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In the Beginning

Phoenixine Seventy-Four, November 1995

With any luck this will turn into a semi-regular column wherein I will discuss some of the books I have been reading recently. The title comes from the fact that I have just returned from two weeks in Surfer's Paradise, where I was actually working very hard, though I don't expect anybody to believe me. Somehow two weeks in a luxury hotel with all expenses paid is seldom construed as work. Gosh, life is tough sometimes. Anyway, during those two weeks I read a fair number of books and they will probably serve as a good introduction to the sorts of things I'll be discussing in the future. So the title seemed appropriate. I might fool with it a bit in future columns; but it will do for now.

Anyway, I got up at an incredibly uncivilised hour (5:00am, reporting time for the flight was 6:25am -- why do planes always leave at uncivilised times) and having bought a Sunday newspaper and confirmed that I was not a lotto millionaire, I dipped into Permutation City by Greg Egan. The story concerns a time when personalities can be re-created inside computers and a large part of the novel is set inside such virtual realities. It sounds clichéd and I must confess I would have avoided it like the plague except that recently Greg Egan has attracted a lot of favourable critical attention. So I assumed that there must be more to it than the surface gloss and I was right. A whole virtual city is created (complete with stowaway personalities) and towards the end the novel becomes quite transcendental as it speculates about what is really real. A great book which lasted me a good couple of days.

I followed it with a special treat that I'd been saving for myself. Christopher Priest is not a very prolific writer, and The Prestige is his first novel for about five years. I decided to read it slowly and savour it. Unfortunately that plan failed. The book grabbed me so completely that I simply raced through it at a huge pace. The book opens in the present day as a journalist, Andrew Westley, travels towards an interview. We learn he is an adopted child and that he feels the mysterious presence of a twin brother who all the records deny ever existed. The middle portion of the book concerns the rivalry of two stage magicians at the end of the nineteenth century. Each attempts to outperform and outstage the other (even, on occasion sabotaging the other's act). As the conjurors' journals make clear, both suffer attacks of conscience on occasion, but always something arises to fuel the fire of their feud. In different ways, both seek out the eccentric inventor Nikolas Tesla whose experiments with electricity seem to offer possibilities for stage magic. The final section of the book ties together these disparate threads of past and present in a manner I won't reveal, but it is both logical and satisfying. The book is a stunning achievement, elegantly written and structured like one of the magician's tricks that are the heart of the novel. Without a doubt, the best book I have read all year (and the year is ten months old as I write this).

I had quite a time still to go living in the lap of luxury, charging enormously expensive drinks to my room account and I decided that I needed a really thick book to slow me down a little. So I picked up Memory and Dream by Charles de Lint. The book is one his magical realism stories set (as are so many of his stories) in the fictional Canadian town of Newford. A young artist is apprenticed to the painter Vincent Rushkin. Like her teacher, she discovers that the act of painting is an act of real creation and the subjects of her paintings are brought across from some other reality and are brought to life here. She cannot stand the pain that this can bring (some of her paintings are destroyed in a fire and her creations die horribly) and she turns to abstract art in an attempt to avoid the responsibility her art has placed on her. And then she is persuaded to illustrate a book of stories by an old friend of hers who died several years earlier.

The book is large and the story is not. I usually enjoy de Lint's work, but I am afraid that this one simply does not work. The tale is too slight to bear both the weight of significance and the sheer drawn out length that De Lint imposes on it.

To occupy my remaining days of sybaritic luxury I turned to The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick, an alchemical fantasy. Jane, a changeling child, is enslaved in a workhouse that manufactures iron dragons, terrible weapons of war. She finds a secret book of magic that details the schematics of one (now wrecked and ruined) dragon. Together they escape. They soon separate (though their lives intersect on occasions afterwards) and the remainder of the book is a picaresque exploration of an amazingly detailed fantasy world with unnerving resonances with our own. I particularly enjoyed Jane's university career where she studied for a degree in alchemy. Remembering my own studies for a degree in chemistry, I sympathised with her when her experiments failed to work (though I never resorted to the somewhat drastic methods that she has to invoke).

The novel is unclassifiable. Sort of like Gormenghast crossed with Disney and flavoured with a soupçon of Salvador Dali. Charles Dickens on steroids. I thoroughly enjoyed it and finished it wanting more. This is always a test of a good book.

By now I was facing a crisis. It was time to fly home and I had run out books. What to do? At the airport I bought two more, hoping to use them to while away the hours between (and during) flights. The first was Age and Guile -- Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut, a collection of twenty five years of journalism by P. J. O'Rourke. Not science fiction, but who said I had to read SF all the time?

I like P. J. O'Rourke. If it makes sense to describe him as a right-wing Hunter Thompson you may get a rough idea of where he fits in to the pantheon of journalists. In his introduction, he points out that he starts out his career making fun of a second rate American president (Nixon) and winds up twenty five years later making fun of a second rate American president (Clinton). This causes him to wonder about the progress of his career. O'Rourke's ability to make fun of himself as well as of the society he reports on rescues so many of these pieces from the polemics they could so easily have turned into (the ones that were polemics he mocks from the perspective of later years and puts them in a new light). If you want to know what the ‘60s and ‘70s were really like you could do worse than read this book for its historical perspective. You may even get an insight into the ‘80s and ‘90s. You will definitely get a lot of laughs.

As the aeroplane landed at Auckland at 1:30am I was deep into Dark Rivers of the Heart by Dean Koontz. A large book which I judged to be just right for a journey that ended (as do all journeys, it would seem) at an uncivilised hour. The story is a sort of a chase movie. The hero (Spencer Grant, though that may not be his real name) is hunting for a girl he met once and fell in love with. Meanwhile, both he and the girl are being hunted by an unnamed secret (and highly unofficial and extra-legal) organisation. There are lots of murders, lots of high technology, satellites, computers and such. As a high tech thriller it is enormous fun (though I found the computer sections somewhat naively written even though the ideas they deal with are spot on and anything but naive). It is a sort of proto-SF I suppose and the computer technology and what is done with it makes the book almost cyberpunk. It is very trendy, full of networks and hackers. An enormous timewaster, but thoroughly entertaining.

Now that I am fully recovered from jet lag and have to buy my own drinks, I am reading Pipes of Orpheus by Jane Lindskold. But I'll tell you about that next time.

Greg Egan Permutation City    Harper
Christopher Priest   The Prestige  Touchstone
Charles de Lint  Memory and Dream Tor
Michael Swanwick The Iron Dragon's Daughter Millenium
P. J. O'Rourke Age and Guile -- Beat, Youth and a Bad Haircut  Picador
Dean Koontz Dark Rivers of the Heart Headline


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