Prime Books (2003)
Reviewed by Simon Petrie (this review was first published in February 2009)
I recently received an Advance Review Copy of this book, which in the circumstances is a somewhat misleading description, since the volume itself has been in publication for over five years. But no matter.
Geoffrey Maloney has been a presence on the Australian spec-fic scene for a good many years now. A couple of the stories in Tales from the Crypto-Systemwere first published in 1990; most of the other stories were published during the subsequent even-numbered years, up to 2002. (I leave it as an exercise to numerologists to discern the rationale behind Maloney’s apparent and puzzling lack of success during odd-numbered years, although 1999 was a notable exception.) It is a characteristic of the local spec-fic scene that most of the original periodicals in which these stories first saw light have long since perished; Aurealis and AntipodeanSF are happy exceptions to this trend, and may their resilience continue.
“The Elephant Sways As It Walks” could be seen as a kind of Bollywood Groundhog Day, but that description does this deft, profound tale a considerable disservice. It’s a very strong opening story, in which the protagonist finds himself repeatedly reliving a crucial sequence of events through memory, striving each time to make a difference. The sense of place is palpable.
“Hotel Terminus” is a plainly-narrated story of a galactic traveller who strands himself in an intriguing but run-down backwater on the planet of St. Catherine. The events underpinning his predicament are never made entirely clear, but a sense of foreboding and unformed menace is evident.
“The World According to Kipling” is an intriguing, detailed, but to my mind mildly unsatisfying turn-of-the-century perspective on the shape of things to come. There are a lot of historical grace notes here, but for me they didn’t quite gel into a consistent narrative. Still, it’s deliciously readable, and propulsive enough.
“Age of Democracy” displays an unsettlingly detailed knowledge of dynamics within the Australian public service. The background adds plausibility to a distinctly Orwellian story.
“5 Cigarettes and 2 Snakes” is the first of several stories set in a post-revolutionary Australia (hereafter abbreviated as PRA) Domini Trey, a loyal citizen of the revolution, is played for a fool by his old friends Timofish and Katiya. Here, Maloney combines insightful commentary on the operation of Marxist and capitalist societies with an engaging and twisted storyline.
“The Taxi Driver”, another PRA tale, introduces Jerzhi Kapuscinski, a BOSS (Bureau of State Security) operative masquerading as a taxi driver. Here, Jerzhi is charged with stemming a black-market trade in biotech replicants of domestic pets, something which turns out to be a little more high-stakes than you might expect. There’s a nice sense of menace and double-dealing throughout.
“The Shifting Sands of the Interior” is a shorter piece with enough ambiguity of location to leave the reader guessing as to its intent. I found it interesting and mildly unsettling, but its partly-allegorical nature and its emphasis on tell, not show, detracted from full immersion.
“Keeping the Meter Running” is another piece in the PRA sequence, again featuring Jerzhi Kapuscinski. It’s done as a postmodern noir detection pastiche, which I think plays to one of Maloney’s strengths: he excels in the evocation of past literary styles, and obviously enjoys himself in the process. “Meter” doesn’t have a particularly original crime at its centre, but it sets such a cracking pace I doubt you’ll feel shortchanged.
“Meat Puppets” is a visceral story, told by a narrator as he hangs, freezing to death, in a meat storage locker. Not quite as grim as I’d been expecting – the opening foreshadows a terrible fate, but it felt to me as though Maloney was deliberately pulling his punches on this one. Still, it’s never a good idea to get romantically involved with the butcher’s wife…
“Moving With The Herd” is a reasonably straightforward tale of two exobiologists, neither of them quite what they seem, investigating the fauna on an alien planet. As with much of Maloney’s writing, the strength is not so much the degree of unpredictability, but the reliability with which action induces reaction. This one, for me, was one of the collection’s highlights.
“Bush of Ghosts” imagines a totalitarian near-future, one of Maloney’s more common preoccupations. This time it’s a fascist (rather than Marxist) future, with white supremacists pushing for world domination in a world where not everyone is as white as they seem. Maloney tends to do this sort of thing rather well, and this is as good an example as any of his abilities.
“Requiem for the General” is another PRA story, and probably my favourite of these. A Sydney historian, loyal (who isn’t?) to the Party, travels to the proudly recalcitrant country town of Beatrice, hoping to uncover the lost diaries of the General, a latter-day folk hero/reactionary who led a doomed resistance to the revolution. The local publican’s daughter, Jedda, takes a shine to him, but what are her motives? This story pulls off a delicate interplay between the personal and the political.
“Memories of the Colour-Field” is a more understated perspective on alien ecology than is seen in “Moving With The Herd”. A young boy grows to adulthood on a world in which he’s convinced there’s more than has met the eyes of others. It’s a story which works well enough, but it doesn’t particularly shine out amongst its neighbours.
“A Very Long War” has an ending which, in my opinion, doesn’t quite do justice to the dilemma which the author has set up. As a parable on war and human nature, it works, but I felt it could have done with more depth, more exposition of crisis.
In “The Embargo Traders”, a passenger on a spaceship is murdered. Except that, aboard spaceships, people don’t die… This tale presents as a straightforward detection story, but the subsequent twists pull it out of this mode.
“In The Service of the Shogarth” tells us that our alien overlords have our best interests at heart. Or, rather, their own best interests. Or, well, actually, whose?
“A Columbian Breakfast” is a quietly disconcerting take on lives lived under quantum principles. What happens when the fates of those around you become disentangled?
“The Parallax Garden” operates on two dramatically different levels. From one perspective, it’s a rather wistful SF story of not-belonging. From another perspective, it’s a rather nasty non-SF piece. Hence, I suppose, the title…
In “Elecktra Dreams”, Stephen meets a woman who is, apparently, a family friend, at his mother’s funeral. But the nature of the friendship may not be as it seems.
“Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” plays with gender, relationships, and inhumanity. I felt that it didn’t attain all of the goals to which it aspired – it’s a relatively short tale, and lacks the scope to build the tension towards a foreshadowed awful predicament. Its point is made, though not with the force and style of which Maloney elsewhere shows himself capable.
“Green-Keeping” is the collection’s shortest piece, and (I suspect) the only one to qualify as flash fiction. It’s evocative, though not a particularly strong closing piece.
Overall, Crypto-System is a worthwhile collection of Maloney’s varied fictional offerings. With my own personal preferences leaning more towards SF played with a reasonably straight bat, I was most impressed by the several post-revolutionary Australia stories, as well as by the standalones “The Elephant Sways As It Walks”, “Moving With The Herd”, and “Bush of Ghosts”. But I’d naturally expect that other readers would find different favourites amongst the almost two dozen stories here. As an overview of Maloney’s earlier work, this book does a good and thorough job. If you’re interested in short fiction which is, in the best sense, speculative, then Maloney is definitely one of the authors of whom you should be aware.