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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (pontophaedusa funiculum)

The Fone Of Bafut

I was away from home, on business in Auckland, and the battery on my mobile phone was getting rather low on power. But that wasn't a problem – I've had a university education, which means that I understand about half of the instructions in the manual that came with the phone. I consulted the instructions, then I turned the phone off and plugged one end of the charger into a power point and the other end of the charger into the phone. To my surprise, the phone turned itself on again. Then it said, "Unable To Charge."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Unable To Charge," said the phone smugly.

"Yes, yes. I heard you the first time," I said. "Why are you Unable To Charge?"

"I don't know," said the phone. "I'm only a phone, not an electrical engineer. Unable To Charge."

I turned the phone off again and took it to the Vodafone Shop that was just up the street from the office. The person behind the counter looked to be about twelve years old. He was deeply immersed in something on his laptop computer, but eventually, after indulging myself in much throat clearing, screaming and a significant amount of violent banging on the counter, I managed to attract his attention.

"Can I help you?" he asked, his eyeballs still superglued to the screen of his computer.

I explained that my phone was Unable To Charge.

"How old is the phone?" he asked, finally glancing away from the laptop.

I took the phone out of my pocket and showed it to him.

"Gosh," he said, greatly impressed with its clunkiness. "That is really ancient. It must be at least four years old!"

"Possibly even five," I said. "I imagine that you had only just completed Stage 2 Potty Training when this phone rolled off the assembly lines."

"It's well out of warranty," said the child. "There's nothing we can do."

"Nothing?" I asked.

"If you leave it with us," he explained, "we'll charge you a small fortune just to look at it in order to decide whether or not it can be repaired. And if it turns out that it can be repaired, we'll charge you another, significantly larger, fortune to repair it."

"I see," I said. "There really isn't anything at all you can do, is there?"

"Well I could always sell you another phone," he said.

I looked around the shop. There were many phones on display. Prices ranged from mildly expensive to $OH-MY-GOODNESS. I pointed to the cheapest one. The leaflet attached to it informed me that it had a built-in still camera, a video camera, a music player, bluetooth compatibility, a coffee percolator and a device for taking stones out of a horses hoof. Oh, and it also allowed you to make phone calls.

"I'll have one of those, please," I said.

"We haven't got any of those in stock," said the urchin. "How about one of these instead? It has the same functionality and it only costs $100 more."

"No thank you," I said, and left the shop. The child went back to his computer and I went back to my hotel. I plugged the phone back into the charger and it turned itself on again.

"Unable To Charge," it said.

"I know," I said. "You don't have to keep repeating yourself."

I noticed that the little symbol that showed me how much power was left in the battery had vanished from view.

"Where's the battery power icon?" I asked.

"Don't need it," said the phone. "I can use the power from the mains to drive all my functions. As long as the charger is plugged in, I can bypass the battery completely."

"Why can't you just pass the power along to the battery instead?" I asked.

"Oh, that would never do," said the phone. "Unable To Charge."

I rang Robin and explained the situation.

"Fortunately it seems I can still use the phone as long as it is plugged in to the mains via the charger."

"Aha!" said Robin. "So your mobile phone has now become a stationary phone."

"That's right."

"Hmmm," said Robin. "When you ring me, the caller-id gadget at this end says Alan Mobile. Shall I change it so that it says Alan Motionless instead?"

"No, don't bother," I said. "You'll only have to change it back again when I get a new phone."

All went well for a couple of days. Being tethered to a power socket was mildly inconvenient, but I was willing to put up with it in the short term. Then, one day, I plugged the charger in, the phone turned itself on as usual, and then it said, "Registering With The Network."

An hour glass appeared and twirled around and around. Tiny pixels of sand fell through the hole in the middle.

"Get a move on," I said impatiently. "You aren't boiling an egg."

"I'm doing my best," said the phone, sounding quite disgruntled. "Registering With The Network."

Finally the hourglass vanished. "No Signal!" said the phone triumphantly.


"Unable to Charge."

I turned the phone off, unplugged the charger, and moved to a different place. Sometimes the signal strength can vary quite markedly depending where you are in the room, though I'd never before had any problems when standing in my previous location. I plugged the charger into a different power socket.

"No Signal! Unable To Charge. No Signal!"

"Can't you do anything any more?" I asked.

"No I can't," said the phone, and it switched itself off. Nothing I did would persuade it to turn on again. It was utterly dead.

I threw the corpse down in disgust and I went back to the office where I phoned Robin on the land line.

"My phone is pining for the fjords," I told her.

"I didn't know you spoke Norwegian," said Robin, greatly impressed. "Us English speakers always call them fiords."

"Either way, my phone is now moribund. I'll have to go shopping for a new one when I get home."

"Oooh, how exciting! Can I come with you?"

"Of course you can," I said. "Someone has to make the aesthetic decisions, and I'm no good at that."

"Gosh, I can't wait for Saturday," said Robin. "It'll be good to have you home."

I've got a hundred or so new books sitting on my "to be read" shelf, but I didn't read any of them this month. Instead I've been re-reading some of my older books. After all, what's the point of having a room with 10,000 books in it if you don't go and open them and look at the pages every so often?

Some of the books were old friends – books I've read a hundred times before (and, deus volent, books I will read a hundred times again). Others were books I have only read once, but which stuck in my mind so that I promised myself I would return to them one day. Perhaps today is that day…

In some ways, re-reading a book is a lot like regurgitating yesterday's dinner and eating it again. All the old familiar tastes are still there, but a lot of extra flavour has been added after it has been left to ferment in the tummy for a while. In other words, there's always something new to be found in even the most familiar of tales (sometimes especially in the most familiar of tales).

I started with some short stories by Frederik Pohl. These days he is primarily known as a (very prolific) novelist. But once upon a time, when the SF magazines ruled the science fiction world and short stories were the rule rather than the exception, he made his reputation as a writer of great skill and elegance. The stories that he wrote then still stand up very well today. His major concerns were always social and philosophical rather than technical (he almost never wrote the kind of gadget story that sprawled all over the pages of Astounding and which was often out of date almost before it got published) and therefore there is still much to be gained from reading them. In some ways they are still very modern tales and it is quite thought provoking to read, for example, Pohl's ideas about the excesses to which advertisers and market researchers will go for the sake of their product. Much of what he wrote has come to pass in some way, shape or form and things that were once considered shocking are now almost the norm.

Iain Banks attracted my attention as well. I picked up a couple of his Culture novels (as written by Iain M. Banks) but I quickly got bored. I thought that they were mediocre space opera the first time I read them and nothing has happened to make me change my mind. So I dived into his mainstream books instead and I devoured Complicity and Whit and The Business and, of course, the absolutely extraordinary The Crow Road – who can possible resist a novel whose opening line is It was the day my grandmother exploded.?

These are classically structured stories. They have a beginning and a middle and an end and they concern the lives lived by real people in the real world. The reality Banks describes is probably not your reality and it certainly is not my reality – I'm not a rich businessman, I don't own acres of land in Scotland, I don't have a large, sprawling family, I didn't start a religion and my grandmother didn't explode – but nevertheless it is very easy for me to identify with the viewpoint characters, to laugh at their triumphs and cry at their tragedies. Certainly Banks has an agenda – he's a soft(ish) socialist and he makes his points well. But he never lets that get in the way of his people and the tales that they are telling.

Philip Jose Farmer died recently at the ripe old age of 91. I've always loved the cheekiness that underlies much of his work – his cod-biographies of Tarzan and Doc Savage, for example, are a never ending joy. In memory of his contribution to SF, I decided to dip into his "World of Tiers" series. It's always been one of my favourites and it seemed especially appropriate to read it as a celebration of his life for he began writing it quite early in his career, then he abandoned it for nearly twenty years before returning to it again in later life. The series begins with The Maker Of Universes, first published in 1965. Robert Wolff is looking for a house to buy. In the cellar of one of the houses he visits, he finds a horn that, when blown with a certain pattern of notes, opens a gate into another universe. This new universe is a place of tiers, worlds piled one on top the other with a huge mountain running like a spindle through the centres of each world. This world of tiers is only one of many pocket universes created by a semi-sane race of gods for their pleasure and delight. Wolff himself is one of these gods (though cast down by his enemies, his memory destroyed). Through the course of many adventures he fights his way back to a position of power, though he is never quite the same as once he was. His life as an "ordinary" man on Earth has marked him.

The first four books are full of rollicking adventures, great perils and hair-breadth escapes. They are a very easy joy to read. They drag you in and they don't let go. There's a lot of fun in them as well – a major character is Paul Janus Finnegan (aka Kickaha, the Trickster). His initials are not a coincidence. (It would not be the last time that Farmer put himself into one of his novels as a major character; he also appears as Peter Jairus Frigate in the Riverworld books).

By the time of the fifth book in the series (The Lavalite World, published twelve years later in 1977) it was clear that Farmer was quite disillusioned with the whole business. The novel is pedestrian and slow, the adventures are dull and predictable and the page count is made up by far too many tedious descriptions of changing landscapes. It's hard to read and it's not at all memorable. It seemed that the series had come to an end.

However in 1991, Farmer published Red Orc's Rage. It is a sort of a sideways "World Of Tiers" novel in that it concerns one Jim Grimson, a troubled teenager who is undergoing psychotherapy. The psychiatrist who is treating him encourages him to role play inside the "World Of Tiers". Characters and locations from the earlier novels are introduced into Jim's mind and he is encouraged to explore them. He travels deep into the various worlds, exploring many different facets of life there. However from the point of view of the reader of Red Orc's Rage it never becomes clear whether Jim is delusional or whether he has actually found a gateway into the alternative universe(s). Jim's therapy itself turns into an analysis of the alternative reality of the books rather than that of the real world, though there is an implicit acknowledgement that the two are connected.

Farmer based the novel on the work of Dr. James Giannini of Ohio University who actually used Farmer's "World Of Tiers" novels in just this kind of psychotherapy. Indeed, Dr. Gianni himself contributes a scholarly Afterword to Red Orc's Rage in which he discusses his use of this kind of treatment.

Writing Red Orc's Rage obviously rekindled Farmer's interest in the "World Of Tiers" and in 1993 he wrote the seventh (and final) novel in the series, More Than Fire in which all the plot threads that had been left dangling in the earlier books were neatly tied up with a proper full stop at the end. Apart from the rather dull The Lavalite World I think that this series represents the very best of Philip Jose Farmer. His other major series (Riverworld) started very strongly, but the later books were a huge disappointment. The "World Of Tiers" both starts and finishes very strongly (with, it must be admitted, a small dip in the middle).

Sooner or later, when I'm re-reading books, I always return to Len Deighton. He exploded onto the literary scene in the 1960s with a series of spy novels that were bitter, cynical, twisted and very, very funny. I can't count how many times I have read them (I practically read the print off Funeral In Berlin). One of the criticisms that was levelled against him was that his plots were far too complex. Many people claimed that they had quickly lost track of who was doing what to whom and why. He took this advice to heart, and in 1968 he published Only When I Larf which, he claimed, was the simplest story he knew how to write.

The book is made up of a series of novelettes about a gang of confidence tricksters and the scams that they pull. I think Deighton must have had his tongue a little bit in his cheek when he claimed that the story was simple. Certainly we never lose track of the characters and their motives (the major complaint about Deighton's earlier novels), but the details of the scams themselves are often inordinately complex and confusing which makes the book as a whole considerably less simple than Deighton claimed it to be. Nevertheless it remains a favourite of mine – the scams themselves are ingenious, the characters of the con artists are appealing, and the book contains real tragedies; the victim of one of their early scams commits suicide. Chillingly, they don't seem to care at all. Marks aren't people, they are just marks. There's a hard centre in the middle of all the softness.

And so it was that Robin and I went shopping in Lower Hutt. We chose Lower Hutt because Robin knows it well and there are several electrical gadget shops within easy walking distance of each other.

"That's a nice phone," said Robin, pointing at an incredibly slim "beam me up Scotty" phone. It had a metallic grey finish and the keyboard was covered with a membrane that shielded all the individual keys from the elements, thus preventing moisture from damaging the delicate circuits should it chance to be raining while you were making a call. It was the cheapest phone on display, as well as the most elegant. I liked it immediately. There was only one fly in the ointment. A sign beside the phone said that it required a SIM2 card, which could be obtained for only an extra $40.

"I wonder what a SIM2 card is?" I pondered thoughtfully. "And how does it differ from an ordinary SIM (or possibly SIM1) card?"

"Perhaps we should ask a man," suggested Robin.

However there were no men to be had. The approach of a real live customer appeared to have frightened all the sales people away. I whistled casually, and picked up various expensively shiny things; then I put them down again in different places. I waved my arms and jumped up and down. I unveiled an enormous placard which said I WANT TO GIVE YOU LOTS OF MONEY in eye-searing fluorescent Day-Glo orange letters. Nothing worked.

"Let's go to the next shop," said Robin, and so we did.

The next shop had exactly the same phone on display with exactly the same notice about a SIM2 card. I polished the phone carefully with a soft cloth, and it emitted blue smoke which coalesced into a salesman. I felt encouraged.

"What's a SIM2 card?" I asked, pointing to the notice.

He stared at the notice as if he'd never seen it in his life before. His lips moved as he read the words to himself. "I don't know," he said. "I'll go and ask someone."

He went away, never to return.

"Let's go to the next shop," said Robin, and so we did.

Again, exactly the same phone was on display.

"Can I help you?" asked a sales droid.

"I'm interested in this phone," I said. "What's a SIM2 card?"

"That's a very old fashioned phone," said the sales weasel. "Flip tops are terribly passť. Wouldn't you much prefer this model with the slide-out keyboard and a built-in vegetable garden? It's only an extra $85 plus $40 for a SIM2 card."

"No I wouldn't," I said. "What's a SIM2 card."

"It's the next generation card after a SIM1," said the sales thing.

"What does it do, and will the phone work with an older SIM card?"

The sales monkey shrugged its shoulders.

"Let's go to the next shop," said Robin.

"There isn't a next shop," I said. "We've run out."

We drove home. Gloomy clouds hovered and rain threatened. Perhaps I was destined to remain forever incommunicado.

"Sod it," I said. "Let's go down the road to the local Dirk Smooth. I never did trust the shops in exotic, foreign locales like Lower Hutt. Local shops are always the best."

Again the same phone was on display. It was still the cheapest phone in the shop and, to my eyes, still the prettiest.

"Nice phone, that," said the salesman. "I particularly like the slim styling. Small is beautiful. And it's a very cheap phone as well – it gives you a lot of bang for your buck."

"What's a SIM2 card?" I asked.

"It's just got a bit more software on board," said the salesman. "It's a mechanism for plugging more functionality into the phone."

"Will the older SIM cards still work in it?" I asked.

He nodded firmly. "Absolutely," he said. "A SIM card is a SIM card. The phone doesn't care."

"OK, I'll take it," I said.

"I'll go and get one out of stock," said the salesman and he trotted off to the back of the store. A few minutes later he was back, clutching a bright red box. "It comes with a one year warranty," he said. "We also offer an extended three year warranty for $40, but frankly it's not worth it. The phone's so cheap that if it dies after a year, you might as well just buy a new one."

"Fair enough," I said. "Can I sit down for a minute? I feel quite faint. I've never met such an honest and knowledgeable salesman before."

"I get that a lot," he said, smiling.

He also got the sale.

There are many joys in reading and sometimes there are even more joys in re-reading. I had a very good month. How about you?

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