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Living in an SF Novel

Phoenixine Eighty-Four, September 1996

I've been travelling again and this month saw another visit to Sydney. I took a big thick book for the flight -- The Year's Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois. It has 500 odd pages of short stories (some of them very odd pages indeed) together with a masterful essay summing up the year by Dozois himself. I've been collecting these omnibus volumes ever since number three (I missed the first two for some reason) and I've never been disappointed. I read very little short fiction, but I always make a point of buying the Dozois anthology -- he selects from strength and his tastes usually match mine quite closely. This year's collection is as good as any and I recommend it highly.

Sydney was fun -- the hotel I usually stay at is called The Rest. It's in Milson's Point which is just by the harbour bridge. I arrived there and booked myself in and half way through the week, with no warning at all, it suddenly transformed itself from The Rest Hotel to The Duxton Hotel. I left the hotel to go to work in the morning and when I got back in the evening it was all changed. The new name was emblazoned in neon, there was a new logo etched on the sliding glass doors of the entrance, there was no trace at all of the old name. Even the staff were wearing different uniforms. I began to wonder if I'd fallen into a parallel universe...

I got up to my room (fortunately I still had a room) and all the old paraphernalia had vanished -- the letterhead had been changed, the price list for the minibar had a new logo (and the minibar had twice as many drinks as it had had under the old name). The soap and shampoo in the bathroom were different brands from what they had been that morning when I showered and there was a bright yellow rubber duck perched cheekily by the side of the wash basin; a pun on the new name of the hotel, I presume. It really was unsettling for a minute or three. I've obviously been reading far too much SF.

The flight back turned out to be delayed -- and the delay got longer and longer. Every time I looked at the departure board the estimated take off time got later. Eventually the plane took off, almost five hours late. Fortunately I'd brought several books to the airport with me and I sat in a bar and read. Then later I sat in the aeroplane and read some more.

The Widowmaker by Mike Resnick is the start of yet another series (Oh No!) which I didn't know until after I'd bought the book. But fortunately it turns out to be complete in itself (Resnick's series books often are) and I enjoyed it lots. It isn't anything special, just an adventure story, but what's wrong with that? Jefferson Nighthawk, a bounty hunter and killer known as the Widowmaker is suffering from an incurable disease and has himself frozen with instructions that he be woken only when a cure has been found. A century or so into his long sleep a prominent politician is assassinated and a clone is made from Jefferson Nighthawk, brought hurriedly to maturity and sent to find and eliminate the assassin. The cloned Widowmaker has all of the original's skills, but none of his experience. He is effectively a naive, alone on the tough frontier of the galaxy. And that is where the story really starts...

Resnick handles this nonsense very skilfully. The tension never slackens and the ending is truly surprising. It's a rollicking good yarn.

Richard Matheson was one of the seminal writers of the 1950s (who will ever forget his Incredible Shrinking Man and the classic film made from the book). His new book (Now You See It) is a very peculiar novel indeed. As the title implies, it is about a magician. The Great Delacorte is a stage magician whose career is failing. He invites several people to his home where an afternoon of magic, mystery, madness and revenge unfolds itself in his booby trapped study. Bodies vanish, severed heads talk. Murder is done. Or is it? Almost every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger, and the opening of the next reveals just how well the author has hoodwinked you. Nothing is what it appears to be (as with all the best magic tricks) and the convolutions of the plot defy belief. You can only read this book once. After you reach the end and realise just what is really happening the magic vanishes. But while the roller-coaster ride is in full flight it carries you away into mystery, marvel and the thrill of a lifetime. Just like a real magic show.

Australian writer Greg Egan is currently making quite a name for himself and his new short story collection Axiomatic shows why. Some of the stories are a little weak and their structure suggests that sometimes Egan has just wrapped some thin dramatisation around whatever scientific articles he happens to have read lately. But the bulk of the collection is definitely better than average. Egan is an interesting writer and these are interesting stories. Several of them share the common theme of speculation on the nature of time. These are quite mind spinning. Egan is a writer to watch.

Back in New Zealand, I went browsing through a bookshop and I found a biography of Chairman Mao written by Zhisui Li who was Mao's private doctor from the early 1950s until Mao's death in 1976. Nobody else was so close to Mao for so long and the book gives a unique insight into one of the most charismatic dictators who has ever lived.

Like almost everybody in the late 1960s I had a copy of Chairman Mao's little red book (I've still got it) and unlike many of those people I have actually read it. Some of the essay extracts are quite thought provoking (On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People, for example). But time has not been kind to Mao and today his theories and actions are largely discredited, especially by the nation that he led for so long.

Li shows Mao to have been selfish and power hungry; a masterful politician playing the game of politics and paranoia to perfection, manoeuvring to keep himself in power for the very simple reason that he liked power. He was an Emperor in all but name and his court was an Imperial court in all but name. The people saw him as an Imperial figure and like the Emperors of old he was seen to be infallible (an ancient Chinese belief). However the Chinese are nothing if not pragmatic. The Emperor is infallible but he is advised by fallible men. Sometimes they may advise him badly. Perhaps it is more fair to say that within the limits of the knowledge available to him the Emperor is infallible. With such a belief supporting him Mao couldn't lose. It certainly explains his mass popularity which never faltered even during the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution.

The book is fascinating. As an intimate portrait of the man (warts and all) it will probably never be surpassed. Almost every page contains fresh insights. It is the final nail in Mao's coffin.

Those among you who have seen my library know that I collect books like other people collect stamps. I am a bibliophile. At least I always thought I was. But now I have read one more book and I have realised what I really am. The book is Biblioholism -- The Literary Addiction by Tom Raabe.

My name is Alan Robson and I am a biblioholic.

The depressing thing about this screamingly funny book is that I recognised myself on almost every page. What I really need now is a book that will tell me the twelve steps to a cure. Yes. Just one more book...

Nicholas Negroponte just has to be one of the most boring gurus of the computer age. Being Digital is an extended series of essays wherein he pontificates at great length but to little effect. The book discusses simple minded ideas and makes trivial predictions about the future. Those of us who are SF readers will find little to surprise us here. Indeed, perhaps the only surprise is just how conservative Negroponte's ideas really are compared to some of the wilder speculations of the wilder practitioners of the SF art. The book is supremely dull.

I'm not a New Zealander -- I've only lived here for fifteen years and my knowledge of some of New Zealand's history is a little sketchy as a result. I'm not too sure how much weight to put on Robyn Gossett's book New Zealand Mysteries but there is no denying it is a fascinating read. The author examines many unusual events (and artefacts) from New Zealand's past and present and brings a delightfully sceptical point of view to bear on the wilder things. Some of the mysteries are common coin -- I think most people have heard of the sixteenth century Spanish helmet dredged up in Wellington harbour. Is this evidence that New Zealand was first sighted by Europeans much earlier than otherwise supposed? The evidence (such as it is) is discussed but the most obvious explanation is that it was a family heirloom lost overboard from a much later vessel. I found the book enthralling, mainly because Robyn Gossett is an entertaining writer who has dug up a positive treasure trove of odd sightings and strange occurrences. Did a claimant to the throne of Scotland live and die on Campbell Island? Read the book and find out.

A book that never fails to put a lump in my throat is Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road -- a compendium of letters from Helene (in New York) to a book dealer in London. I guess my Biblioholism has something to do with my fondness for the book, but I'm not alone in admiring it. Consequently, when I recently came across another book of essays by Ms Hanff I fell on it with glad cries of glee. Letters from New York consists of a series of small essays about life in New York which were originally broadcast in England on the BBC radio programme Woman's Hour. When I lived in England I used to listen to this programme avidly. Despite its rather unfortunate title, it is most definitely not the radio equivalent of a cheap women's magazine. It always broadcast interesting articles of surprising depth about an enormous variety of subjects. The Helene Hanff articles date from the 1980s which was long after I had left England so all the material was new to me. Needless to say I loved the book. New York has had an unfortunate press -- far too many people think of it as dirty, violent, dangerous and frightening. To an extent it is all these things (I've been there). But it is more as well, and Helene Hanff's little essays give the place a whole new perspective. They are by turns humorous, sad, enlightening and always fascinating. Everyday life in a great city has never been so well described.

The occasionally otherwise named Iain Banks has a new Culture novel on the stands. Excession is a positive tour de force. The novel is 450 pages long and almost nothing at all happens and yet the fascination and tension and enjoyment never flag. It is a completely brilliant book. The Excession of the title is a mysterious alien artefact. It sits silently, resisting all efforts to contact it. The ships of the Culture see the Excession as an opportunity to advance themselves. Conspiracies and counter conspiracies abound. A minor war breaks out and ends again. The Excession goes away.

The real heroes and most fascinating characters in the book are the ships themselves. Banks' ships have always had a curious life all of their own and now for the first time we get a close look at the culture of their Culture as embodied in the paranoia with which many of the ships live their lives. The human (and alien) characters are of little importance compared to this. I simply couldn't put it down and I read it in a sitting. I've never been very impressed with Banks' SF in the past (though I love his mainstream work). But this one is just magnificent. Words almost fail me.

I have a degree in chemistry which doesn't mean much in itself but in studying for it I came to absorb a philosophy of science and an idea of just what "doing science" is all about. This makes me less than sympathetic to the mystics and new agers and children of the Age of Aquarius who seem to me to be too locked into their certainties, too unwilling to examine evidence, too dogmatic and often too imprecise. If I have a belief it is in Karl Popper's paradigm of disprovability -- the only ideas worth discussing are those which contain the seeds of their own destruction. If we have no way of challenging a theoretical structure, we can make the most outrageous statements about it. For instance I could say that I believe the universe sprang into being two minutes ago and all my memories of the past and all of the historical record were created by whatever it was that created the universe two minutes ago. You can't disprove that -- it is an irrefutable statement. And therefore it is completely worthless.

What has this to do with what I read on my holidays? Well one of the books I read was Facing the Future by Michael Allaby and it is a collection of essays that addresses just these points. Allaby takes on the cranks and mystics, the cultists of the age of neo-barbarism. And they come off very badly. This is an important book, and an exciting book. Read it.

Stephen King is up to number 5 of The Green Mile and there is only one more to go. I CAN'T WAIT!!! But I'll have to.

Gardner Dozois The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirteenth Annual Collection St. Martins
Mike Resnick The Widowmaker Bantam
Richard Matheson Now You See It  Tor
Greg Egan Axiomatic Millenium
Zhisui Li The Private Life of Chairman Mao Arrow
Tom Raabe Biblioholism—The Literary Addiction Fulcrum Publishing
Nicholas Negroponte Being Digital Coronet
Robyn Gossett New Zealand Mysteries Bush Press
Helene Hanff  Letter From New York Warner
Iain M. Banks Excession Orbit
Michael Allaby Facing the Future  Bloomsbury
Stephen King The Green Mile 5: Night Journey Penguin
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