Sue and James and their baby Jamie approached the Air New Zealand check in counter at Auckland airport.
"Lo!" they said. "Here we are. We wish to travel to Wellington to stay with our friend Alan Robson for the weekend.
"To hear is to obey," declared the check in lady obligingly. She poked keys on her computer, printed out luggage tags and issued boarding passes. "Have a wonderful flight."
Sue and James and their baby Jamie made their way to the departure lounge where they boarded their flight at the exact time printed on their boarding passes. They settled themselves in their seats and fastened their seat belts. No sooner had they done so, than the plane began to taxi out to the runway. Sue checked her watch. The departure time was exactly as it was advertised to be, to the second.
The captain made an announcement.
"Welcome on board ladies and gentlemen, And I would like to extend a particular welcome to Sue and James and their baby Jamie who are travelling to Wellington to stay with their friend Alan Robson for the weekend. Since Alan himself is not on board this flight, we have decided to depart from our normal practice, and take off on time. We do not plan to have any engineering difficulties, and we have not scheduled any bad weather. So hang on to your seats, and enjoy your flight."
Vroom, vroom! With a roar and a screech the plane took off into the vivid blue sky. Sue checked her watch again. Spot on! So far, everything was going to plan.
Tea and coffee were served and sipped. Sue and James and their baby Jamie enjoyed the smooth, level flying conditions. There was no turbulence, the plane did not quiver once. Coffee cups were collected, seat backs were put in the upright position and tray tables were stowed away. The plane descended smoothly and landed at Wellington without a single bounce or sway. As it taxied to the terminal building the steward made an announcement.
"Ladies and gentlemen, and particularly Sue and James and their baby Jamie, welcome to Wellington. We apologise for the extremely early arrival of this aeroplane. We hope it hasn't disrupted your plans too much. It's all Alan Robson's fault. We had to arrive early because he isn't flying with us today. So please blame him, not us. Thank you all for taking part in the great conspiracy to frustrate Alan's plans. Even as we speak, he is driving to the airport to meet Sue and James and their baby Jamie, secure in the knowledge that we are bound to be late, as we always are when he travels with us. He will not arrive here for ages yet. Thank you for contributing to his paranoia. Enjoy your stay in Wellington."
Sue and James and their baby Jamie left the plane and walked to the luggage carousel. The instant they arrived at the luggage carousel, their luggage appeared before them as if by magic. They didn't have to wait a moment.
"I wonder where Alan is," said Sue.
"He'll be along in an hour so," said James. "About twenty minutes after the scheduled arrival time of the plane. Just be patient."
"Goo, gooo, gaah," said Jamie. And everyone agreed.
Charles Fort Never Mentioned Wombats is a book that has a most wonderful title but it is, unfortunately, a less than wonderful book to read. I'd been looking forward to reading it for years, because it has quite a reputation in fannish circles. It is a novel whose events take place during the first Australian worldcon and it is stuffed full of fannish jokes, fannish references and caricatures (if such a thing is possible) of the fans themselves. And that is at one and the same time its weakness and its strength. It is a time bound novel and today, nearly thirty years after it was first written almost all of the personalities and events it satirises have long since vanished from the collective ken of contemporary fandom. I recognised almost none of the fannish personalities who infest the novel . Even though I was a reasonably active fan over the timescale that the novel covers, I'm afraid that the ravages of time have destroyed all my memories of things and people who in retrospect were never truly memorable in the first place.
And so we are left with a rather weak plot about aliens manifesting themselves to SF fans at a con (because of course the people most likely to believe in them are SF fans, aren't they?). Well no, actually - and that is the only shred of merit that the novel possesses. SF fans are not the gullible von Daniken worshipers that the popular press would have you believe they are (and the novel makes this point in spades). So the naive assumptions underlying the plot are shown to be just that; very naive assumptions indeed. To that extent the novel is worthy and I fully approve of it. But the jokes are stale, the personalities are forgotten and the novel is sometimes rather hard going as a result. I'm glad finally to own it - it is a classic novel that deserves a place in any serious collection (and I'm a very serious collector; some of you might have noticed). But it isn't the timeless classic that I had hoped it would be.
Another mild disappointment along the same lines was The Eighth Stage of Fandom. This is a collection of the best of Robert Bloch's fan writings. The outside world knows Bloch best as the author of Psycho, the film that made Hitchcock famous. But SF fans have long known him as not only a brilliant novelist and short story writer, but also as a rabid fan who over the years contributed many seminal pieces to the ephemeral world of fanzine publishing. He has a fan reputation as a masterful punster, and as a never ending source of wit and also of wisdom. The first edition of The Eighth Stage of Fandom was published in 1962 and is now fabulously rare. It commands huge prices at auctions on the few occasions when it appears and as a result it has accrued to itself a huge reputation as perhaps the seminal fan publication. Wildside Press have reissued it in a second edition and when I heard about it I fell upon it with glad cries of glee for I had been sucked in by its reputation and I wanted to read it, to laugh at it hysterically, to revel in its wit and wisdom.
Don't get me wrong; there are many worthy essays in the book. The opening piece, The Seven Ages of Fan is perhaps the most damning indictment of fandom that I have ever read; and yet at the same time it exhibits a degree of understanding and sympathy that allows all the fans who recognise themselves in the scathing definitions to continue on exactly as they are. Bloch was a fan himself and he knew whereof he spoke. But just as with Charles Fort Never Mentioned Wombats,time has caught up with this collection of essays. Jokes about the loud voice of Sam Moskowitz, and the editorial prowess of Bea Mahaffey fall on deaf ears today for fandom has moved on and the old personalities are dead or forgotten. In some ways it is a shame, for the flatness of the humour (to present day eyes and ears) detracts from the serious points that Bloch indulges himself in on occasion. He was not blind to the incestuous, back-biting nature of fandom and he warns against its excesses in several essays. There is most certainly wisdom here. It is a shame that the wit has dated so badly. The book does not deserve its almost holy reputation; it is far too time bound for that - but isn't that comment true of all our fannish heroes? And I certainly don't exempt myself from the implications of that question.
The Lost Get Back Boogie was published in 1986 and it won James Lee Burke a Pulitzer Prize. It came relatively early in his career as a novelist but nevertheless it exhibits all the themes that he later explored in greater depth in his more popular, mainstream work. The novel concerns one Iry Paret, a drifter through the bars and honky-tonks of South Louisiana. He plays guitar and tries to stay away from trouble; but sometimes trouble can't be avoided and he kills a man in a barroom brawl. He serves hard time in Angola prison and as the novel opens he is about to be released back into the world. The book follows him through his new life. It is brutally honest about the problems that a convict has when he attempts to adjust again to the real world. The seeds of recidivism are sown in the soul - it is easier by far to continue with the old life, the familiar life. But sometimes circumstances conspire to subvert all good intentions and Iry Paret is as much a victim as he is victimised.
Iry tries hard to reject the old life. He leaves his familiar town in a deliberate attempt to start a new life, to avoid the temptations that might drag him down to where the world is familiar. He ends up working on a ranch in Montana. But he can't avoid his past completely - the son of the owner of the ranch is an old cell mate from Angola and it isn't long before the two of them succumb to the old temptations. Drugs and alcohol are freely available and Iry falls from grace with an ease that almost takes him by surprise.
What makes a criminal? Why is it easy for some personalities to fall into that manner of thinking (and correspondingly hard for others)? What is the nature of guilt and where do the responsibilities lie? Iry may not be wholly innocent, but he doesn't have to shoulder all of the guilt either - the system lets him down both through bureaucratic indifference and also through plain and simple incompetence (and corruption). You can argue that Iry is as much of a victim as anybody and you would not be completely wrong. Like all significant moral problems this one has no easy answer and the prize winning strength of the novel lies in its recognition of this uncomfortable fact.
The story and characters are interesting and vital and alive. The novel grabs you by the scruff of the neck and won't let go. But ultimately its appeal lies not in the trivialities of plot and character (wonderful though these are) but rather in the moral problems that it refuses to shirk. It is extremely disturbing and extremely brilliant.
A Song For Nero is another of Tom Holt's brilliantly erudite historical novels about the classical age. History has always told us that the Emperor Nero committed suicide in 69 AD when the forces of the rebel General Galba closed in on Rome. However Holt's novel takes as its basic premise that the corpse that was generally assumed to be Nero's was in fact the corpse of somebody who looked very much like him, but was not actually the Emperor himself. Nero escaped from the city and started a new life (rather like Elvis Presley); and in his new life he pursued his first love: music. Of course, in order to be able to afford to do that, he has to live as a petty con-man and thief, professions which often get him into trouble. The novel opens in the condemned cell in Damascus where Nero and his companion Galen are awaiting crucifixion. After that, life just goes downhill. It isn't easy being an ex-Emperor of Rome, particularly when there are people who have reason to suspect that you are still alive, and who also have every reason to want you to cease to be so.
A Song For Nero demonstrates yet again just how brilliant a novelist Tom Holt can be when he bothers to exert himself. His historical novels are invariably excruciatingly funny, authentic and clever - much more so than the increasingly dire pot-boiling fantasies that he throws off at far too frequent intervals. I've given up on those, but I don't think I'll ever give up on his histories.
Altered Carbon is Richard Morgan's first novel, but it won't be his last and he is going to be a BIG NAME WRITER; mark my words. In the 26th century life is cheap, but living is easy. People have a recording device embedded in their spine. When they die, the records can be downloaded into a new body (and a new device) and the person can carry on "living". The new body is referred to as a sleeve. Where do you get sleeves from? Well there are lots of bodies available - criminals are simply turned off and put into storage, thus freeing their bodies for new occupancy. Also (though less satisfyingly) you can be resurrected into a virtual reality controlled by a computer. And the very rich can decant themselves into clones.
Takeshi Kovacs awakes in a new body. He has only a brief time - he has been "employed" by Laurens Bancroft who has recently died a horrible death. Alive again in his new body, Bancroft wants to know who killed him (the official verdict was suicide, but Bancroft refuses to believe this). Kovacs has unique skills that Bancroft believes can help him and so he has arranged for Kovacs' resurrection. From here the plot becomes complicated, and extremely violent. There is, of course, a complex reason behind Bancroft's death; nothing is as simple as it seems. Kovacs is at first manipulated by events, but as he comes to realise the significances of the things that he finds, he becomes a manipulator in his own right, playing off evil against evil, conspirator against conspirator.
There is a pleasing complexity to the plot and a pleasing complexity (and feeling of reality) about the society that the book presents. Morgan has taken to heart H. G. Wells' dictum about what makes good speculative fiction. Change one and only one thing and then explore its implications. Everything in the novel is an outgrowth of the basic premise that technology gives us the ability to survive death. In that sense it is a completely classic Wellsian novel. But Morgan has also borrowed from the noir school of detective fiction. This is a black and violent and cynical book; a direct descendant of the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet. Morgan juggles all these literary influences magnificently and Altered Carbon holds the interest from the first page to the last. This is a superb book; and I can't wait for the next one.
Hunter S. Thompson is back with another book of gonzo journalism. I'm starting to wonder why I bother. He hasn't written anything worth reading for thirty years, and yet I still buy his books and I don't know why. I suppose I'm hoping for a return to brilliance (in his heyday he was outstandingly brilliant) but every time I'm disappointed. I think I've finally given up. I won't buy the next one; whatever it is.
Kingdom of Fear describes itself as semi-autobiographical and to an extent that's true. Thompson does tell us incidents from his life, but they are largely trivial. There isn't any analysis, there's no significance, no attempt to define a context and deduce a meaning. You'll learn more about Thompson's life from any of the several biographies that other people have written than you ever will from his own writing. All he wants to do in his own books is hide behind a gonzo shield. He wants to dazzle you with a raree show of prose. But once you penetrate the rhetoric it all evaporates like candy floss on the tongue. There isn't anything left. Thompson is ephemeral and his prose sounds more and more like the shrill, semi-hysterical rantings of a self parodist. There isn't anything there; he doesn't have anything to say. History and politics have passed him by. He's a relic, a has been, a leftover. All he's got left is the ability to drop names. Look at me. I knew Neal Cassady, I knew Allan Ginsberg, I once rode with the angels. He's all mouth and trousers; he's living on a reputation. He's got nothing left and he's dull; he's boring; he's out of time.
I put Thompson away and turned to Breed of Heroes; a novel set in the hell of Northern Ireland. Charles Thoroughgood is a platoon commander. His unit has been ordered to Ireland for a four month tour of duty and the novel is simply a description of what Charles lives through during that tour. By turns is tragic, bloody, violent and extremely funny. The emotional spectrum tends to run to extremes in situations of high stress.
Thoroughgood is a man tormented by conscience. He doesn't see Ireland as a black and white, us and them problem, as far too many of his contemporaries seem to do. He is aware of the history behind the conflict (he studied history at university) and while he doesn't shirk his duties, he doesn't find then easy either. While the surface incidents are about the realities of Ireland the sub-text is about the morality of violence, and it sits so uneasily with Thoroughgood that he finds himself unable to cope. This is a disturbing book for it gets beneath the skin of the problem. The only answers are difficult ones and Thoroughgood finds them too difficult, as would most of us, I think. It's a bitter book and a farcical one. The two are not nearly as far apart as you might believe.
Arabesk is the third book in Barbara Nadel's ongoing police procedural series set in Istanbul. Arabesk is the name of a type of music; raucous and plebeian and very sentimental, it is enormously popular in Turkey. Erol Urfal is an Arabesk singer at the height of his popularity. A day seldom passes without a story about Erol Urfal appearing in the papers. Usually in combination with a story about his lover Tansu Hanim. She is another Arabesk singer, but she is at least thirty years older than Erol and there are those who wonder about the motives behind the romance. As the novel opens, we learn that Erol had a wife and child (unbeknown to his adoring public of course). His wife has been murdered and his child is missing.
As Cetin Ikmen and Mehmet Suleyman dig deeper into this mystery they discover that not only is Erol a member of the Kurdish minority, he also belongs to a strange religious sect which is regarded with abhorrence by most Turks (and by many Kurds as well). Do his religious beliefs have any bearing on the murder and the kidnapping? Tansu is also a Kurd but not a member of the same religious sect. Is this fact significant?
The magic of Barbara Nadel's books is the way that she makes an alien culture so brilliantly real. I have no knowledge whatsoever of Turkish life and politics and only the most cursory knowledge of its history and sociology. I am well aware of the fact that Turks regard Kurds as second class citizens, and the terrible Turkish genocide of the Kurds in the early years of the twentieth century is common knowledge; but outside of this I am ignorant. So every page of a Baraba Nadel novel is a huge eye-opener as she reveals the details of what is (to me) an extremely strange way of living. It is utterly foreign and utterly fascinating.
There is a definite science fictional feel to her books, despite the fact that they are modern day police procedurals set in modern day Turkey. Because the society she describes is so utterly strange, so utterly divorced from my every day experience, she may as well be describing life on Mars, as far as I am concerned (certainly life on Mars would be no less strange). I have long held the view that Shogun, James Clavell's novel of ancient Japan, is the best first-alien-contact novel ever written (because of the strangeness of the society). Now I am starting to believe that Barbara Nadel is doing an even more superb job in the same area.
Sue and James and their baby Jamie spent the whole weekend with us. We did all the tourist things; we ate and drank and made merry, courtesy of Air New Zealand. Sue told me a joke:
An egg and a sausage lay together in a frying pan. The heat rose and rose and the sausage started to spit and sizzle.
"Oh my goodness," said the sausage to the egg. "This is horrible; all my fat is leaking out and my skin is going brown and it hurts. Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!"
"Eeeeeekkkk!!!!!", said the egg. "A talking sausage!!"
|Gene DeWeese and Robert Coulson||Charles Fort Never Mentioned Wombats||Doubleday|
|Robert Bloch||The Eighth Stage of Fandom||Wildside Press|
|James Lee Burke||The Lost Get Back Boogie||Louisiana State University Press|
|Thomas Holt||A Song For Nero||Little, Brown|
|Richard Morgan||Altered Carbon||Gollancz|
|Hunter S. Thompson||Kingdom of Fear||Penguin|
|Alan Judd||Breed of Heroes||Harper Collins|