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

The Eyes Have It

When I was about 12 years old the world began to take on a strangely blurred appearance. I would wait at bus stops with my friends and I was constantly amazed that they could read the route number on the front of the bus long before I could even see the bus itself. (It’s arrival in front of me at the bus stop never failed to surprise me. Where could it have come from?).

Teachers wrote things on the blackboard, but all I could see were mushy white ovals that communicated no messages to me. I mentioned these odd phenomena to my father.

"Sit nearer the front of the class," he thundered. Being himself possessed of perfect vision, he could not conceive that any son of his could possibly have flawed eyesight.

The Widowmaker Unleashed completes Mike Resnick’s widowmaker saga. In this novel, Jefferson Nighthawk, the original widowmaker, is woken from his century long cold sleep. The disease that caused to him to seek out suspended animation can now be cured. However the two clones that had been grown from his cells in the intervening years have committed murder and mayhem across the worlds of the frontier and now the widowmaker has many, many enemies, none of whom he knows, but all of whom know him. Despite his professed desire for a quiet life, it looks like what remains of it will be nasty, brutish and short.

It’s all cowboys in space of course and nobody ever pretends otherwise. But it is so blatant that you just have to enjoy it for it really is an exciting tale, well told and fast moving. It’s just froth, and the books take about an hour each to read, but isn’t that what froth is for?

Cradle of Splendor takes place in the near future in Brazil. International observers are gathered to watch the launch of Brazil’s first manned space ship. But the launch goes horribly wrong, the boosters splutter and fail. Disaster seems imminent. But the ship glides calmly into orbit as if nothing had happened. Something odd is going on.

It quickly becomes apparent that that the ship is powered by anti-gravity and the boosters were just window dressing to try and keep things secret for a little while longer. Brazil, it would seem, has made contact with an alien race and technological advances are now readily available. No SF fan will be surprised by any of this. But as is so often the case with Anthony’s books the SF trappings are nothing but trappings – she plays with them half-heartedly but they aren’t really what the book is about. What the book is about is the politics of repression and the loss of innocence and ideals that close involvement in these things always entails. It is a heady (and a brutal) brew. It makes for uncomfortable reading (which puts it high on the scale of literary brilliance of course). I am constantly overwhelmed by just how good a writer Patricia Anthony is.

That summer there was an important cricket match between my class and the class next door. It being generally agreed that I was useless at cricket, I was placed out of harm’s way in an obscure corner of the field, miles away from the action and left to commune with nature. Eventually I became aware of semi-hysterical shrieking from the assembled multitudes at the other end of the field.

"Catch it! Catch it!"

Catch what? For the life of me I couldn’t see anything to catch. Then a vague blur moved into my field of vision and for a brief moment, fame and undying glory were potentially mine. All I had to do was catch it.

The moment was all too brief and the potential remained unrealised. The object was moving far too fast and I saw it far too late to do anything constructive about it. With unerring accuracy it hit me on the nose and the world got even more blurred than normal as my eyes filled up with involuntary tears. I didn’t know a nose had so much blood in it.

Kit Reed’s major strengths have always been as a short story writer. I’ve found her novels forgettable, but her short stories are genuinely weird gems. The collection Weird Women, Wired Women has an introduction by Connie Willis in which she admits that Reed’s stories scare the spit out of her. I can’t help but agree. Reed writes in parables and allegories. You can’t read her stories as realistic literalisms; they make no sense at all on that level. They are visceral surrealisms. Sometimes, as a result, she loses control and the symbolism becomes too overt and the spell (always a fragile one at this level of discourse) breaks. But when she gets it right she scares the spit out of you because she is poking exactly where it hurts.

I bought White Light on the strength of a good review in Locus and because one of the authors (William Barton) had an early space opera novel with a space time juggernaut in it. I never could resist a space time juggernaut. But I’m afraid White Light has no such jollities in it. In the near future, the Earth is poisoned beyond repair. Such engineering effort as is still possible is geared to an increasingly desperate search for other habitable planets. Ship after ship is launched (the inherent contradictions in this scenario seem to have escaped the authors). The novel follows one such ship and its crew through its increasingly routine adventures with several dei ex machina to liven up the journey. There’s the odd interesting speculation, but by and large these tired old eyes have seen this sort of thing too many times.

I moved progressively closer to the front of the class (thus labelling myself a creep to my classmates). Eventually I was right at the front, nose not quite jammed into the chalk dust. The messages remained enigmatic.

"You’re imagining things," roared my father. "You just want glasses because your friends have them and you think it is all the fashion."

My marks deteriorated and I understood less and less (that’s why they call them lessons, I suppose (sorry Lewis)). Eventually, against his better judgement, my father was persuaded to take me to have my eyes tested and it was revealed that I was severely short sighted.

"You made up all the answers you gave the optician," my father insisted. "There’s nothing wrong with your eyes."

Once my father got an idea into his head, nothing short of dynamite would ever remove it. To his dying day he never believed that I needed glasses, though eventually he came to accept it.

"New glasses?"


"They suit you."

Bag of Bones is Stephen King’s best novel in years. It’s a novel about a novelist, an idea that King seems to find irresistibly fascinating (see, for example, Misery and The Dark Half). Very few writers have ever managed to do justice to this theme (Thomas Wolfe probably got closest – but who reads Thomas Wolfe today?) and most publishers would probably turn down such a story out of hand without even thinking about it. It says something about King’s popularity (not to mention his writing skill) that he can get away with the literary equivalent of box-office poison.

Mike Noonan’s wife dies tragically and unexpectedly. After this, Noonan suffers an acute writer’s block. He gets physically ill when faced with the blank screen of his word processor. The words just won’t come out any more. For a time he coasts. He has four complete manuscripts in the trunk and he fobs his agent off with these. But when that well runs dry, there will be no more.

He and his wife owned a house (the oddly named Sara Laughs) on a lakeside in Maine. Mike retreats there, but finds the town has changed. Millionaire computer entrepreneur Max Devore has the town in his psychotic grip as he fights for the custody of his granddaughter. The young girl and her mother turn to Mike for help and spirits start to stir in Sara Laughs. In addition to all these troubles, Mike starts to suspect that in the last few months of her life his wife spent a lot of time at Sara Laughs pursuing some odd project of her own about which he knew nothing. He is drawn deeper and deeper into mystery.

The supernatural elements are nicely underplayed. It is well over half way through the book before the reader (and Mike) understand that supernatural events are even taking place at all, though as they become more overt the pace increases and the tensions mount almost unbearably. The climaxes are truly wrenching and the revelations about the people in the town (and the curious coincidence of names) build into a picture of true evil. It starts slowly and the acceleration is so gradual that you don’t notice that you are roaring along at full speed until the shocks hit you one after another. Bang! Bang! Bang!

The book left me breathless and drained. It truly cast a spell on my mind and held me completely enthralled all the way through.

Christopher Priest’s new novel starts promisingly. British born Teresa Simons, recently widowed, returns to England from America. Her husband, an FBI agent like herself, was killed in a shoot out with a deranged gunman in a small Texas town. While this was going on (as Teresa found out later) another deranged gunman was running amok in the small English village of Bulverton. The coincidences are uncanny and Teresa is drawn to Bulverton, and to the virtual reality of Extreme Experience. ExEx is the commercial hit of the period. In the virtual reality worlds customers can live and re-live lives and deaths, particularly violent deaths. Teresa herself has died violently in uncounted ExEx scenarios as part of her FBI training. Perhaps there are answers in the virtual world, particularly now that the events in Bulverton and Texas are available on ExEx chips.

Up to this point I found the novel brilliantly gripping. But once Teresa entered the ExEx Bulverton the story degenerated into incoherence and I’m afraid the last quarter let things down badly. Nothing was resolved, everything turned to mush.

The world that revealed itself to me once the glasses were perched on my nose was a miracle of clarity. I remember being surprised to find that things had edges. I’d never seen edges before – to me objects just faded away into vagueness at their boundaries and it was a revelation to find that in reality they were sharply defined. And while intellectually I had always known that roads had another side (after all, just like the chicken, I crossed the road on occasion), I was astonished to find that I could actually see it in all its glory long before I got there. I began to realise just how circumscribed my world had actually been.

My eyes gradually deteriorated all through my teenage years, finally stabilising in my early twenties. My prescription remained unchanged and I got into the habit of visiting the optician only when the frames fell apart (not an unusual occurrence with the cheap British frames – my New Zealand optician was quite scathing of them).

However for the last year or so I have found it progressively more difficult to read the date on my watch or absorb the detail of tiny footnotes in technical manuals. (The only useful information in technical manuals is to be found in footnotes. By and large, the main pages contain nothing of interest or significance).

I find myself constantly taking my glasses off to read things that are close to me (my long distance vision remains stable and my glasses are still essential for that). More and more I find myself in sympathy with my grandfather’s often expressed grumble that the print in newspapers is much smaller than it used to be. Another eye test would appear to be required. Fortunately there is an optician directly across the road from the office…

Put the name Bill Bryson, or Scott Adams on the cover of a book and the sales are almost guaranteed for laughter is the best medicine for whatever ails you. However while Bryson goes from strength to strength, Adams is starting to reveal himself as a one idea man, and that idea has been done to death.

Notes From a Big Country is a series of articles that Bryson wrote as he rediscovered America after twenty years of living abroad. Being not quite a foreigner, but not quite an American either after so long away has given him a unique insight into national foibles. He is brilliantly scathing about American supermarkets (with, he claims, whole aisles devoted to fattening foods for the grossly overweight) and he waxes lyrical about labour saving devices. It would appear that one of the rooms in his house has automatic curtains. You flick a switch on the wall and the curtains open or close, whichever is more appropriate. Well, that is the theory. In practice:

…one opens, one closes, one opens and closes
repeatedly and one does nothing at all for five minutes
and then starts to emit smoke. We haven’t gone anywhere
near them since the first week.

If you want all your prejudices about Americans reinforced, if you want to develop new prejudices about Americans, and if you want to laugh yourself sick then this is the book for you.

Scott Adams’ new book, The Joy of Work is the latest and least of his Dilbertian analyses of the workplace. By now the whole thing is more than somewhat sad. The best bits in the book are the emails sent to him from all over corporate America detailing the idiocies of the correspondents’ workplaces. The intervening ramblings by Adams are repetitive and dull.

Robert Harris has never really lived up to the promise of his brilliant first novel Fatherland. His new book Archangel starts well but soon degenerates into implausibilty. Fluke Kelso is an Oxford historian in Moscow to attend a conference on the newly opened Soviet archives. One night he is visited in his hotel room by an old man who claims to be a former NKVD officer, a bodyguard of Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrenty Beria. He claims to have been at Stalin’s dacha the night the old man died, and to have helped Beria steal some private papers, including a black-backed notebook about which Beria seemed strangely excited.

Kelso checks out the old man’s story – and you can easily imagine the rest. The first half of the book is quite gripping but once the notebook is discovered and its contents are known the novel goes rapidly downhill and the ending is extremely silly. Disbelief cannot be willingly suspended.

Howard Waldrop writes short stories (once he wrote a novel, but it was a long time ago, and he claims to have been working on another one for the last twenty six years). He isn’t even very prolific with these short stories. Going Home Again is only his fourth collection in twelve years (and it is quite a slim little volume, though handsomely produced). Obviously he will never get rich from his writing.

Though few and far between, his stories are well worth seeking out. One reason for his small production rate is the immense amount of research that he puts into his themes. As a consequence the stories all feel solid and lived in, rich with reference and invention. Half the fun is playing "spot the allusion".

This collection is as brilliant as all the others have been. I have no doubt that it will sell in its tens, just like all the others did, and Howard will continue not to make money, just as he has always done. And that’s a damn shame.

"First I want to measure the distance between your eyes," said the nice lady as she brandished a ruler. Feeling distinctly more neanderthalic as the ruler got closer, I submitted to the indignity. She nodded and wrote something down. I had confirmed her worst fears.

"Now look through here. Can you see the letters?"


"Tell me which is clearer. Here’s lens one. Here’s lens two."

"Well actually it was clearest when you took lens one away and before you put lens two in."

"Ha, ha." She sounded somewhat grim. Perhaps I was doing it wrong. I resolved to try harder.

"Now we’ll test your close reading vision. Just hold this card comfortably then move it slowly away from you and tell me when it starts to go out of focus."

I tried; I really did. But when she made another note and said, "Ah, I see your arms aren’t quite long enough," I knew that all hope was dead.

Then we had the glaucoma test. The early onset of glaucoma is detected by a rise in pressure inside the eyeball. They have two ways of testing for this. One shoots a jet of compressed air into the eyeball. Obviously it makes you blink, but the machine measures the deformation of the eyeball just before the blink and deduces the internal pressure from the amount of distortion. It’s all over in the blink of an eye (ahem!).

The other, and much more unpleasant way, involves dripping vivid yellow goo into the eye. This is a local anaesthetic. Once the eyeball is numbed, a machine pushes a probe against the surface. Again the internal pressure is measured. The test itself takes next to no time, but for the next hour or so you weep copious fluorescent tears and people laugh at you. (But you look impressively cool under the UV lights in a night-club).

I was pleased to see that this time I was getting the puff of air. Blink! Blink! All done.

Apparently the slight deterioration in my vision is quite normal. If I want, I can have a prescription for reading glasses, but frankly there seems little point. The optician says that taking my glasses off to read is perfectly OK and putting on another pair just so my eyeballs don’t feel naked is probably overkill.

So now my only problem is trying to remember where I put my glasses last time I took them off to read a footnote or check the date. And believe me, that’s a real problem.

Mike Resnick The Widowmaker Unleashed Bantam
Patricia Anthony Cradle of Splendor Ace
Kit Reed Weird Women, Wired Women Wesleyan
William Barton and Michael Capobianco White Light Avon
Stephen King Bag of Bones Hodder & Stoughton
Christopher Priest The Extremes Simon & Schuster
Bill Bryson Notes from a Big Country Doubleday
Scott Adams The Joy of Work Harper Business
Robert Harris Archangel Hutchinson
Howard Waldrop Going Home Again St Martins Press

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