Previous Contents Next

wot i red on my hols by alan robson (nil fabulum)

Alan Reads Lots Of Books

Conqueror is the second volume of Stephen Baxter's Time's Tapestry sequence. It takes us up to 1066 and the Battle of Hastings. The Weaver's plot may be starting to unravel; certainly his efforts to change the time stream do not appear to have worked out for him in this book. As before, this is a superb historical novel. Baxter brings the times (and the somewhat complex politics) vividly alive. And there is just enough of a science fictional frisson to season the mixture well. I look forward to further novels in the series. So far this bids fair to being the best thing that Baxter has produced.

Blindsight by Peter Watts has received rave reviews and I can't for the life of me figure out why. I was distinctly unimpressed. It's a 'first contact with aliens' novel. The crew of the space ship that makes the contact is made up of a linguist with multiple personalities, and a biologist who interfaces with complex machines that enable him to see X-rays and taste ultrasound. There's a pacifist warrior and a vampire as well.

The novel is quite incoherent, told in jargon-saturated prose with much material omitted. It's obvious that the author understands much more about the social/political/technical situation that the reader does, but the author is damned well not going to tell what he knows. The whole thing's an incomprehensible mess from start to finish.

If you want to know what a proper 'first contact with aliens' novel ought to be like, read Spindrift by Allen Steele. On June 1st 2288, the starship Galileo takes off on her maiden voyage. Part of her mission is to investigate an unidentified object, code-named spindrift, which has been detected just outside our solar system. Galileo disappears shortly after taking off.

On February 1st 2344 the Galileo's shuttle returns to Earth carrying three surviving crew members, who do not appear to have aged at all in the intervening years. The rest of Galileo's crew are reported to be dead and the ship destroyed. The shuttle has been retrofitted with an advanced space drive. Obviously the Galileo must have made contact with an extraterrestrial race. This novel is the story of that contact, and it's a truly gripping and exciting tale. I found it almost impossible to put down; I had to know what happened next.

The novel is set in the same universe as Steele's Coyote trilogy. Indeed it is an expansion of a brief incident mentioned in passing in that trilogy. While you don't have to have read the trilogy in order to appreciate Spindrift, it does add significantly to the background detail if you have read it. But either way, Spindrift is a tour de force.

Rude Mechanicals is a short novella by Kage Baker. It is (of course) a story of the Company. It is set in 1934 in Hollywood. German theatre impresario Max Reinhardt is staging a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Helping him are Lewis and Joseph, two Cyborgs who work for Dr Zeus Incorporated. Fortunately Reinhardt does not know about their secret life, nor does he know that they have their own agenda.

Like all Company stories, this is cleverly plotted and quite witty in places and enormous fun to read. Unfortunately you might have problems searching it out – it's a rather expensive limited edition. But if you wait long enough, I'm sure the story will turn up in one of Kage Baker's collections eventually.

Sacred Locomotive Flies by Richard Lupoff was originally published in 1971. It was never advertised or distributed very well, but nevertheless it gained quite a reputation for itself. Now it has been republished by Cosmos, and so finally we get a chance to see what all the fuss was about.

Well, not much, to be honest. The book has not aged well. It was probably quite radical in 1971, but today it's just a bit tired. It's nice to see the occasional reference to Jerry Cornelius as Lupoff plays the 'spot the influence' game, but the game is a bit too overt and the author strives just a little too hard for effect. You can see the joins, and they creak.

The story, such as it is, concerns one Freddie Fong Fine, a super-secret secret agent. He's convinced that someone in the rock group Sacred Locomotive Flies is passing information to the other side, so he hijacks the plane they are travelling on and ejects all the passengers (except for the rock group and a stewardess) in order to track down the leak. But he gets jumped by a groupie and loses the initiative. The plane crashes and he, the group, the groupie and the pilot (who is a Biggles avatar who thinks the year is 1917) are rescued by an Israeli submarine. And then...

You can probably work out the rest for yourself. There are far too many characters with alliterative names and the jokes get progressively less subtle (and they were never very funny in the first place).


Oh – and it isn't the rock group who are passing information to the other side. It's the groupie.


The only reason I bought Future Weapons Of War is because one of the editors is Joe Haldeman, a person I hold in very high regard and whose opinions I respect. Unfortunately, he must have been having an off day. The stories in this anthology are almost all abysmal. Lots of gung ho military adventures and military technology. I once used the phrase military pornography to describe this kind of thing, and I think it's a good term to use. And guess what? In many of the stories, the enemy have arabic names. Funny that.

David Liss first made his name as a historical novelist. Both A Conspiracy Of Paper and its sequel A Spectacle Of Corruption are set in eighteenth century England and concern the adventures of one Benjamin Weaver, a jewish ex-pugilist who makes a living by pursuing thieves and debtors through the criminal underworld.

A Conspiracy Of Paper begins with Weaver being asked to investigate the mysterious death of his own father, a man from whom he has been estranged for many years. Weaver had always assumed that when his father was run over and killed by a cart, it was a simple accident. Such accidents are common. But it seems that there might have been more going on than was at first apparent. Weaver's father had been a stock-jobber with some sort of involvement with the powerful South Sea Company. Weaver follows a terribly tangled web of intrigue and penetrates the shady and often criminal world of stock speculation (the origins of today's quite well respected financial markets!). The South Sea Bubble is about to burst and when it does, the price will be terrible.

In A Spectacle Of Corruption, Weaver is sentenced to hang for a murder he did not commit. The judge at his trial seems to have been bribed to sentence Weaver to death and the trial is a mockery of justice. But Weaver is given an opportunity to escape from Newgate jail and he slinks out into the London night to investigate the conspiracy and try to clear his name. There is an election coming up and the Whigs and the Tories are at each other's throats. The plot against him is intimately tied up with the election – it might even unseat the King himself.

Both books are simply superb. The sight, the sound and the terrible smell of eighteenth century London rise palpably from the page and David Liss, though an American, has a very firm grasp on the politics, economics and social customs of the time (particularly the importance of gin and coffee). I loved both the books.

The Ethical Assassin is a modern day thriller by the same author. If I hadn't looked at the list of other books written by David Liss in the front of The Ethical Assassin I'd have assumed that the book was written by a completely different man who happened to have the same name as the historical novelist. It's a rather silly tale about a corrupt policeman, a door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman, a dope distribution network, a killer who is also a vegetarian, and animal rights. It's an odd mixture that doesn't quite work. Perhaps David Liss should stick to historical novels; he does them much better.

A TV series that I thoroughly enjoy on the rare occasions when I watch it is Midsomer Murders. Gentle, Agatha Christie tales of deaths in stately houses and quaint villages. Chief Inspector Barnaby investigates and he always gets his man (or woman). It's all terribly English and terribly traditional. The TV programme is based on a series of novels by Caroline Graham, and I've been reading some recently, and jolly good they are too!

As usual there is so much more in the books than in the TV programmes. The TV people do a marvellous job, but when you only have an hour to tell a story that Caroline Graham takes three or four hundred pages to tell, something has to vanish.

Graham's books are screamingly funny (in a very understated, British way you must understand) and crammed full of the most delightfully eccentric characters. Sometimes Barnaby only has a very small part to play and the bulk of the book is concerned with daily village life and the interactions of the characters. It's charming, it's often extremely witty and it pokes delightful fun at the conventions of the Agatha Christie novel. I strongly urge you to search out Caroline Graham's books. You won't regret it.

Michael Dibdin, though British, writes novels about an Italian detective called Aurelio Zen. A Long Finish sees Zen given the task of investigating the case of a son of an important wine growing family who is in jail for murder. Hopefully Zen will be able to prove that he is innocent of the murder.

And so we get a colourful, wine-soaked novel full of brutality, gloom, butchery and vendettas that date back far too many years. Zen is a cynical manipulator, in some ways little better than the criminals he investigates. He seems to have little concept of morality; ethics are for other people. The ending of A Long Finish is genuinely shocking, though I can't help feeling that Zen would not find it so. This is an excellent, though disturbing novel. I'm glad I read it, but I'm not at all sure I enjoyed it. Hmmm...

Stephen Baxter Conqueror Gollancz
Peter Watts Blindsight Tor
Allen Steele Spindrift Ace
Kage Baker Rude Mechanicals Subterranean Press
Richard A. Lupoff Sacred Locomotive Flies Cosmos
Joe Haldeman and Martin H. Greenberg (editors) Future Weapons Of War Baen
David Liss A Conspiracy Of Paper Abacus
David Liss A Spectacle Of Corruption Abacus
David Liss The Ethical Assassin Ballantine
Caroline Graham Death Of A Hollow Man Headline
Caroline Graham Written In Blood Headline
Caroline Graham A Ghost In The Machine Headline
Michael Dibdin A Long Finish Faber
Previous Contents Next