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The White Abacus
Damien Broderick
Avon EOS Books, 342 pages

The White Abacus
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
Avon Eos Bio
National Australian Voices Essay

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jean-Louis Trudel

The insight that we're actually reading words when we read a book has to rank as one of the most earthshakingly trivial discoveries ever to have set academia on its collective ear. Unfortunately, until the literati get it out of their system, we are stuck with fin-de-siècle fiction, endlessly recirculating and recapitulating past narratives because authors think that's the only thing they do anyway. If I'm looking forward to the millennium, it's no doubt because I harbour the secret hope that, once the baby boomers pack off to retirement homes, a new generation of less naïve writers will take over. A new generation that will be less susceptible to a literary theory suspiciously derived from theories propounded by French intellectuals just at the right time to let them ignore past and present war guilts by focusing on signifiers and not what is signified...

So, am I indulging in a sickeningly traditionalist rant or is this just the unusual preface to the review of an unusual book? Or is it nothing more than a joke? Or... One senses that Broderick would see nothing wrong with such endless reinterpretations. In an afterword, he avows that this "novel, like all SF and maybe even more so, is a collage of appropriated icons."

Now, that is a masterpiece of understatement.

Blundering unawares into the novel, I thought at first I was reading a somewhat conventional account of culture shock between very different space-based societies. On the one hand, the Earth anarchists coexist with AIs and move within a perpetual network-mediated infostream, making for far-ranging cultural references. On the other hand, the Belters deal in genetic engineering and eschew the interplanetary hex gates, which are instantaneous transfer portals, because they're afraid of losing their souls...

And then, after a while, the penny drops! Broderick is rewriting Shakespeare's Hamlet...

The main character from the Belt is (palindromically) called Telmah. Sent to Earth to acquire some knowledge of the wider universe, Telmah comes back to his home asteroid when his father is killed. Accompanied by an AI called Ratio, Telmah discovers his mother has married his uncle, Feng, who's made a grab for power in the absence of Telmah, who is more or less the legitimate heir... Anyway, the parallels run pretty close.

Now, that's no sin: Shakespeare himself stole good stories right and left, but did Broderick's take on it have to include a paternal ghost and a faithless mother called Gerutha? Or two fun-loving Earthers called Rozz(encrantz) and Gill(denstern) who make a trip to the Belt and play a part in the resolution? Isn't the basic premise of Hamlet sufficiently powerful to carry a story? Lots of excellent science fiction stories by writers like Delany and Zelazny have made conscious use of old myths without feeling the need to ape an original text.

Presumably, the readers are intended to enjoy the reinterpretations of the basic story, the way theatre-goers return to a new staging of an old play in order to rekindle past pleasures and to find new meaning in the production details. Especially since the ending diverges from the play, and extends the resolution into (somewhat) new territories, more classically science fictional.

It would be tiresome for a reviewer to analyze the text in detail, since the book goes so far as to provide us with numbered parts and a guided tour in the afterword. At least Broderick does not list all the "icons" he's recycled, starting with the sly, unacknowledged homage to Godwin's The Man in the Moone (1638) on page 206.

Nevertheless, the final product has style. The author is exquisitely intelligent, highly cultured, unfailingly erudite... but the story is less than compelling. Either because of foreknowledge or because they're genuinely shallow, the least successful parts of the book were the ones most closely patterned on the well-known plot of Hamlet. When the novel dealt with its own fictional universe, or twists on the classic premise, it felt fresher and the sheer scope of the author's future vision was exhilarating.

Readers will no doubt enjoy Broderick's wide-ranging imagination and credible future technologies. By the book's end, he manages to make us believe in even some of the "future magic". Still, I think one needs to be able to tolerate multiple borrowings within the genre and to appreciate a story retold, not to mention loads of self-referentiality, in order to like this novel. But each reader will tackle it differently and the book is clearly engineered to support a multiplicity of readings.

So, even if one might prefer a straightforward narrative, less enamoured of its literary antecedents, it's worth applauding an excellent... performance.

Copyright © 1998 by Jean-Louis Trudel

Jean-Louis Trudel is a busy, bilingual writer from Canada, with two novels and fourteen young adult books to his credit in French. He's also a moderately prolific reviewer and short story writer.

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