Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Garments of Caean

Barrington J. Bayley The Garments of Caean (1976)
I read The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor and The Four-Colour Problem in New Worlds collections and was a little bewildered as to why I hadn't otherwise heard of this seemingly underrated and under-publicised author; and The Four-Colour Problem stood out in particular for betraying a profound William Burroughs influence, for making use of the cut-up technique, and for getting away with it without reading like the work of a tribute act. Obviously I whipped this one from the shelf the second I saw it, unable to resist the lure of a cover so fabulous as to make the cast of Glee performing an Elton John medley sound like Pierre Schaeffer; and against all odds, it lives up to my already elevated expectations.

The story revolves around the much-feared Caean empire and is told from the perspective of their less-sartorially elevated galactic neighbours. There's something weird about the Caeanics, notably that whilst obviously of human descent, the near-hypnotic Caean personality is seated entirely within their admittedly sumptuously tailored clothing. Their bodies are only the fleshy machines by which garments are conveyed from one place to another. I won't give too much else away, but the story spans numerous worlds including one where all plant and animal life has evolved natural sonic weaponry, and a colony of variant humans adapted to life in open space.

The Garments of Caean doesn't make any attempt at aping Burroughs as I half-expected, but it's clearly sprung from the same peculiar imagination as those earlier bits and pieces I read in New Worlds. It's bursting with wonderfully bizarre ideas thrown out in passing, ideas which other authors would have expanded to at least a trilogy. It's one of the most engrossing things I've read in a while, and is engrossing by similar terms to the very best of Philip K. Dick or A.E. van Vogt, with whom it seems to share some sense of kinship, or at least equivalent surrealism. The key to this is probably that it has purpose beyond just spinning us a space opera, and whilst the philosophical dimension - mostly discussion of the relationship between image and self - may not be anything new, it makes a pleasant change to come across such musings in so hugely entertaining
a context as we have here.

It's been a while since I added any new names to the I must read everything this person has written list, but Bayley definitely makes the grade.

1 comment:

  1. I recommend his short stories, and The Grand Wheel, but his peculiar semi-pornographic Soul of A Robot novel has a soft spot in my adolescence.

    Simon BJ