Previous Contents Next

The Mixture As Before

Phoenixine Eighty, May 1996

I have a secret ambition. One of these months I will read so many books that the entire article will consist of nothing but a list of titles, authors and publishers, with no room left for any comments abxout the books at all. I haven't quite made it this month but I'm approaching it asymptotically; so watch out in the articles to come!

I don't know whether it was an extra long month or an extra boring month, but whatever it was, I got through more than my fair share of books during it. Partly it can be explained by a business trip to Brisbane, a city where I know nobody and where, perforce, I can do little but read.

I flew cattle class this time (no luxury on this flight) and I compensated for that with the new Connie Willis novel Bellwether. For many years she has been amusing us with short stories set in a comically bureaucratic, inefficient society populated almost totally by untrustworthy vapourheads. These stories are generally told in the first person by the only sane character among the lot of them. Now she has extended this technique to a whole novel and I snorted and giggled my way across the Tasman, much to the consternation of my seat companions.

The story takes place in a research institute. Sandra Foster studies fads (barbie dolls, hula hoops -- where do they come from, why do they die out?). Bennett O'Reilly is a chaos theory investigator. Together with a flock of sheep they make several startling discoveries -- or rather they would if Management didn't keep having meetings and the photocopying didn't keep vanishing. This book is well worthy of your attention.

Being in the mood for amusement, I followed it with Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore. I love vampire stories. I particularly love funny vampire stories. Jody Stroud is attacked by a vampire in an alley in San Francisco. She awakes the next night with a fortune in cash stuffed into her clothing, a burned arm (it has been lying in the sun all day and she has developed a hypersensitivity to light), and a hunger for the taste of blood. She needs help -- preferably from someone who can go out during the day, which she no longer can. Her car has been towed away, and the towing company is only open 9 to 5. How is she going to get it back? Enter Tommy Flood, an unpublished freelance writer who stocks shelves at the supermarket at night and plays ten pin bowling in the aisles using frozen turkeys as bowling balls...

Over the last twenty years or so, the novels of Patrick O'Brian have become somewhat of a cult. They are set in the British navy of the early nineteenth century and the characters of Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin have entered the folklore. The Unknown Shore, an unconnected early novel dating from 1959 has just been republished. It concerns the adventures of the young midshipman Jack Byron, and surgeons mate Tobias Barrow on board the Wager, one of the ships in Commodore Anson's ill-fated squadron that attempted a circumnavigation in 1740. The Wager is shipwrecked on the coast of Chile, and the bulk of the novel concerns the trials and tribulations of the survivors. In hindsight, Byron and Barrow can be read as a trial run for Aubrey and Maturin. Their relationship is the same, and so are their professions. A delightful, eccentric humour permeates the book together with an incredible sense of place and time and a loving attention to detail. Even that early in his writing career, O'Brian had the skill of invoking an era so believably that you can smell it, taste it and feel it.

My other great love after vampire stories, is time travel stories. Therefore Time Scout a collaborative novel by Robert Asprin and Linda Evans appealed to me immediately. It concerns one Kenneth "Kit" Carson, once one of the best time scouts in the business but now retired and running a small hotel at the time terminal. Then he is approached by a stunning red-headed girl who wants to be trained as a time scout. Initially he refuses, but that doesn't put her off. She goes flouncing through an illicit gate, and Carson has to go after her.

The book is a simple sense of wonder story with no depth at all. That is not criticism, it is praise. Nothing can beat a simple, exciting story which is simply and excitingly told. I loved it.

One of the rising new generation of British SF writers is Eric Brown. For the last few years, he has been exploring the so-called nada continuum in a continuing series of novels and short stories. Blue Shifting is the latest collection and the stories are typical of what we have come to expect from Brown. They are emotionally wrenching and very lyrical.

One of the falling old generation of British SF writers is the late Eric Frank Russell. His reputation is still high today, despite the fact that he has been dead for more than 20 years and most of his books are out of print. He wrote funny stories which generally showed aliens at a disadvantage and Earthmen triumphant. Alan Dean Foster has taken an old Russell short story and expanded it to a novel called Design for Great-Day and in doing so has quite destroyed the old Russell magic. All the lightness of touch that characterised Russell has gone and Foster walks all over the jokes with lead lined, size 24 concrete boots. The result is dire. If Russell were still alive, he'd be spinning in his grave.

In my opinion Barry Crump is one of New Zealand's greatest writers. His latest book, Crumpy's Campfire Companion has done nothing to disabuse me of this notion. The book is a semi-autobiographical collection of anecdotes and it enthrals and amuses from beginning to end. I have a complete collection of Crump, and I have enjoyed every one immensely.

Bob Jones is another New Zealand writer that I admire, and recently, in a second hand bookshop, I came across a 1990 collection of essays called Prancing Pavonine Charlatans. The articles are culled from his regular newspaper column and it makes interesting retrospective reading since his comments on the contemporary scene of the late 1980s contain several predictions which have now come to pass in almost every particular. Of course he blots his copybook with some clangers as well, but no prophet is perfect. Like or loathe his politics, you must admit that the man has a brain, a wonderful wit and a vastly entertaining writing style. What more could you ask of an essayist?

The same second hand bookshop disclosed a copy of Insanely Great by Stephen Levy; a history of the Apple Macintosh computer. Now let me confess that the Mac is a machine about which I know nothing and care less, so it seemed unlikely that Levy's book could interest me. However on the strength of Hackers (which I discussed in an earlier column) I decided to give it a go. Well, despite my total Mac ignorance (or perhaps because of it?), I still enjoyed the book enormously. Levy is a skilled writer who makes his subjects come alive.

Sometimes nothing will work but a quirky adventure and when I want quirky adventures I turn to Mike Resnick, a writer who has never disappointed me. Fortunately he is prolific and so I can enjoy him lots. A Miracle of Rare Design concerns an explorer, one Xavier Lennox, who has himself surgically altered to fit in with the inhabitants of the strange worlds he investigates. There are several natural narrative pauses in the story and every time this happened I started the next chapter convinced of the direction the story had to take -- and every single time I was wrong! And it is these hiatuses (hiati?) which for me converted the book from a rather traditional narrative into something quite special. However there is one irritation. In the first alien episode Xavier comes upon a mystery -- why do the fireflies throw themselves to their deaths from the summit of the pyramid? Although the reason is hinted at (very obliquely) it is never specifically resolved. This is annoying.

John Barnes' latest novel is Kaleidoscope Century. Joshua Ali Quare wakes in 2109 at the age of 140 with no memories of his earlier lives. The bulk of the novel investigates these earlier lives as his memories return and they are memories of a century growing ever more bitter and violent. Quare has taken part in many of the century's seminal events. Few of them are pleasant. This is a grimy, violent and depressing book. Just the way I like them.

I have long been a fan of Christopher Fowler, a masterful horror writer. He is generally seen at his best in the short story -- his novels often run out of steam towards the end. His latest story collection is called Flesh Wounds and is stuffed full of paranoia and blackness with a light leavening of gore.

Fowler has a quirky sense of humour. In one of the autobiographical snippets that decorate books of this kind, he once said that " a fire, I go out at night". Many of his short stories are set in and around London's night clubs. I don't think I want to visit clubs like that. Maybe I'll stay at home and read Paul J. McAuley's new novel Fairyland instead.

Don't let the title fool you. This is no sweetly icky novel. It isn't even a fantasy, it is hard science fiction of the best sort. Genetically engineered "dolls" are the new servant class, the playthings of the first world bourgeoisie. Alex Sharkey is a designer of psychoactive viruses, the new designer drugs. In collaboration with the super smart young Milena he genetically alters some dolls, turning them into the first of what come to be called fairies. The newly awakened folk, far from being the fey creatures of legend, quickly develop their own agenda. The battles that follow are cruel in the extreme as each side uses the other in cynical furtherance of their own ends. This is a gloomy, bitter book which makes telling points about nanotechnology and genetic dabblings. You may not enjoy it, but you will certainly appreciate it.

I like spy novels too (I think the word you want is "eclectic"). John Le Carré's latest is Our Game and it is a masterpiece. The new post-communist atmosphere has caused a shake up in the intelligence services and Tim Cranmer, the book's narrator, has been forcibly retired along with Larry Pettifer his long time double agent inside Russia. Somewhat late in life Pettifer appears to have discovered morals and a sense of social awareness. These manifest themselves in a seemingly hopeless crusade on behalf of the rebelling Caucasian states (Chechnya, Ingushetya et al). He becomes involved in a massive fraud yielding 37 million pounds which he uses to finance the revolution. Cranmer seems to be implicated in this -- he isn't, but few are convinced. Propelled by the pressure of these suspicions he pursues Larry forward into the future and backwards into the past, a voyage of discovery that attempts to understand and illuminate both the man and his motivations. Old episodes are analysed with a new insight and new episode are explained (and predicted) by what has gone before. The truths we learn about each of them from this analysis are bittersweet ones. This is a masterful novel and it works on every possible level. It is writing of genius.

One of my favourite authors is Jack Vance. His elegant, mannered prose is always a delight and I wallow in it. He has written quite a lot outside of the SF/Fantasy field and recently I picked up a copy of The Mad Man Theory by Ellery Queen, a house name that Vance used on two detective stories in the mid 1960s (the other was called A Room To Die In and I have that as well). Both are actually rather disappointing, being merely routine thrillers with nothing to mark them from the pack. There are occasional Vancian touches (meals are very sensuously described) but they are few and far between. The commercial formula that was "Ellery Queen" seems to have overwhelmed Vance's original voice. Definitely for completists only.

Charles de Lint is one of the few serious fantasy writers that I can stomach. Normally I don't like fantasy very much and I avoid it. However I actively seek out de Lint's books. The Ivory and the Horn is another collection of his magical-realistic contemporary fables set in the city of Newford. As always, though many of the pieces are slight, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and the overall effect is a delight. The Newford stories are invariably artfully crafted pieces.

Svaha, on the other hand was something of a disappointment. It is more of an SF novel than a fantasy. It is set in the twenty first century. The native American tribes have taken the American government to court and won a landmark decision. Granted tribal lands in perpetuity, they have retreated there behind "enclaves", technological barriers that keep the outside world at bay. There they live according the old traditions (and superstitions) mingled with the high technology which only they now seem to posses (they have satellites and skyhooks). Meanwhile the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket as the environmental factors we currently worry about peak and effectively destroy the outside society. Life for the have nots is nasty, brutish and short.

The uneasy juxtaposition of native American lifestyles and high technology contrasted with the moral and physical decay of the outside simply fails to convince. I think perhaps de Lint's voice is too loud. The book bogs down as it goes through the politically correct motions.

For many years I have admired the mannered Chinese detective novels written by the late Robert van Gulik. Told in the traditional Chinese manner (van Gulik was a Chinese scholar of note), they concern one Judge Dee, an actual historical person who lived from AD 630 to 700. For a long time I was convinced that only five of the novels existed -- mainly because in an essay appended to The Chinese Nail Murders van Gulik himself says exactly that. Imagine my surprise and glee when I found another called The Haunted Monastery. Imagine also my anger to note that the small print at the front refers to a novel called The Lacquer Screen WHICH I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYWHERE!!! Grump.

The books are traditional whodunits and were they set in contemporary surroundings they probably wouldn't amount to much. It is the alien atmosphere of medieval China evoked so skilfully by van Gulik that gives them their charm and attraction. In many ways, reading these books is a science fictional experience. The evocation of alien surroundings is part of what science fiction is all about and van Gulik is a master of the technique.

Finally this month we have the first instalment of Stephen King's new episodic novel The Green Mile. An episode will be published monthly as a slim paperback from now until August. We have lots of cliff hangers to anticipate.

The book is set in an American prison in 1932, on death row and King declares it is an attempt to get inside the feeling of what it means to be condemned to be executed. What is it like to take that last walk to the execution chamber?

The first episode (called Two Dead Girls) is, of course, just a teaser for events yet to come. Sufficient horrible hints have been that I for one will continue reading with enormous eagerness. The only question that concerns me is whether or not my blood pressure will withstand my current enormous need to know!

This could well be one of King's more memorable books.

Connie Willis



Christopher Moore

Bloodsucking Fiends 

Black Swan

Patrick O'Brian

The Unknown Shore


Robert Asprin and Linda Evans

Time Scout 


Eric Brown

Blue Shifting 


Alan Dean Foster & Eric Frank Russell

Design for Great-Day


Barry Crump

Crumpy's Campfire Companion 

Hodder Moa Beckett

Bob Jones

Prancing Pavonine Charlatans


Steven Levy

Insanely Great


Mike Resnick

A Miracle of Rare Design


John Barnes

Kaleidoscope Century


Christopher Fowler 

Flesh Wounds


Paul J. McAuley



Ellery Queen 

The Madman Theory


Charles de Lint

The Ivory and the Horn 





Robert van Gulik

The Haunted Monastery 


Stephen King

The Green Mile Part 1
The Two Dead Girls


Previous Contents Next