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

Head Games

Lately I have been much concerned with the size and shape and general well-being of my head. I am slowly becoming convinced that I might be possessed of certain cranial abnormalities. Those who know me well have professed this belief for years, of course, but until now I have always denied it. However, to my chagrin, the evidence is starting to appear quite overwhelming.

Doubt first set in when I noticed people walking around with their glasses perched on the top of their head. It looked quite stylish and chic and since I often have to remove my glasses for close work I quickly developed the habit of placing them sexily on my skull. However this proved to be less than successful because within a very short space of time they would invariably fall off, generally landing in the urinal as I glanced down.

Such accidents do not make you look cool to the assembled multitudes relieving themselves in the same trough. The subsequent dampness in the hair and behind the ears after retrieving the glasses is also less than pleasant. So these days I have a poofy ribbon tied to my glasses instead and when I take them off they dangle securely on my chest instead of perching precariously on my head. When I eat my lunch, crumbs and excess gravy drop on to my glasses instead of on to my trousers, which saves me a small fortune in dry cleaning bills. However when I put my glasses back on again I can no longer see through them, which adds an interesting dimension to the drive home after work. On the other hand, when I suffer an attack of the midnight munchies all I have to do is suck the lenses - a definite plus, I think.

After a while it began to dawn on me that I never saw any of these headily-bespectacled people actually wearing their glasses properly across their eyes. So I took comfort in the supposition that they were simply making a fashion statement and must have attached their glasses to their bonce with superglue and duct tape. Nothing else could possibly explain how the spectacles stayed so firmly in place. But nevertheless the first doubts about my cranial structure began to surface...

Then I bought a walkman.

Writers who excel in the shorter lengths are often poor novelists (and vice versa, of course). Avram Davidson was probably the most brilliant short story writer of his generation, but I could never really get in to his novels at all (except for the Peregrine novels – but they were fix ups made from previously published shorter works). Even the Vergil Magus novels that the critics rave about never really excited me (one reason being that the man was called Virgil, damnit – and I should know; I had to read enough of his bloody awful poetry at school. Davidson’s deliberate misspelling infuriated me). But as a short story writer the man had no equals and with the publication of two retrospective collections of his tales much that was obscure or out of print is now easily available and his genius shines for all to see clearly.

The Avram Davidson Treasury contains not only wonderful stories, but wonderful introductions to those stories by many famous SF names. They came to praise Davidson, not to bury him and the introductions alone are worth the price of the book for the light they shed on this very idiosyncratic man. But the stories – ah! the stories. They are pure genius.

The Investigations of Avram Davidson concentrates on his detective stories (as opposed to the more SF related Treasury) and virtually all of the stories in the collection were new to me. But his voice was unmistakable. His love of odd lore and his rambling, discursive narrative (that turns out in retrospect not to have been as irrelevant as you first thought) are all there in full abundance.

Both these books are essential reading.

The same cannot be said of the new Larry Niven novel. Rainbow Mars brings back one of Niven's more memorable heroes from his early writing days. I always loved the stories of Svetz the time traveller (indeed, the original stories are included as an added extra at the end of the book). But bringing him up to date and sending him to Mars was a bad idea. As is so common with Niven stories these days I found the whole thing unutterably confusing. Characters hold long conversations in jaw-breaking jargon about things with which they (and Niven) are obviously completely familiar but which mean nothing at all to the reader. Physical locations are never adequately described and therefore the settings are woolly and fuzzy and out of focus. People do things that make no sense for reasons that are unclear and the effect of their actions is mysterious. I found the whole thing to be a complete waste of time.

Michael Moorcock, on the other hand, never ceases to impress me, though sometimes (as with Tales from the Texan Woods) rather oddly. This strange little book contains some short autobiographical and literary essays and several paeans of praise for Texas (where Moorcock now lives). The bulk of the book, however, is made up of action-packed two-fisted, two-gun tales of the Wild West (set in Texas of course), and also a Sherlock Holmes story involving a Texan. The book is enormous fun, though I have to confess that I did a double take when Elric turned up. Non-human albinos with magic swords sit strangely in a cowboys-and-indians tale. But somehow it all worked (this is Moorcock, after all) and the whole thing was wonderful fun.

Mammoth represents a new departure for Stephen Baxter and would seem to be the first of a series. Set in modern times, it is a tale of a herd of mammoths who have survived up to the present day on an isolated island deep in the arctic, but are now, finally, in danger of extinction. Oddly, the viewpoint character is a mammoth and this adds an interesting dimension to the tale (though I couldn’t help thinking on occasion that it was Watership Down with tusks). Mostly it avoids tweeness, and the ending is quite breathtakingly daring.

However Stardust by Neil Gaiman is quite deliberately twee and all the better for it I say! Tristran Thorne (a changeling, though he doesn’t know it) is in love with Victoria Forester. She does not return his love. One evening as they observe a star falling from the heavens, Tristran vows to journey in search of the star and bring it back for Victoria if she will grant him his heart’s desire. Naturally she agrees, and off he sets. His journey takes him through the wall on the outskirts of the village, beyond the fields we know into Faerie. On his quest he learns that others also seek the fallen star and the adventure turns grim. Even the star herself (when he finally finds her) is not overly grateful for his attentions and makes his life a bit of a misery.

But rest assured, the story has a happy ending. I loved every delicious word of it. Neil Gaiman is a writing talent to be reckoned with.

These days walkmans (walkmen?) come with unobtrusive earphones that plug directly into the earhole. I had long observed the gliterati walking around with them casually inserted, fully wired for sound. It looked excessively elegant and I was consumed with envy. The design of the earphones is such that a small stem poking out of the speaker is supposed to sit snugly in a gap between several fleshy structures in the outer ear, thereby holding the speaker firmly wedged up against the eardrum, thus ensuring that the maximum possible volume pours into the interior of the skull, guaranteeing terminal deafness within moments.

I carefully inserted sprocket flange (a) into earlobe area (b), cranked up the volume and began to walk. After two steps, both earplugs fell out. Plonk!

It was only then that I noticed a significant detail – many of these ambient musicologists had cranial glasses as well as walkmans, a fact I had failed to appreciate at the time of my first observations. Could it be that they had superglue and duct tape in their ears as well as on their head? No other conclusion seemed possible for no matter how hard I tried, I was utterly unable to keep the earphones in place. My current record stands at eight (very softly, softly) paces. My doubts concerning my cranial well being increased...

Then I bought a hat.

In the 1960s, a science fiction trilogy was published. No big deal, you might say, having got used to the sprawling multi-volume trilogies of the 1990s. But back then they were the exception rather than the rule and this one was odder than most for each book in the trilogy had a different author. And now, after 30 years of searching, I have finally found the last book in the series. Like the others, The Probability Pad by T. A. Waters concerns the machinations of evil aliens who invade Greenwich Village. Our three heroes (each of whom will later write one book in the trilogy) defeat the aliens with the help of good vibes and good drugs (how else could you defeat aliens in the 1960s?). Again, like the other books, this one is excruciatingly funny and also very rude about the two authors who didn’t write it.

Now that I posses all three books I am faced with a filing problem – do I file each book separately under the author’s name, or do I file them together because they are a trilogy? Perhaps I need another copy of each of them? Probably it will take me another thirty years to find them.

Recently friends have taken to recommending books for me to read (as if I didn’t have enough already!). Eric S. Nylund is a writer of whom I have never heard, but the descriptions of his novels (narrated to me across several pints of beer) sounded interesting. Mind you, after several pints of beer, most things sound interesting. However I determined to give him a try anyway.

Pawn’s Dream, his first novel, is a very Zelaznyesque tale. Roland Pritchard lives by day in the normal world that you and I inhabit, but at night, in his dreams he lives in a magical realm where he is a postulant in an isolated monastery. In the waking world he is contacted by a mysterious businessman who tells him of the families, a loosely allied (and sometimes decidedly not allied) group of powerful magicians who live in both worlds. Pritchard learns that he is a lost member of one of those families, and soon he is drawn deeply into the violence, the politics and the paranoia of shifting allegiances.

Despite the very strong echoes of Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It has enough originality to stand well on its own merits even though its influences are quite overt. Having enjoyed it so much I looked forward to my next Nylund which turned out to be A Game of Universe.

I found this one less satisfactory; perhaps because it is a grail story and I’ve read too many of them, and perhaps because the plot is a little murky and the motivations and histories of some of the characters are sketched in thinly and I found them hard to believe in as a result.

In outline, the head of a huge business cartel sold his soul to the devil 1700 years before the story begins. Now the devil is about to collect. But the contract has an escape clause. He has only to deliver the holy grail.

He hires thirteen champions, one of whom must complete this task. Germain, a failed wizard, is one of the these. He has absorbed the souls of several people he has killed and when necessary, these souls can come to the front and take over his body, using their unique skills to save him from whatever dangerous situation he has got himself into this time. Does he find the grail? Read the book.

Another recommendation was Summon the Keeper by Tanya Huff. Apparently she is a fantasy writer and therefore not somebody whose books I would normally be inclined to seek out. But this one, I was told, was different. It has a very cynical and witty talking cat called Austin in it. Who could resist?

Claire Hansen is a Keeper. Her job is to seal sites where evil breaks through. Together with Austin she is summoned to a run-down boarding house where she finds a hole leading directly to Hell in the basement, a French-Canadian ghost who falls in lust with her, and a general handyman called Dean who is incredibly handsome and a good cook. To cap it all, there is another Keeper asleep in Room 6. She has been asleep for about 50 years and is covered in dust. Looks like Claire and Austin have a big job ahead of them.

The book is hugely funny. Austin’s dialogue is a scream, and anyone who has ever been owned by a cat will realise just how accurately Huff depicts the feline attitude to life. The story is clever and original, and the last line in the book is a doozy! You really must read this one.

I have long lusted after an Akubra - that Australian hat with the large curly brim that keeps the sun off both the neck and the face. It has a leather strap wrapped around the crown for decoration and the crown itself has small holes in it to aid in ventilating the head. All in all it is a masterpiece of design and recently, in Melbourne, I found a shop that sold nothing but hats, and nearly all the hats were Akubras. Who could resist?

"How big is your head?" queried the man behind the counter. I had to confess that I had no idea, never having had occasion to measure it. He cast an expert eye over me. "We'll get there by a process of elimination," he decided. "Try this one."

The world went dark as something about the size and shape of a small apartment building plunged over my head and enveloped my lower portions, utterly obscuring my vision.

"Hmmm. Looks a little large," observed a distant whisper. "Try this one."

The apartment building vanished, only to be replaced by a quarter acre suburban bungalow. Again, the world vanished.

"Not quite there yet. Have a go with this one."

This one was merely tent-like, but still so vast that an entire aboriginal tribe could have held a corroborree and gone walkabout inside it. Indeed, I think I spotted one of their camp fires in the far distance - but I might have been hallucinating because of excessive exposure to sensory deprivation.

"We may have a problem here." The voice was now sounding distinctly worried.

I tried on an example of every single hat size in the entire shop. Only one fitted me. It was the very last one I tried and it was the smallest hat he had. It was a little dusty; nobody had ever got down to that size before. The shopkeeper didn't say a word, but I knew what he was thinking: "This man has a most amazingly small head..."

Vanity suggests that it isn't me, of course. The real explanation is that Australians all have enormously big heads. Or perhaps they hold their hats on with duct tape and superglue. No other explanation would seem to fit the facts. Unless of course there really is something odd about my head...

Dust is Charles Pellagrino’s after-the-disaster novel. I have to say, that when you have read one of these, you have read them all, and even though it is a rather interesting disaster (certainly not your usual run-of-the-mill end of the world) I have to confess that I was less than moved by it

In Personal Demons, Christopher Fowler tells us that usually short story collections don’t sell very well, and then proves it by presenting us with a collection of short stories which is so weak that I cannot imagine it selling at all.

Feeling depressed and in dire need of entertainment I turned to Joshua Dann, of whom it may fairly be said, "Who?". Well I don’t know either but I stumbled across two books – Timeshare and Timeshare, Second Time Around – which are good old fashioned time travel adventure novels. Just what I needed and I enjoyed them hugely. John Surrey is head of security for a travel agency (or rather a time travel agency) and his job is to sort out the mess that some clients leave behind in time. Along the way he meets lots of famous historical characters (Al Capone, Dorothy Parker, John Wayne) and every single one of you knows what the stories are like because you have read them before by a hundred different authors. But that doesn’t stop them being good stories for Joshua Dann is a storyteller, and that is a rare and important skill.

With A King of Infinite Space Allen Steele returns to the near-Earth, near-future settings of his earlier novels (such as Clarke County, Space). William Alec Tucker dies in a car crash in the 1990s and is placed in cryonic storage. He awakes in the future to find himself a pawn in a game of interplanetary politics. The future is as cynical as his past had been and the nature of politics never changes. But for a long time he doesn’t realise this, for he has just been born and knows nothing of the factions involved…

It is all too easy to ruin stories like this with great lumps of exposition as the author lays the politics and sociology on with a trowel. To Allen Steele’s credit, he never once falls into this trap. The novel is an exciting adventure, a discovery, an odyssey and a travelogue all in one. And the dénouement raises so many exciting possibilities that I can’t help hoping that Allen Steele comes this way again. I bet you never thought you’d hear me say that, given how much I dislike series!

Stephen Jay Gould has written the only interesting essays I have ever read about the millennium (a word of which I am heartily sick). One of the more interesting facts to be gleaned from Questioning the Millennium is that over the centuries the meaning of the word has changed considerably. The early Christians would have been very puzzled about our current celebrations. They had quite different ideas about what a millennium might be.

And then there is Ex Libris which is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. The novel is set shortly after the restoration and Isaac Inchbold, a London bookseller, is called on to restore a superb library pillaged during the civil war. The library had been the property of Sir Ambrose Plessington, and as Inchbold uncovers more facts about the library so too does he uncover more about the part that Plessington had to play in the recent troubles. The book is about politics and history and is stuffed full of arcane bibliographic lore. Who could resist such a potent mixture? Certainly not me!

Los Alamos is Joseph Kanon’s first novel. It has garnered rave reviews, and it isn’t hard to understand why. It is set in the dying days of the second world war. At Los Alamos they are racing against time to develop the atomic bomb. One of the security staff is found murdered and Michael Connolly is sent to investigate. Given such an outline it could have been nothing more than a mundane whodunnit (with perhaps a soupcon of whydunnit as well). Certainly this is a large part of the novel, but not its most important part. For history was being made there at Los Alamos and the novel is full of a sense of that history and captures the spirit of the times magnificently. Real historical characters rub shoulders with fictional ones and you can’t see the join. In one sense this is Connolly’s novel for he is the viewpoint character, the man sent to solve the mystery. But for me the most memorable impression is of the towering colossus that was Robert Oppenheimer – the man who led and inspired the effort to build the bomb. His character as described and developed in this novel sheds a lot of light on those dark days. Whatever your feelings about the post-war arms race and the threat of nuclear annihilation that hovered over my generation (and I confess to a large degree of ambivalence about this myself), you can’t help but respond to the charisma of the man. The book is 566 pages long. I started reading it about 11.30am one Sunday morning. I finished it about 4.30pm that afternoon. That’s how good it was.

And now, please pass me the superglue! And the duct tape! And the gerbil!

Robert Silverberg & Grania Davis The Avram Davidson Treasury Tor
Grania Davis & Richard Lupoff The Investigations of Avram Davidson St. Martins Press
Larry Niven Rainbow Mars Tor
Michael Moorcock Tales From the Texan Woods Mojo Press
Neil Gaiman Stardust Spike
T. A. Waters The Probability Pad Pyramid
Eric S. Nylund Pawn’s Dream New English Library
Eric S. Nylund A Game of universe New English Library
Tanya Huff Summon the Keeper DAW
Charles Pellagrino Dust Warner
Christopher Fowler Personal Demons Serpents Tail
Joshua Dann Timeshare Ace
Joshua Dann Timeshare, Second Time Around Ace
Allen Steele A King of Infinite Space Harper Prism
Stephen Jay Gould Questioning the Millennium Vintage
Ross King Ex Libris Vintage
Joseph Kanon Los Alamos Abacus

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