If there’s one occupation most readers are unlikely to associate with space opera, it’s gardening. And yet Phillip Mann’s space opera duology, Master of Paxwax (1986, New Zealand) and The Fall of the Families (1987, New Zealand), is subtitled “The Story of the Gardener”. It says so right there on the cover.
I’ve been a fan of Mann’s science fiction since the very early 1990s. I remember reading his debut novel, The Eye of the Queen (1982, UK), around that time — I have a distinct memory of purchasing it in Waterstone’s in Birmingham, which means it must have been while I was at university. A few years later, I was given the first of Mann’s “A Land Fit for Heroes” quartet, Escape to the Wild Wood (1993, New Zealand), to review for Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. I know I’d read all of his previous novels by then, so I must have done so during the first two or three years of the 1990s. However, it wasn’t until this reread of Master of Paxwax and The Fall of the Families that I realised the two were actually his second and third novels.
In the universe of Master of Paxwax and The Fall of the Families, humanity had moved out into the galaxy… and found it inhabited by a number of alien races. So humanity promptly went to war, wiped out some of the alien races, and enslaved the rest. At the time the first novel opens, centuries later, there is a human empire ruled by eleven powerful Families, and the Paxwax Family are fifth in precedence among these. Meanwhile, the Inner Circle, ostensibly a semi-religious order of diplomats and advisors, is actually the last refuge of the alien races. Including, deep within the Inner Circle’s headquarters planet, the last survivors of some of the races believed wiped out by humanity. The Inner Circle has determined that Pawl Paxwax, third son of the Fifth Family, will return the galaxy to the aliens.
A series of events sees Pawl become head of the Fifth Family. The Inner Circle sends him an advisor, Odin, a member of a long-lived contemplative alien race — Odin wears a robe and mask to disguise his nature, but it’s a thin disguise. Pawl, however, is chiefly interested in marrying the woman he loves, even though the other Families had been expecting him to make a political marriage.
The plot is a staple — and actually has very little to do with gardening. Pawl finds himself an unwilling pawn in various power-plays by the other Families, but he makes a pact with some of the alien races, especially the fearsome Hammer. When another Family attacks his holdings, intending to wipe out the Paxwax Family, he fights back, with the help of an allied Family and several alien races. And so brings about the fall of the Families.
There are many things to like about these two books. The writing is a good deal better than is typical for space opera, if not for science fiction as a whole. The aliens are inventive, as is the way the various Families have drifted from baseline humanity. The same is true of the various planets described in the books. There are also a number of visuals — and it’s a bit of a stretch in terms of chronology — that remind me of David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune from 1985…
In fact, there’s very little, in space opera terms, “The Story of the Gardener” does not have. But nothing is quite as you’d expect. There is, for example, an extended sequence in the middle, involving the discovery of a legendary lost warship on a world covered by vast hugely intelligent tree-like organisms. It’s written more as a mystical journey of self-discovery than the resolution to a science fiction historical mystery.
Comparisons with Frank Herbert’s Dune are inevitable but, because “The Story of the Gardener” includes pretty much everything from the space opera toy box, it never achieves Herbert’s book’s weight of background.
“The Story of the Gardener” is chiefly about humans treating aliens like shit, and in the twenty-first century it’s hard not to recast that as a commentary on race relations. (I doubt Mann had that in mind when he wrote it — on his website he says only he wrote “The Story of the Gardener” as a single novel, but had to split it into two, and so rewrite parts, at the demand of his editor at Gollancz.) Some alien races were all but eradicated— humanity believes its genocidal campaigns were successful, but a handful of survivors remain hidden within the Inner Circle’s home world. Others were enslaved. And yet others were eaten as delicacies, including the race to which Odin, Pawl’s advisor, belongs. It is humanity’s policy of racial superiority which brings about its downfall, even though the chief agent of that downfall is human.
Which, I suppose, means “The Story of the Gardener”, like Dune, can be read as a white saviour narrative. Both Pawl Paxwax and Paul Atriedes are unwilling messiahs, but their actions free a downtrodden population. It is highly probable the similarity in names is intentional.
It’s a shame Master of Paxwax and The Fall of the Families are not better known. The writing in them is certainly a good deal better than that in Herbert’s magnum opus. They both tell more or less the same story. But I suspect Mann’s two novels are too close in texture to the lighter end of the space opera subgenre. Herbert’s novel demands to be taken seriously; “The Story of the Gardener” does not. For all that both stories make serious points — wrapped about by adventure plots set in richly-detailed universes — Mann’s story does not have the sheer momentum of Dune’s. And splitting “The Story of the Gardener” into two books obviously didn’t help. Perhaps it would have been much more successful if published as a single novel.
Although not, I suspect, under the title “The Story of the Gardener”…