Previous Contents Next

Wot I red on my hols by Alan Robson (Ipsissimus Ntombe)


The bus came roaring around the corner and screeched to a juddering halt. The Oriental driver welcomed us aboard and Sally bought two rides. Then we shot off down the street. I was somewhat bemused to notice that the oncoming traffic appeared to be suffering Lorentz-Fitzgerald contractions and all the red traffic lights were Doppler shifted to green so we didn’t have to stop anywhere. We shrieked around a corner.

"Driver," said Sally, in a worried tone, "shouldn’t you have gone straight on to Owairaka there?"

"No worry!" said the driver, reassuringly. "Go to depot. Bus is broken."

I wondered about his definition of broken as we hurtled through the depot gates and shrieked to a stop in a cloud of rubber and tarmac vapour. The driver pressed buttons on his radio.

"I are here," he announced proudly.

"What?" The radio sounded peevish. "Why have you come here? Your replacement bus is waiting for you at Owairaka."

"But I are here." The driver sounded bewildered.

"All right, all right," said the radio. "I’ll tell him to bring the bus back. You go and choose another one."

The driver closed down his ticket dispenser and took it off to another bus. We saw him poking around inside for a while and then he came back.

"OK. We go now."

We all trooped over to the other bus and the driver strapped himself in and started the engine. The bus rose on its suspension and then settled down again. The driver looked pensive and switched the engine off. Then he returned to the original bus. Soon he was back with a thermos flask and a brown paper bag which he packed carefully away. He started the engine up again and we bounced thoughtfully on the suspension for a while until he switched the engine off and hurried back to the original bus again. This time he returned with a rabbit’s foot which he hung carefully over a convenient switch.

Vroom, vroom. Time to go.

We crept sedately out of the depot at an arthritic crawl. No doubt about it; this bus wasn’t broken.

God’s Fires is the second Patricia Anthony book I have read and now I am convinced (as if I needed to be) that she has a superb talent. It is a historical novel, set in Portugal, and the Inquisition rules in practice if not in name. Alfonso, the King, is retarded and completely under the control of whoever spoke to him last. There are reports of lights in the sky. Angels (incubi?) have impregnated a girl in a remote village. Another virgin birth? An acorn falls from above and three alien beings crawl out of it. One of them dies and its body goes to corruption in a sickly sweetness that has the power to heal.

In some ways the science fictional elements are an intrusion. Indeed the aliens play a very small physical part in the story, though the intellectual and theological implications of their existence suffuse the whole book, illuminating contemporary concerns. This is a grimly realistic historical novel. Even without the aliens the novel would have been just as powerful, though different dramatic elements would have been required. I find myself ambivalent. Is the SF even needed at all? I suspect it probably isn’t.

The power and the pain that the novel evokes (and the amazing level of detail - nobody could fault the historical research) are moving and convincing. The philosophical concerns are real; though we can laugh at certain aspects; we who are so sophisticated, so sure we know the answers. Perhaps we only know more details of the answer, for surely it still eludes us.

Ultimately it all comes down to a moral dilemma. And the people who are burned in the fires must be judged immoral (and sacrilegious as well I suppose). Morality and religious truth are imposed from above and when what you know is right conflicts with that, you will lose.

This is a complex novel peopled with complex characters. If we learn anything, we learn that there are no easy answers. The auto da fe is a short term solution, but it isn’t an answer. I found it disturbing and very moving and very profound.

The second volume of the letters of John W. Campbell is also an illuminating book. This time the inclusion criteria have been narrowed and these letters are all the ones that Campbell wrote to Isaac Asimov and A. E. van Vogt. (And also the letters that mention either author in passing, which causes a certain irrelevance at times). Campbell’s crankiness is well displayed - he praises the Hieronymous machine and claims to have built one. He gives logical arguments (from his point of view) as to why the negro race is inferior to the white race. He comes across as argumentative, misguided, bigoted and supremely annoying. He was all of these things (as many people have attested). His one saving grace was that he was prepared to argue these things and defend his point of view. Like him or loath him, he argued with intellectual rigour and backed his arguments up with facts. Only a polymath would be able to refute him (he danced about like an intellectual flea on a griddle) which is probably why Asimov got on with him so well!

In some ways the letters are very frustrating - we really only see Campbell’s side. Very few of Asimov’s (or van Vogt’s) replies are published. It would have been nice to have seen the opposition (as it were).

I have an ambivalent relationship with transport mechanisms. My favourite airline has recently introduced electronic ticketing. No paper is required, you merely front up to desk, say, "Lo! Here am I." And they give you a boarding pass. Well that’s the theory.

"Never heard of you," said the lady behind the desk.

"??????" I said.

"Honest," she said. "You aren’t on the list. What was the name again?"

"Here’s my confirmation fax"

She poked keys on the keyboard and frowned at the screen. It frowned back. "Ah yes," she said. "Here you are. Your ticket was cancelled."

"!!!!!!!" I said. I could guess what had happened. I’d been booked on a flight the following week, but the course I was due to teach had been postponed and the flight had to be cancelled (I checked - yes it had been cancelled). Obviously a key had slipped and this week’s flight had been cancelled as well. What to do?

"Help," I hinted.

"The plane’s full," she explained. "No seats left. We’ve actually sold eight more seats than there are on the plane. Heaven knows what we’ll do if the people all turn up."

"I’ve got lots of plastic cards," I offered. Real life isn’t like TV, she didn’t offer to let me rub her tits; but she did disgorge an incredibly expensive ticket. I bet I was the only passenger on the plane who paid full price. I wondered about the eight people (nine now, since I’d jumped the queue) who couldn’t get on. What were they feeling about the situation?

With One of Us Michael Marshall Smith shows yet again that he can write deep, meaningful and screamingly funny novels. The book opens in a cheap bar in Mexico. The narrator has just been tracked down by his alarm clock which is trying to persuade him that it is time to get up. It refuses to admit that it is broken and can’t tell the difference between am and pm. It attracts much sympathy from the crowd when it tells them that the narrator has taken to throwing it out of the window.

Hap Thompson has a semi-legal job with REMtemps. He takes people’s dreams (the disturbing ones) so that they can get a good night’s sleep. But then he moves into caretaking memories instead (this is strictly illegal) and when he hosts the memory of a murder he knows that things have gone too far.

The book has a curious relationship with inanimate objects. Hap’s answering machine is surly because he sold the coffee maker (they were having an affair). He bribes a lock, makes friends with a chest freezer and in the final shoot-out a food processor gets wounded. I read it in a sitting - it is one of those books where you just have to find out what happens next.

Phil Rickman’s new novel weighs in at 534 pages. Merrily Watkins has been appointed vicar of Ledwardine, a small (and very trendy) Herefordshire village. The vicarage is a huge old house with three stories and Merrily’s teenage daughter eagerly claims the third floor to turn it into her own flat. Merrily agrees, though somewhat reluctantly. The third floor repels her for some mysterious reason, though her daughter seems immune to the feeling.

The villagers are organising a festival and a famous playwright wants to put on a drama in the church. The drama concerns one Wil Williams, the vicar of Ledwardine in the seventeenth century. He died a suicide in mysterious circumstances; there were rumours of devil worship. Merrily is unsure as to whether or not this is quite proper and her doubts are given a boost when it transpires that the playwright is gay and is convinced that Wil Williams was a victim of gay persecution.

Intertwined with this are several sub-plots. A young girl vanishes, an ancient apple tree is covered in blossoms. The dead past is an active presence and perhaps there are those who would kill for it.

The book bills itself as a ghost story, though this is a misnomer. To be sure, there might be ghostly action (the visions are ambivalent and other interpretations are possible). The book is really a novel of enormous tension, a dramatisation of tradition versus modernism, and it is certainly a page-turner. I was hooked from page 1.

Once I broke Europe.

I was in a train heading for Rotterdam, but the Transport Gods were determined not to let me arrive there. There is a rail bridge across the Maas leading into the Europort. Cargo ships ply their trade up and down the river. When they reach the rail bridge the trains are stopped and the bridge is raised to let them through. But on this day the bridge was down and a Captain, driving his ship up the Maas, misjudged the room available to him. Convinced that he could get through, he crashed into the rail bridge, breaking much of it (and much of his boat as well). Now nothing could get across, and that included me.

The Europort is the busiest port in Europe. Trains leave it almost every minute, and others arrive. Sooner or later they connect with every major rail system on the continent. Except on that day (and for about a fortnight afterwards). The congestion spread outwards in concentric circles over most of the continent. If I hadn’t wanted to go to Rotterdam it would never have happened.

It isn’t everybody who can say that they broke Europe.

Patricia Anthony God’s Fires Ace
Perry A. Chapdelaine Sr (editor) The John W. Campbell Letters Volume II AC Projects Inc.
Michael Marshall Smith One of Us Harper Collins
Phil Rickman The Wine of Angels Macmillan

Previous Contents Next