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

Autobiographical Interlude

I am 25 years old and I am embarking on my first really responsible job. Serious things depend upon how well I work over the next few weeks – several years of environmental thinking are coming to a head. These days we'd call it a green initiative, but in the 1970s it is just another government programme, and not a very important one. Nevertheless I feel a deep sense of involvement. I've been working on things that can make a difference to the way the world lives, and my colleagues and I are about to report to our peers and make some suggestions for future actions. I am on my way to the first Governing Council meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). I am a member of the British delegation and I am nervous – it's my first time in such rarefied circles and it all sounds very diplomatic and scary. However I am the low man on the totem pole. I make the metaphorical tea. I take comfort in that thought – it makes me feel less exposed.

The Swissair flight from London to Geneva takes off exactly on time. Even abroad the Swiss are a superbly efficient nation. You can set your watch by their timetables. Geneva is in the French speaking part of Switzerland. Except for a very small enclave comprising about one percent of the population, the Swiss don't have a language of their own. Ever frugal, they use other people's languages instead. On the plane, I try to remember my schoolboy French but it all feels vague and foggy.

Geneva airport is clean and well organised. We pass through customs and immigration as if they are not there and we take a taxi to the hotel. It too is clean and well organised. The Governing Council meeting will take place at the Palais Des Nations; the old headquarters of the disgraced League Of Nations. We walk from the hotel; it isn't far.

We can see out over Lake Geneva. It seems to stretch on forever. Today the weather is crisp and clear and the beautiful single jet of the fountain sparkles in the sunlight as it reaches up with gorgeous elegance high into the sky. It seems to be trying to drown the clouds, and they hover nervously, eyeing the enormous column of water with deep suspicion. There is a multi-level car park under the lake, reached by brilliantly lit tunnels that burrow far underground. A very efficient (and typically Swiss) idea. I hope the roof never caves in under the weight of the water.

The Palais Des Nations is an old and elegant building with peacocks strutting proudly through the immaculately maintained gardens. Pompous diplomats arrive in shiny cars and the peacocks can see themselves reflected in the highly polished vehicles. This annoys them – enemies in the reflections! Screaming war cries, they charge forwards and peck furiously at the invaders. The drivers try in vain to shoo them away. Huge holes appear in the car doors. Automotive body shops in Geneva do a roaring trade in peacock repairs.

The Governing Council meeting takes place in a large auditorium with rows of flip top chairs banked up at an angle like seats in a cinema. We have tiny desks on which we can spread our papers. A plaque on the desks tells people that we are British. We have headphones to plug into small sockets built in to the desks. Through the headphones we can listen to the simultaneous translations of the speeches that the delegates are making. When we get bored with the speeches we switch to the Chinese translation, which none of us understands and which never fails to make us laugh. Hee, haa, hoe, hoo go the voices in our ears.

The translators are sitting in booths above the auditorium. Headphones are clamped firmly to their ears and they concentrate fiercely as they mutter into their microphones, turning the words that flow into their heads into words that flow out of their mouths. Ideally these words should form a continuous stream; they drop in at the top and they fall out at the bottom without a pause. Mostly this works well, except for those poor people who have to translate from the German.

Translators from the German have the hardest job of all. They have absolutely no idea what the speaker is saying until all the words are put into context by the verb. And in German, the verb is always the very last word in the sentence. Consequently the translators have to hold untold levels of seemingly unconnected subordinate clauses in their minds as they wait desperately for the arrival of a verb that will finally turn the whole mish-mash into something that will, with luck, make sense. Only then are they able to translate it. Unfortunately some sentences are so long, and so twisted up with bureaucratic jargon, that by the time the speaker reaches the convoluted end of the sentence, the translator has long since forgotten the beginning. Therefore translators from the German often speak in long eloquent silences as they wait for the sense of the current sentence to unravel in their minds. They tend to say "Ummm!" a lot, and they sometimes find themselves having to make inspired, artistically creative guesses about what might have just been said. And while they are muttering their translation of the current sentence, the speaker is already a long way into the next one, and the translator has probably missed most of it, being still heavily occupied with the work of translating the previous one. It is always a Red Queen's race and nobody ever catches up.

Further complications are caused by the fact that a native German speaker, faced with a new situation, will simply make up a new word on the spot to describe it. German lends itself to this – short words are easily combined into longer portmanteau words that just don't exist until the speaker proudly declaims them. Thus the language is constantly evolving and it is always full of confusing slang. Everyone remembers that not so very long ago the American President enthusiastically assured a cheering, but slightly bewildered, crowd of German supporters that he was a jam doughnut. Simultaneous translators from the German are haunted by the fear of committing similar solecisms. Wars have been started for less.

The nervous tension induced by these terrors causes a high turnover in German-speaking translators and the UN is always scouring the world for more of them.

People come and go in the auditorium without ceremony, delivering papers to their delegates and taking other papers away. The delegates pay no attention to the scurrying. They read their speeches in a calm, unhurried, very formal way. Everything seems minutely choreographed and well rehearsed. There are no surprises in the debating chamber.

The formal sessions are just a place to present foregone conclusions. All the real business of the Governing Council is discussed and settled at the evening parties where the drink flows freely, lubricating the wheels of power. We schmooze with the best of them and put forward proposals which are tentatively adopted. Everyone has another gin and looks at things from a differently blurred angle. The next day, more dull speeches in a politically appropriate language fill the time in the chamber, and the members ratify what little they remember of the previous evening's drunken diplomacy.

A motion is proposed and seconded and discussed and passed. The Soviets are jubilant – this topic seems to be important to them. We supported their motion and the next day a member of the Russian delegation turns up in our offices in the Palais Des Nations with a well chilled bottle of vodka and a large tin of caviare. It is only 9.00am, but that doesn't seem to matter. We drink very large shots of vodka, downed in one, and we chase them with Beluga Caviare; the very best caviare, we are informed. The rest of the day is a blur – but much more vodka features largely in it. The Russian delegation starts partying at 9.00am and stops partying at 9.00am the following day, which is when the next party starts. We join in enthusiastically.

Then we have a day off and so we go for a picnic – the hills around the French border are very pretty and nobody cares all that much if you stray too close to the dividing line between the two countries. The French officials are jovial and not at all averse to sharing a glass of wine with us. We sit on something that might be an alp when it grows up and we eat our picnic food and we drink far too much red wine. Flies join in enthusiastically and swim in our wine glasses. It just adds protein to the day.

The French speak very fast and I cannot make sense of the gabble. The Swiss speak more slowly, more precisely and they are much easier to understand. I remember that when I was first learning French at school I used to listen to the speeches of General de Gaulle on the radio. Unusually for a Frenchman, he spoke slowly and sonorously, enunciating every syllable very clearly. He spoke beautiful French and it was a joy to listen to him, even though most of his speeches consisted of him simply telling the English to get lost each time they applied to join the Common Market.

Geneva is an ancient city and the old town and the new town are quite distinct areas. We go out for dinner in the old town, where all the best restaurants are. We eat a fondue with sticky Swiss cheese and fresh French bread and then we have grilled sausages that taste of heaven and herbs. More wine!

One of the American delegation attaches himself to us. Perhaps he's a spy! He works for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an acronymic organisation that never uses one short word when ten long ones will do. His name is Lester Philip Needle – LP Needle. I pull his leg about this and he admits that his parents have an odd sense of humour (or humor, I suppose, since they are American). But he's got (gotten) used to it over the years.

Because the Soviets have obviously suborned us with vodka and caviare, Lester feels that it is his patriotic duty to emphasise the moral superiority of American ideas. He attempts to reverse their subtle socialist influence by plying us with Coca-Cola. He seems bewildered when we reject it in favour of more vodka. We discover that he doesn't understand the difference between raw sugar (Coke) and refined sugar (Vodka). The refinement comes from the application of yeast, you understand. The difference may be small, but it is hugely important. We ply him with caviare diluted with vodka, and we speak to him severely in subtle tones. He soon comes round to our way of thinking.

The lingua franca of the Governing Council is French. Faced with such total immersion, my early language lessons soon come rushing back to me and I find that it isn't long before I am chatting gaily. I meet an Italian delegate at a diplomatic party. We have a long conversation in French, the only language we have in common. Fuelled by wine, I tell him jokes in French. Fuelled by wine, he laughs in French, with an Italian accent.

Apart from the members of my own delegation, almost nobody seems to speak English. Even we don't bother with it much. By now I am fluent in French. After all, it is the language of diplomacy; and it has been for more than two hundred years. I begin to dream in French and the restaurants and cafés have no terrors for me any more. English fades to the back of my brain as the weeks pass by.

Eventually the business of the Governing Council concludes and it is time to go home. At the Geneva airport I buy a Swiss Army Knife as a souvenir. I decide that I will refer to it in conversation as my Swiss Swiss Army Knife. I wonder if anyone will notice.

The Swissair flight from Geneva to London takes off exactly on time. I drink a gin and tonic; they have no vodka on board the plane. The stewardesses chatter gaily in French. The pilot makes a French announcement that it is raining in London. We land at Heathrow, on time to the scheduled second and, clutching my passport, I queue up at the immigration desk.

"Had a good trip?" asks the immigration official as he examines my documentation.

"Mais oui," I reply. "Merci bien!"

He gives me an odd look. I have no idea why, I haven't said anything rude. I pass through into rainy London and it is only when the taxi driver fails to understand where I want to go that I finally realise I have to start talking in English again.

More than thirty years later, on the other side of the world, I wander into a Wellington bookshop and discover a friend flipping through the pages of a new edition of Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land.

"You've already read that," I tell him, just in case he's forgotten.

"Several times," he admits. He puts the volume down and takes me to a nearby bookcase.

"Have you read any of these?" he asks, indicating an entire shelf full of books with uniformly drab covers. Obviously they are a connected series. They refer to themselves collectively as The Dresden Files and they are written by a man called Jim Butcher. The blurb suggests that they are fairly typical generic urban fantasies – each novel being another adventure in the life of Harry Dresden, a wizard who makes a precarious living as a kind of consulting detective in Chicago.

"No," I say. "Are they any good?"

"My wife read the first volume the other day and stayed up late because she refused to go to bed until she found out how it ended," he tells me.

"Sounds good," I reply. "But I watched the first few episodes of the TV series and I wasn't impressed."

"Oh, the TV series was rubbish," he says, dismissively. "The books are much better. Trust me on this. Why not buy the first two and try them; see if you like them?"

"Perhaps I will," I say. And so, working on the theory that when someone whose taste you trust recommends a book to you, you really ought to pay serious attention to what he says, I do exactly as he suggests. That night, to my chagrin, I find myself staying up very late. I absolutely will not to go to bed until I find out how the first book ends. The next day I start reading the second book and exactly the same thing happens. God damn the pusher. I am hooked.

Unfortunately there are ten books (currently) in the series. Only nine are out in paperback – the tenth is too new and is only available in hardback. Even so, it seems that this is likely to prove an expensive addiction. Oh well...

In search of support for the new monkey on my back, I visit all the bookshops in Wellington and I manage to get hold of Seven of Nine. Lucky me!! Such shapely prose, such colourful contoured covers over which I can run my hands sensuously again and again. I begin to sweat with antici...pation.

Er...I'll just rephrase that last paragraph. Of the nine novels in the series that are currently available in paperback, I have managed to buy seven from the local bookshops. I've ordered the two missing ones from WarriorWomanWithOnlyOneBreast. I fully intend to buy the tenth volume when it becomes available in paperback. Nine paperback novels plus one orphan hardback sitting forlornly on the end of the row look very silly on the bookshelves.

As it happens, I have considered buying these books several times in the past, but I never did. I was always vaguely put off by, of all silly things, the name of the lead character. The author, Jim Butcher, is a very young and, I suspect, a rather ignorant man. He was born in the 1970s and he seems to know very little about the history of the world prior to his birth – particularly the history of the second world war. I'd also be willing to bet that he's never read Kurt Vonnegut's masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five. As a result, he simply doesn't understand the emotional resonances invoked by the name "Dresden". The Nazis weren't the only people who committed atrocities during the war. No matter how you measure it, no matter what your political inclination may be, the allied fire-bombing of Dresden is indisputably one of the more revoltingly unforgivable acts of World War II. It had no military value; it was just a very successful attempt by the allies to kill as many civilians as possible in as horrible a fashion as possible pour encourager les autres. Using the name Dresden as the surname of a wizard in a trivial little fantasy novel has always struck me as being more than a bit sacrilegious. And so, after flipping briefly through the pages, I would invariably put the books back on the bookshop shelf, unread and unpurchased. I always felt slightly scandalised by Butcher's ignorance and insensitivity. It is perhaps a silly reason for avoiding the books, but it is my very own reason, and for a lot of years it has cost Jim Butcher sales. The appallingly bad TV series which, it turns out, omitted all the subtleties that the novels express so well (no surprises there) hasn't helped the situation either. I'm still not happy about the name, but at least now I try very hard to avoid thinking about the disquiet it engenders, for the books do have many virtues. My friend was exactly right about that.

In the first book (Storm Front) a bad wizard commits grotesque murders and only Harry can stop him. In Fool Moon (the second novel) werewolves are terrorising Chicago and only Harry can stop them. There's nothing original about the plots – all the elements that you would expect to be there, are there. The cleverness of these books comes from the ways that Jim Butcher puts this standard material together. Harry himself is a fascinating character, much troubled by his conscience. Behind his cynical wise-cracking facade, he seems to regard himself as a kind of knight errant, one of nature's gentlemen. He treats women chivalrously and casts himself in some sort of protective role. In both books he point blank refuses to supply two women with information that they desperately need to keep themselves safe, on the somewhat specious grounds that these things are too horrible and too dangerous for them to know. As a direct result of his refusal to discuss the subject, one of the women is seriously injured and one is killed. The one who survives leaves Harry in no doubt at all about the contempt she feels for his misguided secretiveness. And Harry himself, staring in horror at the corpse of the other, is sickened by the consequences of his smugly unthinking actions. Hopefully he will redeem himself in later books – certainly he makes such promises to himself. I hope he manages to live up to them.

This kind of character development is rare in the genre fictions and it deserves to be treasured whenever it is found. But Butcher's cleverness with his material doesn't stop there. He plays fast and loose with the genre conventions in many other ways as well. The werewolves of the second novel are like no other werewolves you have ever read about before. And in both novels Butcher drops many heavy hints that the so-called White Council which seems to be in charge of magic in the world (if such a concept as "in charge" actually applies; there are even doubts about this) is itself riven with political differences, and might even be corrupt. Harry's own history is also shrouded in mystery. The few clues that we get suggest that there is a lot more to Harry's background than the stereotype of a cynical, down on his luck private eye might initially indicate. He regards himself as a moral man, but his morality has been hard won and he has his own dark secrets.

In short, these books have so much going on beneath the surface that they stand head and shoulders above the competition. The later books that are sitting on my shelves have a pleasingly substantial number of pages in them. I hope that the implications of what, at the moment, are merely tantalising suggestions are more fully explored in them. I am sure that my hopes will be realised.

Another author that I've consistently avoided in the past is Ken Macleod. His first novel (The Star Fraction) was published to great critical acclaim, but I found it dull and almost incomprehensible. It turned out to be the first volume of a trilogy which might explain why I found it so hard to come to grips with. He followed that trilogy with another one, and I ignored it quite happily. But in the last few years he has started to write stand alone novels and one of them (The Execution Channel) had a blurb that was so intriguing I simply had to read it. I enjoyed it immensely and I said so when I reviewed it in this column last month.

Another of his stand alone novels is Learning The World. It's a very traditional SF tale – a generation starship is coming towards the end of its voyage through space. The newly born generation on the ship are greatly excited by their imminent arrival in the destination star system and they are greatly looking forward to landing and colonising the new world that awaits them. However, to their consternation, the world turns out to be inhabited by an alien race who are just starting to explore the scientific and technological ramifications of radio, petroleum and powered flight. In all the many hundreds (possibly thousands) of years that humankind have been exploring the universe, this is the first alien race they have ever found.

The aliens themselves are equally astonished when they detect the arrival of the starship in their solar system. They are quite happy with the idea of life on other worlds. Other planets in their system support at least bacterial and algal life; they have firm astronomical evidence for this. However the thought that technologically more advanced cultures might exist elsewhere in the universe is not one that they have ever paid much attention to before. But now that their noses have been rubbed in the idea, they adapt to its ramifications surprisingly well and it isn't long before they organise themselves to explore and confront the visitors. And so the novel becomes a classical account of a first alien contact told from the point of view of both societies. It's one of the best first contact stories I've ever read, and I recommend it unreservedly.

Paradoxically the reader will probably sympathise far more with the aliens than with the humans. Both politically and technologically, the alien society approximates that of humankind at the beginning of the twentieth century and so it will seem relatively familiar (though be warned – it is not without surprises). The human society of the starship, and the culture that lies behind it, is so far in advance of our own that it is often hard to recognise the humanity that still lies beneath the surface, because that surface is itself so very odd. Macleod has done this deliberately, of course. Partly it's simply for the sake of drama and partly it's because he wants to present his usual socialist manifesto in a meaningful frame of reference. Macleod is a very politically motivated writer and sometimes, in some of his other books, it gets in the way of the story. Fortunately he manages to keep the tendency to preach under tight control in this book, and it adds to the story rather than detracting from it.

Learning The World is a tour de force. I may have to go back and read Macleod's earlier novels. Perhaps I missed something the first time round.

Proceedings Of The Institute For Twenty-First Century Studies (known henceforth as PITFCS) is hard to categorise. If it appeared today on the internet it would be known as a forum or perhaps a blog. But this was a paper publication produced and edited by Theodore R. Cogswell which appeared intermittently between 1958 and 1962 with a final edition published after a fifteen year hiatus in 1979. It was circulated privately among its contributors, and those contributors were pretty much all of the SF writers of the day, both major and minor. Cogswell himself was a very minor (though well respected) writer who produced only a handful of mildly amusing short stories. PITFCS itself began life as a round-robin discussion about whether or not SF writers needed something like a union to represent themselves and it went on from there to turn into a wide ranging discussion about the whole world of contemporary SF. Here are Poul Anderson, James Blish, Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov – the list of famous names (and sometimes not so famous names) goes on and on. They write with fascinating insight about the thing they know best – the practice of their own profession. All of the writers seem to have regarded PITFCS as a place to let their hair down. As a result, unsuspected gems lurk, both sublime and ridiculous. There is a bawdy poem about sodomy (not something you expect to see in something published in 1959); Isaac Asimov boasts about being the world's greatest lover and Brian Aldiss says strong things about Heinlein's new novel Starship Troopers. This is a fascinating book to dip into.

Before he lost his christian name, Colin Bateman was well known as the writer of hilarious though often gruesome thrillers, usually about the troubles in Northern Ireland. However a year or so ago he published a novel with just his surname proclaimed on the cover as the author. The book was no different from any of his other novels, in terms of the material, but it does seems as though he is going to be mononamed from now on. His latest novel Orpheus Rising (subtitled Love, Rockets, and a Bloody Great Fish) continues the trend. However Orpheus Rising is quite different from his other books. It is a tender and very touching love story and it might even be SF or fantasy if you are willing to stretch the definition a bit for it does have some (not very convincing) speculations about life after death as an integral part of the plot.

Joe Bennett's new book Where Underpants Come From is quite fascinating. He bought a pack of underpants in the local branch of The Warehouse (where everyone gets a bargain). Needless to say, the underpants really were a bargain and Joe was very pleased with them. They were made in China, as so many things are these days, and Joe decided that he wanted to know more about their background. How, where and when were they manufactured and how did they get from China to New Zealand? He determined to back track his underpants and this book tells the story of his odyssey.

It's quite enthralling. The Chinese were, as might be expected, rather unhelpful to him in his quest. They simply didn't understand why anyone should be so interested in the manufacture of underpants and they seemed at times to feel that he was a business rival seeking to set up in competition to them. Also, even among themselves, the Chinese were very secretive and protective of their own. The suppliers of raw material to the manufacturing factory were reluctant to disclose their sources of supply in case the manufacturers bypassed them and went directly to the producers. There was probably some truth to that suspicion.

Despite the hurdles that were put in his way, Joe Bennett did succeed in unravelling the mystery of his underpants. He traced them right back to the cotton pants growing in the ground that were the ultimate source of the fabric used in their manufacture. This is a fascinating book for those of us who have an underpant fetish. And which of us does not?

Jim Butcher Storm Front Orbit
Jim Butcher Fool Moon Orbit
Ken Macleod Learning The World Orbit
Theodore R. Cogswell (Editor) Proceedings of The Institute For Twenty First Century Studies Advent
Bateman Orpheus Rising Headline
Joe Bennett Where Underpants Come From Simon & Schuster
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