Book Reviews from Albedo One # 5, 1994

I had not realised it was possible to be seduced by the physical appearance of a book until I picked up TOLKIEN’S RING (HARPER COLLINS, HARD­BACK, £17.99 STG, 183 pp) written by DAVID DAY and illustrated by ALAN LEE. The cover painting is fierily evoca­tive of Mordor’s volcanic oppressiveness -par for the ‘Tolkien industry’ course. But it is the internal artwork that sets it apart from the general run-of-the-mill of coffee table books. Inside it is crammed with both full-page colour plates and black and white line drawings which perfectly com­pliment the text.

Intrigued by the illustrations I flipped to the blurb on the flap inside the front cover: ‘TOLKIEN’S RING is a lit­erary detective work about JRR Tolkien’s inspiration and sources.’ And that was good enough for me. I tucked it posses­sively under my arm and headed for home where I devoured it in the shortest time possible – given the severe handicaps of family and work to undertakings of this nature.

But does it deliver? Well, yes and no. It is certainly an exhaustive investiga­tion of the sources which Tolkien may have called on and it probably contains as much information on Ring legends in gen­eral as the average reader (and the average Tolkien fan) would ever want. But David Day’s work has one minor flaw and unfor­tunately it is a flaw that would be inherent in any discourse on the nature of ring legends: just about every one of them seems to have been based upon the same source material. It’s like browsing through a book of photographs of people of the world and discovering half way through that only one model has been used, all that changes from picture to picture is the attire.

Having said that, I must admit that some of the shortcomings were a product of my own eagerness. This is not a book to be devoured, rather one to be picked through in a leisurely fashion over a period of weeks; one to be appreciated slowly like a fine port rather than dashed back like a can of Tennants. My apologies to David Day and Alan Lee. I would hope to control myself in future.

THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT SINGS THE BLUES (BANTAM PRESS, HARDBACK, £14.99 STG, 229 pp) by HARRY HARRISON is at least the eighth in the series according to a count of the titles featured on the inside covers of other works by him in my collection. I do feel a bit miffed that because some of the RAT books were published by other imprints Bantam have not seen fit to provide a full list of the rest of the series.

However, this is a minor quibble and an unimportant one, as reference to the previous stories is not required. TSSRSTBLUES stands alone though I’m sure that legions of H. Harrison fans will advise you to rush out and get the lot. I like Mr. Harrison’s work, don’t get me wrong, and I have a great respect for it, but I could not recommend his entire RAT series on the basis of TSSRST BLUES.

Not that it’s a bad book. It’s not, it merely shows all the signs of being number umpteen in the series. There is a minimum of characterization. Really, all you’ve got to do is take a look at the loveable rogue’s smile on the front cover then turn the page and check the (sorry folks, it’s that word again) blurb to find out – if you didn’t already know – ‘He is incorrigible. He is conniving. And he is the greatest antihero ever to go rip-roaring through the future. He is Slippery Jim diGriz, thief, conman… the Stainless Steel Rat.’

Is there any more you need to know? Oh yeah! I almost forgot. He is captured in the commission of a daring robbery, the sort of thing other, less adventurous, less audacious criminals would not even con­sider. Then he’s sentenced to death. But the forces of law and order need his unique talents. He is the one person in the galaxy (get the idea yet?) capable of recovering from a prison planet, the only evidence of alien life forms ever found. And to ensure his co-operation they give him (guessed it yet?)… a slow acting poison to which he will be given the antidote only if he suc­ceeds in his mission.

But what the hey, he’s got a whole thirty days. So what does he decide to do? He invents a rock band from a list of commando-types that play musical instru­ments and hypes them into mega-stardom then has them arrested and sent to the prison planet where they will sing their way into the hearts of the locals while Jim steals back the artifact. And all this is accomplished in only eight days leaving him a comparatively enormous twenty-two days before the poison kills him.

Am I a killjoy or what? (Are there too many questions being asked in this review?) I could not help think that given his effortless success in the rock world -superstardom with a pickup band in under eight days – surely Jim will now give up crime and go into showbusiness.

For some years now I have been studiously avoiding the novels of STORM CONSTANTINE. When I ask myself why the reason is always one of those dismiss­ive waves of the hand and a nondescript mumble about it not looking like the sort of thing I’m into, or about it feeling too much like hard work. Was it the covers, which all have a similar look to them, or could it even have been something as irra­tional as an unwillingness to take anything seriously from a person called Storm?

Who can tell? All I know is that having read her latest, CALENTURE (HEADLINE, HARDBACK, £16.99, 340 pp), I feel like kicking myself. What have I been missing all this time?

CALENTURE is a timeless fan­tasy, a novel of ideas, a weird investiga­tion of the human condition as viewed from an obscure angle. It is gothic horror, literary science fiction and quest novel seamlessly interlinked. It is a jewel of so many facets that it dazzles even upon re­flection.

Casmeer is the only living human left in the city of Thermidore. The rest of the population have succumbed to a sick­ness which turned them into strange, opaque statues called roches, whose blood can still be seen within if one looks closely enough. Casmeer is also possibly immor­tal; it is hundreds of years since the last of his fellow citizens calcified and he has yet to age even a day. But he is trapped within the city by creeping agoraphobia.

To entertain himself, Casmeer be­gins to write a speculative novel about the world beyond the mountains in which he lives. It is this novel, which features vast moving cities guided across the vast wastes of desert and plain by lines of pilot stones laid by the enigmatic terranauts, that pro­vides the bulk of the narrative of CALENTURE.

Few people in this world of moving cities have any interest in exploring be­yond the bounds of their homes and those that do are judged to be at least partially insane by their peers. But Casmeer creates two characters, a priest from the flying city of Min and a terranaut youth who are forced to leave their societies and travel through the untracked vastness of their homeland.

Inevitably their quests must lead them to Thermidore and a confrontation with their creator whose interfering hand is felt directly by the protagonists of his book. At one stage he even changes one of them into a woman for a single night so that the fictional Casmeer can experience sex with him (or her as it were).

CALENTURE is a startling achievement. Not since Geoff Ryman’s WAS have I been so overwhelmed by a piece of fiction. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Storm Constantine may be the natural successor to Mervyn Peake. Now, wouldn’t that be nice.

It seems to me in the cart-and-horse department of adult comics the word Graphic comes before Novel. So it’s one helluva disappointment when a graphic novel is found wanting in the art and design area. Repackaging comics with adult themes or content has become popular and, one must therefore conclude, lucra­tive of late. I suppose that it is the publish­er’s (Boxtree) desire to give an overall look to their graphic novel line – no matter who the original publisher – that is the problem here. Let’s face it guys the cover design, while establishing the look, is ter­minally boring. (Editor’s note – the original covers for this series cannot be found so the pictures attached are more recent versions. Apologies)

The examples to hand are Marvel Comics’ X-MEN: WOLVERINE by CHRIS CLAREMONT and FRANK MILLER (BOXTREE, GRAPHIC NOVEL, £6.99 STG) and X-MEN & GHOST RIDER: BROOD TROUBLE IN THE BIG EASY (BOXTREE, GRAPHIC NOVEL, £5.25 STG). In the great tradition of beauty contests the world over let’s consider them in reverse order.

BROOD TROUBLE is quite simply three issues of the comic packaged together which make up a single story. As such it has all the problems associated with dipping into a comic at random in the middle of its run. Although you are guar­anteed a complete story none of the char­acters are introduced and there is a lot of background that needs to be deduced, so unless you are an X-Men fan the early stages of this one may be difficult to fol­low. Then there’s the story itself which is unfortunately standard comics fare and I can see little justification in novelizing it. Sure the interior artwork is excellent and delivers an action-packed story with pace and verve, but I feel the graphic novel form needs to provide just a little more.

WOLVERINE on the other hand is quite a different proposition. Written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Frank Miller – two of the biggest names of the past decade in comics – this may always have been intended as a graphic novel and con­sequently works beautifully in the format.

There is a complete introduction to the character and his background woven around a simple story of love and loss, vengeance and honour. The woman Wol­verine loves is Japanese, from a wealthy family. At the behest of her long-lost fa­ther she dumps Wolverine without even a word and returns home. For the honour of her family she has been promised in mar­riage to a business partner of her father’s and willing or not, marry him she must.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, when Wolverine tracks her down he discovers that her father and his business acquaint­ance are pivotal figures in organised crime. Before you can say Ninja Death Squads he’s been peppered with poisoned shuriken, beaten to a near-pulp and left to die in an alley. From there on it’s mostly downhill for Wolverine as he is nursed back to a semblance of health by a mysteri­ous woman, hunted by innumerable assas­sins and kept on the edge of extinction by an implacable enemy.

Not quite in the Premier League of Graphic Novels, WOLVERINE is defi­nitely First Division. Don’t allow yourself to be put off by the crappy cover.

One of the biggest events in comics over the last decade must have been the death of Superman at the hands of Dooms­day- it was even reported in the newspa­pers. Now, with TV’s New Adventures of Superman rapidly growing in popularity on this side of the Atlantic at least, it would seem to be the perfect time for the novel THE DEATH AND LIFE OF SU­PERMAN (BANTAM BOOKS, PAPER­BACK, £4.99 STG, 478 pp) by ROGER STERN.

One thing this novel achieves is to clear up the current background to Super­man which, as far as I can see, has been extensively revised since the days when I used to read the comic which was, let’s face it, not today or yesterday. But neither is the background consistent with the Movies or the TV series (neither of which are themselves consistent with the other).

Roger Stern is one of the regular writing team on the Superman comic so he should know the correct background if anyone does. And as he was directly in­volved in the Doomsday scenario he would appear to be perfect for the novelization. Unfortunately the major pluses in his cre­dentials are mainly why THE DEATH AND LIFE fails to work as a novel. At least a third of the story is taken up with Superman or any number of other DC Comics superheroes fighting one baddie or another. The life and death struggle with Doomsday alone takes in excess of fifty pages.

Now this might be acceptable in a comic, necessary even, but in novel form the action sequences become repetitive and, dare I say it, boring. This is a book that could use some judicious editing. In fact it could do with being about a hundred pages shorter. Had I not had to plough my way through repeated, and interminable, fight scenes this could have been a highly entertaining light read. As it stands it is too much like hard work for my tastes.

In 1992 the Hugo went to BARRAYAR by LOIS McMASTER BUJOLD. It is now 1994 and PAN have only just got around to publishing it (PA­PERBACK, £4.99, 386 pp) in these is­lands. Why have we been denied it for so long? The book was first published in the States in 1991 so why the delay?

Well, at least it was worth waiting for. BARRAYAR is the latest in Bujold’s series about Miles Naismith (Vorkosigan) and the Dendarii Free Mercenaries. Though that’s a bit misleading as it is a prequel and all the action takes place before Miles is even born.

BARRAYARis the story of Miles’ mother, Cordelia Naismith, who defeated Aral Vorkosigan in battle, then married him and accompanied him back to his home on the relatively backward planet Barrayar – Cordelia’s background is intergalactic high-tech whereas Barrayar’s society is almost feudal.

This is the story of an outsider, of extreme culture-clash, of political intrigue and of insurrection. Each strand of the story is perfectly weighted and as with all the best novels it is the people here who are important, the action which serves merely as a backdrop to their lives and desires. But what a backdrop. Murder, intrigue, attempted assassination, at­tempted infanticide and a planetary revo­lution jostle for position beside love, hon­our and duty in a mixture that adds up to unbeatable entertainment. To miss out on Lois McMaster Bujold would be little short of criminal. Be a good citizen, buy this book, or anything else that bears her name.

THEBES OF THE HUNDRED GATES (HARPER COLLINS, PAPER­BACK, £3.99 STG, 120 pp) by ROBERT SILVERBERG feels like it’s missing something. The problem is that what’s missing is about an extra hundred pages to make it worth the price and an ending. It’s sort of like being on a mystery tour and then, without ever getting anywhere in particular, the bus does an about-turn and heads home. There is a terrible sensation of having travelled without ever arriving.

Robert Silverberg’s name over the title has always guaranteed an intelligent and well written work but since he aban­doned SF almost entirely in favour of Fan­tasy, I feel his work has lost its edge. THEBES has the trappings of SF: it is about a time traveller who is sent into the distant past in order to track down fellow time travellers who disappeared whilst on a mission. He is sent to ancient Thebes where he stumbles onto one of them in the first few pages.

So what’s the point, I ask myself. Maybe it’s the first part in a series. I can see no other justification for it. Either way it’s lousy value. Save your money. Wait for it to turn up as part of a short story collection.

If you have not read part one of THE BOOK OF THE LONG SUN by GENE WOLFE you should do so now. Otherwise, apart from missing a treat, you will find it takes a while to work out what’s going on in part two of the series LAKE OF THE LONG SUN (HODDER & STOUGHTON, HARDBACK, £16.99, 352 pp) and nothing should be allowed to do that.

THE BOOK OF THE LONG SUN is simply the best multi-volume se­ries doing the rounds at present, if the first two in the series are anything to judge by. Wolfe has effortlessly created a totally believable society, while telling us the minimum we need to know, and treated us to that fundamental of science fiction which is all to often missing from novels by the modern exponents – sense of wonder. There are too few novelists currently working in the genre who seem capable of it, perhaps they feel their audience is too jaundiced or have seen it all before at the movies. Perhaps they have merely lost their own sense of wonder at what can be achieved in SF.

Take a leisurely trip through Gene Wolfe’s world of the Long Sun – a genera­tion ship whose destination we do not know and whose origins are only vaguely hinted at. We know it comes from the Urth of the New Sun but why and how are yet to come. Somehow, Patera Silk, who in the first novel began the struggle to save his manteion (part monastery, part church) from the developers. Towards the end of that novel there is a suggestion that Silk may end up as something more than a humble priest, that he is destined for power. In volume two he moves inexorably to­wards the position of Calde which, though obviously a high office, was never fully explained in the first volume.

In LAKE Wolfe reveals just how integral the role of Calde is to life in the world of the Long Sun and how the rulers of Silk’s city have done away with the position in order to usurp its power for themselves. But the people want a Calde and if the Silk for Calde graffiti on the walls is anything to go by Silk seems to have the popular vote. After all he has seen one of the Long Sun’s gods, spoken to her in fact. Who else could fill the post?

Of course not everyone is in agree­ment with the graffiti. The government, for instance, whose power would be in­stantly diminished and who are likely to kill those who stand in their way. It’s a good job that Silk is a man of destiny and has the protection of the gods. To a degree.

I do have one gripe which I must aim directly at Hodder & Stoughton. Vol­ume two is not of the same physical dimensions as volume one. What is the point of this? It’s bad enough with all the varying paperback formats and hardback designs to maintain any regularity on the bookshelves without two books in a series, from the same pub­lisher, coming out totally mismatched. I would have thought hardback customers were important enough that details such as this would be given some sort of attention.

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About Bob Neilson

Bob Neilson lives in Dublin with his wife, two daughters, son, two dogs, one cat and a growing feeling of claustrophobia. In partnership with his wife he runs a successful retail business in Dublin city. His short fiction has appeared extensively in professional and small press markets and he has had two plays performed on RTE and one on Anna Livia FM. He also presented a radio show on Anna Livia for a year. He has had two short story collections published, Without Honour (1997, Aeon Press) and That’s Entertainment (2007, Elastic Press) as well as several comics and a graphic novel. His non-fiction book on the properties of crystals is a best-seller in the UK and Ireland.
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