Antique Futures - Terry Dowling
MP Books, September 1999, tp, 420pp, $29.95, cover by Nick Stathopoulos.
Reviewed by Chris Lawson
Terry Dowling has been writing SF, fantasy, and horror for as long as I can remember. The complete catalogue of his work would fill several volumes, most of it of the highest quality. While his compatriot Greg Egan has earned numerous accolades-and has arguably deserved one or two Hugo/Nebulas by now-Dowling sometimes seems to have been bypassed by the genre community, especially overseas. Perhaps it is because much of his fiction is set in Australia. But in a field that lauds books set in distant galaxies, alternative Earths, magic kingdoms and eldritch forests, one has to wonder why the Australian setting would be such a stretch for readers. Whatever the cause of the neglect, Antique Futures: The Best of Terry Dowling provides the perfect remedy. It is a retrospective collection of the best of Dowling's stories, and it is easily the most fulfilling book I've read this year.
Isaac Asimov used to talk about two approaches to writing prose. "Pane glass" writers use their prose to describe their stories as clearly and plainly as possible. The point of the story is not the window but the view through it. By contrast, "stained glass" writers concentrate on stylish prose and memorable descriptions. Although stained glass writing is beautiful to behold, it is sometimes difficult to follow movement on the other side of the window.
Egan, McMullen, and Dedman belong firmly in the pane glass category. Terry Dowling is, for the most part, a stained glass writer. Dowling has said that for "The Ichneumon and the Dormeuse", he found the words for the title and then held onto them for years until he came up with a use for them. Consider the rhythm of the opening paragraphs of this collection:
Aspen Dirk was a boggler. He knew the Nobodoi as few other Humans could. Leave him alone in a room with a Nobodoi artifact and within an hour he would have intuited its purpose. That was his special gift.
Aspen Dirk was also a boruk. A third of his body had been warped out of this continuum into another, a tragic result of one of those few times when his talent had not served him well.
Consequently, to look at Aspen Dirk was something of a trial. His torso did not really seem to exist. His head, neck and left shoulder slumped across his groin. He looked like a walking head with one arm.
Folded away, protruding onto another reality plane, the rest of Aspen Dirk existed, carried out the vital functions without apparent discomfort other than a sensation of being perpetually bent over.
What a hook! How can the reader not want to find out more about Aspen Dirk? He is a boggler and a boruk-a man whose talent is in working out the function of alien artifacts, and whose vocation has left him partially stranded in another phase of reality, so that he looks like a reflection in a fairground mirror.
This story, "Nobody's Fool", is one of two Wormwood stories to make it into the collection. Here the Earth has been enslaved, invaded or possibly set free depending on your point of view, by inscrutable aliens called the Nobodoi. That was centuries ago, and now the Nobodoi have disappeared, leaving behind a few other alien races, the remnants of their advanced technology and an Earth cris-crossed by artificial ley-lines and regions of varying gravity and other physical constants. Even though the ruling Nobodoi have gone, there is a palpable sense of their long-term plans still being in action. It is future baroque, where Dowling's love of neologisms and arcane words fires the narrative. It bears comparison to Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia.
The other great cycle of Dowling stories is his Rynosseros epic. Set in another far future Earth, this cycle is confined to the deserts of Australia, which are no longer remote and forbidding but are now the centre of a solar-system wide power base controlled by the genetically-altered descendants of Australian Aborigines. Tom Tyson is captain of the Rynosseros, a sand-ship that sails the vast inner deserts of the continent. He is also a discharged madman, unsure that he is fully cured, who won his ship in a lottery. He was given the right to call himself by the colour Blue (becoming one of only a handful of non-Aboriginal captains to gain the honour of a "Colour') by a broken bell-tree, a not-quite-AI that grows in the desert, living off solar energy and devouring silicon from the sand around it. Like Wormwood, the Australia of Tom Rynosseros is a setting that thrives on its weirdness and allows Dowling to run amok with language. (The only serious problem with the Rynosseros stories is Dowling's choice of the word "Ab'O" to describe the altered descendants of Aborigines. Dowling must be aware that "abo" is a term of racial abuse. I am sure he had his reasons, but surely a writer of his ability could find a better word? Would Mike Resnick have populated Kirinyaga with people called N'ggers? Not bloody likely.)
Although he is very good at it, Dowling's writing is not limited to stained glass. Outside Wormwood and Rynosseros, he has built up a large repertoire of horror stories. Here the language is forthright and clear-pane glass-but it's a sleight of hand. Dowling's horror is not about vampires or serial killers. It is about disjunction; it is about solitude; it is about the rules of life that bind our world together, but which can only be glimpsed in darkness when conditions are right; it is above all, inchoate and visceral. The clarity of the narrative gives the illusion of solid reality so that Dowling can then pull the rug out . . . but he never fully reveals the truth behind the illusion. In Dowling's The Wizard of Oz, the curtain is drawn back but the Wizard has fled the scene, leaving only hints about the nature of the menace and whether it is about to return. The fears and horrors that Dowling writes about are, on close inspection, never brought into the open, never exposed to daylight, never allowed to lose their power under the microscope.
These are the three main strands of Dowling's work: Rynosseros, Wormwood and horror. It makes for a difficult task of anthologising, especially since some fine work can be found in the few stories he has written outside these idioms. Dowling has published three Rynosseros collections, one Wormwood collection, a collection of horror stories and several stand-alone stories. It is an embarrassment of riches. The result is a collection that inevitably leaves out some of Dowling's best work. There is no "Privateer's Moon", for instance, even though the story is included in Centaurus, the just-released anthology of the best of the last twenty years of Australian SF.
For the record, there are thirteen stories. Four Rynosseros tales made the cut ("The Robot is Running Away From the Trees", "Shatterwrack at Breaklight", "Spinners" and "Time of the Star"), two Wormwood stories ("Nobody's Fool" and "A Deadly Edge Their Red Beaks Pass Along"), three horror stories ("Scaring the Train", "Jenny Come To Play" and "Beckoning Nightframe"), three science fiction stories ("The Last Elephant", "The Quiet Redemption of Andy the House" and "The Man Who Lost Red") and one that defies classification-it's a sort of far-future Indiana Jones adventure as Robert E. Howard might have written it ("The Ichneumon and the Dormeuse").
It would be pointless to go through the stories individually-especially the Rynosseros and Wormwood episodes that rely heavily on Dowling's ability to make the stories appear to be small details of a much larger canvas. They are fragments of a hologram: each shard contains the whole image, but no matter how you twist it you can't quite make out the entire scene.
Certain stories can be singled out, however, and the absolute standouts in a very strong collection are "Jenny Come To Play", a stunning horror story of the profits that can be made from hidden fetishes and family madness; "Scaring the Train", another horror story that cranks the Creepometer to the max; "The Robot is Running Away From The Trees", a Rynosseros tale about awakening an ancient, illegal artificial intelligence; "The Man Who Lost Red", in which criminals are punished by having parts of their sensorium "occluded"; "The Ichneumon and the Dormeuse", an archaeological adventure story in which a tomb raider must beat numerous traps and puzzles to win a treasure hoard, but this tomb is intelligent and fights back, all the while holding a seductive dialogue with the intruder; and "Time of the Star", in which Tom Tyson is caught up in a ritual war between two great tribes fighting for the right to marry into a powerful clan-this is the quintessential Rynosseros story.
Reading these stories, one is struck by Dowling's ability to write stories that blur genre lines without losing their edge. Most fantasy-SF hybrids turn out just plain silly, but not in Dowling's hands. He firmly trusts Clarke's Law ("any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic") and delivers stories with a fantasy feel while firmly employing SF tropes. In "Time of the Star", the SF setting frames a story of rival houses at war over the hand of a princess. The Wormwood stories, again in an SF setting, are frequently about ill-judged personal quests and strange artifacts left behind by superior powers. It is really only in a handful of his horror stories that Dowling allows genuinely supernatural events to take place. It is no small achievement to blend so many genre elements into a story without falling flat on your face. Dowling manages it while soaring.
This is a major collection covering nearly fifteen years' work by one of Australia's finest genre writers, and an essential addition to any SF lover's bookshelf. Since these stories have been harvested from numerous original sources, most of which are now out of print, Antique Futures is probably your best chance to acquaint yourself with the baroque imagination of Terry Dowling.
©1999 Chris Lawson. This review originally appeared in the September 1999 issue of The Coode Street Review of Science Fiction