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Phoenixine Eighty-One, June 1996

I haven't read a lot this month. The reason is not hard to find -- I have bought myself a new toy and I have spent most of the month playing with it. Indeed I am playing with it now, even as we speak. It is a laptop computer and I am sitting comfortably in my lounge with my laptop on my lap (where else) writing this essay.

The machine is walking Windows 95, an operating system with which I am less than familiar and so part of the month has been spent exploring its possibilities. To this end I purchased two books -- The Byte Guide to Optimising Windows 95 which appears to have no author other than the corporate one mentioned in the title, and Windows 95 Secrets by Brian Livingstone and David Straub.

The first is excellent and it taught me a lot about the way the operating system does things. The second is enormously fat and less than brilliant, but nonetheless contains the occasional nugget of gold. It is very over-written (which accounts for its size) and the CD that comes with the book contains far too much 16 bit software -- in other words, despite what the blurb says, not all the software is specifically for Windows 95.

However life is not all laptops (though had you been watching me this month you could have been forgiven for thinking otherwise) and I got distracted by the new Wilbur Smith paperback The Seventh Scroll. It is the sequel to his earlier blockbuster River God which was set in ancient Egypt and which described the Hyksos invasion and the subsequent flight of the Egyptian royal family into what is present day Ethiopia where the body of the Pharaoh Mamose was interred in a hidden tomb together with a vast treasure. The new book is set in the present day and concerns the search for that hidden tomb. It is nothing but a straight forward, thrilling adventure tale; but what's wrong with that? It grabbed hold of me on page one and it didn't let go until the end. It is a good old slam-bang romantic page turner and I loved it so much that as soon as I finished it I went back and re-read River God and that one thrilled me all over again. Wilbur Smith has written some stinkers, but when he is firing on all cylinders there is nobody else in sight.

Did I read any science fiction this month? Well of course I did. Steven Brust has published a new Vlad Taltos novel. As with all of this series, the title is a single nonsense word (in this case Orca; I can never remember either the titles or the order in which they should be read, which is irritating and is, I feel, a less than inspired marketing decision). I approached it with high hopes but was a little bit disappointed. The early books in the series were written in the first person and told from the point of view of Vlad Taltos himself. This book and its predecessor (Athyra)  are not and I find them much less interesting as a result. Vlad is a fascinating character and without the insight given by being inside his head in a first person narrative it becomes harder to feel involved with him. There is too much of a distancing effect. The plot of the current book does not help either -- it is a novel mainly about financial irregularities committed by the high and mighty. There is a certain novelty about a story whose central theme is creative accountancy, but the essential dullness and boredom of the subject soon comes to the fore and my eyes glazed over.

In recent years there has been an upsurge in alternate history novels, most of them by Harry Turtledove. In collaboration with the actor Richard Dreyfuss he has done it again in a novel called The Two Georges. The central tenet of this novel is that the American Revolution never happened and America remained a British colony. There was general unrest in the eighteenth century colony, but the rebellion was nipped in the bud when George Washington travelled to England and signed a peace concord with George III. This event was commemorated by the artist Gainsborough in a very famous picture called The Two Georges. The novel itself is set in the twentieth century. The Gainsborough picture is on exhibition in America, a prelude to a visit by King Charles III. However it is stolen by a revolutionary group known as The Sons of Liberty who believe that America would be much better off as an independent country and who view the painting as being symbolic of colonial oppression.

The main action of the book concerns the desperate search for the painting led by Colonel Thomas Bushell of the Royal American Mounted Police.

The book is a curates egg. The writers are far too self indulgent in their introduction of characters from our reality into theirs, just so that they can smile archly. There is, for example, a used car salesman called Tricky Dick (presumably from Yore Belinda) and a certain John F. Kennedy also makes an appearance. Martin Luther King is the colonial governor and consequently has a very large part to play in the action of the book.

Considering that the writers are American, I find it most impressive that they have managed to get so well into the skin of the British colonial mentality. The currency used in the colony is still pounds, shillings and pence and amazingly they get the arithmetic right (the British currency was deliberately designed to confuse Americans, and it succeeded brilliantly). They even successfully come to grips with the guinea and most properly realise that it was not only a unit of currency, it was also a measure of social standing. This subtlety often defeats American commentators, but Turtledove and Dreyfuss are spot on. However they fall flat on their face with some of the language: "...whom will you send out into the field to investigate?" (If only they'd swapped the words and said "whom you will" instead and changed it from a question into a statement).

This terrible mis-use of the accusative would never pass the lips of English speakers, (though it is common in current American usage) and I found it intrusive for it seems to be a construction of which Dreyfuss and Turtledove are inordinately fond.

The book as a whole is enormous fun. The society pictured is rather like that of the early years of our twentieth century. Airships cruise the skies and trains criss-cross the continent at frequent intervals. The pace of life is leisurely. The hunt for the painting takes our hero over much of the colony and the travelogue aspects of the book are most enjoyable. The standard whodunit aspects are less than thrilling and the twist at the end is not unexpected. But the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses and I strongly recommend the book to all you alternate history fans out there.

The next instalment of Stephen King's serial novel is in the shops. Another $4.95 paperback with 92 pages and the most godawful cliff-hanger at the end. I'm not sure I can stand the tension for another month, but I'm going to have to I suppose. I am a big Stephen King fan and this one is shaping up to be one of his best. No doubt it will eventually be published as a single work, but meanwhile I'm going to have to read it in chunks and chew my fingernails in between times.

The indescribable Robert Rankin has written another indescribable book whose title is A Dog Called Demolition. The book has lots of verse as chapter headings (until just over half way through when the author gets tired of it) and comes complete with a sound track album on page 249. In between times several people with a bandaged left foot have adventures. It would appear that everybody on earth is being ridden by pale ghostly grey alien figures that control their every thought and action. Well at least that is one point of view. If you examine it from the point of view of the riders you could say that their world has been invaded by solid fleshy beings who have grabbed hold of their legs and won't let go. Danny, however, has no rider for various occult reasons, some of which are connected with the bandaged left foot of one Samuel Sprout at whose funeral Danny was a pall bearer. Since Danny is clear, he is hated by all other people (and their riders). However he is aided by one Parton Vrane who is a mutated cockroach with black teeth and an awesome plonker. Together with a gentleman who is also clear and Mickey Merlin who is a direct descendent and has a book of potent spells (but who is not clear) they go into battle. But all is not as it seems...

It all hangs together somehow and being indescribable is also indescribably funny. I have never found a Robert Rankin book I didn't like and this is one of those. But it doesn't have a split windscreen Morris minor in it and it only has a very indirect Brussels sprout, so it isn't perfect.

Enter any bookshop nowadays and you will find the shelves groaning under the weight of formulaic fantasy novels. They seem written to a recipe in the same way that Mills and Boone romances are written to a recipe and they sell in their thousands for exactly the same reasons as do the Mills and Boone books. There is comfort in familarity and unoriginality. If you are planning on writing one of these fantasy novels, you really should read The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones. In a series of short satirical definitions arranged in an authoritative A- Z she describes all the obligatory facets of a fantasy adventure. For example there will be STEW which will be thick and savoury (ie viscous and dark brown). There will be BEER which foams and is invariably delivered in tankards. It will be bought at an INN which will be made mostly of wood and which will be larger upstairs than downstairs. Downstairs there is room only for a taproom and bar (and maybe a kitchen where STEW will be cooked). Upstairs there are innumerable sleeping chambers (not bedrooms) arranged along never ending corridors so that people can creep through them and break in to search luggage or threaten the occupants with DAGGERS.

It should be noted that despite living entirely on STEW (which never seems to contain fresh vegetables and which is never, ever served with a side salad) no fantasy characters ever suffer from SCURVY or any other deficiency diseases...

The definitions are trite in themselves but taken together they amount to a devastating destruction of the fantasy cliché and if you have ever read any of those horrible novels you will laugh in delighted recognition at her witticisms and truisms. And you will know exactly how not to write a fantasy novel (though you might sell more copies of your book if you follow her instructions exactly).

I was reading the definition of HERO when my cat brought home a rather severly mutilated rat which she proudly deposited on the carpet. It tried to crawl away and hide and so I had to catch it and take it outside to dispose of it. I knew it was evil because it had the REEK OF WRONGNESS. Fortunately being a HERO I was able to beat it, though it wounded me since I lacked ARMOUR (it bit me on the finger).

Anonymous   Byte Guide to Optimising Windows 95 Osborne
Brian Livingstone & David Straub Windows 95 Secrets IDG Books
Wilbur Smith River God Macmillan
  The Seventh Scroll Pan
Steven Brust Orca Ace
Richard Dreyfuss & Harry Turtledove The Two Georges   NEL
Stephen King The Green Mile 2. The Mouse on the Mile Penguin
Robert Rankin A Dog Called Demolition Doubleday
Diana Wynne Jones The Tough Guide to Fantasyland Vista
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