The Devil in Detail

The Devil in Detail, An Odyssey in the Surreal by Brian Stableford. Wildside Press 2016.

Review by Sally Startup

Here is a writer having fun. This book is wonderful, although it did make my head spin. It shows what can be done when a writer follows patterns of his own devising rather than conforming to convention. He even tells the reader exactly which conventions he is steering away from.

The narrative voice is that of Brian Stableford, writer of science fiction. He is relating events set in 1997. At that time, he taught creative writing on the MA course ‘Writing for Children’ at the University of Winchester, where I was later to become one of his students. Distinguishing the author from the narrator becomes part of the game.

Not only a thought-provoking read, this book is poetic and often humorous. Where, exactly, the narrative crosses and re-crosses boundaries between fact and fiction, imagination and material reality, only the author himself can possibly know.

Brian Stableford the narrator, tells of visiting a haunted bookshop in the company of Lionel Fanthorpe, who was then the presenter on Fortean TV. Brian’s obsession with rare books leads him into an encounter with the Devil. The possibility of a pact, or a bet, is discussed. Brian is far too sensible to risk betting his heart, but he is willing to use his head.

Much of the action takes place in Wales, and the circumstances of the Devil’s arrival have a plausibly welsh flavour. The Devil wears a red cravat, which gives Brian some clues as to his nature.

Meanwhile, some scientists have designed an experiment to measure and record the presence of the Cosmic Mind. Brian is invited to volunteer as an  experimental subject, but perhaps he is not really the kind of participant they are looking for.

Layered within the book are ruminations on many interrelating subjects. There is the nature of the Devil and the Cosmic Mind. Why do non-existent things exist? There is the past, present and future of books. What makes them valuable, or not? There is the biology of infectious disease, and much more. And there is the process of constructing stories.

Brian the narrator (and possibly also the author) even manages to insert various story ideas he had previously deemed ‘far too silly ever to see print’. Brian the author has managed to fit all of this together, including such magnificent sentences as: ‘What sort of coal, I wondered, might magic mushrooms make after a few tens of millions of years of patient squeezing?’; and ‘The extent to which one can be caught by surprise by a figment of one’s own imagination is really quite surprising.’

Overall, a dizzying read, but most definitely worthwhile.

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The Darkling Wood

The Darkling Wood (A Scientific Fantasy) by Brian Stableford

Review by Sally Startup

Entomologist, John Hazard, reluctantly finds himself advising the doomed protectors of a rather sickly, supposedly ancient, woodland. He is forced to accept the company of various ecowarriors, along with a formidable historian, a post graduate biochemist and a reporter from the Fortean Times. In spite of all his misgivings, his curiosity is engaged and he becomes involved.

The woodland appears to have some purpose of its own. John Hazard, as a scientist, must try to guess what it is and why it might be important. In the process, he uncovers a deeper understanding of himself and opens to the beginnings of some possible friendships. Nevertheless, he remains so much of a scientist that he is willing to pursue a new discovery even when doing so will put him beyond the support of the establishment. Science is, after all, a matter of exploration.

I found this story quite thrilling because of its plausibility. Something so far undiscovered (by humans) and unrecorded, almost certainly does exist, somewhere. The geographical area that is fictionalised in the novel is not far from where I live. There is no reason such a story should not take place close to my home, or anyone else’s.

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Vampires of Atlantis

Vampires of Atlantis (A Love Story) by Brian Stableford.

Review by Sally Startup.

This novel-length story is about love, life, creativity and vampires.

The narrator, telling his tale years after the events he describes, claims to be an inexperienced novel-writer. He admits the dialogue may not have actually occurred word-for-word as he remembers it. This is just as well, because the style of some of the characters’ reported speech does sometimes appear rather literary. However, readers who are prepared to accept this and stay with the novel all the way to the end will be rewarded.

Those who have read Brian’s short story ‘Sheena’, first published in 2000, will also be able to enjoy some extra layers of meaning.

A Yorkshire lad, with a degree in sociology, falls in love with a goth girl. They meet at work in a Leeds call centre in 1999. The girl is very seriously weird. Yet he is utterly in love and will do anything at all to be with her. It quickly becomes clear that his experience of love must take him far beyond anything he has been taught to expect.

As the love affair develops an increasingly gothic tone, the narrator remains infatuated and tender-hearted. However strongly he is able to maintain his own understanding of reality, he is also open to the existence of other interpretations. It is this gentle lack of dogmatism that allows him to love so deeply. He finds himself able – and willing – to become intimate with another, even when her otherness seems extreme. Whether, in the end, this turns out to be a blessing or a curse, each reader must decide for themselves.

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Echoes of Eternity

Echoes of Eternity by Brian Stableford

Published by Chambrion Books 2016

Review by Sally Startup

Set in Paris in 1830, this is a tale with a complicated weave. It deserves attentive reading. There is much interesting historical detail. There are threads from Brian’s previous work and that of H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. And there are some mind-expanding ideas.

On the eve of Quasimodo, five people meet in Notre Dame Cathedral. Victor Hugo, Paul Lacroix and Blaise Thibodeaux are all developing ideas for the books they plan to write. The Byronic violinist, Doctor Prospero, has arrived in Paris only recently and has been searching for the lost sheet music composed by Erich Zann. These four are all interested in the legend of the Quasimodo Peal, and are willing to experiment in order to discover more.

Brother Barnabas, on the other hand, is a Dominican who has been trusted by his superiors with glimpses of forbidden literature. As a child, he heard the Quasimodo Peal, before revolutionaries melted down all but one of the bells for cannon. However, he has no conscious memory of what they sounded like, much to the disappointment of Doctor Prospero. After what happened to the violinist Erich Zann, Barnabas is also well aware of the risk taken by those who go actively looking for evidence of such things as Nyarlathotep, the crawling chaos.

Being a keen reader myself, I could not help finding metaphorical connections between the magic of literature and the kind of magic that interests Prospero and Thibodeaux. There are plenty of clues that the author agrees. However, it is through the art of music, its echoes and its effects on the emotions, that these characters wish to test their theories. And thoughts can be infectious, however they are transmitted, especially when they connect with minds already primed to receive them.

There are great many ‘what if?’ ideas mentioned within this story (my personal favourite being, ‘what if artistic creativity were transmitted by invisible organisms?’). The significance of such ideas to physical and metaphorical worlds is likely to depend on one’s point of view. Since the main characters are all conscientious thinkers, their discussions and internal thoughts are described at length. The progression of these theories as they are revealed provides a slowly developing, yet powerful, narrative tension.

When the harmonies of Hell are performed, what effects do they have, whom do they affect, and when? Several characters suggest possible answers. For myself, I found the resultant tale initially chilling, then ultimately reassuring and encouraging.

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Eurydice’s Lament

Eurydice’s Lament by Brian Stableford
Published by Hollywood Comics 2015

Review by Sally Startup

On the fictional island of Mnemosyne lives Axel Rathenius, a spectacularly creative portrait painter. Some people even suspect him of being a sorcerer, although he maintains he is really a skeptic. Axel has been commissioned to paint a triptych illustrating the career of the mythical Orpheus, but is finding it difficult to complete. Gradually, events begin to draw Axel further and further into a mystery. Being an artist of considerable experience, however, he knows when to allow such a work of art to unfold of its own accord, without imposing his own will too forcefully.

This sequel to The Wayward Muse begins with the arrival of some newcomers to the island, where they will meet characters from those earlier stories. Hecate Rain, Vashti Savage, Myrica Mavor and Nicodemus Rham are involved, as is the Mother Superior of the druidic convent of the Sisters of Shalimar. The Duc de Dellacrusca embraces the role of evil mastermind. Axel is an even more compassionate and understanding narrator than before, in spite of claiming to value art above all else.

The setting is a fictional world in which Rome has never fallen to the Barbarians. This allows for such delightful touches as a trade agreement between the Empire and the Iroquois Federation; and the likelihood that any number of wars have been prevented by the Empire’s policy of religious tolerance. Nevertheless, there are many points of contact with our own world. Mnemosyne is caught up in a feud between two long-standing ‘secret’ organisations, the Orpheans and the Dionysians. Their enmity has led to the misinterpretation of history by both sides. Resolution may depend on hearing the voices that were excluded, even if such voices can only use the language of sighs.

Axel Rathenius willingly accepts the role of art-mystery sleuth, once again. Through his narration, the novel’s plots and themes become interwoven as he comes to understand what may be happening. He provides enlightening and thought-provoking commentary. Axel’s explorations of the effects of other characters’ beliefs and superstitions are utterly fascinating. He also makes some astute and important judgements about the psychological nature of villainy. His observations of Hecate, Myrica and Vashti, and of the newcomers (the artist Charles Parenot and his unconventional family), provide wonderfully vivid verbal portraits of his subjects’ behaviour and their possible motivation. As he structures and narrates the tale, he is aware that his artistic decisions have important implications, although he does not always consciously direct them.

This novel is not particularly long, but it is densely filled with meaning. A many-layered tale of hope, it deserves reading and re-reading. Set in an imagined world somewhere parallel to our own nineteenth-century, it speaks about future possiblities that could affect anyone.

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Yesterday Never Dies

Yesterday Never Dies: A Romance of Metempsychosis by Brian Stableford Published by Wildside Press 2013

This is a new book in Brian’s series about Auguste Dupin, following on from The Legacy of Erich Zann, Valdemar’s Daughter, The Mad Trist, The Quintessence of August, The Cthulhu Encryption and Journey to the Core of Creation.

The story begins on October 31st 1847. For once, Sam Reynolds starts off by having an adventure of his own while Dupin is unexpectedly needed elsewhere. A ghost informs Sam that “Yesterday never dies, but such is the rhythm of time that one has to grasp its echoes on the wing.” Later on, Sam, Dupin, Pierre Chapelain the physician, Lucian Groix the Prefect of police, the so-called Comte de Saint-Germain, Jana Valdemar and the famous dancer Marie Taglioni all set off on a journey into Broceliande, the forest of the imagination.

They have with them a representation of the magic branch from the dance of the nuns in the opera Robert le Diable. Saint-Germain, president of the Harmonic Society of Paris, thinks he understands what’s going on. He is sure that Robert le Diable is also Oberon the Fay and that the magic branch can bring about the restoration of faerie.

Of course, things are really far more complicated than Saint-Germain imagines. This is not a story that ends with satisfactory explanations for everything, it is a story about remembering that there are always things we cannot understand. In 1847, scientific understanding of the role of microscopic organisms in infectious disease was in its early stages, providing a sense of the interdependent nature of organic life, so much of which has yet to be understood. But even though human understanding can only ever grasp echoes on the wing, it is still worth trying to apply as much artistry as possible when taking part in the dance.

In the end, it falls to Sam the narrator to write down his own perception of events, even though he knows that to his readers, he himself will only be an echo.

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Xeno’s Paradox

Xeno’s Paradox by Brian Stableford

Published by Borgo Press, 2011. Also available as a kindle ebook.

Review by Barbara Godwin

Twenty years before the events in this story, powerful Artificial Intelligences were outlawed so that they hid themselves away in a cyberspace equivalent of Sherwood Forest. They are still feared as rogues by a world order which seeks to control even the production of human progeny. One of their number, named Napoleon, has maintained secret contact with Carly MacLaine, who over the intervening years has built himself a university career in the genetic study of plant-life.

Carly suddenly finds himself the subject of unwelcome attention from the political powers.  A new situation has arisen which demands both his special expertise in Xenogenesis and his connection with Napoleon, which proves to be less secret than he believed. He is swept off to the Marine Biology Unit in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight.

Napoleon has been overlooking humanity, but even he has no knowledge of what is there. Carly is astonished to find that in this world where there is so much ugliness due to misapplied information and science, an amazing and rather beautiful paradox has come quietly into existence.

Carly’s presence becomes more like unofficial detention in custody than consultation and before long he is hidebound by different echelons of officialdom who want to manipulate his AI associate. Nevertheless, he discovers nuggets of the truth and it becomes clear that another outlaw AI, appropriately named Xeno, has produced the paradox, but with what purpose?

How Carly seeks to resolve these various complexities is a provocative adventure in science and forward-thinking . The questions introduced, as always, are what makes Brian Stableford’s work so extraordinary. In this future, all is in a state of flux and evolution, yet humans are seeking to maintain superiority and control – to the extent that they are scheming to eliminate certain genetic conditions, such as Asperger’s Syndrome, which has produced individuals renowned for their brilliance in many fields, in particular, science itself.  In this book, marine, botanical, biological and the artificial life forms have all evolved in their various ways, and whilst humans are attempting to be the Architects of the New Renaissance, they are making a mess of it. When something exquisite emerges outside their control, their lack of acceptance can, if not educated by other life forms, be of such a shallow and small-minded nature that it could inhibit even human evolution.

Yet the book ends with a further debate, that of not attempting to manage our future genes, and the lack of wisdom in simply allowing nature to take its course. We would then have not one iota of control over our future destinies. Who knows how a philosophical debate on this scale would end? The author  wisely leaves the conclusions to the reader.

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