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Youthful Vices

Phoenixine Eighty-Five, October 1996

The TV recently showed the miniseries of Larry McMurtry's Dead Man's Walk (the Lonesome Dove prequel that I mentioned in a previous essay) and I watched it and it was magnificent. It stuck very closely to the book (largely because McMurtry wrote the screenplay himself) but it brought home to me yet again that although I have read many McMurtry books, they have all been tales of the American West -- I have never read any of the novels set in more contemporary times. Determined to rectify this sad state of affairs, I purchased and devoured Cadillac Jack, a novel about a man called Jack who drives a Cadillac.

Jack is a wheeler-dealer. He roams the States from flea market to flea market hunting for bargains that he can buy cheaply and sell dearly. He appears to know every weirdo collector of weirdo objects and no matter what junk he buys there is always someone around to take it off his hands. Towards the end, an important plot point revolves around the whereabouts of a Luddite Truncheon (one of the few remaining police truncheons used in suppressing the original Luddite riots). A millionaire truncheon collector is desperate for it. Jack has it. Sparks fly.

My admiration for McMurtry's books revolves around the raving loonies that wander eccentrically through their pages. You can get away with this in a western -- something about the wide open spaces seems to encourage eccentricity, but I wasn't sure if he could manage the same thing in twentieth century America. I needn't have worried. He did it brilliantly.

One of the last projects the late Roger Zelazny was involved in was the design of a computer game. A novelization of this game has now been published (Chronomaster by Roger Zelazny and Jane Lindskold). While it might make a fun game, it makes a terribly tedious novel. The hero is a designer of pocket universes. Several such universes are now in stasis and he must enter them and explore them to find out why (has somebody got it in for pocket universes?). Since time has been suspended in these universes the only way he can enter and move around in them is to carry his own supply of "bottled time" with him. He is also equipped with a "universal tool" which suggested interesting Rabelasian possibilities to my dirty mind, but which turned out to be merely a sort of futuristic self-defining Swiss army knife.

The novel is episodic (as games must be) and is all surface and slam-bang action. The hero is heroic and the villains are villainous and it is all pretty black and white. I couldn't get involved.

Volume three of Harry Turtledove's irritatingly titled alien invasion novel is now available. Though the books are hard to tell apart by looking at the cover or reading the title, they are beautifully written. They are believable and exciting; what more could you ask for? Some heroes from earlier episodes are now revealed to be villains and some villains turn into heroes. Nuclear weapons are tossed around and things are looking bad for the aliens as they start to suffer reversals on the battlefield. Volume four (which Turtledove claims will be the last) will hopefully wrap all the loose ends up. I hope it does. This is all good stuff

Mostly I read novels, but I like short stories and therefore I fell with glee upon The Road To Nightfall, volume four of the collected short stories of Robert Silverberg. This volume reprints stories from early in his career. In the 1950s, in his teens and twenties, Silverberg spread like crab grass over every SF magazine in the world. His enormous (though often trivial) output allowed him to make a living as a professional writer and some of the best stories from this hugely productive time are collected in this book. Despite the almost machine like way he must have hammered out the stories, they still read well. Even that early in his career he knew how to tell a tale, how to construct a story and while of necessity these highly commercial pieces are classically structured (no experimental fiction here) they never fail to entertain and hold the attention.

David Brin is perhaps best known for his "uplift" novels and with Brightness Reef he returns to the theme. Let me say straight away that this enormous novel (705 pages) is merely the first volume of goodness knows how many and it is profoundly irritating in that it simply stops in mid story when the page count gets high enough. No conclusions are reached, no endings are explored. It just stops. As a result it is supremely unsatisfying.

The tale takes place on the distant planet of Jijo. It is under quarantine, left to lie fallow by the galaxy's patron races in the hope that the seeds of life left behind by the last race to live on it may mature into a life form suitable for uplift. But representatives of six races (one of them human) have sneaked in over the years for various reasons and an unofficial colony is growing. Then a spaceship arrives, seemingly to report on the current status of the world. What are the colonists to do?

The tale is told episodically from the point of view of representatives of each of the races, and it soon becomes clear that Brin is utterly hopeless at portraying aliens. Every single one of them comes across as merely a rather oddly shaped human being He simply cannot convincingly portray a mindset that is truly alien, though he is very good at bizarre biological adaptations (one of the alien races has wheels instead of legs!). I think I'm giving up on Brin. He is no longer worth the effort.

Well, six months ago tension, apprehension and dissension had begun. Now they are finished. The sixth and last book of Stephen King's serial novel has been published and now we know what Paul was doing in the shed and what happened when Coffey finally walked that horrible green mile.

As an experiment in publishing it has been a resounding success. As a novel, I think perhaps it is less so. Partly that is because of the preannounced limit of six books. The closer King got to book number six, the more obvious it was that the plot needed seven, eight or nine books and the last couple were very rushed with far too many incidents reported in retrospect that deserved the more immediate drama of being experienced as they happened

Six instalments is about six hundred pages (give or take) which is not a bad length for a story. But I can't help feeling that had King conceived and written it as an entity (as opposed to a serial) it would have been longer (say about nine hundred pages). But he was caught in the strait-jacket of the marketing decisions that pre-dated the writing. Six instalments it had to be, no matter how rushed the later ones.

Don't get me wrong -- I enjoyed it tremendously. It is a powerful and moving story. The flaws are perhaps inevitable, but it was a worthy gimmick, enormous fun and one hell of a story.

Youthful vices are never lost, they just gain in intensity. One of mine is an inordinate fondness for the appallingly bad novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs (acronymically known as ERB), a writer I discovered as a child (the best time to discover him) and who I cannot resist reading despite a certain and sure knowledge that the words he put down on paper were unutterably rubbishy ones.

One of the more frustrating experiences of my reading life has been the knowledge that when ERB died (round about the time I was born) he left behind 80 pages or so of a Tarzan novel. I wanted to read it, but I never could. It remained unfinished and unpublished until this year. The fragment was completed by Joe R. Lansdale (a comic book artist and novelist) and has been published as a limited edition hardback called Tarzan -- The Lost Adventure (lck!) which I paid far too much money for, but which I now proudly own.

I have to admit that it is not a very good book (though this is perhaps less than surprising). It consists mainly of Tarzan set pieces -- attacks by various wild beasts, fights among the great apes, Tarzan rescues the good guys and vanquishes the bad guys. A lost city is discovered. Ho hum.

It was nice to make a reacquaintance with Jad-Bal-Ja and Nkima and it was good to see them restored to their well deserved heroic stature, but overall the book was a disappointment; it was too predicable, too stereotyped and therefore, in the final analysis, too dull.

But like all ERB novels, the ending promises a sequel. The clues are unambiguous; it will take place in Pellucidar, that eerie land at the Earth's core. I always felt that ERB was most at home there. Apart from the Martian stories (which are in a class of their own) the Pellucidar books were his strongest. If this story is ever continued, I will be first in line to buy the book. I never can resist ERB; even when his stories are written by other people.

One of my most treasured memories is of sitting on the deck of a Mississippi riverboat watching an eclipse of the moon. It was my first ever eclipse, my first ever Mississippi riverboat and my first (and so far only) time in New Orleans, the city Poppy Z. Brite has claimed for her own in her stunning horror novels. To be sure, much of the action of Drawing Blood takes place outside of New Orleans (in the North Carolina town of Missing Mile, to be exact) but the spirit of that haunted and eerie city pervades the whole book.

Robert McGee, an underground comic artist who is losing his ability to draw, moves to Missing Mile with his family. He spirals down in a gloomy and all too predictable descent into drugs and drink which culminates with him murdering his wife and young son and then hanging himself. But for unknown reasons he spares one of his children. The boy Trevor, who seems to have inherited Robert's artistic skills, wakes in the morning to discover a house full of bloody corpses.

Twenty years pass, and on the anniversary of the murders Trevor returns to Missing Mile. Meanwhile Zach, an erstwhile computer hacker who has attracted the unwelcome attentions of the FBI takes it on the lam from New Orleans and also ends up in Missing Mile. He and Trevor meet and fall in love and together dig deeper into the gruesome reasons behind Trevor's survival. What they discover is, to say the least, disturbing.

I have never read a book which sustains its atmosphere so convincingly. It sucks you in and chums your emotions and won't let go. It contains some of the most gruesome images I have ever come across, some of the most erotic homosexual love scenes I have ever read. I am unreservedly heterosexual, but even I was turned on by them. The emotionally wrenching climax of the book is a psilocybin-induced (perhaps) hallucination of disturbing and almost traumatic intensity.

This novel is not for the faint hearted -- it pulls no punches and leaves the reader emotionally drained. By no means can it be described as "entertaining"; but by God it is powerful and dramatic. If you like horror novels you will love this one, though be warned, you may find it offensive.

While we are on the subject of offensive books, consider Anno Domini by Barnaby Williams, a book that is guaranteed to offend every Christian in the world (no mean feat). The novel tells the story of an early Christian sect (portrayed as the heroes) and their battle against what eventually turned into the Catholic church, an organisation determined to stamp out heresy. In many ways it is a true story (where are the Albigensians today?), but its shock value comes in the fictional assumptions, the most extreme of which is that the leader of the sect is Jesus himself (who did not die on the cross). His most bitter enemy is Peter who is portrayed as a psychopathic killer known as The Fisherman. The dichotomous Saul/Paul is beautifully painted as a Roman secret agent. Other saints and martyrs are also shown in a less than saintly light with all their human foibles exposed. If you are at all attached to your religious beliefs don't even open this book.

Sir Peter Medawar was a Nobel prize winning scientist and a thoughtful essayist. Most of the essays collected in The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice pick away at the philosophical boundaries of what we mean by 'science'. They make wonderfully complementary companions to shelves of science fiction books, but they are not easy reading. The points he makes are subtle but are illuminated with candour and enormous wit, particularly when he turns his mind to debunking some of the more extreme nonsenses that masquerade under the name of science. He does a wonderful hatchet job on Teilhard de Chardin and even Arthur Koestler comes in for some stick. Were Medawar alive today I am sure he would be greatly saddened by modern society's wholesale acceptance of some of the more lunatic fringes. But he isn't and we are all the poorer because of it. We need more of this kind of sense and sensibility.

Larry McMurtry Cadillac Jack Pocket Books
Roger Zelazny and Jane Lindskold Chronomaster Proteus
Harry Turtledove World War -- Upsetting the Balance NEL
Robert Silverberg The Road to Nightfall -- The Collected Short Stories. Volume 4 Harper
David Brin Brightness Reef Orbit
Stephen King The Green Mile Part 6 -- Coffey on the Mile Penguin
Edgar Rice Burroughs and Joe R. Lansdale Tarzan -- The Lost Adventures  Dark Horse
Poppy Z. Brite Drawing Blood    Penguin
Barnaby Williams Anno Domini Pocket
Sir Peter Medawar The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice OUP
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