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Tower Blocks and Graffiti

Phoenixine Ninety-Seven, September 1997

I was in Brisbane recently. Our office there is in a rather elegant high rise with a wonderful panoramic view of the city. The only thing that spoils the building is that as one approaches it, one sees great swathes of canvas (like swelling sails) attached at the first floor level. They look rather ugly and completely destroy the beauty of the building.

But I refused to be distracted. The view from the 10th floor was magnificent and I jammed my nose up close against the window making "oohs" and "aaahs" of appreciation. The other people in the office, utterly accustomed to the view, nudged each other in the ribs and made "look at the loony" gestures.

"By the way," I asked, "What are the canvas sails for?"

"To catch the windows," someone said. "They keep falling out and hitting pedestrians."

I stepped back hastily. "You're kidding, right?"

"No -- it happens all the time."

Brisbane is a city of hidden dangers. But there are other cities in the world.

Edward Rutherford's London is a venture into darkest James Michener territory. It tells the tale of England's capital city from just prior to the Roman invasion up to the present day. The tale is told through the eyes of the families who live in the area. Through all the turbulent times, in a series of fascinating vignettes, we watch the city grow.

Rutherford has done this before. He applied the same techniques to his first bestseller Sarum which told the tale of old Salisbury. For his second novel he ventured further afield and in Russka he attempted the tale of eastern Europe. Unfortunately that turned out to be a very dull book in which it was impossible to get involved. Perhaps that is why he has returned to England with his third book.

This enormous novel held me enthralled from beginning to end. The characters both great and small, historical and fictional, leap from the page and the historical events he dramatises have a fascination all their own. This one has bestseller written all over it, and deservedly so.

Nobody really knows why our office windows fall out, but the theory is that something in Brisbane's fierce sunshine causes some sort of reaction inside the glass (probably with the pigments) and every so often, at utterly unpredictable intervals, something goes sproing and the window cracks like crazy paving, disintegrates into tiny fragments, and vanishes in the direction of down. I am told by those who have seen it happen that it is most disconcerting. One second the window is there, the next it is gone without warning.

Amusingly, the current owners of the building decided to save a bit of money when they bought it and so they paid a lower price and absolved the builder from any warranty liability. Doubtless whoever made that decision got promoted and the builder laughed all the way to the bank.

I first discovered Michael Marshall Smith with his bleakly funny novel Only Forwards. Now, with Spares, his second novel, he has entered my list of writers whose novels I must have as soon as they appear in the shops. Spares is a brilliantly funny, twisted and surreal novel. It opens in the city of New Richmond, a flying Mega-Mall whose engines have failed. This has forced it to remain permanently grounded and over time it has grown; metamorphosing into a city. On the lower levels live the scum, the crooks and hoodlums and drug addicts. But in the higher levels of the city live the aristocracy of New Richmond (a bit of an obvious allegory, but you can't have everything).

To the city comes Jack Randall. It seems that in the past he lived in New Richmond and he seems to be on intimate terms with many of the low life. He arrives with a group of spares from one of the farms. The spares are clones of the super rich. They represent the ultimate health insurance -- if you lose a limb in an accident, no problem; just have one grafted on from your spare. Since the spares are genetic clones there is no chance of tissue rejection. A cure is guaranteed. You will be back to normal before you know it. Pity about the limbless clone.

By convoluted means and for reasons unknown the spares are stolen from Randall and when he goes looking for them he stumbles into mystery, murder and mayhem.

The plot of the book is reasonably routine and when examined with a jaundiced eye it has little original to say. The attraction of the book lies in the brilliantly controlled use of language and the juxtaposition of the real and surreal. Sometimes achingly funny, sometimes bleakly depressing, this is a book that pulls no punches.

In the snobby higher levels of New Richmond, Jack Randall passes "... a shrubbery so refined that it was probably eligible to vote." The whole book is full of lines like that. How can you fail to enjoy it?

With Lifehouse, Spider Robinson has written a deeply self-indulgent book. June Bellamy goes for a walk in the park and returns with missing memories. Soon she is on the run from evil super-humans. Ho hum. The book is filled with self-referential SF in-jokes. Nobody but a rabid fan could like it and even they will probably find as dull and predictable as I did.

Being an enormous tower block, the Brisbane office has lifts and like many modern lifts they are wont to talk to you, advising you of the floor you have reached and on occasional loquacious moments informing you about the outside weather and temperature ("Sunny" and "Hot"; this is Brisbane after all).

I've always been suspicious of lifts ever since I discovered that the headquarters of the Otis Elevator Company in Wellington was a two storey building with no lifts in it. This suspicion was reinforced when my boss entered a lift in our Auckland offices. She spent the next couple of hours happily travelling up and down as the lift point blank refused to bother itself with the boring necessity of stopping somewhere and opening the doors.

The best graffito I've ever seen was scrawled on the side of a lift. It said: "This Otis Regrets It's Unable To Lift Today, Madam."

The second volume of Mike Resnick's Widowmaker trilogy sees another clone of Jefferson Nighthawk sent out to the frontier to wreak derring do and rescue fair maidens. All is not as it seems (of course) and in a thrilling chase of cross and double-cross, fighting against odds of a million to one, the Widowmaker and his companions (both alien and human) attempt to remove a corrupt politician and steal a fortune to protect what remains of the life of the original Jefferson Nighthawk as he dreams in his cold-sleep, waiting for science to discover a cure for the disease that is destroying him. Like its predecessor, it is a rollicking good yarn and I had a rollicking good time reading it.

Jane Lindskold's new novel is a quest for the source of magic. A generation ago magic was in common use throughout the world. But then for no readily discernible reason the magic went away and is now but a myth. Slowly the world is recovering but hardships are many. Hulhc, a farmer, has spent a lifetime poring over his father's books of magic and he is convinced that magic still exists in the mountains of the North. He persuades a travelling circus to journey with him to the mountains in search of the magic and the book is the tale of their journeyings.

The book feels unfinished, all surface and little depth, and towards the end it becomes very rushed as if the author was hurrying to meet a deadline. In fact it reads more like a first draft than a finished piece and I was very disappointed with it. In her previous books Jane Lindskold has displayed a consistently high standard of writing and world-building. Read them instead of this one.

Not all graffiti is verbal. Sometimes the pictorial ones are even better. When I lived in England I worked on the campus of Nottingham University. The toilets that we used were just across the way, and one day I trotted over there with a copy of New Scientist as was my invariable habit when I intended to be there for some time. However that day the magazine remained unread because the most magnificent picture had appeared on the wall and I was lost in admiration. It was an enormous and incredibly detailed rendering of a steam train coming out of a tunnel. It was painted in gorgeous living colour as trompe l'oeil and the effect was just stunning. The bricks of the toilet wall were cleverly incorporated into the structure of the tunnel and the curls of steam seemed to writhe around the mortar; you could almost hear the sound of the whistle and the train seemed to be heading right for you at enormous velocity as you sat there contemplating your immediate prospects. It was quite appropriately bowel-loosening.

The most amazing thing was that it had appeared overnight. It must have taken untold hours of concentrated effort to produce and I marvel at the single-minded intensity of whoever had felt inspired to paint it (I also worry about their mental stability and the nature of their obsession). I never found out who did it -- the perpetrator remained forever completely anonymous, but the fame of the production spread far and wide across the whole of the campus and our toilet block became a place of pilgrimage. The fact that this eighth wonder of the world was in a male toilet was no barrier to the curious and often one would experience strange internal rumblings and trot over the way with New Scientist conveniently clutched in the armpit, only to find a strategic boyfriend and cries of feminine delight emanating from the third cubicle on the left.

In Jumpers, R. Patrick Gates introduces us to Anna, a young child who is seriously injured in a sledding accident. Near death, she has an out of body experience where she sees a radiant beam of light taking the souls of the dead to (presumably) heaven. However she herself is pursued by the shadow monster, a darkness that engulfs the souls of those refused by the light. She discovers others who share her ability to exist in the twilight where the shadow monster lurks and together they join forces to fight it. The novel cuts between desperate, horrific scenes in the real world and mirror images in the limbo as the battle rages on both sides of the curtain.

The blood and gore and grue and the involvement of children is vintage Stephen King as indeed is the battle against the shadow monster. But enjoyable though it is, it is only a pale imitation of the real thing. R. Patrick Gates doesn't quite have the proper Kingly touch.

The fifth volume of Robert Silverberg's collected short stories covers the years 1963 to 1987 and shows Silverberg at the peak of his remarkable powers. Many of the stories are familiar -- I think I've read every single one before, some of them more than once, but collected together in one place they represent an awesome display of talent.

Now where did I put my copy of New Scientist...

Edward Rutherford London Century
Michael Marshall Smith Spares Harper Collins
Spider Robinson Lifehouse Baen
Mike Resnick The Widowmaker Reborn Bantam
Jane Lindskold When the Gods are Silent  Avonova
R. Patrick Gates  Jumpers Dell
Robert Silverberg Ringing the Changes The Collected Stories Volume 5 Voyager
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