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Wot I red on my hols by Alan Robson (Inspissimus)

Bodily Functions

The universe is an awkward place. Try as we might, attempting to measure the progress of our lives by astronomical events seems foredoomed to failure. The Calendar by David Duncan tells the history of many calendrical systems, some of which flourished for centuries before they were finally overtaken by events and often by the seasons as well. Interestingly it was not until October 1st 1949 when Chairman Mao Zedong decreed that China would adopt the Gregorian calendar that the whole world finally agreed what the date was - though even the Gregorian calendar took many centuries to displace the Julian which itself had been subjected to centuries of criticism and debate. And that was only in the western remnants of the Roman Empire. Beyond its boundaries many other calendars flourished (and even the Julian calendar was but a rationalised successor to earlier, clumsier systems). There is fascination and delight and often amusement as well on every page of this magnificent book.

One advantage of a commonly agreed upon calendar is that you always know when it is November 5th - the day when we celebrate the memory of the only honest man ever to enter parliament. On that day we usually lock the cat flap and keep the cats indoors so that they don’t get inadvertently blown to smithereens. Normally they don’t mind, but on this particular November 5th, Ginger was somewhat restless, scratching at the cat flap and whining occasionally. We put it down to general cussedness – after all, everybody knows that whenever a door is locked, the cat, by definition, is on the wrong side of it. Eventually she gave up and grumpily snoozed a while. Occasionally she woke, and paced up and down.

At last it all appeared to get too much for her and the real reason for her restlessness quickly became apparent. She marched decisively off to the back of the house, climbed into the green bowl we soak the tea towels in prior to washing them (fortunately it was empty at the time) and took an enormous crap.

She seemed quite nonplussed at the lack of scratchable things to cover it with and peered pathetically over the rim. She was quickly rescued and the bowl was hurriedly cleaned and disinfected. She climbed up onto the toilet, perched precariously on the rim, put her head down and her tail up and took a celebratory drink. All was well in her world again.

Animals have a natural and quite uninhibited approach to the mysterious workings of their bodies. Humans have a much more peculiar attitude about the whole business. The astronomer Tycho Brahe (he of the silver nose) is popularly supposed to have died of an exploded bladder because he refused to leave the dinner table to relieve himself as long as his host was still present. I can’t claim to have gone that far, though once, for a bet, I did go for a month without taking a dump. It’s a good job I have brown eyes. Nobody could tell I was full of shit…

An Instance of the Fingerpost is an oddly structured detective novel set in Restoration England. Four narrators describe the murder of Robert Grove, a fellow of New College, Oxford. The only facts on which all four agree are that Grove was killed and the girl Sarah Blundy was convicted of his murder and executed. Beyond that, the tale becomes murky as each narrator reveals his own motives and political interests (though often remaining ignorant of the motives and interests of the other protagonists). The years following Cromwell’s death were turbulent ones and even after the King was restored to the throne there was no guarantee of stability. Old enmities from the days of insurrection still festered and new plots were hatched.

The seventeenth century comes brawlingly to life. Pears evokes the sounds, sights and smells so brilliantly that they almost leap out of the book at you. There are revelations on every page as the seemingly simple events gradually show themselves to be a terribly tangled skein. Nobody and nothing are what they seem to be on the surface and the ending will leave you gasping with both its audacity and (in retrospect) its inevitability.

Two new Charles Sheffield novels in one month. What a treat! Putting up Roots is another one of his juveniles in the strict tradition of Robert Heinlein. Teenager Josh Kerrigan is sent to the planet Solferino where he joins a crew of children working for the interplanetary conglomerate charged with exploiting the planet. Many odd events take place – the boss of the work camp issues increasingly arbitrary orders and appears to be of quite an unstable temperament. There is the mystery of the mining ships that should not be present here (they belong to a quite different conglomerate and are supposedly barred from Solferino). And there are contradictory indications that suggest the planet may have intelligent inhabitants. Josh and his autistic cousin Dawn are quickly involved in solving all these mysteries and eventually (of course) a satisfactory resolution is reached. This series of juveniles that Sheffield is currently pumping out are all reasonably enjoyable but they strike me as being little more than updated Enid Blyton stories (a kind of Famous Five in space) and as such are quite ephemeral.

However Aftermath is of quite a different order. In the year 2026, Alpha Centauri turns into a supernova. It rises in the sky of Earth like a second sun and completely disrupts the weather patterns. Floods, fires, starvation and disease paralyse the planet and the huge electromagnetic pulse associated with the event wipes out every microchip on the planet. Overnight virtually all technology stops working.

Sheffield examines this chaos from several different points of view. A militant cult, three cancer patients, the survivors of an expedition to Mars and the remnants of the American government struggle through a world gone mad. Older technologies are gradually resurrected and the world slowly begins to come back together. But a new catastrophe awaits.

It seems certain that Aftermath is the first book of a series. There are many hints and far too many loose ends in the plot. As it stands, it is merely an excellent "after the disaster" novel (a genre that seems to have gone out of favour lately, which is a shame). When the story is complete, I think it may turn out to be much more than that.

When I was a child, I led a sheltered existence and much was mysterious to me. I had no idea that other people went to the toilet; I thought I was the only person in the world who did that. Wasn’t it generous of my parents to have a whole room fitted out just for me? I don’t recall ever spotting them using it at all. Either I was a singularly unobservant child, or they only used it when I was asleep. I suspect that both these facts are true.

Consequently I was most ill-prepared for the hurly burly of school life when I was finally packed off there aged about five. I vividly recall bursting for a pee on my first day but being completely unable to ask where the toilets were because I was sure that nobody would have the faintest idea what I was talking about. The inevitable result ensued and I still recall the humiliation of being dried off and told off simultaneously. It was an inauspicious start to an academic career…

With Soho Black, Christopher Fowler manages to be disgusting, hilarious, satirical and cynical all at once. Quite a feat. Movie executive Richard Tyler is at the end of his tether. He owes money left right and centre, his movie projects are not getting off the ground, his girl friend has spent all the credit on his cards and is screwing his boss who has just sacked him. And then he dies and things start to get better.

He manages to bring some order back to his existence – by being assertive, he makes some rather exciting movie deals come off. He starts to sort out his money troubles. He is working to a tight deadline for he doesn’t have much time. Soon people will notice that he is dead as he starts to smell and bits begin to drop off…

The new Dean Koontz novel Fear Nothing has an interesting premise, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Christopher Snow suffers from xeroderma pigmentosum, a rare genetic disorder that makes sunlight deadly to him. So Chris lives at night and has never left his hometown of Moonlight Bay. Then his father dies and Chris’ world is shattered. In the mortuary at the hospital he discovers that the town’s undertaker is collecting bodies for some as yet unknown purpose. His own father’s body has been spirited away.

Then just as the book starts to get interesting it turns into a chase movie. Chris is discovered by the bad guys and has to flee. Along the way, various people who are in on whatever the nasty secret is drop vague hints but refuse to tell the whole story (or are murdered before they can tell the whole story). And Chris runs. And runs. And runs some more. And the bad guys get closer and closer and Chris runs again.

Eventually the book has enough pages filled and the big secret is revealed and Chris stops running. Ho hum.

As I grew older I began to suspect that I might not be completely solid inside. Up until this point, if I’d considered it at all, I’d just assumed that I looked rather like a leg of lamb all the way through. However the fact that stuff leaked out at regular intervals began to suggest that something might be going on in there.

I started to ask increasingly awkward and embarrassing questions of my (rather strait-laced) parents. Then one Christmas I was given a toy called "The Visible Man". The box it came in contained plastic models of all the human organs and a clear perspex body to fit them in. When fully assembled, you had a naked man with a transparent skin and you could turn him round and see where all the interesting little bits fitted together. It was absolutely fascinating. And, it would appear, it was me.

The back of the box advertised a companion toy "The Visible Woman". I asked for one for my birthday but my parents seemed strangely diffident and I never got one, much to my disappointment.

Now that I knew I had tubes and interesting chunky bits inside I began to wonder if perhaps other people did as well. Prior to this I’d tended to regard other people as somehow not quite real. I vaguely felt that when I wasn’t around they probably turned themselves off and hung themselves up in a wardrobe somewhere (any child without siblings is a natural solipsist). But the evidence of "The Visible Man" suggested that perhaps there were one or two other freaks of nature like me in the world. I kept an open mind, and gradually it filled up as the evidence accumulated…

This month I’ve read a novel about vampires and a novel about vampyres. Both, in their own idiosyncratic way, were excellent.

In Judgement of Tears, Kim Newman returns again to the world he created in Anno Dracula. In that earlier novel, Dracula was not defeated by Jonathan Harker and Van Helsing. Rather he triumphed over them and married Queen Victoria. Vampirism became fashionable, though Dracula was eventually vanquished and fled the country in disgrace. The new novel is set in Rome in 1959. The gliterati are gathered together to celebrate Dracula’s forthcoming marriage to the Moldavian Princess Asa Vajda. But panic is spreading all over Rome. A vicious murderer known only as the Crimson Executioner is killing the vampire elders. Something older and more evil than Dracula himself is abroad in the city.

Newman, as usual, has enormous fun with his vampiric world. Much entertainment is to be gained by playing "spot the reference". The vampiric secret service agent Hamish Bond (who likes the blood in his martini to be shaken, not stirred) is rather easy. Somewhat less obvious is the guest list at the glittering party that marks Dracula’s engagement (the guest list includes Mrs Honoria Cornelius and Colonel Maxim Pyat, but unfortunately there are no pink-eyed albinos with black swords to give the game away). Waitresses walk around the party with spigots in their necks from which the guests help themselves. And the danse de mode is the Dracula cha cha cha.

The climax of the novel, when the Mater Lachrymarum is revealed, is truly epic in scope, and the final resolution of the problem of Dracula is eminently satisfying. This is a very dark novel, though richly comic.

Much the same can be said of the new Terry Pratchett novel Carpe Jugulum. Vampyres have arrived in Lancre from the Uberwald. Verence, unaware of the consequences, invited them in to attend the christening of his daughter. Even Granny Weatherwax quails at the threat they pose. She can find no way into their minds. Headology is not going to work this time.

But Granny is not without allies. Hodgesaargh, the royal falconer, has a phoenix feather. Surely that means there must be a phoenix close by? If there’s one thing Hodgesaargh knows all about, its birds. Even odd ones. Well, just look at William the buzzard. She thinks she’s a chicken. What could be odder than that?

And then there are the Nac mac Feegle. Small, blue, very aggressive and much given to stealing cows. Even Greebo is afraid of the Nac mac Feegle.

And Mightily Oats, the priest of Om who has a boil on his nose and hasn’t schismed lately. Mightily Oats who christens the daughter of Verence and Magrat and reads the piece of paper that Magrat gave him slightly wrong, much to her irritation. Agnes Nitt is in two minds about him, but the other mind is Perdita and she seems to know what she is doing.

There aren’t many laughs in this book. There is a lot of humour, but it is a black humour, a gallows humour. The theme is power, its usage and abusage. Pterry has played here in other novels (Lords and Ladies for example). But always before there seemed to be hope. Not this time. There is dark in the dark places and light in the light ones. But that might just be a disguise. This is one of Pterry’s most serious books, and one of his very best.

When I was a student I would spend the summer holidays working in the pathology laboratory of the local hospital (a vampire’s ideal job). I soon got quite blasť about blood. I used to measure haemoglobin levels and erythrocyte sedimentation rates. Sometimes, as a special treat, I was allowed to make and stain the slides. At first I layered the blood too thickly (a common mistake, I’m told). But after a bit of practice I managed to get it right. The insides of the body and the biological functions they followed gave up some of their secrets.

Unlike the permanent employees, I wasn’t allowed to stick needles and scalpels into people and take the blood myself. All I was allowed to do was put it into machines and on to slides when it arrived in the lab. I was quite peeved about this; I rather fancied the idea of sticking sharp, pointed objects into people, but apparently it was AGAINST THE RULES.

The closest I ever got was from the other side when I acted as a crash test dummy for a very new and very nervous lab technician who was being trained up to stick things into real people. She’d practised on a model and now it was time to try it on a living body. I was a student and therefore expendable. Would I volunteer? Well, why not?

Her first task was to take a smear from my thumb for microscopic examination. This involved sticking a small, needle-like scalpel into my thumb and squeezing a tiny drop of blood out onto a slide. The scalpel was unwrapped from its sterile package and she clasped my thumb in one hand and the scalpel in the other. She brought the scalpel down gently onto my thumb and it bounced off again. We both peered closely at the thumb. No blood. Try again – harder this time.

WALLOP!

The scalpel sunk about quarter of an inch into the ball of my thumb (I half expected to see it sticking out of the other side). She let go and it vibrated gently back and forth then came to rest. Dumbfounded, we both looked at it for a moment and then we screamed in unison. To this day I don’t know who screamed the loudest.

Once a technician went collecting samples in the geriatric ward. Draw the blood into a syringe and squirt it into a test tube with an anti-coagulant in the bottom. Shake well, don’t stir; just like a martini. She stuck her needle into an old lady’s arm and as she started to draw blood the lady died.

There was no connection between the two events; it was just a rather grim coincidence. It wasn’t funny, but we laughed about it for days…

I don’t normally read the Booker nominations – indeed I generally go out of my way to avoid them for the Judges’ tastes are not mine. But when Martin Booth was nominated for The Industry of Souls I decided to give it a try. I first came across Booth many years ago with a frightening novel called Hiroshima Joe, and I’ve followed his books intermittently ever since. The Industry of Souls tells the tale of Alexander Bayliss, an Englishman who was arrested as a spy in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and sentenced to the Gulag. He was freed in the 1970s but has no reason to return to the West. He settles in a small Siberian village and becomes a schoolmaster. The village is his home. But on his 80th birthday he has a decision to make. Russia has changed beyond all recognition. The communists are gone and information about him has spread far beyond the village. And Alexander has a visitor; his first ever.

The story is set in both the past and the present – the cruelties of the camp contrast with the love he receives in the village, and that makes the decision he has to come to on his 80th birthday all the harder. Despite its grim subject, this is a beautiful and ultimately very moving novel. No surprise, therefore, that it didn’t win the Booker.

Traces is a collection of short stories by Stephen Baxter. They cover the whole of his career, from his very earliest to his very latest. They are hard SF tales and the influences of Arthur C. Clarke and James Blish are very obvious (and that is high praise indeed in my book). There are no Xeelee stories here (thank goodness – I really don’t like the Xeelee stories) – just well observed, well told stories in the grand tradition.

Shortly after I started working in my first permanent job, I was sent on a first aid course and I saw many gruesome sights as the teacher (a doctor) tried to accustom the class to the many ways a body can be injured. "You can be sick afterwards," he used to say. "While it’s going on, somebody needs you. You aren’t allowed to be sick. So I want you to know what you are likely to see." He played us films and showed us slides. And he took us on a visit to a hospital so that we’d smell the injuries as well. That was the worst part.

Now I really did have objective evidence that people didn’t look like a leg of lamb all the way through. "The Visible Man" had been completely truthful in everything he’d said to me all those years ago.

I learned how to bandage wounds and splint broken bones. I learned how to make a ring bandage to protect wounds with glass in them so as not to drive the glass further in (and once I used that knowledge in real life when my neighbour walked through his ranch slider and bled all over the shag pile carpet). I learned how to put a patient in the recovery position (and when not to). I learned a method of treating burns that completely contradicted one I’d been taught several years previously. As knowledge advances, sometimes treatments change.

I learned how to treat someone who has fallen off a building and impaled themselves on a fence. "Don’t do anything," was the doctor’s advice. "Ring for an ambulance and then hold their hand and talk to them until the ambulance arrives. The paramedics won’t do anything either except saw through the fence. They’ll take the patient to the hospital with the fence still stuck through him. Do you know why?"

The class thought hard about that one. "It needs very special and delicate surgery?"

"Don’t be daft," he said. "They want to give the patient something to hang on to when the ambulance goes round the corner too fast."

In 1959 Hunter Thompson wrote a novel about life as a journalist in San Juan. Now, nearly forty years later, The Rum Diary has finally been published. The hard drinking Paul Kemp is only a thin disguise for Thompson himself (as is immediately obvious to anyone who has read his later journalism) and the first person narrative turns the whole thing into an autobiographical slice of Thompson’s youth. Rum and brutality are the themes behind Kemp’s involvement with the totally amoral Addison Yaemon and his beautiful girlfriend Chenault and it brings ruin to them all (though Kemp comes off better than the others). I find it hard to understand why we had to wait so long for this book. Surely it must have been submitted for publication before now? Why was it rejected? It may not be the great American novel, but that doesn’t stop it being a good one.

Brian Aldiss has committed autobiography before (with Bury My Heart at W. H. Smiths). Now he has done it again with The Twinkling of an Eye. This is a more substantial work than its predecessor (though there is, of course, a large overlap). It concentrates on his childhood and his army career in Burma in the closing days of the second world war. The pictures he paints here are fascinating glimpses into a time long past.

However the details of his post war career are sketched in lightly and whenever he veers close to revelation, he gets scared and backs off again. Why, for example, was his first marriage a failure? We know it was, because he tells us and he laments long and loud about the tragedy of the divorce. But we never find out why it happened. These later passages are long on expositions discussing his literary and artistic world view, and they are full of paeans of love for his second wife and his children and this is very moving and interesting. But of Aldiss the man we learn little except superficialities for all the interactions of his life are drawn with far too broad a brush stroke.

And now I’m going to turn myself off and hang myself up in a wardrobe…


David Ewing Duncan The Calendar Fourth Estate
Iain Pears An Instance of the Fingerpost Vintage
Charles Sheffield Putting Up Roots Tor
Charles Sheffield Aftermath Bantam
Christopher Fowler Soho Warner
Dean Koontz Fear Nothing Headline
Kim Newman Judgement of Tears – Anno Dracula 1959 Carroll & Graf
Terry Pratchett Carpe Jugulum Doubleday
Martin Booth The Industry of Souls Dewi Lewis
Stephen Baxter Traces Voyager
Hunter S. Thompson The Rum Diary Bloomsbury
Brian Aldiss The Twinkling of an Eye Little, Brown

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