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Phoenixine One-Hundred, December 1997

When I lived in England I worked for a man called Anthony Kelso Kent. He was a jovial, rotund man, and was much amused when it was pointed out to him that his name was an anagram of Hank's Ten Ton Yokel. But the nickname didn't stick; he remained just Tony...

I don't like fantasy, but every so often some compelling reason or other makes me start reading a fantasy novel (or on very rare occasions, a series) and sometimes I quite enjoy them for one reason or another. The "Wiz" novels by Rick Cook repelled me for many years but recently, persuaded by some reviews I had read, I decided to try them and I was very impressed indeed.

The basic premise is that a world where magic works is suffering a crisis -- the usual Dark Lord is winning the usual fights and in desperation the good guys send a mighty summoning and conjure up a computer programmer from our world to help them. The programmer, Wiz Zumwalt, is magically inept and seems initially to be of little use. But he discovers that the rules of magic are susceptible to a programming approach, and he devises a magic compiler (based on a programming language called "Forth") which allows him to write spells in much the same way that he wrote programs in our world.

From there on in the story becomes predictable and if it was treated seriously I suspect it would be exactly like every other fantasy novel ever written. But to Rick Cook's credit, he does not take it seriously and the whole series exhibits an enviable lightness of tone which makes it very entertaining indeed. And for those of us who are computer nerds, there are a lot of computer jokes to enjoy as a bonus.

Tony Kent and I both worked for the Chemical Society (later the Royal Society, but what's in a name?). By the time I joined, Tony and his team had done a lot of pioneering work on computerised information retrieval from large text databases. Specifically, the abstracts and indexes of Chemical Abstracts, a publication which contains references to all published chemical research. As you can imagine, this was not a trivial problem to approach from scratch. Not least of the difficulties was the fact that the data collections exhibited little or no long range order, being essentially a conglomerate mass of text.

Well there are ways; and Tony found them and he and his team made quite a nice living providing the results of computerised searches of the databases to chemists around the world. Given that this was in the days of steam when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the mainframe computer we used had less processing power than the chip that currently drives my watch, this was most impressive. Those of you who surf the net, stopping off at places like Alta Vista and Yahoo are reaping the fruits of this research. The databases of links that they maintain are essentially large free-text databases. You search them using techniques that Tony (and similar people) pioneered in the late 1960s...

I have never heard of N. Lee Wood, but the novel Faraday's Orphans had an intriguing blurb so I bought it. There has been a gigantic eco-catastrophe. The geomagnetic reversal of the poles has changed the face of the planet and mankind is almost extinct. Only in a few high-tech domed cities does civilisation survive. Now that the planet is settling down after the catastrophe, the cities are starting to expand into the wilderness. Berk Nielson is a helicopter pilot from Pittsburgh. He monitors and scouts the wild areas, trading with the scattered settlements, avoiding the feral natives in the wilderness and the ruined cities. His helicopter is destroyed through a chapter of accidents and together with a companion who rescues him from the crash he attempts to make his way back home.

Sounds awful, but it held me engrossed for hours. The story is as old as SF; the theme is hackneyed. Surely nobody in this day and age could find anything new to say about this situation? Well N. Lee Wood can. The SF trappings are there simply as a framework that allows the writer to explore the dynamics of relationships under enormous stress. And what she exposes are weaknesses rather than strengths. In other novels of this type the hero wins through against appalling odds and lives happily ever after. Not so here. Neilsen is exposed as a morally weak man and his survival (for he does survive, but you already guessed that) destroys rather than saves him.

And on top of that, the story is so gripping you won't want to put it down.

On the strength of this magnificent novel I raced straight out to the shops and hunted down Wood's first novel Looking for the Mahdi. Kay Munadi (a reporter) and John Halton (a fabricant -- a sort of android) are sent into a middle-eastern country which is becoming a world problem because of its belligerent attitudes. Superficially Halton is a gift for the ruler, but the plot thickens quickly as mysterious assassinations, stolen computer chips and palace politics are stirred into the mix. I began to lose track of who was double crossing who, and I never did figure out why.

This one really is hackneyed. I gave up half way through, snowed under by the weight of the clichés. Maybe it improves towards the end but I will never know.

Tony taught me to program. Every lunch time we would spend an hour or two together and he initiated me into the mysteries of printers and tapes and disks; sequential and indexed files; punched cards and how to spell "Identification Division". In later years this got me into trouble since one day I inadvertently mis-spelled it "Indentification Division" and the compiler went into a loop and used three boxes of lineflow paper printing out the same error message over and over and over again before the operator finally got bored and killed it.

My research project at the time was the investigation of a rather odd idea of Tony's that perhaps the computer could formulate the database questions as well as generate the answers. This isn't as mad as it sounds -- when you sit at the search prompt of a web search engine, just what should you type in? It's very hard to decide. So why not let the computer generate the search terms from a frequency analysis of the words in known relevant documents? That was the basis of it, and if you care about the results, go and search through the dusty back issues of the Journal of the American Society of Information Science (JASIS) for the paper that I published.

Programming proved to be fascinating. The more I learned from Tony, the more neat tricks I could apply in my own research -- this was much more fun than relevance judgements and frequency analyses. Programming took up more and more of my time and information science research less and less...

Larry McMurtry is probably this century's best interpreter of what for want of a better phrase I must call the wild west. I first came across his work with the absolutely unputdownable (and Pulitzer Prize winning) Lonesome Dove and over the years I have collected all his other western novels.

One of the things that gives them their strength is the appearance in them of historical figures -- characters who are real people lend an air of truth to a book. He does it again with Zeke and Ned. The Ned of the title is Ned Christie, a senator in the Cherokee tribal legislature who later became an outlaw. He was eventually run to earth in 1892 and was killed after a twenty hour siege. These are historical facts, but McMurtry and his writing partner Diana Ossana flesh them out with detail, providing a motive for why Christie went bad and filling in the fine detail of their picture of the times with plot and sub-plot, character and incident. There is so much verisimilitude that you can smell the sweat and the dust and the blood.

The times were violent and McMurtry has never drawn a veil over violence and its effects. Other writers often romanticise the era, but McMurtry pulls no punches. Grim times and grim people, but they are fallible and human, eccentric and often funny, and the ever-present violence is only just beneath the surface, ready to burst through at the least provocation. I am no great fan of McMurtry's contemporary novels, but I yield to nobody in my admiration for his westerns. Zeke and Ned is another winner, a classic of its kind.

Octavia Butler writes far too little -- in an age where sometimes it seems that everybody is pumping out a thousand page novel every week, she remains austere, not at all prolific and her books (when they appear) are invariably head and shoulders above those of her more fecund contemporaries.

Bloodchild is a collection of her short stories and it is a slim volume (only 144 pages). She has written very few short stories. Her major works have all been novels. In a preface she claims to hate writing short stories -- they are too difficult. Her works always want to grow up into novels. Well perhaps so, but when she puts her mind to it she can compete with the best. Every one of these stories is a gem. They range in mood from the grim to the (relatively) light hearted and not a word is wasted.

One of the things that Tony was particularly good at was standing in front of a room full of people and talking to them. No matter what the subject he spoke authoritatively, persuasively and amusingly. He always spoke off the cuff, there were never any notes or pre-prepared bits. Tony always maintained that if he prepared beforehand, giving the talk would be boring since he would be going over the ideas for a second time. And if he was bored, the audience would be bored, and that would never do.

One of his more persuasive talking sessions convinced the United Nations that environmentally harmful chemicals were a pressing problem (and likely to become more so) and that one of the ways the UN could help would be to maintain a database of such chemicals, noting their effects and any alleviating treatment that might be applied. This database would be contributed to by all member states and would be available to all member states in the event of an emergency. (The idea later proved its worth when a big dioxin leak from a factory in Italy caused major environmental damage and much suffering. Information from the database was used in the clean up campaign).

And so in the mid 1970s I found myself in Geneva working on the design and implementation of this database. Those lunch time programming sessions were being put to very good use...

Stephen Bury is better known as Neal Stephenson, but whichever incarnation you find him in you are guaranteed an enjoyable time. The Cobweb is set during the events leading up to the Gulf War of 1991. Clyde Banks is a deputy sheriff investigating a murder in a small Iowa town near a university. The murdered man is an Arab who was working at the university. It seems that rather a lot of Arabs work at the university. And in the surrounding towns. And they are not always friendly towards each other.

Meanwhile in Washington politics and expediency threaten to undermine world peace as well as destroy careers at both the top and the bottom of the tree. Only Hennessy who once worked for the CIA but now works for the FBI and is therefore cordially hated by both seems to know what is going on, but he is constrained by political machinations and when the crisis comes he must depend on Clyde Banks. Could Saddam Hussein really have a biological weapons factory in an American university?

The book succeeds on every level. It is a thriller, a comedy, a serious examination of political motivations and a thoroughly entertaining read.

And so is Lunatics, Bradley Denton's mad new novel. Jack is in love with Lily, a goddess from the moon. She insists that he meet her naked by moonlight and when Jack is arrested for indecent exposure his friends all gather round to help. And so does Lily

This is a delightful novel about love and the things that make a relationship work. It is much lighter than Denton's earlier books and is much more approachable as a result.

I have lived in New Zealand for nearly seventeen years. For much of that time I worked as a programmer. For the last few years I have been teaching my skills to other people. I have had to be a good programmer and I have had to be a good and persuasive and entertaining speaker. All of these things I learned from Tony, both directly from the horse's mouth and indirectly by watching and mimicking what I saw. A day seldom passes without something that Tony taught me proving useful.

Tony Kent died on October 11th 1997. He was my friend and I miss him.


Following Tony Kent's death in October 1977, a group of his friends contributed to an annual award to be called The Tony Kent Strix Award, to be presented each year by the Institute of Information Scientists in recognition of outstanding practical innovation or achievement in the field of information retrieval. The first award (in 1998) was to Professor Stephen Robertson of the Department of Information Science of City University.

The Strix (commonly known as the Tawny Owl) is found throughout Britain, nesting in barns from which it seldom emerges before dusk to forage for food. The choice of the Strix as the emblem for the award commemorates not only Tony's love of birds, but also the highly successful information retrieval program of that name which he developed. The award itself takes the form of a very dramatic bronze statuette of the bird which was created by Jon Bickley of Old Buckenham, Norfolk.

A memorial booklet celebrating the life and achievements of Tony Kent was produced by the Institute in September 1998. The obituary to Tony in the above article (sans book reviews, of course) was printed as Chapter three of that memorial booklet.

Rick Cook The Wiz Biz Baen
  The Wizardry Cursed  
  The Wizardry Consulted  
  The Wizardry Quested  
N. Lee Wood Faraday’s Orphans Vista
  Looking for the Mahdi  
Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana Zeke and Ned Pocket
Octavia Butler Bloodchild Seven Stories Press
Stephen Bury The Cobweb Bantam
Bradley Denton Lunatics Bantam
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