|Reviews of Recent Publications|
Peter McNamara and Margaret Winch, Editors
Cover by John Beswick
Aphelion Publications, 1994, tpb, 503pp, $19.95
Reviewed by Martin Livings
You can see it, can't you? A slow panning shot of the Australian bush, red dust kicked up by a lackluster willy-willy. A frill-necked lizard flares at the camera and hisses before passing out of shot. Slowly, the unmistakable tune of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" is heard over a didgeridoo. Suddenly, the camera comes across a monolith, silhouetted by the fierce antipodean sun. A rectangular obelisk, standing in the ochre-stained dirt. The music swells as the camera pans upwards, bringing the object out of the shadows . . .
A big book, standing in the dirt. The music climaxes. There is a caption at the bottom of the screen.
Alien Shores. Your life will never be the same again.
Well, if Aphelion ever did more than the bare minimum of mass media advertising and promotion, that's how we'd see it on television - a thirty second audiovisual byte written by a thirty year old whiz kid with an Italian suit, bare feet and a ponytail. Alien Shores is the latest book from the publishing house that has brought us, amongst others, Terry Dowling's Rynosseros books and Sean McMullen's Call To The Edge, thus securing its important role, along with the two major journals, Eidolon and Aurealis, in the field of Australian short SF - and this hefty tome will almost certainly consolidate that. Twenty nine stories by the leading Australian SF authors of the moment, covering a wide range of topics and styles, certainly make Alien Shores look impressive from a distance. And, realizing that in my role as reviewer, I had read hardly any Australian short SF (cough! cough!), I decided to devote a week of my life to this 'Landmark Collection of Australian Science Fiction', as proudly proclaimed by the back cover.
Once again, faced with the pretty daunting task of reviewing a collection of nearly thirty stories, I opted to simply cover a handful of them, a kind of Judge's Selection. This is purely personal, mind you; I think everyone will have favourite stories in the book, considering the range to choose from. Greg Egan's "The Caress", one of the reprints of the collection (only seven out of twenty nine are reprinted - a very good ratio), is concerned with the limits of art, and the line where creativity finishes and insanity begins. It also portrays a credible future of law enforcement, and, as always, his science is impeccable. "The Miocene Arrow", by Sean McMullen, is not only a clever story about prehistoric sentient whales brought back to life in the present day, but also finally offers a complete explanation for "The Call", which features in many of his linked future short stories. The story also shows that war is not man's exclusive territory, and neither is genocide. The other Sean, Sean Williams, offers us "The Soap Bubble", which uses the standard "spaceship travelling to unknown worlds searching for life" scenario (which a lot of stories in this collection employ, to greater or lesser effect) as a backdrop to an original technique for keeping interstellar explorers sane. In space, no-one can hear you overact!
Damien Broderick's "The Magi" is the longest short story in the collection, and addresses the conflicts between science and religion. A Jesuit space explorer goes searching for God, but finds only more fallible 'men', or at least their traces. But there's much more to it than this. Another believable future history. "The Quiet Redemption of Andy the House" is a Terry Dowling story that I missed somewhere along the line; a thoughtful examination of using enforced dream therapy to help someone escape their own psychosis - but is this necessarily a good thing? As always with Dowling, ambiguity and subtlety abound, with more questions that answers. "My Sister, Criseta, Who Is Magic", by Paul Voermans, is an urban fantasy - a young woman takes away the pain in people's lives, replaces it with something positive, but sometimes pain is necessary for growth and meaning in life, as her brother has discovered. The story makes Melbourne look like Wonderland, without the aid of recreational drugs - a genuine achievement.
Chris Simmons, a name previously unknown to me (as were more than a few of the other writers gathered here), retells "2001: A Space Odyssey", but twisted all to hell in "Moon-Watcher Breaks the Bones" - five robots (three in storage, waiting to be revived) travel through space in an attempt to make contact with an alien life form, commanded by a single omnipotent human named, of course, Hal. Lots of in-jokes, and a genuinely clever story. Finally in this brief overview, Carole Nomarhas's "Soul Horizon" is a piece of space opera which has a rich and detailed background, and is presumably part of a series of shared universe stories, or at least I hope so. In a distant future when starship pilots are psychically linked to their ships, what happens if the ship turns out to be sentient itself ? Thoughtful and exciting, with sharp dialogue and some original hyperspace theories.
Alien Shores is a book with very few faults. There are a couple of minor typographical errors in the text (the one that amused me was in the McMullen story, when instead of 'seldom' we have 'seldon' - a spell checker that's read Asimov's Foundation series?), and once or twice the wrong font is used for a section. Also, my personal quibble - where oh where are the author's biographies? I know, I've been going on about this for a long time now, but I sincerely feel that having some idea of who is writing the story adds to the experience, as does the knowledge of what else the author has written - so many unknown names which I just have to hope will crop up again in something I read. But the faults of Alien Shores are minimal at worst. There are no bad stories, none to which I simply said "aaaaargh!" and turned to the next. Each of the twenty nine selected stories at least entertained me, and many left me thinking - what more can you ask from a collection?
Yes, readers, it looks like Alien Shores is the Australian SF book to own. But you'd better hurry; apparently Aphelion's stocks have already run out, and it's quickly vanishing from the shelves of book-stores. Sure, at twenty bucks it's a hefty outlay for some of us struggling unpaid (glares at editors) people, but you get what you pay for - a massive volume, heavy enough to kill small children if dropped from a reasonable height, packed with stories that could well be the definitive selection of Australian short science fiction today. I liked it so much, I actually bought the book I suggest you all do the same. Support local SF. Impress your friends. Increase your personal magnetism.
Well, maybe not, but do buy this book.
Cover by Marilyn Pride
Hodder Headline Australia, 1994,tpb, 219pp, $8.95
Reviewed by Sean Williams
Fantasy of the late twentieth century seems hell-bent, at times, on reinventing ancient British myth. Or should that be 'rediscovering'? Regardless, after radical make-overs by Robert Holdstock, Stephen Donaldson and Anne McCaffrey, today's giants and dragons are benevolent, while fairies and figures such as Robin Hood are decidedly malicious.
Deersnake is Lucy Sussex's latest novel, written for the 11-15 age group. And it has faeries in it. Creepy ones, too.
The story begins when fifteen-year-old Kate and a group of friends take a trip supplied and supervised by a teacher from their school. (And I don't mean an excursion to the zoo or the museum, either.) When they come down, one of her friends, Martin, has vanished. Only Kate saw him disappear - snatched into a drug-induced pattern by a sinister, shadowy figure - and only she remembers him. He has been 'edited' out of reality by the evil beings of the Otherworld, who steal humans for their entertainment.
Naturally, in true fantasy style, Kate must attempt to rescue him from the faeries and bring him back to reality. Am I seeing metaphors here, or just being paranoid? Neither, probably, or both. Drug-use is an issue facing all teenagers today, and Deersnake presents all sides fairly in the guise of a fantasy novel.
Or does it?
Strangely, despite the blurb on the back of the book, the fantasy aspect of this novel is almost secondary to other elements included within it. Apart from one chapter, the Otherworld is just that - another world that may or not be the product of LSD, and one that sometimes seems a little irrelevant to the problems in Kate's everyday life. The rest of the novel is set firmly in a fairly average middle-class world, where Kate labours under peer-group pressure and the attentions of a drug-taking teacher at school, a father who deserted her years ago and a mother who has taken a sleazy lover, a temperamental writer Aunt who now acts as her temporary guardian and a 'boy friend' who hasn't quite graduated to 'boyfriend'.
So firmly is it based in this reality that I kept wishing for more fantasy, especially after that one-chapter taste had whet my appetite - with its uniquely eerie and alien world, described so vividly. Sadly, that chapter takes place in the middle of the book, leaving the remainder to tie up loose ends somewhat pedantically at times.
The style is simple without being patronizing, and bitingly sharp in places. Every character stands out as fresh and as lovingly-drawn as they always do in Sussex's work, without being stereotyped. Having not read much recent teenage fiction, I am loathe to condemn or praise it with regard to its suitability for young adult readers - nor to its accuracy of slang and 'attitude' - but I suspect that parents, teachers and teenagers will find little in it to disapprove of and much to recommend. The complex nature of relationships is dealt with on many levels, from Kate's grandmother's decision to remarry to her own re-evaluation of her friendship with Martin. On the down side of life, drugs and, briefly, guns are obvious targets of the story, although sleazy men come out the big losers in the end - literally.
The final chapter points quite clearly at Sussex's not-so-hidden agenda. Kate's writer Aunt (who is suggestive of a real character rather than a fictional one) sets out on a crusade to expose to the world, not only Kate's experiences in the Otherworld, but the dealings of the men in the story. "Never make an enemy of a novelist," she says, "or you'll find yourself in their next book with scrofula, or bad breath, or worse . . ."
How true. Given the amount of time spent condemning two of the three main male characters, I think it would be safe to say that someone, somewhere, is learning this lesson the hard way.
Cover by Bee Willey
The Women's Press, 1993, tpb, 232pp, $16.95
Reviewed by Martin Livings
It's a little known fact that, for a short period of time, I studied English Literature at university. Generally speaking, people appear to believe that I only read books with silver embossed titles or words beginning with 'x' in them. But, in my eternal search for GOOD WRITING (all hail), I dipped my toe into the shadowy world of literature, both classical and modern, expecting to find something completely different to my previous literary diet of everything from Asimov to Zelazny. To my surprise, I found that literature is an insular and self-obsessed field, with writers, readers and critics all seemingly coming from the same stock, often exchanging roles with each other. Like Freemasonry, literature has its own secret signs, its own language, rules and rituals.
In short, in most regards, mainstream literature is exactly like SF, only they get bigger government grants.
So why shouldn't The Women's Press, best known for publishing more conventional books from female authors, bring us Evolution Annie and Other Stories, by Rosaleen Love, well known to readers of this magazine as a writer of short stories with their feet planted firmly in the realm of SF and fantasy. After all, they also published her previous collection, The Total Devotion Machine, in 1989, which did very well for itself. Evolution Annie and Other Stories is just that - ten short stories (all reprints) and one novella, which show a good range of subjects and styles, yet have a thematic feel which lends the collection a sense of coherency.
The title story, "Evolution Annie", is a fresh feminist look at Darwinism, suggesting that the male fight for survival and discovery was only an excuse to keep the apemen out of the apewomen's hair while they got on with the important stuff. "The Heavenly City, Perhaps" is a rather disjointed examination of the echelons of paradise, and how one person's heaven can be another's hell. "Cosmic Dusting" isn't so much a story as a philosophical stream of consciousness, a train of thought which traces some basic observations to their logical conclusions. "Hovering Rock" concerns childhood lost and regained, and doorways to other worlds. "A Pattern to Life" shows a 19th century naturalist's attempts to reconcile eastern and western philosophies of the order of life; a thoughtful and interesting examination of one man's (ultimately fruitless) quest for truth and Truth. "Turtle Soup" looks like a horror story from a distance, sort of "Jaws" with an amphibian, but up close it's a little more nebulous and ambiguous than that. "Blue Venom" is the only straight SF tale of the collection, a story of scientific experimentation, genetic engineering, blue daffodils and death. It's followed by the only straight mainstream story in the book, "Strange Things Grow At Chernobyl", a character study using Chernobyl as an analogy for a woman's own life. "The Palace of the Soul" shows Love's interest in history and archaeology again; a close look at the Piltdown Man hoax, and how it might have all come about. "Holiness" again treads the path of history, this time examining both the past and the future, and how both can be more inhospitable places to be than the present. And "Daughters of Darius", the novella and over half of the book, throws five ordinary (but extraordinary) women of various ages, from infancy to middle age, adrift in time and space, in a quest for love, peace, truth, Robinson Crusoe, and a(nother) bride for Alexander the Great.
Like most good speculative fiction, particularly short fiction, Love generally makes her point by placing the mundane next to the fantastic, and watching the reactions of both them and us. Never harsh or indicting, she seems to smile softly at the foolishness of humanity, both male and female, and encourages us to smile with her. Some readers may be put off by the 'feminist' label that she has acquired somewhere along the line. Don't be. The supposed feminism of Evolution Annie is what you might call gentle but firm; the female perspective is rarely shoved down your throat (except on purpose, as in "Evolution Annie" itself), but instead is a natural part of the storytelling. My only complaint with the collection was that sometimes the stories were too ethereal to the point of being vague, particularly "Turtle Soup" and "Blue Venom" (the two stories originally printed in Eidolon). But regardless, Evolution Annie and Other Stories is an enjoyable collection from one of the most respected names in Australian SF at the moment, and is also a good bridge between the mainstream and speculative fields, hopefully getting the attentions of both readerships.
Now, about that grant . . .
Cover by Dorian Vallejo
William Morrow, 1994, hc, 408pp, $US20.95
Reviewed by Jonathan Strahan
George Turner sprang onto the science fiction scene in 1978 with a bright new novel, Beloved Son, a tale of an interstellar expedition which returns to Earth to find a diminished post-holocaust world. The bright young thing, a contemporary of Terry Dowling (he arrived on the scene 14 years after Damien Broderick and just five years before Greg Egan), was 62 years old and it was his 7th novel.
One of the concerns of any reader is that the writers he has been following for years will eventually fade as they age, that they will go "off". Heinlein ended his career with odd religious-sexual tracts of a rather Oedipean nature and Asimov, like some mad spider, attempted to knit his career into a single work before he died. So a reader of George Turner's works might be forgiven for experiencing some concern to find that fourteen years after Beloved Son he has written a novel about an interstellar expedition which returns to find a diminished post-holocaust world. Those concerns would be ill-founded. Genetic Soldier, Turner's 14th novel and 7th sf novel, is easily the best work of sf he has written and one of the better works to be published in recent years.
Those are fighting words. But they are supported by the work itself. Genetic Soldier is a mature well-developed novel which talks of our search for ourselves and for our future - seminal questions in the development of sf. Here Nugan Taylor, who has travelled aboard the spacecraft Search looking for a new world, comes home to find a world which will not accept her. It cannot. She has to come to terms with what she is in her world and in the world of those around her. Then there is the Atkin's Tommy. Bearing the common name for a base grade British soldier, it should be no surprise to find that he is the eponymous Genetic Soldier. That description defines him completely. It is his task to guard his community, and the contradictions inherent in that task haunt him and leave him searching for who and what he is.
While Genetic Soldier is a fine, if slightly plotty, novel of character it is more than that. Turner has built an interesting and complex future and much of the interest of the novel is based upon how he chooses to show it to us. The high technology, high consumption world of the late '90s is long since collapsed. In the time of Genetic Soldier, man lives as part of his environment. But it is not a survivalist utopia. Rather, it is based upon the matriarchal tyranny of the Top Mas, the intellectual tyranny of the Ordinands and the biological tyranny of a system which chemically bonds people when mating. One of the challenges facing the crew of the Search is that they are no compatible with those they left behind. The challenge facing those who control the Earth, and Tommy Atkins particularly, is how to convince them.
There is a lot more that could be said about Genetic Soldier, but the only important thing that needs to be said is that you should be reading it. One of the things that I have noticed as a reviewer for, this publication is that while George Turner is widely acknowledged and honored as the Grand Master of Australian Science Fiction, he is mostly honored in the breach. By people who do not read his works. Reports say his work sells well in the United States, the review copy of this book is the US edition, but less well here. So. Enough. Choose Genetic Soldier as the point where you will begin to read the works of certainly one of, if not our finest science fiction writer. You won't regret it.
Lucy Sussex, Ed.
Covers by Patricia Howes
Omnibus Books, 1994 pb, 162pp/164pp, $9.95 ea
Reviewed by Martin Livings
Let's be perfectly frank here. Australian SF hasn't got a very high profile, even in the country of its origin. When I was in school, the birthplace of my cravings for genre fiction, I didn't even know that Australian science fiction existed, let alone whether it was any good or not. My collection of homegrown SF consisted of a single issue of Far Out magazine and a couple of A. Bertram Chandler novels (I thought he was British, honest!). It's in late primary school and early high school that a person's taste in reading material really congeals, becomes part of their character instead of simply an indiscriminate soaking up of words, and in those critical years I was reading Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. It wasn't until much later that I discovered that this country can produce SF to rival - and often excel - the overseas masters. But just imagine if, in this formative period, I'd come across some collections of Australian short SF by people like Greg Egan, Sean McMullen, Lucy Sussex, Sean Williams, Leanne Frahm. Collections intended for the younger reader, but without being condescending or patronising. Who knows; I might have been a completely different person. Anyone saying "what a lovely thought" can leave the room now, thank you.
Now Omnibus Books, a subgroup of the Ashton Scholastic Group, have released two such collections, The Lottery and The Patternmaker, both edited by Lucy Sussex. Each collection contains nine stories, ranging from space opera to purest fantasy, some dark and cynical, some light and farcical, and very few fail to be interesting at the very least. With eighteen stories in all, there's no way I can review each one in detail, so I'll just mention my personal highlights.
In The Lottery, the opening story is, funnily enough, "The Lottery" by Lucy Sussex, a thoughtful and detailed look at time travelling to observe the prehistoric ancestry of humanity, and a battle between humans and non-humans for existence in a tenuous future. Rick Kennett's "The Battle of Leila the Dog" is worth mentioning, as it is the predecessor to last issue's "The Road to Utopia Plain", and shows Kennett's love of both space opera and old-fashioned ghost stories. "The Blondefire Genome" is Sean McMullen for teenyboppers; home-made genetic hacking, jealousy and rock and roll. A lot of fun, if a little saccharine in the end. Finally, the Sean Williams reprint "White Christmas" is always enjoyable; any story where Adelaide is reduced to dissociated atomic matter can't be bad. Clever, disturbing and well written.
The Patternmaker's title story by Dave Luckett is a real find; a man is rendered obsolete by technology, then discovers it could also be the doorway to another, better world. Smart, sharp and believable. Leanne Frahm's "Jinx Ship" asks the question -what happens when machines become so complicated that they begin to think? A very new and fresh twist on an old theme. "The Walk" is Greg Egan; what more needs to be said? Examines the true nature of identity and self, beyond memories and experiences; smart, thought-provoking, and perhaps a little too metaphysical for the intended audience, but a story of this calibre can't be ignored. "The Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil" by Sam Sejavka wins the award for Longest Title in the collections, and also possibly the longest story. A tale of a dead and poisoned Earth, and the last tree in the world, born from drug-induced echoes of the past. Bleak and very effective.
There is a lot to like about these books. The covers are striking and stylish, and the stories are of an admirably high quality. But the thing that made me almost jump for joy was . . . you guessed it . . . authors' biographies! And before each story too, exactly where I like them. And author's notes at the end, telling a little about why the story was written. This is the kind of additional depth that adds volumes to the stories themselves, giving them background and perspective instead of leaving them stranded alone and rarefied. A story is not an island; I like to know where it stands, and what surrounds it. Thank you, Lucy; maybe one day some of these so-called "adult" anthologies will follow your example! In fact, continuing my theme from last issue, it could easily be argued that, taken as a single large collection in two volumes, The Lottery and The Patternmaker are worthy claimants to the much-contested title of the Best Australian SF Anthology, in addition to being a great introduction for younger readers to the wide range of down-under short SF.
Lucy Sussex, with both her novel Deersnake (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) and The Lottery and The Patternmaker, has taken significant steps towards exposing young readers to Australian SF. Perhaps if I'd read these books in high school, I might have gone searching for more Australian genre fiction, instead of gorging myself on endless novels by Piers Anthony and Stephen King (ah, the foolishness of my misspent youth!). I hope these books find their way into school libraries across the country, and that at least one young reader discovers that Australia has something very special to offer the world of SF.
The New Order: Book Five of The Chronicles of the Custodians
Cover by Gregory Bridges
Pan Australia, 1994, pb, 357pp, $11.95
Reviewed by Sean Williams
Okay. Pulp fantasy check-list ready? Here we go.
1. Cover. On first inspection, excellent. Closer analysis, however, reveals a strange absence of dragons. One unicorn-head-on-a-stick, yes, but no dragons.
This could be a good sign.
2. Maps etc. Excellent. Not only do we have two maps, but: synopses of the four previous books in the series (Circle of Light, Triad of Darkness, Sphere of Influence and The New Age); two pages of "Terminology"; another two pages of extraneous information entitled "Ring Bearers"; a family tree of original and later Gods; and, at the back of the book, a detailed armory. Fifteen pages in all.
Very impressive. Looking better.
3. Style. Whoops. Wooden and lacking sparkle. Features constant and irritating grammatical errors and repetition - which even the most cursory of editorial scans should have detected, and fixed. (Shame on you, Pan. Don't you read reviews?)
Note: if commas aren't your thing, then this book is for you. Eg: "Irinka turned his attention to one of the Runners and again the blue light flashed out incinerating the creature."
4. Plot. Run-of-the-mill quest fantasy, complete with swords, sworcery and swundry magical rings.
The force of Darkness, in the form of the New Order of Mammon, is stirring yet again (as is its wont) and the vastly outnumbered forces of Light are forced to split into two groups to thwart it. Urdru, the young Janissaire from the previous volume, leads one party in search of the magic Talisman ("quest" number one), while Lyn, an immortal Usare Weaver, and friends are chased apparently nowhere in particular by the bad guys ("quest" number two). There is much to-and-froing along the way, with a healthy dollop of blood and beastliness designed to keep the reader awake until the end of the book. Deus ex machina a-plenty.
Nothing unusual there.
5. Characters. One-dimensional at most. Failed to realise until page 179 that one of them was mute - perhaps because there are so many of them to keep track of. The dramatis personae may sound interesting, but just wait until you actually see them in action, if that's the right word.
Enough cardboard in this volume to exfoliate several Africas.
PS. Loved those little pearls of wisdom that Gandalf never dreamt of. Eg: "A close friend of mine always says, 'You should not judge a book by its cover.'" Deep.
6. Names. All-important, for they do so much to convince the reader that the world we are visiting is a real place in itself and one quite different to our own. How about Hafnium, Astatine and Ytterbium for starters? Hmmm. While it's all very well to have characters name themselves after metals, the author should at least make sure that they don't need a particle accelerator to generate them in the first place.
More thought required.
7. Climax. Constantly-changing viewpoints make for confusing reading, especially when the characters are so forgettable. After losing its way (and the reader) towards the middle, the ending comes suddenly and with little sense of climax, more as though Middleton simply ran out of words rather than reached the conclusion of the all-important second novel in a trilogy.
Needs a rewrite.
"There are a few items," says one character on the very last page, "which must be collected before we meet the massed hosts of the Darkness . . ."
9. Miscellaneous. There are some interesting elements. Swordbane, a magical weapon of contagious evil, is one such, although it disappears entirely from the text during the middle of the book - despite the fact that is supposedly exerting a relentless influence over Urdru, the main character, and was the subject of so many words in the opening chapters.
The immortal Lyn, the only character to have survived from the first trilogy, could have been another, but his potential is wasted. What's more, you know that whenever bolts start flying, he'll be left standing at the end of it. This robs any battle-scene of much-needed tension.
And that's it.
10. Conclusion. On very nearly every level, this book was an unsatisfying read.
Now, don't be too hasty. Pulp fiction has it's place. Much of fantasy and SF is just that, and doesn't even pretend to literary credibility. It's fun, it's easy to read, and it's often cheaper than the serious stuff. Furthermore, when you buy it, you know exactly what you're going to get. Pulp fiction is the literary equivalent of soap opera, or muzak. Originality is, for the most part, irrelevant.
Just like with soap opera and muzak, however, you have to know where to draw the line. There is no difference between a badly-written work of literature and a badly-written pulp novel, exact perhaps for the authors' aspirations.
The New Order is, unfortunately, a badly-written book,
(For a more detailed review, go back to the last issue and re-read Martin J. Livings' analysis of Shannah Jay's Quest.)
The Man Who Lost Red
Cover and Interior Illustrations by Shaun Tan
MirrorDanse Books, December 1994, chapbook, 111pp, $9.95
Reviewed by Jonathan Strahan
Terry Dowling works hard not to tell his readers everything. Rather than taking them by the hand and carefully explaining every nuance of his work, locking them into one possible experience, he attempts something more perilous and rewarding. By providing the minimum information necessary he actively involves his audience, playing off each reader's individual expectations and experiences. This results in powerful and affecting fiction when successful, and difficult opaque work when not. It is to Dowling's credit, then, that he has managed to deliver a series of moving and insightful stories of complexity and startlingly consistent quality.
By involving his readership in his work this way, Dowling is trying to resensitize those readers to the wonders they experience in their own lives - something which has been at the heart of his work since it first started to appear more than thirteen years ago. This is also the theme of the title story of Dowling's latest chapbook. The Man Who Lost Red reprints the eponymous Ditmar-winning story, alongside the previously unpublished "Scaring the Train". "The Man Who Lost Red" is classic Dowling. Here we are told of Eric Andlan, a man who has had the ability to see the colour red taken from him as punishment for a crime he is not permitted to recall. This loss forces him to re-evaluate the world around him and, ultimately, resensitizes him to that world. This recurring theme in Dowling's work resonates with the reader, who identifies with Andlan's loss of the ability to enjoy morning sunrises, the colour of a woman's hair, or Richard Corben's Bat Out of Hell. It is a credit to the care and sensitivity with which Dowling tells this tale of loss and rediscovery that when Andlan is offered the return of what has been taken away and refuses, there are no echoes of frustration or disbelief. His decision rings true.
"Scaring the Train", the new story in this volume, is one of only a few stories outside Dowling's Rynosseros cycle to see print in the last few years. To readers familiar with Dowling's work, it is sufficient to say that "Scaring the Train" is from the writer of "The Daemon Street Ghost Trap". It is an intriguing mixture of Kipling's "Night Train", with a dash of Bradbury, King and Dowling's own unique sensibility added for chilling effect. We are told of two young boys who for a holiday prank scare trains and who, in turn, as adults are terrified by a train of an altogether different sort. The story is haunting, powerful and disturbing.
The power that Terry Dowling's fiction has is that it resonates beyond the reading, something which is true of both of the stories in this new book. As a reader, I have been following Dowling since I first heard him read "The Robot is Running Away From The Trees" five years ago. He has left me with clear memories of first reading "The Man Who Lost Red" while listening to Vangelis' Antarctica and pillaging a pile of photocopies of his work in a local University library; of reading "Privateer's Moon" over breakfast on a rainy Brisbane morning while sipping cappucino amongst dripping ferns; of being handed the manuscript of "Ship's Eye" in a Perth coffeehouse, and now of reading "Scaring the Train" in the middle of the electronic maelstrom of REM's Monster. Dowling's work has touched and moved me, and is some of the best you will find. The Man Who Lost Red is a fine book, and a wonderful introduction to An Intimate Knowledge of the Night, a collection of ghost and horror stories due later this year. Definitely one for the Dowling collector.
I cannot finish without mentioning Shaun Tan's fine illustrations or the sterling efforts of Bill Congreve and MirrorDanse Books. Shaun Tan, well known to readers of Eidolon, provides the cover and interior illustrations for The Man Who Lost Red, and those illustrations elegantly and powerfully underwrite Dowling's stories. And Bill Congreve and MirrorDanse are once again to be congratulated. After publishing Sean Williams debut effort, MirrorDanse has presented a worthwhile booklet in a very attractive and professional manner - bravo!
Cover by Gregory Bridges
Pan Australia, 1994, pb, 434pp, $11.95
Reviewed by Martin Livings
"Here comes a new book, Envoy,
comin' out of the blue.
Come on, read that Envoy,
I read it, so can you,
Envoy . . ."
[to the tune of "Convoy" by C.W.Macall]
I asked the editors if I could review this entire novel in the above song format, but was turned down on grounds of fairness to the author, serious literary credibility problems for any critique in such a style, and, most importantly, possible breach of copyright. Still, you can capture some of the flavour of the originally planned review by quietly humming the tune to yourself whilst reading it, as I am merrily doing whilst writing. Interactive criticism; another new concept from the magazine that brought you the edible fairy on the front page last issue (what, you mean it wasn't ricepaper??).
Sorry, I'm becoming frivolous. Down to business. You may recall that, last issue, I reviewed Shannah Jay's previous novel, a fantasy tale entitled Quest. You may also recall that the review wasn't exactly glowing. Envoy is her second novel from Pan Australia, this time a straight SF story. Comparisons to Quest will be inevitable. I have good news and bad news.
The good news is, Envoy is a far superior novel to Quest.
The bad news is, it still isn't terribly good.
It is the far future. Again. Mankind has spread across the galaxy like a bad case of ringworm, breaking up into dozens of pockets of isolated planets, societies breaking down for reasons left unexplained. Now the Terrans, cultured and advanced, use their superior technology and morals to bring peace and order to the galaxy. To explore strange new worlds and seek out new civilizations. To boldly go where no gender-nonspecific person has gone before. Joran Lovrel is the Terran negotiator, handsome, sensitive and intelligent. Channa Harknell, beautiful and fiery, is the titular Envoy for her war-oriented nation, Shavla, which has been warring against the Deorin for generations. Together, they must wage terrible peace.
And, incidentally, fall in love. This is where I have problems with Jay's novels to date. Before publishing through Pan, Shannah Jay (aka Sherry Ann Jacobs) has published mainly romance stories and novels, and it shows. What could have been an interesting futuristic political thriller becomes simply another love story. Now there is nothing wrong with romance in genre fiction - one of my favourite novels of recent months was Freda Warrington's A Taste of Blood Wine, an extraordinary vampire novel with very strong historical romance overtones - but when it overwhelms the genre into which it has been forcibly injected, can the book still be called science fiction? Envoy lapses often into melodramatics, lovers speaking to each other as if appearing in an American soap opera, looking away into the camera, back turned to their partner, who stands patiently, looking passionate and serious, waiting for a chance to recite the lines in turn. After a while (for me, a very short while), it ceases to be emotionally involving, and becomes at first distracting, then annoying.
Perhaps, though, it isn't so much a question of the romance overpowering the science fiction, but of the science fiction being too tenuous to raise its head above the romance. Envoy suffers from many of the same problems that befell Quest; the central plot is cliched and stale, the major characters poorly defined, unconvincing and uninteresting, and Jay's writing is still very awkward, often reading like someone using a thesaurus to try and avoid using simple words. Lovrel "gesticulating in an intensity of emotion" is just one example. But the most notable flaw in this supposedly "science fiction" novel is the remarkably ineffectual technology. Force fields, space ships, laser guns, robots . . . the requisite icons are all here, but there's no sense of depth, no realism. In fact, whenever the technology seems too amazing to be explained, it is simply a product of the Sirians, a more advanced race of beings and the deus ex machina of the book. The technology simply is; Jay treats it more like magic than science, which gives the whole technological background of the novel a feeling of superficiality and a strange sense of naivete which is difficult to shake. In fact, in many ways, Envoy gives the impression of being written for younger readers, if it wasn't for a few marginally-explicit (although rather uninvolving) sex scenes and a single character whose use of the simple expletive "fuck" was obviously intended to shock the reader (boy oh boy, I haven't heard language like that since . . . hmm, playtime in grade three). Jay also continues to subscribe to the "telling-not-showing" school of writing, using third person omniscient point of view to hop into characters' heads willy-nilly to let us know what they're thinking. This has always struck me as being quite lazy; if you can't tell what a character is thinking and feeling by what he or she says or does, the writer needs to work harder.
But, as I said earlier, Envoy is a vastly superior novel to Quest, chiefly due to the more minor elements of the book. When not mired down in the amateur dramatics, the background political scheming, albeit a little simplistic, is often fascinating. And Jay's minor characters - although occasionally succumbing to the condition which gives each of them a distinctive trait, be it a limp, facial scars or simply being old and crotchety (see "Funny Hat Characterization" - The Turkey City Lexicon - Eidolon Issue 3) - show a realism and depth that makes Jovrel and Channa look like pale stereotypes, which I suppose they are. The pacing of the novel was also vastly improved over Quest, which made the book much easier to read, and Envoy's central plot was considerably more interesting than the aimless questing quest quest of . . . well, you know. If Jay would simply create more realistic main characters and situations, instead of relying on romantic stock-standards, perhaps she could produce a work of science fiction or fantasy that would succeed on more levels than simply a bosom-heaving pulp romance. Sorry, Shannah; a better swing, but strike two.
"Now I've read that Envoy,
I think I'll have a rest.
Come on, read that Envoy,
it's heaps better than Quest.
Envoy . . ."
Originally appeared pp. 94-108, Eidolon 16, February 1995.
Copyright © 1995 Eidolon Publications. Individual contributions are copyright to the respective authors.
Reprinted with kind permission of the authors.