Episode 36: Marrying the genre next door

(15 September 2020)

Episode Page | Transcripts Index

Perry: Hello and welcome to episode 36 of this podcast we call Two Chairs Talking. My name is Perry Middlemiss and I’m here with the ever-studious David Grigg.

David: Ever-studious? You come up with some very interesting descriptions of me Perry. But yeah, I suppose that’s true and I’m a little bit studious, yes.

Perry: How are you David?

David: Oh, you know, all right, I’m coping with things. The weather is improving a bit, warming up a bit, which is which is nice and we may eventually be able allowed to go out and visit other people, but it might still be a while away.

Perry: Another couple of weeks, I think so. I think the worst thing about the pandemic is that it’s becoming tedious and I’m finding our conversations about it to be just as tedious as well, just going over and over it. So I reckon we should just slide straight into what we were going to be talking about David, rather than just sort of crying on each other’s shoulders about how hard we’re done by we are.

David: Indeed indeed yeah, right.

Perry: So this week we decided to go back to book reading, which is always a good thing to do, and um, you and I David had been discussing this and realized that we were reading some books which sort of had a similar sort of idea to them, and that is that they were books that have been marketed as being literary novels, but utilized some genre topics. Now we were referring to these as ‘genre adjacent’, but that’s probably not the right term. You’ve come up with something or found something that’s a very...

David: Well apparently Bruce Sterling, who wrote a lot of cyberpunk novels, came up some years ago with the with the term ‘slipstream’. I’m not quite sure why that word is applicable but the concept of slipstream is also this idea of novels which move... not quite move between genres, but use science fiction or fantasy themes in them, but are not sort of marketed in that sort of way, and that seems to be what that means, but it’s a very vague term, but we sort of know what we mean, which is books which are not certainly not mainstream science fiction or mainstream fantasy, but have elements of those in other kinds of work.

Perry: Some recent examples of that type of things like P.D. James’s book Children of Men. She had been well known for writing her crime novels, but Children of Men is really quite excellent. Novel set in the future. Great film made of it as well. And that was one that utilized strong science fiction themes. But it wasn’t marketed as such. And then you’ve got the two books by Kazuo Ishiguro—Nobel laureate. Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant, one being about clones and one being about fantasy topics. He got in a lot of trouble with the second of these, The Buried Giant when he basically appeared to slag off the whole of the fantasy genre. And he was taken to task by no less a person than Ursula K. Le Guin over this. And I think he backed off in a really big hurry, which was probably a very good idea given that fantasy is probably the oldest genre of literature, going back past the Bible, way back...

David: It’s the origin of all narrative isn’t it, myths and legends of gods and monsters, Yeah.

Perry: Absolutely. Gods and monsters and demons and humans, and absolutely all of that. And then, of course, we’ve also had Ian McEwan, who’s got into a bit of trouble recently over the last couple of years with these books with his novel Machines Like Me, which was about either robots or androids, and he refused to have anything to do with the term science fiction because he said it had something to do with galaxy busting anti-gravity boots going at 10 million light years an hour or something. So he basically slagged it off completely and it just goes to show that a lot of is marketing. Really what it comes down to, I think with a lot of this is that it all depends on what the publishers are going to put on the front of the book. Back at a time that you and I would have known about fairly well Harlan Ellison and Kurt Vonnegut both denounced themselves being labeled as science fiction writers. I don’t actually don’t have a problem with that whatsoever. It’s up to the writer as to whether they consider themselves to be writing in whatever genre they feel like if they don’t feel as though they’re writing a genre [it] also doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

What I’m attempting to do, or what I hope that we’re attempting to do here today, is to identify some of those novels that are sort of next door to the genre—so genre adjacent—that might be of interest to readers of science fiction, but which might well have passed them by because they didn’t even know they existed. There’s a lot of these books that come out, and if you think back on it, things like 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, all of those things would have been written... Oh, Clockwork Orange. All of those things would have been written purely and simply as literary novels, but at some stage or other got picked up by the science fiction communityand brought into the whole of the genre because of the way they handled their topics and what they used and their themes. It’s purely a matter of sort of saying to people to read as a science fiction: don’t just look at the little rocket on the spine, in the library, or the dragon. They are the ones they put in our library to identify whether they’re fantasy or science fiction. Don’t just look at those, but have a look at the blurbs on the book to be able to work out what it is that the author is doing. What sort of memes and themes they’re using, and whether they are going to be of interest and hopefully the books we talk about today are going to be of interest to normal genre readers.

David: Sure. Well, when you first put forward the idea of this as a topic, I was thinking back on my recent reading over the last, you know 10 to 15 years, I suppose, and I could identify heaps of books which I felt fit into this sort of area because it is to me it’s the kind of writing I like. I’m not very much as you know, on the galaxy busting gravity boots sort of science fiction much myself, although occasionally I like it. Things like The Expanse, but I do like stuff which is kind of in this edge sort of area, so it was pretty easy for me to pick out of my relatively recent reading a number of books which I thought were appropriate.

Perry: If you think back David to the time of the early 1960s, which is sort of that era where we’re talking in the Hugo Time Machine at the moment, over various episodes, if you if you cast yourself back to that particular time and then look forward to the year 2020, we’re living in a science fictional world. There’s a whole lot of things that are in this particular world at the moment. Leaving aside the whole of the pandemic, but all the rest of the technology and where humanity is going is a science fictional world. Now some people might say it’s a shocking dystopia that we’re basically living through at the moment, which you could well argue, but it is a science fictional world from that point of view. From our point of view, at the moment in 2020, it isn’t, but you can see how it could be seen as such. And there’s a lot of novels that are being written set in and of this time, which only have a slight little tweak to them which make them into, you know, sort of a genre adjacent, and there are some of the ones we’re going to talk about today.

A Superior Spectre, by Angela Meyer

Perry: So the first one I wanted to talk about was, uh, well, actually interestingly enough, all three of my books today, are written by Australian authors, which is good. The first one is a debut novel called A Superior Spectre. I hold it up to the camera so our listener cannot see it. By a woman by the name of Angela Meyer, written in 2018, published by Ventura Press somewhere in Australia. Angela Meyer has been in and around the literary field for quite some years. She was a lit-blogger back in the 2000s. She then became a book reviewer, bookseller, and now she’s actually a publisher and now also a published author, and this is her debut novel, marketed as a literary novel, but it crosses over into both the historical and science fictional genres. It’s set slightly in the future in the year 2024, where our protagonist Jeff. I don’t think we ever learn his surname, but it doesn’t really matter. He’s an Australian man dying of a unnamed illness. Yeah, you can possibly check, guess what it might be, but let’s not let’s not bother about that. He’s living in a world where everyone is chipped and so they can keep track of you in terms of where you are, but also in terms of what your health rating is like. And in this version of Australia, the Australian government doesn’t want anybody to go without health care. You know it’s a little bit of a change in terms of where things are going mostly I think. Anyway, so he decides that he’s had enough of his life. Doesn’t want to live anymore, and has to try and find a place where he can die in peace. So he decides to go back to Scotland and can’t get in there for whatever reason. I’m not sure that’s terribly clear, but he can get into England, so he gets into England. And then gets across the border into Scotland because he wants to find somewhere where he can go and he can just die in peace. Now he realizes that he’s gonna need a bit of help so he actually picks up what is referred to in the book as an Andserv—so an Android servant. So sort of like a robot that is a humanized sort of robot which can basically help him with his food, including getting around on what sort of stuff, but he also picks up some new technology, which is basically the form of a chemical tab or of some sort which he’s able to take and uh, it’s a new technology and it allows him to be able to transfer his mind into somebody in the past, and as it happens, what he ends up doing is he ends up landing in the mind of a woman called... the young woman called Leonara, who lives in Scotland in the 1860s.

Now Leonara is living a hand to mouth existence with her father on a farm. Mother died when Leonara was very young. Father meets another woman, decides that he’s going to marry her. Probably best if the daughter goes and moves out and actually tries to find a husband because Leonara is coming up to about 18 or so. So the father thinks that she’s about time for her to leave. So he sends her off to live with her aunt in Edinburgh. Now, Jeff has been told right at the very beginning when he gets these tabs that he should really only do this three times. Not told why, but warned that he should do this three times. Jeff just totally disregards this and just keeps going back into Leonara’s mind. He will spend an hour in his mind in his time, but it’s basically a day in her time. There’s just as the time timelines slips the further back you go you could spend an hour of your time, but it would be a month of theirs. So he starts getting to know what she is and he starts vicariously living her life. Figuring out that all of her emotions, her thoughts, her sexuality, all of this stuff starts impinging on him. And his thoughts start dripping into hers and she starts seeing visions of things. Basically visions of Melbourne. In fact, it’s listed as Melbourne because this is where Jeff has come from originally. So she’s seeing images of this modern city by the bay. And thinks they’re hallucinations she thinks she’s starting to go mad. She can’t understand what is going on and she actually tells somebody and ends up in an asylum. By this stage Jeff is sort of gradually deteriorating. He’s trying to stay longer and longer, with Leonara as his final grab of life if you like, so he knows what he’s doing, but he disregards the fact that he’s actually impacting this young woman back in the 1860s. It’s the story of how he deteriorates and she deteriorates at the same time. But the two personalities slowly come together and slowly start to merge.

Now the book is told from the first person point of view of each of the two main characters. When I have read some of these in the past and they don’t put any indication at the top of the sections where a new point of view starts sometimes it’s difficult to work out who the actual person is because some of these sections you have two or three in a row of one particular character and then one of the other one and then go back to alternating. So sometimes you can’t really go, but in terms of all it’s this person’s turn or it’s that person’s turn. But Meyer’s got a good enough technique to be able to—within the first one or two sentences—give you enough of a pointer so that you know immediately who this person is. Until you get near the end of the book, and then for a couple of them you think hang on, she’s messed this up, she hasn’t done this right? And then you realize no, hang on, she’s done this perfectly because she’s got to the point where the two personalities have got so close together that an outside observer like myself can’t actually pick the difference between the two. She’s handled that really, really well, and I think that that shows a lot of really, really good technique in this particular book, and I really comes across as really quite excellent.

But there’s a couple of other things that I wanted to bring up. At one point she talks about the images that this particular person Leonara is seeing, and she talks about this image of this sort of bard she calls him, who’s got this bright red hair and looks tall and thin and very pale faced and she can’t work out if this person is a male or a female and I thought that sounds like David Bowie so I went and checked up on Angela Meyer as you do—stalking on the Internet—and she is a David Bowie fan. So that one snuck through but the other one I really thought was excellent. Was one where Jeff is thinking about the film Midnight Cowboy Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman as you recall. And then three or four pages later. Leonara is sitting there, and she’s got this song in her head. She can’t get rid of, and all she knows is it starts off as “everybody’s talking”. And you realize, oh, OK, that’s the Harry Neilsen song “Everybody’s talking about me. I can’t hear a word they’re saying, they’re just the echoes in my mind” or something along those [lines] and you suddenly think that that song actually pertains to the whole of this book. In terms of the mind transfers. And you think, did she do this deliberately? Look if she didn’t do it deliberately it’s fantastic. If she did do it deliberately it’s even more fantastic. So basically I think she’s here like this really, really well. This is a good debut novel. I’m really looking forward to her other works. I gather she’s now working on a thriller, I’ll be out there buying that one straight away. I think she’s somebody to look for to look at to really enjoy. I gave this one 4.3 out of five. Thought it was excellent.

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

David: Very good. All right. Well I’m going to go back in my reading list awhile. I must confess I haven’t reread this recently, but it still sticks in my head from when I read it a couple years ago. So this is a novel called 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami and translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. It’s a very long book. It was originally published in three volumes in Japanese. It was instantly popular in Japan. The first 2 volumes which came out in 2009 sold over a million copies in Japan. And then a third volume which hadn’t been expected by the readers, came out in 2010. But it’s not a trilogy, it’s just this one very long book. In English translation it runs to over 1,000 pages. In fact, you can buy a paperback of the whole thing—a thousand page long paperback, no thank you.

Perry: It’s a doorstop.

David: Yeah, absolutely, but when you read it, it’s not at all tedious. Now, I didn’t read it as a doorstop paperback. I read it in ebook format and maybe that made it easier. There wasn’t, didn’t feel sort of feel the weight of a book this long, but as I say it’s actually, it just flows as you read it, just keeps you keep going and wanting to find out what happens next.

So it interleaves the stories of two young people: Aomame and Tengo. My apologies of course to our Japanese listeners that I’m probably not pronouncing either these names of or the name of the author correctly but never mind. Anyway, and these two people’s stories are told in these alternating chapters. So we start with Aomame and she is a personal trainer in her late 20s I guess. At the start of the book in the year 1984, she gets into a taxi and she’s on her way to an urgent appointment. She tells us the taxi driver, you know she really has to get to where she’s going, but they don’t go very far before the taxi gets stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway. And it’s just inching along and the taxi driver says look, there’s no way you’re going to you’re going to get there, and so she you know she’s really getting very frustrated. So the driver eventually tells her that there’s a service access point up ahead, which has the staircase down to the ground below. So she gets out of the taxi and manages with considerable difficulty to make her way down to the ground and is then able to catch the subway train. But something odd has happened during this process and she finds this world is subtly different from what she remembers. The first thing she notices is that the uniforms of the traffic police are different from what she remembered. Yeah, when did this new uniform come in for these policemen? But then more and more as you go on things get more and more different from what she remembers. So eventually she starts thinking of it not as 1984, but as 1Q84, an alternate reality.

But then you say, well, what was this urgent appointment? So we follow her to this urgent appointment. Where was she going and why? And we discover that in fact, although she, she works as a personal trainer, she has this side job if you like. She’s actually an assassin and she is employed by a rich woman who runs an organization to look after the female victims of violence, domestic violence and abuse by men. And Aomame is sent, sent out by this organization to rid the world of the worst of these male perpetrators. And that’s what you know in the early chapters of the book we see her actually dispose at one of these particular guys. Eventually, she’s tasked to investigate a religious cult, which seems to involve the sexual abuse of young girls. But it turns out to be considerably stranger than that.

So that’s Aomame, and now we have Tengo, who’s a mathematics tutor and an aspiring writer. He’s just turning 30, and he’s persuaded by an editor he knows to work on a manuscript which has been submitted to a national competition for new writers, and it’s being submitted by this 17 year old girl. So the manuscript has this intriguing story and shows a lot of promise, but it’s basically very badly written, so the editor wants Tengo to rewrite the book entirely, but they’re going to submit it to the competition under the girl’s name, so it’s essentially a fraud, an attempt to win the prize fraudulently. So Tengo eventually agrees and meets with this girl who is called Fuku-Eri, who is very odd. She insists the story in her book, which is a fantastic story, is completely factual, but it involves her being involved with these little people and their weaving of something she calls an “air chrysalis”. She sees them weave this thing out of the air. And the girl, insists this is absolutely solid fact, is true. And Tengo, of course doesn’t believe this. At first, then he slowly sets to be convinced that she’s telling the truth, and indeed she is.

So, so there’s a deep connection between these two people. Aomame and Tengo, and it is slowly revealed in the first part of the book. They met long ago as children and haven’t seen each other since, but they’ve been able to get each other out of their heads so, but I don’t think they actually meet again. Certainly not until late in the second book. Might even not be until the third book. I can’t remember now is a little while since I read the book, but in the meantime, their interlinked stories sort of weave over this very interesting, strange territory. And so this world of 1Q84 is odd in several ways. I think at one point they discover there are two moons rather than one, and it’s bound up with this girl Fuka-Eri and her story of the little people and this air chrysalis.

It’s a very strange book, but it’s absolutely—not quite gripping, but it certainly sucks you in and makes you really want to keep on reading it. Is it science fiction? Sort of parallel timelines? Yeah. Is it fantasy? Yeah, these little people and this air chrysalis they weave. But maybe it’s not. It’s a very strange book, but it does seem to fit in this category of crossing genres and not being easily to identify under one particular genre. I really liked it and it’s the first novel I’ve read by Murakami, but it probably won’t be the last time. I’ve got a couple of others of his, his novels on my list of to be read, but haven’t managed to get to them yet.

Perry: That massive pile of books piled up that you need to get to at some point, and the more and more our discussions go on the more and more books that we find that we have to add to it.

David: That’s very true.

Perry: Murakami’s had a, uh, he’s had a big, massive reputation. Always up there in the discussions regarding the Nobel Prize for Literature. Should think that he will get it at some point or other. Probably the biggest name in Japan. Japanese literature at the moment I would think.

David: Could well be yeah.

Perry: Yeah, so look. Yeah he’s certainly one I’ve had an eye on but where can I fit him in, David...?

David: A 1,000 page paperback is a bit of a struggle.

Perry: Well, it is. In the three books that I’m looking at today, they’re all probably around that 260, 280 mark. So if you take that as being three hundred, that’s let’s say close on 1,000 pages, and that’s a fortnight’s reading. And you know, that’s like one episode of the podcast. What about all the others?

The Animals in That Country, by Laura Jean McKay

Perry: Moving on to another Australian book, another book by another Australian female writer, Laura Jean McKay. The book is called The Animals in That Country. Now this is a book that’s taken its title from a poem called The Animals in That Country by Margaret Atwood and the line that she quotes in the beginning of the book is:

In this country the animals have the faces of animals.

OK, what the hell does that mean? I don’t know, I’ve got no idea. It’s gotta mean something or other I guess. Anyway, so the book starts off we’re set somewhere in the NT in a game park where our protagonist of the novel Jean is a grandmother—hard drinking, foul mouth, drug taking—who acts as a tourist guide. Basically tries to keep herself sober enough to do the job, but only just about makes it. She lives on the property, lives on the park in a sort of a series of huts that the workers all stay there and all the tourists come to the park and then go away again. But workers actually stay on the property itself. So she lives there, as does her granddaughter, Kimberly, and the mother of her granddaughter, Angela. Angela, is a Ranger on the park. Now if you’re a Ranger, you’re allowed to interact directly with the animals. If you’re a Guide you’re not supposed to. Jean, of course, wants to become a Ranger because she thinks she’s pretty good with animals and she’s basically one day guiding a tour with a whole bunch of tourists when she comes across one of the exhibits, a dingo named Sue who’s been caught in a fence and has a piece of wire wrapped around its paw so she gets down out of the little bus that she’s in, jumps over the fence, goes out, tries to extricate Sue from the fence. She gets badly bitten on the hand as a result, and Sue just runs off. We don’t think much of this and think, “Oh well, she’s going to get that fixed up”, but she decides not to because if she does, then somebody will say, “well, where did you get this from? This is a bite, you been dealing with the animals, you’re not supposed to, you’re out”, so she decides she’s not going to do anything about this.

Now, soon after this incident happens, there starts to spread a new virus. Oh, here we go now. Don’t forget this is written last year prior to this pandemic so published this year so it’s just happenstance, coincidence, this new virus which is affecting the people of Australia. But starting in the southern States and sort of working its way up, the park is not affected by this particular virus in the first instance. Until [Lee], sadly, who’s the father of Kimberly, turns up after they’ve completely closed off the park to not let any tourists in because they’re worried about the virus coming in and everybody being infected. He gets in, breaks in, just because he wants to see his daughter and infects everybody. Now the thing about this particular virus is called the “zoo flu” because it’s described as a H7N7 subtype of influenza virus. So it’s an influenza virus which impacts the cognitive areas of the human brain and starts allowing humans to understand and communicate with animals.

And it starts off that once Lee gets into the park, everybody gets infected. Then you’re only sick for about half a day and then the side effect of it is that you start hearing animals talk to you. This isn’t terribly good for a lot of people because it sort of turns them a little bit crazy. A lot of people down South aren’t doing terribly well because they’ve treated animals really badly and the animals start telling them how badly they’ve been treated, and people don’t really like this very much, so they try to clear out and get away from them. This starts sending a few people mad as I said, and Lee is one of those who basically doesn’t take it very well, so he takes Jean’s car, takes Kimberly and shoots off South after having told everybody that really what he wants to do is commune with the whales. So he heads off and a day or two later Jean decides that she better go off and get Lee and get Kimberly back because she’s worried about where Lee’s going, he’s been a flaky kid all of his life. So she heads off and takes Sue, the dingo with her because the two of them are sort of bonded by this stage and sues basically talking to her and telling her a whole lot of things about what’s going on and actually is able to lead Jean along the path which Lee and Kimberly have taken. The book ends up start starting to become a road journey. The two of them. Learning to communicate with each other.

As they get further and further down the road, and as they go down the road towards the what I guess is the southeastern coast of New South Wales, the society around them is coming apart; having trouble finding food, they’re having trouble finding water and petrol for the vehicle and they keep on going. But as they gradually go further down the road as they get closer and closer to the end, Jean realizes that she’s hearing more and more voices. So she starts to hear birds and then she starts to hear reptiles. And then when she actually gets down the coast, she starts to hear insects and this is why a lot of people get really mad because they get a whole cloud of mosquitoes coming at them and all the mosquitoes are saying is “want blood, want blood, meat sack, want blood”, and they’re flocking onto particular people, are just driving them crazy.

So. I was a bit worried about this book at the start when this thing, when it started off and they were talking, when Jane was talking to the dingo and so on. Because look, the animals are not that intelligent, and they’re not going to have a long detailed conversation. So everything’s told in, short, sharp phrases, and it’s all you know, sort of code that you have to try and translate. It takes a while to get into this particular book, and it’s really tough getting through it in the first part of it, but as it gets further and further along, you realize that Sue and Jean are having sort of fairly inane conversations, getting a little bit more detailed, and then become a bit threatening because Jane starts realizing that she’s now in a pack with Sue and Sue’s tried to become more dominant while Jane is feeling pretty bad from the bite on her hand and is getting lower and lower in terms of her energy levels and so the power balance goes up and down with this. They end up finding Lee and Kimberley down on the coast. There’s a bit of a harrowing scene down at the end, which I won’t describe because it’ll give everything away. It comes together, the novel, I didn’t think that the author would be able to do it because I thought that we’re going to slip into something like The Road by Cormac McCarthy here. It’s just going to get like a really rough dystopian terrable novel, but she doesn’t quite allow it to go that far, which is, which is good. But I think that the ending’s a little bit rushed, it just seems like, “Oh everything is fixed up and everything’s fine” and everything goes through and doesn’t really quite work that well for me.

There’s a lot of really good things about this particular book. The idea of the pandemic or the epidemic, it’s not a pandemic, because it’s basically only confined to Australia. But the epidemic within Australia, the conversations with the animals. There’s a lot of interest. Style is difficult at first to handle, but you get into it and it works quite well. Look, I would recommend that people have a look at it and read it. I gave it 4.0 out of five, which is pretty good.

David: Your description of it reminds me a bit of another work of, I guess, science fiction by an Australian female author which came out a couple of years ago called The Second Cure. I don’t know whether you’ve seen that by Margaret Morgan and that’s very good. I can recommend it. And again, there’s a virus happening which is affecting people’s mental state. In this case it does a couple of things. It creates synesthesia that gets mixed... People have this condition of synesthesia, where their senses get mixed up, but the other thing it does is it means that people lose their belief in religion. It changes their mental state so they’re not no longer able to enter into a state of faith or belief in anything other than logic. It’s a very good book. I can recommend it, but what you’ve been saying reminds me a lot of that one. So that’s interesting, yeah.

All right, well I’m going... none of my authors this time are going to be Australian unfortunately, but there are certainly Australian authors coming up who I would like to talk about. In fact, I just read a book, which I won’t talk about today, by someone my daughter went to school with in primary school. Her name is Kate Mildenhall and her book called The Mother Fault, and again, it’s like a slightly dystopian Australia where people have got chips in them to track them and stuff like that. But I won’t talk about it now.

Human Croquet, by Kate Atkinson

David: So my second book that I’m going to talk about at length is a book by Kate Atkinson. Now I’ve talked on the podcast before about my love of her work and she’s a British author. In fact, she is almost my exact contemporary in age and she’s a Yorkshire woman, I’m a Yorkshire man. I was born in Yorkshire, so we have a lot in common, I think, with Kate Atkinson. Except that she is a fantastically-bestselling author, and I’m not, but never mind, apart from that minor, minor difference.

Perry: Just a minor one.

David: Just a minor one, yeah. I really like her books so when I talked on the podcast before about her books. I was mostly concentrating on her Jackson Brodie series of almost-but-not-quite, mystery novels. This almost-but-not-quite sort of description, so kind of tells you that a lot of their books cross over these genre boundaries, and her novels have rarely been promoted as either crime or as anything you know in fantasy or whatever. Today I want to talk about her second novel, which was published in 1997 called Human Croquet. I’ve just re-read it with great enjoyment. It’s a book which is like all these genre adjacent things it is very hard to categorize or describe, but I’ll do my best.

So Human Croquet starts with a first person narrative by Isobel Fairfax, who is a 16 year old girl living in the North of England in the 1950s and 1960s in a town called Glebelands and she starts off by telling us the history of the world or at least a brief summary of it, focusing on the coming of the trees and forests. Now the area where she lives used to be the Forest of Lythe, very densely wooded area indeed. This theme of the forest and trees goes all the way through this book and it’s an ongoing theme throughout the book. Now of course, much of the dense forest there has been chopped down, from the years starting in the time of Henry VIII’s shipbuilding, when they chopped out a lot of trees to make ships and masts and things. And then of course accelerated by the Industrial Revolution. And now there’s only a small portion of the forest really just a few woods, but there’s a centuries old, great oak called the Lady Oak, which remains within sight of Isobel’s house.

Now Isobel’s house is named “Arden”. Now, if you remember your Shakespeare Perry, as I’m sure you do, that will immediately remind you of the line out of Shakespeare’s As You Like It and they come into a particular area and Rosalind says, “well, this is the Forest of Arden” and so that’s what that reminds me of.

And that’s another thing that goes through the book, which is that Isobel has a pretty unhappy life. As part of that, she’s become a keen reader, so she loves. English literature she loves Shakespeare, John Donne, Thomas Wyatt, a lot of other English literature. And so as you read the book, a lot of her narrative is sprinkled with these casual little bits where you think that’s a familiar phrase and it fits perfectly with what she’s talking about, but you find out that of course it’s actually a quote from somewhere out of Shakespeare or someone else.

Now she does have a somewhat unhappy life. She’s just, you know, sort of an ordinary sort of schoolgirl. But her family situation is very odd, so we’ll talk about that in a bit, so she’s not doing all that well at school other than in subjects like literature, and she is sort of growing tall and awkward, and isn’t particularly pretty, and she seems to have no prospect at all of getting close to the boy that she’s got her eye on and so... but she comments on her life and her family and her friends and her neighborhoods in this really delightfully ironic, very often amusing manner. And we really quickly sort of become enamored of her character.

But then she starts experiencing these strange episodes, in which she seems to suddenly slip from her present day into the past. So she might experience, she might find herself suddenly in the local town as it was in Elizabethan times. Or she might be walking along a street and then suddenly she’s in Edwardian times when the forest was a bit more extensive than it is now. And once she finds herself in her grandmother’s house when her aunt was a young woman. And so, Isobel, like Billy Pilgrim, has come unstuck in time.

Part of all this is that she’s got this strange family situation, and we find out slowly, but we find out this way as we go along, that Isobel’s mother disappeared when Isobel was five or six years old. “Run off with a fancy man” is what her aunt Vinny tells her, but then only a day or so after her mother vanishes, their father also leaves, supposedly is going on a business trip and he leaves Isobel and Charles —Charles is her brother—so he leaves Isobel and Charles with their grandmother and their crabby Aunt Vinny and he doesn’t come back from this trip. And after some weeks the children are eventually told that their father has died of an asthma attack in a London fog. They sort of accept that.

But then, seven years later, after all this, after their grandmother’s died, their father returns out of the blue very much alive, claiming he’s been suffering amnesia all this time and has been living in New Zealand where he’s acquired a second wife. The children take all this at face value, but we’re immediately suspicious that something’s been going on, and with good reason.

So the book is broken into sections labeled THE PRESENT, which is Isobel’s first-person narrative and THE PAST, which is generally, you know, sort of third person omniscient narrative. We slowly start to uncover what’s really occurred with their parents which is much, much darker than Isobel has been led to believe. I’ve talked about how trees and forests are these themes through the book, and it’s, well, this narrative is almost like a tree itself. It sort of sends down roots into the past to tap into what’s been going on, and then branches out above into the light. And branching is a pretty good word, actually. Because as we get towards the end of the novel, she’s been experiencing these strange slips in time. But as we get closer to the end of the novel, Isobel finds herself living through four very different Christmases, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. One immediately after the other, none of which turn out to be the reality. Much to her relief. In one of these branches of time, or whatever you like to call it, Isobel is running away from a bunch of boys who were chasing her with lecherous intent, and she finds herself turned into a tree. “Call me Daphne,” she says sadly, which again is a reference.

So there’s this strange fantasy or science fiction element. The time traveling, parallel timelines? Or the fluidity of reality or whatever you might call it. We might accept the one explanation given at the end of the book, which that, Isobel has been fantasizing all this while she’s been in a coma—a tree fell on her—but by the end of the book you are really not certain that’s really the true, true story.

It’s a really delightful book, I mean it does have some very dark elements to it, but it’s a delightful and very rewarding book, and it’s certainly more of a literary sort of work than a science fiction or fantasy book. But so this for me, it fits into this category of genre adjacent works. Now Perry, you’re going to ask me why the title Human Croquet.

Perry: Yes, David, why the title?

David: Well, it turns out this is a real party game which uses instead of using metal hoops and wooden mallets and so on, it uses people instead of balls and hoops. There’s even a set of instructions at the back of the book on how to play this game.

Perry: But not flamingos.

David: No flamingos no. But as the title of the work, Iguess that the author means for it to represent this kind of slippage in time and the weird ins and outs of her family situation. But it’s nice anyway. Yeah, so thoroughly recommended. All of her books I would say I recommend, but this one was fun and it certainly fits into this genre adjacent sort of category, I would’ve thought.

Perry: I think it’s interesting when you have authors who put in little snippets here and there. Little nuggets of joy that you, as a reader can pick up if you happen to get the connection. A bit like A Superior Spectre with the John Ford film Midnight Cowboy that if you don’t know the song that is not laid out for you, only the first couple of the words of it. If you don’t know it, you’re not missing anything. But if you do know it, you get this extra bit of oh, that’s a little bit of a surprise, and it’s good that some of these authors actually sort of bring this thing in. And I must admit I do miss a lot of them, um, so I feel really quite happily really quite happy, if I actually find something.

David: Yeah, it’s delightful when you when you pick something out and you get it, but if it’s well written, it doesn’t matter if you miss it.

Perry: No, it’s fine. You can slide straight over the top of it, and you’re not actually missing anything. You can get a little bit extra from the book if you happen to pick these things up, and I think it shows a lot of talent to be able to put them in, in such a way that it can do that without the reader feeling as if they’re just completely lost.

David: Yeah indeed indeed.

The Rain Heron, by Robbie Arnott

Perry: Right well, moving on to my third book, I have the second novel written by Robbie Arnott, called The Rain Heron. Long term listeners of this podcast will remember that Chong mentioned this in his roundup of best books of last year. Oh, I believe that he said that he read it in manuscript because he actually did the cover and the cover is excellent. I can really tell you the cover is really nice indeed.

This is a really wondrous book. I think Robbie Arnott’s first novel which just completely passed me by, I didn’t even know it was there, was called Flames and attracted a lot of attention which I missed. I mean, it was long-listed for the 2019 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal which is pretty high up, also for the Miles Franklin Award. So that was pretty good and it was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction and also the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. As you know, the Guardian newspaper does a Not the Booker Prize each year to pick up half a dozen books that they think have been neglected by the Booker Prize committees, and he made the shortlist for that, very good. So he’s got, so he’s got some talent. And Chong basically told me that this was pretty good, so I picked it up and I was captivated, right, really right at the very beginning.

Now at the heart of this novel is the rain heron of the title. This is a mystical mythical bird that drives the love hatred. Or acquisitiveness and death in this particular novel, it all revolves around this particular bird. Now it’s described variously throughout the book as being a ghost or a mirage. It’s translucent, but it’s got blue grey feathers, which, when it flies, sheds water everywhere, and so it actually can bring rain to a particular local area, and it can actually turn everything really cold, so it snows. So it could actually change the local weather very rapidly from hot and humid to cold and snowy when it when it needs to. But it’s also got the predilection for picking the eyes out of people who menace it and get too close. So while it’s mystical, it is actually solid and solid enough to cause some really bad physical damage. OK, so the book is set in an unknown country, in an undocumented age. It reads like it’s somewhere in the near future. You know, reasonably modern western country, but just never named, so you don’t really know. You could say it was Australia and you’d be quite happy it would quite fit. So now a violent coup was overthrowing the government and throwing the country under an authoritarian military rule.

A middle aged woman named Ren has retreated to live a feral existence on a mountainside, wanted to remove herself from human contact. Wants to remove herself completely from human contact? Kind of can’t quite do that be cause she’s still got to trade whatever she makes or produces with some people, with things that she needs from a couple of people in a nearby village. She learns of the existence of this particular heron. Sees what it is. Doesn’t really approach it, understands what it is, and I understands why it’s there and just leaves it alone and it tries to guard its existence, as best she can. Unfortunately, the myth of the rain heron has spread far and wide throughout this particular country and the generals—When the Generals talk, as Midnight Oil said, everybody listens and when the generals want something they want it, and they decide that, being inquisitive, they just want this particular bird for no other reason than they want it.

So they send a company of or squadron whatever the size of it is, about 10 or so people out to capture this particular bird. The troops are led by young woman by the name of Harker who in her own way is just physically, mentally and emotionally scarred as his Ren, but she’s very, very good at her job and is able to basically destroy Ren’s life. To the extent that she’s able to torture Ren enough so that Ren will reveal the existence of where the heron is, so the heron is captured. But Harker does lose an eye in the process because she got too close and was too slow. And then the rest of the book, which I don’t really want to talk overmuch about in terms of the plot, because I think that will give away too much of the interesting little things that go on here.

There’s that’s sort of the first section of the book, second section of the book you start to really go “Oh, this is probably just a set of. Interrelated novellas that are going to come together somewhere down the track”. They sort of are, but the second section does hark back both through the first section in, on into the future, and gives you information. This is set, this second part of the book, is set at the seaside where a particular village has found that a certain squid’s ink has sort of semi mystical powers. It will make certain culinary dishes taste spectacular. It will change paint so that a painting seems to just glow. And it’s in very rare quantities and it’s very hard to get and only this particular village knows how to harvest the particular ink and to ensure that the squids who produce the ink come back to be able to be harvested yet again. And it doesn’t seem that this particular section is going to relate to the first, but it ends up doing so on its ability to be able to talk about the environment that Ren lives in, and the way that the heron relates to that, and how the second section of the ocean, how the villages and the squid have the squids all come together, how he deals with that is really quite excellent.

He’s certainly a writer to watch. There’s a real mystical quality about this. It’s gotta... You know how you get those books where you read them? Anything? It’s beautiful writing, but I don’t know how he was doing it. I just don’t know it, just it seems it just flows beautifully and it’s almost like it’s he’s written it almost as poetry that he’s basically got it out and it just flows fantastically. And you end up with a fable. Or a story which comes together as a full whole comes together at the end there’s a big piece of redemption and a return to a level of humanity by a couple of the people in this particular book. The rain heron is sort of a metaphor for lost humanity and regaining of that once you get close to it, all that greed and corruption sort of slowly fades away the longer you spend in its presence, the less of that that you have, and that the more that you come back to your core basic humane humanity rather than greed. and avarice.

He’s a good writer, this bloke, really good. I think he’s one to watch. I’ll certainly be going back and dragging down his first book and finding that, and I would really recommend this one. I don’t, I don’t know whether it’s going to end up picking up any major awards because look, it doesn’t mention Australia so it can’t pick up anything—it doesn’t depict Australians and the Australian way of life so that it can’t appear on the Miles Franklin Award list because of that, but I gave it 4.6 out of five so that would round it up to five on Goodreads. Look it’s right up there with my best of the year already. Yep, enjoyed it a lot.

David: Oh, that sounds good. I must check that out.

Perry: You can borrow it from me later, David.

David: Thank you, when one of these days when we can see each other again.

Perry: In five years time when you got nothing to... you got enough stacked up to be able to, time stacked up to be able to read it.

What the Wind Brings, by Matthew Hughes

David: All right, well I’m going to talk about my last book, which is called What the Wind Brings by Matthew Hughes. Now, as it happens, I had the opportunity to talk to Matthew Hughes and this review will be followed by a short interview with him. In which he talks about this book of his and also, interestingly enough, Matthew Hughes has written quite a lot of science fiction and fantasy over the years, and has written quite a few stories in the Jack Vance Dying Earth sort of environment from the books of Jack Vance—a very far future scenario where magic is kind of become science or science has become magic, whatever you like to call it, and so he’s written a lot of that series and he’s been given the authority to write a book in the Vance Space Series in the same sort of environment as Vance’s Demon Prince. So you’ll get all that in the interview anyway. But this is quite a different book.

He’s a Canadian author who was born in England in 1949. He’s as I say written a lot of science fiction and fantasy, or started out writing as you’ll find from the interview that he set out trying to write crime. He’s even written a story about Wolverine in the Marvel Universe, Perry. And there you go.

So that makes this particular book What the Wind Brings, which was published last year in 2019, very interesting because it’s a well researched piece of historical fiction and it just has this slight element of fantasy element which I’ll mention, so it’s what we might call genre adjacent in that respect, but it’s certainly not a book you would you nominate as being a work of fantasy, and would never be marketed as a work of fantasy. No, it’s really a piece of, I think, very well written and well researched historical fiction. That is what I think...

When you think about it, it’s not that unusual for works of historical fiction to have a slight magical fantasy mystical element to them. Some of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond saga has got that sort of slight fantasy element with the character called the Dame de Doubtance and even Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy, which is this massive trilogy written in the same sort of time, as the plague in London and Pepys’ Diary and the Fire of London, that sort of thing, so the late 1600s, and that has a bit of fantasy right at the very end of that too.

You’re looking very sceptical Perry about the Baroque Trilogy, but it’s well worth reading, let me tell you. I’m not sure I’ll ever read it again, it’s a huge slab.

Perry: I know it’s out there. Haven’t read it, but because it’s a huge slab, I don’t know whether I’ll get time to. But some of these also remind me of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work. If you haven’t read them. I think you should. There’s another one that we probably need to get to talk to at some point down the track, but carry on.

David: OK, so let’s go back to this particular book, which is What the Wind Brings. Set in what is now the country of Ecuador, which is on the western coast of South America if you don’t know your geography and it’s set in the latter part of the 16th century, after the Spaniards have been in the region for some years, but nothing in the body of the novel actually tells you that directly. You only kind of intuit it as you’re reading and then you get to Matthew Hughes’ fascinating Afterword of the book, which I’ll talk about too when we get to it. And I’m not being critical of the story by saying that it doesn’t tell you these things, just it’s so well written it just sucks you into the time and place because of the interest of the characters and the setting.

So the novel concentrates on three very different characters, POV characters. In the very first chapter we’re introduced to the character who I think is perhaps the most interesting of all of these, and her story is told in the first person, and this is a person whose name in English would translate as Expectation. Expectation is a member of the Nigua people who are native to this region of South America. Expectation tells us that she has what she calls a “discrepancy”. And I’ll use the pronouns she and her to refer to Expectation, but in fact it’s clear that physically she is neither male nor female but a true hermaphrodite and also possibly somewhat dwarfish in stature. Now she hasn’t been killed at birth, which is what would happen to a lot of babies with strange abnormalities, but she’s been kept on.

Now the Nigua people live a tribal sort of life in the jungles of the region and their society dictates the separation of unmarried people. So if you’re not married, you live in the men’s house or you live in the women’s house. But Expectation, of course is denied access to either of those. And so she has to live by herself, and she’s become the tribe’s shaman or spiritual guide, whatever you like to call it and a healer, she heals people. And because of this gender ambiguity, the tribe’s leaders tend to look at her with a fair bit of suspicion and a bit of disgust. But she’s proved that she’s very useful to them because as I say she’s become a healer.

Anyways, the book opens and Expectation goes on what she calls a spirit journey, and she sees a sailing ship heading towards the nearby coast and her spirit guide tells her that someone on the ship is going to be very important to the Nigua people and so here is this fantasy element which runs through the book. And in fact, Expectation really, this first person character, in many ways is a mover and shaker. She directs a lot of what goes on in this. Again, you’ll pick up some of this from the interview with Matthew.

So on board this ship that’s coming in is the second main character who’s a servant of a Spanish family. He’s a servant, I think, not a slave and he’s been given quite a bit of responsibility. This young man is called Alonso de Illescas. Probably not pronouncing that right. Which is the name of the family that he serves. Alonso has been named for the head of the family, Don Alonso back in Seville. And his responsibility on board the ship is to look after his patron’s goods. There are on a ship which is supposedly on its way from Nicaragua to Lima, which is further south. And he’s there to look after the goods of his patron, which include a small herd of pigs and a valuable shipment of African slaves, some of whom have tried to rebel on the island of Hispaniola, which is in the Caribbean. Now, the leader of that group is a powerful man called Anton.

The ships has bad luck with winds and doesn’t make any progress in getting south to Lima and they start running out of water and food, and so their captain makes a decision to make landfall to replenish their supplies. They make landfall in the region, which is occupied by the Nigua people and they land near a creek and start to investigate the area and they find an old village which has been abandoned, apparently fairly recently, and they are able to take some crops and some fruit from there. But before they can put to sea again, there’s a violent storm comes up. And it smashes the ship into the reef and wrecks it. And while this is all going on, Anton, the leader of the group of slaves, takes this opportunity to escape his bonds and he frees the other slaves and they quickly overpower the sailors.

The life of Alonso hangs in the balance because, you know, he’s the one who’s kind of seen as the one who’s been on the side of their, their, their masters or their owners, these slaves. But Anton’s wife urges Anton not to kill Alonso because she thinks that Alonso knows how the Spanish think and he speaks their language fluently and he knows their ways. They’re certain that the Spaniards will try to recapture the slaves, so this may be useful information. Anyway, the slaves and Alonso eventually come into contact with the Nigua and they come across a village and they get involved, they eventually get deeply involved with this tribe and kind of settle down. They kill off some of the men and settle down with native wives

But the main interest is with this character, Alonso, who lives this very precarious existence. His life is in the balance for a long time. And he’s basically taken in by Expectation, who now knows that he’s the person that the spirit guide was telling her was the important one, and he’s a sort of diffident sort of young man and doesn’t have much self confidence. As I say his life is very precarious because Anton could have him killed at any moment, but Anton keeps tolerating him. Then as time goes by, Alonso starts to develop himself and a lot of this is driven by Expectation and she helps him. She actually—there’s actually a passage where she finds what she says is his lost spirit, lost animal spirit and she goes into the spirit world to recover this spirit for him. And in fact, from that point onwards, he becomes much more self confident after she’s told him this. Eventually Alonso becomes a threat to Anton. And of course, that’s a worry.

Then we have a third character, a Trinitarian Monk called... I’ll try to pronounce this properly... My Spanish is not good. Apologies to all our Spanish listeners as well. Alejandro D’Espinoza. And he’s fled Spain for the New World because he has a Jewish Grandfather, and so he’s suspected of being a converso who is a Jew who is merely pretending to be a Christian to escape persecution. He becomes involved in a very ill fated expedition into the interior of the jungle. And the Spaniards are attacked by another tribe called the Campaze, who are equipped with poison darts and they know their jungle very well and they basically massacre most of this exposition and Alejandro, and the remains of the expedition only sort of get back, just get back to the coast alive. Only a few of them get back.

Eventually Alejandro is sent on another expedition, which is north to try to make contact with where they know the slaves washed up and have started to trade, make a bit of a community there and build up a community and start to trade with people. The Spaniards want to make contact and get their help to build a port in the area. But the Spanish mistakenly think that Alonso and not Anton is the head of the group and they offer to make Alonso, the Governor of the province to assist them, helping them, set up this port. This of course doesn’t improve relations with Anton and eventually all this comes to a head and there’s a conflict between them, which I won’t go into without spoiling things.

I really enjoyed this. It was a really engaging read, really interesting, beautifully written. Very good characterization, you really get sucked in by these characters. So you really want to follow the story and find out where all these characters end up. And yeah, look, it seems to be very well researched, but I actually got to the end of the book and there’s an Afterword. And I was really startled on reading this because at least until this point I thought this was just a really clever bit of ingenious storytelling in a very interesting environment. But in fact, the Afterword tells us that almost all of this is true. Basically, really based on an absolutely true story. All the main characters were real historical figures who were noted in history. And I think that it actually takes a lot of talent to take an existing story like that with real people in it where you don’t know a lot about them. But you know that they’re real historical figures, and turn into a piece of you, know, good storytelling and make the characters come to life. So I, I enjoyed it a lot, and so I can recommend it. And in a little while I will move to an interview with them with Matthew Hughes where he talks about both this book and his forthcoming book in the Jack Vance space.

Perry: Sounds interesting.

David: Indeed, indeed, well, we might go straight to that interview now.

Interview with Matthew Hughes

David: I’m talking today with Matthew Hughes, the author of What the Wind Brings about how he came to write this historical novel after a long career of writing mainly science fiction and fantasy novels. He’s written an enormous number of novels and short stories over the years, mostly in the science fiction and fantasy genres. But he has also written some crime fiction—he started out writing crime fiction. So Matthew, how did you come to write this particular novel in the historical fiction genre?

Matthew: Well, OK, there’s a long story behind it. In about 1971, I saw a footnote in a University book I was reading about cultural clashes and cohesions and it mentioned African slaves shipwrecked on the coast of Ecuador, who survived and flourished and created an independent state and I thought, well, that sounds like a good historical novel. And back in 1971 I was actually thinking I would be a historical novelist if I ever got the time and the leisure to write. So I filed it away in my head. And then I went on with a career as a professional writer.

I became a journalist first and then by a sheer fluke I ended up in the office of a Canadian member of Parliament, newly elected, who was seconded or was tapped to second the Speech from the Throne as we call it in Canada—I know in the UK it’s called the Queen’s Speech—it’s where the new government lays out its entire agenda. I’d never written a speech before. This fellow had hired me really to write the newspaper columns for his, you know the Riding press. I had been editing a paper in that Riding when he got elected. But I went and got some examples from the Speaker’s Office of how do you do speeches, and I wrote him a speech. And the next thing I know I was being offered jobs by Cabinet Ministers to come and be on their personal staff and write speeches. And that’s what I did for three years or more in Ottawa.

And then I came back to BC, British Columbia, Vancouver, and I freelanced essentially for 30 years. All the time I was thinking I’d rather be a novelist. I started out to be a crime novelist. That worked: I won an award from the Crime Writers Of Canada and I got a novel published by Doubleday and I sold short stories to Alfred Hitchcock’s Magazine and, you know, I was beginning to build a career. Yeah, sure, but an old fantasy novel that I’ve written years before I saw an opportunity to sell it to somebody, and I did and they asked for a sequel. And that was Time Warner books and then an editor at Tor said ‘I’d like one of those, so why don’t you write one for me?’ and I did. And then Nightshade Books, a very reputable in those days, small press, said, ‘well, we’d like some novels too, so here’s some money and a contract’, and next thing I knew I was a science fiction and fantasy author.

David: Right, I see. That’s interesting.

What the Wind Brings

Matthew: Over time in the back of my head was this historical novel thing. I tried over the years to research it, but it was difficult because all the scholarship—the events having taken place in Ecuador—all the scholarship was in Spanish language academic journals. I’m capable of saying, you know, [speaks in Spanish] kind of thing, but I’m not very good at academic Spanish. It wasn’t until well into this century that North American academics caught up with this thing and began to write about it. And then I could actually research it. So I went to the Canada Council for the Arts and said, ‘could I have some money?’, and they gave me $25,000, and then I dropped everything and sat down and wrote four drafts of this novel which had been cooking in the back of my head for by then more than 40 years.

David: Yeah wow.

Matthew: It came out. I’m not a plotter, an outliner. I start with characters and a situation and then I see what happens with them and I’m Constantly asking my characters when we get to a deciding point: ‘Well, you know what do you want now? What do you need? What? What happens next?’ and the guy in the back of my head tells me, we go on and do it.

David: But that must be a little harder with a historical novel, the way you are constrained by the actual historical events and actual characters.

Matthew: Yes, it is certainly more constraining than you know, when I’m just making up stuff on my own for a Dying Earth kind of fantasy novel. Yes it is, but in this case the characters that I knew had to be in there because they were actual real historical people. Alonso Illescas, the educated slave who was in charge of the cargo of African slaves on the ship that got wrecked on the reef. He was real. And he started out as just the supercargo, and he was certainly not the leader of the group after they landed and began to establish themselves. That was another fellow, known to exist, called Anton, who I saw is a pretty tough and rugged kind of fellow. So I had them already and somehow—nobody knows how because nobody was there writing it down—somehow Anton ceased to be the leader and Alonso became the leader and that was the crux of the story. I had a pair of character arcs I knew I could work with after I created the characters to fill them. And of course, finally there was this hermaphroditic shaman who was entirely my own made up person who just popped into my head one day with her name. Her name was Expectation. I don’t know why that was her name, but that was what she was called. And I could see her as the key person who was going to make everything work. Uh, but it was not going to be easy for her.

David: Well, she’s certainly a fascinating character throughout the book.

Matthew: I think of her as a mini machiavelli. She’s the one who positions and moves everybody in order to get the result that is best for everybody—except for Anton.

David: And it’s interesting, I guess that she’s the only first-person POV character in the book, I guess. Yeah, so she is kind of driving things in that sense.

Matthew: Yeah, it’s because her perspective is really the perspective that counts in the whole story. And the moment I started writing her parts, it was in the first person and that was just natural. That was how it was going to be.

David: True, and certainly she drives the story very much and I guess she’s the one who brings in this very slight fantasy element to the book. Which I think works very well. She communes with her spirit guides and she’s the one who sort of heals Alonso, you know, recovers his spirit for him. Now whether you take that as fact or fantasy, I don’t think it matters, it kind of works very well I think.

Matthew: It doesn’t, but I like it... I would ask the reader for that suspension of disbelief, and say, ‘yes, I, I believe this is actually happening’ because it’s magical realism more than fantasy. I think yes, there’s nothing more South American than magical realism.

David: Yes, and I think as I said in my review, it’s not that unusual for historical novels to actually have a side element of fantasy. So you wouldn’t see What the Wind Brings as a fantasy novel by any means, but it’s definitely, I think, in the historical fiction category, but just has a slight element of fantasy too, which I think is delightful. Really. It works really well.

Matthew: It is historical fiction with a tinge.

David: And and the third major character I guess—well maybe say fourth as well as Alonso, Anton and Expectation there’s this Trinitarian monk. What was your impulse to bring him into the book?

Matthew: Well, he was a real person. Actually his name was not Alejandro, it was Alonso. I changed his name because we already had Alonso, but yeah, he was a real person who came and joined the Zambo state. Uh, along with his Portuguese friend who was a Portuguese mercenary, Avila. And they became useful to the people that they were... But when I brought him in, I wanted him to be in this whole political novel—and this is basically a political novel—I wanted him to be the one innocent pure person who shines in the murk of the rest of them. So I figured, as a Trinitarian Monk, and they were... Again, I had to guess his background because nothing really was written down. Trinitarians were actually to be found on the Pilgrim routes going to the Holy Land where they helped pilgrims along the way. That was their raison d’etre as an order. But, uh, this fellow probably was, so I made him such in the book, he was a descendant of Jews who had been forcibly converted in the time of Ferdinand and Isabella. The 1490s after the conquest of Granada, and by the time this book takes place in the 1560s people like that with being hunted by the Inquisition because they had position and money often, and the Inquisition got whatever you had if they came after you, often people simply paid over what they had as their fortunes, and the Inquisition would let them alone. Other people who could not pay were sometimes burned to death or flogged to death or whatever awful things. At the time I’m writing about the Inquisition was not yet extended to South America. So it was a logical place for a converso to flee and be safe, relatively safe. And that to me was the reason why a man who was devoted to helping pilgrims to the Holy Land would go thousands of miles in the opposite direction. And then I figured he must be a reasonably good person to be a monk of that kind to begin with. So I made him innocent and I brought him out and he’s determined to do good, and he liked to... Well, he has courage and he is really determined he’s going to help people as best you can.

Vance Space

David: I really enjoyed the book and I look forward to reading some more of your work. And along those lines I believe that you’re writing a book in the universe of the environment created by Jack Vance. He is another of my favorite authors in the science fiction world. So you’re writing a novel in the same sort of setting if we like as the Demon Princes novels that Jack Vance wrote. Now, was that something you were commissioned to do or...?

Matthew: Well, OK, again a back story to it. I had been writing material... fiction, both a space opera and story set in my extrapolation of his seminal Dying Earth millieu. I had been writing that some number of years, and people were calling me his heir apparent, or George R. R. Martin said I was the closest thing to Vance since Vance.

David: That’s high praise.

Matthew: I thought so, yes. What I did then was I thought, well I’ll get in touch. So I got in touch with John Vance, his son, down in Oakland and I said ‘would your dad be agreeable to my writing a sequel to one of his works?’ I was thinking then of The Dragon Masters. He went to his dad... because that was the first thing I read of Vance’s way back in 1962 in Galaxy magazine and it stuck with me forever. Made me a Vance [fan]...

David: Me too. And those wonderful illustrations by Jack Gaughan.

Matthew: Yes, wonderful stuff. Anyway, so he went to his dad and his dad said, ‘yeah, I’m amenable to that’. And I started talking to Jack’s agent—I did not have and still don’t have an agent of my own—and we started putting together a deal where it would be a 50:50 split and you know I would have permission to work with his characters and settings. And we were in the middle of doing that when Jack died. Back in May of 2013. And John did not feel good about continuing with that. I mean he was in grieving for his father and I perfectly understood that. So we dropped it.

Then he set up Spatterlight Press, which publishes his father’s works in the Vance Integral Edition text. The, you know, the ones that were restored to the way Vance wanted them to be. I got involved with him and I wrote some of the blurbs for YouTube and, uh, you know the back copy for the books and even did an introduction to Emphyrio, which is one of my favorite Jack Vance works, so we kept in touch and then last year sometime he launched this new initiative called Vance Space. In which people can write stories set in Vance’s environments, and when he gave someone a contract to write a sequel to The Dragon Masters, that reminded him of what we talked about years before. So he got in touch and said, ‘You know, do you still want to do a Vance story?’ And I said, Yeah, and I’ve thought about it since and I said what I’d really like to do is a sequel to the Demon Princes. Essentially, what happened to Kirth Gersen after his enemies deserted him. And we talked about it a bit and the idea that he had for Vance Space was that it would not be Vance’s characters but just Vance’s settings. Now, somebody has done an Alastor Cluster novel and the Dragon Masters is in some way in process. So he said, and I agreed with it, the idea if I could come up with a story set in the milleu of the Demon Princes without using Kirth Gersen. You know, rest in peace, Kirth. That’ll be fine.

So I sat down and I thought of an idea and started to work and we have an agreement for it to be published by Spatterlight once we’re both happy with the text. It’s about a young woman. Weren’t very many female protagonists in Vance’s stories, and that’s why, one reason I wanted to do something slightly different. She is the daughter of people who were kidnapped when the Demon Princes made the raid on Mount Pleasant and [were] hauled off into captivity as slaves in the Beyond where she was born. She, her parents, you know they were expecting her when they were taken by the slavers. And she has come back to the world of Providence where Mount Pleasant is—and a community on Mount Pleasant which has been re-populated by some mild mannered cultists who have built a philosophy around psychedelic drugs. Her parents had left something very valuable there. And she comes to get it because she can then take it to Interchange and buy them out of slavery. And that’s the basis for the story. And then things get complicated and it doesn’t quite work out that way. And other people come into it. And it’s again character-driven fiction. But I think it’s faithful to a Jack Vance kind of story. It’s full of antiheroes. Not any really pure good people. There are some really bad people and then there are some people who like to be good and they’re trying to be, but it’s you know, it’s a complicated world they’re in.

I’ve now done, uh, a number of drafts. We’re up to about a 61,500 word thing, which I think does the job. I’m waiting, I’ve sent it to John and I’m waiting to hear his notes on it. It’s in the mid range between the shortest of the Demon Princes books is 52,000 words, the longest is 72,000. So I’m right in the midpoint and I’m very happy with it. I think it works. I’d like to see it... Well, again, I really should have an agent for this kind of thing. I’ve been working without an agent for years now. Selling mostly to small presses and into the magazines and anthologies. Spatterlight’s, John Vance’s press they do print on demand paperbacks and ebooks. They don’t do audio books and they don’t do mass market paperbacks, and I think this book has real potential as a mass market paperback. But I would need two things—I would need John’s agreement to, you know, have somebody go and see about selling that and then I would need an agent who could, to handle it. And while I’m making wishes, I think What the Wind Brings is a perfect property for the streaming services and studios these days in Hollywood.

David: Yes it would.

Matthew: It’s full of diversity and it’s got a happy ending.

David: Yes, yeah, it would actually make a great TV series in one of those streaming services, yeah.

Matthew: If I find an agent who will do that? Uh, you know, take that. I think it’s, uh, not a hard sell.

David: True. Oh well, I wish you every luck with that. That sounds great. Yeah, I’m looking forward...

Matthew: Maybe somebody will listen to the podcast and say, ‘Hey, I could make 150 [million]’.

David: That sounds terrific. Well, let’s hope they do. Yes, all right, well that’s been great, Matthew, I’ve enjoyed that. Certainly enjoyed reading your book. It’s the first one of your books I’ve read I confess.

Matthew: Can I add one more thing?

David: Absolutely anything you like.

A God in Chains

Matthew: As I say, I have been writing within Vance Universes, especially in The Dying Earth, I’ve done a lot of that. Two collections of stories, all of which either ran in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or the Gardner Dozois anthologies and then last year, July last year, I did the first novel set in the Dying Earth and it’s called A God in Chains. Came out from a Canadian small press Edge Publishing. And if you like Vance, I think if you could get your hands on that one, you might find that to your taste.

David: Sure, that sounds great. I will certainly do that. Yeah, indeed. Well thank you Matthew. It’s been very pleasant to talk to you and as I say I really enjoyed What the Wind Brings. And I look forward to reading more of your work.

Matthew: And feel free to review the hell out of them.

David: OK, great, will do. Thank you Matthew.

Thank you, Matthew, that was very enjoyable.

Perry: I think we’ve had a pretty good pretty good run of books today. There’s been some an interesting range of topics, but I think it just shows you that there are hidden gems out there that even if you. Look, if you’re a reader of literary fiction and you want to try a bit of speculative stuff. Some of these books might be a good introduction for you. If you’re a reader of junior fiction, you might find some interesting pieces here that you had not heard of, or had just passed you by. Hopefully you’ll find something. Good next week David, we’re back to the Hugo Time Machine with the Hugo Awards of 1964. Will tell you that we do when we get there next week, but you could always look. You can always look it up and always.

David: Watch out there’s a very good website, you can look it up.

Perry: On the yeah, whatever she wants. But we will actually tell you about that website next. And the next time one that I use quite a lot and I find it very, very invaluable for the work that we don’t do anyway, David, it’s been another good episode, another long episode, but there we go. It gives it yeah, but it gives people something to have a bit of a think about in these troubled times. Indeed indeed anyway, David until next episode. I’ll see you, I’ll see you then. OK, bye.

Episode Page | Transcripts Index