Friday, July 09, 2010

Phillip Mann's Alternative History


[Phillip Mann: A Land fit for Heroes. Vol. 1: Escape to the Wild Wood (1993)]


  • Mann, Phillip. A Land Fit for Heroes. Vol 1: Escape to the Wild Wood. 1993. London: VGSF, 1994.

  • Mann, Phillip. A Land Fit for Heroes. Vol 2: Stand Alone Stan. London: Victor Gollancz, 1994.

  • Mann, Phillip. A Land Fit for Heroes. Vol 3: The Dragon Wakes. London: Victor Gollancz, 1995.

  • Mann, Phillip. A Land Fit for Heroes. Vol 4: The Burning Forest. London: Victor Gollancz, 1996.


On the one hand this seems a lot weaker than Phillip Mann's "straight" Science Fiction; on the other hand I find myself compulsively reading and rereading the various volumes in the series as if I were hoping to find some kind of master-key to their meaning.

One reason for this was (I suspect) because they were so difficult to obtain. The first one I bought in paperback quite straightforwardly, but after that copies of each successive volume seemed less and less easily accessible, until I was forced to wait to read the last one of all until it came up in a library sale! This might well have been an accidental impression, but I did get the sense that Mann's publisher was less and less behind him as the series continued.

Which is a pity, really. The division into volumes is actually pretty arbitrary. This is one long novel, divided into four parts, and I can't help wondering if the author wouldn't have preferred to see it that way: combined in one volume. That would be the best way to read it, I feel.

There are two basic aspects to the book. On the one hand it's a kind of British "wood-fantasy", in the vein of Alan Garner, or Ian Watson's Coming of Vertumnus (1994), or (above all) Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood (1984) and its various sequels.

On the other hand, it's an alternative history novel, in the distinguished tradition of predecessors such as Keith Roberts' Pavane (1968), Kingsley Amis's The Alteration (1976), or (more appropriately, in this case) Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna (2003).

As a fantasy work, the comparison with Mythago Wood immediately puts it in its place, I feel. Holdstock's notion of a forest which entraps all past time in a kind of vortex of Jungian archetypes is so compelling that it has even survived a number of increasingly attenuated sequels to this fine first novel (Lavondyss is the worst, The Bone Forest probably the best, but it's hard to see that any of them add much to the power of this original idea). Mann's wild wood, on the other hand, never really seems really out of control, even at the end when supernatural forces somehow take over the defence of the Island of Britain against its rationalist Roman overlords.

His ecological credentials are impeccable, mind you. And I have the greatest sympathy for the set of priorities he's arguing for in this book (as in his work as a whole), but I never feel exactly frightened or threatened by it as I do by Holdstock's Ryhope Wood (or even Old Man Willow in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings).

As a work of science fiction, on the other hand, his conception of a world "12 seconds away" from ours is nicely managed, I think. It's certainly in no way inferior to Silverberg's own version of a Roman Imperium surviving into the modern world. I'm not sure if Silverberg knew that Mann had preceded him with this idea (not that it's a particularly novel one: Brian Aldiss, among others, had used it before either of them), but his own novel definitely made more of a stir.

Why? I think it probably came down to that decision to release the book in four separate parts, again. Silverberg's came in one massive volume: Mann's took me literally years (I'm not exaggerating) to collect together. I'm very proud of my set of Mann-ian Hardbacks, but it's a shame that so many of them appear to be discards from the public library system (albeit pretty well-thumbed ones).

I believe in Mann's Romans as I find it difficult to do with his Woodlanders (let alone his fairies or trees). Nor am I really confident that I understand the meaning of his title: "A Land fit for Heroes". The term, as I understand it, has generally been used ironically - as a contrast between the promised and real futures provided for World War One veterans once they came home from the front. Is that how Mann means it, too? The "heroes" in question must surely be his rather William Morris-like (News from Nowhere) working-class Englishmen. And yet throughout the book they seem more like victims of forces they can't control than intelligent shapers of their own destiny.

There is, finally, a lack of poignancy about the book: a kind of impersonal preachiness which dominates the fates of the individual characters: Coll and Miranda disappear into a kind of mystic haze at the end, and Angus too seems robbed of all revolutionary purpose by the huge black dome which threatens to swallow up his world.

The protagonists of Mann's earlier books - Pawl Paxwax, Jon Wilberfoss, above all Angelo the part-android - had the property of somehow transcending the books they were in. The same might be said of the trio of Angus, Miranda and Viti in the first few volumes of Mann's tetralogy, but not, unfortunately, in the last one.

It is, of course, a very ambitious concept (Perhaps - I'm tempted to speculate - Phillip Mann was finally trying to rival his great namesake's tetralogy of monstrously complex historical novels, Joseph and His Brothers (1933-43) ...). The fact that it doesn't quite satisfy hasn't stopped me - as I mentioned above - reading and rereading it. There's so much to like and admire in Mann's 1,000-odd pages: Ulysses and the Emperor's strange visions in the Great Pyramid, the detailed account of the workings of the Battle Dome, Wildwood electrics as expounded by Angus ...

If it's a failure, it's a magnificent failure: one more on the scale of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables than your average Sci-fi series which fails to live up to the promise of its first volume (Farmer's Riverworld series, Niven's Ringworld, Clarke's Rama novels). I don't really believe it is a failure, though. It may not work quite so well as some of his earlier novels, but it leaves me full of hope for the next Mannian work we encounter.


[Phillip Mann: A Land fit for Heroes. Vol. 2: Stand Alone Stan (1994)]

4 comments:

Giovanni Tiso said...

Somebody told me yesterday that Mr Mann has just started blogging - I tried googling various combinations of name, book title, etc. but unsuccesfully thus far. Were you aware of this and/or do you have the link?

Jack Ross said...

Dear Giovanni,

You've probably located his blogsite by now, but in case you haven't, I've just now been successful in finding him at http://phillipmann.co.nz/.

There's a link to it in my sidebar, also, now.

Giovanni Tiso said...

No, I hadn't, and I thank you! The highly cryptic web address would have forever eluded me.

Anonymous said...

Phillip Mann now hasa new book out after 16 years. Here is a review,

http://sfbook.com/the-disestablishment-of-paradise.htm