Reviews of Recent Publications

Derry Towling
Cover by Stig Poulsen
(Perihelion, $12.95, 253pp, pb, March 1991)
Reviewed by Mere Dao-Lin

Continuing our series of guest reviews by members of the "Inlanders" - a society of South Australian SF afficianados with remarkably self-similar handwriting - comes this review of a little-known and perilously unlikely collection of tales that we've never actually sighted. (Note the cleverly substituted photograph of a similarly titled but critically lauded work). Mere Dao-Lin claims to hail from Bali, although we suspect a more Antipodean origin is closer to the truth. The envelope was postmarked in Adelaide.

Woodworm is a new collection of stories by the author of Tyrannoseros. It is set in a future Australia in which most of the native and pine forests in the southern region have been destroyed by a mysterious, possibly malignant power, which converted much of the continent that was not already such into desert, then departed, leaving the decimated colonies of human settlers yet more marginalized and demoralized than they already were by the end of the Twentieth Century. The survivors after Woodworm find themselves contending with immigrant alien races such as the San'Deetas and the Crogles, creatures with disgusting personal habits and baffling codes of behaviour, as well as with the tribal A-Bos, who control the trade rites between the remaining commercial centres, among which we may distantly recognise Mebun and Cinny.

"The Crone Who Rode Away Along the Leys" typifies the stories in the collection. It features a character who almost becomes a series hero, in that he tells two of the seven tales and is marginally connected with others. Norm Austeroid is himself somewhat unusual: he should have been called Norma, having been vatted as a straightforward crone, that is the clone of an old witch, but was jinxed. The stories in which Norm figures are of the bildungsroman kind, in which he (and, we suspect, Towling) finds out just what his latent powers and heroic or unheroic qualities are, making up his own life as he goes along by defining it against the aliens and more or less normal humans who seek to exploit him. Norm teams up with two questors, Cord Hardball and Jerky Coppelius, who are competing with others to locate and interpret one of the spurios left behind, as at a roadside picnic, by a party of Nobodadis. Jerky is peculiarly attuned to the spurio effect and the ecstatic semiotic dancing which possesses him in the presence of one of these relics is much valued by all the wealthy immigrant species. Cord is a conventional heroic figure who acts as scout and minder. Norm is good at spelling. This unlikely trio is almost betrayed by a mysterious androidal (part-serpent) siren called B'odi Tender, but when it is discovered that she is a k'ditchy assassin (Cord having tried vainly to exert brute force against her Amazonian guile), Norm learns that he can "ley": he abandons himself to one of a weblike net of lines of least resistance and thus leads Jerky to the consummation of their quest.

Derry Towling has recently explained, in a highly illuminating interview published recently by Idling West [since defunct - Ed], that although his stories bear superficial resemblances to the works of writers he admires (and has even read), he does not consciously follow the styles of those writers, though he is honoured at the comparisons made. I have to admit to finding this disclaimer somewhat disingenuous, when I set, say, "Cloud-Weavers" against some of the stories in Ballard's Vermilion Sands, or when I find a Cordwainer Smith story ("The Dead Lady of Clown Town") opening like this:

"You already know the end - the immense drama of the Lord Jestocost, seventh of the line, and how the cat-girl C'mell initiated the vast conspiracy. But you do not know the beginning . . ."

and a Towling story ("In the Deep Bed") like this:

"We all know the story of Oscar Power, and the ordeal he suffered in the Deep Bed at Kiscros. It is the story of the strange, turbulent and vital love he had for the quarter-woman Jaqi Kendy, and of the wonderful way he endured the soft crush of meltdown on her behalf.

You all know the facts of the case that were made public through the edited videotapes.

. . . And the ending, the wonderful ending.

What you do not know is the private story . . ."

I am surprised that he would seek to disavow a conscious indebtedness. There is nothing to be ashamed of in making an open act of homage to one's mentors, provided the chosen guides be worthy of imitation, as in these cases they surely are. Smith himself did not disguise his debt to Rimbaud, after all, in "Drunkboat".

Weird aliens do not figure much in Cordwainer Smith and J G Ballard, two of Towling's principal influences; perhaps these come from Jack Vance, a third great name who is often brought into comparison with Australia's rising star fabulist. I have heard the objection that true aliens should not be so half-open to understanding even as those in Towling's work: they should be opaque as cats or cockroaches. The obvious retort to this objection is that extra-terrestrial aliens are only metaphors for everything in our lives that we fail to understand (perhaps that should be everything, tout court) and that what matters is to devise stories about the effort to understand, about the nature of learning whereby the acceptance of alienity is a kind of coming home. L'etranger, c'est moi.

One of the strangest of the alien species in Towling (if we may be allowed to use such a redundant expression) is the sedentary Coproi, which continuously exude foul-spelling matter from what look like open sores on their scabby half-flayed bodies and just as continuously re-process it by transferring it with specialized tentacles to orifices in their crania, then excreting and, as it were, incubating it below their nether parts, before secreting it within cells that are constructed there by their attendant vermin. The aim of the Coproi seems to be to enthrone themselves most highly upon a pile of their own making. They feed upon their symbiotes and any other creature which is allured to their chambers by the hypnotic charm of their end-products. Such may be members of an alien species or indeed of their own species, perhaps of opposite sex, though no human has yet made an anatomical study of one to determine one sex from the other (assuming that there are two: nobody seems too keen to probe the private parts of Coproi). Needless to say, for the allegory of the Coproi is sufficiently obvious, the contents of the Coproi thrones are held to be highly valuable by alien collectors, and so by their attendant humans, who are often employed, being disposable and gullible, to attempt their recovery. Norm Austeroid (I noted before that he is good at spelling) makes such an attempt in "Throne Call" and is accompanied by a venal alien who likes to be called, ironically enough, Lucky Jim. Jim's luck runs out but Norm learns that there are times when it is better not to steal from aliens, even when they appear to be most vulnerable.

As in The Dark Light Years (whoops, there clangs another major influence, Aldiss), one of the secrets of this style of writing is to pretend that what is actually hilarious, when not downright banal, is deadly serious throughout. Overtly, there is not much humour in Towling's work, yet just a little below the surface tiny bubbles of laughter constantly form. The main butts of the humour are, of course, the humans, by which I mean in this context those who are not A-Bos. The A-Bos are presented throughout as a mysterious, superior, disdainful race who treat human and alien immigrants alike as either subserviently marginal or obtrusively criminal. "Burning the Captains" describes an abortive (pardon the pun) attempt to probe the dark interior of the island continent, where a new civilization compounded of dreamtime magic and cybernetic wizardry is believed to exist.

Pathos is not absent from this group of related stories. I have already mentioned "In the Deep Bed". In another love-story, "Its Sides Are Kissed With Light", an elegiac xeno-erotic mood-piece, advanced laser technology is applied in ways that should certainly not be attempted within the privacy of your own home, but prove highly gratifying to the occupant of a particular alien skin. The natural human yearning to share fully in the lover's delight is bound to lead to tragedy, especially when the alien's yearning translates into what would for humans be a form of supreme masochism. As in Tyrannoseros, Towling deploys some stunning effects of literary graphicism here, in suggesting a new art of body-painting (this time, no pun intended, though the agony must be supposed to go beyond that of mere tattooing).

Finally, "We Shall Form The A-Bode" deals with the doomed attempt by two breakaway groups to join in a pan-human revolutionary struggle against the multiple tyrannies with which the ordinary decent survivors of Woodworm are beset.

Woodworm is recommended to all Australian readers who wish to keep up with the best speculative fiction being produced here, and to overseas readers who are tired of a diet of cyberpunk and sub-Harrisonian humour.

Originally appeared in Eidolon 6, October 1991.
Copyright © 1991 Eidolon Publications. Individual contributions are copyright to the respective authors.
Reprinted with kind permission of the various authors.