Simon Brown

Ticonderoga Publications (2006)

ISBN: 0-9586856-6-5

Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts (this review was first published July 2006)

Let’s start with the basics: Troy is a beautiful book. It has to be the prettiest Australian small press book I’ve ever seen, and what with Donna Hanson’s Australian Speculative Fiction: an Overview and the various classy CSFG and Agog! publications doing the rounds in recent years, it’s up against some pretty stiff competition.

Just from looking at the outside, this is a book that deserves a wider audience than the attendees of a SF convention. It should be in every literary bookshop in the country. And I have to say, it would make a pretty attractive Father’s Day present for all those history buff dads out there, even if they don’t think they like speculative fiction. Ticonderoga Publications are definitely up there with some of the better overseas indie press outfits as far as style, design and all that other shiny stuff goes.

Ahem. On to the contents. For those who aren’t familiar with his work, Simon Brown was one of the few male fantasy authors in the HarperCollins Voyager stable, until he moved to Pan Macmillan a couple of years ago. His latest novel is Daughter of Independence, due out later in 2006. Before Brown became a Big Name Fantasy Author, though, his science fiction short stories were a regular feature in Eidolon and Aurealis, back in the day when they were The Big Two science fiction magazines in Australia.

Throughout the nineties, Brown produced a series of short stories that connected with and utilised some of the characters, iconography and mythology of the Trojan War stories. This collection brings those works together for the first time, along with a single new story, “The Cup of Nestor”, (2006) and a very old story, his first piece of fiction inspired by the Trojan myths, “The Return of Ideomeneus” (1981), which is concealed in an appendix in deference to the author’s own unwillingess to place a 25 year old story alongside his more mature and professional work [1].

The context and history of some of the more pertinent myths to Brown’s stories are outlined in a preface that introduces a range of characters from the Trojan cycle – this preface provides some hint of what is to come, as this is by no means a comprehensive list of all the significant characters of the Trojan War, but an eclectic selection of those who are obviously of the greatest interest to Brown, and of greatest relevance to the stories that will follow. I liked the academic approach to these intros, which allows for the various complexities of dealing with mythology rather than dumbing it down to the simplest possible version of the mythical character.

As a whole, the collection of stories that follows is, as suggested by the introductory material, not a Grand Epic but an exploration of some of the quirkier corners of the mythology surrounding the famous ten year war, through a selection of historical, contemporary and SF stories. Brown takes various characters – some more famous than others – who are associated with Troy, and explores their tales and themes through a variety of finely textured, layered short stories that cover all manner of historical ground, from Troy itself through to the twentieth century and beyond. By dealing with the oddball characters and snippets of myth from the edges rather than the centre of the myths about the Trojan War, Brown does a better job of presenting the problematic, thoroughly untidy nature of the Trojan cycle to a modern audience than all manner of traditional novelists have managed – Colleen McCullough’s rather pointless The Song of Troy from several years ago is the first that comes to mind, but also Dan Simmons’ excellent (though back-breakingly huge) epic SF novels Ilium and Olympos.

Authors who use the Trojan cycle as material for their fiction – directly or indirectly – can often be seen trying desperately to make sense of the tangled web of mythology in order to present a coherent narrative. The recent film Troy is the ultimate example of this, where the filmmakers have pared away so many of the more interesting elements of the myths surrounding the Trojan War that the result is a bland, standard war story that might have been set anywhere. Simon Brown’s Troy is refreshing in that he recognises that the walk-on characters and “lesser” stories surrounding the Trojan War often represent more interesting territory. The result is a marvellous, elegant collage of stories that dip in and out of the Trojan cycle like a blood-soaked fountain pen, leaving the reader with a powerful impression of Troy (both the city and the myth) as a symbol of the fragmentary nature of ancient mythology.

“The Mark of Thetis” is a sweet, surreal fantasy story about dreams, Germany between the wars, and a boy called Achilles Meinecke. The subject of Troy is introduced directly through the dreamlike visions that Achilles is privileged to share with his new friends Emil and Nina. The legendary duel of Hector and the mythological Achilles is quite brutally depicted in one of these visions, and young Achilles Meinecke even attempts to read Homer’s Iliad, one of the more influential versions of the Trojan story. The character of Thetis (mother of the mythical Achilles, whose over-protectiveness could not prevent his doom) is realised through the relationship of Achilles Meinecke with his war widow mother, Frau Meinecke. Achilles’ interest in the Trojan myth, which he discovered through his new friends, represents the first time that Frau Meinecke can feel him growing up and moving away from her, and all of his attempts to assert his individuality and impending adulthood only make her cling all the harder to him with a desperation that will ultimately lead her to betray him.

“The Dreaming Seas Beneath Cassandra” focuses on my favourite Trojan heroine, one who rarely appears in modern interpretations of the Trojan story but has been brilliantly realised in two classic myth-fantasy novels, Kerry Greenwood’s Cassandra and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s masterful The Firebrand, a particularly hard act to follow.

Brown’s Cassandra is an oceanic photographer, working with a film crew on a shark documentary. Like her mythical counterpart, she experiences visions about the truth of the present (her lover’s infidelity) and disturbing feelings about what the future will bring. In a direct contrast to the tragic figure of the Trojan Cassandra, contemporary Cassandra does not rail against the doom that her fellow filmmakers invite with their hubris against the gods (or one particular shark god), but embraces that doom with a mixture of fatalism and curiosity. The unexpected effect of this is that Brown’s admittedly passive Cassandra feels like less of a victim than any of the mythological versions of the prophetess who could see the horrors of the future but would never be believed. A polished, effective piece of contemporary horror.

With “The Dissections of Machaon”, Brown takes the reader directly rather than symbolically into Trojan mythology, depicting the brutality of war through the eyes of a young Greek surgeon, Machaon, who tends the bodies of the wounded at Troy. As well as the grisly reality of ancient warfare, Brown also depicts the cruelty of the gods who have not only allowed this war to take place, but are encouraging it for their own selfish reasons. The involvement of the gods in the Trojan War is an element of the story that modern writers often shy away from, and it is good to see it addressed here through the eyes of a character who would have been raised to trust and respect the gods despite their evident disregard for humanity.

“The Masque of Agamemnon”, co-written with Sean Williams, is the first of the stories in this collection that I specifically remember reading when originally published, in 1997. This is also the first openly SF story in the collection, as well as the first to feature a Big Name Character from the Trojan cycle. Indeed, the story not only features the titular Agamemnon, but most of the “high court” characters of the Trojan cycle, including Helen, Menelaus, Paris and Achilles. It begins with the powerful visual image of an owl in outer space, circling the Achaean fleet of spaceships before diving headfirst into the one named Mycenae and vanishing in a flash of blue light.

For many reasons, though it is by no means representative of the other stories in the collection, “The Masque of Agamemnon” can be seen as the heart of Brown’s Troy, an attractive centrepiece that, to a large extent, makes sense of many of the surrounding stories. A fleet of spaceships are enacting the Achaean side of the Trojan War with such exactitude that the emissary from the enemy – a hapless man named Bernal – finds himself cast in the role of Paris, destined to seduce Helen and begin the war that will destroy his people … whether he likes it or not. Several years before Dan Simmons turned a similar premise into an epic two-volume novel, Williams and Brown took the promising concept of “Troy in Space” and turned it into a comedy of manners.

Various important themes of the Trojan cycle are addressed in “The Masque of Agamemnon”, beneath the deft humour and SF trappings. The topic of the gods controlling mortals to suit their own agenda resurfaces through the AI Athena, and the topic of mortals being forced to follow a fate not of their choosing is evident through many of the character interactions, particularly those of “Paris” and “Helen”. The subject of myths changing through the reinterpretations of various historical periods is also specifically addressed with a discussion of the source material for these particular versions of the Achaeans of the Trojan cycle.

Brown himself admits that “Love and Paris” has little to do with the Troy theme beyond the title – a slender connection at best, considering that the “Paris” of the title refers to the city, and not the Prince of Troy. It is difficult, however, to begrudge the inclusion of this smart SF murder mystery, which explores contemporary issues of sex and religion through a near-future that seems all too plausible. While the actual “mystery” at the heart of the story is too easily solved to make this a credible crime story, the SF is spot on, and the characters quite wrenchingly real.

“Why My Wife Left Me and Other Stories by Diomedes” is more of a hard SF story than most in this collection, dealing with the idea of space travel involving time dilation and the possible effects that this might have on human relationships. This topic has been dealt with many times in SF, most notably in Joe Haldeman’s novel The Forever War, but Brown’s story takes an ironic stance in that it is the “solution” to this problem – cryogenic stores on Earth where a space traveller can freeze their family to be awoken on their return – which ultimately dooms the marriage of his protagonist, Diomedes.

The Trojan relevance to the heart of this story is evident, as the separation of wives and husbands over this ten year war was a theme that Greek and Roman poets returned to again and again in reference to the Trojan cycle. While the “Greeks” won the war and destroyed the city of Troy, many of the triumphant generals and soldiers returned home to discover that inexorable changes had occurred in their absence. The ultimate example of this is Agamemnon, who returned only to be murdered by his wife Clytemnestra’s boyfriend, so that she could continue ruling in her own name. In a world where we’re used to being able to travel quickly and efficiently (until the petrol runs out…) and communicate with each other instantaneously, the idea of a ten year separation between husband and wife seems quite bizarre, whether that be in ancient or future times.

The twist in Brown’s take on this technology is that Diomedes has been away from Earth for ten years, though he has only experienced three of those years, and his wife (in her cryogenic chamber) has only been gone for a subjective eye-blink – but the psychological weight of those missing years still has a devastating effect on her.

The best futuristic science fiction really looks at how people might be affected by future societal and technological changes, and this story illustrates quite elegantly that the technological “cure” can sometimes be worse than the disease.

“A New Song for Odysseus” is my favourite story in the collection, an entertaining romp with a bitter sweet twist, in which the Greek gods are reimagined as nutty Hollywood moguls, determined to produce a brand new Homer-scripted sequel to the Odyssey (that’s a sequel to a sequel). Naturally, it’s the poor old mortals who suffer for the “art” that the gods are so keen to commission.

“The Cup of Nestor” is the only new story in Troy, and I felt it was the least successful of the collection. Brown’s prose is as smooth and readable as ever, and the story itself – in which a 19th century expedition through the jungles of Brazil reveals rather more about Darwinism and evolution than they expected – contains a strong sense of atmosphere, but ultimately it lacks the narrative punch that otherwise characterises this collection.

The official line up of Troy concludes with a final piece of SF: “Imagining Ajax”, a powerful story of artificial intelligence and poetry. The connection with the Trojan cycle is almost as tenuous as with “Love and Paris” – the intelligent computer is named for the Trojan hero, a subject which is discussed within if not overly relevant to the story. However, in the context of the collection Troy, rather than the Trojan cycle itself, the story fits perfectly – another classic Simon Brown SF story, with a slightly haggard/wounded protagonist, and some thought-provoking philosophy as to where, as a species, we might be going next.

If there is an overall theme to Troy it is that people – humanity – do not change in any essential way, and that we can tell the same stories about strangeness and familiarity wherever and whenever we live. Troy not only bounces between “now” and the “then” of the Trojan War, but explores a wide variety of time periods and different societies within our world’s history, over the span of nine stories. Rather than providing a comprehensive summary of the conflicting and intangible nature of the Trojan cycle of myths, Troy serves as an accessible introduction to some of the more interesting fragments of those myths as viewed through the eyes of a SF writer. Correspondingly, Troy also provides an introduction to one of Australia’s premier short story writers of the 1990s, and to some of the better fiction that the Australian SF magazines of that period were publishing.

[1] Given the placing of this story, I have not reviewed it here, but I should perhaps say that I agree completely with the publisher’s reasons for including it in the collection, and the author’s reasons for preferring it to be left out. The “appendix” solution was an excellent compromise