May. 12th, 2008

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Matt Hughes
400 pages (in manuscript)
published in 2008

It was [ profile] james_nicoll who suggested to hold a Matt Hughes reviewathon of his latest novel Template, since Hughes was kind enough to offer an advance copy to any reviewer or blogger who was willing to do something with it. James wanted a reviewathon because he found it "tremendously annoying that Hughes is not better known than he is". I figured it would be an easy way to sample a writer I knew of but had not yet read so this week I found myself reading my first Matt Hughes novel.

Had it not been for James and his reviewathon I don't think I would've read this novel, as the plot description didn't sound that interesting. Conn Labro is an indentured duelist on Thrais, one of the Ten Thousand Worlds, happily fighting all kind of duels and games for his employer, making them lots of money while never quite paying off his indenture, though he is now one of the top ranked duelists in all the Ten Thousand Worlds. He was indentured as an infant you see, so has a lot of indenture to work off. But all this changes when Hallis Tharp died. Tharp's an old man, the closest thing to a friend Conn has, who has been coming to Conn every week for most of his life to play a game of paduay. Conn sets out to see what happened to Tharp when he doesn't show up for his game, discovers he's died and he has inherited what's left of his meager possesions, only to see his employer's game house blown up before his eyes when returning home. It then turns out he's inherited a bearers deed to some offworld possesion and after he and Jenore Mordene, another friend of Tharp are attacked again, Conn sets off with her to find his destiny elsewhere in the Ten Thousand Worlds.

It all sounded a bit too much like a half dozen other science fiction novels. Hadn't Heinlein done something similar in Citizen of the Galaxy? And wasn't that in fact, a bit of a ripoff of Rudyard Kipling's Kim? Matters weren't helped by the first few chapters, which were a bit too rich with infodump to me, with Conn thinking to himself and explaining the system he lived under. Fortunately this turned out to be a momentary hiccup. Once the story proper got underway things moved much smoother and it becomes clear what Hughes is trying to accomplish.

Template is a classical coming of age science fiction story, in the best tradition of Heinlein and Clarke. Conn himself is somewhat of a tabula rasa, a big innocent outside the context of the gaming house he was indentured too, little more than a cog in the machine, convinced of the utter rightness of the anarcho-capitalist society he grew up in without ever having thought deeply about it. Once he's forced to leave it and come into contact with other cultures and ways of living, other moral structures he starts to grow as a person, questioning some of his society's values, but without this becoming a conversion story. The central conciet Hughes builts this story on is the idea that all of the cultures encountered in the novel embody one of the seven deadly sins, which of course means all of them are flawed in some essential way and hence none has the right answer.

Looking over the reviews James Nicoll has collected so far, one writer Hughes keeps being compared to is Jack Vance. I can see why this would be a tempting comparison, as Vance is perhaps best known for his inventiveness in creating new, exotic and often utterly alien cultures. With his Ten Thousands Worlds set in a future long after our own times have been forgotten, Hughes seems to be trying to do the same. Yet it's not a comparison I would make, as he misses some of the outlandishness, the exoticism, some of the sensuality of Vance. Instead I come back to another science fiction grandmaster, one I've mentioned before: Robert A. Heinlein. Hughes style of writing has some of the same bluff, no-nonsense tone of let me tell you how the world works Heinlein had in his juveniles, and he also has the same knack of undermining some of his explenations by the actions of his characters.

In the end then, what Hughes has written is a classic sort of science fiction novel, which in a just world should be coming out as a mass market paperback with a huge print run, to be bought for thirteen year nieces and nephews everywhere. It's far removed from the usual modern science fiction I read, not something I would've sought out on my own, but I'm glad I've read it.

(If you like this review, why not visit my my incomparable booklog?)


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