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Tabula Rasa

Vampire Cities

by D'Ettut, Abbott Bentley, 2000, ISBN 0-9586091-4-4

A review by David Carroll

Vampire Cities, a novel by the mysteriously named D'Ettut, asks a question on its back cover. What really happened at the Sydney Olympics? A good question, and the sort of thing that might be fun to find out, particularly in a nice-looking book like this one. And while the events that play out at the end of the book couldn't be said to be what really happened, they are certainly worth a look. But I wouldn't let your regard -- positive or negative -- of that much-hallowed sporting event influence the choice whether to read the novel. In fact, deciding what criteria to use turns out to be somewhat complicated.

For a start, it's not a vampire novel. At least, 'not in the Bram Stoker sense of the word', as a character writes. The mysterious Vampire Club plays a constant role, keeping in the shadows and menacing our protagonist, but they are more concerned with business transactions and modern-day plagues than arch dialogue and drinking blood. The more apposite word from the title is 'Cities'. London, Adelaide, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney itself and more besides are visited and contrasted, as the protagonist searches for his City of Light.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Anderson Christian Hans (his parents had a sense of humour) is an ideas man. He travels the world visiting conferences, tourist haunts and generally beating his own path to come up with schemes for turning money into more money. But recently he has realised that some of his stranger ideas might be far more important. Ideas about extraterrestrials influencing mankind, paving the way for Contact. He is eventually given a great gift from -- he must presume -- one of those alien intelligences, but faced with dangerous enemies and his own hazy past, time starts running out.

Sounds all pretty good. Faced with the author's French pseudonym you might also expect a somewhat arty approach (not to mention the quote on the back about 'Salvador Dalì in print'), and there are signs of that in the novel, most particularly in the poetry written by various of the characters. But that's also somewhat misleading, as a great deal of it is told in a straightforward fashion, its ideas -- on a wide and often fascinating range of subjects -- relayed almost effortlessly. Being a novel about locations, it contains plenty of good detail about Anderson's travels and the varying conditions he finds (the sections on Adelaide and Kuala Lumpur are especially interesting), and certainly give the impression the author knows what he's talking about. Even the poetry isn't that bad (nor Anderson's musing on the place and worth of such an art form in this day and age).

But after all that good stuff, it never really comes together. Vampire Cities seems a disjointed thing, of uncertain drama and unanswered questions. Perhaps its main problem is that I never really knew who either Anderson or his enemies were.

I said Anderson travelled the globe coming up with ideas. One trouble I found was that I didn't really know why. One of the main plot points involves his negotiations about a series of think tanks that he has designed, but it all seemed very abstract, despite the cut throat politics that they inspire. We do get to see one of his ideas being formed -- a strange and possibly viable one about attracting Aussie tourists in England -- but I don't think it is enough. Of course having a strongly defined protagonist isn't essential, and an important part of the novel is his confused memories and alcoholic fugues. It could have worked, had the background been stronger. That background comes in three parts (if you don't count the cities themselves): the aliens, the Vampire Club and a series of companions Anderson meets along the way. The aliens were deliberately vague -- perhaps even nonexistent -- which is again fitting. The Vampire Club we get to see a little more of, but in the end they don't do anything. They certainly make threats, and drive Anderson into a panic that is a major impetus to his character (sort of -- we do get descriptions of the effects of this panic, but never conveyed with any sense of urgency), but it all seems to fall away. I'm wondering if there was some great battle we only caught glimpses of. Something was happening in Sydney at the end there, I'm sure. Finally, his friends provide a series of sounding boards for ideas, but never really do anything either. Miles Doogleef is the most significant of them, and seems to have some intricate plan for helping Anderson, involving messages in bottles among other things. Whatever comes of it is again unclear. I found the sum total of these enigmas to be emptiness rather than enticing mystery.

There are a couple other problems as well. At one point the author (or possibly just Anderson) seems to be implying that Sydney has no corruption, which apart all real life evidence to the contrary, contradicts his previous chapter. This is not really a trivial matter in the book. A couple of characters also make some jarring comments about the local Mardi Gras. Although as a cultural phenomenon it is hardly beyond reproach, let alone by a fictional character, combining this with some lisping stereotypes of homosexuality seemed particularly unnecessary.

Maybe I'm thick, or not arty enough, but in the end I just didn't get it. I liked the potential of this novel, and often the individual scenes worked well. There is no shortage of ideas, and it is the ideas that provide the strongest framework -- character actions and motivations run a distant second. Thematically it seems strong, although I occasionally wondered if there was any great difference between Anderson's money-making schemes and those of the Big Business which opposes him (okay, the use of ruthless and destructive methods is probably a case breaker on that matter). The quest for the City of Light is a great basis for such a novel, particularly with the detail the author provides of the alternatives, and the book certainly gains marks for undermining expectations. Even the inclusion of the Olympics -- which might well have been just a cheap marketing ploy and undoubtedly did help distribution -- was handled in a brief but appropriate way. The publisher, Abbott Bentley, is a small one, but has done a great job on the packaging (I notice D'Ettut has two previous novels from the same house, Greenwars: the End of Mankind and Pie Square, though both are a lot harder to find).

Vampire Cities is definitely interesting, but in the end more bemusing than satisfying.

 

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