Sometimes, there is joy to be had in simplicity… in particular, simplified history. I know full well that the realities of the past are complex and labyrinthine. I understand that there’s as much truth to be had in examining the way in which pre-literary societies passed down knowledge through aphorisms as there is in the outcomes of battles, the assassinations of kings and the broad sweep of cultural, social and political trends that have shaped and reshaped human civilisation since pre-historic times. I understand that when the people on Time Team get excited about a few lumps of pot they are not being perverse, they are being true of the subtleties of history and how a proper understanding of human history is carefully constructed out of raw facts. I understand al of these things and still I enjoy the simplified history you get in TV documentary series such as Simon Schama’s A History of Britain, Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. One of the things that is so satisfying about this kind of work is its willingness to look beyond raw facts to the broad narrative arcs that produce the story of our shared past, the clashes of ideas and beliefs that forge the world. One of the most exquisitely narrativised periods of human history is The Renaissance.
The Renaissance stands on the cusp of two different worlds. On the one hand, the Medieval world : largely illiterate, dominated by the church and the affairs of the squabbling bands of warlords who managed to re-invent themselves as legitimate monarchs of the people they oppressed. On the other hand, the modern world : dominated by a middle class empowered by not only the free flow of capital but also the free flow of ideas, leading to a renewed interest in science, democracy and social pluralism. Indeed, one of the recurring motifs of Neal Stephenson’s immensely wonderful Baroque Cycle is the continual re-emergence of a political thesis and anti-thesis. At the beginning of the series it is the supporters of Charles I and the Parliamentarians; then it is the Catholics and the Protestants; then it is the Jacobites and the supporters of William of Orange and Britain’s Glorious Revolution. The wheel of politics keeps on turning and at every revolution, the ever-moving wheel of progress passes over the immovable ground of reactionary conservatism. This clash can even be seen in the writing of the period – particularly the work of Rene Descartes, who laid the philosophical foundations for the enlightenment by declaring that all ‘wisdom’ was null and void and that, because our experience of the world could be doubted, we needed to rebuild human knowledge from the foundations up. A few chapters later, Rene Descartes the modern man gave way to Rene Descartes the Medieval man, as he admitted that the only way to make the whole system work was to assume that, because God is perfect, he would not allow us to be deceived in our perceptions. Credo Ut Intellegam, as Saint Anselm of Canterbury once put it.
All of which brings us to the subject at hand, Assassin’s Creed II (2009), a sequel to 2007’s Assassin’s Creed. Aside from being not only a huge improvement upon the original game (and as much fun as a barrel full of coked-up monkeys), Assassin’s Creed II intrigued me by virtue of the nature of the simplification it engages in. Indeed, if TV history documentaries are abstractions of the raw data of history, then fictionalised accounts of particular historical periods are doubly so. However, most works of historical fiction tend towards what is known as the Whiggish view of history, a now incredibly unfashionable way of approaching the subject that painted human history in terms of a progression from savagery to enlightenment. In any historical period where the forces of progress clash with the forces of reactionary conservatism, authors tend to come down quite heavily on the side of progress, making their protagonists preternaturally modern and their villains not just ‘of their time’ but militantly and viciously so. Consider for example characters such as the educated and democratically-inclined Claudius from Robert Graves’ I, Claudius (1934) or the scientific monk William of Baskerville from Umberto Eco’s The Name of The Rose (1980). Assassin’s Creed II does not follow this pattern, however. In fact, if anything, it inverts it.
The tone is set when the protagonist’s father finds himself caught out by the subtleties of Renaissance Florentine politics; the subtle man finds himself out-subtled and he is shipped to the scaffold leaving the protagonist Ezio Auditore as head of the family. Ezio is a wonderfully brash bully of a character, a swarthy ruffian and ne’er-do-well whose youth has been devoted not so much to philosophy, theology and the law as to climbing through pretty girls’ windows whilst considering the philosophical advantages that come with ramming six feet of Florentine steel through one’s opponent’s guts. He is, in sum, a man out of time – a throwback to a by-gone age attempting to make his way through a world exploding with knowledge, politics and new forms of thought. Of course, this being a video game, this throwback tends to do rather well… much better than his father, at least. Proof that, when the shit hits the fan, being clever is no replacement for being a mass murderer. Newfangled modernity cannot hope to compete with the ways of the old world.
The Assassin’s Creed series is not just about murdering people in different historical contexts; it also has a somewhat revolutionary science fiction framing device that ties the different games together and compresses them into different events in the life of futuristic (and vaguely Arab-looking) everyman Desmond Miles. Miles is roped into a secret historical battle between the Templars and the Assassins. The different games represent attempts by Miles’ ‘handlers’ to use Desmond’s race-memory to uncover facts about the past, such as the locations of secret magical objects that might well sway the era-spanning war one way or the other. This means that Assassin’s Creed II is not simply about the superiority of the medieval world-view to that of the enlightenment, it is about how even the world of the future is bound by laws unchanged since the time of the Crusades. The Assassin’s Creed series is apparently about the true laws of history – and those laws are explicitly fantastical. They involve magic, heroism, prophecy, conspiracy and sword-fighting. Where modern science fiction looks to the future and sees a looming technological singularity rendering human culture too complex to understand, the Assassin’s Creed asserts that for all of the apparent complexity and sophistication of Humanity, we might as well be living on Middle Earth.
The plot of Assassin’s Creed II feels like a direct manifestation of Nick Lowe’s immortal essay on daft plotting “The Well-Tempered Plot Device” (if you haven’t read it yet, I warmly recommend sticking with it). One of the ways in which Assassin’s Creed improves upon its predecessor is in giving the player a good deal more to do. Not only do you have to advance the game by tracking down waves of conspirators, you are also given various side quests : Collect six seals in order to unlock your ancestor’s armour. Collect pages of the Codex in order to unravel one mystery. Track down the machine code embedded in the world to unlock some other mystery. Collect works of art. Collect money in order to do up your family’s villa. Look for statues. Pick up feathers. The list goes on and on… it is a festival of plot coupons. However, in this context, the strangely qualitative narrative structure appears quite salient.
One of the reasons why apocalyptic literature retains so much of its hold upon our collective imaginations is that it offers the hope of a simpler and better world. When the Jews found themselves being massacred by the Greeks because the latter had no rules against fighting on Saturdays, the Jews did not see this as a sign of God’s ultimate injustice. Instead they assumed that these horrors must have been visited upon the Jews because of some greater plan, some deeper set of rules to history that made sense of the injustice and meant that things were still on track to get better. These deeper and greater historical narratives then made it into the next generation of holy texts: The Book of Revelation (once described by George Bernard Shaw as “The curious record of the visions of a drug addict”) not only provides a secret hidden shape to history much like that of the Assassin’s Creed series, it is also full of plot coupons! The end will come once x number of trumpets have been blown and y number of seals have been broken! In order to unlock The Time of Judgement you must first be level 25 and bring me fourteen wolf pelts!
Of course, the prophetic attempt to cut human events down to a more comprehensible scale is fundamentally a political one. The Evil will be punished and the Just will plant their boots on the necks of the old bosses… so why would you not want to be one of the Just? Behind these claims of lofty insight and moral righteousness lie the desire not only to comfort the faithful but also to strike fear into the non-converted. Fire and Brimstone!
One of the reasons why I struggle so much with Epic Fantasy’s fondness for prophecies and grand battles between Good and Evil is that they always give me the impression that I am being conned. Yes, Aragorn takes the throne at the end of The Lord of the Rings – but what is his agenda? Is his taking of power anything other than a military coup backed by the undead and Middle Earth’s remaining elves and wizards? Intriguingly, the Assassin’s Creed series has been largely silent on the bone of contention between the Knights Templar and the Assassins, and the obvious culprits Christianity and Islam are both tactfully removed from the picture. Here, we might be forgiven for thinking, is a return to that old Fantastical saw: the goodies are over here, the baddies are over there. Who will win?
But the Assassin’s Creed series reveals itself to be a good deal more sophisticated than that. While the first Assassin’s Creed revealed that beneath the reality of history there is an ancient mystical battle, the second Assassin’s Creed game actually deconstructs the old saw. The battle, we are told, is not some empty spat between the Just and the Evil. Rather, it is an exercise in Asimovian psychohistorical manipulation; shadowy forces from the future are attempting to sculpt human history. This means that, rather than reflecting Divine Will or the immutable laws of sacred history, the apocalypse of the Assassin’s Creed series is about power and politics and human agency. This development is reminiscent of the final volume of Stephen Baxter’s Time’s Tapestry series, in which he reveals the prophecies that fuelled the earlier books in the series to be little more than the product of two sets of Second World War intelligence agents trying to give their side a little boost.
This leaves us exactly where we began.
The world is a complex place – so complex that it can, at times, be over-powering. The world has always been like this, and so humans have tried to make sense of the chaos by inventing stories about their past and their future in an attempt to give their lives meaning. The likes of Clark, Bonowski and Schama – much like the Whiggish historians before them, and the prophets before that – tried to shape the chaos, but as fun as these shapes might be, it is important to remember that the real world is complex and does not fit the little stories we make up. Assassin’s Creed II is a silly, violent, and crushingly ahistorical game… and yet it redeems itself by admitting that all talk of prophecy, especially its own, is little more than politics on stilts.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.
Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.
[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]