Phoenixine Ninety-Six, August 1997
There are two things that a man with a beard and moustache should never do. One of them is eat cream cakes and the other is catch a cold. I gave up cream cakes long ago; coagulated cream in the beard looks silly and after several days it wafts foul odours up the nostrils. But colds are unpredictable and appear whenever they feel so inclined. The nose drips uncontrollably and no matter how many tissues you use, the moustache hairs clog together in a matted and slightly damp tangle. If you are in the habit of sucking the ends of your moustache in moments of stress, having a cold can add a whole new taste sensation to your day. You'd be better advised to read a book.
Those of you too young to remember Captain Beefheart and his Magic band will be puzzled by the title of the new Robert Rankin novel. It is called Sprout Mask Replica and it isn't his autobiography, though you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, concerning as it does several members of the family Rankin such as the great to the power two grandfather who died at the Battle of Little Big Horn. He was holding a sprout-bake and tent meeting in the field next door to the battle and went over to complain about the noise. But most of the book, such as it is, takes place in Rankin's beloved Brentford and concerns our hero himself and the lady who is always to be seen at rock concerts perched on the shoulders of the man in the middle of the crowd.
Rumour has it that Rankin's next novel (due out around Christmas) will be called The Brentford Chain Store Massacre. He's getting good at titles, isn't he?
The amazingly prolific Tom Holt has written yet another novel in which he plays fast and loose with classical characters. In Open Sesame he takes on the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It all starts when the leader of the forty, one Akram the Terrible is about to die as boiling water is poured into the jar in which he is hiding. At the moment of death, it is said, one's life flashes before one's eyes, which is sort of what happens to Akram as a man carrying a red book proclaims Akram the Terrible; This is Your Life. Certain truths are revealed and Akram resolves to escape from the story, which he duly does. Meanwhile, in Southampton, Michelle puts on Aunt Fatima's ring and is a little surprised when her answerphone, washing machine, spin drier and other household gadgets begin to talk to her. Escaping from this and suffering from a toothache, she visits her dentist, one Alistair Barbour. You can work the rest out yourself.
Sometimes these things get very laboured. Tom Holt is so incredibly prolific that often he seems merely to be ringing the changes on the same old boring themes. And to a certain extent he is -- but Open Sesame is sufficiently lightly handled to maintain the interest and the jokes are fresh (and often you can't see them coming). Despite the tiredness of the approach, this one is lots of fun.
The background blurb on every Tom Holt book proclaims that he published his first book at age thirteen, a slim volume of verse called Poems by Tom Holt. I have now come across just that volume and in the introduction Edward Lucie-Smith analyses the poems drawing comparisons with the infant Mozart, William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud and T. S. Eliot. That would be enough to blight most literary careers, but Holt seems to have survived pretty much unscathed. What are the poems like? Rather good actually -- considerably better than most thirteen year old adolescents would be able to manage.
I developed my cold on a Sunday and turned up to work on Monday hoarse-voiced and dripping, ready to teach a Visual Basic programming class. Fortunately I only had one student, and by Wednesday I was feeling much better. My student, however, was beginning to sniffle and by the end of the week his nasal passages were in full flow and I felt great. I was pleased to note that he did not have a beard. I wondered whether to suggest that he grew one.
I remember that when I was a child I was constantly being told off by my parents for wiping my nose on my sleeve. "Use a hanky," they would exhort, and sometimes I did. There were children at my primary school who must have received the same advice but who ignored it (or who did not possess a hanky). Some of these poor kids also seemed much snottier than the norm and we used to call them "Silver Sleeves". One who did possess a hanky was often to be seen blowing his nose incredibly vigorously and then examining the residue closely, presumably looking for traces of brains.
Recently my friend Kath espoused the virtues of a book about the archaeology of the middle east. I've read some of these in the past, and I was dubious. But she insisted and showed me the book, inviting me to flip though and read here and there. I did, and was immediately captivated by the author's style which just grabbed hold of me and dragged me in. This conversation with Kath coincided with my taking the plunge into Internet book buying with Amazon.Com and on the strength of Kath's recommendation and my own brief flip through the book I ordered Charles Pellegrino's Return to Sodom and Gomorrah. About two weeks later it duly arrived, beautifully packaged and safely delivered and Kath was right -- it was utterly fascinating from start to finish and I resented having to put it down and go to work. Pellegrino brings the Old Testament alive as he talks about the people and events illuminated by the archaeological discoveries. There's even a New Zealand connection, if you want one. Pellegrino lived here for a time (and thoroughly enjoyed himself, it would seem) and he draws many interesting parallels, particularly with the oral traditions of the Maori. Few such societies exist today, though once they were the norm.
One of the fascinations of the book is that Pellegrino is a true renaissance man; he is a synthesist, taking information from genetics, geology, archaeology and myth to paint a picture of cultures that are truly remote from us in sociological terms (though not really that remote in terms of time). He paints on a wide canvas and yet never forgets the minutiae of detail. This is a truly wonderful book; thank you Kath, I'd never have found it on my own.
In The Silence of the Langford we find several years worth of essays from multi-hugo-award-winning Dave Langford, the deaf man of science fiction and one of the funniest essayists I have ever read. Everything contained herein will make you smile and much of it will make you laugh out loud. The photograph on the front cover shows Langford in typical pose clutching a pint of beer. The essays in this book are best read in exactly that position.
In the days when I was a regular smoker I could always tell when I had a cold coming on. The smoke would begin to change its flavour about two days before the cold kicked in. It would start to taste heavy with menace and develop an almost cloying sweetness. I used to use this as a signal to switch to menthol ciggies for the duration of the illness. Normally I couldn't stand the menthol taste, but it cut through a cold like nothing else. If you do nothing about a cold it will normally go away in seven days. If you dose yourself with patent cold cures or go and see a doctor you will be able to cure it in a week.
Had he lived, Cyril Kornbluth would probably be one of the most famous and best loved SF novelists of his generation. But he died tragically young of a heart attack. He was only 34 and his career was scarcely yet begun. If he is remembered at all today, it is for his collaborative novels with Frederik Pohl (The Space Merchants, Wolfbane, Gladiator at Law, Search the Sky). His Share of the Glory collects together all his short stories, 56 of them published originally under a variety of pseudonyms in various ephemeral pulp magazines. Most of them have never appeared before in book form. This is a large book, full of wonderful stories, many of them achingly brilliant (though some, it must be said, are showing their age). The book is a definitive collection of the art of the science fiction short story and as such I found it truly fascinating. But it left me feeling sad, wishing for what might have been. Kornbluth's early death was a tragedy.
Orson Scott Card's novel Pastwatch is subtitled The Redemption of Christopher Columbus and it is a quasi-historical novel told from two points of view; that of Columbus on his voyage of discovery and that of Pastwatch, a group of people in the far future who use the technology of their time to spy on and influence the events of Columbus' voyage. They have their motives (and fine ideological motives they are, as well), but Columbus also has his own agenda. The novel operates on many levels as all the best books do, and one of these is the superb way in which Card brings his protagonists to life. The character of Columbus is wonderfully realised; he springs to life, leaps off the page and walks around in front of the reader. It is this reality which adds a poignancy to the moral dilemma facing the Pastwatch operatives.
I have no hesitation in recommending this novel -- it is Card's best book; streets ahead of his other works. Even the award winning Ender's Game does not begin to approach the brilliance and subtlety of Pastwatch.
For most of my life, even when cold free, I have sniffed and snorted. My mother always insisted that I be well supplied with handkerchiefs and every week she would be presented with mountains of them to wash because sometimes I was getting through five or six or more a day. Eventually they became so saturated that they began to leak and my trouser pocket got soggy and I knew that it was time to get another hanky. By the time washing day came round, of course, the hankies would have dried out and sometimes they became so stiff that I thought they might shatter if they were screwed up.
The secret of washing a slimy mucous-impregnated handkerchief (wet or dry) is to soak it for a time in a solution of salt. After that it can be washed safely and will come out white and pristine. Every week bowls of soaking snot rags would festoon the entire house as my mother struggled to keep up with my leaking nasal passages. Even more amazingly, after they were washed and dried, she would iron every single one. I never understood why; though she claimed it would make them gentler on my nose. Mind you my mother used to iron underpants, sheets, pillowcases, socks and similar unnecessary things. I think she just liked ironing.
Once I moved away from home and became responsible for my own washing I ceased to use handkerchiefs at all. Like every other sensible person I use boxes of tissues and I am never to be found without an adequate supply about my person. However the definition of adequate tends to vary with the state of my nose for I have never really outgrown that childhood tendency to leak.
In The Steampunk Trilogy Paul di Fillipo offers three short novels that give a very twisted slant on the nineteenth century. In Victoria, the young queen becomes disenchanted with the throne and runs away. In order to conceal this from the public she is replaced by a crossbred human/newt which is quite docile (and very sexy) but which tends to eat flies in public. In Hottentot, strange Lovecraftian monsters threaten Massachusetts and in Walt and Emily, Emily Dickinson hooks up with Walt Whitman and travels to a dimension beyond time where she meets Allen Ginsberg. I found this last to be the least successful of the three, probably because I know very little about Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and the nuances of the storyline escaped me. But the other two stories with their crazy technologies had me hooked from page one. The nineteenth century was never like this, but it might have been more fun if it was.
Jonathan Lethem has made a name for himself with two very successful surrealistic novels. The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye is a collection of short stories and very dark and perverse they are. If you feel like a good gloom, these are the stories for you.
Nothing, however, could be less gloomy than Alan Dean Foster's novel Jed the Dead. Ross Ed Hagar wants to see the Pacific Ocean, so he sets out to drive across America. On the way he comes into possession of the corpse of an alien. He calls the alien Jed and sits him in the passenger seat and talks to him, though the conversations tend to be a bit one sided. Jed attracts a lot of attention, but Ross Ed bluffs his way through. And then the government gets in on the act, and so do several other interested parties, some of them more or less sane, some of them more or less legal and some of them more or less human. But Jed doesn't care. He's dead. Nobody could possibly call this silly farrago literature, but my goodness me it is brilliantly entertaining and I loved it.
Looking back, I suspect that my vast consumption of handkerchiefs in childhood can be blamed on various allergies which were unsuspected at the time. I realise that allergies are conveniently trendy things to exhibit, and they form a nice catch all explanation for otherwise mysterious events, but they do really exist. When I moved to Auckland about ten years ago I was smitten with the worst sneezing attacks I have ever experienced. There were times when I could get through two or even three large boxes of tissues in a day and sometimes the non-stop sneezing was so debilitating that I just lay in bed in utter exhaustion almost unable to move. At times like these nasal drips cease to have any amusement value at all and so I sought medical advice. Not that it helped -- the doctor recognised the real nature of the attacks and was even able to provide treatment (for the rest of my life I must spray my nasal passages twice a day to keep them calm and relatively mucous-free). However the less than lucid diagnosis of chronic non-specific rhinitis simply means that I sneeze a lot and nobody really knows why. Auckland is apparently notorious for this sort of thing, though again the reasons are mysterious. Perhaps the atmosphere is full of volcanic dust. I would imagine that ground sufficiently fine (which it probably would be) the conditions would be right to form a nice colloidal suspension which means that it would never settle out. Hence those of us prone to these things get almost permanent dew drops and constant leakages.
John Le Carré is at the peak of his form with The Tailor of Panama". Gossipy Harry Pendel, the tailor of the title, clothes everyone who is anybody in Panama. To his shop comes Andrew Osnard, a spy with a secret agenda who is also privy to the dark mystery of Harry Pendel's past. The stage is set for masterful political manoeuvrings and deep corruptions. Le Carré has never done it better.
The late Anthony Boucher was best known to SF fans as the founding editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, one of the most influential of the SF magazines. But he was also a masterful writer of detective stories, and a great Sherlock Holmes fan and in the recently republished The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars he combines the two interests to great effect. This is a classic detective novel in the strict sense, and while the deductions may be a bit far fetched and the plot (and motivations) utterly unrealistic, nonetheless it has its charm because of its adherence to the customs of the form, though you probably have to be a bit of a Holmes aficionado to appreciate it properly. Fortunately I am.
A pocket full of posies.
All fall down
|Robert Rankin||Sprout Mask Replica||Doubleday|
|Tom Holt||Open Sesame||Orbit|
|Poems by Tom Holt||Michael Joseph|
|Charles Pellegrino||Return to Sodom and Gomorrah||Avon|
|Dave Langford||The Silence of the Langford||NESFA Press|
|C. M. Kornbluth||His Share of the Glory||NESFA Press|
|Orson Scott Card||Pastwatch||Tor|
|Paul di Fillipo||The Steampunk Trilogy||Four Walls, Eight Windows|
|Jonathan Lethem||The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye||Harcourt & Brace|
|Alan Dean Foster||Jed the Dead||Ace|
|John Le Carré||The Tailor of Panama||Coronet|
|Anthony Boucher||The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars||Carroll & Graf|