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A Large number of Books

Phoenixine Seventy-Six, January 1996

I have a friend who, when I meet him for drinks or dinner, always asks me "What have you been reading lately?". Usually my mind goes completely blank and I gape at him like a worm in a tequila bottle. But now I no longer have a problem. I simply hand him a copy of the latest Phoenixine and maintain an enigmatic silence. As a diary of my reading it is remarkably illuminating. It wasn't until I started keeping notes for these things that I realised exactly how many books I read, or how mixed they were. This month is no exception.

I started off with the new novel by Iain Banks. It is called Whit. Since it is by Iain Banks rather than Iain M. Banks, it probably isn't science fiction, although like virtually all of his books it has SF overtones. I fell in love with Banks' writing many years ago when his first novel The Wasp Factory was published. Though probably best described as a shaggy dog story with literary pretensions, it retained sufficient verve and power to hold my undivided attention and I have followed his career with interest ever since. His SF (as by Iain M. Banks) is generally mediocre­-certainly not a patch on his magnificent mainstream novels, and Whit is black and brilliant, shot through with sardonic Scottish humour. The first person narrator is Isis Whit, the Elect of God of the Luskentyrian sect, a small religious community based near Stirling. The cult was founded by her grandfather shortly after he was rescued from a shipwreck by two lovely Pakistani sisters, with whom he lived in lust for many years. As a result of this cross-cultural Scottish-Pakistani fertilisation, the Luskentyrians have a rather odd diet and on occasion Isis waxes lyrical about the taste of haggis pakoras.

The novel takes Isis out of her closed community into the world of 1990s Britain and Banks uses her odyssey as a mechanism to comment on what she sees. Stated thus it sounds boring (everybody has done this, from Voltaire on downwards). But the novel is anything but boring. By turns hilarious, thrilling, romantic and sad, it tells a rollicking good tale and makes serious social comments as well. The dénouement, where Isis finds out exactly how and why the Luskentyre Sect was formed is wonderfully ironic. I cannot recommend this book too highly (mind you, I say this about all the Iain Banks books).

On a high from this literary experience, I turned to Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem. I picked this one up on the strength of his first novel, Gun With Occasional Music which was brilliant. The blurb on Amnesia Moon was quite enticing (... with a fur covered girl named Melinda, Chaos sets out ... to the Western edge of the American Nightmare...). Don't bother. It's terrible. So involutedly American as to be almost incomprehensible to non-Americans and striving so hard for effect as to seem strained and artificial. Read his first book instead, it's much better.

However there is always Jack Yeovil. Well actually there isn't since his real name is Kim Newman. I first encountered Kim Newman when I read his novel Anno Dracula which is set shortly after the events of the Bram Stoker novel The twist is that in this universe Dracula won, Van Helsing was beheaded and Jonathan Harker killed. Dracula transformed Victorian England, becoming a pillar of the community and marrying Victoria herself. As the novel opens, London is full of vampires (a very fashionable state to be in) and a vicious murderer known as Silver Knife is embarked on campaign of terror as he slaughters vampire prostitutes. In a letter to a newspaper he refers to himself as Jack the Ripper -- but the name doesn't really catch on. Newman has recently written a sequel to this book called The Bloody Red Baron, a World War I vampire novel, it would seem, and I look forward to reading it.

Anyway, I was most impressed by Kim Newman, particularly as I tracked down his other books. In the introductions and afterwords I discovered that he also wrote novels set in the Warhammer universe under the pseudonym of Jack Yeovil. You've probably seen these on the shelves -- novels set in trashy role-playing universes. They have garish covers and revolting blurbs designed, it seems, to repel the buyer. But what the hell, I'm not proud and so I bought Drachenfels and read it on an aeroplane trip to Wellington. This was fun because I was sitting next to a staid businessman with a laptop computer he didn't know how to use properly and he kept glancing disapprovingly at the trash I was immersed in. (And I kept glancing disapprovingly at the trash he was immersed in as well).

Drachenfels is absolutely brilliant. Ignore the cover and the blurb. Listen to this:

Above them the fortress of Drachenfels stood against the crimson sky, its seven turrets thrust skyward like the taloned fingers of a deformed hand. This was where their adventures would end, in a fortress older than the Empire, and darker than death. The lair of the Great Enchanter


I know, I know. In most hands you would get a huge novel (or perhaps a trilogy) wherein a brave band of companions overcome huge perils as they go up against the might of the evil enchanter and finally defeat him and live happily ever after. Well in this novel, all that stuff happens in a half a dozen pages in the prologue and the novel itself is concerned with the efforts of a playwright/producer to stage a re-creation of the events as a drama in the ruins of the original castle. By turns witty and thought-provoking, this is a detective story (there is a murder to solve), a travelogue, a philosophical discourse and a treatise on the difficulties of staging a play. I loved it.

One of the major characters is a vampire called Genevieve. She also appears in Anno Dracula and is the eponymous heroine of Genevieve Undead a collection of novellas also by Jack Yeovil. I should point out that Jack Yeovil has also written a novel called Orgy of the Blood Parasites. Now who could resist a title like that? Certainly not me. I've read that one too and it is just the sort of book you would expect it to be. I particularly liked the scene with the carrot. Kim Newman/Jack Yeovil is definitely a writer to watch.

Then, at very short notice, I got a trip to Sydney, so it was back to the life of an expense account again. While I gloomily watched my waistline expanding under the influence of free food and drink, I went shopping for books and I found Yours, Isaac Asimov -- A Life in Letters edited by Stanley Asimov. This is a collection culled from Asimov's voluminous correspondence with fans and editors and authors and friends (often the same people!). It is edited by his brother Stanley who, most unfortunately, died shortly before the book was published.

He did a wonderful editing job. Isaac Asimov's unique voice shouts out of every page. Here, with his hair let down, are his opinions on this and that and the other. Stanley has divided the book into chapters on topics as various as "Typewriters, Word Processors and Computers", "Editors and Publishers", "Limericks and Oddities", "Being Jewish", "Being an Atheist". Isaac Asimov had opinions on all of these things and many more besides. This book is a most moving and beautiful memorial to both the Asimov brothers.

I also managed to pick up some books by Peter F. Hamilton, a new English writer. Mindstar Rising, and A Quantum Murder are set in a future England where the greenhouse effect and global warming have got completely out of control. The rising sea levels have flooded the lower lying areas of the country like the fens and in the chaos the Peoples Socialist Party (PSP) have taken over the reins of government in a totalitarian and corrupt regime that is hated by the people. The first novel opens shortly after the PSP has been overthrown in a bloody revolution. The hero, Greg Mandel, is an ex-member of the Mindstar Brigade. He has a psi-enhancing gland in his brain and can read emotions and has an enhanced intuition. He has seen active service with the army in Turkey and was one of the leaders of the resistance against the PSP. Both novels concern his investigation, as a sort of private detective, of industrial sabotage with alarming social implications. Hamilton handles the multiple threads of these novels with enviable skill and gives us a classical "whodunit" (and to an extent, a "whydunit") in a very convincing future world. I highly recommend the books. There is a third novel, The Nano-Flower, but I have not yet read it. Perhaps next month.

Back in New Zealand and back to normality, I relaxed with The Garden of Unearthly Delights, the new novel by Robert Rankin. Like all his novels, it is almost indescribable (but I'll try) and full of terrible jokes and puns. The novel introduces a news crumpet. A news crumpet is the woman who sits beside the (male) news reader and reads the silly stories that are beneath his dignity. All major news broadcasts have a news crumpet, you must have noticed. This particular news crumpet is called Miss Talier. Miss Jenny Talier.

See what I mean?

The Earth has entered a new age, a time of legend and heroes, romance, wizardry and wonder. Max Karrien (aka Max Carrion) is an imagineer and that is the last logical thing that happens in the book. The rest is indescribable (like most of Rankin's novels, come to think of it) which probably explains why the blurb has virtually nothing at all to do with the plot. Mind you, very little has anything to do with the plot. Even the plot has very little to do with the plot. I think it ends happily. I think it ends. I think.

It was definitely time for Roger Zelazny. Forever After was the last book he worked on before his death. It is a fantasy. The scenario posits a time when the forces of evil have been thoroughly defeated by the forces of good, with the help, of course, of four magical artefacts. Now that their purpose is accomplished, the artefacts must be returned from whence they came. Four novelettes by Robert Asprin, David Drake, Jane Lindskold and Mike Stackpole describe the adventures of the heroes and heroines as they struggle to accomplish their mission. These stories are joined by linking material written by Roger Zelazny himself. He maintained very firm editorial control over the project and insisted that the fantasy elements of the stories be strongly leavened by humour and the same sardonic wit that was peculiarly his shines through all the material. I loved it. Even the artefacts are funny -- I particularly liked the magical ring Sombrisio, which farts a lot and insults everybody.

I'll finish up this month with the new novel by Jack McDevitt. Of whom you may well say who? Well he has written two rather good novels, The Hercules Text and A Talent for War. Now comes his third, The Engines of God and it is his best yet. It is an archeological thriller -- not a common genre, I'll grant you. Scattered across various planets in the galaxy are artefacts left by an ancient race. Statues and cities and inscriptions. They are majestic and puzzling at the same time. Why does a planet have a city on its moon when the inhabitants of the planet never developed space travel? Why does the city consist of solid blocks of stone? Each building is solid all the way through. Why is the city partially destroyed as if by fire?

I'm not going to tell you why, that would be a spoiler of massive proportions and most unfair. Suffice it to say that there is a good reason. The further into the book you get, the more puzzling the mysteries become. Strangeness piles upon strangeness, (and also insight upon insight). There is tragedy and splendour here and a truly satisfying climax made even more so by the light it sheds retrospectively over the book as a whole. It makes you want to go back and read it again immediately with the benefit of your new understanding. This is quintessential science fiction and the sense of wonder tingle in the spine is absolutely authentic. Books like this one are the reason we all started reading this stuff in the first place.

Iain Banks  Whit Little, Brown & Company
Jonathan Lethem Amnesia Moon New English Library
Kim Newman Anno Dracula Pocket
Jack Yeovil Drachenfels Boxtree Books
Genevieve Undead Boxtree Books
Orgy of the Blood Parasites Pocket
Stanley Asimov (Editor) Yours, Isaac Asimov Doubleday
Peter F. Hamilton Mindstar Rising Pan
A Quantum Murder
Robert Rankin The Garden of Unearthly Delights Doubleday
Roger Zelazny Forever After  Baen
Jack McDevitt The Engines of God  Ace
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