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Uncle Bones
Damien Broderick
Fantastic Books, 216 pages

Uncle Bones
Damien Broderick
Some consider Damien Broderick to be Australia's premier SF novelist. He is the author of many non-fiction books on science, technology, and culture. He grew up in Reservoir, attended a seminary for a while and spent a fair bit of time at Monash University. Assorted careers -- including computer programming and editing a national magazine -- led him to writing. His works include The Judas Mandala and The Dreaming Dragons.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: K-Machines
SF Site Review: K-Machines
SF Site Review: Godplayers
SF Site Review: Transcension
SF Site Review: Not the Only Planet
SF Site Review: The White Abacus

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Damien Broderick is an Australian writer (now living in Texas) who has had a career, as novelist, short story writer, editor, anthologist, and writer of popular science, that has lasted over 40 years. He has gained some admiring attention for novels like The Dreaming Dragons (revised as The Dreaming), The Judas Mandala, and The White Abacus; and for nonfiction like The Spike. But to my mind he hasn't received quite the notice, at least in the US, that he deserves. In 2009 he made a rather dramatic return to short fiction with a series of outstanding stories, mostly in Asimov's. He is also publishing some collections of his short fiction. One of these is Uncle Bones, which collects four novellas, one from both the beginning of his career and now, another from 2009, and two from the early 80s, a particularly productive period for Broderick.

The title story was the first to appear in last year's flood of new work. "Uncle Bones" is arguably a Young Adult story, and also a zombie story as well as pure Science Fiction: not at all the tiresome cliché zombie stuff we see altogether too much of these days. Jim lives with his mother and his uncle, but his uncle is dead. However, he has been reanimated by nanotechnology: he was lucky enough -- for certain values of "lucky" -- to get an experimental and not wholly successful treatment. Side effects include a terrible smell and flaky skin and worse. Jim knows another "Stinky," the sister of one of his friends. He's not sure what to think about the whole thing, but when it seems his Uncle might be involved in something shady, he tries to find out what's going on, with unfortunate results. It's an enjoyable story, if just a bit predictable and perhaps too convenient in its resolution.

The other new story is actually a very old one, though it appears in this book for the first time in this form. "A Game of Stars and Souls" is an expanded version of his first story, which appeared as "The Sea's Furthest End" in the first of John Carnell's famous UK original anthology series New Writings in SF, way back in 1964. (Broderick was just a kid at the time.) It was much expanded, with a contemporary subplot added, as a YA novel in 1993, also called The Sea's Furthest End. "A Game of Stars and Souls" extracts from the novel the expanded version of the original story, with some revisions: a 40,000 word novella, pure wild space opera, reminiscent (to me) of Charles Harness. (Though Broderick, in his afterword, cites Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos as his inspiration.) The story deals with the evil Galactic Emperor Jagannatha, in what seems to be the very far future. He has arranged for his weak son Chakravalin to marry Adriel Corydon, the beautiful daughter of the leader of an independent planet. Adriel has been genetically altered to be very beautiful, very smart, and to be able to control the emotions of others. She and Chakravalin fall in love, which is the plan, in order to motivate Jagannatha to spare Adriel's planet. But Jagannatha lusts after Adriel, and steals her from his son. Which sets in motion his son's rebellion... Tied in with this is a mysterious alien race, resident in the Singularity at the heart of the Galaxy, which has its own mystical motivations. It's not Broderick's best work, but it's fun and highly imaginative.

The best two stories are those from the 1980s. "The Ballad of Bowsprit Bear's Stead" appeared in 1980 in Ursula K. Le Guin and Virginia Kidd's original anthology Edges. (Le Guin is not thought of as an anthologist, but she and Kidd edited two impressive books around that time: Edges and Interfaces.) This is a bravura performance, spectacularly written and stuffed with SFnal ideas. The title character is an historian from the future, and an Ainu, sent back in time to observe the fall of the "Old Galactics," an empire of Neanderthals. It's often provocative -- incest is a major theme, for instance, and so is personal hygiene, and so is genocide. (Neither the Ainu depicted here nor the Neanderthals have attitudes much in sympathy with 21st Century Western attitudes.) As I mentioned, the writing is arresting, often quite funny (as with the depiction of the Emperor's robots, modelled on Karl Marx and Adam Smith), sometimes punny, sometimes bawdy. I think it rather a discovery.

The other piece may be somewhat better known, but even so I don't think it has got quite the recognition it deserves. This is "The Magi," from Alan Ryan's 1982 anthology of religious SF, Perpetual Light. Broderick has said of this story: "Arguably the best story I ever wrote, and maybe the one I'll be remembered for, if I'm remembered for anything." Here Father Raphael Silverman, born a Jew, now a Jesuit, discovers a mysteriously beautiful but empty city on a distant planet. Meanwhile he is wracked by guilt, some of it survival guilt -- his family are all dead, mostly as a result of Greater Islam invading Israel, and some of it related to a shocking discovery he made on a rescue mission to the first human starship. The story is in dialogue with a much more famous SF story about a Jesuit, Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star," and the closing revelation about the aliens who abandoned the city Silverman discovers is lovely.

There is plenty more good stuff available from the pen of Damien Broderick (two more stories from Asimov's last year, "This Wind Blowing, and This Tide" and "The Qualia Engine," will be in Best of the Year collections, for instance). But this selection of long stories from throughout his career will serve as a fine introduction to those who haven't met his work, and a strong collection on its own terms for those who know him better.

Copyright © 2010 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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