Monday, January 5, 2015

Book Review: The Garments of Caean

Book Review: 'The Garments of Caean' by Barrington J. Bayley


4 / 5 Stars

I picked this book up, along with another 10 treasured old paperbacks, at the Utah Book and Magazine store on 327 S. Main Street in Salt Lake City this past October.

'The Garments of Caean' first was published in 1976; this DAW Books version (206 pp) was released in February, 1980.

Upon first glance, the cover artwork, by H. R. Van Dongen, is unimpressive. It makes the book seem like yet another entry in humorous sf, the kind of book regularly written by Ron Goulart, and published by DAW, throughout the 70s.

However, the adage 'don't judge a book by its cover' makes sense here, because 'Garments' is actually a very readable examination of anthropology and sociology within the framework of a space opera, offering a more imaginative approach to this sub-genre then most other works of its era.

As the novel opens, Peder Forbarth, a resident of the planet of Ziode, finds himself filled with trepidation. He has reluctantly teamed up with the notorious smuggler Realto Mast, to make a clandestine space voyage to the remote world of Kyre. There, Forbarth is explore the site of crashed spaceship, a spaceship originating from the planet Caean. 

Caean is famed through the system for the style and textures of its clothing; however, few retailers on other planets have access to Caean inventory. Forbarth's mission is to locate the downed spaceship and loot its hold......a hold crammed with all manner of Caean clothing. 

Although Peder Forbrath is a corpulent, timid man whose main occupation is as a clothing salesman and tailor, he braves the dangers of Kyre and succeeds in emptying the hold of the crashed spaceship. He selects as his reward seemingly modest article from the haul: a single suit of clothing.

But this is no ordinary suit; it is in fact a suit of wondrous Prossim cloth, a rare fabric whose origins are known only to the Caeans. And the suit selected by Forbarth is one of only five ever crafted by the finest tailor in the known worlds, Frachonard.

Once clad in his Frachonard suit, Peder Forbarth finds himself possessed of a new confidence....a new sense of self-worth, a new willingness to embrace, and overcome, life's challenges. As Forbarth embarks on a new career as a stylish 'man about town', easily mingling with the upper crust of society, he learns that a man is clad in Caean clothing, the clothes do indeed make the man.

But for Peder Forbarth, donning the Frachonard suit is only the beginning. For there is a troubling mystery underlying the evolution of Caean, its society, and its fashion sense. And as Forbarth and his fellow citizens of Ziode are going to discover, there is much more than what meets the eye when it comes to Caean clothing.....

'The Garments of Caean' is first and foremost an effort by Barrington J. Bayley to emulate Jack Vance. The narrative routinely makes use of a large assembly of eccentric, obscure adjectives, and adopts the same dry, slightly sardonic narrative tone that characterizes's Vance's literary style. The inclusion of a character named Realto Mast pays tribute to the Vance character 'Rhialto the Marvellous'.

However, Bayley also displays his own innate skill and worthiness as an author. While it focuses on anthropology and sociology in terms of its scientific focus, 'Garments' avoids getting bogged down in the sort of exposition that tends to render other sf novels addressing these themes dull and plodding. 

'Garments' is filled with offbeat, imaginative passages that transcend the typical space opera. There is a gruesome 'Planet of Flies'; deep-space-dwelling races of highly modified humans who engage each other in brutal warfare; a planet with an ecology that that has evolved sonic weaponry; and a prison planet, from which escape is seemingly impossible.

This is the first Bayley sf novel that I've ever read. Some critics call him one of the overlooked talents of late 20th century sf. Whether or not this is true, I certainly will be checking out his other novels in this regard.

4 comments:

sciencefictionruminations said...

I've read 6 of his novels and Garments is second only (well, so far) to The Fall of Chronopolis (1974). He tends to be high concept but lacking in terms of prose... but, that's fine. I've heard some people argue that he should be included in the New Wave movement. But, not sure on what grounds... Thoughts?

J.T. said...

Barry Bayley was a (minor) player in the new wave movement through his close friendship with Mike Moorcock. His love of the pulp format wasn't perhaps widely admired amidst the literary end of the movement, but his stories influenced many key people inside (M. John Harrison, Charles Platt) and outside the movement (William Burroughs liked and utilized Barry's 'humans as virus idea' in Nova Express, and many of his stories (some quite experimental in form) appeared in Moorcock's New Worlds magazine.

Sonic Syrup said...

I read "The Fall of Chronopolis" last year and thought it was one of the most original and creative time travel stories I'd ever encountered in any media. Some critics point out his rather stilted character development, and that was true to an extent, but the plot was great. Glad to read this review and will be seeking out more from this author.

Cy Mathews said...

Bayley is one of my favorite writers. His books usually have significant flaws in plotting or characterization, but there's something about his imagination that keeps me hooked.

I highly recommend The Pillars of Eternity and the two books about Jasperodus the robot (the first is particularly uneven, but it's sequel comes close to perfection as a fast-moving, hauntingly uncanny science fiction adventure). There's also a hilariously obscene short story, "Love in Backspace," that is preserved on the Wayback Machine at https://web.archive.org/web/20080828175007/http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com/i/backspace/full/