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


As I write, it is the day after Christmas. Christmas day itself began with smoked salmon and champagne and presents. I got an inflatable Titanic, complete with an inflatable iceberg, but the iceberg had a slow leak, and so history was altered as it slowly hissed into oblivion and sank and the Titanic sailed majestically by unharmed. I also got a walking stick with a secret compartment to hide brandy in. Sally got a set of petanque boules and a pig that wrinkles its nose most fetchingly and goes oink as it scuttles across the floor chasing the cats (who were not impressed).

The cats got a catnip spray. I sprayed everything in sight, but (typically) they showed no interest. I set the pig on them again - serve them right.

Sally’s taste in books is not mine. So I paid little attention when a large book called Shores of Darkness by Diana Norman appeared. More fool me.

One day, in a fit of idleness, I picked it up and read the blurb. War in Flanders (mutter, mutter), 1706 (mutter, mutter), Daniel Defoe (mutter, mutter), pirates (mutter, mutter), the court of the Sun King. The next thing I knew I was reading it and I didn’t stop until I’d finished, for it held me enthralled.

Martin Millett comes home from the Flanders war to find his Aunt Effie murdered. His friend Daniel Defoe has been pilloried (again) for his satirical writings and in between the rotten tomatoes has conversation with a large Scottish gentleman who has a mission for him. He joins forces with Martin and with the Bratchet (Aunt Effie’s servant) in the investigation of a conspiracy. In the dying days of Queen Anne’s reign the succession is far from obvious and many factions are pressing their cases. There are strange tales being told of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, soldiers and pirates both. There is revenge to take and creditors to pay and Daniel Defoe meets a man called Alexander Selkirk who was cast away alone on an island for many years.

By turns a rollicking adventure, a political conspiracy and a love story, this one pushes all the magic buttons.

In 1963, Jack Schaefer published a fix-up western novel called Monte Walsh. It must have arrived in our local library soon after that for I remember reading and re-reading it several times as a teenager. Something about it just fascinated me. Recently (through the good offices of I found a paperback reprint and I devoured it all over again. Interestingly, unlike so many of the books of my teenage years, this one stood up surprisingly well and it hooked me all over again. On the surface it is simply the life story of Monte Walsh from his early teens in 1872 to his death in 1913. He was a cattle hand. He drove herds, he rode horses, he ate stew and beans and dust. He worked hard and he played hard, he drank and he fought and he loved and he lost; and he is the cliché that we have all seen a thousand times in far too many movies and television programmes. But the book is so much more than that, for those years saw the growth and rise to maturity of a nation and Monte Walsh grew with it. The book is at once an elegy and a prose poem. On the surface it deals only with mundane matters, but through them it illuminates far larger concerns. It asks deep questions and it makes definitions of morality and maturity, of friendship and duty. Jack Schaefer is like a piano player who hits all the right notes but whose real music can only be appreciated by listening to the sounds of the gaps between the keys. If there is such a thing as pure story, then this is it.

A writer I have always loved (though I am prepared to admit that he is both a minority interest and an acquired taste) is Avram Davidson. In long parenthetical sentences he wrote some of the oddest and most erudite stories it has ever been my pleasure to read. He was a master of the art of the digression, but just when you thought he had forgotten all about his original concerns he would unwind the stack and tie it all together.

However, being so idiosyncratic, he found it difficult to get published. He was also a victim of his own discursiveness and he started far more projects than he finished. He died several years ago, and I am sad that now he will never reveal what finally happened to Vergil Magus, that there will never be a Peregrine Tertius and that we will learn no more of the strange events that took place in those years when the bears were bad in Bosnia.

But things slip through the cracks. Grania Davis has smoothed the rough edges off several unfinished Davidson projects and The Boss in the Wall is the latest of these. It is a slim little booklet (just over a hundred pages of rather large print) but it is vintage Davidson. Rambling, erudite, stuffed with arcane reference and sociological lore. Reading it, you would swear that you really had heard the superstition of the Boss. And in run down houses in blighted neighbourhoods, shredded old newspapers, a daguerreotype of a confederate soldier, a headless corpse and a corpseless head will make you shrink into your seat in terror. It’s a silly story – a tale of evil animations such as M. R. James might have produced. But he didn’t. Avram Davidson did, and it is scary and witty and wise.

Frederic Brown died too young. His work was mostly produced in the 1940s and 1950s and is now largely unobtainable. But every so often things surface, and when they do I am always amazed at how modern his themes appear to be. Heaven knows what the audiences of those times made of his work. They must have thought him perverse in the extreme. In these more cynical and world-weary times we know better, to our cost.

The Deep End opens with the reported death of a teenager at a funfair. It seems he was run over by a roller coaster car. It was rather messy. He was identifiable only by the contents of his wallet. Obie Westphal, all American blue eyed boy. His parents are informed and they break a holiday to return for the funeral. However while they are in transit (and therefore unable to be informed) it is discovered that the corpse was not their son – Obie turns up at a police station to report a stolen wallet. It would seem that the thief, intent on escape, had misjudged the speed of the roller coaster car as he ran.

Sam Evans, a reporter, digs more deeply into the mystery. When Obie’s hysterical parents arrive at the funeral home to discover that their son is not dead, their reaction is strangely muted and Obie’s father offers to pay for the funeral of the thief. Sam is intrigued. What does it mean?

Soon more sinister interpretations of the facts come to light and it isn’t long before Sam starts to suspect that Obie, seemingly the epitome of suburban American youth (Mom and apple pie) is actually a serial killer, getting his kicks from murders committed in secret and left looking like accidents. Four people have died at his school, he takes walks at night among the hobo jungles of the railway yards; who would notice the death of a hobo?

Given many of the newspaper headlines of the last thirty years, Brown’s story starts to seem amazingly prescient. I squirmed as I read it for I can believe in it all too easily. When it was published in 1953 it must have seemed monstrous to think of a child behaving like that. I’m not sure our society has changed for the better when speculations such as these fail any longer to seem outrageous.

One of the things I objected to about the movie Jurassic Park was that it had no real story. Everything was taken straight off the shelf of the stock cupboard and I squirmed in embarrassment as the idiotic plot ground inexorably and predictably to its dull and drawn out conclusion. The special effects (of course) were mind-bogglingly brilliant and in between my groans of anguish at the supreme dullness of the script I grooved on the dinosaurs. Everyone loves dinosaurs. But even that love could not save the monumentally appalling insult to the intelligence that was the hackneyed plot, abysmal writing and atrocious acting of Jurassic Park.

Why, oh why couldn’t they have filmed Greg Bear’s novel Dinosaur Summer instead? Well actually, because he hadn’t written it when they made the film. But that’s no excuse! They should have waited.

The novel is everything that the film wasn’t. It is intelligent, well written, carefully plotted, original, exciting and it’s got dinosaurs. What more could anybody want?

The novel is a kind of a sequel to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World. Professor Challenger found dinosaurs surviving on the hidden plateau of El Grande in Venezuela. Creatures out of legend were brought north as circus exhibits and for a time they were enormously popular. But fickle public interest waned and now the last of the dinosaur circuses is closing down. Lothar Gluck, circus proprietor, decides to take his dinosaurs back home…

For more than thirty years James White has been writing stories set in Sector General hospital. In novel after novel, story after story he has chronicled the odd illnesses of alien beings and the doctors who treat them. In the very first book in the series (Hospital Station, 1962) he introduced us to O’Mara, one of the construction workers building the hospital. During the course of the story, O’Mara demonstrates a peculiar ability to understand the psychology of the alien patients who are starting to arrive and by the end of the novel he is working as a psychiatrist in the hospital that he helped to build.

In later books, O’Mara had a small role to play. Other doctors and nurses (both human and alien) had stories that needed to be told. I always regretted this. O’Mara was one of my favourite characters and Hospital Station was one of my favourite books. Like Monte Walsh, it was a book I returned to again and again in my teenage years.

Imagine my joy therefore when I discovered that the latest Sector General novel, Mind Changer, was all about O’Mara again!

It is now more than thirty five years since O’Mara first arrived at the hospital, and he has reached retiring age. He is being forcibly put out to pasture (of course he doesn’t want to go) but before he leaves, he must find and train a successor. Sector General requires a new chief psychologist.

The novel interweaves two stories. O’Mara’s search for and training of his replacement, and his ruminations over the things that have happened to him over his years as Chief Psychologist. Here are all the missing stories from all those years. They are fascinating in themselves, but aficionados of the series will find much that was mysterious in other books now made clear. O’Mara’s motives were always suspect, his methods and his language crude and forceful. Subtlety often seemed to pass him by and he was very unpopular among his colleagues at the hospital as a result. But all was not what it seemed to be on the surface…

Let me confess to a bias – in my view James White can do no wrong when he writes stories of Sector General.

Several articles ago I waxed enthusiastic about The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I have now read the sequel, Children of God, and I’m sorry to say I did not enjoy it nearly as much as the first book.

Father Emilio Sandoz was the only member of the original expedition to Rakhat to return to Earth, and he returned crippled in both mind and body. He is starting to make a new life for himself when the Society of Jesus asks him to return to Rakhat with a new expedition. He refuses, but it does him no good.

Meanwhile, on Rakhat, we learn that there was one other survivor of the first expedition. Sofia Mendes escaped into the forest with the Runa survivors of the massacre. She was pregnant. When her son is born he is autistic and she despairs of ever communicating successfully with him.

The parallel tales of Emilio and Sofia make up the bulk of the novel. Many mysteries from the first book are explained in this one. This is a mistake, I think – much of the power of the first book derived from its mystery. To have those mysteries explained weakens their power for the explanations are quite mundane and far too recognisably human. The aliens lose much of their remoteness and alienness as a result and I could feel the magic drifting away.

I also objected to the "throw in everything including the kitchen sink" nature of the story. The brew was far too heady and rich – autism, mafia, religion, music, power politics, economics – the list goes on and on. There was enough material here for three more novels (though not novels about Emilio Sandoz and Rakhat) and it fitted together most uneasily. I felt overwhelmed by the size of it and underwhelmed by its nature.

Just before he died, the late Frank Muir completed his autobiography A Kentish Lad. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to a radio programme called Take it From Here (starring that hilariously dysfunctional family The Glums). Later there was television and the delightfully subversive Whacko! Starring Jimmy Edwards. These comedy series were the work of Frank Muir and Dennis Norden. Both subsequently carved out profitable solo careers, but a whole generation of people find it almost impossible to think of one without the other. Perhaps Frank Muir’s greatest solo achievement was a book called (with becoming modesty) The Frank Muir Book in which he pointed his quirky wit at the social history of culture – music, literature, theatre, art etc. He proved to be a scholar with a bottomless treasure trove of curious learning. And this wit, intelligence, taste and sheer genius manifests itself on every page of his autobiography. Oh, I almost forgot – it is also extremely funny.

Robert Rankin is back with Apocalypso. It has become obvious from previous novels that the Ministry of Serendipity runs everything (and that means everything). Porrig’s father is in charge of the Ministry, though Porrig is not aware of this. All that Porrig knows is that he has inherited something from an uncle he didn’t know he had. However he isn’t all that sure just what it is that he has inherited, nor is he aware of the spacecraft that crashed into the Pacific four thousand years ago. As the mad alien thaws out, it becomes increasingly clear that the Ministry of Serendipity is losing its grip. Porrig is worried. And so he should be – he is involved in a Robert Rankin plot. The only things guaranteed are arcane lore, odd sexual references, enormous hilarity and lots of very old jokes. Only Robert Rankin could get away with having a character who is a lawyer called Phart-Ebum.

Matt Ruff first came to attention with a novel called Fool on the Hill in which a dog, a cat, several sprites and the members of some very odd fraternities and sororities at Cornell University battle against the evil depredations of Rasferret the Grub. All this at the whim of Mr Sunshine, a storyteller who was once Greek. As you can imagine, it is an odd and surrealistic mixture which somehow succeeds in approaching art. It reads like Tolkien written by Vonnegut with a dash of Tom Robbins for luck. Don’t ask me how he makes it work, but he does.

His new novel is called Sewer, Gas and Electric and it is subtitled The Public Works Trilogy, something which is bound to sow confusion for years to come for the trilogy comprises the three sections of the novel, there will be no sequels. But you have to read the book to determine this.

Harry Grant is building a tower to rival Babel. It rises five hundred stories above the polluted Manhattan streets. His ex-wife Joan is attacked in the sewers by a great white shark called Meisterbrau and out in the deep waters of the Atlantic Philo Dufresne sails a polka dot submarine in a desperate quest to rescue the last ring-tailed lemurs in the world. And in a hurricane lantern, the disembodied head of Ayn Rand dispenses advice and criticism and philosophy.

In both style and content there are superficial resemblances to the Illuminatus trilogy of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. But Ruff has quite different fish to fry. The book is an attack on the Libertarian creed espoused by Ayn Rand. Such whacky extremism can only be approached through surrealistic humour. Rational argument doesn’t work when one side insists that disagreement with the main thesis implies at best woolly thinking and at worst clinical insanity. Rand herself exhibited no trace of a sense of humour whatsoever. Jokes had no place in her world view. What a deadly dull a thing a society based on her ideas would be.

Sewer, Gas and Electric is at one and the same time screamingly funny and deadly serious – just like all the really great books.

I’m getting bored with books about hackers and crackers. At Large (or rather @ Large as the cover cutesily has it (pause while we all vomit)) is written by two journalists and is yet another story of a teenage nerd breaking into machines all across the world. Ho, hum.

Jane Lindskold’s new novel Changer is simply brilliant. When I first read the blurb, I must confess I was not impressed. The implication was that this was nothing more than yet another King Arthur novel. Oh groan!

But it turned out to be so much more than that. The premise is that there are immortals living among us. Some of these immortals have led some of their lives in public. The one who currently thinks of himself as King Arthur was once known as Gilgamesh. The oldest of all the immortals is sometimes called Proteus but is more often known simply as the Changer. As the book opens, some time close to the present, the Changer has been living for several years as a coyote. Returning from a hunt one day he finds humans at his den. They have killed his wife and his pups (though as we learn later one cub survives). There is little that the Changer can do except watch – a coyote is no match for men with guns. But he watches and he gathers evidence and later, in human form again, he joins forces with Arthur to hunt down these killers. But what starts as a simple quest for revenge quickly takes on more complex aspects. The Changer has stumbled across a plot that threatens to undermine the whole organisation that the immortals have built up over many millennia.

It sounds trite, and I suppose that in many ways it is. But one of the measures of art is the ability to elevate such material above the obvious and Lindskold succeeds brilliantly at this, I was sure that this theme had been done to death. I was wrong.

Days of Cain by J. R. Dunn is nowhere near as original or imaginative as the blurb would have you believe, but it IS authoritative, convincing and quite harrowing. In the far future a political organisation that stretches over millennia polices the time stream, striving to keep it "on track" (whatever that means). A rebel group wants to interfere with this. They want to eliminate what they see as one of the most critical events in human history. They are convinced that without the holocaust the world will have a better future. They make several attempts on Hitler’s life but these all fail and so they attempt to overturn the structure of the holocaust from within the death camps themselves.

There is nothing new here. Poul Anderson probably wrote the definitive treatment of this theme with his Guardians of Time stories in the 1950s. But Cain breathes life into the tired old thing and the story really does grip the reader. The scenes set in the camps are extremely upsetting and very hard to read because they pull no punches whatsoever. You can see and taste and smell and feel those terrible days and you return to the reality of your living room with a sense of relief that it was only a book.

The ideas are all common coin. Dunn has at least put a gold coating on the dull lead and consequently I found the book extremely moving. However unlike the Lindskold novel which took a similarly trite theme, it cannot be regarded as an original treatment. It isn’t art, and lacking that extra dimension, ultimately it fails to transcend the obvious nature of its central idea. It is just another novel of the holocaust – a good one, but it has a lot of company.

It isn’t fair to market Maureen McHugh’s new novel as science fiction, because it isn’t. Oh yes, it has the surface trappings of SF, but she only plays with these half-heartedly and they are not at all germane to the plot.

Janna of the Hamra clan lives in the eternal snows of the northern plains. Her clan is massacred by the Tekse clan and she joins the stream of refugees heading south to the cities. Initially she lives in a refugee camp, but eventually she leaves and obtains a job in the city. Various events conspire to make her move on and in the latter half of the book we find her a very long way from home in an area of the planet colonised by Orientals from old Earth. Janna, being born of occidental stock, does not fit into the society at all. But she tries and eventually makes a life for herself.

This is the story of a refugee and the way societies treat such people. It is a story of self-discovery, of a realisation of the way the world works. It could be set in any time and any place and it would work the same way and send the same signals, so wrapping it up as SF is quite legitimate. However in terms of its relevance to us, I suspect it would have been far stronger had it been set in contemporary times, had Janna been, for example, a refugee from Bosnia or Kosovo. In my opinion the science fictional elements hinder rather than help the development and I would much prefer them not to be there. It is a powerful and moving story crippled by its insistence on science fictional tropes.

Midnight Blue brings all of Nancy A. Collins novels of Sonja Blue together between one set of covers. Reading them this way it becomes obvious that they really aren’t three separate novels at all. They tell one coherent story. Many years ago I read the middle book (In the Blood) and didn’t like it very much because I found it hard to come to grips with what was going on. Now I know why – I should have read Sunglasses After Dark first.

Denise Thorne was a typical teenager in 1969. All she wanted to do was listen to music and go out dancing with her friends. In that summer of love, she was picked up in a London club by the aristocratic Lord Morgan. Later, as they drove through the London streets in his Rolls Royce, he revealed himself to be a vampire and he raped, tortured and bled her and then (literally) threw her out of his car into the gutter. He was sure she was dead, but he miscalculated. The body survived, became a vampire and christened itself Sonja Blue. There were traces of Denise, but for all practical purposes she was dead. And Sonya Blue wanted revenge.

The three novels trace her vendetta against Morgan. They are black and violent books replete with blood and death. There are no romantic Ann Rice vampires here. This is an ugly world indeed and therefore most enjoyable. If you like blood and guts and kinky sex then you’ll enjoy this one immensely. I know I did…

Diana Norman Shores of Darkness Penguin
Jack Schaefer Monte Walsh Bison Books
Avram Davidson and Grania Davis The Boss in the Wall Tachyon
Frederic Brown The Deep End Boardman
Greg Bear Dinosaur Summer Voyager
James White Mind Changer Tor
Mary Doria Russell Children of God Villard
Frank Muir A Kentish Lad Corgi
Robert Rankin Apocalypso Doubleday
Matt Ruff Fool on the Hill Grove Press
Matt Ruff Sewer, Gas and Electric Aspect
David H. Freedman and Charles C. Mann @ Large Touchstone
Jane Lindskold Changer Avon
J. R. Dunn Days of Cain Avon
Maureen McHugh Mission Child Avon
Nancy A. Collins Midnight Blue White Wolf

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