Theatre of the Gods, by M. Suddain (Jonathan Cape, 2013), 622 pp., RRP $36.99.
A case can be made that science fiction is a decadent genre. Not decadent in the ‘Roman orgies’ sense – though, of course, it can be that too – but decadent in the sense that the tropes of the genre have long been established, and that all that is left for new writers in the genre to do is to recombine these tropes in less or more interesting ways.
I don’t agree with this case – not entirely. I think it is still possible for the genre to tackle new material in new ways. But the rapid developments in subject matter and literary technique that enlivened SF between the 1950s and 1970s have been left a long way behind. The most significant development since then is arguably cyberpunk, but that in itself represented a melding of the techniques of the noir thriller with those of hard SF.
A decadent genre can still produce great works. Gene Wolfe’s The Book of New Sun tetralogy and its pendant volume The Urth of the New Sun are still, I think, the greatest literary achievement of post-1970s SF, not least because of Wolfe’s peerless skill in revealing information to the reader in such a way that not only the nature, but the very genre, of the story is repeatedly brought into question: the cues are all there, but you have to work for them. Yet the actual material of the story, and of successor series such as The Book of the Long Sun – not quite as successful, but still worth reading – is quintessentially SF: mortality and efforts to cheat it, the dying Earth, space travel, generation starships, future wars, aliens, empires and their fall.
All of which is a long-winded way of getting round to Matt Suddain’s novel Theatre of the Gods. But that’s okay: it’s a long-winded sort of book, and it bears some superficial similarities, in the ship sailing between universes, with The Urth of the New Sun.
It also bears some similarities with the previous book I reviewed for Landfall, Michael Morrissey’s Tropic of Skorpeo. A reader (a most unlikely and hypothetical reader) whose only exposure to New Zealand SF is through Landfall reviews may come to the conclusion that it’s all about picaresque space voyages conducted so that characters with funny names can visit a succession of bizarre worlds where picturesque things happen. It’s not true, but if two books constitute a trend, then such stories do seem to be a trend in recent New Zealand science fiction.
I have to declare a bias here: I’m not a huge fan of the throw-things-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks school of writing, exemplified (he takes a deep breath and prepares to duck for cover) by Thomas Pynchon, Neal Stephenson and David Foster Wallace. (Perhaps I should call it the I-know-everything-and-I’m-damn-well-going-to-tell-you school of writing.) I prefer narratives – whether short or long – that are shapely; narratives in which Chekhov’s gun, left on the mantelpiece in Act 1, is being closely examined for powder residue by Act 3.
As you’ll have gathered by now from the caveat above, plenty of narrative elements are thrown at the wall in Theatre of the Gods – including the Wall itself, or to be more specific the Great Wall of Peace, 245 light years long, that separates two of the novel’s feuding empires. There is a Queen and her evil sisters, a Pope, a mysterious green girl and her mysterious blind boy. There are alternate universes, drunk sailors, sea shanties which bear a mysterious resemblance to popular songs of the recent past – do the names of any of the following space shanties produce a frisson of resemblance?
‘Smells Like Sea Spirits’
‘Once a-pon a Lifetime’
‘Each Rose, She Has a Thorn’
… beings named after operating systems, devices of great power known by excessively long acronyms, the Space Family Robinson, Star Wars references, carnivorous plants, elaborate, galaxy-spanning conspiracies … demons and the Forbidden Zone, a homunculus here and a Black Widow there – a vast, exuberant gallimaufry of science-fictional and pop-culture materials press-ganged into service to haul the plot from one contrivance to another.
The thing is, on a scene-by-scene level, Matt Suddain can plainly write very well. He writes good sentences, fine paragraphs, excellent set-pieces. Horror and humour flower side by side in his carnivorous jungles. But he rather gives the game away when he (or rather his narrator Volcannon) begins page 517 by saying ‘Sweet mercies, I can hardly hold this story together!’ and going on to explain and defend the broken-spigot narrative as the consequence of his protagonist’s undisciplined way of recounting the events of his life:
And yes, I know full well what the notices will say about this book: ‘Volcannon makes excuses for the fact that his ambitions far exceed his talents!’ ‘Too many characters! Too many threads!’ ‘Two thumbs downwards!’ But I ask you: what is the artist supposed to do here? These are the confessions of M. Francisco Fabrigas: scientist, explorer, dreamer, liar, traitor, fool.
You could call this authorial intervention a pleasingly Borgesian injection of metafiction; you could say that the author is engaging in the same manoeuvre that the writers of Glee do when they have Sue Sylvester point out the many improbabilities and inconsistencies of their plots in a metafictional mea culpa; you could call it lampshading; you could throw the book across the room, though you should not, because it is a heavy trade paperback and you might hit something or someone fragile if you do.
In any case, the author has drawn attention squarely to the major problem of his narrative: it just doesn’t hold together. Characters are ciphers, their actions and fates entirely subject to authorial whim. Of course, you might argue, that is true of any narrative: as George R.R. Martin shows us over and over again in A Song of Ice and Fire, any character can be killed, at any time. But Martin makes sure that the reader is invested in each main character’s fate before he starts bumping those characters off, so that their deaths have weight. Everything in Theatre of the Gods is as weightless as vacuum, as insubstantial as a soap bubble.
Maybe that’s my problem. Perhaps it’s unfair to a metafictional picaresque to judge it by the standards one would apply to a novel of character. This is science fiction, dammit, Jim! But Gene Wolfe’s New Sun books are picaresques too, and they have metafictional elements, and are strongly influenced by Borges. Yet they are deeply serious and often moving books.
The next escape hatch is comedy. Matt Suddain is a humourist by trade; characters have, in general, rather silly names; a jape or a play on words is never far away. One could fairly say that the book is antic, nay madcap, in spirit. But it is very seldom funny, not to this reader at any rate. There are many rhetorical flourishes, but very few good jokes, and 622 pages is a long way to travel in search of such modest fare.
And yet I wouldn’t call this a bad book, and someone without my long and probably damaging immersion in the materials of science fiction – an immersion begun when, aged ten, I would spend two hours after school each Friday in the Intermediate section of Invercargill Public Library, devouring the works of John Christopher, John Wyndham and that well-known writer for young minds, J.G. Ballard – might well consider it a good one. But there is something sad to me in seeing the materials of a genre I love, and once loved more deeply, smooshed together in such a cavalier fashion.
In my day, hyperspace, multiverses and deadly moons full of carnivorous plants used to mean something. Now they are no more than seasoning to Matt Suddain’s stew. You might find it flavoursome, even piquant; but it left me empty.
TIM JONES is a Wellington-based fiction writer, poet, editor and anthologist.