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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (minimus maximus)

In Which Nothing Happens So We Read A Lot

Normally I don't like Cory Doctorow's books – he's an arrogant, preachy writer who seems to regard people who don't understand computer technology as being barely human, and therefore, of course, quite contemptible. Often his stories are stuffed full of technical jargon which he never explains. A particularly egregious example of this is a short story called When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth which is utterly incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't have an extraordinarily in-depth knowledge of very advanced Unix and Linux system administration. As it happens, I do know rather a lot about this topic (perhaps more than Cory Doctorow does) so I understood the story perfectly. I wasn't impressed (though I did get a lot of amusement from the things that he got wrong). Trust me, the story is a waste of paper.

I've often felt that Cory Doctorow exhibits the BOFH nature towards his readers – and if you don't understand what I mean by that, well I'm just taking a leaf out of Cory Doctorow's own book. I'm boasting about my arcane knowledge in order to impress you with how unutterably cool I am in comparison to you. Are you impressed? No of course you aren't. And why should you be? If anything, you should be annoyed with me because I'm showing off.

But having said all that, I have to admit that Doctorow's new novel Little Brother is really very good indeed. It still suffers from his usual plethora of technobabble but, for once, he does explain most of it. The beginning of the book is very jargon-heavy and gibberish-ridden and consequently it is a little bit of a struggle to get through. But once the action really starts, the story turns into a truly gripping yarn. I stayed up late to finish it, and that speaks for itself.

It's very much a Heinlein juvenile story; a coming of age novel. And it is also a blatant polemic about the current attitude of the American Government, particularly with regard to the nasty excesses of the Patriot Act as implemented by the Department Of Homeland Security. To that extent, the novel is propaganda. But then so was 1984, a book which this novel closely resembles. It isn't a coincidence that the teenage hero has the computer identity w1n5ton (pronounced winston).

A terrorist group has destroyed the San Francisco Bay Bridge. A sweep of the area by Homeland Security forces picks up many suspects including seventeen year old Marcus Yallow (the narrator of the story) and some of his friends. He is imprisoned and tortured for several days but is eventually, somewhat reluctantly, released. However one of his friends remains in custody and Marcus, already full of hate as a result of his treatment at the hands of the DHS, resolves to do something about it. In his view, America is no longer the land of the free; it has become the land of the oppressed. Freedom has been sacrificed for the sake of rather nebulously defined things called safety and security. And what's worse, the DHS effort is so utterly inept that it doesn't even begin to address the real problem. Instead the Department concentrates on repression; introducing its own brand of domestic terrorism in an attempt to keep the people safe by controlling their every action, and imprisoning those whose actions it disapproves of. We all know how that argument goes, and where it ends up. And that's the point of the book, of course.

The story is full of suspense, excitement and intrigue. And given that Marcus is a typically super-bright teenage Heinlein hero, his actions are very believable. This makes it easy for the reader to identify with Marcus and to have a lot of sympathy with his cause – though I couldn't help thinking at the back of my mind that in real life any organisation as totalitarian as the DHS would solve its problems by simply wiping him out. After all, they made him disappear once. Why can't they do it again (actually towards the end of the book, they do. But by then it is far too late).

For once Doctorow plays fair with the reader and many of the other characters in the book present viewpoints that are opposed to Marcus'. His father in particular is very pro-government and supportive of the short term suspension of human rights in the interests of safety. Interestingly, as the situation deteriorates, he comes to change his mind. Marcus' teachers are also shown as supporting the status quo. The one teacher who does show any sympathy with the point of view that Marcus espouses is sacked.

The Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security are definitely the villains of the piece. In Doctorow's eyes (and therefore in Marcus' eyes as well) they have no redeeming features. Because this is a Heinlein look-alike book, the reasons for believing this are carefully argued. Consequently this is a very political novel which is not afraid to demonstrate the breaches of civil (and human) rights associated with totalitarian control (hence the comparison I made between Little Brother and 1984). However the political concerns are beautifully integrated into the story and the book never becomes preachy.

It's an excellent novel and, in my opinion, it has award winner written all over it.

Dead Man's Brother is a new book by Roger Zelazny – or, more accurately, it is the first publication of a newly discovered Zelazny manuscript (Zelazny died in 1995). It reads very much like a first draft. There are huge infodumps which I'm sure would have been replaced by more tightly controlled writing and action on a second pass through the story (Zelazny was a great believer in the "show rather than tell" structural style).

It's a mystery/thriller/crime novel rather than science fiction; though if you want to stretch a point, you could argue that it is borderline SF – the hero is a very, very lucky person. He has escaped from life-threatening situations again and again (once he walked away unscathed from a jumbo jet crash that killed every body else on board). There are vague suggestions that this lucky streak is genetic and while at one point it seems as if the idea will be important to the plot, it really just sits there doing not very much at all. Again, I'm sure a second draft would have expanded the idea a lot more. Perhaps the book might even have turned into a proper SF novel. After all, Larry Niven got a lot of mileage out of the same idea!

The plot involves the CIA, the embezzlement of three million dollars from the Vatican by a priest who has lost touch with his faith, war and revolution in South America and a lot of art appreciation. It's not a bad book, but it's very minor Zelazny.

Drood is the new novel from Dan Simmons, and it's just superb, though I suspect it will appeal to a very limited audience. It's a hugely heavy 800 page hardback and that alone will put a lot of people off. And the subject matter will probably alienate many others – it's a fictionalised biography of the last years of the life of Charles Dickens as narrated by his close friend and fellow writer Wilkie Collins.

On June 9th 1865, Charles Dickens was involved in a serious railway accident. The line across a trestle bridge was being repaired and the repair crew, having mis-read the timetable and being unaware that a train was due, removed some sections of track. Railway timetables in 1865 were even more arcane and incomprehensible than they are today. They were full of footnotes, small print and exceptions to the schedule based upon the phases of the moon, the horoscope of the engine driver and that day's cricket score. I exaggerate, of course. But not by much.

The express train hurtled over the gap in the track and many of the carriages crashed into the valley below. The only first class carriage to escape the carnage was the one in which Dickens was travelling. Once he recovered from the shock, he climbed down into the valley and put in a sterling rescue effort, helping the injured and comforting the dying. Later he returned to the carriage and retrieved his overcoat and the manuscript of his current novel Our Mutual Friend. Then, once he returned home, he told his friend Wilkie Collins all about it.

So far so factual. All of these things really happened. But the story that Dan Simmons tells of the years that followed the crash, while it still adheres very closely to the facts of Dickens' life, is embellished with much literary invention, speculation, intrigue, romance, drama and the occasional murder.

While Dickens is busy helping the injured, another man, who introduces himself as Drood, also seems to be lending a hand. He is a strange looking person; cadaverously thin, with pale features. His nose has been amputated and so have several fingers. His teeth are sharp and widely spaced in pale, bloodless gums. This gives his speech an odd sibilance. He flits from body to body and at times Dickens gets the impression that he might even be helping some of the more seriously injured to pass on into the next life.

Drood confesses that he comes from the Rookeries, the nastiest slums in London. Dickens and Wilkie Collins seek him there in the opium dens of King Lazaree and Opium Sal. Collins himself is already a laudanum addict – laudanum is a tincture of opium, often taken in wine, though Collins is so habituated to it that he drinks it undiluted in enormous quantities. Now that he has been introduced to the drug in its purer form he returns again and again to the opium dens, mingling with chinese, lascars, hindoos and other strange and terrible people as they smoke the night away. But these catacombs are Drood's empire and soon Collins comes under his power. He is convinced that Dickens too is being manipulated by Drood; he has seen Drood and Dickens talking to each other and he himself might also have been involved in the discussion, though he has no memory of it.

Drood, Dickens and Collins are an unholy triumvirate. Murder, mayhem and black Egyptian Gods are involved. Drood seems to be an immortal creature kept alive by ancient rites. He is a master of mesmerism (as too is Dickens himself). His influence is extreme – there are reports that he has been involved in more than 300 murders.

Wilkie Collins is no stranger to the confusion that laudanum can bring to the mind. A decisive plot point in his hugely popular novel The Moonstone concerns a character who commits a theft under the influence of the drug, but who retains no memory of having done so. Collins is very proud of the verisimilitude of this plot device and claims that it is based on very thorough research!

Consequently, Collins is an unreliable narrator at best, and sometimes he relates as fact incidents that have never actually happened, except in his own fevered imagination. Nevertheless these foul imaginings still have a direct influence on his behaviour and he becomes increasingly estranged from Dickens; even more so when Dickens begins to write a very odd novel called The Mystery Of Edwin Drood

Dickens dies with the novel only half completed. Wilkie Collins offers to complete it, but the publishers turn him down.

The outline of the story that Dan Simmons tells is factual and true. The novel that Dickens left unfinished at his death has fascinated its many readers for almost a century and a half. The book tells a bizarre story of murder and mystery, opium, mesmerism and intrigue. Most unusually, Dickens left no working notes, and so everybody feels qualified to speculate on the course the plot might have taken, and the reasons why he might have wanted to write such a peculiar book in the first place. Dan Simmons is only the latest in a very long line of such speculators, but in my opinion, nobody has ever done it better.

Simmons does a first class job of channelling Wilkie Collins as his narrator, though the occasional solecism of American slang does sometimes intrude. He has Collins use words that would never have passed the lips of an Englishman as fastidious about the language as Collins was, and sometimes they break the spell of the story:

Christmas and New Year's -- Collins would have said Christmas and the New Year

Sidewalk – Collins would have used Pavement or Footpath.

Gotten – Collins would have simply said Got

Pumps (in the sense of dress shoes) – Collins would have simply said Shoes, though if he was feeling pompous, he might actually have said Dress Shoes

These are terribly small nits to pick. The novel is bold and sprawling and the story is brilliantly told. Both Dickens and Collins come marvellously to life and even many of the minor characters are magnificent Dickensian eccentrics in their own right – Hatchery, the huge detective who comes to such a sad end, Inspector Field, obsessed with bringing Drood to justice, Dradles the rector at Rochester Cathedral – any of them could have stepped straight out of a Dickens novel. Indeed, Inspector Field did step out of one. With his tongue fixed firmly in his cheek, Dan Simmons has Wilkie Collins inform us that the character of the policeman Mr Bucket in Dickens' novel Bleak House was based upon Inspector Field.

Drood is a book full of literary reference (I doubt I noticed even half of them). It plays delightful games with the characters of Dickens and Collins themselves and with the social history of the time. Anybody who has read any of the novels that Dickens and Collins wrote will enjoy this book for that little bit of fun alone. But on top of the literary game playing, Dan Simmons also tells a fascinating and quite thrilling story.

And depending on just how you feel about mesmerism and opium induced hallucinations and the power of ancient Egyptian rites, it might even be a science fiction story as well!

Robert Rankin is back with the mixture as before. Necrophenia takes the same tired old cast of characters through the same tired old sequence of events and the same tired old jokes. Lazlo Woodbine chews the fat and restricts himself to the four locations that he always uses. Elvis Presley, Aleister Crowley and the Ministry of Serendipity do the things they've always done. George Formby is a new character, but he doesn't do very much except lurk in the background playing his ukulele and being influential. The material has worn very thin; don't bother yourself with this one.

As far as I am aware, Justina Robson is not a relative of mine despite the fact that she was born (and still lives) just up the road from where I grew up in West Yorkshire. Maybe my father had a whole other family that he never told me about...

Anyway, the blurb on Living Next Door To The God Of Love made the book sound quite attractive and so I bought it. The setting criss-crosses all of time and space. Metropolis is a city of superheroes, Sankhara is a universe where everything is remade each night according the inhabitants' deepest and darkest dreams. Even the characters have a fascinating ring to them. Koker Ali lives in a time and space where Intana, a courtesan to a weak Emperor in a decaying empire, has just met an immortal warrior. Jalaeka is a war captive, a prostitute, a pilgrim, a pirate, a physics student and a princess in a glass coffin. Francine is fifteen years old and she is looking for a definition of love that she can believe in.

Despite this, I found the book a struggle to read. The fault is more mine than Justina Robson's. To my eyes, her writing style is quite opaque and I kept bouncing off it. I simply couldn't visualise the things of which she spoke, I couldn't get involved with the triumphs and tragedies of her characters.

This isn't the first time this has happened to me. I have the same reaction to C. J. Cherryh, a writer who is enormously popular. She has a huge reputation and is much admired. Nevertheless I find her unreadable. I suspect Justina Robson falls into the same category. Living Next Door To The God Of Love was not the book for me, but it may well be the book for you.

Wiffle Lever To Full is the story of a year of its author's life. Bob Fischer grew up in front of the television set. He stared with wide-eyed fascination at adventures that took place across the whole of space and time. Doctor Who, Blake's Seven, Star Trek. As an adult he felt he had left such things behind him. But then he discovered SF conventions. For twelve glorious months (2005 to 2006) he traveled the country attending every single convention he could find. Interestingly, this kept him remarkably busy. In a very real sense, there's only one convention, and it lasts all year!

He began the year as a convention virgin. He ended it with a huge number of new friends; people who he kept seeing again and again at the convention venues. There's an enormous overlap between the various specialised fandoms.

This is a very funny book – it simply isn't possible to write convincingly about the world of SF fandom without laughing a lot – if you didn't laugh, you'd cry at the seriousness with which people take the triviality of it all. But that very triviality exhibits a depth and subtlety that outsiders will simply never understand. And the zen-like contradiction of that statement is something which has to be kept in mind all the time. If you can't believe both things at once, you'll never understand fandom. The impossible things the White Queen believed in before breakfast are trivially easy in comparison! Fischer explains this very well.

It's also a very moving book. At a Doctor Who convention, the convention goers visited a quarry that had been used to film one of the episodes. And there Bob Fischer found and touched the actual rock on which the Tardis landed in the 1979 episode Death Of The Daleks. The emotion of that moment comes through very clearly. There are many such insights in the book and they are invariably both thrilling and touching. Sometimes tears lurk closely behind the laughter.

All the conventions discussed in the book are specialised media conventions. Despite the fact that he has written a book, Bob Fischer seems quite ignorant of the existence of books in general and SF books in particular. Consequently he ignores the existence of more broadly based SF conventions which have a bias towards the written word. Actually that's not quite true; he does attend a Discworld convention. But I think we can all agree that Discworld is a special case.

It's a very easy book to read. Once I'd picked it up, I simply didn't want to put it down again, and I stayed up until the wee small hours finishing it off. There's a peculiar fascination to the book and despite the fact that I dislike much media oriented SF, it filled me with a desire to immediately go and attend a Red Dwarf convention or a Star Wars convention. I had to go and lie down until the feeling went away. Fortunately it was well past my bed time...

Bob Fischer had a ball attending all those conventions. He had a ball writing about them all and you will have a ball reading about them.

Cory Doctorow Little Brother Harper Voyager
Roger Zelazny Dead Man's Brother Hard Case Crime
Dan Simmons Drood Little, Brown
Robert Rankin Necrophenia Gollancz
Justina Robson Living Next Door To The God Of Love Pan
Bob Fischer Wiffle Lever To Full Hodder & Stoughton
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