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Wright: Pictures)

Lan WRIGHT: The Pictures of Pavanne (1968)

Review by Michael Edwards

Note: The author's real name is Lionel Percy Wright; the title given above is the U.S. title, and the U.K. edition appeared under the title A Planet Called Pavanne.

    Rating: 3/5
    Heading: An intriguing idea spoilt by unclear writing.

      My edition of this book is half of one of the many science-fiction Ace doubles that were issued in the 1960s and early 1970s, with two front covers back-to-back and upside-down with respect to each other, and it totals about 100 pages. It was also published in the U.K. as A Planet Called Pavanne.
      I can't honestly describe The Pictures of Pavanne as well-written, although it is based on an unusual and interesting idea that could have had great potential for a most intriguing science-fiction novel.
      The central character, Max Farway, is a brilliant painter, but with a twisted, deformed, dwarf-like body. He seems to have a very bitter personality, too. Using his huge inherited wealth, he has done a tour of the galaxy, painting scenes he has seen on various planets - but he has avoided the very one place one might expect him most of all to visit: the barren planet Pavanne with the ancient alien artifact on it known as the Pictures of Pavanne. This is a 2-square-mile area of ground which has brilliant, ever-changing patterns of light and colour, which is so beautiful that everything else in the universe, even the most brilliant works of art, seem stale and dull by comparison. No-one seems to know how the Pictures originated, who made them, why, how they work, and so on. Presumably they were constructed by someone, and are not a natural thing; but in any case they are one of the greatest tourist destinations in the entire galaxy. One had to fly a few miles above the Pictures to get the best view of them, and a whole tourist industry has grown up around them.
      There is something hypnotic about the Pictures. Another artist was so captivated by them that after seeing them he spent the next 9 years trying to reproduce them in a painting of his own, after which he committed suicide out of frustration at what he saw as his failure to do his subject justice, even though his painting was widely acknowledged as the best of many attempts to reproduce the Pictures on canvas.
      (Incidentally, this idea brought up for me an issue of rather troubling relevance, as a person who's spent much of life trying to create artistically - as a composer and writer. Could I spend most of my life-time trying to evoke nature in music, only to end up bitter because ultimately what I produce doesn't even begin to match the wonderful image I have in mind as to how that music should go? I think a book like this could touch a few of my own artistic nerves.)
      Anyway, Max Farway is a bit defensive when people suggest to him that he avoided visiting Pavanne because he was in some way afraid of the Pictures, and says he simply didn't have time to go there, because Pavanne was a bit out of the way from the places he did visit. Perhaps stung by this challenge, he makes a visit to Pavanne, and upon seeing the Pictures, is confronted with the hopelessness of trying to reproduce them on canvas.
      The planet Pavanne is ruled by a physically decrepit despot called Jason Harkrider, who is so old, and his body so decayed from excesses over 150 years, that he is more machine than flesh, and has little mobility because of being tied to all these machines. He is immensely wealthy as a result of the tourism Pavanne attracts; and he's a really nasty bit of work, too. He learns from his assistant, Rudolph Heininger, that Max Farway is visiting Pavanne, and is very suspicious of him. He seems to think Farway has an agenda beyond merely coming to paint the Pictures of Pavanne, although it is not clear what he thinks this might be.
      There also seems to be a sub-plot developing out of the investigations a mathematician, Damon Wisepart, made into the mathematical structure of the Pictures some years ago, but who fell silent after finishing his investigation, without revealing his findings. Why is he not saying anything about what he found?

      This plot does not seem to develop to a satisfying conclusion, and much is left unexplained at the end; and the writing style leaves much to be desired: it is lacking in clarity and lucidity, and the author seems to be trying to condense his writing far too much, lacking detail, as if he is trying to cram too much information into too few words. This can cause you to have the impression that a particular passage is so many pages long, but when you look at it and count the pages, it is far fewer than you thought. Also, settings are often inadequately described, so that it is almost impossible to visualize them even approximately. The effect of all these shortcomings is to leave many details unexplained and difficult to understand, and can also put the whole sweep of action in the story out of focus. These all seem to be common faults in science-fiction, particularly of the time this novel was written (1968), and earlier.
      The main characters (Farway and Harkrider) both seem to be bitter, unpleasant, malicious people with twisted minds - not the sort you can easily identify or sympathize with; but certainly the plot had potential, and the various mysteries surrounding the Pictures are the sort of science-fictional thing that really fascinates me, if only (as is not always the case) the author can deliver a satisfactory resolution to this. I was therefore all the sorrier that the author was not able to deliver in the end. (I would have loved to see Dean Koontz handle this story over 500 pages or so.)
      Generally I am reluctant to divulge the resolution of novels I review in the review itself; but in this case, I can do so without fear of spoiling the outcome, because there is essentially nothing to spoil. What I mean by that is that there wasn't much of a resolution to the story: in spite of developing an interesting theme with much promise, the novel turned out to be one of those slightly avant-garde novels that don't resolve things at the end: you never find out how the Pictures work, or who created them, or why they did. But the Pictures explode into complete destruction at the end of the story, and I was never quite clear on why they did.
      Novels like that always leave me feeling a bit cheated; perhaps I'm rather traditional in such things, in that I like things to be explained at the end, and all the loose ends to be tied up. At the very least, I think the ending should make sense in terms of the situation narrated in the novel - and I don't somehow feel it does that in this case.
      The disappointment I felt at the lack of resolution was all the stronger because of the fact that, owing to the rather poor quality of writing, a fascination to find out what was behind the mysterious Pictures was the main thing that kept me reading. Alas, I never found out - and there is no reason, judging by the writing, to suppose that even the author had any idea what lay behind the Pictures.

      In summary, the novel is based on an interesting - even fascinating - idea in those pictures of haunting beauty and of unknown origin and means of working. But, regretfully, the shortcomings in writing style and plot development prevent this novel being rated as a first-class read. If I had written this book, I would definitely consider it worth completely rewriting, and expanding to two or three times its current length.

Michael Edwards,
Victoria, Australia.

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Original text copyright (C) 2000, by Michael Edwards.

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