|Reviews of Recent Publications|
Okay, so the column format for "Fresh Ink" lasted as long as your average Liberal party leader, due to complications including reviewers other than myself (yes, they do exist, and will exist more and more if I have my way), the reams of review material and, worst of all, having to remember the books I read months ago when it finally came time to write the piece. So, for the time being, separate reviews by separate reviewers: back to the good old days. Just think of it as "Fresh Ink" the way grandma used to make. [Grandma? Gee, thanks Martin - Ed]
This issue we were literally inundated with books by Australian authors, an unusual situation in this genre. One or two got elbowed out by the crush. GM Hague's Ghost Beyond Earth should get an honourable mention, if only for being something new and different from Pan Australia, a fun 'little' horror novel which I found hugely entertaining, but simply didn't have the time, space or resources to review. Well worth reading. Also worth noting was the wide release of the horror magazine Bloodsongs, which contains some good fiction and interesting articles by virtually everyone involved in the Australian horror movement. I look forward to future issues, and wish Chris Masters and Steve Proposch all the best with it. But for this issue, we have everything from "Best Australian SF" collections to the Aboriginal dreamtime, from light fantasy to dark fantasy, and everything in between. And a big welcome to Sean Williams, familiar to readers of Eidolon for his short fiction, as a regular reviewer here. Now I know where to send anything I don't want to read . . .
Voices in the Light: Book One of Greatwinter
Cover by Grant Gittus
Aphelion Publications, 1994, pb, 306pp, $12.95
Reviewed by Jeremy G Byrne
Into a slightly cynical imagination, the title of Sean McMullen's debut novel might conjure dark images of sinister dental furniture, white-hot incandescent globes and Laurence Olivier whispering "Is it safe?" It seems ironic that McMullen's apparent implication is one of gloriously clever technology leading civilisation out of the darkness. And yet, that may not be what Voices in the Light is about at all; and that's what makes it such a fascinating book.
This is a novel with a history: much of it was originally published as short stories, including "The Glasken Chronicles" in these humble pages. Unfortunately, these appear to have been not so much blended into a cogent whole as jigsawed together to produce a single text. Indeed, Aphelion seems to have pursued a minimalist approach to publishing with this book. While the cover is respectably non-descript, the remaining design-work is haphazard; the odd, inconsistent switching of faces, fonts and point sizes to represent written material makes reading Voices in the Light a typographical voyage of discovery. Similarly, the text itself would have benefited from more in-depth editorial involvement. The passage of time is confused by the tendency of the plot to race ahead of itself to follow the progress of someone or something; an excess of linking pieces which run at a pace far different from adjacent text; and a last half-chapter which, in trying to set up for the sequel, becomes an explosion of deus ex machina revelation and scene-setting worthy of Back to the Future II. Perhaps though, given the tight deadline imposed on both publisher and author by a necessary re-scheduling of Alien Shores, this is all understandable.
McMullen's future-history of an Eastern Australia in the technological and cultural wake of nuclear war and winter, and beset by the Call (not the early '80s pop band, but a large-scale psychic equivalent of the Pied Piper of Hamlin), is complex, well-crafted and almost credible. He manages to build this world of body anchors, mercy walls, pedal-shunted wind trains, heliostatic beamflash towers stretched in paralines across the outback, hot-air balloon scoutposts, suburb-sized nation-states, match- and flint-lock warfare, and a people-powered computer called The Calculor, into a consistent vision, original even in the shadow of Terry Dowling's peripherally similar Rynosseros cycle. Voices in the Light follows the career of Zavora Cybeline, a power-hungry female scholar in a male-dominated culture whose abilities and machinations have brought her to near-dictatorship. But the heroes of Voices in the Light are the gadgets - the Calculor, the Call, the Beamflash Network and even the mysterious phenomenon which gives the sequel Mirrorsun Rising its name. Unfortunately, while these gadgets are fascinating, a background which becomes little more than a display-case for techno-toys tends to lack credibility. The origins of the large Islamic population, the reason the oceans are no more than "subjects for scholarly debate" in this society with continent-spanning rail and communication systems and telescopes that can observe activity on the surface of the moon, and even the detailed workings of the Calculor, with its online storage and programming systems never fully explained, and the critically important Call, are ignored in this volume. Thus, Voices in the Light wanders dangerously close to fantasy; its world of nearly two millennia hence is too ill-defined and too little different to ours to be entirely convincing. Still, despite these few problems, this is a solid first novel and definitely worth persisting with.
On first reading, my difficulties lay elsewhere entirely, in what I saw as the novel's abominable politics. The Calculor, central to the novel, is a keystone to this whole issue; its operation is predicated on "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" and the destruction of individuality for the "common good" - both vital concepts in classical fascism. As a result, the mayorate of Rochester, home to the Calculor and the great library-cum-university of Libris, becomes a typical fascist state. Workers have no rights in Rochester: Highliber Zavora tells her underlings "Just get them working, break up entrenched groups, and send the trouble-makers to the Calculor." And if there are serious threats to her plans? "Do what I do: provoke a challenge and shoot them." Zavora's Guard captain tells a gathering of timidly rebellious cataloguers, " . . . you have no rights! None whatsoever! Understand? . . . Try to resign, run away or shoot at senior staff and you will be redirected [to the Calculor] instantly. I am not above punishing ten innocent staff to catch one who is guilty."
The de-humanisation rivals Nineteen Eighty Four, although McMullen's writing seems to deny its chilling nature. The human "components" of the Calculor have lost all individual identity; even they see themselves as "ADDER 17" and "FUNCTION 4", and say things like "For many, [the prison of the Calculor is] the best home they've ever had" and "You know, it makes me feel proud, in a way. It's sort of like serving the Mayor as a soldier", and McMullen's narrative - which also tends to refer to people as "lackeys" on a regular basis - is no more compassionate. One might almost imagine the workers whispering, endlessly under their breaths, "I can be a cog, I will be a cog, I am happy being a cog." Such hard-working dedication to the State is much-praised, and the lazy are portrayed as necessarily immoral.
Survivalist self-sufficiency is seen as ever-virtuous in Voices in the Light, with extremes of violence such as judicially-sanctioned vendettas and duels-to-the-death the predictable result. To quote: "The Disputes and Reconciliations Act . . . [was] meant to reduce . . . violence by channelling it and swathing it in rituals and regulations. The carrying of guns was not so much confined to the educated, administrative classes, it was required of them . . . those expected to exercise power and judgement had to wear [guns] and be proficient in their use." And the violence is not confined to males; McMullen's main female characters are all ruthless killers - or at least become hardened to it - and tend to dispense their pathological philosophies as pearls of wisdom. Zavora seeks personal power through power for her State ("The nation that is prepared is the nation that will rule all others"), and thus believes Rochester must prepare for Greatwinter's return. She executes lazy administrators, equating them to sentries in wartime, although it's only her power-quest at stake, not lives. Lemorel Milderellen - another major character - thinks, of a fellow Dragon Librarian, "while she wears weapons as jewellery she will remain a Dragon Red". And Lemorel loves the way things run in Rochester: "At last her past had lost her, she could merge with the Highliber's machine." In fact, it's hard to find male characters quite as happy with the system.
Finally, the way sexuality is depicted in Voices in the Light occasionally descends to the Victorian. Sexual repression is entrenched in all three cultures McMullen portrays; puerile characters blush at the very idea of nakedness, finding it "naughty"; unfaithful lovers are killed or tortured, in one instance - Lemorel's revenge on John Glasken - not because of the infidelity or even the deception, but because he felt no guilt; and sexual intimacy tends to be something indulged in only by the uncouth or boorish.
The political aspect of Voices in the Light came as a great shock, and I was originally preparing to make comparisons to the ill-informed and vapid politics of Heinlein, Niven and Pournelle. Closer reading and some lateral thinking (Sean McMullen, in my experience, is an intelligent, thoughtful person, not a red-neck gun lover given to right-wing proselytising poorly disguised as social realism) led me to realise that there had to be something else going on. As Aldous Huxley demonstrated - to his own later dismay - in Brave New World, if people are truly happy in their roles, the form of those roles is irrelevant, and who are we to judge? Perhaps this, I thought, was McMullen's point. Yet it still didn't feel right.
There's a ridiculous scene in the novel where a rebel cataloguer publicly takes her own life, at which the Highliber's second declares, "Anyone else attempting suicide will also be shot"; the characters' mental and moral gymnastics approach parody at times, and many are patently mad. Zavora, whose way of operating the Calculor - such that Rochester is effectively crippled in her absence - seems precisely the way a 'computer nerd' would run a nation, sees herself as an incorruptible visionary for her State. Lemorel, who late in the novel abandons reason completely in her attempt to rescue someone she's barely met but has chosen to love 'for his mind', is similarly deluded about herself; in the face of very sane criticism from the more down-to-earth Dolorian she declares absolute faith in herself and her methods. There's a lot of this sort of inter-character criticism, and the superficially silly, old-fashioned or irrational characters like Lewrick, the aged Librarian-examiner, are often the ones with interesting insights: when Lewrick talks of a "spirit or soul" in the Calculor and its ancient antecedents ("Perhaps the patterns of the machines were alive, rather than the beads and wires"), it seems McMullen is prodding the concept of consciousness outside of biological brains - the kind of heady, philosophical stuff being tackled by the best hard-sf writers of today. Zavora is popular because she "makes everything move, she gets things done." With the help of the Calculor she even makes the trains run on time! Similarly, Libris' titles of rank (Controller, Overhand, Costerliber, Overliber, Highliber) seem to be blatant Nazi references, as do the incongruously militaristic uniforms of the Dragon Librarians. And in this dark future the librarians are the clergy, the intelligentsia and the 'obvious' government. When one is aware that both Sean and his wife Trish have been librarians themselves, a satirical interpretation becomes obvious. Is it then more likely that this totalitarian nightmare is McMullen's secret dream, or is it instead a cleverly tongue-in-cheek dig at librarians and authoritarian systems in general? Is he really presenting these lunatic characters with a straight face, or are this grand farce?
And where have we seen this kind of thing before? Try Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream (a fascist fantasy 'written by' an Adolph Hitler driven from his homeland after a failed political career to became a Golden Age sf Master). Spinrad uses sledge-hammer allegory to refute his 'author's' politics, and while McMullen chooses a similar but more subtle 'flawed narrator' approach he is perhaps thereby less effective in making his point. Nevertheless, unless my interpretation is simply wide-eyed optimism, Voices in the Light is a daring and valuable work; a multi-layered, sophisticated piece of writing despite its rough edges.
So, "Is it safe?" Nirvana's Kurt Cobain once condemned a lately-acquired section of the band's following in song: "He's the one / who likes all our pretty songs / and he likes to sing along / and he likes to shoot his gun / But he don't know what it means / No, he don't know what it means to me." Well, if you're a rootin', tootin', shootin', gung-ho, zap-the-bugs-and-bugger-the-philosophy, good ol' boy sf reader like that - exactly the kind of person who might benefit from the message I think is here - the answer is almost certainly "Yup." Unfortunately, while Voices in the Light is a great read, unless Mirrorsun Rising clearly resolves problems like Zavora - whose shallow intellectualisations surely cannot be matched to the real task of government until she realises that Wisdom, at least, doesn't flow from the barrel of a gun - McMullen may simply fail to reach the audience which most needs to hear him.
Paul Collins (ed.)
Cover by Grant Gittus and Cathy van Ee
Penguin Books, May 1994, pb, 220pp, $14.95
Reviewed by Martin Livings
I'm considering petitioning the UN to have 1994 declared the official "International Year of the Best Australian Science Fiction Anthology". Hot on the heels of Mortal Fire, we now have as the latest contender to the "Best Australian SF" title. With Alien Shores from Aphelion (not a Best of itself, but almost enormous enough to count as such) following close behind, "Best Of Australian Science Fiction" books are as popular on the shelves as comic adaptations seem to be at the movies. Well, that may be somewhat exaggerated, but it seems like it. But I can't complain; between Mortal Fire and Metaworlds, I've read enough Australian short fiction to feel comfortable taking part in conversations of a highly literary nature, albeit only nodding and saying "uh-huh" from time to time
Like any book, the first thing to catch the eye is the packaging. Penguin have taken the unusual step for a major publisher of giving an Australian SF collection stylish cover art. It gives the book a definite air of quality, one which is continued when it is opened, the whole presentation being clear and professional.
The selection of stories is impressive: the list of contributors reads like a Who's Who of Australian science fiction, featuring better-established authors such as George Turner and David Lake alongside current genre names like Greg Egan and Sean McMullen. The collection offers a wide selection of stories, although there are considerably more new than old (only four of the twelve stories were originally published before 1990). Of course, I had read a few of these stories before, but that is the price I pay for having read far too much Australian SF. [Preposterous! Impossible! - Ed] On the whole though, the stories were new to me, which is always an asset when reading a collection. Metaworlds unfortunately shares one problem with Mortal Fire; a lack of author information and historical detail at the beginning or end of each story, which would put the collection into some wider perspective. I've glanced at Alien Shores (review next issue), and again this is the case. I guess it's only me who wants some details about the story, where it came from, when and where it was first published, what else the author has done . . . still, I'll campaign for it. Maybe 1995 should be the official "Year of the Author Bio"?
As I may have pointed out once or twice in the past, short fiction collections are my favourite things to read, but my least favourite to review. It can be difficult to do the entire collection justice when you must sum up each story in a sentence or two. Still, I'll do my best. It helps that the standard of stories in Metaworlds is very high. Greg Egan's "Learning To Be Me" is the perfect opener, being perhaps the ultimate in internalized and existential SF. Egan shows an ability to play with concepts beyond physics and biochemistry, basing his story around metaphysics and psychology: the technology, while impressive, becomes secondary. David Lake's "Redeem the Time" seemed a little dated but, since it was first published in 1978, perhaps that is to be expected. It is an interesting view of a possible future, although let down a little by the actual mechanics of getting there (I half expected to see Morlocks showing their ugly little faces at any moment!) Dirk Strasser's "Waiting For the Rain" is another fascinating psychological analysis - something I always thought to be unfortunately rare in the SF genre. Evidently I just haven't been looking hard enough; there is enough out there to compile this collection. "Reichelman's Relics" by Leanne Frahm and "The Last Elephant" by Terry Dowling continue this tendency, depicting very different futures, yet having the undercurrent of psychology and sociology which gives Metaworlds its unique flavour. Both are effective and original stories. Jack Wodhams' "The Token Pole" takes the sociology aspect one step further, and is a statement on the knee-jerk reaction to environmental hazards. It is also savagely funny, and often quite uncomfortable to a politically-correct tree lover like myself.
At the other end of the scale, the pure psychology of Stephen Dedman's "But Smile No More" is a disturbing glimpse of the possibilities of man-made variances in the human psyche; almost more horror than science fiction, this is a mean story that stayed with me long after I finished reading it. Damien Broderick's "A Tooth For Every Child" covered similar, if a little more esoteric, ground and, whilst effective, didn't quite match the impact of the other stories in the collection. "The Total Devotion Machine" is a strange story, perhaps not entirely consistent with the meta-theme of the collection, but a fun and interesting read nonetheless, while editor Paul Collins' own "The Wired Kid" seems the most out of place. It is a disjointed cyberpunk-mentality action piece which doesn't entirely work, being more stream-of-consciousness than plot. Rounding off the collection are Sean McMullen's intriguing "An Empty Wheelhouse", largely concerning painstaking research into a bizarre piece of Australian history (and sorry, Sean, I looked but simply couldn't find the "alt.history.mutant.possums" newsgroup on the Internet . . . want to send me an e-mail address?), and George Turner's seminal "I Still Call Australia Home" (unrelated to the Peter Allen song of the same name, rest assured), detailing the return of a spaceship crew to a radically-changed earth.
There is one very important point to remember about Metaworlds, a fact that isn't mentioned on the cover or very prominently in the introduction. Metaworlds isn't so much a "Best Australian SF" collection as another of Collins' Worlds anthologies, which have been appearing on the market from time to time since Envisaged Worlds and Other Worlds back in 1978. Where Metaworlds differs is in its publisher; the earlier Worlds books were published by Collins himself, either as Void Publications or as Cory & Collins, while Metaworlds has been published by Penguin Books, which is a sign of the growing mainstream acceptance of Australian SF. This could also explain why its identity as a Worlds collection hasn't been emphasized, as Penguin might prefer to have it as a stand-alone collection, which it is. But it is certainly a collection with a theme; almost all of the stories, logically enough, are based not on hard science or action, but rather the more subtle (and difficult to write) themes of psychology and metaphysics, life, death and rebirth; more about journeys into the mind than across the eighth dimension. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking collection, and definitely worthy of declaring "Best Australian Science Fiction" across its cover. Of the two "Best Of" books received thus far, Metaworlds comes closest to the mark, although it really represents a "Best Of Recent Australian SF". I'm still waiting for the definitive historical "Best Of". Metaworlds is a book that should be on the shelf of every fan of Australian SF, right next to Mortal Fire and your copies of Eidolon and Aurealis. And if you don't have all of those on your shelves, then shame on you.
Cover by Wendy de Pauuw
Pan Australia, 1994, pb, 436pp, $11.95
Reviewed by Martin Livings
Look at the cover. Yes: trees, beautiful men and women, and dragons. And it's an accurate cover in terms of content. This book is aimed squarely at young adult readers who've finally run out of novels half-written by Anne McCaffrey (look out for the upcoming "The Ship Who OD'ed", by McCaffrey and William Burroughs) and can't be bothered waiting for the next book in Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" epic to arrive, frightened of being too old to read it except in the big print edition. Quest, by Western Australian author Shannah Jay, has been loaded onto the catapult called Pan Australia, cranked down to the nearest nanonewton, and fired directly into the heart of high school libraries and specialty bookshops. And it's selling quite well, by all accounts. So, a financial victory for Pan. But a literary one?
To be perfectly frank, no.
Quick plot summary: well, we have Katia, a reluctant priestess, and we have Davred, a talented but dreamy "xeno-anthropologist" (not to mention a neo-post-modern-cyber-realist) and the latest manifestation of god. And of course, the two fall in love. But there is Discord spreading, and they and a band of trusty adventurers (including - all together now - an ancient, talented and wise person, a crafty thief, a warrior with muscles of steel and a heart of gold . . . I think you can guess the rest) must escape the clutches of the Serpent cult and fight the forces of Evil. I know, I know: cliched. But in a fantasy novel this is not terribly strange. Any cliche can be overcome by good writing.
Quest, I'm afraid, is not good writing. Let's start with the problems. What makes a fantasy novel for me (and remember, I was once a dedicated reader of anything containing swords, magic and strange old men who glow when they get annoyed) is three elements. Firstly, the characters must be interesting; not necessarily realistic - Eddings' characters are stereotypical cliches par excellence - but they must hold the reader's attention. They are generally the basis of the novel, particularly in quest (no relation) fantasy, where the story follows the party of adventurers in their journey across the Land. Which brings us to the second element: scenery. This is an important aspect of the quest fantasy; it is the backdrop, always present and, quite often, just as much a character as any of the antagonists or protagonists - just read Tolkien and claim you can't see every cliff, every rocky outcrop, feel the stones under your feet. And thirdly, the pacing must be solid; not necessarily fast - the first two books in Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series are so deliberately paced they often seem the literary equivalent of lava lamps - but steady and consistent. The reader must feel as if he or she is actually taking part in the story, and all three elements are necessary in order for this to occur. That's my theory, anyway. Plot is an afterthought; we know Good will triumph over Evil after many trials and tribulations. This is one of the attractions of the genre, much like reading a historical romance in the sure knowledge that, despite the many problems and heartaches the characters face, their love will conquer all in the end. It's not the destination that counts, it's the journey; the means justify the end.
In the course of explaining myself, I mentioned three authors who were successful in creating that feeling. There are more, of course. But, if Quest is anything to go by, I'm afraid Shannah Jay is not one of them. Katia and Davred, the star-crossed and destiny-bound lovers (remember I mentioned historical romances before?), are exactly like their likenesses on the front cover; they and the other characters are wooden and lifeless, not to mention as bland as sucking hot water through a sponge. The dialogue is just as exciting, although sometimes unintentionally hilarious. This gem from Katia, the third thing she says in the novel: "Grandfather, please don't make me go! I know something terrible will happen to me if I go down into Danak. I just know it!" Uh-huh. Yeah. If this is the new feminist fantasy, I think Germaine Greer might as well never have bothered thinking about female castrati. This could set the women's movement back fifty years, if it catches on.
The scenery is equally uninspiring; lots of trees and rivers, and even the spacecraft orbiting the place seems to be made of rivetless stainless steel and formica. After reading the novel, I had no impression of what the world actually looked like; a map at the front of the book is no substitute for good descriptive writing. But the worst sin of all is the pacing. David Eddings proved once and for all that you can create a story entirely out of well-worn cliches, yet if you pace it well enough, no-one will notice until they've finished reading all umpteen books of it. This isn't a criticism; I consider Eddings to be one of the best-paced writers in the genre today and, when let loose on a different subject (try The Losers, his latest non-fantasy novel), it can produce something quite special. But Quest plods for a few chapters, then suddenly months have passed. It's like trying to watch a film on video, while some idiot's playing with the slo-mo and fast forward buttons on the remote control. It becomes so distracting that it isn't really possible to get involved. With fantasy, the writing should blend into the background. Instead, Jay's writing is tortuous and awkward. "'This healing we shall perform together,' began Herra, kneeling by Carryn and laying a hand on the girl's shoulder. 'It is a fit first task for the Kindred of God. We shall become a mesh . . . a web . . . a cluster of fruit on one stem. We are the petals of one blossom . . . the ripples in one stream . . . the branches of one tree.'"
The flogging of one dead horse? Sometimes Jay's choice of words becomes ridiculous. For example, when one of the characters, listening to another's heart-felt speech, is "trying to find his way through this torrent of vituperation". Puh-leeeaze . . .
It seems a shame that this novel, while trying to provide something a little different in the portrayal of a matriarchal religious system, achieves nothing except to re-use the old stereotypes and fall into what quickly becomes a very average romance fantasy. Judging from Shannah (Sherry Ann Jacobs) Jay's impressive resume of publications, including a number of romance novels, it seems to me that she must have at least some ability. But Quest is not the place to look for it. I'm very interested to see what her next book Envoy, a straight SF novel, is like. Quest reads like an interesting first draft of a novel, in desperate need of fleshing out, tightening up, and editing, editing, editing! And in this regard, the editors at Pan Australia must take at least some of the blame. Certainly, local authors must be encouraged, but must also be told how to improve their work; that is what editors are there for, apart from clinging leech-like to the talent of writers (only kidding guys . . . guys? Oh dear . . .)
If Quest is indicative of the level of fantasy that Pan are willing to publish, I think it's time for me to bang out a quick decalogy of sword and sorcery shenanigans and finally make some money out of this job. If you want to read good Australian fantasy from Pan, try Dirk Strasser's Zenith. If you are undiscerning, however, go ahead and read Quest. But you have been warned.
The Fire Crystal
Charles E Hulley
Cover by Ainslie Roberts
Mystic Window, 1994, pb, 237pp, $14.00
Reviewed by Sean Williams
Novels employing elements of the Aboriginal dreamtime abound, although few succeed in capturing the essence of what they attempt to portray. Rich in detail and varying from region to region and community to community, Aboriginal beliefs are diverse and therefore difficult to pin down. Charles E Hulley's The Fire Crystal is different from most, in that it succeeds where others have failed, although unfortunately falling flat in a number of other equally important areas.
The novel concerns Peter Ashton, a young Sydney lawyer who, searching for a direction in life, finds himself not only caught up in a relationship with a headstrong and stubborn girl, Kiri, but also in a quest to prevent the Ancients, rulers of a highly-advanced civilization who inhabited a chain of islands before the last ice-age (the islands sank when the civilization self-destructed; sound familiar?) from dominating the world . . . or destroying it.
The book's novel mixture of Aboriginal, Eastern and New Age religions is its strength. Familiar icons are present - amulets, shape-changing, bolts of energy flung from outstretched palms, healing by touch - clad in fresh underwear and mingling with some highly unique bedfellows, including time-travel and Atlantean myths. The joins are surprisingly seamless, perhaps giving credence to the author's interest in the works of Carl Jung, or illustrating Hulley's ability as a world-builder. His research into the area of myth and belief I can only suppose to be flawless, given the accuracy displayed in other areas (one being that of Australia's long-lost megafauna). But it takes more than research a fine novel to make . . .
The narrative style is comfortable for the most part, and adequately vivid. The novel takes the reader from the present to the Pleistocene; to mythical landscapes such as the 'land of the dead' and 'the Birthplace of the Moons'; to the source of fire crystals in a series of caverns deep in the mythical core of the Earth; to the home of the Ancients before it was submerged; and to an alternate world where dinosaurs still reign - all in 238 pages - so it should come as no surprise that in reads in places like a documentary, or a travel brochure. Sydney in particular is well-captured by Hulley's narrative camera, from Whale Beach to the offices of corporate power-brokers. Occasionally, however, Hulley lapses into careless and awkward language (with characters "rubbing" lips, possessing "bosoms", and even dying of "radiation", not radiation sickness) or lets his eagerness get away with him, resulting in overly-florid prose (the passage quoted on the back cover is, perversely, one of the most stylistically grotesque in the book). Overall, straightforward and unchallenging, with only a few genuine clangers to irritate the sensitive.
Individual characters are well-handled to begin with, although their later development is somewhat haphazard. Major players are divided evenly into the two obvious camps: good and evil - a fact which jars slightly with the underlying mythology (I may be ill-informed, but shouldn't an amalgam of Aboriginal, Eastern and New Age religions result in a belief-system that precludes the concept of absolute evil?) The only shades of grey exist in minor characters, many of whom are more interesting than those they revolve around (although surprisingly few of them are Aboriginal). For instance, take Peter's father Robert, and his natural desire to see his son follow in his footsteps; or Gillian David, Peter's girlfriend, whom he dumps for Kiri; or Raskaman, one of the minor bad guys, more concerned with the planning of plots than with their outcomes.
Hulley is obviously capable of creating a believable character; it seems strange, then, and more than a little disappointing, that he should fail to follow this up with convincing development of the same. Major characters frequently fall foul of stereotyping (or should that read 'archetyping'?) There were too many times when I, as a reader, felt the author's heavy hand at work. Peter and Kiri often move from scene to scene without obvious motivation, lacking the continuity required to sustain an entire novel. Internal dilemmas are glossed over, and are too easily resolved. As Kiri herself remarks at one point, "We're little puppets." And she is. She begins the novel firmly resistant to the idea of a life with Peter, as prophesied by her teachers, but later changes her mind - completely and totally, and with little hint of introspection or doubt - as required by the plot. Dangling from the strings of the author, she goes through the motions without the reader ever really knowing why.
The plot likewise trips itself by setting up a situation two or three pages before the situation actually arises, then solving the problem two or three pages later. It becomes irritatingly easy to guess what will happen next, but almost impossible to foretell what will happen after that - for that information has not yet arrived. As another character remarks, "It's almost as if our opponent is explaining each move as she goes along." In the sense that the author is the opponent of the reader, in that he is presenting a challenge to guess what will happen next, this quote sums up Hulley's style quite succinctly. The novel passes by in a series of loosely-linked episodes, with little unifying structure - hardly the 'heroic quest' promised by the accompanying blurb; more a victim of the myths from which the novel draws its inspiration, which are fragmentary by nature.
Where earlier sections do overlap with those that come later, the connections are obvious and the outcomes predictable. The beginning wanders along without direction for over one hundred pages before really kicking into gear, then loses steam fifty pages from the end, grinding to an uninspiring climax in which all loose ends are tied bar one (the obvious one, too). Bearing in mind the short length of the novel, that only leaves sixty-odd pages in which the reader truly feels that the story is going somewhere, not just wandering merrily along its way, which is a shame; an idea of this breadth deserves better.
All in all, for innovative world-building, Charles Hulley deserves congratulation; The Fire Crystal is imaginative and uniquely Australian. Had he only managed to bring these ideas together with a structured plot and characters that lived and breathed as well as they looked in their opening scenes, he might have had a winner on his hands.
Castle of Eyes
Cover by Mark Wagner
Chaosium Inc, 1993, pb, 236pp, US$14.95
Reviewed by Sean Williams
As RD Bagnall observed in a recent issue of New Scientist: ". . . sentences can sound more learned, and so be more acceptable . . . if the words are shuffled into a different order, even if the meaning remains unchanged." So too it is with novels. The voice in which an author chooses to relate a tale has a profound effect on the tale itself. Would Stephen King be half the illusionist he is if he wrote in the manner of Tom Clancy? Could the posturing of Terry Pratchett's most memorable characters make us laugh if shod in the narrative style of JRR Tolkien? I think not. For what is a novel if not the way it is written and the things it contains? If one is weak, much can still be made of the novel by accentuating the other - as demonstrated, from opposite extremes, by the pulp fantasy and hard SF writers of the last few decades.
Castle of Eyes, a "novel of dark fantasy" by Penelope Love, possesses not only a highly baroque and dense voice, but all manner of 'things' to match. From the first page, it is obvious that the reader must observe carefully in order to absorb everything that is being shown - in sideways glances, as often as not, at shadows that lurk around the spotlight at any given moment. Nothing is obvious. Nothing is to be taken for granted. Nothing is safe. This necessarily makes for a difficult read in places until one adjusts to the pace and the often unusual sentence structures, but the effort is well-rewarded.
The principal character of the novel is Alliole, a young woman who has woken to find herself, lacking both memory and hands, in the heart of a tremendous Castle. Tended by the local equivalent of the royal family - an inbred brood of sorcerers that make the House of Windsor look decidedly mundane - and tormented by a mournful Voice in her head, she begins a long and arduous quest to discover anything and everything she can about herself and the Castle that has become her world.
And a world it literally is - with inhabited sections, ruins, catacombs filled with the dead and halls for majestic ceremonies, and an endless procession of corridors, stairways, chambers and chimneys. Seemingly infinite in both size and complexity, it fills the book with its heavy presence. Indeed, it is the book; not once does a character step from within its stone walls to enter the outside world, not even in memory. Apart from the occasional glimpse of sunlight, sky and clouds, seen through collapsed ceilings in ruined sections of the Castle, the outside world might not exist at all.
Certainly, for the characters who live in the Castle, that might as well be the case. In a scene towards the middle of the book, one character describes "a place all green, with green things stuck in it without any order at all, and no walls anywhere. And, most terrible of all, it has no roof, and when you look up you fall forever." So hypnotic and overwhelming is Love's vision of the Castle that this vision - of our world, and of Alliole's, perhaps, before her amnesia - seems quite alien. So seductive is her voice that even this frequently-used narrative trick works.
Love thus completes a pleasing symmetry between the very large (the Castle) and the very small (the words that seek to describe and therefore contain it). By means of this multitextual device, the novel holds the reader enthralled, never quite sure what is about to happen next nor quite grasping what is really going on in the subtext (and subtext there surely is - although whether it's the nature of power, the danger of truth, or something else entirely, is for a reviewer more discerning than this one to discuss).
Sandwiched between the large and the small is a plot as convoluted as the 'royal family' itself - one possessing little of the naivety so often displayed in fantasy and horror (although on the surface it might seem so) - and a host of characters, each seeming more unique and vivid than the last (despite names that occasionally border on the ridiculous, such as Slaarngash, Xoon and Sleepghast). The Parrar, matriarch of the Castle, has been with child for an unknown period of time (possibly longer than a year), and the previous children - none considered satisfactory heirs, and some actually cast into the Catacombs for bearing physical and mental 'mutations' - are nervous of the unborn child's potential to disrupt the delicate balance of power that currently exists. Into this hornet's nest of possibility stumbles Alliole, a powerless innocent hell-bent on learning the truth. Given a pair of hands - in the form of an unwilling demon who defies brief description (on several occasions) - by one of the lesser matriarchs of the family, she begins her quest, aided or hindered (or both) at various times by spoiled heirs, disgruntled outcasts, secretive royal aunts, obsequious advisers, and the unrestful dead. Through the multitudinous corridors of the Castle she travels, plagued by her own fears and doubts, pressed forward by the need within her to answer her (and the reader's) questions. Who is she? Where did she come from? Why is she here? And what, at the root of everything, is the Castle itself?
If there is a weakness to the novel, it is that none of these questions are answered fully; hinted at, and sometimes in great detail, but never openly revealed. But then, I wonder whether they should be, for the complex mystery of Alliole's world is the very core of the novel, and to expose it would be to dispel its magic. No explanation could possibly do justice to the Castle, no single answer could be complex enough to cover all that lies in the novel - and perhaps Love was wise to avoid one, to leave the reader with nothing more than clues. For where words fail, no matter how finely drawn they may be, only imagination can complete the picture.
A dark fantasy for those with a taste for the bizarrely beautiful, or the gracefully grotesque, or basically anything different from the usual run-of-the-mill pulp, Penelope Love's Castle of Eyes is at times dramatic, amusing, vivid and moving, but always fascinating. This is a fine novel from a voice which, I believe, will have a great deal more to tell us in the future.
[Castle of Eyes is only available on import. You may wish to try Slow Glass Books, GPO Box 2708X Melbourne VIC 3001, if you'd like a copy.]
Doorway to Eternity
Cover and interiors by Antoinette Rydyr and Steve Carter
MirrorDanse Books, July 1994, pb, 99pp, $8.95
Reviewed by Jonathan Strahan
In case you haven't noticed, there are some new kids on the block - a group of young writers who are rapidly establishing names for themselves as the ones to watch. These writers, first published during the '90s, form the next generation of Australian science fiction writers - the ones to follow on from Egan and McMullen. Foremost amongst them is Adelaide writer, Sean Williams. Williams made his first appearance in 1991 and, in the intervening years, has had nearly thirty stories published in as diverse places as The Esoteric Order of Dagon, Aurealis, Aboriginal SF, Alien Shores and Eidolon. Williams' stories are a disparate bunch, ranging easily from horror to science fiction to comedy, but all relying on the basics: a plot, an idea, a character. Williams even writes stories with beginnings, middles and endings - something which places him amongst a happy minority of Australian sf writers. Noting this, it is with considerable interest that we turn to Doorway to Eternity, Sean Williams' first book and the first from new press, MirrorDanse Books.
Doorway to Eternity contains two short stories and a novelette; one ghost story and two science fiction tales. The first, "New Flames For An Old Love", is Williams at his very best. Marcus 'db' deBarrow wants to save the world, regardless of the cost. A brilliant physicist, he abandons his young lover Shelley when US giant QDos offer to fund the development of his proposal for a radical new transportation system. After his abrupt departure Shelley finds a new lover and attempts to get on with her life. But five years later she gets a dinner invitation and a gift from db. Soon his new transportation system has changed Shelley's life and the world . . . twice. This is solid, fundamental sf and, while the voice is different, this story could almost have come from the pen of Larry Niven. Of the three tales in Doorway to Eternity the second, "Reluctant Misty and the House on Burden Street", is probably the least successful. In it a lonely young woman becomes fascinated and, eventually possessed, by a house only she can see. This is clearly Williams playing a game of what if you had a haunting rather than a haunted house. Unfortunately the ending doesn't quite live up to the rest of the story.
The book closes with exactly the sort of story I hate, and I liked this one. "Doorway to Eternity", the only true novelette in this short collection, contains ufo aliens, psychic powers, secret government projects, and wimpy investigators - it almost could have been an episode of The X Files. Amanda Carmichael's daughter, Mary, has psychic powers and every night she tears up the inside of her house searching for her missing father. So Amanda calls for help and gets, well, Dr Randall Gibbs, parapsychologist. Gibbs arrives sceptical and leaves convinced; something weird is going in this house. It would be wrong to tell you how this powerful tale works, but Williams tips his hand a little when Mary, talking about books, says that she can recommend a good one - Carrie.
Doorway to Eternity is a fine introduction to this talented new writer. While the three stories featured here clearly show Williams' influences they also show, more importantly, that he's capable of transcending those influences and developing a voice as a writer which is uniquely his own. It is fascinating to watch the development of a new voice in Australian sf and the indefatigable Bill Congreve and MirrorDanse Books are to be thanked for giving us the opportunity. If you follow Australian sf you need this book. Check your specialist bookshop, or write to MirrorDanse Books, 1/26 Central Avenue, Westmead NSW 2145.
Next issue we'll review Aphelion's epic Alien Shores; two collections of short fiction for the young adult market, The Patternmaker and The Lottery edited by Lucy Sussex; George Turner's new novel Genetic Soldier; Shannah Jay's Envoy; Lucy Sussex's Deersnake and Rosaleen Love's Evolution Annie (better late than never, sorry!) . . . who says there's a dearth of Australian science fiction? Not me, and not the poor souls I'll send the books to. Thought for the day:
|The best defence against the atomic bomb is not to be there when it goes off.|
|British Army Journal, 1949|
Originally appeared pp. 88-102, Eidolon 15, July 1994.
Copyright © 1994 Eidolon Publications. Individual contributions are copyright to the respective authors.
Reprinted with kind permission of the authors.