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Monday, September 8, 2008

"Template" by Matthew Hughes (Reviewed by Fábio Fernandes)

Official Matthew Hughes Website
Order “Template
HERE (Hardcover) + HERE (Slipcased Hardcover)
Read Reviews via
SFRevu
Read An Excerpt HERE

Even though Template is just being published by PS Publishing, it was written in 2003 and is considered by Matt Hughes to be his best work yet. It is a stand-alone novel set in the Archonate universe—the fourth one after Fools Errant, Fool Me Twice, and Black Brillion.

I must confess I hadn’t read anything by Hughes before, but I liked “Template”. This novel introduces us to the life of Conn Labro, a major player in the game-oriented society of the planet Thrais, and is slightly reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges´
The Lottery in Babylon, in which people play games that can make them rich or to turn them into slaves. In Borges´ story, the narrator lost a finger of his hand and had his body branded with a mark that renders him accountable to people with other marks in an intricate game within a game. And the citizens of Babylon find themselves unable to end the lottery, simply because they became addicted to it. In fact, they love it and can’t imagine their lives without the thrill of the game.

In Thrais, things are pretty much the same: all the citizens (and not only native people, but also the occasional traveler) are mostly gameplayers—and there is a plethora of games there, ranging from harmless ones to death matches. You can lose money, you can be indentured forever and forced to stay on the planet during the rest of your life . . . and you can even lose your life.

The major difference to the Borgesian tale is that Thrais is a society oriented to play not for the love of the game, but the profit, which is all that matters to them in the end.

Labro is specialized in all kinds of games but, as most of players in Thrais, his cup of tea is direct confrontation with weapons. He is indentured to Ovam Horder, owner of Horder's Gaming Emporium, “the lifelong landmark of his existence”, for it is all he ever knew in his life. Until the day Horder and the Emporium are blasted out of existence, and Labro finds himself owner of a small fortune and a tiny bead which may contain privileged information—the sort of info that can get you killed just for having it, even if you can’t access it, as is the case.

To do that, and maybe gain some measure of knowledge of his former life, Labro must go to Old Earth. He is accompanied by Jenore Mordene, a young woman who was friends with Tharp and wise in the alien ways, for she is from Old Earth herself. Together, they will travel in ships and meet many alien races, whose habits and mores are utterly incomprehensible to him—and, in the process, learn more about himself, as is made clear below:

Conn's upbringing had not encouraged him to examine his motives or moods. His life so far had been a succession of tasks and contests that had grown more complex as he had become better able to meet them. Between assignments, he rested or prepared for the next encounter. He rarely asked himself what he thought or felt about anything, unless it was to check his preconceptions to avoid a complacency that an opponent could use against him.”

Template” is a very focused novel—it’s as if it tries to reproduce the mindframe of Conn Labro. But it works cleverly making us think about the meaning of life without being cocky about it. Hughes even indulges in a tidbit of critical commentary on academia, introducing a couple of warrior siblings who are intent to write a monograph “that argues that every society is fundamentally organized around one or another of the cardinal sins.”

That may even be one of the purposes of the novel itself—which can be almost dull sometimes because there is so much dialogue on cultural differences that we find ourselves welcoming any physical action that can possibly happen. But it would be inconsiderate to say this, because it all happens for a purpose.

In
his blog, James Nicoll compared Hughes to Jack Vance (and I agree), but this novel reminded me also of Iain M. Banks´ Culture stories, at least in the beginning. The question of costumes (especially when Conn is aboard the ship that will take him first to the world of Bashaw, then to Old Earth) is more Vance-like.

All in all, “Template” is good reading. Because there is another requisite it fulfills very well: it is fun to read—and what good is a game to the player if he/she can’t enjoy it? Or, as Conn Labro himself would ask: “what’s the tangible gain?” The tangible gain here is a well-spent time.

NOTE: An earlier version of this review was published in
Post Weird Thoughts in mid-May, due to a call by James Nicoll to do a collective review day on “Template”.

2 comments:

Richard R. said...

FYI, Planet Stories published this book last month in trade paperback.

Liviu said...

The US release is for August 17 and this is why I featured it our Aug 10 monthly spotlight; when i was preparing that spotlight post, the blurb intrigued me and I remembered I got the PS pdf arc from 2008 so I went ahead and read it last week and thoroughly enjoyed it and I was planning to review it as part of my August book "quota" of 7-8 novels released then, but I saw that Fabio has reviewed it, so i linked this one up to the new edition

Excellent book

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