Template - Matt Hughes

Matt Hughes
400 pages (in manuscript)
published in 2008

It was james_nicoll who suggested to hold a Matt Hughes reviewathon of his latest novel Template, since Hughes was kind enough to offer an advance copy to any reviewer or blogger who was willing to do something with it. James wanted a reviewathon because he found it "tremendously annoying that Hughes is not better known than he is". I figured it would be an easy way to sample a writer I knew of but had not yet read so this week I found myself reading my first Matt Hughes novel.

Had it not been for James and his reviewathon I don't think I would've read this novel, as the plot description didn't sound that interesting. Conn Labro is an indentured duelist on Thrais, one of the Ten Thousand Worlds, happily fighting all kind of duels and games for his employer, making them lots of money while never quite paying off his indenture, though he is now one of the top ranked duelists in all the Ten Thousand Worlds. He was indentured as an infant you see, so has a lot of indenture to work off. But all this changes when Hallis Tharp died. Tharp's an old man, the closest thing to a friend Conn has, who has been coming to Conn every week for most of his life to play a game of paduay. Conn sets out to see what happened to Tharp when he doesn't show up for his game, discovers he's died and he has inherited what's left of his meager possesions, only to see his employer's game house blown up before his eyes when returning home. It then turns out he's inherited a bearers deed to some offworld possesion and after he and Jenore Mordene, another friend of Tharp are attacked again, Conn sets off with her to find his destiny elsewhere in the Ten Thousand Worlds.

It all sounded a bit too much like a half dozen other science fiction novels. Hadn't Heinlein done something similar in Citizen of the Galaxy? And wasn't that in fact, a bit of a ripoff of Rudyard Kipling's Kim? Matters weren't helped by the first few chapters, which were a bit too rich with infodump to me, with Conn thinking to himself and explaining the system he lived under. Fortunately this turned out to be a momentary hiccup. Once the story proper got underway things moved much smoother and it becomes clear what Hughes is trying to accomplish.

Template is a classical coming of age science fiction story, in the best tradition of Heinlein and Clarke. Conn himself is somewhat of a tabula rasa, a big innocent outside the context of the gaming house he was indentured too, little more than a cog in the machine, convinced of the utter rightness of the anarcho-capitalist society he grew up in without ever having thought deeply about it. Once he's forced to leave it and come into contact with other cultures and ways of living, other moral structures he starts to grow as a person, questioning some of his society's values, but without this becoming a conversion story. The central conciet Hughes builts this story on is the idea that all of the cultures encountered in the novel embody one of the seven deadly sins, which of course means all of them are flawed in some essential way and hence none has the right answer.

Looking over the reviews James Nicoll has collected so far, one writer Hughes keeps being compared to is Jack Vance. I can see why this would be a tempting comparison, as Vance is perhaps best known for his inventiveness in creating new, exotic and often utterly alien cultures. With his Ten Thousands Worlds set in a future long after our own times have been forgotten, Hughes seems to be trying to do the same. Yet it's not a comparison I would make, as he misses some of the outlandishness, the exoticism, some of the sensuality of Vance. Instead I come back to another science fiction grandmaster, one I've mentioned before: Robert A. Heinlein. Hughes style of writing has some of the same bluff, no-nonsense tone of let me tell you how the world works Heinlein had in his juveniles, and he also has the same knack of undermining some of his explenations by the actions of his characters.

In the end then, what Hughes has written is a classic sort of science fiction novel, which in a just world should be coming out as a mass market paperback with a huge print run, to be bought for thirteen year nieces and nephews everywhere. It's far removed from the usual modern science fiction I read, not something I would've sought out on my own, but I'm glad I've read it.

(If you like this review, why not visit my my incomparable booklog?)

Books read in April

Another month gone by means another list of books read. Seventeen in total this time, bringing the grand total for the first third of the year up to fifty exactly. I found this to be a little bit too much reading, as it left little time to digest the books properly. Links to proper reviews will be added when they're put up on the booklog.

Madame de Pompadour -- Nancy Mitford
Following on from her biography of Frederick the Great. This was written much earlier, in 1954 as opposed to 1971 and I found it slightly harder going. It's also longer, which doesn't help. After a while Mitford's light, teasing style began to annoy a bit.

The Clan Corporate -- Charlie Stross
The third novel in the Merchant Wars series, charlie's attempt at writing a proper epic fantasy series, though it owns more to H. Beam Piper than to J. R. R. Tolkien.

London: A Social History -- Roy Porter
This was published in 1994, so it misses the developments of the past fourteen years, but this is still an excellent one volume history of London and its peoples. It's not as comprehensive as Peter Acroyd's later London the Biography, but it's not as up itself either.

The Assassination of Julius Caesar -- Michael Parenti
Takes the murder of Julius Caesar and puts it in a class war context.

The Year of Our War -- Steph Swainston
Interesting fantasy novel by a new and unknown to me writer.

The People of the Talisman -- Leigh Brackett
Another short Eric John Stark novel, in the vein of the Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels, but much better written.

Tanks in Detail -- Panzer III -- Terry J. Gander
What should be an indepth look at one of the more important German World War 2 tanks is let down by its shortness and doesn't contain much not already known to the tank enthusiast.

Tanks in Detail -- Sherman & Firefly -- Terry J. Gander
Another entry in the same series as above, suffering from the same flaws and with a less interesting selection of pictures and drawings to liven it up.

Stations of the Tide -- Michael Swanwick
Okay but not spectacular science fiction novel by a writer who has done better. It never quite gelled into a coherent story.

Postwar -- Tony Judt
Flawed history of postwar Europe, too focused on the big countries (Germany, France, Italy and the UK) in my opinion.

The Voyage of the Sable Keech -- Neal Asher
The first Asher novel I've read, not the best starting point as it needs a lot of backstory knowledge to make sense out of.

The Great History of Comic Books -- Ron Goulart
A nicely chatty history of the American comic book, which largely confines itself to the socalled Golden Age (1920s-1950s). Dated, sketchy but a reasonable overview still.

Worlds of the Imperium -- Keith Laumer
Fun fast-paced adventure sf by the master. Not an unmissable classic by any means, but good enough to pick up secondhand.

A Plague of Demons -- Keith Laumer
Another sf adventure novel by Laumer. It was interesting reading those two so short after each other and see the simularities. Both are set partially in North Africa - Algeria to be precise, both feature tough loners whose name starts with a B, etc.

The Prefect -- Alastair Reynolds
This is a prequel to Revelation Space and its sequels, set at a time when the Glitter Band was not yet destroyed and as a consequence somewhat of a less sombre novel than Reynolds usually writes. It took a while for me to get in it, but once it did it was rather good.

Chain of Command -- Seymour Hersh
A good though dated (written in 2004) overview of the crimes of the Bush administration in their war on terror, going from what happened in Abu Ghraib all the way back up the chain of command to the crimes at the heart of the War on Iraq.

Rainbows End -- Vernor Vinge
Once upon a time I would've said Vernor Vinge was the science fiction author with the most convincing view of the future. Now however it just seems old fashioned, even slightly dull. Nevertheless this is still an accomplished novel, though not half as convincing in its depiction of the near future as e.g. Halting State or Brasyl.

(no subject)

We got a bloody ferret walking calm as you like in our back garden this morning, sniffing the cat saucer for leftover crunchies. It wasn't taking any notice of me, nor of the neighbours cat when it came sniffing over. She however apparantly hadn't noticed this strange, ratlike creature before she came face to face with it, resulting in a backwards jump of at least a metre...

Yes, this is the most exciting thing we've experienced this week.