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I Can't Lift up My Book

Phoenixine Ninety-Two, April 1997

I've been feeling OOSful. I had this pain in my shoulder and upper arm. I just ignored it -- only a pain, bound to go away. But it didn't, it just got worse and it became more and more difficult to use my arm for anything at all. Eventually things reached such a state that I could no longer lift it high enough in the shower to wash my armpit. Crisis! Soon the whole world would know.

What I needed was an anti-inflammatory -- so I chatted to my friendly chemist and a strong one was obtained. Instant success! Being now OOSless, it became possible for me to type this article. So I did.

Transmat is a first novel by Maxine Komlos. The transmat of the title is a matter transmitter, commonly in use as a transport mechanism in 2022. It is a simple and reliable device and its use has transformed society. But now things are starting to go mysteriously wrong. Sabotage is suspected. And the impact and implications of that prove quite startling. Rather too many rabbits are pulled out of rather too many unannounced hats for my complete comfort, (the transmat is a sort of 21st century philosopher's stone, a veritable wampum substance) but the book is certainly a creditable performance.

I do have some cavils. The society of 2022 is one that I am likely to see if I live out my threescore years and ten. That brings it quite close to home, and while I do expect changes, I don't expect them to be as revolutionary as those portrayed in the novel -- in other words the writer failed to convince me; failed to invoke that very necessary "willing suspension of disbelief". I think perhaps I would have been happier had a hundred years been added to every date in the story. Certainly I would have been more willing to suspend my disbelief.

Quite a large cast of characters are invoked, but Maxine Komlos does a Heinlein with them and they are virtually indistinguishable, one from another. There were times when I had enormous difficulty trying to work out who was speaking to whom. The love interest is also dragged in, kicking and screaming, and the love scenes are particularly ineptly written; page 44 simply cannot be read with the eyes open.

The novel has been privately published and therefore (I suspect) has lacked a firm editorial hand. That's a shame -- it is certainly as good as much that is published commercially, and better than many and with a little tightening here and there could hold its head up in most company. If anybody is interested in purchasing Transmat, contact the author at 270 Sportsmans Drive, West Lakes, South Australia, 5021.

A phenomenon of recent years has been the urge of many SF writers to commit autobiography. L Sprague de Camp has now indulged this urge and of all the writers who have succumbed to the temptation, he is probably the best qualified since he has written two full length biographies (of H. P. Lovecraft and of Robert E. Howard) as well as quite a lot of shorter biographical sketches of many another fantasy writer. Now he has applied the lessons he learned in these earlier efforts to his own life and a fascinating tale it makes. He washes no dirty linen and much that is private in his life remains so -- he is quite restrained in what he says and there are no great revelations. He has been far more outspoken in other forums. His obituary of Lin Carter was less than complimentary, but his comments on Carter in this book are quite laudatory.

Much of de Camp's life has been spent in travel to remote corners of the world and a large part of the book consists of traveller's tales (some taller than others). For more than 400 pages this story of his life held me enthralled, and the insights into his books and his travels are fascinating.

The book itself was very expensive; it is printed on acid-free paper with a special watermark, and yet despite all of this care and obvious high investment in the production values, the copy editing is abysmal and there are typos littering far too many of the pages. It deserves better than that.

One of my favourite hack writers is Mick Farren who was quite prolific in the 1970s and 1980s but who fell quiet in the 1990s. Well he's back, and his new novel The Time of Feasting was well worth waiting for. It's a vampire novel and in some respects quite a traditional one. Renquist is the centuries-old master of a colony of vampires living in New York City. By and large they keep themselves to themselves and live as best they can, stealing blood from hospital blood banks. But every so often comes the time of the feasting when they really must hunt their human prey and feast on the live, warm blood. At such times the vampires are barely in control of themselves as the raging beast that is their appetite demands to be appeased. Paradoxically they also then become more vulnerable to attack, because they become more visible to those who would hunt them. Renquist is facing a rebellion by some of the younger members of his colony who regard humans as cattle and themselves as indestructible. Renquist knows better, but since when did anyone pay attention to older, wiser heads? The grue is gruesome and Farren's old cynicism is still there. This is a good one.

Damon Knight has not been prolific and has made more of an impact on the field as an editor and critic than as a novelist. But his few novels have generally been worth waiting for and his new satire Humpty Dumpty -- An Oval bids fair to be his magnum opus. In itself it is no big deal. A tourist on holiday in Italy is shot in the head in a restaurant. The bullet that has entered his skull has also cracked open another layer of reality for him and he begins to hear voices foretelling his doom. He encounters a cabal of dentists and an extraterrestrial shoe salesman. Giant craters open across the face of North America. This is prime Philip K. Dick territory and yet Knight handles it beautifully. There is more than just a surreal story here (and in themselves these 'plot' things are actually not very important). Dick used this sort of thing mainly to ask questions about the nature of reality, Knight uses it more satirically to highlight the absurdities of reality, so I suppose the spin is different. But either way, it's a great book.

A project is currently under way to publish all the material Theodore Sturgeon wrote at less than novel length. It is envisaged that when complete it will comprise ten very substantial books. Three have currently been published and they follow Sturgeon's writings (published and unpublished) from 1938 through to 1946. I first became aware of these books (and their importance) when the Phoenix Pres. showed me a copy of one of them that she had found in the remainder bin at London Books for a cost of next to nothing. It was a beautifully made book with scholarly forewords and afterwords and story notes and while there were many stories I recognised, there were equally as many that I did not. I was immediately consumed with an enormous jealousy and the next day I hied me hence to London Books but there were no copies left and I was distraught because I knew exactly what that meant. It meant that I would have to buy them all at full price, and so I did to the great pain of my credit card.

There are some wonderful stories here. Even in these very early years, Sturgeon showed the promise of what was to come and even the least of the stories (and some of them are VERY slight) are beautifully written. But I was absolutely astonished to find that brilliant Sturgeon classics such as Bianca's Hands and It and Mewhu's Jet dated from these early years. I had thought them to be much later works.

The Sturgeon project is an important one and I hope the money lasts and that they do manage to publish all ten volumes.

I have known John Brosnan on and off for several years. Many a pint have we drunk together in many a bar. I was with him when a fan presented a book to be autographed (one of Brosnan's excellent books of film criticism). John was thoroughly bemused -- nobody had ever asked him for an autograph before. But he rose magnificently to the occasion and signed the autograph with a flourish. I was proud of him, and bought him another pint. Over the years, under a variety of pseudonyms, John has made a nice living from hack writing (and he would not be insulted by that description -- he has no illusions about what he does). Occasionally he has published novels under his own name, and two of the latest are Damned and Fancy and its sequel Have Demon will Travel, which are billed as humorous fantasy, for that is exactly what they are.

John is Australian (though he has lived in England for lo! these many years) so it should come as no surprise that the books are full of fart jokes (and quite good ones, too). Also there are lots of in jokes -- there is a beautifully libellous description of the horror writer Harry Adam Knight. I will leave it as an exercise for the student to guess at least one of John's pseudonyms. And it isn't Leroy Kettle, though that's close. There's nothing outstanding about either of the books and the plots are terribly routine. But they are enormous fun -- absolutely perfect books to waste an hour or two with at a bar with a pint. Just like John himself, really...

There was a time, many years ago, when the name of Henry Kuttner was a name to conjure with. He was one of the first rank of writers and the reputation was well deserved. But he died, and his books went out of print, and now his name is largely forgotten, and his books are all but unobtainable and that's a shame. In some ways he was too talented. He was the ultimate hack -- he could write to order whatever was fashionable, and he did, loud and long. But within this narrow vision he somehow managed to put his own mark on the material and even the hackest of the hackwork had a little sparkle (though sometimes you had to dig deep to find it). When he was firing on all cylinders though, there was nobody else came within a country mile. If ever you find them (you won't), be happy to pay several small fortunes for Fury, Mutant, and Robots have no Tails.

But don't pay too much money for or attention to The Book of Iod. It is a collection of tales that Kuttner wrote in his youth; tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. As with most juvenilia they are formulaic in the extreme (but then so were most of the Cthulhu Mythos tales, no matter who wrote them). As such they are typical of their genre. But it is a crying shame that (as far as I can tell) these slight and insignificant words are the only words of the many that Kuttner wrote which are currently in print. There ain't no justice.

As part of my ongoing Larry McMurtry odyssey, I read Terms of Endearment this month. They made a critically acclaimed film of it (which I didn't see) and the book itself comes covered in quotes that praise it to the skies, so somebody must like it, but I didn't, though I have to admit that the fault is more in me than in the book or the writer. The heroine is Aurora Greenway, who is widowed (though she has suitors). She lives in comfortable circumstances in Houston, close to her daughter Emma. All the critics rave about McMurtry's characterisation. Aurora, they say, really comes alive and they are not wrong -- she does. That's why I hated this book so much. Aurora is a scheming, cheating, manipulating, conscienceless old harridan. The book is undeniably brilliant but it made me feel so uncomfortable that I couldn't read it. I had a relative who was Aurora to the life and it brought back too many memories, too much pain. To me Aurora's manipulations lacked the richness and the comedy that the critics praised this book for -- I found no comedy there, only horrible memories. I couldn't laugh; I could only squirm. I suppose that effect is a measure of McMurtry's brilliance as a writer, but nothing is ever going to make me like this book.

John Barnes is proving himself to be a versatile, talented and prolific writer. He's popping up everywhere, writing brilliant books in every SF sub-genre. His latest is a fantasy called One for the Morning Glory. The young prince Amatus secretly sips the forbidden Wine of the Gods, and becomes half the lad he once was. His left hand side vanishes without a trace. Such mordant wit and literalism characterises the whole book. In many ways it reminded me of William Goldman's The Princess Bride (a comparison made by other commentators in the blurb). An enormously fun fable.

The young Australian Greg Egan is attracting much praise from the critics. Every new book appears to wilder and more extravagant compliments. His latest is Distress, a novel about everything. Well to be more exact, it is a novel about theories of everything (known as TOEs). Such theories are a vital part of contemporary physics -- a decent TOE will unify all the forces of the universe and resolve the contradictions that bedevil the attempts to reconcile quantum physics and relativity. The universe will become knowable. Egan plumbs deep philosophical depths here, but even when swimming in the deepest of waters he never loses his grasp on the story values of the book. The thriller aspects had me on the edge of my seat -- who is killing the world's physicists and why, not to mention how? And the physics was enthralling. The novel is quintessential science fiction as well as being brilliant fiction about science; a difficult mix to carry off successfully, but Egan does it without turning a hair and he makes it all look so easy. This one deserves a few awards and I hope it gets them.

See what happens when you are at a OOS end?

Maxine Komlos  Transmat Self Published
L. Sprague de Camp Time and Chance Donald M. Grant
Mick Farren  The Time of Feasting Tor
Damon Knight Humpty Dumpty—An Oval Tor
Theodore Sturgeon The Complete Stories Volume 1: The Ultimate Egoist North Atlantic Books
  The Complete Stories Volume 2: Microcosmic God  
  The Complete Stories Volume 3: Killdozer  
John Brosnan Have Demon Will Travel  Arrow
  Damned and Fancy   
Henry Kuttner The Book of Iod Chaosium
Larry McMurtry Terms of Endearment  W. H. Allen
John Barnes One for the Morning Glory Tor
Greg Egan Distress  Millennium
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