February 6th, 2010

Broderick, McCutcheon, Westlake

Books Considered: The Sea's Furthest End, by Damien Broderick;  Graustark, by George Barr McCutcheon; What's So Funny, by Donald Westlake

Damien Broderick is an Australian (now living in Texas) writer, editor, and critic who has been publishing for well over 40 years. He's made the occasional splash with novels like The Dreaming Dragons and The White Abacus. Last year he published a series of stories, mostly in Asimov's, often pastiches or commentary on classic SF stories and writers -- all in all a remarkable recent set of work.

He also published a collection, UNCLE BONES, which included one of his 2009 Asimov's stories, "Uncle Bones", a couple of earlier stories, and a new story that's really kind of an old one. This story, "The Game of Stars and Souls", is actually a radical expansion of his first published story, "The Sea's Furthest End". He sold that story as a teenager to Ted Carnell for the first NEW WRITINGS IN SF anthology. In 1993 he expanded it, and added another oddly parallel storyline, to make the novel THE SEA'S FURTHEST END. And for 2009 he took out the additional storyline, made some revisions to the expanded main text, and published it again as "The Game of Stars and Souls". As it happens, I had some time ago come across a copy of the novel version, which was fortuitous, as it was only published in Australia, as far as I know. So I read the novel, finally, comparing it to the new novella. (I shall have to find a copy of the original story from NEW WRITINGS -- actually, I believe Damien is planning a new collection of much of his early work (with explanatory (or perhaps defensive!) essays), and I'll plan on getting that.)

A number of Damien's recent stories, as noted, have been pastiches of work by notable SF writers, such as Roger Zelazny, Cordwainer Smith, and Philip Dick. In that spirit one might regard THE SEA'S FURTHEST END/"The Game of Stars and Souls" as inspired by Charles Harness -- at any rate, the theme, a sort of cyclic replaying of the universe, reminded me of Harness, as to a lesser extent did bits of the extra subplot in the novel version, dealing as it did with the main character's beloved older brother. But I'm pretty sure Harness was not on Damien's mind when writing the original ... indeed in the afterword to "The Game of Stars and Souls" in UNCLE BONES he mentions Frederick Schiller's DON CARLOS. (I'm not sure how many SF stories are inspired by Schiller, but there is perhaps at least one more: Isaac Asimov's THE GODS THEMSELVES takes its title from a Schiller quote.)

The main thread of THE SEA'S FURTHEST END, and all of "The Game of Stars and Souls", deals with the evil galactic Emperor Jagannatha, in what seems to be the very far future. He has arranged for his weak son Chakravalin to marry Adriel Corydon, the beautiful heir to the leader of an independent planet on which illegal (in the rest of the Galaxy) genetic modifications are carried out on humans. Adriel has been modified to be very beautiful, very smart, and to be able to control the emotions of others. She and Chakravalin fall in love, which is the plan, in order to motivate Jagannatha to spare Adriel's planet. But Jagannatha lusts after Adriel, and steals her from his son. Which sets in motion his son's rebellion ... Tied in with this is a mysterious alien race, resident in the Singularity at the heart of the Galaxy, which has its own mystical motivations. The novel adds a rather unnecessary additional thread, set in the near future, in which an American boy living in Australia falls in love with a beautiful girl about his age, but is to shy to act on it. His injured older brother does a sort of Cyrano thing for him, with an AI program he's been working on ... and then it turns out the girl is into New Age stuff, which ends up tying into an artifact just recovered from the Face on Mars, which ends up at last tying into the overall theme of the novel. This additional subplot, while not awful, doesn't add much, and is now rather dated. One suspects it was added to help pad the story to novel length, and perhaps to give it a YA hook, as I believe the novel was aimed at the YA market.

It's not Broderick at his best, but still quite entertaining. And UNCLE BONES as a whole is a very enjoyable collection, serving as almost a retrospective of his career, with a story dating in its original version to the very beginning, a couple stories from the early '80s, and then the title story from 2009.

I found an omnibus of two of George Barr McCutcheon's GRAUSTARK novels at an antique shop. McCutcheon was an American novelist and playwright. He was born in 1866. His most famous novels date to the first decade of the 20th Century, particularly GRAUSTARK (1901) and BREWSTER'S MILLIONS (1902). GRAUSTARK is set in a fictional Eastern European kingdom, and it spawned a number of sequels. The books were very popular, and indeed romantic fiction set in fictional kingdoms, usually called "Ruritanian" after the country in Anthony Hopes slightly early (and far far superior) THE PRISONER OF ZENDA , is occasionally called Graustarkian.

As I've previously mentioned, I have a certain weakness for cheesy bestsellers of decades past. And I have a weakness for the Ruritanian subgenre. So I went ahead and read GRAUSTARK. The story opens with a man, Grenfall Lorry, presented as something of a paragon, against the evidence ... He's an American with lots of family money, but he seems to lazy to do anything with it -- he is shown being a terrible lawyer. He bumps into a beautiful young woman traveling with an older couple -- Lorry and the young woman end up missing a train connection and Lorry arranges for a dangerous coach ride in the West Virginia mountains to reunite her with her Aunt and Uncle (as it turns out). He becomes obsessed with this woman, who has given her name as Sophia Guggenslocker (before checking, I wanted to say "Shickelgruber"). Eventually he decides to go to Graustark to find her, confident that someone named Guggenslocker must be the daughter of a butcher or something, and will gladly leap into his arms and return with him to the US.

Accompanied by his friend, the curiously named Harry Anguish, Lorry makes his way to Graustark. But there are no Guggenslockers in that tiny country. To no reader's surprise, we learn that Sophia Guggenslocker was a pseudonym for the Princess Yetive. Ahh, such agony for Grenfall Lorry. For of course the Princess -- the ruler of her country -- cannot marry a commoner. Worse, her country is threatened with ruin as the result of a disastrous war with their neighbor, Axphain, some time back. They owe millions of gavvos. The only way to pay back the loan is an advantageous marriage, either to the rather dull heir to the throne of Axphain, or to the caddish young prince of another neighbor, who will advance the money in exchange for Yetive's hand. She has agreed to marry the young prince of Axphain, but his character is revealed when Grenfall overhears him offering to share Yetive's favors once he's tired of her. Meanwhile the other prince attempts a kidnapping, which Lorry and Anguish foil. Yetive's presumptive fiance is murdered, and Lorry is immediately the prime suspect, and the dead prince's father agrees to delay payment of the indemnity in exchange for Lorry's head on a stake, but Yetive cannot bear to have him killed and tries to convince him to escape ... Well, we see where this is going, and we can all guess who the real killer is ...

It's all rather humbug, of course, and it simply pales next to THE PRISONER OF ZENDA. It does bounce along nicely enough. The book is horribly sexist, of course, but in fact Yetive shows some real spunk and independence at times, almost in spite of the author it seems. She's the best part of it -- Grenfall Lorry is rather a cipher, or an implausible paragon. In the end, it is what it is. Easy to see why it sold well in its day, and easy to see why it's nearly forgotten now.

I also finally read the last of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder stories, WHAT'S SO FUNNY. (Actually, the last of the Dortmunder stories to appear before his death. One more, GET REAL, came out posthumously. (Thanks to Kate Nepveu for alerting me to this.) This concerns a plot to steal a valuable chess set that had been spirited out of Europe after the first World War, and formed the foundation of the fortune of the man who stole it from his fellow soldiers. A descendant of one of those soldiers, now rich himself, becomes obsessed with getting the chess set, and hires Dortmunder and company. Eventually of course things take unexpected turns ... It's a solid entry in the series, not the best nor the worst. Just fun ... a damned shame there won't be any more.