Six Against the Stars is a two volume space opera adventure by Stephen Hunt, whose work I have reviewed many times before. Six Against the Stars has an unlikely crew of adventurers thrown together against their will to try and prevent a rebellion in a far future stellar confederation. The main character is a useless rocker from Earth, whose only interests are bedding women and preserving his own skin but who has been tricked by circumstance into meddling with interstellar political affairs. The other characters include a strange book-shaped robot, a mass murdering martian who is a member of a weird orientalist death cult, a brain-enhanced academic,  a kind of nice version of Novacks from Altered Carbon, and a spunky female clone assassin. The universe they adventure through is a recognizable cross between the universe of Firefly and the Culture, but the whole thing is imbued with Stephen Hunt’s consistent imagination for the slightly strange, the mystical and the chaotic. One of the alien races that vies with humans for control of the galaxy is a race of machines that slaughtered their makers; another race are centaur-like monsters; and at one point we are introduced to distant creatures that swim in gas giants, and were created by a mad king who aimed to forcibly re-engineer his entire population to be gas-living winged creatures. Earth is an isolationist clique of Gaiaists, who have redesigned their planet so that they never have to do any work – they just step outside and pluck medicines off a tree, and even their racing cars are sentient genetically-engineered animals. Just as in the Culture, ships are sentient AIs patterned on humans, and as is becoming increasingly common in many modern SF novels, sublimed races essentially equivalent to gods are commonplace in the universe.

It’s a fun galaxy to romp through, and the lead character is sufficiently open-minded and rumbunctious to be willing to take it all in and make the most of it. Hunt is also obviously having fun with the genre, playing around with silly and far-fetched ideas on many occasions and doing his best to make his galaxy fun enticing. To give a sense of the carnivalesque nature of his creation, I’d like to share a little section from one chapter, in which we learn the back story of a single, largely pointless character who is present for about three chapters of the entire two novels. This cyborg briefly shares a cell with our hero the bard, and has this story to tell about his origins on earth:

I was an officer in a war, a great war, although in the end I think I realised there was precious little greatness in it. Unfortunately for my future prospects, I discovered our war leader was receiving unholy advice from a terrible entity. With the prejudices of my age, I believed it to be a demon, though with hindsight I now believe it was a traveller from the future. When I investigated further, myself and a small group of army commanders uncovered a rival time traveller at work, a woman trying to oppose the madness worming its way through our society. We allied ourselves to her in an attempt to halt the war.

When asked whether they won, he tells our hero:

Hardly. We attempted to murder our leader, but to my shame we failed in the matter. The rival time traveller saved my life from a traitor’s death, if you can call what you see remaining before you saved. My family buried a corpse with no brain inside its skull, and I was secretly transported offworld on the ship of a species called the archivers. How the archivers had been bargained with by my time travelling ally, I do not claim to understand; they certainly made poor hosts. I lost everything that was dear to me when I was forced away from Earth: my son – my darling wife – my career and my name.

The finale of this conversation proceeds to the inevitable revelation of the cyborg’s name:

“We are brothers of Earth. You shall call me Erwin, my friend.”

“Erwin,” Horatio said the new name. “I think there is a world in the Stobb Clouds called Erwin’s Luck.”

“Perhaps,” said the cyborg.”But if so, it is not named in honour of my unhappy life. Never named after Erwin Rommel.”

So there you have it. A throwaway page of book 2 of the story, but it turns out that Hitler was a time traveller and Rommel spent the next 10 or so millenia trapped in a cyborg’s body, wandering the universe at the beck and call of a mysterious alien race known as the Archivers. Who knew?

I think for many people this carnivalesque style will be a disappointment – it certainly sets a very different tone to the gloomy seriousness of Iain M. Bank’s Against a Dark Background or the slightly over the top striving of Star Wars. But I enjoy the creativity and the playing with the genre – sci fi can be a tad too serious at times, and it’s nice to see space opera treated with a slightly lighter tone, without tripping over into Space Balls style puerility. It also has some really good ideas mixed in – for example, like everyone who writes space opera, Stephen Hunt has specific visions of hyperspace, and in this novel we’re treated to the Ebb, a strange area of the galaxy in which hyperspace travel slows down and becomes unpredictable – and where bandit civilizations flourish. He also has a fairly brutal conception of the colonization process, and some nice ideas about AIs and the relationship between human and machine which, though superficially sillier than Banks’s visions, are actually pretty cool.

As always, this novel falls down when we start to experience intervention by god-like creatures to help kick the plot along. I think I’ve read 6 or 8 Hunt novels now, and in all but two of them the plot has been dependent on divine intervention. I’m used to it and it often fits well within the story arc and the cultural framework, but it also leaves me with a slight feeling of disappointment. Fortunately his characters are excellent and his story-telling very pacy, as well as being thick with ideas, so it’s easy to overlook the Deus Ex Machina; but I do wish he would give it a miss occasionally. Otherwise I think that this might perhaps be his best work, though there’s a wide range of material to judge from and the comparisons are hard. But if you’re interested in a light-hearted space opera with cool characters, fast plot and a chaotic feeling, then this is the tale for you. And, once again, I would like to recommend Stephen Hunt’s entire corpus (or at least, everything I’ve read) to my reader(s). He is great!

 

What's the Chinese for "fail"?

Sliding Void is the first in a series of hard SF novels by Stephen Hunt, author of a series of steampunk novels that I really enjoyed: The Court of the Air, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, and The Rise of the Iron Moon. Hunt’s interest in space opera and SF was fairly clear in The Rise of the Iron Moon, so it’s no surprise to learn that he also writes hard SF, and although it’s also weird to read him in a completely new genre, the book was enjoyable and interesting – though not without its flaws.

The basic setting is a universe some thousands of years in the future, with the usual necessities of hard SF: hyperspace has been invented but travel is slow, there are many settled planets and terraforming and expansion is ongoing, the settled universe is divided into the core and the periphery, and the core is ruled by a shifty and sinister organization (in this case called “the Triple Alliance”) that maintains order at the expense of freedom and corruption. Of course, one can stay a step ahead of the alliance by working on the fringes of space, but not everything one does out here on the edge is entirely legal, etc. The outline of the setting probably seems to have a lot in common with Serenity/Firefly or Traveller:2300, including the importance of China in space exploration and the settling of planets on national lines (this is a German planet, that is a Chinese, etc). It’s pretty standard.

The story centres around one Captain Lana Fiveworlds and her oddball crew, who are running a free trader in classic Traveller style, tramp trading on the periphery. They need money in a hurry and get called in by an old contact to whom they owe a favour; he gives them the task of taking on a new crewman to help him escape from his arse-backwards mediaeval ice world, where he was a prince until he got a bit too arrogant and ran a war that got half the world chasing him. Unfortunately, there is something up with this new crewman and things rapidly go pear-shaped. That’s it! We then have to wait for book 2 to start finding out why things went wrong, and what they’re going to do about it.

This book is quite short and well-told, but interestingly a large part of the story is set in a fantasy world. The crewman is from the planet of Hesperus, a failed colony world that slid into an ice age soon after it was colonized. It’s an interesting story: the colonists were refugees rescued from an interplanetary war by a well-meaning aid agency and packed across the galaxy in cryonic sleep, arriving on their colony with nothing but the resources in their ship and nowhere to return to, their world having been destroyed. Soon after they arrived their new planet, which had looked so promising, fell back into an ice age and the colony fell back into the bronze age, so that when we stumble on it the planet is more like a norse kingdom than a sci-fi setting. I really like this idea, I think it’s quite believable and a terraforming outcome I don’t think I’ve read in a long time (perhaps in Ursula le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest? I can’t recall…) Stephen Hunt does this part particularly well, and the way the rest of the universe treats this planet is a sure sign that we aren’t dealing with a particularly well-meaning Alliance. No Culture here, folks.

The rest of the story, though brief, is well-written. It’s got occasional hints of “realism” such as has started to creep into modern genre writing – swearing, “gritty” settings and the like – which is particularly jarring when you’re used to Hunt’s other, gentler, steampunkier works. Hunt’s vision of hyperspace is cute – it’s all mathematical and humans can’t handle it, because they get “addicted to the maths” – and means that humans are dependent on the help of an alien crab species who are religious in their mathematics, and believe that entering hyperspace gets them closer to their mysterious mathematical god. The rest of the SF world is fairly standard, though some of the information technology ideas are cute: the characters refer to a wiki to learn about Hesperus, and when their barbarian crewman needs to be oriented to the modern world he is given full-immersion entertainment packages that give him 6 months of real-time experience of someone else’s life in a couple of hours. This means that two days after he’s arrived on ship he has already lived several years of subjective life in the modern world, and is speaking like a mixture of policeman and starship crew. His adjustment is otherwise not handled so well though: his first experience of eating rice just flicks by without any mention of how he feels about this new experience, and there are a few other moments where we really could get a deeper sense of his disorientation in his new world. Having spent half the book establishing his barbarian credentials, we see them all washed away in a chapter, which is a bit weak. Given that the whole thing is quite short, a few more chapters to have him settle in – perhaps including a moment of craziness – would be nice.

Another thing about this book that really frustrated me and nearly had me give up on it was the massive Orientalism fail in the middle. When we first meet the Chinese engineer, Paopao, he orders Calder (the barbarian) to make his favourite food: Ochatsuke. He has a list of ingredients in his kitchen which includes dashi and jako. Stephen Hunt has carefully researched the recipe for a Japanese traditional food, complete with Japanese names, and had his chinese character act as if this is some Chinese food or spiritual rite of passage: the food labels are all written in Chinese (how do you write jako in Chinese?) and Paopao tells Calder that “A man who steams rice may be trusted with the care of antiproton storage ring.” The implication is that this traditional Japanese food is somehow of cultural significance to this Chinese engineer, who judges his staffs competence on their ability to make it. This is, I think a straight-out orientalism fail: either Hunt doesn’t care about the difference between China and Japan, doesn’t know (despite having careful knowledge of a Japanese food that is quite obscure outside of Japan), or knows nothing about China and figures his readers won’t notice the difference. He obviously couldn’t make the dominant Asian culture in space Japan because that doesn’t fit the current narrative about an ascendant China, but he couldn’t be bothered doing the basic research on China necessary to fit the character to the story. The same applies with the stupid way he writes Paopao’s language: I’ve met enough non-native speakers of English now to know that the way Paopao speaks is not the way it works. On the one hand he says

Only if you submit to them, Mister Fighting Fourth. Sometimes it beholdens man to remember

which is perfect lyrical English and very advanced, including careful omission of an article such as non-native speakers often get wrong. But then he says

Found it inside fortune cookied on station above Kunjing Four

dropping both the subject (which I think is a Japanese, not a Chinese, problem) and all the articles, and mangling a sentence which anyone who can say the former would surely be able to spout very quickly and easily. Now, I don’t think anyone can get language misuse right (it’s extremely hard) but stuffing this up to this extent, while also mangling the character’s cultural origins, is a pretty big level of fail. It’s disappointing, and sloppy. I understand that with the ascendance of Asia, and the recognition that the 21st century is going to be the Asian century, people want to fit Asia into their inter-galactic hegemonies, and not being Asian are likely going to screw it up somehow. But there’s still a minimum level of research that one could do, in this case as simple as buying a Chinese cookbook and visiting a good restaurant.

I think we’re going to see a lot more of this kind of sloppiness in the years to come …

Anyway, aside from the small orientalist unpleasantness, this story is enjoyable and worth giving a go if you like classic hard SF. It’s reasonably well crafted, moves fast, has a smooth and easy narrative style, and has some nice ideas to add to the genre. Stephen Hunt’s writing is sometimes a little jarring, as if he were occasionally slipping into a young adult novel style, and sometimes his genre-bending doesn’t work, but in this case he’s combined a low-tech fantasy world with a hi-tech spacefaring civilization very well. I wouldn’t say it’s ground breaking or stellar in its achievements, and I think Hunt has been more creative in his steampunk work, but I can still recommend it. Read this book if you want to see a small amount of genre-bending in an otherwise classic, easily readable hard SF, but give it a miss if you demand only classic tropes in your SF.

How does this work, anyway?

I recently finished reading Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor Chronicles, second in the Majipoor Series but easily readable in isolation. It is not a single novel but a series of short stories set throughout the history of the eponymous planet; some of these stories are directly connected to the events of the first book in the series, Lord Valentine’s Castle, but I think most are intended simply to offer historical and cultural background to that tale. The settings of the stories are separated by huge distances in space and time but are strung together through a cute conceit: a low-level functionary in the central government has found a way to sneak into a library of memories, and through accessing the library enters the memories of any individual he can choose. So, he calls up random (and sometimes deliberate) people from Majipoor’s past, usually connected with great events in the history of Majipoor, and views the events through their eyes.

This is an interesting trick, since it sets the flavour of the planet and the culture through the choice of protagonist, which in most cases is a person who is neither famous nor important, just a person connected to some great event. Where the functionary could have stolen access to the memories only of the great and the good, he instead chooses random nobodies: a woman living in the jungle when the alien settlers first began to come to Majipoor; a mid-ranking military officer involved on the fringes of the final battle to eliminate Majipoor’s indigenous people; a shop-keeper who ends up marrying a lord (but not the lord himself); a low-level official who discovers the technology of the King of Dreams (but not the King himself). As the functionary gets bolder in his theft he chooses more powerful and famous people to spy on, but through the first half of the story we are shown the history of Majipoor through the experiences of its basic citizens. This helps to set the tone for a kind of subdued utopian world, which while not free of conflict or strife seems to have largely eliminated murder, other forms of serious crime, war and major civil strife. It’s a world that has been going quietly about its business for thousands of years, and by setting the stories in the frame of the world’s very ordinary residents Silverberg has set this tone very nicely. These stories are also surprisingly free of any form of violence or militarism, though one story involves a murder and one story involves an attempt at genocide. But largely they depict a world at peace with itself, a future society that, though its environment is harsh, has largely moved beyond the problems that beset our own.

Majipoor itself is a fascinating world: vastly larger than Earth but much less dense, so with similar gravity, flora and fauna, it is recognizable as a classic sci-fi garden planet, though with noticeable differences: it has very few mineral resources and the distances people have to travel are huge, so it is actually quite poor, with many people living close to subsistence level. Furthermore even after thousands of years of settlement it remains mysterious, with huge areas unexplored and unsettled. One story of this potted history is set in the period when the planet first opened its arms to alien settlers, who were deemed necessary just to populate the world enough to make it socially functional. At the same time, even though the planet is vast and fertile, the human settlers come into continuing conflict with the indigenous people who lived there before them, and these indigenous people or the knowledge of what was done to them figure in the background to many of the stories. So in many ways Majipoor is an inter-galactic allegory for the settlement of America or Australia, with all their utopian promise, conflict with the original inhabitants, and opening up of frontiers and then of society to aliens. Also similar to the early histories of those settler nations, Majipoor seems to be cut off from its galactic neighbours, having little significant interchange with them and unable to rely on them for either industry or development. People and things come from the stars, and the cultural background is that of the sophisticated galactic travellers who originally settled Majipoor, as is much of its technology, but at the same time it seems to be separated from those peoples. Some of the technology is mysterious to the locals, or known only to a few, and it’s not clear that the locals are able to aspire to the technological skills of their forefathers. There is no sense of hi-tech or heavy industry in this strange world. Like early Australia, it is characterized very much as a rural utopia, full of freedom but lacking in wealth and too distant from its original society to be able to gain much practical value from its originating culture.

It’s interesting to see these themes in a sci-fi story, and to see the sensitivity and care with which some of them are explored. Particularly surprising was the importance of the indigenous peoples’ story to the narrative, because I can’t see any evidence that their history is itself relevant to the remainder of the series (though I could be wrong – I haven’t read them yet). Silverberg has written other work about indigenous people, and clearly has an interest in this topic, so perhaps he has deliberately created an allegory to the old American west, but it’s not heavy-handed and the depiction of post-genocide Majipooreans’ view of their history is probably too optimistic compared to the way Australians or Americans view those issues now – perhaps this is another aspect of the utopianism of the novel. In any case, this kind of topic is rare in the genre, and the moral ambiguity of Majipooreans’ views of the issue of indigenous dispossession very close to the way modern Australians (and I guess Americans) view their own history. It’s nice to see this approached so carefully in the genre.

This book is a nice combination of gentle cultural commentary, careful world building, classical SF-style speculative work, and mild utopianism. It’s also very well written, with a really accessible style and easy descriptions that leave you with a clear image of the setting you’re in without using burdensome prose. It’s also largely free of many of the tropes or language of the genre, which I see as a sign of superior writing style: if you can deliver a SF setting to a reader without using SF jargon, in a smooth and easy prose style, you’re doing well. One complaint I had about the story was the intermissions between chapters in which the low-level functionary describes his feelings about the memory he has just entered – they have too much of the tone of narrative authority, so that I felt the functionary’s perspective was being used to convey to us how Silverberg believes we should feel about the story we just experienced. Also, these intermissions have too much tell and not enough show. But they’re short – not even a page in many cases – and the tone changes as the book progresses. Another complaint I think other readers might have is that the stories are too disconnected, and there’s not enough common theme to warrant presenting them as a novel rather than a straight-out short story collection. In many ways it feels like you’re reading le Guin’s Orsinian Tales (a beautiful, beautiful book!) but that book is presented as short stories, whereas this seems to have been marketed as a novel, and the narrative continuity of the functionary’s role is surely intended to make it read this way, even though there is nothing else to connect the stories except the functionary’s curiosity. This didn’t bother me at all, but I’m sure it would frustrate many readers.

Overall, however, I found this an engaging, intriguing and really enjoyable book. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the kind of speculative social ideas that characterize the work of people like Ursula le Guin, Gene Wolfe or Samuel Delany (though it’s much more accessible than Delany). I don’t recommend it to people looking for hard SF, or SF full of conflict and combat. If you like unassuming social critique or practical utopia in your speculative SF, and you’re happy with SF/Fantasy mixed in, then this is definitely a good book for you.

The picture, incidentally, is by Jim Burns.

Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan is the first in a series of young adult steampunk novels, set in a very close parallel history of Edwardian Europe. They’re light-hearted, fast-paced and fun, and they have some nice new ideas for combining classic steam-tech with biotechnology. The basic setting is Austria and London on the eve of the first world war, with Europe locked into the exact same ludicrous stand-off as actually happened. The Austrian Empire – “clankers” in the common British parlance – bases its technology on steam power and heavy industry, while its main opponents, the British “Darwinists” have followed the old man’s lead into an industrial milieu based on bioengineering. Most of the action in the story revolves around two symbols of these two types of technology: an Austrian walker, very similar in essence to an ST Walker from Star Wars; and the British airship Leviathan, which is essentially a hydrogen blimp bioengineered from a massive whale. The technology on both sides is ludicrous and well beyond what one would imagine were possible in the time period, but it’s classic steam-based SF.

Each technological setting also comes with a character: the Austrian Alek, bastard teenage son of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who has to flee his home after the assassination of his family; and Deryn Sharp, a poor Scottish girl who has come to London with the crazy idea of disguising herself as a boy and entering the British Royal Air Force. Through a series of improbable accidents she finds herself onboard the Leviathan over Austria at the same time as Alek is fleeing across Europe, and so they end up meeting by chance. They then have to join forces to escape the Austrians chasing Alek, and thus the two of them are introduced into the scheming and plotting of European politics as the great powers plunge headlong into war. The first book ends at the point where we discover what they’ve become embroiled in; presumably we’ll explore more in later books.

This is a young adult novel, so it has some characteristics that I know many adult readers hate: hastily-sketched characters based on archetypes, simple and fast-flowing narrative style, sometimes awkward explanations of background and setting, and the frustrating phenomenon of children beating adults at their own game. But the fast-paced expositions and quick descriptions are a pleasant change from the bulky, unwieldy style of some modern SF and fantasy, and it’s nice to read a story with background nuance presented quickly and easily. The novel lacks the deep, thoughtful emotional engagement that characterizes the best young adult fiction (like, say, the works of Robert Westall or Maurice Gee) and it doesn’t have any of the coming-of-age intensity of much of the genre. I really like those aspects of good young adult fiction, and so in that sense this book is a little lightweight at times. But who cares? It’s fun, it has a cool giant floating whale armed with flechette bats (which have a cool name but are actually a bit of a stupid idea), and it has an alpine AT-AT chase between. What’s not to like? Also, I’m sensing strong hints of a dragon being involved somewhere in all this, and there’s definitely a kraken. The characters are a little shallow and stereotypical but engaging enough, and although both are a little super-human they are not insufferable prats such as one sometimes stumbles across in young adult fiction.

If you like steampunk and want to see such a setting leavened with carefully-imagined biotech, in a slightly later era than we usually associate with the genre, then this is a good book to pick up. It’s easy to read, fast-paced, and keeps the new ideas coming along at just the right pace to keep you interested. It also promises more depth – both emotional and political – in subsequent volumes. If you aren’t into young adult fiction, or like your stories slow-paced and thoughtful in the style of a classic fantasy trilogy, then you probably had best leave this one be. Overall, it’s a good effort and I’ll be persisting with the series.

Everything she can do, he can do better

I’ve started reading John Carter of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, in anticipation of what looks like a very fun movie, but I have to say that even though the story is interesting the writing is absolutely appalling. It’s classic Mary Sue, with a character who is just better than everyone else at everything and obviously already knows his way through the plot, as if he were in fact the writer of the story himself. It also uses the classic “tell, don’t show” error of teenage fanfiction. Reading it is a tedious exercise in admiration of a two-dimensional hero.

The basic story is simple: John Carter, ex-slave owner and “Southern Gentleman,” finds himself accidentally on Mars, where he is thrown into the middle of the ongoing conflict between two races who have been reduced to hard scrabble in a failing environment. Mars (or “Barsoom,” as the locals call it), used to be the home of a great race of human-like peoples, who slowly fell into decay as the environment of Mars failed. Another race appears to have decided to live communally on the land and, as commies are wont to do, degenerated into barbarism and cruelty. The descendants of the great race – red skinned humanoids – have great technology and are trying to save the planet, while the savages – weird buggish freaks – run around being cruel and nasty. John Carter lands amongst the savages, but immediately impresses them with his prowess at everything, and though a captive of these savages manages to get himself appointed a chieftain (through combat, of course) and is given wardenship of one of their prisoners, who of course is an extremely important member of the red-skinned people. He is also given a couple of women to look after him, and one of these just happens to be the only kind and thoughtful savage on Barsoom.

So, having accidentally disappeared from his own world, with its rich 19th century culture of slave-holding and subjugated women, where he is a much-admired and respected man, Carter finds himself on a completely alien world with different culture and language, but within a couple of seconds finds himself much-admired and respected, and lording it over a small collection of women – purely by dint of his talents, of course.

This could be a fun read, I suppose, like a kind of sexless version of Gor, but for the fact that John Carter is a tedious, insufferable braggart who is good at everything and never makes an error. And oh, how we are constantly reminded of his talents. For example:

To be held paralzyed … seems to me the last word in fearsome predicaments for a man who had ever been used to fighting for his life with all the energy of a powerful physique

or:

I do not believe that I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes, because, in all of the hundreds of instances that my voluntary acts have placed me face to face with death, I cannot recall a single one where any alternative step to that I took occurred to me until many hours later … I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me

and following this up:

Fear is a relative term … but I can say without shame that if the sensations I endured during the next few minutes were fear, then may God help the coward, for cowardice is of a surety its own punishment

In case you hadn’t noticed, John Carter is a robust fighter who never feels fear and acts automatically out of a sense of duty. These quotes are from the first few chapters but Burroughs isn’t tardy about letting us all know that John Carter is the best, y’all: his manifold perfections are outlined in a foreword. But just in case you thought Carter might just be the 19th century equivalent of a great sportsman, we are also reminded that he is a consummate warrior, and a genius to boot. In training with the savages weapons, we find:

I was not yet proficient with all the weapons, but my great familiarity with similar earthly weapons made me an unusually apt pupil, and I progressed in a very satisfactory manner

Oh! The modesty! Also, within a few days of joining the savages, John Carter has befriended his watchdog in a way that no martian has ever done before, and has taught the martians better ways of managing their own mounts, and mounted combat, so that they are both better able to manage their mounts and better able to fight en masse. This despite the fact that he is unfamiliar with martian gravity and doesn’t speak their language. Not that the latter bothers him much:

in a week I could make all my wants known and understand nearly everything that was said to me. Likewise, under Sola’s tutelage, I developed my telepathic powers so that I shortly could sense practically everything that went on around me.

This, incidentally, is the entirety of the coverage that the existence of telepathy gets in this work for the first 8 or so chapters. We’ve had more sentences devoted to the production of the milk Carter drinks than to the telepathy he learns. It’s not, however, the last time that Carter gets a chance to remind us that he is a genius:

I nearly drove Sola distracted by my importunities to hasten on my education and within a few more days I had mastered the Martian tongue sufficiently well to enable me to carry on a passable conversation and to fully understand practically all that I heard

Here is an example of a conversation he could understand “within a few more days”:

In our day we have progressed to a point where such sentiments mark weakness and atavism. It will not be well for you to permit Tars Tarkas that you hold such degenerate sentiments, as I doubt that he would care to entrust such as you with the grave responsibilities of maternity

So, one week to learn how to say “I need to take a leak,” another few more days to get to the point of understanding an overheard conversation about “atavism.” Also, telepathy in one sentence. And nowhere in this time period is there a hint, even a single hint, of homesickness, or any kind of emotional trauma at having teleported out of a cave in Arizona to a field on Mars. Do you feel small yet? Or are you, more likely, bored stiff with this character who can do everything and anything?

In addition to being a robust Southern Gentleman who can learn martian in a day, Carter also seems to have remarkable luck to take exactly the right path in any situation. He hears someone behind him, so instead of attacking, he jumps, which impressed his attackers rather than getting him killed; he gives his horse its head in the darkness, which is just as well because it leads him up just the right path to escape the Indians; he makes a guess about the best way to impress the natives and – lo! – it was the right guess. Within about a chapter of the start of the adventure it has been well-impressed upon the reader that, no matter what, Carter is not at risk of significant injury, failure or death. As the reader, you have nothing invested in the story at all – it’s not like Carter is going to ever have to overcome a failing or character flaw (he has none), there’s no sense in which his plight is the same as yours would be if you ended up on Mars, and there’s never a feeling that he will make a bad choice, even by accident.

This apathy is further entrenched by the narrative flow, in which Burroughs tells us everything we need to know about the society, environment and structure of Mars long before Carter himself finds out the details. Rather than discovering the mysteries of Mars in the flow of the adventure, we’re told everything about a setting, person, circumstance or technology as soon as we encounter it. The phrase “As I later learned,” or “as I was to discover,” appears constantly in the text – maybe a couple of times every chapter, and always expounds on things we could quite happily find out ourselves with a bit of time. Thus, we only know we are somewhere mysterious because we are told we are on Mars: from the very moment of his arrival there, Carter’s narrative breaks the mystery of the planet with constant references to things that neither he nor the reader know. We even get a lesson in Martian demographics in the second chapter of his encounter with the savages, something that really could have waited to be revealed to us later in a conversation with someone.

This kind of adventure writing is so tedious as to be almost unbearable. The plot itself is interesting – I want to find out about Mars and the society Burroughs has created, and I want to see where the story goes. It’s a really good idea that, in the hands of a decent writer, would make a really cool story. I’m guessing, then, that the movie is going to be good. But the book – thoroughly forgettable so far. It reminds me of John Wyndham’s pompous academic Mary Sues, who always take a young woman under their wing and teach her the harsh realities of the world, while she constantly thanks them in breathless wonder at their wisdom; or the later books of Dune, after whats-his-face becomes a god and surmounts every challenge by simply being himself. No challenge, no threat, no sympathy with a human character, no need for character development and no sense that the character will ever grow as a person through adversity. Of course, this may change later, but at the moment it’s looking like the writing is going to be drier than the surface of Mars.

So, unless you’re feeling really patient, I can’t recommend John Carter of Mars. Is the rest of Burroughs’s work this badly written?

 

I read this in response to a request from its author, James Hutchings. The book is self-published, I think, and can be obtained through Amazon or from James’s blog, Teleli, where the second post down explains the giveaway. I’m a nice chap, so I bought it at Amazon.

The New Death and Others is a collection of short stories, many of which are set in the city of Telleli or perhaps in its associated world. The world of Telleli is a slightly bizarre or carnivalesque version of a swords and sorcery setting, like a kind of irreverent Lankhmar, and the gods feature prominently in Telleli life. Many of the short stories in this book feature those gods, or humans or other beings of Telleli attempting to communicate with or challenge those gods. The gods are clearly capricious and not entirely intelligent, and not particularly interested in the affairs of humans – they seem to be caught up often in their own silly little dramas, and the consequences of these dramas for humans do not really get much consideration. There are also a few stories in other fantasy or near-fantasy settings, and at times the stories cross from fantasy into a vaguely fantasy-realism kind of setting. The stories are often irreverent about both the fantasy genre and the gods they describe, and a few of them are straight-out comedy, with humorous footnotes and a punchline. Examples of the kinds of stories in the book are:

  • How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name: A story about a sorceress in the town of Telelee who has learnt all the magic known to humans, and begins to seek out the secret knowledge of the gods. This puts her into a collision course with the cats of Telelee, and the results are unexpected for both sorceress and reader alike. This is a well-constructed short story, combining two stories (the sorceress and the cats) in a very concise and tightly-worked structure. Weaving the plot and characters from two separate storylines into a single arc, with a twist, in the space of a couple of pages is no mean feat; making the story work and evoking a sense of the town that the tale is set in, the mythology of its world, and the particular character of both the cats and the sorceress deserves, in my opinion, a fair bit of respect. This is a nicely done story
  • The Face in the Hill: This is an extremely short story about a politician seeking answers to a significant quandary his society is facing, and manages to fit a neat moral message into a very small space, delivering a powerful ending and a nice description of the key conflicts facing the society in question all within the context of the politician’s journey to consult a particular oracle. In this same five pages we also find out the ultimate results of his decision. It’s a well-balanced and entertaining tale, though perhaps a little heavy-handed.
  • Everlasting Fire: one of the directly comedic stories, this story tells the tale of a demon named Lily, working in hell, and her tragic love affair with one of her underlings. It includes several bad puns, footnotes that add to the self-referential humour, and a lot of cute jokes about hell. It’s also stuffed full of management speech and bullshit bingo, so successfully conjures the image of hell as just another workplace. The ending of the love affair is a little bit 1984, and the asides describing hell are just exactly what it would be like in a really cheap christian morality play (the sort that we all poke fun at, but that has never really been written). This kind of humour isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but it’s well done and funny.

A lot of the short stories in this collection are good examples of the craft of short story writing: pithy, quick to establish characterization and setting without falling back on cheap stereotypes, and often delivering an unexpected ending that keeps you guessing and engaged right through the book. If I have any complaint about them, it’s a complaint common to Australian art: the continuous irreverence and refusal to take the work seriously can, in my opinion, undermine fantasy and sci-fi settings, and I wish Australians would do it less. It’s like Australians are scared to just sit down and write a serious genre novel, or create a serious genre film; this is why Buffy or Star Wars would never be made in Australia.  But on the flipside, this kind of irreverence is refreshing if you don’t read too much of it, and I don’t, so I can’t complain specifically about this book. It’s a general gripe about the production of culture in Australia. My main gripe about this book is that it contained quite a bit of poetry and most of it I didn’t like (If My Life Was Filmed and untitled I really liked). I skipped most of the other poems after a couple of verses. But I don’t know if that’s a commentary on the quality of the poetry or on me – I’m pretty tough on poetry generally, and even tougher on theatre (which is, in general, shit).

One other minor complaint I had about this book is that in many of the stories I got the sense that the author was constructing a certain atmosphere and level of irreverence, but sometimes let down the story by overdoing the irreverence or overdoing the setting. This is a hard line to tread in writing semi-humourous or irreverent genre stuff: you need to be sure that your jokes don’t cross a certain poorly defined line, and you also need to make sure that your setting has the right level of seriousness and authenticity to match the tone of the tale. I found that occasionally Hutchings would fall afoul of these traps, and a joke would be out of place or the setting would suddenly become too heavy. I guess that this is a common problem for a new writer, and given the difficulty of maintaining tone and style in an endeavour like this I can’t really fault him.

Overall, I think this work is an excellent first book, a fine contribution to a small field of irreverent-but-serious genre writing, and a collection of tightly-constructed and entertaining short stories. For $0.99 it’s a bargain! In fact, my main question is how work like this can be not picked up by a serious publisher, while the book I read afterwards (review to come) was. But there’s no point in dwelling on injustices: buy the book and give James Hutchings less than his just reward for the work.

Postmodernism and Panties

After a work- and laziness-induced hiatus, I’ve returned to reading this series, about the detective/university student, Yakumo, and his friend Haruka. Yakumo can see ghosts, and works as a private detective in the ghost world; Haruka (pictured, in a rage) is his friend, and a university student as well, who becomes embroiled in his cases after initially inviting his help with a friend. At the end of Part 2, the pair – along with a rough and bullying private investigator called Gotoh – thought they had cracked the case of a child murderer, who had died in a car crash but managed to take possession of a by-stander in the moments before his death.

In this episode, we meet Yakumo’s uncle, a Buddhist priest, who helps them to deceive the ghost of the child murderer and trick it into possessing the body of a rat, thus freeing the girl it had possessed and dooming it to a life of cheese and over-sized testicles. Unfortunately, they were wrong about the culprit for the murders – a fourth victim is discovered just hours after they consign the supposed murderer to a life of medical experiments. There must have been two murderers, and they have only caught one. So, they are back on the hunt for the murderer and, as might be expected, through the development of sympathy with a related character and the decision to act kindly towards someone else, Haruka becomes the potential fifth victim. Yakumo, Goto and Goto’s long-suffering side-kick Ishii arrive just in time to save her from a horrible death, and the identity of the real criminal, as well as his twisted motives, are revealed. As seems to be typical of many putatively evil people in manga, we come to understand and sympathize with his motives, and someone is able to forgive him (though he still goes to prison, which is going to mean the death penalty).

This episode is reasonably light on investigative stuff and is primarily focussed on revealing more about our heroes. Haruka is forced to confront the ghosts of her past (having literally done so in the previous episode), and has a long and difficult conversation with her mother about her feelings of guilt over the death of her sister. This is quite a sweetly done conversation, and in fact much of this episode seems to be about deepening our understanding and appreciation of Haruka. Haruka is a very kind, very considerate and genuinely nice person but she’s also very feisty, open-minded, and quite tough when it comes to expressing her feelings or acting on something she thinks is right. This combination of traits seems to be very dangerous when you’re part of Yakumo’s world. In fact, I would go so far as to say that although this series is titled Psychic Detective Yakumo, the central character is really Haruka and it should be renamed Haruka’s Adventures with Ghosts and a Cold-hearted Bastard (would that be 冷たいあいつと幽霊を出会う春香の冒険?), because although we are learning to understand his history and motives, Yakumo really isn’t very nice to Haruka. He teases her and is always cold and rough.

By contrast with Haruka’s story, in this episode we mainly find out functional details about Yakumo, and particularly we discover that he has some kind of nemesis who has the same powers as him and was involved in setting the murderer onto Haruka. They have some historical connection, and he’s obviously going to be the chief enemy of future episodes because in the final scene, when Haruka is enjoying the cherry blossoms with Yakumo, they are given a note by a child that simply says “See you again soon.” This is an ominous sign for their future: cherry blossoms are a sign of the passing of things, and if they get this note while they’re walking through falling cherry blossoms then it probably means the end of their happy life so far (if being coolly treated by someone you clearly have a crush on and nearly murdered twice counts as a “happy life,” but Haruka doesn’t seem to be complaining). The fourth episode looms …

A brief aside concerning panties, and styles of representation

In the above frame, Haruka has just finished her conversation with her mother, and her mother asks her “Haruka, your readers could see your panties, you know …” And in fact we could. For the first time in 3 episodes, and only at this moment when Haruka is opening up to her mother about her feelings of guilt, we get several quite direct views of Haruka’s panties. This is interesting because there are lots of other times – going up railway station stairs, sitting on chairs, exploring mysterious houses – where we could have been accidentally exposed to this most hideous of sights; and of course the writer has complete control of the field of view, and Haruka isn’t exactly excessive in her use of leg-covering material, so we could regularly witness this sight, but we never have up until now. It could be fan service, but I don’t think so. I think that it is intended to emphasize her emotional vulnerability in this conversation – unlike when she is being beaten, drowned, tied up and about to die, at which points we never see her undies. So I’m wondering if actually the “panty-shot” so maligned by western critics of anime is actually a representational ploy to show someone’s naivete, childlike position, or vulnerability. I’ll be exploring this and other aspects of representational styles in manga in a future post.

Conclusion

This episode of Psychic Detective Yakumo gave us a complex and challenging crime, some more details of the workings of the ghostworld and its interactions with the human, and a deeper insight into Haruka, who is developing as a stand-out character. It has also set us up for a plot involving some dark nemesis, which promises to be a lot of fun but threatens to turn silly. The story is a page-turner and the characters, though still a little stereotypical – especially Gotoh san – and with sometimes somewhat too archetypical relationships (Haruka and Yakumo’s friendship/unrecognized love affair is as old as Japanese drama, I think), are sympathetic and generally enjoyable to read about. I’ve got another book to attend to now, but I’ll be getting back to number four soon. The series is certainly popular here, and is definitely good enough to hold one’s interest. Stay tuned for more adventures in ghost-detection, manga-style.