Matthew Hughes Interview – The Archonate Gist

This week we have author whose work I was recently introduced to, and the reading has been such a compelling and enjoyable experience it has had me as of late searching feverishly for other examples of the author’s work. Mind, you, it is not a requirement to read the former novels Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice to fully appreciate the author, and our guest, Matthew Hughes’ latest offering, a psychological SF/Crime effort set in his trademark Archonate setting, Black Brillion, however a work of such competence, full of witty, sardonic repartee, reminiscent of Vance, almost demands one to take the time to search out more examples of Hughes’ work.

matthew hughes

Black Brillion is currently on the short list for the Aurora Awards, in the category for Best Novel. Hughes also has a collection coming out from Night Shade Books that upon its announcement immediately became a must have for me after reading Black Brillion. The collection, due out later this year is entitled The Gist Hunter and other stories. I have a review forthcoming of Black Brillion, which I am grossly tardy on, and do so apologize, but it will be out later this week.

Jay  — You have made the short list for the Aurora Award for your most recent work Black Brillion, which is the third novel you have set in your Archonate setting. Can you please tell readers; with the thought in mind to those new to your work, what to expect from this setting, and specifically Black Brillion

Matthew Hughes — The Archonate is my shorthand for an entirely improbable far future Old Earth in the “Penultimate Age,” an eon or so before the time of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, when the sun will finally sputter out. Old Earth is a dusty, terribly unfashionable planet where the remaining inhabitants tend to obsess over details of social organization, so that the world is speckled with insular societies pursuing odd philosophical goals, often to uncomfortable extremes, especially for unwary visitors. In the capital, the gawdy, blousy old city of Olkney, there is a stratified social order, which is something like Victoria England if it were secretly run by sufis. There is also a kind of government apparatus topped by the Archon, a mysterious, vaguely all-powerful figure whom everyone recognizes as the ultimate authority, though no one is quite sure how that authority is exercised. It’s said that the Archon occasionally travels incognito through the world, adjusting by subtle means the odd little societies before they fly completely out of whack. That is the background story of Fools Errant.

In Black Brillion, two mismatched agents of the Archonate Bureau of Scrutiny, which is something like a police force crossed with a corps of confidence tricksters, are sent to apprehend a notorious fraudster who purports to have found a cure for the lassitude, the first fatal disease in eons. It’s a traveling story, a lot of which takes place on a landship cruising an unnaturally flat part of Old Earth called The Swept, which turns out to have been flattened during warfare that attended a long-forgotten alien invasion. On Old Earth, though, everything is long-forgotten, it’s all been done and redone a thousand times before, and people live for today’s trivialities. Some of the story also takes place in the Commons, the collective unconscious of humankind, long since mapped and explored by noönauts, scholars who can move from one archetypal Event or Situation to another by chanting tones reminiscent of the way Orpheus sang his way into and out of Hades. Believe it or not, all of this somehow ties together into one cohesive storyline.

Jay  — Black Brillion has me hooked, and since reading it, I have been trying to locate the other 2 prior ‘Archonate’ novels, Fool’s Errant and Fool Me Twice with little success due to my belief that they are out of print. Are there any plans for a re-release in the works?

Matthew Hughes — I’m glad you’re hooked. Fools Errant is indeed out of print. The rights have now reverted to me and it’s possible that Night Shade Books. may want to reprint it. We’re going to talk about it in the fall. Fool Me Twice is still technically in print with Warner Aspect, which redistributed the copies left in the warehouse last year when Black Brillion was released. The Warner Aspect titles are mass market paperbacks, which tend to disappear from circulation (especially when they are short print runs). The best way to find them, I believe, is to search for the SF Book Club hardcover omnibus, Gulible’s Travels.

I’m also to be found regularly in the pages of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which has run six or seven Archonate based stories in the past year or so. Some of them feature Guth Bandar, the noönaut who is a supporting character in Black Brillion.

Jay — Night Shade Books has announced that in August that they will be releasing a collection of yours entitled The Gist Hunter (will be mine) which will contain stories from the “Archonate” setting, as well as 4 other unrelated books. Anything else you can tell us about this release, and how did your relationship with Nightshade and this project come about?

Matthew Hughes — Six of the stories concern Henghis Hapthorn, my Sherlock Holmesian “freelance discriminator” who is a well-known figure in Olkney. I originally created Hapthorn to explore a story idea — what’s it like to wake up in a world that’s the result of someone else’s three wishes going horribly wrong? — but he proved so popular with readers that I wrote the other five (one of which, Hapthorn’s first case, has yet to appear in F&SF). I decided, with the second story, that if I was going to write about a continuing character I would give him an arc of development, as if the stories were parts of an episodic novel. That’s because character is more interesting to me than situation.

With the last story of the six, The Gist Hunter, I have brought Hapthorn to an interesting point in his development: he is uncomfortably sharing his body with a part of him that used to be unconscious but has now become a fully conscious persona in its own right; Hapthorn is starkly analytical,the alter ego is deeply intuitive. Worse, Hapthorn has been forced to recognize that the rational world that suits him so well is approaching a cusp in an eons-long cycle in which rationality and magic (sympathetic association), alternate as the underlying organizing principles of the world. Magic is about to regain pre-eminence.

I’ve now sketched the outlines of three novels taking Hapthorn and his alter ego, plus his integrator (an AI assistant) that has already morphed into a magician’s familiar, forward into an Old Earth that is changing drastically and somewhat perilously. It is, in fact, setting the stage for the Old Earth of Vance’s Dying Earth cycle. My agent has pitched the proposal to three New York publishers, and we are waiting to see what the responses will be.

Jay  — My relationship with Black Brillion has a strong psychological/mystery element in it. I was wondering if this was just your intended back drop for this particular novel or are you a fan of sleuth stories in general? If so who were your influences? I ask this, as your work is often associated with the legendary Jack Vance who (a little trivia for new fans of the genre here) was also a mystery writer.

Matthew Hughes — I think of myself as a crime writer who has somehow wandered into SF. I like crime fiction of the Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Lawrence Block kind more than the classic mystery with the unaffected sleuth. In fact, until I had sold three or four Hapthorn stories, I’d never actually read a Sherlock Holmes story. Character is more important to me than plot mechanics, although I do my best to give good story. The Jungian background to Black Brillion, the whole exploring the collective unconscious motif, is something that has appealed to me since I read Joseph Campbell’s works on Carl Jung and comparative mythologies thirty years ago.

I haven’t read much sf since the early 1980s, and I really have no idea of where the field has gone since then. I do continue to read Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe, however, and I’m obviously influenced by Vance. Perhaps less obviously, but just as strongly, I’m influenced by P.G. Wodehouse, who was himself a great influence on Vance, and by Oscar Wilde.

Jay  — I want to go back and touch on the Jack Vance comparisons, which is so obviously derived from your prose, you handling of dialogue, and especially the leveled sarcasm and irony use. Is this intentional due to a heavy Vance influence on you or is the similarity just a flattering (no to mention most fortunate) coincidence?

Matthew Hughes — To pull out a cliche, though it’s the simple truth, I write the kind of story I like to read, and what I like to read is a Jack Vance story. I believe, at least some of the time, that irony is the basic organizing principle of the universe and Vance’s work exemplifies that truth in ways both subtle and direct. I do depart from Vance’s way of going at a story, however, in that his heroes tend to be more the competent/capable kind who go after what they want and do whatever it takes to get it. Mine tend to be less in control of their lives and more forced to adapt to circumstances as they occur, often ending up far from wherever they had meant to go. They also have more self-doubts and inner conflicts to deal with than your typical Vance hero.

Jay  — What planned (or maybe not planned) projects can we expect forthcoming from you?

Matthew Hughes — I’ve written the first draft of another Archonate novel. It’s called Template, about an Oliver-Twistish hero whose origins are a mystery to him. It starts on a minor world far down The Spray, moves to Old Earth for a while then ends up in a lost little private planet in the Back of Beyond. Its underlying conceit is that all societies are fundamentally based on one or another of the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, envy, and so on. I’ve turned it in to Tor but it’s in limbo because Black Brillion hasn’t done so well that they immediately want another book, nor so poorly that they definitely don’t. Perhaps the Aurora publicity will drive up sales and we’ll go ahead with it.

Jay — Template sounds fascinating, I very much hope we get to see it soon! As always I like to get an author’s recommendations, non-genre or not. What do you recommend as good reads, or authors worthy of note currently?

Matthew Hughes — I’m very impressed by the subtlety with which Graham Joyce slips the otherworldly into his stories of everyday life. I thought The Facts of Life was brilliant. I’m more conversant with crime writers than sf — I’ve already mentioned Connelly, Leonard and Block — and for sheer fun you can’t beat Carl Hiassen. Every reader of sf should know Jack Vance. Every lover of repartee should know Wodehouse, the writer Vance described as “a god.” And I would love to see this new generation rediscover Thorne Smith. He’s a scream.