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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (diyissimus)

Alan And The Fungi From Yuggoth

The back bedroom in my house had been invaded by Lovecraftian Fungi from Yuggoth and I was starting to think that it was time to do something about it. Black mouldy bits were spreading over the walls and the wallpaper itself was starting to peel.

"I'm worried about the Fungi from Yuggoth in the back room," I said to Robin. "I think they're carnivorous. Have you noticed the strange absence of spiders in the house?"

"Well," she said, "a couple of days ago I cleared up a pile of vomit from the kitchen floor which consisted mostly of diced carrots and spider legs. So I suspect it's much more likely that the cats have been supplementing their food supply. Unless you've gone on a strange diet again?"

"I'm on two diets at the moment," I said. "You don't get enough food on one."

"Let's do an experiment," suggested Robin. "You catch a spider and release it in the back room. I'll take notes."

To hear is to obey. I hunted down a spider and the experiment was conclusive. The spider died a horrible death.

"No, Alan," explained Robin patiently. "You were supposed to feed the spider to the Fungi from Yuggoth, not eat it yourself."

"Sorry," I said. "Anyway, it tasted really nasty without a side dish of diced carrots."

"Let's try the experiment again," said Robin. "And this time do it properly!"

Under Robin's strict supervision, I tried again. The spider screamed horribly as the Fungi from Yuggoth slowly ingested it. There was no doubt in my mind any more. The Fungi from Yuggoth would have to go before they ate all the remaining spiders in the house thus reducing me to only one diet; a thought too terrible to contemplate.

The first step was to remove the wallpaper. That wasn't difficult; large areas were already hanging loose and all I had to do was grab hold of them and peel them off. The top layer came off easily, leaving the backing paper behind. This was stuck firmly to the wall and the Fungi from Yuggoth were well entrenched in it. Hideous chemicals would appear to be required.

I spread the chemicals lavishly and the backing paper came off in great swathes except in the places where it didn't. These were mostly the areas occupied by the Fungi from Yuggoth. Perhaps the Fungi had eaten the original paste and excreted superglue. It seemed likely. I applied chemicals that were even more hideous than before, and I scraped away at the soggy walls. The Fungi from Yuggoth snarled, and bit huge chunks out of my scraping tool with their snaggly, spider-haunted teeth. But eventually I triumphed over them and all the paper was off. What remained of the Fungi from Yuggoth sulked in the plaster. Never mind – a chisel would soon take care of them.

Take that, you bastards!

Spider Robinson has frequently remarked on his enjoyment of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels (and he even uses Travis McGee as a minor plot device in one of his Callahan novels). Robert Heinlein was also reputedly very fond of the books as well (so it's hardly surprising that the Spider enjoys them so much). Many other contemporary novelists have heaped praises on the books and those who work in the same field (private eye/detective novels) often claim that the books were a formative influence on their own work. Until recently I'd never read any of the Travis McGee novels, so I was a little bit curious as to what the fuss was all about. Then I stumbled across one or two in a local second hand bookshop, read them, loved them, discovered that they are all currently in print in American editions and immediately bought them from Amazon. There are 21 Travis McGee novels, and I'm almost half way through them now. The rest are sitting on my shelves awaiting their turn.

Travis McGee himself is a large, amiable man who lives on a houseboat which he moors at slip F-18 in the Bahia Mar marina near Fort Lauderdale in Florida. The houseboat is called the Busted Flush because that was the poker hand that allowed McGee to win the boat from its previous owner. McGee describes himself as retired, but he takes his retirement in small increments. When the money runs out, he has to "work" for a while in order to get some more. He takes on hopeless cases, cases where the victims have been fleeced of lots of money by legal or semi-legal scams. There is no chance that they will ever see their money again. But McGee offers to retrieve it for them (again, generally by legal or semi-legal means). Then he takes his expenses off the top and keeps half of whatever is left; returning the other half to the original victim. As he points out to those who quibble at his high fees, without him they would have nothing. And half of what he recovers is a lot better than nothing at all. Generally they agree.

Of course if McGee fails to come up with the goods, the victim doesn't have to pay anything, not even McGee's expenses. Most people think it's a good deal.

It is the character of Travis McGee himself that makes the books so enthralling. Yes, they are rip-roaring yarns and yes, he matches the normal cynical stereotype required of the heroes of these kinds of books; but he also has a very deep understanding of the way the world works and he cares a lot about the people and places with which he interacts.

When John D. MacDonald first started writing the Travis McGee books in the early 1960s, Florida was generally thought to be a paradise on earth – sun, sand, sea and lots of beautiful girls in bikinis (sand bunnies; McGee likes sand bunnies and we meet a lot of them across many books). It's a naive view of the world of course; and Travis McGee doesn't subscribe to it except in the most superficial way. In many of the early books, he complains vociferously about the ways this paradise is being destroyed before his eyes. McGee was an environmentalist long before the word even existed, and he hated the political machinations that were allowing the landscape to be spoiled for short term gain long before such hatred was fashionable. Reading the books with today's eyes makes them seem very far-reaching and prescient – as indeed they were. Even the sand bunnies generally turn out to be real people with real concerns rather than just the sex machines they would have been in lesser novels written by lesser novelists. Some of them are victims who McGee helps, for his usual fee of course, and some of them in their turn help him in his quests.

McGee also has a delightfully self-deprecating sense of humour. At various times and in various places he describes himself as a salvage consultant (because he salvages money from the financial wreckage). He also sometimes refers to himself as a knight in rusty armour because of the quixotic nature of many of the hopeless causes he takes on.

Despite his cynicism, McGee comes across as a romantic man with the soul of a poet. There are many introspective moments. McGee reflects on life and love and the sheer beauty of the world he sees around him. It is this which makes him whole and rounded. Read a novel about Travis McGee and you feel like he's your friend, you know him well and you know that if you dropped in one day and poked your head around the cabin door on the Busted Flush he'd welcome you in, offer you a beer and you'd talk the day and the night away in perfect harmony. They really are magically attractive books that suck you in and make you care; probably because Travis McGee himself cares so very much.

The first novel about Travis McGee appeared in 1964; the last one appeared in 1985, the year before MacDonald died. That's a lot of time to spend writing about one man and MacDonald wrote a lot of books. Consequently I've got a lot of reading to do and I intend to savour it because once I reach the end, their won't be any more. Already I'm starting to regret that fact.

The walls revealed themselves to be deeply pitted with acne scars. Craters abounded, smoking sullenly as the volcanoes beneath them fumed. Various screws and nails had to be removed, and there was a curious hole about a quarter of an inch across that was plugged with blu-tac. I removed the plug and pushed a rusty nail through the hole. It fell down inside the wall and went clink as it landed on something clinky. Hmmm...

For no readily discernible reason the figure 605 was written in pencil just to the right of the window sill. The words 'Porl rote this' had been scribbled below the light switch by somebody who couldn't spell his own christian name and who had learned to spell the word 'this' by rote.

Pollyfilla was obviously the answer, though the question remained obscure. Fill, scrape, sand – oh bugger! Every time I sanded down a pollyfilled chunk and smoothed off its edges, a new hole appeared. Large areas of the wall were covered in a thin plastic skin of what appeared to be improperly applied undercoat, and as I sanded across it jagged strips peeled off leaving large and slightly countersunk gaps that had to filled up again. It became clear that I had seriously underestimated the amount of pollyfilla needed to complete the task.

"Robin, let's go to the hardware store."

"Oh, goody!"

Robin loves hardware stores. Put her down in front of a wall full of power tools and she won't move for hours. Take her to the gardening section and she starts to dribble and sway. "Shiny," she murmurs as she strokes the solar lights. She grows them from seed and gets a bumper crop every year. One of her many skills.

The Lost Colony is the third novel in the trilogy that John Scalzi began with Old Man's War and continued with The Ghost Brigades. I loved the first book and I hated the second. This one is somewhere in between the two in terms of quality. John Perry, the hero of Old Man's War, is offered the opportunity to open up a new colony world. The first half of the book is a good old-fashioned sensawunda story about exploring a planet and coming to grips with its perils, and I was thoroughly immersed in it and thoroughly enjoying it when suddenly it turned into a novel about inter-galactic politics instead and we learn all about a huge conspiracy to destroy the Colonial Union that John Perry has to try and frustrate. From that point on, the book went downhill rapidly. It turned into a cliché and got really, really dull. Also I found it annoying, not to say frustrating, to find that, when I got to the end of the book, a major plot thread from the first half of the novel was left completely unresolved. The colonists discover that there is an intelligent indigenous race on their new colony planet (of course they do – there always is) and the colony has just had their first major run in with the werewolves, as they dub the natives, when the plot changes underneath them. We never find out any more about the werewolves and we never find how the colony copes with them or what arrangements, if any, are made to ensure the survival of the colony. And, damnit, I really wanted to know! Humph!

The Long Twilight is a collection of a couple of novels and a few short stories by Keith Laumer. They are quite readable but very minor and instantly forgettable works. I wouldn't bother, if I were you.

To Outlive Eternity is a similar collection but from Poul Anderson this time. In contrast to the Laumer collection, this one is actually quite good. The title story is the short story that eventually turned into Tau Zero, which was one of Anderson's very best novels, and it is quite amusing to compare the two versions. Obviously the novel, which has far more room to manoeuvre in it, is by far the stronger work. But all the seeds are there in the short story. The basic plot thread concerns a starship whose drive is damaged – it can accelerate continuously, getting closer and closer to the speed of light (though never quite reaching it, of course) but it has no method of ever decelerating again. The closer it gets to the speed of light, the more relativistic effects come into play, and the stranger the "outside" universe starts to seem. Eons pass outside in between a single clock tick on board ship. It might be that the crew of the ship will see the end of the universe come upon them within their own lifetime...

The collection also contains the superb novel After Doomsday. The Earth is destroyed in the opening pages and the few remaining members of humanity spend the rest of the novel trying to find out who did it and why. I suppose it is the ultimate murder mystery, though cast in a manner that Agatha Christie would probably have found incomprehensible. Her loss really.

Another novel in the collection, UN-Man, is less interesting. It's a very minor work about a group of specially enhanced secret agents working for the United Nations (the UN in the title).

We also get a very good novella called No Truce With Kings about the society that arises after the nuclear holocaust (a common theme in the 1960s when the cold war threatened to blow hot). There's a couple of minor short stories thrown in for good measure as well. All in all, this is a very good collection and if you don't already have the books as separate works, it is well worth investing in.

Eventually all the gaps in the walls in the back room were filled and smoothly sanded. I'd put so much pollyfilla on the walls that the room was now noticeably smaller than it had been when I started; but at least everything was smooth.

Time to choose the paint. Robin consulted catalogues.

"What colour do you fancy?" she asked.

"Yellow might be nice," I suggested tentatively. I'm not very good at colours so I tend to leave that kind of decision to other people.

"There's mellow yellow from one company," she said, "and flower power from another. I like those names."

"Perfect!" I exclaimed. "I've got a long-haired paint brush with a paisley head band, beads and granny-glasses. It would be just the thing for applying that kind of paint."

Robin was dubious. "What about flares?"

"No, no," I said firmly. "Flares would attract unwelcome attention from the Westpac Rescue Helicopter."

The shop that sold mellow yellow was closed when we visited it in the middle of Sunday afternoon. So we went elsewhere and bought a large can of flower power instead. The man picked up a can of basic white and then consulted a complex recipe sheet. Frowning, he began to inject pigments into the white paint. A bit of this, a bit of that, absolutely heaps of the other. Then he banged the lid firmly on the can and put it into a fascinating machine that twirled, twisted and shook in eight dimensions as it thoroughly mixed my flower power for me. Robin watched open mouthed.

"I want one," she said firmly.

"?" I asked.

"Just imagine the milk shakes you could make with that."

Cultural Amnesia is a book which Clive James claims to have been working on for forty years. I can quite well believe that, for it shows all the signs of being over-researched and over-written that forty years of dabbling, revising and re-revising are very likely to introduce into any manuscript. Furthermore James says that he cannot clearly state what the book is about or what its ultimate purpose might be. Instead he urges the readers to work through all the essays that make up the book and see for themselves how the essays nibble around a theme – defining it, perhaps, more by accident than by design; by what is not said rather than by what is said. He seems to be claiming that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and perhaps its best bits are to be found in the same place that the very best music is found, in the unplayed notes between the keys on the piano. I'm putting words in his mouth, but the words are pretentious and wanky enough to belong to him directly.

The book is structured around an introduction, a note on the text, acknowledgements, an overture, 106 essays and a coda. The essays, some short and some long, are biographical sketches of influential thinkers, writers, philosophers, musicians, actors etc. – in short, the people who James feels have defined cultural, philosophical and political thinking as practised during his own lifetime (though many of the people he writes about lived and died before he was born; that almost goes without saying, I think).

Having written the brief biographies, James then goes on to relate (often via anecdote) just how their work influenced his own thinking and the thinking of the movers and shakers of the world. He tries to develop a theme which insists that the moving force behind twentieth century life was the enormous impact of totalitarianism, whether of the right (Hitler et al) or of the left (Stalin et al). It's an idea that is hard to refute, largely because it is probably perfectly correct. By deliberately suppressing dissent and deliberately encouraging, by both word and deed, the promulgation of whatever oddity they defined as "correct", the dictators have had an enormous influence on the way the century worked, if only by killing the opposition!

It's a trite theme, and James does himself no favours by trying to illustrate it in essay after essay about people that nobody except Clive James has ever heard of or even cares about. So many dull, obscure and downright pointless people. Who gives a tinker's fart about (for example) Alfred Einstein – yes, you read that right: Alfred Einstein. Apparently he was a cousin of the Nobel Prize winning physicist Albert Einstein and his principal claim to fame is that he wrote a three volume history of the Italian Madrigal and re-worked and re-arranged Kochel's Mozart catalogue. Whoopee!

James does this again and again and again until you could just scream. Yes – there are important, famous people discussed in the book (and completely trivial famous people as well: Tony Curtis? Oh, give me a break!) but they are far outweighed by unimportant nonentities who seem sometimes to have been dragged in for no other reason than that they once wrote something which annoyed someone in power who had them shot for it. And so they illustrate the theme that James is (perhaps) developing.

And all of it is told in the kind of pseudo-academic pretentious prose that James himself so often sneers at. You'd have thought he'd have spotted it, but he didn't. Too close to the material perhaps; too many years in the making and the polishing of it. Too much of a desire to show off.

As I applied flower power to the walls, it slowly became clear to me that the simple action of painting over the pollyfilla was causing huge new craters to appear above and below the pollyfilled areas (and sometimes to the right and left as well).

"They weren't there before I started to paint," I insisted to Robin.

"Of course not dear," she said soothingly.

I applied the paint thickly. Perhaps the hollows would fill with paint and vanish from view. It's a theory I formed about thirty years ago, but unfortunately I've never been able to make it work in practice. However I remain optimistic. Maybe this time...

One coat, two coats, three. The cats found the whole thing fascinating. They sat in a row and their heads moved up and down, right and left in unison as they followed the brush strokes.

"That's a pretty colour," said Bess and she poked the yellow wall with a paw. Then she shook her paw violently and began to chew the paint off. "Yuck!" she spat, "that tastes horrid."

"I bet you could do that," said Porgy. "You could paint a wall." He admires his sister and is quite in awe of her brain power and her many skills. He's better than her at eating and sleeping, but she is better than him at everything else.

"Nonsense," said Harpo. "She's useless. She's just a girl. Girls can't do anything." Harpo is not an admirer of Bess and beats her up every time she shows off by doing something he can't do. That's why he's always covered in scabs – she's better at fighting than he is, though he refuses to admit it.

I gave Bess a paint brush. "Here you are," I said. "You can do the fourth coat. That will probably be the last one that we need." I left her to it and trotted off to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

When Robin came home that evening she went to admire the state of the back bedroom, just as she had done every day since I started work on it.

"Wow!" she said. "That looks fantastic. There's no trace of the Fungi from Yuggoth any more. Why is Bess yellow; she was a tabby this morning?"

"She spilled some of the paint," I explained. "She put a bit too much on the brush to begin with. It took her a while to get the hang of it, but once she figured it out, she did an absolutely wonderful job."

"Are you telling me that Bess did this?" asked Robin.

"Yes," I said proudly. "She's inherited a lot of skills from her daddy. I must have really strong genes."

"Inherited?" Robin began to laugh. "She's a cat. She's got a leg at each corner, she's covered in fur and she has a tail. How can you possibly be her father? Sometimes I think you live in a dream world."

"You're forgetting something," I said. "You married me because you think I'm absolutely wonderful and magnificent. You've only ever seen me when I'm wearing my super hero costume. You don't know what I look like without it."

"Yes dear," said Robin and she patted me on the head. I purred, and when she wasn't looking I tickled her with my tail.

John D. MacDonald The Deep Blue Goodbye Fawcett
John D. MacDonald Nightmare In Pink Fawcett
John D. MacDonald A Purple Place For Dying Fawcett
John D. MacDonald The Quick Red Fox Fawcett
John D. MacDonald A Deadly Shade Of Gold Fawcett
John D. MacDonald Bright Orange For The Shroud Fawcett
John D. MacDonald Darker Than Amber Fawcett
John D. MacDonald One Fearful Yellow Eye Fawcett
John D. MacDonald Pale Gray For Guilt Fawcett
John D. MacDonald A Tan And Sandy Silence Fawcett
John Scalzi The Last Colony Tor
Keith Laumer The Long Twilight Baen
Poul Anderson To Outlive Eternity Baen
Clive James Cultural Amnesia Norton
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