[The Stone Ship by Peter Raftos, Pandanus Books, 2005, ISBN: 1-74076-135-9]
Never judge a book by its (clipart) cover and God bless all small presses. There must be something in the water in Canberra, Australia at the moment. (Other than toxic algal blooms, mutant carp, and the occasional rusting shopping trolley—but those are topics for another time.) The Stone Ship by Peter Raftos is the second locally written and published speculative-fiction book that has strongly impressed me since I returned to the city this year. (I reviewed The Grinding House by Kaaron Warren in June.)
I was curious about The Stone Ship for two reasons. First, because it’s been getting good reviews in Australian genre and mainstream press. Second, because the press in question is Pandanus Books, which is the publishing arm of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University. Pandanus isn’t a stranger to fiction, but their previous titles have, I believe, tended to be of a more literary persuasion and firmly rooted in lived Australian and regional experiences. What, I wondered, are these guys doing publishing a fantasy novel?
The first clue is in the blurb that describes The Stone Ship’s setting as “a university managed by a Kafkaesque bureaucracy.” Aha! The second clue is in the reading: there’s nothing noticeably “Australian” about this story (that an Australian reader like myself can identify, anyway) but it’s a bloody good book.
The Stone Ship is told in first-person by Shipton, who the reader meets while he is trying to decide between hanging or shooting himself. He is talked out of both options by a ghost, Finch, who cajoles (bewitches?) him into undertaking a journey to the distant University to carry out some unspecified act of revenge on Finch’s behalf.
It is the relationship between Shipton and Finch that is the book’s narrative engine, and this rapidly evolves into a tightly written supernatural thriller. The reader only begins to know Shipton as a self-absorbed not-quite-suicide, but is given enough clues to feel that, prior to his personal tragedy, he was a contented non-entity of no real relevance to the story. Finch is quickly exposed as a very nasty piece of work and the author deftly raises doubts about whether he really is a ghost or just a fractured part of Shipton’s own consciousness—or even a demon out to steal his soul. The line between the two characters becomes progressively more blurred and, early on, the author explicitly questions whether Shipton can even distinguish between his own acts of free will and his actions under Finch’s influence. Not quite knowing if Shipton is battling himself or a ghost adds an interesting dynamic to the rising action.
As suggested above, it is in the University that the author’s homage to Kakfa really comes out. It becomes evident that Finch is both product and personification of the petty viciousness of the bureaucratic University system. In Shipton, one can recognize elements of both Joseph K. from Kafka’s Der Prozess, and K. from Das Schloss. His character isn’t quite the ultimately submissive Joseph K.—he tries to be, but Shipton is too much the individual, too much the fighter. Nor is he the consistent failure that Das Schloss’s K. is. And so the reader must wonder whether he will win free of Finch, or fail, or violently self-destruct. So, too, the Finch-Shipton conflict is embedded in the setting, but not subsumed by it.
The University itself, as it first appears to Shipton and thwarts his attempts to enter, is very much the Castle from Das Schloss. The aforementioned clip art on the front cover is Bruegel’s De toren van Babel and it really couldn’t have been anything else: the University’s physical description is the Tower of Babel from Bruegel’s painting.
It is the ivory tower of academia, stripped of its pristine sheath to expose the corruption, petty politicking and grinding bureaucracy within. In its arrogance and insularity, the collective consciousness of the University simply doesn’t care if its true workings are exposed. And so (it’s hard to stop the comparisons once you start, okay?) Raftos borrows the imagery of Barad-dur, cloaked in darkness and casting its shadow across those who live at its feet. Before the reader even meets them, its bureaucrats and academics have become orcs—genderless, pitiless beings that shun the light.
Once inside the University, the term “Gilliamesque” could be applied just as easily as “Kafkaesque.” While the author’s understanding of Kafka is plainly straight from the source, his imagery owes a more direct debt to the twisted prism of Terry Gilliam’s perverse bureaucratic futures (Brazil, Twelve Monkeys). The blood-frenzy of the rioting librarians and Shipton’s abrupt, befuddled and narrative-breaking arrival in the University’s Sanatorium, for example, are both very Gilliamesque devices. When Raftos introduces the functionary known as The Aardvark, he is virtually channeling Gilliam:
Facing the door, a bald fellow wearing small round spectacles, so dirty as to be almost translucent, sat behind an enormous hardwood desk.... He leapt backwards off his chair. Standing behind his desk, his chin barely cleared it. He walked around to the front, waving at a spot just in front of me. Quick, like a startled deer, the other man raced around and placed a step ladder at the place indicated. The Aardvark climbed it. When he reached the top step, his eyes were slightly above mine. He clasped his hands behind his back and began to rock on the heels of his feet, back and forth, very quickly.
Professor Margolis is another delightful Gilliamesque/Pythonesque supporting character: a ferociously sarcastic rendering of the ultimate intellectual prima donna. One can easily imagine Michael Palin or Eric Idle, in drag, portraying her.
What’s most significant about all of this is that The Stone Ship doesn’t seem derivative. It is, I think, the mark of a very clever writer to be able to take such distinctive keystones of the genre and wider literary culture, create from them fresh and original characters and situations, and aim them with great effect at a new target.
And then there’s the Undermonster, which (while one could speak of Beowulf, or perhaps the unholy bastard spawn of Gollum and Jeremy Irons’ uber-Morlock from the 2002 Time Machine remake) must be said to belong wholly to Raftos. Suffice to say that it adds another level of black surreality to the proceedings.
The Stone Ship isn’t flawless. The writing is occasionally a little too mannered, such as when Shipton refers to himself as “a revenger for a ghost” rather than “an avenger for a ghost.” There are a handful of other instances of jarring text, but they are outweighed by some truly sublime throwaway lines: the ingredients of the soup served in the Sanatorium, for example; or Margolis’ damning assertion regarding the Best of All Possible Worlds.
When Shipton arrives in the Sanatorium, the writing veers perilously into “telling” rather than “showing.” Although, given the physical and emotional wringer that the first-person narrator has been put through, this could be forgiven as an authentic representation of a deeply traumatized person’s experience of the world.
There is an occasional lack of follow-through to the inevitable consequences of some physical incidents. For example, when Shipton sustains an eye injury, there is no mention of his difficulties from losing his depth perception or being unable to see things on his injured side.
That the story doesn’t rely on its satirization of university institutions to push it along is, I think, a strength. But it does have its downside. Some promising ideas (which I won’t spoil) aren’t followed through. This, one suspects, may be a consequence of the tight narrative demands of the thriller storyline. Even so, contrary to the cliché, one is tempted to say that more would’ve been more.
Which brings me to the ending. Here, it looks for a horrible moment like Raftos has dropped the ball. It seems that the book will overstay its welcome by a chapter and a half before finally dribbling off into obscurity; that the author, too, feels there was more to say about the University and is trying to jam it all in at the end. But then, somehow, Raftos manages to pull it off with.... well, perhaps I won’t spoil that either.
In conventional fantasy publishing terms, where the dollar value of a book is apparently measured by its physical resemblance to a house brick, The Stone Ship (a mere 217 pages) might not seem like great value. Particularly not with an AU$29.95 price tag for an odd, sawn-off volume that more closely resembles a mass-market paperback than a genuine trade format. Of course, northern hemisphere readers are likely to find that $29.95 Australian rupiah (including postage to anywhere in the world, according to the Pandanus web site) don’t stack up to much of a hill of beans in your local currency. And didn’t I say that a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover (or shape, or size, or the inch-thickness of its spine)?
The Stone Ship’s 217 pages are full of well-chosen words and clever sentences that create a dark and wonderful world and tell a story that is entertaining on several levels—and that offers a few knowing chuckles (and possibly flashbacks) to anyone who’s ever braved the university system. If, like this reviewer, you’ve ever had the temerity to publicly contradict the enfant terrible of the philosophy department, or explained to a senior librarian that you aren’t, in fact, studying entomology and that therefore the $200 in fines for overdue books on this topic can’t possibly be yours, you are likely to get a kick out of The Stone Ship. If you are, as yet, unscarred by such experiences, but you enjoy an intelligent, dark fantasy page-turner, it may be worth going e-shopping as well.