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Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice

by Matthew Hughes (a double review)

(Warner Aspect. Fools Errant: $6.99, paperback, 304 pages, ISBN 0446609234,March 2001. Fool Me Twice: $6.99, paperback, 287 pages, ISBN 0446609242,August 2001.)

Vance Me Twice

Nick Gevers on Matthew Hughes's recursions

Sf is a cover scangenre incessantly in communication with itself: ideas float around, being used and reused, whether repetitiously or innovatively; styles and structures of storytelling are as infectious as memes; imitation is a given. But sf is also an arena of originality; as Samuel R. Delany observed when writing about sf's "theoretical plurality", the field draws upon and expresses idiosyncratic outlooks and aesthetics, acting in a sense as literature's philosophical safety valve. Sf can boast a small army of authentic creative eccentrics, authors of deep-dyed peculiarity: Avram Davidson, Brian Aldiss, R.A. Lafferty, David Bunch, Gene Wolfe, Orson Scott Card, J.G. Ballard, Ian McDonald ... The list goes on and on. The singularity of these writers' insights and artistic tics will always be ascribable to influences of their own, but their products are prone to inimitability. So what happens when sf's internal conventionality and artistic anarchy clash? More specifically, what happens when one of these inspired mavericks finds an imitator after all?

Parody is one possibility. But what about respectful, serious emulation? Amateurish tributes are simply embarrassing. Even when a major writer makes the attempt, disaster can ensue, as when, a few years ago, Gene Wolfe published his own Lafferty story. The record with Jack Vance is little more encouraging. He exercises a wide general influence (on Wolfe, notably), but more specifically? Vance, who might be termed a Latinate Libertarian, purveys a famously distinctive sort of ironic exoticism, polished wit and picturesque detail within the constraints of adventure plotting and a conservative political agenda; his books are addictive, and quite a few pieces of faux-Vanceana have appeared as American paperback originals, soon vanishing from memory. It is mortally difficult to get the mixture right; Vance is not one of the greatest sf writers for nothing. Even his friend, the fine Australian author Terry Dowling, has tried again and again with only middling success, if that. But the drought may have broken.

For enter Matthew Hughes, a Canadian speechwriter whose two neo-Vancean novels, Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice are very nearly the real thing, a remarkable feat considering the foregoing. Fools Errant (dedicated to Vance) was published in Canada in 1994, but to little attention; now it seems to be reaching its proper audience, assisted by a direct sequel. Vance is not the only begetter of these charming, satirical entropic romances, but is surely the dominant one.

Hughes's Old Earth is an ancient world, extravagantly decadent in some regions and perversely bucolic in others; little of our own dawn age remains, lost beneath untold later geological strata. The mood is that of Vance's own Dying Earth, quirky, jaded, mischievous; its logic is similar also, that of science fantasy, as mechanisms work magically and magics mechanistically. Like Vance's Durdane and Alastor Cluster, Old Earth is governed by a mysterious, anonymous figure, here called the Archon, who wields his authority sparingly and capriciously; the protagonist of the novels, the very Vanceanly named Filidor Vesh, is the Archon's heir apparent. cover scanHe is part Cugel the Clever, the frivolous amoral wastrel, and part Guyal of Sfere, the wide-eyed seeker of truths; as such, he embodies the fatalism of his milieu and its lingering hopes of renewal. Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice describe his education, that of a rake learning purpose and a fool achieving enlightenment; their plotting is the very model of Vance picaresque, their style not far off the master's register. With such additional felicities as burlesque asides calling to mind the "Scroll from the Ninth Dimension" in the Demon Princes novels, the Filidor books read like direct additions to the original Dying Earth canon -- high praise.

There are some blemishes, naturally. In attempting to wield the full Vancean vocabulary, Hughes missteps here and there. An example: calling a theatrical narrator a "disclamator" is odd; declamation, not disclaiming, is involved, surely. Excessive archness is a pitfall of this sort of writing, and occurs, as does a kind of patronizing didacticism which can give Hughes's text a juvenile flavour. But his technique is surprisingly sure, and improves. Old Earth is a patchwork of convoluted polities, bizarre social formations out of Vance's top drawer; the spectacle of Filidor blundering his way through communities of narcissists, sports enthusiasts, fetishists of demagoguery and xenophobic rustics is hilarious, copiously productive of acute satirical notes amid the superficial uproar. In particular, the economics of the pirate Henwaye's island sweatshop are a magnificent deconstruction of labour relations and the mechanics of commercial monopolies. Hughes's dialogue is well tuned also, epigrammatic and odd, replicating Vance's barbed formality expertly. His embedded tales and anecdotes (the experiences of the sage Osfeo in Fools Errant, the dramatic vignettes of the "Bard Obscure" in Fool Me Twice) are in amusing counterpoint to Filidor's struggles to survive and to comprehend his fate, complementary and subversive, a microcosm of the novels' overall ironic balance. And particularly impressive is the rhetorical opposition between the two volumes, such that Fool Me Twice recapitulates its predecessor entirely and not at all; there is a lot of craft here, a lot of keen worldly observation transmuted into fascinating far-future topiary...

Swift the satirist is surely in play here alongside Vance; the parallel with Gulliver has led to the Book Club omnibus of the Filidor series being titled Gullible's Travels, and fair enough. Fantastic voyages clothed in congenial archaism, rites-of-passage baroquely hypertrophied: Matthew Hughes's tales of Old Earth have begun superbly, and promise to continue.


Review by Nick Gevers.

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