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Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped?
by Neil Walsh
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped? columns.]

Early High Fantasy & Mature Science Fiction

If you followed this column last month, you may have come to suspect (as I have) that it's really just an excuse for me to clear some books off my reading shelf -- and in the process to share with you each month my opinions on a book that is generally deemed a classic, alongside one that has been more or less neglected. I suppose my thesis is that we can all read more if we are studious in our endeavours to avoid less important tasks like flossing, grocery shopping, a really thorough cleaning of the bathroom, or sleeping more than absolutely necessary to stave off hallucinations. And I'm making an effort to lead by example.

This time I've taken two books that are about as different as could be, one early high fantasy and the other mature science fiction. Both are probably somewhat overlooked today, being more likely to be referred to in conversation than they are to be actually read. But only one of them is considered a classic. For now.

The Worm Ouroboros (1926)
E.R. Eddison

The Worm Ouroboros - first edition cover Eric Rucker Eddison (1882-1945) was born in Adel, England, and spent most of his career as a public servant employed by the Board of Trade. The Worm Ouroboros was his first published novel in 1922, at which time it was printed in a small private edition. It was published for a larger audience in 1926. Eddison's other published novels include Styrbiorn the Strong (1926), Mistress of Mistresses (1935), A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941), and Mezentian Gate (unfinished at the time of his death and published posthumously in 1958) -- those last three comprising the Zimiamvian Trilogy. Eddison also undertook the first complete translation of the Icelandic Egil's Saga into English.

The Worm Ouroboros - Gollancz 2000 For a very different opinion on this book, click to read an SF Site review of The Worm Ouroboros. It's definitely the book that has cemented the author's reputation in the realm of fantastical fiction and it's almost universally acknowledged to be a brilliant if flawed work. Almost universally acknowledged (I admit the flaws, at least).

For the ancient Greeks, a serpent swallowing its own tail was a common enough occurrence that they had to invent a word for it. In typically Greek fashion of the period, they gave it a very Greek-sounding name: Ouroboros. Of course, when a serpent swallows its own tail it will eventually consume itself entirely and disappear from existence with a tiny self-satisfied popping sound. Or it will choke itself to death. Either way, Darwinian competitiveness among snakes has resulted in the utter extinction of the Ouroboros by modern times. But the Greeks did not foresee this inevitable conclusion and instead they viewed the Ouroboros as a symbol of continuity, renewal, and the infinite cycle of birth-life-death-rebirth. How sadly ironic.

Eddison was extremely well read, being a great fan of Greek epic and lyric poetry, Icelandic saga (some of which he, himself, translated to English), and Jacobean drama. The Worm Ouroboros was his first novel, published when he was 40 but based on story ideas he had been developing since childhood. And it rather shows. The names of his races or nations (it's never clear which, since they are all treated as if they are more human than otherwise) are called the Demons of Demonland, the Goblins of Goblinland, the Witches of Witchland, the Imps of Impland, the Pixies of Pixyland, the Ghouls -- oh, you get the idea. Some of the personal names include Goldry Bluszco, Spitfire, and my personal favourite for sheer ridiculousness, Fax Fay Faz.

The genre of fantastic fiction in the 1920s was not yet fully matured. Tolkien hadn't published any of his Middle Earth books, Peter Jackson hadn't yet translated them to film -- in fact most fantasy of the period consisted of short stories or serialized longer works published in relatively obscure periodicals that most sophisticated readers would only regard with one eyebrow raised. There were no hard and fast rules yet for fantasy fiction about magic and technology, about the proper proportion of dwarves to humans, about the kindly wizard, etc. So Eddison was experimenting somewhat. He didn't seem to know how to dive into a fantasy world without some kind of reasonable explanation, so he had an English gentleman dream-send himself to the planet Mercury where he could observe the action of the novel. Perfectly reasonable. I understand the dreamer never reappears after Chapter 2 -- now there's a bit of cutting some clever editor could have done that might have improved this classic. I say "I understand" he never reappears because that's what I read in the introduction. I read the whole of the introduction. I did not read the whole of the book. I tried. I really did. But by about page 200, I realized I was not only flossing regularly and cleaning behind my toilet in my desperate attempts to avoid picking this book up again, but I was actually dreading the thought of slogging my way through another 200 pages -- particularly when, as the title suggests, in the end it would only come around to the beginning again. And here my goal is to read more. This just wasn't right. I gave The Worm one last chance; I struggled to read another chapter. But I just couldn't bring myself to care what happened to any of these characters. They're all so much larger than life that I felt absolutely no connection to any of them. And the writing style is dreadful, unless you're a big fan of Jacobean phraseology. Here's a randomly chosen example (from Chapter 9, as it happens, where Brandoch Daha is explaining about the three war leaders who have been circling Impland with their armies for nine years, each one on the trail of another and out for blood as a result of some misunderstanding, unaware that the third is following in pursuit of his own misguided vengeance):

  "Great of growth he was, and a very peacock of splendour in his panoply of war; and a great pitch-black stallion bare him. So I spake him fair, saying, 'O most magnificent and godlike Helteranius, conqueror in an hundred fights, what makest thou these long years in Outer Impland with this great head of men? And what dark lodestone draws you these nine years, since with great sound of trumpets and tramp of horses thou and Zeldornius and Jalcanaius Fostus went forth to make Impland Gaslark's footstool; since which time all the world believeth you lost and dead?' And he beheld me with alien eyes, and made answer,'O Brandoch Daha, the world journeyeth to its silly will, but I fare alway with my purpose before me. Be it nine years, or but nine moons, or nine ages, what care I? Zeldornius would I encounter and engage him in battle, that still fleeth before my face. Eat and drink with me to-night; but think not to detain me nor to turn me to idle thoughts beside my purpose. For with the dawning of the day I must forth again in quest of Zeldornius.'  

They all talk this way. Even the narrator. In this case, I've cut Brandoch Daha's speech short; he goes on in this vein for another page and a half. The text is not actually hard to follow, apart from its tendancy to induce sleep. This long-winded, archaic style makes for an extremely tedious read, and in the end I felt it wasn't worth the bother. That's a shame, because I had been very much looking forward to reading this novel. The edition I have calls it "The lost classic masterpiece of magical realms" right there on the front cover. For years I've been hearing about this book, about how great it is, about how it laid the groundwork for everything Tolkien did. Well I don't believe a word of it. It may be a lost classic, but perhaps it was lost for a reason. If anyone tells you this actually is a really really great book and I'm just full of bunk, ask them if they've read it within the past 40 years -- the whole thing; not just the introduction. My assessment, in case I haven't made it clear, is that while this book may be largely overlooked today, it has definitely been over-hyped.

The Time-Lapsed Man and Other Stories (1990)
Eric Brown

The Time-Lapsed Man - Drunken Dragon hc Eric Brown was born in 1960 in Haworth, England, where he currently resides, having previously lived also in Australia, Greece and India. His published novels include Meridian Days (1992), Engineman (1994), Penumbra (1999), New York Nights (2000), New York Blues (2002), New York Dreams (2004), Bengal Station (2004), and Helix forthcoming from Solaris (2007).

The Time-Lapsed Man - Pan sc Other collections include Blue Shifting (1995), Parallax View with Keith Brooke (2000), Deep Future (2001), The Fall of Tartarus (2005) and Threshold Shift (2006). Brown is a prolific short story writer and has also published novellas, plays, books for children, and more.

After my clash with Ouroboros, I felt I needed to tackle something as different as possible, to act as a sort of sorbet for my reading palate. Instead of high fantasy, I wanted real science fictiony SF. Instead of something old, I wanted something modern (but still just old enough to ensure it's good & overlooked). Instead of something long and long-winded, I wanted something bite-sized and easily digested. How about a book of short stories? Looking through my stack of unread books rescued from at least one, if not more, of my annual garage sale book-purges, I happened upon Eric Brown's The Time-Lapsed Man and Other Stories. It's a handsome little book, neatly packaged, with a cool cover and title, and by a well-known author whom I've never read. This seemed to be just what I was looking for.

This book has 8 short stories, 6 of which were published in magazines in the late 1980s (mostly in Interzone, and two of which were original to this collection. The first 7 stories -- including the title story and such other memorable titles as "Krash-Bangg Joe and the Pineal-Zen Equation", "Pithecanthropus Blues" and "The Girl Who Died for Art and Lived" -- to varying degrees all work as short stories, and each one fits a unified vision of the future. That is to say, the author has a clear vision of his SFnal universe and he uses different stories -- even different kinds of stories -- to bring his universe to vivid life. Most of the stories deal with one or more of the following themes: loneliness, lost love, addiction or over-indulgence, obsession with or fear of death, sacrifices for art, and parallels between homo sapiens and earlier races of man.

The title story, which opens the collection, is about a guy who works as an Engineman (i.e., someone who merges with the flux to mind-push space ships from here to there) and following a shift in the flux he becomes temporally disconnected from his sensory perceptions. So you can tell him something now, but he won't hear it for another hour. It's inconvenient at first, but as his other senses kick into a time lag too, it becomes more than just frustrating. Now is that not a way cool premise for a story? It's actually not even the best story in the collection, but it is a fairly strong opener and it nicely sets the tone for Brown's universe.

The final story, and the longest one in the book, is called "The Inheritors of Earth." It's a rather charming and clever homage to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, set in Victorian England, and featuring short appearances by the young Wells. I actually liked Brown's story far better than Wells', but I've never been a big fan of H.G. (definitely over-hyped by my reckoning).

It's not hard for short story collections to fade into obscurity. Novels -- especially the good ones -- can go into reprints for years and still sell well, but collections generally don't seem to have the same staying power. Sure there are exceptions, but by and large it seems to be easier to re-market a novel than a bunch of short stories. Even more unusual in this case is that The Time-Lapsed Man was Brown's first book. It's not at all uncommon for an author to build a reputation on short stories before breaking into the field and getting a contract for a first book, but how often is that first book a collection of shorter works? Answer: not very often. If you read or hear anything about Eric Brown, you're quite likely to hear his name coupled with the title of his first book, The Time-Lapsed Man -- but will you have read it? I very nearly didn't. Unless there are an inordinate number of second-hand copies making the rounds, I think it's safe to say that this book has been unduly overlooked, and not just by me.

Bad Classics & Good Reading

Sometimes a classic just doesn't stand the test of time, and I feel that Ouroboros is such a book. It may have been brilliant once upon a time, but today it reads like a self-administered lobotomy. And sometimes a really good book languishes in obscurity. Time-Lapsed Man hasn't appeared in a new edition since 1990. It deserves to, and perhaps someday it will.

Eric Brown gets a place of honour on my shelf, and E.R. Eddison is relegated to a box in the attic until my next garage sale.

And with a tiny self-satisfied popping sound, I have a small but happily vacant space on my bookshelf.

Copyright © 2007 Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh struggles valiantly to prevent his unread books from taking over his house. In the past month Neil abandoned only one book, and managed to finish reading the following: Hospital of the Transfiguration by Stanislaw Lem, translated by William Brand; Daughter of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts; Farthing by Jo Walton; The Ice Dragon by George R.R. Martin; The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 by Eric Hobsbawm; Place-Royale: Quatre siècles d'histoire par Renée Côté (a souvenir of a recent visit to Quebec City); Lost Girls, Books 1-3 by Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie; Fables, Book 8: Wolves by Bill Willingham, et al.; Blessed Thistle by Steve Morris.

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