The distinctiveness of Phillip Mann: a survey, Van Iken

Wulfsyarn: A mosaic
Phillip Mann,
Gollancz, London, 1990, $45.95

Phillip Mann is contemporary New Zealand science fiction. The Chairperson of the Department of Theatre and Film at Victoria University, he has published five science fiction novels in less than ten years.

The American sf writer Theodore Sturgeon is credited with the saying that ‘90% of science fiction is rubbish’ but then 90% of everything is rubbish. Mann’s work belongs in that precious 10% band of quality, but within that élite he has a very distinct voice. In one aspect his vision is akin to that of Star Wars, for his books are populated with colourfully diverse alien races and his changes of scene can flit from solar system to galaxy. But the aliens in Star Wars are only skin-deep, and different planetary locations are distinguished only by the surface geography of deserts or icelands. Mann’s aliens, by contrast, are genuine creations: they are soul-deep beings with different cultures, values, and philosophies.

What is unusual about Mann’s work is his ability to combine this superior form of ‘anthropological’ science fiction with a range of honed intellectual concerns. Such an approach is not unusual in quality sf: to continue to use examples drawn from film, 2001: A Space Odyssey reflected an intellectual concern with the nature of evolution and Bladerunner explored concepts of identity. But Mann is preoccupied with specifically literary and philosophical issues: how can a tale of alien cultures be told (from what perspective, and subject to what culture-specific colouring?) and what kind of ‘truths’ might emerge from such a story?

The third and final ingredient of Mann’s distinctiveness can also be expressed in terms of film ‑ this time the sf film that nobody seems to remember. Charly (1968: directed by Ralph Nelson) won an Academy Award for its star, Cliff Robertson, who portrayed a mentally retarded bakery worker whose intellectual capacity is radically stimulated by high-tech surgery. It is the only sf film to have achieved an Academy Award for acting and is therefore proof that sf is so often sadly lacking in any credible depth of characterisation. Yet Mann’s work relies centrally on its deft characterisation: his novels may deal with other times, other places, and other races, but these variant factors are encountered through credible, sentient beings. Mann writes literate, intellectually challenging, humanistic sf.

In Wulfsyarn, the account of one alien race – the Tallines – is a good example of these strengths:

The Tallines failed (though “avoided” might be a more accurate description) to achieve a technological society based on steam or electricity. Their technology is based in nature. They are great carvers of wood and shapers of stone. They achieve their effects by rubbing rather than chipping. They work the wind on land or sea and their main occupations are farming, fishing and cooking. As a society the Tallines are static and that is their strength… .


Several sf writers could have produced that description, pursuing the social implications of a particular idea. Mann adds his own touch in the verbal quibbling over ‘failed’ and the point about rubbing (which is shrewd), but it is in the next paragraph that Mann’s distinctiveness really comes through:

While failing to achieve a technology much more advanced than block and tackle, the Tallines also failed to achieve a dogmatic religion. The only supernatural powers which are given much attention or credence in their world are the gods of the hearth, the gods of the field and the gods of the sea. In observance these are treated more as friends than as entities to be worshipped. (p37)


The discredited word ‘failed’ is used again, ironically, as the narrator seeds the implication that technology may be linked with dogma and, paradoxically, with stifling religious worship. These are the ideas – the linkags –  that all too few sf writers are prepared to explore.

Wulfsyarn: A Mosaic is Mann’s best work to date, preserving a committedly humanistic focus in spite of the fact that its chief protagonist is, ironically, an autoscribe machine and the whole narrative is in fact just an assemblage of data compiled by the machine. However, the subject of the machine’s mosaic is a human being, Jon Wilberfoss, and one of the novel’s intellectual issues centres upon the ways in which human behaviour and motivation may be apprehended and described.

An outline of the plot of Wulfsyarn will help to reveal the rationale for Mann’s challengingly intricate (yet lucidnarrative method. The spaceship Nightingale has gone missing. The high-tech flagship of the intergalactic Mercy fleet operated by the Gentle Order of St Francis Dionysos, Nightingale has disappeared on its maiden voyage and no trace has been found of the ship or the alien refugees packed into its life-bays. Then, a year later, the Nightingale re-appears, but all its life-forms have perished. The human captain, Jon Wilberfoss, is sole survivor, but he has been so traumatized by his ordeal that he must be placed in the care of an autonurse and the story of the spaceship’s fate must be teased from him, over time, by the ministrations of Wulf the autoscribe. But what is an autoscribe? Who is St Francis Dionysos? Whatever is the Gentle Order? And what kind of a story is this – a psychological case-history, an action-adventure romance, an autoscribe’s data-report?

Questioning is the core of the book’s method, though it is of a certain kind. Mann’s is not a harsh, tense probing, but a gloriously exploratory inquisitiveness: the goal of the story (and its scribe) is not to find fixed ‘truths’ or ‘answers’ (for there may not be any) but to seek understanding. Wulfsyarn represents existence as a heady game of knowledge, a fencing match played out between the cut-and-thrust of different perspectives and psychologies and ideologies (with these differences being sometimes as great as the gulfs between galaxies).

Wulf the autoscribe is a crucial narrative device, not mere Star Wars-style gimmickry. Physically resembling a huge grey church bell, Wulf is a mobile machine with a bio-crystalline brain and myriad scanning devices. He conceives his role as narrator in a user-friendly fashion, portraying himself as ‘a stranger at the crossroads, waiting in the moonlight, ready to give directions and guide you’ (p9) – but the fact remains that he is a machine attempting to narrate the progress of a human soul.

But does that make him an unreliable narrator, a machine woefully out of its depth, or does it mean lie is the ultimate in detached, objective narrators? How should the story of John Wilberfoss and the Nightingale be told, and who (or what) should tell it?

Wulfsyarn insists upon the importance of such questions, emphasising that the answers or insights which result from any inquiry are inevitably the product of the way it is conducted. Wulf tells the reader in the Preface that certain aspects of his story will be impossible to comprehend ‘without first appreciating the influences that have shaped our bio-crystalline brains and the forces that make us tick’ (pp12-13). The narrative subsequently supplies this important information – but then, as the story of Wilberfoss’s doomed mission proceeds, it turns out that the Nightingale‘s demise has been triggered by hitherto unforeseen factors in bio-crystalline brain behaviour – which means that even Wulf has not fully understood the role (and the potential) of these shaping forces.

The novel also indulges in some delicious wordplay in order to highlight the issues raised by Wulf’s narration. For example, what is behind the mix of language registers when Wulf talks scientifically about ‘appreciating the influences that have shaped our bio-crystalline brains’ but then refers, colloquially, to ‘the forces that make us tick’? Later, more pointedly, Wulf comments:

I realise that I have the rationalist’s, perhaps the historian’s, desire to find ends and causes, shapes and meanings. But life is not like that, is it, you humans? I realise that tragedy is a human invention, to give shape to your experience: meaning to your chaos. Beyond tragedy there is only the incandescent present, illuminating everything, or the vacancy of death. If I were you I would think that Wilberfoss is a lesson in tragic waste. (p264


If I were you… – but Wulf can never be like us. At the core of the different layers of narration lies the all-too-human story of Jon Wilberfoss. It is difficult to discuss this aspect of the novel without giving too much away and spoiling the tantalizing mystery of his trauma, but the novel offers two generalized patterns to account for his behaviour. One, conveyed in the epigraph, is C P Cavafy’s notion of ‘the great Yes or the great No’, and in this sense Wilberfoss is one who has said ‘a great Yes’ (to the task of captaining the Nightingale) only to find that it leads to ‘a great No’, as his character fails to meet the challenges imposed. But this view presents the problem as one of individual choice and individual capacity. The alternative view rests upon Wulf’s concept that human history is a progression from the warlike Achilles to the gentleness of Christ and on, finally, to the earthiness of Francis Dionysos (a parodoxical futuristic blending of St Francis and Dionysos). Seen this way, Wilberfoss is the product of the imperfect (or incomplete) pattern of human evolution.

To those unfamiliar with science fiction, Wulfsyarn may sound like eternal verities served up in the trappings of space opera. But such a view misses the point completely. In science fiction – Mann’s especially – the so-called ‘trappings’ are an integral aspect of meaning, creating the important element of estrangement. Mann’s achievement in Wulfsyarn is that lauded by T S Eliot – ‘to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time’ – with Mann adding the angst-ridden postmodernist question, ‘by what means shall our knowing come about?


Van Iken teaches at the University of Western Australia and is regarded as the foremost Australian authority on science fiction.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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