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Songs of the Dying Earth

sdelgSongs of the Dying Earth, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois
(Harper Voyager, 660pp, £8.99 pbk)

Few of us would disagree that Jack Vance is a man whose career deserves respect; and since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then an anthology of stories which ape one of his creations must seem like a fine and commercial tribute. And yet… The Dying Earth first appeared in 1950. It is over sixty years old. The average age of the contributors to Songs of the Dying Earth is no younger. This anthology, then, is an exercise in nostalgia. Though its cover proclaims it contains “stories in honour of Jack Vance”, it is not a homage: its contents are not inspired by Vance’s creation, they pastiche it. Each of the twenty-two stories uses places and characters invented by Vance. Further, while some directly reference stories written by Vance; one, by Liz Williams, bases its plot directly on one by Vance.

The original The Dying Earth was a short story collection of 176 pages. Songs of the Dying Earth is nearly four times larger. This means those factors which lent the original its charm soon overstay their welcome: the ornate, archaic language; the amusing names of people, places and spells; the science-fictional tone in service to fantastical magic; the constant references to the dying sun. Over 660 pages, these conceits lend every story a similar affect, making each of the stories blend and merge into the one following. Songs of the Dying Earth reads like a novel without a plot and an interchangeable cast. It is, then, a book to be dipped into, not to be read from cover to cover.

While the anthology may provide a varied read only in small doses, the quality – and flavour – of the contents is equally variable. A handful stand out. Kage Baker, who appears to be the only contributor who remembered that many of Vance’s Dying Earth stories were very funny. Lucius Shepard, who shows more invention than most (with footnotes), though a thorny moral discussion in the middle jars somewhat. Elizabeth Hand, whose story is the only one to feature female protagonists (she should also be rewarded for the invention of “Punctilious Trousers”). And Jeff Vandermeer, who brings a foreign, but welcome, note of the surreal; his is perhaps the least accurate imitation, but it is better for it.

However, John C Wright’s and Elizabeth Moon’s stories are completely tone-deaf; unlike Terry Dowling and Walter Jon Williams, who both manage to catch the flavour of Vance’s originals. Neil Gaiman’s story bizarrely opens in present-day Florida. Matthew Hughes, given his career to date, provides an oddly disappointing tale. Robert Silverberg’s opening story is dull, as is Mike Resnick’s. Liz William’s is memorable chiefly for being so miserable. Dan Simmons provides a novella, the longest story in Songs of the Dying Earth. The remainder – Paula Volsky, Phyllis Eisenstein, Tad Williams, Glen Cook, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Howard Waldrop and co-editor George RR Martin – are somewhere in between.

Each story features an afterword in which the writer explains how they first discovered Vance’s The Dying Earth, and what it now means to them. In almost all cases, they discovered the book at an impressionable age during the 1960s or early 1970s. These afterwords suggest that Songs of the Dying Earth is indeed a celebration of Vance’s creation. Certainly, it seems poorly-designed to introduce a new generation of readers to Vance’s oeuvre – most of which is out of print, anyway. And purely as an anthology, the sameness of its contents works against it.

Overall, it’s hard to not suspect the writers had more fun writing the stories in Songs of the Dying Earth than readers will have reading them.

This review originally appeared in Interzone, #238, January-February 2012.


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Template, Matthew Hughes

Template, Matthew Hughes
(2008, PS Publishing, £20, 253pp)

Comparisons between Matthew Hughes and Jack Vance are inevitable, because if any writer is a template for Hughes’ fiction then it is Vance. Hughes’ Archonate novels are set on an Earth not unlike the Dying Earth, or on the worlds of a formless galactic polity called The Spray which resembles the Alastor Cluster (in fact, hussade, from Vance’s Trullion: Alastor 2262, is mentioned in Template).

Like many of Vance’s novels, Template is a bildungsroman, and one in which the protagonist is involuntarily pitched into a quest for his true identity. Said protagonist is Conn Labro, a highly-skilled and indentured duellist on the world of Thrais. Despite his abilities, Labro is a naïf and Thrais, with its culture based on contracts and transactions, has given him poor social skills. So when a regular customer is murdered, leaves him a fortune and an encrypted bearer deed to a planet, and an attempt is made on his own life, Labro has no idea how to respond. Happily, there is a young woman at hand to help him. Labro buys out his indenture and determines to discover his origin and the location of the planet he apparently now owns. The young woman, Jenore Mordene, he “hires” as a guide.

It’s in the nature of such a story’s template that the naïf’s voyage of discovery is as much literal as it is metaphorical. Labro’s bearer deed has determined his destination, Earth, and so he must travel there. En route, he learns something of The Spray – which gives Hughes opportunity to discourse on various cultural templates for societies. For example, one character posits a theory of societies each built upon one of the seven deadly sins. Thrais, with its “transactionalism”, is of course Greed. Unfortunately, Hughes makes little of this idea, using it merely as the topic of conversation.

On Earth, Labro sees all social interactions as a form of transaction. Mordene, however, is from a region of Earth which eschews money, and sees something different. This provides some interesting repartee, but does not advance the plot as such. But it certainly sets the template for their relationship.

It’s only when Labro learns what he has inherited that the villain of the piece steps in to the story. Now the template is Gothic. Not only does the villain remain masked but, as is often the case in such fictions, there is a greater enemy hiding behind him. And this greater villain must be defeated if Labro is to win and keep knowledge of his origin, his legacy, and the girl. And yes, the book’s climax does reveal Labro’s origin. It also explains the story’s title – there is indeed a very real template in the story.

At some point reading Template, everyone is sure to ask why we need Hughes when we have Vance. And the answer is: because we can never have too much Vance. And providing it’s done with invention and wit, then it’s as enjoyable as the real thing. Happily, Hughes matches the wit and invention of Vance. He also brings slightly off-kilter philosophical musings to his stories, and they provide a depth Vance sometimes lacks. Having said that, the writing in Template is a little stilted. While clearly intentional, it’s not entirely successful. Further, Labro is somewhat stiff a character, and Mordene is under-written. Neither characteristic is unexpected – at that intersection of bildungsroman and travelogue, where both protagonist and world are mapped, there’s little room for immersion.

This review originally appeared in Interzone 218, October 2008.


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Readings & Watchings 5

Time to look in the bucket once again after another shift at the coalface of culture. You know how this works…

Books
The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie (2006), was March’s book for my 2010 Reading Challenge. I reviewed it here.

A White Bird of Kinship trilogy, Richard Cowper, which comprises The Road to Corlay (1978), A Dream of Kinship (1981) and A Tapestry of Time (1982). These are set at the turn of the fourth millennium, a thousand years after global warming resulted in great floods, and the UK is an archipelago of seven kingdoms. Technology has fallen back to roughly mediaeval level, and a militant church runs much of the UK. Peter, a travelling story-teller, takes Tom, a young piper, to York to enroll him in the Minster school, but Tom is not all he seems. If he’s not the prophesied White Bird, then he is its prophet… Some years later, Tom’s death has resulted in a new religion, Kinship. A man is found floating in the sea off the island of Quantock (what were the Quantock Hills near Taunton), and put in the care of Jane, a potter’s daughter, who is huesh (she can see the future). Meanwhile, one thousand years earlier, Dr Mike Carver is in a coma following an experiment. Somehow he’s trapped in the mind of Thomas of Norwich, the man being cared for by Jane. The Road to Corlay, as the title suggests, covers the origin of the Kinship religion. By the second book, A Dream of Kinship, it’s reasonably well-established, albeit still a minority religion and considered heretical by Christianity. It’s also morphing into Christianity – accreting the creed and ceremony of the church it’s replacing. The story is told through Tom, son of Jane and Thomas of Norwich, as he grows up and studies at the religion’s centre, Corlay on the Isle of Brittany. The Christian Church plans to safeguard its stranglehold on the Seven Kingdoms by seizing control, but Tom manages to prevent this happening in the First Kingdom. In the final book, A Tapestry of Time, the parallels between Kinship’s history and Christianity’s history have become more marked. Tom travels about Europe with his girlfriend Witchet as an itinerant musician. There’s nasty incident in the French Alps, and Tom gives up on Kinship. But events lead him back to it – but in opposition to Brother Francis, who is Kinship’s St Paul. The final section of the book is set 800 years later, as two Oxford dons in a faux-Victorian/Edwardian English society, are “helped” to uncover the original Kinship, and not the church that has grown up around it. Again, Cowper’s clearly riffing off Pauline Christianity. They’re good books these three – well-written and interesting science fiction. Perhaps it’s a little implausible that British society would culturally repeat itself after the Drowning when the icecaps melted – mediaeval in 3000 AD, Victorian 800 years later. But that’s a minor quibble – Cowper makes it work.

The Lemur, Benjamin Black (2008). Black is better known as John Banville. This is the pseudonym he uses when he’s writing thrillers. Although, to be honest, The Lemur was not exactly a thrilling read. John Glass is an ex-reporter who married into a rich family. His father-in-law asks him to write a biography, so he hires a researcher, who Glass dubs “The Lemur” as he thinks he resembles one. A couple of days later, the researcher tries to blackmail Glass, and is subsequently murdered. Glass is worried that the murderer was his father-in-law, an ex-CIA telecoms billionaire, whose riches he resents (even while being kept by them). The Lemur isn’t a murder-mystery, it’s more of a character portrait of Glass. A quick read, but not a bad one.

The Magus, John Fowles (1977), I wasn’t expecting to finish so quickly – it’s a fat book: 656 pages in my Vintage paperback edition. But Fowles is an amazingly readable writer, which is one reason why I like his fiction so much. In The Magus, Nicholas Urfe accepts a position as teacher at a boarding school on the invented Greek island of Phraxos. There, he meets Maurice Conchis, a millionaire who owns a villa on the island. Conchis involves Urfe in a series of psychological games – few of which appear to make much sense. And that’s part of the appeal of The Magus: the promise that Conchis’s “experiments” on Urfe, the situations he devises, will be explained. And yet what little explanation does eventually come – when the motive is finally revealed – it stretches credulity. Urfe is also an unsympathetic narrator: he’s crass and arrogant. Conchis is little better, full of aphorisms that don’t submit to scrutiny. If Fowles’ Mantissa was a dirty old man’s book, then The Magus is definitely a young man’s book. Fowles himself describes it in the introduction to this 1977 revised edition as a “novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent”. Which is a bit harsh. It’s not as amazing a novel as The French Lieutenant’s Woman, or as good as A Maggot, and it’s probably a book best read when young; but neither is it not a very good book.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928), surprised me. Obviously, I’m aware of Lawrence’s reputation but, given that my read of another highly-regarded author from the 1920s hadn’t been entirely successful (see here), I’d expected Lady Chatterley’s Lover to be a bit of a slog. Early indications were not good. The narrative opened very much as a story told to the reader, with no effort made to disguise its nature as a work of fiction – no attempt at immersion, in other words. The dialogue didn’t help either – too! many! exclamation marks! But then – and weirdly this echoed an identical moment in Pascale Ferran’s film adaptation of the book (see here) – the story seemed to settle down, and Lawrence pulled out some lovely writing about the countryside around Wragby, the Chatterley ancestral home in Derbyshire. Then the characters of Constance and Mellors began to gain depth, proving far more complex and rounded than I’d expected from the film adaptations I’d seen. In fact, they were very much unlike their cinematic counterparts. I was also amused to see my birth town of Mansfield described as “that once-romantic, now utterly disheartening colliery town” since I can’t imagine it ever having been romantic. I was going to put this book up on readitswapit.co.uk once I’d read it, but I’m going to hang on to it instead. It’s definitely worth a reread. And I think I’ll read me some more Lawrence as well at some point.

Majestrum, Matthew Hughes (2006), is another Vanceian tale from an author who has built a career out of writing Vanceian tales. This is no bad thing. Jack Vance is a singular talent, but Hughes has come the closest of anyone to emulating him – and, on occasion, even doing better perhaps. I’ve enjoyed other Hughes novels – I reviewed one, Template, for Interzone – but I wasn’t as keen on Majestrum. Like those others of his I’ve read, it’s set in Hughes’ Archonate universe, but it focuses on Henghis Hapthorn, a “discriminator” (sort of a private investigator). He’s recruited by Lord Arfe to uncover the background of the man wooing the aristocrat’s daughter. This then proves linked to a conspiracy directed at the Archon. And it’s all to do with a past age of magic trying to subvert the current age of reason. There are some really nice touches in Majestrum, and Hughes’s prose is very much like Vance’s… but I was put off a little by the mix of sf and magic.

Films
For All Mankind, dir. Al Reinert (1989). I should really do a proper review of this for my Space Books blog (and the same for In The Shadow Of The Moon too, which I also own). In fact, I think I will. So keep an eye open there for it.

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, dir. David Fincher (2008), was one of those films remarked on more on for a technical achievement than for anything else. Mind you, it was enough to see it nominated at the 2009 Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup, Best Costume, Best Film Editing and Best Visual Effects. It won Best Art Direction, Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects. Because, well, that’s all that’s really remarkable about The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. In it, Brad Pitt plays the title character, who ages backwards. He’s born an old man (but baby-sized), and grows younger as he, er, ages. It’s based on a story by F Scott Fitzgerald. It’s also a “homily film”, sort of like Forrest Gump – you know, a life story in which someone learns a series of life lessons of the type which are found in fortune cookies or self-help books with asinine titles. The film looked really good, and the getting-younger-while-getting-older effect was cleverly done. Which is no doubt why it took the Oscars it did.

Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, and The Chamber Of Secrets, and The Prisoner Of Azkaban, and The Goblet Of Fire, dir. various hands (2001 – 2005). I read the first book many years ago and thought it remarkably ordinary. But I’d never seen the films. Despite the fact they’ve been on telly zillions of times. So I bagged cheap copies off eBay, and sat and watched them and… they’re not very good, are they? In those first two, the acting is definitely poor. The game of Quidditch makes no sense; nor does it feel like the sort of game that would be played at a public school. Things gets introduced into the world, with no back-story, just when they appear in the plot, which itself is nothing wildly original. Yes, the third film, Harry Potter and The Prisoner Of Azkaban, is better than the preceding two, but that’s no great achievement. The fourth film isn’t bad either, and is probably the best-plotted of the four. Mind you, its plot is a straightforward quest: win the competition! Anyway, I’ve seen them now. And the DVDs will be going back onto eBay.

Summer Hours, dir. Oliver Assayas (2008), is the fifth film by Assayas I’ve seen and, I think, the best one so far. It’s a French family drama. Two brothers and a sister – one brother lives in Paris, the other in Shanghai, and the sister in New York – meet up each summer. But then their mother dies, and circumstances preclude any future annual get-togethers, so they must pack up their mother’s house and the childhood memories they have of the place. A well-acted, well-scripted ensemble piece. Recommended.

Alien Hunter, dir. Ron Krauss (2003). James spader must be a science fiction fan. How else to explain all the crap sf films he appears in? He can’t be that desperate for work. In this one, an alien object is found under the ice in Antarctica, and taken to a corporate research facility on the continent. Spader, a cryptologist who used to work for SETI, is sent to investigate. But there’s an alien creature inside the object, and it breaks out and infects everyone with an alien virus which causes death in a matter of seconds. They should have titled the film Alien Rip-Off as there’s nothing original about the story. Best avoided.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine, dir. Gavin Hood (2009). So, after watching the three X-Men films, you thought you knew how Wolverine became like he is? Wrong. The title sequence to X-Men Origins: Wolverine is pretty good, showing Wolverine and his brother, Sabretooth, fighting in various wars. After an incident during the Vietnam War, the two are recruited by Colonel Stryker for his mutant task force, Team X. But Wolverine falls out with Stryker, and walks away. Some time later, his brother tracks him down, and kills his fiancée. Wolverine subsequently submits to have his skeleton coated with adamantium by Stryker, as only then will he be strong enough to kill Sabretooth. But it was all a cunning plot by Stryker in the first place… I thought the film was supposed to take place during the late 1960s / early 1970s, but you’d never have known from the production design. The film’s all a bit meh, possibly because Wolverine just isn’t an interesting enough character to carry a film on his own, and the supporting cast are pretty dull.

Top Hat, dir. Mark Sandrich (1936), is another one from one of those Top 100 Films lists – although I forget which list. Fred Astaire really was an odd-looking bloke. His head is a peculiar shape. And he had a horribly insipid singing voice. But, as was famously said, he “can dance a little”. This is arguably his best film which, to be honest, doesn’t say a great deal for his other films (and he made thirty-one). In Top Hat, Fred fancies Ginger, a friend of the wife of his producer. So he stalks her. Then she gets confused and thinks that Fred is his producer – i.e., married to her friend. The wife is not surprised that her husband is pursuing Ginger, and so the two plot to teach him a lesson. Except, of course, it’s not the producer, but Fred. The situation is well-handled and amusing, but the clomping wit leaves something to be desired. The musical numbers are everything you’d expect. Entertaining, but definitely rough around the edges.

Maroc 7, dir. Gerry O’Hara (1967), I watched for a review for VideoVista.

The Magus, dir. Guy Green (1968), I watched again after finishing the book (see above). Michael Caine has described the film as the worst he ever worked on because no one knew what it was about. Fowles wrote the screenplay himself, and he made changes to the story. Changing Alison, an Australian, into Anne, who is French, was, I imagine, necessary after Anna Karina was cast in the part. Other alterations were more substantial. The twins June and Judy (AKA Rose and Lily) have become a single person (played by Candice Bergen). Many of the games Conchis plays on Urfe have been cut – there simply wasn’t room for them, I assume – although the main ones are there. But the entire final section of the book, in which Urfe returns to the UK and tries to discover Conchis’ true identity has been completely cut. Having read the book, the film is an unsatisfactory adaptation, but it’s hard to imagine how Fowles could have adapted it anyway. Fowles appears in the film, incidentally – during the opening credits, he’s the deckhand who says, “Phraxos” to Michael Caine.

Ma Mère, dir. Christophe Honoré (2004), is another Isabelle Huppert film and is based on a 1966 novel by Georges Bataille of the same title. A young man, fresh out of Catholic school, visits his parents on Gran Canaria. His father, who he hates, dies in an accident shortly afterwards, and the young man is introduced to a life of sex and depravity – the Canary Islands night-life, in other words – by his mother. I really didn’t like this film. Thoroughly unlikeable characters doing unlikeable things, with a narcissistic self-regard which in no way makes their antics entertaining. It might make for a good novel, but it doesn’t make for a good film. Mind you, I wouldn’t have thought anyone could make an entertaining film out of Houellebecq’s Atomised, but Oskar Roehler did (see here).