Godplayers author Damien Broderick sure likes him some classic Zelazny. He says so in the novel's afterword. He's also got a serious affection for old-school Leiber. That, too, is in the afterword. More importantly, though, is the fact that Broderick's love for nitty-gritty, classic SF is evident on practically every page of Godplayers. It's a book that's jam-packed with ideas and riffs on once-familiar concepts, taking such tropes as multiverses and immortality and twisting them in fresh, unexpected directions. If ever a novel begged for annotations, this one is it.
Broderick is, for those unfamiliar with his body of work, an Australian speculative fiction writer, critic and scholar. He possesses a knowledge of the genre that is both wide and deep, and draws upon that wellspring of inspiration early and often throughout Godplayers. But most readers are going to pick up on the Zelazny vibe, and that's understandable. Godplayers
reads as if it were the Chronicles of Amber written by the young Roger Zelazny -- when he was just starting out, and setting the world on fire with challenging, audacious work.
That's not to belittle what Broderick has done -- far from it. He has taken the road-weary "Sense of Wonder" from decades past, those glorious ideas from the mists of time where every
impossibility seemed probable, buffed them up and mounted them on a custom-made chassis using
all the tricks of the modern literary trade. Picture, if you will, the most popular stories of E.E. "Doc" Smith and A.E. Van Vogt distilled down to their very essence, viewed through the prism of modern comic string theory, then revealed on the page by a writer of modern sensibilities. The result is not a pastiche, not a feeble Nth generation photocopy, but rather a wholly new and
vibrant work unabashedly revels in its ancestry.
It doesn't hurt that Broderick knows how to bait the hook, either. Consider the plight of August Seebeck, finally returning home to the house he shares with his great aunt after a long season of sheep farming in the Australian outback. All August wants is a hot shower to wash away the
aches and road grime, but his aunt informs him otherwise:
"I'm sorry, dear, you can't."
"Huh?" I paused halfway up. I'd driven 1500 kilometers with not much more than fuel breaks; I
was numb with fatigue, starting to see double.
Great-Aunt Tansy began cutting pastry mixture with a metal template shaped like a heart. She
looked up at me, eyes wide and watery blue and honest. "This is Saturday night."
"What there is left of it. I know, I should phone around, catch up with the people, Tansy, but I'm bone tired. After I've had a good soak, I think I'll just slip into -- "
"No, darling, that's what I'm saying. You can't have a shower upstairs. Every Saturday night, recently, there's been a corpse in that bathroom."
Things, as might be expected, get stranger from there. As August's frustration and paranoia grow,
his grasp on what he knows as reality as he's taken deeper and deeper through the mind-boggling
layers of the infinite multiverse. It's Phil Dick meets Michael Moorcock, complete with Elric allusions when August, in a feat of Arthurian prowess, pulls a metaphorical sword from a stone,
thereby gaining the powers of the universe in the palm of his hand. He'll need that power, too, as he slowly finds out that he's an immortal Vorpal Player in a mysterious Contest of Worlds.
All of which makes for a smashing good book, except for the annoying fact that nothing all that
much happens in Godplayers. As engrossing as the novel is, it's equally frustrating
because it is merely a prelude to the main story waiting off in the wings. August spends
nearly the entire narrative bitching incessantly about not knowing what's going on, and then
running away in fits of anger from the very people who could explain things to him. He falls head over heels in love with a cosmic beauty named Lune, who is apparently a person of some note in the Contest of Worlds. Rather than pumping her for information, August instead chooses to pump her for more recreational purposes every chance he gets.
The supporting cast of characters are
insufferably inscrutable and smug, communicating with each other in a shorthand of knowing
glances and arcane references that are as frustrating to August as it is to the reader. By the final page of the book, one, maybe two chapters' worth of plot has been revealed -- and even then the reader is no closer to understanding what the Contest of Worlds is or what role the Vorpal Players have in it.
All the rest is filled with character-building and grand roller-coaster rides through the author's spectacular ideas. That other stuff's not bad, mind you, but I did find myself wishing it had more justification to the plot beyond, "Here, let me show you some mind-blowing dimensions of cosmic significance to avoid giving a direct answer to any of your questions."
K-Machines, Broderick's sequel to Godplayers, comes out from Thunder's Mouth
Press in April of this year, so I anticipate answers to at least some of the pressing questions left dangling in the opening novel. I also have a sneaking suspicion that K-Machines will not
resolve the ultimate fate of August. With the enormous multiverse Broderick has constructed, it would seem several more novels are in order to do it justice and bring the story to a fitting end. Zelazny used to do the same thing with his Amber books, only he did so in half the number of pages. Today's authors have a great number of advantages over their predecessors, but in some ways, you just can't beat the classics.