Previous Contents Next

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

My First Week Back at Work

I arrived at Auckland airport on Sunday afternoon to discover that it was a wall to wall mass of seething inhumanity. No planes had been able to get in or out of Wellington for the last two days and everybody's patience was wearing thin.

"I have to get to Wellington today," shrieked a lady overcome with stress. "How dare you cancel my flight? It is absolutely vital that I get to Wellington. You MUST schedule a flight."

Her voice rose in both frequency and volume. Dogs began to howl and rude words etched themselves into the glass doors of the terminal. The man behind the counter patiently explained for the five thousandth time that Air New Zealand was not in charge of the weather and there was nothing he or anybody else could do. His body language made it plain that he was secretly nursing an ambition to punch her lights out. But he restrained himself.

I decided to go over to the Ansett Golden Wing Lounge. Maybe the staff there would be less fraught…

The Walpole Club is celebrating its 250th birthday and the committee has decided to hold an orgy. This leaves William Grundwick with a problem – as club secretary he has to organise this orgy; and how do you arrange an orgy for a group of doddering centenarians without killing them in the process? But that is actually the least of his problems, he is under strictly instructions not to tell his wife Milly. She finds his secretiveness upsetting and begins to draw the obvious conclusions. Meanwhile she has problems of her own. She is in charge of a string trio specialising in Baroque music and her viola player has eloped to Los Angeles with a session guitarist called Trev.

Thus are sown the seeds of the late Frank Muir’s only novel The Walpole Orange. I confess I deliberately avoided reading it for a long time. The blurb (much along the lines of the previous paragraph) suggested that I wouldn't like it very much. I could see how the plot would progress – much confusion about William’s secret, arguments with Milly, slapstick farce about the orgy. All quite silly and vaguely embarrassing.

As it happened, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I read it at the urging of a friend who had enjoyed it mightily, and now I urge you to read it too. None of the elements I expected are there at all. Just when you think the characters will act stupidly in order to introduce lowest common denominator Whitehall farce nonsense, they surprise you by acting utterly sensibly and defusing the obvious "joke" in favour of a much more subtle (and therefore twice as funny) joke. I devoured the whole book in one gulp and I loved it. Muir’s wit shines on every page, and the humour is perfectly timed and perfectly delivered. It is a little gem of a book. How I wish he had lived to write more of them.

And while we are talking about serendipitous reading experiences, a few weeks ago I happened to be watching the TV when an episode of Frost came on. I’d managed to avoid watching any of them before on the grounds that it was obviously just another detective series and (yawn!) I’ve seen a million of them. But anyway there it was and I couldn’t summon the energy to change channels (indolence, thy name is Robson) and so I watched it and it was rather good. Then, by strange chance, I found one of the novels and having nothing better to do, I read it. Guess what? It was enormously entertaining and I was stricken with a desire to read more. The coincidences mounted – I visited a second hand bookshop and there on the shelf were all the available novels. I bought them and read them one after the other in a row. Guess what? They were wonderful and I want more. NOW!

The TV series is amusing and somewhat cynical. Detective Inspector Frost, the eponymous hero, is lazy, disorganised, slovenly and cunning. Behind the humour lie serious concerns and this depth of feeling even manages to survive the translation to the screen making the series rather more than just the formulaic concern that I, in my ignorance, had deemed it to be. The books are much darker (and MUCH funnier, more bawdy, far more cynical) and they do appeal to me more. But both are inextricably tangled together in my head and really I can’t condemn either of them and I most definitely can praise them both. Watch the TV series or read the books (or do both). Trust me, you won’t regret it.

"No," the nice Ansett lady behind the desk said to me, "I don't think there is any chance at all of getting you to Wellington today and it will probably be quite late on Monday before we can re-schedule you."

My first day back at work after the Christmas holidays was not turning out to be an overwhelming success. However even as we spoke and while I was glumly contemplating my future, an announcement came over the tannoy:

"If there is anyone who would like a lift to Wellington and can help with the driving, would they please come to the service desk in the Golden Wing Lounge."

Since that was exactly where I was standing, I determined to take advantage of the offer. To think was to act. I wasted no time.

"ME!!!", I volunteered.

And so it was done. It turned out that Natalie had an urgent appointment in Wellington and, like me, couldn't wait until Monday. So she had cut the gordion knot and rented a car, the cost of which she was charging back to her firm on the theory that they would rather pay a little money up front now and make a success of her project than be miserable skinflints and watch the project fail. It sounded good to me.

"How much would you like me to contribute to the cost?" I asked. She waved her hand vaguely in the air. "Nothing," she said. "The company is paying. Don't worry about it."

It sounded even better. Later, after the adventure was over, I told all this to my boss and pointed out that my journey to Wellington hadn't cost the company a cent. Being Glaswegian, he found this enormously satisfying and immediately began contemplating nefarious schemes to close Wellington airport every time I was due to fly...

Paul di Filippo is not a name that trips lightly off the tongue. I first came across him a couple of years ago with some surrealistic novels that (for want of a better word) are often characterised as steampunk. Just recently he seems to have had a small publishing blitz and after ages of silence, we now have an embarrassment of riches.

Ribofunk is a collection of linked stories set in a common future environment. Biological engineering is the norm (genitals and extra breasts may be easily purchased) and the scut work of society is performed by splices – genetically engineered animals with small percentages of human genes. Any splice with 50% or more humanity qualifies as human and is protected under the law. Splices with fewer human genes than this are little better than slaves. (Interestingly many of the splices in the book are the most sympathetic and best drawn characters). The stories themselves are not that thrilling in terms of plot and incident. All are common coin and cliché. What makes these stories stand out and sing is the wonderful language that di Filippo uses to set the scene. Never were words put together like this; words common and rare, neologisms and stunningly phrased pragmatisms. If you love language you will love these stories (and you might even end up speaking that way – it is some of the most addictive slang I have ever seen; even the nadsat of A Clockwork Orange wasn’t that compulsive. I think Burgess might have enjoyed di Filipppo).

Lost Pages posits an alternative universe where various famous people from our universe lead slightly different lives. Franz Kafka has a secret identity as a superhero called The Jackdaw. The sociologist Joseph Campbell edits a science fiction magazine and by doing so manages to change the way the world works. Shortly before World War II, Anne Frank and her family emigrate from Holland to the USA. Eventually she becomes a novelist. Her most poignant memoir wonders about what her life and the lives of her relatives might have been had her family not decided to emigrate (if you don’t weep at this one you aren’t human). To call this book a work of genius is perhaps to exaggerate – but not by much.

Fractal Paisleys is another collection of very odd stories. Here you will learn how John Lennon found inspiration, why there is a talking moose head on the wall of a bar in Providence Rhode Island, and similar secrets of the universe. Of the three books, this is perhaps the weakest (though it would shine in most other companies). The stories just aren’t quite wild enough. The raving madness of the other books is here a little muted and the subsequent calm is slightly anti-climactic. But don’t let it put you off. There is still high art here – it suffers only by comparison, not in its own right.

And so the journey to Wellington began. A short way out of Auckland, the sky was ominously dark and soon the rain came down like stair rods. We drove past a golf course and I was astonished to see the sprinkler system in action. The grass looked quite bemused at this double dose of pleasure.

With wipers going at full speed, we weaved along State Highway 1. A disturbing number of white crosses decorated the roadside, and it wasn't long before I understood why. Far too many times I watched moronic drivers in high powered cars zooming down the right hand lane, overtaking everything in sight and occasionally nipping back into the left lane when the oncoming traffic got too close for comfort. We saw no accidents, and nobody died, but that was a miracle of rare design in itself. A slight misjudgement, a moment of inattention and I could easily have seen at least twenty accidents on that journey and who knows how many deaths. Driving standards in New Zealand have always been appallingly bad, but they seem to have got even worse in recent years.

The weather was most odd. Shortly before Taupo we drove into a band of sunshine. In front of us and behind us the black clouds decorated the sky, and the border between the dark and the light was the straightest line I have ever seen in a natural phenomenon. Usually nature abhors straight lines (rather like New Zealand road engineers who, I am certain, get paid by the corner).

I have always been convinced that if it is raining somewhere then obviously there must be some other place where it is not raining. If you can find the border between these two areas, then there must be a place where you can stand with one side of your body getting rained on and the other staying dry. However I've never been able to find such a place - the border always seems to be too fuzzy. But this time I found it; the border between the dark rain clouds and the sunshine was almost geometrically straight. I was tempted to stop the car and just stand there enjoying the oddity, but if I did that some idiot would probably crash into me, so I carried on driving.

Feeling peckish, we decided to stop in Taupo for a nibble. "Where's a good place to eat in Taupo?" mused Natalie. I had no answer. The last time I was in Taupo was midnight eight years ago, and nothing had been open so I'd had a picnic by the lake with the remnants of my lunch. "Oh look," said Natalie, "there's a parking space. Let's pull over and then we'll decide."

The car was duly parked. And there, right in front of us was a Kebab house. This was obviously a sign from God, and so we dined on Kebabs…

The Cyborg From Earth is the latest and least of Charles Sheffield’s "Jupiter" series of novels for teenagers. As with all the rest, it is a coming of age story. Jeff Kopal, scion of one of the richest families on Earth fails his entrance exam for the space navy. In disgrace, he is posted to the border patrol where "cyborgs" are threatening rebellion against Earth. He is captured by the cyborgs and much to his surprise finds his prejudices are incorrect; even enemies have virtues.

Mixed in with this moral philosophy (and sitting quite uneasily alongside it) is a rather surprising dose of pseudo-science. The key to the whole thing is an invention known as the Anadem Field, a never-fully-explained Mcguffin that neutralises inertia (can you say E. E. Smith? I thought you could).

It doesn’t work as science, it doesn’t work as literature, and it utterly fails to convince. Don’t waste your money.

Two so-called "hard SF writers" who are often mentioned in the same breath as Sheffield are Poul Anderson and John Varley. Both have new novels.

Anderson’s Starfarers is too small for its subject. Strange astronomical phenomena observed from Earth are interpreted as being the trails of alien spacecraft travelling close to the speed of light. With the knowledge that the thing is possible firmly in front of them, Earth scientists develop a "zero-zero" drive which taps the energy of quantum fluctuations in the vacuum to propel their craft asymptotically close to light speed. Of course, relativistic effects still apply and journeys of a few weeks (ship time) can take hundreds of years from the point of view of Earth. Two societies inevitably arise – the spacers are a closed shop who know that their friends and family may be long dead when they return from their voyagers. Earth people regard these seemingly long lived space farers with fear and some degree of loathing.

And then the ship Envoy departs on the longest voyage of all. Five years or more ship time, ten thousand years Earth time as galaxies are crossed to visit the yonderfolk whose ship trails inspired the development of the space ships in the first place. The astronauts will be gone for (from the point of view of Earth) a period longer than the whole of recorded human history.

The breadth of vision of this novel takes the breath away. Unfortunately the writing reduces it to the mundane. Good grief – we even get a space mutiny, that hoary old standby of writers who aren’t thinking! Great ideas, infuriatingly dull and almost trivial explication – a trait of too many of Poul Anderson’s novels.

Now in the case of John Varley, I have to admit a bias. As far as I am concerned, he can do no wrong. I have thoroughly enjoyed everything he has ever written and I won’t listen to criticism. (Shut up at the back!). The Golden Globe held me enthralled from beginning to end. Good old-fashioned sensawunder SF. Perfect!

When we first meet Sparky Valentine he is a down-on-his-luck actor doing jobbing work off Pluto. There are obviously dark secrets in his past and when a cop turns up to arrest him half way through the most dramatic scene in Romeo and Juliet, something has to give. An actor must remain true to his art (the show must go on?). But a cop is a cop.

At the other end of the solar system, on the Moon, the greatest director of the age is staging a new production of King Lear. Sparky wants that part so badly he can taste it. All he has to do is get himself and his dog from Pluto to Luna in time to audition, and avoid the cops while he does so. Oh yes – he hasn’t any money for a ticket.

And so Varley has re-written one of the oldest stories in the world; the picaresque adventure. It hasn’t lost any of its fascination – umpteen thousand years and umpteen thousand re-tellings have not dimmed its magic one jot or tittle. Varley manages it superbly and the gradual revelations in the understory about Sparky’s past life (and just why he is on the run) only add depth and interest. This one thrilled me, made me laugh and took me away from reality into its own world. In short it did everything that a story is designed to do and it did it perfectly. It’s a STORY damnit. I love stories.

The journey to Wellington continued. No visitor to the country would ever have known that New Zealand had mountains. They were all sulking behind very low cloud and the land was flat and barren as far as the eye could see which was almost three feet. Macho drivers kept showing off their big dicks by racing past at 150 kph, but we left them to it.

Just south of Taupo I had the enormous pleasure of watching my phone switch between cells (I'd never seen the phenomenon before since phones must be turned off on an aeroplane). The signal vanished completely for about 3 seconds and then the "roam" light flickered briefly, went out for another couple of seconds as the signal vanished again, and then came on strongly. I assume from this that the cell boundaries are nowhere near as fixed (or as close to each other) as all the diagrams imply. I also wonder how people living in the dead zone between the cells manage? Perhaps there is a law against them having a cell phone.

We contemplated stopping in Taihape to purchase a gumboot, but neither of us had enough room in our suitcases. For the first time ever, I really did see a bull on the outskirts of Bulls and as always I winced when I saw the spelling on the signpost to Feilding (and I winced again just now as I typed it).

Wellington was black and gloomy, dank and cold. We arrived about 10.00pm and I checked into my hotel. A quick visit to the office to do some last minute things and then to bed…

One of the best western movies ever made is The Outlaw Josey Wales which starred, and was directed by, Clint Eastwood. It was based on a novel called Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter. The novel was later followed by a sequel called The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales. At one time it was rumoured that Eastwood was going to make a film of this as well, but nothing ever came of it. Now both novels have been republished in an omnibus volume under the simple title Josey Wales.

Josey’s family is killed by Kansas redlegs (guerrilla bands that roamed and raped across the country at the end of the civil war). In his grief Josey follows a similar trail, a similar lifestyle and soon gains an awesome reputation. Even among the hard men of that era Josey stood out as the hardest of them all. He was ruthless and deadly to his enemies (though surprisingly gentle to those few friends that he accumulated). These novels are among the most violent you will ever read. They are also, oddly, among the most moving. The writing is crude and the characterisation is almost non-existent. Every person in the book is a walking, talking stereotype. Yet somehow it still has magic. The story managed to touch me somewhere deep inside when I wasn’t looking. I really don’t know how.

I vaguely recall reading Playing the Jack by Mary Brown many years ago. When I saw it marked down to $4.95 in Whitcoull’s bargain bin, it seemed too good a bargain to miss. In 1785, a troupe of strolling players find a runaway hiding in a ditch. They adopt him as part of the company and nickname him Sprat. He soon learns to shill for the fat lady, play a supporting role in the dramas that Jack (the troupe leader) writes and mind his own business when Jack’s mysterious past seems likely to disrupt their almost idyllic life.

There are many deep waters here, in both Sprat’s life and in Jack’s. Politics is involved of course (there is a revolution in France), but so is love. There are thrills, spills and humour. It was all very familiar (I was right in my conviction that I had read the book before), but I enjoyed it all over again. It was skilfully and professionally written. I went hunting on and rather to my surprise I found that Mary Brown has also written several fantasy novels. I ordered them immediately and even as we speak they are winging their way towards me. I’ll keep you posted.

The more I read of Nancy Kress, the more impressed I am. Stinger is a direct sequel to the earlier Oaths and Miracles, and the same characters are involved. Like the earlier book it is best described as a biological thriller and it is a superb example of its type.

FBI agent Robert Cavenaugh (he of the gentle temperament, steely will and a penchant for drawing sick cartoons at inappropriate moments) has been transferred in semi-disgrace to a rural field office in Maryland. His affair with journalist Judy Kozinski is going through a rocky patch and this only adds to his woes.

A lot of otherwise healthy black adults start to die of strokes. Forensic analysis suggests that the strokes are somehow linked to the genetic tendency of black races to have blood types in which the red cells are elongated in sickle shapes (leading sometimes to death from sickle cell anaemia in particularly prone individuals).

It would appear that somehow a genetically engineered plague is on the loose; a plague deliberately targeted at black people world wide. At first Cavenaugh’s speculations are laughed at. But eventually the numbers are too great to ignore. The hunt is on and the game is afoot. The tension never lets up (both in Cavenaugh’s private and public life) and the final dénouement will take your breath away. The scale of the conspiracy (and the identity and motivation of the conspirators) is truly amazing. The science is impeccable, the relationships are clearly drawn and you will need a lot of fingernails to chew on.

On Monday I hopped out of bed and into the shower. Nothing but freezing cold water emerged. I could tell straight away that my week was going to continue in the same manner in which it had begun. A plumber was called and on Tuesday, and for the rest of the week, I got exactly 45 seconds of hot water in my shower before it turned freezing cold again. On Wednesday I was awoken at 4.00am as large and enthusiastic council workmen emptied trash bins with enormous gusto and on Thursday I was awoken by a phone call at 2.00am. It was a wrong number.

Friday dawned clear and clean. After my normal 45 second hot shower followed by a cold one for as long as I could stand it, I checked out of the hotel and went to the office. That evening I took a taxi to Wellington airport, wondering if I would be able to get home.

The flight was utterly uneventful.

Frank Muir The Walpole Orange Corgi
R. D. Wingfield Night Frost Corgi
R. D. Wingfield A Touch of Frost Corgi
R. D. Wingfield Frost at Christmas Corgi
R. D. Wingfield Hard Frost Corgi
Paul di Filippo Ribofunk Avon
Paul di Filippo Lost Pages Four Walls, Eight Windows
Paul di Filippo Fractal Paisleys Four Walls, Eight Windows
Charles Sheffield The Cyborg From Earth Tor
Poul Anderson Starfarers Tor
John Varley The Golden Globe Ace
Forrest Carter Josey Wales University of New Mexico Press
Mary Brown Playing the Jack Sheridan Book Company
Nancy Kress Stinger Forge

Previous Contents Next