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Wizard by John Varley (1980) 354 p.

I bought this ages ago after buying (but not yet reading) the first book in the Gaea trilogy, Titan. I came across it in a second-hand bookstore and figured I may as well pick it up because it was a safe bet that I’d probably like Titan. I wish I hadn’t, because I was wrong, and my completist OCD means I have to read Demon as well now.

Wizard picks up about a hundred years after the events of Titan, in which a NASA expedition discovers an intelligent, godlike alien the size of a planet and the shape of a torus habitat in orbit around Saturn, with lots of other alien species living on it. At the end of that novel the former captain, Cirocco, was granted immortality in exchange for acting as Gaea’s “Wizard” – a sort of agent or ambassador. It was apparent that some of Gaea’s autonomous sub-brains were rebelling against her, but I still didn’t find it particularly clear as to what the Wizard does or why Gaea needed one.

Gaea is now inhabited by a number of humans as well, who have come to settle and explore and – in the case of a few pilgrims – implore Gaea to cure what ails them. Two new characters in this vein are introduced (one of whom is an insufferable straw feminist) and most of the book details a voyage around Gaea’s circumference with these two, Cirocco, Gaby, and a bunch of the stupid centaur aliens. (The other members of the NASA crew, who are presumably still alive and still on Gaea, are never once mentioned.)

Now, I know it was the 1970s, but Varley spent far too much time dreaming up alien sexual characteristics, and far too much of this novel details inter-species sex. I cannot imagine how deeply uncomfortable it would be to sit at a public reading in which Varley read, out loud, dialogue between characters concerning how sex works with regards to the centaur aliens with two separate sets of genitals – which, when it comes to the specifics of four-way parentage and different conception methods, was not only bizarre but very, very boring.

Varley is a good author. The Golden Globe is one of my favourite novels of all time. But the Gaea trilogy simply isn’t good, and not just for people who aren’t interested in human-alien sex. It rambles, it often gets bogged down in spatial descriptions, and the central crux of the novels – the conflict between Gaea and her sub-regions – is underdeveloped, because it never feels like much of a threat or a concern. I’ll still read Demon, but I don’t expect to enjoy it, and I don’t recommend this trilogy even for fans of Varley’s other work.

The Resurrectionist by James Bradley (2006) 335 p.

I was led on to James Bradley after reading his review of John Wyndham’s posthumously-released novel Plan For Chaos in The Australian a few years ago, and found that he has a thoughtful and interesting blog, City of Tongues, and a Twitter account well worth following. He’s renowned as Australia’s leading literary critic, but is also the author of three novels, and after reading his critical work for the past three years I thought it was worth reading one of them. So there you go, authors – all that tweeting and blogging and doing extra writing for newspaper literary supplements really does pay off. (Figuratively, anyway. I bought this copy from a second-hand bookstore.)

Set in the dark and dreary Dickensian London of the early 19th century, the novel follows Gabriel Swift as he is apprenticed to Mr Poll, an anatomist in the fledgling science of the human body. Mr Poll appears largely driven by the pursuit of knowledge itself, though most of his students are surgeons or doctors in training, with plenty of practical applications for their studies. The constant procurement and dissection of corpses is somewhat uncomfortable, but it’s part of becoming a doctor, no different from medical studies in modern universities, and it’s all done legally – except when it isn’t. The novel really begins to unfold as Gabriel falls afoul of the politics between Mr Poll, some of his apprentices and his former rivals, and finds himself caught up in the murky world of corpse procurement. Up in the lecture theatre, the science of the human body is a world of gentlemen; down at street level, it’s run by grubby thugs and criminals. (There were at least two scenes I feared were about to verge into necrophilia). The story is clearly at least partly inspired by Burke and Hare, though that’s a piece of history I wasn’t overly familiar with, so it didn’t impact much upon my reading of the book. (Come to think of it, it was Bradley who dismissed Jamrach’s Menagerie as being less of a novel for being based on true events, which I didn’t agree with at all. But anyway.)

The Resurrectionist is, above all, a deeply atmospheric novel. Bradley is an author who deals greatly in his narrator’s thoughts and feelings and internal conflict, with much of his interaction with other characters playing out in summary rather than scene. While I sometimes had trouble following the precise thread of the narrative, and the motivations of various characters, I very much enjoyed the bleak, foggy, dark London nights that the story unfolds in. (Actually, it strongly reminded me of the film The Piano.) There’s a surprising shift in tone and scene in the final quarter of the novel, but one which I thought was quite appropriate and worked very well.

Bradley’s writing style – at least in this novel – was a little too heavy for my tastes. At least half the text is devoted to what’s going on inside Gabriel’s head at any given time; it’s a novel built on introspection and philosophising. This may be how Bradley typically writes his fiction, or it may have been an attempt to capture a 19th century style. In any case, despite my own preferences, The Ressurectionist is an objectively solid novel, and I’ll read some of Bradley’s others before delivering the backhanded compliment that I enjoy his work as a critic more than his work as an author.

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949) 312 p.

Post-apocalyptic stories typically come in two flavours. There’s the type which follows survivors through the catastrophe itself and covers their attempts to stay alive, scrabbling for resources in an emptied world, eating out of cans and scavenging vehicles and firearms. Then there’s the type which takes place generations after the collapse, in which society has reverted to a tribal state, cities are crumbling and overgrown with vegetation, and the artifacts of the past are revered or treated with superstition.

Earth Abides, one of the earlier example of post-apocalyptic science fiction (it was published in 1949), is an interesting novel because it bridges the gap between these two societies. Isherwood Williams is a university student in his early 20s who is bitten by a rattlesnake while hiking in the mountains outside San Francisco. Spending a few days delirious with poison in a mountain cabin, he emerges to find that virtually the entire human race has been wiped out by a deadly plague.

Stewart handwaves the plague itself; all the evidence Ish finds of the disaster suggests that people quietly and orderly died in bed or in hospitals. Earth Abides is very much a post-apocalyptic novel rather an an apocalyptic novel. Ish drives all over the United States in the aftermath of the disaster, exploring and examining, before eventually returning to San Francisco. He finds a woman and settles down, and before long they gather a few other survivors and begin having children. The book is divided into three parts: the first in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the second 22 years later when a new generation has grown up but the old generation still remembers the past, and the third when Ish is a an old and partly senile man, after “the Tribe” has lost track of the date, which probably takes place around about now. The central part of the book is probably the most critical, as Ish worries about the development of his children and grandchildren and the way they treat the world. Literacy, for example, disappears because the children aren’t interested in learning it. The adults themselves grow too complacent living in the ruins of a great civilisation, where everything is there for the taking, to worry about learning important skills themselves and passing them down through the generations – when the water stops running due to failed pipes, twenty-two years after the disaster, nobody has any idea how to repair them, and they settle for drinking from creeks and building outdoor latrines. Ish often blames the disinterest of the children or the “stupidity” of his fellow-aged survivors, but he’s just as guilty of complacency as the others.

In terms of the style, Earth Abides has elements of both the straight dope, expository science fiction form, and the old-school style you find in a lot of books by authors born in the 19th century – think John Wyndham, though a bit more poetic. It can be odd to adjust to if you go straight from reading something else, but it’s consistent and distinctive, and easy to grow accustomed to. Stewart does a good job of delineating the writing style in the three phases of Ish’s life: first as a man in his early 20s (since I’m also in my early 20s I can consider this to be standard, or default, right?), then as a man in his late 40s who is starting to get crotchety at the ways of the younger generation, and finally as an old man who has difficulty remembering things and slips in and out of lucidity. I also liked the way Ish’s story is intercut, often between paragraphs, with short vignettes describing the way the earth is returning to nature. Apparently Stewart’s examination of ecology in these pieces was quite new at the time, though now, of course, environmentalism is much more a part of the zeitgeist. If there’s a piece of the novel that’s particularly dated, apart from the writing style and dialogue, it’s Stewart’s bright and shining 1940s optimism in technology – the electricity keeps running, unmanned, for several months after the disaster, and even twenty-two years later Ish and his sons manage to get a car running just by replacing the battery, the oil and the tyres. (Something that always bugs me about post-apocalyptic fiction is the use of cars more than a few months after the diaster – petrol goes off within months, and I doubt many survivors would have the foresight to immediately mix a vast quantity of it with preservative. I thought it might be a 1940s leaded petrol thing, before remembering that I first learned that petrol goes off from Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, published in 1951.)

A final note to mention is the real life parallel Stewart draws with another last member of a great civilisation – that of Ishi, generally thought to be the last Native American to live a totally traditional lifestyle, who emerged from Yosemite National Park in 1911. The main character’s name, and the location for most of the novel, are certainly no accident; just as Ishi lived out his days in an unrecognisable world, the last man who remembered anything of his people and their history, so does Isherwood Williams. Civilisations come and go – only the earth abides.

Earth Abides is a very good science fiction novel, quite readable, and examining an area of the genre that, as far as I’m aware, no other book has done since. Despite its age, it remains well worth reading, and will endure as a classic of science fiction.

My short story “The Monster” has been published in Issue #13 of Used Gravitrons, and can be read for free online.

Somewhat disappointed with this one, because I couldn’t quite get it to end the way I wanted it to. Sort of painted myself into a corner. Anyway.

I could add my outrage, disappointment and weariness to the collective gnashing of left-wing teeth across Australia today, but we don’t need to see any more than that. What I do want to do is address the perception of “stable government,” since Australia’s perceived lack thereof is partly what led to Labor being ousted from office despite keeping us out of recession in 2008 and continuing to deliver an economy that Europe and the United States can only dream about. (I also believe, by the way, that we live in a society and not an economy – but this is how the debate is framed these days, for better or worse. Well, worse, obviously.)

Tony Abbott’s promise to bring us “stable government” and his attacks on Labor as being a government of “chaos” and “mismanagement” stem from two things: Labor’s leadership changes and the hung parliament of 2010. The leadership knifings were absolutely Labor’s own fault, but arguing that two leadership changes in six years of government constitutes “chaos” is ridiculous. Gillard knifing Rudd and Rudd knifing Gillard did not make us lose our life savings, did not dramatically increase the rate of soldiers’ deaths in Afghanistan, did not result in the rolling blackouts across major cities. It made us roll our eyes. That’s all. If you want an insight into chaos and mismanagement, go speak to the people of Greece or Spain or Ireland.

The notion that a hung parliament resulted in an unstable government is even more irritating, given that it reveals the extent of Australians’ misunderstanding of our political system. Although the papers and nightly news bulletins treat us to unlimited images of our glorious Prime Minister and Opposition Leader under the barrage of photo flash bulbs, arriving or departing from endless photo opportunities at small businesses, this is not America – and no matter how much the press wants it to be, this isn’t a presidential campaign. The Office of Prime Minister is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution; neither are any of the Cabinet positions. This is why there was a lot of sneering in certain circles at the widespread outrage after the first knifing, when Australians believed the faceless men of the Labor Party had robbed them of their democratic right. This sneering was misplaced, because while we may not directly elect a prime minister, we walk into the booth knowing full well that whether we vote for a Liberal or Labor candidate will determine who becomes prime minister, and that’s what most people are really thinking about when they put a number next to a box, regardless of whose name is next to it.

So, yes, your vote does elect a prime minister. But more importantly, what it does is determine which party will control the House – a democratic body of representatives who vote on the passage of legislation. An insistence on “stable government,” and distaste at a hung parliament, suggests that Australians have been bewitched by American elections into thinking that individual candidates matter more than a party’s policies. Labor received a bounce in opinion polls of almsot 10% after reinstalling Rudd in June. That’s a big number. 1 in every 10 Australians apparently decided to change their vote based purely on a personality. There was not a single policy difference between either leader; whereas the differences between Labor and Liberal, despite narrowing under Rudd and Gillard’s stewardship, remain stark.

In a hung parliament, the balance of power is controlled by minor parties and independents, and the passage of legislation is dependent on debate, discussion and compromise. In a majority government parliament, the ruling party will rubber-stamp whatever legislation they want through the House. Which sounds more democratic to you?

Australians seem to understand the concept of checks and balance, and why it can be a good, tempering influence for a minor party to hold the balance of power – that’s why the Greens historically do much better in the Senate, and have held the balance of power there for the past decade. When it comes to the House, though, Australians don’t like that, because the make-up of the House determines who’ll be the faux-presidential figure to “lead the country” – and never mind something as boring and trivial as, you know, legislation.

The House of Representatives is the heart of our democracy, not the office down the hallway where the Prime Minister sits. We are not at war. We do not require a figurehead to make critical, immediate decisions for us. Belgium went 18 months without a government a few years ago, and the earth did not open up and swallow the nation. The trains still ran, the grocery shops were still open, you could still apply for a passport and you still had to pay your taxes. The Labor government of the past six years was no more “unstable” than John Howard’s was or Tony Abbott’s will be. If you want to see instability, go to the Middle East.

What it ultimately comes down to, beyond ignorance, is that Australians don’t like change. We hadn’t had a hung parliament in living memory, and the populace recoiled from this new experience like a vampire emerging into daylight. Australia is a deeply conservative country that wants things to stay just as they always have been – which is why we now have a prime minister who is going to halt any efforts at stopping climate change, dismantle the work that had begun on a badly-needed national broadband network, and continue the deeply racist immigration policies of his forebears.

With four episodes left of the greatest series of our time, I’m going to post my limited theory about the ending, and get it down on the record in case it turns out to be true.

SPOILER ALERT! THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR EPISODES UP TO AND INCLUDING SEASON 5 EPISODE 12, “RABID DOG!” SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS! (And obviously it’s such a brilliant theory that it’s probably going to be true, obvs.)

So we know that the season has been defined thus far by the two flashforwards which take place a year from the current timeline, in which Walt is 52. His cancer is advanced, and he’s been hiding out in New Hampshire for a while. He purchases an M60 machine gun from his weapons dealer, and when he returns to his house to retrieve his hidden ricin, it has been boarded up and abandoned, the name “HEISENBERG” is spraypainted on the wall and his neighbour screams when she sees him. His family is dead or gone. His secret is out. But he obviously has something big planned.

In the present day, Lydia is trying to get Walt to return to the meth business, because Declan’s production isn’t up to scratch. Walt refuses. She goes to visit Declan at his secret underground meth lab in Arizona, and asks him to reconsider using Todd – a crap cook, but better than Declan’s guy. Declan objects that Todd started a fire last time he cooked. When he refuses to relent, Todd and his uncles show up anyway and kill Declan’s men. Lydia, Todd and his uncles take the materials and head back to New Mexico.

This storyline is so far unrelated to the Walt vs Hank showdown that’s comprised the bulk of the season. I came up with my theory before watching the most recent episode, Rabid Dog, but that episode only served to strengthen it, because in the course of his discussion with Hank – when Hank is trying to convince Jesse that Walt cares about him – Jesse mentions, almost as a throwaway line, that “I’m the only [meth cook] near as good as him.”

I’m predicting that some shit is going to go down between Walt/Jesse and Todd’s uncles, and that Walt is going to be run out of town – his family, including Hank, killed – while Jesse is going to be abducted and forced to toil in slavery in some secret meth lab, never seeing the light of day. This would fit neatly with Jesse’s continuing spiral into a living hell, and bring back meth production in a show that has always revolved around it, in a season which has abandoned it. Walt – with nothing left to lose and a scant shred of redemption to be gained – has come out of hiding and purchased heavy weaponry in an attempt to rescue his wayward son.

That’s my theory. Just getting it down on record in case it turns out to be spot on.

Finch by Jeff VanderMeer (2009) 334 p.

Finch is the most recent of three loosely connected books set in VanderMeer’s fictional fantasy city of Amerbgris, after City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword. I couldn’t stand the second of those, so I put off reading this one for a while, and if I hadn’t already bought it I probably wouldn’t have bothered at all.

Finch is, fortunately, a step up from Shriek: An afterword. The first two books introduced us to the strange metropolis of Ambergris and the malevolent fungal creatures known as “grey caps” which have always lurked in the caves and caverns beneath the city. Finch takes place after a civil war between two merchant houses was interrupted by a full-scale grey cap uprising. Now, many years later, Ambergris is crumbling under occupation: citizens dead or interred in camps, entire neighbourhoods overtaken by fungal growth, the populace kept docile with mushroom drugs. Two enormous towers are being built, and the grey caps will not say what they are for or what will happen when they are complete.

The novel follows John Finch, a police officer, one of few remaining who still try to do their jobs even though that means working for the grey caps. Despite his protests that he is not a detective, Finch is assigned to a murder case in which a dead man and a dead grey cap are found in an apartment building, and is given only one week to solve the case.

Finch is easily the most fully-formed and complete of the Ambergris books; City of Saints and Madmen was a book of small pieces and short stories, and Shriek: An Afterword was also quite convoluted. Finch is a much more traditional novel in a structural sense, the chapters named after the days of the week as Finch tries to solve the case before the deadline. VanderMeer has, in this book, adopted a writing style that attempts to mimic the hardboiled prose style of 1930s detective novels:

Back at his desk with the other detectives. The must of fungal rot from the green strip of carpet running from the front door down the middle. The whole back of the room hidden by a curtain. Smell of bad coffee from the table that also housed their only typewriter. Shoved up against the far wall. Next to the holding cell.

Deliberately truncating sentences is as far as this mimicry extends; Finch is still wallowing in VanderMeer’s excessive exposition, as we are privy to every one of Finch’s mopey thoughts about his girlfriend or his old life or whatever. It’s not that I thought an atmosphere of melancholy was inappropriate, but rather that I just didn’t care about any of his characters or what was going to happen to them. VanderMeer has a brilliant imagination and has created an interesting fantasy world, but as is often the curse with such writers, he fails to populate that world with interesting or sympathetic characters. Nor is his story particularly engrossing, in spite of how well he paints the occupation of the city and the misery of the human survivors; it mostly involves Finch in the dark, chasing up leads through bizarre dreams and cartoonish mob villains, eventually uncovering what’s going to happen with the towers and saving the day with the resistance, or something. My interest and my attention were both waning at that point. Finch is the best book of the Ambergris trilogy, but that’s a low hurdle.

I should point out that this is a minority opinion. The back of the book is emblazoned with rave reviews from the Guardian, the Times, Lev Grossman, etc. Ambergris is certainly unique and different, so if the story sounds interesting to you, by all means check it out. I just personally didn’t enjoy sitting through three books of an author’s strange obsession with mushrooms.

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September 2013