Tropic of Skorpeo, by Michael Morrissey (Steam Press, 2012), 289 pp., NZ$30.00.
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juraletta and her Rhameo
Modern-day Shakespeare adaptions include: macho macho men Ralph Fiennes and Gerald Butler swaggering around as Coriolanus and Aufidius in present-day Serbia; an ensemble Much Ado about Nothing in Joss Whedon’s Santa Monica house and grounds; and Romeo and Juliet, the infinitely adaptable, infinitely adapted text, most recently seen in the rather good zomromcom Warm Bodies: Teresa Palmer as the human forces’ commander’s daughter Julie, Nicholas Hoult as recovering zombie (and narrator) R.
In Michael Morrissey’s Tropic of Skorpeo, Romeo and Juliet are whirled off into space and personified in the forms of Rhameo, a well-endowed, noble, but not overly intellectual green-skinned prince of Skorpeo, and Juraletta, the perky purple four-breasted princess of Qwerty.
You already know how this is going to end, and it does. But the fun is in the diversions taken along the way.
Alert readers may have already noticed some changes to Shakespeare’s original template. The cover will alert you to more. A rather good pastiche of a pulp cover, it features — as far as I can tell — purple-skinned Juraletta, green-skinned Rhameo, a unicorn, planets, a galaxy, and lord of all, its tentacles going everywhere, the mighty Octopus.
No less an authority than Felicia Day has reminded us that tentacles are naughty. (The Kraken used to inspire fear and terror; these days, it’s more likely to be viewed as a sex toy.) The tentacles of the Octopus are very naughty, and interested in whatever orifice they can find — though, like much of the rest of the novel, they function far more as tease than threat. Tropic of Skorpeo is no Tropic of Cancer.
The cover also proclaims, in suitably lurid italic capitals, that as well as Octopus! we will meet Punkoids! and Sleazoids! Indeed we do, along with Jezebels, Replicoids and the dreaded kittenbeasts of Lolzor Prime, whom, I was a little disappointed to note, never put in a single request for cheezburger.
Tropic of Skorpeo is, in short, a romp, and if there is no room for romps in your personal literary Battle of Borodino, between the formidably heavy artillery of your French theorists on one side and your Russian nineteenth-century novelists on the other, then this will not be the book for you.
What’s more, Tropic of Skorpeo is humorous science fiction. It’s hard enough to sustain humour throughout the length of a novel; it’s even harder in a science fiction or fantasy novel, especially one that takes place on somewhere that’s very different to the Earth we know, because a science fiction or fantasy author has to take on the burden of buillding a story-world that is very different from our own in addition to keeping the narrative moving and the jokes flowing. (Satire is a little easier, because satire generally depends on exaggerating one or more elements of the world the author’s audience is familiar with.)
Terry Pratchett has pulled off the trick of writing humorous speculative fiction — in his case, fantasy sprinkled with science fiction here and there — by meticulous attention to building a detailed world within which funny things can happen. (He has clearly learned this as he went along; in the first few Discworld books, the world in which the stories take place is much less richly detailed.)
In Tropic of Skorpeo, Michael Morrissey doesn’t appeared to have worried too much about the details of world-building. His is a universe in which bizarre things happen: throw a whole bunch of weird stuff together and let’s see what sticks.
The problem with such an approach is that it foregrounds the artificiality of both the universe Michael Morrissey has created and his characters. Some readers ‘get’ speculative fiction as a whole, and others don’t. Rather than being enthusiastic about some books and unimpressed by others with the speculative genres (such as science fiction, fantasy and horror), the latter group of readers find the whole idea of speculative fiction baffling. One reason that has been advanced for this is that those who don’t ‘get’ speculative fiction are unwilling or unable to perform a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ during the course of the speculative narrative.
In other words, for the course of the story, the speculative fiction writer makes a contract with the reader. The author says: ‘let’s agree between ourselves, until the story’s over, that there is nothing strange about people who only adopt a gender when they are in heat, or a revolutionary movement on Mars who realise that they also need to bring about a revolution on Earth, or creatures from the frozen North, beyond the Wall, who can reanimate the dead with a touch. Let’s agree that those things exist in this story, and then take it from there.’
Some readers (and equally some viewers) are happy to go along with this. Other spend the whole book — or as far as they get through the book — finding it impossible to believe that gender could vary in that way, or baffled as to why anyone would even want to live on Mars, or not seeing how that reanimating-the-dead thing could possibly work. These readers are unable or unwilling to perform a willing suspension of disbelief.
There are a number of techniques that speculative fiction writers can use to make the willing suspension of disbelief easier. One important technique is to make the world of the novel self-consistent: it may be weird that the Others reanimate the dead by touching them, but it’s easier to believe if it happens in the same way each time.
Another technique is one which is used throughout literature: to encourage the reader to invest emotionally in one or more characters, and thus see the world at least in part through that character’s eyes. All these features of the speculative world which may seem bizarre to the reader can be depicted as just everyday facts to the characters we care about, and so no longer strange at all – unless the protagonist’s estrangement from their world is deliberate, and becomes the driving force of the narrative.
In Tropic of Skorpeo, Michael Morrissey chooses largely to do without these tools. Settings and characters wink in and out of view accordingly to authorial fiat; characters are largely ‘flat’ and archetypal (virginal but spunky princess, dim but noble hero, moustache-twirling villain whose most evil plots keep backfiring). There is nothing at all wrong with either of these approaches, but since the narrative lacks believability, its value as an entertainment depends very much upon the wit of the language and the amusingness of the events.
The language is where Tropic of Skorpeoscores highest. There are many deft exchanges of wit between the characters and amusing descriptive passages, and if one bit of banter or piece of business doesn’t grab you, then another will be along soon to take its place. The novel whizzes along and is never dull.
For a novel with so many allusions to sexual depravity, the outcome is surprisingly chaste and conventional. Juraletta and Rhameo are united in marriage, and their respective empires strengthened thereby. Love conquers all. The Octopus ends up as calamari.
‘Oft evil will shall evil mar,’ says Tolkien, and this is borne out by the schemes of Lord Maledor, whose every new refinement of evil ends up helping the side of good. The Punkoids and Slutoids are still out there at the end of the novel, but they were never more than nuisance value, anyway. One feels, if one feels anything, that the Galaxy is in better hands the morning after the wedding than it was the day before.
In summary, Tropic of Skorpeo is a romp, and a fun one too. To me, it feels a little old-fashioned, in a 1970s British-new-wave-of-SF sort of way, but if Brian Aldiss and Josephine Saxton aren’t part of your literary genome, that is hardly likely to bother you.
A final note: Tropic of Skorpeo has been published in Steam Press’s excellent line of original New Zealand science fiction and fantasy novels. With Random Static and the recently-announced Paper Road Press (the Wellington one) also publishing speculative fiction anthologies, novellas and novels, there is a real upsurge at the moment in New Zealand science fiction and fantasy publishing for adults. It’s long overdue, and great to see.
TIM JONES is a Wellington-based fiction writer, poet, and editor.