Lydia Wevers re-reads Phillip Mann’s early novels
I have managed to find my 1982 copy of Phillip Mann’s The Eye of the Queen, hardback and in its distinctive bright yellow Gollancz cover. Mann’s early novels are now available in a pretty new imprint called Sargasso Press (Whitireia students have produced them from “manuscript to bookshelf” which seems odd), but I enjoyed going back to the real thing, specked with mysterious brown stains and foxy edges. Since I’d just reread the two Paxwax novels, and Pioneers and Wulfsyarn, I was curious to see how The Eye of the Queen would stack up as the progenitor of Mann’s remarkable output, and what common threads would appear, perhaps things I hadn’t noticed first time round, and whether, at a page-turning level, I still liked them. Reader, I did. But I also found my appetite for science fiction had diminished a bit, or perhaps my appetite for dystopias and human frailty. Science fiction can get a bit depressing.
Last week an article in the Dominion Post reported the predictions of the chief technology officer of MYOB, an accounting software company. Simon Raik-Allen believes that in 25 years workplaces will conform to a “fully virtual, telepresence model”, with banks of 3D printers and drones to deliver the results, we’ll all have microchips to keep us updated on any health issues and we’ll be able to control technology through thought. None of this is far from the Mannian fictional world of telepathy and bio-crystalline brains, though they exist in space. What once seemed part of a fantastic future universe is now down the road here on Earth. So it’s just as well that Phillip Mann’s fascination with technological wizardry comes as part of a sophisticated and complex narrative of human behaviour.
One of the surprising things now about The Eye of the Queen is that it is set in the rather near future, 2076, when humans have already colonised a number of other worlds by using something called the Garfield Equation to travel in space. The novel is retrospectively told, through documentary field notes and commentary on them by the narrator, a Contact Linguist called Tomas Mnaba, who recounts the history of his colleague Professor Marius Thorndyke. When Mann sent the manuscript of Eye to Gollancz, it was called Thorndyke, but the change of title helpfully widens the focus – Eye is a novel about an exceptional man and his experiences, but that is not what you remember about it.
All Mann’s first five novels feature a man like Thorndyke – brilliant, tormented, impulsive, destined: Pawl Paxwax, Jon Wilberfoss and Angelo, the adapted chimpanzee. These male heroes are true-blue science fiction – primarily written by men – they are leaders, heterosexual, powerful, flawed alpha males who are in extreme circumstances. Science fiction, like fantasy, finds it hard to shed gender and cultural stereotypes, and Mann’s is no exception. It is most evident, of course, in sexuality, because while there are plenty of strong women in Mann’s work – Pawl Paxwax’s wife Laurel Beltane, for example, or Jon Wilberfoss’s Medoc – the most important thing about them is that they all love sex and are good at it. Then something happens to them – death in Laurel’s case and departure in Medoc’s – which adds a potent emotion to the forces driving the hero. It’s a pretty standard ingredient of Mann’s plots except in The Eye of the Queen.
Thorndyke is exceptionally talented at languages and a serious scholar. He has written the manual of how to behave in the field, and in the short time of human space conquest he has lived with different species on planets beyond our galaxy and has learnt to communicate with them. When the Pe Ellians made contact with Earth, mysteriously avoiding all defence systems, they asked to speak to Thorndyke – such is the fame of the scholar. Thorndyke is also an elderly man towards the end of his life, cantankerous, inquisitive, driven.
There are no sexy women on Pe Ellia, though there is a sexy creature of indeterminate gender whom Thorndyke is compelled by. But sex is very much not the point. Rather the fictional world of this novel is truly, amazingly inventive (which is why I have never forgotten it). Mann wrote The Eye of the Queen while working in China. It is a novel about encounter and the problem of understanding what you see and hear. Thorndyke decides one day, as a provocative experiment, to strip and then join one of his hosts, Winter Wind, who is a kind of professor, for a chat by the river. Winter Wind asks him polite and curious questions about why he doesn’t have his clothes on and then takes hold of his penis which results in a brilliant piece of cultural bypassing. Thorndyke explains that on earth you would only touch someone’s penis if you were invited, so Winter Wind asks: “When will I be invited?”
All Mann’s novels are full of marvellous other species. My favourites are the Pe Ellians, who are perhaps lizards, perhaps salamanders, asexual, reproduce by mating with their queen and eat their offspring. They are creatures whose skin markings reflect the quality of their thought, and over their lifetime of skin-sloughing they aspire to symmetry. Pe Ellia itself is a thought-generated environment (except for a stony desert) which results in marvellous hobbity living burrows and a verdant and watery natural world. Multiple creatures inhabit the imperial planetary system of the Paxwax novels, full of scheming and murderous dynasties who have colonised other species to do their work – the spiderets and the Hammers (which sound like giant wetas) – and are themselves replete with speciated variation and its different gifts and cruelties. In Wulfsyarn, the Noah’s Ark spaceship Nightingale has many frightening creatures on board, but the worst is the Quelle, which enters and possesses other bodies, moving from a cat to a boy to the bio-crystalline brain systems. And there are also non-human familiars. Thorndyke has Menopause/Harlequin who becomes his other half; Pawl Paxwax is accompanied by Odin, a kind of mollusc; and Wulfsyarn is narrated by Wulf, a small biologically adapted robot who looks like an inverted helmet. The sympathy between species is movingly created in Mann’s novels, and persuasively realized, and is, of course, always an oblique commentary on human behaviour.
What engages and retains me as a reader of Mann’s novels, though, is not their politics, which are always clear enough about the mess we make of things through pride, anger and vanity; nor is it their technology, the particle guns and the Way Gates, which whisk travellers through the Paxwax universe by disseminating and recomposing them. Rather it’s the inventiveness and narrative completeness of his worlds. In The Gardener, Pawl Paxwax takes his new wife Laurel Beltane on a tour of his empire. The last and most remote place they visit is the wonderfully named Elliot’s Pocket, a badland of space where the escaped prisoners and outlaws and free thinkers live, and where space has its most astonishing property, an emerald lake from which solar systems are born, including the mystical planet Thule. The Paxwax novels are a kind of mash-up of bitter Macbeth-ish dynastic politics and a quest journey of betrayal and love and anti-colonialism, which is satisfyingly layered and makes emotional sense. However, it is the richly imagined universe with its red sea of algae and silver tree of thought and dead blue planet sucking the hope and vitality from Pawl Paxwax that make me stop and see it in my mind’s eye. Pioneers, the only one of these first five novels to spend time on Earth (specifically Rotorua and Masterton where I grew up), persuades me both about the blighted muddy humanscape and the abandonment of “Old Europe”, reclothing itself in deep forest, and the space Angelo the Chimp/robot travels in, accompanied by his family of a female robot partner and a human boy. Of course, many of Mann’s inventions require great suspension of disbelief, and there are some common aspects to his fictional worlds – they all use, to a greater or lesser degree, telepathic powers, and each features the “bio-crystalline brain”, which takes on the capacity of a human and immensely amplifies him (it’s always a him). But they all take you into a new space and show you wonders.
I come back to the wonder that is The Eye of the Queen. It is still for me the most conceptually satisfying of Mann’s novels. The idea of a planet in which thought is visible and where ethics is the ruling principle is beautifully and somehow plausibly developed, accompanied as it is by a more primitive desert place where Thorndyke goes and which stops the Pe Ellian developed world being too utopian. And the swarming life force of the queen, like a worm farm in its physicality, both disgusting and miraculous, is an apt counterbalance to the power displayed by the Pe Ellians, who can corral human expansion as if it were a fly outbreak. And who hasn’t experienced the power of a vicious but unvoiced human thought? It can make us change colour too. Rereading Phillip Mann is still eye-opening.