Matthew Hughes,
The Commons
(Robert J. Sawyer, 2007)

Jack Vance has perhaps the most immediately recognizable style of any science fiction author, so I was looking forward to seeing if Matthew Hughes was carrying on the tradition as suggested by several reviews I'd read of his work. On the basis of The Commons, I'd say he can do Vance when he wants to, but mostly he's his own man.

No doubt intentionally, he suggests Vance early on with names, settings and dialogue that honor the old master. Take this example. Eminence Malabar, who now heads a dissident sect of the Revered Society of Hydromats asks, "How will you proceed?" Preceptor Huffley of the Institute of Historical Inquiry answers as a hand idly stirs the air, "Oh the usual approach. Assess the elements, delineate the parameters, identify the paradigm, adjust the interactions." Classic tongue-in-cheek Vance.

With a hero named Gath Bandar and a scattering of Vance's favorite obscure words such as "charabanc" and "foofaraw," it becomes even clearer that Hughes knows his man. He does him so well, and I enjoy Vance so much, that I was pleasurably hooked. But the feeling faded as Bandar's adventures unfolded in most unVance-like ways.

Robert J. Sawyer writes in his introduction to the book that it is a "fixup" -- that is, a novel strung together from shorter pieces published earlier. He points out that fixups have an honorable tradition. Asimov's Foundation trilogy and Clark's 2001 are among the hall-of-fame examples. Sawyer is one of today's best SF authors, but with all due respect, The Commons isn't headed for the hall.

To begin with, the fixup seams are too obvious. The Vance-like beginning story lays out a potentially interesting plotline, but that line and two fascinating characters abruptly disappear. Instead, as the book continues, Bandar becomes increasingly badgered and befuddled as Hughes repeatedly drops him into The Commons of the title, a dream-like but real version of the collective unconscious a la Carl Jung. Bandar is a noonaught, able to enter and travel in The Commons at will. While there he encounters mythic landscapes, prototypical life events and classic historical turning points. Archetypes and numerous extras populate this strange universe. As part of his training at the Institute of Historical Research, Bandar has learned how to avoid being seen while exploring, a necessity because of the constant risk of being absorbed by The Commons and thus incapacitated for the real world.

The plot thickens as he gradually realizes that after many thousands of static years The Commons is becoming conscious and beginning to use him for its own ends. It appears that he may be unable to avoid absorption.

The Commons, unlike most of Vance, is almost pure fantasy, imaginative and clever, as when Bandar becomes an unwilling part of the tale of the three little pigs. But for the most part the plot is disjointed, often arbitrary and without the realistic details that allow suspension of disbelief. Characters lack depth. Those who inhabit The Commons are only partially human since they represent pure and uncomplicated archetypes, and the landscape they inhabit, being dreamlike, is sketchily described.

This is my first encounter with Hughes. Given his long list of successful short stories and novels, I conclude I could have picked a better entry point. The Commons is unlikely to appeal to those outside his already substantial fan base. Based on reviews I've read, Majestrum: A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn may be a better bet for newcomers. As for Vance, if you haven't read the Demon Princes series, you're in for a real treat.

review by
Ron Bierman

2 February 2008

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