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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (felis laneus)

In Which We Go Knitting and Breed Some Bacteria

"I want to knit you a cat," said Robin.

"Haven't we got enough cats?" I asked. "Remember, more than three cats and you are officially eccentric."

"No, no." She shook her head irritably. "I've got this book called Beastly Knits. It's got patterns for jumpers with animals integrated into the pattern. I want to knit you a jumper with a cat just like Porgy draped across your shoulder. What do you think?"

"Hey," said Porgy, quite taken with the idea, "how about you knit me a jumper instead, with Alan draped over my shoulder?"

"Don't be silly," said his sister Bess. "Cats don't wear jumpers. We prance around completely naked." She lay on her back and waved her legs in the air to prove it. She has no shame.

"Do we?" asked Porgy, puzzled. "What's all this furry stuff then?" He held a paw out. "I thought it was a woolly jumper, just like Alan wears."

Suddenly he noticed the paw he was holding out and got distracted. He gave it a tentative lick. "Hey! That feels good." He licked it some more and then worked his way up the leg and down his body. Then he concentrated on licking his bottom. "If I wore a jumper," he said, his voice slightly muffled, "I wouldn't be able to do this." He thought about it for a moment. "On balance, I think I'd rather lick my bottom than wear a woolly jumper. It's much more fun. So why don't you just go ahead and knit a jumper for Alan. But do make sure that the cat draped over his shoulder looks exactly like me."

"Definitely," said Robin. "Alan wouldn't have it any other way." She armed herself with a tape measure and prepared to record dimensions. I regarded this with some trepidation – she's not all that clear about sizes and she tends to measure them in pounds, shillings and ounces, in the same way that her hero Winnie Ther Pooh once measured Tigger. Most of what Robin knows she learned from Winnie Ther Pooh (she even knows what "ther" means). On balance, I approve. There are worse teachers.

"Raise your left hand," she ordered.

I raised my left hand, and she took careful measurements, writing them down on a piece of paper in degrees Fahrenheit. Then she lost the piece of paper.

"OK," she said, "raise your right hand."

I raised my right hand.

"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" asked Robin.

"I do."

"What's the meaning of econometrics? I've always wanted to know."

"Ah, the easy ones first. Econometrics is pedagogic play-therapy. I thought everybody knew that."

"Well I do now!"

She settled down to knit and slowly the jumper grew Every so often she measured me again, writing down the results in rods, poles and perches. Once she took a chest measurement and wrote it down in hundredweights. Then she corrected herself and converted it to drachms with a remainder in scruples. She made me stand on the kitchen scales and measured my height in furlongs. Slowly the jumper gained weight. It began to look very jumper-like. But one thing puzzled me.

"What's the amorphous white blob?"

"That's Porgy," said Robin. "Don't you recognise him?"

"Now that you mention it, no I don't."

She took out a needle and threaded some dark wool into it. Then she stitched carefully into and around the amorphous white blob. All of a sudden it leaped into shape – it had eyes and ears and a nose, whiskers, teeth and claws. My goodness me! Porgy smiled up at me from the jumper. I looked back to the sofa – there he was, sound asleep, exhausted after his bottom washing marathon. And yet, there he was as well, bright eyed and bushy tailed on my jumper. It was uncanny. I was very impressed.

"Now all I have to do," said Robin, "is attach the sleeves and then you can wear it."

She sewed and sewed and sewed and then it was done. I put it on. Hmmm...

Mostly it was perfect. But there was something not quite right about the sleeves. They dangled about a foot beyond the end of my fingers. When I stood up straight, the ends of the sleeves brushed my kneecaps. It appeared as though Robin had been knitting a jumper for an orang utan.

"You measured these sleeves in firkins, didn't you?" I asked.

"What's a firkin?" asked Robin.

"The standard British measure of excess," I said. "As in these sleeves are too firkin long."

I rolled the sleeves up and examined myself in the mirror. Porgy, draped woollenly over my shoulder, looked happy.

"It's magnificent!" I said to Robin.

The Last Theorem is Arthur C. Clarke's last novel – yes it is! During his life he announced several times that he was retiring from writing and his next novel would be his last. He did this so often that he took to describing every new book that he wrote as his latest last novel. But now he really has written his very last story, and it's a beauty.

He didn't manage to complete it himself – he had about a third of the book written and he had made copious notes but, after missing several publishing deadlines, he finally had to admit that he was not well enough to finish it. Old age and illness had caught up with him. He began to worry that his last novel would also be his lost novel; that it would never see the light of day. He looked around for possible collaborators to finish it for him and, after some negotiation, Frederik Pohl agreed to do it. Pohl himself is quite old and ill and it is possible that this may also be Pohl's last novel as well. This makes me sad, of course but in another way it perks me up. Both Clarke and Pohl are among my favourite writers and a collaboration between them has the potential for magic. I was greatly looking forward to reading the book – and now that I have read it, let me say that I was not disappointed. This is a wonderful book and I recommend it highly.

The story concerns one Ranjit Subramanian, a mathematician from Sri Lanka. He has managed to find a proof of Fermat's last theorem and as a result he has become world famous. He hobnobs with the movers and shakers, he becomes involved in world shaking events; his potential for abstract reasoning is seen as crucial to the players of power games.

And all the while, unknown to anyone on the planet, an alien invasion fleet whose mission is the extermination of homo sapiens is getting closer and closer to the Earth...

Fermat's last theorem has fascinated mathematicians ever since Fermat first formulated it in 1637. It's a very simple theorem; anyone can understand it. Consider the equation an + bn = cn . When n=2 the equation is simply a statement of Pythagoras' theorem concerning the relationship between the lengths of the sides of a right-angled triangle. We can easily plug in figures that make the equation balance. For example, 32 + 42 = 52 . However Fermat claimed that the equation would never be true for any values of n greater than 2. He noted in the margin of a book he was reading at the time that he had discovered a truly elegant proof of this fact, but the margin was too small to contain it. Then Fermat promptly died and no trace at all of his proof was ever found. For the next three centuries, mathematicians struggled to prove the theorem and they all failed miserably. It was very frustrating. Eventually, in 1994, the British mathematician Andrew Wiles found a proof, but it was anything but elegant. It occupied about 150 pages of tight reasoning, most of which dealt with concepts that were undiscovered when Fermat was alive. It was a proof but it was not the proof, and the search continued.

Ranjit Subramanian determines to restrict his thinking only to the mathematical concepts that were familiar to Fermat and his contemporaries, and by investigating the odd, dusty corners of this almost forgotten lore he finally finds the proof he has been seeking, though it takes strange circumstances to guide him through the final steps.

Through no fault of his own, Ranjit falls foul of American security paranoia and is subjected to extreme rendition. He is kidnapped by the CIA and tortured and interrogated in a secret prison. He is left in solitary confinement, his only way of passing the time being to think long and hard about his mathematical interests. When he finally finds the proof he is seeking, he is terrified that he will forget it; his captors will not allow him to have paper and pencil and he has no way of recording his thoughts. He goes over the proof again and again in his mind, trying to cement it into the grooves of his brain; he cannot, must not forget...

Ranjit has some powerful friends. His disappearance has been noted and questions are asked. Eventually he is released from his secret prison, he publishes his proof to world wide acclaim. And the alien fleet closes in...

The book is a curious mixture of writing styles. Both authors have very distinctive voices and I was curious as to how they would work together. I was pleased to see that Clarke's own laid back wit is still very much present. Pohl has done his best to preserve and expand upon it, but he is demonstrably not Clarke, and he has his own quite quirky way of looking at the world. Fortunately their styles meld together well, and by and large the seams don't show. This book belongs to both of them and they can both be proud of what they have achieved.

As always, there is much playing with ideas, both scientific and social. A lot is made of the engineering skills that translate scientific ideas into viable practice, and the games that can be played along the way. The book also contains some thoughtful commentary on political idiocy and the paranoia that infests any large organisation. Clarke and Pohl have both made careers out of their wry satires on social illnesses and this story plays to both their strengths. Then there are the aliens. I don't know if the invasion fleet comes from Clarke or from Pohl – but if I had to guess, I'd say that Clarke introduced the idea and then Pohl expanded upon it. Certainly the social organisation of the various alien hierarchies is vintage Pohl, but the reason why the fleet set out in the first place is pure Clarke. Such intertwined mutual influences are everywhere to be seen, and they enrich the story delightfully.

Clarke lived long enough to see at least one draft of the complete book and he gave it his blessing. I'm very glad that he did. It is a wonderful book and personally I loved every word of it. Well, I didn't think much of "horizon" on page 91, and I was a bit miffed with "visible" on page 203. but apart from that, I really did enjoy every word!

A new novel from Joe Haldeman is always an event to be welcomed. In his last few books, he seems to have taken on a new lease of writing life. After several years of less than memorable works, he has suddenly started producing superb books that stand head and shoulders above the competition. Marsbound continues this trend and I loved it.

Carmen Dula and her family are going to Mars. She is eighteen years old. They have won the lottery for a place on the Mars Project and now, after two years of training, they are finally on their way. They take a taxi to the airport and the journey begins with a trip in the space elevator and then a transfer to the ship that will ferry them off to Mars. It takes nearly a hundred pages to get Carmen all the way to Mars (this is a very traditionally constructed story) but once she arrives she finds that it is much like Earth, except with space suits. There are chores to do, lessons to be learned and authority figures to rebel against. Being a teenager and therefore both immortal and much wiser than everyone else, it isn't long before Carmen goes exploring alone one night. Of course, she is neither immortal nor as wise as she thought she was and she has an accident which threatens to kill her. She is rescued by an alien which she naturally assumes is a Martian, though eventually she learns that it isn't. It and its companions are colonists, just like her, though they have been on Mars for much, much longer than the Earth people have. And for all that time they've been watching and waiting; waiting and watching...

The story is told in the first person by Carmen herself. It isn't the first time Joe Haldeman has written a first person novel with a female protagonist (consider Marianne O'Hara in the Worlds trilogy) and he is extremely good at it. I found the characterisation completely convincing and settled down for a good read, willingly suspending my disbelief.

As I said before, it's a very traditional story and the big ideas are all common coin. The cleverness, as always, comes in the way the ideas are explored. The devil is in the details, and the details are enthralling. The alien's purpose and the utterly alien way that purpose is implemented (sometimes to the horror of the humans) is extremely cleverly presented. And it leaves a hook for a sequel which Joe is busy writing even as we speak. I simply could not fault this book – it is science fiction in the grand manner. Books like this are the reason why you and I started to read SF in the first place; it has that genuine spine-tingling sense of wonder that marks it as the real thing. Accept no imitations.

Julie Czerneda writes mediocre space operas, mostly as trilogies. That's a perfectly accurate and somewhat damning description, but it does her a slight injustice. Her saving grace is her sense of humour. There's a delightful exuberance about her heroes and heroines (be they human or alien) which raises her stories above the common herd. She is also quite inventive when it comes to describing alien races and alien societies. On the other hand, her stories generally move at a glacial pace – they are horribly overwritten, and full of tedious detail – and the plots themselves are often quite ordinary. Somebody one described the experience of being in a war as long periods of excruciating boredom punctuated by occasional moments of sheer terror. That's not a bad description of a Julie Czerneda novel. She also has the enormously annoying habit of retreating into vagueness as the action reaches a climax – in Beholder's Eye, for example, I never knew which shape the shape-changer had cycled into at moments of crisis because I was never told; I had to infer it from details that often didn't arrive until many pages later.

Beholder's Eye is an early work, only her second novel. It is the first book of the Web Shifter trilogy. In it we meet Esen-Alit-Quar, an alien, one of six members of a web who can take on the shape of any sapient being. They are the only existing members of their ancient race. They have the self-imposed task of recording and remembering the physical and social structures of all the societies that they find. Esen herself is the youngest, and as the book opens, she is on her first mission to explore a planet called Kraos. However she comes across a first contact team of humans who are also attempting to make contact with Kraos. Unbeknown to them, the Kraosians are severely xenophobic and the humans are in danger of being wiped out. Esen manages to save them, but at the price of exposing herself and revealing her shape shifting abilities. Meanwhile, another web being has appeared, having spent millennia crossing the gulfs between the galaxies. Unlike Esen, this web being simply wants to absorb the cultures it comes into contact with – this is a literal absorption; the web feeds by ingesting flesh which gives it access to the memories and experiences of the ingested. This web being is bringing death and destruction. Even Esen's own web is not immune from the threat. Battle is joined.

Beholder's Eye was published before it was realised that this was the first volume in a trilogy and consequently no mention of it is made on the cover. However the next two books (which I've not read yet) loudly proclaim themselves to be Web Shifters #2 and Web Shifters #3 respectively. Amusingly the publishers have chosen to print that little titbit in a most unfortunate font and a casual glance makes it appear that the books belong to the Web Shitters series. I'm absolutely going to have to read them now...

Survival is the first volume of the Species Imperative trilogy. Dr Mackenzie Connor (Mac to her friends and colleagues) is a biologist whose passion in life is salmon. She works in an isolated location where the Tannu river flows down the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. Here she observes the spawning run. It is all she really asks of life; she is so obsessed with the biology of Earth (specifically salmon) that she pays little or no attention to the alien life forms that inhabit the galaxy and she has never travelled off Earth. But when her research is interrupted by the arrival of Brymn, the first member of the Dhryn race ever to visit Earth, she is forced to sit up and pay attention. Brymn is an archaeologist. His research has focussed on a region of space known as the Chasm. Worlds in the Chasm are literally dead; at some time in the past they have literally been stripped of all traces of life. The archaeological record suggests that a race called the Ro may be responsible. The study of biology is forbidden to the Dhryn and so Brymn has sought out Mac, an eminent biologist whose insight, he hopes, can help with his investigations into the Ro. Mac is not convinced, but when the Ro attack her base, she and Brymn are forced to flee for their lives, and whether she likes it or not, Mac has to take up the struggle.

Of the two novels, I much preferred Survivor. It is a much more mature work from relatively recently in Czerneda's career and many of the structural errors that mar the earlier Beholder's Eye are absent. It is not without its faults (the principal one being that it is twice as long as it needs to be) but it is by far the stronger work. The humour and the characterization and even the plot details are much more tightly under the writer's control and are much more sophisticated than in the earlier book. I do feel motivated to read the next two novels. I have very little interest in the novels that follow on from Beholder's Eye (apart from the obvious scatological motivation, of course).

Once upon a time I said I'd never read another Tom Holt comic fantasy novel. I was wrong, of course. Barking is the story of Duncan Hughes, a lawyer who is making a boring living as the lowest of the low lawyers in a dull London office. Then, seemingly by chance, he bumps into Luke, his best friend from school. Luke is a very successful lawyer indeed. He has his own law firm and, strangely, all Duncan's old school friends are partners in it. Duncan gets the sack from his current job and goes to work with Luke and all his old chums. And that's when things turn a little odd because after Luke bites him on the neck and turns him into a werewolf, Duncan finds that many things aren't what they seemed to be on the surface...

The book is a lot of fun, full of vampires, zombies and (of course) a unicorn. It has all the originality that made Tom Holt's name in the first place. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I hope he never writes a sequel.

Who can resist a novel called Go-Go Girls Of The Apocalypse? Certainly not me! The book, by Victor Gischler, is set some nine years after the end of the world. Mortimer Tate has spent these years holed up in a cave on the top of a mountain in Tennessee. Now he has emerged into a bizarre landscape. The roads are littered with abandoned cars. In the towns and cities, the hollow burned out, shells of looted shops and houses are everywhere and feral men and women have formed small, strange enclaves to protect themselves against anarchy. One of the larger, more successful organisations is called the Red Stripes. They have a puritanical, parasitic philosophy and they prey on other groups. Opposing them is a franchise known as Joey Armageddon's Sassy A-Go-Go strip clubs. New clubs are opening all over the place and they provide a certain continuity and neutrality. The beer is cold, the lap dancers are hot and the bouncers are armed with M16s. Through a strange combination of circumstances, Mortimer Tate finds himself a platinum card member of Joey Armageddon's club. Together with his friend Buffalo Bill, Sheila the stripper and Ted the mountain man, he sets off on a strange odyssey which attempts to end the power and influence of the Red Stripes and to consolidate the economic and political influence of the Joey Armageddon franchise. But all is not as it seems on the surface...

The book is constantly inventive – Mortimer finds himself entangled with all kinds of strange societies as his quest progresses. The jokes are sharp and the satire cuts deeply. It's a rollicking good yarn as well as a thoughtful political and economic parable. I enjoyed it a lot.

The Minutes Of The Lazarus Club is a first novel by Tony Pollard. He's an archaeologist and historian by trade and was a co-presenter of the BBC archaeological series Two Men In A Trench. Although it is not marketed as SF, the novel can easily be read as a steam-punk book, and an extremely good one as well; I recommend it very highly indeed.

Dr George Phillips is a young and ambitious surgeon. He has a reputation as a brilliant teacher and researcher in addition to his medical duties and he is quite flattered when the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel turns up in the audience for one of his dissections at the teaching hospital where he is employed. Afterwards Brunel quizzes Phillips carefully about the workings of the human heart and seems very pleased with the depth of Phillips' knowledge. He invites Phillips to a meeting of the Lazarus Club, a private discussion group where he and many other luminaries discuss the latest scientific thinking. Charles Darwin is a member and so is Charles Babbage. Brunel has a hidden agenda, of course – the club urgently needs someone to take the minutes, and Phillips is appointed; it seems a small price to pay for the privilege of talking with some of the keenest minds of the century, and Phillips is easily persuaded to take up the post.

Brunel is heavily involved with the building of his greatest engineering feat, a steamship made of solid iron! But it soon becomes clear that he has other projects in mind as well and it isn't long before Phillips finds himself involved with a mysterious mechanism that Brunel has designed and which is being built, piecemeal, by various artisans none of whom know what they are building and none of whom are aware of the parts being built by other people. Phillips goes to collect one of the pieces and while he is there, the engineer who built it is foully murdered and Phillips himself barely escapes with his life. Someone else, it seems, is in pursuit of Brunel's secret project.

And there is also the small matter of the hideously mutilated corpses that turn up every so often when Phillips is nearby. Scotland Yard consider Phillips to be one of their prime suspects.

The stage is set for a thrilling mystery story, and Tony Pollard does not disappoint. The explanations, when they come, are gruesome and ingenious. This is a brilliant debut novel and I look forward to many more.

My problems began, as so many of these things do, with a tickle in the back of Robin's throat and a sniffle in her nostrils.

"I feel like there's a ton of quick drying cement in my nasal cavity," she said gloomily.

"That's your own fault," I said. "I told you it wasn't cocaine, but you paid no attention."

She coughed, sneezed and blew her nose; sounds I would become very familiar with over the next few days and weeks. Gloomily she examined the contents of her tissue, looking for traces of brain.

"Oysters!" she announced.


"Perhaps I could save all the bogies, dry them out and build a pyramid," she said musingly.

"What's the difference between bogies and broccoli?" I asked her.

"I don't know."

"You can't persuade children to eat broccoli," I said. "Boom-boom!"

"I think I might have a cold," she said.

"Nonsense!" I declared. "Having a cold is only a state of mind."

She blew her nose again and narrowed her eyes at me. I knew this look of old. It meant that the rest of my life would be nasty, brutal and short.

Two days later she got her carefully planned revenge. I awoke with a sore throat. I felt somewhat light-headed, but I had no problem coping with it – I just wore a heavier hat. Somewhere deep inside my chest, clouds of bacteria clustered and fed, like maggots on a dead mouse. Soon I began to cough up interesting slimy things. Something the size and shape of a green shrew shot out of my mouth and ran, howling with fear, across the room with Harpo the Cat in hot pursuit. It hid under the sofa. During quiet intervals in the television sound track, we could hear it whimpering.

The next day the bacteria moved into my nose and I began to leak like Niagara Falls.

"I think I've got a cold," I said.

"Nonsense!" said Robin triumphantly. "Having a cold is only a state of mind."

"You don't understand," I said. "This is a man cold. They're the worst kind, utterly debilitating. They require fevered brows to be soothed and unending cups of coffee to be delivered to the sick bed where I writhe and moan."

"No," Robin explained.

Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl The Last Theorem Del Rey
Joe Haldeman Marsbound Ace
Julie E. Czerneda Beholder's Eye: Web Shifters No. 1 DAW
Julie E Czerneda Survival: Species Imperative No. 1 DAW
Tom Holt Barking Orbit
Victor Gischler Go-Go Girls Of The Apocalypse Touchstone
Tony Pollard The Minutes Of The Lazarus Club Michael Joseph
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