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The Other by Matthew Hughes

In the dim and distant past when it was customary for a society to be divided rigidly into a class system, those in a subservient position were routinely called upon to demonstrate their loyalty and respect for those in a superior position through acts of homage. This could be a simple declaration acknowledging the others’ superiority, or it might be through some artistic endeavour. Poets would craft verses, playwrights would create dramas, and all who read or heard would understand who the heroes were intended to be. The artists were the most supine, always showing their betters with bulging muscles and wisdom shooting out of their heads like a halo. For the record, the word ‘homage’ derives from the French homme meaning man. Somehow patriarchal societies always had men at the top of the pecking order. When women were depicted, it was always in contexts showing them as one of the most prized possessions owned by the lord and master (although there were occasional subversive outbreaks like Lysistrata by Aristophanes). In more modern contexts, young artists show respect for well-established veterans by creating something to celebrate the latters’ greatness.

In such a role, Matthew Hughes wrote Fools Errant which is what we in the trade like to call Vancean, i.e. it’s written in the style associated with Jack Vance, one of the “old masters” and follows in the same universe as, but set slightly earlier than, Vance’s Dying Earth. By any standards, Fools Errant is a great book. Indeed, the two books that follow, Fool Me Twice and Black Brillion, maintain a good standard, the latter introducing us to Luff Imbry, a criminal of no mean ability who’s recruited into the Bureau of Scrutiny to help track down his former partner-in-crime, Horselyn Gebbling. But there comes a point when we have to stop dealing with these books as a homage or pastiche. We have to value Matthew Hughes as an author in his own right. Indeed, for the younger reader, this is essential. Although people of my generation grew up with Jack Vance and revere his memory, not so many people today read him. So, to label today’s books as Vancean is not so meaningful. The issue is whether this book is good enough to be considered Hughesean.

Matthew Hughes looking forward to his next mug of punge

The good news is that Matthew Hughes is an accomplished author and, in The Other (Underland Press, 2011), he manages to bring a very sophisticated idea to the page. With the need to avoid spoilers uppermost in my mind, I must approach this obliquely. Let’s assume a society in which there’s some fundamental disagreement. There are two standard ploys for the leadership to apply. The first is to redefine the ‘us’ and ‘them’ in a way that scapegoats them as responsible for all the ills of society. This motivates us to unite against them and positively assert the rightness of our position. Assuming we control the law-making and enforcement mechanisms, we can suppress them and rise to dominance. But if this is threatening a civil war we might lose, we could try to stir up a foreign aggressor. This appeals to the nationalism of us and them, and so produces a united front against the external threat. In other words, just as we need light to appreciate its opposite dark, society often needs the concept of “the other” to maintain unity or to persuade the majority of the legitimacy of a given course of action.

This book sees the return of Luff Imbry who’s kidnapped and dumped on a rather strange world. In the usual way, our hero must therefore wander round and see whatever is to be seen. This will trigger thought and, as time passes, there will be a need for action. But, as our hero is somewhat corpulent, the action should be as stately as possible. Unfortunately, although The Other starts very well, it goes into slow-motion for the first third. Several passages of ratiocination are rewritten without advancing understanding very far. However, once we are over the initial hump, we have some vintage Hughes. The point is not so much the unravelling of the puzzle — it’s fairly obvious what the major physical outcome is going to be — but to see how the underlying philosophical theme is allowed to play out. The final analysis by Luff is a joy and presents a distinctly unexpected hypothesis for the motives of all those who contributed to the outcome. The only uncertainty remaining is the motivation of the original kidnapper. I suppose this will be explored in the next exciting instalment.

So, taking the longer view, The Other is a very good book, marred only by excessive padding in the first third. This is definitely worth reading by everyone who enjoys thoughtful science fiction with a wry sense of humour about the people who may have shared life together in a distant future.

The Other by Matthew Hughes was shortlisted for the P K Dick Award 2012.

For reviews of other books by Matthew Hughes, see:
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
Song of the Serpent
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  1. July 19, 2012 at 11:21 am

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