wot i red on my hols by alan robson (martis martissimus)
The Man Who Was Tuesday
Now that I am retired, I find that my days are indistinguishably identical. I get up in the morning, I feed the cats, take last night's dishes out of the dishwasher and then I potter around. In the evening, I cook the dinner, I put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher and then I go to bed.
Rinse, lather, repeat.
Since I am no longer able to reliably distinguish one day from another, I eventually decided to stop making the effort altogether. Every day can be Wednesday, I thought to myself. That way I will no longer even have to try and work out what day the rest of the world thinks it is. It's a brilliant scheme that I am sure will save much wear and tear on my brain cells.
However, once I put my cunning plan into practice, it proved to have hidden flaws. My pension payment day always falls on Tuesday. Consequently it seemed clear to me that there was a very real danger that my pension would never arrive in my bank account if every day was Wednesday. Therefore I've now agreed with myself to make every day Tuesday instead, and after trying it out for several Tuesdays in a row, I am tentatively of the opinion that the problem has been solved. Robin is very happy with it as well.
Tuesday is my favourite day, she said. I was born on a Tuesday, and I know all the words to The Mickey Mouse Club Tuesday Song. Would you like me to sing it to you?
No thank you, I said.
So she sang it to me.
One particular Tuesday, about three-quarters of the way though the week,I went to our favourite café. Its name is Jolt. It has friendly, welcoming staff and it serves good coffee and good food. What's not to like? So that particular Tuesday I was in there drinking a cup of coffee and nibbling a comestible when Stephanie, the manager, came over for a chat.
I'm thinking of having a quiz evening once a month, she said. Would you and Robin be interested in coming along to it?
Yes, we're up for that, I said. What sort of quiz?
A Music quiz, she said. Everybody else always has general knowledge quizzes, so I thought I'd do something different. What do you think?
Good idea, I said. I'm sure that people will enjoy the novelty. When are you planning on holding this quiz?
Once a month on a Monday, she said.
Monday? I asked, puzzled. What's Monday? Is it anything like Tuesday?
Stephanie gave me one of those looks. No, she explained patiently, Mondays aren't anything like Tuesdays. For one thing, Jolt doesn't open on Monday so this seemed like a good way to make use of an idle evening.
I see, I said. But I was lying. I didn't see at all. I was completely bewildered.
Can I put you and Robin down for a team? Stephanie asked.
Of course you can, I said.
When the relevant Tuesday arrived Robin and I joined the rest of the teams at Jolt, all of us keen and eager to take part in the café's first Monday Night Quiz. Because it was a music quiz, we decided to call our team The Show and Tell Overture.
We failed to cover ourselves in glory. We answered The Bay City Rollers to every question except when we answered Iron Maiden (for the sake of variety, you understand). It turned out that we were almost always wrong and I think we came last. The real answers, we learned at the end of the quiz, were Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders except, of course, for the occasional question where the answer was The Osmonds. But despite all that, we enjoyed ourselves a lot, and Robin won a magnificent spot prize by standing up in front of the crowd and singing a song con brio. Her prize was a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, a rock'n'roller who we both admire.
Thank you, she said as she accepted the book. You've really made my Tuesday. She got several puzzled looks and a round of polite applause.
Gene Doucette is an unfamiliar writer to me, but whoever he may be, I am starting to feel that he certainly deserves my attention. He has written a trilogy of novels that I found to be very entertaining indeed. Their generic title is Immortal and, not surprisingly, the books tell of the adventures of an immortal man. The first person narrator of the story was born some time during the early stone age when people were barely human and language consisted mostly of grunts. He thinks his name might have been Urrr, but he doesn't really remember. For reasons that remain mysterious to him, he stopped growing older when he reached maturity and he has drifted through the ages ever since...
Urrr, who has recently taken to calling himself Adam because the joke appeals to him, is a complex character he is cynical and witty, a keen observer of society as it changes around him, and he's probably an alcoholic as well. He has spent most of the last umpty-ump thousand years drunk. This gives him an interesting perspective on life and the living of it.
The novels themselves are set in the twenty-first century, but what makes them so appealing is that the narrator is constantly being reminded of events from his past, and he scatters historical anecdotes throughout the text, vignettes of his life that he uses to illustrate whatever point he feels like making at the time. The actual story itself is a fairly routine bit of melodramatic blood and thunder. But that's not important. What really made the books stand out for me were the historical asides and the character of the narrator himself. I will be observing Gene Doucette's future career with great interest.
The late Kage Baker was one of my favourite writers of fiction. But as well as being a storyteller, it seems she was also something of a film critic. Ancient Rockets is a collection of articles about early science fiction and fantasy movies that were originally published on the Tor web site and which have now been put together as a book. It is subtitled Treasures and Train Wrecks of the Silent Screen which perhaps sums up the theme very nicely indeed.
Clearly she loved these old movies, but she wasn't blind to their faults and her articles gleefully wallow in the films' flimsy plots, fiendish villains and cheesy special effects. She skewers the movies with her usual acerbic wit, while at the same time praising their innovative aspects (by definition they were innovative after all, they were the first examples of their kind!).
I stumbled across the book quite by accident. I had no idea that it even existed. And now I feel a terrible urge to go out and overindulge myself in silent movie science fiction...
In my youth, a singer called Alma Cogan was hugely popular in England. She died tragically young of cancer, in 1966, and nowadays she is largely forgotten. Gordon Burn's novel Alma Cogan assumes that she did not die early, but instead lived on to a ripe old age. She eventually retired from show business and now she is living a solitary life by the seaside, from which vantage point she can look back on a life well lived, and tell us all about it.
In contrast to the real Alma Cogan's bubbly and seemingly shallow public persona, Burn's narrator is a dry-witted, highly intelligent observer of the world. In the novel, she tells about her days of fame and celebrity, and she contrasts the romantic public view of it with the sordid and sometimes violent world of show business that she experienced day to day behind the scenes.
One of Alma Cogan's contemporaries was Myra Hindley, the so called moors murderer who with her boyfriend Ian Brady abducted and killed several children in the 1960s, burying their bodies on Saddleworth Moor. Towards the end of her life, Hindley went back to Saddleworth Moor with the police in a vain attempt to try and find some of the bodies. They remain undiscovered to this day...
Is the price of fame the same as the price of infamy? Both women were well known to the public in their youth. They dominated the newspaper headlines. Alma Cogan muses on this early fame that they shared as she follows Hindley's fruitless search, looking for parallels with her own popular reputation and later obscurity. Tying these two women together like this seems a clumsy literary device to me (they really have nothing in common), and it makes for an uneasy and ultimately unsuccessful read. As a result, the novel does not reach a satisfactory conclusion. It's hard to tell what Burn was actually trying to achieve with it, but whatever it was, I don't think he succeeded.
Alan Smale is another author whose name is new to me. Clash of Eagles is his first novel and it is the first volume of an alternate history series.
The novel assumes that the Roman Empire never fell. Rome has continued to grow with the years and her empire now stretches across continents. In the east, it shares a border with the Chinese Empire. In the west, it has followed rumours of gold across the ocean to a new continent inhabited only by savages. A legion commanded by general Gaius Marcellinus lands on the continent in a place that is obviously what we would refer to as the Chesapeake Bay area of America. But the cities of gold that he seeks lie far away across the mountains. Hiring native guides, Gaius sets out to cross the wild, forested lands and mountains in an effort to reach the flood plains of a huge river where the natives say the people build mountains filled with gold...
Needless to say, things quickly go awry. I won't tell you how because that would be a massive spoiler. But about a third of the way through the book, my preconceptions of what this novel was going to be about, and how I was sure the plot would develop, were utterly blown away. The legion encounters the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy in battle. And from that point on everything falls apart. I read the book with jaw-dropping amazement as the story developed in completely unexpected and astonishing ways.
Clash of Eagles is what The Last of the Mohicans should have been but never was! I loved it to bits and I'm impatient for more.
Rudy Rucker's Journals can be regarded as a companion piece to his official autobiography Nested Scrolls (Tor 2012). The journals contain almost a quarter of a century's worth of his musings about life, the universe and everything, and as such they are a valuable insight into Rudy Rucker's novels. He says that his inspiration for keeping the journals came from reading the diaries of both Franz Kafka and Andy Warhol. I read Kafka's diaries as a teenager when I was heavily under the influence of that odd novelist. One striking image from them has stayed in my head ever since A cage went in search of a bird. I have no idea what that means, but the emotions it invokes in me have always struck me as being very science fictional very suitable, in other words, for a man of Rudy Rucker's persuasion. I've never read Warhol's diaries, and I'm starting to regret that...
Rucker's Journals are very long, as you might expect from twenty five years worth of ponderings. They are probably about the size of three or four novels. I've not (yet) read them exhaustively, but I have covered the first few years of the 1990s and I've dipped into the later years. As you might expect, they get a bit weird here and there. Nevertheless the Journals paint a fascinating picture of a man trying to explain his perceptions of the universe both mathematically and emotionally. Rucker is first and foremost a mathematician, but he has the soul of an artist and that clash of cultures generates a sometimes rather strange world view.
I found it very easy to identify with Rucker's musings, particularly when he talks about the trials, the tribulations and the fun involved in both the writing of complex computer programs and in the teaching of the programming arts to students. I've done both of these things professionally, and I found much that was familiar in his anecdotes.
Rudy Rucker is a contradictory man. On the one hand he's an unregenerate, hedonistic hippie who enjoys getting drunk and getting high. On the other hand he's a conventional family man, a husband and father who lives comfortably in the suburbs, worrying about his visits to the dentist and about the failing health of his parents. And on the gripping hand he writes very surreal novels that somehow tie all these aspects of his life together. Perhaps his Journals can explain and reconcile those riddles?
Lisa Goldstein's Travellers in Magic is a collection of fifteen deceptively simple stories that hide a lot of complexity inside themselves. Are they fantasy stories or magic realism? And is there a difference? If I wanted to be cynical, I could say that magic realism is what mainstream authors write when they write fantasy. Except that Lisa Goldstein isn't really mainstream...
Either way, magic is in the very air when Alison meets an old man in the park who has numbers tattooed on his arm, just like her parents have. Her mother still remains bitter about her wartime experiences and she often tells Alison stories about her own father hiding in the attic from the Gestapo officers who were searching for him to take him off to the camps. He died many years before the story opens and Alison has never met him. But the old man in the park tells her stories of how he once hid in the attic from the Gestapo officers...
Cassie's grandmother takes photographs that, she believes, predict the future. When Robert breaks up with her, she gives him an envelope full of her grandmother's photographs of his life. At first it gives him hope and strength but soon he comes to see the pictures as a glossy prison cell that holds him trapped. What price free will now?
These and the other stories in the book are subtle, thoughtful and elegant reminders that magic really does permeate the world. Everything is connected.
I've lost count of the number of anthologies edited by Martin H. Greenburg. There was a time when he seemed to have the market cornered. And, generally speaking, the themes he chose for his anthologies were original and thoughtful. In My Favourite Fantasy Story he has asked various prominent (and not so prominent) SF and fantasy authors to choose their favourite fantasy story and to comment briefly as to why that story holds such an important place in their hearts. Many of the selections are common coin for example, Robert Silverberg chooses Mazirian the Magician by Jack Vance. I certainly can't argue with his choice, for it is truly a brilliant story. But it has been anthologised a thousand times before (and probably at least 900 of those appearances were in anthologies edited by Martin H. Greenburg) so it seems unnecessary to bring it back into print one more time.
But other selections are more interesting and more surprising. Morgan Llywelyn (a writer I am not familiar with) has chosen M. R. James terrifying ghost story Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to you, My Lad. In his introduction Llywelyn says:
A single image from this story has haunted my worst nightmares since I first read it as a teenager. Over the years, tales of terror have grown progressively more violent and thus supposedly more frightening. Yet nothing has ever put such a chill up my spine as "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad."
This really struck a chord with me. I too read this story as a teenager and I'd be willing to bet that the image that gave me screaming nightmares was exactly the same image that affected MorganLlywelyn so deeply. This truly is a story for the ages but these days it seems to have lapsed into complete obscurity. Sometimes I think that nobody except me remembers M. R. James. It's nice to be proved wrong.
Gene Wolfe's choice took me completely by surprise. He selected something called Mopsa the Fairy by Jean Ingelow. I'd never heard of the story or of the storyteller. Wolfe claims that:
Every authority has called "Mopsa" feminist. It is not Ingelow dared answer a question that no other such writer has even dared ask: If there really were a fairy princess, what would she be like?
The story tells the adventurous tale of a boy who finds a nest of fairies. Today this would be a coy and probably terribly twee, not to say condescending, little tale. But Jean Ingelow's story is much darker than that and she pulls no punches. In retrospect, I can easily see why it must have appealed to Gene Wolfe.
This is a wonderful anthology. There are no weak stories; every one is a classic. And I am quite sure that some of the authors' choices will surprise as well as delight you.
We had no chance to rest on our laurels once the quiz was over. Not long after the quiz night, we were booked to go to a Science Fiction convention. These things, as any fule kno, always start on a Tuesday and finish three days later on Tuesday. This year, New Zealand's national convention was held in Rotorua, The City of Terrible Stenches. It's built on an active thermal area, and the delicate aroma of hydrogen sulphide is its most distinguishing feature. It's a place that Robin and I both love to visit. Therefore we booked ourselves in to the convention hotel for an extra long stay, leaving on Tuesday, four days after the convention finished.
As conventions go, it was pleasant enough. But the real purpose of our trip was the exploration of Rotorua and its environs. Some friends of ours were also staying on for exactly the same purpose and so, one bright Tuesday morning, we all set off to visit Hell's Gate, one of the most active and dramatic of the region's thermal parks.
Hell's Gate is a perfect place to visit on the Tuesday after a science fiction convention. The landscape is appealingly alien. It has boiling hot pools and erupting waters, with temperatures well in excess of 100 degrees Celsius. In places, the crust over the magma is extraordinarily thin and it is an eerie experience to think that you are standing only a kilometre or so above boiling rock.
There are steaming fumaroles, huge deposits of sulphur crystals and New Zealand's largest mud volcano. The volcano is very active and is constantly changing its shape and size as it erupts. At the moment it has two grumbling cones, though this is subject to change without notice
There's even a huge hot water waterfall just in case you fancy a shower!
How about it? I asked Robin, but she declined.
I don't shower on Tuesdays, she explained gnomically.
Ah! I said. That would explain the fragrance.
She hit me with a calendar. A big X marked the spot on Tuesday.
Most of the thermal features were named by George Bernard Shaw when he visited the place early in the twentieth century. Although he was a professed atheist, many of the things that he saw struck him as being of genuinely biblical proportions. He felt that the area truly matched the descriptions of the gates to Hell and so he named it accordingly.
We spent a very happy Tuesday inhaling sulphur fumes, sneezing a lot, and being bitten all over by the swarming sandflies which seemed to flourish in the hellish conditions. I was sure that I spotted Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies, peeking out at me from between the foggy inferno that enveloped the two erupting pools known as Sodom and Gomorrah...
The next day being Tuesday, we decided to visit Hobbiton. It's a drive of an hour or so from Rotorua.
The original Hobbiton set that was built for the Lord of the Rings movies was only a temporary structure and it was demolished when the filming was over. But that didn't stop the fans! They came to New Zealand in droves, seeking an authentic Middle Earth experience, and every Tuesday saw hundreds of them staring rapturously at the empty pastures where once the movie sets had been, much to the bewilderment of the cows and sheep cropping the grass.
When the set was re-built for the filming of The Hobbit, the owners of the land insisted that it be a permanent structure so that they would have a legitimate reason for charging the tourists an arm and a leg to come and gaze upon the round doors of the hobbit holes.
Before our tour of the village began, we went to The Shire's Rest Café for refreshments.
Oh look, said Robin with delight. the first item on the menu is second breakfast. I'm having one of those!
I always knew you were a hobbit in disguise, I said. The extraordinarily hairy toes are a dead giveaway.
Downstairs from The Shire's Rest Café is The Shire Store, a souvenir shop full of hobbitiana. I wonder if they sell hobbit feet slippers? mused Robin.
Only on Tuesdays, explained the lady behind the counter.
After two consecutive very active days, we decided to reserve the next Tuesday for more leisurely activities. All the wives in our party went to a spa for a gloriously hedonistic mud bath and a massage, while the husbands retired to a pub that sold locally brewed beers where we intended to do a lot of quaffing and to put the world to rights. I was astonished at the number of carefully crafted beers that the pub had on tap. It seemed clear that a system would be required so that we didn't lose track of what we were drinking. How would a hobbit solve this problem, I asked myself? The answer was obvious. I started with the beer from the tap on the far left and gradually worked my way towards the right. John, my companion for the day, started with the beer from the tap on the far right and moved towards the left. We bought alternate rounds for each other and only once did we drink the same beer simultaneously. Perfect!
Eventually the wives turned up, pink and glowing and overflowing with euphoria.
That was a fantastic massage, both the Robins said to me as they came through the door. I do enjoy going to the spa. What are we drinking?
I've no idea, I said to them. The next beer for me has to come out of the second tap from the right. Or possibly the fourth; there seem to be twice as many taps as there were when we first arrived. Either way, it's your round.
OK, they said. What a perfect way to spend Tuesday.
|Gene Doucette||Immortal||The Writers Coffee Shop|
|Gene Doucette||Hellenic Immortal||The Writers Coffee Shop|
|Gene Doucette||Immortal at the Edge of the World||The Writers Coffee Shop|
|Kage Baker||Ancient Rockets||Tor|
|Gordon Burn||Alma Cogan||Faber and Faber|
|Alan Smale||Clash of Eagles||Del Rey|
|Rudy Rucker||Journals 1990-2014||Transreal Press|
|Lisa Goldstein||Travellers in Magic||Tor|
|Martin H. Greenburg (Ed)||My Favourite Fantasy Stories||DAW|