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The cyclone had set the house down, very gently – for a cyclone – in the midst of a country of marvellous beauty. There were lovely patches of greensward all about, with stately trees bearing rich and luscious fruits. Banks of gorgeous flowers were on every hand, and birds with rare and brilliant plumage sang and fluttered in the trees and bushes. A little way off was a small brook, rushing and sparkling along between green banks, and murmuring in a voice very grateful to a little girl who had lived so long on the dry, grey prairies.

So many classic books have been immortalised on film and subsequently replaced in the minds of the public by their celluloid cousins. The Wonderful World of Oz is one such book. Even the title is different! Perhaps if the Michael Jackson/Diana Ross film had done better, we would all think of it as The Wiz. As it is Judy Garland’s singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow and the thematic quote ‘there’s no place like home’, have captured our imagination, not Baum’s original text. Even the meaning of the film has changed our understanding of the story. The Wizard of Oz ends with Dorothy realizing all her adventures were a dream. The grimmer 1980’s sequel Return to Oz and opens with the young heroine being locked away in an asylum due to her psychotic delusions.

Baum makes it clear that the Land of Oz itself is a real place, one that exists outside the ‘civilized world’. Dorothy is swept away when a cyclone snatches her aunt and uncle’s house, transporting it to the bright and colourful country so far from the grey Kansas landscape she grew up in. When she steps outside the house she is greeted by the kind Witch of the North and a strange people known as the Munchkins, who congratulate her on having killed the wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy is shocked at the accusation and insists she did not mean to kill anybody. The Munchkins thank her regardless, as they had been enslaved for many years by the powerful and evil witch and make her a gift of their former tyrant’s silver slippers. When Dorothy asks how she can find her way home again, the good Witch of the North explains that Oz is far away from America, cut off from the rest of the world by vast deserts that are impossible to cross. She recommends that Dorothy travels along the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City and ask the great and powerful Wizard who lives there for help.

Dorothy and her dog Toto set out immediately, soon coming across three new companions. They rescue a talking Scarecrow from a Munchkin crop field; the Tin Woodsman from being rusted in place in a forest; and meet a cowardly Lion, who longs to be King of the Beasts, but is too afraid. When Dorothy tells the three companions that she is travelling to meet the Wizard living in the Emerald City to ask for his aid, they all offer to join her on her journey. The Scarecrow longs to have a brain, so he can think like other men and not be thought of as a fool. The Tin Woodsman used to be a real man and wishes to have a heart again, so that he can fall in love with the woman he left behind. The Lion is desperate to gain some courage, as he is tired of being frightened all the time. The journey is long and perilous, with the group chased by the beastly Kalidahs and forced to cross a magical poppy field. Finally they arrive at the Emerald City, only to be commanded by the Wizard to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. Only then will he consent to giving Scarecrow a brain, the Tin Woodsman a heart, the Lion courage and Dorothy a way to return home to Kansas.

While I was reading this I found myself comparing the text to the film throughout. It was the same years ago when I read Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and had the theme tune to Dogtanian and the Muskahounds stuck in my head throughout. This is a great shame, as Baum’s writing is both simple and beautiful, with Dorothy’s companions symbolic of the hardships suffered during the 1893 Depression (farmer, factory worker and soldier).

This is a fable that deserves its long-life.

Something, something has got to happen soon, Milena thought. I need something new to do. I’m tired of the plays, I’m tired of the Child Gardens, I’m tired of being me. I’m tired of sitting bolt upright on the edge of my bed all night, alone. I need someone. I need a woman, and there isn’t going to be one. They’ve all been cured. The viruses cure them. Bad Grammar. I love you is Bad Grammer?

Some years ago I bought Geoff Ryman’s book Was, a unique take on BaumsThe Wizard of Oz , in a sale. I never got a chance to read it and eventually sold my copy, along with most of my possessions, the first time I moved to Australia. Now I feel like running to the largest book store I can find in Sydney and hunting it down. I have not been this excited by a writer since I first discovered Samuel R. Delany.

In a brisk introduction titled Advances in Medicine (A Culture of Viruses), Ryman establishes his vision of this future London and the principal character a Czech orphan named Milena Shibush. Cancer was cured via a contagious benevolent virus that rewrote DNA to allow the human body to photosynthesize sugar internally, preventing the triggering of tumour cells metastasizing due to genetic damage. The viruses continued to mutate, becoming intelligent and coding information into each new host, until a hive-mind developed called the Consensus, which directed and guided humanity. Culture and history became transferrable diseases, with newborn infants suddenly becoming infested with the collected works of Shakespeare, annals of past events and languages. Utterly transformed, the skin tone of the human race is now a universal russet purple. Also, the curing of cancer had an unexpected after-effect – no one lives beyond thirty-five.

Got all that? Good. Milena is not like the other children. Her parents are deceased. The virus payload never took as an infant, so she was forced to actually read as she was unable to keep up with the other children. At the age of ten children undergo a process called being ‘Read’, where all their experiences are distilled by Consensus in order to determine what their future professions should be. Milena has never been Read. When she finally received a payload of viruses that took it caused her to become so ill she was deemed unsuitable for the process. After she recovered, it seemed to her as if Consensus had forgotten to harvest her. She was placed as an actress in London. She is different, estranged from the other adolescents and children, more impulsive, imaginative, distrusting of the viruses and due to ‘Bad Grammar’ is attracted only to women.

Milena’s loneliness and lack of interest in the robotic performances of Shakespeare she has to take part in as part of her ‘career’ – every actor recites their lines and paces the stage exactly as Consensus tells them the original performers did, in a perfect recreation of the Elizabethan era – leave her feeling increasingly isolated, until one day she meets the love of her life. One day she hears a voice sing with a richness and understanding superior to any recording. The singer in question is a genetically engineered polar-woman named Rolfa, descended from humans who chose not to join Consensus, but become intelligent polar-bears instead. Unlike the socialist Utopia of the purple-skinned humans, the ‘G.E.’ polar bears mine for ore in the Antarctic and sell it for profit. They are the last capitalists. Rolfa, like Milena, is a freak who enjoys opera and poetry instead of business. Where the ‘squidgy’ girl is paranoid and reserved, the woman who looks like a bear is raucous and inspiring. Their love is not permitted by either Consensus or Rolfa’s Family, forcing them to make a tragic choice. Milena dedicates her short life to orchestrating her lover’s opera based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

I have not even scratched the surface of this amazing book. Ryman’s characters are fascinating creations – the dangerously deluded Thrawn McCartney, Cilla an actress colleague of Milena’s so good she cannot actually tell whether she is self-conscious or acting – contained within an elliptical and time-jumping plot. The intelligent viruses resemble Richard Dawkin’s theory of memes, which he wrote about in The Selfish Gene ten years before The Child Garden was published. This is an exhilarating mixture of science and culture, a novel set in the future that revolves around Dante’s epic poem.

Outstanding.

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