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Phoenixine Eighty-Six, November 1996

Back in the 1960s a science fiction trilogy was published. That was nowhere near as common then as it is now but even though all the world's bookshelves currently groan under the weight of all the dead trees that have been turned into trilogies since that time, I doubt if there has ever been a trilogy as odd as this particular one. Each book had a different author and all three authors appeared as characters in the books.

The first of the books was The Butterfly Kid by Chester Anderson and I've owned that one for donkey's years. In it the three authors defeat an alien invasion of Greenwich Village with the aid of many good drugs (this was the 1960s after all).

The second book is The Unicorn Girl by Michael Kurland which I've just found after years of hunting. It concerns the events that transpire after the alien invasion. The characters are (sort of) kidnapped by trans-universal travellers, and a lot goes down when the BLIP hits the cosmic fan. Both books are very tongue in cheek and very funny indeed, poking merciless fun at what even then were SF clichés. Each book also has a fine old time insulting the two authors who didn't write it. Highly recommended.

The third book in the trilogy is called The Probability Pad by T. A. Waters and I don't own it, I have never read it, and if anyone knows where I can get hold of a copy I will name my first born after you.

In keeping with this oddly-authored theme, I was delighted to notice the simultaneous publication of The Regulators by Richard Bachman and Desperation by Stephen King; and initially at least I was expecting more of the same. However as all the world knows, one of these writers is merely a pseudonym of the other and so the situation is actually quite different from that of Anderson/Kurland/Waters who really were different people.

The King and Bachman books are very closely related to each other. Both have the same set of characters (or at least, people with the same names -- their ages and motivations and the parts they play do sometimes differ between the books) and both have almost exactly the same underlying theme despite some small cosmetic plot differences. Tak!

Desperation is a small town in Nevada. Several travellers are hijacked into the town by the local cop. The rest of the book details the murders, tortures and mutilations which the cop commits and chronicles their growing awareness that ALL IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS. Tak!

In The Regulators, the similarly named characters live in Wentworth, Ohio. Soon the killing will begin (quite graphic killing at that) as the Regulators come to town. Is it merely coincidence that Audry Wyler's nephew is recently returned from Desperation where his parents died horrifically? Tak!

I read Desperation first and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is as taut a horror-thriller as anything King has done, but I found The Regulators almost impossible to read. I had to struggle my way through it. It echoed so much of the first book that for me it contained no real surprises. It lacked the frisson that a good horror tale requires.

The one book acted as a spoiler for the other. It gave away too many secrets and the other was stale and dry as a result. I don't think it really matters which book you read first, but don't read the second one immediately after it.

While we are on the subject of connected books, Michael Moorcock has now completed the trilogy begun with Blood and continued with Fabulous Harbours. The War among the Angels concerns one Rose Von Bek who travels London's byways, living strange lives in the multiverse. She is friend and companion to highwaymen, followers of the High Toby. Dick Turpin, Jack Karaquazian and Captain Quelch. Only Moorcock could get away with this. He is re-living and re-writing his youth (and yours and mine). I read the Fleetway Library penny dreadfuls that he wrote in the 1950s and Dick Turpin was my hero because of them. I read Frank Richards' Billy Bunter stories and was grateful that Quelch was not my teacher. (Bunter himself has a minor mention in the book). Almost every sentence resonates with symbols. It is the quintessential twentieth century novel and yet it could not exist without the nineteenth century romantics that Moorcock loves so much. In style it is firmly a hundred years old. In content it is pure Moorcock. Which is to say, brilliant.

If there is a theme to this essay, then so far the theme seems to be sequels and to this end allow me to point you at Executive Orders by Tom Clancy a sequel to his monumentally boring Debt of Honour, but don't let that put you off. The book opens where the previous one closes. Jack Ryan assumes the mantle of President of the United States after the incumbent president and most of the Congress are killed by a kamikaze piloting a 747. Ryan is politically naive and several world leaders take the opportunity to settle old scores with the USA, secure in the knowledge that they know more about the way the world works than Ryan does. The plots are Machiavellian and the book is 874 pages long and the tension never lets up. This really is a good old fashioned page turner, Clancy back on the top of his form (his last few books have been almost unreadably tedious). Towards the end, when the obligatory war breaks out, the book degenerates into incomprehensible military jargon and interminable descriptions of planes taking off and ships manoeuvring. You should stop reading on page 798 and resume again on page 868 to get the full flavour of the highly satisfactory ending.

My major complaint is that throughout the book, characters drive around in an HMMWV. Does anybody have any idea what one of those might be?

You do, of course, read Dilbert, don't you? If you don't, you are missing one the funniest of contemporary cartoons. Go immediately to your bookstore and browse the humour section for the cartoons of Scott Adams. You will meet Dilbert, Dogbert, Ratbert and Catbert, and in books with titles like Bring me the Head of Willy the Mail Boy you will find an hilarious expose of life in the modern office. You will find your fellow workers here, you will find your boss. If you are unlucky you will find yourself.

Adams' contributions to that stultifying shelf of books on management theory are The Dilbert Principle and Dogbert's Management Handbook. To give you the flavour, let me quote from the latter:

When we are born, all humans are clueless, self-absorbed and helpless. Most babies grow out of it. Those who don't become managers.

I can't get away from it -- so far this month has been sequels and connected stories. I went back to Lord Dunsany and another instalment of the Jorkens tales. Age has not treated these well. The sophistication of life at the end of the twentieth century has caught up with and passed these stories from its youth and sometimes they seem naive. But there is nonetheless a period charm about them that is hard to deny.

Talking of Dunsany, I recently came across Fifty One Tales. This slim volume (the tales are VERY short) was originally published in 1915. Mine is the second edition, published in 1916 and wartime austerity shows in its cheap binding and untrimmed edges. Still I doubt if many of today's novels would be as solid as this one is after such a long passage of time. They built them to last in those days. The frontispiece shows a very young Dunsany dressed in his army uniform. He looks quite gallant and dashing. The photograph is adorned with a facsimile signature. In style, the stories follow on from his earlier Gods of Pegana. In substance they are very slight but the language (flowery and purple though it is) is quite powerful and moving. These vignettes (they are not really stories) are regarded by many as being his finest works. Certainly they are his oddest -- and I am not sure he ever reached such heights of intensity in such a small space ever again.

Lindsey Davis' latest novel about Falco (her private detective in ancient Rome) bids fair to be her best. I wasn't all that fond of Last Act in Palmyra, but I put that down to having read five of her novels in a row and becoming somewhat jaded. However subsequent discussion with other Davis fans revealed that I was not alone in that opinion so I approached Time to Depart with a certain trepidation. I needn't have worried. She is on the top of her form.

Balbinus, one of Rome's top criminals has been caught and must depart into exile. Falco supervises his placement on the ship that will carry him away. However the criminal vacuum he leaves behind does not remain empty for long and soon Rome is shocked by a series of enormous crimes (with, presumably, enormous profits for somebody). Falco investigates and the plot soon becomes thick. Along the way there are many satisfying moments, not least of which is that Lenia the Laundress finally marries Smaractus (Falco's hideous landlord) and Falco has to cast the oracle at their wedding. And that means he has to find a sheep...

One of my favourite contemporary novelists is David Lodge, a writer whose praises I have sung before in these and other pages. Write On is a collection of essays published between 1965 and 1985. Lodge is a lecturer in literature and his literary preoccupations show as he presents his opinions on writers as diverse as Lawrence and Salinger, Joyce and Mailer. He discusses films and rock music (he seems to be a fan of Shakin' Stevens), American culture and John Updike, the rabbit reviewer. This small but stimulating collection makes an excellent companion piece to his other essay collection The Art of Fiction. Damn! Another sequel.

Sometimes I wonder whether there exist books which are not sequels to other books. They are thin on the ground, I have to admit, but there are some. This month I found three. Not much of a ratio, is it?

Moving On represents my on-going attempt to catch up with Larry McMurtry's modern day novels. For once I was not impressed. The book is overlong and ultimately dull and I found it hard to care about Patsy and her footloose husband as they travel America looking for rodeos for Jim to photograph. There was a certain small interest in the descriptions of rodeos and the odd characters they attract (McMurtry's usual gallery of grotesques) but once Patsy gets pregnant and Jim goes back to college it quickly becomes tedious. Better by far is Buffalo Girls which is about Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill. Did you see the mini series on TV2 earlier this month? It was a faithful rendition of the book and highly enjoyable.

I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that Poppy Z. Brite is among the best of the contemporary horror novelists. Lost Souls is the ultimate vampire book. Forget your soi-disant Lestat decadents. Vampirism is embodied in Zillah, Molochai and Twig. It is Mardi Gras in New Orleans and for the vampires this is just the latest incarnation of the party that has been going on for centuries fuelled by sexual frenzy, green chartreuse and blood. Zillah casually impregnates a young human girl and the baby she brings to term, being of vampire stock destroys her in its birthing. The baby is christened Nothing and this is his book. And a sordid, murderous, blood-soaked, evil book it is. There is no lightening of the tone, there are no jokes here save the sadistic blood and semen soaked amusements of Zillah, Molochai and Twig. And Nothing.

But what of science fiction? My favourite living SF writer is Frederik Pohl and his latest novel The Other End of Time has just been published and it is a little beauty. The Earth has received two enigmatic pictures of alien creatures transmitted from space. There is evidence that a derelict orbiting observatory has been visited by aliens. Five people investigate. Five people return to Earth with false memories. Five people are transmitted to another planet where they become specimens in a high tech cage, some of them several times in several different cages. The aliens are the Beloved Leaders, at war with the Horch. Five people must choose sides and the evidence for and against is contradictory at best. Bitingly satiric (as always), this is vintage Pohl and they don't come any better than that.

Michael Kurland The Unicorn Girl Pyramid
Richard Bachman The Regulators Harper Collins
Stephen King Desperation Harper Collins
Michael Moorcock The War Amongst the Angels Orion
Tom Clancy Executive Orders  Harper Collins
Scott Adams The Dilbert Principle Harper Business
  Dogbert’s Management Handbook  
Lord Dunsany Jorkens has a Large Whiskey Putnam
  Fifty One Tales Elkin Matthews
Lindsey Davis Time to Depart Arrow
Larry McMurtry Moving On   Pocket
David Lodge Write On Penguin
Poppy Z. Brite Lost Souls Penguin
Frederik Pohl The Other End of Time   Tor
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