Review: The Disestablishment of Paradise, by Phillip Mann


(Gollancz, 2013: ISBN 9780575132627)

(review first published in ASIM 57,  April 2013)

I first encountered the writing of the New Zealand SF author Phillip Mann in the 1980s, when his debut novel The Eye of the Queen was released. What impressed me then was his facility at the description of the alien and the exotic, and this is still evident as a signature characteristic of his work. To read Mann at his finest is to be immersed in a world immediately unrecognisable, thoroughly unpredictable, and vitally real.

The Disestablishment of Paradise is Mann’s first adult SF novel in about fifteen years. It takes as its backdrop the title activity, the expiration of humanity’s scientific and colonisation efforts on the alien planet Paradise for reasons of budgetary constraints. The vegetation-dominated Paradise is, it seems, a world too contrary, too enigmatic for convenience: it does not readily allow the transplantation of a human society, nor the importation of terrestrial agriculture. Botanical observations made a century ago no longer remain true. Paradise, it appears, is changing in response to the human presence, but it is an adverse reaction, not the compliance that the settlement program and the scientists had been hoping for. It is not the low-hanging fruit that first it seemed: a world populated only by plantlife, and by definition therefore free of any dangerous animals.

The novel follows the character of Hera Melhuish, the middle-aged director of ORBE, the scientific research organisation that has been tasked with exploring Paradise’s many mysteries, and that has now been slated for abandonment. Hera will be the last person to leave the planet. But there are some things she must attend to first …

Paradise is not the kind of space-based SF that is currently in vogue. It’s rather slow-moving, somewhat meandering in places, and almost completely unconcerned with technological exposition. It also deals rather more with the metaphysical and with the spiritual than I’m generally comfortable with in an SF novel, and it’s this tendency, as well as the importance placed on character, on interpersonal interaction, and on introspection, that leads me to categorise it as a ‘Planetary Romance’ very much akin to C S Lewis’s ‘Space Trilogy’, especially Perelandra (more recently retitled as Voyage to Venus). Both Perelandra and Paradise concern themselves with an act of redemption or purification on a planetary scale, in a situation where human agents are seen as a force for contamination. It would be a short step from this comparison to infer that Paradise is therefore also a work of allegory, as were the books in Lewis’s trilogy; but it would be, I think, an incorrect inference. Paradise is not a religious work, unless I’ve significantly misread it.

I enjoyed Paradise. It manages the neat trick of presenting a retreat as a voyage of discovery. Hera Melhuish is an intriguing central character, and the book’s supporting cast is admirably vivid and varied. The novel starts with a compelling hook, as Hera learns that she (and everyone) must abandon the planet she has grown to consider her home, and for the most part the story does not lose its footing. (There is one patch towards the middle where I felt it faltered for thirty pages or so, but this may not be so much a failing of the text as the absence of any explanatory diagrams at a point in the storyline which I felt could very much have benefited from illustration.) But, considerations of the story aside, this is very much a book in which the worldbuilding is dominant. Mann has done an excellent job of creating a credible and utterly alien world, in a fashion reminiscent of Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees or, perhaps more prosaically, Stanley Weinbaum’s classic story Parasite Planet (another vegetation-dominated alien adventure). Mann’s novel, like these two tales, is richly visualised and describes a world larger than the confines of the story. Augmenting the worldbuilding is a lengthy appendix to the novel, containing twelve documents pertaining to the history of human settlement on Paradise, and informing the troubled and ultimately doomed interaction between humanity and the world’s plantlife. I found these documents interesting: though they are by no means central to the storyline, they do serve to provide some background to some of the novel’s events and attitudes, and they heighten the perception of Paradise as a real and detailed world.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to find a reliable description of The Disestablishment of Paradise. It’s a complicated work, but a rewarding one. I can certainly recommend it.

(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2013)


4 responses

4 06 2013
You may be labouring … | Simon Petrie

[…] of my recent book reviews, first aired in the current issue of ASIM, onto my book-review page: Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise and Donna Maree Hanson’s Rayessa and the Space […]

10 07 2013
Phillip Mann

I was very interested to read your review of The Disestablishment of Paradise and am writing now to ask if I could publish it on my website: Phillip Mann – Writer, Teacher and Theatre Director, with full acknowledgement of course. The book was written over 12 years ago: I just could not find a publisher. I had given up on it, and then Malcolm Edwards of Gollancz came to my rescue, again.
I would also be very interested to know the 30 pages where you felt the book faltered. I will have a good look at them. Best wishes, Phillip Mann

10 07 2013


Thanks very much for your comment. Yes, you may certainly reprint the review on your website.

The pages where I felt the book faltered — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the place where I found myself getting a little lost — centre on chapters 24 and 26, where I felt the lack of a diagrammatic cross-section of the Dendron. (The cover illustration helped, to a degree, but I found it difficult to follow the detail of Mack’s and Hera’s efforts at this point — I tend to be a quite ‘visual’ reader, I think, and felt hampered by my inability to properly visualise the process.)

And I’m glad the book found a publisher, even if it was an unaccountably long delay. It was a wonderful world to explore.

Thanks, Simon

10 07 2013
Phillip Mann

Hi Simon,
Thank you very much for the information. I shall look at that part of the book carefully to see if there is anything I can do. It was a difficult section to write and I actually made drawings (scribbles really) to help keep me on track. I never thought of using drawings in the text. I suppose Hera could have done them as she is a good artist. Ah well. I am now into writing a new book and it is not so easy to go back.
I will publish the review in the next few days. Many thanks.
I am writing from Wellington in New Zealand by the way…. where it is very cold.

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