Month: April 2016

Freaky Fearless Fred: The Exploding Dwarf – Tony Barber

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Tony Barber’s novel Freaky Fearless Fred: The Exploding Dwarf inspired in me nothing but antipathy. An unlikeable protagonist and meandering plotting completely undermine a premise that seems intriguing at first glance, a story about a genius from another dimension stranded in rural Australia.

The reason Fred is a difficult character to care about is that he is too hyper-competent to have any real weaknesses. The first half of the novel sees him win a competition held by a manufacturer of children’s clothing and invent the world’s greatest toothbrush. He can also build a working time machine and run an outback radio station with only one other person. It’s too absurd to be amusing, and veers into the exasperating at time. Freaky Fred now has place on my list of male Mary Sues, alongside Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.

Beyond Fred’s vague desire to unite with his parents in his home dimension, the novel reads as though Barber was making it up as he wrote it. It begins with a potted description of the actions of the prequel – apparently Exploding Dwarf is the second of a trilogy – before Fred’s aunt, who looks after him, moves to Queensland to become a zookeeper and his best friend goes to America to become a comedian. At the age of eleven. But that’s okay because Fred is immortal or something. Then he receives a letter from an Alaskan radio ham that contains a message from his father. He goes to Alaskan to meet the ham, who turns out to be a dwarf in a series of jokes that present themselves as advocating tolerance, but in a mean-spirited way, then some more ridiculous stuff happens, and the dwarf explodes. I’m not even joking when I say that I could write a better book.

Perhaps the most irritating thing about Freaky Fearless Fred is the narratorial tone, which can be best described as like that of a mature age student who always dominates the conversation in a university tutorial, despite the valiant attempts of the tutor to avert that exact situation from occurring. In other words, the narrator comes across as the Australian version of Pierce from Community. Now I try to be tactful with old men who act this way, since I’m likely to become one myself, but an entire novel of this voice is almost unbearable. The standout moment of this voice was when Barber asserts that boys like explosions and gadgets while girls like something else, I can’t remember, I don’t have the book on hand right now. But it really bothered me how he asserted that thought without offering any sort of evidence, as though it were an incontrovertible and self-evident truth. Barber would do well to consider the work of scholars like Cordelia Fine before he repeats such glib assumptions.

In terms of things that Freaky Fearless Fred did well, the pictures were nice. Presumably drawn by Barber himself, they add an additional level of characterization solely needed in the text. And maybe the extremely episodic plot and aggravating tone would be made tolerable if the book was read out-loud to a classroom.

If you’re a parent, teacher, school librarian or giggling twenty-something who’s decided that pretending to be embarrassed about reading YA isn’t enough and decided to go full primary, walk past Freaky Fearless Fred. If you’re looking for slightly perverse Australian children’s literature I recommend Andy Griffith’s timeless classic Just Annoying. If you want to read about preternaturally talented children, you can’t go far wrong with Roald Dahl’s Matilda. If you need to know who the best children’s author I can name from the top of my head, the answer would Dianne Wynne Jones. Don’t bother with Freaky Fearless Fred.

The Stochastic Man – Robert Silverberg

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Set in a late nineties that doesn’t feel completely alien, Robert Silverberg’s The Stochastic Man details the relationship between the extremely accurate pollster Lew Nichols, dedicated to the making the charismatic mayor of New York president, and Martin Caravajal, a psychic whose illusion of free will is shattered by his ability to see the inevitable future.

One of the things that makes the world of The Stochastic Man feel so familiar is that Nichols’ preferred presidential candidate, Quinn, is described in the novel’s foreword with comparisons to Hitler and Mussolini. Donald Trump, anyone? Although Quinn, to his credit, seems to actually know what he’s on about. Hyperbolic class inequality, to the point that most of New York is a simmering warzone, also assures the novel a measure of relevance in a time anxious about the growing divide between the rich and poor. Silverberg also averts the classic sci-fi mistake of assuming that there will be no significant cultural changes in the future, although his depiction of a society where free love is unremarkable is a tad optimistic. Probably the biggest thing contributing to the plausibility of Silverberg’s setting is the absence of futuristic technology, although Nichols does use computers in polling and buried cables are used to melt snow – which could be a real thing for all I know. All in all, I would forgive a historian a millennium from now for confusing this novel for a history of the 2000 election.

Race is a recurrent theme in the novel, although this mightn’t be intentional. As part of New York’s social stratification, it has Balkanised into a number of ethnic blocks, little Italy and so on. A big part of making it as Mayor of New York is to placate each of these factions by giving a member of each a role in local government. Nichols constantly refers to his wife Sundara’s Indian ancestry, and is fascinated by the Jewish paraphernalia collected by one of his colleagues working for the mayor. I can’t see Silverberg making any social comment with these theme, besides showing how disintegrated America has become by 2000.

I reckon that The Stochastic Man can be profitably compared to another Silverberg novel, Dying Inside. Now it feels like a decade since I read that book, but I remember that it involved the relationship between two psychics, who were apparently the only two mind-readers in the world. The protagonist wrote essays for college students and had an LSD experience that scared me off drugs for life, but the rest is pretty foggy. But I think Silverberg was doing the same thing with both novels, taking a psychic power and showing how it would affect the perspective of a normal person.

The only thing that bothered me was the cover. I know that this yellow jacket is a distinctive trademark and I hope it sold a lot of copies of this book, because a novel this good deserves a far more creative cover.

If the quality of this review hasn’t tipped you off, I enjoyed this book. I’d recommend it to the usual slew of sci-fi and Silverberg fans, but I think it also has something to offer to anyone who likes introspective fiction or who is terrified of Donald Trump.

 

I own nine Robert Silverberg books

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that you’ll get nowhere in life spouting cliches.

Anyway, here is a picture of my Robert Silverberg collection.

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I’ve read most of them, including Majipoor Chronicles, Son of Man, The Face of the Waters, The Stochastic Man, and A Time of Changes. The worst was A Time of Changes. I’d definitely read Son of Man again.

Silverberg is generally a very good author, and he’s the one I find the most often in charity shops. Probably because he’s so prolific.

So I need to read At Winter’s End, The Queen of Springtime and Lord Prestimon. I know that the first two form a series and I’m familiar with the setting of the third one. Which book should I read next?