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Luxury! Luxury!

Phoenixine Seventy-Nine, April 1996

Many of the books I'll be telling you about this time were read on a business trip to Melbourne. It's a three hour flight and I spent some frequent flyer points and got an upgrade to business class which is very luxurious with infinite legroom and mouth-watering menus that turn out to conceal ordinary aeroplane food. I felt I needed a special book to read on the aeroplane and so I took Richter 10, the new novel by Arthur C. Clarke and Mike McQuay. In point of fact, it is really by Mike McQuay. Clarke didn't write a single word of it. Inspired by the news of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Clarke wrote an 850 word outline which he faxed to his agent and forgot all about. Mike McQuay wrote the novel from the outline without any consultation with Clarke whatsoever. Indeed, when Clarke received the manuscript he read it with enormous enjoyment and stopped work on all other projects because he wanted to find out what happened next!

The story concerns Lewis Crane who lived through the 1994 earthquake (though his family died). He grew up with an obsession and as the body of the novel opens he is a world famous seismologist who can seemingly predict earthquakes. Not only can he predict them, he claims to know how to stop them, and as the largest quake the world has ever experienced seems imminent, people had better start to listen.

Mike McQuay died of a heart attack shortly before the novel was published. In a moving epilogue, Arthur C. Clarke pays tribute to the great skill with which he wrote what turned out to be his last book.

Talking of Arthur C. Clarke, I recently came into possession of a slim booklet called Four Heads in the Air by Fred Clarke, Arthur's brother. It is a delightful collection of anecdotes about growing up on a farm between the wars. Arthur has his place in these, of course (generally finding ingenious ways to continue reading while performing his chores) but the book is primarily about other members of the Clarke family -- mainly their mother who had the job of raising all four Clarke children after her husband died from injuries received on active service in World War I. It is a warm and delightful book, full of humour and love.

Melbourne had a Grand Prix while I was there and the streets were blocked off and the trams were diverted and there was a waiting list for taxis and all day long you heard nothing but rrrrrr -- ooooo -- wwwwwww -- eeeeeeee -- oooooooo as the cars sprinted around the practice circuits. The hotel was full of racing groupies (of all ages and sexes) from all over the world and the police were kept busy removing protesters who objected to all the above. It was enormous fun. I'm only sorry I didn't get to see the race itself, but that was the day after I left, so I missed out.

I told you a couple of months ago that I'd heard rumours of a prequel to Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. Well it really does exist and it's called Dead Man's Walk. It is not quite as brilliant as the Pulitzer Prize winner itself, but is very good nonetheless. It concerns the younger days of Woodrow Call and Gus McRae. They are about twenty as the book opens and have just met. The story tells of their first two expeditions as Texas Rangers. If you like, they are learning their trade -- and what they mainly learn is how badly organised and inefficient the men they admire turn out to be. Perhaps it is a rite of passage book? Anyway, it is by turns amusing, thoughtful, beautiful, crude and awesomely violent. It has one of the most vividly described torture scenes it has ever been my pleasure to read. The Commanche horse thief Kicking Wolf captures a scalp hunter and tortures him to death over several gruesome days. The book pulls no punches and tells it like I'm certain it was. If you even vaguely like stories about pioneering and exploration then this is for you. It is 477 pages long and I read it in two evenings.

I also read the new Hunter Thompson book in about an evening and a half but that was because it was thin and lacking in substance, not because it was any good. Entitled Better than Sex it purports to be about the 1992 American presidential campaign. Thompson is a self confessed political junkie who has written what is probably the definitive book about presidential politics (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail -- 1972). I think he knew he would never beat that, and he didn't even try. At least half the book consists of barely legible photocopies of pages from his notebook and scribbled faxes to various acquaintances. Most of the rest consists of babbling fantasy sequences played out in Thompson's distorted brain -- quite what they had to do with what he was supposed to be reporting I could never really work out. I never thought I'd call a Hunter Thompson book boring; but that is the only word that describes this one. There is one small nugget in the mountain of dross -- the last chapter is Thompson's obituary for Richard Nixon. It is vicious and ranting and it pulls no punches. It is vintage Thompson and reading it makes you realise why he was once the political voice of his generation. But no longer, I'm afraid.

Another generational voice was Michael Palin who, firstly as a Python and later as an intrepid world traveller delighted millions. Now he is a novelist and Hemingway's Chair is his book. It concerns one Martin Sproale, an assistant postmaster with an obsessive hobby -- the life of Ernest Hemingway. To the village comes an American scholar called Ruth Kohler. She is looking for peace and quiet to write a thesis on the women in Hemingway's life. Upheavals in the post office combine with upheavals in Martin's general life and she encourages him to dive ever deeper into his obsessions. The book becomes progressively more bleak as it explores the nature of obsession, and this obsession in particular.

Though the book is worthy, I found it dull. Obsessives interest me (mainly because I am one myself) but the very private nature of an obsession in an area I am largely unfamiliar with (Hemingway's life and works) left me cold. I couldn't help thinking that David Lodge would have done it much more entertainingly than Michael Palin managed to do.

It was definitely time for Harry Harrison! Over the last couple of years Harrison (in collaboration with the pseudonymous John Holm) has been writing an alternate world/fantasy series set in the so-called dark ages. The second volume (One King's Way) has just been published. (The first was The Hammer and the Cross). The series promises to be one of the best things he has ever done. The hero, Shef, has fought his way from slavery to a Kingdom in an England ravaged by the Norse raiders. This volume follows his adventures as he carries the war back to the Vikings. Separated from his companions, he is forced to make a long trek through inland Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Meanwhile, unbeknown to him, a group of his enemies, a fanatical order of soldiers known as the Knights of the Lance are searching for the spear that pierced Christ's side on the cross. Once held by Charlemagne, it was the loss of this spear that precipitated the breakup of his Empire. With it, perhaps the Empire could be restored.

These diverse plots come together in the frozen wastes of the North in a totally satisfying, dramatic (and largely unexpected) manner. As with the McMurtry book I mentioned previously, Harrison pulls no punches about the realities of life in the era about which he writes. This is not a book for the squeamish. But it is a book to revel in and enjoy for the sheer story telling gusto of it. It held me enthralled, even through an attack of Rangoon Rot which struck me down half way through the Melbourne week. It can't have been the water, I drank beer. Perhaps I shouldn't have breathed the air?

Harry Harrison is famous for his whimsy and Alan Dean Foster is not. And yet One King's Way is not in the least whimsical whereas Foster's new short story collection Mad Amos most certainly is. Don't you just love contradictions?

Mad Amos Malone is a mountain man from the old West. He rides a horse called Worthless and he has adventures out West with dragons and spirits and shamans and volcanoes and the whole thing is so utterly ridiculous that you can't help but laugh at it. I think Foster is a vastly under-rated writer. There are many excellent works in his vast output, he just camouflages them under a mountain of second rate movie adaptations and never ending series that I suppose he writes for the money. But Mad Amos is just plain fun. I particularly enjoyed the very understated scene where Amos adjusted the leather patch on his horse's forehead and reminded himself to file the horn down because it was starting to grow again.

Anyone who works with computers soon develops at least a passing interest in cryptography -- a subject of considerable interest and controversy at the moment. Indeed some of us have had an interest in it all our lives long. I vividly remember making up ciphers in my childhood and communicating with my friends in code. Consequently I devoured the various books that started to appear from the 1970s onwards about the British code-breaking endeavours at Bletchley Park in World War II. (I particularly recommend Code Breakers edited by F. H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp which is a collection of memoirs of some of the actual code breakers themselves). The writer Robert Harris evidently had the same sort of childhood as me because his new novel Enigma is set in the wartime Bletchley Park and the hero is one of the codebreakers. Around this historical and factual background Harris has written a detective novel/spy story. The book's enormous strengths lie in the incredibly realistic re-creation of the world of wartime Britain in general and Bletchley Park in particular. The writing is so vivid you would swear you were living through it yourself. He skilfully evokes the sounds and sights and smells of the era. Harris never stumbles here and the novel gives immense pleasure at this level. However the plot itself is rather weak, being merely a common or garden thriller with, unfortunately, a punch line at the end rather like an O'Henry short story which spoils it for a second reading.

One of the reasons cryptography looms so large in the mind of the computer geek is because of its applications in ensuring the security of network traffic (particularly across the Internet). It is needed because so many people out there on the information super-cliché appear to want to break in to things and do damage. One of those was a man called Kevin Mitnick who has been convicted several times for computer frauds of one sort and another. In 1995 he broke into a computer network belonging to Tsutomu Shimomura, a computational physicist at the University of California and currently a senior fellow at the San Diego Supercomputer Centre. Takedown, which he wrote in collaboration with John Markoff is the story of how Shimomura tracked Mitnick down and had him prosecuted.

I decided to read this on the flight back to Auckland. It was a nice feeling to sit upstairs on a jumbo jet, idly sipping champagne and stretching my legs and reading a most fascinating and quite witty book. When Mitnick first broke in to the network, Shimomura said "Looks like the ankle-biters have learned to read technical manuals. Somebody should teach them some manners." This phrase, popularised by journalist John Markoff when he wrote up the attack for the New York Times brought Shimomura his fifteen minutes of fame. And, I suppose, the book.

It is neither as screamingly funny nor as dramatic as Clifford Stoll's The Cuckoos Egg, a story about a similar incident. Shimomura lacks Stoll's dry humour and Mitnick was no KGB agent, just a sad, deluded and rather twisted nerd. But the parallels are still quite dramatic -- Shimomura got just as much co-operation from the FBI as Stoll had done before him -- virtually none. Somehow I'm not surprised; government departments never seem to learn. (Shimomura himself is quite scathing about the bureaucratic inefficiency of the National Security Agency for whom he has done some work in the past).

There is something here for most people -- a little technical detail to whet the appetite of the jaded Unix wizard, love interest for the romantics among us. But most of all there is simply the pain staking gathering of clues and the primeval thrill of the chase. This has been a winning formula ever since Arthur Conan Doyle invented it for Sherlock Holmes and it is just as valid now as it ever was. (Shimomura even has his Watson look-alike, a somewhat inept graduate student called Andrew). I loved it.

I arrived back in Auckland and bought a bottle of Baileys in the duty free shop because they were giving away a free Irish Pub with it. Only a small one, mind you. About ... this big.

Arthur C. Clarke & Mike McQuay  Richter 10  Bantam
Fred Clarke Four Heads in the Air Rocket Publishing Co.
Larry McMurtry Dead Man's Walk  Orion
Hunter S. Thompson Better than Sex   Black Swan
Michael Palin Hemingway's Chair Methuen
Harry Harrison & John Holm One King's Way Tor
Alan Dean Foster Mad Amos Del Rey
F. H. Hinsley & Alan Stripp Code Breakers Oxford University Press
Robert Harris Enigma Hutchinson
Tsutomu Shimomura & John Markoff Takedown Secker and Warburg
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