Science Fiction: A Review Of Speculative Fiction: Special Double Issue Featuring Phillip Mann
(Vol 19, Nos 1-2)
Van Ikin (ed)
A special double issue of a well-regarded journal, plus full-page authorial cover photo, is a handsome tribute to the work of any writer. Science Fiction has been running since 1977 and has featured the work of many Australian science fiction writers, but never before (as far as I know) a New Zealander. Phillip Mann’s New Zealandness is, however, a frequent topic of discussion.
In a charming reminiscence, Clare Coney describes finding The Eye Of The Queen in the Gollancz slushpile. Coney and her colleagues agreed that what the Gollancz fiction department really needed was a new British author. Several hours and a dozen manuscripts later, Coney wearily picked up an offering from Scarborough in Yorkshire: “The first few pages were terrible. On the other hand the author clearly could write …. So The Eye of the Queen went home with me that evening.” And so it began. Coney says that Phil (they became friends) “remains one of only two authors I found on the slushpile whose books were eventually published by us”. The other was Barbara Trapido. The editors at Gollancz were a bit disconcerted to find their British author lived in New Zealand, and he was probably disconcerted to find they wanted him to rewrite the first third of the book, but eventually an offer was made he couldn’t refuse, and The Eye Of The Queen made its way into the world of science fiction and established its author’s reputation.
Science fiction, the term Mann prefers over speculative, futurist or fantasy fiction, is a large and many-limbed beast. It is clearly the genre that Margaret Atwood’s Oryx And Crake belongs to, as her fictional world is brought about by genetic experimentation, but she resists the term, describing her fiction instead as “speculative fiction” because it contains “no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians”. She has dismissively described science fiction as “talking squids in space”, which infuriated sci-fi fans, but makes me wonder if she has in fact read Mann, who has many inventive plant- and non-animal-based aliens in space, as in the Paxwax novels, Eye Of The Queen and The Disestablishment Of Paradise.
The Eye Of The Queen is described in a long article by Michael J Tolley in the special issue (“Mann And Aliens” ) as a “classic study of aliens”, a “beautiful mind-expanding story of an alien encounter”. It is perhaps the most “scientific”’ of Mann’s novels, in which the main characters are “Contact Linguists”, and the novel takes the form of a scientific report based on observational diary entries. Tolley likens the relationship between the humans and the Pe-Ellians to Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms: “the egotistical human is bound to corrupt the innocent, ethically and physically superior alien”, but you could also say that the novel is preoccupied with one of the great themes of science fiction, omnipresent in Mann’s oeuvre, the Fall, or the disestablishment of Paradise, though it is not so much humankind’s fall from God, as humankind’s many failures in relating to the delicate and lovely worlds it encounters. This is not just a preoccupation of the novels of Mann: there is a highly literary grand narrative running in most science fiction, a narrative of hubris and ambition and failed redemption.
Tolley makes the point, rather exhaustively, that all of Mann’s novels draw on, and refer to, a Western literary education: Greek tragedy and epic, Norse myth, Shakespearean tragedy, Swift and Voltaire, as well as some of the classics of science fiction, such as Frank Herbert’s Dune and the short fiction of Cordwainer Smith. Other reviewers in this issue make a similar point and, given that Mann has spent his professional life teaching drama and theatre, it is not altogether surprising that his expansive reading inflects and permeates his narrative invention. However, one of the less desirable effects of this intertextual, analogising practice is that many of the reviewers spend a tedious amount of time recounting (for their hermeneutic depths) plots and explicating names or, as these reviewers prefer to say, the “nomenclature”, perhaps a sci-fi usage.
There is always a risk that science fiction, a genre which tends not to be taken seriously by literary criticism, becomes so focused on the science of the brilliant idea that it does not take enough trouble, or perhaps does not have the tools, to produce a complex and plausible narrative, and deeply persuasive characters and relationships. Mann does, as most critics seem to agree, manage to combine a brilliant idea with plausible narration and characters in The Eye Of The Queen, Pioneers and Wulfsyarn. George Turner, who begins his piece on Pioneers with a list of all his pet hates (fantasy with grandiose concepts, too much erudition and authorial comment, fantasy in flabby disguise) praises Mann’s “plain unassuming prose” and his “luminous, unearthly effects”, declaring that he is one of the “few sf writers who matter”. Praise, indeed, yet Turner also notes that as a writer Mann has not been given as much attention as he deserves, perhaps due to the larger bias against his chosen genre, but also perhaps reflecting some mixed reception of his work.
Wulfsyarn is said by Laura E Goodin in her review piece to “lack narrative tension”, and “their artificiality” limits the appeal of the two main characters, Wilberfoss (captain of a “dazzlingly complex, sentient, spaceship”) and Wulf (a robotic amanuensis). One of Mann’s favourite narrative techniques is to tell a story indirectly. Most of Wilberfoss’s experiences are related by Wulf, whose non-human brain agonises over his heavy-handed deficiencies as a storyteller. In the long story “Maestro”, the lead in the group of stories by Mann that conclude the special issue, the story is told in pedestrian prose by the protagonist’s best friend. None of the characters are as interesting as the driving idea, that music, the “music of the spheres”, has a creative force which can open the fifth dimension.
Bruce Shaw describes the four novels of A Land Fit For Heroes as “ripping yarns” about an alternative history, one in which a decadent Roman Empire has endured to the 21st century. Most of the action takes place in a fictionalised Yorkshire, and part of the appeal of the tetralogy is imagining the ancient forest that cloaks the land, full of ancient woodlanders, Celts. But Shaw also finds something “Pythonesque” in phrases such as “Roscius the renegade Roman” and thinks that the ripping yarn element in all four books is a little too much. It is hard to avoid the hint of cliché and stereotype in books so relentlessly driven by adventure narrative and Romans.
Shaw makes two final points which resonate through Mann’s fictional worlds .One is that his use of idiomatic speech can hit entirely the wrong note: parody and inappropriate cliché, such as the expression “By gum”, or the voicing of Kiplingesque axioms like “Lest we forget”. Shaw sees these moments as lapses in Mann’s writing, and they also occur in the short fiction that forms the second part of the special issue.
Shaw’s other comment is that there is a lot of sex, including interspecies sex, such as copulating with trees. In one of the two stories from The Out-Of-Time Café included here, there is fervid sex between a Cyclops and a potplant called Bob, which transforms at will into a pine tree, a dapper middle-aged man and a nightclub hostess (this last, predictably, is the incarnation that transfixes Polyphemus with lust). Stereotyped beauties abound. Shaw remarks: “One after another different Celtic villages are visited … Each village appears to have sturdy big-breasted women, often with red hair and a free-loving philosophy who form liaisons with the male heroes.”
Not only is this comment pertinent to Mann’s work as a whole, it is perhaps one of the reasons why science fiction finds it hard to cut it as a serious genre. Science fiction does little to reform gender stereotypes. Where are the same sex couples (and I’m not talking about Pe-Ellians)? Where are the alternative female lifestyles? Where are the women who refuse sex or pursue it for their own purposes and not because it will heal a man? The genre is solidly, unremittingly, heterosexual in its narrative plots and homosocial in its characterisations.
“Maestro” is a case in point. It is a story about two men. One of them happens to have a female sidekick who helps him with his great project (she has, of course, a “mane of thick black hair”) and when she meets the narrator for the first time, she “stepped closer and kissed me full on the lips”. The relationship between the two men is really what is central to the plot: their jealousies, their history as schoolboys, their pursuit of their project. Molly, the PhD student, interprets them to each other, reinforcing the homosocial point.
Only one of the reviewers in this issue of Science Fiction is a woman which (at 7:1) is probably a representative ratio of science fiction readers. (I’m being generous and not counting the all-male interview panel.) Goodin has reservations about Wulfsyarn, but she also finds it has much to offer the “thoughtful and curious” reader, as a “fascinating case study in metatextuality” and a “self aware exploration of the nature of story”. These are probably not the qualities that most science fiction readers look for. Wulfsyarn is also an inventive and page-turning read in my opinion, but in the course of my enjoyment of Mann’s novels, the representation of his female characters and the sometimes wooden dialogue and description are irritants that can get in the way of what he really can do: create a new world and new life forms, even new galaxies. It is interesting that all the reviews identify narrative problems while making clear how much they like the conception of Mann’s novels. This is science fiction’s perennial problem: its practitioners have gifted imaginations, but they are a far cry from Shakespeare.
Lydia Wevers is a Wellington writer and reviewer.