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The Universe Hates Me

Phoenixine One-Hundred and Two, Feburary 1998

When I cook, I have a strange relationship with the laws of physics. Effectively they cease to work (which is an enormously science-fictional situation, if you think about it). Time after time I read a recipe that says "fry the onions for 5 minutes until golden brown". Without a word of exaggeration, I swear that I can fry onions over an enormously high heat for half an hour or more and they show no indication whatsoever of going brown.

Then there are the recipes where one is supposed to "boil vigorously for a few minutes to reduce the sauce". I can boil sauces for (literally) hours at a time and they never, ever reduce. If anything they become more voluminous, if one can use such a word about a sauce. Evaporation? Never heard of the concept -- it is merely a figment of the imagination. Sometimes I think I live in a different world from the writers of the recipe books and the television chefs.

Maybe that's why I'm so fond of tales of alternate worlds. If such and such an historical event had happened differently, what would the world look like now? Back in the USSA is a collaborative fix-up novel by Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman. The stories that make up the book were originally published in the British SF magazine Interzone. Their pseudo-historical assumption is that there was a communist revolution in America in 1917. This is the tale of the United Socialist States of America (the USSA of the title).

Part of the fun of books of this kind is to place recognisable people from our own world into odd positions in the parallel world of the story. Byrne and Newman have a wonderful time with this -- Al Capone becomes president (he is the Stalin equivalent). In the 1950s, Buddy Holly, Howard Hughes and Jack Kerouac are rebels against the communist state. But because both Byrne and Newman are British, the vast majority of their references are to British personalities which makes you wonder why the book has been published in America, with no sign yet of a British edition. What on earth will the Americans think of the political assassin William Brown? Or Nigel Molesworth, the army officer sent into Vietnam (along with Jennings and Darbishire) to arrest his old school pal Fotherington-Thomas ("Hello clouds, hello sky, hello pile of severed human heads"). All of this is observed (and told) by Bob and Terry, known as "The Likely Lads".

If you enjoy the game of "spot the reference" you will love this book. If you enjoy amusing and exciting stories you will love this book. If you enjoy good writing you will love this book. If you...oh to hell with it. You will love this book.

The latest Connie Willis novel returns to the same time and place and cast of characters as her award winning novel Doomsday Book. The time travel unit at Oxford University is in a bit of a pickle. A rich dowager called Lady Schrapnell has invaded the unit and practically taken it over in her attempt to rebuild Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in an air raid a hundred years before. Using the resources of the time travel unit she is determined to investigate the events surrounding the air raid, to document the artefacts that were destroyed (and those that survived) so the rebuilt cathedral will be as true to the original as possible.

To this end, Ned Henry finds himself in the nineteenth century investigating the bishop's bird stump (don't ask) and entangling himself with dogs, cats, romance and the peculiarities of time paradoxes.

Unlike the previous novel, To Say Nothing of the Dog is played strictly for laughs. It is a light hearted romp as only Connie Willis can do it and the jokes come thick and fast and funny. I read it in a sitting and chuckled all the way.

The new Douglas Adams novel is by Terry Jones. As Adams explains in the introduction, he doesn't have time to write a novel because he is too busy working on the computer game on which the book is based. So Terry Jones (who plays the parrot in the computer game) agreed to write the book -- but only if he could write it in the nude. Adams quickly said yes to this and Starship Titanic is the result.

At the galactic centre a vast civilisation is preparing to launch the greatest, most technologically advanced starship ever built. The night before the launch, its creator Leovinus wanders around the ship for a last little look. With mounting alarm, he discovers that things are not as they should be. Sloppy workmanship, improperly programmed cybersystems, robots that collide with doors.

As the launch proceeds all initially seems well, but then the ship veers out of control and seems about to crash when suddenly it undergoes an SMEF (a spontaneous massive existence failure). Whoops.

Meanwhile on Earth...

Jones writes pretty good pseudo-Adams, but really the book is plodding and predictable. Perhaps it is merely an advert for the game. The British edition of this book was cancelled at the last minute because the game is not yet ready and the publisher wanted to bring them out simultaneously. I had the book on order from England, but when the British edition was postponed indefinitely, in a fit of pique I went to and bought an expensive American hardback. Then I discovered that some of the postponed British copies seem to have sneaked through the net and have appeared on the shelves here in New Zealand. Bummer.

The British copies have two enormous advantages over the American hardback that I ended up with. Firstly the British edition is cheaper, and secondly it has a photograph of the naked Terry Jones in the throes of composition.

Inanimate objects hate me. Well they hate everybody, but me more than most. Have you ever watched adverts for cleaning liquids? The people on the TV gaily squirt and rub and away comes all the grease. We all know that isn't true (grease and stains cannot be removed from any surface, everyone knows that), but that's not what gets to me. What gets to me is the way the cloths and sponges that they use all behave themselves perfectly. When I clean things, I rub the cloth over a surface and the cloth immediately rolls itself up into a perfect cylinder and then crunches down into a tiny ball. Within seconds, it becomes unusable; indeed it rolls itself up so tightly that often it threatens to vanish completely. How such an enormous volume packs down into such a tiny space I have no idea, but I'm sure it violates several conservation laws.

Furthermore, no matter what surface I clean, no matter where in the house it may be, the moment a cloth touches it, it sprouts hair. Without a word of a lie, when I unravel the tiny ball of my cloth and spread it out to try again, it has invariably picked up a fistful of hair (it is always black and curly) and this hair immediately sticks like superglue to the surface about to be cleaned and no power on earth will remove it again; certainly not the cloth which exhibits a degree of loathing that has to be seen to be believed. It won't pick the hair up again, it just wants to put more hair down there (though it will condescend to spread it around a bit).

There is one book that should be required reading for every person who deals with figures -- Darrell Huff's classic work How to Lie with Statistics. John Allen Paulos' book Innumeracy bids fair to approach the same standard. The book examines the consequences of mathematical illiteracy through an engaging sequence of anecdotes and observations. Applying simple, straightforward arithmetical thinking to a host of everyday situations gives enormous insight into the way the world works. It can strip the veil of hypocrisy from biased news stories, allow a reasoned judgement about winning lotto, let you resist the false claims of advertisers. It raises your consciousness -- turn on, tune in, drop out with probability statistics.

James P. Blaylock writes odd books and All the Bells on Earth is a doozy. Walt Stebbins comes into possession of a glass jar containing the badly preserved body of a bluebird. The jar leaks and smells strongly of gin. Stebbins knows that the bird was destined for one of his business enemies in the town and initially he hangs on to it as a small revenge. But then he makes a wish...

Add to this mix a lunatic priest, a man with a compulsive urge to silence the bells of St. Anthony's church and several immolated corpses and you have a potent mix indeed. Somehow Blaylock juggles all the balls of his absurd plot without dropping one and the intricate twists and turns of the plot (and the high good humour with which this farrago of nonsense is narrated) are eminently satisfying.

For many years I avoided novels by Nancy Kress for the silliest of reasons. The first work of hers that I was aware of was called Beggars in Spain and the juxtaposition of the words in the title with the name of the author set up odd resonances in my mind.

You see when I was a child in England, a radio journalist called Nancy Spain was a popular and influential figure. She died under tragic circumstances in a plane crash and I still remember the almost palpable sense of shock that swept the country. Seeing the word Spain followed immediately by Nancy just made me feel sad and a little eerie. So I avoided the book and the writer.

But the work received so many awards and had such popular acclaim that it obviously wasn't going to go away so I gritted my spiritual teeth and ignored my fey feelings and read it. And guess what? It was just as good as everyone said it was.

The novel was quickly followed by a sequel (Beggars and Choosers) and now by a third volume which is called Beggars Ride on the front cover and Beggers Ride on the spine and that mis-spelling is unfortunately the only interesting thing about the book. I suspect the series has simply gone on too long and now the plot and the politics of her "sleepless" society have become so complicated and recomplicated that I simply can't follow it any more. The book bogs down in detail.

Nancy Kress alienated me again with the title of Oaths and Miracles. This time the euphony was too close to Hons and Rebels; the snobbish semi-autobiographical ravings of one of the Mitford sisters (I can't be bothered to go and look up which particular one it was). It is a book which I loathe and detest with a deep primeval hatred.

But once again I was being foolish. When I read it, Oaths and Miracles proved be a taut and exciting thriller; one of the best I've read in ages. Robert Cavanaugh is an FBI agent with a quirky sense of humour and a penchant for drawing slightly sick cartoons. Ben Kosinksi is a prominent biochemist who is murdered shortly after a job interview with a biotech company in New Jersey. Other deaths and a vague hint of mafia involvement lead Cavanaugh to a paramilitary splinter group, a religious commune and the deadly secret that ties these disparate threads together. This secret, in retrospect, turns the book into science fiction for it is a pure speculative Mcguffin. But don't let that worry you; go along for the ride. The tension will have you on the edge of your seat, and the dénouement (when it comes) will take your breath away.

The problem of cleaning people is almost as intractable as the problem of cleaning things. We shower in the morning in order to stop our smelly bits giving offence (and also to wake ourselves up). One of the smelliest of the human smelly bits is the feet; and yet I have never found any satisfactory way of washing my feet when I take a shower. In the type of shower that pours into a bath, one can always sit down. However this is cold and hard on the bottom and the extra distance that the water falls on to the recumbent carcass in the bath imparts a peculiar body-penetrating force to it which makes the whole operation decidedly unpleasant.

In the type of shower which is little more than a tiny cabinet, it is possible to wash one foot by dint of some undignified balancing and hopping on the other foot. However the washed foot then becomes soapy and very slippery and attempting to balance on it in order to wash the first becomes fraught with bone-fracturing peril.

Perhaps you are only supposed to wash one foot a day? However this too is difficult. I don't know about you, but I can't remember anything in the morning, let alone which foot I washed yesterday. Suppose I get it wrong and wash the same foot twice in succession? It doesn't bear thinking about. Imagine, one foot might go unwashed for a whole year! Thank goodness for tightly laced shoes to keep the smell in.

I remember reading William Gibson's Neuromancer when it first came out and I was completely blown away by it. I re-read it years later, when the hype had died down, and found it to be appallingly bad (Raymond Chandler with computers) and appallingly ignorant (you could engrave all of Gibson's knowledge about computers onto the head of a pin and still leave room for a portrait of Isaac Asimov). I've cordially disliked his books ever since. His latest novel is Idoru and it shows no improvement. It is all surface and no substance; it dissolves in the mouth like fairground candyfloss. Who cares that a pop star wants to marry a virtual reality singer (the Idoru of the title)? I don't.

Garry Kilworth is one of those irritatingly inconsistent writers. When he is good he is very very good. But when he is bad...well, you know how it goes.

In A Midsummer's Nightmare he is very very good indeed. Sherwood forest is shrinking as urban sprawl consumes it and Oberon, King of the fairies, decides that it is time to leave. Sid, a young mechanic the fairies have charmed, suggests that they migrate to the New Forest. Oberon and Titania agree (reluctantly) though some of the other fairies stage a bit of a rebellion which Oberon quickly puts down (though it will have consequences later). Sid teaches Titania to drive, and on Midsummer's day they set off in an old, smelly bus.

Their journey away from their usual haunts sends magical signals on the ley lines of the world and many slumbering magical creatures reawaken as the fairies pass. The news bulletins are full of videos of giants and dragons. But one of the awakened spirits is the fairy of the morning, Morgan Le Fay.

Meanwhile the fairies journey onwards, taking rest breaks as required. They enter a Morris dancing contest and win (naturally). Titania takes a human child and leaves a changeling in return. Unfortunately she was in a bit of a rush and the changeling she leaves is a goldfish. The bargain is not appreciated and tales of a kidnapped child begin to replace videos of giants on the news broadcasts.

The New Forest offers sanctuary, but before they can enter it, Titania and the morning fairy will have to settle their age old quarrel. The battle is an epic one.

The borders of the fields we know are often fruitful story sources. Far more so than the wilder stretches of untamed country beyond those fields. This delightful tale from the borderlands is one of Kilworth's very best novels.

I was at university with a man named Geoff. During the course of one whole year, Geoff proved that as long as you slurp every single drop of liquid from your mug, you do not have to wash it before imbibing something else. Coffee, tea, horlicks, orange juice, ribena, milk and the occasional beer were consumed in sequence, month after month after month. By the end of the year the interior of the mug was ... interesting. I think Geoff's relationship with biochemistry was rather like mine with physics.

Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman Back in the USSA Mark V. Zeising
Connie Willis To Say Nothing of the Dog Bantam
Terry Jones (Douglas Adams) Starship Titanic Harmony Books
John Allen Paulos Innumeracy Penguin
James P. Blaylock All the Bells on Earth Ace
Nancy Kress Beggars Ride Tor
  Oaths and Miracles  
William Gibson Idoru Penguin
Garry Kilworth A Midsummer’s Nightmare Corgi
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