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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (chirugicus maxima)

Alan Gets A Toy, Robin Gets Cut Up, Harpo Gets A Hair Cut

I'm writing this article on my new computer. It's about the size, shape and weight of a large(ish) paperback book – a slimline stand-alone novel by somebody like Joe Haldeman, you understand; not an immense door stopping wodge of a book which is itself only one volume of a twelve part forest-destroying trilogy by Robert Jordan.

When I've finished using my new computer, I can close it down and slip it into a pocket or a bag and carry it to my next destination. In terms of system resources and general computing grunt it is approximately 10 million times as powerful as the mainframe computer I worked on in 1971. Indeed, this one small computer sitting on my lap probably has more computing oomph than the sum total possessed by the entire world in 1971.

And it fits in my pocket.

The machine is an Asus Eee. The three ee(e)s stand for Easy to learn, Easy to work, Easy to play. I'll stop writing for a moment so you can go away and vomit.

Ready to carry on?

The basic machine costs only $599. I got a memory upgrade and some extra storage so in fact I ended up spending $748. But it's still a bargain, however you do the arithmetic. It is the neatest gadget I've ever owned and I'm passionately fond of it. Who would have believed, in 1971, that computers would ever be as small and as powerful and as cheap as that? Only science fiction writers and their devoted readers. We're very, very special, you and I.

Firstborn is the third novel in the Time's Odyssey series by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. I can't really call it a trilogy, even though the cover blurb insists that this book is the concluding volume, because although each novel tells a complete story and each story ends in a very satisfactory way, it is quite obvious that we have not yet reached the end of the story. The authors still have a lot more to tell us.

Following the failure of the sunstorm that the firstborn launched in the last novel, they have sent out a quantum bomb on a trajectory aimed directly at the Earth. The bomb cannot be stopped, destroyed or turned aside. Human scientists barely even comprehend what it is at all and all of their efforts to intercept it come to nothing.

Meanwhile, Bisesa Dutt, the UN peacekeeper who was the major mover and shaker of the first two books, has been awakened from the hibernaculum she entered twenty seven years previously. She is surreptitiously smuggled to Mars where an amazing discovery has been made beneath the ice of the North pole. From there she returns to Mir, the fractured, discontinuous world of time slices from all of human and prehuman history that the firstborn constructed in its own pocket universe in the very first novel of this odyssey. It seems that there may be clues as to the nature of the quantum bomb here. Indeed, there may even be allies to be found in the war against the firstborn.

The book is a never ending source of awe and wonder. The writers are not afraid to cast a questioning glance on all manner of ideas ranging from the birth of the universe to its death, and even beyond. And yet they never lose sight of the very human characters with whom they are dealing. These books are not scientific/philosophical research papers with dialogue; they are extremely exciting and involving stories, full of people that you care about. There are even lots of nice in-jokes for those who have ears to hear them. For example, when Bisesa Dutt arrives on Mars, she amuses herself by reading a novel called Martian Dust by Martin Gibson. I should also note that the next chapter (which starts on the facing page) is called The Sands Of Mars. That should be enough of a clue as to what is going on here I think.

I really can't understand why these novels have not made more of a splash. They are superb hard SF novels, and yet at the same time they contain an awful lot of extremely outrageous speculation about the nature of the universe and the nature of humanity. Clarke has always used his SF to explore religion and philosophy just as much as he has used it to explore science. And even Stephen Baxter has sometimes admitted a large streak of mysticism into his work. Both writers complement each other perfectly and these novels are everything that good science fiction really ought to be (and so seldom is). It is still only January and yet I'm quite certain that Firstborn is the best SF that I will read this year.

The late George Alec Effinger is probably best known for a trilogy of novels set in a vaguely Arabic/cyberpunky universe. They are often referred to as the Budayeen novels. He had just started to write a fourth novel set in that world when he died. However, long before he found fame (though not, unfortunately, fortune) he wrote a lot of very quirky stories and novels which have always had quite a cult following. One of his ongoing characters is a lady called Maureen Birnbaum, a Barbarian Swordsperson. I have several of Effinger's Birnbaum stories scattered through various collections and I've always admired them, so I was very pleased when I recently came across a book which collects them all together in a single volume. The book is called, not unnaturally, Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson and I recommend it unreservedly for it is very, very funny indeed.

The eponymous Maureen (Muffy to her friends) is what the Americans seem to refer to as a valley girl, but in this part of the world we'd probably know her better as Kylie Mole. In the first story of the sequence she is, like dressed in the cutest little ski outfit? She's all set to go down the slope? When suddenly she gets like this really weird feeling inside and there she is standing stark naked on Mars, up to her ankles in orange grunge? And stuff like that? How gross is that? But she meets this really cool, you know, guy? And he goes, "Oh wow, like totally awesome," and Muffy is all, "Oh neat. Let's go shopping." And she falls in love? And she kills all these, like yuccky green monsters, with a, you know, sword?

All of Muffy's adventures take place in well known science fiction/fantasy environments. She becomes a High Priestess for some yucko hairy apes at the Earth's Core (and meets this really cool guy, you know?). She manages to avert a world wide panic when night falls for the first time in, like, years and years on this really, really sunny planet called Lagash (and she meets, like, this really cool guy?).

I'm sure you can, like, imagine how it goes from there?

Dirty Tricks is a collection of Effinger's more ordinary stories (though, let's face it, ordinary is the very last adjective that comes to mind when talking about Effinger). They are of mixed quality. One story in particular (Heartstop) is an interminable tale involving a complex chess game between a travelling salesman and a back country hick in heartland America. I found it tedious. But there are sufficient gems in the book to make it worth while. For example, The Awesome Menace Of The Polarizer is a very Philip K. Dickish story about the nature of reality and personality. The hero, Robert Wayne Hanson, keeps coming across plaques which point out that this was where Robert Wayne Hanson went to school, this was the house where he was born, this was where he went to university. He finds this puzzling – he's still only in his first year at university; he hasn't had time to get famous yet...

D.A. is a hideously overpriced short story by Connie Willis bound and sold as a stand alone "short novel" by Subterranean Press. Don't waste your money; wait until it appears in a collection. It will, sooner or later. The story, such as it is, is yet another Willis time waster about dysfunctional people who don't listen to each other. I'm getting very tired of Connie Willis' view of the way the world works.

Theodora Baumgarten has just won a scholarship as an IASA space cadet, despite the fact that she never applied for it in the first place and doesn't want to accept it now. But nobody listens to her (of course) and she's whisked off to the space station to start her training. Together with her hacker friend Kimkim, she tries to uncover and expose the bureaucratic conspiracy that has shanghaied her. It's all very predictable stuff and I somewhat resent the $20 (American) that Subterranean Press charged me for only 76 pages of very large print and rather dull pictures.

Fortunately I had the new Mike Resnick novel to make up for it. Starship: Mercenary is the third volume in an on-going series and you probably don't want to read it if you haven't already read the first two books. But if you have read them (as I have) then you really won't be able to wait to find out what happens next (as I couldn't).

Having failed to make a living as a space pirate, Wilson Cole and the crew of the spaceship Teddy R. decide to try and make a living as mercenaries, hiring themselves out to the highest bidder. Among the jobs they are hired to do are evacuating an orbital hospital before a war can reach it, freeing a client from an alien prison, and stopping a criminal cartel from extorting money from a terrified planet. Generally Wilson Cole has to solve his problems with ingenuity rather than fire power because often his opponents are stronger than he is. Usually he succeeds, but eventually there comes a time when fighting seems inevitable, particularly after his close friend the Pirate Queen finds herself, through an unfortunate combination of circumstances, fighting with the opposition.

It's all space opera, of course, but it's highly exciting space opera, beautifully written and terribly addictive.

"Does this hurt?" asked the doctor as he poked Robin in a pokeable place. She let out an Australian shriek and leapt for the ceiling. The nurse reached casually up, pulled her down again and settled her back in the bed. By and large, you can't surprise a nurse; they've seen it all before.

"I'll take that as a yes," said the doctor. "Nurse, I think we need some pain relief here. Go and get the morphine syringes."

He scribbled a signature on an authorization form and the nurse bustled off. Soon she was back with two syringes filled with a colourless fluid. She injected the first one into Robin who began to relax a bit. For the first time since arriving at the hospital an hour ago, the pain was at a bearable level. The nurse frowned for a moment and then used the second syringe. Robin relaxed completely.

"I feel a bit light headed," she said.

"That's only to be expected," said the nurse. "You've got two syringes full of morphine in you."

"Nice," said Robin dreamily. "Can I have some more?"

"We're taking you up to the ward now," said the nurse. "We've made an appointment for a scan so we can find out exactly what's happening inside you. It's likely that you'll have to go into surgery at very short notice, so you aren't allowed any food. But you are allowed an occasional sip of water."

Robin nodded. She didn't care; she had two syringes of morphine in her. She was pain free and as a bonus she felt deliciously swimmy. They wheeled her up to the ward, attached a drip to her arm and hung a "Do Not Feed The Animals" notice on the foot of the bed.

"There's a call button here," said the nurse. "If the pain comes back and you need more pain relief, just press the button."

The hours drifted by. Every so often someone came and gave Robin a sip of water. Eventually the morphine started to wear off and they gave her some pills to take the edge off the pain again. Robin began to get bored. More hours passed.

"When is something going to happen?" she asked.

"Soon," said the nurse. "We work on hospital time here. It's a bit like the Spanish concept of mañana, only not nearly so hasty. A hospital minute is at least an hour in real time; sometimes longer. We'll be taking you to the scanning machine in about five minutes. So just be a very patient patient. You'll like the scanning machine when you get to see it. It goes buzz."

"I'm hurting again," said Robin. "Can I have more pain relief?"

The nurse went to get the tablets. When she returned, there was a doctor frowning over Robin's chart. "What a lot of tablets they've been giving you," he said.

"My tummy hurts," said Robin. The doctor poked her pokeable place again. "Ow!" said Robin. "See?"

"I've brought some more pain relief tablets," said the nurse. "Can I give them to her?"

Just then Robin's tummy emitted a gigantic gurgle.

"Aha!" said the nurse, the light of understanding dawning on her face. "You're not really in pain – those are stomach cramps. You're just hungry, that's all."

"Better give her the tablets anyway," said the doctor. "It's going to be a very long time before she eats again."

"Pain relief tablets for hunger pangs," muttered the nurse. "I don't know what the world's coming to."

Five hospital minutes later they wheeled Robin off to the machine that went buzz. Eventually it disgorged a blurred and blobby picture and everyone gathered round to examine it. It didn't take long to reach a verdict.

"You've got appendicitis. We'll operate this afternoon."

"I told you it was appendicitis two days ago," said Robin.

"Two days ago you were thirty years too old to have appendicitis," said the doctor. "The symptoms were quite atypical. We all knew that whatever you had it couldn't possibly be appendicitis. We were absolutely certain it was something else."

"Thank goodness you've got a machine that goes buzz to tell you when you're wrong," said Robin.

"One of the first things I learned in medical school" said the doctor, "is that under conditions of constant temperature and pressure the organism being studied will do whatever it damn well pleases. That's why we need machines that go buzz. They help to keep us humble."

A gaggle of nurses gathered around Robin and presented her with bits of paper.

"This is a consent form for the operation. Please sign here, here and here so that we can cut you up into little pieces. This is a form for the anaesthetist so that he can make you unconscious. Sign here and here.

"What do you want us to do with your appendix after we take it out? Do you want to keep it? It is yours after all."

"Oh yes please!" said Robin eagerly. "Of course I want to keep it."

"Ewwww!" The nurses seemed quite taken aback. One of them flipped frantically through her pieces of paper.

"I haven't got the form that lets you keep it," she cried. "Nobody's ever asked me if they can keep the slimy, rubbery bits we cut out of them before." She bustled off in search of the special form.

"What are you going to do with it?" asked one of the other nurses, consumed with prurient curiosity.

"I thought I'd put it on the coffee table in the lounge," said Robin. "It would make a nice ornament."

"Ewwww!" The nurses pulled faces at each other.

"Perhaps I'll have a dinner party when I get out. I could put the appendix on the dining table as a conversation piece."


"If I ever get bored with it, I could give it to the cats as a special treat for their tea."


The nurse who had gone looking for the special form that would allow Robin to keep her appendix returned, blowing dust off a rather grey piece of paper.

"They reprint these forms when they are all used up," she said. "And every time they reprint them they put the re-printing date on the bottom of the form."

Robin and the other nurses looked interested.

"This one was last reprinted in 1958," said the nurse. Robin smiled with secret satisfaction as they wheeled her away, knocked her out, cut her open and took her appendix out. And she hasn't stopped smiling since.

The amusingly named James Delingpole (JD) has written Fin whose viewpoint character is called Joe Davenport (JD) and Thinly Disguised Autobiography which is narrated by one Josh Deveraux (JD). Can this plethora of JDs be mere coincidence? Of course not; it's just JD indulging himself in a bit of Post Modern literary wanking which, since a significantly large part of both books is about literally wanking, seems more than a little appropriate; and it allows me to make an ironic Post Modern literary joke of my own. Which I would if I knew what Post Modern meant.

I enjoyed Fin a lot. Joe Davenport is a journalist with a promising career and a neurotic fear of being eaten by sharks. No matter what the subject under discussion, he will (sooner or later) bring it round to his shark obsession. At parties he asks new acquaintances if they have any interesting shark stories to tell him. Usually they don't, of course. But then he meets a very sexy lady who seems to share his obsession and who has a rather gruesome shark tale that he hasn't heard before. They get on like a feeding frenzy. Fin is a very funny book – there's a snigger on every page.

Thinly Disguised Autobiography is nowhere near as good. It appears to be exactly what the title proclaims it to be even though the blurb claims that it is a thinly disguised novel. James Delingpole (sorry, Josh Deveraux) goes up to Oxford in the 1980s and makes many useful contacts for his later career as a journalist. He takes lots of drugs and doesn't get laid. After graduating, he goes to work in Fleet Street and spends his time clubbing, going to raves, taking lots of drugs and not getting laid. I got very bored with interminable descriptions of what an Ecstasy trip feels like – rather like a damped harmonic oscillation if JD is to be believed, with alternate highs and lows of ever decreasing intensity that tend gradually towards an equilibrium as the drug wears off. Apart from the contemporary references this could easily be a hippy novel from the 1960s. They were boring then and they are boring now.

Triptych is the new novel by Karin Slaughter. I picked it up expecting to find another episode in her long running series about a medical examiner who is (kind of) romantically involved with a police chief and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is a stand alone, one off novel that is utterly unconnected with anything else she has written. And what a brutal, shocking novel it is as well; that's an added bonus. It begins with Atlanta police detective Michael Ormewood being called out to a particularly gruesome murder. Aleesha Monroe, a known prostitute, has been found lying dead in a pool of blood. Her tongue has been bitten off by her assailant. It soon becomes clear that this is only the latest in a series of similar attacks and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is called in and Michael finds himself working, rather unwillingly, with Special Agent Will Trent, a man he takes an instant dislike to.

From this point on you'd expect a classic whodunnit with a bit of angst between Ormewood and Trent to add some spice to the mixture. But that's not how the book goes at all. To tell you more of the structure would be a massive spoiler. Suffice it to say that almost nothing is what it appears to be and the twists and turns really did keep me on the edge of my seat as I sat up far too late reading the book simply in order to find out what happened next.

Michael Connelly has a new novel out as well, the latest in his ongoing series about Harry Bosch of the Los Angeles Police Department. It's called The Overlook and it is not very good. It was originally published as a serial in the New York Times (of all strange places!) and the artificial constraints that this has placed on the structure of the story weaken it considerably. There has to be a regular cliff hanger at the end of every episode and, because of space constraints, there simply isn't room to stretch your literary wings and really explore the material. As a result the novel feels thin and underwritten; the plot is far too linear with too many predictable crises.

A body has been found at the Mulholland Overlook, a site with stunning views over the city. The murdered man was a physicist with access to large quantities of radioactive caesium which might now be in the hands of terrorists. Homeland Security is soon involved and the rather predictable plot plays itself out by the numbers. Connelly makes the usual obligatory references to the utter ineptitude and terminal stupidity of the Department of Homeland Security, but his heart isn't really in it. This is not a very good book. Only a completist would want to read it.

Lords Of The Bow is the next novel in Conn Iggulden's series about Genghis Khan. The Mongol tribes are united under his leadership and he turns his military attention towards China. This novel is the tale of his first conquests. Not only does the Chinese army outnumber his own, they also have fortresses and huge walled cities. Being a nomad, Genghis is completely unfamiliar with even the concept of a city, let alone how to go about tumbling its walls and bringing its citizens under his control. He has a lot of lessons to learn and he has to learn them rapidly.

I loved the book. It is melodramatic nonsense, cliché-ridden and utterly predictable and it held me completely enthralled. It will be at least a year, I would imagine, until the next volume comes out. It will be a long and difficult wait.

Harpo the cat came for a cuddle. He went straight to Robin because he hates me. I'm no good at cuddling. All I'm good for is putting food into bowls. Apparently I do that quite well. He comes back for more food almost every day, when there's a 'q' in the month. But right now he wanted a cuddle. He climbed up onto Robin's chest, thrust his head into her armpit, inhaled deeply and began to purr with pleasure. Robin scratched his head, checking out the scabs from his latest fight. They seemed to be healing well. She ran her hands all over his long black fur and he wriggled with ecstasy.

"Gosh," said Robin. "His fur is really thick and matted in places. It's just a solid lump. He's never going to be able to untangle it himself. I think we ought to cut it off for him."

"He's not going to like that," I said. "Remember, he's got lots of pointy bits and he knows how to use them."

"We'll put clothes pegs on his neck," said Robin. "He's a wonderful clothes peg cat."

The theory goes that since mother cats carry their kittens around by the scruff of the neck, pressure on the scruff will make the cat go all limp and pliant so that mum can take care of it. Clothes pegs on the neck apparently feel just like mum, and many cats will let you do almost anything to them as long as the pegs are in place. Others, of course, will just try to rip your arm off and hit you with the soggy end if you put pegs on them. We've been very lucky with Harpo – he's the best clothes peg cat that's ever owned us.

I went to get the pegs, Robin went to get the scissors. I held the end that bites while Robin snipped at the matted fur on the other end. Despite the pegs, Harpo wriggled and cried. He obviously didn't like what we were doing at all.

"I think it's hurting him," said Robin. "I think there's more than just matted fur here. There might be a wound underneath it."

Harpo shrieked with sudden anger and tried to bite me. The pegs simply weren't working.

"I think we'd better go to the emergency vet."

The emergency vet picked up an electric trimmer and buzzed it over Harpo's matted fur. It came off in great heavy black lumps. Harpo protested loudly but it did him no good. The vet continued to trim the fur. Then he gave his official diagnosis.

"Daggy bum," he said.

"Is that all?" asked Robin. "No wound or anything?"

"Just a daggy bum," said the vet.

"So why did he complain so much when we were cutting it?" I asked.

"Because he's a cat," said the vet. "Probably he was just telling you to stop messing with his bottom. I can't say I blame him. I'd tell you to stop messing with my bottom if you did it to me."

He shaved off some more fur and peered closely in order to confirm his diagnosis.

"Yes," he said. "That's all it is."

He turned to his computer and typed "daggy bum". The computer didn't seem to mind.

"Now comes the bad news," said the vet, smiling sweetly. "The diagnosis and treatment comes to $88."

"Shit and corruption," hissed Harpo. "Just wait till I get you home!"

Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter Firstborn Del Rey
George Alec Effinger Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson Guild America
George Alec Effinger Dirty Tricks e-reads
Connie Willis D.A. Subterranean Press
Mike Resnick Starship: Mercenary Pyr
James Delingpole Fin Picador
James Delingpole Thinly Disguised Autobiography Picador
Karin Slaughter Triptych Arrow
Michael Connelly The Overlook Allen & Unwin
Conn Iggulden Lords Of The Bow Harper Collins
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