Previous Contents Next

New Things

Phoenixine Eighty-Eight, December 1996

It's been a busy month. I bought a yo-yo with a patented built in clutch and now for the first time in my life I can walk the dog and sleep at the end of the string. I feel quite proud -- I mastered round the world very early on in my yo-yo life, but my skills never progressed much beyond that. Now, thanks to the miracle of a patented built in clutch, whole new yo-yo horizons have opened in front of me.

Don't read the new Poppy Z. Brite novel Exquisite Corpse if you are the least bit squeamish. Never have the mechanics of killing, the taste of human flesh, and the feel of dead bodies as they move through the various stages of decay been so explicitly described. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the exploits of an English serial killer who has fled the country to America. He finds a home in the French quarter of New Orleans (Poppy Z. Brite's usual stamping ground) where he makes contact with a kindred spirit, Jay Byrne, the scion of an old family, grown bored by his heritage and seeking his decadent pleasures in torture and death. I have never read anything quite so revolting -- I loved it, and I worry a little about what that says about me.

My cats have decided that they like yo-yos and Milo (the big fat black one) actually managed to wake up for something that wasn't food and chased it. He caught it as well (it's all in the clutch, you know) and now I have to be very careful where I practice and develop my yo-yo algorithms. Ginger (the slim, athletic one) quickly lost interest after her initial burst of enthusiasm and returned to her favourite occupation of being a serial killer in the French quarter of Avondale, seeking her decadent pleasures in torture and death. Sparrows go crunch most satisfactorily when they are eaten. She's eaten a lot of them this month, and I heard most of them.

In search of lighter things I turned to Robert Rankin's new opus which rejoices in the title Nostradamus Ate my Hamster and which, unusually for Rankin, actually has some semblance of a plot. Since the plot involves time travel, movie making, Adolf Hitler, Marilyn Monroe and flying saucers you could be forgiven for taking it less than seriously. Rankin returns to his old stamping grounds, and Brentford has never been better served. Pooley and Omally and Neville the part time barman do have small parts to play in the book, but the majority of it belongs to Russell, a nice chap. This is vintage Rankin and I enjoyed every insane syllable of it.

In the course of my work, I constantly have to point at things -- usually things I have written on the whiteboard in the fond hope that my students will absorb them. Until now I have used a pointer which reminds people of a snapped off car aerial (and many and varied have been the rude comments). But now I have gone all high tech and I have a laser pointer that can point at the board from the opposite side of the room and which allows me to indicate the subtle truths written thereon while simultaneously chastising a recalcitrant student around the general area of the ear with a heavy technical tome for not applying them. I have also discovered that in a darkened room, my cats will happily chase the little red blob it generates for hours. In normal daylight they apparently have some difficulty seeing it and they evince little interest. As a result of all this activity I now need new batteries. Oh woe!

Perhaps I could learn a thing or three from the ancients. The utterly fascinating Ancient Inventions is a guided tour through archaeological wonders. I was astounded at the skills available to the ancients. Did you know that Roman surgeons routinely performed eye operations? (Removal of cataracts was particularly common). In the first century BC, plastic surgery was almost commonplace in India. Medieval Baghdad had a strikingly efficient postal and banking service, and the secrets of distilling whiskey appear to have been discovered in China around 700BC. This amazing book is endlessly entertaining and informative and I devoured it in about four hours of utter wonderment.

It appears to be my month for acquiring new possessions. I am writing this little essay on my new computer which is playing a CD at the same time as it processes my words (ah! The joys of multi-tasking). In my upstairs study I now have a network (I don't need one, but when did that ever stop me having fun) and my old Unix box, my laptop and my new 32MB multimedia PC can swap data backwards and forwards with gay abandon. Networks are a good idea. When a computer goes wrong and causes catastrophic damage to your favourite files, you should chastise it severely. This will cause it to pull itself together and behave better in future. If it happens to be on a network, it will also tell all its friends what you did to it and your reputation as someone not to be trifled with will spread and all the other computers will be so scared of you that they will start behaving themselves as well. That's why networked computers are so much more productive and efficient than isolated machines.

Both Frederic Forsyth and Mario Puzo have new novels out. I group them together because in many ways they are similar writers, though I think Puzo might object to being placed in the company of a "mere" thriller writer -- he tries to claim more for his books that that. Similarly Forsyth might be puzzled to be linked with a literary writer since he has never claimed to more than an entertainer. Both, I think, are fooling themselves.

Icon, the Forsyth novel, is as good as anything he has ever done. It is set a short while in the future, in a Russia reeling under the effects of Yeltsin's reforms and with many competing influences looking to restore order out of the chaos. One politician who seems certain to win the forthcoming election and whose stated policies seem to offer some degree of hope is discovered to have a secret agenda. A document known as the Black Manifesto comes into the hands of British Intelligence. At first they simply don't believe it, but as its truth becomes more apparent they are faced with the difficult moral problem of interfering with the fledgling democratic process of the new Russia for the sake of what is perceived to be the greater good. How they resolve this moral dilemma, and the mechanics of the elaborate plan they put in to effect are the meat of the book and while at the pure mechanical level it is a nail-bitingly tense and perfectly managed thriller, the moral and ethical undertones (and overtones!) make it more than just a pleasant way to pass a few hours.

Puzo, on the other hand, tries to load so much significance into The Last Don that the book falls over under its own weight. As the title implies, we are back in heavy Mafia territory. However most of the novel is set in Hollywood and Las Vegas, and the larger than life irrealities and the fat veneer of glitz and glitter reduce the whole thing to the level of a Harold Robbins pot-boiler. And you know what? That is exactly what it is. I just couldn't get involved with it. Puzo seems to think that this world matters in some deep significant way, when the plain fact is that it is so shallow and superficial that it can't even stand as a metaphor. Puzo tries too hard and it shows.

Ben Elton was very funny about ecological catastrophe in Stark. He followed it with a series of books where he became progressively less funny about less serious subjects. Now in Popcorn he isn't funny at all and he isn't funny about the same things that Puzo isn't funny about -- Hollywood glitz. His hero is a Quentin Tarantino look-alike called Bruce Delamitri. Two psychotic killers of the kind he glorifies in his movies hijack him after the Oscar ceremony which is his crowning glory. From the heights, he is plunged into the depths and he gets a taste of the reality he has faked in his films for so long.

The book belabours its message, sings it, shouts it, underlines it, and then just in case you missed it, yells it out in capital letters. The whole thing is overwritten and dull.

Not satisfied with my other new toys, I went and bought a car. I wasn't sure what I wanted, but I did know that it wasn't going to be white. I have owned five previous cars during my stay in New Zealand, and four of them have been white. This one had to be different. I also wanted a manual gear change (none of this poofy automatic nonsense, thank you very much). My tour round the car yards was highly depressing and served mainly to convince me just how many white, automatic cars there were in my price range.

As I was about to give up, I found a grey Mazda Familia with electrical everything (it is stuffed full of gadgets, and I like gadgets) so I bought it. Its only drawback is that it has maroon upholstery and it looks like a tart's boudoir. But I can put up with that for the sake of the electric windows and the switch that makes the wing mirrors fold in to the body of the car so it is easier to park in narrow spaces. It also has a cup holder. But best of all, it has air conditioning and since we are now approaching the time of year when Auckland gets humid and muggy I am really looking forward to using it. Vroom, vroom!

Tor have recently republished L. Neil Smith's The Probability Broach. It is a sub-Heinlein adventure novel with a lot of libertarian preaching and paeans in favour of how it is every person's right to go around armed to the teeth and blow away anybody who gives you offence (Smith is big in the gun lobby). Despite all that I actually enjoyed the book a lot -- unlike many people with an ideological axe to grind, Smith can write reasonably well and he tells an exciting tale. The broach of the title is a gate between alternate realities and the narrator of the story accidentally stumbles through from our world to a libertarian paradise on the other side. The hero is a homicide detective and the book is a gritty police-procedural which never fails to entertain.

My only gripe is that the alternate world on the other side of the broach is an alternate America which has arisen because of some changes in events that took place during and shortly after the American revolution. Presumably all American children learn this history at school, but I didn't and the historical minutiae discussed by the characters meant nothing to me. Smith made too many assumptions about the nature of his audience here.

Full Spectrum 5 is the latest and least in what has been a distinguished anthology series. The enormously fat book (593 pages) contains only two stories of merit. Jonathan Lethem's The Insipid Profession of Jonathan Hornebom and Gene Wolfe's The Ziggurat. Lethem's story is a deeply felt (and funny) homage to Heinlein's The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag and if you haven't read it, much of Lethem's story will pass you by. Wolfe's story is ... a story by Gene Wolfe.

Now that Robert Harris has made a name for himself as a best selling novelist, his earlier non-fiction works are starting to reappear on the bookshelves. Selling Hitler is the story of the Hitler diaries, one of the more notorious literary forgeries of modern times (it even eclipsed Clifford Irving's biography of Howard Hughes in notoriety). The story of how the diaries came into being is a fascinating story of greed and desperation. A journalist on Stern Magazine was a collector of Nazi memorabilia. He bought Hermann Goering's yacht when it came up for auction and rapidly went head over heels into debt trying to maintain and repair it and also populate it with Nazi paraphernalia. One thing lead to another. It is a story of greed and naivety. The only astonishing thing is that so many people were taken in for so long. A lot of distinguished people ended up with egg on their faces. That's what makes the story so fascinating. It isn't really about the Hitler Diaries -- it is much more a study of human frailties and our almost infinite capacity for believing what we want to believe despite the evidence to the contrary.

As I drive around feeling cool with the air conditioning on, demonstrating how to make a yo-yo sleep, pointing at things and indulging in interesting computing, I am occasionally asked what books to recommend to those who express an interest in SF but don't know what to read next. I have several stock answers, but now that I have read Jack McDevitt's Ancient Shores I have another book to add to the list. Tom Lasker, ploughing his wheat fields, digs up the remains of a yacht. Thousands of years ago, during the last ice age, his wheat fields had been on the shoreline of an ancient sea. When the yacht turns out to be made of strange materials, and when subsequent excavation unearths an igloo-like structure with possible portals to other worlds, the truth has to be faced. We have been visited by aliens. The ideas of the book are common coin to us old, jaded SF fans. But seldom have they been handled as convincingly as they are here. This is the sort of thing that got us hooked in the first place and the magic still works.

I started with a horror novel, so I'll end with one. Dean Koontz is incredibly prolific and his books tend towards a sameness of plot and character. I can seldom remember which I have read and which I have not and therefore I have mostly stopped buying them just in case I duplicate something already on my shelves. But Ticktock received glowing reviews which claimed that it was that most difficult of things, a screamingly funny horror novel. Well who could resist? Certainly not me. So I bought it and read it and I must admit that while I would not go as far in my praise as other reviewers, I did enjoy it. It is neither as funny nor as horrible as the reviews suggested, but it is certainly light-hearted. Tommy Phan, a Vietnamese national who has adopted America as his preferred homeland but who cannot escape the effects of his Vietnamese inheritance (and his Vietnamese family), finds a rag doll on his doorstep. Its thread eyes unravel and a demon with green eyes stares out at him. The chase is on! Tommy has until dawn to escape from a supernatural entity that grows larger and more fearsome as the night progresses.

The book has everything -- a beautiful, enigmatic woman, immense peril, high speed car chases, and a dog. It can't fail.

And I’ve got a yo-yo. Now if I hold it like this…

Poppy Z. Brite    Exquisite Corpse Orion
Robert Rankin Nostradamus ate my Hamster  Doubleday
Peter James & Nick Thorpe Ancient Inventions Michael O’Mara
Frederick Forsyth Icon Bantam
Mario Puzo The Last Don Heinemann
Ben Elton  Popcorn Simon & Schuster
L. Neil Smith  The Probability Broach Tor
Various editors Full Spectrum 5 Bantam
Robert Harris Selling Hitler Arrow
Jack McDevitt  Ancient Shores Voyager
Dean Koontz    Ticktock  Headline
Previous Contents Next