|Reviews of Recent Publications|
Cover art by Peter Gudynas; design by Dennis Barker
(Legend, $19.95, [iv +] 219 pp, tpb, October 1992)
Reviewed by Michael J. Tolley
Greg Egan's new novel has been eagerly awaited by Australian authors and readers who have been much impressed by his ability to sell short stories overseas. In the previous issue (which included a clever short story by Egan), Eidolon announced Quarantine, incorrectly, as his first novel: that distinction belongs to An Unusual Angle, published in 1983 by Norstrilia Press, prentice work which shows what remarkable foresight the publishers had. They considered it to be much better than I did.
I am not giving anything more away than the blurb when I tell you that the title, Quarantine, refers to the state of the solar system following the imposition of an opaque "Bubble" around it on 15 November 2034. Some thirty-two years later, private detective Nick Stavrianos begins an investigation which he does not expect will lead him to understand why this apocalyptic-seeming event occurred, though any acute reader will expect nothing less.
What Nick thinks he is doing is searching for a woman, Laura Andrews, who seems to have been abducted from an institution. The search takes him from Perth to New Hong Kong, which is plausibly located in Arnhem Land. There, unavoidably, he switches his allegiance from his unknown client to another mysterious agency, but in the meantime he has demonstrated remarkable investigative resourcefulness. Nick's resources reside principally in his head, which is well-stocked with "mods" or cybernetic programs.
The quality of Greg Egan's extrapolation in Quarantine is nothing short of brilliant; his future Australia is a cyberpunk wonderland. It is also a dangerous environment, exposed as it is to the terrorist activities of the Bubble-spawned Children of the Abyss. Some years ago, Nick lost his wife to the Children, while he was still a police officer. However, she remains with him as a ghostly presence, thanks to one of his implants.
As it happens, "ghostly" is not a word with which Nick could feel comfortable, because he is a rabid atheist for whom no metaphysical explanation of any event could ever be satisfactory. This quality in the narrator-hero is likely to disturb even an agnostic reader as its dimensions become more fully apparent. Nick Stavrianos is as chillingly hollow a man as one is likely to find outside the pages of Jim Thompson or one of the many recent American serial murder mysteries. That the subject of this thriller is murder, mass murder, genocide, on the largest conceivable scale, troubles even Nick, it seems, though it is his own survival that principally preoccupies him.
The thriller framework, which in the early chapters is recognizably derived from the James Bond formula of penetration and capture, unfortunately (as far as this reviewer is concerned) yields to pages of theoretical debate and speculation, insufficiently personalized. (Allow me to bring to bear my rule-of-shoulder, my indicator of perfunctoriness in dialogue construction: there are seven shrugs in the first hundred pages, twenty-two in the second hundred; any reader will be able to test my system by checking out such other little signs as nods, laughs, rolling of eyes, sighs and the like, in, for example, pp158-63, one of the more animated exchanges.) This speculation, which incorporates some unfamiliar jargon, is not always easy to follow but is sometimes crucial if the reader is to maintain a grasp on the action, particularly the lecture on the quantum measurement problem in chapter 7. Egan just about succeeds in not overloading the reader with theory, but there is so much of it that the reader must be bogged down at times - and one is bound to wonder whether it is altogether likely that Nick himself, as a citizen of the mid-twenty-first century, would need to have quite so much explained to him. (Incidentally, one utterly minor failure of extrapolation seems to me to occur in the form used in dating when a character, on page 102, says that the year is "Two thousand and sixty-eight"; I will be very surprised if the form does not turn out to be "Twenty sixty-eight". Come to think of it, I shall also be very surprised if I am still around to be so.)
Fortuitously, I have been reading Quarantine in the context of some preliminary work on an article on Australian literary renderings of the apocalyptic theme, as the year 2000 looms, and I was pleased to discover such fresh grist to my mill. Few books in the same subgenre could be more diverse than Quarantine and On the Beach, so it is amusing to find Egan's Australians reacting on Bubble Day, 2034, in much the same quiet manner as they did in Shute's projected 1963:
Disturbances in this country were minor; even on the east coast, sunset came too late [to catch the switching off of the stars], and apparently most Australians sat glued to their TVs all night, watching other people do the looting and burning. The End of the World was far too important to be happening anywhere but overseas.
However, when Egan comes to render the apocalypse with more apparent finality, his surrealistic special effects are more in the manner of Ballard's The Unlimited Dream Company. For me, too, there is much in Egan's "smearing" concept reminiscent of Blake's "too unbounded" Immortals as they are perceived by Urizen. Certain other features of the plot remind me of Blake's scenarios involving the sequestration of Urizen and Los, though Egan may have considered that he was being more directly imitative of Phillip K. Dick: he, too, deals with definitions of the human and of the nature of reality. Dick may not have been an influence (I am notoriously bad, for a source scholar, at picking influences on contemporary Australian SF writers) but there are times when I wish he were around still to employ Egan's themes with more humanity than the Australian musters - and more interest in metaphysics. (There is one quasi-Dickian effect, when the text directs the reader down alternative paths.) Stanislaw Lem is another possible source - or, at least, someone who should have been a source - see The Cyberiad on probability theory.
I have also been put to reading Ernst Mayr, a philosopher who invokes the idea of teleology only to debunk it. Some of Egan's speculations, reductive as they are, might be so deployed in debate as to cause Mayr a few unsuspected difficulties. Mayr and Nick both belong to the school of game-players who think that if they have to admit the metaphysical then they have been defeated, which seems to me to be a waste of good reason. I do not know where Greg Egan stands; it would be comforting to feel that he is systematically mocking Nick's pretensions; but I suspect that it is no coincidence that his mind has been running on the idea of closed environments. T.S. Eliot might provide an epigraph for Quarantine just as The Hollow Men does for On the Beach (Nick is, after all, not only a hollow but also a stuffed man), though the text might come just as well in this case from the closing-time sequence in The Waste Land II: "A Game of Chess" -
I can't help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It's them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
Although I am less than wholly enchanted by Quarantine, which seems in the end to offer less than it promises, and to suffer seriously from the law of diminishing returns, the more it confronts commonsense views of reality, I recommend it as a serious work of hard science fiction. Greg Egan has gone to a great deal of trouble to entertain as well as to provoke the thoughtful reader and the strain shows, yet I am thoroughly persuaded that this is an important work in its own right as well as an augury of still better things to come. Quarantine will, at the very least, lend itself admirably to the kinds of discussion Peter Delin and I engage in with our science fiction students at the University of Adelaide.
Cover art by Thomas Canty
(William Morrow, $US20.95, 407pp, hc, 1991)
Reviewed by Bill Congreve
George Turner once wrote of Terry Dowling: "a good stylist who is still searching for his big theme" (or words to that effect). This reveals more about Turner than it does about Dowling. Must a writer have a single major theme in order to be compleat? Should a writer only be allowed to be passionate about one issue? While, on the surface, this seems to be an overly restrictive philosophy, there are many writers whose body of work proves there is nothing wrong with such thinking. Witness Gordon Dickson and his thoughts on ethical behaviour in his Childe Cycle, Van Vogt on the nature of supermen, and crime writer Andrew Vachss on child abuse.
It follows that Turner has a major theme. All his published SF points to a concern with the nature of our near future environment, both physical and political, and how that environment is derived from our own. What kind of place are we making for ourselves to live in, those of us who will still be alive to reach that future? We live with our eyes firmly turned inwards, towards a place where our needs for comfort, security and position in a peer group are all that is important.
George Turner asks us to step outside ourselves for a little time, and look around. His pill is sugar-coated. His books are entertaining and cynical in their world-view. Enjoyment and meaning; a reader can't ask for more.
Brain Child was born from, and is quite different to, the novella "On the Nursery Floor", first published in Strange Attractors and then reprinted in Turner's excellent collection from Aphelion, A Pursuit of Miracles. Like all Turner's fiction, Brain Child is set in a future close enough to home for the reader to see the nuts and bolts of how we got there from here. The central theme, beyond the above-mentioned core concern of all Turner's work, is one of the nature of intelligence; the role of the intellectual superman in a world similar to our own. The novel also tackles issues such as the nature of family relationships, the restrictions of bureaucracy, overpopulation, artificially reduced birthrates: all the little fictions that fit into the gestalt of world-building.
In Turner's near-future Australia government policy, guided by Science Minister and eventual Prime Minister Sam Armstrong, has set up a project designed to play with the human genotype. Three sets of quadruplets are produced, one bred for artistic endeavour, one for science and technology, and the third for pure intellect. The Artists and the Scientists are still around, still producing, justifying the social costs of the experiment. The quads bred for intellect have died by their own hands, for reasons of their own, some decades before the time of Brain Child. One of them, Conrad Hazard, known popularly as Young Feller, is thought to have left behind a legacy of biological knowledge that may include such things as immortality. Originally discredited, the search for Young Feller's legacy is on again. The search is directed by Arthur Hazard, one of the original scientifically-inclined Nursery Children. The search is carried out by David Chance, Hazard's rather naive and inexperienced son. Chance is assisted by the mysterious private eye Jonesy who, in the emotional vacuum left by the scheming Hazard, slowly fills the role of father figure for Chance.
On the other hand we have Sam Armstrong, now an old and bitter man, still powerful but clutching at straws in his search for immortality. Government policy and the mysterious self-motivation of bureaucracy manifest through the actions of the Superintendent of a Government secret service agency. The legacy itself, as its reality slowly manifests, threatens to be something of a landmine both physically and ethically. In the background is an overpopulated and bureaucratically rigid Australia: a strangely loveless landscape where displays of emotion sit uneasily on characters afraid their feelings will be used against them. Above all looms the larger-than-life legend of Conrad Hazard.
This novel tackles head-on the theme of super-intelligence. How does a writer deal with supermen in such a way that an ordinary reader can sympathize with the superior characters? The standard solution is to have the human characters behave normally most of the time but, when in contact with the supermen, have these same characters behave with criminal stupidity. The thoughts and actions of the "supermen" are then thrown into a superior light. Witness the TV series Alien Nation. Turner only once hints at such a cheap solution, and that, it emerges, is actually misdirection away from an unsuspected player in the game.
Turner has allowed all his characters to be human, and has concentrated on the relationships between the super intellects and the ordinary. The Nursery Children act with patronising arrogance, a sense of superiority, condescension and well-placed confidence but the dead super-intellects are meant to be sympathetic, at least at first, and we relate to them because they are young, they're alone in a hostile world, and they're the underdogs; they are isolated. Turner's human characters remain fully human: Shrewd and provocative insights into the nature of intelligence carry the contrast between super-intellect and ordinary human. Despite their arrogance, the super-intellects remain understandable. Given shelter, food, and an unthreatened but imprisoned life, their needs are similar to ours; freedom, learning and the company of their own kind. We understand their motives, even while their intelligence remains unknowable. Perhaps these primary goals are all there is, and intelligence can be measured in the different methods we use to achieve them.
The novel uses many of the conventions of the mystery thriller: the private eye, Jonesy, is very much his own man; there is a mysterious secret service agency lurking in the background; people follow each other in the streets; and the climax is an industry standard as the bureaucratic 'Super' brings all the protagonists together for a final confrontation. As might be expected, much is resolved in this scene. However, Turner's ornery characters turn the tables on the 'Super', take it all one step further, and the apparent loss of causality is covered brilliantly in the drama of the situation and the heated debate amongst the characters.
The novel does have problems. In places the style fits uneasily with the assumed mantle of mystery thriller. While Turner's long, complex sentence structure is a joy to read, another convention of the mystery thriller is brevity. Turner often develops a scene and then has his viewpoint character explicitly review it again in his mind: This repetition, unexpected as it is in the mystery thriller, sometimes grates.
Chance, the young and sometimes immature hero, often acts with what can only be called juvenile petulance and most of the other characters emulate his actions. Some are held accountable for their actions, some aren't, yet as these characters ruled by their juvenile passions become more senior, or powerful within the structure of the group, the questioning of their actions ceases. All this occurs in a closely realised environment that bears uncanny resemblance to a contemporary parliamentary sitting: Lovely stuff. Is this unconscious, or do we have here Turner's answer to the causes of his meticulously described future?
And there is much more on offer here than just this.
Despite its minor problems, Brain Child is a perceptive, thoughtful and well-placed narrative which champions the role of commonsense in the use of science. It discusses the conceptual inability of a bureaucracy to competently handle science policy. It has heroes, villains and fools. Entertaining and thought provoking - what more can a reader ask for?
Eidolon Publications wishes to thank Slow Glass Books for generously providing a review copy of this important Australian novel.
INVASION OF THE STAR SYSTEM NGC 358
Leon McDonald and Yomanaa Khiewong
Cover art not credited
(Self-published, $17.50, 309pp, hc, 1991)
Reviewed by Emma Strong
McDonald, the "principal author" (his "co-author" Khiewong being illiterate and having contributed only a few ideas), declares in his introductory "Self Confession", that he has "always wanted to write a controversial book which might assist in saving the world from ecological disaster." I assumed, therefore, that this was a full description of his first and only novel, but it's really only part of it.
Controversy surfaces when McDonald claims that he and Khiewong are applying for the position of the Messiah that this world is in such great need of. Read in this light, Invasion of the Star System NGC 358 appears as an attempt at a modern day Bible, even adopting the book titles Genesis, Exodus and so on to Revelations. Despite the flawed development of this metaphor - allegorical scenes are misplaced, Adam and Eve appearing in Numbers, and each chapter of Genesis is written by a different person in a style reflective of the New Testament - the statements and claims made within the novel seem almost aimed to offend Christians, and McDonald, who survived a violent attempt on his life "during the final stages of the book's preparation", openly admits to following in Salmon Rushdie's path.
Yet despite all this, McDonald has written a remarkable first novel, and displays obvious talent. The basis of the story, set in the twenty-first century, is a worldwide Earth mission to a star system 11.8 light years away. The mission is aptly titled "Project Ark". McDonald's understanding of physics, biology, chemistry and mathematics is outstanding, although his eagerness to explain often brings something of the feel of a University textbook to the novel, making it heavy going. Apart from this, the language and flow provide the perfect combination of suspense and ambience for the apparently utopian world of planet Tranquil.
In McDonald's effort to write a work "that might assist in saving the world", he brings into play such issues as utopian politics, intermarriage, AIDS and cloning which, it seems, weigh heavily on the author's mind. Unfortunately he doesn't break much new ground with these topics, although I found the treatment of intermarriage surprising. As is to be expected in a utopia, on planet Tranquil "there [is] no marriage . . . only arrangements of convenience." The crew of eighteen are also encouraged to mix partners to create the greatest genetic diversity. In such a secure domain I expected complete submission, yet struggles and complaints frequently occur. If McDonald is admitting that this is inevitable he is undermining his own belief that ultimately our Earth can and must undertake a mission of this kind.
Despite the author's unusual motive in producing Invasion of the Star System NGC 358, many of the elements of the plot are far from unique. The use of the all-encompassing mind of the planet seems to mimic the Gaia concept, and The Abyss came to mind when, in the final stages of the novel, the planet Tranquil demands that the Earth crew "plunge into the abyss": The nonsensical tone with which the planet communicates is not dissimilar to the intelligent Alien at the bottom of the sea in this well-known film. Asimov's Nemesis and Foundation series, Julian May's Saga of the Exiles and Heinlein's Glory Road are all recalled in McDonald's theme of survival on a new planet.
Invasion of the Star System NGC 358 involves a crew of only eighteen - a small number compared to that in Nemesis - but McDonald makes the elementary mistake of trying to follow each character individually. Three pages of personality profiles is too much to take in, and one never feels sufficiently attached to any one character to be truly involved. An entire chapter early in the novel is devoted to Cleis the computer, but he is then put on the shelf until the final pages; I felt cheated.
McDonald's love of lists provides us with over a page of some of the food plants to be taken to Tranquil, and with the introduction to Revelations the reader is asked to add his or her name to the crew, or else "the dreams of all these people may stay fiction." I must say I found this rather puerile, but perhaps others might gain satisfaction from writing their names in the book.
Which leads me to my final point. I commend anyone who can actually obtain a copy, as McDonald's wish not to put his book on the shelves of booksellers, or release it through the normal distribution channels (apart from these aristocrats being part of today's heathen society, they might actually take some of his hard earned money!) may make this difficult. It may well transpire that McDonald will earn nothing from his efforts, yet it is my earnest belief that obstinacy alone will prevent Leon McDonald becoming a household name in science fiction. I can only suggest you write to him [c/o 70 Liberty Apt., 42 Soi 22 Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok 10110, Thailand - Ed] and plead for a copy.
CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT
Cover art by Steve Crisp
(Random Century, $19.95, 408pp, tpb, August 1992)
Reviewed by Martin Livings
Pay attention. You will be quizzed on this afterwards.
It is popularly believed (well, by me anyway) that there are actually four authors who are being published under the name "Dan Simmons". The first Dan Simmons writes epic SF (Hyperion, Fall of Hyperion), the second writes powerful thriller-style dark fantasy (Carrion Comfort), the third is a writer of incisive, almost-mainstream fiction (Phases of Gravity, Song of Kali), and the fourth is an average stock-standard horror writer (Summer of Night).
Question one - which Dan Simmons wrote Children of the Night?
Answer - in my mind, number four, aspiring to number two.
Children of the Night is a rather straightforward horror novel - a tale of modern day vampires in Romania - which attempts to create an epic mythos such as the "emotional vampires" from Carrion Comfort; that feeling of a small group of immensely powerful figures running the world. It is set in 1991, to coincide with the breakup of the USSR and the earlier collapse of the Ceausescu regime, and addresses the issue of the thousands of AIDS-infected children in the country's many orphanages. However, after a few pages of moral hand-wringing and vehement denouncement of the Romanian legal and political systems, these far-more-interesting "children of the night" (my idea, not Simmons' - who needs vampires when the real-life horrors of Romania are so much more terrifying?) are virtually forgotten, as Simmons leaps from the real and disturbing to the unreal and considerably less fascinating. A child is found, suffering from a non-contagious AIDS-like disease, and a doctor, in a mad fit of sentimentality, adopts the child and whisks it back to the US for tests. And this is where things get overly technical, to the point of complete bewilderment.
Let me elucidate. In this novel, Simmons number four (horror writer - aren't you listening?) tries to revert to Simmons number one (SF writer - I told you to pay attention!), and attempts to blind the reader with science, the classic technique detailed in the "Turkey City Lexicon" (see Eidolon Issue 3) as "infodump". Don't get me wrong, I'm sure it's all accurate (I wouldn't even try to find out!), but there is a big difference between needlessly intricate details and actual background to a story. Here is an example, a relatively brief passage (I kid you not):
"Reverse transcriptase is quite visible in the J-virus cultures, although, as I said, without the cytotoxicity. The p24 antigen analysis doesn't work with the J-virus, which is a shame because with HIV patients the antigen can sometimes be detected directly in a blood sample via an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay."
Kate nodded. She had hoped this relatively simple avenue of diagnosis would be available for them.
A good fifth of the book details the search for the retrovirus which both causes and cures vampirism, and that fifth is made up almost entirely of discussions like the one above. From time to time I had to close the book and gasp for air, drowning in immunoreconstructions and beta-thalassemics, and feeling as if I was suffering from an adenosine deaminase deficiency - all three of which appear within just two pages (pp144 & 145 of the trade paperback to be precise - you can check if you like). Extreme technical detail can be useful, but in what is essentially a horror story it becomes obtrusive, annoying and more than a little confusing.
Question two - what about the other four-fifths of the book?
Answer - well, if one fifth of the book is like reading a medical journal at random, another three fifths is much akin to leafing through a ridiculously-detailed travel guide to urban and rural Romania. Paragraphs of highway turnoffs, directions and distances . . . I now feel fairly confident about going for a quick spin in Transylvania. There's even a map at the front of the book, in case you get lost. Very handy. Endless descriptions of villages, towns, fields, mountains, roads, medium sized rocks, blades of grass, sand . . . well, maybe not quite that bad, but you get the picture. Sure, Simmons gives the impression he has actually travelled these roads, but he doesn't seem to realise that his travel commentary, like his medical jargon, eventually becomes unintentionally humorous in its blow-by-blow detailing of every step of the journey.
Question three - that still leaves a fifth uncriticised. Well?
Answer - yes, that's right. And the remaining sliver of book is dedicated to what might be described by Simmons in a fit of hypertechnical verbosity as "pro-advancement of a predetermined sequence of serendipitous space-time event nodes, for the specific purpose of the ink-to-brain transferral of essential thought vectors". In other words, the plot. Not too complicated, although it gets padded out with unnecessary relationships, friends becoming enemies becoming friends, paranoia and rather large chunks of history/memory (which, for any gorehounds out there, contain the only really visceral and disturbing writing in the book, and which, by Simmons' own admission in his acknowledgments, are taken straight from the historical descriptions of Vlad II, alias Vlad Tepes, alias Vlad Dracula). The plot can actually be summed up in a single sentence. Doctor Kate Neuman, a brilliant haematologist, teams up with Father Michael O'Rourke (also known as Mike O'Rourke from Summer of Night), a confused priest and Vietnam veteran (two dull and overemployed stereotypes for the price of one - best value in the shop today) to rescue a baby vampire from the nasty vampires in Romania . . . twice! There, quite simple. The writing is rather muddled, and lacks both the style and the pacing of a lot of Simmons' earlier works. Again, like the other four-fifths of the novel, there is a lot of accidental humour - my personal favourite was the way Kate Neuman kept "noticing" things about O'Rourke, quite often "for the first time". She "noticed" his limp twice in two pages! The relationships are poorly portrayed, the characters lacking any real depth - the most convincing and sympathetic character was Joshua, and he was only nine months old! Combine all that with a plot that meanders all over Romania, relying almost entirely on coincidences and conspiracies, to culminate in an "Indiana Jones" style let's-blow-everything-up ending (complete with bad guy getting away), and this book reads like a pulp horror novel with a hell of a lot of research behind it.
Most worryingly, the book ends with the almost inevitable assumption that, with the help of the vampire child, a cure will soon be found for AIDS and cancer, making what was, until that point, a reasonably bleak story into a naively happy, "and they all lived happily ever after" breed of fairy tale. The book's intricate research must be commended, though; Simmons actually travelled to Romania and Transylvania to research this book, and his medical information, while excessive, is very impressive in a "gee, aren't I stupid?" kind of way. The idea of vampirism being a retrovirus combined with a recessive genetic condition is certainly original and fascinating, but the actual plot and structure of the book doesn't do it justice. Children of the Night is an expansion of a novella Simmons wrote for The Ultimate Dracula (not an uncommon practice for Simmons - Carrion Comfort was originally a novella, the world of Hyperion was first explored in his short stories, and even his latest book, The Hollow Man, is based on characters and situations from his short story, "Eyes I Dare Not Meet In Dreams"), and could be considered a semi-sequel to Summer of Night, if the sharing of one character constitutes a sequel. If Summer of Night was Dan Simmons writing a Stephen King novel, then Children of the Night is his foray into Bram Stoker territory. It is also another addition to a relatively recent but significant mini-genre in horror - the scientific vampire story. As such, it must compete with, to name three, Barbara Hambly's Immortal Blood, George R. R. Martin's Fevre Dream, and Brian Stableford's superlative The Empire of Fear - all books containing large quantities of a substance rarely found in modern horror fiction . . . originality. In writing Children of the Night, Simmons would have had to have come up with something pretty impressive to stand out and, unfortunately, he falls well short. I haven't read the novella, but I must presume that the story has lost something in the expansion process . . . or maybe it's gained, but gained all the wrong things.
Question four - final verdict?
Answer - it must be considered in three ways. As a horror novel, Children of the Night is pretty average, if overly-technical. As a scientific vampire novel, it is well below par. And as a Dan Simmons novel, it is his worst to date, beating Summer of Night by an easy three lengths, no photo required. I'm not sorry I read it - I know a lot more about immunodeficiencies and retroviruses now, plus I could find my way around inner-city Bucharest - but I can't really recommend it. Overall, very disappointing. I think I'll wait for The Hollow Man to reaffirm my faith in Simmons' work - Children of the Night simply isn't up to scratch.
Bill Congreve (Ed.)
Cover art by Robert Hood
(Five Islands Press, $10.95, 144pp, pb, 1992)
Reviewed by Jonathan Strahan
The tradition of telling tales intended to scare stretches back into the distant past, to primitive men sitting around campfires and telling stories of what lies out there in the dark, waiting.
Horror as we know it today, a literary genre fixated with garish, metal-stamped book covers, dates back to 1974 and the publication of Stephen King's Carrie. Prior to Carrie there was little, after Carrie there was an industry; a very profitable industry.
As with any profitable business, it doesn't take long to ask the question: How can we make some of the profit? What is Australia's involvement? Where are Australia's horror writers, and where can we find them? The answer to these questions proposed by Bill Congreve and Five Islands Press is contained in a slim volume of "modern Australian horror stories" titled Intimate Armageddons.
A well-credentialled volume, Intimate Armageddons remains something of a curiosity to this reviewer. Featuring stories from prominent detective writer Peter Corris and science fiction writers Terry Dowling, Sean McMullen and Rosaleen Love as well as work from lesser known writers like Bill Congreve, Robert Hood, Geoffrey Maloney, Sean Williams, A G Clarke, Steve Proposch and Sue Isle, Intimate Armageddons lacks for only one thing: horror.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines "horror" as a painful feeling of loathing and fear; a terrified and revolted shuddering; intense dislike or dismay. While Geoffrey Maloney is not the best known contributor to Intimate Armageddons, he is the only writer to really convey any sense of loathing and fear, of horror. "Meat Puppets" is the tale of how the butcher's wife's lover is strung up in a freezer, alive and awaiting the butcher's vengeance. Told in an intimate, first person fashion we are made to identify all too closely with our protagonist's predicament.
Another new writer, Sean Williams, provides my favourite story in the anthology, "Going Nowhere". "Going Nowhere" tells of a man driving across the Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide to Perth and of the nightmare that waits for him half way between here and there. A little long, a little indulgent and a little silly the story still manages to drag the reader mercilessly along until its powerful conclusion.
Two good stories out of eleven in a anthology is not a bad strike rate, but what of the rest? The known writers in Intimate Armageddons, the "stars" if you will, are disappointing. The very talented Peter Corris provides "Bit Parts", a short piece that reads like it was tossed off over a weekend, and is competent but dull. Terry Dowling, one of Australia's most talented and consistently interesting fantasists gives us "They Found the Angry Moon", a predictable Twilight Zone-ish tale that illustrates few of this writer's many strengths. Sean McMullen, a fine science fiction writer, contributes a competent science fiction tale of vampirism that manages to serve itself but not its purpose. And, finally, Rosaleen Love's "Holiness", is a confusing metaphysical tale that this reviewer failed to understand altogether.
Of the remainder: Robert Hood's "Dem Bones" is an interesting little tale of supernatural horror that never really seems to reach the heights of last year's "You're A Sick Man, Mr Antwhistle"; Sue Isle's "A Sprig of Aconite" is one in a series of adventures featuring a pair of psychic detectives, this time hunting a werewolf, and is more reminiscent of an episode of Scooby Doo sans humour than anything else; "Sirensong" by A G Clarke is a good journeyman tale of a driver who is pushed to drive faster and faster and faster by a pretty hitchhiker; Steve Proposch's "Maggie's Place" originally appeared in the Esoteric Order of Dagon, a Cthulhu-esque vignette which seems a very curious choice considering it has already appeared in print; and "Dream" by Bill Congreve, the story of a writer who uses the power of his typewriter to dictate the actions of two innocent victims while committing his own crimes, holds the attention and is a one of the better tales I've seen from this writer.
Publishing is a difficult and risky enterprise, small-press publishing even more so. Five Islands Press and Bill Congreve are to be applauded for undertaking a venture of this sort and, while Intimate Armageddons may not be the Dangerous Visions of Australian horror, it remains an interesting experiment that is worthy of support.
AND DISREGARDS THE REST
Cover art by "EG"
(Gollanscz, $29.95, 256pp, hc, October 1991)
Reviewed by Stephen Strong
Paul Voerman's first novel, And Disregards the Rest, is set in his native Australia. While in the main the book deals with a group of actors, directors and playwrights whose attempted performance of Shakespeare's Tempest somewhere in a remote area of Australia's interior has ended in disaster, the science fiction element of the novel concerns a unique way of communicating with alien beings.
The story is set in two time periods eleven years apart. Unusually for such "converging timeline" stories, the first timeline concerns events of more than a decade before the other, and it provides an explanation for the entire plot which, as is to be expected, is resolved at the novel's close. The fact that it uses the medium of a script written by a secondary character, Martin Leywood, makes things rather confusing for the first eighty or ninety pages, and the story seems to take an eternity to unfold and get up to speed. However, once things become clearer, there are some rewards for the patient reader.
Paul Voermans' writing throughout the novel evinces an obvious love of the theatre; and some of The Bard's style and fascination with multi-faceted plots shows through. The novel is about both a play and a film about the making of a play, and the actually contains some elements of the play itself. This is no bad thing, as it adds realism to the profoundly spaced-out characters Voermans has created. With the chief character, Kevin Gore, having literally blue blood pumping through his veins, and with Martin Leywood confined in a mental institution for going public with his bizarre story of aliens trying to contact Earth via weird visions, it is at times difficult to believe that Voermans' characters are real people living in the not too distant future.
We are left in no doubt as to when events take place: soon after the turn of the century. Voermans simply and effectively sets his scene with such things as two hundred dollar notes, automated cars in amongst cars of the eighties and nineties (now rather old and rusting), and a recently completed Mars Mission.
The cover art, with its footsteps radiating out from central Australia towards a sea of stars, has an Aboriginal feel to it. It would appear Voermans - or his publisher - has tried to get some mileage out of the worldwide focus on Australian Aborigines, in that while one of the secondary characters, Gemma, is aboriginal, and Aboriginal issues receive a brief airing late in the novel, the aboriginal angle has little or no bearing on the storyline, or the characters for that matter. In a similar fashion Voermans digresses by turning a page of text into something that resembles a play script; suddenly the reader is conscious he's reading a book, and the illusion is shattered.
As I progressed through the novel there was a nagging thought in the back of my mind that the author wasn't telling me something; urging me to read on. Voermans withholds most of the "meaty stuff" until late in the book, supplying just enough to keep the reader's interest. The novel is stylistically simple, with a limited vocabulary which should widen its appeal to younger readers with an SF background. However, his narration is sometimes so simplified that the reader may feel she's dealing with completely uneducated characters. In this case, I feel the author's portrayal of actors, producers and directors is inaccurate; most tend to be well read and therefore have far more complex ideas and aspirations.
Apart from a disappointing lack of development of an alien encounter sequence, the main downfall in the plot is its reliance on the hackneyed "CIA conspiracy" theme. Some chapters just yelled at me "I'm stuck for a better plot, so I'll opt for the tired old second-hand bookshop CIA conspiracy stuff". This really should have been axed at the planning stage; how it ever got through the editor's hands at Victor Gollanscz Ltd one can only guess (perhaps the editor had just been to see Oliver Stone's JFK!)
Despite these shortcomings, Voermans shows he's a thinker as well as a writer. He possesses a logic that is becoming rarer by the year as the likes of Asimov, Herbert and Clarke disappear from the new-novel lists. He handles the paradox of time travel or, more correctly, time transmission, better than I've seen for ages. Hopefully he'll be using this as the foundation on which to build future novels. And Disregards the Rest has elements of SF within it that leave many other, more experienced authors for dead; it is worth reading for those moments of pleasure alone, and I must confess I found the novel an enjoyable read.
Originally appeared pp. 71-82, Eidolon 10, October 1992.
Copyright © 1992 Eidolon Publications. Individual contributions are copyright to the respective authors.
Reprinted with kind permission of the authors.