July 10th, 2002

The Tuesday Evening "I Really Should Be In Bed" Review: The Dragon Waiting

Some writers come up with the same thing again and again. Others rethink themselves with virtually every novel. John M Ford is most definitely one of the latter school, skating from SF to fantasy and back again (with a touch of poetry to leven the mix).

Starting with the proto-cyberpunk of Web of Angels, he's explored space opera in The Princes of the Air, written two of the best Star Trek novels (The Final Reflection and How Much for Just the Planet), done wonderful gaming scenarios in the shape of Paranoia's Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, reworked the Heinlein juvenile with Growing up Weightless (which has the feel of growing up in one of William Barton's interstellar dystopias), moved the Borderlands to Chicago with a touch of ER in The Last Hot Time, written my favourite alternate history (without any alternate histories) short story "The Road to Mandalay". Let's face it, if I really thought about it, I should just give up trying to write SF, as there's no way I could even hope to tread in his footsteps...

And today I find myself wondering why I have waited so long before reading his 1983 fantasy The Dragon Waiting. It almost feels that I've wasted twenty years pussy footing around, looking at it on bookshop shelves or in the myriad stacks of Hay-on-Wye, but all the time just not buying it. It never felt "right", it never was "the time". But its time finally came...

The Dragon Waiting is a fantasy only slightly twisted away from our world. Yes, magic works, but the cost is so high that it has little effect on the politics and intrigues that sweep Europe. It's also an alternate history - Byzantium still rules southern Europe, and Christianity is just another Nazarene cult. In England a king is dying, and the Byzantine claws are looking to claim another throne. All rests on four shoulders: an Italian doctor fleeing the fall of her city state, a rebel Roman now mercenary, a German military engineer (and vampire), and a Welsh wizard. They must unravel plots, end rebellions, and stave off wars to make sure the right man becomes England's next king: Richard III.

Ford juggles so much here, the alternate history, the world we know, and his complex politics, that sometimes you wonder how he keeps all those balls in the air. But we're watching a master at play here, and we know that everything will fit into wonderful patterns, once we let him get on with the show. And he gives us spectacle, as we follow intrigue through Italy, Switzerland and France before we finally reach England and Wales. The story dances around the borders again and again, borders as geography, as political fiction, as artificial walls we put between each other. It is the border that carries the story on, the metaphor that catapults us to Richard's eventual throne, despite the dragon waiting in the cold of the Welsh mountains and the heat of Byzantium itself...

It's no wonder that this won the 1984 World Fantasy Award. Put up against any 21st century fantasy novel, and there's a good chance that it would win all over again. Actually, thinking about it a day or so after finishing it somewhere between Bond Street and Notting Hill Gate, I'd have to say that The Dragon Waiting is one of the best fantasy novels I've ever read.

As David Lynch so succinctly put it in Twin Peaks: Damn Fine.
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The Wednesday Morning "How Does He Find The Time To Read All This Stuff" Review: Contacting Aliens

Cards on the table time: I like Space Opera. It's the wide screen baroque that pushes SF onwards. In fact, contrary to popular belief of space opera as a rehash of 1930s and 1940s pulp themes, I feel there's a solid argument to be made that post-1980, space opera has proven to be the most ambitious and most effective part of the genre, one that has been unafraid to ask many questions about what it means to be human in an age of technological explosion (and if you're prepared to argue either side of that, I've got a Lexicon 2 bubbling under that you might be interested in...).

One of the more interesting space operas of recent years has been David Brin's Uplift series. Half a millenium from now humanity has found itself part of an ancient and complex civilisation with a caste structure that thinks in terms of millions of years, one that's very unsure about the sudden appearance of a "wolfling" race, one that belies billions of years of careful gardening and controlled uplift of animals to intelligence. Caught up in conspiracies and machinations, humanity stumbles across secrets that threaten its very existence. In two trilogies, one loose, one a single story, Brin has shown us the complexities of his Five Galaxies, with its many sapients and complex customs - and its deep, deep secrets.

So now, after the second trilogy has ended with the publication of Heaven's Reach, Brin has teamed up with the artist Kevin Lenagh to deliver Contacting Aliens, a guide to the complexities of the galactic clans and a glimpse at some of his research material (some of which has been seen before in the pages of the GURPS: Uplift role-playing game). Composed as a briefing to a human agent about to go out into the complexities of Galactic civilisation. As a framing for a writer's notes, this approach works as well as any other. Brin has obviously thought deeply about his background, and this slim volume goes someway into exploring his ideas. It's just a pity that it really comes across as a role-playing add-on published as a normal book. The illustrations aren't that good, either - this would have worked so much better as a project illustrated by some of the best known names in SF art, like Malcom Edwards' early '80s books or Stewart Cowley's collections of SF cover art.

Still, at best this is minor associational material. It's fun if you loved Brin's books but of little interest to anyone else, unless of course you're playing GURPS: Uplift...
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