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Phoenixine One-Hundred and Four, April 1998

There are no good times to lose the ability to flush your toilet. However late on a Saturday night after drinking several cans of beer is possibly the worst time of all.

Of course, it was all Sally's fault. I was merely the unwilling victim of her world record attempt at a superflush. In tones reminiscent of Jack Swigert reporting back to Mission Control from the shattered hulk of Apollo 13 she said, "I think we have a slight problem here..."

The little handle swung forlornly. I spun it round and round but there was no reassuring swishing noise. Silence was the stern reply. I took the top off the cistern and looked inside. Several random bits of plastic and metal stared back at me from the sludge at the bottom. At one time (given the hooks and holes that they exhibited) it would appear that they had been connected together. But now they were refusing to have anything to do with each other. No problem, I thought. It's just a jigsaw puzzle. I'll have this fixed in a jiffy. I groped around in the murky depths and tried re-connecting slot (a) to sprocket flange (b) in various random combinations. Eventually I had what looked like a sensible set of connections; all except for one important looking sticky-out bit. I fumbled around a little more and made an alarming discovery. Poking out of the base of the cistern was a solid plastic lump with a small hole in it. The sticky-out bit was obviously designed to go into this small hole, and doubtless it had to connect to something important inside. Unfortunately there was no way at all of getting at the something important inside for it was a completely sealed unit.

My legs began to cross themselves in involuntary panic. This was turning into a crisis. There is no agony to compare with the agony of not having a toilet. Valves were opening throughout my body and strange gurglings made themselves apparent as vast Amazonian torrents flowed inexorably towards the sea...

I had another can of beer. Maybe the alcohol would act like an anaesthetic.

Robert Silverberg's new novel proves yet again that there is no plot so old and clichéd that it can't be resurrected with a new treatment. One day the aliens invade the Earth -- big aliens, some with purple spots. They don't communicate their desires; indeed they don't appear to have any that we would understand. People are enslaved and made to work on mysterious construction projects. A resistance movement forms, but each small triumph is ruthlessly punished by the aliens. An alien is killed and half the population of the Earth is wiped out in retaliation. It's hard to fight against that sort of thing.

In the hands of a beginner this would be stupyfyingly banal. We've all read similar things before. However Silverberg is anything but a beginner. The story of the aliens is cunningly interwoven with the story of the Carmichaels, a military family around whom the resistance coagulates. They provide the leaders, the planners and the conscience that recognises the fact of failure. Retaliation that wipes out half the population is too high a price to pay.

Really it is a novel about morality, about drawing lines and living with the results of your actions. It is a novel about reaching maturity and understanding just what that means. And the depth that this adds to the superficiality of the story is what raises it above the banal. It also helps that the Carmichaels and their friends are interesting people in their own right, not merely figureheads acting out the authorial stage play.

The ending is somewhat of a deus ex machina, but it is not completely unheralded and so I suppose we can accept it. Silverberg also plays games. The novel has lots of science fictional references for those with ears to hear. In every generation of the Carmichael family the "senior male" is called Anson. And one of them marries Leslyn.

These days Tom Holt has made a name for himself as a writer of light, comic fantasy. However if you look closely, in the front of all his comic novels is a list of his other works. Two early novels are usually mentioned in this list; Goatsong, and The Walled Orchard. They seem to have been out of print forever, but they have recently been republished in an omnibus edition. It is called The Walled Orchard, but it does in fact contain both books bound back to back and this is just as well for they tell one continuous tale.

They are historical novels set in Periclean Athens. The story is told in the first person by Eupolis, a comic playwright. It is the tale of his growing up through some of Athens' more troubled times, beginning with the plague that wiped out much of the city in his youth and ending with a war that almost completely eradicated the Athenian Army in his middle years. Eupolis was one of the few survivors of that debacle.

The erudition this novel demonstrates is nothing short of astonishing. All the intimate details of Athenian life are exhibited. But this is no dull historical text. Holt brings the whole thing alive through the dry, cynical wit of Eupolis, his narrator. This novel shows Holt to be capable of so much more than his light comic novels would have you believe. The book is a stunning performance and demonstrates a breath-taking narrative skill. I can only assume that on its original publication it simply didn't sell, thus requiring Tom Holt to change his style and his material to something more lucrative. Let us hope that the second time around (now that he is more well known) it will sell enough copies to encourage him to try this sort of thing again, for there is no doubt that this area is where his real talents reside.

The next day being Sunday and therefore expensive, the plumber came to call.

"Tricky one this," he said pursing his lips as he glared at the cistern. It wasn't intimidated and it glared right back.

"I wonder how they got it in?" the plumber mused as he took the top off the cistern. The wall is made of wooden planks, tastefully varnished, and the cistern is recessed into the wall. The plumber scratched his head. "I reckon they put the toilet in and then built the walls around it," he said. "Might have to rip all them planks off again to get it out." The thought appeared to give him a certain gloomy pleasure.

He poked around inside the cistern and delivered a professional verdict. "It's buggered," he said. "You need a new cistern."

It took a few phone calls, but a cistern was eventually obtained. A problem immediately presented itself. The old cistern had a handle sticking out of the front. The new one had two buttons on the top.

"That's not going to fit," said the plumber in tones of deepest satisfaction. "If we put it in the hole in the wall where the old one is there won't be enough room to get the top on. And you won't be able to reach the buttons either."

The rather unfortunately titled Chicks in Chainmail is an anthology of short stories designed to celebrate heroines cast in the mould of Xena the Warrior Princess with humour and style. Unfortunately both humour and style are lacking in most of the stories. There are far too many references to breasts, far too much authorial preening and nowhere near enough cleverness to justify the book. Most of the writers are women, and you would have thought that they would have been able to write about their own sex without sounding like sniggering, adolescent boys. However it would seem that they can't. The only stories which exhibit any real maturity or originality are both by males. Roger Zelazny tells a mildly amusing shaggy dog story and George Alec Effinger relates another tale in the saga of the sword-swinging Maureen Birnbaum.

With The Course of Honour, Lindsey Davis returns to her old stamping-ground of Vespasian's Rome and tells the story of the love between the slave girl Caenis and Vespasian himself. Much of the background, the geography and the politics of the era will already be familiar to readers of Davis' stories of Falco, the Roman detective. But Falco has no part to play here. This is a pure historical novel, not a genre tale wrapped in historical trappings.

She has not lost her touch. The broad sweep of politics and the personal stresses of a close relationship make this an enthralling read.

After some discussion the plumber and I agreed that the new cistern would have to be mounted on the wall rather than recessed into it. Of course, before we could do that, the old one had to be removed. "Can you turn the water off?" asked the plumber.

Oh dear.

My house is on the corner of the street. The valve for turning the water off is round the corner, outside the house at the back, which is number 188. The people in number 188 turn their water off with the valve outside number 186. The people in number 186 turn their water off with the valve outside number 184. The people in number 184...but you get the picture. I have no idea what happens at the bottom of the street. Perhaps everybody in Auckland has their water meter outside their next door neighbour's house. Probably it's all my fault.

I walked up my street, round the corner, down the next street and turned the water off. Then I walked up the street, round the corner, down my street and back into my house. "Water's off."

The plumber grunted, obviously wondering what took me so long. He began to dismantle the cistern. He unfastened the downpipe from the back of the toilet. "The pipe goes behind this plank up to the cistern," he said. "It will have to come off."

He levered the plank off with a chisel. Reluctantly and with a hideous squeak of rusty nails parting from wood, it came away. "Good heavens," said the plumber, astonished. "Will you look at that!"

What a pleasure it is to welcome Richard Matheson's novel I am Legend back into print. This is the novel on which Charlton Heston's famous film The Omega Man was based, but as is so often the case, the book is considerably richer than the film. A bacterium that induces vampirism is loose in the world. Most people are now vampires and exhibit the usual vampiric traits. But Robert Neville is immune to the disease. By day the world is his to do with as he pleases, but at night the vampires emerge from their sleep and they want to hunt Neville down and kill him.

This is one of the seminal works. Both Stephen King and Dean Koontz, two of the biggest writers in contemporary horror fiction, have recognised the debt that they owe this novel. It defined a generation, and it marked the beginning of the maturity of the horror genre, its emergence from the pulp ghetto.

The novel is very short by today's overblown standards -- only 170 pages, barely enough to qualify as a novella in modern publishing terms. Perhaps for this reason, the new edition also includes a selection of Richard Matheson's previously uncollected short stories. They are a patchy bunch. Most are quite slight and there are perhaps good reasons why they have remained uncollected until now. But don't let this put you off. Every serious library should have a copy of I am Legend.

In the 1960s Robert Sheckley wrote a series of quirky novels and short stories whose fame endures to this day. One of them, The Game of X was a very weird detective novel that became a minor cult classic. It is long out of print, and copies command high prices on the rare occasions that they surface.

His new novel, The Alternative Detective is the first of a series and is billed by the blurb as a return to those heady days. Direct comparisons are made with the earlier novel and I expected to read something comparably odd. Instead I got a perfectly acceptable, but very ordinary detective novel with none of the quirkiness or stylistic mannerisms that would once have marked a Robert Sheckley book.

This is not to say that the book is bad -- anything but. As a straightforward genre detective novel it is probably head and shoulders above most of the competition. But don't let the blurb mislead you.

I looked into the hole in the wall. There was the down pipe from the cistern to the toilet bowl. It had a zig, closely followed by a zag. The cistern was not immediately above the toilet; it was slightly off centre, and the pipe had been bent in order to join the two together. Judging by the bubbles on the surface, someone had taken a blow torch to it in order to soften the plastic. "No wonder they hid it behind the wall," said the plumber. I couldn't help but agree with him.

Unfortunately we would have to retain this misalignment between cistern and bowl because the new cistern had to cover the hole in the wall left by the old one. Therefore the new pipe would also have to be distorted to fit. And since the new cistern was going on to the wall instead of being inset into it, the new pipe would have to be on the outside. This kinky pipe would not be hidden from the gaze of the world. Though given that I am a gentleman, and therefore lift the seat, (which is, of course, the definition of a gentleman) it would occasionally be camouflaged.

The plumber heated the pipe over an element of the stove, constantly turning it and gently pulling and twisting to put the proper zigs and zags into it. It distorted very smoothly and took on its new shape without any of the bubbling exhibited by the old one. I suspect that whoever fitted the original toilet only discovered that the cistern and the toilet bowl did not line up after they had been fixed in place, and the pipe had to be distorted in situ, hence the blow torch and the bubbly surface. What a bodgy job.

Sap Rising by A. A. Gill is a very dirty book; one of the most obscenely funny it has ever been my pleasure to read. The word "filth" is nowhere near filthy enough to do it justice, the word "rude" is not rude enough and the word "obscene" is woefully inadequate. This is one mother of a dirty book. And it is belly-laugh-out-loud hilarious as well. For once the blurb sums it up perfectly:

...just a farcical love story set in a garden, about nothing of any consequence, performed by comic grotesques with a lot of swearing and unnatural sex.

The faint of virtue will probably want to ban it and the weak-stomached will have a permanently risen gorge. Those who have read it will never again look at a packet of seeds with an innocent eye and they will give a wide berth to german shepherd dogs and jars of brylcreem.

The remaining steps to get the toilet working seemed fairly straightforward. Off with the old, on with the new (though the old cistern required attacking with a saw before it surrendered); attach the wibbly wobbly pipe, tighten the various knobs. "Can you turn the water on now, please?"


Up the street, round the corner, down the road, twist the valve, up the street, round the corner, down the street, back into the house.

"It leaks," said the plumber. "Can you turn it off again?"

Up the street, round the corner, down the road, twist the valve, up the street, round the corner, down the street, back into the house.

Twist, turn, seal the joints. "Can you turn the water on again?"

Goto Hell.

Somehow the infinite loop I entered in the last paragraph eventually terminated (I may have discovered a new Cantorian transfinite number somewhat in excess of Aleph-Null in the process). "I hate water," said the plumber with feeling.

And now, there it is in all its glory; my toilet with the S-shaped pipe and two cute little buttons on the top of the cistern, one for a half-flush, one for a full; a choice I've never had to make before. The complexity of it all threatens to overwhelm me at times, but so far I've managed. I'm relieved.

I'm also relieved that it's over. It's OK for my cats to scratch a hole beneath a tree and squat, but I'm not sure that I could manage it with dignity (though for a time I thought that I might have to). Let's hear it for Thomas Crapper.

Robert Silverberg  The Alien Years Voyager
Tom Holt The Walled Orchard Warner
Esther Friesner (ed) Chicks in Chainmail Baen
Lindsey Davis The Course of Honour Arrow
Richard Matheson  I am Legend Orb
Robert Sheckley The Alternative Detective Forge
 A. A. Gill Sap Rising Black Swan
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