|The Disestablishment of Paradise is a
stunningly brilliant novel.
Things are going wrong on the planet of Paradise. Crops are
failing and the indigenous plant life is changing in unpredictable ways. And so the powers
that be make the decision to close the planet down, to cut their losses and leave the
place to itself. Paradise will be disestablished.
The book is supposedly written long after the disestablishment has taken place, and the
events are recollected with the benefit of hindsight. The person most closely involved was
Hera Melhuish and her story is told by her biographer, a sometime fiction writer called
Olivia. This distancing device is a very clever literary strategy on Phillip Mann's part
Hera is quite an unpleasant person, stubborn, reckless, often stupid and hopelessly
na´ve. Seeing her through the filter of Olivia's eyes makes her a little more bearable.
Indeed, Olivia often interrupts her own narrative to remonstrate with some of Hera's more
outrageous or peculiar attitudes.
The major strength of the novel is the wonderfully imagined world of Paradise itself.
Phillip Mann has always had a genius for creating alien life and never has it been better
exemplified than in this book. There are no animals, birds insects or fish on Paradise.
All ecological niches are filled by plants such as the ubiquitous Tattersall weed, the
dangerous Michelangelo-Reaper and the fabulous Dendron Peripatetica, long thought to be
extinct until the last one in existence walks into Hera's life. In the body of the book,
Hera and her companion Mack are often threatened by the flora of Paradise, but appended to
the narrative are historical documents from the early years of settlement which show that
the planet was once a much more benign place than it is now. Its name was aptly chosen.
This too is a very clever literary strategy and I would have liked to have seen many more
of these early documents. They definitely add a rich dimension to the story, though it is
depressing to realise just how much things have changed on Paradise.
It quickly becomes clear that there is a psychic undertone to the events on Paradise.
And again the cleverness of the literary structure that Phillip Mann has imposed on the
story comes to the fore. Hera, despite having had extensive scientific training and
experience, descends into mysticism as the psychic aspects of the connectedness of life on
the planet become clear to her. Many of her colleagues argue against this mumbo-jumbo and
even her biographer Olivia is extremely sceptical, though Hera seems to find it
transformational. Such appeals to the numinous are perfectly legitimate literary devices
for a science fiction novel to indulge itself in (Arthur C. Clarke, for example, did it
all the time). Indeed, you can easily argue that this is a major reason for having science
fiction as a literary form in the first place we all like to try to explain the
inexplicable and science fiction does that better than any other medium. However it is all
too easy in a book like this to stray over what is often a vaguely drawn line in the sand
and descend into claptrap. But by presenting both argument and counter argument as he
does, Phillip Mann generally avoids this and the story is much stronger as a result.
However even Homer nods Mack uses a dowsing pendulum to track down the Dendron
(at one point the pendulum is referred to as a "precision instrument"
humph!) and Hera laments that if only Galileo had spent as much time studying Earth magic
as he spent studying maths and optics then the world would have been a very different
place; a statement that, quite typically for Hera, makes no sense whatsoever.
Mack's dowsing ability is not an outgrowth of the ever stronger psychic influences of
Paradise I think I would have accepted it more easily if it had been. It is clear
from context that this is a power he has used throughout his life. In terms of the novel
it's simply a rabbit pulled out of a hat, a deus ex machina called into play out of
nowhere to resolve a knotty plot problem. Such things never satisfy.
But in the final analysis, none of this matters. What matters is the tremendous and
wonderfully sustained and consistent vision that is Paradise itself, that beautifully
imagined world which the book brings so vividly to life.
Let me end as I began. The Disestablishment of Paradise is a stunningly