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Phoenixine Eighty-Two, July 1996

I buy a lot of books from a second hand book dealer in Sydney and for the last few months he has been looking for something rather special for me. Now the books have turned up and I spent the beginning of this month indulging myself in Lord Dunsany. Dunsany was immensely popular in the early years of this century, but following his death (in the 1950s, I think) his popularity suffered a sad decline and his books are now very difficult to find. He is probably most famous for several books of very tall tales narrated by one Jorkens, in a London club. These tales have influenced many other writers. Arthur C. Clarke's Tales from the White Hart owe much to Dunsany's Jorkens stories as do the Tales from Gavagan's Bar by Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp. Perhaps less famously, Sterling Lanier's stories about Brigadier Ffellowes are also in the direct line of descent. There are four Jorkens books altogether, but I'm saving some of them for later and this month I read only The Travel Tales of Mr Joseph Jorkens which was 1931. Despite their age, the stories hold up well and can still be read with enormous pleasure. Some have been overtaken by events (or more sophisticated stories) and the tale concerning an intrepid aviator's flight to the planet Mars in his specially modified aeroplane and what he finds there reads rather awkwardly to modern eyes. But there is still a lot of mileage in many of the tales and if you enjoy enormous leg pulls told with a perfectly straight face, you will love these stories.

A surprise bonus in the box of Dunsany books was My Talks with Dean Spanley, a whole novel which is well described by the title. It simply reports various conversations that the narrator has with the Reverend Dean Spanley. So far so boring, you might think, except that Dean Spanley remembers being a dog in a previous incarnation and the talks concern how it feels to live life as a canine. This rather quirky approach to a novel succeeds brilliantly and while I have no personal experience of being a dog I'm absolutely certain that this is just how it would have been. The habits of dogs (and their doggy reasons for doing things like turning round several times before lying down) are magnificently illuminated. I had never heard of the book before the dealer brought it to my attention, but I'm very glad he found it.

Shortly after finishing the Dunsany I came down to Wellington for a business trip. I brought Mortal Remains by Christopher Evans with me. The solar system has been settled. Biotechnology has provided a vast range of habitable environments. Sentient spacecraft voyage between the habitats and the souls of the dead live in the noosphere and are consulted at regular intervals by the living. This unusual blend of science and spiritualism sounds unpromising at first, but Evans uses his material brilliantly and this background serves as the focus of a kind of interplanetary whodunit when a strange womb is rescued from a living spaceship which crashes on Mars. The rival political factions chasing after this womb (and its contents) , their reasons for pursuing it so relentlessly and the cruel way they treat the people who inadvertently become involved in the chase makes for a truly nail biting story of pursuit and manipulation. I couldn't put it down and I read it far too fast and finished it in a sitting which turned out to be a mistake since I was then faced with a barren bookless week, unless I did something drastic.

I went to Unity books and with steadily mounting horror discovered there was nothing there that I felt like reading. I began to suffer an unnameable dread of almost Lovcraftian proportions. So in desperation I bought a detective novel.

It wasn't actually quite that random a choice. Several months ago a friend recommended a series of detective novels by a writer called Lindsey Davis. The novelty of the books is that the private detective who is the hero and narrator of the tales is called Marcus Didius Falco and he lives in Rome in AD 71 under the rule of the Emperor Vespasian. Imagine if you will, Raymond Chandler crossed with Robert Graves (of I Clavdivs fame) and you have a rough idea of the vastly entertaining style of these novels. The author brings the world of the Roman empire thrillingly (and cynically) alive. This is Rome as the common folk saw her, not the Rome of the history books and the dreary political and social essays of Edward Gibbon.

The books are by turns hilarious, cynical, violent, and brilliantly observed. Even the cast list of characters in the front of each of the books makes entertaining reading. Venus in Copper, the third novel in the series, involves in part:

Anacrites Chief spy at the palace and no friend of our boy
Footsie the Midget and the Man on the Barrel Members of Anacrites staff
A prison rat Ditto, probably
Severina Zotica A professional bride
Chloe Her feminist parrot
Thalia A dancer who does curious things with snakes
A curious snake
Gaius Cerinthus Somebody the parrot knows, suspiciously absent from the scene

I simply couldn't resist, which was annoying because there are currently six books in the series and that's a lot of money. But I dug deep into my pocket and bought and read them all and I certainly didn't regret it. I can't remember when I last enjoyed a series more.

When I got home, I took a bit of a rest from detective novels and picked up a non-fiction book called Nothing to Declare by someone rejoicing in the name of "Taki". Apparently he is an upper crust gossip columnist for the London papers. In 1984, while passing through Heathrow airport, he was discovered to be in possession of cocaine and was sentenced to three months in prison. The book is his account of his life behind bars. I bought it because the blurb on the back says "...easily the best book to emerge from a stint in one of Her Majesty's jails since Oscar Wilde's De Profundis nearly a century ago". Well I should have known better than to believe the blurb. It's an appallingly bad book. Taki is an unutterable snob and very little of the book has anything at all to say about life inside. Virtually all of it concerns the name-dropping exploits of his fast crowd of chinless wonders and Sloane Rangers. Don't bother with it.

By now it was convention time, and I hopped on an aeroplane to Christchurch to visit Constellation, New Zealand 's 17th annual SF convention. About ten minutes after the plane took off from Auckland it landed back at Auckland suffering from "a minor mechanical malfunction", to quote the pilot. Fortunately it turned out that it really was a minor problem and after sitting on the tarmac for about an hour listening to engineers thump things with big hammers we took off again. This time the flight south was uneventful and I passed the time by reading The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman. This sequel to Anno Dracula is set during the first world war. Dracula, having been driven out of England at the end of the previous book, has used the intervening years to make alliances with various of the royal houses of Europe and he plays them off, one against the other. Soon the continent is embroiled in a bloody war to end all wars. One of the heroes of the German offensive is the vampire air ace Manfred Von Richtofen. (whose biography is being written by Edgar Allan Poe). Opposing him are a small cadre of dedicated British air aces under the command of Edward Winthrop. They include Albert Ball, the shadowy figure of Kent Allard, and a certain James Bigglesworth and his pals Ginger, Bertie and Algy. Several other famous people also appear. Lady Chatterley's gamekeeper Mellors has a pivotal part to play in the affair and the spy Ashenden, fresh from his exploits in Switzerland , has a walk on part. Newman has enormous fun with these little touches, but behind the references and jokes there is a tense and exciting tale, brilliantly told. Anno Dracula was one the highlights of my reading last year. The Bloody Red Baron is one of the highlights of this year. And there may be more to come...

One of the events of the convention was the launch of a collection of short stories by members of the Phoenix SF Society. The book, edited by Phillip Mann, is called Tales from The Out of Time Cafe. The stories, each of which describes an aspect of the Cafe's existence, are uniformly excellent. Phoenix and its writers deserve to feel very proud of themselves -- there isn't a weak one in the bunch. The book demonstrates highly professional writing skills and it can hold its head up proudly in any company. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. And I also enjoyed meeting Amelia Earhart, Elvis, Bob the duty manager (an inspired invention -- she is a brilliant character, brilliantly characterised) and all other people and things who drift in and out of the Cafe. One the great strengths of the stories is that the characters learn from their experiences and change and develop as the stories continue. This gives them an added dimension that brings them alive and makes the reader care. These aren't ciphers going through the motions (as are so many science fiction "characters"). So when we learn of Manny's ultimate fate, for example, it is genuinely moving.

On the way back from Christchurch I read Stephen Baxter's new book Ring. This is a super hi-tech novel in the grand old tradition. It has a convoluted plot, gigantic themes and devices and no characters about whom you can care at all. They go through the motions like robots, humbled into insignificance by the sheer overwhelming complexity of the universe. If you like your SF very, very hard you will love this book. Otherwise don't bother. There is no art in this book, no lasting values. It's a wiring diagram with dialogue.

The other Stephen (Stephen King) keeps on coming at you with his his serial novel. We are now up to episode th and the tension is nail-biting. The plot is developing pleasing levels of complexity. The murderer Coffey is more than he at first seemed (there are even suggestions that he may be innocent, but we do not yet know whether or not he will escape his date with the electric chair). We are obviously heading for a crisis -- Mr Jingles the mouse is in trouble and the first rehearsals for the execution of Eduard Delacroix have been held. The next installment promises to be a cracker! The Green Mile is proving to be one of Stephen King's best novels. I WANT TO KNOW HOW IT ALL WORKS OUT (sob!). But like everybody else, I will have to wait for three more months.

There is an internet discussion group about the novels of Stephen King. Recently someone posted a message hoping that Stephen King doesn't die before he finishes the last volume! Fans all over the world would explode with frustration if that happened. It doesn't bear thinking about.

Lord Dunsany The Travel Tales of Mr Joséph Jorkens G. P. Putnams
My Talks with Dean Spanley Heinemann
Christopher Evans Mortal Remains Gollancz
Lindsey Davis The Silver Pigs Ballantine
Shadows in Bronze Pan
The Iron Hand of Mars  Arrow
Venus in Copper
Poseidon's Gold
Last Act in Palmyra
Taki Nothing to Declare Atlantic Monthly Press
Kim Newman The Bloody Red Baron Simon & Schuster
Phillip Mann (Editor) Tales from the Out of Time Cafe The Hazard Press
Stephen Baxter Ring Harper
Stephen King The Green Mile 3: Coffey's Hands Penguin
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