Monday, September 25, 2006

 

Locus Reviews Paragaea and The Man from the Diogenes Club

In the September issue of Locus, Nick Gevers reviews two books near and dear to my heart, Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, and Kim Newman's The Man from the Diogenes Club. Here's what he had to say:
Chris Roberson is another new generation writer with a keen grasp of the essentials of grand adventure narrative. His second novel from Pyr, Paragaea, proclaims itself a planetary romance, and this it resoundingly is, in the old-fashioned swashbuckling sense of Burroughs and Bracket and Farmer, landing a mismatched heroic trio on a strange world and requiring that they fight their way through its jungles, prisons, wildernesses, labyrinths, and lost cities. Leena Chirikov is an early-'60s Soviet cosmonaut who passes through an interdimensional gate while orbiting the Earth; from this Stephen Baxterish beginning, she crashlands on Paragaea, a habitable planet with enigmatic connections to our own. She is rescued from a hunting party of jaguar men (Paragaea abounds with hybrid species) by a fellow Terrestrial, Captain Hieronymus Bonaventure, an 18th-century British naval veteran related to the protagonist of Roberson's previous book, Here, There & Everywhere, and by his comrade, the exiled jaguar man prince, Balam. The trio of course need a quest, and Leena's ambition, to find another gate and return to the blessed old USSR, leads them from city to city, sage to sage, temple to temple, a progress interspersed with breathless combat sequences against sky pirates, religious zealots, crocodile men, and many others. Further companions, including a remarkable Romanesque amazon warrior, join and then leave the party again; a wise android provides a stream of well-intended if ultimately frustrating counsel; and the citadel of Atla, where all secrets are revealed, is penetrated at long last. It's a pleasurable journey, its very unlikelihood a teasing game by the author, a faithful replication of the cliff-hanging defiance of probability in classic pulp serials.

Still, although Roberson plays such games skillfully, embedding countless pop-lit and televisual allusions in his text and if anything outdoing the narrative energy of his models, I can't help feeling that more substance, more depth, is required. Roberson consciously emulates Michael Moorcock, but Moorcock at his lightest and most throwaway; he needs - as he already does in his excellent series of alternate history stories about a spacefaring Imperial China - to invest the Bonaventure tales with symbolic weight and moral gravity. Paragaea is enormously readable, but no more than that.

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Kim Newman has always traded very profitably on his encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture; most of his stories are amusingly intertextual, so that Baron Von Richtofen shoots Snoopy dead in The Bloody Red Baron, and Kipling's Sergeant Daniel Dravot guards foreign invaders of England in Anno Dracula.

This commonality of interest and method with Chris Roberson is reflected in the publication of Newman's latest collection, The Man from the Diogenes Club, by Chris Roberson's MonkeyBrain Books; possessing some of the profundity that Paragaea lacks, The Man from the Diogenes Club is a paean to the fresh Swinging '70s Britain now irretrievably lost under successive waves of Thatcherism and Blairism, and its experimentation with naive TV scripting formulas is laden with sorrow, regret for the very garish innocence it lampoons. Newman writes postmodernism with feeling.

The eight stories in The Man from the Diogenes Club, several novella-length, first appeared on Sci Fiction or in sundry horror anthologies. All deal with the investigations of a team of supernatural sleuths employed by the same Diogenes Club founded by Mycroft Holmes; the two sensitives, the outlandishly attired Richard Jeperson and the "model-beautiful" Vanessa, are backed up by Fred Regent, a capable cop seconded from the London Metropolitan Police. Obviously echoing such period TV heroes as The Avengers and similar characters from paperback horror novels of the time, the three perform complex exorcisms, dispatching persistent ghosts and ectoplasmic infestations in seaside resorts, brainwashing parlors, futurist settlements, Victorian Orientalist cemeteries, Soho sex shops, a studio filming (very knowing, this) TV soap operas, a Scottish luxury train (though only a much younger Jeperson takes part there), and a remote North Sea island where a madman's power fantasies assume literal flesh. Knowledgeably detailed and textured, tautly plotted, abundantly witty, these tales celebrate an age both hopeful and lurid, castigating old Tory dreams of a return to a less permissive era while satirizing the coming new Tory managerial paradise of Margaret Thatcher, which will dissolve the Diogenes Club and all romantic optimism with it. All the fun, the Swinging London exuberance and excess Newman captures so perfectly, has a dying fall. This is a resonant, affecting book.
One minor note. "The Man who got off the Ghost Train" is in fact original to The Man from the Diogenes Club. For those who haven't read it, it serves as a sort of "secret origin" of Richard Jeperson.

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