Troy by Simon Brown
Reviewed by Ben Peek
23 May 2006
It has taken eight years for Simon Brown's second collection, Troy, to see print. Originally slated for publication in 1998, the same year as his first collection, Cannibals of the Fine Light, Troy fell victim to the uncertainties of the independent publishing world. Since that time, however, the book has been rumoured to contain Brown's strongest short fiction work: a cycle of stories inspired by Homer's epic tragedy, the Iliad. Many of the stories comprising Troy were originally published in Australia's most respected magazines of the '90s: Aurealis and Eidolon. It is from the latter that editor Jonathan Strahan emerged, and where Sean Williams began has career. If being originally published in these venues was the best possible start for Brown in Australia, the work was further helped in its reputation by receiving good reviews and going on to be reprinted in various Year's Best volumes. "The Masque of Agamemnon" (1997, written with Sean Williams), for instance, was reprinted in Gardner Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction, and "The Mark of Thetis" (1996) was reprinted in both David Hartwell and Kathryn Kramer's Year's Best Fantasy and Jonathan Strahan and Jeremy Byrne's Year's Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, while the story "Imagining Ajax" (1998) was most recently reprinted in respected editor and critic Peter McNamara's collection Wonder Years, a selection of the best Australian speculative fiction from the past decade.
The rumours don't end with the stories themselves. In the eight years that Troy has waited to see print, it was rumoured to have passed through three different independent publishers in Australia before finally finding a home at Russell B. Farr's Ticonderoga Publications. If the work within Troy comes to us from publications that dominated the Australian scene in the '90s, then it is worth noting that its publisher is also a beast from the same period. Brown's collection marks the return of Ticonderoga Publications, which ceased producing books in 1999 when the Australian government brought in the GST (Goods and Services Tax) that raised the price of books by ten percent. Under Farr, Ticonderoga Publications gathered a reputation for producing sturdy, thick-papered, elegant collections that, seven to eight years later, show no sign of warping or discolouration. It is a pleasure that with Troy, then, I am able to say that the same elegance, the same attention to design, the same love that was found in the '90s, remains.
But what of the work itself?
Well, as a collection, Troy is both a success and a failure.
The overall standard of the work that comprises the substance of Troy is quite high. The one story that is of a substandard quality is Brown's first professional sale, "The Return of Ideomeneus" (1981), but it has been placed as an appendix at the back of the collection, removing it from the main content of the book. It appears, instead, as a curiousity, a piece that has been included in the interest of completism, and for those who would like to see how Brown has matured over the twenty-five years of his career. Beyond this, the only disappointment is "A New Song for Odysseus" (1992), wherein the Greek Gods are portrayed as greasy Hollywood producers trying to start a sequel to the Iliad, which is forgettable in both execution and concept.
Brown's work has never been considered that of a stylist. He is not pushing the boundaries of sentence structure, narration, or character design. Instead, what the reader will find in Brown is a traditionalist, a writer who writes character-driven prose that, depending on the requirements of the story and characters within it, uses description heavily or sparingly. Brown's strength, then, arises from his ability to convey the emotions of his characters and to connect them with the fictional world that he portrays, allowing mood and tone to carry the reader through, rather than plot. The quote below is taken from what I consider (in terms of character) to be the most resonant story in the collection, "The Dreaming Seas Beneath Cassandra":
The first thing Cassandra Gibson noticed when she reached the dive boat’s anchor was that pig blood looked green twenty metres down. As it swirled in the water like cigarette smoke in a sunlit room, curving and twisting with small invisible currents, she reminded herself that at that depth everything looked green or blue. Still, the blood’s colour seemed absurd somehow, a betrayal of its origins.
Here, in the very first paragraph of the story, Brown uses the false imagery of the pig's blood to connect the reader to the theme of his character: betrayal. As the story unfolds, and we learn that Cassandra's husband is cheating on her and that Cassandra herself, knowing this, is betraying herself by not confronting him about it, the memory of blood turned green in the water, the betrayal of the blood in not being itself, becomes more important, connecting the reader to the tragedy that will eventually befall them all.
The next story is the similarly constructed "The Mark of Thetis." In this 1930s-set tale, Achilles, a young German, and his overprotective mother find their lives disrupted by new neighbours. While the name Achilles is a touch jarring in this context, especially when set beside Meinecke and Schaub and Emil and Nina, the relationship between Achilles and his mother, hovering on sexual abuse, holds within it a nice sense of tragedy that drives the story until its end. Troy closes with the equally strong "Imagining Ajax," which narrates the encounter between an elderly literature critic, Michael Norris, and the first conscious artificial intelligence, Ajax, at the time when Australia becomes a republic. Also worthy of note is "The Masque of Agamemnon." Set in the distant future, the story reimagines the opening of the Trojan War as a representative of the "Trojan" people visits a warlike race of eight-foot-tall Greeks who insist on calling him Paris. Written with Sean Williams, the story is a departure from Brown's slow, unfolding narratives of character and mood, and instead gives way to Williams's quick, plot-driven narrative of just who and what the Greeks are.
It is with "The Masque of Agamemnon," however, that the failure of Troy as a collection is apparent. While the Iliad inspires the aforementioned story, it, like the majority of pieces in the collection, does not engage it. Instead, it uses Homer's tragedy as the basis for a futuristic mystery but offers nothing in the way of reinterpretation of the original; neither do the others I have mentioned. "Imagining Ajax," for example, has more to do with the narrator's feeling of no longer having a home he can recognise due to the birth of a republic. Out of the nine stories in the book, only two, "The Dissections of Machaon" (1992) and "Why My Wife Left Me and Other Stories by Diomedes" (1994), actively engage with Homer's epic, the first by basing its story around a reappearing dead body in the Trojan War to convey the sense of loss on both sides, and the second by telling the story of a returning space marine who cannot connect with his wife due to his time spent away. This latter story, however, echoes Joe Haldeman's The Forever War a little too closely, and its derivative nature gets in the way of its connection to the Trojan War.
In truth, I found that the Iliad was barely referenced beyond names and vague connections to character and plot in Troy. The Trojan Prince Hector, for example, appears briefly at the end of "The Mark of Thetis," but he is otherwise absent, an unforgivable occurrence in a cycle of stories inspired by the Iliad. Likewise, many of the Trojan characters are missing, and it can be argued that Brown's interest is primarily in Achilles and Odysseus as characters. That in itself is not a great problem, for the stories individually are fine. It is when the reader encounters a story like "Love and Paris" (1997), placed within the centre of the slim collection, and which has no relation to the Iliad at all (Brown himself admits this in his comments after it), that they begin to ask themselves just what it is that Brown was attempting to do. Did he just want to take slivers of the characters and reimagine them? If so, would it not have helped for him to use his time in the commentary at the end of each story to talk about what he was drawing from, and to connect with the Iliad from there?
Fiction inspired by Homer's work is not uncommon. In truth, it is a bit of an old trick, and it runs to all kinds of results. Comic writer and artist Eric Shanower is brilliant at recreating the Iliad, in his series Age of Bronze, as a realistic historical drama without any element of the fantastic; fantasy author David Gemmell is set to release Troy: Shield of Thunder, the second book in his Trojan War reimagining later this year; and Christopher Logue continues to rewrite the Iliad in free-verse poetry that, even though the efforts underwhelm me, has recently won the Whitbread Award.
In comparison to these, Troy is a pale book. As a collection of fiction, it is certainly not a badly constructed selection of stories, and Brown deserves credit for producing work that, being at least eight years old, has held up well. (There is one new story, "The Cup of Nestor," from 2006, and it fits well, tonally, within the book, though I felt its plot of journeying up an Amazonian river with resulting madness played too closely to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; like "Love and Paris," however, I did not see how it connected to the Iliad). However, as a cycle of stories, Troy is a frail and poorly thought-out work, which is truly a shame, given how long it has taken to see print.