|Reviews of Recent Publications|
BACK DOOR MAN
Ian McAuley Hails
Cover Art - The Image Bank
(Aphelion Publications, $14.95, [viii +] 407 pp, tpb, February 1992)
Reviewed by Michael J. Tolley
Back Door Man is the first novel of a Sydney writer, previously unknown to me but available I am sure from the publishers, as he presents himself engagingly on the professionally made video presentation which served in place of the author himself at the novel's launch in Adelaide. I helped to launch Back Door Man then and made few criticisms of it in that context as a thriller which I had, after all, enjoyed reading and was not sorry to promote, though I took the liberty of drawing attention to some slight instances in the text of what I took to be accidental humour. Writing here as a reviewer, I suppose that I must write with more critical severity.
Although Back Door Man is being reviewed in Eidolon because it comes from Aphelion, and although it is set in the future, it is not strictly speaking a work of science fiction: It is spy-fi. The author accordingly writes in his disclaimer:
The Australia of this story is founded on a measure of societal extrapolation - and certain devices used by the characters may not presently be in use. Accordingly, I have set the story four years into the future. The events described however, could easily be happening now.
(I am not persuaded of the validity of the last sentence.) Nevertheless, any writer of extrapolative fiction must expect to be judged in part on the persuasiveness of the extrapolation. What is posited in this story are not only a conspiracy theory or two and an augmentation of the number of espionage agencies currently (one supposes) in employment but also a lessening of interest in the conservationist (Green) lobby, which is replaced by a powerful Nationalist (White) drive. Both of these conditions seem unlikely starters to me. I hope I am not proved wrong by events. Be that as it may turn out, these predictions are unnecessarily tendentious, because the story is concerned not with the transient fashions in political causes but with the powers who work through the political system to exploit whatever can be turned to their personal gain. This more frightening prediction or, rather, societal analysis is of a kind not unfamiliar in science fiction; revelation of an alien enemy within the system. More subtly, the discovery that, with a lessening of danger from outside the nation, the enemy is found to be one of ourselves, is proto-science-fictional. Indeed, the idea of people using the whole espionage profession as a front for criminal entrepreneurialism has an uncomfortably Australian ring to it (remember The Bulletin's former regular linkage of business and crime). Hails exposes several characters and groups as behaving in ways that are alien at least to the extent of being dangerously aberrant. He describes one of the leading female characters, Kym, as being "weird" in her erotic practices; that she is also a member of a rock group is not meant to excuse her for this. The sado-masochism, bondage, pornography and voyeurism of the story are clearly metaphors for social decadence (epitomised by The Pits of Hell nightclub in King's Cross), though the ambiguous title of the novel itself is not overtly loaded, I think, with memories of Sodom (it is, I gather, a song title). In the circumstances, a surprising omission from Hails' near-future Sydney scene is the fear of AIDS: One might plausibly expect this disease to be so terrifying by the mid-'nineties as to have forced at least some of the Cross's denizens out of business.
Accustomed as we are to the relatively brief excursions into Australian espionage of Peter Corris in his and Bill Garner's Crawley series, the roughly 400 pages of Back Door Man seems a tad indulgent. If I had been Hails' editor I would have tried to get him to prune the work considerably; it also seems undercooked to me. Much of the complication of what is not, at bottom, an unduly elaborate situation might have been reduced to the novel's advantage. The hero, called unfortunately Steven Plat (yes, I know that Crawley is no better, but splat puns are functional in this novel at a level of plot, along with other naming, and when at the end we are treated literally to splatter-movie style violence it seems unfair), is an intelligence agency director involved at the outset in three apparently distinct but actually inter-connected investigations. This coincidence stretches the law of probability and also introduces a confusing proliferation of minor characters. The number of intelligence agencies and their relationships to one another make the author's provision of no fewer than five explanatory appendices of real assistance, but it would be better to have fewer agencies. Again, it is good, in fact almost mandatory, to have street chases in spy thrillers; those here and similar action sequences rarely rise above the routine and so should have been reduced in number. Hails knows a lot about rock music and computers but his display of such knowledge need not have been so extensive.
A key problem for a writer of narratives where the hero is the teller of his own story is one of tact. Nobody likes a smart-arse (a secret reviewers forget at their peril) and it was my experience as a reader that Steve is allowed to present himself too nakedly as just that (I might call it the Spenser syndrome - after Robert B. Parker's detective hero - although I am not offended by Spenser so much as some readers are). When he gets into trouble, Steve is confident that he can use his mouth to get out again, by "fascinating" the opposition. It is doubtful whether this ploy would work in real life - and it does not always work too well for Steve, which is a mitigating factor in his favour, I suppose. A character who uses his voice more convincingly than Steve is Simon Harvester's Dorian Silk: See particularly Sahara Road (1972). While Steve's freshly irreverent voice, his larrikinism, can produce exhilarating episodes, as here notably in the scene in which he is hauled before a cover-up committee in Canberra and during a neatly organised violent confrontation in Hyde Park, the author does not always distance himself sufficiently from his hero.
I mentioned unintentional humour and feel impelled to say more about the way in which the splatter-movie-updated violence of a Casino Royale-style of torture scene found near the ending of Back Door Man seems almost to constitute a submerged pun on the hero's name. Splattering becomes a kind of leit-motif in the book, to the extent that one is not sure whether it is emerging from the author's subconscious. In chapter 13 we get this:
I sprinted down the neon-lit cave. Panic now causing a tingling cold spot at the back of my head . . . the place the next bullet might find its mark to send my face splattering out in front . . .
and in chapter 18 this:
"Kneel or I'll splatter your fucking faces all over your shoulders," sneered Braithwaite, a huge piece of gun-shaped metal in his slightly shaking hand.
I won't tell you what happens in a third, climactic instance, but notice, too, when you get to it, the wording of the hero's defiant act on p381. When S. Plat (understandably, he dislikes it when people get the surname wrong) falls from a train to the platform, one wonders whether there is some occult significance even in this. It is as if, having newly discovered the implications of naming a spy James Bond, Hails feels compelled to play with his own spy hero's name at the situational level - but he fails to let the reader in on the joke. Well, this cognisant reader is grateful for such authorial tact, if tact it be, but is left wondering whether it is not the effect of simple carelessness.
At the stylistic level, Steve Plat's language too often falls between the wise-cracking of Chandler and Corris and the automatic word-shuffling of the regular thesaurus user. When his characters engage in dialogue, they shrug a lot, when they are not nodding. Kym even contrives to shrug with her face, more than once making a "facial shrug". Epithets and metaphors are mixed and splattered, I mean scattered, with careless abandon at times. Take for instance, this passage describing the situation as the hero walks in a dark, quiet place:
Silence is dangerous. Your brain can empty and dissipate into the surrounding blank space, trying to fill every corner. Like spat [sic] toothpaste on water, silence surges out and becomes thinner and thinner until you can't see it any more and it becomes something else. This is why people who meditate demand silence - mind expansion. This is why humanity makes so much noise.
I whistled the ostinato from The Twilight Zone.
Curiously, at a certain rhetorical level, that of alternation between laconic and redundant and laconic sentences, this passage works. One has to forget the fuzzy chemistry and the curious metaphysical conceit of the brain dissipating like toothpaste on water but people are good at filtering out extraneous noise. In the second paragraph, the theme from The Twilight Zone jars neatly against the idea of that from The Sound of Music.
Confronted by writing as clever as this a simple, well-meaning editor would probably be helpless. A simple thriller-reader may be confused, or may be riding along quickly enough not to notice what distractions there are in the way of a free-wheeling quick read. Perhaps the author will signal his intentions more clearly in future books - or suppress them more subtly.
Accordingly, and having my own indiscriminate fondness for puns, I hail Ian McAuley Hails with slightly muted cheers. I fancy that he can become a notably successful writer with practice, discipline and the right encouragement. More about Plat is promised, or threatened, by the author. We shall have to wait and see which kind of plat is borne to us on the day on which we are due to receive the second course.
CALL TO THE EDGE
Cover Art by Nick Stathopoulos
(Aphelion Publications, $12.95, 245pp, tpb, March 1992)
Reviewed by George Turner
The Australian sf short story lay too long in the creative doldrums with only a handful of old timers flying a tattered ensign, but in recent years a younger group has made headway. Rosaleen Love, Lucy Sussex and Terry Dowling have published solid collections, Leanne Frahm has sold to the American market, Greg Egan is doing well with the choosy and very literate Interzone and elsewhere, and their approaches to sf are all markedly different.
There is no longer any excuse for passing over locally produced sf as second rate. A new American quarterly, The Best Of The Rest (reprinting stories from US small presses and overseas markets not much seen in America) has in its first issue no less than four Australian stories occupying just half the total fiction wordage, and lists five more in the table of Honourable Mentions.
This does not mean that we have arrived with a bang; it does mean that the larger world out there is becoming aware of us as a national group rather than as a few odd names from way back when. As a grim thumper of heads at many a workshop and seminar I watch hungrily for the in-print appearance of the struggling hopefuls and greet each one with a surge of satisfaction - and satisfaction is definitely in order for Sean McMullen's first collection.
I came on a recent McMullen story, "An Empty Wheelhouse", in the January '92 issue of Analog (not included in the collection under review) and pontificated to everyone within hearing that "young Sean has come a long way in a couple of years" - to discover that his first publication was in fact in 1986. Well, six years is not so long a haul in an enormously competitive field, but he had cracked the tough markets, and that matters. Aspiring amateurs should remain hopeful but remember that the writing of fiction is learned only the hardest way; by rejection slips and informed criticism.
Michael Tolley of the English Department of Adelaide University leads off with the kind of Introduction even an established writer would kill for. His is a sincerely felt tribute which says much for the persuasive power of the stories; if my own comments are a little less than totally approving it is because I not only see with other eyes but because part of my interest is in seeing what yet needs to be done to fashion a writer out of a most promising storyteller. But make no mistake, this is a collection of quality.
Since the 1986 story, "The Deciad" (Oxon. pronounced Dekky-ad, Cantab. Dee-see-ad - take your pick), is included here, I turned to it first. It is a tale with a historical background, one of the more difficult to fuse with a credible sf format, and it comes off pretty well. It deals with the escape of some very special Romans from the sack by Alaric's Visigoths, their voyage to Antarctica with their secret of preservation and longevity and their re-discovery by a research team in our own near future. The story is interesting and the signs of the raw beginner are perhaps more obvious to the professional eye than to the average reader - some unnecessary Latin, necessitating footnotes, which in later thinking would have been discarded, and some lengthy translation from a Latin "original" account of the voyage, unfortunately employing a few modern usages which simply would not translate back into classical Latin (a very formal and accurate literature) such as, "This is the end, then?" and "This is some mistake". Still, it remains a creditable debut and still worth its place.
"The Deciad" appears in the body of the book, where its shortcomings are more noticeable after some of the maturer tales preceding it. First in the volume is "The Colours of the Masters", published in F&SF in 1988, another difficult fusion of sf with, this time, not only history but the arts. Few have brought this off capably since James Blish's "A Work of Art" and McMullen succeeds not only thematically but also by way of some very intelligent speculation on how mid-nineteenth technology, pre-Edison, might have gone about the business of trying to preserve great performances of great music.
"The Eyes of the Green Lancer" and "Destroyer of Illusions" are a pair of shortish novelettes set in a future Australia ravaged and depopulated but striving back with a burgeoning technology. Again the speculations about primitive approaches to mighty accomplishments are an intellectual joy, particularly his "computer" - a vast room with two hundred men going hell for leather at abacus frames. The real pleasure is that it would work!
"Alone In His Chariot" (published in Eidolon 4) would be better off without its explanatory Footnote, which reads suspiciously like those ideas that occur to you after you have written the story. It is a fairly simple tale of trick and counter-trick which has to work hard to support the philosophical and psychological explanation. Still, it is not negligible. (We writers never learn to sit quiet when there's an opportunity to expound - and that includes G. Turner.)
"Pax Romana" is a gentle joy. With Alfred the Great as a major character and some resurrected Romans (it seems to have been an outgrowth of "The Deciad") to help against the ravaging Danes, plus a vendetta several centuries old, it moves neatly to a satisfactory end with a few Danes getting their comeuppance and fair Albion safe for history. A delight, this one.
"While the Gate Is Open" (F&SF, 1990) is a fairly complex melange of surgery, intrigue and murder with some speculation on after-death experience which I found a little hard to rationalise. However, it is well handled and holds the interest.
The remaining two stories, "The Devils of Langerhagen" and "The Dominant Style", form a pair with different approaches to a similar idea (which cannot be expounded here without giving too much away) and are, in technique and structure, the best work in the book. I leave you to read them and decide just how far "young Sean" has come since 1986. The mere fact of such improvement is the signpost to his future.
This is no worldshaking collection but it is a good one. It has the faults that every young writer wrestles with and weeps over - the necessity of wedging explanatory material into the dialogue and the inevitable slight stiltedness resulting, the problem of "setting" character in a few words without lapsing into cliché and the uncomfortable compacting of incident to prevent the story becoming too unwieldy for its theme - but it transcends most of them as the competence grows with practice.
On the plus side - and it is a very meaty plus - are his interests in romantic history and technological history, both inserted seamlessly into the structures so that possible mismatches do not appear, and his cunning use of accurate detail to create circumstance and atmosphere, particularly notable in the last story where the realism of a lookalike Earth hangs on decor and design.
As an old pro who has made nearly every possible error in a very spotty career (and finds something new to stumble over with each fresh attempt) several aspects of McMullen's work seem worth pondering.
Michael Tolley points out in his Introduction that by comparison with some other writers McMullen has not established an individual voice, whereas a writer with such a personal approach and outlook should be identifiable from the start. I think the reason is not far to seek; the deadly business of making a start in published life in the American market means only too often suppressing what you want to do in favour of what you must do to satisfy editors who have clear and sometimes stultifying ideas of what they require.
The tales in this volume, excepting the final two, cry out as "product" forced into a "saleable" mould and McMullen (whom I know well enough to question about his work habits) has told me of friendly advice to "shorten them down" and how he has worked to take it. (Eighteen rewrites of one story!) Now, his sense of structure is very good, so what has to suffer in the shortening is characterisation. Too much amateur advice seeks to satisfy a personal taste without realising what must be sacrificed to gratify it. (Also you hear that Editorial whip cracking and the dollar-ridden voice crying, "Keep it moving, Sean! Story, story, story is what the readers want!" I long ago said "Stuff you!" to both readers and editors and have never regretted it.)
When did you last encounter a memorable character in sf? Offhand I can't remember any later than the pitiful lovers in Nineteen Eighty Four. This lack of essential humanity is for me the reason why sf stories fade into a drearily homogeneous past almost as soon as read; I remember the ideas which have caught my attention but not the human relevance that might have made the tales live, because it was not there. Token characters bringing token resolutions . . .
McMullen's stories are neat, compact, spare to the point of being pared down - and in reading them I am always aware of an unsatisfied writer giving way to the competent technician. What would make the difference here between undeniable competence and real mastery would be the sense of life that comes with recognition of and identification with a character written to breathe and draw you after her or him. In the short story this requires cameo observation of sharpness and depth (which is why the short story is reckoned the most difficult of fictions), seen on the run and incorporated into gesture and dialogue because there is not narrative room to write a character essay. It is not easy, not a technique to be accomplished overnight, but it is a necessary one if the writing is to move towards artistry beyond mere saleability.
McMullen's visions tend to be more expansive than his stories can accommodate; he needs at least the extra freedom of novella length to reach what he is grasping for and I cannot avoid the feeling that soon a novel must erupt from the need to do the work he knows he can do as distinct from the work that is tailored for the magazines. When that happens we will get real people and ideas examined for their possibilities rather than their one-punch dramatic usefulness.
Buy this book and at the same time resolve to give your support to Aphelion Publications, Aurealis, Eidolon and the other young publishers who break their hearts trying to tell Australia about its own deep well of talent.
Cover Art by Nick Stathopoulos
(Aphelion Publications, $12.95, 238pp, tpb, April 1992)
Reviewed by Michael J. Tolley
Blue Tyson is a sequel to Rynosseros (1990); it depends on that collection of eight stories and surpasses it in power. The dependence rests in Dowling's adumbration of a future Australia, divided between two political forces subsisting in an uneasy balance of power, the Ab'O tribes (who have the upper hand) and the coastally-confined Nationals, in which some sciences, notably in cybernetic and biological fields, have advanced but transport is now principally by various kinds of wind and solar powered sand-ship. Set between the powers are seven National ship's captains who have also been awarded colours from the tribes which give them tribal Hero status. Tom Tyson (also known as Tom Rynosseros, after his ship and an association with the old "Tom o' Bedlam" ballad) is, by force of chance or destiny, the Blue Captain and all but one of the ten stories in this new collection feature him. Tom is "Tom o' Bedlam" because he has come into his catalytic or negotiating position following a mysterious confinement in the Madhouse at Cape Bedlam. The Madhouse experience is mysterious not only to the present-day reader, but also to Tom himself and, if we may believe his protestations, the author.
I am preparing this review from a typescript, without even the benefit of Jack Vance's introduction. If the blurb that accompanies my copy is used unchanged in the book, then I should warn readers not to hold their breath if they are desperate to learn what happened to Tom in the Madhouse. Tom learns something of what happened to him as a result of that experience but he is largely frustrated when he attempts to pin it down (the key stories that deal with this issue are "Breaking Through to the Heroes" and "Privateers' Moon"). One of the weaker stories, "A Dragon Between His Fingers", makes more sense as a sequel to "Breaking Through to the Heroes" than it did to me when I first read it in Matilda at the Speed of Light (1988; it was first published in Omega, May 1986). Another story, an assured piece of suspense writing, "Dreaming the Knife", also harks back to "Breaking Through to the Heroes". It is presumably best to read the stories in the order in which they are printed, as some of the later ones hark back to Tom's early experience.
Because Dowling makes few concessions to the uninitiated reader, prior knowledge of Rynosseros is highly desirable. Terms such as "haldanes" and "kurdaitcha" may be tossed into stories with little explanation and, although the latter, denoting an Aboriginal ritual assassin (or the principle which may set one in motion), has received attention in Australia outside Dowling recently, overseas readers in particular will struggle with the concepts they connote. Within particular stories it may be helpful to turn to an etymological dictionary, for instance in order to clarify the varieties of artefact described in "Totem" - I myself have associated trochars with trochus shells not wheels and onagers with wild asses not catapults.
I was doubtful when reviewing Rynosseros whether my effort to understand Dowling's incompletely realised future world was sufficiently rewarded by some of the stories presented there and I wrote about problems I had of sympathy with the hero. That particular difficulty was more adroitly handled in the stories Dowling has written about his other alternative future Earth, as collected in Wormwood (1991). However, I was prepared to stick with the author's writing and am now ready to encourage others who might have been as slow of apprehension as myself to do the same. Any stranger in a strange land must experience difficulties and there is verisimilitude in that, for author as well as for reader. The stories, like the episodes of all foreign experiences, must introduce new problems; working through them, one enjoys a sense of discovery, the pleasure when things suddenly fall into place. Part of Dowling's genius is not simply to work mosaically, slotting pieces into a jigsaw, but to engage the characters themselves within each story in the learning process: Even though they have spent their lives in the new Australia, all of them have still much to discover about it. Australia thus properly remains what it is now, a frontier land about which much remains to be known. These characters have also much to learn about the nature of humanity and the human place in the psycho-biosphere and are consciously engaged in the process of knowing. They know, too, that they lack knowledge about each other: The Ab'Os cultivate mystery for its esoteric quality as a source of power, so the Nationals forever need to learn more about their secret lives; they themselves must cultivate secrecy because they live as members of a Resistance, under threat from resented, half-acknowledged rulers. The behaviour of Dowling's future Australians offers us as readers paradigms of our own predicaments and provides metaphors of our own values or totems.
Such a bitter story as "Going to the Angels", which deals with the barely explicable urge by Nationals to journey into space even when they are told in advance that this will require servitude to the Ab'Os who control the artificial satellites and asteroids, is oppressively reminiscent of mid-twentieth-century experience. The story is beautifully plotted, especially in its deployment of one easily overlooked feature of the future night sky to clinch the title's irony, one which the reader might wish, transiently, to have explained but might not feel unduly disappointed should no explanation be forthcoming.
Several of the stories here are of novella length and require all of that in order to lay out and resolve issues of considerable complexity. "Privateers' Moon", one of the strongest in the collection, is a case in point. The complexity is inherent in the situation but any reader who came upon this as a first experience of Tom Tyson could not respond to it as fully as a "conditioned" reader should. Dowling favours the "pyrrhic victory" kind of plot resolution (cf. "Vanities", "Djinn of Anjoulis", "A Song to Keep Them Dancing", for instance). Here suspense is added to a mystery plot by setting up an overhead threat from an Ab'O satellite to the situation of the master of a house which contains valuable, purloined, ancient artefacts: A need to work against time is felt while a traitor within the household must be unmasked and the assembled guests reveal their own secret interests. Tom is pushed towards making a choice of momentous political as well as personal consequence but is conscious of representing several factions in his own single person; he is influenced too by the wish to learn more about himself from Paul Cheimarrhos's dangerous, potentially destabilising invention.
Terry Dowling and his readers are now reaping the fruit of perseverance with what must have been, even to Terry, a vague enough notion more than half a dozen years ago. With this collection we see the coming into full flower of a splendid new sub-creation, half-inchoate at first budding and perhaps realised as little more than a series of compositions in "colours", which is authentically and uniquely Australian. The world of Blue Tyson is now so richly realised that it will serve for an outpouring of new discoveries, new episodes. These need not all be tied to Tom (whose position appears increasingly precarious), as "Stoneman" shows, a story which reaches back to "Colouring the Captains" and "The Robot Is Running Away from the Trees". I have laid down Blue Tyson well satisfied with what so far has been revealed and enticed to learn more, what will happen next in the deadly dance between (and within) the Tribes and the Nation, what other powers will Tom acquire (or realise that he has acquired as his bedlamite origins are reactivated), what new Artificial Intelligences or Intelligent Organisms will be encountered as the author explores his strange new world yet more probingly.
Originally appeared pp. 77-85, Eidolon 8, April 1992.
Copyright © 1992 Eidolon Publications. Individual contributions are copyright to the respective authors.
Reprinted with kind permission of the authors.