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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (sic in hominibus)

Coaching Days

I was booked on quite a late coach back to Wellington from Palmerston North. As it happened, I managed to finish my business in Palmerston early, and so I went to the coach company to enquire about the possibility of changing the booking to an earlier time.

That was my third mistake.

The first mistake was making the original booking on that there intraweb thingy, and the second mistake was paying for it with my company credit card. Those actions immediately turned me into a second class citizen of the coaching world, and help was not forthcoming.

"I'm sorry, sir," said the nice lady at the counter, "but I can't change an internet booking. I'm only allowed to make modifications to proper bookings. But I'll tell you what, here's an 0800 phone number to ring – you might be able to persuade head office to do something for you..."

She seemed genuinely sorry that the hidebound rules and regulations prevented her from helping me. She really wanted to please me by changing my booking, but since I'd made an improper booking in the first place, her hands were electronically tied and there really was nothing she could do.

"Have you a phone I can use?" I asked.

"Of course, sir; you can use this one." She proffered a complex device that looked capable of controlling a cruise missile bound for Iraq. "Press button five, then press the blue button that says 'External' on it, turn the light emitting diode gauge to 4.5 on the Richter scale and then dial the number," she instructed me.

I did as I was told. Then I fought my way through the elaborate defences erected by the alarmingly vague automated menu which insisted on offering me choices that had nothing to do with what I wanted to achieve, and finally I ended up talking to an extraordinarily dim and unhelpful American lady who appeared to have recently graduated with distinction from a course on customer dissatisfaction.

Subterranean Press have just published a collection of short stories and novellas by Connie Willis. It is a massive book, 700 pages long. Willis fans will find much that is familiar here. I think every single collection of her stories that has ever been published contains Fire Watch, Even The Queen, and Last of the Winnebagos. It seems to be a rule, and The Winds Of Marble Arch obeys all the rules. Nevertheless there is sufficient new material in this collection to make the book well worth buying. And anyway, it's a beautifully produced book which just plain looks good on the shelves!

As always, a huge number of the stories are about the typically dysfunctional people that Connie Willis seems to be so fond of. I swear that most of her stories and novels simply couldn't exist if the people in them would only take the time to look at their watch or answer the telephone or even be able to estimate approximately how long it will take them to perform some task or other. But no, they are consistently late for appointments, they always miss important telephone messages and they never, ever know how much time it takes to do something that they've done a thousand times before. It is so frustrating; I want to pick these idiots up and shake them, or possibly shoot them because they annoy me so much. I'm sure that reading Connie Willis' stories is bad for my blood pressure.

Nevertheless, she writes such wonderfully clever, funny, pointed and poignant stories that she remains high on my list of people whose books I will buy sight unseen because they never disappoint.

Terry Pratchett's novels are also on the list of books that I will buy as soon as they appear on the bookshop shelves, though sometimes they turn out to be purchases that I regret making. Making Money is a sequel to the earlier Going Postal. In that earlier book, Moist Von Lipwig, petty thief and confidence trickster, finds himself charged with revitalizing the moribund postal service of Ankh-Morepork. There's something intrinsically funny about stamps (and stamp collectors) and Going Postal was a jolly rollicking read. I've read it twice and may well read it again. But I doubt if I'll bother re-reading Making Money because it is very dull indeed.

This time Moist Von Lipwig is forced to take charge of the Bank and the Mint. Ankh-Morepork is faced with an economic crisis and only Moist has a mind that is devious enough to solve it.

Pterry tries hard, but it just doesn't work. It is very difficult to be funny about economics and monetary theory. Adam Smith was never a bundle of laughs, and John Maynard Keynes was not noted for his wit, though the concrete cows in Milton Keynes, the town that many people think was named after him (it wasn't) do have a certain surreal charm. Let's face it, money is essentially a very dull subject. There are very good reason why we all consider accountants to be boring people. Even Pterry can't escape from that basic fact. If it is possible for him to write a dull book, I'd say that this was it.

Towards the end there is a hint that there will be a third book about Moist Von Lipwig and that in it he will be appointed chief tax collector of Ankh-Morepork. I suspect that this too might well prove to be terminally tedious...

Navigator is the third novel in Stephen Baxter's Time's Tapestry series. If you haven't read the first two, this one will make no sense at all. Indeed, it is highly likely that you will find that it makes no sense even if you have read the first two books, since the plot is now becoming very messy indeed.

For once it seems that the mysterious weaver has finally managed to have some sort of influence on the course of history. By the fifteenth century, a seemingly endless war between the forces of Islam and Christianity is being waged across the Mediterranean. Cryptic messages from the future seem to reveal plans for terrible engines of war. Scholars debate the true nature of the prophecies and engineers begin to build weapons of mass destruction.

However it would seem that the weaver is not the only entity attempting to manipulate the past. He has enemies who, presumably, would like to maintain the status quo. Perhaps there is a war in the future whose ramifications are now being seen in the past.

I find it frustratingly unlikely that a powerful entity, capable of communicating across time, will be limited only to ambiguous nostradamus-like verses to get his message across. Surely if he has a specific goal in mind it would be better to communicate that goal in ways less easily subject to misinterpretation? Just what is happening in the future that is echoing so confusingly down the time stream? It is very hard to see where Baxter is going with this series and I am finding it harder and harder to even care.

I explained that I'd like to transfer to an earlier coach from Palmerston North to Wellington and that the lady behind the counter couldn't do anything for me because the original booking had been made on the internet.

"How can I help you sir?" asked the American lady.

I said it all again.

"Do you have a booking number?"

"5995536", I told her, and I could hear her computer grinding as it extracted me from her database.

"That coach ride was booked on the internet," she said.

"Yes, I know that," I told her. "That's why I'm ringing you. The lady here at Palmerston North said that you would be able to do the transfer for me."

"So how can I help you sir?"

I explained again what I wanted.

"But it was booked on the internet," she said, puzzled.

"Yes," I said. "So can you transfer the booking to an earlier coach? I'm told there is one at 4.50pm."

I heard a distinct clang as the penny finally dropped. Lightbulbs sizzled and glowed above her solid ivory skull. "I'll see what I can do, sir."

There was a long pause and I could hear keys clattering as she typed furiously at her computer. Then she said, "There's a coach from Palmerston North to Wellington at 4.50pm."

"Thank you," I said, raising my eyes to heaven. "Can you transfer me on to it?"

"There's a surcharge fee of $1 for the transfer," she said. "How would you like to pay for that?"

"Oh I'll just give the cash to the lady at the counter here in Palmerston North," I said. "I have a shiny new dollar in my pocket which I can dedicate to the purpose."

"I'm sorry," said the American lady," but the original booking was made on the internet and paid for by a credit card, so we cannot accept payment across the counter. You will have to put it on the credit card. Can I have your credit card number?"

With a superhuman effort, I refrained from asking her why she had given me a choice of methods for paying the $1 surcharge, since only one acceptable payment mechanism existed.

"Don't you already have it?" I asked. "After all, you've got a complete record of the original booking."

"I really need you to give me your credit card number at this time," she said, her language becoming more impenetrably American as the task she was facing began to overwhelm her with its complexity. I decided to just go with the flow and I quoted the number to her.

"And the expiry date?"

I told her.

"And the name on the card?"

I told her that as well.

"That's the original fee of $34 and a $1 surcharge, making $35 dollars in total for the 4.50pm coach from Palmerston North to Wellington," she said, slurring thirty into thirdy.

"It's a transfer," I said, "not a new booking. Shouldn't you just be charging me $1?"

"The original booking was made on the internet and paid for with a credit card," she explained to me.

"Yes, I know."

"So that's the original fee of $34 and a $1 surcharge, making $35 dollars in total for the 4.50pm coach from Palmerston North to Wellington," she said again, in the robotic tones of a Star Trek computer.

I could almost hear her brain frying under the stress of my unusual and complicated requirements.

"OK," I said, giving up the struggle.

"Booking number 5995536," she said. "I'll change it momentarily."

I winced, deeply hurt by this abuse of the language. Would she really change the booking for only a moment and then, perforce, change it back again? But I kept quiet. If I said anything to her about the proper meaning of the word she had just inflicted on my eardrum, I was afraid that she might blow a circuit breaker and I'd have to start all over again. Anyway, the coach company already had its own definitions of 'proper' and 'improper'. Who was I to rock the boat?

"Booking number 5995536 is confirmed for the 4.50pm coach from Palmerston North to Wellington," she said.

"Thank you," I said, and she rang off.

Matthew Hughes is fast becoming one of my favourite writers. I first came across him some six years ago when I read Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice which were absolutely brilliant homages to Jack Vance (who is my favourite writer). Who could fail to be impressed?

Hughes seems suddenly to have become very prolific, for I have before me three new books with the promise of more to come. The first of these, The Gist Hunter And Other Stories, is a collection of short stories many of which were originally published in Fantasy And Science Fiction. The first six stories in the book form an inter-connected whole and introduce us to Henghis Hapthorn, a discriminator (read: consulting detective) in the dying days of Old Earth. The stories are still very Vancian in tone and outlook and they are also directly descended from Arthur Conan Doyle's tales of Sherlock Holmes. At the same time they are uniquely stories by Matthew Hughes – a very difficult stylistic tightrope to walk but Hughes manages it with nary a stumble and makes the whole thing seem effortless.

Like all Sherlockian figures, Henghis Hapthorn needs a Watson to bounce his ideas and deductions off, and who can help with much of the mundane routine involved in the investigations. This takes the form of his integrator; initially a semi-sentient machine and latterly a small furry animal with an inordinate appetite for exotic and expensive fruit. One of the stories discusses the actual mechanism behind this mysterious transformation.

Henghis also has a non-logical, intuitive aspect to his personality. Though he is a man of logic and science, and is well versed in the mathematical application of levels of consistencies to chaotic patterns, nevertheless he often gains valuable insights into his more tricky cases from hunches and feelings that seem to swirl up from his unconscious. As the stories progress, this side of his personality becomes more dominant and takes a more active role in the investigations. Again, the reasons for this are explored in detail in the stories, and it is also an important theme in the novels that follow on from these short stories.

The pattern of the universe is cyclic, and over the aeons it has swung between extremes. At one end of this philosophical spectrum science and logic and mechanistic interpretations hold sway. At the other extreme, the rules of symbolic association (more commonly known as magic) determine the way of the world. The current cycle of science is coming to an end and the next cycle is about to start. Already there are leakages or dimples in the fabric of the universe and in these places and at these times Henghis' intuitive self is more dominant.

Every Sherlock Holmes also needs an Inspector Lestrade, a formal detective with whom he has an uneasy relationship. And Henghis often finds himself in conflict with Inspecting Agent Brustram Warhanny of the Archonate's Bureau of Security (agents of the Bureau are colloquially known as the scroots – what a wonderful word).

This then is the environment in which Henghis Hapthorn pursues his career as the foremost discriminator of Old Earth. The stories are an utter delight.

The Gist Hunter also contains some stories of the noosphere, a "place" that was first introduced in Hughes' novel Black Brillion. The noosphere is the collective unconscious of the people of Old Earth. This very Jungian environment is, of course, inhabited exclusively by archetypes with a limited and repetitive cycle of existence. I've never really felt comfortable with the noosphere stories. The archetypes are simply clichés – that isn't quite the definition of an archetype, but perhaps it ought to be – and therefore I find the stories to be often somewhat tedious. This is particularly the case with the three noosphere stories collected in The Gist Hunter. One, for example, simply re-uses episodes from The Odyssey to no very good purpose. It also doesn't help that Guth Bandar, the protagonist, is more than a little inept and he often escapes from his predicaments by good luck rather than good management which adds an aspect of deus ex machina to something that is already more than a little arbitrary. Hughes works well with this unpromising material and his considerable writing skills hold it together far better than you would expect. The magic of the prose helps a lot. I don't think Matthew Hughes could write an inelegant sentence if he tried! But nevertheless, for me, the stories of the noosphere remain my least favourite of his work.

The final section of The Gist Hunter consists of "ordinary" stories (if such a word can be used for tales of science fiction and fantasy). Here too delightful surprises lurk. There is a very clever little story where Winston Churchill meets a time traveller and another about an investigation into a puzzling society on a newly discovered planet. This last could have come straight out of Galaxy magazine in the 1960s but it nonetheless still manages to work a nice little twist on the hoary old material.

The Gist Hunter is a superb story collection.

Majestrum and The Spiral Labyrinth are novels that feature Henghis Hapthorn. Majestrum follows chronologically from the short stories in The Gist Hunter, though it is not really necessary to have read those stories before tackling the longer work. The Spiral Labyrinth is a sequel to Majestrum and a third volume, Hespira is noted as forthcoming.

In Majestrum, Henghis Hapthorn accepts a case from Lord Afre to investigate the motives of his daughter's new companion, a man of indeterminate origin who has recently gained an influence over the young girl. Hapthorne expects the case to be straight forward, and indeed it initially appears to be so. However the man's motives are revealed to be sinister and the plot, though seemingly foiled, leads to deeper and darker questions. The Archon himself becomes involved, as also does an ancient and powerful entity known only as Majestrum, a name that causes Henghis Hapthorn's intuitive partner to faint dead away, leaving Hapthorn alone inside his head.

As always, the novel is a cornucopia of delightful conceits. Aristocrats like Lord Afre are so refined in their outlook that they are often unable to perceive the lower orders at all. Hapthorn is compelled to wear an Archonate token in order even to attract Lord Afre's attention. And even then, it seems, the lord can only focus upon him intermittently...

In The Spiral Labyrinth, Hapthorn and the integrator of a space ship called the Gallivant set a course for a whimsy that will carry them through the multitudinous worlds that make up The Spray. Eventually Hapthorn and the ship arrive at a world called Billie. This world is the place where the ship's integrator last saw its companion, Erwen Chaz. It has brought other people here in an effort to find and rescue Erwen Chaz, but all have gone into the cave that Erwen entered and none have come out. Hapthorn is the integrator's last hope.

The cave proves to contain a symbiotic, telepathic lichen and Erwen Chaz and his erstwhile rescuers are held in thrall. Hapthorn escapes by a cunning ruse and the Gallivant returns him to Old Earth where events conspire to cast him forward in time and he is stranded several centuries in the future. The transformation of the universe from empiricism to sympathetic association is complete and magic is now the way of the world. His psychic second self is in his element; unfortunately there is no trace of him to be found and Henghis and his furry integrator must cope alone with the terrors of this place. The wizards are powerful, the dragons are colourful and a terrible entity has bent space and time and is searching for him through all the nine planes of existence. "Bring me Apthorn!" yells a voice loud enough to terrify demons and active enough to create a tenth plane out of nothing at all.

The Spiral Labyrinth is my very favourite of the Hapthorn stories. The plot is twisted, the worlds are delightfully visualised, the language is inspired, the wonders never cease and the invention never flags. Matthew Hughes has obviously had huge fun bringing Hapthorn and his world into existence, and I had even more fun exploring it. I await the forthcoming Hespira with enormous eagerness.

Early next year, PS Publishing will be bringing out a stand alone Matthew Hughes novel set in the world of the Archonate. It will be called Template. A collection of stories set in the noosphere and called The Commons is also forthcoming from Robert J. Sawyer Books. Matthew Hughes is on a roll. Do yourself a favour – go out and buy all his books immediately; hours of pleasure await.

"Well, I think the transfer has been done," I said to the Palmerston North lady. "Can you check it on your machine and, if possible, print me a piece of paper with the details?"

"Of course," she said, "no worries." And thirty seconds later the paper was in my hand.

I await the credit card bill with interest. It seems highly likely that it will show a charge of $34 for the original booking and an additional charge of $35 for the new one which will almost certainly lead to some interesting arguments with the bean counters at work as they endeavour to figure out just what kind of ingenious scam I'm trying to defraud them with this time. It will take reams of paper and countless phone calls to clear up the mess. The administrative effort involved will cost the company orders of magnitude more money than the cost of the original coach fare. As a direct result, profits in the next financial year will be seriously lower than forecast, the share price will tumble, bankruptcy will loom and all my friends will lose their jobs.

And it's all my fault.

Connie Willis The Winds Of Marble Arch Subterranean Press
Terry Pratchett Making Money Doubleday
Stephen Baxter Navigator Gollancz
Matthew Hughes The Gist Hunter And Other Stories Night Shade Books
Matthew Hughes Majestrum Night Night Shade Books
Matthew Hughes The Spiral Labyrinth Night Shade Books
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