Posts Tagged ‘Jack Vance’

The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz by Dan Simmons

June 7, 2013 1 comment

The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz

In a macabre kind of way, it’s actually convenient to come back to this story at this time. Jack Vance has just died. This is saddening. I’ve been reading his work for as long as I’ve been alive. He was ninety-six when he died so had a few years start on me. I discovered him in the early 1960s and never looked back. He was a wonderful writer. A few years ago, in celebration of his contribution to fantasy, we had an outstanding anthology called Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois. This was a book of highlights with some truly outstanding stories. One of them was The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz by Dan Simmons (Subterranean Press, 2013). To give you an idea of just how good the story is, this limited hardcover edition was sold out almost as soon as the edition was announced. The combination of Dan Simmons and a Jack Vance theme was irresistible.

At this point, I need to rein in my own enthusiasm for a moment and assume you’ve never heard of Jack Vance and therefore could not care a fig that a modern author has revisited one of his worlds. It may even be possible you’ve never heard of Dan Simmons although that’s less likely if you have had any interest in science fiction, fantasy, horror and PI novels over the last twenty-four years. So let’s start with a clean slate and see where it takes us. The sequence we call the Dying Earth began with a short story in 1950. Like Topsy, this just grow’d into a sprawling sequence of novels describing the final days of Earth. As a planet, it has had an eventful history, first seeing the advance of technology and then the emergence of real magic. As the sun slowly loses its power, the population begins to fade away with no new children coming along. People fall back into simpler patterns of life, abandoning the supposed benefits of technology and embracing the natural flow of the world, now including magic. Indeed, it’s often hard to say when science stops and the supernatural begins. What might once have been strongly defined lines blur. Everything is an example of wonder in a fading landscape.

Dan Simmons looks over his left shoulder to worlds of fantasy

Dan Simmons looks over his left shoulder to worlds of fantasy

At the start of this story, we seem to be entering the final days as the sun grows weaker and struggles to rise over the horizon. Needing someone to blame for this latest catastrophe, the residual citizenry turns to attacking the few magicians they know. Needless to say, the magicians with real power simply relocate and ignore this riotous behavior, but news of the death of Ulfant Banderoz brings many out of hiding. This was the oldest of their number and the man who had established himself as the librarian of his age. Thinking they can now claim this accumulated knowledge for their own, the weak first-callers are destroyed by the residual spells protecting his library. This brings Shrue the Diabolist into play. He’s was the second oldest magician and now feels he should take control of the library for the good of the world. This sends him out into the world where he soon recognizes he has a real rival for access to the library. Thus begins an extended chase and sometimes violent dispute. As to where Shue goes. . . he just follows the nose which somehow seems to know where he should go.

All this represents a delightful allegory. Some seek knowledge for itself, having no purpose other than the satisfaction of curiosity. Others have more selfish motives, believing they are inherently entitled to knowledge so they can demonstrate their primary status. Needless to say, those whose motives are less than pure do not fare so well, while those of a more altruistic outlook prosper. Such is always the way in fairy stories written for adults. Taken overall, The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz is simply wonderful both in its own right and, should you have read any Jack Vance, as a recreation of Vancean style and attitude. You should read it. But this may prove difficult because the Subterranean Press limited edition was sold out almost as soon as it was announced. No doubt other editions will follow. However, the source anthology is equally wonderful with many outstanding stories. If you want the maximum value from multiple authors of rare talent, get access to Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois and incidentally enjoy the contribution from Dan Simmons.

For other reviews of books by Dan Simmons, see:
The Abominable
Muse of Fire.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Other by Matthew Hughes

April 20, 2012 1 comment

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

Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois

March 31, 2011 1 comment

Well, our two grizzled veterans have been at it again. In Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance, George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois have produced another classy anthology for which I can offer the headline that there are no weak links. Every story is significantly better than good.


We need to clear the decks for action as I ready myself to take on another of these heavy-weight books — an almost seven-hundred page behemoth. As an ex-Vance completist, I used to have all the Underwood Miller editions including their first which was, by coincidence, The Dying Earth. What looked rather beautiful in an oversized hardback edition is replicated in this standard trade edition with the pages framed and line illustrations as headers to each story. Frankly, at this scale, it wastes space to no useful purpose. The book would have been slightly lighter and easier to handle had this affectation been eliminated.


Secondly, I’m not sure how to review this anthology. The stories are in homage to Jack Vance who was, by any standards, one of the best of the writers at work from the late 1940s onwards. Jack has magnanimously agreed to allow a new crew to sail in his Dying Earth universe. This is a good thing. If we are denied work from the Old Master, we can see what others can produce in the same setting. So does that mean I’m to produce two scores on the doors? The first as an evaluation of each story on its own merits and then judging how well the story works as a Vance pastiche.

George R R Martin still able to hold up his end of a book


Take the first by the venerable Robert Silverberg to show the problem. ”The True Vintage of Erzuine Thale” is very respectful and worthy. We see how the poet Puillayne reacts when his daily routine of alcoholically-inspired versifying is interrupted by the arrival of Porlocking fans. In spirit, it very positively fits into the Vancean style and, much as we assume Coleridge would have wanted to react, demonstrates what may happen when guests overstep the bounds of social propriety. Except the result is slightly po-faced. In the disposition of the inconsiderate interlopers, I miss Vance’s sly sense of humour. So it’s a very good story in its own right, albeit perhaps slightly too long. But it lacks a key Vancean element. This lack of wit is remedied in “Grolion of Almery” by Matthew Hughes who has been writing in the style of Vance for years and has grown particularly good at it. This story recreates a Cugel-type confrontation in the manse of a Magician proving there’s no problem that cannot be solved with deftness of hand and acuity of mind. The results of the solution are, of course, usually neutral with survival for anyone in Grolion’s position and all spoils of manipulative extravagances lost.


“The Copsy Door” by Terry Dowling captures the magic literally as irony stalks the land like a one-eyed chicken with a limp and takes the prematurely triumphant for a ride. As the sun sets in the Clever Window, it’s always good to look in a mirror and see single become double-crossers before the light fades away. “Caulk the Witch-chaser” by Liz Williams demonstrates the old rule that, if you allow a hard-bitten supernatural writer loose in a fantasy land, you get unexpectedly tough results. This has a harder edge that would usually be associated with Vance, but it’s sufficiently good we can enjoy it anyway as a piece of real estate becomes vacant at an opportune time with a wedding in the air. “Inescapable” by Mike Resnick obeys another of Vance’s laws — that everyone who insists on having his own way, gets his just deserts. It’s not so much that selfishness is punished, but that a refusal to listen to wise advice usually presages disaster. The converse of this is found in “Abrizonde” by Walter Jon Williams. Here an unfortunate architectural student finds himself in a jam but, with the help of his madling Hegadil, he contrives not only to survive, but also to prosper. It was ever the way in Vance where the cautious prevail.

Gardner Dozois demonstrates the ancient art of writing


Even at my advanced age, it’s always a pleasure to encounter someone new. In “The Traditions of Karzh”, Paula Volsky produces a delightful story which reminds us all that, if a person is realistic and maximises his endeavours within the physical and intellectual limitations with which he was born, he’s set for life. If change does become possible, it’s simply in the means with which he can pursue his own interests. Jeff VanderMeer’s approach is not so much as to wander off the Vance reservation as to redefine it in ways rather more phantasmagorical. In the wildly entertaining “The Final Quest of the Wizard Sarnod”, two servants must survive the Underhind to rescue two prisoners. Except they find themselves endangered as fishes out of water in this strange world.


“The Green Bird” by Kage Baker offers another adventure for Cugel who was never one to be slow in coming forward when the prospect of riches is in the offing. He finds there’s more than meets the eye in the titular bird and unlike the bird that draws blood with his beak, Cugel bites off more than he can chew. “The Last Golden Thread” by Phllis Eisenstein has a young man learn that, sometimes, you have to give up the past birds to recognise the bird in the hand. While Elizabeth Moon takes us racing in “An Incident in Uskvesk” where we find good things can come in small packages if you have the right motivation and a good depilatory cream. Lucius Shephard‘s “Sylgarmo’s Proclamation” reunites us with Cugel at a towering moment with the death of the sun imminent.


Tad Williams warns us in “The Lamentably Comical Tragedy” that even magicians serving suspension can be dangerous when provoked, while the Captain’s advice offered by Sir Henry Newbolt remains just as true today as when it was first written, “Play up! Play up! and play the game!” In “Guyal the Curator”, John C. Wright reminds us that disinterested intelligence underpins great investigative work. Honour satisfied may mean a form of contract or bargain between two people, but the availability and application of knowledge have the greatest value when the poor benefit, i.e. wisdom should be tempered by compassion. But, in “The Good Magician”, Glen Cook suggests that wisdom can be abused by those with selfish motives. Sometimes only the innocent should be allowed access to higher powers.


Which, of course, begs the question of what constitutes innocence. Can anyone with magical abilities ever be considered truly innocent? Morality is always flexible if one person may exert covert influence over another. So, “In the Return of the Fire Witch”, Elizabeth Hand would have us consider whether, even under duress, one witch should help another exterminate a malevolent ruling clan. “The Collegeum of Mauge” Byron Tetrick produces one of those causal loops in which time ill-spent by Cugel becomes the means of his rescue from the Spell of Forlorn Encystment. In Tanith Lee‘s “Evillo the Uncunning”, our hero finds his empty head apparently full of useful skills when he agrees to assist a snail. However, it may not be so convenient if this should become a more permanent arrangement, particularly if his name is known. And then when it comes to knowledge, what better place to find it than in a library, except to find the texts in readable form you need, “The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz” by Dan Simmons. This is wonderful peregrination halfway around the world without worrying how to get back. Such are the plans of mice and men. Included within these plans is the need for a librarian or, if the establishment is more a museum, then a curator. Recruiting such men at the end of the world is a challenge as Howard Waldrop explains in “Frogskin Hat”.


“A Night At the Tarn House” by George R R Martin shows an establishment that has given up its pursuit of a Michelin star, except when it comes to serving out deserts. Finally, “An Invocation of Incuriosity” by Neil Gaiman demonstrates the need to ensure you have everything you need when you evacuate from the end of the world.


All in all, Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance is a double-plus-good book, crammed to the rafters with excellence from writers all fantastical.


For reviews of other anthologies edited by the dynamic duo, see Old Mars, Warriors and Songs of Love and Death.


For anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois on his own, see: The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection.


For the autobiography of Jack Vance, see This is me, Jack Vance!


This is me, Jack Vance by Jack Vance

May 20, 2010 1 comment

Ah, yes, an autobiography? That would be a biography you write about yourself. That would be it. Which rather begs the question why people should bother to write a biography of themselves. This is naught but a feeble gesture of vanity, lacking in any objectivity that might question, analyse or prod the mystery of what makes someone great. Still more remarkable is why anyone else should be interested in the scribblings of the “great”. So many of the books adorning the virtual shelves of Amazon today are ghost-written for flighty celebrities whose greatness is as ephemeral as the headlines in today’s gossip rags. Indeed, I live in awe of a publishing machine that churns out the vapid thoughts of the insipid and manages to sell millions of copies. It’s one of the most remarkable of the current shell games where you have to pick between three books knowing that, under one title, there may be the occasional interesting fact.

Ah, yes, those pesky things we call facts. So tell me, my patient readers, why should it be interesting that X was born in such a place with parents of a given background. This is the nature/nurture game played out on a more global stage. Our actor has risen from rags to fleeting notoriety, so let’s rummage through his or her “ordinary” early years to see if we can identify what tipped him or her into fame and fortune. Perhaps then we could distil it, put it in a bottle and sell it on to the masses who crave the same celebrity. After all, no-one else wants to go through the same hard grind of study and practice to learn the skills. We all want to be [insert name star], gaining recognition through the luck of being in the right place at the right time, but having the magic ingredient gleaned from [insert name]’s autobiography to capitalise on the opportunity once it comes. So, plucked from obscurity as a shelf-packer in a supermarket, X acts everyone else off the screen/is a natural comedian/sings like a pro because he or she read a book supposedly written by Michelle Pfeiffer, Bill Cosby or Marlon Jackson (except the latter reversed the trend, going from childhood star to shelf-stacker).

Well, Jack Vance also bucks the trend. Of all the writers I have collected, I have delighted in Vance, having at one time owned every single stand-alone title before selling off almost all my books (courtesy of the excellent Andy Richards, who may still have some of the paperback 1sts left). There’s a magical quality about Vance’s approach to writing as he contrives to weave fantastical facts into a tapestry of wry narrative. I know of no other author who can make a list of local tourist attractions fascinating — for those who have not read Vance, most of his books have characters wandering from place to place, taking in the sights. Some of the time their travel is voluntary. Other times, they are forced through pressure of circumstance to cover vast distances (on one notable occasion, to get back to where they started from). He’s very much a writer of his time, giving us the opportunity to pass a few hours in an amiable way. Although some of his books have a more serious overtone, the majority are a pleasing froth of words and ideas. They may not be the greatest literature ever written (and who among us would ever dare suggest science fiction or fantasy could be literature) but I have reread them several times and have never failed to find new things to enjoy. Who could ask for anything more in a writer.

So now as he approaches the end of his life, his family and fans have prevailed on him to dictate an autobiography. He may be blind, but he can still spin words out over the pages and make a reasonably interesting read.

Except. . . Except what?

What is it we expect in an autobiography? Should it be full of revelations? I did this, said that, wrote the other because. . . As the reader, I am stunned with sudden understanding of motivation! Should it agonise over life-and-death decisions, delving into the deep recesses of the soul? As the reader, I empathise, I am inspired. . .

Well, for Vance, all this is bullshit! He has written the ultimate anti-autobiography that says almost nothing about the man except that he worked when and where he could, had a happy life with a loving wife, and made lots of good friends. Except, in this very self-effacing quality, we do perhaps see the man. It’s the absence of revelation that is the most revealing. This is not, you understand, a private man. He has led a very public life, globe-trotting, socialising with all he meets, and having the temerity to play a jazz cornet indifferently well. Yet he’s discreet, always aware of proprieties. What for him may be “near the knuckle” is nothing in today’s more profane world. So we are left with the conclusion that his fiction is his autobiography. When his characters drift from place to place, this is a travel story in the spirit of Jan Morris, Paul Theroux or Michael Palin, but with Vance as the main protagonist embroidering the fictional tale with his wry asides. Vance is Magnus Ridolph or even Cugel. We know this because Vance never once appears in his own autobiography except to say “Good-bye” to all his fans around the world.

For Vance fans, it’s an interesting list of places he visited and friends he met. For the rest of the world, meet Vance where it matters — in the pages of his admirable fiction.

For those interested in seeing someone writing in Vancean style, try looking at the work of Matthew Hughes. Here is a review of a more recent offering, Template. For an anthology of stories written in the style of Jack Vance, see Songs of the Dying Earth.

For the record, This is Me, Jack Vance! won the Hugo Award 2010 for the Best Related Book.

Template by Matthew Hughes

Never one to be shy, my Grandmother’s lexicon of bon mots occasionally brought shades of dark violence into the home. As indicated in an earlier post, one of my favourites was, “The things you see when you haven’t got your gun.” She had been brought up in the houses of the well-to-do in Victorian Yorkshire. The Dales were dotted with old colonels who retreated into their smoking rooms or studies to bask under the baleful eyes of all the animals they had shot while serving abroad. No self-respecting officer could ever come home from an overseas posting without a wall full of heads. Yet, in the tradition of fishermen who always tell stories of the one that got away, so officers would tell of the fierce creatures they would have shot had they had the chance. All this came to mind the other day as my wife and I were sitting in the shade outside a local coffeeshop. A young lady walked by. She attracted attention because, in the mid-afternoon sun, her dress was almost completely transparent. She seemed not to care that every eye, male and female alike, followed her confident stride. This was a woman at peace with who she was. With no British colonels around, she was safe.

In fictional worlds, it is a somewhat tired trope that heroes, uncertain of their ancestry, should set out on a quest to determine their identity. A recent example of this is Template by Matthew Hughes who is ploughing the same furrow as Jack Vance with some success. I confess to being a major Vance fan, and a mild fan of the Hughes/Vancean style. The problem with overtly maintaining a style is that, over time, it pales by comparison with the original. Jack is always Jack even when he is past his best, which he was in the last published effort. You forgive an old man these parting gestures because of the oeuvre he leaves behind. He is original to the end. Hughes, however, grows somewhat repetitive. The early works, Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice, are the best because he was so obviously having fun. Now that he is stuck in the groove, I have the sense that he is going through the motions.

So it is with this book. It adopts the peregrination or picaresque model as our somewhat roguish hero travels from one world to the next, observing the local cultures and gleaning information that may lead him to his identity. It would have been better at two-thirds the length. The idea underpinning the narrative is reasonable and the execution competent, but he doth protest too much. The message is tired by the time it is delivered and, despite some pallid satire, there is just not quite enough wit and invention to maintain the suspension of disbelief. I wanted it to be good but I was somewhat disappointed.

For reviews of other books by Matthew Hughes, see:
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
Song of the Serpent

The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

June 29, 2009 3 comments

Following in the footsteps of David Copperfield, you should continue reading to find out whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by somebody else.

But, just in case you’re of a nervous disposition, I’m the eponymous author of this piece, so be reassured. I survived to the end otherwise I couldn’t have written as much as I did before I (was) stopped. Ain’t no-one who can chop logic better than me (or something).

In this, I’m following the general trend in modern fiction. Most stories with an “adventure” element promise from the outset that the main characters are almost certainly going to survive whatever is thrown at them (like the cat in Ridley Scott’s Alien). If the authors want to introduce tension and suspense, the tried and tested tactic is to build up empathy between the readers and the most favoured characters. Thus, when they are exposed to the threat of injury or death, we can feel the vicarious thrill of danger. Escapes by the skin of teeth generate the “white-knuckle” quality that makes a good thriller. If the authors can’t manage a real sense of danger then they have to fall back on wit or satire or something else that will engage our interest and make us want to read to the feel-good ending of hero/heroine triumphant. There are, of course, famous exceptions where the author cheats and the hero/heroine dies. Sometimes, this happens in a first-person narrative which increases the shock value when we read the last page.

A different exception to the general rule crops up in some time travel stories where the authors happily maim or kill off lead characters in one version of history because they can be continued uninjured in sequential or parallel timelines depending on whether history is retrospectively changed (and no-one remembers) or multiple universes are created (as in the TV series Sliders). An example of mutable timelines is Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus where a small group of time travellers make sequential attempts to change history for the better. The alternative is the assumption that the timeline cannot be changed (as in the Company novels by Kage Baker). The best known example I can give you to explain why never to write a book based on this proposition is probably J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s about as exciting as watching paint dry because, having struggled through the overblown first version of history, you then get to read it all over again as the “hero” loops round to ensure that what was predestined actually results.

All of which brings me to The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman (Berkley, August, 2007). Joe (sorry about the familiarity, but I need to distinguish brother Jack) is getting a little long in the tooth. In conventional PR-speak he’s an “old pro” or a “veteran”, having first leapt into prominence with Hugo and Nebula Awards for The Forever War in 1975 — a triumph that should never go out of print. His approach to writing is simple and uncomplicated, telling the story in a straightforward way with little embellishment. This directness works really well when the plot moves along. Unfortunately, this latest effort is genuinely pedestrian. Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with pedestrians. They lurk forlorn in the corner of our eyes as we swish past in our gas guzzlers. But, in a different way, Joe is following a genuine favourite of mine, Jack Vance. The young Vance was full of passion and imaginative fire, and reading almost all his books is a delight. But that delight peters out when we come to what I assume will be his last book, Lurulu. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a perfectly readable book. But it’s not a good advertisement for Vance. Similarly, Joe’s latest book is a big disappointment with his simple prose now wooden and lifeless.

Joe is peddling the saga of a young researcher as he hops forward through time. Structurally, time travel is simply a narrative excuse to jump from one culture to another, much as Swift pushed Gulliver into meeting people of varying size, avoiding uncultured Yahoos and inquiring whether sunbeams could be extracted from cucumbers. Swift was, of course, writing a satire which might continue in a cycle with Wells’ The Time Machine, detour via Huxley’s Brave New World, and end with Sheckley’s The Status Civilization. Wells tells us a straight-laced allegorical story about innocence and Morlocks. Huxley creates a dystopia of genetic manipulation which produces a sterile, drug-based, caste-ridden society. And Sheckley gives us another of his rollicking over-the-top satires. In short, the writer’s motive for introducing cultures that contrast with our own is to hold up a mirror to edify, amaze or amuse us.

So what does Joe offer us here? Well, the two pivotal episodes are religious and economic. As to religion, early writers like Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis set the bar high, closely followed by individual classics like Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc. but Joe seems content to dally with the notion of a new Church Militant, prepared to cast the first missile and smite the unbelievers in a restoration of an archaic Puritanism. Given the polarisation in the USA between believers and non-believers, I can understand that such a theme may have a certain contemporary resonance, but the delivery is curiously unconvincing. We’re given little more than a flat description of what our hero sees with no explanation or rumination to enliven the proceedings.

In the second set-piece, we’re in a culture based on barter. Telling it straight, one of the best writers of economic SF was Mack Reynolds, always prepared to extrapolate albeit with slightly naive political overtones. Personally, I prefer to laugh and so love Dario Fo’s theatrical farces like Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay in which a protest over shop prices has unexpected consequences. But the big comparison is with one of the best fictional barter societies — another delightful satire, Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo, where the owner of a sandwich shop inadvertently invents a new currency. Sadly, Joe doesn’t measure up.

One of the worst things that can ever happen to a book is that it lacks momentum. In the barter sequence, the society is managed by an AI character called La. “She” describes the people as  “. . .complacent and rather stupid. . . addicted to comfort and stability”. Later explaining, “This is one boring world.” Was ever an admission so ironic from an author supposed to be interested in keeping us amused?

In short, this is a competent book that goes through the motions of a time loop because that’s how plots of this kind have to work. But, instead of maintaining interest with subversive wit, boundless imagination and a satirical eye, we get descriptions of societies that even the author admits are boring. If you haven’t done so already, read the early Joe Haldeman. The man genuinely deserves his royalties for past glories rather than for this current effort.

Hey, guess what? I survived to the end of this episode. Next week, I’ve scheduled a heart attack during a visit from my mother-in-law. You’ll have to read on to find out whether I can be bothered to survive. Hopefully, I’ll find a better book to read in the meantime.

For reviews of other books by Joe Haldeman, see:
Work Done For Hire.

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