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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Matthew Hughes: Shameless Promotion

One seldom has the opportunity I have now -- to do a good deed for the richly deserving, and in return get a chance at sweet, succulent loot. In this case, it's the best booty of all: books.

UPDATE: See the update near the image of the Black Brillion cover.

Writer Matthew Hughes is offering a free book to the first 53 people willing to abase themselves and write about his books past and present. Now, I have my pride (no, really, it's around here somewhere, honest) so I wouldn't do this for just any shmoe. But Hughes isn't just any shmoe, he's a shmoe who writes like the dickens! (Not to be confused with, "writes like Dickens").

A couple of years ago, after decades of neglect, I took up the science fiction habit again -- that is to say, reading farm-fresh science fiction in addition to the comforting familiar science fiction I'd grown up with. I wasn't at all sure that I would like this new-fangled stuff. Much of it I don't. Much of it is much like the old-fangled stuff, and it's still not that great.

But Hughes was one of the writers who really made me sit up and take notice. He's the author of not one but two (somewhat related) series, set in the same remote future. The first involves the adventures of Henghis Hapthorn, "Old Earth's foremost freelance discriminator" -- known to some as a private detective.

Hapthorn (arrogant, stuffy, intelligent, and charming) finds himself living at a time when the universe is swinging away from logic, mechanics, and science and toward an age dominated by intuition and magic. Since he has made his living and his reputation through reason and deduction, this is an extremely unwelcome change for him. Fortunately for him, he's not exactly alone in his own skull...

The Gist Hunter by Matthew Hughes

In (I believe) the first Hapthorn story, "Mastermindless", Hapthorn encounters a creature from a very alternate reality, who invites Hapthorn to think of him as a demon -- not in the sense of an evil entity, but that of a being with powers unknown to humans. In "Finding Sajessarian" Hapthorn receives considerable assistance from the demon, but it results in an astounding transformation to his "integrator" (his trusty assistant -- basically a glorified computer). Hapthorn's has gradually taken on a personality as the stories progress, something an integrator should not be able to do. I believe this has something to do with the impending cosmic shift. That event is finally made manifest in "The Gist Hunter" (June 2005 F&SF), and it means a profound change in Hapthorn.

These stories are all included in Hughes's 2005 collection The Gist Hunter, along with three other Hapthorns which don't really add to the story arc, although they're interesting tales on their own.

Majestrum by Matthew Hughes

Hapthorn's adventures continue in the novel Majestrum, in which Hapthorn is called upon to investigate a threat to the Archonate (the benign dictatorship which rules Earth) itself. Hapthorn finds that the danger is much greater still. I confess that I found the beginning of this book slow (the beginning establishes some things needed at the end, but at the time it seems as if Hughes is dawdling), and I was confused in the wilder bits. But the final confrontation stood my hair on end. After finishing the book I immediately went back and re-read that part.

The Spiral Labyrinth by Matthew Hughes

Now there's a new Hapthorn novel out, The Spiral Labyrinth, upon which I am eager to get my hot and greedy hands (thus this unblushing hucksterism). You can read the first chapter here, but I'm waiting until I have the whole book.

Hughes's writing style has been compared to that of Jack Vance (indeed, I think Hughes says somewhere that he was inspired by Vance's "Dying Earth" tales, Hughes's "Old Earth" being the age before that), but I've not read enough Vance to be able to comment. I will say that the writing in the Hapthorn stories is intelligent, witty, and arch -- rather like a serious, sober Nick Charles sans Nora, and with the part of Asta being played by a computer turned into a dog by powers beyond human ken.

I must say that I find reading Hughes to be a little bit of work, because he's not content to call things by their ordinary names, but must invent (or rather, adapt) new names for them -- e.g. discriminator, integrator, volante (for aircraft) etc. Here's a little sample from Majestrum:

I pointed out that when it was a disseminated device, it did not mind being decanted into a portable armature that fitted over my neck and shoulders so that it could accompany me when I traveled. I had been wearing the integrator in that fashion when we had passed through a contingent dimension to escape from an otherwise permanent confinement that would have eventually proved fatal. It was after we reemerged into my workroom that I found my assistant transformed.

I don't know about you, but I find that sort of thing a little heavy going. It was a slog to get through the first few paragraphs of Black Brillion. On the other hand, once you settle into the rhythm you run the risk of being absorbed into it and end up talking like that for the rest of your life.

His other series is even weirder. This one involves Guth Bandar, a would-be noönaut -- that is, a student of and traveler in the human collective unconscious. When we first meet Bandar (in "A Little Learning", collected in The Gist Hunter) he is making his way through the noösphere (the unconscious itself), as part of a student examination. But he finds himself sabotaged by a classmate, and must chart an alternate route back to his body. Hilarity ensues (as well as peril). (A quick skim of this story, read long ago, reveals what is possibly the least sexy sex scene in literature. This is quite deliberate, but it makes me wonder if there's ever been a Bulwer-Lytton-like contest to write the least erotic sex scene. If not, there oughta be.)

In "Help Wonted" (also in The Gist Hunter) we find that the collective unconscious may be achieving consciousness, and it has special plans for Bandar. Unfortunately, it seems to mean giving up his heart's desire -- a life as a scholar of the noösphere. There are three Bandar stories in The Gist Hunter, and a further three published in Fantasy & Science Fiction after The Gist Hunter was published. I believe that all of these will be combined in a novel, The Commons, due out just about now. (I was crushed to discover this, since apparently I've already read the last of the Bandar stories, "The Helper and His Hero," in F&SF. Sniff!)

The Bandar stories (and all other stories taking place in the Archonate) are written in the same mordant style as the Hapthorns, although with fewer opportunities for badinage, since Bandar (unlike Hapthorn) does not have a constant companion with whom to bicker.

(By the way, it occurred to me while reading "Help Wonted" that this noösphere business would make a terrific computer game in the style of Myst.)

As a sorta kinda wannabe writer, I'm impressed (and daunted) by the amount of thought that Hughes has put into these tales. Every one of the Guth Bandar stories supplies or illuminates some little fact which is necessary for the grand climax in "The Helper and His Hero". This requires considerable planning on the author's part.

On the other hand, as a sorta kinda wannabe writer, I'm depressed by the idea that every single possible plot has already been done before (I believe Aristotle noted this 2300 years ago). When Bandar finds himself trapped in an Event in "Help Wonted", he recognizes it as the archetypal Rising of the Oppressed. In "Bye the Rules", he's placed in a Situation he recognizes as Resisting the Despot. This is seems a dangerous tactic for a writer; readers should not be encouraged to recognize these literary tropes for the golden moldies they are. They might demand something new, and that would mean hard work for the writer.

Black Brillion by Matthew Hughes

There are other stories and novels which take place in the Archonate, but which are not directly related to either the Hapthorn or the Bandar series. I believe Black Brillion is one of these, but I haven't read it yet. I know that it features the character Luff Imbry, who turns up in "The Hero and His Helper."

UPDATE: W00T! Hughes responded to my email, and I'm in for a book! He also notes that the last half of Black Brillion covers the same events as the last half of the upcoming The Commons, as seen from a different point of view.

He's also the feature of his own standalone story, "The Meaning of Luff", in the July 2006 Fantasy & Science Fiction. (That's a terrific story, in which a device is discovered that reveals the purpose of any life. Turns out most lives don't have any purpose. I'd have thought that was obvious, but it causes some consternation in the story.) I finished Majestrum and wanted to pick up Black Brillion immediately, but forced myself to put it aside to savor for later. Since the new Hapthorn novel, The Spiral Labyrinth, is out, it's time to get savorin'.

There are also two other Archonate novels, Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice, which are currently out of print, though you can still get 'em used. Read samples at Hughes's site.

Finally, I will put in a good word for the story "Go Tell the Phoenicians" in The Gist Hunter. It's a good old-fashioned science fiction puzzle story, a departure from what I've seen of Hughes's style and oeuvre.

Anyhow -- Go! Buy a book! DO IT NOW!