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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (novellus religiosus)

So Hotel

Recently, while in Christchurch, I stayed at the So Hotel in Cashel Street. Trust me, it really is So hotel. I had a thoroughly pleasant time and I'd be very happy indeed to stay there again. But it is an undeniably bizarre place...

I started to wonder about it when the taxi pulled up outside the hotel and dropped me off. Enormous signs indicated that rooms could be had from as little as $69 per night. That is an absurdly cheap rate for a mid-city hotel. My heart sank as I walked through the doors into a blast of over amplified music that roared out of the bar. I went up to the front desk and introduced myself to the man who was tapping away at the keyboard of an elegant looking, very modern and very sexy Apple computer.

"I'm sorry," he said, "you'll have to speak up. I can't hear you. The music is too loud."

I introduced myself again at a higher volume.

"Welcome to the So Hotel," he said as he confirmed my details and prepared the magnetic card that would allow me access to my room.

"Why are the room rates So Cheap?" I asked.


I repeated the question at the top of my voice.

"Because we don't service the room while you are here," he said.

"What?" I boggled, "Not at all?"

"Not at all," he confirmed. "Once you enter your room, that's it for the week. No hotel staff will enter it as long as you are in residence. It won't be cleaned, it won't be serviced, the bed won't be made, the towels won't be picked up off the floor, and nobody will fold the next available sheet of paper on the toilet roll into a neat triangular point."

I began to worry. "Don't I even get clean towels when I've used up all the ones in the room?"

"No," he said. "Not unless you pay a $15 surcharge to have your room serviced."

I began to understand why the rooms were So Cheap. I took my magnetic card and headed towards the lift. Just past the lift was a table with six Apple computers on it that were providing free connectivity to hotel guests. It was So Internet. Six Chinese teenagers were superglued to the screens. Their mousing arms had bulging biceps, their non-mousing arms hung limp, atrophied and withered. They gazed unblinkingly at the screens in front of them, clicking furiously as they did mysterious internetty things involving hieroglyphs.

I took the lift to the fourth floor and headed for room 417. The magnetic card allowed me entry to a room that was about the size of a jail cell. The bed was a steel frame securely bolted to the far wall. A deep mattress sat on the frame and a strange blue glow shone out from underneath it. A large flat screen television hung on the wall at the foot of the bed. A telephone and a control console of frightening complexity were built in to the headboard.

Just to the right of the door was a frosted glass cylinder that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. A sliding panel in the cylinder revealed a shower, washbasin and toilet.

To the left of the door a stainless steel pole was bolted firmly to the floor and to the ceiling. A small horizontal bar joined the pole to the left hand wall. Three coat hangers swayed gently on the bar, forming a minimalist wardrobe. A small shelf was attached to the wall and a hard plastic chair was sitting underneath it.

I edged into the room and unpacked my case. I hung my jacket on one of the coat hangers and piled the rest of my clothes on the shelf. I slid my empty case under the bed into the sinister blue glow and I sat down on the bed; the plastic chair looked far too uncomfortable to sit on. There was a bed side table on which sat the remote control for the TV and a very large loose leaf folder with 40 pages of small print that described how the room worked. I settled down to read...

The compendium began by explaining that the hotel was So Conscious of its environmental responsibilities. Everything in my room that wasn't screwed down was biodegradable and the toilet and shower were specifically designed to use as little water as possible. The hotel was So Proud of its contribution to the environment and the compendium suggested that I could contribute to this environmental effort by walking everywhere. They would So Appreciate the help.

Then the compendium began to describe the control console in the headboard and things really got weird.

First the alarm clock. The compendium explained how to set a wake up time on the clock and then told me that the alarm would not ring, buzz, beep or vibrate, and neither was there the equivalent of a snooze button. Instead, a few minutes before the alarm was due to go off, a light above my bed would very gradually get brighter and brighter. This, the compendium informed me with a perfectly straight face, was to simulate a sunrise that would allow me to wake up naturally with the day. Once the simulated sun had fully risen, the television would turn itself on and show me inspiring (yet soothing) pictures of stunningly beautiful New Zealand scenery to the accompaniment of of a soundtrack of New Age whales singing something scored by Wagner after a hard night out with the Valkyries over-indulging in chips and real ale.

Intrigued, I investigated the television. It had all the usual channels (though Prime and CTV were not working; there were channel slots available for both, but they were blank). None of the channels synchronised properly with the sound, and the lip movements of the people on the screen lagged seriously behind their words giving the distinct impression that everything, even the news, was a badly dubbed foreign film. I kept expecting to see bands of starving peasants, bronzed farm workers singling patriotic songs, close ups of wrinkled faces and monochrome supernatural entities playing symbolic games of chess.

As I explored the TV options available to me, I discovered a whole sequence of serene channels for meditating by. The first of these was the New Zealand scenery that the alarm clock had promised me, but there were several others as well. There was a waterfall, waves splashing gently on to a sandy beach, a fire burning cheerfully in a grate (with the appropriate crackling sound effects) and several meditative channels that simply consisted of the message "NO DISC" in white letters on a swirly blue background.

I turned the TV off and returned to the compendium which was now ready to explain the delights of the mood button to me.

The mood button was a special switch on the headboard console with six different settings. Each setting caused a different coloured light to glow eerily behind the frosted glass of the shower unit which then diffused the light dimly over the room. In deeply serious tones, the compendium explained that falling asleep bathed in the rich radiative glow of these pastel shades would ensure that I enjoyed a satisfyingly natural sleep which would cause me to awake refreshed and eager for the new day. Several pages of the compendium expounded at length on the different mental and physical benefits to be gained from each colour.

This section of the compendium also explained the blue glow that shone from under the bed. It was a night light for those of a nervous disposition who found the mood lighting too intrusive but who were nevertheless worried about sleeping in the pitch dark of a lightless room. It had a switch all of its own and when turned on, it would continue to shine even when nobody was in the room. Presumably this constant unattended glow would discourage monsters from sneaking in and hiding under the bed from where they could grab your unprepared ankles when you arose refreshed in the morning.

The next section in the compendium told me that the So Hotel had a bar and restaurant in the foyer called What Bar. So What, as it were. The compendium didn't quite nudge me in the ribs and say, "Geddit? Geddit?" at the top of its voice, but I'm sure the next release of the book will fix this obvious bug in the humour module.

Pages 28 and 29 were missing from my compendium and therefore I will never know what delights the rest of the control panel may have contained. Pages 30 to 40 explained how to use the telephone and listed the international dial codes for every country in the world, including Atlantis, Mu, Lemuria and Lyonesse.

The Evil In Pemberley House is a posthumous novel from Philip Jose Farmer. He started writing the novel some time in the 1970s, but he put it away unfinished and never returned to it. It has been completed (though not very satisfactorily) by Win Scott Eckert, a man who has been closely involved in investigating the genealogy and implications of the so-called Wold-Newton family.

Let me explain. Many of Philip Jose Farmer's stories are based on the premise that in 1795 a meteorite struck the ground near the village of Wold Newton in Yorkshire. At the moment it struck, two large coaches containing fourteen passengers and four coachmen were nearby. All were exposed to ionising radiation from the event and their descendants went on to become great crime fighters, explorers and scientists. You may have heard of some of them: Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan of the Apes, Doc Savage...

Anyway, Farmer published several novels and two delightfully tongue in cheek biographies (Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life) that explored the adventures and genealogies of the Wold Newton families. These are among the strongest of Farmer's writings and, along with the first Riverworld novel, will probably be the reason he will be remembered.

The Evil In Pemberley House chronicles the adventures of Patricia Wildman, the daughter of a world renowned adventurer and crime fighter of the 1930s. Her father has died and she is all alone in the world when she discovers that she has inherited the family estate in Derbyshire – Pemberley House, old, dark and haunted. She travels to England to take up her inheritance and has various adventures along the way. It's all rather predictable and I suspect Farmer got bored with the somewhat tedious story and so he abandoned it.

Win Scott Eckert discovered the unfinished manuscript and, with Farmer's permission, brought it to a conclusion.

It's a deeply unsatisfactory book. Partly this is because Win Scott Eckert simply can't write and partly it is because he doesn't understand just what it was that Farmer was trying to do with the idea of the Wold Newton family tree.

Eckert has no notion of character or dialogue or how to describe an event and so the book consists of little but tedious "reported speech" (which lends a very distancing effect). Also Eckert doesn't seem very interested in telling a story, per se. He's much more interested in relating the story to the genealogical minutiae of the Wold Newton clan instead. Farmer did this as well, of course; but Farmer had a delicious sense of humour and irony and he never failed to poke enormously erudite fun at the whole notion. You can hear him giggling on every page of Tarzan Alive. Eckert, unfortunately, has no noticeable sense of humour whatsoever and his genealogical explorations are dry as dust, vapid and dull. It's almost as if he takes the whole Wold Newton thing seriously and hasn't realised that Farmer was indulging in a delicious leg pull.

All of which makes The Evil In Pemberley House more than a little dull.

Unseen Academicals is Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld novel. He dictated it rather than typing it himself and this probably accounts for the fact that it is 400 pages long – much longer than most of his other novels. That's probably also the reason why it drags a bit and repeats itself too much. The jokes are as clever as always – they are just a bit too repetitive.

The plot, on the other hand, is rather good...

Lord Vetinari has decided that it is time to treat football like crime – if you are going to have it at all, it's best to have it organized. And so the wizards of Unseen University find themselves organised into a soccer team.

Somehow, in the years since last we met him, Ponder Stibbons has taken on so many responsibilities and wears so many hats that he is now a quorum all by himself and he is quickly learning the power of managing the agenda and mastering tradition. It doesn't take him long to start whipping the wizards into shape.

Meanwhile Glenda's friend Juliet is making a name for herself as the Disc's first super-model. The power of pie is explored, and we learn the importance of the Shove. Mr. Nutt the candle dribbler is worried about his origins and lives in hope that nobody will find out who and what he is. Indeed, he wonders if he himself will ever find out who and what he is. That's what worries him.

The Ankh-Morpork characters that we know and love from previous novels all have bit parts in this novel (we even meet Rincewind and the luggage again, albeit briefly). But the strength of the book comes from the new major characters that the story introduces. Mr Nutt is the most memorable, but Glenda, Juliet and Trev (who can dribble a tin can like you wouldn't believe) are also strongly drawn.

And so the cooks, the candlemakers, the fans and the players of foot-the-ball (and the psychopaths who tag along to each game in the hopes of finding an excuse to injure somebody) meet the Wizards of U.U. as they play the ultimate game. Because it really isn't about football at all. Or rather, football itself is about much more than just a game of soccer.

It's not a bad book, on the whole. But it's neither as funny nor as clever as many of the other Discworld books. And it has far too many pages in it.

Sometimes a book grabs hold of you and just won't let go. At much rarer intervals, a trilogy does the same thing. I've just finished reading one of those trilogies and trust me, you owe it to yourself to go and buy it immediately. It has the overall title of The Millennium Trilogy and it was written by a Swedish author, the late (unfortunately) Stieg Larsson. The three novels that comprise the trilogy are: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest.

I'll stop for a moment while you go out and buy them. I'll carry on when you get back from the shop...

Back so soon? That was fast!

In the first book we meet Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist and publisher of the magazine Millennium. He makes the acquaintance of Henrik Vanger, the retired former CEO of a group of companies owned by his family. Henrik hires Blomkvist ostensibly to chronicle the family history. In reality, however, he wants Blomkvist to investigate and possibly solve a very old and very cold case – the disappearance, some forty years previously, of Henrik Vanger's great-niece when she was just sixteen.

It is a classic locked room murder mystery – though in this case it isn't a literal locked room. The disappearance took place on an island off the Swedish coast and all the events took place while the protagonists were marooned on the island when it was temporarily cut off from the mainland. Rather against his better judgement, Blomkvist soon finds himself deeply involved in the intricacies of the case and to his surprise manages to turn up a clue that has been overlooked for the last forty years.

The real main character of the story, however, is Lisbeth Salander, an asocial punk, the tattooed girl who is mentioned in the title. She has been victimized by the authorities throughout her whole life and spent a large part of her early teenage years committed to a psychiatric institute where she was severely abused. Despite her psychopathic attitudes and her inability to fit in with the norms of society, she is anything but stupid. Though she fell through the cracks and was marked as a failure by the school system, she has nevertheless managed to give herself a first class education; (in one of the later novels, she finds an elegant solution to Fermat's Last Theorem, but doesn't have room in her notebook to write it down!). She is a computer hacker in the true sense of the word. She can make a computer network sing, dance and turn cartwheels through hoops of fire. She has written a program (up to version 1.3 now) which can infiltrate Internet Explorer and, undetected, copy the contents of a machine's hard disk.

By accident she meets Blomkvist and the unlikely couple become another classic detective pair where the hunters become the hunted and a forty year old mystery is finally solved.

The second book opens a couple of years after the end of the first. Salander and Blomkvist are no longer in touch with each other. Salander herself is now very rich following her somewhat cold-blooded fleecing of a crooked financier towards the end of the first novel. While she is still very asocial, she is much more a functioning member of society than once she was. Money helps.

Blomkvist is investigating a sex scandal that has been brought to his attention by a journalist friend. Many prominent people (politicians and policemen and similar pillars of society) will have their reputations irretrievably shattered if the story ever comes to light. Indeed it seems likely that many will spend much of the rest of their lives in jail. Word leaks out that Blomkvist will be publishing the story in his Millennium magazine. The journalist who originally brought the story to Blomkvist's attention is murdered, together with his wife. A psychiatrist involved in the case is also murdered. Salander comes under suspicion for all the killings – the psychiatrist was Salander's supervisor following her committal proceedings. He raped her, she took her revenge.

This novel is Salander's back story. We gradually learn exactly why she has become the person that she is, and it is not a pretty tale. It involves international intrigue and corrupt men seeking to protect themselves from the retribution of their peers. The message is somewhat blatant, but the story is such a roller coaster ride of thrills that you don't even notice, caught up as you are in the page-turning necessity to find out how the story ends and whether or not Salander will be able to redeem herself.

As the third book opens, Salander is seriously ill in hospital with gunshot wounds. She is no longer a suspect in the original three murders, but nevertheless she still has serious charges to face. But now the plot takes on more sinister overtones. Buried deeply in the secret service is a small autonomous unit which is starting to feel very threatened by the revelations that Salander and Blomkvist are on the verge of revealing to the world. In order to protect themselves (and, they argue speciously, in order to protect the country) Salander and Blomkvist must be silenced. The tension ramps up another notch and the roller coaster ride starts again.

And the denouement is so satisfactory that I wanted to punch the air and yell, "Yes!" at the top of my voice.

There's no doubt that the major attraction of the books is the thrill a minute tension and the Machiavellian plotting (Larsson plots with the skill and precision of a Swiss watchmaker). But the stories are so much more than just simple thrillers. Larsson is commenting on contemporary Swedish society (and, by implication, contemporary Western society). His targets are violence against women, the incompetence and cowardice of investigative journalists, the moral bankruptcy of big capital, the cynical self-serving nature of those in positions of power and influence, and the virulent strain of Nazism that still festers beneath the surface of the political right wing in Europe and America.

He also asks how personally responsible a criminal can be considered to be for his or her crimes. How many actions are beyond their control, more the fault of their upbringing or societal pressures than conscious decision making in its own right? At one point Salander says, "It's as if we no longer believe anyone has a will of their own." If you pursue the point far enough, perhaps everything can be blamed on somebody else.

Salander, by contrast, has little patience with this. She would regard it as a weak excuse. She has a very strong will and assumes that everyone else does, too (though she is sometimes wrong, and her unrealistic expectations lead her all too often into unjustifiable and immoral acts at worse, and vast embarrassments at best). She herself is portrayed as having suffered every kind of physical and mental abuse in her young life, including sexual assault and physical torture during her time in a psychiatric clinic. And because she holds others responsible for their own actions she is not slow to take revenge on those who behave badly towards her – which moves the plot along nicely, of course, and also gives the reader a good taste of grue.

Salander is sullen, single-minded and sometimes very vicious. But she is also incorruptible and is, in her own mind at least, very honourable and moral – a complete contrast to even the good guys of Larsson's world. Of course it doesn't help that many of the good guys and bad guys in the story feel the same way about themselves as Salander does about herself. In a black and white world, Salander is a very muddy grey. Nevertheless it is still worth asking just how much she is a product of her upbringing. But even here we cannot be certain of the answer. She has a sister who we never meet, for she and Salander are estranged. There are strong hints that despite having been brought up in the same family, she suffers from none of Salander's own personality defects.

And yet Salander is the whole reason that the books exist in the first place and all the way through, the reader is on her side. Does the end justify the means? Can we really admire such a wounded personality and take pride in her twisted revenge? The story is morally ambiguous at best.

But even while these thoughts are churning around in your head, you'll be flipping the pages more and more rapidly because, in the final analysis, the story is the thing. And this story simply will not let you go until you heave the final sigh of satisfaction when you reach the last word on the last page of the last book.

I decided to visit What and drink a beer. As I went to open the door of my room I discovered signs I could hang on the outside. One, printed with the words "So Sleepy" meant that I would not be disturbed. The other, printed with the words "So Untidy" requested that my room be serviced and noted in positively minuscule print that there would be a surcharge of $15 for doing this. I made sure to leave both of the signs inside my room and I took the lift to the foyer where the Chinese teenagers were still monopolising the free internet connection.

"They've been using those computers non-stop for a week," said a disgruntled man who was obviously suffering from severe pornography withdrawal symptoms.

"They do look a little dusty," I said. "Presumably Chinese teenagers don't get serviced on the same schedule that the residential rooms don't get serviced."

I wondered whether I should hang a sign on them. So Untidy.

"They shouldn't be allowed to use the machines for all that time," complained the man. "They should be circumscribed."

"Well, there's no drawback in that," I said.

"What?" He looked a bit shocked.

"Yes, that's So Where I'm going."

So What had no beers on tap and charged me $8 for a 330ml bottle of New Zealand beer. Even by central city standards this was exorbitantly expensive. No wonder the hotel was So Profitable. I determined not to drink there again and went out in search of cheaper watering holes.

Right next door to the So Hotel was a bar called the Stock Exchange. A sign in the window claimed that it offered a range of tap beers and therefore I went in to explore. It was a themed bar and the walls were decorated with financial memorabilia such as old Stock Exchange chalk boards and the like. As a concession to modernity, they also had some computer screens displaying ever changing graphs of fluctuations in this, that and the other stock and share option. It soon became abundantly clear to me that the price fluctuations displayed on the screens were directly linked to the till behind the bar. Every time I bought a beer, it rang up a different price; reflecting, as it were, the current situation described by the bouncing graphs. Obviously the owners of the Stock Exchange were as eccentric as the owners of the So Hotel (perhaps they were the same people?), but at least the beer was cheaper at the Stock Exchange than it was at the So Hotel and it was served in larger quantities as well; always a bonus.

I had not brought my spectacles with me and consequently I was unable to make much sense of the rather blurry displays on the Stock Exchange screens. Invariably I utterly failed to correlate the situation the graphs described with the current beer price. As a result of this, many of my beer buying decisions proved to be sub-optimal. But never mind. Bibo ergo sum, as it were.

Over the next few days I explored the possibilities of the mood lighting in my room. Green and yellow did little for me other than to wake me up at random intervals during the night convinced that the walls were covered with phosphorescent Ganymedean slime-moulds which were intent on digesting me and spitting out the bones. Red gave the room the glow and ambiance of an Amsterdam brothel and my dreams were visited by nubile Indonesian princesses who sat on the hard plastic chair and knitted elaborately patterned batik jumpers. Sometimes the girls giggled at me.

Purple was the very best colour of all and I used it the most. As long as I didn't turn on the proper shower light (which tended to drown out the colours) I could shower in purple rain and sing at the top of my voice, pretending to be the artist formerly known as Prince. Then I could carefully clean the soap scum from my body as I indulged in my world famous impression of the artist formerly known as Rinse. And later, having dressed, I would go to So What for breakfast and eat toast and Marmalade (ob la dee, ob la da; by the artists formerly known as Quince). Perhaps I could have meatloaf as well; the artist formerly known as Mince.

After a week of New Age colour therapy and simulated sunrises, I was unbelievably soothed. My karma was calm, my chi was chipper, my consciousness was well raised and spiritually I was at peace with the oneness of the all (or was that the allness of the one? I often get them confused). I felt So Cosmic. However I had no soap left, and I was down to my very last sheet of toilet paper which I'd folded into a sharp triangular point – after all, I do have standards which I endeavour to keep up. My towels were So Damp that I'd been unable to dry myself for two days. I'd tried standing in front of the open fire on the television set after every shower, but it didn't work very well.

"I've had a wonderful time," I said as I checked out. "But I'd So Like to pay the bill and go home."

"No problem. Here's the smallest hotel bill you've ever been presented with."

I waved goodbye to the Chinese teenagers as I left but they were concentrating So Hard on clicking that they didn't notice.

Philip Jose Farmer The Evil In Pemberley House Subterranean Press
Terry Pratchett Unseen Academicals Doubleday
Stieg Larsson The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Maclehose Press
Stieg Larsson The Girl With Who Played With Fire Maclehose Press
Stieg Larsson The Girl With Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest Maclehose Press
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