Monday, June 14, 2010

Phillip Mann's Pioneers

[Phillip Mann, Pioneers (1988)]

For the past few years I've been collecting books by Phillip Mann whenever I run across them in second-hand bookshops (or - in the case of the Land Fit for Heroes series, public library sales). Why? Initially it was because Don Smith recommended Wulfsyarn to me as a great example of the "android theme." But after that I just got hooked. Here are the results of my efforts to date:

Phillip Mann (1942- )

  1. Mann, Phillip. The Eye of the Queen. 1982. London: Grafton, 1988.
  2. Mann, Phillip. Master of Paxwax: Book One of the Story of Pawl Paxwax, the Gardener. 1986. London: Grafton, 1988.
  3. Mann, Phillip. The Fall of the Families: Book Two of the Story of Pawl Paxwax, the Gardener. 1986. London: Grafton, 1988.
  4. Mann, Phillip. Pioneers. 1988. London: Grafton, 1990.
  5. Mann, Phillip. Wulfsyarn: A Mosaic. 1990. London: VGSF, 1991.
  6. Mann, Phillip. A Land Fit for Heroes. Vol 1: Escape to the Wild Wood. London: Victor Gollancz, 1993.
  7. Mann, Phillip. A Land Fit for Heroes. Vol 2: Stand Alone Stan. London: Victor Gollancz, 1994.
  8. Mann, Phillip. A Land Fit for Heroes. Vol 3: The Dragon Wakes. London: Victor Gollancz, 1995.
  9. Mann, Phillip. A Land Fit for Heroes. Vol 4: The Burning Forest. London: Victor Gollancz, 1996.

'How long have I been ill, recovering, in prison, whatever?'

'Almost eight weeks.'

'So long?'

'Only an adapted creature such as you would have survived. It's a wonder your body held together. And you will have lots of scars to tell your grandchildren about.'

'Shut up.'

'Sorry, that was a saying from the time when I was a boy. But you are alive, that is the main thing.'

'Is it?'

'You're not going to get silly are you. Listen, I've been alive a lot longer than you and I've seen a lot more ... I've seen a lot more than you could stomach of life and death. Grieve for Ariadne, yes. Grieve for your friends, yes. But you will live to fight again. Do you think they would want you to give up?'

'Oh shut up will you. Don't start morali - '

'Only the Ariadne you knew is dead. You can make another. '

He said this quietly and it stopped me. I thought briefly of the cold tanks in the back room of our ship. It was absurd, rude, insulting to the memory ...

'Why you .. .'

He moved his arm and I saw the gun he held, glowing red, fully charged, ready to burn but not to kill. 'I thought you'd react this way. Silly Chimp. Get a hold of yourself. Think. Damn you. Start to think. Go over to the window there.'

I obeyed.

'Now look down. Read what you see. The history of the world is the history of bereavement. Think how many people have walked, and kissed and died down there. You should think yourself lucky. You at least had a woman who loved you. What do the rest of us have?'

I didn't answer him but stared down at the milky rivers that wandered through the dark bush. We were already close to the volcanic region. I saw pits of yellow sulphur and dark green lakes which opened like holes in the bush. Vaguely, though I could not have given clear expression to the thought, I associated the suffering of the land with the grief that was now beginning to work through me.

'And if ever you get thoughts of attacking me because I tell you the truth, remember that I am watching you and I will set fire to your fur, but I won't kill you. Only stop you.'

He got up quietly and went to the door that led to the pilot's cockpit and slipped through, closing the door silently.

I found that when he had gone I couldn't settle. I wanted to grieve easily and steadily, but my mind was like a kitten that runs after one dancing string and then chases another.

Ariadne diving into water and laughing as she shook her hair; the strange grave woman April, with her spread of antlers; Bonniface waving a pig bone; the silver moun­tain; the dead-faced doctors who had shaved me; Murray, smug after love-making .... And below me the dark green hills moved past. I felt older and different. I looked at my huge scarred hand and the joints that flexed. 1 felt still and dry.
Murray was right. Life goes on and all that Time achieves is to leave its mark on you. Suddenly I was thinking about our ship and the sleeping clone that waited inches below the surface. What would Ariadne do if she were now standing in my place? Ariadne would know what to do. That clear and thoughtful woman had all the right instincts. I remembered how she had made me bomb the island of the ants. Remembering her fierceness and her strength did something strange to me. I suddenly thought that she was not dead. She was close to me. Hell, she was in my mind and in my fur. I felt a strange kind of elation. And even as I felt that elation, I felt a hollowness and knew that I would have to face many dark hours alone.

The helicopter began to lower and I saw familiar land­marks. We flew round the margin of the lake and over charred stumps and gaping gutted buildings. This was all that remained of the old mining town. There were no people. [pp. 192-93]

This passage from Pioneers (1988), one of Mann's most interesting books, exemplifies some of what first attracted me to his writing. The two speakers are Angelo, a "part-human" bred for the purpose of deep-space exploration, and Pioneer Murray, one of the full-humans Angelo is programmed to find and bring back to a post-apocalyptic Earth denuded of natural resources and biological diversity.

Murray has just saved Angelo's life after an appalling battle with the ignorant full-humans who still linger in odd settlements here and there in the few habitable parts of Aotearoa. Angelo's partner Ariadne was not so lucky, however. She died in the fight.

Or did she die? Part of the pre-planning for Angel and Ariadne's expeditions is the provision of a fully-functional and periodically-updated clone for each of them. Now that he knows that Ariadne is dead, Angelo's dilemma is whether or not he should revive her clone.

What would Ariadne do if she were now standing in my place? Ariadne would know what to do. That clear and thoughtful woman had all the right instincts. I remembered how she had made me bomb the island of the ants.

Angelo has recently developed an odd addiction to writing down all the incidents of his life (a fairly frequent Mann-ian device - witness the automated dictaphone Wulf in Wulfsyarn (1990). He's already told us of their unfortunate visit to the planet of the ants whilst attempting to retrieve yet another of the many pioneers which an ebullient, self-confident Earth sent out before the final catastrophe.

In this case they found the pioneer serving as a kind of combination hive-queen / food-basket for a race of super-evolved ants. Ariadne was the one who insisted that they bomb the island, destroying pioneer and ants alike - evolution should be permitted to go only so far in her view. The other pioneers they recovered had subsisted in a number of forms: winged, antlered, aquatic and so on - but this insect adaptation went far beyond what was acceptable to her, despite her only "part-human" status.

I watched the young man closely. 'Aren't you afraid of us" I asked as I took the tea carefully with my claw. 'Since we returned, most people seem to treat us warily.'

'Well you're just a ...' Pedro seemed to be searching for words. 'You're just a clever monkey, aren't you? Big but harmless.'

'And her?' I said nodding towards Ariadne.

He looked confused. 'Well she's a ... she's a woman, isn't she?'

I shook my head. 'No, We're the same," I said. 'Both adapted, despite appearances.'

He couldn't accept this thought.

'Angelo,' called Ariadne, 'stop trying to confuse the boy.'

He looked from one of us to the other. Me, ginger and giant and with a claw as big as my head. Ariadne, like a dream on legs.I watched him struggle.

'Oh hell, he said finally, 'the world is crazy.' [129-30]

Appearances are everything in the world they have returned to (Einsteinian relativity means that hundreds of years elapse on earth during each one of their expeditions. By now little memory is left of Angelo and his kind. Nor is the distinction between his "adapted" self (furry, ape-like, with a huge claw) and that of Ariadne (completely woman-like in appearance) readily comprehensible to this new generation who vaguely attribute the disaster to just such outrages against nature. Ariadne may look like a woman, but she lacks one crucial attribute of a woman: fertility. All of Angelo and Ariadne's kind are sterile, which explains his angry reaction to Pioneer Murray's gibe about having a tale "to tell your grandchildren about," above.

Angelo does indeed decide to reactivate Ariadne's clone, only to find that the clone denies any real identity between the two of them:

'I am not Ariadne. I might have been Ariadne. I have her memories but I don't have her experience. Memories aren't experience.' [227]

She writes out Ariadne's name backwards: ENDAIRA, and eventually settles on that as a new name for herself: Aira, for short.

"Curiously in her anger she was identical to the Ariadne I remembered" is Angelo's conclusion on the matter, though he is willing to recognise a number of other character discontinuities between them.

To say that Pioneers is about identity would be like saying that The Outsider is about existential doubt. Everything in the book is designed to complicate our view of what it is to be "intelligent," "conscious," "sentient" - let alone "human."

The first thing an awakened intelligence does is ask questions. [226]

The second thing, apparently, is to start to tell stories:
'Look, what I'm telling you is true. Heightened a little, that's the art of storytelling. But true all the same.' [330]

as Pioneer Murray puts it.

I ... stared down at the milky rivers that wandered through the dark bush. We were already close to the volcanic region. I saw pits of yellow sulphur and dark green lakes which opened like holes in the bush. Vaguely, though I could not have given clear expression to the thought, I associated the suffering of the land with the grief that was now beginning to work though me.' [192]

I think one of the things I like best about this particular book, though, is the strong sense of New Zealand-ness about it.

It's the only one of Mann's books of which this could be said. The Eye of the Queen, the Master of Paxwax series and Wulfsyarn are all set off-world, and his Land fit for Heroes tetralogy is set in an alternate-history version of Yorkshire (where Mann is from originally) - a Yorkshire which the Roman empire never retreated from.

In Pioneers, though, we get all the complexity of Mann's feelings for his adopted country: the long dark island lying between Wellington's pristine bays (cleared of humanity by the tidal waves of the disaster), to the space port at "Master Town", to Rotorua mining town (home of the returned pioneers, and scene of the terrible, unprovoked fight between Angelo and his friends and the intolerant full-humans), and finally to the ramshackle remains of Auckland. It's a kind of greeny vision of what the island should be but never quite has been. Mann's elegy for the complexities of our lost culture perhaps rings less true than the pleasure he obviously takes in this returning natural world.

I like, too, the materiality of Mann's concept of a book. For him (here, as elsewhere) it's a very physical artefact whose existence has to be accounted for within the story:

Kier has his woven basket and I have my papers, each one carefully written out by hand. Ariadne once asked me for whom I am writing. At that time I had no clear answers. Now I know. I am writing them for myself and no matter if they burn with me in space or end up sodden and trampled. Something was said. Something was done. [214]

Angelo, in the end, is both ape (in appearance) and angel (in name). The gentleness of his character is belied by the fearsome nature of his genetically-engineered claw and barrel-chest. Each act of compassion or fearlessness on his part is accompanied by a kind of antiphonal chorus

Programming, you see, bloody programming. [352]

But is it programming? And, if so, Nature's, or the manmade kind? Pioneers proposes no answers, but it asks (for me) all the right questions. Less cerebral than some of his other books, it benefits from a very intense sense of place - futuristic landscapes evoked with a kind of longing precision reminiscent of Wells's Time Machine or Richard Jefferies's After London.

Could this be still be called specifically New Zealand SF? I don't think it's a particularly important question. Mann was living here in NZ, having emigrated from the UK as a young man, when he composed all his major fictions (I'm pleased to report that his Wikipedia page claims he's now working on a new novel). Something in the fusion of these two places, the inevitable sense of (on the one hand) displacement and (on the other) acclimatisation has enabled him to create Angelo and to make his world ring true.

I'm not sure that there's that much new to be said about androids and humans after the Cyborg Manifesto and all that eighties cyberpunk. Phillip Mann's own personal contributions to the subject are distinguished, it seems to me, by a disarming diffidence, masking the elegant clarity of his conceptions. He's as much a poet as he is a writer of hard SF.


Unknown said...

I love Phillip Mann's books and "Pioneers" is my special favourite, so all I can really do is thank you for your comments. He is a sadly neglected writer; few people outside New Zealand seem to have heard of him and even in New Zealand his audience is small. I think that's a shame.

He has been working for some years on a huge (and as yet unpublished) novel called "The Disestablishment Of Paradise". I've read some extracts and it sounds quite fascinating. Phil's major strength lies in his ability to invent and describe truly believable alien life forms and to have his human (-ish) characters interact with them in dramatic and convincing ways. "The Disestablishment Of Paradise" is filled with the most fascinating and brilliantly envisaged alien ecology I've ever come across. He truly has surpassed himself in this one.

I have to declare an interest -- the dedication in Volume 3 of his "Land Fit For Heroes" series reads:

My Friends
Alan Robson,
Alex Heatley And Nicki Mclean
For Their Help In Many Ways,
A Thank You.

And yes -- the Alan Robson is me. I am immensely proud of that dedication. I think Phil is a superb writer. And I'd say that even if he hadn't dedicated a book to me!

I felt that "The Land Fit For Heroes" began to flirt a little uncomfortably close to mysticism towards the end. I don't think he actually crossed the line (whatever that means) but it did make the ending slightly unsatisfactory. Of course that doesn't detract from the tour de force of his wonderfully evoked world wide Roman Empire.

Long may he continue to write!


Dr Jack Ross said...

Thanks Alan,

I have to say that there'll be at least one more of these posts about Mann. I want to say some more about The Eye of the Queen in particular, but also some of his other works, including A Land Fit for Heroes, so I'm definitely interested in getting your feedback on the points I want to make about his work in general.

Too mystic? Yes, possibly. But there's been a constant thread of green politics and environmentalism in his work from the first - which tends to shade off into a kind of New Age idealisation of Nature and "natural processes" generally. I'm reasonably sympathetic to that myself, but it's extraordinary just how far he takes it in both Queen and Heroes - who else would actually write a book where his hero ends up getting swallowed? (Silverberg in The Face of the Waters, I guess - or Pohl & Kornbluth's Wolfbane) ...