Take a slab of Hunter S. Thompson, add some Philip K. Dick, and throw them into a blender for a while. Add a little dash of Brother's Grimm and a spoonful of American Psycho and what do you end up with? In all honesty, probably a great galumphing mess, but if anyone could come close to making such a bizarre union of styles and genres work then it's this man—Paul Haines—a young, up-and-coming author from down under. His first full-length publication. Doorways for the Dispossessed is a collection of 19 short stories, most of them published previously in a variety of Australian magazines. It's good, solid, magazine-length fiction. It's readable, likable, and widely appealing. But it doesn't always hit the mark.
When Haines is good, he's excellent. "The Gift of Hindsight" (2004), for instance, is a real highlight of the collection. Written in a high-fantasy style, it tells the story of a man who is given an orb that allows him to travel back into his past and alter any decision he has made. But there is a snag: every time he changes something in the past, he loses time in the present.
[...] the world slipped away and the orb fell heavily from my hands. I reeled in exhaustion and slumped to the floor to awaken with the sun streaming in across the room.
It felt like I hadn't eaten in a week. Still tired, I dragged myself downstairs, the orb tucked away in an inner pocket of my coat. It was too valuable to leave behind. Far too valuable.
The innkeeper raised his eyebrows and muttered, 'Thought you was dead. [...] I ain't seen you for about three days." (p. 85)
In this way, the hero is able to gain power and wealth very easily by changing the decisions of his past one by one. But since these changes steal time from the present, he is unable to appreciate his new-found status. And because other people are always trying to undermine him, he finds he must spend more and more time in his own past to make up for even the tiniest error in judgement. It's a strong story, well told. It examines the ramifications of time travel in a way I haven't seen before, and the high-fantasy style provides a feasible explanation for the orb's power (it's magic!) whilst not skimping on portraying the full horror of the hero's dilemma: if you could change the past at the expense of the present, would you really be living your life?
The title story, "Doorways for the Dispossessed" (2004), is another excellent piece of psychological extrapolation. This time the setting is more contemporary. A man discovers how to dream lucidly, to force himself to remain conscious whilst asleep and allow his mind to explore the world around him. After practicing for a while, he and a friend discover a way to meet in their dreams and communicate with one another—even make love—in any possible dreamscape they can imagine.
We met once a week thereafter. We'd swap photos of places we'd never been; the ruined rock city of Petra, the stucco mosques of Timbuktu, the ancient Persian mud city of Bam, Babylon, Kakadu, Mecca, Kathmandu. We visited them all. I even walked on the moon. (p. 266)
Of course, such carefree times don't last. And when they meet another traveller who has been "dispossessed" of his body, things really get interesting. The hero finds himself stalked by the dispossessed who tries to steal his body in the waking world. It all becomes very psychologically unhinged. The main character can't allow himself to fall asleep because if he does, the dispossessed will steal his identity, so as the story progresses and the hero slips into exhaustion, you find his account of things becoming increasingly unreliable. It keeps you guessing right up until the end.
In these stories, Haines is good. He takes old ideas like time travel or telepathy and adds unique spins to them. The problem is that for every story like this, there are two or three that can only be described as "average": Uninspired, pedestrian tales splattered across a whole gamut of genres without really adding to any of them. It's difficult to pin Haines down in these. Sometimes he writes road-trip fiction (e.g. "The Last Days of Kali Yuga" (2004), which won the Aurealis Award, though I've no idea why. It's like Fear and Loathing set in Nepal.). Sometimes it's fables with twists (e.g. "Hamlyn" (2004), which tells the story of the Pied Piper as an evil pedophilic wanderer). Sometimes it's psychological thrillers (e.g. "They Say it's Other People" (2004), which follows a possessive man in a relationship trying to deal with the mistakes of his past) But where Haines seems most comfortable—and, conversely, where I think he is weakest—is with SF noir and post-cyberpunk (e.g. "Warchalking" , which he co-wrote with Claire McKenna.)
Sure, the writing is edgy throughout, the characterisation is sharp, and Haines lays on the controversy pretty thick. But you can't help feeling you've seen it all before. The drugs, the head-fuck moments, the great sprawling cityscapes, the dystopian governments, the shocking denouement at the end of the tale—all the elements are present and correct. But they feel somewhat forced, obvious, lacking the distinctive freshness of his standout stories. Even the controversy is predictable. Stories like "Slice of Life" (2002), in which the main character is a cannibal who believes he is helping an alien race by devouring humans, seems like nothing we haven't seen before. It's designed to shock but it ends up feeling like a weak clone of American Psycho. Stories like "Skin Polis" (2002) and "Mnemophonic" (previously unpublished) are more typical. Weak, predictable fictions about social conditioning or corrupted governments that always end with a bog-standard plot twist: a death, a betrayal, or a realisation of what the protagonist has done. After two or three of these, you quickly get to the point where you don't feel like reading any more because you already know what's going to happen.
To be fair, it's not entirely Haines's fault. He is clearly a new writer flexing his muscles and trying out several different genres while he finds his niche. And this collection is clearly a complete compendium of everything he has written to date, without any judgement on how good or bad the stories are. Everything about this collection feels rushed though. The quality of the book itself is abysmal: poorly proofread, and full of printer's errors. Such sloppy editing gives me the impression that the publishers themselves cared very little about this book. It feels as though it has been simply thrown together at the last moment to meet some publishing target—unloved by editor or reader, and doomed to spend its short shelf life pushed to the back of specialist bookstores and forgotten.
Short-story collections are always difficult beasts to get right. Haines can be good and I wouldn't write him off yet—given a few years and some more publications under his belt, I think he might even make something of a name for himself. But not yet and not with this collection. Doorways for the Dispossessed doesn't have the stamina or voracity of ideas to come anywhere close to challenging the best that's out there. Despite his obvious credentials, Haines's biggest problem is that he just doesn't know what sort of a writer he's trying to be at the moment and until he does, the end results are often going to be nothing more than a rehash of what's already been done—an unpalatable mixture of the recipe that helped create him.
R.J. Burgess is from Crawley, West Sussex and has wanted to be a writer for most of his life. A recent recipient of a Creative Writing degree from Middlesex University, he is still relatively new to SF but is quickly finding his feet.