Phoenixine Ninety-Nine, November 1997
I was in one of my favourite restaurants with a couple of friends, chewing on a lamb samosa (not normally regarded as a dangerous food), when I felt a stinging pain and with a clearly audible crack! a lump of tooth fell into the masticated mass of my samosa. It being impolite to spit in company, I swallowed bravely (though somewhat lumpily) and poked my tongue around my mouth to see what had happened.
On the right hand side bottom jaw, towards the back, I could feel a large jagged hole. Since the hole was on the inside of the tooth, the sharp edges rasped on my tongue every time I moved it. They felt like razors.
I struggled through the rest of the meal, poking the tooth occasionally in the vain hope that I might have been imagining things. No such luck -- to my tongue the hole felt like an enormous cavern and I vaguely thought that perhaps my entire head would fall in to it and vanish if I wasn't careful...
With the two Endymion novels, Dan Simmons takes the story he began in the two Hyperion novels into deepest A. E. van Vogt territory and the story turns into an excessively recomplicated space opera. In Endymion, every plot point developed and explained in Hyperion turns out to be untrue or irrelevant or both. In The Rise of Endymion, the explanations of Endymion are given the same treatment.
The story begins with the eponymous Raul Endymion rescuing Aenea when she re-emerges from the time tomb she entered at the end of Hyperion. The remainder of the page count of these two enormous doorstopping novels recounts Raul and Aenea's (often arbitrary) adventures as together and apart they battle the plots of the Pax and the Technocore. Twisted theologies, power politics, genocide and architecture(!) drive the story together with a travelogue through some of the most inventive landscapes and societies in the genre. The shrike is both a seen and an unseen menace. But the story is too long; too many revelations piled upon revelations. I got bored.
Theological concerns also drive St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, which despite all rumours to the contrary is not a sequel to the stunningly brilliant A Canticle for Leibowitz. It is merely a continuation of the middle sections of the previous book. In some ways, the novel reads almost as if it consists of out-takes; the boring bits that were edited from the original manuscript.
The world is slowly recovering from the catastrophe that almost destroyed it and the Church's influence is making itself felt again among the temporal leaders of the tribes that roam the devastated country that was once the USA. Brother Blacktooth Saint George and Cardinal Elia Brownpony are on a mission -- but as usual all is not what it seems. Brownpony has a secret agenda and a Crusade is in the offing.
The book is so theologically and politically dense and introspective that I quickly lost sympathy with it. While it doubtless reflects Miller's own concerns (he was a devout man who thought deeply about these things) it does not reflect mine and I found it completely uninvolving.
The next morning I explained about my tooth to the class that I was indoctrinating into the mysteries of Visual Basic. My words were less than distinct since I was trying hard to keep my tongue away from the jagged edges of the broken tooth which appeared to have got sharper and more belligerent overnight. However the class seemed to understand my mumblings and were duly sympathetic. Somehow I got them to a point where they could do a lab exercise and then I left them to it and shot off to an emergency dental appointment on the other side of town.
"Nice clean break," said the dentist enthusiastically. "Beautiful edges, good and sharp!"
"What caused it?" I asked.
"Hard to tell, but probably it was a bit of internal pressure from an old filling and it just cracked along a weak spot -- like a fault line."
Ah -- so now I was having earthquakes in my teeth. I wasn't reassured.
"Can you do anything with it?"
"Oh yes, fix it in a jiffy. Nice clean break, no sign of decay, soon get it back together. Do you want a local anaesthetic?"
Yes I wanted a local anaesthetic. I'm a coward about these things. GIVE ME DRUGS! Drugs were duly forthcoming...
Stephen Baxter's Titan tells a profoundly moving story of the swansong of the American space effort. Paula Bennacerraf is in charge of the dismantling of the shuttle fleet. The space race is over, the glory days are gone and so is the money. But in these dying days, the Cassini probe reports anomalous findings on Titan, and Paula and Isaac Rosenberg (a scientist at JPL) suspect that life may have been discovered. Paula's budget is not large, but by playing politics here and calling in favours there, she and Rosenberg put together one last planetary mission. Rusting Saturn rockets, mothballed Apollo capsules and the few remaining shuttles are pressed into service.
The novel is a grittily realistic account of a space mission; all the way from woe to go (and it forms a fitting companion piece to Baxter's earlier novel Voyage). The politics, the personalities and the technologies are brought vividly to life. The book grabbed hold of me and wouldn't let go -- though I could have done without the saccharine last chapter and the epilogue.
I've always enjoyed the mainstream novels of Iain Banks (without the 'M'), but A Song of Stone simply doesn't work. It is set some time after a mysterious war. Armed gangs of ex-soldiers roam the land and refugees are an almost constant stream along the road by the castle. The occupants of the castle join the refugees, hoping to escape. However they are caught by the lieutenant of an outlaw band and returned to the castle where they are forced to minister to the outlaws. The novel explores the microcosm of this conflict (perhaps in relation to the macrocosm outside the castle walls). However the narrator is so cold and distant and unfeeling (other than in a very analytical way) that the novel never catches fire. It is unemotional and as a result is quite dull.
In The Moon and the Sun, Vonda McIntyre tells one of the best alternate history stories I have ever read. To the court of Lois XIV in seventeenth century France comes Father Yves de la Croix, the Sun King's natural philosopher, returned from a voyage of discovery. He has brought back a living sea monster with a double tail, webbed hands, long tangled hair and a gargoyle face. The novel is partly about the scientific investigation of the sea monster by Yves and his sister Marie-Josephe, and partly about the politics of the Sun King's court. I remain ambivalent about the King -- all the way through the book I could never decide if he was weak or strong, wise or stupid. Was his conviction that immortality was the gift of the sea monster only an affectation, or was he genuinely a believer? Both interpretations can be convincingly argued. I suppose that makes him a consummate politician -- impure and far from simple.
Yves proves to be a weak and stupid man, too easily manipulated by the political cynics at court. His sister Marie-Joseph, despite her naiveté was far wiser, and a considerably better scientist. The relationship she builds with Sherzad the sea monster is the core of the book, and with Sherzad Vonda McIntyre has again demonstrated her usual enormous skill at making the alien and unfamiliar acceptable, understandable and even sympathetic.
Soon my jaw was numbing nicely and the dentist bustled around preparing the usual assortment of devices that gave every appearance of having been patented by Torquemada. Then it was time to begin.
First we had the ultrasonic drill and the water spray. That wasn't too bad. Then we had the grinding of a more ordinary drill.
"Feels like a Black and Decker this end," remarked the dentist. "What's it feel like at your end?"
"Eee aah iiikke aat ooo", I said.
"Thought so," he replied.
Then he inserted a pin and began to build up the filling around it, like a sculptor building around an armature. About half way through this operation, for no readily discernible reason, he called for varnish. The nurse obliged, and my mouth filled with the taste and smell of shellac. Then we had a few more scrapings, plane it square, rub it down with sandpaper and slap on a coat of paint and the thing was done.
I paid over enormous sums of money and went back to my class. My numb jaw felt as though it had swollen to the size of a big red bus (though the mirror assured me otherwise). I still had difficulty speaking through the numbness, and I think I dribbled, but we managed...
Donnerjack is the book that Roger Zelazny left uncompleted at his death. It has been finished by Jane Lindskold and in places the joins show. The collapse of the world net has allowed access to (or possibly created) the worlds of Virtu. Our world is known as Verité. Donnerjack bestrides these two worlds -- and he is powerful and important in both. He marries Ayradyss and loses her to Death, the Lord of the Deep Fields. After striking an Orphean bargain with Death, he brings her back to Verité. But the price he agrees to is the life of his first born child. Somewhat to his surprise a child is born of the marriage (liaisons between Verité and Virtu are regarded as sterile). Donnerjack attempts to cancel his bargain, but the Lord of Deep Fields has his own agenda.
The initial sections of the book are filled with dark designs and darker humour and the Zelazny magic has never been better presented. But gradually the novel becomes more mundane (if such a word can truly be used about a construction as weird and surreal as Virtu); and here I think we see evidence of Jane Lindskold's work. She is a great writer -- but she lacks Zelazny's bizarre mastery of the outré. And yet even here there are words, sentences and sometimes whole paragraphs which are pure Zelazny -- thus proving that at times she really did get into the skin of her collaborator. The novel is flawed by long stretches of almost mediocrity, and it is badly in need of some editing to tighten it up. But it has so many moments of sheer brilliance that these can almost be forgiven. And who can fail to love a novel which has a sentient train called the Brass Baboon, and a phant called Tranto in it?
Joe Haldeman's Forever Peace is not a sequel to his 1975 novel The Forever War, and the book opens with a caveat lector to this effect. It is thematically related, in the sense that its main concerns are with war and its effect on the people who fight (and the people who don't), but there the similarity ends.
In 2043, the Ngumi War rages. It is largely fought by "soldierboys", almost indestructible war machines under the remote control of soldiers many hundreds of miles away from the battle. And yet the psychological effects of this war-at-a-distance induce traumas just as deep as those of the more traditional confrontational wars of history. War is still hell.
Julian Class is one of these soldiers and he is coming apart under the strain. He and his lover Dr. Amelia Harding have made a discovery about the nature of war and the nature of the linkage to the soldierboys that threatens to change human nature and which may bring an end not only to this war but to war as a whole...
These are large matters, and it is a measure of Joe Haldeman's skill that not only does he deal with the themes convincingly, he also deals convincingly with the science-fictional Mcguffin that makes the whole story work in the first place. And at the same time he tells an enthralling tale full of satisfying plot and counter-plot, sufficient to keep the pages turning. I must have turned them very rapidly because I read it in a sitting.
Over the next few days it became obvious that there was a small roughness in the filling. My tongue rasped over it and it was shredding my dental floss, making it less than easy to dig out the carcasses of rotting cows and pigs, along with the occasional chook that were hiding in there and holding parties. I went back to the dentist.
"Oh yes, I see it. No problems there! Fix it in a jiffy."
A couple of pneumatic drills, a lathe, three sticks of dynamite, pitons, crampons, climbing rope and a full set of bungee-jumping gear vanished into my mouth. The army were put on full alert and Civil Defence was informed. The dentist pulled his parachute harness tight.
It did no good -- the rough spot is still there. Obviously I'm stuck with it until I eat another samosa whereupon I suspect my entire jaw will fall off onto the floor and I will have to spend the rest of my life eating curry intravenously.
In Hornet's Nest, thriller writer Patricia Cornwell turns away from her usual style (and her usual cast of characters) to write another brilliant book; one which is utterly unlike anything else she has done. Violence has come to Charlotte -- businessmen visiting the town are being shot in the head and left in their rental cars with their trousers pulled down and an orange hourglass spray-painted on their genitals. As if this isn't enough, deputy chief Virginia West has to play chaperone to Andy Brazil, a rookie reporter on the local paper, though he turns out to be less of a liability than she feared he might be. Most of the time, anyway. The book is a comedy, but the humour is very dark (Americans are often very good at black comedy) and it succeeds on every level. It is by turns gruesome, humorous and tense.
Callahan's Legacy revisits very familiar territory. Fans will love it, newcomers will wonder what all the fuss is about. The puns are wonderful, the story is trite and saccharine. The menace is unbelievable, the solution to the problem is hackneyed. In short, business as usual.
Harry Turtledove has finally brought his monumental alternative second world war to an end and Striking the Balance, while it does complete the story, also plants so many fishhooks that I would not be at all surprised to find that he comes back and adds to the series in later years. The books do not stand alone. This really is one continuous tale that just happens to be four books long.
I never thought I'd say it, but Slippage, Ellison's first story collection in nearly a decade is dull. Many of the stories are quite old, and there are good reasons why they have not been collected before. Only the novella Mephisto in Onyx really stands out and that is readily available in other editions. The book was a big disappointment to this long time Ellison fan.
For many years I have heard rumours of The Armageddon Rag by George R. R. Martin. The critics all praised it but I had never seen a copy. However recently I discovered that one of my friends had not only read it, she had a copy hiding on her bookshelf. I smiled winningly, and she allowed me to borrow it, and it was just as good as all the reports said it was.
It concerns a rock group who had been the idols of the hippie era. But the music died when a mysterious assassin shot the lead singer at a concert. The book takes place in the 1980s, and an ageing rock journalist (who has long sold out to the establishment) retraces his youth through the stories of the remaining band members. He tracks them down to interview them and (inevitably) is one of the influences that brings about a reunion gig.
The last half of the book is a little melodramatic and the eeriness surrounding the replacement lead singer is never adequately dealt with. But the major strength of the book is the way it encapsulates an era. The 1960s and 1970s have been written to death, but very few commentators have managed to capture the feelings, and almost none have ever really come to grips with just how important the music was. (Perversely, one of the few novelists who got it right was James Michener, a writer at least two generations removed from the people he wrote about -- read The Drifters to see what I mean). Martin describes the times with uncanny accuracy. For me the book was awash with nostalgia (and probably both Martin and I are wearing rose-coloured glasses), but a healthy cynicism shines through as well. For example, Martin's comments on the seriousness of modern day students are well observed. We were serious too, of course -- but we were serious about war and poverty and humanity. Today's students are serious about accountancy and business studies. For them, relevance means career-planning. That makes them shallow in my eyes, and Martin agrees.
It is the little bits of business that make the book -- my favourite concerns the children brought up with starry-eyed idealism in what is probably the last of the hippie communes. Vegetarian, peaceful, lots of good vibrations. But the children sneak away to play with toy guns, read super-hero comics and eat hamburgers. We all rebel against our parents, don't we?
|The Rise of Endymion||Bantam|
|Walter M. Miller Jr||Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman||Orbit|
|Iain Banks||A Song of Stone||Abacus|
|Vonda N. McIntyre||The Moon and the Sun|
|Roger Zelazny and Jane Lindskold||Donnerjack||Avon|
|Joe Haldeman||Forever Peace||Ace|
|Patricia Cornwell||Hornet’s Nest||Little, Brown|
|Spider Robinson||Callahan’s Legacy||Tor|
|Harry Turtledove||Worldwar: Striking the Balance||Del Rey|
|Harlan Ellison||Slippage||Houghton Mifflin|
|George R. R. Martin||The Armageddon Rag|