[The Gist Hunter and Other Stories by Matthew Hughes. Night Shade Books, 2005. 247 pp. ISBN 1-59780-020-1.]
If you are an experienced reader of genre fiction, the stories in Matthew Hughes’s new collection The Gist Hunter and Other Stories will seem familiar to you. Some of them will seem familiar because most of the fourteen stories collected here have been previously published, many in high profile venues. Half a dozen were published in F & SF, others in Asimov’s and Interzone, etc. Some of those stories fall into linked series, so if you’ve read one Henghis Hapthorn or Guth Bandar story but missed the rest, you’ll want to pick up The Gist Hunter and Other Stories to complete the series. Other elements of the stories may seem familiar because there is a fair continuity between the polished style Hughes employs in his novels, such as Black Brillion, and these stories. (A number of the stories are in the Archonate, the universe developed in Black Brillion, Fools Errant, and Fool Me Twice, but this worldscape is quite accessible, and the stories can be read without any prior knowledge of it.) But the core reason these stories will feel familiar to readers who’ve read widely in science fiction and mysteries is that Hughes is largely using story structures that have already been used before. If this bothers you, you can freely pass on the collection. However, there is a limit to how much it should bother you, because the attraction of Hughes’ work is not the new ideas, but the new twists on old ideas, and the panache with which they are executed.
The six Henghis Hapthorn stories make up the largest portion of The Gist Hunter and Other Stories, and provide the title for the story. Henghis Hapthorn is a discriminator on Old Earth. No, scratch that. Henghis Hapthorn is the foremost discriminator on all of Old Earth, and made so by the immense intellect that allows him to solve the cases which have stumped the official investigating forces of “the scroots” — the Archonate’s Bureau of Scrutiny. In short, Henghis Hapthorn is a consulting detective very much along the lines of Sherlock Holmes. In fact, Hughes has Hapthorn use and re-use lines that echo those delivered by Holmes (near quotations at times). However, since Holmes’s adventures were chronicled by his faithful sidekick and assistant Dr. Watson, but Hapthorn narrates his own accounts of intellectual derring-do, the result is to put Hapthorn’s immense ego on direct display for comic purposes.
These comic effects are multiplied by Hapthorn’s combative relationship with his integrator (at first a computer, but eventually more), which assists him in his cases, and by the pleasantly ridiculous nature of the cases he investigates. For example, in “Mastermindless,” which opens the collection, Hapthorn finds that not only is he no longer brilliant, he is no longer as strikingly attractive as he once was . . . or at least, as he once found himself. Despite missing half his massive mind, Hapthorn deduces and stumbles his way back to brilliance and beauty. Along the way, though, he finds that one of his major premises about the universe was incorrect: magic does function, and does matter. In fact, Hapthorn’s transformations are the work of a trapped demon, with whom he enters into a friendship/working arrangement/symbiosis. What’s more, the universe is on the cusp; the time of rationality and technology are waning, while magic is waxing.
The other Henghis Hapthorn mysteries are all lively and often fun. They work changes on familiar mystery tropes like the locked room mystery, masquerade and false identity, and so on, and Hughes make sure to include familiar character types: the femme fatale, the silent servant secretly controlling the master, the stuffy academic. The fun comes from the broad character portraits drawn, and from watching Henghis Hapthorn’s antics in increasingly impossible situations.
The one drawback to these stories is that very little seems to matter. By that I mean, unlike Sherlock Holmes and his passion for justice, Henghis Hapthorn is driven by ego, and solves puzzles largely because he can. This makes for good comedy, but limited emotional engagement. These are conceptual stories and set pieces.
The same is true of the three Guth Bandar stories contained here, though the universe in which they are set is very different. Bandar is a scholar associated with the Institute for Historical Inquiry. By strict mental control, and with the aid of chanted patterns, Bandar and other scholars can travel through the noosphere — a realm in which all the contents of humanity’s collective unconscious can be found. This means that Bandar can pass in and out of not just specific recognizable myths and fairy tales (Bandar gets stuck in the Three Little Pigs at one point, deals with Circe at another, and deals with the Devil himself in a third), but into and out of archetypical patterns.
Like the idea of the brilliant detective, this idea is a lot of fun — and it has been done before, in various versions. There are echoes of Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions from the 1950s, John Myers Myers’ romp Silverlock, and Heinlein’s Number of the Beast, to name a few. In all of these, point of view characters with some degree of emotional distance pass through familiar stories or story structures, often aided by rationality and/or high technology that allows them to have a rollicking adventure at relatively little risk to themselves.
The same is true for Guth Bandar. The “idiomats” who inhabit the worlds of myth are less real than Bandar, less complex, and less aware. They are essentially trapped in their narratives, which repeat time and again, essentially playing out their purposes for humanity, which visits them either in dreams (most common), or via the Institute’s training (far less common). Bandar’s actual encounters with the myths are mostly light-hearted. Like Henghis Hapthorn, Bandar’s supposed advantages don’t prevent him from playing the fool pretty frequently, or from stumbling his way through heroic accounts. Also like the Henghis Hapthorn tales, relatively little matters. These too are conceptual stories, not stories of great emotional engagement. This is clearly intentional, but it means that Hughes’s attempts to transform the main characters in the final stories of both series fall a bit flat. They make intellectual sense, but have little emotional resonance.
Of the remaining stories, two are time travel stories, one a fictionalized famous person story, one a serial killer story, one a trained-specialist-investigating-a-peculiar-race story, one a youthful encounter with the spiritual story, and one a blend of Jewish and Zen divine fool teaching stories, translated to a fantasy culture. (Yeah, that’s seven categories for the five remaining stories, but some overlap, and I’m trying to allow some suspense to remain intact for interested readers.) All have been done before — some by Star Trek and/or Lloyd Biggle, Jr. and his Interplanetary Relations Bureau — but all are done well here. There are few surprises, and few emotional upsets (save, perhaps in “Bearing Up,” which comes closest to emotional intensity), but without fail, the prose is clear and the stories move briskly along for dependable entertainment.
A few intriguing themes unify the collection. First, motivation is often a mystery. Whether this is an explicit mystery meant to have (comic) spiritual implications, as in “From the Discourses and Edifications of Liw Osfeo,” which closes the collection, or simply accepted as part of the pattern, as in the Gundar stories, it is a constant. People are as they are, and there really isn’t much point in spending time asking why.
However, what also unifies these stories is that many people either aren’t real or don’t matter, and that’s more troubling. Sometimes fake people are created as part of the mystery, as occurs in “The Gist Hunter.” This bothers Henghis Hapthorn, but only a little — until it might happen to him. Likewise, Guth Bandar is mostly concerned with interfering with (killing, changing) the inhabitants of the noosphere because doing so might affect him. He’s not much concerned for them. While this perspective is not unprecedented in things written for entertainment, it does make the collection a bit solipsistic, and moves it towards the shallow end of the spectrum.
Finally, as mentioned before, these are new twists on old tales, not new ideas. This has a great advantage for Hughes and his readers. Hughes can establish the emotional terrain of his stories quickly and efficiently, and readers can trust that all the stories will succeed on their own terms. However . . . it would be nice to see Hughes stretch emotionally, and see what can be done with these themes that really digs deep. “Bearing Up” and the ends of both series suggest he wants to go there. I’d like to see him follow these instincts, and explore new realms of the noosphere.