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Phoenixine One-Hundred and Six, June 1998

A perk of my job is the necessity to travel to far away places with strange sounding names. There is something undeniably attractive about staying in expensive hotels and eating at gourmet restaurants every night secure in the knowledge that work will pick up the tab. So I was quite looking forward to going to Fiji.

Unfortunately there was a mosquito in the ointment. Fiji is currently suffering from a dengue fever outbreak -- mosquito repellent was obviously called for.

A friend in Holland and a quick search of the web convinced me that the only repellents worth a damn were those based on diethyltoluamide. My friend in Holland added that it also dried out the skin something rotten and recommended a powerful moisturiser as well. I hunted around the shelves of the pharmacy and chose an appropriate diethyltoluamide repellent in an attractive package. I queried the pharmacist about the skin drying effects, but she seemed to be so overcome by meeting someone who could say diethyltoluamide without stumbling over the syllables that she had to go and lie down to recover from the shock. I purchased a moisturiser cream anyway.

The trip to Fiji was undertaken in a state of sybaritic luxury since I spent some airpoints on an upgrade to business class. I drank champagne and played with the popup television in the armrest. What a shame there was nothing worth watching on it. Free gifts abounded -- a pair of socks to ease the feet, a mask to block out distracting light as one took a slight snooze, a zip up case full of aromatherapy gels and a toothbrush. Such decadence. All too soon we landed at Nadi airport.

About five seconds after disembarking from the aeroplane, before I'd even passed through the immigration check, I got bitten by a mosquito. Gloomily I waited for dengue fever to develop, but it must have been one of the rare fever-free mosquitoes, for nothing happened.

James Hawes writes intellectual, literary books. You can tell that because the dialogue is indicated by a leading hyphen instead of being inside quotation marks. Therefore, because the style is pretentious, all the literary and intellectual critics are allowed to read the books. As a consequence of this, the book covers positively drip with laudatory remarks about the humour, excitement, innovative style and subject matter of the novels.  Perhaps these critics should go slumming more often; then they would realise that James Hawes really writes quite ordinary (though very entertaining and amusing) thrillers, just like a thousand others.

A White Merc With Fins is the story of an ageing layabout who plans to rob a bank in order to be able to live a comfortable retirement. Rancid Aluminium is a secret service story straight out of the Boy's Own Paper with cynicism by Len Deighton and John Le Carré.

Both are actually remarkably entertaining, despite their pretensions to literary grandeur. The plots creak with cliché but the treatment saves them. Hawes has dragged up a convincing cast of eccentric characters and scattered the obligatory gratuitous sex scenes liberally throughout both books. Though they are formulaic, the books are never dull. But they are nowhere near as rib-tickingly funny or as significant as the cover blurbs would imply.

I was staying in a hotel called Raffles, just across the road from Nadi airport. Despite its name, it was slightly less than luxurious. The wastepaper basket in my room was a cardboard box lined with newspaper. Written in black magic marker on the side was the name of the hotel (presumably to discourage me from stealing the box). The tiles in the shower were so grubby that the soles of my feet were dirtier when I left the shower than they had been when I entered it, though this was hard to prove conclusively for the bulb in the bathroom light blew up on my first day and never got replaced.

The hotel's policy on servicing the bathroom was mildly eccentric. When I arrived I had a full complement of two bath towels, two facecloths a bathmat and a hand towel. Two days later my bath mat disappeared, never to return, and I was down to one bath towel and one facecloth, presumably because there was only one of me. My hand towel had vanished, but it reappeared twenty four hours later and I deduced that hand towels were allowed only on alternate days.

On Thursday evening I arrived back at the hotel to find that my room had been serviced with unusual determination and viciousness -- not a scrap of bathroom equipment was to be seen. No towels, no facecloths, no bathmat (of course) and no soap. The bathroom looked strangely naked. I phoned reception and about half an hour later two bath towels and a hand towel arrived and I finally got to take my evening shower. There being no soap, I washed from head to foot in shampoo. An hour later my soap ration was delivered. Ah well.

John Dunning has hit upon a formula so obvious and yet so clever that a myriad of writers must now be kicking themselves for not having thought of it first. It really is one of those obvious in retrospect things.

The hero of the novels is Cliff Janeway, a tough, book-loving homicide detective. In the first story, Booked to Die, he is pursuing a psychopath called Jackie Newton who he is convinced has committed several murders but who has always managed to evade conviction. Events reach such a crisis after the murder of a vagrant and the brutal beating of Newton's girl friend that Janeway loses control and hands out some summary justice of his own to Jackie Newton. While very satisfying in the short term, it is the kiss of death for Janeway's job and he has to resign from the police force. However one advantage of this mid-life change of career is that Janeway now has time to indulge in his great love and passion -- the buying and selling and collecting of books. He opens a bookstore and soon the bookscouts are bringing him books to sell. But they have information to sell as well -- the vagrant who died was a bookscout; he made a precarious living searching for first editions in charity shops and market stalls. Janeway is still a detective inside and he follows the trails that are opened up for him. The game is still afoot.

Dunning tells a traditional hard-boiled tale but throughout it he scatters fascinating snippets of book-lovers lore. Anybody with the least feeling for the beauty and attraction of books will love this story. For a rabid bibliophile such as me it proved quite unputdownable.

The second novel, The Bookman's Wake continues the formula as before. Janeway is lured into acting briefly as a bounty hunter. He travels to Seattle to bring back a fugitive wanted for assault, burglary and the possible theft of a rare edition of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. The book is a first edition published by a small press that is now defunct. The publishing house went out of business when its owner and his brother died in a mysterious fire many years before. Books from this publisher are rare and much sought after.

The fugitive turns out to be a young woman called Eleanor Rigby who is an enormously talented bookscout. Janeway finds her intriguing, the more so when he learns of her family's connection with the small press publisher of The Raven. There is more going on here than meets the eye. There are publishing secrets so valuable that they are worth killing for.

Again the arcana of book collecting suffuse and illuminate the whole novel. We are also introduced to the actual mechanics of book production, all the way from font design to the choice of paper, boards and glue. God is in the details and the details are utterly enthralling. But Dunning does not lose touch with the story he is telling and the mysteries and thrills lead inexorably to a most unexpected climax and resolution.

Never before has a love of books been put to such good use.

My Fijian breakfast was outside in the Palm Court dining area close to the pool. A selection of fresh fruit looked somewhat sad. The pineapple was obviously tinned and I didn't care much for the ants scurrying around the display case. A ramrod straight and very dignified waiter enquired "Some toast for you my friend?" He had a smiley face tattooed on his left arm. I had corn flakes, but they were stale.

The hotel restaurant provided dinner in the evening. The menu was limited but surprisingly well prepared and presented. The ubiquitous kokoda was as good as any I have tasted and the vegetable samosas were delicious (though the pickled green chillies provided as a condiment were skull shattering).

Every night the resident trio of musicians went around each table in turn and sang a personal song to the diners. The principal guitarist had trade union stickers all over his guitar. I couldn't help thinking of the trio as Fijian Mariachis, and the surrealism of that idea made me want to laugh -- but they wouldn't have understood my mirth, and might have felt insulted and so I controlled myself. They were very talented musicians and singers and I looked forward keenly to my nightly serenade.

The hotel bar was in the open air and thus my evenings were spent well anointed with repellent as I sipped my Fiji Bitter and the mosquitoes gorged on more attractive flesh. However there are places on the body that one tends not to anoint and I was appalled on one visit to the toilet to find a bold mosquito zeroing in on just such a place. Fortunately a skilful combination of manual and penile dexterity allowed me to drown it in mid air. I remain inordinately proud of this feat.

Frederik Pohl has taken a rest from the trilogy he is currently working on and has published a stand alone novel called O Pioneer! The hero, the unfortunately named Evesham Giyt, is a computer hacker making a nice living for himself milking money from corporate networks and dreaming of long gone frontiers and hardy pioneers of the past. Then he falls in love with and marries an ex-prostitute called Rina. A drastic lifestyle change is called for and the couple migrate to the colony world of Tupelo. Rather to their surprise (the advertising material on Earth had given no hint) he and Rina find that five other alien races are also involved in colonising Tupelo. Human beings are only the latest arrivals.

Giyt is elected Mayor of the human colony and thus has much contact with the alien races, particularly in the regular council meetings but also in his social life as well. It starts to become obvious that there are deep political waters here and that humanity may have its own agenda for the planet and the alien races and Giyt himself appears to be merely an unwilling pawn in these machinations.

This is a most impressive and enjoyable novel -- one of the best that Pohl has produced for many a year. He has done his research very well indeed and his picture of Giyt as a hacker can be read by a modern day computer professional (me) with nothing but nods of agreement. Pohl uses technical terms in exactly the right contexts and his extrapolations of contemporary computer trends are fascinating and insightful. I wish I could say the same of some other SF writers, many of whom treat the vocabulary of computers with contempt and the machines themselves as magic marvels capable of any feat at the click of a mouse. Pohl makes neither of these elementary errors and his book is the richer for it.

The aliens are also most inventive. It says much for Pohl's skill that he can imagine five utterly distinct races, each with their own motivations and sociological imperatives (six if you count the humans) and make them at one and the same time understandable in human terms and yet completely alien and outside of our experience. The alien-human-alien interactions provide the mechanisms that propel the plot -- but they are so much more than merely plot devices, as they must be if the book is to be anything but formulaic. The old grand master is at the height of his powers here. Age has not diminished him at all.

Fiji contains more than its fair share of revolting wild life. One evening I returned to my room to find something huge and black with enormous wings and far too many legs breast stroking backwards and forwards with evident enjoyment across my toilet bowl.

There was no way I was going to bare my bum to that! It had to go. I flushed mightily, but it did no good. This Olympic class insect appeared to revel in the unexpected water sports and employed a particularly inventive backstroke as it breasted the waves with ease. More elaborate weapons were obviously required.

I draped toilet paper across the bowl and its unwelcome occupant. Several layers of paper criss-crossed the water. The paper heaved as the trapped insect pushed upwards, struggling to escape. I flushed again and water rushed into the bowl pushing the edges of the paper down and under the surface, wrapping the insect securely. The bug parcel then slithered down the pipe taking its occupant with it. A faint scream echoed in my ears, but it might have been me making it.

Philip José Farmer has been silent for a long time (perhaps the fact that he is 80 years old has something to do with it) but the wait has been worth while. Nothing Burns in Hell is not a science fiction novel, it is a private eye detective novel, but it still has the distinctive Farmer touch.

The novel is set in Peoria, where Farmer himself lives. Corbie is a private eye married to a wiccan called Glinna who will only sleep with him when the stars are propitious. There are crystal balls and pyramids arranged in hexagrams under the bed in order to focus the most intense sexual energy. Corbie claims to be so conditioned that he can't drive past a crystal shop without getting a hard on.

Corbie is hired to witness an illegal transfer of money in a cemetery. The transaction goes bloodily wrong. One of the villains has cancerous growths sprouting like tendrils from his around his mouth. In a fight with the woman who hired Corbie, one of the tendrils is bitten off (to the accompaniment of great cries of pain and much blood). Later Corbie finds the tumour lying like a worm near the gravestone where the fight took place. He chases the villains and ends up a prisoner of the tendrilled man, his brother and the enormously fat wife they share; truly a gruesome hillbilly threesome. Tortures and humiliations (lovingly described) are heaped upon him and murder is about to be done. But Corbie escapes, wounding the villain most cruelly with a snapping turtle.

It is unclear just what is going on (and why) but Corbie now has a motive to get to the bottom of this business. Greed, venality, hatred and noisy neighbours are Corbie's constant companions. The body count (and the mutilations) mount steadily. This is pure pulp fiction, no punches pulled and no holds barred. Gruesome and funny by turns, and definitely not for the weak of stomach, it is a very powerful and very odd book.

It is by Philip José Farmer, after all.

Work finished on Friday and I wasn't due to fly home until Sunday. I had a whole day free to do the tourist thing. I booked a cruise to Malamala, an uninhabited island, total surface area about six acres. You can walk around the entire island in about ten minutes (I timed myself).

On arrival the boat crew gave us a traditional Fijian welcome and served yaqona (kava). It looks and tastes rather like dirty dishwater and contains a narcotic that numbs the mouth. If you drink enough, the numbness spreads across the face and over the body. It is traditionally drunk sitting down since the numbness prevents you from standing up. It is an extract from the root of a local variety of pepper plant and the very best kava is prepared in the traditional way by toothless old women who chew the root and spit into a communal bowl. This extract is then diluted with water and drunk with great ceremony. In deference to the sensibilities of their guests, our crew prepared the drink from dried kava root -- not a spitting old lady to be seen. I felt vaguely disappointed.

The slang name for kava is "grog". In Nadi I saw a kava bar -- it was called "The Olde Grogge Shoppe".

I left the other cruise people to their own devices and went over to the opposite side of the island to be alone. I sat beneath a palm tree and sipped a cold beer. The only sound was the gentle lapping of the waves on the beach. I watched the fierce sunlight dance across the waves. On the horizon more islands beckoned mysteriously. The sense of utter solitude and complete isolation and tranquillity was restful and relaxing. It seemed the world had gone away. I emptied my mind and let the tensions drain.

I rejoined the rest of the group and we went out on a glass bottomed boat to view the coral. An enormous brain coral sprawled and vivid blue fish swam hither and yon. A baby shark swam innocently by and I saw a furiously bustling jellyfish with a purple centre.

The boat moved further out to the edge of the reef and some of the group went snorkelling. One of the boat crew threw bread into the water and the sea boiled as hundreds of zebra striped fish appeared seemingly from nowhere to gorge upon the bread. A young snorkeller found herself in the middle of the shoal and she giggled uncontrollably as they tickled her in their feeding frenzy.

When the snorkellers returned to the boat they were all scratching furiously. The water was aswarm with sea lice and as we headed back to shore the people began to develop red lumps.

The next day I flew home and the violently abrupt contrast between the world I returned to and the world I left was shocking. Much of Sunday was spent in the office and it was hard to believe that only the day before I had done a most romantic thing. I had walked alone around an uninhabited Pacific island. It satisfied a lifetime ambition; R. M. Ballantyne eat your heart out!

James Hawes A White Merc With Fins Vintage
  Rancid Aluminium  
John Dunning Booked to Die Avon
  The Bookman’s Wake  
Frederik Pohl O Pioneer! Tor
Philip José Farmer Nothing Burns in Hell Forge
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