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In the Dreamtime
This will be a review of "Rynemonn: Leopard Dreaming" by Terry Dowling, but first, a poll:

Have you heard of Terry Dowling?


Have you read a book or a story by Terry Dowling

Can't remember

Are you?

North American

Though Australia's fantasy authors are doing very well, thank you, her SF writers are not so well known. Terry Dowling, for my money the best of those I've read, has not emerged far beyond the Australian small press. (First Aphelion, and now Coeur de Lion.) The books are beautifully produced but expensive and often difficult to lay hands on. The print runs tend to be small, too. Though this was published late last year, I had to wait for a reprint, shipped from Australia.

So, why haven't he been picked up by other publishers? Well, perhaps because Dowling is the most Australian of the Australian SF writers – the stories are set in a recognisably Australian landscape, and make extensive use of Aboriginal myth. Or perhaps because he is by no means the most accessible of writers, and because it is difficult to put a tag on his work: not space opera, not hard SF, not mundane, not military.) Perhaps it is because there is something rather uncomfortable about some of the themes and world building. Maybe it is just because he is not a novelist, and not at all prolific. I have been waiting for this book since 1998, which was when I discovered Dowling, and his most famous hero, Tom Tyson, while the last collection detailing Tom's quest (Twilight Beach) was published in 1993..

Everything is turned upside down in this world – the red heart of Australia is now the richest place on Earth, ruled by the Aboriginal tribes, with the 'State of Nation' – all the other people - confined to the rim. It's a ruined world, post oil, ecologically sound, its landscapes and names changed, inward looking, with much ennui among the Nationals. The Ab'Os, genetically upgraded, control technology, placing boundaries on what others can scientifically explore and, as a result, strange art forms and stranger superstitions have flourished. The Ab'O Clever Men are, apparently, in touch with tribal archetypes and gods, the haldanes, able to manifest as brain scourging, killing entities. There are other dangers; overhead, satellites watch, ready to destroy with laser blasts those who step outside the bounds of the law, or defy powerful men or nations. Decaying AIs (the Belltrees) stand like telegraph poles at the wayside, and the main means of transportation both along the desert roads and across the desert itself are the charvolants – wheeled, kite-powered (and occasionally armed) sand-ships. Non-aboriginal Australians are not allowed to sail charvolants on certain roads or places.. Except, that is, for a little group of seven commanding powerful charvolants, who have a special dispensation to be treated as tribal vessels – the Coloured Captains.

Tom Tyson, amnesiac, finding himself, by lottery, owner of the great charvolant Rynosseros, given a Hero colour (Blue) by the rogue AI ID-5982-J, and entered in the Great Passage Book as the Blue Captain, sets out to solve the mystery of his past, the time he spent in the Ab'O asylum, the Madhouse, and the meaning of the only three things he can remember; a ship, a star, and a woman's face. It has taken four collections of short stories to get there, but the answers have finally emerged.

(The series, in order, is Rynosseros, Blue Tyson, Twilight Beach and Rynemonn: Leopard Dreaming.)

By Rynemonn, Tom is on the last stages of his quest. He has been through battles and love and despair, found out a great deal he is not supposed to know, and is now caught up in a struggle for power between various Ab'O tribes, foreigners and A.I.s. After the events of Twilight Beach which resulted in him being declared a pirate, he is "Doing the Line" - trying to find answers in his own mind, via the deep desert. The book consists of eleven short stories, of which four have not been published before, and there are nine linking pieces called, as expected "Doing the Line", looking at the situation from different perspectives; Tom's, the AIs, the Tribes, and the Coloured Captains, and forwarding the main narrative until we reach the three stories called, collectively, Rynemonn (Coyote Struck by Lightning, Coming Down and Sewing Whole Cloth) which takes up the narrative thrust to the final revelations.

The relationship of the links to the stories is not always obvious, because you never know what you are going to get in a Tom Tyson story. One of these consists entirely of a post-battle dialogue between Tom and a sentient (A.I.) sword (Swordplay.) Another (Tesserina and the Target Man) is seen only from the point of view of heavily pregnant tribal woman deliberately marooned in the desert without water. Another (Fear-Me-Now) is an SF murder mystery. No Hearts to be Broken is no more than a vignette, giving insight into some more of the strange technology of this world, and varied attitudes to Artificial Life and Artificial Intelligence, but is full of beautiful images, while The Maiden Death is a monster/horror story. Two longer – and, in a way, linked – stories are, to my mind, not as successful. Ships for the Sundance Sea is character-based, and very little more than a sort of passengers-on-a-liner dinner party conversations, with some strange and possibly (or not) significance to Tom's past, but when it ends we are no more forward than we were. It's possibly the worst story here, though interesting enough.The Bull of September, which involves a trip to a decaying (and forbidden) National arcology out in the desert, a surrealists' ball where all the attendees have been poisoned, and a lot of posturing for effect, is better, with some stunning images, and does get us a little forrarder.

Though the plots are often interesting (and sometimes obscure) they are not why these stories are so fascinating. What is is the extraordinary world that Dowling is building from snatches and sidelights, his characters and his prose. It is both very real and hallucinatory, like the desert itself. He's been compared to Cordwainer Smith, and there is the same hallucinatory feel, the slightly old-fashioned prose-poetry style that directly addresses the reader (most of the stories have a narrator) that does not always work, but is astonishing when it does, and the feeling that full understanding is teasing you from the shadows. I'd also compare him to Roger Zelazny, in that they both write books that feel like fantasy but are, in fact, science fictional in every detail.

That prose is extraordinary. It cries out to be read aloud. The rhythms are Australian, though the dialogue has only the tiniest touch of current Australian patois (in the use of "chavi" for "charovolant"). Yet it can be extremely awkward and artificial, not to mention ungrammatical, all at the same time.

I greeted Patrick and Dent at their night-watch, felt the familiar exhilaration of being under the vast spread of stars, the waves and folds right there in sharp, wheeling infinities, the running lights of God. I stood laved and stroked by the transit wind, aware that what had seemed limned, plunging patches of nebulae were in fact the kites! We had kites, yes, shifting upon those heavens in dramatic swathes. It was as if black holes played there, all this their dinner table. There and gone. There, gone, and back again, damned and reprieved, all in seconds. No talk was possible; Patrick, Dent and I were driven to silence by all this given, shriving night.

Yet the dialogue patterns are spare and strange, even when at their most sfnal:

"But it's still reclament technology, Tom."

"But adapted, Lys, adjusted. Very safe."

"It's when you hear the stories: something despoiling those revenant layaways at Brada Coe, getting into the Cold People creche, affecting the life readings like that."

"That was National, not Tribal, " I said, wondering why she kept at this. "The creche custodians. Well-intentioned by all accounts."

"All right," Lys said, but too quickly. "Probably, but they were using flatlined CPs for nanotech experiments. Seeing if they could restore autonomic functions, duplicate the most basic tribal techniques."

"Flatlined CPs, Lys. Spoiled. Try and see it as National research into nanonics at the most fundamental level. Trying to get back some of the old knowledge. They were well meaning—"

"They claimed. How it begins." She was annoyed, finding a way to use her fear. "It's Burke and Hare all over again."

There are themes running through the book: death and ceremonies of death, wind and the desert and the sea, nanotech and biotech, storytelling and how it gives a kind of life, deceptions and masks, and the importance of names.

No concessions are made, with very few recaps. References to in-series historical events such as those at Heart-and-Hand and Caedria are thrown into the mix, and if you haven't read those earlier stories or have forgotten them, you have to guess at their meaning. Dowling hardly ever explains – and so the other writer he reminds me of is James Branch Cabell, and that only because of the enormous number of mythic and linguistic references embedded in the stories. They have always been there but, as Dowling grows older, his style becomes denser, thick with reference and allegory.

On the other hand, the last three stories in the book tell of how certain Ab'O leaders at last decide to destroy both the Coloured Captains and the entity that appointed them, how Tom's allies came to his aid in unexpected ways, and what happened at the final confrontation between the great charvolants on the salt lake Air, where such battles have been traditionally fought. These three stories – really a novella – are atypical in that they are full of action and revelation.

Oh, and for those of you who are worried about these things and have noticed that Tom is a National and, plainly, many of his foes are Ab'O, affection and admiration for the tribes runs through the stories. If his enemies are Ab'O, so are of his good friends, supporters and, indeed, lovers. Nor are the Nationals always portrayed in a good light. Tribal people are dominant in this world and their leaders conspire to hold onto their power, both military and commercial, the same as any other nations.

Why do I love these books so much and why should you want to read them? Well, they push my buttons by being internally logical and full of surprising societies, tech, and myth which you have to collect piece by piece (infodumps are very rare, though there is a short one at the start here) and build up into the full picture, just as Tom does. They are also, to be honest, Romances in the old sense, which is, I am afraid, another of my soft spots. Because Dowling has created an extraordinarily complex world of the future, and one that speaks to us even more today because of the ecological, cultural (and, indeed, racial) issues that lie at its heart. And, hell, because they are exciting and Tom is a very likeable hero... while an occasional line of prose will blow me away, though it has to be said that not everyone will find it to their taste.

But I want-want-want Malgré, the unpublished novel in this series. Will someone please get Terry D. to revise it, and find a publisher.
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One aspect of this not knowing what the category is perhaps rests on it being a fantasy/sf mix. Typically, stories fall into one category or the other, with sf stories at least trying to imply that there is a scientific explanation for the technology even if it appears to violate known laws of physics, while in most fantasy stories there is no technology more advanced than the steam engine, and rarely anything even close to that level.

Ignoring the normal expectations of categories of writing has, from what you say, allowed these stories to look at things from a new perspective, but it may confuse some people at first.

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