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Wot I red on my hols by Alan Robson (Gluteus Maximus)

Toys

Considering that I am the proud owner of three (count them) new toys, I am astonished by the number of books I have managed to read this month. I should have been (and often was) playing instead.

I have a thing which levitates. It consists of a solid block which contains the most powerful magnet I have ever used. As in all the best cartoons, you can almost see jagged bolts of magnetic force shooting off it and I keep expecting to come home and find it covered in cars that it has pulled in off the street as they drove by.

Upon this magnet sits a sheet of Perspex and you spin a magnetic top on the Perspex sheet. Then you lift the sheet carefully and when the magnetic fields of the block and the top exactly balance, the top lifts slightly off the sheet. Slide the sheet away and lo! the top spins mysteriously in mid air, held in place by the forces generated by the two magnetic fields and the torque generated by its own spinning. After a minute or so, air resistance slows the top down and the carefully balanced forces fall out of equilibrium and the whole thing drops apart. But during that minute, it is absolutely fascinating to watch, for it seems so magical.

The new Tom Clancy block buster is definitely one of his more readable. John Clark (who has had roles in several previous Clancy novels) takes centre stage here as he forms a new anti-terrorist organisation based in Britain but manned by officers from both Britain and America. Several seemingly unconnected terrorist actions are foiled, but a serious pattern starts to emerge from them and soon he and his group are deeply involved in trying to foil a dastardly plot to destroy the world as we know it. It is a remarkably silly book (the logic of the plot will not bear close scrutiny), but the tale is told with such panache that disbelief is willingly suspended for it is after all a rollicking good yarn that races breathlessly to its nail biting climax which (in common with almost all Clancy’s other books), comes about a hundred pages before the book actually finishes. The last section, as always, comprises an utterly unnecessary chase scene told from multiple viewpoints in staccato paragraphs. The villains are mopped up one by one and everyone lives happily ever after.

The book that I have been eagerly awaiting for lo! these many months has finally been published and I am afraid I found it quite disappointing. The Hundred Days is Patrick O’Brian’s direct sequel to his earlier cliff-hanger The Yellow Admiral. As the title implies, it is set during Napoleon’s campaign to re-unite Europe under his rule; the campaign which culminated in his final defeat at Waterloo. Aubrey and Maturin have but a small part to play in this campaign. Aubrey sails backwards and forwards across the Mediterranean and Maturin pursues obscure political ends among the various squabbling nations. As always, the humour and the vignettes are delightful (I particularly enjoyed the incident of the ship’s dog Naseby and the Hand of Glory) but the book as a whole is a definite disappointment. It is rife with coincidence (far too many Deys of Algiers die at too many convenient moments for no other reason than to get Aubrey and Maturin out of a tight corner) and although we are repeatedly told that Maturin is deeply depressed as a result of his wife’s death, we see no evidence of this in his manner or his actions. His keen interest in nature is unabated and his nose for political machinations is as acute as ever. The book reads like a first draft. O’Brian is noted for the pains he takes in the polishing of his works – sometimes publication has been delayed for years as he refines and revises. But he is getting old and his books are popular. Perhaps he succumbed to pressure from his publisher ("We don’t want it good, we want it Thursday!"). This one is for completists only.

In his new novel Moonseed, Stephen Baxter continues his documentation of the near future exploration of space; a territory that he has now largely staked out for his own private use. No other authors are exploring this area with more than a fraction of the passion and the level of detail that Baxter brings to bear. Not since the golden days of Arthur C. Clarke has there been such a matter of fact (but at the same time elegiac) evocation of the romance and the practicality and exploring near space.

The moonseed of the title has been brought back to Earth by one of the last Apollo astronauts. For more than twenty years the rock which contains it has lain unexamined in a NASA vault. But now it is being examined in a geological laboratory at Edinburgh University. When the moon rock comes into contact with lava from Edinburgh’s extinct volcanoes, the lava disintegrates into a seething sea of dust. The infection (if that is what it is) soon spreads beyond the confines of Edinburgh and starts to threaten the whole world. An emergency expedition is mounted to return to the moon in an attempt to find an antidote. The answers that this expedition returns with are not necessarily the answers that the world wants to hear.

The plot is melodramatic in the extreme and there is no real justification or explanation of the extraordinary ability of the moonseed to destroy the Earth. There is a lot of arm waving and very early on the book the planet Venus is destroyed. Stage magicians call this misdirection and I think authors might call it that as well. But none of that matters for the strength of this book is not in its silly ideas, the strength is in the brilliant evocation of character as real people (not cardboard authorial mouthpieces) live their lives and face their own triumphs and tragedies. There is also the added delight of seeing Baxter explore and implement (albeit only on paper) some of NASA’s wilder dreams about space travelling vehicles. There is something undeniably psychologically upsetting about a lunar lander that requires the astronauts to hang on to the outside of the vehicle!

My second toy is a palm top computer (a Philips Nino to be exact). A nifty little beast with a touch screen and a handwriting recognition program that means I can scribble on its screen with the stylus and my words are (mostly) stored in a file for my later perusal. Sometimes it fails to recognise my words, but that is only a matter of training. ("Here Nino! Sit! Sit! Good boy, well done. Now pay attention, this is a letter ‘a’. Got that?")

Quite honestly I have no real use for it (but since when did that stop a boy wanting a toy?). However I find it hard to resist the thought of holding in the palm of my hand a computer that has more memory and a faster CPU than the mainframe computer I used to program for a living twenty five years ago. And that computer sat in a room larger than my lounge and required a carefully regulated power supply and a large air-conditioner as well. I think they call it progress…

While browsing in a bookshop one day I was most delightfully surprised to find not one but TWO new novels by Lindsey Davis. Both continue the story of Falco, the cynical detective (or "informer" as he refers to himself) in the Rome of Vespasian, circa AD 73. In her last novel, Davis lost me completely as Falco explored the more arcane economic complexities of the olive oil trade, but in these new novels she has Falco turn his skills back to the more ordinary crime of murder. Three Hands in the Fountain opens at a party that Falco and Helena are giving to celebrate the birth of their daughter. Falco and his old friend Petronius are outside by the fountain, drinking wine. The fountain isn’t working, but that’s nothing unusual. A repair man turns up to fix the fountain, and Falco and Petronius, having nothing better to do, watch him. It soon transpires that the fountain is not working because the outlet is blocked by a decomposing human hand. It turns out that this is not the first human body part to be found in the Roman waterworks. For many years now dismembered female bodies have been turning up at regular intervals prior to or during the games that open many public festivals. The game’s afoot (to coin a phrase) and soon Falco is in hot pursuit of the villain.

Two for the Lions begins shortly after the events of the previous book. The fountain murderer is due to be executed in the arena by a specially trained lion whose sole purpose in life is to act as an official executioner. However the lion dies in mysterious circumstances. Falco is annoyed – who is going to execute the murderer now? It takes a long time to train these lions properly you know! Meanwhile, in partnership with his mortal enemy Anacrites, Falco is helping to conduct Vespasian’s great census. This census was largely a tax gathering exercise and Falco is taking enormous pleasure in acting as an auditor. The draconian powers this post bestows on him allows him to bring in a large tax haul (much to the disgruntlement of the people he audits) and his fee from this might finally allow him to move up a rank in the stratified Roman society.

Falco is auditing the trainer who owned the lion, and his investigations uncover a bitter rivalry between the different gladiatorial factions. There are strong hints that the lion’s death was directly caused by a feud between two rival trainers. Then the feud brims over into the murder of a gladiator. Things are getting serious.

The chief delights of the Falco novels are the convincing realism with which Davis presents the historical Rome of Vespasian and the cynical humour with which Falco approaches his investigations. He is the Phillip Marlowe of Imperial Rome – and that’s the highest praise I know how to give.

Stephanie Plum, the bounty hunter with frightening friends, an awful grandmother and a hamster called Rex, is back again in Four to Score. The plot is much as usual – someone fails to turn up for a court appearance and Stephanie goes hunting. No surprises there. The fun of the series lies in the eccentric characters like Sally Sweet the drag queen who breaks codes as a hobby. And Maxine who kidnaps her ex boy friend, tattoos him from head to foot with colourful messages like ‘pencil dick’ and ‘woman beater’ and then turns him loose (stark naked) to fend for himself. Lula, one of Stephanie’s more outspoken colleagues, is not impressed. "More like a stubby eraser."

Also worth a laugh is P. J. O’Rourke’s new collection of essays Eat the Rich. It is subtitled ‘A treatise on economics’ and that is certainly the theme, though O’Rourke returns again and again to a vain attempt to identify just what this thing called economics might be. He visits major and minor economic centres around the world – New York, Sweden, Albania, Moscow, Cuba – and describes what he finds there and tries to find a common pattern. I must confess that as soon as I hear the word economics, my eyes glaze over and my brain grinds to a halt. I did once read the first three sentences in Das Kapital, but then I bogged down. Fortunately O’Rourke has very similar feelings and that helps a lot.

The book also highlights the perils of having a British publisher republish what was originally an American book without reading it too closely. In the acknowledgements, O’Rourke describes the book cover and points out amusing and significant items upon it. However his words were lost upon me since they bore no relationship at all to the cover that Picador has placed upon the book. Perhaps I’m the only person who ever reads the acknowledgements page.

The principal character of Kathy Reichs’ novel Deja Dead is Dr. Temperance Brennan, a Director of Forensic Anthropology for the province of Quebec. The bones of a woman are discovered in the grounds of an abandoned monastery. It would seem that murder is afoot. Researching this case and others convinces Dr Brennan that a serial killer is on the prowl, but the detective leading the investigation does not agree. The body count rises and Dr Brennan calls in support and advice from her FBI colleagues to try and bolster her case. Meanwhile the killer is closing in…

The comparison with Patricia Cornwell’s novels is immediately obvious. Indeed the cover blurb makes it explicitly when one of the reviewers declares that the writer is "…better than Patricia Cornwell". I would beg to disagree. The plot and character and even the descriptive passages set in the mortuary are vintage Cornwell, so much so that I felt vaguely uncomfortable reading it (I prefer the real thing). The book is far too derivative and completely fails to transcend its origins.

The blurb makes Hobson and Co (Paranormal Investigators) sound very attractive (which is why I bought it, of course). On a dark and stormy night (!) towards the end of the nineteenth century a sinister meal takes place. Two hoary old geriatrics, ancient enemies, settle their quarrel violently. A hundred years later the universe ends. Mrs Prune is worried. Only Hobson and Co. can help; but Hobson is bone idle, bigoted, and drunk. And his partner is dead.

It starts off as a ghost story, veers vaguely into fantasy and ends up as simon-pure SF. But not once does it ever fulfil its promise of bizarre ideas, offbeat humour and strange insights into the working of the universe. The humour is extremely unsubtle and the insights are obvious. The book limps.

My third toy, which has indeed been occupying my time (albeit in small chunks), is a digital camera. Point and click, and there is the gratification of instant feedback as the picture is displayed on the built in viewing screen. Then download it to the computer and mess around with it with Adobe PhotoShop and you too can be a graphic artist. Crop it here, brighten it there, more contrast, less green. Stick that head on the other body and superimpose a landscape. Who said the camera does not lie? They were wrong!

And I am free at last of the tyranny of sticking pictures in an album and labelling them in an unsteady hand and watching them fade over the years as sunlight and slow chemical reactions eat away at them. It is so much easier to organise the pictures on the computer, and to caption them as well. And unless there really is any truth to the rumour that computerised images suffer from bit rot, they will last a lot longer than the fading pictures and fading memories in my albums. And probably get looked at lot more often as well.

Photography has been an on-again off-again hobby for many years. Perhaps this time it will stick around for rather longer than it has before.

And besides, I can take dirty pictures and avoid the embarrassment of having them developed and printed and seen by strangers.

Timequake is Kurt Vonnegut’s latest last novel. (He’s been claiming that he will write no more ever since Breakfast of Champions, and that was published twenty years ago). But given that he is now in his seventies, it might be true this time.

It is a discursive book, chatting about his family and their lives and sometimes their deaths. Intermingled with the chat are synopses of stories written by Vonnegut’s science-fictional mouthpiece author Kilgore Trout, who is also the hero of what shreds of plot remain in the fictional incidents that make up the rest of the book. A timequake has thrown the world and all its people ten years back in time and now they are forced to re-live their lives, saying the same words, performing the same actions, helpless in the grip of the timestream even though (having lived all this before) they know exactly what is to come. But they have no way of avoiding their future until the ten years are up and reality kicks in again (an event that takes many by surprise). Kilgore Trout, a hero of the hour when reality kicks in, is holding a clambake to celebrate and Kurt Vonnegut is a guest. Ting a ling.

Vonnegut’s books are extremely idiosyncratic and not to everybody’s taste. I love them, and I am sorry that there may not be any more. So it goes.

Ishmael is a polemic wrapped inside a Socratic dialogue and despite the praise that others have heaped upon the book, I found it irritating, weak and somewhat cynically manipulative. Ishmael is a gorilla whose life in a travelling circus has given him insight into the human condition as it relates to the ecology of the planet. Escaping from the circus, he sets himself up as a teacher and the book follows his teachings as the secrets are revealed to his latest pupil. These secrets are (of course) too profound to spell out in detail and therefore we are treated to the usual parables and questionings that are always used to disguise the shallowness of a guru’s message.

Quite early on the idealism of the "traditional" environmentalists is dismissed as na´ve (which in hindsight it often has been). However the same naivety soon manifests itself in the ideas that Ishmael promulgates, it is just more deeply hidden behind a fašade of seeming pragmatism that does not really stand up to serious scrutiny, for it paints too many things in black and white and grey is entirely missing. The constraints of the novel, however, will not allow such questioning. Ishmael is a guru, gurus are always right. I think that underlying assumption more than any other sticks in my throat.

I have to admire the motives that lead to the writing of this book. But I cannot believe that it contains any practical answers. It is well suited to the wooliness of the new age in which it was written and there is a web page (http://www.ishmael.com) devoted to a discussion of the book and its meaning which reinforced my opinion when I visited it.

In Brother Termite, Patricia Anthony shows us what happens to the world after the aliens invade and they have settled in and got down to the business of living. The alien hero is the White House Chief of Staff. He is extremely long lived and has served many presidents from Eisenhower onwards. It soon becomes clear, though, that the aliens have a secret agenda of which the humans are completely unaware, and their position of power within the human society is more fragile than it seems. This is a novel of politics, both human and alien (and they turn out to be not quite so different as you might think; some ideas seem to be of universal applicability, and political pragmatism may well be one of them). This is a thoughtful and well-realised novel and I read it with awe. There are several more Patricia Anthony books on my shelves and I am looking forward to reading them.

The New Age is a collection of Martin Gardner’s usual witty, incisive and insightful essays on fringe thinking. Much familiar territory is covered (Shirley Maclaine, Uri Geller), but there is also much that is new. Some of the essays also flirt with the fringes of science fiction. Gardner talks about Hugo Gernsback and L. Ron Hubbard and he also writes an essay that presents the most complete and coherent discussion I have ever seen about Raymond Palmer and the Shaver incident.

When Heaven Fell and The Transmigration of Souls are good old fashioned thud and blunder space opera. Books like this are the reason that most of us got hooked on SF in the first place and the dedication of The Transmigration of Souls to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Olaf Stapledon and E. E. Smith place both firmly into context. And a good thing too I say!

When Heaven Fell takes place many years after the alien invasion of Earth (much like the Patricia Anthony’s Cold Allies – is this a theme whose time has come?). The hero is an Earthman who has joined the alien army and who has spent most of his life subduing other races at the behest of the Masters. Now he is coming home to Earth on leave. He finds that living conditions have deteriorated and his family is living almost in squalor, which is disquieting. He is an obvious symbol for the resistance (such as it is) and they attempt to recruit him. But he has other ideas…

In The Transmigration of Souls, the Americans have discovered an alien base at the lunar pole. Investigating the strange machinery it contains opens up world after world. But exploring these worlds attracts the attention of the Space-Time Juggernaut (known affectionately as The Jug) and the Americans seal the base, retreat to Earth and isolate themselves from the world. Fortress America develops in isolation and the rest of the world knows nothing about what happened. As the book opens, Arabian and Chinese Astronauts are planning on returning to the moon and re-opening the American bases. America is forced to come out from it’s self-imposed isolation. The Space-Time Juggernaut is still waiting…

Great stuff! You just have to admire a book with a Space-Time Juggernaut in it.

Alternate Generals is a series of stories by various authors presenting several alternative views of history based around incidents in the lives of various military men. What if Caesar had not been assassinated, what if Robert E. Lee had fought in the Crimea. And so on. The stories range from average to bad and some of the historical incidents and people are so obscure that I had no idea at all what point the author was making. I found myself longing for a Space-Time Juggernaut to liven things up a little.

John Stith’s new novel is also a kind of a space opera in that it returns again to the glory days of science fictional plotting. Early in the new millennium, mankind has spread to the outer reaches of the solar system. An exploration team discovers an asteroid where no asteroid has any right to be. Investigation shows it to be an alien starship, and the bulk of the book is taken up with the exploration of it. In outline, the plot sounds like a direct steal of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, but the resemblance is only skin deep. Stith’s alien ship is wholly original and the discoveries that are made are extraordinarily well worked out and very thought provoking. This one has classic written all over it.

So imagine me, if you will, striding down the street taking notes on my Nino and pointing my camera hither and yon. (If it moves, photograph it. If it doesn’t move, kick it until it does). In between times perchance I will have a conversation on my mobile phone. When not in use (unlikely occurrence!) all are carefully placed in pouches threaded on my belt. This causes my jacket to balloon outwards and from a distance I appear to be somewhat rhomboidal in shape. When boredom sets in, perhaps I will retire to a convenient oasis and levitate awhile.

Here comes Gadget Man; Super Yuppie, the scourge of the un-toyed.


Tom Clancy Rainbow Six Harper Collins
Patrick O’Brian The Hundred Days Harper Collins
Stephen Baxter Moonseed Voyager
Lindsey Davis Three Hands in the Fountain Arrow
Lindsey Davis Two for the Lions Century
Janet Evanovich Four to Score Macmillan
P. J. O’Rourke Eat the Rich Picador
Kathy Reichs Deja Dead Arrow
Brian Hughes Hobson & Co. (Paranormal Investigators) Ripping
Kurt Vonnegut Timequake Berkeley
Daniel Quinn Ishmael Bantam
Patricia Anthony Brother Termite Ace
Martin Gardner The New Age (Notes of a Fringe Watcher) Prometheus Books
William Barton When Heaven Fell Aspect
William Barton The Transmigration of Souls Aspect
Harry Turtledove (Editor) Alternate Generals Baen
John E. Stith Reckoning Infinity Tor

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