Tracing Traditions

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What would this panther look like as a half-human?A Soviet cosmonaut gets thrown through a strange portal in space; she ends up on a planet filled with jaguar men, stranded Earthers, sentient metal trees, lost temples and cities, buried treasures, immortal androids, extreme peril and dashing escapes.

Does all this sound vaguely familiar? It should, because Chris Roberson’s Paragaea deliberately looks back at the pulpy stuff that worked best in science fiction’s past. He tries to make it all his own too… how does that work out for him?

Science fiction and fantasy have many traditions within it, and you can easily trace ideas and irritations from one book to another through the decades. For example, China Mieville got so thoroughly fed up with Tolkien imitators taking over fantasy (of course his peeve extends to Tolkien as well) that he revived a different tradition, looking back in large part to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. And Perdido Street Station is a stronger book for making its own way through these cross-currents and crazy mixes of what’s been written in the past.

Back to Paragaea. Roberson skips further back than Peake, going all the way to the pulp tradition of science fantasy — but this tradition is not something that has ever gone away of course. For example, Roberson mentions two specific references: Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote his first books about Tarzan and Mars in the 1910s and the 1920s, and also a TV show called Land of the Lost from 1974 (see Wikipedia for more info). In his afterword, Roberson challenges readers to indulge their nerdy side and track down all of the other references he has included.

Roberson is not the only current writer trying to strip a novel of all but the most effective pulpy bits. I’m reminded of Tobias Buckell’s Crystal Rain, which I recently wrote about here at the Gutter (A Faster Pace). This is another helpful comparison, since Buckell’s book had a decent, if somewhat simplistic plot. But Paragaea goes dangerously close to the line here. What happens if you take out too much of the stuff that makes a book tick?

What would this panther look like as a half-human?From one angle, the plot of Roberson’s book is quite boring — the main characters are on a quest and they simply follow each easy clue in a straight line until they get to their goal, killing everyone along the way. Taken another way, it’s a sophisticated attempt to use the pulp tactics in service of a finely judged mix of adventure/satire. The problem is that Paragaea seems to toggle back and forth between the two.

To illustrate my point: Leena the Soviet cosmonaut and her friends have been battling their way across the continent, and one day they are stranded on a tiny island in a rising tide. They’ve gotten so used to constant conflict that when they see some crocodile men riding giant birds coming at them at high speed, naturally Leena and co. start chopping them up.

But it turns out that the crocodile men are friendlies. This could be some gentle or not-so-gentle fun at our heroes’ expense, except that Roberson is already telling us about the next perilous scrape. The pace doesn’t leave much room for anything except its own momentum. I admire the purity of Roberson’s work here — you’d be hard pressed to find a more colourful and fast-paced narrative — but he also misses a few opportunities along the way.

As another example, Leena and her friends have just survived an airship crash:

Through the sort of small miracle that seemed strangely common on Paragaea, neither Balam nor Leena was seriously injured in their descent, and they were able to locate one another with relative ease. (105).

Not so many small miracles for the poor slobs who get dispatched by our heroes along the way! And Roberson provides no explanation for the lopsided results of the typical pulp plot. Why do the heroes have such good luck and everyone else the sharp side of a sword in the face? It could have been nifty and surprising, a retrofit that would strengthen itself in the process.

So does this book match up to its ambitions as an adventure novel? I give the book high marks for not compromising on its convictions. Chris Roberson clearly set out to tell an adventure story — a planetary romance, as the subtitle of the book would have it — and he always delivers. Will a sequel fill in some of the gaps? Let’s hope so.

Paragaea was published by Pyr, a relatively new imprint, and a busy one, although I’m still trying to get a sense of what they do. I do like the entertaining blog by the editor of Pyr, Lou Anders. Roberson also has a blog.

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