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Wot I red on my hols by Alan Robson (Galactophagous)

Conventional Thinking

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that after three pints of Guinness everything sounds like a good idea.

"Lesh shtart a shcience fiction club!"


Thus was born the Nottingham Science Fiction Club. But I must admit that there were motivating factors other than Guinness. Sex had a lot to do with it too.

There was a woman who I fancied something rotten. Most conversations with her were impeded by the drool dripping off my chin and my total inability to pronounce any words more complicated than "". However I knew that she was vaguely interested in SF. What a conversational opening that would be!

"Would you be interested in joining a new science fiction club?"

Such style! Such subtlety! Such grace! So many syllables! She wasn’t fooled for a minute; but it turned out not to matter.

It has long been obvious that Terry Pratchett (like Graham Greene before him) writes both novels and entertainments. That is not to say that his novels are not entertaining - far from it. But sometimes he deals with darker themes, sometimes he has Things To Say. However in The Last Continent he has nothing whatsoever to say; the book is simply a vast and entertaining romp from start to finish; one of Pterry’s funniest in years.

Rincewind is lost on the continent of XXXX. Meanwhile, back in Ankh-Morepork, at Unseen University, the Librarian has a cold. The connection between these two events may not be immediately obvious, but there is one, and the two plot threads intertwine through an amazing number of Australian jokes and one New Zealand joke (and a very good one it is too, mainly because it is (a) original and (b) doesn’t involve sheep). This book is one of the great ones - read it and weep. Tears of laughter, of course.

The Tourist Guide to Lancre is pretty much the mixture as before. It is nice to see a picture of the Ramtops and have the geography (such as it is) made explicit. But one piece of mountain looks much like another piece of mountain and visual treats are thin on the ground.

The amazingly prolific Tom Holt visits America in his latest novel. If you bathe in the waters of Lake Chicopee you will receive your heart’s desire thanks to the nymph of the lake who works very hard at it in the guise of an old man with bad teeth, a young girl, a duck and an otter. But then she gets audited by the celestial equivalent of the Income Tax authorities and has to assume yet another incarnation to keep the inspector from interfering with the latest batch of tourists who, much as they may regret it, are about to receive their own heart’s desires.

The lake is a boundary between two worlds. If you look into its still waters you will see mountains and sky. Most people would assume this to be a reflection; but it isn’t. It is the world on the other side of the lake boundary; upside down from our point of view of course. A Viking longboat has sailed this lake for hundreds of years. Every so often the boat is wrecked, the sailors fall into the lake and drown as they pass through the boundary layer. Then they sail the lake on the other side for a while before the process is repeated. After a thousand years or so this gets tedious. Tom Holt is back doing what he does best.

After the Nottingham group formed I had an in (as it were) to the joys of organised science fiction and I began to hear about things called conventions. Several of us went along to one. I drove us all there in my trusty, rusty Volkswagen beetle (Alexander by name). I remember little about the convention apart from the Guinness, much of which was drunk at breakfast time to the great consternation of the hotel staff. However on the last day I eased up a little since I was to drive us all home. But Howard did not ease up at all…

He slumped zombie-like in the passenger seat, his skin colour matching the upholstery perfectly. After a hundred miles he said, "I can’t feel my arms. Are they still there?"

I glanced over to him. "Yes," I reassured him. "They’re still attached at the shoulders."

A hundred miles later he said, "Good."

The most recent convention I attended was Construction in Wellington over Queen’s Birthday weekend 1998. It is nearly quarter of a century since I told Howard that his arms hadn’t fallen off. But nothing has changed. Monteith’s Black Beer proved to be an adequate substitute for Guinness. People partied all night long and had breakfast in a state of mild alcoholic stupor, the drinking hand clasping their glass in an unbreakable rigor mortis. That’s what I like about conventions. They are so…conventional.

I think I’m going to give up on Tim Powers. Earthquake Weather is an enormously large book full of strange people doing incomprehensible things for incomprehensible reasons, the whole filled with an atmosphere of impending doom that never quite manifests itself (for reasons that remain unclear). The book is thematically related to the earlier novels Last Call and Expiration Date. All take place in something resembling contemporary times, but the wheelers and dealers, the movers and shakers are privy to the knowledge and power of magic and mystery. I have no quarrel with that - my quarrel comes from the arbitrary nature of the magic and the incredibly annoying realisation that the characters in the novel are operating with information that is not available to the reader and which is never given to the reader. Consequently everything that happens remains unexplained; vague and misty and hard to grasp hold of. Despite having struggled through the damn thing I still don’t know why the majority of characters reacted the way they did. Indeed - I’m even a little bit in the dark as to exactly what it was they did and how they did it! What a waste of dead trees.

Among the Thugs is an examination of English football hooliganism from the inside. Bill Burford, an American journalist living in England, met many of the hooligans, travelled to matches with them, drank with them, fought with them and has come back to report on their world. This is an important (and very frightening) book. It asks ugly questions and reveals ugly answers. Why is crowd violence to attractive? What makes it go off? What manner of person engages in it? Burford has answers to all these questions; and in finding the answers he also discovers some things about himself that perhaps he would rather not have known.

This is an important book. The only thing I know to compare it with is Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels which has much to say about exactly the same questions and which comes to similar conclusions. How strange that two seminal books on the sociology of violence in two completely separate cultures should both have been written by Americans.

Harry Turtledove is back telling tales of a history that never was. This time the American Civil War was decided in 1862 when the South won a great victory at Antietam. The Northern states were forced to admit that the war was lost and the Southern states seceded to form their own country and manage their own destiny. Now, in 1881 war is brewing between the two countries yet again. The South has purchased two territories from Mexico and this will give them both a Pacific coastline and a trans-continental spread from sea to shining sea, much as the Northern states already have. This is regarded as a serious threat by the North.

One of the major attractions of books of this kind is the opportunity to see familiar figures in unfamiliar guises. In this world, Abraham Lincoln, having lost the war, was defeated in the next election and has spent the intervening years as an out of favour politician touring the country, giving speeches. He has become aware of the plight of the workers, the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the exploitation of the people by those in power. He is flirting with communism and is regarded as a dangerous radical by all sides in the conflict.

For George Custer, there is no battle at Little Big Horn. He is too closely involved in the fighting of this new war. Firstly in Utah where he helps put down a revolt by the Mormons who are attempting to secede from the Union much as the Southern states did before them and later in Montana where, together with a young Theodore Roosevelt, he prevents a British invasion across the Canadian border. Both he and Roosevelt have presidential ambitions…

Samuel Clemens is a newspaper reporter. He never wrote novels in this reality - the events of the real world that he can report with his own quirky ideological stance attract him more than fiction ever could.

General "Stonewall" Jackson lives on in this reality and is in charge of the Southern armies and the defence of his country. Jeb Stuart is in charge of keeping order in the new Mexican territories whose purchase started the war. And so on…

I am not American. The War between the States is of little interest or importance to me, large though it looms in the psyche of America. However despite this, I simply could not put the book down. It is utterly fascinating from start to finish. Turtledove paints on a large canvas with an enormous number of characters and a vast number of plot threads. He never once loses control and the characters never degenerate into two dimensional mouthpieces. The book remains enthralling throughout and all the threads are tied together, all the fascinating historical byways are thoroughly explored. This is one of the very best of the "what might have been" sub-genre of SF.

For me, a highlight of Construction was the chance to meet Cherry Wilder. I have known of her for years and we have so many acquaintances in common that I am surprised we have not met before this. She rang me shortly before Construction to ask if I would be on a panel with her. I was hugely flattered to be asked and of course I agreed. Having got that out of the way we sat down and gossiped, tearing reputations to shreds, swapping embarrassing stories about famous people. About four hours later, when Cherry must have been facing a phone bill of super-galactic proportions she rang off. I could tell I was going to enjoy myself.

The time arrived for the panel. Cherry turned up with voluminous notes and gave an erudite opening. Richard Scheib, the other panellist, turned up with notes on the back of an envelope and was equally erudite. Norman Cates pulled out a man’s heart and dripped gore over cunningly placed newspapers. (The panel was about horror novels). Cherry impaled me with a steely glare. "Where are your notes?"

"I haven’t got any."

"What are you going to say?"

"I don’t know."

"You must have nerves of steel!"

I didn’t tell her that I make my living speaking off the cuff with half-formed ideas to rooms full of people. It was more impressive that way.

I have long admired the novels of Diana Wynne Jones. Now with Minor Arcana I can admire her short stories as well. The seven stories in this collection run the gamut from high drama to high farce and I enjoyed every one of them. In the quirky nad and Dan and Quaffy she takes advantage of her most common typos (transposing the letters of the word "and") and turns them into a very funny story. At the other extreme, in The True State of Affairs she tells a most moving love story.

I’ve had two doses of Poppy Z. Brite this month. Once as an editor (Love in Vein II) and once as a novelist (The Crow: The Lazarus Heart). The stories that make up the anthology are mostly run of the mill. Several are just exercises in cheap pornography (known in the trade, I believe, as "stiffeners") and have no other merit. On the whole I was disappointed.

The novel, on the other hand, is vintage Poppy Z. Brite. Gory, ghoulish and set in New Orleans, it pulls no punches. Jared Poe has been (wrongly) convicted of the murder of his lover Benny. While in prison awaiting execution, he is himself murdered. But after death, the eponymous crow resurrects him and he looks for revenge. Meanwhile, the real killer, a man who takes the names of rivers for his own (sometimes Jordan, sometimes Lethe) is intent on pursuing more victims. Trans-sexuals are his chosen victims and he kills them slowly with surgical instruments specially designed to prolong the pain. The resurrected Jared and Lucrece, Benny’s sister (once upon a time Benny’s brother) and the crow are on his trail.

This is not a book for the weak of stomach or those prone to nightmares. The horror is unrelenting, the pressure of the plot never lets up. The smell of blood and intestines permeates every page. This is one of several spin-off novels by various authors based (loosely) on the film of The Crow. But it is stamped so firmly with the Poppy Z. Brite trademarks that it is really her novel and the film connections are quite irrelevant.

In the 1960s a group of cynical journalists wrote a novel called Naked Came the Stranger. Each wrote one chapter and each stuffed their chapter as full as they possibly could with sex and violence. The book was (intentionally) cheap, lewd and crude. To nobody’s great surprise it became a best seller. Now the experiment has been performed again. Under the editorship of Carl Hiassen, thirteen Florida journalists have written Naked Came the Manatee. The novel opens with two layabouts called Hector and Phil who are delivering a cryonic container to an unknown third party. During the course of an argument they lose the container over the side of their boat and a manatee (known affectionately as Booger) gets entangled in the flotsam. In the next chapter we learn that the cryonic container holds what looks like the preserved head of Fidel Castro. Castro’s ex-lover now lives in Florida. She has a lock of his hair and a chunk of his ear that she bit off in the throes of passion in the Sierra Maestra. DNA analysis becomes imperative. Meanwhile…

One of the joys of a novel like this is that part of the game involves ending your own chapter at such an impossible place that the next writer cannot possibly do anything with it. Once that little problem has been sorted out, this next writer leaves his chapter in an even more impossible place and so it goes on. Consequently it comes as a bit of a surprise that Naked Came the Manatee does actually contain a semblance of plot (albeit a little tenuous) and does come to some sort of a conclusion. It pays to keep a sense of humour about the whole impossible farrago.

Perhaps we have a new literary fashion. I currently have on order a book called Naked Came the Farmer in which the science fiction writer Phillip José Farmer has pulled the same stunt with a number of Illinois journalists.

Science fiction fans are often sneered at by outsiders and we do tend to reflect a rather geeky image (particularly when gathered together at a convention) but one thing that becomes abundantly clear under these conditions is the fierce intelligence that hides behind this unfortunate image. I would suggest that the IQ of SF fans is considerably higher than the average in the population as a whole. (I don’t want to get side-tracked into a discussion of what IQ measures, if indeed it measures anything. Let’s just take that argument as read and pretend that IQ measures something to do with liveliness of mind). This was brought home to me quite forcefully at Construction. It was about 2.30am and a small circle of us were sitting around playing word non-association. One person would say a word and the next person had to say a word that had nothing whatsoever to do with first word. And so on round the circle. This is remarkably difficult to do even when fully compos mentis. At 2.30am after a large amount of partying it presents even more interesting challenges. (Toenail. Mountain. Cage. Video. Mouse. Cloth.)

Every so often someone would wander over and watch for a moment. Invariably the conversation would go:

"What’s this?"

"Word non-association."

"Oh. I can do that - move over."

And slowly the circle grew. Not once was it necessary to explain WHY we were playing the game and neither did we have to explain what it was. Simply naming the game was sufficient to spark interest (Book. Lever. Ice. Logarithm. Cushion. Spatula. Tincture.)

Imagine trying to play this game with (say) the people in your office. Would they understand why it’s both fun and funny? Would they understand that part of the pleasure comes from the fact that you aren’t playing word association? Would they understand the sense of play involved in the inversion? And would they even be able to do it, or indeed see any point to it at all?

None of those things were an issue at 2.30am. Everybody simply knew and they joined in and had fun. (Antimony. Projector. Waterfall. Roof. Diskette. Watch. Envelope. Wheel.)

It’s a small thing in itself but it’s symptomatic of why I keep coming back. I feel at home with SF fans; partly because of the sense of play, partly because of the sense of fun but mainly because of the potential for an enormously high level of debate matched with the understanding that trivialities can be profound (and that profundities can be trivial). I don’t get that anywhere else. I feel at home in this company. (Nose. Colloid. Thimble. Kitchen. Alphabet. Frequency. Claw. Power. Cufflink.)

What killed Jane Austen? is an ultimately disappointing book of medical essays about famous illnesses and deaths. The essays were originally published as fillers in a medical research journal. They proved to be enormously popular, hence this book. However in the introduction the authors explain that they have done some judicious editing to cut out the more gory details. This, I feel, was a mistake. A lot of the attraction of a book like this is in the gory details and it was this sort of prurient interest that caused me to buy the book in the first place. Much that is left is fascinating, particularly the details of the sometimes long drawn out and painful ends of some famous Kings and Queens, but ultimately too much has been omitted.

For example, the authors discuss the death of William the Conqueror and tell us that he was buried in a stone coffin too small for him so that the body had to be bent double. But they neglect to tell us that his funeral was so long delayed and the body was in such an advanced stage of decomposition that the gaseous build up in the tissues caused it to explode in the middle of the funeral service, scattering unmentionable things over the Lords and Ladies gathered to pay their last respects. I learned this fact at school (small boys love this kind of thing and my teacher understood small boys very well - history lessons were fun).

The idea behind the book is a good one, but in the end it fails because too much entertaining grue is omitted.

Mike Resnick’s new novel A Hunger in the Soul is just a workaday thing, entertaining enough but not very memorable. Dr Michael Drake, a medical researcher, has vanished in the jungles of the world called Bushveld. Robert Markham, a journalist, is determined to locate Drake and bring him back to civilisation. The bulk of the novel is a routine safari adventure where alien animals and alien tribes take the place of the normal African perils. The whole is a thinly disguised re-telling of Stanley’s search for Livingstone, though Markham is a much more detestable character than Stanley and Drake is considerably more saintly than Livingstone. Nonetheless, the parallels are obvious and the ending is unsurprising.

One of the perils of being a science fiction fan is that many people assume you believe in UFOs and spoon bending and the Bermuda Triangle and Von Daniken’s theories about ancient astronauts. Any ammunition that will shoot down such cranks is always welcome and James Randi’s book Flim Flam is full of it. Entertainingly, wittily and wickedly he takes apart the nut cults and their perpetrators. We need more sane books like these to counter the wildly insane cultist messages that get far too much popular acclaim. Sometimes I think we live in an age of irrationality. Whatever happened to scepticism, to common sense and to education?

Jack McDevitt is rapidly carving himself a place as a teller of middle-of-the-road science fiction tales. He takes common themes and tells the stories entertainingly enough, but he seldom adds much to them beyond their surface dramas. Such a story is Moonfall which concerns a comet from outer space that destroys the moon. The resulting devastation causes catastrophe on Earth as well.

There is nothing new in any of this. Niven and Pournelle probably wrote the definitive tale on this theme when they published Lucifer’s Hammer in 1977. McDevitt’s book is exciting enough in its own way, but I’ve read it all before.

The day after the convention I went to visit Te Papa. From the third floor balcony I could see all the way down into the foyer. Several convention members were visible below, just milling around. They caught sight of me above them. We waved to each other.

"Jump!" they called. "Jump! We’ll catch you. Honest!"

Terry Pratchett The Last Continent Doubleday
Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs A Tourist Guide to Lancre Corgi
Tom Holt Wish You Were Here Orbit
Tim Powers Earthquake Weather Orbit
Bill Buford Among the Thugs Arrow
Harry Turtledove How Few Remain Del Rey
Diana Wynne Jones Minor Arcana Vista
Poppy Z. Brite (ed) Love in Vein II Harper
Poppy Z. Brite The Crow: The Lazarus Heart Harper
Carl Hiaasen et al Naked Came the Manatee Fawcett
George Biro and Jim Leavesley What Killed Jane Austen? Harper Collins
Mike Resnick A Hunger in the Soul Tor
James Randi Flim-Flam Prometheus
Jack McDevitt Moonfall Harper Prism

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