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Phoenixine Ninety-Four, June 1997

My cat Milo has been in a fight. Nothing odd about that, you might say -- cats fight all the time. However in order to have a fight, a cat has to be awake and since Milo spends only 15 minutes awake out of each 24 hour period, his opportunities for fighting are severely limited. (If you are interested, 7 minutes in the morning for breakfast, a pee and a poo and 8 minutes in the evening; 4 minutes for dinner and 4 minutes for a bit of begging for the human food on the human plates).

In his fight, a huge clump of fur was ripped from his back, leaving a bleeding, leaking wound which wouldn't heal because he kept scratching and licking it, pulling off the scabs and chewing them with every evidence of enjoyment. A trip to the vet was indicated. I plonked him into his carrying cage and took him out to the car. He cried piteously all the way to the vet (and all the way back again) and I felt like a baby-killer out on parole. I kept expecting to be lynched by outraged citizens...

Jan Needle (a writer of whom I have never heard) has made a very creditable start on a series of stories set in deepest Patrick O'Brian territory. A Fine Boy for Killing is a novel of the eighteenth century navy. Unusually for this kind of book, the story is not told from the point of view of an officer, but from the point of view of an ordinary seaman (and a pressed man at that). And neither do the officers espouse the softer 20th century humanitarian virtues with which so many pale Hornblower imitators ruin their period pieces. Captain Daniel Swift is a firm disciplinarian, a believer in the lash and the brutality of life before the mast under such a regime is one of the book's major themes. This is not a book for the weak-stomached. And now I've got yet another series to try and keep up with, damnit.

For many years James White has been entertaining us all with his tales of Sector General Hospital where aliens of all kinds come for medical treatment. "The Galactic Gourmet" is the latest of these tales and it concerns one Gurronsevas, the galaxy's greatest chef who comes to Sector General as Chief Dietician. His mission is to make the hospital food palatable, and it could be his greatest challenge yet. What more can I say? It's a Sector General story, and I loved it.

The vet injected Milo with cortisone to help remove the inflammation that was causing him to scratch at the irritation and gave me some vile green goo to smear on the wound. He also prescribed a course of antibiotics, one and a half pills twice a day. Milo's sister, Ginger, is asthmatic and has to have a pill every second day. For a while mealtimes became confusing -- which cat got which pill and how often? And would I survive unscratched?

The green goo proved less than successful. Milo appeared to regard it as dessert and gobbled it up eagerly during his post-prandial wash. The wound continued to leak over the furniture, leaving vile stains on the carpet. It was time to go back to the vet...

Return of the Dinosaurs is an anthology of dinosaur tales, mostly whimsical ones. As a bit of froth for passing an hour or two it isn't bad, but it contains nothing very memorable.

With Washington's Dirigible, John Barnes continues the story he began with Patton's Spaceships. In this latest instalment, Mark Strang visits an alternate 1776 where George Washington is the Duke of Kentucky and the American Revolution never happened. He also comes across an alternative Mark Strang in this reality and (of course) the two are on opposite sides of the conflict. There is a lot of thud and blunder and our hero wins through with glory and honour -- of course he does; there's at least another four books to come. As mindless entertainment goes, this isn't bad. But it is VERY mindless.

The vet gave Milo yet another cortisone injection and declared that the wound needed covering so that Milo couldn't get at it. "I have just the thing!" he pronounced in ringing tones and went into the back of the surgery from whence he emerged a few minutes later carrying an enormous purple pullover. He cut off a huge swathe of sleeve and put two small holes in it. Then he pulled the sleeve over Milo's body and pulled his front legs through the small holes to hold it in place, thus effectively covering the wound, and most of Milo's body as well. Milo was so stunned by this that he didn't cry once on the way home...

Terence Green's Shadow of Ashland is a most magnificent and moving book (if it doesn't make you weep, you have no soul; you're a robot). Leo Nolan's mother is dying. She is convinced that she has been visited on her deathbed by her brother Jack who disappeared more than fifty years before. He left home, looking for work. It was the time of the depression and the whole of North America, it sometimes seemed, was looking for work. Jack moved to Detroit and was never heard from again. Jack has not really visited his sister, of course. She dies and Leo is left with a mystery. What really did happen to Jack? He starts to gather the family history.

And then his quest gains a new momentum as letters start to arrive from Jack in Detroit. Letters dated 1934 and addressed to his sister (Leo's mother), letters arriving fifty years late.

The atmosphere and the feeling of this book are pure Jack Finney. His haunting classic Time and Again is evoked on almost every page. And yet Shadow of Ashland is no petty homage, no pale imitation of that precursor. It is a strongly moving, marvellously inventive and thoroughly magical book that happens to share a theme and a purpose with the earlier work. Both Finney and Green complement each other perfectly.

When I arrived home with Milo, Ginger took one look at the strange purple monster into which he had metamorphosed and fled in utter panic. Milo looked hurt at this treatment but what else would you expect a sister to do? He sat glumly for a while and then got up and tottered weakly sideways like a crab, taking large exaggerated steps, obviously trying to step out of the enveloping sleeve. When that failed to work, he cowered by the wall, leaning against it for protection as he walked and refusing point blank to come into the middle of the room at all. Then he decided to give up on walking completely. His back legs became completely paralysed and he "walked" by digging his front claws in to the carpet and pulling his whole body forwards. The Paralysing Purple Pullover (PPP for short) had claimed another victim.

The stories in Joe Haldeman's anthology Vietnam and other Alien Worlds are not new and if you have other Haldeman collections you will recognise them all. But the book also contains some journalism -- articles about his Vietnam experiences, and they make harrowing reading. Included also are some story poems which appear again in None So Blind. In addition this latter collection includes (yet one more time!) The Hemingway Hoax which I have now read far too many times in far too many incarnations. The remaining new(ish) stories are uniformly good (after all, this is Joe Haldeman we are talking about) but they form only a small part of the total page count and make me wonder whether the money was really justified. There is so much familiar material in both these anthologies that I can't in all honesty urge you to go out and buy them.

The late Nevil Shute was not only a brilliant novelist, he was also a skilled aeronautical engineer and a large part of Slide Rule, his autobiography, is concerned with that aspect of his life. He makes small mention of his literary career. A major reason for concentrating on the engineering is that Shute was one of the chief designers of the R100, the last of the great airships. The British Government (for convoluted political and ideological reasons) commissioned two airships. The R100 on which Shute worked was designed and built by private enterprise. The R101 was designed and built by the Government. When the R101 crashed and burned up on her maiden voyage to India, with enormous loss of life it effectively marked the end of the commercial airship and the R100 was scrapped shortly afterwards. All the evidence suggests that the design of the R101 was flawed from the start. But the R100 suffered by comparison. Shute was very bitter about this (with reason, I think). Slide Rule is his justification of his vision.

After two days of Milo's increasingly piteous behaviour I couldn't stand it any more . The PPP had to go. I cut it off and Milo was instantly cured of his paralysis. Another miracle! However his joy was short lived as the PPP was immediately replaced with a rather natty brown sleeve from an old cardigan of Sally's. This came only half way down his back, thus preventing paralysis of the rear legs, and presumably smelling of something rather more friendly than the vet. Ginger condescended to come back into the house and remain in the same room. Milo wore his sleeve for the next two weeks (though it became steadily more disreputable) and then it was time to go back to the vet for a check up...

With Higher Education, Sheffield and Pournelle venture into the territory of the Heinlein juvenile, an honourable tradition. Nobody did it as well as Heinlein did. Whole generations of us grew up on those brilliant books and they will be remembered and cherished and re-read long after the excesses of his later career are forgotten. But now, for the first time in forty years, Heinlein has a rival. Higher Education is enthralling in the same way that those early Heinlein novels were enthralling. Rick Luban gets kicked out of school when a practical joke backfires. He has nowhere to go and it seems he is destined to be a bum. But he gets a second chance when he is persuaded to sign up for a career in asteroid mining. The novel details his days in the training school and on the asteroids. It is a typical rite of passage novel (Heinlein wrote it a thousand times) but familiarity with the theme doesn't destroy the magic. The book is powerful, moving and above all FUN.

Allen Steele's new novel The Tranquillity Alternative is an alternate world novel set in the near future. In this alternative twentieth century, the second world war culminated with a battle in low Earth orbit as a Nazi spaceship heading for America is destroyed. This boost to America's space effort paid dividends in the immediate post war years, although military applications took priority of course. But now it is the 1990s and space is old hat and expensive and America is tired. On the dark side of the moon six missile silos stand in silence. The war they were built for never happened. The moonbase has been sold to private interests in Europe and one last American mission will be flown to disarm the missiles. But a terrorist group has other ideas...

It's just a thriller really. The alternate history is well worked out and convincing, but it's only window dressing. The book is just a very ordinary thriller. Steele is seen in much better form in his anthology All American Alien Boy. The stories all take place on Earth, in the American mid-west and each is prefaced with a little autobiographical squib discussing how the story came to be written. The stories and articles complement each other well and the collection is a very satisfying read.

The Ringworld Throne is boring.

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy is the companion volume to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Like the earlier volume it is a superb work of scholarship, a brilliant reference book and a damned good read. What more do you want, for heaven's sake?

The vet expressed admiration at Milo's stylish new pullover and wielded the cortisone needle again. The wound was healing well; the scabs were almost gone and hair was starting to grow again. The pullover, however, should remain for at least another week. Milo drooped visibly when he heard this. For the next three or four days all was as before while (as became obvious in retrospect) Milo hatched his cunning scheme.

One morning he ate breakfast as normal and stared in utter bewilderment at the cat flap as usual (he has always found the cat flap an intellectual challenge) and then went outside. A little later he returned strutting proudly without his pullover. I have no idea where it went (or how) but it seemed best to accept the status quo.

That was a week ago. Today the site of his wound started to bleed again. Another pullover would appear to be indicated. It only remains to decide on a colour...

Jan Needle A Fine Boy for Killing Harper Collins
James White The Galactic Gourmet Tor
Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg Return of the Dinosaurs DAW
John Barnes Washington’s Dirigible Harper Prism
Terence M. Green Shadow of Ashland Tor
Joe Haldeman None so Blind  AvoNova
  Vietnam and Other Alien Worlds NESFA Press
Nevil Shute  Slide Rule Pan
Charles Sheffield and Jerry Pournelle Higher Education Tor
Allen Steele  The Tranquillity Alternative Ace
  All-American Alien Boy OEB
Larry Niven The Ringworld Throne Del Rey
John Clute and John Grant The Encyclopedia of Fantasy Orbit
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