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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (vehiculum non omnibus)

Alan And Robin Go Overland

It is a truth known to all travellers that interesting journeys always begin at uncivilized hours of the morning. And so, bleary eyed and tetchy, we took a taxi from our warm, comfortable bed to Wellington Railway Station where we joined the check in queue for the Overlander; the train that takes at least twelve hours to travel between Wellington and Auckland.

The man in front of us pushed his ticket through the window and the lady examined it suspiciously.

"Wednesday 26th?" she asked.

The man nodded. "Today," he said.

"No," said the ticket lady. "Yesterday."

They began to argue. Eventually they came to an agreement of some kind and he slouched away. It was our turn now and the lady was in a bad mood.

"Tickets," she snapped. I handed them over. "Mr Robinson?" she asked as she checked my name against the list of approved passengers and failed to find it.

"No," I said. "Mr Robson." I read her list upside down and showed her my name on it. She looked bewildered, but nevertheless drew a line through my name and wrote my seat allocation on the ticket. "Carriage Q, seats 11C and D," she said and handed the ticket back. We went off to check our luggage in.

"Where are you travelling to today?" asked the baggage check lady.

"Auckland," I said.

"Auckland?" She sounded surprised. "Really? You're going all the way to Auckland?"

"Auckland," I confirmed. "Right to the end of the line."

"All right. If you say so."

She tied a green ticket to our two bags and gave me the receipts. We had a black wheelie case and a backpack. She dumped the bags in a higgledy piggledy pile of other luggage on the concrete floor of the station. A man with a trolley came and picked up some of the bags and trundled them off to the baggage car. Our black wheelie case vanished but our backpack remained forlornly behind. The trolley man came back for another load but still our backpack remained unclaimed. It was now sitting about six feet away from the few remaining bags; guaranteed to be forgotten. I couldn't stand the suspense any more.

"I've changed my mind," I said. "I think I'll take this as hand luggage." I picked up the backpack.

"No worries,' said the baggage lady.

We went to the platform to get on the train. It had four carriages labelled A, Q, B and C. Railway staff use an odd alphabet of their own devising. We entered carriage Q and took our seats. The man who was travelling yesterday was asleep across the aisle.

Every so often an SF writer comes up with a humdinger of an idea – an idea so huge and impressive with so many ramifications that a whole hugo full of writers could write a thousand books about it and still not exhaust the potential. And then the writer writes one and only one book about it before moving on to pastures new (because the golden secret is always to leave the punters wanting more) and you are so grateful for this utterly atypical behaviour that you shower praises on his head for the world has far too many never ending series. One book is always enough.

And such a writer with such a stunning idea is Paul McAuley and the book is Cowboy Angels and it's got "prizewinner" and "seminal influence" and "bloody clever idea" and "why didn't I think of that?" written all over it.

In Brookhaven, in 1963, in an America somewhere in the multiverse, scientists succeeded in opening the first Turing Gate. It was no bigger than a fleck of dust, but once the principle had been proved it took only three years before a gate large enough to accommodate a person was generated. And the first explorer to enter an alternate history stepped through it.

For fifteen years the America that refers to itself as The Real has been using the Turing Gates to infiltrate a wide variety of alternate Americas. The Real has rebuilt Americas shattered by nuclear wars and it has fomented revolutions to free others from communist or fascist dictatorships. It has established a Pan-American alliance across the multiverse.

But then The Real elects Jimmy Carter to the presidency on a reconstruction and reconciliation ticket and it begins to wage peace instead of war. This is an unpopular move in some quarters. There are those who believe strongly that it is the manifest destiny of The Real to impose its idea of truth and justice and the American way in every known alternate history, by force if necessary, and they are prepared to do anything and everything to reverse Carter's peacenik doctrine.

Adam Stone is a cowboy angel, one of the original covert operatives who pushed behind the scenes of so many American revolutions. He is long retired, but he comes out of retirement when he learns that an old friend has begun a killing spree across the history lines – in every alternate America except, perversely, in The Real, a mathematician called Eileen Barrie is being murdered. As Stone hunts down the killer he uncovers a startling secret about the Turing Gates and is drawn deeper and deeper into a dark conspiracy.

In case you haven't worked it out yet, let me just say that I enjoyed Cowboy Angels a lot.

On the other hand, I didn't much like Halting State, the new novel by Charles Stross.

I've tried – I really have. I own every book that Charlie has published and many of them are hardback first editions, some of them quite rare and expensive. Critics that I respect suggest that he is the great white hope of SF because of his new, fresh ideas. And to a certain extent I agree. All his books, even the lightest and most trivial of them, are stuffed full to bursting with the most fascinating speculations, the cleverest of ideas, the most profound inspirations.

But now I've given up on Charlie Stross. I've tried and tried, but I'm not going to try any more. Reading Charlie Stross is just too much of an effort. His prose is lumpy, ugly and covered in warts and I'm sick of fighting against it; I'm tired of wading through the sludge that oozes out of his word processor as he thumps the keys with his fists.

Yes – it's me, not him. I'm happy to admit that. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all. Here's a taste of Halting State:

"I'd just come out of the post-IPO debrief meeting with Marcus and Barry, they're our CEO and CTO. We were in a three-way conference call with our VC's investment liaison team and our counsel down south when Linda calls me out – she's in derivatives and border controls – because there was something flaky going down in one of the realms we manage for Kensu International. It's in the prestige-level central bank for Avalon Four. There was a guild of orcs – in a no-PvP area – and a godamn dragon, and they cleaned out the bank. So we figured we'd call you."

OK – that's a bit of dialogue and the next paragraph does have the grace to admit that the jargon can be sorted out later. And some of it (though by no means all of it) is. However it is not an untypical piece of prose from the book. And the "throw something heavy at the reader and explain half of it later" approach gets more than a little bit wearing when you have to fight against it in novel after novel after novel.

In his early life, before he started earning a living as a writer, Charlie Stross worked with computers. And that early imprinting never wore off. I'm tired of reading Charlie Stross novels that sound like computer manuals. I'm bored with incomprehensible paragraphs that could have come straight out of a Unix man(1) page. Charlie's prose style is complex, prolix, involuted and too damn self-referential.

So I'm not going to read any more of it.

As always, Halting State has lots and lots of clever ideas and speculations in it. There's been a daring bank robbery at Hayek Associates (a dot com start up company that has just floated on the London stock exchange). The bank robbers appear to be a band of orcs, and the robbery has taken place in a virtual reality game. When word gets out, the virtual economies that Hayek Associates manage will almost certainly crash. Powerful players (both real and virtual) are closely involved.

The story that follows is clever, thoughtful, original and right up to the minute. Charlie is a deep thinker who enjoys surface pyrotechnics, but who never lets them distract him too much from his primary purpose. There is much to admire about Halting State. But I found it a huge struggle to get through.

Harry Turtledove has begun a new alternate history series with Opening Atlantis. The premise is that in 1452 a large island is been discovered in the middle of the Atlantic ocean (so they call it Atlantis, obviously). It turns out to be uninhabited and it has some rather strange fauna and flora. It isn't long before English, French, Breton and Basque colonies start to flourish on the island, and it also makes a natural stopping off place on the voyage to the New World (which is inhabited and from which slaves can be brought to work the Atlantean fields).

The beginning of the book is very promising. The story of the discovery and initial exploration and colonisation of Atlantis is quite gripping. But it isn't very long before the story degenerates into rather routine military manoeuvres as war breaks out and battles are fought. From that point onwards, the book becomes terribly dull and I suspect the sequels will prove to be equally as dull if the theme continues.

I loved Conn Iggulden's new novel Wolf Of The Plains for all the wrong reasons. It's the first novel in (probably) a trilogy about the rise of Genghis Khan. Fairly obviously this first book concerns the boyhood and early manhood of Temujin, the young man who would become Genghis Khan.

The book is a typically overwritten piece of melodrama (though the actual facts of Temujin's life are sufficiently melodramatic that Iggulden can probably be forgiven). But I loved the book to bits and I am eagerly awaiting the next instalment.

And I loved it because when I was a child I subscribed to a comic called Adventure. Nowadays we'd probably call it a magazine because it published prose stories rather than comic strips, but my parents called it a comic, and so I did too. By the time I reached my teens, the stories were starting to seem a bit childish, a bit beneath me and so I decided to stop getting the comic. But I deliberately waited until the serial it was currently publishing was complete because, childish or not, it had me hooked and there was no way I was going to let my subscription lapse until I found out how it finished. And, of course, that last serial, the one that kept me reading Adventure long after I really should have stopped, was about the boyhood and early manhood of Temujin, the young Genghis Khan.

Believe me, nostalgia is what it used to be.

The train pulled slowly out of the station and our journey had begun. An incoherent lady came on the PA system and explained that we weren't supposed to put heavy things in the overhead rack and that the café counter would open soon for the serving of refreshments. There was a menu in the seat pocket in front of us.

At least, I think that's what she said. Her syntax was so twisted and her words so out of touch with each other that she was impossible to understand. A stream of utter gibberish would be followed by a very long silence as she realised that there was no way at all that she could ever bring the current sentence to a successful conclusion. So she would leave it in mid-creek without a trace of a paddle and start a new one. Also every sentence started with the word also.

To be fair to the lady, we learned later that the person who usually made the announcements was on holiday and she was standing in for him. She was probably scared stiff at the thought of talking to a train full of people; fear does strange things to the syntax.

I went to the café counter and ordered refreshments. The man behind the counter was new and had never seen a coffee machine or a till in his life before and didn't know what to do with either of them. Aeons slowly passed as he tried to figure them out. When I got back to my seat, noticeably older and greyer, I checked the prices on the menu in the seat pocket. He had overcharged me by three dollars, but I had no proof; it was too late to complain.

Later in the journey, I went grumpily back to the café counter. We went through the same tedious rigmarole and this time he undercharged me by five dollars. Again, I said nothing. I felt that my net profit of two dollars was fair compensation for the strain and stress of watching his utter incompetence.

The train went up hill and down dale across indescribably beautiful crags and crannies. Sheep and cattle ran away from the noisy monster and a man called Kevin waved enthusiastically to us as we passed his farm. He makes a point of always being there to wave at the Overlander. Nobody knows why. Recently there were rumours that the Overlander service would be cancelled. Kevin went into a deep depression. However, the news that the service was not being cancelled after all soon cheered him up again.

As we trundled over the central plateau the snow-capped mountains brooded on the horizon. I took lots of movie footage of their stationary majesty. They were a little shy and kept hiding behind trees. We stopped at the station at National Park and now they couldn't escape. I took lots more movies of them as they sat silently aloof.

The south bound Overlander shot past on its way to Wellington. We found this surprising as our crew had told us that they were swapping with the south bound crew at National Park. However a few minutes later the mystery was solved as the train reversed in to the station and parked neatly behind ours. The crews duly changed over and then the south bound train pulled slowly out of the station chased enthusiastically by a small yapping dog who came prancing back to us, extremely proud of his courage at scaring the noisy monster away.

Onwards ever onwards. We crossed spectacular viaducts and wound our way down the Raurimu Spiral to the (relatively) flat lands a long way below. And so to Auckland where we stayed with friends.

Grief Encounters is Stuart Pawson's new novel about detective inspector Charlie Priest. I love these books. Normally the detective inspector hero of books like these is a cynical, angst-ridden semi-alcoholic who listen to jazz records and drinks a bottle of whisky for supper. Charlie Priest plays against the stereotype; he has a sunny disposition, he enjoys walking across the moors. As a young man he went to art school and he still paints pictures. The books are cheerful and light, even though they often deal with very, very grim realities.

Another reason I love the books is because Stuart Pawson simply cannot stop himself from scattering the most terrible jokes throughout the pages.

"Do you use strepto traps at the hospital?"

"I'm not sure. What are strepto traps?"

"They're what you catch streptomycin."

I don't know how he gets away with it. I really don't.

The title of Colin Bateman's new novel is so long (and so idiosyncratic) that there isn't enough room to fit his first name on the cover. The cover simply reads: I Predict A Riot, Murder, Extortion & Carrot Cake Bateman and you could easily be forgiven if you failed to figure out where the title ended and the author's name began.

The book is a brilliant novel with a very complex plot. It is a love story and an exploration of what terrorists do when their cause is won (if you've spent a life time blowing things up and killing people in ingeniously nasty ways, it can sometimes be hard just to go back the office). The book is also another love story, an exposé of the world of the fashion designer, a discussion about how to make a (metaphorical) killing in the property market, another love story, accountancy, a theological conundrum, a rather gruesome murder, riots in the street, and what happens when you have an allergy to carrot cake and you go into a coma for three days after eating a slice. It's also deadly serious and screamingly funny at one and the same time. I've been a (Colin) Bateman fan for many years and this is his best novel yet. Buy it immediately.

On the other hand, you'd probably be well advised not to buy three novels by Mark Haskell Smith. The blurb on Moist and on Delicious and on Salty makes you think that the novels will be as idiosyncratically funny and devious as the Bateman novel was. But the books don't quite work and despite the fact that that they certainly do have their moments of brilliance (Salty in particular has a lot of biting things to say about the abortion that is Homeland Security and the nastiness of life in the repressive Fascist States Of America) the overall impression is that Mark Haskell Smith is trying too hard and he doesn't quite have the skill to bring it off successfully. It's a shame – the books show great promise, but they don't quite succeed.

The oddly named James Delingpole (of whom I have never heard, though it seems he has quite a reputation in England) has written Coward On The Beach, a novel (the first of many, of course) about the military exploits of one Richard ("Dick") Coward in the second world war. Normally this kind of thing is rather dull, but Delingpole has cast Coward as a modern day equivalent of Flashman and if you enjoyed George Macdonald Fraser's novels about that nineteenth century nasty you'll enjoy this novel for exactly the same reasons. If you didn't, you won't. And if you've never heard of Flashman you probably won't think much of this book either, unless you are heavily into military pornography.

A few days later it was time to repeat the journey in the opposite direction. With sparrows farting all around us, we made our way to the modern, hi-tech Britomart station in Auckland. A large group of confused people milled around. There was no obvious place to check in as there had been in Wellington. Everybody asked each other what to do and nobody knew the answer. Eventually the PA cleared its throat and made an announcement:

"Will all passengers for the Overlander proceed to the top end of platform 3 where the train manager will allocate seats and you can check your baggage."

Platform 3 is straight and flat. It has no slope whatsoever. It has two ends, but neither one is obviously a top or a bottom. Where to go? What to do? Somebody stopped a passing, railway-uniformed man.

"Which end is the top end of platform 3?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "No spikee eenglish!"

We milled around some more. The PA got very annoyed:

"Will all passengers for the Overlander proceed immediately to the top end of platform 3 where the train manager will allocate seats and you can check your baggage."

Nobody moved. The PA got really pissed off:

"Will all passengers for the Overlander proceed immediately, in other words right now to the top end of platform 3."

Somebody spotted a dot in the distance. It was a desk with an angry lady sitting at it. She waved impatiently. A queue formed.

Eventually we got our boarding pass and we checked our baggage. We were sitting in carriage Q again. We waited for the journey to start. The lady at the desk continued doggedly to check people in. She worked at the speed of a rheumatic snail; one of the endangered ones that are too slow to escape from predators. The train left Auckland twenty minutes late.

The journey proceeded. Every so often, the PA would announce:

"We have just passed tangled-name…"

It would then spend the next ten minutes telling us about all the magnificent things we would have seen if only we'd known about them before they passed us by.

I went to the café counter in search of refreshments. Again a bewildered person took my order.

"Twelve dollars please."

I was fed up with this. "No, I said. It's nineteen dollars."


"Add it up again," I advised.

There was much head scratching and pushing of buttons. Several other people were consulted and they all stared suspiciously at the till. Eventually a consensus was arrived at. I was right!

"Nineteen dollars, please."

I passed over a twenty dollar bill. Rather surprisingly, they managed to work out the correct change. I took my refreshments back to my seat and got there just in time to wave to Kevin, though he probably couldn't see me through the smoked glass.

Children threw stones at the train and once we shuddered to an emergency halt and an engineer got down from the cab and removed a bicycle that was lying across the track. We got into Wellington very late and very tired.

But despite all that we'd both do it again in an instant. It's a wonderful journey with so much to see. However next time we will take our own refreshments…

Paul McAuley Cowboy Angels Gollancz
Charles Stross Halting State Ace
Harry Turtledove Opening Atlantis Roc
Conn Iggulden Wolf Of The Plains Harper
Stuart Pawson Grief Encounters Allison & Busby
(Colin) Bateman I Predict A Riot, Murder, Extortion & Carrot Cake Headline
Mark Haskell Smith Moist Atlantic Books
Mark Haskell Smith Delicious Atlantic Books
Mark Haskell Smith Salty Black Cat
James Delingpole Coward On The Beach Bloomsbury
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