|Reviews of Recent Publications|
Welcome to the new-look "Fresh Ink", containing no artificial colourings or preservatives, and guaranteed to cause cancer in three out of four laboratory rats. The new "column" look was suggested by the editors, in the vain hope that my reviews would make more sense as a single flowing piece of prose than as discrete quantum packets of hyper-criticism. They were dead wrong, but since I'm now my own editor (an enviable position, I assure you, but one that won't last long at this rate), that's their problem, not mine.
Now, there are some readers out there who seem blissfully unaware of the existence of Australian science fiction. These people devour a constant diet of overseas genre fiction, reading anything from America or Britain which has a cover with embossed silver lettering, and manage to avoid the trickle of local SF which, in all honesty, doesn't get the widespread distribution and publicity of the imports. Of course, I don't include the readers of this magazine; the very fact that you're holding this journal proves you to be a literary connoisseur, open to new ideas and styles . . . that is, unless you picked it up accidentally, thinking you were buying Grouse Shooters Monthly. But the point is, Australian SF gets nowhere near the recognition of its overseas counterparts, and it's time we all did something about it. Get up out of your comfortable chair, open your front door and yell "We're as mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore!"
Of course, failing that, you could always read Mortal Fire, a new collection presented by Terry Dowling and Van Ikin.
Terry Dowling & Van Ikin (Eds.)
Cover by Nick Stathopoulos
(Hodder & Stoughton, $12.95, 334pp, pb, June 1993)
Mortal Fire is subtitled Best Australian SF, although in their introduction Dowling and Ikin admit that it is not "'the Best Australian Science Fiction'. It is a 'best Australian sf', that's all". Certainly the anthology contains a number of pieces of important and incisive science fiction. Sean McMullen's oft-reprinted "The Colours of the Masters" is a near-perfect example of idea-driven SF - a combination of technology and humanity which science fiction has always striven for. Similarly, "Shatterwrack at Breaklight" by Terry Dowling is a landmark piece of Australian SF, introducing one of our most enduring and intriguing SF characters, Tom Rynosseros. Lucy Sussex's much-admired and talked about "My Lady Tongue" is also a worthy piece for the collection's high ideals. But other than these three pieces, Mortal Fire feels more like a collection of good Australian science fiction, rather than best. It's not that the stories are poor, although one or two didn't really seem appropriate, it's just that the overall level of quality is above average, not excellent. "Inhabiting the Interspaces" by Philippa Maddern, "Axiomatic" by Greg Egan, Leanne Frahm's "A Way Back" . . . all good SF, but none of them the authors' best works. There are exceptions; "The Ark of James Carlyle" by Cherry Wilder was simple but very effective, and I found John Baxter's "Apple" quite entertaining. But there are some genuine duds in there too; "Creator" by David Lake was almost painful in its banal and unoriginal storyline, while "Death of a Thousand Cuts" by David Ireland is a fine example of a good idea sunk by bad writing, giving it all the visceral impact of a budget speech delivered by Joan Kirner after a heavy night of margueritas.
Verdict? Well, Mortal Fire has a couple of problems. As I've already pointed out, the stories aren't all brilliant, which may seem like a tall order, but when you call yourself "Best Australian SF" . . . Also, the stories are presented in no particular order, which left me flicking to the back of the book before each story to find out when and where it was first published. Perhaps the author's bios and story details should have been printed before each story, rather than as appendices; this would have put each of the selections into some sort of historical context, rather than just left it floating on its own amongst its fellows. I'm sure this was an editorial decision, of course, and that Dowling and Ikin had their reasons for arranging the anthology this way, but I felt it detracted from the overall effect; if you're publishing "Best Australian SF", how about a comment as to why each story has been selected, a bit of background? Another problem which some readers may have is the high proportion of commonly-reprinted stories; personally, I'd only perused three or four of the selections, but a number of people have commented to me that they wouldn't buy the book on the grounds that they'd already read most of it. But there you run into the old dilemma - much of Australia's finest SF has, logically enough, been reprinted fairly often, so finding new best stories can be difficult. The final problem with the collection is that there are at least two more "Best Australian SF" collections on their way, which may or may not outdo this one.
Be that as it may, Mortal Fire is a solid collection of Australian science fiction, well worth buying and reading or, even better, giving to a friend who hasn't read much in this area of the genre. Open his mind. Get him off that American trash. It's good to see that Mortal Fire is available in most bookstores and even occasionally gets its own little display rack: hopefully a sign of things to come.
Oh, and for those of you who bought the magazine by accident, a little something for you - "The best rifle by far for shooting your average grouse is a simple .22, available cheaply at any hunting store. And remember - if it isn't grouse, it isn't grouse!"
Stuart Coupe, Julie Ogden & Robert Hood (Eds.)
Cover by Tony Thorne
(Five Islands Press, 229pp, tpb, 1993)
I'll grant you this - since I started reviewing books for Eidolon, I've read things I'd never have glanced at if I actually had to buy the things. Maybe it's literary snobbery, or perhaps just simple economics, but the sad fact is I wouldn't have been even slightly interested in Crosstown Traffic if I'd seen it in the shops (which, with small press books like this, isn't that great a risk anyway). But, having been handed the book on a proverbial, if metaphorical, platter, I pulled on my crumpled overcoat and fedora, lit up an unfiltered cigarette, took a mouthful from a bottle of something that would usually be used to disinfect hospital floors, and settled down to flick through this collection of "marauding genres", as the back cover proudly proclaims.
Reviewing anthologies is always difficult as the quality of the individual stories can vary wildly. I've yet to read a collection of short stories which is consistently brilliant, or, for that matter, consistently dreadful. Like all anthologies, Crosstown Traffic has its ups and downs. There are twelve stories in this book, both by crime authors trying something a little different, such as Peter Corris and Steve Wright, and authors more familiar to readers of this magazine venturing into the crime field, such as Terry Dowling and Bill Congreve. In order to review the book to my own satisfaction (and editors be damned - with respect, guys), I will briefly review each story in the collection, then the collection as a whole. Bear with me . . .
(takes a deep breath)
Crosstown Traffic opens with "The Kid and the Man From Pinkertons" by Marele Day. This story wins the award for longest title in the collection, but is otherwise rather uninspired, a kind of poor man's Joe Lansdale pseudowestern. It's followed by Garry Disher's "My Brother Jack", which uses the tired plot device of writer as hero, to little effect. "Finding Fire" by Jean Bedford comes considerably closer to hitting the "marauding genre" mark, being a fantasy-crime story, but echoes too strongly many recent fantasy novels, especially Sheri Tepper's True Game series. I'm not sure into what genre Steve Wright's "And Then She Kissed Him" would fall, but it's a disturbing and entertaining piece of black comedy nonetheless. "Voyeur Night" by co-editor Robert Hood is also a worthy inclusion, a horror/SF/crime story that hits all the right buttons, as well as a few that might surprise you. "Arizona Dawn" by Peter Corris is a crime/movie/western that at no point even slightly echoes the inimitable (though many try and fail) Joe Lansdale - Corris' tale is original, savagely funny and completely believable. Robert Wallace's "Blue Groper" is a strange one; as far as I can tell, its only connection with the crime genre is the fact that its main character, a young boy named Essington Holt, grows up to be Wallace's main protagonist in a series of crime novels. The story is plodding and self-indulgent, but interesting in a perverse kind of way. "The Big Fairy Tale Sleep", subtitled "Raymond Chandler Meets the Brothers Grimm", by Domenic Cadden, is exactly what you'd expect from such a title; a rather unimaginative spoof of crime stories, with a plot twist a four year old could have foreseen (fair enough; it is a fairy tale, after all). Terry Dowling's "Fear-Me-Now", his 36th Tom Rynosseros story (and with no end in sight; by the time Tom finally snuffs it, presumably of old age, I think we'll all be living in the future Dowling has predicted!), is . . . well, it's a Tom Rynosseros story; lots of beautiful style and atmosphere, but a slightly hollow and anticlimactic ending which left me feeling a little cheated. But only a little; I still loved the story. "My Father's Daughter" by Bill Congreve has my vote as the best Australian horror story of the year: a new slant on an old idea (and I won't reveal what that old idea is; that'd spoil the story!) which uses cliches where appropriate, then chucks them out the window when it has no further use for them; my favourite story of the collection. Kerry Greenwood's "I Am Dying Egypt, Dying", another in her Phryne Fisher series, is an interesting combination of crime and horror again; flawed in its logic, but good reading nonetheless. The collection is rounded off with a poem by Jan McKimmish, called "Sensible Shoes". It's a rather bizarre bit of stream-of-consciousness that, at first, makes very little sense. But patient readers should persevere; it makes its points subtly, the meanings bubbling up through the poetry/prose. It's an "Oh, now I get it" piece of work, and well worth the effort.
(collapses from hypoxia)
So, some great stories, some good stories, some ordinary stories, and no really bad stories. That registers a positive reading on the old Anthologometer, wouldn't you say? The crime writers featured sometimes show all the signs of having never read much in the genres which they are trying to maraud into, falling into cliche and unoriginality, but overall the "marauding genres" experiment works. The weakest stories are the first three (and, in particular, the first two), which could be a fatal error; hopefully readers will soldier on regardless, and enjoy a well-written collection of stories. The only real problem with Crosstown Traffic could be in its distribution; it's an awkward genre to be dealing in, as many readers (like myself, I'm ashamed to say) would simply walk straight past it on the shelf. In aiming between markets, it runs the risk of alienating them all, rather than bringing them together. But I sincerely hope that this doesn't happen. Crosstown Traffic is a worthy anthology; perhaps not earth-shaking, but a solid collection of unusual tales which I highly recommend, if only to encourage such commercial foolhardiness in the usually faint-hearted and conservative publishers. If you see it, buy it. Or, if you want to make your own little crime story, just steal it.
But don't come crying to me when you find that prison isn't as glamorous as Chandler described it.
You may well have noticed that the last two books reviewed had something in common, as does much Australian science fiction. That something is Terry Dowling. Dowling is one of the most visible and audible of Australia's small echelon of science fiction writers, conducting radio interviews and appearing at conventions everywhere, and his books appear, albeit usually in minute quantities, in most good bookshops. Often discussed, usually acclaimed, and apparently never completely absent from the SF world, Dowling has made a name for himself which aspiring genre authors, myself included, can only sit back and admire . . . and, if truth be told, even envy a little. But, as the saying goes - "those who can, do; those who can't, criticise those who can". And here I am, holding this copy of Twilight Beach, the latest collection of Dowling's Tom Rynosseros stories published by Aphelion, and preparing to rip a man's work, reflections of his very soul, to shreds. Have I no heart, no dignity?
Cover by Nick Stathopoulos
(Aphelion Publications, $12.95, 270pp, pb, 1993)
Twilight Beach is the ongoing saga of Tom Rynosseros, also known as Blue Tom, Tom Tyson, Blue Tyson, Tom O'Bedlam . . . almost as many names as stories, if you delve deep enough into the various permutations. Delivered from the Madhouse at Cape Bedlam without a past, one of the few Australian Nationals to be given a Colour and a Ship by the Tribes, he has journeyed across Australia in his sandship Rynosseros slowly discovering more about both himself and the strange world he lives in.
Twilight Beach is the third collection of Tom Rynosseros stories, and continues in much the same vein as the first two books - a series of seemingly-unconnected stories which contain more questions than answers, deepening the mysteries instead of resolving them. It opens, appropriately enough, with "Shatterwrack at Breaklight", an early story (first published in 1985) but one which works well, both as a single story and as part of the flow of the collection. It is one of Dowling's most popular stories and, as I've mentioned, also appears in Mortal Fire. The collection, as a whole, tells of the progression of Tom Rynosseros through a series of self-discoveries, chiefly about his past and, consequently, his present and future. "Babel Ships" hints at the origins of one of the images Tom carried with him from the Cape Bedlam Madhouse, and "Sailors Along the Soul" is a sideline, a plot in which Tom has only participation, rather than precipitation, much like many of the earlier Rynosseros stories. Both are good, strong stories, the latter especially, although the endings always feel a little anticlimactic - but perhaps that's the way things really are, not resolved neatly but left loose and dangling. "Roadsong" and "Larrikin Wind" are both reprints from Eidolon; the former is solid but not brilliant, seeming a little pointless, and the latter has Tom in it only peripherally, which may be to its benefit; it is a very interesting story of freedom and obsession, and fits in well with the rest of the collection, as does "Nights at Totem Rule". "The Final Voyage of Captain Gelise" feels more like a link than a story, to get Tom to the point where the next story could be told, but as such does its job with style and deceiving ease. "The Leopard" is an interesting experiment in stylistics, and an important story in Tom's history, but it somehow didn't quite work for me, lacking in emotional involvement so I felt as if I were watching the story unfold on a black and white television. The title of "A Whisper From the Voice at the Vanishing Point" basically sums up the story; again, I wasn't quite convinced by it. "The Green Captain's Tale", although not long, probably reveals more about the truth behind Tom Rynosseros than any of the other stories in the collection; a very good story, well told. The collection rounds off with "Ship's Eye" which was the highlight of the collection for me, having Rynosseros the ship as its main focus rather than Tom himself. Somehow I didn't read "Ship's Eye" when it appeared in issue eight of Eidolon, so reading it here, in context, was a delight.
From the above summation, you may get the impression that I didn't like Twilight Beach terribly much; after all, I criticize many of the stories contained in it. But this isn't an anthology - which generally consists of the sum of its parts - it's a collection, and as such must be reviewed as a whole. If truth be told, Terry Dowling's stories can sometimes feel like much ado about nothing, a triumph of style over substance. But in those cases, it's possible to just sit back and marvel at the style, the lyrical quality of the stories. It's taken me four books (three of which were Tom Rynosseros collections) to figure out exactly why Dowling's writing works, at least for me. It seems he writes spatially instead of temporally; that is, you don't read from beginning to end, learning in chronological order as you go along, like watching a movie. Terry Dowling's Rynosseros stories are more akin to poetry than prose, in that the solutions they offer are hidden in the words rather than revealed by them, and the progression becomes almost a subliminal thing. How is it for instance that, when in "Ship's Eye" it is revealed that Tom's ship is an AI, I felt I already knew it? It wasn't stated or suggested in any of his other stories, was it? (I could be wrong; if so, write and tell me, and I'll feel very silly at choosing such a rotten example!) After each story, and each collection, the reader ends up with a few more pieces in the jigsaw puzzle, and a few more gaping holes to worry about until the next collection. Twilight Beach as a collection of stories doesn't work too well, but as a gestaltic whole, with the previous two books, it comes together almost flawlessly, weaving disparate plot-lines into a kind of coherence which shows Dowling's true talent - as a storyteller, rather than a simple narrator.
Alright, alright - it's grudging admiration, okay? It'd be easier if he wasn't so damn good . . .
THE DESTINY MAKERS
Cover by Dorian Vallejo
(Transworld, $10.95, 321pp, pb, February 1994)
Reviewing Terry Dowling and George Turner in the same issue provides more than a few very interesting contrasts. Turner won international critical acclaim with his last novel Brainchild (reviewed in Eidolon issue 10), a science fiction cum mystery cum political commentary which worked remarkably well. He's followed it up with a new novel The Destiny Makers, but can he repeat the success of Brainchild?
The cover of The Destiny Makers is fairly misleading, in terms of what it infers about both style and content. It resembles nothing more than one of those two for five dollar SF novels on the swivel racks at newsagents; I almost found myself looking for the "remaindered" hole punched through the front cover. The cover illustration makes it look like a great cosmic conspiracy novel; the old man ruling the known universe with an iron fist. In fact, The Destiny Makers is neither pulp SF nor a tale of galactic tyranny. It is a solid socio-political thriller which uses SF as the basis for its plot - a means rather than an end. It tells of political machinations in a world choking on its own humanity, and of an ordinary man caught in the middle of it all. Detective Sergeant Harry Ostrov is assigned to look after an old man who has been kept alive illegally, as treatment is generally refused to the aged on the crowded earth of Turner's bleak but believable future. This piece of illegality swiftly becomes secondary however, both to larger events looming on the political horizon like a summer storm, rumbling ominously and sending us all dashing for our umbrellas, and to Ostrov's own dilemmas arising therefrom.
The novel provokes a kind of uncomfortable claustrophobia with its setting restricted to the single city, its scope to local politics (although the ramifications are global). In fact, rather than being a sprawling story of interstellar macropolitics, as the cover may suggest, The Destiny Makers is remarkably parochial in its outlook, suggesting that Australia, and indeed the single state - unspecified in the book - in which the story takes place, is central to world politics and decision making on an elite level: a notion which, as a young, unpatriotic and jaded cynic, I find faintly amusing. This is however the only real flaw in the plotting of a novel which is otherwise tight and plausible (and whether it is in actuality a flaw, I suppose only time will tell).
For me, The Destiny Makers falls down in its structure; Turner probably should have stuck to Harry Ostrov's first person narrative. The three chapters in which he strays from this point of view could easily have been told without this change of narrator. It is an experiment in style, obviously, but one which is unfortunately detrimental to the novel. Also, the novel's opening chapter is a rather obvious "The Story So Far . . .": making the reader aware of the state of the world by simply rattling off a brief potted history. George Turner is a better writer than this, and could have insinuated, implied or simply handed out useful bits of information as the novel progressed. The information dump at the start is a fairly lazy and disappointing technique coming from an author of Turner's calibre.
While Terry Dowling's carefully-spun tales can often seem a triumph of style over substance, George Turner's writing often appears to be the reverse. In The Destiny Makers, he writes in a straightforward and dry manner, using little in the way of stylistics. Turner calls a spade a spade (where Dowling might describe it as "an instrument of ancient, pre-Tribation design; a device to take the earthen something and create an earthless nothing" or similar); substance over style; if you have something to say, say it. Of course, I am a bit of a style-junkie - although not the extent of my earnest compatriot Robin ("Gimme backlighting and smoke, and I'm happy as a fly on a James Cameron film") Pen - and quite enjoy Dowling's quasi-poetry or Joe Lansdale's razor-sharp wordplay, but this is a purely subjective standpoint. Turner's "less is more" technique worked admirably in Brainchild - one of my favourite Australian SF novels to date, I might add - but functions less effectively in The Destiny Makers, for one simple but vital reason: ideas. Science fiction, unlike almost any other literary genre, is defined not by a set of strict structural guidelines, but as a genre of ideas. Without ideas, a science fiction novel might just as well be a murder mystery in space, or a romance set in an alien jungle - and, let's be honest here, it very often is. Good science fiction is idea-driven. Brainchild was good science fiction. The Destiny Makers, although a very competent political tale, falls down in the oh-so-important ideas department. There simply isn't enough to sustain a novel; it feels more like a short story or novella, padded out to novel length to please the publishers. Perhaps it's being marketed wrongly; this is not a science fiction novel, but a clever and thoughtful piece of social extrapolation, with some well-worn SF icons to justify its garish cover. But as science fiction, I'm afraid it tries hard but fails.
And now, if you still can't tell the difference between George Turner and Terry Dowling, you're cordially invited to my place to sample my famed ham-and-chalk sandwiches, then we'll go out and draw pictures on the pavement with a nice chunk of Wensleydale.
Cover by Chris Moore
(Hodder Headline, $19.95, 306pp, tpb, January 1994)
Okay, I know it isn't an Australian book, but I have this thing for Dan Simmons; in fact, in the words of the immortal Bullwinkle, "I can't help it. It's become a kind of fetish for me." In Edward Bryant's recent Locus review of Lovedeath, the latest offering from Simmons, he describes it as a "symphony". Well Ed, I hope you've stopped taking those pills now, and the purple smurfs have moved out of your laundry. Lovedeath is no "symphony". It is a collection of novellas from a man whose favoured literary form is the novella; Carrion Comfort the novel was once "Carrion Comfort" the novella, and Children of the Night (reviewed in issue 10) began life a lot smaller as "Dracula's Children". And now we have five new pieces of long short fiction - or is that short long fiction? - from an author who, of late, has been more than a little unpredictable in his quality. Since there are only five pieces in this particular collection, I can review each in detail.
"Entropy's Bed at Midnight" won a Locus Award for best novella. It's a rather surprising piece, definitely non-genre, more in the style of his superb novel Phases of Gravity than anything else that leaps to mind. I can't really begin to describe this novella, except that it's an investigation of accidents, humanity, a parent's natural protectiveness of his or her children, pain, loss, love and death, not necessarily in that order. I'm going to give this story to anyone I know who has kids, is thinking of having kids, or just enjoys a damn fine read. "Entropy's Bed at Midnight" is Dan Simmons' finest work to date: an important piece of fiction that deserves recognition outside the genre. Superb. And I liked it a bit too.
After such a start, the collection could only have gone down. "Dying in Bangkok" was a great disappointment; I started having "Children of the Night" flashbacks, with Simmons' in-depth descriptions of the streets of Bangkok. This novella was far too long, had a supposed "twist" which I'd worked out by the second page, and was mediocrity written: the worst sin of all. Of course, compared to similar works of horror fiction, it was fine, perhaps even above average. But after "Entropy's Bed at Midnight"? Below par.
"Sleeping With Teeth Women" is another beast altogether. Here, Simmons uses his knowledge of Native American history and folklore (is there anything Simmons doesn't have knowledge of?) to make what he admits in his foreword is "my antidote to what I consider the saccharine condescension of such travesties as Dances With Wolves". Again, Simmons goes into extreme detail, but in this case he once again finds his balance between background and foreground, using the research to make his characters and story stand out. This story is a modern folktale, or perhaps an ancient one retold by a modern folkteller. Either way, it's an intriguing and entertaining view into American Indian society and history.
Fans of Hyperion will be pleased to note the return of Simmons the science fiction writer for "Flashback", a clever story set in a cyberpunk-style future, with virtual reality sunglasses, an America run by the Japanese and, most importantly, a drug which allows you to relive any portion of your life over and over again. Addressing issues such as drug addiction, the death of the American work ethic, the almost-hysterical need to cling to the past (nostalgia ain't what it used to be), and throwing in some anti-Asian conspiracy theories and a chance to save JFK from the assassin's bullet for the hell of it, this is a novella crammed with ideas. In fact, it suffers from overcrowding; for once in my life, I'm going to say that this is a novella that Simmons should expand into a novel. Did I say that? I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me . . .
Finally, "The Great Lover". Simmons saved his best (well, second best; "Entropy's Bed at Midnight" wasn't going to be easily beaten) until last: a rambling account of the trenches in World War One. This story is truly disturbing, far more so than the supposed "horror" of "Dying in Bangkok". Once again, Simmons demonstrates that the most horrifying things are the real ones, and the pointless slaughter portrayed in "The Great Lover" is more nauseating than a dozen vampires or a thousand faceless psychopaths with various sharp cooking utensils. The only weak point in this story (and the only thing that dropped it beneath the first novella's impressive level of excellence) is the quite clumsy melding of the narrative with examples of "trench poetry", poems written by servicemen during WWI. But apart from that, this is an emotional and visceral experience. Not a pleasant read, but a rewarding one.
A while ago someone (one of the Editorial Committee of this magazine actually) commented to me that Dan Simmons is "still erratic enough to be a worry". I have to disagree. I believe that Dan Simmons is erratic enough to be interesting; you never quite know what he's going to come up with next. Lovedeath shows all the signs of an author still experimenting with his style when he knows damn well he could write the same thing again and again and make a fortune. While most writers are quite content to find their niche and stay safely within it, Simmons is trying to venture into uncharted territory. Lovedeath is a satisfying quintella of tales told by an expert and, with one minor exception, it demonstrates what Simmons can do when he's allowed to work in his own element. Highly recommended.
Huh? Get those damn purple smurfs away from me!
Well, enough raving for now. Next issue I'll be looking at Sean McMullen's new novel and Quest by Shannah Jay, which came in a little too late to be read and reviewed this issue - I don't know, these fantasy writers, producing books thick enough to injure small children . . . they must be sadists or something. Let us know what you think of the new format, and if anyone can think up a snappier title than "Fresh Ink" (puh-LEEZE!) drop us a note. Best suggestion wins a book or something, as well as being immortalized on the pages of Eidolon - who could ask for more? Huh? Money? Why I oughta . . .
Cover by Chris Moore
(Millennium, $19.95, 310pp, tpb, July 1994)
Reviewed by Jonathan Strahan
Science fiction, as John W Campbell understood it, was hard science fiction. Stories were based upon rigorous extrapolation of scientifically plausible scenarios while giving due attention to prose style and characterisation, as typified by the works of Heinlein. However, science has changed markedly in the fifty-odd years since Campbell came to the editorship of Astounding, becoming more relevant to virtually every field of human activity through developments like chaos theory and complexity theory, while appearing to be "softer" or, more accurately, broader. This has lead to changes in hard SF and in what can reasonably be considered to be hard SF. No longer is the field defined by spaceships and rayguns, but rather by works like Blood Music by Greg Bear or Live Robots by Rudy Rucker. Greg Egan's Quarantine firmly established him as a writer of '90s-style hard science fiction, something which is continued in Permutation City, his second novel for a major publisher.
In the twenty-first century the human mind can be scanned and loaded into computer-created virtual environments with memory and identity intact, literally becoming conscious software running on the computer networks of the world, often at very slow processing rates. Initially the rich, but eventually the middle classes, begin to have themselves Copied in case of accident or to offset natural death. These Copies are free from illness and effectively immortal, dependent only upon the stability of the computer system on which their programs run. It is that vulnerability which Paul Durham seeks to exploit. He believes he can offer the world's ultra-rich Copies something better, something more reliable - a perfectly secure sanctuary, a carefully prepared computer environment where they can live, pulling the doors safely closed behind them for eternity.
There's nothing particularly new in that. Any number of writers, including Egan himself, have posited the idea of copying personalities and running them in artificial environments with varying degrees of success. But Egan is not content to let it rest there. Durham is obsessed with a theory he has developed about the nature of consciousness, a theory which he believes transcends everything we understand about the nature of the universe, that makes the concept of cause and effect irrelevant. He posits that the ordering of events in space and time is purely in the eye of the beholder; that the simulation of a person in virtual reality could be chopped up into a million pieces and run backwards on a million different computers scattered all over the planet - and the simulated person wouldn't know the difference. When his experiments confirm this, he assumes it to be true for everyone, and begins his plans to build a place made "from the dust of randomly scattered moments, from apparent white noise in real time": Permutation City.
Permutation City is more than just the tale of Durham and his obsession. It is the tale of Maria Deluca, an Autoverse junkie addicted to proving that artificial life can evolve naturally, and whose mother is dying but refuses to be Copied. When Maria makes a major breakthrough, demonstrating the evolution of life within a computer, Durham offers her the opportunity to write the seed for a universe within which such life could flourish. Though she comes to question Durham's sanity she cannot avoid the results of her fascination or the temptation of the money which would allow her to save her mother.
And then there is the Copy of the German industrialist, Thomas Riemann, who is hounded by the memory of a crime he committed decades ago, a crime for which he cannot forgive himself and which he will not choose to forget. Riemann is a marvellous example of the frustrations of wish-fulfilment and its results, because he is haunted by his crime and has himself Copied in the belief that it will free him from his past. After the Copy has awoken he eventually comes to realise that his guilt has come to define him and, though his new environment gives him the power to edit the crime from his memory or indeed to simply cease caring about, he cannot make the choice to free himself. He dooms himself to indulge in his guilt forever. Wish-fulfilment, weakness or humanity - I don't know, but he's very frustrating.
Egan also gives us the two lovers, Kate and David, two Copies who meet in the Slow Clubs, places where those Copies who do not have the money to process themselves at a rate closer to that of the real world go to meet. As part of Solipsist Nation, a radical Copy movement that believes it is false for Copies to remain "true" to human identity, they reject the traditional views of what it is to be human and choose, rather, to escape as rats in the walls of a rich man's paradise.
Permutation City is a fine hard science fiction novel. It brims with ideas, ranging from the edge of quantum and chaos theory to consideration of the nature of consciousness to the power of ideas themselves. For example, Egan provides a fascinating metaphor for the process by which a more powerful, logically structured idea can supplant another in the interaction between the universe of Permutation City and the Autoverse.
While Permutation City is, ultimately, a satisfying tale and superior to the earlier Quarantine, I do have some criticisms of the novel. Firstly, Egan introduces so many interesting and thought-provoking ideas in the 310 pages of Permutation City that he cannot possibly develop or even flesh out many of them. A clear example is the description of the "Butterfly Project" - an enormous computer project which aims at changing the weather in a greenhouse world, using the principle of controlling a chaotic system with minimum force, through a detailed knowledge of its dynamics. The notion is based upon the idea that a large system (the weather) can be affected by a small change in initial conditions (a butterfly flapping its wings in a Brazilian jungle). The idea is delivered and left.
The other problem that I have with Permutation City is Egan's ability to emotionally involve the reader in the novel. Quarantine was a fascinating discourse on quantum theory, but to some extent remained emotionally distanced from the reader, possibly due to the nature of the alienated characters Egan created and possibly due to the amount of expository material required to tell his tale. To some limited extent this is true of Permutation City. Egan has clearly learned from Quarantine, and Permutation City is a far more accomplished novel because of it, but Egan's alienated characters and complex exposition still limit the emotional involvement of the reader. However, Permutation City is a lot more than simply an assemblage of fictionalised theories and it provides some of the strongest characters this reviewer has seen in his fiction.
For readers looking for science fiction, look no farther than Permutation City. It is a complex and challenging novel which broaches difficult concepts with a depth of vision and clarity of understanding which is impressive. That Egan can do this while keeping the novel entertaining and compulsively readable is an impressive achievement.
Originally appeared pp. 77-88, Eidolon 14, April 1994.
Copyright © 1994 Eidolon Publications. Individual contributions are copyright to the respective authors.
Reprinted with kind permission of the authors.