JANE: I’m happily awaiting learning more about Phillip Mann. Is he a native New Zealander?
ALAN: No, not quite. Like me, Phillip is an expat Yorkshireman, though he is from North Yorkshire and I am from West Yorkshire, so naturally we hate each other. But despite that, we remain good friends…
And, just like Ngaio Marsh, Phillip Mann also has houses in both the Northern and Southern hemisphere, though unlike Dame Ngaio his Northern hemisphere house is in France. Since his retirement, he has been commuting between the two and he tells me that he doesn’t do winter anymore; he spends the Southern hemisphere winter in the summer sunshine of France and the Northern hemisphere winter in the summer sun of New Zealand.
JANE: Given that here in New Mexico, we’re now getting nighttime temperatures in the 20’s, I completely sympathize with the lure of eternal summer.
What would you say characterizes Mann’s work?
ALAN: He has a reputation for creating some of the most ingenious (and truly alien) aliens ever to appear in the pages of an SF novel. I asked him about this once and he confessed that he found his inspiration in the strange and creepy creatures that he discovered lurking in rock pools.
JANE: Aliens! Ooh. Tell me more!
ALAN: If you like aliens, you’ll love his latest novel, The Disestablishment of Paradise. Things are going wrong on the planet of Paradise. As the name implies, once it was a paradise, but now the crops are failing and the indigenous plant life is changing in unpredictable ways. And so the powers that be make the decision to close the planet down, to cut their losses and leave the place to itself. Paradise will be disestablished.
The major strength of the novel is the wonderfully imagined world of Paradise itself. Phillip’s genius for creating alien life has never been better exemplified than in this book. There are no animals, birds, insects or fish on Paradise. All the ecological niches are filled by plants such as the ubiquitous Tattersall weed, the dangerous Michelangelo-Reaper and the fabulous Dendron Peripatetica, long thought to be extinct until the last one in existence walks dramatically onto the stage.
The sustained and consistent vision that is Paradise is beautifully imagined and it brings the whole story vividly to life.
JANE: I’ll need to keep my eyes open for this one. Do you have a favorite Mann novel?
ALAN: My favourite of his novels is Pioneers. A long time ago, the pioneers set out from Earth to explore the universe. But now the Earth itself has undergone a huge catastrophe and the pioneers are needed back home. Angelo and Ariadne are two genetically modified characters whose job it is to rescue and retrieve the pioneers.
A bald summary like this, while it certainly defines the plot, cannot do justice to the sheer brilliance of the detail. Phillip gives us a beautiful love story, asks what it means to be human (and gives some answers!) and along the way provides poignant descriptions of a devastated Earth and a practically deserted New Zealand. It’s a hugely moving book that works on both intellectual and emotional levels. It never fails to enthrall me.
JANE: That sounds really interesting. Does it have aliens in it?
ALAN: There are some, but they aren’t a major theme as they are in many of his other books.
JANE: You mentioned a couple of other titles last week. Since these might be ones that our American readers would be able to find more easily, can you tell us a little about them?
ALAN: Yes, indeed. Eye of the Queen consists of selections from the diaries of Dr Marius Thorndyke, with interpolations from one of his professional colleagues. Dr Thorndyke is investigating the language and culture of the Pe-Ellians, a humanoid race with a scaly skin. Every individual has a unique pattern of scale markings. However, like terrestrial snakes, the Pe-Ellians periodically shed their skin and emerge with a transformed set of scale markings which indicate that they have moved on to a higher phase of existence (whatever that might mean). Their personality changes and they adopt a new name.
JANE: Sounds as if this would give a whole new meaning to exfoliating bath gel. “Scrub your skin into a truly new you!”
ALAN: Not quite, though I think I might have enjoyed reading that story…
Anyway, Thorndyke learns the language and translates some Pe-Ellian poetry. As he learns more about the Pe-Ellians, he starts to suspect that the humans have had a drastic effect on the native culture. This troubles his conscience.
I remember, when I was first reading the novel, that a distinct sense of complacency started to set in. Both Thorndyke and I were certain that we understood the Pe-Ellians. On my part, I began to assume that the novel was just another one of those “aliens are just like us once you ignore the scales” stories that are so common in SF.
And then one of the Pe-Ellians did something so outrageous and so amazing that all my preconceptions were immediately destroyed, and along with Thorndyke, I began to realise that I hadn’t understood anything about the Pe-Ellians. And from that point on, the revelations came thick and fast and the sheer alieness (if that’s a word) of the Pe-Ellians just blew me away.
JANE: Oh, yum… That is exactly my favorite sort of story with aliens. I remember being completely disappointed with the much-hyped Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton until the dragons became uniquely dragonish. This sounds even better.
What’s Wulfsyarn like? Forgive me, but my immediate image was of a wolf with knitting needles, busily knitting a sweater from the wool of its most recent kill.
ALAN: Oh gosh, what an image! Excuse me, I need to go and scrub my mind…
Like Eye of the Queen, Wulfsyarn is an epistolary novel. However, in this case we learn the story from the point of view of an autoscribe whose name is Wulf.
JANE: Ah… Image fades. This is a “yarn” as in “tale,” not knitting. Sad… Of course, now I’m seeing a great fluffy wolf’s tail. You’d better tell me about the book before it mutates completely!
ALAN: Wulf tells us about the last voyage of the starship “Nightingale” and about the terrible fate that befell the ship and her captain, Jon Wilberfoss. Wulf admires Wilberfoss and wants to explain just why Wilberfoss has been left stricken by guilt and self-loathing and why he has been condemned as a heinous murderer by the masters of the Gentle Order of St. Francis Dionysos, a benevolent religious sect dedicated to rescuing alien refugees who were shattered by the devastating War of Ignorance.
JANE: Interesting. Reminds me somewhat of Clifford Simak’s Project Pope in the integration of traditional religious structures to the future. That, by the by, is a positive thing as I see it.
Does Wulf succeed in his goal? I’d be curious how an automated personality might perceive human emotions.
ALAN: That’s a good parallel to draw. Does Wulf succeed? Well, it depends…
JANE: Ah… No spoilers… Okay.
ALAN: That’s the one!
But right now, I’m getting very bored with the letter M. C is a much more interesting letter.
JANE: C? I’m already looking forward to next week’s chat!