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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (librum addictissimus)

Science Fiction, Hippies, Ghosts and Washington DC

There's a lot to be said in favour of a book whose title tells you unambiguously exactly what the book is about. Worldcon Guest Of Honour Speeches is just such a book. Mike Resnick and Joe Siclari have pored through crumbling fanzines and listened to scratchy tape recordings and have gathered together the speeches made by the guests of honour at the world science fiction conventions. The first world convention was held in New York in 1939. The latest, at the time of publishing the book, was in Glasgow in 2005.

The editors have been unable to find some speeches, and sometimes have been unable to obtain permission to publish the speeches that they have tracked down, so there are gaps in the record. Interestingly the largest gaps date from the later years. In the decade between 1989 and 1999, only one speech survives (Joe Haldeman's in 1990) and yet only one speech is missing from the decade 1939 to 1949 (John Campbell's in 1947). Perhaps this is not a fair comparison since that first decade also contained a world war and there were no conventions held in the years 1942 to 1945. Nevertheless, the coverage of the early conventions is very impressive.

There is no doubt that this is a valuable collection to have. There is some very important history here. However I was struck by how formulaic and predictable some of the speeches were. I would have expected a guest of honour speech to be a good opportunity to proclaim a manifesto or to explain a style or a trend. It would have been nice to have seen some thoughtful analysis of the field. But some of the speeches amount to little more than: thank you very much, it's an honour to be here. I attended some of the later conventions and I remember the guests speaking in less formal environments than the guest of honour slot, and the things they said in those less formal sessions were often more interesting than the things they said in their guest of honour speeches proper. Ah well, so it goes.

Nevertheless, there are speeches recorded in this book that do have useful and interesting things to say, and I would be doing the book a great disservice if I implied that it consisted solely of ephemera. There are fascinating snippets of history and insights into personalities, and I read the book with an almost permanent smile on my face as I listened to the voices in my head.

Thirty one speeches are presented in the book and thirty three are missing. The editors express the hope that eventually they will track down all the missing ones and publish a companion volume to the present one. I most certainly hope that they do. Meanwhile I highly recommend the current volume to you.

Tim Sandlin is a mainstream comic novelist who has dipped his toes in the waters of science fiction with his new novel Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty. The premise is quite fascinating. It is the year 2022 and the retirement home of Mission Pescadero is full of geriatric hippies. Most of them spent their middle years as pillars of society, but feel no obligation to keep up that pretence now that they have retired. They look back on their life to a time when living was fun – to 1967, the days of sex, drugs, rock and roll and more sex. They transform Mission Pescadero into their own version of their memories.

And then the administrators of Mission Pescadero find that one of the residents is breaking the rules. He has a cat living in his closet. He and his cat are evicted, and the residents rise up in protest. They take over the retirement home and declare themselves to be citizens of the free nation of Pepper Land. They crank up the music, have lots of geriatric sex and (because some of them were closely involved in the original political turmoil at Berkeley) form a lot of committees.

It's an attractive idea for a novel and to a certain extent it even sounds plausible. After all, that ultimate anti-establishment figure Jerry Rubin became a stock broker in his thirties and life doesn't get more pro-establishment than that! If he had survived to retiring age I can easily imagine him reverting to type in an environment like Mission Pescadero. There's nothing to lose and everything to gain. Unfortunately he died in 1994 after being hit by a car, so I suppose we'll never know…

Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty starts out really well. There's a lot of good jokes in the idea of geriatric hippies and Tim Sandin milks them for all they are worth. But the humour quickly fades. Once you've poked fun at the obvious targets there isn't very much left and the last half of the novel is nowhere near as funny and nowhere near as interesting as the first half and that's a pity. I had high hopes for it. Perhaps the mushrooms weren't quite magical enough.

Joe Hill has made quite a reputation for himself as a short story writer. Heart Shaped Box is his first novel. I've not read any of his short stories – they originally appeared in magazines that I don't subscribe to. But they have been collected in a book and I have ordered that book on the strength of Heart Shaped Box, for it truly is a superb novel!

Judas Coyne is a retired heavy metal rock singer. He collects macabre things. He has a cook book for cannibals, a hangman's noose, a snuff film. He discovers an item for sale on the internet, a thing so terribly strange that he simply cannot resist opening up his wallet and buying it:

I will sell my stepfather's ghost to the highest bidder…

For a thousand dollars, Jude will become the proud owner of the dead man's suit which is haunted by the restless spirit of the man himself. Jude isn't afraid; he's spent his life dealing with the ghosts of his past. His abusive father, lovers thoughtlessly abandoned, the members of his backing band dying of AIDS and fast motor cars. One more ghost won't bother him. He puts in his bid.

The suit is delivered in a black heart-shaped box. And it isn't long before the ghost is everywhere – behind the bedroom door, in the passenger seat of his car, staring out from his wide screen TV. The ghost has a razor on a chain, bright and sharp and hypnotic. Only Jude's dogs can keep the ghost at bay, for a short time anyway.

Yes, it's a ghost story. But what's wrong with that? Good ghost stories are creepy fun and this is one of the very best ghost stories I've ever read. M. R. James would be proud to own this one and that's the highest praise I know. And Joe Hill has a deceptively simple writing style that makes it so easy to fall straight into the story. I fell so far in I simply didn't want to come out again. This book grabs hold of you and it won't let go.

There are rumours that Joe Hill is actually Stephen King's son. If he is, then he is wise to have chosen a pseudonym that does not emphasise the relationship in any way. I'm very willing to believe the rumours though; his writing style is slightly reminiscent of King's and the photo of Joe Hill on the cover could easily be a photo of a very young Stephen King. The shape of the body, the shape of the face (what little you can see of it behind the bushy black beard) and the whole tone of the body language are just like Stephen King's. But guess what? I don't care whether he is Stephen King's son or not. He's a brilliant writer and absolutely nothing else matters. He's going to go far. Trust me on this. And while you are waiting, please buy and read Heart Shaped Box. You won't regret it.

The trilogy A Firing Offence, and Nick's Trip and Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go are novels from very early in George Pelecanos' career. They are quite ordinary, in a hard-boiled kind of way, and I must admit that if I hadn't read the Pelecanos novels that I reviewed last month I probably wouldn't even have bothered with these. There's nothing wrong with them per se but they don't catch fire like his later, more mature novels do. They are routine private eye stories set in Washington DC with sex, drugs and violence included at appropriate intervals and there's nothing more to them that.

On the other hand, The Big Blowdown is eye-wateringly brilliant and you should all read it immediately.

Joey Recevo and Pete Karras grew up in Washington's rougher neighbourhoods. After the second world war ends they drift into crime by providing a little muscle for one of the local gangs. But Karras is too soft on some of his fellow Greek immigrants and he needs to be taught a lesson by his own side. The boss can't let the mob be seen to be weak. Karras is so severely injured in the beating they give him that he can no longer find any credible employment in the underworld. He gets a job as a short order cook in a local diner run by fellow Greek Nick Stefanos. But it isn't long before he finds himself facing Joey Recevo again when the mob comes calling on Nick's diner demanding protection money.

The novel perfectly captures the dark, debonair ambience of 1940s America. One reason why the mobs had such a hold over society was that the society itself was completely corrupt (and it probably still is, if the truth be told). There is nowhere for Nick Stefanos and Pete Karras to go when the mob comes calling. There is no higher authority to which they can appeal. Either they sort out their own problems or the problems don't get sorted.

And so we have another Pelecanos novel about family and loyalty; about corruption and self-respect. It's a hard boiled story stuffed full of pain and the poetry of grim circumstance. Nobody does it better than Pelecanos, and he's never done it better than he does it in The Big Blowdown.

Hard Revolution is a little bit of a departure for Pelecanos. It is (mostly) set in 1968 and is an honest attempt to deal with the riots that followed on from the shooting of Martin Luther King. Although King died in Memphis, there was a big backlash from angry blacks all over America. The rioting and looting were particularly nasty in Washington, where Eldridge Cleaver and his Black Panthers were quick to exploit the opportunity it gave them. And Washington, of course is where most of Pelecanos' novels are set.

The major character in the novel is a very young Derek Strange. He was the hero of a trilogy that I reviewed last month. In that trilogy he was in his mid-fifties and we learned that he was once a policeman. We also saw him doing a favour for a gangster because, unknown to the gangster, Strange felt responsible for the death of the gangster's father. In Hard Revolution we learn about Strange's career in the police force, why he felt he had to leave, and exactly how and why he caused the death of the gangster's father.

Tying the novel in to real historical events adds an extra dimension to Pelecanos' typical concerns and the book is all the stronger for it. Again, I simply cannot praise him enough. It's a wonderful book.

Mike Resnick & Joe Siclari (Editors) Worldcon Guest Of Honour Speeches ISFIC Press
Tim Sandlin Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty Riverhead Books
Joe Hill Heart Shaped Box Morrow
George Pelecanos A Firing Offence Serpent's Tail
George Pelecanos Nick's Trip Serpent's Tail
George Pelecanos Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go Serpent's Tail
George Pelecanos The Big Blowdown St. Martins
George Pelecanos Hard Revolution Warner
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