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

In the Wet

Into every life a little dihydrogen monoxide must fall - but I seem to have had more than my fair share this month…

It started one Sunday morning when a huge fountain erupted without warning just outside my garden fence. It was about 15 feet tall and obviously under enormous pressure. I watched horrified, as hundreds (possibly thousands) of gallons of water poured all over my garden and ran off into the street below, carrying some of my garden with it. I rang the council. There was nobody there except a rather casual Sunday operator. "We’ve got an emergency further down the road," she said. "We didn’t have any choice. We had to open a valve to relieve the pressure."

"But I’m worried that all this water might be undermining my house, damaging the foundations."

"Oh no," she laughed. "Not a little drop of water like that."

As she spoke, the fountain lengthened by a good 10 feet as the pressure increased yet again, my fence buckled slightly under the strain and small rocks bounced in the jet stream. "Call back on Monday," said the operator and rang off.

Many years ago, when the Soviet Union was still groaning under the stagnation of the Brezhnev regime, Donald James wrote a novel which (in hindsight) proved to be astonishingly predictive. The novel was called The Fall of The Russian Empire, and in it he described with enormous prescience virtually everything that later came to pass under Mikhail Gorbachev (who some have called the last romantic communist). Now, with his second novel Monstrum, he returns to the new Russia in the early years of the next century. There has been a savage civil war and as it ends Inspector Constantin Vadim is assigned to investigate a series of horrific murders in a Moscow suburb. The killer is called the monstrum by the locals. Vadim’s investigation takes him through the whole gamut of Moscow life, from the highest to the lowest, from pimp to president and back again.

The ending is truly a shock; but that isn’t really what the book is about (though it adds to the value). Again James brings his unique insight to the problems that beset Russia. If he is as prescient this time as he was last time, Russia would be a good place to avoid over the next few years. Meanwhile, read this book. You won’t be disappointed.

The Billion Dollar Boy is another novel in Charles Sheffield’s ongoing project to unseat Robert Heinlein as king of the young adult SF novel. All the familiar Heinlein ingredients are there. Spoiled, bored Shelby Cheever is one of the richest young men on twenty second century Earth. One day, on a whim, he takes an intergalactic cruise. His stupidity and ignorance land him in trouble and he ends up stranded on a mining colony many light years from home. Here he is forced to grow up rapidly. It is a short sharp lesson. In the mining colony he has no privileges. All his wealth is on Earth; in the colony it has no value. If he is to survive, he must learn to cope with his changed circumstances. It is a typical rite of passage novel, better than some, worse than others. Heinlein’s throne is still safe.

On Monday morning I rang the council. The person I spoke to was most sympathetic. "I’ll transfer you to so-and-so. It’s his department."

So-and-so was sympathetic, but unhelpful. "It isn’t my responsibility. I’ll transfer you to such-and-such."

Such-and-such wasn’t interested. "I’ll put you through to thingy."

Thingy was out and had voice mail turned on. I left a message but nobody rang back so the next day I tried again. A completely different set of voices expressed an enormous desire to help and transferred me between several departments since they themselves, they explained earnestly, had no responsibilities in this area. Eventually I got a phone that just rang endlessly. After 10 minutes of listening to this I hung up and tried again.

A brand new round of the Pass the Robson game ensued with a whole new set of voices, none of whom had anything to do with water (or indeed any other council function that I could discern) but all of whom were unfailingly polite and sympathetic. They all assured me that of course the council would take responsibility for any damage caused, but it wasn’t their department, they didn’t know why I’d been put through to them, they weren’t sure who I should talk to but perhaps so-and-such might know. Would I like to be transferred?

Yes I would like to be transferred. I got cut off instead.

The new James White novel is another instalment in his long running Sector General Hospital series. If you loved the others you will love this one as well. If you have never read any of the others, then hopefully this will turn you on to the series - if it does, you have much joy ahead of you. These are not classic novels in any literary sense, but my goodness they do tell a good tale; and what’s wrong with that?

Final Diagnosis is the mixture as before. Patient Hewlitt from Earth is mildly xenophobic and does not take well to being treated by the alien physicians of Sector General hospital. But that is just too bad for his illness is unique and a lot of doctors begin to interest themselves in his case. To their puzzlement, he soon seems to be cured (and even his xenophobia diminishes); but along the way some other patients are also saved from incurable illnesses and Hewlitt seems to have some connection to these miracles, though it is not obvious what that connection might be.

The book is a medical detective novel, enlivened by James White’s enormous enjoyment in the creation of new and exotic aliens and new and exotic diseases. The ending of the novel turns out to have been prefigured by events in an earlier book in the series. Those of us who have read all the novels to date may have an unfair advantage over the rest..

John Whitbourn writes some of the oddest and most brilliant fantasies I have ever read. The Royal Changeling is no exception. Theophilus Oglethorpe is a General in the army of Charles II. A ruthless and short tempered man, he comes into possession of the sword Excalibur by a foul deed, much to the annoyance of the Duke of Monmouth, who has elvish blood and who requires the sword for his own nefarious ends. When Charles dies, Monmouth (who is Charles’ illegitimate son) invades England in an attempt to claim the throne. Oglethorpe opposes him and King Arthur opposes them both. After that things get complicated.

When the French mathematician Pierre de Fermat died, he left scribbled in the margin of one of his books the statement that there existed no whole number solutions to the equation xn + yn = zn for any n greater than 2. He claimed to have a truly remarkable proof of this, but the margin was too small to contain it. For the next 358 years almost every mathematician pondered Fermat’s last theorem at some point in their career. Some small advances were made, but ultimately the problem defeated every person who investigated it.

Of itself, the problem is of no significance whatsoever. No mathematical structures will rise or fall should it be proved or disproved. It was merely the fact that such a seemingly simple problem was so intractable (and that Fermat claimed to have proved it) that made it so intriguing.

In 1996 Andrew Wiles finally proved the theorem, ended three and a half centuries of mathematical frustration and won himself undying fame (and a $50,000 prize). Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh is the story of the theorem and of Wiles’ proof. Mathematics is essentially a dry subject and few people find it exciting. But Singh brings it all alive and brilliantly re-creates the intellectual excitement of the chase. It is hard to conjure drama out of abstract ideas but Singh manages it wonderfully well.

I decided to have a cup of coffee before trying to outwit the council again and I wandered off down the corridor towards the office coffee machine. I was surprised to find water dripping out of the ceiling, half a dozen tiles were missing from the ceiling, strategic buckets were in place and an air conditioning engineer was saying firmly "It isn’t the air conditioning. Not my responsibility."

As it happened, he was right. A washing machine in one of the flats above the office had got blocked and overflowed, flooding the flat and voiding itself all over our ceiling. But I couldn’t help regarding it as an omen.

Back to the telephone, and a whole new set of sympathetic council staff. I was expecting another game of telephone tag, but this time, rather to my surprise, I got hold of a no-nonsense engineer who summed up the situation in a flash. "Yes," he said, "that sounds as though there could have been some serious damage. I’m not surprised you are worried, I would be too. I’ll get an insurance assessor out there today and we’ll see what his report says." He took my details and rang off. Half an hour later the phone rang and the insurance assessor wanted to make an appointment to come round.

"Do you really need me to be there?" I asked. "All the damage, if there is any, is external. You won’t need to get inside the house. Why do I have to be there?"

"Well, I suppose so," he said reluctantly. "But have you got a dog? Can’t be having it with dogs. Not going on a property alone if there’s dogs."

"No dogs," I reassured him. "Only two cats who will insist that you stroke them and admire their bottoms."

"I like cats," he said.

The new Iain M. Banks novel Inversions tells two tales in alternate chapters. One story concerns Doctor Vosill, physician to King Quience. She is a foreigner who might be from Drezen. Wherever she is from, it is certainly a different Culture. The second story concerns De War, bodyguard to the Protector General (to whom King Quience is a vassal).

Neither De War nor Doctor Vosill ever meet each other and their stories seen unconnected. But there are subtle undertones and connections are hinted at. Inversions of thinking are required in order to appreciate them. Doctor Vosill has a blunt dagger with jewels missing from the hilt.

It helps to have some familiarity with Banks’ other SF novels. Without that familiarity, the episode in the prison cell near the end becomes hard to follow. That is the only flaw in an otherwise brilliant, witty and astonishingly inventive book. The title is descriptive. Very little is what it seems to be.

In 1980 Gary Jennings’ historical novel Aztec took the world by storm. It was (and is) a superb evocation of time and place and it told a thrilling story to boot, full of love and lust and blood and revenge. What more could you want? Now he has published Aztec Autumn, a direct sequel to the earlier book. It begins where the earlier novel ends, but there all resemblance ceases. The story it tells is a dull tale of rebellion against the Spanish conquerors. It is impossible to feel involved as the cardboard puppets dance on the strings that Jennings pulls. They are merely mouthpieces who harangue the reader endlessly. Dull, dull, dull.

I don’t particularly like comics and therefore Neil Gaiman (who made his reputation in that field) was known to me only as the man who collaborated with Terry Pratchett in the writing of Good Omens. However now he has published a solo novel called Neverwhere and overnight I have turned into a Neil Gaiman fan.

Richard Mayhew is a young businessman in London. One day, out of the kindness of his heart, he helps a destitute young lady who he finds lying injured in the street. She is Door, an inhabitant of London Below and by helping her Richard is dragged unwillingly into her world. She is pursued by Croup and Vandemar (two of the most evil killers it has ever been my pleasure to read about). Their mysterious patron has already had Door’s parents killed (she only escaped by a miracle). With the help of an odd mixture of people who all have an odd mixture of motives, she and Richard embark on a surrealistic odyssey through London Below. The Angel called Islington who is marooned in a candlelit hall gives them some clues. Old Bailey who lives on the rooftops and dines on rook stew has a part to play as does the Earl who holds Court in an underground train. The rats and the Rat Speakers are involved and as Croup and Vandemar get closer the Marquis de Carabas starts to run out of favours to call in.

But there is so much more to this story than the bad puns. It has the authentic frisson of the real stuff. It tells an exciting and original tale full of real magic and real mystery and real adventure. It held me enthralled from beginning to end.

My boss is owned by a dog with an affectionate disposition and an enormous incontinence. The dog comes to work every day and spends most of its day not peeing and pooing on the strategically placed absorbent mats bought specially for that purpose. She prefers the ordinary carpet. As a consequence of this preference, our office carpets are now dotted with strangely coloured patches and my boss spends a large part of each day with a cloth in one hand and a bottle of disinfectant in the other.

So one weekend the carpet cleaners came in and on Monday morning everything went squelch. My garden had been doing that to me ever since the fountain erupted and so I was not sympathetic.

The insurance assessor found lots of surface damage which had obviously been caused by a flood of semi-biblical proportions. However there was a lip around the foundations and that appeared to have diverted the bulk of the water around the house and across the garden rather than letting it underneath and so the foundations seemed unharmed. Indeed, he claimed they were in surprisingly good condition for a house as old as mine.

"The garden is saturated," he said. "But it should be OK once it has had a chance to dry out."

As these words left his lips, it started to rain…

For reasons that remain obscure to me I have always had a deep interest in the First World War. I have read countless historical commentaries on the war and its personalities and I have read countless novels set there. Flanders by Patricia Anthony is billed as a historical fantasy set in the trenches of the Western Front. Travis Lee Stanhope is a Texan sharpshooter seconded to the British forces. Each night he ventures into the no man’s land between the opposing trenches and as dawn breaks he begins the methodical killing of the enemy troops.

All the familiar elements are here - the mud, the blood, the miserable conditions, the ever-present fear and the seemingly never ending shelling. As an evocation of a time and place this is a superb piece of naturalistic writing and it belongs up there with the classics. It really is on a par with All Quiet on the Western Front, or Goodbye To All That, or Her Privates We. And those books were written by men who actually fought in the trenches and lived through all that horror. It says much for Anthony’s skill as a writer that she can equal the efforts of those others.

I have no idea why the book has been published as a fantasy novel. The only fantasy elements are the haunting dreams that Stanhope has where he sees the bodies of his victims (and his friends) in an eerie graveyard. He takes some comfort in the knowledge that they are cared for even after death, no matter how hideous that death may have been. However it is perfectly possible to read these sequences as just being dreams that Stanhope’s subconscious uses to rationalise his terrible occupation. Indeed that is exactly how I read them. Under that interpretation this is not a fantasy novel at all; rather it paints a grimly realistic picture of war and death and terror all taken to the ultimate extreme. As such it is harrowing. Under intolerable conditions, Stanhope begins to break before our eyes.

It denigrates both the novel and the novelist to reduce this fine book to the status of a mere fabulation. Read it for what it is, not for what the publisher claims it to be.

When Alfred Bester died he left a fragment of a novel behind. Shortly before Roger Zelazny died, he completed Bester’s story. And now, at long last, it has been published. The Psychoshop of the title opened for business in Rome, six centuries before Christ. Once known as the Black Place of the Soul Changer, it is the place to go for a personality transplant. Here you can sell your fears and foibles, your talents and tastes and acquire new ones. The novel opens in the twentieth century. A journalist is sniffing around the psychoshop and its proprietor takes him in. As he explores the shop, he finds seven corpses hanging in a proscribed area at the rear. They are all identical and they all look like him. A descendent of Count Cagliostro arrives with a shopping list - he wants to buy a psychology for an artificial being (an iddroid) that he is building. The journalist falls in lust with the proprietor’s assistant and learns that the shop fell back in time from the far future and is making a slow return journey. After that it gets weird.

The first few chapters of the book consist mostly of dialogue, often with no indication as to who is speaking. This was typical of Bester in his later years; he avoided narrative almost completely in favour of pyrotechnic dialogue. Perhaps he should have been a playwright instead of a novelist. As Zelazny takes over, more description and introspection appear and the plot gets decidedly odd as he ties up some threads that Bester left dangling (and introduces a few dangles of his own). But by and large the joins are professionally painted over and the book is a brilliant surrealistic romp. Both authors should be proud.

Once I read a short story in which a man had the power to make it stop raining. Whenever it started he would say "Rain, rain go away. Come again another day." And the rain would go. The dénouement of the story was that one day all the rain he’d wished away for so long came back - all on the same day. That day has now arrived in New Zealand. Those few drops of rain that appeared just as the insurance assessor spoke have continued unabated. Some of New Zealand’s heaviest ever rainfall has been recorded over the last few weeks and large areas of the country have been flooded. Since I got a head start over everybody else in the street, my garden is now mostly liquid.

A notice arrived from the council. On 25th July 1998 the water supply would be cut off from 9.30am to 12.30pm for repairs to be made to the pipes. Huge bulldozers appeared and dumped half the road on the grass verge outside my house (I no longer have a grass verge. Good - it doesn’t have to be mowed). Miles of bright orange pipes vanished underground to the accompaniment of much foul language as it was discovered that these were metric pipes and those in situ were imperial and the two could not be joined together.

And still it rained, converting the bulldozed trenches into a foul quagmire. Men in yellow ponchos accumulated. I didn’t count, but I had the distinct impression that far more of them jumped down into the trenches than ever came out again. Mysterious blue mechanisms were stacked higgledy piggledy in next door’s garden.

At the appointed time I turned on a tap. Compressed air at enormous pressure hissed from the outlet, closely followed by enormous gobbets of mud.

The coffee had an interesting taste for the next few days and I will draw a veil over the state of my underwear after it was washed.

Michael Laws has missed his calling. He should write books instead of standing for parliament. The Demon Profession is screamingly funny, amazingly erudite, insightful and profound. He analyses the theory and practice of politics in New Zealand and finds it wanting, mainly because of the utter incompetence and general stupidity of most politicians (and he doesn’t exclude himself from some of his harsher criticisms). Anyone who has lived through the last two decades of political upheavals will find his commentaries fascinating and mildly disturbing. Personalities and policies are more closely linked than you might imagine, and many personalities are rather too flawed for comfort. Read this book before you cast another vote. It may change the way you use your franchise. It will certainly open your eyes and tickle your funny bone.

Robert Rankin returns in the persona of Lazlo Woodbine, the private eye with a brussels sprout called Barry in his head. His boyhood chum Billy Barnes has vanished and Billy’s mum is worried. Over the years he’s been feeding bits of his granny to the voodoo handbag (he keeps her in a suitcase - it has air holes drilled in the lid, so it isn’t cruel). He’s taken granny with him in order to have her downloaded into the Necronet, the world-spanning network that links the living and the dead; the brainchild of multi-billionaire Henry Doors, the chairman of Necrosoft. Now that granny has gone, the voodoo handbag has vanished. Actually, it isn’t the real voodoo handbag, only a plaster cast of it. But it works just as well.

The book (I hesitate to call it a novel - that would imply that there was some narrative coherence) exhibits all the usual Rankinian traits. The running gags (oh how we laughed), the stylistic tricks (it’s a style thing, I don’t want to dwell on it) and a lot of old jokes that somehow really do seem to belong. At one point the narrator visits the pub in London where the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman always go. There’s a lot of thinking out loud, and a spud called Vic has a small part to play.

In Roads Not Taken Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt present stories of alternate history. All the names that you’d expect to see are represented. Harry Turtledove is there with yet another take on the American Civil War - this time the North wins a much more decisive victory than it did in our history and the consequences of it are quite grim. Robert Silverberg presents an intricate tale set in a world-spanning pax romana. Mike Resnick brings Theodore Roosevelt back into centre stage when the Rough Riders go to France in the first world war. There are some unusual writers here as well. Gregory Benford tells a tale of a repressive America in the 1950s and Gene Wolfe has a lot of fun with a motor car race between Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. But the story that stands head and shoulders above the rest is Michael Flynn’s The Forest of Time set in a Balkanised continental America that never united after the revolution, but instead fragmented itself into warring enclaves. This is a magnificent collection - there isn’t a weak story in the book.

I have a friend who is an excitable speaker. As she becomes more enthusiastic in her conversation she has a tendency to spray spittle. Recently she managed the enormously impressive feat of spitting behind my glasses.

Given my current relationship to the liquid world, I wasn’t surprised.

Donald James Monstrum Arrow
Charles Sheffield The Billion Dollar Boy Tor
James White Final Diagnosis Tor
John Whitbourn The Royal Changeling Earthlight
Simon Singh Fermat’s Last Theorem Fourth Estate
Iain M. Banks Inversions Orbit
Gary Jennings Aztec Autumn Forge
Neil Gaiman Neverwhere BBC
Patricia Anthony Flanders Ace
Alfred Bester and Roger Zelazny Psychoshop Vintage
Michael Laws The Demon Profession Harper Collins
Robert Rankin The Dance of the Voodoo Handbag Doubleday
Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt Roads Not Taken Del Rey

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