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Phoenixine Ninety-Three, May 1997

When I come into possession of a chicken carcass (as it might be, the remains of a roast) I usually boil it up with this and that, throw away the bits of used up yucky chicken fragments and cool the resultant liquor. Then I skim off the fat and I have a wholesome chicken stock which I can freeze for later, or use immediately as the basis of a soup or stew.

Last week the assembled multitudes gathered together in my kitchen watched me take the simmering pan of stock from the stove, sling the savoury liquid down the sink, and solemnly save the manky chicken bits in a sieve. In between mirthful, hysterical giggles they enquired as to the source of my stupidity. Why was I doing it all the wrong way round? I had no answer, being as bemused as they were.

It's been that sort of month.

It started with Arthur C. Clarke's latest last novel, the capstone of his magnum opus, 3001 -- The Final Odyssey. It is a thousand years after Dave Bowman and Frank Poole embarked on their individual odysseys. Bowman's fate was described in earlier novels, but we always assumed that Frank Poole died when HAL the berserk computer set him adrift in space. However as this novel opens, Poole's frozen corpse is retrieved from space and revived. Poole proves to have a resilient personality and the culture shock is minimised. Soon he embarks on a tiki-tour of the new world he finds himself in, and here the book is utterly fascinating as Clarke throws off ideas like a berserk firecracker throws off bangs and sparks. The wit and wisdom are vintage Clarke and even though the story is thin the ideas enthral. Then the emphasis turns to the progress of life on Ganymede under the light of Lucifer, the solar system's second sun which once was the planet Jupiter. Contact is re-established with Bowman who has some disquieting things to say about the monolith that is supervising this great experiment. The plot becomes increasingly mechanical and the rather weak, almost deus ex machina ending fails to satisfy. Ultimately the book, in seeking to explain and define that which would better have been left mysterious, becomes almost trite. (Mary Poppins never explained anything and that's often a good rule to follow). It is impossible to call this a bad book, but it is a weak one.

When I get home from work it is my habit to change out of my work clothes into something more comfortable. Remove my suit, don a pair of jeans, slouch around like a couch potato in front of the telly with a book. Several years ago I came home one evening and carefully hung up my suit jacket, removed my shoes, took off my trousers and folded them. At this point my mind went utterly blank and I stood there in my underpants, trousers in hand, staring vaguely at the hanger, and wondering what to do next. It took several seconds of concentrated thought (interrupted only by some increasingly bizarre suggestions from my wife who was always quick to pick up on, and take advantage of my moments of moronicity) before I managed to gather myself together sufficiently to hang up my trousers and put on my jeans. Throughout all these actions I was conscious of a feeling of great bewilderment. None of what I was doing made any sense to me at all. A bit like the new Wilbur Smith novel really.

Birds of Prey is set in the seventeenth century and concerns the adventures of Sir Francis Courtney and his son Hal as they plunder the galleons of the Dutch East India Company off the coast of South Africa. The book consists mainly of action sequences, massive coincidences, sweaty sex and lots of male bonding. When the page count reaches the size agreed in the contract, the book stops. There will obviously be a sequel but I won't read it.

After Joseph Heller's Catch-22 I didn't think it was possible to write any more novels set in World War II that had anything serious to say. But the amazingly funny Captain Corelli's Mandolin has proved me wrong. The action takes place in 1941, on the Greek Island of Cephallonia. The somewhat half-hearted Italian occupying army is at odds with the local population. The doctor's daughter is less than pleased when Captain Corelli is billeted in her house, but he proves to be a civilised, humorous man and a consummate musician. You can probably guess the rest.

The book does not approach the brilliance of Heller's masterpiece, but does resemble it in the close juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy (sometimes within the space of a paragraph) and from that contrast it manages to extract a significance that makes it more than just a funny story of World War II.

Once I set out to drive from my parents' house to my uncle's; a journey I had made untold times before. Normally it took half an hour or so. After driving for more than three hours (and having failed to recognise any of the local terrain for at least two of them) I finally admitted defeat, rang my uncle and asked him where I was. He didn't know. How could he?

On a good day I can't do geography; on a bad day I don't even try. Once, on a very bad day, I set out to drive from Miramar to the centre of Wellington and ended up in Lower Hutt. If you don't live in Wellington, perhaps I can convey the monumental nature of my geographically challenged state by saying that the journey is somewhat akin to travelling from Australia to New Zealand via Finland, which is a journey that I actually made once but that's another story.

Harry Harrison has now completed the trilogy that he began with The Hammer and the Cross. His alternate world is now well established. Shef, the One King, and the semi-religion that is known as The Way holds hegemony over much of the north. But other armies are stirring in the Mediterranean and Shef finds himself caught between the forces of Islam on the one hand and the Christian army of the Holy Roman Empire on the other. The novel moves very slowly in comparison with the earlier volumes. There is much less derring-do and much more introspection. Often I found the political intrigues less than intriguing and the scientific rabbits pulled out of hats at vital moments were less convincing than before. However the pursuit of the Christian relics (a theme introduced in the second volume when Shef finds and then loses the lance that pierced Christ's side on the cross) continues with all parties searching for the Holy Grail itself. What they find and the use they make of it seems to me to introduce a genuinely original and fascinating theme that I would have liked to seen developed further. Ultimately though, the novel was too slow moving to be satisfying and too political to maintain the interest.

Jack Vance's new novel Night Lamp bids fair to be one of the best things he has ever done, as long as you don't read it for the story. The book is not quite devoid of incident, but there are long, long stretches where very little happens to propel the plot (such as it is). However that doesn't matter in the slightest -- this book is vintage Vance, Vance par excellence. There is a wild, wonderful wit and quirky, pointed social commentary and the most brilliant use of language. And as with all the very best Vance novels there is a footnote on the first page.

Hilyer and Althea Fath come across a boy being beaten to death on the world of Camberwell, by Robert Palmer's star in the Gaean Reach. They rescue him and adopt him and call him Jaro (for such a mysterious voice proclaims his name to be -- the boy himself retains no memory of this or indeed of anything else that pre-dates his adoption by the Faths). Growing up on Gallingale under the tutelage of the Faths (who are both musicologists, though Hilyer specialises in the Theory of Concurrent Symbols) Jaro meets the mysterious Tawn Maihac, a man of whom the Faths disapprove but who will have a profound effect on Jaro's later life. At school he meets Skirlet Hutsenreiter, a young lady who belongs to a social club known as the Clam Muffins. Social status on Gallingale is defined by the club to which one belongs. Skirlet is of abnormally high status, the Clam Muffins being preferred even over the Val Verdes or the Sick Chickens. The Faths (and therefore Jaro) are nimps -- they do not belong to a club and take no part in the social status round. This causes some problems.

Jaro's mysterious origins and his attempts to unravel them with the help of Tawn and Skirlet are the main thrust of the plot (and the resolution is satisfyingly complex and twisted) but the main joy of the book is in the unravelling of the strange societies and outré customs of the Gaean Reach, all told in a language and with a wit the like of which there never was on land or sea -- except in other Vance novels of course. Vance is not to everyone's tastes but he is high on my list of favourite writers and Night Lamp is high on my list of favourite Vance novels.

Being geographically challenged, I have often claimed that I can get lost walking from the bedroom to the bathroom and few people ever believe me, except for those who were there the day it happened. I was staying in a hotel and I awoke in the night with an urgent need to pee. No problem -- the bathroom is over there. I strode confidently (and sleepily) towards it, opened the door and entered, valves all over my body opening in anticipation of the relief to come, strange and unsavoury liquids beginning to gurgle along mysterious internal pipes. You know how it feels. I looked in puzzlement up and down a long corridor. No loo, but lots of doors leading to other hotel rooms. Oh.

It almost made me wish I owned some pyjamas.

Clive Barker's new novel is something of a departure for him. For the first third of the book you would swear that it was a perfectly naturalistic novel about a homosexual photographer whose ex-partner is dying of AIDS. Will Rabjohns specialises in photographs of endangered species. He is attacked by a polar bear and suffers terrible injuries. In a coma he revisits his childhood and relives some of the important episodes that have made him what he is. We meet the mysterious Jacob Steep and Rosa McGee and get the first hints that all may not be what it seems to be. In Steep's company, Will is introduced to death -- first of moths, then birds and finally the death of the artist Thomas Simeon who is gnawed on by a fox. There are reasons to believe that Simeon died two hundred years before Will was even born. He seems to be a refugee from something called the Domus Mundi and a mad guru called Rukenau.

When Will regains consciousness the episodes of his childhood have assumed a new importance. He is haunted by the ghost of the fox that gnawed on Simeon and by the idea of the Domus Mundi. What is the connection between Jacob and Rosa and the Nilotic in a mysterious picture painted by Simeon before he died? The novel gets darker and darker and the transcendental climax in the Domus Mundi itself is truly awe inspiring. This is Barker's best novel to date.

Joseph Wambaugh is not a prolific writer, but his every novel is a treat. He writes stories about cops (once he was a cop himself and he knows how it works). His novels are blackly humorous and cynical in the extreme and Floaters is one of his darkest and funniest books. It is set in San Diego during the Americas Cup. Two harbour cops called Fortney and Leeds patrol Mission Bay ogling beauties and pulling decomposed corpses from the water. But their cosy routine is upset by the Americas Cup. San Diego is aswarm with sailors, schemers, spies and saboteurs, not to mention the cuppies (cup groupies) who lust for a sailor. The story revolves around a randy cuppie called Blaze, and a dastardly plot to sabotage the New Zealand yacht Black Magic...

When I was seven years old I attended Withinfields County Junior Mixed School, a fancy name for a small and utterly insignificant village school in the heart of Yorkshire. On Friday afternoons we had "optional" -- we did what all young children love to do; we played with clay and plasticine, splashed paint about, hammered nails into wood -- fun stuff like that. We all looked forward to Friday afternoons.

The Yorkshire dialect that I grew up speaking was rich in double negatives, all of which we used to MEAN the negative, not the positive that a strictly grammatical analysis insisted it really meant. (In later years I knew that Mick Jagger was not really bragging when he claimed he couldn't get no satisfaction).

This common speech habit must have annoyed the teacher (a pedant at heart, his name was Mr Hanley and I remember him well) and one Friday morning he gave us a lesson in grammar and told us all about how double negatives REALLY worked. It was all very boring and nobody except me listened. Then he asked the $64,000 question: "Who doesn't want to do no optional this afternoon?"

My hand went up. It hovered there alone in the class and the whisper went round the room. "Eee, look at 'im! 'E dun't want to do no optional! 'E's weird!"

You can guess what happened. I got to do optional that Friday, but I was all alone. The rest of the class had ordinary lessons. I was not the most popular person in the world after that little exploit...

Jane Lindskold's novel Smoke and Mirrors is about a telepathic prostitute called Smokey. Her ability to sense and respond to the unvoiced desires of her clients have made her the richest working girl on the planet and the industrial secrets she steals and sells have gained her another fortune. But she is forced to leave it all behind when she comes across traces of a cold, hard alien mind hiding in one of her clients. Fortunately help is at hand -- by a strange coincidence her mother and father are visiting the planet and in the nick of time she escapes with them. Much of the novel can be summed up as "in the nick of time". Coincidence piles upon coincidence and really Smokey has quite a cosy time of it. Somehow the threat seems unreal and the ending is unresolved. The book is smoothly written and I enjoyed it immensely as I was reading it; but it turned out to be a bit like chinese food. An hour later I was empty again and wanting more.

In Look at the Evidence John Clute gives us another volume of critical essays covering the years 1987 to 1992. In looking at the evidence it becomes obvious (as if we ever doubted it) that Clute is one of the most insightful critics that the field has yet produced. This is a valuable and important book.

Many of these pieces were published in Interzone which is more of a mass market magazine than Clute's usual outlets. Perhaps for this reason he has moderated his usual florid language somewhat and now one seldom needs a dictionary to understand what he is saying (no more than half a dozen times per essay, on average). Clute has often been criticised for the excesses of his logomachic circumlocutions and I was amused to note that in the introduction to one of the essays he confesses that he has revised it for book publication by removing or re-writing the sentences that he himself no longer understands so as to make the essay say something approximating to what he thought he might have meant to say in the first place. Maybe.

Arthur C. Clarke 3001—The Final Odyssey Del Rey
Wilbur Smith  Birds of Prey Macmillan
Louis de Bernieres Captain Corelli’s Mandolin Minerva
Harry Harrison King and Emperor Legend
Jack Vance Night Lamp Voyager
Clive Barker Sacrament Harper
Joseph Wambaugh Floaters Bantam
Jane Lindskold  Smoke and Mirrors AvoNova
John Clute  Look at the Evidence Liverpool University Press
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