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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (centum prolificarum)

Old Hundredth

"Now then Alan," said James. "About this laptop computer of yours."

"Yes," I said suspiciously, "what about it?"

"As I recall, it started off with two serious problems," James continued. "You couldn't get the sound card to work, which meant that you couldn't listen to music on it, and the disk access was so slow that you couldn't watch DVDs on it either."

"True," I said, because it was.

"Well," said James, "it was so easy to get the sound working, that I really think it's time we addressed the last issue. You can't leave it only half fixed. It's very important that we get it to a state where you can watch DVDs."

James is a man who lip-syncs Muppets. Such men are deserving of respect. So I didn't laugh at him.

"It wasn't all that easy to get the sound working," I protested. "As I recall, you made me download heaps of arcane software from dusty, seldom-visited web sites. I had to blow the cobwebs off before I installed it and the wires going in to my modem were clogged with dirt for months. It cut my internet connection speed almost in half!

"And the instructions for using the software were written by Zen-Buddhist monks who were high, or possibly low, on mind-altering substances of indescribable complexity. They all stared intently into each others belly buttons and copied down what they saw scribbled on the fluff. All the sense was hidden in the spaces between the words. It took weeks for me to understand what it wasn't saying, and then implement it.

"And even when I did finally get the sound card to work, the only noise it made for a month was the sound of one hand clapping. That's a very boring sound, you know!"

"That's right." James nodded happily. "Easy."

Men who lip-sync Muppets also have access to esoteric dictionaries which contain strange definitions of words like easy.

I accepted the inevitability of my situation. "What do I have to do?" I asked.

"I'm glad you asked me that," said James. "Here is a Fedora Core 5 live CD. Use it well and wisely, grasshopper."

In the 1950s, Robert Heinlein wrote a series of novels for "young adults". Many people consider these books to be the best things he ever wrote, and even his harshest critics usually have kind words to say about them. After Heinlein's death, a detailed outline for a juvenile novel was found in his papers. Nobody knows why he never wrote the book. He certainly put a lot of work into the planning of it – nevertheless it remained unwritten, unpublished and unknown.

The executors of Heinlein's estate eventually asked Spider Robinson to write the book. To that end, they sent him the seven pages of closely typed notes and fourteen scribbled index cards that comprised Heinlein's plan for the novel. Then they left him to it. The result is Variable Star and I absolutely loved it.

Joel Johnston is the son of a Nobel Prize winning physicist. He's not much of a scientist himself; he's a musician and his ambition is to be a composer. He knows it will be years before he will be earning enough money to support a family, if indeed he ever does. He is madly in love with Jinny Hamilton and when she finally agrees to marry him he feels like the luckiest man in the universe.

Jinny isn't willing to wait for Joel's salary to catch up with his ambition, and she confesses to Joel that she isn't really Jinny Hamilton at all; she's Jinny Conrad, the granddaughter of the richest man in the solar system. She's just been testing Joel and now that she's sure that he loves her for herself and not for her wealth (since he didn't know about her wealth), the wedding can go ahead.

There's only one snag – Joel will have to give up the silly idea of being a composer. He will need extensive training in order to take his rightful place in the Conrad empire and he will be expected to sire a dynasty to carry on the family business after he is gone.

Joel point blank refuses. To Jinny's surprise (and to a certain extent, his own) he walks away from the fortune that awaits him. He drowns his sorrows in drink and drugs. He signs on with a colony ship that is heading out to the stars. He is determined to make a fresh life for himself as far away from Jinny and her family as he can get.

But his dreams are shattered in a cosmic cataclysm that threatens the very existence of humanity.

The Spider has done a brilliant job. He has incorporated all the elements that made Heinlein's juvenile novels so successful, and yet he has managed to retain his own distinctive voice as well. This isn't a novel by Robert Heinlein; it is most definitely a novel by both Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson and I think that's a strength. Unfortunately the Spider can't resist putting his own distinctive puns into the thing, together with lots of in-jokes about people and events in the SF world, and that's a weakness. Never mind; you can't have everything.

Despite the self-pity in which Joel Johnston attempts to drown himself, he remains an archetypal Heinlein hero. He's clever and intelligent and sometimes witty. He has an interest in how things work; not just technical things (though he finds them fascinating) but also softer things like music and economics and politics and sociology. There are a lot of info-dumps in this novel, just like there are a lot of info-dumps in all of Heinlein's novels and Spider Robinson has captured their essence perfectly. The lectures are idiosyncratic and dreadfully opinionated, liable at one and the same time to induce both apoplexy and amusement. Oh yes – and they'll teach you things as well.

Spider has also incorporated many elements that he's nicked wholesale from other Heinlein books; probably in an attempt to guarantee verisimilitude. There's the slightly paedophilic love-interest from The Door Into Summer, for example. And throughout the novel, a lot of doors dilate. It leads to a certain feeling of deja vu all over again. You just know that you are in a Heinlein novel. But that's not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself.

Variable Star is not a great book, but it is a good book. I'm sure that Heinlein would approve of what Spider Robinson has done with his ideas; and I think that Spider Robinson deserves to feel very proud of himself.

Pearls From Peoria is a collection of Philip Jose Farmer ephemera. It's surprisingly large (770 pages), but quite honestly it is of interest only to a Farmer completist. The stories and articles in it have never been generally available. Indeed many of them have only ever seen the light of day in obscure journals of very limited circulation and some have never previously been published at all.

I was extremely pleased to find that the collection contains the two stories that Farmer wrote about Ralph Von Wau Wau, the canine detective. Although I've heard of them and have read several discussions about them, I've never actually seen them in print before. Now that I've read them, I'm astonished that they've never appeared in any of Farmer's other collections. They are very clever and very funny Sherlock Holmes pastiches. But those two stories aside, it quickly becomes apparent that there are very good reasons why most of the rest of the stuff in the book has remained unpublished. I really can't recommend it.

A live CD, for those of you who may not know about these things, allows you to run another operating system on your computer without making any changes to the original operating system on your hard disk. Everything runs directly from the CD. You can try things out and experiment wildly in the sure and certain knowledge that if everything dies a horrible death because of your extreme tweaks and twiddles, all you have to do is turn off the power and then boot up as normal from the hard disk and all your catastrophes go away as if they had never been.

I took the Fedora Core 5 live CD away with me to experiment with.

The next day James asked me: "Well? How did it go?"

"I have bad news," I said and his face fell.

"Oh dear," he said, "that's a shame."

"It worked perfectly," I said. "The disk responded as never before. It ran at super fast speeds. Cerenkov radiation flew from the slots in the side panel as data was read and written faster than the speed of light!

"I could play DVDs at twice the speed that they ran on the commercial DVD player plugged in to my television set.

"The sound card worked brilliantly. It played me the music that was played at the birth of the universe. Do you know what music everybody listened to on the day when the Big Bang first exploded?"

"No," said James.

"Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen," I said, and James frowned, as well he might.

"All the hardware on my laptop responded to Fedora Core 5 as if it had been granted a new lease of life," I told him, gloomily. "It was absolutely perfect."

"Why is this bad news?" asked James, puzzled.

"There is no upgrade path from my current operating system to Fedora Core 5," I said. "I am going to have to install it from scratch and re-tweak and re-twiddle all the many thousands of customisations that I set up in order to give myself warm fuzzies whenever I log on. It's going to take weeks."

"Cheer up," said James. "It could be worse. You could have had to lip sync a Muppet instead!"

Fragile Things is a new collection of stories and poems from Neil Gaiman. There are some wonderfully clever stories here (as well as a few that are so slight you wonder why they were written in the first place). I was particularly fond of A Study In Emerald which is best described as "Sherlock Holmes meets the Cthulhu Mythos". Now there's a surreal juxtaposition for you! I also loved the oddly titled Forbidden Brides Of The Faceless Slaves In The Secret House Of The Night Of Dread Desire which is a hilarious piss-take on every horror story cliché you can think of and a few that you can't. Another high spot is The Monarch Of The Glen which is a novella involving some characters from American Gods. I was very disappointed with American Gods, but this novella is brilliant and, in my opinion, it works much better than the novel ever did. Fragile Things is a lovely book and I recommend it whole-heartedly.

I also strongly recommend Terry Pratchett's new novel Wintersmith. It's the third book in a sequence about Tiffany Aching, a witch in training. The first book, The Wee Free Men, was quite good. The second, A Hat Full Of Sky, was so appallingly dull and repetitive that I simply couldn't finish it. Consequently I approached Wintersmith with some trepidation. Indeed originally I wasn't even going to buy it at all; but then my completist gene kicked in and the book was on special anyway, so I bought it and read it in a sitting and I'm very glad I did because it is vintage Pratchett, delightfully witty, often laugh out loud funny and chock full of sly cleverness as he punctures our pretensions all over again.

Tiffany inadvertently takes part in the dance that marks the going away of summer and the arrival of winter. And as a result, the Wintersmith has fallen in love with her. He sends her snowflakes and carves icebergs in her likeness. It's all rather a nuisance and it is starting to interfere with her training. Tiffany is looking after Miss Treason, a witch who is 113 years old and who is deaf and blind. But that doesn't stop her from seeing and hearing everything that goes on in the villages around and about. Miss Treason rules with a rod of Boffo, and everyone is scared of her, except Tiffany of course, who is rather fond of the old dear.

Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg have quite a large part to play in the story, as do the Nac Mac Feegle and Horace the Cheese. It's all good, dirty, unwholesome fun. You'll love it.

Because Wintersmith is the third book in what is (probably) a trilogy, it is of course a completely different size and shape than the other two books; it is printed in a completely different font and the style of the cover is utterly unlike the cover style of the other two books. Therefore the entire trilogy looks decidedly odd when placed side by side on the bookshelves. Bloody publishers! Why do they do this kind of thing? Hates them, I do!

With Emperor Stephen Baxter has started a new, multi-book series which has the overall title of Time's Tapestry. I expect that, as usual, it will encompass all of space and time and probably beyond. I imagine that it will eventually become totally incoherent as Baxter starts to deal with concepts that even he only partially understands. That's what usually happens in a Stephen Baxter series. But that is all in the future; so far we only have the first book and a wonderful book it is as well.

The story begins in the far north of Britain, just before the Roman invasion and it ends several hundred years later as the last of the legions are leaving. As the story opens, a woman is giving birth to a child. As she struggles through her painful labour, she begins to scream out a series of words in Latin; a language she has never heard before. It soon becomes clear that she has spoken a prophecy which, if it is implemented, could change the fate of the Roman Empire. It seems that someone or something in the far future is trying to manipulate significant events of the past, perhaps in an attempt to bring about a future that is different from what it might otherwise have been.

The words of the prophecy are written down and as the generations pass, the family's fortune becomes inextricably intertwined with that of Rome. Is the prophecy changing things or would these things have happened anyway?

The book is a wonderful evocation of life in Roman Britain. If you read it simply as a historical novel, you will find it enthralling and utterly fascinating. The science fictional framework adds little or nothing to story (though doubtless that will change in future volumes). Baxter's research is impeccable and his skill at bringing that remote time alive is amazing. There are delights on every page. If he can keep this standard up for the future volumes and if he retains control over his material, he will have a world beater here. It will be guaranteed to win every award going and it will solidly cement his reputation. These are both very big "ifs" – Baxter is notorious for the sloppiness and incoherence of the later novels in his many series. But I really, really hope he manages to stay on top of it this time. There is so much promise here, so much potentially wonderful material.

As the book ends and the legions depart, a woman is giving birth. As she struggles through a painful labour she starts to scream out words in Saxon, a language that she does not speak. Another prophecy?

Throne Of Jade is the second volume of Naomi Norvik's series about the Napoleonic wars, with dragons. In this book, Captain Laurence and his dragon Temeraire go to China (where Temeraire's egg was laid) to try and calm the tense political situation. The Chinese have discovered that the egg they had sent as a gift to Napoleon has fallen into British hands and they are, understandably, rather angry.

It soon becomes clear that things are not quite as straightforward as they seemed at first glance. There are wheels within political wheels and almost everybody has a secret agenda. The story is satisfyingly complex and utterly enthralling and I look forward eagerly to the later volumes.

I bit the bullet that had been shot to me.

"What do you want me to do?" asked the install software.

"Blow everything away and install yourself," I told it. Obligingly, it did exactly that. While it was thus occupied, I painted a wall and watched carefully as the paint dried. There was a particularly interesting smear in the top left hand corner which appeared almost to spiral in on itself. It developed a fascinating crust that spread from the edges in towards the middle where it formed an irregular, crystalline skin…

"I've finished," said the install software. "Do you want to have a look at what I've done?"

I looked and it was good. The display on the screen was crisp and clear. The network connection was fast, and the sound card played sweet music. I tweaked a bit here and smoothed out a rough edge there. I clicked on a convenient icon which allowed me to set the background picture to a map of Middle-Earth and I clicked on another icon that encouraged me to put a rude message designed to frighten away trespassers on to the login screen. I played with a few more little customisations and then went on to the next major step in the process…

All the documentation that I'd read insisted that after I'd installed the system from the original distribution disks I should immediately attach myself to the internet in order to update the software. A lot of the packages had changed in the months since they were first issued. Many bugs had been fixed and exciting new ones had been introduced. Security updates that would stop people from hacking in to my system needed to be installed. It all sounded terribly thrilling and important and necessary.

I decided to go in to the office in order to make use of their high speed internet connection. I plugged everything in, switched everything on and incanted the correct magic spell. Things started to happen.

"I will now download and update 387 software packages," said the laptop, smugly. "This will take me about twelve hours, give or take a few minutes, so I suggest you go to the pub."

Twelve hours and several pints of Guinness later, things stopped happening and I made two interesting discoveries.

The first discovery was that all the documentation I'd read had lied to me – it had insisted that the default was to save all the newly downloaded files on the local drive in case I ever needed them again. In fact, the opposite turned out to be the case and after all the software had been updated, all the downloaded files were then carefully deleted. If I ever do need any of them in the future, I will have to download them again. Humph!

The second, and more important discovery, came when I was smitten with a sudden desire to change the picture in the background. I'd been using the map of Middle-Earth as a background for several years on several different computers and suddenly I was bored with it. I clicked on the same convenient icon that I'd used when I originally set the background picture. A message box appeared on the screen.

"The program that sets the background picture has crashed. Would you like to start it again, inform the developers or cancel the operation?"

Hmmm. Odd. I think I'll inform the developers.

"The program that informs the developers that the program that sets the background picture has crashed, has crashed. Would you like to start it again, inform the developers or cancel the operation?"

I'm sure the developers would like to know about that one!

"The program that informs the developers that the program that informs the developers has crashed, has crashed. Would you like to start it again, inform the developers or cancel the operation?"

This could be the start of an infinite series. I think I'd better stop. Perhaps I'll change the pointer that the mouse uses, instead.

"The program that changes the pointer that the mouse uses has crashed. Would you like to start it again, inform the developers or cancel the operation?"

Over the next hour or so I discovered that none of the housekeeping functions in the pointy-clicky environment worked any more. I couldn't change the picture on the desktop; I couldn't change the theme or the keyboard characteristics. I couldn't change anything at all, really. Those operations had all worked perfectly before I'd foolishly updated the system with all the latest and greatest versions. Now they all crashed as soon as I started them up. Bugger!

Not The End Of The World is a short story collection by Kate Atkinson. I mentioned her in my last article as a rather quirky mainstream novelist whose books I found absolutely brilliant. Now it turns out that she is an equally quirky and brilliant short story writer. To an extent the stories in the collection are connected to each other. For instance in one story a corpse arrives back home in America with a finger missing. It is only in a much later story that we find out what happened to the missing finger.

I suspect that Kate Atkinson would be quite at home with science fiction if she ever found out that it existed. The punch lines of some of the stories reveals that the reason for the odd happenings is that the protagonist is an alien or the son of a God, or something similar. Of course a jaded old SF fan like me finds such a denouement somewhat disappointing (though no doubt the literati consider it to be the height of daring – such an imagination darling, I can hear them cooing to each other).

Despite the let down of some of the endings, I thoroughly enjoyed these stories. They are peopled with delightfully eccentric characters – what can you make of a person who obsessively catalogues fish? Kate Atkinson is fast becoming a favourite writer of mine and I urge you to seek her out. She's not hard to find.

If I Don't Write It Nobody Else Will is the autobiography of Eric Sykes. He is one of the giants of British comedy, though not many people realise it. His TV shows have largely been middle of the road appeals to popular culture. It is only the occasional oddball thing like the classic short film The Plank that indicate that perhaps there may be more to Eric Sykes than forgettable TV sitcoms. And indeed there is – his great contribution has been as a scriptwriter for other comedians. It was Sykes who wrote some of the classic Goon Shows when Milligan was starting to collapse under the strain. It was Sykes who tightly scripted Frankie Howerd's rambling, seemingly extempore monologues.

I saw Eric Sykes live on stage once and he was just brilliant. He was touring with Jimmy Edwards in a play called Big Bad Mouse. Even at the best of times, neither of them paid very much attention to the script. If you went to see the play on 10 consecutive nights you'd see 10 very different plays and 10 very different performances! This particular performance was probably the worst of times. Jimmy Edwards had had some kind of accident (I forget the details) and he'd broken his arm. He was all plastered up and the arm was in a sling and he was probably in a fair bit of pain. But the show must go on, of course. Sykes had no sympathy – he spent the whole performance making broken arm jokes. I never knew there were so many ways of saying funny things about broken bones. Even Jimmy Edwards was laughing. The audience loved it, of course, and I laughed myself sick.

If you are British, if you are of my generation and if you have seen The Plank, you will know and love Eric Sykes and you will very much want to read his autobiography, and you will love it for the insight it sheds on his life, and on post-war British comedy.

But if you are none of these things, it probably won't mean very much to you, I'm afraid.

For the next week, most of the housekeeping GUI functionality remained flat, busted, broke while I considered what to do about it. It was very annoying. I could do all the proper computing that I needed to do inside the pointy-clicky area, so that was all right. I just couldn't change the way things looked and felt any more, and that was becoming very frustrating.

Eventually I reached a point where I simply couldn't stand it any more. I decided that I no longer had any choice. Since everything had worked perfectly on the initial install, I would just have to downgrade my system again and reinstall all the original pointy-clicky stuff from the distribution DVD.

"You want me to do what?" asked the software installation program in horror. "You've got to be joking! You want me to ignore all my instincts and downgrade all my shiny, new, up to date software?

"No way! Sod off!"

But I insisted and eventually it gave in and did what I told it to do, complaining all the while that I was causing it much unnecessary pain and suffering.

And now the pointy-clicky admin stuff is all working again. Phew!

I suppose the moral is, if it isn't broken, don't fix it. I really should have known that all along. I can't think why I didn't...

Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson Variable Star Tor
Philip Jose Farmer Pearls From Peoria Subterranean Press
Neil Gaiman Fragile Things Morrow
Terry Pratchett Wintersmith Doubleday
Stephen Baxter Emperor Gollancz
Naomi Norvik Throne Of Jade Del Rey
Kate Atkinson Not The End Of The World Black Swan
Eric Sykes If I Don't Write It, Nobody Else Will Harper
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