is exactly at those pivotal moments when realities can jump track that Doc comes into her own, fixing the Metaldogs in her gaze, with a clinical awareness that with each passing second they remain, one more chance of them staying alive winks out of existence. ‘You want to play?’ she says levelly, spinning her own coin into the air, ‘Then let’s play’. At which point, a critic of the genre might say that predictable consequences ensue, but this is to miss the deeper reality that these consequences are so fundamentally unpredictable that they require a paradigm shift in the reader’s mind to appreciate fully.
Reading Hel’s Eight made me realise how relatively unique westerns are, for non-SF texts, in foregrounding such existential quantum moments. And like the westerns it pays homage to (there are also resonances with the Mad Max films and possibly Halo Jones), much of the plot of Hel’s Eight functions to set up these moments, when time slows and possibility expands to fill the universe. Xoon Futures, like all capitalism, seeks to isolate a reality in which it always wins, but in order to do that it has to play, albeit with a stacked deck. All is set, therefore, for the final showdown, when Hel comes a calling and we find out whether other realities really are possible against the odds.