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It's Only Words

Phoenixine Seventy-Five, December 1995

Well, the holiday is over, but I'm still reading. Actually, I seldom stop. If I haven't got anything to read I get twitchy and irritable. I read things at every conceivable opportunity, though some of the opportunities I take astonish a lot of people. I used to have a landlord who was amazed at how long I took in the toilet and he put it down to the fact that I always took a book in there with me. However when pressed, he admitted that I wasn't as bad as one of his tenants who used to go in there with a guitar.

I started this month with Jane Lindskold's new book, The Pipes of Orpheus. It is actually two novelettes rather than a novel. Both concern Orpheus, the character from the Greek myths who descended into the underworld in search of his great love Eurydice. He was given permission to take her back to the land of the living, provided that as she followed him out he never once looked back at her. Well, of course he did look back, and Eurydice was dragged back down into the underworld and Orpheus was left alone.

The experience unhinged him a bit (as well it might) and one of his later misdeeds was when he agreed to rid the German town of Hamelin of rats. The city fathers refused to pay him, and in revenge he took the children of the city back to his hidden realm with him. The book opens several years after this event with a group of children who have just escaped from his clutches.

The first novelette concerns their journey into the underworld as they run from Orpheus' pursuit. They go looking for Eurydice on the theory that if they find her and restore her to Orpheus he might treat them a little more kindly. The second novelette is set several years after their return. I can't say much more than that because if I do I may spoil things for you and that's the last thing I want to do. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed it hugely and I strongly urge you to seek it out. The book is an American paperback, published by AvoNova. Don't make the mistake of thinking that this is a children's book just because it has children in it. Anything but. It is gritty and bloody and hard boiled.

After I finished the Lindskold book I emerged from the toilet in search of more reading material and I picked up Montezuma Strip by Alan Dean Foster. A lot of people sneer at Alan Dean Foster. He is regarded as a bit of a hack, churning out countless movie novelisations and never-ending fantasy series. I can't deny the truth of this -- much of his work is dross. But there are many nuggets of gold buried there if you search hard enough.

The book consists of a series of short stories (originally published in F&SF under the pseudonym of James Lawson) which are set on the Mexican border in a sprawling industrial complex. The federale Angel Cardenas is an intuit, a policeman whose senses are so highly trained and tuned that he can almost read minds -- almost but not quite. He is merely very very good at interpreting body language and speech patterns. He knows when people are lying to him. The stories are about several of his cases.

In an introduction to the collection, Foster talks about money as a motivating factor. One of my pet hates (and Foster's as well) is the story set in some richly detailed future environment which is so economically unfeasible that you simply cannot take it seriously. Where did the money come from to build the vast spaceships that travel so aimlessly? How do they justify their existence? What social and economic climate sustains them? These questions are at the base of the stories he tells in Montezuma Strip.

It is a quite hallowed tradition, of course. Poul Anderson did much the same thing many years ago with his tales of the merchant Van Rijn. But such tightly controlled underpinnings to a story are fewer than they should be.

The first story in the collection (which is really just a scene setter) is by far and away the weakest, which is a shame. Two "designers" working for the two largest industrial complexes have vanished under mysterious circumstances. The story resolves nothing, and is merely and excuse for Foster to indulge himself in some futuristic cyberpunk slang and some technological McGuffins that turn out to be the deus ex machina that "solve" the problem. Very weak. But the rest of the stories are little gems.

I don't want you to think I spent the whole month in the toilet. Indeed not -- I spent some of it at Microsoft, on a Visual Basic training curse (no that isn't a spelling mistake). To while away the bus journey I decided to re-read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. No -- it isn't SF, but it is a magnificent book. If you must categorise it, it's a western, and I always was a sucker for a good cowie (I like John Wayne movies too, at least when they are cowies directed by John Ford).

I first came across Lonesome Dove when it was TV miniseries several years ago. I religiously recorded it every week and watched it enthralled, but I never found out how it ended because on the day of the final episode I arrived home in the evening to find that my house had been burgled and the TV and video recorder (with the Lonesome Dove tape in it) had been stolen, doubtless by another cowie fanatic. Therefore, in order to find out how it ended, I bought the book and discovered it was one of the best cowies I'd ever read (the other, if you are interested, is Monte Walsh by Jack Schaeffer). Apart from telling an exciting story, the book is also tremendously funny, and it has pigs in it (which are not for rent -- this is quite important to the plot). I've read it several times over the years and I always enjoy it immensely. There is a sequel, The Streets of Laredo which is not quite as good, and rumour has it that there will soon be a prequel which I intend to buy as soon as I see it.

It is actually a rather rambling, picaresque novel. The characters drive a herd of cows from Texas to Montana. What makes the book work so well are the characters, the humour and (by direct contrast) the brutal, ugly violence. McMurtry pulls no punches and the book feels grittily real as a result. If you enjoy the company of heroes and outlaws, whores and ladies, Indians and settlers and the compulsive mingling of legend and fact (and the demythological insight you get into them all) then this is the book for you. Just as long as you don't want to rent a pig.

Then I went shopping and discovered a new book by Bill Bryson and my cup of happiness ran over. Bill Bryson, you will recall, is the author of Mother Tongue, a discussion about the English language wherein will be found the greatest palindrome ever conceived:

Satan oscillate my metallic sonatas

I have been a Bill Bryson fan ever since.

Bryson has also cornered the market in hilarious travel books and Notes from a Small Island is his latest. It concerns a journey round Britain, which sounds unpromising, but it is deep down, belly-achingly funny. Don't read it on the bus, people will refuse to sit near you in case you are infectious. We probably ought to have a book of the month in these columns -- well for my money this is it. I'd quote you a passage, but I'd probably have to write the whole book down and the Editor would run out of paper and the postage would be frightful. So just content yourself with this:

I didn't hate Milton Keynes immediately, which I suppose is as much as you could hope for the place.

Next on the list was a collection of stories by Lucius Shepard The Ends of the Earth. I picked it up cheap (in London Bookshops I think) otherwise I wouldn't have bothered because several of the stories have appeared in other collections. Is there ANYBODY who hasn't read Delta Sly Honey? But there were also several new stories in there and considering the book was cheap, I can thoroughly recommend it. Keep an eye open in London Bookshops, you could do worse.

I'm off on my travels again. Actually by the time you read this I'll be back, but as I write these words my travels are in the future and next week I fly off to Sydney for a bit more luxury living and the week after I'm in Wellington and the living won't be quite so luxurious, but it will still have its moments. If I will have been seeing any of you then, I hope I will have been enjoying it; and I hope you will have been enjoying it too. Don't you just love the things English can do with verbs?

Jane Lindskold    Pipes of Orpheus  AvoNova
Alan Dean Foster Montezuma Strip Aspect
Larry McMurtry Lonesome Dove Pan
Bill Bryson Notes From a Small Island Doubleday
Lucius Shepard The Ends of the Earth Millenium
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