|Reviews of Recent Publications|
|Axiomatic Greg Egan
Cover by Science Photo Library
Millennium, 1995, tpb, 290pp, $19.95
|Our Lady of Chernobyl Greg Egan
Cover by Shaun Tan
MirrorDanse, 1995, chap, 111pp, $9.95
Reviewed by Robin Pen
I would expect little argument that Greg Egan's Axiomatic is one of the most eagerly-awaited SF collections of 1995, and it would be quite reasonable for any reader to expect a favourable opinion to be expressed in these pages. Not wanting to disappoint, Axiomatic is an impressive volume: impressive in its speculation and, at times, impressive in its scope. It is a collection of 16 choice pieces from Egan's career, all published between '89 and '92, and includes two previously unpublished works. Now, Egan has been alive and writing well since 1992, as two respected novels and the MirrorDanse chapbook Our Lady of Chernobyl clearly demonstrate, so why collect stories exclusively published between '89 and '92? Is Axiomatic intended to cover a particular period of Greg's fiction: to indicate a door closing on one period and making way for a new phase of creativity? More likely a contractual agreement. However, it is interesting when Axiomatic is considered in light of Our Lady of Chernobyl, a chapbook containing four stories, three of which were first published after '92.
Greg Egan is a unique explorer of cybernetic systems. Many of his stories show an admirable professionalism while others are merely good. He is at his best when he is conjecturing on an issue inspired by one or more of his chief passions: biology, artificial intelligence or quantum mechanics. But it is rarely the scientific premise that is the target of the piece. Often, these principles of scientific thought are simply vehicles for questioning the validity of perception and the security of individuality.
For example, "The Moral Virologist" is a striking, if sometimes slightly heavy-handed piece, that takes the "gunman in the tower touched by God" motif to a bio-technological dénouement. Part story, part fictional essay, part monologue, "The Moral Virologist" goes some way towards representing the typical structure of Egan's stories. So too does "The Cutie", a speculation on male surrogate pseudo-pregnancy that puts forward the argument that our genetically-determined responses to external stimuli do more to define our selves than any internal spirit. Such existentialist and solipsistic musings interweave throughout Axiomatic, evoked in many varied forms in this sometimes horrific, sometimes surprising and always intriguing collection of tales.
The twin enigmas of identity and individuality appear often, most notably in the various "mind transplant" stories. "Learning to be Me", "Closer" and "A Kidnapping" explore the dilemma of reality- and personality-simulation, often offering cuttingly witty insights on popular culture. The most original of these is "The Safe Deposit Box", a take on neuro-parasitism and the nature of self that becomes a rare and illuminating story of the Trans-human Condition. Egan furthers his examinations with two very intriguing nanotech brain-plug tales. "Axiomatic" itself is a cyberpunkish Dostoevsky-like vignette - a morality play on conscious guilt - while "The Walk" is a wicked little piece about individualism and a metaphysical hitman, and highlights the slanted humour behind Egan's portal-views of dystopian futures. It reads like the Coen brothers' sci-fi, or Stoppard's Blade Runner. Egan is at his best telling such clever yarns, founded on high-minded ideas of space and time.
Egan's "quantum mechanics" stories demonstrate how capable he is of spinning dynamic and dramatic elements into cohesive and effective short pieces. Although the time-flux scenario of "The Hundred-Light-Year Diary" is questionable, the subsequent extrapolations express a thought-provoking social cynicism. And I have only praise for "The Infinite Assassin", an infinite story with an infinite resolution; and for "Into Darkness", a story of wormholes and spatial reality. Both stories succeed as marvels of mental gymnastics and as spectacles of conjecture.
But no matter how good certain stories may be, the science in a number of them isn't entirely convincing (as if I'd know!) This is not an uncommon problem in science fiction by any means but, if science occasionally fails to convince, characterization can usually shore up the leaks. Unfortunately, characterization is not a strong element of this collection. The dearth of sympathetic characters makes Axiomatic rather dry and can leave the reader a bit cold. Still, as an intellectual exercise Axiomatic is extraordinary; as a compilation of dystopian fictions it is quite poignant; as an assemblage of metaphysical conceits it's a lot of fun; and as a study of an author in the process of learning his craft this collection is well worth investigating.
Reading the chapbook, Our Lady of Chernobyl, led me to feel that we are seeing new dimensions developing in Egan's fiction. It contains three worthy stories, which strongly suggest Greg's true potential is yet to be seen, plus the weaker "Beyond The Whistle Test" - a commentary on the advertising and music industries that uses cute science to rationalize an irrational tale. (Interestingly, "Beyond" was first published in 1989, while the other stories are from '93-'94.) Of the others, "Transition Dreams" is a deftly-woven surreality of fear and paranoia which explores AI-fascination. It is a lovely display of pseudo-science with inverted logic and quirky fabulations. This distant cousin of "Learning To Be Me" would probably be at home in Axiomatic, yet it indicates a sensitivity and delicacy that Egan is still developing. Impressive as "Transition Dreams" is, I want to draw your attention to the two remaining stories. "Our Lady of Chernobyl" seems at first a straight-forward dark future detective crime yarn; the plot-filled lead-up to the revelations does not actually seem to contribute much to the premise, but the atmosphere and sense of anticipation maintain a Hitchcockian mood, rendering this a satisfying read on many levels. The idea of Slavonic and historical Christian iconography in virtual architectural set-ups and a weeping Madonna for the nuclear age makes "Our Lady Of Chernobyl" an exceptional tale. But I am most enthusiastic about "Chaff", a story in which Egan seems to have taken elements of Ballard, Shepard and Conrad and made them uniquely his own. Here is a disturbingly seductive dystopian world, merging deep-jungle and slick-tech ambience that acts as more than merely a back-drop for investigative thrills and dark adventure. Covert drug industries and cultures, virology and genetics, and even the human brain itself, are all deftly manipulated within a lyrical and richly-textured prose of ideas. "Chaff" is an explorative journey towards enlightenment, as are "Our Lady of Chernobyl", "The Caress", Quarantine and Permutation City, but with "Chaff" Egan perhaps best demonstrates his remarkable skill, emerging as an important and significant science fiction author.
Before I finish, I would like to pass on some advice. Both books are remarkable collections but, unfortunately, do not always show the individual stories to their best advantage. They were not written to be read together in a few sittings and if you attempt to do so you risk finding Axiomatic and Our Lady of Chernobyl to be less than the sum of their parts. The repetition of certain themes makes several of the pieces predictable, reducing their impact. Read a story, then walk away and consider life and the way of the world before getting on with the next one. The other piece of advice; if you feel compelled to purchase Axiomatic, then you should also purchase Our Lady of Chernobyl. The books are apt companions, and demonstrate that Greg Egan is not just an author who is making his living from science fiction: he is actually contributing to the advancement of the genre.
Mirrorsun Rising: Book Two of Greatwinter
Cover by Grant Gittus
Aphelion Publications, 1995, tpb, 332pp, $14.95
Reviewed by Sean Williams
"Anyone who tries to predict the future is inevitably a fool," as David Brin once wrote. "Present company included. A prophet without a sense of humour is just stupid". Sean McMullen is far from stupid, or a fool, and his second novel proves (to anyone who doubted it) that he has a sense of humour as well.
Beginning five years after the end of Voices in the Light, Mirrorsun Rising continues the adventures of familiar characters: Lemorel Milderellen, hot-tempered Librarian last seen heading off into the desert in search of her true love, now fearless Commander of a mighty force of Neverlander nomads; Zarvora Cybeline, OverMayor of much of 40th century Australia and creator of the Libris Calculor; John Glasken, career lecher and drunkard, who has spent most of the intervening time ensconced against his will in an order of strict Christian martial-arts freaks; and Abbess Theresla and her brother Ilyire, both genetically-adapted aviads like Zarvora, whose special abilities make them powerfully unique in their world.
The main conceptual focusses of the book are three-fold: the original human-powered Libris Calculor, which has spawned smaller versions of itself and even a rival; the ancient satellites called the Wanderers, still enforcing a ban on electrical activity on the Earth's surface; and the Mirrorsun of the book's title, a vast sentient band of nanotech machines in orbit about the Earth which is threatening to bring a return of the Greatwinter that almost destroyed civilisation two thousand years ago. The Call, the intermittent allure that sweeps the continent clean of any animal weighing more than a large cat, is relegated to the background, more or less, for this volume, although its presence is still keenly felt in places.
McMullen's style is typically matter-of-fact and unobtrusive, depicting his unique world with great attention to detail (including more dishes to tempt the culinary-minded). In contrast to Voices, however, flashes of humour are frequent, in both pointed references to our own time and characters which, for all their resourcefulness, border on caricature. Prat-falls and large, "alluring" breasts abound - in the latter case frequently with the "top two buttons undone" to accentuate the effect.
Despite this old-fashioned stereotype (or perhaps because of it), women are the ones who instigate most of the moving and shaking in the novel, displaying far greater ruthlessness than any of the menfolk. Readers shocked by Zarvora's brutal executions in Voices will be appalled by Lemorel's excesses in this sequel. Men continue to spend most of their time trying to keep up, or drinking.
At its worst, the plot reads like the synopsis of a Verdi opera, requiring a large suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. Love seems to be the only major force for change, with characters either mellowing under its influence or becoming ruthless when denied it. And, although romance is notably absent in the 40th century, love seems suspiciously easy to find; sex and reproduction is on everyone's mind, not just John Glasken's. Even the Mirrorsun itself is not above the influence of a beautiful woman, it seems.
More obvious in Mirrorsun Rising is McMullen's intention to entertain on a base level, not just with humour but with adventure as well. As the scope of the novel expands and the conflict between Zarvora and Lemorel heightens, he shifts into top gear, with passages of such lucidity and breathless excitement that a tendency to wander in the first third of the book is forgiven. Yet this emphasis on entertainment has leeched the series of one of its major allures: science. Potentially one of the most interesting sections of the book - where Zarvora attempts to send ancient rockets into orbit to combat the ancient Wanderers - could have benefited from expansion. Instead, it becomes just a minor episode in an unfolding drama, serving its purpose but not really providing the intellectual thrill that it could have.
But then, drama and serious science have never made easy bedfellows. Given the complexity of the plot and the vast landscape across which it takes place, the fact that McMullen manages to hold it together at all is testimony to his steady improvement as a writer. One can only wonder in which direction the third and final book in the Greatwinter trilogy, The Miocene Arrow, will take us. Certainly it promises to deal more directly with the Call itself. If McMullen can maintain a balance between vicarious excitement and cortical stimulation, then he will have pulled off a rare feat indeed.
In short, Mirrorsun Rising has all the ideas of Voices in the Light, and is better-written, despite its faults - providing an engrossing vision not only of a future Australia, but of a future Earth. Whether McMullen's abilities as a seer match his achievements as a novelist remains to be seen - but, if the purpose of SF truly is "to try out many different futures without getting hurt" (to quote the author himself), then at least we can be forearmed.
So grab your flintlocks, gird your loins, go forth and get the book. This one comes with a hearty recommendation from the "Peterborough Train Spotters Brotherhood".
An Intimate Knowledge of the Night
Cover by Nick Stathopoulos
Aphelion Publications, 1995, tpb, 284pp, $14.95
Reviewed by Martin Livings
There are three things in life which take no effort whatsoever to write: a dirty limerick, an insincere greeting in a birthday card, and a frivolous book review. I'm attempting to cut down on the first two, but the third still gives me problems occasionally, as readers here may well have noticed. Admittedly, some books deserve to be reviewed off-handedly - in fact, according to Theodore Sturgeon's famous theory, about ninety percent of them. But this time it didn't seem appropriate. I worried for days over how to write this review, every beginning sounding flippant or pretentious, or, worse still, irrelevant. In the end, to adequately review this, the latest Aphelion release by Terry Dowling, I decided to simply set up the analytical camera pointing at the book from three different perspectives, and see what eventuated.
Close Up: An Intimate Knowledge of the Night can be considered as simply a collection of stories. There are no direct links between the stories offered here, no central character, setting or theme, unlike his previous collections from Aphelion, Rynosseros (1990), Wormwood (1991), Blue Tyson (1992) and Twilight Beach (1993). And, as such, there are many stories in the book which are worthy of the highest praise. Stories like "The Bullet That Grows in the Gun", putting forward the notion that in some regards reality could simply be the echo of our own expectations of it, or, as Dowling puts it, "function following form". Stories like "The Last Elephant", an emotional and believable examination of ritual and memory, of celebration and perception. Stories like "The Quiet Redemption of Andy the House", a gentle war with insanity and sanity, which finds few distinctions between the two. Stories like "Scaring the Train", a simple idea of fear and self-haunting skillfully carried through to its logical conclusion . . . and beyond. These stories, and others in this thirteen-strong collection, demonstrate Dowling's consummate skill at word-craft and, sometimes, even word-art; his language is always literate, sometimes obtuse, often obscure, and occasionally impenetrable. In the case of the above stories, this use of language works to great effect. However, this isn't always the case. For example, "The Maze Man" is remarkably cold and unaffecting, perhaps showing its roots in the visual medium, lacking in both characterization and soul. And "They Found The Angry Moon" is simply a below-par horror yarn, neither interesting nor frightening, with no real story behind it and an all-too-familiar plot device. As a collection of unconnected short stories, An Intimate Knowledge of the Night is incredibly uneven, strengths and weaknesses of Dowling's techniques abounding within.
Medium Shot: So perhaps it's not a collection of discrete stories, each an island unto itself. Because the book does have a central theme, although that theme is sometimes tenuous. These stories, in one form or another, involve perception, individual realities and how they can differ from each other. Dowling uses a technique widely employed by writers of dark fantasy - the technique of using an ordinary situation, an ordinary person, taking one aspect of this perfectly mundane scenario and giving it a slight twist, allowing the framework to shift and adapt around it, watching what happens when the normal meets the abnormal. In this regard, the collection works much better, since even the weaker stories add to this cumulative impression of shifting realities and unrealities. It can also be considered, less portentously (pretentiously?) as a Terry Dowling "Best of the Rest" collection, consisting of stories not tied in to his two main thematic worlds, those of Rynosseros and Wormwood. The postscripts for each story, detailing some of the origins and histories of the works, support this and, as such, the collection becomes a necessary piece of Dowling history, the missing links in his evolution put into book form.
Wide Angle: But, of course, things like this tend to come in trinities. From farther back I can see a third way of considering the book, albeit one which many readers may not pick up on, or even wish to. Dowling himself points this out: ". . . the stories are free-standing, they may be read outside the author's account of his vigil with Raymond. Some readers will find this the advisable way to proceed", for between the stories phone conversations made with the above-mentioned Raymond, apparently a friend of Dowling's as well as being an ex-mental patient, are recounted. This linking material shows Dowling at both his best and worst; sometimes the vocabulary is so florid, the prose so purple, that I had to put the book aside for brief periods of time and take a breather. An example: "No traffic now, no dogs, no people, just night and more night, antique filigree, rolling wind, licking, locking and unlocking the evanescing trees, trip-touching nacre and ebony, busy now in this lyrical, delicate, touchstone. Fabergé night". Terry Dowling rarely if ever talks down to his readers, which has to be a good thing. There is a lack of condescension which is admirable in a supposedly populist genre, although sometimes this results in his talking straight over the tops of the heads of we mere mortals. But in this material Dowling manages to encapsulate a state of mind which is both strange and familiar, particularly to myself. I picked up from the first time that "Raymond" opened his mouth that he was schizophrenic, a condition of which I have more than a passing knowledge. Whether or not this material is actually true, as the afterword would suggest, is irrelevant. When reading a book, the book is the reality. Nothing else matters. The need to make connections between unconnected things, the importance of name and self, the blurring of fantasy and reality, are all part of this condition which affects approximately one hundred and eighty thousand people in Australia alone. In this book Dowling shows us this state of mind through language, through vocabulary and mood and innuendo. I have no idea whether others will get the same effect from the book, but it touched me on that level, and, again, nothing else matters.
For me, An Intimate Knowledge of the Night is a worthwhile book from any of the perspectives mentioned, whatever the camera location. Like the stories contained within, and the linking material which binds it together, it plays with your perceptions, allows you to see it in more ways than one. As a discrete collection, it's pretty good. As a thematic and historical collection of Dowling's work, it's excellent. As an examination of the schizoid condition, it's disturbingly brilliant (or should that be brilliantly disturbing?) Occasionally pretentious and overly self-important, this is still - like Dowling's previous works - an essential piece of Australian speculative fiction.
The Unknown Soldier: Book One of the Cogal
Sean Williams and Shane Dix
Cover by Tim Ide
Aphelion Publications, 1995, tpb, 361pp, $14.95
Reviewed by Jonathan Strahan
The Unknown Soldier, first novel from Sean Williams and Shane Dix, is a puzzle within a puzzle - a quandary if you will. It's the first book in a new series, the Cogal, commissioned by Ascendancy Gaming to accompany the release of a new game set in the Cogal (Cogal?) universe. Release of the game has been delayed, however the book has been published by Aphelion Publications. It stands unintentionally and temporarily alone, an accompaniment to something that doesn't yet exist. So how, in this science fictional world of fix-ups, share cropping and "work-for-hire" are we to consider The Unknown Soldier? It seems, from what I can tell, to be most like the Star Wars or Star Trek novels: an author is contracted to write a novel, based upon a bible and within certain rules, that is then owned by the contracting company, in return for a single payment.
While some interesting and worthwhile work has been done as work-for-hire (Tim Powers' The Drawing of the Dark was originally contracted this way), it is generally seen as producing work of reasonably low quality. Considering the high expectations which were held for the first novel by Sean Williams, its appearance in this manner could be seen as a disappointing development, and a puzzling one. What, after all, has been written by Williams, what by his collaborator Dix, and what dictated by the requirements of Ascendancy Gaming? Actually, it's not that hard to tell.
The Unknown Soldier is a good military SF adventure romp. Much in the style of a David Weber or a Lois McMaster Bujold novel, it presents us with a cast of heroes at some time in the distant future when an intergalactic civilisation spans the stars. In this case, that civilization is the Cogal, an heterogeneous culture comprising seven different star-faring races. In The Unknown Soldier an attractive security agent, Megan Moroney, the eponymous unknown soldier, a telepath, a businessman and a supercomputer flee an exploding starship only to land on a nearby prison planet where they are chased across the planetary surface by an opposing interstellar force intent on capturing both Moroney and the supercomputer. The story is, in many ways, far from new or original. However, Williams and Dix effectively sidestep such a problem by providing a very satisfying classic Golden Age-style yarn. To detail the plot would be unfair, as it does tend to suggest its own resolution, but suffice it to say that the novel is entertaining, enjoyable and sets the stage solidly for the forthcoming books in the series.
It seems to me that, for those interested in dissecting the workload of this triumvirate, lengthy passages were written by Williams, with Dix working in an editorial/supervisory capacity for the team (much as Pohl is said to have done in his collaborations with Kornbluth) as well as providing his own passages. Character and plotting can be readily attributed to the authors; at shorter lengths both have shown their abilities to construct solid plots and believable characters, and that is reflected here. There is no doubt, however, that the most clichéd aspects of the novel belong to Ascendancy Gaming. There is little original about the Cogal universe, and it is to the credit of Williams and Dix that they have been able to construct such an enjoyable novel using such shop-worn materials.
For those looking for the breakout first novel from either Sean Williams or Shane Dix, The Unknown Soldier may well be a disappointment. However, the reader looking for a rousing military SF adventure won't find better. Ultimately, The Unknown Soldier proves a showcase for the diversity of its authors, and I, for one, eagerly look forward to more.
Cover by Vivien Kubbos
Pan Australia, 1995, pb, 410pp, $12.95
The Last Wizard
Cover by Otto & Chris
Pan Australia, 1995, pb, 436pp, $12.95
Reviewed by Sean Williams
Lines Upon the Skin
Cover by Phillip Holliday
Pan Australia, 1995, pb, 496pp, $12.95
The Lands of Nowhere - Shannah Jay
Cover by Vivien Kubbos
Pan Australia, 1995, pb, 494pp, $12.95
Reviewed by Martin Livings
Pan Australia appears to be leading a one-horse renaissance of Australian fantasy, almost single-handedly inundating the market with a remarkable number of novels by local authors. However, to date Pan have seemed somewhat sloppy in their choice and editing of works, apparently content to continue putting out a series of mostly below-par novels, with one or two notable exceptions. Regular readers of this section of Eidolon will be all-too-familiar with the usual Pan editing problems: sloppy, inconsistent punctuation; trouble with tenses (wasn't that an episode of Star Trek?); repetitive or loose narrative and dialogue that could be tightened fairly easily but never is; the occasional spelling error betraying the awkward combination of spell-checker and inattentive proof reader; and so on. In fact, the only people who seem not to have noticed the problems are the editors at Pan themselves. But a job is a job, a review a review, and thus the latest batch of Pan fantasy novels was distributed fairly enough; Sean Williams took The Madigal and The Last Wizard, whilst Martin Livings tackled Lines Upon the Skin and The Lands of Nowhere.
If you're a person who tends to judge a book by its cover, then be warned. The blurb for The Madigal (with its one slight spelling error) promises yet another fantasy tale, but the book delivers something more. Not a great deal more, admittedly, but enough to make it worth reading out of curiosity, at least for this reviewer.
The Madigal is about exactly that: the Madigal, an extraordinary woman (with even more extraordinary hair) who has lived more than eight hundred years in an isolated village on a primitive planet. Between brief periods of wakefulness she sleeps and dreams of space, aided and maintained by her 'crown', with which she shares a symbiotic relationship. Indeed, she is no longer human, strictly speaking, and is regarded with awe and fear by the people of the village.
After the opening page, with its immediately engaging zoom-in-on-the-action-from-a-distance device - one used often by Terry Pratchett but, by golly, one that still works - the first thing that struck me was the ordinariness of the names. Peter, Catherine, Harry . . . they immediately rang false. Then came the crown, its clearly-technological origins, the super-science employed by the Madigal's Keeper, and the conversational, relaxed prose that incorporates examples of contemporary slang and reality - including one "stuff you," a plea for child-maintenance in a feudal court, and a certain greyness blurring the boundaries between Good and Evil.
Once I realised that many of the classic fantasy stereotypes were absent, or given unique twists (as in the case of Arthurian legend), I finally shrugged free of my preconceptions and began to enjoy the novel as a work of science fiction, or perhaps science fantasy.
And enjoy the novel I did. Although I could have put it down almost any time I liked, I didn't - and I guess that counts for something. The plot begins slowly, but builds to an inevitable conclusion (telegraphed quite early on) with more than a few surprises along the way and a complete absence of the contrived action sequences so often found in the work of Macdonald's contemporaries. Despite stylistic indulgences and the not-infrequent wandering moment, its sheer enthusiasm won me over in the end. I would criticize the female characters, which seem less convincing than their male counterparts, and some aspects of the Madigal's history are a little contrived, or perhaps insufficiently developed.
While The Madigal doesn't beg a sequel, or a prequel, there are more than enough loose ends to suggest either, and I for one would look forward to it with interest. Although her first novel is far from perfect, it is clear that Beverley Macdonald is trying to do something different, and that alone makes her worth watching in the future.
Lines Upon the Skin is also a debut fantasy novel, this time from Melbourne writer Julie Haydon. And again, the cover is misleading, although perhaps not as much as that of The Madigal. Haydon's novel is about cartography, that ancient and venerated art of map-making. Having more than a little experience in this field (my father just happens to be a cartographer, though evidently this skill with maps is not hereditary; I appear to have all the direction sense of an Australian duck flying south for the winter), I was intrigued by this theme. After all, maps have always been an important part of quest fantasy novels (sometimes taking up the front third of the book), so why not a quest fantasy about maps themselves?
Again, like The Madigal, Lines Upon the Skin is admirably free of stock-standard fantasy icons. For most of the book there is no magic, no mysterious creatures, no glowing swords or crotchety old wizards or young boys destined to be king. Instead, the first two-thirds or so of the novel is simply about a group of cartographers travelling the world, exploring, experiencing and mapping as they go. I kept checking to make sure that this was a fantasy novel; the world is quite similar to ours, albeit archaic, with much the same climate and, more notably, wildlife. No inventing weird names for various animals here - instead we have horses and camels and various other familiar creatures. It is only towards the end of the novel that Haydon slips into fantasy clichés, albeit ones perhaps less familiar to modern readers - mer-people and faerie-like beings, not to mention nasty telepathic religious nuts - all of which spoiled somewhat that feeling of slightly-askew normality which I'd been enjoying up until that point.
It must be stressed that this is Julie Haydon's first novel, and as such it has its flaws, particularly in its final third. The cartographers (all women, a fact which isn't all that important in the flow of the story, but which gives it a rather likable kind of Thelma and Louise feel) all seem to find romance, although not all have happy outcomes. Sure, this is romance fantasy, but everyone? And the last two or three chapters of the book felt very rushed, as if Haydon had a deadline to meet; suddenly, everything is tied up nice and neatly, evil is vanquished, they all live happily ever after, and there is no obvious tie-in for a sequel. I hate to say this, especially about a five hundred page novel, but Lines Upon the Skin could have been a couple of hundred pages longer, just to flesh out the conclusion in the same manner as the rest of the novel.
But the strengths of the book far outweigh its weaknesses. The world which Haydon portrays is incredibly civilized and balanced for a fantasy world, with a very real and workable equality between the sexes and a largely non-judgemental attitude towards religion and sexuality, yet it doesn't try to be a utopian vision, retaining its flaws with a kind of fierce pride. Her characters, though stereotypical in many respects, have more life than those in any other Pan fantasy novel I've read to date. Most impressive, and appropriate, is her use of scenery. Lines Upon the Skin feels like it was written by its narrator - one of the cartographers - with a characteristic keen eye for detail. It contains some of the most vivid descriptive writing I've read in a very long time, regardless of genre.
In short, Lines Upon the Skin is, despite its flaws, a very worthy addition to any collection of Australian genre fiction. Even (perhaps especially?) non-fantasy readers will find much to admire in it, and Julie Haydon, like Beverley Macdonald, seems to be a name to keep an eye out for.
Enough of debut novels. Compared to Macdonald and Haydon, Tony Shillitoe is a seasoned veteran. The Last Wizard, Shillitoe's fourth novel, is also deceptively packaged (can we see a pattern emerging here?), with the compulsory dragon-and-rider splashed proudly across the cover. The blurb offers outlaw wizards, dragons, plunder, dragons, hidden secrets and more dragons. The word 'dragon' is mentioned seven times in four short paragraphs, just in case we missed the point.
This continues in the story itself: the isolated fishing village of Harbin (west of Dragon Mountain and with a lovely view of the bay, Dragon's Mouth) is home to a fairly small population of men and women ruled by the Dragon Head and his law council (the Dragon's Wrath). Once every year a select group of warriors (the Dragon Fang) and wannabe 'men' set out in the dragonship with the blessing of the local priest (the Dragon Heart) to hunt and kill . . . guess what?
If this is irony, then give me satire any day. As incredible as it seems, dragons per se don't feature in The Last Wizard, although their legacy is keenly felt throughout. The story actually concerns Tamesan, the only daughter of the current Dragon Head. High-spirited and independent in a society where women have no expectations other than to be good wives and mothers, she is constantly at loggerheads with her parents and peers. She dreads attaining womanhood whereupon, as not only the most beautiful young woman in Harbin but also the daughter of the village leader, she will be taken against her will to marry the handsome town brute.
Enter the Herbal Man, a mysterious healer and hermit who lives high in the nearby mountains (another sophisticate living in self-imposed exile, much like the Madigal - strange, huh?) It's no great shakes guessing what the Herbal Man really is; the novel's title itself is a pretty big hint. And other hints are similarly heavy-handed, with characters stubbornly refusing to reach the obvious conclusions no matter how much the reader screams at them. The "enormous lie that kept [the villagers] together as a group and threatened to tear them apart individually", for instance, is guessable very early on - yet in this case one can comprehend the self-delusion that has kept the people of Harbin from revealing it prior to the events contained in the novel. Tamesan's world is a cruel one, sometimes requiring cruel lies to maintain the status quo.
Despite other superficial similarities to The Madigal - add a forgetfulness of the past, a single town facing hardship and a young girl as the lead character to the list - The Last Wizard is definitely fantasy, if not your typical sword and sorcery fare. Magic is down-played until the very end. And dragons? I'd be giving too much away if I said there was one, so I won't. The only quests to be seen are Tamesan's, for identity and purpose, and her brother's, for manhood. The Last Wizard is, therefore, a fairly straight-forward coming-of-age yarn, and will probably be best appreciated by young adults. For those seeking ferocious fiery lizards and the clashing of swords en masse, try elsewhere. The Madigal, Lines Upon the Skin and The Last Wizard, although surprisingly good (relatively speaking) in their own rights, are aimed at different readerships altogether.
Which brings us to Shannah Jay. Writing her novels for Pan Australia, Jay has had remarkable commercial, if not critical, success with her first book, Quest, although her second release, the unrelated Envoy, sold less well. Now we have Lands of Nowhere, the second in the "Chronicles of Tenebrak". Pan Australia obviously hope to recapture the success of Quest, appealing once more to readers who have already devoured the entire Pern saga to date (including the rare and controversial Axolotls of Pern, which details the crossbreeding between dolphins and dragons). Having made me read and review Jay's previous two novels, the editors of this fine magazine, with a kind of vicious glee, handed me the review copy of Lands of Nowhere.
Now, sharp-minded readers may recall the review of Quest (Eidolon 15), in which were detailed the factors which I consider to be essential for a fantasy novel to succeed. To briefly sum up, these factors were character, scenery and pacing. Plot, as I pointed out, is purely secondary, since you already know that good will triumph over evil in the end, after many troubles and tribulations (now that was an episode of Star Trek!) I hate to repeat myself, since The Lands of Nowhere has exactly the same problems in these three key areas as Quest did - simply go back and read that review, then continue with this one. It's alright, we'll wait for you.
Now, why are those three factors so important, particularly in fantasy? Three words - suspension of disbelief. Much as some exponents of the true literary value of fantasy will try to deny it, the central thematics of fantasy are drawn primarily from children's tales; the Good Folks fighting the forces of Evil, sure that eventually, after many adventures and dangers, the righteous will prevail. Magic and monsters, beautiful princesses and handsome princes, good hearted friends and mean-spirited enemies . . . all fairy tale icons. Fantasies, and quest fantasies in particular, are bed-time stories for grown-ups. To pull one off, the author must convince the reader to suspend disbelief. Lands of Nowhere, like Quest, fails to convince the reader to do so. In fact, I spent a large amount of the time I was reading it laughing out loud, saying "Who do you think you're kidding here?" Spider creatures which usssse lotssss of sssibilantssss; desert nomads who, just in case the fact that all their names start with "Q" isn't enough to distinguish them, use farrr more r's than are rrreally prrractical. Most annoyingly, plot elements are added mere pages before becoming necessary; a good example is the mountain lion cub (sorry, Jay calls it a "cliff cat") who joins the party on p320, and turns out to be the only thing that can save them on p340. Obviously planning well in advance here. Davred suddenly and without reason thinks about how terrible it would be to be separated from the love of his life on p441; by the end of the book . . . you fill in the blank. I haven't seen blows telegraphed this clearly since the last time I watched Pro Wrestling; the whole series is entirely outlined in the Prophecy in the very first book.
In Lands of Nowhere, at two distinct moments, the characters seem to become aware of the true nature of the book which they inhabit. Herra, the wise old woman, thinks to herself "Was there ever such a ridiculous Quest?" And later Jonner, the thief-sorry-merchant, comments even more wisely that "this journey feels as if it's been going on far longer than forever". Indeed it does. And, in the words of that great wise man Obi Wan Kenobi, Who is the more foolish; the fool, or the fool that follows him? There may well be two more books in this series - and perhaps more to follow - but for me, the road to Nowhere stops right here.
Dealers in Light and Darkness
Cover by Nick Stathopoulos
Edgewood Press, 1995, tpb, 166pp, $US 9.00
Reviewed by Jonathan Strahan
Comparisons with Ursula K Le Guin must weary Cherry Wilder. While there are some similarities, most notably in their ability to create complex, believable characters, Wilder remains a unique voice. Her stories combine strange and beautiful images, well-drawn characters, an innately positive world view and an almost masterly control of pacing and structure. There is a cumulative power that builds through the course of the tale told, gently overwhelming the reader.
Dealers in Light and Darkness, Wilder's first collection, shows her range as a writer of fantastic fiction. "Kaleidoscope", the opening story, is steeped in glimmering images of an undying Aztec Empire, and tells of decency and humanity unexpectedly recognised and rewarded. "Looking Forward to the Harvest", one of three Todd-Gorman cybernetics stories, is an intensely humanistic tale of people living after an unspecified cataclysm looking back at what has been lost, and forward to what has been gained. However, it is in "Something Coming Through" and "The Ballad of Hilo Hill" that Wilder truly shines. In "Something Coming Through" Wilder tells of a man gone to save his step-child from death in a foreign jail and the strange end they come to. While the plot of the story is, to my mind, based on a moment of felicitous synchronicity, it remains fully in keeping with the tone of the story. "The Ballad of Hilo Hill" is a delight, and my personal favourite. One of three Rhomary tales, related to Wilder's 1982 novel Second Nature, it is an elegiac story of the picaresque wanderings of a musician through a strange and wonderful world, and his ultimate end.
Despite the overall strength of Dealers in Light and Darkness, it is not without its flaws. Tales like "Odd Man Search" show that sometimes the characters Wilder draws and the images she creates do not support the stories she tells. It was, for me, an impenetrable maze.
Such quibbles are minor, though, when considered against the entirety of the book. Dealers in Light and Darkness is a strong collection of fantastic fiction that repays the trouble of searching it out. And therein, perhaps, lies the tragedy. Nick Stathopoulos' fine though tangential cover depicts a robot butler draped in cobwebs, long forgotten. This collection of tales deserves a kinder fate. Should you be interested in finding it you might try Slow Glass Books, GPO Box 2708X, Melbourne 3001, or go direct to Edgewood Press, PO Box 264, Cambridge, MA 02238.
A Place to Fear
Cover by Mark Sofilas and Nicole Court
Pan Australia, 1995, pb, 564pp, $12.95
Reviewed by Martin Livings
As many readers may know, be it from their own reading or simply from perusing the reviews put forward here every issue, there is a small - but ever-growing - and determined horror industry here in Australia. This is proven by the continued existence of - and support for - magazines such as Bloodsongs (four issues to date) and Skintomb (formerly Skinned Alive), amongst others. But despite the large amount of Australian short horror fiction being published, both here and overseas, there are remarkably few Australian horror novels available to readers of the macabre. One exception was published in 1993 by Pan Australia, a novel by GM Hague which was promoted as "His New Bestseller". A bold statement, considering it was his debut novel. Ghost Beyond Earth was packaged and marketed like a Dean Koontz novel; all silver-embossed lettering and ominous cover illustration, and a weighty read at almost six hundred pages. Koontz it wasn't, although it tried hard to be, but it was a good fun read with some clever ideas and an original setting. Now his second novel has been published, again by Pan, again with those embossed letters.
The concepts behind A Place to Fear are fairly decent, if unoriginal, involving UFOs, ghosts, zombies, and small town intrigues and conspiracies. This "country community where everybody knows what's going on except the newcomers" pastiche is more than a little derivative of the master of the moneymaking horror tome, Stephen King, and is a cliché that's been xeroxed to death. King manages to pull it off by writing his characters with such quirkiness and humanity that readers become more interested in them than in the tired plot devices which surround them. Hague, unfortunately, chooses to stock his small country town with a motley collection of horror movie stereotypes; the corrupt police sergeant, the mysterious town librarian, the local bad boys, and of course the heroes - the strong farmer whose family have been taken, the writer who's researching UFOs, and the beautiful, feisty but vulnerable pharmacist. Oh, and their dogs. There's some rather pointless T&A sex scenes thrown in to spice things up a little, a fairly large dose of weirdness and gore then, in a flurry of walking-dead attacks, ethereal lights and little aliens with big heads and wise but implacable natures, the story seems to end.
Which wouldn't be so bad, except the novel is only two-thirds finished.
But, like the zombies which Hague distributes so liberally through these pages, A Place to Fear simply refuses to lie down and die with dignity. Suddenly it ceases to be Night of the Living Dead meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and transforms into Return of the Living Dead meets Outbreak, with the Australian Army quarantining the town out of the blue, preventing the heroes leaving town (and the novel ending 200 pages too early). The novel just keeps on keeping on, without any justification for its continued existence, eventually petering out in another flurry of walking dead attacks, ethereal lights, little aliens . . . you know the story. The conclusion is as anticlimactic and brainless as the end of The Abyss, complete with a character explaining their escape as "They must have zapped us out somehow", and an open ended sequel-beggar which was cute in the seventies, but is wearing a little thin twenty years on.
It's no coincidence that, when describing this novel, I've referred chiefly to movies. In fact, the kindest thing that can be said about A Place to Fear is that it could easily be made into an effective horror movie without losing much of the novel. The characters are one-dimensional at best, and the situations portrayed seem more designed to excite the senses than the mind. Hague's first novel, while far from perfect, at least succeeded as entertaining thrill-horror. A Place to Fear is far less successful; its horror isn't scary, its sex isn't sexy, and its science fiction is laughable - a disappointment, considering some of the strong SF concepts in his previous novel. If you're looking for good Australian horror novels, Richard Harland's The Vicar of Morbing Vyle or Hague's Ghost Beyond Earth are probably your best bet. A Place to Fear is A Book to Avoid.
Mus of Kerbridge
Cover by Paul Jacquays
TSR, 1995, pb, 314pp, $12.95
Reviewed by Jonathan Strahan
Popularity is much-derided. "Just because it sells," we are told, "doesn't mean it's any good." True enough. But is the assumption that, because something sells, its creator must have sold out true? Is it even important? Take the case of Anne McCaffrey. In the late '60s and early '70s her work was highly acclaimed, winning the Nebula Award on one occasion. By the late '80s and early '90s she was perceived to have "sold out", writing disappointing novels that aped her earlier works without any spark of life or originality. And yet they sell millions of copies. People in your community buy them, take them home and curl up in a spare moment for some peace and quiet with the dragons or whatever. Her novels communicate to those readers, and that is important.
So, if popularity is not necessarily a bad thing, how is popular fiction to be judged; by what standards? Certainly, by traditional literary standards, such works are of little, if any, merit. Consider the first novel by Paul Kidd: Mus of Kerbridge. It is a book with everything against it: published by TSR, one of the great enemies of literature in our times; based on a gaming world, Lace and Steel, created by the author; and, worst of all, featuring cute talking animals.
How does it stand up? The plot is straight from the genre cookie-cutter, slightly adapted and run past the reader with a minimum of fuss. It is a tale of good versus evil, of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl. Kidd even plays a brief variation on Frankenstein. How so? A wizard gives intelligence to a mouse and becomes his tormentor. The mouse escapes and meets some friends. He is loved by all, but is lonely because he is the only one of his kind. Somewhere in the background there's a war going on. Our mouse friend becomes a hero, finds fulfillment, and at the end everyone fades happily into the sunset. The characters could have come from Acme Genre Fantasy Employment Services Inc. Mus is a mixture of D'Artagnan and far too much "cute". There's a strong (but fair) warrior, a beautiful and intelligent healer, a traitor, a twisted wizard - the list goes on. Kidd's decision to dress this standard crew up as satyrs, centaurs, harpies and dragons is a little puzzling, as he then proceeds to do nothing with that aspect of his characters - so why bother? It would also be difficult to pretend that Kidd's world is original or particularly vivid. He has taken the standard genre-adapted Europe and changed a few place names. We have been here before, and it looks the same as it did last time.
So, literary theory would tell us, this is a poor novel. The plot is clichéd, the characters flat, the images prosaic, the prose workman-like but unpolished. Yet, the book is fun. You're pulled along by the plot, you get the odd lump in your throat, you laugh occasionally, and at the end you feel as though the author has kept some bargain with you. Why? Because he has. Genre fiction is the fiction of bargains made and bargains kept. Good will win out over evil, the boy [mouse? - Ed] will get the girl, we will get a happy ending. And before you curl your lip, you should remember that there's something satisfying about such things. Kidd's Mus of Kerbridge is poor literature, but it's fun and satisfying in its own way. Something for a quiet moment. It won't, and probably shouldn't, be remembered for generations to come, but it will make someone's day a little easier to get through, and that's a good thing.
Originally appeared pp. 205-220, Eidolon 17/18, July 1995.
Copyright © 1995 Eidolon Publications. Individual contributions are copyright to the respective authors.
Reprinted with kind permission of the authors.