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Hal Spacejock cover

Second Course cover

The biggest single problem facing any newly published writer of book-length speculative fiction is overcoming the vast yawn of indifference with which most of their numbers seem to be greeted each year. It’s not indifference—SF fans are amongst the most passionate and articulate in the world—so much as bewilderment in the face of a Great Wall of China-sized array of books.

In 2005, Locus counted 430 new novels published. Without reading a single short story, the omnivorous reader would need to consume a book every single day, and for two months a year, two whole novels a day to read them all (I have an image of readers as battery hens). The need for critics to advocate selected works—as recently proposed by Graham Sleight—becomes ever more critical.

Simon Haynes is one such writer struggling to overcome the inertia of indifference and bewilderment. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, Haynes is Australian, whose work until now has only been published in Australia and on Amazon.com. Despite the breakthrough at the end of the last decade by (among others), Terry Dowling, Sean McMullen and Lucy Sussex, there is a suspicion—certainly in Australia—that the world still views Australian SF as being a lost dominion of Ted Carnell’s New Worlds/New Writings in SF motherland. There’s little truth in this suspicion—indifference to unknown writers isn’t unique to Australians. SF is still overwhelmingly US-centric, and will only change with the perseverance of writers like Haynes.

Secondly, Haynes writes humourous SF, that mutant bastard of Wodehouse and Wells. Only Douglas Adams, who came from outside the genre via the BBC, has had significant commercial success writing only humorous SF, and often Adams' fans include those who don't read "that sci-fi rubbish."

There have only been occasional short stories, although some, written by Eric Frank Russell and Robert Silverberg, have even won awards. Many supporters of Robert Sheckley believe that he would have been far more lauded had he a) written more novels and b) written "serious" SF. R.A. Lafferty is more a Blarney-man, a Teller of Tall Tales, than a genuine comic, but should not be ignored.

There have been even fewer novel-length works. Apart from Sheckley and Lafferty, Robert Rankin is the only regular novel-length writer of SF, while Connie Willis is the only current major genre writer who regularly writes humorous SF, and too often the comedies like 1998's To Say Nothing of The Dog are overshadowed by worthier works like Doomsday Book. (1992)

Given that the writers above range from purveyors of whimsy to custard-pie comics, it's hardly surprising that many readers don't actually consider humourous SF even as a body in its own right, let alone acknowledge any quality to it.

As well as the lack of a recognized canon to measure new works against, the other problem is the suspicion that those who write it aren’t capable of writing real novels, or are ducking the more difficult challenges. Where are the cyberpunk comedies, the humourous novels about genetic engineering, or the first slipstream comedy? There’s some substance to this; there is a tendency, which Haynes follows, of defaulting to a 1940s Astounding setting, full of robots and warp drives, where every planet is Delta Suburbia IV. But many "serious" Analog stories are set in locales that haven’t changed since Campbell was editor, and no one complains—Vernor Vinge even won a Hugo in 2004 for one novella which read as if it could have been written in any year from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War.

And arguably, good comedy is harder to write than average "serious" SF—it needs all the skills of an SF work, as well as good comic timing. Humour depends as much on timing, character, and content as setting. Most comedies work precisely because they are in familiar settings which can then be subverted (as in Discworld) for the writer’s own comic ends.

In those respects, Haynes has written two perfectly serviceable comedies, Hal Spacejock (2000) and its sequel, Second Course (2003). A third Just Desserts—is promised for January 2007. All feature the eponymous, lamentably inept starship trader, his prissy navigation computer, and a shambling hulk of a robot.

The writer whose work Haynes bears the most comparison with is Harry Harrison.

Harry Harrison wrote The Stainless Steel Rat over 40 years ago. It was considered good enough to be a 1962 Hugo finalist against Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. But there’s always a suspicion that in any year dominated by a single novel, the other nominees are also-rans, on the final ballot to make up the numbers, and since then the law of diminishing returns has applied, and Harrison’s sequels have grown ever flabbier.

Like Harrison, Haynes populates his world with shark-like con-men, psychotic competitors, and crooked bureaucrats on bucolic backwaters where even the cows tend to be carnivorous, or at least psychotic.

The plot is simple: Hal Spacejock is broke because his judgement is appalling; he sees dodgy deals whenever someone tries to hire him. Ironically, when a loan-shark’s over-zealous robot scares him into accepting a commission, he misses the questionable aspects of the assignment. Regulations require him to accept Clunk, the robot co-pilot foisted on him, and the equally naïve pair stumble through a series of ever more comic crises in their attempts to deliver their cargo.

Second Course opens with Spacejock in better financial shape than at the start of the first book, but still given to the asinine lapses of judgement that he’s prone to between crises. Haynes still has endless fun (although, if I’m honest, the broad humour started to wear on me a bit half-way through the second novel) with routinely malevolent machinery harking back to Kuttner’s Gallagher series, especially with an a over-eager talking briefcase, but this time he throws in a lost civilization and a hint of romance.

Despite occasionally straying once-too-often into custard pie territory, and with the villain’s characterisation being sketchy, these books are worth a look—at a time when SF seems to many to be losing its core identity, Haynes has dived back to The Golden Age, but for his own devious purposes.

I especially liked Clunk’s efforts to hack into the computer of a starship attacking them in the first book, and the inevitable fall-out. Anyone who has struggled with the supposed latest upgrade while still half-asleep at six in the morning will appreciate the random malevolence of the prank-playing airlock, and the over-zealous robot selling shoes could have stepped straight out of a car salesroom almost anywhere in the world. Haynes’s timing is good—at times too good; the gags sometimes head straight for the punch-line without giving the reader time to orient himself, and the characterization is good, while not yet at Terry Pratchett’s level. But it will come. Give him time.

It’s still too early in his career to assess Haynes’s full potential—he’s been writing for roughly the same length of time as Pratchett had in 1977, when he had just published The Carpet People. But Pratchett had to wait until 1983 for success with The Colour of Magic. I don't think Haynes will have to wait that long. He’s too talented, the jokes too funny, the stories too well plotted. While Simon Haynes may not yet be the finished article, the initial signs are encouraging.

Colin Harvey is working on a novel, The Silk Palace, for 2007 publication. He has a website and a presence on MySpace. He'll be at ConText workshopping and promoting Lightning Days. When he isn't writing or reading, he’s earning a crust in the real world, but prefers the unreal one.



Colin Harvey’s latest book is Winter Song.
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