A review of The Claus Effect by David Nickle and Karl Schroeder (Tesseract Books, 1997)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Cover photo courtesy of the authors
Every child wishes they could go to the North Pole to become one of Santa’s elves. What child wouldn’t want to get everything that they want? David Nickle and Karl Schroeder take on the spirit of the holidays in The Claus Effect and explore what the personification of the holidays would be like. They cast a critical eye at the materialism of modernity and the overwhelming impulse of desire in Western society, and its particular expression of indulgence around the holiday season.
Santa Claus becomes the personification of capitalist desire – the manifestation of the idea that everyone should get what they want rather than what they need even when what they want is destructive to the society around them. Nickle and Shroeder’s Santa becomes a figure that seeks overall destruction by giving children access to weapons that would do harm to them and others, gleefully indulging in the destructive impulse of desire.
The Claus Effect begins with the short story “The Toy Mill” (originally published in Tesseracts 4) in which a young girl named Emily, obsessed with the mythology of Christmas and the desire for belonging asks Santa Claus if she can become an elf. Santa is wordsmithed with a predatory quality, described as having “an endless quest for girls and boys”, and licking his lips when he encounters them. His desire is for workers for the mill, children transformed into elves to work in his industrialist nightmare – a factory with huge smokestakes and enslaved workers. The factory itself is described with a predatory, consumptive quality – drooling cables and iron spiderwebs.
Emily struggles to find out why Santa doesn’t always give children what they desire, not reading their requests in his letters and points out to him the horrifying possibility that he may benefit from reading the words of children. Santa has become embittered from not receiving the thanks he feels he deserves for giving children what he thinks they should want. Santa lives in ignorance, believing he is above hearing the requests of children in letters, above the need to learn anything new. But when taught about the opportunity presented in this letters, when told that it could be research on giving children the very items that would allow for the full manifestation of their self-destructive consumptive impulse, he pays attention to this “market research”. He finds letters from children who wish their whole town would catch syphilis, who wish they owned M-16s, AKMs, and other munitions, and thousands of requests for their parents to die.
Emily begins to realise the horror of giving The Claus access to the full extent of children’s wishes and empowering the maliciousness that gave manifestation to him. Mrs. Claus has been preventing Santa’s wrath by telling him that letters were complaints from children about his gifts, indicating their displeasure.
Wishes and desire become the means for The Claus to manifest his love of destruction. He realises that the most harm he can do to the world is to give people what they want. He realises that consumption is consumptive, that over consumption and desire is destructive.
Despite her realisation that giving people what they want can be destructive, and her attempt to end Santa’s destructive regime, over-consumption is something that has become too enmeshed in our society. Santa can’t be destroyed, and Shroeder and Nickle re-visit Santa in The Claus Effect, which examines a clash of ideologies as over-consumptive capitalism meets communism.
Neil Nyman views war as a means of expressing American Western ideals of “the right way” and as the ultimate expression of ideas of masculinity and concepts of honour, particularly when that violence is directed toward a perceived communist threat. His uncle, a soldier teaches him at a young age that vengeance and violence are expressions of patriotism and that Christmas can be a time of vengeance.
After becoming a soldier himself, Nyman discovers some of the horror that militarism can wreak when he realises that Santa is in a conspiratorial relationship with the U.S. government: a weaponry wishlist delivered by the military to Santa each year. Santa has become a manifestation of the capitalist industrialist-military complex.
In order to keep his secrets, Santa targets Emily, now a grown woman who remembers his weaknesses. Emily is continually reminded of the horrors of working for Santa while she works for ValueLand, another commercial empire profiting from greed and, particularly, seasonal greed.
Neil and Emily eventually meet each other, both suspicious and questioning of the status quo and both having discovered secrets surrounding Santa Claus and his relationship to the American government. The two of them come into contact with another figure from Christmas mythology, Krampus, a figure that mythologically existed in contrast to Santa Claus in Germanic countries and was responsible for capturing and punishing children who were naughty. Krampus is an ideological figure, one who believes that human beings shouldn’t get everything that they want, but rather should be focused on their needs. Krampus had once discovered a copy of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and saw in it a potential for the balance between punishment and reward, a way to balance the greed embodied by Santa Claus. He travelled to Russia and joined the Russian revolution.
In The Claus Effect, the extremes of capitalism and communism come into ideological conflict, embodied by mythic figures surrounding the Christmas as an ideological time that focuses both on the extremes of capitalist greed and also ideas of community and working toward a common good. Christmas for Schroeder and Nickle is a time of contradictory impulses, a battle of extremes of ideology – a winter cold war of conflicting messages.
You can discover more about Karl Schroeder at his website at http://www.kschroeder.com/ and you can discover more about Dave Nickle at his website at http://davidnickle.blogspot.ca/ . To explore The Claus Effect for yourself, visit the Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing site at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/clauseffect/ce-catalog.html