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The Lesser Spotted Science Fiction Writer
Part 2: Phillip Mann

First published in Phlogiston Eleven, November 1986.

I have just moved from Wellington to Auckland (ever the trendy!) and the process of shifting has given me a new insight into exactly why Roger Zelazny introduced the Courts of Chaos into the Amber books. He had just moved house—a process which consists largely of standing vacantly in the Courts of Chaos and going “Wurble, wurble, wurble” as the universe disintegrates into cardboard boxes.

In between nervous breakdowns, however, I’ve been reading the new novel by Phillip Mann—Master of Paxwax.

Phillip Mann, you will recall, is the New Zealand author who wrote Eye of the Queen a few years ago. That book received general critical acclaim. In a sense it was probably unfortunate that his first book was such a critical success, since it provides far too good a yardstick to measure his subsequent works by. Critics love to do this and authors hate them for it, because they never seem to realise that they aren’t comparing like with like. To say that Master of Paxwax is or is not as good as Eye of the Queen makes about as much sense as saying that Michelangelo’s David is not as good as (or is better than) the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Such a statement implies the existence of an absolute standard, and of course there is no such thing. Nevertheless, for thirty years, whenever poor old Frederik Pohl published a new novel, everybody told him that it wasn’t as good as The Space Merchants. Then he published Gateway and started the whole cycle off again. I suspect that Phillip Mann is going to find himself in much the same situation. For his sake, I hope it lasts less than thirty years.

Having just proved that I haven’t got a leg to stand on, I will now put my foot where my mouth is and say that Master of Paxwax is not as good as Eye of the Queen. But what do I know about it for goodness sake?

At this point however, I want to qualify the previous paragraph AT THE TOP OF MY VOICE—I thoroughly enjoyed Master of Paxwax. Saying that it is less “good” (whatever that means) than the previous book does not imply that it is bad. On the contrary, in fact, I intend to praise the book with very faint damns indeed. It is a book the author can be very proud of.

I think that my major reason for saying that it is not as good as Eye of the Queen is (paradoxically!) that Master of Paxwax is much more straightforward, much more of a “good read”. There is more concentration here on pure story, on plot happenings and events, and less on the multilayered levels of subtlety and development that characterised Eye of the Queen. As a consequence, Master of Paxwax seems thinner to me, it lacks body, but it moves; and that makes up for a lot.

The book is the first in a series of two (diptych? dualogy? How dare the man write a book that belongs in a class I don’t know the name of!) The sequel, The Fall of the Families, will be published next year.

So what’s Master of Paxwax all about?

At some time in the past, during humanity’s expansion among the stars, the alien races that were encountered have been systematically wiped out. Genocide on a vast scale. The worlds of humanity are now ruled by eleven families. Society is rigidly stratified and a person’s position in the pecking order is determined more by the predefined status of his family than by his own intrinsic merit or worth. This status is not subject to change, at least not in an absolute sense. Power and influence may vary as the families jostle and manoeuvre for advantage, but social standing does not.

Meanwhile, unknown to humanity, the remnants of the alien races hide out on the remote, barren world of Sanctum and plot and conspire to bring about the downfall of the human power base.

Pawl Paxwax, the second son of the fifth family, is the alien’s chosen instrument in their struggle. Pawl, of course, knows nothing of this. All he wants to do is marry Laural Beltane—but she is of the fifty-sixth family and he is of the fifth. It is unthinkable—such a scandal.

Pawl’s elder brother and father die suddenly and Pawl (rather to his surprise) inherits the Paxwax domain. It proves to be rather a burden, his father left things in a mess! His passion for Laural Beltane doesn’t help matters either.

Pawl must hold Paxwax against both his human enemies (specifically the family of Xerxes de la Tour Souvent who have engineered many of the mysterious incidents leading up to his inheritance in order to have some chance of securing Paxwax for themselves) and also against the aliens who would use him and his power for their own purposes. The first threat is obvious, the second less so as the aliens and their mysterious “Inner Circle” manipulate both Pawl and the Xerxes de la Tour Souvent.

The details of the two conflicts are the major plot threads of the book. The first, the machinations of the other families against the Paxwax domain is resolved in the novel. However the ramifications of the alien power plays are more far reaching. These are not resolved (or, more accurately, they do not reach a conclusion; they simply reach a breathing space) and will obviously form the subject of the second novel.

The story is well and excitingly told. The details of both plots, the interactions of the eleven families with each other (and unknowingly with the aliens) have a pleasing complexity which itself adds to the feeling of realism. Many years ago James Blish coined the term “idiot plot” which he defined as being the sort of plot which can only take place if all the characters involved in it are idiots. It is a very common fault and is not confined solely to SF although it crops up within the genre with alarming regularity. There seems to be something about spaceships and time-travel that turns off the critical faculties of otherwise good writers. Shikasta by Doris Lessing is a perfect case in point. That reads like it was written by some 1950s flying saucer contactee. But I digress, the point I started to make was that Master of Paxwax definitely does not fall into that trap for young players; which is an excellent point in its favour. It is one of the book’s major strengths and I was very pleased to see it. The other major strong point is the solid characterisation—and are the characters weird!

Again it is very common within the genre to find that the inhabitants of the far future are simply Mr and Mrs Smith next door. They commute by spaceship rather than by bus; but you’d know them if you met them. Their ideas and life styles are very familiar—after all, society and social mores don’t change, do they?

Well they do, and Phillip Mann knows that and takes account of it. The nature of the beast is not really subject to fundamental change (“A man’s a man for a’ that”) but society and societal manners are. Could your grandmother have envisaged punk rockers?

The eleven families are bizarre in the extreme. It would seem, for example, that at some time in humanity’s history customised genetic tailoring has become the norm. This is never explained in the novel—it is simply one of the givens of the society and everyone takes it for granted and doesn’t really talk about it—which is exactly the way it would be treated in “real life” of course. I was reminded of the Robert Heinlein novel Beyond This Horizon where, as the hero approaches a door, it dilates to let him through. Nothing more is ever said about it anywhere in the book, and it is thrown off so casually that your eye skims past it and then does a double take. The door has an iris in it? Suddenly you know that you are living in the future and that this future is lived in. Other people have made exactly this comment about that door—it is probably one of the most famous doors in Science Fiction. After that door dilated, the Gernsbackian travelogue of the future where the reader is shown around by some future incarnation of an Intourist guide (“Today we will see the velocipede factory where they fit the anti-gravity engines and I will explain everything about the process to you”) was dead. The door dilated and let in reality. As Mary Poppins said, “I never explain anything”. The characters of Master of Paxwax take these sort of things for granted, just like you and I take microwave ovens for granted. (When did you last explain a microwave oven to a visitor? Come, to that, do you even know how a microwave oven works? What is a microwave? Is it something microbes do when they say goodbye?) Consequently it comes as a little bit of a shock when the reader eventually realises that Clarissa Xerxes de la Tour Souvent has feathers, that Laural Beltane is piebald and that Pawl Paxwax himself is a crooked legged hunchback.

Then there are the aliens. In Eye of the Queen Phillip Mann created some of the most alien aliens in SF, and in here he has done it again. The Gerbes, the Diphilus, the Spiderets and the Silver Tree are all very nicely odd (I’m highly suspicious of the Silver Tree—I think it may be up to no good. But that’s the next book, so I’ll just have to wait).

I said I had some faint damns to praise the book with. Pawl Paxwax is given to writing poetry when the muse takes him. We are treated to some samples of his verse during the course of the book and I rather wish that we weren’t. He is not much of a poet (though the other characters to whom he reads his poems think that he is—more fool them). However there is some doggerel verse included, and that is really very good. When Phillip Mann is not being a serious poet, he isn’t a bad versifier—and they are two very different things as I’m sure he would be the first to admit. One disappointment—I heard Phillip read some extracts from the Paxwax book a year or two ago (while it was still being written) and one of these was a delightful parody of Eskimo Nell (among other things). I was sorry not to see it in Master of Paxwax. I suspect that it may well be in the sequel however, since it concerned the history of the exploration of a region of space called Elliot’s Pocket. This is mentioned in passing in Master of Paxwax and it is hinted that Elliot’s Pocket becomes very important in later developments of the aliens’ plot. If it is in the sequel, then you all have a treat in store for you, because it is a very clever (and funny) piece of verse. But poetry it ain’t.

One of the major alien characters is a Gerbes called Odin. Now here I get very annoyed. If you call a character Odin then whether you wish it or not, you immediately invoke all the cultural associations that have accreted themselves onto that name over the centuries. Now the Gerbes may be many things, but one of them is not a Norse God. Every time I read “Odin” the magic spell was shattered and I was outside the book again. Zelazny did the same trick with his Egyptian and Hindu deities and I didn’t like it there either. It just doesn’t work. If the name is meant to suggest aspects of Godhood or something, then show them explicitly in the text. Don’t rely on a name because there are too many irrelevancies associated with it—they get in the way and block your view of what is going on—one black mark.

Pawl Paxwax father is called Toby Paxwax—but as far as I was concerned he was really Baron Harkonnen from Dune. He had many of the Baron’s attributes and for me the correspondence was too close. I kept expecting Paul Atreides instead of Pawl Paxwax; and again the spell was broken. I suppose that you could argue that any novel which is concerned with political complexities (as are both Dune and Master of Paxwax) is bound to have some sort of Harkonnen figure in it: the unprincipled manipulator. And I would agree with you, but does he have to float around in a harness? The reasons for the harness are completely different in both books (indeed they are almost exactly at opposite poles; which may or may not have been intentional) and the final effect of the harness on Toby Paxwax is nicely nasty—but I still don’t like it. It seemed derivative—and one thing that Master of Paxwax as a whole is not, is derivative. Therefore this one little touch of it annoyed me.

But in the end, these are niggles, Master of Paxwax is a thoroughly enjoyable, exciting and interesting story. Eye of the Queen was all that and a bit more besides. Some days however, I prefer story values to any other; and the day that I read Master of Paxwax was one of those days. On that day I didn’t want to read Eye of the Queen. My mood was all wrong. It is the mark of a first class writer that he can produce different books for different times. Too many people write the same book over and over (Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote Princess of Mars about fifty times). That is a small talent. It is to Phillip Mann’s credit that his talent is a large one.

And now my cardboard boxes are calling me. I must go and unpack.


James Bryson

 


James Bryson

 

 
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