Previous Contents Next

wot i red on my hols by alan robson (christus natus non aqua)

Christmas day. I snuggled up to Robin and whispered, "Merry Christmas."

Her eyes were open but everything else was closed. I could tell she was still fast asleep when she replied to my greeting by saying, "It'll be floating water that we're swimming in competitively; so that we get better times."

"Yes, dear,' I said.

Her eyes fluttered closed and everything else started to open up for the day. When she was finally awake she said, "I dreamed that you just won lotto. The winning numbers were 1 2 3 4 5 6 and another number I can't remember. Perhaps it would not be a good idea to buy a lotto ticket based on that predictive dream."

"I agree," I agreed.

I got up and fed the cats their Christmas breakfast of turkey giblets, which they adored. Then I had a shit, a shave, a shower and a shampoo. Except I missed out the shave. Steaming, I wandered back to the bedroom.

"Christmas presents," I said. "Smoked salmon. Strawberries."

Robin got up and followed the ablutionary trail I had blazed, except that she missed out the shave as well. And then, at almost the exact second that she rinsed away the last foaming bubble, the water went off. Every tap was dry.

Oh, No!

I rang the council.

"Welcome to Wellington Council. Merry Christmas. You are speaking with Colin."

"Merry Christmas, Colin," I said. "I'm calling from Newlands. Our water supply appears to have been turned off."

"Ah yes," said Colin. "We've had a burst water main in Glanmire Road."

"Glanmire Road?" I said. "That's where I live!" I suddenly felt very guilty. Perhaps it was all my fault. Had I shattered the pipes with the detritus from my sweaty armpits?

I looked out of the window. Dimly, through the grey mist and drizzle of the typical Christmas weather, I could see a large man wearing fluorescent yellow trousers. He was poking gloomily at the road with a big stick. Soon he was joined by an even larger man wearing an orange jacket. They scratched their heads at the problem, normally an infallible solution, but this time it didn't work. I explained what was happening to Colin.

"That'll be the one," said Colin. "It's a big burst. The water will be off until at least one o'clock this afternoon and maybe later."

There are only two things a man and a woman can do together when they have no water on Christmas Day. So we did both of them.

And once we'd finished drinking the bottle of champagne and opening our Christmas presents, we watched the television with our legs crossed, in the sure and certain knowledge that we only had one flush left…

I decided to start writing this article.

Frederik Pohl once said that professional writers write every day. High days and holidays, birthdays and Christmas days. And days when you are so hungover that your eyebrows bleed. Today matched many of those criteria. I felt encouraged.

I also had the shining example of Dave Cutler to inspire me. Dave, for those of you who may not know, was the designer of Microsoft's NT operating system. In an article I read once, he claimed to be very, very proud of the fact that there was some code that he'd written in the NT kernel which was dated Christmas Day. I'm quite sure that yuletide programming effort had a lot to do with the way that the NT operating system worked. I wonder if he drank a bottle of champagne before he wrote that particular block of code?

Obviously there is something very special about stuff you write on Christmas day. This sentence, for example, was written on Christmas day. And so was this one. But his one was written the day after. I think the difference is quite marked, don't you?

Last month I confessed myself sorely tempted to read George R. R. Martin's multi-volume (and still incomplete) fantasy opus A Song Of Ice And Fire, despite the fact that I don't like those kinds of books at all.

Well I've started reading it. It's pretty much what I expected it would be – an overwritten collection of typical fantasy clichés, riddled with vague, blurred sentences, with a cast of thousands dashing hither and yon across a crudely drawn map which doesn't show most of the important geographical features mentioned in the Deadly Prose (sorry – deathly prose) and stuffed full of continuity errors. For example at one point a character rides in on a horse and then walks across to the King and bows deeply, without ever getting off his horse. I was irresistibly reminded of the famous scene in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe where Crusoe takes off all his clothes, swims out to the wrecked ship and fills his pockets with loot. And of course we have the typical American fantasy writer's fascination with the minutiae of feudalism (though Martin redeems himself somewhat by bringing a nice measure of cynicism to it).

But despite the fact that Martin blatantly commits almost every sin that Diana Wynne Jones skewers so hilariously in her Tough Guide To Fantasyland, the overall effect is grimly fascinating. I kept reading. I knew it was the most unutterable crap, but I kept reading. I knew exactly what was going to happen on almost every page, but I kept reading. Somehow, goodness only knows how, Martin managed to pull my strings and I wanted to know what happened next (even though I already knew). I can't resolve that particular Zen paradox. I'm too busy reading the damn books.

I have mixed feelings about S. M. Stirling's new novel The Sky People. But then, I have mixed feelings about most of Stirling's books. He tends to write alternative history trilogies, the first volume of which is usually extremely gripping as he sets the scene. Later volumes tend to degenerate into militaristic pornography with far too many tedious battles.

The Sky People is the first volume of just such a trilogy and the war games have started early. Much of the last third of the novel involves clashes between various hostile parties. However the basic premise of the story is so intriguing that I'll probably read the next instalments.

The hero of the story, Marc Vitrac, was born in the early 1960s. That was the time when the first interplanetary probes sent out by the Americans and the Russians showed that both Mars and Venus were teeming with life. Some of it human. By the time that Marc has grown up, there are thriving Earth-human communities on both planets. Marc has been assigned to Jamestown, the U.S. Commonwealth base on Venus. The countryside swarms with sabre tooth tigers, dinosaurs of several persuasions, Neanderthal-like people and a Neolithic Cro-Magnon civilization. A Russian shuttle craft crashes near the Western edge of the continent and Jamestown sends out a blimp to rescue any of the crew who may have survived. Cue lots of high adventure and derring do.

The story is straight out of SF's golden age, though marginally better written than most, and there's a lot of nostalgia value in that. Stirling also hints at great hidden mysteries as well (why is Venusian life genetically identical to life on Earth?). I'm willing to play the game.

One of the characters in The Sky People is a somewhat archetypal Brit who addresses people as "Old chap", and who has a tendency to say "What? What?" and similar phrases. Stirling solemnly assures us that this man was educated at Eaton. I can't make up my mind whether he's taking the piss or whether this is just a typo that the copy editor missed.

Starship: Pirate by Mike Resnick is a direct sequel to last year's Starship: Mutiny. Wilson Cole and the crew of the Theodore Roosevelt are fleeing from the Republic into the lawless Inner Frontier where they mean to carve out a niche for themselves as space pirates. However it proves to be a less easy profession than they had hoped it would be. They have attacks of conscience that make them quite unable to rape and pillage and murder indiscriminately, which somewhat restricts the ships and planets that they can prey on.

And even when they do acquire some loot, they are faced with the practical problem of how to sell it without getting caught. They need a reliable fence. Enter David Copperfield, an alien fence with a passion for the novels of Charles Dickens. Wilson Cole gains entry to Copperfield's sanctum by introducing himself as Steerforth. This tickles the alien's fancy and the two of them get along extremely well. However Copperfield will only buy pirated loot at five percent of its market value. It looks like Cole will have to re-think his strategy for becoming rich.

As usual with a Mike Resnick novel, this is a rollicking good yarn, full of thud and blunder and with a surprising amount of subtlety buried beneath the surface for those who have ears to hear it. I never thought I'd enjoy a lecture about the economic theory of piracy, but I did. Resnick also points the finger of fun at obsessive collectors – an important plot point revolves around an autographed first edition of A Tale Of Two Cities. The whole thing is delightfully Dickensian and enormous fun. I'm already looking forward to the third book in the series.

I've never heard of Roger Jon Ellory, but the blurb on A Quiet Vendetta made him sound like somebody whose books I'd enjoy. And I was right – it's a corker!

The frame is the kidnapping of Catherine Ducane, the daughter of the Governor of Louisiana. The kidnapper doesn't want money, he just wants the opportunity to talk to an investigator called Ray Hartmann. Ray has no idea why the kidnapper wants to talk to him, and he isn't very interested in talking to the kidnapper either, but pressure is brought to bear from high up and he soon realises that he doesn't have much choice.

The bulk of the book, told within the frame, is the autobiography of the kidnapper, a Cuban refugee who has somehow made it big in the Mafia. The story covers more than fifty years of Mafia history, with a dark vendetta at its heart.

Slowly, very slowly, the reasons for the kidnapping become clear and the frame resumes its original importance. But the kidnapper has one more surprise up his sleeve. I guarantee that the ending will make you gasp.

This book is everything that The Godfather should have been, but wasn't. It covers much the same ground as The Godfather (and many of the same, thinly disguised, celebrities appear in both books) but it lacks the cosy, cotton-wool comfort that marred the earlier work. A Quiet Vendetta is simply superb.

As far as I can tell, Lindsey Davis started the fashion for telling amusingly cynical detective stories set in classical times. She has had a lot of company hanging on to her coat tails as a result of her hugely successful novels. The latest in a long line is R. S. Downie whose novel Medicus And The Disappearing Dancing Girls is billed as the first of a series.

Gaius Petreius Ruso is a medicus (i.e. a doctor) with the Twentieth Legion, based in Chester. He's writing a book, the Concise Guide To Military First Aid which is based on his rather extensive combat experience. He's finding it heavy going. His patients mostly live or die despite anything he does to or for them. Though he does have a certain amount of success with Tilla, a slave girl with a severely broken arm, who he rescues from a sleaze bag slave dealer called Claudius Innocens by the simple expedient of buying her from him.

Ruso shares a tumbledown slum with a fellow medicus who has an eye for the ladies, and a dog who has just had a lot of puppies. He has vague hopes of getting his new slave to clean the place up and maybe do some cooking once her arm has healed. Shame that she turns out to be useless at both these tasks.

Meanwhile, some prostitutes have disappeared from the inn where Ruso does most of his drinking (though not his wenching – he doesn't do that, he's still too traumatised by the memory of his ex-wife). The girls turn up dead. Is there a serial killer in Chester? Ruso neither knows nor cares. But events conspire against him and soon he is lukewarmly on the trail, complaining all the time.

The book was sufficiently amusing that I will certainly seek out the others as they are published. R. S. Downie seems to have a good ear for dialogue and a good grasp on the bureaucratic minutiae of the Roman army (and their accountants). And she knows a fair bit about the medical expertise of the times as well. A nice bit of grue always goes down well with the punters.

I thoroughly enjoyed Medicus And The Disappearing Dancing Girls, though next time I think I'd like a shorter title, even though this one is perfectly descriptive of the theme of the book.

George R. R. Martin A Game Of Thrones Voyager
George R. R. Martin A Clash Of Kings Voyager
George R. R. Martin A Storm Of Swords. Book 1: Steel And Snow Voyager
S. M. Stirling The Sky People Tor
Mike Resnick Starship: Pirate Pyr
Roger Jon Ellory A Quiet Vendetta Orion
R. S. Downie Medicus And The Disappearing Dancing Girls Penguin
Previous Contents Next