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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (semophorus electricum)

3G Alan

Suffering from terminal technolust, I went to the Vodafone shop and said, "I want to buy a mobile phone with so many bells and whistles that I can't even pick it up without falling over."

"Fortunately," said the Vodafone man, "you've come to the right place. By a strange coincidence, that is exactly what we sell here. Our phone designers have all been recruited from the secret school that trains the designers of Swiss Army Knives. Have you any other, more specific, criteria?"

"Yes I have," I said. "It must be a beam me up Scotty model, and it must have a keyboard I can actually see and use, as opposed to my current phone whose key caps are so minuscule as to be all but invisible, and whose keys cannot be pressed with the ball of the thumb. Only my thumb nail can reach the tiny, tiny keys and so I am obliged to maintain my right thumb nail in such a state and at such a length that I am in danger of being arrested for the possession of an offensive weapon."

I brandished my thumb at him and he recoiled from the nail in shock and horror. "You could use that for slashing throats!" he exclaimed.

"Indeed," I said. "I killed a mugger with it last Saturday, and it still had such an edge left on it that I was able to use it to sharpen the pencil with which I wrote my statement to the police."

"What an inspiring tale!" said the Vodafone man.

"Show me some phones," I said, "and rescue me from my current horror."

There were several beam me up Scotty phones, most of which combined the functions of a phone with the ability to take photographs, and movies. Some were MP3 players and Organisers as well. One had a built-in electron microscope, an infra-red spectrometer and a gas-chromatograph, all suitable for performing DNA analysis. And as an added bonus it had a coffee percolator, a gadget for opening wine bottles and a device for removing stones from the feet of Boy Scouts.

"I'll have that one!" I declared.

"A very wise choice, if I may say so sir," said the Vodafone man. "That model comes with a free trolley for pushing your phone from place to place as you walk around with it. The trolley fits nicely in a shirt pocket. It's a marvel of precision engineering!"

"Show me the details," I said, "and let me play a while."

"if u do this u cn snd txt msgs," he said. "& this btn wll add pxt of yr bum"

"!" I said. "I hve 1000s of uses 4 tht. xqs me I ½ 2 p"

"thru dor & 1st lft. rmbr 2 flsh"

When I returned, we continued our exploration of the phone.

"It's a 3G phone," said the Vodafone man. "That means you get access to Vodafone Live!"

"What's that?" I asked.

"It's a sort of cell phone version of the internet with a trimmed down web browser built in to your handset. It's major purpose is to let you download enormous quantities of soft porn, music and ringtones."

"What's the difference between music and ringtones?"

"Nothing at all!"

He pressed buttons with his thumb. The nail was trimmed close to the flesh and there was no dirt at all underneath it. I was jealous.

Soon Vodafone Live! sprang into view. He pressed more buttons and Maxim TV asked me to confirm that I was over sixteen. Once I'd done that, it asked me to wait while my video downloaded. I waited, and soon scantily clad ladies with enormous boobs were to be seen leaping around my phone as they played tennis, volleyball and basketball. I think one of the basketball players threw her left breast into the net thereby scoring the winning goal.

"How about that!" said the Vodafone man.

The Vodafone Live! front page seems to have been designed by a male chauvinist pig who speaks in txt. Under the heading Pics & Images I am offered the opportunity to view Babes, Celebs, Cards.... Under the heading News & More I have access to Weather, biz, Lotto...

"What age group makes most use of cell phones?" I asked.

"Probably teenage girls," said the man. "They appear to have the phones permanently fixed to their fingers with superglue. Have you ever noticed them walking down the street, completely oblivious to their surroundings, flashing their thumbs for all to see and crashing into lampposts, telegraph poles, post boxes and passing pedestrians? Have they no shame?"

"Why would teenage girls be interested in pictures of Babes? Why would they want to watch massively endowed mammals playing basketball?"

"Why not use Vodafone Live! to check your email?" asked the Vodafone man, subtly changing the subject. "That's a wonderful feature."

"How do I do that?"

"You press these buttons 513 times in this sequence and then you walk across the room and lose the signal and have to start again."

"Wow," I said, impressed. "I've always wanted to do that." And so I gave the Vodafone man lots of money and took my new phone home.

It's an extremely Shiny! phone and I'm overcome with happiness at owning it. But let's face it -- the thing is nothing but a toy. Virtually everything it does is something I neither want nor need. Doubtless I will make use of all its features at some point, simply because they are there. That's what technolust is all about, of course. We all want to live in a Dick Tracy comic at least once in our lives. I have two friends who make video phone calls to each other across their lounge because they don't know anybody else who has a phone capable of doing video calls, and they really, really, really want to play with video calls.

Thomas M. Disch has been writing high quality, highly respected SF for most of his life. Along the way he's also had a lot of thoughts about exactly what the stuff he was writing was all about, and he has published a lot of erudite observations on the field. ON SF collects these papers together in one place, culling them from small presses and obscure journals in order to restore them to the light of day. It forms an excellent companion volume to his earlier The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of.

I have actually read one or two of the essays in this book before (not all of them were published in hard to find places) and they served only to whet my appetite for the rest.

Disch is somewhat scathing about the New Wave and his own part in it (I suspect he is suffering from retrospective embarrassment, it wasn't all that bad) and he is a little less revolutionary now than he was in his youth. Perhaps that's no bad thing.

Because these essays span most of Disch's own career, many of the books he discusses in detail are now much more obscure and hard to find than once they were. Many of the authors are now dead (or have fallen silent) and their books are often no longer in print. That's a shame – purely on the strength of these essays I was inspired to go and re-read Michael Bishop (No Enemy But Time, Timescape Books 1982) and Kurt Vonnegut (Disch speaks highly of Galapagos, but actually I re-read Jailbird, Dell 1980, and Deadeye Dick, the RAMJAC Corporation 1982 and wonderful books they were as well).

Jailbird is narrated by one of the more obscure and unimportant Watergate conspirators. Although the book is firmly time-bound, the things that Vonnegut finds to say about the corruption of American politics are eerily prescient. It would seem that the current President has learned nothing from history (not surprising in such an ignoramus, he probably doesn't even know what Watergate was) and he is thus condemned to repeat every corrupt and venal action. The parallels between the events of Jailbird and the actions of the current administration are just amazing. It makes me suspect that even the American military machine must be a subsidiary of the RAMJAC Corporation.

Incidentally, if the RAMJAC Corporation (who own the copyright on Deadeye Dick) puzzles you, Jailbird will solve the mystery. I once claimed that if we wait long enough, company mergers and acquisitions will mean that every single business entity on the planet will be a branch of a single monolithic entity called Things Inc. I suspect Vonnegut must have overheard me, and he invented the RAMJAC Corporation, a typical Vonnegutian construct. There is no doubt that the man is a genius.

Michael Bishop's book has also aged well. It is still as clever, still as readable and still as touching as it always was. It hasn't dated a bit. It tells two stories in alternate chapters. One story discusses what it is like to grow up as the son of an American military family stationed (mostly) in Europe. These episodes are largely autobiographical; Bishop was himself a member of such a family. The second story takes place once the hero of the first story reaches maturity and is sent back in time on an experimental mission to investigate and live with a tribe of pre-humans known to science as homo habilis. Surprisingly, this latter reveals itself to be an amazingly moving love story as well.

Disch's essays are erudite, thoughtful and insightful. I recommend this collection unreservedly, even though much of the material is now quite old. It hasn't really dated at all except perhaps in some of the examples that he uses to illustrate the points he makes.

I bought The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi purely on the basis of his first novel Old Man's War, which I thought was absolutely magnificent. When I heard that The Ghost Brigades was a sequel to this first novel, I sent off an order to the huge South American river immediately and in the fullness of time the book arrived on my doorstep.

I wish I hadn't bothered. It's dull, predictable skiffy of the worst kind. Perhaps Scalzi is a one shot wonder whose time has come and gone.

Three alien races have stopped mankind's expansion to the stars. Charles Boutin is a renegade scientist who has gone over to the aliens, taking many military secrets with him.

Jared Dirac is a superhuman hybrid created from Boutin's DNA. He should be able to access Boutin's computer controlled, sealed memories. But this fails, and Jared is consigned to the Ghost Brigades. However Boutin's memories slowly begin to surface inside him. Jared goes on a desperate hunt for his father as the alliance prepares its offensive.

You could probably write every clichéd chapter yourself (and many of you probably have). It's a dull and tedious book. Don't bother with it.

Steve Augarde's novel The Various tells the story of twelve year old Midge who is staying on a farm in the West Country of England with her Uncle Brian. One day, exploring an old, neglected barn, she comes across a small winged horse called Pegs who has become trapped under a rusty old harvester. Pegs is one of the Various, the little people, piskies, fairies, call them what you will. Several tribes of the Various are living in a patch of forest on her Uncle Brian's land. Their colony is small, isolated and declining. Their Queen is old and senile. Pegs has been sent to explore the world – perhaps there are other places they can move to.

Midge tells Pegs that her Uncle Brian (who owns the forest where the Various live) is selling the forest to a property developer. Soon the last home of the Various will be demolished. This news so alarms Pegs that he takes Midge back to the forest to explain all this to the Council of the Various. And so Midge becomes the first human being to meet the Various face to face for more than a century. It's an honour and a privilege and it's very scary indeed since many of the Various are quite hostile towards her.

The Various is set in that uncomfortable place where the worlds of faerie intersect the worlds of men. The Various themselves live deep in the cracks in the hidden places, and though they are fully aware of our existence (and are careful to keep their distance), men have long forgotten – if indeed they ever knew – that the Various exist at all. It's a classical tale, classically told and delightfully timeless.

The only annoyance is that the Various talk with a deepest mummerset country-yokel accent, and Augarde's attempt to represent this speech pattern phonetically is extremely irritating (not to say difficult to read). It also has the unintended side effect of making the Various seem collectively stupid and dumb whereas the very fact of their survival into modern times proves quite the opposite! I'm sure that this is an unintended side effect, but it definitely casts a detrimental shadow over the spell the novel casts.

The Various is Steve Augarde's first novel. It shows great promise – and that's not meant to sound condescending. I'm sure there are great books in his future.

My phone came with Windows (spit!) software for connecting it to a computer. I do actually have a Windows (spit!) computer sitting in a dusty, neglected corner of my study. So I installed the software and clicked on its icon.

"Hello," it said. "Where's your phone?"

"Here," I said.

"No it isn't," said the software, rather annoyed. "Stop messing about. Where's your phone?"

"It's here," I said. "Look!"

"No it isn't," said the software emphatically. "Come on, you can't fool me. You haven't actually got a cell phone at all, have you?"

"Yes I have," I insisted. "Here it is." I held the phone up and showed the software that the phone was plugged in to the right socket and was switched on, ready and eager to communicate.

"Rubbish," said the software, sneeringly. "I know you haven't got a phone. Go away and don't bother me again until you actually get yourself a phone."

Then it performed an illegal operation and vanished up its own protocol port.

So much for that. I immediately connected myself to that there intraweb thingy, and went looking for Linux software that would talk to my phone.

"I'll give it a go," said one program. "Actually I'm designed to talk to Nokia phones, but I'm sure your Motorola phone will do just as well. They're all the same really, you know."

I connected my phone to my Linux laptop and turned the phone on.

"Oh look," said the software. "A cell phone! Hello."

"Hello," said the phone, shyly.

"How about you give me your contact list?" asked the software, seductively.

"No problem," said the phone and promptly dumped its guts all over the disk drive.

The file the phone gave me was in a very odd format indeed. For a moment I thought there was no data in it at all and that I was back to square one. But closer investigation showed that there really was information in there, it was just hiding. For those who care, the file was UTF-16 with 0xFEFF in the first sixteen bits.

Once I got that sussed, it was all completely straightforward, of course.

I soon realised that the data in the file was quite unsuitable for easy modification on the computer – the layout was rigid and complex, full of auto incrementing numbers used as keys by the phone and arcane text strings that defined whether the number was to be stored in the phone's memory or on its SIM card. Fiddling with it directly was far too awkward.

Never mind, it was nothing that two small C programs and three shell scripts couldn't fix, and it wasn't very long before I had my contact list in an easily editable file that I could quickly reformat into the idiosyncratic layout that the phone demanded. Now I could upload the data back into the phone any time I felt like it, at the touch of a button. No sweat. Problem over.

C. J. Sansom's Winter In Madrid is a huge novel set (mostly) in Spain. The main action takes place during the winter of 1940, as Franco is deciding whether or not to join his fortunes with Hitler and enter the Second World War. Harry Brett has been invalided out of the army with shellshock at Dunkirk. He is recruited into the intelligence service to spy on his school friend Sandy Forsyth, now a somewhat shady ex-pat profiteer and con-man in Madrid. Harry's cover is as a translator at the British Embassy. Forsyth appears to be involved in some sort of project with the Spanish Government. He seems to have convinced Franco that there are large gold deposits just waiting to be dug up. Franco is desperate for money. Spain is almost bankrupt after the civil war. Harry is required to play on his former friendship with Sandy, infiltrate his operation and find out just what is going on.

Harry is a complex, sensitive soul, who clings naively to the standards of decency and structure and class that he learned at his (very minor) English public school. He was close to Sandy Forsyth at school. Sandy was a loner, very embittered, always a rebel. He was eventually expelled after indulging himself in an act of spectacular cruelty against one of the masters. But before this, Harry had seen his softer side, the intellectual enthusiasm that simmered below the surface. Sandy was passionate about geology and he and Harry went on many expeditions together, searching for fossils. To a large extent, Sandy let his defences down when he was with Harry. There is no doubt that Harry has some misgivings about the role he now has to play. It's a betrayal of someone who was once a friend, and who might be a friend again one day. But nevertheless he agrees to go ahead with it. There's a war on, after all.

Sandy and Harry are not the only ex-pupils from their school who made their way to wartime Spain. Bernie Piper, a handsome scholarship boy, avowed Communist and a friend of both Harry and Sandy, fought in the civil war. After the battle of Jarama in 1937, he was captured by the Falange and has been imprisoned in a labour camp ever since. Officially, he is missing believed dead. The Spanish Government consistently denies that it has any prison camps at all.

However Barbara Clare, Piper's former lover, now living with Sandy Forsyth, receives information that Bernie is alive: she sets out to find him and to engineer an escape from the camp.

The political manoeuvring and subterfuge of the rival interests in the country - Falangists, pro-monarchists, militarists, Socialists - is becoming increasingly desperate. Barbara's plot to rescue Bernie turns out to be only a small part of a larger scheme of political manipulation by unscrupulous elements in Franco's government. Harry and Barbara are pawns in a much larger game. Bernie is expendable.

It soon becomes clear that this is really a novel about systems of authority and ideology; all of which are revealed to be both corrupt and corrupting. (Sometimes this is a deeply cynical book; but the times were deeply cynical times). Forsyth's con-trick is foiled. Bernie is eventually rescued (almost as a side effect, the plotters had bigger things in mind) and Harry is sacked by a furious ambassador and sent home in disgrace.

In an epilogue set in 1947, Harry and Barbara recall the events in (relative) tranquillity. Neither feel comfortable about that period in their lives, but both are now resigned to the way the world works. Perhaps they learned something valuable.

This is a deep, subtle and sometimes very infuriating book. Harry, Barbara and Bernie are annoyingly naïve at times (perhaps as a direct result of their upbringing? It may be that this novel is also saying things about the British class system). It all makes for an uncomfortable read. Like a curate's egg, the book is good – not to say stunning – in parts. But I felt edgy while reading it, irritated with the people. These are not good feelings to have about the viewpoint characters. To that extent the book failed for me.

I'm not normally much of a fan of Donald E. Westlake. His so called "humorous" stories about an inept crook called Dortmunder leave me cold. But The Ax had such an intriguing premise that I couldn't resist it. Burke Devore is a middle manager in a paper mill. He is good at his job and proud of his ability to run the mill. But times are hard, there is a recession and his mill, along with many others, closes down. Burke is unemployed. Despairingly, he starts hunting for a new job. But there are very few vacancies for a paper mill manager, and the few that do exist are inundated with applications as all the redundant managers compete with each other for the job. Burke is despondent. He sees little hope of future employment. There is only one thing for it – he will have to kill all the people who could possibly challenge him for a job. Once they are out of the way, he'll find it easy to get a job! No problem.

And so a serial killer with the oddest motivation in serial killer history goes on the rampage.

This is a particularly satisfying and clever little book. The ending is just right and I closed the book after reading the last page with a twisted little grin on my face. The sort of grin that a twisted little book like this so thoroughly deserves.

I might have to re-think my opinions about Donald Westlake. He might be a much better writer than I thought he was.

I opened up my new phone and I said, "Beam me up, Scotty."

And he did.

Thomas M. Disch On SF University of Michigan
Michael Bishop No Enemy But Time Timescape Books
Kurt Vonnegut Jailbird Dell
Kurt Vonnegut Deadeye Dick Granada (a wholly owned division of the RAMJAC Corporation)
John Scalzi The Ghost Brigades Ace
Steve Augarde The Various Corgi
C. J. Sansom Winter In Madrid Macmillan
Donald E. Westlake The Ax Warner
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