Winner of the T.A.G. Hungerford Award, Robert Edeson’s style of fiction is unlike anything I’ve ever read. His latest book, Bad to Worse, is the story of a vendetta that dates back to the old American West. When a pilot insists that the crash of his plane is the result of a collision with an illegal drone, a centuries-old feud between the Mortiss and Worse families is rekindled. Richard Worse, a Perth-based man of extraordinary talents, is reunited with his American cousins and drawn into the ongoing feud as he tries to uncover the truth about the illegal drone.
The plot is woven through a collection of letters, scripts, and third person narrative. In the beginning the reader feels like a detective, piecing together a story from all the evidence. The strangest quirk of Edeson’s style is his use of footnotes and appendices to reveal crucial layers of plot and intrigue. Much like reading a scientific paper, these snippets provide extra information to the main text, and it is here that the author’s voice and striking wit is most prominent.
As an example, one of my favourite asides comes from Appendix A, which concerns the scientific anomaly of partial regeneration, to which the author comments ‘The consequential phenomenon of part regeneration is one of the most intriguing in zoology, though it’s obvious benefits are lost to humans, whose evolutionary advancement instead gifted the ability to verbalise a circumstanced preference for it.’
The use of footnotes and appendices also adds a sense of realism to the narrative, an effect that I have never before encountered in a work of fiction. These notes reinforce the sense that, rather than reading a fictional tale, I was instead reading a true account of the events described. Repeatedly I found myself asking: which parts of the book are fact and which are fiction? The fiction is presented so convincingly it may as well be fact. More than once I was struck by the need to research a term or a scientific paper to see if it really existed.
At times the chapters seem to take the reader off course. On one hand, the crime thriller of Worse versus Mortiss is captivating and exhilarating, while the corresponding science fiction adventure of Nicholas and Paulo in the caves of Ferendes is absorbing and fascinating. Woven amongst the main plot is discussion around avian linguistics, biology, psychology, computer science, pictographs, mathematics, chemistry, poetry, literature, history and philosophy. With the plethora of educated and varied individuals gracing the pages, at times one can imagine that they are sitting at a table with a group of scientists, each at the tops of their fields, discussing their research. They offer a glimpse of the unknown in the world. Equally fascinating and confounding, the conversation is a cocktail of technical terms and speculation so wild that it proves scientists are much more creative that we give them credit for.
The array of scientific discussions and references are beautifully accompanied by a healthy dose of poetry and philosophy. As the characters pursue their various goals, questions of truth and humanity abound. My favourite moment comes when Richard Worse recites poetry in answer to his friend’s question about whether to continue pursuing his research even if it could have potentially negative social effects:
We are servants of the lighthouse
-all of us,
carrying wood to the fire,
He goes on to say ‘we are all responsible for a truthful world… light falls guiltless even on the tyrant… Meaning, the evil in the shadows is not of light’s making.’
It may seem that this is a heavy text to read, but rest assured there is plenty of humour to light the way, sometimes sarcastic and sometimes dark, but always intelligent. For Perth-based readers, we cannot help but chuckle when Regan Mortiss exclaims ‘What about Perth? Who do we have there? Where is it anyway?… Do they speak English there?’ to which her attendant responds, ‘They’re impossible to understand but it’s a basic form of English, yes.’
Whilst the main character originates from Edeson’s debut novel The Weaver Fish, and some references are made to those adventures, this is a standalone text. Readers of his first book will be delighted to re-acquaint themselves with some familiar faces, however newcomers will still enjoy all that Bad to Worse has to offer.
A few tips to get the most out of the book: use two bookmarks – one for the main text and one for the appendices – and read the appendices and footnotes in full. At times the end notes are long and technical, but if you’re paying attention you’ll find that this is where the majority of the magic and humour happens.